Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Making Lists

Hello, my name is Leanne, and I am a list-oholic.

If that's not a thing, it should be.

I am addicted to list making. I make to-do lists every day, and edit them several times over the course of the day. I could not live without my digital appointment and list-keeper, iCal. It's the one window that is always open on my computer. In fact, I often neglect to shut down or even re-start my computer because I might need to access it. When I first bought my MacBook and discovered that my previous digital list-keeper, AnyTime, would not run on it, I practically had a breakdown. I obsessed about it for days, trying to find an Apple equivalent, before I gave in and adjusted to iCal. When I got my iPhone and found that the iCal app would sync and keep track of my appointments but not my to-do list, I remember saying, "Then what's the point of this stupid phone?" (I got over that quickly, though: I Love/Hate My iPhone)

Pre-computer, I used notepads and special PenTech pens. My favorite accessory throughout high school was my day planner. I spent an inordinate amount of time picking them out every year, and if I couldn't find one to suit my needs, I'd make my own. Nothing thrills me more than crossing out an item or checking a box, whether it be by pencil, pen or mouse click.

I once wrote a list of reasons for why I broke up with a guy. I kept the list to remind me of why I didn't want to be with him in case I ever weakened and thought about getting back together. (It worked.)

Have I convinced you that I have an addiction? Have I convinced you that I need help?

The thing is, I love being a list-maker. It keeps me on track with my goals and dreams as well as my regular household chores, and even helps me keep in touch with my loved ones. I do a lot of rescheduling. For example, today's to-do list included:

-Go to pharmacy
-Return books at library
-Vacuum upstairs
-Cook dinner
-Write in journal/reschedule
-Edit 10-15 pages of novel/reschedule
-Write blog post/reschedule
-Call Grandma/reschedule

Those "reschedules" remind me not to check off that I've completed that item for the day, but to reschedule it for the next time it's needed. All of the writing items are rescheduled for the next day, except the blog post, which is twice weekly. Calling my relatives and friends are often rescheduled weekly or bi-weekly. I wouldn't necessarily forget to call them, but it makes me feel better to know that I have a reminder anyway, just in case life gets busy and I allow too much time to slip by. As you can see, I rely very heavily on my list. It allows me to free my mind from the need to remember, and instead focus on accomplishing things. 

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I need to take a break from list-ing. I need to set it aside, close the window, and just live through a day or two without feeling so "on." I do this during vacations, of course, but other than that, I rarely take a break. I'm just too much of a list-oholic, and I don't know how to break the hold. I don't even really want to.

I wrote a short story last year called "Sunday Girl" about a woman named Susie who had to, simply HAD TO accomplish everything on her list every day, no matter what. She did it at the expense of her marriage and other relationships, and even her own health. (The "Sunday" part of the title referred to the day she sat down and planned out her entire week, down to the last workout and cello-practicing session.) She was a great character, but I never came up with an ending for the story, because I didn't know how she would break the habit, never having broken it myself.

What do you think? Do I need to break my list habit if it's helping me live the life I want? Or am I actually missing out on life by spending time making lists? How would I break the habit, if I wanted to? Is anyone else out there a list-oholic? Maybe we could start a group.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Old Normal

The other day, I went to get a blood test. I have to get my thyroid levels checked every couple of months, so blood tests are pretty routine for me. I wouldn't say that I enjoy the experience, but it's such a nonissue for me that I don't really think about it. If someone told me I had to have a blood test every day for the rest of my life, I'd be annoyed at the scheduling inconvenience it would cause, but the actual stick-a-needle-in-my-arm part wouldn't bother me at all. It's almost like a game to me, where I do everything a split second before the phlebotomist tells me to. I tell her which arm has the best (only) vein. I point to the exact spot where that vein is. She tells me, "Make a fist. Squeeze it." I'm already doing it. If the blood isn't flowing into the tube, she tells me, "Pump your hand open and closed," but I'm already doing that too. I know when to release my fist and the exact second to apply pressure when she takes the needle out. I'm pretty sure I could be a phlebotomist myself.

This particular day, I'd just had a conversation with my endocrinologist in which she said something about how, after having cancer at such a young age, I must be tired of going to doctors and having medical tests done much more often than the average person. I was surprised at the question; I told her that I'd never thought of it that way. I just deal frequently with the medical side of life. First my parents took care of it for me, and then it gradually became my job. Now it's sometimes a nuisance because I have to answer the babysitting question each time I make an appointment, but it still feels like a normal thing to do.

People sometimes refer to a major lifestyle change as "The New Normal." I've been doing this stuff so long that I didn't even remember that it wasn't normal. I guess for me, it's "The Old Normal."

Here's the thing, though. That feeling of "no big deal" when it comes to medical procedures is not transferrable to family members. After the conversation with my endocrinologist, when I was waiting for my blood test, I heard a baby crying inside the lab. As a nursing mother, I couldn't help but listen and feel my heart ache for the poor baby and her mother. The little girl cried for a long time, and then her mother carried her out, pushing a stroller with her other hand. She was a very small Asian baby, maybe 4 or 5 months old, younger than Edwin, and she had little bandaids all over her skin, as if the phlebotomist couldn't find a vein. My heart just about broke for her, and I wondered what condition she was being tested for. I felt awful for the mother, too. I couldn't help but put myself in their situation, and I wondered, would it be easier for me to deal with Edwin having medical tests done because I've had them so often myself? Would I be able to talk to him calmly, tell him "it's no big deal," and really mean it? Or would I feel each stick of the needle as if it were my own skin? Would my personal medical nonchalance make it easier or harder for me to witness these things as a parent?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know this: seeing my child in pain could never, ever become "The Old Normal."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Marriage Review System

My husband's and my wedding anniversary is tomorrow. We've been married for four years, though we've been a couple for more than eleven, so the four years doesn't feel very long in that context. In those eleven years, we've been tested by difficult situations, and found we were stronger together than we were separately. We've experienced good news and new adventures, and found we were happier sharing those things with each other. We've laughed much more than we've argued, and we've never stopped respecting and being proud of each other. I've always been certain that, though we are very different people, Nick is my perfect match, my balance, my soulmate, if you will. (Or Sowul mate, one of my favorite twists on our last name.)

I think a lot about relationships in general, so it's not strange that I spend time trying to decipher what makes our marriage good, and how to keep it that way. This year, Nick, as a New York State public school teacher, has been required to do an Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that evaluates and grades his teaching performance. This new evaluation system seems to be attempting to make a school more like a private corporation, as I assume most employees at corporations have to do yearly performance reviews. I don't object to them; I think evaluating one's work is important to professional growth. (I do object to how teachers are being evaluated, as they have much less control over their product- a child's capacity for learning- than a corporation has over the quality of their bicycles or tax preparations or what-have-you. But that's another post.)

Americans are great at putting systems in place to evaluate people in the workplace. But no one's ever suggested that we should similarly be evaluating our personal relationships. This would, of course, have to be a voluntary thing, but I think it's a great idea. Americans have more success sticking to careers than they do to marriages. If we gave ourselves yearly evaluations, maybe we would have more happy marriages. At the very least, we would all be more aware of, and in tune with, our personal relationships.

We could call it the M.R.S. Marriage Review System. (Get it? The Mrs.?)

Each evaluation would have to be unique to the couple, of course. Some would prefer to have a simple discussion; others might want to answer a series of questions. A simple jumping-off point might be to ask your spouse, "Are you happy?"

I'm not a relationship expert, of course. But if you find this thought even a little intriguing, talk to your spouse about it. An anniversary is a good time to think about whether you're happy with where you are and in what direction you're headed.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thank You, Television

My husband and I finished the last episode of The Office yesterday. Though I wasn't impressed with the episode itself (it was a little sappy for my taste; the Michael surprise was nice, but it didn't feel like Steve Carell was in character) it did make me nostalgic. The wonderful thing about TV shows is that the characters become part of your life in a much more permanent way than in a movie or even a book (possibly excepting a book series). They become to feel like your family and friends, and you look forward to seeing them every week. It's like getting together with people you care about for good times and laughter, without any social pressure on you.

Certain TV series have gotten me through rough times in my life. The first show I ever became completely addicted to was Friends. I didn't start watching it until my junior year of college, which was late in its eighth season. The next semester, I was student teaching a few hours away from my family and friends, and I was often lonely and bored. Renting Friends on VHS (yes, VHS) from my local Wegmans and watching re-runs on TV made me feel happy and comforted. It may have even saved me from feeling depressed. I watched the finale of Friends from the living room of my roommate's house my first year out of college and on the job. It was the first place I lived that my parents didn't contribute to, and I remember feeling proud and independent as I watched that finale.

A couple of summers later, when I lived alone in my one-bedroom apartment, I watched What Not to Wear every day at 12:00 while I ate my lunch. The emotional transformations of the women on the show inspired me to higher self-esteem and self-confidence. (I also picked up a lot of tips that I still use on how to dress my body shape.)

As a result of issues with my thyroid medication (combined with difficult life events) I've suffered periods of depression, sometimes brief, sometimes lasting up to a year. It's surprising now, considering how happy and fulfilled I am living a life with many interests and hobbies, but there have been times in the past when I could only manage to go to work, come home and watch television. Shows that lifted my spirits during those times were I Love Lucy, How I Met Your Mother, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Simpsons. 

Several shows got me through my pregnancy. During the first trimester, when I felt so sick I could barely get off the couch, I watched Gossip Girl and Greek. (Not great shows, but they did make me feel pretty and thin for a few minutes.) During the last trimester, when I spent too many evenings bored at home, my husband and I watched a lot of The West Wing (we actually watched an episode or two in the hospital while I was in labor) and re-runs of Deal or No Deal (I'm kind of obsessed with how brilliant that show is). I remember those evenings fondly, watching TV and playing gin rummy, balancing the cards on my huge stomach. It was the last time we could count on watching an entire show without getting interrupted by Edwin.

The Office was special because it was the first show that my husband and I really bonded over. Before that, he was Seinfeld and I was Friends; he was The Sopranos, and I was Sex and the City. But after my first episode ("Diversity Day", which made me want to cover my eyes in shame for Michael Scott) I fell in love with it as much as my husband did. Watching that show became a special bond for us, and over the years we've started to enjoy more and more shows in common (The Daily Show, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation, to name a few.)

So it's the "end of an era" (yes, I stole that from Friends) for the Office. I'm grateful to that show and to all of the others that got me through some tough times.

Have you ever turned to TV during trying times of life? Which shows did you choose?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why Little Decisions Matter

I'm the kind of person who needs to know what I want out of life. I need goals, dreams, a direction. I need to know what I want my big picture to be. For a few years in my twenties, I didn't have that. I knew I wanted to be married to my husband and stay close to my family, but other than that, I felt stuck. It was a terrible feeling and I resolved that I would never again allow myself to feel lost. In general, once I have my big picture, I'm good at making big decisions. If they fit in with my goals and dreams, they're a yes. If they don't, they're a no. Sometimes it takes a little while to work out (see 5 Things to Do When Making a Big Decision) but in the end, I'm happy with the result.

I am not, however, good at making little decisions. If I go to a bookstore, I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to read and sometimes leave without buying anything. If someone says, "What kind of takeout do you want for dinner? I'll get whatever you want," I instantly feel paralyzed. (Incidentally, this kind of thing happens a lot, because my husband and my dad both spoil me.) I need my choices narrowed down before I can make a decision.

Though it doesn't happen often, the converse is also true: I can't make a decision if there are too few options. I've been having trouble deciding what to wear recently because, though I can now fit into all my pre-maternity pants (YAY!), most of my shirts are stretched out from wearing them over my pregnant belly last spring. So I end up repeating a lot of outfits, which doesn't matter much to Edwin, but it bothers me.

Unfortunately for me, while choosing a takeout place or an outfit doesn't seem to matter much in the scheme of things, spending time on the little decisions does have a cost. If I spend ten minutes a day thinking about what to wear, that's ten minutes that I'm not thinking about the topic for my next blog post. I could start writing a post in my head that will be recorded online forever, and works toward my overall goal of being a professional writer, but instead I'm worrying about which pair of shoes to wear. It is rumored that Albert Einstein wore the same thing every day. If it meant he had more headspace to devote to E=mc2, I think that was the right choice.

So what's the solution? I need to find the right number of choices for things I do on a daily basis, and a system for making less typical choices. In terms of meals, 2-3 possible things to eat makes me feel like I have variety but doesn't take long to think about. In terms of exercise, I do most workouts on certain days of the week, with some variations for weather, so that doesn't take much headspace either. In terms of clothing, I guess I need to buy more shirts.

For less typical choices, the strategy gets trickier. Do I limit myself right off the bat? My sister and I used to use a system for choosing a movie to watch. One of us would pick 4 or 5, and the other would narrow it down to the final choice. That worked well for a group decision. When it's just me, I can try to pick a category and narrow it down from there. That used to work on regular library trips: Choosing Books.

What kinds of decisions are you best at? Are you spending the right amount of time on the little decisions, or are you letting them take over your time to think, dream and plan toward what you really want out of life?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love Another Mother

In writing a Mother's Day post, the simplest thing I could do is remind everyone to value their own mothers or take time to be grateful for their children. I could have written a nice little story about things my mother taught me and applied it to my own first experience of being a mother, and that would be that. Simple, honest, loving.

Instead, I'd like to point to something that I think needs some societal attention: mother-to-mother negativity.

We modern women are very hard on ourselves. We expect ourselves to have full careers, beautiful homes, strong marriages, and perfect children. At no point in women's history have we been more successful, but at no point have we faced more of a challenge to "do it all." Because of this, women often take their own feelings of inadequacy out on each other. In a recent high-profile example, editor of "Real Simple" Kristin van Ogtrop trashed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, despite the fact that Sheryl and "Real Simple" are both about empowering women, albeit in different ways. Women commit this crime on a daily basis. We gossip and criticize. We pass judgement on others without knowing the full story. I am just as guilty of this as other women. It's in our natures, or at least our collective nurtures.

I say: let's fight it. Let's fight the urge to go negative on other women, and particularly on other mothers. Everyone thinks they know the one best way to raise children, even though we should be aware that each parent-child combination contains a completely unique set of personalities, problems and outside support. If you believe strongly in breast-feeding, that's wonderful, but it does not give you the right to tell a bottle-feeder that she's depriving herself and her child. If you used the "cry it out" method to get your children to sleep, don't pass judgement on the mother who feels she needs to sleep next to her child. For some children, for some parents, that's the only thing that works. If you go back to work after three months, and your co-worker takes an extended maternity leave, neither of you is a better mother or better worker than the other. You're each making the decision that is best for you and your family.

Let's say you're out in a restaurant and a child is screaming at the next table. It's disagreeable. You might want to say to your dining companion, "Why doesn't she take her kid out of here?" Instead, look at the mother and smile. This might be the only chance she had to catch up with a friend. Maybe she had a babysitter, but it fell through. She's not getting the opportunity to enjoy a lunch that might be an unusual treat for her. She's probably feeling stressed and embarrassed at her child's behavior. Instead of judging her, support her. (And try to distract the screaming child, if you can!)

Give your mother, grandmother and godmother plenty of love and appreciation today, but don't forget to extend some positivity to other mothers, be they friends, co-workers or strangers in a restaurant. We all have our own stories, our own difficulties. We all work hard to be the best we can be for our children, spouses, parents and employers. Let's not have to work to impress each other, too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Games and Dreams

Sometimes it takes a long time to get my son to sleep. I walk him around the room, rocking him in my arms, humming or shushing until his eyelids droop. This can get kind of boring after awhile, so I play little games with myself. I name all the Presidents of the United States in order, or all fifty states (it's harder than you think). I think of all the authors or composers I know whose names begin with a particular letter, or I make up stories about the rest of a character's life after a novel ends.

My favorite game was suggested to me by my sister a few weeks ago. She told me the story of a man who would write down 25 things that happened each day that he was grateful for/happy about. Then he would put the list under his pillow and fall asleep thinking of those things. This is a wonderful exercise! I don't write them down, but just naming the 25 things in my head as I walk back and forth seems to make my spirits lift, my heart rate slow down, and my son feel lighter in my arms. Even when I've had a bad day, I can still find 25 things to be grateful or happy about. They don't have to be big things. Items on my lists recently have included green on the trees, listening to bird calls, my son's funny expressions, and my husband giving me a back rub. It only takes a few minutes, but it seems to help me process every day in a positive way.

I also have to use games like this to help ME get to sleep sometimes. If it was easy to get Edwin down, I might play the 25 Things game as I'm attempting to drift off. I also like to think about my dream house. I have two: a big sprawling ranch in Colorado, and a small cottage on the coast of Maine. I imagine what each room would look like and what kind of lifestyle I'd have there. (Colorado: hiking, riding horses, a gourmet kitchen, lots of fireplaces, and an outdoor hot tub; Maine: biking to town for groceries, spending the day writing on a screened porch smelling the salty air, a big lovable dog at my feet, and my husband cooking dinner every night on a butcher block island.) If I really can't sleep, I pull out the big dream: what I'd wear to the premiere of the incredibly successful movie adapted from my novel. (That's what dreams are for, right?)

What do you think about during the parts of your day when your mind can wander? What do you dream about before you go to sleep?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Writing My Fears (Why I Didn't Want Children)

This past December, I wrote a post called Reading Your Fears. I've reached the next level: writing my fears.

I'm struggling a little with the current draft of my novel. The novel is written from four perspectives: two younger women named Rachel and Hannah, one younger man named Billy, and an older woman named Greta. I'm happy with the four characters and how their stories compliment each other. Now that I'm getting down into the nitty-gritty, though, I'm focusing on making each of their voices (the way they think and talk in the context of the story) feel unique. Rachel and Hannah are easy, because I feel I know them so well, and they are, for the most part, extensions of myself (Rachel is more like my teenage self, and Hannah more like my adult self). Billy isn't too difficult either, though it's always a challenge for a female author to write a male voice. The character I'm really struggling with is Greta, the older woman. For long time, I couldn't figure out why. I just knew that writing in her voice felt uncomfortable, like an actor performing a character completely foreign to himself, or a musician playing a secondary instrument.

Well, I've finally figured it out, and it only took a conversation with my friend a few days ago, a scary incident involving my son cutting his toe, and letting my mind wander during yesterday morning's workout. In the middle of my balance-ball squats, I had an epiphany:

I'm uncomfortable writing Greta because she embodies my greatest fear.

When the novel opens, Greta is a deeply unhappy person. Her only son died a few years previously (this isn't too much of a spoiler; I won't tell you how old he was or how he died.) She loved her son as deeply as any mother can, and now that he's gone, she has nothing to live for. She's distanced herself from her husband and co-workers. She has no comfort, and most importantly, no hope for the future. She's merely existing day-to-day.

That is my greatest fear.

A few years ago, I went through a period of time when I didn't want to have children. It wasn't that I wasn't ready, or didn't think my husband and I could handle it, I just didn't want them. I even saw a therapist about it, because I didn't understand what my issue was; when I was younger, I always thought I would have children. One night, I had a major break-through while watching a news special about children with terminal illnesses making jewelry to raise money for other sick children. I started to cry, and it was at that moment that I recognized why I didn't want children: I was afraid. I was afraid that my children would become ill, like I was. I saw what my cancer did to my parents; I didn't want that happening to me. I didn't think I could bear the pain of loving a child so much and watching him be seriously ill or even die.

After awhile, I realized that I didn't want to hold myself back from a wonderful, life-changing experience just because I was afraid of what might happen. My husband often assured me that if something terrible did happen, we would be able to handle it together, and that helped a lot. About six months later, I decided I was ready to take the leap, and Edwin was born the year after that.

But losing Edwin is still my greatest fear, and that's why Greta is so hard to write.

Strangely enough, now that I've realized my problem with Greta, I think it's going to be much easier to write her. The author Jodi Picoult has said in interviews that she writes about the things she fears as sort of a talisman against them happening to her in real life. Maybe writing Greta will be sort of a therapy for me. Maybe knowing she's inside me will be my talisman against my greatest fear.

Maybe the act of writing this post released my fear to the world.

How can you release your greatest fear?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Appreciating the Magnolia Tree

Last week, Laura Vanderkam wrote a post about savoring the bloom of the magnolia tree. The value of the magnolia tree is not only in its beauty, but in the brevity of its bloom. If we let other things sidetrack us, if we let the short window of its pink-flowered life pass by, we won't get another chance (at least not this year).

This weekend, my husband and Edwin and I went to visit the blooming magnolia at my in-laws' house. It was in full flower, a gorgeous shade of pink. My mother-in-law ended up getting some fantastic pictures of us with Edwin beneath the tree. Hopefully, we can be there same time next year, to take more pictures and compare Edwin's growth.

Enjoying the magnolia during its brief window of bloom made me think about savoring the stages of Edwin's development. Right now, he's going through a bit of stranger anxiety. If he hasn't seen a face for a little while, that face better not get too close, because Edwin will crumple and start to wail. When that happens, his arms fly out to wrap around my neck and he burrows his tearful face into my shoulder.

I'm probably supposed to be bothered by this stage, or at least feel sorry for the person Edwin cries over. But I'm not. (Okay, I do feel bad when it's a close family member.) I'm loving the fact that my son is securely attached to me, that I'm the one who can make him feel better, just by being there and holding him. I'm loving that his arms fly around my neck and his face nestles into my shoulder. I'm loving the role of boo-boo kisser and protector from strange people. I don't have to be a veteran mother to know that life is short and this time goes all too quickly. Before I know it, he'll be toddling off on his own. Then will come the day when he wants to be left alone to play. And finally, the heartbreaking moment when he asks me to not drop him off right in front of school and please, mommy, don't kiss me goodbye.

My son's window of needing me might be longer than a magnolia's bloom, but it's even more precious, and I'm going to keep appreciating it until the last flower drops.