Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolution Road

2010 is just one day away, and it's time to take stock and resolve to make changes in our lives for the coming year. Even though we all know, deep down, that New Year's Resolutions rarely work, somehow the blank slate of a whole new year is irresistible. It's like a fresh, white canvas crying out for paint. So some years I resolve to exercise more, eat less, eliminate fast food from my diet, etc. Other years I resolve to stop talking on my cell phone while driving (or at least stop simultaneously flipping off other drivers while talking), stick to a budget, or to get up early every morning to write that novel that's been brewing in my mind for the last 15 years.... I could go on and on.

In any case, it seldom works out for very long. I think it might because our New Year's Resolutions often lack the authenticity it takes to make real changes in our lives. I know from my professional life that human beings making fundamental changes is a slippery, inconsistent process at best -- and that's when you are really ready to change. Ready to change like, deep down in those dark caverns of your soul ready; and motivated, too.

So often what we call "motivation to change" is really just a repackaged self-loathing that happens to be targeted at a tangible goal. I can't believe I gained 15 pounds this year, and just look at all I ate over the holidays. No wonder my jeans don't fit. I hate myself this way, I have to do something! I'm going to resolve to stick to a diet, go to the gym four times a week, etc.

Sound familiar? I can tell you it took me about 10 seconds to write that because it's so familiar to me. And sometimes, this tactic works... At least for a while. Shame can be a powerful short-term motivator. But without something deeper to buttress it, shame ceases to be effective after a while -- just like that horrible gym teacher we all had a one time or another who thought humiliation was the best way to motivate kids in unflattering gym shorts.

With the old gym teacher or a drill sergeant or boss, we don't have a choice about motivation (not completely, anyway) -- compliance is to some extent mandatory. But with ourselves, when it comes to resisting the french fries, dragging ourselves to the gym, or putting 10% in a savings account... well, it's really just down to how much we like and respect the person giving the orders. And that would be...... me.

So, that's why the negative messages only get us so far. I can tell myself all day long how fat or lazy or broke I am; but at the end of the day, who wants to listen to someone who is constantly telling them they're fat, lazy and broke? Even if it is myself, I'm going to do my best to get out of that relationship -- in this case by rebelling. So I end up ordering the extra-large french fries or charging up the credit card just to prove to myself who's boss. I'll show me!

Not only is this self-destructive, it's totally confusing. I'd rather just team up with myself instead -- it's more effective, and it saves time by cutting out all the arguments [not to mention the me-to-me cell phone minutes]. My theory is that the best way to get on my own side is the same way I would try to get someone else on my side... to be more positive and encouraging instead of browbeating and shaming.

I believe that when we come from a perspective of self-care, our goals are more authentic and useful than when we are working to meet the expectations of other people, or even society at large. So in 2010, I am going to try to care for myself better in lots of different ways.

Instead of resolving to lose the 15 pounds of baby weight I just can't seem to shake, or to get into my old jeans, I'm just going to try to focus on enjoying being healthy. There are so many happy reasons to make healthier choices: because I enjoy being active, because I feel better when I'm healthy, because my son needs a positive role model... And none of those need to involve counting calories or monitoring the scale.

This year, I am going to be more focused on the little details of life, not just because I'm annoyed that I bounced a couple of checks this year, paid some late fees on bills, and just got a ticket for an expired tag (although I am annoyed about that!). But I'm realizing that by focusing more on the details, which is -- obviously -- not my strong suit, I'll be helping myself to be a more well-rounded person and freeing up energy and money for other things.

I'm also resolving to make the most of my relationships this year - by investing time and energy where I've been negligent, and by creating better boundaries with people who don't always give me back as much as I put in. I want to try to continue what I started last year by saying "no" when I'm over-committed and by not filling in every single white space on the calendar. This is the year to accept me for who I am and where I am, and not to judge myself by others' standards (or what I think others' standards might be!)

As I write this, I'm realizing that my goals for 2010 have a couple of themes: calm and focused. And that's exactly what my life has been missing! How much easier it will be to remind myself in late January and February to "create calm" and "stay focused;" instead of checking my progress on the scale or the bank account.

I'd love to know what other people are planning for 2010... How will you take care of yourself this year??

[Facebook friends, if you feel comfortable, I'd love for you to also copy your comments to the original post at].

Happy New Year, Everyone!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lesson #68 and 'Mother of the Year' Nominee: Don't Breastfeed in a Sports Bra

Any of my female readers who are like me and, well... (ahem) generously endowed, already know that sports bras can be tricky business. I've always thought it was ironic that those of us who need support the most seem to be furthest from the minds and intentions of sports bra designers.

First of all, it's all but impossible to find a plus-size sports bra that will stand up to more impact than a gentle stroll [the rationale being, I assume, that we're pretty much just walking from the car to the Krispy Kreme counter anyway]. My working theory is that whoever is advising clothing manufacturers about the fitness habits of larger women is the same person who thinks we all want to wear animal prints and fuchsia fringe. Size 10? Soft navy in a subdued, classy fabric. Size 16? How about LEOPARD PRINT WITH SEQUINS?!?

And once you do find a sports bra that will actually keep "the girls" restrained, it's so hard to put on that it's a workout in itself. In college - and I am not even kidding with this - I actually pulled a muscle in my shoulder trying to get out of a sports bra! And I didn't even mind the painful muscle strain, because in the moments before it, I'd been mildly concerned that we were going to have a "Pooh stuck in Rabbit's door" kind of situation on our hands. Now that would've been an embarrassing call to the paramedics.

Up until now, my sports bra injuries have been primarily self-inflicted. Yesterday, however, the sports bra claimed a new victim: my six-month old son. I had to feed him immediately after Jazzercise class; so he was lying across my lap after nursing. I reached up to try to wrangle the sports bra/torture instrument back into place, my hand slipped and.... WHAP! I smacked my unsuspecting baby right in the face with my knuckles.

Now, as you can imagine, this was more than a little surprising to him, and absolutely horrifying to me. A smack in the face is such a painful, disrespectful thing to do to another person; and even though this particular smack in the face was completely accidental, it's hard to explain that to a six-month old infant whose relaxing lunch just had a terrible ending.

We both cried it out, and of course he's fine now. But I actually rescheduled getting his picture taken yesterday afternoon because of the red spot above his eye -- no one else would've noticed it, probably, but for me it would've been a permanent reminder of that unhappy moment.

So, I will be feeding MLM post-post-workout-shower from now on; and if anyone knows someone in the design arena of women's athletic wear, tell them I'd like to set up a meeting!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Art of Conversation: Infant Version

Man, time flies.... My Little Monkey is now five months old, and all the books and websites tell me that his language development is at a critical point. So I'm supposed to be talking to him often, labeling things, and using lots of vocabulary words. As much as I love to talk, I have found that it's difficult to keep up conversation with such a little person. Sometimes, if I don't force myself to chatter on, I will get lost in my own thoughts and stop interacting entirely.

So, I have found my days are now filled with a stream of narration that ranges from sweet and sentimental, to exhausted and utterly senseless. The constant commentary becomes intensified when I am trying to get MLM to calm down, stop crying, or (every once in a while) stay awake in the car. [Have you ever tried to keep a sleepy infant awake in a car? Crazy.] So I invariably end up sounding sappy, ridiculous, desperate, or some combination of the three.

There are the ever-futile imperative statements: "Hold still so I can cut your nails," and "Stop moving! You're spreading poop EVERYWHERE."

The simple observations: "We're going up the hill. We're going around the curve. We're going down the hill." "Look at you, kicking your feet!"

The painfully obvious. "You're facing the back of the car, and I'm facing the front of the car. That's good because I'm driving."

The cryptic: "We'll talk more about Winona Ryder later."

The unfortunate alteration of pop lyrics: "If you like it then you oughtta put a diaper on it..." and "It's getting hot in here, so take off both your shoes..."

The educational: "These are bananas. They're yellow. These are onions. They are purple, but for some reason we call them red onions. These are avocados. They're green...."

The overly enthusiastic: "That's your ball! Yes, it is!!!"

The completely incoherent: "This is how we, because, um....huh?"

All this is not to mention the painful butchering of countless songs, poems and jokes; or the steady stream of funny noises I emit in hopes of getting just one more toothless laugh. It's like I've become the world's worst stand-up comedian, with the world's smallest audience... A pretty far cry from the pretentious intellectual I tried so hard to be a decade or so ago.

I'm sleep-deprived, I'm inarticulate, and -- sometimes -- just plain silly. But somehow, it's still the best I've ever been.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Trying to Keep my Commitment to Break my Commitment

A few months ago, I signed on as a contract writer for one of those content-engine websites [the ones that hire freelancers to generate as much keyword-driven web content as possible, in hopes of driving traffic to Internet ads]. The contract requirements are pretty simple: just 10 short articles in three months; with pay based on the number of people who read your articles and then click on related ads.

I knew from the start that the pay would be pretty abysmal, as is the case with most entry-level freelance gigs; but it seemed a nice way to use my time while I was up at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning anyway with Little Man. I've done this type of writing before and, though it can be tedious, it's not usually too taxing. Plus, any writer will tell you there's always something a bit thrilling about getting paid to write (however little).

After signing on, however, I found that the "however little" was really little -- effectively about 50 cents an hour so far. Either I am getting more persnickety as I get older, and feeling more ownership over what I write; or my abilities to churn out decent writing quickly are waning. Either way, I found myself taking far longer than I'd budgeted to write each article and getting far more frustrated than usual at the banality of writing quantity over quality. I began to dread staring at the blank document screen the same way I dread writing a research paper in school. Ick. I would much prefer to write for you, dear blog readers; or for my own fantasies of one day publishing a novel.

Meanwhile, LM started sleeping better, allowing me to go right back to sleep most early mornings. I also began focusing, sooner than expected, on my life as a part-time psychotherapy clinician -- in addition to being a full-time mommy. So spare time is once again at a premium, and when I do have time to write, I want to write for my own enjoyment or to connect with others -- not to lure someone into clicking on an ad for free credit reports or a belly diet.

So last week, when I got an editorial e-mail reminding me that my three-month deadline was looming, it was pretty easy to do the cost-benefit analysis. 50 cents an hour, sometimes less, weighed against the countless other things that I need or want to do with my time -- building my therapy practice, cleaning my house, spending time with my precious little boy, SLEEPING.... The decision to stop right where I was at seven articles and let my contract lapse was pretty darn simple.

Until today. Today is the official deadline, the last window of opportunity to change my mind. It's not too late to e-mail the editor and ask for an extension. Or, if I felt really industrious, I could churn out the remaining three articles today and put off the decision to quit for another three months.

Today those doubting little voices in my head have begun emerging, fueled by the perilous attraction of possibility. What if I'm just in a bit of a writing slump right now, and next week these articles seem anything but tedious? What if I start seeing more income, or even client leads, from my current articles and regret the decision to close the door on this opportunity? What if.....?

Once again, the deceptive appeal of what I could do is being pitted against the value I place on my time, and even against common sense. No sane person with two Master's degrees and an infant should be working for 50 cents an hour; especially when I don't spend as much time as I'd like doing other things that matter to me.

So what is feeding that nagging voice? Why is it so hard to just let the door close? Maybe it's about not giving up -- trying to redeem the time I spent on the first seven articles by making the whole venture worthwhile. Or, maybe it's something more primitive.

I once heard about monkeys in some distant and lush part of the world who would get trapped in a ridiculous but conveniently metaphoric way. Hunters would hollow out a coconut through a hole just large enough for a monkey's hand, and place food inside. The monkey would reach inside the coconut and grab the food, but with his hand balled into a fist, it would no longer fit through the hole to escape. Since the survival instinct will not allow the monkey to let go of a potential meal, the story goes that monkeys would often stay trapped with their hands in the coconut for hours (apparently sometimes even long enough to starve to death if the hunters did not return in time).

However true or exaggerated these stories are, they're certainly a beautiful and useful analogy for lessons in greed, priorities, obsession, opportunity cost.... and maybe a partial, primal explanation for why it can be so hard to let go of something, even when it's in your best interest to do so.

So, now that I've churned out a free but fulfilling blog entry, instead of a cheap piece of "content" for someone else's website, it's time to take my hand out of the coconut and move on with my day. There's a little monkey who needs looking after!

Monday, November 9, 2009

You say "infestation;" I say, "thousands of new friends"

Okay, so maybe not everything has a positive reframe....

As the title indicates, we had an invasion in our kitchen this weekend -- ANTS. It was actually the third or fourth time we've had a major visit from the ants this season (rain and cold, I guess); but this was the first time the little buggers have actually infiltrated our pantry. I woke up yesterday morning to find an army swarming down from the ceiling (go figure, since we'd treated all the other entry points) and teeming in all our vulnerable snacks and pre-packaged foods.

Needless to say, clearing out the pantry while battling thousands of happy, hungry ants was NOT the way we wanted to spend our Sunday morning. Still, it's ultimately a fairly minor inconvenience and an opportunity to clean out the pantry of stuff like those oh-so-healthy sweet potato chips that we tried so hard to like. Turns out, they were better as ant food than a replacement for the plain old fatty Salt 'N' Vinegar ones we really love.

It was also a little unnerving, watching the massive numbers of insects take over our cabinets overnight. I found myself wondering how quickly the insect world would take over our condo and everything in it if we were somehow to disappear for a long period, or even forever. It's kind of morbid, but I couldn't help but imagine what would become of all the trappings of our life if we were no longer in it.

Without our constant vigilance, spraying with Veggie Wash (an awesome ant killer, btw), and expensive pest control, how long would it take before our home was completely overrun, and then unrecognizable? It was like my own little mental version of "Life After People." Just one of those "human life is fleeting" moments.

Fortunately, we had a fun afternoon planned with friends on Sunday, to get me out of my insecticide-scented kitchen and, perhaps more importantly, my brooding existential thoughts. It was a beautiful day, perfect for enjoying a fleeting, barely controlled life!

Friday, October 23, 2009

One of those Father-Son Moments

So I was in the kitchen yesterday and I heard MDH in the living room, entertaining the baby. In the middle of a stream of coos and squeals, I overheard this: "We like blankets. And that is a blanket statement."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mommy and the New Frontier

Infancy, especially early infancy, is chock full of milestones. It seems that every week that passes brings some new fascinating behavior or endearing social interaction with our "new roommate." For the past sixteen weeks, I've enjoyed so much watching and learning as our little guy teaches me all about babyhood, personhood, with each tiny new thing he does.

But this week, it's Mommy who is doing the growing: this is my week of Learning to Let Go. A little.

Next week, I'm starting a new part-time schedule that will have me working outside the home on Tuesday afternoons/evenings (yay, go me!). It's a good thing for our family financially, and a good thing for my little guy (and me) emotionally & developmentally. He gets some un-distracted playtime with a nice new person, who also has training in early childhood development; and I get to get out of the house and play grown-up for several hours in a row. It's good for both of us (did I say that already?) and at almost 4 months old, it's the perfect time for my little guy to start learning to trust others and make new friends.

Easily said. Less easily done. Today is the "dry run," which means while he is at home getting acquainted with our fabulous new nanny, I've been out running errands and doing some work at my favorite local coffee shop. It's the first time I've left him at home with someone other than MDH or one of his loving grandparents, so I wanted to be nearby just in case. [In case of what, exactly? In case of measles? Tornado? In case the experienced, mature professional suddenly folds under the pressure of sitting with one very sweet baby?]

No, let's be honest: I'm nearby for my own sake and no one else's. Being less than a mile away from my child makes me comforted in some way that I can't explain... but I will say that I am proud of myself that I'm not, as my Dad predicted, "hovering right outside the front door." Not quite, anyway.

But it doesn't mean that my palms aren't a little sweatier than usual today as I try to focus on all those things that are so hard to do with a baby in one arm. Since we're being honest, I'm still pretty nervous.

And if I'm even more honest, I'm not sure which is making me more nervous: the idea that my baby boy will have a major meltdown in my absence, or the idea that he won't miss me at all. I want him to be his own independent person and develop his own relationships. At the same time I selfishly want him to need me always, the way he did the first moment he was born -- when the delivery nurse put him on my chest, slimy but open-eyed, and he gave me a look that said "Mom, what the hell just happened to me?"

Of course, the sensible person in me knows that the healthy reality is somewhere in between: a combination of attachment and independence, unconditional love and personal freedom. I have a feeling that these mixed feelings and cross-purposes are only going to intensify as motherhood goes on.

Guess I'd better get used to it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Right as Rain

Yesterday, about halfway through my morning walk (just when turning around and going back would do me no good), it started to rain. At first I was a little freaked out by this, since I was pushing my little guy in the stroller in front of me -- I had visions of a wet and screaming 3-month old keeping me company for the next mile and a half, only to catch pneumonia by the time we got to the car. I was relieved, however, that our investment in an awesome outdoor stroller had really paid off, and I was able to keep the little one warm, dry and sleeping the whole way back.

Once my motherly worries subsided, and I'd successfully stowed my iPod, phone and keys in a waterproof pouch, I got to focus on myself and the trail. As the rain steadily fell, I gave up the fruitless exercise of dodging beneath the occasional tree to stay slightly drier; and after about five minutes, I let go of the hope that any part of me would not return home drenched and muddy.

After that, I settled into the dreary day and actually began to enjoy my watery walk. All around the trail, my favorite fall flowers are in bloom -- the hardy, rough-looking ones that don't appear in florist's shops but are startlingly beautiful in their own unique way. Though I'm sure they are stunning on a sunny day, their beauty was enhanced against the gray world around them. The cat's tails stood out clearer, and even the tiniest, spindly little plants became sparkling chains of light as the raindrops formed diamonds on their tips.

There were fewer people at the trail than usual, but those who were there became friendlier once the rain started. It was as though we were part of a secret society of people who -- yes, perhaps -- are too stupid to check the weather before going out to the trail; but who also get to see that beautiful place in a state that few people get the chance to appreciate.

It all took me back about a decade (or more... sigh), when getting caught in a rainstorm far from shelter was part of my daily reality. Hiking with friends in the English Lake District...riding a borrowed bike through the wilderness near a remote Hungarian town...ducking dripping wet into a coffee shop in Krakow for a respite from the downpour....finding shelter in museums and churches all over Europe while waiting for the rain to stop, the hostel to open, or the train to arrive. And more recently, navigating with MDH through the sideways rain at Ireland's breathtaking Cliffs of Moher before warming up with a well-deserved Guinness and shepherd's pie.

These memories, this rain, brought back a part of myself that seems to be getting lost the more I work my way into responsible, sensible adulthood. But it's still there. It's the part of me in love with the world, thirsty for adventure, and ready to take life's challenges as they come. This part of me can just let the rain roll on, hike peacefully through the mud, and admire the flowers.

Maybe forgetting to check the weather before hitting the trail isn't the worst thing in the world.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Oh, sweet shower...

Yesterday was one of those days. My little man was so exhausted that he couldn't sleep -- and it was driving us both crazy. I tried everything - his crib, the pack-n-play, the swing, the bouncer... every contraption known to man designed to make babies comfortable and sleepy. I tried a ride in the car and walking around the house in the Maya Wrap (sling). No dice. He just kept crying himself into short bouts of fitful sleep, then jerking awake to scream with renewed energy and volume.

He was miserable, I was miserable; he cried, I cried. There's nothing worse than your child being inconsolable and feeling like there's nothing you can do about it. And even though - logically - you KNOW it can't go on forever, it feels like, well.... forever. I felt completely inadequate as a mom, and totally frustrated as a person. There were a couple of moments when I thought I might just go for a walk and leave little man to cry it out in his crib.

I didn't do that, of course. And of course he did calm down eventually. And when MDH came home from work, he took over parenting duties and let me have 30 very sweet minutes all to myself to take a long, scalding-hot shower. It was amazing the difference I felt... 6 hours of frustration washed away by a half hour of hot running water.

It really made me appreciate the little things (like a hot shower) that that make us feel human. I thought about all the methods of torture that involve taking those little things away - like time and sleep deprivation. They don't sound all that awful from the comforts of your living room, but (as every new parent can attest) losing those little freedoms that we normally take for granted can really wear away at your internal resources and sense of self...

I spend so much time, in my line of work, exploring the complex and unknowable depths of the psyche and all the intricate neural systems that make people tick (or not). But it occurs to me how simple things like uninterrupted sleep, basic hygiene, or the freedom to just sit and gather my thoughts for a few minutes are so fundamental to my basic sense of well-being. Maybe I'm not such a complex creature after all.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Do We Like Speaking in the First Person Plural? Do We?

Yesterday, MDH and I went to lunch at what I would like to call a "Suburbistro" [This is a new term I'm officially coining -- you heard it here first! It refers to all those chain restaurants that crop up near strip malls and try way too hard to be quaint, but are really just fatty, mediocre, mass-processed food.]

In this case, it was a place called "California Dreaming," and if I were writing a restaurant review, I'd say it would more appropriately be called "Iowa Waiting," just because there was nothing California-esque, dreamy or even interesting about it. I might also mention that it tasted just slightly better than Nacho Day at a public school cafeteria.

But this isn't a restaurant review. It's an opportunity to vent about one of my pet peeves. Call me a grammar geek, but I hate, hate, HATE it when a server in a restaurant refers to the dining party as "we." As in, "Do we want something to drink besides water?" or "Did we leave room for dessert?" I mean, if you're going to pull up a chair and join us, feel free -- but otherwise....

Yesterday's experience was beyond the pale because not only did the waitress use "we" to the point of complete absurdity [at one point she actually said, "Do we have any questions for me?" My head almost exploded], but she also ramped up the perkiness when she noticed that we weren't all that responsive to her cloying questions. Instead of a simple, courteous "How is everything?" she said, "Does everything look wonderful? And does it taste even better?" Considering that we hadn't even tasted our food at that point, it was hard to do anything but nod and mumble. And when I later mentioned that the nachos were just "okay," she looked at me like there was a festering sore growing out of my forehead and flitted away without another word.

That, I think is the problem. She didn't actually care if we were enjoying our food, or our experience -- she just wanted to keep the tone so artificially positive that we'd have to be real jerks to either complain about the food or (more importantly) skimp on the tip.

Okay, I know, I've been a waitress myself. I know what it's like to live and die by your tips, and I understand that anything you can do to improve the percentages is a definite plus. I remember learning that if you touch someone during the dining experience, they will leave on average a 40% higher tip. So I learned unobtrusive and (hopefully) inoffensive ways of casually touching my customers -- like placing a hand lightly on their shoulders when they would joke around with me. Hey, it can't hurt, right?

But when I waited tables, I really did enjoy the interaction with my customers. I liked the group of three couples who came in every Wednesday night for pitchers of amber beer and who always told me terrible jokes. I really did care (at least a little) if people liked the food I recommended. I like making people happy; that's my thing -- and while there are different levels of superficiality and depth to that, it was never total BS....

It's the sugary insincerity of this type of linguistic ass-kissing that bothers me, more so than the ridiculous grammar. To presume that "you," who don't know me from Adam's housecat, can become part of "we" just by saying the word... it feels not only false, but even a little intrusive.

My annoyance, however, has made me stop and think about how I talk to my clients -- as well as my colleagues, friends... even my little boy. [I caught myself saying that "we" had a dirty diaper the other day, and I'm pretty sure my pants were clean!]

The little polite phrases and niceties that make life easier and conversations smoother can become second-hand to us (me) over time; and maybe after a while we (I) stop noticing them and their effect on other people. Maybe what seems natural and comfortable to me sounds like nails on a chalkboard to someone else. Perhaps my quirky turns of phrase or conversation "fillers" are making other people feel like I felt at the restaurant yesterday. I guess it's worth paying closer attention.

I don't know. What do we think?

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's All About the Bounce

A childhood friend of mine, Kenneth, was in a terrible accident several years ago -- he slipped while rappelling off a bridge with a bunch of friends, and fell some 80 feet to the ground. He broke lots of important bones and was confined to a wheelchair for several months... All in all, he was really lucky to have survived. According to the word in our neighborhood (I don't know how true this is), one of the first things he said to friends when he awoke in the hospital was, "Did I bounce?"

I saw Kenneth recently at a memorial service for a mutual friend's father, and I was so glad to learn that he is not only up and about, but happily married and -- maybe somewhat astonishingly -- still rock-climbing. I'm sure that the wisdom of the mid-thirties (whatever that means) probably has him taking fewer blatant risks than he did a decade ago; but he still hasn't let that major setback keep him from doing what he loves.

Many of us spend our lives focused on making things happen: going to school, working, striving toward our goals. But I think an often-overlooked and absolutely critical quality of successful people is how they respond when things happen to them. It's how we respond in those moments when nothing is going as planned that reflects the flexibility and resiliency of our characters. And when those moments are high-stakes or very public, the pressure is even greater.

I'm thinking, for example, of professional ballplayers who blow a big game in front of millions of angry fans, or this unfortunate moment in the life of 2007 Miss Teen South Carolina. Of course that video leaves most educated folks shaking our heads (myself included!), but just think for a moment how nervous some of us get when we only have to make a short presentation to a conference room full of coworkers.

It's humiliating and scary moments like these that keep most of us away from the spotlight and from taking risks in general. But moments like these also define us. Big accidents, colossal failures, huge losses -- these are the stuff of life. They invite us to become stronger, smarter, braver, humbler, more gracious.... just generally better.

To bounce back well, we have to be flexible; and sometimes willing to let go of our old ideas and perspectives to adjust to a new reality. It's all about learning from failure, laughing after you fall down, allowing others to see you vulnerable and surviving it. Anyone can be a fortress, but it takes real courage to let others see you crumble and rebuild.

Miss Teen SC, incidentally, found the courage and good grace to poke fun at herself on another TV show not long after the "such as" fiasco, which in my mind is the best possible response after humiliating yourself on national television. She may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but at least she demonstrated the ability to bounce back smiling. Now somebody get that girl an atlas!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Good, toothless fun

My little guy is almost 2 months old now, growing like a weed, and - lately - smiling and laughing. The "social smile," as it is called in developmental terms, is just about the best thing ever. Better than chocolate, ice cream, or sex. Or even sex in chocolate ice cream!!

Just when I was pushed to the point of exhaustion, rolling with the chaos that is the newborn's world, ready to pay someone to come to my house and hold the little guy for about 3 days so that I could just SLEEP the whole time... he started giving us these big, gurgly grins. And suddenly the sun is shining again and somehow I can face another late-night feeding or half-hour "cry for no reason" fest. This must be an evolutionary protection babies have developed... just when you are so tired that you're about to consider leaving them with a pack of wolves to be raised, they become so intensely adorable that you decide to keep them for just a little longer.

But it gets more fun: the smile starts to develop its own little characteristics, which we watch in bemusement and amazement, wondering if they are clues to the person he'll become in the coming years. There's the Elvis smile, where one side of his lip curls up as he looks at you, like he's trying to decide if whatever you're doing or saying is really funny enough to merit a full smile. Then there's the shy smile, where he shrugs he shoulders and looks modestly to the side before hitting you with the big, toothless grin.

And the goofy laugh -- who knew someone 8 weeks old could have a goofy laugh? Well, my son DOES. He laughs at me once in a while, and MDH a little more often... but his favorite comedic inspiration is the hot air balloon mobile we bought for him at IKEA, which hangs high above his changing table. It has 3 little animals leaning over the side of the basket, looking down on him while his diaper's being changed, and apparently those 3 guys are the funniest characters ever to be sewn out of a polyester blend. Little man just looks up at them, transfixed, and if we bat the balloon a little so that they move for him, we are often rewarded with a series of smiles and then: "Heh, heh, heh."

The books don't say much about laughter at this age, so maybe he's not supposed to be able to laugh yet. "They" also say that babies can only see well to about 12 inches at this point, and the balloon is a good 3 feet above his head when he's on the table. But don't tell him that, because that goofy little laugh makes my whole damn day worthwhile.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You Could, But Will You?

Years ago, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, one of my favorite weekend activities was to stroll through the Saturday Market -- a lively collection of artists' booths, street performers and food vendors downtown by the Willamette River. I'd get a chai tea or some greasy ethnic food from one of the booths and then wander around for a couple of hours, daydreaming, shopping, people-watching... it was one of those activities that is both inspiring and relaxing.

Like many such outdoor festivals, the Saturday Market was full of both works of art far beyond the talents of the average person, as well as some things that were technically simple, but cute and clever. Those simple innovations or creative pieces often leave me asking myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" And sometimes that thought is followed with, "I could totally do that myself."

And why not? I have (or could obtain) acrylic paints, mismatched spoons, wooden frames, shellac, old magazines, lone barstools, fake flowers, a typewriter.... whatever the ingredients of this particular creative project might be. Why can't I go home right now and do [whatever it is] myself, for far less money?

I guess this is a common reaction, because at one such booth, the artist had posted a sign to spur sales from hesitant customers: "Yes, you could do this at home. But will you?" The honest answer: no, I won't.

The words on that sign have come to my mind again recently, as I've found myself with a little more time on my hands (well, time to think, anyway, while cradling a fussy infant in the wee hours.... not so much time to do). I've been trying to decide how I want to channel my energies in the coming months and I've found, discouragingly, that the possibilities are almost endless. There are loads of things I could do, but the question is, what will I do?

For example, I recently finished reading an astonishingly mediocre historical novel; and about halfway through, I began thinking -- "This is terrible. How am I not a published author already? I could write a better novel than this with my eyes closed. Maybe I should." Okay... certainly I'm capable of doing the research for such a novel. And perhaps there's some kernel of truth to the idea that I could be better than some at writing historical fiction. I would probably even enjoy it, if that's how I decided to spend my time.

But that's the thing... writing even a mediocre novel takes time and persistence. So in order to write a better novel (eyes open or otherwise), I would have to decide to spend my time that way. I would have to commit the time and discipline to doing the research, writing, editing, marketing, etc. at the expense of all the other ways I could spend those few precious moments while the little one is napping. I would have to choose to do that instead of doing just about anything else.

Now we've hit my problem. And, I suspect, the problem of talented procrastinators and underachievers everywhere. In order to do something, you have to commit to that and forgo other things, even if only in the short term. And committing like that means taking a risk -- hitching your wagon to one identity or pursuit, and casting off the safety net of the many other ways you could demonstrate your true talents. There is a built-in excuse for any shortcomings in your work when you're not pursuing your "true" passion. In that sense, I guess you could say it's easier to be a frustrated waiter than a failed actor.

I mean, let's face it, the reason Lady Mediocre is a published author and I am not, is that she wrote a damn novel! Meanwhile, I have lots of ideas and notes and half-finished paragraphs all strewn about in a black hole of a file folder called "Writing." Once in a while I invest some time and effort into that folder; but more often, I think of it longingly while I'm doing other things. And in many ways, it's safer that way.

But the reality is, life does not judge us on our aptitude (despite all the hype around the SAT in high school). No one cares what I could do if I [wanted to], [had time], [could find the energy], [got paid in advance], etc. I can only be judged on what I have done, am doing. That's where real greatness emerges, and it's up to me to do the work to bring it out in myself.

For me, the first step is letting go of some of the things I could do. Paring down my ambitions might feel like a loss in some ways, and it's certainly risky. But by closing a couple of those distracting side doors, maybe I can channel my energy to create definite direction, and build passion toward one or two pursuits at a time until I actually have something resembling a finished product. Then someone else can play the critic!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Ordinary, Everyday Miracle

It seems that every time I take a hiatus from blogging, I feel the need to explain why in my return entry (we can talk about the uselessness of that later). This time is no different, but those who know me personally can guess -- it's the arrival of my precious little boy, just over a month ago, keeping me away.

Of course, any parent can tell you that the sleepless nights, constant feedings and general lack of mental acuity is enough to sideline any blogger with a newborn. All these things are certainly contributing factors. But on top of that, it's hard as a new parent to look outside your own little world to find things that would be of interest to everyone else.

A good writer feels compelled not just to entertain, but to connect. When I write a blog, an article, or the sketches for a book, I am always searching for what is simultaneously universal and unique. The idea is that those taking the time to read what I've written will be rewarded with something that is both different enough to be interesting and relevant to their own lives. Sometimes I'm successful at this, and sometimes people read a few lines and click away to see what's happening on Facebook instead.

Usually this involves channeling the natural stimulation I find in the world into some sort of weird, thought-provoking synthesis. But I have to be honest, right now I mostly just want to sit around and stare at my kid. Lately I'm focused on counting and re-counting his fingers and toes, decoding the mysterious rhythm of his cries, watching in awe as he explores the world. It's all beautiful, miraculous, and.... well, somewhat mundane.

Babies are born and suckled and raised every day -- and the people who understand and relate are the ones who have their own, far more poignant experiences of late-night toe-counting. so the center of my world these days is not exactly fascinating fodder f0r a blog. Well, maybe just this one.

Monday, June 15, 2009

And now, the waiting...

So there are just under two weeks left until the official due date for our first child, which I have learned is a fairly arbitrary date determined by a German guy in the late 1800's who decided that a pregnancy should be "10 moon months." So, according to the obstetric wisdom that follows, sometime between tomorrow and three weeks from now, we can expect our little boy to make his appearance.

It's an exciting, magical, and physically uncomfortable time... these last few days of our long journey toward parenthood. From the first conversations MDH & I had about children while we were dating, to our struggles with infertility, through the joys and anxieties of the pregnancy.... we are now on the cusp of a whole new chapter of our lives.

I chose to take maternity leave a little early from my jobs, for both health and sanity reasons, and it's been a wonderful decision so far. Not only have I had enough time to rest and relax, so that I feel a little more prepared for labor and delivery; but I have also given myself the gift of time to think. It's such an indulgence, I'm realizing, to have time to focus completely on myself for a few weeks.... I have enjoyed spending time at the pool, taking long walks, working around the house at an easy pace, running errands on my own schedule, reading long-neglected books, seeing movies with MDH, etc., etc.

There are also some challenges presented with this decadent downtime. I don't work all that well without a bit of structure, so I often feel I get less done in 8 open hours than I would in 2 rushed ones. It's hard for me not to measure myself at the end of each day by what I've accomplished, and the value of relaxation can be less than tangible. And even though I planned this time in order to rest, I couldn't resist making a list of "projects" for myself, which of course I haven't completed. So I alternate between luxurious relaxation and thinly veiled guilt.

The other blessing and curse of all this free time is the ability to slow down and look at where I am career-wise. As I contemplate my next moves, post-maternity leave, I'm realizing that I really want to be a "Sunday player" (gotta love a football analogy). In other words, I want to work hard enough, and with a sufficient level of passion at something, to be truly great at it. A real pro. I'd like to channel my working energies into purpose, direction and even expertise.

This has been tough lately given what I affectionately refer to as my "Career ADD," this sort of spastic dance I've been doing for the past few years. I'm interested in so many things, and competent enough at several of them, that I often find myself following whatever is most pressing, fascinating, or available at the moment. And no sooner do I start wandering down one road, than I find myself missing aspects of the road not taken. It's a perpetual case of the grass is always greener, I guess.... one of the pitfalls of having a wide range of interests and a flexible spirit. It's hard to specialize when choosing one area means giving little or no attention to the others. Manda of All Trades, Master of None?

In the middle of all this, I'm about to embark on the hardest, most important job I'll ever have... being a parent. Some days it doesn't even seem real yet (despite the little person kicking me in the ribs). It's hard to imagine, sitting here staring at the lump in my belly, what parenthood will be like, or how I will be at it. It's one of life's biggest and most miraculous mysteries, and it seems to put all my career musings in perspective.

I'm sure my perspective will only continue to evolve once the baby arrives, and I'm swimming sleep-deprived in feedings and crying and diaper changes. Who knows what I will learn about myself and my purpose in life when this new person comes to live with us? Part of me is hoping for insight. Part of me is just hoping to survive!

So, right now my life is all about waiting. Watching for signs of true labor. Ruminating about the future. Planning (or attempting to plan) for the uncontrollable. Hoping... that the baby is healthy, that my parenting skills will be enough, and that at some point on this journey I can reconnect to an internal passion for life and work. And maybe if I can find that passion and really live it, it will someday be inspiring to this little person I'm carrying around, as he looks for his own path.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I Want Happiness Insurance

Since we are now expectant parents, MDH and I decided recently it was time to grow up and get life insurance. I have to say, there's something a little morbid and scary about the concept of life insurance, and it's not easy to talk about the life of yourself, and especially the one you love most, in terms of dollars and cents. Still, it's good to know that if anything happens to me, our offspring at least won't be saddled with my ridiculous student loan debts.

I think most people would agree that life insurance is generally sensible. Homeowner's, health insurance... I can get on board with those. But I've noticed lately that there are more and more opportunities to "insure" yourself against life's ups and downs, and some of them are pushing the boundaries of reasonable behavior.

When we took a childbirth class recently, we spent the lunch hour listening to a representative from a company that "banks" infant cord blood, on the off chance that your child comes down with a serious disease that might be helped with stem cells harvested from his or her umbilical cord. Now I don't think there's anything wrong with these advances in technology, nor do I judge anyone who decides that banking cord blood is the best thing for his/her family. And frankly, if banking cord blood were more affordable (considering the likelihood that you'll actually use it), we would definitely consider it. As it is, we are planning to donate ours for free -- to be used for research or by others in need.

What bothered me about the guy's speech wasn't the concept of banking cord blood, or even the price that the other expectant parents in the room seemed happy to pay. It was the scary approach the representative took -- claiming that "most people who declare bankruptcy do so because of health care costs" (what? where did this statistic come from?), and implying that those who did not bank their child's cord blood would regret it when someone in the family develops leukemia... etc., etc. It just seemed like the industry is trying to profit from the fears of new parents in a way that seems, well, a little disgusting.

On the other hand, I think that the cord blood industry is just taking advantage of a general trend in our culture towards wanting (and expecting) lives that are completely sanitized from dangers, dirt and risk. With all our wonderful technological advances and modern conveniences, it seems that many of us have developed the idea that we shouldn't have to deal with anything unpleasant or unexpected at all. We want someone to fix things for us when they go wrong, and we go to great lengths to attempt to control our lives -- bringing out the worst of our anxieties and, frankly, hubris.

I have a theory that we live our lives at such a hectic pace that there is no room for uncertainty, so when the unexpected happens, there is no energy left to take things in stride. I was at the car dealership a few weeks ago getting my windows tinted (which, btw, I didn't want - but the dealer talked me into it, glancing at my pregnant belly and telling me that my new baby would be uncomfortably hot in the Georgia weather without the tinting.... sigh). Looking around the waiting room, I noticed that there were a number of signs offering various types of "insurance" available for car owners.

You can buy wheel and tire insurance to avoid the "unexpected expense" of a flat tire. So I guess that means I would prefer the expected expense of the wheel and tire insurance? Just think, while you're standing on the side of the road in the rain, canceling appointments via cell phone, you could be comforted knowing that you have already paid for that new tire three or four times over via tire insurance -- and thank goodness you won't have to pull out the plastic today.

But if that's not reassuring enough for you, you can also purchase the "appearance protection" plan for your new car. With this plan, you'll also pay some monthly fee for a while, and then when you accidentally stain or burn your car's upholstery, the dealer will repair or replace it for you. It will be like new again -- just as though human beings never sang songs or spilled soda or made memories in your vehicle at all. Whew.

Now part of this is just car dealers being car dealers; but they wouldn't offer these programs if someone weren't buying them. Dealers (and insurance companies, and retailers...) know how much we hate ugly surprises and imperfections. We hate them so much, we will sacrifice the joy and money and optimism we have in the moment in order to assure ourselves that some pain might be spared us in the future. We love extended warranties, hand sanitizer, and money-back guarantees.

But how reality-proof do we need our worlds to be? What is this pressing need we have to prevent "tragedies" that are really just the normal ebbs and flows of life? I would argue that the emotion and money we spend on the front end trying to avoid everything uncomfortable is not only fruitless (life will always find a way to surprise us); but the pain and effort of avoidance outweighs whatever expense or discomfort we would naturally incur later.

We are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to enjoy what we have when we have it, because we are so focused on what could happen to take it away. And when something unpleasant does happen (like the burning smell emanating from our dishwasher last night, indicating that we will soon be shopping for a new one), we have a hard time accepting the reality because of our frustration.... "I put all this work into making sure things would go smoothly and now this??"

It just seems to me that with the economy at a shaky point and many of us struggling with both our finances and fears, one thing we can definitely afford to give up is the expensive and unending search for perfection. It's easier said than done, so I'm reminding myself as much as anyone else: Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the ride.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Nest and Beyond

For the second time in 3 years, we have wrens nesting in the planter just outside our front door. This means that I had to scrap my early spring plans of putting ivy in the shady planter, but it's totally worth it.

Two years ago, we called our feathered visitor "Gertie the Birdie," (we're sort of into names that rhyme with what they are -- hence our unborn child's unfortunate moniker "Cletus the Fetus.") Gertie laid 5 eggs during her time in residence on our front porch, and we watched them hatch and grow with unbridled fascination. Sadly, only four of them survived to leave the nest, and MDH had the unpleasant job of removing the poor little straggler after his family had moved on.

The planter is just below eye level - it hangs on the wall outside our door - so having a bird's nest there gives us a little taste of the discovery channel every day. MDH has affectionately named this year's mamma bird "Wrenita," and ever since she took up residence I've felt a kind of kinship with her... one expectant mom to another sort of thing. Of course, I'm a touch jealous of how quick the gestation period is for birds - they went from an empty nest, to tiny brown eggs, to babies with huge closed eyes in just a matter of weeks.

We've had fun in the past week or so, stopping by the nest and making kissy noises at them to see their hungry little mouths reach out in instinct, waiting for us to barf up something delicious (I know it's a little cruel, but it's irresistible). And now when we peer into the nest, the little birds peering out are slightly smaller replicas of Wrenita herself, already looking wise and grown.

Add to this progression of life the soap opera-like element of our cat -- who watches the birds with intensity through the front window. And this morning she was particularly frantic, running from window to window, chirping (like a cat, not like a bird) insistently to let me know there was something hunt-able and tasty-looking just outside.

When I went out myself, I found Wrenita and another bird making an incredible racket -- they were both flitting from bush to tree to stairway railing, chirping loudly and nonstop. Even though Wrenita typically makes a hasty and quiet exit whenever we enter or leave the condo, this morning she made little effort to hide from me, and the constant chirping didn't stop despite several repeated trips in and out the door.

Both adult birds kept up their noisy dance for some time, and I finally decided that they were trying to coax the little ones to leave the nest and attempt flying for the first time. I don't know if that's really what was happening -- bird expert, I am not. But I thought it was pretty cool anyway. Mamma bird (and her friend? Daddy bird? Auntie bird?) didn't climb into the nest and push the babies out. They don't carry the babies out and fly for them. But they also don't abandon them to their fates... they consistently, patiently encourage them with lots of verbal reassurance and wait for the little guys to figure it out for themselves.

It's a great reminder of what good parenting should be... and perfect timing since I am entering that neurotic phase of pregnancy that has me worrying about every little thing, doubting my parental abilities, and fighting off the urge to buy the little guy everything in the store. Which store? Doesn't matter. Every store.

Somehow watching Wrenita encourage her little ones this morning gave me a little (maybe temporary) feeling of confidence and relief. Nature has away of working it out, and I know that somehow even my imperfect instincts will help this little one find his way in the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I have nothing to write and I am writing it....

with apologies to John Cage*

So, the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter for me and my crazy schedule. The stressful (and expensive) chaos I talked about in the last entry has mostly subsided, and one-by-one I'm checking things off my list. So, in between things, I'm delighted to return to the world of blogging.

I think.

If only I had something to say.

So this is a miniature version of the typical writer's curse I've experienced for years: when one is too busy to write, confined by the unpleasant constraints of practical life, the ideas and inspirations seem to come in literal waves. On the way home from work, or dashing between one meeting and the next, I am struck with a list of great ideas I could write IF I just had time! There are future article ideas, plans for maternity leave, and even a couple of little seeds that could one day become terrible novels...

Sometimes I find time and energy to scribble these ideas down as I go, and occasionally they even make sense when I look at them down the road. But for the most part, they are lost to oblivion, filed in that mental vortex called "Later" (which, it turns out, contains only a lonely, hungry goat and an empty desk where the office temp seems to be constantly "on break.")

So of course, by the time I need to retrieve these fabulous ideas, they are either completely missing or just a shell of their former selves -- with none of their original energy and spark. So I sit staring at the blank screen, looking out the window, flipping through the channels.... And it all somehow seems to evaporate.

I suspect I'm not alone in this -- I'm sure there is a wide group of frustrated writers, artists, photographers, scrapbookers, etc., complaining that their demanding lives don't allow them to do what they love, and then coming home every evening to melt unproductively in front of the boob tube.

And I also suspect that we all know the answer to the dilemma, the old Nike slogan that pervades the consciousness of anyone who lived through the 1990's. Just do it.

Just start writing, filming, blogging, snapping pictures, making friends, dancing, bowling, gardening.... whatever it is. You have to start and hope that the creative energies and success will eventually follow. The temp will return to her desk, and maybe the old goat will regurgitate something delicious from the "Later" file that can become "Now, Now, Now."

There are no guarantees that what will emerge will be genius or anything close to it (and if you've made it through the blog to this point you may be nodding vigorously in agreement). But the only absolute guarantee is this: if you don't start, the results will speak for themselves.

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it."
-- John Cage

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Hidden Costs of Spreading Yourself Too Thin

So it's a little embarrassing to look back at my blog history and realize that I've only put up one tiny post in nearly two months...

And it's even more embarrassing to have to confess that -- even though I am constantly preaching balance and stress management to my clients and friends -- the main reason I haven't been able to write is because I completely over-committed myself in the last couple of months. For some reason I'd like to chalk up to temporary insanity, I thought it was a good idea to take 3 classes this semester, continue full-force with my 2 part-time jobs, accept a couple of random freelance opportunities, organize a silent auction and attend a 3-day training out of town... all essentially culminating in February and March, and all during my second trimester of pregnancy.

I think the "what the hell were you thinking?" goes without saying. But don't worry, several caring individuals have been kind enough to say it anyway.

Of course I recognize that this type of overloaded lifestyle has consequences, as I think most of us do when we're slowly, half-voluntarily getting in over our heads. But one interesting thing I noticed, somewhere in the fervor, is that there are also financial consequences. Maybe it's our heightened collective attention on the economy right now that tuned me in to this issue; but once I started noticing, the financial fallout of my voluntary chaos seemed to be everywhere.

For starters, there's parking: Theoretically, there is free parking available for GSU students at Turner Field, and you can take a shuttle from there to campus (or walk the 1.5 miles or so on a nice day and get in your exercise at the same time). I used to take advantage of this option at least once a week to save money and to allow myself a few minutes of zone-out time or brisk walking. But I can count on one hand the number of times I've been able to swing it in the last three months.... I get too busy before or after class to add the extra time to my commute; so I suck it up and pay for downtown campus parking, promising myself each time that I'll be more disciplined next week.

Of course, that's on the days when I'm on time, or close to it. Some days I am so rushed before class -- finishing up one commitment or another -- that even my regular parking spot downtown is unrealistic; and instead of $5 or $3, I have to pay $8 for the premium lot that is just a couple of blocks closer to the classroom building. Two blocks closer means 4 minutes less late to class!

So I'm guessing I've blown at least $70 in unnecessary parking charges this year so far. If I could work at a slower pace, give myself more time to plan ahead, I could have pocketed that $70 for the kid's college fund and probably been a little more sane each time I entered the classroom to boot.

Parking is an easy example. But wait, there's more!

There's paying absurd ATM fees to get cash from Not My Bank when I suddenly realize I need it, despite the fact that I probably passed four of my own bank's ATMs on the way to wherever I was going.

There were a couple of bounced check fees in January (in my opinion the most ridiculous and inexcusable expense a person can have) because I was too hurried to notice that I accidentally made a PayPal transaction from the wrong account.

There are the countless times we've eaten out or ordered pizza because I didn't have time to plan meals for the week or make a thorough trip to the grocery store. (This one is expensive AND unhealthy).

My housekeeping, never what I'd consider overly tidy to begin with, has definitely suffered from my busy schedule... so one day in frustration I thought I'd quickly vacuum the main parts of the carpet in the 30 minutes I had between obligations. Just a quick job, so why take the time to move everything off the floor, right? I'll just vacuum AROUND the phone charger cords.... Turns out, when one of those gets sucked up into the vacuum cleaner, the cord itself will wrap around the axle until it hits the base, which is when it will snap unceremoniously, leaving you with inexplicable black marks on the carpet and $30 less in your wallet for the replacement.

It seems that cutting corners (or being too busy to avoid cutting corners) has taken quite a bite out of my wallet in the last few weeks. And since I think money is often a symptom-bearer for other issues, I'll say that this is probably a reflection of some of the non-monetary costs I've been sacrificing to stress and hurry as well: quality time with family and friends, healthy eating, time to exercise as much as I need...

It's too bad there's no budget program that will show us this stuff on one of those handy pie charts. "If you would slow down and quit taking on so much, you would save 5% of your expenses, be in 8% better health, and have 25% better relationships."

Too bad indeed. Guess I'm going to have to slow down and pay attention instead!

Friday, February 27, 2009

How about coffee? Mayonnaise? Whipped butter?

I like mustard on my fries.

It's weird, I know, but I've done it for years (originating during my years working at McDonald's in high school -- nothing turns you off to the normal fry condiment like constantly wiping stale, wet ketchup off trashcans, tables and trays). I used to like only mustard because of that acquired ketchup aversion, but now I generally mix the two whenever I eat fried potatoes in any form.

But unlike most mustard connoisseurs, I like the plain old yellow stuff -- none of that fancy schmancy deli mustard with horseradish or whatever else. Just the standard, bright yellow French's for me, thanks. It seems a pretty simple preference to me, if slightly odd.

That is, until a conversation held between myself and a waitress at the Flying Biscuit a few nights ago....

Waitress: [setting down Fried Egg Sandwich with Moon-Dusted potatoes - yum!] Can I get you anything else?
Manda: Could I have some ketchup please , and - do you have plain yellow mustard?
Waitress: I'll go check.
Manda: Thanks.
Waitress: [returning with ketchup bottle moments later] I'm sorry, we don't have mustard. But we do have balsamic vinaigrette.

Hmm.... okay.

I thought about this odd conversation later when I was working with a couple who are having trouble communicating their needs to one another and finding ways to meet those needs together (actually, most of the couples I see are struggling with that in one way or another). It must seem strange to constantly need one thing in a relationship and always get back something entirely different -- so different, in fact, that it seems almost nonsensical.

And it must be strange to be the other partner, too -- to hear that your mate needs something but have no idea how to give it to them. They want mustard, and all I can think of to offer is balsamic vinaigrette.

The waitress was earnest, apologetic, and almost seemed a little desperate when she came back to the table. It's kind of like she knew that her suggestion was not going to meet my needs in any way, but could think of no other options under the pressure of wanting to make me happy... or at least to offer me SOMETHING, even if it was salad dressing.

I guess some days we can only offer the best we can... and somehow it has to be enough.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Lesson in Belonging

I read today that a recent study (summary here) at the University of Kentucky strongly linked aggressive behavior with social rejection. In other words, people who are rejected socially are more likely to exhibit aggressive and violent behavior toward others. Well, duh, right?

It may seem obvious, but this is apparently one of the more substantial studies available describing links to aggressive behavior. In an era when aggression seems to translate more and more often into horrifying displays of indiscriminate violence, I think this becomes an area of communal interest for all of us.

For me, this fits pretty well with how I view the world, and how I see my clients. I happen to work from a largely Adlerian perspective, which means I think that Belonging (Social Interest) is a critical part of each person's development and mental health. But before I had ever heard of Adler or thought about becoming a psychotherapist, I had an intuitive sense for how important belonging is... and I suspect that most people who survived adolescence in America can relate.

I remember in high school a teacher of mine was reading an interview with Stephen King, and his interviewer was asking about early influences on his writing, etc. I can't find the exact quote, but King said something about how acceptance by others is the most important thing any person can have. It's what everyone wants, especially teenagers. I remember thinking how cool it was that a writer I admired immensely was so in touch with the human condition -- and specifically, MY human condition. (Later on I realized it's this, more than anything else, that makes Stephen King a great writer.)

It does seem that a need for social acceptance is part of our essence. Some of us find it by seeking to please others and imitating those we admire. Others find acceptance through their uniqueness - standing out in order to fit in. We sometimes go to extremes in order to express our individuality, as well as our affiliation with particular groups... Think about the pierced and painted adolescent bodies clustered together at the food court; or the wildest displays of fanaticism at your favorite tailgate party.

Knowing how intense we can be about being part of a group, it's easy to understand how those who can't seem to fit in could feel resentful, self-loathing, and eventually... hopeless. Those feelings can lead to a sense of frustrated entitlement, and vengeful behavior against others. And as we've seen all too often in ways large and small, the consequences can be devastating.

I don't know what the answer is... But maybe just knowing how important social acceptance is will give us the opportunity to view others in a different light: to be aware that Chatty Cathy in the next cubicle really just wants to be liked; and the Know-It-All down the hall needs to feel important and accepted.

Perhaps by remembering our own challenges to fit in (pubescent and current), we can have a little more empathy for those who are still struggling. Our kindness to them might just be the small step that changes the world.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Week 19: Your Baby Gets Superpowers

One funny thing about getting pregnant is that suddenly your life is measured in weeks. It's 40 weeks from start (well, before start, technically) to finish; and each week is brimming with developmental significance. Thanks to ever-improving technology, we know more and more about what happens with a developing fetus from week to week.

So once you're knocked up, there are countless books and websites available to tell you what's happening each week in the mysterious realm of the womb. There's what I like to call the "produce phase," where each week your baby is compared to a particular fruit. This week the baby is the size of a blueberry, next week it's a large raspberry, and the following week it's an olive. I can't tell you how confusing that was for me, trying to figure out what size olive is appropriately bigger than a large raspberry.

Then we move on to plum, peach, avocado, etc., until the baby's size is such that a comparison to a fruit no longer makes sense. So the fruit descriptors are relegated to the mother instead of the baby (uterus the size of a cantaloupe!), and discussions of the baby focus more on other developmental markers like organs, hair, and fingernails.

Now all of this is pretty fascinating, at least to the parents-to-be, but I will say that it's also a little strange to know so much about this tiny person who is with me every day and occasionally kicks me in the belly - but who I've never seen or met. It's also a bit of added pressure, knowing that certain things are developing this week makes me ever more vigilant about every move I make, not wanting to disturb the fragile process.

What's even scarier is that during some of these critical weeks, there are nerve-racking tests designed to screen for a host of chromosomal and other anomalies that could seriously impact the life of the child, or even be fatal. These screening tests are wonderful advances of technology, but their high incidence of false positive results can sometimes make them more anxiety-provoking than reassuring.

But I find myself wondering other things about this little person... Not whether the intestines have re-entered the abdomen through the umbilical cord (they do that!) or about some scary potential condition. Instead, I want to know whether my little guy or girl will have a sweet, easygoing temperament like their father or if we'll experience the dramatic ups and downs of a child more like me. Will he or she be kind to others, have special talents, make contributions to the world? Leap tall buildings in a single bound? :)

It's so amazing and interesting to know what is happening week by week, but it leaves me wanting to know so much more... anticipating the personality, the uniqueness and the fun that's in store in the years to come. In some ways, it's too bad that an ultrasound or other tests can't tell us more encouraging, meaningful and exciting things about our children.

Of course, there is one big, exciting thing new parents do get to know: in a couple of weeks, we'll have the option to find out the gender of the baby. Most parents do opt to "find out" -- and the reason I most often hear is for planning the nursery, etc. But I suspect that if other parents are experiencing what I've experienced, part of the reason is that it's just so nice to hear some good, happy news in the middle of all the waiting and nail-biting.

But on the other hand, maybe anticipating all those exciting things is part of every parent's journey, day by day. Eliminating risks from our kids' lives is not an option after they're born. We also don't get to know ahead of time whether our kids will be talented in a particular way, interested in a certain occupation or activity, gentle or boisterous, healthy or ill... we can't predict, and beyond the influence that we have in raising them as best we can, we can't control how their lives play out. But what we get to do is something altogether more thrilling... we get to watch it all unfold, and to nurture the process as it goes along.

So maybe all this wonderful science has the shadow side of pushing us to think we can somehow predict (or create) perfection in our kids; and that somehow by knowing more about them, we can plan their lives and ours more thoroughly. But as the old Yiddish proverb says, Men plan, G-d laughs. Life isn't always ours to plan - not our own lives, and especially not our children's.

So the "plan" (insert divine laughter here) is that we are not going to find out in a couple of weeks whether our little one -- who I'm happy to report is approximately the length of a standard office stapler -- is a boy or a girl. Sure, it would be fun to know more about our little one; but for now, I'm learning to savor the mystery.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Blog

Well, it's not really my inaugural blog - it's my blog about yesterday's inauguration. I'm sure I am echoing the sentiments of many when I say this, but it's astonishing to me how the peaceful fulfillment of the democratic process fills me with an increasing sense of awe, year after year.

I'm a fairly worldly person, generally, and I've been known to have a cynical streak -- especially when it comes to our government. But listening to President Obama's speech yesterday, seeing the crowd of 1.5 million plus gathered in peace, and watching the solemn yet vibrant exchange of power from one administration to the other.... I realized again how lucky we are to live in such a country.

In many places around the world, the voice of the population is not heard in any semblance of democratic process. A change of power in those places often means violence, recriminations, loss of personal property and the summary execution of dissenters.

As I watched the dignified public ceremony yesterday, my bitterness with the old administration and my wariness of the new one faded into the background -- at least for a while. For a few minutes I was not a Libertarian, a cynic, an angry taxpayer, or anything else.

I was just an American.

The gratitude and pride I felt was tremendous. What a blessing to be in my living room -- basically free and basically safe -- sitting next to the person most important to me, watching history happen before our eyes, and wondering hopefully about the future.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bookshelf Curriculum

I figured it out the other day -- I'm 33 years old, and I have spent almost exactly two-thirds of my life in school (at least part time). My first reaction as I write that sentence is to question the wisdom of all that higher education, and the next one is to try not to calculate how much it has all cost me.

I was thinking of this the other night as I wandered through the bookstore, wishing that I could take time out from my busy life (and, let's be honest - I probably could take time away from my TV-watching and Pathwords-playing) to just wind my way through the stacks of books, choosing the books that I want to read most, rather than the materials and assignments prescribed by my program of study.

That got me thinking - what would my chosen "curriculum" be? What are the books I've read that have been most influential on the way I think or how I look at life? What would be next - the things I've always wanted to read but not made time for, or new stuff on the horizon?

Here are some of the books/works I've read that had the biggest impact on me, in no particular order:

- 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein
- Absolom, Absolom by William Faulkner
- The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
- To Life! by Harold Kushner
- The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Countless works of William Shakespeare
- "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
- "Evening Hawk" by Robert Penn Warren
- The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
- The Lonely Planet Guides to Europe and the U.K.
- The Stand by Stephen King
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin
- Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding (I admit it! I loved it!)

These are just a few. I'm sure I could (and will) think of many more as my workday brain defrosts and delves deeper into my academic and pleasure-reading past. I'm amazed, as I make this list, how many of these books I remember loving and being influenced by - but I have lost touch with so many of them that I'm not sure I could recall many of the particulars. Wouldn't it be great to be able to make the time to re-read all your old favorites with a new perspective and appreciation?

In addition to a long trip down memory lane, I find myself craving new reading material that isn't either a grad school requirement, a work-related book, or pregnancy guide. Here are some of things I'd like to add to my own "curriculum" in the future. (Suggestions are helpful!)

- A fresh, inspiring biography
- A (somewhat objective) history of politics and violence in the Middle East
- A science fiction series anywhere close to as well-written and textured as LOTR
- An intrigue escape-type novel that's not too masculine, too feminine or too hokey
- A light, fun read, a la Bridget Jones, that is actually well written and innovative
- Anything that makes me want to set aside my current life and take one more stab at being a professional writer!!

I would love to hear what is on everyone else's "Bookshelf Curriculum."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Lessons from 2008

On New Year's Eve, a few friends converged on our house for a cozy evening of pizza and silly board games. It was wonderful. Earlier that morning, a colleague shared with me a NYE tradition she has: writing down things she wants to leave behind from the old year, and burning them in a bonfire.

So in the middle of the evening, we decided to write the things we want to leave in 2008 on little slips of paper, and toss them into the roaring fire. We didn't share what we'd written, but I imagine the little slips included bad habits, negative events, and even some deep regrets from the past year. For me, it actually turned out to pretty cathartic - a nice symbol of turning the corner into 2009.

All this got me thinking, though, that there are plenty of things I learned in 2008; and while I might want to leave behind the mistakes that created those "learning opportunities," I'd like to believe that I can carry the lessons with me into the years to come.

So here are a few of the keepers from 2008:

1. When you're in a car accident that's not your fault, make sure to ask the other insurance company to compensate for the car's lower resale value before settling the claim. (Grrr!)

2. It turns out that the fudge icing I make for my favorite layer cake also works really well for pecan pralines.

3. If you feel consistently unfocused and scattered, you probably are. It's time to reign it in.

4. Don't neglect your cat's toenails - ours had one actually grow back into her paw because it got so long... Poor kitty!

5. If you order a Jameson's over ice in Dublin, it's considered a "cocktail."

6. It really is okay to change your mind about the direction of your career, the color of your bedroom or your plans for the evening. It doesn't mean you were wrong the first time (or first three times), it just means you changed your mind.

7. I know this is what everyone says, but it's true: running really is all about putting one foot in front of the other.

8. Sometimes living life in the moment means accidentally becoming part of an Irish pub band. No, you don't know the words, so just have another Guinness and fake it.

9. Sometimes when you are completely frustrated and feeling most like giving up, life gives you a miracle that restores your faith and rewards your patience and effort tenfold.

10. Just when you think you can't love someone any deeper.... you can.

So those are 10 of the 10,000 things I learned this year. I'd love to hear what lessons other folks are bringing with them from 2008!!