Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Things That Irritate Us Even Though They Shouldn't

Mara here. I try to be a reasonable person. I'm sure my daughter will disagree, but generally I feel as if I can handle most of life's everyday little disappointments. But sometimes my brain absolutely just explodes with frustration when I encounter little setbacks. 

I know that, logically, I shouldn't get upset when these things happen. And, somehow, by exercising all my powers of control and by deep breathing, I manage to contain the fireworks that threaten to shoot out my ears, even though I want to throw myself on the ground and throw a tantrum.

I can deal with most things that don't go the way I planned. I can deal with a flat tire or someone showing up late or an unexpected errand I have to go on. But there are some strange little things that make me crazy. And yes, I realize it's ridiculous I get this upset about these things...but I still get upset. At least I realize that it's ridiculous.

Here are a few:

Gas pumps with no way to keep the handle pressed

I'm sure there's a technical term for the little thingy on gas pumps that make it so I don't have to stand there keeping the handle pressed to actually pump gas into my car. But I don't know what the name of that thingy is...and I don't care. I just want it to work. And 99.9% of the time, it does work, so I can pretend I am anywhere but standing at the gas station waiting for my tank to fill up.

But there's that rare occasion when that thingy is either missing from the pump or is broken and I have to actually use my hand muscles for the entire 5 or 6 minutes it takes to fill my tank. It drives me crazy. It honestly feels like an injustice when this happens. It's pretty miraculous that I manage to get through these ordeals without ending up in a viral video of a crazy middle-aged Asian woman throwing a fit at a gas station.

When the hamburger place has no chicken for their tacos

We have a hamburger stand near our house that we've been walking to ever since we moved here about 14 years ago. And although it's called a hamburger place, they have amazing tacos. The tacos are available with beef or chicken. The beef ones are okay, but the chicken ones are incredibly tasty! They're savory and spicy. And, having been grilled on the same grill as the hamburgers are, the flavor is extra greasy. They're like street tacos, but they're about three times the size of normal street tacos. 

But sometimes, when I try to order chicken tacos, they're out of them. It's a culinary crisis because the chicken tacos are my favorite thing. And I usually don't want anything else from there. I think I've been dreaming all day about eating one of those chicken tacos. It's a major bummer.

When there's only Coke Light and no Diet Coke

In all fairness, this has only been a problem when I've been in other countries. But seriously world, is too much to ask for Diet Coke in all the major cities of the world? Coke Zero and Coke Light just aren't the same thing. I don't care how many times my husband tells me he thinks they taste the same, nothing is the same as Diet Coke. Nothing. 

Okay. Toni here with my own list of things that irritate me even though they shouldn't. [P.S. I laughed out loud at your list, Mara]:

When someone says, "Have a nice day." 

Okay, if they really mean it, it doesn't irritate me or if I think their boss has instructed them to say it so they have no choice, it doesn't irritate me. But when people say it just to say it, it irritates me!

My husband

He maintains that he couldn't possibly irritate me, ever. But I have to give him the bad news: sometimes he irritates me, even though he's the best partner and caregiver a person could ask for.

Watering my bonsai in the summer

This definitely shouldn't irritate me but it does because, in the summer, I have to water them every third day. This involves taking the plants outside (which takes three trips), filling two water pots to the top, performing the task, and then, after a bit, bringing the plants back inside. 

On watering day, I wake up and say, "Oh no!" which is why I include this task here. But is it worth it? Absolutely. I love having five little trees growing in my bedroom. It's just irritating to have to water them so often in the summer.


Hopefully all you readers are calmer and more rational people than we are! But if you aren't, what are things that make you irrationally crazy?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Sad Side of Social Media

Mara here. I’ve written before about social media, and for the most part I really enjoy being able to keep tabs on people at a distance. I love seeing photos of people’s families, and I like to hear people’s good news, like weddings, the birth of babies, pet adoptions, and graduations.

However, the other side of social media is that it means I'm sharing people’s sad news too.

This week I found out that two people I primarily stayed in touch with on Facebook passed away.  

They weren’t people I was very close to. One was a woman who was the relative of a close friend, whom I had had over to our house for a holiday meal a couple of times. The other was a woman had been involved in the television production my daughter was in, but I didn’t stay in regular touch with her. (Shortly after I saw it on Facebook, I was contacted by a mutual friend with confirmation of the sad news.)

This is not the first time I’ve had this happen. I've found out on social media about other friends—and even a family member—passing away. But there was something about having it happen with two friends within two days that has made me think about the impact of finding out sad news in this way.

It’s difficult. It’s a bizarre combination of something being incredibly personal and incredibly impersonal at the same time. And it's so sudden. In addition, it gets mixed in among the jokes and vacation photos that pop up in my Facebook feed. It’s like biting my tongue when I’m eating something. It’s shocking and seems unreal. 

It caused me to flash back to a memory of when I found out about the death of one of my best friends from high school and college. Her mother called me. I knew as soon as her mother identified herself that there was something terribly wrong. In nine years of close friendship, my friend's mother had never called me before. But even then, I had that second to prepare myself—that second between her telling me who she was but before she tearfully relayed the news that my friend had died.

On Facebook, there's no time to prepare.

And I find the fact that the pages of people who've died live on without them to be a bit haunting.  For me, seeing their familiar avatars continue to show up in my Facebook feed, as friends and family post memorial messages on their pages, makes it more difficult for me to accept that they've passed away.

Facebook is regularly asking me to update things in my profile. It likes to remind me that I only have 20% of my personal information filled out. And they're constantly doing updates, so there are always new features they want to highlight. Last week I was a little startled when Facebook asked me if there was someone I wanted to designate to be able to post on my profile page in the event of my death.

Although the obvious people for me to designate are my husband and my daughter, I didn’t. I hesitated. It's logical as with any other piece of property, Facebook wants someone to be able to take ownership of pages of people who are deceased. Maybe family members wouldn’t want pages to be left out there in cyberspace. And like me, I’m guessing most people want to know if something has happened to their “friends,” so it’s practical for someone to be able to post and make an announcement that everyone in the friend's list would be able to see. 

But I didn’t want to fill out this new request. I’m not afraid of death, and I’m not someone who doesn’t want to think about dying. But somehow the thought of giving someone the responsibility of notifying everyone on Facebook felt uncomfortable.

People feel differently about the role that social media should play in their lives. Some people feel as if you shouldn’t post things that are too personal (like relationship problems) or that you shouldn’t post things that are political. And maybe it’s a generational thing. Perhaps my daughter’s kids will not think twice about having all their life details preserved on social media. I’m somewhere in between. People should post what they want. But when people die, should their social media presence live on without them? Is that what I would want? I’m not sure.

The web makes our ever-shrinking world even smaller. People I would never have maintained any contact with twenty years ago, are now a regular part of my consciousness through their social media posts. I guess that means there are more people who will sadly be lost to me as the years pass by. And in the end, I’m glad that I am able to have the information so I can say my own goodbye and provide comfort to people who are still alive if I’m close to them.

But it is an aspect of social media that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. Here are a few of the things I have asked myself over the past two days that I thought I would discuss with my mom:

Have you had experience of finding out about the death of friends on Facebook?

Yes. I have several times and it can be traumatic. The most traumatic time was learning in my Facebook feed about the death of you and your brother Jamal's elementary school teacher, Marla. If I add together the years for the two of you that she was your teacher, it comes to 5 years. I used to tell Marla that she helped raise the two of you. In addition, we became good friends and hung out socially. I loved her very much. 

The way I found out was that I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and her daughter, whom I was friends with, had posted that Marla died in an auto accident. When I saw the post, it felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach.

I will say that because I'm mostly housebound, in some ways, I was glad to find out that way because, otherwise, I might not have known for several days.

But as you discussed, finding out on Facebook was startling because there was no time to prepare. And it felt so impersonal. Even getting an email about someone's death doesn't feel impersonal because at least the email is addressed to me.

So I have had that experience on Facebook and it's pretty jarring.

If it’s someone you’re not super close to, do you think in some ways you would prefer to simply not know that they had died?

No. I like to know what happens to people. And sometimes I learn interesting things about them I didn't know because people share their memories of their deceased friend. Obviously, hearing the news of the passing of people I'm not close to doesn't have the same traumatic effect as it does when it's someone I am close to. Instead, it's just sad information—part of life.

Have you given any thought to how you would want your social media accounts to be handled in the event of your death?

That's an interesting question because I have accounts on a bunch of social media sites, even though I'm only regularly active on Facebook. I have a couple of Google accounts, Twitter, Pinterest, Linkedin, and some I've probably forgotten about. 

I've seen two approaches on Facebook. Sometimes when a person dies, his or her page disappears. But other times, the page stays up for a couple of months or even a year, and people post their condolences and memories of the person. That must be comforting for family and friends to be able to see, and they probably learn new things about their loved one. So I think it's nice when a page becomes a kind of memorial to the person who died.

But for me personally, I don't have any preferences. I have two pages on Facebook that are very active: my personal page and my professional page—I call it the page for my books but I post a lot of photos—mostly of flowers and birds and paintings. Whatever is done with those pages after I die is fine with me.

Have you gone out of your way to make sure that someone knows all of the passwords?

No, but I guess I should. I know this can be a problem because when a friend's husband died several years ago, she didn't have any of the passwords to their financial accounts that were online and it was a mess to sort it all out. So, I think your dad should know my passwords. That's something I should probably take care of!

Mara and I would love to hear your thoughts on "the sad side of social media."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What Are You Afraid Of?

I'm reading Stephen King's book It.  The movie is coming out later this year and I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. For those of you not familiar with it, it's a story about a group of kids and their experience with an evil presence (that normally takes the form of a clown) in their home town.  The story spans a few decades covering their childhood and subsequent reunion when they are adults. 

It's pretty creepy. There aren't many books that have made me uncomfortable while I'm reading them. There have been a few that have given me strange dreams: The Golden Compass by  Philip Pullman and The Windup Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami are two that I can think of off the top of my head. But they didn't trigger a fear response.

It is definitely creeping me out.

In general, I enjoy being a little creeped out. I enjoy horror movies. I like that little rush of adrenaline and suspense. And most of the time, as soon as the movie ends, I'm not afraid anymore. But I do have my limits. And for some reason, It is pushing them. I have a couple of times chosen not to read the book late at night, and there have been a couple of times I've thought twice about running to the bathroom when the house was dark. 

As soon as I realize this is happening, I am able to shake it off and remind myself I'm being silly, but it has definitely made me think about what I'm afraid of—not afraid in a phobic way the way people are afraid of spiders. I'm talking about things that I don't like to think about if I'm sitting in a dark room. Here are a few:

Ghosts. I'm not afraid of running into something covered in a white sheet in my garage. I just don't want confirmation of the existence of a supernatural presence. I don't understand the people who like to stay in hotels that are haunted because they want to see things flying around a room. I am pretty happy believing that those things don't exist. Same thing with aliens. I'm not saying that I don't think aliens and ghosts are possible—I actually do think they are possible. But I prefer to be ignorant of their existence for as long as possible.

Dolls. I've never really liked dolls. I'm not sure why. I just find them creepy. When my daughter was young, I was really hoping she wouldn't want dolls because I have such a hard time with them but, of course, she was obsessed with American Girl Dolls. She would have them strewn about her room, so late at night when I would check on her, it looked like there were little dead bodies scattered all over. Macabre I know, but this is why I don't like dolls. Something about their lifeless eyes that stare at me. In a similar way that I prefer to believe ghosts don't exist, I was always afraid I would see a doll move and that I wouldn't be able to ever unsee it again. 

Clowns. I could have lumped clowns in with dolls, because they're creepy to me for the same reason. But where dolls are pretend in a physical way, clowns are pretend in an emotional way. I have a hard time laughing at them. Perhaps it's because we're supposed to laugh at their misfortune. We're entertained by the fact they fall and stumble. Or maybe it's because their makeup is meant to deceive. It's exaggerated happiness painted over sad faces. I don't know. But I find clowns super creepy. And clown dolls are the worst. The clown scene in Poltergeist definitely gave me nightmares. 

Toni here. Mara and I recognize that most of us have fears in relation to the safety and well-being of our loved ones, so we don't address that. This is intended to be a more lighthearted piece. And so, here are a few things I'm afraid of:

My car not starting. There's a simple reason why I'm afraid of my car not starting. For many years after I started driving, that's exactly what happened sometimes—and not just to me. Once in a while, everyone's car simply wouldn't start...and not because of a dead battery. Today's cars are much more reliable. Still, whenever I turn the key in the ignition, I think, "I hope it starts."

Pit Bulls. I know that a lot of people have pit bulls who are great pets. I simply had an incident that happened to me and I've been afraid of them ever since. I was with my dog, Rusty, at a small park. I had a "chuck-it" and was throwing a tennis ball for him to retrieve. Two pit bulls approached and then separated from each other, taking up a position with one slightly to one side of us and other slightly to the other side. Then they started slowly walking toward us. There was no way for us to walk past them and there was a fence behind us. All I had was Rusty, a tennis ball, and that chuck-it. Not knowing what else to do, I held the chuck-it up as it it were a weapon. I held it up, facing one of the dogs and then the other, and went back and forth. They stared at me and then, after about a minute, they turned and walked out of the park. Maybe one day, I'll meet a friendly pit bull and won't be afraid of them anymore.

Being pecked by birds! Ever since I saw Hitchcock's movie The Birds, I've been afraid that a bird will swoop down on me and peck at my head. This fear wasn't helped by my husband coming home from a jog many years ago and telling me that he'd been attacked by a bird. (They evidently will aim for your hair when they're building a nest.) Whatever their reason is...they scare me.

Mara and I would love to know what you're afraid of!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Do You Need a Vacation From Your Vacation?

Mara here. I just got back from a vacation and, for the first time in my life, I didn't feel like I needed a vacation from my vacation.

I don't have a lot of experience with vacations as an adult. I've done a lot of traveling, but most of it has been for business in one way or another. I can only think of a handful of trips I've been on that were 100% because we just decided to go somewhere. Usually it's associated with a job or a family obligation. 

And, as should come to little surprise to people who regularly read the blog, I find traveling extremely stressful. No amount of planning can make me feel prepared. After three years of almost constant travel, I finally feel as if packing is not cause for a complete nervous breakdown. I pretty much know exactly what I will need, and a lot of it is now pre-organized and ready to throw into a suitcase.

But the actual traveling part still causes a lot of anxiety. Physically, I am fidgety. I have a hard time sitting for long stretches at a time. I am the person in the movie theater wiggling around, trying to find a comfortable position every ten minutes. And mentally, well, I am anxious when I'm sitting in my living room, so dealing with travel schedules, airlines, strange cities, and hotels is definitely cause for stress.

And the thing is, it would be easy for me to simply not go places. In fact, there have been a lot of trips we haven't taken simply because the stress of traveling makes the trip not worth it to me. But as I'm getting older, I'm realizing I really do want to see a lot of places. I don't want to stop experiencing things. 

As a kid, we'd go on trips almost every year as a family. When I was in elementary school, we'd go to Disneyland each summer. When I got older, my parents started taking us to Hawaii. Those trips were fun, but they were never as much fun as I thought they would be. I had visions of vacations that I'd seen in movies or on TV, and somehow my actual experience never measured up. I never felt as relaxed as it seemed I should. I never met cool people who would become my best friends. I didn't have money to go on big shopping sprees.

When I got married, we went on a couple of trips, but the stress of worrying about travel plans and money and having high expectations ultimately made those trips more stressful than enjoyable. I still have great memories from those trips, but I never had the feeling of escape or relaxation. I came home exhausted.

Once Malia was born, traveling took on a whole different meaning. Trips were more focused on how to accommodate her. The strain of being responsible for making sure she was taken care of and entertained made it impossible for me to think about my own enjoyment. Traveling with her for three years while she was working (as an actress) was incredibly stressful. During that time, the thought of going anywhere just for fun was out of the question.

But now Malia doesn't travel for work anymore, and she's old enough that my husband and I have the freedom to travel on our own some. When she decided to do a summer academic program where she'd be living in dorms for three weeks at Cornell University, Brad decided we should take a trip on our own.

We had recently discussed how strange it was that, even though we both grew up in California, neither of us had ever been to Mexico even though many Californians vacation there. Brad likes to plan trips, and he knows I do not like to plan trips, so he took on the responsibility of planning our short getaway. He chose Cabo, on the Southern tip of Mexico because it's a relatively short, direct, flight from Los Angeles.

I was apprehensive. I wanted to be excited, but I felt nervous. I kept my anxiety to myself though. I handled the stress mostly by pretending we weren't going. I've discovered that if I just don't think about things and let them happen with little or no interference from me, they tend to go more smoothly. So I didn't think about the trip very much. I didn't tell people we were going, and I didn't try to imagine what the trip would be like.

It turns out that this is the key for me to having a relaxing vacation.

I am lucky that Brad does a great job planning trips. He knows me pretty well by now, so he goes out of his way to pick places that he knows I'll like. Not everyone has this luxury. If I had to plan the trip, I'm not sure I would be able to enjoy it as much.

I'm guessing that most people don't feel this way but, for me, just allowing the vacation to happen with no expectations and not really even knowing what the plan was, made it possible for me to enjoy it. Brad booked us into a wonderful resort where we didn't need to worry about where to get food (there were several restaurants on the property) and because we were only there for a few days, we didn't plan anything. 

I guess that's actually not true, we planned to do nothing.

We didn't want to feel constrained by activities. We didn't want lists of have to's and schedules. If we wanted to sit on the beach, we did. If we wanted to sit by the pool, we did. If we wanted to sit in the hotel room and read or take a nap, we did.

And that was the beauty of the trip. There was nothing we felt we had to do. We purposely decided we wouldn't pre-plan any sightseeing. We didn't pre-book activities. We went armed with several books on our Kindle's and with sun screen. 

And we both had a great time. 

The "me" of a couple of decades ago would not have been able to handle this. I would have wanted to plan things, to do things, to see things. And the result would have been stressful and exhausting. 

This time, we didn't plan anything and there was no expectation that we would do anything. It didn't mean we couldn't do things. In the end, we decided to take a quick trip into the city of Cabo to check out the marina, but it was easy and we didn't feel pressure. 

"Be open to everything. Expect nothing." This is a phrase I learned from Wayne Dyer and I really tried to have this approach to our trip. And it worked.

We came home feeling relaxed. It was the first time I've ever taken a trip and realized that I could travel somewhere and feel this way.

It's not that every trip we take will be this way. We want to go to China and Machu Pichu, where we'll plan a lot of sightseeing. But I think we both now realize that it's also important to have trips where we don't plan things. It's important to have trips where relaxing and doing nothing are the focus.

Maybe (hopefully) other people already know this secret to having relaxing vacations.

I know that before she became chronically ill, traveling for my mom was very different than it's been for me. She really enjoyed the planning. She liked to do research and look at maps and read guidebooks. For her, the planning was part of the fun of the trip.

Here are some questions I asked her.

Did you enjoy traveling, or did you find it stressful?

I loved it. As you said, part of the fun for me was planning the trip. I remember buying a book called Hidden Hawaii. It was supposed to have all the spots that were spectacular but that others didn't know about. I marked up that book so much! And I did indeed take us to many of those places—especially some beautiful deserted beaches—deserted by tourists, that is, but often frequented by locals, who were fun to talk to.

Traveling has changed so much since I stopped being able to go places due to illness. (Once a year, we do rent a cottage for a few nights at a beach that's near us. If you'd like to see a piece I wrote on what it's like to vacation when you're chronically ill, click here). I got sick in May of 2001, right before everything changed at the airports. I can't imagine waiting in long security lines. And I've also been told that the airline seats have become incredibly small and uncomfortable now. So I don't know how I'd feel about traveling now if, suddenly, I could do it.

By the way, I'm so glad that you and Brad had a great time on your trip!

How did you feel about our family vacations? Were they fun for you or did they just feel like work?

A little bit of both. One of my colleagues at work used to say that a vacation with your kids wasn't really a vacation—that you should plan a separate one just for yourselves. That's a nice idea, but we could barely afford to take you and your brother on vacations (and sometimes we couldn't go at all for money reasons), so a separate vacation for your dad and me wasn't possible. 

I did enjoy our family vacations, though, although we didn't get away from conflicts arising now and then that were ongoing issues in the family. They happen at home and they happen on vacation! I imagine that's true for everyone. But on the whole, I enjoyed them. And, I liked it when the four of us were together, something that didn't happen that often at home when you and your brother were teenagers.

How did you guys discover Molokai?

Ah, Molokai. The place I miss going to the most. Thinking about it reminds me of a memorable airplane ride. The tiny aircraft that we took from Maui to Molokai was so old and in such bad shape that, once aloft, we could see the ocean below through in a hole in the bottom. Seriously!

I chose Molokai because I wanted to go to an island where hardly any people went. It was as simple as that.

What was it about Molokai that made it so relaxing?

Part of it was that it was so empty of tourists. It definitely wasn't a place to go if you were looking for night life or even a good restaurant. We loved so many things about it that we tried to go back every year once you and your brother weren't living at home anymore. Molokai has the largest population of native Hawaiians and so it feels like authentic Hawaii. 

Of course, I don't know what it's like now since I haven't been there for over 16 years. That said, I doubt it's changed very much because, unlike the other Hawaiian islands, Molokai doesn't have a lot of great swimming beaches and that's what most people are looking for. 

For me, all I needed was one great beach...and I found it. It's my favorite beach anywhere: Maké Horse. I spent hours on end in the water. Sometimes I was the only person there. Other times I'd visit with locals, often young children. We'd chat as we floated up and down in the gentle waves. Oh, how I miss it.

Maké Horse Beach, Molokai, Hawaii

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Phone Calls That Make Us Cringe

Mara here. In the interest of full disclosure I will state up front that pretty much every phone call I get makes me cringe. I'm not a fan of the phone. But there are definitely some calls that are more cringe-worthy than others.

It's August. This means a few things: it's hot, it's my birthday month, and back to school stuff is in the stores again. Nowadays, many schools start their fall sessions in August. When I was growing up, school didn't start until September, after Labor Day, but because of the emphasis on state testing, schools are starting their years earlier and earlier.

So, this evening I was jarred to see Malia's school pop up on my incoming calls. Six weeks off of school, and I'd kind of forgotten that school existed. But here it was, the first week of August and they were calling me. 

A phone call from Malia's school always makes my heart stop. It's a knee jerk reaction from when she was in elementary school. She's old enough now that she can call me herself from her cell phone if she has a problem, so phone calls from the school are mostly perfunctory. They're calls about absences or school announcements. But when she was younger, a phone call from the school was always bad. It meant she was injured, she was sick, or she had lice. (There were several bad lice outbreaks when she was in kindergarten.) 

So, even now, almost a decade later, when her school shows up on my incoming calls, it causes me to catch my breath. Tonight when they called I actually froze for a moment—as if they could see me sitting there not answering the call, which is extra silly because almost all the calls from the school are automated robo-calls. 

People who know me, know that I don't like the phone in general. I am super self-conscious talking on the phone. So for the most part, I'm not a huge fan of getting phone calls, but there are a few phone calls that I particularly dread getting. Here's the top three:

Malia's school. As I explained, it always freaks me out because I assume it means there's something wrong with her. However, nowadays it usually means she's tardy which, while annoying, isn't really a cause for concern. I can't seem to get my nervous system to realize this.

The doctor. We have Kaiser health care. We really like our coverage, but the way they work, they don't call unless there's something wrong. So after I've had any kind of tests done, getting a phone call from Kaiser usually means bad news. If it's good news, they send a letter. A phone call means they need to get ahold of me quickly. 

Malia. Malia knows I don't like to talk on the phone [Toni note: so do I!]. So, 99% of the time she texts me. But when she's sick or upset (or rear ended in a parking lot), she calls. So when I see her name pop up on my incoming calls, I know there's a good chance it's not good news. Sometimes she's just calling me because she can't be bothered to type out what she wants to say. (She has actually called me from her bedroom to ask for a salad.) But the worrier in me always fears the worst.

Runner up: Reverse 911 calls. This has only happened twice. Both times were about shootings in our neighborhood. It's unnerving to get a phone call from the police telling us not to leave our house. Now that we don't have a landline anymore, I'm not sure we can still get these call, but they were very scary when they happened!

Toni here. Here are three phone calls I dread getting:

A call on my cell phone from one of my kids. They know I'm one of the few people who doesn't use a smart phone. I have an iPhone, but it sits in my purse so I have it when I go out. It's there in case of an emergency so, for example, I can call someone if my car breaks down. So, if one of my two grown children shows up on my caller ID, my heart sinks. So far, it's been a mistaken "pocket" dial on their part. Whew!

A call from my primary care doctor. The reason I dread this call is that all of my communications with him out of his office are either by email or on a website called My Chart. So, if he's calling, it's always bad news, such as an unwelcome test result (just as Mara said about Kaiser).

That phone call about a free trip I've supposedly won to see a condo in Florida. I get this call every single day right now. It fools me because my caller ID indicates it's coming from a phone number in the town where I live (our area code covers a small area). I always take the bait in case it's someone who needs to talk to me. Instead, this cheerful voice starts in with "Hello! This is your lucky day!" I don't think so.

What about you? Are there phone calls you dread getting?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sometimes More is Not Better

Mara here. I'm sitting in an empty Costco. It's 7:00 a.m., the store is lit, and there are a few workers milling about. Someone is on one of those floor cleaning machines that looks like a ride on lawnmower. 

But otherwise it's empty.  And it's quiet. And it's clean.

I'm here because I need new tires for my car. Costco isn't a place I've thought of to get my car worked on, but we got a large Costco cash card when we bought our daughter's car (it was some kind of promotion), so when I needed new tires for my car, we thought, hey, let's use that Costco card.

So here I am. 

There's a rather convoluted story behind how I ended up at the particular Costco I'm at. There are probably four Costco's within ten miles of my house, but this one is further afield. Instead of trying to get a ride home and then have to turn right around and come back to pick up my car, I decided to stay and wait for it to be finished. So here I sit.

It's strange to be in the store without the normal feelings of stress and frenzy I associate with Costco. Usually I'm worried about how crowded it will be and whether or not I'll find a place to park. 

But today I'm just sitting here. I'm not free to roam around because I'm in the little auto repair area, but I can see almost the whole store. It's stacked from floor to almost ceiling with stuff, so years of memories of shopping at Costco start to flood my brain.

I remember I was in elementary school when my parents got a membership to the Price Club. They were members of a small local credit union and that allowed us to get a much coveted membership to this new warehouse-style bargain store. It was amazing! I had never seen anything like it before. My dad and I would get into his old VW van with its metal interior and no air conditioning. I can't even remember if I wore a seat belt. He'd drive for what felt like hours to the closest Price Club. I'm guessing it was probably 45 minutes away, but it felt like a long journey at the time. My hometown was small, so our normal trips to the grocery store meant driving down the road a mile. 

This is why a day at the Price Club was an event. We would plan ahead and make lists of all the stuff we wanted. We didn't just get the normal boring food. We'd get things like bagel dogs, egg rolls, and frozen pretzels—huge boxes of them! Toilet paper was boring, but 48 rolls of toilet paper was amazing! Ketchup was boring, but two half-gallon bottles of ketchup was fantastic! And it seemed like such a bargain. For families who wanted to get a good deal on groceries or household appliances, the Price Club was a great place. And let's face it, as a kid, we didn't think about budgets so having more of everything seemed like the best policy.

In addition, having a Price Club membership was special. Not everyone could get one. The membership rules were much stricter back then, so friends would often call and ask us to get them supplies for school events or for their parties. Everyone wanted to know someone who had a Price Club membership.

So, growing up, shopping at the Price Club was the ultimate grocery shopping goal. One of the things on my list of "adult to do" items was to become a member of the Price Club. By the time I was actually old enough to get a membership, the Price Club had become Costco. My husband and I eagerly signed up for our annual membership and made the trek to the Costco closest to us. 

But those childhood memories of the Price Club that stayed with me all those years didn't match my adult reality. Trip after trip, we discovered that there wasn't anything at Costco that made much sense for us to buy. At the time, there were just the two of us, and we didn't require much. We didn't throw many parties or need to buy supplies for large events. And we didn't have a garage, so there was nowhere to store extra quantities of things.

After a half dozen trips to Costco where we'd buy bags of chips so large that we couldn't eat them before they went stale and cartons of Cup O'Soups that would take up a whole cabinet to store, we reluctantly stopped going. If nothing else, going to Costco over-stimulated my "need" to buy things that were a bargain. Even if buying six tubes of toothpaste was a little cheaper than buying one, it didn't make sense for us to spend $20 on toothpaste when spending $4 got us what we needed. 

I could never figure out how to make budgeting for bulk shopping work for us. Even after our daughter was born, the three of us didn't consume enough to warrant buying pounds of things when ounces of things were more than enough.

Perhaps if we'd had a boy it would be different. (I remember my brother and his friends could clean out all the food in our kitchen in an afternoon.) Or if we'd had multiple kids or even if our kid was was the kind who always has a lot of friends over, then going to Costco would have made sense. But as it is, more for us wasn't better, it was too was wasteful.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn.

I like to joke that I'm a hoarder, which is kind of a horrible joke because there are people who actually suffer greatly from hoarding. I just want lots of stuff. My impulse is to feel as if I don't have enough. For example, when we still got plastic bags at the grocery store, I kept them all. Even when the cabinet I put them in was bursting and they'd spill out onto the floor, I always wanted more. 

There's no "right amount" for me. We either don't have enough or I we have way too much. 

Costco definitely triggers the desire in me for more. It's difficult for me not to buy the 100 pack of granola bars. Or it takes a lot of will power not to buy another 12 pack of Diet Cokes, even though we have three sitting in our garage. This is because a part of me blares out alarms saying, "What if we run out? What if we can't get more? What if I need a granola bar and we don't have any!" But those are false alarms because, the reality is that for most items, if I run out, it's not a big deal. It's not as if granola bars are the only source of sustenance in our house.

We live in an era when stores are open 24 hours. And very few things suddenly stop being available. So buying a dozen of the same item simply because it's on sale—and I might need it one day in the future—is not rational.

It took me decades of constantly wanting to buy more stuff than I needed, of always feeling like we didn't have enough, of struggling to stay within budgets, to finally realize that there really is such as thing as enough and, more importantly, there really is such a thing as too much. 

Physically there was a limit. My closets and cupboards were spilling over with things that we were never going to use. And mentally, I noticed that there was a real drain to always wanting more, to always feeling like I was lacking. And there was no end. Once I got something, my mind immediately moved onto the next thing I felt I needed. I never felt satisfied. I was always putting pressure on myself to get more and have more, which meant I was never happy with what I had.

It's taken years of forcing myself to not buy things and of forcing myself to ask repeatedly, "Do I actually need this? What happens if I don't buy this? If I already have three of these, do I need more?" for the panic that came with feeling like I didn't have enough to start subsiding. I still have moments when I find myself starting to slide back into the "more" mindset. But now I can usually talk myself out of it.

After years of paying for a Costco membership we never used (it seemed so wrong to not have one!), we finally didn't renew our membership. It was only when we were offered the gift card to go along with our daughter's car that we signed up again. There are so many discount stores now, like Target or Walmart, where you can get bargains in smaller quantities, and Amazon has made it so easy to find great deals online that we're not going to Costco very often.

Now, on the rare occasion when we do find ourselves at Costco, we usually don't end up buying anything. Even so, I always still want to buy things. Memories of the 48 variety pack of lunch-sized chip bags make me happy. But spending $20 on chips is a waste for us, so I walk past them now. When we're at the store, I enjoy walking around, getting a free food sample or two. I enjoy looking at the other families who are there with baskets piled to the brim. Most of all I enjoy the freedom of not feeling like I have to buy anything.

I asked my mom about how to handle this tendency to always want more. Here's her answer to that and two more questions:

I feel like everyone in one way or another experiences wanting more than they need. Are there Buddhist practices to help manage those feelings?

I'd say that the best Buddhist practice for this would be mindfulness, which to me means simply paying attention to what's going on around you and in your mind. In this context, I'd say that, first, you should make an effort to become aware of the object of your desire and the feelings of wanting that arise around it.

Then notice how that feels. Is the "wanting" pleasant? It definitely can feel pleasant to envision how happy you'll feel if you get the object. But it can also feel unpleasant. You mentioned this in your piece—how this wanting can trigger a feeling of lack in our lives when, in reality, we have plenty.

This is true for me, not so much about concrete objects, but when it comes to simply wanting something to be different in my life. When I truly pay attention to it, "wanting" doesn't feel good because I see that it comes from feeling dissatisfied with my life in some way, and I know from experience that I only feel good when I accept my life as it is.

So, start by paying attention to how you feel when you're faced with an object of desire—whether it be a concrete thing or something about your life that you wish were different. Does it feel pleasant? Unpleasant? 

As far as trying to manage feelings of constant wanting, it's also important to pay attention to how you feel after you obtain that object of desire. We often say, "If only I can get this, then I'll be totally satisfied from now on." But we don't work that way, at least not in my experience. As soon as we get what we want, our attention turns to something else we want. So we're fooling ourselves if we think that getting what we want will satisfy us for good. 

So what can we do about our "wanting minds"?

I used to struggle with this a lot more than I do now, thank goodness. I manage feelings of constantly wanting, first, by accepting that "wanting" is a natural feeling—it just arises. We can't control that, but we can learn to control our reaction to it.

Here's something I write about in my book How to Wake Up. It's about how to react to that wanting mind. I have a friend who calls it the "Want Monster." When her kids were young, she taught them to identify that intense feeling of want as the Want Monster. For example, she'd have them do it when they'd be walking down the aisle of a toy store and saying over and over, "I want this. I want that." It taught her kids to separate themselves from their wanting minds and to just notice that it was happening. 

She did this with her kids when they were young, but I found it tremendously helpful as an adult. It meant that instead of falling under the spell of constantly wanting, I could leave that wanting on the shelf, so to speak. I could just not take it up by saying, "That's just the Want Monster, but I don't have to feed it." 

I know some people say you can get over "wanting" completely, but I'm not convinced of that. So, for me, what matters is not the wanting itself but how I respond to it. 

You said there's a mental drain to wanting, and I agree. I've come a long way toward taming the Want Monster. It's given me a sense of freedom to be able to simply identify my wanting mind, but to know I don't have to do anything about it. 

[Mara: Yes, for my daughter, I think she feels like she's experiencing actual physical pain sometimes when she wants something.]

I can understand that. Again, I'd suggest becoming aware that that's what's happening. It can take away its hold over you. It's so helpful to know that it's a feeling that will pass. [Mara: And to know that you survive even when you don't get what you want.] Yes, absolutely. With practice, you don't have to be ruled by that wanting. You can acknowledge its presence and then be patient and wait until it passes. All thoughts and feelings are impermanent after all!

Do you remember when you and dad first started going to the Price Club? What did you think of the huge quantities of stuff?

I never liked the Price Club. I don't know if you remember that. It occurred to me while I was reading your piece that maybe that's why you and dad went so often without me. I just don't like big warehouse-type stores with all the concrete. It's a cold atmosphere. So I don't like going to stores like that. I wouldn't go even if I weren't chronically ill.

But your dad is going to Costco today. He doesn't go that often, but  I'm always amazed at the bargains he comes home with. He gets these dog bones that Scout likes. I can buy them online, but they're so much cheaper at Costco and it's the same brand. 

So Costco is clearly a trigger for me and my instinct to buy too much or to get a bargain. Is there anything that acts as a trigger for you and makes you want to acquire more than you need?

Yes, because there's this silly thing I do. I did it when I used to shop in person, and I do it now when I shop online (which is how I do all my shopping now). If something is exactly what I want, I often buy two of them so I don't have to spend hours trying to find the right one again when this one wears out or breaks. So when you ask if I acquire more than I need—I don't need two bath mats, but I have two! 

I obviously don't do this with big items, like a bed, but I just did with a quilt. I found a quilt that I liked so much that I went back online and got another one in a different color. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What We've Been Grateful for In July. What Are You Grateful For?

Mara here. Wow, July is almost over! It's hard to believe that summer is already half over. It feels even shorter now that schools go back into session much earlier than they used to. 

July was a busy month. I have lots of things to be grateful for this month!


Going to Mexico! My husband decided that since neither of us had ever been to Mexico and our daughter is out of town for a few weeks, we should take a few days and go to Mexico. I can’t write about it at this moment because I’m writing this before we go. Yet I'm already grateful that I get to go on an adventure to a new place with my husband whom I love.


So, as I wrote about last week, my daughter is away for a few weeks in New York State. We live in California, so that’s almost 3,000 miles away from us. I am so grateful that she has her cell phone so that I know she can get ahold of me whenever she wants. I know that technology has its plusses and minuses, but in this case, I am really glad that I feel as if she still has a connection to me, even though she’s so far away.


I love watermelon. I’ve been eating a lot of watermelon this summer. I buy them at Trader Joe’s and cut them up into little chunks and put them in a bowl in the fridge. I learned to do this from a roommate of mine in college. Somehow, before I met her, it never occurred to me to do this to watermelon. My family had always just cut them into slices for special occasions, so they were a bit cumbersome to eat. But when you pre-cut them (as if you were cutting them for a fruit salad), you can quickly grab a few pieces out of the bowl throughout the day. 

I’m not sure why, but this feels like a treat. Even though I’ve been doing this for decades, it still feels like a little surprise every time I open the fridge. I'm always a bit sad when watermelon season is over, but it does make it more special when the temperatures start to rise and the big bins of watermelons reappear!

And now, here is Toni's gratitude list for July:

My granddaughter Malia visited!

I don't get to see Malia very often because, at 16 1/2, she's a busy teenager. But she made time in July to come and visit me (my husband goes down to L.A. regularly to see her but I can't travel). It was so wonderful to have her here. She's a young adult now and so we can talk about serious things. She keeps up on current events and had a lot of questions for me about law school—what it was like, etc. We had some great conversations. It brought back so many memories for me and it was such a treat to be able to share them with Malia. 

My granddaughter Cam is playing in a traveling softball league!

Although I'm not able to go to her games, my husband has seen her play and my son Jamal texts me videos of her at the plate or stealing a base. She's loving it and that's enough to make me happy. As a bonus for me, when Jamal sends a video, sometimes I can hear him cheering Cam on and that reminds me of all the years I spent in the bleachers cheering him on when he played baseball.

The second half of July: My terrible-pain-in-four-different-places-in-my-body has subsided substantially

Starting in mid-July, I felt like a new person. I'd been suffering with pain (unrelated to my chronic illness) for six weeks. I had a flare up of osteoarthritis in my right knee and then in my hip. That led to a limp that caused my left achilles tendon to flare up in pain. And the icing on the cake was an unrelated pinched nerve in my neck that was causing a searing pain I could not stop no matter what position I got myself into. And so, I'm grateful right now to just be my regular sick self!
What have you been grateful for in July?

Camden playing softball