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.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sour People Make For Sour Parents

Volunteering during exams at my kids’ school, I sat next to a sour-faced woman holding textbooks on her lap.

“Are you selling those back to the school?” I asked.

"Yes. But my son couldn't find one of his books, so I told him, ‘Then you’re gonna pay me for it,’” she declared self-righteously.

AND, she told me, he hadn’t wanted her to come to school today.

“I wonder what he’s hiding,” she said darkly.

You, probably, I thought.

I read an online conversation about who should pay for a teen’s cell phone: parents, child or a combination. One mother said she had told her daughter “no dice” on buying her an iPhone. (Meanwhile, about 95+% of all the kids at my kids’ not-wealthy school have a smart phone.) This daughter left to live with her father, who got her one. “Way to go, dad, for showing her how to be responsible,” the woman fumed.

I read (in the October 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine) that 51% of parents reported having amicable relationships with their grown children. This means, presumably, that 49% do not. Sad.

Some people love to huff, “Parents shouldn’t be their children’s friends.” Bullshit. I am perfectly capable of preventing my toddler from playing with electrical outlets or telling my teenager not to drink and drive, without being a vindictive asshole about it.

I’m not saying that having your kid pay for something themselves is a bad idea. But rather than being punitive about it, you could say, ‘You’re becoming adult enough to do this yourself,” perhaps even – gosh –  letting them see, regardless of what you buy for them (or don't), that you love, love, LOVE them.

That way, they can feel good about doing it themselves – and not nauseated that you revel in being nasty to them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Genius for Worrying

I hesitate to tell you this.

I wouldn’t want it to become permanently lodged in your brain.

OK, you’ve been warned.

My family has a superstition. Based on the idea that it’s what you least expect that’s going to get you, we believe that if you expect EVERYTHING, every single bad thing that could possibly (and not so possibly) happen – and most importantly, if you expend a lot of energy worrying about all of them, you can keep them from happening.

I thought I had hidden this tendency in myself. I got myself down to where I’d just say, “Be careful” whenever anyone left the house.

Until my husband finally wailed, “Stop that!”

My husband says we have a genius for worrying.

I am, I’ve come to realize, anxious. It was a revelation to me that there are people who do not think the way I do.  It doesn’t occur to them to think about horrific crashes every time they get onto a plane or into a car, for instance.

According to a very good book, My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel (worth reading if only because the severity of Stossel’s anxiety will make you feel downright normal), anxiety-sufferers tend to be more intelligent than average. And it does seem to me that you have to actively ignore some pretty glaring facts in order not to worry. Tens of thousands of Americans do die in car wrecks every year. My husband has told me he hates to try to talk me out of my worries because I can put together such a good case that he begins to worry too.

In fact, the idea that there are people running around (and driving, etc.) who do not have enough sense to worry makes me worry more.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Things to Keep in Mind

In her high-school career, my daughter input 3,473 terms into the flashcard website Quizlet.

She was memorizing facts for school.

She was quizzed on: Elements and their symbols. Rocks and their parent rocks. (Limestone becomes marble but sandstone becomes quartzite.) Supreme Court cases. (I actually like this one; my daughter will never have the brain fart Sarah Palin did.) Even Popes and the titles of their encyclicals, in Latin. (Catholic school.)

My son composed one of the most disturbing Quizlet sets imaginable: early-Christian martyrs and how they died. (This one was flayed, that one was pressed, that one had her breasts cut off.)
What good is all this memorizing?

Some say memorizing facts for math, like they did back in the day, is crucial. But my high-school math teacher told us never to memorize things you can look up. (I didn’t realize then that he was quoting Einstein.) He focused on getting us to use facts repeatedly; when we did that, we memorized them without trying.
Many teachers have their students make a “cheat sheet” to use during tests. That is a valuable learning tool: the student has to think about what is important enough to include, rather than just cramming.

Things learned by rote memorization, a/k/a cramming when it’s done in a hurry, don’t stick.
And as this teacher says, memorizing isn’t understanding.

According to my Google search, many pro-memorization folks aren’t talking about memorizing facts at all, but about memorizing poems. As someone who can still remember the poems I memorized in high school and who continued to memorize poems, voluntarily, as a pretentious English major, I agree that this kind of memorization allows you to experience the interlockings of words and rhythms in a way you never could just reading.
But, other than that, memorization is overrated.