Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why 'While We're Young' Annoyed Me

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The kernel of sadness in every happy moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Coming back to the present moment

I recently decided to give mindfulness another try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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