Children, Choices, Determination, Home, Parenting

Don’t Waste Time Doing Stuff you Hate

everyday hospice 2

We are at the midpoint of our nine days together.  On the first night, I arranged to pick up my son’s little buddy from down the hall to join us for the free Seldom Scene bluegrass concert at a local park.  Bug snarled and fussed while I packed up watermelon and blankets.  Then at the show, the banjo twanged, the audience swayed.  Bug and his buddy rounded up a half dozen other kids and played soccer in a clearing until the trees twinkled with lightning bugs.  He rode home flushed and grinning.

Yesterday morning, when packing up to go to the Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian, Bug fought until he cried.  Then on the train, he thrummed with questions and leaned forward in his seat peering out the front window down the dark tracks.  At the museum, he spent 2-1/2 solid hours building laser mazes, a sonar rover, a helmet with night vision and echolocation.

Continue reading “Don’t Waste Time Doing Stuff you Hate”

Brain, Choices, Mindfulness

Positive Account Balance

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

-Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

The last slide on the budget PowerPoint lays out our school’s financial plan:

  • Increase revenue
  • Decrease spending


The boss man knows enough to apologize for it but not enough to skip it altogether.  None of us wants to hear it again.  We are familiar with the formula. Every pixel of internet clickbait loops us back around to yet another listicle that peddles yet another version of the same recipe.

Want to get fit?  Exercise more, eat less.

Tackle the day?  Fewer screens, more sleep.

Be a good friend? Listen more, talk less.

A good lover? Less grasp, more give.

Scale it up and the formula breaks down. Good luck giving global overpopulation the “less babies, more birth control” treatment.  Large-scale social problems have to reckon with the complexity of human cultures, histories, and economies.

This is why we love the personal self-improvement principle almost as much as we loathe it.  While its simplicity balms the wounds of chaos, its refusal to acknowledge complexity drives us batty.

Too hooked on your fix? Use less, breathe more.

Struggling with social anxiety or loneliness? Isolate less, connect more.

Stuck in your career? Hide less, lead more.

Anyone who has ever come up against a tough challenge knows that paths are crooked and terrain that at first appeared solid turns to quicksand in a blink.  It’s only when we’re far on the other side of it — or perhaps when we’re judging some other poor sucker’s fight — that we apply the simplicity principle.

I’m not the only one in the room looking at those PowerPoint bullets through rolling eyes.  As if.

As if all our problems could be solved so easily.

But now I wonder.

What if Mr. Micawber is right after all?

Not for everything, but for one thing in particular: when it comes to this life-choking, spirit-sucking, too-many-decades-in-residence depression, what if Mr. Micawber’s formula is exactly the one I’ve never really tried?

More happy, less misery.

Of course it can’t be that easy.  Not for most of us anyway, and definitely not for the hard core clinical pits into which I stumble, body and mind shattered, bruised and slick with mud. . .

Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of metaphor that costs me twenty pounds nought and six.

Happy = revenue.  Misery = expense.

How might this look?  Here’s an example:  When I remember yet again that awful phone call from Friday in which I learned that Bug and I missed an opening from a many-years waitlist for family camp because I called one minute (the registration lady told me) after the last person who got in. . . I say to myself, “Rehashing this makes me sad. I’m going to think about something else now.” Then I cast around for something nice to notice and remind myself that we’re going to have our own adventure this summer, whatever it is.

Or it looks like this: When my kiddo scowls and tells me yet again that he doesn’t love me and in fact I stink like a rotten poop-eating skunk, I consider how much better laughing feels than fussing. I clap my hands in delight and say I love eating rotten poopy skunk carcasses, they’re even better if they’ve been marinated in worm puke. Then we’re giggling and tickling, and our smiles bounce off the walls.

Or it looks like putting on music when I’m home alone and dancing while I do the dishes. Or texting a girlfriend just to say hello. Or carrying colored pencils in my bag so I can doodle while my son carries on with his buddies at a birthday party.

Or just frittering away my time stuck in traffic counting off the day’s 100 blessings.

It looks like noticing when I’ve started to pay the inflated cost of ruminating while missing an opportunity to generate some pleasure revenue.  A person who tends towards depression needs only one thundercloud to knock the account all out of balance again. Building back up from that kind of debt is a wearying toil — an avoidable one, as it may happen.

When I have enough attention to notice, I might choose to forgo the temptation.  Do not overthink, do not give in to self-pity.  Like walking past the Cheetos at the supermarket.  Just don’t.  Sure, those things are familiar but they make me feel disgusting, and really, they don’t even taste that good.

Can it be this stupidly, improbably simple?

Give it a shot, Smirk.

Choose happy whenever possible.  Or colorful, or musical, or goofy. Choose anything that lifts and ignites over anything that weighs and chokes.  Marvel at the beets, smell a bunch of dill.  Imagine what new recipe to make.  Flirt with the butcher.  Hum while trundling down the aisles.  If it increases the happy income, do it.  If it exacts its price in misery, walk on by.

It makes me smile just to begin.

See? Already, I’m saving for happy.

Simple as that.


Homeward Bound

My parents were the age I am now when they bought their first real house. We had lived in several apartments and a townhouse during my earliest years, but it was not until we moved onto that corner lot that I found my Tara, epic and tortured and almost breathing with coming-of-age angst. It had three bedrooms and big trees for climbing in the yard. The neighborhood boasted all the accessibility and leafy quietness of one of those rarified zip codes everyone knows is the perfect place to raise a child.
The house is still there, squatting on prime real estate wedged between the Beltway and the red line in Bethesda. I drive by it sometimes and feel my stomach clench in a fit of nostalgia and hunger. Inhabiting one of those doomed swaths of DMV land where swollen mini castles erupt from the still-warm remains of modest post-war bungalows, the house may be seeing its final days.
Drive-bys are just one symptom of my unchecked covetousness. The dear people closest to me gently suggest that I am a bit obsessed with money. Fear about Bug’s and my financial situation clings to me like some kind of unpleasant aroma. The jokes I crack at lunches with co-workers about our salaries are usually too loud and too close to the bone. I find it hard to control myself. The paychecks come in twice a month. They are adequate for here and now. Here and now, however, is not adequate for up and out.
The exasperation of the dear ones has long since eclipsed indulgence. No one wants to hear (again!) how tight things are, how frightened I am, how tough it is occupying this point on the financial spectrum. Someone out there is happy with less than what you have, they remind me. Someone out there is unhappy with more.
What if you already have enough?
I have a sweet tooth for drama. This is not news to anyone. Low-dose panic is my drug of choice. In a rare show of equanimity, I am taking their words under consideration. Is fear feeding the anxiety? Have I lost perspective? Perhaps the dear ones are right. It might be the case that I am so caught in this loop of defeat that I am unable to see how far my finances can stretch. Is all this quivering anxiety just me being a little hooked on the flavor of my own misery?
If my paycheck is sufficient to support Bug and me in our own place, I might actually have to get off my frightened ass and make the leap. I claim I ache for a home. A Place of Our Own is my official Red Ryder carbon action 200 shot range model air rifle. But maybe I don’t entirely trust myself to manage alone. If I wake up to find that possibility under the tree, will I shoot my eye out? Having enough would, after all, mean the end of this recuperative chapter in the suffocating security of my parents’ nest. Might it be that the truth of my terror is not in being stuck but in becoming unstuck?
Clearly, it is time to take an honest accounting.
I am a stranger to neither fiscal prudence nor a precise ledger. In all the years Tee and I were living together, I kept us on a noose of a budget. A single YMCA camp income supported our family of three, covering everything from staggering health insurance premiums to dog chow. One of my many jobs as the captain of the domestic ship was to scrimp, save, and track every penny. I made the baby food, hung the cloth diapers on the line, and hand-crafted the holiday decor. We traveled only to visit family. We ate in. Every single month for five years, I reconciled the budget. By some kind of financial sleight-of-hand (and more than our share of help from the ‘rents), we lived just a hair above the poverty line without ever feeling the pinch. We were actually comfortable. Never in all that time did I carry anything like the sickening panic weighing on me now, even though my current income more than the Y ever paid Tee.
This week, I bit the bullet and sat down with my Excel spreadsheet and a pile of bills. I mapped out the year ahead with Bug’s transition to kindergarten and the corresponding reduction in childcare costs. The budget contains 27 items spread out over 12 months. I tried to keep it austere but realistic, including meager numbers for dining out and clothing along with slim grocery expenses. The thin trickles into retirement and Bug’s college fund were saved from the axe. Cable and wifi were slashed along with any travel pricier than a day trip.
In the end, I tallied up the numbers. If I move out of my parents’ house in the next year, I will have enough money for a two-bedroom apartment. In Peoria. As for a location in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudon county? I cannot even afford a studio, let alone a condo or a townhouse in which my son can have a room of his own. Understand this: I hold an administrative faculty post at George Mason University. The position requires a master’s degree and carries an assistant director title. After bare-bones living expenses, the salary leaves me a mere $900 a month for rent, taxes, and utilities in an area where a bottom-end two-bedroom apartment is $1800 a month, before utilities.
They say public service is noble. Where can I trade in all this nobility for a little dignity?
This is not a woman who is eating her own tail in a solipsistic frenzy over money. My perception is not skewed, and objects are not appearing bigger because I am viewing them through the side mirrors. The situation is, in fact, just as dire as I had thought. The number gazes right at me with its italicized crimson smirk. It will not diminish unless I cut out things like trips to the dentist. Or Christmas.
The number is real. Also, it is not. For now, Bug and I are secure in this way-station, parked in a house which does not eat my earnings for an appetizer and then come slathering after my savings for the main course. The number is just this: a sign of how much further I have to go and how different life is going to look for my son growing up than it did for me.
The dear ones guide me away from my talk of financial trouble not because the trouble is false, but because they are helpless to ease the burden. We would all like to believe poverty is a state of mind and that overcoming it just takes hard work and a positive attitude. I am guilty of this half turn from uncomfortable truths. During the three years I spent working in a shelter for homeless families, I was a dogged cheerleader. I advocated for the guests to keep plugging away, and never ceased maintaining that the right combination of social programs and part-time jobs and bus vouchers could move a family into permanent housing. The fact of the recidivism rate – a number I cannot recall, but whose smirk had fangs much redder than my little spreadsheet figure – was hard to look in the eye.
Nonetheless, one has to believe against the evidence. What the dear ones are really saying is that the only alternative to faith is despair, and that is a sure exit ramp to ruin.
I can’t own a house any time in the foreseeable future, but I can own this: $900 a month free and clear is not chump change. Draw at random any one from among the 7 billion, and odds are she lives for a year on less than my monthly surplus. The generosity of my parents combined with that minor excess keep us from sinking down under the poverty line. I know better than to wallow. We are rich. We have trees in the yard, and Bug does have a room of his own.
A $900 rope is in my grip. I cannot see how far it stretches over the cliff face, but I know the only direction of travel is up. How I use my muscle to put that cash to use will determine how high we can climb. I clip one strand of it into a savings account to tether us to an embryonic down payment. A fraction hooks into Bug’s 529 plan so he is not choked by college debt in 15 years. Another thread harnesses us to a retirement account. With these small outlays tied on and my kid strapped firmly to my back, I climb.
I picture what is waiting just up over the lip of the rock. It is just out of sight, but it is there, the door open, a tall glass of something over ice waiting on the porch rail. I picture my son at the age I am now standing on the front step, watching for his retired and nimble mama to pop up for a visit. I picture home, and up we go.