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Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women
By BJ Gallagher
Red Wheel/Weiser LLCCopyright © 2002 BJ Gallagher
All rights reserved.
Attitude Is Everything
Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.
—Tallulah Bankhead, actress
"Happiness is available ... help yourself" reads the sign on the wall over Anita's desk.
"Mind over matter," my mother reminds me.
Happiness Is a Choice is the book on my friend Jackie's coffee table.
"You'll see it when you believe it — not vice versa!" the seminar leader asserts.
"BJ, you need an attitude adjustment today," my friend Anne scolds me.
I am grateful for the regular reminders of how important attitude is because sometimes I forget. I need these messages every so often — like little Post-itTM notes from the Universe — so I'll remember how my attitude affects my relationships with other people, how it influences the quality of my work, how it impacts my health, and how it determines how much I enjoy life.
Other women have taught me much about the critical role that attitude plays — in good times and in bad. Most importantly, they taught me that I can choose my own attitude! It's not something immutable in my DNA over which I have no control. My attitude is not cast in concrete — in any given moment I can choose to change it. I may not be able to control what happens in the world around me, but I can certainly control how I respond to it.
It's true what they say, "What you expect is what you get." Attitude is everything.
It's Mind over Matter
MY MOTHER WAS TERRIFIC at turning negatives into positives. We were a military family, which meant that every few years, sometimes every few months, we had to pick up and move to a new city or town — sometimes a new country! I always lamented the loss of my friends whenever we had to move. And my mother invariably said, "You're not losing your friends; you get to keep them, and you get to make some new ones too!" She wasn't just rationalizing — she genuinely believed it. She had this instinctive ability to take problems and turn them into opportunities, to find the proverbial silver lining in whatever clouds came her way.
Psychologists have a fancy term for this — they call it reframing the situation. How you respond to something emotionally is a function of how you frame it cognitively. If you think about moving as a loss, then you will feel grief and sadness. If you think about moving as a new adventure, then you will feel excitement and anticipation. My mother didn't have a degree in psychology, but she instinctively understood how to reframe situations for herself and her children. This ability is one of the most valuable legacies I inherited from my mother.
Mom knew that children often take their cues from their parents. If parents are upset by a situation, their kids will be too. If parents take things in stride and adapt to change quickly and easily, chances are, so will the kids. She understood the importance of modeling the kind of behavior you want from your children. She viewed each move in a positive manner, looking forward to the opportunity to move into a new house or apartment and decorate it, enjoying the creative challenge posed by changing "nests" frequently. (Dad often joked that whenever Mom got our home fixed up just the way she liked it, she'd look at Dad and say, "I'm done now. I guess it's time to move again!" And often it was.)
Mom enjoyed the packing and sorting, the organizing and weeding out. She liked finding new things in the new location to create a warm, homey environment for us. We didn't have a lot of money, but she was resourceful in buying things from thrift shops, making things herself, and finding bargains in antique stores. She made moving an adventure for herself, and she taught me to do the same.
There were other ways in which her philosophy about attitude influenced my own ideas about attitude. One of her favorite sayings was, "Mind over matter." She invoked this mantra whenever I was whining or complaining (as kids often do). "Mind over matter" was an all-purpose panacea for assorted and sundry problems. Feeling lonely? Instead of focusing on your aloneness as a problem, view it as an opportunity to do something that requires solitude, like writing or cleaning your closet. Unhappy because of bad weather? Look at it as an opportunity to stay indoors and get something done. Feeling sad because something or someone disappointed you? Make a gratitude list and see all the wonderful things you have going for you!
Over the years, I had many opportunities to see how Mom's "mind over matter" mantra worked in all sorts of life situations. I even went so far as to see if it would work with jet lag! I travel a lot on business, and like most people, I used to feel tired and a bit disoriented whenever my destination was in a different time zone. I just accepted it as jet lag.
About ten years ago, while on a business trip to Denmark, I decided to try an experiment with jet lag — to see if "mind over matter" would work on it. The plane left Los Angeles. When it was light outside, I stayed awake. When we flew over the North Pole and it was dark, I slept. When we arrived in Copenhagen, I set my watch on local time, two o'clock in the afternoon, and proceeded with the rest of my day, seeing some of the sights and having dinner with a friend. I never allowed myself to think about what time it was in Los Angeles. As far as I was concerned, the local time was the only time that was relevant. I went to sleep that night at my usual time, and got up the next morning at my usual time. I experienced no jet lag. Son of a gun, "mind over matter" really worked!
What's more, I've never had jet lag since then. I fly coast to coast with no problem. Time zones don't phase me a bit. I just set my watch on the local time, and that's what time it is for me. I don't think about what time it is back home. It's not important. What is important is that I don't get jet lag.
My mother taught me volumes about the power of the human mind and my ability to choose my attitude in any situation. Reframing problems into opportunities and practicing "mind over matter" — these attitudinal lessons have made my life easier and more fun. Thanks, Mom.
What do you hang on the walls of your mind?
—Eve Arnold, photographer
Life is raw material. We are artisans. We can sculpt our existence into something beautiful, or debase it into ugliness. It's in our hands.
—Cathy Better, poet, writer, editor
The Buddha walked away from his wife while she was sleeping. I don't want to go anywhere, I don't want to leave anybody behind. Happiness is right here, right now, in this world, in this room. I am happiest wherever it is that I am.
—Alexandra Stoddard, author of Choosing Happiness
A Wonderful Hat Makes all the Difference!
I HAVE MY OWN PERSONAL "Auntie Mame." Eccentric, colorful, entertaining, exasperating, larger than life, and impossibly outrageous, she is Eloise Elizabeth Jensen Chamberlain Kozak. She is my mother's sister — and you couldn't find two more different women. My mother is bookish, shy, and introverted, preferring her garden and her cats to people. Auntie El, as I call her, is extraverted, extravagant, talkative, and always the center of attention. Both women were stylish when they were younger — but it was Eloise who really had the flair for putting herself together. She bought expensive designer clothes and took superb care of them, making them last for years.
As she got older, Auntie El put on weight, a lot of it. But she still managed to look handsome and elegant somehow. I marveled at how she could do that. Whenever I gain weight, I just want to cover it all up with XL T-shirts and straight-leg jeans. But Auntie El would never be caught dead in jeans. She wore pearls, a heavy gold bracelet, her emerald and diamond rings, beautiful expensive shoes, and flowing colorful caftans. She looked like an aging film star — zaftig and boozy, but still a commanding presence.
And then there were the hats — she always loved hats. She wore classy, sophisticated hats in the '40s and '50s, when she lived in San Francisco. When she and Uncle Andrew moved to Sedona, Arizona, about sixteen years ago, she started wearing Western-style broad-brimmed hats — each with its own stunning hatband. My favorite was a brown suede Stetson, trimmed with a narrow black leather band studded with genuine turquoise nuggets. When she walked into a room with that hat, everyone took notice.
I went to visit Auntie El in Sedona a couple of years ago, and over lunch one afternoon I commented on her beautiful collection of hats. She smiled knowingly and leaned over to whisper something so that her husband wouldn't overhear: "I wear these stunning hats so that people will look at my face and not my big tush!" she confided conspiratorially. She was right — that's exactly what people did.
Auntie El summarized succinctly what generations of women have been doing for hundreds — no, thousands — of years. She understands the power that clothing and accessories have to draw the eye to the most appealing part of the female body. Auntie El's couture lesson was not news to me, but it distilled the essence of female fashion wisdom in such a simple sentence that it stuck with me. Today, whenever I try on hats, I think of Auntie El.
A good hat can make the difference between a bimbo and a princess.
—Robin Williams' mom (Robin played Mrs. Doubtfire in the movie of the same name)
Chicago Sun Times: "People today are wearing things on their T-shirts that they once wouldn't dare tell their analysts."
WOMEN'S T-SHIRTS WITH ATTITUDE
Veni, Vedi, Visa (I Came. I Saw. I Did a Little Shopping.)
Coffee, Chocolate, Men ... Some things are just better rich.
Old age comes at a bad time.
Princess, having had sufficient experience with princes, seeks frog.
My mother is a travel agent for guilt trips.
If they don't have chocolate in heaven, I ain't going.
So many men, so few who can afford me.
Do NOT start with me. You will NOT win.
Warning: I have an attitude and I know how to use it.
If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.
—Katherine Hepburn, actress
If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.
—Catherine Aird, author of witty British police novels
From birth to 18 a girl needs good parents; from 18 to 35 she needs good looks; from 35 to 55 she needs a good personality; and from 55 on she needs cash.
—Sophie Tucker, vaudeville entertainer
Catching More Flies with Honey
IT'S FUNNY THE THINGS in our lives that leave such a lasting impression. Sometimes something very simple can have life-changing impact. When I was in junior high school I had a subscription to Seventeen magazine, which I eagerly devoured each month as soon as it arrived. I was the daughter of a military family, and we were stationed overseas during those years. Being an American teenager in a foreign country, I sensed I was missing out on important experiences of being a teen in America, and I was hungry to fill this void in any way I could, including reading Seventeen.
The message of one particular article imprinted itself permanently in my impressionable teenaged brain. I don't know the name of the woman who wrote the story, but this unknown writer is responsible for a critical turning point in my life.
The article was about how to attract boys. Its message was clear and simple: Boys like to spend time with girls who are cheerful, upbeat, friendly, and warm. They do not like to be with girls who are depressed, surly, cranky, and cold. It may not seem like such a big deal today, but at the time, that article's message was seared into my consciousness. It caused me to make a decision — one of those Life Decisions: I decided to be cheerful and upbeat in all circumstances. I was very interested in attracting boys, and if this is what would do it, then so be it!
Of course, my mother would probably say that she could have told me this without my having to read it in a magazine. In fact, she did tell me this in other words at different times in my life. Her words were, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." She wasn't talking about attracting boys — she was talking about dealing with other people in general. I came to agree with my mother and generalized what I call "the power of cheerfulness" into many other life situations. It helped me in school, in social settings, and in job situations, anytime I was interacting with other people.
For instance, when I was in my twenties and working as a waitress, I used to view grumpy customers as a personal challenge, to see if I could turn them around during the course of a meal. The more unpleasant they were, the more I poured "emotional honey" over them. It was a game that I played with them, unbeknownst to them, of course! And guess what? It worked more times than not. Not only did I feel the satisfaction of having met a personal challenge, I often got a good tip, to boot!
It's funny how often I have read articles or books that have taught me something important and useful and then shared that information with my mother — only to have her reply, "I've been telling you that for years!" I don't know why is it that kids (adult kids, too) will readily heed the advice of experts but ignore the very same advice when it's uttered by their parents. All I know is that the Seventeen magazine writer who wrote that story made a lightbulb go on in my head. Whoever she was, thank you.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall ... Which of These Women Has It All?
Sometimes Even Eagles Need a Push
MANY OF US HAVE BEEN INFLUENCED and inspired by famous and accomplished women as we read about them in newspapers and magazines. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have been influenced by a famous woman in a much more personal way. My friend Chris Phillips had one of those "close encounters of the most important kind" with a woman who subsequently went on to become First Lady, the wife of our forty-first president.
Chris's life-changing conversation occurred about fifteen years ago, when she and her husband attended a literacy conference in their hometown in Michigan. Barbara Bush, who has been active in promoting literacy for many decades, was the keynote speaker. At the time, George Bush was vice president, campaigning to become president.
After the conference, select people were invited to a local judge's house for tea with Mrs. Bush. Chris and her husband were invited to attend, since they were both active in their community. It was a lovely afternoon with lots of stimulating conversation about local issues, national politics, and, of course, literacy.
At one point during the afternoon, Chris excused herself to go find the ladies' room. Discovering a line of women waiting to use the facilities, she took her place in line. The next thing she knew, Barbara Bush got in line behind her, and the two struck up a conversation about jobs and families. They began a mother-to-mother talk about children's education. The conversation turned from their children to themselves, and Mrs. Bush encouraged Chris to take more of a leadership position in her community — to stretch beyond her self-imposed boundaries.
Chris replied, "Oh, I couldn't do that. I don't have the education." At the time, she had an AA degree from the local community college and was a secretary at the Michigan headquarters of an international company.
"What's holding you back?" Mrs. Bush asked. "What are the barriers in your way to going on to get a bachelors degree? Are they external barriers — lack of money, child care responsibilities, an unsupportive husband? Or are they internal barriers — lack of self-confidence, doubt, insecurity? You have to identify the barriers to see what's holding you back."
"Well ...," Chris replied, mulling over Mrs. Bush's question, "I guess they're mostly internal barriers. I'm just a secretary; I guess I never thought about taking on more."
"Well!" Mrs. Bush harrumphed in her best maternal manner, "you have to take the initiative to develop yourself! No one is going to do it for you. No one is holding you back — you're holding yourself back. Stay in touch with other women — let them encourage you and help you. Get that education! You can become a leader!"
The two women were standing just inches apart. Barbara Bush's face and words left an indelible impression in Chris's mind. The seeds had been planted ...
Excerpted from Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women by BJ Gallagher. Copyright © 2002 BJ Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser LLC.
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