Tag Archives: I wish I was smarter

The art of not knowing everything

I once worked with a woman who gave elaborate thespian phone performances. Not the nasty $2.99 per minute kind, but plenty that had the undertow of a more genuine nastiness.

She lived at the desk next door to me in our little room in newspaperland, so eavesdropping was essentially unavoidable unless I brought in headphones and blared L7’s “Smell the Magic.”

I overheard her cooing sympathies for various health ailments and workplace stressors, humble babydoll requests for interviews, breathless apologies for misprints and uproarious laughs at jokes that couldn’t possibly have been that funny. But the minute the receiver hit the base, she would start swearing at the phone like a late-night cable comedian. She’d make colorful hand gestures at it, slam nearby file drawers with her foot, shake her head, yell at the ceiling like a thin, malevolent, female Charlie Brown.

If you threw a softball “what happened?” question her way during the episode, she’d gladly assail the character of her phone acquaintances (minor characters in her life, really) with ruthless assessments. They were incompetent morons at best, insane morons at worst. She was certain.

I was young and at first, I found her routine pretty funny. There’s a sexy, star-chamber quality to cattiness and gossip, especially in the workplace. Moreso in the media workplace, where you high five each other when you manage to unearth the failings of powerful people in the world and lay them bare in print. You feel like an insider. You know stuff that it seems like you shouldn’t. You feel smarter than other people. You find new, cleverer, wittier ways to call out what you perceive as stupid, inane or otherwise inferior. It’s so easy to know everything when you’re young.

But at some point, I realized that it wasn’t funny. It might even be dangerous. Not because I am a great arbiter of morals, but because it became easy to see that this behavior was bound to come home to roost on my own rear end.

I saw the same people who had bitched together about someone else bitch separately about each other. When you’re dancing in the middle of that kind of social quagmire, there’s no question that you’re going to be the bitched about person eventually. You will hurt people and get hurt. In the pernicious culture of the newsroom, I’m pretty sure I did my share of both.

I don’t remember a light bulb moment, but I remember the desperate feeling that I needed to extract myself from toxic work socializing as best I could. I started nodding more. Listening more. Withholding judgment. I searched for metaphors that would properly reflect what I was hearing from the person about how they felt instead of joining their rigged jury. This kind of listening has actually come in handy in my writing life a lot since. And my spiritual life. And my mothering life.

Finding the words to celebrate or applaud things authentically, meaningfully is much harder than finding new, clever ways to bitch about things. Vengefulness is easier than compassion. Suspicion is easier than faith. (This is clearly part of the way that Buddhism appeals to my protestant work ethic.)

It is harder to celebrate and find joy in other people’s children than it is to pick apart the alien ways that they might influence yours. It’s definitely easier to judge other parents and children than it is to see your own flaws. Playgrounds, like newsrooms, are breeding areas for cattiness. Yet, when I make a conscious effort to look for what to celebrate instead of what to criticize, I’ve discovered that finding joy makes everything easier. The older the kids get, the harder it looks, but it is easier. It’s more fun. It’s lighter. It’s less isolating. It’s worth the effort.

I make no claim that I’ve mastered these things. I decided early this year that aspirations are my gig, not hardened vows or easily fractured resolutions. I’m determined to remind myself of the mistakes I have made, or keep making. I’m determined to keep trying.

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I’ve been spending a lot of time with my hands in projects that yield results that I can see and touch lately, like wallpaper stripping and framing my kid’s art and painting giant suns and taking pictures and throwing things away. I’ve spent years writing about other people and sometimes long to do something that doesn’t involve thinking about other people, something that makes me the electricity instead of the circuit. I’m not sure which one this blog is.

Post ideas cross my mind several times a day. I have mental stockpiles of unwritten ones about deadbeat clients and exuberant editors who don’t realize you never went to “J-school.” And college peers who turned me off by trying so hard to convince someone that they are interesting that they wore eccentricity like stocks in the campus commons. I keep discovering that many have managed to convince more than a few someones they are interesting.

I’ve been contemplating starting a league of difficult people because so many seem to be drawn to me that I can only draw the conclusion that I am one of them. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate gossip? I really hate gossip. Or that I’m not easily offended? I’m not easily offended. I think if I felt offended I’d be more inclined to gossip.

There could be a million more posts about my son, because pushing four is so brilliant and tumultuous and precious and electric and strange, but complicated. I am good at illuminating other people, especially him, to the point where I disappear, and I’m feeling less like being invisible these days.

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There’s a mouse on my windshield, what am I gonna do?

I was stopped at a red light on the way home from an evening appointment last night when I saw something moving near the windshield wipers on the outside of the car. I had been parked in the Short North, so I tried to focus on it in the dark, expecting it to be a flier for a night club or some art event flickering in the breeze. Instead, it kept moving up, up, up… until it was in the dead center of my windshield, where I could clearly recognize its form as definitively mouse-like.

I, of course, shrieked like a seven-year-old as the critter made a panicked circle before descending back under the hood. I made a meek attempt to draw it back out by turning on the wipers, and when it didn’t, worried that I had driven it deeper into the bowels of the car. I then drove the next mile or so in my own panic, a phantom mouse scaling my right leg over and over until I could get up the road where it was well lit and safe to stop.

I popped the hood, and saw that there was a little evidence that the mouse was trying to make a nest in the well of the windshield, but there was no mouse to be seen. I called Dan, whose suggestions included: “Um, maybe turn up the heat?” “Get an umbrella to swat it away with” and the extra reasonable: “If it does somehow end up inside of the car, pull over so you don’t freak out and kill yourself.” Then I tried to convince myself, and him, that it must have fallen out of the bottom of the car before I got in to make the rest of the trip home.

A few minutes later, on a stretch of road where the speed limit was about 40 mph, the mouse reemerged and crawled across the outside windshield right at eye-level in front of me, clinging to the glass in the face of high freezing wind like Indiana Jones. It made it all the way to the edge, where I’m not sure if it took a flying leap or managed to find another way to hang on, perhaps in my door. Mice have such bizarre contortionist abilities, who knows? I climbed out the passenger door when I got home so that I wouldn’t find out, because as much tougher as I think motherhood has made me, I’m apparently a freaky coward unless I’m actually protecting my son.

Our garage is a separate structure from our house, where any mouse who has dared cross the threshold has been made into mincemeat by the cat in a matter of hours. I considered letting him pay a visit to the garage, but its too cold. Google searches for “mouse in car,” “mouse in engine” and “mouse on windshield,” were mostly useless, except to make me worry that a family of critters might now live in my engine, where they are happily gnawing away at all of my electric wires and my air filter.

The one potentially useful suggestion I found said that mice steer clear of peppermint essential oil. All we had on hand was some Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castille soap, which has been liberally applied to various parts of my car, inside and out. I’d like to see this experiment increase the product’s uses to 19-in-one: shampoo your hair, clean your dentures, rid your car of mice, etc.

Today’s ride to preschool should be… bracing.

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Because motherhood has made me a nerd…

This video was going around the geekosphere a few weeks ago, but it’s appropriate today, since they’ve officially hit the switch on the Large Hadron Collider. I understand (because I have to be told) that the science in the rap is good for anyone who wants to try and understand what it is exactly that the LHC does.


The site that answers the question, “Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet?” has been getting all the play, but the live-blogging of the opening events at Cosmic Variance is more informative.

In other nerd news, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait put out a great digest of Barack Obama’s science policy that I think you should read. This is one critical area that Hillary Clinton covered well during the primaries, that I felt Obama did not. I’m happy to see that he’s adopted most of what I liked about her platform, and then some. Yay!

P.S. Yo, America – let’s call a moratorium on thinking about, discussing or otherwise considering animals wearing make-up, okay? All of these euphemisms are making the presidential election seem like a Fellini film.

P.P.S. John McCain, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I mean, really.

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