Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Going on the Radio with Pearls

Today I'm going to be on the local NPR radio! My "I Believe in Flair" blog won a contest, and so I get to read the entry about Michael Jackson on the air. I'm wearing my pearls. My student today reminded me that it's radio, not television, so it won't matter how I look. But still, I put on the pearls. Besides, I'll know how I'll look.

I'm going to be on the radio! I'm going to use one more exclamation point.

Here: !

Excitement manifests as exclamation points in my world. Some might say I'm a walking exclamation point.

My daughter's the same way. I woke up to her asking why the other neighborhood kids' Easter Bunny hides their Easter baskets. She wanted a hidden Easter Basket, with clues, on Easter morning. She was gesturing with her hands and reenacting the hunt she'd go on to find her basket. She suggested that I write a kind note to the Easter Bunny to explain the new hiding-the-Easter-basket ritual. I agreed.

"And mom," she said hurriedly, "make sure you use lots of exclamation points."
"Why?" I asked, rubbing my eyes and trying to shake off a nightmare I had about my high school.
"Because then the Easter Bunny knows how important this is. He will know how much you care about this."

I thought about how right she is. Exclamation points do signal excitement, passion, flair. In academic writing, we never use them. In fact, my grammar book on writing with flair doesn't even mention them. It's almost as if the exclamation point drains out of us as we age. We lose things to be passionate about (perhaps because it's not sophisticated to be enthusiastic). Sometimes I ask students to make a list of 5 things worth arguing for. Since they have to write rebuttal essays, I encourage them to pick topics that really move them. We are all surprised with how hard this task is. We've lost some flair and replaced it with apathy.

Most children exude passion naturally. They learn apathy. On the walk to school, I've witnessed some serious throw-downs about which website ranks higher (Club Penguin, Poptropica, or Webkinz). I see kids willing to go to the grave about whether or not it's pizza or bagels for school lunch. I've seen them literally not stop talking for 20 minutes about Legos or Star Wars.

I want to be able to talk about things, with passion, like that.

Living with flair means I encourage the exclamation point. I draw out the passion in others; I ignite it in myself. So I'm really excited to go to the radio station! Did I mention I'm wearing my pearls?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Doing the Thing I Don't Want to Do

I did something I hate today. But the not-flair morphed into the flair. Let me explain.

Several things tempted to destroy flair possibility today: cleaning dishes, dressing reluctant children, driving to the gym to meet my nemesis (the arc trainer machine), and figuring out what to make for dinner. I don't enjoy these things. Couldn't I just do what I want to do today? My impulse tells me to sit on the couch all day, eat chocolate bunnies (have you tried the peanut butter ones?), and play Ms. Pacman.

But I remembered something a wise doctor once told me. You can tame the part of the brain that demands its own way. You don't have to respond to your impulses. Neuroscience suggests that if we practice doing something we don't want to do everyday, we can essentially diminish the power of the brain's pleasure center. We actually feel better, over time, when we do this. By starting with small decisions to do one thing I didn't want to do, I could gradually become less impulse-driven.

Everyday, I can embrace some not-flair. I could make the bed when I don't want to. I could do some push-ups. I could scrub a toilet. And in that genius irony that is most of life, the thing I hate could become a source of energy and pleasure. Funny, that brain.

Runners know this. My sister runs miles before I'm even awake; she can run for an hour while I eat at the same pace. That's some flair (I mean the running, not my eating). My sister always understood the mind game of running. Sure, the body resists. Sure, you don't want to do it. But then you choose to tie your shoes, greet the day, and run around the block. And before too long, you experience, ironically, pleasure beyond pleasure.

Today I chose to exercise on "the beast." The arc trainer terrifies me. If you've never been on one, it's an improved, more demanding version of an elliptical machine. 30 minutes on the arc trainer, and I think I'm going to die. I start mentally planning my funeral. I start writing out my will. But today, I remember my doctor's words. Do one thing you don't want to do. Suddenly, I'm happy and full of energy. I finish the workout by saying "no" to the impulse to get the heck off that machine and run far, far away from that gym, never to return.

Living with flair today means I do some things I don't want to do. And I enjoy them because I recognize the value in being less impulse-driven. I know that scrubbing my toilet can be flair. . . if I choose for it to be.

Monday, March 29, 2010

15 Minutes of Flair

So far, finding daily flair hasn't been too hard (thank you Michael Jackson, seashells, doughnuts, crab teething rings, and worms), but today seemed profoundly flairless. I walked to school, taught classes, held office hours. All good things, but nothing extraordinary stood out. I did see someone wearing the brightest blue shirt I've ever seen--it was practically glowing--and I thought about stopping him, taking a picture, and asking if he minded appearing in my flair blog.

But then, my cell phone rang. My husband was picking me up from campus, and he'd be 15 minutes late. I stood on the curb, wondering what in the world I could do with 15 minutes. What can anyone do with just 15 minutes? It's exactly the sort of time increment worth wasting away doing absolutely nothing.

Instead, I called my friend (I knew her office was across the street from the coffee shop).

"Hey," I said.
"Hey," she said.
"I have 15 minutes," I said.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"By the coffee shop," I said.
"I'm coming," she said.

For exactly 15 minutes, I drank a skinny mocha (I put that in just in case my Weight Watchers friends are reading), sat outside of the coffee shop, and had a wonderful conversation. In 15 minutes, we covered the topics of men, teaching, clothing accessories, children, procrastination, spirituality, over-committing, class presentations, sandwiches, and, finally, my husband's new glasses.

This friend knows how to create conversation flair. She knows the art of asking great questions to draw me out quickly. I've noticed that she asks about my day, but she'll do so in a way that encourages me to tell a story about it. She'll say, "tell, me more," or "what was that like for you," or "what is that making you think about?". She'll mention things she's observing about my life by saying, "I noticed this about your daughters," or "you seem to really enjoy this about teaching." And then I ask questions and make observations of her in return. We laughed together, expressed sadness with each other, and most of all, celebrated our day. We talked deeply, with flair, for 15 minutes, exchanged a quick hug, and then I was off to deal with groceries, grading, play dates, and laundry.

Living with flair means I turn any moment into a worthwhile one. It means spending time building relationships through meaningful conversation whether I have 15 minutes or 15 hours. Deliberate questions, connecting deeply. That's flair.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wormy Joy

On the day marking a triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem, this Palm Sunday started out drizzly and bitter cold. Rain in the forecast again. As I sat behind the registration table in the foyer of my church, welcoming families and their children, I noticed the palm branches limply splayed on a bench nearby.

Not so joyful of a Sunday, I thought. Even the palm branches can't find anything to be excited about. Nevertheless, I greeted each child and asked how her or she was doing. Most said, “Fine, thank you,” and moved on. But one little boy, maybe nine years old, leaned over my table, his hands in excited little fists. “I'm doing awesome!” He smiled so big, squishing his freckles into one another.

Since I don't hear that response very often, unless it involves a Disney vacation, I asked him what made him so happy on such a depressing, rainy day.

“I love the rain! I love the rain because it makes the worms come out, and then I can catch them!” He continued to smile and he even jumped up and down in anticipation. And then, before I could say another word, he turned and ran towards his family, leaving behind a trail of flair.

As he left, I thought about finding flair in the inconvenient, bitter cold rain. Come to think of it, most of life seems inconvenient and bitter. Our plans change. Our dreams die. We get sick. Loved ones pass away. Natural disasters strike nations. Children suffer. We suffer. Life doesn't often give us the luxury of living with flair in the midst of suffering.

But this little boy somehow saw past the rain. He knew that bad weather "makes the worms come out." Living with flair means I think beyond the inconvenient circumstance or the suffering to what it might make "come out." What beauty, what compassion, what goodness, what secret treasure? I can dread the rain, or I can dig deep into it, find the joy, and let in squiggle across my palm.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Daily Flair: Punning with a Crab

I desperately needed some visual flair. Due at a baby shower Saturday morning, I worried that the requisite darling baby clothes and princess books just weren't enough. Something was missing.

Thankfully, last night I happened to enter a whimsical gift shop downtown. This was the sort of shop that sold earrings made of candy wrappers, giant marionettes of kangaroos and tigers, and miniature mosaic turtles. As I wandered past picture frames made of recycled magazines, fragile blown glass hummingbirds, and Christmas nutcrackers, I spied a stuffed animal crab about the size of both my hands put together.

It was a feisty looking crab.

Then I noticed that for claws, it had little teething rings. I looked at the crab. He looked at me. Why would anybody buy a crab teething ring? Then I started laughing out loud. It was a crab teething ring. A crab. . . to give to your baby when she's crabby. I waved my friend over to me and showed her the little crab.

"Do you get it? It's a crab. . . for when the baby's crabby."

We laughed for a long time. I laughed the sort of laugh that makes you lose your balance (good thing I wasn't near the glass hummingbirds).

I love a good pun; it's verbal flair. I have friends that can bring a good pun to an unpleasant situation and bring unexpected laughter (like when my husband joked with his friend on Friday that his colonoscopy must have been a pain in the butt).

Today I had the pleasure of attending the baby shower (massive flair: diapers arranged in a 5 foot cake tower, cupcakes accented with frosting versions of various rattles, diaper pins, baby booties). When the guest of honor opened my little crab, I warned her about the upcoming pun. Several of us laughed together, jabbing elbows into a side or slapping a nearby knee. Without the pun, little Crabby would have been a fine gift. With the pun, he was flair.

Living with flair means I laugh out loud and enjoy a good pun. It's just the thing for putting someone in a good mood. Because, honestly, I'll take what I can get when I'm. . . crabby.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Daily Flair: "I'd Find the Cream."

On Fridays, my daughter gets to choose a treat after preschool. Since I was going to the grocery store to find some wrapping paper for a gift, she said she'd like a doughnut from the bakery there.

"And it has to have cream inside," she said, very seriously, her finger pointed into air.

"Why cream?" I asked, turning down the radio. Kate's a philosopher, and I didn't want to miss her insight, especially since I still hadn't experienced my flair moment for the day.

"Because it makes it so good."

"Well, what if you pick a doughnut that doesn't have cream inside?" I wondered, equally seriously.

"I'd find the cream," she shrugged with her palms upturned.

"What if there's no cream?" I asked.

"Then I'd find a new doughnut."

She folded her hands and looked peacefully out the window, assured that the cream was out there, somewhere, and she would find it.

On the flair meter, this statement ranked high for me. It represents an uncompromising commitment to persevere to find what the heart wants. So often we settle. So often we compromise. I thought of Thoreau's quote: "I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

Living with flair means I find what's so good about everything. And if it's not there, I find a new doughnut.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Daily Flair: Becoming an Umbrella

Flair opened early this morning on the dreary mile walk to school. It was drizzling (drizzle is the worst: it's indecisive and taunting with its half rain / half fog constitution) and remarkably chilly for March.

I have a huge bright blue and white umbrella. I like to spin it and do a little Gene Kelly dance as soon as I open it. And then, I'm driven by pure instinct to invite anyone near me in, to stand close, cuddle up, and stay warm. With my arm around a child or my head pressed to a friend's cheek, I feel like it is a sacred space. It feels like flair.

And it's no wonder I feel this way. Nearly every culture recognizes the important role of umbrellas and the treasures they protect. The umbrella's rich history reflects how communities use umbrellas to shield their most holy objects, to announce sacred ceremonies, and to signal the presence of royalty. In Egypt, the figures of gods are covered by umbrellas, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, the umbrella covers the Most Holy Sacrament, and in the ancient Chinese book of ceremonies, the umbrella always covered imperial carriages.

What sacred treasures, what dignitaries were underneath my umbrella? Was that child, picking a nose and stooping to fix a sock that had inched its way down her foot, a treasure? (OK, that was my daughter)

I imagine that the umbrella doesn't discriminate. I imagine the honor the umbrella feels to partake in the ceremony of walking to school.

What if I acted more like an umbrella? Living with flair means I open my arms wide to point out and protect what is sacred and of supreme worth in everybody around me.

This morning it felt like I walked to school with royalty. And I did.

Living with flair means I am an umbrella today.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Daily Flair: 5 Seashells, Almond Extract, and a Cat

Some things nearly qualified as flair today: using almond extract and skim milk (a new concoction)in a freshly ground cup of coffee, choosing to pet my cat (the one that purrs so hard she seems to choke) for a minute longer than I had time for, or finding my daughter's seashell collection on the floor of my minivan.

Don't worry; my minivan isn't that dirty. The whole collection was maybe five shells. And yes, I held one to my ear and even smelled it, all while waiting for the Rite Aid pharmacist to hand me my receipt through the drive-up window.

But those things aren't so out-of-the-ordinary.

What did count as flair today wasn't an experience with an object (or a cat). It happened when thinking about my first five blog followers. Five followers, statistically speaking, represents an absurdly small number. Infinitesimal. Too small to note, unseen as far as Internet blips go. But to me, those five were enough.

I recalled an essay a student wrote last week (thanks, Patrick) about how we tend to value the massive as opposed to the microscopic. Even in our own lives, we value accumulation and not reduction (unless, of course, you're in my Weight Watchers meeting).

Living with flair means I take note of the immense worth of the small, the few, and the unseen. I take note, then make an offering of words, to just one or a million. It shouldn't matter. After all, the boundaries of the day are set for most of us. Perhaps all we can embellish is a cup of coffee or a moment with a little creature. And maybe nobody will know about it even if we did bother to blog about it.

I know most of us won't travel to any exotic beaches today. We might just experience the art of the ocean from our minivan's floor and tell just five friends. And that's just fine. That's flair.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Daily Flair: Learning the "Beat It" Moves

This morning, my neighbor and I learned the choreography for Michael Jackson's "Beat It." We had my laptop propped for maximum visibility and water glasses filled for potential dehydration. We adjusted our workout clothes so they wouldn't inhibit our moves.

We learned the whole dance from a youtube video. This is no small thing.

I'm not sayin' I can do it well, or in any way resembling MJ, but I did learn it.

Why did we do it? I have no idea. But it counts as my flair for the day.

Living with flair means I'm doing something a little ridiculous, a little "out there," a little beyond what's expected or appropriate every day. Something about dancing this morning reminded me that joy often lies dormant, waiting to be unearthed and brought forth. What made learning dance moves so joyful? What is it about the spontaneous, the supremely useless, and the silly that lets the joy in?

Whatever it was, I needed it.

Flair signals embellishment. I want to embellish the day; I want to celebrate it and set it in the right light. Doing my MJ moves (the thrusts, the snaps, the round kicks) made things shimmer this morning. But it really wasn't, in terms of productivity or market value, useful.

But the day felt hopeful, not because I scrubbed a kitchen floor, but because I danced on it, hard, for no reason at all. And then I told all the neighbors about it.

Flair needs company. Dancing with my friend, banging into her when I mirrored the moves incorrectly, made us giggle like preschoolers. We weren't talking about anything. We weren't processing all the dysfunction in our lives or in the world. We were just trying to learn this dance. . . together. And we did it. We participated, somehow, in some larger dance: we are wives and mothers, aging and aching often both internally and externally, with enormous amounts to accomplish in any given day. Who has time to learn a dance from the 1980's?

And yet, we danced. That was the perfect flair for the day.