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Archive for December, 2012

Wicked Happy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

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.

——

GAP and I saw a traveling production of Wicked last night which got me thinking about this post which was originally published in June 2010.  Amidst all of the stress I’ve intermittently mentioned lately I’ve been giving thought to my goals and dreams, and thought this post was worth revisiting.  I will have one more new post to cap off the year sometime between now and Christmas, and will then take a bit of a break for the holidays.

Please Write to Your Representative

Friday, December 14th, 2012

This is the letter I just wrote to my congressman and senators.  Please feel free to copy, paste, and use it to write to yours.  You can find your representative’s website and contact form here.  You can find your senators’ websites and contact forms here.

Dear Mr. _______,

I am not unique. And that is exactly why I am important.

I am one of millions of American parents who want stricter gun laws. I want for my children to go to movies, and shop for Christmas presents, and attend school without the risk of being mowed down by semi-automatic gunfire. I want to kiss them goodbye in the morning without fearing it will be for the last time. I want to raise them in a society that protects their rights more fiercely than the rights of those who might harm them.

There is no excuse for this kind of carnage. No amendment is worth this price. I am heartbroken, but I am also ashamed. And until our government can fix this hideous and inexcusable crisis, we should all carry our shame with our grief.

I beg of you to work with your fellow Congressmen and Congresswomen to take up the mantle of gun control, and not rest until it is resolved.

Very sincerely,
Gale P.

Best and Worst

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

My parents have spent every New Year’s Eve with the same three other couples for the past 30 years or so.  They all met through church, back when their families were very young, and they’ve shared many seasons of life together.  They celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, children’s weddings, and all other manner of significant life events.  It’s a collective friendship that I really admire.

One of the group’s traditions is that on New Year’s Eve each person lists his or her “best” and “worst” for the year.  They’ve taken care to gently police each other’s responses, making sure that no one claimed a child’s SAT scores or MVP trophy as their own “best.”  As they’ve seen careers shift, grandchildren born, parents die, and so on they’ve had the chance to offer up a lot of different bests and worsts over the years.

This time of year is ripe for reflection.  We think back on the year that is winding down.  We start to ponder resolutions for the year standing in front of us.  Amidst all of this thoughtfulness I really like the idea of thinking back through the year and identifying what the highest and lowest points were, and thinking about how they might influence me in the future.  I also really like the idea of sharing these identified moments with a group of close friends.  Not only does that degree of transparency (when the answers are candid and honest, of course) help us to understand one another better at the current moment, but the accumulation of answers over years helps us to see with more clarity the paths that have been traveled by our friends.

I don’t know who I might share my best and worst with this year.  (GAP already knows, obviously.)  I realize that traditions like these typically aren’t born on purpose.  Further, I suspect that they carry more significance when they evolve organically.  Mostly, though, I like the idea that 30 years from now I might have a group of friends who have been keeping track of each other’s highs and lows for a handful of decades.

Frankie Say Relax

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

My laziness was an end in itself: to relax.

I’ve had stress on the brain a lot lately.*  (See posts here and here.)  Work has been crazy for the past few weeks.  The holidays are wonderful, but they don’t exactly create an abundance of spare time.  And various other aspects of daily life don’t suddenly evaporate just because work and holidays have made grand entrances.  I’ve been feeling the stress of it all pretty acutely these days, and not always doing a bang up job of managing it.  I could feel it in my upper back.  I could sense it in the hateful thoughts that silently passed through my mind when someone “stole” the elliptical machine I’d been planning to use at the gym.  I could hear it in my tone of voice when the dogs got underfoot.  Something needed to change.

In the past I believed that genuine, productive relaxation could only be mine once the final item on the day’s To-Do list was crossed off; that any attempts to unwind while chores and errands awaited me would always be undermined by the stress of things left undone.  And up until this past weekend that belief had proven true.  But something in me reached a breaking point.  That list, at least for now, is not getting any shorter.  For every item that I check off I add another one or two.  I could sense that this likely isn’t going to change until at least mid-January, and I wasn’t willing to go through the next four weeks feeling tense and acerbic.

On Saturday morning GAP did what he always does on the weekends – he told me to relax, and for the first time maybe ever, I did it.  He took IEP with him to the gym just as SSP went down for his morning nap.  And I, still jammie-clad, curled up under a blanket on the sofa and watched two Tivo’d episodes of Parenthood. Our fondue pot sat in the kitchen sink with cheese still scorched to the bottom of it from the prior night’s holiday party with my girlfriends.  Dog hair billowed around my baseboards.  The beds were left unmade.  And I successfully ignored all of it!  It was the best decision I’ve made in weeks.

By the end of two episodes of my show SSP was starting to wake up.  After the credits rolled I walked upstairs to collect him, feeling as refreshed as if I’d gone for a two-hour massage.  I felt relaxed.  I felt on top of things.  I felt HAPPY!  Starting the day with my batteries charged made it infinitely easier to face the items on my list.  SSP pitter-pattered around while I got dressed, made the bed, and tackled the fondue pot.  My other guys returned home as I was cheerily sweeping the baseboards.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.

I don’ t want to go back to the level of unreleased stress I felt prior to Saturday.  At some level, though, I’m glad that I found myself there once.  It triggered a change in me that I’m not sure I could have made otherwise.  It forced me to experience for myself that sometimes relaxation best preceeds productivity.  It smooths down our splintered edges.  It buoys us against choppy waters.  It fuels our tanks for the work that lies ahead.

As of Monday morning the sheets hadn’t been changed and the laundry hadn’t been done.  I had, however, gone out for pizza with my boys, taken a nap on the couch,  walked the dogs and gazed at Christmas lights, and  gone out to dinner with good friends and seen a movie with GAP.  In some way, it was absolutely the most valuable use of my time.

*Yes, I realize that thinking repeatedly about stress likely does nothing to lower my feelings of it.  I like to be ironic.

Learning to Wait

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

“Learn to wait.”

They are words my grandfather is famous for, though I most often heard them from my mother.  “You remember what Granddaddy always says, ‘Learn to wait,’” she would remind us.  In these instances waiting was almost certainly some brand of drudgery.  It was what we had to do on long car trips, in long amusement park ride lines, or in the lead-ups to birthdays or Christmas or the last day of school.  Waiting felt like paying dues – something we had to endure before we could make our way to whatever prize lay in the distance.

I thought about all of this as I listened to the sermon in church this past Sunday.  As many priests do this time of year she reminded us that Advent is a time of waiting.  She commented that for many of us the most commonplace forms of waiting – for tables at restaurants, for meetings to start, for a coffee date to arrive, etc., have recently been supplanted by the most commonplace form of mindless occupation – the smartphone.  I am not here to curse the evils of the iPhone, the digital camera, or the internet.  I believe that by and large they are all significant boons to modern life and that we are better off with them than we were without them.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that simple, undistracted waiting is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to many of us; so much so that I would guess most of us view it with the same intolerance that a five-year-old views the 30-ish days that clutter the path from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m here to turn that thinking on its head.  I say that waiting is a blessing.  I say that waiting is a gift.*

Esperar is the Spanish word for “to wait.”  It is also the Spanish word for “to hope.”  I’m sure I’m not the first person to wax philosphical about this coincidence.  That, however, makes it no less relevant here.  When we hope for something it is because we are facing an unknown.  We must then wait to discover whether or not our hope will come to be.  Does this mean then, that a life without waiting is a life without hope?  I don’t think so.  But I think that for the most part hope is implicit in waiting.  Waiting means expectation.  It means we are looking ahead to something.  It means we have something worth our excitement and anticipation.

This is true in my own life beyond the Christmas season.  We are in the middle of a very long wait in our adoption process.  Referral wait times for Korean placements are currently running ten months.  Every time someone asks me how the adoption process is going I shrug my shoulders and sigh.  “We’re still waiting.”  And yes, the waiting is hard.  But we have a child to wait for.  We are so lucky to be waiting; so lucky to know that at the end of these many months we will have another wonderful little boy in our family.

For adults, December is an easy time of year to view waiting with relief, since many of us have a hard enough time as it is getting everything done before footed pajamas scamper out of bed on Christmas morning.  But muttering to yourself, “Thank goodness I still have a week left before Christmas,” is not the same thing as embracing the wait.

Embracing the wait means that we reflect on what is coming.  We prepare ourselves for it.  Whether we are waiting for the Christ child or a Korean child, when we do it right we are better off for it.

————————————-

*I understand that there are exceptions to this.  Waiting for a loved one to come home from a military deployment.  Waiting for the results of a medical test.  This is not the kind of waiting I’m talking about.

Christmas Tree Karma

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

They gave us the wrong tree.

We picked out a tree that was about eight feet tall, very full, and needed a bit of pruning at the top.  When we got home the tree that we saw when we put it up was also about eight feet tall, but was very slim in silhouette, and not especially burdened by a profusion of branches.  (Read: a little on the scrawny side.)  GAP and I looked at each other and jointly decided to make our peace with this tree, mostly because loading it back atop ye olde SUV, carting it back to the tree lot, and having to pick out another tree all over again was really more than we could muster.  “It will look better when it’s trimmed,” we told ourselves.  And for the most part we were right.

This was not our first misadventure with this particular tree lot.  And, truth be told, we’ve had some bad tree karma coming our way for a while.  Frankly, I’m surprised it took nine years for it to make its way back to us.

In 2003 GAP and I were engaged.  He was living with a good friend (we’ll call him Matt) who was also in graduate school.  I was living alone a few miles away in an apartment that I would soon share with Matt’s fiance (we’ll call her Carrie).  The boys’ apartment was huge (and drafty…) with ten-foot ceilings that practically begged for a large tree.  We wanted something that would scrape the ceiling, but in the interest of pinching pennies (I was “underemployed” at the time, and the other three were all living off of student loans) we settled for an eight foot tree.

At the conclusion of our joint trip to the tree lot (run by the local Optimist Club, I should note) Carrie went into the little tent where the cashier’s desk resided.  She told the very cheerful and very old man that we had picked an eight foot tree.  He gave her the price and she wrote him a check.  It wasn’t until we were back at the apartment decorating said tree that we realized we’d ripped the sweet old man off.

“You know, I was really surprised at how cheap our tree was,” Carrie told us.

“Really?” we asked.  “How much was it?”

“Eight dollars and 64 cents,” she said.

“WHAT???”

“Yeah.  I was shocked too, but he asked how tall it was and when I told him eight feet he said, ‘eight-sixty-four.’”

At that point we all did the math and realized what the man meant was, “An eight-foot tree is sixty-four dollars.”  The Optimists, like most other lots charge by the foot.  At eight dollars a foot we had shorted him roughly $56 dollars.  We thought about going back and paying the difference.  Then we looked at our figuratively turned-out pockets and thought again.

In return for our inadvertent stunt we swore loyalty to the Optimists for all future tree purchases.  And we’ve never bought a tree from anyone else.  I think about this story every year.  (It is better if you know Carrie, who is truly one of the kindest and most honorable people I’ve ever known.)  And I thought about it again this year when I told the sweet, old man that we’d selected an eight-foot tree and he said, “Eight-seventy-six.”

I don’t really have a moral to this story.  It’s just a story that I like to tell.  It makes me feel some connection to an otherwise pretty generic tree lot.  And it makes me think of a wonderful time in our lives that we were fortunate to share with some very dear friends who have since moved out of state, and whom we miss very much.  When you get right down to it, I think that’s a lot of what Christmas is supposed to be.  Not so much the ripping off of charitable organizations headed up by senior citizens.  But acknowledgment of all the good in our lives, and fond memories of Christmases past.

Christmas is a happy time for us.  And we are very lucky that it is.