Parts of Speech


Parts of SpeechFacebook is such a wonderful laboratory for human interaction. We share photos, misspelled memes and inane cat videos, but we also share a lot of our opinions in a fairly low-risk environment. I’ve been “unfriended” before, mostly because of differences over religion. I’d like
to pretend that I didn’t care, but I did. It hurt. However, I figure that anyone who would “unfriend” me at the touch of a button probably never actually “friended” me in the real world.

Most people, in my experience, have similar goals. We want a better world, and we expect our fellow Earthlings to contribute to making a better world right alongside us. If we have kids, then we worry about the world that we’re leaving to them. We’re afraid of what we can’t control. We want to be remembered as good and decent people who, by our presence, improved the lives of others. We may differ on how best to reach these ends, but we ultimately want the same things.

In 1993, I spent my summer in Rochester, New York, at the Eastman School of Music. I remember a professor telling the story of a fellow musician who used to ask questions like, “Are you an oboe? Are you a flute?” In her wisdom, she explained that it was fine to identify yourself as being devoted to an instrument, but it was better to identify as a whole person. In other words, you’re an oboe player, not an oboe. You need a well-rounded sense of self.

I decided this week to stop using certain words as nouns and to start using them as adjectives. Two of those words are “liberal” and “conservative.” I can say either that someone is a liberal, or I can say someone is a liberal person or a person with liberal views. I’ve decided that I prefer the latter ways because in those phrasings, I’m acknowledging the existence of a person. When our adversaries stop being people to us, we become too comfortable dehumanizing those who disagree with us. For example, if you call yourself “believer” and identify your friend as “unbeliever,” then you may decide that “unfriending” the unbeliever is a stance for your principles. It’s not seen for what it is: a small, mean gesture revealing the closed nature of your own mind and heart.

When I look at my news feed and even my paper address book, I see a roster of people who have many opinions that are different from mine. Sometimes, I argue with them, either from a defensive posture or because I’m jones-ing for a sparring match, but there isn’t a name on my friends list or in my address book that I would choose to eliminate. When friends need me or when we’re laughing together, political and religious disagreements melt away. I’ll cancel out their votes at the ballot machine as often as I can, but I won’t cancel our friendship.

If you’re my friend, post your pro-Koch brothers editorials. Post your pro-NRA memes. Fill my news feed with Dave Ramsey quotes. Feel free to post about the hope that you find from your faith. You may almost make my unbelieving feminist pinkie commie head explode, but as long as my liberal skull stays intact, then you and I will always be friends.

I’m going to continue reflecting on which nouns I can transition to adjectives in my own conversation. A person isn’t a liberal or a conservative any more than he’s an oboe.

 

#FirstWorldProblems

Image

I remember having existential problems once; or, as they’re hashtagged on Twitter, “#FirstWorldProblems”—finding my purpose in life, learning to believe in myself, and the other kinds of struggles that can be Photoshopped on top of a nature image and posted on Facebook. Now that I’ve offended every inspirational-quote-nature-photo-meme-poster (sorry!), I’d like to clarify that I think Maslow’s hierarchy is spot-on. We worry about esteem and self-actualization not because we’re selfish and morally corrupt but because the other components of the pyramid are stable beneath our feet.

Most likely, if you’re anything like me, you’ve never been really poor. My mother always said we were poor, but of course, we weren’t. We didn’t spend extravagantly, and my mother was always employed. I’m sure that the ice was thin after she divorced my father, but she never let me know the whole truth. We lived the typical middle-class existence consisting of a house payment, a car payment and stopping on the way home to pick up pretty much anything we wanted. Big requests like a new computer or an expensive musical instrument appeared eventually and without much fanfare.

When my mother was alive, she pushed me to choose a career that would make me financially solvent. The equation was spelled out for me: College degree + proven industry = lifelong security. Of course, my top career choices were to be either musician or a writer, and the 18-year-old me thought she was a Philistine for suggesting a practical career. However, I didn’t have the guts to completely cross her, so I got a degree in music…education. I graduated from college at 21, and I was not emotionally mature enough for public education. I lasted two-and-a-half years before I started having a big “what do I want to do with my life” existential crisis. During those years, I married someone who seemed like the sort of man you could count on; the responsible, agreeable sort.

The “who am I” existential crisis always hummed at a low frequency, even though I played the role of suburban conformity. I started working everyone knows where at a job that I didn’t love but that offered steady pay. I had two sons and purchased a home in a nondescript neighborhood where I lived out Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” until I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit my job, with the encouragement of my always-agreeable husband who was doing a superb job of appearing to be happy, started working as a freelance writer and began my master’s degree. We bought a reasonably priced used car. Then, the agreeable (and apparently unhappy) husband was gone. Poof. Yep. Just like that.

When you start a life of self-employment, you should either start gradually or start when you’re sitting on a big fat pile of savings. I didn’t. Things got paid for with credit cards with the belief that everything would turn around and I’d have no problem paying it back. As soon as my husband left, I called a credit counselor. I called my mortgage company and tried to work with them. I looked for new clients and found some, and I no longer concerned myself with whether they were rude or whether the jobs were what I wanted—as long as they paid the bills. I sent out resumes for more predicable work, even though nothing came of my search. I stopped asking the existential questions and started asking, “How can I keep food on the table and a roof over my kids’ heads?”

My husband decided to find himself outside of our marriage, and he took his health insurance with him. I had to make some hard choices: Pay the mortgage, or pay for pre-K? I chose to pay for pre-K both to give my youngest son the best possible start—the kind of start that every kid deserves, rich or poor—and to ensure that I could keep working so that we could eat. My ex-husband pays his support payments faithfully, but his income and mine aren’t enough to maintain two homesteads. I do shell out the occasional $10 so that my son can have a book from his school’s book fair and not feel terrified that we have nothing. Saving $10 per month isn’t going to pay my mortgage, but it’s enough to beat back the bony hand of scarcity when it reaches for my kids.

The “we’re too poor” nonsense of my childhood has turned into bouts of sheer panic. Most hours of the day, I feel optimistic. My bank balance is growing, and child care payments are about to end. However, I have no resources for the unexpected. Such as visiting the ER this week (complete with ambulance ride and ultrasound) and discovering that because of an Access Health CT glitch, I may have made that visit without health insurance. For now, we live paycheck-to-paycheck in that lower middle class void between public assistance and a savings account.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m extending myself around my sons like a shield, trying to block out reality for as long as I can. And no, Phyllis Schlafly, the Man Brigade isn’t coming, and frankly, I don’t blame them. What man in his right mind would open a joint bank account with me at this point? If one offered, I wouldn’t marry him. I’d question his sanity. If I could talk to my mother–the woman, not the mom–I’d tell her that now I understand why she never wanted me to depend on any man for money, even if that man, by all appearances, should seem both responsible and agreeable.

Not all, but some of the people in our society that judge the poor harshly also brandish the Bible like a blunt instrument while they wail about “personal responsibility.” I suppose that Job could have saved more for a rainy day, or he could have told his sons and daughters that they couldn’t go to that party (you know, the one where the house collapsed on them and they all died because God felt like their dad needed a stress test). Or perhaps the real lesson of Job is, “Shit happens. Who are you to judge?”

Like Job, I made the middle class, everyday choices (okay, Job was rich—this is literary license) that seemed okay at the time. Then, shit happened. I’ll work my way out of it, and I’ll respect myself a lot once I have. The panic will lessen, the gaps in Maslow’s hierarchy will fill up and my brain, with nothing real to worry about, might drift back to those existential problems. For now, they seem really stupid and shallow, like all of the judgments I used to make about poor people.

And when I look back over these years, I think I’ll see that the path to real self-actualization began when I stopped trying to talk myself into having self-esteem and started giving myself a reason to have it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep Showing Up

parenting

Photo courtesy of soupstock from BigStockPhotos.com

I just finished the second of two parenting classes that I’m required to take as a Connecticut divorcee. Although I’m generally a big government, tree-hugging liberal, I felt cross about the idea of having the State of Connecticut tell me how to parent. Did I mention that we divorcees have to pay $125 for these classes, whether or not we are initiating the divorce? Needless to say, I didn’t enter the classes with a particularly positive attitude.

Because the psychologist wasn’t in control of the room, the conversation devolved into bitching about ex-spouses. The bitching was couched in the forms of questions about children’s welfare. You know, like when you really want to dish a juicy secret about someone, so you tell other people in the form of a prayer request? For instance, “Lucy’s at the clinic with chlamydia because Claude cheated on her and didn’t use protection. She could really use your prayers”? (Come on, you know you’ve been there). The man who asked, “How do I tell my 5-year-old that his mom’s in jail?” didn’t want to know how to help the child. He wanted the class to know that his ex-wife was a deadbeat. That was the gist of the evening.

Let me start back at the beginning of the circle. The first man said that his son lived with his ex-wife in New Jersey. However, the son didn’t feel like talking to him, so he hadn’t spoken to his son in a couple of years. So my inner parenting coach said, “Your son is a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. You’re the dad. Get in the car and go visit.”

Next.

“I don’t know what to do when my 14-year-old son says ‘f*ck you’ to me.” Inner parenting coach: Mother gives life, and mother takes life away. You give your son everything he has. If he talks to you that way, then you start removing the possessions for which you paid. Starting with the cell phone that you say he uses all night in lieu of sleeping.

Next!

A gentleman who had six kids said that one of his sons was suicidal. He and his wife had been called to the school because his son had carved his own arm with a pencil until it bled. The man wasn’t disturbed about the suicidal part—or at least he didn’t seem to be—but he was disturbed that his wife kept checking her cell phone during the meeting and complaining that her boyfriend hadn’t called.

The psychologist did make a useful comment. He told the man that it was time to “circle the wagons” because he had a serious situation on his hands. The father kept going back to the mom and the cell phone. My inner parenting coach had no time for this one: You slap the cell phone out of her hand, pick it up, throw it across the room and tell her to shut up and pay attention.

Maybe this is why I wasn’t cut out for a helping profession.

“I paid for a trip to Disney before my wife left and now she says I can’t go out of state unless she goes with me.” Moving on. You’re just annoying me. Or try this, my room full of fellow parents: Open your mouths and speak.

New Jersey Guy: Tell your son that even though he doesn’t want to see you, you want to see him. Tell him that you’ll park your car outside of his home every Saturday morning for two hours. If he wants to talk, you’ll be there. Then, show up.

F-you Lady: Tell your son that you don’t care how disrespectful his father is to women. You are going to fight with every ounce of your strength to see that he doesn’t grow up to treat women the way that his father does. Then, stand your ground.

Six Kids Man: Let your useless wife walk out of the conference room with her cell phone. Then, lock the door behind her. Tell the teachers you’re so sorry that you reproduced with a loser, but you’re ready to take responsibility and to throw every mental, physical, emotional and financial resource into trying to help your son. Then, keep your word. You can’t protect him at every moment, but you can let him know that you’re in the fight.

Disneyland Dad: Tell your ex-wife that you will indeed go to Disney, and that if she doesn’t like your decision, then she can come along after reimbursing you for half of the trip. You may also need to open your mouth and speak to the judge about your current state-endorsed Parenting Plan.

I went home to a preschool-aged son who told me he hated me and wanted to live with his dad. He’s been doing this for 16 months, and I’m really getting tired. My own advice rang in my head alongside my desire to pack his little suitcase and ship him off: “He’s a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. Take away the possessions for which you paid. Throw every resource into trying to help your son.”

Parenting can be thankless, and divorce can be hell. I’m sure the other parents in that class, the ones I was very quick to judge, wondered why I didn’t have a clue about how to defeat my four-year-old nemesis. In the end, I hope we’ll all do what good parents do. We’ll keep showing up, whether or not we have any idea what to do.

The Twitter

Twitter logo

 

Last fall, I decided that I was going to get into, as Stephen Colbert calls it, “the Twitter.” I uploaded a reasonably attractive photo of myself and started squeezing my thoughts into 140-character bites. I’m not sure what I was looking for on the Twitter. I guess I wanted to share some of my better pieces of writing, articles that I found interesting and banal details about my existence on Planet Earth. For instance, I apparently thought the whole world should know that I was vaguely acquainted with someone who’d gone to a poo psychologist.

I followed the people, journalism outlets and other entities that interested me. I also started getting followers, most of whom I didn’t know. A few of them were authors, which didn’t bother me because I like to be part of a supportive writer community. However, many of them were self-appointed social media gurus and content “experts” that were bent on telling me how to run my social media existence.

Slowly, my “followers” number crept toward the triple digits. I enthusiastically followed people back when they followed me, and most people were nice except for one guy who went nuts about a reply I made to @FriendlyAtheist. Honestly, though, if you’re a Kirk Cameron fan, then maybe you shouldn’t follow @FriendlyAtheist? Just saying. I ended up blocking him so that he’d stop shout-tweeting at me and go back to gazing adoringly at his dog-eared Mike Seaver poster from Bop! 

I tried to read through my the Twitter feed a couple of times a day. I was only following just over 200 people, but reading through their tweets was sucking away at least an hour of my day. Plus, because I’d followed back the social media gurus and content experts, my feed was filled with their prolific 140-character tips plus links #helpfuladvice about getting the most out of social networks like the Twitter. I simply couldn’t find the tweets that interested me because they were buried beneath an onslaught of Internet marketing self-help. After a few weeks, I stopped reading the Twitter at all.

My the Twitter diet lasted for a couple of months and culminated this weekend with me un-following all of those helpful Internet self-promotion evangelists. When you look at their home pages, some of them are following literally tens of thousands of people. I mean, if I can’t read my the Twitter feed when I’m following 200 people, then I’m assuming that they don’t read theirs. Since they don’t read their feeds, then they didn’t follow me on the Twitter because they cared that my local Starbucks has introduced Trenta Tazo iced teas and Trenta Tazo iced teas bring joy to my corner of the world.

I’ve finally decided what I want from the Twitter. I want to know what my friends are tweeting about, and I also want to read articles from The Economist and Scientific American. Additionally, like a true the Twitter voyeur, I want to read the inconsequential but entertaining writings of famous people. I want to know that @WilWheaton is cleaning out his garage. I care.

They say that social networks like the Twitter are all about “building relationships.” However, I’m guessing that @SocialMediaNinja isn’t going to send flowers to my funeral. Un-follow. Now, let’s see if @rickygervais has posted another bathpic.

Overcoming Self-Improvement Fatigue

new year's resolutionsA recent Harris poll determined that the 10 most commonly made New Year’s resolutions are:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Budget responsibly
  3. Exercise more
  4. Get a new job
  5. Eat nutritious foods
  6. Improve stress management
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Improve relationships (with both humans and the more interactive deities)
  9. Stop procrastinating
  10. Set aside time for yourself

These are all worthwhile pursuits, but they all seem overwhelming. I think I need an Advil. Setting aside time for myself? Um, okay. Sure, I’ll get up 15 minutes earlier every day. For about three days, until I start pressing snooze. There goes that self time.

I haven’t decided what my New Year’s resolution will be. I’m still in the brainstorming stages. However, I’m pondering activities that could bring enjoyment while addressing multiple goals. Feel free to add suggestions to my list in the comments section, and feel free to borrow these ideas. I’m releasing them into the public domain.

  1. Take up a new hobby. Learning a new sport, for example, could improve relationships, enhance stress management, increase exercise and lead to weight loss. A more introspective new hobby, like learning to draw or learning a new craft, means setting aside time for yourself and improving stress management. Who knows? It may eventually lead to a new job. That’s what happened when I took up a new hobby called writing.
  2. Document your life. Buy a notebook. Join Instagram. Go through a self-help workbook. In whatever way, write down or photograph your life this year. If you’re worried about budgeting, record your spending. Start a food diary to record what you eat. When you exercise, write it down. When you smoke, write down what triggered you to get up and light up. Write in a journal when you’re stressed. Start a blog. Take photos of your family and share them with friends and extended family to improve your relationships. You’ll be surprised how much insight and empowerment you’ll gain just from living in a more mindful way.
  3. Find ways to play. Start playing board games or video games with your family. Get a sketchbook and draw when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Get a coloring book; you’d be surprised how many adults enjoy coloring. Play with your kids. Find new ways to play in your romantic relationships. Turn household chores into a game. Teach your kids new things by making learning playful.
  4. Invest in people. Join an adult education class in your community. A lot of towns offer cooking, exercise, language learning and other classes that can be ways to meet new people with common interests. Meetup.com is always a great way to find out what’s going on around you. Join a book group. Join Weight Watchers. Quit smoking with a group of people. Whatever resolutions you make, don’t be a lone wolf. You need the support of others. Visit your parents more often. If conversation is a drag, then mow their lawns or take them grocery shopping.
  5. Take a risk. Get out your bucket list, pick something and then do it. Going hiking in the Himalayas? You’ll have to budget for it, and you’ll have to get in shape for it. Write that short story that’s been brewing in your mind. Take one step toward starting your own business, like setting up a website or printing business cards. Are you hiding something crucial about yourself from other people? Stop procrastinating and come out of whatever closet you’re in—doesn’t have to be the gay closet, although it could be—so that you can live a more authentic life and improve your relationships.

Life is full of “shoulds.” We “should” be thin. We “should” be financially responsible. Most “shoulds” are good. For example, being at a good weight helps you live longer to enjoy your relationships. Instead of making a list for direct self-improvement, however, take a different approach that can help you to enjoy your New Year’s resolutions. You may even knock out a few of those “shoulds” in the process.

It’s OK to Tell Kids That They’re Excellent

More attention for gifted studentsMy son, who is in third grade, brought home a perfect score for his most recent test. On the bottom of the page, the scores were divided into three categories: 0-49 was “below standard,” 50-79 was “progressing” and 80-100 was “meeting standard.” “Look, Mom,” he said to me, “I’m meeting standard!” Meeting standard. Yay. How nice.

A quick aside—I am not a helicopter parent. I don’t push my son to earn grades, because grades are subjective. I want him to grow up confident in what he’s good at doing, not neurotic about being the best at everything.

I read a great column in Newsweek a few years ago by a mother who had two children: one autistic, and one gifted. She wrote that while her autistic son received daylong intensive individual instruction, her gifted daughter got a three-hour-per-week pullout. Her argument was that if her gifted daughter received as much attention as her autistic son, then maybe her daughter could find a cure for autism. Her major point is that too often, educators assume that gifted students will be “just fine on their own.” Instead, they should be pushing those students toward greatness.

America is thirsty for kids like my son that can succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Maybe if we weren’t afraid to praise kids when they do kick ass in these subject areas, America’s reputation for innovation wouldn’t be slipping away. I appreciate the importance of not over-praising our kids. However, when they’re really good at something, particularly something that our country needs them to be good at, shouldn’t we let them know?

As an adult, I’ve learned that our education system doesn’t necessarily prepare you for success. In a world where a college education costs tens of thousands of dollars, if you’re entrepreneurial enough and talented enough at something, then you don’t need to shell out $50K to put a credential on your resume. Higher education is turning out too many graduates that aren’t qualified for today’s jobs anyway. In some cases, particularly in technology-related fields, universities are two to three years behind what’s going on in the industry. College dropouts Steve Jobs and Ronald D. Moore, as well as dreadful student Albert Einstein, didn’t need a traditional education to be successful.

The hard truth of life is that not everyone is excellent at everything. Instead of pushing down kids that are excellent at something, the rest of us should cope with our averageness in certain subject areas. Because his school isn’t pushing him toward excellence, my son has to depend on me, a single mother with limited means, to find enrichment opportunities for him. I’m glad that educators want to help students that struggle. At the same time, I wish that they were pushing my son to reach his full potential.

“Meeting standard” seems like tepid praise for earning a perfect score, particularly since my son is strong in math and science. On one hand, we should recognize the unique value of every student. On the other hand, we shouldn’t hesitate to let our kids know when they’re excellent.

I Drink Beer, I Love Jesus and I Wrecked My Pickup Truck

My father listened to “outlaw” country music when I was young. He had piles of 8-tracks recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. He thought that honky-tonk and bar fight songs were okay, but The Beatles were evil and only sang about drugs. Not just evil, but truly evil, as in you’re-going-to-hell-if-you-listen-to-John-Lennon “Scary Dad” evil.

Even though we have pretty much nothing in common, and I am a certified Beatle-maniac, my father did pass on his affection for Johnny Cash and Co. Recently, I’ve started listening to Pandora’s Outlaw Country station. I’ve discovered a lot of gems that I’d never heard, such as Willie Nelson’s solo version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Trust me, it’s much better than the duet version he performed with Waylon.

I’ve also noticed that every other song is some kind of redneck pride anthem. I see nothing wrong with loving your culture, and I don’t mind listening to songs about rural life. For instance, Pandora has acquainted me with Josh Thompson, and I like “Way Out Here.”

A lot of the songs, however, contain basically the following lyrical formula: “I drink beer, I love Jesus and I wrecked my pickup truck.” It’s quite a linguistic achievement to smash the words “beer,” “Jesus” and “wrecked pick-up truck” into a single run-on sentence.

Of course, beer+Jesus+truck isn’t the first country music stereotype ever. The one that people threw out when I was an ’80s kid was that all country music lyrics boiled down to “My woman left me, my truck died and my dog ran off.” Thirty years later, the “truck with misfortunes” endures. But today’s formula, to my expatriate ears, sounds like a weird juxtaposition of “I’m a badass” and “I’m humble before Jesus,” battered and deep-fried and served with a big “you can like it or go to hell.”

As for the “you can like it or go to hell” part, who is “you” in this scenario? Is “you” the non-badass? The non-Christian? The driver of a sensible sedan? I’m on shaky philosophical ground to say that these songs are evidence of what many red-state dwellers are thinking. At the same time, I see radio-wave provocateurs and certain news stations owned by Rupert Murdoch profiting by convincing people that their way of life is under attack.

When I listen, I find myself wondering whether wounds over a century old never truly healed because I get the unsettling feeling that the collective “you” may be the blue-state resident. The old outlaws did sing about national and regional pride; songs like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” come to mind. However, although I can’t cite any statistics, those Southern pride songs seemed to make up a small proportion of the old outlaw repertoire.

I tell myself that I’m completely overthinking the output of the Nashville hit machine. Still, as I thumbs-down song after song in the formula of beer+Jesus+truck+”you can like it or go to hell” while listening to Pandora, and as I watch the growing philosophical chasm between red-staters and blue-staters, I get a nagging, uneasy feeling about where my country may be headed. I worry that the threat we divided Americans pose to ourselves surpasses any unseen threat that may be lurking overseas.