Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If it's broke, don't fix it

"All of us need to become more aware of our own strategy of escape, our own specific patterns of trying to "fix" our experiences. It's a given that we don't want to feel discomfort, but since it's inevitable, we have to learn how to address it. That's why the quality of perseverance is of key importance because we have to learn to just stay."--Ezra Bayda from Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion

I've noticed lately that I seem to be in a big rush, almost manic in my quest to accomplish the next thing on my 75-item to-do list. I don't think it's just Christmas panic because I'm done with all the major presents--now I'm just adding on those last-minute stocking stuffers that every magazine claims is the death knell of your holiday budget. Today I plan to go to the British stationery store Paper Chase to see if they're having the big sale like they did last year. Do I HAVE to do this? No. A better idea would be to go home and make Pizzelles like I promised my in-laws. But I put go to Paper Chase on 172 Newbury St. on the list, so now I have to do it!

What I'm really doing is fairly obvious even if I didn't study psychology in college. I'm distracting myself from the onset of my annual Winter Blues with petty tasks and unnecessary errands. I know I'm about to face a week off from work, which in theory would be something to look forward to. But I know how I get when I have too much time on my hands. I start to feel depressed. I sleep for hours. I avoid doing the things that might actually lift me from my funk, like writing or yoga. I'm enervated, a sad sack, and eating leftover Spritz
by the handful just makes me feel like more of a lump.

One weekend recently I was in a sad way and I remembered the Buddhist teaching of "staying" with the emotion instead of trying to allay it with a back-to-back Hoarders marathon and a big glass of wine. I tried for an hour to stay with my negative feelings. I'm not going to put a rosy spin on it--it sucked. I also wasn't sure how staying with the feeling wasn't just a form of wallowing. Growing up my parents, especially my mother, had no patience for wallowing. My mother used distraction techniques--unfortunately not taking me shopping or out for a sundae, but by talking to me about something--anything--else whenever I would complain for too long. Which goes back to my original question: is it better to stick with the discomfort or distract yourself and thereby forget about the problem for a while?

It's like when I've written on here before about death. There are times when it strikes me that everyone I love is going to die, and so am I. What then? Yes, I know the answer is to live your life while you're alive, carpe diem and all that. But if I start thinking about death in the Buddhist way of thinking about death--we are all one in the universe, there is no "You" or "I", our ego is to blame for suffering, I feel discomfited. Yes I know that nothing is permanent--if it were, I'd still be in Paris, sitting by the Louvre eating Brie. But death is permanent, isn't it? I don't want to be food for worms. I don't want anyone I care about to be fertilizer, either. I want to have hope.

Not to be excessively morbid here. It's the holiday season, after all. It's better to enjoy the spiked egg nog and presents and your family and friends' company than to try to "fix" these questions of suffering and death. I'm beginning to feel like an Edward Gorey character, except without the sense of humor. But the question remains--if we don't try to "fix" the things that bother us, how can we ever be at peace?

Anyway, I'm just throwing these idea out there into the ether, like so many other people before me.

I plan to immediately forget this post by eating a chocolate from the office candy jar. I wish everyone who reads this blog a joyful holiday season and lots of happy present moments.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The transient life and what to do about it

“When you are grounded in the moment, you’re not thinking of what bad things can happen to you in the future, or dwelling on the mistakes of your past. To get myself into the present, I start with my senses. I try to hear only the noises that surround me—cars, birds, dogs barking, church bells—because if I give myself the assignment of listening to the actual sounds around me, I can’t obsess on a fear. Likewise, I concentrate on seeing what’s in front of me. At the very moment. Not in the year 2034.”--Therese J. Borchard, from her article "15 Ways to Stop Obsessing"

I just finished a novel by Chuck Klosterman called Downtown Owl. Klosterman is best known for his collection of pop culture essays for Gen X and Y, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. That was a funny book, but I didn't think he could pull off a serious, credible novel. But I was wrong. Downtown Owl has varied, interesting characters and, while there isn't much of a plot, readers can identify with the inner thoughts of Owl's residents. There were times when I thought--oh, he's just like Dane Cook--people like him tell stories to which almost anyone can relate, and so he becomes popular among the masses. So what? But the last chapter of Downtown Owl really stuck with me. Without giving away the ending, it's about the kind of situation where you narrowly escape something that you weren't anticipating in the first place. Now you can savor the present moment so much more because you almost lost it.

I broke my foot during a walking regimen. I wasn't expecting it. I never thought it would happen--I walk all the time! But the months of pain and not being able to walk far make me appreciate walking more now that I'm healed. I no longer take my good health or my body for granted.

This is one of the main reasons I took up this project of focusing on the present. How many stories have you heard of cancer survivors who suddenly have a new lease on life? How many times have you read accounts of people on the brink of death (or maybe, for all intents and purposes, actually clinically dead for a minute?) come back more grateful than they had ever been? I remember a documentary I saw called The Bridge which chronicled the stories of some of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge jumpers. One guy who actually survived the jump, as he was falling into the cold bay thought, I want to live! And to his astonishment, he did.

Never mind that watching that documentary made me queasy (think about it--you're actually seeing the jumpers in their last moments of life.) Besides the mixed feelings I had about the film, I took away the idea that people who face losing something appreciate it so much more.

I know this isn't an original thought, but sometimes it takes me a while to fully grasp concepts more than just theoretically. Do I need to get Stage IV Cancer to realize how much I love this life? Yes, my life is imperfect. I usually don't feel like I measure up to my ideal self. But there are the little pleasures on which I try to focus my attention. I know some of these things are going to sound silly or mundane, but here they are:

  1. My cup of freshly-ground George Howell coffee in the morning, especially if there's light cream in the house.
  2. Coming home from work and retreating to our bed, simply lying there with the sound machine turned to white noise.
  3. That first sip of wine.
  4. Clipping coupons and then seeing the amount I saved on my Shaw's grocery receipt.
  5. The kitten curled up on my chest or the older cat sleeping at my feet.
  6. When a package for me comes in the mail.
  7. Writing on pretty cards to friends and family whom I miss. Thinking of them opening their mailbox and seeing a card from me.
  8. Making a mess in the kitchen when cooking. Presenting my culinary creation and watching people enjoy it.
  9. The way the leaves look in early autumn, when some have fallen on the ground, creating splashes of yellow or red on the sidewalk.
  10. Cracking open a new book.
There are more moments, but it makes me feel good just to think of these. When you focus on the now and appreciate the present moment, your living your life to the fullest. You don't have to wait for some tragedy to befall you to wake yourself up--you can recognize your wealth right now. Then when you are faced with death, you'll know you savored everything while you had the chance. Older people have always said to me, life is short. It's taken a while for me to truly understand that. Sometimes it feels like living each day is an endless trudge through the muck. Those small moments keep me going. Because really, unless you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, a human life span is short. Fear, shame, worry, perfectionism...they're all eating up my time on earth. It helps to stop and really think about that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A minor post that's not really relevant to this blog

A couple of weekends ago Mike and I drove down from Boston to Staten Island, where my mother's best friend was having a 60th birthday party. Not being familiar with the geography of the borough, we brought along my father-in-law's GPS. Dad had warned us that five minutes into using the thing, we would be yelling at it. I thought he was exaggerating, but he was right--we were barely turning onto the highway when Mike started questioning the disembodied female voice on the GPS (let's call her Sheila.) I was excited about Sheila because, unlike my mother, I'm a lousy navigator. I don't drive very often (I've only lived in places with good public transit, so I never needed to) so I haven't honed the skill of going from point A to point B while avoiding point C because of the traffic. I also have no idea how to fold a road map. I just want to squash it into a ball and throw it in the backseat.

With the confidence that can only come from being smarter than us humans, Sheila started us on a different route to NYC than we usually take. She told us to go up the west side of Manhattan instead of taking the BQE. Mike, who had been questioning Sheila's judgment for most of the ride, suddenly exclaimed, "She's taking us through Bayonne! She's brilliant! We'll bypass the BQE!" For those not familiar with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it's notoriously jammed. It doesn't matter if it's 5PM or 2AM, you're going to be stuck looking out at the grittiest parts of the city--the graffiti-covered exteriors of abandoned warehouses (which have more than likely been converted into million dollar condos), the smokestacks of highly-toxic chemical factories--not to mention about a billion billboards advertising Bud Light using the silhouette of a curvaceous woman superimposed with the phallic shape of a beer bottle. Subtle, ad men, very subtle.

We don't exactly "fly" through the west side, but at least the view is better. That's another reason I don't drive--I like those moments when the ugliest parts of Queens give way to the sparkling skyline of Manhattan. That, and I like to nap in the car. You start off in Brookline and before you know it, you're in Tampa. And with Sheila safely guiding us to our destination, I didn't have to pretend to squint at a map, trying to find the exit.

Sheila also kept track of when Mike was speeding. Every time he went over 35 miles an hour, she would warn, "Caution." I heard "caution" so many times that I thought we would soon be heading off a cliff. It pleased me that there was ANOTHER woman in Mike's life to nag him, that I was the good guy in this situation--my eyes closed and my head resting innocently on the LL Bean travel pillow.

But Sheila was not taking us through Bayonne after all. Instead we ended up on the BQE anyway. More yelling at Sheila. What was she doing to us? We had put our complete faith and trust in her and she was taking us on a wild goose chase through the five boroughs.

Eventually we did find Staten Island. The catering hall was called "Memory Lane" and it was next door to the Staten Island Alzheimer's Foundation, which we thought was some person's idea of a sick joke until the host told us they were connected. I was proud of the fact that we beat our parents to the party--our parents who were coming from Ocean, NJ, a mere stone's throw away. When they did finally arrive we had polished off our salads and had already been to the buffet line.

Turns out they got lost.

We may be acquiring our own Sheila soon. She's a little annoying at times, but no matter how confused we are, she'll get us where we need to go.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cheese Puffs and Birthday Crowns

so many
many ways--
to have been in love

Boncho Nozawa, from Love Haiku by Patricia Donegan

I was in Trader Joe's the other night, picking up some goat milk on the advice of my podiatrist. He is enamored of the stuff--as he was describing its health benefits to me (good for the bones and joints, aids digestion, guarantees immortality) his usual stone-faced, all business doctor-persona was replaced by a wild enthusiasm, full of gesticulations and sentences that if written down would be lousy with exclamation points. Anyway, since it impressed him so much ("From the first day I drank it, I felt a difference. The first day!") I thought I'd give it a try. Having had a broken foot for six months, I was willing to drink dead gopher's blood through a Krazy Straw if I thought it would help speed along the healing process.

Anyway, it was the first day I was allowed to wear my own shoes (with orthotic inserts) and not that despised orthopediac sandal on my right foot with the beat-up black sneaker on my left (though I wanted to buy new sneakers my husband insisted we wait until my foot was better, so I wouldn't "wear down" the new left shoe.) On my first day back, I chose to wear my sexy black vinyl boots. All September and October I had watched every young woman in every imaginable cute boot, in every height, color, and style. High-heeled boot, cute rain boot, cowboy boot, short boot--they were all represented. Meanwhile if it rained the water would soak through the sandal and my sock, making the bottom of my right foot itch. I was and felt...lame.

So I'm at Trader Joe's, noticeably taller and definitely more put-together in proper, matching footware. I'm waiting in a very long line with people clutching their pre-Thanksgiving booty of butternut squash cubes, fried onions, and cranberry chevre logs. Suddenly, I'm awakened from my long-line-induced stupor by a small boy running past me, clutching a bag of Trader Joe's brand cheese puffs. "I love cheese puffs!" he exclaims, like he's just inherited a million dollars from his Uncle, "I love my dead Uncle!"

The older lady in front of me giggled, and we exchanged smiles, and I said, "I wish I still got that excited about cheese puffs." The woman nodded. We both seemed to reflect on this. Then another baby in an adjacent shopping cart started bawling, and the moment was gone.

What small things did I love as a child that I take for granted now or don't even think about? Here's a short list: Burger King french fries, ladies' hats from the thrift store, cherry italian ice, being picked up and spun around by my father when he got home, watching scary movies with my friend Heather during Friday night sleepovers, the two hots dogs they gave you after you marched with your Girl Scout troop in the Veteran's Day parade, gold-colored cardboard birthday crowns, dancing in my first pair of high-heeled tap shoes, and, speaking of dancing school...anything, ANYTHING decorated with sequins.

What small things do I love now, but which I don't yell out my deep affection for in public: Pomme Frites dipped in mayonnaise, full skirts, Tiramisu-flavored gelato, getting a big hug from my dad when I come to visit them, and otherwise, a kiss from my husband, foreign movies watched while drinking red wine, a Friday night restaurant meal, a pretty piece of vintage jewelry, dancing at weddings, and almost ANYTHING decorated with sequins. And let's not forget boots.

What small things did you once love? What about now? Yes, I know it's very "My Favorite Things" but so what? Fraulein Maria was definitely on to something.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Year of Giving Notice Now

"Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don't struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality."--Pema Chodron

It's been over a year since I started writing on this blog. I don't know that I accomplished what I set out to do (live in the moment) but I've tried, with mixed results. We're wired to daydream, tune out, fantasize, reminisce, hold out hope for better things to come. It's OK to do these things, but it's also useful to catch yourself sometimes and say, I am right here now.

This weekend I visited friends in New York City. I hadn't been in the city for six months--way too long to stay away. Yet sometimes I resist visiting New York. My old city makes me melancholy. I no longer feel the personal, intense longing to fit in as a New Yorker, to feel that New York City loves me as much as I love New York City. But I also miss the thrill of the chase.

I remember the negatives of living there: the crowds of people being swallowed by the entrance to Penn Station, the incessant noise and rude drivers of midtown, the impossibly chic women in their Vogue-inspired fashions who make me feel like the bridge-and-tunnel Jersey girl who shops for her designer clothes at TJ Maxx. Not that I should be ashamed of my roots--we all have to come from somewhere, and I came from Central New Jersey. But New York City was always my golden ring--just out of reach, a bit out of my league.

I worked in Manhattan for ten years and like so many transplants from around the country, I tried to pass. I accumulated a lot of credit card debt in the process, but to this day I believe it was worth it. Now I don't have to wonder what it would have been like to be twentysomething and living in one of the greatest cities on earth--I had my taste, and it was delicious, but not something I can make my regular diet.

Coming back to New York this weekend and anticipating the unstoppable force of nostalgia, I decided to make a list of ten things I wanted to do that I can't do in Boston--maybe that would be a nice way to enjoy the present moments while I was there. I tried hard not to look back over my shoulder, at that 26 year-old me drinking champagne at Flute, eating tapas and drinking sangria on a Tuesday night with my friends in that little Spanish place with the one-letter name in Soho, wandering in the West Village on a warm summer evening, stopping for pizza at Two Boots. I look away from that slimmer, cuter, braver, livelier ghost of me, that girl who was safe in the knowledge that she had something new to discover everyday in a city that changed like the shapes in a viewfinder. I try to focus on who I am now--a woman with more wisdom and spirituality, a smarter woman, a woman of substance with love in her life.

This "woman" forgets to go one level higher in Loehmann's, automatically combing the racks in juniors as she did ten years ago. It's Ladies' Sportswear for me now, or whatever they call clothes for thirty- and forty-somethings (I never understood that term--sportswear. What does that mean exactly? I don't see any tennis skirts or baseball cleats on offer.) I wander aimlessly into the "Womans" section, the Ellen Tracy and Jones New York racks, and I start to sweat. Enjoy this time, I warn myself, enjoy being 36, because it will be gone before you know it and soon you'll be wearing satin tunics and chunky ethnic jewelry.

Later, at the Strand, getting 50% off on new hardcovers downstairs where they keep the discarded review copies--that's still the same--though they don't check your bag anymore, and they sell a lot more Strand-inspired merchandise than they used to, as if The Strand is now The Hard Rock Cafe, another place to acquire a bag or a t-shirt to show people where you've been.

I also notice--when I'm not busy reminiscing--that parts of New York are actually very quiet. Walking down 9th St on a Sunday to meet a friend for lunch at a vegetarian place called Gobo, I notice the stillness, the practically empty sidewalk, the lovely brownstones with pots of flowers on their front steps and ancient vines creeping up their facades. I discover the poet Marianne Moore's house--the plaque says she made that apartment her home for most of her life. I never noticed this historical treasure before. I imagine Marianne emerging from this brownstone, in a smart hat and gloves, going to some literary party. It makes me happy that now, by virtue of being a tourist, I notice more and more that I might have missed before, when I was always racing by on my way to work or dinner or to the subway. Kind of like what I do in Boston now.

I had a lovely time in New York visiting with my friends. They were by far the best part of my weekend. But heading home on the train, I didn't feel that same sting of leaving my beloved city. Not that Boston feels like home yet, but my longing for Manhattan is not as acute as when I left it three years ago. Back then I wrote a love letter to Manhattan, comparing it to the lover who I courted but never won. One day maybe if I live somewhere else, I'll long for the youthful, vibrant, colorful, and intelligent feel of Boston. Or maybe I'll never love a place quite like I did New York City. After all, maybe contentment in the present is better than always reaching for that far-off shangra-la that is the past.

Wherever I am is the right place, and right now that place is here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Smile and the World Smiles with You...Frown and You're on Your Own

"From my observations of successful and happy people, the roots of their power source go deep into a soil rich in optimism and inspiration. But why does one person's root system choose a soil rich with these nutrients, while an other's withers in pessimism, inertia, and negativism? Optimists realistically know that problems can be solved, and they have the faith in human nature to persevere, even when most are saying swear words like "can't" and "impossible," or are running to find friends that support their pessimism. If you are feeling low or worried about the future, you may want to do what I do. No matter what happens I smile at the learning, irony, or humor of the calamity of the moment."--Paul H. Sutherland, from his article "The Fuel of All Things Good" in the November/December issue of Spirituality & Health

"If the generic 'positive thought' is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts."--Barbara Ehrenreich, from Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

My husband Mike was humming this tune from Monty Python's Life of Brian the other night. Maybe you've heard of it. Of course you have. It's called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Knowing that I intensely dislike the British cult hit, Mike continued past the chorus and even did the whistling part. He told me (since I have never seen the movie) that the song figures in the final scene, when Brian has been sentenced to death by crucifixion and a character on a nearby cross starts singing this tune. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about the song:

"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was conceived as a parody of the style of song often featured in Disney films. It may be considered an answer song to the entire genre, but particularly to songs such as Give a Little Whistle from Pinocchio. Its appearance at the end of the film, when the central character seems certain to die, is deliberately ironic.

I've been doing a lot of reading about positive thinking, and how to be more optimistic, so when I read a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided I was definitely interested. As much as I want to believe in the power of positive thinking, sometimes I feel a little pang that tells me, Don't be delusional. You need to be realistic. Don't mistake sinking into quicksand for a day at the beach. In other words, being optimistic is great, but not in every situation you encounter.

There has been a lot of debate over this book, with critics and readers taking sides and arguing or becoming defensive of their particular views. Few people want to question the validity of the mind-body connection, even though some studies have recently shown that being positive in the face of a Cancer diagnosis might help you cope, but it's probably not going to heal the Cancer.

Sometimes I feel like the edict to "Don't worry, be happy" is another way of saying, "Shut up and take it." Nobody wants an Eeyore around to remind them that sometimes life is unfair and terrible things can happen to undeserving people. To me, just smiling and wishing these things away seems like a form of denial.

I'm reminded of an old boss I had when I was working as an editorial assistant for a New York technical book publisher. I had recently transferred to the trade books department, which I figured would be far more interesting than working with Chemistry journals. He was the Executive Editor of the Mind, Body, Spirit books, which seemed intriguing. I didn't know that I would soon be ordered to organize manuscripts in his claustrophically-cluttered office, or constantly have to lie to authors and agents about his whereabouts (which I suspected, when I accidentally caught a glimpse of his computer screen, was shutting himself in his office to look at pictures of young Thai boys.)

I intensely disliked him, but thought I was doing an OK job of hiding it. But one morning he asked me to come into his office and close the door. He was sitting with his chair tilted back, hands behind his head, exposing his armpit stains. "You need to smile more," he said. I was taken aback by this; what was I, a stewardess? Next he'd be asking me to fetch his coffee and the paper so he could pat me on the head and send me on my way. But he was serious. He looked at me as if my job was threatened if I didn't make with the false cheer. I was furious.

When I have a good or even decent boss, I'm a friendly person to work with. I understand that being pleasant and flexible are usually expected from people in the workplace. And most of the time I am genuinely pleased to talk to my superiors and co-workers because I like them and enjoy my job. But smiling in the face of an egotistical, slimy worm of a boss goes beyond my capabilities to be genial.

Same thing goes for getting sick. What's fun or inspiring about Cancer? A vague discomfort settles over me every October when I see all the pink ribbons and pink merchandise on offer everywhere you look. This year seems particularly pink. The cap on my prescription bottle is pink. My weekly local paper is printed on pink stock. Come October, every woman's magazine turns into a big catalog of pink paraphernalia; you start to feel like having breast cancer is like joining a women's club where everyone is smiling and happy and self-assured. Sure, it's great to raise money and support women experiencing this horrible disease, but do we really need a pink ribbon silicone spatula?

When my doctor found a suspicious lump in my breast and I had to go in for further testing, I didn't want to even see the word "Cancer," much less own tchtokes that would remind me of it. Luckily my lump was benign, but Barbara Ehrenreich wasn't so lucky. But rather than just remaining silent and saying her daily affirmations, she tried to find out what might have been the cause of her cancer. Turned out it was the hormone replacement drugs her doctor prescribed, drugs that many, many other women were taking at the time. But never mind, just have a positive outlook and you'll get well. Shut up and take it, indeed.

I'm only halfway through the book, so I haven't decided if I agree with everything in Bright-Sided. I want a joyful life, and because I worry a lot (often needlessly) I have spent years learning the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy. But there are times when I think that being realistic is far more important than being recklessly optimistic. And reaching out to help others is more valuable than constantly monitoring of my own negative/positive thoughts for signs of "those curses like 'can't' and 'impossible.'"

Buddhism doesn't require you to label your thoughts good or bad--just regard them as "thinking" and then let the thoughts go. Maybe that's the compromise I'll need to come to--nothing good remains, nothing bad remains. Face the bad (and good) stuff without trying to change it, and then let it go.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On a mission

Bionic Finger
Photo credit: Tom Weiss

"Our life's work is to use what we have been given to wake up. If there were two people who were exactly the same--same body, same speech, same mind, same mother, same father, same house, same food, everything the same--one of them could use what he has to wake up and the other could use it to become more resentful, bitter, and sour. It doesn't matter what you're given, whether it's physical deformity or enormous wealth or poverty, life in the middle of a madhouse or life in the middle of a peaceful, silent desert. Whatever you're given can wake you up or put you to sleep. That's the challenge of now: what are you going to do with what you have already--your body, your speech, your mind?"--Pema Chodron, from Awakening Loving-Kindness

A friend and I were talking about life choices, and whether or not we believed that everyone had something they were good at, that they could make their life's work. I agreed, my friend wasn't so sure. The first thought that came to mind was, I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with books. But then I thought, yes, and you also wanted to be a writer. And everyday that goes by that I don't write, that I spend cleaning or playing with the kitten, or most often, reading another new book, is another day that I haven't used doing something that brings me the most joy.

Why do we constantly put off what we can do today for what we think we'll do tomorrow? Why do we so often choose to avoid what could make us more fulfilled? For me its easy--fear of failure. If I'm working with an author, supporting their book and sharing it with others, I'm OK, I'm safe. It's not my "baby" out there being passed around and judged, but someone else's. When one book is marginally successful while another book is an instant hit, it reminds me that there are lots of good writers out there, writers who are good enough to get PUBLISHED, but only a precious few that people have even heard of, much less read. How can I compete in such a vast arena of talent? What if I put all my heart and soul into something, and then no one wants it?

Working in publishing for 13 years, and seeing the realities of what it takes to be successful (talent, but also timing, luck, and/or a great editor) has discouraged me, but I've also discouraged myself, time after time, from at least TRYING. If I try pole vaulting, I'm fairly certain I will be bad at it; if I take up tennis, I'm pretty sure I'll miss more balls than I hit; if I were to go for an MBA, I know I would fail out and that's perfectly OK with me because that's not where my interest and passion lies. But if I were to write a book or even a short piece and never get it published (or even read, except by family members) then I worry I'll be crushed.

Fear. It keeps coming back to that word. For Halloween this year, my cousin is throwing a big party where everyone has been told to dress as their worst fear. I don't know what other guests are thinking, but my first reaction is not conjuring up Dracula, the Headless Horseman, Damien, zombies, or the Blob (though that movie terrified me as a kid--it looked so much like my favorite Cherry Jello turned menace.) I think of getting old and wrinkly and soft, or pushing a shopping cart around while people pass me by without more than a glance, or being hunched over a walker like an old woman who didn't drink enough milk as a kid. I think of loneliness, of rejection, of being laughed at, of not being good enough. I think of rejection letters, lots and lots of rejection letters. Maybe I should go as a rejection letter, just some short form an editorial assistant printed out by the reamful and stuffed in an envelope.

But then I think of my friend who is so smart and so clever and so unique, but who doesn't really believe it. So many people are like that. It makes me happy that after a long hiatus raising me and working, my mother is painting again. She tells me, Oh but I have to take a class to get motivated. So what, I think, at least you're doing it. A friend who years ago failed to get into business school was recently downsized from her job at a big name firm and took the opportunity to apply again. This time she got in to a great school and is really enjoying her classes. Another friend works a regular day job to pay the bills, but uses his free time to write and teach witchcraft. He's had two books published and is now earning $100 per student for his email class (and that's in a down economy!) One of my oldest friends was in a band for 10+ years. They were pretty successful around the local New York music scene (which to me is really admirable considering how competitive it is in NYC clubs.) She dived right into her passion. I always thought (and still do) that that made her one of the bravest people I know.

What are you afraid of that's keeping you from discovering your life's work? What fear is driving you to distract yourself with less important tasks? What are you good at, and if you're not doing it, why not?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yoga for a Woman Out of Balance

"Fear is nervousness; fear is anxiety; fear is a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that we may not be able to deal with the challenges of everyday life at all. We feel that life is overwhelming. People may use yoga to suppress their fear..."--
Chögyam Trungpa, from Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery

The decision is always a tough one: stay in bed/on the couch, staring at the wall or with my eyes closed but not sleeping--or, get up and do something productive in the morning, something healthy that will make my life like a cereal commercial. I'm the well-dressed career woman who admires her slimmer figure in a full-length mirror, picks up her sporty gym bag, then eats a bowl of Special K (which I would like to add is made with high fructose corn syrup, a contributor to weight GAIN) and sashays out the door, oozing self-satisfaction.

Or I'm the petite and lean young woman with the bouncy blonde ponytail and the "Arlington 5K Race" T-shirt, running at a swift pace without sweating or wheezing. I see this person all over the place--in the park, on the city streets, in my neighborhood. She's everywhere and she's always fitter than you.

The point is, I can loaf around and eat a second bowl of Kashi Autumn Wheat or I can get up and exercise. Since I quit the gym (I never went, it was boring, I felt compelled to take a shower and put on make-up BEFORE going to workout!) and after I stopped my walking routine, I've been feeling muscle aches, lower back pain, and just a general apathy about my body. But I remember what it's like to feel strong and energized, and I want that feeling back.

So here I am again, starting yet ANOTHER workout regimen. This time its Yoga. I figured it would be an appropriate practice, considering where I work. The pictures of the fresh-faced women in Yoga Journal, the kinds who only eat natural products and bathe themselves in kelp and are 55 but look 35--maybe I can aspire to be like them. No more Proctor & Gamble chemically-laced soap and shampoo for me! I will only buy my toiletries from obscure producers in California. No more Cheez-Its breaks! I will munch on unbleached almonds. I will practice Yoga at home everyday until I'm confident enough to take my act on the road, to a Yoga studio.

I bought the Rodney Yee's Yoga for Beginners DVD (featuring Colleen Saidman, yet another pretty, lithe middle-aged woman who looks like a college student.) I had a roommate who used a Rodney Yee DVD to do Yoga. She said she had heard that Yee was a letch in real life, sleeping around with his female students. If this is true, it wouldn't surprise or really phase me. He's rich, he's famous, he can wrap himself into a pretzel. Many women would find that attractive.

I start with the practice poses. If there were someone in my livingroom right now guiding me, they'd probably be constantly repositioning my Mountain pose or pushing my legs out further for Downward Facing Dog. I make up some poses. I struggle to replicate Rodney. It reminds me of when I was a little girl in Miss Maria's class at Bayshore Dance Academy, when she told my mother that I had a hard time following the class. It's probably because I had to stop and think before I could remember which was my right foot and which was my left, or I'd have to pause to do the "L"-shaped thumb reminder. By the time I had pinpointed the correct leg, the other dancers were on to something else.

Yoga is supposed to be relaxing. Unfortunately, our kitten Joey Thumbs keeps digging her claws around my ankles and "playing" with me. I try to shake her off without flinging her across the room, but she's surprisingly strong. I should have known this. After all, I had witnessed her running toward the front of the dishwasher several times and ramming her head into it, without showing any signs of a headache or permanent brain damage.

When I manage to get Joey off me, she goes after her other favorite punching bag, our ten-year-old cat Audrey. I focus on my breath while trying to block out the sounds of growling, hissing, and spitting. When the 40-minutes are up, I feel both relief and a sense of accomplishment. But I won't get ahead of myself here. I'm only on Day #2. They say it takes three weeks to form a habit.

I disagree with Chogyam Trungpa that Yoga is an escape from fear. Yoga has inspired fear in me for years--in addition to the right/left problem, I'm also a high-strung type. The one other time I took a yoga class, in college, I hated lying on the floor contemplating the top of my head. Such stillness and physical awareness scared me. Now it's becoming a welcome respite, a time to slow down and really experience my strong legs, flexible back muscles, and open chest. I feel what it's like to stand up straight instead of slouching, to reach up instead of shrinking back.

When I walk to work this morning, I stand a little bit taller.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ghee, You're Swell

"Muffins are wonderfully quick and easy to prepare, and generally they require only 20 minutes or so to bake. Plus people are fond of muffins--at least I am."--Edward Espe Brown, from The Tassajara Bread Book

Yoga Journal recently had this wonderful recipe for Apple Muffins. It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday but I was indoors baking muffins. They made the kitchen smell like a scented candle, except the mingling smells of cinnamon and cloves and apple were real, and not created by a chemical factory.

I felt a little guilty not going outside. I half-expected a call from my mother saying, "Get out and enjoy the weather, it's a beautiful day!" She says this often. I expect mothers of pale adult children everywhere say this. And yes, some natural Vitamin A would have been good for my broken foot bones. But I was so excited that it was cool enough to turn the oven on that I chose baking as my sensory pleasure of the moment.

The recipe was fairly straightforward: 2 chopped apples, 2 cups whole wheat flour (I used half King Arthur whole-wheat and half KA all-purpose flour. I find baking with exclusively wheat flour makes the end product too dense), 2 eggs. It called for delightful warming spices, like cinnamon and cardamom and cloves, and 2 TBSP of maple syrup to coat the apples. Dates were also on the list, but as I despise any dried fruit (including raisins) I substituted with chopped walnuts. The only unusual ingredient was Ghee.

I had heard of Ghee before but was scared of it. Before I came to love Indian food, I had heard stories of non-Indians getting sick from Ghee. I always assumed it was spoiled butter.

When I told Mike about needing Ghee, thinking maybe they'd have it in the international aisle in Star Market, he immediately jumped on the computer. He found a cooking blog called Ma Cooks that ticked off the many wonders of Ghee and how to make it at home. Eager for something new to try, Mike got started on the Ghee, frequently stirring the butter in a pan for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile I wrestled with the apple corer, shooting tubes of core through the air like I was playing with a rocket launcher. Mike reported that his Ghee didn't look clear enough. Should he skim the foam off the top? There was some talk of using a cheese cloth to strain it, but I wasn't an advanced enough cook to have some just lying around. Ma Cooks had said that the solids would sink to the bottom and get caramelized. She recommended saving this to put on hot cereal. We were both intrigued. Carmelized butter on oatmeal or Cream of Wheat--it sounded heavenly.

But the bottom of the pan eventually scorched, so there was none of that. However, the Ghee that resulted was the same color as the picture on the blog. Frankly, it looked like a urine sample in a jar, but it was too late for me to change my mind.

The muffins came out beautifully, with nice brown tops and a layer of gooey chunks of sweet apples inside. I loved the combination of the softness of the muffin and the crunchiness of the walnuts. They were warm and filling, and since they came from Yoga Journal, they had to be healthy, right?

We each ate two.

The question then was, what do we do with the rest of the Ghee? A few hours after it was made, the consistency thickened and the yellow color went from dark to light. Ma Cooks said she used her Ghee up in a matter of days. But we had never cooked with Ghee before. Could it replace olive oil or butter when we sauteed onions and garlic? Could we drizzle it on popcorn? Or was it strictly an Indian food ingredient? I figured I'd whip up a vegetable curry at some point.

But Michael raved about it. "Smell it," he said, holding the open jar up to my nose. It smelled like the inside of a movie theater, a somewhat stale smell that made you salivate nonetheless.

He smeared a piece of bread with it. "Mmmm" he said. Curiosity got the better of me, even as I worried that I was headed toward intestinal disaster.

It was as delicious as he said. I had a second piece of toast just to savor more Ghee goodness. Again, I had assumed I didn't like something, but never bothered to test my theory. I thought I didn't like Indian food, but proved myself wrong several years ago. I thought I would get sick from Ghee, but so far, so delicious.

I have a feeling we won't be hanging on to our jar of Ghee for very long, either.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Advantages of a Disciplined Life

Photo credit: Pascal O. Marolla

"The notion of ruling your world is that you can live in a dignified and disciplined way, without frivolity, and at the same time enjoy your life. You can combine survival and celebration. Many people feel that the regularity of life is a constant imposition. They would like to have a different life, or a different menu, every second, at every meal. It is necessary to settle down somewhere and work at having a regular, disciplined life. The more discipline that occurs, however, the more joyous life can be. So the pattern of your life can be a joyous one, a celebration, rather than obligation alone. That is what it means to rule the kingdom of your life."--``Chögyam Trungpa, from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

This weekend my husband and I and the two cats stayed home. It had been a while since we had a weekend at home, much less a weekend that wasn't so humid that I had to sequester myself in the bedroom--the only room with an air conditioner. My foot is slowly mending so I was able to walk around without hobbling too much. We both had ambitious to-do lists--mine had about 38 items on it. Some were easy like, Put away clean dishes. And some were more ambitious like, vacuum entire apartment. In the morning, we took the kitten to the vet for her last booster shot and cha-ching! another $250. So far, this kitten has cost us upward of $750. Not that you can put a price on cute.

When we got back to the apartment, I took a nap. I take a lot of naps on the weekend. Naps in a cool room with my sound machine on and no interruptions is heavenly. Yet, I almost always feel guilty. I don't have time to nap! I have a to-do list taunting me, saying You are the most undisciplined, lazy person I've ever known. You're 36, start acting like an adult and do your chores. Cross something off of me, lady!

So I cleaned out the fridge from top to bottom, swiping every crevice of its stuck-on food particles, sticky spills, and onion peels. It took a couple of hours because I also cleaned the outside and the top of the fridge. I found all sorts of weird things tossed on the top--bags of nails, a torn mobile, a chipped mug filled with various pieces of folded paper, a mangled cat toy, an ugly fake plant that was left behind by the apartment's previous owner. Once I was done, I knew that would be the end of my usefulness for the day. I curled up with the kitten and read a book.

Meanwhile Mike was running around, picking up blinds and fixing our broken basement door. He washed all the dishes, and then because he hadn't written wash dishes on his list, he wrote it in and then crossed it out.

We are not self-starters, Mike and I. We need a deadline or someone's parents coming over to spring us into action. When company comes over, I actually think our place looks pretty nice--cluttered, a little ragged around the edges, but homey. It's the same when I'm taking a writing class or posting on this blog. I remember why it is I like to write. It's no longer a chore, but a pleasure--especially the end result. Why don't I write more?

On Sunday, I was determined to clean up all those spots of dirt and dust that had been bothering me for weeks. I washed the floor, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, even wiped down the inside of the microwave (have you ever looked at the top of the inside of your microwave? Don't. It looks like the aftermath of a slasher film.)

I made a dinner of pumpkin and sage ravioli (store-bought) with a walnut and basil pesto (homemade.) Mike, who had been laboring away on sifting soil from his worm composter (pretend I didn't write that and you didn't read it) was genuinely impressed by the difference a day and a half of harried, almost manic cleaning made to the apartment. Our cats spent most of the day either advancing or retreating on each other like boxers ready to throw a punch, or they were fleeing from the vacuum. But mutual terror of loud machines became a bonding experience, because at one point they were both in the livingroom, just a few feet apart, and no claws were extended, no hisses or growling could be heard from the kitchen.

Sunday night, I thought about the weekend and felt a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense that I had spent my two days off in the most mundane way possible. We hadn't gone to any nice restaurants or taken any fun car trips or visited any of our far-flung friends. I would have no stories to tell about my weekend. I kept thinking how age was making me duller and duller. Wasn't it more fun to ignore the laundry and buy new, never-before-worn clothes? Wasn't it better to have an interesting life than a to-list with checkmarks?

But obviously we can't sustain a life of idle luxury. There's a recession going on. Frugality is the new black (even if budgets make me tremble and sweat).

I have to admit it was nice to walk barefoot around an apartment with a clean floor. It was nice to see sparkling white tiles in the kitchen. I was happy because I cooked, something I want to do more of as summer gives way to fall. And there was no big bill at the end of dinner that would surprise us when we opened our next credit card statement.

There can be joy in doing what you have to do. There can be satisfaction in starting and finishing something. There can be comfort in knowing you're not going to be eating cat food when you're 90 because you spent all your money on things that are now long gone. We're saving money for a rainy day and I'm making do with the fall wardrobe I have (for now--I'm not a monk.) Sure, a new Lulu Guinness bag has been calling my name lately, but luckily I can't hear it over the whirr of the vacuum.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Every moment is magnificent (unless you're a worrier like me.)

"Has the most wonderful moment of your life already happened? Ask yourself that question. Most of us will answer that it hasn't happened yet, but that it could happen at any time. No matter how old we are, we tend to feel that the most wonderful moment of our life hasn't happened yet. We fear maybe it's too late, but we are still hoping.
"The teaching of the Buddha tells you clearly and plainly to make this the most magnificent and wonderful moment in your life. All you need to transform this present moment into a wonderful one is freedom. All you need to do is free yourself from your worries and preoccupations about the past, the future, and so on.
"The deep insight of impermanence is what helps us do this. It is very useful to keep our concentration on impermanence alive. You think the other person in your life is going to be there forever, but that is not true. So if you can do something to make that person happy, you should do it right away."--Thich Nhat Hahn, from You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I'm in Maine at the family cabin overlooking a pond. When I look up, I see the criss-cross of branches like a leafy dome covering my view of the blue sky. I am cold, having worn summer clothes on a September day in the north country. Even the two blankets that cover me up to my lips aren't keeping me warm. And yet, I'm on a hammock, reading a book, sipping wine on a beautiful near-fall day in the woods. I should drink this in, let the moment seep into my skin. Why worry about a little chill? Why think about the next thing I want to be doing? Didn't I wait for a chance like this all year? C'mon, appreciate this Jennifer, appreciate it, dammit!

Maybe I'm trying too hard to be positive and, as Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, "make this the most magnificent and wonderful moment in your life." That's a lot of pressure. The cliche goes that for women, their wedding day is the best moment of their life, and if it's not, then the marriage is a sham. I had so many expectations surrounding my wedding, starting with the impression I got from TV and movies growing up that the only happy ending to a story is a wedding. Then of course there are stores like Kate's Paperie that make weddings look like a great excuse to buy lots of pretty stationery. When I was single I would spend a lot of time sighing plaintively over bridal shower invitations with elegant typefaces and scalloped edges.

But when I got engaged on Christmas Eve 2005, I wasn't prepared for the mixture of emotions I was feeling. Of course, I was pleased, but I was also scared, nervous, speechless, and shaking. Suddenly I was having my moment, the one I had hoped for all those years of dating and getting dumped or duped or both. And I didn't know how to feel. The past snuck in there to remind me of the good parts of being a single girl in the city. The future elbowed its way into the moment, flashing images of me as an old, decrepit widow, staring at pictures of my late husband (who is seven years older than me. And women statistically outlive their men.)

That night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, my head was whirling.

This is the thing they never tell you about in all those whimsical articles in women's magazines like "How to get him to pop the question," which made me think of a question mark flying out of the top of a champagne bottle. The bridal magazines were no better--they were just another form of pornography, but one that was sanctioned by your mother and friends. They sold you desire in the form of gowns as rich as frosted cake, as much jewelry as you'd find in a treasure chest on a deserted island, flowing veils that could at any moment swoop you up and carry you away to heaven, even tiaras(!) I hadn't worn a tiara since I was six, but suddenly I thought maybe I wanted one. For a few months after I was engaged, I bought dozens of these glossy seduction manuals, dog-earring page after page of place settings and bridesmaid dresses and rules of etiquette for making seating charts.

But nowhere was their an article like "He Popped the Question--and the Bubbly is Making Your Head Spin." No ambiguous feelings allowed, the magazines seemed to imply. You are a happy future bride whose only focus should be on whether to go for a sweetheart neckline or an empire waist.

The wedding itself was beautiful and moving, but even on my wedding day, I was afraid to feel anything but absolute, undiluted bliss. I remember being nervous at the hair salon, staring at the grilled shrimp salad in my hands but not eating it. My stylist mistook my silence for calmness, and told me she was impressed that I wasn't freaking out. Not only was I not calm, but I was worrying about all kinds of stupid things, like wanting to be a perfect customer at the salon, not some pushy, demanding bride that they would all talk about later to their other clients. I was worried that I would not look the prettiest I had ever looked (as is expected of brides), or that the prettiest I could look would not amount to much. I worried about standing in profile in front of hundreds of people because I think I look better straight on. I wasn't even thinking about what the wedding meant, that in fact at around 4:30 that afternoon I would be married, that I would have a husband who I promised to love and honor for the rest of our lives. No, I was worried that I wouldn't be the perfect bride like the ones who filled all the magazines I'd been reading for a year.

A flute of champagne helped. So did the moment when my mother entered the bridal suite, late but nevertheless there. Seeing her finally arrive was the only time the whole day that I cried. I live several states away from her, and though I'm OK with that, at that moment I missed her terribly. She would tell me to relax, to stop worrying about silly things, to enjoy the moment and have fun.

One of my most joyful moments of my wedding day didn't involve anyone. It was just me, sitting at a table in my room the morning of the wedding, eating a simple breakfast of yogurt, tea, and a mini-bagel, writing out a card for Michael that I would have delivered to him before the ceremony. I thought of all the beautiful moments we had shared together in the past 7 years. I let myself free-write my thoughts in that card, not crossing anything out or editing myself at all. It was a quiet moment, the sun streaming through the curtains, me in my bathrobe and no make-up quietly writing and taking sips of peppermint tea, which soothed my nervous stomach. Sealing the card, I couldn't wait for Mike to read it because I knew it would make him smile, and maybe calm his own fears for the moment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Giving in or Just Getting Started?

"When difficulties seem insurmountable, optimists react in a more constructive and creative way. They accept the facts with realism, know how to rapidly identify the positive in adversity, draw lessons from it, and come up with an alternative solution or turn to a new project. Pessimists would rather turn away from the problem or adopt escapist strategies--sleep, isolation, drug or alcohol abuse--that diminish their focus on the problem. Instead of confronting them with resolve, they prefer to brood over their misfortunes, nurture illusions, dream up "magic" solutions, and accuse the whole world of being against them. They have a hard time drawing lessons from the past, which often leads to the repetition of their problems."--Matthieu Ricard, from his essay "Optimism, Pessimism, and Naivete," featured in the anthology In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times

Our new kitten, Joey Thumbs, is peeing on the bed. She's done it a few times now, even though her clean litter box is just a few feet away. She knows how to use the litter box; Mike can certainly attest to that since he's constantly scooping it. So this peeing is something else entirely. Nerves? Marking territory? Needs a diaper?

Also, Joey and Audrey (our ten-year old cat) aren't getting along so well. I let Joey out of the guest room (where we keep her when we're not home) and she inevitably runs toward Audrey, who hisses, growls, and raises a paw to her (no scratches yet, but they're coming.) We've tried to get them used to each other. I read that putting sardine oil on each cat's head makes them smell the same, so they aren't afraid of each other. I tried this trick and just ended up with two greasy, smelly cats.

Give it time, people say. They'll come around. Soon they'll be grooming each other. You just have to be patient. I hear the same from my podiatrist about my broken foot--give it time. It will heal. Lately I've had to face the fact that I'm lacking in patience. I want to integrate the cats now, I want Joey to stop peeing on the bed now, I want my foot to be completely healed now. It's hard to see ahead a few months, when these minor irritations will be mostly forgotten.

I'd love to be an optimist. My mother is one. Mike's mother is, too. Optimists still have problems, but they see them more realistically. If they lose their job they do what they need to do to get another one. They don't sit around and fret, feel sorry for themselves, tell themselves they are unemployable and will have to spend the rest of their life scraping by on odd jobs.

My foot is broken so I can't do the power walking I was doing in the spring. I feel bloated and lethargic, worried that I'm getting pudgy. I could try exercises that don't involve putting weight on my foot. Or I could lie around helplessly in the air-conditioned bedroom, reading books about people who are actually accomplishing things in their lives (for example, Three Cups of Tea. That guy embodies optimism!) You can face adversity--small stuff like mine, or big stuff like poverty, lack of an education, corruption all around you--and weather it. You can be a scraggly tree branch, bending and twisting but not snapping off in the wind. Or you can be a pile of useless dead twigs, slowly decomposing into the earth.

OK, a little dramatic. I'm free-associating here.

It is easier to curl up in bed and sleep for twelve hours. But you don't wake up feeling refreshed. You're just more stressed about all the things you haven't done or people you haven't called or the book you haven't written. Having the courage and patience to get things done, even if it's only a few steps towards a goal, is optimism. Pessimism is saying to yourself, I am overwhelmed, I can't walk far without wincing, the cats are peeing and fighting and breaking my ceramics. I think I'll have a cocktail.

I want to be a better person than I am right now. I need the courage to get started, and the optimism to keep going. It's the end of summer, soon the beginning of a new season. Time for another fresh start.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Department of Complaints

"Every single person on this bus called Earth hurts; it's when we have shame about our failings that hurt turns into suffering. In our shame, we feel outcast, as if there's another bus somewhere, rolling along on a smooth road. Its passengers are all thin, healthy, happy, well-dressed and well-liked people who belong to harmonious families, hold jobs that don't bore or aggravate them, and never do mean things, or goofy things like forget where they parked their car, lose their wallet, or say something totally inappropriate. We long to be on the bus with the other normal people.

"This is the illusion that many of us labor under--that we are alone in our weirdness and our uncertainty; that we may be the most lost person on the highway.

"When we see clearly that every single human being, regardless of fame or fortune or age or brains or beauty, shares the same ordinary foibles, a strange thing happens. We begin to cheer up, to loosen up, and we become as buoyant as those people we imagined on the other bus. As we rumble along the potholed road, lost as ever, through the valleys and over the hills, we find ourselves among friends. We sit back, and enjoy the ride."--Elizabeth Lesser, from Broken Open

This past Monday I went to see Linda, the woman I visit once a week. She's been having some issues with being overreactive. There's the stereotype of the senior citizen complaining about the tardy postman, the raucous kids on the block, the deceitful nurse who steals a piece of silverware. Linda is not old enough to be daffy, but she definitely offends easily. I've been trying to encourage her to join a group to meet people and make friends. I suggested the local senior center. I went there once for an artists' open-studio tour and I was impressed by what a nice hangout it was, almost like a college student center. She went once, sat in a corner, and didn't talk to anyone. She joined a church, but then complained that they lost a check and discarded an old desk chair she had donated. She stopped going to that church and took up another religion. She'll gush about a pharmacy's deliveryman one day, then the next time we talk, she'll swear she's taking her business elsewhere. There was even the time when she was prepared to end her friendship with Chris, the physically-disabled younger man who helps her pick up food and calls her almost everyday, because he was hanging out with some people she didn't like. That worried me. She was cutting off all her lifelines. Would I be next?

On Monday, she acknowledged that she had been feeling reactive lately, yet she still railed against her homemaker, who accidentally broke her coffee carafe and didn't offer to pay for a new one. I gave her some advice that I should take myself--be more flexible, try being more patient with people. We're all imperfect and we're going to mess up sometimes--answer the phone in a huff, act rude, lose or break things that matter to other people. Just like she herself wasn't perfect, neither was anyone. You can't just dismiss everyone who at one time has annoyed or disappointed you.

I was cranky when I came to visit her, although hopefully I didn't show it. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to talk her out of her complaining. I am, after all, there to listen. And didn't I complain about my life, too? Didn't I focus on the negative more often then the good things? I bought a Gratitude journal a few weeks ago and have been trying to do a daily entry to switch my focus to the good things in my life.

I didn't write an entry today because it's the 100th day of a sweat-inducing heat wave in the Northeast, and I'm upset about my broken foot. The original fracture which was just beginning to heal splintered again. In addition, I managed to acquire a second fracture in the same foot. My foot looks like a beach ball and every step I take hurts. My mother advised me not to overreact--lots of annoyances come up in life, and you can't get upset about every little thing. In the grand scheme of things, my slow-healing foot is not a big deal, just a temporary inconvenience. Probably my foot is telling me to walk more slowly, deliberately, and stop flashing by people with my New York power stride. Where was I going that I was always in such a rush?

There was one good thing that happened this week. On Monday, Mike and I brought home our new kitten, Joey Thumbs (pictured.) You can't possibly find anything to complain about when she's jumping up on you and resting in the crook of your arm, purring like a new engine. I sent her picture around to friends and family like she was my new baby girl. Mike and I fight over who she likes better, but ultimately I think she's going to love us both and give us a lot to be grateful for.

Friday, August 7, 2009

My Inner Geek

"As they walked the tide line, the monk told him that everything we notice, everything we think, all the feelings we accumulate don't just disappear when we get done with them. They lie submerged below the surface of our lives--anger, gratitude, beer advertisements, pride, gladness, the smell of the woodshed, dreams of revenge, the sour taste of shame. They bubble up at times we can't control, nourishing or nasty.

"So be careful what you store up, he said. Don't collect the bad stuff, and don't let anybody else leave their trash with you either. Let it flow on through, in one door, out the other, like a scouring tide."--Kathleen Dean Moore, from her forthcoming book Wild Comfort

The problem with staying in the present is that my mind keeps wanting to go backward. I'm walking down the street and WHAM! I'm back walking the halls of my junior high school. I was quite the geek in junior high. Yes, weren't we all, but you haven't seen my 8th grade picture. I'm wearing a peach polo shirt, the collar up (of course), layered under a grey t-shirt. I've stuck a big yellow clip in my frizzy hair, I'm wearing a peach shell necklace, and of course, I have braces, the scourge of all teens before they came up with the kind that you can't see. Yes, I was a late- eighties teenager (John Hughes, RIP. I saw Some Kind of Wonderful three times in the movie theater and Molly Ringwald made me feel like less of an outcast.)

I read Seventeen when I was thirteen although my mother didn't approve of the content (and I imagine that now it's much racier than it was circa 1987.) I didn't yet know how to dress myself and still quiver with horror at some of the outfits I walked around in--including a purple graphic matching two piece shirt and skirt that made me look like I was emulating a young pop singer on MTV, but getting it horribly, horribly wrong.

I was a big fan of soap operas, which my best friend Heather and I would watch at her house because I didn't want my parents to know I watched the soaps. In fact, I remember buying a Soap Opera Digest and after I was done with it, throwing it out in the dumpster behind my school, as if it were a porn magazine. Sometimes I even took a cassette recorder (this was before the advent of taping onto a VHS tape-God!) and held it against the TV so I could record the sounds of my favorite soap, Santa Barbara. Then I'd play it back later, under the covers, and relive the romance and turmoil of those unhappy rich people in California. Heather preferred General Hospital but I thought Jack Wagner was a cheeseball. I preferred the dark, brooding Latino Cruz Castillo, played by A. Martinez.

I sometimes wonder that if I had a daughter, what would I forbid her to read or watch? Would I pay lots of money to make sure she wasn't the gawky kid in the class pictures? Or would I take the opposite tact by not having a television set in the house, not letting her see anything but art house movies, and permitting her to only read The New Yorker? After all, our early experiences play a big role in shaping who we are today. All those images of rich, perfect girls and women that I witnessed and hoped to emulate were in fact way out of my league, leaving me with a lingering feeling of not being good enough. You'd think I'd grow out of this, but it somehow got imprinted in my DNA. I feel like ever since that awkward period of say, 1985-1992 I've been trying my hardest to shake those awful images. This led to some bad decisions later on, like dating a two-timing basketball player just because he was a basketball player, and therefore, a jock, and spending years wearing only short skirts and dresses, no matter what the occasion. Not to mention all those department store makeovers which I could never quite replicate when I got home.

I have a thirteen year-old Swedish cousin who I spent time with last month. She's adorable--a smart, cute blond who loves horses and Miley Cyrus (but not Hannah Montana, which she considers passe.) I was in Whole Foods the other day and saw a copy of Elle magazine with Miley on the cover, looking about 25. I bought a copy for Sara, intending to mail it to her, then took it home. My husband leafed through it, and said it was warping, and why would I want to send an impressionable young girl a magazine filled with genetically-flawless models and uber-expensive consumer goods. But it's just for fun, I thought. And she's Swedish--they're a liberal people, they don't mind racy. What's the harm in one little Miley Cyrus cover story? But is that where all the trouble begins for girls?

It must be hard to raise a daughter. You don't want to overprotect them, but you also don't want to give them the idea that the only thing they should aspire to is looking like someone on a soap opera and acting like Paris Hilton on a Tuesday on Rodeo Drive. Maybe instead I should tell Sarah to buy "Pretty in Pink" on DVD. Molly Ringwald loves her dad, makes her own quirky clothes, and doesn't let that slimey James Spader get her down. And in the end, she gets Kevin McCarthy, who from judging the final scene, seemed like a very good kisser. And Ducky was so cute when he did that dance for her in the record store--really she had it pretty good for an outcast. Or I could recommend "Some Kind of Wonderful," where the tomboyish drummer falls in love with her best friend, and the pretty, popular girl reveals that her popularity isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I don't want the next generation to be as warped as ours is.