Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Present Moment Epiphanies

This week I'm spending time in the present moment, being present and aware. Part of me wonders whether writers are ever really in the present moment?

Yes, I blog, shlepp kids, host parties and read books but most of what I do every day is write. The biggest frustration in my life is that I never have enough time to write. Unless a forty hour day is invented within my lifetime, I will probably never have enough time to write.

And so I do what most writers do. I write in my head. Often when I'm walking to school to pick up my kids, I'm working out dialogue in my head. When I'm driving to piano lessons, I'm thinking about plot lines. When I'm on a run, I could be thinking about anything from what music best fits the scene I'm writing to how to balance my characters competing needs and demands.

Is that being in the present moment? Honestly, I'm not sure.

Clearly, if I'm so spaced off that I cause a traffic accident than my avoidance of the present moment is dangerous. But I also know that my brain works best when my body is in motion. The epiphanies, the ones that are heart-stopping and euphoria-inducing almost never happen at the keyboard. They happen while I'm driving, cooking, walking and running.

Maybe thinking about what I'm writing is my way of being in the present moment. Here's what I'm thinking about writing right now:

1. I'm stalling on the finishing of the Losing Beauty screenplay, even though I know I just need to push through and get the first draft done.

2. The first draft of Losing Hope is finished. Hooray!! Now it just needs massive edits which I will start after the holidays.
This was the closest thing I could find to what I'm visualizing for the Losing Hope cover.

3. I have a name for the third and final book in the Persephone Campbell series. I'm not certain I'll stick with it though, so I don't want to publish it yet.
4. I am dying (simply dying) to start my newest project. It's going to be the best thing I've ever written! A sure fire, award-winning success (which is how I feel about all my newest babies)!! I'm cheating on all my other projects by writing a little bit on it whenever I get the chance, but it's still not enough.
And my present moment realization for the day is this: I'm lucky to get to do something every day that feels like falling in love all over again. It doesn't get much more present moment than that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Does Downward Facing Dog

My task: remain in the present moment.

What I hope to accomplish: a smidgen of fulfillment.

I kicked Monday off with a weak spot. Yoga! I love yoga. It keeps me strong and I'm pretty sure it will protect me from injuries BUT that's just the exercise piece. There's a whole other side to yoga that makes me squirm.

The mental piece.

While my face was serene and I appeared to be concentrating on my dancer pose, here is a little transcript of what was happening in my brain during Monday's yoga class.

Stabilize my hips. Hips, flips, double dips. Hmm, I haven't heard the phrase double dip recession lately. Is there such thing as a triple dip? That sounds a lot like ice cream. I love ice cream. Maybe I should pick up some ice cream for dessert tonight. No, we still have way too much Halloween candy in the house. Is it really only 9:16?

By 9: 36 I was fully in the present moment. I was breathing, letting my thoughts go, fully focused on what I was doing, but then came the true test. Shavasana. Corpse Pose. My own private hell.

Even so, I managed to remain focused until the yoga instructor announced, "People, your parasympathetic nervous system is releasing. At some point, if you keep practicing yoga, you all could be standing in the middle of a firestorm and not react."

That was too much! A firestorm!?! Really? This is the  imagery that is supposed to help us let it all go? Do we really not want to react to a firestorm? All I could picture was a wall of fire engulfing my gym. All the other yoginis, the ones whose parasympathetic nervous systems were more fully released were being burned to a crisp. I, on the other hand, was running down the sidewalk with a big ball of fire chasing me.

I sat up with a start and the yoga teacher gave me the evil eye. "It's important to keep your eyes closed," she reminded the class while looking at me.

Eyes closed? I need them open, to see the firestorm!!

Grand total of in-the-present-momentness for yoga: About 13 minutes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Present Moment

The Pittock Mansion
It was the end of Thanksgiving break. The kids had been home for a week. For most of that time we had been entertaining houseguests.

We had visited the Portland Art Museum and a local mansion decorated for the holidays. We'd driven a hundred miles to visit my parents and we'd eaten at lots of wonderful restaurants. It was all wonderful, but last night I realized lunches needed to be packed for school, laundry needed to be folded and UGGHH I hadn't even looked at my blog since late Tuesday night.

In short, I was a little tired and out of ideas.

So I picked up The Happiness Project and thumbed through it hoping something would resonate. And fortunately it did. There it was, a little section about being present.

I reread it and realized (again) how I am often far, far away.

Often my blog posts are written in my head while I take a shower. It is fairly common occurence that my husband will be in the middle of asking me something and POOF...just like that I've gone somewhere else and have to ask him to repeat himself. I'm making grocery lists and to-do lists while I'm reading bedtime stories and while I'm grocery shopping and checking off items on the to-do lists I'm often thinking about plot lines.

Basically, my mind is hardly ever where it's supposed to be.

My own personal hell!
I like the idea of being present and more aware, especially during the holidays. Wouldn't it be nice if I could slow down and take everything in? Savor it!

Admittedly, this is coming from a person who finds the last three minutes of a yoga class (the part where you lie on the floor and do nothing) to be excruciating. Still, in the spirit of The Fulfillment Project I'm going to give it a shot.

What's that? What did you say? Sorry, I was thinking about writing Christmas cards. I know, I know, this isn't a very auspicious start but I promise to do my best and then fill you in on the details.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving: From My Table to Yours

We are expecting the arrival of a mystery guest today. My kids thought it might be the turkey, but they were wrong. Then they guessed it might be one of these guys. Wrong again, although we did have a lot of fun making them.

The one person that they haven't guessed is their Uncle Adam. He's flying in from New York City's lower East side. Shh, don't tell, because he won't be here until close to turkey time.

I told my daughter she could make place cards and do the seating chart this year. I'm sort of betting she'll put herself at the head of the table.

That's okay. I'm thankful for her help because it gives me more time to reflect on the bounty of my life, aside from everything else I've already mentioned, here are three more things that make me thankful:

I'm thankful for you! I love hearing your opinions and thoughts. Even when you don't leave a comment it still makes me happy when the blog gets a lot of hits. It's good to know I'm not alone out here in the blogosphere.

I'm also thankful each and every time someone tells me they read Losing Beauty and enjoyed it. It makes my day. Seriously!

And finally, I'm thankful that I made the Wild Mushroom and Butternut Squash Bread Pudding on Wednesday because it took a ridiculously long time...I'm also thankful that I get to eat it today!

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To Pie or Not to Pie?

After yesterday's post, I know some of you may be impatient to find out how I plan to balance my commitment to saying Yes with my love of Thanksgiving dinner, and still manage not to trigger the weight based psychosis that is the fashion and cosmetic industries particular gift to women of the world

I'll get to that, but first I need to back track to Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. In her book she discusses her Secrets of Adulthood, the slightly goofy list specifically tailored to her that she created while writing her book. After the refrigerator redo, I discovered my first Secret of Adulthood, which was:
 If I want my husband to do something consistently, I need to sell it to him in terms of dollars saved.
The Yes week led to my second Secret of Adulthood:

I am happiest when I follow the same rules I set for my children.

I enforce bedtimes because I know my kids aren't pleasant to be around when they're exhausted. Desserts are almost every day, but served in modest portions. They get a little bit of sugar but we don't overdo it.

When my kids get home from school, they have to finish their homework before they go play. In the morning, chores must be completed before play time. I insist they dress appropriately for the weather because I know they'll be miserable without gloves or a warm coat.

When I started searching for a guideline to help me sort out the Yeses, I realized following the kid rules seems to lead me in the right direction. In the beginning of my Fulfillment Project I talked about taking up horseback riding again. Would I allow my children to take up horseback riding? Absolutely!

Okay, so let's get back to Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of serving myself up with a monster plate of food along with a monster sized helping of guilt, I'll just follow the kid rules.

Will I have second helpings? Most likely, but first, I'll stop and ask myself the same question I always ask my kids. Are you still hungry?

As for the pie, chocolate and pumpkin, made by my mother whose pie has won multiple awards. Will I have two slices?? Yes, but they'll both be small. That's what I'll tell my kids when they ask and so that's what I'm going to say to myself...wish me luck!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Weighty Issue

It's the holidays. This week is Thanksgiving, which means turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes and all the things that have evolved to become part of our traditions.

Last week I broke the types of Yeses down into three categories and this week I'm looking at the Yes of indulgence. Will it make me happy, more fulfilled to have second helpings and an extra slice of pumpkin pie?

The average American gaines 8 lbs during the holidays. A quick Google search for Weight Watcher's blogs resulted in close to seven million Google hits. The fact that Americans are overweight and ruining their health is old news. I personally follow no less than five blogs whose authors are concerned about their weight.

Despite our national weight crisis, it would be easy for me to say none of that applies to me. I'm not overweight. By any standard, in any country I'm thin. Every so often the scale edges up to 110 lbs, but most of the time I hover around 108. So why, of all people, should I be concerned about my weight? Why do I feel the need to turn down that second slice of pie?

And this is where I get into the personal own demons that, while private, are probably shared by most of the women I know.

The first issue is one of balance.  It's hard to achieve that perfect balance. The time that I'm most desperate for a second cookie is after I've eaten the first. And if I have a second cookie, then I'm desperate for a third. Sometimes it's easier to just avoid all the cookies. And yet, I love cookies (and cake, ice cream, pie, brownies, chocolates). But if I give into my sweet tooth, say YES to all those indulgences I'm afraid I won't be able to stop.

Balance, by itself, is hard to achieve. The second part of the equation is even trickier, probably because it is so deeply rooted within our society.

Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.

You can never be too rich or too thin.

These are the messages that bombard women. I've watched friends lose twenty pounds, hit their goal, only to decide they would really be happier if they could lose another fifteen. I myself, occassionally wonder, "Maybe I'd look better if I just lost five pounds." Maybe the magazines are right. Could fulfillment be just five pounds away?

And those are the moments when I have to step back and ask, when is enough, enough? We all know this kind of thinking about weight isn't rational. And it isn't healthy. And yet almost every woman I know engages in it, on some level.

I wish I had an answer about the YES of indulgence but I don't. The best thing I can come up with is my own personal guideline...which I will share with you tomorrow.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Asks: Is Yes Always Good?

This week I’ve realized that there are all different types of Yes. For purposes of my blog I’m going to separate them into a few categories.

There’s the Yes to experience.

The Yes to indulgence, and on the other side of the spectrum.

There’s the Yes to responsibility.

When I first announced my week of Yes, some people suggested this would be a good time for the kids to ask for a dog. They were right, because that’s a Yes to experience. Somehow the Yes to experience feels like the younger, more carefree person I used to be.
Someone else suggested it would be a good time to eat all the candy I've been raking in through my check mark system
And then there was the final suggestion.
The one that I had to stop and think about. What if someone asked me to do something big, something like run the school auction? In the spirit of Yes week, would I need to say Yes?
Adding another thing to my ever-growing list of chores seemed anti-Yes, so I did what all good spin artists do: I simply reframed the issue.
If I said Yes to an additional responsibility well within my comfort zone, wouldn't I actually be saying No to learning something new? Of course I would!
With my conscience clear as to the third type of Yes, I had to backtrack to the second kind of Yes. The Yes to indulgence.
Of course, there are all kinds of indulgences, but the one that came to my mind, a week before Thanksgiving, was the eating kind. Could I, should I, say Yes to caloric free-for-all? Is that in the spirit of saying Yes?
Next week The Fulfillment Project tackles a weighty issue.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Bares It All

Yesterday I left off and we were here.

It was beautiful. We were on a hike. I was trying not to worry about what we'd find at the end of hike.

The kids, predictably, reached the end of the trail first. “Come on mom,” my daughter shouted. There were wooden tubs grouped together against the side of the hill. They overlooked the verdant stream and forest on one side, on the other there was a small hot spring that had been diverted into pipes.

But honestly, the beauty of nature wasn’t holding my attention at the moment. I realized that, as I had anticipated, we were not the only ones who had hiked forty minutes on this particular misty November Saturday. There was a large group of people, post-college era, all gathered in a large pool. And they were all nude. That's what I saw, but Child #2 saw something different.
He saw the group had a dog that looked a whole lot like his best friend’s dog. Regular followers of this blog will know that Child #2 will talk to anyone. In the time it took me and my husband to descend the steps he had already begun to quiz the post-college crowd about their dog.
"What’s his name?"
"Does he get excited and chase his tail?"
"How old is he?"
"Does he have any doggy friends?"
"Our friend’s dog is named Buster. Sometimes his tongue hangs out when he gets hot.”
The thing about my kids is they’re sort of two for the price of one. If Child #2 breaks the ice, Child #1 is never far behind, offering her own opinions and thoughts to the conversation.

So there they were, my two children quizzing a group of naked college students about the care and keeping of a large black Labrador. Everyone seemed fine. What had I been worried about? 

And then, sort of like the extra credit on my Yes project, someone dropped a water bottle over the edge. One of the boys hopped out to fetch it. My daughter glanced at me, raised one eloquent eyebrow and then without missing a beat went back to her conversation about whether dogs prefer to drink warm or cold water.
Later that night, when we were safely home, the kids fed and bathed I asked my daughter if she had any questions about anything she’d seen during our hike. “It’s kind of a silly question,” she said. “It makes me feel a little shy.”
“Whatever it is, I promise I won’t laugh."
“Well,” she hesitated and giggled. Then she leaned in close and whispered in my ear. “Do you think it’s possible that fairies might really have left the glitter dust we found in the woods?”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Encounters An Unexpected Challenge

Just when I thought saying Yes was going to be easy, a ticket straight back to the more carefree me, I hit an obstacle.

The obstacle was called Bagby Hot Springs.

We live in Oregon. Portland, Oregon to be exact. Oregon is a funny state. It has pockets where people are conservative but the cities are, well, significantly more liberal.

Bagby Hot Springs is about an hour and a half from Portland. We'd never been there before but it seemed like the perfect kind of activity for a long rainy weekend. We drove up into the mountains and then hiked about forty minutes through old growth timber covered with emerald colored moss. One one side of the trail was a small river that alternated between shallow rapids and deep rock lined swimming holes fed by waterfalls.

It was beautiful. The air smelled like pine trees. The kids ran ahead, hiding behind trees and walking on logs. We reached an old stump covered with glitter dust, graffiti and a few beer bottles. "Fairies must have been here," said my daughter but I had a different thought.

An hour and a half from Portland (the home of the naked bike ride) isn't that far. It was entirely possible that there might be other people who had already hiked into the hot springs. It was also possible that those hypothetical people might be clothing optional.

Three years ago I wouldn't have given this a second thought. Three years ago my daughter was regularly clothing optional herself. But a lot changes in three years. She's a fourth grader. She's modest, screaming at her brother if he comes in her room while she's getting dressed and making vomiting noises if she happens to see anyone kissing. I wasn't quite sure if she was prepared for what might lie at the end of the trail.

My options were pretty limited. I could cut the hike short (and disappoint everyone) or I could say Yes. This was my week of saying Yes so instead of shutting down the hike I ever-so-casually mentioned "You know there might be some people who choose not to wear swimsuits at the hot springs."

"They wear their clothes?" asked my daughter.

"No," I said, still casual. "They might not wear anything at all."

"Are you going to wear a swimsuit?"

"Oh yeah, it's just a personal choice kind of thing. I'll definitely wear a swim suit."

"And dad?"

"Yeah, dad too."

"Okay," she said and skipped off down the trail after her brother.

Say Yes to stopping by tomorrow! If nothing else, you'll get to find out what we discovered at the end of the emerald trail.

Monday, November 14, 2011

T is for Television and Twinkies

The first morning of saying Yes was pretty easy. It was a no school day and my kids were attending an all day gymnastics camp with their friends. They were out the door before any of us had time to explore what it means for me to say yes.

We didn't have one of these.
It was a different story when they came home. They wanted to watch T.V.

At this point I feel I should explain something. My parents were transplants to Oregon, the kind that came from a big city in search of a better life, organic food and sustainable living. Part of that better life, according to my parents, included NO television. At some point before I was born, my mother kicked T.V. to the curb and it was about fifteen years before it made a reappearance in any form.

My husband, on the other hand, was the third boy in his family. By the time he came along, television was a foregone conclusion. If you wanted to watch television you turned it on, sat down and watched.

These weren't part of my childhood either!
The difference between our relationships with television is like the difference between Twinkies and Trail mix sweetened with carob. Because I suffered through a childhood of teachers assigning essays on the subject of your favorite Saturday morning cartoon character and people regularly accusing me of not growing up in this country due to my complete ignorance about shows like the A-Team and Cheers, I decided to make a different choice for my kids. They would watch T.V. Not as much as my husband did, but more than I had. We would achieve a happy medium.

Still, every time they ask to watch T.V. I have a little pang. Shouldn't they be reading, playing with legos, sewing with hemp or something? Is watching Avatar the Last Airbender really the best use of their time? When they ask to watch T.V. I tend to stall. I say things like, "I suppose you could, but I was thinking we could all make cookies first," or "T.V.'s not really an after school activity. It's more of a Saturday morning kind of thing."

Okay, so cut to the chase. It's after gymnastics camp. They want to watch T.V. I take a deep breath and say Yes. They scamper down to the basement and I make dinner. Thirty minutes later they reappear. "Can we watch another episode?" Another deep breath followed by another Yes. My son kisses my hand. "You're the nicest mommy ever," he tells me. The realization begins to dawn that my T.V. based split-personality might be out of control.
Maybe I wasn't missing that much!
My husband gets home. "Where are the kids?"

"Downstairs watching T.V."

He goes down to the basement and, from the kitchen I hear him say, "Okay, that's enough T.V. Time to turn it off."
It feels good! And you know what? I do feel a little bit lighter, more joyful, maybe even more fulfilled. What remains to be seen is whether it's the saying Yes or just not having to be the one to insist it's time to turn it off. 

Author's note: Those of you who know me well, will also know I had to Google 80's television shows to come up with those references to the A-Team and Cheers. Those of you who don't know me as well, now understand the full extent of my complete cluelessness about late 70's and 80's media!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Fulfillment Project says YES

The last few weeks have made me think about the person I used to be. Sometimes I feel like the fun police, cleaning out refrigerators and giving out check marks. I've become the rule enforcer in our family. I'm the one who, upon hearing shrieks of laughter emanating from the basement, yells, "What's going on down there?!?" I'm the one who worries about biking too fast down streets coated with slippery leaves, consuming adequate amounts of vegetables, paying the bills and whether or not chores have been completed.

Basically, I'm worried that I'm no fun.

And the thing is, I used to be a lot of fun. I was the person who moved to France on a whim, who rode through Thailand on the back of a motorcycle piloted by an Israeli guy I met while swimming in the River Kwai. I came up with the idea of wearing nothing but red tape to a Halloween party. I was the one who wrote a law review article on prostitution rings, conducting my interviews in person, thereby breaking the spoken rule of pimps about talking to outsiders and the unspoken rule of law reviews, requiring everything they publish to be deadly boring.

Way back when, I was the kind of person who hated rules and conventionality. I was passionate about everything. That passion led me to do things like enroll myself at an all black college for a semester so I could learn what it felt like to be the only white face in a sea of brown. It was a different kind of education. One that taught me, not only to be more aware of my world, but also all the lyrics to Black Pussy, DJ Quik's infamous contribution to the modern rap catalogue. 

So what happened to that person? Where did she go?
I think she started to slip away just about the same time Child #1 came along. Child #1 came into the world with a bang (which if you knew her, wouldn't surprise you). But it surprised me. It made me realize how fragile life can be and with that realization came the worry.
When Child #2 came into the picture, the worry expanded to encompass the newest member of our family and, like an unwelcome house guest, has never left.

There are days that I find myself so completely in its grip that I will suddenly, in the middle of the day, try to remember what my children wore to school. You know...just in case. Sometimes, when they are doing something realtively safe, like dancing outside on the deck or jumping off the third stair I find myself inventing scenarios. What if the deck collapses? What if one of them lands wrong and breaks an ankle? Or even worse, what if they do a duck and roll that causes permanent injury to their spine? What if an earthquake hits and this moment, the one we're in right now is our very last together. What if, what if, what if?

I know these fears aren't rational, but it doesn't mean they aren't real. They cling to my life, like little barnacles, sucking out the joy and fulfillment and replacing it with constant scrutiny.

I'm always on guard.

I can't live on the edge because I'm too busy making sure no one goes over the edge. So, what if I replace my usual brand of what ifs with something else?

My whole life used to be one long series of Yeses. In fact, my only fear was that I might miss out on something. I wanted to say yes because I knew life was short. I knew that sometimes you only get one chance to do something and I never wanted to look back and wish I'd taken advantage of some mysterious opportunity. When I think about it, the job offer to teach aerobics in French at an island Club Med is probably the only job I ever turned down. And to this day I wonder what it would have been like.

It boils down to this. How can I rediscover all the joie de vivre that used to be my default position? What if I spend a week saying yes? Not no, I'll consider it, absolutely not, please don't bother me while I'm working, after you finish your homework, all those typical responses that seem to flow out of my mouth these days. What if all I say is YES?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Analyzes Check Marks

After two weeks of using the check mark system (lucky for me Halloween came along and replenished my kid's candy coffers) it's time to step back and think about whether it helped me accomplish my goal.

Does my system of check marks and sugar deprivation do anything to make my pretty good life even better?

In a word, YES, I think it does.

There's nothing magical about the check mark system, but at a time when I needed to up my game a little bit, it gave me one more tool in my parental arsenal. I've noticed I'm less likely to get sucked into the back and forths, the wheedling and the yelling than I have been in the past. One check mark and we all move on, which seems like a better response to many of the small (but annoying) things my kids do. This seems to give me more patience for the bigger things.

On a more basic level, I have to admit that there's a certain visceral comfort in grinding my kid's candy up in the garbage disposal. When you're faced with someone stretched out on the floor kicking the table leg or when someone has refused to put on their shoes after being asked no less than twenty times, the whirring of the garbage disposal is downright therapeutic. Does that make me a bad person? I don't know?? I think it probably just makes me human.

Which brings me to the next phase of the The Fulfillment Project. That's right! Me!

So far I've talked about reclaiming my refrigerator and behavior modification strategies for the kiddos. Both of these things have, in their small ways, helped to make my pretty good life better. In fact, the refrigerator reclaimation spawned a closet reclamation and a huge box of things being donated to the Goodwill this weekend.

But, as I've been going about all this tidying and doling out of check marks I realized that it wasn't just the refrigerator and kids who needed to shape up. What about me? I mean, after all, don't we each play the primary role in our own personal happiness? The path seemed clear. I realized I was going to need to put my money where my virtual mouth was and turn the focus of The Fulfillment Project onto myself.

Tomorrow, The Fulfillment Project takes a dramatic step.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Takes the Cake (and the Candy)

Day One of Child #2's candy deprivation starts out with me asking him to put on his coat.
And put on his coat and put on his coat.

"Okay, that's the third time I've had to ask you to do something. That's a check mark."

He looked at me and grinned. "I still get half my dessert, right?"

"Yes, but it's only 8:20." He didn't seem to mind. He skipped out the door after his sister. When I picked him up from school his teacher told me he hadn't been "making good decisions" on the playground. Another check mark for poor Child #2. After school he decided to sing at the top of his lungs while his sister was trying to practice piano. He got one chance to stop then another check mark which meant he had to hand over a piece of candy. There was no need for me to storm upstairs. He voluntarily relinquished a recent goodie bag and said, "You choose, mom."

I was a little worried.

Day Two: I asked him to put his shoes on twice. "Don't make me tell you again or it's a check mark," I added. He quickly put them on. There was no after-school chat about bad decisions with his teacher, but on the way home from school I turned my back for a moment and found him peeing on a tree, even though I'd made a point of asking if anyone needed to use the bathroom before we left the school. He got a check mark and then another one we got home for throwing pieces of pirate's booty at his sister. Again, no dessert. "That's okay, mom," he announced after dinner. "I don't like apple pie."

"I'll give you a bite of mine," said Child #1 who hates to see him suffer.

"That's okay," he said. Then he asked to be excused and slowly (and maybe a little bit sadly) climbed the stairs to his room.

Day Three was the charm. Instead of repeating myself multiple times, all I needed to say was, "I've already asked you this once." He listened. He made good choices and he stopped doing all the things I asked him to stop doing. In short, he was a very good little boy. Dessert that night was leftover apple pie. "I don't like apple pie," he reminded us.

"That's what I'm serving," I said.

"Mom," interjected Child #1. "He has worked so hard for dessert. Can't you dig up some chocolate for him?" She was right! Absolutely right, so that's exactly what I did.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Fulfillment Project and Impulse Control

As promised on Thursday, today's post looks at how the check mark system works on a completely different kind of kid.

Child #2 is the polar opposite of his sister. Where she's intense, reserved and a little high-strung, he's easy going and affable. He has the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody, and I do mean anybody. He's the life of the party, the kind of kid that is usually in the center of things. Last year on our family vacation I kept hearing roars of laughter from the resort hot tub. I went over to inspect and found Child #2 dangling his feet in the water and holding forth to about thirty people.

"I'm so sorry. Is he bothering you?" I asked.

"No, he's like paid entertainment," I was told.

For the rest of our vacation everywhere we went people stopped talk to Child #2. Life is exceptionally kind to Child #2 and when it isn't, he shrugs it off as an anomoly. Hence my dilemma with discipline. He's stoic about lost privileges, even going so far as to remind me to enforce any punishment I might mete out. Sometimes I feel like life gives him so much that he doesn't really care about punishment. Still, I was determined to stick to the check mark system with both kids.

As I said before, every kid has their touchy points. Child #1's are precise, like her, but Child #2's are more ambiguous.  On any given day, I go through a litany of things that I ask him NOT to do. Some days I feel like all I say is "please don't touch, shout in my ear, pour water over your head at school, feed strange dogs, put your hand down your pants, eat things you find on the sidewalk, destroy [fill in the blank], lick you sister, roll in the mud, play with toilet water, talk to strangers." It's a neverending list, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the common thread was impulse control.

The never-ending stream of chatter, the not listening, the going up to his room to get socks and returning empty handed after twenty minutes because he had to build something important with his legos, are all rooted in lack of impulse control. The question was whether candy deprivation would have any effect on him or whether he would shrug it off, and in his usual way, say, "I'm sorry Mom, but even when you're mad at me I still think you're beautiful."

Tomorrow, The Fulfillment Project looks at Child #2's induction into the check mark system.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Goes Crazy for Candy

That night, after my candy revelation (see yesterday's post on the perfect trifecta) I sat the kids down in the dining room. The plan, like most good plans, is simple. If I have to repeat myself more than three times, bad attitude, eye rolls, whining and tantrums (especially tantrums) will all result in a check mark. Two check marks will equal the loss of dessert. Any other additional check marks will require delving into my children's personal candy stash, one piece of candy for every check mark.

"I think I'm going to opt of this plan," said my daughter. "It doesn't sound like much fun."

"Yeah," said my son, which is his standard conversational tactic whenever he and his sister are arguing with me about something.

"It's not a corporate takeover. You don't get to opt-out or opt-in. I'm not asking your permission, I'm just making sure you understand the rules."

"Like a game?" asked my daughter.

"However you want to frame it," I told her.

Each child has their touchy spots. Child #1's is homework.

She's a classic first born kid, in that she's a perfectionist, competitive and a little high strung. These traits aren't pretty when they come to homework. A typical evening can go something like this: She screams for help. I attempt to calmly explain. She falls off the chair and writhes under the table. I walk away. She begs me to come back. I deny her request. She starts sobbing. I take pity on her and try to explain. She tells me I don't know what I'm talking about. I yell at her. She listens for the fraction of a second it takes me to explain her homework and then insists, "I get it. I get it. Don't help me anymore."

Given this pattern, I knew homework might be a time when check marks would mount up in a hurry. It was a Tuesday night and she was supposed to be calculating area and perimeter.

"Mooom, it's impossible," I heard her moan from the breakfast room.

"Need some help, honey?"

"Yes, but it's impossible!!" I sat down next to her but before I'd said two words she shrieked,  "How could our teacher ask us to do something like this? It can't be done."

"Uh-oh, that's a check mark for not listening," I said.

She glared at me. Things went downhill from there. In the space of a minute we had gone through the dessert check marks and were into her personal stash of candy. "Not the box of chocolates Grandma and Grandpa brought me from Peru," she shrieked as I marched upstairs. I left the Peruvian chocolates alone and grabbed the two year old tin of malt balls from Dylan's Candy Bar. After I'd ground one up in the garbage disposal I went back into the breakfast room where she was sprawled on the floor.

"It doesn't seem like you're ready to listen yet," I said.

She threw her pencil at me.

I ground up another piece of candy and returned to the breakfast room. This time she was in her chair, hair wild and a little tearful. Through clenched teeth she said, "Okay mom, I'm ready to listen."

Turns out the concepts of area and perimeter are pretty easy. She whipped through her homework in about five minutes. That night before she went to bed she said, "Mom, I think time outs are a lot better than check marks. You know, we need time to think about our actions."

That was the moment I knew I was really on to something. 

On Monday, The Fulfillment Project looks at the effect of the candy check mark system on a completely different kind of kid, the one who goes by the name (on this blog) of Child #2.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Fulfillment Project: Kids, Candy and Marbles

Kids + candy + marbles = the perfect trifecta.

Looks like Pump It Up is in my near future.
The kids part is obvious. If not, you can take a look at yesterday's blog post. The marble part needs a little explanation.

In our house we do a good job with positive reinforcement. Inspired by my darling friend Birdie, we created a marble jar. The marble jar is the physical representation of everything good done by either Child #1 or #2. Did you help your brother make his bed? Great, put a marble in the jar. Score a goal at the soccer game, memorize the multiplication tables, put someone else's feelings before your own, bring home a particularly beautiful art project, stick up for someone smaller than you or just about any positive thing a kid can do warrants a marble (or two).

There are only two caveats to the marble jar. The first one is kids can't ask for marbles and the second one is parents can't offer marbles in exchange for behavior. This ensures I don't have to thwart attempts at marble negotiation. The final rule about the marble jar, and this is a biggie, is that once the marbles go in, they don't come out until the jar is full and we start over. This is because, as I told the kids, "once you do something good it's yours to keep. No one can ever take your good deeds away from you."

When the jar is full the kids get to choose a fun activity to do together. The unexpected bonus to the marble jar is that now when they beg me to go to places like Chuck E Cheese or Pump It Up I can say, "Oooh, that sounds like a fun marble jar treat!"

The marble jar system has worked well for us. I love that it's a consistent positive reinforcement in our lives. However, I realized we haven't had any consistent negative reinforcements. As I said yesterday, time outs have run their course, spankings aren't an option and grounding seems like overkill most of the time.

What could I do?
And now we can add Halloween Candy.
A few weeks ago my daughter asked me to help her find something in her desk drawer. As we searched, I realized she still had the candy necklace and several lollipops she'd received on the last day of kindergarten. She's now in fourth grade. I looked around her room and everywhere were little boxes filled with uneaten candy. Downstairs in the snack drawer, I knew my son had a bag stuffed full of candy, the combined loot of many chocolate filled holidays, combined with treats found in goodie bags handed out a bazillion birthday parties.

A lightbulb went on!

My kids love dessert but even more than dessert, they like the possession of dessert. The knowledge they have a pumpkin full of Halloween candy is almost better than the candy itself. What if every small transgression cost them a small piece of candy? Maybe I could put aside my fears that I'm raising two little hoarders and use their tendencies to solve a problem.

Tomorrow, phase one of the candy plan.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Studies Problem 1 and Problem 2

Last week we fixed my refrigerator. This week, my life.

Just kidding, well sort of just kidding.

In Gretchen Rubin's, The Happiness Project she discusses her Secrets of Adulthood, her slightly goofy list specifically tailored to her. After the refrigerator redo I realized my first Secret of Adulthood was based on sales and economics. Here it is.

Secret of Adulthood No. 1: If I want my husband to do something consistently, I need to sell it to him in terms of dollars saved.

It's simple, really. I mean we're talking about the man who has bags of returnable cans in the garage. I know the coffee he buys with his $3.40 return from those cans tastes sweeter because it was paid for with deposit refunds. He is gleeful when he manages to use a coupon. A few years ago he got up at 5:00 AM on the day after Thanksgiving to get some kind of double down discount at Target. He still talks about that day, the way some men might reminesce about throwing a winning touchdown in high school. All of this is not to say he's not generous, because he is. It's just to illustrate my point. The man loves to save a dollar.

With my refrigerator beautifully organized (and my husband sold on helping me keep it that way) I had time to focus on other areas of our lives. What else could I do to make our pretty good lives a little bit better?

 I was pondering this question one morning last week as I tried to get the kids to school. I had asked Child #2 to put his shoes on four times. Child #1 came downstairs without her socks on and started to perform a Pygmy Puff dance which caused her brother to jump up, with only one shoe on, and join her.

"Let's put our shoes on guys," I said. They both ignored me. "Let's GO, shoes on!" I said more loudly. The dance continued. "SHOES ON, EVERYONE! NOW!!" I screamed.

"Why are you yelling, mom?" asked my daughter.

It's not smurfin' funny!
"Because you're not listening to me." She rolled her eyes and her brother giggled.

That was the moment I knew what needed to be done. Gretchen advises identifying the problem. The little eye roll, the ignoring me, the dance, the refusal to respond in anything but Smurfspeak, it all suddenly crystalized. I realized that in front of me stood two little problems.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my children. I love them with all my heart, in the I'd-gladly-pick-up-a- truck or take-a-bullet kind of way. Still, lately things have gotten a little out of hand.

It's hard to pinpoint when it began. Maybe it was when I overheard my daughter whisper to my son, "Mom doesn't understand time outs are just sitting in a corner. You should pretend not to like them though. It makes her feel better." Spanking isn't an option, long talks about expectations seem out of place for something like an eye roll and grounding or cancelling privileges often feels disproportionate to the crime.

However, and this is the important part, I needed to figure out something because my adorable children were managing to drain the fulfillment out of family life with alarming regularity.

Tomorrow, the Fulfillment Project discovers the perfect trifecta!