Homelife

Monday, February 20, 2017

8 degrees above normal

Today's weather forecast:  8 degrees above normal. There will be a high pressure system moving in that will blanket you with sunshine.  You will smile and breathe deeply because it feels so good to get out there in the sun and the warmth.  It will feel like a little gift. But then you will say, "Wait, this is February.  This is not normal."  You're right, about 8 degrees above normal.  And that's not just the weather.

It seems like our world is now operating at 8 degrees above normal. Can we just go back to normal?

It's February.  Normally a blanket of snow would cover the ground.  You would be making hot chocolate and cherry pie for President's Day.  You would light a fire and a candle and snuggle up with a book.  But with that sunshine and high pressure also comes the compounding guilt of lying on the couch.  "Get up, get out, get busy, get moving," it screams.  And you can't.  You. Can't. Move. Because for the last 6 weeks since Christmas, you've been moving. You've been busy. So today you say, Enough. High pressure be damned.  I've been moving at 8 degrees above normal for too long.  I need a BREAK.  This is the season of hibernation.  We just finished Winter Sports and are in the peaceful lull before Spring Sports.  We need this time to breathe, to relax, to rewind.  To Lay Low.  I need a little low pressure system - bring on the snow! But this high pressure stuff is all around.  The news... overheated, overcharged.  High Pressure.  Way above normal!  The news is having a trickle down effect too.  My kids, my colleagues, all of us under added pressure.  8 degrees above normal! With a relative in the hospital - 8 degrees above normal.  Getting ready for college - 8 degrees above normal.  And it's official - 4 teenagers in the house - though that probably puts us at 20 degrees above normal!  Even a trip to the grocery store - 8 degrees above normal.  Why?  You can't eat bread anymore and Milk is how much? Oh, and wait, we're not supposed to drink milk anymore? That was my normal. Now everything is 8 degrees above normal.

Could we just turn down the heat? Can we just have a simple normal winter, without the odd temps creeping in? I get it that people don't look forward to snow. I know it's a pain to shovel and travel, but cold isn't so bad.  In fact, it's normal!  Where is our normal now?

I keep trying to find it.  Not on the weather channel, not on the news channel.  Not on National Geographic.  That stuff is getting scary!  8 degrees above normal is just not good for our earth.  Or for us.  And yet the systems we had in place to curb the 8 degrees above normal just got a big roll back politically.  Soon the 8 degrees above normal will be twenty degrees above normal.

So what are we to do with this high pressure, high temps? I'd like to say the answer is finding your own new normal.  Shorts in February?  Just go get the boxes out of the attic and shut up.  Watching the news?  Just have a glass of wine first.  Four teenagers?  Read a book about how to deal.  But I can't.  It's so not normal.  I'm resisting all these things.  Maybe I'm just too old.  About a week ago I felt young and primed to cope, but that's probably because there was snow on the ground!  Today it's just too far above normal.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Let's Talk About Happy Things



I grew up in a family of seven, five kids and two loving parents. But I also had a large extended family of grandparents, countless cousins, and aunts and uncles. We had our share of heartaches like any family. I remember books lying around with titles like, When Bad Things Happen to Good People and I'm OK, You're OK and If Life's a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? Our kitchen table was a constant host to not just family, but also friends of my mother, who shared stories of joy, pain, and conflict about all of life's ups and downs. As she said, "My teapot is always on", and the back door was always open, literally. Friends would gather to lend an ear, share worries, or offer support. My brother was the frequent topic of conversation, sad conversations about his health and questions about his recovery from the next round of treatments and surgery. I can remember images from when I was very young of my mother crying in a tea cup. Yet whenever all that could be said was said, all the talk had been talked out of them, and someone was ready to leave, my mother would inevitably say, "Let's talk about happy things!" and they would make sure to leave on a good note, a funny comment, a word of reassurance. Usually it was the notion that it would soon be summer and we would be gathered down the shore, and "the beach would still be there". My mother applied this helpful reassurance to us when we faced obstacles as well. "It's almost over," "You're doing good," "Keep on going," or my least favorite, "Things could always be worse." Then there was my father's advice, "Drop back and punt." Anyway, things always seemed a little better after talking them through and trying to focus on the positive. I use the same techniques with my children. When they were young and had to get shots at the doctor's, I asked them to picture the beach, or whatever made them happy. They were some of the few patients who really never cried getting shots! Then they were so proud of themselves afterward. Not that they never cried, or that I didn't want them to cry, but the visualization worked.




We know this to be true. Throughout history, every major religion has fostered the idea of prayer and positive belief systems to help us through life. Have faith. Now mindfulness and meditation are hot topics, proven to cure almost any ailment. Positive Psychology is a graduate degree program at University of Pennsylvania. I know my mother never had a course in Positive Psychology, and neither did St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, back in the 16th century. Yet they know a profound secret to combat human suffering: focus on the positive in life. Their faith keeps (kept) them focused on the good that God want us to have in our lives. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson confers: "Positive emotions play an essential role in our survival. Positive emotions, like love, joy, and gratitude, promote new and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds. When people experience positive emotions, their minds broaden and they open up to new possibilities and ideas."

Let's talk about happy things.

So why now? When I returned to the classroom in 2007, after a few years pursuing personal and various professional goals, I was shocked by the kind of negativity that had overtaken even the most basic conversations. Sixth grade classrooms sounded like and reflected the popular culture of Simon Cowell and "You're fired!" It was to be expected. American Idol hit the air in 2002, followed by The Apprentice in 2004. A trickle-out theory of life reflecting art had taken hold. Now the language of the day was, "I'm just being honest," "It's for your own good", and innocent sixth graders thought that was okay. Ironic, because when I had started in the classroom back in 1991, the language we used was to foster self-esteem and build up rather than tear down. I can't help but think that the purveyors of this new talk, of reproach, embarrassment, condemnation, confrontation, interrogation, and demoralization of peers never had any self-esteem to begin with. The sad thing is, most of us thought maybe it had some merit. We sat back and laughed, happy that we weren't the recipients of such harsh words. And now a new idea is emerging, Grit. You've got to take the bad, learn from it, and move on. If you're not successful, you just don't have the right character traits. Toughen up, have grit, and be happy. I would like to argue that this is not the true intention of Positive Psychology. Positivity of mind encourages all of us to act out of love for others. Relationship building is key to ensuring the success of everyone, not just one's ability to endure and persevere through hardships. If we are listening to someone berate us, we better be sure that someone is worth listening to and has our best interests at heart, not just his own. So, in response, in 2004, came the book How Full is Your Bucket?, and in 2009, How Full is Your Bucket For Kids, a small book about being kind. Parents were torn, do I push my kid to have grit or do I worry about filling his bucket all day? It's tough - so much supposed "research" and so much at stake. What is a parent to do? Well, Let's talk about happy things.

Kids love to talk about Happy Things: Shoes and shoelaces, birds and birdfeeders, pizza and parties. I have overheard the best conversations about Velcro, as if the kids are mini-researchers on the application, use, and purpose of Velcro. They can't get over the fact that there is velcro on their shoes and on the laundry sorter used for recycled objects! I have heard conversations about Coffee Cake and whether or not it tastes the same as coffee - this was a big deal! Isn't that an intriguing question for a six-year-old who has never tasted coffee? The hard part for us is thinking of these things as valuable or important. We rush our children along, ignoring their cries for Happy Talk. The sad thing is they learn from that too: that we don't value Happy Talk as important or necessary and we teach them that there are more important things, like how they did on their history test or what they want to be when they grow up. I am learning that I should never dismiss Happy Talk. I not only need to pay attention to it, but I need to model and coach around it. When I posed the question, "What do you like to do in your pajamas?" to my first graders, each child smiled and giggled as we went around the room sharing ideas and it became a novelty. These conversations should not be novelties, especially in our world of turmoil and upheaval. These conversations should be our shield, our reprieve from the assaults of the world, the media, and just too much information. We can talk about the beach, about bike riding, about nearly anything that brings us joy, and when we do we build the necessary, vital connections and increase endorphins and serotonin and all the other things that Positive Psychologists have long known, all the way back to Aristotle. Then we can build on that. Acts of kindness, physical health and wellness, positive relationships toward others, will all fall into place. Maybe it can heal our world.

I'm making time each day now for Happy Talk, with my own kids, with my students. You can look up the lyrics to Happy Talk from South Pacific, one of my all time favorite movies. "Talk about a moon floating in the sky..." I think my mother was really on to something. My son knows this too. He says, "Whenever you talk to Marmee, she's happy. And then you tell her something and she just gets happier!"