Just thought you should know

The other day, as I was dropping my son off at school, I noticed another mom arguing with her elementary-school aged child while trying to wrestle a toddler out of a car seat. She was wearing a black sweater, and stuck to her back, either from static cling or the work of Loki, god of mischief, was a pair of pale pink little girls tights. She had no clue.

Just thought you all should know, in case you need to put your Reluctant Matron troubles in perspective ūüėČ

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Days 4 & 5 – Optimism is boring

This is part 4 in a 7-day experiment to see if it is possible for an avowed cynic to trick herself into being an optimist. Here’s how it all got started.

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I must admit that feeling happy is nice, but because things have been going well over the last few days and the level of drama has dropped considerably at home and work, I’ve found myself at first pleasantly bored and then just bored-bored. And no one wants to read someone’s blog post about how great things are for them, so I took yesterday off from bragging about my newfound serenity.¬† At a loss for what to do, I polled two optimists and two pessimists to get their opinions.

Jeremy – Pessimist
Me: Do you think it’s possible to turn a pessimist into an optimist?
Jeremy: Briefly
Me: Extrapolate
Jeremy: We may briefly be seduced by optimism and then life reminds us

Michael – Optimist
Me: Do you think it’s possible to turn a pessimist into an optimist?
Michael: Well, this goes back to a big disagreement I have with my friend Chad. He says that after a certain point (maybe 25), people really can’t change that much. I disagree. But I’m an optimist. I guess I think that yes, you can, but it would take some pretty big changes and buy-in on their part

Lauren – Pessimist
Me: Do you think it’s possible to turn a pessimist into an optimist?
Lauren: No. Optimists are dumb
Me: Yeah. You’re right. Pessimists are more highly evolved (takes a large slurp from wine glass)

Ray – Optimist
Me: Do you think it’s possible to turn a pessimist into an optimist?
Ray: Yes!!!
Me: Extrapolate
Ray: Can you meet for brunch on Sunday!!

Of course, several people have reminded me that the power of positive thinking is backed up by research and I’m reinventing a wheel of my own, but sometimes you really have to experience something (and pretend that you thought of it yourself) before the truth sinks its teeth in your psyche. Tomorrow’s post: an optimistic guilt trip – what right do I have to be happy when the world is falling apart?

Day 3 – Normalization

This is part 3 in a 7-day experiment to see if it is possible for an avowed cynic to trick herself into being an optimist. Here’s how it all got started.

Apparently it takes 21 days to build a habit, but I seem to have fallen easily into a routine of not being a pessimistic jerk much faster. In fact, the day was so blithe that there really isn’t much to write about. Without a head full of angry one-sided arguments and irritation, I found myself feeling somewhat pleasantly blank. It could also be the light workload this week. This is a non-scientific experiment, after all.

I also had one of my coworkers speak the following words aloud, which I have never been directed at me before: “Wow! I like your optimistic approach to this problem!” Several hours later, after cheerfully explaining to someone that I was 100% blocked on a critical project at work because of some surprisingly vicious corporate hostage negotiations between teams, another colleague commented “You’re so positive!” I wasn’t trying. At some point since Sunday night I just really stopped caring about pretty much everything.

As I was drifting through the hallways of my office, silly smile painted on my face, I started to notice is how miserable everyone else looked. I guess I’ve been too focused on my own real and imagined problems to really look closely at the faces around me. There are a lot of unhappy people, and I think my next experiment is going to involve trying to find a way to spread some cheer in a dignified way…without being Cindy Lou Who. Like, maybe the Grinch-with-a-normal-sized-heart kind of way.

Anyway, here’s the updated list. I suspect people do research and write books about this stuff, but they are not the kind of books I would read:

The Updated List of Optimism Tricks That Work

  1.  Stop letting yourself get annoyed
  2.  Quit whining
  3. ¬†Don’t self-deprecate yourself into poor self-esteem
  4.  Celebrate your successes
  5.  Wear something happy
  6.  Care less about stuff (I guess)

 

Day 2 – The Dress

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This is part 2 in a 7-day experiment to see if it is possible for an avowed cynic to trick herself into being an optimist. Here’s how it all got started.

Today I wore a pink dress to work. I am still wearing it. Pink. Not black. To put this in perspective, I normally dress in a style that could be called “corporate villain”. To maintain a sense of balance, I yell-sang to my favorite Pussy Riot songs in the car on the way into the office.

Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb!
Vagina’s where you’re REALLY FROOOOMMMM!¬†

I was able to keep the small annoyances problem that I identified from the day before under control. When I was cut off on the freeway this morning, instead of raging I just laughed and all of the creative Seattle driving that we are‚Ķblessed with. What really stood out to me today is the excessive negative, self-deprecation I practice. Sure, a little healthy humility is ok, but I routinely take it a too far. I am a ruthless self-critic‚Ķprobably because if I point out all of my own flaws first than I don’t have to listen to someone else pointing them out.

Example: I was the scheduled snack mom for Small Boy’s kindergarten class today. Of course I remembered this at 11 p.m. last night as I was finishing a glass of whiskey and wondering aloud how I was going to survive the rest of the week. So, at 8 a.m. this morning I found myself racing to the grocery store and trying to think of what to do, because unlike a normal snack day, this was also my son’s birthday snack day (observed). The whole time, my internal critic was yelling: I’ve never been a parent before! How am I supposed to remember all of this stuff?! Does that mean I’m supposed to bring a special snack to school? What do I bring when 2/3rds of the kids in my son’s class aren’t allowed to eat anything but air? I wandered the aisles looking for gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-dree, egg-free, nut free snacks and eventually settled on fresh strawberries and some very expensive organic everything-free fig newton thingies. After getting the stink eye from the crossing-guard for parking in the wrong place at the school I barged into my son’s classroom and announced “snacks!”. Then I basically dropped the paper bag of treats and ran, because groups of children are scary and I didn’t want to hear their criticism of my snack choice. Let my kid deal with that.

Once at the office, I thought it would be a good idea to get on social media and say something to the effect of “I’m the worst parent in the world for forgetting my son’s birthday snack day, being late, not staying to serve said snack, etc. etc.” This would get some laughs. This might make some other parents feel better about themselves. I’m sure I have Facebook followers who feel grateful that they are not me. But‚Ķit really doesn’t make me feel good about myself when I write things like that. The thing is, I really DO believe I am not a good parent, but I want to be a better one. How can I be a better parent if I constantly have a companion in my head telling me how terrible I am?

Celebrate successes

Once several years back, after tiring of listening to me downplay an accomplishment at work, my friend Chelsea grabbed me by the shoulders, gave me a hard, green-eyed stare, and said very slowly and loudly so I could understand “you need to celebrate your successes.”

Whut? Is celebrating your own success arrogant, or is it healthy? Could a little cautious celebration, and the silencing of the mean, self-deprecating me, help me feel better or would it just make me feel like a fraud? As I sat at my desk in my pink dress, thinking marketing-thoughts (which I am paid to do), I decided to let myself feel good about my accomplishments for a few seconds. Then I blushed because for a moment I actually wondered if my coworkers could read my thoughts. After the wave of Protestant-shame passed over me, I realized that I felt better and I have continued to feel better all day. Sometimes I do smart things at work – I think I might actually be a little, slightly, teensy bit smart. I’ll go no further than that because this all feels really uncomfortable.

The Updated List of Optimism Tricks That Work
(none of this is rockets science, but some cynics take longer to learn it)

  • Adding up small annoyances makes you constantly annoyed
  • Complaining catharsis is short-lived and just fuels additional complaining
  • Don’t talk to everyone about how horrible you are, or else you will start believing it
  • Let yourself have a few minutes of smugness and appreciate what you’re good at. And then stop before it gets out of hand
  • Sometimes, you just have to wear a pink dress and pink lipstick and carry a pink backpack

Day 1 – Small annoyances

This is part 1 in a 7-day experiment to see if it is possible for an avowed cynic to trick herself into being an optimist. Here’s how it all got started.

By 10 in the morning I already had my list ready. It looked like this:

Things That Annoy Me right Now and are Ruining My Day Completely

  1. Small Boy won’t eat his oatmeal fast enough
  2. I don’t feel like driving kids to school
  3. None of my clothes are any “color” other than black or gray
  4. My right knee hurts. And now my left knee hurts too

Running this through the Optimism Experiment lens, I can see why I am usually in a foul mood by the middle of the day.

I managed to get through this day as a partial success. I maintained a certain level of mindfulness about my own negative thoughts, but I didn’t count on the catharsis that comes from venting the day’s indignities with a coworker. A difficult situation at work had to be addressed, and I wasn’t able to find a way to approach it with an optimistic mindset. I complained bitterly with a colleague, who listened and commented with an acceptable shared feeling of outrage. That. Felt. Good.

So I learned two things: allowing myself to tally up the small things that annoy me builds into a bolus of angst. I can control this. I also learned that complaining with coworkers greases the skids of bitterness, allowing more emotion and anger to creep in. This I also can control.

There was one thing that I didn’t expect, however – the bike ride. Riding to work helped calm my mind and my body. I felt relaxed all day‚Ķpossibly because I was exhausted. Sure, riding to work is one thing if you live in flat a place like Chicago, but in order for me to get to my office I had to slog my way up a hill that resembled a lift climb on a Six Flags roller coaster. Perhaps the key to my optimism is‚Ķexhaustion? Because I have to drop my son off at school and pick him up I won’t have many opportunities to ride 10 miles to work every morning, so I will try to wake up earlier and incorporate a run before

The Optimism Experiment

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
I literally have this hanging in my house.

 

Before we start, I want to make one thing clear: no one would ever make the mistake of describing me as an optimist. I have a sour, cynical streak that has been present since before puberty, and I’ve had a lifetime to perfect it into a monster of eye rolls and bile that I like to refer to as “realism”. When nice people attempt to converse with me, they leave looking confused and scared. I exude prickles and spikes. When my niece was 3 years old she told me that my sister-in-law looked like Cinderella and I reminded her of Maleficent. And I don’t think it is my black hair and olive skin that she was referring to.

That cynical jerk that I described above is getting tiresome (me, not the niece). I’m weary of my own attitude but haven’t been able to change it. Habit, after all, is a habit. Lately, the combination of struggling to be a full-time working mom with a son who is having troubles in school is mixing with an incredibly toxic work environment (not to mention nothing but gloomy news from the White House) and is creating steaming soup of misery that seems to be nourishing my pessimism. How do I deal with this? I pout. I get angry. I complain. Then I get depressed. All of this made me wonder‚ĶI am not a naturally optimistic person, but could I trick myself into being more positive? What would happen to me if I forced myself to be an optimist? Could I handle it for a week? For two weeks?

Probably not, but I’m going to give it a shot.

The Optimism Experiment

Here’s the plan. It’s Sunday night. Tomorrow morning, instead of my usual routine of creeping along in traffic while I attempt to pay attention to my free German language program on Spotify (Verdammt, deutsche Sprache!),¬† I am going to ride my bike to work while listening to some sort of upbeat pop-music nonsense. Throughout the rest of the day, I shall do the following:

  • ¬†When someone greets me and asks about my day, no matter what the truth actually is, I will say “My day is going great!” and I will attempt to look like I mean it
  • ¬†When the horrid people at work who are actively trying to destroy my career pull their next stunt, I will laugh to myself and think “Wow, they must really be having a tough day today. I certainly hope they can find a new hobby that doesn’t involve STABBING PEOPLE IN THE BACK AT WORK, STEPHANIE!” Ahem. Ok, well I’ll think about what to say to them while I am riding my bike to work tomorrow¬†
  • ¬†When I pick my son up from school and find out that he has been to the principal’s office/insulted another child/thrown his lunch all over the kindergarten classroom, I will tell him that he’ll do better next time (Instead of opening a bottle of wine and crying)
  • Oh, and I am not going to wear black or gray tomorrow, even though three quarters of my wardrobe is made up of those two “colors”

And then I shall write about what happened. At the end of a week, I’ll assess my mental state and interview those around me to see if I was a Maleficent or a ‚Ķ.ugh, I really don’t want to be Cinderella, or anyone from a Disney movie. I really doubt I am going to succeed at this. What a pessimistic way to get started!

Tantrums! Emergency room visits! Overcooked meat! Thanksgiving 2016

Everyone has a Thanksgiving disaster story of some kind – and here is mine.

Some background: We’re remodeling our kitchen. The remodel is being done by my father-in-law, Steve. Hosting Thanksgiving in the middle of a kitchen remodel isn’t really the smartest thing to do, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from trying.

Monday
Three days before Thanksgiving, Steve showed up at our house an announced that he would be putting in the kitchen floor. We were unprepared for this, but decided not to argue – a new floor would be something to be thankful for! He worked all afternoon but (owing to the fact that our house is old and spiteful) managed to floor only a few square feet.

Tuesday
The next day he completed most of the main part of the kitchen and half of the dining room. I was getting nervous. “Just finish the dining room,” I told him, “the rest can wait until after the holiday”.

Wednesday
The day before Thanksgiving I woke up late and depressed. My new director wanted me on campus for a meeting that day, so I got dressed, did my hair for the first time in a week, and walked to my car to go to the office.

My car refused to start.

Small Boy had left his door ajar overnight and drained the battery. Huzzybee was at work and most of the neighborhood was gone for the holidays. I stomped back into the house and worked in the living room until Steve showed up. He agreed to jump start my car. It took about 15 minutes, and after the car started I took off down the freeway and drove aimlessly for about 45 minutes to let the alternator charge the battery.  Then I headed to the office.

During my meeting, I was asked to present to the group (something I didn’t expect or really prepare for) and when I was done stammering out an explanation for why my project was going badly I dragged myself out of the office and into the parking garage. On the way down I met a man and his 3-year-old girl walking slowly to their car. I smiled. He smiled back. The toddler looked at me with distrust. I got into my car, turned the key and‚Ķnothing. The battery was dead again. Feeling tears starting to burn behind my eyes, I tried to call Huzzybee. Seeing my panic, the man and his toddler came to the rescue, jump-starting my car and sending me on my way.

Back at home, Huzzybee and I both tried to finish our work from the living room while Small Boy got in everyone’s way and Steve continued making a chaotic racket in the kitchen. He had finished the dining room and pulled the dishwasher into the middle of the kitchen among a pile of tools and boards. To get away from the noise, I took Small Boy outside to pick some apples, telling him that as soon as Steve left we were going to start baking apple pies for Thanksgiving the next day. Suddenly I heard Huzzybee yelling my name at the top of his lungs. “WHERE ARE MY KEYS!?” he screamed. “Why do you need them?” I asked, annoyed.¬† He came running out of the house, “Dad’s hurt, give me my keys NOW!” That could only mean one thing: emergency room.

I dug the keys from my pocket and he sprinted off with me running after him. “What happened?” He ignored me and I heard his car screeching out on to the street. That is when I looked down at Steve’s table saw outside and saw blood. Lots of it. A trail of blood led into the garage. A pool of blood was soaking into the gravel. The blade was coated in red. I turned, ran to Small Boy who was standing perfectly still, confused, holding a basket of bright, green apples. We went into the house and I paced and wrung my hands together for 30 minutes. Small Boy was going to his first piano lesson today, but the only car at the house had a dead battery again. So we waited. There was sawdust and debris all over the kitchen. The dishwasher was in the middle of the room. I went outside again, back to the saw. Gritting my teeth, I searched the area to see if there were any¬† fingers laying on the ground. Nothing. I found a tarp and covered the equipment and went back inside.

Steve and Huzzybee returned hours later; Steve with two of his fingers heavily bandaged. His finger had nearly been severed, but fortunately the bone was intact and all he required was stitches. Painfully, he and Huzzybee and I got the dishwasher back in place. Steve’s bandages kept getting caught in the machine and pulling off. Then his finger started oozing blood. We sent him home and that’s when we realized that the dishwasher wouldn’t turn on. Thanksgiving was in¬† 12 hours.

Thursday
Thanksgiving morning,¬† I woke up and had to take a conference call for work (turns out they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Prague). After that, it was non-stop cooking. Since I couldn’t do most of the pre-work I had planned the night before, I was in a rush. Everything that needed to be baked had to go in the oven before the prime rib. I spent the morning on my feet and absolutely nothing went right. I needed a rolling pin: couldn’t find the rolling pin because the kitchen has been under construction for 9 months, so I improvised and wrapped a wine bottle in plastic and rolled out pie dough.¬† Then I couldn’t locate my second pie pan, so the apple pie became an apple tart instead. I baked two crusts: they both shrank. I over-roasted the sweet potatoes so they got mushy. Then I put the prime rib in the oven, shoved an electric thermometer in the meat, and took a break. In the next room, Jordan and Soren started watching Return of the Jedi. I sanctioned this media choice on the condition that Jordan fast forward certain scary parts.

An hour later, the meat was cooking faster than I anticipated. Too fast. Then I heard the sound of the Emperor killing Darth Vader. Suffice it to say, Huzzybe and I exchanged words, and then I decided not to make Thanksgiving dinner after all and ran out of the house crying. Eventually I got cold and wet and had to pee, so I went back home.  Inside, Huzzybee and Small Boy were washing dishes. All three of us ignored each other. I looked at the roast. It had been sitting in the now cold oven for an hour. The temperature read 40 degrees Celsius. I had to get it up to 80 in 1 hour without turning the heat past 275. I started to sweat.

Guests began to arrive, and the meat was only at 67 degrees Celsius. Angrily I whacked at some brussels sprouts, and saut√©ed mushrooms. I put polenta into a pot to steam and it almost immediately boiled over, baking into a starchy cement all over the stove top. An hour went by. The meat was at 77 degrees. At that time, it occurred to me that I didn’t know where I had gotten the idea that it had to be 80 degrees Celsius, so I sat down and looked at my recipe.

Bake in the oven at 200 – 275 degrees until the meat’s center reaches 125 degrees. The recipe said, as if that was the easiest damned thing in the world to do.

I Googled the conversion and felt my heart drop straight into my stomach. 125 degrees Fahrenheit was 51 degrees Celsius! A $75 roast had just been ruined. I pulled it from the oven, calmly announced “I think the meat’s done now” and immediately started crying. Then I cranked the heat up to 400 and put the brussels sprouts in to roast with some bacon.¬† While they were roasting, I went outside to the garden and picked kale for the sweet potato-kale salad. By this time it was dark any seriously rainy. When I returned inside, swarms of baby moths flew up from the kale in a white cloud over the kitchen sink, wakened by the heat of the house. I looked down at the leaves that I had picked in the dark: they were covered in holes and slug slime. Growling, I shoved the sluggy leaves into the compost and went back outside and picked more kale. Inside again, more moths flew up into my face. I waved them away and washed the kale. What the guests didn’t know wouldn’t kill them.

Steve, Huzzybee, and his friend Luc had all been drinking whiskey and they stomped into the kitchen merrily to steal bits of food and get underfoot. I shuffled around miserably, my face blotchy from crying, adding fontina to the polenta, browning the jus for gravy, draining potatoes and‚Ķwhat was the smell? Something smelled‚Ķweird. With a shriek I wrenched the oven door open. Blackened brussels sprouts and a cloud of smoke came out. This time I just started laughing like a deranged hyena. My mother in-law carved the meat. It was gray, all the way through to the center. I collapsed against the counter. “Prime rib isn’t supposed to look like that” I whispered.

Everyone sat down to eat but I was still making gravy. Small Boy refused to eat if I wasn’t at the table with him. Then he refused to eat anything that wasn’t white. Eventually, he just refused to eat anything that wasn’t mashed potatoes. I poured myself a very full glass of wine. The meat didn‚Äôt taste terrible. It was flavorful and juicy, but it was well-done, not medium-rare. Fortunately, none of us really did care that much. The sweet potatoes and kale were mushy but delicious – any remaining moths just added a little extra protein. I didn’t put enough fontina in the polenta, but it still tasted fine. After we had finished eating we discovered the tray of cold, blackened brussel sprouts that had been completely forgotten during the fray.

Our plan was to deliver mashed potatoes,¬† dinner rolls, and lemonade to the local women’s shelter that evening after our meal. Because everything had gone so terribly wrong, we were running behind. My slightly intoxicated husband and equally intoxicated Luc pulled up chairs and started to peel potatoes and tell jokes while my mother-in-law washed dishes. Steve sprawled out on his stomach on the kitchen floor, trying to get the dishwasher to start. Small Boy ran back in forth down the hallway yelling “where’s my pie!? Where’s my pie!?!?” I slumped into a chair and worked my way through another glass of wine. Everybody was busy. No one cared that the meat was gray and the pie crusts were shrunken and the polenta lacked sufficient amounts of fontina. Everyone was just happy to be with good company (me excluded – I was very poor company) and to have all of their fingers mostly intact.

Later, I drove our one working car down to the women’s shelter while Huzzybee held a tray of steaming hot mashed potatoes with a tipsy smile on his face. “This has been good,” he said.

New job, new season, new eczema

Every time I declare victory against the eczema on my hands, the Universe responds with a seasonal change (or perhaps I should just time my declarations of victory a little better) or a newly stressful situation that causes my stress to amp up. Currently I am working my way through the steep learning curve of a new position at work (anxiety, itching, not getting enough sleep or exercise) and my eczema has started attacking the usual places: my forearms and my ring finger. This means I can’t wear my wedding ring, which offends¬†my husband and makers¬†him feel vaguely nervous, and it also makes me look like I’m on the prowl. The platitudes of “don’t worry – this will clear up after you’ve fully recovered from pregnancy” which were said to me 4 years ago by doctors and other moms make me feel bitter; this is something I’ll never get rid of. Although my eczema is so much better than it was just after my son was born, I suppose it is too much to ask that it go away and leave me forever.

So again, I have had to pull out the steroid creams and take a look at my fingers which are mostly whole (except for my ring finger) but¬†have become permanently swollen and wrinkled, making them look like they are 15 years older than the rest of my body. I sigh and remember the things I am thankful for: 3.5 years ago, I couldn’t go out in public. I could’t touch my baby’s face or grasp a doorknob without my skin cracking open. This new eczema is far better than my old eczema. So it may sound like a platitude if you are suffering from postpartum eczema, but really, don’t worry – it will get better…it just won’t go away.