Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Heartfelt Assignment

It's been a while since I cried over my dad. Well, since the anniversary of his death, May 2nd. But, before that, I had gotten to the point where I mostly just felt his presence every once in a while and acknowledged it gratefully.

Time to start the countdown over again for number of days since I cried about Dad.

Lola is finishing up her final novel study for school this year. Her group has been reading a book about a girl who gets a magic pen. Whenever she writes short stories with this pen, they eventually come true. It takes her a while to figure it out, and once she thinks she knows what is going on, she tests it out by writing things she fervently wishes would come true. When they don't happen immediately, she tosses the pen away in disgust. Unfortunately, her wish eventually does come true and, by then, she has lost the pen forever.

Anyway, Lola's teacher asked each of the kids to pretend they had this magical pen and write their own wish. After dinner last night, Lola showed me hers:
"Dear Papa,
I wish you would come back alive VERY SOON. I will have dreams about seeing you
soon. I have gotten very lonely without you and I miss when you and I can sit together
and look at the chickens sitting in your kitchen. You probably miss your cats. I LOVE you
and I'll see you soon (I Hope).
Much Love,

It brought me to my knees. They did used to sit together at my dad's kitchen table and catalog the different kinds of chickens and roosters my dad's wife had collected and displayed throughout the kitchen. They used to crack each other up. When I remember the way my father used to look at my girls, I absolutely cave in. A giant sinkhole opens up in the middle of me and swallows everything from the inside out. He had this amused, tender, perfectly whole love for them plastered all over his face. I know that it is this that Lola misses the most. Me, too.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why FAIL is a Dirty Word

There are few words that slam into my gut with such force as FAIL.

I don't mind tripping up, making a mistake, having to say, "Oops!" or even (gasp!) screwing something up. But I don't like to FAIL.

Failing seems so final. So irretrievable. So...well, all-encompassing. It is a short leap from FAIL to FAILURE. There is no corresponding descriptor for someone who makes mistakes. They are not a "mistaker." You can describe someone as a screw up, but at least in my mind, that conjures up teenage boys shoplifting cigarettes from the mini-mart or shooting spitballs in class and getting caught. There is redemption available from that, even if it takes a while or a move out of town to college where nobody knows your delinquent teenage history.

I went to a new yoga studio last week. There was this collective group coupon thing and the studio was near my house and, normally it is prohibitively expensive, but with this deal I could try it out ten times for pretty cheap. And my girlfriend was going, too, so I thought I'd try it. And at this point, I'm pretty sure that unless I can avoid taking a class with the owner of the studio, I won't use the remaining classes I paid for. Because he likes the word FAIL. A lot.

Despite his admonitions to not think too much, be in the moment, respect our bodies' limitations, and remember that yoga is primarily an exercise in training the mind and not the body, he quickly went all Marine-Corps-boot-camp-break-'em-down-to-build-'em-up on me. At one point he polled the class to see if we wanted to do some "ab work" (although I'm pretty sure he was going to do it no matter what anyone said). He then proceeded to have us to 200 crunches. In a room heated to 104 degrees. After already doing nearly an hour of intense yoga. And did I mention that even the floor is heated? So lying down to do crunches feels like as much relief as a slab of bacon feels when you flip it from one side to the other in a hot skillet.

We didn't know we were doing 200 crunches. Thankfully. I am pretty sure I would have set my mind to cheating from the start had I known. Instead, he had us lie on our backs, extend one leg up into the air at a 90 degree angle to our torso, and put the other one straight out in front of us, hovering above the floor about two inches. And then do crunches. And he counted. And at about 40, I took a break. I rallied again from 60-80 and then took another break. And at 100, his booming voice filled every nook and cranny of the room.

"For those of you who haven't FAILED (for the record, I'm not exaggerating his use of the word here - he put a lot of emphasis on that hateful set of letters), hang in there. Those of you who FAILED, forget it. But for those who didn't FAIL, go ahead and hold it there for a moment. If you FAILED, I already know. This room has mirrors everywhere. You can't fool your instructor."


And after those stellar performers who are somehow motivated by NOT FAILING held their quivering abs in flexion for another ten seconds or so, we switched legs. And after the next 100 crunches, he repeated the same speech, just in case those of us who felt so badly about our inability to do each and every crunch on one side had already forgotten how much we had FAILED.

Yeah, I won't be back. At one time in my life, the avoidance of the appearance of FAILURE would have motivated me. But only if I knew it might be an issue before I started something. Like a test at school or a race at the track meet or peeing my pants onstage during the ballet recital. But after the fact, it just feels mean. And, now that I'm not a kid anymore, it pisses me off.

So when I turned on my local NPR station yesterday to discover Tim Harford talking about why failing is so important to our learning processes, I was intrigued. His new book, "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure" sounds like something I want on my bookshelf. As the interview progressed, I had that feeling you get when something happens just the way you expect it to. Like when you come home to see your cat lying quietly in the sunspot on the living room carpet and, as you reach out your hand to stroke her back, that delicious warm, silky feeling shivers into your palm just like you knew it would. That's how my brain felt listening to Tim Harford talk. We know this stuff. We know that making mistakes is vital to gaining knowledge. We know that for every success story, there are underwater-icebergs full of Whoops! moments. But we still push each other to be infallible. To avoid looking silly or miscalculating. Or FAILING. And I suspect that, often the words we use in situations like this have so much more impact than we know. Like I said, I don't mind making a mistake or even screwing up.

I don't honestly know whether I could have sucked it up and forced my body to do 200 crunches under the cracking whip of Mr. Yoga Ego. I do know that the 100 or so I actually did made my stomach muscles sore the next day. A good sore. A sore that meant I did some. And maybe it means that next time I'll try for 150. Or not. Regardless, it doesn't speak to my worth as a human being. Or a yogi. And it doesn't mean I FAILED.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Divorce is Not a Dirty Word

In the last year, several of the women I know - some as acquaintances and others as close friends - have either separated from their husbands or begun divorce proceedings. One night as I snuggled up to Bubba on the couch after he beat me (again) at Scrabble, I said, "Seems like everyone we know is getting divorced." I was trying to sound casual, but really, I was shocked. Bubba and I have been married for 17 years. Most of our friends have been married as long and have kids, stable jobs, and own houses. Every time I heard of someone in our social circle having relationship challenges, my mind would begin firing from all corners, desperately trying to make connections that would convince me Bubba and I are immune to similar issues. It was very much the same process I went through as a teenager when a parent or teacher would tell the story of someone my age who got pregnant/overdosed on illegal drugs/wrecked their car. "Not me, and here's why," my brain would assure me with as many bullet points as it took to bring my heart rate and hyperventilation under control.

As a child of divorced parents, I always wanted to make it about the Worst Case Scenario. Well, they got divorced because there was abuse or someone cheated. I'll never marry someone who could do that to me, right? Of course, that forced me to confront all sorts of things about my parents that I didn't particularly want to think about, such as: how could they not know what the other person was like when they got married, or how could one of them treat the other one so poorly, etc.

A few months ago I was having lunch with a friend who was getting divorced after 17 years of marriage. The couple has three children and she and her husband are bending over backwards to make sure that the kids remain front and center in their lives. Theirs will be an amicable divorce. But that doesn't spare either of them from the stigma and judgment offered from friends, family, and society-at-large. Those who think they are intimate enough ask for details - why? I suspect that it is less out of some sense of voyeurism than a desire to then perform the mental machinations that result in, "Whew! That's why this couldn't be me." Those who don't outright ask for details either assume answers or sneak about to discover them. This friend of mine said that one of her closest girlfriends, upon learning that the couple was divorcing, said to her, "Congratulations on 17 years of marriage. You guys had a good run and produced some damn fine kids."

Whoa. Cool. She's absolutely right.

It's none of my damn business why anyone else's relationship ends. Unless one party is a victim of the other one and is asking for my help, I don't even want to know. Honestly, when I look back at my own life and realize what a completely different person I am now as compared to when I got married, it's a wonder I haven't had to change my name to reflect the metamorphosis I've gone through. And it's the same for everyone.

How many of us knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what we wanted to be "when we grew up" at the age of 10? I did. A pediatrician. Or a teacher. Am I either of those things? Not remotely. Who knew what they wanted to be when they declared a college major? I did. A family practitioner in some small, rural podunk town on the West Coast. Am I there yet? No, thank goodness.

There are some fundamental things that have remained steady in my life since I was young; my love for animals and nature, my sense of justice, my idealism, and my constant search for knowledge. But my taste in food, clothing (thank God - I had the 80s rocker-chick hair and parachute pants), books, and nearly everything else has evolved. When I married Bubba, I was certain of a few, core things - I was going to medical school, I was never going to have children, and we would be married until the day we died. Didn't make it to medical school after spending a few years working as a surgical assistant. That was a game-changer during the first days of healthcare reform a la HMOs. Lasted six years of marriage before waking up one day and feeling a yearning to be a mother so strongly that I couldn't think of anything else. As for my marriage, it is strong and healthy and I still hope that we will stay together forever, but I'm not making any bets.

People change. There is no such thing as "grown up." The reasons we fall in love with someone and get married are often perfectly "right" at the time. And over time we learn and evolve and grow. And our partners do, too. But we don't always do this in syncronicity.

The divorce rates in the United States went up sharply from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. They have since leveled off some, and even dropped a bit after 2000. I don't claim to know the reasons for this, but I do know that as long as marriage is around, divorce will be around, too. According to a website called Divorce Guide, these are the top 10 reasons people get divorced:

1. Infidelity
2. Lack of communication
3. Abuse (emotional/physical/sexual)
4. Money issues
5. Sexual incompatibility
6. Religious/cultural differences
7. Boredom
8. Parenting issues
9. Addiction issues
10. Priority differences

I'm pretty sure that the entire list could be boiled down to two things - communication issues and priority differences. And the fact is, those are the things that change most within individuals over time. When we are in our 20s, most of us are beginning to figure out how to communicate effectively with others. Introduce children to the mix and you start all over again. As for priorities, mine shift slightly with every new life experience I have. When I think about it this way, I begin to understand fully why my friend's girlfriend said what she did. It is hard work to maintain relationships with people. And choosing to end a relationship is always hard, regardless of whether it is a co-worker, close friend or partner. But sometimes it is necessary. So instead of feeling sad for my friends who are getting divorced, I choose to compliment them on their success in navigating the tricky waters of marriage for as long as they were able, and support them in their efforts to find happiness in their lives as they move forward.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Have a House Concert

1. Find yourself an incredibly talented singer/songwriter like Edie Carey who is coming to your area and is willing to do a house concert.

2. Send out a "Save the Date" notification to all your friends and family.

3. Two weeks before the concert, send out reminders and begin panicking that things won't go as well as you want them to.

4. One week prior to the date, ratchet up the panic as a few people cancel and send out emails to the rest, telling them to invite their friends.

5. Get a friend to put together a lovely case of wine for your guests and count your wine glasses.

6. Have Bubba prep the smoker, make his famous rub and BBQ sauce and buy two enormous slabs o' pork shoulder.

7. Pick up your oldest, dearest friend from the train station the day before the concert and confide your fears (the "I'm having a party and nobody's going to come" variety) to her while she commiserates and helps you set everything up.

8. The night before the concert, massage Bubba's rub into the pork and smoke it for twelve hours over some hickory chips.

9. The day of the concert, spend hours catching up with your friend, sporadically setting up chairs and furniture and utensils and wine glasses.

10. As your guests stream in the door, realize that this night is going to ROCK!

11. Pour yourself a glass of wine, watch everyone congregate around the spread of food and listen to the conversation fill up the kitchen.

12. Call everyone to the living room where you introduce Edie and watch her captivate everyone, young and old, male and female, with her humor, her musical talent, and her genuine-ness. Revel in the fact that you are getting to share your love of her music with an entire group of people you care about. Hear them laugh at her jokes, sing along in perfect harmony, and enthusiastically cheer her performance while outside, the dogs and some kids are playing in the yard (except when your dog peeks in the window to whine along with the music.)

13. Say goodnight to your guests, secure in the knowledge that each and every one of them had a terrific time.

14. Make a cursory effort to tidy up but end up leaving most of it for the next morning.

15. Collapse into bed and feel incredibly blessed to have shared such a wonderful evening with some really special people.

If you haven't listened to Edie Carey's music, I can't say enough about it. Her songs grab me because they are so real, the themes so universal. Her voice has an incredible tone and she is a whiz on that guitar! I have seen her perform live three times and each time I am struck at her ability to perform. She speaks to the audience as an honest, genuine human being. She tells stories, both in and around her songs, and she is engaging and connected to the people she is singing for. Go visit her website and look up her tour schedule. Find her somewhere near you and go listen. You will be enchanted. I promise.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Lola is making a scarf for one of her teachers. She found some thick, alpaca yarn in our craft box one day and remembered that, once upon a time during a quiet moment in class, this teacher taught her how to finger crochet. She decided it would be cool if she put those skills to use and, after polling everyone in the house to see who could help her, she settled on me, whose yarn-craft skills are limited to, well, scarves.

She set about crocheting a long chain of warm, fuzzy wool and when she figured it was long enough, she came to me and asked how to turn the corner and double back. Tough to do when finger-crocheting. Even tougher when this seemed like good idea because it wouldn't take long and now you're realizing that the days are getting longer and sunnier and what you really want to do is go outside and shoot baskets instead of picking at yarn until your fingers cramp. She stuck to it for several days, though, and I was pretty excited.

This morning, she discovered a knot in her yarn. The scarf is nearly done and Lola was looking forward to being free of this task that has taken on a life of its own, so her frustration tolerance was pretty low to begin with. Monday mornings are not her strong suit, either, given that they require lots of transitions - weekend to weekday, getting dressed and eating on a schedule, deciding what to pack for lunch, ensuring that all the homework you did way back on Friday is actually complete and in your backpack, etc. So this knot was a problem. She pulled and tugged, gently at first so as not to rip out all of the stitches she has done up to this point, and then with more gusto as she realized this knot was stubborn.

In the beginning it wasn't much of a knot and I tried to step in and caution her not to pull it tighter, but she brushed me off, determined to do it herself. I watched with mounting frustration, my bottom lip thrusting up and the corners of my mouth pulling down in that universal look of, "Oh, no!" as the knot itself became smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter. By the time she had reached the end of her patience it was in there good.

The last time I got really mad at Bubba I did the same thing. Instead of treading lightly and reaching in gently to unravel the issue, I pulled. Without yelling or screaming, I moved away from the knot because it made me uncomfortable. At the same time, I mortared my resolve to be mad by justifying my anger in my head, ticking off all of the reasons I was "right" to be upset. Tugging, tugging away at that knot. Even though I know that moving toward the issue and looking at it from all sides was the only way to undo it, I pulled away. Instead of trying to get those two opposing ends to come together and work around, under and through the problem, I cemented that knot in there.

Try it. Get a piece of string or ribbon about ten inches long and tie a loose knot in it. There is no way you're getting that knot out by pulling the ends in opposite directions. But if you gently reach your fingers in there, between the strands, and loosen them, all the while pulling the disparate ends closer to each other, you'll soon have your string back. Now, I know there are all types of different knots, some much more complicated than others, but I tend to think that the vast majority of trouble we get ourselves into with each other is of the garden-variety, regular old knot type. No matter how complex it seems, the best way I know to get that knot out is to move toward it with the intention of using our wits to unravel it. I've never met a simple knot I can undo with brute strength.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

I love Charles Darwin. Ever since we had to pair up and do experiments on pea plants in high school biology, I have been fascinated by evolutionary science. It makes so much sense to me and I love the predictability of putting together different scenarios and knowing what you'll get. I use it to my advantage a lot, too, telling Eve that she's lucky she got my eyesight and not her father's (all the while overlooking the fact that she definitely got my teeth which, so far, has cost Bubba and I over $6,000.00 in oral surgery and orthodontia and we're not done yet!). I also like to point out that Lola's cowlick's are her father's fault.

Often, when there is some cultural phenomenon that bothers me, I go into what I consider my "Caveman Reverie." Just this morning when Eve and Lola were bickering about the placement of the car's garbage bag in the back seat and why it ought not to sit closer to one of them than the other (I swear, the only thing in it were gum wrappers and the label from Lola's pink lemonade - not vomit or anything), I began wondering why they fight so much.

"You know, girls, I suppose back in Caveman Days when siblings had to compete, this snarky behavior was probably necessary. You know, they had to make sure that they were the preferred kid so that when there wasn't enough brontosaurus meat to go around, Mom and Dad would choose the kid they liked the best to give dinner to. But, honestly, now? No evolutionary reason for you two to fight like this. So knock it off."

I'm pretty sure they shut off all listening capabilities as soon as I said the words, "you know."

I Just Want to Write!

The table around my laptop is a nest of magazines I want to submit essays to and books about editing and finding agents. The digital bookmarks on my laptop are peppered with "submission guidelines" and "editorial submissions" and "writing contest entries." Every day after I drop Lola and Eve at school and find myself with at least four empty hours stretched out before me, I race home to...to...

Write? Not exactly. You see, I've done a lot of that. And I hesitate to do more without some direction. I have a small pile of rejection letters to show for my completed manuscript, none of which add up to one piece of advice on how to make it better. Despite email responses to each of the people who read it asking them if there were specific things they didn't like about it, I have no feedback. I got no answers.

A few months ago I got excited about writing an essay for an anthology. The idea for the essay had actually occurred to me independent of any publication - it was just a story I wanted to tell and I thought it was compelling. So I kicked it around in my head for a few days and then stumbled upon an anthology seeking submissions that were Right In Line with my idea. I took it as a sign. I wrote the piece, polished it, let it sit for a few days or a week, and then worked it over again. I sent it in with one day to spare and waited. Last week I got a lovely, apologetic email from the editor saying that they had had so many submissions...not enough room in the book...went with a particular theme that my essay didn't quite fit...if they found some extra room, they would be sure to let me know....

Last week I spent some time soul-searching about whether or not my manuscript ought to be published. So many people I talk to about it are enthusiastic and encouraging. They seem to want to read it. But I have to go back to the reasons I wrote it. And every time I do, I get that same old fire in my belly. That electric sensation in the soles of my feet that spur me on. Yes, I still have passion for this project.

Ultimately, it's that part of me that needs boundaries and expectations that is holding me back. The part of me that thrived under my Marine-Corps-father's clear-cut rules because I knew, knew, knew what was Right. That little girl is casting about for an authority figure. An agent or editor or publisher to say, "Here is how this needs to go. This many pages, this is your thesis, we need it by Wednesday." I could do that. Instead, I send out sample chapters and query letters and CVs in hopes that I can convey to someone, anyone, what this book is really about. And, in the meantime, I'm losing my perspective. I find myself slowly beginning to wonder whether the manuscript is really crap and people are just afraid to tell me honestly. And I wish for someone to say that, if only so I could rise up and fight. Or go back and make it better.

What I think I know is that I won't be able to put the manuscript away and never think about it again. Not because of the time invested in it, but because the reasons I wrote it were so important. Throughout my life, this one thread runs strong and clear, of understanding others from the inside out, an attempt to shine light on our human-ness and our similarities and the importance of connection. A new way of talking to each other, engaging with each other, comprehending each other - that is what this project is about, and I can't abandon it. But I honestly don't know what direction to take it in, so it sits. Occasionally I will rework the query letter and send it off to someone else. Each time I get fired up again and think, "This is the agent/publisher/editor. This is the one and once he/she accepts the project, I'll know why it couldn't be any of the others." And I think that's how it is supposed to be, but the question keeps coming up: then what? Am I expecting some nirvana moment where the clouds part to allow the sunshine in and the birds sing in perfect harmony and butterflies erupt from the daphne bush next to me?

What I know I know is that I can't not write. Regardless of whether or not anything of mine ever gets published in a traditional sense, I won't stop writing. I believe that each of us has a unique way of relating to the world and ourselves. Writing is mine. It is what smoothes the wrinkles in the cloth of my psyche and illuminates my understanding of the people and events around me. It is what connects me to my own roots in time and space and allows me to reach ever higher and stretch forward into a hopeful future. And maybe that is where the problem lies. It is writing that I enjoy, that stokes my inner fire. The marketing bit only stirs my stomach acids. I am convinced of my message; its importance and relevance. But I felt that way about Thin Mints, too, and I was never really all that comfortable knocking on my neighbors' doors to proclaim their virtues. I was not that elementary student who won prizes for selling the most magazine subscriptions. I was the one who begged her father to take the order form to work and put it in the lunchroom for a week and wasn't surprised when he brought it home completely devoid of any writing at all.

I am coming to the conclusion, however, that unless I dig deep and find some way to convey my passion about this project, it is not likely to be published. I need to stop being the Girl Scout selling someone else's cookies and become the recipe-master, chest-bustingly proud of herself for this unique invention, off to share it with the world. In that way, it becomes less about foisting it on some hapless neighbor who answers the door to a child and more about offering a new perspective, a gift of writing. Somehow, I need to stop apologizing for what might be wrong about the book and start singing its praises. I need to come to a place where I'm not justifying or defending my work, simply holding it up to the light and proclaiming that I like what I see.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Why I Can't Be Happy About Osama's Death

It's the same reason I chose not to spank my kids. Fear is a powerful motivator, yes. But the only thing I've ever seen it motivate anyone to do is hide. Hide their intentions. Hide their actions. Hide their plans. And in my house, growing up, spanking was used as a tool for control because it inspired fear. "Do you want a spanking?" Heck, no! So we learned to lie. We learned to behave a little better, too, but it certainly didn't teach us right from wrong. We learned avoidance.

When Bubba and I decided, very intentionally, to get pregnant, I voiced my very strong opinion against spanking. At the time, it was naive and optimistic and borne out of my pacifist ideals. Later, when Eve would get willful or fight against napping, and when she was two and her favorite philosophical position was, "NO!" it became a question. Why can't I spank her? Why did I think this was a bad idea? And it prompted some mental exploration on my part.

My knee-jerk reaction was that hitting another being was wrong. Period. Wrong with a capital-W. Why? Recalling my experiences with spanking, for myself and my siblings flooded my senses with fear. I don't want my child to be afraid of me. But it was more than that. Each and every time I was spanked, it came from a place of anger. My parents were furious with me and they showed it. In some cases, that anger was nearly out of control, and it was always palpable. As a child, I vowed (for many reasons) never to be out of control. Responding to my child, or anyone else for that matter, in extreme anger, rage, or frustration was frightening to me.

I learned to step back. I learned that it is perfectly acceptable to take a time-out and breathe and consider my options. I learned that automatic consequences that were borne of rage tended to be overblown and out of proportion and they generally were incapable of being carried out: "No TV until you're 16, young lady!" I also learned that as I took time to consider my options, I could learn a little bit about the situation and gain insights that I hadn't noted previously. Unless I chose to hang on to the anger and let it simmer. In which case it turned to score-settling and revenge-seeking.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I awoke to the phone ringing and answered to hear my father-in-law's voice telling me to turn on the television. He was rattled and I sat riveted to the news reports all morning, eighteen-month-old Eve strapped into the Baby Bjorn on my chest. I was overwhelmed with sadness. I was also confused and a little bit frightened. And since that day, our lives have changed a lot as Americans. And I completely understand the anger and hatred and rage directed at Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. But I don't think his death will change anything.

Watching the news coverage last night, I took in the sight of the growing crowd in front of the White House as they chanted and held up signs. I acknowledged the notion that this provides closure for a lot of people. And I was saddened that, for many individuals, the over-riding sense was that a score had been settled. I can honestly say that I don't think acts based in anger or rage or vengeance can ever "end" a feud. I have never seen an argument settled when the last word spoken was out of hatred. Osama bin Laden may have masterminded some atrocious acts in his life, but his death will only add fuel to the fire for those who believed in his brand of terrorism. This is not a game of Chess. Osama was not the opponent's king who, once cleared from the board, signals the end of the match. There are no "fair" rulings here. I am not saying that a just punishment for Osama bin Laden is not warranted. I am simply saying that to take joy in the death of someone else cannot provide any sort of healing for anyone.

I am certain that my parents don't wish they had spanked us more as children or reacted in anger more often. I know that, these days, when Eve and Lola ask my mother if she really used to spank us with a wooden spoon, she cringes. I'm pretty sure I know what that means.
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