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Archive for June, 2010

Words of Wisdom – Part I

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

The idea for this little duet of posts first came to my mind several months ago.  If I’d had my thinking cap on I would have posted them in conjunction with Mother’s Day.  Alas, I did not.  So here they are now, awkwardly located between Father’s Day and the 4th of July.  Such is life.

I am among the fortunate.  I have two invaluable role models in my life; two women, whose imprint on me is indelible, and whose guidance and influence are among my most treasured possessions.  They are my mother and my mother-in-law.  Over the years the lessons they have imparted have become guideposts for my life, and I find it only fair that the rest of humanity should be equally blessed by their wisdom.  And so here, in two parts, I will share with you some of the most important things they’ve shared with me.

“Listen to your elders.”  I don’t know that she’s ever said it in those words exactly, but that is one of my mother’s marquis mantras.  During our teen years (and beyond) this lesson became a point of teasing and was (is) just as likely to be phrased as “Mom loves old people,” as opposed to the more quotable version above.  Nevertheless, both versions are true. 

The American culture (unlike say, Asian cultures) is not one that values age.  We spend gozillions of dollars trying to halt the aging process.  Hair color, Botox, sports cars, Viagra, face lifts, and the like serve the master of youth.  And in our quest for eternal youth we tend to forget that those who have traveled further down life’s path may have learned a thing or two along the way.  My mother, on the other hand, has never lost sight of that.

Because she likes tangible projects, and because she is a talented seamstress, my mother has participated for years in her church’s Project Day.  Lest its somewhat generic name confuse you, Project Day is a sewing circle of sorts, wherein women from the church gather to create clothes and blankets for needy people – usually babies.  They piece and tie quilts.  They sew little cotton shirts for African children.  They hem receiving blankets and burp cloths.  And the soundtrack to all of this stitching is the telling of their life stories. 

My mother (who was about my age when I was born – I’ll let you do the math) is by far the youngest member of the group.  Most of the women are well into their 70s, and some into their 80s.  Many are widows.  Some have lost children.  Collectively they’ve faced cancer, betrayal, divorce, and children moving away.  They’ve also been blessed by family, health, grandchildren, and community.  They’ve witnessed and experienced all of the good and all of the bad that life doles out.  As my mother aptly put it once, “There’s nothing these women haven’t been through.”

When Mom was in the throes of wedding planning for her daughters, they’d been there.  When a friend was diagnosed with brain tumors, they’d been there.  When her children moved away, they’d been there.  When her first grandchild was born, they’d been there.  And with each rite of passage they handed down their wisdom and perspective as my mother was christened into another of life’s little clubs.

In today’s world of “newer, faster, cheaper” we are inclined to believe that these things always add up to “better.”  But I’ve learned from my mother that this isn’t always the case.  What holds true for cell phones does not bear out when applied to people.  We are complex creatures.  Our elders may not know how to program a DVR.  They may not know how to record an outgoing voice mail message.  They may not understand the humor on 30 Rock.  But they know what to do when your child falls ill.  They know what to say when your cancer goes into remission.  They know what to do when your husband loses his job.  And they know what to do when your garden produces way too many zucchini.

It is with time that we accumulate experiences, and with experiences that we accumulate wisdom.  And it is because of my mother that I both understand and appreciate the rounded edges of an old person’s wisdom every bit as much as the sharp corners of a young person’s wit.

Vacationing in Pencil

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Today’s post goes out to my sister Anne, whose practical blog Life in Pencil has been telling me for more than a year now about the merits of letting ourselves evolve organically and embracing life’s unforeseen changes. 

Since we got married six years ago, GAP and I have had an every-other-year approach to vacation planning.  Even numbered years were international trips.  Odd numbered years were domestic trips.  In that time we’ve covered Hawaii, Cardinals Spring Training, Maine, San Francisco, New York (3 times), Italy, Cancun, Switzerland, and the Pacific Northwest.  We love to travel and both get heavily invested in planning and experiencing each trip we take. 

This year’s trip (even numbered year = international destination) was to have been Ireland and Scotland.  We were going to go in the fall.  The British countryside would be lush and cool.  The pubs would be jovial.  The castles would be ancient.  And the beers would be room temperature.  (You can’t win them all.)  Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men… 

GAP and I have spent the better part of the last six months commenting to each other that we really need to have the house tuckpointed.  We have a bit of plaster damage in two rooms and before it becomes any more unsightly or irksome than it already is the exterior bricks need to be replaced and sealed.  To add insult to crumbly plaster, we also need a new roof.  Being responsible consumers as we are, we’ve gotten several bids for each set of work and the results are in.  The verdict?  Expensive. 

As the bids trickled in over the past few weeks we slowly began reconciling ourselves to the fact that our UK trip should probably be postponed.  Fast forward to last Thursday and GAP dreams up the idea of a four-day trip to the coast as a substitute.  I was delighted at the thought of a getaway and gave him the go-ahead to start scouting around online. 

Fast forward again to today and I’m so excited at what we’ve cooked up that I’m already over the disappointment of kissing our original plans goodbye.  Later this summer we will fly to San Diego for four days of the zoo, Sea World, the beach, and what I expect to be outstanding Mexican food.  Not only that, but we will be joined by some of our dearest friends (whom we haven’t seen in a year and who have had their first baby in that time).  Further still, in a stroke of brilliant happenstance, GAP’s sister and her family will be there at the same time and the entire lot of us is planning a collective day at the beach.  I’m so excited I can hardly sit still!

If life always played out as planned we would not have to deal with such headaches as home repairs and resource constraints.  But as we accepted and then embraced each of those fates we’ve ended up with plans that might actually be better.  (Kudos primarily go to GAP – it was his idea in the first place and he transformed it from whim to reality in less than 48 hours.)  Not to mention the fact that the unexpected nature of these plans makes them even sweeter.

As Anne and her blogging partner Elizabeth have so eloquently explained on their site,

Life is a series of revisions.  As soon as we think we have it all figured out, life reminds us that nothing is permanent, and we have to be willing to rewrite our plans.  And it’s this unpredictability that makes life exciting, novel, and, yes, messy.   Life requires flexibility, ingenuity, and acceptance, because there is no “final draft”.  We’re in a constant state of rewriting our lives.

Apparently, after reading their words for the past year the message has finally sunk in.  Perhaps I should allow my plans to get roiled more often.  At least in this case, I must say I rather like the results.

Country Club Journalism

Friday, June 25th, 2010

I doubt anyone would suggest that their coverage of the Watergate scandal ruined the careers of Woodward and Bernstein.  Quite the contrary, it launched them into the upper echelons of journalism history.

Apparently the flurry of journalistic ambition inspired by Woodward and Bernstein has almost completely died out, though, because when Michael Hastings’ surprising Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal was released this week it left much of the country slack-jawed.  While the article itself provides plenty of fodder for follow-up discussion it’s not the original content that most interests me.  Rather, I’m most intrigued by the fact that the general public was as surprised at a journalist’s willingness to draft an article that cast such a long shadow on an important figure as they were about the shadow itself. 

In the hubbub that has followed the publication of his article there has been much ballyhoo about Hastings, his level of access, and his decision to write the article he wrote.  News anchors and pundits have commented that Hastings must not care too much about future access to pivotal figures given this particular performance, because he’s likely to be seen as political kryptonite for quite some time. 

Hastings gave an interview to Matt Lauer of Today in which he commented:

“One of the things that happens in journalism, especially with powerful figures, is that they give journalists access in exchange for favorable coverage and future access. …That dynamic didn’t apply to me and the story I was writing, or just my general style of journalism.”

And that right there snows me.  Protecting a source is one thing.  Engaging in mutual back-scratching with high-profile people to ensure the long term viability of each party’s career is little more than PR draped in journalism’s window dressings. 

I’m sure there are hard-nosed reporters out there, doggedly chasing leads and crafting meaningful exposés.  But this level of reaction to the Rolling Stone article’s authorship leaves me wondering if the majority of journalists working to up their number of bylines are doing so by soliciting what amounts to celebrity sponsorship into a country club of benign journalism. 

Bully for you, Michael Hastings, for writing the piece you wanted to write.  Would that your counterparts had the same nerve and integrity.

Fear Factors

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

With apologies to Dr. King, we all have dreams.  Our dreams may not be as noble as his (likely not), but they are our own and they are meaningful to us.  Perhaps we dream about becoming a writer.  Or having the time to take a vacation for two full weeks.  Or becoming an Olympic athlete.  Or not living paycheck to paycheck.  Or finding a spouse.  Or not being overweight.  Or owning a lavish apartment on 5th Avenue. 

Sometimes our dreams are well within our control.  We know we have the power to harness our futures and transform them to match our vision.  But sometimes we look at the horizon in front of us and watch it remain out of our reach, no matter how quickly we move toward it.

We doubt ourselves, or our circumstances, or our ability to change our lives.  We believe that in spite of our most ardent hopes and efforts we will never make it to the destination we so earnestly (and oftentimes secretly) desire.  So we find faults with our dreams.  We convince ourselves that we don’t really want the things that we want. 

“A two week vacation is so long that I’d just get homesick and not really enjoy it.”

“Freelance writing provides such spotty income.  If I ever made a career of it, I’d probably end up wishing for my regular salary back.”

“Olympic athletes spend every waking moment training.  They really don’t have lives outside of their sport.  And once the Olympics are over, then what?”

When your reach exceeds your grasp sometimes it is easier to rein in your reach than to extend your grasp.  And that is how we come to settle. 

But why do we do this?  Whatever does it accomplish to move the finish line in order to spare our egos?  Why don’t we all indulge our big dreams, mull them over, strategize around them, and find ways to realize them?  We get one life on this big rock.  We have no choice in how we enter it.  But we have a great deal of influence over how we live it and how we leave it.  So why accept your own status quo, when you know something bigger could be yours if you were willing to take the risk?

As part of a New Year’s resolution I’ve been reading nonfiction almost exclusively this year.  From Jeanette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, to Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, I am encountering one after another story of people who have pursued a big dream and realized it.  In some cases they were fortuitous enough to stumble into astoundingly lucky circumstances.  In others they overcame astounding odds and were successful in spite of their circumstances.  But either way, at some level each of the people profiled in these books chose to pursue the dream – to risk the dream – rather than to settle for the well traveled and familiar path.

And so I am prone to wonder to what extent the well traveled and familiar path is a sabotage of your dreams disguised as something more palatable.  In some cases, I suspect it’s a great deal.

So why this little pep talk?  Is it for you?  Maybe.  Is it for me?  Probably.  My head is all over the map these days, but I keep coming back to the parameters of success.  What does it look like on an absolute scale?  What does it look like relative to me?  What are my fear factors?  How much do they govern me?  How much often do I conquer them?

I have no answers today.  But as long as my head is spinning with these questions I figured I’d might as well have some company on the ride.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Do you know your own health history?  Do you know your parents’ health history?  Do you know your cholesterol levels?  Do you know if you’re predisposed to heart disease, or alcoholism, or diabetes?  Do you know if you have the breast cancer gene?  If you do, I hope you had a doctor holding your hand, speaking slowly, and using small words when you found out.  Because, apparently that’s what the FDA thinks is necessary in order for “regular” people to come into contact with their own health information.

I was alarmed to learn last week that Walgreen’s had attempted to sell over-the-counter DNA tests to their customers, only to have their efforts squashed by the FDA.  After flexing their federal muscles the FDA explained that ordinary citizens “should not be making important medical and lifestyle decisions without first consulting a health care professional.” 

Yikes!  So every time I go for a run, which is part of my health and my lifestyle, I should call up the exchange at my internist’s office first?  Or every time I indulge in a corn dog and nachos and peanuts and Dippin’ Dots and a giant fountain Coke at a baseball game (don’t judge, sometimes nine innings takes a long time!) I should just check in with a doctor first?  Because I think I’m a big enough girl to handle these things.

Yes, I realize I took my indignation a bit far.  Perhaps the FDA has a point.  Perhaps finding out alone in your bathroom that you do in fact have the breast cancer gene would not be the ideal circumstance. Perhaps such life-altering information should come followed quickly by answers to the questions that will undoubtedly flood your mind, along with comfort and reassurance.  (Although an untold number of women have found out that they were pregnant – equally life altering – under those exact circumstances and it hasn’t become a social epidemic of any kind.)

I suppose the reason I have such a strong reaction to this particular bit of news is not the data point itself, but what came after it in the article referenced above.  Apparently the protocol of keeping patients in the dark dates back to the 1847 founding charter of the AMA which states that, “a patient’s obedience should be prompt and explicit.  He should never permit his own crude opinions… to influence his attention.”  So there you have it:  institutionalized condescension.    Further still, as recently as the 1950s physicians commonly wrote medical notes and prescriptions in Latin, in order to prevent their patients from understanding exactly what their conditions were.  And if that doesn’t make your head pop, a 1960s survey of cancer surgeons revealed that 90 percent of them would not tell their patients whether or not they had cancer in the first place. 

I thank my lucky stars that such bedside methodologies leave me slack-jawed today.  I cannot imagine being denied information about my own health under any circumstances.  So clearly the medical profession has come a long way since its founding.  But jumping back to the question of at-home DNA tests, I can’t help but wonder what, if any, merit such a restrictive policy might have.  Clearly the 1847 document quoted takes things much too far.  But is there an appropriate middle ground somewhere?

Let’s walk through this.  Suppose that the Walgreen’s tests go on the market.  Suppose they are verified to be accurate.  Suppose I take one and find that I am BRCA2 positive.  (Breast cancer does run in my family, so it’s not altogether out of the question.)  I am an intelligent, stable, and reasonable person.  What would I do with this information?  Cry?  Maybe.  Sit silently shell-shocked?  Also highly possible.  Call my primary care doctor first thing the next day?  Yes.  Call my sister to tell her to take the test too?  Yes.  Hit Web-MD and Google with a vengeance?  Clearly.  Slice off my breasts myself in some Van Gogh-esque frenzy of demented prevention?  Highly unlikely.    But it seems that this kind of response is exactly the kind of thing the FDA is worried about.  Or, perhaps more realistically, that people would ignore the data, slip into depression, or become self-flagellating in some other, less dramatic way.

I will concede that under the best circumstances devastating health news would be delivered by a doctor, armed with information about the prognosis, available treatment options, and support resources.  That’s the most perfect scenario for an imperfect situation.  But if we’re being realistic about things the fact of the matter is that a lot of people find doctors intimidating.  A lot of doctors, while brilliant, have miserable bedside manners prompting people to avoid them as frequently as possible.  And a lot of people will run the risk of letting serious conditions go unchecked just to prevent a trip to the doctor. 

So riddle me this:  What if people could get the keys to the medical kingdom, as it were, without the dreaded trip to the doctor?  What if they could find out about their DNA profile easily and privately, and then seek professional help when they knew it was necessary?  This wish came true in 1996 when the FDA reversed its 1990 ruling against at-home HIV tests.  And I don’t know, but I suspect, that many more people have been tested because of its availability than would have been in its absence.  HIV is about as dire a diagnosis as can be handed down.  If we are equipped to handle that dreaded news, how can we not be trusted to appropriately digest a broader range of risk factors? 

I am eager to see how this ordeal pans out.  I may not like it, but I’m pretty sure I could handle the truth.  Could you?

In My Infinite Wisdom

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Earlier this week Jane posted a challenge to her fellow bloggers: write the commencement address that you would give.  I’ve sat through several commencement addresses, and most of them have been pretty worthless.  The one such address I’ve ever heard that I found worthwhile, or at least thought-provoking, was actually a Baccalaureate address.  I’ve thought a bit about what philosophical brilliance I might impart on young graduates, but after much mulling over I’ve decided that intangible insights are not what we need most as we embark upon the real world.  So, rather than stumble my way through something that would almost certainly be no better than those speeches I’ve heard in my past, I’m providing a list of real-life lessons I think would be most valuable to the new college grad.

The Financial

  • Pay yourself first.  When you sign up for direct deposit at your first job, divert a set amount straight into your savings.  If you never “have” it, you’ll never miss it. 
  • Plan to retire.  Want to work until you’re 70?  If not, put at least 10% of your salary into your company’s 401(k) or comparable plan.  If your employer doesn’t have one, set up a Roth IRA.
  • Credit card debt will be the death of you.  Pay off your credit card every month.  No matter what.

The Practical

  • Buy machine washable clothes.  I’ll never forget my first really big dry-cleaning bill.  I had to pay $90 to get my clothes out of hock and literally cried because it was such a big (and unplanned) chunk of my entry-level income. 
  • Change your oil.  No matter what fancy-pants synthetic oil they put in it.  Even if they tell you it only has to be changed every 7,500 miles.  Change it every 3,000 miles.  It will do wonders for the life of your engine.
  • Don’t go to the dealer.  Car dealerships pad their service tabs with unnecessary services.  Find an independent service facility that specializes in your brand of car. 
  • Exercise.  You may not like it, but your metabolism is slowing down.  Establish a regular exercise routine now and maintain it.

The Personal

  • Meet people.  Rooming with a friend from college?  Great.  But meet new people in the “grown up” world.  Have lunch with a coworker.  Go to church.  Join the Junior League.  Surround yourself with new people and make friends who give you room to grow beyond your college self.
  • Harness your strengths.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Rather than spending a lot of time trying to be something you’re not, work on playing to your strengths and working around your weaknesses. 
  • Do things alone.  If you have the courage to do it, outings alone can be one of the most freeing experiences you’ll have.  Go to a movie alone.  Go out to eat.  Sit at the bar and chat up a neighbor or bury your head in a book.  Besides being liberating, it’s a valuable life skill. 
  • Get regular checkups.  You are young and you think you’re invincible.  But regular check-ups, teeth cleanings, and (if applicable) gynecological exams are crucial to long-term health.

The Professional

  • Don’t apologize for not knowing.  More than any other time in your life as a young professional it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Take advantage of your neophyte status and use it to ask countless questions and learn as much as you can.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch gears.  You don’t have it all figured out just because you donned a mortar board.  If your first foray into the working world doesn’t turn out to be a fit, remember that your career ship hasn’t sailed.  Your entire adulthood is in front of you.  Find something you love!

With that, I would politely sit down and let the kids go out to enjoy their lives.

Not What We Bargained For

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

When our most recent issue of The Atlantic arrived in the mail the other day I was excited to read it.  The cover story is entitled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control – of Everything.”  I felt empowered just by reading the title.  I couldn’t wait to see what feminist conquest awaited my eager eyes inside. 

For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.  The article (which is long, but absolutely worth reading in full) dropped frequent statistics about how the ascent of women in the workplace positively correlates to increase economic success nationally; how women will earn three bachelor’s degrees for every two earned by men; how women dominate all but two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade; and so on.  Bring on the girl power, right?  Well, maybe not.

As I made my way through the article I began feeling less empowered and more depressed.  While there is a certain vindication in knowing that we’ve finally arrived at a place where brains are valued over brawn, reading about the degradation this has caused in the male workforce brought a twinge of sadness with it.  Those feelings of regret were compounded when I learned that this phenomenon disproportionately affects blue-collar male workers, who lose not only their incomes, but their entire identities, when the economy no longer requires their services. 

Apparently part of the reason for this growing gender gap (for the first time in America’s history, women now make up more than 50% of the workforce) is that women have proved more adaptable than men. 

Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way.

The article goes on to trace this gender gap back to education.  Women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.  They earn half of all medical and law degrees.  And they earn 42% of all MBAs.  Women in undergraduate programs interviewed for the article commented on their male counterparts’ lack of commitment to a major, and confessed that they fully expected to be the primary – or in some cases only – breadwinner in their marriages.  One of the many reasons for the classroom gender gap seems to be that traditional classroom settings, beginning at the elementary age, focus largely on sustained periods of sitting still and focusing on highly verbal curricula.  This environment is, evidently, much more conducive to girls’ learning style than boys’.

And so it is that we’ve arrived at a place where women are finally surpassing men in achievements both academic and professional.  But the sadness sets in when I stop to think that this wasn’t ever the goal of feminism, was it?  Of course there have been moments of the past 40 years in which women secretly or overtly wished to dominate their male counterparts.  But I count such sentiments as the natural over-correction resulting from generations of marginalization.  The true aim of feminism was equality.  What women have always wanted was equal opportunity, equal pay, and equal value. 

I find this recent turning of the tables to be every bit as problematic as the trials faced by the women of my mother’s generation and every generation before her.  Perhaps the idea of wielding power over men is captivating for a moment.  But it is no more a solution for women to be disproportionately valued by the workforce today than it was for men to have been valued yesterday. 

The one caveat to all of this is that men are not being denied opportunities today in the way that women were in the past.  We all have the same choices on the table in front of us.  Adapting to a changing economy is a challenge for anyone.  Raising a family while working one job and attending night school is a nightmare scenario in the best of circumstances.  But women have signed up for that very nightmare time after time.

A 2005 survey of lower-income adults in college revealed that:

Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them adjust. Mothers going back to school described themselves as good role models for their children. Fathers worried that they were abrogating their responsibilities as breadwinner.

So what do we do now?  It seems incumbent upon us as a society to harness the intelligence and productivity of a complete workforce.  But how do solve the problems of insecurity, fear, initiative, and commitment?  Should we compromise our standards?  Surely not.  Should we leave men to struggle as the gender gap widens?  Probably not. 

And so we are left with a conundrum we’ve never faced.  I don’t have the answer.  But I suggest we don’t wait four or five generations to start looking for it.

Gone Fishin’

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Well, not really.  I don’t fish.  But I spent the weekend trying to ward off a cold while also catching up around the house from having been out of town last week.  So I’m taking today off from blogging, but I’ll be back on Wednesday with something especially thought-provoking.  Happy Monday!

The Sum of My Parts

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I write to you today from the desert valley of Nevada.  I am in Las Vegas for the first time in nine years, attending a conference for work.  I arrived on Wednesday and have quickly remembered all of the things I love and don’t love about this city. 

The food is astounding (especially on my company’s dime), the shows are phenomenal, and the entire place is a grownup’s playground.  On the flip side of the coin, it’s 400 degrees outside, I’ve smelled like cigarette smoke for three days now, and the environmentalist within me can’t help but feel guilty for contributing to the continued existence of a city that, quite frankly shouldn’t exist.  (Pardon me while I silently channel my mother and get all hot and bothered (understandably, it’s 400 degrees outside, remember?) about how planting such a resource-intensive city in the middle of resource-less desert is a crime against nature. …  Okay, I’m finished now.)  But then again, the food really is fantastic!

Eye candy and creature comforts aside, it was the flight into this play-land of a city that sent my mind on an existential chase. 

No matter how many times I do it, I will never tire of flying across the Rocky Mountains.  The view from the air is unlike anything you can experience from the ground, or even from an aerial photograph.  The landscape changes in front of your eyes as the flat and agricultural plains of Kansas give way to the rolling foothills of the Rockies.  And just as quickly those foothills are transformed into full-fledge mountains, which transform yet again as you bend South into the craggy cliffs and bluffs of New Mexico and Arizona. 

After a childhood spent vacationing there it is the pine covered forests of Colorado that usually capture my heart.  But on Wednesday it was in my gazes down on those Southwestern cliffs and bluffs that I looked out and saw myself. 

Sedimentary rock.  This part of the country is made up of sedimentary rock.  The land was formed by layers and layers of sandstone and silt and shale settling upon each other and sacrificing their individual natures to join together and create something unified.  Through a process that I’ve learned is called lithification, the layers of sedimentary rock are compacted, cemented, and recrystallized.  And it is that recrystallization that most interests me.  It means that the layers, which were once something separate and distinct, become a single substance.  Yet the mesas and buttes still betray their composition, revealing rust colored stripes in places where wind and water have eroded their sides. 

The analogy of layers in people is not novel.  As we discover and explore the many facets of ourselves and our counterparts we make mention of layers, frequently citing the peeling back of those layers to get to the “true nature” of someone.  But (at least for today) I find fault with this analogy.  Rather than peeling away my layers to uncover my true essence, I believe I am the sum total of my layers.  Like the rugged desert landscape, my layers do not mask me, they become me.  I too am recrystallized into something unified that represents the full spectrum of my life. 

I am the product of the people, places, and experiences that have comprised me.  To look at some aspect of myself absent the others is to obfuscate the complex and nuanced person I am.  Like the cliffs and bluffs on the ground beneath that shiny plane I am one; a single, a whole, a unified person.  Yet within that single, whole, unified person exist myriad components, none of which can stand alone, as they are all connected tightly together as Gale.    

I find comfort in this unified theory of Gale.  It means that I can embrace myself as I am, not needing to emphasize or diminish any part of myself in an effort to become something else.  This is what I am, and it is a welcoming way to think of myself.

Wicked Happy

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Happiness has been on my mind a great deal lately.  It was one of Momalom’s Five for Ten themes.  It is the sole subject matter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I’m currently devouring.  And it comes up on track 12 of the soundtrack from Wicked which has gotten significant airtime in my car since we returned from New York nearly three weeks ago.  While all three of these venues have addressed the topic admirably, it is the last one which has crawled into my mind and been poking at me with irritating regularity. 

I’ll spare you the context for track 12 (which is properly entitled “Thank Goodness”) because for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Glinda (“the good witch” as most of us know her) hits on an uncomfortable truth.  Gretchen Rubin would probably tell us that these lyrics address the “arrival fallacy” of happiness (p. 84 in THP, for those of you following along at home).  And she would be right.  But for me these lyrics hit me at more of a gut level than an academic one.  I care less about why they scare me, and more about the fact that they do so in the first place. 

That’s why I couldn’t be happier
No, I couldn’t be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn’t be happier
Simply couldn’t be happier
(spoken) Well – not “simply”:
 ’Cause getting your dreams
It’s strange, but it seems
A little – well – complicated
There’s a kind of a sort of… cost
There’s a couple of things get… lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn’t know you crossed
Until you’ve crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn’t thrill you like you think it will
Still – With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn’t be happier?
So I couldn’t be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn’t it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!

So there you have it: the one minute of a four-ish-minute song that I’ve listened to over and over and over again for three weeks, trying to understand why it’s plaguing me.  After much head scratching I’ve come to the conclusion that these lyrics bother me because they are true.  Glinda addresses the fact that when we get what it is that we think we want, we may be surprised at how the experience isn’t just as we pictured it.  More bothersome still, Glinda’s approach to this truth – skittish and furtive – almost says more than the words themselves.  She almost goes there – to that place of full-bore disappointment – but stops short of it, not treading past the allusion.

This is a frightening truth to broach.  We want to believe that when we achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves that happiness, pure and unadulterated, will pour forth into our lives.  Yet rarely is this the case.  My friend Aidan touched on this very phenomenon in a post of hers just last week, causing me to contemplate it further.  This whole premise feels much more frightening when someone you know personally (rather than a witch in a musical…) is experiencing it in real time. 

I have goals and dreams and ideas about my future.  Naturally, in my head the attainment of said goals and dreams comes equipped with clouds parting, angels singing, cartoon birds sitting on my shoulder (a la (500) Days of Summer), and sickeningly sweet bliss at every turn.  With a finish line like that on the horizon, why wouldn’t I run full speed ahead toward my goals?  But understanding that actual finish line may be something more bittersweet I pause to think carefully about the goals I have set.

I turn back to Gretchen Rubin for a life-line.  She writes:

The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present.  … the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness.  To the contrary.  The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal.  Friedrich Nietzshce explained it well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the meolody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.  A parable.”

And so it turns out that the means is the end.  Leave it to Nietzsche and Gretchen Rubin to explain this fearful premise in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a gift with a bow on top.  Now someone just needs to explain this to Glinda.  Perhaps it is the kind of philosophy that would resonate better with Elphaba.