Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to Be an Adult Introduction, Part Two: What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road

What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road
Katryna first got the idea to write a book called How to Be an Adult after graduating college. She felt clueless, living with her sister and brother-in-law in a prep-school dorm and eating the prep-school’s free food, while trying to figure out things like how to get health insurance and how to pay her taxes on the non-existent income of a budding folk singer. She pronounced, “Someone should write a book called How to Be an Adult. How are we supposed to know any of this stuff? We all need a manual. Someone should write it, and since no one else will, I guess it’s got to be me. Except I don’t know how to be an adult, so why don’t you do it?”

We had grand plans to research the topic, but we never followed through. Over the years, we’d revive the project and toss around some ideas, but mostly the concept of either of us writing a book about how to be an adult reduced us to fits of tearful laughter. Who would take a couple of folk singers as their models for responsible adulthood?

But by my mid-thirties, I had observed two things. First of all, somehow along the way, like everyone else, I’d figured it out, mostly, and so had Katryna. It took years, and we made lots of painful and hilarious mistakes. But many of those mistakes were wonderful lessons.

Secondly, what I hadn’t figured out (taxes, insurance, retirement accounts, bill-paying) were easily deciphered by the simple act of homing in on someone who clearly appeared to be a competent adult and asking that person how she did what she did. Believe me, if you ask enough people, someone will have a strong opinion on this topic and feel it’s their mission in life to sit you down and set you straight.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to Be an Adult Introduction, part one


On the occasion of my college graduation, I received my diploma and immediately began to examine it. It was written, unhelpfully, in Latin, a language I studied for one year at age thirteen. Undaunted, I flipped it over in the hopes that somewhere among the ovems and the isimuses there would be some final directive, some code that would tell me what to do next. I’d been an English major in college, taking the advice of my favorite high-school teacher who told me the purpose of college was to read all the books you’d never get around to reading otherwise. So while my roommates were studying pre-med, pre-law and economics, I was immersed in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, and Samuel Beckett. In March, Jenny was accepted to medical school, Susan was off to Stanford Law, and Giselle had a job offer on Wall Street. When anyone asked me what I was going to do, I said something vague about bringing my acoustic guitar to England, where I was planning to become a famous folk singer.

As the snow melted and the hackysackers returned to the green in the spring of my senior year, I noticed a consistent shortness of breath accompanied by a low buzzing in the back of my head. The approximate content of the low buzz was something along the lines of, “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” How, for example, was I supposed to find an apartment? What exactly was a down payment? Or a security deposit? For how long could I live solely off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles? What was the difference between a premium and a deductible? Were they really serious about that whole filing taxes thing? That just seemed mean.
Hence the frantic fumbling with the diploma. There were no instructions on the diploma, just the smudged signature of the college president and some unintelligible Latin. So I did what any sensible, practical-minded person would do; I married my current boyfriend, David, who happened to be seven years older than I and, in my mind, a bona fide adult.

This worked out well for a while. David was happy to deal with what I termed the “grown-up stuff”: security deposits, medical insurance, bill-paying, and yes, taxes. My twenties rolled by pleasantly enough: I started a rock band along with David and my younger sister Katryna, and we drove around the country in a fifteen-passenger van.

Although in the early days of the band, I’d had to do a lot of what seemed like pretty “adult” stuff—booking gigs, putting together press kits, opening and maintaining a checking account—eventually, we hired a manager to do all that for us. Once again, I was off the hook. “Your job,” said our new manager Dennis, “is to write songs, stay in good shape, and rest up for your performances. Let me take care of everything else. After all, that’s why you pay me 16.67% of your gross income.”

So I spent my days in a kind of prolonged adolescent summer vacation: writing, reading, shopping for clothes that would make me look like a hot rock star (and running up credit card debt), exercising like a maniac so I would fit into said clothes, and driving around the country performing at festivals, coffeehouses, theaters and rock clubs. It was a blissful existence.
But nothing lasts forever, and by September 2001 the band had broken up, David and I had separated, and I was thirty-four years old—clearly an adult no matter how you did the math. I needed to learn how to function on my own and fast.

To read more, or to order the book, go here. Or...just wait until tomorrow when I post the next part.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

How to Be an Adult is Here! Preface Excerpt

I can't believe how long it's taken me to do what seemed a small task: to turn my 2008 paperback book How to Be an Adult into an ebook. Answer: almost 2 years. Really five years, since I had the thought as soon as I published the paperback. How hard could it be?

The problem was, once I reviewed the book, sometime last summer, I saw all the places I wanted to add, expand, and in a couple of cases, subtract. So I set about rewriting. And rewriting. And then factor in 2 kids, 5 careers, husband, beautiful summer weather, computer fatigue, etc and here you have it. September 6, 2013. A good a date as any to get started.

Once a week, I am going to publish an excerpt from the book. So here is the new Preface.

Preface to the 2013 Edition

In the five years since this book has come out, I have wanted, almost daily, to revise How to Be an Adult. This is natural, of course, as Adulthood is not a static state: one never arrives. New insights, new ways of changing car tires, organizing one’s finances, even new ways of roasting a chicken emerge, and I as an extroverted blabbermouth feel compelled to trumpet the new findings to the masses. Moreover, as the mother of two children (ages 7 and almost 5 as of this writing), I’ve had some good practice with some adultish skills that helped me to refine my perspective since the first edition, which was mostly written before motherhood, though edited and published when Lila was just two and Johnny was three months from being born. Those two kids have taught me more than all my life experiences to date combined. Also, as I am fond of saying, I was this close to enlightenment before I had kids. All that forgiveness work and cultivation of a relaxed attitude about the things that really matter, which I spout on about in the earlier edition—well, let’s just say I have been put to the test. And failed miserably. But as I have also written, it’s in the failing that we learn most.

When I asked for suggestions for the new edition, here were the requests:

• An expanded Vocation/Avocation section, especially with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.

• Advice on resumés and interviewing

• More on time management (er, consciousness)

• A section on common illnesses and what to do about them

• A discussion of the importance of getting enough sleep

• A handy domestic toolbox full of tips

• Eggs and egg recipes

• More healthy recipes

• Skin care suggestions

I wrote this book because I love to give advice. I love to get advice too, and it’s extremely gratifying for me to find out the answers to the nagging questions—my own, and those of my friends. To this end, I regularly annoy my family by grabbing my iPhone as soon as anyone says, “I wonder how…” or “I wonder when…” or “I wonder what…” and then Googling like a madwoman. In my work as a life coach, I work with many twenty-somethings. I love it when they ask me basic questions to which I know the answers. But I love it even more when we work together to figure out some of the deeper problems we all confront—like how to break an addiction, or how to figure out what career would bring the most joy, or whether or not to marry the guy (or girl). I wanted to condense some of my coaching experience, too, in this new edition.

It can be lonely to be in one’s twenties. Not always, and not for everyone—sometimes the twenties are a rowdy extension of those bright college years. Some twenty-somethings are already married. But even then, even so, many folks I have spoken with confess to a sinking feeling of being alone with their cluelessness. Everyone else seems to know what to do. Why don’t I?

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown talks about the important distinction between “fitting in” and “belonging.” We think these terms are synonyms, but actually they are worlds apart. “Fitting in,” to my mind, has always been about trimming off objectionable parts of myself so that I take up less space and don’t stand out in any way. I think that if I can do this, more people will love me. “Belonging” is the feeling I get when I’m among people who see my whole self––all the parts of me––and love me anyway. In fact, in many cases, it’s exactly those objectionable parts that create bonds between people. For me, my twenties were a journey that began as a “fitter-inner” and ended with a profound sense of belonging, and the way I got to this brave new place was through embracing my own objectionable parts. In doing so, I found my people, my Tribe, and through their collective wisdom, I got my answers, at least most of the time. When they failed me, when I had to strike out on my own, I came back with answers for them.

In this age of easy access to all kinds of information, we are training ourselves to Google things like, “Will my daughter have friends in Junior High School?” and “Is my neighbor stockpiling weapons of mass destruction?” as if Google were an oracle. The answers to many questions, in ancient Greece and modern-day America, are equally unknowable, but my sense is that when we’re compelled to reach out to the faceless unknown for answers, what we really want is to connect with the Tribe.

This book is in large part about identifying and finding that Tribe. In the beginning, you might start by looking among others who are equally clueless, and begin to commiserate with them. And then, ask questions. To that end, please join the conversation this book has launched at where I will be posting regularly. Here, you can actually ask questions and get answers. We need your input!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this book. I hope I have kept the very best aspects of the original and added and improved where it was lacking. If you have suggestions on other topics, send them my way. And of course, if you have better ideas on how to manage time, organize a budget, roast a chicken or change a tire, let me know.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Everyday Minefields

Last week I found out that a high level administrator from the school where my sisters and I were students from 1974 to 1990, pled guilty to multiple counts of “indecent liberties,” including “abduction with intent to defile,” fancy legalese for “he was a perv.” In fact, that’s exactly what we girls referred to him as—a perv. And being 12-13, I just assumed that schools had male administrators who occasionally copped a feel, who chaperoned every single student event including dances; who regularly stuck his head into the girls’ locker room to tell us to “keep it down” while we were changing into our field hockey uniforms. This man was a fixture at the school by the time I arrived in second grade. At a school with a strict uniform, he wore his own version: a Brooks Brothers button down with preppy chinos or cords, always in some outrageous combination of colors: one leg red, one green, one yellow, one blue. At our occasional and thrilling dances, he’d be standing near the sound system, flirting with the pretty ninth grade girls, sometimes dancing with them, occasionally slow dancing with them. He was a little scary as a disciplinarian. He was larger than life. Some kids adored him. He was a loving father and husband, from all accounts. Like all of us, he was and is good and bad. What he did cannot be undone. The hurt he caused lives on. And still, I feel very sad for him and for his wife and children. I'm not writing this to pass judgment. I'm writing this because I am curious about my own strange blindness to a crime that was going on all around me.

What surprised me was how thoroughly I’d know this and how I hadn’t bothered ever to tell anyone in authority. Why? Because his perviness was wallpaper in my life. I didn’t know any different. And what’s bothering me is, of course, what else do I know and yet not know? What else is wallpaper?

At that same school, in the 6th grade, I had a woman teacher whose husband worked for the entertainment industry. It was 1979, and he'd give his teacher wife posters of the current blockbuster movies: Jaws, Star Wars, Grease, which she'd hang up on the perimeter of the upper walls of the classroom. He also gave her posters of the day's pin up girls: Farrah Fawcett in her famous wet bathing suit, Cheryl Tiegs in a yellow bikini, Bo Derek who was lauded at the time a perfect "10." As a reward to the rambunctious eleven-year-old boys, she'd hand out these posters at the end of the day for good behavior.

There's so much wrong with this picture, I don't know where to begin. "What did she give the girls?" a friend recently asked when I relayed this story. "Nothing," I said. "We always behaved." So boys behave badly, and then they get a treat for containing themselves? Girls, whose bodies are just starting to change, are presented with models (literally) of women whose bodies have been deemed "10"s, while the boys drool over them, equally longing for something they can't really have. But what I really see when I squint back at this memory is loneliness. There was a whole culture at this school that encouraged competition and judgment (discernment). We were all trying like mad to fit in, to feel OK, to understand our changing bodies, to find a kindred spirit. The grown ups, as far as I can remember, seemed remote, or else they seemed to mock us in our confusion. How dare we be so nubile and confused? Like many in my generation, I took this in. Now, as an adult, I want to take it on. I want to take over. I want to take it back.

I started a conversation on Facebook about the Upper school administrator. I included everyone I could think of, though only the girls. At first, only the people I had been close to at the time joined in. But a few days later, one girl who’d been touched spoke up. Then another, and then another. Now there’s a healthy dialogue, with all sorts of memories pinging about. We’re talking about how and if to bring up with our own children the potential dangers that might lurk in their schools. We’re talking about the sexism rampant in our culture in the late 70s and early 80s, and all that remains today despite great gains by women and girls. It’s not over. There is so much wallpaper in my own sexism, I expect to be scraping it down for years.

I am thinking about a story my daughter told me last year about a teacher who unfairly disciplined her. At the time, I thought my daughter might have been stretching the truth. I am not going to assume that ever again. I want my daughter to know that I am militantly on her side no matter what. I want her to know that she can trust me with stories about adults acting strangely.

I took a break from my work this afternoon to visit the farm where we have a share. The city was going to spray it with Round-Up, a horrible pesticide with potentially lethal ramifications for mammals. But people had banded together to protest. The mayor listened. The organic farms won, and the fields remained organic. I was alone today in the field, to lean forward, choose a sunburst orange tomato, choose another, toss away the cracked ones fill my quart to the brim. I paused to stretch my back and looked up at the sky, something I try to do every day. It’s all we have, really—the sky, the relationships we make, the tomatoes we pick. We don’t know where danger lies until it’s here in our midst. That’s why it’s dangerous. And yet, I keep thinking, “God is in the repair.” I don’t want pesticides in my tomatoes, but neither did I want my friends molested by a trusted school administrator. We don’t always get to choose. But we do get to choose to pay attention, to love our friends enough to listen deeply to their stories, to repair the damage we have done.