Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Too Much Imagination?

Around our house, when faced with something unpleasant, we don’t simply say, “I’d rather not.”

We say things like:

“I’d rather take a bullet”


“I’d rather get my teeth drilled”


“I’d rather chew off my own finger”


“I’d rather get my eyeball tattooed.”

(Eyeball tattooing is actually a thing. Blech.)

I guess you could say we have vivid imaginations.

Not sure that’s always a good thing.

Wow, that’s a downer.

Anxious people tend to be more in tune with their bodies, more aware of every sensation … which is why many anxious people have hypochondria. Also, ask any doctor, anxious people can be very difficult to sedate; they fight the medication to stay aware and in control.

It takes an active, perhaps overactive, imagination to look at an innocent mole on your skin and visualize the whole course of terminal melanoma … but (I know) it can be done.

My husband is a big believer in distraction. “If something is worrying you, the best thing is not to think about it,” he says.

Doesn’t that sound a wee bit counter-intuitive to you?

Also impossible?

But when you can manage to do it, it’s true.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Stereotype Is Born

Image courtesy of Teerapun at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I have a thing against white, late-model SUVs.

They seem to be driven by skinny white women talking on their cell phones who block intersections, go at a four-way stop before it is their turn and double-park.

White SUVs are particularly common in Houston. White is currently the most popular car color globally. Sometimes, in traffic, I will feel like I have stumbled into the middle of a parade of ice-cream trucks. (My car is blue, which this article, at least, makes sound like a sophisticated choice. Ha.)

The popularity of SUVs in Houston may seem piggy, but there are actually some good reasons for it. Houston streets flood. And it’s occurred to me that, here, where most people don’t have bus service to bring their kids to school, parents with SUVs, which can seat 7 or 8 kids at a time, might run car pools that create less emissions overall than a car pool of Priuses (which is what I drive and which can only take 4 kids each).

Be that as it may, I still find myself thinking that white, late-model SUVs are driven by the self-important. Hence, the lack of turn-taking. There may be some proof that drivers of expensive, high-status cars do drive more aggressively … though this linked article points out that people who think their Priuses are high-status cars drive like jerks, too. :o(

(I don’t get how you can think a Prius is impressive. When you blow the horn on my car, it sounds like a doggy chew toy.)

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article about why people choose to buy SUVs. They feel safer in them, though they are not.

Then, of course, occasionally a white SUV will nicely let me into a lane or whatever – blowing a hole in my theory.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why Do You Think I Got A Dog?

Sometimes, when I see dog-training advice, that’s what I want to ask.

This article, from Petfinder.com, tells you, Going out should not be his for the asking.” Oh, great, so I can’t just let my dog tell me when she needs to pee, I have to keep that schedule in my own head so that I can always be in control, the dominant one.

But I didn’t get a dog so I could have a BDSM relationship, thanks.

I like petting my dog.

I like seeing her personality: how excited she gets about walks, where she wants to go (to the shopping street near us, because she wants to be with people), how she loves her treats.

Sure, like kids, there’s a certain level of behavior she has to have. For dogs, they can’t be aggressive and I am very glad to say that Lola does not pee in the house.

She loves coming when she’s called. She’ll come to other people calling their dogs. She sits. She stays. She “leaves it.” She will heel perfectly – IF she knows you have treats. But she is also a lot like this dog, in my opinion, the best one in the whole competition. Lola has a lot of strong opinions, including that whatever she finds in the garbage is fair game.

Do I have a dog so that I get to make her perfectly obedient? No. What an absurd thought.

I like having a dog because I love my dog and she loves me.

Get out of here with that other crap.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Getting organized is upsetting.

Which is why I end up reading about it. I am avoiding doing it.

But most books about organization tell you stuff you already know, like “File, don’t pile.”

I know that.

What they don’t tell you is how to make yourself do it.

So, when I read in the New York Times about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book by a Japanese professional organizer, Marie Kondo, and it seemed ... well … different, I read it.

Marie Kondo, who is as cute as a button, is kind of nutty. She treats objects as if they are alive. She tells you to fold your socks a certain way because when they are in your drawer, they are “on holiday” and deserve to be comfortable. She admits having a hard time bonding with people, saying “It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends.”

You’d think she wouldn’t be keen on throwing stuff out, but she says unwanted objects want to be discarded. She tells you to thank a thing for its service before you can it. A gift you hate? “Thank you for the joy of receiving you.” Clothes you don’t like? “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me.”

Kondo’s clients end up getting rid of most of what they own. “My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away,” she says.

But, really, she focuses on, not which things to trash, but which to keep. “Take each item in one’s hand,” she says, “and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”

While I won’t be folding my socks anytime soon, I am all fired up to throw stuff out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

La, La, La, La Lola

Yes, I am the type of mother who tells stories on my kids they wish I wouldn't.

When my son was seven years old, we got our new puppy – and he named her “Lola” after a girl in his first-grade class. Awww.

(He swears that this girl “wasn’t a girlfriend, but a friend who just happened to be a girl,” and he may be telling the truth. If Puppy Lola had been a boy, his name would have been “Max,” after my son’s other good friend in first grade.)

“Lola” is actually quite a common name for dogs. For the most part, it fits what people look for in a dog name. It’s short and it’s cute and it even ends in a vowel.

But what I find most interesting is how people respond to my dog’s name.

When people hear that her name is “Lola,” they will almost always start singing one of three songs:

“Copacabana” by Barry Manilow, which starts off, “Her name was Lola; she was a showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there;”


“Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” from the musical Damn Yankees. The people who choose this one tend to be older, which makes sense since the musical was written in 1955.

Whichever one the person chooses really does tell you something about them, I think.

 Got a song stuck in your head now?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Color Green

Our front porch.
I am sitting on my porch, contemplating the color green.

Not only is our house and our balcony furniture and even our car and, gosh, my cellphone case green, but we live in Houston, where the climate is “humid subtropical,” which is a fancy way of saying “swamp.”

From Rick & Mambo,
a California radio show
We live two doors down from Joshua’s, a nursery, which, come to think of it, painted its building a startling lime green the day after we put a bid on this house.

If you are going to live near a commercial enterprise – and since we wanted a walkable neighborhood, we were going to – you could do a lot worse than live near a nursery. Joshua’s has beautiful plantings and you can always pop in for a dose of greenery. Being in the woods or garden or a nursery always makes me feel better. Maybe it’s all the oxygen the plants are producing. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

According to Wikipedia, the word “green” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “grene,” meaning “grow.” It is associated with youth (a greenhorn). You can be given a green light, a good thing. It is the color of environmental causes. It is also the color of jealousy and envy. (Iago called jealousy “the green-ey’d monster” in Othello.) And it's the color of nausea.

I read, here, that green eyes, which I have, are the rarest eye color; only 2% of people have them. I’m not sure I believe this since the same website has a page about violet eyes, and I’m pretty sure violet eyes, if they even exist (do you know anyone with purple eyes?), would be rarer.

And that’s all I got about the color green.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


My editor at The Buzz Magazines asked me to write about Brookwood, a community for functionally disabled adults just outside of Houston.

I didn't know what to expect ... but it really is an amazing place.

Click here for the article.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Can Kids Make You Smarter?

Many years ago, an acquaintance landed a great writing gig.

A children’s publisher had asked him to write about the how’s of everyday life. How does the electricity in your house work? How do airplanes work? How do computers work? All stuff adults supposedly know, and know clearly, but that most of us are – come on, admit it – a bit fuzzy on.

The great thing, he said, was that, while interviewing experts, he didn’t have to admit what he didn’t know. If he didn’t understand, he could say, “Yes, yes, of course, we as adults understand that, but how would you explain it to a child?”

My daughter recently started college. She calls to tell me what she’s up to and it’s the same things I faced when I was her age: figuring out classes, being nervous about making friends, handling roommate disagreements. (At orientation, a school representative asked for a show of hands from parents, “How many of your kids have never shared a room before?” Most hands went up. He waited a beat, then said, “Yeah, well, thanks a lot.”)

My daughter is dealing with these things, in many cases better than I did when I was her age, and it is instructive for me to watch her. Also, it is instructive, for me, to try to help her.

It was the same when she and her brother were young. Sit near a sandbox for an afternoon and you can observe every human emotion and impulse being thoroughly explored. And sometimes you are required to intervene.

Some studies, summarized here, show brain changes in parents that make (rodent, at least) parents “smarter.”

Given what happens when you interact with kids – explaining things to them, watching them work things out on their own – that makes perfect sense to me.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Secret Stash

I thought I had come up with a great idea.

I was having a hard time getting myself to do a really hateful chore: inputting information from our financial statements into the software QuickBooks for our accountant.

We have an extension, so, for us, October 15th is April 15th.

And no, I couldn’t just have the statements automatically download. That was my first question when this chore arose years ago. According to the accountants, there are too many glitches and errors when you just let things download.

And no, smarty-pants organized person, while I realize it would have been ideal to input the monthly statements as I got them so they didn’t pile up at the end of the year, I didn’t do that.

And it is just a peculiar kind of torture: being forced to review every single purchase and deposit we made over the past year.

So, working under JK Rowling’s theory that chocolate keeps dementors at bay (which, incidentally, it actually does), I stashed a pack of chocolate bars at my desk.

Every time I got myself to sit down and input those statements, I could have a chocolate bar.

I didn’t tell anyone in the family about my secret stash. A. My kids, being my kids, would have immediately devoured it. And B. My sweet husband, who lost 60 pounds a few years back, is dedicated to healthy eating and exercise. But if he knows there’s something sweet in the house, even if it is hidden away, the idea, as he puts it, “starts burning a hole in my brain,” until he’s begging to know where it is.

Alas, the strategy was not without its problems for me either.

The last day of getting those QuickBooks files together?  It took 3 candy bars.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

I Hate Chain Letters

From radio station Hot 104.5
Why do chain letters even exist?

Yet, people send them on.

Now, I haven’t received one in the regular mail, a paper letter in an envelope with no return address, since I was a kid.

I do still receive them by email, though, usually in the form of some weird horror story – someone pretending to be the police pulled a young girl over in the middle of the night, call this secret-code phone number and the police will tell you if they are the ones pulling you over or, holy shit, there’s this new computer virus going around, quick! panic!

My husband once got one by email that said if he didn’t forward it to 10 people, something bad was going to happen to him. He replied to the immediate sender, telling that person off, and then he replied to the original sender, telling that person off. And THAT person had the balls and the stupidity to get mad at my husband for daring to contact HER.

Chain letters ARE virus-like and they ARE gross. The worst are the ones that threaten you if you don’t send them on but any of them, including the ones that just insult you for not sending them on (like the ones on Facebook: “I know most people don’t care about cancer patients, but if you do, you will share this Facebook post”), and even the supposedly positive ones, which promise that God will love you if only you send them on (and send you to hell if you don't), are creepy and twisted.

Chain letters are little pieces of useless stupidity and ugliness that you perpetuate when you forward or share them.

Don’t do it.

Incidentally, every one of these
Facebook chain letters came
to me from a single person.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Calling All Dogs

Image courtesy of SOMMAI
Ever need to catch a dog, maybe your own when he got out of your yard, maybe a strange dog
trotting down the middle of a busy street?

There’s a trick to it.

I first read about it in an excellent book called The Other End of the Leash by animal behaviorialist, Patricia McConnell.

It has come in handy many times, like when our puppy got too close to a road while out with my kids – and my kids knew what to do – and when, helping out a neighbor, I took her dog out for a nighttime walk only to have him slip his leash and take off.

So, you need a dog to come to you and he’s having none of it.

Step 1: Don’t chase him! The name of the game will become “Chase.”

Step 2: However, YOU move away from HIM. The game is still “Chase” but now you are the chase-ee. Call out to him and make a big fuss to make sure he knows this is the game, if he remains reluctant. Run even, unless you don’t know the dog or you think he might get carried away and try to take you down. (That’s called having too strong a prey drive.)

Step 3: If you need to have him come in really close, where you can get a hold of his collar, say, keep your back to him and squat down with your head down, like you are doing something really interesting, right at his level, but he can’t quite see what. He won’t be able to resist his curiosity. (Don’t grab at a strange dog.)

Step 4: Once he comes to you, don’t yell at him! He’ll think you are yelling at him for coming to you.

It's a cool trick.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Don’t Want To Be Any Trouble

I like lattes. I like made-to-order sandwiches, from places like Subway. I like smoothies.
What I don’t like is ordering any of these. I know the whole point of the coffee bar, the Subway, the smoothie place is to make and sell their offerings, but I always feel like a jerk for ordering them. They take a long time to make. I feel bad making the person behind the counter make a ridiculous coffee concoction or smoothie. It feels like the line is piling up behind me. I especially hate to be a single person in the Subway or Starbucks line with a big multi-person order.
Does anybody else feel this way?
Some clearly don’t. I was recently in a newly opened ice-cream shop. The line snaked all the way along the counter, zigzagged through the store and extended out the door. It was full of small children. And the woman at the head of the line kept asking for tastes of the different ice-cream flavors, unable to make up her mind. It was like the decision of what ice cream to have was, for her, equal to deciding whether to sign a disarmament treaty or a ceasefire agreement.
And there’s a coffee bar near my house where one of the baristas LOVES to tell you all about coffee. He practically pirouettes around the machine as he makes yours, then takes the time to make a little design in the foam with a wooden stirrer as the finishing touch, waiting people be damned.
Marketers probably have a clever name for shoppers like me, the person who doesn’t want to ask for help, doesn’t want to make people wait, doesn’t want to be a pain in the ass.
Maybe I need to loosen up.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Day in the Life of Lola the Dog

She's lucky she's cute.
Be awakened by the sound of someone heading to kitchen.

Go get a treat.

Be cajoled into going outside. Insist that someone accompany you – or refuse to go further than the back step.

Poop, ideally on top of the garden hose or in the middle of the driveway for everyone to admire.

Get a treat.

GO IN THE CAR!!! The destination doesn’t matter, as long as it is not the groomer.
Yay! A ride in the car,

Get a treat upon return.

Follow the Woman of the House everywhere, in case she does something out of the ordinary. Try to be under her feet when she is carrying something. Also, cut in front of her when going down stairs.

When she sits down at her desk, conk out and snore.

When the Woman goes for other drives, stay behind, though not by choice. Check the kitchen garbage; strew it all over the floor, if the Woman forgot to take it out. Check for bread on the counter, even though you don’t eat bread. Drag it and any other items of interest you find into living room.
Ever hopeful by the treat bin.

When she returns, get a treat. (This doesn’t work if she left the garbage or the bread where you could get it.)

GO FOR A WALK!!! Poop and do the happy dance. Practice your pulling.

Return for your daily meal. Also, a treat.

Wait charmingly at the back door when you hear the Man of the House’s car.

Then, when he and the Woman talk while making dinner, bark for treats. If the Man puts you out onto back step, bark for treats from there.


Bedtime! Conk out on your couch in bedroom. Ideally, they will have left a pile of clean but unfolded laundry for you to lie on.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Like Local Newspapers!

I don’t watch television news.

Except at the gym, where, on the elliptical trainer, I know, unlike at home, how to work the TV. I find myself switching between the channels in disgust. It’s either that, or if Fox turns one more thing into a screed, however tenuous the connection, against Obama, or if CNN shows that 6-second snippet of footage one more time, I am going to put my fist through the screen.

But I digress.

I do read the New York Times online and I read the Houston Chronicle, the one citywide newspaper left. But the Chronicle often just reprints articles and editorials from news services and other newspapers. I don’t get that. Nor do I get when television shows report on articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines. Already seen it, thanks. Shouldn’t they be coming up with things of their own?

In fairness, the Chronicle does some very admirable reporting, such as its coverage of child immigrants or this series on dozens of homicides the Houston Police Department seems to have never investigated.

But, again, I digress.

My favorite newspapers are the super-local ones, like the Houston Leader-News that appears free in my driveway every Thursday. Recent sample headline: “Serial Defecator on the Prowl Again.”

The Leader’s website is here, but doesn’t seem to be working, a downside to local newspapers. Then again, no newspaper website, with the exception of the one for the New York Times, works well for some reason.
Again, I digress.

I also like the Provincetown Banner. Way back when it was the Provincetown Advocate, the editor-in-chief was divorced from the town selectman. Reading the editor’s coverage of her ex-husband and then his letters-to-the-editor replies was fun, even for a 19-year-old college kid with zero interest in local zoning.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

And You Are?

Have you ever found yourself in this situation: you are assembled with a group of people you don’t know – maybe it’s a meeting, maybe it’s at a party – and no one introduces themselves?

I once had to meet all my son’s teachers at a new school, in a single meeting. I introduced myself, multiple times – but not a single one of them, despite being seemingly friendly, thought to tell me who anybody was. I had no idea.

This was an extreme case; usually, I’ve got to say, when you introduce yourself, other people will respond with their names.

But sometimes, when no one steps forward to orchestrate the whole introduction thing, even when it clearly needs doing, I don’t either.

So, it doesn’t get done.

I used to be afraid that if I got the name of a person I just met wrong, they’d be mad or hurt. So, even if I was pretty sure I knew their names, I wouldn’t use them.

But people always get my name wrong. “Cheryl” sounds like “Sherry,” “Sharon” and “Carol.” My own husband-to-be thought I was “Shirley.” (I think, 90% of the time, the problem isn’t “remembering” someone’s name; it’s making sure you heard it clearly in the first place.)

But my point is: I don’t care when someone gets my name wrong.

Which reminds me of my roommate when I had a baby. Every time the nurses came in, they would cheerfully greet her as “Mrs. So&So.” And she would correct them: “It’s ‘Dr. So&So.” And the next time the nurses would sing out, “Hello, Mrs. So&So.” Over and over.

Meanwhile, my husband was happily answering to “Mr. Ursin.”

I’m just going to plunge in with names. If I get someone’s wrong and they have an issue with that, maybe it’s not such a loss.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Picture This

I don't think that pictographs work anywhere near as well as their creators think they do.

Not to perpetuate stereotypes, but I picture an engineer, who would have trouble communicating with another person face-to-face, happily coming up with these pictures, absolutely certain their meanings are crystal-clear.

Recently, I was musing over a laundry label.These two pictographs meant nothing to me until I Googled them:
The first one means "non-chlorine bleach" and the second means "no dry cleaning." Doh! Of course, a triangle with slanted lines can only mean non-chlorine bleach. And the "no dry cleaning" symbol should not be confused with this:
Which means, "Do not tumble dry."
Then, this light went off on my car's dashboard:

To me, this looks like a rear-end.

But, no, it means the pressure in one of my tires is off.

I can't even show you the ones on my printer, since the designer helpfully printed them black on a black background and located them near the hinge where the copier cover opens only so far. You actually need to use a flashlight to sort-of make them out. Just what I want to do when my freaking printer doesn't work.

Still, it is this pictograph, located in the trunk of a car, on the escape latch, that remains my favorite:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Three Lefts Make A Right


I have a terrible sense of direction. No joke: I routinely get lost trying to make a block.

So, the routes I take to get to places are a little, shall we say, unique.

I wonder what someone tracking my movements – and my car’s GPS keeps track as does my phone, so that information, as boring as it is, is out there somewhere – would make of me.

There’s the short way, the long way, the scenic route – and then there’s my way. Plus, there’s all the times I get lost.

The thing is, I think I get to see more interesting things than I would if I took the conventional route. Certainly, city streets have more going on and country roads look a look a lot nicer than highways.

And sometimes when I get lost, I find myself in a pretty, and otherwise hidden, residential neighborhood or in an area that’s just interesting. (“Wow, look, an entire neighborhood of strip clubs.”) I see shops and restaurants I’d like to try – or that just make me happy. For example, I know where, in Houston, to buy a player piano.

The trick used to be finding these places again, but that problem’s solved with GPS. (GPS = Best Invention Ever.)

Incidentally, I think giving directions might be a thing of the past. Thank God. I hate when people try to give me directions. Because I am NEVER going to get it, no matter how many times they repeat themselves or how many nifty little maps they draw for me. Just let me use my auxiliary brain, I mean my GPS, to get there.

And if I end up wandering around a little bit, that’s OK.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Obedience Is Overrated

Some recent comments on “Motherlode,” the parenting blog at the New York Times, made me feel sick.

One woman said, “I told the teacher that there was only one rule in our house … And that was ‘Obey’” and then later added, “I didn't even want to hear ‘Yes, ma'am’ when I told my son to do something. As I told him, all I wanted to hear was the sound of his feet moving to do what I told him to do.”

Unlike this person, I don’t think you have to be a dick to raise children. In fact, I think you shouldn’t be.

My mother said the best advice she ever got came from our pediatrician. He said, “Try not to say no. Say it only when you absolutely have to. But once you do say it, stick with it.”

He was referring to the very few things a parent needs to stand firm on: not running into traffic, for instance.

I guess demanding obedience seems simpler. Plus, I suspect some parents get off on it.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t order a toddler to sleep, though you can battle her down. Forcing a kid to choke down food he doesn’t like is a sure-fire way to make sure he never likes it.

And, in the long run, if all you ever do is order your children around, don’t be surprised when they never come to you for advice.

Ironically, teenagers LOVE to talk about sex and drugs and other issues they face.

But they won’t – can’t – talk to a drill-sergeant parent.

And they need to talk … preferably to you. It’s how they’ll understand why you think what you do. It’s how they’ll learn to think for themselves.

And that – rather than obedience – should be the goal.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Do People Get Tattoos and Piercings?

From news.com.au, an Australian news site
I know people with tattoos, as well I might: 20% of Americans have at least one. And I know a few with piercings.

While I admire the artistry in some of my friends’ tattoos … I remain uneasy about them being tattoos.

Most often, the people I know in real life, as well as online, say tattooing and piercing are simply ways to decorate yourself, like clothes or haircuts.
I prefer painless, nonpermanent hennas.
Done by Soniya Gheewala Ekici

They skip right over the parts about pain and permanence.

I realize I am dating myself.

Then again, there’s evidence that tattoos and piercings will eventually date you as well, like those old women who have to draw in their eyebrows because, when they were young, they copied Joan Crawford, who had shaved hers – only to have them never grow back.

Even now, those statistics show the age group most likely to have a tattoo is 30-39.

Scroobius Pip, a British hipster, sees two possibilities: that it will either become cool and daring to not have tattoos (what I’m hoping for when it comes to my kids) or that, seeking to push the shock envelope, younger people will do more extreme things, such as scarification and nose gauges. (Don’t click unless you’re prepared to be grossed out. The first comment on the scarification video is, “this is the only video ive seen on youtube that has made me physically puke,” while putting a large gauge in the side of your nose creates an ant-farm-like display of the inner workings of your sinuses.)

I tell my kids two things: (1) There’s a difference between good attention (“Look at the cool thing that person can do!”) and bad attention (“What the hell is that?”) and (2) If people realize your only goal is to shock, they won’t find you shocking, just pathetic.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


I have probably met only a handful of people in my life whom I would call charismatic.

They weren’t the loud people at the center-of-attention. They were the ones cheerfully watching everyone, asking them questions about themselves and listening to the answers. I remember meeting parents from my kids’ new school at a pot-luck. The loudest ones were broadcasting who they were and what they did and how much money they made – but then there was the mother who saw the young assistant teacher sitting alone and went over to bring her into the conversation. That mother turned out to be, by far, the most charismatic (and not incidentally, most successful) of the bunch.

“Charisma” is hard to define. The word comes from the ancient Greek for “gift.” Authors of present-day articles often list famous people who have charisma – Oprah, Bill Clinton. Those celebrities may very well be charismatic, but I don’t think you can recognize charisma from a distance.

Many of these articles claim you can develop, through effort, charisma in yourself. But their advice is often to focus on yourself and how you are acting and reacting. One suggests that, if you feel yourself drifting in a conversation, to think of your toes. The idea is that will make you look like you are paying attention.

This advice misses the point.

Richard Branson calls charisma another word for self-confidence and I think he’s right. The people I’ve met who are charismatic seem to have dodged the need to boast and the tendency to be cowed by other people’s boasting. They are secure enough that they don’t care.

That frees up a tremendous amount of bandwidth they can use for doing what they want.

And that security is rare enough that it dazzles the rest of us.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Through A Glass Darkly

Ray Ban Classic Aviator
The only sunglasses I like are classic aviators.

Please note: I am not saying you have to wear aviator sunglasses. You can put any foolish contraption you like on your face.

I just don’t understand why you would.

Aviator sunglasses, the first Ray Ban sunglasses, were invented in 1936 for pilots and first became popular among the general public when General MacArthur was photographed wearing them in the ‘40s. The lenses of aviator sunglasses are large and slightly convex to cover as much of the eye as possible, important for pilots – and also for me. I hate when light “leaks” in around smaller sunglasses. They are utilitarian – the metal frame as thin as it can be – and, I happen to think, they look good on pretty much everybody.

I do not understand the appeal of what Wikipedia calls “oversized” or “Jackie O” sunglasses. Wikipedia goes on to point out that Elton John wore such sunglasses in the 1980s. But people still wear them today – and I just don’t get it. Thick plastic frames, sometimes white, with large, ornate curlicues, lettering, even pictures on the sides.

Do you want people to pay attention to your face or to the strange and ugly device you’ve placed upon it?

I remember when I picked out one of my first pair of prescription eyeglasses, at about age 14. I was looking for glasses that would disappear on my face: thin frames, gold-colored because that matched my skin and hair color the closest. The woman at the store, trying to upsell me, brought out thick plastic frames in "trendy" colors, told me she could polish the edge of the lenses to make them shiny and affix cursive letters, my initials perhaps, maybe a little picture of a rose, on the lenses.

Sometimes, less is more.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Things I Don’t Miss As My Children Grow Up

Car seats. Infernal contraptions, virtually impossible to install correctly.

Car sickness. A particular incident, involving the reappearance of a large amount of Cheetos, all over the car seat (see above) and car, is seared into my memory.

Being responsible for other people’s bodily functions. When children feel like they are going to throw up, they run toward you – and you’re not supposed to run away.

Potty training. Some people snidely wonder why young parents might procrastinate on potty training. It’s because, when you take that diaper off, you’ve just made your life a whole lot more complicated for the foreseeable future. There is no such thing as a convenient time for your child to poop his pants.

Getting to school on time in the morning. There’s a period in the raising of a child when you are the only one who can tell time and the only one who cares.

(Some) children’s books, movies and music. My kids were the only ones in their preschool classes who didn’t know the Barney clean-up song. I didn’t know it was a prerequisite. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to abide watching it with them.

Flying with small children. When I get on a plane now, carrying just the book I will be reading, I look on the young parents, weighed down with car seats (see above) and gargantuan diaper bags, with pity.

Disgusted strangers. Yes, sometimes babies and toddlers cry on planes. But you know what? Strangers who roll their eyes and make snide comments for the parents to hear make the situation worse, not better.

Things I Miss As My Kids Grow Up

Playgrounds. It was nice to sit on a shade-dappled bench reading or chit-chatting with parents and sitters while the kids played.

(Some) kids’ music, like They Might Be Giants and Trout Fishing in America.

(Some) kids’ movies. Shrek, Toy Story: some of the best movies are made for kids.

Children’s books. Picture books can be so unbelievably beautiful.

Reading aloud. We read aloud A LOT at our house. Sometimes still will, when I can get someone to listen. The Narnia Chronicles (twice), The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (each twice), Harry Potter (literally lost count, at least four times), Sherlock Holmes (a surprise big hit). Incidentally, the best audio book, for readers of any age, is Neil Gaiman reading his own The Graveyard Book.

Firefighters. Have no excuse to wave anymore. And when they invited my small kids to go ahead and climb around inside their trucks or admired the fire-truck pictures on my toddler’s light-up sneakers, I admit, my heart melted.

Amusement parks. “Adult” rides there are just a travail. Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, on which you look ridiculous unless in the company of a child, are more my speed.

Volunteering in class. My son’s earliest teachers “cooked” regularly in their classrooms. (Mostly, it was constructing things out of frosting and pretzel sticks.) And if reading aloud to a couple of kids is fun, reading to a whole class, most of them trying to lean on you, is even more fun.

The zoo. I still sometimes end up there, when my arty daughter sketches and takes photos. But it’s hard to beat being with a small child as a goat eats out of her hand.

Snow. Not as magical without a kid.

Christmas, Easter, Halloween, losing a tooth when there’s still a believer in the house.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Not A Job Well Done?

My husband and daughter needed passports.

It was mildly complicated to set up. You need to call to schedule an appointment at a post office near you, get a very specific type of photo, assemble your documents, print out a form (which one is not clear) from a website.
For my daughter, once at the post office, though, the woman who did the paperwork was pleasant and got the job done in about 10 minutes.
Then my husband went. The first thing he heard was, “You filled out the form in blue ink; it needs to be black.”

He said, “As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew I wasn’t getting my passport.”

Ink color wasn’t a problem for my daughter and she had used the very same pen.
Then, my husband’s person went on her break while he rewrote the form.
He was right: he did have to go back another day (and he made sure to go to a different post office) to get the job done.
I was standing in a supermarket line. The man ahead of me had an armful of items. He didn’t know if he could put them down on the belt, though. The cashier was running it, holding a cleaning rag on it to wipe it, and she was doing so assiduously, with a sour face, pointedly not looking at him.

So, we both stood there, wondering what her problem was.
My first job, at 16, was as at a Sears. The other kids who worked with me used to lurk in the clothing racks so they didn’t have to wait on anyone.
I totally don’t get that. Why not just do the job you are there for, with a good attitude? It takes MORE energy, and creates a poisonous atmosphere to boot, when you don’t.
OK, off soapbox.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I Love Cape Cod!

©Diana Thomson
Specifically, the Lower Cape, which, if you look at a map, is actually the upper part.

Years ago, a merchant marine I met in a bar explained it was “lower” because of the way sailors read a compass. Or maybe because of the winds. “The same way Maine is known as ‘Down East,’” he concluded. (I never really got it.)

This part, also known as the Outer Cape, extends from Wellfleet through Truro to Provincetown and is different from the rest. It is very narrow. You never feel out of reach of the ocean. This affects the light – lines look sharper, colors brighter –and that light has been attracting artists since the late 1800s.

President Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore. More than half of the Lower Cape is park land, never to be developed.

Interestingly, the look of the land – sand dunes and scrubby pines – is not natural. When the Pilgrims first landed, in Provincetown before deciding to establish themselves at Plymouth, the Cape was covered in deciduous forest. Settlers, however, cut down all those trees, for firewood and houses.

Historically, the Outer Cape was always remote, so you see the prim farmhouses still in Wellfleet but that gives way to the rough country ways of Truro. And Provincetown is its own thing. In an old book on Cape history (it might still be sitting on the shelves of the Truro library), I read that Provincetown was settled from the sea by sailors and was known, to the pious citizens who could see its lights from Wellfleet, as the Province Lands, also Helltown.  For many years, because of sand dunes, a road could not be maintained to Provincetown. As soon as a railway could be built (it ran along the bayside beaches of Truro because no one valued ocean views then), the artists arrived, also gay people. (The Atlantic House a Provincetown bar that has been gay-friendly for at least 100 years, is commonly considered the oldest gay bar in the United States.)

My favorite thing is how everybody basically gets along, from New York sophisticates (Someone once told me that all the psychologists and psychiatrists in Manhattan are in Truro during the summer months) to native Cape Codders, fishermen and lobstermen who can trace their family tree back to original settlers. To this day, some natives pride themselves on having never set foot off-Cape. When I worked in Provincetown as a college student, I once sheepishly admitted to the chief of police that I wandered all over town alone at all hours of the night. “Darling,” he said, “you are as safe anywhere in town as you would be in your own bed." 

Two years ago, a bear wandered onto the Cape, all the way to Provincetown. Somewhere else (such as Texas, sigh), the first you might hear of this would be some idiot proudly crowing that he shot himself a bear. But on the Cape, people worried that the bear shouldn’t be darted and moved because he had as much right to be on the Cape as anyone else. Wildlife officials had to keep his new whereabouts secret so people wouldn’t try to visit him. So, OK, that’s foolish. (It’s all fun and games until the bear kills and eats your dog.) But it is sweet.

So, more than 300 words. But that’s because I really love the Cape.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Decide, Already

A recent fortune-cookie fortune told me, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”

And this one is right about decisions. They are hard to make.

Possibly the most paralyzing thing anyone ever said to me was, “You can be anything you want to be.” Yes, I know they meant well. But if you can be anything you want to be, then you don’t want to make the decision to be one thing because that will close off all the other possibilities.

Or at least, it seemed so to me, though I don’t see it that way now.

And yes, I have discovered that not deciding turns out to be a decision. And it isn’t going to be the one you will want to have made. Indeed, at the age of 49, I have come to see that the things I regret aren’t the things I did, but the things I didn’t do. Which sucks.

Many years ago, my friend told me how he made decisions when he couldn’t decide between two choices. He’d do “Eeny, meenie, miny, moe” and he’d pay particular attention to how he felt as he came to the end. “If I was OK with how it turned out, I’d go with it,” he said. “If I felt bad about it, well, apparently there was a difference, and I’d go with the other one.” Done.

Though I am still far from being a decisive person, I use his advice ALL the time (thanks, Jared) – and on important things, too.

Because, as a variety of people including Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerman have been credited with saying, “Done is better than perfect.”

And it, for sure, beats fretting.

Friday, June 20, 2014

To Think Or Not To Think

I have kept a journal since I was 12.

And I did keep them. (Maybe this is my inner hoarder talking, but what else are you going to do with a notebook you’ve filled up? And now, when I think of all those notebooks, I am horrified at the thought of someone reading them.)

Nonetheless, I had always thought of journal-keeping as a good thing to do, psychologically, emotionally, practically.  As many famous writers have said (like William Thackeray: “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write”), it always seemed to me that writing is a way to figure out what you think. If you can lay out something that bothers you, for example, you will see it has boundaries to it; you can get the measure of it and deal with it.

But recently I have come across other ideas.

In a book called The Confidence Code,the authors, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, say women “overthink.” They go so far as to call this “rumination.” Rumination, in the psychological sense, has a specific meaning, however: it is an endless loop of useless negative thoughts that the thinker can’t stop.

But I think of journal-keeping as thinking, not rumination.

And here’s where my perusal of Wikipedia got mind-bendy. Turns out I may not be not as good at introspection, knowing what I think and feel and why, as I’d like to think. That’s called the introspection illusion.

And it's truly a freaky idea.

But even if it’s imperfect, and even if I may do more of it than I should, stalling for time when I should take action, I still can’t help but think that thinking is a good idea.

After all, consider the alternative.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Winning Is Over-Rated

I was walking Lola the dog.

Or as passersby like to ask, “Was she walking me?”

She began trying to haul me over when she saw another black standard poodle.

He was with his owner, not on a leash. When this dog saw us, he sat and looked back at the man. The man asked, “Can he say hello?” And when I said yes, he nodded to the dog and the dog walked to us.

But when he got up close to Lola, he growled at her. The dog, presumably taught this by his owner, didn’t like the way Lola was dancing around with excitement.

The owner asked me how old Lola is. (Answer: 8) His dog is 2.

“Oh,” he said, packing that syllable with as much disapproval as possible.

Clearly, Lola and I had just lost the dog-behaving competition.

But why did it have to be a competition at all?

I like that my kids play sports. But guess what I don’t like? The parents. I thought the school was kidding when it had parents sign an agreement that they would behave themselves. It didn’t work. You should hear what some parents yell from the stands. Horrible stuff screamed at children in public. And these parents are absolutely convinced that their child, if only they push them enough, is destined for the Olympics or the professional leagues. It’s bizarre and sad and horrible.

What’s worse is that same competition is well-entrenched in the classroom. I know one girl who just finished a high-school career of AP and honors classes. She hated her classmates, said that they’d be all over you if you made even the slightest error, telling you how stupid you are.

But those kids are just doing what they are being taught. Yuck.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Is The Writing On The Wall?

My daughter practicing graffiti-style writing.
I went to Staples for pads of paper.

I had to search.

Finally, I found a paltry selection of pads and notebooks in a little half-aisle tucked away next to the rubber bands, school-locker shelves and other slow-sellers.

You're not supposed to be able to read it.
Paper – the kind you write on, as opposed to the kind you print on – is on its way out. And the kind you print on, which currently still commands a whole wall in the store, is probably on its way out too.

I realize this is a good thing, environmentally, but it will take some getting used to for me.

My kids think I am crazy because I print out drafts while writing. (In my defense, I buy recycled paper and use both sides.) I tell them I think it’s easier to proof-read on paper, but they say no.

And I don’t think my teenagers ever became comfortable with cursive. In fact, my son’s mainstream elementary schools never taught handwriting. Sometimes, when I volunteer at my kids’ high school, I sit at a reception desk where students have to sign in. I have yet to witness a single one of them using the correct pencil grip. And according to this New York Times piece, not learning and using handwriting in school could be having other, surprising ramifications.

One less-than-surprising ramification: if kids aren’t taught cursive writing, they can’t read cursive writing. Is it going to become some kind of specialized skill, like puzzling out Egyptian hieroglyphics, to read handwritten documents?

Who is preserving the art of handwriting? Are you picturing the stereotypical schoolmarm? No. It’s graffiti writers! As the Amazon description of this book says, “Graffiti is one of the last reservoirs of highly refined, well practiced penmanship.” And what was the first advice my arty daughter got from a graffiti writer? “Learn calligraphy.”