Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Does Rita Wilson Overact? It's Complicated

I saw It's Complicated yesterday. I laughed myself to tears and enjoyed every minute of it. The setting, dialogue, familial structure, social milieu -- they all had a ring of truth and familiarity about them that made seeing into the emotional complexity of the story a more profound experience than I had expected from what was billed as a light romantic comedy. I'm still thinking about feelings that came up for me while watching this movie, but I'll write about those another time.

Today I have a question that truly perplexed me: why does Rita Wilson overact?

In this movie, she plays one of Jane's (Meryl Streep's character) three friends, with Mary Kay Place and Alexandra Wentworth. They represent us in the movie: it is to the three of them that Jane confesses to having begun an adulterous relationship with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). Two of the three, Mary Kay and Alexandra, respond with subtlety. They both appear a little surprised, a little confused, even a little incredulous; they want to know more about the situation and all the details that led up to such a possibility's even having presented itself. They want to know how Jane feels about it, what she's going to do next. They hold her up with their good will. Yes, of course they have lives of their own. But right now those lives are offstage. This conversation is about Jane.

These are Jane's friends. They know her. We sense that they have witnessed her growth during the past ten post-divorce years, and while they are curious about what is going on between Jane and Jake, they also appear concerned about her, protective of her, unwilling to stand by and watch if she is at the point of sliding backwards into something that hurt her terribly in the past. You get the feeling that if Jane goes off track too much, these women will support her and help her find her way back.

Rita Wilson is another story altogether. Her character gets the news at the same time as the other two women. Instead of trying to take it in the way they do, however, she fairly bounds up from where she is seated on the sofa and exudes a glee for details that to me demonstrate more interest in salacious considerations than the heartfelt concern the other two women demonstrate for their friend's well-being. This is not friendly enthusiasm. It's bad acting.

That's not all. Rita has a few more lines. She delivers each with the fervor of a chorus line dancer determined to stand out from the crowd, who, in placing her personal goals over the success of the group, ruins everything. It's as if a member of the Greek Chorus in a classical play were to step out toward the audience and mug a particularly pained response to lines being delivered by the main character. What???

I asked myself why I was so annoyed by Rita Wilson's performance. First, I thought, maybe no one has the courage to criticize her acting; she wields power as a producer, and her husband (Tom Hanks) is a powerful player in town. Second, it is probably safe to say, simply, that if she knew any better, she'd be a better actress. But still, there was something nagging at the back of my mind that couldn't be explained by Hollywood. This morning when I awoke I realized what it was.

Rita Wilson's performance annoyed me because she reminded me of the person who makes your problems all about her. You break your leg: she tells you about the time she broke her leg. You get a divorce: she compares every step with what she went through during hers. Your daughter is getting married: she tells you about all the details involved in planning her daughter's wedding.

You feel as if your role with a person like this is Topic Chooser.

You leave such a conversation, if that's what it is, feeling slightly less well than you did before. You also feel the nonverbal message was It's no big deal; get over it. Lots of times, it may well really be no big deal, but that doesn't mean you didn't want to talk about it, explore it, just to be certain it was, in fact, just as you suspected, no big deal. You don't bring up something personal just to have someone else short circuit your process.

And you certainly don't bring it up as an oratorial platform for her.

I don't know what you do with someone like Rita Wilson if you're directing the movie. I do know, however, what I do in my personal life when I encounter someone like her; or, more accurately, I know what I don't do.

I don't invite her over for a glass of wine when I'm seeking compassion and feedback from friends during a transition in my life.

For times like that, only the best friends will do.

Photograph: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated, courtesy of Universal Pictures

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My First Crush

My first crush wasn't a star from the movies or television. And he didn't sit across from me in homeroom.

My first crush was Ludwig van Beethoven. I even had the sweatshirt to prove it.

Something in his work resonated within me well before I had the sense or sensibilities to understand such dynamics, and certainly well before I had the words to describe it. I knew it when I felt it, however, and through my fingers at the piano the circuit was completed: I played with the passion of a child on fire, my heart set on Julliard and the concert stage. It was a calling so intensely present in me that I didn’t even say it out loud. I had no need to say it. I was it.

Then I moved on to college. As an undergraduate in marine biology, I also studied German, and as one thing led to another, as it does in the labyrinth of our university days, I decided to spend my junior year in Vienna, Austria.

There were many reasons for this, not the least among them being the intense love I had developed for the work of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who would come to serve as guide for me during the rages of late adolescence and remain on duty to this day.

Vienna was also the city of residence for such luminaries as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Sigmund Freud—and Beethoven. These attributes overpowered the very real problem that Austria, being a land-locked country, was not a hot spot for marine biology. I switched majors.

As a result, I had the life-changing opportunity to live daily with the music I loved—concerts, the opera, in the theater, in the churches. It was nerd bliss.

So this morning, as I sit at my computer trying to weave together the strands of a paper for one of my classes, who drops in for a visit? LvB himself in the form of the Adagio Cantabile of his 8th piano sonata, which we call The Pathetique.

My fingers fall from the computer’s keyboard and onto the keys of the imaginary piano on my tabletop. I close my eyes.

The theme captivates. It draws me into its beauty the way a lark’s call alerts us to her presence. It is at first a naked line, hanging in the air single note by single note, a linear progression across the scales, which, on the piano, lie at the command of the right hand.

We move forward in enchantment. For a few moments I am transported to the place where beauty lives.

Then the melody stops. The notes of the left hand come into the fore. They assert several changes in direction, subtle but unmistakable, as we range through several key shifts. This moves back from dominance as the melody line reasserts itself. This is when I realize that it is because of the gentle support offered by the lower notes that the melody line is able to continue its path. Because it is grounded in a nest. Because it is echoed, supported, and then even challenged from its depths through the key changes. The supple melody persists and thrives.

The pace quickens. I hear the base notes intensify as they reflect the shape of the melody line, and, perhaps more profoundly, offer it an inverse reflection, asking the melody to look at the other side, to hold in awareness the full range of possibility for expression.

The main melody is restated, only stronger this time, with less the quality of a moonlit rosebud and more the presence of a blossom opening in the morning sun.

I think, Well, that’s a pretty picture. I like the symmetry. Oh, that Beethoven! I fall in love once more, just as I do every time I listen to his music. The tension, the Sturm und Drang, ultimately settles in a dynamic balance of energy expenditures and rest. Beethoven demonstrates for us that peace is not an endpoint. It is a symmetrical mean, and it moves as the music changes. So does it move throughout our lives.

I ask myself, What is it that supports us the way the left hand supports the right in this sonata? What is our left hand, and what is it doing?

I believe this is the knowing self. It is the self of all our experiences from youth to this moment, the frame we erect for our lives, the very structure in which we live our days. The extent to which it is comfortable depends on the degree of conscientiousness we use while we are building it. We can only soar to the heights supported by the foundation we set down, and this foundation building is a personal job undertaken in the quiet of the interior self.

I might point out here that the Adagio Cantabile is the second movement of Sonata #8, and that it follows the tempestuous Grave first movement. Beethoven seems to have known that we are all so serious when we are young. Humor and light are the prizes that come with enduring the first movement of our own lives.

If you think past divisive discussions of left brain and right brain, and move toward a holistic model that includes the transportation of information and feelings across all parts of the brain at once (indeed, all parts of the body, but we can discuss that in another post), then you can sense the fibrous underpinnings we build day by day, moment by moment, that become our lives.

Here’s the gift I received today as the piece came to a close, and I offer it to you for consideration. Next time you listen to the Adagio Cantabile, listen to the way the last few bars slip into the center from both directions, and then meet at the point on the keyboard where the ranges of both the right and left hand converge.

Let us all rest in that point of energetic tension. We can soar to the extent that we are grounded, and once again return to the balance of a peaceful heart.

And by the way, Beethoven will always sit enthroned in my life. You know how it is with first loves.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year--Well, It Could Be

What a wise grandmother might be able to do to help her grandchildren get through a dysfunctional Christmas...

Imagine a household on Christmas Day. The fire burns brightly and lights twinkle on the tree. Everyone is dressed nicely, cashmere and pearls, slacks and argyles. Adults drink champagne as they prepare the meal and watch the game. Then someone does something someone else doesn’t like. The sniping begins, quiet and measured at first, until all hell breaks loose. The children are hushed up, sent off to play, turned outside.

More alcohol flows. Now the adults sit purposefully with their backs to one another in a classic pose: “Did you see what she did to me/hear what she said to me? I’m ignoring her. She doesn’t exist.” They say things to each other that are so mean a child would be sent to detention for less. Worse, they say things about each other, behind each other’s backs.

And the children sit by and watch.

They can’t stop the chaos. They can’t drive away and go somewhere else. They are stuck. They are one big throbbing ache as It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year plays menacingly in the background of this cruel family ritual called Christmas. Their memories of this day will be a mélange of anxiety, grief, embarrassment, anger, hurt—but right now, they don’t even have the words to use to tell themselves what they think or feel. They go numb. It’s what they always do to get by.

Then Grandma arrives.

She just missed the latest spate of name-calling and finger-pointing, but she can feel the tension that still hangs in the air well after she has removed her coat and set her pumpkin pies on the counter in the kitchen.

Grandma has choices.

She can pretend she doesn’t notice. The advantages here lie in the fact that it is a pretty safe bet that as long as she is present, things will not explode again. Once she leaves, she can only imagine the chaos that will re-enter the household, but for now, at least, a semblance of peace will prevail.

She can say something to her daughter or her son. And what might she say? And is this the time, Christmas Day, to be bringing up such an enormous issue? Wouldn’t things only escalate? Wouldn’t she just be drawing the battle lines?

Or, she can resolve to bring this up later, another day, after the flames have died down and the embers have temporarily cooled once again.

Meanwhile, there is something she can do right now, today, that might be the most important gift she could ever give: she can offer herself to her grandchildren. I don’t mean she should sit them down and have a heart-to-heart. The kids don’t want to talk about it when they’re in the middle of the worst day of their young lives. What they do need is a sense that somewhere in this chaos there is a loving adult who recognizes their presence in their otherwise thankless existence at the periphery of the adult drama ratcheting up around them.

Tell them, one by one, privately, how much you love them. Ask them about their lives. Listen to what they say, and ask them questions related to things they bring up, not to things you’d like to talk about. Make your presence all about them. This is the loving support they don’t have when they are growing up in chaos.

By doing this, you are holding up a mirror to your grandchildren, and in this mirror they see that the ground is not moving, that they are solid and real, and that they matter, or you wouldn’t be sitting there.

It’s not much, perhaps, but it’s a start. You may not be able to stop the war, but you can protect the innocent from being trampled to death by blinded warriors.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Coming in from the Cold

In a support group for co-occurring disorders, I listened to a client (clean this time for 14 days) articulate his reasons for being grateful that he has just moved into permanent clean and sober housing. Until this, he had been on the street for three years.

He said, It’s getting cold out now, and I’m tired.

It was such a simple statement.

Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes, because I realized his words are probably true for all of us, in one way or another. There may be a part of our lives—sometimes well hidden from others--where discomfort or discontent, confusion or pain, has nagged at us for so long that we could also say, It’s getting cold out now, and I’m tired. We may not all be trying to put down crack, but most of us are trying to put down something in our lives that we realize is causing us grief.

Where do we go with the unsettling realization that our version of reality is not doing us any favors, and that we need to make changes?

This client is making choices minute by minute to set aside a multi-year crack habit. He knows how many times he has tried to do this in the past. He knows how often he has relapsed. But his will to overcome his habit is now driven by a new set of emotions. He feels tired, and he feels he is living on the slippery boundary between the things he can control and the things he cannot. He is beginning to sense the wisdom that allows him to know the difference. This is where God lives in him. The scales are tipping in favor of his staying clean. His reasons to quit are coming from within.

The support this client gets at the mental health clinic has helped him reach the point of being able to respect and value his own mental health. Now he is moving into self-reliance as he realizes he can provide himself respite from being cold and tired, by staying clean and beginning to look for part-time employment, while continuing to take advantages of services at the clinic.

He may not succeed in these goals all at once. But he has cleared a significant hurdle in realizing that he feels his need to come inside and get warm by the light of the spirit. This is not a man attempting to follow someone else’s rules or suggestions: this is a man acting from felt need, who is starting to regain control of his own life.

I plan to talk to this client after the meeting this morning to see if he would like to make an appointment to explore these new strengths he is demonstrating.

Where do you see signs of newly emerging strength in your life?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Memo to Your Inner Spendthrift

I love Mad Men: the show provides an object lesson in the complete lack of concern for consumers that defines the advertising industry. It is, as they tell us themselves, where the truth lies.

Advertising is a business designed to do two things: 1) tell us we are imperfect, 2) sell us whatever we need to improve ourselves. Advertising’s mantra is create a need and fill it, whereas most other businesses operate to find a need and fill it.

When I figured this out as a youngster, I felt as if I had just discovered that the emperor had no clothes. I could not understand how adults could be persuaded by advertising. It was the same to me as letting someone else tell me what I want and what I need. Why would a sane person do that? Didn’t people know their own wants and needs?

Advertising is persuasive because it is seductive. Seduction is only effective when there is an imbalance of power. Look at the social constructs that underlie the interpersonal dynamics in Mad Men: the women are subservient, more decorative than useful, not to be brought in when serious matters are under discussion. They may as well have a target on their foreheads that says: tell me what to do to please you; tell me what to buy.

When we abdicate to the dictates of advertising, we give advertisers all the power they need to walk all over us, and we leave none of it for ourselves. No wonder we line up like sheep to buy expensive handbags, and shoes that would encumber us if we tried to run to safety from a burning building. Those are stupid shoes! They're not designed with your best interests at heart. Why do women buy them?

Look in any fashion magazine on the stands right now. Flip through until you find a pair of 7” heels with 3” platform soles and enough straps to bind a martyr to a stake. Can you honestly say those shoes were created with women in mind? No! And any woman who wears them is that martyr! Maybe they were designed for men who frequent what they alone like to call gentlemen’s clubs.

Close your eyes. From all the gratuitous scenes you’ve see on screen that involve poles and sequins, imagine the inside of one of these clubs. Smell the smoke. Smell the whiskey. Look around at the faces of the men as they watch the women on the poles. These gentlemen would like you to wear those shoes.

I have never purchased a pair of FMs.

However, I have overspent on a handbag or two over the years. I have more shoes than I need, and I have enough cashmere sweaters to outfit the senior class for portrait day. Even a vigilant stance in the face of advertising tsunamis is not foolproof: my own personal fool can still occasionally emerge and overspend.

It's easy enough to lose resources due to market downturns without adding to the crisis through your own irrational spending. It is true that the older we get, the less we need to buy, anyway. Most of us already have at least one storage unit. Some of us have many more. Just think: all that stuff (that now has its own rent bill and zip code) was accumulated transaction by transaction, cash register by cash register, signature by signature.

Then you had to bring it home. Unwrap it. Deal with the wrapping. Hang it up/put it on shelf/squeeze it into a drawer. And then—and this may be the biggest challenge of all—then you had to remember that you had it and where you put it so you could actually wear it/use it/carry it before it was completely out of style.

At some point, you put it into storage because you paid a lot of money for it, it is in excellent condition since you never used it, and it’s just too good to give away. So by paying to store it indefinitely, you have, in essence, never stopped paying for something you don’t even use. I have not said need. We all know need has nothing to do with it.

We have been duped by our advertising-trained spendthrift once again. We ought to put her in storage with all the rest of that stuff that may as well be flashing GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! because that’s what it brings up in you when you give this entire cycle any thought—which you try not to do.

This is a little like telling an alcoholic she wouldn't be an alcoholic if she'd just stop drinking. The key word is irrational, and I believe that's why shopping issues are so explosive for so many women. Somehow money, possessions, and status are all wrapped up in a sense of entitlement for many women, and this is a dangerous combination. Caveat emptor, indeed: the dollar you save will be your own.

So-called Self Storage (it is difficult for me not to read this term literally and wonder just what’s inside some of those units) operations have proliferated across our country like golf balls on a driving range. It is possible that together we can work to put them all out of business!

This brings me to two questions:

What will your children do with all the stuff you’ve squirreled away in your storage units once you’re no longer here?

How many handbags will fit in a casket, anyway?

And notice that you don’t see national advertising from casket companies—no prime time slickness, no half-time sponsorship. Why might that be? Is it because we all know better than to buy a casket we don’t need?

Photography: Mad Men, AMC

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hurt and Choice: What Viktor Frankl Knew

When something goes awry, we have two obvious ways of viewing the circumstances in order to make sense of them.

Here is an exaggerated example to make the point: Let's say you promised your sister that if you win the lottery, you will write her a check for $100,000. Then, let's say you did not win the lottery. How would you feel if your sister told you and anyone with ears that you owe her $100,000, and that you refused to honor your word, which was nothing more than a cruel lie?"

You might say, "That's not fair!"

If so, ask yourself, "What is it that is not fair?"

Your answer might be: what my sister did to me--what she said about me--is not fair.

In this way, you can give voice to your perception that an injustice has been done. Your sister did something that hurt you, and you think about it in terms of fairness.

It is a very likely in this case that you will also think in terms of a perpetrator and a victim. To boil it down further, you feel that your sister has done something to you and that you are the victim of her behavior: she has twisted your good intention into a promise, which she claims you failed to honor. She is not being fair to you.

In other words, you react to this injustice by declaring yourself the victim. You stand accused of something you did not do. Not fair.

But another reaction to the same situation could be, "This is wrong."

Ask yourself, "What is it that is wrong?"

Your answer: The way my sister treated me--what she said about me--is wrong.

The situation shifts. The focus is no longer on you as the victim of someone else's bad behavior. It is now on the idea that your sister made a decision that is wrong. Her analysis of the facts is incorrect. She made a mistake.

The fact is that mistakes like this probably make her feel miserable. Remember that only a miserable person would feel a need to do something like what she did to you in the first place. No one misconstrues the truth like that out of happiness and contentment.

I'm not suggesting that you rush to embrace your unfortunate sister for her weak discernment skills. To the contrary, I believe that her choices create her life, and that her life is probably full of things she has created which she now trips over regularly. Which are not your responsibility.

The point I am trying to make is that your sister's behavior is not about you unless you choose to make it about you. You may choose to see her lie about the lottery money as a misguided departure from the truth, or you may choose to see it as something mean she has done to you.

You choose to see the incident as being unfair or wrong.

Of course, the incident described above is both: it is unfair and it is wrong. But if you choose to see it only as unfair, you are likely choosing the role of victim for yourself, a role that is not inherent in the facts of the case.

I bring this up because I see it as a way to set yourself free. Allow the choices someone else makes to reflect on her, and believe that the consequences of her choices pave the path of her life. In this way you can see that you are not part of the equation: you do not have to accept her wrong view of something just because she wants you to accept it.

This is your choice, and the same applies to you as to your sister: your choices pave the path of your life. Why litter it with misconceptions about the behavior of others, litter that can trip you and make you feel like a victim, powerless to change anything or move forward until justice is done? Victims are stuck. You don't want to be stuck, do you?

Something can be both unfair and wrong, and it can affect you deeply, but it doesn't have the power to mandate your response. That response is yours to choose.

Viktor Frankl survived life in concentration camps because he knew his dignity rested in his choice of how he would interpret the world as it caved in around him.

Choice is our greatest gift, and even our smallest decisions are important in making us who we are.

Photography: Clarice Cliff Winding Path,

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Panchromaticism--if It Isn't a Word, It Should Be

What is your favorite color?

Did you have to think before answering?

I'm not questioning your memory. I bring up the subject of your favorite color because I suspect it has changed over your life; therefore, you may have to think about the question for a minute and actually make a decision in order to give an answer, because it is possible you're not sure right now.

Twenty years ago, I would have said yellow without a second thought. Now I think of my old stand-by yellow first, but then I wonder whether I might prefer that burnt orange some pumpkins turn when they've been outside through a frost, or maybe the pure cobalt of the sky at certain times of year…or the clear aqua of tropical waters over crystalline white sand. But wait--fuchsia! I just love fuchsia, I realize. I find it dazzling in dupioni silk nestled next to crimson.

So I say…what? Yellow, as usual? Or Oh, I don't know, I like them all (a lie--I can't bear silly putty pink).

Maybe the answer depends on the application. My favorite color for clothing? In that case, because I have green eyes, I'd say olive green is my favorite color because I wear it well.

Or in my garden? Well, there I'd have to answer that it really depends, because I can’t get enough of the blue of iris germanica, but I also love that orange-red of Bishop of Llandaff dahlias (but only when it sits atop the bronzy burgundy foliage of that particular plant, because it's really the combination of the two that I like). On the other hand, I might have to admit that staring into the greenish-yellow of coreopsis verticulata Moonbeam, which I used to love, now gives me the same twitchy sensation I imagine I’d get by sucking on a yellow pepper--but I love that golden color of giant sunflowers and certain calendulas.

What about favorite colors for my home? I like to be surrounded by the deep colors in the Persian rug on the floor in my living room (I took my first steps on that rug)--and oxblood Chinese porcelain and taupe walls with crisp white woodwork set it off perfectly.

This is a more complicated question than I originally thought. Must I really choose?

I now see that there is no longer such thing as my favorite color. I like different colors for different things at different times--and in different places.

Is it possible this panchromatic answer is a reflection of broader tolerance I've developed through living a little bit longer than I had when yellow was my immediate response to the question?

It seems that the older I get, the more I realize that there really is a time and a place for everything. Even silly putty pink has its place, I reluctantly admit: it is the perfect color for silly putty. And yes on the Moonbeam, too.

What is your favorite color?

It this a tricky question these days for you, too?

Photography: Coreopsis verticulata Moonbeam,; iris germanica,

Sunday, September 27, 2009

How to Turn an Old Story into a New Story

It all depends on how you look at it.

How many times have you said this to someone? It's one of those throw-away conversational elements that usually serves as a segue into expressing your own opinion about whatever is being discussed.

And what about when someone says it to you? What feelings does your body register when you hear those words?

My bet is that somewhere--and probably around the area of your solar plexus--you feel a tightening. A slight but perceptible tingling sensation spreads outward from there, and every little wavelength carries this message to your brain: I already know how I look at it. You're welcome to your opinion, but you're not going to change mine.

Think of Babe, the little pig, and her la la la singing voice--that's what your brain is doing to new information once you have made up your mind. You're not going to tell Babe to stop singing--you're too polite to do that. But you're certainly not going to listen. Your fingers are in your ears--la la la.

There is something in the world of counseling called narrative therapy. One of its assumptions is that the person isn't the problem: the problem is the problem. Narrative therapy suggests that this problem can be identified in the story a person tells about her life as much from the way she tells it as from the story itself.

Therefore, the theory goes, it is possible to address the problem by re-writing the story of your life to create a richer, more complex narrative that broadens and enriches your sense of self. In this manner, you build a larger context, a stronger foundation, for the memory you find problematic. You gather more information about yourself, which leads to more clear understanding.

What does this mean? It means that it--your life--really does depend on how you look at it.

I am not talking about retroactively assigning motives to someone who injured you in the past. Nor am I suggesting you redefine the emotional response you had when something happened to you. In fact, to the contrary.

If, for example, you feel overwrought because someone has taken advantage of you, your story to yourself might go something like this:

I have given her everything she has ever asked me for; I've helped her before she even knew she needed help, with my time, my money, my (fill in the blank)--and now instead of thanking me, she's angry at me because this time I won't give her (fill in the blank). I am generous by nature, but it hurts me when she tries to dictate the terms of my generosity: and now when I won't give her what she wants when she wants it, she gets angry at me. After everything I've done for her. I feel stupid. She's been taking advantage of me all these years and I didn't even see it.

You lick your wounds. You question your motivation: was I really just trying to help? Did I have ulterior motives? Was there a little bit of schadenfreude involved that made me feel happy about her pain and my ability to be generous in her time of need? Am I a big fat phony? Is she calling me on my own self-deception?

This is where you can stop the cycle. This is where it depends on how you look at it.

You can see that while you did give and give and give, you did it out of your desire to be helpful. Your desire to be helpful is good; however, you may have acted on it in the past with a limited understanding of how to take care of your own needs at the time. You may have thought that you were obligated to be generous in order to be a good person. You may have felt responsible to help because you always helped in the past, so how could you stop now? Or--did you feel guilty because you had so much more than the person you were trying to help?

You can continue to ask yourself questions about a past behavior in this manner. At some point, you will come to see that there is a more complex story line around the topic than the one you are accustomed to telling yourself. Am I a phony? becomes How can I continue to be generous without hurting myself?

You can, in other words, investigate an incident in your own past the way a good investigative reporter sinks her teeth into a story: follow all leads, don't make assumptions, don't draw conclusions until you have enough evidence to do so.

This can mean looking at your own memories. It can mean going back to your old journals. It can mean asking friends or family members to tell you their memories around an event. Whatever you can do to expand your understanding of something (without putting yourself at risk for further pain--I'm not sure I'd start this process by going to the person directly involved in the memory you're trying to come to terms with) is going to help you weave a larger piece of cloth in which your memories can be embedded. You can come to see that everything you have done in your life was related to everything around it; you can bring that new awareness of interconnectedness into your life today.

You can write a more complex narrative. You can tell yourself a new story about your life, a story that helps you grow in wisdom and compassion, away from self-blame and hostility toward others.

It all depends on how you look at it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Postmodernism and the Human Heart

There is something called the all-purpose saddle. The sides, called flaps, of the saddle do not go straight down to accommodate the elegant, nearly straight leg of the dressage rider; nor do they extend far enough forward to accommodate the bent knees of a rider who takes her horses over jumps. Instead, the flaps of an all-purpose saddle land somewhere in the middle, neither too far forward nor too straight. (The black saddle is a Passier dressage saddle; the brown, a Stuebben jumping saddle. Comparing the two, you can imagine what an all-purpose saddle looks like.)

Sitting an all-purpose saddle is actually a hindrance to equestrians of all disciplines. A dressage rider cannot extend her leg and drop her heel correctly; a jumper cannot place her knee forward enough to maintain her two-point balance. Most riders think an all-purpose saddle is a saddle that is good for nothing, for the simple reason that it tries to be all things to all people.

It may as well be called the postmodern saddle, because it pretends there is no validity to the question: is there a right way to do something? It pretends that whatever you want to think is fine, and that perspectives are equally valuable, and that the question of definition is supercilious: who is to say what riding dressage or going over a jump actually is, anyway? Are you implying that your way of viewing reality is superior to my way of viewing reality? is the unspoken question to anyone who states a preference. It allows a person who believes in the all-purpose saddle to hold her head up high. This is very different, however, from actually riding a horse.

How is this way of thinking an improvement over the contentious pondering done by early theologians in their debates about how many angels could sit atop the head of a pin? Postmodernism is a flurry of focused thought, but it is not taking place in the classroom of life where actual learning occurs. It is a diversion, off the point, an extra-credit hobby class that mistakes itself for core curriculum.

Still, we seem collectively to agree today that the correct perspective on existence is the postmodern point of view that includes infinite variability. Our zeitgeist is postmodern. We believe that time moves in one direction, and that what comes later is better than what came before. Postmodernism, therefore, is better than, say, The Enlightenment, as if to say history truly were an every-widening gyre, like the flight of the falcon in search of her prey (images extracted from the work of W. B. Yeats).

But which is better for the falcon: to seek the prey, which comes first, or catch the prey, which comes later? Put that way, it's easy to see how senseless the question is. So why do we assume that on the path of our development, postmodernism is better than any other historical perspective on human existence? It's just the philosophical version of the all-purpose saddle: the fact that someone invented it doesn't make it worthwhile. The fact that it came later doesn't make it better.

All points of view may be equally valid in that everyone has a right to think whatever she thinks. But that's where postmodernism has to stop. In our personal lives, we must choose what we believe, where we will put our energy and our faith. We must stand for something, not everything. We declare what is valuable to us and what is not. There is no such thing as an all-purpose belief.

A friend of mine died unexpectedly last weekend. He was here, he was healthy, and now he is gone. If he could come back for one hour, do you think he would go to his desk, pull out all his files, and rush in a fever against the ticking clock to be certain all his facts were straight, that his arguments were persuasive, that his points were clear and inarguable? That everyone would be impressed by everything he ever did?

Or would he sit with his beloved wife in the garden, holding her hand?

Eventually we will come to our senses, and all-purpose/no-purpose postmodernism will blow away to reveal once again the human heart that beats in us all.

Postscript: If you ride with an all-purpose saddle, please understand I am not sitting in judgment. The metaphor of the all-purpose saddle in this essay is based in my own personal experience of riding dressage.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

RIP: Chris McCarthy, 1952-2009

I woke up this morning to the news of the death of an old friend.

I bow my head.

My feelings don't translate to thought. They rush to fill every crevice, like a flash flood in a canyon. Until the surge passes, nothing matters but the tormented rush of water in its most powerful, most insistent form.

The canyon will re-emerge in time. Battered, it will need a season to refurbish. Flora and fauna will appear. To those who have never seen it before, it will look, simply, like a canyon.

But it is changed. Those who know the transformed canyon know this because they hold in their memories the time before the flood, and they see the tracings it left behind.

And now they sit in mindfulness, present to any moment under the sun when there is new growth and the flutter of birds. They know another flood will come another time to reshape the canyon once more, and then again, until floods and rain and wind eventually blow it to dust, and the dust becomes part of something else, and the cycle is renewed.

This is my moment to remember Chris McCarthy. Chris is the name of the flood now scouring the canyon walls.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For My Father, Who Would Have Been 87 Today

People say of someone who is no longer here: not a day goes by that I don't think of him. It's a way to express love, to say you think about a person every day. I don't say that about my father.
It doesn't capture how much I miss him.

Standard-issue words won't hold the thoughts and feelings in my life that relate to my father, my mentor, my first best friend.

I can't separate us. Not only does my love of the natural world, and gardening in particular, connect us, but within that, our preferences, predilections, aesthetics. The spicy green scent of crushed geranium is home to me no matter where I encounter it (pelargoniums, we now know, but in those days we called them geraniums). I am once again my father's Sidekick (for such was my nickname) in the San Francisco Bay Area, where anything is possible at any moment.

One of my father's geraniums got away from him. In a herculean spurt brought on by the most perfect confluence of soil, light and water, this particular plant reached a diameter at its trunk (imagine a pelargonium with a trunk!) that was so thick my father could not get his hands around it, and mine fit around it the way your ears fit around your head. It was taller than I was, and I was just about right for a girl in the first grade.

Then there was the fire in the bamboo grove. Dad built a clay and stone fire pit into the side of an embankment which he outfitted with a grill. We didn't just barbecue. We cooked outside, and somehow dad's grill made it all a big adventure.

One day sparks escaped and lit the dry interior leaves of the bamboo he had recently brought home and planted ("Bamboo is actually a large grass," he explained. "Who do you think has to mow it?" I asked. "Maybe Paul Bunyan," he suggested,"and if the grass is this tall, how big do you think the ants might be?"). Flames erupted immediately in the bamboo tinder.

In an instant, we were no longer cooking outdoors. We were firemen! The hose! The buckets! Keep the little ones away! We did it. We overcame the blaze. The bamboo lived to sprawl indefinitely, and it would have overtaken the entire garden if it had not been surgically removed several years later.

He brought me many things: cotton bolls from a field in Mississippi; candy that looked just like rocks from Las Vegas; Sequoia sempervirens pinecones that were over a foot long from the mighty Redwood Forest. The best thing he ever presented to me was the Indian washing rock.

It was round, somewhat flattened, and it sparkled slightly with the mica inclusions you see in California granite. This particular rock had rumbled through riverbanks for millenia: it was perfectly smooth on every surface, and perfectly symmetrical.

How did I know it was an Indian washing rock? Easy. From all our visits to the Spanish missions that dot California, we knew many little facts about the native populations whose land we lived upon. We knew what they ate. How they diapered their babies (shredded bark and cattails). How they sewed their garments with sinews. We also knew how they washed those garments: crouched by the edge of the river, with the clothing submerged, women pounded and pounded with round river rocks until the garments were clean.

There are many tons of river rocks in California that could serve this purpose. Any one of them, now discarded, could have been brought into service at one point or another and later forgotten until my father found it.

But he found this particular rock because it had a red and blue Indian design on it. What good fortune! And he brought it home to me.

I was overwhelmed to have an actual artifact in my hands. Immediately, I wanted to share my excitement by bringing it to school on Monday.

"Well," my father said, "it might be a better idea to keep it here and protect it--respect it. What if you brought it to school and something happened to it?"

"Something like what?" I asked.

"Peanut butter and jelly might take the design right off the rock, for one thing," he said. "Also, someone could drop it."

"Oh," I said, disappointed but convinced by his wisdom. "Let's leave it at home." That dropping a rock might hurt it seemed logical the way he said it.

So instead of bringing the rock to school, I worked with dad to build a felt-lined exhibition box for it, and we put it on a bookshelf where we could see it without having to touch it any more than necessary. That rock was my most important thing.

Gradually, with other treasures of childhood, the rock was forgotten. I grew up and realized that one afternoon my dad had probably stopped by a river that appealed to him (trout spotting from the riverbank in his Brooks Brothers suit?) and then came upon this perfectly shaped specimen. He couldn't resist picking it up. Looks like something Indian women might have used to wash their clothes. I know what I'll do...

One rounded river rock. One red and blue editing pencil. One extraordinarily imaginative and loving father. Those were the three ingredients that went into the creation of my best thing.

My rock is right here beside me as I write this morning. The image has faded but it remains visible. I can feel his energy and see the bold, artistic strokes my father made with his pencil in his hand.

The rock still radiates the sun as it shone on that California riverbank one day so long ago, when the mica glinted and caught the eye of a young father who had stopped his car to breathe in the beauty of the natural world. Then he picked up that rock and thought of his daughter, and he knew what she would like, so he brought into this world the touchstone she holds precious to this day.

It's your birthday, Dad, the first day of Autumn. It's sunny here in Seattle. But you're right--if I look closely, I can see that the sun's rays are cast at a lower angle than they were earlier in the summer. In the morning, I can smell the coming of fall now in the damp air. Please tell me one more time: how many hazel nuts can a squirrel put in her mouth? Is it a million or a billion?

Photography: Pelargonium,; Giant Bamboo, Scotteaux, 8 January 2008.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Golf and a Haircut

I had coffee with a friend and classmate this morning and the subject of golf came up. This was not because either of us golfs with any regularity, but because we were talking about hairdressers.

We discovered an interesting connection.

As any woman will tell you, her hairdresser must, first and foremost, be skilled at cutting/coloring hair, and doing so in a way that is individually tailored to face shape, hair texture and color, age, career and life considerations--the list of requirements is long.

Once these criteria are met, usually after several less than perfect experiences (it is sometimes a merciful quality of hair that it grows as fast as it does), the next level of operations comes into play. As soon as you feel assured that your hairdresser (let's say it's a woman, though it could also be a man) can do what you want and like with your hair, you no longer even think about it. In fact, you take her skill for granted.

But here's the key that unlocks the mystery many men see in the relationship between a woman and her hairdresser: the hairdresser's main role is confidant. I'm sure there's something I wouldn't discuss with my hairdresser, but at the moment I can't think of what it might be.

This role derives from one simple fact: if she has been helping women with their hair for any length of time, she has heard just about everything at least once. She has seen reactions, she has seen success, and she has seen failure. She knows happiness and grief; generosity and envy; kindness and nastiness; and every other polarity--as well as the range between them--that you can imagine.

It is unlikely you will bring a completely new story to an experienced hairdresser. The details will be different; the timing and consequences may be unique. But she already holds the basket into which you can set your fruit. She can therefore give you more comfort and better advice than just about anyone else. And she offers you an ear--bless her, she's captive as she's working on your hair.

Obviously, we need our therapists and our pastors and our friends. Very few of us can stand alone and face life's vicissitudes without help from others. But over and above that, when you really need to try out new ideas about who you are, or what you want, or what you might do, your hairdresser is your go-to person.

How does this relate to golf?

When my grandfather had to give up the game at 96 because he was losing his peripheral vision, he was understandably upset. He had been at it since the age of 16--in other words, he had been golfing for 80 years.

"Grandpa," I said, "you must be a fine golfer."

My grandfather shook his head gently. "No," he said. "I'm a very average golfer."

He must have seen the incredulity I was trying to hide.

"It has never been about the golf," he said. "It has always been about the company. Outside in all kinds of weather with three buddies week after week, year after year--that's what I'll miss." He let a great sigh escape. "Those fellows kept me sane."

And that's the connection: women have their hairdressers and men have their golf buddies (though I know there are also men with hairdressers and women who golf).

If I had asked my grandfather a direct question about the therapeutic value of golf, he might not have admitted it. He was from a generation that considered therapy with the same enthusiasm as they relished insanity. But when he told me what he would miss the most about golf, the therapeutic value of his game was clear to both of us.

There are two sacred dates on our calendars: hair appointments and tee times. Is it any mystery why most of us will juggle just about everything else in order to be there on time?

Photography: Drops of water, Staffan Enborn, Finland, July 10, 2004;; I can't remember where I got the hairdresser photo but if it is yours, please let me know and I'll credit you or remove it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Finding Peace in the Autumn Garden

It is possible to see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour, as William Blake suggests. We can invert the vast and concentrate on the small, though it takes effort to do so in this noisy world.

It becomes easier as days shorten and the sun's rays fall lower on the horizon: autumn in the garden is a quieter time, the time when small things come to the foreground.

There are extraordinary events taking place in your own garden right this minute. The spider's web drips with early morning dew and awaits the stumbling flight of an insect losing body heat as the days turn chilly. Chlorophyll no longer holds center stage in the chromatic scale. Where buds once formed, now there are acorns.

We expect permutations of orange, rust and maroon, veils of gold and brown in the garden in autumn. But then we come across a shock of violet, where golden-eyed asters bright as errant amethysts bob on the cooling breeze. Even more surprising is the shy and delicate pink of autumn crocus where it keeps company with brown mushrooms and fallen leaves at the base of a sturdy tree.

All is not quiet, however. The squirrel with the fat cheeks will screech the minute she stashes her hazel nuts, and the gathering crows will sound warnings to all birds preparing to migrate: the way is south and the time is now.

To paraphrase Blake, what immortal hand or eye could frame such a world as what we see before us? Hold this question in awareness as you go through your day, and hold it despite all the mounting evidence in our raucous, consumerist world that to do so is to indulge in a flight of fancy. Then, as the gentle rays of the afternoon sun fade, remember that night will come, and it will blanket you with stars that seem particularly brilliant at this time of year.

Autumn is a time of turning inward, a time of forgiveness, a time to let go of all past efforts. It presents an opportunity to rest, just the way the garden rests, before new undertakings which are soon to come at the turn of another year.

So hunker down: take care of yourself and all you hold dear.

Breathe in the deep calm of the season.

Relax as you exhale.

Photography: Aster novi-belgii, Wikipedia, public domain; Vine Maple Leaf, Nickel Eisen, 6 October 2004; Hourglass, S. Sepp, 21 October 2007

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Susan Boyle and Bernard Madoff: Equal Energy, Two Directions

Bernard Madoff slides from his self-created pedestal of exclusivity and respect into a miasma of lies when his life's work is exposed as common fraud.

Susan Boyle ascends to the stars as her natural talent rides the wave of personal courage and brings her gift into the hearts of people around the world.

These two individuals provide a perfect object lesson for something I've always suspected: it takes just as much energy to do what Bernard Madoff did as it takes to do what Susan Boyle did. Why, why, why, then, would a person use a limited individual allotment of this precious energy to suck the life from others when there is an equal opportunity to enhance the world and leave it a better place with the same amount of effort?

It is fiction to say that it is easier to cheat than it is to work hard. Cheating takes an enormous toll on an individual's mental, spiritual and emotional life: keeping track of frauds, which lies were told to whom, who knows what about what… Can you imagine the anger and stress that has been seething just below the surface for Bernard Madoff all these years? These corrosive feelings are emotions he could never embrace, nor show to anyone, nor discuss with anyone, not even his wife (if she is to be believed).

People have called Bernard Madoff a sociopath, but even a so-called sociopath might squirm when regulating agencies continually knock on the door with long lists of increasingly pointed questions; even a sociopath can suspect there might be a crack somewhere in his facade, a crack he needs to locate and repair fast. Sociopathy is no free ride. Thinking of oneself as smarter than everyone else can only work until you're caught, and as imprisoned criminals have repeatedly attested, they knew that day would come.

I don't even like typing all these ugly words. But they serve a purpose and form the dark background against which Susan Boyle's presence gleams.

Like Bernard Madoff, Susan, too, came out of obscurity. But here's the key difference: his mind was set on No fair! I want what everyone else has! At one point in his life, he could have decided to apply himself and work hard to make something of himself, but his overriding envy rotted his heart. He diverted his energy from creating something good toward destroying what everyone else had. And he probably worked every bit as hard as he would have had he lived honestly, in which case he would not now be rotting in prison.

Susan Boyle, on the other hand, had a gift which she nurtured on her own, and never let fall away. How many of us can say the same about the great promise we once showed playing the piano? or painting? or singing? Most of us have turned our backs on these pursuits in the manner of putting away the things of childhood.

But Susan Boyle persevered. She lived a quiet life, always singing, and made a promise to her dying mother: I won't give up. I'll stay with it.

Then she mounted what must sometimes have felt like an impossible campaign of personal courage, not only to her but to others. She was no doubt accused along the way of having pipe dreams, of reaching beyond her station, of thinking she was all that--and why? Because she dared to put one foot in front of the other, over and over, until she walked right into the spotlight that made her an overnight success in the eyes of the world.

Susan Boyle isn't an overnight success in her own estimation, though. She has been applying herself to her gift for her entire life. She was born with a talent for singing, and she honored her gift and continues to honor it, and look at the treasure she has brought into the world: her voice and her story delight the souls of everyone who encounters her.

Light and darkness; good and evil. Conversations don't get much more basic than this, and examples are seldom more clear than they are in the cases of Susan Boyle and Bernard Madoff. Fortunately for the world, Madoff will be no more than a footnote in the journals of sleazy financial crime. All the hearts he broke will find no sense of justice in whatever happens to him, but at least he won't be doing anything to anyone else.

On the very bright other side, Susan Boyle's light will shine for a long, long time. Even the souls bruised by Bernard Madoff can take delight in the gifts of Susan Boyle.

In this way, it can be seen that good outweighs the bad, just as we've always been taught to believe but have perhaps come to doubt over the years. The same equation holds true with tiny, anonymous acts of kindness in our own lives today.

I know this is true.

Photography: Susan Boyle, Perez Hilton; Rose bush, Fastily, 4/26/09; Rose,