Friday, June 29, 2012

If the World was About to End

In three weeks a giant asteroid is going to strike Earth, wiping out the entire planet.

Whatcha gonna do now?

How about Seeking A Friend for the End of the World?
That's the premise of the new movie starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.

Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Yes, but this isn't really a review of the movie, which I loved, by the way. It's more a reflection, or contemplation. After all, a movie about your (and everyone else's) last three weeks on earth is bound to raise some questions. For example, would you:
  • Go back to your job for even a day?
  • Keep exercising?
  • Floss?
  • Have a yard sale?
  • Mow your grass?
  • Spend it in a drug-induced haze?
  • Leave your spouse immediately?
  • Sleep with anyone whom you were attracted to?
  • Drive across country to find the love of your life?
  • Fly across the ocean to be with your family?
  • Get married?
  • Be baptized?
  • Find God?
  • Lose God?
  • Hire a hit man to take you out before the asteroid hits?
  • Destroy everything in your path, just for the fun of it?
  • Make peace and forgive everyone who ever wronged you?
  • Say your peace or take revenge on everyone who has ever wronged you?
  • Recognize that regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, we're all one?
While many movies have considered life from the perspective of an individual who knows he/she doesn't have long to live, I can't think of another that considers life in the context of the end of the world. It's a shockingly difficult thing to wrap your head around, but one that deserves reflection. Not because the world is likely to end tomorrow, or in three weeks, but because you have to wonder why we don't live all of our days as if they were the last. Not only our last, but mankind's last. I imagine we could let go of our bitterness and anger, our judgements and condemnation.

Although Seeking a Friend for the End of the World was a sucker punch to the gut emotionally (with some good laughs thrown in to ease the pain), it left me with one comforting thought.

I'm already with the people I'd want to spend my last days with. I imagine I'd take my husband and my children and as many friends and family members as I could gather, and head to the ocean to finish out my time in a place I love, with the people I love.

What about you?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

You Want Me Back at Goodbye?

As a new mom, I was a big fan of baby instruction manuals. The "What to Expect" series, Dr. Spock, and Go the F**k to Sleep were of great help to me in raising my children. While childcare experts are generally all over the map in what they recommend (ex: let them cry it out vs. allow them to sleep with you until they leave for college), one thing that most everyone agrees on is the benefit of using positive reinforcement. Simply put, good behavior warrants a good response. According to Wikipedia (and my married Psych 101 prof who hit on me...creep), this concept of positive reinforcement is credited to B. F. Skinner, a researcher who "articulated the major theoretical constructs of reinforcement and behaviorism."

Today I want to recommend that corporate America study the findings of our man Skinner, and consider approaching business from a positive reinforcement perspective. This is radical and revolutionary so please forgive me if I don't post again until July because I may be busy taking calls from the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Inc., Forbes, and Business Week.

So here's how all this came about.

Last week I canceled my membership to an online monthly subscription service that I joined two months ago. I gave it a try when I received a special discounted one-month offer, but because I didn't cancel on time, I was automatically billed at full price for the second month (at a rate more than double the cost of my first month). At that point, I set the old Outlook reminder and promptly canceled a couple days before I would have been charged for month three. And what did I receive in response?

Subject: Subscription Update... and a Special Offer!

Dear Kim, Your current xxx subscription has ended, and your account has been cancelled per your request. We really appreciate you using xxx, and we would be happy to continue serving you if you're still looking for xxx (now or in the future). With that in mind... *** SPECIAL OFFER FOR XXX ALUMNI *** Please use the promo code "XXX" to reactivate your xxx account today for just $5 for a month -- 67% off the regular price! ... Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or feedback. We would be more than happy to talk with you! We hope you're having a wonderful day, and thank you again for using xxx! Many cheers, The xxx Team

So let me get this straight. If I had remained a loyal, full price paying customer, you would have been screwing ripping me off every month? But now that I have decided you're not worth it, you want me back and you're willing to put out cheapen yourself to have me?

This particular service provider is not unique in using negative reinforcement. Just call and cancel your phone, cable, internet, newspaper, magazine, etc. and see how quickly you'll get a better offer. Or stop ordering from your favorite catalog for a while and see how long it takes to receive a "We've Missed You; Take $25 Off Your Next Order" postcard. I've become so used to this approach to doing business that now I fake leaving companies just to see what they'll give me. Go ahead, call Comcast or Verizon now and give it a shot. Let me know how much you save, and then pick a date to take me out for lunch to say thanks. (I generally work at home on Fridays.)

So what am I suggesting when I say Big Business should take the positive reinforcement approach? I'm suggesting that loyal, committed customers be rewarded. Rather than waiting until I ditch you to show your appreciation, cut my rate every year that I'm a member or a subscriber. Doesn't have to be anything drastic, but imagine how impressed I would be. Imagine how many of my friends I would tell. Imagine the glowing blog post I would write about that company. In the age of social media, doing right by your customers can pay off big time. There's no better form of promotion than word of mouth. Plus, they say it's less expensive to keep your current customers than to find new ones, and I believe this positive reinforcement approach will enable businesses to do just that.

Service providers aren't the only ones who punish us for being committed and loyal. Threaten to leave your  job (assuming you're a valuable employee), and it's possible your employer might suddenly find money to pay you more. Decide to ditch your boyfriend or girlfriend (assuming you're a good boyfriend or girlfriend yourself), and said boy or girl might be willing to monitor that behavior that drives you mad. Promise to never again lift a finger to clean the house (add tears for effect) and the kids will vow to be more helpful.  At least for the next 2 hours.
What would these scenarios look like if positive reinforcement were the rule? Company gives you an unexpected bonus for good performance, not merely that pathetic 2% cost of living my ass raise. Boyfriend or girlfriend always usually acts in a way that shows you respect and consideration because they realize you're the best thing that will ever happen to them. Children help out because they know no other mommy would let them eat cake for breakfast like you do.

I'm sure you have examples of both negative reinforcement as well as some companies and organizations that get it right. Would love to hear from you!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happily Handing Over the Reins

Every summer, arranging for "child" care becomes more challenging. At age 14, Ian doesn't see why he needs a babysitter, but the idea of having Ian "watch her" does not appeal to Abby at all. The reality is that my kids need less caring for and more chauffeuring and refereeing. It's also important for me to know someone is at the house to keep Ian from going into a technology stupor and to make sure he eats something other than fruit snacks and Lucky Charms. And, it's best to have adult supervision so Abby doesn't take it upon her overly mature self to monitor (and discipline) Ian's teenage behavior. Basically, I hire a "babysitter" to ensure my kids will be alive when I return home from work. And on the days I work from home, the babysitter makes sure I don't kill my children when they get on my last nerve. Easy peasy.

2012 tag-team, Summer and Shane
(they're the ones in the middle)
For six or seven years now I've been selecting one incredibly lucky young adult from my church family to assume the position of summer child care provider. It's been one excellent choice after another, though each kid has had a favorite along the way (we won't name names). Our distinguished alumni include Laura Jean, followed by her brother Kevin, admirably replaced by Nicole, then Julianna. This summer, we've hired the brother-sister tag team of Shane and Summer. The word from our clients? Two thumbs up. Ian is a big Shane fan because they can relate man to man (or he's really nice and easy going, something like that), and Abby already has a list of reasons why Summer is da' bomb.

In three days time, Summer has enabled Abby's slightly neurotic non-stop action tendencies. Together they have:
  • Gotten Abby's hair cut (shorter than I would have been able to convince her to go)
  • Baked cookies in the shapes of letters to spell out "Welcome Home, Shane" (now that I think about it, they may have forgotten to make the comma, though I did see an exclamation point).
  • Rode bicycles
  • Worked on Abby's front flip on the neighbor's trampoline (after seeing Bob & Joanne's daughter combine the flip with a soccer ball throw in, Abby is now determined to master the move)
  • Played life-size Jenga
  • Had a funky house key made at Deal's (an old style Woolworth type store for you out-of-towners)
  • Gone to the pool
  • Gone out for yogurt
  • Gone out for water ice (Ian joined them for this one)
And just to be certain there's never a dull moment, Abby has created a list of the other things they are going to do this summer, including:
  • The Zoo - apparently a Shane favorite
  • Camping in the backyard (does anyone have a tent we can borrow?)
  • Soccer tournament
  • Phillies game and Union game (we know people...)
  • Kayaking and tubing
  • Bowling (tentatively scheduled for this Friday)
  • Movies
  • Duct tape stuff
  • Hula hooping
And there's more, but this post is already getting pretty long and I haven't even covered what I love about my summer help.

A clean house.

What children and husbands do not understand is that a mom coming home to a clean house is likely---according to scientific research---to be at least 12.8 times more pleasant than a mom returning to a messy abode.

In just three days, I can tell you that Summer is the best at making sure the kids square their sh!t away (that, or she's squaring it away for them, in which case we need to talk). When Abby bakes sans Summer, she throws all the dishes in the sink for me to wash or load in the dishwasher, and she leaves a nice coating of flour and sugar on the kitchen counter. When Abby bakes with Summer, I see nothing.  Except cookies. And occasionally dead people, but that's a different post.

Summer is also a miracle worker with laundry. While our boy Kevin had been an ace at folding (and ironing, if I recall correctly), Summer has mastered bed sheets. I still have not, nor will I ever, master bed sheet folding.

In addition to the clean factor, my summer help allows me to avoid my least favorite mom task: running errands. Honestly, I'd rather clean the bathroom then run errands. Don't ask me why.  Teens, however, don't mind jumping in the car and going to a multitude of spots to return things, pick up and drop off children, shop for groceries, or go to the orthodontist (today at 3:30, don't forget). And it seems Summer, in particular, is inclined to stop for treats along the way. The kids win; I win; and Summer and Shane get paid.

Here's hoping your summer is looking as carefree as mine!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Lesson in Living!

I have a lot of really terrific friends. Good people. Nice people. Funny people. Successful people. Healthy and fit people. Smart people. And as I mention way too often in my blog posts, there are certain qualities my friends' possess that make me childishly jealous I wish I could claim for myself. Despite all their wonderful traits, however, there is no one I'd actually do a Freaky Friday-like switch with if given the opportunity.

Until now.

Rob and I spent part of the last two weekends with one of his childhood friends and his wife -- Bob and Joanne. I want Rob and I to be them when we grow up (though they actually aren't any older than us).

Bob and Joanne have the standard issue good kids, nice home, great careers, cute dog, and triathlon experience (Rob ran his first triathlon with Bob on Father's Day), but they have something extra that's hard to define, but probably best summed up as "Joie de vivre" or "zest for life."

Bob is one funny mother and one incredibly upbeat guy. Based on our brief time together I get the sense he works hard (when not challenging his coworkers to bocce ball) and plays hard. Last weekend we tailgated together before the Phils/Orioles game and this guy clearly knows his way around a tailgate. He came equipped with grill and full size propane tank, tables, chairs, shrimp, chicken, salsa, drinks, full kit of cooking utensils, bean bag toss, radio, generator, name it; he had it. During the game, the only disappointment Bob expressed was at my failure to dive for the foul balls....five sections away. The Phils literally dropping the ball, again, didn't hamper his enthusiasm.

This past weekend, we once again enjoyed a day at Casa de Fun with the ultimate host and hostess.  I believe our afternoon together could best be described as a family reunion, without the hassle of family. Bob and Joanne offered us:
"Take me away again..."
  • Unlimited ice cream and other frozen treats
  • Margaritas a la "Margaritaville"
  • An outdoor deck which rivaled my living room for comfort and flowery ambiance
  • An outdoor sound system
  • A fire pit for roasting marshmallows
  • Baggo - the official bean bag toss game
  • A soccer board and net for Abby to practice on
  • A demonstration by their teenage daughter Alyssa on how to do a forward flip/soccer ball throw in (a ridiculously impressive move)
  • Bocce
  • Hot tub
  • Lasagne, bread, and fresh mozzarella with home grown basil and tomatoes
  • Clean sheets and towels for our slumber and shower
  • Wii, Xbox, and internet access for the kids
  • Life-size Jenga (and they made one for us to take home)
  • Croissants for breakfast
I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

After the triathlon on Sunday, we sadly packed up our things to head home to our considerably less exciting abode. Before we left town, we enjoyed lunch with Bob and Joanne. As expected after a tiring day of swimming, running, and riding, Bob said he was looking forward to some down time.  Riding off with Joanne, to a winery, on his motorcycle.

Next year I'm spending my week's vacation at their house. Some people just know how to live!

Our Fun Hosts, Joanne and Bob

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Running and Riding and Swimming, Oh My!

It's a not-so-silent epidemic striking suburbia. You've undoubtedly seen them yourself, middle-aged adults running, cycling, swimming, stopping just long enough to jump in the mini-van to drop Alex off at soccer practice or have a craft brew with friends. Despite triathlons claiming the lives of many who are close to me, I have refused to succumb.

I'm not sure exactly when it started, but the call of the road and the water has grown from a whisper to a shout, ultimately leading to a pulled muscle groan. Originally, competing in these events was something you heard that a friend of a friend was doing. Then it became something your friend was training for. Then three friends. Then ten. Then your husband. While Rob's been aiming to complete his first triathlon for a couple of years now (waylaid by back surgery in 2011), until just recently I still had a few slackers friends I could count on to eat, drink, and sit around and gain weight with me:

Emily -- She completed her mandatory first triathlon a few years ago, but had suggested she was done with that nonsense had no further need to compete. Recently, however, she went and lost weight (gave up wine, damn her), has gotten back in shape, looks terrific, and has decided to run a distance relay race with a friend.

Doug -- This guy, who I imagine has never been out of shape, but who works out so he can eat like I do, is planning to run some kind of long distance race with his brother in the near future.

Theresa -- Went from primarily knitting and reading her way through life (while raising four boys), to both going back to school to become a nurse, AND adding running to the mix. She just completed a couple of 5Ks.

Dave and Karen - I'm hearing chatter about a possible race in the future for both of them.

Then there are those who've been running and competing for years and who I avoid spending time with because they're so fit and fabulous, including Liz, Christine, Mo, Dave M., Karen, Kevin, Christian, and the whole group known as the TriMonkeys. And just last night on Facebook I saw these status updates from friends:
"This weekend is the biggest tri I will ever complete (I'm hoping!!).  It's the 1/2 ironman/woman distance..."

"Officially signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon..."
To think I was proud to be hitting the gym two or three times a week.

Given the increasing number of friends afflicted by this athletic ambition, I've given the source of the outbreak some serious thought. I believe these factors are contributing to the madness:
  1. A need to prove they "still have it." Most of those I know who are suffering from this condition are in their 40s. Competing in a triathlon is their warped response to a mid-life crisis.
  2. A desire to get away from the kids. As their children become old enough to stay home alone, these parents are desperate to escape after 10+ years of captivity. Running, cycling, swimming. Whatever it takes to have some "me" time.
  3. A 21st century, upper middle class response to "keeping up with the Jones." Peer pressure, plain and simple.
It's also quite possible that the whole triathlon phenomenon is a conspiracy organized by athletic shoe companies, cycle manufacturers, physical therapists, and orthaeopedic surgeons. After all, they have the most to gain.

This Father's Day, my husband will finally have that opportunity to complete his first triathlon sprint. I'm proud of him for returning to training after what was a very difficult year given his back troubles (not helped by months of recent planter facitis pain). I'm proud of the commitment he's making to his physical health. And I'm proud of the example he's setting for our kids. I'll be there to cheer him on on Sunday while relaxing in a lawn chair, enjoying a mimosa and cinnamon bun...

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    I don't want to nauseate or bore you with "I'm so proud of my son" blog posts, but if you'll be so kind as to allow me to say just one more thing about Ian's recent accomplishment, I'd appreciate it. Last week I shared news of his surprising and thrilling acceptance into the select high school choral group, the Silvertones. As happy as we are about this news, there is one thing that actually has me equally, or possibly more, proud of my son and that is:

    His friends were truly happy for him.

    Not those fake congrats:
    "Wow. Great. Umm, well, my phone's about to die so I gotta go. Catch ya later."
    None of that bitterly "honest" feedback:
    "Wow, man. I'm really surprised. There's no way you're one of the best singers out of all the guys who tried out. Guess they were desperate for your voice part."
    No sour grapes to suggest:
    "I guess I should be better friends with the director's son." 
    Those "in the know," (aka the Moms) reported that Ian's friends were absolutely thrilled for him. Emily said Noah came home from school shouting with excitement to share the good news. (Unfortunately, he was interrupting her business call at the time.) Hannah's mom, Lee, reported that Hannah couldn't stop talking about how happy she was for Ian.

    I think we can all agree that even better than making the "team" is being the kind of person whose friends are genuinely psyched when something good happens to you. That's the kind of friend Ian is. It also speaks volumes about the kids he's friends with. They're clearly keepers.

    You'd like to think that anyone who is a true friend would react with enthusiasm to another's good fortune. I can assure you that is not the case. Although I would call myself a "true friend," I must confess to struggling mightily with the green-eyed monster. I recall taking a public speaking class in college with one of my very best friends. On one particular presentation she received a better grade than I did. Was I happy for her? Did I pat her on the back and say, "Good job, buddy!"? Nope. I was pretty much a bitch. Broadcasting was my lifelong ambition, and therefore it was completely unacceptable for her to do better than me in such an important course. If it was a physics class in which she bested me, then perhaps I could have given her props. Perhaps.

    One might think that as we become more mature, we would learn to let go of our jealousies and insecurities and embrace the successes of those we love and care for. Not so much. For example, I occasionally resent Emily and Mo, two good friends, for being so damn successful in their careers. Their accomplishments make me feel pretty insignificant and I have contemplated dropping them as friends, just so I don't have to try to compete.

    But enough about me. This is about Ian and his friends, a generation of intelligent, talented, and supportive young people who demonstrate the power of friendship and the value of encouraging one another in their journeys.

    May we each be so blessed.