Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Makes Me Happy

A monk celebrated for his wisdom regarding happiness shares his top ten list today on Wowowow.  These tenets fly in the face of what most of American culture tells us will help us reach this elusive state. 

Adversity, criticism and not getting our own way, according to Matthieu Ricard, can get us on the path towards it. Riches, fame, pleasure and revenge, not so much.  (Pretty sure he won't be getting any guest spots on Real Housewives.)  Check out the full list here.

Fairly regularly, my son the philosopher and I have a talk involving lists of important things.  He thinks a lot about happiness and what he wants his life to look like later, and so we puzzle over matters together.  He is wise and gets me thinking harder than usual. Even so, I am bit frivolous. So unlike the esteemed monk, my list is only five things and isn't filled with deep insight.  It's about the little rituals that punctuate what must be done--getting places on time and making deadlines and filling out forms--with moments of lightness.  So, in no particular order, here are my happy places:

Grinding my own coffee beans.  It's loud for a minute, but the smell is heavenly when I grind them, and then again the next morning when I get back from my run and turn the coffeemaker on.  I'm mostly awake by then and have found my soul and (usually) a better mood on the trail.  A little cream and the first few sips later and I am ready to wake the kids and head into the steeplechase called a day in modern life. This method is cheaper than Starbucks, plus I have a great caffeine buzz by the time I start my commute. 

Sitting on my deck.  This falls into the category of things I don't do enough.  It's been a hundred degrees for about two months now, so this has been curtailed of late.  But we're heading into fall in Texas, which means sitting outside without sweating for a few months before it gets cold. My favorite time is early evening, closely followed by Sunday morning.  Even in the middle of the city, my yard is private and mostly quiet, and it's lovely just to sit and be. Solving the problems of the world with friends is also pretty darn great.

Clean sheets.  Usually these are combined with a clean house, but even when they are not, there is something about climbing into a clean bed that makes me feel safe, comfortable and cared for.  Even
though--or maybe because--I do it for myself.  They don't have to be fabulous sheets.  Many years ago, my Great Aunt Annie gave me a set of flannel sheets that were a ghastly print in mustard and green.  But they were soft and warm against the bitterly cold Canadian nights. Especially when they were clean.

Suicide hill.  There aren't all that many hills in Fort Worth, but there is one close to the trail near my house that is a whopper by almost any standard.  On my typical early morning trek down, I often see an elderly lady very slowly traversing the road that crosses halfway up this summit. (It undulates.) She has a walker, but she's out there.  So after my two mile loop of the park, I head back up and give it all I've got, on my brave days more than once.  As I feel my limbs burn and my heart pounds, I remember to feel gratitude for the strength in my legs and my heart and my lungs.  I am almost forty-four years old, and I can do this.  No small thing. 

Singing in the car.  Among my most guilty pleasures in having a teenager is listening to frothy pop songs and cranking up the radio to sing.  Of course, I never do this when I am alone; it is only a sacrifice for my children. But it does make me ridiculously happy.
"Everything will be okay in the end.  If it isn't okay, it's not the end."

--Unknown

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blogging With Your Ex and Other Thoughts on Divorce

The divorce rate in the United States is at a 30-year low.  It's down to 3.5 per 1,000, according to the CDC.  It's news to me that divorce is classified and tracked as a disease, but apparently it's got enough of an impact on health to be tracked.  Considering it, for those of us who have slogged through the muck and detritus of a destroyed union and endured the exhaustion, depression and weight loss/gain that typically mark the experience, I don't suppose it should come as a surprise. 

This week Bruce Feiler, in a piece in the NY Times, suggested that this lowered rate was as a result of all the public discourse on high-profile splits--the end of political marriages like the Gores and the Edwards and of course the exploits of Jesse James, the bad boy who went to good with Sandra Bullock and back to bad again with a chick whose tattoos rivaled his, and of the formerly perfect Mr. Woods--and how all of us get to experience these things vicariously and so don't actually feel the need to end our own marriages.  We see how bad it is to actually split up and think well, I guess I can pick his wet towel up off the floor one more bloody day. 

This theory is utter nonsense.  In the Western world, at least, we all believe our own experiences are somehow unique, and that if we need to be happy, it's for the best.  As long as it doesn't cost us too much money.  And that's really what the drop in divorce rates is about because, let's face it, unless it's truly intolerable, staying together makes a lot more sense than breaking up, and very few of us see ourselves on easy street these days.  Elin couldn't, given her very public humiliation, wait for the market to bounce back, but my bet is that lots of other people are turning a blind eye to spouses' transgressions, large and small, holding out hope that the McMansion will be worth more what they paid for it in a few years and then they can make their escape without losing their shirts.

Just when I started obsessing about my status as a social leper,  I ran across an article in the Globe and Mail about a divorced couple who blog about co-parenting.  They live in New York and are both writers and bloggers, so they decided it would be an interesting idea to write a blog together, alternating posts.  They've really hit on something, since it is, truly both sides of the story on how it feels to try and parent children in two separate houses.  Their blog, When the Flames Go Up, is riveting, even for someone in her fifth year at co-parenting. I do like the blog, but at times I've felt they've been a bit smug about how well they are doing, given that it hasn't been too long and neither has remarried or had other children. 

So far, although they are both good writers, I like hers more than his.  He tends to talk a lot more about the doing, she the feeling, not really a surprise.  But he is funny and articulate, and does occasionally share an emotional nugget, as in his post entitled "If This Blog Were a Pig, it Would Have Unearthed its First Truffle." Sorry to be a girl, but I'm not reading this to know that he spent eleven days with his extended family canoeing; I want to know how he gets through his days in general.

Her posts are sometimes emotional but, at their best, pragmatic.  They've only been at this for a few weeks, have gotten a lot of press along with many, many comments from people who are going through this, and I see their perspective growing as a result. I loved her latest installment, called, "Why We Can."  She gives reasons why their arrangement works--among them, that they are both sane and live eight blocks from one another-- that make perfect sense. She saves herself from sanctimommy-ness, albeit the divorced kind, with the following statement:   "...you can't, by definition, co-parent equally, if both of you aren't in it.  If that's where you are, think about parallel parenting (in which you each do the best you can with what you can control, separately) instead."  She's a newbie, but she gets it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Getting Lucky

To say that I am a creature of habit doesn't quite cover it.  I take pleasure in ritual, and know that if things like exercise and early bedtimes and grocery shopping and time to cook aren't planned ahead, then it's a short road to fifteen extra pounds and general unhealthy crabbiness.  In order to fit these in around two children and a fifty-hour workweek requires a certain amount of well, rigid scheduling. 

So my days take regular paths to one of two or three running routes, then to the office for a predictable routine, and the same grocery store at a particular time on Saturday morning and then Target later on.  Boring for sure, but from what I understand, it also is the worst way to generate new relationships, opportunities, and luck in general.

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D, has spent his career figuring out why some people are luckier than others.  A big part of it is attitude--smiling and being friendly, for example, help a lot.  I am pretty sure I'm covered there, and have had my share of fun conversations in checkout lines and waiting for elevators.  But a big part, according to Wiseman, is also to do things outside of one's comfort zone, and then be alert to the opportunities to crop up.  This part is hard, especially for those of us who have settled into middle age and our own happy ruts.  But it seem to me it's food for thought on how not to turn into an old girl who is set in her ways, a not terribly attractive attribute in a single woman.   

In an article in O Magazine entitled, "How to Get Lucky," Wiseman's theory is given an introduction about a woman who gets a hot date--who becomes her husband--because she goes to a different dry-cleaning place.  That's an eye-roller, but the notion that one's mind opens up with change is certainly a good one.  That's what I look for in a good trip, and I've given up assuming others feel the same way. Though once a guy was cutting my hair who told me that at Epcot there was a pavilion that was "just like Paris."  Yes, I responded, except it's not. So maybe not everyone wants to expand their horizons for real.

This morning I needed to go out into the broader world to get my car's registration renewed, having left it until near the end of the month and so generating an inefficient errand of a half-hour or so.  So, in my time off the beaten track, here's what I got to see:

  1. A cowboy in a straw hat with a truck with at least eight tires and two gun racks.  I think maybe he'd driven across the back forty before he came into town, judging by the aroma off said tires.
  2. Someone who said he'd bought a veehickle about eight years ago, but was now fixin' to be finished rebuilding it and wanted to know how to have it registered as he didn't have a title. 
  3. A church sign that told me "Stop, drop and roll won't work in Hell." 
So local color and food for thought.  Next month I need to get new tires.  Can't wait for the excitement that ensues. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back to School...at 105 degrees

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hanging with a group of friends at the pool at my favorite local country club.  I live in country club town. Though I lack country club wages, I am fortunate enough to have several friends who belong to what I consider the nicest place in town, so I glom on with gratitude. This particular spot was built, as I understand it, as a golf course for Ben Hogan.  I wish I could say I was a golfer. But my hangout is the spot to which wives and children were relegated and which I visit with delight. I call it The Flamingo Kid pool--for some reason, the minute I walk in I think of Janet Jones in her white swimsuit--and for the last five or six years, the kids and I have gotten to spend two or three splendid afternoons a summer there. 

I hadn't been in a bathing suit since Memorial Day. Work has been overwhelming and our DC vacation didn't allow for lazing about beside the pool.  It felt good today to take the Texas summer stance: in the water for two hours, beverage in hand, wearing sunscreen and chatting with cool women about kids and life until my fingers get so prune-like I know it's time to get out and sit in the 100-degree shade. The children splashed around (alas, due to an incident, the high board was closed; my son's record is 52 jumps off it, and both he and I were disappointed his ritual could not continue) but we munched on poolside food and everyone got a little bit of sun. 

Finally the lazy early evening wound down, and we all sauntered out, consoling one another about the return tomorrow to school days and real life.  For me, real life lasts all summer, as working parents' weeks get a little more rather than less complicated when school is out.  But still, having to get the kids up early and someplace on time after they've spent three months sleeping in is an adjustment.  So is the idea that next year I'll have a child in high school and another in middle school.  The sweet days of the elementary years will be behind us, and the big bad world of cliques and AP classes and driving school and college prep classes await. 

Last Friday I heard a wonderful replay of an interview with John Mellencamp on Fresh Air. I recommend it, as although Terry Gross can irritate me beyond belief, she does ask some pretty good questions.  (And, with what I can only assume is tremendous restraint, she never uses the words, 'ubiquitous snare drum'.  What a professional.) And he is a self-described scrappy old liberal folk singer.. At any rate, she remarks upon Mellencamp's discussions of mortality in his work, and a fascinating discussion ensues. 

The line with which she launches the conversation is about mortality, but I think it's also a good reminder about when to take a breath and savor moments with our children, despite our ninety-mile an hour lives:
"Life is short, even in the longest days."  Back to school we go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How to Make Rapini

My first child's first babysitter not only took wonderful care of my baby.  She also fed our family a couple of nights a week, sending home dreamy pasta, roasted eggplant, and the most profoundly delicious veal I've ever tasted.  One evening at pickup time, she also taught me how to make rapini, which is Italian for spinach that tastes good.  

Back in 1997, I took my beautiful six-month old, blue-eyed darling to Rosa.  Her daughter, a new bride and eldest child, was my co-worker, which made Rosa was an Italian grandmother in training, and she loved my little girl without reservation. So even though I cried in the parking lot at work every morning for the first month, I knew I needn't worry.  And Rosa fed, no, nourished her: tender, tiny pasta with finely grated carrots and perfect sweet peas, so that when on weekends I opened a jar of Gerber's, my child looked a me as if to say, you want me to eat that? 

Now that sweet girl has her dad's hazel eyes and is officially taller than me, but I still make spinach the way Rosa taught me. This recipe has three of my favorite things in it, and then green stuff too. And it only takes two minutes, so wait until everything else for the meal is ready before you start it. 

Rosa's Rapini
2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups of fresh spinach, washed with stems torn off, washed and dried carefully
2 pinches sea salt

Heat medium-sized saucepan to medium-high.  Add olive oil until you can swirl it around to cover the entire pan surface, then add garlic and stir with wooden spoon until it smells really good but isn't yet brown.  Add the spinach and then the first pinch of salt; stir quickly and add the second.  Cook the spinach, stirring to keep it from burning, until wilted, then serve and eat immediately.   
"I love how the word 'but' so often links statements of unassailable fact with dubious feints of exculpatory fantasy as though they are of equal measure.  They're not."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Before Brangelina: Dick and Liz

My friend Cathy told me once that she didn't understand her mother's crush on Richard Burton until she grew up, and then she really, really got itMy mom was never a fan, so I didn't see his movies at all until I was grown. Nor, even the poorer for this, did I know about Dick Cavett.  Then I stumbled upon Cavett's marvelous blog and watched some extraordinary interviews with Richard the Great.

If you haven't heard or read about any of this and are a young person, by which I mean younger than fifty, you may be rather surprised to learn people what a scandalous time back in the sixties. This post from Cavett's blog includes possibly the best story I've ever encountered about justification for a doomed relationship, related to Cavett by the late Jerry Orbach.  (A nineteen-year old Susan Strasberg, involved with Burton, two and a half decades older, married and alcoholic, is being given a dressing down by a group os older women. Then her lover intercedes.) And the interviews, if you've time to watch, are from a time before everything had to be crammed into a sound byte.  Cavett asks careful questions and waits for thoughtful answers.  I actually sat and enjoyed the conversation--I didn't realize, or had forgotten, how good it is to watch interesting people talk.

Last month I received an issue of Vanity Fair from a friend who is dedicated to recycling and so passes her magazines to me. The article, an excerpt from Furious Love, a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger is about Richard Burton's love affair with Elizabeth Taylor and is replete with stories--and some fantastic photos of Liz with her 69.42 carat necklace and some va-voom seventies outfits that only a woman with extremely high self-esteem would wear--of what Brangelina would be if they weren't trying so hard to be taken seriously.  Dick and Liz were way too into each other to worry about world affairs, it soon becomes clear.  When Richard met Elizabeth beside a pool on a booze-soaked Sunday morning in Hollywood in 1952, he was a goner, and knew it right away.  It wasn't until ten years later that he actually got the chance to speak to her, and she was cool to him, knowing him to be nortorious adulterer who was used to having his cake and then some. But then they they had a kissing scene in Cleopatra.  The rest is history, to say the least.

The Burtons set the tabloid world, not to mention one another, afire. Their relationship was, as the magazine's July 2010 byline asserts, a pretty torrid and public thing, though both were married to others at the time: "From scandalous beginning to tormented end, theirs was the most epic love story in Hollywood history: a blaze of headlines, booze, jewels, brawls and private jets."  Eddie Fisher, Liz's husband at the time (he'd left Debbie Reynolds for her) nearly lost his mind and put a gun to her head.  She decamped to a friend's poolhouse with her children, the story goes. Once married to Dick--famously, not just once but twice--life was equally difficult. Though he tried to deny his Welsh coalminer roots, he still drank as though he was coming home from the pits each day.  Eventually, he quit (his interview with Cavett on this subject is eloquent and extremely touching) but it was too late for him and his Cleopatra.  And she was, in his defense, a piece of work, though she betwitched him completely. He never really gave up hope of winning her back. 

The smoking gun is the letter written and posted by Burton the night before he died at the age of 58 from a brain anueryism.  He was by then married to yet another woman. But in the letter, according to Elizabeth Taylor and by account of the authors (though they have no authorization to print it, they have read it and confirm its contents) he professed his undying passion for her and wonders if perhaps they might not give it one more try.  By the time she received it in the mail, she'd returned to Los Angeles from London, where she'd attended his funeral service.  Liz reads the letter every night before she sleeps.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity."

--Dorothy Parker

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Uncomfortable Rooms

"Mom, what if your mind was a room you could walk around in?" My son asked me this at the age of five.  Not for the first time (or the last) I felt out of my depth as a parent.  Turns out he was starting to remember his dreams, and said he really wanted to get a better look at the scary guy who'd been in his nightmare the night before.  Dude, was all I could say at first. Then, "Your mom's mind is quite a messy place.  In fact, there are corners where no one would dare look."

There are, Seth Godin points out in a great post this week, companies with an understanding of this, creating actual and metaphorical rooms, are those which bring consumers back again and again.  If you are a woman between the ages of twelve and fifty-five, go to the Anthropologie store in mid-town Manhattan.  When I die, I'd like to be buried there.  Didn't buy a thing when I visited last, but really felt I might have moved in and been perfectly happy. 

Then Godin goes a step further to the notion that our emotional states might be not things that come at us beyond our control, but might be like rooms we choose to walk into.  So, the idea goes, we might be rolling along but then, out of habit, go to the overheated place called self-righteous anger.  Or the cold, damp spot called self-pity.  Or sit in the spine-crushing chair of guilt.  We go to these spots not because we know they will make us happy--there is no smell of Starbuck's freshly-ground beans here--but because they are familiar.  This is one of those ideas that blew my mind.  Which definitely needs to be dusted as often as possible.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are You a Workaholic? How to Tell.

I've always been drawn to go hard or go home jobs.  I've done well at a few--I was a retail business planner in my twenties, when I hadn't children and was married to someone who was married to his job; I put in plenty of hours and got all kinds of praise, feeding a craving I now know constitutes a life-long struggle--and failed miserably at a couple, namely treeplanting and a brief stint at an ad agency, where the tyranny of the segmented hour nearly drove me mad.  Control freaks don't do well with imposed control.  Or quite possibly I was just bad at both jobs. 

In any case, my Dad taught me that work can be a great source of satisfaction, though he will say he struggled with his own boundaries as far as work goes.  I've certainly had many a satisfying day at the office, though, because, like my father, I really like to work.

But limits are hard for those of my ilk. From my dad and from others I've worked and lived with, as well as a few I've dated--and my own experience with ambition and work, of course--I've worked up a few red flags for what it means to be a workaholic.  In short, it has much less to do with hours committed than with emotional connection.  Of course we need to care about the way we spend most of our time--clockwatchers can stop reading here--but for those of us who have a little trouble seeing where our work ends and we begin, here is my completely unscientific quiz:

  1. When people meet you, is your work the first topic of discussion?  Are you looking at your Blackberry more than at your spouse or prospective date?  Are you talking on the phone with co-workers when you are out with your significant other(s) or your friends? 
  2. Do you think, more than in passing, about your work and what you need to do when you are with your family or friends? (Note I didn't say thinking about your co-workers: there are studies that say most people have, ahem, thoughts about their co-workers.  That's a different post altogether.)
  3. Is there any time when you are free of thinking of work?  Do you have a passion that absorbs you for an hour or more at a time during the practice of which you stop thinking of work?
  4. When you get a work email on the weekend or very late at night, do you feel compelled to answer it?
  5. Do you keep your Blackberry by your bedside?
At my last firm, I worked with a woman who was in her early sixties.  She was our office manager but doubled as den mother.  A former miltary wife and mother of four grown children, she took care of everyone, me included. Whether I arrived at the office at seven in the morning or left at eight in the evening, she was there, supervising the night secretaries (yes, some places think they need them) and the cleaning people. She called several times a day when she took the occasional day off to be with her grandchildren. 

Then she started acting out of character.  Several times, she berated staff members in the hallway--she'd always been a closed-door admonisher--and then, a proper Catholic lady, started dropping F-bombs for no apparent reason.  After that a week arrived when she was unaccountably missing.  I got worried and made phone calls to head office.  Two hours later, I found out the truth:  she had a brain tumor.  She did all she was told by her doctors and came back to work for a time, presumably to preserve her benefits, but two years later, she was dead. 

She was a wonderful woman and got lots of kudos at work--the managing partner once referred publicly to her as "incredible"--but I wonder if at the end of her life she didn't wish she'd done more with her grandchildren, or her husband of nearly fifty years, for that matter. What I wouldn't give. It was her life, of course, and she seemed okay with it all.  But it made me wonder, and now, despite my love for crossing things off my to-do list, I think of what I would do if my fate was hers.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Deep Fried

Ten years ago, at the age of thirty-four, I decided it was time, if I meant it in my own head, to be a writer.  The Globe and Mail, which bills itself as Canada's National Newspaper, has an open section called Facts & Arguments where anybody with an opinion and an email account can submit a piece, and as I'd revered the publication since a friend of mine from high school had an older sister who lived in Toronto and interned at the Globe, I screwed up my courage and wrote the essay.  It was about weather. 

Of all the monumental changes I experienced upon moving from my home and native land to my adoptive state, the weather was the biggest.  The patterns here are, I wrote then, are rather Old Testament, and this week I remembered why I think it so. We're on our ninth consecutive day of triple digit temperatures, and it doesn't promise to abate for the foreseeable future.  During several weeks before this, it has been around 98, so big dif.  It's roasting before lunch and blistering at dinner and still bloody hot at midnight.(So to you Northerners who say with certitude, "But it cools down at night," I say, not so much.)  When I haul my butt out of bed to run at 6:30, it's still sweating weather.  And even though I know saying bloody hell it's hot makes it worse, when the kids and I were slogging across the Target parking lot yesterday afternoon, we (okay, I) broke the rule.  It just comes out. 

After thirteen years I know that in a few weeks the kiln will be replaced by tempestuous skies and then by one of a breathtaking blue I did not know existed before I arrived in Fort Worth in October of 1997.  That's the time of year when my sinus cavities fill up and my eyeballs hurt.  Still, with the help of  the right over the counter meds ("Get a good decongestant" was my second-best advice when I became a Texan, only second to, "No matter how hard it's raining, never stop under an overpass") autumn here is an 80-degree, yellow-leaved wonder.  Never mind sweaters and cold pink cheeks; a girl can rake her leaves here and get a tan at the same time. 

So I wrote the piece, obsessively edited, sent it, and waited.  The Globe's webpage said if I didn't hear from them within three weeks, I should assume my article had been rejected.  When the twenty-first day arrived, I decided it was good that I hadn't told anyone, not even my husband, about my submission. I took my toddlers to our usual Friday afternoon playdate and talked about preschools and diaper rash and decided I'd tried and failed but at least now I knew. 

We drove home across Interstate 20, and my Canadian car's thermostat told me it was 43 degrees Celcius. I half-expected the road to spontaneously combust before my eyes.  Once back in our air-conditioned silo, I walked into the bedroom where our answering machine, complete with cassette tape, was blinking.  "Hello, this is the Associate Editor at the Globe.  You submitted a piece--"a lovely piece", I distinctly remember her saying--and we'd like to publish it.  We'll pay you two-hundred Canadian for it.  Call me back at...."

I jumped up and down with glee.  My husband called five minutes later from the airport in Charlotte.  I'd gotten published, I said.  He was understandably confused, but happy for me once he figured out what the hell I was talking about.  So I was published. It's a divine word.  I had congratulatory calls and notes from friends, many of whom had not, clearly, believed I had it in me. Nor did I, of course.  A couple of nights later, I had a lovely dream. 

I was riding my bike in a way I remember feeling when I was eight or ten years old.  I rode up a beautiful path into an elaborate building.  In it was a formal cocktail party, and men were in tails and women in gowns, holding flutes of good Champagne.  I rode around them, and they smiled at me and said hello, as though I belonged there.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Always write angry letters to your enemies.  Never mail them."

--James Fallows

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Strange Loop: Can Both Things Be True?

When the mind bounces back and forth between two opposite truths, it's called a strange loop, or at least it is in higher mathematics.  I have no understanding of this field--mastering the concrete is more than enough for this liberal arts mind--but it made elegant sense in an article I read on an airplane a few weeks ago.  (For some reason, I'm always more open to Big Ideas when I am in the air.  Maybe a suspended state with no Blackberry?)

Martha Beck wrote, in the July edition of O Magazine, about the seductiveness and the limitations of either/or thinking.  Human minds are built to do this.  It's fine when we have to make a choice about say, whether we should run away from or fight with the guy who's coming after us with a big spear or whether we'd rather have an iPhone or a Droid. But when we're trying to sort out complex human behavior, it can be a mental brick wall we keep running into.  Is the spouse who always makes a big fuss out of birthdays and anniversaries but then consistently forgets to pick up his wet towels an attentive mate or an inconsiderate jerk?  Well, Beck, offers, maybe both. 

It's such an interesting idea that two things can be true at once.  It's an ancient one, to be sure, and Eastern spiritual traditions seem to be better with it than Old Testament sorts. It's so tempting to label a person or situation and move on, but after we do so, there is often a niggling sense that it might be a little more complicated than that. As in, the friend who spends hours listening as you dissect your romantic life or several weekends helping you renovate your bathroom but then forgets to pick you up at the airport is a good friend, but one who isn't good at schedules.  The boss who never gives you a compliment but then backs you up during a work crisis and makes sure you get a raise is both critical and supportive. 

In all but the most extreme cases, the things that make us crazy about others--never mind the things we do that drive the people who deal with us apoplectic--don't merit ending the relationship altogether.  If we cut off everyone who disappointed us or made us mad, we wouldn't have much of a life.  Beck's advice is to set boundaries for what we know is the most difficult behavior.  For example, if a friend is always late, make sure you tell her to be at dinner a half-hour earlier than everyone else, but then remember to enjoy her gift of storytelling once she gets there. If your co-worker interrupts you constantly, tell him nicely you want to finish your point, then ask questions about his own point of view, and remember to listen when he actually has a decent idea. In short, be realistic, take care of yourself without hurting the other person, and focus on the positive. 

Another key, Beck writes, is that both people in the exchange acknowledge their respective Jekyll and Hyde. If each can say well, "I know I can be a pain in the ass and how we should work around it?" things can work pretty well. Uh huh. This part can be problematic even for the most evolved individuals--it's pretty easy to see how other people are hard to deal with, but most if not all of us have developed convenient blind spots to our own prickly parts. 

The idea that a situation or a person can be two things at once is not a life is what you make it, pull up your socks kind of idea; there are no platitudes here, because dealing with inherent contradictions isn't easy.

No, this idea means getting your mind around the strange loops inherent in the Long, Strange Trip we're lucky enough to be on.  It's making peace with the fact that good people do good things and sometimes not so good things. That a job can be really hard and a bad fit but can teach invaluable lessons about what you're good at and not so much.  That one can love other people in spite of their faults and in spite of our own. That life can be really difficult and really sweet at the same time. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Perils of the Gym

I am not a good gym person.  Although I've exercised regularly since I was in my teens, I didn't join an actual gym until a year and a half ago, and now I'm going to leave it.  For some reason, going to a gym for me is a lot like going to church:  if it's an unfamiliar one, I am really self-conscious, and if I haven't been for some time, almost equally so.  I feel I must speak to people I don't know and don't really want to, and it's morning, if I'm going to get it done. Morning is the only time I don't feel like talking, or having anyone look at me at all. And I feel guilty when I don't go, although evidently not guilty enough, since I've been faithful to neither treadmill nor pew for a good long time.  I've got a wonderful trail, complete with a killer hill, near my new house, and I've had no issue with fidelity to that task, so I'm still working hard, but outside in relative solitude.

That said, I did invest in a few sessions with a great trainer and have a few things at my new house (where I have room to work out indoors if I have to) and now broken my cardio-only fixation and succumbed to strength training, a good thing for a forty-something woman to do, if she wants to be able to bring in the groceries herself without tearing a rotator cuff.  But it turns out maybe my uncharacteristic introversion as far as workouts go might not be just me being neurotic (guilty as charged) but may actually have some basis in the rational world. 

Jane Brody is a well-regarded health writer, and I enjoy her column because it's non-alarmist and gives good practical advice about staying fit.  Brody is in her mid-fifties, so she isn't chirping about staying in shape as a person with knees that don't creak. Her most recent piece, "Be Sure Exercise Is All You Get at the Gym," is a little scary, though.  It suggests the following for your next visit to your favorite workout spot:

  • Wash your hands before and after you use the equipment;
  • Bring your own regularly cleaned mat for floor exercises;
  • Shower with anti-bacterial soap and put on clean clothes immediately after your workout;
  • Use only your own towels, razors and bar soap.
Okay, so I wouldn't shave my legs at the gym with somebody else's pink blades, but still, if I hadn't been going to a place affiliated with a hospital and cardiac rehab facility, I suppose I could have contracted MRSA, something one doesn't want to read about on a full stomach. 

When my alarm goes off every weekday at 6:15, even when I know it's almost light outside, I have a regular argument with myself.  "I'll go tonight."  "It will be 102 degrees/freezing cold/funnel clouds in the sky tonight, and you won't go."   (It's North Texas, so clement weather, particularly in July and August, cannot be expected past seven in the morning.) If I had the Staph infection argument, I'd never work out at all.  So I hope Brody's article doesn't put people off, although I know many a solid gym rat who probably knew all this stuff.  If you didn't, read up.  I'll be on the trail.