If we are friends in real life and/or on any social media, you probably know by now that I’ve written a novel. You know this because I’ve talked and/or posted about it a lot. (Sorry – contractual obligation of the job.)
What you may or may not know is that the main character in my book is obsessed with obituaries. She reads the obits from eight different newspapers every day, culling through each one looking for the illuminating details of a life well lived. For Riley, this is a way to live vicariously through other people because she isn’t exactly setting the world on fire herself. And for me, the writer, the obituary page is the perfect place to find potential victims— it is a murder mystery after all.
So I end up spending a lot of time thinking about obituaries. I read books about obituaries, I subscribe to obituary websites, I cruise obituary message boards (yes, they exist!), and of course, I read the obituaries from multiple sources. If it sounds morbid to you, you’re reading the wrong obits. A well-written obituary is about life in all its fullness. And perhaps most importantly, what can be learned from that life.
However, I have noticed an unusual side effect from all of this obituary-thought. When it comes time to say goodbye to something in my life – even if it’s just a thing or something conceptual – I start thinking in obit terms. For example, my favorite white Moto leggings that recently came out of the dryer covered in a mysterious blue ink – they are dead to me now. Do these once beloved pants not deserve a final farewell? Or what about the blue and green melamine plates that I’ve had since my children were little. I recently had to euthanize them (read: chuck them in the trash because I’m pretty sure they were giving off toxic fumes), but I mourned their passing because in their non-toxic heyday they were a part of the fabric of our lives.
Be honest with me: Have you ever taken a moment of reflection upon saying goodbye to something that isn’t, strictly speaking, alive? Of course you have! You’re not made of stone! A cherished stuffed polar bear that got lost in your last move? Your new Betsey Johnson heels that the puppy chewed up? Your favorite ratty old Tri Delta Triple Play T-shirt that your spouse cut up and now uses to clean the windows on his car? Or even something less tangible like your teenage metabolism. I don’t know a soul over the age of 35 who doesn’t mourn the passing of that.
I guess it sounds a little weird and maybe it’s just because I have obituaries on the brain, but as I prepare to say goodbye to a part of myself that I must let go, I’ve decided to give it a proper send off. I’m talking about my modesty. (And no, not that kind of modesty – that kind died during childbirth. I mean seriously, there were 14 people in the room.) I’m talking about my Midwestern, aw-shucks, bragging-is-verboten sensibility that one must stomp out in the month leading up to one’s debut book launch.
This may seem kind of specific, but my writer friends out there will understand. And so will my salespeople friends. And so will anyone who has ever had try to market anything. Self-promotion can feel super douchey, but it is a necessary evil. And to be fair, it really isn’t so much “evil” as it is “business,” which to an artist can seem like the same thing— but that’s a subject for another post.
Jill Orr’s sense of modesty, dead at 43.
Jill Orr’s sense of modesty grew organically out of her midwestern roots, fueled by her mother’s inability to accept praise and her father’s habit of taking at least partial credit for “all the good stuff.” Being a terribly average child, Jill’s sense of modesty was infrequently tested. One notable exception occurred when she won an elementary school contest to guess the weight of a giant pumpkin. The prize was the great pumpkin itself, and all modesty flew out the window as she proudly displayed the spoils of her superior guesswork on her front porch. The universe, in the form of teenage vandals who came by two nights later and smashed the pumpkin to smithereens, taught Jill’s modesty the importance of staying firmly in place.
In her teenage years, Jill’s modesty was influenced by the typical adolescent features of social anxiety, acne, and a habit of taking herself far too seriously. This toxic combination brought her modesty to the edge of self-doubt, but a wealth of good friends, some mild academic success, and good old fashioned aging, pulled it back where it belonged— that sweet spot between timidity and arrogance.
Eventually Jill settled in mid-Missouri where modesty is prized almost above all else, and it is here where she honed phrases like, “It’s not that big of a deal,” and started telling people the sales price of clothing they complimented her on, “It was only like $14.99 on sale!” There was one unfortunate moment in 1997, when while at a party Jill was talking about this particular sensibility and meant to say the word “self-deprecating” but what she actually said was “self-defecating.” It took her years to attempt the phrase in public again.
In the years that followed, Jill’s modesty found a perfect home alongside her husband Jimmy, who has never accepted a compliment without immediately discounting it. Some of his favorite refrains are, “If Jill ever sobers up, she’ll probably leave me!” – a two pronged denigration – and, when talking about his golf game, “I’d have to improve to get to terrible.”
Jill’s sense of modesty was alive and well until it encountered an opposing force that proved too much: promotion of her debut novel. It is incumbent upon all authors, particularly first time authors with no celebrity, to “get the word out” about their upcoming books. This can take the form of, among other things, too-frequent Facebook posts, notifying people of personal appearances, alerts that your novel is now available for pre-order, and asking for reviews on Goodreads. It also involves showcasing only the good, never the bad, which flies in the face of everything modesty stands for.
In the end, Jill’s sense of modesty succumbed to self-promotion one month before her novel’s release. It is survived by loquacity, excitability, neuroticism, and militant optimism –which incidentally, Jill’s author friends say, are exactly what it takes to survive your first book launch.
For years, I’ve asked my kids the same uninspired question when I pick them up from school: How was your day? And for years, they’ve answered with the same uninspired answer: Fine. In fact, we’ve been round and round on this so many times that last year my daughter begged me to please stop asking how her day was because, “It makes me want to scream. No offense or anything, Mom.” Okay, fair enough. No offense taken. That question wasn’t pulling its weight anyway.
I needed a better way to get at what exactly was going on with my kids at school and more importantly how it made them feel. (I am big into how things make my kids feel, much to their continued aggravation.) So I, like any good parent in the digital age, turned to the Internet for advice. And the Internet heeded my call! When I typed in “how to ask kids about their school day,” Google showed me list after list of questions I could ask my kids that, Google promised, would really get them talking. These questions would be the key that would unlock the secret world of my children’s innermost hopes and dreams. They would make our bond stronger, our love deeper, and bring us closer together than ever before. I wanted the key to that world! I wanted to be closer than ever before!
So I read article after article and synthesized the information to create one super list. And I got in my car and drove to school ready to be transported inside their teenage brains. I have transcribed the conversation that followed:
- What did you eat for lunch?
Why? What’d you hear?
- Did anyone do anything super nice for you?
Um, no. This is middle school. Nobody does anything super nice for anyone.
- What was the nicest thing you did for someone else?
Didn’t I just answer that?
- Who made you smile today?
Mom, are you okay?
- Which one of your teachers would survive a zombie apocalypse?
Is this for a new book your writing?
- Did anyone push your buttons today?
Other than you?
- Who do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet?
Why? What’d you hear?
- Tell me something you learned about a friend today.
I thought we weren’t supposed to gossip?
- What challenged you today?
- When did you feel most proud of yourself today?
That joke about this conversation was pretty good.
- Tell me about a new word you heard at school today.
Why? What’d you hear?
- What new fact did you learn today?
Time is relative. For example, this car ride home- while technically only five minutes long- feels like an eternity.
- If aliens came to school and beamed up three kids, who do you wish they would take?
Seriously Mom, are you having some sort of crisis? Should we call Dad?
- Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today.
Why? What’d you hear?
- What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?
The bus schedule.
As you can see, the conversation didn’t give me any special insight into their world. Or take our bond to new heights. Or bring us closer together. At one point, my daughter faked being asleep to avoid answering any more questions. But it did get us talking— granted, mostly about how weird I was— but still. We talked, we laughed, we made fun of me, and then we all went inside and had a snack. And I figure that’s better than nothing. . . and certainly better than “fine.”
This post is from a while back, but I was reminded of the subject today when I saw a man in the grocery store walking around eating a banana. A banana, my friends! I don’t know how he planned to pay for it, or what he planned to do with the peel – but it reminded me of this essay and so I thought I’d repost. And no, before you ask, the man I saw wasn’t Jimmy.
This morning while we sat at our island eating breakfast, my husband revealed something about himself that nothing in our 17-year history could have prepared me for. And he said it like it was no big deal, like I should have expected – even approved of – his commentary.
It turns out that I most certainly did not approve, and to put an exclamation point on it, I’m going to reveal his dirty little secret here. On the Internet. Where it will never go away. And because I think it will be most dramatic this way, I’m going to do it via a live-action dialogue sequence.
Me: I took a chance and bought these new cherries at the store yesterday.
Husband: Oh yeah?
Me: Yeah. It was a bit of a risk because I’ve never had this kind before– but they were like $3 less per pound so I decided to go for it.
Husband: That’s good. (Pause) Why didn’t you try one first?
Me: Couldn’t. They were in a sealed bag.
Husband: Oh, I would have just opened the bag and taken one.
Husband: Yeah, totally. I do it all the time.
Me: You do?
Husband: Yeah. I’ve been burned too many times with bad fruit. I always test it first now. Trust me.
Me: Wait – what? You test fruit? In the grocery store?
Husband: Yeah. All the time. Like if I’m thinking about buying one of those big bags of apples, I’ll just open the bag and eat one. You know, to make sure they’re good.
Me: Wait… you’re telling me you open sealed bags of fruit and eat, like, an entire apple, orange, or nectarine – right there on the spot?
Husband: Yeah, all the time.
Me: That’s horrifying.
Husband: No it isn’t. It’s practical. Fruit is expensive and I want to make sure it’s going to taste good before I buy it.
Me: That’s unsanitary. Plus, it’s kind of stealing.
Husband: No it isn’t.
Me: Yeah it is.
Husband: No it isn’t. They know people do it. They expect it. Trust me. I do it all the time.
Me: But you’re eating something without paying for it.
Husband: Not really.
Me: Yes really.
Husband: No, it’s fine. They expect people to do it. Trust me.
Tense silence while I try to integrate this new information.
Me: Okay. So forgetting about the stealing for a minute, your method doesn’t even make sense. Just because one apple in the bag doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t mean they all will be bad.
Husband: Yeah it does.
Me: No it doesn’t.
Husband: Yeah it does. Trust me.
Me: No – it so doesn’t. There’s a whole cliché based on how wrong that assumption is. You know, ‘One bad apple…?’
Husband: Yeah, that expression proves my point. One bad apple spoils the bunch or bushel or whatever.
Me: Hm. Well… maybe that’s how the expression started, but I think the real point of it is what a shame it is for one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch. You shouldn’t throw away the whole bunch because of one bad apple.
Husband: Yeah you should. Trust me. I do it all the time.
So here’s the takeaway: My husband, who has bungee jumped off a cliff in Australia, raced cars on the Nurburgring in Germany, skied double black diamonds, and married a temperamental Jewish girl from Chicago and brought her to live in a small town in Missouri, is apparently so risk-averse when it comes to fruit that he will break social conventions and basically steal from our local grocery store to avoid… what? A sour taste in his mouth? (This is the same man buys the $18 box of sour patch watermelons every time we go to the movies.)
I think what surprised me most about Jimmy’s feelings on fruit buying, was his attitude of entitlement. Like he is owed a decent piece of fruit or something. Good or bad, it took the farmer every bit as long to grow the fruit, and the grocer just as much overhead to sell the fruit. Aside from bruises or obvious mold or something, you can’t tell how a piece of fruit is going to taste before you eat it. Therefore the only method of determining if the fruit is worthy of purchase, takes the option to buy it off the table. Because by then it is already in your stomach.
Call me I’m old-fashioned, but I think certain things in life come with inherent risk. Buying fruit is one of them. Marriage is another for that matter, along with putting your face under at a water park and eating sushi at a gas station. You pays your money, you takes your chances. There are no guarantees in this life and if you want to be 100% sure your fruit is going to taste perfectly sweet, you’d better buy it out of a can and be prepared to eat all the sugar and preservatives they add to make it that way. Unlike my husband, I am not a risk taker by nature, but I believe there are certain things in life worth the gamble. Appalling fruit-buying behavior aside, my husband was one of them. A good nectarine is another.
And you can trust me on that.
Parenting is little bit like learning to cook. When you first begin, you’re nervous, afraid that one wrong move will ruin your precious creation. After a while, however, you begin to trust your instincts and improvise as you go, throwing in a little of this and a little of that. You know that if things don’t turn out perfectly, chances are it’ll still be good enough. And after you’ve been at it for years, day in and day out, you realize that even if everything goes up in smoke, you can always order pizza. (In parenting, as in cooking, pizza is the answer 97% of the time.)
Here’s a look here at the evolution of 10 common parenting practices from those first precious days as a parent when you wanted everything to be perfect, to the days, three or four kids down the road, when “perfection” is everyone making it out of the house with their clothes on.
|First Baby||Second Baby||Third+ Baby|
|You stare at her for hours while she sleeps, drinking in the peaceful sight of her little chest rising and falling and the sweet, gentle sounds that only a newborn baby can make.||The minute she goes down for a nap, you convince your firstborn its time to “snuggle.” You fall asleep instantly in your bed while firstborn watches two hours of Doc McStuffins.||You assume the baby is sleeping, but it’s hard to tell because she is in her pumpkin seat in the back of your minivan while you run your other kids all over town.|
|You lovingly pick out each day’s outfit complete with matching socks and hats. Then you take 25 pictures and post on Facebook and Instagram.||She mostly wears whatever she slept in the night before unless company is coming over.||A diaper is an outfit, right?|
|Baby drops her pacifier and you swoop in like a Peregrine falcon to catch it before it falls to ground. You sterilize it for five minutes in boiling water just in case.||Baby drops her pacifier and you wipe it on your pants and hand it back. Five second rule!||Baby drops her pacifier and you hand it back without wiping it on your pants because you’re pretty sure whatever is on your pants would only make it worse.|
|You spend hours making homemade, organic baby food from fresh fruits and vegetables.||Your definition of fruits and vegetables has been expanded to include fruit snacks and French fries.||Baby’s first solid food is a Cheeto.|
|You have everything personalized with your baby’s initials – burp cloths, blankets, sippy cups, growth charts, backpacks, etc.||Personalizing now means using a sharpie to scribble your baby’s initials on the tag so you can distinguish it from the other kids’ stuff at daycare.||You smartly decided to name all subsequent children so that their initials will be the same as your firstborn’s. #winning|
|You document every milestone in his baby book –first smile, first roll over, first haircut, first steps, first words.||He doesn’t have a baby book, per se. It’s more of a baby-plastic-container filled with notes scribbled on the back of doormail coupons and a few stale Cheerios.||There is little to no physical evidence this child actually exists.|
|You leave pages of detailed notes for the babysitter, including feeding, changing and napping schedule. You may have even created a spreadsheet for her to track size, color, and shape of poops.||You leave your cell number and $20 for pizza.||You leave strict instructions not to call unless she sees blood.|
|The minute baby gets fussy, you take her temperature three different ways and even though it’s in normal range, you take her into the pediatrician because you just feel “something is off.”||You hesitate to take baby to the doctor’s office because your firstborn always catches something while there. Probably because he likes to lick the fish tank while you’re waiting.||You feel like you’re basically a pediatrician by this point. You treat everything at home with baby Motrin, an ice pack, and/or a magic kiss.|
|Packing for any outing requires an hour’s preparation and three steamer trunks full of supplies.||You’ve streamlined your supplies into what can fit into your existing purse. Diaper bags are for rookies.||Supplies now consist of a pile of Starbucks napkins and a lollipop.|
|You think you can never love another baby as much as you love this one.||You can’t believe you love another baby as much as you love your firstborn.||You know that just like your growing sleep deficit, yearly expenses, and yoga pants, your heart will continue to expand and find enough love for every new member of your family. (And isn’t this is all the evidence of their existence you really need?)|
As an avid shopper, I know what I like and what I don’t when it comes to retail salespeople. It’s pretty simple: I like to feel that my business matters, that I am not being taken advantage of, and that the decision to buy something – or not – is mine alone.
I despise being “sold” to. To me there is nothing worse than walking into a furniture store with the intention of casually browsing and having some schmoe follow me around yapping about the great financing I can get TODAY ONLY! Sell-me too hard and I’m outta there. And chances are, I won’t be back.
On the flip side, don’t ignore me either. It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Remember when the snotty lady at the boutique won’t help her while she’s dressed as the Carol Channing hooker so she comes back later with an armful of bags from their competitor and says, “Big mistake.” We love that moment because at one time or another we’ve all been written off as not worth a salesperson’s time. It’s insulting. And it’s bad business on the part of the seller, because you can’t judge a shopper by how they look. Just watch Duck Dynasty. Those rednecks are rolling with some serious disposable income.
I was recently asked by the Columbia Business Times to come up with some Do’s and Don’ts of retail sales. Here’s what topped my list:
- Follow the adage A.B.C: Always Be Complimenting. People love to be flattered. Especially by someone in the know. In retail, as the sales associate, you are the expert, so if you compliment what a customer is wearing, it is especially meaningful. Also, if people are shopping with their children, compliment their kids. “Your children have wonderful manners.” Or if they don’t then, “Your children are adorable.” There is no faster way to a person’s heart than through their children, since most people who walk into a store with kids are just trying to get out of there without breaking anything.
- Exploit a Mob Mentality. We are nothing if not a competitive culture, and hearing, “We just can’t keep those in stock!” or “Everyone just loves these!” will often tip the scales if someone is on the fence. I’ll admit I once bought a scarf at a boutique in LA because the sales lady said Michael Jackson had looked at it.
- Gently UpSell. It can be really helpful, not to mention lucrative, if a saleswoman brings me a pair of shorts that would go perfectly with the top I’m trying on. This is especially effective if it’s combines this with the ABC principle: “I saw these shorts and thought they’d totally accentuate your legs!” Now, I’m buying 2 items instead of just the one I came in for.
- Thank people for their business. This sounds simple, but it is really important. At Nordstrom, the undisputed king of customer service, the sale associate brings each customer his/her bag by walking out from behind the register and thanking them for their business. This is a nice touch and helps mitigate against buyer’s remorse.
- Ask a woman if she is pregnant. Ever. Even if she looks like she swallowed a basketball, is holding What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and flashing a sonogram picture – do not assume she is pregnant. If she isn’t, you’ll never recover from that kind of awkward. My husband’s rule: Unless the baby is coming through the birth canal, you never ask a woman if she is having a baby. (He once did. She wasn’t. Result: He had to go to a different Panera for months.)
- Risk a bad joke. This falls under the heading Know Thy Audience. Recently while at lunch with girlfriends, a waiter joked that my friend was a “picky woman” because she ordered her sandwich with no onions. I think he was trying to be funny, but he wasn’t. He made it worse when he corrected himself with, “No – I mean, you’re a woman, therefore you’re picky.” Tragic. Had there been a man at the table with whom he was trying to have an Am I right? moment, then fine. Still offensive, but not into tip-effecting territory. In this case, we all just thought he was a jerk.
- Be inappropriate. Male sales associates have to be careful never to become too familiar with female customers or make comments about clothing that covers certain body parts. “Those are great shoes.” Good. “That tank top really shows off your assets.” Bad. Nothing kills a sale faster than a pervy sales guy.
How about you? Do you have any sales Do’s or Don’ts to share?
I recently had an interesting conversation while away for the weekend with my two best friends from high school. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I won’t use their real names. Instead I’ll call them Lady Mary and Lady Sybil. During our interesting conversation, we decided two important things:
1.) Downton Abbey is the best show ever. Obviously.
2.) Their proper names have become irrelevant, and should never be used again because they each embody the persona of Sybil and Mary so perfectly – their given names might as well be abandoned.
My friend Lady Sybil is a kind, hard working, free spirit, who follows her passions where they lead. She has loved the album Free to Be You and Me since before and after it was cool. She goes on long rants about Monsanto’s world domination. And she has her graduate degree in ESL. Had she lived in early 20th century England, she would totally have championed women’s voting rights and run away with the chauffeur. When we told her she was Sybil, she preened (in the demure, non-smug way that Lady Sybil would preen, of course).
Now, my friend Lady Mary… well, let’s just say she was a little less thrilled with her comparison. Which is funny because she is Lady Mary. Not the mean, haughty version – but the smart, fiercely loyal, beautiful, and snobbish-in-the-best-possible-way version. She has always been confident and unafraid to blaze new trails. Example: Once, when my husband told her felt like a fraud every time he sat in first class, she said it’s where she felt she always belonged. Then on a dare, she ate a hair from his head on a cracker. Total Lady Mary.
After we had sorted my two friends, I cried, “Do me! Do me!” They stared at me with blank faces. “What? Do you think I’m O’Brien or something?” I asked. They said they couldn’t really match me up to any of the characters. These two people who have known me for over three decades had no idea if I was a Crawley or a ladies’ maid! I was very disconcerted by this. What is wrong with me that I don’t resemble anyone in this vast and varied cast of characters? Am I that boring? Or am I that much of an oddity? Naturally, I had to give this a little thought (read: neurotically obsess over it). Here is what I came up with.
I think it is clear that I am not Lady Edith. As cozy as that would have made our little trio, I’m just not her. For one thing, she is prone to insecure negativity. For another, she loves to drive. I avoid both of those whenever possible. We may both be writers, but she writes about women’s issues; I write about spray tans. Plus, she can’t even have breakfast in bed. Nope. Not Edith.
Who does that leave? Anna? I’d love to be Anna, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be the lovely Mrs. Bates, with her impossible work ethic and the quiet dignity with which she accepts her station in life. But that doesn’t line-up either. I’m a horrible slob, completely lazy, and I’ve never been one to accept my station. Plus, I would have straight up killed the first Mrs. Bates myself. Nope. Not Anna.
I ticked through the other Downton residents? Could I be Mrs. Hughes? Mrs. Patmore? Daisy? No, no, no. I’m not a benevolent taskmaster, a great cook, or a timid but cheerful scullery maid. (I’m a rather resentful scullery maid, actually.)
Then I remembered a character I’d forgotten. I’d probably forgotten her on purpose because she is my least favorite character on the show. Countess Cora. I find nearly everything about Cora annoying: that treacly tone, her clueless equanimity, and what’s up with those weird facial expressions? Plus, why the hell can’t she see O’Brien for who she is? (She was the only one who had access to the soap! Think about it, woman!)
Anyway. As I was going through the mental checklist of why I could not possibly be Cora, an uneasy feeling took up residence in my gut. Doth I protest too much? Am I Cora? OMG, am I Cora?
I asked myself what we have in common…
- American? Check.
- Polite? Check.
- Love to eat luncheon and boss people around? Check and check.
The proof is irrefutable. I am Cora. Oh, the humanity!
I spent a few distraught moments in which I cursed my newly discovered banality and wondered if this meant I needed to get my haircut and/or a lobotomy. I was heading fast and furiously down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, when I remembered something from my weekend away with my high school friends. At lunch one day, my Lady Sybil friend had a very Lady Mary moment when someone mistakenly put onions on her sandwich. And my friend Lady Mary often has Sybil-esque moments of extreme selflessness and great compassion. I decided to see this as a thread of salvation. Maybe we don’t have to funnel ourselves into one character. Maybe we can be hybrids – like one part Cora; two parts Anna, with a dash of Mrs. Crawley for good measure. I like that idea much better.
Besides, as I was panicking with the thought of being doomed to be an emotionally void woman who sighs heavily makes and creepy faces all the time, the wise words from possibly the best Downton character of them all, Lady Violet – the Dowager Countess – rang in my ears, “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.” And even being Cora couldn’t be worse than that! 😉