Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nora-ism 1.0

Last night I needed to watch the film Henry V because I am considering it for the film lab part of a course I'll be teaching next semester (a course, by the way, that is consuming my every waking thought and explains the neglect of my blog and every other non-essential element of my life right now).

Nora was the only one home with me at the time and I assumed she would fall asleep in the first few minutes, so I sat her next to me with her pillow and blanket and we watched it together. Not only did she not fall asleep, but she was mesmerized through the whole thing and when she wasn't glued to the screen she was asking me questions (mostly "Where's Prince Harry? He's cute." and "Is that the princess?" Leave it to Nora to turn a Shakespearean war play into a fairy tale). I did my best to distract her during the battle scenes because I'm not a totally insensitive mother. But really, I never would have guessed she would stick by me through the whole thing. Especially since I'm sure she understood about zero percent of the dialogue.

This morning, the first thing Nora said to me when she got up was, "Mama, next time I don't want to watch one of your movies."

"Why not?" I said.

"Cause I'm just a little girl."

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It’s the pose my son Ethan makes when we have run out of "good" cereals and he's imploring me to buy something better (i.e. something with the word Frosted on the package). It’s the look I see in the eyes of a student who comes to visit me—for the first time—the week grades are due. It’s the tone Gabie adopts when he wants to get out of cleaning the bathroom because the chore is the plague of his 7-year-old life. It’s the feeling I experience often, when I find myself at the mercy of strangers because I lack enough knowledge to solve my own problems. It’s the state of absolute supplication at the heart of a painting I saw last week on campus (here’s the exhibit link). The painting is mostly about Gypsy beggars and a little bit about the rest of us.

In Burgess’ painting Licensing the Beggars in Spain, a laundry pile of Gypsies lines up in front of a magistrate to beg. They beg for the very right to beg. If they gain the magistrate’s favor, he will grant them each a license to beg on the streets of Sevilla, where the will kneel, once again, at the mercy of passersby willing to give them food or money. The sympathetic-looking magistrate sits calmly in his high-backed chair, his legs crossed casually over a small patch of rug. He holds a pen in one hand and a license in the other, but really, he holds the lives of the Gypsies in his hands and he knows it. The Gypsies know it too. The old man in front bows his head, clutches a crucifix and touches a wrinkled hand to his chest in a gesture of deference. A stumbling cliché, he wears ratty clothing, leans on a crutch for support and bends a crippled leg behind him. Even his dog (my favorite detail) has perfected the begging routine. The most pitiful of the group is the young girl to the side of the blind Gypsy. She wears a haunting expression. She tucks her chin and points her morose, oversized eyes straight at the man with all the power. She holds her tambourine as if it’s a shield over her chest, a sign of her vulnerability and a reminder of the paucity, the emptiness, the lack that brings them all here.

When I lived in Spain many years ago, our apartment overlooked a large undeveloped field of dirt hills and pits full of discarded building materials. Spread out all over this field, in clusters of tin and cardboard shacks, was a Gypsy camp. At the time, I didn’t understand the history of the Gypsies (or Gitanos as the Spaniards call them) or the reasons for their low social status. I had no idea why they suffered oppression and indigence. I was just afraid of them. To me, they were panhandlers. They were thieves. They were stealers of naughty children (or so my brothers told me when I was being naughty). They were very different from the Spanish culture all around them in their language, their dress, their customs. It wasn’t until the Fourth of July that year—when my brother Steve and I lit sparklers and celebrated our displaced national holiday by dancing and singing in the field below our apartment—that I saw a few Gypsies watching us and I realized we had something in common. We were both crazy foreigners. But my family would be going back home to the U.S. soon. The Gypsies had no real home. They had been treated as crazy foreigners for hundreds of years.

The other thing I have in common with the Gypsies is that I often find myself, by virtue of things I lack, totally at the mercy of forces I don’t understand and can’t control. Forces that have the power to squash me like a bug, should they choose. Forces that often refuse to listen to my appeals. Forces that control essential parts of my life, like my ability to teach or communicate, or write. I’m talking about the sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel forces of technology.

The more I rely on technology, the more it toys with me and screws up my life. My votive offerings to the e-gods must displease them (not enough wailing? maybe I’m charring the wrong kind of extension cords?) because I continually face frustrating messes when my computer at home or the media tech podiums in my classrooms fail to do even basic functions like read email, play a video clip, or—as was the case the first three class periods this semester—allow me to OPEN anything. This sends me to the brink of insanity and despair on a regular basis. I hate that I don’t know enough about computers to save myself. And it’s not that I’m a Luddite. I once was the “go to guy” in my office for all things computer-related. But this was back when it was possible that a few DOS commands and a good memory for WordPerfect function keys could make you look like a genius. The high-tech world has long since passed me by and I have long since plummeted to total techno dorkitude.

So last week I was having problems accessing my email. I tried to fix the problems myself; I made things worse. I tried to get assistance from the folks at MSN; they responded with, of course, emails I couldn’t access. I considered calling one of my three brilliant brothers who make their livings as computer nerds, but I really hate doing that. I hate it for the same reason I don’t call my other brother who’s a nurse each time someone in my family gets sick. If I started bugging them with my problems, I would be bugging them every single day, probably multiple times a day, for the rest of my life.

Luckily, I work for a university who hires dedicated Computer Support Reps (CSRs) for each department. I arranged to take my laptop in for them to fix, even though—and I was reminded of this several times—it’s not a university laptop and they technically weren’t supposed to touch it so they were doing me a huge favor and I let them know I really, really appreciated it and this was about the point where I began thinking of the Burgess painting because I felt like a beggar even though I was twice the age of these CSRs and had earned twice their degrees, but possessed—and this was all that mattered—a fraction of their computer expertise. I begged for an exception to their rules because I use my laptop for everything teaching-related and the lovely iMac assigned to me by the university never gives me any grief which could be because I use it only once a week and the other six days, it sits there on my desk, a very ergonomic, very pricey, very hibernating piece of office decor.

So my illicit laptop and I spent over an hour at the mercy of a CSR who was nice and obviously knew a lot about computers and could multi-task three phone calls, carry on a conversation with a coworker, hum along with the music playing in the background, and fiddle with my computer all at once. He was clearly fluent in Tech-ish, a language in which I know the equivalent of the following tourist phrases: “How much for the postcard please?” and “Thank you point me to the American Consulate.” The CSR cleaned up my superfluous files, he looked for ways to increase my processor speed, he fixed the toolbar Nora had flipped around six months ago but I hadn’t known how to reset, he downloaded a slew of updates. And he was friendly the entire time he failed to solve my problem and, in fact, still friendly when he accidentally deleted my entire suite of Microsoft programs and couldn’t reload them because it wasn’t a university laptop (aargh!) and even more friendly when he sent me on my way with a “Good luck finding the 5-year-old disks for those programs and I’ll just write this ticket up as ‘resolved’ unless you call us back.”

My classroom computer was a whole other issue and I finally gave up hope that the tech podium would ever cooperate (since the IT guys were very patient but every time they tried to recreate my problems, there were no problems and it became clear to me that the technology gods just have it in for me) so I switched my classes next door where so far the podium has worked beautifully—knock on polycarbonate—and the only thing I have to contend with is the big blue letter “J” someone has written in the middle of the white pull-down screen in permanent ink that will apparently feature in every video clip and slide I show this semester like a graffiti watermark.

Still free of the distracting nuisance of easily-accessed-email, I’ve had a few days to wax philosophical about things and I have come up with the following: When I find myself banging my head, or my tambourine if I have one handy, against the keyboard, it is only a reminder that life is full of opportunities for greater humility. This is not a bad thing. We all have to depend upon each other. Now I await help from higher-leveled CSRs who have promised to load some new software on my undocumented laptop when it becomes available for purchase “in a few weeks.” In the meantime, I’ll muddle through. If I knew everything and could solve all my own problems, I’d develop hubris and then the gods would have to punish me anyway because I've read my Greek tragedies and haven't forgotten that when Oedipus thought he knew everything, that’s when his hard drive crashed.

I also can’t leave the Burgess painting behind without pointing out the obvious religious metaphor. Aren’t we all a bit blind and lame and homeless? How often do we beg forgiveness of each other and of God for our mistakes and infirmities? Probably not often enough, but in this sense we are spiritual Gypsies. We lack the knowledge and power to save ourselves. In the painting, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a niche behind the line of beggars, her hands crossed over her heart. For many (and especially my Spanish friends), she is an intercessor, one who directs our pleas to a higher power. Mary doesn’t play as large a role in my own religion, but she is still a beautiful symbol of compassion, mercy and grace. We need all these things, all of the time. And how do we know we need these things unless we’re continuously brought to the floor?

Monday, September 07, 2009


Most art historians agree that Goya’s black paintings reflect the bitterness, anxiety, and depression of the artist’s later years, the years following an illness that left him totally deaf, the years following the Napoleonic wars where he witnessed unspeakable acts of human cruelty, the years after his self-imposed exile to a villa outside of Madrid. Goya painted the walls of his home with violent and bizarre images. They are called his black paintings both because he used dark colors and because he used dark topics (a coven of witches, the three Fates, Saturn devouring his son, etc). They are a haunting bunch of pictures, especially considering the artist surrounded himself with them every day of the four years he lived in that villa. How could Goya not have been pushed deeper into his own paranoia and depression by these walls?

My current problem is that I believe what you have on your walls not only reflects who you are, but also affects who you are. I think the pictures and photographs you see every day and even the wall colors that serve as a backdrop to your interior life can influence your moods and your behavior. This belief causes me great angst whenever I have to pick out paint for rooms in my home. What if I go for the daring red I'm thinking about for the office and it causes me to be angry every morning when I go in there at 5 am to write? (Will I write really angry essays? Stay tuned.) What if the fact that the family room walls don't match the carpet continues to gnaw away at me until I suffer panic attacks every time I walk down the steps? What if that ultra-bright green I let Ethan pick for his room begins to makes him physically ill? It’s almost too much for my decision-phobic personality to handle. And in the last three months, we’ve had to paint five different rooms, plus a stairwell and we’re still debating the color of the office and eventually Nora’s room. Does it surprise anyone that I’m really, really sick of thinking about my walls?

Here’s a tour of our villa thus far. No black paintings. Just very pretty colors. We ought to be oozing cheerfulness by now.

This is the family room. The photo doesn't do the walls justice. My sister Suzie did a lovely glazing over an old-world style texture. Nora is demonstrating how our carpet has so much nap that you can leave great designs in it if you run in circles. The boys have discovered you can rub carpet angels into it too.

This is Ethan's room. He wanted bright green. He got bright green. But not until we had tried several different shades and treatments because I will sometimes have to at least step foot in there and I'm sorry but I don't feel like spending time inside a ripe avocado. There are parts of his room that have (if you count the primer) seven coats of paint on them.

This room is shared by McKay and Gabie. I contemplated pulling a Goya and painting a mural of the two men fighting with clubs (because McKay and Gabie simply do not get along) but we're going for the slightly manipulative, peaceful blue. The boys picked the colors and Suzie did a magic treatment called "scumbling" which means you shut her into the room at 10 pm with three brushes and two buckets of paint (and one iPod) and when she leaves at 6 in the morning, she'll have produced walls that look like you should be posing family portraits in front of them. She's amazing.

My favorite color downstairs is actually the "faded seafoam" we did in the laundry room but since Ken is still in the middle of putting shelves in there, I'll save that photo for later. The bathroom is going to be (gasp!) white because maybe there's such a thing as too much color in one 700 square foot section of house. Maybe.

Nora wants purple walls. Yesterday we moved her into the boys' old room which still has a train painted around three of the walls. Suzie and I painted it 10 years ago and I hate to cover it but I suppose we don't want Nora growing up with wanderlust because she wakes up every morning with train cars barreling past her head.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

So the writer goes to the Rabbi...

I had no idea I needed a summer sabbatical from my blog. Honest. But apparently I did. And now that my kids are back in school, I feel like writing again. It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing before. In fact, I’ve composed at least one blog post in my head every day for the last few months. But I didn’t write them down and I blame this entirely on Blogger for not perfecting their brain-to-keyboard interface yet. Thus my thoughts have gone unwritten, unpublished, and forgotten, which is probably not so tragic as it sounds.

Trust me, you haven’t missed much. I’ve basically spent the last few months enacting the story of the Jewish couple who go to their rabbi complaining that their house is too small. The Rabbi says to them “bring all your chickens into the house.” They bring in the chickens. Then when the couple continues to complain, the Rabbi tells them to bring in all the goats, then the cow, etc. Soon their house is full of livestock and feathers and noise and horrible smells and they are losing their minds. Truly desperate, they go back to the rabbi and he says, “Okay, now take all the animals back outside.” And when they do (and clean up the mess) they look at each other and say, “Yes, this is MUCH better.”

We began with moving everything from the lower half of our house into the upper rooms. Then came the tearing up of carpet and knocking down of walls. Soon it escalated to jackhammering the floor to make way for new plumbing. At one point, our basement looked like this:

No chickens, but plenty of noise, foul smells and a sinking feeling in my gut that we had made a big mistake. A big, expensive, ineradicable, we will have to live with this for the rest of our lives because we plan to keep this house forever but now I’m thinking “to heck with the bad market, let’s sell and start over again somewhere else” mistake.

But here we are, several weeks later, with a new basement and children who are happy in their rooms and only the faint smell of goat poop that dissipates more with each day. Ken and I are pretty much of the opinion that Yes, this is MUCH better.

The really good news is that soon, very soon, as soon as we can finish clearing out the boys' room upstairs and moving Nora into said boys' room (and convincing her that she can live without purple walls and a princess bed for a few months while we finish other projects), we will have a real office. Yes Virginia, a Room of One's Own in which to write. I plan to write a novel to celebrate. (Ha!) But seriously, I can manage blog posts now and then. I actually miss writing. I woke up this morning, very early, feeling desperate to write. Maybe I needed the sabbatical as much as I needed the cow in my kitchen.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gabie the arborist

Fallen Monarchs by William Bliss Baker

This painting is for Gabie because Gabie loves trees (and by love, I mean he is obsessively attached to them with as much devotion and defensiveness as he has displayed in the past for pandas and penguins). His favorite trees are aspens but he pretty much loves every kind. Here's what it's like living with a 7-year-old arborist.

At breakfast one morning, he informs me, "This better not be REAL maple syrup. I won't eat real maple syrup because it's just plain mean. How would you like it if someone stuck a tube in you and sucked out all your blood?"

Another day we're reading a sweet little story about a girl reading to her father. Her Dad puts a log on the fire and Gabie's instantly all emotional, teary-eyed and everything. He wants to know what kind of tree they had to cut down to make that log. And where did they get it from? Next it's "How would you like it if people cut all your cousins down for paper and then came back for you for logs?" (he's a pro at the "how would you like it?" guilt trips).

We're on the freeway this week and we pass by a truck hauling lumber. Gabie gives me an angry look and I know exactly what he's thinking. "Hey, it's not MY fault!" I have to tell him. "Stop glaring at me."

We are thinking about adding on to our house this summer (cause we're all squished in here) and every time we talk about it, Gabie's the one crying about the 2 aspen trees that we'll have to chop down to make room for the new garage. (I can't wait to see how he responds when he finds out about all the trees that will have to give their lives for the 2x4's we'll be using).

But there are advantages to having a tree-lover around. When we went to Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I was horrified by all the nudity and blatantly sexual images on the strip. For several blocks we even drove right next to one of those huge advertising trucks with a line of women dressed in nothing but a strategically placed print banner. I didn't know if I should cover all my boys' eyes or just ignore it all and hope they didn't notice (yeah, right). But the whole time, Gabie was in the back just going crazy over each and every palm tree he saw. There are naked women everywhere, flashing neon signs, the Eiffel Tower, The Grand Pyramid, fountains going off, Vegas in all its glory and Gabie can't get over how cool the palm trees are. Gosh I love that kid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Man with a newspaper

Magritte, Man with a newspaper
In the first frame, a man reads a newspaper. In the second frame, the man has disappeared. By the third frame, we are wondering where he went. By the fourth frame, we are wondering what’s the point? Why does Magritte introduce the man to begin with, only to strip him out of the scene one-fourth of the way through the story, never to reappear? Is the painting about the man’s presence or is it about his absence? Or maybe it’s about the inconsistency created by having both in the same painting. It’s the lack of a pattern that makes this work frustrating and elusive.

Art is usually all about patterns. Art provides things like symmetry, balance, familiarity, and meaning in a world that is mostly unpredictable, unfair and irrational. That’s why we like art. We like knowing what comes next. We like artists who make up their creative, passionate, opinionated minds and stick to a single composition without wiping out major protagonists at the start of Act II.

Doesn’t a man with a newspaper usually symbolize a creature of habit? The guy gets his daily paper at the same time. He walks to the same café. He sits at the same table. He orders the same breakfast. And while he’s waiting for his order to arrive, he reads the paper (always the sports section first, of course). But here, for no good reason, our newspaper man changes his mind. He doesn’t show up. If the painting depicted only two frames—one with the man, one without him—we’d at least have some balance. And balance is a form of consistency. But instead, we get total flakiness. Magritte tells us there’s going to be a man with a newspaper (the man must be important because the painting’s named after him) and then with each succeeding frame, we have to watch the artist remake the potentially agonizing decision of whether there will be a man or not. Magritte happens to decide Yes No No No. But I get the impression he could just as easily have said No Yes No No or any number of other combinations. It all seems pretty arbitrary and capricious. Or as my teenage son would say, “It’s so random.”

If our lives (and I believe this to be true) are made up of the sum total of our daily, hourly, momently decisions, then our lives are also given meaning by the patterns we create by these decisions. One of my biggest challenges is creating these patterns. I lack consistency. I am flakiness incarnate. I make decisions or commitments only to forget about them or change my mind. Case in point: I’m on a diet. No I’m not. Yes I am. No, I’m just eating only healthy food. Except when my daughter brings home a bag full of chocolate eggs from her trip to the store with daddy because then I’m a hedonist. But the next morning I’m recommitted to healthy eating. Until the next slight temptation comes along. Wouldn’t it save a whole lot of psychic energy if I could just make this decision once and for all?

I did decide to never take an elevator on campus again (after being inspired by a former student who set this goal when she started her Freshman year) and I’ve stuck to this decision faithfully. This may be because I told all my current students about my resolution and it’s partly the fear of humiliation that keeps me honest. But nonetheless, I’ve been consistent. Why can’t I show this kind of consistency throughout my life?

I really hate making decisions. (I seriously get hives in the sandwich bag aisle at the store. I'm standing in front of this huge wall full of colorful little boxes and it's just too much. Will it be zippers or folds? Ziplock, Glad or generic? Which ones are on sale? How many are in each box? Do I use my coupons? Do I really need sandwich bags? Or do I need snack size or pint or gallon or the “bread and food” size? Or should I just forget the whole thing because I recently decided to limit my use of plastic since its production and disposal are bad for the environment? We could just reuse the containers we already have, except these are also plastic and I read somewhere that they cause cancer... Honestly, the reason I can’t go to the grocery store in the evening is because I have a threshold for how many decisions I can make in a single day and by the evening I’ve already hit my quota and I’m likely to have a complete mental breakdown on aisle four.)

So my point is that if I hate making decisions, wouldn’t it be more efficient to make certain decisions ONLY ONCE and stick to them? Getting up in the morning, for example, should not be a battle of will. I should be able to pick a time and just know that I will get up at that time. Why do I continue to re-invent the wheel every morning when I think “Oh, my alarm is going off. I know I decided last night that I would get up at 6 am, but now I don’t feel like it so I will sleep for a (totally unrestful) nine more minutes. And then, of course, I have to re-decide this getting up business nine minutes later and again and again (sometimes several times) until I finally drag my sorry self out of bed. This is a huge waste of my limited supply of decision-making energy for the day.

Especially frustrating is the fact that I seem to have passed my flakiness on to my kids. Every day they have to remake the same decisions about whether or not to practice the piano (often determined by whether I have decided to remind them or decided to be distracted by other things and not remind them) or whether or not human children should inhabit clean rooms or messy rooms or whether or not homework is important or forgettable or whether the TV stays off during the week (as mom has sporadically proclaimed) or if maybe this week is one of those weeks where the man with the newspaper hasn’t shown up and it’s a free-for-all. I can’t tell you how many times Gabie has come home from school and fallen immediately into some activity or project and when I tell him that he needs to do his chores first, he looks at me with an expression of total surprise as if I’d just announced we’re going to speak only Norwegian in our home from now on. “Chores?” he says disdainfully. “Seriously?”

And here’s the point I’m arriving at this week. I think I am also capable of deciding once and for all whether or not to be happy. Normally, I make this decision every day, and really every moment, depending on what’s at hand. In fact, I typically ride the edge of a paper-thin line between cheerfulness and total depression and it takes a slight breeze to send me off one side or the other. Why is this? I’m smart enough to know that I control my emotional destiny. I can be a happy person if I want to. But much of the time lately, I choose to be grouchy or frustrated or sad. I believe I choose to be this way. And then I choose to tell myself that I have no choice but to be this way.

The other night in my class (we were discussing Tolstoy), a student began a comment with, “I think the reason why people choose depression....” My first reaction was to argue that people don’t choose depression, they suffer from it. But I’ve been thinking about this ever since and I know my student wasn’t entirely wrong. Now before I go further, I have to clarify that I know, on a very personal level, that sometimes depression is not something we can “pull ourselves out of” and it requires outside medical or even chemical assistance. But lately, I feel my dark moments are of my own creation. I have four healthy children. My husband has a secure job. I have things to do that are important to me. The weather is finally getting warmer. If I am unhappy, I have decided over and over to be unhappy. And the scary thing is that if I decide to be unhappy most of the time, I’m creating a pattern. I’m defining myself as a generally unhappy person. Do I really want this to become a habit?

My sister Kathy told me last night that she made a similar realization a few months ago (that she can make the conscious choice to be sad or happy) and so she has decided to be happy. When people ask her how she’s doing, she spends her excess mental decision-making energies playing a game of her own creation. Each day, she has to use a different letter of the alphabet to describe her happiness. Today, she is on letter V. She may be vivacious today. Or victorious or venerable. Tomorrow, she’ll be wonderful or wacky or winning. The point is that it’s her choice. She does save the 27th day to be in a black mood if she wants (because we all need to be truly sad once in a while). But the next day, she’s back to awesome. And just imagine what a smart, talented, compassionate person can accomplish with the pre-made decision to be awesome.

So, in honor of my sister and for the sake of replacing bad habits with good patterns, and to set a better example for my kids who need more consistency in their lives, I’m deciding to be happy. And because I can still be random, and because today is St. Patrick’s day, if anyone asks me how I’m doing I’ll probably tell them I’m feeling very verdant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

frescos, failures and feedback

Michelangelo had been working on the Sistine Chapel for more than six weeks when he discovered that the surface of the newly painted ceiling was growing moldy—a result of his imperfect fresco technique. He had no choice but to scrape off the entire thing, everything he’d finished to that point, and start over. No doubt, this mistake seriously frustrated the artist who hadn’t wanted this project to begin with, but it also taught him an important lesson about the proper moisture level to use when applying the fresh plaster to a surface, a lesson Michelangelo learned well and employed over the next four years as he finished the ceiling. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is an undisputed masterpiece and a reflection of the genius of the artist. But the fact that the work has lasted for five hundred years in remarkably good condition (despite many layers of wax, smoke, glue and ill-advised attempts at restoration) testifies of the artist’s eventual mastery of the difficult fresco technique and his ability to learn from his mistakes.

There’s a line I heard in a podcast recently. It’s a philosophy I am so struck with that I’ve taken to quoting it to my children (whether they want to hear it or not): “There are no failures, only feedback.” This means every mistake we make is not a failure but a learning experience, if we choose to see it correctly. When we blow it, we could choose to wallow in regret and frustration, but what’s the point if instead you can apply your hard-won feedback to future improvements?

I shared the line with Ethan on Saturday, when after weeks of practicing for a piano festival, he played poorly (and by poorly, I mean he forgot entire chunks of his pieces and was fighting back tears by the time he slunk back to his seat next to me in the audience). My heart ached for what he was suffering but I also knew that he could have practiced harder, especially during the last two weeks when he should have really been solidifying his memorization of the music and instead, he chose to do other things with his time. Ethan didn’t want to hear it, but after offering him my hugs, sympathy and unconditional love, I also reminded him that this was a good dose of “feedback” and he should decide what lessons he was meant to learn from the painful experience. He took it better than I thought and he admitted to making bad choices. The next day he was making a chart to help him remember to practice more consistently.

Since I don’t want to be the doctor who will not take her own medicine, I have been accumulating in my mind a list of the non-failures I’ve experienced lately. The feedback has been painful in each of these cases, but lessons learned the hard way are often the most lasting ones.

1. Don’t get cocky.
If your daughter (after months of failed feedback-rich attempts at potty training) finally, for the first glorious time, goes into the bathroom voluntarily and takes care of business by herself rather than messing in her underwear, you should smile in the moment, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. There will be plenty of cleanups in your future. And just to prove the point, within the hour, your poor 10-year old son will be sick all over, so be at the ready with bucket and washcloth.

2. Resist temptation, especially when it’s disguised in pink bows
If you decide that when you return a borrowed dress to your friend, you’d like to give her girls a whole box full of dress-up outfits to replace the ones they lost in the fire, and you go to Savers and spend an hour filling your cart with satin and velvet and taffeta, don’t, under any circumstances, give in to the impulse to buy a few extra dresses for your own daughter to play with (that is, unless you are fully prepared to watch her turn into a one-woman fashion show and change her outfit every 10 minutes for the next two weeks).

3. You live in UTAH. Get used to it.
If you visit your friend Tara in Arizona in the middle of February and you have a wonderful time and the weather is mild and Springy and then you have to return home to a climate where palm trees do not sway freely in the breeze in February because IT”S WINTER YOU IDIOT, prepare yourself for an emotional let down.

4. The actual dental work is never the most painful part
If, after weeks of hardly being able to chew your food and drinking only warm water because anything cooler than tepid makes your head explode off your neck, you have major dental work done and after an hour in the Chair of Torture, you are thick in a pain-induced neural fog and you walk to the receptionist desk to pay for your new crown and the punishment that went with it, don’t be foolish enough to hand over your credit card first and ask for the bill second. You will undoubtedly be over-charged by more than a hundred dollars and then be forced to debate, for 30 minutes with a condescending billing secretary, the meaning of the words “Preferred Provider” and “Copay” and “Dental Insurance” when all you really want to do is get home, suck up some ibuprofen and cry yourself to sleep.

5. How to lose your pride...and all your junk
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve arranged for a brilliant organizer named Lara to visit you and present an organizational seminar (which by the way, turns out to be very helpful). And just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this “Lara” offers to come to your home and take a look at your most frustrating organizational failures feedbacks and give you advice. If she tells you not to clean up your house for her...if she asks you not to tidy things up because it will defeat the purpose of giving her an honest look at your issues, DON'T listen to her! No, just kidding. Listen to her and leave your house in its natural state because you'll learn more that way. And go ahead and tell yourself “What the heck, what do I have to lose but my clutter and all my remaining personal dignity?” But be prepared to spend the next two weeks positively cringing every time you think of this woman you greatly admire walking through your home in its most chaotic, post-trip-to-Arizona-haven’t-had-time-to-unpack state. You’ll eventually get over it. Maybe. And you’ll have some great ideas to get your house into better shape for her next visit, that is if she’s not to disgusted with you to ever come back.

6. Free-lance writer beware
If you write an article for a magazine that pays really well but has been in the market for less than two years, be careful. You may see your words in print but never get paid because the publisher might get caught in the same financial crunch as everyone else and have to close up shop.

7. Don’t count those cute, furry, photogenic chickens before they’ve hatched
And if you are naïve enough to get excited about the magazine publication and the big paycheck without realizing that it’s not a sure thing, don’t (for heaven’s sake!) spend the money before you get it.

Even if it’s on a camera you’ve always wanted.

8. It's okay to be a squeaky wheel
And if you are naïve enough to anticipate the money and stupid enough to spend it before you get it, don’t forge ahead and spend many, many more hours researching and writing a second article for the same magazine. Or at least you should listen to your husband’s advice and tell them (BEFORE dutifully sending the article in on the day of your deadline) that you’ll be happy to send it to them once you’ve received a check for the first one.

9. D’oh!
If you find out, four days before the event, that your son has a French horn recital, don’t forget to ask him if he’ll be needing a piano accompanist for his solo.

10. Don’t overleaven the loaf
If you spend half a day making bread from a new recipe (interspersing kneading and rising with trips to music lessons and Knowledge Bowl practices) watch it closely at the end or you’ll get to see what happens when loaves rise too high and then fall disappointingly flat at the end.

11. Your son rocks
If you blow it on the bread, and you feel like complaining about all the time you wasted, you probably shouldn’t do it in front of your son Ethan because he will undoubtedly remember the advice you just gave him two days ago. And he'll say, "Mom, remember that time you said there are no failures, only feedback?" Yeah, he’ll use that line. In fact, he will put his arm around you and ask you what you’ve learned from the experience and you will have to admit that there are at least 365 different ways to screw up bread and you’ve just eliminated one more of them the hard way. And really, this is not that painful of a lesson, considering it didn’t involve public humiliation (unless you confess to it on a blog or something) and your son has been through worse this weekend and you are unbelievably proud of him for his sympathetic heart and you’re gratified to discover that sometimes he listens to your advice if only to be able to pass it back to you when you need to hear it too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Because I need it more than anyone else I know, I'm hosting an Organization Seminar taught by the very lovely and talented Lara Gallagher of the Lazy Organizer. Well, technically, my mom's hosting it since it will be at her house because my house is far too disorganized to host an organization seminar. But I did talk Lara into coming. So that's something.

So if you live in Utah or thereabouts, you're welcome to join us. Here's some info. There's more (and a link to register) on Lara's Seminar page. You can also send me an email with any questions. I'll try not to lose it amid the chaos that is my life.

February 21st
9:00 - 4:00
(with a lunch break: potluck salad bar)
An Organizing Journey; It’s not about your stuff.
A six hour seminar including: Organizing Basics, Learning to Simplify, Using Systems and Planners, Goal Setting, Money Management for Kids, Teaching Kids to Work, and more.
Cost $25.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

This is not a metaphor

When you are standing on the sidewalk watching your friend’s house burn, watching the firemen swarm, watching the smoke pour out from the playroom window, watching the sky fill with a giant grey column that rises like a mushroom cloud from their roof, a few things go through your mind.

First, you are sick sick sick with pity for your friend and her husband and their children.

Then you are relieved they all made it out safely even though the kids were home alone with the oldest son, and only a child would think to wake up the baby from her nap and drag all his sisters out to the neighbor’s house when he heard the smoke detector because adults would assume it was a false alarm and waste time looking for a fire.

Then you remember how just a few days ago you were walking through their house, admiring your friend’s new addition—barely finished—with its hardwood floors, all new appliances, new carpets, new furniture . . . you stop when you get to the custom bookshelves because you just can’t stand the image of it all in flames.

You think how last week you told your friend, and meant it, how happy you were for them. How much they deserved every inch of this beautiful new remodeled space. How glad you were they hadn’t moved away into a bigger, fancier home, even though they could have afforded to do it. But they love this neighborhood and can’t bear to leave it. We all do.

Then, for some reason, you think of their new flat screen TV and how cute your friend’s husband was about it when you were there. How it was still in the box but he was like a kid at Christmas, barely hiding his anxiousness to open it up and install it above the new stone fireplace in the family room now at the heart of the fire. He is the bishop of your ward and sacrifices much for the people he serves. He gets emotional almost every time he gives a talk in church. He called personally to apologize when your son was left behind from last week’s youth activity even though it wasn’t remotely his fault and he had been out of town all week on a business trip and probably hadn’t even had a chance to hug his own kids yet. He is exactly your age but seems decades more mature.

You think about the house itself. All the work that went into it. All the work it will take to rebuild it.

You think “thank heavens for insurance.”

But then you think about Christmas decorations, baby blankets, books, family pictures, kids’ school projects, a wedding dress... You wonder what your friend would have saved (besides the children, of course) if she'd been given a minute to decide.

You get philosophical and ponder the impermanence of material things. The transience of life itself but especially the stuff we grow attached to. It’s all tinder.

Then you hug your friend, say something cheerful and stupid that you’ll later regret and then beg her to tell you when you can help in any way. You are sincere but feel hollow and powerless. What are you going to do? Take them a casserole and say, “so sorry your home is ruined?” It all seems so unfair and cruel. Not that anyone deserves disaster. But especially not them. This is just too wrong.

As you walk home, you remember that the last time you were in their house, you were talking with your friend while she moved dishes into her new cabinets and your daughters both played. When it was time to go, both girls had changed into princess outfits and your daughter refused to give up her pretty blue dress and she threw an embarrassing fit and so you promised to bring the dress back later that night. But when you got home, your daughter still wouldn’t take it off and at dinner she spilled salsa on it so you had to wash it. And then you realized the sash had come unstitched and you had to mend it which took another day to get around to. You had meant to return the dress yesterday but forgot. And now you are glad to have one small thing to give back to them. One piece of their kids’ possessions that wasn’t burned or stained with smoke. It’s a drop in the bucket and you know it. But it’s something. It’s a start.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Enabling podcast addictions since 2008

For months, I’ve been promising friends and family members I would do this. So here it is...

Julie Q’s Podcast Addiction Enabling Tutorial

I’ve typed up a thorough review of all the podcasts I listen to, from my favorites down to the ones I let pile up but can’t bear to delete because they sound fun even though I’m too busy to get around to listening to them. I’ve also included a “getting started” guide if you’ve never podcasted because you just didn’t know how to do it. Let me help you. Let me introduce you to my favorite hobby. It’s easy. It’s free. It’s therapeutic. But beware, once you push that first GET EPISODE button, you may never want to stop.

What is a podcast?

The podcasts I listen to are generally radio programs you can download for free and listen to whenever and wherever you feel like. You can play them on your computer or load them to your iPod or MP3 player to take with you and listen while washing dishes, exercising, driving the noisy carpool kids, or falling asleep at night. Call me crazy, but I confess I have an iPod with almost NO MUSIC on it.

I’ve included links to the websites for each of these shows but the best way to subscribe is use iTunes (or something similar) to keep them updated for you.

My favorites

1. WNYC’s Radio Lab
This is by far my favorite podcast right now. It’s essentially science oriented, but science in an oh so fascinating, real people can totally get this stuff, let’s discuss what it means to be human kind of way. The show is highly produced with quirky sound effects and dialogue that get occasionally hokey, but I think you’ll get used to it and grow to love the style like I do. The great thing about Radio Lab is that on iTunes, you can download all their old episodes going back over 2 seasons. Some of my favorites are: Choice, Placebo, Who am I?, Memory and Forgetting, and The Ring and I (most amusing discussion of Wagner’s operas I’ve ever heard).

2. Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life
So popular it now has its own television spin-off, this is a classic radio broadcast and one of the best podcasts out there. Each week, host Ira Glass and his various producers choose a theme and present different stories connected by that theme. It’s always interesting, often educational, very entertaining. Of the many months’ worth of episodes I’ve listened to, I can only think of maybe two that didn’t keep my attention from beginning to end. The only drawback to This American Life is their shows are only available for free downloading for one week after they air on the radio, so you have to make sure you get them during that window. You can always stream them for free on their website, but it’s less convenient.

3. NPR’s Wait, wait, don’t tell me
A weekly news quiz show. Always hilarious; makes me laugh out loud at least once during the hour-long show. If you have the slightest interest in current events and politics, this podcast should appeal to you. The show has a celebrity panel with regulars (Paula Poundstone is my favorite) and each week they host different guests, ranging from NBA stars to supreme court justices. My one warning is that while I feel Wait Wait is an equal-opportunity mocker, I’m fairly liberal in my politics and not all conservatives might agree with me. If you’re a big George Bush fan in particular, you might not appreciate their satire. Anyway, this is usually the podcast I listen to when I’m driving home from class and I need something amusing to give my brain a break.

4. PRI’s To the Best of our Knowledge
Another great program that takes a theme and explores it through interviews with authors and deep thinkers. It’s educational and often fascinating. Once or twice I had no interest in the topic, but generally, it’s a good way to gain some exposure to interesting philosophical issues. Some typical topics include: Libraries, Einstein and God, Debunking pop mysticism, Musical Taste, Living Green, etc.

5.’s Spirit Channel
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m an Oprah fan. But I probably watch her TV show less than 4 times a year. Instead, I listen to her interviews with guests about spiritual topics on this podcast. I’ve really enjoyed these discussions, especially the ones with Eckhart Tolle, Sarah Ban Brethnach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jill Bolte-Taylor. You can download most of these episodes in either audio format or various video versions (I pick the audio because I have a slow connection and it would likely take a week for my laptop download the big fancy ones). Oprah is generous: you can still get all kinds of old episodes for free.'

More podcasts

The rest are really in no particular order. I love them all and listen to whichever ones I happen to feel in the mood for at the time.

If you like science, try these next two. Both are fascinating and accessible enough that you don’t have to be a big science nerd to learn cool stuff.

Science Talk: The Podcast of Scientific American
A weekly show covering the latest in science and technology. Host Steve Mirsky explores cutting-edge breakthroughs and controversial issues while interviewing scientists and journalists. Recent episodes have discussed things like alternative energy, astronomy, science in the Obama administration, and pigeons. If you don’t have time for an hour-long show, Scientific American also does a daily “60-second Science” program. (They also have a 60-second Earth and 60-second psych).

NPR’s Science Friday
Another great science show, this one hosted by Ira Flatow (I like Ira and his voice reminds me of Alan Alda). Ira interviews guests from the world of science. They discuss and take questions about topics from science, technology, health and the environment. Recent episodes dealt with the “invention of air,” cold and flu season, birdsongs, and nano-knotting.

APM’s Speaking of Faith
I love this show too (can I please have like 20 favorites?!) Krista Tippett interviews various scholars, priests, poets, theologians, etc. in this fascinating discussion of all things spiritual, religious and ethical. You can access all of the old shows (going back to 2006) on iTunes. Some of my favorites from the past include: The Ethics of Eating, Quarks and Creation, Yoga (with Seane Corn) and Inside Mormon Faith (Krista’s interview with Robert Millet).

PRI’s RadioWest
Host Doug Fabrizio drives me absolutely nuts but I’m willing to overlook (overhear?) his idiosyncrasies when he has a great guest or fun topic, which he often does. This is a Utah show, but the subject matter is usually of more general appeal. I download several of these episodes a month when the topic catches my interest or the guest is someone I’d like to hear more about.

WAMU’s Diane Rehm Show
This is one of the first podcasts I started collecting. Back when I used to listen to the radio all the time, I would often catch Diane’s show in the middle of some interesting conversation and wonder what the rest had been like. This way I can download whichever episodes sound fun to me. Diane’s voice takes some getting used to (she has a neurological condition affecting her vocal chords) but she is a very witty, insightful interviewer. She draws out interesting dialogue from all her guests (who range from actors to authors to political figures to doctors to academics). Episodes are only available on iTunes for about a week.

NPR’s Fresh Air
Speaking of great interviewers, Terry Gross has to be the best. She hosts a daily program and manages to get very candid responses from her guests. She has been around on NPR forever and has an amazing flair for conversation, very friendly but probing. Her topics are usually related to the arts and popular culture, (current TV shows, films, etc.). I have to say that Terry is one of those people whose voice does not fit her body. I finally saw of picture of her recently (and learned that she was very short) and it totally blew my mind.

NPR’s Story of the Day Podcast
I used to listen to the NPR news programs religiously. Now I just don’t have the time (or the emotional constitution for all that depressing news, more like). But I can still catch the best story of the day (editor’s pick) from Morning Edition or All Things Considered.

NPR’s Book Tour

A weekly program featuring best-selling fiction and non-fiction authors. The writers read selections from their latest books and then take a few questions. This program has introduced me to some pretty darn fascinating books (which I then rush to the library to check out and then leave next to my bed for 3 weeks intending to read but eventually have to return to the library because they are overdue, and I feel bad about this but then I realize I probably got to hear at least the best bits in the podcast and I hardly remember anything I read lately anyway although I still love to read and maybe I’ve just crammed too much stuff into my head and I should chill out on all the podcasts but I can’t). Yeah. So. Authors range from Toni Morrison to John Hodgman.

NPR’s Talk of the Nation

I’ll admit this is one of the ones that has just been piling up lately. I think I have 40+ hours of it waiting for me to get around to listening. But the topics sound interesting and the ones I’ve listened to in the past were good. It’s a talk show/phone call-in show dealing with hot issues (like health care, politics, etc) and just plain cool topics (like the high cost of parenting, why it’s so hard to swat a fly, etc.). Probably considered liberal, but what do I know? The host is good. The dorks who call in are often annoying. Friday’s show is the Science Friday program mentioned above.

New Yorker Out Loud
A weekly short discussion about one of the stories in the New Yorker magazine. It’s best when the editor interviews one of my favorite New Yorker authors (like Adam Gopnik) but typical New Yorker fare is often quirky or amusing.

New Yorker Fiction
A monthly short story from the New Yorker archives, read and discussed by another New Yorker writer. I have loved a few of these. Others have been mind-numbingly boring. I must be getting old.

Last but not least, if you want inspirational talks, you can download recent BYU devotional/forum speeches or BYU’s classic speeches. Just type “BYU speeches” in an iTunes store search. You can also download LDS General Conference talks (search iTunes for “LDS Conference”).

Getting Started
I am by no means an expert at this, but here’s what I’ve learned. I have your basic iPod. (Ethan has a newer, fancier iPod and calls mine a relic.) But you can do all of this on other kinds of MP3 players too. I also have a fairly slow connection so the following may be quicker on your computer than mine.

Set up an iTunes account.
Find the podcasts you want by searching the iTunes store.
Subscribe to your favorite podcasts. You can also select only the episodes you want to download and manually check in once in a while to see what you’ve missed.
Every time you open iTunes, your podcasts will automatically check for new episodes and begin downloading.
Go out on several errands while your podcasts are downloading.
Go eat lunch because they aren’t done downloading yet.
Change a diaper.
Plug in your iPod and make sure the “Podcasts” tab is set (in iTunes) to “sync.” (You can sync all of your podcasts or just selected ones. At this stage, I have to rotate the ones I sync because my relic pod fills up very quickly and I can’t fit them all on).
Regularly go through your iTunes podcasts list and delete the ones you’ve listened to. (I have yet to figure out an easier way to do this).
You can save episodes that you really love. They are already on your computer’s hard drive (in mine, they’re under My Music, iTunes, iTunes Music, Podcasts). I create a separate folder and move my very favorite podcast MP3 files there so they won’t keep loading onto my iPod every time I sync it.)
Listen at your leisure.

If your addiction begins to take over your life (signs include wearing headphones during all waking hours, getting all twitchy when your batteries run out and you have to wait a whole hour for your pod to recharge, beginning every conversation with the phrase, “I just heard the coolest thing...”, and actively looking for new podcasts even though you have so many already that there are not hours enough in the day to listen to them all) you may want to seek professional help.

So, hey, if you're already a podcast fan and you've discovered any good ones that I don't have listed, please let me know. I'm still in the collection phase. And maybe a little in the denial phase. I can stop any time. I just don't want to.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A twist of ribbon

Here's my latest publication (page 34). It's in the Wasatch Journal and is about a fascinating Utah artist named Edie Roberson. I wish I hadn't been restricted by a word limit because Edie is the kind of person I could have written much, much more about (as it was, I did write more but alas the magazine edited it down to what they had room for). I have tremendous respect for Edie who is not only brilliant and creative, but a warm, kind soul with the great wisdom of her years. What a privilege it was for me to meet her and see a piece of her world. Take a look. The magazine's online user interface is a bit tedious, but hopefully worth the download time...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Barbie's strangest Christmas ever

Can you guess which present Nora loved most this year? Was it the sweet, adorable blond-haired baby doll with matching Nora/doll Christmas dresses? Or was it the slightly creepy Jack plush?

Good guess.

At least the doll has since gotten a little play time. According to Nora, her name is “Gear.” A lovely name for a baby doll, I must say. Jack has been a more constant companion and only had to stay home once when we went to church (a bitter, tearful separation for all parties, believe me).

We ended up giving Jack to Nora a day early. On Dec 24th, Ethan wanted to give a gag gift to his cousin Alex along with the iTunes gift certificate we had already purchased. So I took Ethan to the thrift store and he picked out the most hideously dressed, shaggy-haired Barbie he could find. I made Ethan carry her to the checkout stand because it made him squeamish. “What if I see someone I know from school?” he pleaded. “Then I guess the gag’s on you,” I answered. And then I proceeded to take the longest, most scenic, most populated route to the front of the store because it amused me.

When we got home, Nora took one look at the Barbie and fell in love. She heard the name “Barbie” and began begging for her Bah-bie and chasing Ethan around the house: “My bah-bie!” And Ethan, my teenage boy, was running for dear life, holding onto this skanky doll — with her medusa hair and silicone implants and sparkly cocktail dress — yelling “No, it’s my Barbie! It’s mine.” The scene was all the more comical because I have never let Nora (nor if I get my way, will I ever let her) own a Barbie. How ironic that my untainted, Barbie-free daughter, gets obsessed with the first one she ever sees. She would not relent. Every time Ethan tried to hide the Barbie, Nora found it again. Eventually, we got Nora calmed down and distracted while Ethan wrapped Alex’s present. A few minutes later, it was time to go to the big family party and we discovered that Nora had found Alex’s present and ripped open the wrapping paper to get to her Bah-bie. This time, there was no distracting her. She refused to relinquish the stupid doll. Finally, we resorted to getting out Jack a day early and letting her unwrap him. Her first reaction was to say, “That’s not Jack! That’s Jack” (pointing to the picture on the video case). But soon she was willing to give the imposter Jack a chance and we slipped Barbie from her other hand and re-wrapped her. Whew!

It helped that at the family party, my brother Thom, who happens to have the entire score to The Nightmare Before Christmas memorized (and I do not exaggerate), held up Jack and sang some songs from the movie. Nora—and the rest of her cousins—were totally transfixed. Jack is now definitely Jack. And Barbie is likely back at the thrift store, confused and more than a little relieved to have escaped the crazed 2-year-old and her wacky brother.