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.