ta-dah!

When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

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If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou

the kingdom for a cookie

The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was a discard on its way to the dump. kingdom treeIt had been a lean Christmas for us, and in the absence of funding for elaborate decorations, my mother built a simple faux fireplace on the main wall of our living room. The mantle allowed just enough room for our stockings and for the nativity scene to rest in prominent view as the center of our celebration. The whole display was actually made of cardboard, but it was colorful and festive and she got it special for me, so I was perfectly content. My uncle, however, who came visiting the day after Christmas, found it confusing. He pressed my mother at some length for a good reason that I did not have a Christmas tree, as all children rightfully should. (This is probably a good time to note that it was my first Christmas, and he was only five years old.) Not having the financial acumen or social sensitivity required to grasp the situation, he finally resigned himself to the injustice of it all and – no doubt at the behest of the adults – decided to spend his energies playing outside. kingdom fireplaceSome time later, in the midst of dinner preparations, my uncle came bursting back into the house. He was red-faced and out of breath, yet oddly reserved and mannerly for a young boy in the throes of vigorous exercise. This could only mean that he wanted something. Sure enough, not even waiting for a pause in the conversation, he donned his most cherubic face, widened his eyes with pure innocence, and inquired as to whether he might have six of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, please, right away. This was oddly specific. My mother had made plenty of cookies and was happy to dispense them to her sweet little brother generously, but there was something curious in his manner that led her to question him. Why six cookies, and why the urgency? It turns out, my uncle hadn’t resigned himself to injustice at all; he had been busily setting things right. kingdom cookies 6As he was enjoying the outdoors, one of our neighbor boys had been assigned the chore of taking his family’s used Christmas tree to the curb for pick-up. Sensing providence and opportunity, my uncle immediately approached the boy and began wheeling and dealing for its acquisition. Since cookies were the only currency available to him, that’s what he offered and the neighbor decided six would be fair. All my uncle needed was to take those cookies out, and the tree would be ours. Swallowing back a rising lump in her throat, my mother opened the cookie jar and let him choose his six perfect cookies. He ran them outside, then talked his new friend into helping to carry it into our house. These two earnest young boys muscled my tree across the street, through the door, and into a corner near the nativity scene, then somehow managed to prop it up securely enough for display. This was some tree. What had originally been perfect form was now lopsided from the weight of its former decorations. There were scattered clumps of crushed icicles all over it on random branches. It had lost a fair number of needles at the hands of its young movers, too – but it was mine: my tree, my gift, bought with the uninhibited love of a young boy who cared enough to go find it for me. Love made it perfect. I don’t know whether my family added any decorations to my tree that night, or how long it was allowed to stay. In truth, I don’t actually have a visual memory of it at all, just images imprinted on my heart from the story as we’ve told it over the years. Yet that tattered old leftover tree remains as the standard to which I hold all Christmas trees, and the epitome of love made tangible and real. Oh, and to this day, my mother still gives her little brother cookies for Christmas.  Every year. kingdom cookies

pica

Last week, I got a name for a behavior that has long afflicted my youngest daughter.  The behavior is craving and /or consuming substances which are not food – recently it has been crayons and pencil erasers – and the name is pica.

Lots of people manifest it, but no one knows exactly what causes pica.  Some theorize that it is a symptom of nutritional deficiency, others that it stems from a low level poisoning such as of lead.  Many people who are diagnosed on the Autism spectrum experience it (though of course, there are some who believe Autism itself results from mineral poisoning, so that may be redundant).

Whatever the cause, the universal consensus is it’s not good for you.

My daughter is diagnosed with PDD-NOS and has eaten non-food substances off and on nearly all her life.  When she was a toddler, it was dirt and sand.  By preschool she favored play-doh and plastic toys.  Now that she is eight, apparently she has graduated to school supplies.  Until now, we as a family have tended to shake our heads at her cuteness and shrug it off.  We know it’s unhealthy, and we certainly discourage it, but every time she successfully phases out the behavior, then later it becomes something to joke about.

The thing is, she knows it’s not good for her.  Her mind responds well to rules, and she has memorized the reasons for not doing it, can quote them for you endlessly.  She even has put to memory some alternate choices to help her not do it, such as twiddling her thumbs or eating a cracker.  Yet the minute her brain turns elsewhere – for perfectly good reasons such as doing school work or playing pretend – back in the mouth goes the pencil.  Knowledge is not enough.

In my ideal world, I will sniff around and research and think through it enough to discover the root cause.  Then I will fix it, and she will have conquered the problem forever and can move on to grander pursuits that are not socially awkward, such as becoming an astronaut or saving all of the lost kittens.  My ideal world eludes me every day, unfortunately.  In the meantime, I am working on creative solutions involving things that are okay to put in her mouth (dental hygiene tools, perhaps?) and praying for guidance so that we can truly beat this thing for good.

Pica is a very visible faulty behavior.  It’s easy to look at the kid shoveling sand in her mouth and think her either silly or defective for doing it.  Yet in this case, once again, the little children lead me and I have to ask: Am I so very much more evolved myself?

I consume things that are not food all the time.  Facsimiles for reality have more of a place in my daily routine than truth.  A burger with fries is not a meal (depending on where they came from, it might not even be actual food!), and a full belly is not satisfaction.  Showing up for work is not doing a good job.  Waving to my neighbor is not being a neighbor.  Facebook is not friendship.  Attending a weekly church service is not righteousness.   Quoting scripture is not speaking for God.

I am rather convicted by this picture of filling up on falsehood and potentially hurting myself in the process – all in the name of relieving a damage that I can’t quite even define. 

My Sunday School class yesterday discussed a similar topic while studying the book of Micah.  In the final chapters, the prophet chastises the people for practicing ritual without heart and lists among the consequences always eating, yet never being filled.  That’s spiritual pica right there, and I totally have it.

There’s more to my life and call than this.  I know there is.  Today I am praying to move beyond knowledge and into active pursuit of real life.  I would rather suffer now for what will feel better later than forge relief now with what will hurt me later.

Plus, I’m tired of wiping this dirt off my mouth all the time.

 

feedback

I had a classic parenting moment this weekend.  My ten-year-old came to me with a problem – mean girls – and I spent about half an hour with her explaining the phenomenonWe covered everything from the art of recognizing knuckleheads in the wild to rooting herself in the knowledge of how God sees her.  I was firm, I was eloquent; we ended the session laughing and I was excited for the new strength I was sure she would carry with her for the rest of her life.  Problem solved.

Later, I set myself up for a writing session…and I completely froze.  The reason: a bad opinion some one had expressed about me a couple of days earlier.  I became fixated on the insult and utterly failed to produce so much as a single sentence, all because I knew that somewhere out there, at least one person would call B.S. on anything I had to say.  Defeated, I found some other diversions to pass my time staring at the screen, then closed down for the night.  Negativity wins.

It is disappointingly easier for me to talk than to walk.  Convicted on this point, I decided to cope in my typically nerdy fashion: research!  Here’s what I learned about negative feedback, and how I am planning to beat it next time.

1.  The most common image I associate with the word feedback is the horrible, spine-decalcifying squeal that sound systems emit by accident in a concert or speech setting.  This type of feedback occurs when sound waves from speakers pass into a microphone and are re-amplified and cycled through the speakers again.  I’m not sure that this is a perfectly technical application, but to me, it is a reminder that allowing my thoughts to loop and process around the opinions and words of others only creates increasing dissonance.

The solution is so simple: Move away from the source!  Put some distance and intelligent boundaries between myself and destructive voices around me.  Of course, simple is not the same as easy, and it takes practice.  Until I get good at it, I can always try the time-honored tradition modeled for me by the girls of Friends: get the words out of my head and onto paper…and then burn them.

2. In medical terms, negative feedback is one of the control systems used by an organism to regulate internal functions regardless of external conditions or circumstances.  In this system, the organism will automatically make changes in  order to reduce something it is producing.  For example, if my body is producing too much heat, it knows to excrete sweat to try and reduce the temperature.

Similarly, I can develop a set of pre-determined responses to negativity.  Good examples include reading the Bible, calling a friend, creating a music playlist around the theme (not to include only revenge-based hits like “You Oughta’ Know” or almost anything by Linkin Park), etc.  If I am prepared ahead of time, I’m less likely to lapse into bad habits or succumb to paralysis – no matter what is going on around me.

3.  Feedback has become a popular concept in the workplace, indicating a form of ongoing training that helps employees learn what to do and how.  Positive feedback involves praising the person for her strengths; negative feedback focuses on what the person is doing wrong, and then creating a strategy for how to change it.

This reminds me of a former pastor of mine, Rev. Tracy Saletta, who taught me to view difficult people as “life coaches.”  By their very existence, antagonists create boot camp-level real-world experience in practicing the example of Jesus.  Loathe as I am to give any credit to them, I know that there is value in this training, for character development if nothing else.  I do not, of course, mean to indicate in any way that the life of a believer is best served as a doormat, because that’s not the model Jesus laid out at all.  But can I pray for the ones who hurt me even as they are jeering and beating me up?

Or rather, will I?

hunger

“Destroying things is much easier than making them.”

I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble when I first rejoined the work force, and it was a glorious time in my life.  What better occupation for me than to be literally surrounded by the written word and movies, and sometimes even the written word about movies?  Retail hours, sore feet, Black Friday…I genuinely loved every minute of it.

My first day on the job, they assigned me to the children’s section, and I resented it considerably at first. Just because I’m a mom, I protested to faceless authorities within the safe confines of my imagination, does that automatically mean that I like children’s books?  Or even children?

Within the week I got over myself, however.  Turns out that the children’s section was a veritable treasure trove of entertainment.  I became reacquainted with old loves such as the Pevensie children and Yertle the Turtle, and I brought home new family friends like Bad Kitty and Harry Potter.  I may literally have frolicked among the pages upon occasion.

Then came the day I was assigned to “zone” the teen section, located just outside of the main children’s annex.  (Tangent Alert: I loved zoning.  Zoning is the process wherein you go to each bookcase with a scanner and make sure that every book is in its proper place.  For this brand new divorcee and single mom, it was intensely therapeutic to be able to seize one little portion of my world and wrestle it into perfect order.  I highly recommend it.)

Of course, it’s impossible for me to lay hands on any book without perusing its contents, and while I am not known to be prudish or innocent (anymore), I was floored by the percentage of – and I am being kind here – absolute smut on those shelves. In one afternoon, I was exposed to violence, meanness, glorified bullying, pain and suffering, gleeful embrace of promiscuity…and that was in the Gossip Girl series alone!

Even more terrifying was observing how blithely detached parents were from their children’s reading habits.   Kids would come in, grab some random abomination off the shelf, and ask their grown-up in attendance (if there even WAS one) to buy it for them…and the grown up would just throw it in the basket without even a glance.  The one time I inquired of a mother if she had read the books, her puzzled eyes darted toward the door and she immediately checked out.

Ever since that day, I have been a firm believer in reading what my kids are reading.  So when my oldest came home from school touting The Hunger Games and crowing about how her book club was going to read it and see the movie, I set aside my Dave Barry collection and hunkered down for what was my new assignment as well.  Here’s what I found.

My first thought, not to be mean, was that Stephenie Meyer and a host of other YA authors should take notes.  Suzanne Collins has an economy with words that generates volumes of imagery from the simplest phrases.  Her style is therefore highly engaging; starry-eyed teens and seasoned adults alike find themselves surprisingly invested after the first chapter.

Next I had to address the violence because that is the number one concern of us concerned parents who just want to know if we should be concerned or not.  My vote is: not.  Is it really all that violent?  Oh, yeah.  It definitely is, but there is nothing gratuitous about it.

It may have helped if she had stated it sooner, but Suzanne Collins explains at the end of the third book that the story came in honor of her parents, who – having lived through it themselves – made it a point to educate their children about war.  Taken in this context, the violence has meaning and is vital.  You’re supposed to cringe when the children are bleeding and the oppressed are powerless and the authorities are making sport of it all.  The book is not bandying atrocities about lightly; rather, it’s bringing them to light for a new generation to see and understand.  War, injustice, propaganda…these are all heavy and unpleasant topics, but very real and happening today, and therefore worthy of exposition.

Finally there are the the characters themselves.  They are strong and vivid, and watching them traverse their painful landscapes is appropriately difficult but enthralling.  I like the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, the most in this book of the three, yet I found her almost too realistic.  I wanted her to be unflappable and pure like Superman, fueled only by a desire to right injustice, while instead she is often more reluctant and bent on survival.  Yet the choices she makes in the face of her reservations are precisely what make her a hero.

It is inexplicably common for The Hunger Games trilogy to be deemed a girls’ saga simply based on the fact that the protagonist is a girl.  I find this viewpoint dated and mildly offensive; after all, no one claims that Harry Potter and Percy Jackson belong to the boys.  And while The Hunger Games is not for everyone, it is certainly not limited in its relevance by gender application.  When the movie releases later this month, hopefully girls and boys alike will light up not only their social media with their thoughts, but also their living rooms and dinner tables.