I Hope You’ll Dance

I hope you'll dance 2

I love theme songs.

Whether for a party, a movie or an era in my life, a good song that ties off the moment — preferably with a kick-in-the-gut emotional twist — gets me every time.

When our son was one, I got my theme song fix from a Marin musician, Steve Seskin, in his ballad to his newly-adopted son: “Baby boy.” His opening lyrics delivered:

“Words can never say how much I miss you, when I go away. All I want to do is hug and kiss you.

I’ll stand beside you through the hardest times. I’ll try to be your eyes when you’re feeling blind. I’m gonna love you til the sea goes dry.

You’re my baby boy
You’re my baby boy” 

Queue the waterworks.

When our daughter was two, and enrolled in her too-cute-for-words ballet class, Lee Ann Womack came through with a ballad that splayed open my sappy, sentimental soul: “I hope you’ll dance.” This mother’s wish for her child includes the refrain:

“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean. Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens….And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance: I hope you’ll dance.”

Three days ago, we dropped our daughter off at college. Four weeks from now we move our son to his first job in Berlin, Germany.  

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So today, as one door in my life closes on up-close parenting, and the empty nest looms, I don’t choose to sit it out. I’m gonna dance.

Belly dance, that is.

Tucked in a strip mall between a nail salon and a car repair, my first stop in a future of unexplored possibilities beckons from the aptly named Belly Dance Studio.

This morning I met my friend and fellow empty nester, Birgit, there. To my delight, like my daughter’s long-ago toddler dance class, there was a box of costume props at the front of the room. And just like that, with bejeweled and jangly scarves tied around our hips, we parked our middle aged, mundane to-do lists and became absorbed in the shapes and chink-a-chink-a-chink sounds we made with our own coin-wrapped swaying hips, shimmying thighs and undulating arms.

The instructor, the 10 other women of all ages and sizes, and the whole experience in that eggplant-colored room was beautiful.

A simple enough experiment of re-coloring my world.

As we close a personally emotional, and globally horrifying week filled with far too much change and hatred and intolerance, a wish from a favorite theme song to us all:

May you never take a single breath for granted. And god-forbid love ever leave you empty-handed. I hope you’ll dance.

 

In the Attic: The Art of Improv

1237bdb7a83c0ba10074c469210c6be3Note: this is the first in a series of happiness chronicles — discussions that focus on why and how interesting people pursue things that make them happy.

 

Two things that go bump in the night: something in your attic and someone on stage doing improv comedy.

For many people, the idea of crawling around in their dark, crowded, and potentially vermin-visited attic is equally appealing to the idea of stepping onto an empty stage with no props, no script, no clue — and only their quick wit to armor them from a cynical audience.

Lauren Bossers (nicknamed, appropriately, LaBoss) is an exception. She bravely visits attics and stages, and far off places in her very agile and very funny mind.

“My mother best describes me as my own best opposite,” says Bossers, a 40-year-old mom with a high-powered marketing role at Oracle. “I’m equally serious as I am silly. I’m a Type B in Type A clothing: relatively driven, but not consumed by it.”

Professionally, the petite, blonde and doe-eyed marketer is a master of the arcane technical details of supply chain software, and wields a grammatical sword with the passion of a warrior.

Personally, in 2012, Lauren was regrouping after a separation and looking for a new way to meet people and learn more about herself.

On August 20th that year, she read the obituary for famed comedienne, Phyllis Diller, who died at the age of 95, leaving the world with a lifetime’s worth of wit and humor about families, relationships and womanhood.

If you’ve never heard or read her work, here are a few Diller quotes that moms from any generation can relate to:

“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

“Housework won’t kill you, but then again, why take the chance?”

“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”

Here’s what jumped off the page of that obituary to Lauren: Phyllis didn’t start doing comedy until the age of 37. Lauren was 36 at the time.

“I’d been a shy child: an introvert, by Myers-Briggs standards. In my 20’s I worked hard to overcome that. Now I test off the charts on the extrovert side; and when I meet new people, they tend to think I’m a little insane. But people have always told me I was funny and quick, so I thought it was a good time to try improv.

“ I wasn’t that familiar with improv before doing it. Stand-up comedy is really different from improv: using a script versus flying by the seat of your pants. I had comedic heroes like Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. But since then, I’ve listened to a ton of interviews with comedians and learned that most do either stand up or improv. It is a rare person that does both.”

Lauren signed up for Pittsburgh’s Steel City Improv Theatre introductory class.

Steel City’s website tagline is: Listen, Commit, Play. This was an appealing draw for the newly-single mom.

She wasn’t nervous about the first class since it was an introductory level and she came armed with a well-honed quick wit. But Lauren quickly learned that great improv requires equal parts verbal and physical comedy: the actors are not supported by script nor props. They need to create both an engaging story and a visual environment using only their minds and their bodies to set the stage for their audience.

One improv game created to help develop that skill set is called “In the Attic.” The first person in the group imagines something in an attic that they need to go and play with, like a doll, a wedding dress, a bottle, a gun. Each person, in turn, plays with something new plus everything the prior people have played with, doing something different with each item. For example: play a game of Russian Roulette, take shots out of the bottle you found, put on a wedding dress, then grab the gun…

This exercise helps the actors develop on two fronts.

  • First, the “yes, and…” priority of improv: when you are on stage with someone else, all you have are that person’s eyes and ideas. You always need to connect with them by really listening to build on the story ideas put forward before you. If you cut off the idea, you kill the sketch. And, ideally, if you are the first person in the sketch, you start on a positive note, which provides a lot more room to grow the content, versus a negative angle.
  • Second, if the actors —like great mimes— can’t clearly physically “show” the difference between each item they are working with, they can quickly lose the audience.

Putting the show into the right context for the audience’s mindset is a third leg to the comedic stool that Lauren experienced firsthand. The date of Lauren’s first show was the night of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. She doesn’t remember that content for the show at all. “It was incredibly difficult to be funny or carefree that night. It was really tough.”

But overall, Lauren found improv incredibly energizing.

“You get an idea of why performers do it. It is an adrenaline shot. After working all day, you need to get your energy up to take a two hour class. But once you tap that creative energy, it’s almost harder to wind back down. It is exhilarating.”

Today, Lauren’s busy work and mom schedule doesn’t make it easy for her to do as much on stage with her improv skills, but those classes have carried over to her professional and personal life regardless.

On the personal side, she’s met a community of people from millennials to grandmas that she still sees, including one of her best friends that she met at improv class.

Professionally and personally, she’s taken the “yes, and” idea to heart in her relationships and collaborative teamwork.

“The power of validating and perpetuating an idea helps you connect better to other people. It makes you more engaged to try to understand what the other people are and to build on that idea.”

Those lucky enough to be on Lauren’s Facebook page, see the fruits of that collaboration every day, from the string of hilarious give-and-take discussion threads with her equally funny friends, to the brief and brilliant outtakes she shares from her life with her middle school son.

Here’s one recent example:

Adam and I were doing our usual bedtime routine of the NYT mini-crossword puzzle.

Me: Much debated Donald Trump word…

Adam: Bad hombres! Nasty woman! Chinese steel! Chiiiiiiiiina! DISASTER!

Me: Um, it’s “bigly.”

Adam: Good one.

Phyllis Diller has gotta be loving this.

 

Are you willing to share some insight about what makes you happy? Let me know, I’d love the opportunity to chat about it and share here…

Persuasion: Art, Science or Pride-free Experimentation?

Marketing challenge: persuading a dog past fresh spring grass.
Marketing challenge: persuading a dog past fresh spring grass.

Beyond my profession as a marketer, I draw on  skills for persuasion daily in my other roles: as a a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sibling, a neighbor, a friend, a volunteer and a pet owner.

An incident yesterday got me thinking about the ingredients of effective persuasion.   When you mix all of the art and science tricks in your repertoire to no avail, how far are you willing to reach to help cajole someone to change their thinking or take a different course of action?

Case in point: persuading a 14 pound dog to run around a 3 mile lake.

No brainer, right? Wrong.

Understandable challenge if the dog is old, overweight, arthritic or ill. Or maybe just lazy or unwilling to brave an unseasonably cold, rainy or hot day.  But, what if  there is no reasonable reason?

In marketing speak, my dog was already a satisfied “customer” that I was sure would be an easy “renewal”. She already loved our daily runs in every conceivable venue from mountain trails to beaches to neighborhood sidewalks and even across the noisy new span of the Oakland Bridge with a zillion lanes of traffic. And her Net Promoter Score (customer satisfaction) was off the charts: she cajoled every other dog–and even tried with a few cows, deer and turkey–to come and run with us.  So I thought I was good judge of her overall customer experience, level of engagement and willingness to respond favorably to an adjacent offer.

As we hopped out of the car at the lovely local reservoir on a stunning, sunny afternoon (in a small window of time between kid sports), I was comfortable that I was backed up with my time-tested communication tools to see me through a successful experience:

1. A leash and one word: “run?”  This does the trick 99.99 % of the time and is equally, efficiently effective for trips to the beach, jogs in the neighborhood, and adventures across miles of open space trail running.

2. Occasionally, there is a need to pull out the big guns: “treat?” Which brings the girl back, boundingly, across hillsides, from muddy ponds, and even tantalizing explorations of a hillside brimming with squirrel holes.

And then the inexplicable happened. My ever-ready running friend and ally stopped. Cold. She was suddenly, maniacally consumed with a grass-born OCD.  Each and every blade of grass along the trail now needed her personal triage: to be sniffed then methodically sorted into a to-be-eaten or to-be-peed-on classification.  Every single blade.

Amused, I watched carefully,  determined to understand her motivations and needs. About 5 minutes and 89 blades of grass into this, I engaged her with a little “campaign prompt” about how much better her experience might be with a change of venue.

She gave me the doggie version of an email unsubscribe. Not interested.

Then I tried proving the clear value of my customer service –and without her asking– I picked her up and carried her for a while, free of charge.  When I put her back down to let her test the new experience for herself, she balked.

GE’s CMO, Beth Comstock recently said in a keynote address to a roomful of marketers, that the ultimate skill of marketing is “to fly well in the fog.”  And even though everyone else out on this glorious day at the reservoir was indulging in 75 degrees and a bright sunny sky, I realized I’d run a-ground (or a-grass) in the fog.

Cajoling (“run?”) and bribery (“treat?”) were not working.  Then, I tried the toddler- tested skill: distraction (“see the squirrel?”). Finally,  the signal in the noise! She temporarily dropped a blade of grass from her mouth and looked up for a furry plaything…  Buoyed by that momentum, I tried again: “Oh! Let’s go find that squirrel… I see it over there, let’s chase it!”  She jogged 10 steps, then sniffed out my totally over-hyped promise. And went back to her fascinating weedy triage.

Flabbergasted, and with the carpool clock ticking in my ears, I made one more desperate attempt.  A bit of a high-wire act for me to attempt on a deadline and in front of dozens of happy, sun-drenched exercisers. But desperate times…

A little shyly, I tried the first one in a suitably high pitched tone: “blah-dahl, lah-dahl, lah!” My dog stopped her 312th pee and looked up, warily.  So, empowered, I let it rip, full-throated with no pride left to protect and a deadline to meet: “BLAH-DAHL, LAH-DAHL, LAH!” She was transfixed, alert, attentive to my every movement–we were on the hunt! She and I could both see and smell them in our imaginations–a gaggle of ungainly, opinionated turkeys.  I’d reached her actionable core, and it was time to make my move to persuade the ultimate action–a full out run around the 2.99 remaining miles of this lake loop.

And so there I was, the fearless, feckless marketer,  delighted to have hit on the magic elixir that persuaded my pint-sized canine to change course and try a new action.   Loudly doing my best turkey imitation: over and over and over, past every single blade of grass.

 

 

 

 

 

A Snowfall of Birthday Petals

Mother Nature conjured up a snowfall of spring blossom petals.
Mother Nature conjured up a snowfall of spring blossom petals.

A little girl should have turned seven this month.

Her mother’s biggest fear is that she will be forgotten. She was only four when she died, unexpectedly. Tragically.

Though she didn’t speak a word in her time here, her joyful, sweet presence will always color how all of us, lucky enough to know her, will see the world.

Last week, mother nature conjured up a snowfall of delicate spring blossom petals. Amidst the soft swirl of powder-pink light, a small butterfly darted joyfully.

This is how I think of Shelby.

Flying too close to the flame: 14

The Powerful Powerlessness of Adolescence
The Powerful Powerlessness of Adolescence

The doors closes behind her after school; she’s ravenous. Surveying, spearing, subsuming all within her reach: pickles from the jar; a hot dog still steaming from the microwave; ice cream– miraculously–in a bowl; a Luna Bar; and garbanzo beans right from the tin.

Amid exhortations on the sublime value of Red Velvet ice cream, she’s reflective. An interview at school about bullies prompted multiple, vivid examples of both sides of the weakness which perpetuates the issue.

Suddenly, she’s focused. Channeling the prodigious amount of crazy, creative energy from her head through her fingertips, to the waiting page. Giving narrative birth, before my eyes, to a character, that moments before was little more than a name and a caricature from a fellow drama classmate.

Then, she’s careless. The telltale trail of wrappers, unfinished beans, unwashed dishes, crumpled socks dropped mid-march across the floor…flotsum in her wake.

And in breath-takingly quick turns, she’s: joyous then irritated; vain then thoughtful; anxious to drive then excited to watch a cartoon; self-confident then self conscious.

She’s making her way in the world. Like a moth to a flame, she’s powerful and powerless in the face of adolescence and all the freedom and responsibility that comes with it.

She’s almost 15.

When I stay still long enough not to nag about the socks, fret about the choices, remind about the homework, I am frankly mesmerized watching her stretch her wings right up against the warm glow from that flame.

He’s Going to College

Hearing Impaired

Somewhere about the time you hit middle age, you start listening to the aphorisms about aging.  Sure you’ve heard them all your life, but just like you don’t really listen to your parents’ guidance about wearing sensible shoes (until your first bout of Plantar Fasciitis) or thorough application of sunscreen (until the second or third—the first could have been a fluke after all—removal of a Basel Cell carcinoma from your face); until you are ambushed by the irrefutable reality, you can be blasé about aging. Of course, long before this rude awakening to your own evolving decrepitude, Karma has come banging at your door (if you are lucky) with at least one child who has painstakingly followed your footsteps and  has likewise not listened to the vast amount of practical guidance you have tried to pass along to the him, her or them.

When it comes to sharing my carefully considered parental insights, I don’t love having become the adult voice in the Peanuts cartoon, which never actually has a real, English, intelligible line, but only appears occasionally at the edge of the real action in the story with this valuable addition: “wha-wha wha, wha, wha.”  But I’m used to this now, with nearly nineteen years of parenting experience on my lifetime resume.  It’s the boundary-testing we read about in our early child-rearing books, back in the days when we still sought out the guidebooks to help us navigate the next phase ahead.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Ace Parenting

Our first cold slap of reality on the life journey came at the very first OB appointment when we learned we were pregnant for the first time.  I prepared for that appointment with a handful of confirming home pregnancy test sticks and list of questions, including my practical closing inquiry, for a book on preparing for parenthood.

Yeah, I did say a handful of test sticks.  Is it so wrong to marvel in one’s fascinating ability to procreate?  Or, honestly, to just ensure I didn’t somehow misread the over-the-counter and under-the-toilet-seat diagnosis that would change our lives forever?  So, you’ll understand why two tests weren’t definitive enough. And since the first two were the same brand, the third wasn’t really a valid tie-breaker.  And four would maybe net a tie, so the really right –statistically sound sounding– number really should be five, right? One for each little finger or toe on each little hand or foot.

But I go astray; the point was really about getting great parenting counsel, from the start, for developing our perfect child.

I was so excited that my wonderful, highly experienced and very sought-out practitioner was also the mother of two small kids.  Not only did I have the “in” doctor, I had a real, proven mother.  This was perfect.  So, imagine my shock and horror when her response to my inquiry about parenting guidelines was met with an unimaginable reply. She laughed. Out loud.  “There is NO studying for this job and there are no guidelines to follow.” Whaaaaaat?

But I needed a second opinion. So I reached for books. First set of signposts to the magic that lay ahead came in the form of a best seller with a title aligned exactly to my needs: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” This handy guide promised a guided tour of the journey, with all of the amazing changes at each month of the transition to parenthood. Delighted with this find, I was anxious to prove my OB wrong.  Over decaf tea that morning (my husband even gave up coffee in a sign of support) we hatched a plan to have our own little book club, and compare our “ah-ha” findings from this well researched bible for new parents-to-be.

Perhaps the first indicator that we were in for a shock was the opening page, which blew our minds. Pregnancy –yes, human pregnancy, not that of an elephant or rare mammal of the Amazon—was 10 months!  Ten. Not nine (my favorite number), but a whole month longer. This was heresy.  How could two intelligent adults, each certified to be somewhat brighter than a doorknob with master’s degree-level education –have been DUPED into believing human gestation was 9 months long?  Who snuck in the extra 4 weeks? When?

After swallowing this harsh pill, we regrouped and with our heads bent into the winds of change, plowed forward into chapter two of our new reality.  What a reality.  Each amazing development of spine, brain, lungs, and pregnancy-stick-numbered fingers and toes of our sweet, miraculous baby was matched, change for change, with the weight gain, flatulence, stretch marks and varicose veins of a person my husband used to find passably attractive. Hmmm.  Our little book club went from fun to frightening.   To placate me, the father of my child offered, kindly, that the book was misnamed.  The real title, he suggested, should be “What to Expect When You’re Neurotic.”  As always in our marriage, his humor helped.

What was becoming abundantly clear: just like the first reality TV hit launched at about that time, we would have to learn how to better adapt to unknown volatility, become cunning, well-conditioned athletes of life, and form an alliance deep and strong in order to become Survivors of this little game called Parenthood.

Disclosure: though neither of us ever had to eat a live, disgusting bug in our game—if it were ever required, no doubt that my husband would have done it. Thank goodness he’s on my team.

Your Happy Place?

When dating becomes serious and you start to consider the potential of marriage and a life together, there are typical questions you want to ask to ensure the next 50 plus years of your life will avoid as many speed bumps as possible.

Your religious convictions? Your political convictions? Your fiscal responsibility? Your moral compass?  

Over 6 years of dating, I asked plenty of qualifying questions.  I was pretty smug in my knowledge that I had done my homework well and cleared the vast majority of potential obstacles including this personal deal breaker:

Your potential of making me a sports widow during football—or any other sports– season?

My beloved also passed an even more crucial two-question test that my best friend asked right before our wedding: Does he have a sense of humor and do you trust him? Check and check.

This prescreening served us well as a couple and in the early years as the survivingest parents on our own family island.  In even the most wearying, sleep deprived moments, my husband could draw on his creative reserves formed from a career in advertising and blow me away with his trustworthy humor.  Like the day I walked in the door from a tentative early day back to work after maternity leave.

Me: Head aching, guilt raging from breasts questionably restrained and leaky after too many hours away from a nursing infant, enters the house.

“Hi, how did it go today?”

Hubby: Sitting on the couch, big smile on his face, small infant balanced in a sitting position on top of his father’s head, facing the wall.  Our contented 16-week-old baby’s view:  a big green print of Monet’s Water Lilies.

“Great day! Look: I found his happy place!”

Who needs to prove themselves by eating large quantities of beach maggots when they can conjure this level of advanced life-preserving technique, I ask you?  And even though this was just a temporary pit stop on our child’s exploration of a true happy place, for that breath-taking moment, the backwards seat atop Pop’s head was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth.

So who would blame that same wonderful man for exploring his own Happy Place? Evidently a mere mortal, unwilling to consider eating bugs even for the well-being of her family.  Although this particular exploration really seemed to start with a mere flirtation, and only– over the course of a few decades– did it reveal itself as not an infatuation but an unwavering, deliberate, flagrant affair.

My husband is in love with Walt Disney.

As far as I can tell, it started innocently enough with a visit to Disneyland in Southern California with our first born when he was just two.

Two is a fascinating age for anthropologists to cover fairly. Kind of like taking a self assessment test on your sexiness in Cosmo Magazine, it is certainly against human nature—and likely the continuance of the human race—to provide a wholly honest assessment of your life with a two year old in the house.  This is where the wonder of selective retention comes in handy to us survivors.

Ask my husband, who took on the gargantuan job of stay at home parent, what life was like when our first child was two. He’ll grow reliably misty-eyed, and give his endearingly crinkle- eyed smile that he only makes when talking to –or about– our two kids, and sum it up in one word: “Doofy.”

Translation: our son’s pronunciation, at age two, of the Disney canine character: “Goofy”.  That one word is the most powerful antidote to the worst life could throw at my husband. It represents innocence, trust, inquisitiveness and unmitigated love.  It obliterates all memory of any other type of less than perfect behavior.

Here is the source of that magic moment:  a single sentence, captured on videotape of our impossibly adorable tow-headed*, doe-eyed toddler as he happily played with a .99 cent plastic figurine  we’d picked up in the Disneyland Hotel lobby earlier that day. “Daddy, do you think Doofy wants some pizza?”

*Author’s note: there may be disagreement on the level of perfection of this child’s hairstyle–as if a wedge haircut were ever a questionable choice. It worked equally well for Dorothy Hamill in the 70’s as it has for a legion of child actors every year since.  No matter how much my now college-aged boy shudders at the photos of that time, I am adamant that the wedge is timeless unisex styling perfection. 

Anyway, that line from the mouth of this babe is the root of my husband’s affair with breath-taking animation, admittedly cool animated plastic scenery and all the costumery that comes with it.  And as far as the world of guilty pleasures goes, I really understand.  So much better that almost any clichéd alternative I can imagine.  Unfortunately, there is baggage that comes with this muse as well: masses of humanity adorned in ill-fitting overpriced versions of mouse-themed costumery, all squashed into inhumanly ridiculous mazes to await, bovine-like, anywhere from 30 to 150 minutes at a pop to experience approximately 90 seconds of fun.

Many trips to Disneyland, Disneyworld, Disney on Ice, Disney Musicals and Movies and even a special ring of bovine herding purgatory—a Disney Cruise, did it take for me to realize that my beloved was not on a quest for 90 seconds of tea cup, roller coaster or riverboat fun.  My man was trying to get his little family back to our holy grail. Our true north. Our setting for that sweet, innocent moment that is as current for him 16 years later, as if it were just an hour ago.

In many ways, it was just that fast that our kids have grown up.

Bless their hearts, this spring, four months before our son leaves us for college and our daughter starts high school, the kids acquiesced to their Dad’s hopeful request to go to his Happy Place one more time.

In between the crowds and the lines, there was lots of giggling. Our daughter finally lost her fear of roller coasters. We conspired on a creative way to ask someone to Senior Ball. We all screamed like girls on the Tower of Terror ride. And, of course, we listened to Dad relive the Doofy story yet again.

As our six foot tall son stood in line with us and a sea of pint-sized princesses, he didn’t grumble or complain.  He simply smiled his patient, knowing grin.  And there it was—a glimpse as magical as Tinkerbell’s dart across the sky—the same grin of a sweet little boy wondering about pizza for his new toy pal.

A  happy place indeed. We are blessed, we are blissed, and in this moment, we feel like we might not have been so bad at this parenting thing.

The Nest

We’ve spent two decades building this family nest, piece by piece. The foundation is from lots of trial and error, a healthy dose of luck and it is lined with a few pregnancy test sticks (it’s not that gross, really) and a bunch of shredded pages from a certain Neurotic Expectations book. It’s not perfect to be sure, but it is ours—we didn’t hurt anyone in the development of the nest and we’re delighted that we’ve generally maintained our sanity in the process.

Come August, however, when our nest loses one to college, all bets are off.