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Archive for the ‘Psychobabble’ Category

Does the Medium Matter?

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Not to get too ecclesiastical about it, but there is a time and a place for everything.  A bridal shower is no place to discuss marital woes.  Lunch with coworkers is no place to discuss your child’s bout of stomach flu.  We all know these things and take great care (or at least we should) to tailor our content to our audience.  But what of our platform?

If we are amongst friends does it matter if a conversation happens in person, versus over the phone, versus via text, versus email?  These are all usually 1:1 conversations in which the platform is relevant only to the participants.  Nevertheless, there are some conversations that we tend to believe warrant a particular communication vehicle.  As an example, Russell Brand was roundly admonished by the general public for asking Katy Perry for a divorce via text.  So we have some standard for propriety in play within private exchanges, whether or not they involve us.   What about Facebook, then, where private-ish conversations spring out of public-ish posts?  If a conversation starts as an exchange of posts and comments is there a point at which it should be taken out of the group forum?  Further still, what about Twitter, whose purpose from the beginning is to cast a wide net?  Is there a threshold at which a given topic has crossed the line of propriety for a given medium?  Or does the medium matter at all?

I ask these questions because apparently NPR host Scott Simon raised eyebrows last month when tweeting extensively about his mother’s failing health and, ultimately, her death.  Simon has 1.2 million Twitter followers, meaning that he was tweeting to a sizable audience.  The content of the tweets is perhaps what anyone might expect when facing the loss of a parent, his tweets having covered, “Gratitude for her life and love. Nostalgia for her wit and aphorisms. Stress and confusion at the logistics of last-minute flights, paperwork, the interment. Awe at how quickly it all comes and goes,” as explained by the Huffington Post.  But while some (many? most?) of his followers were happy to be included in this chapter of the Simon family’s life, the tweets were also met with naysayers.

“Simon has also caused controversy. Should the end of life, grief and the details of after-death arrangements be tweeted? Was he violating his mother’s privacy? … The reaction from his fans and those who work with the dying for a living, has been varied,” explains HuffPo again.  Yet at the same time grief counselors, hospice workers, and others who work in and study the end of life are crediting Simon with starting a national conversation about a subject that is often taboo.  One hospice blog commented that, “Talking about death is difficult for many. Any mention of death and dying causes some people to cover their eyes and ears. We applaud Scott Simon for telling the story of his mother and her final days in such a public way.”

So which is it?  Is it causing a stir because he wrote about it, or because he wrote about it on Twitter, the same platform that was the venue for Ashton and Demi’s foreplay pics, countless celeb spats,  and myraid other banal minutiae of daily life?  Clearly we don’t find it unilaterally off-putting to write about death.  Joan Dideon’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which explores in depth the death of her husband, John Dunne, was celebrated both in its print and stage versions.  So why the uproar over tweeting a comparable event?  What if Simon had waited six months and documented the experience in a thoughtful essay in Salon or The Atlantic?  Would that have sat better with us?

I wonder if the immediacy of a tweet changes the way we perceive both the message and the person giving it.  Perhaps the real-time nature of Twitter forces us closer to death than if Simon had gained some distance from his mother’s passing.  The feelings he was expressing were the emotions he felt in that exact moment.  The temporal nature of Twitter carries with it, in certain circumstances, a real intimacy that some people may not be comfortable with.  (By contrast, Dideon’s memoir was published nearly two years after Dunne’s passing.)  The thoughts that come in such a moment are raw, fleeting, and rather disorganized.  Sharing that experience with a grieving person is not a light burden to shoulder.

A few months back a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this article in the LA Times that explains to people who are prone to foot-in-mouth incidents, how to talk with people who are suffering from illness.  The not-quite-lyrical mantra of the article is this: comfort in, dump out.  The mantra is embodied by an illustration of rings, with the sick person at the center and each ring around it representing people in the life of the sick person.  The sick person should only find love and comfort from those around him or her, should be allowed to vent any pain, sadness, or anger to anyone at any time, and should never be asked to shoulder someone else’s grief over their illness.  Those in the first ring out (spouse, child, parent, etc.) can “dump” on those in a more outer ring, but never on the sick person.  Those in the second ring can only comfort those in the first ring, but can vent their sadness and fears to someone in the third ring.*  It’s so simple it seems obvious, but by virtue of the fact that it is needed, I know that it isn’t.

I bring this up because I think the same goes for death.  Scott Simon is in the first ring outside of his mother.  The loss is principally his and that of any siblings of hers or his.  He should be able (without public outcry) to express his grief in whatever manner suits him.  Given the public forum he chose I think he has to expect that it will generate conversation.  Twitter is not the platform of those seeking privacy.  But I think something can spark discussion without also eliciting denunciation.

Grief is highly personal, but that doesn’t always mean it is highly private.  And we should have the tolerance – especially of a person in grief –  to get right with that.

———————

*In this case a picture is worth 136 words.

Everything’s a Phase

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

The other night JDP lolly-gagged contentedly in the bathtub.  His brothers were already bathed and jammied, and he was happy to be in the tub alone without anyone to steal his toy boats and trucks, so I let him take his time in the bath while I changed our sheets in the room next door.  At one point his babbles and splashes settled down and I quickly went in to check on him and found him lying on his back in the tub, completely relaxed, holding a toy boat above his head and turning it over in his hands.  He was so happy.

This was a noteworthy moment because just a few weeks ago every bath was a battle.  For reasons that we were never able to determine, sometime in late April JDP decided that baths were on par with waterboarding and threw a commensurate fit every time we filled the tub.  This lasted for about a month, and then suddenly it was over.

The experience of raising children is probably unrivaled in its ability to impress upon you that nothing lasts.  Neither diapers nor tantrums.  Neither Boppy naps nor toddler vocab (the cutest words ever spoken come out of the mouths of 18-month-olds).  For better and worse, they all come and go.  And based on our limited tenure so far I would say that raising an adopted toddler even further heightens that truth.  They have so much to process, and yet they have so few means to do so.  And so, absent the ability to say something self-aware and coherent about it (such as, “You know, Mom, remember like three weeks ago when X happened at bath time?  Well it really freaked me out and I’m having some trouble getting past it.  Could you talk it through with me?”), they throw a fit.  And perhaps they even through the same fit every other night at bath time for a solid month.  And then, poof, they’ve moved on.  What was once perceived as a torture chamber is now considered the best possible respite from the stresses of toddlerhood.  Voila!  Time heals all bath hatred.

That night after putting JDP to bed I went downstairs and told my husband about The Happy Bath and marveled at it.  All the hangups were just… gone.  “EVERYTHING is temporary,” I told him.  And that got me to thinking about how true that statement is in all aspects of life.

It is true of the friends whose lives go in different directions.  It was true of many old classmates.  It was true of the car I drove and loved for nine years after college.  It is true of the miserable boss or antagonizing coworker (I’ve had my share of each).  It is also true of the wonderful, mentoring boss and the fun, collaborative coworkers (thankfully I’ve had those too).  It is true of neighbors and homes and restaurants.  When we look at the list of things and people in our lives that are truly permanent – the ones that will be with us ten or 20 years from now – it’s a surprisingly short list.  The people in my life who are permanent include my and GAP’s parents, siblings, and their children, and a few key friends whose presence in our life transcends logistics or phases.  We will not live in our current house forever (which means that we will not live two blocks from our favorite pizza place forever).  We will not have our amazing dogs forever.  We will not have to travel with sippy cups and Pack N Plays forever.  Our kisses will not heal our children’s wounds forever.

It both breaks and warms my heart to recognize that everything is temporary.  Everything’s a phase.

GAP is not one for keepsakes, but I am.  When we first started traveling together it took me a while to explain to him why a memory itself isn’t enough; why I needed an object to embody it.  Most of life’s experiences are fleeting, but tangible representations of those moments can be more enduring.  I like to look at, and hold, and feel things that take me back to a particular place in my life.  They help me carry with me the moments that I can’t actually carry with me.

Sitting on my desk at home are a horseshoe, a coffee mug, and a lacquered box.  But they are not just a horseshoe, a coffee mug, and a lacquered box.  They are reminders of a place or time that I do not want to forget – a phase of my life that is gone.  Almost.  But not quite.

Sad Face

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Is there a part of the human experience that you could do without?  Is there some universal aspect of this life gig we’re all currently living that we would like to factor out of the equation?  I’m not talking about soy sauce bloat or improper use of the word “literally.”  I’m talking about the big and existential stuff.  Specifically, I’m talking about (brace yourself for the buzz kill) sadness.

A couple of Sundays ago GAP and I sat in church and listened to the priest give a sermon that was largely about death.  He commented that as modern-day people we’ve become adept at brushing death under the rug, and moving about in our daily lives pretending that it is not an undeniable fact of life.  His perspective was that we should be willing and able to come face to face with death because the fact of our salvation hinges on our dying first. 

Then, the next morning GAP sent me the link to this article which he thought (and I agree) was interesting in light of the sermon.  In it the author laments that tragedy has been sanitized out of much of modern Christianity.  (Don’t worry, I’m going to get this discussion out of the sanctuary and into the real world in just a sec.)  He takes exception to this because, “Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.”  Uncannily similar to the message of the homily.  He goes on, though, to criticize the degree to which we have elminated death from our consciousness through all manner of distractions – that entertainment and distraction have become the primary purpose of our existence.  He quotes Pascal who once wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. … Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  And that got me thinking about whether or not the ability to distract ourselves from sadness is a good thing.

The fact remains that the certainty of death (and countless other tragedies) doesn’t change.  We will not beat it.  Ever.  Given that we must walk through life knowing the inevitability of our own death or fearing that of a loved one do we not somehow come out ahead if we can manage a way to get through each day thinking about something else?  I don’t dismiss the gravity of the tragic.  I hear about it every time I turn on the news or open my web browser.  Thankfully, that is usually the closest I come to tragedy.  I don’t live in the Middle East or an inner city.  I have a healthy husband and children and parents and siblings.  My life is far from tragic and yet I still feel the need to distract myself from some of the immense sadness in the world.  For people whose circumstances aren’t so privileged such distractions may be the only way they can manage to get dressed in the morning.

I wonder, though, if such distractions cause us merely to suppress sadness, rather than to eliminate it - to defer, rather than dismiss some key component of human existence.  If we prevent ourselves from feeling and truly experiencing sadness, is it actually a Get Out of Jail Free card, or do we just end up stockpiling unrecognized sadness at some unknown cost?  In one of the books we have recently aquired about adopting a child the author discusses the value of letting your child cry.  All toddlers are prone to crying jags, but adopted toddlers – who have experienced all kinds of emotional upheaval and yet have no articulate means to express it – are more prone than others.  The book suggests that all adults can understand the catharsis of a good cry.  Yet as parents we are constantly trying to get our children not to cry.  For most healthy toddlers in their biological homes this makes sense.  Crying is usually a function of a scraped knee, scant nap, or graham cracker deprivation.  But for the adopted toddler, who has lost the only home and family he’s ever known and has something he really needs to grieve, crying may play a more important role.  Quelling the crying may not always be the best course of action for the child.  He may need to feel that sadness in order to work his way through it.  And sometimes we may too.

Embracing sadness can be slippery slope, as can distraction from it.  Those of us who lean more towards it naturally may need to guard against wallowing.  We have to remember that embracing our sadness takes us inward.  And while such self-focus can be a very good thing, by its very nature it takes us away from the people around us.  We should look to our sadness to find whatever catharsis that we need, and then move on.  Those of us who are disinclined to experience sadness have to take care that our distractions do not become an end in themselves.  That we allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions even though removing sadness from the equation might be appealing. 

Any Psych 101 student can tell you that the four basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.  While I hope that happiness takes up the lion’s share of what I feel, I still want to leave room for the other three.

Happiness Is More Than a Rolls Royce

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

As I ushered the little boys (as JDP and SSP have been termed in our family) out onto the church playground after collecting them from the nursery we approached two much older boys (probably nine or ten) who were playing some sort of game with a disconnected tether ball.  While we waited briefly for a break in their game to walk through I heard Boy #1 say to Boy #2, “You can be a skin doctor, or you can be a heart doctor.  You make a lot of money as a heart doctor.  You can buy a Rolls Royce if you’re a heart doctor.”  I cringed when I heard it and we quickly traipsed through their game. 

I find it sad to hear grade school kids already vying for careers that will put them in a particular tax bracket.  And yet, I know that by age ten I was well aware of who had money, who didn’t, and how its presence or lack thereof shook out in the playground pecking order.  So I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that these two boys (one of whose father is in fact a physician) would be just as aware of it as I was at the same age.  Money is an easy way for kids to measure the merits of a career.  Things like whether a job is engaging, challenging, rewarding, satisfying, or meaningful to the greater good are much harder to evaluate for yourself and to communicate to other people.  It’s much simpler just to make a lot of money and drive around in your Rolls Royce, isn’t it?

I thought about this moment again yesterday morning as my buddies at NPR told me that there is now a course in China for the offspring of billionaires and other very wealthy parents.  It is run by China Britain Financial Education, has been dubbed a “mini-MBA” and focuses on teaching these kids – who will likely never have to work – how to do things like raise money for charity.*  These children are clearly very aware of their privileged circumstances, as evidenced by one girl’s response to the question of what her ideal future would be.  She responded, “I want to become a princess. I want to have a castle, and I will have lots of servants. I won’t do anything, because I’ve got lots of money, so I just buy whatever I want.”

The NPR piece goes on to explain that large scale wealth (China now has the world’s second-highest number of billionaires after the U.S.) is a relatively new phenomenon, and that the incredible focus on money (described as the “be all and end all in modern day China”) has created something of a morality vacuum which is present at all points along the socioeconomic spectrum.    Paul Huang, head of R&D at China Britain Financial Education comments that “For the wealthy family, their problem is they don’t know and don’t care where money comes from, and they spend money in a disgusting way to other people.  For children from poor families, when they grow up, they try to do anything to get money. They don’t think it’s right or wrong. That’s another problem.” 

Presumably if you’re reading this blog you’re an adult.  And if you’re adult you probably know someone who is wealthy and miserable.  You probably also know someone who is scraping by and yet lives a full and happy life.  If you’re an adult you probably know well enough that money is not a one-way ticket to happiness.  I do not begin to deny that money can accomplish all sorts of wonderful things.  It can eliminate the incredible stress brought on by things like unpaid bills, cars that break down, lack of health insurance, or untended home repairs.  It can also add immense pleasure to life by enabling things like vacations, date nights, pedicures, or a new tube of lipstick even though you don’t need it.  So yes, money is certainly a big contributor to happiness.  But it is only one component of a happy life.  Other factors include meaningful work, physical health, satisfying friendships, a strong support network, and enriching interests and hobbies.  In actuality, this is a much taller order than mere wealth.   Kids don’t see that, though.  They see castles and servants and Rolls Royces. 

I would be lying if I said that earning potential wasn’t a factor in my choice of career.  (If it weren’t I’d probably be a horse trainer of some kind.)  But it wasn’t the only factor.  I also wanted a career that would allow me to help people in some way.  I wanted a career that would be intellectually stimulating.  And I wanted a career that would be compatible with my family life.  I have a career that meets all of those needs and I am grateful that I wake up every day in a life that makes me very happy.  I wouldn’t take a Rolls Royce today if one were parked in my driveway because I couldn’t fit all of my kids in it.    

Back to the boys on the church playground.  Someday my boys will be in that same position, bouncing a ball on a playground and puffing up their little chests about what they want to be when they grow up.  Right now they are four, two, and one.  The little boys have no concept of money whatsoever.  IEP’s conception of it is vague at best.  But I know that window is closing, and probably by first grade he will be well aware of the markers of money.  And when that day comes I will work to impart upon him (and the little boys in time) that money is just money, and the only thing that matters is what you do with it.  By and large, you will be happy when you decide to be, not when you have a Rolls Royce. 

*The great irony of this is, of course, that it bears absolutely no resemblance, even on a kiddie scale, to an actual MBA.

No Duds

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

I am finicky when it comes to chocolates.  I’m a big dessert person, but not a big candy person.  If I’m going to indulge in something so unabashedly rich and indulgent, I want to really love it.  If I bite into a chocolate and discover orange crème (ugh…) I throw it out.  Not worth it.  (Also, orange crème is kind of gross.)  My favorites are Russell Stover’s Roman Nougat and Teuscher Champagne Truffles.  Those I will eat until I hate myself.  Anything else gets a lukewarm response out of me.

IEP’s approach differs greatly from my own.  In his world it’s quite simple.  There are no duds.  Period.  All chocolates are wonderful.  All chocolates are treats.  No filling – not cherry caramel, not coconut, not even orange crème – yields disappointment.   

I first noticed this back in December when my mother included a one-pound box of assorted chocolates amongst IEP’s other Christmas gifts.  (And I was reminded of it again when she gave him a much smaller box on a recent visit.)  He eagerly made his way through the box (with some help, of course) without expressing a single concern about what he would find inside.  I’d never seen anyone pick chocolates out of a box without even asking about the filling.  It was a complete nonissue.  I was astounded.  Perhaps it was because in my family growing up finding sneaky (and always unsuccessful) ways to investigate fillings before committing to a chocolate was at least common practice if not full-throttle sport.  You did not want to bite into something without knowing first whether it was going to be good.  But in IEP’s brain there’s no reason to even ask what’s inside.  It’s candy.  Of course it’s going to be good.

It’s a mindset that many of us would do well to apply to our lives more often.  Many of us struggle to maintain such a strong sense of positivity and we too easily find what went wrong in a given situation, rather than what went right.  To a great extent we choose how we experience the world arround us.  Choosing to see the good can go a long way in our enjoyment of many things.  Sitting down to read a book is always a treat (even if we get interrupted).  Going out to a movie is always a treat (even if the show wasn’t that great).  Eating food that someone else prepared is always a treat (even if it wasn’t precisely what you were in the mood for).  Getting out for a nice long run is always a treat (even if you take more walk breaks than you wish you had).  And eating a chocolate is always a treat, even if there’s orange crème on the inside.

Optimism and positivity can also run amok.  When we constantly proclaim that everything is good, nothing is ever wrong, and we only see joy and happiness everywhere we look we cease to see the world honestly.  We must allow space for the real and genuine admissions of the things we find disappointing, hurtful, or lacking in some way.  But given how easy it is to go down the rabbit hole of all that goes wrong, I think that for many of us (myself included), a course correction to IEP’s “there are no duds” philosophy could be a very good thing.

I expect that someday my son’s approach to chocolates may become more conventional.  Someday he may develop preferences that lead him to poke a hole in the bottom, bite off a corner, or slice a chocolate completely in half before popping it into his mouth.  But in the meantime I will applaud his open-mindedness and optimism.  And I will try to adopt it myself.

Wicked Happy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Happiness has been on my mind a great deal lately.  It was one of Momalom’s Five for Ten themes.  It is the sole subject matter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I’m currently devouring.  And it comes up on track 12 of the soundtrack from Wicked which has gotten significant airtime in my car since we returned from New York nearly three weeks ago.  While all three of these venues have addressed the topic admirably, it is the last one which has crawled into my mind and been poking at me with irritating regularity.

I’ll spare you the context for track 12 (which is properly entitled “Thank Goodness”) because for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Glinda (“the good witch” as most of us know her) hits on an uncomfortable truth.  Gretchen Rubin would probably tell us that these lyrics address the “arrival fallacy” of happiness (p. 84 in THP, for those of you following along at home).  And she would be right.  But for me these lyrics hit me at more of a gut level than an academic one.  I care less about why they scare me, and more about the fact that they do so in the first place.

That’s why I couldn’t be happier
No, I couldn’t be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn’t be happier
Simply couldn’t be happier
(spoken) Well – not “simply”:
’Cause getting your dreams
It’s strange, but it seems
A little – well – complicated
There’s a kind of a sort of… cost
There’s a couple of things get… lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn’t know you crossed
Until you’ve crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn’t thrill you like you think it will
Still – With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn’t be happier?
So I couldn’t be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn’t it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!

So there you have it: the one minute of a four-ish-minute song that I’ve listened to over and over and over again for three weeks, trying to understand why it’s plaguing me.  After much head scratching I’ve come to the conclusion that these lyrics bother me because they are true.  Glinda addresses the fact that when we get what it is that we think we want, we may be surprised at how the experience isn’t just as we pictured it.  More bothersome still, Glinda’s approach to this truth – skittish and furtive – almost says more than the words themselves.  She almost goes there – to that place of full-bore disappointment – but stops short of it, not treading past the allusion.

This is a frightening truth to broach.  We want to believe that when we achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves that happiness, pure and unadulterated, will pour forth into our lives.  Yet rarely is this the case.  My friend Aidan touched on this very phenomenon in a post of hers just last week, causing me to contemplate it further.  This whole premise feels much more frightening when someone you know personally (rather than a witch in a musical…) is experiencing it in real time.

I have goals and dreams and ideas about my future.  Naturally, in my head the attainment of said goals and dreams comes equipped with clouds parting, angels singing, cartoon birds sitting on my shoulder (a la (500) Days of Summer), and sickeningly sweet bliss at every turn.  With a finish line like that on the horizon, why wouldn’t I run full speed ahead toward my goals?  But understanding that actual finish line may be something more bittersweet I pause to think carefully about the goals I have set.

I turn back to Gretchen Rubin for a life-line.  She writes:

The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present.  … the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness.  To the contrary.  The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal.  Friedrich Nietzshce explained it well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the meolody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.  A parable.”

And so it turns out that the means is the end.  Leave it to Nietzsche and Gretchen Rubin to explain this fearful premise in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a gift with a bow on top.  Now someone just needs to explain this to Glinda.  Perhaps it is the kind of philosophy that would resonate better with Elphaba.

——

GAP and I saw a traveling production of Wicked last night which got me thinking about this post which was originally published in June 2010.  Amidst all of the stress I’ve intermittently mentioned lately I’ve been giving thought to my goals and dreams, and thought this post was worth revisiting.  I will have one more new post to cap off the year sometime between now and Christmas, and will then take a bit of a break for the holidays.

Frankie Say Relax

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

My laziness was an end in itself: to relax.

I’ve had stress on the brain a lot lately.*  (See posts here and here.)  Work has been crazy for the past few weeks.  The holidays are wonderful, but they don’t exactly create an abundance of spare time.  And various other aspects of daily life don’t suddenly evaporate just because work and holidays have made grand entrances.  I’ve been feeling the stress of it all pretty acutely these days, and not always doing a bang up job of managing it.  I could feel it in my upper back.  I could sense it in the hateful thoughts that silently passed through my mind when someone “stole” the elliptical machine I’d been planning to use at the gym.  I could hear it in my tone of voice when the dogs got underfoot.  Something needed to change.

In the past I believed that genuine, productive relaxation could only be mine once the final item on the day’s To-Do list was crossed off; that any attempts to unwind while chores and errands awaited me would always be undermined by the stress of things left undone.  And up until this past weekend that belief had proven true.  But something in me reached a breaking point.  That list, at least for now, is not getting any shorter.  For every item that I check off I add another one or two.  I could sense that this likely isn’t going to change until at least mid-January, and I wasn’t willing to go through the next four weeks feeling tense and acerbic.

On Saturday morning GAP did what he always does on the weekends – he told me to relax, and for the first time maybe ever, I did it.  He took IEP with him to the gym just as SSP went down for his morning nap.  And I, still jammie-clad, curled up under a blanket on the sofa and watched two Tivo’d episodes of Parenthood. Our fondue pot sat in the kitchen sink with cheese still scorched to the bottom of it from the prior night’s holiday party with my girlfriends.  Dog hair billowed around my baseboards.  The beds were left unmade.  And I successfully ignored all of it!  It was the best decision I’ve made in weeks.

By the end of two episodes of my show SSP was starting to wake up.  After the credits rolled I walked upstairs to collect him, feeling as refreshed as if I’d gone for a two-hour massage.  I felt relaxed.  I felt on top of things.  I felt HAPPY!  Starting the day with my batteries charged made it infinitely easier to face the items on my list.  SSP pitter-pattered around while I got dressed, made the bed, and tackled the fondue pot.  My other guys returned home as I was cheerily sweeping the baseboards.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.

I don’ t want to go back to the level of unreleased stress I felt prior to Saturday.  At some level, though, I’m glad that I found myself there once.  It triggered a change in me that I’m not sure I could have made otherwise.  It forced me to experience for myself that sometimes relaxation best preceeds productivity.  It smooths down our splintered edges.  It buoys us against choppy waters.  It fuels our tanks for the work that lies ahead.

As of Monday morning the sheets hadn’t been changed and the laundry hadn’t been done.  I had, however, gone out for pizza with my boys, taken a nap on the couch,  walked the dogs and gazed at Christmas lights, and  gone out to dinner with good friends and seen a movie with GAP.  In some way, it was absolutely the most valuable use of my time.

*Yes, I realize that thinking repeatedly about stress likely does nothing to lower my feelings of it.  I like to be ironic.

Learning to Wait

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

“Learn to wait.”

They are words my grandfather is famous for, though I most often heard them from my mother.  “You remember what Granddaddy always says, ‘Learn to wait,’” she would remind us.  In these instances waiting was almost certainly some brand of drudgery.  It was what we had to do on long car trips, in long amusement park ride lines, or in the lead-ups to birthdays or Christmas or the last day of school.  Waiting felt like paying dues – something we had to endure before we could make our way to whatever prize lay in the distance.

I thought about all of this as I listened to the sermon in church this past Sunday.  As many priests do this time of year she reminded us that Advent is a time of waiting.  She commented that for many of us the most commonplace forms of waiting – for tables at restaurants, for meetings to start, for a coffee date to arrive, etc., have recently been supplanted by the most commonplace form of mindless occupation – the smartphone.  I am not here to curse the evils of the iPhone, the digital camera, or the internet.  I believe that by and large they are all significant boons to modern life and that we are better off with them than we were without them.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that simple, undistracted waiting is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to many of us; so much so that I would guess most of us view it with the same intolerance that a five-year-old views the 30-ish days that clutter the path from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m here to turn that thinking on its head.  I say that waiting is a blessing.  I say that waiting is a gift.*

Esperar is the Spanish word for “to wait.”  It is also the Spanish word for “to hope.”  I’m sure I’m not the first person to wax philosphical about this coincidence.  That, however, makes it no less relevant here.  When we hope for something it is because we are facing an unknown.  We must then wait to discover whether or not our hope will come to be.  Does this mean then, that a life without waiting is a life without hope?  I don’t think so.  But I think that for the most part hope is implicit in waiting.  Waiting means expectation.  It means we are looking ahead to something.  It means we have something worth our excitement and anticipation.

This is true in my own life beyond the Christmas season.  We are in the middle of a very long wait in our adoption process.  Referral wait times for Korean placements are currently running ten months.  Every time someone asks me how the adoption process is going I shrug my shoulders and sigh.  “We’re still waiting.”  And yes, the waiting is hard.  But we have a child to wait for.  We are so lucky to be waiting; so lucky to know that at the end of these many months we will have another wonderful little boy in our family.

For adults, December is an easy time of year to view waiting with relief, since many of us have a hard enough time as it is getting everything done before footed pajamas scamper out of bed on Christmas morning.  But muttering to yourself, “Thank goodness I still have a week left before Christmas,” is not the same thing as embracing the wait.

Embracing the wait means that we reflect on what is coming.  We prepare ourselves for it.  Whether we are waiting for the Christ child or a Korean child, when we do it right we are better off for it.

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*I understand that there are exceptions to this.  Waiting for a loved one to come home from a military deployment.  Waiting for the results of a medical test.  This is not the kind of waiting I’m talking about.

Stress Test

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

I had to fill out a questionnaire about my health for work.  Do I smoke?  Do I exercise?  Do I get regular check-ups?  That sort of thing.  These types of questions usually leave me feeling a smidge proud because my truthful answers are almost always the “right” ones.  When it comes to matters of health, I play it pretty much by the book.

The end of the survey threw me for a loop, though.  It asked you to indicate within what timeframe (one month, three months, etc.) you intend to make a change in various aspects of your life.  The lifestyle issues in question were to quit smoking, exercise more, eat better, get more sleep, and handle stress better.  For the first four I was able to happily mark the “I already do this” box.  But for stress… I did a double take.  I don’t remember which box I ended up checking, but in my heart of hearts I know I have some work to do there.

Lots of fellow bloggers have written lately about Gretchen Rubin’s new book “Happier at Home.”  I’m also in the middle of it, and have found myself doing some good but hard thinking in response.  Rubin’s aim with this most recent happiness project was to make her home into a place that fosters her happiness.  This effort speaks to me because it is my home that I find to be my biggest source of stress.

It is not my home itself that causes me stress.  Yes, it is an old house with a handful of ongoing maintenance to-dos, but nothing too significant (last spring’s pipe replacement nightmare notwithstanding).  Rather, it is the rotation of weekly chores and obligations that wear on me the most.  For the past two consecutive weekends I have literally sat down to relax only for as long as it takes me to eat a meal.  By Sunday evening I’ve found myself satisfied with my level of industry, but utterly and completely spent.  And while I crave a hyper-productive weekend every now and then, the prospect of gearing up for one every single week leaves me cold.  I’m not sure how to get the equation of my weekend back into balance, though.  The tactical elements of it are not interesting enough to discuss here – I’ll get it figured out – but the existential elements are.

Why is the impact of these stressors at home so much greater than stressors in other areas of my life?  When my job leaves me feeling unraveled I don’t take it to heart nearly as much.  When I get stuck in traffic I don’t assume that it’s a personal failing.  Yet when I feel stressed out at home the stress itself is compounded by the belief that I’m to blame for it.  It’s not a happy feeling.

In a recent post over at Motherese Kristen cited a NYT blog article about how American’s pursuit of happiness has left us statistically more anxiety-riddled than any other nation.  The piece was interesting from a cultural point of view, written by a recent British transplant who noted that Brits find discussion of happiness to be a bit crude and desperate.  The numbers about our rates of anxiety are compelling, and I understand how idealism about happiness can leave us comparatively disappointed, but somehow I still find myself opposed to the implicit premise that this means we should stop seeking it.

I know what I want.  I want each weekend to be filled with a balance of productivity and pleasure.  When Sunday evening rolls around I want to feel that I have been fortified by two days off and am ready to face the week.  Knowing what I want – and acknowledging it – is the only way to make any sort of progress toward it.  Keeping myself blissfully unaware of my desires may prevent disappointment, but it is also a sure path to continued frustration and stress.

Reading “Happier at Home” has been a wake up call, of sorts.  I want to be happier at home.  Specifically, I want to be happier on weekends.  Unlike getting stuck in traffic or being handed a monster project at work, this one is completely within my control.  That makes it both worse (because only I am to blame for any unhappiness I feel) and better (because in the long run I believe in my ability to change things).  I will not hold up some fictitious ideal and compare myself to it until I have no choice but sheer misery.  But neither will I avoid the topic altogether just to keep myself out of the emotional muck.

I will take it one task at a time until I’ve shuffled the deck of my life at home into a configuration that is better suited to support my happiness.  My first task?  Keeping it all in perspective.  This will work itself out in time.  Stressing over stress is not the first step in any happiness solution.

Where Would You Go?

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

It started as it always does, with some permutation of the question, “What if we moved to New York?”  It happens every time we are there.  Without fail.

GAP and I spent the weekend in Manhattan.  He had business there on Sunday and Monday, so I tagged along and we made a weekend of it.  This being our fourth or fifth trip to the city together, we’d covered most of the “must see” tourist destinations, and were able to spend a decent chunk of time wandering the streets of Manhattan aimlessly.

This kind of aimless wandering is one of our favorite ways to experience almost any vacation spot.  Not only does it grant us the opportunity to get familiar with the character of a place, it provides the opportunity for us to exhaust all sorts of topics of conversation that get sidelined in a home life that is filled (happily) with our careers and children.

So as we wandered up Second Avenue on Saturday afternoon I think I asked him, “If we were to move here tomorrow – with the kids – which part of the city would you want to live in?”  This gave way to the clarification “Are we moving there just for a year to have the experience, or are we moving permanently?”  The answer, of course, changes in each context.  (One year?  The Village.  Permanently?  Upper East Side.)  The introduction of finite timing then led to the next version.  “If you were going to pick any city in the world to live in for one year, which would you pick?  What about three years?  What about five?”  There were more complicated and contingent versions of the question that followed these.

The answers to these questions* matter less than the exercise of asking them, I think.  It’s the conversation that comes from asking the “what if” questions that makes them interesting, and gives us insight into both ourselves and into the people talking with us.  We might surprise ourselves, as I did with my one-year answer.  We are forced to think about the calculus that factors into such decisions.  We come face to face with the very nature of our character and values:  Do we favor adventure or predictability?  Do we crave a challenge or something more relaxing?  What would we find exciting or stifling or alienating or fun?  How do our answers to these questions change when we consider making such jumps with our kids in tow versus without?

In some way the answers to these questions serve as proxies for greater statements about us.  The choices we make in our external lives are often quite crystalline reflections of what we believe and value internally.  Asking someone, “What do you value most in your life?” is bound to produce broad (and likely uninteresting) answers.  But more specific questions that might be the manifestation of those values can be much more telling.

For two working parents with two young children finding the time to get lost in conversation is sometimes hard to do.  But in my experience walking aimlessly through a city is almost always the right backdrop for just that.

*One year = Shanghai.  Three years = London (although Barcelona was a strong contender).  Five years = New York.