Sunday, October 29, 2017

We Are All the Same in Different Ways

Mara here.

I've been thinking about this topic for a while...years actually. I have struggled with the concept of being different for my entire life.

I don't really understand why it's so hard for most people to stand apart from their fellow humans, myself included. Most of us want to simply blend in. We don't want to be different. And it's uncomfortable for us to feel as if we have experiences that nobody else has.

There are some people who revel in their differentness. There are people who dedicate their lives to doing things nobody else has done. But most of us want to simply chug along with everyone else.

I was most recently reminded of this struggle during the flood of #MeToo hashtags that popped up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault accusations. If you're not familiar with it, it was a movement to encourage people who had been victims of sexual assault or harassment to share their stories. And even if people didn't want to share the details of their experiences, simply sharing #MeToo on social media meant that you had had an experience. It meant you were part of the growing group of people who were no longer willing to keep their sexual abuse or harassment experiences hidden.

It was amazing how many people came forward, and I saw a lot of comments and articles about how surprised people were that so many people had had similar experiences.

How is it possible that so many people could have been victims of harassment and abuse, but nobody was aware of how pervasive it was? Why is it only during moments of group sharing that most people are willing to come forward? Why do we keep so many of our human experiences secret from each other?

People are sometimes criticized when they come forward with allegations of abuse if they hadn't come forward immediately after the incident occurred. This attitude surfaced as many women (and some men) came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein. People were asking, why are they only willing to come forward now? Why are they only willing to say something if other people are speaking up? Why are they "jumping on the bandwagon?"

The thing is that it's scary to come out and say something that will make you stand apart from what's considered "normal." Aside from whatever legal, financial, or professional aspects that people have to consider, it's hard to come out and accuse someone of something that will make you feel like a target yourself. Aside from the stigma of accusing a man (or woman) of sexual assault, it's hard to accept that once you make an accusation, you are forever identified as a subset of people who are different from everyone else.

And admitting you were a "victim" can make you feel weak.

In addition, because nobody talks about it, it's easy for a person to convince themselves that they are the only person who's had this experience. And that makes them feel different.

It seems as if there is something about human nature that makes us instinctively self-protect by not standing out. Perhaps it's something about the predator and pray nature of being an animal in this world. Standing out from the pack makes us more vulnerable.

So we often hide the things about ourselves that we feel are different.

I had a sort of parallel experience recently, although obviously it's in no way the same level of severity as sexual assault. We had a crane fly infestation at our house. In fact, its level of "not-a-serious-problem" reinforces the point of my piece.

In January and February we had an unusual amount of rain. By the time the spring rolled around, plant and bug life was flourishing with unusual vigor. This included a crazy number of crane flies. Crane flies are bugs that look like flying spiders. They have very long legs and look a little menacing, although they're harmless.

I have a daughter who is maniacally afraid of spiders, so having these flying spider things buzzing around the house was not fun. Malia would run into the house from the driveway and anytime the door opened she would scream because two or three of the critters would swoop into our livingroom.

And I felt a little overwhelmed by them, too. On one hand, I knew that the flies were "normal." We get them every year, just not usually in the massive numbers we saw this year. But I didn't want to tell anyone about them. I had some people over to the house and I spent time spraying the doorways in hopes of keep the flies away long enough so our guests wouldn't notice them. I felt like somehow it was an individual failure on my part or with our house that, for some reason, we were swarming with flies.

My daughter would moan about how it was awful we lived in a swamp and she'd ask what was wrong with our house that we had flies bombarding us. And I would reply with the rational adult answer, saying that they were fine—a natural occurrence and that there was nothing wrong with them.

But secretly I couldn't help wonder if there was something wrong with our house. Did we have some kind of weird crane fly nest around our house? Was it because I didn't keep the outside of the house clean enough? I spent days brooding about whether or not I had done something that was causing the infestation.

And then a friend of mine posted a status on Facebook that simply said, "What's up with all the crane flies?" And I felt this crazy rush of relief flood over me that I was not alone in my struggle with the flies.

And then I felt ridiculous for keeping secret and worrying over something as silly as having more than the usual number of crane flies around. Years of working on accepting myself have resulted in my feeling more at easy with my concept of self. I'm much more comfortable in my body and with my self-critical thoughts. But somehow the crane flies threw me for loop. They felt so out of the realm of my control.

Honestly, why didn't I just ask someone about them? Even if I had somehow been doing something that was attracting all the flies, why did I assume it would somehow reflect badly on me?

And then I realized how easy it is for us—even someone like me who is relatively self aware—to get caught up in the need to not have any outward appearance of difference in a negative way. It was surprising that something as innocuous as the crane flies triggered that mental defense mechanism of trying to pretend nothing was wrong. It reminded me how strong the instinct is to believe that the negative things that happen in our lives are the result of our having done something wrong.

And that's the thing about the people who are coming forward after-the-fact with stories of sexual harassment and abuse. When you know other people have experienced the same things that you have, you realize that it's not your fault that the experience happened. You feel freer to admit you had an experience when you know that other people have too.

We are so quick to blame ourselves for things. And sometimes we are to blame—or at least we contributed. But we also need to be able to recognize when we are truly victims. And we need to realize that sometimes things happen for no particular reason. It's not always personal to ourselves. Sometimes things just happen.

It's been helpful to me to try and regularly remind myself that, given all the humans who exist and have previously existed, there's probably not much that any of us experience that is truly unique to us. 

So hopefully we can all be a little easier on ourselves. And hopefully we can all be a little easier on each other. There's nothing wrong with being different. Because the thing is we are all different—we're just different in different ways. In that regard, we are the same.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween Memories

It's Mara here.

I am a fan of Halloween. I don't go crazy and I don't dress myself up. But I get excited when it's October and Halloween decorations start popping up in the neighborhood.

I think my love of Halloween started because I loved candy. And a night when you get to dress up, hang out with friends and get a whole bag full of free candy—well, what's not to like?

When Malia was born, I was so excited to dress her up and take her out for her first Halloween experience. And when she was young and would let me dress her, I'd try to make her costumes fun and not just something cookie cutter. The costumes were always store bought, but I would add face paint or a wig or fun accessories. A few of her costumes over the years have been: Minnie Mouse, a ghost, a fairy, a dark fairy, Cinderella, and Cat Woman.

I have a notoriously bad memory, so I can't recall all the various costumes I wore over the years. However, I have very strong memories of one year when my mom made me an amazing costume.

I wanted to be a princess. I wanted to be a princess with a giant puffy skirt that made it look like I was floating. So I asked my mom to make me one.

Looking back on it now, my mother was crazy for agreeing to make me this costume. I'm sure it cost a ton of money and took her hours and hours to sew. But being the super-mom that she was, she agreed. And we spent time picking out fabric and creating the design.

And sure enough, on Halloween, I got to wear my very fancy princess dress, complete with a hoop-like skirt and yards and yards of fabric.

I don't think we have any pictures of it which is too bad. Although, perhaps It's better this way. I'm guessing my childhood memories of the dress are more magical than whatever the reality was. And in my memories it's the most amazing, beautiful dress that ever existed. It's my favorite childhood Halloween memory.

Now that I'm an adult, (an older adult) I don't really do anything for Halloween, although I make sure our candy bowl is well-overstocked, so there are lots leftover after the neighborhood kids have come around. I do this because it's now what I think of as my Halloween candy. And yes, being an adult-type person, I could buy myself candy any time—but nothing tastes as good as Halloween candy.


Toni here. I remember shopping for the fabric and then spending hours making Mara's princess costume, so it made me so happy to read her description of how much it meant to her. In fact, tears came to my eyes.

I can't remember any of the costumes I wore when I was young, but I remember some that I made for my kids. Top of my list for Mara is, of course, her princess costume. And top of the list for her brother, Jamal, is the spiderman outfit I also spent hours making. 

So what about you? Do you have a favorite Halloween memory? Did you have a favorite costume? Do you still dress up?

Malia dressed as a ghost in 2005.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

When Do We Stop Raising Kids and Start Raising Adults?

Mara here: Being a parent is a murky experience.

For starters, everyone is different, so his means that kids are all different. As a result, it's almost impossible to be prepared, in a traditional sense, to be a parent because literally every experience is different.

There's no definitive handbook.

If you don't have kids, it probably seems as if there's only so many options for how it's going to go.

But the reality is that it's a day-to day-mystery. It's kind of like driving a car at night with no headlights. You know how to move the car forward, but you don't actually know where you're going, and it feels as if you could crash at any moment.

People are complicated. Kids are complicated. 

When my daughter was born, I felt pretty confident I could take care of the basics. I could make sure she was fed and clothed. I could buy toys and teach her to read. You can find out how to do those things in books. 

Where it gets trickier is when it's not just about keeping your kid alive. It gets much harder when raising your kids transitions to raising your kids to be adults.

When does parenting stop being just about the basics? A doctor can give me a schedule of when my child needs shots and check ups. But there's no manual for when kids need to be told about the more complexities of life. When do we prepare kids for the realities of life as adults?

As parents, our instinct is to shield our kids. We don't want them to hurt themselves, and we don't want them to be hurt. But I wonder if that means that sometimes we don't prepare our kids for some of the harsher aspects of having to be independent in this world.

No parent wants to burden their kids with worrying about money. But if we don't ever talk to them about money, how do they learn to manage a budget? How do they learn to appreciate that money is limited? How do they learn to make smart choices?

Or, if we tell our kids that winning doesn't matter and that everyone is equal, how do we prepare them to handle disappointment? We don't live in a world where everyone gets a prize or even a consolation prize for everything.

I think the difficulty is that we as parents want our kids to understand that nothing—money, awards, grades, etc.—affects their value as a person. Parents desperately want their kids to feel as if everything's okay, regardless of their achievements and disappointments.

But I wonder if we haven't taken it too far. I feel as if parents are now made to feel that we are supposed to shield our kids from anything that might possibly make them feel any negative feelings in any way.

In a perfect world, I would absolutely do that for my daughter her entire life.

But the world doesn't work that way. And if we shield our kids too much as children, are we preparing them to be functional adults?

And then, of course, if we do want to prepare them, it's a matter of deciding when we think our kids are ready to handle things. Whether or not it's appropriate to tackle different topics is completely dependent on that individual kid.

For myself and my husband, we've decided that we would rather have the difficult conversations with our daughter now, as opposed to having felt we hadn't prepared her to handle the ups and downs we imagine she'll face as she gets older. 

We'd rather have the tough conversations now about making financial choices, personal choices, educational choices—now, when she still has time to explore and experiment. If she makes mistakes now and we already have a dialogue going, we'll feel more confident that she'll know how to handle things when she's older and realizes there are more consequences for making "bad" decisions.

Ultimately, every parents has to make these decisions for themselves. And really, there's no right or wrong answers. But I do think it's important for parents to realize that our kids don't just turn into adults when they hit a certain age. Kids don't just turn 18 and magically know how to manage a budget or deal with rejection. Kids have to be taught to be adults. Kids have to be guided to learn how to make adult decisions and deal with consequences.

As with many things, practice makes perfect. Okay, nothing is perfect, but practice makes things more manageable. Kids have to be given the opportunity to practice being adults. They have to be given responsibility incrementally and they have to be given the opportunity to fail. If we try to protect our kids from any kind of failure and disappointment, they never learn that it's okay to not always be successful. And if they never face disappointment, they never learn it's okay to feel sad. And most importantly, if they never face any adversity, they never learn that those feelings and experiences pass and we survive them.

It would be easier for me to shield my daughter from the hard stuff. In fact, it often feels as if my duty as her mother is to try and take on all her hardships and challenges and make life easier for her. But that was my job when she was a baby.

And even though I will always think of my daughter as my baby, she isn't a child anymore. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point my role as a parent transitioned from raising a kid to raising an adult.

And just like being a kid is different from being an adult, raising a kid is different from raising an adult.

I asked my mom a few questions about this subject.

Is there anything that you think would help parents with the difficulty of allowing their kids to be more independent?

First off, Mara, I thought that was a stunning essay. Thank you. As for your question, I think it would help parents it they think long term, meaning thinking about how they want their kids to be when they've grown up. If they're like me, they want them to be independent, make good decisions, take responsibility for their lives, and be kind to others and help them when they can. Keeping that in mind as a goal can help you prepare for how to be a parent while your kids are growing up.

Mara, you touched on how to do this in your piece; start while they're young to teach them these skills.

Do you think you started early enough to teach Jamal and me to be adults?

Well, after telling everyone to start while your kids are young, after watching how early you taught Malia these skills, I think it would have helped you and your brother if your Dad and I had started earlier. 

It may well be easier for Malia to transition to adulthood because of the job you did as a parent. I will say, though, that despite my thinking we could have started earlier, it seems to have worked out because we think you and Jamal are doing great as adults. I love how independent each of you are. I know other kids in their 40s who still call their parents when their plumbing backs up! 

So, your Dad and I did something right because it seems to us as if, although you love us, you don't need us to help you get by in life.

How do you think Jamal and I are doing as parents?

I am so impressed. You and Brad had Malia before Jamal and Bridgett had Cam, and I think that all of us learned a lot from your parenting style. I admit that you were a lot stricter than Dad and I were, and that sometimes we thought you were too strict with Malia. But, wow, did it pay off. Here she is, about to be 17 in January, and she really is a young adult. 

Of course, she has the emotional volatility of a teenager at times. But I'm talking about her understanding of what adults need to know, from budgeting to being responsible with planning and execution of those plans, and being able to see that life isn't always going to be the way you want it to be. Even when Malia doesn't take that last point in stride, it feels to me as if she understands the truth of it. 

Your brother and Bridgett are doing an great job too—finding that middle ground between taking care of all Cam's needs, but making sure she's also learning to take care of herself in the many ways you wrote about. 

Your Dad and I were—let's face it—hippies at heart, and so you and Jamal didn't get as much direction as the two of you are giving Malia and Cam. But you did get unconditional love from your Dad and me and I also think perhaps a spiritual dimension to your lives, and so I think he and I did okay.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Do You Have a Blankie?

Mara here: I will start of by saying I don't have a blankie.

I've actually never had a blankie that I know of.

My daughter had a blanket that she slept with until she was 12. It was a little yellow blanket that was silk on one side and flannel on the other side. And we had had many different versions of the little blanket. When she was really young, the blanket was absolutely necessary so we had back-up blankets. We had back-ups for the back-ups. I even tried to mix it up and get her some blankies in different colors. But she always liked the yellow ones best. She said they were softer.

Honestly, they all felt the same to me, but it wasn't my blankie so it didn't matter what I thought.

Then one day it got lost when maid service in the hotel we were staying in accidentally took it when they changed the sheets one day.

By 12 she had already grown out of it. But she still liked knowing it was there. She had stopped taking it most places with her. And when she went on short trips away from home she didn't take it. But we were living out of a hotel for three months and she had decided to bring it along.

Then it was gone.

And she was fine without it. She had outgrown the little ragged blankie that she had loved and cuddled for those many years. But she never outgrew her love of blankets. She never outgrew the desire to have something fuzzy and warm to comfort her. She still likes to travel with a fuzzy blanket from home.

And it seems like many of us never really grow out of the desire to have comfort item, or a blankie. Many of us still find solace in having special things that are familiar and comforting.

Like I said before, I never had an actual blankie. But I did always have stuffed animals. And I had various favorites growing up. I had a Paddington bear that I loved. I had a koala bear stuffie that I loved because it had a big shiny plastic nose.

And even as an adult, I have this odd collection of little stuffed toys that I am very attached to. And sometimes when I go on a trip I'll even throw one in my suitcase because it's a little reminder of home. My daughter noticed them one day and asked me, rather indignantly, why I had them. And I didn't have a particularly articulate answer for her other than, I like them.

And I do. I have a stuffed oxen. My husband, Brad, gave it to me because one day I had once accidentally texted him something about an ox of love. It was supposed to be an ounce of love, but of course autocorrect struck and it changed it to ox of love. We thought it was hilarious at the time and the following Christmas, he gave me a stuffed ox—his ox of love for me—because we are dorky like that.

I have a little yellow stuffed peep, that looks just like the peep shape of the marshmallow treats that I've previously written my love for.

And on an on.

There's no real theme. And they would be meaningless to anyone else.

But they make me smile and I find them comforting--just like my daughter felt about her blankie when she was younger.

Toni here. If I had a blankie or a stuffed toy or another special thing, I can't remember, because for the past twenty years or so, my "blankies" have been my dogs. It's as simple as that: Dopple, Winnie, Rusty, and now Scout. When I'm feeling blue, I cuddle whichever dog is part of my life at the moment. I love dogs and I love to cuddle them!

So what about you? Do you have something, that might be meaningless to anyone else, but that you find comforting?

Mara's collection of stuffed toys.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Flotation Devices for Rough Times

Last week I wrote a piece that described my awful Monday in the wake of the shootings in Las Vegas. I think it resonated with many readers because we're all feeling overwhelmed by what's happening in the world.

I've asked myself many times recently if things are getting worse or if it's just that, because of technology, we now know what's happening in places all around the world.

I'm not sure. I'm guessing a lot of different factors contribute to what seems like a constant barrage of disasters that hit the headlines each day.

It feels relentless. 

Even this week, I woke up Monday thinking perhaps we'd have a week where things didn't feel catastrophic. But then quickly I learned about the devastating fires in Northern California. My Facebook timeline was filled with stories of friends having to evacuate their houses—and friends of friends whose houses had already burned.

People have lost everything.

I'm not directly affected by this tragedy, yet the enormity of what is happening to people feels paralyzing. How do people push through? How do they recover?

I have spent a lot of time these last few years feeling completely overwhelmed. It's a surreal sinking feeling. It's almost as if I'm literally submerged in water. After years of spending all day in the pool of my family home during my childhood, the experience of looking at the world under the water is familiar. Everything slows down. Everything starts to feel slightly disconnected. My limbs feel heavy and moving is sluggish and requires a huge amount of effort. I can hear things but they're distant and echoed. 

And if you feel too heavy to break back to the surface, you start to panic. 

That's what happens to me sometimes as I think about what's happening to our fellow human beings around the world. I feel panic bubbling. I feel as if I'm stuck at the bottom of the pool and can't get to the surface. 

In a world where the news is mentally and emotionally drowning us, how do we pull ourselves up? What are some mental floatation devices we can cling to make sure we can save ourselves?

I have my own personal flotation devices that have saved me from drowning in my own thoughts at different periods of my life. My family has been my constant life saver. Having pets is always something that instantly reminds me that there is light in the world. They always make me feel joy, which is sometimes all we need in a moment of sadness. Sometimes physical movement can also keep me mentally moving, like forcing myself out for a walk or a jog. And when a day is particularly rough, sometimes I just allow myself to check out mentally for a few hours by taking a nap or watching a movie. 

For many people, I'm sure their religious faith helps them through dark times. 

I think the most important thing for people to know is that it's okay to feel overwhelmed. It's okay to realize that sometimes we need a little help to get through a tough time, and to be prepared with tools and floatation devices to save ourselves when we need it.

I asked my mom about this. Here's my question and her response:

Are there Buddhist practices that can help people when they’re feeling overwhelmed by world events?

From my own experience and from years of immersion in the Buddha's teachings, first I'd echo your words and say that there's nothing wrong with feeling overwhelmed by what's going on personally or around the world. Life can be overwhelming. The Buddha talked about this in the first noble truth. He went over all the ways that life can be hard. It includes losing what you cherish, which brings to mind both Las Vegas and the fires in California where so many people have experienced excruciating losses.

Contributing to this feeling of being overwhelmed is the fact that life is uncertain and unpredictable. We control much less than we realize. The Buddha talked a lot about this too—how everything is impermanent and how the insecurity that results from that can be hard to bear and often gives rise to mental suffering. 

In my experience, recognizing these truths about the human condition is not a bummer. On the contrary, it helps me put the events of the day in perspective because I realize that, although life can be joyful (a good thing!), it can also be extremely hard and even tragic for people, and that it's been this way since the beginning of humankind. It's part of the joys and sorrows that come with being alive.

Second, feeling overwhelmed is always accompanied by stressful emotions—anger, fear, deep sadness. When this happens, I recall the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He said that we should take care of our feelings. It may sound like an odd thing to say (the example he gives is to take care of our anger), but I understand what he means. Turning away in aversion from our emotions tends to make things worse because it often intensifies those feelings. So, the first thing I do is to let those emotions—sadness and fear or whatever I’m feeling—into my heart. They’re what I'm experiencing right now so they're worthy of my attention. I acknowledge their presence and then allow compassion to arise for the suffering I'm feeling due to them. 

It's amazing how just acknowledging how we feel and how it's okay to feel that way can immediately ease the sting of painful emotions and even give rise to a feeling of peaceful acceptance of the way things are.

Finally, I look for what you call "flotation devices." I love that term. I do the same thing. I often call it taking refuge. You mentioned looking to your family and your pets for comfort. That's a wonderful idea. I do that too and I also take refuge in kindness. Sometimes I think: what better way to spend our lives than to be kind to ourselves and others? 

First off, there's never a good reason not to be kind to ourselves. That kindness can take many forms, including what you mentioned—checking out for a time with a good distraction such as one of your favorite movies on TV. And being kind to others is all good—trying to help ease their suffering, even if all we can do is send a small check to a relief organization.

One of my first Buddhist teachers was Sharon Salzberg. Here is a prayer of hers that resonates strongly with me. I hope it does with everyone reading this piece:

"May the actions that I take toward the good, toward understanding myself, toward being more peaceful, be of benefit to all beings everywhere."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Things That Drive Us Crazy

Mara here:  Ok, I might just be venting because it's been a taxing week and maybe my ability to tolerate my fellow human beings is low, but honestly, sometimes people are so annoying!!

I have spent a large portion of my life trying to be tolerant of people. I know that none of us are perfect; we all have flaws, etc, etc. But there are a few things that just cause me to lose my mind.

I can be in a perfectly reasonable mood and then BAM: insanity. I actually momentarily revert to a toddler and want to stomp my feet and cry and point fingers and make an adult who is adultier than me fix things.

I usually manage to just throw this fit in my head. And I usually get over it pretty quickly. But, oh boy, there are definitely moments I feel as if the red hot character Anger, from Disney's Inside Out, is in my brain throwing a tantrum.

Here are a few things that absolutely make me lose my mind:

Shopping carts at grocery stores. Why is returning shopping carts to the designated shopping cart return spot so difficult for people that they just leave them in the middle of the parking lot? Sometimes the not-returned shopping cart is literally a few feet from where lots of people have managed to considerately put their carts where they're supposed to.

Seriously, who is so busy that they can't take the extra 60 seconds to walk their cart twenty or thirty feet across a paved surface? Let's say you do have some sort of valid reason for not returning your cart. Let's say you suddenly start bleeding profusely—can you at least put the cart somewhere that doesn't block traffic? Don't leave it in the middle of the row where cars drive. And don't take up an entire parking spot with the cart when there's not enough parking spots to begin with. Argh! I'm getting mad just thinking about it...

Honking when the light turns green. I don't have super powers which means I can't actually make my car start moving the split second the street light turns green. DON'T HONK AT ME because I'm not moving the moment the stoplight changes. My brain cannot see the light turn green, have my foot press the gas pedal, and have my car start moving forward all within the same split second.

Sometimes there's actually another car in front of me. I am unfortunately unable to drive through a solid object. And sometimes there are pedestrians blocking the street whom I am unwilling to plow over simply because you are in a hurry.

Yes, I know, sometimes people aren't paying attention and a polite honk to let them know they're holding up traffic is understandable. But if you can see that my car is blocked by other cars—cool your jets.

Throwing cigarettes out car windows. Why do people do this? In general, I don't understand why people who smoke seem to throw their cigarette butts everywhere. People don't usually throw garbage on the ground as they're walking around. Why do people think it's okay to just fling cigarette butts all over the place?

It's not like they're microscopic. I mean, they're not big, but they're definitely noticeable...especially when there's a whole pile of them! 

And throwing lit cigarettes out the windows of moving cars is dangerous. Most of the time the smoker hasn't even stubbed the cigarette out which means there's smoking ash speeding toward the person who is unfortunate enough to be driving behind the smoker. It's particularly jarring at night on the freeway when you see the spray of sparking ash flying out the window at 65 mph.

I understand not wanting to drive around with smelly cigarette butts in your car—but then maybe don't smoke while you're driving!

Toni here. On the irritation scale, it would be hard to come up with a list as good as Mara's. But here's something funny. Just yesterday, I posted a piece at Psychology Today on things I didn't expect to happen as I age, and one of them was that I didn't expect that I'd get less and less upset when things don't go as I'd like. (Here's the link to that piece: 12 Things I Didn't Expect to Happen as I Age.) 

That said, yes, discarded shopping carts, people who honk as soon as the light turns green, and cigarette butts being thrown out of the window still irritate me. 

And so does this: the robo call I get almost every day that shows up on my caller ID as coming from someone in my own town, which leads me to pick up the phone only to be treated to an overly cheerful voice who wants to sell me a condo in Florida. She (is it really a human voice?) even has the gall to say that she's following up on our previous (nonexistent) chat. 

Mara and I would love to know what drives you crazy!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The No Good Very Bad Day

Toni here. When I read Mara's piece, I thought "This stands on its own and needs no input from me." And so, I won't be answering questions this week. Here is her post:

This won't get posted until the weekend, but I'm writing it on Tuesday, so yesterday was Monday. It was a very tough Monday. It was the kind of day that immediately reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

It was, and still is, a favorite story because we all have bad days. And some days feel much worse than others. Some days are no good and very bad. They start badly and seem to spiral downward as the day goes on.

As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, I wake up in the mornings and immediately check my phone. The first thing I look for is a text from my daughter. She's up a lot later at night than we are because she has a lot of homework, and sometimes she texts me if she's not feeling well and wants to skip one of her early class periods, or if she needs me to sign something. Obviously if something was an emergency, she would wake me up, but if it's just something she doesn't need me to know immediately, she texts me.

The second thing I check is the news. Because, after 9/11, I wakeup every morning a little fearful.

Well, Monday, October 2nd was one of those mornings when my heart dropped as I scrolled through the headlines. The massacre in Las Vegas. At the time, the headlines were that there were over 50 people dead and 500 wounded at an outdoor music festival. Murdered by a gunman firing an automatic rifle in a crowd of 22,000 people.

My heart stopped.

My daughter Malia, her two friends, and my husband Brad had been in Las Vegas the weekend before, at a three day outdoor music festival not far from where the shooting had happened. They had been in the exact same situation, penned in, crowded around a stage, listening to music and not imagining they could be in harm's way.

It hit too close to home.

I was stunned. I couldn't comprehend what was happening. How do I just get up and brush my teeth and drink coffee like it's any other day when the fragility of life was slammed into my face? All those people. All those families. The grief made it hard for me to breathe.

My daughter had already left for school, but my husband was still home getting ready for his day at work. We talked about how awful the shooting was and numbly watched the news on television. We talked about how scary it was to think that it could have been my husband and our daughter just the previous weekend. Brad had woken up in the middle of the night and seen the news on television and had not been able to go back to sleep. It was too disturbing that just a few days earlier, he had been at a similar stage, just a mile or so away from where the shooting had happened.

It feels like a constant barrage of bad news these days. Between the political tensions and the natural disasters, I feel mentally worn out. The devastation of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria has been weighing very heavily on my mind. How much sorrow and worry can we handle before we have to tune it out?

And then the shooting in Las Vegas happened. And there are moments of wondering how we can continue to live in a world where we can't keep our kids safe? How do we explain to our kids what is happening? How do we reconcile it to ourselves? 

A part of me wanted to curl up and hide in bed. But of course, life continues on. We couldn't just stare at the television all day, so my husband pushed aside the horror of the news and finished getting ready, and left for work.

A minute later, he came back in. He had apparently left his car unlocked the previous evening and someone had stolen a bunch of stuff out of his car, including his gym bag that had his special cycling shoes and some fancy wireless headphones.

It was blow to an already tough morning.

We both stood silently, not sure what to make of it. We were still numb from the news about Las Vegas. And although having his stuff stolen was annoying, it wasn't terrible. They didn't damage the car, but it felt like an invasion. It was another moment of wondering why people are sometimes so crappy. 

Eventually Brad left for work. I went through the motions of doing my usual morning things around the house. I did laundry and cleaned up the bathroom. But my mind was focused on listening to the news playing in the background.

The heavy feeling of dread clung to me. I couldn't shake it. I couldn't stop hearing the sounds of the bullets rat-a-tat-tatting behind the music of the concert as the screams of concert goers pierced the air.

I needed to get out of the house. I needed to turn off the news.

Around 10 a.m., I got in my car to go to the store.

My car wouldn't start. Argh!!!

Deep breath.

With the new computerized engines and displays, it's a little hard to know what is going on with the car, but it wouldn't recognize the key fob and it wasn't coming on. It was sort of sputtering, but clearly wasn't going to actually start. And at this point, even if it did start, I wouldn't trust it to get me anywhere.

I got out of my car, went inside, and texted my husband:

Me: My car won't start.
Brad: It's just one of those days I guess.

It's just one of those days.

I went back and forth with myself about whether or not to rush around and figure out how to deal with my car. But it felt overwhelming. My heart was so heavy, yet my time was limited because I needed to drive my daughter to an audition in a few hours. She has her driver's license and her own car, but the time between when she gets home from school and when she has to leave for an audition is really tight, so it's easier if I drive her so she doesn't have to worry about figuring out how to get there and park. And since mine wouldn't start, I could drive her in her car.

So I stepped back and asked myself if I really needed to deal with the car right at that moment. The normal me would be panicked and feel as if I had to take care of my car immediately. The normal me would have already been on the phone with AAA.

But that day, I wasn't the normal me. I couldn't feel panicked about my car. I realized that I didn't need to do anything about my car at that moment. It could wait until the following day. And when I made that decision, a little bit of the weight of the day lifted. I was giving myself a little space.  

When Malia got home, she was her usual laconic self, and I was my usual stressed self. I was trying to rush her out of the house and she snapped at me. I snapped back, saying it had been a tough day. She already knew about my car, but hadn't heard about her dad's stuff being stolen.

When I told her, she was completely outraged on his behalf and wanted to know if he was "pissed."

I replied that he was frustrated, but not really that upset. She couldn't understand why he wasn't outraged. "I would be livid!" she exclaimed.

I answered, "Well, it's not really that important."

Malia in her dogged way, insisted she wouldn't be able to let it go.

I finally said, "Compared to 59 people dying, a stolen bag is not really a very big deal."

I regretted my retort as soon as I came out of my mouth. I didn't need to be so harsh about the ghoulish reality of life. I know she knows that "things" are not as important as "life."

But she thought about my answer carefully for a moment and she said, "That's true."

And it is true. The day had been a tough day in multiple ways, but for our immediate family, nothing happened that we couldn't deal with. Nothing got stolen that couldn't be replaced. Nothing broke that we can't afford to fix. Yes, it's frustrating and inconvenient. But that's life. Life is frustrating and often inconvenient.

But we were alive. And as melodramatic as that sounds when people say things like that, on a day when so many people died under circumstances that none of them could have anticipated or imagined, the blessing of being alive was so present and important.

Fortunately, the rest of the afternoon went smoothly. I got Malia to her audition and home without a hitch. We had the opportunity to talk about what had happened in Las Vegas. She got to tell me how upset she had been when she found out that morning, crying quietly to herself as she got ready for school. We talked about how scary it was that they had just been in Las Vegas for a music festival. I got to tell her how much I loved her and how lucky we were.

And by the time we got home, things didn't feel as awful as they had felt earlier in the day.

Later that evening, when my husband got home from work, I asked if we could try jump starting my car. It seemed as if it might be a battery issue and, if I knew that the battery was the problem, then I would know if it needed to be towed or not.

So my husband dug out his old jump starter cables and connected his car to my car. Neither of us had jump started a car in a while, but it's pretty straightforward, right?

It's probably not a big deal on any other day, but on the no good very bad day, the jumper cables started smoking. And then they started smoking a lot. And pretty soon the entire cable was smoking and the prongs were sparking. The acrid smell of burning plastic filled the air. My husband ran inside the house to get some oven mitts to pull the now red hot wires off our cars. The wires were literally a glowing red. All the plastic coating had melted off.

By some miracle, we managed not to light both our cars on fire and neither of us ended up in the emergency room. However, the exposed cable did melt part of the front panel and grill of Brad's car. The car actually melted. It looks like someone swiped the front of his car with a light saber.

What the heck.

The no good very bad day had struck another blow.

I had a moment of just wanting to throw a tantrum. I wanted to just stomp around and scream and cry and ask the universe, why? It all felt too unfair.

But then I snapped back to reality. Honestly, we should have known better than to try jumping my car at that moment. Clearly, the universe was telling us that the day needed to be dealt with carefully.

My momentary mental tantrum passed and I managed to keep things in perspective. There had been such a heavy weight to the entire day. There were many times when I felt like just sitting and crying for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer helpless feeling of it all.

And then add to that, the frustrations of having Brad's stuff stolen and my car not starting. And, of course, the cherry on top of all the horribleness of the day—having melted part of Brad's car.

It really was a moment where we could have succumbed to our frustrations. We could have vented our anger and had a big fight. Brad could have been mad and blamed me. I could have been mad and blamed him. But we both just decided to let it go.

For all the frustration of the day, nothing that had happened to us was worse than some crazy person deciding to kill people. Nothing that happened to us was beyond our means to fix or deal with. And the melting of Brad's car? Well it's another story to add to a long list of bizarre stories that have happened to the two of us that are mildly horrifying when they happen, but end up being pretty funny in hindsight.

By the end of the night, Malia, Brad and I, were sitting at the kitchen table, listening to music and spending time together. We don't usually spend a lot of family time during the week. Everyone's tired and busy. But that night, we all needed to connect. We had all been emotional about the events of the day, and we were all simply grateful to be together.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What's On Your Camera Roll?

Mara here. There are probably people who don't know what I mean by the question, "What's on your camera roll?" To understand this and have it be applicable to you, you have to be very attached to your cell phone.

I am one of those people.

For those of you who might not have a phone in your hand all the time, people's camera rolls refers to what they take pictures and screen shots of. For people like me, who scroll their way through news stories, social media, emails, texts, online calendars, online books—online everything—it's common to take pictures and screen shots (like a screen print for computers) of things that you want to remember.

So, sometimes people joke that you can know a lot about a person by scrolling through their camera roll. What does that person take pictures of? Are there a lot of selfies? Are there a lot of memes?

If I got hit by a car today, what would people learn about me from what I had chosen to take pictures of?

Here are the top three things I screen shot or take pictures of:

1) Pictures of my pets. Once upon a time it might have been my daughter but she rarely lets me take pictures of her now. So I take lots of pictures of my cats and dog because, in my humble opinion, they're really adorable.

2) Screenshots of snarky memes. I love memes. If you aren't familiar with memes they're pictures with a saying on them. Sometimes they're serious, but usually it's a joke of some kind. Sometimes it's a quote or poem, but often it's random things. They make me laugh. Sometimes they make me think or allow me to share with others a thought I've had. But mostly I screenshot things that are sarcastic that I find funny.

3) Screenshots of recipes. I honestly don't know why I do this. I barely cook. And when I do cook it's pretty much the same dozen things I've cooked for years. But I have this crazy obsession with taking screenshots of recipes that look yummy. I've taken screenshots of hundreds of recipes. The biggest problem with doing this is there's really no easy way for me to go back through and find these recipes. (I have nearly 15,000 photos on my phone right now.) But I still do it. I can't stop.

Those are the top three...but I have pictures of a lot of other things too. I guess you could get a fairly decent idea of what is important to me by going through my pictures. I love my pets. I like flowers. I like jokes (memes) and I don't take myself too seriously. It would not be a stretch to assume I have a bad memory because I take lots of photos of phone numbers and addresses—or things in general that I need to remember. I take photos of identifying marks in parking garages because I can't ever remember where I've parked. I take photos of valet tickets in case I lose the actual ticket. If you give me a business card, I take a photo of it. In fact, anything that I might lose (or forget), I try to take a photo of it.

From my photos, you would definitely get the wrong idea that I was some kind of dinner cooking machine, but that's not the worst thing to have people mistakenly think about me, so it's ok.


Toni here. I guess I'd have to say that this blog post belongs to Mara because I rarely take pictures with my cell phone. Once in a while, if I make something I'm going to give away (such as a crocheted scarf), I'll take a picture of it first, but that's about it.

This is odd, because I used to own a SLR camera before cameras went digital and, for many years, considered myself an amateur photographer. But that was years ago, before I became mostly housebound by illness. And I suppose that's why I don't have a "camera roll" as Mara calls it. I think of my cell phone as an emergency device. It sits in my purse if I go out, in case I need to make a call. 

I also don't clip things, like recipes, out of newspapers, although my husband does. He loves the New York Times cooking section. I do bookmark a lot of things on my computer though! They're mostly about whatever creative endeavor I'm currently pursuing. So, when I was trying freeform crochet, I bookmarked dozens of sites, some with instructions and others with photos I loved of people's work. And I bookmark things that I buy regularly so I don't have to look them up each time, such as the kind of dog food I buy for Scout or supplements I take.

Pretty boring, I know. At least Mara has an interesting camera roll!


So what about you? What's on your camera roll? If you don't take a lot of pictures with a cell phone, what do you clip out of newspapers? What kinds of things do you bookmark on your computer?

One of Mara's favorite memes.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Finding the Hidden Gems

Mara here. When I was younger, there was a video game my brother played in which you'd go through the various levels and collect gems of different colors and shapes. The whole goal of the game was to collect as many gems as possible.

I can't remember the name of the game, but the concept of finding those precious gems has stuck with me all these years.

I was reminded of that game yesterday while I was going through a bunch of headshot I'd just taken. I'm a photographer; for those of you who aren't familiar with headshots, they're a portrait that performers use to market themselves. Actors (or dancers, etc.) take them to auditions, and they're essentially the first impression the casting directors get of you. So for actors, they're very important.

When you do a headshot session, you take a lot of photos. I take more than some photographers because I think the subtle variations in people's expressions can make a huge difference to the quality of the photo. So I take hundreds of shots. This means, however, that at the end of the shoot, there are hundreds of pictures that the actors, in consultation with their agent or manager, have to sift through to find the one or two pictures that really stand out.

They have to find the gems.

I also sort through them and pick one or two to post on my social media sites. It's one of my favorite things to do because I click through the pictures, letting them pass by until one catches my eye.

So yesterday, when I was wading through 446 pictures of a client, I took a moment to explore what it was that made any given picture stand out from the hundreds I was looking at. And there's no simple answer. Sometimes it's the curve of an eyebrow. Sometimes it's a slight curl of a lip. Sometimes it's the glint of joy that shines through the eyes.

And here's the amazing part—everyone thinks different photos are gems. This blows my mind—how you can give twenty people the option to pick whatever they want and they won't all pick the same thing!

I thought about this recently on a family weekend getaway. We were at a waterpark, so there were hundreds of people walking around, and I realized that they were all wearing different bathing suits. It was amazing to me that, given the choice of different colors, styles and patterns, most people pick something that nobody else picks.

And that, for me, is one of the truly wonderful things about life—that we don't all like the same things. What's a gem for me isn't necessarily a gem for someone else.

And, although at the time I thought that my brother's gem-collecting game was just a dumb game that was one of dozens he was obsessed with, I realize now it's an interesting metaphor for life. We go through life, bombarded by things all the time, but our job is to sift through all the information that comes at us and find our own gems. We have to find that one house in a thousand houses. We have to find that person in a world of billions of people, who we decide we want to share our lives with.

On a smaller scale, we go into stores and pick that one shirt that we love or find that one pair of pants that makes us feel attractive. Part of growing up is experiencing a wide range of things and identifying what makes our lives a little more enjoyable: a favorite food, a favorite book, or a favorite TV show. Just like the video game, we travel through our life adventure and collect our own personal gems.

Here are a few questions I asked my mom on this subject.

Is there a Buddhist lesson about finding our own unique life joys—or as I refer to them in this article—gems?

Hmm. That's a good question. I can't think of a Buddhist lesson about finding our own unique life joys, but I can think of a lot of Buddhist lessons about not becoming attached to them because everything changes all the time. Impermanence is a universal law, and so I'd say that we should expect that, although some gems may last a lifetime, others (even relationship gems) may not.

Don't get me wrong. Nothing in Buddhism says not to find joy in your unique way. I talk about joy a lot in my books. But it helps to recognize that it's often fleeting; then we won't be distraught when it disappears. Or when it breaks. I mention the word "breaks" because in my new blog for Psychology Today, which I'll be posting in a few days, I write about an impermanence practice where you think of things as already broken. It may sound strange in the context of this beautiful and thoughtful essay of yours, but I think readers of my new piece will find both essays helpful.

Similar to my experience with headshots, as an artist, you have to select things that stand out to you as special to paint or embroider. Can you identify what it is that often catches your eye? 

This is a great question. I used to work for someone who would often wear a tie that matched beautifully with his suit. When I'd point it out, he said it was his wife who'd picked it and that she liked to tell him that he lacked the "goes with" gene. He said he never knew what went with what.

Looking for what goes with what is what catches my eye when I'm doing art. Which colors look good with other colors or catch your eye in a pleasing way because they're not the obvious choice to go side by side? What textures look good next to other textures? What brush strokes make a good contrast with other brushstrokes, such as using a dry brush to indicate grain on wood and then contrast it by using a wet brush full of paint right next to it.

So, I tend not to look for individual things but for what looks good or moves me because of what it's next to.

Oh, and I don't remember the name of your brother's video game either!

Some of Mara's Headshots