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December 24, 2007

Best of Breed

I usually contribute to the holiday chaos with a regifting party, where my friends trade odd gifts we’ve received over the year—-a spooky Christmas angel that stutters in Japanese, a pair of panties made with candy necklaces, a Bedazzler kit. But this year, the season snuck up on me and so the best I can do is offer up a column commemorating the truly memorable gift.

At the top of my list: A can of tennis balls. You probably can’t imagine being talked into giving someone a can of tennis balls in the class gift exchange. You’d object. You’d refuse to go to school that day. You’d show up with nothing before you’d hand a girl three Wilson Pros in front of the whole 7th grade. Not me. I fell for the sell-job: “They’re brand new!” “She loves tennis!” “Look how the bow sits so perfectly on top!”

When I asked my husband what gift he’ll always remember, he too found himself back in adolescence, when his cousin from Kentucky gave him Jovan Soap-on-a-rope. This excellent product hung conveniently around the shower knobs and so was never subject to the softening and deterioration that could happen to untethered soap. So handy. And Masculine with a capital M. Here I quote from perfumebay.com: “Jovan Musk. The sexy smell of warm skin. Stroke it on, and it becomes a scent like no one else's. Because it works with your body's natural chemistry. (And later, with hers.) Jovan Musk lasts all day. Since a man like you can make things happen at any hour.”

Then there are the special offerings that make you snap your fingers and wish you’d thought of. I once watched my brother bring my mother to tears on a Christmas morning. It seemed he had been to a bookstore, because my mother loved to read, and not ten feet in the door, he was struck by a certain title, “Home.” “This is perfect for Mom! She sells residential real estate!” My mom smiled at her son as she slid her thumbnail under the invisible scotch tape and opened the paper to show a paperback novel. Oh my God, I thought to myself, it’s fiction. It could be about a mental institution, or an underground bomb shelter cum heroin lab, or a perverted mortgage broker. My mom loved it.

Later that morning, that same brother would give me a pack of Goody barrettes in a folded drugstore bag and maybe a deck of cards. It went on this way for years—-a bag of BRACH’s red hots (“since you love them!”), a Captain & Tenille 45, a pack of lined notebook paper. Life was good.

So this year, when someone hands you a homemade ham and nut pie or a tree garland made of printer cartridges, remind yourself that this gem…this choice doodad…this undervalued treasure will be the only gift you’ll remember in five years. And you and I both know that a good laugh and a story you can tell for the rest of your life beats an italian cashmere crewneck any day.

November 26, 2007

Have I driven you to the liquor cabinet yet?

I just wanted to apologize for the 6 or 7 emails you've gotten from Feedblitz lately. As you can tell, I have been updating the site to include all the relevant info about The Middle Place, which hits bookstores on January 8. In anticipation, I thought I'd share the backstory about the cover.

At first, it was set to look like this (that's my actual school picture from kindergarten):



But some people thought I looked a little alarmed in that photo, or like I had just been whacked in the ass with a paddle but was trying to remain stoic. So then it changed to this:



But then a few other memoirs that are coming out around mine seemed to have similar covers so the next thing I knew, they sent over this:



At which point, I was headed to the liquor cabinet for some self-soothing. Rather than crawl into a nice fat bottle of Pinor Noir, I opened up Photoshop and came up with my own little idea, which, it turns out, is being "a bad customer" and so I backed off and that's how the book jacket came to be this:



Which we are all very happy with.

At any rate, while all this has been unfolding, you've been peppered with emails about my site and I'm sure there's a simple way for me to control for that but the truth is, I'm no tech support and my husband is tiring of the role.

So, anyway, thanks for hanging in there. (6 people unsubscribed and mother didn't like that one lousy bit.)

And hey, if you want an advance copy of The Middle Place and you're one of those people who loves to evangelize about your favorite new book or movie or song, send me your mailing address. I only have 5 so "act now!"

November 11, 2007

Inviting Failure

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Bay Area News Group.

This column is part of an ongoing discussion series with Christine Carter, PhD, Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more on increasing children’s tolerance for failure and the value of challenging children, go to www.greatergoodparents.org.

My daughter’s not big on trying new things. It’s particularly noticeable with her artwork. She’s currently in what will later be recalled as her great flora stage. Even the faint footsteps of failure in the distance will cause her to flip over the page and go back to her old standby: daisies. Not trees, not bushes, not even tulips. Daisies. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, defines failure as "the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective." That’s all, just a mark missed. Nothing so awful. Nothing to be ashamed of or chronically avoided.

I myself am on friendlier terms with failure, as we’ve known each other for so long now. I met her way before I shook hands with success. In fact, failure introduced me to success. Some of my standout failures were all eight years of French, which left me with as much fluency as any six-year-old walking out of “Ratatouille,” high school field hockey, where I never could stop loosing giant divots from the field, and all cooking beyond pasta. Oh, and I bombed my SATs.

After a lifetime of making mistakes so often it feels like my resting state, I’ve come to feel utterly undeterred by the prospect of failing. This freeing condition was facilitated by my parents, who were able to communicate a thousand ways that they didn’t care a whip about whether I made the team or got into a big name college. Their expectations were around things like respect—for teachers and coaches as well as teammates and myself—and what they called The Eleventh Commandment—Thou Shalt Laugh At Thyself. The most pitiable person in our house was not the poor student or the third-string athlete but the one who couldn’t tell a joke or the truly besotted who couldn’t even get a joke.

Another upside to befriending failure early is that you develop a certain knack for the postmortem, a medical term used here to mean a time of examination and reflection. Failure analysis, as they call it in product development circles, is the process of collecting and analyzing all available data to find the cause of a failure and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. Is there a more useful skill, or a more capacitating one? Failure analysis, by its very nature, says failure is an event, not an identity and that future outcomes can and will be affected by our choices.

So, if failure’s so good for us, why aren’t we treating our children to more of it? Christine Carter, PhD, of The Greater Good Science Center, saw in her own research that kids who reported facing more challenges in their lives were far happier than the kids who reported fewer (or no) challenges. That means not only is failure critical to success but it’s also a cornerstone of happiness.

Challenge, in the elementary school context, could be anything from peeling that stubborn little sticker off an apple to fixing a princess crown to packing lunch. When I zip up my daughter’s sweatshirt or manage relations during her playdates or run her forgotten homework down to school, I am essentially covering her bet. She should lose sometimes, if only so she experiences for herself how sharp the initial sting is and then how quickly it subsides. An oddly carved pumpkin, illegible homework, a misapplied band-aid, I owe her these. Intervening—making things easier and more perfect—may inadvertently send the message that I think she needs my help, either because she is incapable in some way or because failing would be too traumatic.

As Christine said, "the thing we need to protect our kids from is not failure but a life void of failure."

October 30, 2007

Oh Honey! You’re so—uh—well—

This column is a part of an ongoing discussion series between Kelly Corrigan and Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center.

KC: Now that I'm seeing everything though this fixed mindset/growth mindset prism, I feel a little tongue-tied around my kids. I’ve been in a terrible habit of saying things like “You’re such a good artist” and “You have a beautiful singing voice.”

CC: I do it, too. I'm training myself to keep pointing out that practice pays off.

KC: It’s Interpersonal Communications 101: always separate the action from the actor. “You are being mean” rather than “You are mean.” We have to stop generalizing and talk instead about specific actions.

CC: “You connected with the ball much better this time” carries a completely different message than “You are a fantastic baseball player.”

KC: The trick is when I’m trying to build up my kids’ confidence. For instance, when I see Claire struggle or hesitate, I want to say, “You can do this, honey. You’re a smart girl.”

CC: That’s a mixed message. The fixed-mindset part—telling her she’s smart—is tempting but that’s exactly the kind of praise is that causes problems. (By the way, I’m constantly having to stop myself from saying to my kids “You’re brilliant!”) We need make the message constructive by saying something like “I know you can do it if you put your mind to it.”

KC: Praise is a powerful drug for a kid. Once they’ve tasted it, they’ll do anything to get it again.

CC: Kids feel people evaluating and judging them. And certain praise reinforces feelings of being valued for their achievements alone. Carol Dweck says, based on her studies of thousands of kids, “Maybe the ability they proved yesterday is not up to today's task. Maybe they were smart enough for algebra but not calculus. So they're racing to prove themselves over and over…amassing countless affirmations, but not necessarily ending up where they want to be.”

KC: That's heartbreaking.

CC: Dweck’s team did an experiment where they give kids a short test and then one line of praise. They either said: “You did really well; you must be very smart,” (fixed mindset) OR they said, “You did really well; you must have worked really hard” (growth mindset).
After the first puzzle, the researchers offered the kids either a harder puzzle that they could learn from or one that was easier than the one they completed successfully. The majority of the kids praised for their intelligence wanted the easier puzzle—they weren’t going to risk making a mistake and loosing their status as “smart.” On the other hand, more than 90% of growth-mindset encouraged kids chose a harder puzzle. Why? Dweck explains: “when we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might—or might not—look.”

KC: It makes sense to me. Attributing success to innate gifts is a recipe for anxiety and joyless achievement.

CC: Joyless is the key word. In Dweck’s study, during the first puzzle, pretty much everyone had fun. But when the ability-praised kids were given a harder puzzle, they said it wasn’t fun anymore.

KC: Because it’s no fun when your special talent is in jeopardy.

CC: In another study, praising kids’ “smarts” actually lowered their IQ scores! Besides making them insecure and crushing the fun of learning something new, telling kids that how smart they are actually hinders performance.

KC: So we can praise our kids all day long, as long we focus on effort, commitment, resourcefulness, and tenacity.

CC: Right. Because those are the things that truly help them grow and succeed.

October 13, 2007

What Christine Told Me, Part I

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from the Bay Area News Group.

Last fall, when Georgia was in kindergarten, she tried soccer. I could go into it—making dandelion necklaces, lying down on the field, wearing a skirt to practice—but let’s just say it didn’t take. It was an interesting mix of disinterest and inability and I wasn’t sure which was feeding which. When she got frustrated, I was quick to take off the pressure by saying something like, “It’s no big deal, honey. Not everybody’s good at soccer. Some people have it in their bones and some people don’t.” Because I was feeling her pain and had been trained to communicate that I didn’t care a whip about her achievements, I’d go on. “I was never much good at sports myself. And it was funny because people always thought I should’ve been better, since I came from such an athletic family,” I’d ramble. “My brothers—your uncles—they had the magic touch but not me.”

Why?” she wanted to know.

“Well, I wasn’t that fast and I didn’t know where to be on the field and I couldn’t really kick that far. There was a guy on my team—he was really gifted—who could just wind up and send that ball halfway down the field. Not me, though. I was more the creative type.”

We talked for a while like this, about how different people have different talents. We talked about Daddy, who is musical and good with numbers. We talked about a third-grade girl named Tess who is such a natural athlete, I’ve watched grown men one-up each other with Tess stories—the time she whipped every 5th grade boy in wall ball, the time she stole second, the time she threw a football 30 yards, a perfect spiral. Then there’s Sophie, our babysitter who sings opera with this voice that’s as powerful and beautiful as a waterfall.

Then my husband came home and while the kids ran laps around us, he recounted an interesting conversation he’d had with his co-workers that day about what kind of people make the best CEOs. One guy was sure you couldn’t be a CEO unless you were born with something he called the killer instinct. We inventoried my husband’s traits—he was strategic, level headed, good in a crisis. But was he a born killer? Maybe it was like me and soccer—maybe it wasn’t in his bones.

As often happens, the next day I got talking with my friend Christine, who, in true PhD style, referred me to a huge body of research on mindsets, completed mostly by a woman named Carol Dweck, who’s done the rounds at Harvard and Columbia and is now down in sunny Palo Alto at Stanford. There were basically two mindsets, Christine explained, two ways of thinking about yourself and your abilities. Fixed and growth.

Apparently, talking about gifts and natural talents had made me an unwitting evangelist for the fixed mindset, which could be summarized as: you are what you are because you got what you got and once the plaster dries, there’s not much wiggle room.

Whatever I may have said, I don’t believe traits and skills are fixed. No, ma’am. I believe you reap (if only after much back-breaking tending) what you sow and that you can sow whatever you want. Personally, I plant new things all the time. Which brings me to the growth mindset, which gives all the credit to time on task. In other words, people are good at things they work at. My brothers broke scoring records in lacrosse because they started backing up the goal for my dad’s club games when they were in kindergarten. As teenagers, when other kids were hanging around the 7-11, they were playing Fall Ball and in the summer, while the other kids were playing ping-pong and doing cannonballs at the local pool, my brothers were sweating it out in Baltimore, at lacrosse camps. During the actual season, in the spring, they came home from a two-hour practice and went straight to our backyard to play catch until my mom called them in or it started raining. They were really good because they worked really hard. The same is true of Tess, who’s had a ball in her hands 80% of her waking hours since the day she was born. And Sophie, who spends several hours every day developing the muscle that is her voice, a routine she began when she was eleven. And so it is that Georgia will never be any good at soccer until she stands up, drops the dandelions and does the drills.

Now it’s a matter of consistently communicating that and not slipping into the limited (and limiting) thinking that credits born instincts and magic touches over the real enablers—study, training, rehearsal, revision and growth.

For more on this topic, click the play button below or head on over to Greater Good Science Center. The video download may take a minute or so. If you prefer to view on YouTube.com, which will be instant, click YouTube.com/blogversations.


Still from video


October 05, 2007

Had to share these lines

...from p 52 page of Gilead, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. If you haven't read it, it's just beautiful, as beautiful as anything on paper can be. The narrator is an old pastor at the end of his life and he's talking to his young son.

"I am writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you have done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to have been no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."

As someone who wrote a whole book about what it means to be someone's child while also being someone's parent, I bow down to this.

October 01, 2007

"Hey...just calling to check in..."

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Bay Area News Group.

I know that on Mondays at 10am, my husband meets with his boss. Those meetings last about ninety minutes and often there is about fifteen minutes of pressing work on either end. I also know that the first Friday of every month, the board of his small start-up meets and those meetings require about two hours of uninterrupted prep time and at least twenty minutes of chatting afterwards. I know his train schedule and that it takes him about ten minutes to settle into his commute and feel ready to kick back and chat. I know these things because I have been living with him for eight years and I have picked up on his basic routine. These effortless observations help me decide when to call and when to hold off for an hour, or even just five minutes.

Now. My husband is more “spontaneous.” He might call at 8:05am, to ask me to remind him (when he gets home in twelve hours) to find that parking receipt from last week’s trip to LA for his expense report. Or, he might call at 6:00pm for no reason at all, just a sweet, lazy hello, as he stares out the window at the traffic jam on 880 North. I have tried to point out that the kids’ dinnertime is not when I am at my conversational best. I have tried to explain that I only pick up at this time in case of emergency or to get the vigil ante thrill of barking at a telemarketer. And yet.

Last summer, during one such call, he called with a tidbit.

“Hi,” I said. “Bad time. Can we talk when you get home?”

“Sure yeah, just lemme tell you one quick thing—” he insisted.

“Um, ok,” I responded, phone wedged between my ear and my shoulder, hip blocking my daughter from the frying pan, fingers poking at a softball of frozen peas.

“Guess what?” he said, sounding titillated, like you might if you won a new Bentley.

“No idea honey.”

“Selma Hayek skipped a grade.”

“What?”

“She skipped a grade. She graduated from high school when she was sixteen.”

Let’s just say that no mother would call another mother at 6:00pm unless, perhaps, she opened her fridge to discover there was only a drop or two of chardonnay to carry her through the day’s last grueling hours.

So for the men out there, loving husbands all, here is a list of approved reasons for an ill-timed call:

Your car has broken down and AAA is not answering.
You got a raise. A big one.
You’re at the jewelry store buying diamonds and you need to confirm her ring size.

You’ll note that although surprising and impressive, Selma Hayek’s high school transcript does not make the list. That’s something to tuck away for Day Six of a week vacation where you have exhausted meatier topics like whether to replace your mattress this year and if the kids are listening to High School Musical 2 too much.

That said, I’d rather be doing an Andy Rooney routine over inconvenient calls than no calls at all, so if it’s an either/or, go ahead and keep em coming.

September 13, 2007

Did I Say Intractable?


This just in from the United Nations:

"Child mortality rate tumbles to record low."

Have you heard better news in that last month? Year?

Apparently, thanks to promoting exclusive breastfeeding** and campaigns against malaria and measles, the number of deaths of young children has dropped to below 10 million a year for the first time since such record-keeping began in 1960.

This means that outreach and education and fundraising actually add up. This means that big, messy, multi-layered problems that seem unwinnable aren't. This means, in a nutshell, that hope is not unreasonable.

If you feel a little giddy about this, and your VISA number is handy, follow me here to give a little something to UNICEF.

**Correction thanks to Cynthia, a careful reader. [Thanks Cynthia.]

June 06, 2007

"Oh, I know that kid..."

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Hills Newspaper Group.

Everyone does it. Everyone talks about other people’s kids. Mostly, it’s good-natured jokes about bad hair cuts and pot bellies and crooked teeth. But, all of us have to admit, sometimes it’s more. “She’s a tough one” or “He’s a wildcard” or “We steer clear of so-and-so.” Some kids trigger our protective instincts and in the company of a like-minded mother, a small objection to a specific behavior can become a broader critique of character.

This will never stop, even between friends. The most honest feedback you can hope for is a factual account of an eye-witnessed event, for instance, “Today after school, I saw your kid smack my kid.” And I know plenty of cases when even this seemingly essential information is withheld.

It’s understandable. Nobody wants to tell a parent that their child has been mean, or rude, or bossy since today’s victim is tomorrow’s bully just as today’s mortal enemy is tomorrow’s best buddy. Anyway, who wants to sound like an uptight tattletale? It’s not just kids who want to seem cool and laidback. And most of the time, it’s hearsay. Are you really going to risk seeming holier-than-thou based on the half-baked report of a seven year-old?

The thing is, if you choose to bite your tongue and give an incomplete report of the playdate—“It was great!” when the truth was “Your kid whacked my kid on the head with a Barbie doll”—then you can’t turn around and tell someone else. If you choose to stay silent, you have to actually stay silent. If you find you just can’t keep it in, the only person you should really talk to is the Barbie Swinger’s mom. Even if you’re afraid of how she’ll react. Even if you’re afraid that she’ll, oh I dunno, write a column about it.

Giving a parent negative feedback about their child is a small act of courage. Just ask my friend Christine, who shared some things about my daughter’s behavior that turned me inside-out for 48 hours (during which she was witness to several of my own “areas needing improvement”).

Why is it so painful to come face to face with our children’s flaws?

In my case, the pain came from two different places. One, it’s unsettling to think that other people can see something that you can’t. Our effectiveness hinges on our ability to see our kids’ clearly. I tried to dismiss Christine’s reports, believe me, but they were quickly corroborated by two other parents, convincing me that I have been asleep at the wheel, a wheel I thought I had been white-knuckling. After all, just like everyone reading this right now, my children are my raison d’etre, my self esteem, my everything.

Which brings me to the second cause of my pain: my big fat ego. While my children happily work their way through Erik Erikson’s developmental stages of autonomy, identity and separation, I cling. I realized this last weekend when my wise friend Susan said, “We are not our children.” Was there ever such a simple and obvious statement with such sweeping implications? Susan went on to say, as I was sharing my theory that my daughter is bossy because I am bossy, “Kelly, we influence them, we do not make them.”

If everything that is said about your child is essentially something said about you--your parenting, your nature--you and your child will be operating at a considerable disadvantage. Attaching your ego to your child--their reputation, their behavior, their happiness--is the exact opposite of lifting them up. It’s putting rocks in their backpack, making everything they do weightier than it needs to be. Beyond that, it’s impossible to see them clearly if they are obscured by a giant mirror showing your reflection.

In my life as a mother, this was a growth spurt. This was the week that I let some blood back into my knuckles, which were white from gripping too tight. This was the week I decided to stop talking about other people’s kids with anyone but their parents. And this is the week I learned to hear feedback and push past all the rotten self-doubt and defensiveness and just see it for what it is: a little gift. Thanks Christine.

April 24, 2007

Waking Up As Clarissa

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

A long time ago [read: before cell phones], I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in an undergrad Lit class. I don’t remember the story all that well but I believe it’s set in London just after the first World War and everything happens in a single day. I’m pretty sure it’s springtime. There’s this Mrs. Dalloway who’s planning a party and there’s a disturbed war veteran struggling to reassimilate and these two plots unfold simultaneously. In one chapter, Mrs. Dalloway carefully selects flowers for her centerpieces and in the next, a wife broach the topic of an asylum to her husband, the vet who’s being haunted by battlefield images.

I recall that in our class discussion, swimming in our shapeless Benetton sweaters, we gals felt mighty superior to Clarissa Dalloway and her pitiful commitment to the hostess arts. “She’s so disconnected…isolated…shallow.”

It’s easy to think you’ll be different when it’s your turn to be a forty year-old suburban woman. But once you get here—to the leafy small town, to middle age—it is an act of will to continually balance a life of comfort and privilege with a life of engagement and compassion. This is particularly apropos now, when the war in Iraq goes on and on for about 140,000 American families while all other families go untouched. Not only have most of us not sacrificed in any measurable way but, at least in my home, when we talk about Iraq, it’s all politics and the ‘08 presidential election and the mounting costs. I can hardly think of a time when we discussed the soldiers and their families.

Rather then berate myself in print, I'll just tell you what corrective measures we've taken around here.

In addition to saying a prayer each night for the men and women sleeping uneasily in their makeshift barracks so far from home [which involves visualizing the soldiers and imagining what they eat, the sounds they hear, the letters under their pillows], I wanted to share a website I’ve found that will send a soldier in Iraq a care package for about $20 all in. Boxes go out in large shipments once a month and include; cereal bars, packets of Gatorade, AA batteries, phone cards, sunflower seeds, tube socks, beef jerky and playing cards. Beyond these “treats,” the organization also packs up what seem like essentials; dental floss, sun block, bug repellant, tube socks and chap stick. Maybe best of all are letters from school children that say, “We think about you. We are proud of you. We can’t wait until you come home.”

So this weekend, before you slide into your party shoes, please visit www.forgottensoldiers.org. I’m betting it’ll make the party that much better. It did for us.

April 09, 2007

In Defense of the Long Answer

Kelly's columns appear with permission from The Hills Newspaper Group.

My husband, Edward, recently told me, in the kindest possible way, that he thinks I “go on” a bit. For instance, when people (by people, I mean people we socialize with, a.k.a. friends) ask me how my book is coming, he thinks they’re looking for something simple, like “good.” When I say, “Well, I handed in a rewrite last week and the editors were happy with it so next week, it goes to copyediting and I’ll get it back in about a month for one more round of changes,” he suspects that may be more than they wanted.

When I pressed him (“But they asked!”), he said it was probably different for everyone but that if he were me, he’d err on the side of too little information (TLI), not too much (TMI). But if we all err on the side of TLI--if everyone’s answer to everything is “good”--it’s gonna be a pretty dull garden party. On the flip side, the possibility that I am verbally overstaying my welcome makes me cringe.

For the record, unless I’m running to the bathroom or standing in the rain, there isn’t anything I’d rather do that hear about the new client you just signed or how your mother-in-law offended you by organizing your daughter’s closet or the NPR story about faith and science that kept you up last night. I’m hoping you’ll give me a paragraph or two, not a word.

Beyond the facts of your life, I’d also like to know what you believe in--who you voted for, if you go to church, where you stand on gay marriage. Oh, and I’d like to know the last time you yelled so loud it hurt your throat. I’m not judging, by the way. I’m calibrating. I know enough to draw the line at money and sex. [However, thanks to a few confidantes, I have a couple key data points on both topics that have served me well over the years.]

I’ve always felt self-conscious about my curiosity, perhaps because my mother and her generation esteem privacy so. (When my mom saw the movie “The Queen,” she called on the way home from the theater to say, “That’s precisely how I feel about things. Some things aren’t meant to be discussed.”)

And also, I have been teased. (Yes, reader, teased!) And we all know that teasing is just a clever, sometimes graceful way to reset the conversation. So when people say, “Kelly, TMI!” I know to pull back and start talking about season six of American Idol.

But then, about once a month I get the housewives’ equivalent of a Kindergarten “All About ME” session--a set of questions in an email that I am supposed to answer and then “Forward to 10 great women!!!!” The questions range from the banal “What is your favorite cereal?” to the traumatizing “How do you know that you are turning into your mother?” What is clear from all of them is that needs are going unmet. Those emails are begging for more sharing!

If that wasn’t enough, Barnes and Noble dedicates considerable retail space to books of questions and games like Scruples or Table Topics, which is a box of cards that have questions on each side. My friend Beth keeps the deck on her kitchen table. Last week, over turkey burgers and beans, I pulled: What is your greatest regret? Each person answered and I left that night feeling connected in new ways to a friend I’ve had for a couple years now. (Mine was a broad-shouldered Lambda Chi back in ‘87, if you must know.)

By definition, sharing is the joint use of a resource and the resource I want more of is life experience. My limits are more clear to me than ever. Your trip to Africa, your front row seats to James Taylor, your meeting with the head of the NBA may be the closest I ever come to any of those things. So please, go on a bit.

My PhD-friend, Christine, refers to sharing as “reciprocal disclosure” and can prove to you through social science that it is the stuff friendships are made of. Moreover, Christine says that 50 years of studies confirm that happiness comes from “meaningful social connections.” So, if you’re looking for those, if you’re looking for happiness, it’s time to say more than “good.”

There you have it: an air-tight defense of the long answer. Sorry, Edward.

April 04, 2007

Getting a little greener every day

On the heels of my last column about bystanders and activists, I got a tip from a reader about keeping your tires full. Turns out--and this may be old news to many of you--driving around on underinflated tires uses excess gas. So save yourself a few bucks (it cost me $56 to fill my tank yesterday) and top off your tires monthly. In the process, you can pat yourself on the back for making things a little bit greener.

*Note from stopgloablwarming.org: Look for the recommended tire pressure on a sticker on the doorjamb of the driver-side door. Buy a tire-pressure gauge and check your tires monthly, adding air as necessary.


March 11, 2007

Backwards Designing Meg

My friend Meg is the most community-minded person I know. Without ever seeming boorish or superior, Meg moves mountains. It started back in the late 80s, after college graduation. While I was sussing out the best happy hour in Baltimore, she was in Niger speaking Hausa, digging ditches and midwifing birth and death, both of which happened in a field outside her village. Nowadays, she runs Yahoo’s community service arm and, in the last couple years, she has helped make a single national database for Katrina survivors to find relatives and organized a voter registration drive that brought one million new people to the polls.

Meg is the exact opposite of a bystander, defined as “a person who present at an event or incident but does not take part.”

The question of why some people respond to the call (of global warming, or natural disasters, of poverty) and some don’t is worth considering. The first bystander experience most of us have is watching a sister or brother bump their head or struggle to tie a shoe or look in vain for a prized toy. From there, we go to school, where we watch as a friend rips a page in a library book, or cheats on a quiz, or bullies a classmate. As parents, these incidents are our chance to intervene and maybe just create a generation of Megs. Like everything else, it starts with modeling, as I learned last week when I took my girls down to Jack London Square for their first Ferry ride into San Francisco. Unfortunately, the ferry wasn’t running on President’s Day. As we were leaving the pier, several people were headed down to the waiting area and my daughter said, “Mommy, aren’t you going to tell them there’s no ferry today?”

I wasn’t going to. It crossed my mind but a moment later, I started thinking about where to take my girls to make up for my poor planning. For my five-year-old, I jogged up behind the people on the pier and told them the news. “Oh thanks! We would have waited here for an hour!” they said.

Beyond modeling, we can talk to our kids. My brother is a high school lacrosse coach, a job he takes seriously (The McDonogh School has been and will be again ranked number one in the nation). His refrain throughout the season is Be The Guy, as in “Be the guy who dives for the ball. Be the guy who gets open. Be the guy who wins the face off.” He puts even more time into guiding his team’s behavior off the field. So graduates of his program also know to “be the guy” who stops the fight, tutors a classmate, and takes the car keys from someone who’s been drinking.

By role modeling, by message, by repetition, we have to convince our children to “be the guy.” And it all starts with little things – running to get a friend a Band Aid, helping mommy find her cell phone, picking up a candy wrapper.

Knowing Meg’s mother, I can imagine that’s how it began for her. I bet her family pulled over for broken down cars and stayed after to clean up after the school play and cooked an extra Thanksgiving dinner for the local church. Whatever it was, it has lead to her latest act: 18seconds.org, which is a site to encourage everyone in the US to change their light bulbs to CFLs. CFLs are sold in any hardware store and last ten times as long as the bulbs you’ve probably got now. But the real reason Meg cares is because if everyone in the US swapped out just ONE bulb for a CFL, which takes about 18 seconds, it would be like taking 2 million cars off the road. And that’s just changing ONE bulb.

So here’s our chance to practice. Go get some CFL bulbs. Take your kids along. It’s small, but if you explain to your kids what you’re doing and why, it could be big. It could be the beginning of a lifetime habit.

February 12, 2007

Mad, Sad, Glad Meets The Sunday Times

Thanks to a kitchen remodel, our family dinner last night was Zone Bars served on paper plates. I told the girls it was like being an astronaut. Presumably to elevate the pitiful experience, my 3 year-old suggested a round of Mad, Sad, Glad, a variation on Daily Highs and Lows, which is itself a variation on “How was your day?” which is a proven conversational dead end with all people under 25. Turns out my girls are glad about ice cream, sad about taking Motrin and mad about Time Outs.

This morning, I spent a few precious minutes with an old New York Times from Sunday, January 28. Still seeing through Mad, Sad, Glad paradigm, here’s where I came out on current events:

Mad
1. Congress has an idea to rein in executive pay, which is good. Executive compensation is the number one contributor to the portentous gap between the super rich and the gigantic middle class. But the bill has been tinkered with, as bills always are, and now it looks like the real pinch will be for people making under $100,000 and although the big guys will also pay, their companies will “top them off” so they won’t actually have to contribute to the expenses of the very country that has made them so rich.

2. Worldwide volume of spamming has doubled over the past year, and anti-spam programmers are having a hard time innovating at a greater rate than their nemesis’s (don’t you wish it were spelled nemesi?). So you’ll still be given many opportunities every day to grow your penis, whether you have one or not.

Sad
1. Costco’s business is booming, close to $60 billion last year, making unnecessary consumption as easy as 1-2-3. Environmentally and morally, trash matters, and at least in my house, Costco generates waste, from the massive amount of packaging to the leftovers that eventually get tossed. (Thinking that I had finally found a set of markers big enough to match my daughters’ capacity for creation, I saw firsthand the inverse relationship between volume and value. It shames me to think about what it took to manufacture, package, ship and shelve those 75 pens, a dozen of which were dried up, lost or tossed by the end of the first week. )

2. Many of Iraq’s moderate families, businesses and political leaders have fled or been killed; these were the very people we were counting on to stabilize and rebuild the country.

Glad
1. Bill Gates is becoming a full time philanthropist. What if every great mind from the Fortune 500 spent their retirement doing non-profit work? Can you even imagine?

2. Speaking of Microsoft, CEO Steve Ballmer lives with his wife and 3 kids in the same 2-bedroom house he bought before he was married. I don’t know precisely why this makes me glad but it’s related to the Costco entry about over-consumption and is right up there with another “Glad,” namely: Warren Buffett has opted to leave his children “a couple hundred thousand dollars” each. So instead of making a handful of Buffetts super-rich, he is giving his outrageous fortune to non-profits working to decrease disease, hunger and poverty.

3. Ben Stein, who writes a column called SOAP BOX, is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist. Doesn’t that make you so happy? That one person can do so many things?

Not sure
1. Consumer Reports released a report in early January that said 8 of 10 car seats tested were unsafe. This made me feel hopeless, like even my best efforts weren’t going to matter in an accident, which led me to think about all the studies we internalize only to have them debunked later—about which position babies should sleep in, whether toddlers should have binkies, if kids should or should not participate in after-school activities. Cynicism was afoot. But it turns out the car seats in question were mistakenly tested at 70 mph, not 38 mph, and so they were safe after all. Great news, but boy, I hate to think we can’t trust Consumer Reports.

2. A German company is now selling a duvet cover that you can tie around your neck. This is for those occasions when you’ve been brought breakfast in bed and are loathe to eat your buttered toast for fear of crumbs. It costs $169 and comes with a matching pillowcase.

And finally, for a subsection about coincidences that I’ll call “Well I’ll Be Damned” Ford Motors lost $12.7 billion last year, which is exactly the current value of Steve Ballmer’s stake in Microsoft.

January 30, 2007

Answering to my Teenage Self

Kelly Corrigan, writer, wife, mother of two, recently sat down for an interview with her eighteen year-old self to discuss values, ambition and dating versus mating. Here’s an excerpt from what appears to be an ongoing conversation.

KC (18): OK, um, for starters, why do you put on sun block every morning? It’s not like you’re going to the beach or something, and you could use some sun on your cheeks.

KC (39): Well, besides skin cancer, there’s the wrinkles. Look at my forehead. See?

KC (18): What-ever. Why don’t you go to a tanning place if you’re so down on real rays? I know one on Shattuck Avenue that’s awesome and they have a 10-pack thing so it’s totally cheap.

KC (39): It’s not a money thing; it’s the time. We’ve been out of ketchup for three days and don’t have a piece of bread in the house. Do you realize how challenging it is to feed children without ketchup? Anyway, I don’t care that much.

KC (18): I can tell.

KC (39): Oh, really?

KC (18): Well, I mean, yeah. You’re totally awesome and everything but seriously, CK jeans from Costco? T-shirts from Land’s End? And what’s this Miracle Suit thing? At least go to Old Navy. Or H&M. If I were you—okay, I am you, eew, weird—I’d spend more time shopping for clothes and less time shopping for ottomans and window treatments. And what’s with the gardening kick? You’ve been back and forth to the nursery like ten times in the last week.

KC (39): Is gardening so bad? My flowerbeds are finally working. Look at the snapdragons, the zinnias. That hydrangea is burning up but that corner’s always given me problems—

KC (18): Um, OK, senior citizens garden. That’s how they throw their backs out and break their hips. It’s the last thing they do before they move into [finger quotes] continuous care. By the by, Claire’s preschool called and you forgot to hand in the permission slip for the field trip to the [more finger quotes] retirement community. I thought you’d—ugh, I’d—be more together by now.

KC (39): Nope. Still hitting the snooze button, still missing deadlines and still ten pounds overweight.

KC (18): And still borrowing clothes.

KC (39): Oh come on, that was one time. I found out that wedding was black tie the day before we left.

KC (18): I just thought by the time we were 40—

KC (39): We’re not 40. We’re 39.

KC (18): Yeah, okay but anyway, I thought we’d have a couple nice dresses in the closet. I thought we’d throw nice dinner parties and get front row tickets at the best concerts and stop wearing those Levi’s.

KC (39): I love those Levi’s. Who’s looking at me, anyway?

KC (18): (head shake. hopelessness sets in around the eyes.)

KC (39): Did you see I quit smoking? Like, 10 years ago? My lungs are probably as pink as a baby’s bottom. And I got a Masters. Like we always planned.

KC (18): Oh really? I have it right here in my Monkees journal— P H D.

KC (39): Yeah, that was before we researched student loans and the job market for Comparative Lit Professors. Before we went to college and realized that the kids we’d be lucky discuss Wallace Stevens and Toni Morrision with just want to get into the right fraternity, try some psychedelics and maul each other.

KC (18): Whoa. Freak out. Little cynical there?

KC (39): Not cynical. I can’t be cynical. I have children. Just realistic.

KC (18): That’s what they all say. So, is this mommy thing what we’re gonna do for the rest of our life?

KC (39): We’re not gonna do anything for the rest of our life. We’ll keep changing. That’s one of the things we figured out.

KC (18): Sounds kinda unstable to me. Doesn’t it drive you crazy?

KC (39): No, it’s liberating—making small decisions, taking the drama out of things, knowing that I can change course. The only thing that needs to be consistent and stable is my marriage.

KC (18): Interesting. I like him, by the way, even though he was in a singing group in college. And he’s not as tall as I thought he’d be. But I like him.

KC (39): Tall? Get a grip, kid. You know how hard it is to find the right guy? Trust me, it’s all coming together just fine.

KC (18): What a relief. All that worry—the stress breakouts and bitten nails—for nothing. Hard to believe how normal it all seems. (pause) I still think you could you spruce it up a bit.

January 17, 2007

Public Service Announcement

You’ve probably already given up on your new year’s resolution. And why not? I mean honestly, how nutritious are brussel sprouts? And whose even gonna notice a missing five pounds? Everybody knows that resolutions are just a gimmick cooked up by the diet and exercise industry.

Or maybe I’m selling you short. Maybe Shakespeare’s tragedies are piled up on your nightstand right now, or you’re flossing while doing sit ups while calling your sick grandmother. Maybe you’re recycling more, relying on Tylenol PM less, and finally addressing the mold issue in your basement. My congratulations.

If however, you are in the vast majority who don’t bother with resolutions at all, to you I say: it’s not too late. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that people who make their resolutions after January 1 are more likely to keep them. We are a contemplative lot, and contemplation leads to resolve. So, get on board.

For your encouragement, here’s the process I used to narrow my list:
Start by listing all the resolutions you could possibly make and then categorize them. For example, in my PERSONAL GROOMING column, which was the longest by far, I wrote: dress better, take care of my skin, and shower more.

But then I stopped myself. I remembered what I learned once in an All Hands Professional Development session held, incidentally, in a field. (The terminally upbeat facilitator explained to us that nature was supposed to help us think “out of the box,” which she said with a wink and some finger quotes to indicate that the box we were supposed be thinking outside of was the office building itself. Mind blowing.) Anyway, the facilitator explained that all goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

So I went back to the Grooming list to revise:
1. Never again wear the t-shirt I slept in to drop the girls at school.
2. Shower every day, except those days when my hair looks extra good.
3. Replace Jergen’s with proper moisturizer and remember to use it at night.

My husband applauded this list, as he has always been a fan of small but achievable resolutions. His best one—he wanted me to pass on to you—was “Wash hands three times a day.” He swore this protected him from catching colds. [Now he has given that job to Airborne, which takes after being within ten feet of a smothered cough or a blown nose.]

The next category, which my husband also encouraged, was WIFELY DUTIES. He suggested cooking dinner more and by that, I took it to mean that Cornmeal Pizza from Whole Foods, while delicious and pricey, does not qualify as a home-cooked, square meal. He also pondered that I could be greatly improved if only I would put away the laundry immediately, instead of dressing out of the baskets, as is my wont. I took this one under advisement, struggling as I do with all clothing matters.

On to the next category, the most substantive: INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT. With New Yorkers going unread week after week and the Sunday New York Times also proving to be more than I can digest, I knew I had to stay small here. So the resolution was to find my own answers to all the questions I usually ask my husband when he gets home from work, burning questions like Did Olga Korbet ever compete against Nadia Commenchi? Where did Auld Lang Syne [not Old Ang’s Sign by the way] come from? And, How do you spell nauseous?

This I was able to act on immediately. On the web, I learned all kinds of tidbits, one leading to another, in a seemingly endless chain. For instance, Auld Lang Syne, which means Old Long Ago, uses the same exact tune as The Unviersity of Virginia’s fight. Then, I found a list of people born on January 1. Siddig El Nigoumi, the ceramicist (that’s all it said; maybe my husband knows more) and Holling Gustav Vapor (the character on “Northern Exposure” who was married to the young cute ditsy girl). I pushed away thoughts about the uselessness of this information and instead, reveled in my new supply of cocktail party trivia. I covered so much ground in one sitting, I think I may have knocked off this resolution for the year.

Interestingly, while I was developing my intellect, I noticed an ad that said: Achieve your new year’s resolutions with cosmetic surgery. So while I’m hold with the nurse, let me suggest that the best resolution may just be to love your life just as it is and never get caught taking things too seriously.