The Power of Fun

IdeaConnection Interview with Ann Weimer Baumgardner, author of Pretend You're Normal: But Only When Absolutely Necessary
By Vern Burkhardt
Take the principles of the business world and apply them to the home. Or take the principles of the home and apply them to business. For the past ten years, Ann Weimer Baumgardner has been teaching mothers of preschoolers to do exactly that.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You are a molecular geneticist, taught biology and worked for Procter & Gamble, which I understand was in research and development. You say you were developing new ideas for diapers. How long were you at Procter & Gamble and would you tell us about their product development processes at the time you were there?

photo of Ann BaumgardnerAnn Weimer Baumgardner:
I was at Procter & Gamble for three years in molecular genetics. I call that period of my life "Cooking with Radiation." I basically followed scientific "recipes" using radioactive and cancer-causing ingredients that could kill me.

Then I switched to products research for three years in the diaper division. A good scientist must do field work. In our case, that meant following babies. You had to have good knees to work in the diaper division. We crawled around on the floor watching as they wiggled and toddled around the room. We measured how well our products were fitting and how they were holding up to the heavy liquid load we kept adding.

VB: In reference to Cindy Rabe's term "Zero-Gravity Thinkers", you commented to me "How wonderful to know there's a name for this condition and that it's not terminal. I worked for Procter & Gamble in the old days when they didn't know what to do with someone like me." Did the people you worked with see you as a problem, as not fitting in, rather than as someone who could offer a fresh and interesting perspective? How did you cope?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I enjoyed the people I worked with, and we all got along beautifully. My trouble was that twenty years ago, they didn't have a way to channel ideas that came from outside divisions. Now they do and even permit non-employees to send ideas.

I'm the kind of person who calls the PT Cruiser manufacturers to say, "You should change your door handles. Elderly, disabled people, and children have weak thumbs and can't get the door to open!" Many companies aren't set up to take information in from the public and miss a lot of important feedback.

Procter & Gamble put me in one area and wanted me to have only diaper ideas. The way I coped was to come in early with a friend from another division and brainstorm each other's problems for thirty minutes while we ate donuts. She helped me with my product design problems and I helped her write her concepts. Basically we did each other's homework, which may not make sense in high school, but makes perfect sense in business.

VB: No doubt you added an interesting and useful perspective as a member of an innovation group or team. What dynamic did you add and contribute – when you could?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I really liked writing concepts. Before a company goes to the trouble of designing a product, they first want to see if people will buy it. It's like the first cut at a commercial. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to explain something technical in an easy-to-understand way. Sitting behind the glass, watching the focus group, I learned a lot about communication and enjoyed that special connection between writer and reader.

VB: What innovations in diapers were you involved in?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I worked on one I've not seen on the market and probably never will, but I'm not sure if I'm allowed to talk about it. It was something so complicated it will probably end up in a James Bond movie some day.

VB: It seems diapers would be a commodity needing little further research and development, and only a few varieties and sizes. Yet the marketplace is full of a range of options. Is this not a product where the ultimate differentiator would be price rather than choice?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
That question works in every sector – toilet paper, shampoos, spaghetti sauce. We Americans have gone crazy on a million variations of everything. That said no one does paper products and knows liquid storage like Procter & Gamble. If one day I'm the one sitting in wetness every day, I want Attends®.

VB: You call yourself an inventor. Would you tell us about that aspect of your life?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
My "inventions" are often born out of the ashes of misery. No matter what the temperature is outside, my mother always seems to be too cold, and my father too warm. I like to think I saved their marriage by designing sheets I cut in half and re-sewed with "flannel florals" on one side and "cool cotton plaid" on the other. Mom said it was debatable as to whether these could be credited with saving their marriage since she was always quick to yank her foot back if it happened to wander onto Dad's cool side.

Lately I've been playing with an idea for a kitchen table that could wind down to coffee table height. With the right chairs, our kitchen nook could then double as a cozy tearoom so people could sit and keep me company.

I hate doing jobs by myself and sometimes it's not an invention at all, but an application of an already existing invention that pulls me through. I hate unloading the dishwasher and so I call my sister to keep me company. I bought both of us headsets so we can have our hands free. We have been known to iron clothes outside while supervising children, getting a tan, and talking on the phone. That's why headsets and orange extension cords were invented, right?

VB: You comment that as a daydreamer you "spend at least thirty minutes a day doing absolutely everything." What do you mean by "absolutely everything?"

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I've been amusing myself with this game since I was little. Back then I saved the world a lot. I'd bring about world peace with terrific speeches that would actually make me cry. I've been everything from a high school biology teacher to president of the United States to a pharmaceutical sales representative. I've danced with Ellen and have produced sitcoms.

It's crazy how daydreaming can create a "confidence buzz" that can actually last into your "real" day.

VB: You say you think in pictures and use pictures to remember things. Does thinking in pictures make you more creative, and could you give an example or two of how it works?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I don't know if thinking in pictures makes me more creative. It's just the way I've adapted to not being smart enough to simply remember the stuff on its own. Perhaps that's what creativity is all about – overcoming disability. And honestly, who among us doesn't have a disability or two or eight?

I'm great with metaphors and can use a football field as the "cellular playing field" to describe the various processes of cell division, but in regular life, thinking in pictures can be confusing.

VB: You talk about the "wisdom of a full stop." What is that wisdom?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
If you get goose bumps while shaving your legs, you should stop.

I'm from the "clean your plate generation." We were taught to place a high importance on completion, but there's also great wisdom in stopping and finishing later.

In my experience, creativity comes with marinating and cross-pollinating activities. Solutions often don't appear until you've moved on to another activity or have boosted your confidence by stopping a war somewhere.

Certainly there's benefit from pushing through and completing tasks, but I can tell you from experience, you can't make ideas come when you're cold or feeling bad about yourself.

VB: You say we should be proud of our scars. Why?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Scars are what make us interesting. They're the "show" part of "show and tell" – our badge for making it through some trauma.

I invented a game I called "Scar Search." A group of friends played it in the car on the way to a concert. We gave 10 points for the impressiveness of the scar and 10 points for the story. It's amazing what we learned about each other. I got 10 points for my story about falling backwards onto an open dishwasher lid and sitting squarely on a paring knife. Ten points for the story, but a zero for the scar since I refused to show it.

VB: What led you to become a writer—a humorist?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Living among funny people taught me how to see the humor in almost any situation.

As for the writing part, my husband encouraged me to take a writing class, which provided the all-important deadlines that get me to the page. Even though we only have one child, I'm not good about taking pictures, fighting with scissors and glue or remembering when her baby teeth fell out.

Humor writing is my way of recording life for later. I keep thinking I'm finished, that I've written my last, and then something else funny happens and I find myself at the computer again.

cover of Pretend You're Normal VB: Pretend You're Normal was one of seven Finalists in the humor category of the National Indie Excellence Book Awards for 2007. What do you mean by "pretend you're normal?" What is normal?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Normal is doing it the regular way – without drawing attention or getting noticed. Weddings, funerals, and graduations were all occasions where we were reminded before entering, "Pretend you're normal." Dad also used to say it to us as a fake admonishment when he was actually proud of us for standing out and taking a chance.

VB: Are you ever successful at pretending you're normal? And why would you try?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Yes, I can "strike the pose," I just can't hold it for long periods of time. Being a member of the Parents Teachers Association, or being a room mother and playing Halloween bingo for the ten thousandth time is a slow death for me. I served my time as a "traditional" room mother with some moms from my daughter Emily's first grade class. It was horrible; crafts with glue guns and days spent cutting out pumpkins. I vowed never again! Then Emily's second grade teacher called to say she was in desperate need of a room mother. I hated to think of those poor motherless second graders, and I struck a deal. I told her I'd be happy to help, but there'd be no homemade cookies to ice – I'd buy a bag of Oreos and bring a gallon of milk. No crafts with glitter, but I'd write a narrator-driven play for the class to perform. I told her that if she wanted to continue looking for a traditional room mother that was OK. She took me up on my offer and continued searching for a traditional room mother, but later called to see if I'd write a play for the class. I decided not to feel bad about it. I had stayed true to myself and so had she. We came out with a nice compromise.

VB: What would make it "absolutely necessary" to pretend you're normal?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I'm the mother of a teenager. Need I say more? I find I'm "pretending I'm normal" a lot more than I used to for our daughter's sake.

I can play the part of a normal mother, business worker or wedding guest out of respect for the other person, but when I'm in an environment that allows for different ways of thinking – that's when I'm happiest.

After a three-day seminar at an Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop filled with five hundred overly extroverted extroverts, I became sickened by our annoying extrovertish behaviors and swore I'd convert to introversion. The Erma Bombeck thing is good for me to remember because we extroverts can get a little "Robin Williamsy" and monopolize conversations.

It's good to stay true to who you are, but I like to keep one eye open to see how others are being impacted.

VB: When we first communicated with each other you said "I have so much I'd like to share with people outside of Ohio, but have not found a way to make my voice carry that far…about creative innovations in the home." What do you mean by "creative innovations in the home?"

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
These innovations aren't a new kind of lawn mower or fancy toaster. The innovations I'm talking about come in the way you train yourself to think about problems. Let me give you some examples. A shaggy yard is a problem everyone has to face. Of course our grass grew just as fast as everyone else's, but when I was growing up, my dad hosted lawn-mowing races with neighbor kids lined up in relays. The yard didn't look that great when we were finished, but at least the grass was shorter which is after all, the main goal. Folding laundry and keeping track of children are other common problems. Dad got my sister and me to fold laundry by pretending we were tigers in the zoo. He put us in a corner behind the fireplace screen where we nestled in a bed of warm laundry in our "cage." While he tended the fire in the fireplace, made hot dogs, and watched football, we sorted socks waiting for Dad to throw bits of hot dog into our pen for us to scramble after. Raising our own daughter in Cincinnati, I had a different technique for getting our laundry folded; we called it prison. I had preschoolers ringing our doorbell asking if they could play prison again – in essence, begging for a chance to fold our clean laundry. As warden, all you had to do is growl and chase them every so often or turn on the alarm system and suddenly folding laundry became a treat.

VB: You grew up in Alliance, Ohio – a city with a population of about 24,000. What was the best and worst about growing up in Alliance?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
My neighborhood was absolutely the best part of growing up in Alliance. Almost every kid on Crestview Avenue learned to ride the unicycle. We'd chalk obstacle courses on the blacktopped street to ride and roller skate through. In the summer we turned our garage into a place for visiting – complete with carpeting, a couch, porch swing and even a fireplace mantle to make the garage look more homey. Every evening neighbors stopped by to swing and chat. As a result, we had lots of close family friends.

The worst of Alliance is that it's not a very pretty town – very strip-mallish.

VB: Would you talk about the "Annual Mid-west Furnace Tournament," and why you and your family still play it? Is it to save money or is the reason even known?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I don't think it's about money; it's just tradition. This is one of those events that will never completely die out in the Mid-West. It's like a fall sport to see how long you can go without turning on your furnace. I've never known anyone to make it all the way to Thanksgiving, but we've had years when we've gotten close.

VB: You had the benefit of growing up in a family in which fun was valued. Did the emphasis on having fun make you a more confident and creative person?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
It's not that we ARE more confident, capable or creative, it's that we THINK we are. It's all in the way we decide to tell the story.

My eighty-year-old uncle made a mistake and took his blood pressure medicine twice one day. He happened to be helping my cousin Jerry put a roof on a barn when he suddenly fainted. My cousin was afraid to leave his dad to go for help, so Jerry carefully cinched the loose fabric around Uncle Bob's coveralls and nailed all the way around him – essentially nailing Uncle Bob through his clothes to the roof. We tell this story with great pride at Jerry's ingenuity, other families would tell it belittling Uncle Bob for taking too much medicine. Both stories are accurate; we just prefer to feel good rather than bad.

VB: When referring to your mother you say "You want to draw her close and protect her from her passion – the thing you most love about her and most fear." Would you talk about what you mean?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
My mother is a screamer. She screams lovely peals of joy when she's happy, she screams when she opens a present, she screams as a stack of mail begins to slide off the table, and she screams if you almost hit a mailbox. She can get a little passionate if you accidentally pull the whole Christmas tree over. I love mom's passion, it's what makes the world more fun, but it also scares me a little – to be so open with emotions.

VB: A number of authors I have interviewed have lamented the negative effects of the educational system in which children are exposed to a lot of rules and right and wrong, true or false answers. You talk about the "nose to the chalkboard," writing lines and detentions in school as punishments for non-conformity. Were your teachers successful is stifling you or any of your classmates' enthusiasm for learning and originality? Why do teachers do it?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I hate true or false tests. I'm always afraid my memory will kick in some day with "The other planets really do rotate around the earth. It's not the sun. I read it somewhere."

In the higher grades, there was room for a creative twist to a project here and there, but elementary school was a lot about crowd control. Did it stifle us? In some ways having a "system" to thumb your nose at can make you more creative and determined. The punishments were never so horrible that if something really good came to mind they would keep us from trying it.

Rather than instilling creativity through oppression, I'm all about Montessori. I work as the Marketing Director for The New School Montessori in Cincinnati, and am now aware of the support a creative environment can have for the kids, parents and me.

VB: You say we shouldn't be afraid to make new rules and break old paradigms with our children. Such as letting them sleep in clean clothes for the next day if they hate getting dressed in the morning. Or who says you have to bathe just before bed rather than in the morning? Does it surprise you that many people don't use creativity to deal with these types of challenges and, instead, often do things that cause undue stress in their lives?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
No, it doesn't surprise me. We're all conditioned to go about the details of our life without thinking.

Just a few years ago my husband and I laughed when we realized we'd been making our bed for our mothers who live hundreds of miles away. Neither of us cares if it's made or not. Those first thirteen years of our marriage are lost to us, but just think of all the unmade beds we have in our future.

That's why I like kids so much because they ask that all important question, "Why?" When Emily was five, she asked if she could sleep in her closet instead of her bed. My mind went immediately to "No," but I made myself ask "Why not?" I called the fire department and they thought it was safe, so I cut a foam mattress to fit, and she slept there for about six months. If she's getting her rest, she's safe, and it's not impacting anyone else negatively – then, OK let's do it!

VB: Your approach to making parenting fun has its roots in the way your parents found ways to have fun, and to say "yes" rather than "no." Do you have evidence, or observe, that children are more well-adjusted and successful as adults when exposed to that type of parenting?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
My parents did say "yes" a lot, but it wasn't the kind of yes where we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. There were definite rules. We had strict bedtimes, we were expected to be polite, to clean the house, and help with chores. There were consequences when we failed to complete our tasks. The "yes" was about how we chose to do the thing they were making us do. My dad would often say "Is this going to be work or is this going to be fun?" You begin to realize that having fun is an attitude not an activity.

To answer your question, I think that kind of "yes" with structure under it makes for healthy and creative children. Kids are a mess if you don't have consistent structure as the base.

VB: Is your advice that we enable kids to have fun also applicable to teenagers and young adults needing to earn a living?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Fun that doesn't negatively impact others is always the order of the day in my book. It doesn't matter if you're three or forty three. To get through Organic Chemistry in college, I put a fresh stick of gum every five pages to keep me going through that terribly stale subject matter. I hid Snickers bars behind certain books in the library for my friends.

My husband came to work one day and his office cube was filled to the top with packing peanuts. We make work out to be this serious thing when really I see it more as just the structure that gives our life shape and form so we can play around the edges. I approach all work with the question, "How can we make this more fun?"

VB: What other tips do you have for ensuring we raise healthy, confident and capable kids?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Buy them crutches for Christmas. Real stuff is always more fun to play with than toys. Crutches in the nearly "Tiny Tim size" are guaranteed to make your kid the most popular child on the block. If you buy an old wheel chair for the neighborhood you'll achieve God status. Teach your kids to do things before they're "ready" by the world's standards. My dad bought the safest mowers on the market and had us pushing them when we were young enough to think it was fun. Dad showed us how to walk safely on the roof and how to use power tools. Since we were on the young side, the rule was that he had to be with us, but basically he trained us how to do all of his jobs and, as a result, my sister and I are pretty good carpenters.

Teaching kids do "real" stuff and somewhat "dangerous" stuff alongside you lets them know you trust them. Allow for failure. The grass doesn't have to look perfect.

VB: You recommend using the unexpected to generate humor, like a clown does. Does that imply we should all become more clown-like?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Don't go out and buy a red nose and a VW bug. All you have to do is surprise your kids. The next time you yell at them, say exactly the same thing you'd always say, but do it in a British accent or with your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth. Eating a meal of mashed potatoes, applesauce and spaghetti without silverware becomes an adventure. Do it when Grandma and Grandpa are visiting and it'll be burned into everyone's memory forever. My dad hosted a church breakfast of green eggs and ham and had live bunnies in cages as the centerpiece instead of the usual candle. He was never asked to make another choir breakfast, but was loved and remembered by all the kids of the church.

VB: Are you concerned about your seventeen-year-old daughter's future? If so, what concerns you?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I should be afraid for her well-being related to pollution, economic turmoil, and H1N1 flu, but I'm more concerned about who she'll pick to spend the rest of her life with. That choice sets the tone for so much. I hope they'll be happy and, most important, will still want to hang out with their parents.

VB: What will be the title of your next book and what will it be about?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I think I would call it "Pretend You're Normal Too." I want to encourage people to think about their own stories. That's why I included writing prompts that go along with each of my vignettes to get people remembering, telling or writing their own stories.

VB: You are quoted as saying you imagine being on the Oprah Show. If you were on her show, and had sixty seconds to promote Pretend You're Normal or any of your ideas, what would you say?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
I'd tell Oprah's audience to pretend they're normal, but only when absolutely necessary. We all need to act "regular" sometimes, but we don't want to forget how to play – no matter how old we are. I clean the bathrooms to Christmas music because it's harder to be hateful when you're scrubbing the toilet with Andy Williams and the Little Drummer Boy.

We need to loosen up about things that don't matter. Maybe hanging a swing in the kitchen makes sense. It keeps a kid from being underfoot, yet he's in a place where you can see what he's up to and can interact. While you cook, let a kid take apart the basement doorknob and put it back together.

Keep the rules that make sense to you, but relax the ones that are just convention – not safety or courtesy driven.

Always ask yourself, "How can we make this more fun?"

VB: What other messages do you want to give to our IdeaConnection readers?

Ann Weimer Baumgardner:
Make time for daydreaming. Do it in the grocery store line, while you're driving a car, or stuck at a wedding. It's the best way to live large on a budget.

Conclusion:
Ann Weimer Baumgardner – a molecular geneticist, creative thinker, author, humorist, a person who is proud of her roots and of being a parent, and from time to time pretends she's normal.

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Comments:

Vern, Enjoyed reading your interview with Ann Baumgardner. Wanted to suggest an interview with Lois Holzman, director, East Side Institute, who has spearheaded all kinds of innovative programs using play and performance. She's convener of a "Performing the World," an interdisciplinary event in NYC in Oct. Latest book: Vygotsky at Work and Play (Routledge 2009).
-J. Wootten

Thank you for your lively and thought-provoking interview. I'd appreciate if you were to interview Baumgardner about handling common parenting problems. You could discuss how to make children taste stuff they reject outright, spend more time on a subject they dislike, tidy their room and so on.
Best regards and a very Happy Christmas.
- M. Karimi, Tehran, Iran

I am pleased that your article highlighted an interview with Ann Baumgardner. I am an educational consultant serving English language learners in Illinois and been recommending her book in my workshops on writing for teachers. It is a good mentor text to help teachers focus on the moments in life, rather than broad "My Vacation" topics. I also give it as a gift to friends who are experiencing a difficult illness or family crisis.
- J. Gordon

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