Thursday, January 21, 2010

Working at happiness

"We tend to think of happiness (and by happiness I also mean health or overall well-being) as a gift, and sometimes it is, a pure gratuity. But most of the times it comes about because you've done the work, prepared the ground to allow it in or tended it carefully once it arrived. You have to practice happiness the way you practice the piano, commit to it in the way you commit to going to the gym. You don't do it most of the time because it feels good to do it. You do it because it feels good to have done it."--Norah Vincent, from Voluntary Madness

Some of us (myself included) reach an age where we realize that we've been walking around with a sense of entitlement. I deserve this or they should give me that or why can't I have it? My generation likes to complain that the younger generation are the ones that feel entitled, because their parents doted on them more than ours did, and everyone got a trophy at the spelling bee. But I think it's more cultural than it is generational. Those of us who grew up in fairly stable homes, or even those who had difficult childhoods and think that the world now owes them--we don't take enough ownership of our destinies. We wait for things to happen to us, including that wellspring of happiness that we think will keep filling us up.

Other cultures don't necessarily think this way. Other cultures don't expect to be happy or always get what they want. When people immigrate to America, most have to work hard at menial jobs just to survive here. They're not welcomed by a committee who shakes their hand and gives them a new house and car. Often they are not even welcomed at all.

I read a book recently called Factory Girls, about young women in China who set off from their poor and rural hometowns to make it as a factory girl in big cities like Dongguan, where there are lots of jobs and opportunity if you work hard (or if you're tall and speak English.) And these women work very hard, sometimes with only one day off. And after work they often take English language classes, including one where all the students shave their heads to show their commitment to their studies.

I grew up in a middle-class suburban home in NJ. I got some of what I wanted, not everything-- like a real Cabbage Patch doll (I had a knock-off from Poland) or a new car at 17. But I know I had it good. We never had a boatload of money, but my father worked hard to assure that my family had the little perks like yearly vacations and dinners out and big Christmas parties. When I was 17 I got my first real job in a chain bookstore. I wanted to make my own money--in fact, my father recalls that I would never show my parents my paycheck because I didn't want them to know what I made, and then ask for some of it! This was a very different attitude than when my father was growing up in Bensonhurst and he had to hand over every paycheck to his father, who then doled out a couple of dollars to his son to take my mother to the movies.

Work has always been important to me, a big part of my identity. I think that's true of a lot of people, and why the current unemployment situation is causing so many people to feel the sting of their identity lost. Yet over the years I must admit that I've developed a sense of entitlement when it comes to being rewarded. I expect that I will get a good job that I love and do well, I expect that I'll automatically get a raise after 18 months. I expect to earn the respect of my co-workers because of my skills and experience.

In my personal life, I expect that married life will be nothing but trips and restaurant meals and shopping sprees and lots of affection without the conflict. I expect to have the same freedoms I had as a single woman except now with a partner-in-crime who will catch me if I fall. But that has not proven to be the case, because everyone knows you have to WORK on your marriage. You have to constantly compromise and weather the ups and downs of your financial, romantic, and work lives--which are often in flux.

And then there's happiness, which I thought would come from having a good job, a kind husband, and a nice home. But that's not the end of the story. Nothing lasts forever, nothing is permanent. You have to work on steering the ship or else you'll float out to sea, lost.

So work hard. Push yourself to do better. And for god's sake (and now I'm addressing myself here), do it now.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise?

"People complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery. Usually religions speak of beauty, song, ecstasy, bliss. But according to Buddha, we must begin by seeing the experience of life as it is. We must see the truth of suffering, the reality of dissatisfaction. We cannot ignore it and attempt to examine only the glorious, pleasurable aspects of life. All sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situations. We cannot begin by dreaming."--Chogyam Trungpa, from The Pocket Chogyam Trungpa

"Definitely lose the forest for a tree, a branch, bark, a leaf, whatever your pathetic little mechanism can handle, because it certainly can't handle the whole show. Reason, of all things, is the enemy. An excess of sense is senseless. Take refuge instead in the cupcake, the sugary sop morsel that gets you through. The digestible piece and no more."--Norah Vincent, from Voluntary Madness

Remember the scene in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, approaches a young and attractive couple on the street and has the following dialogue with them:

Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?
Female street stranger: Yeah.
Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?
Female street stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Male street stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.
Alvy Singer: I see. Wow. That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?

Is happiness just self-delusion? Or is depression the product of dwelling too much on your own suffering (or the suffering of others?) Is it possible to think too much, to wallow in the world's sorrows? Or is it better to face facts than to stay blissfully ignorant?

In other words, does happiness occur only when we purposely ignore the realities of the world we live in and the personal hurts we've suffered and our eventual mortality?

Despite my tendency toward depression (particularly in winter), I find myself compulsively reading every negative story in the newspaper (and in the Boston Metro section, in particular, there's plenty of those.) It's like this need to know the worst that can happen, that DOES happen everyday. A fire that started in one apartment spreads throughout the building, leaving eight families homeless and with nothing but the clothes on their back. A drunk mother driving her kids and their friends home from dance class crashes her SUV, killing everyone inside. A girl is leaving her homecoming dance when she is lured by a group of her "friends" and then assaulted and gang-raped, with no one coming to her rescue for at least an hour. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Each time I read a story like this, first I put myself in their place and wonder, could I handle that? Could I survive that and still find cause to be happy? Then I imagine the feelings of the people involved, and wonder, where are they now? How are they doing? I want follow-up stories, reasons to feel hopeful that the human spirit can endure almost any calamity caused by nature or by your classmate, next-door neighbor, even someone in your own family.

I feel incredibly lucky that I have not had to endure the kind of poverty that drove thousands of New Orleans residents out of their city after Katrina or that keeps a family in poor health because they can't afford health insurance or even good produce. Looking at pictures of the aftermath of the hurricane in Haiti, I wonder, good lord, haven't those people had enough misery (as if misery were a glass that was in danger of overflowing.) How can they possibly be happy again after suffering such relentless tragedy? They won't have money to go to a good therapist to heal their post-traumatic stress or to rebuild their home--replacing the pots and pans and everything else that they lost. They won't even have the money to give their children with the hope that the next generation of their family will have a better future.

Will the Haitian people affected by this natural disaster just try to put it out of their mind, the way the Hutus and the Tutsis did when they moved next door to each other after suffering unspeakable violence at the hands of the other? Will they survive because they choose not to dwell on the harm done to them and instead move forward with optimism? I read somewhere that resilience is a muscle that needs to be used or it (we) become too soft, too complacent in our comfortable lives. Kind of like I was in my 20's, before 9/11 happened just across the river from me.

Obviously a Buddhist wouldn't advise anyone to focus only on life's suffering. If that were the case, Buddhists would merely be a bunch of Sicilian widows. Obviously it is possible to see and accept reality--even when it's wretched--and still manage to be happy. This blogger posted a poem Edward Espe Brown shared with her that just might be my answer.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Social Media Fatigue Syndrome

"We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence, we expect permanence. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration."--Pema Chodron, from Comfortable with Uncertainty

One of the ways that I know I'm getting older is that innovations like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter don't really interest me. There--I've said it. I feel a sense of relief like dropping my oversize pocketbook.

I used to want nothing to do with these sites. Although it may appear otherwise--hey, I blog about my life here, don't I--I'm actually a private person in many ways, and putting all your pictures and exploits up on Facebook is like giving away the store to anyone who cares to look--even if it's years later, when there are some things you'd like to forget (or at least keep new people from discovering!) Also, I've been the victim of identity theft, and so I'm careful about how much information I give out online. And ultimately I wonder, do people really care what apple farm I visited over the weekend or what I ate for supper tonight or what newspaper article I happen to be reading? It seems like not only an exercise in navel-gazing, but also a waste of precious time I could be using reading or emailing a friend a long, personalized message.

The young women who sit near me at work, however, are very fluent in social media; to them social media is like America Online was to me ten years ago. I've been trying to wrap my head around how to incorporate social media into both my work as a publicist and for my own blog. But for some reason, whenever I start to read a book like Groundswell or listen to a Cision webinar about Internet 2.0, I get this dizzy, spacey feeling, like someone who swallows too much chlorine. I take copious notes, I highlight and bookmark and tag, but the fact is--there is too much information out there, the web is continuosly growing and spreading (there's a reason they call it viral) and I can't keep up with it all!

I guess this is what the older folks meant whenever they get nostalgic for the more simple times, when movies cost 5 cents and you could watch as many as you wanted, or when people all had the same four TV channels so the next day everyone was talking about the same plot points from the same shows. There was a point when I decided I liked the old and familiar and feared the new--maybe it was around the time that I realized I was the demographic Starbucks was targeting with their Retro 80's CDs at the cashwrap. Those are certainly not for the kid on line with the earbuds and Tavo gloves. Or when I noticed that I was the only one in the dusty, half-filled CD aisles in Borders.

In order to live fully in the present, I need to not only accept changes but embrace them! I can't be wishing for the 90's when it's 2010. I need to keep up, especially at work. It's a daunting task when all I really want to do is go home and read a book (print, not digital.)

This is kind of a paradox of course because I've worked for an eBook company and I've been an Internet Marketing Manager who had to learn basic HTML and figure out web banner sizing. It just seems different now--the changes have accelerated and instead of being enhancements that work alongside the old ways, they're taking over like some voracious creature that keeps doubling in size every time it eats and spits out another newspaper company.

But it's the information overload that really causes my mind to freeze up. More sites are popping up all the time, more blogs which I wouldn't mind reading but have no time to, new ways of doing business. You could spend so much time in front of a computer navigating all this new-ness that you'd forget to take a shower or eat lunch or see your friend's face (in person, not in her profile.)

But its essential to learn as much as I can if I want to stay successful at my job. Those companies that are hiring now are hiring people who understand social marketing and can bring in new ideas. The fact that I read a lot and can write a good press release and get along with authors and editors doesn't seem as valued these days. I think personal relationships happen to be just as important as having 100 followers on Twitter. But I also worry that by not keeping up with the trends, I'm going to be left behind. And that would be lonelier than sitting alone in your office, typing on your blog about how you're afraid of impermanence.

Friday, January 1, 2010

That time of year

Taking a nap
I hide within myself--
winter seclusion

On New Year's Day
the morning in town
comes irregularly

Both from Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems

Last night I spent New Year's Eve alone, at home. I'm sure I wasn't the only one--many of us have reasons why at one time or another we find ourselves alone, even on holidays. My reason was that I had a cold and I didn't want to keep Mike from enjoying a planned get-together with our cousins because of my uncooperative immune system.

We've started a tradition where every New Year's Eve we go to our cousins' house and have cheese fondue and lots of other gourmet treats my cousin Mikki prepares, and we drink champagne, get silly, and then stay overnight and eat breakfast together. Last year I overindulged in food and bubbly (once I took that first bite of bacon-wrapped date swallowed down with a fried calamari ring, I knew I was in trouble.) I ended up missing the countdown to midnight trying to remedy my nausea as discreetly as possible in a one-floor apartment. Yes, I was among family, but I was also 35 years-old--too old to be miscalculating my food and beverage intake. I could already see the barely-disguised smirks around the breakfast table the next morning (yuck, who could even think of breakfast?)

This year I'm happy to say it was a more respectable sickness that kept me from celebrating the ball drop. On Sunday while enjoying a game night with our grown nephew and his lovely girlfriend, I started to feel a sore throat coming on. The next day I had a full-blown head cold, and over the course of the following three days I wasn't getting any better. I would wheeze whenever I layed down and routinely hack into tissues like an old man. Piles of white balled-up Kleenex created their own mountain range in the apartment. The ones I threw in the trash were rescued by the kitten and then dragged around the floor until she got bored and left them wherever they dropped.

Luckily, like most publishing houses, the company I work for was closed this week so I didn't need to use up any sick days. And I wasn't SO SICK that I couldn't putter around doing a little cleaning, a little baking, a little dusting, a little paper recycling during my vacation. I got a pile of books for Christmas that I placed in the favored position on my bedside table, eliminating some older runners-up that no longer made the cut (for example, I can't seem to get past the first couple of chapters of The Liar's Club.)

You there
, the fresh novels purred, why don't you come over here, put your feet up, stay awhile. For me new books are like an invitation to Mae West's boudoir. And being sick is the perfect excuse to spend all day in bed reading.

I wore the same flannel pajama bottoms everyday, and even though I showered a couple of times during the week so as not to be completely gross, I never really bothered to brush my hair, so I had a brownish-blonde tangled mass on the top of my head. I resembled one of those pencils toppers I had in elementary school, the ones with the googly eyes and shock of red cotton hair that you puffed up by furiously rubbing the pencil between your palms like you were trying to start a fire.

By Thursday morning I knew I wasn't going anywhere. It's not that I wasn't dying to get out of the house--I'd been cooped up inside since Saturday and was beginning to feel like a vampire (but not one of the sexy ones.) I just didn't have the energy or the usual party spirit. It used to be, whenever I was preparing to go out at night, I'd put on some disco mix CD--maybe something with a few Donna Summers tracks on it--take a long and leisurely shower, try on a bunch of outfits just because it was fun to dance in front of the mirror holding up different wardrobe possibilities, then maybe have a pre-dinner aperitif before heading out the door.

This year there would be no Bad Girls or costume changes or glass of Lillet. I was parked on the couch under a red plaid flannel blanket, eating cup after cup of strawberry Jell-O and adding one balled-up tissue after another to the plastic bag by the couch. The cats, no doubt sensing my pathetic-ness, stayed close by. They even made a temporary truce so they could both sit with me--Joey behind my bent knees and Audrey at my feet.

Though this New Year's get-together at my cousins' wasn't the sort of affair where I needed to put on a classic cocktail dress, I pride myself on overdressing for occasions, and I had no intention of showing up in a sweat suit. Progresso Chickarina soup was sounding so much more tempting than shrimp cocktail and Brie en Croute (yes, I was feeling that lousy.)

So Mike and I wished each other a Happy New Year, see you in 2010, and off he went.

There's something nice about being alone indoors on a cold winter's night. It's cozy and warm, you don't have to pile on layer after layer until you're two dress sizes larger than when you started. No need to be witty and gracious despite your Seasonal Affective Disorder, or eat a healthy, balanced dinner when all you want is a pair of English muffins and a handful of Bacis while you watch corny old movies on your new favorite channel, TCM.

Like the first movie I watched, Woman Obsessed, starring Susan Hayward and a very hunky Stephen Boyd. I was slightly disappointed that there were no actual obsessed women in the picture, and there was that preposterous scene at the end with Boyd sinking into mud like it was quick sand before his recalcitrant stepson decides to rescue him with a tree branch. But it was good, clean fun.

Throughout the evening I checked myself for any hint of loneliness or self-pity. Here I was, alone on New Year's, no one to kiss at midnight, etc., etc. I anticipated feeling like the ugly duckling who never got invited to Prom (geez, Jenn, when are you going to let THAT one go?) I imagined grabbing my cell phone and telling my husband I had changed my mind and that he should turn around and come home right away. Or saying hey, I was only testing you when I said you should go without me--and guess what? You failed.

But none of that happened. Instead, I felt happy that both Mike and I were getting what we wanted and that I would be no one's party spoiler. I opened up another cup of Jell-O and settled in to see what was on Pay-per-View. I rented Up, the Pixar movie about the old man in the balloon-propelled house. This was not a night for my usual movie fare--foreign films featuring poor, orphaned, Hindi widows, forced to dance at beer bars in Mumbai to pay for their children's education. I wanted something fun. Up turned out to be the right choice; it even had some tender moments that made me cry--not tears of sadness, but more like life-is-good tears.

And when that movie ended, I turned on a Thin Man marathon on TCM, and watched the always elegant Myrna Loy, with her hat boxes and cute shrugs, trade loving wisecracks with on-screen husband William Powell. I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of Shadow of the Thin Man. When I woke again, it was 1:30AM. 2009 had come and gone.

I was surprised and relieved that I had actually enjoyed my own company. Part of that was offset by the fact that I really wasn't alone. I knew there were people in my life who cared for me. But even if there weren't, even if my feared scenario were to occur and I found myself living alone, small things like not having plans for New Year's Eve wouldn't be the end of the world.

It's OK to be alone sometimes, not going anywhere, not dressing up or dancing or joining a raucous sing-a-long (though there was plenty of that going on in the Thin Man movies--when did people stop gathering around a piano and singing at parties?) Yes, I believe we all need friends in this world, that no man is an island or a rock. But to be alone and peaceful in the moment--that's a gift that doesn't require the right circumstances or the right people to make it happen. You can always carry that with you.

When my husband came home the next day, I sat with my feet in his lap as he told me all about his night and the delicious nibbles he ate and the great conversation he had and the unexpected friends that crashed the party. Then, with eyebrow raised, he commented on the piles of empty Jell-O cups in the sink. I told him I had had a very good night, too.