Thursday, December 5, 2019

Throwback Thursday: Movies, Characters and Real People

I've never been a classic movie kind of girl. With the exception of Gone with the Wind, most of my favorite movies are from the late twentieth century. Goodbye Girl. When Harry Met Sally. You've Got Mail. 

The Big Chill.

If you haven't seen it, The Big Chill revolves around a group of friends united by a tragedy. As a twenty-something, I identified with the themes of friendship and growing up, but couldn't quite put myself into the shoes of these characters who had moved on beyond college, a place to which I was still firmly anchored. As a result, I felt annoyed by some of the characters, while the actions of others inspired confusion.

Or, in the case of Glenn Close's character, a wife, mother and doctor -- all caretaking roles, I now realize -- sympathy. Her grief seeped out between the cracks, and we only saw her let down her guard when she was finally alone, in the shower, via a good cry covered by the sound of running water.

I didn't get it then, but I do now.

I knew I loved the movie though, going back to see it over and over, dragging friends who hadn't seen it with me because they had to see this movie. At the time, I didn't grasp all the nuances of grief and loss that were an integral part of the movie, perhaps because they were so deftly woven into the music, the humor and the connection between the characters. And because I lacked the life experience to empathize.

Though I wasn't a child, I was still too young to identify with the struggles of some of characters. To understand the complexities that war and career and personal responsibility layer into relationships, day by day, decade by decade.

But on some level, I knew. That's why I kept going back.

More than thirty years later, I strive to create those nuances in the characters I write. To write women who are simultaneously strong and vulnerable. To put people on the page who love fiercely, yet make poor choices. To conjure up kids who don't get it completely, but who know, as I did watching that movie, that there's something there in each situation -- something deeper, something important -- just beyond what they understand in the moment.

It's a tall order.

Thirty years later, character-driven stories with ensemble casts are still my favorite, whether a movie, a television show or a novel. Sometimes they're a means of escape. Other times, I can identify so much it hurts.

Like Glenn Close crying in the shower -- proof positive that being strong is a double-edged sword. When you cultivate it successfully, it becomes not only what you expect of yourself, but what everyone else expects of you as well.

But in life, as in good stories, vulnerability seeps out of the cracks.

And that's what makes characters well-rounded, and real people human.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Friday Feature: What is Enough?

I used to be part of the Black Friday brigade, back when it started at something resembling a reasonable hour (or perhaps my definition of a reasonable hour has just changed over time). These days, I'd much rather be part of the Cyber Monday crew, shopping in my pjs in the comfort of my own home. I can't think of anything I want badly enough to rise at 4am and stand in line for it and I refuse to contribute to the notion that retail workers should have to be at my beck and call on Thanksgiving.

Another factor that has played a role in my shopping shift is reaching the point where there really isn't that much that I want that I don't already have -- at least nothing that can be purchased at a Black Friday (or Cyber Monday) sale. In her post, "What is enough?" blogger and author Ingrid Fetell Lee digs a little deeper into the concept of enough, not only from a material perspective, but from a personal perspective as well.

Lee looks at gratitude, goals and, without actually labeling it, savoring as well -- that concept of being in the moment and truly experiencing all it has to offer without thinking about what might be missing or what comes next.

As an inveterate to-do list box checker, I saw a lot of myself in this article, but one paragraph practically jumped off the page and pointed its finger at me:
...Mollie West Duffy, one of the authors of the book No Hard Feelings...suggested asking the question, "What is going to be enough for today?" I've started doing this around 4pm, the hour at which I typically scan the many items still to do on my list and start to calculate how many I can reasonably accomplish. I think sometimes the pursuit of more is a mindless one, and just calling our attention to the question is often enough to discover that enough is closer to hand than we realized.
I have practically the same hour of reckoning as Lee -- somewhere around 4pm each day -- and I invariably look at my list in frustration, not triumph. I feel grumpy about what I've left undone and start wishing for a personal chef because I know that if only I didn't have to make dinner, that extra time could be soo productive and I could dispense with another three or four items....

And maybe I could. Or maybe, just perhaps, what I've already done is sufficient and it's time to rethink the reality of the list I made in the first place. On any given day, either of these things could be true, yet one conclusion is more challenging than the other, especially when I look around at what remains to be done and wonder just when that will happen.

So, today, when my lovely, long day "off" has been derailed by a sinus headache that delayed checking anything off my list, I'm going to try to remember to ask myself that question. There will always be more to do, to buy, to prepare. So, for today, what is going to be enough? 

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Don't Deck the Halls!

This woman is so not me.
(Photo credit: JillWellington via Pixabay)
It's not even Thanksgiving, yet the halls (or some of them, anyway) are already decked in our house. Don't blame me. If it were up to me, the decorations would still be in the crawlspace.

My husband has always been an early adopter when it comes to Christmas decorations. When he wanted to put up the outdoor lights last weekend, I thought it was a bit early but, as he pointed out, Thanksgiving is late this year and it makes sense to put them up before it gets too cold.
Okay. I'm not the one who puts them up and, if he's outside happily working I can be inside happily writing, so it's a win-win. The outdoor lights are pretty and understated (as my mom would say), so having them up now is kind of nice.

But then, Monday night, he took out the Christmas Village houses -- the ones that are laid out under the windows in the dining room and in the bay window of the mudroom.

Suddenly, I felt as though we needed a little less Christmas. I'm no Scrooge, but I'm not ready for a full-on assault of Christmas decorations before the Thanksgiving turkey has found its way into the oven.

So, last night, when he came back into the family room with a string of blue lights in his hand, I said, "You're not putting those back here."

"Why not?" (feigned ignorance)

I had no valid verbal reply, but apparently my face spoke plenty loudly because he took the blue lights (yuck, by the way) into the mudroom and added to the light show there. Even I had to admit they looked nice out there, where there were already decorations.

I feel obligated to say (once again) that I'm not a Scrooge (Ebenezer, McDuck or otherwise). The trouble is that he's an early adopter whereas I like to keep the decorations up until mid-January. I have a dearth of Christmas spirit in mid-November but, in mid-January, when the days grow colder and grayer, I love the warm glow of the lights that keep Christmas around just a little bit longer.

This weekend, after the turkey has been digested (and perhaps the leftovers as well), I'll be ready to reach into the crawlspace and pull out some of the decorations. But, until then, I'd like to slow things down and savor some stuffing before it's time to stuff the stockings.

So, if you've got early-adopter Christmas spirit to spare, please keep it to yourself. I'm hitting the snooze button on Christmas until I celebrate Thanksgiving.

But you can bet you'll find my Christmas cheer up after New Year's.

lumpi via Pixabay

Monday, November 25, 2019

6 Things I am Grateful for This Week

GraphicMama-team via Pixabay
'Tis the season for gratitude so, after much deliberation, I've decided that the perfect topic for today's post would be just that. (It also fits in with my current class discussions, so I've had the opportunity to give it some thought).

I'm smart enough to know that I have a pretty good life but this week, in particular, I have a lot to be thankful for.
  • My daughter is home. Because her school doesn't have a fall break, she has an entire week off for Thanksgiving. Eight nights of knowing she's asleep across the hall instead of five hours away is a lot of restful Mom nights.
  • I can spend quiet time with family. Okay, so I'll have a substantial pile of papers to grade during my time off, but no one says they have to be finished the day I return. Without day-to-day deadlines, it's a lot easier to take time to do fun things like...
  • I get to see my sister and her new house. My sister and brother-in-law just recently moved and, since they're kind enough to be hosting Thanksgiving, I'll get to not only see my sister and her family but also her new digs.
  • I get to go to New Jersey. Did I mention that the new house is in New Jersey? Now that my dad is in Pennsylvania, I no longer have any Jersey ties...or I didn't until my sister bought a house there.
  • I get to sleep in. For night owls, this is one of the greatest benefits of time off.
  • I get to fill my days with things I want to do instead of things I have to do. I'm pretty fortunate in that there's tremendous overlap for me between these two things even when I am working, but since one of my favorite things is a blank calendar page, I'm excited to fill those pages...or not.
As we inch closer to Thanksgiving, what are you grateful for?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Friday Feature: Ambiverts

This is always the toughest time in the semester for me to write my Friday Features because the answer to "What are you reading?" is "Papers. Lots and lots of student papers."

But I'm also teaching, and so it's both fun and productive to go in search of articles that connect with my classes. This morning in my first year seminar we talked about personality, specifically introverts and extroverts.

And, of course, ambiverts.

Of course? Yes, of course because, as it turns out, most of us are ambiverts. A mix of extrovert and introvert, the ambivert is something of a social chameleon, able to adjust to both social time and alone time, to engage in conversation or get lost in thought. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant found that this blend of push and pull, talk and listen, actually makes ambiverts better salespeople than their extrovert peers.

Curious which one you are? Check out this quiz. The answer may surprise you. And, while you're at it, take in a few suggestions on how to take care of yourself and make the most of that ambivert personality.

Happy socializing!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Musings on Midlife Motherhood

HHOS via Pixabay
I've been thinking a lot about motherhood lately, for several reasons. First of all, it's a theme that is emerging in my writing projects, as I pull together some of these thoughts and try to shape them into a book project. And, perhaps more important (and more of the reason I'm always thinking about this on some level), my "baby" turned 22 last week.

Parenting is one of those jobs that, of necessity, shifts and grows, changing along with those we are parenting. Parenting a toddler is very different from parenting a teen, and parenting a teen is different from parenting a young adult. At 22, my daughter is the keeper of all things with her name legally attached to them, from grades to student loans to medical records, and I've discovered there's something of a learning curve involved in figuring out what role I play in these areas. When she was little, all of these things were in my hands and I'm still adjusting to the fact that she needs to grant permission for my access to these things. I'm not so much annoyed by this as bewildered by it. When did the little girl I dropped off at daycare or the preteen I drove to middle school dances become grown up enough that her signature (or the lack thereof) carried so much weight?

Right now, in the first year seminar I teach, we are reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I teach this book to a different group of freshmen every fall, but each year, one quote pops up in the discussion: "The days are long, but the years are short."  Needless to say, my eighteen-year-old freshmen make different connections to this quote than I (or the author), but it's a powerful one, reminding us to seize each day.

In retrospect, the theme of motherhood was in my writing all along, something that both of the main adult characters in my novels grapple with. Whether we become mothers at sixteen, like Marita or thirty-six, like me, motherhood changes us. Together with our kids, we face challenges, celebrate successes and navigate obstacles, all the while intertwining what was a life that was ours alone with another life we are responsible for creating. Some days this goes smoothly; other days we wonder what we were thinking.

I'm happy to report that, twenty-two years and nine months into this experiment, I'm happy with the results. I have a kid who makes me proud, has good taste in friends and good judgment to boot. She's someone I would, as my mom used to say, want to hang out with even if she weren't my daughter. She makes me think, she makes me laugh and she makes me tired.

But just as I can't imagine my life without her, I know my life has changed -- I have changed -- because of her. I'm both softer and tougher, more patient and more impatient and every decision I make is imbued with emotions, knowledge and priorities that have arisen from this singular experience.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, November 18, 2019

My Love-Hate Relationship with Routines

DarkWorkX via Pixabay
On Saturday, I wrote about routines. Beautiful, boring, productive, persistent routines.

I think I first came to appreciate routines when I was a new mom. Routines allowed me to feel in control when, in fact, I was at the mercy of a hungry little person who might or might not deign to nap on any given afternoon. Getting into a routine soothed us both, its structure giving predictability to days that sometimes stretched on endlessly.

But, as Gretchen Rubin says in her book, The Happiness Project, the days are long, but the years are short. Those sometimes challenging, sometimes fulfilling days of infancy and toddlerhood gave way all too soon to elementary school, then middle school, then high school, each bringing new routines and new time schedules by which to abide.

Now an empty nester, I've established routines of my own and, when they are disrupted, I get cranky. Somewhere along the way, I stopped being the free-flowing flexible person I thought I was and turned into someone who loves the control and send of calmness and expectation that routines provide. While a day off is always welcome, a day knocked off kilter is less so.

These days, I have to remind myself of the flip side of routines -- that too much routine can become boring and rob my days of the joy that the unexpected can sometimes bring. That routine day after routine day can kill spontaneity and wash away the potential for new experiences -- the ones that spark a sense of wonder and awe, or perhaps simply rejuvenate us and spark new ideas and a fresh perspective.

The trick -- the sweet spot, I think -- is to break routines on our own terms. To declare a day off in the middle of a week or to schedule a vacation whose very nature is to leave routine behind and immerse ourselves in the kind of come-what-may, do-as-I-wish days that remind us that, while routines have their benefits, so too does the free flow pursuit of life outside of the box.

Today, for example, this post started off as a list article -- the kind I've been having fun writing for several weeks now -- but, along the way, it turned into something different. I could have tried to whip it into shape and insist upon its submission to my structure, but that would have been silly. If it works better this way (and it does) forcing it into the format I initially planned would have been a waste of time and energy.

And yet, that's exactly my first reaction when my routine falls apart. I try to pick up the pieces and put them back together like some sort of wayward jigsaw puzzle instead of remembering that, sometimes, routines are meant to be wriggled out of. Exploded, even.

The older I get, the more I believe that exploding routines aren't all bad and a that we are where we are meant to be. On days when I remember this, I can take a deep breath, laugh at the detritus of my routine and look for new opportunities that pop up as a result of a routine gone awry.

Definitely beats my cranky toddler impression.