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.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Don't Sweat It

 Photo from

We're having a heat wave in the Boston area (it's affecting the entire eastern seaboard), and I am living the life of the anxious person in an anti-perspirant ad.

When I take the "T" I am afraid to lift my arms to hold the strap lest I reveal the spreading patches of wetness under my arms. I don't hug or kiss friends and family because I don't want them to have to towel themselves off after.  I am spending as much time as possible in the only room in my apartment that has air conditioning, the blinds drawn, and even post-cold shower and with the air blasting, I'm STILL sweating.

What makes my sweating differ from the run-of-the-mill sweating that anyone in 90+ degree heat would experience is the sheer volume of it. I begin sweating almost immediately after walking into a hot room, and in addition to the unsightly wet patches and the sheen of moisture I leave in my wake, my face turns as red as someone holding their breath until they pass out. A little color in the face is becoming, but I'm talking full-out, flushed face, like an incensed Elmer Fudd.

This has caused me more than a little embarrassment. It has also made me wary of engaging in activities that would otherwise be unequivocally positive: exercising, getting outdoors, leaving the bedroom more than twice a day to walk the dog (I've actually thought of going back to puppy pads, but that might confuse her and it took a year just to get her to stop peeing in the kitchen.) One particularly hot weekend in June I spent both days in my bedroom, entertaining myself with streaming Netflix on my iPad and ordering takeout which I also proceeded to eat while sitting on my bed.  Sadly, it was not as fun as it sounds.

I work from home now so I don't get the benefit of corporate central air. But I do get to type articles in my summer nightie--so there are tradeoffs. Still, I find myself having difficulty carrying on intelligent conversations with real, live humans because I spend so much time alone, holed up in my bedroom, which is currently littered with empty tubs of Whole Foods olives, dirty napkins, and scattered sesame seeds from my morning bagel. Writing is a very solitary pursuit, sure, but one needs some interaction with people, otherwise who are you going to talk to about that brilliant, DOMA-inspired New Yorker cover or even nonsensical stuff like what kind of mouth bling Amanda Bynes wants to get before she launches her "rap career?" This reminds me of one of my favorite online comic strips by an artist who is wiser than he may appear if you just judge him by his more crass cartoons.

This morning I went for a fitness walk that ended at the new Whole Foods location on Beacon Street near St. Mary's. I wore my Indiana Jones-like Tilley, shorts that were probably a little TOO short for a 40 year-old who has been spending an inordinate amount of time lying around trying not to sweat, and an old AMC t-shirt that misleads people who see me wearing it into thinking that I'm a crunchy, outdoorsy type (silly people!) 

It was good to get out because it meant I was leaving my comfort zone, even for an hour, all for the good cause of not turning into a Goth teenager. I was out and about among other people who had places to go and people to see. I stretched my dormant leg muscles. And I dared to sweat profusely in front of the Whole Foods barista, who thankfully refrained from burying her face in her arm at the sight of me as I ordered an iced latte.

Since probably the sixth grade, worrying about what other people think of me has kept me from doing a fair number of things--big and small--that I'd like to do.  My hope is that every time I come up against embarrassment I get a little more skilled at shrugging it off, like it's an extra layer of clothing on a very hot day.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Camping for Sissies

As you get older you try to accept things about yourself that you know are not going to change.  I will always have fine hair (I don't go in for extensions--too expensive and scary-looking), I will always be just a little bit too gullible, and I will always hate camping.

I know they say not to try to change yourself to please your man, and in principle I completely agree with this. But when my husband starts talking about backpacking with some guy friends, and how his good friend Greg's wife Genoa wants to come along, I start to feel like the stick-in-the-mud, high maintenance wife he would be better off without. Mike loves hiking and camping and doesn't care a fig what his hair looks like after a couple of days of not showering.

Unfortunately, I do care.  Plus the thought of trudging up a mountain and getting sticky-sweaty-dirty and not being able to shower afterward is as appealing to me as eating fried crickets as an appetizer--no matter how on trend it might seem to other people.  I have no interest in fishing an insect leg from between my teeth and I doubt I ever will.

"I wish we liked doing more things together," my husband said, not realizing that his words were causing my interior alarm to start buzzing off the hook.  I recently read that women measure their life satisfaction by how well their relationships are going. I liked to think that my primary relationship--my marriage--was Ashford and Simpson-esque. But then I remembered a CBS Sunday Morning interview with the husband-and-wife songwriters and how they fell in love in part because of their shared love of music. I quickly did a brain scan of the activities that Mike and I both enjoyed.

"We both like to go to nice restaurants," I said, which was probably more true of me than him, but it's not like he DIDN'T like nice restaurants, right?

Then I added, "And we both like books."

"But not the same books," my husband said. It was true that if you looked at our bookshelves you would see the dividing line pretty quick. My books tend to be novels about women in urban locales trying to manage careers and find love. Or they're about the perils of consumerism (I continue to believe if I read enough of these anti-materialistic tomes I will transform myself into an ascetic. So far it hasn't worked.) My books have colorful spines with interesting fonts. His spines are all grey or black and profile World War II heroes and accomplished scientists who would never write about their personal relationships because they're too busy BEING BRILLIANT.

"I liked In Harm's Way," I countered, referring to the book I just finished about the true story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis right before the end of World War II. But then I think, of course you did! The book was chock-full of I Shouldn't Be Alive-type moments, including passages about crazed, marauding sharks who crunch-crunched on the lower extremities of numerous unlucky survivors and the desperate fools who gave in to their thirst and drank the salt water, then decided that they could swim to shore even though they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

So maybe on paper my husband and I don't have a ton of common interests. But we could still do things to make the other person happy, even if it's not our first choice for a rockin' Saturday night.

This weekend I agreed to go camping with Mike. Well, not exactly CAMPING camping. We'll be sleeping in a tent all right, but it will be on my parents' property in Manchester, Vermont, a tony New England town known for its upscale outlet stores. My parents own a small cabin that can sleep two people comfortably. Usually when we visit them in Manchester we stay at a hotel, but since I'm currently bringing in just a fraction of my salary in weekly unemployment checks (plus the occasional $150 I earn for freelance assignments) we're trying to keep discretionary spending to a minimum.

Mike started packing for our one-night car camping adventure last night. He fired up his twenty-year old Coleman lantern to make sure it still worked, dusted off our wicker picnic set--complete with silverware, a tablecloth, and two wine glasses (OK, the wine glasses will come in handy), and asked me where we kept the long matches. He advised me to bring something warm to sleep in. He asked me to come over and look at his computer because he was thinking of buying me this.

"I'm glad my period will be over by this weekend," I muttered.

"That's OK, they have something for that, too!" he said, as if he was telling me that if I acted now, they'd throw in what those clever REI marketers decided to call The Diva Cup.

I have to admit, though, that I'm excited about this weekend, and not just because Mike is bribing me with a small stipend for outlet shopping. I will get to spend time with my parents, whom I miss, and for the first time sleep under the night sky with the man I love. That's worth skipping a shower and a continental breakfast.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

My Spring Inspiration Board

My vision of Spring
I'm not a visual artist like my mother, but I do like assembling found images, like collages and mood boards. It's very relaxing, actually. It's important when you're making a collage/inspiration board not to aim for the perfect aesthetic, but to go with whatever comes to you. I know that sounds airy-fairy, but it works. Since it's your idea of inspiration, your mood, you can't do it wrong. I like projects where I don't have to worry about the potential for failure. More of  life's tasks should be approached this way, but unfortunately we often second guess ourselves.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

At least you're not Jodi Arias

 It could be worse, you could be one of these two people

Whenever I feel like I've been stood up by Luck, who decided to take out another woman with longer hair and tighter abs, I reflect on those who have it worse than me. That may sound harsh, but it's not like you don't do it, too.  In fact, if you need to feel better about your situation, just keep reading this blog post.

Anyway, if you're sizing up where you fit on the social hierarchy, isn't it better to look down below you, like someone standing on a long line intermittently turning around to see the poor schmo in back of them? That's certainly preferable to focusing on the smug jerk who's way up in front of the line, who is in fact getting what he wants RIGHT NOW.

I'm unemployed, but am currently trying to establish a freelance writing career that, should my dream job materialize, I can do in my spare time for extra cute bag money. While I try to spend at least half of my day at home being productive, I find that around 1:30 or so my energy starts to lag, and I think, there isn't much that's good about this whole "no job, no money situation" so I may as well take a nap. Or eat a cookie. Or eat another cookie. Or switch over to Huffington Post to read the latest on the Jodi Arias trial.

For those of you who don't know who Jodi Arias is (and be glad if you're in that camp because it means you likely have a good job and a busier social life than me), she is the 32 year-old comely Arizona woman who murdered her boyfriend Travis Alexander and is now on trial claiming she acted in self-defense because he was abusive. I first came across the case when I saw a picture of the defendant and thought, she looks very normal--in fact she's pretty and her glasses make me think she's probably smart, too. How could this fortunate-in-the-looks-and-brains-department woman be on trial for her life? 

Yes, I judge a book by its cover. That's why in publishing they should let the marketing people like me, and not the editor, choose the cover art. 

So I start looking at the crime scene photos (and this case is perfect visual fodder for the web because Jodi is an amateur photographer and was snapping pictures right before she knifed the guy), juxtaposed with the happy photos of the two lovebirds in front of various cliche backgrounds, like a waterfall and a sunset. Then I watch the interrogation video where Jodi lies about the murder, claiming two intruders killed Alexander, and then when the interrogator leaves the room, decides it's time she did a headstand. Perhaps she was just attempting to get the truth to flow to her brain. And because I was now a few hours into my own personal investigation of the case, I listened to the phone conversation Jodi taped with Alexander when they were still seeing each other but not "in a relationship" (if you're a woman that probably sounds a little too familiar.)

My assessment, along with everyone else who is not on, is she's guilty. She's already established herself as a liar with the two intruders story. She later changed that to confess that she killed him, but only because he had done abusive things like swat her possessively on the derriere when he noticed other guys checking her out, and take her to a hot air balloon festival while secretly phoning another girl.  I know this guy--I have unfortunately dated this guy in my 20's--and telling him off and never seeing him again seems a much smarter alternative than setting up the shower scene from Psycho.

My fascination with the case is hard to explain. But I knew I had a problem when I started watching the trial on HLN, home of Nancy Grace-less, while folding laundry. They show a snippet of the courtroom drama, then cut away for more eye-rolling-she's-totally-guilty commentary by anchors who look like they would otherwise be forecasting the weather. A half hour of after-lunch testimony drags into rush hour.

There are people who are more engrossed (read: sadder) in this trial than me. On the Huffington Post Jodi Arias discussion board, one woman was complaining that she had "made pasta sauce, did my laundry, took a shower and got dressed, all so I would be free to watch this trial, and now they're postponing it because that Jodi wench has a migraine?  Oh boo hoo, honey. At least you're not lying in a pool of your own blood like Travis!!!!!!"

Jodi, like the rest of us, should at least be grateful for that.