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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Looking Up

I love those marvelous days during which I am super productive. The ones where I check everything off my to-do list and even add a couple extra things because I can. The ones when I sit in front of my computer and the ideas flow, generating words, and soon the page is full; I could keep going for days, weeks, a lifetime! The ones when I'm filled with excitement, optimism, a conflicting yet comforting feeling of frenetic energy as infinite possibility stretches before me, when I know to my core that life is wonderful and things are aligning and I am in control. I can take on the world. I AM the world, dammit!

Man, I love those days. LOVE. THEM.

Sometimes I'm lucky and I wake up feeling amazing. Well, after my first cup of coffee. (Interestingly, I used to be purely a tea person. I didn't start drinking coffee until the fall of 2013, when I discovered the Cranberry-Chocolate variety sold by Fresh Market. Mmm. That coffee made a coffee-drinker out of me. Until I became overzealous and bought 13 bags of it the next season (we still have 3 left) and it got sort of played out.  Lesson learned: There's a reason seasonal blends are seasonal and should stay seasonal. But I digress...) Those days are fabulous. The sky is bluer, the sun shines brighter, things I read are more profound. I want to drink life to the lees.

Other days start off normally and the magic develops later. For instance, Sunday night I was sitting at my computer and out of nowhere, I was struck with a feeling like I could conquer anything. I remarked to my husband that I wished I could bottle it up to drink sometime I felt down. That night I was full of vigor, ideas, purpose, drive. I contemplated staying up all night just to hold on to the feeling as long as I could, to capitalize on the buzz of energy running through me.

Yesterday I had another flash of it. In the late morning, I was able to reach flow as I worked. I ran out of time and had to pack it up until tomorrow; still, possibility hummed in my chest the rest of the day. Later, I worked out, made dinner, took my girls to visit my dad for his birthday, folded two loads of laundry while watching the inspiring State of the Union address, and listened to music with my husband as we fell asleep. It was a productive and satisfying day.

Unfortunately, today was not that kind of day.

Today was the opposite kind. The kind where I can barely manage to accomplish a single task. The kind where, if I got a dollar for every time I clicked off of the page in front of me to check Facebook or my inbox, I wouldn't need to win tonight's $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot. The kind in which I spend all my time re-reading what I've already written instead of writing anything new. When I am plagued by restlessness that sends me skittering from this to that to that other thing. The kind where even if I could manage to focus on my task (like when I went to the gym for my workout), something would interrupt me (a friendly older fellow who chatted me up so much he must've been having a similar affliction today). The kind of day that gives me agita.

Sure, I had a nice Facebook exchange with some old friends about our fifth grade days. I sent a funny PG-13 joke to try to lighten the mood of a friend who was having upset over car troubles. I took my daughter to her gymnastics class. I conversed with the gym guy. So, yes, I made some pleasant connections to the world today in my own way, I suppose. But it was not the day I had hoped to have work-wise.

When I have days like this, I fight against it. I resolve to myself that if I just do XYZ, then I'll be back on track. But it rarely works. Instead of just admitting it's not happening, I end up sitting for longer, drawing out the entire process and still having nothing to show for it but aching body parts. (To that end, my knees are killing me from sitting as long as I have been today in this stubborn pursuit to make something happen that is clearly not there to happen today.)

That's dumb.

So, grudgingly, painfully, I've decided I'm going to give myself permission to call it a day. In addition, I am going to forgive myself the absurd amount of time I wasted pressuring myself to give something I couldn't--for whatever reason--give today. I might even go and watch some of the most recent episode of The Bachelor I DVRed on Monday. (What? I've already wasted most of the day on nonsense; what's another ninety minutes???)

And tomorrow? Tomorrow I'm going to start again and hope the magic happens. At the very least, I'm disabling my wifi for my working hours. (That, in itself, is a kind of magic these days.)

Huh, whaddaya know? That decision is the most productive I've been all day! Things are already looking up! ;-)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bam! What...were they thinking?!

(Photo from disneychannel online)
Full disclosure: I've been writing this post since Thursday. I worked on it sporadically throughout the day, but didn't manage to finish it. Life, as they say, got in the way. (People say that, don't they?) Anyway, now that it's Monday the 11th and no longer Thursday the 7th, the post sort of changed in feeling. The moment was lost. (I know people say that.)

Accordingly, I have deleted my nostalgic musing. The super Reader's Digest version is this: I delivered my firstborn a month before her due date, and on Friday she turned eight. As in eight years old. As in I AM THE MOTHER OF AN EIGHT YEAR OLD HUMAN.

Wowsa. How did that happen?

The little kid part of her is more and more a memory. She's starting--or approaching, depending on which authority's age range you follow--the tween years. But the point is, she's in that strange twilight of being a kid but not being a little kid. You know what I mean? She still carts around Soft Blankie, but she can also make herself a proper cup of tea. She still wants us to kiss her boo boos, but she can also read full chapter books & write detailed stories of her own. 

Before, she used to say things like, "Leaves of three, let it be, Mom." And I'd look at her and say, "That's right, hon. Where did you learn that?" And she'd answer, "George." (Referring to Curious George. She'd also often quote great information from Arthur and The Magic School Bus.)

About a month ago, though, she hit me with something new. As she was getting ready to go Christmas shopping at the mall, she presented herself wearing a dress layered over stretch pants, a denim jacket, and a pair of brown boots. I said, "Honey, those aren't good shoes for the mall. You're going to be walking around a lot, and you were just complaining to me a couple days ago at AC Moore that they hurt your feet. I think you should pick a sneaker instead. It'll support your feet better." She turned to me and said, "Mom! I'm going to the mall. I can't wear sneakers to the mall! Liv only wears boots shopping!"

I stood in quiet shock for a few seconds, various thoughts running through my mind. Oh geez, here we go! and also Who is this Liv person? and also Don't come off as though you care if she changes them, or there's no way she's going to change into sneakers. (She did change, but only after my husband reinforced the suggestion.)

A couple days later, I heard her arguing with her little sister. "No! I am not Maddie!" my younger daughter screeched as though being Maddie (whoever the hell Maddie is) was some kind of punishment, clearly the lesser of the two characters. "But I'M Liv, so you have to be Maddie!" shouted my older one.

Then she started in on this most annoying "Bam. What?!" exclamation that, even if you can find it cute the first time (and that's a big if), is annoying and obnoxious when repeated over and over and over and over...

(Side note: she received a voice-activated private journal for her birthday and programmed the password as "Bam! What!?" Lest you be troubled that I'm broadcasting this information on a public blog, rest assured that her secrets are quite safe. A.) The journal not only ONLY recognizes her voice as the proper one to open the journal, but also has an added security feature of an Intruder Alert that records the voice of whomever tried unsuccessfully to gain entry and plays it for her when she opens it next. B.) Of the combined two hours she spent focused on her journal, all of that time was spent recording and re-recording passwords and opening and closing the journal; no actual writing took place within the pages as yet.)

It turns out the catalyst for these confusing events is a Disney show called Liv & Maddie. I typically insist on approving the shows my kids watch, but she found this one on Netflix after bypassing the approved Kids section and got hooked before I even knew about it. (Yet further evidence of her swing to not-such-a-little-kid-hood.)

I made it a priority over winter break to check out the show that was morphing my information-oriented daughter into a fashion-obsessed sarcasm machine punctuating her proud sass with "Bam, What!" I let her pick a couple episodes for us to watch together.

The first one she chose, citing it as one of her favorites, was called "Bro-Cave-A-Rooney" (all the titles involve "A-Rooney" since it's the title characters' last name.) In this episode, twins Liv & Maddie lose a bet to their two younger brothers and have to clean the boys' disgusting bedroom. The older brother, Joey, is a gawky teen-aged boy with funny one-liners and lots of effeminate qualities. The younger brother, Parker, is a diabolical inventor-brainiac, smarmy in his methods. He is the mastermind behind the bet because he doesn't want to have to clean his own pigsty bedroom. Luckily for the boys, Liv and Maddie are in their bedroom arguing over closet space. Liv, an actress whose TV show's run just ended, is super "girly" and obsessed with her shoe collection so she's moving "tomboy" twin, Maddie's, basketball uniforms out of there. Parker and Joey offer their own closet as a prize if the sisters can win a friendly Rooney family game of eat-the-mystery-food-in-the-fridge-roulette. (They had some family name for it, but my brain can only retain so much idiocy at one time.) If the boys win, the sisters have to clean their room. Liv is wary of this plan but tough-girl Maddie is undefeated at this game, so they accept the terms. Spoiler alert: The boys cheat so the girls lose.

Once inside the disgusting bedroom, Parker's giant beanbag chair "eats" Maddie. As it turns out, she has fallen into one of Parker's many cave-tunnels. This tunnel leads to the high school. Yes, you read that right: the boy has a tunnel system from his bedroom to the high school, as well as various others that lead to different locations in the home and about town. *Sigh.* Liv and Parker set off in search of Maddie. Meanwhile, back at home, Joey has destroyed Liv's Diva Board (a hanging tapestry of sorts that hangs behind Liv's bed. People stand in front of it to sing and pose, presumably like divas.) This is a catastrophe that sends Joey running to his parents for help. His parents, bumbling nerd-types who both work at the kid's high school--the mom as a Vice Principal, the dad as a basketball coach--, are sleeping on the sofa having fallen asleep yet again whilst trying to watch a movie called President Baby. (I wish I was making this up.) They scramble with Joey to fix the Diva Board before Liv returns. Liv happens upon Maddie at the high school, and they piece together Parker's treachery. To teach him a lesson, they pretend to be a Scottish bogeyman-character they'd invented when they were younger. In the end, Liv & Maddie exact their revenge, Parker builds a new shoe-tunnel as retribution, and the Diva Board is, mercifully, restored to its former glory. The boys have to clean their own mess and afterward, immediately throw their dirty clothes on the floor. The parents continue to be useless boobs. The end.

I watched a few other episodes, too, but "Bro-Cave-A-Rooney" is a fair representative sample.

I can sort of excuse how dumb/cheesy/far-fetched some of the plots are because, well, I watched lots of that kind of stuff growing up (things like Saved by the Bell, Full House). Plus, I can give the show credit for its sense of family--the manner in which Liv's dream to be a movie star was supported, and each kid's personality and interests are allowed/celebrated. Those are good points, certainly. 

And even though I can roll my eyes at lots of the ridiculousness in plotting, and even grudgingly chuckle along with some of it, what I can't excuse is how Disney is doing all of that by perpetuating so many stereotypes in characterization.

There's the boob parents-- friendly enough, but largely unnecessary. Just big, lovable, mostly unaware doofuses whose main purpose is to add adult presence for plot-device purposes. (For instance, so the kids can get one over on the parents-- as was the case in "Helgaween-A-Rooney" when the sons wanted to go watch a slasher movie but the parents said no, so they ended up cloning themselves so one version of themselves could go.-- or to torment their kids in ways only parents seem to do--as was the case in "Prom-A-Rooney" where Mom arranges for cousin Craig (budding magician) to escort Liv to prom.) On occasion, they'll say something "funny" that is actually embarrassing to watch, like when the mom complains in "Moms-A-Rooney" how Liv's former TV mom stole her trademark line that she is "about to drop a butt-bomb of Mom" on her kids. That was the same episode where she took Maddie on a mom-daughter pioneer weekend in hopes of winning the Golden Churn.

What's wrong with presenting parents in this light, however, is that they become a kind of joke. It teaches kid viewers that parents are bumbling fools or out-of-touch dorks who may mean well, but they're in their own adult bubble of not "getting it." Thankfully, parents are easily deceived or manipulated; the trick is merely to find out how to pull the wool over their naive eyes. In turn, a certain level of respect for authority is lost.

Next, there's the so-called girly girl twin-- Liv is all about being a girl, in the fashion/heels/lip gloss/ sparkly things sense of the word. Even though the same actress plays both twins, Liv speaks in a higher-pitched voice that makes her sound like an air head (she also sings the name of her former television show any time she mentions it). My daughter said that Liv is smart, but in the few episodes I watched, I saw little evidence to support that. Liv is an actress who is back home in her small town because she missed her family (which is sweet) and her TV show had run its course. She claims that she just wants to be a "regular teenager" in Wisconsin. But her normal runs counter to most people's normal, with bright lights, red carpets, high heels, and short dresses. 

On the flip side, there's the so-called tomboy twin-- Maddie is competitive and all about her role as star basketball player. Her voice is more modulated and, I suspect, the actress's actual speaking voice. (HA! I'm right.) She doesn't have time for high heels, and is more at home in sneakers and a jersey. Oh, and she wears glasses. (Which, on the surface, is no big deal. But there's a general (mis)perception that glasses might make a person less attractive; Liv, of course, wears no glasses.) She hangs out a lot with her teammates and is more apt to celebrate her small-town lifestyle than Liv. For instance, Maddie wants a cowboy/ho-down theme for her Sweet-16 birthday party while Liv wants a red-carpet extravaganza theme. Maddie wants a zombie-themed Halloween party, while Liv votes for a truly"fright-tacular" theme: BROWN. Yes, the color.

As a female, a graduate of a women's college, and the mother of girls, it offends me how there is nothing nuanced about these types. Even the interactive video quiz on youtube through which you can find out which sister you are most like makes it seem as though a female is one of two ways: "feminine" (Liv) or "masculine" (Maddie). But what about the subtleties of personality? Why can't Maddie prefer sneakers but enjoy dressing up on occasion, too? What about the realities of a broad range of interests--particularly interests that are typically (unfairly, stupidly, detrimentally...) gendered? It shouldn't be strange for a boy to like the color pink, or for girls to like playing with cars. Why does merchandising insist that Star Wars is for boys, and Frozen (except Olaf) is for girls? (Also, why would Olaf be for boys? Because he IS a boy?) That's all preposterous. These types of either/or stereotypes are what reinforce these flawed ways of thinking. My husband and I spend so much time teaching our girls that they are free to like what they like and be interested in what they are interested in, but these shows (and stores and merchandising and marketing and society...) come in and chip away at those lessons and--BAM! What?!--suddenly my eight-year-old daughter doesn't want to be seen at the mall in practical footwear because Liv would never wear sneakers?!

But the stereotypes don't stop there.

There's also the brainiac brother with a mean streak-- Parker, the youngest Rooney, is brilliant, but seems only to use his smarts for "evil" or self-serving purposes. He's so intelligent he makes it onto the high school robotics team even though he isn't even in high school. In "Hoops-A-Rooney," he falls for his brother's crush--a brilliant, science-loving girl. Score! But before we get too excited at this non-stereotype...she's Asian. Sooo...back to stereotype. Plus, she's kind of robotic in her behavior because she's so into science. Oh, except for when Joey shows up in a suit and she starts twirling her hair, giggling, and acting like a bubble-head. AHHHHH!-- and does whatever he can to embarrass the older boy (including pulling out a thread of his suit so that Joey flashed his cat-printed underthings at the student body). As I noted before, he was the mastermind behind cheating the girls in "Bro-Cave-a-Rooney." In "Helgaween-A-Rooney," it was Parker's idea to use the magic amulet (yes, magic amulet...) to clone themselves so they could go to the movies; his brainstorm to sell tickets to walk through his famous sister's bedroom in "Mom-A-Rooney." It's always something.

Sigh. Why is he like this? (And why are smart people either geeky, diabolical, or squares? Can't they simply be normal but intelligent?) And couldn't he just as easily be working to find a cure for cancer instead of trying to outsmart the masses? Where are his other interests? Why is the male Rooney the smart one?

Finally, there's the gawky, questionably-effeminate brother (I say questionably because he rides the line between "sissy" and "awkward pre-pubescent" just so)-- Joey is the older of the two Rooney brothers, but still younger than the twins. He has the unique duty of playing to two stereotypes: the overlooked middle-child, and the sissy-boy. His voice is squeaky; he loves cat- and tropical- printed clothing; he's sports-averse; he's scared of being injured; he's oft-overlooked. He's fun to watch because he gets a lot of one-liners, but he's also relegated to the side-kick role. Parker's sidekick, mostly. His uselessness is highlighted in "Helgaween-A-Rooney" when his evil doppelganger clone is mentally damaged (presumably from the magical amulet falling into hummus before the clone wish could be fully realized) and can only say, "Eeewy, eeewwy, ew." While one might argue he's the character with the most facets to his personality, one may not be altogether sure what makes him tick. A desire to be noticed, perhaps?

There are questions to be posed for his type, too, but at this juncture, why bother? (See? He's just been overlooked yet again!) The point is: everyone is playing a type. And that's tired.

It's irresponsible of networks--especially ones that produce shows for kids of impressionable ages--to keep churning out the same crap. It's doing a disservice to our society in perpetuating nonsensical and damaging stereotypes. It's undermining the work parents are doing to teach their kids equality, individualism, diversity (of interests). It's subtly teaching youngsters undesirable ways to behave, to use their talents, to look, to dress. It warps proper aspirations and replaces those with stereotypes.

To me, that wastes a perfect opportunity to have a family TV show and turns it into something I don't even want my kid to watch WITH me.  Eeewy, eeewwy, ew.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

ACTION: New Year, KNOW You

The new year inevitably brings with it the illusion of a fresh start. "New Year, New You!" it says...everywhere. (For real-- google it.) The underlying suggestion is that we're not good enough, we need to change.

I'm not knocking change. As humans, we thirst for positive changes, for reaching new ideals. Ain't nothing wrong with that.

But January 1st carries with it the implication that, with the simple flip of a calendar page, everything will be different.

Suddenly, magically, this is the year you will finally lose the weight, get organized, read more, stop yelling. We make the resolutions, envision the changes, and then...  stay much the same. Even if we start trying to enact the changes, by summer (if not sooner) most resolutions are abandoned, forgotten, disregarded. (Check out these interesting stats on resolutions.)

Are we failures or fools? Do we lack self-control? Maybe. But I suspect it's more likely a matter of heaping way too much pressure on the so-called fresh start, and being unrealistic with ourselves about who we are.

Two things I've read since the clock struck midnight marking 2016 have led me to this conclusion.

First, this perspective on happiness. Alfred D. Souza notes: "For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin--real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life." (*Emphasis added by me.)

This sentiment resonated with me because I'm guilty of this. I seem always to be waiting for something to end before I can enjoy something else. But guess what happens? Even if the original something does end (& it sometimes doesn't), something else moves in to take its place! In turn, I'm constantly waiting and rarely enjoying. How sad.

Thus, what I need to be doing is consciously enjoying what's happening now. Sure, certain aspects of my life aren't currently at my self-imposed ideal. I can work on that. But working towards a goal, or working through a struggle, or accepting things as they are right now shouldn't keep me from enjoying life overall. 

Think about it: Every day--every moment in every day, really--is a fresh start.

So I've adopted the word ACTION as my motivator, my reminder. Action encompasses movement, activity, and now-ness. (Look at that--I created a new word form!) I'm not passive if I'm taking action, which means I'm living.

In an effort toward their own action, people might do well to release the propensity for beating themselves up when they lapse in what they set out to do, and start fresh right away (as opposed to "tomorrow" or "next week" or "next January 1st"). Just start fresh in that moment.

For instance, if you resolve to eat healthy food but find yourself elbow-deep in a bag of potato chips: stop. Fold up the bag and get rid of it. Go drink a glass of water. That's so much better than shrugging, muttering, "Well, I'll try again tomorrow," and continuing to shovel chips in your face. Try now; don't wait. Take action now.

But wait-- about those chips...will your hand be right back in the bag tomorrow?

You know yourself well enough to know if it will.

Which leads me to the second piece I read and loved. In Holstee's Mindful Matter series (which comes to me in my inbox and has some marvelous, thought-provoking ideas), Sheena Greer talks about taking on too much in The Cup List: On Living Realistically. The bit that stood out to me most was, "Realizing there are certain things that will simply never work in my life is not admitting failure. It’s being reflective about who I am, what I’m capable of, and what aspects of my life I truly need to change and what ones aren't worth fighting. If we are to successfully stretch our attention outward, we must first bend back into ourselves. And then move forward."

In sum, if we aren't honest with ourselves about who we are, we can set unrealistic expectations for ourselves that are destined to fail.

So if you're addicted to potato chips, it's probably pointless to swear off potato chips. Instead, buy yourself those snack pack portion-controlled bags and allow yourself one bag a day. 

Yesterday, on my ride home from the gym, high on endorphins, I felt the full impact of Greer's meaning for me.

I don't love the gym. In fact, I kind of hate it. It smells funky, it's sometimes crowded (especially this time of year), and the act of going there--stopping what I'm doing and changing into gym clothes and driving over and hoping the machine I want to use is available and functioning--can be a drag. In fact, because I spent so much of the latter half of 2015 sick, I ended up taking a hiatus from the gym for several months and have been considering canceling my membership. (For perspective, I'd been going to the gym almost daily for nearly three years until this past September when I had to take a break. Yesterday was my first day back.)

All morning yesterday I poked around, not sure if I would muster the gumption to get my butt out the door. But I did. And on the ride home, I was thrilled that I did.

Why? Because I realized anew that the gym WORKS for me. When I go, I achieve several things--things that are important to me--at once.

1. Since I work from home, getting out of the house provides a nice break from the demands of both my kids and my office. It's like a reset button each day.
2. I'm keeping in shape, strengthening my body.
3. (&, for me, most important) It's where I read for pleasure. I realized yesterday I hadn't read a single book since September, but I'd been tearing through titles before that. (I set up my iPad in front of me on the elliptical and read. It's a wonderful mind escape that distracts me from the monotony of the physical movement and makes the time pass quickly.) It's not that I don't read at home, but it turns out I don't tend to start books at home. There's too many distractions. At the gym, I can read uninterrupted for 32-minute stretches, and when I'm sufficiently hooked on a book, that's the point where I'll start stealing time at home to read more. I've said it in the past (but had forgotten until yesterday): I go to the gym so I can read. (And also, so I can eat cookies.)

I need the gym as part of my life and would be losing too much if I stopped going entirely. I'm glad I realized that about myself because it helps me stay realistic about my goals.

So now, because it's now--not because it's the dawn of a new calendar year--I propose that we not feel compelled to "fix" ourselves, but instead to know ourselves. If there's something there that we'd like to change, we should go about enacting that in a way that is in keeping with who we are and what matters to us. And, most importantly, we should always strive to remember as we move forward that there's no sense waiting for later to enjoy our lives now.

Happy action, people!