Things I learned from my dad

I started writing this post a while back, and this seemed like a good occasion to finish it. These are some of the most useful things I’ve learned from my father.

 

Time spent is an especially effective way to demonstrate love.

Why else would someone coach a child’s sports team? True love. Coaching, arrowhead hunting trips, building of playhouses, restoring my first car from a hunk of junk he bought off the side of the road, replacing the breaker box on my house, helping my family move. I was as ungrateful a child as anyone else, but at least now I see all of this for what it is: how much he loves us. And it saves money. This is why my relations get crappy homemade gifts when I really want to show them I care. Hope they get the message.

Know how to change a tire.

My dad was immovable on this. Once, some kind of debris on an off ramp left both my car and the one behind me with a flat tire. With about five total people on the side of the road (at night), both male and female, I was the only one who knew how to change a tire (they forgot to loosen the lug nuts!). I won’t lie: it was sweet. And I’ve got like four or five other flat tire stories. Every single time, I thanked my dad silently for forcing my resentful high school self to learn how to do it.

You might can fix that.

Don’t throw that away yet. That thing, whatever it is. Don’t call a repairperson yet either, if it’s a bigger thing. Check its moving parts. Look closely, take it apart if you can. Figure out how it works and what part of the thing broke. Then, and only then, make the call. You might save money, too.

Never throw the game.  

Dad believes that losing is instructive and healthy for children. Especially when it means he wins. But I noticed with my son, who we always used to let win, that losing was an awfully hard fall after he’d gotten an inflated idea of his ability.  It made him more likely to give up, too.

But don’t forget encouragement.

I loved going arrowhead hunting with my dad. We’d fill a cooler with ice water, throw walking sticks in the back of the truck, get an egg biscuit at Hardee’s, and then go walk around a field poking bits of rock with those sticks. I’d complain sometimes about not finding as many. You’re lucky I’d say. I’d try to make him switch sticks with me, sure that was the key. Dad stopped me once and said remember to look all around before you keep going. I did, I said. No, all around your feet, he said. Keep looking. It was years before I realized he’d thrown that little bevel point at my feet. Sure, he manufactured that little triumph for me, but it probably kept me looking without whining longer. A little taste of success goes a long way.

Don’t be a sore loser. (Or a lousy winner.)

Dad’s unapologetically competitive. He gets it from his mom, who was famously merciless at ping pong, I hear. But you can love to compete and play to win without being a jerk. You’ll find more people willing to play again that way.

Be skeptical.

I’m terrible at this! I’d much rather take someone at their word. But dad’s never afraid to challenge something that sounds off. ‘I don’t believe that,’ he says. When he’s trying to be more polite, he says ‘I doubt that.’ He’s not suggesting they’re lying, just wrong. And it doesn’t hurt anyone, myself included, to have to back up what they’ve said.

Respect is love.

I had some other points and decided they sort of fit under this one. Dad and I don’t see eye to eye on some things. Shocking, I know. You don’t have to understand someone to love them. But you carry the lessons from family life into your adult relationships, and he always showed that love looks like respect. I don’t mean that  chivalry crap, though he’s also polite about opening doors and stuff in that southern way. I mean that even if he disagrees, he’ll listen. And even in the fog of the nineties Promise Keepers movement and my prickly teenage years, he made me feel like he thought I was smart and capable. For a woman, you can’t underestimate the worth of that kind of gift from the first man in your life.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ode to my critique partners

To my critique partners, on this, the occasion of Friday.

Before I became a writer, I knew how to write. And before I got serious about the craft of novelizing, I subscribed to the notion of the artist in a vacuum, committing her glorious prose to the page and subject only to her own drive for perfection.

Now I know the vision of the solo creator was always a fiction. It was one of the most profound realizations of my writing life, such as it has been thus far. To be fair, I’m pretty sure people tried to tell me that in college, but you know college kids. Think they know everything.

We each started with different strengths as CPs; one of us was great at spotting logistical loopholes, another is the queen of character motivation, and I tend to focus on word choices. We’ve been sharing those strengths around, though, building our toolboxes.

I think now that learning to write is a lifelong process, like learning to be a person. If you stop trying to grow in either sphere, you stop being decent at it.

 

Omission and commission

I’ve been thinking lately about the things we say without saying.

There are much more capable voices than mine out there talking about why we need diverse books, and about how a lack of representation doesn’t have to be intentional to be significant. But recently, one conversation reminded me of the time I stumbled on an essay I wrote in ninth grade. It says “character” at the top, so I suppose I was only supposed to describe someone without any need for context.

I dug around and, for your amusement, have reproduced it faithfully (it was painful) below:

The young man hopped out of his car, and ran to unlock the door. As he walked into the indoor pool area, he tossed his towel onto a nearby chair. In one fluid motion the athlete pulled his shirt over his head and threw it carelessly on top of the towel.

Logan Craig was an Olympic hopeful for diving, but with his finely chiseled features and rugged good looks, he looked more like a model for a statue of a Roman God. Logan had a shock of unruly black hair falling almost to his heavy black brows. But Logan’s most arresting feature were his vivid, intelligent green eyes, surrounded by long lashes any girl would kill for.

Moving to the edge of the pool with a cat’s easy motion that belied his muscular chest and athlete’s build, Logan prepared to swim his laps.

Logan pulled himself dripping out of the water after his laps, and sat on the side catching his breath. He always enjoyed letting his muscles fall into the familiar patterns, working out the tensions of the past day.

Then, with the sinewy grace that characterized his gait, the diver crossed to the diving platform. As he ascended the slick steps, Logan tried to concentrate on the dive he was going to try to work the flaw out of.

At the top, Logan took a deep breath and moved to the edge, his Irish eyes intent on his purpose. Then, suddenly, he jumped up, hit the board, and sprung up and out, entered a series of flip and twists. The crystal clear water rose to meet him as Logan completed the dive perfectly and seemingly effortlessly.

——

I’ll give you a moment to wipe away the tears of mirth.

In ninth grade, I’d never really kissed a boy and spent most of my time reading. And I didn’t even read romance novels, if you can believe it after the above display. I liked westerns, Catch-22, the classics (Janeite, here!), some sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not like you’d look at me back then and say “Oh, there’s a girl who emerged from the fetid stew of middle school hormones with only one thing on her mind.”

But really, ninth grade me?

So here’s my reminder of how easy it is to broadcast the unspoken reaches of your mind without ever noticing. Sometimes, the story we think we are telling is only a piece of the narrative.

Top 10 Things I Learned From My Mom

I wrote a beautiful essay about my relationship with my mother for a women’s autobiography class in college. Then I lost it before I could show it to my mom, who has never forgotten.

So here are some things I learned from her that have been helpful over the years. Because I was listening, even if it looked like I wasn’t.

  1. Marry someone who makes you laugh.  Obviously there are other criteria, but that’s the only advice I really remember from her about how to choose a life partner, and it’s golden. She lives it every day – no one on Earth thinks my dad is funnier than she does. I imagine a hidden message in there too, about how sometimes life sucks and you laugh to keep from crying, and someone who will facilitate that  is not only fun, but sometimes a lifeline.

2. You’ll be glad one day that you’re so…unique. That was the refrain of my middle school years, which I now call “the three years I was in a bad mood.” I feel pretty certain I yelled rude things at her back then when she said it, but the soothing drip of “it’s not only okay, it’s great to be different” eventually helped me accept my weird self. She might have regretted it later, the first time I dyed my hair blue, but she was a good sport about it.

3.  Nobody gets to power without being morally compromised. Nobody. My mother is optimistic about many things, but people at large are not one of them. She’s a hard-boiled cynic about politicians, and she’s right. I don’t suppose this has been of material use since I don’t travel in powerful circles, but they’re still sage words.

4. You can’t take credit or blame for the behavior of a very young child. My mother tells it like this: I was a happy, easy baby. So when the nurse brought my red-faced, screaming newborn brother to her in the hospital and said, “Oh honey. You’re going to have your hands full with this one,” my mom figured the woman just didn’t know who she was talking to. She was a pro. The way I understand it, he cried for two straight years, and then developed a temper. He had sensory issues around food, threw raging tantrums in which he beat his head on the floor, and wanted to be held 24/7 otherwise. People would tell her what she was doing wrong: holding him too much, giving in too easily to his food demands. But she always would shake her head and think “but I’m not doing anything different than I did the first time.” These stories helped me a LOT with my difficult child when he came along, and keep me from taking credit with the easy one.

5. Love and accept your child for the person they are. You’ll all be happier that way, and trying to change them never works anyway.

6. Praying to change someone’s behavior doesn’t work. You can only change yourself. Mama learned this in a difficult situation like nothing I’ve ever had to face, but when she told me about it, I never forgot it. You’ll be hoping, or praying if that’s your thing, until the end of time that someone will change their spots. It’s only ever up to you to find the strength to either stand up for yourself or get out. (I should say that as a person of strong faith, her telling of this was all about prayer, and strength from God, but I think it’s good advice either way.)

7. You create the family you want to have. Sometimes we repeat unhealthy patterns that we learn as children. Some people never escape them. But what I learned from my mother, whose home life was…unsatisfying, is that you choose every day what your own family will look like. Your domestic life does not have to be bound by what you were handed. And if you act with intention, you can create the kind of family that you decide to. It won’t always be easy to slip those chains, but it’s possible if you pay attention.

8. All kids lie. They do it instinctively and without being taught. And you’re a fool if you think you’ll always know it when your kid lies to you.

9. You’ll mess up, but with enough love, your kids will probably forget most of it. My mother insists she isn’t perfect, but I don’t remember these alleged mess ups (except that time you forgot to pick me up for gymnastics in Kindergarten). I pretty uniformly remember the good things. She helps me forgive myself on a daily basis for my motherly transgressions.

10. Never put a tile floor in the kitchen. Everything breaks if you drop it. Seriously, they’re the worst.

3 things

Right, so I’ve been on hiatus. From the blog I just started.

The bright side of that is that I’ve been so darn busy. Downside: less time for personal writing. So, in order to reverse the downward trend of unpaid writing (wait…what?), here are three things I love this week.

The Legend of Korra, Season Three.

The first two seasons were great, but this season three means bidness. Did I squee when I was watching it? Oh yes, I did. And then I laughed this nervous laugh because it was so good it reached ludicrous speed. I read somewhere it got dumped from the Nickelodeon lineup and ended up online – can you be too good for TV? I guess so.

The Mindy Project.

Comic antiheroes are hard. You can go to far into jerkland (House, MD frex) pretty easily, or lose your edge. For me, this show remains lightly but delightfully subversive, even in a middle of the road premiere.

Coffee.

There are probably millions of sentences dedicated to this precious beverage. Today, like most days, I take a moment to appreciate hot, bitter gold.

Work style and the eight to five grind

It turns out, I enjoy mowing the lawn. I used to enjoy punishing workouts on the treadmill, track, or elliptical, but since those aren’t in the time budget these days, I often get my exercise doing things that double as chores. When I mop the floor, however infrequently, that thing gets a power scrub. Then I fall into a chair and congratulate myself on my two birds approach.

The best part about the lawn, aside from the grueling nature of it, is that there is nothing else I can be doing. I don’t get distracted by the stray sock under the sofa and end up putting a load of clothes in the wash and then removing the ones in the dryer and then maybe folding a few and then fretting about the website I need to be working on and then…

It’s kind of a relief.

Working from home part time (for now) and trying to manage the home front has me thinking about the nature of work. There is a lot of research into learning styles for children, and a push for schools to accommodate this. And I’ll admit I haven’t researched this, but what about work styles? I think this is one of the factors that makes the freelance life so attractive.

Robert Reich has written a good deal about the on-demand economy, and there are some very serious concerns with it, especially regarding fair labor practices. But for so many people, it is the dream. It is both entrepreneurship and the ultimate individualism for some. I’m no exception.

The thing is, I started out loving my jobs – at least some of them. Sure, sometimes the human factor grated on me. I have a low tolerance, it seems, for mean people. But the best work environment I ever had was a small office with four other women, and we worked together marvelously. Even still, the job got stale. I loved the work. Believed in it passionately. The pay was crap, as happens at small nonprofits sometimes, but it was a great opportunity for that point in my career. It’s still most impressive job title I’ve ever had.

And yet…

What I now believe is that I have a work style that is incompatible with what office work requires. I can work – hard – with great bursts of creativity and productivity. But I can’t sustain it for eight hours a day, five days a week, on top of mundane tasks that never cease. I always, always get behind. And then my great bursts of productivity do less to get me ahead than to just stay caught up.

And now I just wonder if this is the basic contradiction that makes full time employment such hell for some people. Some people can work so hard at a furious pace day in and out, or so it seems. They relax at home, and that is enough. Now, some of us don’t expect work to be pleasant in any way; perhaps it is a function of privilege to even ask these questions, like Thoreau musing about “lives of quiet desperation.” But people are always looking at the tradeoffs with regard to work. Status, income, respectability, stability versus drudgery. I see inspirational articles and images all the time about following your passion, about mastering the thing you love and how the income will follow. About ditching the soul-killing job for freedom.

So for me, I was thinking about what made my jobs ultimately so unpleasant, even when I liked or even loved the work in theory, and this is what I’ve come up with: the rhythm of work. My rhythm is an erratic one that requires a natural ebb and flow in order to be most effective. Employers just don’t want to pay you for the ebb  that is necessary for the flow with me. And this is what freelance promises me. The idea that I can mow the lawn and ponder my article, and this is work.  That I can push to meet a deadline without the crippling guilt when I spend half an hour checking social media on my phone after, because this down time is necessary. I won’t be a six figure freelancer, most likely, but if I can make a living this way, then I really will be living the dream.

Are you fast and furious, slow and steady, or ebb and flow when you work? What styles have I missed?

 

 

 

 

The thing I’m getting rid of today.

I made the decision today that I’m letting go of guilt. It’s a funny thing – it never occurred to me before that I could.

I don’t remember where my guilt came from or why my burden of it seems to be unusually heavy. It could be the curse of the oldest child, perhaps, or tied to low self esteem. Or I could be a raging egomaniac, and my guilt stems from my unreasonable belief that I’m responsible for everything, because–well, just because. (If I were more technologically inclined, I’d insert a gif from Buffy the Vampire Slayer here, the one where a psychology major tells her she’s got an inferiority complex about her superiority complex.)

Who knows why some messages resonate with our younger selves, but the message of ‘take responsibility for your mistakes’ was clearly one that had me from hello. The problem was that I see my mistakes everywhere. No matter what the situation, I look first for the things I could have done differently to improve the outcome. I have a huge capacity to forgive and explain away the mistakes of others, but have found my own more stubbornly transgressive. (Spellcheck says that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it.)

A friend was talking about his recent significant weight loss, saying that what made the difference was that he finally just made the decision to do it. If only it was so easy, we all think when someone says that. Maybe it is.

I like to say that regret is wasted emotion, because of course we can’t change the past, but never saw that guilt is equally useless for the most part. If we have hurt someone, remorse can help us accept our fault and make amends where possible, but guilt is different to me. It’s emotional cutting, making oneself pay for sins over and over without redemption. All it really does is make me more likely to sin again.

I’m not going to stop taking responsibility and start assigning blame instead; I’m resolving to do something productive where I can, and keep looking forward when I can’t. I guess I thought making myself feel bad was the price of messing up. If no one else would make me pay, I’d do it to myself. But it’s not just wasted emotion, it’s counterproductive. It makes me less likely to do any good for anyone.

So today I’m shedding some weight, and in the end it was as easy as a decision to do it.