Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Just the Tip

Last night I went out with my neighbor for drinks. When we got there, the waitress let us know that it was Girls' Night Out, which I'm glad I didn't know in advance. (The phrase "Girls' Night Out" gets me into a low-grade fume due to the implied contrast of the Girls putting down their, oh, coupon clipping and book of Cathy cartoons in order to hit the town--just like regular people!)

Anyway, the upside of Girls' Night Out is that the cocktails were five bucks each. My neighbor and I had a nice time, and when the check came, I put it on my debit card and she gave me some cash. I've waited tables before, and I always tip twenty percent. For really horrible service, I've been known to dip down to fifteen percent--take that as your lesson, missy!--but the service last night was perfectly fine.

I got home and couldn't sleep because I realized that I tipped twenty percent on the five-dollars cocktails--not the normal price. I worked myself into a tizzy. I didn't want to screw over that pleasant waitress! I didn't mean to be cheap! I got myself downstairs toute de suite and finally figured that the difference in tip was one dollar.

The money, she's fraught. Before I started the book, I didn't know that I'd really have much to say about finances, but it mushroomed into this gigantic chapter until my editor sheared it back.

Speaking of shearing back, check out this blog. The writer is beginning her 40 days of not spending in order to get out of debt. It reminds me a little of Judith Levine's Not Buying It, but with a really concrete goal. And some excellent commentary on service dogs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


In the paper this morning, there was an Associated Press story titled "Experts lament stuck-up students." Sounded like some good dirt, so I read on.

The gist of it is that a huge study, conducted by five psychologists and on 16,475 college students, concludes that more than two-thirds of these students scored "above average" on a test that evaluates narcissism. This is 30 percent more narcissists than the students surveyed in 1982, the year the test was introduced.

I'm no psychologist, but I did spend quite a bit of time, over the past two years, taking quizzes, questionnaires, tests. And if I may? I think questions themselves are the Achilles heel of a lot of studies. I took some quizzes that felt authentic to me--they had very specific questions--and many more that sort of stumped me. The questions were charged, hard to unpack, and really dependent on the situation.

In this study, the students were answering questions like "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person," and "I can live my life any way I want to."

I probably would have answered that I do think I'm a special person. I think you're a special person. I think all of us are unique and irreplaceable, and I think that makes me more empathetic, not less (as the study suggests). As a college student, I also might have pointed out that, historically, it's not been that long since women were granted the rights to live as they choose, and yes, damn straight I was going to live my life the way I wanted to. (Then I would have raised my fist and yelled, "Take Back the Night!")

I haven't read the actual study, so I don't know what sort of things the researchers controlled for. The lead author, Jean Twenge, wrote a book called Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before. From her quotes, I'd guess that she finds the source of the narcissism in parenting practices.

I'd be curious to see if she addresses any cultural factors though. This is the generation, after all, who watched their parents fret over whether their jobs were being outsourced and who are told that Social Security will be caput by the time they need it. That could contribute to some Looking Out for Number One.

Also: "Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism," Twenge told the AP. "By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube."

By posting this on my blog, did I inadvertantly let Jean Twenge Oh, snap! me? I believe I did.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jazz with Jennifer!

There are some things a person has to accept that she cannot change about herself. Maybe it's that she'll never believe that another color is the new black. Maybe it's that she will always find those new 3-D ultrasound images vaguely creepy, no matter whose baby it is. Maybe it's that she'll look at a glass half full and see a glass that someone has already drunk from and suspect that person probably has a cold.

According to British economist Richard Layard, who wrote the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, we need a certain amount of stability in the big things in our lives (job, marriage, etc.) to keep us chipper. But, on an individual level, we need to mix it up a bit. Suze Orman writes that we should be able to splurge a little; the marital experts write that couples need some spice; Martin Seligman writes about the element of surprise.

I tend to get stuck in ruts of routine, so I'm always looking for new things to do. A regular DJ Funky Fresh, I am.

Brandon and I decided on Saturday night that it would be great for Caleb and me to join him when he played with the Sunday night jazz collective he's started going to recently. We'd get some dinner. I'd be supporting my man. Caleb would get some culture.

I settled up the bill for our tacos while Brandon went upstairs to warm up. Caleb and I joined him up there and got comfortable, him with a Shirley Temple, me with a Bohemia. Caleb leaned his head against me. The band started with "Take the A Train."

First song: Caleb taps his foot appreciately. We both smile a little bigger when Brandon takes his solo. We snuggle.

Second song: The whispering starts. Why are they all wearing glasses? I suggest maybe it's a band look. Where is the drummer? He's just around that post. This is the song that goes duh duh duh duh duh. Yes. How long does this last? Uh oh.

Third song: Frantic waving at Brandon and my hissing that Daddy's trying to play. A suggestion that we play Hangman. An ill-advised decision to get me to try to guess a ten-letter Pokémon character. A few more rounds in which the stick figure meets his end. A few more rounds in which he gets a stay of execution. Finally, a request that we leave.

By the middle of the fourth song, there are urgent requests to go home now and comments hinting that if I'd only let him bring him his Gameboy, we wouldn't be in this pickle. I sigh in a way hinting that my balance between stability and surprise is being seriously offset. Also hinting that one more mention of the Gameboy is going to seriously piss me off. We go downstairs and order dessert.

We walk to the parking garage. "I'm sorry that didn't work out," Brandon says.

"I'm sorry we cut your night short," I say.

"I'm not sorry for anything," Caleb says mildly.

We keep walking the pathway back to the rut, where the least apologetic of us is happy to stay.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bounty from the Internet

. Today, the New York Times's Style section is running an article about mothers organizing for legislative stuff that would help families. I am (as my sister Erin would say) SO picking up what they're putting down, and I'm excited that there are people taking actual steps to TCB. (For a while, I was afraid we were going to get trapped in this endless circle of Sharing Our Stories, which can be entertaining and emotionally satisfying but doesn't, say, get health coverage for our kids. You can also check out this feature by my pal Stephanie to learn more about the state of the mothers' movement.) Collective action, baby!

(Also, in the NYTimes piece, look closely at the picture of Kiki Peppard, who's been trying to get a law passed in the Pennsylvania legislature banning maternal discrimination. You may recognize the magazine she's holding--I got such a kick out of that!)

. Am I the only one who does experiments with my personal life? Oh, no, I am not. I just dicovered Emily Yoffe's Human Guinea Pig column on Slate. It is some excellent reading. The Mrs. America Pageant column is especially awesome.

The writer Gretchen Rubin is doing something she calls The Happiness Project. To be honest, I was a little freaked out when I first heard about it because it's pretty much the exact same project I undertook: Taking self-help advice to become a better, happier person. But I have to say, I'm a little bit addicted to Rubin's blog now, and I'm especially struck by how different our takes are on the exact same project. Holy parallel universe!

. Jessica Hall, from the article a few posts down, was given five years probation and a felony on her record. After serving seven months in jail. If she were a rich white woman, you can bet your bippy she wouldn't have even been charged. Sorry--nothing funny here.

. Confidential to Ms. Peace and Forgiveness: The producers of Ten Years Younger agree that Daisy does, in fact, look ten years younger. However, filming her would pose a challenge because the camera crews might take off their shoes in the foyer, and we all know what happens then.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Take That Tone With Me

For someone who has a family reputation for not exactly being a tidy cat, I certainly get a lot of mail about creating a lovely home. Not that I'm complaining. I pore through every issue of Real Simple, and I generally have a good long look at the Pottery Barn/ Crate & Barrel/ Hold Everything/ Restoration Hardware catalogues that arrive in a steady, Zen-fountain-like stream. I like the peaceful pictures (although by writing this sentence, I know I sound like a simpleton).

During my experiments, I actually did achieve a clutter-free home. A clutter-free first floor anyway. But as I stacked yet more drawings of Pokémon figures on top of the refrigerator last night, it occurred to me that what I really want is not so much a look for the house, but something more like a tone. (This has occurred to me before, but if I put every self-justifying crackpot idea I've had in the book, it would have been 800 pages long.)

We're not necessarily a peaceful people here at my house. Two of us are maybe a little too high strung, plus there are the dogs. They bark at inopportune times, and often Luna will stand on your leg, her paws exactly like little stakes pinning the flesh of your thigh to the couch. The volume tends to be loud, and there seems to be no short supply of dust and smudges and fingerprints.

Last night, I was thinking maybe our tone could be: Fun. Fun seems to be a lot easier to achieve than peaceful. Fun allows your kitchen table to be littered with three decks of cards. Fun says, "Hey, karaoke machine, you don't have to be put away! We're just going to rock out later on!" Fun says, "Yeah, the kitchen tile was chosen because it matches the color of the dirt outside. And that's HUNKY DORY."

Another good thing about thinking about the tone of the house is that it incorporates the people in it, not just the belongings and the cleanliness. It includes the way everyone talks to one another and how welcoming they are of guests. It includes family inside jokes. Maybe, I was thinking last night, the fact that we taught the boy to say "as they say in the Old Country" is just as important in our homemaking as vacuuming!

I know what you're thinking: How messy is that house right now?

The answer is: Oh, quite.

Monday, February 19, 2007

All By Ourselves

When I tell people that I wrote a book about about self-help, sometimes I get the same sort of reaction that I did in 1999 when I told people my friend and I were starting up a magazine about motherhood: What a nice, lite topic!

If only. In almost every chapter of Practically Perfect, I'd be chugging along with the research, and then something would trip my wires, causing me to turn from a mild-mannered writer to Screed Woman. (She can stuff a hundred swear words in a single page! She can only be stopped by the wisdom of her editor!) The recurring problem was this extreme form of personal responsibility endemic to today's self-help. The solution to whatever's ailing you, these days, begins and ends with you and you alone.

Jesus Christ, I thought. What happened to the days of support groups and bonding and all the touchy-feely stuff that self-help was supposed to be about? Apparently, vanished into the same you-made-your-bed-now-lie-in-it Zeitgeist as the rest of the culture:

'McMissile' Moment Lands Mom in Jail
Driver Gets Felony Conviction For Tossing Cup of Ice Into Car

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007; A01

To the locals, it's the "McMissile" case.

And like the name, the details of it spill forth like a bad joke: A woman is driving north on Interstate 95. Three kids squirm in the back seat, and her sister, six months pregnant and having early contractions, sits in the front. The stress starts to simmer. Traffic slows, then crawls, then creeps. More stress. A car cuts in front of her, then scoots away. A short time later, it darts in again. She can no longer take it. She veers onto the shoulder and speeds up. Wham! She tosses a large McDonald's cup filled with ice into the other car.

"From my side, I heard a whoomp," recalled the woman's sister, LaJeanna Porter, 27. "I was like, 'I know you didn't throw that cup.' She said, 'Yes I did.' "

Neither woman foresaw the seemingly supersize repercussions of that misguided moment July 2.

No one was injured, but the cup launcher, Jessica Hall, 25, of Jacksonville, N.C., was charged and convicted by a Stafford County jury of maliciously throwing a missile into an occupied vehicle, a felony in Virginia. The instructions given to the jury said that "any physical object can be considered a missile. A missile can be propelled by any force, including throwing."

Hall, a mother of three young children whose husband is serving his third tour in Iraq, has spent more than a month in jail.

The jury sentenced her to two years in prison, the minimum, and a judge will formally impose a sentence Wednesday. Under state law, the judge can only decrease the jury's sentence.

"We didn't think it would go this far," Hall said in an interview at the Rappahannock Regional Jail. "Two years! What did I do?"

There are two versions of what happened that day. The occupants of both cars agree on this: It was hot, the kind of hot in which legs stick to leather seats, and the traffic was barely moving, slowed by a fatal crash up the road in Prince William County.

In one car, driver Pete Ballin, 36, and girlfriend Eliza Fowle, 28, were heading home to the District after visiting her father in North Carolina. They said they were maneuvering through the stalled traffic, not even noticing Hall until the Mickey-D moment.

"I guess we inadvertently merged back in front of her," Fowle said. "She apparently took that as some sort of aggressive maneuver on our part."

The next thing they knew, Fowle said, Hall was pulling up in the emergency lane and "chucking a big, supersized McDonald's cup at us." It flew diagonally across Ballin and onto Fowle. "It was gross and sticky and got all over me and the front of our car, the dashboard and the windshield," Fowle said.

Hall, whose family was driving from North Carolina to New York for a family party, saw the situation differently. She said she had never driven that route and was trying to keep up with her father's truck when Ballin cut in front of her the second time, causing her to swerve onto the shoulder. She said she was worried because her sister's bulging belly almost slammed into the dashboard.

Hall's next move was wrong, she said, but she felt provoked.

"It was past me ignoring him. I'm not going to lie; I was cursing him," she said. "I took the McDonald's cup. I tossed it over my car."

She never fathomed that it would land her in jail for the first time in her life, wearing a standard-issue jumpsuit frayed up both legs and learning to curl her hair using toilet paper. Not even when she saw Ballin talking to the state trooper up the highway, or when she was arrested and released on her own recognizance, or even when a trial date was set for Jan. 3.

Even when Ballin testified, Hall said, "I'm thinking about what I'm going to cook when I get home."

"I passed out when they said guilty, two years," she added. "I became a convicted felon."

Fowle stands by the couple's decision to report the crime but concedes that even she and Ballin were surprised at the conviction.

"I think that this is way too much of a punishment for her actions. This is just to me absolutely ridiculous," Fowle said. Community service would have made more sense, she said. "It's something that's going to make someone realize I did screw up, and I'm going to remember this, and I'm not going to do something like this again."

Hall's attorney, public defender Terence Patton, did not return calls for comment. Nor did Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel M. Chichester or Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney George Elsasser, who handled the case.

Elsasser argued in court that had Ballin been hit by the drink, he might have gotten into a serious accident with injuries. Hall also was found guilty of reckless driving, assault against Ballin and assault and battery against Fowle. For her conviction on those charges, the jury recommended she be fined $1,000.

According to court documents, Hall is unemployed and, with her husband's salary, the couple takes in $30,384 a year. She receives $388 a month in food stamps.

"It doesn't seem right for her not to be around," said Porter, who is watching one of Hall's three children, ages 4, 6 and 8. The younger two are with their grandparents. "We just hope that whatever they do, don't let them keep her. Without her, I don't know what I'll do."

Hall said she has cried every day she has spent locked up and wakes most days to find clumps of hair on her pillow from the stress. She shares a cell with two other women and spends 19 hours a day in the cell, she said.

When Hall talks about the incident, she sometimes jokes about how she will only fly over Virginia from now on and says other inmates sometimes throw things in her direction and say, "Watch out McMissile."

But in other moments, when she talks about the reality of a felony conviction, her expression goes blank. She was supposed to start nursing school the day after she was sent to jail, and she wonders what job she will be able to get once potential employers do a background check.

"Now people are going to see me as an angry, road rage, convicted felon. And it really upsets me," she said. "I must have been wrong . . . but seriously, God. Lesson learned. Lesson learned is one hour in this place."

Thursday, February 15, 2007


. NJ Mom on Mother Talkers has a post on some of the advice in The Rules II, the follow-up book to The Rules. I didn't use this book in my experiments, but I'm familiar with this genre of romantic advice, in which you start out basically being nice to your partner and somehow wind up at the bottom of a slippery slope, trying to scrub your brain free of the expert advice with the harsh soap of your own common sense.

. I'm pleased to hear that, like my grandparents, domestic expert Martha Stewart has a bathroom that one can get stuck in.

. In health news: Due to a thick crust of ice on top, we in Virginia can stand on the snow and entertain the ideas that 1) we're just little ole wisps of people (as our friends on Designing Women might say), or 2) like David Blaine, we can levitate. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a mellow is harshed.

. Some fun--"fun" meaning "outrageous"--stats on how the U.S. stacks up compared to other countries in terms of parental leave. If you think you're not going to hear mention of the anthropological treasure trove that is Papua New Guinea, you're wrong.

. I'm a sucker for a story of a child inadvertantly working blue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Intake Manifold

Brandon and I went out to some bars downtown. It was snowing pretty hard, but we live fairly close by and can walk home if need be ("if need be" meaning "if we are drunk"). At every bar, there was always at least one guy crowing over and over, CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT NO ONE WILL DRIVE IN THIS! It went without saying that he would drive in this. Because, it was implied, he is not a pussy.

With me, there's always a little roulette game regarding what's going to irritate me in a huge, disproportionate way. (One of the character traits that, in fact, led me to try to be better and happier in the first place.) I whispered something snotty to Brandon about Mr. Lugnuts. What did these guys want drivers who are uncomfortable in bad weather to do? Get in the car anyway and cause accidents?

I'm a nervous driver now, but I was once much bolder. Whenever it snowed or iced, my mother would call my high school and warn me not to try it. Often, at the end of seventh period, I and the rest of the school would hear: JENNY AND ERIN NIESSLEIN--YOUR MOTHER CALLED AND YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DRIVE HOME. I REPEAT: JENNY AND ERIN NIESSLEIN, YOUR MOTHER ...

More recently, before I became simply nervous, I was a panicky driver. That sad saga's in the book.

I've been thinking a lot about transportation lately because it looks like my book tour is firming up, and, although I'm pretty much over the moon about it (how champagne wishes is the word "tour"?), I'm going to be moving myself from Point A to Point B quite a bit. I don't mind flying and I plan on using cabs and public transportation, but since I'll be visiting cities I've never been to (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, more TK), I'm a little worried about the car culture. Specifically, I'm worried that I'll find myself in a scene from Steve Martin's L.A. Story.

If I were still keeping a gratitude journal, the obvious thing to write in it would be: "I'm grateful that at least the weather will be nice." But really? It's going to be late spring/summer when I'm doing this. I think it's reasonable to take it for granted that the weather won't include snow or ice.

I've digressed. Just... be safe. And Happy V.D.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Spinning Me Right Round, Baby. Right Round.

One of the tough things in writing about happiness and self-help is that they're both gigantic minefields of clichés. Put a smile on your face! Look on the bright side! Fake it till you make it! A tidy house is the sign of a tidy mind! Set it and forget it! Coffee, tea, or me! Girls just want to have fun! Whatever tickles your pickle!

One fresh angle would be to look at all the advice through the lens of psychology or even neuroscience. Because there does seem to be some headway--or claims of headway--in linking the old clichés with new research. Smiling, for example, seems to help release a calming bit of seratonin.

Or that's what they say. To be honest, I felt a little twitchy delving too far into neuroscience. For one, I don't have an especially scientific mind. I have a friend who's a biophysical chemist, and when she was awarded a young scientist award from the White House, I wrote a profile of her. She's one of the most fun people I know (and has a background that makes for a great profile) and it was all going swimmingly until I had to describe what she does for a living. I wound up begging her to talk to me as if I were a child.

For two, I just wasn't sure that all these quoted neuroscientific studies were actually the truth and I didn't want someone else's egg on my face. (Ewww.)

Last night I was reading a profile in The New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar of these married philosophers, Pat and Paul Churchland, who believe that the future of philosophy will pop up in neuroscience. According to MacFarquhar, the Churchland's ideas are pretty radical. They're discarding the idea that there's a difference between the mind and the brain. But they also say that what we know now about neuroscience is so tiny that even if someone from the future told us the secret of consciousness, we'd have no idea what to do with it.

Thankyouverymuch, Churchlands. They're talking about consciousness, but I'm hoping that what they say extends to happiness, optimism, and whatever unchangeable characteristics we have. We just don't have the full story right now.

For the record, people like the Churchlands seem to have a little more of the story than most of us. This is a quote from Pat Churchland, after a rough afternoon at work: "Paul, don't speak to me, my seratonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren't for my endogeneous opiates, I'd have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute."

The Churchlands believe that, in the future, as we all learn what these words mean, everyone will start talking like this.

Well, I can believe that more than I can that, in the future, we'll all be wearing those glasses that change from light to dark in the sun.

Friday, February 9, 2007


My son made the household some bathroom passes the other day. (I love thinking about his thought process: Well, I used up all the time on the Gameboy for the day, and it's too cold to ride my bike. . . What the hell--I'll make us some bathroom passes.)

He tailored them to each family member. Mine read:


That's right, people. INSTANT authority. Excuse me, sorority member in the expensive restaurant who won't stop shouting to her parents how much her "big sister" wanted to be matched with her? Might you tone it down so I can concentrate on my own family? No? Well, maybe this card will help you change your mind. You read that right. Grown-up. Parent.

I got more of a kick out of my bathroom pass than maybe was warranted. And I think it might have been because of the surprise of it all. One of the experts whose advice I followed was positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman claims that there are certain guidelines for getting the maximum pleasure out of life and that one of them is the element of surprise. He suggests you try to surprise yourself, or even better, stage small surprises for your loved ones.

My boy, obviously, wasn't trying to stage a surprise for me, but that was the end result: a nice surprise of how he sees me. I'm thinking it was the surprise of a new perspective. I mean, I know that I'm a parent and a grown-up, but I tend to get caught up in how much it feels like I'm making it up as I go along.

Also, I like the novelty of having bathroom passes.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Well, hello, hello

This is my very first blog entry and I'm really fighting the urge to start off with the the phrase, "If you're reading this..." which is clearly overblown. Am I caught on a stormy sea? Am I a settler with a dwindling supply of salted pork? Am I in the Blair Witch Project?

If you're reading this, you probably know me as Jennifer from Brain, Child magazine. If you read that, you probably know that I've been working on a book called PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY, which is about my two years of taking self help advice to become a better, happier person. (It comes out May 17.)

Anyway, I've started this blog because, although the book is out of my hands and possibly even be printed right at this very moment, I'm still kind of writing it in my head, filing away things that seem very relevant to the ideas of self-improvement, happiness, luck, and individualism. The idea is I'll write about these things. Later.

Right now, I have this low-grade obsessiveness about the book. It's on Amazon. It's been up there for a while, at first just with an ISBN and a place holder, then with the cover. Recently, a description of it popped up, along with list of books that people who liked this book also like. (Which is an excellent idea, by the way. The video store Erol's, circa 1984, used to do this and I was so sad when they stopped. Also about Erol's? They had a section called "Martial Arts," that I always misread as "Marital Arts." In other words, soft p0rn. I was always embarrassed for the people slobbering over what turned out to be the Bruce Lee oeuvre.)

Anyway, this list on Amazon includes not one but two books about Sex and the Single Mother. I can't see a good reason for this, seeing as I'm a longtime practitioner of the Marital Arts, and there's nothing anything in PRACTICALLY PERFECT about sex and single motherhood. (Not that I begrudge single mothers their sex.) But I can't wait to tell Brandon, my husband. Especially because we've recently had this long string of increasing tawdry horoscopes.

At first, I'd get one that was something innocuous like, "Partnerships, love take center stage." They grew a little more pointed: "Focus on love, partnerships today." But then they started getting increasingly desperate. "THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE BEFORE YOU START SOMETHING NEW!" the newspaper astrologer begged me last week. Saturday, Brandon got something like "You have to keep your secret a little longer."

Very Melrose Place, huh? I'll keep checking back. I hope Amazon starts suggesting Dr. Kimberly Shaw wigs.