Why Quit?

In case you were wondering, I am 100% serious about the I Quit Club. For real. Quitting can change your life.

Quitting is tough though. Not the act itself, which is as easy as falling off a bike (and a lot more fun) but getting your head around the idea that it’s okay to quit.

I was brought up to think quitting was bad. Grown-ups told me that “winners never quit and quitters never win”.

It never occurred to me to ask: “win what?” so I carried on not-quitting like a good girl, right up to my second year of university.

To put this in context, I’d wanted to be a doctor since I was 12. My big crush was Noah Wyle in ER and a steady diet of white-coat heroics convinced me medicine was my calling.

It was a logical choice: secure, predictable, good money, and above all respectable. Off I waltzed to uni: confident, determined and oblivious to the implications of the fact that I hated physics, struggled with chemistry, shrank from biology, and shuddered at maths. I also studiously suppressed my love of English and writing.

Looking back, I am half-amused and half-horrified at how dumb a bright girl can be (“Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion sighed). Nothing got through until my second year when I hit term two of physics. Most stuff I can bluff through but physics stopped me cold. You can’t bullshit an equation. Lectures were torturous and the coursework reduced me to tears.

The idea forced itself into my head, unbidden: “why don’t you quit?” Oh god. That was not in my plan. Quelle drama. I freaked out. Bored my poor friends witless with my teacup tempest. In the States, physics is a pre-med requirement so quitting the class meant the end of my doctor dream. Oh my god. I had my WHOLE LIFE mapped out. Quitting would fuck everything up. But I still couldn’t do physics. So I quit.

The minute I made the decision my anxiety and guilt vanished in a rush of relief. I didn’t have the right answers, but I had definitively eliminated a wrong one. It felt amazing.

What I didn’t appreciate until much later was that you can’t have everything at once. You can’t reach out for something new, or receive a gift, if you’re hanging on to your baggage with both hands.

Advertisements

Decision Making

Are you looking for the road less-travelled?


As I’ve chipped away at the Family on Bikes story (a paragraph or two over Saturday morning coffee, a stolen few minutes between advertising case studies at work) one word is always on my mind: choice.

The Vogel’s story is, at root, a story about making decisions. About waking up to the fact that if you don’t call the shots in your life someone else will because someone has to. (Shots get called. That’s how it works.) Talking to Nancy has made me aware of the gap between how we perceive decision making and how we do it. I suspect we give ourselves more credit for autonomy than we actually deserve. We think we’re free-wheeling, decision making machines. But how many of our choices are honest? How often do we stop and reflect on what we really want as opposed to simply reacting to what we think is expected of us?

Nancy bumped up against this when John suggested hitting the road with Daryl and Davy. Her knee-jerk “that’s not what parents do” seemed like a decision until she thought about it, mulled it over, and realised it was just a reaction. Parsing her response helped her choose based what she really valued versus what she thought she was supposed to value.

That is real decision making and it is absolutely a discipline. To make good decisions we have to reclaim our instinctive selfishness. Children, and adults who have a healthy level of self-interest, make decisions based on what makes them happy, satisfies their physical needs, and makes them feel loved and secure. Education warps this innate good sense by teaching that there are more important things than love, health, and self-determination. Money is accepted as a definition of “success” and culturally-constructed notions of what people “should” do are given priority. “Normal” takes over from natural as a guiding principle. The process is insidious. Most people are barely conscious of having sacrificed their freedom to simple convention. Nancy discovered she was not immune. “Quitting your job and putting your kids on a bicycle just wasn’t done. I had no role model,” she says. “Nothing out there that was telling me this was okay, this was do-able. It was an internal struggle.”

The struggle is essential and inevitable. It forces you to decide what you value, which may not be as obvious as it sounds. Fantasising about hitch-hiking across Mongolia is one thing but if you can’t imagine life without HD TV and an espresso machine you need to reconsider. Making good decisions means being honest about what you want, not what you think you should want, or what someone else expects you to want.


Further reading

Decisions
Self-Education
Self-Determination

Family On Bikes – On The Road

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life

Nancy moved back to Boise with the boys in February 2005; John followed at the end of the school year. She knew in her bones it was the right thing to do. For the first time in years they could spend time with family without casting one eye ahead to goodbye. Davy and Daryl could revel in Fourth of July firecrackers, Thanksgiving turkey and a white Christmas. It felt odd to put the boys on a school bus and not see them till the end of the day, but after the emotional and physical strain of the Vogel’s final months in Malaysia Nancy was prepared to accept daily separation as the price of much-needed stability.

So when John came home after his bad day and suggested taking the boys on the road Nancy’s response was reflexive. It was an absurd idea. “That’s not what parents do,” she reiterated when John kept talking about it. A week passed, then two. They stopped by to visit her mom and John, to Nancy’s surprise, talked about the mooted trip as if it were a solid plan. His determination was infectious and she found herself wrestling with two diametrically opposed value systems.

On one side everything cautious, conservative and conventional argued against the idea. She rationalised that it was normal for families to lead separate lives – mom and dad at work and the kids at school – and that it was normal for husbands and wives to communicate in hurried conversations between carpooling and ticking off the to-do list. Every time Nancy sat in a school meeting, or chatted with other parents on the sidelines at soccer practice, she heard the same thing: separation is normal, this is how people live.

Weighed against social expectations was Nancy’s long-cultivated habit of considering the options and choosing based on the merits of the situation. Though she struggled to reconcile her notions of responsibility and freedom, the more she thought about John’s plan the more Nancy felt like she was the crazy one for clinging to staid ideas about what parents do. “My boys were never going to be eight years old again. If I didn’t spend this time with them I was going to lose the opportunity,” she says. “Life is short. You have one chance and you have to grab on to it.”

Once the decision was made Nancy and John acted swiftly. Within weeks they commissioned a custom-built bicycle for three, recruited family members to housesit and packed their panniers. In  June, when school let out, the Vogels strapped on their helmets, mounted up and became the Family On Bikes.

What was their biggest worry as they faced the unknown? Nancy chuckles: “Our only real concern was that the boys enjoy themselves. We were afraid they wouldn’t like it.” It didn’t take long for more pressing issues to arise. From Idaho they peddled into the tawny expanse of the Oregon desert, which stretches for hundreds of thinly-populated miles. “I’d driven through it numerous times but I had no concept,” Nancy admits. “I didn’t understand how remote it was.” They soon discovered that just because a town was on the map was no guarantee it would provide anything as useful as food and shelter. Early on, they found themselves working through a string of hamlets too tiny to even have a grocery store. After one leg of the journey fuelled by potato chips and candy from a tavern they began to quiz the locals as they planned their route. Other challenges included waking up to find their water-bottles frozen solid and, once, leaving their gear out only to have it drenched in a midnight downpour. Each minor catastrophe added up to another piece of wisdom: no matter how tired you are, always repack the panniers and cover everything in a tarp before you turn in; keep a water bottle close so you can at least clean your teeth on an icy morning. “It felt like every time we figured out the rules the whole game changed,” says Nancy. “There were so many things we hadn’t thought about – that we didn’t even know to think about.”

The one thing they needn’t have fretted about was the boys: Davy and Daryl were too young to worry, or second-guess their parent’s decisions. They took life on the road at face value. It was Nancy who was the family worrier during that first, year-long tour of the states. Each day a knot of tension would clench her stomach as the afternoon waned and they needed to find a camp site. John had a knack for spotting a good pitch, though, and gradually she grew confident he would find them a safe home for the night. Touring together was a daily lesson in trust: trust in herself, her husband, her children, their physical strength, their relationships, and in the kindness of strangers.

Relying on others runs counter to America’s superstitious belief in self-reliance and at first Nancy wasn’t comfortable with the idea of relying on anyone else. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she recalls. Over time and distance, though, they encountered warm hospitality, freely offered. One time a farmer pulled up alongside and asked if they’d like some dates from his orchard. They followed him to his farm and wound up camping on his land and the boys got to help run the irrigation system. Generous residents offered food, water, directions, advice, sometimes even a place to stay. The graciousness they encountered helped Nancy develop a new perspective on self-sufficiency. She and John tried to be prepared but plainly they couldn’t control everything. Nancy began to embrace spontaneous kindnesses as a “huge source of comfort.”

The Secret Life of Language

Go, go, go to The Nervous Breakdown to read my profile of psychologist and author James Pennebaker, a lovely man bursting with clever ideas who was kind enough to share his time to talk about life, linguistics and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued.

Click here to continue reading.

Guest Post: Cooking with Kids

Today I have a guest post from special education expert Denise Keene who kindly offered to share some thoughts on cooking and learning with kids. You can get more education info on her site Masters In Special Education.


Cooking with the Kids

If you like to cook then you probably understand the many skills that go into making a tasty meal or treat. Cooking as a means of hands-on learning is used by some parents and even by some schools through “home economics” courses, so the value of this form of education is understood. If you are looking for a fun way to teach basic life skills to your kids, cooking may be the way to do it.

When I cook with my children, I allow them to take part in as much as they want to, even if it makes a mess. Allowing them to take part in the whole process gives them the opportunity to learn as much as possible. For example, when making a dish that requires measuring out a liquid, allow your child to pour it into the measuring cup. You may need to guide them by holding their hands while they pour; otherwise you could have a major mess on your hands. Measuring out flour and sugar for baking is also very fun for children and is a great way to teach the importance of measuring precision in baking.

When I am baking something in the oven, I allow my children to help me prepare the food but stress the importance that I put it in the oven. I have an oven that does not get hot on the outside, so I turn the oven light on and allow my kids to take peeks to see how the heat transforms the food. This teaches them the importance of safety around kitchen appliances.

A great way to teach your children about the effects of cold temperatures on food is to make homemade popsicles. Also, show them how putting liquid over high heat changes it to a gas. Chemistry in the kitchen!
Occasionally, I will cook different ethnic dishes to teach my children about other cultures, as well. For example, I made Cuban chicken and rice a few days ago and talked to my children about where Cuba was, what language was spoken there, etc.

There are some parents who are leery about allowing their children to use certain kitchen tools, especially knives. I will say that I haven’t allowed my children to use the larger knives. However, I will allow them to spread icing on a cupcake with a butter knife and use a julienne peeler. I have also held my children’s hands and guided them in slicing different foods with a paring knife. As with all other items in our home, I have been explicit with my children about safety in the kitchen. They know that they should never use a sharp knife or any other possibly dangerous tool without my supervision or guidance. When children understand the possible danger, they will follow your requests.

Cooking in the kitchen is such a great, proactive way to teach and learn real-life skills, including fine motor skills and multi-tasking. My children have also learned about fractions and ratios and how to tell time and the importance of timing through cooking. Not to mention, they now understand the work that goes into preparing a meal, and they are more willing to help clean up!

Denise Keene has been a Special Education teacher for 15 years and likes to write articles about various related topics. She also owns the site Masters In Special Education.

Higher Education Academy Winning Essay

In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”

When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.

You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.

Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.

Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.

Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

Penn – the Social Ivy

I am amused to find a 1999 newspaper column (see below) that I wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian preserved on the Harvard Crimson site. Did I write it at their request? Syndicate it? Damned if I remember but at least I can claim to have published at Harvard.

Joan Didion wrote: “We are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the poeople we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I don’t think I’d find my 19-year-old self attractive company. Her politics are non-existent and the jokes are toe-curling. (The Fresh Prince! Really?) But bless her, she had chutzpah.

In West Philadelphia, The Social Ivy

Welcome to the University of Pennsylvania.

If you want to find out about that state school with the good football team, you’re in the wrong place. But if you want a school that offers its undergraduates a vast array of academic opportunities; great sports teams (well, for the Ivy League); and a thriving metropolis (if you can call West Philly that), then read on.

Here’s an account of the good, the bad and the toast throwing to help you see if Ben Franklin’s university is the one for you.

Academic Life

Before you applied to Penn, you selected which of the four undergraduate schools you wanted to be a part of: Wharton School of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences, Engineering or Nursing. What you probably didn’t know is that when you chose a school you also chose your academic reputation for the next four years.

Wharton is the best undergraduate business school in the nation, and the Wharton students will never let anyone else forget it. From their building in the center of campus to their computer labs from which everyone else is banned, Whartonites spend four years looking down on everyone else on campus.

The college, often referred to as the College of Arts and Crafts, is the largest of the schools with departments in the liberal arts as well as the natural and life sciences. The college also offers very popular interdisciplinary majors, such as biological basis of behavior and politics, philosophy and economics. Some college students have an inferiority complex, because they do not have a clear professional path to follow after graduation. But most enjoy the flexibility the college offers.

Students in the school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS) are not known to be the most fun-loving people on campus. If you see someone in the library on a weekend night, they are probably in SEAS.

Nursing is by the far the smallest of the four schools with only 80 students in each year. But nursing students have the highest average starting salary of the four schools.

No matter what school you are in, you will find that your classes are almost always taught by professors. The only classes that teaching assistant lead are some of the introductory foreign language courses and many of the writing courses.

Penn has its share of the huge lecture classes, too. If you take introduction to economics, psychology, biology or chemistry, expect to be in a class with hundreds of other. All of these big classes break into recitations once a week to discuss the material in a smaller setting.

You will also have the opportunity to take small classes of under 18 students, especially if you are in the college. It is not unusual to have dinner at the professor’s house once during the semester. Many students have found themselves at past Penn President Sheldon Hackney’s house after taking his seminar on America in the ’60s.

The one thing that students in all four school agree on is the problems with the advising system–or lack thereof. Although all students get an adviser in their school and then one in their major, many students feel that advisers exist largely to sign innumerable forms and to give unsolicited advice based on precisely no prior knowledge of one’s skills or goals.

Out of the Classroom

The place where you will learn the most is probably going to be your extracurricular activity.

You can join the oldest all-male college comedy troupe in the country, Mask and Wig, or one of our many a cappella groups. You can write for a daily newspaper or go skydiving with our outdoor clubs. Whatever you choose, you will find yourself and other students completely in charge of running organizations that are among the best in their respective field in the nation. And who cares if that means no sleep?

Many students complain that Penn is a completely apathetic campus. This school is not the type where you will find students having many protests. Penn students this year were the only ones in the Ivy League not to hold a rally about sweatshop labor.

But Penn students do get excited about some things, namely our football and basketball teams. After the third quarter of every football game, students sing a song which ends with the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.” Back in the day, Penn students used to drink alcohol after singing that line, but many years ago the administration clamped down on the practice. As a protest, Penn students threw actual toast on the field, and the tradition continues to this day. Many Penn students also spend a whole weekend in October camping out at the Palestra, our fabled sports arena, in order to get season basketball tickets.

After the football team clinched the Ivy League title this year, Penn students stormed the football field, tore down one of the goalposts, marched to the Schuykill River and threw it in. And students loyally followed the basketball team to Princeton to see them capture the Ivy title and then tore down the Tigers’ own nets. Some students even flew to Seattle to see the team play in the NCAA tournament.

Housing

Last year, Penn decided to create a “college house” system, so its dorms would feel more like communities. Dorms, or college houses, now have senior faculty living in them and many programs based in the residence. Many students say they don’t notice the difference with the new system, but it is too early to tell how these will pan out.

As a first-year, you likely want to be in one of the four college houses in the Quadrangle. About half of the students decide to move off-campus. But most of the off-campus housing is directly adjacent to campus, so even if you live there, you are still close to everything. Many upperclassmen who decide to stay on campus move to one of the three high rises, apartment-style college houses.

Social Life

They don’t call Penn the “social Ivy” for nothing. Come Friday and Saturday nights (and often Thursday nights, too), you will find Penn students leaving their work behind to find a good time.

Much of your social life during the beginning of your first year will center around fraternity parties with cheap beer and bad ’80s music. However, only a third of people at Penn are involved in the Greek system. Rush occurs in the spring, so you will already have a group of friends and a better idea of how you fit into the school before you have to decide about joining.

Penn students do not confine themselves to campus, but rather take advantage of all that Philadelphia has to offer: from attending concerts at the Electric Factory to dancing at the many downtown clubs to dining out at Restaurant Row. You can easily reach downtown using the subway system, SEPTA, or taxis. But we warned, SEPTA, is dirty, slow and not so safe to ride alone at night.

Penn is also home to Spring Fling, the biggest party on the East Coast (or so they say). This year, however, the University implemented a new alcohol policy that slowed down, but certainly did not stop, people form drinking. A committee is still reviewing the alcohol policy, so it is unclear how is will affect future years.

The ‘Hood

Perhaps Penn’s most famous feature is its location: West Philadelphia. Everyone has heard the stories about the threat the neighborhood and the neighbors pose to the safety of Penn students.

However, while West Philly certainly isn’t Hanover, N.H. or Ithaca, N.Y., it is not half as bad as it is made out to be. In the past few years, violent crime has dropped dramatically. There have been a few major incidents, including an assault in the fall, and there are always the nuisance crimes, such as panhandling and bike theft. But overall, students, including the large number that come from “sheltered suburbs across the country, feel safe.

By now, you have learned almost all there is know about Penn. (You’ll have to wait until you get here to find out about Naked Dash through the Quad.) If you are looking for a school situated among rolling green hills with students who spend their free time discussing Anna Karenina, Penn is not the place for you. But if you are looking for an urban environment with students who study hard and party hard, then head on over to West Philly. The Fresh Prince is waiting.