Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Fulfillment’ Category

Adios, 2010

In Fulfillment on December 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm

It’s the end of the year, the traditional time for reflection (self-loathing, because of all you didn’t accomplish this year) and planning (setting yourself up for 2011 year-end self-loathing). If, like me, you just can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it, your time might be better spent reading notes written by irrate people and signs written by people who seem to treat quote marks as decorations. You’ll leave the year laughing, regardless of the kind of year you’ve had.  (Photo courtesy of

–“Christine” MacLean

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

Squirrel! Bird! (aka Self-Interruptus)

In Fulfillment on December 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Jason Fried, president of 37signals, thinks offices are “interruption factories.” He doesn’t blame people for preferring to work at home or the coffee shop; he blames the office. Oh, please. The office is a collection of people, and it is people—not a building or a collection of desks and chairs—that set expectations for how quickly workers should respond to messages and establish norms for if, when, and how it’s okay to interrupt. In fairness, Fried does offer some interesting solutions, all of which involve changing norms. (Lots of luck.)

Until that happens, here’s how you can cut interruptions in half: Stop giving in to distraction. That’s right. Research shows that half the time we interrupt ourselves to check e-mail, the weather, or (lord help us) It also shows that, once we are distracted, we don’t get back on track for 25 minutes.

I recently scribbled this on a Post-It note and stuck it to my computer: Can you really afford to waste 25 minutes? I’m not sure how much good it will do, but it’s a start.

–Christine MacLean

Cheer Me with Mozart

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm

My good friends (okay, they don’t know me, but I rely on them) at Utne Reader have pointed me to another interesting study. This one, conducted in Mexico, showed that listening to classical music had more anti-depressive effect than talk therapy.

I’ll put reading the whole study on my to-do list. I’m curious about whether it’s music in general or classical music specifically (Mozart is noted, in particular) that makes the difference. And I’m also curious about other listening habits.

I don’t often choose to listen to classical music, I’ll confess, in spite of (or perhaps because of) having grown up in a household where Bach was loud on the stereo. But I do notice that on days that I work to what Pandora serves up, I’m more cheerful (though less well-informed) than the days I’m tuned in to NPR all day. I’d like to understand that better: In some ways, it seems like hearing people’s conversations is more social. I realize, though, that unless I become a regular NPR caller, I’m eavesdropping on those conversations, not joining them. And, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you might know that discussions of current events are not entirely cheerful in tone.

I can always sing along with Pandora. Yet another advantage of the home office.

Still Hungry

In Fulfillment on December 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I wasn’t planning on reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto until I heard the author, David Shields, talk about the origin of his controversial compilation of quotes, paraphrases, and personal musings on the future of fiction.

Speaking to an embarrassingly small audience here in Holland, Michigan, Shields, who has written a number of novels himself, explained that he started collecting the material that became Reality Hunger in an attempt to explain to himself and his students how and why fiction has become something he no longer cares to read.

It’s happened to me, too.

After a lifetime of devouring novels, mysteries, story collections — from Jane Austen to John Updike, from Dorothy Sayers to Amanda Cross, from Elizabeth Bowen to Anne Beattie — I find it increasingly difficult to find a piece of fiction that will hold my interest. Sometimes I can’t even make it through The New Yorker’s weekly short story.

In the past month, I have picked up and put down new works by A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Jim Harrison, and Zadie Smith. My reading partner and I have been working for weeks now to make it through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, mostly because we sprang for the hardcover.

During the same period of time, I zipped through three memoirs, two biographies, several poetry collections, and a volume of essays, as well as books on how the brain works, how dogs think, how people grieve, and what I should be feeding my family.

And, of course, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which explains a lot — at least to me.

–Debra Wierenga

Happy, Interesting, or Both?

In Fulfillment on December 1, 2010 at 3:32 pm

From Penelope Trunk's Brazeen Careerist

How great is this photo? It’s from Penelope Trunk, who eventually in her post gets around to talking about how you can’t have a life that’s both interesting and happy. You have to choose. Or, if you don’t have the choice (each of us is born with a happiness “set point” that accounts for about 50% of our happiness level), to accept the hand you’re dealt and play it as best you can. As a writer, I’ve thought about this a lot because I am mostly happy, which seems to put me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to material. My own assessment of my life is that it’s been interesting, but not fascinating. There must be a middle ground–even if it is no wider than a barbed wire fence. Happily (See? Happy!), I thought of someone who has a life that’s both happy and fascinating, at least by all appearances: Ree, aka The Pioneer Woman.

Christine MacLean

Giving Retailers the Brush-Off

In Fulfillment on November 25, 2010 at 10:00 am

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Beyond the purpose of the day–looking at what we have instead of at all the things our culture constantly points out we don’t have–I love the smell of roasting root vegetables and simmering cranberry sauce, the comfort of hunkering in for the day in front of the stove first and later a fire, the easy rhythm of relatives forced to spend time together (although must they retell embarrassing stories that never should have been told in the first place?). It’s the most laidback holiday. There’s nothing else to do besides talk, eat, and watch football on mute. The Christmas season, and all the high expectations that come with it, could wait until the aptly named Black Friday.

Or at least it could until now. This year a number of major retailers are holding pre-Black Friday (euphemism for “Thanksgiving Day”) sales. Even Sears—the Norman Rockwell of retailing–will be open on Thanksgiving for the first time in its 127 years. To which I can only say, Et tu, Brutus?

I won’t be shopping on Thanksgiving or the day after. Instead, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to make for my friend this year with whatever I can find around the house plus supplies that cost less than two dollars. It’s something we started last year, after she told me how it had been a tradition in her family (their spending cap was just ten cents). After a few false starts, I decided on making a voodoo doll. My lack of crafting skills is sadly obvious; who knew a voodoo doll could end up looking like Don King? And I blew the entire two dollars on the skull beads for the necklace.

I think my friend liked it (I know her cat did), but the truth is that the whole experience was a bigger gift to me than the voodoo doll was to her. In making that silly gift, I rediscovered the joy of giving. I remembered that it’s about thinking about the person more and the gift itself less. I learned another small way to take back the holidays.

Christine MacLean

The Mechanics of the Magical

In Fulfillment on November 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I was inspired last week by a post by Katie Talo on about the power of momentum. Momentum, she says, is her “coach, mentor, and teammate,” and it propels her in the direction she’s chosen to go.

I was inspired. For a day or so. It sounded magical, that I could rely on this force to carry me forward. And then I was flummoxed, because it was hard for me to see in what direction my momentum was taking me. What if your momentum is tied to sloth, for example, or to excessive knitting, to eating Oreo cookies, or, a pivotal part of Katie’s experience with momentum, to smoking cigarettes?

This week I read “Pray It Again… and Again,” by Andrew Holecek. He’s got the answer to overcoming the inertia that keeps us moving in the same direction regardless of our intentions. He’s talking about a spiritual journey, but I’m figuring these days that everything is spiritual.

What we’re doing, he says, is working to stop “old habits that come easily and replacing them with difficult new ones.” And, the part that gives me a foothold, he recognizes that the path is “full of magic, but it is also full of mechanics.”

So it’s not just the magic of momentum. It’s also the mechanical work of making goals, writing daily checklists, developing some routines—even though they don’t feel magical—that become habits that redirect my momentum.

And it’s being intentional. Katie’s momentum began to build, I now realize, with a deliberate decision. It’s not disembodied magic, this momentum: It’s the magic of a wizard, exercising her own powers.

–Lois Maassen

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

In Family, Fulfillment on November 20, 2010 at 5:48 pm

When my dad retired from his position as elementary school principal, his staff gave him a video camera. It was 1987, and I was pregnant with my first son, Dylan, who was about to be the most documented child on the planet. I have stacks of VHS tapes showing an increasingly impatient sweet-faced boy being “interviewed” by his grandfather. What does he think of his new baby brother? What, in his opinion, is the real meaning of Christmas? What is he especially grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day?

A lot of my dad’s leading questions are true groaners, and I remember some family gatherings where I thought about hiding the camera bag somewhere before he could pull out the instrument of torture.  But I’m glad to have those tapes, and Dylan and his brothers are, too. The four of us can watch them for hours.

So when I read the mixed reviews of Doug Block’s new documentary “The Kids Grow Up” — described by one critic as a “disconcerting chronicle of his daughter’s life” and by another as a moving “essay on the passage of time and the mysterious connections between parents and children” — it was with my own mixed feelings.

As a writer who hasn’t been shy about sharing scenes from her own children’s lives, I admit I’ve worried about the ethics and the effects of “using” my defenseless boys as “material.” But I have also, like Doug Block, like my father, experienced the obsessive need to explore the intersection between my family members’ stories and my own, as a way of understanding my own truth.

–Debra Wierenga

This Is your Brain on Friends

In Community, Fulfillment on November 17, 2010 at 4:21 pm

It went against my better instincts to have lunch with Lois before my first meeting with a prospective client. I felt that I should be brushing up on. . .I don’t know–something–and I’m not great company when I’m anxious. But we had lunch scheduled and I like having lunch with Lois. She makes me laugh.

Turns out my instincts were wrong. Research from the Institute of Social Research shows that the kind of “friendly talk” you have with a good friend or when making a new friend improves focus and working memory. My meeting went well and I got the project.

You might want to keep this in mind if you’re giving a big presentation. However, if the only person around to talk to is a frenemy, skip it. Researchers say conversations that have a competitive edge don’t have any cognitive benefits at all.

–Christine MacLean