Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trigger Warnings

Recently much has been made about select universities' attempts at establishing trigger warnings, or alerts about course material that may contain sexual content, violence, racism, or anything that might affect someone who has been a victim of a crime, assault or has post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Reaction has been swift and primarily negative. Robert and Araz Shibley claim that 18 year olds are legally adults and should suck-it-up. Enough with coddling they say in their article, Campus Trigger Warnings Threaten Free Speech And Treat Students Like Children,

This pair of writers is really, really upset about the continued coddling going on. They assert anything can be a trigger: a sound, a song, a smell, how exactly can professors become mind-readers? If someone has a mental health issue, they should be under a doctor's care, a university can't take responsibility for students' reactions to everything. That's about the only point I agree with, and judging by the strident tone they take, I venture to say these two have probably not suffered any life-altering trauma.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington is a trigger place, and on a recent visit there, swarms of school-age children were present. Interestingly enough, two teenagers were laughing near one of the exhibits. I doubt their laughter had anything to do with the actual material being shown, but a museum docent approached them and offered them the opportuniy to speak with a Holocaust survivor they had on staff. They stopped laughing.

Maybe those critical of the need for trigger warnings at universities have an issue with the set-up of the new 9-11 Memorial museum? It is most certainly a trigger place, and warnings abound. Maybe they think the whole museum shouldn't even exist? Or perhaps the small areas set near key points to allow visitors overcome by emotion to gracefully step away from the crowds and have a few private moments of grief should be eliminated?

I have not suffered a life-altering trauma, but I have people close to me that have. A friend told me her grandson was playing with a teddy bear her late husband had purchased for him. Her husband had died suddenly, barely fifty, and the sight of the stuffed toy, five years after his death brought her to her knees. Her reaction frightened her young grandchild, but no one is suggesting that teddy bears come with warning labels.  

We are warned about the after effects of riding on roller coasters, spilling hot beverages, and airbags. These warnings alert us (adults, Robert and Araz) to possible danger. They are meant as precautions so we can be prepared. A trigger warning is simply a device for preparation, no one is playing around with our free speech, so relax everyone, please.

Angela Lee Duckworth gives an interesting TED talk about raising kids with grit. In it she states that the secret to success is determined as much by intellect as grit--the ability to persevere in one's goals, long term. Anyone who is a survivor of a traumatic event and still wakes up every day to start anew and has the wherewithal to attend college and make something of themselves has grit. Allowing these people the chance to prepare themselves in the best way that they can so as not to be overcome by emotion in front of their peers is  only fair and decent.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sailboats and Toddlers...Did Anyone Think This Through?

Here are my thoughts in response to the ridiculous sea journey undertaken unsuccessfully (duh) by Eric and Charlotte Kaufman:

It isn't about you anymore.

When you decide to have kids, their needs trump your needs.  Period.

If you have a hard time internalizing that message then don't have kids.  I know it sounds harsh, but it's how I feel. However, if you do decide to have kids, put their needs first. It's the most basic rule of parenting. It is an inverse principle that ebbs and flows depending on the circumstances at any given time and the age of the child, but it is the underlying theme a good parent's called sacrifice. You may need a good night's sleep, but if your two year is up with a stomach bug, I dare you to sleep through it. This push and pull, this dynamic of your child's needs versus your own will inform many decisions you will make regarding your child and the kind of relationship you would like to have with him/her...and that is truly a personal decision. But I think we can all agree that the very basic instinct of a parent is to keep their child safe.

If you feel the burning need to sail from Mexico to New Zealand, get it out of your system before your kids are born, because frankly, no one buys that crap that this was intended to be an adventure for a one and a three year old. Adventure to them means wandering away from their parents in a busy mall or being released from the confines of their stroller to be allowed to toddle unhampered down a street stopping to peruse...well, just about anything and everything within their line of vision. So this sailboat nonsense was a wholly selfish, self-indulgent conceit and let's not sugar coat it.

Very young children love to explore, yes that's true, but there isn't much to explore looking out over miles of ocean day after day, and I doubt the workings of the jib and pulleys and whatever goes into sailing could have held any interest to them whatsoever. This stunt more likely stunted their interaction with their environment far more than it enriched it. A young child needs to run and touch, I would venture to say running and touching would have been minimized in the confines of a sailboat. Yes, if they were teenagers and they had this experience of sailing the sea for a week and learned valuable life skills and plucky tidbits about themselves previously undiscovered then score one for intrepid parenting. But with two toddlers it is just plain foolish, dangerous and bordering on abuse.

It isn't about you anymore.

If you're a frustrated adventurer who never scaled Mt. Everest that doesn't give you license to drag your kids out to the Himalayas, and if you are an unfulfilled pianist that doesn't give you the right to force your child to take piano lessons when they'd rather read. Yes, please allow for lots of different experiences and expose your children to various lifestyles and new ideas, but first, keep them safe.

An adventure can be rewarding and stimulating in ways that a classroom can't be and I'm all for getting kids out there. There isn't only one way to raise children, and those that are raised in other cultures in other lands might be subject to things at a young age that would raise a few eyebrows here, but the underlying point to keep in mind that the safety of children beats all. What seems like a great idea might best be left for when children are older and can willingly participate in them.

Children aren't props or pawns...they have rights too.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pleased To Make Your Acquaintance

I have some very good friends and I cherish them, but only recently did I come to appreciate the value of a good acquaintance. Yes, with friendship comes comfort, a shorthand developed over years of shared dramas and good times, but it also brings with it some measure of expectation. You can't hide, create another persona, or act irresponsibly. Your friends are counting on you to be...well, you. They know all your secrets, and can predict with a level of certainty how you're going to react to most anything. You can let it all out with a good friend, you won't be judged and your actions will not be held up to microscopic analysis, but you might just fear disappointing them. You might not want them to think less of you because what they think of you matters.

I have made a fair number of acquaintances recently, mostly through my writing workshops. I'm fond of them in the same way as if I had chanced upon a fellow New Yorker while exploring a foreign city who turned out to be refreshingly wise and fun. I am Facebook friends with many of them and we cheer each other on from afar. It is a relaxing and enervating way to keep in touch and up-to-date. And best of all, it's pressure free.

There's a scene that I love in "Pretty Woman" where Julia Roberts finds Richard Gere playing classical piano in the breakfast room at 5:00 AM. She asks him if he performs because he's so good, and he replies: "I only play for strangers."

 I so get that.

I am often asked what my husband and children think of my writing and am met with surprised looks  when I say I don't let them read my books. As writers, we pour our souls into our work. We may be writing about characters but make no mistake, there are shades of ourselves hidden in there, and sometimes not so hidden. The freedom to expose part of ourselves and our innermost thoughts is best achieved in anonymity. It is easier to send our words out into the atmosphere and have them fall on strangers...strangers who can't nod knowingly or smirk in recognition of an idea they've heard before.

Many well-known authors write under different pen names because once they've established themselves in a genre it might be hard for readers to shift gears with them. They want to be taken seriously in the new role they're playing, i.e. J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith when she elected to try her hand at a hard-boiled detective novel.

But the illusion of anonymity coats both ways. Interestingly enough, not that many readers were interested in Ms. Rowling's attempted anonymity, she only sold 1500 books until news leaked that she was the author. After that revelation the book hit the bestseller's list.

A past or a present with someone, friends or family colors our relationship and this shared history carries with it a lot of baggage. Very often it is positive and sometimes, not so much. At that point a chance encounter with an acquaintance is just the ticket for a fresh perspective and renewed spirits.  

Start a conversation with a fellow commuter you see everyday on the  7:52 train...she just might have something very interesting to say.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Is A Soul Mate A Real Thing?

...And How Many Years Should Someone Sacrifice in Search of Theirs?

Yes, it is a long heading, and before you have EROS or CUPID sling their poison tipped arrows my way let me say: I'm only trying to help.

I'll address the first part of the depends on the person.

If you've been playing dress-up bride since you turned nine, saw meaning in every meaningless gesture sent your way by whoever you happened to be dating, and you've elevated Valentine's Day to a national holiday, then you deserve to get whatever it is you're hoping for. Or think you're hoping for...just make sure it actually exists in nature and isn't a figment of your imagination. Because if it is, unfortunately there will be many lonely Valentine's Days in your future. 

Waiting breathlessly for proof positive that the guy you're with is 'the one' can be soul-sucking and a needless waste of energy. Rather, spend your time looking for someone who has qualities you admire and respect. There is no absolute when it comes to love. There are no guarantees that you will find your soul mate and no guarantees that if you do find him/her, you'll be pleased with the selection the universe has sent your way. Take it from me, I'm a matchmaker that attends many singles events as a facilitator hoping to match up couples for a lifetime of long-lasting happiness and respect, except they often put obstacles in my way. And those obstacles are mostly themselves...armed with unrealistic expectations.

I know I'm sounding tough and I intend to because I'm frustrated with singles looking for love decade after decade while fruitlessly searching for something out of their grasp, all while a fantastic mate stands somewhere within shouting distance. And while these singles have been rejecting possible mates by the handfuls, their friends are getting married and creating beautiful families and lives.

I am a matchmaker, at least I try to be when a single will listen to me. My hero is Patti Stanger, The Millionaire Matchmaker, because I wish I could be as politically incorrect as she is and pull off the tough love she delivers in her signature no-nonsense manner.

I also wish I had a roster of millionaires as clients and her plastic surgeon...she's lookin' mighty fine... but I digress.

So here is what I really want to say to my singles: PLEASE GET REAL.

Is it about the hunt, or is it truly about finding a spouse who will be loving and supportive and make you happy? Are you truly looking to make things work with someone or are you spinning a fantasy in your mind that no human could possibly fulfill?

You need to become honest about your expectations. You're shaking your heads...what does she know, she's making it sound so easy. 

But it can be. Please forgive me if I'm overstepping, by no means do I intend to minimize your pain, but it is precisely because I see the pain in your eyes and hear it in your voice that I can't be an enabler any more.

I feel your fear, I feel your frustration, but I am urging you to leap. 

Trust yourself and your instincts and grab your life. Don't look for excuses, look for possibilities. Choose to embrace a future that will bring you joy, and a love that will be real and sustaining. Seeing stars and hearing bells ring are also signs of a concussion, so please don't rely on those to make a major life decision. 

I think this is sound advice unless you truly enjoy the hunt...unless you've convinced yourself there is always someone more enticing around the bend. To those of you have used the 'looking for my soul mate' excuse well past its expiration date, I guess the only thing you can do is to keep on looking and prove me wrong. But please take a moment to think of all the wonderful years you've given up and all the lonely nights you've endured during your hunt. Please take a moment to envision what a spectacular life you could still have if only you relaxed that death grip you have on your list of ideals for the perfect spouse. 

What works for you? Be honest. What can you change about yourself...yes I'm talking to you, oh perfect candidate who has evaded the marital net all these years, what can YOU change to move forward and find love?

It begins and ends with you. You've waited long enough for love, why don't you give it a chance?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What Surface?

"My husband and the boys got me the Surface for Hanukkah," I tell a good friend.
"What's that?" she asks.

At least I know what it is. 

And now I know why it's called the Surface. It spends much of its time being moved from one to another, its sleek visage dark with unopened promise. My stress and frustration of how to wrangle it into submission informs my morning as I give up and open my iPad to check my emails and read the NY Times.

"Why aren't you using our gift?" My older son asks one morning with guilt-inducing incredulity.

I'm a jewish mother--I'm the one whose supposed to be doing the guilting. Apparently I've taught him well.

"I'm working on it," I say, looking at my morning image reflected back at me in the black glossy surface--reason enough to turn the darn thing on. 
With a flick of the on button, the screen transmorphs into a graceful sky dotted with moving cubed images that pop up in a motion-sickness inducing dance.

All I want is to read the paper with my coffee, but I can't seem to click fast enough on the NY Times icon before it graphically disappears like a teasing game of floating carnival ducks.

If I only had a pop-gun.  

The inherent stress of new technology is the pressing need to master the latest device before it is made obsolete by the newest iteration on the market. This is a thrill that resonates with a lot of geeks and some everyday people. But for those of us who have been clinging desperately to our BlackBerry and only recently agreed that an iPhone is a MUST, this race to technology is hive-inducing.

As a child of parents who have used the same brand of toothpaste and coffee for well over fifty years, let's just say change comes slowly.

To my devoted husband and wonderful sons who so thoughtfully want to make my writing more mobile with a surface that has a keyboard that's three inches big instead of the twelve inches I've grown accustomed to on my laptop, I respectfully say I just need some time. And by any chance did you momentarily confuse me with the mother/wife you want me to be? Because I'm pretty sure I bake the best chocolate-chip cookies and marble loaf you've ever had, and fairly certain that Geek Mom does not.

My next son, home from college on winter break walks into the kitchen, rolls up his sleeves and grabs the Surface. "C'mon, Ma, let's do this thing."

I burst out laughing.

Have I mentioned that this son knows even less about technology than I do and has managed to crash  two computers, one of them an Apple, which is something I've been told is pretty much impossible to do?

I look at my Kafka-reading, technologically-impaired son who loves Beethoven and Sinatra and tell him to move aside.  

I look the Surface square in the eye and say, "Come to Mama. It's time."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Start Here...

Would you start something if you knew there was a high likelihood you wouldn't finish it? Could you get halfway through a seven hundred page book, put it down, but still feel satisfied? Could you knit half a sweater, put it away in a drawer and still smile that your stitching was neat and even? If you're a commitment phobe that might be the very definition of ecstasy, but if you grew up in a generation that was the iteration of 'finish your plate,' then starting and not finishing is equivalent to blasphemy.

I had lunch with a friend last week and we were wondering if the journey was enough. Was the journey only valid if you reached your goal, or was it O.K. to do something just for the hell of it? We decided that starting three different projects, even if none of them got finished was fine because at our stage in life the very act of starting something new was the goal.

Let me just put it out there that I grew up with the mindset that you never quit anything. Ever. Oh, you hate guitar lessons? But you signed up for the year. Sleep away camp not for you? You'll come home when the summer is over. Yes, I was a dogged finisher of things. I stayed with boring books, friends whose friendships were less than satisfying, and slogged through my last semester of college highly pregnant for fear if I took off a semester, I might never finish. 

I encouraged my children to complete their projects, give their piano, saxophone, and ballet lessons a chance, and to think carefully before undertaking something new that had failure built-in. But I did let them quit their music lessons when they felt they had enough, and we did bring one child home from sleep away camp a week early. Yes, we made certain all our children finished school and they are responsible adults who hold down jobs, but sadly, none of them play instruments or can draw or perform ballet. But at least they had the opportunity to try those activities out and decide for themselves. 

And we have a half-painted shed in the backyard that is a victim of some apparent miscommunication. Every time I look at the shed, drunk in its slapdash coloration it annoys and amuses me, much like the child who was a supreme starter of things.  

In economics, throwing bad money after good is called sunk cost. Having been an economics major in college, a really long time ago, it was an idea that had never resonated with me. Until now. I had always figured I just needed to stick with it and magic would happen. Having spent most of my adult life finishing things, I have now embraced the not finishing of them. It is incredibly freeing and fertile for the creative mind to allow the process to serve as satisfaction.  Yes, it's hard to walk away from a project that has consumed you and taken a part of your sanity with it, but it can be energizing too. 

Now, I find myself sometimes reading two books at a time, and depending on my mood, I might or might not finish them. I took a screenwriting course because it seemed a fresh way to work on my  book and attended only the first eight sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed them and got as much out of them as I thought I would. An old advertising slogan motto comes to mind, "Try it--you'll like it." And if you don't like it, that's fine too. At least you gave it a chance.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Next Chapter

Anna Quindlen was a friend of mine twenty-five years ago when I was a young working mother raising my growing family in Brooklyn. The former New York Times columnist penned a weekly missive in the Metropolitan section of the paper chronicling the stresses of trying to juggle the ever-changing needs of a young family while holding down a demanding job.  During a period of my life when I was too harried to find time for actual friendships, my virtual one with Ms Quindlen, whose life seemed to mirror my own, got me through most days. Although she had ten years on me and was a devout Catholic raising three boys, we seemed to be living parallel lives. Except, I didn’t have a dog. Or a Pulitzer prize. Her column was refreshingly candid, heartwarming and a lifesaver. And it was the first inkling I’d noted that perhaps the liberated woman of the hard-won sixties movement might not be able to have it all. The two of us, Anna and I were each sinking under the crushing pressure and guilt of trying to be everything to everyone and losing ourselves in the process.   

Although I felt saddened when she left the Times to write a novel, my need for the weekly pep talk had waned since at that point I had already stopped working. Shortly after that, my husband and I moved out to the suburbs. My older children were in school, leaving me with a baby I could spend all day cooing at without looking at my watch. It was time to reconnect with myself, yet I had no idea how exactly to do that. And frankly, I was bored. A friend suggested I get a babysitter so I could shop in peace, meet friends for lunch, volunteer, or even go back to school. I was aghast. Was that allowed? I’d stopped working so I could catch my breath, and stop feeling guilty about rushing everyone around as we danced to our well-orchestrated morning and evening ballet. Here now was this new guilt about focusing on myself.

It took me a long time to embrace the idea, but when I finally did, I discovered something I’d long forgotten—me. As it turns out, taking a coffee break with a good friend is as beneficial to your health as taking a brisk walk or eating dark chocolate (just not the whole bar). It seems that our blood pressure lowers and endorphins flood our system when we connect in a way that only a dear friend can.

As my children reached high school, I realized it was okay to factor my needs into the mix, allowing my voice equal sway in the family dynamic. Not that anyone had stopped me from doing that before, well, except for me. Oh, and I stopped apologizing.

There’s a reason the flight attendant tells you to put on your oxygen mask before your child’s in the event of an accident. You’re of no use to anyone if you can’t function.  And barely holding it together is not functioning. I use this piece of advice as a battle cry to remind the women in my life that I love and care about to stop apologizing for their messy house, the missed appointment, or the cake they forgot to bake for the school function. This concept, of NOT being able to do it all is a hard one to internalize. We’ll do everything in our power to fool ourselves into believing that the word No is something other people say.  But if we always say Yes, trust me, something will give, something will crack, and most of the time, it will be us. One of the traits I most admire about women is our ability to adapt to new situations, to think on our feet, to multi-task. We are able to do six things seemingly at once, but it doesn’t mean that all six are being done well. It is up to you to decide what works for you and to speak up when it doesn’t.   

Yes, you count, and it is very important to remember that and advocate for yourself, because no one wants a resentful spouse, mother or daughter. And you know what? If you say No once in a while, you’ll enjoy saying Yes, even more. You’ll be doing everyone in your life a big favor by reaching for your oxygen mask first. It is actually the least selfish thing you could do.  Accepting a friend’s offer of help when you really need it is another liberating move. It doesn’t make you weak or any less capable, and if the roles were reversed you would be running over in a second to lend a hand. After so many years of giving, it is okay to take—really.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently wrote a book entitled Lean In, an inspirational and at times, divisive book advising high-profile women in the workplace how to reach the corner office. This Harvard educated woman urges her fellow women that yes, you can earn yourself a “seat at the table,” meaning, you can empower yourself to reach that glass-ceiling level to make a change in the system. The book is a fascinating read that is impactful for the woman working at the corporate level as well as for the woman who has decided to make her job of raising her family a full-time one. I want to highlight one point of many she makes that resonated with me.

Ms Sandberg takes women to task for not advocating for themselves in the work arena. Her most outspoken critics claim she is blaming the victim for not furthering herself, rather than the institution for not allowing the opportunity. She disagrees with this point, citing fear as the reason women are afraid to speak up and take credit for their accomplishments, while their male counterparts fly past them up the corporate ladder.  Girls are taught to be obedient and are praised in the classroom when they raise their hands before speaking. Boys have learned that calling out in class gets them heard and are willing to trade obedience for opportunity. Girls politely wait their turn, often in frustrated silence while boys speak out and sail by without censure. Girls willingly trade likeability for success. When women make the subconscious decision that they will swallow their needs to keep the boat steady, they lose, and everyone else does in the process.

Ms. Sandberg’s introduction in her book highlights the time when she was working at Google and had to hoist her highly-pregnant self across a very full parking lot, fighting fatigue, nausea and swollen ankles to get to an executive meeting. She recounted the ordeal to her husband that night at dinner and he told her that at Yahoo, where he was employed, there were specially-assigned spots for expectant mothers. She marched into the Google founders’ offices the next morning to demand the same parking privileges for their employees; they readily agreed. Surely there were other pregnant women in the company who had the same challenge as herself, and she wondered why they chose to suffer in silence.

Yes, she spoke up—she wasn’t afraid, but first she had to have a “seat at the table” in order to have her voice heard.  Ms. Sandberg highlights this point of the female standing by and not advocating for herself. A woman would rather be liked than heard, she states, while allowing herself to be labeled bossy from a young age, rather than assertive. This needs to be changed.  She stresses that not all women want careers, not all women want children, not all women want both. That is each woman’s choice, but if she wants a “seat at the table,” she’d best speak up and have her voice heard.

She asks the same question that got me wondering fifteen years ago, what would I do if I wasn’t afraid…what could I do if fear was not part of the equation. I already had a Bachelors in Economics (although I wasn’t exactly sure why), so I went back to school and studied Interior Design, something that had always fascinated me. Then I opened my own business, taking only the jobs that intrigued me, while trying very hard to factor in all the other pulls on my time. 

As our lives develop and grow more complicated, there will be varying sets of demands and obligations as our roles keep getting redefined. It’s an opportunity to challenge ourselves, even if we’re scared doing it. For those women who find work fulfilling and enjoyable, or simply need the second income, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean you have to stay up all night hand decorating twenty-six cupcakes for your five-year olds birthday party. A lot of us gave up our most productive work years that could have bettered our careers, opting to stay home and raise a family. For those of us who did, it was an active decision—a real sacrifice, and one, hopefully, whose rewards will be reaped for many years to come. But what about now? What happens when everyone leaves the theater after the second act and you are left alone in the thundering silence of a once bustling household that bustles only a couple of times a year? You can fear the quiet or revel in it. You decide.

Four years ago, when my business slowed down due to the economy, I had some free time on my hands. One day I sat down at my computer and wrote some ideas that had been rolling around in mind for a while. I didn’t really analyze what I was doing; I just did it. About a year or so later, I had the foundation of a novel on my laptop. I’d always loved to write, but I can’t say I ever felt I had the Great American novel locked away in the recesses of my mind trying to get out. Or maybe I did, and the noise in my life had drowned it out.

 I’ve since written two more books, and I’ve never had more fun. I do it for pure pleasure, and when I stopped being shy about it, did a little self-promoting and managed to develop a readership. It’s opened a whole new world for me and I’ve met compelling people in the writing classes I’ve taken and the conferences I’ve attended. And I’ve discovered that everyone has a story to tell, something that is uniquely their own. And so do you. It’s time to write your story, and don’t worry about the ending, it’s the journey that counts. And if you find yourself looking at an empty page, don’t feel guilty—go out for a walk and get some air or call up a friend and meet for coffee.

 It’s your turn.