A Resolution I’m Eager to Make

alarm-clock

Four years ago, I wrote a post entitled “I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions”—and I don’t. Or didn’t. Anyhow, the point is that I’m not one of these people who is eager to start the new year on a new foot or new shoe or new path or whatever. (Actually, the post was about books—and you’ll see my 2017 update in a couple days.)

In general, I’m very happy with my life, and when I want to make a change, I go ahead and do it, no matter the date. So maybe that’s why I’m making my change today—two days before the new year. How very gauche of me.

It started with a video I saw on Facebook. In fact, I get a lot of my blog fodder from Facebook, so before I trash social media, I owe it a big thank you. Before you read on, please watch the video below. It’s well worth the 15 minutes.

There is so much here that applies to my life and the lives of people around me. I find it interesting that the guy (sorry, don’t know his name) brings responsibility back to corporations. I hope that I do the job I’m supposed to do as a parent, and my children won’t have a lot of these issues. One friend remarked that it’s not just Millennials who are the problem, and I would have to agree, although when I was growing up, I never received a participation award. (Or if I did, it ended up in the trash because it wasn’t worth squat.) I can’t help it that my son’s baseball team gives him a trophy every season for just showing up, but here’s what I can do something about: my own participation on social media.

One of my former clients wrote for people who were self-employed, and many of his articles centered around time management. There are apps that can help people limit the time they spend on social media or that will post for them on a predetermined schedule. Basically, it’s all about us managing rather than being managed by the social media that we use. He also wrote about only checking email at prescribed times because as soon as someone sees that you’ve answered an email at 11:00 P.M., they’ll start expecting you to be available then.

I fought getting a smart phone for a long time; I was a latecomer when I purchased my first iPhone in mid-2012. That was also when I was new at being a mom of two and deeply post-partum depressed. Overall, it was kind of a perfect storm. I got sucked into all sorts of games (that I have since deleted) and stopped doing a lot of things that I love. Did I become addicted, as the guy in the video says? It certainly is easy to just sit and scroll through posts on a phone when you’re exhausted, but I’m not exhausted anymore. I have the energy and motivation to do other things now, but the simple act of opening my Facebook app (itself an amoral action) can suck valuable minutes and hours from my life and the lives of my loved ones. That’s not to say that there aren’t great things on Facebook (after all, you might remember that that’s where I found the above video). The problem is that logging on to wish a quick happy birthday to a friend or to check my notifications can lead down a rabbit hole that costs me an entire afternoon—and costs my children my attention.

So here are some things I’ve decided to do:

  • Use an alarm clock

Yep. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I threw my old one away after being swatted to the floor one too many times. Fortunately, as the guy in the video says, they’re cheap. I’m going to start leaving my phone charging in the kitchen at night. That means that if you want me, you’d better call or text before 9:00 because I go to bed early during the school week. It also means that I should get better sleep, which will lead to better energy when I wake up, a rested brain, a nicer Sarah, etc.

  • Leave my phone in my purse

Yes, I do carry it with me everywhere. I like to take quick snapshots of my kids, and I use my calculator and dictionary apps almost as often as anything else—so it does have its uses. But there is absolutely no reason to check emails or IMDb or Facebook when I’m out to eat with my family. If I show my boys the attention that they deserve now, I hope they will learn that habit and carry it forward in the (far distant) future when they have their own phones.

  • Not post to social media the minute something happens

I was going through photos recently, and I found one from my younger son’s first trip to Disney World. There we were, all in a row: Thomas holding the baby and our older son sitting in between us—and me on my phone. I can tell you exactly what I was doing, which was posting photos from the trip we were on to Facebook. Instead of just enjoying the trip. What difference would it have made if I’d waited a few hours? I’ll tell you: I would have been looking at my children instead of my phone. No more! Take pictures, yes. Post to social media? It can wait until later.

I don’t want to be one of those people who is oblivious to what’s going on around her, sporting a premature dowager’s hump because I’m stooped over my screen. I want to enjoy people watching (it’s funny—admit it) instead of my husband telling me I just missed something hilarious. (Or if I do miss it, I want it to be because I was in my book, not in my phone.)

I hope that by implementing these small changes, I will help address some of the other issues mentioned in the video. Being a good example is key. Not to mention that I think I will be a happier person. I’m a bookworm who loves scrapbooking and adult coloring books, but while I still do read a lot, my other hobbies have suffered in recent years. That photo I found from Disney World? That was from New Year’s 2013—and I rediscovered it because I’m almost ready to start on my 2013 scrapbook. Part of the reason I’m nearly four years behind is because I’m a busy mom of two, but I can’t use that excuse for everything. I can reduce a lot of my busyness by limiting my time on my phone. And after all, the recipes that I love and the videos that are so funny will still be there later. And if you think that it’s something I absolutely must see, tag me. I will look at it after getting my kids to bed and before plugging my phone in—across the house—for the night.

Did October Come out of Nowhere or What?

With so many big projects from late May through early July, I almost felt like the summer months didn’t happen. I was busy enough that I always felt like I was on the brink of falling behind. And although this has been a great school year for my first grader, I feel the press of responsibilities and obligations getting ready to pull me under again.

Whenever I see my grandmother, she asks how I’m doing, and the inevitable reply is, “Busy.” I recount to her my projects – currently, a memoir for one client, an eBook for another, and a book I’m co-writing with a friend – and she asks me how I’ve gotten myself into this. “Well, I’m getting paid,” I tell her. It’s not like I’m giving my time away.

Finishing my first set of three big projects at the end of June wasn’t good enough; I immediately picked up a bunch more. It was great for the summer because the number of paying projects I took on more than made up for the substitute teaching jobs that I only get during the school year. My days were full, but I didn’t have to get up hours before dawn, didn’t have as many pressing deadlines, and could block off time for myself and still get things done.

When school started back, though, the early alarm clock became part of my routine again, as well as lots of substitute teaching, karate and t-ball practices for my elder son, preschool Sunday school, my Education for Ministry class (which comes with a 1000-page history book this year), and my recent move to assistant editor for Fiction Fix. I warned all of my clients that, while I would have plenty of time during the summer, everything would slow down once school started again. “Does that mean that I need to find someone else?” one of these clients asked. Of course not! I need the work, and I can’t leave her with her project half-done.

Even so, I’ve had less time than I thought I would. Whole weeks have slipped by without me touching some of my work, and when it was August, it was all well and good, but somehow October snuck up on me.

It comes down to time management, as usual. There are only so many hours in a day, and sometimes I don’t have more than five or ten minutes to devote to one person, in order to give time to everyone. A few days ago, I started to feel the pressure when I realized that the book I’m co-writing needs to go to the printer the last week of the month, and I still don’t have all of the material. The memoir needs to be finished before Christmas, and the eBook is set to publish in mid-December, but we’re having all kinds of technical issues with the conversion for e-devices. To get all of these things done, the only solution that I can think of is to give up some of the weekend time that I’ve tried to set aside to read and edit for myself – you know, for my sanity.

And I made this decision on a weekend when we were going out of town for a mini vacation, naturally.

On Friday afternoon, I spent an hour hunched over my MacBook, bound and determined to finish the latest chunk of the memoir. My husband took care of all the last minute details, as well as our two-year-old. I finished and called my client from the car, promising to get the material to her next week.

One of the wonderful things about freelance work is that you can do things like this – type from your house right before leaving town – but if you don’t have the discipline to do it, you could easily get sucked into your favorite TV show or lose an hour on Facebook. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder to tell you off or remind you that October, in fact, started four days ago.

And if you’re married and working freelance, it also takes an understanding spouse. Sure, it looks like I’m having a great time, sitting in my comfy glider and typing away in my bedroom slippers, but I really am working, and there is a client who is counting on me to give my best. But that understanding only stretches so far. The free time that I afford myself on weekends needs to include my husband and kids.

Cinderella's Palace at Disney World

Cinderella’s Palace at Disney World

As I write, I'm out of town with my family. My in-laws offered to take us to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Disney World. The kids knew we were going to visit their grandparents for the weekend, but Disney was a surprise. And so worth it. It's what I consider the last hurrah before I knuckle down and get serious.

 

And, of course, I have another motivating factor (aside from keeping my clients happy): NaNoWriMo starts in less than a month, and I can’t wait to write the sequel to last year’s NaNo book. I can’t do that with all these looming projects, so October, look out! There’s going to be a whole lot of productivity going on around here.

Are You Too Busy Posting About How Much Fun You’re Having to Have Fun?

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile pho...

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One morning last week, I was watching the morning news and happened to see a segment with a therapist talking about social media accounts (Facebook, specifically) and how negative an impact they can have on relationships.

Now, of course, many of you, my faithful readers, read this on Facebook. So I am by no means saying we should give up this platform. But it was enough to get the old thinking juices flowing.

The therapist mentioned that many people are so busy posting updates about what they’re doing – that they’re not really doing anything. Except for updating social media, of course. There were other reasons that he went into for why Facebook can be bad for relationships – like coming across an ex and stirring up old feelings – but it made me start to think about my life and how it’s changed – not since I signed up for Facebook, necessarily, but since I got a smart phone.

Sure, there are people who only use Facebook on a home computer, and that takes them away from their family at home. But then there are others – like me – who almost always check on the phone – at a red light, in line at the grocery store, and of course, when the person you’re with is just boring you to death. Ouch. What happened to letting our minds politely wander? There’s nothing that says, I couldn’t care less what you’re saying than looking down at a phone and getting absorbed in what’s trending right now.

When did we have to start filling every “empty” moment with making sure we know what’s going on in the world of social media? There’s an appropriate time and place for it, sure, but I’m afraid that my kids and their friends will grow up without the luxury of knowing how wonderful so-called boredom can be. I fondly remember times when I had nothing to do, so I went outside and dug for rolly pollies. Or I walked laps around my bedroom, composing a new scene in my current story. Boredom is the birthplace for creativity. Of course, Pinterest is a great place for that, too, but we’re raising a generation of sharers right now. What happens when all the creators are gone?

Facebook and other social media do have their positive uses, of course. I have friends who are primarily members to promote themselves professionally. I do this myself, but I also post pictures of my kids because my out-of-town in-laws like to see what their grandkids are up to. That’s all well and good. But when smart phone and social media usage start replacing time with family, then we’ve somehow mixed up our priorities.

This therapist guy mentioned whole vacations that seem documented to-the-minute on Facebook. I’ve seen any number of them, and while I enjoy seeing some of the fun things my friends are up to, I have wondered: When do they have time to enjoy what they’re doing if they’re on Facebook updating their statuses so much?

And of course, I am guilty of this, too.

Sarah's Photo Books

Sarah’s Photo Books

Here you see a couple photo books I created of two of our most recent vacations. (Shameless plug: these aren’t cheap, copier paper photo books but high-quality, custom photo paper books made by Fuji, and you can create your own here.)

While I was creating the book on the left – a surprise Disney World trip for my kids – I noticed something that horrified me: I was paying attention to my phone instead of my kids in an embarrassing number of pictures. We were at Disney World, for crying out loud. It’s the happiest place on Earth, yet I was focused on reading updates of what my friends ate for dinner.

Now, granted, having a smart phone when you’re stuck in a two-hour line can be a great distraction. Disney also has a great app that helps you explore the park, so I could say, “Oh yeah, I was just using that.” But that would be a lie.

I’m not saying that smart phones are the devil and we should throw them all out, and neither should we do that with social media. But, as many people have noted, we need to make sure that we don’t get so sucked in to this virtual so-called “social” world that we isolate ourselves from the people that we really want and need to spend time with in the first place.

I think that sometimes, we are so self-centered, so stuck on the idea that we have to absolutely let all of our friends know what cool stuff we’re doing right now that we actually miss out on living in that moment. And what a shame that is.

Now, when I created the second photo book, a great trip with extended family in Washington State, I noticed something else. It was a bit of a letdown at first. You see, I remembered chasing my son and little niece through a mall in Washington. I remember their grins and giggles. I remember going lots of cool places and tasting great, new food. But somehow, I didn’t capture all of these moments photographically. I kind of kicked myself for missing them.

But you know what, I think that’s okay. I remembered a trip to the zoo that Thomas and I took early in our dating years. I made it a point to take a picture of all the wildlife we saw there. Why I thought this was so important, I can’t tell you. A photographer I am not. Any good pictures I’ve ever taken were completely by accident. So when I looked back at all these photos, I realized that I had no idea what I’d been trying to capture, nor could I remember enough of the day at the zoo to even take a wild guess. Why? Well, because I’d been trying so hard to get photos of the fun that I missed the fun altogether. (Thank goodness there weren’t smart phones or Facebook back then, otherwise I really would have made a fool of myself.)

I’m not saying to quit taking photos or to quit posting your events. But what I am saying is that it’s okay if your friends don’t see your kids sitting in a neat little row at the ice cream shop. I promise, your kids will enjoy their ice cream more if you don’t interrupt them.

And for those memories that you missed capturing on your phone or camera – those are likely the memories that will stick with you and your friends and loved ones the longest. Because you were too busy enjoying the moment to worry about how many likes and shares you might get on Facebook.

Support the Locals

The Family Business

The Family Business

This week, I’ve had a hard time finding my inspiration. In addition to this being just a crazy-busy week, I’ve watched my grandmother decline from what seemed a somewhat stable condition in the hospital to being restrained, sedated, and placed on a ventilator. It doesn’t help that this all happened right before Christmas.

As my family tries to figure out what to do and what our future may look like, I can’t help but think that this could have been prevented. While I am grateful for today’s technology and the comforts and progress it has afforded us, I can’t help but yearn for the days (long before my time) when doctors rode their horses out to homes in the middle of the night to deliver babies. Of course those “good old days” were stressful for those involved, but at least the doctors knew their patients. They lived in community together. In contrast, my grandmother has gotten lost in the shuffle of hundreds of other patients, and one of her nurses actually refused to help her find her pen the other day because she was a nurse and above such piddling duties as actually helping a patient.

I’m not going to apologize for sounding bitter. My grandmother isn’t the only victim, here. The problem is that people are turning into names on charts that aren’t read thoroughly, numbers, statistics. And it’s not just in hospitals, either.

Yet yesterday afternoon, I was reminded that there are places where people are still known as individuals. I had to go to our pharmacy, and it is not a chain store. My parents and I have used them for years, and all the ladies who work there know me and my kids. The parking is atrocious, and they aren’t a superstore, where you can buy a TV while you’re waiting. But if you need a pharmacy, I can’t think of a better place to go. When I go there, they always hug my kids and want to know how I am – not just medically, either. I support this local company and get so much more than a product at a good price.

There is a reason why people push “buying local.” For food, it’s about the healthiest way to go, especially if you can find something like local honey, which helps people fight allergies in their particular regions. But there are other benefits, as well. In a world where it seems that everyone now wants to achieve viral video fame, it’s nice to go to a place where there are real people who know me for me. It’s something that I think has gotten lost in the digital age, kind of like my grandmother getting lost at the hospital. The good thing is that there are people fighting it, people who want to create and maintain real relationships.

I work with my parents at our family’s business, and although there are many hardships that come with running a small business, there are so many benefits. Many people don’t understand, when you’re in a niche market, that you don’t serve everyone. You serve the people whose needs fit your particular skills, and in that way you provide services and products of a higher quality than big businesses that try to please everybody and, in doing so, turn out shoddy work. And we have customers who continue to come to us because they know they’re stimulating the local economy (one family’s economy, in particular!) and that we will remember their names when they come back.

Get to know the restaurant and shop owners of places you frequent. By supporting the local businesses in your community, you will get back some of that humanity that our world is doing a good job of suppressing. And if you find yourself becoming a statistic one day, the relationships that you make at these places will become so much more important than having thousands of followers on your favorite social network.

You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It

Research

Research (Photo credit: astronomy_blog)

Anybody remember Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton? I watched it when I was a kid, and the line I always recall is, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Burton was encouraging kids to read the books he told them about and discover the wonder of their stories themselves.

Nowadays, I think we need to hear more of that, whereas what we seem to get is just the opposite. We’re supposed to believe that whatever we see in a commercial, read on our favorite social network site, or see in a news report is the gospel truth. Because, of course, no one would ever promote false advertising or report something without fact checking first – right?

I was watching the news several years ago when an eager reporter, who was about to fly out on his vacation, had a flight delay. Lucky for the uninformed public, he was the first guy on the scene, ready to tell us exactly what was going down. A bomb, he said. I have no idea where he got his intel, but apparently it didn’t need to be vetted, and suddenly this supposed bomb was headline news. Several hours later, his network sheepishly admitted that the “story” they’d covered all morning was just a reporter getting excited to break some news. No bomb threat. Nothing suspicious at all.

The mainstream media, modern marketing, and your general idiot on the street who doesn’t know what he’s talking about are all eager to spread the word, no matter if it’s true or not.

Some say that with the likes of YouTube and the Internet in general, people will do anything they can to get attention. If you subscribe to a social media site like Facebook, how many pictures do you see every day with someone holding a poster board that says, “My dad will get me a bike if I get 100,000 likes” or “My mom will stop smoking if she gets a million likes”? I could go off on a whole new tangent about this, but my point is that so many people are vying for attention that they’ll say – and consequently believe – anything that garners attention.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I like actual empirical evidence. For instance, I read product reviews. Sometime between my first and second pregnancies, my favorite maternity clothiers decided to vacate the brick and mortar stores and sell almost exclusively online. Now, if it’s hard to find clothes that fit a normal body, that problem is only magnified when you add a pregnant belly to the equation. Many reviews clued me in on the problems with the fit of a dress or shirt, and I steered clear. Others sang the praises of the durability of the fabric of a pair of pants. Still more had both positive and negative reviews, so I had to really think carefully about my buying options.

Hmm. . . Thinking carefully or critically, even. I hope that’s not a foreign concept to you, dear readers, although I’m losing more and more hope for people in general every day.

If you’ve read my personal account of signing on with a scammer agent a few years ago, you’ll know that I can get sucked in, too. One too many rejections can even make the thickest-skinned of us turn stupid. Someone likes my story? Really? I’ve never heard of this agency, but it must be the real deal because they like me!

To make a long story not quite as long, a funny feeling and Google search that reinforced that feeling showed me what I chose not to see when signing the (as it turns out) not-so-quite-legally-binding contract. Now, I always check out prospective agents on Preditors & Editors. But you know what? There’s dirt out there on that site, too. Fortunately, I was able to corroborate Pred & Ed’s lack of trust in my own agent with my personal experience, and other research has given me confidence that it continues to be a good resource.

Recently, I decided to take the plunge into the wheat-free/gluten-free realm. It wasn’t a decision I came to lightly, nor an easy one. It actually came more than a year after I first heard of the idea of dropping wheat specifically. I finally consulted Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, at the same time knowing that a lot of people have negative things to say about it. One blogger (and a gluten-free guy, I might add) posted his refutations to three points that author and doctor William Davis made.

I researched enough references in Wheat Belly to make my head spin, and all that I can figure is that Davis fudged some of his statistics to further convince readers that no wheat is the way to go. I could be like the anti-Wheat Belly blogger and say the whole book is bogus. . . except that I know what he says about diabetes is true because of research that my dad did years ago, when he thought he might be pre-diabetic. I’ve heard anecdotes from people I know who have read the book – including an endorsement from my own doctor – and have read an array of articles by other doctors who point out enough similar evidence to come to my own conclusion: some of Wheat Belly may be merely well-informed opinion and against conventional wisdom, but much of it makes absolute sense. Still, I know many people will think I’m crazy and argue with me about my new lifestyle choice. Just know that I didn’t make this decision because some Hollywood starlet said it would turn me into a supermodel.

There is little that bothers me more than watching or reading something that was not researched properly. What works on the silver screen or in a book doesn’t necessary equal reality. That’s why I so admire those people who go the extra mile and do mounds of research. If you’ve ever read a Michael Crichton book, you’ll know what I mean. Back in the days when I thought that writerly skill could save me from having to do all that work (if it’s good enough, they’ll believe anything, right?), I wrote a story that opened up with a passenger train wreck. And I just assumed that, having taken a trip via Amtrak in the sixth grade, I was an expert. It never occurred to me that I might need to go to the library and look up passenger trains, accidents, policy about what law enforcement does in the clean up and investigation. I thought that if I gave my story a sci-fi twist, I could fudge all that stuff. Please forgive me, I was only thirteen.

How many parts of our lives would be improved if we did due diligence? For one, I know that my husband and I wouldn’t have jumped feet-first into a thirty-year fixed loan on a condo that would lose over sixty percent of its value before you could say “housing market crash.” Maybe people in general wouldn’t fall for as many bad car deals. Maybe we wouldn’t hit “send” too soon, lacing cyberspace with rumors that are difficult to track, even harder to take back.

Shopping for a TV today? Or an agent? Whoever it is doing the selling, you don’t have to take their word for it.

If I Die Before I Wake

English: Sloughan Glen A great place to spend ...

A quiet Sunday afternoon with the family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”

The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?

This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.

For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.

As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.

My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.

I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.

With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.

About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.

Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.

Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.

When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.

There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)

While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.

It Shouldn’t Be a Popularity Contest

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think anyone would ever call me a rebel. When I hear people talk about all the stupid stuff they did, writing it off as, “Well, I was just a teenager,” I wonder why I never did those same things. The whole balking against my upbringing thing never happened.

But when someone says, “pop culture,” I absolutely cringe. When Titantic was really big in high school (I had friends who had time and money to waste and saw it in the theatre more than ten times), I refused to see it. To this day, it remains one of those movies on my personal “banned” list. It could be a masterpiece, but it seemed popular for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe I’m a pop culture rebel. Well, not entirely. I mean, I did go nuts over the Harry Potter books, and I do have Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as an iPhone, on which I can check my statuses. But take fashion, for instance. Skinny jeans are in, right? Kids, adults, male, female, skinny people, not-so-skinny people–they all wear skinny jeans. I watched kids getting off a school bus one day, twenty or so. Out of all of them, only one kid wasn’t wearing them. And I just prayed that I wouldn’t be forced into buying them because this girl does not have skinny legs. Yes, I’m small, but the brand jeans that I buy come in “curvy,” and they actually fit. (If you’ve ever been clothes shopping with me, you’ll know how monumental that is.) I’m not going to go out of my way to not buy trendy clothes, but if they don’t look good on me, forget it. If they do look good, however, I’ll continue wearing them long after they’ve gone out of style. (This is a trait I came by honestly. I used to cringe at the skirts that my mom wore, you know, the semi-A-line ones with huge pockets? Yeah, they’re back now. Who knew she was a fashion maven ahead of her time.)

But fashion is just a small part and not really the important part of how pop culture snakes its way into our lives. This popularity business is starting to make us kind of dumb, quite frankly.

Now, I know I’m about to sound old and preachy, but this issue is close to my heart. About twenty years ago, I fell in love with my school’s media center and checked out every book I could, from Ramona to Greek mythology to Little Women. Some of my best memories from that time center around those books or time in the library. Of the six guys I used to hang out with, the bigger the book you read, the cooler you were. And no, they weren’t nerds with pocket protectors (although all of them made the honor roll). They played baseball and football, took piano and violin lessons, sang in our choir, took Tae Kwon Do, drew amazing cartoon-like illustrations in the margins of their homework, had rock collections and pet reptiles. In other words, they were well-rounded guys, not pigeon-holed into one particular sport or other area of interest. And though I fit in well enough with them, I didn’t feel nearly as cool. I was not athletically-oriented at all, and although I started taking piano lessons younger than just about anyone else I knew, I was no good. So what could I do? Read. And the two-to-three hundred page books I routinely read just didn’t cut it anymore. That’s when I found Little Women, a five hundred-pager. To this day, the longer the book, the happier I am to read it. Series? Even better.

Today, my son goes to the same school, and I volunteer in the media center. There is now a computer program that assigns reading levels to books, and when kids read them, they receive a certain number of points, according to whichever level it is. One day, my job was to look up each book and find out the level and how many points each book was worth. The books were all new to me, either too advanced for my five-year-old to read yet or too young for me to read for my own pleasure. I asked the media specialist how high the reading levels went, and she said about the eighth grade. The next thing I asked: Did they still have Little Women? Yes, but kids don’t read it all that often (and it’s one of those eighth graders). I waxed eloquent about the books I used to read and asked if she’d noticed a decline in literacy. (She started working at the school my last year there, so she’s seen the entire progression.) Her answer saddened but did not surprise me. Kids these days are more interested in graphic novels, which are fine, but instead of just attracting kids who, otherwise, wouldn’t ever touch a book, they’ve lowered the standard for everyone else.

And then there’s music. My dad raised me on Styx, Alan Parsons, Blue Oyster Cult, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saens. I grew up singing in choirs and participated in a few musicals as a teenager. I still love all of the above, plus Sweeney Todd, Mumford and Sons, System of a Down (yes, I know), Metallica, and current British composer extraordinaire John Rutter. When people talk about Usher and Adele, I’m kind of lost because I don’t listen to any of that kind of thing, unless I catch it in a commercial or movie. And people my age look at me like I’m crazy. Just like I shouldn’t wear flare jeans (they were so ten years ago), I should get with the times, right? My poor kids won’t ever know what’s popular, unless they hear it with someone else. The music we listen to in the car is either from the above mentioned groups and composers, or one of Peter’s faves of late is the sixth movement from Brahms’s A German Requiem. I actually got the bug to write this particular post as I listened to him singing his heart out, going right along with the tenor line, then asking for me to play it again. Now, you can’t tell me that that “dead white guy’s” music didn’t connect with him.

I was moved and encouraged recently when my mom showed me Eric Whitacre on TED Talks. This is a long video, but if you’re familiar with TED, you know it’s worth it. If you need some arm-twisting, Eric is a tech-savvy, good-looking, youngish, self-proclaimed classical composer. And he created a virtual choir in 2011 that comprised over 2000 people from around the world—young, old, black, white, male, female, nerds, cool people—every kind of person imaginable. So that tells me that there’s hope after all, if only we can open enough minds to thinking outside the so-called popularity box. People will learn to connect with music like this if they’re taught that it’s okay, if they think they won’t be teased. And some people like me will love it anyway, not really caring what others think.

I’m not trying to create a new kind of popularity, just open people up to more possibilities than what typically top the charts and grace the covers of the magazines at the check-out lines. For parents or teachers who have already given up because their kids just don’t like to read, or who don’t like classical music themselves so never played it for their babies, what kind of message are we sending by this lack of effort? I think it’s unacceptable to give up and say that if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them. Progress isn’t worth it if it plows right over and buries the good along with the out-moded VHS tapes, legwarmers, and suitcase-size mobile phones. Don’t lose the things you love; share them, and watch the wonder and growth at these new-old discoveries.