Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why 'While We're Young' Annoyed Me

Mike and I went on a Tuesday date night this week. He's recently completed his masters degree and is trying to reconcile himself with the fact that he now has something called "free time." It hasn't quite hit him yet, and he has to fight the impulse to worry about homework that he no longer has to do.

We had pizza and beer at Otto and then went to see the Noah Baumbach movie While We're Young at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I picked the film because I liked Baumbach's previous independent films The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Frances Ha.

Josh and Cornelia are a married, childless couple in their mid-forties living in New York City. They're both documentary film makers, but Josh has been working on the same film for the last eight years with no sign of completing it. Cornelia wonders why they don't travel more or at least go out sometimes, and Josh blames his film work. The couple befriend a younger married duo, Jamie and Darby, and for a while they revel in their relationship with their new, cooler friends, also childless and ready to go drinking and dancing at any hour without having to call a sitter. Under Jamie and Darby's hipster influence, Cornelia takes hip hop dance lessons and Josh buys a fedora and rides a bike with no hands (though inevitably he ends up hurting himself, then finds out he has arthritis. "You mean ARTHRITIS, arthritis?" he asks the doctor, dumbfounded. "I usually only say it once," the doctor tartly replies.)

There were definitely funny moments (and plenty of awkward-funny ones) in the movie and I could relate to a lot of the issues the main characters Cornelia and Josh grapple with: coping with getting older, wanting to stay hip but realizing your limitations, not reaching your full artistic potential by a certain age, and being childless in a child-centric society that won't stop reminding you how wonderful parenting is.

*SPOILER ALERT*: What bothered me about the movie is that it resolved itself in the same pat, conventional way that so many movies and TV shows do. Near the conclusion of the film, Josh, disillusioned by his young friend and purported-protege Jamie, tells Cornelia he's finally realizing he has the best day everyday because they are together, and they even talk of renewing their wedding vows. That's sweet and promising. I wish the movie had ended there. But later you see them at the airport and Cornelia has a stack of glossy magazines. At first I thought, Oh good, they're finally going to travel to exotic places and enjoy their life. But instead of finding adult happiness in the road less traveled, they have drunk the Kool-Aid. Turns out they're flying to Port-au-Prince to adopt a baby.

The audience gets their happy ending, assured in knowing Josh and Cornelia will be all right now that they're doing what everyone else their age is doing (even Adam Horovitz, aka rapper Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, who plays Josh and Cornelia's age-appropriate friend, is a stay-at-home dad!) Now Cornelia won't have to attend those Mommy and Baby sing-alongs with her friends and be the only one without a baby. This probably means she'll be dropping the hip hop classes, too.


Since I hit puberty I've been struggling to fit in somewhere, to find my tribe. I had the most success at this in my 20s, when I had time to make close friendships and my friends were easily accessible and had as much free time as I did. New York City was our playground and we made the most of it. Of course, I experienced a different kind of loneliness then--the loneliness of being single for most of the decade. In my 20s finding a long-term relationship was my goal, the gold ring I couldn't seem to grasp for very long. I often got in my own way, dating the wrong guys and thinking I could change them into the right ones. I was also dating in a city notorious for guys who were always looking to trade up.

When I finally did meet the right man, it meant sacrificing some things. I've written about this before. I left my friends and family to move to Brookline because my husband wanted to live closer to his aging parents, and after years of soul-searching I decided that even though he didn't want children I still wanted to be with him. I chose to be with the person I fell in love with over some future guy who may or may not have materialized and who I may or may not have had children with anyway. I don't feel (nor have I ever felt) that I settled--I fell in love and subsequently I made conscious choices that I believed in because what I was getting was more important to me than the road not taken.

I still feel that way--but that doesn't mean I don't get lonely for my friends back home or wonder how much easier my life would be if I was married to someone who wanted kids. I don't have a strong desire to raise a child, I just don't have a strong sense of what the alternative route can be. Everywhere I look I see messages that young women are prized for their attractiveness and sexuality and older women for their ability to have and rear children. I'm no longer young but I'm not a mother, so where do I fit in?

The ending of While We're Young left me feeling let down. It's one thing when all your friends have kids--that's their choice and I'm happy for them because I know they wanted children. But it's disappointing when you're watching a fictional story and the rare screen couple who you think is reflecting back to you the lifestyle you're living ends up rejecting it.

I felt the same way with The Thin Man movies. Nick and Nora, Nora with her fabulous outfits, Nick with his debonair charms, the both of them with their cocktails and witty, affectionate banter and their cute dog Asta made me feel better. It could be glamorous rather than pitiable to be child-free.  But by the second movie, Nora was pregnant and there goes that.

I guess there's always Auntie Mame, though I can't claim to be that adventurous (or well-off.) There's Hank and Marie Schrader from Breaking Bad but Marie's a compulsive liar and shoplifter--hardly someone to admire.

When I got home from the movie I was in a funk. I googled "celebrities who don't have children" to see if there was anyone besides Oprah and Dolly Parton. Jennifer Aniston. Cameron Diaz. Renee Zellweger.  Winona Ryder. Ashley Judd. Kim Cattrall. Helen Mirren. Some of the people on the list, like Zooey Deschanel and Eva Mendes, have since had babies. This exercise didn't do much to comfort me, either, because they can boast fame and fortune and great genes.

As we were walking home from the theatre, my husband and I talked about my reaction to the ending. Mike observed that even though child-rearing is hard work, it is also easier when you have a route set out for you, one that many others have traveled. You know what you are going to be doing for the next 20 years--your purpose is laid before you like a red carpet. I hate to belabor Frost, but the road less traveled is a lot thornier, with lots more trees and brush to hack through.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The kernel of sadness in every happy moment

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Mark Epstein, MD, writes,

Life is beautiful sometimes, for sure; in fact, it's totally amazing, every day a good day; but that doesn't stop things from being fragile and precarious, nor does it stop us from feeling all too alone. Of course, the line between normal everyday life and calamity seems extraordinarily thin sometimes, but regular life, even in its glory, is difficult. Things don't always go as they should. Our friends and loved ones struggle. The specter of loss is always hovering. And we often feel adrift, unmoored, fearful, and out of our depth.

I read this passage over a few times. It perfectly encapsulates how I feel most of the time. Even in good moments, peaceful moments, those oh-so-rare optimal moments, there is the fear of loss and what will happen when the good feeling passes--because it always does. In happiness there is also fear and dread.

This week I stayed at a beach house rental with my parents, along with my two aunts and an uncle visiting from Sweden. It was a rare opportunity to be right by the ocean, to spend time with relatives I don't often get to see, and to enjoy a home away from home. As a freelancer I spend so much time alone in my apartment that this situation was a lovely gift.

I did spend some time fretting about getting older, about my parents getting older, about loneliness and what I would do when I'm the only one of my immediate family still living. I know this sounds silly and melodramatic. But the thoughts were there, humming in the background as I walked on the beach alone at 7 a.m., stopping to pick up a tulip shell or snap a picture of a sandpiper, it's long thin red beak pecking at the sand.

I was happy in those moments, but I was also full of dread. What will happen when my husband is gone, my parents, even my sweet dog who I love to pieces? How will I cope? Will I never have happy moments again?

I don't have any answers. I could say that distraction helps. Showing gratitude helps. Realizing that I can't predict the future helps (who says I won't be struck down by lightening tomorrow?) Often when we are in dread of some future event it actually turns out better than we expected. Or we make it so because when it comes down to it we don't want to be unhappy. It's the events and feelings that we don't expect that often blindside us.

I had a nice time in Florida this week, I truly did. I have a lot to be grateful for. But it's hard when you know that moment is coming when you have to turn around and go back.  All the while you're enjoying walking along that peaceful shoreline, feeling the warm water lap at your bare toes, you know it's going to end because everything ends. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Coming back to the present moment

I recently decided to give mindfulness another try.

Back in 2012, when I was writing on this blog more often, I was reading a lot about Buddhism and immersing myself in mindfulness practice. Certain events caused me to lose my enthusiasm for Buddhist idealogy. I had met too many Buddhists who, rather than being genuinely peaceful, kind and serene, were actually (to my eye) quite the opposite. Not all of them certainly, but enough that I mostly turned away from the entire scene.

It took some time and self-reflection to see that I was painting a whole group with the same broad brush. Buddhism has as many facets and factions as it does kinds of people who follow its principles. Just because I met some individuals whose behavior I found hurtful or hypocritical, didn't mean I needed to turn away from mindfulness practice altogether. No, I don't believe in reincarnation or sacred offerings or bowing down to certain llamas who I've been told are "chosen." But that doesn't mean I can't believe in the other philosophies that make sense to me.

I am reading 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris. Although Harris works in TV news (itself a hotbed of ego) his writing is very funny and he also strikes me as a self-aware kind of guy who doesn't take himself (or anyone else) too seriously. Harris advocates the writing of Dr. Mark Epstein, some of which I've read or have on my reading list. Epstein's work also seems reasonable to me.

Most of my life I've struggled with periodic bouts of depression and anxiety, mostly due to ruminating on "the worst that could happen" kind of scenarios or worrying about not measuring up to my self-imposed, very high standards of who I should be, what I should look like, the sorts of things I should achieve, etc. I always have one eye open for a "cure"-- or at least a balm that will give me a little more peace-of-mind.

There is a lot of positive talk about the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression and anxiety. This NPR podcast, "The Secret History of Thoughts" mentions the latest "thought science." I listened to the program on a train ride where the internet connection was choppy at best, but I heard enough to start thinking about revisiting mindfulness practice.

The idea of mindfulness-based thinking (as I understand it) is to allow yourself to have negative thoughts without trying to reason them away. Instead, you let them float by like soap bubbles, not engaging with them at all but letting them pass right by you. They'll then dissolve or burst, but the point is they're inconsequential. They exist but they have no real substance.

We take our thoughts too seriously, as if whatever we think is indisputable fact. But how can it be when there is so much in our world that is inexplicable, amorphous, constantly changing?

So I'm coming back to the present...again and again, trying to let my worries and obsessive thoughts wash out to sea. It's not easy and it takes constant repetition. But I'm here.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

What Women Want (The Valentine's Day Edition)

 (This image can be found here:

What do women want on Valentine's Day? We want to feel special, cherished, appreciated, loved, and for some of us, a little indulged even.

Yes, we want a gift but not any old gift you picked up on your way home from work at 7PM on Valentine's Day night. We want the effort that was put into that gift. Because it's the effort that a man makes that causes a woman to feel special. Effort, as they say, is attractive.

The element of surprise shows effort. Surprising someone takes planning; it's premeditated romance.  The classic surprise is the blindfolded trip to some event, favorite restaurant or weekend away. It can also be the unexpected gift left on the bed or the individual fancy chocolates hidden around the apartment for her to find. It's fun, it's a little sly, and it's very endearing.

Knowing a woman's taste is key to a successful Valentine's Day gift. It shows you're paying attention. So start listening for clues a month or two before February 14 rolls around.

For example, my husband Mike likes to say that he never needs to ask me what I want for Christmas--he just starts listening more closely to me a few months before holiday shopping time, and by Thanksgiving, he has all the ideas he needs!

One issue I sometimes have with Mike is that I love impractical, sometimes fussy, usually superfluous gifts. Yes I could use an immersion blender, but do I want one for Valentine's Day from my significant other? In my mind, that's something we can pick up the next time we're in a Bed, Bath and Beyond. No, I want the earrings or the bag or the jeweled gloves. I don't care that I have a lot of earrings, bags and gloves. That's not the point. Practicality isn't in the spirit of Valentine's Day--treating your partner to something pretty that you know she'll love is what I'm talking about.

So just for fun, here are five things I would want in a Valentine's Day gift basket. Warning: Lots and lots of frills here.

  1. A fancy cookbook I mentioned I wanted to buy and that I hoped he would note for future reference (This one looks good.) With all the cookbooks I have, plus access to Pinterest, it's not that I lack for new recipes. But cookbooks are like works of art and I like to flip through them and "imagine" cooking every dish.
  2. Perfume, like Lancome's La Vie Est Belle or Folle de Joie eau de parfum. I don't spend more than $40 on perfume for myself, but the ones that smell really great and that I would wear everyday cost a bit more than that.
  3. A box of assorted Jacques Torres chocolates.
  4. This watch. People should start wearing watches again.
  5. These gloves. So pretty, and you need something that sparkles in the dead of winter.

So turning the tables, what do you get your guy for Valentine's Day? Again, it's about putting thought into it and showing you are considering what he really wants--not just what you'd like him to have. So if he wants cheese balls and corn nuts and a six-pack, who are you to judge him for it? Give him what he wants. If you know old-fashioned candy is his thing--forget the high fructose corn syrup for one day and get him the jaw breakers and pop rocks and all that other stuff you haven't touched since you were 12 years old.

I went and surfed for a while and you can get some really fun and creative ideas for all sorts of gifts-in-a-crate to surprise your sweetie--whether he's into zombies, video games, bacon or beer.  Check them out.

And don't forget the card. A real card. Yes, they still make them.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: How Patience Works by Janet Kathleen Ettele

**Thank you to Karuna Publications for the review copy**

Fables are a popular vehicle for teaching because of their simplicity. Like song lyrics, you can superimpose yourself into the story without much effort.  I put fables in a different category than other types of writing where I expect lots of character development and detail. Fables are simply not built to support that level of embellishment.  What matters when you read a fable is if you were A. moved by it on a very basic level and B. if you learned something essential about the human experience.

How Patience Works: The Quiet Mind to Benefit Others by Janet Kathleen Ettele (Karuna Publications, May 2014) is one such successful fable.  The third in a series of tales following a young man named Troy and his girlfriend Maggie that started with How Generosity Works and How the Root of Kindness Works, How Patience Works illustrates the teachings of Master Shantideva's Perfection of Patience. According to Wikipedia, Shantideva was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist whose master work--translated as A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way Of Life--is a timeless piece of wisdom, a long poem describing the process of enlightenment from the first thought to full buddhahood which is still studied by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists today.

If you read this blog you know I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but I like the teachings and have tried to internalize some of them as part of my personal philosophy. On the concept of karma I'm a bit skeptical, but I'm open to the possibility, and can see how you get back what you put out in the world (for the most part.) I highlighted some lines in How Patience Works that gave me pause.  Here is one:

Anger is like a bad vapor that permeates space, and the space it permeates is that of the mind. Imagine yourself captive in a room filled with a putrid stench. Then imagine that while in this room you are presented with delicious food. You would not be able to enjoy any pleasant taste because you would be overwhelmed by the awful smell. When anger permeates the mind, its negative aspects become dominant, blocking us from experiencing the sweet things in life.

This passage is spoken by Mrs. Sternau, an elderly widow who every Thursday comes into the diner where Troy and Maggie work (she often flubs their names, calling them "Trevor" and "Molly.") Mrs. Sternau likes to write notes to her husband on the paper place mat at her seat, and then leave them behind like offerings to the universe.  Troy secretly pockets and collects them. At first he claims it's out of respect, but then admits it's because he thinks the messages are wise and inspirational--the first indication that Mrs. Sternau will be the teacher in this fable, just as a music teacher named Grace and a Vietnam veteran named Abe were teachers in the first two fables.

The problems facing Troy and Maggie are common enough--Troy is struggling to keep his cool around his shrewish stepmother, Maureen, and Maggie would like to have more control over her emotions, especially when she's confronted by rude customers in the diner. They are befriended by Mrs. Sternau, who at 80-something has successfully mastered her own emotions and is eager to share what she knows with her two young protégés.  Over tea and crumpets Mrs. Sternau tells the kids about an incident that happened early in her marriage that tested the couple--and how the teachings helped them to transcend the feelings of helplessness, anger and frustration that threatened to hijack their happiness.

How Patience Works is a very sweet and gentle story that beautifully illustrates the teachings of Shantideva.  It's a perfect little book for bedtime, when you're trying to loosen the hold of the day's problems from your mind to find a place of peace. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Kiss me again with your Barbasol face

Number of toiletry products taking up space on our bathroom counter: 32.

Number of toiletry items belonging to me: 12.

Number of toiletry items belonging to my husband: 17 (with the remaining three being shared items like toothpaste).

My husband has not taken up female impersonation nor has he fallen victim to this depressing trend.  He is far from being a metrosexual--unless metrosexuals are now wearing old t-shirts with logos of defunct start-ups on them and habitually losing gift cards to clothing stores because they waited two years to use them.

For the last few years Mike has been accumulating shaving products. It started with some "classic" razors (old) and a couple of matchbook-sized boxes of new blades. Then it was a moss scuttle from a pottery-maker in Nova Scotia. That led to quests to find and obtain this and this and this.

It's not like him to just dabble in a hobby--no, he dives right in. He joins online forums. He recruits: several co-workers are now his compatriots in the art of shaving. They order shaving creams together and sample each other's soaps. They text each other when they buy a new badger brush or mug. They catch each other mindlessly caressing their own chins (or, in slightly cruder terms, faceterbating, as in "I'm sitting here rocking on the screened porch, faceterbating after a lime shave.")

I can't recall the last time I shared a beauty product with a friend, much less texted someone after a trip to Sephora. If I find a product I like I might pin it or mention it in conversation if the topic comes up. I haven't converted anyone to using my brand of dry shampoo.

He likes the ritual of shaving the way that I enjoy the ritual of coffee and the newspaper (another dying pastime). The Mach 5 is purely a marketing gimmick in his eyes. If his father didn't use it, it's not worth it. If it's sold in an antique shop, it's a winner.

He's mentioned wanting his own shelf for all his shaving products. After looking at how many of his new products are squeezing out my assorted bottles like a man taking up all the space on a subway bench, I tend to agree.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Despite an aversion to changing his sneaker style (which is mid-80's black high-top Reeboks) my husband pays careful attention to hygiene. He wears an appropriate amount of cologne and/or after-shave so as not to smell like a college boy who hasn't showered in a week but douses himself in CK One (what they wore in the 90's when I was in college--not sure what the kids are wearing now). Instead he smells very clean and masculine, sort of what I imagine a man in the 1950's smelled like as he headed out the door mornings in suit and hat. There's something to be said for that man of old--it partly explains all the Baby Boomers.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The most hotly-debated topic on the Internet is...

I read this entry on Huffington Post written by a dad giving advice to parents about what NOT to say to non-parents (or the childless or the child-free or DINKS.) I thought the article made some good points and it was refreshing to hear from a parent who was sensitive to the fact that relationships between parents and non-parents can be strengthened by a little empathy and understanding on both sides.

Of course articles like this almost always incite a comments war.  The decision to have children (or not) seems to rile people up like no other subject--except maybe politics, race, or religion. There are people on both sides of the issue who seem to feel that their decision is the only valid one. Ignorance of the other side is rampant. Some over-zealous parents (usually mothers, but sometimes dads) feel the need to defend parenthood as the most self-sacrificing and meaningful decision an adult can make. They accuse the child-free of being selfish and immature and put fear in their hearts about missing out on life and growing old and lonely. Meanwhile, defensive non-parents accuse parents of being egomaniacs who are just looking to replicate their wonderful genes. Or that parents are pod people who can only talk about their children's accomplishments. Of course the fact that these non-parents owe their existence to their own self-sacrificing "pod parents" is rarely mentioned. I've read comments from both perspectives that I hope have never been aired out loud because they're so petty and mean. These are comments that lack empathy and would end most friendships.

As a non-parent in the minority, let me share my experience thusfar. All of my friends who are around the same age as me have children now. One of my friends is delivering this week, in fact. It has been an adjustment getting used to the idea that my friends have a different focus now--perhaps even more so for me because most of my friends waited to have kids until their late thirties so I'm accustomed to thinking of them without kids. I won't lie--it can be lonely sometimes to be the only one without children. While they're adjusting to life with a baby on their hip, I'm fighting a chip on my shoulder. I worry, do they think I'm weird? Do they judge me? Will they want to stay friends? How involved do they want me to be with their kids? Is it OK if I want to occasionally spend some "girl time" with them that doesn't include their children, or should I consider it a package deal from now on?

Most of these questions were resolved fairly early on between me and my girlfriends, which makes me feel lucky to have chosen wisely in the friend department. The women who know me best appreciate me for who I am and aren't looking for another friend to trade diaper jokes with--they have enough of those, thank you. There was one incidence when a friend of mine mentioned that having her son gave her a reason to wake up in the morning, and I recall feeling stung at first. Was she intimating that I, by contrast, did not have a reason to wake up? But I caught myself before upchucking my insecurity all over her. She was sharing her joy at being a mom, a joy that she didn't realize she could feel. It had nothing to do with me. It's not always about me, and if I want to be a good friend I need to keep that in mind.

There are times when I'm around my friends when I feel like the only stories I have to share when relating to their parenting challenges are stories about my own childhood.

"Joey is afraid of the dark? So was I as a kid!"

"Lizzy insists on sleeping in your bed? I used to drag a sleeping bag and sleep in the hall outside of my parents' bedroom. I'm sure that must have gotten old PDQ!"

There is also the effort of trying to avoid comparing my dog to their child. In fact, I'm super-aware of falling into that trap, especially since my dog shares a lot of the tendencies of an infant or toddler: namely copious outputs of poo to which I must attend, needy barks I must answer, and the desire to press my face close to hers and sniff her little head because I love her so much. I do not refer to myself as "Mommy" to Carmelita, or at least not in any parents' earshot.

Ultimately my feeling about having kids versus not having them has evolved into this: both decisions, like any other choice in life, come with benefits and drawbacks. We can't even predict what they might be before they happen. Some parents are able to balance having children with doing pretty much everything they did before having kids. Some non-parents who thought they would have a lot of extra money to travel the world and stay at four-star hotels are realizing that in this day and age the cost of living is expensive without kids and exorbitant with them. Whatever choice you make (or whatever happens to you even if you do not choose it), you will adapt to those circumstances and it will be OK. If you have kids you will love and care for them and be happy that you had them. If you don't have kids, you will appreciate your abundant time alone and your independence.

Defending our personal choices as better than someone else's is not just insulting--it's nonsensical. You never know what's going to happen in life. You might fall in love with someone who doesn't want children. You might find yourself pregnant before you think you're ready. You might be physically unable to have children. You may have one child thinking that is all you want, and then decide you really like being a parent so you have another. In the end, what does it matter if my choice is different from your choice? That's life. That's what makes us all interesting.