Family Moab

Family Moab
In Arches National Park

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Unexplored Territory

“Fear grows out of the things we think; it lives in our minds. Compassion grows out of the things we are, and lives in our hearts.” – Barbara Garrison

I’ve been thinking a lot about fears and happiness in the past few days. I read Mary Karr’s excellent memoir Lit, which discusses her journey through alcoholism and depression into happiness ( Then Dr. Richard Friedman’s article in the New York Times spoke to me with this title: “Looking Within for Happiness? It May Not Be There” ( The authors share a theme: get out of your own head and pay attention to how you feel. Easier said than done, of course, especially when your mental hideout is well-furnished and extremely comfortable.

My mental residence is cozy and well-worn. There are skid marks on the floor from frantic thought processing or rapid turnarounds, and two cushy armchairs labeled “what next?” and “what if?” sit right in front of the screen where I replay events of yesterday or screen possible tomorrows. The air is a bit stale as the windows have jammed and not a lot of fresh breezes get inside, but it is warm up there. Asking me to move out of my head is like asking me to go abroad for a year in a dangerous place. Taking up residence with my feelings and emotions is like trekking off to Siberia without an overcoat – or Death Valley without a shade umbrella.

I can’t get away from the signposts that keep littering up my literature, however. They all more or less point to the same three objectives:

1. Give up the illusion of control. Acknowledge a higher presence and spend time listening to it.
2. Practice gratitude often and at length.
3. When you hear direction from the higher presence or your own inner voice, act on it.

These practices look different for different people though most also add the element of community support to their list. As I re-read the list, I definitely agree with the practice of gratitude; as soon as I spend any time focusing on my blessings I really do feel much better and the emotion seems to spring from my insides – largely unexplored territory but fortunately still functioning. My children have broken me from my illusion of control, but I continue to plan, list, calendar and organize as if my powers are intact. Meditation and quiet remain lofty goals that I practice only once a week if I am lucky, but I am less likely to pooh-pooh them than I used to be, especially since a friend told me that napping during meditation was perfectly legitimate.

So I’ll sign off writing today, as it’s time to turn off my brain and sit with my emotions. I don’t know what I’ll find in this new territory but I’m feeling brave today. Wish me luck.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Weighing in on the Tiger Mother

"I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t." - David Brooks, NY Times Opinion January 17, 2011 (

David Brooks' editorial was a concerto to my ears after the din of discordant arguments surrounding Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and titillating excerpt of the same in the Wall Street Journal.. The topic is a lightning rod for parental controversy: are we too easy on our children or is she too tough? Should we demand excellence from our children, force them to practice and do homework, and prioritize achievements over social activities like sleepovers and playdates? The article, and Chua's stories about her demands on her children (and their resultant successes) have fanned the ever-hot flames of parenting guilt or superiority.

Mr. Brooks argues that if Chua wants her children to succeed at the most difficult and intricate challenges in life she would be emphasizing exactly those activities that she depreciates in her household. For example: "Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale." I have to agree. From my perspective it is much easier to plug away in solitude at a difficult assignment than it is to solve problems as a group, or negotiate difficult social status ladders. For children, especially, learning how to interact is critical for future success - and I would argue - happiness. The unstructured segments of the school day, otherwise known as lunch and recess, can be far more treacherous than the calm sanctums of math class or reading.

If human happiness is based on relationships with others and not one-off (or even repeated) achievements, then Chua is putting the em-phas-is on the wrong syl - lab -le. I am sure it is wonderful to play the piano at Carnegie Hall and that the achievement and the memories of that experience will create a warm glow in both child and parents for a long time to come. In my experience, though, one triumph usually leads to expectations, even the requirement, of others. How does one improve upon a musical solo at Carnegie Hall? If connections with other people, humility and gratitude are keys to happiness, it seems to me that achieving individual attention on such a prestigious stage might actually become an obstacle later in life. Not necessarily a problem I grant you, but neither is it a slam dunk for success.

I have never performed a musical solo on any big stage, but I have attended an Ivy League school, and attained a little athletic success at a young age. These achievements (performed for my internal tiger and not for my parents), did not provide me with the tools I needed to succeed in my relationships or to look for my vocation in life (although I learned a lot about what I did not want in my life after living through those experiences). While reading about Chua and her daughters I was most impressed with her youngest daughter, who pushes for what she wants to do (tennis) and emphasizes playdates and sleepovers as favored activities. She seems to have a good head on her shoulders and I eagerly await the release of her book.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Consistent Foolishness

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson left off “and mothers.” Throughout my kids’ infancies, toddlerhoods and middle childhood I have clung to routines and their promise of consistency. Largely these rigid structures have been my salvation and provided a hand- and toe-hold in times when I was clinging to my sanity. Yet I know my children need to learn to deal with a certain amount of flexibility, and when they have been presented with opportunities in the past they have generally risen to the occasion. Their mother is the one with the problem.

Who struggled most with the move from bottle to cup, from diaper to underwear, from napping to twelve-hour waketime? Yes, I admit, I could not make those changes until I was ready. The kids are lucky I made it past two naps per day and a 6:30 bedtime. They’re still probably in bed longer than any other children I know. (“Sleep is important”, my mother reassures me. “I always put you kids to bed very early.”) At least we know my tendencies are partly genetic.

The latest change in our household structure was made by me under extreme duress. Monday morning, after the latest in a never-ending series of fights over what TV show to watch, I finally lost my temper. My seven-year-old had reluctantly turned off his NOVA show on earthquakes and my four-year-old was griping about the time he lost to his "Pink Panther" show on Netflix when I laid down the new law, “No morning TV, EVER.“ This edict had been some time in the making, as my daughter stopped watching TV in the morning six months ago (too busy sleeping in and/or taking care of her guinea pig to watch) and my son long outgrew the morning grouchiness that used to require a TV transition period of about 20 minutes.

The boys screamed, I ranted, and a fear grew in my routine-oriented heart that our mornings would be messy and anxiety-filled from that day forward. Instead, I have been pleasantly surprised by the harmony and quiet that reigned over our breakfast table for the past two days. The boys seemed relieved that I took this contentious issue off their plates. I am thrilled at the change and want to bash myself in the head with the remote for not making it sooner. I’d like to keep going and take the TV out of the house entirely, but I’d have to make that change over the objections of my husband, so I’ll let him cling to his own foolish consistency a little longer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bad Austen

Hi all -
Just wanted to let you know that I went into a Jane Austen dream phase after Christmas vacation and - after reading Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and viewing several movies inspired by those books, I entered a "Bad Austen" contest. If you are interested, please click on this link and vote if you feel so inclined:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Confronting Violence, part 2

A few days ago I signed a petition from CredoAction and posted it to my Facebook page status. The posting read, in part:

"Tell Sarah Palin: Violent threats have consequences."

Four people "liked" my status and one individual met me at the school playground and thanked me for putting the message out there, as she was desperate to do something in the wake of the violence in Tucson. One of my good friends did not like the posting,and pointed out that Mrs. Palin's map with crosshairs was not a likely motivator for the shooter in Tucson. He noted, like many commentators, that the tragic event was used as a justification to attack Mrs. Palin by those who oppose her politically.

There is truth in what he said. I admit to being so sad and outraged by the shooting that when I read Credo's email at 6:00am the following morning I signed and posted it without stopping to think too clearly about the message. I dislike Palin's rhetoric, think her word choices are sloppy at best and dangerous at worst, but one person / party is not to blame for the violence in our country. There have been violent images and suggestive language on the part of the left and middle of the political divide, as well, and my lack of familiarity with those examples does not give me leave to blame one, obvious target. (Though an individual who runs for president, writes a book and has a television show puts themselves in the way of being obvious).

Referring back to my post of yesterday, I have recognized over the past ten years that I could be capable of violence. In the wrong situation, with triggers of hunger, fear, anger, exhaustion or illness, I could probably commit violent acts. Maybe not. I don't know, but I'm no longer protected by childlike naivete. Growing up sheltered by loving parents, given all the material things that I needed and untested by provocation, I did not believe I was capable of violence. I thought it would take incredible circumstances to provoke one individual to hurt another. Now, I really believe that we are all capable of violent acts. It would not take even a perfect storm of events to break through our moral and cultural resolve. We need to help each other to "breathe peace in and out."

I am helped by friends and family and by my own expectation and fierce desire to protect and be a good example to my children. I am also aided by the current parenting culture which frowns upon spanking or any physical punishment. We need this type of supportive framework for the country as a whole. We should resist the invitation to use violent words, images and metaphors, refusing to give our implicit blessing to real-life acts.

If Americans could all recognize how close each of us is to violence and how hard we must work to choose a different path I think we would respond differently to tragedies like the shooting in Arizona. We would not be surprised and shocked. We would recognize that this situation will always occur when guns are available, when mentally ill people aren't treated, when people are isolated, afraid, angry. We must create a culture where violence is not acceptable, where weapons are not easy to find, where citizens are taught how to feel anger without acting on it, and supported in their life circumstances. These steps are hard. They will take a long time. Now seems like a good time to start.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Confronting Violence

“We can learn to feel the anger that belongs with the experience of injustice and evil and find other ways to express it.” - Jane Vennard, Embracing the World: Praying for Justice and Peace

I avoid looking at the DVD, “The Hurt Locker,” which came from Netflix a few days ago. I placed it first on the TV stand, then off to the side where I could not see it, then back on the other side of the stand, the side farthest away from where I usually sit. I agreed that we should place it in our queue because I heard great things about the film and admire the director, the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. It addresses a situation that I should understand, that I should be made to confront. After all, there are men and women fighting in Iraq just so I can have the privilege of deciding whether or not I want to watch. But I find it painful to watch violence on TV, or read about it in the paper, and I have to be in a strong, brave mood in order to put such a DVD in the player and press the “play” button.

This aversion I have to violence includes the Nerf guns that my children love. I don’t think that playing with Nerf guns makes a child “bad” or violent, but I just don’t like to hear one say “You’re dead” to the other. I can’t stomach that possibility. I let the guns out on special occasions, then carefully collect all the shiny orange Nerf bullets under the cover of bedtime darkness and hide the weapons and the ammo until the next occasion.

What troubles me the most is the violence inside me, the anger that bubbles up when I am exhausted and my child screams in my face or hurts a sibling and then laughs maniacally. These occasions aren’t frequent, but they're not an aberration. My true self has a violent side. Fortunately for me I’ve been raised with every material and emotional advantage. The absence of hunger, fear, and extreme stress gives me the resources to turn aside the violence or mutate it into screaming “Aghhh!” at the top of my lungs, or slamming my bedroom door shut as I give myself a timeout, or throwing something out of the open door. But I hate that it’s there. I feel a “heightened security alert” against myself whenever my temper flares up, and feel like a code orange has been leveled against me by the supreme authorities.

Recently I have been reading spiritual books, which used to turn me off but now appeal to me. In my current book, Embracing the World: Praying for Justice and Peace, Jane Vennard quotes a poem by one of her students, named Marie. It says:

“I know that when I deny and repress my shadow
I project onto others
And become violent against them.”

I feel this to be true. If I can own my violent side and forgive myself for its existence, then I will be far more merciful and understanding of others. I will also be more able to challenge my emotion into harmless, or potentially even useful reactions, instead of actions which cause anger, alarm or frustration. I don’t think I will ever like violence, nor should I. It will always be difficult for me to watch movies like “The Hurt Locker.” Yet acknowledging a problem and opening it to the light will always be better than hiding it, or hiding from it. If we could have such a conversation as a country, understanding how certain words and actions can lead to violence, perhaps we could better understand our collective goals for peace and how to make them a reality.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one Year and out the other. ~ Anonymous

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? I had largely given them up, but this year I broke down and made two. First, I need to clean the pantry. The boxes are covered with spilled oatmeal, my rice is four years old, and my cookbook pile collapsed long ago, but those problems are easily overlooked. My big issue is that I can no longer find my dark chocolate in its dark recesses. I hide my stash of 70% cacao away from the seeking eyes of children and husband, but to my dismay the clutter in my pantry has now hidden the after-dinner supply from me, as well. I actually have some confidence that I might carry out this resolution, given my nightly craving for sugar.

My second resolution is to say “yes” more to my husband. This includes all crazy schemes and irrational plans that he might concoct. My intention was inspired by a lovely relative who hosted our party of sixteen for dinner last week. Over turkey she told me and my cousin that one ingredient in her recipe for marital success (she’s been married for 42 years) is to say “yes” whenever possible, without eye-rolling, logical rebuttal, or outright laughter. For example, she had returned home late that afternoon from playing nine holes of golf with her spouse. One might understandably push back on the idea of playing golf in forty degree weather on an afternoon when you are hosting dinner for sixteen, but she gave it a whirl. They had a good time, dinner was excellent, and her example was timely and perfect.

So when my husband decided to bring the heavy wooden corn-hole games in the back of the minivan just so we could have a short tournament in the Dinosaur Museum parking lot, what did I say? Did I roll my eyes at the thought of carting them all over the foothills that afternoon for twenty minutes of diversion? Well . . . I thought about it. But then I took a big breath, swallowed my objections, and said “OK, as long as they don’t squash my cake.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I grant you, but somewhat of a “yes.” We did have fun with the cornhole game, though it was a bit brisk in the late afternoon and half the group watched from the warmer comfort of their cars.

This advice works the other way, as well, and our hostess gave an example of her husband’s support. Some years ago, when her children were still young, she decided to accompany her sister on a five week trek of the Himalayas. When they talked it over, her husband was supportive, and after making all of the necessary childcare arrangements she took off for Nepal with a group of women. What a cool gift, to be able to say “yes” to your partner. It makes me want to come up with crazy schemes just to test Rob’s acceptance. Of course, after reading this blog he will probably do the same . . .I’ll get back to you on the success of this resolution!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holiday Reflections

The man at the check in counter looked up from his register in surprise when I said, “seven adults and five children, please.” He surveyed our crowd of three cousins, two cousins’ wives, two aunts/great-aunts, and five children under the age of ten. “Are they all related to you?” he asked. I replied that they were. “Then you are really lucky,” he said as he bent his head to swipe my card. For a minute I thought he meant that our volume would get us a discount on admission to the rec center, but then I realized he meant just what he said – I was really lucky to have such a large family, and to have them all with me at the holidays.

We had eleven people from my husband’s side of the family with us last week; sixteen of us organized into our normal-sized suburban home. We used ten beds, good-naturedly shared germs, stories, and toothpaste, played countless games of cards (all of which I lost), and contributed many pounds of glass bottles to recycling (I hope the recycling pick-up does not judge us too harshly for this week’s contents!)

Best of all, everyone helped. Rob’s cousin made an entire dinner by himself, Rob picked up after countless meals, moms cared for their kids and husbands, aunts vacuumed, swept, and put away dishes, grandparents watched children as the adults skied, and everyone spent hours assembling Lego sets and playing board games with my delighted children and their cousins. Despite some normal relief after the last departures, we all felt a big let-down when folks left. We rattle around in the house, which seems too big and too clean now. (It is a relief to see the back of the refrigerator, again, however, and to be done with the ten loads of laundry that were waiting.)

I had a really wonderful week, despite running point on dinners, towels and scheduling. Highlights for me were the few runs of skiing we managed between traffic jams, playing Solitaire with four superior players, watching three generations of boys (and men) working on rockets and Pinewood Derby cars, and dancing the night away with my family on New Year’s Eve. The image of Rob and his cousin dancing the left-right-forward-back steps to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” will stay with me much longer than my margarita and champagne hangover.

So we wish everyone a most happy beginning to this 2011. Though the start of a new calendar year may be meaningless to the universe at large, we hang our calendars to it, and measure the rhythm of our lives to the turning of its pages. I can think of no better way to start than with dancing, laughter, and clean laundry.