Archive for July, 2010

To Do List

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I’m always looking for ways to improve myself and here in the world of blogging it’s easy to get lost in our heads.  We think lofty thoughts.  We analyze and distill the world around us.  We mull and ruminate and ponder and probe.  But the blogosphere doesn’t always offer opportunities for us to act on all of the thoughts we think and words we write.  So today I’m skipping the Ten Dollar Thoughts and offering ten one-dollar ideas for things we can do that might help us end the day a bit better than we began it.

  1. Open the door.  Chances are that at least once a day (and with only mild inconvenience) you have the opportunity to open or hold the door for someone else.  Do it, it might make their day.
  2. Drink a smoothie.  Most of us don’t come close to eating as many servings of fruits and vegetables as we should each day.  The following recipe contains three full servings of fruit as well as lean protein and calcium.  Put into your blender: 1 sliced banana, ½ cup plain nonfat yogurt, ½ cup plain soy milk, heaping ½ cup frozen blueberries, heaping ½ cup frozen strawberries.  Blend until smooth.
  3. Pick up some trash.  Whether it’s a water bottle or a candy bar wrapper, when you see a piece of trash on the ground pick it up and put it in the nearest garbage can.  You can leave the world a little better than you found it.
  4. Word of the allows you to register for their Word of the Day.  Expand your vocabulary one day at a time.
  5. Take a walk.  Most decent television shows are in reruns right now.  This evening instead of curling up on the couch take 30 minutes and walk around your neighborhood.  You’ll burn some calories, stretch your legs, and maybe have an interesting conversation with a neighbor.
  6. Floss.  There are all kinds of health benefits to flossing.  See for yourself.  Besides, flossing is easy and it only takes a minute.
  7. Go to bed early.  We are getting less sleep than we used to, and there are some important benefits of sleep.  So get some extra Z’s and thank yourself for it.
  8. Pay a compliment. We all feel better when someone says something nice about us.  Say something nice about someone else and know that they’re probably happier than they were before you opened your mouth.
  9. Five Dollars.  Chances are you’ll pass someone today who has fallen on hard times.  If you can swing it give them a $5 bill.  It’s more than most people give and could buy them the first hot meal they’ve had in days.
  10. Be the new kid. Visit a blog you’ve never read and leave a comment.  You will be an unexpected perk in someone’s day.

Jordan, Johnson, and James

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

I’m playing catch-up from my blog-cation the past couple of weeks.  So please pardon the fact that this story may have already phased out of the national conversation, but I’m still pondering it.

Unless you live under a rock (in which case you probably don’t have internet and aren’t reading this) you know that a couple of weeks ago LeBron James announced that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and joining his buddies Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami.  All of South Beach celebrated, and everyone from Chicago to New York to Cleveland itself wished a pox on King James for forsaking them.  Ahhh, the drama.

But once all the loving and hating that stemmed from the initial announcement settled down two elder statesmen of the game of basketball stirred up some drama of their own.  First Michael Jordan and then Magic Johnson came out and publicly stated (as though we were all curious) “I would never have done what LeBron did.”   And this got me scratching my head.

Why does this matter? Why is it relevant?  Why do we care what two retired players claim they would or wouldn’t have done in a different era under different circumstances with different opportunities?

(As an aside, kudos to LeBron for keeping his mouth shut and not responding, “Well, Michael, I wouldn’t have developed a massive gambling problem.”  And, “Well, Magic, I wouldn’t have caroused around having unprotected sex with random women until I contracted HIV.”  I suspect that took some real restraint on LeBron’s part.)

Because this little outburst from Jordan and Johnson perplexed me I did what most women would do: I asked my husband about it.  Not surprisingly, he had already discussed the same topic with some friends of his and was able to offer a broader sampling of feedback than I was expecting.  According to GAP (and his buddies at work) the purpose of rejecting LeBron’s decision has something to do with the integrity of the competitor.  As it was explained to me winning isn’t enough; and going to someone else’s team, playing with a stacked deck, and then winning isn’t the same as winning on your own.  The implied message from MJ-1 and MJ-2 is that LeBron should have stayed the course in Cleveland, continued to build the team up around himself, and then proceeded to win a series of championships.  Further still, the argument apparently goes that now that he’s left the Cavs to join forces with more elite teammates he may never be able to clinch the title of “best man to ever have played the game” because whatever he accomplishes now won’t have been on his back alone.

Now please pardon me here, but I think that is bloody ridiculous.  It’s all semantics.  GAP explained that LeBron “went to Wade’s team.”  Whereas the Cavaliers was “his team” the Heat is someone else’s.  Also, now that he’s playing with other superstars LeBron’s talents will supposedly be masked and his candidacy for “the greatest player in history” substantially diluted.   And apparently in the world of patriarchy and pissing matches, this matters.

I, for one, just don’t get it.  I don’t understand why it matters to grown men who has marked what territory.  Much less do I understand why long-retired superstars who should be resting happily on their laurels are passing value judgments based on a situation they themselves never encountered (unless it’s to reclaim dying media relevance).  And as for the “best player ever” argument I see it this way: either he is or he isn’t.  Perhaps this is naïve of me, but I say that being the best player ever means exhibiting the most talent and channeling that talent into the most success.  Whoever else happens to be on the court should be irrelevant.

Lying Fallow

Monday, July 26th, 2010

After a 10-day break from blogging I am rested, but I’m also struggling to hit my literary stride again.  My mind has been busy with much reading, but I have found that being on the receiving end of mental stimulation is much easier than producing it.  I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but to some extent it does.  I didn’t expect my time off – filled with books, magazines, and conversation – to slow the spinning of my mental wheels as much as it did.  But as I struggle today to organize and articulate my thoughts I can only help but feel that I’ve been quite lazy over the past couple of weeks.  This feels like my first trip to the gym after two weeks on the couch.

As I’ve thought about this little phenomenon I remembered a chapter I read earlier this summer in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  He discusses the process of lying fallow – leaving land unplanted between crops – and the ways in which it can augment or detract from agricultural yield depending on the crop.

Here in the United States we grow crops that can drain the soil of its nutrients if the same crop is planted on the same land year over year.  Eventually the soil will be so depleted that the yield will suffer and possibly fail altogether.  Farmers have long worked around this problem with crop rotation and fallow periods.  Letting a field lie fallow allows the soil’s nutrients to replenish, making the next season’s planting more productive.

Early Americans applied this practice more broadly than agriculture, though.  As the school year was designed there was a period of lying fallow built in for children.  Today we know this period as summer vacation.  Kids are allowed to rest their minds, relax, play, and take a break from all that thinking.  As is the case in farming, the idea behind this was that the rest would prime them for more efficient learning during the school year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Chinese also applied their agricultural practices to their beliefs about education.  What makes this parallel fascinating, though, is that because they grow rice their educational system looks very different from our own.  Rice, unlike wheat or corn, benefits from more planting.  The more batches of crop that can be planted each growing season, the better the yield.  Lying fallow would be detrimental to the productivity of the land.

In chapters eight and nine of Outliers Gladwell addresses the well known mathematical superiority of Asian students over Americans.  The details he identifies are compelling and I won’t attempt to recreate them here because I’m no Gladwell and if you haven’t already done so you should read the book yourself.  But the net conclusion is that the American agricultural premise doesn’t hold up when applied to education.  That is, our minds become better with use, not rest.  Rice farming is labor intensive on a scale that dumbfounds me.  As the old Chinese maxim goes, “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”  That attitude applied to education created Asian school years that range from 220 to 243 days long (as compared to 180 days in the U.S.).  And students who are in school up to 35% more days per year than Americans have lots of smarts to show for it.

So I sit here, feeling rested but not particularly sharp.  My grey matter is a bit mushier than normal today and my quick wits have slowed.  I am inspired by the idea of constant learning, but a bit overwhelmed at the same time.  You see, I liked my break.  And, mental laziness aside, I think it was good for me.  Because if I am completely enervated I’ll have nothing left to give to my little mental escapades here.  I doubt I’ll ever go on a three month hiatus from reading and thinking and learning.  But I still contend that a week here and there do more good than harm.  Besides, it’s July which means that it’s hot and humid and utterly miserable outside.  I liken a mental break to a big glass of ice water – delicious and refreshing, but also essential for survival.

Weekly Allowance and Blog-cation

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Happy Wednesday to you all.  I come to you today with links.  There is some good stuff out there on the internet and my well is a little dry these days.  So I’m leveraging the genius of other people to keep your minds (and mine) stimulated.

The Big Short – This book by Michael Lewis is probably the best I’ve read all year.  In it Lewis tells the tale of the financial crisis with unparalleled color and clarity.  If you have any proclivity toward business writing at all, this is a must read.  Even if you don’t it’s still fascinating at every turn.  And if you don’t read the book you should at least listen to the interview he did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air when it was released this past spring.

50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird – There has been much made this week (and rightly so) of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s only and classic novel.  Many writers and commentators have discussed its influence on race relations, its portrayal of the South, and its membership in the canon of modern American literature.  But it was this article about Scout by Anna Quindlen that I found most interesting.

For a Laugh – Nothing thought provoking here.  Just a stand-up comic doing what comics do best… being funny.

For a Cry – Fellow blogger Jane knows how to bring it.  Her stories of childhood and parenthood (not to mention her color commentary on the world around her) keep me coming back for more every week.  But she really outdid herself with this touching and heartbreaking post about her experience as a foster parent.  If you are human it will move you.

And, as a final note, I’m going to be taking a week or so off from blogging.  Work is crazy right now and I could use a little extra down time.  So, as many of my blogging compatriots have already done, I’m giving myself a little breather.  I hope you all are enjoying some good R&R this summer as well.  See you around the 26th.

A Mind at Work

Monday, July 12th, 2010

I don’t think I have to go too far out on a limb in saying that I value education.  It’s not an especially risky position to take.  I am the fortunate product of a good education, a family of readers, and a marriage filled with challenging ideas.

These things suit me, but beyond that, I believe they make me a better person.  I believe that I improve myself every time I learn something, whether it’s the result of extensive reading or a quick Wikipedia search.  I also believe that learning and education are not exclusively achieved by enrollment in colleges and graduate schools.  They likewise come from independent reading, engaging with people, exposing yourself to new environments and cultures, and experiencing things firsthand.

Having said all this I am fully aware that there are plenty of ignorant people in the world.  Some of them yearn for better opportunities and broader experiences.  But plenty of them are content to meander through life with the knowledge they’ve already obtained, along with whatever else happens upon them without too much effort.

It is this second category of people that GAP and I discussed over dinner Saturday night.  He has a low level of tolerance for people who don’t engage their minds.  Not for people who are uneducated.  Not even for people who aren’t very bright.  His beef is with those who don’t try; people who could ask interesting questions and think interesting thoughts, yet choose not to.  These people exist in all circles of society: urban, rural, middle class suburban, wealthy, and poor.

I am inclined to give these people a pass, of sorts.  There is a part of me that believes that their choices are not my business.  If they are happy enough in their current lifestyle, who am I to assume that my own approach to personal growth is right for them?  Additionally, ignorant bliss aside, for many of these people additional knowledge or analytical insight may not measurably improve their lives in any tangible way.

Yet I have said it: I value education.  I think it is important.  So how can I reconcile that belief to only some subset of my society?  I would never state that vegetables and exercise are only important for people who already enjoy them.  I would never concede that open-mindedness and generosity are only valuable in people who care about those traits.  So why would I parse words when it comes to education?

I suppose it is that when it comes to advocating mental muscle there is a risk factor for snobbery that scares me.  Particularly given that I am well educated I fear that being outspoken about education (formal or otherwise), intellectual curiosity, and other aspects of knowledge and learning will imply judgment that I truly do not mean to convey.

There is a line from The West Wing (probably my all-time favorite show) that comes from a senior White House staffer in the midst of an election cycle.  The sitting president is an educated liberal from a prestigious family, fighting against a challenger who comes from more humble roots and is gaining ground on his platform of being a regular guy.  As the president grapples with how to leverage his own intellectualism the staffer says, “Before I look for anything, I look for a mind at work.”

I have always loved this line because it succinctly communicates exactly what I value.  He doesn’t say, “Before I look for anything I look for a post-graduate degree” or “a high iQ” or “analytical genius.”  He looks for a mind at work.  The range there is so broad.  It allows for so many versions.  A mind at work includes library books, The History Channel, and conversations with quirky and interesting people, as well as diplomas that read Summa Cum Laude.

I suppose what I’m here to say is that I don’t care whether or not you have a college degree or even a high school diploma.  I don’t care if you’re a savant-like genius or a dim-witted fool.  I care if you’re trying.  I care that you get up each day and put your thinking cap on.  I care if there’s a mind at work.  And that, I hope, is a fair position to take.

Using His Powers for Good

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Last night LeBron James revealed, to much fanfare, that he would join the Miami Heat come next season.  And while his professional endeavors were the focus of the one-hour announcement event, it was his philanthropic endeavors that spoke most loudly to me.

Highly paid athletes and celebrities have used their public platforms for innumerable reasons over time.  Getting into exclusive clubs.  Getting lighter prison sentences.  Getting astronomical endorsement deals.  Selling newborn photos of their children to gossip magazines.  You name it.  But in the lead-up to last night LeBron identified an opportunity and seized it.  Knowing full well that he would have America’s undivided attention he requested that sponsorship of the announcement be sold, and that the proceeds should go to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

When we discussed this decision over dinner with friends the other night GAP was quick to dismiss the significance of this charitable maneuver.  He didn’t think it was that big a deal.  Collectively we countered.  The line of questioning went something like this:  “What if more celebrities did things like this?  What if it became a trend?  What could this do for charity if celebs across the board started using moments like this to benefit others who really need it, instead of just themselves?”  GAP eventually crossed over to our side, but given his lack of celebrity I need our powers of persuasion to reach a bit further.

There is a growing trend among the super-rich of pledging to donate half of their net worth to charity.  (Warren Buffet has famously pledged 99% of his wealth.)  Odd corporate sponsorship proceeds here and there may not tally into the billions as these private pledges do, but it’s more than a drop in the bucket.

I say kudos to LeBron James for harnessing the media for the benefit of someone else.  Would that other celebs would follow in his footsteps.

Do You or Don’t You?

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Last week I picked up a copy of Newsweek at the gym and read this article on marriage as I pedaled away on the elliptical machine.  With my wedding band firmly affixed to my sweating left hand I read two women’s assertions as to why today’s woman doesn’t need marriage as her mother and grandmother did.  Further, authors Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison argue that the institution is an utterly outmoded thing of the past.

The statistics in their article collectively make a good case:

  • We can support ourselves without a man’s salary.
  • Americans have the highest divorce rate in the Western world.
  • For every year that we delay marriage our chances of divorce go down.
  • Due in large part to the efforts of same-sex couples, heterosexual couples now enjoy more rights as an unmarried couple than ever before.
  • With 41% of 2008’s births coming from unwed mothers the stigma attached to having children out of wedlock has almost completely lost its stigma.

These and other points in the article did not surprise me.  I don’t have to look around for very long to see that the landscape of the American family isn’t today what it was for Ward and June Cleaver or for Cliff and Claire Huxtible.  What did surprise me was my own reaction to the premise that marriage isn’t necessary.  I didn’t disagree with it.

I am happily married.  Once GAP and I had been dating for several years and knew that our futures would be forged together, it never entered my mind not to get married.  It was, without question, what we wanted.  The wedding lived up to all of the romantic ideals of my girlhood.  And the marriage has seen better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, and health.  As I sit here today I cannot envision a life in which GAP and I are in a committed, monogamous relationship but not married.  Yet I cannot articulate why.

As I read the Newsweek article I found myself with neither words to defend my decision to marry, nor a desire to defend it in the first place.  By the time I reached its conclusion my thoughts trended along the lines of, “Hmmm.  Well I guess it’s not for everyone.”  It was in the same vein as “Some people like vanilla and some people like chocolate.”  But shouldn’t a topic like this trigger a more vigorous response than a comparison of ice cream flavors?  Shouldn’t I want to passionately advocate for the decision that changed my life and has served me so well?  Is there a point at which our levels of tolerance and dismissal of social constructs become destructive to our culture?

The rub for me is that the social constructs that I value – family, community, education, support networks, and the like – do not suffer in the absence of marriage.  Bennett and Ellison write:

Research shows that the more education and financial independence a woman has—in other words, the more success she has outside the home—the more likely she is to stay married. (In states where fewer wives have paid jobs, for example, divorce rates tend to be higher.) But when these egalitarian, independent couples decide not to marry at all, they lose none of that stability. Just take a look at couples in Europe: they’re happier, less religious, and more likely to believe that marriage is an outdated institution, and their divorce rate is a fraction of our own. Not being married may make it slightly easier to walk away—at least legally—but if you’ve gone to the lengths to establish a life together, is it really all that different? Studies show that never-married couples with the intention of forever are just as likely to stay together as married ones. And for all the talk of marriage being good for families, a study of the Scandinavian countries—where a majority of children are born out of wedlock—found that kids actually spend more time with their parents than American children do.

And so I am left in an odd place.  I have made a huge decision about my life.  It’s a decision that affects me, my family, and my community.  I believe it was the right decision for me.  But I have absolutely no interest in promoting it to other people.  Does this mean that I walked blindly into marriage as a result of cultural norms?  And if I did, is that a bad thing?

The family landscape is changing indeed.  But I struggle to understand my own neutrality on the topic.

Words of Wisdom – Part II

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Today’s post is the second in a two-part series in which I’m exploring some of the best advice I’ve received from my two best female role models – my mother and my mother-in-law.  You can find the first installment here.

My mother-in-law, E, gives advice freely.  However, her advice is as likely to be nonsensical as serious.  Her most repeated refrain in life is, “That’s what you get for marrying a man.”  This statement is almost always offered as a response to my frustrations at GAP having done something stereotypically male, such as forgetting that we already made plans for this weekend, or not brushing IEP’s teeth before bed.  “If we’d all married women our lives would be so much easier.  I warned my daughters but they married men anyway.  You’ll have to do a better job if you have daughters.”

So there you have it:  E’s words to live by blazing a path to worldwide lesbianism.  Clearly, she has a sense of humor.  But there is so much more to this woman whose words deal predominantly with fun, but whose actions address a full menu of more substantive qualities.  And so it has been by the power of her example that I have come to learn a lot about life from E. 

My favorite thing about E is not her boundless energy.  It is not her insatiable thirst for her grandkids.  It is not even her willingness to sacrifice her formal living room to a big screen television and a Wii.  It is her confidence.  E is a woman who exudes confidence in a way that I’ve never quite seen in anyone else.  She does it without apology, but also without arrogance.

At least in my experience confidence is often coupled with some undesirable bedfellows: cockiness, abrasiveness, unchecked ego, and a lack of regard for other people.  E, on the other hand, somehow manages extreme confidence in herself without looking down her nose at anyone else.  She doesn’t care a nit what anyone thinks about her, but this never influences how she treats others.  I am accustomed to people without the insecurities of perception using their confidence to barrel through life with a “take no prisoners” attitude.  They are unconcerned with the collateral damage they cause because the effects to their reputation are irrelevant to them.  But E has shown me (unwittingly, I suspect) how to free myself from the weight of worry about other people’s opinions while still conducting my life with empathy and humanity. 

The result of this kinder, gentler brand of confidence is a happiness and lightheartedness I’ve known in few other people.  Because she feels no need to prove herself E is not defensive.  Because she doesn’t concern herself with other people’s judgment she approaches everyone with equality and magnanimity.  Because she is free from the burdens of insecurity she finds the best in nearly everyone she meets.

Women are so prone to insecurity.  We are so inclined to worry whose career is more prestigious, whose skin is more flawless, whose jeans are a size smaller, and whose children are more perfect.  I am particularly susceptible to those burdensome (and shallow) concerns myself.  But in the eleven years I’ve known my mother-in-law I’ve come to see that there is another way.  And bit by bit I’m adopting that way in my own life. 

PS – Happy Fourth of July!