Friday, November 24, 2017

Friday Feature: Why Gratitude is Good For You

Happy Day after Thanksgiving! Are we all finished with giving thanks for this year?

Not if we're smart. As it turns out, this holiday that seems to get smashed into a tiny sliver between trick-or-treat candy and Christmas carols has the right idea. And, if we're smart, we'll continue its practices, despite what the retail industry has in mind.

Gratitude, especially when practiced regularly, has a whole host of health benefits, from helping us sleep better to helping us feel better. And it's not just a temporary feel-good feeling; the lasting nature of the effects of the practice of gratitude have been supported in study after study.

Want a quick cheat sheet on what all of these benefits are? Read this piece from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine or, if you're still too full of Thanksgiving turkey to read without falling asleep, listen to Robert Emmons' quick talk on the four benefits of gratitude.

You might just be grateful you took the time to do so.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Taking a Chance

pompi via Pixabay
Last night, I went to an audition for the first time in longer than I can remember. It was only the second play I'd auditioned for since college (I usually audition for musicals) and this one, like the last one, is by Neil Simon.

The particular theatre has changed a lot since I started doing shows there, but I suppose that's to be expected since nearly three decades have passed since my first audition at that theatre. The last set of renovations included a new administrator, a face lift and a name change that was widely unpopular among some of the long-time volunteers. Some said they'd never return, but that's a pretty challenging promise for a volunteer actor in a small town.

An audition is an audition is an audition. Same table in the lobby, same clipboards, same cast of characters (or at least a version of the same crew), each waiting his or her turn to impress. In the meantime, some hold court, others size up the competition and a few linger over their clipboards, trying to remember their resumes and wondering why they thought this was a good idea in the first place.

This was perhaps a ridiculous idea, as I don't really have time for a show. I barely have time for the commitments I've signed on for already, and I'm not completely sure I can still memorize lines. But my retirement has been forsaken for another full-time job. While that turn of events that is just fine with me, it's putting me at risk of being all work and no play.

So, it was time for a play.

Or at least to try out for one. I don't know how things will turn out. I didn't hedge my bets -- a first, I think. There is only one role I want because there is only one character I was drawn to enough to turn my schedule upside down for the next two months. The others would be fun to play, but I'm just not willing to put in the time. I have other characters waiting for me -- those of my own creation -- who, like a pet left home alone for too long are at risk of doing unspeakable things if I don't get back to them soon, and so I must chose my time away very carefully.

Still, it was fun to read with other actors again, to find the timing that earns the laughs. When writers do this, we don't know if the laughs (or the tears) come; reading, unlike theatre-going, is a solitary pursuit.

It was fun to immerse myself in the work of a playwright whose works make me laugh, even if now they seem a bit dated and perhaps a bit too on-the-nose given current headlines.

It was gratifying to know that, although I'm no longer the twenty-something who drove an hour to nervously audition at this theatre, now of another name, I can still convince myself to take a chance.

I won't know how this all turns out until the end of the week, but I'm okay with either option. I connected with a character, I took a risk, and I looked at a play from both sides of the page. Now I just need to see which side of the page I land on.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Gratitude in the New Normal

billslife2012 via Pixabay
My daughter is home from college.

The house is messier and noisier, our routines have been disrupted and it's all good because my daughter is home. Morphing from an empty nest to a full one has become second nature, the new normal of parenting a young adult.

For our family, new normal is the theme of the season. Last summer, my mom lost her battle with cancer, and so we are heading into our first holiday season without her. Dreading the empty place at the table, I'm turning my focus instead to the things I am grateful for (in no particular order).
  • A few days away from classes, even if grading papers is still part of the package.
  • The young adults -- my daughter, my niece, my nephew and his girlfriend -- who will bring a different kind of energy to this Thanksgiving.
  • My dad.
  • The opportunity to see my sister's new house and to sit down and catch up with her.
  • My husband.
  • Thanksgiving food, prepared by my brother-in-law, (for whom I am also grateful), who is unruffled by the task of getting a multitude of different dishes to the table. 
  • The inauguration of the Christmas season with the annual playing of the Johnny Mathis Christmas CD after dinner.
All of this -- my mom's legacy -- is what we're thankful for this Thanksgiving. I wish she were here to celebrate with us, but I'm guessing that not having to do the cooking is just heavenly.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Feature: Training Your Brain

Brain research fascinates me. New technologies that enable us to see the human brain in action can teach us so much about brain development and brain health, not to mention suggesting interventions and strategies that can help to keep the brain healthy.

Unfortunately, a misreading or misrepresentation of research can also inspire "solutions" that range from useless to dangerous. Fearful of losing our faculties to Alzheimer's, or even the natural process of aging, we can be easy prey for products that promise to prevent these things, especially when they carry the what looks like a research seal of approval.

Often, simply making an existing practice a habit is all we need to preserve our health, our intellect and our well-being. If you're looking for some easy ways to strengthen your brain, check out this article in Inc. by Peter Economy. Easy and fun, these strategies are habit-forming which, in this case, is a good thing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

To Scrimshank, Perchance to Write

Engin Akyurt via Pixabay
As I write this, I'm supposed to be at my critique group meeting. Instead, I'm sitting on the sofa in my family room in my pajamas (yes, it's 7 pm -- thank you for not judging), wending my way through my to-do list, which includes this post. The length of my to-do list, coupled with a touch of a bug last night has made staying home and crossing things off my list the responsible thing to do.

Still, as I dropped by to check the definition of a word, I wondered if it was a coincidence that the word of the day was scrimshank ("to avoid one's obligations or share of work; shirk").

Am I scrimshanking?

If I felt better, I'd say it was a good possibility. But, since crackers have been my main source of nourishment for the past twenty-four hours, I'm opting to cut myself some slack.

I don't like missing critique group meetings. Not only do I like the people in my group, but they've also been invaluable in helping me to shape my stories, tighten my prose and generally improve my writing. Every serious writer should have a critique group or critique partner -- a fellow writer, or a group of them willing to provide the constructive feedback necessary to take work to the next level. But critique groups, being a two-way street, take time and dedication.

According to my publisher and others in the know, every writer should also have an active social media presence. A blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account...places where he or she is visible to readers and potential readers. I have these things and I enjoy them much of the time...but they take time and dedication.

And writers should also write, of course, because without this necessary piece, we aren't writers. We're readers, starers, workers, parents, spouses, neighbors and a host of other things, but if we're not writing, we can't call ourselves writers, no matter how many social media accounts we have and no matter how many critique group meetings we attend. And writing? Well, it takes even more time and dedication than critique groups and social media accounts.

Jill111 via Pixabay
Lately, my writing has been getting edged out by other obligations, all of which hold some value to me. This, along with the sense of frustration that arises from never getting to the bottom of a to-do list has set me on a quest to claim time. This is, unfortunately, harder than it sounds.

Nevertheless, I persist. The goal is too important to give up on. I can't be a writer if I don't make time to write.

Even if it, unfortunately, means doing a little scrimshanking along the way.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Sweetness of Savoring

StockSnap via Pixabay
In the first year seminar I teach, we are reading Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. My students always enjoy this book, and I do, too. One of the best things about using it as a teaching tool is the fact that I get to give fun homework assignments.

Last Friday, for example, I told them their homework for the weekend was to savor something. What they chose to savor was their choice and the details did not have to be reported back, merely experienced.

One of the best parts of homework assignments like these is that I get to participate, too. As I lay in bed on Saturday morning, I took a moment to savor the opportunity, from the fact that I was in bed later than usual to the warmth of my blankets and the softness of my pajamas.

So often, in the rush of life and the crush of things to be done now, we forget to even notice what's around us, let alone savor it. We walk past the same sights, drive the same vehicle, see the same faces, and toss our keys into the same spot without noticing any of it. While I'm not advocating finding all of our joy in material things, it's nice to take time to appreciate what we have.

How many times have you wolfed down a meal, barely tasting it? Driven past the same trees without noticing the color of their leaves? Purchased something you had to have only to be bored by it within a week?

Me too.

It's human nature to become accustomed to what we have, whether it's something, someone or a state of mind. (Psychologists call it the "hedonic treadmill"). Fortunately, we're also equipped to purposefully override the treadmill simply by stopping for a moment and taking time to appreciate the people and things around us.

Savoring is something I always mean to do, but often forget to do. Luckily, I have my own homework assignments to remind me that it's time to stop, look, listen, taste and experience.

How about you? What will you savor today?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Feature: Secrets of Resilient People

Next semester, I'm teaching a course on positive psychology. This is an interest that has been building in me for several years, sparked by topics I've addressed in first my First Year Seminar and then in the  psychology courses I teach.

Of these topics, one of my favorites is resilience. I love the idea that bouncing back is not only possible, but it's a skill that can be built and nurtured at any age.

So, when I found out that one of my favorite writers just finished a piece on resilience, this Friday Feature practically wrote itself.

Want to know how resilient people make it so? Check out this article in Fast Company by Gwen Moran.