Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Wisdom of Peevie

I hate my mornings.  Forcing myself out of bed always feels like an insult to my body, no matter how much sleep I've had the night before.  And then getting the younger Peevies ready for school often feels like a battle for which I am unprepared and destined to lose.

M. Peevie can make a two-minute morning routine take half an hour.  Even though she's only nine, she loves the mirror, and she won't leave the bathroom until her hair looks exactly the way she wants it to look: side ponytail, bangs hanging over one eye, tendrils perfectly waved.  I don't know where she gets this from.  Certainly not from her mother:  there have been times when I've gone through half my morning before I realize that I totally forgot to brush my hair.  I'm not proud of this; it's just the way it is. 

Also, M. Peevie has no sense of urgency, until after we're already late getting out the door.  Then there are tears and regrets and promises to do better next time.

"I hate promises," I tell her, as I tell all my kids.  "Promises mean nothing to me.  You know what means something?  Doing it means something."

But some mornings contain moments of grace, and even humor.  Today, for example, I was trying to motivate M. Peevie to get up off her butt and get moving. "Wait," she said.

"There is no 'wait'," I paraphrased the Jedi Master, "There is only 'do'."

She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment.  "Shakespeare?" she said, guessing at the source of my wisdom.

"No, darling," I said. "Yoda."

"Oh," she said.  "My next guess was going to be Jesus."

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Faulty Science of Self-Esteem

All praise is not equal, but some praise is more equal than other praise.

This is the conclusion of recent research on the effect of praise on students in New York schools. The article How Not to Talk to Your Kids (New York Magazine, Feb.11, 2007) deconstructs the faulty science of self-esteem and offers practical, evidence-based suggestions for how parents can encourage and support their kids without inadvertently sabotaging their confidence or causing them to become risk-averse.  Parenting Science also deals with the topic of how to praise your kids. This unique website provides evidence-based parenting and child development information--complete with citations from scientific and medical literature.

"Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting," suggested Po Bronson in the New York Magazine article.  "We put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments."  Or we praise more in order to ease our own separation anxiety over relinquishing their care for all or part of the day.

The guy who exponentially kick-started the whole "praise your kids until they think they're one notch below Jesus" philosophy of parenting--which I have, until recently, uncritically embraced--was Nathaniel Branden with his seminal work, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969).  This is what started the whole ridiculousness of giving a trophy to every child who signs up for soccer, among other ill-advised self-esteem-building maneuvers.

So we all started hemorrhaging praise-talk to our kids:  "Oh, you drew such a pretty picture!" and "Oh! you're so smart!" and "My! what a huge booger you pulled out of your nose!"--and now, apparently, we've gone and done it.  We've screwed them up in new and improved ways:  for example, the article suggests that some students turn to cheating because they haven't developed a strategy for handling failure.  I don't necessarily buy this argument, though:  cheating has been around way longer than the psychology of self-esteem.

I do buy, however, the argument that excessive and inappropriate praise could rewire a child's brain to become risk-averse, and to give up rather than trying harder.  The article suggests that students "who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort."  One study demonstrated that those who were taught that the brain is a muscle showed improved study habits and math grades.  Persistence, it turns out, is "more than a conscious act of will; it's also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain." The brain can be taught, or rewired, through intermittent reinforcement, to choose persistence.

The culture of praise-parenting persists in spite of the research, one researcher said, because "When [parents] praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves." Hmmm. And ouch. I feel the sting of truth in that statement.

So what's a parent to do?  Stop praising and start ridiculing?  Heh.  No, silly.  Praise is still good--but it should meet certain criteria in order to avoid the Praise Pitfalls.  Praise should

  • be specific
  • be sincere
  • be about things the child can control--like effort rather than ability.  "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control [the researcher] explains. "They come to see themselves as in control of their success"
  • be less about accomplishments that come easily to them, and more about perseverance and hard work
  • not involve a comparison with other kids.

Now I have to go undo all the damage I've done by telling my kids that they are smart enough to cure cancer, athletic enough to win MVP in the big leagues, and creative enough to invent the Next Big Technology Thing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Grand Social Experiment Update: Fail. But Still Trying.

Four months in to the Grand Social Experiment, and my mini-me and I are the two who struggle the most with the not-buying-stuff pledge.  And Target is still my crack house.

I broke down twice in the past month.  At the Festival of Faith and Writing last April, surrounded by books and writers and words and stories, I bought a book.  One book; that's all.  I almost couldn't help myself; it was like it called out my name.  My Festival roommate Joovie didn't help at all, telling me I absolutely had to read it.  It's The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity With Spirituality in the Writing Life, by Vinita Hampton Wright.  So far I've only read a few pages, so I can't yet tell if it will alter my brain chemistry and change my life.

Then last week in The Crack House I found myself purchasing three plain light-weight cotton t-shirts for $6 each.  I justified the purchase by telling myself that my existing t-shirt stock is getting a little raggedy because I wear some combination of t-shirts every single damn day of my life.  My favorite, a black Chico's tee with 3/4-length sleeves literally has holes in it.  But I know that this was mere rationalizing.  I didn't need the new tees, per se.  If I wanted to stick to the literal pledge, could retire the holey one, and get by wearing my other t-shirts for another eight months.

I have not heard boo from any of the other Peevies about the pledge--except for M. Peevie.  This girl, like her mother, likes to buy stuff.  Plus, she has more disposable cash than anyone else in the household, and it is burning a hole in her pocket.  Mostly she wants books--but she also requests specialty clothing items, like rain boots (not strictly necessary, but have you seen how cute they are?), and art supplies like notebooks and markers.  We have so many notebooks and markers in our house already that we could open our own art supply store.

Mr. Peevie has saved the day in the book-buying department by taking the kids to the library regularly, and even managing to return our books on time so that we don't inadvertently purchase them.  M. Peevie has been whipping through chapter books like nobody's business; A. Peevie is working his way through the seven or eight Harry Potter volumes; and C. Peevie has discovered the Firebird anthology series of fantasy short fiction collections.

So we're plugging onward in our quest to become more aware of our consumerist mentalities, more grateful for what we have, and less influenced by whim and culture to buy stuff we don't really need.  If you ask the kids, and even M. Peevie, I think they'll tell you that it hasn't been too hard so far.  Clearly, that is not the case for me -- but my excuse is that I've been nurturing my inner Material Girl for 48 years now, and it's a hard habit to break.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

14 Shopping Days Left

Time to get shopping, people.  My birthday is June 2, and if there's one thing I have learned in my short time on earth, it's that you're never to old to love getting presents.  Here's my birthday wish list:

1. Stephen King's Under the Dome.

2. Bruce Cockburn's You've Never Seen Everything CD.

5.  A digital camera. This wish-list item is actually for the benefit of my Green Room readers, so that I will be able to offer enhanced blog-reading enjoyment through pixels.

7. World peace.

8. Donations to any of the following organizations:

9.  Comments on my blog posts.  I know this is hard to wrap, but it still counts, because it feels the same as getting a present.  It feels like love.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Mom, A Boy, and A Carpenter Ant

A carpenter ant as big as a lobster crawled across my kitchen floor.

"Ack!" I said  "Ack, ack!  Get it!  Kill it! Stomp on it!"  I don't like carpenter ants.  Regular ants, no problem.  I'll sweep them up and brush them out the door with nary a shiver or screech.  But those carpenter ants are so huge they make my palms sweat.

So my big strapping teenager, hearing my cries and instantly not caring, insouciantly looked down at Antzilla, stepped over him and started to walk away.

"Ack!" I reiterated.  "He's coming toward me! Step on him! Why didn't you step on him?"

C. Peevie looked at me like I was over-reacting.  Which I totally was not.  "I don't want to step on him with my new flip flops," he said.  "I don't want ant guts sticking to the bottom of my shoe."

I backed up slowly, but the gerbil-sized monster ant kept coming toward me, the ground shaking each time one of his six feet took a step.  I could feel the malice rolling off his tripartite torso in waves.

"Quick, C. Peevie!" I said urgently, "Before he gets away or goes under something!"

C. Peevie looked around for an appropriate ant-disemboweling weapon.  He opened the cabinet and pulled out a melamine dinner plate.  My eyebrows joined together in confusion. 

"You wouldn't step on him because it's too gross, but you can use a dinner plate to squish him?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, unconcerned.  "I'll wash it off."  He smacked the ant with the plate, and left the carcass quivering on the Pergo.  He then WIPED THE PLATE ON HIS SHIRT and started to put it back into the cabinet.

"You are NOT going to put that plate back in the cabinet!" I said in my most horrified tone, and I wasn't even hyperbolizing.  If that's even a word.

"What?" he said, "I wiped it off first."

"On your DIRTY SHIRT that you've been wearing all day!" I pointed out in a slightly less- than- calm voice.  "And without actually washing the ANT GUTS off it first!"

"What do you want me to do with it?" he asked.

"Either wash it, or put it in the dishwasher," I said logically.  Sheesh.  What do they teach kids these days?  I mean, I am THE WORST housekeeper ever, but even I know that if you use a dinner plate to squish a carpenter ant, you have to wash it before you eat off it again.

C. Peevie shrugged, put the plate on the counter, and started to walk out of the kitchen.  

"You're forgetting something," I said.  "Please don't forget to perform your aftermath clean-up."

He walked over to the insect remains and drew his foot back -- "Wait!  Don't!" I hollered -- and kicked them under the refrigerator.

"Oh, gross," I moaned.  "That is just wrong."  C. Peevie just laughed evilly as he walked through the doorway.

Clearly, I need to trade him in for a new son.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


What greater thing is there for two human souls
than to feel that they are joined together to strengthen
each other in all labor, to minister to each other in all sorrow,
to share with each other in all gladness,
to be one with each other in the
silent, unspoken memories?
                                                 --George Eliot

"What am I going to do with you?" I would ask Mr. Peevie, before he became Mr. Peevie.

"Fall in love with me and marry me," he would answer every time.  So I did.  I fell in love with him because he laughed at my jokes and made me laugh; he always made me feel like I was the smartest and most beautiful woman in the room; and the way he loved me pointed me to Jesus.

We were impecunious graduate students for whom a ten-year-old Chevy and a stereo symbolized great wealth; and my parents still had one child in college and a house that had lost a significant chunk of its market value--so we did the wedding on the cheap.  My borrowed wedding dress had to be altered for my narrow shoulders and slightly-less-than-average height.  The bridesmaids did not complain (much) about their green polyester skirts and floral blouses with lace around the square necklines, sewn by a local seamstress.

My pastor and my cousin performed the ceremony together, with my pastor doing the homily (I remember something about not fighting over who takes out the trash, but that's it) and my cousin officiated the vows at our church in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We were, I think, my cousin's first wedding as an ordained minister.  It seems to have taken.  So far.

The cake-and-punch-and-little-bowls-of-nuts reception in the church fellowship hall was like something out of Lake Wobegon.  After the photos and circulating and smiling and cake-eating, we headed to my parents' home for cold cuts and ambrosia salad with family and close friends.  It was simple and sweet and slightly dorky.

The next day we headed off to Cancun for our honeymoon.  We both promptly got sick with Montezuma's Revenge, and spent the next week fighting for the bathroom.  "Things can only get better from here!" we assured each other; and they have.

Thanks for 26 deliriously happy years together, honey.  Being married to you is a most excellent gift.  Here is another little poem in honor of me being the lucky one:

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.
                                              --Ogden Nash

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Forgiving the Unforgivable: a Review of The Hiding Place

Provision Theater made me cry.  Twice.  Jerks.

The Hiding Place, a play based on the book by Corrie ten Boom, tells the true and compelling story of the ten Boom family and their costly work with the underground resistance to hide and protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland during WWII.  My family and one other decided that there was no better way to celebrate Mothers' Day than by watching a play about Nazis and concentration camps.

We ignored the the warning on the company's website suggesting that the material might be too difficult for children under 10.  One of our under-tenners seemed to handle it just fine; but M. Peevie cowered in my arms with my hands over her eyes and ears for much of the play.  "Are there going to be real gunshots?" she asked, remembering the loud and scary moments from The Three Musketeers.

"No," I accidentally lied.  But there were.  And there was hitting and brutality and other mean stuff that when you see it on stage, with real people, can feel more scary and painful than when you see it on the big blue screen.

"If the Nazis had a report card for niceness, they would get all F's!" M. Peevie declared after the show.

But the story is, of course, ultimately redemptive.  The ten Booms risk everything to help Jewish families -- some friends, some strangers -- escape during the War -- and Corrie's father and sister Betsie paid the ultimate price.  "Hold everything in your hands lightly," Corrie said in her later writings, "otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open."

I cried twice during the show: first, when Betsie died in Ravensbruck, and again when Corrie forgave the Dutch informant who facilitated her family's arrest. She wrote this about this forgiveness

Even as the angry vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him....Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness....And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself.

Adapted and directed by Tim Gregory, the play is sometimes hard to watch because of the subject matter, but definitely worth it.  Lia Mortenson as Corrie strikes believable notes as a believer who sometimes doubts and often struggles to understand God's purposes and the teachings of her faith.  It's a big cast, and the other actors do a great job as well--except for the allegedly German-accented English was distracting and mixed up with some Russian and Eastern European accents. 

The Hiding Place is playing at Provision Theater through May 23.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Lesson in Apologizing

I learned something about apologies today.

I had grabbed A. Peevie's thumb playfully--but I accidentally hurt him, and he was mad at me.  "I'm sorry, A. Peevie," I said.  "I didn't mean to hurt you."  He was still mad, and not ready to forgive.

"You really, really hurt me," he said, cradling his injured thumb in his other hand.

"I know," I said, and again: "I'm really sorry.  I wasn't gentle enough."  He stared out the window, frowning.  I gave it another try, even though by this time I wanted to tell him to get over it, it wasn't that bad.

"A. Peevie," I said, "I'm sorry I hurt your thumb.  I didn't mean to do that."  No answer.  More frowning.  I gave up.

Several minutes later, I glanced back at him to see if he was ready to forgive and move on.  He still looked grumpy and unforgiving.  "I've already apologized three times," I thought to myself.  "Geez.  He really needs to get his Jesus on, forgive me, and get over it."

A song came on the radio, and I saw my opportunity to try to make peace one more time.  "A.," I said, "Who sings this song?"

"Green Day," he said in a smallish voice, like he was on the verge of liking me again; and that's when I realized several things about apologies:

1.  It's wrong-headed to keep track of how many times you've said "I'm sorry"  for the same injury.
2.  You may have to keep on saying "I'm sorry" until the person you've hurt is ready to hear it.
3.  To say "I'm sorry" once or twice or even several times, and then to unilaterally decide that you've apologized enough, is essentially the same as telling the other person how to feel--which Green Room readers will know is Just. Not. Right.  The unspoken message is, "You should not feel hurt any more; get over it."  It is not your prerogative to tell another person how to feel.

So I apologized again.  "A. Peevie," I said, "I really am sorry that I hurt you."

He smiled at me with gentle forgiveness on his face.  "It's OK, Mom," he said.  "I forgive you."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An Anti-Drivel Mothers' Day Post

I can't repost my recent rant about why you should stop saying "Happy Mothers' Day" without appearing to be a lazy blogger who has run out of ideas, so instead, I'll add these helpful quotes about mothers and their body parts:

Most mothers are instinctive philosophers.  --Harriet Beecher Stowe

Women who miscalculate are called mothers.  --Abigail Van Buren

It is quite surprising how many children survive in spite of their mothers. --Norman Douglas

My mother never saw the irony in calling me a son-of-a-bitch.  --Jack Nicholson

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.  --Mark Twain

It would seem that something which means poverty, disorder and violence every day should be avoided entirely, but the desire to beget children is a natural urge. --Phyllis Diller

Yes, mother.  I can see you are flawed.  You have not hidden it.  That is your greatest gift to me. --Alice Walker

I scrolled through about seven zillion quotes about mothers to come up with this list of quotes which have some relationship to my own reality, and which counteract the whole "mothers are perfect angels" drivel that fills the Internets this time of year.  Most of the quotes were gushy and overstated, like a Helen Steiner Rice poem multiplied by six Jewish proverbs.  I think we should appreciate and honor our mothers in ways that acknowledge their imperfect humanity as well as the parts of motherhood that they got right.  If Jeannette Walls can do this, so can I.

My mother was and is far from perfect.  But now that I'm a far-from-perfect mother myself, I have a lot more appreciation for her, and I see her sacrifices more clearly.  In my mind I can see her sitting on the sidelines of my field hockey games, wearing cotton pedal-pushers and white Keds, her blue hair glinting in the sun.  I know now that she probably had other things she'd rather be doing on a weekday afternoon other than getting her butt damp and grass-stained while I cleated around a muddy field in a kilt chasing a white ball with a stick. 

But she showed up, and when my friends said, "Hey, look at that lady over there with blue hair!", I was happy to say, "Yeah.  That's my mom.  She comes to all my games."

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Writing Life: Festival of Faith & Writing Recap

Two weeks out (or so) and I'm still processing the lessons learned at the Festival of Faith and Writing. Here are the highlights:

Michael Perry was humble, gentle, honest and funny as he described the church of his growing-up years, and his departure from his parents' fundamentalist faith. I cracked up when he said he learned to write by reading The Writers' Market chapters on "How to Write." I could have listened to him all day.

Scott Russell Sanders described essay writing as "a search for pattern and meaning." When he starts an essay, he said, he has an experience, or story, in mind, but not the meaning or purpose or point. These come out of the writing process, and are gradually uncovered or revealed as the essay develops.

I'm not sure I understand this. I might not be smart enough, or patient enough, or secure enough, to be that kind of writer, but I think it might be worth pursuing.

Then Wally Lamb took the stage. "We knew Wally Lamb was a pseudonym for a woman," the person who introduced him said, "because when we read She's Come Undone, we knew only a woman could have written it." Everyone in the audience nodded in understanding. "And then we read I Know This Much is True, and we knew he was also a twin," she continued. "And a schizophrenic."

Wally (can I call him Wally?) told us how a line of dialogue popped into his head when he was in the shower.  Out of that line of dialogue, he envisioned a character, and he started writing in order to find out who he was and what was going to happen to him.  Two years later, his first short story was published, and nine or ten years later, while still teaching high school, Wally Lamb published his first novel. 

Also? Parker Palmer is my new boyfriend. "I was born baffled," he says, and writing helps him sort of figure things out. "Writing is truth telling through questioning, through struggle," he said.  He discussed the analogies between faith and writing, and said, "God companions me as I navigate the dark places."  Everything that came out of his mouth was quotable, although I did not take notes and didn't write any of the quotes down.  Also, I fell asleep three times because JH kept me up talking the night before until three-fricking-a.m., and she kept having to nudge me awake.  I have not yet read anything he's written, but I think I might start with The Promise of Paradox.

Mary Karr was funny, honest and inspiring.  She reminded writers to do two things: Rewrite; and, unexpectedly, memorize poetry.  The woman has a memory like double-sided tape.  Everything sticks.  She recited poems easily, and she made me hear the difference between reading a poem from the page, and reciting it from the mind and the heart.

The Andras Visky play Backborn was strange, poetic, and completely non-linear.  It was virtually unfathomable to my Western mind, and yet I was strangely intrigued.  We discussed it at dinner, and the veils of cultural and intellectual ambiguity parted a tiny bit.

I talked to three editors about my incomplete book proposal.  One reluctantly stuffed it into her purse and said she'd read it.  Another referred me to an editor at a different publishing house.  And the third sat down with me like an editorial therapist, asking me questions about me, my background, and my proposal. 

And now I need to get to work, fleshing out the ideas of the proposal, and putting meat on the bones of the chapter-by-chapter outline.  The working title is Fight Nice: Restoring civility in public and private discourse, and the challenge is to make the topic of civility so engaging, so real and provocative and maybe even a bit humorous, that people will want to read it.

Wish me luck.