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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.

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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.

What Really Matters

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

This is a tricky time of year when it comes to the word “meaningful.”  For many of us, Thanksgiving serves as the gateway holiday into a six-week period of major ambivalence.  We think Rockwellian thoughts of hearth, home, and family.  And yet we run down our metaphorical batteries with errands and obligations that make us anything but happy.  We have idealized visions of what this time of year should be, but somehow our very attempts to realize those visions dismantle them, one ironic piece at a time.

What is it about the pursuit of “what really matters” that causes us to sacrifice everything that really matters?  Why, in the name of family and togetherness, do we spend most of December fighting traffic in mall parking lots?  Why, in the name of homemade baked goods, do I sacrifice multiple leisurely evenings with my husband?  Why are we so prone to let the holiday season – which is marketed with rosy cheeks and roaring fires – turn into stress and drudgery?

As we sit down to make our list of New Year’s resolutions at some point during the upcoming month we inevitably take stock of ourselves – strengths and weaknesses alike – and earmark for improvement those things we wish were different.  And while I am a believer in this exercise, I think the timing is a bit inopportune.  On the one hand it allows us to indulge in the holiday season’s guilty pleasures with reckless abandon.  But on the other hand it also enables us to adopt the mindset of “just getting through” the holidays and thereby let them devolve into an empty shell of their actual purpose and potential.

This year I’ve found myself with a rare and unexpected gift – some extra time.  Every December since we were married, GAP and I have thrown a Christmas party.  It has traditionally been the Saturday after GAP’s company party, and usually ends up being the week before Christmas.  But this year everything is shifted up a week, leaving me two full weeks before Christmas but after our party circuit winds down.  When I realized that this was the case I was initially flustered at the short turnaround time, but ultimately embraced it when I realized that two full weeks of decidedly lower-key holiday merriment would follow.

And so, in an effort not to destroy those two weeks of quietude with the side effects of procrastination, I am making some Holiday Resolutions for myself:

  1. I know what I need to get most of my recipients, and will take advantage of that fact by shopping now.
  2. I will shop online as much as possible to prevent unnecessary trips into jungle-caliber malls and shopping centers.  I will consider shipping fees a reasonable price for sanity.
  3. I will wrap presents as I buy them, not in one marathon session on December 23rd.   I will not wrap late at night.  And I will not wrap without a mug of hot chocolate or glass of red wine nearby.  (I love wrapping, but it’s easy for it to become a chore if I procrastinate and don’t take any care in setting a pleasant ambiance.)
  4. I will not worry about mailing holiday cards until after our party has been thrown.
  5. I will not obligate myself to cook 85 different varieties of cookies for coworkers.

As with any goal, I don’t know how successful I will be.  But experience has shown me that I’ll come much closer to my ideal by the mere act of identifying goals.  I want this Christmas season to leave me room for what really matters.

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This post was originally published in November of 2010.  With Thanksgiving falling early this year I have the same extra week between our annual holiday party and actual Christmas.  So this post is ringing as true to me today as it did two years ago and I thought it worth reposting.

The Crucible of Too Much

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The first dinner party I ever threw wasn’t exactly a disaster.  That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it.

GAP and I were newly married and we decided to have people over for dinner on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  Ten of them.  We had just moved into our first apartment together.  We were excited.  We kept inviting people.  When it was all said and done I had somehow managed to sign myself up for preparing a seated dinner for 12.  (Did I mention that this was my first dinner party?)  I won’t drag you through the details of it (thankfully most of them are hazy), but my primary memories include: gaspacho dip spilling all over my counter just before people started arriving, the enchiladas not being properly sauced and therefor ending up as tough as roof shingles, and barely seeing any of our guests because I was stuck in the kitchen up to my eyeballs in the realization that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew.

I suppose that if, after surviving that evening, I’d run for the hills with no intention of ever hosting anything again it would have been a justifiable moratorium.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I didn’t.  Because now, eight years later, I’m here to say that I think I’ve more or less cracked the code on entertaining.  That code?  It’s such a cliché I’m loathe to type it: Less is more.

At the time I’d watched enough episodes of Barefoot Contessa to understand the merits of making things in advance, choosing simple but tasty dishes, and not planning an event so demanding that you have no chance of actually enjoying it.  And yet it took me years of failed attempts at breezy, effortless entertaining before I finally got it through my thick skull.  I think somehow I felt I had to prove myself through the crucible of overdoing it before I gained the confidence to dial it down a knotch.  But now that I’ve hosted eight holiday cocktail parties, three Christmas dinners, three Easter dinners, one bridal shower, one baby shower, and countless smaller gatherings I have a better understanding of what constitutes a success.  This past weekend was the culmination of all that I’ve learned: Think about what your guests will find enjoyable, not what they will find impressive.  A stressed-out hostess makes for a stressful party.  And simple food is usually better than fancy food.  That’s it.

SSP’s first birthday party was Saturday, and family members started rolling into town Thursday evening.  Over the course of four days I served four different meals – two suppers, a lunch, and a breakfast – each without too much stress or incident.*  I spent none of them in the kitchen in a crazed dash throwing together last-minute dishes.  I sat down and enjoyed the company of my guests.  And we all gobbled up the food.

When I turned 35 earlier this fall I had many mixed emotions about it.  There is much about the excitement and anticipation of striking out into the world of adulthood for the first time that I miss.  But for every experience that was once exciting and is now ordinary there is another one that was once stressful and is now comfortable.  I enjoy the parties we throw so much more now than I did in the beginning.  I wish I could go back in time and take Ina’s advice to heart at a younger age.  But some things we must learn for ourselves.

*My sister did bail me out on Saturday morning by getting the salad prepared while I dealt with an almost-four-year-old who had decided that the excitement of company was as good a reason as any to completely ignore me.

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In the event that you’re interested, my menus this past weekend were:

Thursday Supper
Turkey burgers and tossed green salad

Friday Supper
Butternut Squash Soup (minus the ginger, half the cumin, plus about 2 tsp of brown sugar)
Two loaves of crusty bread
Three kinds each of cheese and charcuterie plus apple wedges scattered on a big carving board
Caramelized Vanilla Ice Cream (minus the salt, plus 1 Tbs vanilla extract)
Pepperidge Farm cookies

Saturday Lunch (Birthday Party)
Pulled Pork Sliders
Potato Torte (minus the summer squash)
Ricotta and Red Onion Pizza (dough ball purchased from neighborhood pizza joint)
Tossed Green Salad
Birthday Cake

Sunday Breakfast
Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
Scrambled Eggs

PS – In the event that you didn’t notice from the links above, I am a huge fan of SmittenKitchen.com.  Her readership is literally 8,000 times greater than mine.  (Seriously.  I did the math.)  So I don’t expect that my little plug here will carry much weight.  But her first cookbook was just released last week I’ve spent every spare moment since last Friday pouring over my copy.  If you’ve never read her, check out the blog.  And if you like the blog, do yourself a favor and buy the book!


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.

Insulated

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

I’m not a big Twitter user.  I tried to be.  Actually, I’ve tried a few times.  But I fail every time.  It’s a failure I’m willing to live with.  Most people aren’t that interesting in 140 characters, and I have little patience for Tiny URLs and hashtags.  Nevertheless, a Tweet from Emily Nussbaum (which I found via a slide show on HuffPo) gave me something to chew on.  A few days ago she tweeted,

“I’m better off than I was 4 years ago, because back then, I had a 2 year old and a baby. Thank you, Obama!”

Obviously President Obama had nothing to do with the fact that her kids are now six and four.  Obviously, she’s making light of the current election-year climate, in which candidates try to take credit or cast blame for everything that has happened in our lives since the last time pollsters dedicated their lives to ruining my children’s nap time with robocalls.  The march of time happens no matter who’s in office.  And much of the good and bad that befalls us between election years has little to do with who took the oath of office on a fated January day.

I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Is it good that my life is so insulated from the politics of the Oval Office?  Is it good that our elected officials can dicker and lobby and negotiate over issues for weeks and months and on a daily basis the only ways in which it affects me are through the coverage I listen to on NPR?

I suppose it means that I’m lucky.  I am not in the military.  I don’t have “pre-existing” medical conditions.  I am not a gay person who wants to get married.  I am not a small business owner (not that small business ownership is a misfortune of any kind).  I don’t even have any kids in the public education system.  But does that mean that only people in certain sectors of society are actually affected by the policies set by our government?  As an average white woman living in the middle of the country should I really be that far removed from the repercussions of my government?

In the long run, I am not.  But on a day-to-day basis it sometimes feels like it, and part of me is grateful for that.  I am thankful that I am healthy, have a good job, am not subject to military deployment, and live in a part of the country that is reasonably economically stable.  My life today is vastly different from my life four years ago, but – much like Emily Nussbaum – that is due to the presence of two little boys who had not yet arrived on the scene during the 2008 election.  My life is more full but less restful.  It is less predictable and more filled with adventure.  It includes more diapers and fewer dates with my husband.  It is filled with more hugs and more spills than my life was four years ago.  These things would all still be true if John McCain had been elected.

Even though the layer of insulation that exists between me and the federal government is a byproduct of a largely privileged life, I’m not convinced it’s a good thing.  It allows me – when I’m feeling lazy – to disengage from the political world more than I should.  It allows me to focus only on my own existence, and not on those whose lives are drastically affected by policy shifts.  It gives me the opportunity to live an insular life that negatively impacts the degree to which I am informed about the world around me.

I try to do a decent job of looking outside myself; of understanding how our government’s actions have real and vivid effects on so many other people in this country.  I have no idea how I succeed on this score compared to other people.  I’m sure I could do better.  And I’m sure I could do worse.

In four years my two boys will be seven and four.  There will be things about that life that are vastly different from the life I live now.  And those changes will come about largely independent of whether President Obama wins a second term or not.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I get to stop paying attention.

Role Model Redux

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I wrote this post two years ago, right after my family all got together to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday.  It was early in the life of this blog, and back then I was still a little unsure about posting publicly and had only shared the blog with a few people.  I wanted limit my exposure at the beginning until I got my legs under me.  My grandfather is a tough critic and I wasn’t quite ready for his feedback.  Unfortunately that meant that he didn’t see this post when it was originally published.

Now my grandfather is a regular reader of this blog.  And, for the record, he has been nothing but supportive.  Today marks his 92nd birthday and I thought it an apt time to republish this post so that he might have an opportunity to read it.  Granddaddy, I hope you have a wonderful birthday.  I love you.

There are many people in the world whom we identify as role models.  Many of them are athletes.  Some are government leaders.  Others are astronauts and soldiers.  Others still are people who have overcome incredible hardship.  And all of these people certainly deserve our admiration.  But there is a different breed of role model that this collection excludes.

For all of the attention we pay to people whose stories are worthy of glossy magazine pages, the honest truth of the matter is that they probably influence our lives very little.  We may be inspired as we read about them, or watch their stories play out in front of us in the form of a collection of slow-motion clips, narrated by Bob Costas and accompanied by touching background music.  We may tear up in these moments and stand in awe of these impressive people.  But when we close the magazine or turn off the television, very few of us carry these people around with us afterward.

Most often the people we carry with us are those whose faces we can see when we close our eyes; whose voices we can hear when we find a quiet moment.  They are people who have taught us things big and small.  They have watched us succeed and fail.  They have shown us what maturity and integrity look like at every turn.  They are the people whose lives have left an indelible impression on our own.

Because I have led a blessed and lucky life so far, I have a number of people in my life who fit this description.  But only one of them celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend.

Steady.  If I had to pick one word that describes my grandfather more than any other, it would be steady.  In today’s world where we flit about, jumping frenetically from one thing to the next, steadiness is a trait that has become increasingly rare.  Today we value speed, multi-tasking, and efficiency.  We do not always appreciate the value that is brought by doing something well or with consistency.  But such quality and consistency are hallmarks of my grandfather’s life.

For forty-odd years Granddaddy was a physician; an internist.  He was an army doctor during World War II.  And when the war ended he started his own private practice which he ran until he retired in his sixties.  Throughout his practice he saw patients in his office, made his own hospital rounds, and made house calls.  He was home in time for supper.  He has gone to church nearly every Sunday of his life.  He played tennis with my father every weekend of his teen years – rain, shine, snow, or sleet.  He took a two-week vacation with his family every summer.  He made double mortgage payments every month until his house was paid off.

When I was a little girl I did not always appreciate these qualities.  To a child some of this steadiness can seem a little stuffy, even rigid.  He has playful moments, to be sure.  And he is always full of affection for my sister and me.  But the same steadiness he exhibits each day he also expects of those around him.  As kids we knew exactly what the rules were, and what consequences might be handed down if we broke them.  Those consequences were never more than a stern expression accompanied by a few castigating words, but they always did the job.

In my life today I notice the ways in which we embrace and endorse many aspects of our lives that don’t quite measure up.  We have starter careers and starter marriages.  We eat fast food and watch reality television.  We carry credit card debt and spend more than we save.  In light of all this I am especially thankful for Granddaddy and the example he has set for me.  Because of him I have come to value reliability and consistency, and I can see what a life looks like that has been built on decisions that were made, one after another, with stalwart integrity.

Granddaddy has always been a little bit formal.  But this past weekend at his birthday party I watched him soften a bit.  I worked collectively with my family to create a memory book from years’ worth of photos and stories for his birthday gift.  He unwrapped the book to find a front-cover photograph of himself and my grandmother taken in their front yard in 1960.  She wore a pale blue dress with a belt cinched around her impossibly tiny waist.  He stood in shirt sleeves and a tie with his arm draped over her shoulders.  They were so obviously happy.  As he flipped through the pages he smiled and sighed.  Stories spilled from his mouth as the photos cast fresh light on memories that had grown dusty with age.

It gave me real joy to watch him in that moment.  And it inspired me to more fully incorporate into my life the values that he embodies.  Granddaddy can sit happily today knowing that he has lived his life well.  I hope that I too reach my 90th birthday someday, and that I too will be able to look back over my life with a similar sense of satisfaction.

On Failing and Forgetting

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

For two people with three graduate degrees between us, GAP and I have made a somewhat unlikely habit of questioning the actual value of the educational pedigrees we worked so hard to attain.

The basic premise of our debate is this: Does a college or graduate degree hold value because of the knowledge imparted by the coursework itself, or because of the signal it sends to the marketplace about the kind of person you are and the kind of employee you will be?

In this vein, we once spent the better part of a weekend intermittently debating whether we would fill a hypothetical entry level position with a candidate who had a four-year undergraduate degree, or one who had spent his post-high school years in the Peace Corps.  Assuming all other things were equal – raw intelligence, social skills, work ethic, etc. – which candidate did we think was more likely to do a better job.  Weighing the merits of each, we both ultimately (if reluctantly, for some reason*) admitted that we’d hire the college grad over the Peace Corps alum.  While we both liked the idea of the Peace Corps alum, we felt that the college grad was better positioned to succeed in an office job for a variety of reasons.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones.  On Monday GAP sent me a link to this article on the Library of Economics and Liberty’s blog which discusses the difference between failing academic classes and merely forgetting the information taught in them.  In it author Bryan Caplan (George Mason Economics Professor) points out that he doesn’t remember any of his high school Spanish, which has no bearing on his current professional life.  However, if he’d failed high school Spanish it would have negatively impacted his college prospects, which in turn likely would have affected his current professional life.

Caplan’s point speaks directly to the conversation that GAP and I have had so many times.  It doesn’t seem to be about the knowledge. Patently, I remember precious little of what I studied in college – even of many courses within my business major.  (Ironically, I probably retained the most of my Spanish degree – my second major – even though I rarely use it.  Unlike other coursework, it seems to reside in the same portion of my brain as bike riding and skiing – rusty, but ready to be used whenever needed.)  Yet the fact that I earned my bachelor’s degree, and then my MBA, indicates that I am worthy of my job.  Perhaps there have been moments when my job required knowledge learned in school.  But by and large my jobs – all of them – have required knowledge I learned by experience much more frequently than that learned in classrooms.

As GAP and I think about our children’s education it is something we value incredibly, but not for the reasons you might expect.  We value it for the process skills that our kids will learn – how to apply yourself; how to seek help from classmates and teachers; how to juggle a demanding course load; and how to achieve those ever-elusive time management skills.  Whether or not they can calculate an integral when they finish high school (I think I still could, if really pressed – thank you Ms. Clements!) is ultimately irrelevant.  Whether or not they can rise to a challenge, however, matters a great deal.

*We really liked the idea of the Peace Corps candidate.  We thought he was probably a more interesting person and likely had more street smarts than his college grad counterpart.  But we felt that the guy with the bachelor’s degree would be better positioned to succeed at a desk job than someone who’d been out traveling the world for four years. … And we both sort of felt like jerks because of it.

Resolved – Part 3

Monday, January 23rd, 2012
Maternity leave is officially over.  (Woe is me.)  Friday was my first day back at work so starting today I am back in the blogging saddle.  I realize that discussion of resolutions is so three weeks ago, but back around New Year’s Day I was busy recovering from the holidays and relishing the last few weeks of my time at home with the boys.  So here I am, on January 23rd, documenting my goals for this year.
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Before I launch straight into the laundry list I feel compelled to wax philosophical about resolutions in general.  I’ve documented my resolutions here on this blog for the past two years (2010 is here, and 2011 is here) with wildly differing results.  In 2010 I was a resolution rock star.  I set reasonable goals for myself and lived up to them all.  Last year I was plagued by hubris from 2010′s successes, set pretty aggressive goals, and by April found myself in the face of abject failure.  (I will offer the caveat that pregnancy had a pretty big hand in unraveling my resolutions.)
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Nevertheless, I am back here in this space offering my goals for the new year.  In spite of last year’s disappointment I still contend that goals are worth having, even if they aren’t always met.  I am a work in progress.  I am not complete.  I can be better.  I can do better.  I always have room for improvement.  And so, one year after another, I will sit down and identify the things I’d like to work on.  For if I don’t identify these things to myself (and I am a person who benefits considerably from the accountability of making goals public) then how can I expect for any of them to change.
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With that, in 2012 I plan to:
  1. Be more thoughtful.  This is something that I used to be very good at as a kid and in my teens and early twenties.  Then when I was 27 I took a job that required me to travel three to four days each week.  At the same time I enrolled in an MBA program that was almost exclusively night classes.  My bandwidth was at capacity.  As soon as I finished my MBA I got pregnant with IEP and with motherhood my spare time continued to diminish.  And one of the things that has been negatively impacted by all of these other obligations is my thoughtfulness toward other people.  So, this year I want to do more that falls into this category.  I want to make small but thoughtful gestures that let other people know that I care about them. 
  2. Read more.  I’ve been veryspecific about my reading goals in past years.  In 2010 it was to read more nonfiction and I knocked it out of the park.  Last year it was to read classic works of fiction I’d never read and I struck out majorly, not making it through a single classic.  (Again, I blame pregnancy.  I’d get into bed at 9:30 and facing a choice between sleep and Tolstoy, sleep won every time.)  So this year my goal is to read, period.  I’d like to work some classics into the mix, specifically A Tale of Two Cities. But I’d also like to mix in some modern fiction (perhaps the second and third titles in the Stieg Larsson trilogy), and some nonfiction (Moneyball and Kitchen Confidential are on the docket).  I’d like to average more than a book a month, and am shooting for at least 15 total.
  3. Get out of my workout rut.  I spend way too much time on the elliptical machine.  I usually run about one day a week.  And I do weights three days a week, rotating between arms, legs, and core.  But that’s not enough variety.  I would like to work swimming and rowing into my regular workout routine, as well as shaking up things in my strength training routine.
  4. Learn to use Photoshop.  I got Photoshop Elements for Christmas a year ago.  I can use it for some basic exposure corrections and cropping, but it is capable of much more than I know how to do.  I’d like to learn to create layers and use opacity, to download and run actions, and figure out what other key features I’m overlooking.
  5. Send birthday cards.  This is a repeat from last year.  This is such an easy thing to do, and I’m woefully bad about it.  It dovetails with being more thoughtful, but this is a very specific thing that I want to do a better job of.  This shouldn’t be a difficult one.
  6. Grow an herb garden.  Another 2011 repeat.  I was in the midst of first trimester misery (that’s the last time I play the pregnancy card, I promise) when it should have been planted, and by the time I got my head above water again we were about to leave on vacation and by the time we got home it was really too hot for seedlings to survive.  This year I’m committed.  I will grow parsley, chives, basil, and thyme.

And there we have it.  I’m trying to harken back to 2010′s list a bit by choosing goals that are attainable, but still challenging.  I think this list meets those criteria.  I will be back with bigger thoughts on Wednesday, but wanted to get these resolutions into the archives before any more time passed.  I enjoyed my time off from blogging, but I’m also looking forward to getting back into the swing of thinking Ten Dollar Thoughts.  I hope you’ll join me.

Taking the Moral Out of the Story

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across this editorial by Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern Show fame) about how the popularity of the movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” doesn’t actually accomplish anything beyond mere entertainment because the story is fiction.  Specifically, she comments:

In a nutshell, that is my problem with The Help. People are acting as if the events in the movie really happened.

Kathryn Stockton [sic] is a novelist. She writes fiction. There was no defiant Skeeter. There were no courageous maids and no bad white women got their comeuppance. The movie offers only broad stereotypes. We know just who to root for and who to hate. We all get to identify with the heroines and everything works out in the end when everyone realizes that Jim Crow segregation is wrong.

I read her comments and upon some initial reflection I thought – well, she’s right and she’s wrong.  Technically, she’s right.  No, there was no Skeeter, or Minnie, or Aibilene.  But there was a Rosa Parks.  And there were the Little Rock Nine.  And there were many whites who risked alienation, physical abuse, or death to do right by persecuted blacks.  So in that vein, no, “The Help” didn’t do anything to change civil rights.  But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point is that there’s a lesson there.  That’s the purpose of any work of fiction with a point of view.  The author tells a story in a certain time and place to illustrate a particular perspective; to make us think about how the principles of that time and place might apply to our own here and now.  The tortoise and the hare never actually raced either, but that doesn’t mean that the implicit message of the story isn’t still legitimate.

The problem with “The Help” is that for whatever reason people don’t seem to be taking the moral of the story out of the story.  We aren’t applying it to our own lives.  I actually struggled with this same issue in a post I published last year when I wrote:

I enjoyed the book.  But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago.  The discussion questions at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions.  But they are all local to the book.  They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc.  And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same. …

It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment.  It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was.  And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.

But we are not perfect.  We are not fully evolved.  We are not immune to the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes.  There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe.  There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”

But what are those things?  That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help.  What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong?  What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?

Is it something environmental?  Is it the way we manage our food supply?  … Is it fuel-injection automobiles?  Is it prejudice against the obese?  What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t?  What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road?  What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?

The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But yet we have changed over time.  We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs.  And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers.  At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic.  At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.

So, it’s not that Ms. Quivers doesn’t have a fair point.  She just didn’t fully identify the problem.  Her article got my wheels spinning on this topic once again and I thought it worthwhile to explore it here one more time.

I hope you saw “The Help.”  It was a great movie and a mostly-authentic representation of the book.  (As is frequently the case in movie adaptations substantial nuance was lost with the translation to the screen, although the major plot points survived.)  Nevertheless, the larger point of the story is lost if we don’t apply it to ourselves.  Heavy stuff for a Friday, I realize, but important to reiterate from time to time nevertheless.

Health vs. Beauty

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Sometimes we women just don’t do ourselves any favors.

That was the thought that coursed through my mind as I read this article entitled “Do Women Choose Beauty Over Health?”  According to the United States Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, women are inclined to forego exercise on any given day because they don’t want their hair to get sweaty or to have to wash it.

Really?  We need the Surgeon General to tell us that fitness is more important than good hair?  Unfortunately the answer is Yes.

I suppose when you get into the heart of the issue it’s a little more understandable than it sounds on its face.  Dr. Benjamin explained that lots of women (especially African American women such as herself) spend a great deal of time and money achieving a certain hairstyle.  The thought of going to that time and expense again is a big disincentive to exercise.  She also commented that this is particularly true when we are looking for reasons not to work out in the first place.

What breaks my heart about this phenomenon is that it points to how little we actually count health in our estimation of beauty.  When we see a beautiful woman with glowing skin, white teeth, and shiny hair we immediately want to know about her daily personal care routine and what products she uses.  We don’t wonder about whether whole grains and lots of produce are key components of her diet.  We don’t readily consider what she does to keep her stress levels low and get enough sleep.  We don’t ask if exercise is a regular part of her life.  And yet when we get down to it the things that we find most attractive in ourselves and others are typically the byproducts of a healthy lifestyle.

This outlook holds true on the new website YouBeauty which works to inspire women to live healthy lifestyles through the incentives of improved appearances.  However, in spite of its basic premise the site’s CEO commented that the best way to get women to do anything healthy is to tell them it will make them more beautiful – eat broccoli, work up a good sweat, you name it.

I’ve addressed the issue of vanity in a couple of different posts recently (here and here), and I’m not quite sure why it’s resonating with me so much right now.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that at 31 weeks pregnant I’ve had to sacrifice much of my vanity and focus much more heavily on my health.  My baby needs me to be healthy, not beautiful.  What interests me about this is that it’s not at all uncommon for pregnant women to find renewed energy for a healthy lifestyle.  When we are growing another life we take great care of ourselves.  We eat balanced diets.  We are willing to gain weight.  We go organic.  We drink more water and rest more.  We give up caffeine.  These changes and sacrifices are not insignificant.  We do all of these things for our babies, yet we are disinclined to do them for ourselves.

This makes me sad because it means that what effort we go to is always for someone else.  Whether it’s a husband or a job interview or a 20th high school reunion, the fact remains that we are certainly willing to jump through all sorts of hoops for our looks.  But by and large those hoops don’t benefit us.  In a perfect world we would all eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day, sleep eight hours each night, exercise for an hour five days a week, and drink 64 ounces of water daily.  We would do these things for ourselves – to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

I’m not here to say that superficial indulgences aren’t perfectly acceptable from time to time.  (This is the part where I confess that the zippered makeup case in my purse contains at least 20 different seasonally updated shades of lipstick, gloss, and liner at any given time…)  But those indulgences should be the frosting, not the foundation.

Ladies, healthy is beautiful.  If we’re going to go through contortions for our appearances, let’s at least go about it in ways that benefit our health.  I’ll go to the gym if you will.  Deal?