Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Being kind

“If you are putting another person down, you are putting yourself down. You are hurting yourself.”

A friend posted this quotation on Facebook a few days ago. It’s a simple enough aphorism, but I still found myself thinking about it after I turned off my computer.

It has taken me all forty-plus of the years I’ve lived so far to fully come to understand just how useless it is to denigrate other people. Looking back on my adolescence, I unhappily admit to myself the extent to which putting down other people was then a way of life. It was a form of currency: the coin of the realm. It was the unspoken belief that when you point out what’s wrong with other people, you prove that merely by identifying their undesirable trait, you must be better.

And two decades later, I would discover that corporate life wasn’t all that much better than middle school. The intention may have been different – professional advancement rather than getting in with the popular crowd -- but the means were often the same: you made yourself look better by pointing out what was wrong with other people.

But in more recent years, it has become increasingly clear to me that this just doesn’t work, that there’s almost never any reason to point out someone else’s faults, unless maybe they are practicing outright cruelty or prejudice. In every other situation, I’ve learned it’s better to focus on making yourself look good, not about making other people look bad. “Let kindness be your default mode,” a friend advised not long ago. When in doubt, just be nice.

A few days ago I had an experience that convinced me of the value of this approach. I attended the meeting of a newly formed committee. Seated to my left was a woman I honestly didn’t like all that much. She was unfailingly self-aggrandizing, always making a big point of telling me how once again she was involved in some effort that she couldn’t possibly find the time for but also felt compelled to help out with; she always managed to slip into any conversation a mention of the hugely helpful endeavor she had just undertaken and how ceaselessly generous she was with her time and efforts.

At this meeting, we went around the table introducing ourselves. The self-aggrandizing woman said something about how once again she had agreed to join a project despite the fact that everyone knows she is absolutely overcommitted with other even more important projects because she just can’t bear to say no when people implore her to share her myriad talents, and as I listened, it was very tempting to proffer a now-forgotten retort that came to mind: something that certainly wouldn’t qualify as mean or cruel but perhaps just a little bit acerbic, words that would suppress her self-congratulatory smugness for a moment or two.

But I didn’t say it. “Default to kindness,” I reminded myself, and I stayed silent until it was my own turn to offer a brief introduction.

Then the woman to my right spoke. She was new to town; I had met her only a couple of months earlier and didn’t know much about her at all. She said her name, and then, to my great surprise, went on to say “And one thing I’ve noticed in just the two months I’ve lived here is that Nancy apparently helps out with absolutely everything, because every time I go to a planning meeting, I see her there.”

It was a remarkably thoughtful and flattering compliment, and it took me completely by surprise. And I couldn’t help thinking that no one had said anything like that about the smug and self-aggrandizing woman.

It was a fine object lesson, reminding me that caustic remarks, or what my mother calls “Don’t-think-you’re-so-great impulses,” help no one. I hadn’t needed to say a thing. I just needed to follow my own moral compass. And someone else who was also being kind, by giving me a compliment, had taught me a most valuable lesson. Be kind. It says a lot more than any curt putdown, no matter how clever the quip may be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A New Me. By Friday.

I have just recently begun to foray into the world of audiobooks, which I have discovered I can check out of the library, transfer onto my iPod, and listen to while I'm running, or during rush hour commutes after I’ve heard enough of the headlines.

This has opened up a lot more literary possibilities to me. Titles that sound interesting but perhaps not quite artistically important enough for me to devote my all-too-limited bedtime reading to can still be called up to pass a couple of hours of running or commuting. So I lower my standards a little bit for audiobooks and grab whatever looks interesting.

During last week’s 10-mile run, I finished “BossyPants” by Tina Fey, a perfect example of an audiobook winner. A little too frivolous for actual reading, but fine to keep my mind busy during a two-hour w. This week, I reached for the next audiobook in the stack, having already forgotten what I’d picked out at the library.

It turned out to be a new entry from the self-help shelf called “Have a New You by Friday,” by Dr. Kevin Leman.

It was an impulsive choice and I can’t really remember what motivated me to grab it off the shelf, except again, audiobooks are a good chance to try something I might not otherwise choose.

I haven’t yet started listening to it. Truth be told, I haven’t even gotten as far as transferring it to my iPod, which itself takes a good 20 minutes or so, so I don’t usually initiate the process until I’m sure I’m ready to begin something. And I suppose my reticence to start the disc transfer process suggests maybe I’m not fully on board yet with the idea of having a new me by Friday.

One thing I find both mysterious and irresistible about this title is the declaration of a specific day. Not “Have a New You in a Week,” not “In Ten Days,” but “By Friday.” So apparently it doesn’t even matter what day you start; you can still count on having your results by….Friday. I suppose if you procrastinate on starting the process until, say, Wednesday afternoon, you just have to be psyched up to change really, really fast, which sounds like it could actually be a bit dizzying.

Not wanting to tempt fate, or failure, by leaving myself too small a window for transformation, I plan to start it next Saturday, so as to give myself the maximum six days for the promised change.

The other thing I love about the title is the verb “Have.” Not “Be a New You” or “Become a New You.” Instead, a verb that implies not transformation so much as procurement: the new you will not be something you are, but something you possess. I picture a little cutout version of myself that I can carry around in a briefcase. “Look what I just got! Oh, yes, a new briefcase….but look inside! It’s a new me! It arrived last Friday!”

Of course, all of this silly speculation is frivolous compared to the most important question underlying the title. Just who will this new me be, once Friday arrives? Will it be any better than the old me? Will it be more punctual? More tolerant? More assertive? More patient? Better at resisting cookies at three o’clock in the afternoon?

Admittedly, I’m making a huge assumption here, which is that the new me will be better than the old me at all. Maybe the title is a trick, and in fact, the value of the exchange could be randomly assigned. Maybe it will be like trading in one rental car for another. Maybe it’s nothing more than luck of the draw whether the old new me is better, worse, or equal in value to the current me. Maybe it will have just as much of a punctuality problem. Maybe it will have even worse traits. Maybe it will be a kleptomaniac, or want to eat at MacDonald’s.

Needless to say, there’s only one way to find out. Next Saturday, just in time for my next ten-mile run, I plan to load up the discs onto my iPod and hit the trail. But I don’t expect the changes to be apparent right away. I’m giving myself a whole six days until the Friday on which I’m promised a new me, which does make me wonder if it will be anything like being assured the washing machine repairman will arrive on Friday, or having a pregnancy due date: will I sit around for hours that Friday, waiting for the new me to make its appearance?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But there’s still a lot I can’t quite picture: maybe it will inhabit my old skin, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or maybe it will be a paper doll in my purse, like the children’s literary hero Flat Stanley.

Although another thought suddenly occurs to me: there’s nothing in the book title about keeping the new me. Suppose I get it only for a short time and then have to return it, like the audiobook itself?

So many things to figure out about this new me, who may or may not be a kleptomaniac, a carnivore, a body snatcher, or a transient. But I'll find out all the answers on Friday. As long as I start loading the discs into my iPod within the next few hours. Which, fortunately, is something the old me knows how to do.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Everything I still don't know about 1980s bands (but still have the chance to learn)

It was one of those threads within the CA Class of ’84 Facebook group that started small and then grew and grew and grew.

And this time it was really interesting.

With our thirtieth reunion just three months away, there’s plenty of planning to do, plenty of pep-rallying to attempt (It won’t be fun if we don’t all go!), and no end to the reminiscing. (The Development Department would like me to insert a reminder here that there’s also supposed to be plenty of fundraising happening. Reunion years are expected to inspire large donations. Unfortunately, we seem to keep straying off-topic when the subject of annual giving comes up.)

This particular thread quickly grew more interesting than reminiscences about who sneaked in whose window (it was a boarding school) or who spent which night in the boathouse (it was on a river) or who got drunk at Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace (it was in Concord). One of my classmates posted that she was putting together a playlist, and that got everyone talking about music.

But it wasn’t quite what you might expect from the class of ’84. It wasn’t all Madonna or Wham or Culture Club. Because a lot of the people I went to high school with had truly sophisticated taste in music, and so listening to them reminisce is much more like taking a college-level class in 1980s musicology than spending an hour with the classic hits radio station.

X-Ray Spex. Mission of Burma. Adam Ant. Violent Femmes.  I remember some of the music. In other cases, I remember the band names but not the songs. Unsophisticated myself when it comes to musical tastes, both then and now, I certainly don’t have anything to add to the conversation about who saw which groups live (not to mention who ended up drinking in a London pub with which members of the British Invasion). But the conversation is interesting to me because it reminds me of what I like best about our high school reunions: the moments when we transcend the “Remember that night before the senior play” and “How did we ever get away with what happened on the class trip” to delve into cultural touchstones.

 Not that the reminiscing isn’t entertaining – it’s one of the main reasons people attend reunions -- but one thing that has always struck me about reunions is that by definition, they expose you to the remarkable experience of being in a room with several dozen people all born within a year of each other. Even without the shared memories of the boathouse, the sneaking-out-through-the-window, or the Nantucket class trip, I find it really interesting to share those cultural touchstone moments that define us merely by age, rather than by experience or high school popularity level.

I’m looking forward to our reunion in June for all of those reasons: the fun of being with old friends, the chance to connect with so many women and men with whom I have so much in common, and the reminiscing.

But it’s conversations like this thread about music that remind me I have always learned so much from this really interesting group of people. Thirty years after graduation,  I continue still to learn from them about music, and careers, and travel, and child-rearing, and difficult decisions.

And before our reunion weekend ends, I might even finally learn who passed out at Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Don't belittle us Fitbitters

My husband had a medical appointment on the fourth floor of a building I’d never visited before, and the receptionist suggested I wait for him at the cafĂ© one flight up. I followed her directions to the elevator, and when I got there, found myself thinking, “Most buildings have a staircase right near the elevator; I should find it and walk.” Not surprisingly, the staircase was easy to find, and once I was in the stairwell, I had another thought. “If there’s a fifth floor, there’s probably a sixth floor. Maybe a seventh and eighth floor. Let’s go see.”

So I started walking upstairs. It turned out the building was nine stories tall.

Not so long ago, this would have seemed like a rather frivolous use of time to me. But now I’m a Fitbit user, or Fitbitter, as I prefer to say, and no amount of physical activity is too frivolous to pursue.

Other Fitbitters understand exactly what I mean. By way of explanation for those not yet familiar with this new piece of gadgetry, a Fitbit is a small device that you can wear either as a pendant or as a bracelet. As you go about your day, it measures your steps, miles covered on foot, minutes of high aerobic activity, stairs climbed, and calories burned. And we Fitbitters find ourselves doing the nuttiest things to boost those simple numbers.

Some of this information – the metrics surrounding physical activity – is not new to me. As a long-time runner, I’m quite accustomed to measuring mileage. And as a daily “streak” runner, I’m accustomed to counting days of my streak as well.

But Fitbit is different because you don’t set it just for exercise. There’s no on/off function to denote when a particular activity begins and ends. It measures literally every step you take during every 24-hour period. If I’m up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom, it registers the 18 steps from bed to the bathroom and back. At work, if I walk from my desk to the photocopier, Fitbit credits me with the steps. If I walk upstairs to get something, forget what I’m there for, walk back downstairs, remember what I wanted, walk upstairs again, retrieve the item, and return downstairs, Fitbit counts every step and each staircase as well.

And this is what makes us Fitbit users a little crazy. Whereas once we might have tried to economize on, say, trips from aisle to aisle in the supermarket, now every time we double back for an overlooked item gives us a few more steps. No parking spaces near the door? No problem – the extra walking means extra steps! One Fitbit user complained that her newfound obsession had the unintended consequence of making her teenage sons even lazier: now they know they don’t need to get up and fetch their own glass of water, because she’ll do it just a score a few more steps.

Back in my 20s when I began my pursuit of fitness, much was made of the fact that the human body has to spend at least 20 minutes in the target zone of 70% above resting heart rate before any fat is burned. Therefore, to be productive, we insisted back then, aerobic activity has to go on for at least 20 minutes.

This vague grasp of exercise physiology resulted in my unwittingly internalizing the thought that by extension, activity that goes on for less than 20 minutes is useless. If I couldn’t fit in a run or even a walk that lasted at least 20 minutes, I wouldn’t bother to run or walk at all.

And while the exercise physiology hasn’t changed – it does still take 20 minutes in the target aerobic heart rate zone for the body to burn fat rather than muscle – the Fitbit makes even the shortest journey on foot count for something. Last week, I arrived at work ten minutes early, so I took a ten-minute walk, knowing it would earn me a few hundred more steps on the daily meter. Not long ago, I wouldn’t have considered a ten-minute walk worth changing my shoes for.

But the appeal is philosophical as well as practical. The message of the Fitbit is that every little bit counts. Maybe you can’t do a five-mile run, but you can still get a few hundred steps in by taking a ten-minute walk. That’s a message about exercise, sure, but I would argue it’s also a message about life.

Good deeds, courageous acts, and noble gestures can’t be measured by a digital timer on your wrist the way steps can. But the Fitbit reminds me daily that doing just a little bit, whether it’s steps or something more altruistic, is better than nothing. Do what you can, even if you can’t do all you might wish. A little bit can still help. Anything is more than nothing. And far beyond calories burned or fitness goals achieved, that’s a lesson well worth learning.