Mama Mia, Don’t Break The Pasta

(This column originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Refreshed Magazine)

(photo December 2015)

(photo December 2015)

Over the holidays I noticed a new product on my grocery store shelf: half-sized spaghetti. It’s basically plain spaghetti, but half the length of regular spaghetti and touted as the “perfect size for any pot” because there’s no need to break it in half.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, have we become so lazy as Americans that we can’t break our own pasta in half?

I posted that sentiment, along with a photo of the box of spaghetti, on my Facebook page. My intent was to generate discussion about the way we rely on convenience items and technology to do everyday things we really should be doing ourselves. I’m not even talking about things like relying on GPS instead of reading a map. I’m talking about using electric staplers and wearing self-tying sneakers.

The little rant made sense to me, so imagine my surprise when instead of people talking about the laziness of half-sized spaghetti, I was hit with a barrage of replies that all shared the same message: Never break the pasta.

Yes, dear readers, the fact that we’re too lazy to break our own spaghetti is a far less serious offense than the fact that anyone would dare to break spaghetti in the first place.

The debate over pasta size included comments from my friend, Bob, who regularly cooks a variety of delicious-looking Italian dishes for his family and shares the photos on social media.

“Never break the pasta,” he wrote. When I asked why, he replied, “You’re not supposed to break it.”

For the record, I don’t break the pasta; I know not to do that. But why am I not supposed to do that? I asked the question again and again, and dozens of people responded. The conversations went something like this: Continue reading

The strangest dream: the incredible, growing house

photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

One of the (few) things I like about Facebook is that it shows me things that I’ve posted on the same day over the years. It’s interesting to see old photos and status updates.

Today, though, what popped up was a link to a blog post I’d written in 2009, on an old blog, in which I chronicled a dream I’d had a few nights before. I keep a dream journal and often read through it to see if I can decipher messages I’m trying to send to myself. I’m a vivid dreamer and I’m convinced my subconscious talks to me when I sleep.

So when I read the post from seven years ago, I didn’t remember the dream at first. I apparently never wrote it in my journal. But as I read the post it came back . In detail. I could see the rooms, feel the furniture, and I remember the tone of voice people used when they talked to me.

It’s an interesting enough dream to share again. There’s a message in there somewhere, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it comes as the holiday season kicks off. A quick note: I’ve changed or eliminated the names of some people and edited out a few random comments I’d made at the time. But otherwise, here is the dream:

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For some reason, in this dream darling husband David and I had been given a huge, mansion-like house. It had a ground floor, three floors of bedrooms, and then an attic. Cassie, David and I set ourselves up on the third floor, with lovely, huge rooms, big windows, and lots of sunlight and beautiful antique furniture. Continue reading

The election, fear, and an opportunity for change

The flags at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park, Rochester, NY.

The flags at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park, Rochester, NY.

A friend sent a text this morning asking how I was feeling about the election. This is what I told her:

“I’m completely fine. I voted third party and felt great about it. I don’t look to Washington to solve problems. I look at the people around me. And I have great faith in my friends, family, and neighbors and their ability to love each other and work together despite their differences. I’m a firm believer that if we did more of that we’d have less divisiveness. But hey, I’m an optimist. What can I say.”

Tuesday was definitely a surprising turn of events in this election season, and while I’m not sure the pundits have sorted out everything the people were saying, my gut tells me it had more to do with making a statement about politics as usual and less about supporting one candidate’s platform.

To be honest, had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic candidate, I have no doubt he’d be preparing to move into the White House right now. Trump was the best shake up available to voters, and I think they took it. A surprise? For many, yes, especially those in Washington and in the media. Does it leave us wondering what comes next? Sure does.

But rather than seeing fear, I see opportunity, a chance for us to reach not just across political aisles but across the street and being to rebuild our nation, one relationship at a time.

We the People.

Let’s start there.

If you don’t have a friend who disagrees with everything you believe, then you need to go find a new friend. And I’m not talking about those faceless “friends” on social media, those vague entities at which you sling anger-filled status updates without accountability. I mean real people you have to interact with face to face, one on one.

It’s a whole hell of a lot harder to be an ass when you’re sitting across the table from someone.

Break bread together. Grab a coffee. And not just once. Carve out time to sit and talk, once a week maybe, just for an hour. Get to know each other. Talk about your families, your jobs, your backgrounds. Talk about the things that you’re passionate about. See where you agree, and focus on that as you really get to know each other. Listen more than you talk. Judge less than you love. I promise you that, in time, you will see America in a whole new light.

Because we are an amazing people – creative, talented, diverse and beautiful. And we each contribute a thread to this tapestry that is our United States.

I know, because reaching out and talking face to face is what I’ve been trying to do over the last ten plus years, after I realized that I’d been living in a bubble and that my views on the world were naive at best, and often simply ignorant. I had to question everything I thought I believed and look myself in the mirror to decide if I liked what I saw. I made changes where necessary.

I know that the people who journeyed with me also had to do the same, and in the end I find myself ridiculously blessed with friends and confidantes across the political and social spectrum. Do we always agree? Nope. But do we respect each other? Yes.

If you’re not willing to take those same steps then I suggest that you are part of the problem.

Don’t be part of the problem. Be the solution.

Don’t allow yourself to remain mired in the political muck that has consumed America for the last months. Whatever side of the divide you were on, get up, dust yourself off, and begin listening to each other instead of yelling at each other.

Turn off the TV news channels, get off social media, and stop reacting to sound bites. Start interacting with people face to face, one on one, and listen to their stories.

Look for places where you can join forces to embrace that which we have in common while respecting our differences. Follow your passion, work towards your goals, and reach a hand across the aisle when necessary. Be willing to compromise.

Ask for forgiveness where you have wronged your fellow man, and offer forgiveness in return.

Focus on being the best You that you can be, and in doing so raise the bar for everyone around you.

Find opportunities to unite our individual strengths to move forward as one nation towards the common goals of liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Like I said, I’m an optimist at heart. But maybe a little optimism is what we need right now.

(PS I just came across this great piece from one of my favorite…I want to say celebrities but he’s really just a regular guy with a big audience… Mike Rowe. He makes some great points worth mulling over – especially “We’ve survived 44 Presidents, and we’ll survive this one too” and “I’m worried because despising our candidates publicly is very different than despising the people who vote for them”.)

Election 2016: What would Susan B. Anthony do?

The grave site of Susan B. Anthony, in October 2016.

The grave site of Susan B. Anthony at Mt. Hope Cemetery, in October 2016.

There are just a few days until Election Day and I have to confess that I’m conflicted about what I’m going to do when I get to the ballot box. I’ve been supporting a third party candidate the entire season, but I’m also aware that this could be an historic election. Do I want to use my vote to help put the first woman in the Oval Office?

So I’m asking myself: What would Susan B. Anthony do?

As I’m working on my book about people buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, I’ve been putting off writing about the famous abolitionist and suffragette. It’s a big story and I’m not sure how to pare it down, how to decide what angle I want to focus on.

I’ve decided that I’m going to visit her grave on Election Day, and start the story there.

Traditionally, on Election Day, people visit Susan B. Anthony’s grave and leave mementos, especially “I voted” stickers. (Side note: the folks at Mt. Hope Cemetery are begging people to NOT put stickers on her headstone. The gum and adhesive damages the fragile stone. My suggestion: be more creative with your token of affection.)

This year, public gatherings are already in the works for Tuesday as groups of people plan to trek to the Anthony grave site and pay their respects to the woman who fought tirelessly for women’s rights.

I suspect that a lot of women will be celebrating the opportunity to vote for the candidate who may actually become the first female President of the United States.

And here’s where I’m conflicted.

The rational part of me wants to vote for the candidate who best represents my views, and that’s not Hillary Clinton. I appreciate and respect her as an accomplished woman, but politically, we’re just not on the same page.

At the same time, to say I had the chance to vote for the first female president of the U.S. and I didn’t take it? Is that what I want to tell my grandchildren? Continue reading

Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves

marked-mt-hope-tour-prosperous-and-penniless-tour-2015-guide-sally-millick-051-2

My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today. Continue reading

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

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National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

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50 thoughts on turning 50: #33 Question everything (or maybe not)

Screenshot of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

Screenshot of some of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

As much as I hate to admit it, I like Facebook quizzes. I know they’re created so Facebook and other companies can collect information from users, but I’m still always amazed when they give me results as if they actually have tabulated my answers and analyzed them.

So when my friend Linda shared a link to a quiz about the “Four Tendencies”, I had to try it. The quiz was created by author Gretchen Rubin as part of the research for her book, “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life” in which she tackles the question of how we can make good habits and break bad ones.

I know it’s just part of the book marketing, but I was curious anyway. Especially because I know Rubin is the author of “The Happiness Project (Revised Edition): Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”, in which she takes a year to explore the idea of what makes us happy. I haven’t read the book, partly because around the time it came out, I’d been exploring a somewhat similar topic and thinking about writing a book. I’d amassed a box full of notes and research. When I saw her book, I sighed and moved on to another idea.

Theoretically, anyway. What I really did was start researching the next book idea. Research isn’t writing. As my publisher well knows.

But back to the quiz. It’s a simple quiz, just a few questions about how you respond to some general situations, like making a New Year’s resolution or dealing with expectations. When I got my results, I wasn’t surprised: I’m a Questioner.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I ask a lot of questions. (Ask my friend Laura.) I over research and over analyze. I’ll ask questions about your questions and then go research the answers. So what did surprise me was that, according to the quiz, Questioners “resist outer expectations” and “meet inner expectations”.

I often do reject other people’s expectations of me. I wouldn’t say that’s been a lifelong thing; only in the past maybe 10 or 15 years have I really been able to stand up to people who boss me around, and to stop living other people’s expectations of me and living my own.

Except that in that rejection of other people’s expectations, I haven’t really been able to hold onto my own expectations of myself. I don’t feel like I ever live up to my own expections.

I let myself down. A lot.

But then I mused a bit on the quiz’s explanation:

“Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect. Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, right now I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework, yep, you’re probably a Questioner!”

This is really quite accurate. I don’t just reject what other people want or expect; I do what I think is right and worthwhile and justified and respectful. As for my inner expectations? I do meet them – when I feel they’re justified.

I’m not always a slacker.

In the follow up email – because of course I signed up to get more information – I learned that Questioners are motivated by logic, fairness, and reason. They do exhaustive research and often suffer from paralysis by analysis.

And then a light bulb went off over my head: this is me, and maybe this is why I can’t finish a writing project.

It’s not that I don’t want to or that I’m not willing to do the work. It’s because, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel like anything I write has value, it doesn’t meet my own inner expectations. Outside expectations don’t matter – reader feedback or a deadline or a paycheck or even a signed book contract. What matters is what I’m thinking inside, what I’m expecting from myself: do I feel it’s quality work? Is it an idea that will bring value to other people’s lives? Is it necessary, in a world being bombarded with information, to add my creative voice to the clamor? Am I doing the best job I can do?

Probably not.

Which I know isn’t sound reasoning. I know some of my writing is good – no, great. So it’s not like I never like my own work. I just balance what I offer with what the world needs and often find myself wanting.

Of course, if I think about it, if I really believe that my creative work has no value, then am I questioning the integrity of the publications that pay me? These aren’t stupid people. They’re not giving me money to be charitable. I clearly write something they need. My publishers put out some quality stuff. They’re also dear, dear friends. But they’re not having me write a book to do me some kind of favor. I respect these people…don’t I? Maybe in not believing in their belief of me, I’m actually not respecting them?

I think it’s what Rubin means when she writes in the more detailed tendency report:

“Questioners are motivated by sound reasons—or at least what they believe to be sound reasons. In fact, to others, Questioners can sometimes seem like crackpots, because they may reject expert opinion in favor of their own conclusions.”

All of this shouldn’t surprise you. The fact that I’ve done an entire blog post based on a few lines of feedback from a Facebook quiz should give you all the proof you need that I’m a crackpot.

So what do I need to do? Stop questioning myself. Or should I?  Isn’t research good? Isn’t learning more better than not know learning more?

What I really need to do is get the book and see what Rubin suggests for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. You know, do more research.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. It won’t surprise you that it’s been two years since I started this project and I’m just a little more than halfway. I told you when I first posted it might take me until I’m 60 to finish. Now I know why. You can  read more posts here.

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