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.