Saturday, March 26, 2011

Talent Show

Here is a little secret about me: I cry at every performance I see my kids in. EVERY performance. From the first preschool all-school sing-along to the middle school
jazz band performances. I weep like an Italian mother at a funeral. Big, bawling, red-faced crying usually reserved for a Barbara Walters interview. I guess maybe that is not such a secret to anyone who has ever seen me at one of these functions, but I don't see an end to it even if I am attending sell-out shows of my future 40-year-old son when he is the rock star he is sure to become.

My 12-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl sang a song together in a talent show this past week and I was simply thrilled. They were amazing, no doubt, but more importantly they did it - together. There were so many things to be proud of, and having both on stage was twice the impact. Wow. My eight-year-old also did a monologue that she crafted and rehearsed all on her own - just got up, balls to the wall, and did it. It was so great to see her, buckets full of confidence, so reassuring to see this girl use her off-the-scale strength for the purposes of good. All at once I was treasuring the little person she is and in awe of the person she will become. Of course I was crying like I was on Oprah.

There is something about that moment, their earnest little faces getting ready to take what they have learned and put it out there that just kills me. I am actually crying right now, conducting a little montage of school performances in my head, the moment is so pure and beautiful, and so far from where most of us are as adults. It is a precious moment in time and I am aware of it's oh-so fleeting nature.

How do we get so far away from that as we grow-up? Ask any kid under the age of 10 to draw a picture, and they just do it. They pick up some markers - or anything really - and draw a picture of what they are thinking. They don't balk with "I am not an artist" or exclaim "I can't draw" - they just do it. The same is true with singing. For some reason, as we get older we get all embarrassed about our singing voices and say "You wouldn't want to hear me sing, I won't torture you that way." Come on, what is the big deal? I am not into self deprecation, and really, torture? I'm pretty sure the last time I checked with Amnesty International, singing was not on the list. Why is it that as adults we need tequila and the irony of a karaoke bar to sing out loud? Singing is a part of being human, an instinct. How did we get to a place where we say "I can't sing"? Of course you can sing; but now something's stopping you. Adults develop deep fears about imagined humiliation, fears so deep they paralyze and keep us from doing all the fun stuff.

Grown-ups need more talent shows.

What is interesting about talent is that we tend to downplay our own. For some reason we don't seem to notice the talent we bring to the table. This was profoundly true for me. In the summer of 2007 I attended a leadership conference, and it turned out to be a real game-changer for me. This week-long conference was designed to allow you to get to know yourself and find your strengths, to best utilize them in an organization. As regular "Girl on Saturday" readers know, I am not a real line-it-up and organize it, tie-up-the-loose-ends kind of girl. In fact, I like loose ends - they leave you with something to grab quickly when crazy hits the fan. But because of this, I thought of myself as being essentially useless in an organization - the kind of person who could not hold down an office job. At this leadership conference I came in thinking I could only be of marginal benefit to an organization.

What I did not realize was I had another kind of talent entirely. I have vision and creativity, I have innovation and the ability to see the whole picture and all the different ways things can fit together in it. I have the flexibility to go with whatever comes up and the foresight to consider all possibilities - and I do it amazingly well, and have fun while doing it. What I didn't know at the time was that not everybody has this ability. Since it was second nature to me, I just assumed everyone else had it too, and instead I chose to think only about my weaknesses. Instead of recognizing my unique abilities, I was frozen by the pieces of the equation where I fell short. WHA??!? What is that? Why did I do that? Why do so many of us do that? Why are we so unable to see the ways in which we are incredible? Could we really be that afraid of rocking the world?

It is impossible for me to ponder this without thinking about this passage, written byMarianne Williamson, I know my little Atheist's will get all riled up about the mention of God, but unbunch your panties kids and consider the sentiment:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I love this so much. This was the quote I put in my baby girl's room eight years ago when she was born, as I think girls are a bit more at risk of hiding their light under a bushel than boys may be. As you can surmise from her unabashed performance in the talent show, my eight-year-old does not appear to be in any danger of this.

The genius of this quote is that it makes it our moral imperative to put our talent out there. Wow. How could that change the world? What if we instilled our children with the belief that it was their patriotic duty to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? What if instead of "No Child Left Behind" it was "Every Child Pushed Forward". What if we all took on that attitude? What if we were ALL meant to shine, that it was not just in some of us - but ALL of us? Shrinking, playing small, and living in fear suddenly become choices in the wrong direction; meanwhile the path of achieving your own greatness simply must be taken. Talk about a game changer.

Emotional outbursts are optional, but the most important thing you can learn at a talent show is to show your talent. Speaking of talent, here's some brilliant gorgeous talented fabulous for you:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fitting it in

I have done the math, and when people say "There simply are not enough hours in the day!" they are not kidding; there really are not enough hours in the day. If we think of the things we want to do, the people we want to spend time with, and the things we want to prioritize - and divide them into the number of hours in a day (minus time for at least a little sleep), we woefully find the numbers just do not work. Oh sure, there are ways to cheat. The other day I set up an IRA account on the phone and removed a splinter while breastfeeding [Editor's note: Impressive]. Pretty efficient, but at the end of the day I still fell into bed feeling as though I had been hit by a manic, car pooling, dinner making, curriculum creating, diaper changing, house cleaning, bank depositing, post office sending, nasty hair-in-the-shower pulling, bill paying, e-mail answering, "Get that out of your nose!" insisting, chaperon volunteering, closet updating, nose wiping, video game artwork curating, why "that doesn't go in there" explaining, husband humoring, library book returning, grocery shopping, phone call answering, baby falling down the stairs catching hurricane, wondering where the day had gone.

Here is the thing: I am crazy with busy - pretty much as a lifestyle. That is who I am and I really think we all have our level of busy and we pretty much fill in our lives until we get to that point. When I think back on different times in my life I realize the math didn't really work out then either. In college I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, carried a full course load, and performed in plays. That doesn't really make sense, there is no way to do all of that. I look back now and wonder how I fit it all in. I am sure I will do the same at some point for this period of my life, and probably all other points in my life. The thing I like about being crazy busy is that it yields a diversity of experiences. I have packed a lot into my forty years of living and I love that. I pretty much say yes to everything, especially if I have never done it before and then I just kind of retro-fit it into my already packed schedule. It just kind of works to do that.

When I was teaching and waitressing, I had very little time for anything, so I would fit things into unexpected parts of my day. I would write thank-you notes while waiting for kids to put their pee in the potty, run into the bank on the way to the park with the kids, write the rent check while waiting for an order to come up while waitressing - I just fit it all in. When I stopped working the two jobs and I had all day to write, the days became so much lazier. I would say "Oh man, it is already 2:00 - I will never be able to make it to the bank by 5." I would slothfully sit on my couch, watching Comedy Central all day before begrudgingly dressing myself around dinner time. Very little done got done. Luckily, this did not last long and I filled my schedule and did my writing on the train to work or on the treadmill, scribbling it on a napkin while at a bar with friends - that type of thing. For me, doing a lot of things at once inspires me to be more efficient. I know this sounds simple, but it is true: the more you do, the more you get done.

Now this seems to be in contrast with the advice a lot of people give: "Be nice to yourself," "You can't do everything," "Take it easy," or "Learn to say no." Believe me, I understand the sentiment and I totally get it - it is just not really me. I am pretty high-energy and can handle quite a bit, and frankly - downtime is not really my thing. I am most energized and relaxed while juggling flaming knives while balancing on a ball fighting off exploding Ninjas dropping from the ceiling as crazy hits the fan all around me. You have to work to your comfort level and mine appears to approach insanity. There are trade-offs, of course. There are a lot of things I really want to do that just get swept away somewhere between needing to get the babies down for a nap and picking up the kids from school. There are people I love, really love - who I consider part of myself that I don't get to talk to as often as I would like, and that is tough. Also, doing things that take some concentration - like writing this weekly blog post, require the movement of both Heaven and Earth to just get an hour of undistracted time (that does not actually happen - but I still attempt the weekly movement of Heaven and Earth just in case it ever does). But, in general I need to be honest with myself and know that I am comfortable going way beyond what is widely considered reasonable.

As easy as it is to fill every hour we also have to admit that there are, in fact, more hours in the day to be had if one really wants to find them. Time Suckers: you know what they are and you know you have them. I am pretty sure they are unavoidable; the trick is choosing your Time Suckers mindfully. For example, I am OK with my Facebook Time Sucker because it keeps me connected to people (see comment above about people I love) - so I am OK with that particular Time Sucker, but I recognize that Facebook and I have a co-dependent relationship, and that it enables my procrastination addiction. I am just not willing to seek treatment just yet.

However, I no longer watch TV. I don't mean that in an "I am way too intellectual for that" kind of way - I actually watch it, just on my own time. Thank goodness technology has kicked-in and now I can see whatever I want through Netflix, Hulu, or DVR. This is huge, and it allows you to think so much more about how you are spending your time. I used to always make sure "The View" was on at 11; it seemed important. But, when I have it on DVR with a lot of other options, all of the sudden I don't really care what Elisabeth Hasselbeck thinks about the Tea Party. Having to make a conscious choice allows you to think about what is important for you. This is a beautiful thing. You don't waste hours flipping around for content, and eventually settling for finding out which Housewife did what to her face. Instead your hours are spent doing things more inline with the person you really want to be. It is a good way to be. So, I watch TV - but only really with my kids and only shows I think we have something to gain from - oh, and I am almost always sorting mail, folding laundry, or cleaning ears while doing it. Watching things with my family gives us common experience and opens up discussions of interesting and sometimes challenging topics.

We watch things like Celebrity Apprentice and Amazing Race because they open the door to discussions about hard work and integrity (also, we watch Amazing Race because we must do research for when we get on - see Showing Up). We watch Community because it makes us laugh really hard and because the coolest guy on the show has Aspergers like my husband and son and that is a great thing for us to see (see Kick in the Aspergers), and we watch Glee because it does original, fun things with music and my son wants to do the same. Glee also talks about high school politics, sex, and drinking, and every week we do the same after the show. To me, this is how I want TV to be - a tool that brings our family together and helps us talk about what we think is important in a sneaky "What? Us? Parenting? No - we are just chatting, but I am so glad those Glee kids had a designated driver because they should NEVER, EVER drive after drinking and I'm sure their parents would happily pick you - I mean them - up anytime, anywhere with no-questions-asked rather than have the kids drive after drinking." way.

It is interesting how no one ever says reading is a Time Sucker, they are more likely to regret not having time to read. That is because reading is active and intentional, you can't zone out in front of a book. Also interesting is how most of the people who say they don't have time to read, do somehow find a way to watch TV. Sometimes we are not really honest with ourselves when we say we don't have time for something. We usually have time, but using our time in that way is just not the easiest path. I realize cognitive dissonance is kicking in right about now, but you actually do have time to exercise - you just don't. Because it is not the easiest path. But if you want to be the kind of person who takes care of their body, fit it in. If you want to be the kind of person who cooks amazing meals, find the time for that. If you know more about Modern family than your own family - change it.

The thing about time is, even with cheating, there is only so much of it - so how you choose to spend it determines who you are. Choose to do all of the things the person you want to be would do, and before you know it - you are the person you want to be. We are what we do, so when you find yourself with too much to do, try doing a little more. Amaze yourself by fitting it all in.

And then, let me know how you did it all in the comments section below. :-)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I am right here!

I am a little pissed off today. Pissed off is not usually where I live. I usually live in happy, or goofy - or at the very least appreciative- but pissed off is unusual for me. There is really just one thing that gets me to this place and that is being dismissed. That is a tough one for me. It may be because I was the youngest of four and was continually told I couldn't do what the big kids were doing, or that I would understand when I was older. It may also be because I have always empathized with those on the margins of power and have been deeply affected when their rights are dismissed. I also may just be pissed off because I have reduced my calorie intake by about 500 calories and I am crazy hungry. Who knows? The point is, I don't like being dismissed.

In the Mangiacotti-Miller house we use the phrase "Acknowledge please" at least 100 times a day. We have lots of kids around the age where they think it is OK to grunt in response, or not respond at all, or just look up at the clouds and say "La la la" until the person who has asked you a question gives up and wanders away. This is not OK. When someone asks you a question, you respond. When someone addresses you, you respond. As we tell the kids, you don't have to agree with them, or give up your chair for them - or whatever. You just have to acknowledge they exist. Any that they are talking to you. It is simple and it, unlike most things in our house, is a non-negotiable.

Unfortunately, this is not a rule for everyone. I, of course, have occasion to speak to or deal with my husband's ex-wife - who also parents the kids. When I do this, by phone, or text, or email, or even hand-written note - she pretends I do not exist. If I ask a question, the response goes to my husband. I don't really take this personally because this is the same kind of relationship she had with the ex-ex wife who came before her, so it is simply the way she communicates, or chooses not too. But seriously, after three years of this, I am so done. It is just rude. So this week I have reached a boiling point and I am pissed off. I sent a deluge of texts yesterday including ones like "Hello...tap tap tap...is this thing on?" And finally got a text saying "acknowledged". Thanks. That is all I needed.

In fact, that is all any of us need really - it is a basic part of human behavior. We want to be seen, heard, acknowledged. Being invisible wears on the spirit. We see this every day with our two-year old who wants nothing more than to be seen as part of the family. Her whole life is spent watching us, especially the big kids, and doing what we do. She is just looking to be acknowledged, her place in the world confirmed.

She was barely eighteen months when she first set the table for dinner, stacking the plates and cups as best as her little body would let her with a serious look on her face. When we noticed her, and made note of her contribution- she was thrilled.

My husband Miller finds himself in the situation of being invisible sometimes. Sometimes I will make comments about how Taylor Lautner would look with water running down the washboard maze that is his torso and Miller will often exclaim "I AM RIGHT HERE!" Apparently, Miller wants to be acknowledged too. Bless his heart. [Editor's note: I'm still right here!]

My kids had a run-in with being dismissed the other day. On a field trip with other home-schoolers, my little self-declared atheists piped up about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). This particular group of home schoolers is predominantly Christian and were so disturbed by this dangerous idea, one kid even cried. My kids soon realized they were in the minority, and worse yet, the adults on the bus refused to acknowledge their right to their individual beliefs. One adult said "They don't have to believe in God if they don't want to." At this point my kids were like 'phew! finally! some back-up!' - but wait, there is more. The grown-up then went on to say "I mean, it is just like not believing in gravity or air... but they can do that if they want." Wha?!?! Really? My kids pointed out how it is nothing like not believing in gravity or air - but they were really hurt that no one had their back. They wanted to be seen, they wanted to be acknowledged.

We crave this as humans, we crave acknowledgement in the world. Not necessarily approval or support - but just a simple acknowledgement when you say "I am right here." Kids know this. "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy - Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!!!!" This is pure evidence of the fact that humans crave this. Luckily, most of us have found more subtle ways to seek recognition - but the sentiment is often still there.

With kids, we often get it right, offering lots of praise and recognition for even small accomplishments - but we often get it wrong as well - dismissing the things that are important to them. In adult relationships, when one person feels dismissed - the shit starts hitting the fan. At least in adult relationships with me.

No one seems to understand this concept more than grandparents. They are all about acknowledging, making kids feel important They send stickers in the mail and cards that just say "Thinking of you." or "You are awesome!" Seriously, who doesn't need a little of that in their life? I am having to potty train for the first time since my Mom died. I am not sure how to even do this. How do you make your child feel good about proper peeing when you can't call Nana every time pee makes it into the potty? Who else is going to act like no one in the history of the world has ever made a poop quite like your little one's poop - swooning with excitement about all things excrement? No one. The answer is no one. Hopefully, anyway.

It has been said that if you want your child to have a great self esteem, have your face light up when they walk into the room." I think this is true. Acknowledge them, consider them important, never let them feel dimissed by you - and for the love of God (or who ever else my Atheist kids want to reference) respond when someone calls you or texts you or whatever. Even if it is your ex-husband's wife.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Calling it out

I got called out on something the other day. This is unusual for me because I think deeply about most things and I don't often find myself in the position of feeling like something I am doing is not in keeping with my philosophy (also, when I am called out on things - I am the Queen of denial and can rationalize something out of left field that justifies my actions - it's how I roll). But after my "Kick in the Aspergers" blog came out I got called on something by my RT. RT is my gay, the Will to my Grace, but also the guy who often calls me out on my bullshit. This time, he pointed out, I referred to my boy as my "(step) son", even though that belies the way I truly feel about him. RT said this:

Loved Asbergia blog, but one thing bothers me; you refer to Mark Jr. as your (step) son. Like it's an aside. I know that's how you talk - in asides - but written like that it looks like those parentheses are trying to hide shame or something.

I feel you should call him your son. Simple and true. (you're kinda the best mom he could have) See how those parentheses make it sound like something to be said behind someone's back? Be loud and proud...wait, I don't need to tell you that.

When I read this I started to rationalize "But, but..." And then I stopped. The man has a point. The Mangiacotti-Miller family is a complicated one, with no fewer than three Dads and Moms floating around for any given kid, so we are often trying to find when to say "Step" and "Half" in front of our family labels - or when not to. I try to gently let the kids know that the woman in the store who casually says "Oh look at you - aren't you the good big sister" doesn't really need a 10 minute presentation on how you are actually only a half sister to that particular sibling, and how the other girl in the store is actually your step sister and how the kid outside in the car is your half brother and he is waiting with your step mother, etc... In that case, you can just say "Thank you."

We also try to steer away from the phrase "Real Dad" or "Real Mom" or "Real House" We explain that the guy who carried you upstairs last night when you were sleeping even though you weigh over 80 lbs. isn't exactly "Fake". And, you may have two or more homes - but they are all real homes filled with real people who love you, even if you spend more time in one than the other. We try to be careful with the words and labels we use - letting the kids know labels are important and they shape the way others feel about us, they even shape how we feel about ourselves. With all of the thought, conversation, and care I have invested in this topic why do I still feel the need to differentiate between children who are "Step" and who are "from my body"? I don't. It is irrelevant.

When I ask myself the reasons for doing this, I am not overly-impressed by my answers. One of the reasons is that our oldest daughter is 20 and it feels strange for me to say I have a 20-year-old. That is a very lame reason - who am I trying to kid? I could have a 20 year old daughter; I would have had her young, but it is very possible. Am I afraid people will think I am old? News flash Karen, you are 40 - no one is confusing you with the 20-year-old or her friends. Be a woman and suck it up.

The next reason for differentiation is that I feel like saying I have 7 kids without specifying that only four are from my body would unfairly lead people to believe I have done more work that I have actually done. This is also incredibly lame. Honestly, are people really thinking that deeply about it? Does it make that much of a difference if I have been through seven pregnancies or only four? Somewhere between four pregnancies and seven is there a magical point of no return? Are people thinking "She said she has 7 kids and she doesn't look like she has been pregnant more than four times - five max." Silly Karen, stop thinking so much about it.

The third reason I have for making this distinction is perhaps the most disturbing one of all. I say I am am a step-Mom because I am not sure if all the kids feel the same way I do and they might reject me. Wha??? What am I 12? I should be a grown-up; I should realize how the kids feel about me is separate from how I feel about them; I should simply put out how I feel without any expectations in return. If I say the kids are my kids and that is honest and true for me, then that is as it should be. If making a distinction is honest and true for them, then that is as it should be as well. Our perspectives do not need to be tied each other and trying to make it so is not what the best, most thoughtful me would do in this situation. A little insecure, Karen? I need to take a cue from my eight-year-old. The other day she declared who her best friend is. When her older brother obnoxiously asked "What if she already has a best friend - or what if you are not her best friend?" The eight-year-old told him "you can have more than one best friend and it doesn't matter if you are their best friend, it only matters how you think of them." Wow. When did she get more mature than me?

The beautiful thing about this is that when you just stick with what is true for you - you are never wrong. You also don't have to worry about losing your position in someone else's eyes. If you worry someone else may take your place as a best friend, then your actions may be driven more by fear instead of friendship or love. I really need to do the same with the kids. They are simply our kids, basta. I put that out there because it is how I think of it and that is that. If folks want to draw conclusions based on age, or judgments based on perceived status, then they can have at it. If the kids still want to use step-____ that is OK too. I got called out on something and now I am changing so I can be as grown-up as my eight year old.

I love RT pointing this out for me. RT and his partner just adopted a son, Ben (OK, Ben is not his real name - but it is the name of the son Will and his partner adopted, and I do have a daughter 6 months younger that him who is, for all intent and purpose, Lilah - but I digress on a tangent only the loyal Will and Grace fans will understand) - and RT went through the transition of having no son one day to having a son the next day. Without the 9 month adjustment period, calling the new little one your son can feel a little weird. As RT said:

I call "Ben" my son, as weird as it sounds for me. It took a few tries though. I tried (foster) son, I tried (adpoted) son... But it only took me a short period of time to look at him and know that whatever modifier or adjective he is, the noun is SON. And it was very empowering.

RT is right. It is empowering.