Sunday, April 15, 2018

How to Find the Right Balance in Life

Mara here:

My husband would describe me as "extreme."

I'm all or nothing.

It has taken me most of my life to realize there can be a middle ground and that sometimes how you feel about something can change.

I tend to get into ruts. Not just ruts like other people probably think of ruts. I will do things repeatedly for days, months, years, and then I'll stop cold turkey. I'll exercise rigorously or not exercise at all. My emotions and opinions can swing from one extreme to another.

When I was younger, things seemed so much simpler. Even when my behavior was extreme, I felt secure in my feelings about whether things were right or wrong. I loved things or I hated them. I always knew what I wanted. I always had a goal. And I felt confident in my opinions.

But as I've gotten older, everything has become more ambiguous. The lines between right and wrong, good and bad, have become blurry. It's almost to the point where I almost never feel strongly about anything.

In many ways, it has made life calmer. I am less volatile. I am less judgmental and more understanding and sympathetic about other people's lives. I guess that having more experience and more knowledge has made me more sympathetic.

There have been times when my daughter has gotten frustrated with me because, just like I felt when I was her age, she wants there to be answers about everything. She wants me to have a definite opinion about things.

But usually I don't. 

Don't get me wrong, I certainly have preferences. There are things I like more and things I like less, but I no longer feel as if there's an actual "right" or "wrong" when making most decisions. Because, as we've discussed in previous blogs, you can't always know how life will unfold. Things that seem "bad" might end up being positive. And something that, on the surface, felt amazing, might end up negatively as time passes.

It makes my daughter mad because she thinks I'm too passive. She thinks I just can't be bothered to care enough to have an opinion.

So I've been wondering, is she right? Have I gone too far the other way? Am I too passive?

I do think that being more flexible in my thinking is a good thing. But maybe I have mistaken not being opinionated for apathy. Maybe I purposely don't throw my hat in the ring because I don't want to have to have a stake in the game. It's been interesting to realize that what I assumed was a positive change in my behavior might not be as positive as I thought it was.

How do we find the right balance? 

I've been thinking these past years that I was being more reasonable because most of the time it's not good when I am passionate about something because it becomes all consuming. But maybe I'm still following my behavioral pattern of extremism because maybe I've simply replaced caring too much for not caring at all—about anything. 

It's obviously not that cut and dry. I clearly still care about things. But I do have trouble making decisions. I have trouble giving advice because my mind second guesses itself. After all, experience has shown that we do not know what the future holds. And just because I don't like something or someone, doesn't mean that other people should feel the same way.

Going along with the current makes things easier. It's certainly easier to let exterior events or people make choices for me. But I need to remember there has to be balance. Understanding how to find that balance will be more difficult. 

So I asked my mom about how she finds balance in her life.

1. Are there Buddhist teachings that help you find balance in your life?

Wow. There are so many. In fact, finding balance is one of my principal attractions to the Buddha's teaching. I'm not interested in "transcendent" states that people think of as nirvana. I'm interested in finding exactly what you write about: the right balance. This is because it's only when I'm balanced that I don't feel tossed about by what happens in life, like a ship on a stormy sea. Balance brings with it a sense of peace in my life.

I'll describe a few teachings...and then maybe mention others in my response to your other questions. 

The first teaching I rely on is the Buddha's four noble truths. I don't have time to discuss this in full. I can only refer people to my books for that. Basically, in the first noble truth, the Buddha set forth a list of the tough things we'll all encounter in life—from illness to aging, to not getting what we want to getting what we don't want, to losing what we cherish. It's a daunting list. 

If that list (in the new edition of How to Be Sick, I call it "The Buddha's List") were all he provided us with, we might fall into the unbalanced extreme of despair. In fact, some people say that Buddhism is pessimistic but that's because they don't understand that by providing us with this list, the Buddha was simply setting forth a realistic view of life, so that we'd know what to expect and won't be thrown to extremes when they happen. And, he doesn't just stop at that list. He goes on to help us learn how to keep balanced in the face of these tough life experiences.

There are many aspects to keeping balanced. The first is to acknowledge that life inevitably will be tough at times and to give up the fruitless—and often compulsive—desire to never encounter these unpleasant experiences. That desire serves only to make things worse for us since it's a desire that can never be fulfilled. So, acknowledging and accepting that unpleasant experiences are part of life helps me keep balanced because I don't expect things to be otherwise. This is not a passive stance. On the contrary, I think of it as engaging life as it truly is.

A second way I keep balanced is to remind myself that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows. The Buddha's List enumerates those sorrows, but there's joy too. In the subtitle to my second book, I refer to "navigating joys and sorrows." I touched above how to navigate sorrow, but why do we need to navigate joy? The answer is that we need to have a balanced attitude toward joy when it's present because it doesn't last forever. And so, if we cling to it, that's going to an extreme because we're setting ourselves up for a big fall when that joy passes. And so, for me, the key to finding balance in life is to embrace joy when we feel it but not cling to it and to not feel aversion when sorrow shows up (that list again), but to accept it as part of the human condition.

I am not saying that it is easy to do either of the things in that previous sentence but I've discovered that when I'm able to do them, equanimity arises (it being one of the "sublime states" in Buddhism). Equanimity is that calm and balanced state of mind that allows us to feel at peace with life. In my view, true equanimity is nirvana...and it's what I work on every day. 

For me, when I'm resting in equanimity, I know I've found the right balance in my life. It's not a passive state but one that engages life's joys and sorrows—it's up and downs—with wisdom and with compassion.

2. Are there times when you catch yourself being extreme in your behavior? How do you walk yourself back?

Good question. Depending on the situation, I'd say I do one of two things to walk myself back from extremes. 

First, I keep what Zen teacher Seung Sahn called a "Don't-Know Mind" (something I also write about in my books). I may feel 100% sure that my opinions are right or that such and such a person is right or wrong, but do I really know? Almost always the answer is "no." Thich Nhat Hanh had a different way of expressing this. He said we should ask ourselves "Am I Sure?" before speaking or acting. I have many examples of when that "Am I Sure?" kept me from going to extremes.

That said, there are a few things I am sure of based on my commitment not to speak or act in a way that will be unkind or harmful to myself or others. In Buddhist terms, we'd say that I'm checking to see if what I'm about to say or do will help alleviate suffering as opposed to intensifying it (which come under "wise speech" and "wise action" on the Buddha's Eightfold Path).

There are some opinions I am sure are right and so I don't keep a Don't-Know Mind about them. For example, one is in my unshakeable belief that racism is wrong. You could say that this means I am extreme in my view, but I see nothing but suffering coming out of holding racist views or speaking and acting based on those views.

A second way I walk myself back when I catch myself being extreme in my behavior is to go straight to self-compassion. These past 10 days have been terrible for me because our dog Scout did something that set off cramps and muscle spasms in her left leg. The vet could find nothing wrong, but the episodes were painful to watch and when she wasn't in a spasm, she lay on her bed and wouldn't get up. (We experimented with some medications, particularly an anti-spasm drug, and she's finally recovered). 

But for 10 days, we had no idea how to keep her from being in pain and we had no idea how long it would go on or whether we'd have to admit her to the vet hospital in town (she's horribly afraid of cages due to mistreatment as a puppy). 

As the week progressed, I became more and more "extreme" in my worrying and fretting. I spent hours and hours on the internet trying to figure out what was wrong. I couldn't sleep well because I knew she was on her bed next to mine and could cry out in pain any moment. 

The way I walked myself back from my extreme worry and stress was through self-compassion. Like equanimity, compassion is one of the "sublime states" in Buddhism (and is highly valued in most religious and humanitarian traditions). This is both compassion for others and compassion for ourselves. 

Here's how I evoked it when I felt overcome with extreme emotional distress over Scout. As I lay in bed, I'd stroke one arm with the hand of the other and silently speak soothing words to myself: "This is really stressful. No wonder you feel extra sick right now. This is hard, really hard. You're taking the best care of her you can." And that walked me back.

3. Do you find that because of your illness, since you have less exposure to life outside your house, your tendency to feel strongly about things has become more extreme or less extreme?

Well, the internet gives me almost as much exposure to life outside the house as I'd get if I were physically going out! And yet, being mostly housebound has helped me be less extreme. For one thing, emotions are felt in the body and my body needs as much quiet as it can get. So emotional extremes (which are anything but "quiet") are very hard on me physically, which is one reason I actively look for ways to avoid them—the ways I talked about above. Sometimes I'm more successful than other times...I didn't do so well with Scout this past week...but, hopefully, I learned from the experience and will do better when the next crisis arises.


Mara and I would love to know what your strategies are for finding the right balance in life.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

If I Had a Million Dollars...

Mara here:

"If I Had a Million Dollars" is the title of a song by a band called The Barenaked Ladies. It's one of Brad's favorite bands, or at least it was early on in our relationship, so I remembering repeatedly hearing the song. It's not a serious song. As I recall, it's sort of a love song about all the goofy things a guy would buy a girl he loved.

I've been thinking a lot about money lately. I think it's because my daughter is about to apply to colleges and, for a variety of reasons, we never set up a college fund for her. So we are now faced with trying to figure out how we are going to pay for college, which is daunting. 

It's been hard to have to tell our daughter that she can't necessarily go to whatever school she wants to because we simply can't afford to pay most private university tuition. And yes, I know that having your parents pay for college is a luxury. I know lots of kids pay their own way through school or go to community college. But both Brad and I had parents who paid for our college education, and we have always assumed we would do the same for our daughter. She has worked really hard to get good grades and has challenged herself with a difficult curriculum.

I hate that money might be the determining factor of what school she eventually ends up attending.

So we've had various conversations about money. We've had serious conversations about money—which are not fun. And we've had some less serious conversations about money—which can be entertaining. What would I do if I suddenly found myself with a huge sum of money? Of course, all the practical things immediately come to mind: set up a college fund (number one priority at this point), pay off our house, pay off our cars, give money to charity, etc.

If I really wanted to go crazy, if I somehow found myself multi-millions of dollars, here's, in order, what I would do:

1) Set up a charitable foundation. I'm not sure what type of foundation, but it would probably be something to do with education, or possibly providing housing to families. My number one dream is to have enough money to be able to give enough money away to someone that would actually be meaningful. Of course, I donate what I can now, but it's $25 here and $25 there. I know it adds up. I know it makes a difference. But I would love to be able to set up a foundation that would make a noticeable difference in the lives of the people it helped.

2) Set up a trust fund for our daughter, which would of course include paying for any college that she wanted to attend.

3) Pay off the mortgages of everyone in my family. I would love to be able to just allow everyone I love not to worry about paying their mortgages.

4) Set up education trust funds for nieces and nephews.

5) Randomly give out $100 bills to strangers on the street. (It's this weird fantasy I have.)

But let's get real. What's the likelihood that I will ever get my hands on that kind of money?

So then I thought, well what would I do with just a little bit more money? Let's say I was suddenly given $500 dollars a month that I could only spend on things for myself. (Because, let's be real, I'm a mom so if someone hands me money, 90% of the time I buy something for my daughter.) So, if someone said, here's a trust fund of $500 a month and you can only spend it on things for yourself, here are some things I would spend it on:

1) Books. I love books. I love reading books, and I love buying books. I like knowing I have them. But I have to stop myself from buying them because I can buy ten books without thinking about it, and it's money we need for other things. So books would definitely get purchased.

2) Theater tickets. I love live theater but it has gotten so expensive. Honestly, I don't know how people afford to go regularly. I know there are smaller venues and community shows, but my favorites are the big Broadway-style shows. Right now, it's just not what we spend our money on. So if I could, I would definitely see more theater.

3) Martial Arts. I've always regretted not getting my black belt when I was younger. I got about halfway and stopped. But if I had more money that I spent on myself, I would go back and get my black belt. Don't get me wrong; I could spend the money now to do this, but I don't. Somehow in the pecking order of what I spend money on, this just isn't high enough toward the top. But it's something I would definitely do if money wasn't an issue.

4) Sushi. I would eat more sushi.

5) Rescue pets. I would have more pets. I don't know if that would technically be spending money on myself, but I think it would qualify because I love animals. I want a petting zoo. I want goats and pigs and mini-horses and squirrels...and I want to rescue all the cats and dogs. But animals are expensive to maintain.

I'm sure money would get spent on other things such as gadgets, clothes, and food. But those aren't things I feel like I'm missing from my life. I have enough of those. In fact, I really have pretty much everything I need now.

When I wish for more money these days, it's usually because I wish that my daughter could have everything she wants. I spent many years feeling as if money would "fix" my problems. Of course, it doesn't. On a practical level you do have to have a certain amount of money to live comfortably, i.e. have a place to live, buy food to eat. But beyond the basics, money doesn't translate into happiness.

However, it does make things easier and it can make things nicer. But it took me 30 years to realize that having more money doesn't make you happy. Spending money doesn't actually fix anything. But my 17 year old daughter hasn't had that realization yet, and I can hardly expect her to understand. Some people never figure this out.

So I give her my spiel about how wanting more is endless and that you will never feel as if you have enough, blah blah blah. I am trying to teach her that appreciating what she has will ultimately provide her with more happiness than getting more will ever provide. I am trying to explain that the feeling of "wanting" never ends.

But the mom in me really wishes I could just give her everything she wants. The girl in me, who remembers wishing she had more, wants to be able to give her daughter everything.

But I can't. It is fun to sometimes fantasize about it though.

So what would you do if you had a million dollars?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

All in a Few Hours: The Best of Moments; The Worst of Moments

Mara here:

I was jogging last Friday, as I do every weekday morning, and I had a burst of...I don't know...inspiration. I'm not sure it was inspiration, but it was something.

I was going to get a tattoo.

In fact, I was going to get two tattoos.

The getting-the-tattoo part in and of itself is not particularly newsworthy. I have two already. My first is my husband's initials on my ankle. And the second is an angel that both my husband I got after Malia was born.

But that morning, while I was jogging along Riverside Drive in Los Angeles, I decided I was going to get a wedding ring tattoo—a tattoo that circles my ring finger. It's a tattoo I've been wanting for years. I've been envious of the few other people I've met who have them. The tattoos seem so romantic. And it's proof to myself that I believe in my marriage and the commitment and love I have for Brad.

It's also private. Once the tattoo heals, it will simply sit under my wedding rings so people won't see it.

But I'll know it's there.

And I'll know I was willing to get it.

Because the only thing that has stopped me all these years is the pain.

I'm going to be upfront and say that every tattoo I've gotten has been painful. People say they're not painful to get—but they are. Literally, a little clump of needles stabs you over and over. The best way for me to describe the feeling (most people probably don't experience it this way) is that someone starts stabbing me with something and then cuts through my skin with it. It's not a crazy-like screaming pain, but it's uncomfortable. As soon as it starts, I want it to stop.

It requires a lot of concentration to not jerk away.

And the fingers are one of the more sensitive areas of the body. The top of the fingers are bony, without a lot of fat. The underside is sensitive and there are a lot of nerves in the palm of the hand. Plus, it's awkward. They have to spread your fingers apart. I fortunately have relatively loose joints, so it didn't hurt, but it spreads the skin and makes it even more sensitive.

So this is why, for years, even though I really wanted this ring tattoo, I hadn't gotten it. I was simply avoiding pain.

But that Friday, during that jog, about eight hours before we were leaving on a trip to St. Louis, I decided I was going to get that tattoo.

The additional tattoo was a more recent idea. For Christmas, I had given my daughter a necklace with an infinity symbol because we have this inside saying that we love each other to infinity. I know a lot of people say it, so I'm not saying it's unique, but it's meaningful to us. 

So I wanted to get a tattoo of the infinity symbol and I knew just where to put it. I wanted it on my wrist, right where the ends of a fancy cuff bracelet met—a bracelet that Malia had given me for Christmas a few years earlier, so that every time I looked down, I would see the ends of the bracelet meeting the infinity symbol.

After my jog was done, I tried calling some tattoo places. Apparently tattooing is not a morning thing. None of the places were open until later that morning, which meant I was cutting the time available to get the tattoos significantly shorter since we were leaving for the airport in the afternoon.

I waited for the tattoo place I was familiar with to open, one that's near our home and where I had gotten my previous tattoos. I got there early and waited outside until it opened. But they didn't have any openings until much later. So I searched the internet and found another place that had lots of good reviews and called.

I was in luck. They weren't open for another hour, but they happened to have a guy there who was willing to see me early. I could drive right over.


About 12 minutes later I was walking through the heart of Hollywood, gingerly entering a tattoo shop. It looked much like you would expect a tattoo shop to look with lots of drawings all over the walls. There was a motorcycle and an odd assortment of tattoo artists milling around. We'd had an unusual amount of rain over the past few days, so they had come in early to clean up some water that had leaked in. That was the only reason they were there so early.

I waited nervously as they finished cleaning up. I had to explain what I wanted and fill out and sign several pieces of paper promising not to sue them or blame them for bodily harm.

Then the tattoo guy started prepping my hand. He wiped the areas with alcohol and then shaved the skin. Then he drew the tattoo onto my skin (or they can transfer it from special paper they can print onto—like the temporary tattoos you get at carnivals).

About 15 minutes later, he was done. I was shaky from the nerves and the pain. But I was elated. I felt excited. I was proud of myself. I had done something I had been wanting to do for a while. I had overcome my fear. I felt giddy.

I left the shop and headed back to my car and drove out of Hollywood, still in a bit of disbelief over what I had just done. My finger and my wrist were covered with bandages and they still stung, but I was proud of the pain. I'd been brave enough to do something I had been afraid of for so long, and the fear and the adrenaline from the pain had left me with a feeling of euphoria.

Then about halfway home, I realized I didn't know where my bracelet was.

THE BRACELET: the bracelet my daughter had given me. The bracelet that was more expensive than any bracelet I would ever buy for myself because I don't spend money on fancy jewelry. The bracelet that my daughter could only afford to give me because at the time she had been acting and had money to spend. The bracelet that had been part of the motivation for me to get one of my tattoos.

My euphoria turned to panic.

I was jerked out of my fog by a car honking at me because I was driving erratically as I frantically tried to search myself and my car for any sign of the bracelet.

It was nowhere on me.

I had taken it off in the tattoo shop. The tattoo guy had already swabbed down my hand was holding it tightly because he was drawing the ring design on my finger. He told me I needed to take off my bracelet. So with my free hand I pulled the bracelet off and slipped it into the pocket of my sweatpants.

Then he had me lie down on a massage type table as he did the tattoo so he could secure my had steadily.

Somehow, between lying down on that table and walking to my car a couple of blocks through Hollywood, my bracelet disappeared. Had it fallen out of my pocket? Had someone picked my pocket? I didn't know.

I frantically called the tattoo shop, but they didn't have it. I made an illegal U-turn on Cahuenga Boulevard and headed back into Hollywood. I retraced my steps, but the bracelet was nowhere. I went back into the tattoo shop and asked them to please look everywhere. Could they please check the paper that had been on the table that was now in the garbage?

We didn't find it.

It was gone.

I overheard a guy in another room scoff and say, "It's probably already in a pawn shop by now."

I was distraught. I felt completely crushed.

I walked back to my car. This time, instead of feeling giddy I was feeling despondent. I was desperately searching under cars, checking for any glint of metal.

It was nowhere.

My whole drive I home, I was wondering how I was going to tell my daughter I had lost the bracelet. And I glanced down at my wrist a few times, suddenly feeling pangs of pain as I looked at the bandage that was covering the infinity symbol that a few minutes ago I had been so happy about. This time the pain was not from the needles, but from the reality of not having the bracelet on my wrist.

I won't go through all the drama, but my daughter was upset—very upset. I was upset. And to top everything off, we all had to get on a plane together for a four hour flight to St. Louis.

Several days have passed now. And the pain of the tattoos and the pain of losing the bracelet are starting to become more distant. The pain of the loss of the bracelet, for me, was not the actual bracelet itself. It was just the memory of her giving it to me. It was knowing that she loved seeing it on me. And it was just missing the weight of it on my wrist. It was as if there were a piece of me missing because it had been like I was always carrying a little piece of her with me.

But my attachment to it was never about the actual bracelet. In fact, the bracelet took me a long time to get used to. It was bulky and often clanged into things. It wasn't my style. I don't wear a lot of jewelry. But I loved it because I loved my daughter.

Once the panic had subsided, I realized it was something I was just going to have to let go of. I was not going to ever get the bracelet back. I had even called the closest pawn shop on Hollywood Boulevard hoping someone had tried to sell it. But no one had.

So I don't have the bracelet, but I have the tattoos. I have permanent markings on my body that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And the infinity symbol on my wrist will, in a strange way, keep that bracelet with me too. I will always see the bracelet as part of the tattoo because I had spent so many hours seeing it in my mind before I actually got the tattoo.

And it's just how life is. Things are rarely simply good or simply bad. There are few times things happen exactly the way we want them to.

I'm still sad. I still feel bad. I still wish I had taken that extra moment to make sure I had the bracelet back on before I left the tattoo shop.

But I didn't do that.

So I hope wherever the bracelet is, it is bringing happiness to someone. I hope a homeless guy was able to sell it to buy some food, or maybe someone took it and gave it to his girlfriend. I don't know.

What I do know is that in that flash of realizing that my bracelet was missing, I went from the best of moments to the worst of moments. I don't know that I've ever experienced that before, and I don't think that I want to again.

I asked my mom a couple of questions about this:

Have you ever had an experience like mine where your emotions switched so dramatically?

Yes, I've had that happen and all I can say is that it's wrenching. It sets off an adrenaline reaction that I can feel in my body. And, as part of that adrenaline wearing off, fatigue sets in over the whole event. I think that happens to everyone, whether they're chronically ill, like I am, or not.

I'm sorry you lost the bracelet but I'm glad you have the infinity tattoo as a way of always having Malia with you. And your wishes for the bracelet to be helping or bringing joy to someone else truly touches my heart.

For people who aren't able to let go of material loss, are there any Buddhist practices to help them let go of attachment?

In my experience, the best way to let go of attachment is to reflect on the impermanence of all things. There's a wonderful story that I tell in my first book about a Thai Buddhist monk named Ajahn Chah. A novice monk brought Ajahn Chah some tea and before he could take the cup from the monk's hand, the monk had let go of it and it fell to the ground a broke into dozens of pieces.

The monk was horrified, but Ajahn Chah told him that it was okay because the tea cup was already broken. This story has been tremendously helpful to me over the years. It helps me let loose of my attachment to material things. If I break something that I loved, I say to myself, "It's okay. It was already broken." 

The Buddha said that everything that arises passes away. It can be a hard lesson to live with. After all, it includes our loved ones. And it can also be hard in regard to material things if they're special to us for one reason or another, like that bracelet was to you. 

A few months ago, I dropped a beautiful glass animal I've had for years. To my pleasant surprise, after the initial shock, I felt okay about it. Impermanence impermanence impermanence. Learning to give gracefully with it is one of the keys to finding peace of mind in this life. 

My new tattoos right after they were completed, before they bandaged them. (Before I discovered my bracelet was missing.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sorry, But Making School Lunches is the Worst!

Mara here:

Having to pack a lunch for your kids to take to school is the worst. I know that sounds extreme, but it really is. If you don't have kids, you can't understand how annoying it is.

I can't even explain why it is so awful, but it is. I hated it—and I hate almost nothing. I would rather scoop my dog's poop than have to make school lunch.

As soon as Malia started middle school, I decided I was done. I told her she was old enough to make her own lunch. I still did most of the work by making sure there were bins full of pre-packed foods she could just throw into a bag. But she had to make her own sandwich, and she had to put it all into a bag each morning.

After about a week, she hated doing it as much as I did and started buying her lunch more than taking it.

I was reminded of the pain of making school lunches because a friend recently posted something about how her son had changed schools and she suddenly found herself having to make lunch—and she hated it.

We all think we're alone in our hatred of making school lunches. We all have that moment of wondering if we're bad parents because the process of having to pack snacks and a sandwich drives us to the brink of insanity.

But it appears that there are very few things universally hated by parents more than making school lunch for their kids. Thanks to Facebook, now we can all chime in and assure each other that hating having to make that school lunch is perfectly normal and accepted.

Go figure.

When Malia was in preschool, we had it easy. Her school was on the backlot of Universal Studios. The school had lunches catered by the cafeteria on the lot, and the school served it family style to allow the kids to learn how to serve themselves.

The few times I had to witness lunchtime at the school was pretty painful for me because let's be real: toddlers are terrible at serving themselves. So, yes, it was a good thing that the school was teaching them about passing bowls around and not overfilling serving spoons. But seeing the food slide around the table was hard to watch.

But...the food was really good. It was all freshly made. It was better than the food I knew how to make. So it was pretty sad, lunch-wise, when Malia graduated from preschool and start real school.

She was ecstatic to be starting real school and so were we of course, but it meant I had to make her lunches. I had to drag myself up every morning, make sure she was ready for school, and put together some kind of nutritious meal.

I had to make the sandwich and put the chips in the bag. I had to put cookies in a bag and some sort of healthy vegetable thing. I had to have all the food in stock, and I had to make sure it was stuff she would actually eat. And I had to put it in her lunch box.

Then at the end of the day the thing had to be emptied and cleaned.

I understand that there are probably a few people in the world who don't hate this as much as I hate this, and I am happy for them. And there are apparently a whole world of parents out there who make this whole lunch thing as complicated as possible by cutting their kids' food into shapes like teddy bears and stars.

I was not that mom.

My daughter ended up having to be home schooled for middle school because she was on a TV show that filmed in Utah, an now that she's in high school, she doesn't even take a full lunch anymore. She just grabs a granola bar and eats food when she gets home.

So the painful process of school lunches is behind me. But the second I hear anyone complain about having to pack lunch for their kids, all my vitriol against packing lunches comes rushing back to me. I don't know if I'll ever get over it.

And you might ask why?

I don't know. I can only assume it has to do with it happening early in the morning for kids who really aren't that excited about anything you give them. It feels never ending. It's hard to have to make decisions when you're so sleep deprived and when getting dressed feels impossible. And it feels like a complicated process—there are lots of items to include and you have to try to mix it up because if you give kids the same thing day after day they complain.

Maybe it's simply that it's one more thing on top of the thousands of things we already have to do as parents. I don't know. I knew it wasn't rational at the time.

So if you're a person still packing lunches for school-aged kids, my thoughts are prayers go out to you. I feel your pain.

If you are like me and those days are past, woo hoo!!! We are free!!!

And if you have no idea what this post is about, count yourself lucky because packing lunches is really annoying and it's better if you don't have scars from the experience.

I asked my mom about this very subject:

I know you share my dislike of making school lunches. Why do you think making school lunches is so annoying?

I laughed out loud at your piece, Mara, mostly because, not only did I hate making school lunches like you did but, like you, I could never figure out exactly why! Was it because it was so early in the morning as you suggest? Was it the feeling that it was never-ending, as you also suggest? I read all of your possible reasons, and I'm still not sure. All I can say is "Yup. I hated it too." And, don't forget, I had to make TWO such lunches, one for you and one for your brother. 

What a silly thing to hate, but there you have it! 

For people who are currently feeling the frustration of making school lunches, what advice would you give them to possibly make the process less stressful?

Well, this is a tough question because I never figured out the answer for myself. Here's what comes to mind, though, if I had to do it again. I'd pick stuff that wouldn't get soggy (unlike a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something slathered with mayo) and then I'd make it the night before and the put it in the fridge.

I'm not sure this would make the task less loathsome but, since my best guess is that the dread had something to do with it being so early morning before I was fully awake and before I was in a decision-making mood, doing it the night before sounds like a good plan.

Good luck all you school-lunch makers. You have Mara's and my deepest sympathy!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Don't Be Afraid of Fear

Mara here:

It's a pretty common saying that kids have no fear. And it's true. Kids don't know they should be afraid of things. We aren't born being afraid.

It's learned.

It's a survival mechanism.

We learn to fear pain because pain feels bad and usually means our bodies are in danger.

We learn to fear things that damage us in some way.

But often we allow the feeling of fear to become our dominant reaction. And for many of us, at some point in our lives, our fears determine our actions more than our desires do. Instead of doing things because we want to, we don't do things because we're afraid to.

For a long time I was stuck in a rut because everything felt overwhelming. I was depressed and my anxiety was telling me nothing was possible. My fears were overwhelming every other emotion I had. My fear of the unknown, my fear of failure, my fear of everything kept me from doing anything.

I knew this was happening while it was happening, but I felt unable to do anything about it.

Then one day I woke up and just decided I was going to do something. I did it without thinking about it. I had some sort of spark of ambition still left inside me that took over. It was almost as if I got possessed because, if I'd actually taken the time to carefully think about what I was doing, I would have stopped immediately.

I decided I was going to become a professional photographer and I was going to start asking people if I could take their headshots.

And I did it.

And people said yes.

And then people started paying me to do it!!

For months, I had to push all my fears and all my doubts to the back of my mind. I had to keep myself so busy that I didn't have time to let the fear settle in. If I made sure I had photo shoots every day (sometimes free, sometimes paid) so that I couldn't wonder if I should be doing them. I would just have to do them.

There were moments, usually late at night, when those negative feelings would well up, and I would wonder, "Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I making a fool of myself?"

But the next morning I got up and took the photos. I told myself to do it even if it felt scary. I did it even when I worried every moment of the shoot. I reached out to new clients. I just kept moving forward, even though part of my brain was telling me, "Your next shoot could be the one that shows everyone what a fool you are. What if the next shoot is a failure?"

And looking back, I realize I was afraid of being scared. The idea of feeling insecure felt so uncomfortable that it almost kept me from doing something that I enjoy. Worrying that I would feel afraid was worse than actually experiencing what I was afraid of because, the few times I did feel any concern during a shoot, I dealt with it. And, like most photographers, there have been some shoots that didn't go well, but I learned from them. My life wasn't ruined. I just learned from my mistakes.

But the most important lesson is that had I never pushed aside my fear of feeling afraid, I would never have started my photography business. Don't get me wrong, my business isn't a booming success. It's still small. I'm still figuring out what I'm going to do with it. But it is a business. It's something I created out of nothing. I have worked hard and put myself out there. But most importantly, I faced my fear of failure. I faced my fear of the unknown.

I acknowledged I might fail. And I did it anyway.

There have been times in my life I couldn't have done this. And I'm sure there will be times in the future when I am unable to push past the fear.

But hopefully I can slowly make fear a smaller part of my existence. I know I'll never be a person who can face down everything. I have limits. But every time I'm able to achieve something that I once thought was impossible, it makes me feel stronger. and my fear of being afraid becomes slightly less powerful. And my faith in myself becomes slightly more powerful.

And that feels pretty good.

I asked my mom a few questions about this:

This blog idea was inspired by something you said to me. You'd committed to doing a video interview and said that you thought you were afraid to do it because it would be too hard on your health, but then you realized that what you were afraid of was not actually doing the interview but the physical aftermath of it (the "payback"). Do you have any suggestions for how people can more carefully identify what their true "fears" are?

My suggestion when you're struggling with fear is to get out a piece of paper and write down what you're afraid of. In my experience, just keeping it in your head makes it hard to pin down because the mind is so squirrelly. It flits all over the place! 

But if you take the fears that pop into your mind and write them down and then come back to them a bit later, you're able to see things more objectively. That helps you know if what you thought you were afraid of reflects your real fears. It's almost as if you're reading what someone else wrote down—someone who was asking you to help them. When you see it on paper like that you to may see right away that you've mis-identified what you're really afraid of.

If you are feeling discomfort or fear about something you have to do, do you have practices to help you overcome those feelings?

I do a few things. First, I remind myself that no one is as concerned with how I'll do at something as I am. We tend to be our own worse critics even though that criticism usually bears no resemblance to what actually took place. Knowing this helps me not take my fears and discomforts so seriously. After the interview you mentioned ended, the people in the room told me I did a great job, but all I could think of was the stuff I'd left out. It was that inner critic again. I've learned to ignore it for the most part—to even label it ("Oh you silly inner critic") and even laugh at it—and then just forge ahead despite my fears or discomfort. (Here's a piece I wrote for Psychology Today on how to tame that inner critic: "A Sure-Fire Way to Silence Your Inner Critic.")

Second, I remind myself that things rarely—truly rarely—go the way I think they will and that's another good reason not to take my fears so seriously: what I'm fearing rarely comes to pass.

Finally, I often ask myself, "What's the worst that can happen?" So, for example, take that interview. The worse that could have happened was that it might not have been a good interview. Well, given the whole of my life, does it really matter that one interview didn't go well? No! 

As for the "payback" from the interview due to my illness, what's the worse that can happen? I'll feel extra sick for a few days. Since I really wanted to do this interview (retired U.C. Davis faculty and staff are being interviewed for a campus video history), it was worth the payback. So, basically, as is helpful with so many things in life, I weigh the pros and cons of something and, in this case, the pros of doing the interview outweighed the cons of the effort to do it and the "payback," so I just went ahead and did it. And I'm glad I did.

I'm not suggesting that any of this is easy. It can take courage (clearly pursuing professional photography has taken a tremendous amount of courage on your part). One of my favorite movie lines comes from a little known film called Bounce starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Ben Affleck. Affleck's character is afraid of something and Paltrow's character says to him, "It's not brave if you're not scared." That may not always be true but, for some reason, this line has stuck with me. It's helped me feel brave even when I'm afraid and that makes it easier to forge ahead and just do it!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"Just Keep Swimmin'" Through Each Day

Mara here:

I really wish I was an optimist.

I don't think of myself as a hardcore pessimist, but I don't feel positive about things most of the time.

I worry. I have a lot of anxiety. I overthink, and then I crazy overthink some more.

I don't necessarily assume things will go wrong, but I explore all the possibilities because I want to feel prepared. Obviously, though, you can't be prepared for everything, so my mind just sort of spins in circles with how unprepared I am.

It's exhausting.

Once I became a parent, I hoped that my anxiety wouldn't develop in my daughter. I didn't want to project my worries onto her. So I've tried to hide my anxieties as much as possible, so she could form her world view and approach without being tainted by mine.

But, whether through nature or nurture, Malia has developed the tendency to worry. I'm hoping some of it is due to her age (hormones) and her current environment (extremely stressful Junior year of high school—which they say is the hardest). But I'm sure some of it is genetic, and some of it is that, as much as I've tried to mask my anxiety, most of us can't really hide who we are from those we are closest to.

So my daughter has been struggling with fears and doubts and periodic moments of depression.

And as a mother who suffers from the same issues, it's been really difficult for me to handle Malia's struggles. On top of having the struggles with my own life, the guilt and pain I feel when I see Malia struggling is sometimes overwhelming.

It makes it hard for me to know how to advise her. I want to be the type of parent who can honestly look at her child and say, "Everything will be okay." I want to be the type of person who actually feels like everything will be okay. But I'm not. I have always felt a bit suspicious. When I'm having a really bad time, sometimes I wonder if things will ever not feel bad.

When Malia was little, it was easier for me to tell her that things would be okay because, for the most part, I could actually make things okay for her. But now that she's older and she's out there in the world on her own for much of the time so I can't make those same promises.

And so, when she recently asked me how people live, even if they don't feel like they have anything to live for, I was speechless for a moment. She wasn't being dramatic. It wasn't about being suicidal. It wasn't about wanting to die. She was simply asking the age old question: "What is the point of life?"

And I didn't know how to answer. So I said, "Honestly honey, I don't know."

Well, she didn't like that answer at all.

So, after going back and forth with her about what the point of life is and why people don't just commit suicide, I said, "The only thing I do know about life is that you have to just keep moving forward. You keep doing things because you never know what will happen. You might think you know. And things might not change for a stretch of time. But everything eventually changes."

And for some reason when I said that, the image of the character of Dory from the animated film Finding Nemo popped into my head. She was the character (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) who only had short term memory. So she would swim around saying "Just keep swimmin'" because she couldn't ever remember why she was swimming or where she was going. But she knew she'd get somewhere eventually.

And for me, that really does encapsulate life. You have to keep going and eventually you get somewhere. And sometimes we like where we get and sometimes we don't. But it never stays the same if we just keep moving forward.

I have to remind myself of this when I have sudden flashes of feeling stuck or when panic overcomes me because things feel mysteriously and suddenly bad.

When this happens, I breathe and remind myself that it won't feel bad forever. And I tell myself this, even though there's a part of my brain that always doubts it; but thinking the thought is the first step. Then I force myself to do something—anything—because if I can make myself do something, there's a good chance my emotional state will change. So I'll do the dishes or I'll watch a cat video on YouTube. 

And sometimes the feeling passes, and sometimes it doesn't. But even when the feeling lingers, I've at least reminded myself that the feeling is just a feeling. It's not actually a physical block keeping me from doing things in my life.

It's amazing how physical our emotions feel. Depression really can sometimes make me feel as if my body can no longer function. But if you're lucky, and have a support system or access to therapy, you learn to recognize those feelings as not true, and you learn to push through them.

And today, in the midst of Malia feeling in a bit of funk for the past couple of months, out of the blue I got a call that was a pleasant surprise for her. An opportunity to do something fun. Totally unexpected. Not something we could have anticipated or even guessed. (For those who are curious, she was asked to assist by running sound at the casting call for dancers for the upcoming Shania Twain tour. So she'll get to sit with the choreographer—the amazing Mandy Moore—and see the casting experience from the other side of the table. Plus she'll be earning some money!)

It's nothing earth shattering—nothing huge—but just something really nice. And it was a real in-the-moment example of how you never know what might happen. It's a great reminder that change and new experiences are always out there, sometimes just around the corner.

So much of my life has been, and still is sometimes, spent worrying about the future. But I know that, even if I can't always control it, worrying is just energy wasted. Especially when the worry is that nothing will ever change. Life always changes. Sometimes we get stuck and it feels like nothing's changing, but even if it's slow, change is happening.

Thankfully, I've developed a level of confidence in knowing that if I want change, I can create change. More importantly, I know that even though my brain sometimes tries to trick me by telling me the future is bad, I don't know what it holds. I do know that my brain doesn't know as much as it thinks it does!

I've learned that no matter what I'm feeling that I can keep going. I can keep swimming.

(P.S. In case anyone wonders, I do always have surprising moments of bliss. So the brain really is tricky. And I don't want people to think all my sudden moods are negative. I have a full range of mood swings. I'm super fun to live with 😉.)

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this subject:

What is the Buddhist approach to dealing with the question of living with what is perceived as a constant state of unhappiness?

The Buddha was very realistic about life. I like to say he "told it as it is." And, "as it is" includes not being happy all the time. He spoke of what I call The Buddha's List (this is in the first noble truth). It's a list of experiences that all of us can expect to encounter at one time or another during our lifetimes: birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, pain, grief, getting what we don't want, not getting what we want, and losing what we cherish (including loved ones).

I appreciate that he prepared me in this way so that I wasn't swept away by life's hard times and disappointments.

As I see it, he wasn't being negative. He was just trying to prepare us for life. And he didn't say that life consists only of these experiences! Life is a mixed bag and, for that reason, I take refuge in a universal law that the Buddha also emphasized: impermanence. 

Mara, you write about this in your piece when you say that, as miserable as one day might be, something that will make you happy may be just around the corner (like the unexpected phone call Malia got). I write a lot about impermanence. Readers of my books will know that I use the weather as a metaphor for life: unpredictable, uncertain, and impermanent. 

Yes, this can be a source of unhappiness but, for me, when I'm having an everything's-going-wrong day or when I'm in a funk (yes, I do get in funks), I know that everything is impermanent and that's soothing and reassuring to me. 

I've written a lot of pieces for Psychology Today on how to skillfully deal with tough times. Here are some of those pieces in case readers would like to read them (the last one contains my commentary on some helpful and inspiring quotations on this subject): 

"A Secret for Surviving a Rough Day"
"When You're Down and Out: Getting Through the Bad Days"
"Learning the Live Gracefully with Change and Uncertainty"

Knowing you, I know that you've never been suicidal, but with your illness, have you ever questioned the meaning of your life?

I don't think you can get to be my age without questioning the meaning of life. I have many times...and my current answer may be out of the mainstream, but here it is: I don't think there's a particular meaning to life. To me, life is a mystery, but although a mystery, the fact is we're here, and so, in my view, we should make the best of it by treating ourselves and others with kindness, by helping people out whenever we can, and by doing things that are fulfilling and enjoyable to us. 

I don't mind that life is a mystery. There's an ancient poem by Setcho Juken I've lived by for so many years that I put it at the beginning of my very first book, How to Be Sick:

One, seven, three, five—
Nothing to rely on in this or any world;
Nighttime falls and the water is flooded with moonlight.
Here in the Dragon's jaws:
Many exquisite jewels.

Yes, many exquisite jewels. You and Malia are two of them.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

And the Oscar Goes To...

Mara here:

It's that time of year again. Oscar time.

Everyone knows about the Oscars, but if you live in Los Angeles, it's a big deal.

Surprisingly, this year I've seen almost all the Best Picture Nominees. I'm a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has its own award show so, to promote their films, some production companies send out screener copies to eligible voters.

These are called "for your consideration" campaigns. Production companies pour a lot of money into advertising to get voters (whether it be for SAG or the Academy Awards) to vote for their films. Winning an award can mean a huge boost at the box office, on DVD, and in streaming sales. And it brings prestige to the company that made the film.

As part of those campaigns, they send out screeners in the form of DVDs or free online viewing, so members will be familiar with the performances. It can be really helpful for smaller films that perhaps don't get a wide release (meaning they don't get released nationally or in very many theaters.)

And it works. Because there are definitely films that I wouldn't bother to pay for, but I will watch because they've sent me a DVD of it.

So everywhere I've looked for the past few weeks, on social media, on billboards, even on television, there are ads "for your consideration." The larger studios, like Universal, Warner Brothers, Sony, etc. will pour a lot of resources into making their nominees visible to potential voters.

Here's an example of a "for your consideration" ad I've seen on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter:

Since Los Angeles is probably where the majority of Academy voters live, the presence of the Oscars looms large. If you want to know more about voting for the Oscars, you can find out here:

The SAG awards are a much smaller deal. They mean a lot to actors, because becoming a member of the actors union is usually a big milestone for people who want to act professionally. But the awards aren't as big a deal to the production companies, so we don't get that many screeners. However, because this year many of the Best Picture nominees are smaller, more independent films, there was a lot of crossover between the movies that have been nominated for both SAG awards and Oscars.

Since my daughter and I are both members of SAG, it means we get two sets of screeners. So because we have an extra set, I am happy I can send my mom a copy of the screeners since she isn't able to get out to the theaters. Technically, since the screeners aren't supposed to leave my possession, if anyone asks, I watched the screeners with her. It can be our secret.

The only movie I didn't see was Phantom Thread mainly because I didn't want to see it. And it came out too late to be considered for the SAG awards, so we didn't get a screener. As much as I love Daniel Day Lewis, I just didn't feel motivated to see it. It looked kind of dreary. I could be totally wrong. I'll probably rent it when it's available.

So here's what I think of the pictures nominated that I did see:

Call Me by Your Name—Beautiful. If you're at all uncomfortable with homosexuality, this will not be the film for you. But, it's beautifully shot and the acting is phenomenal. My father-in-law calls it Italy porn, because it is shot in an exquisite Italian village. And the acting by both Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer is fantastic. Particularly Chalamet, who is a young actor. There's a level of comfort and nuance that is really impressive. It's just a really beautiful film in every way. Is it Best Picture? Probably not.

Darkest Hour—Very well done. If you like history or are an Anglophile, you will like this movie. It's a fantastic acting performance by Gary Oldman and very interesting to get insight into the days leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk. There's a good chance Oldman will win Best Actor. Is it Best Picture? Probably not.

Dunkirk—Visually stunning. Dunkirk is definitely the most unique war movie I've ever seen. There's a surprising lack of dialogue, which made the acting performances incredibly important. Fortunately it has an amazing ensemble cast, and since I'm a huge fan of Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy, I was pretty much riveted the entire time. Is it Best Picture? Maybe.

Get Out—Surprising. It was not at all what I expected. I thought it was incredibly well done for a "horror" genre film. And its commentary on race relations was sophisticated and compelling. But I was not as big a fan of the film as many others were. I really really liked it. But some people I know thought it was revolutionary. For me, it was a very good movie. Is it Best Picture? Probably not.

Lady Bird—Great Film. This movie really resonated with me, partly because I was raised in Davis, which is right next to Sacramento, but mostly because I have a very complicated relationship with a strong-willed teenaged daughter. The acting performances were so nuanced and the relationships felt so genuine. (This film also featured another performance by Timothee Chalamet. Also featured was Lucas Hedges who is in Three Billboards as well.) I really loved this film, and it was something I could share with my daughter. But is it Best Picture? Probably not.

Phantom Thread—I didn't see it. It looks like it's beautifully shot. And it's probably very well acted. But is it Best Picture? I'm guessing not. But obviously, not having not seen the film, my opinion doesn't mean anything.

The Post—It was good. It wasn't great. It was pretty much what I expected. I figured it would be a watchable film, and the story is definitely interesting. But I wasn't blown away by it. And in terms of performances, it wasn't even my favorite acting performances by this set of actors. I'm a huge fan of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, but they didn't wow me in this. It was like a polished, not as good version of All the President's Men. Is it Best Picture? Probably Not.

The Shape of Water—Poetic. It was mesmerizing to watch. I'm not even really a fan of these kinds of stories, part fantasy, part drama, and I definitely enjoyed it. I've heard it described as a fairy tale, and that's pretty accurate. But it was really beautiful—a beautiful story and beautifully filmed. And the acting performance by Sally Hawkins, playing a mute character, was completely stunning. She really deserves all the accolades she's gotten. But I got too distracted by the creature. It just looked like a guy in a rubber suit to me, and that made it harder for me to get lost in the story. But aside from that one aspect, I enjoyed it. Is it Best Picture? Possibly. There's a lot of buzz about it and it has already won a lot of awards.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—Intense. Okay, full disclosure. We went to this movie thinking it was a comedy. It was marketed as a comedy. We knew it would be a dark comedy, but it's definitely a DARK dark comedy. So about a third of the way into the movie, we were like, what's going on?

But it's an incredible movie. It's unique, it's intense, and the acting is impressive. Frances McDormand, as a grieving, tough-as-nails mother, really gives an outstanding performance, although it was Sam Rockwell's performance as a drunken, racist, police deputy, that really wowed me. Everything about the film is complex, and thought provoking.

It's not a perfect film. Some of the plotting felt forced. And it's definitely a dark comedy—bordering on satire. Don't go in thinking you're seeing a docu-drama. But it's definitely an outstanding film. Is it Best Picture? Probably. I'm guessing it's between Three Billboards and The Shape of Water. 

So we'll see tonight! I could definitely be wrong. Hopefully there will be no crazy Best Picture announcement snafus like there was last year.

Toni here. I was fortunate enough to get advance DVDs for some of these movies from Mara, so I've seen five of the nine that are nominated for Best Picture: The Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Comparing these five is like comparing five foods that taste completely different. I don't have one favorite. I'll share a few thoughts on my three favorites though. 

Dunkirk is the best war movie I've ever seen. It's rich visually and it's also an intimate look at war—mainly its effect on people in the midst of it even though, as Mara said, there's surprisingly little dialogue. I learned a lot of history from it, including details about the British fishing boats that came across the English Channel to evacuate Allied soldiers from the French shore. I was completely absorbed in it from beginning to end.

The Shape of Water is perhaps the oddest movie I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the most creative ones. If I had read a plot summary beforehand, I would have said, "What? That sounds preposterous. I'm skipping this one." But, knowing nothing about it, I put it on because it stars one of my favorite actors: Sally Hawkins. I've seen her in period pieces—as Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion—and I've seen her play a working class Brit—in Happy-Go-Lucky (for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress) and in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. Oh, and the movie also features another one of my favorite actors, the seasoned pro, Richard Jenkins, who has been in a supporting role in dozens of movies and who played the father in one of my favorite TV shows: Six Feet Under.

I've called The Shape of Water odd and it was, but it was utterly enchanting. That's the best description I have for it, and that's why I loved it. It drew me into its world and made me feel joyful.

That brings me to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I thought this movie was so good that I've watched it twice. Perhaps that in itself makes it my favorite. The acting by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell is incredible. I already knew she was a great actor, but I never thought Sam Rockwell was. He's reason enough to see this movie—that's how good he is.

It's an Indie film. I love Indies but I've found that so many of them—even when they're great character studies and creative in plot—disappoint at the end, as if the screenwriter didn't know how to wrap it up in a satisfying way (satisfying whether it's a happy or a sad ending...or a bit of both). Three Billboards had, for me, the perfect ending. I wasn't expecting it, which was nice in itself, and it left me satisfied that the story and character arcs had a beginning, middle, and end.

I'm looking forward to this year's Oscars because I've seen so many of the films that have been nominated in various categories.