Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Don't deny the marshmallow

Last month, while attending the graduation ceremony for Satish's oldest sister, it was a joy to watch Leena walk up the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance”, to see the priceless look of pride on her family’s happy faces, to know that only wonderful things await her when she attends Ohio State University in the fall.  For more than six years, I’ve been a witness to all the hard work that Leena’s put into her studies.  I’ve taken her to Lacrosse practice and listened eagerly when she told me stories about drum line rehearsals.  I’ve attended the annual Girl Scout Halloween party at the Sharmas and was so proud of Leena when she earned the highly coveted Gold Award.  
Yes, she’s an incredibly hard worker, but Leena also knows a thing or two about having some serious fun.  I’ve seen the photos of her right before she daringly zoomed across a zip line.  She’s traveled to India with her grandmother and to a host of many other places with her family.  For years, Leena’s been an avid Harry Potter fan and has read all of the books more than once.  In fact, the last movie I saw in the theater was the last episode of “The Deathly Hallows”, with Leena right by my side.  
So it was a wonderful coincidence to watch the keynote speaker at Leena’s graduation begin his speech by passing a bag of marshmallows around the Senior class.  I grinned, knowing exactly what Tom Cambisios had up his sleeve.  “Each of you take one, but don’t eat it,” he told the graduates.  “Not yet.”
Years ago, I had read a Stanford study (1960) in which young children ages three to five were individually seated at a table with a marshmallow and a bell.  They were told that the researcher was going to leave them alone in the room with the treat, and they could eat it if they wanted.  All they needed to do was ring the bell so the researcher would know that was their wish.  But, the children were also told that if they could wait fifteen minutes and not eat the marshmallow, they would be rewarded with a second one.  Many of the children covered their eyes, or turned around so they couldn’t see the marshmallow.  Others “stroked it as if it were a stuffed animal” to distract them from seeing as an edible object.  The minority simply rang the bell, then ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room.  Of the children who attempted to delay their gratification, only one third did so long enough to get the second marshmallow.  
In several follow up studies with the subjects, the researchers discovered unexpected correlations.  Those who could delay gratification longer were described by their parents as more competent teenagers.  The children who instantly ate the marshmallow were more likely to be described as “troublemakers” or “difficult to deal with.”  Those who could delay gratification scored higher on their SAT scores and generally performed better in school.  When the children eventually became adults, the researchers found key differences in brain imaging between those with high delay times and those with low delay times.  Those who could control their behavior had a more active prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum when they were trying to control their responses to alluring temptations, which is a key factor in avoiding addictive behavior.
I was relaying this story to my friend, Badass Barb, and she laughed, “I would have told the researcher that I didn’t like marshmallows.  Now if it were a bar of chocolate, I might have had a bigger problem.”
“Yeah!” I laughed.  “I don’t like them either…unless they’re on a s’more.  If it were me, I think I might have dismantled the bell so I wouldn’t even be tempted to ring it.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah…don't you know by now that I’m a master at delayed gratification?” 
Then we both cracked up…because it’s the absolute truth.

For the past few weeks I’ve been slowly getting ready for a vacation I’ll be taking in August.  Every summer I take a week off to get some work done around the house and hang out in the baby pool, reading books in my back yard.  But I haven’t been on a trip in almost six years and I’m kind of nervous about it.  My youngest pet, Aditi, has never spent a night without me, and Forest is a total mama’s boy, so I’m concerned about the collateral damage they may do in my absence.  Sure, I’ve got a great pet-sitter who will stop by every day and my next-door-neighbor is going to take great care of my yard (“I get to water Snow White’s garden!” Steve laughed when I asked him if he’d do the honors), so it’s not that I don’t trust them to do what needs to be done.  It’s that I have a hard time letting go of the day-to-day duties of running a house and a business.  
Still, I know I need the respite.
While it’s not been a bad year, it has been an intense one.  I’m teaching more classes; my part time job has been great, but my body is weary of spackling and painting and moving furniture.  Some of the people I’ve met in the last few months have stirred the pot of my past and it’s often hard to sleep as nightmares and lucid dreams often haunt me during the night.  There have been many times I’ve wanted to ring a metaphorical bell and say to anyone who can hear me, “Can I just go and live in a cabin in the woods for the rest of summer all by myself?”
Now that’s my kind of marshmallow.
Last Friday I spent some time with Danta at Camp Miakonda’s Cub Scout Day Camp and it was like a mini-vacation from all the stressors summertime can bring.  The scouts and I hiked and went swimming.  We learned about butterflies and cicadas and a host of other insects, then were able to touch a plethora of animals in the nature building including a white rabbit, a couple of frogs, and even a corn snake.  Danta was pretty impressed that I wrapped the thing around my neck like a scarf!  At the end of the day, the only thing that could have made it better would have been sitting around a roaring campfire, roasting marshmallows on sticks before we sandwiched them in-between layers of graham crackers and chocolate bars.  Maybe we'll get to do that next year if I’m invited to tag along on a sleep-over weekend. 
I figure if I can wait six years in-between my travels, I can surely wait 365 days for summer camp.

When Tom was near the end of his keynote speech, he nodded at the Seniors.  “I guess what I’m saying is work hard, but enjoy your life.  Delay the marshmallow, but don’t deny the marshmallow.”
I laughed when he said that, but I also felt tears spring to my eyes, too, for I’ve denied enough marshmallows to fill up my entire baby pool.  Sometimes it was simply because I couldn’t afford it.  Other times I realized the temptation had too many strings attached.  Sometimes I was too afraid to experience something new.  Other times I felt that I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn it.
These days I figure I need to cut myself some slack.  
Recently, I made a list of all the things I’ve accomplished in the past three years, and I’m glad I didn’t do it beforehand as I probably would have been too overwhelmed by my ambition.  Yet I think of it like the road trip I took in 2008 when I drove solo across 80/90 on my way to California, not truly understanding what I was about to experience.  Passing through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa was effortless as the roads were flat and boring.  Once I hit the winding roads of Nebraska and Wyoming, I was more than a little nervous, but it was too late to turn back.  By the time I crossed the treacherous mountains in Colorado, I was mesmerized by the landscape, and that motivated me to motor on through Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada on my way to gorgeous Lake Tahoe.  At the end of that long week, what I felt when I crossed into California was better than eating a measly marshmallow.  It was better than gobbling my way through a big bag of Butterfingers.  It’s hard to describe the elation and freedom I felt to finally come to the end of a long journey that had been more than fifteen years in the making.  
In a couple of months I’ll turn fifty and I’m actually looking forward to it.  This has been a year of taking stock, of figuring out who I really am and what I want to create for the rest of the time I've been given.  What I’m willing to do to have it and what lines I need not cross again.  Through it all, I’m hopeful that for the next fifty years, I’ll be more like Neela…able to find a healthy balance between hard work and incredibly fun opportunities.  Able to remain  both stable and flexible as I journey into unknown territory.
Able to enjoy more than a s’more or two along the way.