Finding balance in the second half of life

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

What We Know

In Family on November 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm
Dmitri May 1983

A few months before the cream cheese incident.

Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.

The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.

When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.

“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)

Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.

About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.

“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”

Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.

And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.

So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:

You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.

“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”

“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.'”

“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?

Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.

I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.

Dmitri March 2008

Finding happiness in a way completely foreign to me.

When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.

And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.

–Lois Maassen

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

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

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