Finding balance in the second half of life

Author Archive

Secular Saints

In Community, Fulfillment on May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Together, my good friend Louellyn and I make up the Smith College class of ‘76 Alain de Botton fan club. She started the group, but I, the more materialistic of the two, am the one who now owns a copy of everything our idol has published (in hard cover whenever possible: de Botton’s books are always exquisitely designed). This month I ignored her request to wait to read his latest until she could finish and send me the copy I Amazoned over for her birthday. I ordered one for myself so we could read it simultaneously (she lives in Massachusetts, I’m in Michigan).

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, employs a strategy the author readily admits will “annoy” both religious and atheistic readers. In chapters stuffed with illustrations and photographs, he looks at the trappings of faith (“music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals, and illuminated manuscripts,”) for insights that might be useful in secular life.

In a Q & A on Amazon.com, de Botton outlines his thesis:

In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

For example, in a section titled “Role Models,”  de Botton notes that the characters we encounter in sitcoms, video games, tabloids, and the daily news tend to include what he politely (and poetically!) refers to as a “paucity of paragons.” He admires the Catholic Church for offering believers “some two and a half thousand of the greatest, most virtuous human beings who, it feels, have ever lived,” and wonders if the rest of us might not be able to compile a similar list of secular paragons taken from our cultural history and literature.

Here’s Louellyn’s response (in an email she is letting me reproduce here):

The deeper I get into it, the more I love the book. My Catholic friends from childhood had saints they relied on. In the Greek Orthodox church, we had saints, but I knew nothing about them. They didn’t have the same importance, I guess. The only saint I had some affection for (and I never heard about him in my church) was the Italian from Assisi, Francisco, with his love of birds, animals, nature. My kind of guy!

But I did and still do have a patron saint from our culture, our literature, someone whose life was so exemplary that he has always shown me the way. Atticus Finch. You think of Atticus and immediately the thought of justice comes to mind, but he embodied so many virtues. Charity (toward the mentally limited neighbor), prudence, temperance, patience, courage, hope…  What virtue did he not embody?  If there were any doubt that this was a man worth emulating, that he was a saint on par with those whose statues are carried through the North End on a summer day, that doubt was dispelled when he walks out of the court room and every single person in the balcony rises to his feet, a scene that not only causes me to cry when I watch it, but a scene that causes me to cry when I think of it … like now.

And then who could forget the scene where Atticus is at Tom’s family’s home, and the father of women who said she was raped confronts Atticus and spits on him?  Atticus could have said, “Jeb, Scout, we are putting Alabama in the rear view mirror and heading for NY.” But did he? No. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the spit off his face, and holds his ground and keeps working.  Which gave me the courage to wipe the spit off my face and hold my ground and keep working.

Chris Hedges, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, one is unlikely to practice any of the others. My patron saint is the embodiment of courage. He guides my daily life.

Beautiful, no? I doubt M. du Botton could have said it better.

Who is your personal patron saint?

I’ll tell you about mine in another post. For now, I leave you with a prayer written to be prayed to one of the two and a half thousand, St Expeditus, patron saint to procrastinators and “everyone who needs a quick solution for their problems”:

St. Expedite, witness of Faith to the point of martyrdom, in exercise of Good, you make tomorrow today.

You live in the fast time of the last minute, always projecting yourself toward the future.

Expedite and give strength to the heart of the man who doesn’t look back and who doesn’t postpone.

Amen

St Expeditus

–Debra Wierenga

Can You Say “Dead”?

In Survival on July 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

My Uncle Clare died on Tuesday. So far, no one has mentioned it.

There is much talk of his “passing,” as if he’d finally been promoted to fourth grade or sped by the slow-moving vehicle ahead of him on I-96 or successfully pulled off faking his race, gender, or sexual orientation. But no one — not the hospice social worker, not the young chaplain, Bible in hand, who gently escorted my aunt to her car, not the two kind men from Dykstra Funeral Home who came to retrieve my uncle’s body — pronounced the D-Word in my hearing.

I have to think that Uncle Clare, a plain-spoken, even occasionally gruff son of a considerably gruffer, occasionally mean working-class father — a man who never relinquished the colorful vocabulary of his Army and construction worker days, even after he returned to college at the age of 42 and became a teacher who attended church and lived with his wife in a beautiful home on the Thornapple River, one of the tonier suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where he was born — would scoff at our reluctance to use the definitive four-letter word that describes his current condition.

Uncle Clare is dead. As in, he won’t be teasing me about wearing heels to try to be taller than my old uncle. As in, he won’t be calling “Sweetheart” from the open door of the refrigerator to ask my aunt if there’s any butter. As in, his ashes are in a cardboard box in the back of my VW Bug.

“I just can’t realize he’s gone,” my aunt tells me every time we speak. And that gets to heart of it, I think. Not that she can’t “believe” he’s “passed away,” but that she can’t comprehend the reality of his utter, absolute, irrevocable goneness.

If words can do anything to help the bereft, bereaved, thunderstruck human being whose best beloved has been snatched from her arms, it must be in the service of this realizing.

When my father died, Emily Dickinson’s words helped:

You left me – Sire – two Legacies -

A Legacy of Love

A Heavenly Father would suffice

Had He the offer of -

You left me Boundaries of Pain -

Capacious as the Sea -

Between Eternity and Time -

Your Consciousness – and me -

In two short stanzas, she sums up the whole human tragedy: we are loved; we are left. The condition of experiencing the former is experiencing the latter — those Boundaries of Pain that death lays down in black permanent marker. By acknowledging, putting words to the inviolable barrier between my father’s consciousness “- and me -” (that final, heartbreaking dash breaking off into the empty eternity of separation spread out before me), Dickinson’s poem helped me to realize the unbearable truth about what had happened to me.

The word “dead” had that kind of shocking, cold-water-in-the-face effect on me, too. My dad is dead, I told myself over and over, and the heavy downbeat of those two D-laden words hammered the realization into my resistant consciousness. The weight of the noun (the verb form to die is lighter, more ephemeral — you die in an instant; you’re dead forever) gives it finality. And dignity.

Auden knew how to use it:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead . . .

Clarence Ekema at the age of two.

My dad is dead. My uncle Clare is dead. Someday you and I and all the people we love will be dead. Realize it. Call it by its name.

–Debra Wierenga


Another Thing a Dad Can Do

In Family on June 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

In honor of Father’s Day, Moms Rising has created a special site where people can “share a favorite moment” involving dads. Since I’d been trying to come up with a meaningful way to say Happy Father’s Day to a dad who is no longer around to open cards or presents or check out his Facebook wall, I decided to give this a try. I found myself writing about how my dad used to play “Barbie Queen of the Prom” with my sisters and me on the evenings when my mom was at bridge club.

He did. Without complaint, without rolling his eyes, without making us feel that things girls liked to do were innately dumb, he bought the dress, got elected to a club, and found a steady date in order to vie for the honor of being crowned Queen of the Prom.

One of the best things about playing with him (and, now that I think of it, one of the reasons he regularly won) was that he never disdained the nerdy Poindexter as escort. In fact, he professed to prefer Poindexter. I think he may have felt sorry for him, seeing how often his daughters rejected the poor freckled, big-eared guy in favor of rounding the board another time in hopes of landing on the all-American Ken or the more sultry Bob (always my first choice).

He wasn’t shy about consulting with us on choosing his prom gown, either, questioning whether pink was really his best color.

My dad was manly man, don’t get me wrong. He played as many sports as Ken did, built things with his hands, knew his way around a table saw. I often thought it was a shame he didn’t have sons to toss a football with or coach in Little League (this was pre-Title 9). But now it occurs to me that he — a boy who lost his mother at a tender age — enjoyed the immersion in female life that came with having three daughters.

He was never afraid to tell us how pretty we looked, that he liked what we’d done with our hair. He came to our tea parties and ate our attempts at cooking with genuine relish. He never made us feel that there was anything wrong with being a girl.

Many stories about fathers are written by sons who remember the ways their dads showed them what it meant to be a man. I am glad to add this story about a dad who taught his daughters something essential about being a woman.

–Debra Wierenga

Battle Hymn of the Golden Retriever Mother

In Family, Fulfillment on March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

So I’ve been trying not to write about Amy Chua’s book, which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read. Which I no longer need to read because I have read 1400 reviews and essays and analyses and blog posts and angry letters to the editor that quote copiously from her book to: (1.) show what a heartless, humorless slave-driver of a mother she is, or (2.) hold her up as a smart, self-deprecating but determined role model for parents who want to raise their children to be all that they can be.

If you are a semi-conscious Western parent of the female persuasion (there’s a reason this book wasn’t written by a man or pilloried or defended by American fathers, but that’s the subject of a different debate) the Tiger Mother’s roar is impossible to ignore. She’s everywhere. Her book has even inspired an internet meme.

What could I possibly add?

But it’s been a fraught week, with parent/teacher conferences, band concerts, financial aid forms, and college acceptance and not-quite acceptance letters from the places my youngest son Eliot applied to last fall. And reading Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Ivy Delusion: The Real Reason the Good Mothers Are So Rattled by Amy Chua” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic has finally pushed me into the fray.

Because I have some things in common with those “good mothers” Flanagan makes not-so-gentle fun of –

“The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere.”

Oops.

And, yes, Amy Chua rattles me. Because I am a mother who has allowed her sons to quit pianos lessons, tennis lessons, trombone lessons, swimming lessons, T-Ball, Youth Orchestra, AP Chemistry — even intramural soccer. I have not required them to do their homework, go to bed, join National Honor Society, practice their instruments, or write five-paragraph essays. I have encouraged them to find their respective passions and follow their proverbial bliss (good mothers read too much Joseph Campbell in college, says Flanagan) to film school, art school, and (for Eliot) music school. I am also a mother who, unlike Amy Chua, has never been entirely sure she was doing the right thing.

I am not a Tiger Mother. I am not really even one of the good mothers Flanagan chastises for thinking that their kids should be able to “have it both ways” — “a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education.” After my boys’ first years in elementary school, I stopped harboring any illusions of Harvard scholarships.

I am more of a Golden Retriever Mother.

If you’ve ever owned a golden, you know from unconditional love. A retriever finds her person perfect, fascinating, the source of all possible happiness in this world. She will chase and return a soggy tennis ball for as long as you care to throw it. She will listen with rapt attention to anything you want to discourse on, from Petrarchan sonnets to nationalized health care. She wants to go where you go, do what you do, eat what you eat, and sleep where you sleep. She’s ready to follow you following your bliss wherever it takes you. She doesn’t care if you don’t have a 4.0. In fact, she thinks that your 3.25 — because it is your 3.25 — is better than anyone else’s 4.0.

So, yeah, Eliot’s been wait-listed by his first-choice school, while Amy Chua’s daughter has already played Carnegie Hall and, according to Flanagan, has likely applied to many of the country’s top colleges: “Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them.”

Eliot’s passion is music, but he didn’t discover that until high school. And by the time he figured out which program of study excited him, and understood the school’s acceptance rates and requirements, he’d had only two years of private piano and trombone lessons and his GPA was beyond repair. What if I hadn’t let him quit piano at 7? What if I’d made him practice his trombone two hours a day when he was in middle school? What if I’d told him, like Tiger Mother told her cubs, that he was “never allowed to get any grade less than an A”?

I like to think that my approach had its own benefits. Eliot found out for himself what he loves and learned how to find the teachers and resources that could help him achieve his goals. His latest progress report shows a D in AP English Language, but here’s what his teacher wrote next to the grade:

Eliot, I really enjoy working with you in AP Language. I appreciate your witty insights in class discussion, and wish that you would share even more. You possess an inherent gift for stringing words together creatively, and your sense of voice in your writing is strong and developed. The complexity of your sentence structures and your sense of humor is indicative of a writer far beyond your years!

Eliot’s D is better than most of my community college students’ As!

He didn’t get accepted into the University of Michigan’s highly competitive Performing Arts Technology program, and we feel sad about that. But Berklee College of Music wants him enough to offer him sizable merit scholarship. He hasn’t done Carnegie Hall (yet), but last month I watched him solo with his high school jazz band in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

That’s my boy! Son of a Golden Retriever Mother, perfect in every way.

–Debra Wierenga

Ghosts in the Machine

In Community, Family on February 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Tidying up my iTunes library, I find a string of untitled tracks that turn out to be voice mail messages from 2007. I go down the list, listening and deleting, until I hear:

Hi, Deb! It’s Dad.

Why would a dead man sound so alive? Has there been some mistake? Could the cardiovascular system that produced the breath that set those sound waves vibrating in my direction just now still exist somewhere, heart pumping, lungs pushing air through the windpipe and over the vocal chords that generate the precise combination of pitch, timbre, tone, and resonance that is my father’s voice?

I contemplate the physical mechanics of crawling into my hard drive.

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected death of someone she loves will recognize this kind of “magical thinking” in which the grieving mind simultaneously knows with absolute certainty that the beloved is dead and knows with absolute certainty that he is not. Joan Didion describes the phenomenon vividly in her memoir documenting the year after her husband died of a sudden heart attack: the need to stay in the city where her husband would know to find her; the inability to give away a certain pair of shoes that he would want when he returns; the undeleted email message that surely signified his continued existence.

I think that the sensual immediacy of digital media and the relentless present tense of the internet have prolonged my own year of magical thinking (currently 23 months and counting).

Facebook still periodically flashes his profile picture in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, asking me to “help Don find new friends.” The last message I posted on his wall before he died — Hey, Dad, you ever coming back to Michigan? — is still there, dripping unintended irony. And since his death I have suggested friends, asked him to join charitable causes, sent him digital hearts and glasses of Chardonnay. I kept posting on his wall, too — pictures of my son wearing his grandpa’s sport coat, birthday wishes, Thanksgiving greetings — until it dawned on me that my other Facebook friends were notified every time I did this and might start worrying about me. Or worse.

But while my dad had just barely tested the waters of online social networking, he was an early adopter in other areas of digital communication. He designed and maintained a blog that reported on his travels and a website that includes this message to the cosmos:

The internet has made it possible for a tiny speck in this universe – — me — to tell you a bit of my story. It’s been molded by many people, most significantly my family and relatives, whom I suspect may be here by intent. If, however, you happened to stumble upon this page and if I have aroused a particle of interest, I would love to hear from you.

don@wierenga.com

If you click on the link, you can still send him a message. I have.

Beyond this web-based legacy, my dad left behind a laptop computer that archives thousands of photos, detailed genealogy charts, slide shows complete with background music and “Ken Burns Effect” transitions, video clips that analyze my sons’ golf swings. All this and more on an iBook he’d owned only two months. I have yet to venture into the hard drive that contains the data from his desktop computer, a tangerine iMac G3.

In a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker takes a hard look at the implications of (digital) life after (physical) death. He tells the story of Mac Tonnies, a writer and active user on online media who died unexpectedly at the age of 34. Many of the many expressions of grief logged onto the comments section of Tonnies’s last blog post are addressed directly to the author of the (eerily titled) Posthuman Blues, telling him how he is missed, wishing him a “happy Afterlife,” wishing that he would “keep posting from the other side.” A poignant example:

Mac, perhaps somehow, somewhere, you are reading your comments here.

Know that your friends love you and miss you terribly, though we will meet again some “day”.

Wishing you joy on your new journey,
Kartott

One mourner, who had never met Tonnies in person, posted a sonnet that includes an homage to his Twitter feed: “. . . Your ev’ry tweet/Brought strange new wonders. . .”

Toonies’s virtual community stepped in to preserve his digital oeuvre, backing up his blog (“about 10 gigabytes of material”) and setting up new blogs that feature his writing and links to interviews he gave. Walker writes:

. . . the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

One big difference, of course, between “physical ephemera,” like photo albums and ribbon-bound packets of letters, and their digital equivalents (Flikr and email accounts) is that the former are more likely to be curated with “our survivors” in mind. What meaning should I extract or give to the sequence of photos documenting a spring break wet-T-shirt contest that is preserved in my my dad’s online photo albums? (Sorry, no link.) None that I care to think too much about, or that he would want me to, I’m quite certain.

Not surprisingly, services designed to help one leave a tidy posthumous digital legacy are springing up all over the internet. Legacy Locker offers “a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property” that lets you decide whom you want to have access to what after your “passing.” The more forthright Deathswitch (“Bridging Mortality”) emails you regularly to make sure you’re still alive and, if you don’t respond for a given period of time, “deduces you are dead” and sends out emails you have written to specified recipients. If you really want to script your digital legacy in fine detail, Virtual Eternity (“Forever Made Possible”) lets you create and train an avatar or “intellitar” of yourself that will be able to converse with generations to come. (This will cost you, though.)  1000 Memories, a free online service designed to help people create virtual memorials of photos and video clips and written remembrances, will also allow you to craft your own memorial, prehumously, if you wish.

At Legacy.com, my sister created a site for my dad that people could add their comments and memories to. The funeral home that coordinated his memorial service in Michigan provided a similar service. These sites and the stories people contributed to them were a great comfort to me for a while, but no one has added to them since May 2009. These days, I prefer to hang out on his Facebook profile, where he is still surrounded by living, if virtual, friends and family.

Elaine Kasket, a British psychologist who conducted a study of “posthumous communication on a social networking site,” found that most such messages to deceased Facebook friends are written in the second person, as if they are still present and “logging on from some internet cafe in heaven.” She calls the practice a compelling example of “continuing bonds after death.”

And if the existence of an online presence after death prolongs the grieving process along with the unsettling comfort of “magical thinking,” it may be all to the good. Psychotherapist Mark Dunn believes that most of us in Western society don’t permit ourselves to mourn for as long as is good for us and that the internet “may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again.”

–Debra Wierenga

Status Anxiety

In Community on January 31, 2011 at 7:02 pm

She’s a close friend. As in, we know each other’s therapists by their first names. As in, we’ve told each other things we’ve never told our therapists. As in, when one of us has work accepted by a big name literary journal, the other one is genuinely happy for her.

So, I miss her. Her emails say she’s working hard, she’s under a lot of pressure, she’s worried about her aging parents. She doesn’t have time to get together.

On Facebook, though, she’s loving the snow, she’s skiing with amazing women, she’s just back from a fantastic massage, she’s winning at Scrabble, she’s had a great weekend viewing ice sculptures and drinking manhattans with K.

In a recent piece on Slate, Libby Copeland argues that “by showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers,” Facebook is making us more miserable than we need to be.

Copeland cites recent Stanford studies showing that people generally tend to believe that others are having more fun than they are. And that we all perpetuate this misconception by being more willing to publicly express positive emotions and experiences than to share our sad thoughts and wasted days.

According to the abstract, one study found “people underestimated negative emotions and overestimated positive emotions even for well-known peers, and this effect was partially mediated by the degree to which those peers reported suppression of negative (vs. positive) emotions.”

And, you know, all my Facebook friends seem to be having so much more fun — and accomplishing so much more — than I am. This one is writing the last chapter of her novel, that one is cooking mushroom soup. He’s hiking the Appalachian Trail, she’s working out every day and loving it, they’re celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary or volunteering in an orphanage in Ghana or driving their daughter to Yale. It’s hard not to feel like a slacker.

I’m not sure how to counteract this kind of status envy. Maybe I’ll address it in my next piece for The New Yorker. When I get back from Cannes. Where I’m really looking forward to meeting J. for manhattans.

–Debra Wierenga

Chill

In Survival on January 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Children’s choirs almost always do it to me. That eerie, almost spiritual frisson that starts in the vicinity of the shoulder blades and tickles its way up the back of my neck, raising hairs like little sensors as it moves.

Musical chills — measurable physical changes in skin conductance (as well as heart rate, breathing patterns, and body temperature) — signify an intense emotional response to music. A new study from McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (affectionately known as The Neuro) suggests that these chills are built-in to the human brain’s “reward circuitry” — the release of mood-enhancing hormones that evolved to reinforce survival behaviors like eating and having sex.

Although it’s still unclear why listening to music would have helped our ancestors live long enough to procreate, the new research has established that higher levels of dopamine are released when people listen to music that evokes chills than when they listen to non-chill-factor tunes.

Even more interesting — to me at least — is perusing the list of chill  excerpts provided by study participants asked for examples of shiver-provoking music. The selections range from the highly expected (Barber’s Adagio for Strings) to the slightly surprising (Led Zeppelin?) to the unheard of (by me) “Techno” strains of some person, group, or machine called Tiesto.

I’m heading over to iTunes to check some of them out in hopes of creating my own shivery, dopamine-inducing playlist.

–Debra Wierenga

Pets@Work

In Survival on January 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

My cat Scratch works long hours in my home office, rearranging paper piles, typing cryptic notes on my laptop, making sure that my wireless mouse isn’t lazing around on its pad. The other day as I watched him bat the mouse to the floor, then drape himself elegantly across my notes and keyboard (he’s a big guy), it occurred to me that my furry assistant might actually be having a negative impact on my productivity.

Not that I would ever consider banning him from my place of work. Who else is going to pat me on the cheek with a soft paw as I labor in my endless pursuit of a fresh approach to extolling the virtues of adjustable-height tables?

Still, it got me thinking that there are probably a lot of people out there who share an office with their pet(s), and even more who wish they could. And, speaking of height-adjustable tables, mightn’t there be a market out there for furnishings — or at least accessories — designed to accommodate the special needs of the pet-friendly office?

A little bit of internet research revealed that, yes, many, many people these days face cat-computer compatibility issues. Also, I am not the first one to think that a desktop cat support device (in your choice of birch, cherry, or walnut veneer) is an idea whose time has come.

The real revelation for me, though, was the extent to which the pets-at-work phenomenon has spread beyond the home office. A recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) found that nearly one in five U.S. companies now allow pets at work. Many of these pet-friendly offices belong to small startups (my personal favorite, Small Dog Electronics, devotes a page on its website to employee and customer dogs) probably because with fewer employees it’s easier to reach consensus on issues like pet hair and squeak toys. But larger businesses are also signing on. Google, for example, has a liberal pet policy that nevertheless includes the provision “Dogs are not allowed on the sand volleyball court.”

The mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership are well documented. Studies have shown that pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and an increased rate of survival after a coronary event. Simply being in the presence of a friendly animal has a measurable positive effect on pulse and blood-pressure rates and reduces the intensity of stress experienced by people in such stress-inducing situations as undergoing a medical procedure or taking a math test.

But the benefits to employers who let workers bring their furry friends to the office extend beyond a healthier and more relaxed staff. The APPMA survey found that pets in the workplace improve employee morale and camaraderie, reduce absenteeism, and promote willingness to work overtime. Ninety-six percent of the pet-friendly companies surveyed said that pets contributed to positive work relations, and 73 percent said that pets in the office “create a more productive work environment.” Businesses that allow pets believe it improves the atmosphere for all employees, even those who are not pet owners themselves. In companies where people work long hours and/or spend most of their days working on computers, pets encourage employees to take healthful physical and mental breaks.

“Taking a minibreak elevates our brainpower and makes us more creative,” writes Doris Helge, pets-at-work proponent and author of Joy on the Job. “Some of us don’t take time to take the break we need until Rover reminds us.”

In a time when money is tight and work-life balance issues are hot, establishing a pet-friendly policy is an inexpensive perk that can serve as a significant recruitment and retention tool. Simply Hired, an online jobs database, provides a search option that allows job seekers to specify that they wish to work for a dog-friendly company. A survey by Simply Hired and Dogster, another online site, found that a third of employed dog-owners would be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant they could bring their pets to work. Two-thirds said they would work longer hours, and half said they would switch jobs.

Not everyone is an animal lover, of course, and even some who are have allergies to pet dander. Some employers try to accommodate everyone by designating certain areas as pet-free zones. Most companies that allow pets have a written policy which outlines expectations about where pets are allowed and what their owners’ responsibilities include. Policies typically specify that animals be housebroken, flea-free, and friendly, and that their humans clean up after them, inside and out. Autodesk, a pet-friendly company employing 1, 100 people at its San Raphael site, stipulates that “dogs are not to be brought to meetings” and “loud, repetitive barking or eating another employee’s food is also not acceptable.” Seems reasonable to me.

Promoters of “Take Your Dog to Work Day” (next  TYDTWD: June 24, 2011) offer tips for people planning to introduce Fido to the office that include leaving the squeak toy at home and making sure that your cubicle or office can safely and comfortably accommodate your pet. With regard to the latter, entrepreneurial types are already training their focus on the pet-friendly office market.

U.S. Patent 5934813 — “Keyboard protector having peaked configuration” — claims a unique design for a “protector assembly” comprising a “means to prevent an animal from remaining thereon in obstructing relation to the keyboard.” Under “Background of the Invention” the inventor explains the need for this device:

… individuals who are pet owners and particularly cat lovers and also use some type of computer instrument involving a keyboard have encountered the problem of having cats generally prowl across the keyboard thereby disturbing the operation thereof. In addition, cats of a particularly curious nature or those who have a habit of invading the operating area while their owners are working on the computer certainly have a disruptive effect on the operation and in fact, could, in certain instances, destroy certain work currently being performed on the computer.

I haven’t been able to determine if the protector assembly has made it into production yet.

In the meantime, BitBoost Systems offers PawSense, a software utility that “quickly detects and blocks cat typing.” The application analyzes key stroke timing and combinations to distinguish between your typing style and your cat’s. Its designers say that PawSense typically recognizes a cat on the keyboard within one or two “pawsteps” and then proceeds to block the cat’s “keyboard input.”

Or, better yet, let your cat use those keyboard skills to supplement the family income. A new book out from Ten Speed Press — Careers for Your Cat by Ann Dziemianowicz  — includes a “Meowers-Briggs Career/Personality Test” to help  you find the perfect placement for your office cat.

–Debra Wierenga

This article was originally published on jugglezine.com.

Don’t Sweat the Shirt

In Fulfillment, Romance on January 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Tara Parker-Hope’s piece on sustainable love in The New York Times last week highlights recent research suggesting that what we really want from a romantic partner is someone who will help us become who we want to be.

As one of the researchers put it:

“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”

TheMichelangelo Effect” — in which close partners “sculpt” each other’s skills and personality traits over the course of a long relationship — has been identified by a number of studies as an important ingredient in happy and stable partnerships.

The trick though, is that you can’t try to shape your partner into your notion of his ideal self. You’ve got to promote and affirm and cultivate his own vision of the person he wants to be. So the other day, when I attempted to sculpt My Loving Partner free from a certain gray sweatshirt, I was  contributing neither to his “self-expansion” nor the future happiness of our relationship.

Despite this slip-up, when MLP and I took the Sustainable Marriage Quiz designed to measure how much your partner “expands your knowledge and makes you feel good about yourself,” we each got scores in the “highly expansive range.”

But there’s room for improvement. I’m working on expanding my notion of my ideal self to include becoming a person who is okay with the sweatshirt.

–Debra Wierenga

School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles – de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga


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