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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. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Why You Need These 10 Kinds of Friends

Everybody knows that friendships are an essential part of a healthy, happy life; but in this age of Facebook, the word “friend” just ain’t what it used to be.  When I was growing up, only a small child would refer to someone they’d just encountered as a “friend”; nowadays, many of us have “friends” we’ve never actually met.  But in a way, this redefinition of the word friend has highlighted a fact about friendship that has always been true:  it is no one-size-fits-all affair.  Yes, we all need that “BFF”* relationship, the one where you can pour your heart out and reveal your deepest darkest secrets and laugh, cry and stuff your face, all within the sanctity of a judgment free zone.  But just because all of our relationships don’t meet this standard, it doesn’t mean they are not friendships.  It just means that the different people in our lives speak to different aspects of ourselves, and all of those aspects should be honored.  Here are 10 kinds of friends I think everyone needs:

1)      The Funny Friend:  Hopefully, you instantly identified this person in your mind, the one who can always make you laugh, no matter how bad your day was or what else is going on in your life.  I am lucky enough to have a couple of these friends, people whose razor sharp, lightning speed wit can take my breath away and make me forget, even if it’s only for a minute, why I was ever feeling sorry for myself at all.  The funny friend is often not so much a person you spill secrets to; this is more the place you go when you need an instant lift.  Funny friends are the coffee (or wine) of the friendship world!

2)     The Shopping Friend:  I use the word “shopping” here as an example, but this is the friend who gets you out of the house, whether it is to go shopping, see a movie or even go for a hike; mutually enjoyed activities are a crucial part of this friendship.  Most girls have a “shopping friend”, but can also have “book club friends”, “coffee friends”, “yoga class friends”, you name it.  The bonding is over something that maybe your BFF isn’t into, or a very specific hobby or interest.  I actually have “horror movie friends”, because I LOVE horror movies and both my BFF and husband HATE them; I need to channel my enthusiasm somewhere!  These sorts of friends allow us to express pieces of ourselves that might get denied otherwise.

3)     The Motivating Friend:  You know the one, your friend who probably wears a cape and a mask in some alternate reality.  This is the person who has actualized their dreams and encourages you to believe you can too.  The best part about motivating friends is that because they are secure in themselves, they never use shame or belittling as “motivating tools”.  They genuinely see the potential in every situation and are more than happy to help you see the potential in yours.  This person is crucial to have in your life.

4)     The “Lazy” Friend: the counterpoint to the motivating friend is your friend who calls (or texts) you to announce that they have eaten an entire box of Pop-Tarts while watching a marathon of “The Good Wife”.  This person is comfortable with mess, both theirs and yours, and is there to let you off the hook on days when you know for a fact you are going down.  The coolest part about our “lazy” friends is that they are not actually lazy—they have jobs and raise children and do all the things your motivating friend does (although without, perhaps, the same Martha Stewart flair)—they are just more comfortable with down time and relaxing than most of us ever will be.  And in this way, they are super heroes, too.

5)     The Old Friend:  not chronologically (necessarily), just a friendship of a long enough duration that no period of your life is unknown to this person.  Like an old couch, an old friend is a place you can flop down and reminisce or rehash or sometimes just complain without having to complete hours of backstory.  This person is a witness to all you have been through, and while you may have grown apart geographically or even ideologically, they are in your bones and always there when you need them.

6)     The “Artsy” Friend:  “Artsy” can mean a million things, but you know one of these people the minute you see them; whether their art is music, painting, dancing, crafting, whatever, this is most likely the person who will push you out of your comfort zone.  These people see the world with different eyes than most, and they will encourage you to do the same.  Your “artsy” friend might introduce you to opera or ballet or Van Gogh…or maybe just encourage you to wear a new color or try some exotic food.  But “artsy” people explore their creativity and inspire you to do so as well. 

7)     The “Friend From Another Place”:  in the old days, this might have been someone you met at summer camp or on vacation, an exchange student or even just a pen pal…I once corresponded with a girl I met on Cape Cod for a year just because we had the same first name!  Now with the internet and Facebook, our opportunities to make this friend have exploded; you can “friend” someone who lives halfway around the world.  The key piece of the friend from another place is this:  they have lived a very different life than you and broaden your horizons.  This friend is extremely important in order to expose you to new ideas and a culture (or cultures) other than your own.  Even if that culture is the culture of Wisconsin, when you live in Maine!  Nowadays many of us have a lot of friends from other places, and this is a very, very good thing.

8)     The Tedious Friend:  come on, you know you have one!  The tedious friend is the one whose name makes you wince when you see it on caller ID, but you pick up anyhow.  I don’t recommend having a lot of tedious friends, but one is helpful.  Because our tedious friends are usually extremely well-intentioned, good-hearted people who nevertheless do an inordinate amount of complaining, or relating of insignificant detail, or sometimes even bragging…our tedious friend teaches us patience and let’s face it, they make us feel like we are a good friend.  And that is a really great feeling.

9)     The “Crazy” Friend:  this is the one you have been waiting for, am I right?  All along you have been worried that I wasn’t going to mention the “crazy” one because this is the friend EVERYBODY definitely has.  And ALL of your other friends know who your crazy friend is.  “Oh, he/she is the crazy one” is the response you will get to any mention of this person’s name.  But you LOVE your crazy friend like crazy.  Our “crazy” friends are more daring, ruthless, spontaneous, adventurous and “out there” than most of us could ever dream of being.  They inspire us to take risks and live it up on occasion.  They remind us that life doesn’t have to be such a serious affair.  They allow us to own our passions and maybe, just maybe, live them too.

10) The BFF* (see above) You are the one, dearest, I absolutely cannot do without.  This is why I need the other nine:  aren’t you glad I have all these other friends to take some of the pressure off of you?