Archive for June, 2010

Questions, Questions

When I was a teenager my dad set a tape recorder on top of the bar in my grandparents’ basement bar (remember when homes built in the 1950s and 1960s often had basement bars? Ah the good old days…).

He pushed record and interviewed his father – my grandfather – for about a half hour. Then he flipped the tape over and interviewed my grandmother.

They told stories I had mostly heard before but I found it compelling to watch this dialogue in a formal interview format.

It was even more interesting when my father had to hit pause because my grandfather started crying when he talked about how much his wedding day meant to him.

StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to helping people conduct interviews like these. The interviews last 40 minutes and StoryCorps keeps a copy for history and the participants get a copy.

I’m reading their book Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project right now, which is a collection of some of these stories. Each story is only a few pages and are interviews between husbands and wives, siblings, adopted child and biological parent, friends, etc.

StoryCorps believes that everyone has a story to tell and provides a list of their most popular questions. You could use these questions on your own to interview someone…or just use them to reflect on your own life:

* What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

* Who was the most important person in your life?

* Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did this person teach you?

* Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

* What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

* What is your earliest memory?

* What is your favorite memory of me?

* If you could hold on to one memory from your life for eternity, what would that be?

* Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?

* What are you proudest of in your life?

* How would you lie to be remembered?

* Do you have any regrets?

* What does your future hold?

* Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?

* Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

* Turn the tables: This is your chance to tell the person you’re interviewing what you’ve learned from him or her and what that person means to you.

I confess I feel tired reading that list, as I’ve kind of had question fatigue the past several years, what with young children asking me questions all the time, having to ask clients questions for projects, etc.

But then I recall how eagerly I and my mother read through a diary of my aunt Lois’s, shortly after her death – a diary that asked a bunch of questions like these as well as more mundane ones about her childhood, and how even my mother learned things she never knew before about her sister after reading all her answers.

As Einstein said, the important thing is to not stop asking questions (but don’t tell my 8-year-old he said that :D).


Thank you note to Lay’s Barbeque Potato Chips

Dear Lay’s Barbeque Potato Chips,

Thank you for being the only snack item in my cupboards right now.

I could easily be resentful over this but, because I hate your flavor, it’s easy for me to ignore you and feel all virtuous about not indulging in potato chips, instead of feeling guilty, like I would if you were Lay’s Cheddar & Sour Cream* potato chips, because the temptation to inhale a 150 calorie serving in about 15 seconds would be far too overwhelming.

Come back to my cupboards any time because fueling my delusion that I have self-control is so worth it and easier on my waistline.

Kind Regards,


*Pringles reduced fat original flavor potato chips would actually be my preferred chip but they are not gluten-free, so I can no longer eat them. I am far less philosophical about this type of potato chip restraint and can only say “Wah!”


A blog for introverts

If you’re an introvert, or live with one, check out The Introvert’s Corner blog on the Psychology Today site.

I especially like the recent post, How To Piss Off An Introvert. She lists things introverts hate to be told.

She also posts a video clip of the introverted 20-year-old actress Kristen Stewart’s appearance on Oprah, where Oprah makes too much of a big deal out of Stewart’s nervousness. Hint: saying “you look nervous” or “you’re so quiet” doesn’t make an introvert feel relaxed and more at ease. Would an extrovert like hearing, “you’re so loud” or “you look cocky?” Anyway, I find it refreshing that one of today’s stars is an introvert and doesn’t try to hide it.

I discussed this list with my daughter and she said the #1 thing she hates hearing the most as an introvert is “you’re no fun!” when she refuses to play a group game at a social event.

Which reminds me of how I HATED the games Pictionary and Charades in college. Heather Armstrong of describes this hatred well:

I think it goes back to being forced to participate in group activities when I was growing up in the Mormon Church and how the trauma of having to act like I was having a good time is such that when someone even mentions Pictionary my brain starts to liquify and drizzle out my nose. The quickest way to get me to sneak out of your party is to suggest we play charades, unless the rules are that you have to take a shot of tequila every time someone yells out, “SOUNDS LIKE?” Then I’ll be sleeping on your couch and stealing your Ibuprofen.

To go through the trauma of having to act like you’re having a good time only to be told “you’re no fun” would make any introvert reach for the tequila.


How to NOT listen to a talkaholic

I know I’ve gone on before about the importance of listening. Well, when it comes to talkaholics, scratch all that.

I’m kidding, a little, but in the presence of a talkaholic, listening isn’t really an option anyway. Conversation management is the best you can do.

Conversation management skills are a must when dealing with a talkaholic. Otherwise you’ll get so blown away and overwhelmed by their chatter that your life force completely drains out of you.

Ideally, conversation management skills will help talkaholics curb their habit of incessantly engaging in incessant chatter with much incessance.

Although all talkaholics are extroverts, not all extroverts are talkaholics. Far from it. Many of the best conversationalists I’ve known are extroverts – capable of back and forth conversation where each person speaks as much as the other and ask interesting, non-intrusive, questions.

And before you think I’m letting introverts off the hook here, I’m not.

Introverts aren’t talkaholics but some of them have a tendency to indulge in monologues. That is, they will go on for several minutes in excruciating detail about an area of expertise or topic of interest only to them and not their conversation partner.

While monologuing, they remain oblivious to verbal and non-verbal cues of boredom from their conversation partner, just like talkaholics do.

So the following conversation management skills apply when dealing with them too. Note how this type of listening is pretty much the opposite of how you would listen to someone in a normal conversation:

1. Interrupt. Often. Constantly. I confess that this doesn’t always work for me like I wish it would.

2. Ask intrusive questions. Maybe your rudeness will scare them away.

3. Selfishly redirect the conversation. I use this one the most. If I must endure chatter, it might as well be about something I’m at least vaguely interested in.

An example: a year or so ago, an introvert went on for about 15 minutes about the minutiae of his job. My total silence and lack of encouraging facial expressions and gestures should have given him an indication that he was being boring. Nope.

Finally, I said, “Unfortunately this is a topic I know absolutely nothing about and I have nothing to contribute to this conversation. So how about those Cubs!” Remarkably, he got the hint.

4. Use hand signals when necessary. I like this one, from the movie Devil Wears Prada:

Now for some speculation as to what causes talkaholism.

Open wounds don’t tend to heal…they fester. And one of the ways they can fester is through talkaholism.

So compassion is warranted.

Yet at the same time conversation is supposed be a two way street.  So when you find yourself on the wrong end of a one way street in a conversation with a talkaholic, it’s OK to speak up.

It’s very important to treat other’s people’s time  like the precious commodity it is and not selfishly consume it.

Or, in other words, all of us, talkaholics and non-talkaholics alike, need to STFU a lot more.


Surrender as an active verb

Surrender is an idea that has become debased.

So says Brian Eno who, in addition to being one of Britain’s most creative artists, has been a record producer to the likes of Coldplay, David Bowie and U2 (my favorite band).

As a society we tend to reward control. Control is what we think successful people are all about.

But surrender? That’s what we do when we just cave in to something, defer to someone with more talent or authority than us, or treat as a luxury at the end of our career when we retire and kick back, right?

Eno thinks that’s all wrong and makes the case for surrender as an active verb:

Control and surrender have to be kept in balance.That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control.

In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part. I want to rethink surrender as an active verb. It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice.”

Because Eno produced U2’s most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, and because that album has a song called Moment of Surrender, I couldn’t help but revisit that song to see if there are clues there in how to make surrender an active verb.

Vision Over Visibility

“Vision over visibility” has been U2 singer Bono’s motto for a long time. That phrase makes its debut in the Moment of Surrender song: “At the moment of surrender/vision over visibility.” He also sings about the desire “to be released from control.”

Vision over visibility is the moment when you see the place but can’t see yet how to get there.

It’s an insistence on looking past what you can see in favor of what could be. That’s surrender as an active choice.

Pack Your Suitcase

OK, so I couldn’t help but wrap this up by quoting from another U2 song, Walk On:

“We are packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been; A place that has to be believed to be seen.”

That’s active surrender too.

Walk on. Might as well rock on, too, while you’re at it.


100th post

This is my 100th post on this blog, which I began in February. This reminds me of the main problem with blogs:

Over time there end up being 100s of posts on a blog and the best posts get buried under the new ones. This means new readers could miss out on the good stuff.

So I’ve decided to create a page called Best Posts. These are the posts that have received a lot of traffic, positive comments to me from friends and readers and also includes personal favorites of mine.

I’ll also list them below but first some housekeeping notes:

If you don’t already subscribe to this blog via email or RSS feed, please feel free to do so. Click here or just click one of the subscribe buttons on the sidebar. That way you won’t have to remember to visit the site. You’ll automatically get posts by email or in your feed reader.

I installed a Facebook Like button at the bottom of each post. They seem to be all the rage now. This way you can effortlessly share posts on Facebook if you ever feel so inclined. There’s also a regular share button that lets you send posts as an email or on Twitter, etc. Please share away – I don’t write these posts in order to hoard them for myself.

I’ve also installed a star rating and thumbs up rating at the bottom of posts. If you like a post (or don’t like one) you can anonymously give it a rating or a thumbs up or down if you’re too shy to leave a comment. I’ve used this on two other blogs for a couple of months and have benefited a lot from this feedback.

It has NOTHING AT ALL to do with ego, but with wanting to know what resonates with you. I’m not only concerned with what I want to write about…I want to know what you like too. Leaving comments always works too – I love getting your feedback.

OK, before this ends up being the most boring 100th post ever, here are my greatest hits posts:

Why Christians Suck at Storytelling

Nothing Brings Forth a Memory (Or Makes a Grandfather Cry) Like Music

Ferdinand the Bull: Champion of Introverts

Sam Sheepdog vs. Ralph Wolf

How to Overcome Zerissenheit (torn-to-pieces-hood)

Vicki the Biker’s Spring Break Survival Guide

The Case For Loneliness

How Listening is Like Prozac

You’re Always Telling a Story…Even at the Grocery Store

How To Harvest Your Failures And Stop Seeking Approval

Thanks for reading!


Coloring My World With The Reverse Generation Gap

Parents spend a lot of time introducing their young children to things.

But the fun really begins when the child is old enough to start exposing you to new things.

My two teenagers have made me aware of retro music, art and comics/manga I never would have noticed on my own before.

When I was a teenager, mass culture was still the norm. That is, to be a 16 year old girl in 1982 meant you almost certainly listened to Duran Duran music, or were at least very aware of it.

Today that’s no longer the case. Mass culture is over and we are all about subcultures now.

This means a teen girl is as likely to listen to Frank Sinatra or other music from the past as she is Lady Gaga. It’s possible for her to be interested in indie artists most of her peers have never heard of.

It also means my daughters listen to music I wouldn’t have given the time of day at their age because it’s music from my parents’ generation. It wasn’t cool to do that back when mass culture dictated what you listened to.

It’s like a reverse generation gap. Recently my 17 year old daughter pulled into the driveway and Frank Sinatra was blaring from the speakers.

A Madonna song was blasting from my computer speakers because I was doing an exercise workout. I quick hit the mute button, much like I would have back when I was a kid and one of my parents walked into the room.

Anyway, I now routinely listen to retro music, thanks to my kids.

One of the things I’m now studying as a result of my oldest daughter’s interests is Andy Warhol.

I only gave Warhol the merest edge of attention when I was a teenager. I probably thought it was weird that he liked to paint things like Campbell’s soup cans.

But when I listen to my daughter talk about how we was able to notice the beauty in everyday objects, I decided I needed to check out Warhol’s art.

So at the library the other day I did exhaustive research…I checked out a children’s picture book about Warhol. (Of course my daughter checked out a giant Warhol book that’s two feet long and several inches thick.)

This picture book was a very fun read.

It’s called Uncle Andy’s and was written and illustrated by his nephew, who is an artist. It’s a very charming look at his visits with Uncle Andy and gives you a look at Warhol’s art and everyday life.  Even if you couldn’t care less about Warhol, you’d enjoy this book.

It’s a good thing I checked out the Warhol picture book instead of the giant book, because there’s a stack of books my 14-year-old daughter checked out today, in hopes that I’ll read them. Keeping up with their interests could become a full time job.

She’s the one who exposed me to Color My World by Petula Clark from 1966. It’s one of her favorite songs and it’s now one of mine too. It’s an appropriate name because her and my other daughters’ interests really do color my world.


Becoming detached by becoming more attached

It’s kind of ironic that detachment requires attachment. But this is what Adrian van Kaam makes a case for in his book Personality Fulfillment in the Spiritual Life.

As you probably know, Christian tradition encourages detachment from the things of this world. Van Kaam, who was a Catholic priest and professor of psychology, says we are also to be attached:

I should be truly attached to this world, to my fellow man, to my study, and my task. Because I live a Christian existence, I should be more deeply committed to this world than any non-Christian.

So how does one cultivate a spirit of detachment if we are to be truly attached to this world? By becoming attached in a deeper way:

When I am really growing I do not lose my attachment to people and the world, but my attachment deepens itself constantly…

What I should give up is not my attachment to people and the world but the superficial forms of attachment to them.

He cites as an example a young man who falls for a girl because of her physical beauty. As he develops an attachment to her he discovers her inner qualities and his attachment deepens and he is able to truly love her.

Finally, assuming your attachments are healthy, of course, and not a result of extreme neediness, Van Kaam says attached detachment is the mark of an “authentic Christian.” Such a Christian is a “joyful lover of the world” to such a degree that people may say of him what they said of Christ:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, Behold a man who is a glutton and a wine-drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners (St. Luke 7:34).


The case for 30 minute friendships

In this age of social media, we toss about the term BFF (Best Friends Forever) pretty casually.

Many friendships aren’t of the “forever” variety, however, and have a shelf life even though Facebook makes it possible to artificially extend that shelf life and let us pretend we still have some sort of connection.

Some friendships are only of the 30 minute variety – someone you meet briefly and really click with but there isn’t the possibility of anything more.

For example, a couple of summers ago I was at a park and couldn’t help but initiate a conversation with another mother there who was wearing capris in the exact length and style I had been looking for.

She told me where she bought them and we chatted effortlessly for about a half hour, as if we were old friends, and we laughed and had a good time. I almost asked her if she’s on Facebook but refrained and gracefully submitted to the 30 minute shelf life.

Another 30 minutes friendship I vividly recall was at the end of my senior year of college.

I ran into a student who had taken an English class with me that semester. We hardly spoke to each other while we were students in class together. But this time, as we stood on the library mall on campus, we had a 30 minute or so conversation that was deep and we really clicked.

There was no email or Facebook then so at the end of the conversation I knew that our friendship was only meant to be a 30 minute one.

Except I just cheated…after typing that I googled him (his name is unusual and I hadn’t forgotten it) and see that he has a doctorate in psychology and has a practice a couple of hours from here.

See? Thanks to Google and social media sites, it’s possible to both resurrect old friendships (including ones that shouldn’t be resurrected) as well as artificially extend the shelf life of friendships that would have naturally ended.

I’m content letting him remain in the 30 minute category, however.

The nice thing about a life peppered with the occasional 30 minute friendship is that these friendships help remind you to be thankful for the friends that actually are of the “forever” variety.


Wall of Women: Adding Charm To Even These Four Walls

The interior of your home tells a story.

Because I have four daughters, work from home and lacked design skills, the story mine has told the past several years is: “OMG. Please send help!”

Help has finally arrived in the form of Robert and Cortney Novogratz, who run Sixx Design in New York City.

My daughters and I became addicted to their TV show 9 By Design because it tells the story of their design business and how they juggle clients along with raising seven kids.

We also page through their book Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home: From Wreck to Ravishing kind of obsessively because the decorating tips are told in the context of the story of how they have built and sold several gorgeous homes in New York city.

It’s kind of laughable that I, of all people, would pore over a book called Downtown Chic.  I guess my design story could be called Downtown Chic Meets Small Town Cheek.

As a writer I live in my head and in the world of ideas, not drapes, paint colors and art.

But then I heard Robert say in one of the episodes that you can add charm to any four walls.

He also says: “Good taste doesn’t come with money. You need creativity, and that can happen anywhere. It’s our goal to get that across.”

All of a sudden I looked at our four walls as a way to tell a story. Interior design doesn’t have to be about perfection and fussiness, which is how I used to view it.

While paging through Downtown Chic I noticed they had a “Wall of Women” – a wall of prints and posters of women.

I got the idea to create our own wall of women, but with a different twist.

This would be a collection of photos of women in movies, comic books, literature, TV, etc. who I and the four girls have been inspired by or just plain enjoyed together.

My oldest daughter (unlike me she has actual design sensibilities) thought this was a great idea and we spent a Saturday afternoon printing out photos and buying frames at local thrift shops for less than $1 each.


(Click here for a larger version of the photo.)

If you’re looking at this wall and going, “What in the world are Mrs. Brady, Seven of Nine and Flannery O’Connor doing on the same wall??” then… welcome to my family.

There’s a story behind each photo. I smile every time I look at this wall.

And that’s not all. We’re working on other small projects inspired by them, including a unique “installation” of our kids’ art.

Thanks to Robert and Cortney I no longer view my four walls as “too small” or as something I can improve only when I have enough money.

And as Robert says about houses in this video, “Enjoy it, it’s just a house. It’s the people in it that matter.”