Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Facebook days: Real life in concentrated form

“Because I don’t care what people had for lunch,” said an acquaintance recently in telling me why he hadn’t joined Facebook.

I had not asked. The people I know who avoid Facebook have my full admiration. I myself once said I wouldn’t join it until I was managing the feat of keeping up with the New York Times seven days a week, but I caved long before reaching that goal. Most days, Facebook is like my virtual water cooler. My work life consists of hours sitting by myself in an empty house writing; Facebook provides the same kind of escapist chit-chat that I used to find from my co-workers when I worked in a regular office full-time.

But sometimes Facebook is weighty, and then too it can be like a day at the office. People do bring their milestone events and news to work, after all, and now the same is true of Facebook. Yesterday, my Facebook news feed covered the gamut in terms of what my friends had to share. One had just bought her first house, a pictureseque little bungalow in Burlington, Vermont. Another had been invited to speak at a prestigious writers’ conference where she once studied as an aspiring novelist; now, with two successful books to her name, she’s invited back to share her expertise. Another was watching her 8-year-old daughter play the first softball game of the season. And another friend posted a photo of her late husband. Yesterday would have been his 44th birthday, and the photo showed him a few years ago with a birthday cake in front of him and both daughters in his lap. I’d seen this same snapshot of a joyful dad with his two adorable children once before: it was part of a slide show montage shown at his wake.

It was one of those days when Facebook felt like real life being run in fast-motion. Ordinary things were going on but with overwhelming speed: accomplishments, losses, celebrations, anxieties. It was upsetting. And yet it was also authentic. By dinnertime, sixty-eight people had clicked “Like” on the photo of my friend’s late husband. Some of them were close enough to her that they would have known it was his birthday even without Facebook, but most of us would not have, including me. This was our chance to acknowledge her loss once again, and I hoped that felt reassuring to her and not invasive.

By the end of the day I felt a little bit overwhelmed by so many people’s different kinds of news, so much more information than I would have been privy to on an ordinary day in the pre-Facebook era. But for those of us who have opted in to this particular virtual universe, this is part of life now. We all share in each other’s news in a kind of super-accelerated realtime. And yes, occasionally there are posts about who’s eating what for lunch. But given the invitation to share people’s news, both good and bad, I’ll accept. We’re all here for each other. We always have been, but this makes it all the more evident, at those very times in life when it’s most important to realize it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Launch Day: A company is born

In some ways, launching a new company was a dream come true.

Not that I’ve dreamed for long about starting my own company. I’m a writer, not an entrepreneur. My dreams for the future have generally tended more toward writing a novel than establish an LLC.

But about six months ago, that began to change. I had just finished working with a group of fifty seniors at a retirement community to record their memoirs. They told me about their most formative experiences, and I wrote them down, and revised and edited a little, and soon we had a 200-page book, professionally bound and printed by a self-publishing press.

That was almost a year to the day after I helped another client self-publish her memoir. The earlier project focused on just one subject, a woman who told me the story of her seven decades over the course of about three months of weekly interview sessions.

It was just two books, published a year apart, and yet I knew I’d found my calling. Yes, I enjoy writing essays and articles and seeing them in the newspaper – I still occasionally wake up on the morning an article of mine is scheduled to appear in print and feel a little bit like it’s my birthday – but that side of my work life didn’t really seem to be growing, as much as just….continuing. I could always strive to write better, always be on the lookout for ever more interesting or complex article ideas….but overall, I was at something of a plateau in my journalism career.

And then a few opportunities arose to help other people tell their stories, this time in long form, as a book. I knew as soon as I started working with my first memoir client that I’d discovered not just a great job but a passion.

Still, it wouldn’t have become a company if my husband hadn’t met a couple in his networking group right around the same time who run a marketing firm. He told them about the work I was doing, and they suggested we meet to try to combine skills. Two or three meetings later, we were not only combining skills, we were brainstorming on a company name for our new enterprise.

That seems like a long time ago now, but it was in fact less than six months. Earlier this week, we celebrated our company’s birth date. With the launch of our website – beautifully constructed by a pair of talented web designers – our company became a living, breathing entity.

At least that’s how it feels to me: like a new person, a member of the family. Something that was first an idea and now a presence, ready for us to nurture it into maturity.

What happens next remains to be seen. Our goal is to find communities, families and individuals interested in having us help write their memoirs. This is only the very beginning, and I have no idea what I’ll know a year from now that I don’t know today: whether it will be much harder or much easier than I imagine, whether we’ll find opportunities quickly or whether it will happen slowly, whether every project will feel as rewarding as the one that originally gave me the idea to do this or whether each one will be a different experience.

Right now, it’s all just possibility. This early phase is the part that is still full of hope. I’m ready for the challenge and thrilled about the opportunity this presents. A dream come true, indeed, even if it’s a dream that until six months ago I didn’t even know I had.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A place for everything

I decided a couple of weeks ago to empty out my email in-box.

I didn’t intend it as a symbolic gesture, but, as sometimes happens with clean-up projects, it took on a larger meaning once I got started. It wasn’t that I expected to delete all of the sixty-two messages in my in-box; I just wanted to sort them all into folders. In general, I’m pretty good about using email folders for work-related projects and volunteer committee work, but so many correspondences seem to defy easy classification. And so I just let them sit there in my in-box.

It occurred to me that perhaps, that signified a bigger problem. It didn’t seem like I should have any correspondence that I had no way of classifying. So I resolved that I would put every single in-box correspondence into a folder. Anything I felt I needed to keep was hereby required to be assigned some kind of identity. And no cheating by using “Miscellaneous” or “Random” labels either, I told myself.

But some emails just contained little intriguing quotes from my daily inspirational email subscription. Okay then, I decided, there would be a label for “Inspirations.” And some were emails complimenting articles I’d written. Well, then, why not a folder for “Compliments”? Confirmations of items I’d ordered but not yet received became “Pending orders.”

What I quickly discovered with this simple exercise was the beauty of taxonomy, of determining that there’s a place for everything, even if it’s a virtual rather than material place. From that point, it was easy to make the analytical leap to conceding that anything that defied labeling probably wasn’t an email I needed.

Once my email in-box was empty, I resolved to go through the same exercise every day. That part was easy. But then I took a critical look around my house and wondered if the same principles that worked for virtual correspondence could be applied to household clutter. In theory, I already had a designated place for everything that mattered: recipes, pay stubs, pet medications, office supplies, tickets to upcoming events, musical instruments. And yet still, random items piled up on shelves and tables, in closets and in corners, just as they do in everyone else’s house. Is it possible, I asked myself, to make a rule that if I can’t figure out where it should be stored, then we probably don’t need it?

It strikes me as a fairly aggressive approach to household clean-up, and we’re not quite there yet. I still can’t figure out where to put empty candy boxes that Holly has decorated with ribbons and stickers, or vacation postcards whose images I want to admire just a little longer, or a pretty bottle that once held olive oil. But just thinking about it this way helps a little. If it really matters, figure out where it goes, I tell myself, and within minutes, the ever-accumulating clutter piles have been reduced.

True, those piles grow back, just as my in-box accrues new emails every day. It’s not a perfect system. I still lose emails because I can’t remember how I labeled them (but gmail makes it easy to search by sender or topic), and I certainly haven’t quite defeated the clutter problem in our house. But it’s an interesting way to approach the problem, and I haven’t given up yet.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Landmarks? What landmarks? (Another visit to our nation's capital)

My two children and I have traveled to Washington, D.C. together four or five times since my sister moved there with her family eight years ago. And each time, we have some variation of the same discussion. It starts with me, on an emphatically cheerful note: "What do you two want to do while we're in Washington? We could go to some of the museums, or the zoo, or climb the Washington Monument, or take one of those sightseeing tours by trolley....What do you think?"

And each time, the kids manage to strike just the right blend of receptivity and noncommital-ness to deceive me. "Sure, Mom, those all sound fun!" they say, almost as if rehearsed. "Can we decide when we get there?"

Deceptive is right, because we all know what's going to happen when we get there. The kids will start playing basketball with their cousins in the alley. Then they'll play wiffle ball in the backyard. At some point they might go inside to film a movie of their own scripting and direction. If it gets dark or chilly in the yard, they might decide to play Wii Fit in the basement for a while. If they get hungry, they might ask for a few dollars to walk several blocks to the candy store up the street.

Monuments? Museums? Sightseeing tours? Not usually. As I always lament, my sister might as well live in Peoria for all the time we spend exploring the treasures of our nation's capital when we make the trip south to visit. This week we managed an afternoon at the National Zoo, but that was because one cousin had a soccer practice and the other was committed to a birthday party, so we had a few hours to fill on our own.

But the truth is that I don't try very hard to change the course of our usual program. Sure, I know we could be making better use of our time from an educational or cultural standpoint. And yes, I admit I covet the idea of the kids going back to school and telling their teachers that they visited the Museum of Air and Space or the Holocaust Museum, or had an audience with a senator, or saw money being printed at the U.S. Mint.

Sort of. At the same time, there's never really enough time with the cousins, whom we see only two or three times a year, and I just can't muster the intentionality to tell the kids they need to stop playing in the yard so that we can go do something culturally and educationally important.

Because really, when you're 8 or 10 or 14 years old, what's more important than playing with cousins in the yard? Especially, as was the case with us this time, when it's been a long, cold, snowy winter at home and when you get to Washington it's 62 degrees with freshly budding leaves and bright green grass everywhere and you haven't really played outside, other than a few great days of sledding, in almost five months?

So every year, I manage to rationalize the fact that we go to Washington and come back with far more photos of playgrounds and impromptu theatrical productions than monuments and historical landmarks. But this year, by the time the trip was over, I was even less concerned than usual about the decisions we'd made. We drove home on Monday; halfway through the trip we received word first by text message and then on the radio of the tragic bombings in Boston. Stories of children losing their limbs or their lives make every parent stop to think about our own kids. And in this case, there was no question in my mind that if such awful things can happen to anyone, at any time, then we were probably making the best use of our time that we possibly could. 

Playing instead of sightseeing? Dancing in the basement instead of following a reenactment of how a bill becomes a law? It's a choice, and like so many choices parents make, I can't say for sure that it was the right one. But coming face-to-face this week with such a stark reminder of how horrifically everything can change in a moment, I think playing with cousins is as good a way for a kid to spend a week off from school as any.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pre-departure rush

It’s not such a very long list, really. Finish editing an article, send off a couple of emails, make a casserole, enter receipts from the past ten days into the online checkbook, throw a load of laundry into the washing machine, and empty the dishwasher. All really quite manageable and not very complicated at all.

Except that my plan was to be in bed over an hour ago.

But vacation eves are always like this, or have been for as long as I can remember. I always have far too long a To Do list the night before going away. Partly this is because I procrastinate, and partly it’s because I’m unrealistic about what I can accomplish, and partly it’s because I always have an elusive fantasy of leaving the house perfectly clean and tidy when we go away.

So it’s always a little bit stressful, and one thing I can rely on is getting to bed later than I intend to, usually by hours.

In a way, it’s the worst part of going away on vacation: the last 24-hour rush to get out the door. But within me lies a small suspicion that this is maybe not only the worst part but also the best part. Because unlike other times of the year when my To Do list itself seems to extend out the door, when I’m getting ready to go off on a trip, there’s more excitement than despair underlying the line-up of tasks. Yes, it’s a lot to do, but it’s not just the usual cycle of housework and deadlines that, once done, will only need to be started again. This surge of tasks comes with a deadline and a reward: finish up and you get to leave!

So as much as I may sigh and gripe over all there is to do before I can comfortably close my suitcase and hit the road, I’m not sure I’d trade it for a serene, well-planned pre-departure countdown. Part of the fun of leaving is that sprint to get out.

Because, of course, once it’s finally done, we’ll be gone and headed somewhere else: Washington, D.C. in this case, for a four-day visit with family. Yes, there’s a lot to do, but the prize comes in getting through it and then leaving it all behind. Working hard tonight to meet deadlines and tidy up and wash clothes means not having to do any of that while I’m away.

So I’ll do my best to get it all done and I’ll try to not to stay up too late in doing so. Getting ready to leave can be stressful, but it’s also thrilling: the very same combination that marks every departure, to varying degrees. I’ll finish packing, finalize that article, and pop the laundry into the dryer. Then to bed. After printing out driving directions and watering the plants.

Okay, maybe not so soon to bed after all. It’s hard to get ready for vacation. But it’s almost always worth the crunch time that comes before departure. And I’m not sure I’d want it any other way.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Let clamor ring

There were various topics I wanted to contemplate in written form as I sat down to write yesterday evening, but then the kids started making music videos, and it was all I could do to string three words together, let alone form cogent thoughts about anything weightier than, well, music videos.
I could have taken my laptop to a different room. I could have asked the kids to take their dancing somewhere else. I could have insisted that if they wanted to stay in the same room as me, they stop making so much commotion and let me get some writing done.

But it was one of those times when the transience of the moment seemed to shimmer in the air in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything but stay with it. My two kids have so much fun together, but it’s not typical of them to get quite this rowdy, especially on a weekday evening. Like sleeping late or the occasional good cry, I could tell they needed this particular release at this particular moment. We’d been our usual strict-parenting selves at dinner, insisting that they stop yammering when the conversation turned to nonsense and then laying down the law about what needed to be picked up, washed or put away before they could leave the kitchen. Tim had been working hard on his science fair project all afternoon, and Holly had finished her homework. It just seemed so clear they needed to let loose for a little bit.

Still, I could have removed myself to somewhere quiet to do my writing. But one thing we all like about this house, with its open rooms and common areas that flow together, is that it keeps us all in the same space a lot of the time: we don’t all retreat to different corners when we’re home. And somehow I wanted to stay in the thick of it. I’ve taught enough adult education classes in creative writing and memoir writing by now to know that these are just the scenes adults look back on when they write about happy moments from their childhoods: the evenings of crazy dancing with a sibling after dinner, and the way mom inexplicably let them be as loud as they wanted that night and even submitted to a screening of the videos they’d filmed of each other afterwards.

Adults write about bigger moments from their childhoods as well: family vacations, camp memories, prizes or trophies won. But already, I could imagine a day when Holly or Tim might recount this moment as a silly memory: dancing, singing, laughing, filming. And I didn’t want to step out of the memory just yet.

So I stayed in the midst of it and let the clamor descend around me. Yes, it prevented me from being able to string three cogent words together. But there will be other days for writing, other times for analytical thought. Last night was a night for singing and dancing and making silly videos.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Yoga, finally

It took me two years and two months to make good on the pledge I made to myself in January of 2011, but I can finally say I’ve given yoga a try.

A small try, anyway. And I know that “yoga” is a pretty broad-based term; in fact, any time throughout the past month that I mentioned to a real yoga aficionado that I was taking classes, the immediate question was “What kind of yoga?” Mostly Kripalu, I believe. The slow kind, with lots of stretching.

It’s actually been so long since I first determined that I should try yoga that I forget what motivated me to make that pledge. But I do remember all the excuses I used in the intervening two years. I’ll be terrible at it; I have no innate flexibility. It’s too slow for me. Exercise is worthwhile only if you reach your aerobic target zone. It’s too much time. It’s too much money. I don’t want any more activities that will take me away from my family.

But when a magazine sent me on assignment to write about a yoga studio coincidentally enough situated just down the street from my house, my resistance started to break down. The studio owner was just so nice. And the studio space smelled so good. And with it being exactly seven-tenths of a mile from my front door, I couldn’t make my usual objection that the last thing I need is more driving in my life. The studio owner offered me a thirty-days-for-thirty-dollars deal: a bargain by any measure, but especially compared to the fee I’d earn from the magazine for writing the story. It seemed like fate: I was destined to follow through on my promise at last.

Besides, the thirty-day deal wasn’t only cheap; it was also finite. It provided a perfect time frame within which I could try it out. If I could get to two classes a week, that would mean more than eight chances to get to class during that thirty-day period. Moreover, I told myself that with the pass already purchased, I didn’t have to do any judging – in fact, I’d resolve not to do any judging – during that time period. No contemplation of whether I liked this new activity or not. For the month of March, I’d just go, and not try to form opinions about it.

On March 1st, I attended my first yoga class, and by the time the month was over, I’d made it to five more. And now that it’s over, I’m finally allowing myself to form an opinion about it.

It was definitely a positive experience for me. As a runner, I’m not good with slow exercise. I like to be moving fast and breathing hard when I exercise. Yoga, at least the style at this studio, involves a lot of very slow stretching. But I know that’s good for me, both physically and mentally. In yoga you pause, you breathe, you reach, you balance, you hold. It requires slowness and deliberation and a willingness to stay very still sometimes. Runners are allowed to be sloppy, since the point is just to be always moving forward: yoga requires some concentration on form. Improvement comes in inches lifted or extended, not in minutes gained per mile.

So when April began, I paid for a regular-priced pass. Because it turns out I like yoga. Yes, it’s really slow, and I’m not that good at it. But the studio smells so nice, with its candles and incense, and the stretching feels so good. And once a week or so, so does the very mellow pace of it all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rabbit, rabbit!

“Rabbit, rabbit,” I mumbled to myself as I wrote the date at the top of my journal page at 5:19 yesterday morning.

I’ve been saying “Rabbit, rabbit” on the first of the month for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my sisters did as well. We learned it from our mother.

And thanks to Facebook  it was easy for me to ask one of my mother’s cousins if she does this too. My mother’s family has all kinds of random superstitions and curious traditions, and being in closer touch with one of her cousins through Facebook has helped me to untangle where some of them come from. 

For example, this same cousin referred to doing skits on Christmas Eve, and she even used the word “stunts,” just as my grandparents always did, which I consider to be something of a malapropism since they usually involve singing camp songs while playing the piano and not, say, performing a trapeze act from the rafters. 

Nonetheless, this particular cousin is related to my mother through my grandfather, not my grandmother, so when she wrote about it on Facebook, I discovered that my long-held assumption about the side of my mother’s family from which this tradition originated was wrong.

I can also credit Facebook for the discovery that other friends do “Rabbit rabbit” too. Well, not a lot of other friends. Two other friends, to be exact. One who is about ten years older than I am and grew up in New York and Maine; the other a high school classmate from southeastern Massachusetts. So I’m having trouble finding any kind of common thread as far as what kind of people practice this tradition and why.

But in the age of Google, it’s always easy to find a little bit of information, albeit quite possibly fallacious, about whatever question happens to be on your mind at any given moment. Today I Googled, and discovered that the origins of “Rabbit rabbit” are unknown, possibly British, and it’s more popular in New England than in other parts of the country (my mother’s family was from Chicago, though, so that doesn’t explain the presence of the tradition in her background). I also learned Franklin Roosevelt was one of the superstition’s better-known adherents.

As with any good-luck superstition, though, if you believe in it at all, then once you know about it, you can’t give it up. So when the first of the month arrives, “Rabbit, rabbit” for good luck it is. Most months I find I have very good luck; those when I don’t, I figured it could have been worse had I skipped the ritual. I don’t really know who does this and I don’t really know why, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m in good company. Rabbit rabbit: April has arrived.