Sunday, August 29, 2010

Practice

"Write a little every day."

If you've a writer, you've heard this advice. If you've tried to be a writer, or thought about being a writer, or dated a writer, or had to pass a freshman composition class, you've heard this advice. And for writers, it is sound. Use it or lose it is the great commandment of human neuroplasticity, encapsulating the harsh truth that our brains optimize themselves to do whatever it is we ask them to do.

Which is why, incidentally, we are all stunningly good at driving. Oh, sure, I know you are a far superior Mistress of the Motor Vehicle than the yahoo who cut you off on the interstate this morning, or the moron just ahead of you yesterday daring to drive the speed limit for 15 miles in a no passing zone. (FYI that person was me. What is this mysterious middle finger gesture you are all making? I'm so pleased to be included in your quaint Southern rituals!)

But the mere fact that we are able to execute, at breakneck speeds, as complex an activity as careering a metal box through a crowded field of metal boxes, speaks to the power of practice. Driving is astronomically difficult for a novice, as are socializing and coordinating breathing with swallowing, but because we are forced to repeat these activities over and over -and over and over and over and over- we become startlingly, unthinkingly, adept.

Want to get good at something? Shut up and do it again.

But what if we don't want to get good? Say I am not a writer and do not particularly care to become one (there are more than enough writers in the world). Should I bother to "write a little every day," or should I get busy practicing things the things at which I actually want or need to improve? (E.g., filling out forms; corralling very small children; brewing tea.) What's the point of practicing, if not to improve oneself?

I've been giving this a lot of though, ever since one of my Facebook acquaintances issued a general directive, to all of us out there in cyberspace, to write a little every day. His argument was that writing is a fundamental skill.

But in many jobs, including both of mine, it isn't. Good writing is useful, yes- it smooths out job queries and makes for less agonizing program notes. But it is far from necessary. My therapy progress notes consist of marking the letters "P" and "NP" in a series of blank squares, and it is possible to go through entire concert seasons without putting your fingers to a keyboard that doesn't yowl when touched.

Is my friend wrong about writing every day? Should we practice only what we want, or need, to be good at? Or are there some practices -writing, perhaps- which are inherently valuable, worthwhile no matter whether or not they serve you?

As I get older, I believe more and more doggedly that we should write a little every day. Each of us, all of us: writers and non-writers alike. We should read a little every day. We should sing a little every day. We should walk a little every day. We should persist, with the stubborn persistence that is the pure heart of practicing, in doing things not because we should, but because we can.

Every day, save for Christmas, Thanksgiving, days I spend entirely on planes, and days I vomit, I practice my instrument. I do it because I have to, because if I do not, I will not be as good as I need to be to get paid to play, nor as good as I need to be to satisfy myself. It is instrumental practicing in both senses of that term: I practice to get somewhere.

How much more joyful to practice without expectation! How much more fulfilling (no, that's wrong; not more fulfilling, but differently fulfilling) to repeat an activity because....well, just because! I sing just because. I run just because. I write -I am lucky enough to write- just because.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Marry Him

Another entry from my list of books inappropriate to my stage of life, gender, habits, etc.: Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. I married a man I met at 22, so Gottlieb isn't really talking to me. But Gottlieb's book provoked a media firestorm upon publication, and I was eager to see what got everybody so riled up. Also, much like a closeted bigot titillated by Glen Beck's inflammatory rhetoric, I was eager to see Gottlieb articulate a thesis I'd only allowed myself to whisper.

On the marriage market, women are depreciating assets.

Any sentence that pairs the word "women" with the word "assets" is on dangerous ground ("show me your assets, baby!") and I can see why Gottlieb was pilloried in the blogosphere. It has become socially unacceptable to forward anything that smacks of female disempowerment, and the idea that women, as they age, might be worth less on any scale -let alone one so central to our lives as the ability to attract and retain a mate- is profoundly disempowering.

Which doesn't, unfortunately, make it false.

Most of the anger directed at Gottlieb centered on her (arguably, though not necessarily, cogent) understanding of marriage as a market and on her articulation of women's worth therein. Gottlieb, a 41-year-old single mother, describes unsparingly her decline in "datability," starting with a decrease in real-world prospects, and moving on to matchmakers who are unable to find candidates who will accept a woman in her age bracket, and a demoralizing speed dating event in which all the men looking to meet women over 40 are 76, apoplectic, or dead.

I exaggerate. Gottlieb probably does too, but her anguish seems real: She always meant to get married and start a family, and now, on the far side of 40, she is trying to make sense of why her life didn't go as planned.

And here we get to the real meat of Gottlieb's thesis, a point largely lost, to my mind, in the media frenzy. Simply: we set our expectations too high. Gottlieb's indictment falls heavier on women than men, but she doesn't spare the male sex. We've been socialized, she argues, to believe that good relationships are easy relationships, that without "butterflies" something is missing, that we deserve to have all our needs, big and small, met. Never mind that we might not be up for catering to someone else's smallest desires, or that we ourselves might be neurotic, complicated, or just plain imperfect. We want the best. We deserve the best.

Entitlement. In Gottleib's vision, that's the canker at the root of what's wrong with dating in America. And I do believe Gottlieb has this nailed. We are entitled! I am entitled! We all, every last one of us, deserves fulfilling careers, exciting marriages, rich family lives, because our mothers told us we deserved them, and, moreover, sacrificed so we could have them.

No one likes to part with her entitlements, and Gottlieb's prescription, paring down our expectations and hence our standards, is a tough sell. It's the rational approach, but Gottlieb -and here, in my view, she stumbles- embraces rationality only halfway. She's ready to accept, after speaking with experts such as behavioral economist Dan Ariely, that humans do not always know what is good for them, that our"gut feelings" are frequently off. Yet, Gottlieb never interrogates something else her gut is telling her: that she, and we, will be happier married and with a family.

Yes, Gottlieb craves domestic life. But after spending a whole book explaining that we do not always know what we really want, for Gottlieb to glibly accept the superiority of domestic life seems strange. It's true that there is research to the effect that married folks are happier than singles. But there's also research suggesting that people with children are significantly less happy than people without, and Gottlieb never breathes a word about childlessness.

(And who set happiness as the goal anyway? I, personally, prefer placid contentment, but I respect the rights of those who enjoy a merry-go-round of sturm und drang!)

And finally there's this: Gottlieb argues that acceptance -of our mates' flaws, of the state of our unions- is the key to contentment. Surely, then, if follows that acceptance of one's own marital status is an equally essential ingredient of happy juice? Why, then, isn't Gottlieb working harder at accepting her singlehood? Why all the speed dating and matchmaking and book writing?

Still, for all its flaws, Marry Him -in the narrowest of ways- speaks Truth to Power. And heck, that's always entertaining.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Don't Give a Fig...

I eat one!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bruise Pushing

No, not pushing bruises as in attempting to deal them for maximum profit on the streets. Rather, testing for pain. I am an inveterate bruise pusher, both literally -though it's been a while since I've bumped into an inanimate object with any kind of conviction- and in the looser sense of testing your emotional sore spots. I like to probe around to see just how agonizing things can get -on the assumption, I suppose, that if you do your worst to yourself, no one else can top it. Worse than pain, in my book, are fear and surprise.

(This is possibly why clowns are on the ixnay list. Also roller coasters, slasher flicks, the younger of the Bush presidents, blind dates, kitchen timers, animals that pounce, turbulence, paintball, pirates, and those pagers they give you at Panera. Eeek!)

Still, even us dedicated probers of pain get distracted. We get caught up in the mechanics of life, the sheer logistical wherewithal required to weather things like cross-country moves, job changes, and the sudden introduction into one's life of cocktail hour on the porch. We forget to keep checking to see if we hurt, and when we remember, we don't.

It's startling, the cessation of pain. It's far more surprising than pain's introduction: you know life is going to hurt, and how, but it's hard to remember, in the thick of things, that your knee was once something other than the purple of the world's most beautiful sunset, that your heart was once its true color.

Look Ma, no bruise:
  • I was never Clara
  • High school
  • Middle school
  • Myself, 19
  • You didn't care
  • Preschool nemesis #1
There's plenty I'm still hanging onto, but it's nice to let some things go.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Googleplex

Let's get this out in the open: everybody Googles themselves. I've done it out of curiosity. I've done it out of shameless self-involvement. And, most frequently, I've done it in the spirit of image control. What kind of dirt is out there? What facets of my life are exposed online?

(As it happens, my name is not particularly common. Nor, though, is it exclusively mine. There are several of us running around, which I view as a huge plus: the presence of doppelgangers handily confuses any potential investigators. Although, disturbingly, the more concerts and publicity for concerts I do, the more I gain on the bariatric weight loss nurse who is my prinicpal red herring. There's a site where you can actually see a cloud of results for your name, and "early music" and "bariatric," the two largest items, are neck and neck.)

But here's the thing: Googling for image control, by its very nature, assumes that there are people out there Googling you. The act of monitoring for what comes up presupposes that it's not just you eyeballing your results.

You'd think, then, that I would have been less monumentally gobsmacked when I discovered that, yes, there were actually folks out there plugging my name into their search boxes:

Pleasant old parishoner at husband's new job: Were so glad to have you all here!
Me: We're so glad to be here!
POPHNJ: Are you enjoying Virginia so far?
Me: Everyone seems very friendly. (Note: I have recited the preceding two lines so many times they've become incantations. Also, my smile muscles hurt).
POPHNJ: You're the Anne XXXXXXX who wrote XXXX poems, right? It took me a while to figure out which one you were online.
Me: .... (Hang onto smile as if onto small child dangling off lip of 50-foot precipice.)

Friends, I always thought it was paranoia not to feature my full name on this blog. But it wasn't paranoia. No way. It was straight-up, bona fide wisdom! I have long half-salved my fears with the comforting idea that there was no way anyone on earth was as interested in me as I was. Obviously I had yet to encounter the church.

Is it wrong to be so disturbed by this? For starters, the woman meant well. She was just curious, and I understand curiosity. Heck, I Google everybody else, so why shouldn't people Google me? And then there's this: In this age of electronic records and computer-based work environments, do we forfeit, at birth, the right to electronic anonymity? Are we even capable of such anonymity, especially if we are trying to use the internetz to promote, as I am, one particular facet of our lives?

Hmmm.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Time after Time

The one consolation to depositing yourself, along with thirty-four cardboard boxes and no soap, halfway across the continental US from your point of origin is that, for the first few precious weeks or months, you nurture the illusion that you will reinvent yourself.

I will turn from sloth, idleness, and provinciality towards freneticism, volunteerism, high-fiber diets. I will do yoga every day and grow half of what I eat. I will be feverishly sociable, pleasant to all, and inexhaustible in my pursuit of cleanliness. I will attack professional success like a half-blind terrier after an inflatable rat.

The truth drags its feet, shuffling in late to class. The floor needs to be cleaned, and so does the bathroom mirror. I am tired of meeting new people. My face hurts from smiling. My tomato plants are clinging to life and I keep stumbling short of the effort needed to launch my career.

On the other hand, I am inordinately fond of my porch. Other good news about Virginia includes the preponderance of BBQ, the cute accent, and the unerring aim of your NYT delivery person. The first thing I do in the morning is poke my nose out the front door, stoop down, and retrieve my beloved tree-gobbling subscription periodical.

Which, come to think of it, is exactly what I did first thing in the morning in Indianapolis. Is reinvention a boondoggle? Are we forever doomed to repeat, not just our mistakes, but our mundanities? And do I care?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Porch

I've already sped through a lot of firsts in this life. First word, first book, first love, first heartbreak, first moment when you realize the exact percentage of your time on earth you are going to be spending doing things like waiting in line at the DMV to title your car.

But until the move, I had yet to experience one monumental first, a first so unexpectedly earth-shattering I am forced to class it with such firsts as first crush, first concert appearance, first washer/dryer combination, and first pomegranate.

FIRST PORCH, people! You can see the sexy little number photographed above. It's maybe six by ten, very slightly overgrown, and doubles as the entrance to the apartment despite being stuck onto the side of the house. Nevertheless, this is IT: a bona fide, no-holds-barred, Genuine Article porch. A few days ago we fixed the light and extricated a nest in which, it appeared, several generations of bird families had been raised to cheeping adulthood. Yesterday I swept all the bird poop off the floor and endured four hours in the concrete wasteland of the suburban strip mall to purchase the requisite PORCH FURNITURE (note the slingback chairs, the table of overweening smallness).

And now I've got a PORCH! I'd been vaguely aware of the pleasures of the porch but I confess that I'd underestimated their punch. There's something viscerally appealing about the porch. It's a liminal space, caught between inside and outside, and that liminality allows you, too, to feel suspended, to rest between all the things you need to do outside and all the things you need to do inside.

Or maybe I'm confusing peacefulness with gin and tonic. Bottoms up! It's porch time.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Where Did I Put the Chips?

I think, When am I going to start something?

It's enervating, starting something. It means you have something to finish. It means you've shown your hand to the world and now it can play whatever it wants, secure in the knowledge that it has you by the balls, that want is the hand gripping your most secret, most pain-seeded parts, and life knows how to make you bloom.

Easier to sit around watching Master Chef.