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Monday, March 30, 2015

WHY I AM GLAD I'M OLD

Damn, I am glad I’m old.  Not something you hear every day I am sure, but do not for a second question my sincerity in this.  I was born in 1967, and while this technically only qualifies me as chronologically “middle aged”, I am still the oldest old person I know.  I just read a great human interest piece about a saucy broad named Elizabeth Sullivan, who claims she has lived to the ripe old age of 100 and freakin’ 4 by drinking Dr. Pepper every single day.  Check it:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/19/elizabeth-sullivan-dr-pepper_n_6907106.html  I also drink Dr. Pepper every day, but got a strong sense that Elizabeth could kick my ass, no problem.  Hopefully that won’t come up.  I could always distract her with the offer of a cool, refreshing Dr. Pepper if need be.  Elizabeth says she enjoys being old, and so do I.  Just another thing we saucy broads have in common.  I enjoy being old because I can be the cantankerous hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn-and-turn-your-music-down-old-bat I was born to be.  I can eschew technology, claim ignorance of all things Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and put the word “the” in front of things I want to demean, as in “the Facebook”, “the reality TV” and “the Donald”.  I can ignore the existence of social media, refuse to use a GPS and not answer a text for hours because I almost never check my phone.  I am old, and it is my best excuse to be me.

I am the first to admit I don’t have a freaking clue what all of you are doing on your phones all the time.  I check my phone periodically throughout the day to see if the school has called or whatever, but when I am sitting in a waiting room or in traffic or eating out at a restaurant watching all my fellow wait-ers, drivers and eaters stare down at their phones, all I can think is “WTF are they looking at?”  Seriously, somebody tell me because I am genuinely curious.  I think of myself as a person with a lot of friends and I absolutely adore them all, but I need be in daily (or hourly) contact with none of them.  I love to make plans to get together and then, if there is traffic on the way, texting is a great way to let them know I will be late.  Or if I’m at the store and my husband thinks of something he needs, he can text me and that is great too.  What the hell are the rest of you texting about all the time?  I am obviously a person who has a lead ton to say on every subject imaginable, but very nearly all of it can wait until we talk again.  I think this is why people at social gatherings don’t talk any more.  They are staring at their phones because they have already texted (or posted on the Facebook) every miniscule detail of every aspect of their lives so there is nothing left to say.  I never have that problem.
I really have no understanding whatsoever of the Snapchat, the Instagram, the Pinterest and whatever else it is you all are doing on the internet these days.  I would ask someone to explain it to me, but I feel it would go down very much like the time I asked a child who was obsessed with the Pokemon to explain the Pokemon to me.  I got absolutely no clarity from the explanation and I think I accidentally killed the kid’s passion when he realized he didn’t really understand the Pokemon himself.  Video games are also a mystery to me.  I, like most people of my generation, had a brief love affair with Atari, Space Invaders and Ms. Pac Man.  But not unlike my son’s rainbow loom, after a short but intense flurry of activity, I grew bored and moved on.  From video games.  Forever.  Because I’m old.  Old people realize time is of the essence and staring at a video monitor fighting imaginary aliens in imaginary invasions for hours is a ridiculously wasteful use of my brain and lifespan, albeit a lifespan that has undoubtedly been supernaturally enhanced by Dr. Pepper.  Video games are boring.  They are not life.  Neither is the “reality” television, which appears to generally be a venue for people who would like a permanent record of themselves being humiliated on a national stage.  Count me out on all that, you dig?

I am old.  I use expressions like “you dig” and “hip to the scene” (which I clearly am not) and I don’t pay my bills online and I still have a landline and I frequently leave the house without my cell and I think e-mail is a radically boss, high tech way to stay in touch with the people I love.  I use the expressions “radically boss” and “high tech”.  I am old and I am happy to be that way.  While most people are looking down at their phones, I am looking around at the world.  I love to flirt with little kids in the grocery store, often getting to enjoy their precious antics while the harried, distracted parent is staring at a screen.  I like to talk to cashiers and waiters, make eye contact with other people who aren’t staring at their phones when something amusing happens, walk out in nature for hours with no access to technology at all.  I don’t bring my phone to church, the movies or my yoga class.  I am old.  I have a million stories from ye olde days, when we didn’t have cable TV, answering machines or microwave ovens.  Happy stories, funny stories, none of them involving technology of any kind.  Technology adds very little to the story of our lives, and when we really are old, we will not be reminiscing about the texts we received or the posts we read.  The story of your life is happening now.  Don’t miss it, please.

Monday, March 23, 2015

WHY I AM PRO-CHOICE (Yes, that way too)

So the other day I was having a typical conversation with #myfavoritepersonalive, my 10 year old son.  Same old, same old—telling him how smart, funny and handsome he is, and how honored I am to be his mom.  The kind of scintillating discourse only other parents truly understand.  Then I told him that in addition to these things he is also kind, and that is what makes me most proud.  Because smart, funny and handsome are gifts; kind is a choice.  I explained to him that while it is good to enjoy our gifts, it is only by our choices that we can make ourselves known to others.  Other people may appreciate smart, funny and handsome; but kind is what they will love.  Because kind is his unique expression of personal preference:  what sort of guy do I want to be?  We don’t choose our gifts; this is what makes them gifts, they were bestowed upon us without our earning or selecting them.  What we do with our gifts is our choice, and our choice is all we can truly hang our hats on.  And, perhaps a bit ironically, choice is the greatest gift any of us will ever have.

We have all had the experience of listening to someone complain about the restrictions they have in life—bad marriage, bad boss, bad luck, bad hair—and what is remarkable about these “conversations” (do you ever get a word in edgewise that isn’t slapped down?) is that when it is not ourselves, we can usually see a way out.  Of whatever “prison” this person imagines themselves to be in.  We are all the MacGyver of other people’s traps; meanwhile we remain hopelessly ensnared in our own.  Why is this?  Why is choice so easy to make for someone else and not ourselves (more on that in a minute)?  Partly it is simply perspective…it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at when your face is all mashed up against the glass…and partly it’s because our traps feel safe to us.  There are stories of literal imprisonment in which a captive, when given the opportunity to escape or even be rescued, does not want to take the chance.  We are all like that to some degree or another.  We all have relationships and situations in our lives that we dream of escaping without seeing it is our choice not to, usually because losing that “trap” also means losing a whole bunch of excuses we are making for ourselves.  We love our excuses more than our freedom. 
You always have a choice.  Some people accept this as fact without actually acting on it; others rail against it, maybe YOU have a choice, but not me, NOT ME!  Because the choice isn’t necessarily a “good” one.  Because the choice may look a little like “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.  Because the choice feels like a one-way street, a dead end.  And maybe it is.  But frying pan or fire, your situation sucks, so why not change the scenery?  And I don’t know about you, but not only have I driven the wrong way down a one way street (thanks to the cop who let me off with a warning), I’ve also backed my way out of a dead end.  Because you always have a choice.  There is always one more move to make.  And chances are your next move won’t be your final one because that is not how life works.  But just like when you are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, ANY movement can feel like relief.  Any movement will feel like positive change.  Because when you move away from something undesired, it stands to reason you have already stepped into something more desirable.  You have stepped on the gas, so to speak.

It is easy to think you know what is best for somebody else because you have not walked a mile in their shoes; or a hundred, or a thousand, like they have.  There is something tragicomic about the fact that we often feel like we don’t have enough information to make an appropriate choice for ourselves, but are frequently convinced we have enough input to be making good, sound life decisions for other people, EVEN PERFECT STRANGERS #roev.wadeforever!  We all make hundreds of choices a day; some work out great, others not so well but that shouldn’t stop us from getting up and starting all over again.  Our choice is our freedom.  We always have a choice.  And, in the wise words of the Canadian rockers from Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you have still made a choice”.  So practice exercising your freedom of choice, and please, allow others to do the same.  Even if you have to drive down a few dead end streets, you are on the road again.  And change is not only good, it is essential.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

WHY BE AFRAID (Of Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!)

Raise your hand if you like to be scared!  You can’t see me, but not only have I raised my hand, I am waving it back and forth, wiggling in my seat and yelling “Oooh, ooh, ooh, Mr. Kott-ah!”  POW!  Just hit you with my first “Welcome Back Kotter” reference ever!  It will not be my last, I promise you that.  Those who know me (or even just read this blog) understand that the Master of Horror himself Stephen King is my #onetruelove and that scary movies and shows like The Walking Dead are second only to my kid when it comes to consistently bringing me joy.  However, I like being scared only when I am in an entirely safe environment.  Like my bed reading a book, or my couch watching a movie.  So count me out if you are going on one of those crazy ass roller-coasters that flip upside down because I know my karma and my karma says: "Risk it and become a cautionary tale, babe".  The lady-decapitated-on-a-roller-coaster-who-now-tortures-teens-on-lover’s-lane-with-her-hook-for-a-hand, or something like that.  My BFF has a theory that you are either a horror film buff or a roller coaster buff and rarely the twain shall meet.  But I know plenty of people who hate both, and the reason is plain:  they don’t like to be afraid.

The truth is, in small doses, fear is good.  Fear is a useful tool that promotes our survival.  Fear makes us appropriately cautious when faced with a questionable situation. Even sometimes in a situation that isn’t obviously suspect, you get that feeling—your Spidey-senses tingle--and you know to proceed with care because something is not-quite-right.  I remember the days of driving my husband to the train station at 5 o’clock in the morning and the blind left hand turn on the way.  There was a light, but one day the light turned green and I didn’t go.  Just sat there staring stupidly, like I didn’t understand what that meant.  Then, as I slowly came out of my daze and pressed on the gas pedal, a car blew through the red light coming from my blind side.  If I had gone when I was “supposed” to go, he would have smashed right into my side of the car.  How many times have you been saved because you hesitated instead of jumping?  Fear can be our friend.
On the other hand…we are all aware, to some degree or another, of the so-called “culture of fear” perpetuated by the media and people in a position to manipulate the media.  Be terrified by terrorists, ticks and Tim Tebow (haha, sorry Tim for singling you out as a religious zealot!)…be suspicious of strangers, sun-exposure and silly string (shout-out to Darlie Routier, google her name and silly string if you are curious).  You have to wonder how many tragedies could have been pre-empted if Americans didn’t feel the “need” to arm themselves to the teeth, how many roads have been left untraveled for fear of an accident (or lawsuit or just the unknown)?  When I was growing up, we had all this wonderful, dangerous equipment on our playgrounds, we didn’t wear helmets or seatbelts and we drank a lot of punch with red dye #2.  I survived just fine, as did every single kid I knew.  As a matter of fact, the worst injury I sustained as a child, the only scar I bear, was gained from tripping as I walked home from a neighbors…well, I might have been skipping, if I am totally honest about it.  So skipping is very dangerous!  GET THE WORD OUT, it should be BANNED!!!

Our fear reflexes are hard-wired into our systems, much in the same way a dog will turn in a circle before lying to mat down tall grass it no longer sleeps in.  Fear was keyed into our ancestors for far more practical reasons than recognizing potentially harmful spam…there was actually a high probability they could be eaten alive.  Now THAT is something to fear!  And why I never swim in the ocean #thanksalotStevenSpielberg.  But in spite of the great Louis C.K.’s brilliant idea that lions should be released into the streets to cull the herd, as it were, the fact of the matter is the chances of any of us being eaten alive is now statistically insignificant.  Keep those words in your head, “statistically insignificant chance” as you scroll through your list of worries and fears.  “Why worry, it will probably never happen” is not stitch sampler wisdom for nothing, my friends!  When we live our lives in fear of the now totally metaphorical “lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)”, we are missing out on a lot of the best stuff life has to offer.
Freedom from fear is the only kind of freedom that matters, when you get down to it.  You can have all the money in the world, but if you are spending it on guns and security systems, you are not free.  Fear is a jailer that keeps us from our best selves, our best relationships, our best experiences.  Fear causes us to hold our tongues when something important needs to be said.  The oft quoted line, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral” reminds us that the definitive Hell is a world where we do not speak our truth.  Fear keeps us from reaching out, fear keeps us from taking a shot, it keeps us locked up and tied down and heavily medicated (by self or doctor).  There are no lions in the streets.  There is very little left to be truly afraid of, in a statistically significant way.  Robert H. Schuller famously said (a lot of amazing things and), “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”  Without fear, anything is possible.  Trust your instincts, but roam freely.  You are safe here.

Monday, March 9, 2015

WHY THE GOOD NEWS IS, THE BAD NEWS IS WRONG

Man, I had another one of those weeks.  They seem to be coming fast and furious recently, so I am doing my best to keep the hatches battened down.  This was a week of disappointed expectations, unclear redirection and general confusion.  Mostly, it was a week of “bad news”.  Nothing catastrophic mind you, but bad enough to throw a monkey wrench into pretty much every plan I thought I had going. 

I’m a planner, you see.  Growing up, my Dad was really into these Myers-Briggs personality tests that break down our operational motivations into 4 categories:  introvert or extrovert, thinker or feeler, intuitive or sensor and judger or perceiver.  It’s this last category that has caused no small amount of strife for me, because I am a judger who grew up in a houseful of perceivers. 

Judgers prefer life to be more structured and decided; perceivers are more flexible and adaptable.  I know this makes me sound like a stick-in-the-mud but believe me, you WANT a judger on your team when it comes to things like hotel reservations, financial planning and basically all things that require organization.  However, the down side is, when all of my careful planning goes down the tubes, I may start drooling and banging my head against a wall.

I would describe this week as having reached a crossroads where all directions look suspect.  Clowns to the left of me; jokers to the right, as it were.  Naturally this makes the little Filofax (HA! Remember those?) in my brain go absolutely bonkers; or as the more modern day GPS would put it, “recalculating” on an endless loop.  And believe me, the voice in my head saying “recalculating” over and over again sounds just as pissy as that British broad on the GPS. 

So I was driving by a church that had one of those signs out front—I am a big fan of the church sign as a rule—and this one said, “The good news is the bad news is wrong”. That is the Lord working in a NOT so mysterious way; the sign was in front of a church after all and I am sure I am not the only person driving by who needed to hear that. 

But it made me think of our obsession with labeling things as “good” or “bad”.  From behaviors to foods to movies to appearance, we have made some universal decisions as a species about what is “good” and “bad”, but then as individuals we have our whole world broken down this way as well.  Which leads me to the “good” part of my “bad” week.
In the midst of my bad-news-bears-blues, my son, who is currently obsessed with looking at maps, asked me what Vatican City is.  This began a discussion of Christianity and how the beliefs of some churches don’t necessarily mesh with our own.  I explained to him that some branches of the Christian church are more committed to the idea that there are rules we all have to follow to in order to please God; for example, how some churches teach that if you are homosexual, you get on God’s bad side. 

My kid’s response to this was, “That’s impossible.  God doesn’t have a bad side.” 

Whew.  Out-of-the-mouths-of-babes, and he is absolutely correct.  It is impossible to get on God’s bad side because God doesn’t have one. 

So why do we?  I’m not saying there is no use in discernment; on the contrary, discernment is not only helpful, it’s fun!  There is hilarity to be had in agreeing that some things are “bad” (like the way bowling alleys and roller skating rinks smell) and some things are “good” (like pizza and sunsets) and the wonderful truth that my #onetruelove Stephen King expressed in his masterwork CUJO:  “There is no bad time for good news.”

But why do we feel the need to decide whether our news (or luck) is good or bad so quickly?  There is a fable about a farmer whose horse runs away, but when the neighbors sympathize about his bad luck he says, “Who knows if it is good luck or bad luck?”  The horse comes back with several wild horses and the neighbors marvel at his good luck, but he has the same response.  Then his son breaks a leg taming the wild horses and again he replies “Bad luck?  Or good luck?” Finally the army shows up to take his son to war, but he is spared because he is temporarily lame. 

I have no idea what is going to happen in the big picture as a result of my “bad” news, but I do know that we don’t have the expression “It’s a blessing in disguise” for no reason.  Some of my biggest disappointments have turned out to be some of my most fortunate redirections, and some of my most exciting triumphs have turned out to be not much more than smoke and mirrors.  Good news, bad news, I don’t know. 

But often enough we discover, when we are able to let go of our plan and see what develops, that the good news is the bad news was wrong after all.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

WHY YOU ARE HAPPY WHEN YOU'RE HAPPY

Yes, I actually said that.  On the phone the other day, I dispensed this priceless wisdom: “Well, when you are happy, you’re happy.”  Ladies and Gentlemen, this is why I get THE BIG BUCKS. An endless font of insight, I am.  But truthfully, I think this is the crux of the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”  When we are unhappy, we tend to micro focus on the people and situations in our life that we believe are contributing to our unhappiness.  But when we are happy, we are more likely to “go general”…that is, appreciate the beauty of the forest and not worry so much about the ticks, mosquitos and wood rot. 

Happiness is expansive and broad; unhappiness is constricting and specific.  There is a great scene in the movie “Groundhog Day” (Holla, Bill Murray!) when Phil has relived the same day so many times that all of its nuances are fully realized by him, and he sort of breezes through the hours literally catching people mid-fall with a smile on his face…no longer worried about the details, he is able to fully enjoy the experience of living.  There are no fears because he is assured that generally things are going to be okay.

There is another wonderful movie about the ability to relive key moments in life called “About Time”, which I highly recommend.  In it, the protagonist discovers that he has the ability to go back in time and correct missteps and regrets…which naturally leads to the sort of confusion and hijinks one would imagine.  But at one point he simply has a rotten day and instead of going back in time to change it, he goes back in time to APPRECIATE IT.  Knowing that at the end of the day things were really fine, he was able to withstand the annoyances, petty and otherwise, with humor and grace. 

I had a conversation with a friend this week in which she described a confrontation she had as “yoga off the mat”.  That is, breathing through the accusations, the vitriol…staying grounded and present in spite of the roaring hurricane.    Understanding that no matter what, you are okay.  I’ve never been a fan of the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” because seriously?  Is that the standard we are going for, really?  But there can be the positive takeaway that every day is a new chance, and every day we are better prepared and equipped to make the most of our opportunities than we ever have before.
Progress, not perfection, is our goal.  And the good news is, with this as an objective, you literally cannot fail!  It is impossible not to progress, even if you feel like you are making the same mistake, or allowing that same button to get pushed by that same person, the truth is that every time your awareness grows, and every time your behavior evolves.  I think a lot of people make the mistake of believing anger is negative…it certainly can be, but more often it is empowering.  More often, it is an IMPROVEMENT over how you were feeling before you got angry! 

If you are depressed about something, most likely you will become inert and feel powerless to change your situation; but if you become angry, you will start to get your juices flowing, start thinking of solutions, start making some moves.  Any emotion can be a useful tool of progress, so long as it represents relief from what you were feeling before.  Anxiety is a habit as much as smoking and it can be pretty tough to quit that endless loop of worry.  But you are worried when you worry, and that gets you nowhere.  Stop obsessing about the specifics and reflect generally on your life.  In most cases, thankfully, you will realize that as my Dad used to say, “You are fine.”

I have a lot of things I do when I am feeling unhappy to turn the tide around, so to speak.  Listening to songs that make me feel good, hanging out with my kid, going for a walk.  Because when I do things that make me happy, I am happy.  Ha, that priceless wisdom for you again.  A few years ago for lent, I decided to give up criticizing myself for 40 days.  Holy cow, was THAT a Herculean challenge!  I had no real cognizance of how frequently I said unkind or unflattering things to myself inside my head.  It took real diligence to kick the habit, basically by simply being aware of the thoughts and course correcting whenever I had one. 

Progress, not perfection but I will say it made an enormous difference in my outlook on life.  Now, whenever I think something that doesn’t feel good I notice it, and think again.  Or listen to a song that makes me smile, or read a quote that inspires me.  Because I am happy when I am happy.  So I do everything in my power to be happy whenever I can manage it.  And when I can’t, that’s okay too.  Feeling unhappy is a useful guidepost to help us figure out the changes we need to make in our lives and the direction we need to go in to get back to happy. 

Because what is more important than being happy, when you really think about it?  When we are happy, all is well; we see the beauty of the forest.  When we are happy, we realize we don’t need to change a thing.