Jun 042014

Recently a group of my online mom friends had a discussion of how much alcohol they drink each day and how much is “too much.” No one was anywhere near out-of-control alcoholic territory, but as a non-drinker married to a mostly-non-drinker, I was a little shocked to learn the role alcohol plays in many people’s lives.

The discussion left me uncomfortable. At first I couldn’t put my finger on why, except that it was weird to think how my everyday experience differs from the experiences of so many others. (Certainly explains part of why I’ve always felt like such a dud at parties!) And my shocked reaction left me feeling like a prude, which was hard to mesh with my usual open-minded self-image.

Over the next few hours, I started to piece together what made me uncomfortable about the discussion itself: As much as everyone sang the praises of drinking to relax at the end of the day, to have more patience with the kids, to cut loose at parties, much of the subtext was “Alcohol helps me feel less like stressed-out, awkward me” and “Alcohol makes me feel less, period.”

I wondered to my friends whether there was something … inauthentic … about spending life in that altered state.

My friends said, basically, that I don’t know anything. Some said I was making an everyday occurrence into something bigger than it needs to be. Others pointed out that they actually feel more authentic once they’ve relaxed beyond their day-to-day anxieties, their shyness, or whatever. I took their word on the subject. They have more experience than I do. Plus, my authenticity theory was put together out of vague intuition at best. Authenticity seems like a good goal, but who says it’s necessary all the time? I’ve taken antidepressants and had an epidural during pregnancy — does that mean I avoided being “authentically” depressed or “authentically” in pain? (Some people say yes on both fronts, but I strongly beg to differ.) That ended the conversation, and I haven’t thought about it since.

But then last night I was reading another Brene Brown book and came to a passage that makes the same point on authenticity, alcohol, and all our other addictions and distractions. She says it much better than I ever could, so thought I’d share:

I’ve had a couple of friends respond to my “I’m a take-the-edge-off-aholic” with concern about their own habits: “I drink a couple of glasses of wine every night — is that bad?” “I always shop when I’m stressed or depressed.” “I come out of my skin if I’m not always going and staying busy.”

Again, after years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our _________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using ________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection*

I feel like the bolded (by me) bits lay out the key distinction. What does it mean to be authentic or inauthentic? When does a few drinks after work, or an hour playing computer games, or a little time on the smartphone while your kid is playing, stop being a way to decompress and start becoming a problem? Brown’s answer is to ask whether the relaxation method brings you closer to connection with others or just numbs and distracts. Does it stop you from feeling your full emotions? Do you use it to escape from the reality of your life? If yes, it might be time to reconsider that choice.

I plan to use this framework in the coming days to take a look at my biggest problem area — killing time on phone and computer. For all the times that my phone and computer are necessary tools or a harmless means of downtime entertainment, there are plenty of other times when they stand in the way of being fully present with Vera or provide convenient means for procrastinating my life away. I love the subtlety of Brown’s questions for trying to tease out that distinction.

(*Ps, Since I recommended Brown’s previous book so highly, thought I’d note that I didn’t enjoy this one all that much. Her psychological theories still ring absolutely true and her writing is strong, but Imperfection is light on content compared to her other books.)

Apr 292014
Last month, in Amsterdam.

The elusive whole-family photo. Last month, in Amsterdam.

This poor, neglected blog hasn’t seen regular action in years, but lately I’ve been feeling the pull to write again. Or should I say, feeling the pull to communicate again? The actual writing has grown incredibly painful — writer’s block times a thousand. I’m stumbling around trying to move past it, hoping that more regular writing practice will help the words start flowing again.

Long story short, sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll be back to give this whole blogging thing one more try. Expect a rather random mix of family travel, health experiences, interesting facts on consumer life, philosophical musings, useful tips, and cool finds. (Blogging experts usually tell you to pick a subject and stick to it, but when does life ever fit neatly into a single topic??!?) If we’re lucky, I’m also hoping to pull in some smart and interesting blogging friends as regular guests.

When last we left off, I was struggling with disabling illness, raising a toddler, traveling whenever possible, and hoping to write a book. Two years later, I am struggling with disabling illness, raising a preschooler, traveling whenever possible, and hoping to write a book. Big changes. One of the frustrating things about disabling illness is the way it monopolizes your time and narrows your options. One day looks very much like the next. But the smaller my horizons become, the more I value Internet communities and treasure the comments from people who find value in this blog. Please do stick around — I look forward to “talking” with you soon!

Oct 152012

This man is thrilled that his door photographs and poems about trees will outlive him on the Internet. (Source)

This weekend I tried to Google something from my past and wound up spending an hour knocking around the Web, following the trails left by my eighteen years on the internet. Always an unsettling practice, finding out how little anonymity we have in this digital world.

What surprised me most about my own online legacy was its totally random nature. For every document from my legal career, there are strange one-offs like a listserv post from 1996, a 2003 forum question about Polaroid cameras, and a 2008 comment on a blog post about elephant-shaped laundry hampers. There’s my tutorial on making bowls from magazine pages, posted to a design site years ago and repeated on other sites. There’s also the one other person who shares my maiden name, who seems to exist only in an empty blog and a couple of family obituaries.

Even with painstakingly created spaces like this blog, you can never predict what will “take off” and reach people most often. Of the hundreds of posts on Two Wishes, the single most popular post — the one that gets two thousand hits a month — is tip about hair dye removal that I wrote in about 15 minutes.

Which brings me to my law school application essay.

The original reason for this weekend’s Google search was that I was helping a friend with an application essay and wanted to hunt down my own essay as a sample. Googling it wasn’t as crazy as that might sound — the essay was published in one of those “how to write application essays” books, which is part of Google Books. My page wasn’t in the Google Books preview, so as a final effort, I tried just Googling a unique phrase from the essay.

It got hundreds of hits!

Yes, my law school application essay has gone viral. Not viral in the Roomba Cat sense, but definitely viral to the small world of application essays. Peterson’s EssayEdge uses it in their instructional materials. And check out this section from a Penn State professor’s handbook for application essays:

Of the thousands of personal essays I’ve read over the past 20 years, one of my favorite introductions is from an application to law school, and it opens thus:

My interest in the law began with donuts. As a child, I developed early persuasive skills during family disagreements on how to divide boxes of the treats. My parents belonged to the “biggest people deserve the most donuts” school of thought; while as the youngest family member, I was a devout believer in the “one person, one donut” principle. The debates were often cutthroat, but when it came to donut distribution, I sought justice at any cost.

This opening, taking from a sample essay in the book, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, by Mark Allen Stewart, isn’t just effective because of its cleverness. It’s also efficient in detail, humorous and surprising in delivery, focused in theme, universal in appeal, and even moralistic in meaning. This writer is concerned with justice, even at an early age when decisions of right and wrong could be reduced to the distribution of donuts. Obviously, the paragraph that follows the opening discusses justice at a more advanced level, and gradually this law school applicant addresses social issues such as poverty, nationalism, and prejudice, and he emphasizes his passion to address them through law. As he later sums up near the close of his essay, “My identity rests on these convictions”— and we believe him.

I alternate between ecstasy over the compliment* and depression over the fact that I’ve lost the ability to write. Everything comes out a flabby, jumbled mess these days. And let’s not even talk about those youthful ambitions toward social justice. Guess I can take comfort that, even if I never solved the problem of world peace, my legacy will live on in hair color tips and magazine bowl tutorials.

(* Lest I get too big for my britches, there’s always this helpful advice from a different site: “This story is great for personal use however, the whole donut idea when it comes to upscale colleges may not be appealing. To personal and irrelvant, these people are much more complex and intelligent than that. But good paper.” Love the patronizing little pat on the back at the end.)

Do you have a strange online legacy? Have you ever “gone viral”? Bloggers, is your most popular post an unexpected one?

Oct 052012

Is there anything parents dread more than those weeks when EVERYONE in the family is sick at the same time? Kiddo got sent home from school on the same day that mom and dad are feverish, which is the same day that Nana the Babysitter is bedridden? Greeeaat. We’re finally on the mend*, but tomorrow we’re off to celebrate the long weekend by traveling much too far for such a short vacation. Will catch up with you all next week!

[* How did I forget that the mysterious green pills crammed in our DayQuil box were Mucinex-D with real pseudophedrine? Not only are the two main ingredients great for mucus, they both hit me as mild uppers. What cold? Let’s party!]

And if you’re at home this weekend at a loss how to fill the extra day without Two Wishes to get you through? I recommend some armchair travel over at Chic Traveler. I write for them on occasion, but the recommendation is genuine. It’s an exceptional site for travel lovers. (My own favorite post is here. You could spend hours dreaming about the amazing hotels at that link.)

Have you been hit by the germs that seem to be taking the whole country by storm? Do you have exciting plans for Columbus Day?

Sep 272012

Sometimes living on Capitol Hill drives me crazy. There are people everywhere, all the time. Walking the kid and the dog one block to the park in the evening (necessary, because who has a backyard?) means stopping to greet other dogs, sidestepping anti-social dogs, stopping so other kids can pet our dog, giving directions to random tourists, saying hello to neighbors, sidestepping anti-social neighbors, dodging bikes breaking traffic laws, waiting for three directions of traffic lights before crossing the street…. Did I mention the park is one block away?? Sometimes you just want to get to the *$@&# park and home for dinner.

But there is one thing I love about the people of Capitol Hill, and it is that they are not always the same people. Looking around Vera’s schoolyard when I dropped her off this morning, I was struck by the scope of diversity at her school. There’s every possible shade and mix of skin color, but that’s just the beginning. We heard parents speak with accents from Europe and Africa. We saw a kindergarten girl with her hair covered by a scarf, and another being dropped off by two mommies. We saw nannies and yuppie parents and hipster parents and grandparents with canes. There are many kids wealthier than we are, and many who can’t afford the $2 school lunch. I am so grateful that our daughter can grow up surrounded by this smorgasbord of humanity.

One of the enduring things I learned in college psychology is that our brains are hard-wired to divide the world into categories. There will always be an “us” versus “them.” It’s how the brain works. But how you define “us” and “them” — ah, that’s where the question lies. Too much of human history has defaulted to easy categories of tribe, nationality, skin color, religion, or sexuality. Some of the news and images surrounding this election prove those defaults are still alive and kicking.

I want to raise a child with a modern view of “us.” One who sees “us” as her co-workers, her neighbors, her friends — no matter where they fall in all those old group definers. It’s a state of mind and one you could develop anywhere. But I’m sure this crazy neighborhood can only help.

[Image from here. Because can anyone my age think “diverse kids” without looking up old Benetton ads?]

Sep 172012

Well, I’m back. Seems all I do is talk about leaving and coming back, so let’s just skip it for now, shall we? Photos are much more interesting! Here are a few highlights from the months I was gone.

We celebrated Vera’s third birthday:

Mama had a much-needed solo vacation in Sedona, AZ:

The whole family spent two memorable weeks in Hawaii. (Expect many more details/photos about that!):

Vera spent a lot of time with her sibling Sheltie:

Our walls looked like this for 4 months (and counting). But don’t worry, everyone assures us it’s much worse in person. The garbage bag covers a spot where the ceiling fell in. Thanks, water leak from the condo upstairs!:

Vera further developed her own personal style — best described as pink sparkly fairy princess ballerina — and Mama discovered Instagram (@twowishes):

Biggest and best of all, Vera started public full-day preschool a few weeks ago! Big transition, but it’s a fantastic school, she has a fantastic teacher, and she’s going to love it once she gets past the social anxiety of her first time away from home.

And you, my friends? Any big events in 2012?

Jun 022011

Despair, Inc - Mediocrity

(image from the glorious Despair, Inc.)

I grew up a perfectionist. And then, in my 20s, I got very, very sick.

If there’s one thing a person learns from serious or extended illness, it’s that sometimes you have to let perfection slide and go with whatever works. Illness reduces available time, energy, money, and just about anything else you can name. Once, I could create perfection by ignoring my natural limits and overextending till my goal was reached. Now, that’s really not an option. The only choice is to live within my new limits. Can’t clean your house often? Learn to live with dirt. Can’t post on the blog as much as you want? Learn to live with a light posting schedule. Have to cancel a big event that you’re not feeling up to? If you can’t force yourself, what can you do?

In the decade since my original illness, I’ve seen many other perfectionistic, Type-A women fall prey to disease. It happens so often that I’ve developed a theory: illness happens to Type As to force them to slow down and stop sweating the details. Maybe it happens because stressful lifestyles leave women prone to physical exhaustion that becomes illness. Or maybe it happens in a more touchy-feely, “life sending you a lesson you need to learn” sense. But one way or another, illness is often the teacher that sets perfectionists on the path toward a healthier approach.

As a newly minted “good enough”ist, my biggest comfort is the 80/20 Rule. According to this theory, 80% of the benefit in most fields comes from only 20% of the work you put in. After that, you receive smaller and smaller rewards as you put more and more effort into perfecting the details. Of course, 80% is only a “B.” There was a time in my life when Bs were not okay. But if you’re dealing with very limited resources, the 80/20 rule is pretty darn comforting. Who needs to waste so much more time on that last little margin? It’s not my own limitations, it’s economic efficiency!

Why bring this up now? My next couple of posts will be about a book called Good Enough is the New Perfect. The authors say that the title is a bit of a touchstone for dividing the perfectionists from the, uh, recovering perfectionists. Real perfectionists recoil at the idea of “good enough,” saying it’s the same as settling for mediocrity. But for me? These days, it’s basically my credo.

How do you feel about perfectionism versus “good enough”ism?