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?



Top photograph by the A+ photographer Barbara Paulsen.

Bottom from


Pretty Cool

I'm thinking about being pretty and feeling pretty.

I’m thinking about being pretty, and if that matters.

Next week, I am going on a girl’s trip to a sunny location with some great friends.  Stop drooling.  Before you get too green with envy, consider that instead of occupying myself with which books I’ll bring or which sundresses I’ll wear, I am instead thinking about how gorgeous my friends are compared to me.  I am thinking I am no longer pretty in that singularly youthful way.  What does it mean to be pretty?  And does it really matter?  And does anyone besides me really give a shit whether I am pretty?

Circulating on Facebook recently is a video by Dove.  Yes, the beauty bar (apparently NOT soap).  In it, female subjects (around my age) are drawn by a forensic artist first as described by themselves and second by someone else who had recently met them.  The drawings are of their faces.  Without exception, the subjects recounted their own perceived faults and inadequacies.  Chubby cheeks.  Mousy hair.  The other person who was asked to detail the subject’s features was decidedly more focused on the positive aspects of their appearance.  Lovely eyes.  Shapely cheekbones.  In fact, the describers were far more accurate when the artist completed his renderings.  (The subject’s faces were occluded from the artist’s view). When the female subjects finally saw the finished product, you could see the heartbreak on their faces.  The images were dramatically different.  The describers got it right.  The subjects got it wrong.  Just plain wrong.  And then I wondered, am I getting it wrong, too?

Earlier this month, President Obama was praising California attorney general Kamala Harris for being brilliant but in the next sentence, he called her the best looking attorney general in the nation.  Whaaa?  After an apology brought on rightly by protests, it’s still sobering to consider that women are still being given credit for their good looks on the same level as their accomplishments.  It’s bullshit for sure, but it happens all the time.  Gordon Patzer PhD, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, runs an institute on physical attractiveness.   His website is called Looks Rule.  Seriously, it is.  He has spent the last 30 years researching why it does matter.  Basically, his findings are that attractive people are valued more highly than others.  That’s it.  On a whole, they’re not happier, more organized, more interesting or smarter.  Just more valued.  Maybe that’s the reason that all these beautiful people are idolized who really haven’t done anything.  Paris Hilton.  Kim Kardashian.

They are more likely to have attention lavished on them, such as having others pick up their dropped papers while those less radiant are left to fend for themselves.  More attractive candidates get elected.  Less attractive students get less attention from professors.  It’s no wonder we want to be pretty and attractive.  You get to be liked and sought after!  You get promotions!  You get attention!  But then…  It’s must be hard to keep up that level of interest after your looks get you in the door.  After all, you don’t morph into a different beautiful person every day.  You are you.  And don’t we all use what we have?  Not everyone has supportive parents.  Or lots of money.  Not everyone is athletically gifted. Or endowed with a high IQ.  And you can bet that those things are highly valued too.  And also, what happens when your looks fade?

The reward circuits in your brain fire when you gaze upon a person, male or female, with physically attractive features.  The subcortical and paralimbic parts of your brain are activated, meaning that this happens without you being aware of it and also that it effects you emotionally.  So, as part of human evolution, we are programmed to be drawn to the prettiest of the species.  On the whole, men are more influenced by pretty women than the other way around.  And women are much more interested in being perceived as attractive.  Hmm… So, here in suburbia, do pretty women have more friends?  Not that I have seen.  Do they have better jobs, better husbands?  Sometimes, but not anywhere near statistically significant.  Do they seem happier?  Maybe.  Do they have less worries?  Definitely not.

One of my daughter’s friends asked me recently, would you rather be pretty or cool?  I told her I’d like to be pretty cool.  She seemed to like that answer.  Women rail against the status quo, me too, but we are fighting a biological instinct.  Attractiveness is a favorable attribute no matter how you slice it.

But here’s the thing.

I am pretty sometimes.  When I go out, when I wear mascara, when I watch my children play, when I go on a hike with my husband.  But I am loved all the time.

Have you ever known someone and at first you don’t see them as all that attractive, but as time passes, you find them more and more appealing?  As you discover their absolutely infectious laugh, their eyes gleam even more.  As you find out you both love Rob Lowe movies, you notice a glow about them.  As you are hugged by them in your saddest times, you close your eyes and allow yourself to be surrounded by their beauty.  That’s the rub.  You can change your biology.  You can create a pretty face when initially you didn’t see it.  You can even do this for yourself.  I just did.

Pretty cool.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty!

I feel pretty, oh so pretty!

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen at Mt. Hood Mama Photos for the pretty photos.  She is really pretty, too, by the way.

I confess. I didn’t work out today.

I'm thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I’m thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I didn’t go to the gym today.  My gym shoes lie dormant in the shoe closet, festering in dark silence.  My yoga mat sits neatly rolled up in the corner.  The pad of my index finger did not sit on a screen to check me into the gym.  My dog did not pant gratefully, then flop onto the cool tile after a run.  My speedy green road bike hangs on it’s hook, its odometer stuck on the same number from my last ride a few days ago.  Still and peaceful in my drawer, my heart rate monitor awaits it’s next challenge.  But my brain?  Ah, my brain.  That’s been going a thousand miles an hour.

The clock now reads 7:47 pm, and I am still thinking about where I could have squeezed in a workout.  (Okay, dammit!  Not “thinking.”  Obsessing.)  In the 45 minutes I had before I picked up the kids?  Could I have gotten up early?  I should have gotten up early.  The mental space taken up negotiating, fact checking, brow beating and ass kicking has been a workout in and of itself.  I mean, seriously.  What a waste of time.

Now, I grew up Catholic and my husband is Jewish so we are no strangers to guilt around here.  But my fellow suburbanites also carry around a fair bit of guilt themselves.  They work too much.  They don’t exercise enough.  They don’t make enough money.  They should be more crafty, more creative.  More interesting.  Less critical.  More kind.  More productive.   They should take more classes, go back to work.  (I swear to you all overheard in one happy hour).  There are multiple structures in your brain which are responsible for how you perceive and process guilt.  What motivates one person is different than what motivates another, but we are all profoundly and universally influenced by community.  This means that if your friends and community didn’t exercise, it would be a hell of a lot easier to hit the snooze button rather than get up and go to the gym.  Conversely, this is often why groups like Crossfit and for me, my yoga community, are intrinsic motivators.  You think about who you will see and who will miss you if you don’t show up.

In suburbia, if you see other people making good money, working out/looking fit, having good marriages and managing their time wisely, you want to do it too.  It’s a testament to my social network and neighborhood that there are some pretty hot 40 somethings (with great lives to boot).  So that’s probably why I feel bad when I miss a workout.

Personal blame, like when you are a lazy ass and don’t work out and beat yourself up for it, is mitigated in the subgenual cingulate cortex by the limbic (primitive and emotional) region of the brain.  These layers of emotion, blame and guilt make for some very busy collaborations.  It also makes sense to me, given all the stuff your cranium is processing, that you would be exhausted.  At this point, you should do yourself a favor.  You should, as my grandma used to say, shit or get off the pot.  For me, I should either not work out and chalk it up as a rest day or I should just go work out and be done with it.  Today, I am choosing to call it a night.   And I’ll tell you why.

First of all, it was a great day.  Beginning with a fun field trip with my 8 year old daughter, followed by getting some errands done, doing some writing, talking with a friend and ending with some real magic, it’s okay that my day didn’t include breaking a sweat.  Also, rest days help the following day to be stronger and better.  Maybe it will help that nagging knee pain I’ve been experiencing.  Maybe I’ll tackle an 8 or 10 miler tomorrow with my pup.  And you know what else?  There is SO MUCH more time in the day when you don’t work out!   I got my paperwork organized for work tomorrow, got my daughter to swim lessons on time, grudgingly mailed the taxes my hubby thoughtfully prepared, wrote a note to my sister-in-law and did some yard work.

As for the magic, the picture below was a rainbow we saw right out my front window tonight.  We would never have even known it was there if my neighbor hadn’t called to tell us to look out our window.  Thank you, neighbor.

Thank you, community.

No more guilt for me.

Now that's a little suburban magic right there.

Now that’s a little suburban magic right there.

Thanks again to Barbara Paulsen for the image at the top of this post.   She continues to inspire me with her creativity.

Absolutely, yes. No. Maybe.

I am not a person who makes decisions easily.  Having made some pretty bad choices in the past, it is often paralyzing to make them now.  All the things that are recommended, such as weighing your options, writing a “pro” and “con” list and my personal favorite sleep on it (I love sleeping) all wind up coming up short.  So I procrastinate, delay, hand-wring, whine and occassionally brood.  Then I wind up making the worst decision of all:  doing nothing.  Sometimes choices are just so overwhelming, particularly when it comes to kids.  Because then it’s not just your life you are screwing up.  If I make the wrong choice in a school for example, well then they could wind up being bullied, under-achieve, take up smoking, get in with the wrong crowd, etc.  See where I am going?  No good can come from this type of logic.  Let’s face it, when you make a big decision, you roll the dice.  And no Kenny Rogers, I am not a gambler.

So what to do?  I enlisted the help of the internet!  As it turns out, I am not alone.  In the most recent issue of O magazine, Martha Beck wrote about indecision.  Her advice felt true and honest:  “make a choice, any choice.  If you are still miserable, you can choose again.”  I also feel completely reassured when she says, “When you trade indecision for choice, you will be rewarded with either success or education, guaranteed.”  Brilliant.  Now if only I could trust myself to make a choice and let the chips fall where they may.  But my monkey brain is still too busy corrupting my calm and zen decision-making ability with cataclysmic “what-if’s.”  Back to the internet…

Then there is the gentlemanly approach of Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford University.  Shiv says in situations which are extremely stressful, such as illness, it’s a great idea to give up the driver’s seat.  For him, when his wife was sick with cancer, he stayed away from Google and WebMD and simply let his well respected physician and health care team make the decisions.  That way, he was free from guilt and he and his wife were able to concentrate on her recovery.  His theory is, well, if you are not the driver, you can sit back and be the passenger for awhile.  You don’t always have to be in charge.  You don’t have to wonder what would happen if you had chosen the other thing, relax, it’s been chosen for you.  Even smaller decisions are smoothed when you ask a friend to help you choose (Okay, so that’s what happens when I say, “Go ask your father!”).

We have been raised in a Western society that tells us that we should have more choices, that a free and democratic society is exemplified in the approximately 100,00 choices you have at your local Wal-Mart  (Not endorsing Wal-Mart here, I never go there).  But in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice,”  author and psychologist Barry Schwartz points out that the limitless choices we have tend more to promote paralysis than liberation.  Have you ever gone to one of those human resources meetings where they say you have 742 retirement plans to choose from or you could choose the default?  I always chose the default.  The idea of sifting through all of that information was so daunting, and my faith in my choice so weak, that I chose to have someone else choose for me.   Schwartz says that as our choices increase, so do our expectations.  Even when a good result happens from our choice, we still wonder, “yes these jeans are fabulous, but would my ass have looked better in the other ones?”  We sometimes anticipate the regret, before we even choose anything!   Like when we think about going back to work, then imagine the pained looks on our childrens’ faces when we are leaving, the messy house that awaits when we get home, the inability to squeeze in exercise and then *click* we put the thought out of our heads.  What if we instead thought about the paycheck, the respect, the equality, the goddamn glory of 9 to 5!  Not for nothing but, your brain doesn’t tend to go there.

Did you know that the average American makes about 70 choices per day?  That’s alot, according to Sheena Iyengar, who has spent years studying the “art of choosing” and is on faculty at Columbia Business School.  Her point is, we just have too many choices these days, people!  She refers to this phenomena as the “choice overload problem.”   (Otherwise known as WTF?).  We are generally just not neurologically able to manage too many choices.  Her recommendation to businesses is to limit the amount of choices that we the consumers have.  To that end, we will find it easier to navigate the many options at our disposal.  And everyone will win in the end.  We should also get better at categorizing and simplifying our choices.  So for those of you who have to choose a college or high school or pre-school for that matter, get out there.  Visit the place, talk to people.  Putting the choices into categories such as “close to home,” “lowest cost” or “best teacher ratio” is a good place to start.  For me, the choices might boil down to “least scary” or “coolest.”  But that’s just me.

Indecision seems to be in the water lately in my suburban community.  Decisions, decisions.  Which school is best for my daughter?  Is a job change needed?  Is my mother okay living by herself?  Can dad still drive, or do we need to take his license?  Do we need to sell our house?  As for me, when I make a decision, I feel relief wash over me.  Just to be able to know where I’m headed.  And I will continue to try to quiet the voice that asks if I would have been better off making the other choice instead…

Negative Nellie

Do you remember watching “Little House on the Prairie”?  How that bitch Nellie always used to screw over our hero, Laura?  Turns out your brain can turn against you in a similar way.  Somewhere in our evolutionary process, our monkey brains learned that a negative thought is a pretty darn good way to protect yourself against predators like tigers and bears.  But guess what?  In our culture, it’s no longer as useful as it used to be.  I had a teacher who used to say, “Don’t be a negative Nellie,”  whenever we would complain or say bad things about ourselves.  And she was right.

In my home of suburbia, we may actually be more primed for negativity than our city or rural dwelling counterparts.  Oliver Hapconf, a researcher at Notre Dame, has studied why we suburbanites are a little behind the eight ball when it comes to accessing social networks, a key ingredient to staving off negativity.  In the suburbs, contact between neighbors is often described as stressful.  Additionally, we suburbanites, especially those who live in wealthier areas, are more prone to isolation, low self-efficacy, loneliness and less psychological well-being.  Wow.  Why, you ask?  In terms of layout, it may be because we have less front porches and more gates, larger lots and less opportunities to congregate.  In general, those who live in the ‘burbs leave for work in the morning, come home at night and interact less and less with family and friends.   Those of us in the suburbs tend to visit friends less, are less civically active, report being less socially embedded, feel they live in a culture of mistrust, feel “seperateness” from others, are more private and feel socially dislocated.  All of which lead to, you guessed it, increased negativity.

So, what to do?  That monkey brain is really powerful, and the things it tells us can be completely judgemental, not just to ourselves, but to others.  Mostly, in our case, other women.  How many times have you heard the following comments?  She shouldn’t be wearing that.  I wish I could look more like her.  I am saving up for my boob job.  Have you seen so and so lately?  She looks …big, too thin, fill in the blank.  I am certainly not immune and am guilty of the same negativity.  And I really, really want to stop it already.

We can help to turn negativity on it’s ear by doing any number of things which will help you feel better about yourself and finally slow down that damn broken record once and for all.

Regard your negative thoughts as you would that annoying 2 year old tantrum.  Let it pass and try to ignore it.  Let it go to it’s quiet place and leave you alone.

Realize that negative thoughts may be true, but don’t regard them as “truths.”  Contradictory, maybe, but failure and acceptance of the bad are not the end.  Resolve to take a look in the mirror and see what your family and friends see.

It’s okay to substitute.  Not heroin for crack, more like companionship in place of solitude.  Or a walk with the dog instead of ruminating on your bad day in front of the tv.  A visit with your neighbor instead of a visit to Dairy Queen.

Okay, this one is weird.  Name your monkey brain.  I call mine Negative Nellie. You can call yours monkey brain or Fuckface for all I care.  It helps to call out the enemy, apparently.  I don’t know, ask Martha Beck.  It was her idea.

Treat others and yourself with compassion.  Hey, here’s a brilliant concept.  How about giving yourself a break?  Not being so hard on yourself and others?

Breathe deeply.  Yes I do yoga and can be a yoga-head.  But this is scientifically proven shit.  Breathing deeply reduces stress, anger and negativity.

Act.  Even if you are not used to taking a touchy-feely perspective, if it’s not really in your DNA, you can demonstrate a positive energy that will transmit to all of us.  Thank you in advance, by the way.

Here, I’ll start.

You are so awesome!

Your turn.

Conversation #3: Extra Special Extrovert

I spent an absolutely delightful afternoon with my friend Michelle at Pine State Biscuits last Monday.  It was sunny outside, a welcome change, so we took advantage by sitting outside in the sun.  Michelle is technically not a suburban mom, she lives in the city limits, but her upbringing was solidly suburban and she fits in well with suburbo-types.  Michelle is a “work friend,” she is an occupational therapist (like me) and we work together at a local clinic.   As a new hire last year, Michelle was the first OT I met and we worked together pretty intensely covering a maternity leave for another OT.  I instantly felt a connection to her, and you would too.  Trust me.  She is one captivating gal.

Michelle has a wide-eyed, curious, outspoken and open-armed view of the world.  She has a huge smile and you feel completely unjudged, listened to and giddy when you are around her.  The best word I can use to describe her is twinkly.  She is just that nice to be around.  Don’t get me wrong though, she has her opinions.  She is resistant to pigeon holing because she is a dichotomy in a few ways.  Michelle worries about underserved kids and families, but is also a cute dresser with a flair for color and finer textiles.  She is patient, calm and easy with the kids we work with, but will raise her voice when it comes to things she finds an outrage.  She is the parent of three Waldorf educated boys, shuns technology and enjoys the creative process.  However, she has high standards for her crafts.  No crap crafts, please.  Michelle believes in healing and the ancient practices of Qigong and yoga.  She is a certified cranio-sacral practitioner (and a few more certifications that are less known to readers) but the glory of a walk outside is also a direct route to curing what ails you.  She sits in the front row at her church so her boys are well behaved while in attendance.  Despite the stereotypes of churchgoers, Michelle is liberal and open minded and she has no tolerance for things which block the path to happiness, yours or her own.

“Most people would probably say I’m a good mom,” is what Michelle says when asked what is the most frequent compliment she receives.  That’s an understatement.  I personally feel empowered by Michelle’s parenting style which steadfastly upholds her ideals.  Those ideals would be togetherness, fun, firmness, free thinking and good old fashioned values.  She has an uncanny ability to not get sucked into peer pressure.  Talking about a friend who starts worrying about summer camps in January, Michelle says she shuts it down.  Her first priority is family time, not scheduling, worrying, list making and competing.  She says she can’t be bothered by that stuff, it’s a drain on her and all the things she would like to do with her family.  Michelle travels back to childhood home in New York at least a few times a year.  This is incredible to me, a native East Coaster.  Three kids and mom and dad making the cross country trek so frequently?   But when Michelle describes her family, I see why it’s so important to her.  While her siblings are all very different, their mom was the guiding force- always telling them that they could do anything and giving them powerful messages of self ability every step of the way.  Family is the center, and that is that.

Friendships are also a high priority for Michelle.  She gravitates toward others who feel the same way about family and together time.  Michelle is a self professed extrovert.  When I was younger, I probably could not have been friends with Michelle.  Her ability to completely pay attention to me, eyes never failing to connect, ideas always supported and firmly entrenched in an underlying confidence: this would have been unnerving to me.  It would have scared me and made me uncomfortable and nervous.  But now I welcome her strength because I think it strengthens me.  It motivates me to be a better parent, friend and less wishy-washy.  She understands that community begins with family and extends to friendships and neighbors and her loyalty is a result of that.  She craves relationships with other like minded people, like school moms or neighbors.  She feels drawn to others by something not quite known, but trusts her ability to recognize a friend.  She is practical too, instinctively knowing it’s harder to be friends with people whose kids are different ages.  Michelle and I are drawn together by the similarities in our husbands and how they think alike, in a very pragmatic way.  We also bond over our the fact that we are most definitely not techno-savvy. When it comes to gossip (topic of an upcoming post), Michelle enjoys a bit of it now and then but knows where to draw the line.  She stops if it comes down to saying something that you wouldn’t say directly to the person.  And she would.  Believe me.

In 10 years, when two of the three boys will be out of the house, she sees herself as being the same in many ways.  But she would definitely like to travel more with her husband, something she loves but has largely let go of in order to raise her family.  Michelle will no doubt be the same anchor for her children that her own family in New York continues to be for her.  She will be the same protective, loving and compassionate person she is, but with more time to sew and create.  She will be the same person with the same “can do” attitude.  I love that the next work day after I interviewed her, she came in and said, “I keep thinking of things I should have said when you asked me things!”  She is compelled to get it right.  Just by virtue of knowing her, so are you.  In 10 years, I am sure that Michelle will be sending home made care packages to her sons, continuing to frequently visit family members, traveling, voicing her opinion (loudly), struggling with technology, working a pop of color in her outfits, giggling, and in general making the world a better place.  I only hope I am still her friend to see it all.

Thanks Michelle!  Biscuits and tea are awesome.


Are You Contagious?

In this world of heightened economic instability, so many of our friends, neighbors and family members are suffering.  They are scared and unhappy about having to work longer hours, be in fear for their jobs and make sacrifices to maintain financial solvency.  It should come as no surprise that our community is anxious and feeling the ship of normalcy list perilously against the tide.  How then, are we to come to their aid, when the rest of us are worried about our paychecks too?  Could it be as simple as being hopeful in the face of despair?  Can we influence our community with our own resolute assertion that things will work out?  Maybe.

In his groundbreaking book, “Connected,” and in his TED Talk, Nicholas Christakis (and co-author James Fowler) postulate that ideas, behaviors and emotions spread through social networks.   The degree to which these spread depends on your location within that network.  To be clear, good and bad spread through social networks like contagions.  Obesity, smoking, drinking, loneliness and depression all spread through social networks.  But so do happiness, inventiveness and altruism.  This news came as bittersweet to me.  Okay, so we can counteract some of the negative feelings and behaviors others may be having in unsure times.  But is that enough?  I say, let’s generate our own “quiet riot” of hope.

Things I can spread in my daily life in suburbia:

1.  Humor.  A good laugh is like a flu shot.  It’s preventative against all kinds of ills and just bad ju-ju.  You don’t have to walk up to a person who just got laid off and tell them a joke.  Just tell a joke, and let the social network do it’s job.

2.  Hope.  On 9/11/01, my husband and I brought home our first baby from the hospital.  It was incredibly stressful, but we rented Spinal Tap and talked and sat outside in the sun.  It was hard not to feel disrespectful, attempting to ignore the obvious, but it gave me hope that normalcy would return.  Small joys are underrated.

3. Give.  Give money?  If you have it.  Give time? Yes.  Give of yourself?  Absolutely.  It’s a proven fact that altruism spreads through communities.  That could mean a granola bar from your car to a homeless guy sleeping under a tree.  Or it it  could mean playing Wii with your child instead of checking your email.   It could mean going to a PTA meeting or bringing a meal to a neighbor that just had a baby.  In suburbia, our social networks will vibrate with a pay it forward attitude.

4.  Accept.  It’s not for me to judge anyone for needing help.  What’s so wrong with being vulnerable?  Our culture values independence, great!   But I’d like to put in a plug for being stuck in a shitty place in life.  From this place, my most vital life lessons were learned.  When your life sucked, how did your life trajectory change?  Did blaming help?

5.  Listen.  Someone has an idea, a complaint, a worry.  Your friend’s husband just took a 25% paycut.  Your neighbor’s mortgage is underwater.  Your friend’s financial worries are impacting her marriage.  They want to talk about it.  Shut up (I’m talking to myself here, too).  Listen.

6. Respect.  I hear so much talk about people finding their passion in their work, finding a job you love,etc.  Have you ever had a crappy job?  Of course it sucks, but there is dignity in any job that allows you to provide for your family, afford a good happy hour and gives you countless stories to tell your friends.  Sometimes you have to go to work full time at a job you hate and suck it up. There are so many jobs out there that would be really difficult for me to do, given my abilities and limitations.  A teacher, a postal worker, a computer programmer, a salesperson, a garbage collector, a carpet layer, a septic tank cleaner, a manufacturing job, etc., etc…  All of these jobs have taken a hit in the economy, in the media or in our stereotypes of what kind of person may do this type of work.  Fuck it.  These people work their asses off, and are doing the real work.  To them I say:  Thank you for doing a thankless job.  There is honor in what you do.  And if you can’t find a job, I respect your desire to get one.

This is an evolutionary advantage to social networks.  The more you have, the better your life is likely to be.  The collective influence of the whole network makes the sum greater than it’s parts.  Christakis believes that social networks are “fundamentally related to goodness,” which gives me tremendous hope.  We can make it together, without judgment.  Our suburban social network is ready for the lift.

For Deborah.

It’s gonna be alright.