Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why fifty is a kick-ass decade worth waiting for

This re-post is dedicated to my good friend and cousin Hollis Cook, who, I suspect, is under her bed hiding from fifty. 

I did not love my forties like I was supposed to. Usually at the salon, I read about women who, at forty were settling into themselves, asserting their independence,  accepting their flaws, embracing  their wisdom and no longer feeling guilty for saying "no" and, I thought: I'm not doing this right

I've caught up.

At the salon last week, my hair stylist, who is lovable, and blunt and not yet thirty said this to me:

"I keep hearing that it's great to be older because you just don't give a crap about all the stuff  that used to upset you. Is that true?"

Well, hair stylist, yes. That statement, for instance did not upset me.

I'd like to believe I would not have sulked over that at forty, but I would have. Possibly, I would have switched to one of those equally sulky,  dressed-in-black stylists in Boston who don't speak to their clients. 

But because I like candid, charming people more than any other kind, I said, "Mine is the most kick-ass age there is. I do what I want, when I want to, and I do it better."

"That is so awesome," she said, hair tools poised, "I can't wait."

Then, someone on the floor chimed in:

"It's true. Fifty is the new forty."

Well, other salon patron, I thought, I hope not.  I hope fifties is not the new forties for two reasons:

First, in my circle, forties was a time for scrutinizing (and maybe pruning) our lives and relationships while ushering our teenage children through high school and into college with as little household stress as possible. While it is characteristic of forties to enjoy a heightened love of life, self and others,  in my rear view mirror, this energetic decade left little off-the-clock time for that kind of zen-ing.  For me, it was hard to be most places without wondering if I was needed somewhere else.

My circle also agrees that for many women in their forties, there is a late preoccupation with appearance because we fear our days of being considered more desirable - professionally, romantically and personally - are numbered.  Even if we are well adjusted as fifty looms, there is pressure to be sure we are, because you only have so much time to straighten the hell out before that axe falls. 

Well, Hollis, and anyone else hiding under the bed, here are too many good things about fifties to liken them to some other age, especially forties. 

I'm generalizing, of course, and using the universal "you" because it's efficient. Feel free to disagree, but here is my take:

  • After being child-focused for years, being self-centered is entirely okay.
  • You don't replay awkward moments or remarks, you say "eh" and think about something else. 
  • You feel comfortable with moments of silence in a conversation. You stop rambling. 
  • You accept criticism without feeling defensive. Often, you are grateful for it.
  • You develop antennae for insincerity, whether you choose to do anything about it or not.
  • You turn your mistakes and disappointments into funny stories and you know exactly who to tell them to.  
  • Things you're afraid of start to fall away except for the things that could actually kill you.
  • If you've had words with someone, you don't waste time.  If the relationship is worth it, you make them come out with you for a glass of wine and fix it. 
  • You understand that you can't, and never could, control how much people like you and so you stop trying which - what do you know - makes you more likable. 
Let's review. In your forties:

You are younger.

The serenity of fifties is worth waiting for in my opinion, but only if you value the improvements in your emotional life and relationships more than you lament changes in your appearance. Because you will be offered views of yourself that take you by surprise:  storefront reflections, dressing room mirrors,  doctors who have not finished having their own children, but begin their advice with, "Well, as we age..."

But fifties have become things they didn't used to be, and not because they became forties again. In ye fifties of olde, we started wearing lavender double knit pants and rubbery beige shoes. Now we go back for degrees, start online magazines (hi Sharon and Anne), write novels (and screenplays, Hollis, screenplays) and travel like nobody's business. 

My hair stylist finished my do and said, "There you go, you're a rock star again."

Fifty is not the new forty. I was not a rock star in my forties.  Fifty is the new fifty. 

And Hollis, Precious, it is kick-ass.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When college breaks up the boys

Drew and Sam : the boys as the boys
 If you have raised boys, and will see one of them off to college in the fall,  you may worry as I did about what the separation will do to their close relationship. 

When Drew left for college in 2005, Sam was not yet a teenager. He didn't count the days until his brother's first break.  He kept a chart on the back of his door and crossed off the days. 

It was after Drew had been out of the house for six years that I understood the enduring strength of their brother relationship. 

Below is a post I wrote that year about the closeness that was not lost in the separation, but enriched by the days that came before.

September 6, 2011

From the kitchen window, I’m watching Drew on the lawn, chipping golf balls into the air toward his target which is the outstretched hand of Sam, who leaps from the shallow end of the pool and into the air like a caffeinated retriever. There is heckling and laughing when he misses, and then catches the little ball. Despite the chance that this ad-hoc game could end with a head injury and a trip to the ER, for now, it has my appreciation.

On paper, Drew the golfer, and Sam the baseball player, have four things in common which are their parents and siblings. Drew is organized, pays his bills on time, and runs his life like a business. Sam is spontaneous, has not met a deadline he can’t extend, and handles all his responsibilities on the same day of the week after he is sure that everyone he knows is busy. They are seven years apart, at different stages of life, with a respective circle of friends who wouldn’t necessarily click. On paper, there is no reason they’d want to spend time together, and yet…

It is a week later and a tropical storm has left us without power. Nobody is happy but for Sam and Drew, who have unearthed a twelve-year-old video game called “Backyard Baseball” and are playing it in Sam’s dark room on a battery-charged computer. There is much mocking of the nostalgic, antiquated game that once captivated them. I crack the door and peer inside and they wave at me. It looks like they are sitting in a mitten. Both are wearing baseball hats.

As people, they affect others differently. People talk to Drew who is by trade as well as by nature, a careful listener and talented writer. People listen to Sam who has been a compelling and persuasive speaker for all but six months of his seventeen years. And yet...

After a while the power is back on and the storm has calmed. The boys appear dressed and showered and announce that they are going to check the level of the river. They haven’t a clue what they’re checking, what to compare it to, and I’m sure they may not even know where the river is, they just think it will be fun to be “storm trackers.”

Here is the something.

Fun happens when we're not trying to have it, I think, a feeling more than a thing we actually do. It can make you glad to be alive, glad to be who you are or glad about who you're with. And though I think fun as a feeling is hard to replicate only by recreating an activity, I believe the soul keeps track of our potential to feel it again. 

In the way they related to each other, our boys discovered their appetite for fun. Despite the distance that followed, they never lost it.

One day, Sam and Drew will have spouses and children and schedule issues that make it hard to get together unless the serious one is willing to hop a flight at the last minute or the less-serious one is willing to plan in advance. They will need to remember the feeling of fun to make it work. They will.

Life says, “Here’s my price,” and we decide: we can afford it or we can’t. My belief, as their mother and ride to the ER, is that they will have absorbed each other’s company and counsel enough to remember these days of fun clearly. Enough at least to make a healthy down payment on that asking price.
Sam and Drew at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
September 20, 2013

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is Facebook enough?

There was a link circulating last week about what Facebook is doing to your brain.Who wouldn't click on a hook like that? 

The video, packed with rapid-fire assertions suggests one theme: we have allowed ourselves to substitute e-connections for actual, IRL (in real life) ones. Depending on the presence you believe you have out there in the cyber-hood,  this is a haunting or illuminating revelation, but true I think it is.

True friendships according to this video - the ones you can't edit your way through - are not possible to cultivate if your circle exceeds 150 "friends".  On Facebook, to keep up with circles in the hundreds, one is required to construct an online friend M.O., comprised of low-investment behaviors -  sharing, liking, commenting -  to sustain them. The things we cull to invest in an IRL relationship - confidentiality, honesty, vulnerability, and the big one, spontaneous expression - are often not invested in the Facebook self we project because among other things, we know that everything we say creates a permanent record. Imagine being overheard in a restaurant by everyone you know at once.

Some comments in response to the video were defensive and worried. Others were more of a shrug. My own reaction was mixed. I know there are those who only use Facebook to connect with others, but they may well be people for whom "real" friendship does not feel affirming, but risky and revealing.

And not everyone with  Facebook friends in the hundreds or beyond is real-friend challenged as the video seems to suggest. Some people are introverts who wish to be neither social nor isolated, and find the non-committal aspect of the cyber-friendship a perfect solution. Some people become fabulous cyber-friends when distance prevents an IRL connection. My own invaluable association with a huge network of writers would not be possible without Facebook. But a balance is important to appreciate both relationships.

Where trouble happens is when direct communication is called for but shunned because the "real" social skill set has been allowed to wither. On a diet of  multiple, empty connections every day we can lose our appetite for real ones. Unplugged, our communication can begin to feel unnatural, and we can become lost in our own company.

That's what got my attention.

I would be lost without my real friendships, and I'm comfy in my own company. But I consider Facebook a fun way to connect outside of them and some of my most important connections depend on it. Still, the video made me and, apparently, many others consider the importance of Facebook in our lives. 

I've decided to curb my own habits. Twice a day I'll check in and once in a while I'll post statuses about strange people in the supermarket or annoying drivers, or  maybe a video with cats being unfriendly toward dogs. I will continue to use Facebook to shamelessly promote my published work. But I've removed phone notifications, and when I'm working, Facebook will stay in the other room.  I'll always leave comments to support or celebrate others I e-know, but I might disconnect from the notifications  ("so and so also commented on this or that") as I usually don't e-know "so and so".

It takes a little trying to build the real friendships that affirm us, support us, give us a place to hide out, produce witnesses to our lives. We can lose those things without trying at all.

And so, with that, I shall personal message a friend and see if they can have that lunch, share that drink, bring me up to date, help keep me out there IRL.

I want to talk about that Facebook video.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

That is one picky universe

"I have a crush on the New York Times," I told a writer friend a few years ago.
"Ask it out,"  he said.

So, I submitted a piece to the Modern Love column. Kindly, they rejected it before I could get my hopes up.

"I was rejected by the New York Times,"  I reported to my writer friend.
"Everybody gets rejected by the New York Times," he said.

That's not true, of course, there are plenty of people at that party,  but I know what he meant. You need talent and the right topic to get in line and then you still might have to talk to the bouncer.

Many rejections ago, when I started writing and sending my submissions "into the universe",  here's what I did. I wrote a 1600 word essay and sent it on heavy bond paper to the Boston Globe. I never got a response and assumed it never arrived. 

What with snail mail.

Many rejections later, I realized that the essay was rejected not only because it was 1000 words too long,  or because it was submitted on cardboard, but because it was not well written, despite what my mother and husband said.

It was over-everything. Over-long, over-wrought, over-reaching, and of course, overweight.

I wasn't startled when I found out how hard it was to publish, I was stunned. Had I known how many rejections that  universe spits out before it accepts a submission, I may have quit.

But because I'm a writer and I love my captor, I soldiered on after the Boston Globe maybe-never received my piece.

I focused on  my fiction and submitted a completed novel which was rejected by everyone.
I wrote a second that was rejected by half of everyone
I wrote a third which brought a request for a full manuscript by a mega-agent the next day.

A week later,  and you'll be so jealous if you're a writer, I received the rejection  with a letter of praise and suggestions. I took the book back and rewrote it.

For six years.

Eventually, I discovered that writing better was more important to me than submitting, and that loving my work felt better than being noticed.  Most important, I learned that big goals are not met in a single leap, but by taking the smaller, friendlier ones along the way seriously.

And here's the thing about "eventually":

The ratio does begin to turn around. More submissions are accepted than they are rejected, and each rejection hurts less. If you don't become an Eeyore, you realize that you're probably further away from the submissions-on-cardboard days,  than the Big Goal.


I published a first piece, about two kids leaving for college at the same time  in  the Concord Monitor.
I focused on my blog and  my traffic increased until some readers were not even related to me, and, lived in places I had to look up on a map.
I sold an essay to a national publication
I published in three online magazines.
The Christian Science Monitor selected one of my pieces as a top ten in its category.
I got picked up by the Washington Post.

My novel and I are almost ready to journey into the universe once more.  "You again?" it will say several times before I catch it in a good mood.

And then, eventually, probably - not possibly - there will be another exchange with my writer friend.

"I did it," I'll say.
"I knew you would," he'll respond.

I would sometimes like to flee, but I can't. I'm a writer and I love my captor.

And I haven't been published in the New York Times yet.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The girl who didn't think she'd win

What do the judges want?

This day, it's the question on the minds of seven contenders for the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year title. Judges will choose a state winner from seven districts, and that winner will go home with $11,000.   

This day will be long, crammed with photo-ops, nervous small talk with political figures, speeches and interviews.

The kids arrive within the same five minute window, not late, not early. They walk a beat behind their mentors, taking in the surroundings, dog-eared speech pages in hand. They wear new suits, borrowed dresses, shoes that hurt their feet and haircuts they aren't used to yet. Their facial expressions are neutral and fixed with the question that has been steeping for months: "What do the judges want?" 

My charming mentee
Some seem terrified, some don't. Most don't behave as if they'll win. The ones who do, I know after last year's ceremony, probably won't.

There is palpable tension while the nominees shift awkwardly from foot to foot, their smiles quick, their eyes darting, their faces animated for only seconds at a time.   

A willowy, nervous girl dressed in a micro-mini, cowboy boots and a leather jacket is part of this crowd.  She has colored her hair in trendy strands of mahogany and fuschia and when she stands near the other kids she says nothing. She slumps as if her height might work against her.

I wonder how she'll do. The judges want poise. Confidence.

My mentee is here, but it's home court for her so she is putting the others at ease. There is not a competitive bone in her body. She's spent a decade learning how to engage with people - too long to put them at arm's length now. She doesn't think she'll win but is here to play anyway.

It's part of my mentee's charm. 

Halfway through the day, the judging starts. The door opens, they are called, they step in and the door closes.

Exactly 18 minutes later, the facilitator taps on the door indicating a two-minute warning, then knocks again at one minute. Not before or after, the door opens and out they come, looking even younger than they are with all that relief flooding their minds and bodies. They are smiling, hugging their mentors, the question of what-the-judges-want, behind them now.

My mentee goes in and uses the entire allotment.
The facilitator knocks at two minutes.
Knocks at one minute.
My mentee comes out, beaming.

The willowy girl goes in, she's out ten minutes later.

Another nervous nominee approaches my mentee. "What did they ask?" She whispers.
My mentee starts to tell her, but I interrupt, fearing the other nominee will fret over irrelevant questions:

"They'll ask different questions of everyone. Just answer truthfully," I say.

Later, the judging is done, the kids are themselves again. Everyone's hungry, their gone appetites back with a vengeance . They're silly and boisterous and a bit sassy  now that they are off display. Tension leaves the atmosphere like air from a balloon.

Later, through a dinner which precedes the big announcement, new energy sizzles in the room. There are speeches and thank yous and acknowledgments and winners in secondary categories.

Two well dressed teens talk about overcoming absent parents, social awkwardness and unhealthy temptations to craft futures of college and, of "giving back". The girl in the cowboy boots talks about overcoming the low expectations of others to be accepted at the NASCAR Technical Institute to study auto mechanics. A polished, poetic nominee compares her life and role in her community to that lived by her grandmother in a Kenyan village. My mentee talks about her crippling shyness that kept her isolated for years.

But few are fully listening. Everyone's waiting for that MC to open the envelope and now she does.

And the willowy girl in the cowboy boots wins.

The applause is instant and sustained.
She stands up and breaks down.
She turns to her father who wraps her in a hug.
She drifts, dazed, to the podium in tears.
She looks around, eyes on everyone.
She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex and, barely able to speak says, "God, I don't know what to say. I just never thought I'd win. I just didn't expect this. Thank you so much. Just... thank you."

Words fail her and the governor begins a new round of applause to rescue her.

"I never thought I'd win," she says again.

And yet, didn't she show up and walk the walk and talk the talk as if she would.

The faces of the other nominees react, some are smiling and some aren't. Some of the coaches look surprised, others delighted.

But if hearts have been toppled I see one that sings, and if minds are racing, I see one at rest,  that question of what the judges want, answered.
She was wrong

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I was raised by a single mother and I am not a prostitute

I know it isn't Mother's Day yet. Close enough.

Recently, a story appeared in the New York Times about Terran Lyons, a third shift worker at McDonald's  who is trying to raise two children on minimum wage. Each night, Ms. Lyons shuttles her children to evening caregivers and each day she balances the tasks of parenting on little or no sleep. She works the less preferred night shift because that's where the opportunity lies to work up to a supervisory level. She is twenty-four.


I commented on the article: "This brave, focused paying some huge dues now. But among the rewards I believe are in store for Terran, is seeing those kids grow up loved, strong, and driven to make a success of themselves. They don't have much, but they have a lot of the right things." 

Here was one response to my comment:  "This is something of a fairy tale response. If Ms. Lyons lives in a low income area, once the kids are old enough, the neighborhood will come calling and if mom is at work a lot, the kids will face peer pressure like they have never known. It's just life. You'd understand if you grew up without."

It wasn't just the "growing up without" comment that gave me pause. It was her assumption that the family is fighting a losing battle.

My parents divorced when I was in grade school and my brother and I were raised by my mother. She worked all day, and we spent a lot of time after school in respective activities which, for me at least, did not include a heavy amount of homework. 

Often, following a parent-teacher meeting, my mother would come home and report that I was performing at an "average" level. I started to dislike the word.

"Don't tell me anymore that I'm working hard and doing average work," I used to say. "There's nothing special about average."

"Well. Maybe you should be sure you really are working hard," she suggested, with her nice mother smile. 

I reacted to this by stomping upstairs and slamming the door, and she reacted to this by starting dinner.

But after that, I worked harder. And she didn't call me average again.

Despite my mother and father's agreeable relationship, and my regular contact with him, this was at a time when single-parent homes were considered "broken" and children living in them were considered juvenile delinquents in the making. Nervous women in the neighborhood kept a closer eye on their husbands when we moved in.   

Many outcomes of our situation were possible. If I'd believed my classmate in the third grade, who leaned forward, shook the back of my chair and whispered "I know what you're going to be when you grow up. A prostitute. My mother told me last night,"  I might have feared I was destined to prowl dark alleys like a feral cat. But I reported the comment to my mother who, with impressive restraint, only iterated her own expectations of me, and made me understand that ignorant and cruel people didn't become that way because of me. She modeled work ethic, independence and class. Moreover, she modeled the ability to turn a deaf ear to people like my classmate's mother every day.  

However hard Terran Lyons works to create an example, she will be dogged by the assumptions people hold about other people living with risk: poor, single-parent households will produce unsupervised children who will meet their need to be loved by becoming pregnant or seeking out the closest gang.

Does that happen? Yes. And those outcomes break lives in half. But when we talk about the underserved in our society it strikes me that it isn't just poverty or the privilege of others that keeps children of disadvantage behind the ropes. Very often, it's the expectation that their circumstances will fail them more than their own resilience will free them.  

The assumptions behind the New York Times comment bring home the reality that people still view hardworking, challenged people like Terran Lyons  and her children  in pass/fail terms. It might have been the way people thought of my brother and me.

But in our house, there was no "probably won't" about it. My mother expected nothing less of us than complete success and to nobody's surprise, we went on to build productive, happy lives, and raise strong, loved children.

My fairy tale experience is that children are resilient, strong creatures. They know more intuitively at young ages than they ever may again. If you tell them something, they will believe it, maybe forever. But when it is modeled for a child that a better life is within one's own control, it is more than hopeful. It is the key to that child's castle.

Friday, April 18, 2014

When you should tell someone to quit a dream

Got dreams? You'll need this
In honor of all those athletes who will realize their long term goal of running in Monday's Boston Marathon, it seems fitting to write today about "grit". 

And quitting.

About a year ago, Angela Lee Duckworth, a management consultant-turned educator-turned -University of Pennsylvania psychologist  gave a Ted Talk about the concept of "grit". It is here.

In her presentation, Dr. Duckworth talked about successful kids and the usual correlates:  talent, upbringing, socioeconomic station, etc. Her conclusion:  even more than intelligence, a significant predictor of success is "grit": The tenacity of motivated people to pursue a long term goal without quitting.

This month, an essay writtenby Alfie Kohn, author of "The Myth of the Spoiled Child" has been appearing in different publications. In his argument, he debunks and characterizes the concept of "grit" as a trendy, wrongly accepted link to success, one he fears will turn parents into task masters and their children into frustrated, disappointed worker bees trying in vain to meet impossible goals.

Here is an excerpt:

"The problems with grit... To begin with, not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile. On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals."

I have a problem with all of this massive point-missing.

For  detractors to confuse "grit", which deals with the dreams of passionate people, with "persistence" which deals with the habits of productive people, is to confuse dreams with plans, skills with gifts, effort with drive, and all the other things that separate tenacious super-achievers from hard-working drones.

And for proponents to treat the notion of grit as a "discovery", a link to success, something to incorporate into our psycho-speak and foster in the classroom as teachable behaviors, is as much a failure  to "get" grit and understand its role in the work of very successful people.

First, while many possess strong work ethic, grit is rare. Really, how many thirty-year-old millionaires do most of us have over for dinner? Thirty-year-old millionaires are too busy to eat dinner.

Second, it isn't a single behavior like time-management or careful note-taking.  It co-exists with passion, the way dreams co-exist with imagination. 

Third, it can't be taught any more than confidence can be taught.  You can't go buy it or find a grit expert to talk to the class. You've got grit if you've got other things first, like vision and scary-competitive drive.

Fourth, where it is present, it is involuntary. Grit is as willful in a dream-maker as breathing, and it's foolish to treat this as something that we should, or even can, dial up or down in another person.    

And this brings me to the title of my post: When to tell someone to quit a dream?

Where there is grit, there is passion.  To urge someone away from "gritty" behavior because a passion in our view is "not worthwhile" or, so that they can "pursue other opportunities" is to dishonor that passion. And however gently we do it, to suggest that someone give up on their passion is like asking them to live without a digit, to accept a lifelong feeling of having left something unfinished.  

To live with "might have".

What an insult to people who, fueled by their own spirit, spend years creeping toward a  goal, all while developing the patience and pace and maturity to know it may not - but may - happen at once.

The person who is advised to quit, who quits out of frustration, who must quit out of  necessity may live free of those spiritual muscle cramps that come with journeying toward a long term goal, but dreams die slowly. When it's all over, we only trade those cramps for a limp. I did this. Frustrated over my sluggish success as a published writer, I stopped writing a while back to "pursue other opportunities" and I died a little every day.

When I was able to return to writing full-time, I started publishing like nobody's business.

To be sure, mindful parents should realize when a child is spinning their wheels in pursuit of a goal that will never be met - crappy baseball players will not grow up and play for the Red Sox.  Sometimes there really are opportunity costs and good parents can and should help their kids identify their particular joys and talents.  

And yes,  anyone with a near-impossible dream should have their own plan B, a way to support themselves, an order of priorities that enables them to live independently and not drag dependents if there are any, through a life of skeletal expenses and late notices.

We once joked - sort of - about putting all of our kids through bartending school so that they could always pay the rent, dress for the weather and keep their lights on while they went after-  or didn't - the thing they had to do with their particular talents and spirit.  

Like love, a passionate pursuit doesn't always give back right away. But to be blind to the difference between plans and dreams, to ever nudge someone away from pursuing a passion, is on par with asking why they would bother with love at all - when they could spend their time and energy on something "more worthwhile".

When to tell a child, a friend, a spouse or anyone to quit a dream?