Farewell Suburbo-types!

Time for something new.

Time for something new.

Thanks to all my wonderful readers for a great run.  I’m on to some new exciting ventures and plan to pursue more of my first love, fiction writing, as well as some poetry mixed in.  For those in my ‘hood, there are some other community related ideas that are brewing.  We’ll be in touch;)  Suburbo-types is close to my heart and I thank all those who read faithfully, complimented consistently, allowed me to interview them and wholeheartedly embraced the project.  Special thanks to Barbara Paulsen for her photos, which often served as inspiration for the words in the posts.

See ya in the suburbs!

 

Cleaning Up My Act

Why does cleaning the house feel so damn good?

Why does cleaning the house feel so damn good?

If you are anything like me, you love when your house is clean.  A clean house to me has always been synonymous with serenity, a sense of control over my surroundings and well-being. When the house is a mess, I feel like a mess. But why?  And why sometimes, would I rather clean up than do things that are fun?  What would happen if I just let it all go to hell?

I hear lots of my friends and fellow suburbanites saying that they can’t do A, B or C until the house is picked up.  It’s as if the house has a pull that directly conspires to keep you from doing things that you want to do.  Except…many of us actually would prefer to do housework than do things like spend time with our children.  In Jennifer Senior‘s new book, “All Work and No Fun:  The Paradox of Modern Parenting,” she states that in our incredibly busy and achievement-oriented society, we are easily bored with things like helping with homework and reading a story.  Instead, we are playing a script in our head of what we can do next to tick off our to-do list.  Women, the ultimate multi-taskers, are particularly guilty of this.  While we highly value time spent with our children, it is not as directly satisfying as scrubbing some toilets.  I know, that’s fucked up.

So some pretty reputable psychologists have actually studied this phenomena and it’s fascinating what they have discovered.  In particular, with our levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in response to a variety of factors including stress.  Doing something active, something with your hands such as gardening or cleaning is known to be useful in alleviating depression and effectively lowers cortisol levels.   For dual income husbands and wives, this particular study looked at cortisol levels in response to having to do housecleaning after a day at work.  The results found that women spent more time after work doing housecleaning tasks while the men did more leisure activities.  The women’s cortisol levels only dropped when the men helped out with the cleaning.  But get this, the men’s levels only dropped when they were engaged in leisure AND when the women were busy doing the chores.  Okay, I get it.  Housecleaning is laden with heavy work and heavy expectations.  But does it have to be that way?

While all this is compelling, I still wonder why sometimes I can feel like I am in a goddamn reverie when I am cleaning.  Maybe it’s because I feel like there is so much out of control in my life that just getting that one room clean or that one pile folded or that one bed made feels like a mini-accomplishment.  Maybe it’s because my grandmother raised us to believe that a clean house reflects well on you, often exclaiming, “this place looks like a whorehouse after a fight!”  Maybe it’s because I am sensing forward movement where sitting at a computer or in front of a television feels stagnant.  Maybe it’s because my mother was and is the tidiest and most organized person I know and I feel like I can never fully live up to her dazzling spectacle.  And, yes,  maybe sometimes I am avoiding something I don’t want to do like paperwork or talking to my kids about sex.  Can I talk to them about sex while I’m mopping?

But I also find that I do some of my very best thinking when I am cleaning, particularly in an empty house.  It feels like a meditation, really.  Meditation is about shutting out the world and going in.  When I am cleaning, I can do that.  Attending to the small things in life:  getting out an ink stain on my husband’s shirt, sewing a button on my daughter’s pants, cleaning the windows to let the sunshine in, enjoying the fresh smell of clean sheets while making my bed, finding a lost bracelet while vacuuming under the couch.  These, to me, are not moments devoid of meaning.  They are actually fulfilling in simple and unexpected ways.  Look, life is busy and hectic enough.  But paying attention to the small things is how we show love.  At least that’s how I think of it.

How do you houseclean your life?

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The beautiful photos are the work of Barbara Paulsen.  Her house is always clean.

Getting- And Staying-Hitched

Look at those two crazy kids.

Look at those two crazy kids.

After Valentine’s Day last week, I started thinking a lot about marriage.  About yours, mine and those that surround us.  About the neurochemistry in our brains that causes two people to click.  About how marriage looks in the suburbs.  About the future of marriage as we know it.  I mean, is it important at all to even be married?  And most importantly, to me anyway, what it takes to keep a good thing going.

Recent brain science tells us some pretty cool stuff about coupling and why we are drawn to our partners.  There are four personality types as defined by preeminent “love” researcher, Helen Fisher, a bio-anthropologist at Rutgers University.  There are builders, who are focused on family and who they know.  There are explorers, who thrive on adventure and doing.  There are negotiators, whose passion is introspection and who are interested most in feelings and finally, directors whose focus is intelligence and thinking it through.  (Single ladies! Or not! Find out which you are here).  Mostly we are drawn to others of the same type but apparently any type can match up and be successful if you are willing to do the work you need to do.  Like swallowing the fact that you are not right all the time.  And ignoring that irritating little thing he does with his lip when he’s looking for a parking spot.

Does it sometimes feel like things are fucked up in marriage land?  When I was growing up, people waited to have kids until they got married.  Not many parents were divorced, but the numbers seemed to go up and up as I got older.  A lot of people waited until they got married to have sex.  (I don’t know many of those people, but I know they existed.)  Also, “cougar” type couplings were pretty rare and, at the time, men were still the expected breadwinners.  None of this seems to exist anymore, which mostly is a good thing.  Nowadays (do only old people say “nowadays?”), it seems, people have babies without getting married.  Or ever planning to get married.  They get divorced and remarry all the time!  It’s not even a big deal.  Women are heads of households all over the place!  In terms of female sexuality, it’s actually women who are more turned on by novelty than men.  Really!  Is everything I was taught about marriage passe?  Am I, in fact, a dinosaur?  Are my notions of marriage quaint?  While I think lots of these things are great, why do I cling to the whole “til death do us part?”  When I look at my wedding photo, I see a much less worn version of me: my hair it’s natural brunette without a hint of gray, my smooth skin, flat pre-baby belly and my lovestruck eyes.  Hell yes, I can see how my perspective is a little, well, dated.

Now, I am going to do some cheerleading here for long-term romantic relationships, so be prepared.  Yes, “hook-ups” with someone new are exciting.  Ah the stomach flipping, the obsession, the constant checking of your messages,  the staring at each other for hours.  There’s nothing like new love.  Except, as it turns out, old love.  In new studies on long-term pairings, Helen Fisher has discovered that some of the feelings we have when we are hot on that new stud are interpreted by the brain in the very same manner as those of us who remain with our tried-and-true.  This area, known as the VTA (ventral tegmental area) , is responsible for how we respond to food, money, drugs and other highly addictive goodies.  That’s right, babe.  Everything old is new again.

In the study, people were shown photos of their long term partners.  Their brains were hooked up to see which areas lit up and bam!  Neural activity jumped in areas of the brains that process rewards, motivation, reinforcement learning and, get this, survival.  This means that the same guy who can’t get a dirty shirt into the laundry basket to save his life actually sustains your life.  Wow.  The studies also showed that these partnerships were associated with proximity seeking (wanting to be together), alleviating stress, greater calm in face of adversity and improving responses to pain. As far as sexual frequency, the long term couples’ brains equated cravings like hunger with a need for sex.  So whether you get hungry once, twice or 7 days a week, you want it.  Bad.  Now, it should be stated that the couples involved in the study were actually in love and not in one of those marriages where you wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”

Anyone who has been in a relationship for an extended period of time knows that there are ups and downs.  Sometimes the spark gets dull.  And sometimes it is hot.  All long term relationships go through this, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship that stands the test of time.  After all, don’t the lows make you appreciate the highs even more?  Sometimes I think how great it would be if we were back to the time when we first met, with all the new gooey love.  Not being able to sleep or eat!  Sheer in-loveness!  Staying in bed all day! Starting a movie at 10 pm!  Sometimes I feel nostalgic for, even envious of new love.  But I wouldn’t trade our now for our then; looking at the fabulous humans we created, the home we built together and the wool socks-flannel wearing-cozy-newspaper reading on a Sunday morning-kind of love we have now.  So what that we are relics?  I’d do it all again.

You're the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

You’re the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the beautiful photos in this post.  

Kid Germs are the Worst

That seems excessive.

That seems excessive.

I knew I was screwed when I opened my mouth to say something, and my four year old friend sneezed directly into it.  He had already been hacking up a mucus-y storm and despite his outward cuteness, it was clear he was a creature on viral overload.  It was at work and I ran to the bathroom in a delusional attempt to evade sickness by washing my hands and swishing water around my mouth.  It’s one of those things you do to perhaps convince yourself that what just happened was not a deal breaker, that you are in fact well and totally fine.  When actually you are completely and totally fucked.

Stage one of illness:  Denial.  Have you ever swallowed a thousand times to try and figure out if you actually have a sore throat?  A couple days later, this is what I was doing.  Telling myself I wasn’t sick.  Dosing myself with Vitamin C, too much yoga and googling “immunity.”  Having plans with friends I didn’t want to miss, I was doubly anxious about the oncoming plague.  I didn’t want them to get sick or worse yet, tell me to stay home.  I just wanted to feel better.  Laughing and hanging out definitely helped and I almost convinced myself I was okay.  Almost.

Stage two:  Acceptance.  Okay, the red eyes, scratchy voice, phlegm-y vocalizations, pale face, sweaty brow and pink nose are all dead giveaways.  You are sick, dammit.  And you had better well face it. You are doing no one any favors by trying to be a martyr and get through it.  You are tormented by thoughts of people who have climbed mountains, won gold medals and braved war all while nursing a 102 fever.  The couch beckons.  The whole world feels gray. You won’t be a hero today.

Stage three:  “Lean In” to the couch.  While 20 straight episodes of “Girls” may sound fun, let me tell you, it totally isn’t.  I mean, not only did I feel like crap, I was utterly and completely aware of how old I was and that those 20 something days were long gone.  Having girls who are swiftly approaching adolescence made this viewing all the more complicated, given the, you-know, anal sex and near constant nudity.  I switched to PBS.

Stage four:  Calling out sick.  I hate calling out sick from work.  Not only does it make more work for other people, it puts you way behind on all the things that are due, like, now.  When there are people counting on me, it makes me feel terrible to let them down.  Plus I missed volunteering at the school, swim practice, etc, etc.  Calling out sick on your family is not fun either.  From my bed I could hear them making their own meals, coordinating rides and attempting to find their favorite pair of jeans.  They’re in the blue laundry basket, I croaked.  They didn’t hear me.  (Wait, can they really manage without me?)  Rest, they say.  It’s the best thing for you.  But all this rest can’t be good, can it?

Stage Five:  Human blob.  Being a fairly regular exerciser, it’s tough to just sit and rest.  My body was yelling at me, “Lie down immediately!” and my brain was forming pictures of global muscle atrophy, lung collapse and overall deconditioning consistent with a figure resembling Jabba the Hut.  When I mention this to my husband, he smirks and says “uh huh” and walks away.  One day, I tried to jump rope.  Seriously.  And then I started laughing at myself which began a coughing fit.  No more exercise.  For now.

Stage Six:  Isolation.  It was when I was in the car headed to pick up my daughter from school that I realized I hadn’t been to any of my usual spots in an entire week:  yoga studio, work, kid’s schools, writing at my computer, friend’s houses or just out in the neighborhood for a run with the dog.  Wow.  I really missed all those things.  But I was feeling better, antibiotics on board, and things were looking up.  Maybe my husband wouldn’t be forced to sleep in the guest bedroom tonight because my hacking/nose blowing were keeping him up.

Stage Seven:  Reintegration.  Looking back now, I am sure I engaged in a fair amount of self pity over the last couple weeks.  It’s really embarrassing given how my kids act when they are sick; they generally rebound fairly quickly and tend to be much more resilient in their recovery.  And now is the time for me to get back to life and the things that make up life, good and bad, which I have been away from for awhile.

Recovery.  Doubling my Omega 3’s and getting more sleep aside, things are about back to usual.  Getting kicked in the ass like that naturally helps you to discover what is good and right with our lives.  No, I’m not a CEO or a celebrity or anything like that.  But like you, I am important to my people and I didn’t like being away from them even for that little bit. I am grateful that I am, in general,  a super healthy person.  I was sick, not sick after all.  Maybe next time I’ll shake it off quicker.  Or maybe not.  Either way, it’s good to be well.

How Did I Get So Lucky? (Psst-you did too).

I'm thinking about my good fortune, and how I can help balance the scales.

I’m thinking about my good fortune, how others may not be so lucky, and what I can do to help balance the scales.

Let’s face it, life is pretty darn good.  Most days my biggest complaint is that my kids are bickering.  Not hunger.  Not lack of water.  And something deep inside me feels intensely guilty about that.  Having been raised with fundamental ideas about justice, this seems to fly in the face of everything I know.  Living with a 9 year old also who precisely recognizes fairness also makes me feel disproportionately well off.  Like when she asks, Why does that man have to live outside?  After quietly whispering *shit* to myself, I open my mouth and hope the right words come out.

My favorite journalist/writer is Nicholas Kristof.  He writes for the New York Times and co-wrote Half the Sky with his wife about how the mistreatment of women in the world is the central moral issue of our times  (I know, you already love him, too).  His contention is that when we see large amounts of sick, war-torn, disenfranchised, powerless and victimized people, we retreat into being overwhelmed and go into shut-down mode.  But if we see ONE person, one child maybe, we can access our compassion more readily.  And that’s what I’m trying to do.  What a lot of us are trying to do.  Feel compassion, act on it and quit feeling like shit that I live in a nice house and drive a nice car and live in a free country.  Damn it.

When I look around or talk to my friends, I can often see them doing the suburban dance.  Meaning, they are busy, busy, busy.  Me too.  Guilty as charged.  But I wonder sometimes if the reason I am doing it is to somehow make it alright that in comparison to many folks out there, I have won the fucking lottery.  If I slow down, if I say “no,” if I take a break and enjoy some down time…does that mean I’m not grateful?  Does it mean that I am somehow keeping myself insulated from suffering?  That people will think I don’t care?  That I am preventing the proverbial other shoe from dropping?  Of course not.  But that is sure as shit how it feels.

Still, it’s tough to reconcile the good fortune so frequently seen in the suburbs compared to those in other parts of our country and the world.  SNL hilariously put this into focus with White People Problems.  Sometimes, don’t you hear yourself saying shit and going…umm…really?  That’s what you are complaining about?  Some that I have heard recently are:  depressed dogs getting Prozac, lack of weekly recycling service, needing to clean out the refrigerator because there is too much food in there, being inconvenienced by red lights and where to build the new vacation home.  Now, I am certainly not immune to this kind of complaining.  After all, I did have to stop and get gas on my way to yoga while I was not working or taking care of children.  What a pain in the ass.

For me, the best way to balance the scales is just to give.  Not necessarily money, just giving.  Spending an afternoon at your kid’s school.  Volunteering at the Food Bank.  Walking around the neighborhood and picking up trash.  It’s not hard to find need.  But what is hard is knowing your limits and when you are done.  And frankly, this is where a little self compassion comes into play.  You know, take some oxygen before you give it to the kids.  If you aren’t sure how you rate on self compassion, there’s a great quick quiz here to try.  Most of the time, I can forgive myself for messing up.  For not being the best listener.  Or being impatient.  Or just plain being selfish.  But, with Martin Luther King Day coming up on Monday, I hear his words in my ear:  Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” And then I remind myself.  He didn’t say “now” or even “weekly.”  He didn’t even say how.  That is up to you.

When my daughter asked me at age 6 why our souls were born here and not in a place that was at war (think the Congo or Afghanistan), I didn’t know the answer.  I still don’t.  But maybe I don’t have to know the answer ( I am much better at asking questions than giving answers anyway).  I don’t always feel this way.  But when I get that nagging sensation, I know that it’s time to go spend some time folding and sorting clothes at the outreach.  It’s time to share in some community writing.  It’s time to go to the zoo with the kids class.  Whatever the reason, I’m here in the suburbs.  Living, sharing and raising some young humans.  Bad things can happen.  But I can do some good.  It’s time.

Do you feel lucky?

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the sweet photograph.  I am lucky to know her.

 

In my pajamas and loving it!

Pajamas, if done well, are the bomb.

Pajamas, if done well, are the bomb.

There is something so lovely about being in your pajamas.  So warm and cozy.  So comfortable.  And if you’re in the mood, even sexy.  Pajamas, for me, are an expression of the real me.  Sometimes you just want to change into a person that doesn’t have to worry, obsess, work out or wear makeup.  And that person wears pajamas.

Some of my best work is done in my pajamas while holding a cup of coffee.  Cleaning the house.  Writing.  Talking on the phone to my besties.  Giving my dog a belly rub.  Pajamas are an outer reflection of inner peace.  Even the act of opening the cabinet door to gaze at my pajamas is part of the ritual.  We live in a stressful world that is constantly yelling at us.  BE A BETTER PARENT!  MAKE MORE MONEY!  LOSE WEIGHT!  DO SOMETHING MEANINGFUL!  Alternately, when I look at my pajamas, all they say is relax.  They look at me in their soft cotton way and say, bitch, chill out.  Whatever is causing your mind to race is easily cured with a little cutesy pattern that feels like a fuzzy fur stuffed animal.  Now that shit is calming.

To me, coffee completes pajamas.  But it's not 100% necessary.

To me, coffee completes pajamas. But it’s not 100% necessary.

You see, for me, and for many of my suburban cohorts, pajamas are the one thing at the end of the day that can activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  It’s the peaceful part of your autonomic nervous system- the opposite of that fucking sympathetic nervous system that always has you on high alert, sending you running to the wine cabinet and screaming obscenities.  The PNS restores us to balance after a stressful events, when we are safe and perceive ourselves as out of harm’s way.  It works to decrease heart rate, slows your pulse and allows natural digestive processes to occur.  In other words, I see my pajamas and everything feels okay.

Now, there are exceptions to this rule.  You know the ones.  They wear pajamas to pick up their kids from school (*note* morning drop off in your car is exempt), grocery shop, go to the mall and Starbucks, among other suburban locations.  This is disheartening.  You do not have to subject your dentist to your bright yellow Sponge Bob pajama pants.  Pajamas are a little like vampires, they don’t like being exposed to the light of the real world.  They lose their power when exposed to such daily trivialities and subsequently relegate the wearer to “laziness.”  There are societal conventions we all abide by:  you wear a bikini to the beach but not to work.  You wear a cocktail dress to a formal party but not the gym.  We all have to follow these rules, and when you decide to say “fuck it” and wear your pajamas in public, well, frankly, it ruins the glory of pajama-wearing for the rest of us.  Get your shit together and choose your daywear accordingly, please.

Even designers have been rolling out some pajama-themed frocks on the runways lately.  Everyone wants to be comfortable and it’s about time that someone figured that out.  But pajama-like designer clothing?  Save it for your house, people.  No one wants to see that.

One exception which can be really fun is to get together with friends and have a good old fashioned sleepover or movie night when you wear your pajamas.  It’s super fun to hang out with the girls and drink wine and watch a chic flick while rocking some footies or flannels.  Nothing says friendship like hanging out in your shlumpies.  Having recently done this with friends, I highly recommend it.

Life can be busy and hectic, even when it’s awesome.  Don’t wait until bedtime to put on your pj’s!  Put them on after dinner and don’t take them off until absolutely necessary to do so.  You’re welcome.

What are your favorite pajamas?

Yes.

Yes.

Photo of coffee mug courtesy of Barbara Paulsen.

First image from Etsy.

Report Cards Are Coming Home Today

Ready to get schooled.

Ready to get schooled.

Here we are again!  Ah, the glowing lights, the familiar carols, the cookies.  But a different kind of treat comes along at this time of the year.  Something I used to dread:  report cards.  Now and at the new year, how would it feel if someone was grading me in all my subjects? How would I be doing?  What would my subjects even be?

Well, obviously I’d be taking a health course of some kind.  Given my natural inclination toward mind-body and helping, I am sure I would be acing that shit.  But not so with lots of American moms.  Over the last few decades, we have gotten more sedentary and less active than in past years.  According to an article by Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times, our lack of movement is causing our kids to become more obese.  Not only do we do less housework (not fun but burns a mean calorie), we sit in front of the tv far more often.  The study authors conclude that moving your ass is an “absolute prerequisite for health and wellness.”  As a physician, my husband bemoans the fact that so many common ailments could be treated with exercise, not drugs.  I don’t want to raise couch potatoes.  Plus, I hate the idea of being all creaky and out of shape.  My grade:  A-.

For the sake of our family, I am taking a lifelong financial course. This stuff does not come easily to me, and I need all the help I can get.  If it weren’t for my financially savvy husband, I may have gotten myself into some serious debt by now.  And I wouldn’t be alone.  He helped me understand how valuable it is to save, and hopefully, prosper.  The kids are getting schooled too.  They have their own checkbooks, savings accounts and allowances.  They have to keep track of it all on their own.  But for the grown-up stuff, I am utterly and completely bumblefucked.  I cannot speak coherently on topics ranging from money markets to 503B’s to the stock market.  I also spend in a haphazard way that could certainly use some tuning up.  For homework, I signed up to take an online course on investing.  Eek, I feel out of my element.  My grade:  B.  Okay, B-.

Currently, one of my favorite subjects is community.  We all know that fostering social connections helps to lengthen your lifespan, avoid depression and improve your general happiness quotient.  However, in the winter months, particularly in the upcoming months after the holidays are over, it’s easy to hide out in the house when it’s dark and gray outside.  We have also made a commitment to have happy hours at our house on a semi-regular basis to keep the friends in the same room.  It’s amazing how just those brief little get together’s help with the isolation of winter.  For me, writing and meeting new people help keep the desire to bury myself under my covers at bay.  It would be great to form a dinner club or something along those lines but right now that feels a bit overwhelming.  After the holidays.  Maybe.  My grade:  B+.

One subject that I am doing fairly well in is keeper of the family.  You know the one.  You are in charge of photos, establishing traditions, recording memories, collecting recipes, organizing schedules, ordering what needs to be ordered, grocery shopping, keeping track of hair/dentist/doctor appointments…The list goes on and on.  While managing to keep this ever-growing file going, I do drop the ball occasionally.  And when I do, I am reminded frequently by my children.  Sometimes I think they actually enjoy when I mess up.  Although I haven’t put the scrapbook together for the last 3 years (okay 4, maybe 5), I know where everything is and I just have to get my act together and do it.  Unfortunately I don’t get a study hall to work on this stuff.  Maybe I’ll apply for an internship!  My grade:  B+.

In the “taking time for myself” class, I have managed to surpass all expectations.  With girls trips planned and executed over the last year, time with my friends has been a necessary diversion.  Getting some alone time, it’s taken me awhile to learn, is also essential to the well-being of not only me but the whole family.  I need “buffer days” if I’ve been working a lot or if we’ve been travelling.  Others have ways to deal with the hectic pace of life, but a cup of tea in a silent house is a great way to rejigger the chaos.  Along the same lines, my husband and I have carved out more time to be together for quick dinners or beers when we need it, which is weekly.  Our kids are now able to be on their own for short periods (if my hands weren’t on the keyboard they’d be clapping).   My grade:  A.

Parenting class has it’s highs and lows.  Some days I wonder how I ever thought I could do well in this course and I have definitely pulled lots of all-nighters.  Sometimes I wish I had an advisor I could go to, but even if I did, I probably couldn’t make the office hours.  There are times I feel totally competent, rolling and grooving, like I am kicking this thing’s ass…and then…I’m a complete failure.  I mean, can I get any extra credit here?  The tests feel like they come every day:  friendship troubles, teaching gratitude, handling disappointment and hardest of all…being a good role model.  The biggest surprise, I suppose, is that two little creatures can serve so often as my teacher, instead of the other way around.  Like you, I get it right a lot.  And wrong.  But the essence of me is always that it matters to me more than anything in the world.  Anyway, I wish someone would give me a grade since it seems impossible to give myself one.  But in the meantime, I give myself a B.

Ah, fuck that.  Make it an A.

What courses are you taking?

Yeah.

Yeah.

Top photograph by the A+ photographer Barbara Paulsen.

Bottom from jumpingwithmyfingerscrossed.com.