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My so-called (Facebook) life

Here’s what a few of my friends were up to today (via Facebook): Taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon in southwestern Iceland; eating brunch at a café in an impossibly picturesque French village; signing advance copies of her brilliant new book at BEA in New York; celebrating 18 years of marriage so perfect that its participants still swoon over each other.

Here’s what I did: Climbed a 12-foor ladder with a broom and a dust rag to bat at spider webs and sweep up dead insect carcasses in the vaulted entryway of my unkempt home. Cleaned the cat litter box because apparently I am the only one with a sense of smell in this household. Drank 4 cups of tea and chain-chewed most of a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum while sweating my way through the writing of a chapter of my new book, the book that for six months it seemed that no publisher wanted.

All this might lead me to suffer from the now well established Facebook-fueled FoMO phenomenon (Fear of Missing Out), that feeling that all your peers are doing, in the know about or in possession of a something better than you. Disturbingly but not surprisingly, “FoMO” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. But, actually FoMO is not where this leads me. Or at least not all the time.

Where it leads me is to a deep sadness about our insistent (and it seems to me increasing) lack of authenticity. (I do NOT mean the  happy and successful FB friends I referenced above are inauthentic! I mean the FB world can be and can encourage us to be.)

Facebook is an easy target – too easy. It is, literally, the face we want to show to the world, and most of us want to show our best face. Most of us don’t leave the house without “putting on our face” (and I’m not talking foundation and blush here). Many of us have a “game face” we use when we believe it is warranted, or to our advantage. We all, at one time or another, employ a façade – that is, an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.

I think the more we do this, and the more circumstances during which we do it – Facebook being only one — the farther away we get from who we are. And over time, creating and perfecting that façade, training ourselves to conceal, walking that talk, we deepen and strengthen those particular neural pathways. And we forget who we are.

I mean we really forget.

June 7, 2017   2 Comments

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Ageism. Again.

It’s time to rant again about ageism.

This time, however, it’s not about those offensive intersection crossing signs that feature stooped over, cane-holding old ladies or those offensive birthday cards like the one for 50 — yes, 50“remember that ill-advised sleeve tattoo you got during your misspent youth? Think how it looks to your doctor while you sit in his office complaining of incontinence” or those offensive ads targeting clueless, brain-fogged old people who cannot seem to manage the intricacies of a normal cellphone.

Nope, this is about how older people are sometimes complicit in the creation and maintenance of these stereotypes. (In fact, as I wrote in Counterclockwise several years ago, unlike just about every other group on the receiving end of an –ism, a disturbing majority of older people actually believe the damaging stereotypes about older people.)

This was a video clip that came across my morning updates yesterday, a CNN story about “beating loneliness after retirement.” The story is about these old guys who don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement. Fair enough. So they go bowling. Now I love bowling. Nothing against bowling. But here is how one of the guys described his decision to join in: “It was either this or sit on the couch all day and watch TV.”

Seriously? That’s the choice?

If you have the energy and strength to go bowling (and yay for that), then you have the energy and strength to be a mentor to a kid who needs an adult in his life. You have the energy and strength to volunteer at your local food bank. To hammer a few nails for Habitat for Humanity. To go play with dogs in animal shelters. To tutor adults who can’t read.

To be visible and useful and show that you are a caring, contributing part of the community in which you live. Otherwise, you actively contribute to the stereotype of older people as useless. In the way. Just taking up space. And resources.

End of rant. For now.

Oh, P.S. Can I just say/ shout/ proclaim on high:

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

May 24, 2017   1 Comment

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

Dear Vienna, I love you. But…

It is easy to hate the U.S. these days. I don’t mean the land which, from sea to shining sea (with the exception of that 880 mile stretch on I-40 through Texas), is one hell of a country. And I don’t even mean most of my 321.4 million fellow citizens, including the almost 63 million who, out of fear, desperation, lack of belief in basic American principles or, sorry, just plain stupidity (Bring coal back? Really?) voted for the man who makes it so easy to hate America.

And it is easy to love (at least parts of) Europe. And not just for usual reasons Americans fall in love with Europe, like food, art, music, history, charming villages, vibrant cities, joie de vivre, dolce vita, food and um, food. But, these days, for France’s spirited stance against right-wing extremism and Germany’s open borders, for the Netherlands pioneering LGBTQ policies and Scandinavia’s take-it-for-granted egalitarianism.

I’ve just spent three weeks living in Vienna. I say “living” rather than visiting because I wasn’t so much a tourist. I worked. I lived in an apartment. I shopped at the local Spar. I did laundry and hung it on the line.

I absolutely love this place. What’s not to love? The city regularly ranks #1 as the most livable city on the planet. It is a city of baroque castles, 19th century palaces, gilded concert halls, grand gardens, sweeping public squares and an urban forested oasis twice the size Central Park. And did I mention free health care, almost free higher education, efficient inexpensive public transport, six weeks of paid vacation, parental leave for both parents (which can be taken sequentially) and really really good bread? Also, consider this: UNESCO has listed an “official” Viennese pastime as lingering over an espresso drink with a pastry while reading the newspaper. That’s right, I said READING the NEWSPAPER.

But, lest you think my hatred of my homeland coupled with my love affair with The Imperial City (nice nickname) has completely blinded me to the latter’s shortcomings. I hereby declare that Vienna is not perfect. That’s right. You heard me.

Here are two of the city’s most egregious faults.

Toilets. As in few and far between. As in, they cost money. I mean, I pay $400 to see my physician for 15 minutes, but I’ll be damned if I have to pay 40 cents to take a pee. And then there are the porta-potties, as we call them, which you can sometimes find in parks. Is the CEO of the Austrian porta-potty companies a 2 year old? PiPiBox? ToiToi? Really. Is there no dignity in urination?

Spargel. Or, for you non-German-speakers: asparagus. It is spargel season here, and Austrians go nuts for it. And by “it,” I mean big, fat, thick spears of overcooked white asparagus drowning in cream sauce. It’s crime against the vegetable kingdom. Asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable: thin, bright green spears served naked and al dente, the way god intended.

So you see, Austria, you’re not perfect.

Only nearly so.

May 10, 2017   5 Comments

Dear America, Get over yourself. Love, Europe.

I decided to practice what I’ve been preaching. I know: What a novel idea.

When I talk to journalists, as I have been doing for the past week and a half here in Vienna (and in workshops elsewhere), I stress the importance of being smarter than the material you want to write about, of not writing until you have done the careful work of trying to understand what lies beneath the surface. I stress the importance of not imposing yourself on a story, not striding in brimming with self-confidence you have no right to feel, firing away questions you think are important, setting the parameters instead of discovering them, establishing the tone instead of listening for it.

I had set myself the task of trying to see how Trump’s America was “playing” in Europe. Well, in Austria, in Vienna. This I would write as a blog post, a dispatch from overseas. And so, not practicing what I preach, I proceeded to ask everyone I met, “What do you think of America under Trump?” And I got opinions. I got opinions that had a lot to do with whom I asked (schreibers, kunstlers, lehrers) and how I asked it – I do not have a poker face, and anyway, my phrasing “Trump’s America” is kind of a giveaway. That and the Bernie sticker I still have on my macbook air.

Then I caught myself (well, after three days I caught myself), and I shut up, observed and listened. Just what I tell others to do.

Here’s my report:

My fellow Americans, we should get over ourselves. No we shouldn’t stop making noise and taking to the streets and supporting the organizations and policies we believe in. What we should stop is thinking we are it. Because we aren’t anymore. The writers and waiters, the teachers and grocery store shoppers, the social democrats and unionists and other Lefties are looking elsewhere for inspiration. We are not the guiding light. We are not the world’s leader (in anything that is important). We have nothing to teach others about how to act ethically in the world, about how to treat our citizens with dignity, about how to create a just and joyful society.

Spain was once it. Britannia once ruled the waves. The Ottomans. The Romans. I understand that the Habsburg Empire used to be quite the deal.

But greatness ends. The man who ran on “Make American Great Again,” has, if the conversations I’ve been listening to are any indication, succeeded in lowering the world’s opinion of us to the extent that they care much less than we think about “Trump’s America.” They worry that we will do harm to the global environment. Yes. But they look to alternative energy innovations in China. They look to health care successes in Scandinavia. They look to the Netherlands for enlightened LGBTQ attitudes and laws. They look to Canada for compassionate immigration and refugee policies. They look past America.

What do they think of America under Trump? They think America is increasingly irrelevant. They think we – like the rest of the world – should look elsewhere for inspiration and innovation, for compassionate and egalitarian ways of behaving. They think we have a lot to learn.

May 3, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments

Facing — DEFEATING — ageism

Among the countless things that anger (stun, depress, disgust, worry) me these days is institutionalized ageism. Yes, I said ageism. Not racism, sexism, homophobia. Well, of course racism, sexism, homophobia. But those -isms and –phobias are at least part of our national conversation. We have created policies around them. They are discussed in schools, in the media, on the lecture circuit. I am not saying we have conquered these forms of discrimination, just that we are aware of them and sometimes do the right thing. Although now less than before.

And then there’s ageism.

It is not just firmly embedded in our culture, it is mostly invisible — thanks to the imposed and self-imposed ghetttoization of the elderly (from nursing homes to retirement “communities”). And accepted virtually without question. Old people? Hell, yeah. They are frail, useless, boring, sexless. The street signs show us what we think: A silhouette of a stooped (oh that dowager’s hump) old lady grasping a cane. She can hardly place one foot ahead of another. Watch her struggle as she totters, oh-so-slowly, across the street.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.

Really?

I am about to go to my weekly volunteer stint at Food for Lane County’s Dining Room where we feed (restaurant-style not soup-kitchen style) 300 or so people every day. For some this will be the only meal they eat all day. Although there are a few younger volunteers, most who work these shifts are retirement-age and some are decades past retirement age. This place, like so many other volunteer-staffed social service agencies, could not exist without OLDER PEOPLE giving their time and energy.

Yes, I said ENERGY.

The Dining Room shift is two hours of constant movement. A number of us wait tables, taking (and remembering) orders, bringing plates of food balanced up our forearms, and glasses of milk and mugs of coffee on laden trays. One volunteer constantly circulates with a big dessert tray. Another constantly circulates bussing and cleaning tables. In the back, people are scrapping huge pots and pans, chopping bushels of apples, working the steamy dish pit. This is not easy work. I clock two miles on a shift and often work up a sweat.

My co-workers – many in their 70s, some in their 80s and at least one in his 90s – work just as hard.

Because, my friends: This is what OLD really looks like.

I want to replace the image of the “don’t hit this frail old lady” street signs with empowering images of the older people in our midst. I want our heads, individually and societally, to be brimming with images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person.

The photo is of a 3000-year-old olive tree (in Crete). Which is doing just fine. And bears olives every year.

April 12, 2017   3 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

I gotta little list

I love making lists. Even more, I love checking off items from the lists I make. Often I do something that is not on my list, and I add it to the list just for the joy of checking it off. Oh yes, I know some of you do this too. I have also been known to make lists of my lists. That may be taking it too far.

Here is a list of the reasons I love making lists.

1.  Making a list quiets the omg moments that keep me awake at 2 am.
2.  Making a list is a low-bar entry to actually doing whatever needs to be done. Sure, no sweat, I can make a list! It is way less scary (not to mention time-consuming) than starting the project itself.
3.  Lists break down huge tasks (writing a book, getting rid of a President) into manageable action items.
4.  Lists simplify life. Whaaat? All I have to do is these 5/ 10 things!
5.  Lists help me think things through. They demand logic.
6.  Lists clear my brain. I no longer have to try to remember all this. I wrote it all down!
7.  Lists are finite. It may not seem like it, but my tasks are not endless!
8.  Lists keep me from procrastinating. Uh, Friday…and two more things on the list? Better get to them.
9.  Crossing something off a list = instant gratification.
10. If you save your lists (um, yes, I do), they provide an historical record of your life. A power point diary.

I also love to READ lists: The 500 greatest albums of all time. The 100 books everyone should read. Twenty places to visit before you die. Top 10 most popular lists on listserv. When the “25 random things about me” crazy hit Facebook, I read everyone’s list. Most favorite part of the old Letterman Show…can you guess?

March 29, 2017   3 Comments