Archive | November, 2008

Legos and Crossword Puzzles

28 Nov

There is an immense sense of comfort and satisfaction that comes from doing something well. Such is the case for me, with crossword puzzles, and for my 7-year-old son, with Lego sets. In both situations, there is a system to be followed in reaching the final outcome. The beauty of both is in following the system, improving upon it each time, and reaching the solution.

As my son is soon to find, and I have been finding for years now, this is a feeling that few things in life bring to us. I can think of a handful for me, and the crossword puzzle is one. Writing is on the list. Knitting is another. There is a fourth–ahem–not to be discussed in this forum, and if you are of age and do not know of it, I am sorry.

Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone” or “flow.” As a writer, I am there when my shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingertips are making a linear connection between my brain and the laptop screen. Words are coming from I don’t know where, and they keep pumping out in a way that makes good sense. When I am knitting, particularly on circular needles, I enter into this meditative state that is just as much about the means as the end.

With the crossword, it’s similar. I have a repeatable process that I use when doing crosswords. Start with the first few across, skip to the first few down, then go from end to start crisscrossing the downs and acrosses. This is my personal “flair,” my way of doing crosswords that’s like nobody else’s. If I were eating a cob of corn, it would be starting with the first few kernels of the first row, going to the other side of the cob, and meeting up somewhere in between.

For my son, the pinnacle of flowdom is completing Lego sets of the $10 or less variety, particularly those with a knight or adventure theme. His system involves opening up the packages, depositing all small parts into separate plastic containers in front of him at the kitchen table or on the floor of his room, and alternately reading the directions and winging the assembly process on his own. Interruption during assembly is not recommended. Any disruption results in a growl, or “get out,” or being chased away. He is very protective of his process, and I understand that. I do the same things when interrupted during my crossword. My husband has learned this.

The practical matter here is in finding more opportunities to be productive while being “in the zone.” Athletes do this (but what can they do when they no longer compete?). Maybe my son will apply his mechanical skills as an engineer or scientist some day.  The fine art in finding more time to practice our “art” is to have a good excuse for doing it–which can involve making money from the process and its outcome, but can also involve other positive byproducts. Finding a way to capitalize on that thrill of the chase, the sense of anticipation that comes from building up to something better than we’ve done before–this is the ultimate. It’s the difference between obsessive-compulsive disorder and happiness.


28 Nov

Lately I’ve been seeing a commercial in which an ever-expanding snowball of laundry rolls down a suburban street, gaining speed and threatening to overtake a poor, defenseless woman. I do not recall what the ad is for (detergent? new washer?), but the commercial sticks in my mind because of its familiarity. I am that woman, admittedly in a constant state of launduress.

For years, I have been bad about laundry. I was bad about it as a teenager, when I had three feet of clothing scattered on the floor in my bedroom. I was bad as a young adult, when I extended the life of various garments by dumping baby powder on them for re-wearability. (Yes, I know that this is gross. I have since reformed my ways.) I was bad as a newly married, when my husband informed me that he would do his own laundry, thank you very much, since I was clearly incapable. No matter that his folding skills are beneath me. Who else folds everything–shirts, underwear, pants–in half and then in half again?

My laundrophobia has gotten worse since I became a mother, for obvious reasons having to do with sheer volume. Other mothers understand that Sheer Volume is a proper noun when referring to the laundry that can be generated by children, of any age. Piles grow exponentially. This is a state of affairs that sounds exaggerated but is no laughing matter when morning comes and there are no clean underwear to be found. Being without clean underwear is a crisis of epic proportion, easily comparable with being on a sinking ship without a life preserver. There is no situation more distressing than having to face the day without clean underwear. There is no–ABSOLUTELY no–manner acceptable for rejuvenating a dirty pair of underwear. Forget it. Everyone knows that you’d might as well just give up and go back to bed. There’s just no reason to bother leaving the house.

Sheer Volume becomes a shell game when a person, such as me, is fairly good about folding laundry but not so good about putting it through the washer/dryer, or putting it away. Folding is infinitely more fulfilling than either getting laundry starting or putting it away, as evidenced by my neatly folded piles. Laundry by its very nature must be managed as an assembly line, input/output process. Getting backed up on the input or output side doesn’t help anybody. I currently have five baskets of folded laundry in my bedroom, and lots of empty drawers where that laundry should be happily sorted and put away. I also have two or three baskets of dirty laundry that need taken to the basement and put through the machines. The problem is that when it’s time to actually go places, finding the right garment to wear in a particular setting can be a challenge. I thumb through the piles of folded laundry in the clean baskets, but inevitably whatever I need is at the bottom of the stack. After a few days of this, the clean laundry looks a bit wrinkled and dog-eared, like a well-thumbed book. Not good when it needs worn to work, for a new client presentation. What would my mother say?

My mother would say that she’s ashamed of me, which is why I keep all traces of my laundry disorganization under wraps. All laundry baskets are either in the basement laundry room or in my bedroom upstairs. At my brother’s house, where the laundry situation has reached SHEER VOLUME, the laundry is stacked in the living room. I KNOW what my mother says about this, so I am careful to keep my laundrophobia in the closet.

Something is seriously wrong with my abilities to both initiate and finalize the laundry process. I can follow through with other tasks, for example blogging. Last night my husband asked me to kindly put aside the blog for one night and get more laundry done. At this point in my life, I know that it is not going to get any better. With any luck, as my kids learn to do their own laundry, I can put some distance between the giant snowball of laundry and me. I am starting to gain on it already.


17 Nov

When I was 12, while spending the night at a neighbor girl’s house, I learned what it’s like to have a friend who’s a bully. Her name was Cindy, and she held me down and wiped Secret roll-on across my forehead, arms and legs. For obvious reasons, since then I have NEVER used Secret roll-on. “Strong enough for a man, made for a woman.” Hm, the brand doesn’t say this to me. It says, “You just found your first frenemy.”

Honestly, I think I must have been a real sucker. Because that same summer, another girl named Debbie tried to drown me in the city pool. I thought she was joking around, but when she kept shoving me underwater over and over again, I knew she was for real.

I’ve also run into this behavior with adult female friends. One friend, a former colleague, was having an affair with a married man and could barely keep her act together. She called me continually, on the brink of one breakdown or another, and I just kept listening, kept being supportive. This was unfortunately followed by a Secret roll-on incident perpetrated by her, in a work setting. Her lash-out was uncalled for, and it left me wondering, “Why me? Am I bringing this on myself?”

Another friend that I used to be close with did something cutting and sly. We were one night having a conversation about what to do if you disagree with someone’s values, their way of life. She described a friend she felt this way about, and asked how I would recommend communicating this to the friend. Years later, I realized that she was seeking advice from me about how to tell me she wasn’t cool with my value system, my choice to be a working mother and not stay at home with my kids. Ouch.

Bullying is an interesting phenomenon, and it shapes the way we look at the world. My son’s school has an anti-bullying program, and I’ve paid attention to what they are teaching. There is a song that they sing called, “Don’t Laugh at Me.” It has meaning.

I think that everyone at some point in time has been bullied, by a boss, a client or someone on an opposing sports team. Somehow, it’s easier to take when it comes from the “other team.” What really stings is being targeted by someone who poses as a friend.

Over time, I have learned to be more guarded, less trusting, probably less naive. And I’ve thought that I brought it on, or that the other person was just fundamentally flawed. It’s probably somewhere in the grey area, though. We’ve all been in situations where someone has used power against us, or vice versa. To know a bully is to have bullied, on some level, ourselves. It happens. I’m learning to do more judo moves, not reacting or taking the blow, but letting the bully’s momentum carry him or her into a natural consequence. Not gloating or being glad for their fall, but standing firm on my own two feet and knowing that karma is real. And deciding not to take negative action against another, knowing that consequences will come back around eventually.

Funeral for a Friend

17 Nov

Late last week I attended the funeral of a friend, Marie Kamara. There are lots of sad and probably trite things that can be said about the loss of a 33-year-old woman in the prime of her life, but I will not say them here. Instead, here are some thoughts:

1. For the first time ever, I decided to NOT go to the casket. I have never liked paying my respects to the left behind part of someone, but in the past I’ve always forced myself to act like the process gave me peace. Well, it does not, and this time I didn’t pretend. Honestly, how could seeing Marie’s corporeal self give me any consolation? Marie herself had the most wonderful smile of anyone I have ever known. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. No undertaker could do justice to that smile. As her brother said at the service, every time she smiled it looked like she had 50 extra teeth in her mouth.

2. Family matters. Marie’s family is big and strong, and they will carry her husband Sam beyond the loss. Marie’s mother and father are from Sierra Leone, and they came to America and settled in, of all places, Ft. Wayne, Ind. Marie grew up and played women’s basketball at the University of Delaware. She was competitive, and I think she learned this from her mom, who apparently is a killer bowler. One time, Marie told me about going bowling with her mother. Her mother would not let anyone off the hook. She was so competitive that she lit a fire under everyone around her to do better. Marie was that way, too. She had expectations for people, in a quiet way. If she disapproved of something, she would just roll her eyes or say, “Okay, if that’s what you think you should do.” Marie was even keel, and a lot of this had to do with her family. When I met her parents and many of her relatives, they were wearing traditional African robes from their original home. They knew where they were from. And they were sad for the loss of their beautiful daughter, but they also have faith that all life moves forward.

3. The people we work alongside have talents we cannot imagine. Marie was that way. We worked together for some time and got to know one another in that setting, so it’s through the work lens that our friendship grew. I knew that she loved dancing and acting. We talked a lot about it. But I never knew of her talent, and I regret that I never saw her perform. The paper this week had a good story about her performances with the local acting company. I’m so proud to have known someone so well-rounded, so fulfilled as a person. I want to make sure that I see through a wider lens with my colleagues in the future. The necessary focus on “getting things done” at work can be so limiting at times. I want to see more of the whole person in the people I cherish.

Go in peace, Marie.