Proud

Whenever I drive around, I see bumper stickers with something like “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” or I see an elite college on the back of the car for all to see. I get that people are proud of their kids, but it reminds me of all the senseless bragging on social media: “I’m just so blessed that little Timothy got into all eight Ivy League schools.” Or the endless hashtags: “#proudmama”, “#howdidIgetsolucky” and on and on. I think, though that in addition to too much bragging, we’re focusing on the wrong things. What about accomplishments that have nothing to do with grades and college or Division 1 championships? Those are the things that matter most to me.

This week has been one of those harrowing weeks in which my husband has been away on business in China, my daughter was on a school camping expedition for two days, then home for three and then off today for 10 days in Spain for another school trip. The exterminator came twice, my son had an SSAT class, then a math tutor, my daughter was the photographer at the school prom, my daughter had a cello lesson and then a tennis lesson, and my son will have had two soccer practices and two soccer games this week. In addition, one of my son’s friends had a family crisis that involved my intervention and both kids had hours and hours of end-of-year homework. In addition, my son decided he wanted to write an original music based on kids riding the rails in the Great Depression and needed me to write some of the music for his presentation– since it’s being considered for the school’s musical next year. And we had a lot of yard work that had to get done, in addition to packing. Did I mention that in all of this, I had to prep for my first professional gig in 12 years, in addition to my coaching business?

Here’s what made me proud this week. I needed to get a few hours of yard work done before Thursday morning, which was Trash Amnesty Day, meaning the town would take extra trash and yard waste. I asked my kids to help out and they ended up working in the yard until 8:30 at night, asking me to go inside after a while, since I was so exhausted from everything else, and then they finished up without me. I didn’t pay them, but they just pitched in and made it happen, even though they still had hours of homework. I needed them and they came through. In addition, one of my kids’ friends called late on Thursday night in crisis and my son was calm and supportive to him, since the boy was depressed, and also suicidal. I got on the phone and talked to him as well and then called the school the next day to talk to the school psychologist who then talked with him. She will get help for him. But it was my son who was there for his friend when he felt like he had no out. That makes me proud.

To find your world stage, forget the values of social media, which are mostly fake anyway. Remember that how much money you have or where your kids go to college or what you do for a living– those are all superficial things that in the end don’t matter. What matters is helping out your family and being a good friend. And this week, my kids showed me that they understood what mattered, and that makes me incredibly proud.

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Soccer Lessons

When I was little, soccer was just coming to the States as something big in California, and by the time I was in third grade, most of my friends played it. I remember playing in the hot fall sun, running up and down the field and following the ball, since I didn’t know how to hold my position, and my grandfather asking my mother if I was going to have a heart attack because my face was beet red. In one of my first games, I scored two goals, which thrilled me since my dad took me out for ice cream sundaes to celebrate. Soon after, however, the coaches realized that I could kick far and was better on defense. I became the full back sweep, the last person before the goalie. I prided myself on protecting the goal and clearing the ball down the field. I ended up playing five years through my childhood and one year in high school before I hung up my cleats. I wasn’t the best player– some of those went on to Division 1 soccer in college– and I wasn’t the worse. But I loved it.

Because it was the seventies and eighties, my coaches were mostly women, some of whom had never played soccer, since the boys got the more experienced coaches. The coaches I had for most of my years were a team of two women, one of whom, my main coach, was disabled. She had an aggressive form of MS, so each year she coached us, she was less mobile. The first year she tired easily, which is why she had her assistant to help. By the last year, she came to practices in a walker. I never saw her kick the ball, and I’m not sure the assistant was much better at soccer, but they knew how to coach, we did well as a team, and most importantly we also learned a lot about life.

When my daughter was in second grade, I decided that I wanted to coach my own team, not because I had been a great player, but because soccer had taught me so much that I wanted to pass on. When I got my team list, which was supposedly a “random, computer-generated list” I realized that I was given all the beginners except my daughter, who was a strong player. (My husband, who understands statistics, reminded me that this was not random, but generated by a mom who worked for the town and wanted her daughter on a team of stars.) I had 14 six and seven year-old girls, and part of the challenge was getting them to focus long enough to learn the game of soccer, in between chatting and cartwheels. We were the Bad News Bears of soccer, inexperienced and expected to lose, but the good news is that none of the parents were pushy, because these families wanted their girls to have fun, not to push them to get on travel soccer by age eight.

The nice thing about our team is that no one expected us to do very well– I wasn’t a known coach and the team had almost no talent, or so people thought. I read books and watched videos about how to coach, and every week we had circle time before our practice started where we made sure the girls knew each others’ names in the early weeks, and could talk about what was working and not working on the team in later weeks. We played both in the fall and the spring, and each week the girls got better and better, so that in the final game, which was the championship against the hardest team– the team that had all the star players– I reminded my team that I was proud of them no matter what, but that since no one was expecting anything of them, this was their chance to shine. And shine they did. We won, to the other teams’ shock. We won in spite of rain and mud and injuries and the other team so sure that they were going to win.  I have never seen such a triumphant group of little girls, their white shirts covered in mud, with huge toothless grins on their faces.

My daughter is back playing soccer in high school, having taken a few years off, since she and we didn’t want her to enter the intense world of travel and club and select soccer. My son, however, begged us to be on the travel team, so finally he tried out at the end of 6th grade for the last two years of the program. His team plays hard and he’s improved as a player, but the boys aren’t particularly nice to each other and after months of playing don’t really talk to each other off the field. Most of the parents and many of the team just aren’t friendly, as though we are rivals of some sort, competing for the few soccer scholarships handed out, when in reality most of these kids will never play Division 1 or professionally. I’m not the first to point out that youth sports, particularly soccer, has completely lost its way, which is sad to see, because the lessons I learned have served me my whole life.

Soccer is so much more about “going for it” in general than it is about scoring goals.  It’s about your personal best, even if that isn’t perfect.  It’s about embracing the process of learning, not the end result, about learning grit and being kind to yourself when you make a mistake or lose, and being gracious when you win. It’s about friendship and fun and team work, and realizing that we all have an important position to play. These were the messages my coaches passed on, two older women whose kids had been long grown but loved being part of little kids’ lives. How to play became less important than how to be on a team, how to be in the world, how to show up on a field and go for the goal, whether you make it or not.

 

Some of my team in 2011– my daughter is the tallest in the middle.

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Innocent Bystander

When I was in college and taking Psychology 101, I never forgot learning about the Kitty Genovese case, which took place in March 1964. A 28 year-old American bar manager was stabbed to death in her apartment building in Queens. Over 30 witnesses either saw or heard the attack, but none called the police. This ultimately became known as the Bystander Effect or Genovese Syndrome. Here’s what Wikipedia states: “According to the principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If it is determined that others are not reacting to the situation, bystanders will interpret the situation as not an emergency and will not intervene.” We tend to need “social proof” to know how to react. During the Asch Conformity experiments, one line was written on the board and compared to three other lines, one of which was clearly the same length. And yet, the room was completely filled with actors except for the one student, and the actors kept giving incorrect responses. Ultimately the lone student would switch his answer to conform to the others even though it wasn’t right. 

This week, I had two experiences with being an innocent bystander and having to act even without social proof. Last Sunday, I was in Boston walking down one of the busiest streets filled with lanes of cars. I happened to see an old couple standing on the curb next to a parked car. At first, I assumed they were going to get into that car. But then I realized that they were peeking out into traffic and trying to figure out how to cross when they weren’t at a crosswalk and the man was using a walker. My first reaction, as it is for many people, was that I was sure they knew what they were doing and I didn’t need to intervene. I figured that they would make their way over to the crosswalk. But a little voice nagged at me, so I asked them if they needed help. They said no, but they clearly weren’t moving toward the crosswalk. It would have been tempting to move on, but I felt like they were in over their heads. I said, “You know you should really cross at the crosswalk, since it’s much safer” and the woman said, “My husband can’t walk well and we can’t walk that far.” They clearly were wanting to cross right then and there in front of three lanes of traffic. So I said, “Maybe you should at least wait until the cars have a light, so the street will be clearer.” But the woman was in a hurry for some reason and didn’t want to wait. So I took a breath, walked in front of them, put my hand out to traffic, and miraculously the entire crowded Boston street stopped, with no honking, as I stood there with my umbrella in the middle of the street in the pouring rain, and the couple slowly made their way across the street. It felt like a scene from a movie in which a person is standing in the street and all the cars are silently stopped. I was grateful that I chose not to be an innocent bystander while that couple crossed the road, because I would have felt horrible if something had happened.

And two days ago, I witnessed my son’s soccer practice, in which one kid was being bullied by the whole team, right in front of me and two of the coaches. The kids were shouting mean things to this boy, about how they thought he was a lousy player, and laughing at him and refusing to pass to him. He just stood there and took it. I kept thinking that someone would intervene and yet no one did, not even the coaches. So after five minutes of this, I ran over to the coaches and yelled, “You need to stop this right now. Do you hear what they are doing to him? Imagine how he must be feeling?” The coach looked more embarrassed that I had called him out than upset about the situation. In fact, he didn’t seem to think that this was a problem. It took another 10 minutes before the coach gathered the kids and simply said, “You need to be nicer to each other.” What? That was it? I was stunned at how complicit these adults were. They should have been ashamed of themselves for allowing this. But the reality is that it happens all the time. I think about the Holocaust and how so many people decided just to be innocent bystanders, thinking that since they weren’t Jewish, it wasn’t really their problem. I am grateful for the people who did stand up to injustice even if most people didn’t.

To find your world stage, remember that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are watching and someone needs you, you have a moral obligation to respond. Don’t wait for social proof to know whether to act, and don’t assume if there are others around, that you don’t need to do anything. The world is sad and broken enough. We need more people willing to respond, regardless of what others are doing.

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Don’t Need to Know

Now that I have been off Facebook for three weeks, I have to say that I have a feeling of calm that I could not have predicted. The first few days of not being able to check it literally felt like withdrawal, like the time after my junior year of college when I cut out all soda and caffeine, resulting in withdrawal headaches for weeks. The reality is that I was so much clearer and more focused my senior year without being constantly propped up by Diet Coke, as I feel now without the quick fix of Facebook. Today’s students use Adderall as study aids, even though they don’t have ADHD, because they want a competitive edge. The fact is that Adderall is just speed in a pill, no different in terms of how the brain receives it than street meth. As our society speeds up faster and faster, we think that we have to and that we even can stay on top of everything, but the reality is that we can’t. We can’t do it all or learn it all or see it all, but we think we can. Facebook and social media in general plays into this, this belief that we can be friends with everyone and be seen and celebrated and not miss out. It’s kind of sad really, if you think about it. Because having real friends takes time. Georgia O’Keefe once wrote: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” In spite of the fact that O’Keefe died over 30 years ago, it seems as though she could have written it today.

The reality is that we have the same bodies and brains that we had fifty years ago, when there were no personal computers, or internet or social media, and yet we think somehow that we can go faster. When I was in my twenties in the 1990’s and worked at a law firm to support my music, the firm hired messengers to deliver packages and to hand out last minute messages about meetings from office to office. Today, documents would just be emailed. But the pace then was slower because it had to be. We think progress is great, but we couldn’t envision the downside of cyber bullying or 24/7 work or “friends” who are not really friends. One hundred years ago, we couldn’t image such cheap and easy air travel or the idea that most Americans would own their own car. But we also couldn’t imagine endless international business trips that our bodies are not frankly designed for, crossing oceans in hours when it took our ancestors months, and expecting our bodies to react to the time changes easily. Or traveling by car at such high speeds, and being confronted with the dangers of texting or other myriad distractions. One hundred fifty years ago, most people lived and died in the same place and married someone who grew up near them. Only the very wealthy got to visit great sites around the world. For everyone else, they lived in the same place and knew the same people. But at least they knew who their friends were and didn’t waste time corresponding with fake friends on Facebook.

If you think about Facebook as a concept, it mainly provides noise and distraction. There are exceptions, of course, in which old buddies or distant family can find each other again. I was able to find my third cousin and get the details of a funeral that my father wanted to attend for his second cousin, since my grandmother had been very close to her first cousins. But Facebook also has allowed me to reconnect with old flames (with my husband’s permission of course), only to find that they haven’t aged well, which reminds me of my own mortality in a strange way, even as I gloat that I look better than they do. But mainly it’s all the endless information that none of us needs to know. One of my “friends” is a guy I musical directed once in college. We weren’t friends even then, but he was a guy with a good voice I once knew, who is constantly posting about how evil Trump is. Even though I don’t like Trump, do I really need to be hearing from this guy I knew once at age 20? What about my favorite post, which is “Had such a blast at so and so’s wedding! So glad to be invited. Here are some awesome pictures!” when in fact you weren’t invited but had to wade through dozens of pictures from the party you didn’t make the cut for? The reality is that I don’t need to know that the woman who was a friend at age 16 but isn’t anymore is selling her couch and her daughter has Lyme or that the guy from junior high has medical issues. If someone doesn’t want to tell me, then I don’t need to know it, any more than I need to cyber-stalk celebrities about their lives. Because in the end, who cares? What does Kate Winslet’s life with kids from three different husbands have to do with me?

The answer is to shut it down, get off, breathe and look around at your own wonderful life. And if your life isn’t what you want, then roll up your sleeves and get to work. But having the breathing space to just focus on you and your immediate world is so incredibly freeing. To find your world stage, remember that you don’t need to know what everyone else is doing and what parties you haven’t been invited to. Just focus on what matters in your own life and enter more fully into it without distractions.

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Affinity

I remember years ago having an argument with one of my friends, who is a gay Jewish man, about who was more oppressed. I felt that women were and he was sure that gays were, in addition to Jews. We finally gave up and laughed, because the whole thing was so silly. I think of this often as I contemplate what college life will be like for my kids in a few years, with its safe spaces to protect students from anything upsetting. Affinity groups exist for every possible sub-group, based on race and sexual orientation and culture. It seems that more and more we are separating and protecting ourselves from those who are different. This is unfortunate because so much is lost when we hide from people whom we can learn from.

There is a new trend in K-8 schools to start affinity groups for young children, sorting students by race, so that kids of color feel more support. My son’s school tried that last year with the kindergartners, and many of the parents were so upset by the idea of separating the races, that the experiment was discontinued and the head of Diversity and Inclusion fired. Many parents pointed to the fact that “separate but equal” does not work, as shown in Brown vs. the Board of Education. At the Bank Street School in New York, not only are the races separated, but the children of color get special favors and treats, and the white children are chastised for their “white privilege.” According to the New York Post (July 1, 2016), here are the stated goals for the white group (see right).

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What’s interesting is that a long-term study called the Diversity Challenge, which was the largest study on college diversity, followed 2,000 students from UCLA over 5 years to see how diversity impacts identify and attitude and conflicts. “Data from our study showed pretty conclusively that intergroup contact reduces ethnic tension and increases in friendship across ethnic lines,” says Sidanius. “Universities should do everything in their power to increase the level of contact between different ethnicities. They should make roommate assignments random and fight against the natural tendency for students to segregate themselves.” This study came out in 2009. (See diverseeducation.com– March 10, 2009.) And yet almost 10 years later, we still have this idea that we need to protect ourselves from people who are not like us.

And yet, what defines us? Should I only hang out with white people or just women or just people who are upper-middle class or just Americans or just people from the Boston area, or what about just coaches or just musicians or just parents or just people who are married? All of those things define me, but if we start breaking in affinity groups to protect ourselves, which group speaks to who we are? For someone who is black and rich, can they relate to someone who is black and poor? What about working class white people. Do they have a lot in common with educated whites? What about gay people who are Asian. Are they more Asian or gay? This weekend, I spent a few hours rehearsing with a friend and colleague who is a musician who also went to Yale. But he is a man, he is gay and he is black. Wouldn’t we normally not be in the same affinity group? Last night, we had dinner with a couple in which the wife is white and grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City. The husband was born in Vietnam and escaped on a raft after the fall of Saigon. She went to prep school for high school. He worked in his family’s diner and went to public school. If he had been in the Asian group or the poor affinity group, he wouldn’t have connected with a rich, white girl, and they would have missed out on a great life together.

I totally understand why schools have created diversity programs, since traditionally minorities have been under-represented. But my son’s school has over 50% non-white students. In spite of that, racial diversity continues to be emphasized even though the school lacks economic diversity more than anything, since there is only so much scholarship money available. Students need to learn that race is important but it’s only one part of identity– it shouldn’t be over-emphasized. Yes, we need to do a lot better as a society to stop police brutality toward black and brown people. It’s unfair and unacceptable. But we also need to attend to all the poor white people struggling from unemployment and addiction in Appalachia, for instance. Instead of safe spaces protecting us from others, we need to be more involved with people not like us, to care about other races and classes and cultures and life circumstances.

To find your world stage, stop thinking about how you’re oppressed and how your rights are being violated, whether it’s because of your race or sex or religion or culture, and instead seek to understand and be understood. The world doesn’t need more affinity groups and safe spaces, or people arguing about who is more oppressed. Instead, we need more joy and connection, no matter where we come from.

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Try Something New

I’ve been feeling in a rut lately, between the 24/7 job of parenting, and work and house responsibilities. For many people today, whether they are parents or not, it can feel like a never-ending treadmill that’s hard to step off from. Going to Hawaii for a week with my family recently was a wonderful break, but then after the 12 hour flights to get home and the jet lag from being six hours off, not to mention trying to re-enter the speed of our lives and the constant cold and snow which is Boston’s eight month winter, we were starting to lose the magic of our trip, only two weeks after returning.

And then I remembered a book I had dipped into a few years ago in a bookstore, called One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. Psychologist Robert Maurer uses a Japanese manufacturing philosophy called kaizen to help his patients achieve big changes in their lives, working slowly and gently on tiny changes that can build up to big changes over time. So this past week, I decided to try a few new experiences. Last Sunday, we went to a new church for Easter, which was run by Episcopal monks who are cloistered in Cambridge. I didn’t know that Episcopal monks (brothers) existed, but we went to a beautiful service in which the mass was sung entirely, there was incense and water was splashed gently at us. The monks were so friendly and welcoming, and unlike other churches we’ve attended in the past, sometimes for years, this was the first church that didn’t want us to join some committee or pledge to give monthly. We were just welcomed as we are with no expectations.

A few days later, I tried a new reflexology place, which ended up being very strange– the man was rubbing my ears and head over and over like I was a dog, and seemed very aggressive with the foot rub. It reminded me of the time years ago when my husband and I were in Thailand and asked for a massage. The Thai lady, who was dressed in a bikini, covered me in cooking oil and then climbed on top of my body to massage me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. It was very strange, but ultimately made for a great story. And then a few days after the reflexology, I had my first solo yoga class. A friend just got certified and wanted to try out her teaching on me. The class was amazing, even though I had been nervous about doing it, since I haven’t done yoga in years and I’m not very flexible these days. But since I was doing it for a friend, I pushed away my anxiety and showed up and benefited so much from the yoga that I plan to start incorporating some of it every day.

And today, instead of a more typical Saturday, which involves driving my daughter to art classes in Boston and my son to/from soccer games, and endless laundry and chores, I went to a Dave Ramsey conference all day, and my husband took charge of everything. For 10 hours, I laughed and cried and took notes and pictures and had the bandwidth to start thinking about my life in a bigger sense, since sometimes there isn’t always time for that. It was an amazing and inspiring day attending his Smart Conference, and I learned so much from all the experts on the stage about all facets of my life. And being in a crowd of 6,000 people who were thrilled to be there too was fabulous. Tonight my family got Indian food from our favorite Indian place and watched one of the best comedies I know– Rat Race– which always makes us laugh. And for the first time in almost 10 years, I have gone one week without Facebook. I shut it down last weekend for 3 months, to see how I feel. The first few days I felt withdraw symptoms and a fear of missing out, but a week later, I feel great. I’m not comparing myself to others and not emerged in the endless drama of bragging and complaining, which always drains me.

I know the concept of kaizen is making small changes, like meditating for 1 minute per day or walking for 5 minutes per day and building on that. But for me, trying a few new experiences this week has made me feel less stuck and more excited. And I plan to do more next week. I want to start jogging with my daughter before school beginning on Monday, and getting to bed early enough at night that I am more rested during the day. I’m also going to try vegan eating for 3 months to see how it feels. I’ve tried it off and on over the years, but never for that long, so this will be an interesting experiment.

As you claim your world stage, ask yourself where in your life you’re feeling stuck and what new experiences you could have this week that could shake things up and make you feel more excited and alive. Maybe you will feel like you’re holding a sparkler in your hand, lighting up your world in a new way.

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Don’t Have the Time

When my neighbor was dying of cancer, she wrote in a blog about the fact that she had put so much on hold, like having fun and spending time with her young kids, because she was working long hours to build her career. She was one of those ambitious high-achievers who had a plan and checked everything off her list, thinking that if she worked hard enough that everything would fall into place. She thought she had all the time in the world to focus on her career. Many people can relate to that. It never occurred to her, however, that she would get aggressive breast cancer at age 37 and be dead three years later.

There were two things that struck me about that. One was how often smart, hard-working, talented people feel that they can control their life path, as if hard-work somehow keeps bad things from happening. I did everything right in my pregnancy with my son, for instance, not even taking a Tylenol when I had a headache, but he still was born with capillary malformation and required years and years of skin procedures with anesthesia. I eat and take good care of myself, and yet still managed to get an inflammatory eye condition six years ago that has baffled doctors and left me, on bad days, feeling hopeless that I’ll ever find a solution. I started to blame myself, thinking that maybe I wasn’t eating healthfully enough, until I heard about a friend’s relative who ran marathons and ate kale (which I don’t like) and died of a brain tumor before she was 40.

The other thing that struck me about my neighbor was how fearless she was once she knew she was dying. She wrote that she used to be scared about not doing well on an exam or in her work, but then would say, “What’s the worst that can happen?” But when the worst that can happen is that you will die a slow horrifying death in a year or two after many painful treatments? That’s terrifying at first, and then ultimately freeing. When I knew this neighbor, it was almost entirely after she had been diagnosed, and she was the most present, joyful mom, having friends over, playing in a teepee with the kids, doing arts and crafts, baking and going on trips. One of my favorite song lyrics is from Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” There’s a lot of freedom in no longer having the time to care what others think.

But what if you didn’t have to be dying to become fearless? I often tell my clients, who are worried about what people will think, that they just have to keep forging ahead, since you don’t want to look back on your life and wonder why you didn’t try that new career, or leave the bad marriage, or take that trip. I have clients who keep thinking that they aren’t talented enough or educated enough to get the career they want, when from my vantage point, they are all those things and more. And I’ve said before, there is no Permission Fairy that you have to wait for.

I used to have a real fear of failure, so I found myself playing small, until I realized that I needed to take risks. If I wasn’t doing things that scared me, then I needed to do more. I got my second CD out, I pulled my kids out of school for 6 months to travel the world, I got certified in coaching, and I started a coaching business separate from my vocal coaching/music business. I got clients from all over the world and coached people on their business and their relationships and their health and their creativity. I started performing. I started setting more boundaries, like the fact that I don’t want to have traditional Christmas for a number of years and would rather travel with my family instead. And you know what, the sky didn’t fall in. I reminded myself of the famous quote: “What you think about me is none of my business.” It was tempting to wait until my eye pain had healed or to wait until the kids were at better ages (whenever that is), but there will always be a reason not to do something. The fact is that none of us has the time to wait, even if we get to live healthfully into our late 90’s as both my grandmothers did.

Anne Lamott wrote in Operating Instructions about her first year of parenthood as a young mom, during which her closest friend was dying. At one point, Anne tried on a dress for her friend, but found herself asking if it made her hips look too big. Her friend said to her: “I really don’t think you have that kind of time.” It wasn’t that her dying friend didn’t have that time. It was that Anne didn’t either. None of us does.

One of the things that is good about living in such a terrifying America right now is that citizens are FINALLY waking up. We didn’t wake up after 20 innocent 1st graders were murdered, or after many other massacres, but somehow after the recent Florida shooting, we are waking up and we are mad. I received messages from both of my kids’ schools about their active shooter drills that they run regularly, and I’m grateful that I don’t have tiny children at this point who are living in this kind of fear. Once you get to a point where Congress is just out to make money and pay back their donors, where housing is so expensive and good jobs are so few that the homeless and drug-addicted are growing exponentially, and that children are getting massacred with machine guns, then it’s easier not to care what the neighbors think. We don’t have the time to waste. Now is the time.

 

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Stop Fixing

This week it seems that many people I talked with were in some crisis or another. My daughter is still recovering from her concussion, my son is trying to navigate middle school politics, another friend has a daughter with a concussion, and one friend is in a toxic, emotionally abusive marriage that she can’t easily leave due to children. I have a friend who hasn’t found a job in three years of looking and the money is running out. I have clients who are struggling with bad relationships as well, or are lonely or struggle to ask for what they need. Many are scared that the world is falling down around them and that their dreams are out of reach.

In addition, it seems like everywhere you turn, there is bad news these days. This winter is one of the worst flu seasons since the Swine Flu of 2009. 4,000 people died from the flu in the third week of January this year and 63 children have died. The government was actually shut down because of a fight among parties about the rights of illegal aliens, and yet we are ignoring our American citizens, many of whom are addicted and/or homeless. The number of Americans who died from an opiod overdoses in 2016 (64,070) surpassed the total number of people killed in the entire Vietnam War (58,200). (CBS News, Oct 17, 2017) This is higher than the number of AIDS victims in a given year at its peak in 1995. In addition, 2017 was one of the hottest years on record and the six hottest years have been since 2010, according to CNN, and yet our administration denies that global warming exists. There are endless scandals in the White House and cover-ups for sexual abuse and domestic violence and a pedophile was almost elected to the Senate. And there are all the refugees fleeing violence, from Syria to Myanmar too.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. We are not made to take on endless stress and worry. Those of us who are caring and competent and good listeners can find ourselves drained from constant problems and others needing support. So this week, I decided to be more like a turtle, to pull myself in and focus on self-care and the most pressing needs of my family and my work, and do little else. We know how important it is to protect ourselves in obvious ways– like wearing a seatbelt or a helmet or locking our doors, or looking both ways before we cross, not to mention washing our hands a lot during flu season. But how do we protect ourselves energetically when everybody seems to have a problem or need something, when we become the dumping ground for everyone’s needs? The answer is to stop fixing. It doesn’t mean that you stop caring or wishing others well. It just means that you stop helping to solve others’ problems, which is a big tenet of coaching as well. Letting clients come to their own solutions is empowering, whereas fixing on any level can be enabling and doesn’t serve anyone. So this week, I took three large steps back energetically from solving the world’s problems and helping everyone who needed it. And it felt amazing.

To find your world stage, remember that you can inspire others and point them in the right direction, but you can’t save them. It’s up to them to do that work. And sadly, the world will always have problems, there will always be sad stories, and there will always be things we can’t control. What we can control is taking care of ourselves and being responsible citizens, who vote and recycle and avoid drugs and try not to fix. And if we do that, we can look up and rejoice in the wonder of so many things, like music and nature, and be glad once again to be alive.

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The Problem with Denial

I just saw a riveting documentary called There Is Something Wrong with Aunt Diane about the Long Island mother who drove the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway in July 2009, with 5 children in her car, killing 8 people: 5 of the 6 in her car (her son survived) and 3 in another car. Her blood alcohol levels were found to be twice the legal limit and she had a large amount of marijuana in her system. And yet, her husband hired a lawyer to contest these medical facts, to prove that Diane wasn’t drunk. He said, “She was the perfect wife and mother.” That statement alone should have given people pause, because no one is perfect, and extreme perfectionists like Diane– the kind who was known for ironing even her kids’ play clothes after working a full-time job as the primary breadwinner– those are the people who need some kind of outlet for the unrelenting stress. Not only was she over 200 pounds, she smoked pot every night, according to her sister-in-law, so that she could relax. And she was the one who put a full bottle of vodka in the front seat of her car for the trip home, even though she was driving kids. And yet no one in her family was willing to put two and two together.

I read the memoir by the mother whose three girls were killed by their Aunt Diane, called I’ll See You Again. It was beautiful and heart-wrenching, describing the hell of losing all of her children, but the whole book was a denial of the test results and DNA, which were run multiple times, which showed that Diane was drunk and high at the time of the crash. The mother of the girls, ages 8, 7 and 5, couldn’t bear to believe that her husband’s sister had killed their children, or even worse that her husband knew about his sister’s problem with alcohol. Neither of those is something you want to know. So instead, for her survival, she chose denial.

One of my friends confessed to me a few years ago that he had been a raging alcoholic for many years and had driven drunk multiple times and even blacked out while driving. (I realized after the fact, that one of the times I was in the car.) There was one time when I caught him with slurred speech and he tried to brush it off as medication he was taking. I actually went through the trash bins to try to find evidence, but addicts are good at hiding. I never smelled anything, but then again, as he later told me, vodka is what seasoned alcoholics drink because there is no smell. The point of all this is that my friend held down a job, raised kids, was very responsible, and seemed very high- functioning. And his spouse, who also drank too much, was very happy to help him hide and enable. This was probably the same with Diane. I think her husband knew, but to confess that would mean lawsuits from the three adults killed in another car. So it’s better just to lie.

This story fascinated me because it’s so easy in our busy lives not to notice what is going on with the people around us, or to be in denial about our own lives. I have clients who struggle to see their marriages clearly, or to realize how lonely they are, or how toxic their jobs are, or how much they are enabling others’ bad behavior. We all do it to some degree. It’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that we only need to lose a few pounds, when it’s really more like 20 pounds, or to think we don’t have a problem with alcohol but we can’t go a day without a few drinks, or to believe that we don’t have a spending problem, when in fact the debt is enormous. We also enable our family and friends when we don’t speak up. A former neighbor sent angry videos and emails to the whole neighborhood a few years ago, which was very strange behavior for this up-standing soccer mom, and no one said anything. Most people didn’t want to pry and needed to assume the best. I knew something was off and actually showed the strange videos to my daughter to make sure she never played over there, since I didn’t know if the mom was drunk or high or mentally ill, but none were a safe situation. It turns out she was bi-polar and going through a long manic stage. Thankfully she never drove my kids anywhere and ended up getting divorced and moving away, but one of her closer friends should have stood up to her and confronted her about what they saw. No one ever did.

As you seek your world stage, a big part of moving toward what you want is getting honest about what you’re in denial about. It’s not fun and it’s not easy, but asking the hard questions is so important for creating success. You have to be willing to step on the scale, add up your debt, notice how much you drink or smoke, and look at how happy your relationship really is. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you realize that something is wrong. It means that you’re a flawed human who is courageous enough to really look at your life, which is the first step toward making change. It also takes courage to notice what our friends and family are up to and to speak up if there is a problem. The fact is, denial can hurt or kill people and/or their dreams. Today, make a decision to really look at what is going on. It may be scary, but it’s the key to moving forward.

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Be Willing to Walk

One of the best things I have learned as a parent and as a person, is not to give too much importance to any commitment, whether a school or an activity, in case the situation sours and you have to walk away. I think about this dynamic often as a parent in a competitive cut-throat world, in which parents push their kids relentlessly to succeed. While my husband and I work hard not to push our kids, many of the parents around us do. It’s hard when your child has made the team or the orchestra to walk away, even when the coach or director is badly behaved, but it’s essential to be able to.

When my daughter made it into a highly regarded youth orchestra, which hundreds of kids audition for, we were so excited for her. But when I sat through the first rehearsal and heard the conductor actually threaten bodily harm to one of the sweet little violinists because she couldn’t play the passage right, I was horrified. I looked around at the other parents watching and they were all smiling. When I asked a veteran parent about this, his answer was, “They get amazing results from the kids and it looks great on the college resume.” He didn’t seem to care that the conductor was abusive, given that she screamed: “If you don’t get this passage right, you will wind up in the hospital and I will wind up in prison.” The next week, I watched again, and the conductor was just as terrifying, so I told my daughter that we were going to walk away. Nothing was worth this kind of abuse. I called the school and they gave a full refund, although they reminded me that most parents don’t complain about the behavior because their kids improve.

Last spring my son auditioned for a competitive choir in Boston that sings with orchestras and opera companies. The director really liked him and wanted to groom him for great things. The problem was that month after month, the rehearsals were long and intense and there were many performances and demands outside of rehearsals. My son’s voice was starting to hurt from overuse, since he is one of the leads in Mary Poppins at his school right now. He was starting to get insomnia and other stress-related ailments from being over-scheduled. He was being groomed to sing a solo with a professional orchestra, but he doesn’t really like classical music. And the director seemed particularly interested in the few boys in the chorus, inviting them privately for ice cream with him, which we refused to let our son do because we thought it felt creepy. So, we walked away.

I think of all this because of the recent trial for the gymnastics doctor who was found to have molested hundreds of girls over 20 years, often while the parents were in the examining room. A lot of people have commented that they don’t understand how the parents didn’t know. But I totally understand that. They didn’t want to know because the stakes were too high. When your daughter is poised for huge success, you don’t want to be the person who blows the whistle. The gymnasts didn’t tell because they wanted to be one of the five who made the US team. But I get it because I see it everyday in my town, with parents who are so invested in their kids’ success, that they aren’t willing or able to speak up before it’s too late.

In our town, parents allow their kids to play on multiple soccer or hockey teams from a young age, and the kids’ muscles are strained from repeating the same sport over the over. We wouldn’t let our kids try out for travel soccer until they were older since we had a babysitter who had had two major surgeries from soccer before she was 16. A boy in our neighborhood had his leg shattered last fall from a collision on the field, I believe from years of overplaying. But when I ask parents why they allow coaches to insist on more and more practices and then games that are sometimes four states away, the parents shake their heads and say, “It’s an arms race, but if we drop out or speak up, we lose.” So as a result, everyone loses.

The fact is, we don’t always choose right. The preschool we chose for my daughter was like Lord of the Flies, with bigger kids bullying little kids, terrifying my girl. We walked away from a lot of money to go with the more orderly school that had rules that everyone had to follow and she ended up thriving. We walked away from the pediatrician who was rude and condescending to us, when my son had a medical problem that this doctor didn’t know how to fix. We walked away and found a great team to help him and never looked back.

To find your world stage, remember that if something is wrong, you do need to speak up. And if the situation doesn’t change, sometimes the best thing is to walk. Nothing is worth getting hurt or abused– no gold medal or Ivy League school or accolade is worth that. Keep your eyes open and notice when something isn’t right and speak up. In the end, you can either try to please others and get along, or you can please yourself and stand up for what is right. In my mind, that’s an easy choice.

 

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