Be Your Own Center of Gravity

So says Liz Kay here, in a brilliant blog post.

And just to remind you, here is a post about parenting and “gravitas.”

The key is not being big and heavy. It is being grounded. Letting the weight of gravity, of your wisdom and experience, guide you, hold you to the ground, steady you.

Dog Science

Science has discovered—or confirmed, I’m not sure—either way, someone actually studied this stuff in some sort of formal way—that dogs are jealous. No joke. Science has also concluded that dogs understand the meaning and tone of our words.

I know about this because, while I am too lazy to do so, my husband Ray reads The New Scientist Magazine, among others, and he reports to me the interesting stuff. So I feel like I have a pretty good deal going on.

This morning, on our daily walk in the woods with our dog, I was laughing about how she has to stick her nose into every snowy footprint: deer, rabbits, something smaller. It really is a bonanza for her.

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“But it makes sense,” I said to Ray.

We all know that dogs “see” with their noses, but I have discovered something else, and I wonder aloud if it applies to other animals as well—if that’s why footprints are of special interest.

I don’t know about your dog, but our dog has a warm, puppy smell—even though she is now eight years old—that she exudes when she is happy. I have done extensive, rigorous scientific research (a.k.a.: cuddling on the couch) and I have tracked down the source of this smell, which, I will add, is a strong cuddle-inducer.

It comes from her paws. Yup. The bottom of her feet.

She has other smells that come from other parts of her body.

Turkey shit? That’s from the shoulders. She drops one and then rolls around onto the other, back and forth, until she has completed her toilette.

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She can also, apparently, turn on WMD-level dog breath at will. When she wants attention, she will sit in front of me, staring and panting. “I’m busy,” I say, but she keeps panting, replacing the airspace around me with I-don’t-even-know-what. Until, “Omigod,” I say, flapping my hand, and up I get and she immediately shuts off the viral dog breath and goes boinging out of the room to the door.

On trips, when she is tired of sitting in the back of the car to monitor motorcycle traffic, she also applies the panting dog-breath method to force a stop or, at the least, some awkward, reach-around-behind-the-seat tummy scratches.

This morning, as Ray and I slithered down the hill toward the creek—there are a few inches of snow over ice—we decided that perhaps that is the next topic for science to investigate: do all dogs, in fact, have a warm, puppy smell, and if so, where does it come from? What about other animals?

“Or,” Ray says, as our dog yanks a stick out of the snow and charges full speed back up the hill, “they could find out whether dogs like new snow.”

 

 

January: Waiting

Waiting

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought for you are not ready for thought.

So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.

~T.S. Eliot

On Motivation: Barry Schwartz

I love Barry Schwartz, not just because of his generosity (he was kind enough to take time for an interview with me about children and choices) but because he is the kind of guy who is always looking at ideas from a different angle. He is an assumption-buster.

His book, The Paradox of Choice, will forever change the way you think about choice and happiness. His latest book, Why We Work, is featured on the Brain Pickings site. He presents an interesting perspective on the dynamics between discovery and invention, in particular, how our institutions shape our own human nature.

How we design our institutions–he is talking about workplaces, but think about it in terms of schools and families as well–has a profound effect on us.

Our ideas about what motivates people to work, Schwartz cautions, have shaped the nature of the workplace in unfortunate ways — particularly when it comes to the ideology of incentives and the carrots-and-sticks approach to reward and punishment.

There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature… But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.

And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing it.

Sobering. But then he says:

Human beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.

You can watch a brief TED talk here.

Story Makers Podcast: A Writer’s Salon in Your Living Room

cover170x170My conversation with Elizabeth Stark and Angie Powers of Book Writing World, in which we discuss the writing process, memoir, and my first book, Parenting in the Here and Now (which had just been released in the UK at the time of the recording and is available now in the US). Elizabeth teaches in-person and online writing classes that are worth their weight in gold, not just for the craft lessons but because she creates such a welcoming and affirming community. Her Story Makers Podcast is just another way of opening doors for writers. As a new writer, I needed to hear, over and over and over, from other writers. Still do. There are 8 other conversations available. I’ve listened to them all. Don’t miss them. It’s like having a writer’s salon right in your own living room.

 

Of Sharks and Terrorists and the Loss of Innocence

I pretend to have an obsessive fear of sharks.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am afraid. Ever since my mother took me to see Jaws when I was eleven years old, I have been afraid of sharks.

We were on a beach vacation that year, the first since my parents had divorced, and besides the shark movie, my mother treated my sisters and me to an R-rated film featuring gay sex—lots of gay sex—the variations of which were explored in exquisite detail on the screen and among many of the men who sat nearby in the theater. We were in Provincetown that year, not our usual destination, and my mother was, I suppose, trying to be cool, hipster, enlightened, I don’t know what. But even the ticket taker at the door to the theater warned us off—this isn’t a movie for children, he said—but she insisted, as if he were a relic from my grandfather’s generation. So all those rows of bloody teeth blown up large for the screen one night and then all of those intimate acts the next: I will admit. I was a bit overwhelmed.

I was contemptuous, too. The mildewy shack that we stayed in seemed like a significant step down from our usual vacation place. I can see now that taking us to Provincetown—a new place that wasn’t associated with my father—was an act of bravery on my mother’s part—or maybe it was just all she could afford. But I hated it, everything about it, especially my mother, because besides bringing us to inappropriate movies, she brought along our record player, the one that snapped shut like a small suitcase, and she played just one song from one record, over and over and over: Barbra Steisand’s “People Who Need People.”

If people who needed people were the luckiest people, it was clear that I was not one of them. I didn’t feel lucky (I was the one she chose to sleep on a sagging cot on the not-very-screened-in porch without AC), and I wasn’t a person who needed people: I just wanted to be left alone.

But back to the sharks. After the Summer of Jaws, I could never swim in the ocean again without that tingly feeling of being watched. I might even admit to having looked over my shoulder once or twice while I was in a swimming pool, but that was only because of that James Bond movie where the guy is thrown into the pool and then a secret hatch opens—uh, oh—letting in those smooth and silent sharks.

Aside from that, I feel that my fear of sharks fits into your normal range.

But over the years, my fear has become legendary in my immediate family. I copped to my shark phobia once, and besides the usual jokes about pigs killing more people per year than do sharks, an amazing phenomenon occurred.

I lived in Montana for fifteen years—pretty safe from a shark attack there!—but I managed to escalate my shark-fear rhetoric nonetheless. I was in the middle of a whole continent, and still I didn’t have to wait for Shark Week to find an excuse to slip in a funny comment about sharks followed by a full body shudder.

But it wasn’t the fear that was so delicious. I don’t like fear.

I have plenty of other things that I struggle with, that I am concerned about, that I am genuinely afraid of—so why exaggerate this one?

Because people believed me. I wasn’t dismissed as being “too sensitive.” I didn’t even have to trot out that sorry story about my loss of innocence in a theater in Provincetown. They believed that I was afraid. It required no explanation on my part.

A fear of sharks, while not statistically valid, is understandable to everyone.

And so I understand why terrorist attacks bring up such visceral fear. The horror and suffering is real.

But here is the thing: my family does not make decisions based upon my shark phobia. And neither should politicians make public policy based on their fear—or the public’s fear—of terrorists.

I overact my fear of sharks because…well, I suppose because of some unmet childhood need to be protected, to be heard, to be accepted. And because it is funny. But I don’t use it to manipulate anyone.

And that is what the terrorists are doing: manipulating.

Sharks kill and eat their prey without any intent other than to fill their stomachs. It isn’t personal.

Terrorists kill in order to control the behavior of the millions of people whom they can’t kill. They kill in order to manipulate the few people who do have control over the rest of us: politicians. They terrorize in order to destroy what they could not otherwise destroy. 

Terrorism isn’t war. It is political manipulation. Follow the puppet strings. Follow the money. Stand in solidarity with the victims, but remember that terrorism is NOT an existential threat.

Pigs really do kill more people than sharks do. And many more people will die of diabetes than from terrorist attacks. Women have been killed by their partners, young black men have been killed by police officers, people have been struck and killed by drunk drivers, and students have been shot in schools. But those threats don’t scare us—or they don’t scare all of us—the way terrorist attacks do.

The terror is real. You are not over-sensitive.

And the threat is real, too. It just isn’t the one that seems so immediately obvious.

The real threat is that we will react disproportionately, as the terrorists wish us to: with fear and, worse, hatred.

 

 

 

 

The One Thing You Need to Do Before Your Book Goes to Press

New Hampshire Writer’s Week is winding down. At the second-to-last panel last night at Nashua’s Barnes & Noble, we were all in agreement that the one thing you need to do between getting your book contract (or settling on a system for self-publishing) and going to print is to make and implement a marketing plan.

As always, the panelists were generous. Amy Ray shared an outline of the promotion plan from her book proposal. Helen DePrima told stories about her odyssey, Terri Bruce reminded us that marketing is all about building authentic relationships, and E.C. Ambrose offered a mini-tutorial on the 1-2 sentence logline, that hook that we all need to nail down, write down, rehearse and memorize so that we are ready with an interesting and pithy answer to that question: “So, what’s your book about?”

And I talked about fear.

I am not an expert on marketing and promotion. I am still on that learning curve, even with one book out (Parenting in the Here and Now), another ready to send out and a third on the way.

But I know a lot– a LOT–about fear.

And I told the audience that I naively thought that once I had my contract, once I had made it past the gatekeepers, once I had been chosen, I would be done with fear.

Yes.

Indeed.

In my earlier panel discussion about finishing a first draft, I spoke about the inner critic, who tells us that our writing is no good, often before the words are even on the page. I know the inner critic. I can recognize it in all of its multiple disguises.

Or I thought I could.

But after I had been through the pre-publication editing process on my first book with the most kind and helpful of editors, I was overcome by what I later learned is called “imposter syndrome,” in which you can’t believe that your name is worthy of being attached to your thoughts and words. I wrote a despairing email to her, confessing that I was an utter fraud and that there was still time to put a stop to the whole thing. It wasn’t too late.

I am sure that my editor must have rolled her eyes when she received the email: “Oh, these writers…” But she responded to me with as much kindness and grace as she had to my manuscript and told me that all writers feel this way at some point, that she and the publisher (Floris Books) believed in me and my book, and now would I please take another read through because it was time to proof it for the last time.

I didn’t tell the audience this story to scare them off. On the contrary, I told it to them so they wouldn’t be scared off. So they would recognize fear when it crept up on them from behind or hit them squarely in the face.

So they would understand that fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic AND the imposter syndrome) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes. You aren’t worthy.”

But fear means: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.”

I cannot say it enough or hear it enough, so I’ll repeat it again, for your sake and for mine:

This is important. You are the one. You are worthy.

Have courage.

 

The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft, part 2

Here is the handout I made for my presentation last Tuesday for New Hampshire Writer’s Week. It includes a list of books that have been inspiring for me and some which have been practically useful, an interesting article about Zadie Smith and her analysis of the psychology of writers, and finally, Anne Friedman’s “Disapproval Matrix,” which is instructive for anyone, really, but writers in particular. And it is wickedly funny.

Click on this link: First Draft

 

 

Room for Chaos

My daughter once told me that my motto could be: “Throw it out or melt cheese on it.”  I had to laugh at that– she had me nailed. But later, I wondered: that’s a pretty pedestrian motto. What does that say about me?

I do love cheese, and I’m willing to take something tired or bland and enliven it with a little warmth and love.

I don’t waste a thing.

I make do with what I have.

Long before Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Channging Magic of Tidying Up suggested it, I made a habit of keeping only those objects that I love, whether for their beauty or their practicality, which is, in my mind, a type of beauty.

I prefer giving to receiving. I’ve always gravitated toward simplicity in my physical surroundings. My willingness to chuck virtually anything has come in handy in my writing: no word, phrase, scene or chapter is too precious to cut.

But like the Sprats of nursery rhyme lore, I am a neat-nik married to a man who saves everything. I once found a grocery list from a previous decade in the pile on top of his dresser. He just shrugged that time, without giving me his usual, “But honey, I might need it someday.”

It used to drive me nuts– all that “potentially useful” stuff. But my husband is a MacGyver-type guy. He can fix anything with a zip-tie, the lint in his pocket, and maybe that one item he finds after rummaging around for a half hour. The one time I did convince him to toss something that I considered unworthy, we needed it later–or a part of it.

So I learned to temper my desire for order and minimalism, and he learned to contain his largest piles in certain areas: the basement, the garage, a closet, his office. A compromise with an eye toward harmonious living.

But I have learned to go beyond tolerating his “messes” to having some–admittedly only some!–appreciation for them. Once, my young son decided he was going to build a fishing rod, including a reel, from scratch. Sticks collected from the wild corners of our pasture, bits of stray wire, even that old license plate from the car we sold were all put to use.

There is creative potential in clutter. In chaos.

I like my desk to be clean when I sit down to write (see header photo on this blog). I empty the dish rack in my kitchen before I start to cook. But after my vegetables get a head start in my garden, I let the weeds come. Not because I am lazy, but because their flowers invite beneficial insects. (I am lazy: I let the bugs do my work.)

There is a time and a place for everything, even chaos.

Kondo suggests that we pick up every object in our houses and ask ourselves if we love that object. I suggest that we also look at every area of chaos and ask, “What does this invite?” If the answer is “ants,” you might want to consider moving it or getting rid of it. But if it invites imagination, creativity or even the possibility of it, you just might want to find a place for it, in your home and in your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mama Bear: An Example of Parental Authority in Action

Watch this little clip of film. (Warning: in the last second, one of the people filming says sh*t, so mute if you want to avoid hearing it. The sound of the clip is not relevant.)

Notice Mama Bear’s weight. She is a Big Mama. Her years of loping through meadows and browsing through forests to find grubs and berries and all the other nourishments her world has to offer her shows—she has gravitas. Not just because she is large and there is more mass for the forces of gravity to work upon, but because she KNOWS. She has been around the block—or the lake.

She does not doubt what she knows. And in this case, she knows that little bearcubs do not belong on the highway with vehicle traffic. And Big Mama not only knows this, but she acts on what she knows. There is no doubt, no drama, no denial.

This is such a wonderful visual example of Ho Hum in action: acting calmly with parental authority (Ho Hum is a central part of Parenting in the Here and Now.

I am not suggesting that when your children are troublesome, you should pick them up by their heads. I am suggesting that it might help to remember Big Mama: the weight of her calmness and the resoluteness of her action.