Not so Great Expectations: Living Life with a Low Bar

This is a story of low expectations.

For two weeks I have had drippy itchy eyes. Staying physically on the verge of tears has changed my mood. Scientists as far back as Darwin have suggested that “(e)ven the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” So for two weeks I have felt sad.

Earlier this week in the midst of my pervasive sadness allergies I drove two delightful friends visiting Vermont on a tour of Denver hot spots. During our journey I exposed them to unavoidable pot holes and parking spots too tight to pull into. I demonstrated how difficult merging is in Denver, and how crossing Boulevards can take up to 15 minutes. For years I have had a schtick about being a bad driver. Now I live my schtick, driving over many curbs which don’t actually stick into the streets. I was never an excellent driver but I wasn’t terrible either…until I talked it into truth.

Oliver is better behind the wheel than I am. Or at least cuter.
Oliver is better behind the wheel than I am. Or at least cuter.

As I bumped and braked my way through our tree lined streets I started a list of other quirks that I have brought to life simply by embracing them. As much as I have figuratively embraced my oddities I have eschewed literal embraces and taught the world not to hug me. I have completely stopped writing thank you notes. I no longer answer my phone. I refuse to park in parking garages. The truth is in many cases hugs feel good, thank you notes are thoughtful, phone calls can be efficient, and garages are the most convenient place to park. In each case my avoidance of every day things started as a small preference which I focused on until it grew to phobic proportions. I have turned the tiny pimple into a huge abscess by leaning in close to the magnifying mirror of life. Obsessing over an abscess does not help it heal.

Amongst all of the things I have begun to avoid the one that started with the least truth is the story I tell about hating to cook. I have carefully crafted the cooking in our family. In our early days Steve and I shared the meal prep. After a particularly tasty roast chicken I began to sing the praises of Steve’s cooking. A capable cook he was no chef, yet I made him out to be amongst family and friends. I bought him cook books and demoted myself to sous chef. As his knife skills grew I receded further into the background. Finally I was down to four dishes in my repertoire that I made (maybe) one night a week. But it turns out there was further to fall. These days I sit at the counter (or on the couch) as he chats and chops pulling nameless herbs from our CSA and brandishing his knowledge over the difference between braising and roasting.

Leo started cooking at age two.
Leo started cooking at age two.

When he travels for work the boys expect to scrounge their own dinner of mac and cheese or a giant cutting board filled with salami and cheese and peppers. They never knew me as a cook as capable as Steve, because as I was encouraging his culinary skills I was downplaying my own. Until they shriveled and died. I can still carefully cut a pepper into thin seedless slices (good for the dinner board) and I can toast. I can even melt cheese on toast. At least the first time. Because after the dripping cheese of the first serving I am toasting over the open flames of the second go round. Pro tip: Burning dripped cheese is really smoky. Smoky enough to set off alarms.

I have learned my own helplessness in the kitchen. At least in this case it has resulted in Steve’s love of cooking.  So I set low expectations for myself and high expectations for Steve. We both lived them.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-10-50-30-amSo the take away…I am going to stop pretending that hugs are horrible. Look at Leo no one could loathe that loving embrace.



What about you? Have you created a story and then lived it into life? Are there some expectations you could make great-er?

Here is a link to Steve’s absolute go to cook book. It was the genesis of the magical roast chicken.


No Thank you

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The picture above  from the boys’ second cousin who stayed with us for a few days last month.  Leo read the card aloud and decided he needed to add on. Somehow with a mother who has never once asked him to write a thank you note Leo wanted to thank the thank you.  What if he gets a thank you for that? When will the thanking end?

I know, I JUST wrote about thank you notes. I’m not done yet. In the past two days I have gathered more ammunition in my battle against the social norms surrounding gratitude.

Saturday a hundred plus of us stood in a shallow arc looking up at the couple on the centuries old granite stairs. In this moderate sized town where most people are known to each other these two have made a larger than average mark. Their contributions include real estate developments, school board service, neighborhood committees and a restaurant which attracts enthusiastic diners way beyond the small community it was built to serve.

The beaming crowd of friends and family made up for the lack of sun as she walked up the sidewalk in her elegant white dress.  Joining him on the stairs they clasped hands through the entire ceremony. I imagined it was part nerves and part love, and more than any words their hands together made me think about the ways they were already partners and the ways they would stand together in the future.

In the crowd Steve’s hand found mine. I tried to ignore how sweaty it was.

After the vows the newlyweds stood together in a receiving line of two. Middle school math tells me that two points are in fact a line. Waiting my turn I spilled a bit of my campari and soda on my dress, which made my decision on whether or not to hug the couple of the day easier.

As I waited and dabbed at my dress I thought about what I would say to them. I have never mastered the receiving line. Perhaps some people know how to express true happiness in a way that seems personalized. I am not one of them. It turned out not to matter. As I held the bride at arms length about begin my exclamations she looked deeply into my eyes and said with great fervor.

“I owe you a thank you note.”


“I owe you a thank you note. You sent the waffle maker and I owe you a thank you note.”

I had become the human personification of an errand.

Here on her wedding day surrounded by people who wanted to celebrate her she was keeping internal tabs on whom she still needed to thank.

This is the pinnacle of why I despise pro forma thank you notes.

If someone does something out of the ordinary and you want to offer appreciation a note can be a lovely way to do that. If society has decided that a note is necessary milestones like weddings, anniversaries, and even sympathy gifts lead directly to a whole sheaf of shoulds. And as a wedding guest I was thrust unwillingly into that role.

Gratitude should not be teased out of us by a nagging, it should come naturally. Then it still has meaning. Ideally our thanks aren’t born from a to do list, but arise unbidden as part of the threads of a relationship.

The clasped hands of the bride and groom on the evening of their wedding was more of a thank you than any note could ever be.






Thank less

Jasper likes photos about as much as I like thank you notes
Jasper likes photos about as much as I like thank you notes

It has been a crappy morning. I woke to a rejection letter that I sneakily read before my morning medihation (not a typo). I try to meditate before email so I have a fighting chance at clearing my mind, but obviously I failed. I spent my 12 minutes breathing and thinking about how thin my skin is. Then chastising myself for thinking that. Then judging myself for thinking anything at all during my 12 minutes.

I somehow started the toothbrush before putting it in my mouth and sprayed toothpaste in my eye. This is no happy gentle Tom’s of Maine toothpaste either. It is full on chemical filled whitening crap that lightens my teeth about as well as meditation clears my mind.

There is nothing actually wrong of course. The fix n shit went under contract last night. My boys are lovely and snuggly and the three of us enjoy our current book so much that we sneak in extra reading time. Stealing it from tech time no less. I try to remember these good things as I pack for my day. But instead I am in a muted rage. I ask Leo if he ever just feels mad for no reason (might as well turn my crap mood into a teachable moment) as he hugs me before leaving for school. He tells me I am not mad, just sad. And he says it with such compassion and love that I don’t yell at him that he is WRONG.

Oliver skips out of the house chanting the five lines of gratitude that he will recite at this mornings school assembly.

I say thank you when others help me or do something kind.

I show my appreciation through my actions and words

I appreciate the things in my life

I know the Earth and its resources are a gift

I show appreciation of my learning environment by keeping tidy and cleaning up after work and play

When he showed me the sheet, vibrating with pride that he had been selected to stand on the stage I asked this series of questions:

1. Did you write this?

2. Are there any changes you would make if you could?

3. What do you think of the last line? What message is that sending?

My dislike for institutional messaging seems to come out everywhere. I want the students to develop their own sense of gratitude. Beyond this I interpret the last line as a directive. Sure, be thankful for the earth and shit but you better keep your crayons in rainbow order.

He leaves the house reciting this doctrine. Repeating the last line as he heads out the door.

I arrive at the coffee shop to meet my accountability cousin. We have been writing across a wobbly two top from each other for three weeks. On a less grouchy day I would be happy to see him. Today I am buried in my spreadsheet, tracking the assignments I have given myself.

When we take a break he hands an envelope across the table.

It is a thank you note written by his lovely funny girlfriend. I follow my first instinct which is literally to reject the note. I jab it over the screens of our laptops and try to get him to take it back. He doesn’t of course.

The note reminds me of all the notes I haven’t written. Of all the appreciations I haven’t offered. Of all of the thank yous I haven’t required or even encouraged my kids to write. They are raining down on me. Giving me imaginary paper cuts.

Inside it is the perfect balance of gratitude and humor. She signs off “love (and no hugs)” She knows me. I read it again and a little bit of balance seeps in through the slices of the paper cuts. I am surprised how good it makes me feel, particularly on this thankless morning.

I reread Oliver’s lines. This time I take it slowly. “I show my appreciation through my actions and my words.”

This time I can’t find much to object to about it.

It might not be gratitude, but it is a step on the road.