Monday, March 27, 2006

The Surprise Factor

Sometimes the weekend comes, and it’s time for me to write my weekly Newsletter, and I sit at my computer and have no idea what to write about. Some people call that writer’s block. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s the feeling that I have nothing of value to impart. No words of wisdom, no lesson-building anecdotes, no organizational break-throughs. No epiphanies.

So when my daughter bounced into my office—as I sat staring at my blank computer screen—I asked her if she could think of anything. Without a second’s hesitation, she said:”Tell everyone about my play.” (This is a child with little self-esteem issues.)

“What specifically about your play?” I countered.

“Tell them about how fleeting, but how special, it was.”

Still confused as to exactly what valuable lessons she had in mind, I asked again: “What about your play would anyone else care about?”

“Teach them the lesson that the play itself was so fleeting. That you practice and practice and then in two nights, it’s all over. But that it was such a blast.”

Now there’s a Newsletter.

Cristina went to school early for weeks ahead of the play, rehearsing at 7 AM when other classmates were barely rolling out of bed. Week after week of early-morning school drop-offs were followed by a solid week of three-hour after-school rehearsals. Mixed in with the various other extracurricular and sports activities that most of the kids in the cast are also involved in made for many road-weary moms and dads, too.

So many big life events require enormous prep times. Careful planning. Logistical hurdles. Financial and calendar challenges.

My own wedding required eight months worth of invitation-addressing, ring-shopping and reception-planning. Pregnancies involve nine months worth of dreaming and wondering. Of re-arranging rooms and furniture. Purchasing the layette and arranging it in closets and drawers. Painting and decorating the nursery.

I mentally reviewed the umpteen practice sessions for concerts and recitals of my own four kids. Of countless renderings of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on pint-sized violins. Of counting out rhythms and reviewing key signatures.

Life is mostly all about process. But sometimes it’s about the actual performance. And the surprises that come with it.

In the case of my daughter’s play, opening night brought with it a nearly flawless performance by the entire cast. Cues were spoken on time, words were delivered with perfect memory and dance and vocal numbers went off without a hitch. But on the second night, the kid who was to have delivered my daughter’s cue forgot his line, my daughter ad-libbed, and giggles interrupted what was to have been a serious song at the end of the show. The bloopers gave rise to incessant chatter on the drive home; the surprise factor proved priceless.

Sometimes, because not all parties are involved in the process and because the law that “things that can go wrong sometimes do go wrong” is always at play, the end result—the big event—holds the most value. Sometimes the wedding ceremony is the much stronger memory than the months of preparation leading up to it. Sometimes the birthing experience erases those months of anxiety and preparation, because it is life-altering in and of itself. Sometimes the play or the recital or the concert is so marvelous that, when the music or the drama is heard or seen for the first time, the surprise factor takes over and all thoughts of carpooling, early-rising and practicing take backseat to the performers on stage and the actual spotlight. My husband and I never attended any of our daughter’s school play rehearsals, so sitting in the audience and seeing it for the first time was a fun-filled experience. Watching our daughter and her many friends perform—the event itself—was what it was all about for us. The surprise factor took center stage and we were perfectly happy that it did.

We were privileged to have taken part in a surprise birthday dinner party for a dear new friend this week. Not having had anything to do with any of the arrangements (her more-than capable husband took care of everything beautifully), we were able to simply sit back and thoroughly enjoy the surprise factor. We enjoyed watching the look on her face as she entered the room; we enjoyed the food and the drink and the cake and the conversation with dinner companions without any anxiety. The event in and of itself was enough. The surprise factor took center stage.

Saturday night, my husband and I attended a comedy club at our church. It was good, clean fun and, given that it was a weekend date night that was out of the ordinary—and that the headline act and every one of the participants was very, very funny—it had a wonderfully high surprise factor. Sunday night, my husband took the boys to a concert by the Navy Band at our local high school; they had no idea what to expect and wound up completely dazzled by the surprise factor. While they were at the concert, I took my daughter out for a quick movie…a rare treat on a school night. It wasn’t just that the movie was cute; it was the whole mom-takes-teen-daughter-on-a-movie-date thing. The drive over, the theater, the getting out on a rainy Sunday night.

Sometimes we get blessed by serendipity and by surprise. Of meeting an old friend for lunch because she happens to be in town visiting or housing a total stranger because the extra room in your house it is needed. It is that catching us off-guard quality that provides the best memory. That getting away or doing something off-beat…and laughing in a way that we don’t usually do. And we ignore the process because it wasn’t the main thing or because we simply had nothing to do with it. We realize that the main thing is to just enjoy the main thing.

I find myself sometimes taking myself—and life—too seriously. We are dealing with childhood cancer over here, after all. And other kids and a house and a dog and bills and cleaning and chauffering and conflicting calendars. Sometimes, it’s good to just let the surprise factor completely take over.

Here’s hoping that your week brings a wonderful surprise or two and some laughter-inducing serendipity your way!


A Rocket Mom Society Note

Our final G.A. T. meeting will be held at the mother ship on Tuesday night, the 28th, at 7:30 PM. Our topic: “Getting your Act Together: The Papers of Your Life.” Find out the single secret for dealing with the daily mail…and how it revolutionized paper-handling in my own household. Discover tricks for getting calendars coded, bills paid, and personal notes written. If magazines, newspapers, journals and photo albums have ever bogged you down, you need to come and learn from fellow rocket moms! Questions?
Come and taste a meeting and see if you’d like to give the society a try.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Fighting March Madness Fully-Armed

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." Herbert Rappaport

The first official day of spring doesn’t exactly bring with it the same anticipation as does, say, Christmas, or one of my kid’s birthdays. It’s not as though gifts need to arrive on time or one has cultural expectations or deadlines to meet. But a palpable angst about greeting it fully prepared meets me most every year. And this year was no different. I felt an overwhelming need to have all of my little duckies in a row before today. I wanted closets weeded, drawers re-organized, kitchen cabinets swiped. Winter stuff boxed up. And spring’s cheer to pervade each and every one of my living spaces.

I wanted fresh air, literally and metaphorically, to invade my mind, my family and my home. I longed to roll up my sleeves and wipe away cobwebs and crumbs. To donate outgrown clothing to a local charity. To go through my medicines and check expiration dates. Go though my business invoices and put them in chronological order. Clear out my files and discard un-interesting material. Delete months-old emails from my inbox, for crying out loud!

And all that my husband wanted was to see Kentucky beat UConn. He longed to lounge on the sofa in front of the tube—chips and salsa within immediate, easy reach—all weekend long, while I faced the daunting task of cleaning up my entire life.

Add to that the news that my mom was having some health concerns, and I felt particularly guided to drive the 150 mile trek to her home and spend all day Saturday visiting with her.

Motherhood brings with it a near-constant feeling of unsettled-ness. Of never really feeling like you’ve truly got it all together. Because just when you finally make it past one hurdle you’ve got another one staring you in the face. You watch your teen sail successfully through mid-terms only to sit through an unpleasant parent-teacher conference discussing her deficiencies. Or you get your whole family safely through flu season only to deal with each member contracting that dreaded stomach virus. You shovel out from underneath one last snowstorm only to get hit with high winds and hail. Or you finally breathe a sigh of relief that you’ve successfully battled the winter blahs only to find yourself emotionally unprepared for the perpetual cheerfulness of spring.

March madness.

I woke up Sunday morning feeling particularly unsettled. Having just returned home from a long day out-of-state visiting my mother and other family and friends, I looked around at my house and felt an overwhelming need to get my act together. Perhaps it was from dealing so personally with the realities of old age. Perhaps it was the lunchtime banter of aches and pains amongst the seventysomething set. Perhaps it was the long drive home giving me far too much time for introspection. But I returned feeling compelled to infuse a “Lysol moment” into my life. I craved cleanliness and orderliness. Freshness and vitality. Spring cheer.

Perhaps your circumstances are dissimilar to mine but your goal is the same. Perhaps you, too, desire to greet spring with enthusiasm. With a fresh start. With energized focus. Here, then, is my formula for fighting March Madness fully-armed:

Be well-rested. It’s hard to face organizational and creative challenges, not to mention a whole new season, deprived of sleep. Research tells us we need at least 6-7 hours a night. You should find yourself generally able to conquer the world if you get this one thing right.

Be strong. Get plenty of aerobic exercise and strength training. Gliding through spring requires you to be in fighting shape. You need to be sure that the endorphins are swirling through your body, so make sure that you’re moving, lifting and sweating. Whether you’re already biking and hiking, or you’re inside swimming or doing Pilates, keep at it. You want to shed those extra seven pounds that winter inevitably brings (I picked them up, too) and get down to your best shape. (And bathing suit season is just around the corner.)

Be disciplined. Be mindful of what you’re eating, what you’re reading and what you’re watching. Spring brings with it too many chores to allow sloppiness or laziness into your days. That can wait ‘til summer. There are gardens to tend, decorating projects to undertake and end-of-year school events to plan. Leave the self-indulgence for later, after spring’s demands are fully met head-on. Attack closets and cabinets with a vengeance now so that you might enjoy summer’s own rewards later.

Be helpful. The sure-fire way to settle any feelings of unsettled-ness is to do something nice for someone else. My own quick trip to visit my family this weekend brought me deep-seated feelings of satisfaction. It did my heart good to see my mother looking as well as she did; it calmed any anxieties I faced about possible health concerns for her. The fastest lift out of the doldrums is service to others. So look around and see where you might fit in community service. Or of simply providing a meal to a neighbor or friend in need.

Be optimistic. No other season spells optimism as does spring. New life bursts through both grass and eggs. The sun shines. Clouds disappear. Allow yourself to be liberated by its uplifting, energizing days. Take a walk around your neighborhood or a quick spin through your nearest mall. Enjoy the visual delights of spring: the yellows, purples, pinks and greens. Pick a flower. Grow wheatgrass for your kids’ Easter baskets. Plant some herbs. Think of ways in which you might introduce new life into this world.

I confess to not having met all of my goals for this first day of spring. There are still a few messy cabinets and sticky floors begging for attention. But I am focused on fighting this madness before the day is over. Fully-armed. And ever so thankful that spring is finally here!


A Rocket Mom Society Note

Our final G.A.T. meeting to discuss “Getting Your Act Together: The Papers of Your Life” will be held at the Mother Ship on Tuesday night, March 28, from 7:300 until who knows when. If you can’t see your desktop, your kitchen table or the light of day, you need to come and learn strategies for coping. Call or email me: Bring a friend and check it out! And check out our developing site while you’re at it:

Monday, March 13, 2006

Wiping Out

Spring sprang this weekend in New England. We enjoyed temperatures in the low 60’s, a veritable heat wave considering that a mere seven days before we got clobbered with snow and ice that required school closings and road closures to boot. And with it came the requisite spring fever: that irrepressible itch to get outside along with the hope that someone—or something—might come along and scratch it.

I’m not complaining that winter lasts well, seemingly forever up here in the northeast. It starts in November and extends fully into April or May, with trees never budding before then. And kids require sweatshirts or the ubiquitous North Face zippered fleece until almost summertime. So come one weekend with sunshine and warmish weather and we all get rather feverish. Crazy for the outdoors. With several rituals of the season begging to get underway.

Ritual number one requires a general purging of junk from my house. Spring cleaning at its best. Closets, drawers and cabinets get a thorough going through. Outgrown kids’ clothing gets donated and outdated medicines get thrown out. The cleansing in and of itself makes me feel lighter…a good thing considering that winter always makes me carry several unwanted pounds around my middle. (Ugh!)

Ritual number two requires a decorating and window-staging effort. Out go the snowmen and the sleds. In come the bunnies and the butterflies. Indeed, few things energize me more than re-decorating corners of my home with seasonal visual delights.

Ritual number three requires a long walk around our garden. Or I should say our “yard,” as we do not yet have a “real” garden. When the weather warms up a bit and we finally get to go outside, my husband and I love walking around the yard in an effort to figure out what we shall eventually do there. With steaming mugs of coffee in hand, and perhaps the sound of birds chirping in ear (I heard my first one the other day), that first spring walk-through brings a comforting sense that hope really does spring eternal.

Ritual number four requires that I pull my mountain bike off the ceiling hook in the workroom. A fresh pumping of its tires and a good wiping of its seat get me all zoo-ed up for a good race down my street and an hour-long ride around a nearby lake.

Such was Saturday. I looked forward to the impending warm weather since I first learned of it on the TV news a few days before. I longed for the purging and the decorating. For the garden walk and the first bike ride. For going through, wholeheartedly, the rituals that signaled that spring was finally on its way.

The sunshine begged first for ritual number four. And so with newly-inflated tires, newly-wiped seat and a newly-cleaned helmet firmly planted on my head, I raced down my street for what was to have been that luscious first rite of spring. Oh, it felt good! Oh, to be in that seat again! The air was still crisp and my thighs were still flabby, but to be on my bike again was nothing short of glorious!

I got to the bottom of my street, just a few minutes from my house, and turned the corner as I had done a hundred times before. It was my familiar path. The one I had looked forward to for so long. I turned that familiar corner and I totally wiped out. I felt it coming along with that dreaded sense that I was going to have a serious accident and would be unable to do anything to prevent it. I felt my brain caught in slow-motion, knowing that I was about to be flattened. My bike flew out in front on me and I lay sprawled on the street, directly in the path of oncoming cars. Seems some snow had not yet disappeared and, mixed with gravel, provided just the right texture for a good wiping out.

Realizing that body parts both up and down, left and right, were throbbing in pain, forced me to pull myself up and figure out where—exactly—the pain was and how badly—or not—I was hurt. I wanted so much to just get up, wipe myself off and get back in the saddle. To carry on with this favorite spring ritual and enjoy the day as I had anticipated and planned. But one look at my aching, bloodied elbow and its many layers of missing skin, along with my throbbing knee and left thigh, and I knew that I was a mess.

A few minutes later, a woman drove by slowly in her car and, seeing my bike and me scattered across the street, offered to help pick me up and get me home. Too shaken up to fully understand exactly how bad things were, I at first declined, only to realize that the throbbing pain would most likely keep me from walking the ten minutes home. She helped me to the car and drove me there; I stumbled inside the front door a veritable basketcase, crying out from the pain that freshly-abrased skin always evokes. I was a messy sight, and a rather loud one, too, and my yelps brought my husband and kids running to my rescue.

Wiping out is the worst. It stinks. Having done it quite a few times in my day, I thought I was done with it for awhile. Thought I was immune for at least a few years, anyway. (We have had a time of it over here, after all!) As my husband cleaned me up and my kids gagged at the sight of my raw elbow area, I re-traced the many times I have wiped out on my bike. The couple times in Miami where wet sand caused me to spin out of control, or where protruding Banyan tree stumps caused me to flip over so fast I never knew what hit me. Or of when the driver of a car failed to look both ways and hit me while I was riding on the bike path. That one was the worst, requiring surgery as well as a year of physical therapy (and a permanent scar and ever-present achiness during our bitterly cold winters).

Yes. Wiping out is the pits. When I wipe out, I can never quite tell if I am angrier that I wiped out and got hurt…or that my perfect plans for the day got completely derailed. Certainly, on Saturday, I was thoroughly ticked off that I missed out on that glorious, long-planned hour-long bike ride. As I lay on the sofa watching too many hours of HGTV, I couldn’t stop thinking of the rituals of spring that just didn’t get done. No walking through the yard. No staging of the house. No cleaning of the closets.

And I kept thinking (but only because my husband kept reminding me) of how it could have been worse. Of how I could have broken bones or dislocated shoulders or permanently damaged my one and only brain. And my mind kept going to friends who had recently wiped out in far more serious ways. My friend wiped out skiing in Colorado last month and completely tore her ACL; she endured surgery last week. And others completely wiped out in the financial arena. Made bad decisions and are living with the consequences. Others wiped out in the personal arena. And are dealing with relationships in disrepair.

Truth is, we all wipe out at one time or another. We screw up a friendship or fail a test or don’t make it to the next interview or file for bankruptcy. It stinks and it hurts and it seems so unfair. And we try to clean it up or clear it out. And it hurts even more. When Ernie dumped hydrogen peroxide in my open wounds I thought I would go berserk. It stung and it bubbled and I screamed out for mercy.

Wiping out stinks. We think to ourselves: “Say it ain’t so.” And we look around and realize that this is our reality and we wonder how we got here and how we’re going to get out.

I hope this Newsletter doesn’t find you recently wiped out. But if it does, know that I am feeling it with you. My thigh hurts and my butt hurts, too. And my elbow is raw and my knee doesn’t feel too great either. It hurts to walk and I’m a little grumpy. So I’m eating way too much dark chocolate in an effort to feel better. But I’m forcing myself to get back in the saddle. I’m playing tennis in the morning. Playing hurt.

Wiping out is all part of the deal if you want to play at all. If you step into the arena, you’re going to wipe out sooner or later. It’s not wiping out that separates you from the rest of the world. It’s how you wipe yourself off after you wipe out.
Wiping yourself off slowly and retreating to the sofa might be a wonderful short-time fix (as it was mine almost all day Saturday), but you gotta get up and at ‘em at some point. Wiping yourself off angrily doesn’t help much either, although I confess to doing a lot of that, too. Wiping yourself off reflectively? Well, maybe there’s something to be said for that. Wiping yourself off gratefully? Now there you go.

I wish you smooth sailing all week long! No wiping out! But if you do, a wiping off that separates you from the rest of the pack.


Monday, March 06, 2006

7 Lessons I Learned from Bunny

It’s officially time to spring clean. Not because it’s officially spring. Heck. We got another four inches of snow dumped on us last week. And temperatures still hover in the teens. But last week’s Newsletter raised the issue and prompted an onslaught of emails in response. Moms out there who are rolling up their sleeves and attacking cabinets, closets and drawers with fury. And it was the topic of discussion at our Rocket Mom Society meeting Tuesday night…and those moms are holding each one of us accountable. I even got a phone call with a request for where to send all of that cleaned-out “fluff”! (See details below). So strategies for slaying Fluff the Magic Dragon were addressed head-on. And lively discussion followed.

Three days later, I received Bunny Williams’s new best-selling book “An Affair with a House” as a birthday gift. Talk about juxtaposition! Just when I was walking through every room of my house pondering how, exactly, I could pare down, Bunny’s two-hundred-plus page tome stared at me in the face, begging for a good read. This beautifully-illustrated book chronicles the thirty-year journey of Bunny and her antiques-dealer husband’s conversion of a century-old house into a home. Pretty incredible. Not only is every single room in “Manor House” filled with stuff, but buildings scattered though-out the compound are literally loaded to the gills, too.

Now, I certainly can’t knock Bunny. She’s obviously struck a chord with readers, as her book has catapulted to the top of best-seller lists and book clubs everywhere. Who am I to argue with success? And I can’t knock her vision or her passion, either. I love the whole vision meets passion meets courage meets energy thing in any person. But I admit to almost not buying it because of its title alone. Any book named an affair with any ‘thing’ is a fairly good clue that the value system of the author might be different than my own. And while I admit that it’s certainly better than “An Affair with a Neighbor,” for example, it’s obvious from the first word that this is someone who takes her “stuff” very seriously.

Bunny certainly has a beautiful life. She has built a beautiful world with beautiful taste and beautiful things. The fact that she has seemingly unlimited funds at her disposal as well as a head gardener (“head” implies team) as well as the absence of the pitter-pattering of little feet prompts a knee-jerk reaction of “As if….”

But there are some lessons from Bunny, and because it’s the “spring-cleaning season” and because some of us are still struggling with getting our acts together, and because you may very well hear about her book, here are seven points to ponder on “creating a beautiful life” that I gleaned from her book:

1) Take time to entertain friends and family. Seems like Bunny has this well under control. Easier said than done when one doesn’t have small kids running underfoot. But my hat is off to anyone who is willing to open up home and hearth as freely and generously as does she. She has been blessed with abundance, filling houses and barns to overflowing, and she shares it graciously with others.
2) Take time to garden. Even if the only space you have allocated for such is a sunny spot outside your window for container gardening, allow yourself this small indulgence. We’ve lived on our new home for two years, and have yet to design the garden of my dreams. Bunny has several carefully-planned gardens and she took her time with each one, first allowing the land to speak for itself before she settled into a grand plan for it. Give yourself the luxury of time, if that’s what you need, as I certainly do.
3) Take time to sit. Seems like Bunny does a lot of this, too. Lemonade on the patio. Coffee on her balcony. Iced tea in the garden while listening to the birds. I admit to being a lousy sitter. And I imagine that if you’re chasing toddlers or working full-time while running a household, you may have a hard time with this, too. But I’m really going to try doing a little more of that.
4) Take time to cook. Few things are more difficult for me than getting dinner on the table. (Stay tuned for a Rocket Mom Society meeting when Chef Silvia will share her secrets on this one!) And Bunny admits to doing none of the cooking; it’s an area taken over by her husband. So, OK, this is a dream world. But preparing meals on the weekend, especially during the spring and summer months when al fresco dining is possible, seems much more do-able, and she includes a few recipes for doing just that. Look through some of your favorite cookbooks and find a few menus that suit you and your family well, and stick to those. Or experiment freely if you prefer living a more spontaneous lifestyle.
5) Take time to edit. Only bring those things into your home that you really like. If it doesn’t “speak to you,” sell it or give it away. Chances are, it’ll mean something to someone else and the world will be better for you having shared it.
6) Take time to grow some of your own food. Whether it’s tomatoes or lettuce—or fresh organic eggs from your own chickens (Bunny has a chicken coop and aviary, too)—there is nothing quite like home-grown produce. A friend of mine built a chicken house for his wife; their young son tends it. They love the idea of teaching their family the cycle of life…that eggs come from chickens rather than cardboard boxes from the grocery store. Granted, this elevates conviction to a level unclaimed by most of us, but it’s an idea worth exploring. And it has certainly inspired me to at least set out some basil and tomatoes this year.
7) Take time to reflect. While Bunny’s twelve-acre Connecticut compound is over-the-top by anyone’s description, she has certainly done a fine job of deliberating on her lifestyle. She proceeds with confidence on everything from entertaining houseguests to decorating the barn to stocking the pantry to lining up her table linens. She has taken time to reflect on the way in which she wants to infuse beauty into her everyday life, and I applaud her for that. Like creating happy childhoods for your children, beauty doesn’t just happen by chance. You have to think about it and plan for it. Granted, sometimes serendipity sneaks in. And thankfully so. But reflection is a good thing.

The success and elevation of the likes of Bunny Williams’s (and Martha Stewart’s, Rachel Ray’s and others’ for that matter) work on the homefront certainly seals the fact that women everywhere are yearning for domestic direction. Given that none of these famous folks are dealing with young children— or obvious budgetary constraints—makes it difficult for most of us rocket moms to relate. The challenge—and quite frankly, the fun!—is figuring out how to take the best ideas and translate them into realistic ones for your home and your family. A life-long process, to be sure.

And be ever-mindful that materialism is a relative concept. Remember that you are blessed beyond measure with what you have: health, family, friends, food, clothing and shelter. And that becoming your best and making the best of what has been entrusted to you should be your focus.

Wishing all blessings on your week!