Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hello Night. Goodbye Phones.

Each night, away from the din of 24 feeds and news cycles and the idle chatter that surrounds us, my husband and I are working to rediscover some piece of the sacred and not yet lost art of communicating with each other without interruption.

For a while now we have been trying to enforce a pretty simple rule we established for each other: no phones in the bedroom. There is all kinds of science and data that reinforce why this makes sense in terms of falling and landing in a generally more substantial and satisfying mode of REM. But even if we didn’t know about all of those studies there are all of the more obvious reasons why we should: because even if we silence all notifications it is nearly impossible to resist the lure of possible work emails, because it is a rabbit hole time suck, or because it inevitably places me in the same physical space with my husband even though he and I are mentally in vastly different circles with at least 400-1000 of our not so closest friends parked right between us on the bed.

We know it makes sense for them to go.

It came up because we were having one of those conversations that you need to have from time to time in a committed relationship. I swear if I close my eyes we are still in our now long gone twenties and just meeting for the first time. We were flirty and giddy, with almost no actual responsibilities. And then it felt like we blinked and there was four moves, a mortgage, three kids, two jobs. Somewhere along the way our idle chit chat became more Western Union style updates – cub scouts on Wednesday. Bring home dinner. Meeting before school. Don’t forget the flu shots. Stop. And in between was life and none of that was bad. We were focused on the house and our kids and careers. We were focused on not getting swallowed up by the tsunami of logistics that comprise the very nature of day to day life. And at night, sapped of physical and emotional strength, we would fall into bed with often one or both of us staring into those tiny little phones looking for false hope, for the promise of a way to unwind, somehow forgetting that was what the other person was there for.

Back when we were first married, when our first was still an infant, things seemed slightly less auto-pilot-y. Maybe because back then we did not realize how desperately we would come to crave silence and the opportunity to not answer to anyone else’s needs. Maybe back then we didn’t’ remember how satisfying and comforting it actually was, more than the glow of our gadgets, to lean in to each other each night. Back then we didn’t have smart phones. It would never have occurred to us bring anything like that into our evening hours together. It wasn’t an option so we didn’t seek it out as a distraction.

We would unwind together.

So why is it so complicated now to choose each other over our devices? We stare into them seeking so many things: someone who accepts us as worn, relishing the opportunity to lurk and peep through life rather than participate. We bathe in the less complicated glow of online affection. I know we could call each other out on our flagrant violations of arbitrary rules we imposed on ourselves, but it feels like it would be more meaningful to have each of us model it, and choose it. To choose the intoxication of real human warmth and compassion, to choose each other. To consciously decide to switch off the autopilot and feel the exhilaration and terror, the weight of our feet on the pedal. Deciding to go nowhere or somewhere, but to do so as we decided all those years ago one incredibly sticky July night: together.

Finally I just asked: “Why aren’t we doing this? We said we were going to and we didn’t. Why not?”

And we both came up with lots of mostly inadequate excuses for why we needed to keep the phones close, but not check them. What if there is a work emergency? What if we need an alarm clock? What if we need to know the weather? For each reason we ultimately concluded, albeit reluctantly, that none of that stuff constituted anything worth prioritizing and that there were legitimate ways of retrieving most of this information without smart devices (hello old school alarm clock!). Then we talked about a podcast I’d listened to recently featuring Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. In it she talks about how even when silenced, phones can still create real problems when it comes to human engagement and emotional intimacy. To be honest, there were many times that our phones were there, and we were not on them. But what Turkle argues is that this detail doesn’t matter. The very presence of the phone suggest to the other person, I am ready at any moment to opt out of being here with you for something better. Subsequently, we never fully engage with each other in way that is particularly meaningful. I know she’s right. Even when we’re not on them, we feel them. They had to go.

So we agreed to it. And my phone now sleeps with the fishes. Literally. It sleeps next to the fish tanks in the kitchen. Phil’s phone lives downstairs by the printer. And the other night we spent our first full night in a while completely phone free. Not surprisingly, we literally missed absolutely nothing of vital importance. We lay in bed together and Phil watched the Mets and I read my book with my head on his chest and honestly, I’m not just saying this. It was nice. And weirdly, I was way less anxious. Because I completely lacked the impulse to turn over and check something. Maybe that’s my own issue with self-control. But honestly ask yourself, how many times do you check that thing each day, each hour, each minute? How much time is there in your day for white space, the opportunity to just let your mind wander or, of equal importance, to let your heart wander, without fear of getting interrupted or overshadowed by an unsuspecting ping?

It occurred to me the other day that right now, my husband and I are truly in the middle. Ten years ago we were planning our wedding. And ten years from now, we'll be planning our son’s graduation from high school. And right here, at these sacred crossroads, is the middle, where things can sometimes feel monotonous in a way that is equal parts comforting and unsettling. We need these precious evening hours together. Here in this autumn of our lives, we are grateful for the opportunity to remind ourselves of the vibrancy and randomness of our own thoughts and hearts, and to find a soft place to land in each other.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why It's Important to Find Time for Yourself: A Podcast with Real Simple Editor Lori Leibovich

How does the saying go? The days are long but the years are short. As a parent, my relationship with time has never been so complicated. But increasingly I am shifting my thinking to focus less on the minutes and more on me. How can I make small yet meaningful investments in my own physical and emotional well-being that will give me greater capacity to face each day? I hope you’ll have a listen to this podcast where I was so excited to have the opportunity to discuss this with Real Simple editor Lori Leibovich and time management expert Laura Vanderkam.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Washington Post's On Parenting: Clock Management and Parenthood

Perhaps the question was never, “Am I ahead or behind?” but rather, “How am I?”

I hope you’ll come join me over at The Washington Post where I’m musing on how to make the most out of each day. So how do you manage your clock?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can We Please Stop Picking All the Weeds?

A few weeks ago I was sort of lurking behind the scenes in one of those Facebook groups created to share business referrals within my suburban town. A homeowner was having a horrendous problem with her lawn. Could anyone recommend a landscaper? Someone who could finally rid her of those unsightly weeds?

In response, she received plenty of referrals of places to call from other home owners, but there was one comment buried within the midst of all the others that stood out.

“I wish people would stop making their lawns so pretty. Those damn fertilizers are chasing everything away. We used to have butterflies in this town. We used to have ugly lawns and butterflies. Now we just have nice lawns.”

This morning I woke up and I looked out at my perfectly nice lawn and turned on the news. More people are dead. They didn’t have to tell me anything about the shooter. I expected I already knew exactly what he was like. He was young. And angry and isolated. Here we are again. 1 shooter. 10 dead. A regular day. Another school.

Oh, I know. This is the part where I’m supposed to yell and scream for gun control. It’s not to say I don’t still think we need to get so many guns off the streets. I do. But the part that stays with me about these stories, the part that leaves a pit in my stomach every single day I put my kids on the school bus and think about Sandy Hook because I do – I think about Sandy Hook every single day that I say goodbye to my children - is that bad people will always find a way to do shitty stuff. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop them, but the inability to predict the randomization of it all, of not knowing when someone’s fuse will light? It haunts me.

The thing about the suburbs is that everything is so nice here. We want to make sure our kids are in class with their friends so that they are comfortable. We cut the bad parts off of the apple. We re pave the streets. Again and again and again. We are turning ourselves inside and out to make everything so nice for our kids, so pretty. I wonder if we’re really fucking that one up.

Because we know the truth. We know that life is equal parts pain and pleasure. Do we tell them this? Do we own this? Or do we let it sneak up on them until it eats at them as if a piece of that rotten fruit, making them think they are different and bad because their insides don’t match the smooth and perfect world that we raised them up in. Kids today seem to know how to do everything at a staggeringly young age. My seven year old can do PowerPoint. My five year old can Google stuff. But I’m wondering if I’ve really sat them down and said, sometimes all of it will suck. And you need to own that. And talk about it.

We need to tell them that sometimes you get the class with none of your friends in it. That’s okay. Talk to the kids you might not have otherwise. Learning to build new relationships will be one of the single biggest determining factors in your future success. Sometimes kids won’t look nice or smell nice or be nice. Do your best. Be your best. Reach out anyway. Sometimes be someone else’s light. Even to the shitty kids. It’s easy to be nice to the cute kids. The real work is learning to reach out to the dicks. Learn how to accept other people’s light. Learning how to ask for and accept help will be your second biggest factor in determining your future success.

And don’t be afraid to own your own potential to be a dick. Because once in a while each of us is. And the only way we learn is if someone calls us on our bullshit. Care enough to call your kids on their bullshit. Kids, care enough to own your bullshit.

My mother in law is fond of calling my husband a weed meaning you could throw him just about anywhere and he would thrive. Indeed she is right. And it sets me to wondering if I shouldn’t do my part to work harder to raise my kids to own their thorns, their inevitable rough patches. I need to resist that manicured suburban instinct of mine to try to pluck the bad parts out of their life. I need to let them taste the shitty part of the apple. Because sometimes life is bitter and brown.

Maybe then, when we all acknowledge that life isn’t quite as glossy as we are working so hard to make our children think it is. Well, maybe then they’ll stop being so pissed at us for selling them a bill of goods.

And maybe then the butterflies will finally come back.