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Just Ask Me: Letter from a worried mother who worries me

Children "learn" what we model for them.

Dear Bruised Muse readers, I’m posting this email series between me and “T,” because, although I found her response to some of my recent writing kind of lovely and sweet (if somewhat misguided), I also found our exchange quite thought provoking and worrying.  In my anger management classes, I’ve heard people express similar “spare the rod, spoil the child” ideas.  “T” has given me permission to post this anonymously, and I hope readers will find it interesting too.  

Dear Ms. Dorf,

I have no idea how I started reading about you, but somehow I stumbled across two posts written by you in one day. One was on McSweeney’s site (Open Letter to the Radio Lady) and one was on your own site about bereavement. As I write this, I sit here with a gigantic lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I cannot breathe. Nothing I can say about the loss of your son can sound anything other than trite and simplistic. I cannot offer you condolences that mean anything, I do not know you, I did not know your son. Please bear with me. I am aware that what I am about to write is not entirely appropriate and may even stray over the border-line of “this woman needs help.”

I have a son. I remember waiting, almost with baited breath, until he turned seven months old. For me, at that time, that was the magic number. Once he was seven months old, nothing could possibly happen to him. Of course, as soon as he turned seven months old the magic number became 12 months. And then 15 months. And so on… He is now 26 months old. I cannot imagine my life without him. I do not want to. The thing is, ever since I became a mother, stories about children, ANY children, affect me almost as if they were my own. Happy stories make me tear up in joy, and think of ways I could somehow transfer that joy to my son’s life. Sad stories make me cry to the point of depression, and then I just want to encase him in a bubble and protect him forever. I do not know if this is ‘normal’. I know that this is MY ‘normal’.

My own childhood was complicated and abusive. I spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analysing, terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing my son.

I wanted to write to you because I want to give you a hug. I really do. I want to give Michael a hug and tell him he has an amazing mom. Who, even after spending 21 years in a cycle of grief that I cannot even begin to comprehend, managed to reach out over hundreds and thousands of miles to a complete stranger and touch her life, and maybe even save it.  

I don’t know what it is about your story about Michael and dealing with the tragedy that has prompted this email to you. I know that even on the worst of my days, what I go through is nothing compared to what you deal with on a daily basis. And that puts a lot of things into perspective for me.

I apologize if any of this has offended you. If nothing else, please re-read the part in bold and delete the rest. I’m not the best at explaining what’s going on in my head and heart.

Thank you for sharing your story.

BIG hugs,

T

* * *

Dear T.

Thanks for reaching out.  I’m so glad you find me, and my resilience, and my writing inspiring.  I’m glad you feel I’ve been able to touch your life, although I would deny that a stranger (or anyone) can “save” it.  Only you can do that.

I think you may misunderstand my writing to some degree, perhaps because I’m sometimes able to take on the “voice” of bereavement, which only means it’s effective writing, not that I’m still suffering and need condolence, although I certainly thank you anyway.  Let me assure you I haven’t spent 21 years in a “cycle of grief.”  (Or even 17 years, since my son died when he was three and a half in 1994.)  Even though my loss is always with me, one way or another, I have a full, rich, happy life.  Much of my healing has been and remains in my writing.  I have found some sort of meaning in the loss, partly by starting (with my husband) a program for toddlers with special needs in memory of our son, partly by becoming a more compassionate person, and partly by studying, training, and making myself available to help others look at their pain, trauma, whatever they struggle with. One of my special gifts is to be able to help people articulate their story through writing, although I use other techniques as well, like more traditional talk therapy.

I’m not offended by your letter, but I am worried about you and your son.  I do see that you may be suffering. Of course you want to protect your son.  Every mother does.  But it does sounds to me as if you have a whole lot of debilitating fear and anxiety around your son’s safety and well-being that may come from some childhood issues you haven’t dealt with.  How difficult for you to “spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analyzing, and being terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing your son.”

Here are two options:

1. With your permission, I can post your letter on my blog anonymously, maybe give a little fuller answer.  That would be interesting for my blog, maybe for you too.  However, no quick answer could possibly tackle what you’ve described.

2. Much more importantly, have you ever talked to a therapist or other counselor?   Or perhaps, if you like to write, we could figure out a way for me to help you articulate your story in writing, which might help you work through some of your pain, anxiety, and issues related to the trauma of growing up in an abusive home.  Or perhaps there’s someone in your area? Really, I recommend you do some sort of therapeutic work.

Best,

Fran Dorf

*******

Hi Ms. Dorf,

Thank you for replying to my email. To be honest, my email may have sounded a tad dramatic. A little background – my hubby has been out of town for the past couple of weeks on work, I’m exhausted with looking after my son and trying to work from home (I’m a web designer) and the day I read your posts I was just wrecked. I was extremely affected by your writing, and the loss of your son upset me greatly. Your writing moved me – and I am amazed by your strength and resilience. And to build on that by being a therapist and helping others  is truly inspiring.

Of course you can post my letter on your blog, but please do remove my son’s name as well as my own.

I think maybe I did misunderstand your post. I was thinking about the closure one, how someone who has lost a child cannot really get closure, but I think you were saying that it is possible to move on without HAVING to have closure? Is this closer to the mark?

I saw a psychologist when I was younger, (I think I was fifteen or so) and because of the way I was then, I basically manipulated her into thinking I was okay with the abuse (also because I wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t sharing everything with my mom). My issues stem from my mother, with whom I have a very complicated relationship – I love her to bits but am so incredibly angry with her for what she did to me and my brother during our childhood. I cannot confront her about this, because she has blacked it out (she was on a cocktail of pills at the time) and because she had her own issues. I come from an Indian background where going against your parents is sort of out of the question, let alone confronting them on any level. The abuse we endured was physical (beatings) and emotional (she would sometimes make us hit her or say things like, ‘if you do this it means you don’t love me’ – this being stupid things like walking on cracks in the sidewalk).

I’ve seen a counselor more recently which has helped quite a bit. My husband and I started seeing him after I found some emails that indicated that my husband was having an emotional relationship with another woman. This started a year or so after our son was born and devastated me – I was already quite depressed from PPS, and my husband and I decided to see a counselor together. I also sought help in single sessions for my anger management (I lash out verbally when I’m angry, which is part of the problem between my hubby and I). I would have liked to have continued with these sessions but we moved to a different city. There is no English-speaking counsellor here, and the psychiatrists/psychologists all charge upwards of 150 euros an hour which I cannot afford. We live in Germany by the way. My husband is Irish and I’m Indian.

About the tailspin: I make it a point to not hit my son in anger, EVER. If I get that mad or frustrated I leave the room for a bit. When he does get smacked he gets smacked on the hand, and it’s usually the third strike rule. However, at the end of the day, I find myself analysing and picking apart my behaviour to make sure I haven’t abused him. Of course, I may well be doing it all wrong (God knows, my mom probably thought she was doing the right thing at the time) and not knowing it. What keeps me sane is my son’s behaviour. He is a cheerful, adventurous and gentle little boy, and his caregivers at the play group he goes to just love him to bits. So I take that as encouragement that I’m on the right track. I try not to let my anxiety spill over into his life.

Good grief, I really have rambled on, haven’t I? In short, I have good days and bad days, on the bad days I think of people like you, and a couple of other writers and it snaps me out of my funk. In essence, that is what I wanted to tell you.

Thank you again for your kind words.

All the best,

T.

******

Dear T.

You do sound as if you’ve had a lot to deal with in your life. I’m very glad you got some counseling and feel that it has helped.  I’m very sorry you feel counseling is too expensive now; perhaps there’s a public clinic that would cost less but still provide you with the treatment and support you may need.  Or maybe you can find a good clinician who’s willing to take a reduced fee.

It’s great that you walk away from your son when you’re feeling angry.  This is what we call taking a “timeout,” and it’s a great practice for anger control.

Now obviously there are cultural differences in the world around child rearing, but I can’t let this go without saying that I do not believe in spanking children no matter what they do, either hitting them on the buttocks, the face, the arm, the hands, or any other way.   Here are a few other of many reasons.  (Much of this is taken from here (www.naturalchild.org/) and here (http://www.askdrsears.com):

1. Children learn what parents model for them. Dr. Sears tells the  classic story about the mother who believed in spanking as a necessary part of discipline until one day she observed her three- year-old daughter hitting her one-year-old son. When confronted, her daughter said, “I’m just playing mommy.” This mother never spanked another child. Hitting children teaches them to become hitters themselves. Witness your own situation. Your mother beat you and now you hit your child and worry about abusing him.

2. Spanking demonstrates that it’s all right for people to hit people, and especially for big people to hit little people, and stronger people to hit weaker people, and you solve a problem with a good swat. A child whose behavior is controlled by spanking is likely to carry on this mode of interaction into other relationships with siblings and peers, and eventually a spouse and offspring.

3. Research supports a direct correlation between corporal punishment in childhood and aggressive or violent behavior in the teenage and adult years. Virtually all of the most dangerous criminals were regularly threatened and punished in childhood. It is nature’s plan that children learn attitudes and behaviors through observation and imitation of their parents’ actions, for good or ill. Thus it is the responsibility of parents to set an example of empathy and wisdom.

4. Punishment distracts children from learning how to resolve conflict in an effective and humane way.  A punished child becomes preoccupied with feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge, and is thus deprived of the opportunity to learn more effective methods of solving the problem at hand. Thus, a punished child learns little about how to handle or prevent similar situations in the future.

5. Punishment disrupts the parent and child bond, as it is not human nature to feel loving toward someone who hurts us. The true spirit of cooperation which every parent desires can arise only through a strong bond based on mutual feelings of love and respect. Punishment, even when it appears to work, can produce only superficially good behavior based on fear, which can only take place until the child is old enough to resist. In contrast, cooperation based on respect will last permanently, bringing many years of mutual happiness as the child and parent grow older.

6. Many parents never learned in their own childhood that there are positive ways of relating to children. When punishment does not accomplish the desired goals, and if the parent is unaware of alternative methods, punishment can escalate to more frequent and dangerous actions against the child.

7. Anger and frustration which cannot be safely expressed by a child become stored inside; angry teenagers do not fall from the sky. Anger that has been accumulating for many years can come as a shock to parents whose child now feels strong enough to express this rage. Punishment may appear to produce “good behavior” in the early years, but always at a high price, paid by parents and by society as a whole, as the child enters adolescence and early adulthood.

On hitting a child’s hand, Dr. Sears says: How tempting it is to slap those daring little hands! Many parents do it without thinking, but consider the consequences. Maria Montessori, one of the earliest opponents of slapping children’s hands, believed that children’s hands are tools for exploring, an extension of the child’s natural curiosity. Slapping them sends a powerful negative message.  Psychologists studied a group of sixteen fourteen-month-olds playing with their mothers. When one group of toddlers tried to grab a forbidden object, they received a slap on the hand; the other group of toddlers did not receive physical punishment. In follow-up studies of these children seven months later, the punished babies were found to be less skilled at exploring their environment. Better to separate the child from the object or supervise his exploration and leave little hands unhurt.

And furthermore, Dr. Sears says, Hitting Devalues the parent: Parents who spank-control or otherwise abusively punish their children often feel devalued themselves because deep down they don’t feel right about their way of discipline. Often they spank (or yell) in desperation because they don’t know what else to do, but afterward feel more powerless when they find it doesn’t work. As one mother who dropped spanking from her correction list put it, “I won the battle, but lost the war. My child now fears me, and I feel I’ve lost something precious.”

“T,” I’m sure you have a wonderful son, but it seems to me that you and your son both would be much better off if you made a serious effort to figure out the ways your childhood is still affecting you, emotionally disengage your childhood trauma from your current life, and learn other, more effective, less putative or damaging methods to deal with your son.

On the matter of closure, I think you’re much closer to accuracy with the statement that we can move on WITHOUT having to find closure.  Closer still would be the statement that instead of looking for “closure” on a loss, we can try to find meaning in the loss.  This however, does not mean that we should go around telling the seriously bereaved that they should find meaning, which could well be offensive to them.  Rather, we should allow people the space and time to take their own journey and discover what they need to discover.  We can see the proof that people do eventually find, or try to find meaning in loss in the way they so often take up causes related to the lost one, find ways to honor the lost one.  For example, Candy Lightner creates the organization MADD. (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.)  The Dorfs start a program for toddlers with special needs called Jumpstart in memory of their son.  Another family plants a tree, or starts a local giveaway of bicycle helmets in memory of their son who was fatally injured when he fell off his bicycle.

Thank you again for sharing your story, T, and I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said about learning other ways than hitting to deal with your son. Do it for your son, in memory of my son. While I don’t think I’d call hand-slapping “abusive,” I think there are much better ways to deal with your beautiful little boy.  How about a timeout for him?  Or a system of positive reinforcement.  So, for example, if he listens to mommy three times he gets a star, if he gets three stars, he gets something (little) he wants.

I wish you both the best, and I stand by my original suggestion that you get some counseling, individual rather than couple.

Inspiration: What I loved and learned in Austin, Texas, at SXSW

Actor, inspirationalist Jeffrey Tambor adding a little human-to-human interactive to the mostly computer-interactive festivities at SXSW in Austin. For examples of his inspiration, see below.

Over the weekend, after a bumpy, scary plane ride in stormy weather, I found myself in Austin, amidst a gathering of about 80,000 geeks, hipsters, techno-geeks, networkers, web designers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, advertising types, actors, writers, directors, film and music enthusiasts and others who came for an incredible event called South By Southwest, techno-affectionately dubbed SXSW Interactive.  It originally started as a film and music festival, but the computer/interactive/startup folk (mostly young people who live, breathe, sleep, and worship at the ALTAR OF TECHNOLOGY), may have in the last few years actually overtaken the film and music folk. I went to support my entreprenadorable husband, Bob Dorf, who with his co-author and partner, Steve Blank, have just released their amazing, erudite new book, a step by step guide to starting new businesses called, THE STARTUP OWNERS MANUAL, which was making its debut there.  They hardly needed my support.  Literally thousands came to hear Steve speak, and to buy the book and get both of their autographs.

Yes, I was a hanger on, an extra, an overwhelmed but fascinated older-person, a wife.  And yes, given my own sensibilities as a writer, therapist, middle aged woman, seeker-of-calm-and-clarity, and only (so far) half-assed dabbler in the techno-arts, my take on the thing and my focus–not to mention my ability to cope with or even understand some of it–is no doubt quirky.  And yes, I do wish all that young brain power could be harnessed toward enterprises that will feed the hungry instead of enterprises like making websites for brides-to-be. Nevertheless, I had a blast soaking it all in, and I mean the soaking part literally since it was freezing and raining all weekend until the sun finally came out on Sunday and the festival started to take on the feel of a real party, a college campus on steroids.

I had a blast because of Austin itself, in which I didn’t see even one ten-gallon-hat, which seemed to me to have literally nothing to do with my vision of the state of which it is the capital, and which aggressively lives up to its motto, Keep Austin Weird, even I suspect when the hoards of youthful techies aren’t in town.

I had a blast because the whole event was part circus and part business meeting, and any time you can use circus and business meeting in the same sentence that’s okay with me.

Fran and Alison at the Museum of the Weird in Austin

I had a blast because I got to hang out all weekend with my friend Alison, Steve’s wife; and of course with my brilliant husband and his brilliant co-author, Steve Blank; and in the beautiful but reputedly haunted Driskill Hotel with a guy named Oren Jacob, filmmaker and “technologist,” who did a lot of the work on the wonderful Pixar film, “Toy Story,” (among others) and is working on a start-up (www.toytalk.com)that I suspect will revolutionize interactive toys for kids; and in a seriously weird Austin restaurant at a table with a guy who funds documentary films about important, profound subjects at the National Endowment for the Humanities; and with a crazy Jordanian cabdriver who kept swerving the cab as he pointed out the window at various freak shots, and shouting, “LOOK AT THAT! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?”

I had a blast because so many of the young women there were dressed in clothes you’d have to call Hipster-Mismatch-Strange. (As opposed to Tory Burch and Kate Spade, where I live.)  What do I mean by that?   Okay, so picture a skinny twenty-five year old, maybe with dreadlocks, wearing boots, striped leggings, a polka dotted skirt, a paisley shirt, maybe a fur vest.  Now picture another skinny twenty year old with pink hair, a pierced nose and tattoos, wearing red sneakers, green pants, and a sleeveless orange and blue striped dress over the pants. Now multiply that by hoards of girls, each one making her own little Hipster Mismatch Strange Statement and you’ve got it. (Okay, so let’s not even talk about the attire at Woodstock.)

I had a blast because I loved the session by Danah Boyd about the culture of fear in this interactive age, about bullying and fear-mongering by governments, and about the positive vs. negative consequences of our increased ability to connect.  Even though she offered no real conclusions I was happy to see that serious people in the generation that grew up in this teched-up culture are looking at this very scary, upsetting phenom.

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the techno-geek session I attended called “The Secret Lives of Links,” although the guy who presented was quite lively and had great slides. I guess I went because it sounded sexy.

I loved the talk by Rainn Wilson, he of “The Office” fame, who also did a very weird turn as the funereal love interest of the mother, Ruth, in my favorite television show of all time, “Six Feet Under.”  Rainn was talking primarily about his hot and wonderful website, www.soulpancake.com, in which random people post soul-stirring, important questions, such as: “You have five minutes to address the delegates at the General Assembly in the UN.  What do you say?” and “Will technology be used to save or destroy us?” and “Does religion need to be destroyed for spirituality to flourish?” …. And then random others offer answers.  As an example of the power of the internet to stir creativity and self-expression, Rainn’s website is a wow.  I’m thinking on my question right now.

Most of all, I was deeply moved by the combination seminar-theater-stand-up-disguised-as-an-acting-workshop given by the well known character actor, Jeffrey Tambor, (www.http://www.jeffreytambor.net/) who dispensed laughter and wisdom by the bucketful, mostly while “directing” a scene between two young people (possibly actors) who seemed to have been chosen just because they showed up, whose lines were basically:

He: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

She: “Yes, yes yes, don’t tell me no, you motherfucker.”

The wonderful Jeffrey brilliantly coaxed the two to do it as themselves, as bad asses, by yelling, in French accents, as femme fatales, by putting in three “naughties,” as comedy, as tragedy, and with a gun.   He even got them to sing it.

Among the many memorable bits of advice Mr. Tambor dispensed and I wrote down (since my memory isn’t too great) were:

“We’re here to be the enemy of the status quo.”  (This brings me back to my hippie roots, of course. I miss that.)

“The problem is that most of us want to be good.” (This reminds me of my favorite quote in life, from Huxley’s classic dystopian techno-vision, Brave New World, so much of which seems now so prescient: “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Enjoy everything, adore everything.” (Well, we can try, on the theory that everything, even that which is awful, can be looked at a learning experience.)

“If someone goes after your confidence, call them out.” (Not sure this applies to the average person, who could easily be fired for it, but I like it anyway.)

“Confidence is the game in life and art” (I wanted to ask him if that applies to writing too, but I didn’t have the guts.)

“Do what you want. Don’t be scared that people are going to be mad at you.” 

“I get up in the morning with the vultures at my head, and I always make my bed before I do anything else.” (By which he meant he chases away the vultures who attack his confidence.  Hmm. I’m glad to hear that even a highly successful actor with a long and distinguished career has those circling vultures too.  It’s a little more difficult for me to rid myself of them, but at least I strive to be a bed-making vulture-chaser.)

Being a person whose confidence wavers moment by moment, and one who has sometimes worried that people are going to be mad at her, I was not only moved, I fell in love with the fabulous Jeffrey.

Just Ask Me: Uh-oh. Her love is probably headed for law school 3000 miles away

Originally posted in THE DAILY MUSE

Dear Fran,

I’m 23 and I’ve been dating my boyfriend for three years. We went to college together and, right afterwards, both got jobs in LA. We have an amazing relationship, I’m so happy, and I’m pretty sure that this is the guy I want to marry.

The problem: He just got accepted to law school—in New York. He applied to mainly California schools, but he decided to apply to Columbia and NYU on a whim, and he got in to both. It would be huge for him to go to a top 10 law school, but I can’t help but wish that he would stay here. I don’t want to hold him back from this amazing opportunity, but I can’t imagine life without him! 

Me moving there with him isn’t really an option either—I just started a Master’s program here. But the truth is, even when I finish it, I don’t want to move to New York! I love it in LA, all my family and friends are here, and I really see a future staying at my job.

What do we do? If he stays, I feel like he will resent me for missing out on a great opportunity. And if he goes, I’ll resent him for putting us in a long-distance relationship (not to mention, we’ll both be pretty miserable apart). How do we make the right decision for our relationship and for our careers?

In Love in California

Dear In Love in California,

Let’s get the only easy solution out of the way first. Did he also apply to a top school close by? Is going there an option?

If not, I’m afraid there is no “right” decision, partly because every option you have risks something. Assuming you want to remain a couple, all you can do is weigh the choices and try to take the least threatening alternative.

One possibility is to let him decide based on what’s best for him, vow to try not to punish him emotionally, deal with his choice (perhaps with emotional support from family, friends, even a therapist), and hope for the best. Or he could do the same for you.

But here’s my real answer. Long-term, mature, healthy relationships require at the very least the three “C’s”: communication, compromise, and compatible goals.

Your current goals may not be completely compatible, but keep in mind that couples do sustain long distance relationships all the time. You’ll communicate regularly through the magic of video technology, you’ll split the plane rides, and you’ll reunite in a few years.

Or you’ll compromise, which means one of you might have to take both an emotional and a career risk. Remember, it’s possible his career will be great no matter where he goes. And you could end up loving New York and having an even better career there. Unfortunately, this isn’t a science experiment with a control group that tells you what would have happened if you’d made the other choice. Which of course is why it’s a risk. And why it’s life.

This issue appears, however, to have uncovered communication problems between you. It strikes me that he applied “on a whim” to not one, but two practically must-attend schools 3,000 miles away. That’s some whim. Did he keep it a secret, or fail to mention it until he got in? Is that his M.O.? Or did he say, “I won’t get in, so don’t worry?” (And did you really believe this, given that he’s obviously smart enough to get into both?) Did he say, “I’m applying on a whim, but if I get in, I’m going?” Did either of you say, “but what about us?”

Analyze whatever happened for clues of his character, nature, maturity level, values, and commitment to your relationship. What does it say about him if he kept it a secret? About you if you’ve been afraid to express your concerns?

It’s possible your boyfriend loves you with all his heart, wants to marry you, and did this innocently. (I know he didn’t do it because he’s not very smart.) Perhaps he even believes that 3,000 miles won’t put a serious strain on your relationship.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that he seems to have set you both up for this, which may mean your commitment levels are unequal or he has underlying doubts, even if he can’t or won’t admit it, or doesn’t realize it.

The two of you must talk, talk, talk. Hash this out together, openly, honestly. Think about things you may not have previously considered. How will you feel if you invest years in this relationship, and he decides he wants to stay there, or he finds someone else there (a possibility that may increase when there’s such a distance)? It’s relatively easy to make promises, but is it realistic to think that a long distance relationship will satisfy your needs? Is losing him because of that a risk you’re willing to take? Does it outweigh your other concerns, such as your love of California and your job?

Also, law school is hard, especially the first year. Maybe you not being there will be a good thing and will help him concentrate. Maybe him being in law school in California would put a strain on your relationship, too.

And you say that you’re unwilling to move. But it’s possible that a separation may change your mind, and I’d encourage you to be open to that idea. In the film Going the Distance, Justin Long’s character eventually quits his job in New York to move to California to be with the lovely Drew Barrymore. There, true love wins out. But real life isn’t a movie. And I’ve found that women often feel they have do most of the compromising. (Readers, feel free to disagree.)

You two have a lot to discuss. If you do so honestly, eventually the path will become clear. Whatever happens, I do hope you’ve learned that in healthy relationships, communication and compromise are key, and that neither person ever makes unilateral decisions that are going to affect both.

I wish you (both) luck in your relationship and careers,

Fran

Gratitude: Five Things that Made My Week

1. I’m grateful for the study that came out this week that showed that  approximately 50% of Americans who get government aid in the form of social security disability, child and dependent care tax credits, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and student loans, believe they don’t. (To read more click here.)  Apparently the guy I saw on television at a Tea Party rally a few years back carrying a sign that said GET YOUR GOVERNMENT HANDS OFF MY MEDICARE wasn’t just some lone guy with a marker and a misguided brain. It’s not that I’m so happy that so many Americans seem to have swallowed the nonsense being dished out by the Republican party for the last thirty years.  But at least I can try to be hopeful that SOMEONE, ANYONE, will be able to educate these people, to use this new, actual data to help these Americans find their way again, and to maybe stop voting against their own pocketbooks.  I realize this is probably a naive hope, since faith-based beliefs are obviously not subject to actual facts but I can hope if I want to.  Seriously, folks.  The other night I was watching the hilarious Jon Stewart, and I actually heard his guest, Bruce Bartlett, who was none other than Ronald Reagan’s budget guy, call the current Republican party insane!  You can’t make this stuff up.

2. I’m grateful for Jon Stewart.  Any time. Always.  The guy is a comic genius.  (Bill Maher is also a genius, albeit slightly more disturbing one.)

3. I’m grateful for the wonderful Paul Anka. Now THAT man could croon.  We met some friends at a fantastic, authentic Italian restaurant in the Bronx, and every so often during the meal, the waiters would present someone with birthday cupcakes, while on the speakers on at top decibel there would be the memorable opening strains of Anka weeping out,”Did you have a happy birthday? Even though I wasn’t there.”  Okay, so I’m old.  But for atmosphere, this musical choice was a winner.  To hear this classic on youtube, click here.

4. I’m grateful that my two-year-old grandaughter, after trying and trying, was finally able to balance a spoon on her nose.

5. I’m grateful that after putting up a new tab in my blog (Need Advice? Just Ask Me.  Click the tab above to check it out.), I’ve received my first letter.  I’ll post that, and my answer, soon.

Survival Tip of the Day for Moms

Survival Tip for Moms:

Don’t assume that your daughter’s path will be the same as yours and then try to foist that opinion on her. We’re all entitled to learn our own lessons, take our own journey.
A great question from a Daily Muse reader. Just Ask Me. 

Survival Tip of the Day: Take off those glasses, duckies.

Ducky

Are you walking around with your head in your armpit…ahem…your wing?  Do you wear chronic rose colored glasses? Automatically give people the benefit of the doubt?  Dismiss your gut reaction in favor of your head’s reaction?  Make excuses?  Assume that everyone else thinks like you do?

Here’s something I first realized a long time ago:

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably IS a duck.

In other words, trust your instincts, your eyes, your gut. I first learned this little truth upon being disappointed yet again by a boyfriend I thought I could change into someone else. I relearned it many times after that, mostly recently with a plastic surgeon I think of now only as “Plastic Man.”

I walked into Plastic Man’s office in a state of hysteria after having been given the breast cancer diagnosis.  Out of all the doctors I could have chosen to perform the surgery, I chose THAT GUY, when the truth is, he showed me his true colors the first moment I met him.  For one thing, he didn’t show me a scintilla of compassion.  In fact, he gave me the creeps, and struck me as one of those really arrogant assholes I’d unfortunately run into before (having had more than my share of experience with doctors.)  But my head took me away from my gut: I figured I could take whatever he dished out, as I’d already been through everything there was, the worst of the worst.   I’d figured I’d already interviewed two other plastic surgeons, and it seemed like it would be hell to interview even one more.  I decided you don’t pick a surgeon on whether you like him or not, or whether he likes you, offers you a scintilla or a barge load of respect, feels sorry for you or doesn’t.  I decided all that mattered was SURGICAL SKILL, and this guy had a long, impressive resume.  Worst of all, I decided that he’d eventually realize what a fabulous gal I was, and eventually his inate niceness would come through…. Well, let me tell you, that last one did not happen.  Not by a long shot.   I got one hell of an infection, and as things went downhill Plastic Man showed me not more compassion but less.  He acted like I was a pesky fly who kept landing on his cheek and he kept trying to swat away.

Pay attention to what you see and feel, rather than what you you hope or wish to see and feel.

Survival Tip of the Day (#58): Be grateful.

The practice of gratefulness may be the most productive habit you can develop. Martin Seligman, the positive psychology guru, recommends that you write down at least three things you’re grateful for every day. For an old cynic like me, that’s a lot of gratitude, but I force myself to do it anyway. Air, family, and pedicures are good places to start. Today, Sunday, January 29, I am grateful for: 1. My amazing grandchild, Maya Rose, who makes me laugh with glee! 2. Zumba (although I wish the gal would stick with salsa, Indian, kumbaya, etc, and cool it with the hip hop, since I often find the lyrics offensive) 3. My wonderful son in law, who set me up with a new site for my ramblings.

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Survival Tip of the Day

Basic psychology I learned with some rats:  Behavior that is reinforced will increase.

IE: Behavior  +  Reinforcement = More of the Same

IE: 1 + 1 = 2

  • If you allow someone to take advantage of you, to continually violate reasonable boundaries, that behavior will only continue and probably increase.
  • If you enable bad behavior, that behavior will only continue or increase.
  • If you continually rescue someone, that person will continually behave in ways that require you to rescue her (or him).
  • Take a stand. Stick to boundaries.  Refuse to rescue or appease.

Just Ask Me Advice: Help! I Can’t Stand my Family at the Holidays

Reposted by  — from The Daily Muse, November 23, 2011 — 1 Comment
Help! I Can't Stand my Family at the Holidays

Dear Fran,

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself once again stressed and sick at the thought of traveling home. I’m kind of the black sheep of my family, and don’t feel like I fit in anymore, if I ever did. The biggest issue is my brother, who’s ten years older than I, and his wife, who hs a knee jerk opinion about everything, from politics to how children should be raised.  Plus, their 13-year-old daughter is a total brat.

Truthfully, my brother is a brat too, but in my father’s eyes he can do no wrong.  Both of them played college football, and we have always had a kind of male-oriented household.  While my younger brother is thinking about going to law school after college, my older brother has joined my father’s business, and the two of them live in their own world in which only their opinions and needs count.  Even though I went to a good college and now have a great husband and career, they all act like that was just expected and truly don’t seem to care.

With barely a break for dinner, they will spend Thanksgiving ay immersed in whtever football game is on, drinking beer and hollering at the TV.  Last year my neice sat in a corner, texting on her phone, ignoring the constant nagging of her mother.

Worst of all, my father and older brother kind of pick on my husband because he’s not a sports guy.  My husband tries to fit in, and always feels oblgated to join the rest of them in the football thing.  Inevitably, my mother and I end up alone in the kitchen doing the dishes, and my mother quietly complains about how unhappy she is with my father.

As I grow older, I find it harder to find common ground and even have a decent conversation, let alone avoid any judgment or squabbling because of the crude way they talk, sometimes even calling people racist or sexist names.  I envy my friends and even the holiday movies full of families gathered around dinner tables happily feasting, and enjoying being together after moths apart, when all I feel is embarrassed, disgusted, and stressed.

Alone

****************************************

Dear Alone,

Let me begin by saying that I sympathize. I too grew up in a family in which my father favored my older brother, and I felt dead last in a field of two. It took a very long time to understand how this has impacted my life, my choices, and my emotional stability. In the long term, I suggest you go to therapy or undertake an honest self-analysis to try to understand how this has potentially impacted you.

But here’s my advice for the short term: First of all, stop being embarrassed and envious of all those “happy” families. Truth is, every family out there has its own unique imperfections. Things can look pretty good from the outside, but the ideal family dynamic is not something I have seen in reality very often. And I’d say that most families have at least one member who isn’t all that happy to be home, or thinks she doesn’t fit in, or feels like some kind of black sheep.

I also want to dissuade you of the notion that there is anything wrong with being the proverbial black sheep; it sounds to me as if you’re lucky you got out of there! Now I admit I’m not a football fan, but given the evidence showing as much as a 22% rise in domestic violence calls to the police on Thanksgiving Day, I can’t help mentioning here the disgust I have with the whole “drunk and hollering” milieu.

Try this: Meditate to calm down. Look at Thanksgiving as a kind of yearly sociological experiment. Talk to your husband about your feelings and frustrations, listen as he explains his, and support him in doing what makes him feel comfortable. During the weekend, observe carefully, learn from everyone’s behavior (including your own), and become stronger in your convictions.

Be grateful for all the wonderful things in your life, and maybe even suggest that everyone in the family take a turn before the meal saying what they’re grateful for. Also try to focus on the family members with whom you do, or could, have positive relationships. Continue to be there for your mother, and be kind to her—it sounds to me as if she has a lot of regrets. Foster your relationship with your younger brother, who sounds thoughtful and approachable, and reach out to your niece, who, despite her aloofness, may be a struggling young girl who could benefit from your influence in her life. Perhaps bring her a little gift, maybe a puzzle or a game you could play together. Plus, your husband might be grateful for the escape from the rest of the family and join in.

While keeping in mind that you aren’t going to change anyone, steer clear of any political debates. I would, however, draw the line at sexist and racist name-calling. Say you don’t appreciate that kind of negativity and ask them to stop.

And finally, if being with your family at the holidays really pains you, it might be time to consider avoiding it altogether. Consider spending next Thanksgiving with your husband’s family or on a vacation with just the two of you. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you react to them—and how much time you spend with them.

Best of luck,

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.

“Just Ask Me” Advice #4: How to Help a Friend with cancer

Help! How Do I Help a Friend with Cancer?

Help! How Do I Help a Friend With Cancer?

Dear Fran,

A close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks ago. She’s had surgery and will be undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors say her prognosis looks good, but she has had to drop out of her grad school program for the semester.

We were all absolutely devastated when we heard the news, and it’s been the most difficult thing I could imagine for her and her family. She has been inconsolably depressed, crying all the time, and so angry that her life as she knows it is over. It is so not fair that this happened to such a wonderful person—and all I want to do is make her feel even a tiny bit better.

Our friends have tried everything we can think of—spending days at the hospital, crying with her, talking, bringing games, watching movies, and more. But nothing has helped—even the good news from the doctors that we got last week. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she’s going through, so I am at a loss as to what else I could say or do that might help even a tiny bit.

How can I help her?

A Friend

Dear Friend:

I am moved by your question. It sounds as if you are a caring, concerned friend who’s doing everything possible to alleviate your friend’s suffering.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can say or do to magically make things better or to wish her disease away. Your friend is mourning a very grave loss. Calling cancer a loss may surprise you, but a young woman being treated for breast cancer, even breast cancer she’s probably going to survive, is dealing with significant life losses, including loss of health, loss of innocence, loss of safety, (perceived) loss of sexuality, and (at least temporarily) loss of cherished dreams and ambitions.

Your friend is on a journey and needs time to process this profound life experience. All you can offer is your companionship and deepest compassion. The Buddhist definition of compassion is the nearest I’ve come to truly understanding how to handle situations like yours:

“Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Being close to her suffering means being patient with her feelings, not trying to change them. Continue to visit and when you do, encourage her to express her emotions, and always validate their legitimacy, even if they’re scary or make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. Don’t pretend to understand her pain; it is hers and hers alone. And when she’s opening up to you, don’t try to distract her unless she’s begging for news from the outside world or a change in topic.

Also refrain from optimistic assurances—they may come across as empty or invalidating and may further anger or depress her. Don’t, for example, try to reassure her that she can go back to school next year, or even that all will eventually go back to “normal.” Her process might take her somewhere else entirely, and her “normal” may be altered permanently, too.

All that being said, there are some ways you can help her move forward:

  1. Bring her a beautiful journal in which to record her experiences and feelings. She can keep this private, of course, but the writing process itself is wonderfully beneficial. Or direct her to a website like www.caringbridge.org, where cancer patients can write an ongoing journal, share their experiences with a community of concerned friends, and receive support.
  2. Encourage her to participate in a support group with other young women facing breast cancer or other health crises. Individual therapy with a social worker or psychologist might also help. Check out the resources in her area or community, or ask her hospital for helpful and therapeutic resources.
  3. Put together a care package of meditation tapes, green or white teas, a heating pad, aromatherapy candles, books (the young and amazing Kris Carr has a few), tissues, stationery—anything that may be comforting and relaxing to her.
  4. Bring her a book about the breast cancer experience, either a memoir or an instructional book on how to get through it. Hearing from someone else who has been through what she’s dealing with might be incredibly comforting, and help her feel that she’s not so alone.

Finally, keep doing what you’re doing. Be present and humble. Observe and reflect. Allow silence, and don’t judge. No matter how she’s dealing with this, accept her, listen to her, and love her.

Let me end with a life survival tip, which I offer in the most sincere and open way. After I lost my son, I spent years raging at the whole universe, to no avail—except to learn that the universe is 100% indifferent to what seems fair. Knowing this tidbit helped me later, when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.

I offer this tip to help you prepare yourself for the vicissitudes of life, and to encourage you to be grateful for each moment and every day. To help you help your friend as she begins this journey. And to state a bottom-line truth that is nonnegotiable and endlessly unforgiving:

Survival Tip #1: Life is not fair.

Your friend is learning this truth, and I encourage you to learn it, too. And I wish you both good luck and good health.

Fran

Have a question for Fran? Email advice@thedailymuse.com