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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why Stephen King is My Favorite Undead Author

Last night, as I crawled into bed with a cup of tea and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, the latest tome from my #onetruelove Stephen King, I had not only a wonderful sense of anticipation, but also of serenity.  There are very few things in this world you can count on, but for me, Stephen King is near top of the list; certainly he ranks above death and taxes.  I have often described the experience of reading his books thusly:  it is like going on the perfect vacation with the perfect companion; someone who understands my every mood  and craving and is always entirely in sync with what I want to do, where I want to go and when I want to do all of these things.  TOP THAT, Donna Tartt! 

As I was reading his introduction, I found myself daydreaming about our past history and the many good times we have shared together.  This walk down memory lane prompted me to recall our auspicious introduction:  Thanksgiving weekend, 1979.  Visiting my grandparents for the holiday, the adults safely ensconced in the dining room with drinks and cards, my younger sister and I dared to do something we NEVER would have tried at home (or gotten away with, for that matter)…we tuned in to the premiere of the unforgettable miniseries, “Salem’s Lot”.  I urge you to GO WATCH NOW if you haven’t before you continue reading.

Of course, I had some awareness of King before that moment, due mainly to a contraband, dog-eared copy of The Shining that had made its way around the neighborhood; but I was not a “rule-breaker”  and the consequences of being caught with such a thing would have been too great to risk.  Still, my sister and I huddled in front of the TV that weekend, betting the grown-ups would be only too glad to have us entertained and out of their hair, and not only did that bet pay off, but a lifelong love affair began.  For those of you who would now like to argue about how dated the miniseries has become, or the unworthiness of David Soul in the lead, I have but one response:  any form of entertainment that involves both James Mason and James at 16 is beyond reproach.  ‘Nuff said. 

Upon returning home from that fateful trip, I secured a copy of the novel post-haste and read it as eagerly as one would a secret diary--a glimpse into the mind of this man who seemed to understand me so well.  I was not disappointed (that book remains a favorite to this day) and of course I was impatient for more…in retrospect I realize it was my “gateway drug” to much harder stuff, not only by King but other writers who like to explore the twists and turns of both the human psyche and soul.
Speaking of other writers, I call Stephen King my favorite “undead” author because a) it’s funny and b) there has been one other who captured my heart and imagination with an even slightly more hypnotic pull:  the late, great Dame Iris Murdoch.  Alas, she is no longer undead and therefore no longer working, so Uncle Stevie has taken the crown.  To anyone who is thinking that they are so dissimilar as to compare apples to oranges, I beg to differ:  in my opinion, not only do both feel comfortable exploring the ramifications of the darker aspects of the human condition, they are also both incredibly compassionate about the turmoil we all encounter in our quest to be “good”.  They seem to understand what “struggling with your inner demons” is all about, even if for King it is expressed more metaphorically than in Murdoch’s work.   

People who only know Stephen King by reputation are always amazed when I describe him as an author with great hope.  I think it is a function of his uncanny ability to shine a light into the darkest of dark corners and confront what he finds, come what may.  He is still standing in spite of it—probably because of it—and is so obviously pleased to share what he has learned with his devoted fans.  Stephen King is delighted to entertain us; who could ask for anything more?

I suppose any ode to a writer as prolific as King should include a guide to the best of his best in order to tempt the uninitiated.  I am rolling my eyes as I type that, because to me he is one of those authors who either attracts you like a magnet, or is best left alone.  Does he have books that I consider “stinkers”?  You bet; he wouldn’t be the inexhaustible creator he is if he felt the need to be “perfect” every time.  And with a writer as gifted and thoughtful as he is, I have to imagine that my trash is undoubtedly another reader’s treasure.  How ANY book impacts you has a lot to do with what you are bringing to the table at any given time; something that strikes you as profound at 20 may seem silly at 40, and vice versa. 

But generally speaking, to pick favorites amongst King’s books is akin to picking favorites amongst friends…possible, but not really material.  However, as I began with ‘Salem’s Lot, it might be a good choice for you.  A mythic “boy who cried wolf” theme, the somber precursor to the enchanting “Fright Night”--what would you do if a vampire moved to your neighborhood?  King expands on the concept of children-seeing-the-truth-adults-cannot-accept in IT, a brilliant, epic, can’t-put-down read.  His opus, however, is most likely The Stand, a sprawling post-apocalyptic tale that has been imitated ad naseum, but never rivaled. 

Of his more recent work, I adored 11/22/63 and Joyland, the former being an incomparable treatise on the dangers of woulda-coulda-shoulda and the latter being a joy ride, pure and simple.  We all need rewards that truly motivate us, something to look forward to...for me, just knowing that another Stephen King book is somewhere on the horizon does it.  May my bookshelves forever be clogged with his offerings, because at the end of the day it is one of very few relationships that I have gotten much more out of than I have put into it.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

8 Reasons Why the Holidays Suck/Rock!

Oh, come on, you know they do!  We ALL dread/look forward to the holidays in equal measure.  We really hate/love it when we are reminded to simplify and count our blessings.  We all endure/enjoy the many opportunities for festive socialization at this time of year.  We are usually so exasperated/thrilled by the many gifts we receive that we will then return/cherish.  The holidays are such a hassle/fun time!  So let’s breakdown the 8 main reasons why the holidays suck/rock, shall we?

1)     MONEY.  Oooh, the holidays are so good for bringing out our inner Scrooge, are they not?  How to fit all those gifts we “need” to buy into the monthly budget without racking up credit card debt and/or eating beans the entire month of January to compensate?  It is stressful for everyone except Oprah, whose favorite things list this year included such items as a $98 sweatshirt and $150 makeup brushes.  I’ve got my fingers crossed, Oprah!  ‘Cuz on the other hand…we get gifts, too, and most of us like to use the holidays as our opportunity to treat our loved ones to a little something they would never buy for themselves.  So there is some sweet mutual wish fulfillment that doesn’t happen at any other time of the year.

2)     FOOD.  So much food!  SOOOOOO MUCH FOOOOD!  Everyone says you should never start a diet around the holidays and I completely agree with this; that is just mean.  With the short days and colder temperatures, we are all getting into hibernation mode—moving less, settling in earlier—and when you add all of the delicious treats of the season, we have a recipe for discontent with our waistlines.  On the other hand…the holidays do give us permission to spoil ourselves a little with indulgences we don’t normally enjoy.  I, for one, eat those nut-encrusted cheese balls/logs but once a year, and man, do I look forward to it.  Ditto egg-nog, gingerbread and the giant tins filled with flavored popcorn.  BOO-YA!  SO AWESOME!  It adds a little extra “spice” to the season for me.

3)     PARTIES.  MAN, parties SUCK.  Except when they are totally fun!  I think you all are with me on this one.

4)     FAMILY.  MAN, families SUCK.  Except when they are totally amazing!  Am I right???

5)     MUSIC.  Pop quiz:  what is your personal best record for speed in changing the radio station upon hearing the opening notes of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” (or Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, which I happen to love but I feel you if you don’t)?  My hand can move so fast it’s a blur, practically accomplishing the song change by telekinesis.  Holiday music, by the end of the holidays always, is the definition of PLAYED OUT.  On the other hand…listening to Josh Groban sing “O, Holy Night” always moves me to tears and I love that my 10 year old son knows who Bing Crosby is, all because of “White Christmas”.  The agelessness of holiday music makes it the ultimate time machine, both bringing us back but also allowing us to bring that time back to the future for our kids.

6)     HOLIDAY MOVIES/ SPECIALS.  HOLY WOW is Santa a NIGHTMARE in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer!  Actually, the whole gang at the North Pole has clearly watched Mean Girls one too many times; what a judgmental, excluding, no-healthy boundaries group they are.  Home Alone treats your child to fear of home invasion, excessive violence and confirmation that Santa doesn’t actually come if your folks aren’t home.  Ouch.  The Little Drummer Boy opens with the murder of his parents; that’s always a good way to get a kid’s attention.  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas brings back Rudolph’s twitchy Santa; this time he stands ready and willing to punish an entire town because ONE MOUSE doesn’t believe in him.  What a jerk!  On the other hand…I LOVE EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM!!!!

7)     THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS.  Man, the war on Christmas is RELENTLESS!!!  Starbucks turning from the teachings of Christ with those blasphemous red cups, “holiday” trees, being forced to be multi-culturally sensitive, IT SUCKS!!!  On the other hand…Ha, ha, ha, I’m totally kidding.! There is no “war on Christmas”.  It’s just something rational people can have a good laugh over.

8)     THE SALVATION ARMY What in the world makes you feel worse than walking by one of those poor souls standing in the freezing cold in front of your grocery store ringing that stupid little bell without putting something into the bucket?  NOT MUCH, if you are anything like me.  The holidays are a time, as I mentioned earlier, where money tends to be a little tight for people who are not Oprah, so some days our inner Grinch does not have a DIME to spare, buddy.  And how about the soup kitchens that need extra help when you are already running around like a chicken with your head cut off and the food pantries trying to provide a decent holiday meal for needy families?  You could die of the guilt, I swear, especially as you are already spending a lot of money on stuff that some might consider “frivolous”.  On the other hand…do you have any idea how damn good you are going to feel if you do put some change into the bucket?  Or volunteer at the soup kitchen?  Or drop off supplies to the food pantry?  That is pretty much the definition of holiday cheer, my friends.  That is the kind of stuff that makes your heart grow 3 sizes that day, in Grinch vernacular.
The holidays are so tiring/invigorating in these and many other ways!  And my wish for you is that your holidays ROCK 8 times more than they SUCK.  You know you deserve it!

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Monday, December 7, 2015

WHY PRAYER WON'T HELP

I believe in God.  There, I said it!  A lot of people, especially really smart people, inwardly cringe when they hear this sort of thing.  They start thinking about the kind of person who took “go forth and be fruitful” very literally and is now raising an unimaginable brood of home schooled tots.  They worry about the sort of people who pick and choose their bible passages very carefully in order to feel justified in damning homosexuals.  If they are of a global mind, especially since the turn of the century, they consider the sort of individual who embarks on a suicide mission that takes innocent lives in order to reach some sort of promised afterlife.  It is fashionable to be agnostic because who the heck knows, really?  Well, I’m telling you right now:  I do.

I don’t consider my belief in God a matter of faith.  In my experience, God is as real as anything in this world; God is reality, in fact.  God is literature and art and nature and film and science and math and the ocean and the sky and the earth and humanity.  God is everything, all the time and above all, God is love.  Love is more than how we feel about each other.  It is a force field that heals, moves, creates, protects, transforms and transcends.  And God loves you, even those of you who are sniggering at these words.  Perhaps He loves you best, because God is humor and has certainly enjoyed a good laugh at my expense from time to time.  So believe, or laugh, or mock, or know, because it is all the same.  We came from the same place and we all will go back there.  From God, back to God.

Phew, I feel better getting that off of my chest.  Because now we can talk about something that is important to all of us, regardless of faith or lack thereof:  why a moment of prayer, or a day of prayer, or even a month of prayer is very little help.  Wait a minute, that sounds like I am still talking about God!  But actually I am talking about politics.  Personal, national and global politics.  I think the agnostics are with me now, but let me further clarify for the rest of you…much has been made in recent days, years perhaps, of public prayer and calls for prayer.  And in spite of the fact that the United States of America was founded for the express purpose of religious freedom, somehow our most fundamental reason for being has become lost in a sea of angry rhetoric.  Oh, the irony!
The recent rash of heart-breaking violence both in the United States and abroad has brought prayer and religious intolerance to the forefront of many people’s minds.  Much has been made of our knee-jerk tendency to lump all Muslims with extremist terrorists while parsing out violent Christian “activism” as a handful of right wing nut-jobs.  The obvious truth is that any cause, whether personal, political or religious, can be taken to unhealthy extremes.  But the real disease starts when people judge an entire group by its radical fringe elements.  That is like killing someone because they have cancer of the pinky toe—how do you justify it?  Even if you are the sort of person who insists on living this kind of lie, focusing on the minutia of evil instead embracing the enormity of good, at the end of the day that is your choice and too damn bad for you.  Because this is the United States of America and I might have mentioned we were founded for the EXPRESS purpose of RELIGIOUS freedom so you theoretically have NO choice but to LET IT BE.  Or buy an island somewhere and hole up with a bunch of your intolerant, miserable friends. And your guns.

And so here lies the real issue facing America today:  the question is not one of prayers, but of law.  Our laws guarantee freedom of religion but also the “right” to bear arms.  And just like typically religious people don’t consider murder a solution, typical gun owners don’t either.  But we have a logic disconnect—the “guns don’t kill people” argument.  Prayer doesn’t kill people, not even in the hands of the most fanatical, lunatic extremist.  But guns do.  Guns even kill people when they are accidentally mishandled by a seasoned pro or sometimes an innocent child.  Guns kill people in the heat of argument or in a moment of panic or fear.   Current statistics tell us that on average, 31 Americans are murdered with guns EVERY DAY and 151 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room; 55 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 46 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.  The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.  By all measurable standards known to mankind, the casualty rate for prayer is thus far zero. Can prayer prevent gun violence?  Only insofar as it inspires us to take action.  Because laws can prevent gun violence and so common sense mandates this is the tool we should be utilizing in our current crisis.
Now I return to the subject of God.  No religion, person or country has a monopoly on the Divine; it is the simple fact of all of creation.  “God” is our call to share this planet in the highest spirit of cooperation and symbiosis.  What God is NOT is an excuse for marginalization, prejudice, hate and violence.  God is not something “out there” to be worshipped and feared; the inherent flaw in worshiping anything is that takes away your power and puts it into the hands of the concept/thing/person you worship.  This is why prayer is NOT the answer; WE ARE.  We are called act upon the wisdom of the ages—love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have it done unto you.  God is only a helpful construct insofar as you choose to take responsibility for ALL of your neighbors, your global family.  We need to act while the sickness is still in the pinky toe.  If we work together as one body, our health will be guaranteed.  Divided by “prayer”, alone with our thoughts of separateness, we allow the cancer to spread.  Let us stand united and take steps to diminish threats through every channel available.  You can pray, but don’t sit still while you are doing it.  Our right action is the answer to everyone’s prayer.

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Why It's a Wonderful Life (Revisited)

As far as holiday traditions go, spending time with family and watching the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” have got to be fairly ubiquitous; there’s nothing like kin in close quarters to inspire in us a need to be uplifted!  Ha.  My family, like many others I know, boasts a wide variety of political views, which makes for spicy conversation.  Personally, I think a wide variety of political views is a hallmark of great parenting; if all the kids grow up to have the exact same belief system, I think that’s something called “brainwashing”, right?  Anyhow, this Thanksgiving the “spicy” topic of Donald Trump came up, no surprise as there is no escaping the man, even at your own kitchen table. 

Turns out, the view that Donald Trump is nuts was the consensus from both sides of the aisle.  The possibility that it is actually his intention to undermine the Republican Party by making them look like a bunch of intolerant extremists was floated without argument.  The only point of contention that arose, in fact, was when the opinion that Bernie Sanders is also “crazy” was introduced.  My reaction was: when did having high-minded ideals and dreams of a strong and thriving middle class become a “pie-in-the-sky” proposition in this country?  With Donald Trump doing well in the polls, I have to ask:  when did the paradigm shift happen that allowed so many people to start rooting for Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey?

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” (????) George Bailey is the hero, a man who sacrifices his dreams to run a family building and loan company, the only thing standing between the middle class families of his town and a selfish, greedy miser named Mr. Potter.  Because Bailey Building & Loan is cutting into his bottom line, Mr. Potter tries to lure George away from his humble life with grandiose promises of wealth and freedom from the weight of what George sees as his moral responsibility to his fellow man. 

He tells George, “We’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning!”  Oh wait, no…Donald Trump said that.  What Mr. Potter said was, “You wouldn't mind living in the nicest house in town. Buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, going to New York on a business trip a couple of times a year. ..”  George’s response to this offer is unselfish and wise: “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money.  Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter!”  Donald Trump has said, “I’m really rich. And by the way, I’m not saying that in a bragging way, that’s the kind of mindset you need for this country.”  Lionel Barrymore, who plays Mr. Potter, even scrunches up his face into the same weird scowl Trump does.  Role model alert!
The crux of the conflict between Mr. Potter and George is that Mr. Potter believes that giving the middle class a break will result in “a discontented, lazy rabble”.  Donald Trump has said, “If you're interested in 'balancing' work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.”  But Americans work longer hours for lower wages, take less vacations and retire later than the citizens of any other developed country on earth.  Do you supposed the burn-out and discouragement the middle class is feeling right now might best be solved by “whistling while we work”?  Bernie Sanders thinks that raising the minimum wage might actually be somewhat more helpful.  He has said, “In the year 2015, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” 

Does that really seem like a crazy ideal?  In the movie, the first time Mr. Potter tries to shut down Bailey Building & Loan, George is incredulous that the man is actually against his Father’s goal of helping middle class families realize their dream of home ownership:  “Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers?” he asks.  Donald Trump says “having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country” and has no plans to raise it.  Do you want to know who having a low minimum wage is great for?  Corporations and businesspeople like Trump that can increase their wealth on the backs of men and women living in poverty.  Is this the wonderful life we dreamed of as Americans?

The climax of the clash between George’s high ideals and Mr. Potter’s self-interest comes when George’s forgetful Uncle Billy loses an $8,000 bank deposit, effectively destroying the business that both George and his Father fought so long and hard to maintain.  When Mr. Potter swoops in like the vulture that he is, the people of the community rally behind George; everyone contributes as they can to save the day.  Oooh, that sounds a little socialist, doesn’t it?  Bernie Sanders calls himself a “Democratic Socialist” saying that it means “We must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy”.  He proposes universal healthcare and free college tuition, things that are working in other thriving societies like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. 

Here’s the question we should be asking ourselves:  if we have successful working models in wealthy countries of Democratic Socialism, what exactly is our objection to it?  Are we afraid we’ll have so much winning we’ll get bored with winning?  Why are we so moved when everyone contributes what they can to save George (and their town, btw) but so offended by the idea that the rich can afford to pitch in more to save their fellow citizens (and country, btw).  Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well, that is just a movie and this is real life!”  And I will say to you, why can’t real life be wonderful too?  Not just for those from privileged backgrounds, but for all of us?  Why is a man who keeps the $8,000 he doesn’t need that would save his neighbor a villain in a movie, but a contending Presidential candidate in real life? 

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why You Need to Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I took a plane trip with my son earlier this year and had to listen to the steward(ess) spiel like 14,000 times (4) about how we need to put our own oxygen mask on before helping others, even our children.  I’m not the first person to recognize this as profound life advice, even if I don’t always take it.  I, like a lot of people, often find myself rushing about in a literally breathless way; heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my body…and this is at the grocery store. 

Some days I feel like I have that hour glass from The Wizard of Oz running in my head; like Dorothy, I’m not 100% sure what is going to happen when the sand runs out, but I sure as hell know it’s nothing good.  When I lived in L.A., I started thinking of this internal pressure as “the fake deadline” (L.A., the official home of the fake deadline!)… and I recognized my belief that if I completed everything in accordance with the fake deadline I had myself imposed, people would love and appreciate me for it. 

Only it turned out, not so much.  People can hardly feel appreciation for a standard they were unaware of; and more importantly, people rarely love you because of what you do.  They almost always love you for who you are.

This is why it is so critical that you know who that is…all of it, the beautiful and the mundane, the sacred and the profane.  We are all a crazy mixed up stew of every imaginable thing, and all of it is incredibly important and all of it should be honored.  A true friend is like an oxygen mask for your soul.  The powerful experience of mutual selection—I dig you, you dig me—is alchemy.  We are transformed by the acceptance and support of our friends, and the oxygen flows freely.  But how many circumstances do we allow in our lives that pinch us off from that vital current? 

And how many situations do we create where we are so busy tending to the needs of others that our needs get forgotten entirely?  So often our work, our commitments, even our families keep us from nurturing ourselves, from stopping to take a breath.  We forget to put on our own oxygen mask first; then, we blame our circumstances and relationships for not giving us room to breathe.  It is easy to forget that give and take is the nature of any healthy relationship, personal or professional. When we are so driven by our deadlines, fake and otherwise, that we deprive others of their opportunity to express themselves generously to us, we are pinching off oxygen to that connection.  We are disallowing the flow.
In great relationships, we meet others exactly where they are and that favor is returned.  We meet in despair, joy, silliness, anger; we bring our gifts to the table and accept and allow others to do the same.  We need not sacrifice our morals or beliefs or eccentricities or sense of humor or insecurities or vulnerability because they are met with understanding and compassion.   Whenever I am in a situation with true connection, my heart stops racing, the adrenaline stops coursing, my breathing is regular; I am allowed to just be myself. 

Unfortunately, most of us are taught from an early age that obedience is more important than self-expression, and this becomes our way of life.  Whenever I have a friend who describes one of their children as “willful” or “sassy” or “headstrong” I say GOOD.  I don’t consider “compliant” to be much of a compliment.  Too many of us were squashed for being outspoken, “inappropriately” curious, even for being creative.  We forget who we are and only remember who we are "supposed" to be.  Our friends provide us with the gentle and continual reminder that we are okay AS IS.  Our friends remind us to breathe.

Now the challenge I face (and I have a sneaking suspicion I am not the only one) is can I cultivate daily this same kind of relationship with myself?  There is a famous quote that reminds us “Well-behaved women seldom make history”; it makes me wonder if we can successfully learn to live without our “shoulds”?  Can we live unapologetically and without regrets?  When we find ourselves in a situation or relationship that pinches us off from our flow, will we be brave enough to take a stand, make a change, risk disapproval for our “disobedience”? 

One thing I have come to understand quite plainly is that NO MATTER WHAT I DO, there are always going to be some people who love me, some people who hate me, some people who simply feel irritated by me and some people who DO NOT EVEN NOTICE ME.  I love that!  I am the burr under one guy’s saddle and as invisible as a ghost to the next.  I don’t get to pick and choose; I just express myself and let the chips fall.  I have learned to trust rejection, even though it rarely feels good; as André Gide wrote, “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” 

When we choose to be true to ourselves, life never ceases to be interesting; it never ceases to be vibrant.  Make sure your own needs are met so you can fully attend to the people you care about without gasping for breath.  Always remember to put on your own oxygen mask first; it can save your life.

 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

When my husband and I lived in New York, the little boy across the street from us often played alone in his yard.  Because of a hedgerow, he could not see when I had come out my front door, so I frequently had the pleasure of observing him while he thought he was alone.  I got to witness him saving the world on more than one occasion; but more often than not he was simply making the winning play for his team.  Any time he became aware of me he would immediately freeze and wait until he was sure I was out of earshot to resume his play. 

You know what?  I think most of us are a lot like that little boy—we hide our heroics from the world because we are afraid they will not be taken seriously; or worse yet, they will be ridiculed.  We are afraid the world will not reflect back our magnificence, so rather than take that chance we hide it, minimize it, or worst of all stop believing in it ourselves.  But because it is still inside of us and yearning to break out, we start noticing OTHER people’s magnificence…and perhaps resent it.  Why do THEY get to shine while I have to hide my light?  Why do they have so much when I have so little?  Instead of rejoicing at the success and beauty and talent and power of others, we belittle it.  Because we don’t realize that we can only see what is already inside of us, we disown these parts of ourselves.

William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote, “Life is a mirror: if you frown at it, it frowns back; if you smile, it returns the greeting.”   Over the course of my life, I have heard many versions of this same sentiment, but none as clear and direct as that.  Yet as many times as I have heard it, it is sometimes very difficult to remember on days when life is not smiling back at me; the cause-and-effect relationship somehow gets muddled in my mind.  The mirror of life is not unlike our vanity mirrors:  when we don’t like the reflection we see, it is hard to take responsibility for it. 

Whenever I am going through a tough time and feel that life is frowning at me, it is very tempting to claim to be a victim of my circumstances.  But as the late Wayne Dyer once brilliantly put it, when you squeeze an orange you are always going to get orange juice because that is what’s inside…so when life squeezes you, what comes out is always what you have got on the inside as well.  Life is a mirror, reflecting back to us our beliefs and current internal state…the good news and the bad news is that what this means is that objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear.
Do you remember the old Peanuts cartoon where Linus lamented “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand”?  I have always said that I am the opposite:  I LOVE people, it’s mankind that gets me down.  As a species, humans have done some incredibly despicable things; however as individuals, I find most people to be essentially good at heart and deserving of love.  I make a concerted effort not to vilify people for being “wrong”, because “wrong” and “bad” are two different things. 

I have often been called naïve for my belief in our intrinsic goodness.  Years ago I was working at a job where another employee was let go for some kind of misconduct; we were all called into a meeting and told to avoid contact with this person due to the perceived severity of the breach.  At the end of the session one of my co-workers taunted me: “But she was such a NICE person, right, Kara?  Such a good person?” 

Until that moment, I didn’t really know that I was regarded as such a Pollyanna.  But I wasn’t hurt by teasing; as Frederic Brown wrote, “When you look at anything, you know what you're seeing? Yourself. A thing can only look beautiful or romantic or inspiring if the beauty or romance or inspiration is inside you.”  We see ourselves in the mirror.  I thought it was a very encouraging sign that what I saw in others was largely decency.

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.  When you look at the world, you are not seeing something separate and disconnected from who you are; we are combined with what we notice.  Our beliefs serve as a filter through which everything gets sorted; this is why the expression “the rich get richer” and others like it are so steadfastly true.  When you look at someone rich, beautiful, talented, successful and say “I could never be those things” you are forgetting the essential truth that you cannot recognize what you are not.  

When you look at something and name it bad, you are not understanding that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.  If you can see it, you can be it:  good, bad and indifferent.  Whenever someone is pushing my buttons and I am wanting to lay the blame on them for what is coming out of me as a result, I sort through all the labels I want to call them…selfish…apathetic…thoughtless…cruel…and then I lay claim to those labels myself.  If I see it in the other person, I must have it in me.  And this is true of the good I see in other people as well.  If I see it “out there”, then I have to recognize that I’m “all that” too; I take responsibility for the mirror and the reflection starts to shift.  When I accept the truth that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, I can forgive others for their missteps, because I need to be forgiven for mine.   The mirror shows you only what you want to see; so look for love and tolerance, and that is what you will reflect back to the world.

 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WHY YOU CAN'T HEAR ME NOW

Remember those ads with the dorky guy who bragged about his superior cell phone coverage by repeatedly asking “Can you hear me now?”  Like an OCD town crier from days of yore, he wanted to make sure we all got the message, loud and clear…in fact, thinking about that ad campaign hearkens back to a time when we were all actually using our phones to make phone calls!  Isn’t THAT a blast from the past?  So who wants to read one more article about how “we are all just a society of hunchbacked tech obsessors and life is passing us by”?  Not my friend Cynthia, that is for sure.  That’s her quote, btw, and the point she was making in the rather epic rant that followed is that technology is the symptom, not the problem.  Civilized, engaged people do not spend most of their time hunched over a phone…they make eye contact, enjoy experiencing the world rather than instagramming it and don’t jump like Pavlov’s dog every time their phone dings, right?  Right?  Well... yes and no.   I’m the first to admit that before I was on Facebook, I didn’t have a freaking clue what all of you were doing on your phones all the time.  Now I find myself picking up my phone whenever I am antsy—waiting for my son outside of school, sitting in traffic—and it’s also the first thing I do at the end of any phone-less activity, like yoga class. I used to check my phone only periodically to see if the school had called or whatever, but now, not unlike that Verizon spokesperson, I’ve become a little OCD in my relationship with my phone.

I used to joke back when my dog was still able to walk with me that she was my “beard”, to mask the fact that I am a compulsive exerciser.  Instead of looking like a nut, I looked like a responsible pet owner!   I think maybe some of us may have developed a bit of a “beard relationship” with our phones as well.  It can be awkward just sitting somewhere waiting, or yes, sometimes even being in a social situation where we don’t feel 100% comfortable…the phone makes us look (we hope) like we’ve got things to do, people to see, deadlines to meet…the phone makes us look like we are not lonely.  We hope.  Like Linus with his security blanket, we keep our phone close by to protect us from feeling awkward or at sea or DISCONNECTED.  Of course, the irony of that is, the more we engage with our phones rather than the world around us, the more disconnected we become.   The movie WALL-E portrayed our descendants as a super obese race, riding around on hovering chairs that give them a constant feed of TV and video chatting.  This does not strike me as entirely unrealistic, unfortunately.  However, the thing that doesn’t ring true about it goes back to my friend’s point…this is NOT a one-size-fits-all dilemma.  There will always be people who remain fit, engaged and proactive…and there will always be people who go down the slippery slope.  Is technology a Darwinian device in the end?
25 years ago, before the internet and cell phones, I used to work as a waitress in New York City.  I would sometimes observe people sitting across the table from each other not talking at all.  It fascinated me; of course, now that I have been married 17 years myself, it doesn’t seem so strange.  But remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally when they see each other for the first time after sleeping together and the silence is so awkward and deafening; then Harry says, “It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk. Hm?”  Ha!  Of course it is wonderful that in many of our long term relationships comfortable silence can become part of the landscape; those are the people whose company I jokingly refer to as “like being alone.  Only better.”  But one of the biggest shifts that has happened in my lifetime in terms of not only social engagement but also just day-to-day operations is that we have grown much less comfortable with silence, downtime and pauses.  We need to fill in all of the blank spaces, always be doing, doing, doing…this need for constant engagement has caused us to plug into the constant availability of technology.   Ironically again, that continual feedback ultimately has the effect of not only disengaging us from those around us, but also from ourselves.  It makes it harder to hear that “still, small voice”, harder to trust our instincts, more difficult to be in tune with our own intuition.

Of course, one of the main points my friend wanted to make is that when you are in a social situation staring at your phone you are just being rude and disrespectful, period.  This is absolutely true.  Generally speaking, technology isn’t going to make a kind and respectful person behave otherwise.  Today I had a car speed up behind me until he was practically on my bumper and as I pulled over to allow him by, I saw that he was in fact texting in addition to speeding.  He was going too fast for me to see if there was an open container as well, ha.  But this goes back to the Darwinian aspect of the tech revolution.  Just like drinking alcohol doesn’t make you an alcoholic, using technology does not make you one of the “hunchbacks” as Cynthia put it.  But again, as with alcohol, some people are more predisposed than others to go down that slippery slope.  As a writer, it is my bread and butter to be able to tune into my internal voice without being constantly distracted by the voices without.  Above all I need to trust my instincts more than my “likes”, if you know what I mean.   And I do think that this is what it boils down to:  if you need ceaseless validating feedback, you have lost your way.   Can you hear me now?   Technology has become a surrogate for self-worth, self-trust.   Technology IS the symptom…the disease is self-doubt.  Rumi, who knew nothing of Facebook, still managed to have some beautiful advice on this point:  "Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”   Our story is grown from the inside out, not the other way around.  And when we can hear ourselves, we have all the feedback we need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why I Don't Know What I Am Talking About

When I was a kid, almost all of the grown-ups I knew were total pros.  At being grown-up, I mean.  My parents, my grandparents, most of my Aunts and Uncles (sorry, Uncle Pat) were just very polished, reassuring, well-formed adults.  I felt confident that they both knew what they were talking about and also knew how to take care of things. 

They solved problems and fixed what was broken with deft assurance; they meted out approval and punishment with a fair and even hand.  In short, they REALLY seemed like they knew what they were doing virtually all the time.  They made me feel safe and relatively care-free.  What did I have to worry about?  The grown-ups would take care of EVERYTHING. 

But now that I am a grown-up I find that more often than not when people are looking to me for answers or to take care of something, I just want to throw my hands up and run screaming from the room.  Or go into a whole “Are you lookin’ at ME?” routine.  Because now that I am the grown-up, most of the time the only thing I feel totally confident in is the fact that I don’t know what I am talking about.

I remember so vividly my mother telling me when my Grandfather died, “You don’t really become a grown-up until you lose a parent.”  At the time I couldn’t understand what she meant, especially as she was the hyper-competent parent of 4 kids, and was even a grandparent herself!  But what she said stuck in my head and came back around when my own father died. 

It’s true; as long as your parents are alive there is some part of your brain that defers to them.  Also that same part of your brain counts on them to figure things out when you just can’t even.  “I’ll ask Mom and Dad, they will know what to do” is the subtext of your life, so you never really feel like you are 100% operating on your own steam.  At least I didn’t. 

Now that I know I am definitely the one in charge, I find myself compartmentalizing the things I feel I CAN handle and the things I feel 100% certain I am whiffing entirely.  Some things, like doing our taxes, cause me to compartmentalize so much that I enter a sort of fugue state of denial.  Every year when the dust settles and I realize I have actually managed to file the taxes ON TIME again, I feel jubilation.  But never confidence that NEXT year it will be a breeze.
I am a person well-known for my ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, any time.  Seriously, I practically get into conversations with strangers while we are sitting in traffic together—“Sir, if you could just roll down your window for a moment…?”  But this should not fool you into thinking that I know what I am talking about. 

In spite of my gift of gab I have come to accept that most of the time I will have little to no recollection of what I said, just what the OTHER person said.  Yes, I am clinically curious.  But I am also hopeful that you DO know what you are talking about; I will ask questions until you walk away or take out a restraining order. 

So the other day I was picking up my son at his new school and all the other parents were kind of congregated in a courtyard chatting away and all I could think was “They really look like they know what they are talking about.”  Of course they all know each other and I am the newbie, but for a moment I felt like a child again in a world of mysterious, competent adults.  THEY all know what they are doing while I am just winging it and hoping for the best.  I didn’t get out of the car.

One of the many things I admire about my young son is that he is absolutely at home in himself.  I do think this is partly a function of being an only child—no siblings to torment, tease and undermine him—but it is also quite naturally who he is.  Even when other children have teased him, he just didn’t get it. 

One day when he was a toddler, we were at the park and he was trying to engage two much older boys in play; they were having none of it, and invented a game called “Keep away from the monster” with my baby in the role of monster.  But he just kept chasing after them yelling, “Guys!  Guys…I’m not really a monster!”  Eventually he wore them down and they played with him. His lack of shame, his confidence to pursue what interests him is awe-inspiring.  Some days I think he is a better grown-up at 10 then I will ever be.  But he has a tool in his arsenal that most of us lose as we age:  the unabashed ability to say “I don’t know”.
I think this may be what it boils down to, in fact.  When we are children we are not expected to know everything or to be able to do everything, so we are free to admit ignorance and ask for help or more information.  But slowly, as we grow, we experience more feedback of the “you figure it out yourself” or “I can’t believe you don’t know that” ilk.  So we become ASHAMED of not knowing.  We fake it, or just don’t say anything…our natural curiosity gets squashed; avoiding embarrassment becomes more important than knowing the answers. 

I’m always amazed at how children will tackle new crafts and projects with gusto—it never occurs to them that they don’t actually know what they are doing and we all have the hilarious and endearing arts and crafts “fails” on our mantle to prove it.   Children are always proud of their creations because they were conceived with enthusiasm.  As adults we have a hard time embracing any new thing or situation where we don’t feel we have a kind of mastery.  We carefully construct a life to hide or minimize our “deficits” while highlighting our strengths.  We shut down to possibilities because to embrace them we would have to risk looking foolish or worse yet, FAILING.

Alice Walker has the best quote on this topic:  “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.”  I love this because it makes me feel like all of my blabbering and clownish flailing is perhaps a righteous path after all.  That my willingness to admit that I don’t know what I am talking about might actually be a strength? 

I have for years announced to anyone who would listen that I have embraced my mediocrities and feel my life is much the better for it.  While my parents were omnipotent, indefatigable gods to me, my son laughs riotously at my sometimes short fuse and has asked me on numerous occasions in the car, “Mom are you lost?  Again?” 

Yes, baby…I am lost.  Again.  And not for the last time, either.  But if you always know where you are going, haven’t you lost a piece of yourself?  The adventurer, the explorer, the seeker who does not have all the answers but is open to the new, the different, and challenges?  So don’t ever be fooled:  I am not a professional grown-up, despite any appearance to the contrary.

Then again, maybe more people feel the same way that I do than they care to admit?  But probably not, because I don’t know what I am talking about.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

WHY HALLOWEEN IS GRINCH NIGHT

Last November, my son and I happened upon a VHS copy of Halloween is Grinch Night at our church holiday bazaar; being the only human left in possession of a working VCR, I figured it was destiny.  For those of you not familiar with this 1977 Emmy Award winning holiday classic, it is a musical special once again featuring the town of Whoville and the ill-temper of the Grinch; all you REALLY need to know is that Dr. Seuss wrote it.  If you are not sold on this fact alone, I suggest you have your heart examined, because there is an excellent chance it is two sizes too small. 

In spite of the title, its connection to Halloween is thematic only; this may or may not be the reason it “never caught on” and is now nowhere to be found in any televised rotation.  Any-who, we all enjoyed it and have decided that as long as our VCR holds out, it will become one of our Halloween month traditions, along with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (featuring the vocal stylings of Bing Crosby!  Swoon!).  Revisiting all of these childhood memories, most especially the Grinch, makes me reflect on how the evolution of this holiday speaks to a larger thematic shift about how we approach life that has happened over the last 30 years.

A-way back in the 1970’s Halloween meant a lot of awesome homemade treats…popcorn balls, Rice Krispy bars, caramel and candied apples…of course, a-way back in the 1970’s, your neighbors were also your friends.  Costumes were mostly homemade too and my mother was handy with a sewing machine, lucky me; she made me amazing Cinderella, Bat Girl, Raggedy Ann and Princess Leia costumes. 

One year I had the thrill of selecting a STORE BOUGHT costume…mad with power, I wandered the aisles of Hills department store, looking at the endless selection of masks peering out of those neat square boxes.  So hard to pick one, but my ultimate choice was “Jeannie”, as in “I Dream of”; a Barbara Eden Mask, a vest and Harem pants!  Junk compared to what Mom made, but treasured all the same.  My friends and I ran the streets of the neighborhood alone, no parental mascot and no thoughts of pranks or “tricks”…that was something “bad” kids did.  Halloween decorations were die-cuts and jack o’lanterns…no animatronic zombies or graveyards.  Halloween was a simple, but satisfying affair.  A night of freedom, make-believe and sugar!  Ah, bliss!
It is interesting to read about the origins of this holiday, because basically they boil down to superstitions and fear-driven behaviors.  Unfortunately, that is the slow tide we have watched returning over the course of my lifetime.  For example: every child of my era remembers why the home made treats stopped:  RAZOR BLADES IN APPLES!  Except…turns out, that wasn’t so much true.  And remember how our parents used to examine our candy to make sure it hadn’t been tampered with?  Fact is, an in depth study has revealed that there has NEVER been a confirmed case of a child dying as a result of candy being poisoned or otherwise tampered with by a stranger. 

That last word has significance, of course.  Let’s just say “strangers” have not been the problem and leave it at that.  As for the “razor blades”, the first known confirmed case of a person intentionally giving out candy with sharp objects embedded to random children didn’t happen until the year 2000.  So why did this fear become so prevalent?  Turns out, a media promoted “culture of fear” was already in bloom.  In fact, the New York freakin’ Times published a report in the 70’s that said  “Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend… may bring them more horror than happiness,” and proceeded to tell parents all the ways candy could potentially be messed with, even though there had never been an instance of it actually happening at the time.  AHEM.  Pretty darn Grinchy!

A fun fact about the origins of Halloween costumes:  they were intended as a defensive device.  The long hours of darkness, in those superstitious times, meant a greater chance of confrontation with evil spirits; the costumes were an attempt to “trick” the demons into believing we were one of them.  The more terrifying the costume, the better!  So when did we start being “offended” by Halloween costumes?  I date that back to the early 2000’s, when the Wiccan religion got a lot of press because they seemed to be quite suddenly upset by traditional witch costumes. 

But when I researched it, I could only find one incidence—a school district in the Seattle area banned the pointy noses and hats—and only one network that kept the coverage about it alive.  Oh, our good friends at FOX NEWS!  If there is some way to take offense or marginalize a group they have deemed as “other”, they just cannot resist!  People got whipped up about the Wiccans trying to spoil our good time, and because there is always an equal and opposite reaction, at least according to laws of physics, deliberately “offensive” costumes became more prevalent (and frankly MUCH more in keeping with the original intent—would a Disney Princess scare an evil spirit???  DON’T ANSWER THAT!)  Anyhow, now we are pretty Grinchy about costumes, too.
Let’s not forget how food allergies and sensitivities have impacted us, as well…a quick Google search tells me that no child has died as a result of an allergic reaction to a holiday treat, but it is something we all have a very heightened awareness of now, most especially when it comes to Halloween parties and anything that happens in school.  If you search the internet you’ll find stories about counties and cities banning Halloween, putting a curfew as to how late kids can be out, and even putting an age cap saying that 14 years old is too old for trick-or-treating.  Excuse me?  If I buy the candy, it should be MY decision how old is “too old” and when I turn out my lights. 

The only restriction I place on who gets candy at my house is this:  if you show up without a costume, you better have a darn good reason (or think of something funny to say about what you ARE wearing), else I send you away empty handed.  Teen-agers in my neighborhood will confirm this has happened; however, teen-agers in my neighborhood by and large come up with AWESOME costumes, so it is not an epidemic.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that trick-or-treating may be a dying art, as parents forego its “dangers” for “safer” parties.   The fear based media has taught us to be afraid of Halloween for all the wrong reasons; the consumerism machine then swooped in to make Halloween an expensive holiday to celebrate.  Doesn’t this sound like what has happened to a lot of aspects of life?

In Halloween Is Grinch Night, a child confronts society’s worst fears and saves the day. If I could boil the lesson down to one sentence, it would be this:  when we are brave enough to face our fears we see that we are equal to them; not only because of our courage, but also because in MOST cases, they have been greatly exaggerated.  I guess the point I am making is that on Halloween, as well as in life, we are being trained to return to our superstitious, fear-based roots.   The media told us not to trust strangers on Halloween, even though there was NO REASON for it…doesn’t THAT sound familiar? 

The media told us a nonmainstream religion wanted to spoil our good time and “ruin” our values…and doesn’t THAT sound familiar too?  The local government told us that THEY would be making decisions for how and when we celebrate this totally innocuous event…sadly, that is starting to be something we accept as well.  We are being told to distrust others, fear cultures that are not our own and submit to the will of “greater”authorities even though there is little or no evidence as to why any of it should be so.   If we could choose to trust each other more, be more inclusive, less offended and STOP trying to legislate and micromanage people’s lives, I think we would all be having a lot more fun.  Not just on Halloween, either.