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November 20, 2006

As Powerful As Brylcreem

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I THOUGHT I knew all about empathy. I’ve written about it, given speeches about it, made a web site about it (www.circusofcancer.org) and generally evangelized about its terrific healing powers on every street corner since 2004. In that year, I was the recipient of so much empathy (thanks to a run-in with late-stage breast cancer), I thought I could write the book on it.

Silly girl.

Empathy isn’t just the thing you pack in your bag on the way to see a friend in crisis. Rather, as I was shown last week, empathy is your primary tool for every interaction. But that’s putting the punchline before the joke, so to speak. Let me back up a bit.

Last Wednesday, I had coffee with Tracy, an old friend whose parenting style leans towards…um…well, let’s just say she is kinder with her children than I am with mine. In my dark days, pre-enlightenment, I may have even described her mothering as indulgent. She starts every interaction trying to make sure her children know she understands how they feel while I start every interaction trying to make sure my children know who’s boss.

Tracy and I had a long time to talk; we were AWOL mothers in New York City, many states between us and our children--and their overripe diapers, unbuckled shoes and running noses. Buzzing with caffeine, trapped in a cafĂ© by sheets of rain, we talked about what she’s learning in her parenting classes, which she gets for the cost of tuition at her children’s private school.

Oh boy, have I been blowing it around here.

Children, Tracy reported, want to feel that they have been felt. (Children are clearly just like people in this way.) Hmm. In my interactions with my children, I am operating as my husband sometimes does with me. No time for empathy! Let’s get to the good part, the satisfying part: problem solving! But satisfying for whom? Like me, my kids may not need a solution as much as they need someone to hear them out, a little emotional camaraderie. “It is hard to zip up stiff, new boots.” “Amoxicillin chewable tablets do taste like Ajax.” “I like it when Toto pulls the curtain back on the Wizard too!”

But here’s the finer point, and the place where I oversimplified. While empathy is big enough to reshape any interaction and consequently any relationship, in most cases, the empathetic act is, by comparison, microscopic. A nod is the quintessential show of empathy. Eye contact is also high on the list. Mirroring expressions – a frown for a frown, a furrowed brow for a furrowed brow – ranks right up there with actually mirroring their words. “You really want to have a playdate.” “You’re so hungry you could eat a horse.” "That homework assignment is pretty tough." I find after addressing the urgent need [to be heard and acknowledged], it’s easier to explain that dinner isn’t ready, we can set up a playdate for tomorrow, and homework is homework, everybody’s gotta do it.

Mirroring and eye contact and nodding may sound like a lotta touchy-feely garbage but the thing is if your children (or, for that matter, your spouse) can’t tell from your behavior that you’re really listening, you might as well not be. So though the temptation may be strong, you cannot hope to empathize while reading the paper or checking the score of the game or finishing a column. The good news is you don’t have to. Empathizing is so powerful that, as the old Brylcreem ad went, a little dab’ll do ya.

November 10, 2006

Sandbagging

Kelly's column about Sandbagging originally appeared in The Hills Newspapers and is represented here with their permission.

I’m married to a good man who works hard, between between tracking his fantasy football players and picking wines online and finding the occasional sportcoat deal on jcrew.com… and I’m a good woman , an at-home mom who works hard, between writing columns and coffeeing with friends and catching a spin on the elliptical trainer down at the Y). Between us, we’ve got nothing to hide.

Still, I’ve noticed this trend in our daily check in calls. He seems to want me to go first so he gets right out there with "how's your day?" and that’s when it happens. That’s the moment I feel myself hedging, wishing I knew which way his day was going before I rattle off a list of small but mission-critical achievements, like picking up dry cleaning and getting his prescription filled OR focus instead on the hour that the girls played quietly while I flipped through old Pottery Barn catalogs and yakked on the phone to my friend down the street. I mean, it's unwise (right?) to let your husband think it's too cruisy back at home. Stories of heroism always involve great obstacles and unforeseen challenges, right? What credit will I get at the end if I make motherhood out to be one long afternoon of crayons, cupcakes, and Curious George? Best to report the tantrums and timeouts. Best to cast the corporate world as a haven, predictable, logic- based, preferable on all counts.

Guilt seeps in.

But then I notice that he sandbags me too. Calling from a first-class trip to Tokyo, he hesitates to describe his hotel room, or his dinner, or his schedule the next day. He plays the hold-back game. Which means that somewhere along the line, I've communicated that I don’t want to hear about the $100 bottle of wine he had with his brainy, interesting boss while exquisite women scurried to and fro in silk kimonos bringing course after course of award-winning food.

More guilt. I mean what kind of bitter killjoy doesn’t want her hard working husband to enjoy the occasional boondoggle?

So I say to him one night, after a particularly effective glass of red wine, when he is wearing a shirt I like and the girls have gone to bed in that charming way that kids do sometimes, I say, "Edward, sometimes I kinda lie to you, or just kinda omit things." I go on to explain that if I sat in a hot tub after working out on a Monday morning while he was in that weekly staff meeting that he just hates, I usually don't mention the hot tub. And he says, in this weirdly convincing way, that he wants me to be happy. And I, of course, recall a similar desire for him. And so we agree, after chewing on it for a while, that sandbagging is more silly than sensitive and that we should, from now on, revel openly in a good day.

This column served as fodder for a a recent Today Show segment. To see it, go to: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12065856/ and scroll down to THURSDAY's VIDEOS and select TRUTH IN MARRIAGE: Stop Sandbagging. And if you want to see more columns like this on Today, please email today@nbc.com and let them know.

November 04, 2006

It’s Going Around Town

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

My popularity at home is at an all-time low since my daughter started elementary school in August. Every day, she manages to work into conversation that Fiona has a dog, Sadie has a princess backpack with pearl trim and Olivia has cowboy boots. We don’t have a dog, Georgia’s backpack is cute but plain and the coolest shoes she has can’t touch Olivia’s pink boots. It’s not peer pressure. It’s not groupthink. I guess I’d call it instinctive conformity. If only I could channel it to her advantage. Instead of “But Becky gets Pop Tarts for breakfast!” it could be “Why can’t I have broccoli and tofu dogs like Jane?”

It takes me back. As a girl, my impossible dream was pierced ears (which, it was explained to me repeatedly, God would have put there Himself if He’d wanted me to have them). By the time I bellied up to the Piercing Pagoda at the mall, the Beckys and Janes in my class all had jewelry boxes bursting with posts, hoops and dangles. I survived, and took the message to heart: Everyone else is doing it is not sufficient grounds for action.

Conformity doesn’t end in childhood, of course. I often hear myself saying to my husband that I need an eyebrow wax, I must replace my lumpy sofa, I should really get a nice dress for the holidays. I’m not sure those were my ideas. In fact, I think I could be parroting my friends, just as my daughter parrots hers. But these are benign desires.

I get good ideas from my pals too. My friend Susan started an exercise studio when she turned 40. She opened up a beautiful place on Piedmont Avenue called The Dailey Method and every day, she’s in there taking women to their physical limit in the name of improved health and a good tush. When the sign went up out front everyone I know wondered if they didn’t have a small business bubbling inside them. Other friends are volunteering, designing handbags, teaching Sunday School. What would we be if we weren’t open to the new idea blowing around town like wind? Personally, I’m keeping my door wide open.

But it’s not just inspiration and optimism that shake the leaves. I heard a story recently about L., a married woman who has reconnected with an old flame from high school and spent the summer emailing him, the fall calling him, and if she gets on the flight next week, the winter visiting him.

I mentioned it to my mom and she said, “My friends just didn’t do that.” My parents ran in a crowd where no one got divorced, even if maybe they should have. It just wasn’t done. And I don’t think it was a coincidence. Sometimes it’s subtle, but I believe peers can influence us in every conceivable way; everything is contagious. Wearing seatbelts, eating organic, joining clubs, flirting with infidelity.

It has something to do with that old adage: you pick your advice when you pick your advisor. Meaning, if a woman like L. told my mom she was talking to her old boyfriend, my mom would probably furrow her brow and shake her head before saying something blunt and unmistakable, like “That’s awful.” But if L. confided in a friend who’d strayed from her own marriage, L.’s friend might say, “What are you going to wear?” which is, for all practical purposes, saying, “Go for it. And tell me all about it when you get home.”

There’s a rule in advertising that says it takes six impressions before a customer will make a purchase. The impressions can be miniscule and fleeting—a logo here, a banner there—but they combine to create a feeling of inevitability. Eventually, you say, “Of course, we’re going to get Yahoo DSL!” So maybe if we surround ourselves and our children with principled, gutsy people, we’ll be bombarded with impressions that will have the net effect of reinforcing what we know is right. We’ll be programmed to pick a designated driver before the night begins, withdraw from the behavior that leads to family ruin, explore new career options, and every now and then, splurge on a pair of pink cowboy boots just like Olivia’s.