gopdem

Monuments To Mediocrity: How Soundbites Ruined Government (and Why It’s Our Fault)

We live in an age of immediacy and abbreviation. Email instead of snail mail. Texts instead of voicemails. One hundred forty (oh, sorry, 140) characters in a tweet. Four hundred thirty-two (432) characters in a Facebook status update. Drive-thru restaurants. ATMs. (We can’t even spell those words out.) Give it to me quick and let me get on with my life. If it can be done without me having to actually listen to you, so much the better.

So is it any wonder that the world of politics is what it is today?

The clearest example I can find in recent history is the 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry v. Bush. Why did Kerry lose that election? I, personally, don’t believe it was because of the Swiftboat thing. I believe it was because Kerry did not know how to speak in easily-digested, clever, 15-second soundbites. He was mocked, made the subject of late-night comedy, for his tendency to go on and on about any particular topic. I remember a Jon Stewart bit, years later, about what he named his boat. (If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, just fast-forward to the 2:04 mark.) It was hilarious, sure. But was the joke actually on us?

What Senator John Kerry understood, for which the rest of us just didn’t have time, is that governing is not easily boiled down to a quick snippet of memorable slogans. This is complicated stuff. And one needs a complicated mind to understand it and do it well.

In American history, there are examples of complicated minds who understood how to govern while also understanding how to speak to the American people. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Ted Kennedy. Ann Richards. You’ll notice I’m giving relatively recent references. That’s not because of politics. That’s because of Americans.

When Americans pioneered and then embraced the nature of the mass media (r)evolution, politics had to change. No longer could we put up with wordy fireside chats.

(Who wants to sit and stare at a radio?)

No more did we tolerate laborious discussion in a public forum without some flash to entertain us. As the digital age dawned and then grew, we didn’t want to sit for hours and watch debates. We wanted soundbites. We wanted low-effort ways to figure out in an instant who we liked and who we didn’t. Maybe it mattered what they said. Maybe it only mattered how they said it.

Suddenly, there was a ubiquitous poll question on every network’s graphics: Which candidate would you rather have a beer with/invite to a backyard barbeque?

Really? This is how we’re deciding who will run the country? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough beers and been to enough backyard barbeques to tell you in no uncertain terms that I do not want any of the people with whom I spent that time to become the leader of the free world. Beer pong and badminton skills do not a president make.

Except for President George W. Bush, the first man elected almost exclusively, you have to figure, because he won the backyard barbeque poll.

Mmmmm... pork!

Look where that got us.

Somehow, in the technology age, wit and pith overtook erudition and intelligence as our main standards of leadership. We favored sassy over smart, savvy over strategic, composed over considerate. We wanted style instead of substance and punch instead of precision. “Bring it on” instead of “Achieving our goals does not require us to build a flawless democracy, defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy—what we’re talking about is “good-enough” governance, basic sustainable economic development and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces.”

Ironically, when it comes to politics, the Information Age is actually keeping us from truly being informed. And now, we blame politicians for the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t shoulder some of the blame. By and large, they’ve given in to the hype, and the next thing we know, they’re offering Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. But what would we do if they all bucked the trend and spoke like Senator John Kerry instead of like President George W. Bush?

When we think of our most honored leaders, our most revered patriots, we think of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington and Kennedy. We remember Jefferson and Dr. King. Those are the men to whom monuments have been erected. And we cherish them not only because they could give fine speeches with soaring rhetoric, or write documents that give us chills. We cherish them because they had the brains to back it up.

Somehow, we’ve gone from that level of appreciation to completely writing off an impressive leader because he said he was for the Iraq war spending bill before he was against it, (halfway down the page) and then trying to offer his reasons. Fine, so Kerry wasn’t the best at playing the game. Since when is changing one’s position in the face of the facts – and wanting people to understand why – such a loathsome quality?

Now, we’re gearing up for the next presidential race. No one has announced for sure that they’re running, but here’s who’s stirring the pot:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who paints himself as “the opposite of Obama.” Interesting, since he’s a good ol’ Southern white boy with a Confederate flag hanging in his office.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who thinks the American Revolution began in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts, and holds up tea bags when she talks.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is widely regarded as one of the most cerebral politicians around, who thought Sen. Kerry was a flip-flopper… and then flip-flopped on Libya.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.The only person so far to form an exploratory committee (required to start raising campaign funds). His present strategy includes apologizing for his support of cap-and-trade.

Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are still out there, floating around in the pool of potential candidates, but none of them have really committed to anything, and none of them showed up in Iowa or New Hampshire recently.

Is anyone else completely underwhelmed by this lot? These Packers of the Populist Punch who bring nothing formidable to bear on the national conversation? Who may be capable, but apparently aren’t desirous, of articulating anything other than party lines?

This week, we’re back to hearing soundbites about the budget battle. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Eric Cantor squaring off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Chuck Schumer (who got caught on tape this week telling fellow Dems what words to use in interviews about the budget process. Like this is a huge surprise, and everyone thought it was pure coincidence that all of the Republicans use the same words, and all of the Democrats use the same words). “The Democrats need to show that they’re serious about fixing the problem” vs. “The Republicans need to decide which is worse: angering their Tea Party base or shutting down the federal government.”

And both sides repeatedly spouting the new favored line in modern rhetoric: that the other side is “kicking the can down the road.”

My personal opinion, based on the actual budget proposals in play, is that both sides still have it wrong. And I think they both know it. There is a $1.5 trillion deficit. Democrats want to cut $21 billion in spending for the fiscal year, but might be willing to take it to $33 billion if they trim defense and “mandatory” programs that get automatic funding. Republicans want to cut $61 billion, including funding for Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Environmental Protection Agency, and education programs. They’re not willing to lower the number. And lest we believe that the Republicans are the closest to the correct answer because they want to cut the most, we should require them to show their work: their $61 billion cut would make it basically impossible to enact the health care overhaul. So now you know their motive.

That doesn’t really work in a soundbite, though.

I’m sitting here now, staring at how I’ve wound up this entry, and I’m thinking, “It needs something. It needs… pizzazz.” But you know what? I’m going to leave it like it is. Because reaching for pizzazz just means I’ve fallen for the same tricks I’ve been ranting against.

FacebookFrustration

The Social Network: Proving Your Old Friends Are Boring and/or Pathetic

-“Anthony just pooped on the potty!”
-“Making dinner and spending the evening with my <3 :-)
-“Well tonight was his night and he didn’t even show up. Again. All that time and money with lawyers and court and now your not even going to show up and get your kids?”
-“Head hurts. :-(“
-“Molly is doing better her back is almost healed but now Eric is sick again which means another trip to the doctor that the insurance wont pay for. He is a trooper with all these tests and hopefuly well find out soon what the exact problem is we’re just hopping its not cancer.”
-“I try to treat everyone how I want to be treated, but once again someone has hurt my feelings. It gets so discouraging to try to follow Jesus this way. But I will keep walking.”
-“Going out tonight!”
Oh, shut up already.
Am I the only person who has incredibly dull and self-centered Facebook friends?
It took me years to sign on to Facebook. I was razzed by real-life friends while I staunchly defended my position, telling them that I believe Facebook makes it too easy to boil friendships down to 400 characters masquerading as quality interaction simply because of the potential quantity of exchanges. When I finally caved and joined a year and a half ago (because it was apparently the only way I was going to get to see pictures of my godson), I decided I wasn’t wrong, but it was kind of fun to catch up with people and/or see if they got fat after we graduated from high school (they did).
And then a funny thing happened. Facebook made me start wondering if I was a bad person.
The vast majority of my Facebook friends are smart, funny, interesting people. But at least three times a day, I would come across status updates like the ones listed above and roll my eyes.  It’s not that I’m a cold, uncaring person. It’s that I find something undignified in sharing your dramas (like the fact that your daughter’s father just got out of prison and might actually become a part of her life… and the subsequent profanity-laden realization that no, he won’t… and then the apparent hacking of your account so that there’s some sort of status update argument between you and him about his value as a human being, and it’s all being broadcast over a social network). 
Self-awareness, my old friend. Find some.
<Click>  Remove as a friend? <Click Remove From Friends .>
(That’s the only friend I’ve done that to. I just couldn’t take it.)
And if your sad self can’t spell or use contractions correctly, that means more points off for you. (See previous rant.)
Yes. I’m an intellectual snob. Shocker. I mean, I recognize the value of your life and your pain. I do. I just think you probably shouldn’t be telling an entire, you  know, cyber-universe about it.
Don’t get me wrong; Mark Zuckerberg intended exactly this kind of interaction (though I seriously doubt his friend list contains people who write things like, “Haircut, then lunch w/Mom!”) I’m just really disappointed that so many of the people I once thought were interesting have turned out to be totally… well… not. And that people I was good friends with 20 years ago turned out to be fodder for an episode of Jerry Springer.
I know, I know, I’m totally mean.
But tell me you haven’t thought it about your Facebook friends, too.
The corporate beauty of Facebook is that it can be used in whatever way the user him- or herself wants to use it. And those folks at Apple were brilliant to name everything an iSomething. We’re totally self-absorbed these days.  I happen to choose to use my status updates to either make people laugh or make them think. Not everyone has to do that, and I don’t think I’m a better person for my defined purpose. That’s just me. But I really do enjoy learning more about old friends from what they post.
But let’s be honest. If you can’t be interesting, don’t be part of a social network like this. Take, for example, this post:
“The kids are playing in the yard.”
Oh my God, you’re boring. Every update is similar to that one. You. Are. DULL.
Another example:  “I’m speechless.” That’s it. Well, if you’re speechless, don’t post that. It’s intentionally obscure and is meant to bait people into asking you what’s wrong, and I flatly refuse to ask. So pltltlpbltlplpt.
(That’s a tongue-out raspberry.)
I find myself getting kind of disgusted by these people, the people who post these self-indulgent things. And then I feel bad, like I’m cruel for judging people whose lives are much more difficult than mine. For example, the “My Ex Didn’t Come Get the Kids” poster. I liked you in college. I truly do feel bad that your life has come to a point where you have to have an apparently protracted legal battle over custody and visitation of your children, after which their father still fails to behave like a father. It’s’ terrible and painful for you, and for your children. But posting a status update about it? That’s not going to help them or you. It’s just going to send a message to all your Facebook friends that you are angry and seeking validation from literally any and all of the 342 “friends” you have.
My point is, there are people you can and should share these things with. Your entire Facebook friend list? Not so much.
Let’s talk about the self-pity party people. “My head hurts. ” “I’m so sick.”  “I cut my finger.” Who cares?! Put on your big girl panties and deal with it! (And yes, I’m saying “big girl panties” for a reason; guys don’t post that kind of stuff on Facebook.) You’re making yourself look like a big whiner who just wants all her friends to say, “Oh, you poor thing!” Do you not have real-life, non-cyber friends who can serve this purpose? Whine to them.
I hereby declare my Facebook news feed to be a No Whining Zone. I am empowering myself with the right and ability to hide all of you people who decide to feel sorry for yourselves in a public way.
But I don’t de-friend you. There. I’m not so mean.
frazzled mom

Womb With A View: Why Target Is Excellent Birth Control

I’m about to tell you something shocking about myself. Something my family and even some of my closest friends don’t know. Something I’m sure I’ll be judged for, and even possibly ex-communicated from the Catholic Church (as if this would be the only thing that would do it).

I don’t think I want children.

You're not getting grandkids from me!

 

There, I said it.

My biological clock is digital. It does not tick.

Now, for most total strangers, this isn’t necessarily a monumental revelation, so maybe I oversold it a bit in the lead. But make no mistake: women of childbearing age who choose not to have children are judged, by loved ones and total strangers alike.

When I was in my early 20s, I told my father I was leasing a four-door car partly because I figured I might be married with a kid by the time the lease was up. It is possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever said. And when I think about it, I wonder why I even thought that. Did I really think about having children at all? Sure, I thought about babies. And names. But that was probably pretty much it.

My theory is that most people really don’t think about it. They fantasize about it, but they don’t really think about it. I’m not saying I’m smarter than them because I have thought about it. For some people, children are the ultimate consummation of their lives. It’s their whole raison d’etre.

But boy, do they go through hell having them.

I’m not just talking about the sleepless nights or the messes made right after you get things cleaned up, the fevers and runny noses and whining and potty training and testing of limits, and then the growing up and testing of limits even more. When I talk about not really wanting children, I’m not talking about what children are like.

I’m talking about what mothers are like.

The best illustration I can give is Target on a Saturday. Target on a Saturday is the best birth control ever.

One Saturday, as I was perusing the greeting card aisle, a young mother was admonishing her son. “Grayson. Grayson, stop. Grayson, STOP IT. GRAYSON!”

Well, first of all, you named him Grayson, so that’s problem number one.

But this kid wasn’t doing anything wrong. You know what he was doing? He was singing. Not at the top of his lungs. Not a song about poop or farts. He was just singing. He was probably about four years old, and he was happy.

His mother, however, was not.

She was frazzled and exhausted, probably hadn’t had a shower yet that day, and was yelling at her child who was not pulling things off shelves and throwing them all over the floor or drawing on display cases with lipsticks. He was just singing.

Let him sing. He’s happy. You’re not. You are the problem here.

Now, lest a bunch of mothers jump on me, let me say this: I get it as much as a childless woman can get it. I know that kids can wear on you and wear on you until your last nerve is in danger of spazzing out completely at the smallest of irritations. Being a mother is, without question, the hardest thing on Earth to do. I have nephews, and I watch my sisters struggle with discipline and snotty noses and time-outs and neediness and Robert Mapplethorpe-esque outcomes of potty training attempts. They love their children more than anything in the world, and it’s sometimes not enough to keep them from sending me a message that says, “Come and get your nephew before I kill him.”

I live two hours away, so that’s a serious request.

My nephews are the best little guys ever, and I relish the chances I get to spend days (yes, days, not hours) with them. But I know in my heart I could never raise them without losing my mind.

I know women who wanted children desperately – or at least thought they did – and went through all kinds of very expensive and highly unpleasant medical procedures and marital strain to have them. And then they did have them, and a few years later they realized they hadn’t really thought it through, didn’t realize what it would entail. Turned out, reality was not the romantic notion they held in their heads and hearts. They don’t really want to be mothers. What a devastating and self-hatred inducing conclusion to come to. There are some women who might be able to barrel through this realization and be good moms. And I’m not saying the people I know don’t love their children. They do. You know who they don’t like? Themselves.

Being a mother comes with plenty of guilt and second-guessing, even when your children could not be better behaved and your relationship with your partner is thriving and you have it as together as is humanly possible. But being a mother when you don’t like yourself? That’s going to hurt you, and it’s going to hurt your kids.

I don’t hate myself, but I think I would if I had children. I would constantly be worried about whether I was doing enough, giving enough, loving enough, sacrificing enough, trying enough, showing enough, teaching enough, pleasing enough. I would constantly be worrying whether I was enough. I would find myself often wishing they would just go away. I might lose out on moments of joy because I was wrapped up in the anguish and exhaustion. There is precious little validation for these worries in a mother’s life, and I’m just not sure I’m wired to handle that kind of lifelong self-doubt and sacrifice, let alone protect my children from sensing it.

I have a sister who was born when my parents were 39. She was  not an accident; rather, she was a last-ditch effort. My parents knew that, if they wanted another child, it was now or never. And so she came to be. And that meant my parents would be 57 by the time that little girl turned 18. She has kept them young and up on the kid lingo of the day, but having her at 39 had a pretty significant impact for my mother.

My mom didn’t go to college, and her working life has always been as a secretary. There is nothing wrong with that. She worked hard, and she did it so that her kids could have a few extras in life. My  mother was the kind of mom who believed that she had to give everything over to being a mom. She criticized herself for every impulse or desire that seemed selfish, and told herself she couldn’t have any of the things she wanted if she wanted to be a good mother.

The problem is, I don’t think she was happy. And she felt guilty that her children didn’t make her happy, that we were not enough to fill her life and satisfy her. (And of course we weren’t. We were loud and annoying and messy and germy and constantly complaining about what she was making for dinner.) And her unhappiness – her fatigue and isolation and frustration and dissatisfaction – came out to her children in a lot of criticism and judgment and negativity. I’ve realized that this is exactly why she and I have always had a tense relationship. I was her oldest child, the one who made her realize that children are not little balls of personality Play-Doh that she could shape into being exactly what she wanted them to be. I was not the first daughter she had dreamed of. She told me as much once. And she has watched all of her girls grow up and go to college and have careers and do everything she might have wanted to do. And she resents it.

A few years ago, she uttered a sentence that told me more about who she was than all the years I had been her daughter: “I always thought that I’d start my life when my kids were grown.”

Oh, Mom.

If she had only known how beautifully wrong that thinking was, she wouldn’t have put it off for so long that she no longer had a dream of what to do. She robbed herself of happiness, and, in turn, set an example for her daughters that the way to raise children is to try to give them everything, keep nothing for yourself, and then be jealous of them.

I would never say my mom was a bad mother. She was not. But she was not a happy woman, and this is why. And happy women make better mothers. I find it an immutable fact. So much so that every time one of my friends or sisters got pregnant with their first child, I told them not to forget the women they were before they had children. It seems that can be easy to do. And when all you’ve ever wanted since you were three years old was to be a mom, well… then you never knew the woman you were before becoming a mom. Like my mother.

One day all your kids are out of the house, and you are a stranger to yourself.

Researchers have found that childless adults are happier and less stressed out than parents. (You can read a super-telegraphed article with links to the studies here.)  One woman has written a book about how, in the midst of a divorce, she realized she did not want to be a full-time mom, and she gave custody of her children to her ex-husband. What a gut-wrenching realization… and how brave of her to share that story.  I don’t know for sure if it’s true that childless people are happier, though I’m a sucker for empirical data that back up my suspicions. But I can see plenty of reasons that it might be true, even if it’s just that none of our clothes have vomit stains on them and we can take a shower whenever we want. I’m not being flip; those little things are a big deal.

And yes, I know that not having children might set me up for loneliness and sadness in my old age. But I don’t think that having someone to wipe my drool when I’m 85 is a good reason to have children now. There’s an awful lot that goes on in the 50 or 60 years before you get there that could make your kids want to smother you with a pillow as soon as look at you when you’re an old lady.

So I go to Target on a Saturday and I see these women, who are yelling at their happy little ones and telling them not to sing, and it breaks my heart. I feel terrible for a woman who is so worn out that she doesn’t see the pure beauty in a child who just wants to sing. And I think, “It’s not that I don’t want children. It’s that I don’t want to be her.” And I wheel my purchases out to my 2-door car, and head on home.

Taste Buds

Your Tongue Is Making Me Insane

I listen to a lot of talk radio. I have a long commute to work, and music stations make me crazy with the commercials and the DJs yelling at me about nothing in particular and blah blah blah okay stop it. So it’s CDs or it’s talk radio.

I learn a lot when I listen to NPR or C-SPAN radio or sports talk. Some of it is boring, sure. Some of it makes me want to drive over a median into a bunch of construction equipment just to liven up the ride a little bit. But sometimes it’s really, really interesting. Like, I find myself going, “Huh!” out loud by myself in the car.

Yes, I realize this makes me everything I mocked in an adult when I was a kid. I’m sort of scared of it, I’ll confess. But my job requires me to be well-informed, and that means news and talk.

But once in a while (okay, probably more often than that), there’s this phenomenon that comes up that completely ruins the listening experience.

Mouth noise.

Oh, I hate it.

I don’t know where I get this aversion, but it’s a powerful thing. Let me explain.

I’m driving along, and I’m really into the discussion that’s going on. I’m learning, it’s compelling, it’s interesting, it’s making me think about things in ways I’ve never thought about things before… this is good! I’m becoming a better person by listening to this discussion on the radio! But then, all of a sudden…

What is that noise?

That… that clicking?

That sort of persistent but not really regular wet clicking sound?

Ohhhhh, it’s her tongue.

Oh, this is very, very bad.

Deep breath.

Okay, maybe I can do this. I mean it’s not that bad. And this is a really interesting topic.

So I keep driving and they keep talking about how the developments in Libya mirror the developments in Iran, and I’m rolling with it. The callers are intelligent and the guest is very credible and very cogent and is explaining things in a way everyone can understand without being condescending. This is really good stuff.

Click.

Click click.

Breathe. Just breathe. You’re fine.

Click.

Ugh.

Click click click click click.

Pop!

Okay, no. Nope. I can’t do this. I have to turn it off. It’s not her fault, she’s just, you  know, talking, she can’t control the fact that the microphone is so sensitive that it’s picking up every little noise her tongue makes in her mouth, and now I can’t even hear the words she’s saying for all the mouth noise the words engender, and I cannot handle this. It’s gross.

And it’s totally not fair, because my mother told me when I was pretty young that I made more noise chewing with my mouth closed than anyone she knew. Apparently I have overactive salivary glands. My mom was really the only one who ever said anything about it, but it’s evidently true. No, wait. I had a dentist who pronounced the salivary gland thing. So I really shouldn’t be that averse to this sound.

But now that I’m thinking about it, I have a lot of issues with a lot of mouth noises. I mean, I’m fine with the kissing noises, and the regular normal noises that happen when you swallow or something. I’m even okay with the occasional accidental lip-smack that happens when your lip muscles go a little wonky on you. It happens. But I was raised with really good table manners, so I hate it when people chew with their mouths open. It’s not as much about what I see as it is about what I hear. I don’t need to hear all that sloshing around and salivating and juice-merging.

I can give you two really good examples of this. When I was a senior in college, I had a roommate who ate a banana with peanut butter on it every day. Fine. She ate it in the living room in front of the television. Fine. Except she smacked her mouth around more while she ate than any. Other. Person. I have ever. Known. And when there’s peanut butter involved in that kind of mess, I have to leave the room. This poor girl had been hit by a car over the summer, broke her femur, had surgery, steel rod, and had to have physical therapy to walk again. I helped her with it and listened to her scream and cry, twice a day, every day. I could do that. But no kidding, I had to leave the room every time she ate. Sweet, pretty girl. Disgusting eating habits. Couldn’t deal with it. Gotta go.

I have a coworker who also has this problem. He doesn’t particularly pay attention to the noises he makes. He chomps chips. He sloshes soda. He masticates meat with violent abandon. And, once a day, at almost the exact time, he makes this very odd sucky-slurpy sound when he’s not eating or drinking a thing.

I almost always turn around and look at him when he does that.

And that’s not all he does. He blows his nose constantly. Loudly and wetly. Now, I get it when you have a cold or the flu or a sinus affliction. It sucks, it’s no fun, it has to be done. This guy apparently had sinus surgery not long ago, so there are some issues… I don’t know. All I know is he blows his nose a lot, and it’s always really really nasty-sounding. And he also snorts. And sniffs.

I have another coworker who sniffs so much that I actually suspect he has a cocaine habit. It’s the weirdest, near-constant thing. I don’t know how he doesn’t hyperventilate. How does one develop that kind of habit? He also always has three water bottles filled to precisely the same levels with three different colored fluids. He keeps them at even levels throughout the day, even as the level diminishes. It’s really creepy. But I digress.

I had a boyfriend who had this really strange huff-and-puff thing. It was like an exhaled sniff. That’s the kind of noise it made. It was quiet, but regular. Every so often, here comes the puffing. Like he had a tickle in his noise and needed to gently blow it out.

I hated him when he did that. Gave him dirty looks when he couldn’t see me.

So, back to the radio thing. This is a situation that threatens my very ability to learn on the road. I’ve never listened to books on “tape,” but I wonder if that would be a problem, too. I’d get really absorbed in a book and then all of a sudden I’d have to stop listening to it and never know the end of the story because somebody was tonguing it too much. It’s like microphone porn or something. There’s no cure for this affliction. So I walk through the world with this aversion to mouth noise and hope nobody chomps gum in my ear on a conference call.

That’s meltdown level mouth noise.

Healthy 34-year-old trapped in aging, decrepit woman’s body. Send help.

(Written 3/23. Ability to post hindered by inability to move properly.)

You have no idea what I went through to write this entry.

 This morning, I got up, made coffee, and threw my back out. Just like that. I was supposed to be throwing the coffee filter out. That missed the mark. But my back? My back is gone.

 Usually, I know when my back is threatening to end me. It gives me warning signs, twinges.  And I can usually work around it and stay functional, as long as I have a bottle of Advil with me at all times.

 Today, though, no warnings. Just absolute fire-breathing leg-buckling vision-altering muscle spasmy goodness. Where “goodness”=hell.

When it first happened, I managed to straighten up and walk around. That’s usually a good sign, because being able to stand up straight and walk around means you can slowly and gently stretch things a little. Sadly, this was very short-lived. I decided to test the sitting thing, since I was going to be sitting in the car for an hour on the way to work, and then sitting at work for eight hours, and then sitting in the car for an hour on the way home.

The sitting went okay. Not great, but okay. The problem was, when I got up from the sitting, I could no longer do the standing. I could do the leaning-at-a-30-degree-angle-and-resting-my-weight-on-my-hands-on-the-table thing. That was really pretty comfortable. But no more with the standing. When I tried, the second time, to straighten up and take a step, I found myself on my knees instead.

Okaaayyyy…

Well, this is a bit of a Situation. So I crawled on my hands and knees into my bedroom, in search of my phone. I pulled it down from the nightstand and called my supervisor at work to give him a heads-up that I may or may not be permanently crippled. And then I crawled back out into the living room to try a few old-school remedies. I laid on the floor with my legs up on my coffee table, which happens to be exactly the right height for this particular thing. After a few minutes of just laying there to let the muscles relax a little, I started slowly trying to pull my knees toward my chest. You can’t do this with your stomach muscles, though. You have to actually use your arms. But that went okay.

Okay! That’s good!

In slow-motion, I rolled onto my side and sort of jiggered myself into a position where I could get my knees under me, and then pushed myself up so I was kneeling, with my butt on my heels. Huff. Good. Now, let’s try standing.

Yeah, no.

Back on my knees.

Drugs. Must have drugs.

I crawled into the kitchen, pulled the fridge open with the hand towel, and spent five minutes trying to get the yogurt off the shelf. It was the reaching, see. I had to slide it, using other things on the shelf as buffers and bumpers, to eventually bring the yogurt close enough to grab. Swell. Ate the yogurt. I ate the yogurt so that I would have a nice gastrointestinal coating so I could eat a handful of ibuprofen – which was the strongest thing I had in the house, apart from vodka. Which seemed to be a bad idea, considering I was trying to get to work.

Maybe I shouldn’t go to work, I thought. I might not be able to get there. I could call Jack and ask him to go get me some heat wraps and bring them over. He’s the only person who can do that in the middle of the day. It’ll screw up his workout routine, but if I tell him I need help, he’ll help. But I’m running low on sick days and what would I do here? Lay on the floor, unable to eat, drink, pee, or watch television at a comfortable neck angle.

Write! I thought. I could write. Then: No, genius, you can’t write laying down. Absent a NASA-designed pen or a computer that can be suspended in front of your face, you’re not going to write.

Work it is, then.

Alright, ibuprofen should kick in in about 45 minutes… let’s try a hot shower.

Made it into the bathroom, where I was faced with the towering obstacle of the side of the tub. I spent the first 15 minutes of the shower on my hands and knees before the hot water loosened things up enough to let me move just to my knees. And then I slowly sort of leveraged my way up the wall with my hands to a pseudo-standing position. An hour, I spent in the shower. Thank God my building has seemingly unending hot water. 

Plus, I had to shave, because I hadn’t done it in days, and if someone needed to come and pick my naked ass up off the floor because I couldn’t move, the hairiness was going to be really embarrassing.

Super-clean, smooth-legged and feeling slightly more limber, I was able to step out of the tub and walk into my bedroom. Now. Dressing.

Hahahahahaha… yeah.

Leg up… and down. Leg up… and down. Leg u–aaaaaooooooowwwww! 

Down.

Dammit.

So I sat on the bed, which was really a make or break move, because a couple of degrees in the wrong direction and it’s curtains for me. But the bed proved a help instead of a hindrance, and I got my pants on. Very exciting. Maybe I won’t have to call anyone to help me, after all. The bra, tank top and cardigan were relatively painless. I dried my hair without benefit of anti-gravity styling techniques and tested out the sitting again when I put on my makeup. It is beginning to look like I might actually get to work.

If I can get down the steps. And in the car.

I only yelped out loud once in that process. Call it a win. And then I was on my way to the drug store to get those heat wraps you can put on for eight glorious hours of pain relief. Please. It’s eight hours of warmth, and that’s nice, but who are we kidding? But I went anyway.

When I got out of the car (ow ow ow OWWW) at the drug store, a woman glanced over her shoulder at me, and then looked again as I shuffle-stepped my way across the parking lot and up to the door. Yes, I thought. I am aware of how I appear. I am 34. What gray hair I have is hidden by highlights. I’m a good 30 pounds less than the maximum weight allowed on body mass index graphs for my height. I am the picture of health, but for the fact that I’m walking like an octogenarian with a hitch in her giddyup. But my goal here is to not drop to my knees, so walk on by, lady.

You see, when you’re living on your own and presently boyfriendless, in your mid-thirties, you get really militantly independent. I’ve always been militantly independent anyway. Like, if I reeeeally have to go to the hospital because I’m bleeding internally, I’ll drive myself, thank you. (Done it.) Because I don’t want to be a bother, and all my friends have jobs with normal hours and kids and stuff, and they really don’t have the time or energy to be picking me up off the floor. So I take myself to the drug store and I shuffle-step my way in there, dammit.

Fortified with two boxes of heat wraps and the courage of my convictions, I got back in the car and managed to wrap one of those suckers on. And then I prayed that an hour in the car would not render me unable to get out again when I arrived at work. I had visions of just sitting there in the car in the parking lot for half the day, waving at coworkers. “Hi. I’m just going to stay here. Thanks. Hi.”

I did almost fall to my knees at least four times in the course of the day, but I made it through and got home without too much drama and without needing anyone to wheel me into meetings in my chair. Once I was home, I could lay on the floor and give these muscles a chance to unlock a little. I’ll find something in the kitchen that I can eat (tortilla chip crumbs and some cheddar cheese), dose up on another 800 mg of ibuprofen, and lie there.

Worst. Idea. Ever.

This has me flabbergasted, because usually this is the sure thing. This is what everybody will tell you to do: lay on the floor with your back flat against it and your legs up. Well, I don’t know what is going on in the L4 – S-whatever range of my spine, but it was having none of it. Lying there was one thing. But when I got up, holy God, I was worse off than I’d been all day. Not tired, and anything but comfortable, I decided to go back to the position I had been in for most of the day: sitting in a chair. I’ll write, after all, I thought. I crawled over to the laptop’s perch, intending to move it to the kitchen table, and then realized I couldn’t carry it. Instead, I put it on the floor and slid it along in front of me while I crawled over to the table.

And now, having conquered the day despite agony and a stubborn refusal to make anyone help me, having done my job and endured mockery and what-is-wrong-with-her glances, having climbed up the steps in my building looking, I swear to God, exactly like my grandmother used to, I’m sitting here. Writing.

This entry has been this long mostly because I don’t know how I’m going to get to bed.

Avert your eyes. You don’t want to see this.

We spend a lot of time these days talking about being comfortable in our own skin. It’s this grand adventure of self-acceptance that takes us to a higher place of peace. That’s lovely. Here’s the thing, though: I’m beginning to suspect that my skin is not comfortable on me.

I’m one of those Irish/German people with the complexion of a dead body. I’m really pale. One of my dear friends calls me “alabaster,” but I’m pretty sure he’s just trying to make me feel better.

This is white alabaster. I had to look it up to be sure. Aside from its gleaming cities, I wasn't confident I could identify it on spec.

I don’t tan; I just burn and fade repeatedly, if I allow it, and that gives the illusion of a tan, if I do it about 10 times. Yet somehow I can hang on to tan lines for years. And when I do spend time in the sun, the coloring is never even. Usually it’s splotchy, running in some sort of ungoverned, inexplicable, irregular lines and shapes.

In other words, really summer-sexy.

I once came home from a day at the beach and found these very strange semi-circles on the insides of my forearms. Everything else had acquired some color, but these rounded areas were still pale. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized they were boob lines from where I had sat reading a book.

Hey, at least I can get boob lines.

Last year, because of some sort of fluke reaction to a prescription that did not carry a “may cause life-threatening sun poisoning” warning label, I got the worst sunburn of my life. It happened when I sat on a New Jersey beach for three hours, from 2 to 5pm in late May. That is a time of day and year during which normal people would barely get a blush of color. Not so for me. That night, I was pink, but it wasn’t too bad. By 3am, however, I was nauseous. Yes, running to the bathroom every 60 – 90 minutes. And I was dizzy. And I had a fever.

Turns out, I was cooking from the inside out. But I didn’t realize it until a couple days later. I spent the day after the beach day trying to make sure I wouldn’t get sick again, thinking I had picked up some sort of 24-hour bug, carefully ingesting crackers and a LOT of Gatorade. But I kept getting redder, even though I hadn’t been in the sun at all that day. The next day, redder still. Man. This is weird.

Three days later, it occurred to me that I had fried myself beyond all comprehension. My clues were the really wretched blisters that popped up, covering my arms and chest and even my legs (which, by the way, turned so dark purple in some places that I thought they might fall off), despite all of my scientific and less-scientific-but-still-beneficial efforts at keeping my skin moisturized and cool. I couldn’t take a shower. I couldn’t sleep in any position except on my back. (I suppose I could have slept, upright, on my face, since that wasn’t burnt either… but that didn’t seem advisable.) Everything hurt in a way that sunburn has never hurt before, more like an ache than a sting.

This is the sunburn... three weeks after I got it.

I had to take ibuprofen around the clock for days just to keep the inflammation down. One day, several smaller blisters on my left arm decided to unionize and formed one fat blister slightly larger than a 50-cent piece. Ewwwwww. That is BAD. I don’t know what their demands were, and I was super-careful about clothing and all, but then as I was very gingerly putting on some sort of alleged skin-saving concoction, the union blister went on strike and seceded. Just sloughed right off in my hand. We’re talking, like, four layers at once.

I know. Gross.

Underneath, it was VERY red, baby-soft and in danger of cracking. I had visions of festering infections and possibly leprosy.

And when the blisters finally dried up about a week later, forget peeling. I wasn’t just going to peel. Peeling would have been quaint. You know what parched earth looks like? That brown surface, all cracked, the pieces seemingly shrinking away from each other?

I'm not even kidding. Really.

Yeah. That’s what I looked like. I actually appeared to have been in a fire. So then, on top of barely being able to dress myself because I couldn’t raise my arms more than Sen. John McCain can raise his…

...about yay high... (Blogger's note: Sen. McCain sustained nerve damage as a POW in Korea, and I thank him for his service and honor his sacrifice)

…I found myself also very limited in what I could wear. The best thing for my skin would have been to go naked, though I worried that dirt and dust particles might cause (more) serious and irrevocable harm. But alas, nudity was not an option at work. And I didn’t think I should subject my coworkers to seeing any part of how bad my skin looked, so I had to keep it lightly covered.

The only upside to this burn is that it seems to have cleared up the icky eczema I used to get on my legs. Haven’t had that since. At the time, those splotches looked worst of all, but I have now learned that a searing, near-death encounter with the sun will clear up your minor to moderate itchy patches. So I guess there’s that.

My skin heals pretty slowly, so almost a year later, the sun damage is still obvious. I have all sorts of brown spots I didn’t have before, and every time I get in the shower, the parts that were burned still get red.

Apart from the certainty that I will have about 37 malignant skin growths in the next five minutes, I also deal with acne. This started when I was 12. I’m now 34. Seriously. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I was young, but it’s never just one pimple, either. I’m getting wrinkles on my pimples and pimples in my wrinkles. Wrimples, I call them. And since I’m so pale, and my skin heals so slowly, a pimple can then become a purple spot that hangs around for two months. Fortunately, I have become expert in makeup application, and covering these things without making it look like I’m wearing much makeup at all. People think I have pretty nice skin, which never fails to make me laugh out loud, provoking a bit of a bewildered response from the complimenter. I have learned that moisture balance is very important to making my skin as clear as possible, so I have to futz around with different products and whether I should wash my face twice a day or just at night, or put on moisturizer twice a day or just in the morning, or whether I should use the anti-aging stuff because it might cause a kind of glandular rebellion.

And then there is the bruising.

I don’t know what the hell goes on while I sleep, but it’s possible that someone comes in, beats me, and leaves without me waking up. I discover the bruises in the shower. This morning, I found two, on my left forearm, near my wrist. They’re already yellow-green, which is odd, since that’s usually what happens after they’re purply-blue, and I never saw that. These bruises go along with the three big ones I have on my right leg, two on my calf and one on the outside of my thigh. I almost always have a bruise in that spot, from carrying grocery bags. But the ones on my calf I can’t explain. I have two others on my left calf.

I do tend to have low blood iron levels, so that’s probably part of why I’m pale, and part of why I bruise so easily. But you know what else causes easy bruising? Leukemia. So every once in a while, when I honestly can’t figure out where some bruises came from, I get all, “Great. Now I have leukemia.”

That on top of the melanoma is so totally going to suck.

Over time, I have grown to accept some of the skin problems as cleverly-disguised gifts. Truly, I do look younger than my age, I suppose because the oil on my face helps combat wrinkles to some extent. The paleness, though, that just makes me look sickly. I look much healthier with what I call a tan, but now I’m scared to get one. Today’s healthy glow is tomorrow’s four-pound facial tumor.

And I’m going to the beach next month. I’m going to blind people with my whiteness. I will be camouflaged against the sand. And I won’t get sunburn to help keep me from being too white, because last year’s scorching has me so paranoid that I now use a minimum 30 SPF sunblock every two hours, which may or may not contain zinc oxide, depending on how well I want my liver to function. And now I’m a little worried about trying the self-tanning lotion, because that stuff really only lasts about a week, and the labels say that it makes you more sensitive to harmful sun rays from the Gamma Sector of Orion Nebulus 3 if you use it within seven days of actual real sun ray exposure.

It’s really quite a predicament.

So if you go to the beach and you see a shockingly pale, but possibly splotchy, woman in a wide-brimmed straw hat and a cover-up skirt, sitting beneath an umbrella, and you wonder why she’s even there, come say hello.

The cover-up skirt, by the way, is because of another skin issue: cellulite.

We will not discuss the cellulite.

 

I can’t love you if you can’t spell.

 
  
 

I have always been a total freak about grammar and usage. I will admit this freely. (I just deleted the phrase “and openly” because it was redundant. My decision to post a blog entry about my grammar obsession is now making me completely neurotic about how I write said entry.)

My coworkers know well how I wave my written word freak flag. And they should. We’re all writers, for crying out loud. My family knows. I am told that some of them are occasionally afraid to send me an email because I might judge them.

I wouldn’t judge them. They’re my family.

Total strangers? I definitely judge total strangers.

Here’s the thing: I cannot understand how someone can get to their 20s without realizing that they’re doing it wrong. I mean, how does one go through life having no idea that they’re using “they’re,” “their” or “there” inappropriately? Or that there is a difference between “your” and “you’re?” How does one not take note, at some point in life, that “a lot” is two words?

And since when is it acceptable to use apostrophes as an indication of decades? 20’s, 30’s, etc… NO. That’s WRONG. But apparently, we’re going with it. Which means I have a bone to pick with the caretakers of modern language.

I credit (yes, credit) my lifelong love of reading for the fact that I am obsessive about these rules to the point of twitching when I see something written incorrectly. I don’t even think it has to do with learning it in school. Lord knows there was plenty I should have remembered from some lesson when I was seven that’s long gone at this point. But I think that being a reader is more important to developing a real understanding of the written word than is a lesson in school, or a teacher’s constant red-ink corrections (which are usually just resented and therefore disregarded). And I don’t think that you can force someone to love reading. So I understand when such a person maybe hasn’t grasped the fact that there is no apostrophe in “apostrophe’s.” (When has an apostrophe ever possessed anything? I dare you to write a sentence in which the word “apostrophe” possesses something. I’m throwing down that challenge right now. Post it in the comments. Go.)

But there is also such a thing as the power of observation. And this is where I get hung up.

To me, if you didn’t learn the lesson in school, and you didn’t learn it from reading, then your powers of observation should be enough to let you know that you’re screwing up the language in a royal way. Yet, the people in my life who are most consistently guilty of grammatical screw-ups are also very observant. I don’t understand how this happens. My sister, for example. My sister can see a guy in her peripheral vision walking by with a dog, and later tell you exactly what he was wearing, what color hair he had, whether he had glasses and, if so, what the frames looked like, what kind of dog he was walking, and what color the leash was. But she cannot spell “receive” correctly to save her life.

I am aware that my dear friends and family are sometimes intimidated by my worthsmithing, so I consciously choose not to correct them when they write things incorrectly. Instead, if it really starts to bug me, I’ll repeat their word, but in correct usage, in my reply to their message. For example, my friend Jay constantly spells “ridiculous” wrong. He spells it “rediculous.”

Which is ridiculous.

And so I reply by using the word in a sentence, spelled correctly.

Never works.

Jack does something I’ve never seen anyone else do. He spells “a lot” as one word, with an extra L. “Allot.”

Seriously? You’re a bright guy, Jack. You write for a living. “Allot?”

And this brings me to another realization: I have a pretty good handle on word origins. Turns out, that helps quite a bit. If you know that the origin of the word “ridiculous” is the word “ridicule,” and you understand that you are not, somehow, re-diculing anything (seeing as how there’s no such verb as “dicule” to allow for a re-dicule), then you know that the proper spelling of the word is, in fact, “ridiculous.”

I mean I really don’t think it’s that difficult.

I once told my mother, in a moment of epiphany, that I had very little tolerance for people who were not smart. “Oh, really?” she said, in a tone that made it clear that she had been aware of this intolerance for, oh, about two decades or so. Apparently, she thinks I believe I’m smarter than everyone else. But that’s not it at all. I think everyone else is exactly as smart as me. That is why I get frustrated. But maybe that’s not even a fair assessment. Maybe I think that other people are as observant, or more observant, than me. I could never do what my sister can do with descriptions. So why can’t she spell “receive?”

Obviously, there’s an aptitude for language and an aptitude for visual cues. What’s interesting to me is that they are not linked. I find language to be a visual medium. You read. You see what you write. There’s memory generated from that. It’s why note-takers learn better. So why is it that visual learners like my sister cannot digest and internalize language that same way?

Boggles the mind.

Now, you may have noticed that I often make use of incomplete sentences (and parenthetical phrases). That is because I am fully aware that I am writing an incomplete sentence (or a parenthetical phrase), and I’m doing it for stylistic reasons. They still make sense, these sentence fragments (and phrases), when taken in context. But I think it’s obvious when someone is a competent writer and uses sentence fragments on purpose, as opposed to someone who doesn’t seem to know that a formal letter should not contain the sentence, “That everything was messed up.”

Huh?

If your writing is so bad that even you can’t read what you’ve written, don’t you think you should brush up on some stuff?

I suppose you’re beyond hope at that point.

And so I judge you. I judge you if you want to flirt with me via email, but you spell words wrong and don’t use “there” properly. If you tell me, “you’re smile is pretty,” you are off the list. It’s sweet, and I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re kind of dumb, or at least careless.

Yet observant enough to notice my smile.

So weird.
 

 

God is not a carcinogen. Now what?

A word of warning: this is some intense stuff. 

There are things one is not to discuss in polite company. Tea partiers. Salaries and costs of homes. Personal sexual escapades. And thoughts like, “What the hell is God doing, anyway?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably for about four years, if I’m really honest. I am Catholic, and I have no interest in leaving the Church. I’m not the best Catholic, and I’m not the worst. I don’t endorse some of the things the Church has gotten into, and I’m just absolutely disgusted and infuriated by other things, but my faith is a Catholic faith, and my method of worship is a Catholic method of worship, and so there I stay. But for the last few years, I’ve had what more Godly people would call a crisis of faith. Alright, maybe a mini-crisis.

This will not come as good news to the parents of my godsons, by the way.

It started with my grandmother’s death. No, not her death. Her dying. It was the first time I ever really got angry with God, a concept that I previously could not even fathom. But my grandmother had been sick for 17 years. She had devoted her life to God and serving Him. There was evidence of this throughout the house. Not the clutter of ostentatiously pious bric-a-brac, but some serious signs of ecumenical and sacrificial dedication. All of her children went to Catholic schools. She held some fundraisers and organized others for the parish. She helped put together plans for major Church events. She sang in the church choir. Articles were written. Honors were presented. When I called to tell her, on Easter 2000, that my mother’s mother had passed away, the first words out of her mouth were an awed, “Praise be to God.”

I didn’t blame God for Grandmom’s Parkison’s Disease. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen. I get a little frustrated with people who say someone’s death, particularly an untimely one, was God’s plan, or that God wouldn’t give them anything that they can’t handle. I don’t believe that God plans for a teenager to be shot to death in the middle of a street. I don’t believe that God would “take” a life willfully, would steal a child from his mother and condemn her to a lifetime of unimaginable heartache. I’m not even convinced there is a “plan.” My way of summing this up is to say, “God is not a carcinogen. God gives us life. Life gives us cancer.” I truly do believe that.

But in July of 2007, my grandmother developed pneumonia. I was in France when she was hospitalized, but I had a horrible feeling something was wrong at home, and as I stood in the gift shop at Sacre Coeur, staring at rosaries, a voice in my head kept saying, “Grandmom. Grandmom.” I found out when I got through customs back in the States that she was quite ill, and the family had thought we might lose her while I was away. When I arrived at the hospital, straight from the airport, she seemed relieved to see me. She had thought she might not. And as I kissed her goodbye at the end of the visit, I admonished her not to say such things.

She nodded once and winked at me. “Right,” she whispered, unsmiling.

Of course, we both knew she was dying. Pneumonia is what most often claims the lives of Parkinson’s patients. She went home, but for a month, she slowly deteriorated. Then she took a turn, and I sat by her bedside at home as she slept something like 20 hours one day. Late in the night, just before I went to pick up my father from the airport and bring him to her, she woke up, held my hand, and asked me to sing “Ave Maria” to her, right there and then. She told me not to forget that I was to sing it at the funeral.

The next day, she had more energy, and she was awake most of the time. With my father back from Florida and her family assembled, it seemed all the pieces were in place. “I wonder what we’re waiting for,” she said to me.

I remember praying that God would have mercy and take her peacefully, that He would be mindful of all she had given to Him, of how she had literally and figuratively sung His praises all her life, of how she and my late grandfather had raised their family to be faithful.

But dying, it became increasingly clear, is a thing one does alone.

“Are You even listening?!” I finally screamed at Him in my head. “Are You paying attention?! Do You even care?!”

It was another week before she passed. I had had to go home, and go back to work. My father called at 6:20am from the airport in Florida, where he had been bound back north after he, too, had had to return to work. I never cried for Grandmom. I was only relieved that her suffering was over, and I believed she had been reunited with my grandfather and her parents. I was at peace with her death. I helped plan her funeral Mass, and I sang the “Ave Maria.”

But I was pissed at God. He didn’t help her. He let her suffer. After 17 years of a degenerative, humiliating, painful disease, He let her actual dying take a month. Her body was exhausted and aching, her lungs were damaged, her soul was crying for Him. But He let her die on her own.

And I started to realize the many things for which I had faithfully prayed that were never granted.

There’s a sweet saying about being grateful for unanswered prayers. There’s a parable about footprints in the sand. They are nice thoughts. I suppose they are a comfort for those who find themselves praying all the time for something that never happens. Not material things, not trivial things. Real, important things. It used to comfort me to think of the gifts of an unanswered prayer, until I realized how many of them there have been.

There are tragedies large and small literally all day long. Some of them you know about. Others you don’t. Sometimes the details of someone’s personal pain are so horrid that it’s just not necessary to impart them on the world. And then sometimes, there are catastrophic global events. 9/11. Katrina. Indonesia. Haiti. Japan. There are photos and videos of unrelenting waves marching through and obliterating towns and lives. Of cracks opening up in the earth and swallowing people up. Of buildings crumbled into piles on top of entire families. Of cars swept out to a sea that was once a mile away. Of a man clinging to his rooftop, spotted by helicopter crews, ten miles from a new kind of nowhere, nearly insane with worry about what had happened to his wife.

Eli, Eli, lema sabbachtani?

People say everything happens for a reason. I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore. I can’t see the reason for things like the human nightmare of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Sometimes things just happen and they’re horrible and there’s no reason for it at all. But I believe we can find good, that we can force good to come out of those horrors. And I do think life is sometimes a mercurial thing, with connections we could never fathom. I have said that if 20 pints of blood donated for one sick loved one couldn’t save them, but a single one of those pints went on to save someone else, it was worth the sacrifice. I believe in miracles. I believe that maybe God did send those helicopter crews. That maybe it was a miracle that that man survived. That maybe it is God’s work when a rescue team pulls an old woman out alive from the rubble of a building that fell ten days before. I believe with God, all things are possible. But they don’t feel very likely.

And so, more and more, I wonder. Why do horrific things happen over and over in places where no one has anything to begin with? Why do some families endure innumerable heartaches and struggles? Why do individuals battle for years with everything from loneliness to illness to addiction, begging for help from God all the time, trying to listen, trying to be open to a voice, and never seem to get it? When people pray for help, does God ever answer? Of all the people who send prayers to heaven, to how many does He truly respond?

One person’s miracle is another person’s coincidence, and a third person’s logically explained development. I have always been taught that faith is the key. Keeping faith, even when it wavers, even when one doubts, is the most important thing. And so I continue to believe, however imprecisely. But the way I believe has changed. I no longer pray for myself. It seems that all the prayers I can remember saying in which I asked God for some benefit (and I have never prayed for anything material) went unanswered. Some of my deepest needs haven’t opened any other doors for me. But it also seems that, when I have prayed for others, there have been some responses. So I continue to offer fervent, faithful, hopeful prayers for those who are ill, who are dying, who are struggling, who are seeking. Perhaps selfishness is the problem; asking for something for oneself, however deep and spiritual the need… maybe that’s not the point.

From this, another belief evolves: that we should be the answer to each other’s prayers. Since the days of Job, we have questioned whether God tests us. I think being “tested” with cancer or abuse or depression or job loss is just cruel, and runs counter to the loving and forgiving God who came to us through Jesus Christ. A God who would test His faithful with such pain is not a God I want to worship. And so I do not believe that we are tested by God. But I am beginning to believe that when we see people suffering, the answer to our heartfelt prayers that God help them… is that we help them. Maybe that is what the faiths of the world mean when they teach us to recognize the God in one another, and in ourselves. Maybe prayer is just supposed to be a way to open up our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can be angels for each other.

I do not know how best to help the people of Japan. I do not know how to help the people of Darfur, or North Korea, or Iran. There are so many who need so much. It’s overwhelming. It is easier to help those I can see, those I know, those near whom I live. I do not know how to be an angel for people on the other side of the world. I am powerless to stop their horrors, and it does not seem that God will stop them, either. I can pray for them to find food, shelter, medicine, missing loved ones, peace. And now, the only thing I ask God to give me is grace. To accept, to give, to love, and to try. Sometimes that’s all I ask for because I just don’t think He’ll give me anything else. Sometimes, I’m fairly sure it’s all I need.

The Smell of Spring

I can smell spring coming like a promise. In the cool dampness of the air, now suddenly emptied of a cutting edge (wasn’t it just a bit biting two days ago?).  In the peaty earthiness of musk and damp that belies the snow I crunched beneath my feet last week.  It’s hidden in a nearly imperceptible breeze on a starry night in March. Hesitant in its first steps, unsure of the sincerity of the invitation it has received. Humidity up. Wind low. Hope bashfully renewed.

Spring smells like hope, I think. Winter, like cheer at first, and then like dispossessed struggle.  Summer, like carelessness and easy revelry with a tinge of disappointment, late. Fall, like comfort and relief, like coming home. And spring, like hope.

Just moments ago, I saw a tiny rabbit – a bunny, as I thought of it, in perhaps  the way one only thinks as winter exhaustedly climbs its way toward warmer days.  The bunny was sprinting through grass, darting away. Hiding for just a few weeks more, until Nature gives it permission to be bold in its presence.  A tiny cottontail punctuating a brown coat, cutting through the dark. It made me smile.

And as is one’s wont, my thoughts turned immediately to summer, to hot days in the sun with the surf pounding confidently in my ears, to showers taken outdoors in late light, with cocktail set upon shelf out of reach of slightly salty water streams. To sunsets watched from decks with sundress on, hair damp, slippery glass in hand and bare feet up. To baseball games and sticky nights, freshly mowed lawns and twilights that linger past children’s bedtimes.

 Why do we rush it?

I love my seasons. I own them all – autumn most, but all, in turn. I could not live somewhere where they do not happen fully, each in their time, even if their early arrivals or late departures set me anxiously to wondering if I’ll not get my just division of the time. But why do we so want the next season to come that we immediately start thinking beyond it? Why must we see time pass so quickly?

I breathe deeply and take in the rich scent of what’s approaching. The trees will bloom soon enough. Winter will unhook her gnarled claws and retract once more into waiting. Though I ponder , a bit worriedly, whether she might slash at us once more before retreat, I give myself over to hoping.

Deconstructing Me

I was listening to NPR in my car the yesterday (yes, I listen to NPR, and if you don’t, you should. It can be really fascinating sometimes. If you’re older than, say, 21, get over yourself and tune in). Anyway, I was listening to NPR in my car yesterday and Diane Rehm was interviewing David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and ubiquitous Sunday morning talk show guest, about his new book, “The Social Animal.” From what I gathered, it’s about human emotion, and emotional expression where that kind of thing is generally discouraged (despite people blogging their every thought and feeling, in macro and micro form, all over the place every minute of the day. Present blogger and Facebook user included).

As is its wont when callers and emailers are involved, the conversation was unfolding in a lot of directions. But Brooks addressed a subtopic about logic and logical thought processing, and how men use that processing to stop themselves from acting emotionally.
Well, that got me thinking. I’m a woman, see, so I’m always thinking, and more often than I’d like to admit or probably even realize, it’s about why men are the way they are.

There’s this one guy in particular that I was thinking about. Now, this isn’t a gross, sappy, gag-me kind of thing, I promise. And I will tell you right now that I am actually a pretty logical person, myself. I even exhibit a lot of the behaviors Brooks was talking about: having an emotional, natural reaction to something, but squashing it because it is not necessarily a “logical” reaction. Even if it’s the kind of thing most women would allow themselves to show, I often won’t. So I get where Brooks is coming from with his point.

But what the radio interview made me think about was the deconstruction of emotion into smaller, more digestible bits of logical explanations for our reactions. This guy (who I cannot continue to call “this guy,” so let’s just name him Jack) has always baffled me when it comes to emotional things. We are very good friends and I know him very well. We have shared emotional conversations and connections over the years about a whole range of topics. He is capable of great and deep emotion. But when it comes to the emotion of human relationships, he sort of drops out. He feels things, but he doesn’t follow up on them. It’s like he goes, “Oh, wow, that’s a strong feeling. Interesting.” And then goes to get a beer.

And that’s fine. But for a guy this deep, this smart, this interesting, this inherently able to communicate and share in an unintimidating, non-gross way, why is it so hard for him to let himself really connect? He’s a study for me at this point. He does this thing that I call “the Heisman.” He lets you get just so close, and then the arm shoots out. “Okay, that’s as close as you get.” It’s fascinating.

Commitment-phobia doesn’t quite explain it. I won’t go into a litany of things about him, but suffice it to say I’ve done quite a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve always been stumped in the end. Until David Brooks and Diane Rehm revealed the truth to me: Jack deconstructs his emotional reactions into manageable logical reactions instead.

Eureka. Eureka on Route 29. I’ve been trying to pin this down for years. Thank you, NPR. Here’s some money.

Jack breaks down the big, whoa, overwhelming, gut-turning, anxiety-inducing reactions we all have, and turns them into pieces of data. He knows that emotional reactions can usually be explained in scientific ways. There are concrete reasons that we have the feelings we do. So he just takes that feeling and analyzes it, making it nothing more than the binary code of human connection. “Oh, I know why I feel like this. It’s X factor added to Y factor, divided by A factor all over B. Obviously.”

And he’s not wrong.

(Which is sometimes really annoying.)

So that led me to debate something else. If he’s not wrong in his almost mathematical, probably involuntary deconstruction of his emotions… then what’s wrong with doing it? I do it, I realized. I do it, but not to the same extent. I don’t use it to avoid establishing real, emotionally deep connections in all cases. I use it to just… I don’t know, survive my own neurosis. That’s actually pretty healthy, right? So there’s nothing wrong with this deconstruction of a big feeling so that we can better understand where it’s coming from. Isn’t that what therapy is?

This begot a theory: if deconstruction is the product of self-awareness, are the more self-aware people around us, by definition, also less outwardly emotional?

In the brief amount of time I had to think about it right then, I thought the answer was actually… well, yeah. I thought of the more outwardly emotional people I know, and found that, on the whole, they are people who I might consider a little less self-aware. (Note: this does not mean I think they’re stupid or small-minded, or that they don’t do a lot of introspective thinking. In fact, they’re not, they’re not, and they do. I’m just making an observation based on perception.) And the people who I would consider more self-aware tend to be less outwardly emotional.

Huh.

I’m not saying my hastily-comprised theory is a hard and fast psycho-emotional rule. We can all come up with exceptions. But huh.

Next question is naturally begged: since self-awareness is generally regarded as a positive attribute, is it good to be this way? Or is it bad? The answer seems to be “yes” to both. We need this kind of processing so we’re not emoting all over ourselves all the time. But we need to be honest about our feelings or we’ll shut down, close off, seem cold and distant.

The crux of the whole issue, then, becomes why? Why do some people do this? Is it fear? Fear of being exposed, of being found out, of being taken advantage of, thought a fool, hurt, shamed, embarrassed, vilified? Of being a disappointment? Doesn’t everyone have those fears? So why are certain people more likely to deconstruct their emotions than others? I don’t have the answer to that. I’m probably one of those people. It’s why I get Jack so well. It’s why I’m usually not bothered by the Heisman treatment. But this NPR interview makes me think… maybe I need to wear a little less padding.