Archive for April, 2012

The Discomfort of Scrutiny

April 30, 2012

At what point does acceptance serve as a nice way to describe complacency, resignation, or willful blindness? When does the quest for self-improvement metastasize into a loathing of one’s perceived vulnerabilities?  What is the tipping point for a rhythm to become a rut? Is the embrace of change and variety an escape from the tedious aspects of stability and commitment–a perpetual adolescence of sorts? There’s impartial scrutiny and then there’s torture disguised under the petticoats of “authenticity.”


I ask myself these horribly uncomfortable questions as part of the ongoing process of re-booting my life. The self-imposed demands of justifying one’s life’s choices (let alone results) extend far beyond my circle of one. In fact, I am willing to bet that all of you reading this have asked yourselves some version of these questions—at least once.


Like languid lizards resting in the shade of a hot desert rock, answers may peek their heads out briefly and then withdraw into the comforting darkness. Few of us go about with sticks, doggedly poking at our carefully constructed, stone hard mental defenses, holding our breath as we dare the answers to show themselves.


Recently, I was speaking with a friend back in California, inquiring as to her job situation. She endeavored to answer my questions, often prefacing any acknowledgement of her struggles by making reference to the fact that she was so blessed in her life. She could not bring herself to admit, flat out, how lost and unhappy she felt about being stuck in a low paying job beneath her capability. As I listened, it occurred to me that while, yes, it is undoubtedly true that we always have more than we lack, at what point is it ok to feel disheartened by our current life circumstances?


I am in no way endorsing a life spent wallowing in sorrow, but (aside from an evening involving strong cocktails) when is it ok to officially recognize the disappointments of our lives despite our blessings? Considering all the suffering in this world, is it ever, truly acceptable? And furthermore, at what point do you make the decision to remain in stasis “for the sake of xyz,” or to wrench yourself, kicking and screaming, into a new place with no guarantees it’ll be better?


Each person answers this differently. How often is the decision based on fear? based on love–for oneself or for others? How often can the decision be revisited? When does it become too late? Is it ever, truly, too late? At what point does it even matter anymore?


Even on the small scale that is my life, I struggle with these issues. I’m out there with my stick, poking at that wily old lizard on a near daily basis and I don’t feel any closer to nabbing him now than I did three years ago. There’s something to be said for patience and letting answers reveal themselves in good time—perhaps mine will crawl out one day, completely unexpectedly. In the meantime, I have to hope and trust that life will work out in the long run.


The Other Side of the Glass

April 29, 2012

At what point in one’s life does the impression of being a fish out of water become less awkward or painful? It doesn’t make sense to me that decades after leaving seventh grade, a reasonable activity can trigger such internal reactions. In so many ways, it is irrelevant whether the people or place or activity is brand new or deeply familiar, suffering this awkwardness never gets any easier.


I have “faced the fish” throughout my life, but even more keenly returning to a home I once knew so well. I travel streets I have crossed a million times before, visit places I know intimately, and interact with people with whom I have much in common, but given my 15+ years away from this town, it all feels oddly foreign. Not that I ever, truly, felt I measured up to the criteria of being a “real” Californian.


In my experience, some people seem to enjoy—even relish—their self-imposed “outsider” status. Others have a unique talent for seeming at home wherever they go. But, what about the group of in-betweeners? Those of us who strive to make a place in our world and, yet, mysteriously can’t quite seem to fit in?


These deeply personal assessments often stand in stark contrast to how our neighbors perceive us. Reconciliation of one’s inner and outer selves is a topic about which hundreds of books and plays and poems have been written. In fiction, the hero typically undergoes some Eureka moment that magically merges the two selves, or he learns to live serenely with the anxiety and tension of accepting this contradiction. I’d welcome such wisdom.


The truth is, much of the time I feel like a kid with her nose pressed up against the glass, enviously watching everyone else live their charmed lives. The realistic, intellectual part of me knows good and well that what I see is not a complete picture, but I remain transfixed, wondering what secret everybody else knows that I have missed.


I suppose there is a comfort existing on my side of the glass—it’s quiet and calm and I can enjoy watching the maelstrom without being conscripted. I concede that there is quite a lot about that which is a benefit. Yet it is this ongoing undertow of “fishdom” that refuses to let me forget that what others may lack in calm, I lack in community. After all, we humans are social creatures and there are very few examples of our kind who truly relish isolation.


So, at what point (if any) is there a dreamlike acceptance of this status that is part and parcel of the life of a fish out of water? When will I be able to walk into an art gallery opening or a party where I know only the hosts and not feel fraudulent for showing up? I don’t know as much about art as the other guests; I’m not about to shell out six figures for a framed lithograph, so why am I there? But then there’s the next, unexpected instant when a smiling stranger approaches with a friendly bit of conversation, or a  friend says, “I’ve seen enough of this art, let’s go elsewhere,” and I’m reminded that life vests come in all shapes and sizes.

A Life We Don’t Lead

April 26, 2012

What is it about retail therapy that feels so great?!? The bills always come due, of course, but having that shiny new thing can lift one’s mood like nobody’s business. Things I didn’t know I wanted, hadn’t even considered before I set my eyes on them, are now…mine. I find I do this in unexpected spurts—today, I bought 6 new items. Three pairs of shoes, one pair of dangly orange earrings and a pair of bracelet cuffs that will come in handy when I have to deflect bullets.


While the truth remains that each of these purchases (let alone just about everything else in my closet) is in preparation for a life I don’t live, a girl can dream. Tripping blithely down the city sidewalks with oh so cute n’ casual ballet flats, adorable purse and jeans, who knows what might happen? I’ll admit that you’re far, far more likely to see such combinations in Santa Barbara than in frumpy old DC, but I aim to change all that. A few months ago, I was having drinks with a few girlfriends who snorted at the headlines announcing that it was “DC Fashion Week.” Ok, so perhaps the nation’s capital can’t lead in everything. What we lack in slim pencil skirts and wide belts we make up for with free (!), fun filled trips to Vega$$.




Jeff Neely is ruing the day his wife snapped this and posted it on her Google account. The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they do grind fine. (Neely understands how that works having participated in that awesome bicycle building exercise.)


At any rate, back to retail therapy. I’m feeling rather buoyant right now because of my purchases. So, do your part, America, get out there and get our economy moving! Buy something for the life you wish you lead and then (as all my self-help books instruct) do something to move yourself closer to the goal! As for me, well, I’m going to wear my new “jewels” to an art show, followed by who knows what else? It’s the anticipation of amazing events around the corner that keeps me going. Don’t down your sorrows in a dark room with an empty wine bottle—hot tub it like our nation’s leaders! Get out there and boogie!


A mesmerized audience of one

April 24, 2012

Washington is a city that thrives on its work ethic reputation. Not only does it attract a particular subset of humanity which registers extremely high on the ambition scale, but this same group revels in competitions of who works harder, who demonstrates greater dedication to their cause, and who has the most to say—usually measured in pounds of pages transcribed and the late night time stamp of emails sent–regardless of how illuminating such responses may be.  Alas, those who are furiously drafting these interdepartmental memos usually cannot afford to reflect on the utility of their efforts; to do so would invite sadness into their lives.


To wit, I must share with you the following example: recently, I attended a lovely ballet at the Kennedy Center. It was a balmy, weekend evening, the performance had been well reviewed, and people were atwitter with the avant-garde costumes and production. Well, everyone but one. During intermission, a row in front of me, I was stunned to see a woman pulling out a very thick report entitled, “Planned Parenthood: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota,” through which she was paging while simultaneously creating a chart of numbers and reviewing emails on the side. Unable to stop staring, I noticed an entire portfolio of papers she had brought along with her. While I certainly can appreciate her dedicated efforts, is Row S of the Eisenhower Theater the ideal setting for such work? Just how important is this report?


One of my very favorite activities is people watching—it’s among the top five reasons why I get out of bed each morning. The surprise element offers a most illuminating take on the human condition—my inability to predict what happens next delights me time after time. So, while yes, I was at the Kennedy Center to enjoy the cultural presentation, I was really in attendance for the people watching. Along with the worker bee audience member in Row S, I saw a woman who basically was wearing no skirt to this same performance—I suspect she found her seat a bit scratchy–an entire array of women garbed in ill-fitting, seamed stockings (is this a new trend?), and someone else who selected to wear pantyhose with their flip flops.


Alas, no gentleman caught my eye this time ‘round, but I know they can be competitive. Back in Santa Barbara, we hosted characters ranging from a crazy, bearded Asian fellow who wore white robes and wandered around downtown proclaiming the merits of marijuana to anyone who might listen. There was another man who liked to box backwards covering large swaths of the city. And of course, my personal favorite was the guy at the gym who enjoyed attracting attention with his exuberant high kicks, unnatural looking tan, and flashy, matching exercise gear.


The best thing about people watching is the unanticipated way it can take us out of ourselves; for just a moment, we’re removed from our treadmill of worries and riveted by the person next door—a person who is fully themselves, obviously unconcerned about the opinions of others, and thus serves as an example of the freedom which comes with a certain strain of self confidence. So, take a moment and look around–it’ll give your day an unexpected lift!


Check out this for self-confidence!

Badges of Shame

April 19, 2012

This being the Girl Scouts’ Centennial Year, my conscience needs to be cleared: full confession–I’m a former Jr Girl Scout with a less than honorable past.

Wind back to the late 1970s. My dearest madre and a couple of neighborhood moms volunteered to lead a Brownie Troop for my elementary school. Troop 2016, as I recall—I had a badge, so I should remember. At any rate, it was great! Each Wednesday afternoon, we met in the basement of a local Episcopal church wearing our Brownie Scout uniforms (and matching beanies) mastering everything from hosting Mother-Daughter teas to learning how to build campfires. Those were the days when selling cookies meant going door to door and bravely canvassing our neighbors for sales (unlike the lame marketing approaches—and no teaching moments–of today where parents circulate sign up sheets amongst their hapless workplace colleagues).

But the best part about all of these activities—no, not the friendships formed or the skills acquired—was the badges. I did well in Brownie Scouts. I thrived, eagerly awaiting the day I would graduate to being a Jr Girl Scout—new uniforms, new challenges. Alas, news of the troop leaders’ prowess and willingness to look after Other People’s Children resulted in our Jr Scout troop membership expanding beyond that of the Brownies. So it was when I met…Amanda.

Amanda was a year older than I, but I don’t recall much else about her–where she came from, who she knew, what she did. But I do remember this: Amanda had badges. Amanda had so many badges that they filled up the front of her sash and extended a long ways on the back. I know this because I counted them, enviously. Everything about Amanda’s badges consumed me. How did she get so many? Why was she so great? And, most importantly, how could I surpass her?

Refusing to be bested by Miss Amanda, I conceived of and then executed a masterful plan of world domination—month by measured month, I forged my mother’s signature on every (desirable) badge requirement and then presented the completed forms to other, innocent troop leaders for approval. I collected the Babysitting badge, the Savings badge, the Correspondence Badge and its twin the Cursive badge (how else do you think I managed to execute my plan so well?). I was awarded Hospitality, First Aid, and Nature. The list goes on and on. In total, I probably gained over two dozen badges—more than Amanda could dream of earning. I did. It’s true. At the ripe old age of 9, I had morphed into a master forger.

Is there a happy ending to this tale of despicable duplicity? Was I ever caught out? No, no I wasn’t. However, you will be pleased to know that while I coveted my badges with a relish only a 9 year old can possess, I never had the nerve to sew them on my sash. At least there’s that. That, and choosing to forgo a career on Wall Street.

Some 35 years later, I have finally found a way to soothe my troubled conscience:

Check it out…

Up at bat

April 19, 2012

You want to know what’s the most fun about life? Surprises!

Yes, there can be good surprises and bad, but the fact that we can’t predict them is what keeps life interesting. When I was in fourth grade and heading to dancing class, I recall my father instructing me to, “make the wallflowers bloom.” At the time, I wasn’t clear on just how powerful that missive was, but I do now. Funny, how certain directives our parents give us can have an undue influence, but for me, this was one. I’ve made my dad’s directive a life’s mission (and cover) ever since.

The power of my dad’s statement is the fact that embedded in it is the premise that no matter who you may meet, no matter when, he or she has an interesting story within and it’s up to you to find it. Now, honestly, how much more fun and intriguing is it to ferret out that person’s story than simply sitting there at some event, feeling bored and dismissive of everyone there? Honestly, truth is so much stranger than fiction, I have marveled at some of the stories people share about themselves! Try it; you will discover things waaaaay beyond your imagination, I promise.

I want to hear what about your life has surprised you the most, because I know there is something. No matter how mundane we consider our lives, there is something, every single day, that is funny or interesting, and –word to the wise—it behooves you to find it, because if you choose to ignore same, you are missing out on the very best part. Truly.

In a world where we are consumed, on a daily basis, with simply paying bills, picking up kids from Little League or Girl Scouts, saving for retirement, or trying to maintain friendships, it is understandable and easy to have blinders on to all the marvels around you, to let the rest slip. But I know you can do more. I know you can do better. And the reason I say this is because I believe that life is a lot more than merely meeting our responsibilities.

So, having said this, I am going to challenge you: what is ONE thing that you have always wanted to do that you haven’t tried? If not now, when???? Push yourself. Try.

Let me know how you’ve done.

Acclaim of the Ages

April 15, 2012

Trophies come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. Some we cherish for a lifetime; others take a less vaunted although prideful place in our pantheon of memories. And then, there are those of a more dubious nature—symbols we’d just as soon disassociate from. But the trophies that delight me the most are the unintended trophies, the trophies to which others ascribe a prowess not previously acknowledged or, perhaps, even presumed. These are the trophies of note.


Take, for instance, the following: a vacationing friend was relaxing in a spa, quietly enjoying her pedicure, when the woman at the next chair looked at my friend’s left hand and exclaimed,  “Wow! You must be great in the sack to have a ring like that!” The level of admiration expressed left my friend so dazzled that she was momentarily speechless, followed by a cheshire cat grin. Silence invites so much, doesn’t it?


And then there’s this: the story of two mild-mannered, senior citizens who were marrying at home before a small group of friends and family. This being pre-MP3 days, the groom had brought a cassette player to provide the music for the wedding march. A hushed crowd assembled ready to witness the bride advance down the aisle. The play button was triggered, and out blasted several choruses of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” (To the chagrin of the groom, Mendelssohn’s work was on the other side.)


In eighth grade, I was part of a small coterie of girls who bonded over the shared, shameful fact that we had never been kissed. We called ourselves The Elite Club and refused to explain the meaning of our group’s appellation. Alas, it was only years after graduating from high school that we discovered, to our unmitigated shock and horror, that our club was known by some over at the boys’ school who had imputed an entirely different meaning to the word “elite.”


Trophies and reputations are funny things. The impressions we form from them can be dead on or wildly off-base. And then, there’s the question of what to do with them once you have them? Do you embrace the inaccurate reputation or try to correct it? What’s even more telling is one’s attachment to old triumphs—are they now scorned in their entirety or preserved as proof of former salad days? What if you manufacture ways or categories to gain new prized ribbons?


I readily admit I still have a miniature “Captain of Patrols” pin I was given in sixth grade; I must also confess that I cannot find my high school diploma—anywhere.  And as for that Elite Club reputation? Well, let sleeping dogs lie. How about you? What surprise trophies or reputations do you have? Do you wish they had never manifested or secretly prize their existence? Personally, I believe that a fantastic use for old trophies is to turn them into lamps—if they’re going to take up space, they may as well be useful.


Easter Ruminations: A Life’s Purpose

April 8, 2012

Can we see His whole purpose?” So asked Moses (aka a very hot Charlton Heston) in The Ten Commandments. Can you? Can you see “the whole purpose” of your life? If you can, I envy you.


A few years ago, out of supreme frustration and bewilderment, I asked a friend of my father’s why he [my dad] was so clueless? I recall the moment precisely: it was a nondescript parking lot outside a Chinese restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. My dad’s friend made a vulnerably funny face and replied, “Your father,” he explained, gesturing over his own head, “is missing certain antennae the rest of us have. He just doesn’t get it.” Those words explained so much; a lifetime of parental puzzlement clarified by the loving insight of a childhood friend.


So what antennae are you missing? I believe that true honesty requires our turning life’s most revealing questions on ourselves; the trick being whether or not we are courageous enough to withstand the answers.


Do you know your purpose? Are you aware of what bits you’re missing? Do you? Truly?  I ask hard questions only because I believe you can handle it—as hard as they may be. And I honor the difficulty and discomfort that accompanies same, but I also know that we are all better off knowing as much of the truth as we can handle. So, it’s up to you: how much truth can you handle? (And don’t you dare quote Jack Nicholson back to me!)


Are you here to learn about loneliness? To exist within an estranged marital “relationship”? To parent a bewildered and angry child? To endure multiple career humiliations or disappointments? To find purpose after material success?

All of the above?


“My heart is still a prisoner of the past,” says Moses in The Ten Commandments. How true is this for you? When is it time to let go of the past and proceed forward without the comforting ties from before? Often times, it is the past that provides the consolation and reassurance that we so desperately require, despite the fact that it is contrary to what we need in order to summon the courage to move forward.


It is this same historical reassurance that can serve as the “bondage” which limits our thinking, limits our estimation of ourselves or of others. I have numerous examples of siblings who cannot contemplate relationships with their brethren that extend beyond a fourteen year old maturity level. Everyone loses in that game. Everyone.


But back to “His whole purpose.” One of the things I consider so amazing about life and evolution and the Progress of Human Kind is the fact that, despite the brilliance and courage and curiosity of the human race, we cannot see the whole picture. There is more at work than we can conceive! And man, being man, as smart as he (or she) may be, cannot see it all; to believe otherwise is fallibly arrogant. I’m putting it out there, folks: I believe that there’s more to life than what we can perceive or discover. Whaddya think of them apples?


When pushed up against a wall, I know I am stronger than I regularly admit. I bet the same is true for you, too, and I’m willing to bet money that deep in your heart, you agree. Have faith. Have faith in yourself, if nothing else, but I’m telling you—there’s more out there…

A creed of escapism

April 7, 2012

The Washington Post recently published a fascinating article about the growing trend in Passover retreats where families could go to commemorate the ritual-filled celebration absent the onerous amount of cooking and cleaning that Passover usually entails. According to the article, observant families can go anywhere from cruise ships to Amish country to convenient locations near Sea World and find lodgings that have been prepared for the Jewish holiday.


In a world where fewer and fewer people incorporate organized religion into their daily lives–regardless of whether it’s as a result of questions they have about their faith or simply not making the time –I often hear people bemoaning the degradation of society and the widespread loss of integrity that surrounds them. None of this is news to you, I know.


But the question of religious escape as an effective tactic to instill appreciation of the sacred is one worth considering. Although educated exclusively in a parochial school setting through high school, I haven’t attended church on a regular basis in years. Would an Easter getaway bring me closer to God? If faced with the stressful prospect of having to devote a day attending services– as nice as the hymns and psalms and an occasional sermon may be–followed by preparing a large meal, I might easily question how this custom enhanced my spiritual relationship. And yet, the other side presents its own intrigue: if I am so far removed from my faith that I can’t be bothered with periodic observations, why observe at all? Tradition? To pretend I abide by an organized religion? Because I don’t want to break from a culturally approved of practice?


Churches and synagogues report an ongoing dwindling of regular worshippers; newspapers are filled with reports of scandal and betrayal by religious leaders; people question and grow weary of much of the stridency that is encased in the “messages of faith” that are put forward. And yet, it is equally observable that society is growing increasingly coarse. Girls are presented with hyper sexualized images at a younger and younger age. Examples of cheating or other unfair tactics are ignored or laughed off, no longer used as an example of what not to do. The widespread distress about this trend is real and valid. Where do we turn for guidance?


Far from the days of Little House on the Prairie, places of worship no longer provide the main opportunity for social interaction—most of these extra-religious incentives to attend have fallen by the wayside, despite the best efforts of highly committed congregants. Further, since I believe I have a personal relationship with God, I can worship on my own time and in my own, casual way, if I remember to do so at all.


So, it is in this light that while I was initially quick to disapprove of the getaways the Post described, I concluded that they are a perfectly acceptable approach. Sure, the whole exercise could be bogus, but that applies to just about any example of observation; you can never tell what’s in a person’s heart. Years ago, I was escorted  to church so I could sit in someone’s “family pew,” but was flabbergasted when they whispered to me they had no belief in God, despite decades as a parishioner.


Life requires effort. Faith requires effort. Relationships, too. People are desperate for the guidance. As far as I’m concerned, whatever can get us into an attentive frame of mind–even just for the occasional weekend–where we’re truly thinking about how to integrate integrity, patience, and generosity of spirit into our daily lives is a good place to start. Sign me up.Image

Spatial Dynamics and the Social Network

April 5, 2012

With Easter upon us, I believe it is a fine time to consider various aspects of rebirth which apply regardless of religious belief. The thrill and sometimes daunting challenge of starting anew involves establishing a new network of people, unless of course, you have opted to live the life of a hermetically sealed monk. Although at times it is difficult for me to see how my life differs from the latter course, I have, in fact, chosen the former, which leads me to a discussion of scientific principles.


The concept of Brownian motion is one which can roughly be explained as a naturally occurring event that involves the random motion of small particles leading to a change in position. Stock market fluctuations, particle theory, stellar dynamics, and a fantastic biology matter identified as “the narrow escape problem” all involve Brownian motion. It was this concept that a highly erudite and well intentioned friend mentioned she had first learned when taking Physics 101 at Rice. Her idea was to encourage me to use this as a starting point in making new friends, by randomly getting myself out there and seeing who I might bump into.


But I, having taken the same course (and nearly failing) years before her, was far too distracted by this new scientific principle to focus on her main theme. Vigorously, I denied having heard of such a concept—it made no sense! How could they teach something like that? Were they serious? Was this some sort of new fangled physics? My reaction was such that my friend started questioning her premise—she thought she was correct, but perhaps she hadn’t appreciated all the nuances that somehow seemed to provoke this reaction in me. Meanwhile, my imagination was working furiously to see if I could possibly begin to fathom such a bizarre concept…


As it turns out, my brain had taken this well articulated hypothesis and interpreted it into an image of a giant brownie hurtling through space. (So much for my being a physicist.) At last, cutting edge research and artistic license blended together to formulate a new law of social networking ”Brownie in Motion.” It is a creed by which I live my life and have successfully launched new friendships aplenty.


And so, my friends, when faced with having to start anew, I recommend that you keep this principle in mind. The awe and splendor of an Enterprise-sized chocolate treat floating gently through the star system can bring hope and joy to you, too, as you go about reinventing yourselves. Hermetically sealed monk not included.

(NB: The “narrow escape problem” to be explored at a later date.)

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