Aaaah! Work has been chapping my ass lately! I’ve been on the road a lot, busting my hump ten or twelve hours a day, and taking responsibility for a lot of big projects. I’m not averse to hard work, and I like my job a lot … but there is also this situation where my compensation is not quite keeping up with the level of travel and responsibility and pain-in-the-neck-ness. (Literally … it gives me a pain in the neck.)
So … yeah … when I’m on hour five of my drive home from the client site, or hour eleven of thinking and talking about nothing but work, or day four of not having more than an hour or two to myself per day, it’s been really easy for me to slip into feeling anxious and unappreciated and all kinds of gnarly stuff I have no interest in feeling. It’s been hard to keep my attitude in check.
And it’s tricky … because this isn’t the kind of situation that I can just let go of. To let go of it entirely means that I will be allowing myself to be taken advantage of, and we can’t have that. But I can’t constantly be bummed out about it either, because that is just a raggedy way to live.
I do have faith that I’ll be able to work the work situation out soon — either that or I’ll find another job — but in the meantime, I’ve been struggling with how to stay happy right now. How to stay out of that raggedy, put-upon place. How to be patient, but not too patient, and also enjoy myself in the moment. And what I’ve come up with is this: consciously making the decision to be grateful.
Because here’s the thing — a year ago I was way more in debt than I am now, living in a house I didn’t want to live in and having no idea how I was going to get out of it. Two years ago I was riding four busses a day to go and make like twelve bucks an hour. Three years ago I had no income at all. Four years ago I had just lost my fancy job. Five years ago I was downsizing my fancy apartment because I had a feeling I was about to lose my fancy job. Six years ago I was making a lot of money but spending every last dime of it. Seven years ago I had just been dumped and was spending a lot of time in sweatpants watching cable with my BFFs Ben & Jerry.
You see where I’m going with this? Regardless of the BS I’m dealing with today, when I step back and look at the big picture I can see that many things in my life are wonderful, and have actually gotten appreciably better over time. This job has been part of that. And when I consciously focus on this fact, well, it makes my chapped-ass feelings go away like nothing else.
Human beings tend to focus on what’s messed up. Our minds seem to want to continually repeat the loop of things that are pissing us off, while at the same time, the wonderful things in our lives become as familiar as furniture, and we stop paying attention to them.
This is such A Thing that there’s even a word for it — hedonic adaptation. And it makes sense that we’d be this way, if you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors wouldn’t have gotten very far if they were so caught up in enjoying the sunshine that they didn’t notice the lion coming to eat them.
But hedonic adaptation can also turn us into bitchy ingrates. It can make our hearts pound in outrage over what are, in the grand scheme of things, very minor slights. It can make us spend all of our money and then some on fancy things that will only really provide a few minutes of happiness. It can make us place our attention on entirely the wrong things, and blunt us to the enormously positive forces that are working in our favor every single day of our lives.
The good news is that hedonic adaptation can be conquered, and even used to our benefit, but only when we develop the ability to keep being grateful for all the great shit we’ve got going on. How do we do this? The same way we tackle any other sort of insanity going on in our brains — we notice it, we shut it down, and we replace it with something else.
Like … sure, work is chapping my ass right now. But it also gives me a workable paycheck twice a month, and it’s sent me to fun places like Italy and Brazil, and it’s right next to a beautiful stretch of river, which I like to gaze upon when my tea is brewing. Most important, I have friends there, wonderful friends who know who I really am and still (generally) like me.
So, while I wait for the right time to fix the things that aren’t working, I’m trying to focus on these good things. Trying to stay in the moment rather than being crushed by the enormity of my responsibilities and all the things I have to do in the next few months and all the uncertainty about everything else. And so far it’s working pretty well. The prospect of having a four-day weekend this week is helping a lot, too … and mashed potatoes … and pumpkin pie … mmm …
At any rate, taking a moment to consciously be grateful for all the great things I’ve got going on beats the hell out of the alternative, which is muttering to myself like a crazy person about how unfair things are.
How about you? Have you got a lot to be thankful for? Have you noticed, like me, how much better your life is when you make an effort to be appreciative for good things instead of or at least in balance with being pissed off about bad ones?
Tell me what you think in the comments, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving. <3
Soooo yeah … Year One of our marriage has been EVENTFUL AS HELL. It’s also been extra validation that I was 1000% right to throw my lot in with my guy. Because no matter what craziness goes on, we seem to make a pretty righteous team, like the time that we built this Snotoro (OK, he mostly built it).
Anyway, I know that life will be back to smack us upside the head sooner or later … but for now we are relishing the boring. Reading, puttering, staring out the window, and every so often grinning at each other for no reason, and all the reasons, at the same time.
Happy anniversary, my love. Thanks for always helping me be less crazy. <3
Last week, I read a beautifully written piece on The Toast about a young woman’s experience with beauty … how it feels to be beautiful versus not beautiful … how feedback on our looks seems to severely impact our choices even when we don’t want it to … and, most poignantly, how to deal with little girls’ ideas about beauty. Is there anything we can say or do to keep them from falling in the Beauty Trap just like we did?
It’s a lovely piece — you should go read it — but I gotta admit, it kind of bummed me out. Especially toward the end, where the author’s little sister is making up a story about a couple of fairies, one beautiful and not-so-good, and one good but not-so-beautiful, and she’s struggling with how to reconcile the ideas about beauty and goodness that are emerging in the tale. The author tries to help her out, but finds that she’s at a loss, too:
I look at the time and try to get off the phone. I don’t want to hear the rest, and I don’t have a counter story. Even in my make-believe world where looks shouldn’t matter and girls should be free to be who they are, unbound by appearance, I can’t escape beauty …
It’s the same bullshit story. It’s the same place my sister’s fairy story was going to end up. It’s the same place I was going with my fairy story. It’s the only place we know.
I loved this piece, because I get what she is saying. The hard truth of it. The inescapability. The feeling that for all our progress in the external world, not much has changed in how we see ourselves. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. When you realize that your culture has actively attempted to turn you against yourself from the moment you were born … well, it’s easy to go straight to despair. To assume that all this crap is embedded so deeply that there’s nothing to be done.
But, really, can we afford to accept that as truth? We’ve been brainwashed and now that’s it? I appreciated this writer’s honesty in describing the enormity of what we face, and she did so with a great deal of eloquence. But where is the next part of the story? Knowing what we know about how we’ve been infiltrated by the patriarchy, where can we go and what can we do?
These questions go a lot deeper than just figuring out a non-beauty-obsessed bedtime story. They go straight to the heart of figuring out what a woman is.
Is she, as our bullshit sexist culture teaches us, merely a bag of meat on a marketplace?
Or is she actually something more like a portal through which unique hilarities and adventure and discoveries and growth and goodness can come into existence?
I believe that this is a question each of us must decide for ourselves, and then, even more important, we need to try as hard as we can to live up to our decision.
I won’t deny that it takes effort to rise above a culture that wants to reduce all women down to a hot-or-not rating. It takes courage to reject the prevailing paradigm, to forge a different kind of story, to imagine and then live a heroine’s journey that’s centered around something bigger than being pleasing to others.
But it’s not impossible. There are billions of other stories we can develop — about soccer stardom or dragon-slaying or colonizing Mars or running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or living off the land or studying gorillas or literally any other thing. We’re not really trapped in beauty. None of us are. We’re free to write any story we want.
So then why do so many of us behave in ways that are complicit with culture’s bullshit sexist story? Why do so many of us objectify ourselves so completely — more thoroughly than anyone else possibly could? Why do we live our lives as though we agree that, yes, we ARE less important, it’s only RIGHT that we should be subject to constant appraisal, and what we’re good for really IS about our appeal to other people?
I think it’s a simple lack of understanding. We think that the way we are right now is our destiny, and that destiny is immutable as stone. That we have no freedom or ability or hope to change, not even in the privacy of our own minds.
But I am here to tell you, that is also the voice of our bullshit sexist culture talking to you. You ABSOLUTELY can change the way you think about yourself. We ALL can. The ability to transform our patterns of thought is, in fact, one of humanity’s only true superpowers, and it’s available to anyone who makes a sincere grab for it.
Right now, I believe history is asking us to decide what we are … what women are. Bags of meat? Or something more?
And it’s not just about you and me being happier with our bodies and our lives in the here and now. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is about the future of womankind.
This is our generation’s fight. Our foremothers busted their asses to gain freedom in external reality, to vote and own property and exercise the right to do as they pleased with their bodies, and now it’s our turn to keep the emancipation party rolling. Only this time, our task isn’t to get anyone out there to recognize our freedom. It’s to recognize it for ourselves.
Our brains have a Beauty Bug programmed in them — it’s true. But it is possible to work around it. And once we learn how, then we can show our friends how to do it. And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and before you know it, a million new stories will sprout up from the rubble of what women used to think they were, illuminating the truth of what we really are, and the path toward what we can be.
It all starts with believing it’s possible, and being willing to try really hard to get there.
How do we do this, you may ask, and it is an excellent question. I wrote a lot about it in my book, and you can read the intro here. Here are a couple of blog posts that may also help:
Do you ever wish the world was different? I sure do. Like … I want it to drive less like an asshole. I want it to stop imposing to boner-killingly impossible deadlines on me. I want it to value endless income less, and quality and friendship and gratitude more.
Sometimes all this wishing and wanting makes me rant and rave a little — or more than a little — about how things could be and how there must be a better way, about everything that is wrong with the world and how I would go about setting it right.
And, you know, I do have a bit of a gift for ranting … . so it’s kind of fun to me in a let’s-get-this-opposite-of-a-party-started kind of way. Which makes it hard to resist when I start feeling that urge to put on my ranting dress.
But, oh, how useless it is. It’s not like yelling at bad drivers or going on a tear about how the economy should be organized or any of my other favorite topics actually does any good. I mean, I might get a good zinger in here or there, but beyond that … what does it do, besides turn me into a ranting crazy person? (Which is not a good look for me.)
And it’s not just useless to rant and rave — it can actually be harmful. Because I end up fantasizing about people buying my book instead of sitting down to write more of them. Or I go off on inefficiencies at work instead of putting my head down and organizing my own projects more efficiently. Or I rail against consumerism and greed instead of reining in my own tendency to buy far more shoes and earrings than are necessary.
Instead of freaking out about things over which I have no control, the best thing I can do — that any of us can do, I think — is to focus on what we can control. Obviously. I mean, this is the crux of the Serenity Prayer, Steven Covey’s Seven Habits, and basically every self-improvement-style spiritual path. It’s the most basic thing in the world to understand, but not so easy to do. It requires that you constantly pay attention to what’s going on in your mind, and constantly draw it back to what YOU can do instead of how fucked everything is.
But it’s worth it … because when it gets down to it, the only way to change anything is to focus on what you can do, right? The only way to impact the wider circle is to start in a smaller one. There’s no guarantee that your small circle changes will ripple out, of course, but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to stop bitching and start moving.
This blog is meant not only to help you be less crazy but to help ME be less crazy. So … today I’m refocusing myself on my own dance space. Tightening up my spaghetti arms instead of flailing around expecting everyone else to fix everything. Doing what I can do as best I can. This includes taking care of myself — meditating, eating well, getting some exercise, getting some laughs and some zzzs — so I can then take care of business.
How about you? Are you wigging out about stuff you don’t have any control over? What can you do today to refocus on your own dance space?
Yesterday I had coffee with one of my best besties, and she was describing to me some of the horrors of her workplace … which I have a feeling won’t be her workplace for too much longer.
As she told me about having to apologize to people who fly off the handle for no reason, having to take orders from people who have no idea what her work is about, and having to endure micromanagement from people who end their list of inane requests with statements like, “And don’t accuse me of micromanaging!” … well I started to get kinda pissed on her behalf.
So I asked her — what would happen if you just went in there with middle fingers blazing? Not literally, but figuratively … a symbol of an attitude of incredulity in the face of true silliness. What if you decided to do your job the way you think it should be done, “have to”s be damned, and tell the haters to suck it? What if you just ignored all the “helpful suggestions” and went about your business?
“I would probably get fired,” she replied, but I’m not so sure. Because, the thing is, she is excellent at her job. She regularly turns a routine task into something remarkable. Even though her bosses treat her like a child, even though they are batshit crazy and incapable of acting like adults, they still know that she does good work, and lots of it. And there is power in that.
So, from my point of view outside the situation, I can see that my beloved friend is suffering unnecessarily. She is in the sweet spot to get those middle fingers out and either transform her job into something she can deal with, or move on to something better.
How do I know this? Because I’ve followed the middle-finger career path for as long as I can remember, and people simply don’t treat me like this. When someone tries to micromanage me, well, that makes me giggle. When my boss asks me to do something in a way that I would never choose to do it, I explain to them why I’m not going to do that, and what I plan to do instead. When someone tries to force me to adhere to some stupid senseless policy, I am so busy kicking ass that I barely even hear them.
Is this because I am some magical creature that can’t be touched by the slings and arrows of modern work life? No. I think my ability to largely make my own rules in my work life mostly comes from the fact that I know how to flip a table when needed.
Do I mean actually flipping a table … not really. I mostly mean flipping a table in your mind. Cultivating a middle-finger attitude. Understanding that there are a thousand million jobs in the world, and as soon as you start thinking, “Whoa, shit, I really need this job,” they have you.
How do you do this? It starts by doing excellent work and knowing what you are talking about. So, if you are in a position where you’re not doing excellent work and you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s the first place to start. Get better. Work harder. Learn.
Once you are awesome at what you do, THEN you can get out those middle fingers and wave them around a bit to create a bubble of Haha That’s Funny That You Think You Get To Fuck With Me. Like, when your boss says something insane, you can laugh like you know she’s just making a hilarious joke instead of actually trying to tell you, the expert, how to do your job. Instead of apologizing to crazy people for triggering their craziness, here’s how you will start dealing with them: you will ignore them and keep being awesome.
Instead of apologizing to crazy people for triggering their craziness, here’s how you will start dealing with them once you get into that middle-finger state of mind: you will ignore them and keep being awesome.
I understand that not every workplace has room for the kind of freedom that I’m talking about. And I know that sometimes it takes a little while to work out an escape plan.
But, seriously, have you ever known someone who had a shitty job or a horrible boss, and they just bummed out about it for years on end and never did anything about it? This is what I don’t want to happen to you, or to my bestie, because it is unnecessary.
There are always more jobs, just like there are always more prospective romantic partners, more people we could be friends with, more opportunities that would be great for us that we don’t even know about yet. There’s no need to be so risk-averse that we allow ourselves to languish away in a bad place. We only need to learn to get out those middle fingers and stop letting other people dictate how we feel and behave.
So … what would happen if my friend flipped a table at work? If she stopped being so conciliatory and started waving some middle fingers around in a light-hearted but deadly serious way? I think she might be surprised to see a change in how her colleagues treat her, and even more importantly, a change in how she sees herself.
I’m not asking anyone to turn into a mega-bitch … maybe just a tiny bitch. No need to drive all your colleagues away, but if you get a reputation for being someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is that such a bad thing?
We ladies are raised to smooth things over, to say or do whatever needs to be said or done to keep a ball rolling, even if that ball is rolling over us. But sometimes that smooth path of least resistance involves more sacrifices than we should have to make. When that time comes, the best response, in my opinion, is to get out those middle fingers and let your voice rise up with Cee-Lo in a sweet, hearty chorus of “Fuck You.”
So here’s my advice to my gal, and to everyone who’s struggling with a shitty job where people treat you like an idiot: Stop smoothing over all the problems of the wackjobs around you. Do an excellent job, cultivate that middle-finger bubble, and realize that you already have the freedom to refuse to engage with insanity.
The first time I visited the little house on Grape Street, it was May of 1999, and the man who is now my husband was marrying the woman who was once his wife. I walked to their wedding, because I lived in the same neighborhood, Mount Oliver, just a few blocks away. Back then, our ‘hood was a decent place — nothing to write home about, no, but quiet and peaceful, for the most part.
Over the years, that changed. What had been a sleepy working class neighborhood started slipping toward straight up war zone, with crime and violence and shady-feeling businesses driving out the shops and restaurants in our little downtown area. Driving around on warm nights began to feel like running a dangerous obstacle course, and shootings were happening so frequently that we couldn’t even keep them all straight. None of this ever touched me or any of my friends, thank the gods, but still … it was disconcerting to be around.
In 2005, I left Pittsburgh and our crumbling neighborhood, headed for a fancy new job in midtown Manhattan and a fancy apartment in Brooklyn. At that time, if you had told me that I’d ever end up in Mount Oliver ever again, I think I might have punched you in the face for even suggesting it.
But, life … well, as we all know by now, she is one hilarious bitch. Because what ended up happening over the next few years was my man’s first marriage fell apart, we fell in love, and my grandma — who lived in the same neighborhood, just a few blocks away from my fella — started needing more help. So I started spending more time there.
Then I lost my fancy job and left New York to move in with my man. Blammo — I was back in Mt. Olly full time, in this cute but spent little house with three layers of roof shingles sliding in all directions, a bathroom so tiny that you could pee and wash your feet and brush your teeth all at the same time if you wanted, and a kitchen with a fun-house floor that left our baked goods an inch thicker on one side than the other until we learned to turn them 180 degrees halfway through cooking.
See the daylight showing between the halves of the roof in front? Somehow, miraculously, it didn’t leak.
Don’t get me wrong — our house was a cute little house, comfortable and snug and just the right size for us. And it was super cheap, which enabled Rich and me to get through some unsteady financial times over the past few years. Rich had a lovely little garden in the back and an office upstairs, and I took over the living room as my studio for sewing and writing. We were able to have a wonderful time there.
But also? We were really jonesing to get out — mostly because of the neighborhood. We literally had a drug dealer next door to us, and he literally kept a pit bull on a 40 foot chain in the 25-foot-wide vacant lot between our houses. (This meant that, had we left our back door open, we could have hosted said pit bull for dinner.) In the last weeks before we left, a couple of tents popped up in that vacant lot, too — lucky us, our own mini-shantytown!
On the other side, the neighbors were sweet people, but their house had even more serious maintenance issues than ours. These began to impact our lives when a sink hole opened up under their crumbling garage, creating a huge ditch in our driveway, and terrifying us. What if a little kid tried to play in there and got hurt? Even after repeated requests from us and citations from the city, the neighbors still didn’t do anything about it.
Plus, I dunno, maybe I’m a whiner / yuppie / terrible person, but, to me, it is depressing to see prostitutes and drug dealers hawking their wares at like ten in the morning. And to hear dogs barking and fireworks going off and people yelling at each other in the street at all hours. Yes, I’m crotchety and old, so kindly get off my lawn.
Then there was the house itself, which is a hundred and twenty years old and in need of a lot of TLC. We did the best we could — we painted and put down new carpet and kept the inside really nice — but honestly the place needed much more maintenance than Rich or I had the money, interest, or knowledge to perform.
And then there were all the memories of the past lurking in the ducts and brickwork. It’s not that we sat around thinking about the fact that the house was the scene of Rich’s first marriage and the crumbling of that marriage … but somehow, they still felt linked. We wanted to begin somewhere new, and make it our home together.
So … last year we started trying to sell. We priced it aggressively — aka CHEAP — which made the numbers work out great for someone to buy and hold it as a rental. But, even pricing it below $10,000, it seemed almost impossible to find anyone interested. We even showed the place to a bunch of We Buy Ugly Houses investors, but between the neighborhood and the work needed on the house, none of them wanted to touch it.
Which seemed like a really bad sign. I mean, if the Ugly Houses dudes don’t even want your place, what are you supposed to do with it? Pay off the entire mortgage and then sign it over to a homeless person or something? Or, if we stopped paying, would the bank take it back, or would they just never foreclose and leave us trapped there in limbo forever? The uncertainty and the feeling of stuckness were hard to take, especially coupled with all the other stuff going on in our lives at the time.
Then, like something out of a dream, an amazing couple named Rick and Sherrie came into our lives. They had a friend who was looking for properties just like ours to hold and to rent to help fund his retirement! And, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — even after looking at the roof, he was still interested! We tried hard not to scare him away, gave him a great deal on the house, and started making our plans to GTFO.
Many hours of research on Craig’s List helped us find the perfect place to move — a spacious apartment with huge windows in a high rise overlooking a pretty little park in a part of town where it’s walkable and there are things around that you actually want to walk to. The place we saw was available June 1st, but it rented to someone else before we could sign the paperwork on the old place … and, whomp whomp, the next availability wasn’t until August 1st. So, after we signed the closing papers in May, we started packing and waiting for three months that felt like forever.
Finally, last week, we got the keys, and when I opened the door, it felt like a hundred Christmas mornings. Fresh new wood floors, amazing view and light and spaciousness!
And huge closets! And tons of counter space in the kitchen! And these amazing vintage tile floors in the bathrooms!
Yes, I said bathrooms. We now have two. UNBELIEVABLE LUXURY.
We’ve been here a few mornings now, and I keep waking up just before dawn, loafing in bed for a while, watching the sun rise in the hills in the distance, burning off the fog and turning the dark trees bright.
And Grape Street and the crack deals and the pit bull and the sinkhole and the crooked floors and the tiny shower and the gross basement — it all feels like a distant dream, or a long-told fable with a happy ending.
For many years, I have sought clarity, sanity, and peace of mind. I have desired efficiency of thought, and I’ve worked to cultivate the ability to appreciate my emotions without capitulating to them.
And on this quest, one thing I’ve noticed is how much my mental state is about context. Like, when I am looking out a window with a hot cup of tea in my hand and a cat in my lap, it’s simple to assume this stance, to stay quiet inside and look at myself with equanimity.
But when I’m in Sephora with a $50 eyeshadow palette in my hand and I’m starting to feel sweaty and fidgety and I just want to buy the damn thing to make it stop, even though I have like a bajillion eyeshadows at home and student loans debts still to pay and I am forty for Chrissake …
Or when I’m on the phone with someone who is telling me that I can’t have this very reasonable thing I’m politely asking for because of some arbitrary rule that doesn’t apply to my situation anyway and I’m one breath away from blowing a gasket …
Or when I wake up the morning after drinking five beers and eating a vat of chocolate caramel popcorn and feel like the grossest fattest fuck in the world and I never want anyone to look at me ever again …
Well, in those moments, it’s a little trickier. Which means a girl needs tricks. A system, if you will, a routine to run through in that last split second before the Crazytown coaster goes over the first hill and gains too much momentum to be stopped.
Luckily, I have developed such a system, and it actually, honestly, works. It’s based on Science, and even has a silly acronym to help you remember it. I’m so proud of this system that I named it after myself! I call it NERD. Notice, Exhale, Reason, Distract.
Here’s how it works. When you start to feel all hot and bothered in Sephora, and you’re rationalizing how this palette is different from all the others you already own, because it has a red purple instead of a blue purple, and you’re only forty points away from the next VIB reward anyway …
Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is notice that you’re about to do something a little crazy. You’re getting that hopped-up don’t-give-a-crap feeling, and you’ve gotten it before, right? You know what it means and what it feels like. Pay attention to what’s happening.
Then exhale. Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett had to wait, but you don’t. You can just force all the air out of your lungs in one big satisfying whoosh, whenever you want. This will cause fresh new air to rush in, bringing you into the moment and helping you step back from what’s brewing in your brain. Miraculous.
Next, reason with yourself. Picture the drawer full of eyeshadows you have at home. Think about your student loans. Imagine yourself with that red purple color on your eyes. Does it make you look pretty, or … consumptive? Is this the best use of your fifty bucks, or are you just being manipulated by a shiny colorful atmosphere that was, in fact, designed to manipulate you? It’s important to approach this step from the right perspective. You’re not arguing with your craziness, or getting angry at it — you’re just raising a skeptical eyebrow. And that’s all you need to do: pull the energy out of the hot and crazy part of your brain and put it in the cool Spock-like sector.
Finally, distraction. Do something else. Ask the friend you’re shopping with what she thinks of red violet eyeshadow. Go outside and watch some kids skateboarding. Indulge in a $6 ice cream, or in a rant about how ice cream now costs $6. Whatever. You just need to find something else to put your attention on. And reflect on the fact that we are all exactly like little children in that this totally works.
Wait — now what were you freaking out about again? Do you even remember? High five yourself because you just skipped a potentially costly trip to Crazytown, simply by remembering one goofy acronym.
Seriously, though. Honestly. This works. Sometimes it works so well that the first two steps are enough and you don’t even need to try to be reasonable — it will just happen automatically after you notice what you’re doing and start breathing.
So I hope you’ll use it — in traffic, at work, with family or friends who are driving you bananas. Anytime part of you wants to do something that another part of you recognizes as a bad idea, just notice what’s happening inside you and exhale. Breathe. Apply reason and distraction as needed. And — bam! Equanimity maintained, collateral damage averted, mental state/bank account/life improved.
Do you play any little games to pop yourself out of a stressful moment and just be cool? Are you willing to try the NERD thing, or is it just a little bit too dumb to follow acronym-based, internet-delivered advice? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Life has once again done that thing where it changes everything on you all at once, and I find myself in the strange peace that descends after a storm. My grandma passed away about a month ago, while I was thousands of miles away on business, and I haven’t quite known how to write about it.
Ever since I was little, I was crazy about my grandma. “My Ma, nobody else’s!” I used to say when I was little, and hug her hard around the neck. Then I’d run off to play in her amazing closet, piling on the jewelry and dresses and furs. We had an easy and lovely relationship my whole life, until she got old and needed me, and it got a lot more complicated.
Don’t get me wrong — the rational part of my brain and the loving part were both so happy that I could be there for her these last ten years, and especially the last two, since she got really sick. But there was another part of me, too, that resented the encroachment on my freedom. And this conflict meant that I generally was trying to manage about ten different emotions, from fear to empathy to exasperation, all at the same time.
I’m not a person who’s drawn to caretaking, or who particularly enjoys it even. But there my sweet grandma was, older and more helpless with each passing day. She really did need someone to take responsibility for her, so I made the choice that I would. I’d help as best I could. I would not leave her to face the end of her life alone.
Of course, she was alone at the very end … but she always hated being fussed after. So, maybe some part of her wanted to slip out while we weren’t looking. There’s no way of knowing, but either way, I have no regrets. My grandma knew I loved the heck out of her, even with all my teeth-gnashing and eye-rolling, just as I knew she loved the heck out of me even when she was cranky and short-tempered.
None of us are perfect … But we try our best to do what’s right, to do what we said we’d do. And somehow that ends up being enough, I think.
When I think things like I’ll never wake up on my birthday morning and hear Ma sing to me ever again, I feel sad. But I’m also feeling … how to say it … complete? Like I had a job to do, and I did it decently well, and now it’s done.
What I don’t feel is despondent or depressed, because Ma had an excellent life, and living until age 90 and having a family that adores you is no tragedy.
And she was ready to go. She talked about death all the time, anticipating it, even getting annoyed that it was taking so long to arrive. The last few years were brutal for her. She was stuck in bed, in constant pain, and pissed off about it, as any of us would be. She didn’t see the point to it. She wanted some rest. I get that.
And then there’s the fact that I’ve already been grieving her, for a long time — every little loss of mobility, of memory, of independence. I was with her for every bump down the mountain, and if you add up the hours I’ve spent crying, it must be weeks by now. Honestly? I’m all cried out. There may be more yet to come, but right now, I feel peaceful and calm. Ready for what’s next.
It’s going to take some time to sink in, I think, that our family’s slow-motion emergency of the last two years is over. And it’s funny how it had sort of driven out a lot of my other memories about my grandma, from before she got so frail.
But as I was going through her apartment, I found the blue dress with gold medallions that she wore to my First Communion … the glow-in-the-dark rosary that she used to let me pray on when I came to visit … her enormous collection of trashy books with prayer cards and recipes stuck in the covers.
And with every artifact, memories flooded back. Like how she loved to cook for us, barbecue brisket and chicken cacciatore and buttery Yorkshire puddings that puffed up like magic … and how she loved going to the race track and drinking a couple beers and yelling for her favorites … and how she watched Oprah every single day and always called her “Ofrah.”
She was a real dame, my grandma — tall and classy and down-to-earth and glamorous and hilarious and unbelievably warm. I can’t imagine I’ll ever meet anyone as sincerely sweet, and I’ll always miss her. But most of all, I’m glad she’s now at peace.
Here at Be Less Crazy, where we’re all trying to master our minds for sparklier lives and a more reasonable world — that’s what we’re doing, right? — we’ve talked a lot about how culture makes us crazy, and how we make it crazy right back.
But we haven’t gone into a lot of detail about how this happens. What is the mechanism by which society trickles down into our brains, and how do our brains trickle back up to the world at large?
I drew this little diagram to show how I think it works.
Ideas flow in and out of us, and they are metabolized by humans at all levels of society, from individual to family to community to nation to world. This diagram shows the process, and it’s circular, like digestion or respiration. Which makes sense to me, because just as our bodies are built out of the physical stuff we take in, our minds are built of ideas.
So let’s jump into this at the place where the vast majority of our ideas come from — Culture, otherwise known as the sum total of what our environment offers us. Writ large, culture is the first picture of the Earth from space, or the tale of Cinderella, or the notion of motherhood. Writ medium-size, it’s seeing everyone around you growing up to go to college, or to sell drugs, or whatever is the norm for your community. Writ small, it’s the way your mom and dad talked to each other … the games you played with your friends … your grandma’s chocolate cream pie.
Simply existing in the world exposes us to a constant and endless stream of culture. Some bits we reject, some we accept, and some are just burnt into us through rote repetition. Over time, like a bird building a nest using twigs and trash and whatever else is lying around, we each create ourselves out of culture’s raw materials. We make different choices along the way and we come out with different end products, but the process seems pretty universal.
Once a bit is in us, it becomes a Belief, one of the prime directives by which we live. All the things we believe — from “Living indoors is better than living outdoors” to “Box wine rocks” to “Gay people should be able to get married if they want to” are simply cultural bits that we have validated with our personal stamp of approval. All are bits that our culture has convinced us are True.
But not all beliefs are created equal. Some are well-known to us, and well-loved. They swim in the sunny parts of our minds, right where we can see them. Others lurk deep within, down where it’s dark and mysterious and almost opaque to our vision. And these lurker beliefs can be troublesome, because they end up dictating a lot of what we do — even overriding higher-level beliefs — simply because we can’t see them. Tricksy.
Anyhow, if beliefs are the broad-stroke ideas we believe to be true, then Decisions are where we apply our beliefs to one particular moment. Just like beliefs, decisions can be transparent or opaque. We can be aware of why we’re making some choices and running completely on unexamined habit with others.
Either way, our decisions fuel our Actions. The actions we take are nothing less than outward manifestations of what our minds decide is true about a given situation. We act, and something changes. We make a dent in the world around us.
Another way of saying this is we contribute to Culture, little or big, bringing us back to the beginning of the circle. Our beliefs percolate back up into the culture through our actions, and they all contribute, whether it’s riding a bike to work or yelling at your partner or volunteering for a good political candidate or writing a helpful blog post or parroting terrible things you’ve read or smiling at an old person shuffling down the street. All of us are contributing to culture all the time. Everything adds up.
It’s important that we understand this, because I think lots of us tend to see ourselves as “in here” and the rest of the world as “out there.” Like we are our own little separate entities, making unfettered individualistic decisions all day every day, acting out of our own righteous self-interest, not really impacting or being impacted by the world very much.
But the reality is a little bit more subtle. The truth is, we are all breathing culture fumes in and out all day every day, and this process can’t help but re-arrange the furniture inside our heads. Sometimes in ways that are not helpful or to our liking. Some examples of this:
Body image. Culture tells us that there is a long list of ways in which we are imperfect, and that the harder we try to attain perfection, the more loved and valuable we will be. Of course, this sets us up for lots of crazy behaviors around food and how we talk to ourselves and even what kind of activities we allow ourselves to take part in. Ever skip swimming because you didn’t want to be seen in a bathing suit?
Our culture sets us up to devalue ourselves, which sets us up to do self-destructive things. Thereby putting another example of self-hating-lady-shit into the culture for some other poor young thing to experience. Aaah, the circle of life.
Romantic Love. Our culture teaches every young girl that love is by far the most important thing. We learn that a happy ending actually can’t even happen without it. We drink this up our whole lives, too, making us believe on a very deep level that a life without a special person is not worth living.
These beliefs then cause us to take actions in which we over-prioritize love more than anything else. Liiiike … feeling truly broken when no one wants us, or letting lazy broke-ass people move in with us because “we love them”, or sticking around someone terrible because we can’t bear the thought of being alone. And of course, all of these actions put more weak love-obsessed crap out into the culture for others to witness and be influenced by.
Money. Our culture teaches us that money = worth. That spending lots of money = being lots of happy. That one more pair of shoes is going to finally scratch that lingering shoe itch. All of which is, again, shit … but some part of us believes it, so we end up living it out.
We buy so much stuff we don’t even have room for it all. We go into debt, declare bankruptcy, fight about money … and basically become all the statistics you read about how terrible people are with money. All of this, of course, adds to the power of the money craziness snowball flying through our culture and sucking people up into it.
All of this leads me to only one conclusion: we can’t just go with the cultural defaults that have been installed in us, because THEY ARE CRAZY. They will lead us nowhere good … only to further frontiers of self-hatred, shitty relationships, and brokeness.
Put another way, our culture has its head up its ass, and the only way to change that is to take our own heads out of our own asses.
To achieve this, I think it makes a lot of sense to do a couple of things.
First, we need to shine a bright light on those murky lurker beliefs so we can understand what they are up to.
And second, we need to focus on the Decision step. Because even when our actions seem inevitable based on what has happened to us and what we believe, they are not. We always have decisions to make, and there is always power in them.
Decision is the step that takes place entirely inside our own minds. It’s the step where we can slow down and rationally consider our options and act only on the best one. Not the one that feels most familiar, not the one that’s an unwitting replay of a shitty old script, but the one that will actually improve things for us and for all the little levels of culture in which we’re embedded.
Clearly seeing how culture sets up our beliefs set up our decisions set up our actions contribute to our culture … well it just makes us better citizens, don’t you think? More powerful ones, too, because it means that we are capable of creating happier lives for ourselves and also changing culture itself in ever-widening circles of rationality and freedom. Once we take on our own individual craziness, we can’t help but infuse everything and everyone around is with blessed sanity.
Do you see this pattern operating in your experience? What different levels of culture are you embedded in? How are they impacting you? And how are you impacting them?
Gertie, my bike, faithfully carrying a box of wine in her basket
It started on our honeymoon in Costa Rica. Most tourists rent a car, but we chose not to, because our beautiful rental house in the jungle came with two bikes, and they became our main mode of transport.
Every day we’d take a quick ride into Manzanillo to pick up the day’s provisions of Heineken and avocados. Or we’d get going at sunrise and ride to the unbelievably beautiful and deserted beach called Punta Uva. Or we’d head up to the Chiquita Cafe to check our email, stopping for an early dinner at Pita Bonita and riding home in the pink-turning-purple dusk.
We rode to the Jaguar Rescue Center where I held a bebeh mernkey. We rode to Aquamor Dive Shop, where we rented snorkels then swam out to the coral reef to spy on all the fishes. We even rode with all our stuff on our backs to Le Cameleon, a fancy hotel where we had a mini-honeymoon-within-a-honeymoon, our dirty red faces standing out starkly against the all-white surroundings.
After I got over my initial terror of traffic and got a little fitter, I found that the ride to wherever we were going was always at least as fun as where we ended up. We saw giant blue butterflies, we heard the hilarious monkeys howling their hearts out, and we smelled the dirty sweet smells of the jungle. I got good at not running off the road while flicking off bugs who tried to hitchhike on my person. And I came to believe that nothing can ever taste as great as a cold Coke from a glass bottle, downed in one after a long sweaty ride.
Over our month in Costa Rica, I realized that riding a bike is one of the most fun things that we get to do as human beings! Wind in your hair, feeling like a kid, singing at the top of your lungs FUN. A major benefit of having a body.
And super pragmatic as well, as I learned on the day I walked to Punta Uva instead of biking. How slow those miles seemed to go! And how much I missed my own self-generated breeze in that hot Caribbean sun!
So, when we got back to Pittsburgh, even though it was already November and gray, I went and got a bike of my own. (At Thick Bikes, which is where you should go, too, if you are in this neck of the woods — they are so great!) And I had a blast riding her to work several times in December. But then there were other things to deal with like a dislocated shoulder and weird spells of vertigo and UNENDING SNOW.
Finally, last week, health problems sorted and snow all melted away, I got back on! Wednesday I rode the 6 miles to work, then met up with my friend Matt for dinner and The Book of Mormon (which was hilarious, btw).
Matt had his bike, too, so after the show we zoomed past the snarl of downtown theater traffic — later suckers!! — across the Smithfield Street bridge, and down the South Side trail to his house and my bus stop. This was my first night ride, and it was pure magic. Like we traveled through the back of a wardrobe to a secret Pittsburgh where the lights of the city dance on the river and dozens of bunny butts glow white in the darkness as they hop across your path.
I’ve ridden into work a few more times since then, and I keep noticing more wonderful side effects. Like this morning, when as soon as I turned onto the trail I was greeted by a herd of young daffodils nodding hello to me in the breeze. Or when I found myself singing as I rode underneath the highway along the edge of the Allegheny River. Or when I got to work, and my colleague came to talk to me about a big hairy project looming over us, and I noticed that it didn’t stress me out at all. Not a drop!
And, also, I feel extra cute! Have you noticed that? How, even if your body is exactly the same body as yesterday when you felt gross, doing something physical makes you feel hot again? Amazing!
I have to give thanks to A+ financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, whose post What Do You Mean You Don’t Have A Bike?!?! face-punched me into buying one and also helped me get over my wussiness about riding it in Pittsburgh. Yes, there are big hills and lots of potholes and many, many dickhole drivers. But also! Bunnies and daffodils and riverbanks and the complete lack of stress that comes after a good hard sweat!!!
And there’s something more, too. As MMM says,
A bike-based lifestyle is an all-encompassing change for the better. It’s like rolling back the past hundred years of humanity’s clueless paving-over of the surface of the Earth, without having to sacrifice a single benefit of modernization. It’s like shedding all of the stress and responsibility of adulthood that have crusted over you and going back to being eight years old again… without losing an ounce of that golden power and freedom that comes with being an adult.
A bike is actually an automatic life balancing machine, passively creating harmony in your life better than even the bossiest life coach could hope to do.
I can’t say it any better than that.
When I first got my bike, a friend asked me if I was going to become one of those people who gets in your face and yells, “Share the road, asshole!!!!” Which is hilarious to think about, but no, that’s not me.
I think I’m just becoming someone who gets to fly down a hill at 25 miles per hour singing at the top of my lungs whenever I want. It feels exactly like this song sounds:
Anyway, do you have a bike? Do you ride it? WHY NOT YOU TOTALLY SHOULD!