My Weird Brain & Juliette Binoche

I missed the memo about my weird brain and Juliette Binoche.

My husband and I were recently talking about our shared grief over Steve Carell’s imminent departure from “The Office“.  We were speculating about what path his career might next take, and I commented that I hoped he would do more roles that weren’t just silly, but also showed off his sweet side.  Here’s a rough transcript of the conversation:

Me:            You know, like that movie he did with Juliette Binoche.

Ryan:       Steve Carell was in a movie with Juliette Binoche?  When?

Me:            I don’t know, but it was good, and it had something to do with pancakes. 

And then I let my fingers do the Googling and in a few seconds, this image popped up:

Somehow, my brain had filed “Dan in Real Life” and cross-referenced it under the categories of “Steve Carell”, “Juliette Binoche” and “Pancakes”.  Being easily amused is one of my better qualities, and I have to admit, this cracked me up. 

And then I geeked out a little and started thinking about the idea of metacognition.  I first got the memo about metacognition in one of my college psychology courses.  Metacognition describes  “a learners’ automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes.”  Wait…what?  Seriously, it blew my mind, too, when I first thought about it.   But once in a while, you can observe your brain at work, and then it’s kind of fun to appreciate that you have all sorts of weird and wonderful strategies for storing information so that it’s available and useful to you when you need it.  Being mindful of these strategies and using them to your advantage can make you a hit at cocktail parties and a one-time Jeopardy! loser, much like myself. 

Clearly, my brain likes to have visual associations for stuff.  When I attempted to compute “Steve Carell + Juliette Binoche”  the result was a vivid image of pancakes in my mind.  So maybe, the next time I’m trying to remember something important, I’ll make a teensy extra effort to connect a meaningful visual so I can increase my processing speed just a bit. 

And just a word or two about Juliette Binoche…

I got the memo about Juliette Binoche when I saw “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for the first time  (oh man, so many memos…)  Seriously, is there a more luminous creature in the world? I just love her French face. She’s very beautiful, but I find that there is something awesomely awkward about her.  Ms. Binoche helped me to understand that being perfect isn’t the end all be all of attractiveness; being imperfect and interesting is so much sexier than being perfect.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 

I majored in psychology and minored in French (and one of my upper level electives was “Great French Actress and Their Roles”  how cool is that?) so I feel like this blog post reflects that I’m getting some serious mileage out of that fancy liberal arts education (that I am still paying for…)  Memo received.

Ditching Cable TV

I missed the memo about ditching cable TV.

Let’s get something quite clear from the outset.  I love TV.  I am kind of a couch potato, and for better or worse, my son is kind of a couch tater tot.  Sure, we go outside and play, but on the evenings that we’re home, we’re often watching TV. I make no apologies for this. 

However, in keeping with the zeitgeist,  my husband and I have been feeling the need to streamline things a bit.  Figuring out how to spend less money and simplify your life seems like a rational response to budgetary restraints and burgeoning chaos, right? Right.  But give up our cable?  Should we? Could we?  Yes we can. 

We ditched our cable a couple of weeks ago and there’s been no looking back.  We have not, however, given up watching TV.  We got a miraculous little gizmo called a Roku, and with the Roku and a wireless router, we can watch all the web-based TV we want.  We were already paying for Netflix, which has more movies and TV shows than I could ever watch in this life time.  And now we subscribe to Hulu-Plus, which allows us to watch just about all the recent broadcast stuff just about whenever we want. And we’ve got a digital antenna so if we need to tune in for live local news, no problem. 

For someone like me who is really TV-philic and slightly techno-phobic, cutting the cable cord and embracing this new technology was a little bit scary.  Mercifully, on this journey toward a cable-free existence,  I’ve had a great sherpa in my adorable husband.  He did the heavy lifting in researching our new set up and getting it up and running.  And now it’s better living through fiber optics. 

In addition to being so much cheaper than cable, watching TV this way has made it a more mindful experience.  Instead of there being (300 and) 57 channels and Nothin’ On, there’s now a self-selected menu of options that I’ve tailored to my own interests and tastes.  Actually, most of the options are tailored to my son’s tastes, and when you go searching for dinosaur-themed programming on Netflix, you will find an embarrassment of riches. 

It’s been really lovely to settle in for the evening and actually take stock of my mood and my energy level and really think about what it is that I feel like watching.  No more mindless channel surfing.  And yes, sometimes I have to admit to myself that I don’t feel like watching anything and I actually turn the TV off.  Wow.   Memo received. 

 © 2011 Jamie Walker Ball


I missed the memo about bagels.

Growing up in a pretty WASPy corner of the South, I think I was in my teen years before I even knew what a bagel was.  Judging by its round shape, the hole in the middle, and the time of day at which it was served, I was expecting something like a donut.  I was bitterly disappointed.  Because I was expecting sweet and airy and I got dense and chewy, I resented the bagel for not being what I expected it to be.

Since then, I’ve come to my senses.  Bagels are awesome.  Toasted, untoasted, embellished or plain, or purely as a delivery system for cream cheese.  Yum. 

It might seem kind of banal to be ruminating about bagels, but that first experience has always stuck with me.  It still strikes me as funny (both “ha ha” and weird) that instead of appreciating the bagel for what it was, I was disappointed because it wasn’t what I thought it would be.  I think I remember the bagel incident because it was just so silly, but I wonder how often I make these misjudgments when the stakes are higher? 

What I’m getting at here is that expectations can be a bit of a trap, so I need to tread carefully to avoid being ensnared.  I like to plan, I like to have expectations, but my expectations can trick me into needlessly feeling disappointment.  Example…I remember seeing the rough cut of my wedding video and there’s a shot of me waiting to go down the aisle and I am clearly seen making an angry face and saying a word unbefitting a bride simply because my aisle runner hadn’t been laid out the way I expected.  So stupid to let a little deviation from my expectations take me out of the happiness of the day. 

As donuts go, bagels are terrible, but as bagels, they’re outstanding.  Sometimes, letting go of expectations is the key to happiness in both life and in brunch.   I’ll have this memo with a schmear of cream cheese, tomatoes, and turkey bacon please.  Memo received. 

 © 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

The Tragedy of the Commons

I missed the memo about the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons refers to the phenomenon where there is a communal resource that is sustainable only if everyone using it takes only their share, but where each person uses more than their share because they think their extra bit of consumption won’t make a difference. You can see where things start getting effed up if everyone operates under this assumption. 

It’s not surprising that the most well-known article about this phenomenon was penned by an ecologist, Garrett Hardin.  In about 10 seconds, you could probably think of 10 examples of how our individual short-sightedness has led to overuse, depletion, or extinction in our natural world.    It’s an interesting quirk in human thinking that we can convince ourselves that our little contributions to big problems don’t make a difference.  But all of those little contributions are what create the big problems, capice?

In recent days, I’ve been thinking about the flip side of the Tragedy of the Commons.  Where there’s a incomprehensibly big problem out there in the world, it can sometimes be hard to see how my teensy tiny contribution to the solution could possibly help.  But what I fail to consider is the collective effect of my teensy tiny contribution, and yours, and that guy’s, and so on. 

Even when I consider my teensy tiny contribution to a solution by itself, I just can’t be cynical or hopeless. I just can’t.  I have to believe that I can help, even if it’s  just a little.  My friend Rachel recently reminded me about “The Starfish Story.”  You know you know it…the guy’s walking along the beach as the tide is going out, tossing starfish back into the surf.  A passerby observes this and comments that there are miles of beach and countless starfish, so he couldn’t possibly make a difference. The guy picks up another starfish and tosses it into the water and says, “I made a difference for that one.”

You probably see where I’m going with all of this.  Today I was sad, but not entirely surprised, to read this article  which reported that fundraising for the recovery effort in Japan is off to a slow start.  The theory is that because Japan is perceived as such a strong country, they don’t need as much help.  But that’s crap, isn’t it?  Think about when a football player takes a hit and gets knocked on his ass.  This guy’s a  dazzlingly capable athlete who could probably levitate off the field just by flexing his glutes.  All the same, one of his fellow players will extend a hand and pull him up.  Because it’s the gracious, right thing to do. 

I wonder if people are also ambivalent about  giving  because they don’t know how their small contributions could make a difference in light of the scale of  the disaster.  But when someone gets knocked down, you pick them back up.   And if we all pull together, we get Japan back on its feet.  Memo received.

The Bystander Effect

I missed the memo about The Bystander Effect.

I think I was in my “Introduction to Psychology” class in high school when I first heard about the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese.

 In 1964, Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her apartment building in New York.  Police later learned that as many as 38 of her neighbors either saw or heard the attack, but only one called the police, and this call came too late to save her life. 

Like anyone, I was mystified as to how it could be that no one came to her aid.  She must have been literally screaming bloody murder and no one helped her.  Aren’t we supposed to be safer when lots of people are around?  Turns out, we’re not. 

Despite what your mother may have told you about driving along deserted roads, you’re statistically much better off getting a flat tire on a lonely stretch of highway than on a busy city street.  Counterintuitive and trippy, isn’t it?  But think about it…on a busy street, cars zip by, and everyone can convince themselves that someone else will stop to help, whereas, on the lonely road, if another motorist happens upon you, he or she will have some understanding that he or she is your only hope, so the sense of personal responsibility is greater.

The Bystander Effect describes the phenomenon that occurs when a group of people observe some kind of crisis.  When each person knows that others are also aware of the crisis, the sense of personal responsibility becomes diffuse.  Everyone somehow thinks that someone else will take the necessary action, and if everyone thinks that, no one acts. 

About 100 years ago when I was first getting CPR training, I got another memo on The Bystander Effect.  The trainer reminded us that upon coming upon a person in respiratory distress, the first thing we needed to do was to summon paramedics.  But the trainer made this key point:  Don’t say, “Someone call 911!”  Instead, identify a specific person, even if you don’t know them:  “Hey, you in the blue shirt!  Call 911!”  You make Mr. Blueshirt personally responsible for the call so he can’t assume that someone else will do it for him. 

In the last couple of days, we’ve all been awed by the destruction we’re seeing in Japan.  It’s terrible  beyond any words to describe it.  While Japan is a strong country of resourceful and resilient people, it needs help.    Don’t assume that everyone else will contribute to relief efforts. I entreat you, yes YOU, the one sitting at your computer reading these words, to do what you can.   The American Red Cross even makes it super easy…you can text the word “REDCROSS” to 90999 to donate $10 which will be billed to your cell phone account.  Text sent and memo received.

Zen and the Art of Potty Training

I missed the memo about Zen and the art of potty training.

Please forgive this foray into the scatological, but my son is nearly 3 so it’s about that time.  When I recently won a free copy of the e-book, “Oh Crap! Potty Training”  I took it as a sign from the gods that we needed to get on the potty training trolley.

The technique recommended by the author makes a lot of intuitive sense, but it’s hard.  It takes a lot of parental focus and what is the theme of modern life, if not distraction?  To help ensure my son’s best start in this potty training adventure, I couldn’t really let him out of my sight for the entire day.  No multi-tasking. I had to be present. I had to clear my mind of my other worries and preoccupations and just tune in to my son. 

Here’s how it went:

Pee No. 1:  He’d had two juice boxes…I should have known better than to turn by back for even a second.  Atticus wanted to get his Play Doh mat from his room, and he raced ahead.  Seconds later when I caught up, he had peed.   Mommy was not present, physically or otherwise.

Poop No. 1:   Atticus  started showing some signs that he needed to go, the farting was a dead giveaway.  He started stressing out a little bit and asking for a diaper. I encouraged him to sit on the potty, but he seemed very dubious about how this was going to work.  After he relaxed, he just pooped and he seemed a little surprised that it happened. The author of the e-book said that looking at the poop and dumping it into the toilet would be a reward onto itself, and it was.  There were several high fives and lots of praise.  It was a big moment! 

Pee No. 2:  We’d been finger painting, and with paint every where, a shower was the only option.  I got us both in the shower, and Atticus promptly peed.  I figured this would happen.

Pee No. 3:  After the shower, Atticus was content to be naked for a while, and just casually sat on the potty, like it was a piece of furniture.  After about 20 minutes, he peed and proudly announced it after the fact.

Pee No. 4:  He was climbing around on the couch and all of a sudden he paused.  I said, “Are you peeing?”  He just got himself to the potty, pulled down his shorts and peed.  This was a bit of a break through, I thought. 

Poop No. 2 & Pee No. 4 1/2:  We were happily stamping letters into Play Doh when Atticus waltzed over to the potty, pulled down his shorts, and started with the tell-tale grunting.  This time he didn’t ask for a diaper or show any distress, he just pooped.  While he was pooping, he also squeezed out a little bit of pee.  As with previous successes, there was much fanfare and rejoicing as we made the deposit and flushed.

Pee No. 5:  As I was washing the insert to the potty, said he needed to pee again.  We have two potties, so I encouraged him to go use the other one.  I figured he might be faking since going potty was starting to become lots o’ fun.  But lo and behold, he peed some more.

Pee No. 6:  I let my guard down to go pee myself, leaving Atticus watching a video in the living room.  Within a minute, Atticus yelled, “I peed!”  I fully expected to see him soaked, but even when I was out of the room, he got himself to the potty and peed.  I was tickled and totally gobsmacked.

Pee No. 6 1/2-7:  I encouraged him to use the potty right before his evening bath and he dutifully complied, but only peed a tiny amount in the potty.  Once he got in the shower, he let fly with a real pee.   Atticus clearly takes a Costanzan view of plumbing.

Since I had been dreading and postponing potty training for some time now, the successes of this day were  a very happy surprise.   Here’s my theory…I gave my son the gift of my relaxed and attentive presence and he gave me the gift of trust and cooperation.  And not changing diapers anymore?  That’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Memo received.

Mom Jeans

I missed the memo about “Mom Jeans”.

You’ve probably seen that hilarious SNL sketch, and when I first saw it, I was laughing on the outside, but crying on the inside.  Even before I was a mom, I think my denim preferences veered dangerously into mom jeans territory.   I have a hard time finding jeans that are flattering and unfrumpy because even when I’m at my fighting weight, I have a mid-section that can best be described as “Homer-esque.”

I tend to have a perfectly imperfect roundness which starts in the belly region and extends all the way around to my ass.  On cartoon characters, it’s cute, but on me, not so much. 

When the very slinky low-rise jeans became fashionable, I nearly surrendered to the frump.  “Muffin top” does not begin to describe what’s going on when I attempt to wear low-rise jeans.  I think a more apt description would be “banana bread.”  And even when skinny, I’m kind of modest.  And I like to wear underwear.  And I get cold easily.  For all of these reasons, low-rise jeans are just not for me. 

But check this out….

Here’s the impossibly skinny Keira Knightley wearing impossibly low-rise jeans on the left (I mean really, is that zipper like, 2 inches long?  OK, stop looking at her crotch, it’s getting weird…)  And on the right, Ms. Knightley is wearing jeans that go waaaay up. 

Am I nuts or does she look pretty cute in both pictures?  These are two very different looks and each may have suited the occasion for which she chose them.  And in my life, there are sadly fewer and fewer occasions at which it would seem appropriate to show almost everything south of my navel and north of, well, you  know. 

My angst about jeans and many other fashion questions has led me to worship at the altar of Stacy and Clinton.  On their show, What Not To Wear, they almost inevitably  recommend mid-rise jeans.  Not so low that people can finally find out if the carpet matches the drapes, but not so high as to risk strangulation.  Somewhere in the middle probably looks and feels best.  In life and in denim, the path to enlightenment is along The Middle Way.  Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

Being Average

I missed the memo about being average.

When I was in college, one of my classmates, who was exceptionally tall and had glorious auburn hair, referred to herself as a “statuesque red-head”.  I thought that sounded so much better than “blonde girl of average height” which is exactly what I am. 

According to Wikipedia, the average height of American women is right about 5’4″.  And I am exactly 5’4″.  When I see the leggy super models in fashion magazines, I feel a pang of envy, but really being average isn’t such a bad thing. 

Recently, Mayim Bialik caused a bit of stir in the mommy blogosphere when she penned this piece in which she described her approach to dealing with the developmental “delays” her sons exhibited.  Knowing other parents who have dealt with similar issues, the anxiety that comes with wondering whether your child is “normal” is just gut-wrenching.  While it would be an over-simplification to say that Ms. Bialik  wasn’t worried about how her sons were doing, it was interesting to hear about her choice to not pursue aggressive interventions to speed up her children’s developmental progress.  She was OK with them not being average. 

Reading Ms. Bialik’s article and some of the critical responses to it made me thank my lucky stars that my son is pretty darn average in lots of ways.  I’ve been spared the worry and wonder about how he’s doing because he has been  hitting developmental milestones right about when he’s “supposed” to hit them.  I am so grateful he is so average.

The word “average” gets kind of a bad rap.  We want above average incomes and below average body fat.  But sometimes being right in the middle of the bell curve is a pretty comfortable place to be.   In lots of ways, the world is an easier fit for average people…for example, I’m a lot more comfortable in airplane seats than my husband, who’s an above average 6’3″. 

I’m no cheerleader for conformity, but I’m figuring out that by lots of measures, I’m pretty average and there’s no shame in that.  Average doesn’t always mean mediocre, it just means that when it comes to that particular measure, I’m just like a lot of other people, and there’s a sense of solidarity in that.   I never thought plotting my place on a bell curve would foster a sense of kinship and community, but in fact it does.  Memo received. 

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball


I missed the memo about boredom.

It happened.  After a weekend cooped up at home due to illness, my nearly three-year old son pronounced that he was bored.  In fewer than 36 months, he had seen it all, done it all, and had exhausted his imagination.  He was bored. 

After torturing my own parents with similar pronouncements throughout my childhood, I finally got the memo about boredom in French class.  In French, the verb “ennuyer,” which means “to bore” is reflexive.  In French, you have to say, “Je m’ennuie” which means “I bore myself.”  Boredom isn’t a passive state of being, it’s something you’re actively doing to yourself.  If you’re bored, it’s your fault.  Oh, snap! 

I remember dutifully practicing the conjugation of the verb…I bore myself, you bore yourself, they bore themselves…and I thought to myself that it’s pretty embarrassing to be a bored French person.  If you have to say “I bore myself” then you have to acknowledge that you’re boring. 

From that day in French class, I began thinking about boredom differently and it was actually pretty empowering.  I began thinking of boredom as a character flaw that could be corrected with the right kind action and the right kind of attitude.   It also meant that I didn’t have to wait for something interesting to happen, I could make my own fun. 

Then, a few years later, I was watching a movie wherein some sexy brunette says, “Only stupid people get bored.”  (Salma Hayek? Penelope Cruz?..for the life of me, I cannot correctly recall which movie it was….extra credit to any reader who identifies it!)

Yikes.  So, if you’re bored, you’re not only boring, you’re dumb to boot.  But again, I felt a bit empowered at the suggestion that I could combat boredom with intellect.  Stuck in the airport with nothing good to read? No problem…I’ll just flip through my cranial Rolodex of amusements to keep myself occupied.

Maybe when my son is a little older, I’ll give him a lesson in French grammar and then tell him to go read a book or go outside and play.  Je ne m’ennuie plus.  Memo received.

My Hair

I missed the memo about how to deal with my hair.

(Left to right…age 5, nice bangs, thanks Mom…9th grade…again with the bangs, this time my fault, and for extra new wave credit, it’s crimped…couple of years ago–this is my hair in its natural state, note that its poofiness exceeds the frame…and alas, me with an “appropriate” hair cut and professional blow out.)

This might seem like a bit of vanity and folly, but I think I have what amounts to a serious disability when it comes to my hair.  I have kind of a Samson Complex combined with a congenital klutziness when it comes to using blow dryers and other gizmos which are designed to keep one well-coiffed. 

While many women enjoy their trips to the hair salon, I dread them.  Nothing about the experience of getting a hair cut is pleasant for me.  As a consequence, I get about two hair cuts a year.  For a few weeks after the hair cut, I look polished and presentable.  I vow that I will go back for trims and maintain my “look.”  But as the weeks tick by, my resolve weakens.  I begin to resemble a caucasian Diana Ross.  And I’ll let you in on a little secret… I like looking like that.  I like having long, crazy looking, curly hair.  I feel more natural.  I feel more feminine.  I feel sexier.

Early in my professional life, though, I got the memo that my big, sexy hair was probably sending the wrong message.  When I was a freshly minted lawyer, one day I came to work without torturing my hair into straightness and submission.  A male attorney said to me, “Your hair looks wild…I like it!”  And we all know that’s code for “You look like a whore…come to papa!”  I don’t want people getting the wrong idea, so especially for big meetings and court, out comes the blow dryer and the flat iron. 

But when I get home, the scene is something like this, except instead of a star-spangled bustier, it’s an old Oglethorpe University T-shirt and yoga pants:

The neat-haired girl is just the alter-ego I put on to disguise my true identity…

But perhaps some day I’ll ascend the bench and then I’ll have to care less what colleagues and clients think of me.  Then I’ll just let my crazy locks fall where they may. 

(Remember Dyan Cannon as the Hon. Jennifer “Whipper” Cone on Ally McBeal?  I could sooooo rock this look.)

“Judge Jamie” does have a nice ring to it, don’t you think?  Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball