Archive for March, 2010

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, which always reminds me of aunt Lois, who died on St. Patrick’s Day two years ago.

When my mom called me that afternoon she was sobbing and unable to speak for some time, so I knew something was desperately wrong.

My heart raced as I imagined the various grim possibilities until she finally managed to say that aunt Lois died.

Aunt Lois was my mom’s oldest sister and only sibling and her unexpected death was a blow to her.

“I thought I would have a sister for another 10-15 years or so,” she said during that conversation.

I felt so bad for my mother’s loss and cried with her.

I thought back to the time I last visited with my aunt at her 50th wedding anniversary party several months prior to her death.

My aunt wasn’t the life of the party that day like she always had been at parties when she was younger. I had to work at finding her before leaving so I could say goodbye.

Eventually I found her sitting quietly at a table. She stood up and hugged me and told me how good I looked to her… I looked healthy. She had been worried about my health a few years previous but I was fully recovered. She remembered that my birthday was coming up, remembered how old I was, which impressed me, as she has a very large family.

I left feeling very happy that my aunt wasn’t worried about me anymore. Also, a little thing like her remembering my birthday made me feel happy too.

But as I was reminded at her funeral, that’s how she was… tuned in to the little details of everyone’s life and making people feel special.

Her funeral made a big impression on me and I was amazed at all I learned about my aunt through the various eulogies. Her obituary was written very well too and had little details that were interesting.

Eulogies are among the best, and most moving, types of stories. I always enjoy listening to them even as they make me cry.

There were also several spontaneous eulogies, as people in the church would stand up and share a memory about my aunt.

The eulogies impressed upon me how the web of people my aunt was connected to was huge. She cared about them all too.

She had also served as the grapevine for family news. Now that she’s passed away I’ve had to use Facebook to stay in touch with extended family and get family news.

The most poignant memory of her funeral was when I left the reception at her house.

Her teenage grandson was napping on the love seat, curled up with her photo as if it was a teddy bear.

It was a moving sight and I thought about how most teen boys would be stoic at the death of their grandmother. But I later learned that he would often come over to my aunt’s house just to chat with her. That’s how my aunt was. Easy to talk to and interested in all the little details of your life.

May your memory be eternal, Aunt Lois.

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Questions I Hate

“How do you find the time?”

I was reminded yesterday how much I dislike that question. It makes me want to say, “How do you find the time to ask dumb questions?”

Actually, I dislike all questions that are not legitimate inquiries but are instead passive-aggressive ways of saying something critical.

For example, a question like “how do you find the time to write a blog post every day?” often really means, “blogging seems like a waste of time.”

Or, “how do you find the time to exercise?” means, “I feel inadequate because you exercise and I don’t.”

Or, “Is your daughter reading yet?” sometimes means, “Wow, I can’t believe your daughter isn’t reading yet, you sure are a slacker parent.”

Even an innocent, “how’s business these days?” can mean, “I wish you’d get a real job already,” depending on who’s asking.

Before I ask a question I try to make sure I’m asking because I don’t know the answer and am genuinely curious, although I’m sure I fall into the passive-aggressive trap too often myself.

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Maybe all those sitcoms weren’t so bad after all

I used to feel a bit sheepish about how I spent so much time watching  TV as a kid.

Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dallas, Magnum PI, to name just a few.

On sunny summer mornings my brother and I would leap out of the bed to… go outside and enjoy nature? No, of course not. To watch reruns of the sitcom Alice and other shows, of course.

Then came MTV, which anchored us to the sofa in front of  the TV all the more.

I think I watched every episode of Cheers.

And in the 1990s I even spent a few football seasons watching Packers games on Sunday afternoons.

But all this TV watching came to an abrupt end with the internet. Suddenly I had better things to do with my time.

Clay Shirky gave an interesting talk about this (the video is here or you can read the transcript if you prefer).

He says that after World War 2, we suddenly had free time on our hands, thanks to five day work weeks.

This free time created what he calls a “cognitive surplus.”

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives…

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

So now I don’t feel so bad about having watched so much TV. It’s not because we were lazy kids. It’s that we were in a holding pattern, so to speak, until we had more productive outlets for our cognitive surplus.

When I was a kid there wasn’t the option of creating a blog, running a little eBay store, editing a Wikipedia entry, writing a review of a product on Amazon, learning how to create a website, etc. We just had TV, top 40 radio, Walkmen and the phone.

It’s interesting to think about this cognitive surplus concept in regards to one’s personal life too.

We all go through stages where, suddenly, we have more cognitive surplus.

When the kids go off to school, when a financial burden is lifted, when one is settled into a new job and no longer searching for one, when one retires, etc.

There are so many interesting things to do with one’s cognitive surplus now. And almost all of them more interesting than TV (although I’m not giving up Mad Men, Lost or Project Runway :-) ).

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Demoting Can’t, Might and Probably Won’t

I once wrote about how we surrender a lot of power to “Can’t.”

Seth Godin’s recent post is a good follow up to this.

…people confuse cynicism with realism, and are afraid to say “can”. They’d rather say ‘might’ or even ‘probably won’t’.

Just about everything worth doing is worth doing because it’s important and because the odds are against you. If they weren’t, then anyone could do it, so don’t bother.

So let’s add “might” and “probably won’t” to the cast of characters that shouldn’t have starring roles in your everyday narrative.

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Witnessing

This morning a friend emailed me with some encouraging words as I embark on a community blog project with two neighbor friends who are also at-home writers:

I think that one of the greatest gifts a writer can give her community is Witnessing. Witnessing the events, overt and covert, that create shifting and movement on the many levels of life. That’s what wakes us up.

Of course one doesn’t have to write for a blog in order to engage in this type of witnessing. It can happen through conversation and sharing stories on a front porch, posting a photo to Facebook or Flickr for others to see,  attending a community festival or local Meetup group.

In other words, just show up and wake up.

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Fun Friday: Mad Men Barbie Dolls!

I hope you’re a fan of the show Mad Men (if you haven’t watched it yet, you can get DVDs from Netflix or download episodes from Amazon or iTunes).

Mad Men is my favorite TV show. It is set in a 1960s ad agency and the period details and story line are so in depth that watching the show is as satisfying and engaging as reading a novel.

The NYT announced this week that there will be Mad Men Barbie dolls!

The doll designer, Robert Best, says: “It’s all about the details so of course we faithfully reproduced Joan’s pen on a chain and though you can’t see from the photo we gave Barbie a padded long-line foundation to more faithfully capture Joan’s curves. Don Draper Ken also comes with a raincoat lined in red, his briefcase and a fedora.”

I want a Joan doll! So will every other Mad Men fan, no doubt. But the dolls will cost $75 and there will only be 10,000 of them. Alas.

A consolation prize: Each set of season 3 Mad Men DVDs will come with a postcard-size sketch by Robert Best of one of the dolls.

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How to harvest your failures and stop seeking approval

Perhaps the most thought-provoking section of Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen is the section on judgment, in which she says:

Judgment does not only take the form of criticism. Approval is also a form of judgment. When we approve of people, we sit in judgment of them as surely as when we criticize them.

Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it is judgment all the same and we are harmed by it in far more subtle ways.

Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. This is as true of the approval we give ourselves as it is of the approval we offer others.

Approval can’t be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.

It had never occurred to me before that approval is a form of judgment just like criticism. Since reading that I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we trade wholeness for approval.

Because I’m self-employed and don’t have a boss or co-workers there have been times when I have been desperate for someone to tell me what to do, especially when I was first starting out.

Even today, now that I have a track record and have written successfully for dozens of clients, I feel a deep sense of dread at times when I submit a draft to a first time client. I marinate in anxiety about what they will think and avoid checking email for hours because my client’s approval matters too much to me.

Yesterday I asked a colleague for some advice but before doing so I paused and made sure that what I was asking for was advice and not approval. It’s important to know the difference between the two.

This colleague has more knowledge about the topic I needed information about than I do and he alerted me to a fact that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. As a result my marketing campaign will be more successful as a result.

So advice is cool. Approval… not so much.

I also thought about this when my daughter’s teacher asked me to write down a couple of goals I have for my daughter prior to parent teacher conferences.

I didn’t want to encourage a constant striving on her part. She has to choose her own goals so I wrote down my “goals” for her with this in mind. They weren’t really goals, but just affirmations that encourage her to be herself. My “goal” was to make her smile as she read them and I accomplished that.

Dr. Remen ends her section on judgment with wise words that, as a middle-aged person, I appreciate:

But judgment may heal over time. One of the blessings of growing older is the discovery that many of the things I once believed to be my shortcomings have turned out in the long run to be my strengths, and other things of which I was unduly proud have revealed themselves in the end to be among my shortcomings…

What a blessing it is to outlive your self-judgments and harvest your failures.

A blessing indeed.

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The downside to stories

Sometimes I cringe when I hear someone tell a story about me.

I thought of this when I came across this bit of dialogue in the novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (a book I highly recommend, by the way, if you have any interest at all in philosophy and/or religion).

The main character, Cass, is a psychologist of religion and an atheist. He wakes up one morning to find an essay in the New York Times in which his former mentor excoriates him.

His friend Roz calls him to discuss the essay and this is part of their conversation:

CASS: I wish I didn’t have any part in his current story. I don’t want to be in his story.

ROZ: That’s the thing about people. They’re free to use you in their stories as they see fit, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

CASS: Most of the time we don’t even know how we’re being used.

ROZ: Better that way.

Sometimes I don’t want to be in a person’s story either. Especially if the story contains inaccuracies or too much hyperbole or is an old story in which I say or do things I wouldn’t today.

I feel sort of fossilized when that happens.

It’s a control thing, I guess.

A wise priest recently told me that when I feel the urge to say things like “that’s not what I meant to say” or “that’s not exactly what happened” or have the urge to smooth over a recent conflict, I should let it slide. To do otherwise is to try to control the image they have of me, he said. And that’s not the best use of energy.

I agree. But still. That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy hearing oft-told stories like the one when I was 12-years-old and lost my temper on the golf course and smashed my driver repeatedly into the ground, does it? ;-)

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It’s about showing up rather than shopping

In Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr. Remen says that a trip to the grocery store might tell us everything we need to know about our lives.

She said that Jung would often ask his clients what activity they were engaged in right before leaving for their appointment with him.

His theory was that analyzing an everyday action like that told him volumes about the person.

I thought of this while reading Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb.

Some of the key problems in today’s dating and marriage culture can be discovered by examining how one shops, she says.

She cites sociologist Barry Schwartz’s theory that people are either maximizers or satisficers.

A maximizer is someone who is never satisfied and constantly second-guesses their decisions.

When a maximizer shops for a new sweater, for example, she has to explore all the options and spend eons in the changing room trying on multiple sweaters.

If she finds something she likes a lot and fits well she hesitates. It occurs to her that maybe the store across town has the exact style she wants instead or might have a better deal.  So off she goes, continuing her never-ending quest for the perfect sweater.

A satisficer breezes into a store and finds a sweater that mostly matches her criteria. It might be a bit more expensive than she was prepared to pay, or perhaps it’s not be the precise shade of green she wanted, but she buys it, maybe without even trying it on first (gasp!), and moves on with her life.

Not surprisingly, maximizer tendencies in a culture that instructs us to approach everything like a shopping excursion can be problematic, even for satisficers.

This shopping mentality and constant striving for the best means we often don’t notice and appreciate what’s right in front of us already.

Lori shared a story about a man she refused to date at first because he wore bow ties. But when her dating coach made her realize how ridiculous it was to rule a man out based on that one thing, she relented.

After several dates the man told her how his late grandfather had a huge bow tie collection. He looked up to his grandfather as a kid and felt so honored when he found out that he had inherited the bow tie collection after his grandfather died. The bow ties remind him of the good traits in his grandfather that he hopes to emulate and that’s why he wears them.

Her attitude about bow ties abruptly changed, of course. If she had persisted in her maximizer shopping mentality she never would have had the opportunity to hear this cool story.

As Dr. Remen says, “Joy is a willingness to accept the whole and show up to meet with whatever is there.” So I guess it’s best to show up rather than to shop.

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How to start blogging, part 8 of 8: A Final Checklist

If you’ve read the other posts in this series about blogging, you now know the basics of creating a blog and attracting readers.

Today I want to leave you with a final checklist of things you should do regularly as you maintain your blog:

1. Mix it up – Keep things interesting by adding variety to your posts.

If you write a long, philosophical 750 word post one day, post something short and more upbeat the next day.

Occasionally add a photo to your posts. Post a link to a video from time to time. This provides visual interest as people scan your home page and encourages readers to linger.

2. Watch your fonts – If your default font isn’t already set to Verdana or Ariel, or is too small, go correct that right now. It’s inexcusable to use a tiny font size or a font that is hard on the eyes. Also, always use black. Don’t get cute with the colors.

3. Watch your traffic – Sign up for StatCounter or Google Analytics. As part of the sign up process they will give you a piece of code to copy and paste into your blog template.  After you do this, the program will track how many people visit your blog, what search terms they used to find blog and from which website they found your blog.

Once a week or so, log in to your StatCounter or Google Analytics and see how many visitors your blog received that week. Click on the “recent came from” report to see the links of websites where people found your blog. If you find that one of these blogs or websites gave your blog a recommendation, you should go leave a comment there and thank them.

Also be sure to pay attention to the keywords people used to find your blog. You’ll be amazed at the search phrases people used to find your blog. This will give you a lot of laughs sometimes…and it will also give you inspiration for new blog posts and show you what your audience is interested in.

4. Comment on other blogs – Read blogs every day and try to leave several comments per week, being sure to include your own blog link in the comment.

5. Google is your friend – If you’re stuck on a technical aspect of blogging, Google will have the answer. For example, if you’re not sure where to put the Google Analytics code on your blog, just type “where do you put Google Analytics code in blog” and you’ll get an answer immediately.

I’ve asked Google hundreds of questions like these since I started blogging five years ago. Sometimes I’ve had to spend several minutes digging through search results but I’ve almost always found an answer that works.

6. Be yourself – If this is your first time blogging it can be nerve-wracking to expose your thoughts to the world. If you’re nervous, ask a couple of supportive friends to read your blog so that you can have a friendly audience right off the bat.

As a blogger, make an effort to learn from everyone… but seek approval from no one. Approval is a drug – one hit is never enough. Rather than second-guessing yourself, just hit the “publish” button. You can always delete the post later if you want to. Even though there are 80 million other blogs out there, your voice is unique and deserves to be heard.

Even if your audience is tiny, blogging regularly keeps your writing skills sharp and organizes your thoughts. Before long you’ll have a body of work that you can turn into a long article or book. The sky’s the limit once you start blogging.

7. Thinking ahead – After you’ve used a free Blogger or WordPress blog for a while you’ll probably outgrow it. You’ll want more control over the design and other features. Maybe you’ll want to start monetizing your blog and making money from it.

When that day comes you’ll need to buy a domain (cost is $8 per year or so) and a hosting plan (I recommend Host Gator and it costs $10/mo). WordPress will come free with your web host plan and it’s the only blogging program you should consider using to create your blog. When the time comes you can either hire someone to create the blog for you or teach yourself, like I did.

Thanks again for reading this series on blogging. I will put these posts into a downloadable report soon, for your convenience. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

Happy blogging!

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