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Archive for July, 2012

Pardon the Interruption

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to glue ourselves to the Olympic Games for the next two weeks.  We will see you back here on August 14th.

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Unexpected and Anonymous

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Thanks for hanging in there with me this week.  My earlier posts didn’t draw scores of comments, but they were controversial and I didn’t expect them to.  Nevertheless, in posting them I felt that I was in some way true to myself, and that felt good.  So, true to my word, I’m here today with something much happier than what Tuesday’s and Thursday’s posts had to offer.

She sat at the end of the exit ramp.  Her tousled hair stuck out from under a ball cap.  Her knees poked out from the holes in her jeans.  She wore a rucksack backwards across her chest.  And she held a sign which I now wish I’d bothered to read.

The driver of the car in front of me rolled down his window, and I waited for the woman to make her way back to me.  I reached into my wallet, pulled out two fives, and folded them together.  As she approached my car I reached my arm out the window and held the bills out to her.  And then I got confused.

She shoved a wadded up dollar bill into my hand.  I don’t remember what I said, but I conveyed that I didn’t understand what was going on.  She said, “It’s a pay it forward thing.  I haven’t seen a five today, so I can’t give you a five.  I can only give you a one.  So just do something nice for someone.”

I protested.  ”I can’t take this from you.”  She protested, “I work two jobs.  I don’t need it.”  I protested, “But if you work two jobs then you need this.”  She was insistent.  She wouldn’t take my money and she forced hers onto me.  The light turned green and I drove off up a dollar.  I was completely befuddled.

Why on earth would she do this?  Why would she stand on an exit ramp shoving dollar bills into strangers’ hands?  What kindness was done to her?  Or was any kindness done to her?  Perhaps she is in graduate school, doing some sociological study on how people react when someone defies their expectations.  Perhaps she felt the need to right some wrong she’d done.  Or perhaps she was just trying to send good will out into the universe, trying to make it a better place for the rest of us.

I will never know.

What I do know, though, is that what she did has gotten me thinking.  Why don’t more people do things like this?  Not just sit at exit ramps handing out money, but do something kind and asking only that other people also do something kind.  Better yet, why don’t I do more things like this?  Embarrassingly, I was at a loss for how to pay her kindness forward.  For starters, I put her dollar bill in the tip jar at a Starbucks later that morning.  But I need to do something more meaningful.  And I’m at a loss for what that should be.

So I put it to you.  I am here to read your recommendations and suggestions.  I’d like to do something that will be at least unexpected, and ideally anonymous.  I want it to be a pleasant surprise.  And I hope it can be a pleasant surprise for someone who really needs one (although that kind of qualifying might be tough).  I have an opportunity and an obligation here.  I want to fulfill both as best I can.

There is good in the world.  And it was good to be reminded so.

An Especially Tricky Topic

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Once again, this is the week of touchy topics here at TDT.  For my earlier disclaimer on the matter, click here.

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There’s a great bit in an Eddie Izzard standup routine.*  I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, “The National Rifle Association says that, ‘Guns don’t kill people – people do.’  But I think the gun helps.  I think just standing there going, ‘BANG’ isn’t going to kill too many people.”  And if we’re going to grossly oversimplify things, it’s a pretty good summary of how I feel about gun control.

That said, I understand that if we’re going to address the issue in any kind of a meaningful way we can’t afford to oversimplify things.  This is not a simple problem.  But it is a huge problem.  It is a huge problem that is mired in all sorts of political and emotional complications.  This makes it an especially tricky topic to broach even in the most civilized of forums.  Unfornately, these days our national conversations are typically broached in the forum of cable news, which is anything but civilized.  (That’s a topic for another day.)  I will try, though, to broach it here in a way that is fair and decent.

If we want to take it all the way back to the beginning we look at the Second Ammendment.  There are two primary ways to read it.  The first is that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.  Period.  As you no doubt inferred from my opening paragraph, that is not my interpretation.  My interpretation is that the Second Ammendment was first ratified in 1791, eight years after our young nation successfully defended itself against the British.  It was the era of minutemen.  We had to be able to defend ourselves against foreign governments and arming civilians with muskets was a critical component of doing so.  We also had to ensure that citizens could protect themselves against their own government, should it desire to attack them.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that that is no longer true.  If a foreign government wanted to attack the United States today, or if the United States government wished to attack its own people neither one would do it on foot with or with rifles.  It would involve bombs, tanks, and predator drones.  And no civilian would stand a chance, armed or not.  I will concede that a “well regulated militia” is still “necesary to the security of a free state.”  But we have one.  It’s called the United States National Guard.

While purists will quarantine their arguments to the interpretation of the written law (which is a fair stance), I am willing to admit that it’s not necessarily a realistic approach these days.  American citizens have had the right to own guns for centuries, and like it or not gun ownership is a big part of large swaths of American culture.  It’s also a big part of the American economy, grossing roughly $6 billion annually.  Even if everyone admitted that our adherence to the Second Ammendment has been misguided all these years, forcing our country to go cold turkey on guns would be a bad decision with all sorts of unintended consequences (most significantly, a huge black market for guns).  This doesn’t mean, however, that today’s permissive gun and ammunition laws aren’t due for revision.

Call me crazy, but I believe that people should be able to go to the movies without the risk of an ambush.  I believe that children should be able to go to school without walking through metal detectors.  I believe that students and professors should be able to walk freely around a college campus without being mowed down by gunfire.

I get that guns are big part of life for many people.  Hunting is a very popular pastime.  Handguns provide a sense of security for people who live in rough neighborhoods.  Many responsible adults go to shooting ranges to blow off steam in a safe and controlled environment.  And by and large, these people are not the problem.  I understand that it seems unfair to penalize the sweeping majority of gun owners just because some people are erratic and dangerous.  But I also think that it’s unfair for movie-goers, school children, and college students to risk death just because some people believe that their right to guns trumps other people’s right to life. No person’s hobby is more important than another person’s life.

So where do we go from here?

I believe there has to be some sort of reform.  (Even Bill Kristol believes there should be some sort of reform.)  The data bears it out that a strong correlation exists between stricter gun laws and lower gun deaths.  And as information has become available about James Holmes and his actions leading up to last week’s attack I’ve been shocked and saddened to learn that not only were most (if not all) of his gun, gear, and ammunition purchases legal, they didn’t even raise any red flags.  This man was able to outfit himself to the extent that the SWAT team nearly took him for one of their own without any part of our gun control system taking notice.  That shouldn’t be the case.  I won’t sit here and suggest that I know what the right regulations are.  I am not knowledgable about what is an acceptable number of guns or bullets for a single individual to have at any given time.  (Is “none” too constraining a suggestion?)  But I know for certain that semi-automatic assault rifles (such as the one used in Aurora last week, and those affected by the now-expired 1994 Assault Weapons Ban) exist for one reason alone: killing large numbers of people in short periods of time.  And there is no reason that any civilian person should have access to that kind of weaponry.

The popular refrain among gun advocates is that if more people have guns, fewer people will use them.  That if someone else in the Aurora movie theatre had been carrying a gun, fewer people would have been killed.  For starters, no one with a pistol in her purse was going to outshoot a man with chemical bombs and assault rifles.  Further, as a friend of mine aptly put it, crossfire doesn’t improve anything.  More shooting is just more shooting.  No one comes out ahead there.  So then what’s the point?  Well, the argument is based on creating a culture of fear.  Its proponents assert not that it’s the gun that reduces violence; it is the fear of someone else’s gun.  ”I won’t shoot at you because you might be able to shoot back.”  It’s a position I can’t begin to understand.  The idea that we are all safer because everyone is carrying deadly weapons is unfathomable to me.

Another popular response to the call for stricter gun laws is that murderers aren’t likely to follow them in the first place.  In that vein, a Facebook friend of mine (who is also a gun rights advocate) posted a digital postcard this week that read, “Gun laws would prevent shooting sprees?  Please tell me more about how criminals follow laws.”  And while I take his point to a certain extent, it’s not the inner city gang bangers I’m expecting will be reined in by gun laws (though if they were, it would be terrific).  It’s the James Holmeses, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, and the Seung Hui-Chos.  It’s the people who are disenfranchised and disturbed and looking for some outlet for their pain.  It’s the people who act out in fits of massive violence because they can and because it’s easy whom I want to prevent; people who, without access to 6,000 rounds of internet-purchased ammunition, would have would have done something far less tragic with their destructive energy.  The data tell us that mental illness is negatively correlated to gun deaths, which is encouraging, but even if the people mentioned here are outliers, they’ve still managed to kill dozens of people.

With that in mind, the other thing I think we should do is learn about James Holmes.  Some people will say, ”It’s done.  Why does it matter why he did it?”  To those people I say, because he has problems.  And he’s certainly not the only person with these kinds of problems.  So let’s try to understand what drove him to do this and find ways to identify and help people like him before they go on a rampage..  Let’s try to understand what the warning signals were (aside from, you know, the detailed description of the attack that he mailed to a psychiatrist more than a week before he actually carried it out, but which wasn’t opened until nearly a week after the damage was done…)  Let’s try to understand how to help people with problems like this so that we can prevent future killing sprees.  So often in situations like this the shooter is killed – either by himself or law enforcement – at the end of the raid.  I see the fact that James Holmes is still alive as an incredible opportunity.

The saddest part of all of this is that for all the conversation about gun laws, chances are slim that things will change.  Research shows that support for gun control is withering away in this country.  It’s a fact that’s hard for me to digest.  I want to know who the people are who believe that the lives of the victims in Aurora were appropriate prices to pay.  Or what about the victims of the recent homicides in Tulsa (in April and July of this year)?  Were their lives less valuable than the right to bear arms?  I don’t think so, but our decreasing support of gun control measures indicates that many Americans do.

This is the longest post I’ve ever published here.  If you’ve read this far, thank you.  You may or may not agree with me.  If you do agree with me, I’m glad.  If you don’t agree with me, I hope I’ve presented my position in a way that you found worthwhile, and that you’ll consider my point of view.  I don’t believe that this one blog post will change anything.  But I do believe that it is my part of the national conversation, and to keep quiet on the issue would be a waste.  I hope you’ll continue this conversation both here in comments, and in the offline world with people on both sides of the issue.  It’s far too important a matter to let slip by just because it’s hard to talk about.

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*Actually, there are lots of great bits in that particular Eddie Izzard standup routine.  It’s from his 1999 show “Dress to Kill” and it’s probably my all-time favorite standup routine.

When $60 Million Isn’t Enough

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I’m treading into touchy territory this week.  For my disclaimer on this little foray, please see yesterday’s short post.

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I don’t suppose there are many occasions in life when $60 million doesn’t seem like enough.  But upon reading the list of NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky’s conviction and the findings of the Freeh Report, that’s exactly how I felt.

Unfortunately, though, no amount of money can right these wrongs.  Nothing can unrape those boys.  So absent the ability to change the past, incredible focus is being paid to what punishments will be handed down to Penn State in the future.  People went sort of berserk yesterday at what most media outlets, FB posters, and Tweeters seemed to think was quite a stiff penalty.  But I just don’t see it.

Amidst all the discussion of the imposed sanctions the vacating of losses during the Sandusky era seemed to draw the most attention.  Per the NCAA’s official tally, Joe Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in the history of college football.  And I can’t help but respond with the question, ”So what?”  In a conversation on this very topic a friend of mine said something along the lines of, “You have to admit, being stripped of that title… it’s pretty symbolic.”  And I said, “You’re absolutely right.  It’s symbolic.  It doesn’t actually mean anything.”  Paterno isn’t even still alive to suffer whatever humiliation might have come from having his record stripped away.  So why bother?  Why not focus the sanctions on something that will make a difference moving forward?

With that in mind, I also bristled at the four-year bowl game ban and scholarship reductions.  Bill O’Brien and whichever Nittany Lions don’t head for the hills* will now pay the price for the hideous acts of Sandusky and the inexcusable complicity of Paterno and others.  Ineligibility for bowl games doesn’t even come close to being as damaging as what Sandusky’s victims endured.  Not only is it a trivial punishment when compared with the crime, but it is inflicted on people who weren’t even implicated.

As for the fine, $60 million is one year’s worth of football program revenue for Penn State.**  One year.  That’s all.  It seems like a drop in the bucket, doesn’t it?  I am thankful that the NCAA mandated that the $60 million must be spent on child sex abuse and awareness programs.  But given that, why stop at $60 million?  Why not $100 million?  Why not $300 million?  Why not mandate that all profits from the football program must be funneled into advocacy programs for sex abuse victims for the next 20 years?

As I socialized my objections to a few people yesterday, someone actually confronted me with a reasonable answer.  That answer was that it’s not the NCAA’s job to inflict the punitive measures for the entire scandal.  That is the job of our legal system and under the jurisdiction of our judicial branch Penn State University will like have millions more in civil damages to pay out to the victims.  The NCAA’s job, on the other hand, is to correct a culture where football was so revered that many people opted to knowingly allow multiple boys to be raped over a period of 10+ years rather than to risk so much as a blemish on the spotless sheen of the Penn State football program.  One way to do that is to knock the program down off its pedestal and force the State College devotees to square themselves to a losing team for the next several years.

I can respect that the NCAA isn’t on the hook for administering the full legal ramifications of this crime.  But in light of the severity and duration of Sandusky’s actions; and in light of the casualness with which most Penn State supporters treated the allegationsbefore they were proven in court (fiscal 2011-2012 was PSU’s second highest fund raising year ever), I feel confident that it’s going to take a lot more than a four-year bowl game ban to convince many members of the Penn State community that it was the very thing that their love and idolatry built up into legend that laid the groundwork for this sex abuse scandal to become so widely known and yet still unreported.

Stripping a dead man of wins?  So what.  It’s a hollow gesture at best.

Curtailing scholarships and access to bowl games for four years?  Sandusky raped and abused boys for at least 14 years.

A five year probationary period?  Given the number of people in the Penn State administration who knew about it the probationary period should last for as long as any one of them is still employed by the university.

A $60 million fine?  A drop in the bucket.

People are saying that this collection of penalties somehow adds up to a fate worse than the death penalty for the Penn State football program, but I don’t follow that logic.  Football with limitations is still football.  And knocking the program down a peg or two isn’t the same as knocking it out altogether.  Let me be clear.  Winning football games will never be more important than protecting the health and safety of children. And I’m not sure that the Penn State community fully understands that yet.  That isn’t to say I think everyone at PSU is as deluded as those who were involved in the scandal.  But if even one person thinks that this punishment outweighs the crime, then that’s proof enough for me that the lesson hasn’t yet been learned.

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*Permission to transfer for all entering or returning football players was one of the sanctions.

**Well, it was one year’s worth.  I wonder if the program’s revenues will decline in the face of what is almost certain to be a losing team for several years into the future.

Fair Warning…

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

I’m struggling with some things this week, and before I go down the rabbit hole I thought I owed you all fair warning.  I try not to get too opinionated or political on this blog because I want there to be room for everyone here.  I want you to feel welcome, whether or not you agree with me.  And the best way for me to make you feel welcome is to keep the conversation interesting, but polite. 

Nevertheless, I have a point of view.  I have strong feelings about many things.  And much as I try to keep an open mind, I have very concrete opinions about a couple of topics making national headlines this week.  Namely the Penn State sanctions and James Holmes’ cache of weapons.  After some serious thought, I have decided to address each one in this week’s posts.  So I am here to tell you now that these posts will be opinionated.  But I am also here to tell you that you are free - nay welcome - to disagree with me. 

Also, I will make you a little promise.  After hanging with me through some tough posts on Tuesday and Thursday, I will post something happy, uplifting, and inspiring on Friday.  It was an idea that came to me late last week and was originally on the docket for tomorrow, but I feel compelled to address these other issues first.  It will be your reward for taking on these more difficult topics earlier in the week.

Lastly – and this is not something I often say here – it is a privilege to write this blog.  I am thankful that I have an eager mind and a platform to explore the thoughts that pass through it.  Even more-so, I am flattered and honored that you choose to read my words.  Thank you for being here, for helping me grapple with the world around me, in all of its wretchedness and all of its greatness.  It means a great deal.    

Once In A Lifetime

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

After I got over the initial shock that Marissa Mayer is only three years older than I am, I became fascinated with her decision to accept Yahoo’s offer to become its next CEO.  I was not fascinated because she’s a women, or because she’s only 37 years old.  I was fascinated because she is roughly six-and-a-half months pregnant.  (Are you getting this, Sheryl Sandberg?)

I quickly hit Wikipedia and a few other sites to do some reconnaissance work.

What I learned:  She went to Stanford.  She got into computers through a gen-ed class called something along the lines of “Computer Science for Non-majors.”  She discovered her passion for programming and started at Google as its 20th employee when she was 24 years old.  When she took the job she estimated that the company had a 2% chance at survival.  She’s been a VP for the past several years and is apparently well-known and highly regarded in the tech world.  She has an estimated net worth of $300 million.

And, upon further reflection, I also learned that I do not envy Marissa Mayer.

No two mothers are entirely alike.  I can no more speak for Marissa Mayer than I can for Queen Elizabeth or a migrant worker.  So I will not say that she’s making a huge mistake because I don’t know that she is.  This is clearly and truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  She is smart and talented and motivated.  And if you are the type of woman who rises to the level of VP at Google by the age of 37, then you are probably also the type of person who accepts the CEO role at Yahoo, pregnant or not.

Nevertheless, I worry about Marissa Mayer.  I wish this were her second child.  I wish I felt that she knew what she is walking into.  I wish that I were sure she understood the significance of the now-well-circulated statement “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not worried about the baby.  Mayer will certainly have full-time (if not live-in) help and the baby will be well cared for.  And I’m not worried about the company.  She knows what’s on the line here and with extensive help with her son she will be able to dedicate the time she needs to her job.  What I worry about is that she is sacrificing one of the most seminal moments of motherhood without realizing it.

Those first few weeks at home with your baby are precious.  They are also maddening and vicious in many ways.  But they are fragile and fleeting. ( They may not be “once in a lifetime,” but for most women they don’t come more than two or three times in a life.)  Very rarely does society grant any of us permission to cocoon away for weeks at a time and make our worlds so incomparably small.  Maternity leave is one in a very limited cadre of life experiences that allows such an existence, and Mayer has kissed hers goodbye before she even got her hands on it.  It breaks my heart.

The flip side to this coin, of course (remember, no two mothers are alike…), is that no woman was ever faulted for not pursuing a CEO position.  No woman who chose to stay home, or dial back her career, or coast for a bit was ever called out with the rally cry of, “But how can you sacrifice the chance to gun for a high-powered career when you haven’t experienced for yourself how satisfying it is?”  No woman (at least no woman I know) has ever had to defend herself against that question.  Marissa Mayer is charting new waters.  She is doing something only a very tiny collection of people has done.  She is charged with turning around a major organization in dire need of energy and redirection.  Perhaps the rush and reward of that experience will far surpass the experience of naps and baby snuggles that defined my maternity leaves.  I won’t ever know, though, because I won’t ever be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason that our nation is all a-buzz with talk of what this new pairing means.  New motherhood is one of life’s most taxing experiences.  So is running a major and floundering company.  Doing them both concurrently is a precarious proposition by any standard.  And I hope – I sincerely hope – that it works out well.   I hope that for Mayer herself, and for every woman whose professional future in any way rests on our culture’s ability to believe in a young woman’s ability to meet a challenge head on.

Laughing at the Rain

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Eagerly waiting for the 'L'

We needed to get the heck out of Dodge.  It’s been a thousand degrees for the past month, and we hadn’t been out of town since our trip to Disney World in May.  We were all going a wee bit crazy.  So this past weekend the Griswolds Family P loaded up into the car and drove to Chicago for a long weekend.  We covered a lot of ground in 48 hours, including Millennium Park, Taste of Chicago, the Field Museum, a Cubs game, and the Shedd Aquarium.  It was a wonderful change of scenery and provided a much-needed break from our usual weekend fare.  But amidst all our activities, my mind swirled with thoughts of our adoption process.

How will you spend quality time with your children? This was one of the questions on the 20+ page Personal Data Form that GAP and I each had to fill out as part of our never-ending adoption paperwork.  It was a question that ran through my mind this past weekend because the weekend we had was a perfect embodiment of the answer I gave.  My answer was,

Particularly in young children I believe that quantity begets quality.  You can’t ask a three- or four-year-old to just “turn it on” and have quality time RIGHT NOW.  You have to spend a lot of time with them and some of it will end up being really quality time.  You can’t always plan it, though.  A special occasion could be completely lost on them.  And a silly game in the bath one evening could end up being the most fun you’ve had with your kid in days.

In that vein… Saturday was a big day.  We kicked it off at the Field Museum, then went uptown for the Cubs game.  On the way back to our hotel we inadvertently got off the ’L’ at least a couple of stops too early and ended up making a rather long foot trek home.  Halfway through that long walk it started to rain.  The early sprinkles quickly gave way to heavy, legitimate rain, and by the time we got back to our Chicago digs we were completely soaked through to the skin.  At one point during our walk, as it became clear that there was no alternative to “completely soaked” I started laughing out loud.  From his perch on GAP’s shoulders IEP looked down at me and asked, “Mommy, why you laughing?”  “Because it’s just funny, buddy,” I told him.  “We are so wet that it’s funny.”  Then he started laughing at my laughter, and I in turn laughed at his laughter.  There was nothing to do but laugh.

Back at the hotel, dried off and with naps under our belts we began mobilizing to head out for dinner.  As IEP rubbed the sleep out of his eyes he curled up against me and I asked him what had been his favorite part of the day had been.  He didn’t have to think before he answered, “Riding the ‘L’ and laughing at the rain.”

I smiled.  On a day that included one of the foremost natural history museums in the world, and one of the most storied baseball teams of all time, the things that mattered the most to my son were a ride on a train and the misadventure of getting wet.  I couldn’t help but think of my adoption questionnaire.  I have some firm ideas about parenting, but many of them are just ideas.  Many of them have yet to be borne out by experience.  So it made me happy to hear that, in his infinite three-year-old wisdom, my son had confirmed my hypothesis.*  We had quality time, but it wasn’t the quality time I had planned.  It was the quality time that grew organically out of a long day spent together.

I think I find this parenting truth comforting.  I supposed it could be frustrating to know that extensive plans for special occasions may be wasted on a young kid who doesn’t understand their significance.  But what I find comforting is that what matters most to a child is that which is genuine.  A shared moment.  An unexpected laugh.  An unplanned memory.  Museums and baseball games are wonderful outings.  But what matters most is that we were there together.  Having an experience together.  Laughing at the rain together.

*A sample size of one incident is statistically significant, right?

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PS – Our adoption home study is tonight.  I am currently accepting prayers, good vibes, happy thoughts, and whatever other virtual talismans of good luck you might want to send our way.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

For a woman who spends a not-insignificant amount of time online, I sometimes worry that the internet is bad for me.

I e-mail.  I use Facebook.  I write two blogs and post to each one multiple times per week.  I read news online.  I shop online.  I watch videos online.  And as I think now about all the time I spend in front of a screen, it kind of makes me want to go be a park ranger.  …  I kid, sort of.

I’ve done a fair amount of pondering about the merits and perils of online social media on this blog.*  And I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but… I really think we don’t yet fully understand the effect that our online lives are having on our offline lives.  I fear that we’re backing ourselves into psychosocial corners that we don’t know how to get out of.  My solution to this problem is twofold.  1)  I have become more proactive about scheduling face time to maintain the relationships I most value and to guard against whatever negative impact may be born by the presence of online social media in my life.  And 2) I read.  I read the opinions of people who study this stuff – people who know more about it than I do and can provide me some perspective on the issue (scientifically substantiated, where possible).

It was with that strategy in mind that  I picked up the May issue of The Atlantic at the gym on Tuesday night and read it’s cover article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

The article was long and investigated several interesting aspects of who uses Facebook, our motivations in doing so, and how some types of Facebooking (scanning without interacting) are correlated to increased loneliness, whereas other types (using it to interact and facilitate in-person contact) are correlated to decreased loneliness.  But there was one component of the article that really spoke to me: the matter of the projected identity.

If you only know someone on Facebook you only know a carefully crafted persona.  You see the Hawaiian vacation pictures, the darling children, the pithy e-cards, the girls nights out, and so on.  Even if a person laments a bad day or vents about a frustrating situation, it is still something they are choosing for you to see.  But by and large, most of what we see on Facebook is positive.  (If it were a giant online gripe-fest I doubt it would have grown to 845 million users.)  It is a way for us to share the things we want to share.  This, in turn, means that it is also a way for us to hide those things that we don’t want to share.

So all of a sudden keeping up with the Joneses just got a lot harder.  Pre-Facebook the Joneses had to maintain a particular image in all corners of their lives – during chance encounters at the grocery store, after a long afternoons of yard work, at work, at play, at church, and so on.  Now the Joneses you’re worried about keeping up with are not just the Joneses around your neighborhood, but also the Joneses from high school, college, and your old job – all the Joneses you’ve ever met.  And you won’t ever bump into them at the gas station with no makeup on.  You’ll only see what they want you to see.  And what most people want you to see is a pretty picture.

So why have 845 million of us joined Facebook?  The Atlantic article offered these thoughts on the matter:

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

But the price of this smooth sociability is a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfillment. Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting.

Constantly comparing ourselves to others’ idyllic portraits is usually a losing battle.  (We know what our own underbellies look like.)  Those people who use Facebook merely to scan and not to interact apparently often walk away feeling disconnected and bad about themselves, which doesn’t surprise me at all.  It’s like looking at your friends and seeing 200+ prom queens.  (We don’t necessarily know what their underbellies look like.)  The Atlantic puts it this way, “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”  Not only do we have to contend with the happy visions of our friends’ lives, but we must also decide what aspects of our own lives to put forth.  Will I post the a picture of the basket of unfolded laundry?  Probably not.  My kids at Disney World?  Much more likely.

But if you are a person who doesn’t have darling kids who say darling things; or if you haven’t been on a vacation in years; or if you didn’t have a fantastic evening of margaritas with your best buddies last night; you might feel lonely anyway.  Then trying to figure out what to put into your own projected identity may just make you feel even worse.

The answer to all of this?  I don’t have a silver bullet.  But I do have a little comment.  Actually, I have lots of little comments.  The research suggests that people whose wall posts are “liked” experience less loneliness than those whose are not.  People whose wall posts are commented on experience less loneliness than those whose are merely “liked.”  So what can I do?  I can comment.  I can reach out into the digital abyss and actually connect.

“It looks like her swimming lessons have really paid off!”

“I’ve been thinking of you lately.”

“Have a great trip!”

“Congrats on your new baby.  He’s just perfect and I can’t wait to meet him.”

Little comments that might, if I’m lucky, add up to something for someone else.

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*Prior posts about technology and social media include: Do Not Disturb, Darwin and the Airplane, An Army of Gadgets, Robotic Relationships, Apple TV: Friend or Foe?Mass Mailing, and Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?.

More Than Checking a Box

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

One week from today a social worker will come to our house.  She will arrive just as the kids are finishing supper.  She will stay for a couple of hours, I think.  She will watch us wrangle our kids into bed (with Nanny on hand to help).  Then she will sit with us and talk to us.  She will try to get to know us.  And she will try to understand what kind of parents we are.

The purpose for this social worker’s visit?  Our adoption home study.

For those not familiar with the adoption process, the home study is a critical component.  After you’ve submitted proof of your entire existence in writing (tax returns, birth and marriage certificates, child abuse screenings, criminal background checks, employment verifications, blood work, physical exam results, and a 20+ page questionnaire) the next step is for someone to actually meet you in person, visit your home, and make sure that what they find in real life jives with what you’ve submitted on paper (or, electronically, for the most part).

Not surprisingly, I have mixed emotions about the home study.  Of course, generally speaking, I think it’s a good idea.  It’s a good idea for someone to verify in person that we don’t have firearms sitting around, or food rotting on the counters, or 75 cats, or loose electrical wiring, or anything else comparably horrifying.  But beyond that, what does it really accomplish?  How much can anyone really get to know us over the course of two visits?  (A second visit will happen at the end of this month.)

The easy answer is, she can’t.  She can’t know, really know, whether I am a good parent.  She can’t know if my kids feel loved and valued.  She can’t know if my marriage is healthy.  She can’t know if I serve balanced meals, or discipline appropriately, or set fair boundaries.  She can’t know how I react to stress.  She can’t know if I am thoughtful and intellectually curious.  She can’t know whether I am joyful or sullen or uptight or lazy. … And the saddest part of all is that, by and large, those things don’t matter.

The child we will end up adopting will have spent his entire life prior to joining our family in a foster home.  I know there are some really wonderful foster parents out there, but it is often a failed experiment in child rearing.  The hard truth of the matter is that we would have to be pretty subpar as parents not to beat the environment the child has been in since birth.  And so, it is the job of the social worker not so much to determine if we are absolutely wonderful parents, but if we can provide the basic nuts and bolts of a happy and stable life.

But shouldn’t it be more?  Shouldn’t it be more than the checking of a box that says, “Fit parents.”  I think that every shade of grey should matter.  I think that nuances should be explored and personalities understood.  I think that our adoption agency should be commited to finding the perfect child for our family, and the perfect family for every child.  Merely being better than foster care is a pretty easy litmus test to pass.  

Perhaps I’m underestimating it a bit.  Perhaps I will find that our social worker is truly invested in the process of matching a child with our family.  Perhaps the written documentation of our home study visits will be more detailed than the mere statement of fact that we are able to provide for an adopted child.  Nevertheless, in the research I’ve done to prepare most adoptive parents’ responses I’ve found on the topic of the home study are in the vein of, “It was a big letdown.  They just want to make sure the home is safe.  They don’t really need to get to know you.”  The only exception to that refrain was one respondent from Canada whose social worker spent close to 20 hours with her over the course of many visits.  (There is so much that Canada gets right!)

With that in mind, there is much about our life and family that I wish our social worker would want to know.  But I fear that once she’s confirmed the presence of a fire extinguisher, refrigerator, and a non-leaking roof she’ll have seen enough.  I hope I’m wrong.