Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I'm From Here

When I went off to college, I chose a school six hours north of home. I thought my hometown was kind of boring, and I wanted a change. I loved my family, but I needed to separate from them. I swore I wasn't going to move back home after I graduated.

Ten years after I left college, I'm still living in my hometown. I moved back home for two reasons: one, I got a job in my old school district (which just happens to be one of the best in the state for music), and two, my boyfriend (now husband) whom I met at that college six hours north of home, happened to be "from here" too. In fact, we'd been at the same music festivals in high school, but hadn't met. It just seemed natural that we'd settle here; after all, both of our families were here, and we found it easier to get jobs here too. (To our credit, neither of us lived at our parents' houses for very long. I moved out after six months. You're welcome, Mom and Dad!)

Now that we've been settled here for a decade (wow, that sounds even longer than "ten years"), I'm happy we're here. I've learned to appreciate the beauty of the Hudson Valley. I don't associate the area with my childhood and teenage memories, because I've made memories here as an adult. Most importantly, I love being near both sides of our family. I appreciate having much of my husband's extended family in the area too, since all of my aunts, uncles and cousins have always lived scattered around the country. One of my husband's cousins became one of my very best friends (hi Jen!).

Sometimes, though, I wonder what would have happened if I (or we) hadn't come back home. Would I have stayed close to my own family? Would I have made strong relationships with my husband's family? What would that have meant for Edwin? Now he sees all of his grandparents at least once a week. How would their relationships with him have been different if we weren't living so close?

I also wonder how different my social life would be, especially where it overlaps with work. I admit that I've never made much of an effort to form a social circle at work. Other than a group of music teachers I'm friends with, I pretty much keep to myself. I like to keep my social life separate from my work life; it's one of my coping mechanisms for compartmentalizing the stresses of my job. Even though there are plenty of wonderful people at work with whom I am compatible, I've never felt motivated to make more friends because I'm pretty happy with the level of socializing I already do outside of work. Would this be different if I hadn't moved back to my hometown? Would my social life have revolved around work instead of family? Would I have wanted to take such an extended maternity leave, or would I have felt too isolated from my social family?

Everyone has had the opportunity, at some point or another, to either leave or stay. Which did you choose, and why? What do you think would have been different if you'd gone the other way?

In other news, I'm finally getting paid to write! One of my proposals was accepted on Elance. Writing career (or side career) here I come!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Re-kindling the Mommy Flame

I'm going to make a confession: I've been feeling a little burned-out, motherhood-wise, for the last few days. Edwin has been particularly difficult, fussing and crying more frequently and being unpredictable about everything from his nap lengths to how much he'll eat for dinner. It's been harder for me to do things around the house, let alone for myself, because he's been so much needier than usual. Yesterday he had two total meltdowns while we were out shopping with my sister, something he's never done in public before. (There's something about dressing rooms that he doesn't like.)

I love being a mother and I love Edwin, but I can't help but look back on our pre-baby time with a touch of nostalgia. I suppose that's only natural. Here, for my own re-kindling and your enjoyment, are some things I miss about being childless, along with some corresponding compensations for having a child.

What I miss: The freedom of being able to go out whenever I wanted, stay out as long as I wanted, and not have to bring fifty pounds of necessary stuff with me (not counting the baby).
My compensation: Having cute, often smiley company for walks and shopping trips.

What I miss: That moment when you wake up on your own and realize that you can go back to sleep for a couple of hours. 
My compensation: Snuggling with my son and having him reach for me at night. 

What I miss: Being able to pick up and go to our favorite vacation place for a spontaneous weekend getaway and not worry about how we can afford it.
My compensation: Experiencing our favorite places in new ways as we introduce them to Edwin; having vacations become more precious because they are more rare.

What I miss: Not having to plan my day around nap times and lunchtimes.
My compensation: Learning a new skill set that allows me to get things done in small, unpredictable windows of time.

What I miss: Doing laundry once a week or less.
My compensation: Getting that satisfied feeling of completeness when the laundry is done. (Okay, that one's a stretch.)

What I miss: Having to answer only to myself; not being needed so often and so much.
My compensation: The feeling of being the most important person in the world to my little boy.

My verdict? Of course, the compensations outweigh what I miss. I love my son and I'd never want to be free of him. But I do need to make some time to be on my own. I know I'll value it highly and it will leave me feeling refreshed. In the meantime, here's hoping that Edwin's "fussy time" will end soon, and that a new nap/sleep schedule will emerge from the chaos.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knowing Your Characters, Knowing Yourself

Sometimes I find it interesting to apply writing advice to real life. Here's a meaningful one:

Get to know your characters before you write. The story will write itself because the characters will tell you what they want to do.

Isn't that a great metaphor for real life? If you get to know yourself well, your life will be easier. You'll be more comfortable making choices and feeling good about the outcomes, because you'll know they're the right choices for you. You'll have confidence in your path because you'll know what your dreams and ambitions are. You'll have stronger relationships with others because you'll present a clear picture of yourself. Even if and when life hands you difficult situations, you'll know how to handle them in your own way.

This advice has worked for me, both as a writer and in real life. My stories always flow much better when I know my characters; they really do tell me what they want to do. And my life got much better once I understood my own personality, strengths and weaknesses, and dreams. It took most of my twenties to get to that point, but I feel good about myself now and I know where I want to go in life.

Spend some quality time with yourself today, and see what you learn!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Choosing a Baby Name- Part 2

In my last post, Choosing a Baby Name- Part 1, I told the story of how my son was named Edwin Michael Sowul. I explained our thought process over weeks and months until the day of his birth, and cited many reasons for choosing that exact name, including multiple family ties and letter symmetry. In short, I thought my husband and I had come to this major decision for our son completely on our own. It turns out, however, that I was somewhat wrong about that. Societal norms played a role as well.

The Freakonomics podcast last week was on whether a person's name has any bearing on the direction of her life. It had several segments stemming off the original chapter on names in the Freakonomics book. I'm not going to get into every segment, as it was quite a long podcast. The one that intrigued me most posited that certain types of parents choose certain names for their children, and their choices say more about the parents than about the children themselves. 

The researcher they interviewed on this subject claimed that parents proud of their intellect and erudite tastes tend to name their children in a way that sends a signal to other parents of the same type, such as choosing an obscure name from an obscure novel by J.D. Salinger.

In a similar vein, more down-to-earth people tend to name their children simple, traditional, American names. Girls' names are often popular and feminine; boys names are short and have strong consonant sounds. 

Based on this research and on the usual political values of intellectual vs. down-to-earth people, the researcher concluded that in general, liberals tend to choose more unique names, while conservatives choose more traditional names. In addition, liberals choose softer-sounding names for their boys, while conservatives go for harder consonant sounds.

Here's why I found this interesting. We named our son Edwin. Clearly, this is a liberal name. It's softer-sounding and more unique. This makes sense. My husband and I are both very liberal. We're those annoying snobs who watch Jon Stewart religiously, only read the New York Times, and yell at the TV when FOX news is on. (Well, I do that last one. My husband can control himself better.)

The funny thing is, our runner-up name, and the boy name I've loved since well before I was even married, is Jack. By the guidelines above, Jack is clearly a conservative name. It's short, has a hard consonant sound, and is very popular right now (Jack/Jackson was the second most popular name in 2012.)

So the question is, if we'd gone with Jack Sowul, would that have said something different about us? Would people have assumed us to be more traditional, conservative people? Does the fact that we chose Edwin instead tell the world that we're intellectual, liberal snobs? And does it even matter?

What do you think your name says about your parents? If you have children, what do their names say about you?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Choosing a Baby Name- Part 1

This week, on the Freakonomics podcast, there was an episode titled How Much Does Your Name Matter? It got me thinking about everything my husband and I went through when choosing our son's name. Here's the story:

In the past, I'd wondered at parents who chose their child's name and broadcast it to the world before he/she was even born. What if they changed their minds? What if a Brutus came out with narrow shoulders? What if a Brady didn't get his mother's red hair? True, maybe those parents didn't care about following stereotypes (more power to them), but I did. I didn't want to give my son the wrong name to carry with him through life.

So my husband and I decided to narrow our options down to three or four and wait until our son was born to decide for certain. We wanted to see him, hold him, and determine his name based on how he looked and felt.

As it turned out, that was a stupid idea, because when the moment came for us to name him, it was too overwhelming a decision. You can't tell a baby's personality or future based on how he looks minutes after being born. Furthermore, the name we gave our son turned out to be the first name we both liked and the front-runner throughout the process. So we might as well have just chosen it, stuck with it, and shared it with the world. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably do that. My husband says his first thought when my son came out was, "Why didn't we decide on a name?" In that moment, he could only remember one name out of our finalists, and it was Edwin, my grandfather's name.

I'd gotten the idea for naming Edwin after my grandfather months before. My Grandma Evelyn (Edwin's wife) passed away four years ago this week. In life, she was a very spiritual person, connected to the universe in a sometimes mystical way. Since her death, I've dreamed about her several times, and she always tells me things. Within a month of learning I was pregnant, I dreamed that she told me I would have a boy (this was well before the gender sonogram) and that I would name him after my grandfather. To this day, I'm not sure if she meant it as a prophesy or an order, but either way, it turned out as she said.

I instantly liked the idea of Edwin because I've always believed that there's a certain element of predestination in names, and I would love for my son to inherit some of the qualities I admire in my grandfather: humor, generosity, an easy-going nature, a love of learning, and a lot of brains, to name a few. Another more superficial reason for Edwin is the symmetry with our last name, Sowul. Both have five letters with a "W" in the middle. I thought that was pretty cool. After he was born, I added another reason: Edwin looks just like my husband and nothing like me, so I like that his first name, at least, is connected to my side of the family.

As for his middle name, Michael, that was a no-brainer. Michael is both my father-in-law's name and my Grandpa Markowitz's name. The "M" initial can also stand for both my parents' names. So Edwin Michael Sowul could not be more rooted in his family.

Our only hesitation with Edwin was that people might call him Eddie or Ed, which neither of us really like as nicknames. But so far, neither of those names seem to suit him at all, so there's no temptation for anyone to call him that. And why bother nicknaming Edwin anyway? It's short, and takes less time to say than "Eddie." If he wants a nickname, maybe "Win" would work. (Who wouldn't want their kid to be called Win?) I also wondered if Edwin would be too "old" a name for a baby, and it did feel that way at first, but now it seems to fit him perfectly.

So my husband and I had many reasons for choosing this particular name for our son. But there was even more behind the decision than I knew: societal influences that reveal our (not Edwin's) race, education, intelligence level, and even politics. 

Intrigued? Listen to the podcast, and stay tuned for part 2 of "Choosing a Baby Name"!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If You Love It, Time Will Come

People sometimes ask me how I find time to keep a journal, write a novel and keep a blog. Part of that is simple: I AM on maternity leave, so I have more flexible hours than someone who works full time. But I found time to do all of those things while I was working, too; the only difference is that my novel-writing progressed more slowly. One of the reasons I wanted to extend my maternity leave (besides, of course, being with my beautiful boy) was so I could keep doing those things. I am afraid of what will happen when I have to return to teaching and still be a hands-on mother. I am afraid that my writing time will vanish. So I keep reminding myself of this little mantra:

"If you love it, time will come."

It's not a perfect quote (making it like the Field of Dreams quote caused it to lose a little of its meaning), but it works for a quick reminder. It means that if you really love to do something, you will find the time. The passion that you feel will make it unacceptable for you not to do the thing you love, and you will figure out how to make it work. 

Yes, we all have responsibilities that sometimes require us to do things we don't enjoy for long stretches of time. Most of us have jobs that we aren't truly passionate about, but they pay the bills and support our families, so we do them. The happiest people are those who can make money doing what they love. But for those of us who aren't in that situation, or at least aren't there yet, remember that it's good to nurture your passions even if you don't know how much time you can devote to them. Everyone can find time to do something every day that they're passionate about. Even if what you love is travel, you can read a travel blog or look at cruise prices online. You can daydream. You can let your heart burn with desire for exotic places.

So even when I do go back to teaching, and my days are crammed full of score study, instrument repair and re-scheduling for state tests, and my after-schools are full of Edwin time, I'll still find my few minutes to write. Just as I make time for the people I love every day, I make time for the activities I love too.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I Love/Hate my iPhone

I've had my iPhone for over 2 years now and I can't imagine my life without it.
That's the same thing I say about my son.
I find that disturbing.

Why I love my iPhone:

- Text conversations are easy to read. I really like to text!
- I always have directions with me.
- My husband and I can share a virtual grocery list. (We used Grocery IQ for a long time, but it got too slow and frustrating, so we switched to AnyList.)
- If someone has a question about something, I can look up the answer instantly.
- I can take a ton of pictures of my son and save them on my phone to show people how cute he is.
- Three words: Words with Friends.
- The Twitter app, which I find easier to use than the actual website.
- I can listen to music and podcasts anywhere without headphones.

Why I hate my iPhone:

- The compulsive need to check my email when I see the little number increase, even though it's so rarely something I want to read.
- I only use about 10% of the apps on a daily basis.
- It's supposed to be a time-saver, but with all the extra things I can do with it, I end up wasting much, much more time than I save.
- It costs more to keep the data plan.
I'm addicted to it.

It's really only the last one that bothers me. I feel addicted to my iPhone. If it's on the table in front of me, and my hand is empty, I reach for it. I bring it with me all over the house: the bathroom (why not listen to podcasts while I shower?), the baby's room (what if my husband calls while I'm changing him?) the kitchen (what if I want to check email while I make dinner?). When I do put it down for a few minutes, I find myself compulsively checking if anyone texted or emailed me in that short space of time. These are not things I want to be feeling and doing. I want to be more present in the moment with my son, not dividing my attention between him and Facebook.

For awhile, I actually considered getting rid of it and going back to a regular phone. But I think the world is going the way of the smartphone, and I'm afraid of missing out on things if I dropped out. For example, I'd be less likely to use Twitter and thus less likely to promote my blog on it. I could miss out on growth opportunities that way. If I want to make money writing, I can't afford to ignore a potential audience source.

Also? My husband would kill me.

So instead, I'm going to make three resolutions:

1. I'm going to turn my iPhone off at least once per day. Currently, sometimes weeks go by without my turning it off.
2. I'm going to stop bringing it into the bedroom at night, unless my husband isn't home when I go to sleep. (We don't have a house phone, so that's just a safety issue.)
3. I'm going to try to keep it on the kitchen island as much as possible. That's a central location where I'd hear it ring, but it's out of reach when I'm in the living room.

Is anyone else feeling addicted to your smartphone? If so, join me in trying to break the hold. Let's turn them from a way of life into simply a useful tool.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why I Can't Sleep

I generally write posts with the audience in mind. I try to think of what people would enjoy reading about, and how I can make people think about something in a new way. But today I'm going to indulge myself and use writing to help figure out a major problem in my life right now:

Why can't I sleep???

Edwin has been waking up a lot more than usual for the past week or so. But I think I could handle that if I could get my own sleeping problems in order. Since the trouble started, I've been trying to go to bed around 9:30: a time early enough to theoretically get extra sleep, but late enough that I should be tired. I read for a few minutes and then shut everything off and put my head on the pillow. Then I toss and turn for an hour at least, sometimes much longer. Often I don't sleep until Edwin wakes up. Then I comfort or feed him or whatever I need to do, and after that I can usually drift off.

This same thing happened to me about two months ago, and it was fixed when I made a switch in my thyroid medication. But I haven't gotten any other symptoms and I think my dosage is correct for now. I'm going to ask for a blood test just to make sure, but I don't think that's the problem.

There have been a few extra stressful events in my and my family/friends' lives lately, and my mind has been more cluttered with anxious thoughts. So that could be part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is that work on my novel has stopped because I'm waiting to get notes back from my Gotham book editor. In the meantime, I've been working on the business side of writing: setting up a website, setting up a profile on Elance, and writing queries for magazine articles. These are all important, but not very creative. Without my characters, I feel a little lost. I believe that when you don't have enough positive thoughts, your mind fills the space with negative ones. Negative thoughts can keep me up at night. I need to find something positive to focus on again. Maybe it's time to write some short stories.

I think the root of the problem is Edwin's unpredictability. I have no idea if he's going to wake up again in two minutes or two hours, so I lie awake waiting for it. It's the "waiting for the alarm clock to go off" theory, except that I have no idea when it's going to ring.

Hopefully Edwin will settle down again, as he always does, and I'll get a few nights with fewer wakings, which should lead to more confidence on my end that he'll keep sleeping. There's not much I can do besides that, as I'm not capable of letting him cry. I just don't have the strength and there's no way I can sleep through it.

So, to sum up, I have to:

1. Get a blood test
2. Think more positively about the stresses in my life
3. Start writing short stories
4. Eat less sugar and drink less caffeine (it can't hurt)
5. Give Edwin a little whisky before bed (just kidding). (Though maybe if I had the whisky...)

Thanks for letting me write it out and wish me luck on solving the problem!

PS- The post on I Love/Hate my iPhone is still coming soon!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Being Mindful

I've been very stressed and tired over the past several days. There's not much I can do about the stress (it's mostly external) or the tiredness (it's mostly Edwin-related), but I thought there might be something I could do to keep myself calmer and more centered. I decided to embark on an experiment in living more mindfully. I thought that if I could focus on doing on thing at a time, I might not feel so overwhelmed.

I started experimenting last night. After a full day spent with family and food, I sat down to watch Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. This movie is an Easter tradition with me; I record it from TCM and watch it on Easter evening every year. It's safe to say I've seen the movie quite a number of times.

Generally, when I've watched something a lot, I reach for some additional form of entertainment after about five minutes or so, downgrading the movie or TV show to background noise. I start playing games on my iPhone, checking Facebook, or reading a magazine. I end up not giving my full attention to either the movie or the secondary distraction. How relaxing can that be?

So last night, even though I've seen Easter Parade about twenty times, I decided to resist all other distractions and be fully present while I watch it. And that's what I did. (Okay, I drank a cup of tea while I watched. But that doesn't really count.)

It was a little weird, sitting still on the couch, my hands wrapped around my hot mug of tea instead of flying over a keyboard or turning the pages of a magazine. But I enjoyed the experience. I noticed details of the movie I hadn't paid attention to before: Fred Astaire's clothes; Ann Miller's overdone makeup; Peter Lawford's raccoon coat and endearingly off-key singing. I was impressed by the job someone did in digitizing the movie- the color and clarity were excellent. And I felt myself relax, much more than usual. It was a good wind-down to the day, and even though it was only half an hour before Edwin woke up and I had to go comfort him, I felt more rested than I would have expected.

This week, I'm going to try harder to focus on doing one thing at a time, at least while Edwin's asleep. (While he's awake, I can never fully concentrate on what I'm doing, because I have to be aware of what he's doing too.) I'm hoping this experiment will help me keep my head clearer and my attention sharper, and maybe even feel more rested overall.

Stay tuned for part two of this topic, to be posted on Wednesday or Thursday this week, entitled I Love/Hate my iPhone.