Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self-reliance, ceilings, and learning

We've had workmen in the apartment all week. I hired them to fix the ceilings, a job I am utterly unwilling to do. A lifetime or so ago I spackled every joint in every piece of sheetrock in a three bedroom house. I didn't mind doing the walls, but I learned that the ceilings are worth paying someone else to do. They are a pain in the neck in every possible way.

I'm not sure I've ever hired someone to work before. It has been a learning experience, the kind one appreciates because it's useful to know how to do it. I have a deep aversion to hiring people to do what I think of as "my" manual labor.

Still, we have 1933-era ceilings, which means that when one scrapes a crack and a whole patch clunks off there is a real-plaster disaster. Had I done the work myself, the living room ceiling would have come partway down and I would have stared at it dolefully, wondering, Now how do I fix that?!? I am certain I would have spent three months learning how to properly repair a 3'x7' hole. Which would be fine, but at the moment it's better that I should learn to let a professional do it.

One side of my family is as classically do-it-yourself as it's possible to get. My dad grew up chipping old mortar off of used bricks after school, to use in the house his family was building (they did have help with the construction). When I was a kid, if something needed fixing, my dad looked at it and tinkered with it and ordered parts and patiently figured it out. That was good: children tend to think that adults were born knowing how to do everything perfectly and that it's just that they are inept. My dad wasn't shy about dispelling that notion, and I benefited from that. I think kids need to see their parents learning new things, and struggling to learn them. They need to see that perseverance is acquired, not congenital. (It is, admittedly, easier for some people to acquire than others!)  

Dad rototilling his garden at age 81.
Another influence in this vein was a friend in college who had an endless to-learn list. He was an architect and a mechanical engineer, a splendid photographer, a graphic artist, and a bit of a philosopher. He had languages he wanted to learn to speak (at the time he knew four), countries he wanted to explore, skills he was eager to acquire. Years later he put himself through an MD/PhD program by working as a caricaturist at corporate parties.

I thought that was cool; it hadn't occurred to me to envision a whole list of possibilities for myself of what to learn; I kind of thought one just meandered through the vague interest of the moment. To have a burning interest in expanding one's capabilities is awesome; heck, even to be willing to expand your competence beyond what you already know how to do is often unusual.

I do believe that a whole lot of our "I can't do that!" thinking boils down to "I don't know how to do that!" When you append the word yet to "I don't know how to do that!" it transforms your attitude. It shifts the focus away from the fear, and centers it squarely on something we do know how to do: learn.

So... I'm learning. This week I learned how to pay someone to fix my ceilings. Learning not to be entirely self-reliant is an important lesson, too.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A lot to do, a bit at a time

I've been busy spackling, purging closets and assessing ceilings to see what needs to be done before putting the apartment on the market. In a way this is stress-relieving: I've long had this cool idea for a vacation that involves sending everyone else away and hiring a dumpster. This is not because I'm a neat-freak, but because we  live in an apartment. There's no attic, no basement, no garage. Everything we own we live with, intimately. It is a relief to live with less.

*         *          *         *

I used to hate household chores. I'm still not fond of them, but I've made significant progress from my days as a single working woman, when I loathed doing laundry so much that I would buy extra underwear rather than waste a Saturday morning at the laundromat. The buy-more-undies attitude doesn't work when you have five kids.

I've long aspired to look at housework in the way I look at brushing my teeth: something I don't necessarily like, but can do without anguish or rancor because, well, it just needs to be done. One mindshift that's helped has been to think of chores as filler, rather as a separate (and hence onerous) list of things to do.

Honestly, this did not come about as a stroke of genius, but in a surge of desperation. (This is true for most of my ideas.) As I had to cram more and more (paid) writing into my day, I had less and less time to tend to the house. I found that whenever I came up against a mental logjam while writing, if I took a 10-minute break and tossed in a load of laundry (or wiped down the toilet and sink, vacuumed the living room carpet, etc), two good things happened. The first was that the physical labor cleared my mind so I could return to writing productively. The second was that things got done that needed doing.

The advantage of having formed this habit is that now when I get overwhelmed by the thought of moving, I can deal with the feeling effectively by plastering a crack in a wall. It's gratifying to transform stress into progress.

*         *         *        *

Still, moving is stressful. No one here wants to go, and I find myself in the position of having to drive the troops forward, relentlessly. I do not like having to do this, but I am intent on keeping things (and people) on track. Perhaps I am also finally old enough to be (mostly) past getting annoyed about having to do things I don't want to do.

My heart bleeds at odd moments. I cauterize the wounds by doing productive things. Do more, think less, I command myself. Focus on what needs to be done. There will be time to grieve later.

I used to say that one reason God made days 24 hours long was so that there would always be a 2 a.m. in which mothers could cry. For the next month or two I will be too tired to be awake then.

*        *         *         *

I am just entering the busy period of the spring. I am editing eight masters' theses and a PhD thesis proposal in the next six weeks, writing a quarterly newsletter, and doing my usual monthly and weekly projects. There's also Eldest's college graduation to think about, then Big Guy's high school commencement. Did I mention we're moving? Homeschooling? Eating?

Make it smaller, I tell myself. Look at just a little bit at a time. You can do this. You will do this. 

And then, as my inner child starts to whine that it's hard, too hard, and I don't wanna, I get out the putty knife and spackle, and fix another crack in the 1933-era wall. It's the nice thing about cracks: you can only fix one at a time. And when you've fixed one, things actually do look a bit better.

Monday, March 10, 2014

We have news

We will be moving.

Not far, probably. But we have to sell our apartment. We'll rent, we hope, in a neighborhood just north of here.

Several times a day Little Guy blurts out, "I'm distressed!" Andrew is unhappy. Big Guy is unhappy. Snuggler is unhappy, but at least she's busy with tech week for Oklahoma! Dancer is more matter-of-fact about the move, not thrilled but not miserable. I emailed Eldest about the news, but she didn't respond; she's probably more concerned about her last term at college and job interviews.

As for me, I have a ton of plastering and painting to do, so my energy is focused on keeping things moving forward. And frankly, I'm so relieved to have a plan in place that will finally resolve some of our financial issues that I am not thinking that much about the loss.

*         *          *          *

Big Guy has been accepted into a good local college. He is waiting now to find out if he was accepted into the honors program. This would be a big deal on many levels. For a smart kid who has never believed in himself, who has struggled with huge anxiety, who is just beginning to feel he can make it -- well, the honors program would be a huge vote of confidence from someone who's not Mom. Then, too, the honors program would mean free tuition. That would be a huge help, too. The decision will be mailed on the 15th.

*        *         *         *

I worked backstage most of this weekend at Dancer's spring workshop performances. Yesterday I slipped into the theater to watch the second half of the show. Brian Reeder choreographed a new piece for the school, and I wanted to see it from the front.

That man is so creative. He has choreographed a piece for the school for each of the past three years, and each one has been incredibly different. Decades ago I saw a cartoon in which two people were walking down the street: a regular shmo and Beethoven. The regular guy had a thought bubble above his head with a few simple notes in it. Beethoven had an ear worm, too, but his consisted of two clefs and multiple, complex chord progressions. Some people (not me!) think in complex harmonies. Others, like Brian Reeder, think in visual harmonies. Impressive.

The other wow about seeing the piece was realizing my daughter has made huge progress this year. I knew that already, in the way that mothers do, in a view-from-the-wings kind of way. I'm not the type to be lavish with praise. But y'know: she was good.

*        *         *        *

Snuggler's Oklahoma! performances are the next two weekends. We've heard rave reviews from the director, which is unusual. It's the older kids' production, so they're doing three-part harmonies. If you want details on performance times, email me. Snuggler's in the chorus, so she's in every cast. And it's the director's last big show before he leaves... to become a monk.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Control, self-control, and what to do when it's lacking

One of the more useful skills I've acquired in the past decade (or perhaps mostly acquired; I'm still inconsistent) is the ability to live with uncertainty. This is something that was not on my bucket list. Then again, most of what I've learned and most of the ways I've grown in the past decade weren't on my bucket list. Eventually, perhaps, one learns that "What I want to do with my life" is a pretty useless concept. "What kind of person I want to be" is a goal that's more adaptable to the variety of circumstances that life sends your way.

Uncertainty is difficult to deal with. We are human and terrestrial: we don't like being up in the air. Of course, we're almost always up there -- we just don't perceive it that way. One can argue that we need the illusion of being in control, but that's an oversimplification. There are things within our grasp, things we need to control: tempers and spending and the rate at which water flows into the bathtub and other such stuff.

There are also things we'd like to control, like careers and children's behavior and whether or not people we love return our affection, or are capable of returning it. We'd like to control the outcome of health problems and mental deterioration, of birth defects and learning disabilities.We'd like to control pain, discomfort, and the suffering of others.

I suppose we'd like someone, somewhere, to take control of the people who take guns to malls or drink before driving. Probably we don't want to have to do that ourselves, because it might put us at risk. The idea that someone else's problems might wreak havoc with our semi-orderly lives is terrifying. I supposed because we have no way to control that.

*         *         *         *

The other day I read a passage from Made to Stick to Little Guy about military planning, and it included the Army adage, "No plan survives ten minutes of contact with the enemy." He liked that. We talked about why it's important to make plans, but foolish to expect things to go as planned. We make plans so that we've thought through the issues and options, and are familiar with the problem to the extent that we can see it.

Little Guy also liked the idea of Commander's Intent, which is a succinct directive designed to allow anyone at any level to understand the goal, yet modify action as circumstances require. A large part of success when you're under fire (whether in battle or parenting) is determined by being able to keep the goal in sight, as you use your judgment in figuring out how to reach it.

Commander's Intent acknowledges that we can't control all circumstances; what we can do is respond to changing conditions in a manner that's in keeping with our objectives.

*        *        *        *

I sometimes ponder how people adapt to situations over which they have minimal or no control. How does one deal with living in a war zone? What does a woman sold into white slavery do to find the courage to go on? How does the mindset of a street orphan in Cairo differ from mine?

I recently read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal. (I am, in fact, reading a half-chapter aloud to Little Guy and Snuggler a couple of times a week as part of our homeschooling. It's truly excellent.)

One subchapter tells of the Nobel prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill, who explored the issue of exercise fatigue. He proposed the idea that we don't get tired because of muscle exhaustion, but because our brain sends a message that screams "STOP!" to prevent exhaustion. The thing is, just because the brain tells you you're too tired to go on doesn't mean you've reached your limit. It's a trick.

Interestingly, the same concept applies to self-control. Our brains tell us we can't stand to be patient a moment more -- and we believe them. But if your child's life depended on your patience, you'd find a way to curb your temper. We can stand far more than we want to. We can handle far more than we expect. The trouble arises when we start to believe we're trapped or stuck or have reached our limit before it's true.

*         *          *          *

Sometimes the answer to a difficult situation lies in flexibility rather than in control.

Sometimes the answer lies in patience.

Sometimes it is found in endurance.

And sometimes it simply isn't found. Sometimes what's asked of us is  to keep taking whatever steps we can take for as long as we can take them, even if we don't know where we will end up and don't think we can do it. If you can do that and still be true to your Commander's Intent, you are probably a hero even if you never become famous or your problems never go away.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Birthday news

Today was my birthday. It started auspiciously: Andrew announced, "I caught you a mouse!"

This was good. We have been battling mice for six months, and though the battle has been in our favor for a while, the sightings lately have begun to exceed the captures.

Then my husband gave me a gift certificate for a massage. This is unusual on so many levels I cannot begin to enumerate them.

My mom sent two pairs of jeans, and not only were they in the right size, they fit and are comfortable. I can now consign my forlorn, ripped pair to the back of a drawer, for dirty jobs. It is a good thing to be able to wear clothes that are not embarrassing. I can be thankful for that.

My sister called. A gazillion people said "Happy Birthday" on Facebook.

Dancer cooked a delicious Spanish veal stew (we haven't had veal in a decade) and made a French vanilla cinnamon creme for dessert.

Big Guy did the dishes.

And then I realized the most amazing thing had happened. My husband replaced the screws on the toilet lid, so that it doesn't fall off when you sit down.

I feel utterly pampered. I mean, a working toilet seat! A real meal that *I* didn't cook! A clean kitchen!

We listened to the new Sandra Boynton CD after dinner, and laughed and laughed. I could never have been half the parent I am without Philadelphia Chickens and Rhinoceros Tap.  (Really -- you need these songs!)

Life is good today. Part of what makes life good is appreciating today, instead of assuming the goodness of today will extrapolate to the future.

And to add to that, my alma mater has been in the news lately because of a statue, which some of the students find offensive.

I was vastly relieved to learn that the opportunity to dress this poor man in new outfits daily has not gone untapped. I find it highly amusing that the campus police are assigned the task of undressing him to his tighty whiteys every night. It is good to know that students today still have a sense of whimsy.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Word of the day: Lapse


 noun \ˈlaps\
: an occurrence in which you fail to think or act in the usual or proper way for a brief time and make a mistake
: an occurrence in which someone behaves badly for usually a short period of time

Years ago one of my daughters neglected to do something she should have, and ended up in a bit of a mess. As she wailed about her situation she finished with the moan, "...and now you'll never trust me!"

The good part, of course, was that she clearly wanted to be trustworthy. The funky part was the blanket statement. Never?

"Oh, my," I said, as gently as I could, "There are many things I can trust you with. I trust you to choose good friends, I trust you to be basically truthful, I trust you to brush your teeth at night, and I trust that you want to do the right thing here. The fact that you didn't do this one thing doesn't mean you're a total failure, or that you're completely untrustworthy. It means that in this one area you had a lapse of judgment, and in this one area we need to do some work."

Blanket statements can be smothering, yet we all make them at times. After I snarl at a child, I throw on the blanket statement that I'm a bad mother. The truth is that I'm not a bad mother; probably all that happened was that I had a good-mommy lapse. After forgetting something important on my to-do list, I may throw on the blanket statement that I'm an idiot. And yet I'm not an idiot, I've had a memory lapse.

Remembering to draw a distinction between an incident about which I feel bad and a perpetual state of being is huge. If I label myself as a failure, a fool, stupid, irresponsible, a bad parent, or lazy, I attribute a permanence to a behavior that isn't actually justified. What's more, once a label is in place, confirmation bias takes over. Confirmation bias is that "I think A, therefore I start to notice A all the time" thing that happens to all of us. The problem is that when we start seeing A, we tend to stop seeing B. If we label ourselves as, say, a failure, then we become more aware of every event which confirms our opinion, and we overlook information that would disprove (or at least balance) it.

Similarly, if I decide that someone is a jerk, chances are that he or she could change for the better and I wouldn't even notice. I'd be too busy noticing every negative thing that person does.

There are people whose pattern of behavior is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to avoid concluding that the person is, in fact, a jerk. But the odds of getting that person to stop acting like a jerk go way up when we notice his or her occasional non-jerky behavior, comment upon it, and thus reinforce the good.

If we want to be better parents, or to at least have a shot at becoming better human beings, it's worthwhile to learn to pay attention to when we berate ourselves. If you wouldn't let someone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself, STOP. Feel bad for a while, but remember that most of the time, in most situations, you aren't the bonehead you've just accused yourself of being.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Perspectives on human experience

Every now and again things happen in life that are a bit unsettling. I don't mean bad-news stuff, but events that take me outside my normal worldview and cause me to re-realize that my perspective is limited. I had two of these happen over the weekend, back to back.

The first was meeting a man who had just donated $10 million to a cause. He was a normal, unassuming human being. This is, of course, far more disorienting than if he'd had horns and were crassly capitalistic; it's harder to demonize the 1% when you realize they are human.

I met this man in passing, at an event which I attended courtesy of a family I've known for years. More precisely, I've known the mom for years, but had never met the dad. We were invited because Little Guy is friends with their younger son, who is some years older but belongs to the same scout troop. The dad, I should add, was tagged as Romney's top pick for a key position if Romney had won the last election. So there I was, sitting next to the dad -- who was also humane and gracious -- and then he had to go say hello to this other man, and when he came back he mentioned the news about the $10 million. Later the donor stopped by to chat for a while.

The chances that I will ever own $10 million, even cumulatively in my lifetime, are probably non-existent. Consequently, I felt no envy: I can't conceptualize dollar amounts that big. Similarly, because I was face to face with a real human being, what struck me wasn't "Hey, can you share some of that?" but the humanity of this man. He had, and he gave. It is going to take me a while to wrap my head around that.

*         *        *         *

It's that season; for the next several weeks, Dancer will head to auditions for summer programs following her regular classes and rehearsals. On Saturday she began ballet at 10:30 a.m., and headed home at 7:30 p.m.

Yesterday she auditioned for a small program run by an iconic Balanchine ballerina. Because it was at a studio Dancer hasn't been to often, she asked me to come along. As we stood in line to check in I noticed the ballerina, who is now nearly 70, sitting quietly at the table, absorbed in looking at some papers. I'd read her autobiography several years ago, and my brain scrambled to take the facts that I knew about her and integrate them with the human being in front of me. The disconnect was huge. Sometimes, I think, the two don't mesh much at all; in order to have any real sense of the person-ness of a person, we have to temporarily discard the facts we know about him or her.

After the audition began I chatted with a woman whose daughters have gone to this particular summer program for years. Our kids were ballet classmates for a long time. The woman is one of the most generous human beings on the face of the earth. She is also one of the most toxic people I know. It's a complicated and challenging mix, and in certain ways I like her as much as (in other ways) I am wary of her. Talking with her is exhausting, since I have to weigh everything she says, gauging how much is true, how much is manipulative, how much she is digging for information and also, thankfully, how much is genuine interest in what I have to say.

Some people move in worlds where toxicity is the social standard. I don't. On the other hand, if I don't talk to people like this woman, how will she ever know that not everyone thinks like her? And how will I remember that not everyone thinks like me?

It's very easy for any of us to think the spectrum of human experience lies mostly within our own. But it's just not true.