Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

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Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.

All together now: Ommmm and “Just Win, Baby”

Over the weekend I participated in a women’s retreat. It was filled with meditation, learning, spirituality, Torah study, “Council,” painting, writing, imbibing good food and wine, dancing my booty off to 70’s music, and one single ride on a water slide followed by a soak in the hot tub. Life was grand.

And…I also faced a Monday deadline for an Opposition to a Motion for Summary Judgment. Donning my lawyer-hat, I convened with my laptop during the breaks. Because life isn’t always a party. As Rabbi Amy says, the crappy stuff is connected to the glorious stuff. (Sh’ma, it’s all one, yadda yadda). Much as I wish I could edit out the unpleasantness and leave only sunshine, life is contrasts.

Happily, my law colleague is a friend (he hasn’t changed much since we were ten) who has an easy smile and a healthy perspective on life and work. He is first and foremost a father. What does this mean for our lawyering? We work hard, care deeply, do our best, keep learning, and don’t freak out. As long as our children are healthy and happy, we can handle whatever else comes.

Working on disability discrimination cases, though, we are often reminded that for many parents the kids are not alright. They struggle with the most basic things. They suffer exclusion and isolation. On their behalf, I get impatient with our legal processes: motions, oppositions, objections – such wastes of time when there are problems to be solved! I imagine a weekend retreat with all the parties listening to each other, a City “council” instead of counsel, all of us in yoga pants sitting in a circle with a talking stick instead of a court reporter.

I know, l ruined it with the yoga pants image.

What I’m saying is this: wouldn’t it be cool to bring that centeredness, that authenticity, and genuine listening, into the regular world, work and family and relationships? I know I won’t change the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The systems are set. Just let me dream a bit about a world that infuses those values into the process…

And then back to work. Because lala-gooey-hoohoo vibes aside, I’m competitive as hell and I like to win. Ommmmmmmm.

 

 

On Quitting, Committing, and Letting Go

Commitment. Responsibility. Perseverance. Quitting.

These are the words released from my pre-dawn dream into my first waking thoughts.

They are the words in the air this week, in the texts I’m receiving and sending other moms, in the hurried how-are-you’s in front of the Y before a half-baked workout.

Why are these words plaguing my subconscious? There are times when your child doesn’t want to keep doing what they’ve done. A team, a class, an instrument. And their simple plea to stop triggers a parental-tizzy in me because I don’t know what value to impart: Be tough and follow through, or be free and follow your desire. The older my children get, the more sand that fills the bottom of our 18-year timepiece, the more significance these value-laden moments carry.

We are in one of those times with our eldest. So I do what I always do: I scroll through my life to see if I can find a lesson somewhere, some way to connect to what he is feeling. I find one: my first week in college, a class I had registered for when I was still in high school, before I knew that no one in their right mind attends a seminar with 8 students (nowhere to hide) from 3 to 6pm on a Friday. I attended the first class thinking mostly of how much I didn’t want to be there, but telling myself that I was stuck with it because I wasn’t a quitter. Quitting was weak. Quitting was shameful. My heart sank further as the professor explained there would be 200 pages of reading each week. I wanted out so badly, but it didn’t fit my perception of who I wanted to be. And then, the miracle happened: he asked if anyone minded if he smoked during class. THIS was a reason I could justify! I walked out of class, not because I couldn’t work hard, I told myself, but because I refused to breathe second-hand smoke for three hours every week. Thank goodness, or I would have been miserable, missing a lot of what freshman year was about – the lead-in to the weekend (actually, that started Thursday). Was it the right decision? Who knows? It was a decision, and I don’t think it ruined me.

Sometimes there are good reasons for quitting. A bad relationship. An abusive boss. A profession that doesn’t fill your soul. I want my kids to be able to shift course if the signs point to better paths, to follow their gut.

And yet, I want them to stick with things when they get hard. I want them to honor commitments they make to themselves and other people, and to know how to buckle down. Life will get hard and they need to cultivate those inner resources to get to the other side.

What to do?

I ride my bike down to the bluffs, where I spent many teenage afternoons trying to make sense of things. I pass a young dad with long hair, walking with his 18-month-old daughter in his arms, the profound wordless companionship of a full-grown soul in a barely-grown body. They stop at a swing that someone hung from a giant eucalyptus. I used to be the one pushing my baby in that very swing.

It’s tempting to say that things were simpler back then. But that time is when my worrying-tendencies burst alive. When decisions about myself – take or drop the class—became decisions about my children. When every question – co-sleep or no, pacifier or no, pre-school or no—became a test of what kind of parent I was and what kind of human I would raise.

I turn my head from the father and daughter and look out toward the ocean. I gasp. It’s enormous. Even bigger today than yesterday, I swear it. And — hallelujah! — the power that transformed my teenage mountain-sized problems into grains of sand works again. It doesn’t give me the answer – commitment versus knowing when to say “I’m done” — but it does give me a transitory peace of knowing that everything will be fine, that what I decide won’t determine if my children become life-long quitters or masters of tenacity.

I decide that I will tell my budding adolescent all that I was thinking about, the yin and yang of yes or no, stay or go. I will give him my best advice, and I will trust him to figure it out.

There it is.

A quick scroll through my life-reel finds this legacy all over the place, the confidence born from being trusted to know the right path for me. I give thanks for that legacy to pass down, and for the familiar shiver of ocean-gazing-plus-writing-leads-to-an-answer alchemy that has sustained me since I was his age.

The petty economies and small repairs…

“Yes, I am like you. I worry about the same things as you – the everyday, the trivial, the petty economies, and small repairs. And I, like you, know that these mundane events somehow mean more than the large sweeping things, the corporation mergers, invasions, depressions, and decisions of the President’s Cabinet. Not that the things I am concerned with are important. Heavens, no, they’re just little things, but they matter, you know, they matter most to a life. To my life, my children’s life, even my husband’s life, although he’d never admit it. My husband threw a tantrum because there was no coffee in the house one morning! Would you believe it? A grown man. Yes, these things matter very much to them. And my own life – well, my life is bounded by small things. When Johnny has had a good day at Little League; when the sun pours through the kitchen window in a certain way on a fall morning; when I am able to transform cheap meat into a delicious stew, or my shoddy room into something almost – but not quite – beautiful; those are the times I am happy. When I feel useful, when there is harmony in the world.”

From The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French

Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.

Resolution # 2: Find your heart’s calling, resist “prestige”

Yesterday morning I looked out on a winter’s day in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. My eyes absorbed the leaves, wet and drained of autumn pigment, clinging to skinny dark branches, refusing to fall. It was the kind of day that used to bring the lyrics of “California Dreamin’” to my lips when I was a freshman at Penn, far from my native habitat of Pacific Ocean sunsets. Yes, all the leaves are brown! Yes, the sky is gray! It’s all true! At eighteen years old, my future was unlimited. Every path was open.

Today, many significant reunions later, I’m “safe and warm in L.A.,” back to work, writing and lawyering and mom-ing.

And…checking e-mail, which sends me to Facebook, which leads me to a post by Maria PopovaHow to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love. Uh-oh.

It puts me in the same frame of mind as the couplet closing “The Summer Day” by poet Mary Oliver“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It taunts me. Such pressure! Am I living up to it?

As though he is in cahoots, my ten-year-old son (who has lamented that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up) asks me, “Mom, do you love your job?” I consider, and answer: “I love writing…I like being a lawyer.” I tell myself that’s pretty good.

Do you know what you are called to do, are you are doing it?

Do you feel that you are glimpsing it, standing at the edge of the cliff and sensing that what you seek is out there, if only you had the courage to leap?

Are you close enough, happy enough, and don’t need to rock the boat?

I am not a leaper; I am a baby stepper. I cringe my way into the ocean and have inched my way for years into the writer’s life, combining it with the lawyer’s (if it’s good enough for Scott Turow, etc…). But one particular wisdom in Popova’s article is for all of us, leapers and baby-steppers alike: Let go of the false prize of prestige.

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

….

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Prestige lurks and tempts: it is the esteemed career path, without the passion; the appointment to a high-falutin’ committee, without the interest. If the passion is not there, resist! Enlist the help of friends, if necessary. (I once asked my sister to shoot me if I applied to be a Law Review Editor. I knew I’d hate it, but I knew I was susceptible to its golden bauble, resume value.) I resisted on my own. No shots were fired.

What a way to enter the new year. Seek more of what moves you. Move closer to the joyful sound, the bracing splash, of your heart’s calling. Even if you have to inch your way toward it.

New Year’s Resolutions: Stress Less, Laugh More

It’s hard to get out of ruts in thinking and behaviors. With New Year’s approaching, I’m preparing for a big resolution to do just that. I share it with you in the hopes that you’ll help me stick to it, because lordy lord lord I am going to need a LOT of help with this:

I have wasted so much energy (we’re talking powering-every-household-in-California-for-a-year energy) stressing about the amount of time my kids spend playing video games (not violent ones, mind you—just innocent and fun sports games, for cryin’ out loud). My motivation is pure; I think they’ll benefit from varying things up a bit, getting a bit of Vitamin D. Using the lonely trampoline. Nonetheless, my obsession is a complete waste of time and has caused unnecessary anguish in our home.

Hold that thought, and pair it with this: Yesterday I mentioned to a visiting friend that our boys still like to read with us at night before going to sleep.

She stopped me, went wide-eyed and repeated back: Your boys. Like to read. With their parents.

I smacked my forehead (again): Duh!

Why do I not instead expend energy dwelling on that sweet fact? Or a million other sweet facts about my boys?

And why does it take other people to point out what’s right in front of me?

My older son is the person who most consistently points out my failings, and 99% of the time he is on the money, so I appreciate his constructive criticism. Ironically, it’s the things I do trying to be a good mother that mostly mess up. Irony sucks.

My friend, psychologist Lana Benedek, recently offered parents at the elementary school a Mindful Parenting lesson. Here’s some of it, and what I will endeavor to commit to my soul’s memory for my New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Honor your child’s sovereignty, accept his or her unique abilities and needs.

Let go of what I wish they would do or be and see that they are so perfect as who they are.

  1. Let go of perfectionist standards in parenting, and accept that even with the best intentions mistakes will happen.

And how.

My kids are funny, compassionate, loving, thoughtful, inquisitive, silly, smart and above all else, entirely themselves. They are more than anyone could wish for. And I don’t need any help at all remembering that.

Happy new year to all.

Laura

How to See Miracles

My grandmother has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.

How to Have a Good Day (or “Believe Me, Mom! I’m Sick!”)

It’s the kind of morning where you are not sure which way the day is going to go.

Either your child, who stayed home sick-ish from school yesterday (sore throat and headache, nothing verifiable to the outside eye) will be ready to go back to school and you – who work at home and enjoy all the flexibility and distractions and opportunities for kids to stay home from school that working from home provides – will have the house to yourself: to think, to write, to work, to procrastinate with coffee and newspaper in peace, or whatever it is you do.

It could be that kind of day.

Or, it could be a day where your child wakes up, appearing for all the world to be rested and rejuvenated after a day off; where he eats his cereal and readies himself for the school day without complaint or debate, perhaps with an attitude of “this is my lot, may as well face it; there’s nothing I can say that would change her mind to let me stay home so I will bear this cross and go to school” – at which moment his brother (coughing and nose-blowing and feverish) emerges from the guestroom (where he has slept last night because his own brand new, eco-conscious, expensive mattress is “not comfortable”) in T-shirt and underwear disheveled and clearly not going to school; and upon seeing him the child says with eyes wide: “HE’S still here???”

And you know, deep inside, which kind of day it is going to be, even before he changes his countenance, slouches his posture, and says: “I’m not feeling well.”

But you still hope! Because by this point he is dressed – shoes on – and you have agreed to drive him in the car to school. You still believe that his healthy happy core might carry the day – until you hear his commentary on the quick trip to school: “I’ll be home in an hour; see ya’ soon, Mom,” and “no one ever believes me when I say I’m sick” (guilty) and “remember when I had pneumonia and no one thought I was sick” (no); and he continues this commentary out of the car up to the threshold of school, close enough for us to say hello to the PE coach; and you think about getting a call from school in an hour, when you are in the middle of something, you think about the guilt you will feel (toward him, the teacher, the other kids at school for exposing an actually sick child to them), and you say to your child: “You want to come home?”

He looks at you, incredulous – this campaign worked? he was believed? you have a heart? – and he says “Yes,” still not sure if you meant it. And you do.  You come home. He gets back into his footed pajamas, retrieves his book out of his backpack, and climbs into your soft bed to read.

And you think, this day is going to be a good one.