Under Pressure

The past few weeks have spiraled for me, and catching my breath seemed unrealistic. But a friend has given me a new approach to test for a while, and there’s a chance I won’t be struggling, chest-deep in mud much longer.

The panic lately of the mounting lists and tasks and projects and work and solo parenting have felt a lot like I’ve always supposed quicksand would feel: doesn’t matter how often I’m told to stay calm to ensure my survival, I claw and scratch and flail and scream to get to whatever I imagine dry land would be. I do emergencies very well, unless the emergency requires ignoring all the impulses of adrenaline.

Adrenaline feeds most of my days, and has since high school. Adrenaline wakes me with a slap and barks to all my muscles that it’s time to do. Accomplish. Hustle. Adrenaline gets me to each of the days’ moments just on time, if not a few seconds before. Adrenaline tells me not to sleep so I can finish a few more tasks, including daunting tasks that are rarely of the “just a few more minutes” variety.

Lately it takes more and more to elicit that adrenaline. Deadlines don’t impress me; I just parcel out the work and accomplish in bite-sized chunks without any terror. The thought of being late does little; I just walk in slow motion through jello starting a few minutes earlier. The physical need for a run can’t pry me out of my chair. In fact, the only thing that makes me quicken my pace even slightly is sibling bickering. And after years of trying to manage that, I almost don’t care anymore. I have no sympathy for either of those children, who insist on teasing and encroaching and generally menacing each other despite everything I’ve tried thus far.

And this worries me. A lot.

So I cobble together new approaches and find new ways to motivate myself. But I feel I’ve lost my way. I’ve worn myself down to a nub over the past decade, and my to-do list continues to grow while the day seems to shrink. I found an old list from last summer, and 22 of the 49 items on my list from last year are still waiting to be done. Someone joked that I needed shorter lists. Or a way to notice the 25 things I confidently cross of the list every single day.

I don’t know how to do either of those: shorter lists or feeling accomplished. Because everything left on those lists is important. Four journal articles, representing hundreds of hours of work, just languish, needing a few hours of edits each and then the honor of submission. Thousands of photos endured being pared down to dozens, but now need to be uploaded and made into photo albums for the grandparents. FSA forms pace across my desk impatiently, waiting for receipts and explanations and 57-point-checklists before releasing the money I paid almost a year ago. Summer glares at me from almost-full camps and annoyingly-paced flights, and cackles at my inability to commit six months early.

And I’m baffled at myself, since I’ve always self-defined as driven to produce and accomplish…why can’t I focus on the big picture? Where’s the vim? The vigor? I feel as though I’m moving through coagulated blood, slogging, vaguely nauseated, from one task to another. Every non-work task feels like a burden. (I know I’m not depressed because work is still fun.)

So I make schedules of how to tackle the tasks I continually punt. But I’ve honed my efficiency pretty well over the past few decades, and I’m making the most of my time. After accomplishing what I consider the bare minimum each day, there are maybe 15 minutes left.

How the hell do I prep articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals with 15 minutes a day? How do I rework a novel in 15 minute increments? How do I learn the piano, make photo albums, plan summer camp, bake, do yoga, write up a separation agreement, and sell my wedding china on ebay with only 15 minutes a day?

The answer came from a friend after we saw The Theory of Everything this weekend.

I can’t.

She suggested that for everything task I sign up for, I’m choosing something lame over the important things.

Sure, on paper, but, but, but…

She suggested that making myself crazy with tasks to ensure a steady flood of adrenaline short circuits my brain.

Oh, come on….

She suggested that there’s plenty of time to do things later.

Oh, no, no, no, nononononono no. Just saying the words, “There’s plenty of time” made me physically panic. Sweat, twitchy muscles, racing heart.

“But I have to get the photo albums out!”

No. You don’t. There’s plenty of time.

“But the school needs better emergency preparedness and the teachers need reviews and my portfolio needs…”

There’s plenty of time.

“But I need to search Instructables with the kids and find projects for the next time I remember to plan a playdate.”

Please. Stop. There’s plenty of time.

I know that each yes means saying no to myriad things, so by definition the yeses should be to important tasks. I know that each moment is fleeting and that choosing how to spend them needs to feed either my family, my soul, or my work.

I know that intellectually. But my body craves long lists at which I’m failing, so I can adrenalize myself into action.

The problem is that to synthesize that adrenaline, I’m filling all the spaces with tasks that are basically crap. Not the play, the joy, the work. Probably only 40 of 49 things on the list are crap.

That’s a lot of crap, y’all.

My mantra this month is “There’s Plenty of Time.” I shoved all the papers on my desk into a box, sparing the tax documents for a special folder placed in a drawer for next month, and the two handwritten letters from New York friends to whom I want to reply.

Tonight I’m writing a blog post. If I feel like it. If not, there’s plenty of time another day.
I won’t put anything else on the list, because there’s plenty of time to do everything another day.

(I winced as I typed that, and felt twitchy. But I won’t delete it.)

Speaking of things that had to get done today, look at what the world around me did today.

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Yep. Jasmine, plum blossoms, and daffodils. That’s what the Bay Area does in February. Overachievers, the lot of ’em.

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Nightmare of Middle Age

I woke up last night in a panic. I’d had a nightmare in which I knew I had exactly two days to move. The current house had to be empty and we had to be somewhere else in 48 hours. But I had no plan, had packed nothing, and knew not where we could go.

I don’t remember many details, but I remember Spouse trying to get me to answer some questions. We had either reconciled or finished all the divorce paperwork—I don’t know which, but something was capital-F Final about our relationship—and he wanted to know what my plans were.

“I don’t even know what state to move to,” I recall keening. In the dream, I couldn’t even process all the possibilities: there were no choices except homelessness and utter hopelessness.

And a cheerful new year to you, too.

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The longest I have lived in a house is five years. It was the home Spouse and I bought just before we got married. We painted and decorated and improved. We devoted every moment for 40% of that time to an adorable little Peanut whose presence made love more important than location. And we lost all our equity selling it in 2008.

The second longest I lived in one place was during high school. My mom moved us just before I started freshman year, so I could go to the best public school in the area. When I left for college I’d been in that house exactly four years.

In a few months, I will have been in this current rental for four years. We moved on Butterbean’s first birthday. It’s been a rollercoaster, and I’ve been trying to find a different, less expensive place to live for almost two years. But this is the house both boys have considered home for most of their lives.

I don’t know what the dream is trying to tell me. I don’t believe in dream analysis. I believe the unconscious mind combines the days’ and weeks’ images into a new story which is sometimes enjoyable and sometime terrifying. Either way, it’s fiction. The stress is real, but the story is fiction. And I tried to remember that when I awoke. “Just get a job,” I told my waking self as the homeless/hopeless panic swelled. I assessed the level of light outside and the lack of small children’s voices, and I went back to sleep.

I’ve always somehow thought that moving would solve problems. At last count, I’ve moved 26 times in my life. Feeling uncomfortable? Pack up everything and move. Not sure what you want to be when you grow up? It’s probably the apartment; change it. Scared about money and the future? Get a new address to distract you.

I’m managed this urge, somewhat, as an adult, by rearranging furniture. But the furniture is heavy and I’m less reasonable in my dreams. So it’s time to move.

I thought about this on a long run, the hours when I ditch music and podcasts and children and distractions to just let my thoughts wander. I tried to gauge how my life is going: my parenting and career and status as an engaged citizen and human. And I found a big problem.

The few metrics we have for being successful adults are not useful measures of successful human-ing.

I like data on how I’m doing. Good or bad, I prefer being measured. I’ve always loved tests and grades and competition with metrics, because with numbers I know who I am. Without them, I’m lost. I need to know how badly I suck (or, rarely, how awesome I am) based entirely on extrinsic factors. I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. I went through a long spell after college of measuring my worth by the numbers on the scale and my paycheck. I don’t enjoy admitting it, but I feel lost without rankings to give me a sense of success or failure.

The idea that I want to be measured…by grades, by the pound, by test score, by winner’s medal color…is problematic in adulthood, because there are very few quantifiable situations in which I’m compared to others. And I find that I’m failing at those which remain into middle age.

Happiness has no numbers attached to it. Nor does successful parenting, career prowess, or intelligent uses of time. I refuse to be measured by whether my kids eat the food I cook. I won’t look at the scale anymore, nor do I care what size I wear.

So what’s left to measure?
Run pace. (Awful, and getting worse the less sleep I get.)
Bank account. (Sob.)
Number of books finished this year. (No idea. One, maybe?)
Retirement account. (Fetal position.)
Number of friends. (Decent. They’re probably pretending, though.)
Salary. (I’m a consultant and this varies obscenely.)
Current client projects. (It’s December. Everything dries up.)
Books published. (…)

So how do I do I decide what to do if I don’t have a metric on which to base a decision? And if I use money and pages read to determine my worth, I’m a miserable human. But that can’t be true.

I need a calculation. I am ___% a success. I’m pretty sure the number is low. But if it’s not as bad as I assume, maybe I’ll feel better. And I could chart a path for improvement. To get better I should…what? Move? Begin a new career? Get a new job in current career? Find a new roommate? Move to a new geographic location? Cultivate a new hobby? Get back on stage?

I want some way to know if I’m doing okay. Fair to middling? Exceedingly well?

Relative to what? Younger me? Last year’s me? This year’s you? That guy down the street? Across town? Across the country? On the other side of the world? This is a stupid game and I shouldn’t be playing.

My experience of joy and of paralyzing fear, motivation, and sorrow have nothing to do with comparison or scores or rankings. But I feel someone should be showing me numbers. Evaluating. Measuring.

I need a grade. A score. A ranking.

42. It’s the answer to life, the Universe, and everything, right?

Doesn’t feel as though 42 is the answer. So I guess it’s time to fake it until I make it. Or ask what the question is, rather than what the answer is.

10 New Year’s Resolutions

My list this year isn’t as long as I’d like it to be, but it’s the day before and I have to call an end to self improvement at some point.

1. Sing loudly at the grocery store, especially when people get too close.
2. Show up to at least one client kickoff meeting in full clown regalia.
3. Send the kids to school with a lunchbox full of popcorn at least once a month.
4. Run, full speed, everywhere in the house.
5. Walk, excruciatingly slowly, when we’re a block from school.
6. Serve guests wine in coffee mugs. Serve kids soup on plates.
8. Speak in meetings only in pig latin.
9. Refuse to finish lists.

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Surprise!

Boo!

New Year’s Refocusing

Never a big fan of the concept of resolutions, I nevertheless embrace the idea that a new year is a captivating opportunity to reassess, refocus on priorities, and set new goals.

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the new year is also a good time to see how high you can climb

So our family talked all this week at dinner about what we remember from 2013. Peanut learned to read…really read…and committed himself with intense commitment to being on a team. Butter learned to ride a bike, unbuckle his own seatbelt, and wipe his own bum. (Holla 2013!) I revised my novel once and am excited to find time for another this year. I also applied for an ideal full-time job and after shrugging off the rejection, booked two contract jobs I’m enjoying.

Together over dinner and dessert and bath and cuddles this week we recounted the year and recalled our camping trips, our regular hikes, and the fun we had with family and friends. We celebrated the time we helped rescue a stranded seal pup and the adorable kittens we brought home from the shelter.

And tonight I asked everyone, as we settled in the darkness just before bed, what they wanted for our family in 2014.

Spouse said he wants us all to be more gentle with each other and to use our words more.
I said I want us to teach each other and make our home a place everyone feels safe rather than attacked.

Peanut says he wants more camping.

Butter says he wants doughnuts.

Spouse said he wants more nights like the one where we tasted dragonfruit.

Peanut said he’d really like to visit a cave.

Butter said he’d really like to try a doughnut.

Peanut said he’d like to see if there are any pyramids around here.

I said I want to visit family more often, see friends more often, and hike more often.

 

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December 30, 2013.
No, seriously. December. They’re clearly as crazy as they are adorable.

 

But really, I’ve been thinking about what I don’t want to change in 2014.

We’ve made it a habit to stay in touch with the friends who need us and the friends who make us want to be our best selves.

We started this year reading poetry over breakfast. We all enjoy it. A lot. Mostly because this month featured Shel Silverstein. That dude cracks us up, and not just because we picture my dad hassling him in S.F. in the late 60s.

We also started doing Mad Libs at dinner, right before we talk about the best and the most challenging parts of our day. You can’t beat a second-grader listing nouns and adjectives while the preschooler takes all requests for silly words and numbers.

I’ve been working to teach my body that when one boy hurts the other, adrenaline isn’t necessary. A calm script is. I want to keep working that script. Because reacting as though every punch is the end of civilization as we know it and a sure sign my children will spend most of their lives in prison just isn’t working for us. So I’ll stay on 2013’s path toward serenity in the midst of testosterone. [Note I said toward. I’m really, really, really far from that goal. But trying is always good, unless you listen to Yoda.]

Exercise and way less sugar has helped my focus. So this year I’ll keep adding exercise and keep minimizing sugar. I might wait another year before I ask my kids to let me meditate for five minutes in the morning.

Client projects have been welcome distractions from my already long to-do lists. Spending time with friends at the expense of projects has made me happier and justifiably pressured to focus on what’s important.

Going to bed early and getting up early to create for myself and for clients is still a huge struggle. But a journey of a thousand minutes begins by not snoozing my “go to bed” alarm. Which means I have to leave you now and prepare for an early morning “write now” alarm.

Here’s hoping that in 2014 you keep what you want and jettison what didn’t work in 2013. What are you working toward this year?

New Year’s Resolution

Just getting around to this. Because.

I resolve in 2013 to not resolve.

I may do somethings less. Or more. But I won’t promise.

I might do things I should or I might do things I want. But I’m not resolving anything about them.

I might be easier on myself. Or harder on myself. We’ll see.

I’m not going to guarantee that I start or finish or make progress on anything in particular. I might do all three. You don’t know and neither do I.

I might see the journey and I might privilege the destination. I certainly won’t commit either to writing.

I might be more mindful. I might forget. Or I might just refuse to engage. All fair game.

If it just so happens that I do things more quickly or more slowly, why then so be it. Subject to change whenever I feel.

If change is constant and I resolve to change, is that saying anything? If we’re all basically the same people, then are resolutions anything other than self loathing in culturally compelling form?

I don’t know.

But I will not twist myself into knots about beginning contortions or ceasing patterns because of a day on the calendar.

Then again, I may.

I reserve the right to do both, though I don’t resolve to use that right.

 

Change is in the air

Ok, 2012. We’re going do a few things differently around here.

First? The list of resolutions. But for 2012 I’m making resolutions for other people. I’m tired of writing out the same list for myself: write more, read more, exercise more, eat more veggies, be more patient with my kids, drink more water, make progress on all 27 projects, declutter, and make better financial decision. Further, the same items on last year’s FINISH list (must finish editing my novel, must finish reading the insanely high pile of books by my bed, must finish arrangements for my acapella group, must finish donating all the junk we don’t need, must stop buying more junk we don’t need) are back on this year’s list.

Which means my list is already done. The list of resolutions, not the list of things to do. That one seems to never even dwindle. The point, though, is my resolutions are already set and being attacked with ardent fervor. Right now, in advance of the deadline, so way to go, Me.

That, in turn, means I have copious time and energy (and expertise, quite frankly) to make a list for everyone else. Because the slackasses ’round my house don’t know a good to-do list if it walks by and nags them to do things.

So.

Peanut: in 2012 you will continue to make progress in the “use words not hands at home” and “actually use words at school” categories. You will lose the nasty attitude in which you hiss answers to my questions in full Medusa face-writhe. And you will keep the adorable amount of affection you show your dad and your ability to create entire worlds out of tape, sticks, and magic marker.

Butter: in 2012 you will continue to make progress in the “use your words rather than screech” and “give mama a freaking break” categories. You will lose the nasty habits of pulling my hair and biting when you’re mad, and you will ditch the compulsive need you have of throwing to the ground every single thing you see. You will keep the “Mama mama mama” song with which you put yourself to sleep, and the “mama mama mama” song with which you serenade me, tiny hands locked ’round the back of my neck, when you wake in the middle of the night and want to come sleep in my bed.

Spouse: the Interwebs are neither the time nor the place to tell you what to make progress on, ditch, and keep. But I have a list. Stop by and I’ll share it. Know this: there are things on which you should continue to make progress, things you need to abandon, and things you have to keep doing. That is all.

So while we’re on a roll, what do you resolve someone will do or not do in 2012? We all know what we want to fix in ourselves. Let’s fix the rest of the world while we’re here.

Suggestions for any sentient beings welcome below.

‘Twas the day before the night before Christmas

‘Twas, in fact, also the day that leads into the fourth night of Hanukkah and two days after Solstice.

A day full of things to do and no breathing room to do them in.

A day where client work presses in on one side, giftmaking from the other. A day of school-lessness the likes of which we had plenty in the summer but which I’m not used to.

A day of trips and falls and blood-streaked ice and crying, of errands and tasks best attempted alone, a state exactly the opposite of today’s full stores, jammed parking lots, and backseat teeming with crying, bloody, small children.

A day in which I hoped to post a “before I lapse into gratitude mode tomorrow and for the rest of the year, I’d like a day to bemoan all that I am NOT grateful for” piece. One that covered things like having my name always precede the words “I want”; like feeling as though the clutter created by four people living together actually gets piled atop my head each night so I have to choose amongst sleep, exercise, reading, writing, editing, or removing the catastrophic pile of crap from my head and shoulders. Like balancing the joy of watching my children play, totally absorbed in their awesome worlds or merriment and imagination with the guilt from wanting to be away from my children more with the frustration of being with my children every waking minute of every single day. Like mean people, people who don’t do their fair share, and people who bicker in my living room while I’m trying to stinking cook a stinking healthy breakfast in here!

But I don’t have time to write that post. I don’t have the energy to write that post. And, honestly, considering the fact that I’ve spent the day running around with and after two small people, one of whom needs me 55 seconds of every minute, and still managed to get all the ingredients for our holiday gift-making extravaganza, I’m feeling a little less ungrateful, and a little more “bring on the resolutions, 2012, because I have a head start!”

In fact, since I haven’t yelled all day and I sacrificed my solo time during the little one’s nap to do science projects with the bigger one, I’m finishing the year with a personal-improvement to-do list more crossed off than not.

If I finish my editing, rewrite my novel, exercise, drink more water, and eat more veggies at every meal, I’ll be so far ahead of my own game it’ll be 2013 in a week.

Happy Ungrateful Day! (if you can find the time and energy to be ungrateful, that is; otherwise happy fourth night and happy second day of traveling closer to the sun and happy day before the night before Christmas)

New Year’s Resolutions

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. Must now, quickly and with no time to waste, contemplate the meaning of life, the new year, the holy grail of balance, and life goals.

Ready, set, go.

I’m a driven person. I always have several long term and dozens of short term goals brewing. Life with small children means that many, if not all, of those aspirations are on hold. Panic waxes and wanes, with the sensations that life is passing by and that life is exactly what it needs to be as other things wait.

And I was pretty sure I was unhappy in this limbo until I read a series of articles on happiness in Southwest Airline’s in-flight magazine. I should have been reading one of the dozens of books on my nightstand, or writing something compelling, but the bags were overflowing with boring wooden, BPA-free, phthalate-free, battery-free toys, and there was no way I was packing another bag just so I could have something to do. My whole life is about filling every nook and cranny of time with something productive, and, dammit, this holiday vacation I was going to stare aimlessly out windows.

Of course I can say that but can’t really do it, so while Butter was sleeping in my arms (after four hours in the airport waiting for a delayed flight) I was reading article after article on being happy. And during the course of 30 minutes, was interrupted 17 times (I counted) by my delightful children. So I figured, what with the inability to have two freaking minutes to myself, the deferred goals, the lack of comfort in my own older-and-not-springing-back-from-pregnancy skin, and the predictable winter mid-life crisis that makes me want to move, get a job, quit a job, go back to school, sell my soul, and run away from home all in the same day, that I’d score more than a few ticks below happy.

Shows what I know.

Apparently, since I find joy in something every day, since I’m still compelled to make progress toward those goals and dreams, since I’m frustrated as hell but interested and engaged in what I’m doing, I’m actually quite happy. Above the 50th percentile, anyway, which shocks me.

[Aside: how Eeyore does that make me that Fair-to-Middling seems impressively upbeat?]

The nature of the questions asked in the Authentic Happiness Inventory point out what I’ve known for 5 years: though it’s important to me to raise my children myself and defer fulfilling my needs and desires while they’re small, I would probably be happier working in a situation in which I am skilled, respected, and see direct results of my efforts. It’s the way I’m built—this steep learning curve, 30-year deferred feedback game is not my strong suit. I’d be more engaged and interested in and proud of my work if it were not the trying-hard-to-be-patient and doing-my-best-to-be-gentle direction of small children.

Yet refusing my near-constant need to follow my avocation is actually reminding me almost constantly of my current purpose in life.

Frustrating as hell though it may be to do what I believe in rather than what I crave, I know why I’m happier than I perceive myself to be outside the smattering of joyful moments in each day.

Because as stupifying and frustrating and scatalogical as my job is, I genuinely believe it’s important. And research suggests a sense of purpose and usefulness is one of the most important factors in feeling satisfied about your life.

So, sure I’ll eat more vegetables in 2011. And write more. And eliminate the stuff that isn’t necessary so I can do more of what I, personally, thrive on (housework and corn syrup). But I’ll also spend a fair amount of the time I was budgeting for blinking on recognizing that I’m a happy frustrated, agitated, unfulfilled person.

See how I’m already looking on the bright side? Way to go, 2011.