Friday, December 7, 2012

7 quick takes Friday

 1. One of the saddest things in the world is making delicious high calorie food and then burning it.  On the one hand, you have spent money and time on this creation. On the other, what is the point of consuming bad-for-you-food when it doesn’t taste good. A cruel conundrum. This is why I recommend vigilance. And am also considering getting new baking sheets.

2. As I remember every year, gift giving is an art—not a science. Which is why someone, in suggesting to a friend what to get for her spoiled child (this is a purely fictional scenario) might write “cool binky.” Which could translate into this gift (already sold out on some websites):

3. It was so funny seeing Jen Fulwiler’s mention of how she gets into Christmas cards. See:   Funny because I love Jen and she’s brilliant and we have so much in common but Christmas cards are the absolute bane of my existence because:
a)      They come at a really busy time of year.
b)      They come at the end of the semester (this is mostly a problem when I’m teaching…)
c)       I never know who exactly to send them to (I mean, people who live far away ‘need’ them most since we don’t have much contact. But then do I NOT send them to close-by friends?
d)      I’m never sure what to write (I always want to write more but don’t have the time and not sure what to say and not up for sending a full family report every year…).
e)      My mother never sent any.
f)       My father only sent a few, almost all of which he sent after Christmas, only to a few family members.
g)      My husband sends them nice and early to all the people on HIS side.
Can you tell I could go on? But I’ll stop here. I’m open to being convinced—and to changing.
4. My husband and I went on a Downton Abbey watching fest a couple of weeks ago. It’s a really extraordinary series (we’ve finished the first two seasons). Most dramas seem to be about a person, a family, a company, a group—you name it—crashing and burning. It can be slow (better drama) or fast—but when there’s drama, it’s usually bad. (Think The Godfather, Mad Men, The Shield, etc.) One of the thing I love about Downton is that there’s plenty of drama—but there’s also plenty of good. And good people. And the drama comes mostly from good but imperfect people facing complicated circumstances and figuring out what to do.

5. I committed to doing this blog knowing that I’d have to be patient with a super slow, erratic speed. But I disappointed even my own personal low standard when I failed to blog at all last month (and I’m not working outside the home right now). There are boring reasons for that but the interesting reason is that I am reading these books by the Heath brothers and absolutely loving them so I don’t want to slow down to write them. Highly recommend. Made to Stick is great but Switch is even better. Read them now.

6. Inspired by many things—Switch among them—I decided to commit to daily mass during Advent this year. Amazing what a difference one thing can make (like making your bed, only better). There were a lot of reasons why I didn’t go before (two small, unruly children among them). But everything is more ordered—internally and externally—now that I’ve started going. Wow.

7. My daughter—a bright, energetic girl, really!—recently had a homework assigned where they were asked to identify “factual” sentences and distinguish them from persuasive ones. At the end they were asked to write a sentence “trying to convince others to agree with you about something that is important to you.” Here is what she wrote (sorry, didn't have time to scan it in her 9-year old writing): 

Chickens are pests.

 I laughed so hard I cried. And then she laughed with me. Good to instill a good sense of self-mockery in your children from an early age. Serves us all well throughout our lives.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Habits...of Another Kind

This post is way overdue but the stars aligned yesterday to remind me. After reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I was quite inspired to re-think some of my own habits—as well my children’s (I’ll leave my spouse of things for now J). One of Duhigg's lengthier reflections is on how Target managed to make inroads among pregnant customers. Apparently, new parents are a very interesting group to retailers because they much more open to changing their habits than your average consumer, since their lives have just been totally disrupted (since this is a Mom Blog I feel no need to explain why!)
Anyway, a couple of days ago, Duhigg was on our local NPR station, talking about habits with Dr. Dan Gottlieb and Michael Bain of UPenn on “Voices in the Family”. Part of the discussion centered about how habits evolve. Duhigg’s operating definition of a habit is something we initially do consciously and deliberately and which, after a certain point, we do something routinely and automatically without thinking—Duhigg’s go-to example is backing our car out of our driveway. Initially it requires a lot of attention and focus but after a while it becomes second nature. Our brain makes a neural pathway and when it sees its cue, its starts to go in the direction of habit. What once took a while to figure out becomes a mental short cut.
Why do we do these things? Apparently, we do them mostly for the “dopamine hit” that we get from them. This is easy to see in cases like junk food, drugs, and alcohol—the pleasure center in our brain gets activated and so we reach for the Ben and Jerry’s, even though we know it’s the 4th time in a row. But food isn’t the only thing that gives that “hit”—it seems like even backing out of our driveway gives a psychic satisfaction that we crave on some level.  The key to unlocking and working with our habits is to identify the cue, the routine, and, especially, the reward. What is it that I get out of habit x that I crave? If I can find a better way of getting that reward, I can change the habit. The goal, then, is to figure out the two ends of the habit loop: the cue and the reward. To break a routine, I need to a) identify the routine b) experiment with rewards c) isolate the cue (the standard five are location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediate preceding action) and d) [drum roll] have a plan.
The mystery to me is how to use this to my benefit. While I have bad habits like anybody, what bothers me most (and those around me) are all the habits I don’t have. Like screwing the tops all the way back on lids (don’t ask) …or turning the lights out before I go to sleep…or…I think I’ll stop here lest I betray too many embarrassing weaknesses…. If I can just find a way to a reward for doing those things I’ll be all set. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

In Praise of Dabbled Things

(I don't want my paint job to look like this but it's lovely nonetheless.....)

The other day I got rather aggravated as I worked on a Home Project. This is not surprising since I have a love-hate relationship with household projects. Love the idea. Hate the actual execution, since I'm lazy and imprecise by nature and it requires ongoing supernatural powers to change me--but which I continue to invoke regularly. Anyway, to be specific: we had gotten the trim in several rooms painted but for financial and family disagreement reasons (the trim had been my idea while my husband preferred keeping it dark), we hadn't done some other adjoining rooms. So--once greater family unity was established on the esthetic end-- I  decided to tackle the trim in my kitchen (including a rather substantial bay window) myself. For a non-precision person like me, it can be a daunting task. As I struggled,  I found myself getting rather annoyed at the half baked way my family often does things. I mean, heck, it would have been so much easier if we had gotten the painters to do the whole thing. I wouldn't be sweating as I primed the window hoping that my nursing infant wouldn't wake up and need me before I'd cleaned the paint off my hands.  Why can't we do things right? I wondered (OK, muttered bitterly) to myself.  Why do we always DABBLE instead of doing things wholesale?

Somehow, luckily, I remembered a couple of things. One was some of the hundred houses or so houses we'd seen while house hunting. (Really, we did see a hundred between our two house hunts in the Philly area. More on that some other time). I remembered how many had clearly done the WHOLE HOUSE in a given period. That period often involved a predilection for thick green shag carpet, mirrored walls and possibly doors, and very bold, very adherent wallpaper. I was open to radical redecorating but I remember sometimes thinking that it would be hard to remove some of the decorating choices entirely from those houses, and that I probably couldn't afford to do so. I--and possibly the houses owners--would have been much better off if they'd done only one room or area at a time. Then they might not have fallen prey to thinking whatever was popular at the time was the way to do everything. They would have done better if they'd dabbled....

I also found myself thinking about Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem Pied Beauty (thank you, 11th grade English!). It's the one where Hopkins gives praise to "dappled things"--freckles and so forth. I love freckles and freckled people but back in Hopkins' era they weren't considered so very pretty. So he was giving thanks for a beauty that many people wouldn't have recognized. He was noticing and loving a loveliness that many hadn't yet come to appreciate.

So maybe there is an upside to all our home's Dabbled Things. Here's to hoping that time and maturity help me recognize their loveliness more fully.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How I Challenged the Universe—and Won

    ...well, maybe sort of.....

One of my favorite family stories concerns some sophisticated praying my sister Jessica did as a young girl. When my mom was pregnant with her fifth child (Jessica was 9), Jess really wanted the baby to be a girl. So she prayed really hard that my mom have a girl. Instead, my brother Mike was born (and yes, she—and I—love him anyway). But when my mom got pregnant again four years later, an older, wiser, Jessica decided that it was time to try some reverse psychology on God. So she prayed that my mom have a boy. And sure enough, Anna came out female. Triumph!

I couldn’t help thinking about that story in my recent attempts to beat the universe at its own game. You, see, I have really bad luck. Not the ”my-life-sucks-everything-always-goes-wrong-and-no-one-loves me” kind of bad luck, just the “I’ve-played-this-game-1,000 times-how-come-I-haven’t-won-yet?” variety.  What makes it stranger is that many, many, times when I play things I really think I’m going to win. Really. I even envision scenarios in my head where people ask me and I have to admit to just having had this sense that this was my lucky day. Only it never is. But that hasn’t stopped me. I’ve entered HGTVs sweepstakes,’s daily giveaway, May Fair Peg Boards—you name it. But nada, scattah, zilch.
That is, until this summer. My husband, you see, has quite good luck. He won a raffle at our church last summer and this summer he won a prize basket at a work event.  Our local pool has been doing a number of new fundraising initiatives this summer and decided to raffle off a number of prize baskets. Simple enough: you buy your tickets and put them in the jar of whichever prizes you’re interested in winning. Easy.  Except that I kept looking at them all and mentally calculating the relationship of my interest in the basket to my likelihood of winning. Spa package—good stuff, but too many people. Free photography session—not so many people but possible hidden costs…So it took considerably longer than trying to decide what to have for dinner at a brand new restaurant on my anniversary. That is, quite a long time. But as I was (finally) filling out my tickets, I had a revelation regarding the self evident truths already established. I’ll call it Corollary A: I have bad luck. My husband has good luck. What if I took this principle and utilized it to my advantage?

So I tested the universe. I filled out half of the tickets with my name and cell number. I filled the other half out with my husband’s name and our home number.  And lo and behold, Colin won, confirmed by a call to our house the next day. And it was a prize basket tailor-made for him—no random toys for the kids or manicures for me. A discounted pool membership and a couple of free swimming lessons.

You may call it luck. I call it working the psychological angle on the universe.  I’ll take it over my bad luck any day.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

One Thing I Do Know—Lessons from Joe Paterno’s Statue (and Its Removal)

Years ago, when my husband and I were still living in NY, we went down some familiar highway only to discover it had been renamed for some local politician. I remember my husband asking why we would rename a highway for someone still living. I’ve had reason to come back to that question many times, but lately it’s as clear as day that it’s a bad idea.

Living where I do, the Penn State-Sandusky affair has been especially big news.  Over the course of this year, Joe Paterno has gone from a figure embodying the Penn State Football Powerhouse and fatherly fun to a man representing the triumph of an Old Boys Network over the welfare of children. Earlier this week, the newspapers were ablaze with reactions to the removal of JoePa’s statue from the campus, out of apparent concern that it was an overly divisive symbol (and cynical speculation that it was done to appease the anticipated NCAA sanctions. If the latter, it was a miserable failure).  

I don’t know what I think of Joe Paterno overall, though I’m inclined to think he was a great man, with some serious flaws. But I do know what I think of putting up a statue while a man is still living. It’s a not a good thing to do—for many reasons. First of all—since we usually have the decency to wait until someone is dead-- it makes it seem like the person has already passed.  So a living person gets to pass in front of his statue regularly. Weird.  But more importantly, it tends to make him see himself as larger than life. A famous man, who feels loved by everyone can be easily tempted to arrogance. If we want to keep our leaders great, we need to keep them humble. And putting up statues while they’re alive is temptation to arrogance if ever there was.  If we love our great men—and I hope we do—let’s help them stay that way. Finally, putting up a statue is a testament to a person’s legacy. Presenting that legacy before that person’s death is jumping the gun. We know not to build structures on ‘projected’ inheritances—the market can deliver nasty surprises and so we wait for the real thing.  To do otherwise is presumptuous—and always a bad call.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why I Don't Get Manicures (Very Often Anyway...)

So I finally decided to go get a manicure/pedicure last weekend. That might seem like a simple enough thing, but when you’re me, it’s not. The appointment for the mani-pedi (as those who get them often call them) was precipitated by the fact that I had a gift certificate for a salon that’s 5 minutes from my house (on a bad day, with traffic). 
(That's my color, "Beau", third  from left--I think, anyway)

The gift certificate was a Christmas gift, as in, I received it for Christmas last year, but it’s not that simple, see? I used to get my hair done at that salon but it was just too expensive for me and so (much as I liked my stylist), I decided I need to search out cheaper pastures. So I had specifically requested a gift certificate for that salon on my Christmas giftwish list (more on that later…) but I hadn’t specified the extremely exorbitant amount it would have to be lest my family gape in disgust and amazement at what I was asking them to pony up for. So when I got the $60 gift card I thought, Hmmmm….I will have to put on my thinking cap and figure out what to do. Which was followed by months of deliberation, most of which follows the my basic internal debate of whether to pay for goods or experiences, especially when it comes to being “pampered”. A massage sounds awesome. How relaxing. But what do you have to show for it when you get home? So maybe a massage isn’t the way to go. Well then, should I just get a standard, “boring” mani-pedi with this and not spend more (except for the tip)? Or should I get a massage and spend more money? Should I scrimp and save and BEG so I can get my hair done there again and spend even more money? That massage sounds great. Should I get one now while I’m pregnant or wait? A post-partum one?...Which was followed by several emails to family and friends until I finally determined (with my insanely patient and understanding friend Maria) that I would indeed, get a mani-pedi but instead of a regular manicure I’d get a New Improved Gel Manicure.

The excitement of the Gel Manicure will make more sense if you understand that one of the traditional problems I have with manicures is that my annual manicure simply doesn’t last. I *know* that a year is a long time, but it barely even lasts three days most of the time. Some of this I can—and will—blame on the Evil Sick people who make nail polish (much like the Evil People who make women’s stocking deliberately so they will snag on a pew or a desk or even a toilet seat just as you are making your way toward your Big Event).  But I must acknowledge my own part in the matter. To wit: I simply do not know how to be careful with my hands. I mean, they’re my hands! I need to use them! Gloves make me claustrophobic—really! And life is full of challenges—like opening drawers, and scraping those label residues off of things and chopping onions etc. ETC.— I simply cannot be bothered to slow down. So *why* can’t they make a nail polish that is scratch and chip resistant?  Enter the Gel Manicure—a manicure that lasts!

Now, those of you who know nails know that the gel manicure isn’t exactly brand new news. But for people like me who get manicures about once a year, it’s Hot of the Presses. So I got all psyched up for this manicure like no other, especially since I was going to a party later that day and wanted to show off my beautiful nails for once. I arrived at my appointment on time and was greeted by Jee, my assistant. Making the pleasant small talk that is the bane of my salon experience (and analysts would probably tell me was the underlying motivation for my salon-avoidance behavior) , Jee started work on my feet and asked me if I’d been there before. Uh Yes, I said, though not for nails (perhaps it was obvious?). Continuing the small talk, Jee asked me if I had children. Uh Yes, I said, actually I had five. Laughing nervously and anticipating painful conversation for the next hour,  I explained that might have something to do with why I hadn’t been there before. “Five children!” she said. “I know someone with four children, but no one with five. You Catholic?” “Ha ha, yes, I said.” I didn’t think that telling her about the many people I know with MANY MORE children would really help broaden her horizons, just prove to her beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Really Weird Woman had come into her orbit.

The conversation was better than average, but then, I have very low standards. My toenails look great, but of course I managed to bang my hand shortly after the manicure and two days later I cut part of my nail with a knife. I can’t decide if I want them to wear off in a week (5 days and counting as I type) so I can prove my point or whether I really should still hold out hope that I have found the Font of Nail Life and Hope. My sister-- who has 7 kids and an extremely busy schedule—tells me that gel manicures last 2-3 weeks and then “for people like us” they just peel off (for normal people, apparently, getting the gel off is a Big Issue). Which made me wonder--where does my sister find the time to get a gel manicure? Somehow  I imagine the lack of emailing everyone she loves and pestering the bejeezus out of them trying to decide what to do helps her in the time category. I’ll have to text her and ask….

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Parenting à la française (per Schwartz)

I’ve been on a French kick recently —and it seems like I’m in good company. I recently finished Karen LeBillon’s French Kids Eat Everything and now I’m reading Bringing Up Bébé. LeBillon’s book has definitely made me think about both my own parenting-food habits and those of our nation at large (i.e. why must we snack all the time?). But the public response to these books (both of which had article-length versions of their contents in major newspapers) has made me think about bigger issues as well. To wit: why are we American parents so interested in different “national” approaches? Last year, the Tiger Mom and “Chinese-style” parenting, this year French-style—pour quoi? 
Coming back to Schwartz’s choice paradoxes (as I so often do!), I think one big reasons is that American parents feel overwhelmed  by the number of choices that confront them as parents. As if having a newborn child weren’t already dramatic enough—we have added all kinds of extra questions about how to approach things. Which I get—heck, I think it’s kind of fun exploring approaches! But it can also be too much. Way, way, too much. And what happens (coming back to Schwartz) when people are overwhelmed by choice? They either a) don’t make choices or b) make bad choices based on easy-to-assess categories and  c) we make choices that we later regret at disproportionate rates) .  When it comes to dealing with your kids, option A isn’t really much of a choice. After all, you have to feed them something, somehow. But in the absence of a really clear underlying approach, most of us end up parenting on the fly. Which would be fine if that meant we were parenting from our hearts and minds. But often, it ends up being by instinct. Child hungry+tired parent=easily obtainable, child-pleasing food choice (i.e. low quality snack food).
In searching for a simple parenting philosophy, we know that our own country offers too many options— enter the foreign approach. It’s simple! It’s clear! Everyone in the [superior nation of your choice] does it! It works! American pragmatism meets our cultural inferiority complex and simplifies the choices in the process. What’s interesting to me is that we realize that we need a more authoritative way to approach our children—we sense that being their friends isn’t going to cut it—for us or them. But we’re not quite sure how to do that yet. So all these books aren’t a simple solution to our national parenting ills. But –I hope—they’re making us think about finding simple approaches to raising healthy, happy, and (dare I say it?) good kids—as well as “above average” ones.  I just hope we avoid the Scylla and Charibdis temptations that there’s either a) a magic bullet out there when it comes to raising perfect kids or b) it doesn’t really matter what you do.  In the meantime, vive la différence!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The [Sigh] Burdens of Motherhood: A Late Mother’s Day Reflection

Last night, while my daughter was setting the table I started to lose it. It’s her job to set the table this month, but that didn’t stop her from sighing as she did it. Every time she put something out or down, she sighed. Setting the whole, entire table was just too burdensome, apparently-- I would have laughed if it weren’t so irritating (and disturbingly familiar).  A few weeks ago, I visited with an old guy friend (I’ll call him John). We had some serious conversations, including extensive discussion of his family life, parents, and, particularly, his mother. I know his family well, and I was somewhat surprised to learn how unhappy he was with his mother (I don’t think all his siblings feel that way). But John clearly feels abandoned by his mom in some critical sense, and in explaining his deep resentment, he told me that whenever he calls his mom to ask her for or about something, she always lets him know how inconvenient, burdensome, or difficult she finds the task or request he’s put to her. She does what he asks (I guess, anyway!) but she lets him know she doesn’t want to. I felt bad for both John and his mother, because I imagine she really does love him but doesn’t realize how she hurts him by doing this. She’s a good woman who doesn’t realize what she’s doing to him.

My friend’s comments on his mom have really made me think about the way I treat my kids. When John told me how mother acts, I felt a little….accused. I know John’s mother loves him; I know I love my children. But kids are also a lot of work. So they ask me to do things when I’m doing something else or when I’m trying to be attentive to something or someone else who needs me. And it’s easy—at least for me—to let them know that their requests are a drag. But ever since that conversation with John I’ve tried to be careful; a little more attentive to how and what I say. So if I can go outside and play for 5 minutes and then come back to finish dinner, I go outside first, when they ask me. If I can’t do something they want (which happens with extreme frequency), I am trying to just tell them that, rather than sighing and explaining how I can’t possibly do what they ask because it’s far too difficult blah blah blah. I’ll give them a reason (I’m helping your sister with her homework, for example), but I’m trying to avoid unnecessary commentary (adult whining you might call it). Hopefully my kids will see the difference.

You might say I’m trying to (just) say yes when I mean yes, and (just) say no when I mean no. Harder than it sounds!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

(Light Take Thursday) French Man’s Behavior in Eastern Europe Confirms Suspicions: (At Least Some) French Men Do Not Eat Everything

Eat that?  Non, non, et NON!

While recent parenting articles and blogs have extensively documented the advantages of continental children in regards to their eating habits, our European correspondent was recently able to validate concerns that their adult counterparts are not as reliable. While on vacation with his family in his wife’s native country, Didier P* brought along a week’s supply of chicken thighs, rice, and produce. During their stay in Eastern Europe, he refused to eat any of the native food. Speaking in a combination of broken English and his native dialect, Didier explained, [local expletives deleted] “Who know what they put in zee food? I prefer not take risks—so I bring wif me.” His wife and sister in law confirmed that he paid little to no regard to standard European conventions of hospitality. “He refused to eat any of the food people cooked for him,” his wife confirmed, “Back at home, he eats a pretty wide variety of things, but he was very suspicious of the food here and would not even try anything that was offered to him. His behavior was very alienating to my grandmother and other family that he was meeting for the first time. But there was really nothing I could do. He’s a grown man—you know?”  Many people have suggested that Didier might benefit from a return to the womb and a short stay in Paris where, presumably, the purer version of French culinary upbringing is practiced in the hope that he might (re) learn to eat everything the way that French children do.

*Based on a true story. The man’s name has been changed to protect his family from embarrassment and him from excessive numbers of American parents who might try to seek validation by trying to  friend him on Facebook.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Three Times and You're Out!

So…something that came up at dinner after Schwartz’s talk was things that it’s difficult or impossible to make your students believe (when they’re true). Schwartz’s glaring example was the extent of randomness, especially as it affects our understanding of sports. He’s had the darndest time convincing Swarthmore undergraduates that what they call a “hot” or “cold” streak is really no such thing. He’s not saying that such a thing may not exist, mind you, but that what we often term evidence that a player is on a hot or cold streak is not really evidence. It’s very hard for us to believe that chance could generate long streaks. Schwartz mentioned that many iPod shuffle users complained to Apple that the shuffle wasn't really playing music at random. Their evidence? That sometimes the same song would play twice in a row. But that is, indeed, something that can happen at random. Our difficulty in believing in chance is easy to test: statistics professors will give the assignment of flipping a coin 100 times to their students. They can tell who ACTUALLY flipped the coin vs. those who made up their flips by the ‘runs’ (of just heads or tails) their students report. Most students will not make up long runs--and a long run tends to be (only) 3 or more in a row. Mere chance (per the coin flip) will generate long runs of heads or tails—but hardly anyone believes that. So when a player has a streak of hits or misses, we say he’s hot or cold. But really, it’s just him (or her) being himself—a player’s performance is surprisingly consistent over time. But who will believe it?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Today I’m not posting—I want to keep my mind focused on bigger and more important matters than my own thoughts. To that end, I will (among other things), be walking through downtown Philly with my family while meditating on Christ’s Passion.
But I wanted to (literally) borrow a page from a meditation I found really helpful. It’s by Fr. Rich Veras and was in the Magnificat’s reflections on Holy Thursday this year. I think it makes a nice connection, actually, between the second guessing that can easily dominate our lives (per Barry Schwartz’s observations) and the greater reality that beckons us, often cloaked in circumstances we aren’t enthusiastic about.

The devil tried to get Jesus to doubt his Father, to doubt his Sonship. However, Jesus never faces temptation alone. Jesus never had been and never will be alone, neither in his divinity nor in his humanity. Not in his divinity, because God is  never alone but was, is, and ever shall be a community of Persons. Not in his humanity, because Jesus recognized everything as a sign of his Father. This night is not the first night that Jesus went with his apostles to pray. He invited them to come away with him on another occasion, and then they got to the place they saw a hungry crowd waiting and begging for food (Mk 6:30-34). Jesus did not look upon those people as an annoyance, but as the very face of his Father. He recognized in the presence of that crowd the presence of his Father relating to him, lovihg him, expressing his will, which Jesus knew would be greater than what he himself had planned. While the apostles wanted to send the people away, Jesus embraced the circumstances and thus affirmed that all reality is a sign of his Father.
                This is why the devil hates reality. This is why the devil deals in “ifs.” Earlier in the evening of Holy Thursday, Jesus showed how small is the tempter’s imagination as compared to reality. For the devil challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. At the Last Supper, Jesus instead turns bread to God! Not because anyone has challenged him to do it. Not because anyone asked him to prove his Father’s love; but rather it was the merciful initiative of God, freely giving himself to us in the Eucharist.
                In the garden of Gethsemane, the devil is playing on Jesus’ imagination, as he once played on Adam and Eve’s in the garden of Eden. On this night , he is counting on Jesus fearfully imagining all the suffering that lay before him. However, Jesus vanquishes the devil when he says to the Father, “not my will but yours be done.” Original sin came because our first parents trusted their imagination of God over the reality of the gift of the beautiful garden around them. Salvation comes because that man who seems to be praying all alone is affirming the merciful love of God the Father even in the midst of the most harrowing circumstances. Reality belongs to the Father. In the end, all this suffering and death will belong to the glory of the Father shining forth in the victory of his Son.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Satisfy(c)ing the College Application Process: A Simple Way to Ease the Pressure Cooker That No Admissions Department Will Accept (But Should!)

Fortunately, the whole college admissions process is still a ways down the road for us. But I fear it will come far too quickly. One of the things that came up during and after Barry Schwartz’s talk at Villanova on the Paradox of Choice was the problem that excess choice creates for students, parents, and admissions directors when it comes to college. The problem: tons of people applying for few spots at good and top colleges. A complicating factor: the people applying are, for the most part, ‘qualified’ in the usual sense. That is, many (even most) of them may have the SAT scores; the AP credits; the range of extracurricular activities-- in short, the academic promise the institutions are looking for.  But there are simply too many of them. In general, colleges have addressed this by having (generally secret) ways of determining who the best are among the many qualified candidate. But it’s too hard, and the increasingly elaborate and private process ups the ante for students in a big way. A large number of the students are really good, so (Schwartz argues, and I tend to agree) college admissions officers come up with complex and elaborate ways to try to narrow the list. But there is more margin of error in their methods of analysis than there are differences amongst the candidates they are assessing. Schwartz’s solution? Choose a set of criteria—very high criteria are fine—to limit the pool to people deemed acceptable. And then, from that reduced pool, choose at random. The disadvantages: moving away from the current ‘maximizing’ strategy towards a high standards ‘satisficing’ one seems less precise, less elite.  The advantages? Huge! In particular, simplifying the admissions process and thereby reducing the pressure cooker that high school has become for students look to go to top notch colleges. If kids don’t feel compelled to cover every imaginable base in order to get into the school of their choice, students  might stop pursuing extracurriculars they have no interest in, doing community service for people they don’t want to care for, and start focusing on their real interests. The admissions process would not feel as overwhelming for people on either end. Plus, students might learn to stop yearning after schools they didn’t get into and actually get the most out of the place they *do* get into. It’s a win-win. But it’s a leap to make that kind of change, and so far, no one’s biting. More’s the pity. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kicking-- or Curing-- the Costco Habit….

Quick: What do these two things have in common?

A couple of years ago I made my husband crazy talking about Costco. I had just read a very good—and rather unexpected—article in Good Housekeeping or something about Costco, whose author made very astute remarks about the risks and rewards of Costco shopping. According to Barry Schwartz, Costco and Trader Joe’s are two of the places where shoppers report the highest satisfaction. But not me. I come back from Costco with very mixed feelings—elated by my purchase of huge, 5-dollar rotisserie chickens, but unsure about the two pairs of $12 Hanna Andersson jammies and downright irritated at myself for buying the 3 pounds of raisins. That article, plus another piece in Real Simple about Christmas shopping, helped me recognize a couple of clever tricks Costco employs—and curb my frustration somewhat. So I know have 2 lessons I’ve gained from others, plus one of my own, that help me shop there more happily and productively:
1)      Costco has no marked aisles or clearly labeled areas, which creates “comparison confusion”—your sense of scale is thrown off; when you see expensive things next to cheap things you’re more likely to buy more stuff.
2)      Retailers have discovered that if you buy something expensive first, you’re more likely to blow your budget in other areas as well. Once you’ve spent $500 for a camera, chances are you’re not going to balk at an extra $5 for 3 lbs. of premade quacamole. (This is a trick used A LOT at Christmas time). Costco cleverly puts all the big, high end stuff (as well as seasonal goodies) up front…pretty sneaky, sis!
3)      My own (and others’!) observation: not everything is cheap at Costco. Some high end things and staples are priced great—prosciutto, garbage bags, eggs…But some aren’t any better than a decent sale at your local supermarket (be it Giant or Shoprite). So if I don’t use a lot of it, it’s often better not to buy it in bulk.
The last two times I went there to mixed success. One time I caved—I saw all the cute, cheap-ish clothes and got distracted. But another time I kept focused, headed for the food straight away, and came away with my most successful shopping expedition there EVER. Now my reading of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is making me search out the “pleasure hit” that I associate with Costco….though I suspect it’s that damn chicken.
(If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend the excellent NY Times article which first got me thinking about the habit thing:—it’s long though, so you’ll need to be sitting down. If you want to get to cut the habit section, it’s actually the third and final part…) 

Friday, March 23, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday: March 23, 2012

1.     So….I helped coordinate a lecture with one of my ‘fascinating people’--Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore. Both his talk and the dinner afterward brought up lots of great topics, which I’m sure I’ll be commenting on ad nauseam in days to come. But in the meantime, I’ll just say that he used and commented on this New Yorker cartoon. His first instinct was to think “Wow, how myopic this goldfish mother is to think her kid can be anything—they're in a fishbowl!!” But now he thinks being in a fishbowl has something to recommend it in terms of personal happiness since we're in a world with an overwhelming number of choices….
2.     Breakthrough with my oldest daughter!  C has a great work ethic and enthusiasm, but she was having real problems with her piano playing because she was racing through her songs as she practiced them and making the same mistakes over and over again. She has a hard time with criticism, too, so when she’d have her lesson she’d get upset with her teacher, too. Sigh. So I offered her a challenge. I told her to play her piece through—it took her 5 minutes. I offered her money (OK, bribed her…) to play it in 6 minutes…then in 7 etc. until she got all the way to 15 or so. It has really changed her attitude! And after the beginning she stopped caring about the bribe. It’s really shown me, again, how turning a stressful situation into a game or challenge is immensely powerful --and game-changing! I started this 3 weeks ago and I am still seeing the positive effects in regards to attitude and performance (and no money has been involved since that first week).
3.     On a similar note, I recently read a book I heartily recommend. (It’s so good that after taking it out of the library and finishing it, I am going to buy my own—Big Spender that I am).  It’s the Whole Brain Child. Basically, it helps you understand your child’s brain development better and gives you parenting strategies that both help you recognize what’s happening in your kid’s head AND help him break out of behavior that isn’t working for him and you. One of the things it encourages you to do is to talk about difficult situations that happen to your child, and to “reflect and redirect”—to share or reflect your child’s emotional state and THEN try to redirect them to more constructive behavior. I have to report some success. My unreasonable two-year old seemed quite fascinated—and somewhat soothed—when I talked to him (post facto) about how upset he was that we were leaving his friend Thomas’s house and how I understood how mad he was and how I, too,  wished we didn’t have to go….
4.     One step forward, one step back. Oldest daughter C is also a voracious reader (a good thing), but it’s really hard to keep on top of what she’s reading…and I don’t have the time to vet everything myself. So I/we are constantly on the hunt for age-appropriate series that are either a) wholesome/good or at least b) not offensive or creepy. Amazing how much garbage is out there….
5.     My generous mother recently gave me two beautiful oilcloth tablecloths which I really love (we are both suckers for a lovely oilcloth). Two days later, a spaghetti stain was plaguing one of them. Desperate to find a way of getting it out, I went on line….to see a whole hoard of others with the same complaint (who knew?!). The only thing that seemed to work for people was hanging the oilcloth in the sun since the sun bleaches out stains. Who knew?! As a city girl, I had NO IDEA about these fringe benefits of the sun.It’s really made me rethink the line-drying option. If the sun can bleach out stains that are beyond the power of oxyclean, I need to explore this!
6.     Some of you may have seen the WSJ article a month ago—or the backlash—on why French parents are better. (If not, here goes: Too much to talk about, as usual, but one central feature was  that French parents (apparently) direct their children with greater authority. I think any parent recognizes the difference between telling your kid to do something and telling your kid to do something with that look and with follow-up. I think it’s true that too often we Americans (myself sometimes included) don’t take our own authority seriously enough. Recently I was at a meeting when a mother left when her son acted up. She and the rest of her family left the gathering.  That kind of commitment is challenging at first but it really pays off. And usually you don’t have to follow through so many times before your kid starts to really get it.
7.     On a random front, I was doing pretty well in avoiding colds this winter- cum- spring until two weeks ago when I got zapped with a really nasty head cold. I’ll spare you the TMI details, but it’s been ugly. A friend suggested a Netipot and I got one yesterday. Amazing! The difference is really astonishing. I am not prone to testimonials, but I feel sorely tempted in this case. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

7 quick takes Friday: February 3, 2012

1.      High Culture, meet Low Culture. I just started reading Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Essential Difference about men, women, autism and the brain (His thesis: male brains are generally better at creating and dealing with “systems” while women are more adept at empathy; this is also related to the incidence of autism in males). It’s a great read so far, AND includes fun little questionnaires at the end to assess your own brains systems/empathy quotient. But I was trying to figure out why his name was so familiar. My husband pointed out to me that his name is very similar to Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat). Aha. Guilty as charged.   

2.      That Sunday WSJ article on teenagers that I talked about on Monday accidentally led me to another piece (“You Eat That?”) combining other pet interests: food and culture.
Basically, lots of people eat fermented foods that almost everyone else finds disgusting. And, it turns out, disgust is a universal emotion (if you don’t believe think you believe in such things, please check out Ekman’s work here: )
Seems that (drumroll…) disgust is a universal emotion that has to be learned. Good stuff. Lots of food for thought (sorry for the bad pun). But how come she didn’t even mention Vegemite?
3.      How ‘bout those Giants/Patriots/(fill in the blank?)…Back in the 80’s, during the Mets’ glory days, there was a New York City joke about making conversation. Awkward topics could be quickly jettisoned by raising the routine question “How ‘bout those Mets?” Sports can be a nice, safe, topic—at least within certain communities. But my husband –a person very interested in sports, both personally and professionally—has decided that sports has become too much the focus of men’s conversations—to the detriment of other topics and issues. I’m biased since I’m not naturally that into sports, but I do tend to agree that the focus on sports (or fashion/clothes for many of us women) can mean people never get around to other conversations…Not that I see anything wrong with the Superbowl, mind you (whether you watch it for the game, the ads, or the halftime show…)
4.     So…heard any good music lately? The other day, my 8-year old daughter asked me and my husband whether we knew Katy Perry’s song “Last Friday Night.” We weren’t sure so she launched into the lyrics. She got as far as the first line. “There’s a stranger in my bed” (didn’t even need to hear about the pounding in her head) before we cut her off to explain what the problem was…. So I’m trying to find ways to help my kids think through their musical choices (before it gets to be a Big Issue). I’m not a believer in strict censorship (it’s too hard, anyway, if your kids socialize with others and/or get any radio exposure time), but I would like to help them understand what’s wrong with Katy Perry (even if that doesn’t keep her from writing catchy music and them from recognizing it) . Sometimes, too, the ‘badness’ of certain lyrics is kind of lost on very young children...I still remember arguing with my mom (at about the same age) that Olivia Newton John’s Physical was about gym membership (in my defense, the video sort of took this angle—see!
5.      I’m part of a women’s reading group that gets together to read stuff during Lent. We’ve been trying to figure out what to read this year, which has brought me to review and discuss favorite readings (some of which, sadly, won’t work for our group). So far, my top personal recs are: Jacques Philippe’s Interior Freedom and In the School of the Holy Spirit, Fr. Gereon Goldmann’s The Shadow of His Wings, and (on a lighter note) Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. But I’m looking forward to reading others’ choices, too: I Believe in Love, Consoling the Heart of Jesus, and Cizek’s He Leadeth Me.
6.      Do your kids have nervous habits/ tics? One of my kids does—in a big way. I’m trying to get her to stop but I’m afraid it makes her more self-conscious—and more likely to fidget. This same girl also has a hard time controlling her instinctive (usual angry or irritated) reactions. So I’m on the hunt for ways of helping her. So far, we’re doing a lot of the “can you try that again?” routine. My mom had a great spin on this one. She’d make you leave the room and try to say your angry phrase again without laughing. I could never do it (though my brother Dan, could…so I guess it doesn’t work for EVERY kid…)
7.      At the risk of ODing on food topics, I also had to read the WSJ’s Baked Hot Chocolate piece. (
Looks like a great little recipe, but I’ll need to wait until I have some good quality chocolate on hand. In the meantime, I recommend this recipe from a friend, especially if you’re looking (selfishly) to make dessert only for yourself.
5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional)
a small splash of vanilla extract
1 large coffee mug

Add dry ingredients to mug and mix well. Add the egg and mix thoroughly. Pour in the milk and oil and mix well. Add in the chocolate chips and vanilla extract and mix again.

Put your mug in the microwave and cook on high for 3 minutes. The cake will rise over the top of the mug but don’t be alarmed!


To get to Hallie's 7 quick takes, click here: