Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bad News

One thing I've noticed since I started blogging is that people in Blogdom love bad news. They love illness and death. They can't get enough of it.

I first noticed this when I started reading a blog called Confessions of a CF Husband. The story was very engaging. The wife was waiting for a lung transplant when she found out she was pregnant. Her cystic fibrosis was at a critical stage. The couple chose to go through with the pregnancy and their beautiful daughter was born prematurely. But the entire pregnancy was fraught with danger for both mother and baby. Thousands of people commented on the blog every day, they were on television, in the newspaper.

The mother had her transplant and then the baby's development became the story. Week after week we saw that sweet child lying beside her stuffed animal so we could understand how tiny she was and then how she was growing. Again, thousands of comments a post.

Things stabilized. Readership dwindled. The author of the blog expressed his disappointment. But that was that. There wasn't anything heart-wrenching going on. He quit posting except for the now occasional update.

Good news doesn't make good press. Stories of triumph, love and happiness appear on page eighteen of the newspaper. We get to them after we slog through the murder trial updates, the contentious political campaign, the fight between local school board members. By the time we get to the good stuff, if we get to it at all without walking away in a funk, we feel jaded. Who cares about that soldier who came home when we might be entering into another war? What difference does it make that our high school won the championship when the schools are in such abysmal financial shape? So what if they raised a million dollars for cancer research when the real problem is that the pharmaceutical companies are making billions on treating us instead of making us healthy?

On my own blog, I noticed a jump in readership when my father died. It's back to normal now that I'm writing about more mundane issues. There is still bad news I could write about, but I think I'll pass for now. You've probably got enough of your own without looking or reading about mine. And if you don't, you can always buy the paper.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I spent part of last weekend in the company of nine fellow writers and author Zelda Lockhart. We got to the heart of things - our hearts - and learned ways to apply it to our own work.

"You need to quit going to workshops and write that book," my sister told me the other day.

I am writing my book and my stories, but I also love the stimulation that I get from this time spent with others.

The problem is that often we receive conflicting information. One teacher says learning the craft is the most important; another says, "The hell with craft." One teacher says a flashback can only be presented in real time while the next one says that is ridiculous.

The same goes for fellow writers and their critiques. One person might love that I said, "O my Luve's like a red, red rose," while the person sitting beside her says it's too cliched. One character may seem flat to a person but the same character may touch a chord that rings so true to another.

There are a million books written on writing. Some call for outlines, some call for prompt writing, one book calls for reading similar writing while another says steer clear of it.

So, I guess the reason I continue on with these workshops is complicated. I choose the techniques that work for me. I garner inspiration from hearing other people read their writing. I get valuable feedback both from the leader and the participants.

In the end, what it all boils down to is that I must take all that I learn, put myself in a chair, grab a computer or pencil and paper, and write.

Oddly, my sister is a workshop leader. Hers are about getting to the heart of one's relationship with oneself and others. Looking at what's preventing us from having our most wonderful life. People come back again and again because they need a little tune-up. If you substitute "life" for "writing" that's why I continue to participate in the writing weekends. To get to the heart of my characters and move out of the way everything that is keeping me from my best writing. And that process can always use a tune-up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I am reading a chapter a night from a wonderful little book called Just One Thing by Rick Hanson. The chapters are short - two or three pages - and the author gives practical ways of making small changes with big consequences.

I constantly work on being a good listener, keeping my attention from wandering, restraining myself from interrupting, looking at the person instead of around the room. I'm not great at it, I know. Several times lately I've gotten the message to try to be a better listener. Today Hanson's email contained this chapter from the book. I'm passing it on to others who might need some guidance as I do. I love what he had to say.

The Practice
Ask questions.


My dad grew up on a ranch in North Dakota. He has a saying from his childhood - you may have heard it elsewhere - that's: "You learn more by listening than by talking."

Sure, we often gain by thinking out loud, including discovering our truth by speaking it. But on the whole, listening brings lots more valuable information than talking does.

Nonetheless, many people are not the greatest listeners. (You've probably noticed this already: at work, at home, when you're trying to work something out with your partner . . .) What's it feel like when they don't listen to you? Or maybe listen, but don't inquire further? It's not good. Besides missing out on important information - including, often most importantly, your underlying feelings and wants - they're sending the implicit message that they're not that interested (even though, deep down, they might be).

Then turn it around: what do you think they feel like if you don't listen that well to them? Not very good either.

Being a good listener brings many benefits: gathering useful information, making others feel like they matter to you, sustaining a sense of connection with people, and stepping out of your own familiar frame of reference.

One of the best ways to listen well is to ask questions. It makes you an active listener, it shows that you've been paying attention, it can get things out in the open (Mommy, is that emperor parading in his boxers?!), and it slows down emotional conversations so they don't get out of hand.


As a therapist, I ask questions for a living. Plus I've been married a long time through thick and thin, and raised two kids. As they say in medicine: good judgment comes from experience . . . and experience comes from bad judgment. So I offer some fruits of my bad judgments!
· Questions can be nonverbal. A raised eyebrow, a nod to say more, or simply letting there be a bit of silence are all signals to the other person to keep going.

· Have good intentions. Don't ask questions like a prosecutor. It's fine to try to get to the bottom of things - whether it's what bothered your mate the most about her conversation with her friend, or what your son is actually doing this Saturday night, or what your role is supposed to be in an upcoming business meeting. But don't use questions to make others look bad.

· Keep the tone gentle. Remember that being asked a question - particularly, a series of questions - can feel invasive, critical, or controlling to the person on the receiving end; think of all the times that kids get asked questions as a prelude to a scolding or other punishment. You could check in with the other person to make sure your questions are welcome. Slow questions down so they don't come rat-tat-tat. And intersperse them with self-disclosure that matches, more or less, the emotional depth of what the other person is saying; this way they're not putting all their cards on the table while you keep yours close to the chest.

· As appropriate, persist in getting a clear answer. If you sense there's still some problematic fuzziness or wiggle room in the other person's answers, or simply more to learn, you could ask the question again, maybe in a different way. Or explain - without accusation - why you're still unclear about what the other person is saying. Or ask additional questions that could help surface the deeper layers of the other person's thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

· Different kinds of questions are appropriate for different situations. For example, trying to get clearer about a project your boss wants you to do is definitely not like a delicate inquiry into what might help things go better in a physically intimate relationship. Questions about facts or plans are usually pretty straightforward. For the murkier, more emotionally charged territory of friends and family, here are some possibilities:

How was _______ for you?
What do you appreciate about _______ ? What bothers (or worries) you about _______ ? Are there other things you're feeling (or wanting) besides ______?
What did this remind you of?
What did you wish had happened, instead?
What's the most important thing here, for you?
What would it look like if you got what you wanted here? (Or: ". . . what you wanted from me?")
How would you like it to be from now on?
Could you say more about _______ ?

* * *

If your intentions are good, it's really OK to ask questions. Usually, people welcome them. Take confidence in your good intentions and good heart.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Full Circle

I've got some other renovation projects going, but it's time to move on from public planning to other topics. Thanks for being a part of the early re-construction!

All of the wonderful ladies in this photograph are dancing on Glory's side, so I don't mind posting their photograph for the world to see.

I've realized that my friends and I have come full circle with respect to our parents. In the sixties, we said many times, "I'll never be like my parents. I'll never whip my children...make them clean their plates/their rooms...keep them from being with their friends..." etc. etc. And when my children came along, I didn't "whip" them, but I did swat their diapered rear ends a time or two. And although I didn't make them eat all their peas, I did insist for several years on substituting carob bunnies for chocolate at Easter. I watched their friends for signs of drinking or smoking pot. For the most part, though, I did the same as my parents did: the best I could.

And now we're in the same spot. We're saying, "I'll never be like my parents." But this time it's while facing nursing home arrangements, chronic illnesses, long involved estates (I blame part of this on the IRS), Alzheimers and dimentia, lack of forethought into what long-term care costs. One person says that when he dies, his estate is going to consist of a checking account. His children will each receive a check. That's it. Another person asks seriously to be aided in suicide in the event of signs of dementia. One friend curses the parent who didn't plan ahead about where they were going when things started deteriorating as he frantically searches for good care. Still another friend has had to move her mom into her house. Her mother treats her as though she's a recalcitrant fifteen-year-old. My husband dreams of a place where all of the family can live together and take care of each other as we age.

"I'll never put my children through what I've had to go through." I hear it again and again.

The truth is that just as when we were bumbling through the part of life where we weren't going to be like our parents before, we're going to bumble through this phase too. We're going to go reluctantly to nursing homes where our children may or may not want to come to visit. We're going to wait too long on chronic diseases to make end-of-life decisions and have to depend on our family to make them. We're going to try to put aside enough money to take care of ourselves in old age and leave a little for the kids and come up short.

The truth is, we are going to be like our parents. And we and our families will do the best we can.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Messes are Allowed and It's Okay to Be a Little Late

I am a neat freak. And I hate to be late. Both of these obsessions cause me anxiety.

In this renovation year, I'm trying to let go of things that make me feel stressed or take too much negative thinking time. So I've experimented with leaving dishes in the sink and dirty clothes on the floor (overnight is the best I can do).

I know that I work better when things are organized, but I don't have to run to the kitchen every time I finish a glass of water. I can leave my dirty clothes from tonight and take them with my dirty pajamas in the morning.

Over the past few weeks, it seems I'm running behind more often than not, so I've continually lectured myself that it's okay to arrive a few minutes after someone else. That everyone is late to doctor's appointments sometimes. That the movie trailers will still be running when I enter the dark theater with my buttered popcorn. That we never start class early; instead we wait until everyone is there and they'll wait for me too.

I probably drove my children crazy with my mess-aversion, and I know my husband has suffered from my need to be on time which contrasts with the fact that he's time-challenged. But I'm living inside this brain of mine and the person who has suffered the most is me!

Turning sixty has been an awakening for me. The 'last gift of time' seems important. Worrying about messes and lateness don't seem to fit in to my new life decor.