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.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

I'm Not Hiding the Tears Anymore

Mara here:

Okay, so my topic for this week is going to be about the school shooting, but first, I have to take a quick moment to reflect on the topic of last week's post, specifically how crazy it is that nobody in my family can recall my mother ever completely losing her temper. For those of you who don't know her personally, that pretty much sums it up. She really is as nice as she seems.

Honestly, I normally hate (I'm using this word casually—don't get crazy at me) people like that, but she's my mom so I can only be slightly annoyed that she doesn't seem to lose her mind like I do. In fact, I can't even remember her ever being super angry with me. How is that possible? I was definitely an annoying child...

Anyway, back to the topic.

There was a horrible school shooting last week. I'm sure all of you are familiar with it by now. It was a high school in Florida. There were around 3,000 students. Someone walked in and killed 17 people, injuring many more.

This isn't a political post. I have much I could say politically, but that's not what my story is about. My story is more personal. When I first heard the news, I felt a bit numb. It was another shooting. Another school on lockdown. But then the more I learned about the school, all I could think was, "That looks like Malia's school." The neighborhood looked the same. The size of the school looked the same. The student body seemed relatively similar.

And then they announced 17 people were dead.

Seventeen people were dead at a school that looked like it could have been my daughter's school.

And I just lost it. I started crying.

I'm not an emotional person. I don't cry very often. I will say that we've had a few tough weeks in my household, so my ability to cope with any kind of adversity is at a minimum. But crying is not something I do regularly.

And let's not get too dramatic, I wasn't sobbing or wailing. But I was crying. I was watching the news and tears were pouring down my face.

I am not prepared for a world where our kids are not safe at school. I was prepared to worry about her staying out late. I was prepared to worry about her driving on her own. But for f*&#'s sake, I never imagined I would have to worry about my child getting shot at school.

You have to understand. Malia is a person who was born with an unusually high level of concern for her safety. Loud noises always frightened her. There was an unfortunate incident in a Home Depot where she was in a cart that didn't fit down an aisle, so I parked her at the end of the aisle and walked a few feet away from her to check on something. Well, because of how she was sitting she couldn't see me, even though I could see her at every moment, and she started screaming "I'm not safe! I'm not safe!"

Needless to say, people from all over the store descended upon the cart and I had a lot of explaining to do.

But that's my girl. She's nervous.

When there was a movie theater shooting a few years back, she came to me with tears in her eyes, asking me if she shouldn't go to movies. I, of course, assured her that she was perfectly safe in movie theaters.

Because Malia was always so tentative, I have always felt as if I needed be outwardly very confident so she didn't sense any hesitation from me. When she was a baby and she would fall, she would look to me for my reaction to know how she should react. If she fell and I looked worried, she would immediately burst into tears. And when she first got behind the wheel of a car, I took her onto the freeway very early on, absolutely terrified on the inside, but confidently guiding her on the outside because I didn't want her to be afraid of driving on the freeway.

Because of her extra fears, I have always felt as if I needed to project extra confidence to help her feel safe.

Then there was a school shooting a few years back, and she asked me how I could, as her parent, feel comfortable sending her to school. And I responded, "You're safe." And I actually felt as if she were safe. What was the likelihood of a shooter at her school?

But, now, multiple school shootings later I don't feel as confident.

And Malia is more nervous than ever.

So the day of the Parkland shooting, watching news footage of a school that reminded me too much of Malia's school, the emotions overcame me. I felt shaken. I felt sick. But I made sure my tears were dry when Malia came home.

And of course our first conversation was about what had happened that day. But our discussion about the shooting quickly became contentious. She was upset that I was sending her to school knowing that school shootings were happening almost every week. "Why shouldn't you want me to be home schooled?" she asked me. And my answer was of course, "because we need to live our lives. We can't hide in our houses." I reminded her that many more people die every day from things like driving and health problems than do from shootings. So while it's awful and scary, not going to school is not a way to avoid the dangers of life. And the reality is that our existence is still so much safer compared to so many places in the world.

She understood and agreed, but was still upset.

She finally admitted that part of what was upsetting her was that I didn't seem worried. It was making her sad that she felt as if I didn't care that she could get shot at school.

And I finally realized that she was reacting to the way I was reacting around her, and how that reaction was not a reflection of my true feelings. My reaction was one that has been carefully cultivated over the years to try and not make her feel more upset. My reaction was one that was the result of not wanting to burden her with my own fears.

But she needed to know I had fears. She needed to know how I truly felt.

So I told her that I had cried that day. I told her I was of course terrified that something could happen to her, but what choice do we have? We can limit our lives to only things that feel "safe." Or we can chose to live our lives without fear the best we can.

And she understood that.

I think she had simply needed to know that I cared. She needed to know that I had feelings—that I didn't just shrug my shoulders and move on. She needed to know that I felt afraid for her. And she's old enough now to handle knowing that her mother has fears and weaknesses. In fact, it's helpful for her to see that I too have times when things are scary to me.

And that was an important lesson for me to learn. I've spent so much of my life as a mother trying to protect Malia from all my weaknesses. I've tried to shield her from the burden of knowing that I have problems and fears and doubts—because I never wanted my feelings to affect her.

But she's not a baby anymore. I'm not here to simply protect her anymore. She needs to see that emotions, happiness, sadness, joy, and fear are things we all experience.

And she needs to see me setting the example of knowing that even though I am afraid and uncertain, I choose not to let the small chance of something "bad" happening stop me from living a full life.

And she needed to know that if I really felt that her life was in danger, I would care and take action.

And I would.

At this point, honestly, if she told me she really didn't feel safe going to school, I would probably let her home school. Because the shootings are happening too often. And if anything ever happened to her and I had denied her request to study at home, I would never forgive myself.

But my choice is for her to continue going to school with her friends. My choice is for her to understand that the world can be dangerous, but to live the fullest life she can anyway.  And, for now, that's what she has also chosen.

So I won't hide my tears from her anymore. If I feel afraid, it's okay for her to see it. We can be afraid together. And we can talk about how we want to handle it.

I hope families all across the country are having these discussions. And I hope that no family ever has to endure the pain of saying goodbye to their child at the beginning of a school day and never seeing them again.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

When It Gets "Walmart Level Crazy" in Our Household

Mara here:

I'm going to preface my story by stating that it really isn't about Walmart. We happened to be in a Walmart when the event took place which is why the name has stuck, but it's not a criticism of Walmart.

In fact, I've only ever been to Walmart a couple of times in my life. We don't have one near our house, so it's not where I go for stuff.

Anyway, for those of you who've read the blog regularly, you know that it's been a little frustrating around our house for the past couple of weeks. Things that have seemed fairly straightforward have been annoyingly complicated.

An example of this was the process of trying to get a letter of recommendation from my daughter's school counselor for a summer program she's applying to.

For a little bit of background, my daughter goes to a public school. My husband, Brad, and I are big believers in public education, so we have had our daughter attend public school instead of going the private school route that many of our fellow parents have opted for.

That said, Malia's school is large. It has around 3,000 students, and is, of course, underfunded and understaffed.

Malia happens to be advanced academically, so we are fortunate that many of her classes are small to normal sized. The few classes she has taken that were categorized as "general education" such as Health (which is mandatory for all high school kids) were overwhelmingly crowded, with 45-50 kids in the classroom.

So, 3,000 kids and a counseling staff of around 5 or 6. We're not positive how many counselors there are exactly, but it's not very many. You can imagine where this is going.

In January, after the winter break, Malia submitted her request for a letter of recommendation to her counselor. They ask that you give them at least three weeks notice for requests like this, so we waited. Three weeks passed. Four weeks passed. Five weeks passed. So now, my daughter—who is wonderful in many ways—but could not be called patient, is panicking.

There's a very specific summer program at Columbia University she is interested in attending, and she cannot have her application considered for acceptance without this letter of recommendation. It's not helping the situation that Columbia has been emailing her every day to "remind" her that her application is incomplete.

Added to this is the fact that Columbia's summer programs are based on rolling admission. This means the programs fill up as the applications are received—the completed applications, that is. So the program Malia wants to attend could be closed before her application even gets considered.

So, here we are. Malia has tried to get in touch with her counselor several times with no response, so she asked me to help. Generally, I don't get involved in school issues for Malia because I believe it's important for her to be able to handle things on her own as much as possible.

But it's a huge high school and, let's face it, the administration is not going to respond to a student the same way they will to a parent. So I started by emailing. No reply. I then happened to be at the school dropping something off and stopped by the counseling office. The counselor wasn't available, so I left a handwritten note. No reply. I left a voice mail. I sent a second email. I left a second voice mail. No reply. I sent a third email. I left a third voicemail.

No reply.

Okay, I try to be understanding, but I have my limits. One evening, Malia was getting very upset about her still incomplete application and she said, "Well what if she just never answers you and she just never sends the letter?"

Getting irritated with the situation and my daughter who tends to dwell on the worst case scenario, I answered, "If she doesn't answer me, I will start emailing the Principals and the Vice-Principals."

"But what if she just doesn't do it?" Malia moaned.

"If I have to, I will email and call and leave voicemails for the entire administrative staff until someone gets back to me. I will go to the school and sit outside the Dean's Office until someone tells me how to get this stupid letter. Trust me, it will get done."

Suddenly, Brad shouted out, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there's a trampoline?"

Malia looked completely confused, but I burst out laughing.

This is Brad's cue to me that I am starting to get a little intense and crazy—Walmart level crazy.

Our "Walmart level crazy" story stems from an experience over a decade ago when we were trying to buy a trampoline for Malia. I wanted a very specific size trampoline, and no stores had it except Walmart. I had checked online to make sure that the Walmart we were going to had it in stock. I think I might have even called to double check. I am generally very thorough.

So of course we show up and we find the aisle where the trampolines are and the place where the 8 foot trampolines should be, and it's empty.


So I asked one of the Walmart employees about whether or not they had more trampolines in the back?

I got a relatively blank stare back and something along the lines of "Well, there aren't anymore here," pointing at the empty space.

I could see there weren't any on the shelf. That wasn't what I was asking.

I asked another employee. The answer was "I don't know."

I'm pretty sure I then asked to speak to a manager, who seemed to not understand what I was asking for, and was totally unfamiliar with the concept of calling another Walmart store to see if there were any in stock there.

Apparently, before we left the store, I was walking up and down the aisles shouting, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there are any trampolines in stock?" 

And there you have it: Walmart level crazy.

So that's the story. And now when Brad can sense that I'm getting a little bit too worked up, he starts shouting, "Is there anyone, anywhere, at any Walmart who knows if there's a trampoline?"

My getting worked up is not my best moment, but after more than 20 years of marriage, we have discovered our ways of dealing with our less than perfect behaviors.

Fortunately, with the help of persistent calling and a $20 gift card to Starbucks, the letter of recommendation from the counselor has been successfully submitted. More Walmart level crazy was averted.

So I asked my mom, who is pretty level-headed, if she has ever lost her temper.

Can you remember a time when you lost your temper and got "Walmart level crazy"?

Okay. This is crazy (although not Walmart level crazy) but, although I can remember plenty of times when I've been cranky and irritable, I can't remember ever losing my temper in the sense of yelling and screaming. Maybe not being able to remember some things as I get older isn't such a bad thing! 

Okay, so when you find yourself getting cranky and irritable, how do you calm yourself down?

This is a question I can definitely tackle.

First off, the challenge for me (and I'd imagine everyone) is that I can't do anything to make things better when I'm cranky or out of sorts until I become aware that it's happening, and sometimes that kind of mood is so all-encompassing that I don't take those few seconds pause to realize, "Wow, I'm really cranky right now."

Becoming aware like this is what I think of as a mindfulness moment. Once I have that moment, the first thing I do is to take three "mindful" breaths, meaning that three times, I simply breath in and breath out while paying attention to the physical sensation of my breath wherever I feel it the most in my body. Doing this connects me with my body and this in itself makes me a bit more calm.

Then I say to myself, "Okay, you're cranky. People get cranky. It comes and goes. Just be nice to yourself while it's hanging around and maybe see if there's something enjoyable you can do until your mood improves." In other words, I go straight to my ace in the hole: self-compassion, which simply means being nice to myself when things are tough. So that's the second thing I do—recognize that everyone gets irritated at times, so there's no reason to get down on myself for it.

Usually these two things are all I need to do to feel better—maybe not "happy better" but at least I'm calmer and not as cranky or otherwise irritated. 

Sometimes, though, the cranky mood persists even after I've tried these two things. When that happens, I take refuge in the universal law of impermanence. By that I mean that I know I won't stay cranky forever. Yes, perhaps today is just going to be a bad mood day, but it I know it won't last indefinitely. In my books, I call this "weather practice" and describe how to use it and write about how moods are as unpredictable as the weather and how they also come and go like the weather. Doing this definitely makes me feel calm, even if it's a cranky calm!

So that's my strategy for calming myself down when I'm cranky or irritable or otherwise in a bad mood.

A final note. I'm not around other people a lot, but when I am, I'd add to my answer that, having recognized that I'm cranky or otherwise irritated, I try not to inflict it on those around me. I recall having said to your Dad in the past, "Sorry, but I'm in a really bad mood so maybe we should do separate things."

I hope everyone has some strategies to help survive everything from a simple bad mood to a full-blown loss of temper. My best to everyone. Toni

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Close My Eyes and Leap

Mara here. 

The title of this piece comes from the song "Defying Gravity" that the character Elphaba sings in the musical Wicked: "It's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!"

And although there's no parallel between my life and Elphaba's fictional one in Wicked, right now I feel as if things are out of control.

Not crazy out of control. Just a little out of control. These past couple of weeks have felt very unpredictable. If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you'll know I'm not a fan of the unpredictable. I like my schedules and my routines. 
But I feel as if every day recently has brought something unexpected.

Each day, plans are getting shuffled around because something happened. The street in front of our house is getting repaved, so we can't park because it's blocked off. And, randomly, plans that were settled have had to be cancelled. In addition, things have broken. They've been fixed, but for more money than expected. Things have been lost. There have been disappointments and unusual conflicts.

Nothing catastrophic, but just annoying. Just inconvenient enough to throw me off.

And I know that's how life is. Life is unexpected.

Maybe it's not that things are actually more out of control than usual, but for whatever reason, I am feeling like it's harder for me to cope right now. 

I realized this morning that I had to let go of the stress that was being caused by my fear of something unexpected happening. I was trying at night to sleep while still in the grips of frustration from the previous day, and I was waking up already worried something unexpected was going to happen in the day ahead of me.

This, my friends, is a losing strategy. I think we all know that. But it had been building up slowly and I found myself in the middle of it before I even realized what was happening.

And then I heard the lyric from the Wicked song in my head. And I actually physically closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and saw myself taking a step forward in my mind into darkness—into the unknown. It wasn't even something I realized I was doing.

But I was letting go.

No matter how hard I try, I can't control how the day is going to unfold. And waking up in a panic each morning, worried that things will not go the way I want them to isn't helping me.

So I have decided to just close my eyes and leap into each day. I am going to just let things happen and I am going to try and not tell myself things shouldn't be happening that way. And when feelings of stress well up inside me, I am going to try and remember that I decided to let go of those feelings. Those feelings don't belong to me anymore.

Because the reality is that so far nothing has happened that I, or we as a family, haven't been able to deal with. In fact, we've proven ourselves to be pretty resilient so far.

So I'm letting go. I'm going to close my eyes and leap forward—trusting my instincts and assuming things will work out.

And if they don't, well, I guess I'll have to find a different song to hear inside my head.

(PS: Last night after I'd written this, my husband came home after a long and stressful day of work and asked if I knew that the water was on in the front yard. It turned out that the water valve to our hose in the front yard was broken, so there was water running and we couldn't turn it off. And so, my husband, good guy that he is, ran over to home depot at 9 p.m. to get a new valve which he fortunately knew how to install. See? Just weird unexpected things. So I'm closing my eyes. I'm breathing. Tomorrow will be another day.)

I know everyone goes through periods where they feel more unsettled than others. I asked my mom what the Buddhist lesson is that tries to help people feel more calm and steady.

Toni here. I feel like writing a letter to my daughter, so here goes.

Dear Mara,

As you know, I usually loved being asked about Buddhism. The Buddha's teachings have been incredibly helpful to me for over 25 years now. Were I to answer your question, I'd launch into an explanation of his teachings on the inevitability of uncertainty and unpredictability, and how our desire to control what happens in our lives adds to our stress levels and keeps us from feeling calm and steady.

But I'm not going to launch into that that because your piece is so poignant and full of wisdom that all I'm going to do is close my eyes and leap with you. 

I love you very much,
Your mom

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness

Mara here:

It's Girl Scout cookie season. Today, my daughter brought home a bag of cookies, which was good timing because I feel like I've earned them.

I did a good deed yesterday.

Trust me, I don't do good deeds very often. And it's not because I don't like being helpful to people, but I'm a private person. I'm not a particularly outgoing person. I'm not the neighbor who knows all of the other neighbors.

And for the most part, people in L.A. live in their own little bubbles. We drive ourselves around, do our stuff, keep ourselves to ourselves.

But yesterday, I was at Ralphs, my nearby grocery store, and there was a woman in front of me loading her items onto the counter as she was being checked out. She seemed flustered. She'd already had to run back into the aisles quickly to get a replacement box of pasta that she discovered was open as she was taking items out of her cart. And then the checker noticed that one of the bottles of beer was leaking, so someone had to go and get her a replacement for that.

So her transaction was taking longer than it normally would for someone with only a few items. The line of waiting customers behind her was growing.

And then her credit card wouldn't work.

She swiped it. Nothing happened. She tried a different credit card and nothing happened.

I could tell she was feeling bad about holding up the line. I could tell she was feeling the stares of the people behind her, wondering why she wasn't finished checking out. I was in no hurry so I wasn't bothered, but people behind me were getting restless.

And then the cashier realized that it was the entire credit card system in the store that wasn't working. Nobody's credit card was going to work.

The woman looked absolutely crestfallen.

The checker asked if she had cash, and she didn't. The checker asked if she had any checks, and she didn't. The checker asked if she banked at Wells Fargo because it had ATM machines in the store. The woman didn't bank with Wells Fargo.

People in all the lines at the store were realizing that the credit card machines were not working and there was an uneasy murmur growing.

I was watching all of this play out. Fortunately for me, I pay with cash because I'm not great at keeping track of my credit card balances. So I wasn't worried about the machines. But clearly most of the other customers were not happy.

Normally, I don't get involved in what's going on with the other people at the store. There are a lot of strange people in L.A. and I don't want to find myself in the middle of unnecessary drama. (You'd be amazed at how much drama there can be at the Ralphs in North Hollywood.)

On the other hand, there's still that part of me that believes we live in a community. And there have been those times when I needed help and people stepped up and helped me—not because it was an emergency or because my life needed to be saved—but simply because it was a nice thing to do.

So I took a breath and decided to see if I could help. I asked this poor flustered woman if she had a Venmo account?

If you don't know what Venmo is, it's an app for a smartphone that allows people to easily transfer money to each other. Money can easily be transferred from one bank account to another instantaneously.

There are a lot of people over the age of 30 who don't know what Venmo is, but this woman had an account!

So I proposed that I pay for her groceries with cash and then she could Venmo me the amount. When I made the offer, the cashier stared silently at me with a puzzled look. The woman, who was still trying to get the credit card machine to read one of her cards, was surprised—unsure whether my offer was real. And if my offer was real, she was probably having the same internal debate I'd just had of "Do I really want to get involved with this unknown person?"

Finally, I smiled and said, "Really, it's not a problem" and pulled out the cash to pay the cashier for the woman's groceries. The cashier reluctantly took the money, looking over at the woman, wondering what her response would be and then back at me to confirm that I was serious.

And then suddenly the woman was smiling and pulling out her phone. She asked what my Venmo username was and looked up my account. We confirmed it was the right one (the one with a picture of my dog Pidu), and she sent me the money. She stayed until I received the confirmation that I had received her payment, and then after she thanked me about a hundred times, she was on her way with her groceries.

When I stepped up to pay for my own groceries, the cashier looked at me with a puzzled face and asked me what I did for a living. I answered that I was a photographer, and she responded with a quiet, "Oh."

I'm not sure what that had to do with anything, but I think she perhaps thought my profession would explain why I decided to help a stranger.

Because it is, sadly, unusual to see strangers doing nice things for each other these days.

But it felt nice to have been able to help someone. There wasn't even charity involved in my action. Venmo is reliable and fast. The money was transferred into my Venmo account instantly and into my bank account by that afternoon.

What I really loved was that it was spontaneous. It was random. And it wasn't an emergency. It wasn't about being heroic. It just felt good to be able to make someone's day a little easier. And it was nice knowing that in the moment, my instinct was to be kind. I wanted to help. And it reminded me of the many, many times people have randomly been kind to me.

So I walked out of the store feeling as if I had done my good deed for the day and that I deserved a Girl Scout badge for Grocery Store Venmo Rescue. Okay, there's no badge for that, and I was only a Girl Scout for a few months in fourth grade. But I think I am going to definitely treat myself to a few Girl Scout cookies!

I asked my mom if she remembers a time when someone was unexpectedly kind to her. Here's what she said:

I can think of many times when strangers were kind to me. I hope it's not a dying "art." Here's a one memory that's still vivid in my mind. 

Many years ago, I was driving around on country roads outside our town with my dog in the back seat and my camera ready, so I could try take pictures of birds. I decided to to turn my car around and, in doing so, drove onto a shoulder that was so muddy, the car got stuck. Wheels spinning stuck. And this was before cell phones. 

So there I was, on a deserted road and with a car that wouldn't move. I looked all around me and there wasn't a house in sight, so I stood by the side of the road, waving at the occasional car that passed, but no one stopped. 

Then I saw these two big burly men in a pick-up truck with a huge gun rack on the top driving toward me. I didn't wave at them to stop because I was a bit afraid of them. They passed me, stopped, backed up, and asked if I needed help. I told them I was stuck. They immediately got out of the truck and, getting their boots and pant legs covered with mud, pushed my car back onto the road. 

A random act of kindness and a demerit for me for stereotyping people!


We'd love to hear about memories you have of strangers being kind to you, and whether you've ever been able to help someone in an unexpected way?