Sunday, February 8, 2015

Back Like Lazarus

Hey pals, it's your old friend Michele, back from the dead like Lazarus to tell you all how it was on 
the other side.  

No, I wasn't in the nether, but sometimes it seems like I was stuck someplace for quite a long while. Driving around lost, searching for a familiar landmark to tell me I was headed in the right direction.  

  I have a very active imagination, which is great, except that sometimes I tell myself a story and the story feels so real that when reality deviates from my plot, I find it difficult to accept.  I get sad about things that never really were, and I hold on tight the notion that life isn't going the way it's supposed to go;  The way I've imagined it going.  It's childish, and I've learned that letting go of all that is a surprisingly wonderful feeling.  Like letting your soul take off its pants after a long day.  

The familiar landmark never came.  I never had that outside validation that I was going the right way.  I just had to tell myself a story, and in the story I was found.  And in one of those rare occurrences, reality agreed.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Illusion of Intimacy

I recently read this article about how the nude selfie and the culture of social media in general is changing our perception of what “normal” behavior is.  We hear about nude photos being leaked and condescendingly roll our eyes.  
Why did she take it? 
Why did he share it?

Because we are like dogs.   

In the 1890's Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that when he rang a bell to signal meal time to dogs, they would begin to salivate whether he brought food or not.  There has since been ample research to confirm Pavlov's findings and in more recent years, brain scan researchers have found that people have more brain activity anticipating a reward than receiving one.  So when you hear the "ping" of your phone  it sets off a dopamine loop in your brain.  Dopamine is not simply a pleasure chemical but a wanting chemical.  It propels you to do something.  In this case, people send the naked picture or text message for the anticipation of the other person's response.
All of this got me thinking about relationships in this digital era.  It has become more and more normal to “meet” online and carry on relationships (romantic or platonic) wherein physical interaction is minimal or nonexistent.  When you are holding your phone you are holding the idea of a person; an idea you probably helped construct.  It's hard to judge someone’s character online because you are only seeing that which they choose to show you and which you interpret with prejudice.  A person may seem so perfect online but turn out to be nothing more than a very good salesman.  That friend may seem like your kind, but she’s taken subtle cues from you and tailored her responses accordingly.  It is a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes.  We walk around cloaked in the illusion of intimacy.    And on some level we must realize it, but we want so badly to believe that it's real, because even with all the followers and likes and Facebook friends we are somehow lonelier than ever.

Alternately, when you are talking to a person in real life you don’t have minutes to carefully choose your words.  There are no filters.  You can’t sit in silence for two hours ruminating over what to say next. In real life it is impossible to control all the variables that you can online.  Real life forces you to be present in a way that online interactions do not.  I've written about this in the past, but no matter how honest you feel you're being online, the temptation to project what you think people want is too great.

There really are no victims in this dilemma.  No one's forcing any of us to feed the machine, and yet we are,  and in return it gives us a compulsion of the peripheral, creating a generation that is perpetually dissatisfied, easily bored, and emotionally detached. It’s fostering in many of us an addiction to adoration.  

Social media isn’t going anywhere.  It’s an integral part of our culture now.  This is not a tirade against it, but rather an attempt to perhaps open up an honest dialogue.  I'm not quitting the internet.  I'm not moving to an anti-technology commune in Oregon.  Yet I am very uneasy about what the future will look like if we continue to prioritize instant, fleeting gratification over real life connections.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Fortress Around Your Heart

A long overdue update:

Boys are loving their new schools, although Cole is a little confused as to why other kids, especially those who claim to be "friends" seem so mean to each other.  I worry for him a lot.  He looks older than he is and I think that can be a curse to a kid. And he's so good.  Seriously, the kindest soul I've ever encountered and sometimes I get scared that he'll adapt to his environment and lose that.

Meanwhile, there's Aidin. Oh man, this kid.  In some ways I don't worry about him as much. Cole possesses a certain eagerness to be liked and make everyone happy that people can take advantage of. Aidin simply does not.  The only way I can think to describe his personality is that he is physically incapable of bullshit.  That shy, quiet kid is still in there but he's finding his voice more and more, and that voice is honest to a fault. He isn't great at picking up on social cues, so he's often abrupt to the point of rudeness. We're working on that, but the plain fact is that he cares more about information than he does for making friends.

And then there's me. I finally got a job and celebrated like any other sophisticated woman, by eating 8 ounces of clearance Brie with Saltines. (Dear $9 "water biscuits" you are just crackers.  Get over yourself.)
It sounds almost too simplistic, but I'm good.  Not wildly ecstatic or horribly depressed, but existing in a comfortable state of good.  I kicked and cried and thrashed around and found myself in a quiet  stage of acceptance, feeling very okay with everything. I still have my moments, like when "Fortress Around Your Heart" came on the radio at a red-light last week and it was like Sting was apologizing for every hurt I'd ever incurred and I cried the whole way home (but was super low-key about it).

Whatever, I'm over it now, but it's a good song.  I don't care what anyone says.    

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Want and Will

Growing up I was taught that God heard and would answer all of my prayers.  True, the answer might not come in a way I expected or hoped for, but it would always come.  A LOT of my childhood was spent in prayer.  I prayed in the morning and every night before bed.  I prayed at church.  I prayed at dinner. I prayed when I did something wrong, looked up at the sky and imagined God's all-seeing eyes on me, full of disapproval. I prayed when I did something right, felt prideful, then guilty.  I prayed for my pets, my teachers, my family and my friends. However, in true human form, I mainly prayed for myself.

"I cannot find my shoe and I have looked everywhere. Please find my shoe."
"Melanie is a horrible tranch.  Please make her be nice to me.  Or die. But only if it's her time."
"Please make Zach want to go out with me."
"Zach does not want to go out with me. Please make Zach move. Or die. But only if it's his time."

 Yeah, I was fairly terrible. But then most children are. Children are only able to see a very finite future for themselves and that makes them careless and impatient. They cannot imagine the myriad of unforeseeable events that will shape and change their lives.   A child does not see the danger in becoming too attached to the idea of a thing or a person.  They want what they want without a thought as to why or what the consequences might be. A child with severe allergies would happily reach for the very thing that might kill them without an adult nearby to stop them.

So I was that kid who wanted so much, so fiercely.  I bowed my head and fed my desire to the sky and called it prayer.  Over and over I did this, until I reached adolescence, when I began that awkward journey into adulthood and constant praying was discarded along with all the other silly kid ideals I'd once held.  But unlike my belief in prayer, my faith in wanting never wavered. I started to look like an adult and speak like one, but the desire remained. Even when I felt like it might kill me, I let it linger.  My one last silly kid vice.

I'm thirty now and I only recently started to pray again because I radically redefined what that meant to me. I still deal mainly in supplication, but it has taken on the form of introspective meditation rather than pleading for specific things. It's my way of releasing the want.  Reminding myself not to be taken by the idea of things or people or places.  It's a constant clash between that reactive kid who wants so much and the adult who needs to extricate herself from cyclic temporal and emotional traps.  It's tough to detach in this digital plane where there is so much to desire and comparison is currency, but it's a battle of wills and this want has been winning a little too long.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hard Easy

I once bought an old kitchen table with the intention of painting it white.  I did, but I used the wrong paint so it looked terrible and uneven.  I should have stripped it and started over but I was lazy, so I just got new paint and painted over it.   The paint rippled and bubbled and looked even worse, yet I did that twice more before coming to terms with the fact that this table was a total loss and I didn’t care anymore.  The easy fix had become too hard. Repairing everything I had done to cover up my mistakes seemed too daunting. And somewhere in the dead of night Bob Vila awoke in a cold sweat and shed a solitary tear.

My head has become this manic courtroom waiting for a judge to pound the gavel and call for order.  I can’t stop thinking about that table I left in Japan and how beautiful it could have been had I taken the time and done things right.  I can’t stop thinking about all my mistakes and missteps, caked in cheap paint, quietly bubbling up to the surface no matter how many layers I blanket over them. I look back on the past few months and it almost seems as though I've been in a period of mourning.  Detaching yourself from the image of what you thought your life would be is no easy thing.   I'm not exactly sure how to articulate it, but I have become increasingly aware that I don't feel good.  I feel like a phony somehow. As though these layers have taken on a life of their own and have been running the show.

This morning I set about my regular morning ritual.  Boil water. Scoop coffee into the press. Pour water over the grinds. Wait. Press.  Pour. Usually the familiarity of the routine is comforting but this morning it just felt tedious. I felt antsy. Restless.  Dissatisfaction and unease are beasts that live in my belly these days and I could feel them gnawing away, relentless. In a childish fit of frustration I pushed my mug of coffee right off the counter. I guess I expected or hoped it would shatter spectacularly, but instead it just bounced off the linoleum and exploded very hot coffee all over my leg. 

Curses. Deep breaths.  Towels. Clean up.  I scooped the "Live in the moment" mug off the floor and set it in the sink.  This isn't me. This childish person so caught up in her own struggle feels inauthentic and uncomfortable.  I know, spilled coffee does seem rather anticlimactic, but just like that it was as though a switch was flipped and I felt overwhelming calm. Like some divine reassurance that everything will be okay.  And for now that's enough.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Gaslight is a 1944 film about a woman whose husband deliberately attempts to make her think she’s going insane. He moves things around, creates auditory and visual illusions and ensures that she is the only one present to witness them.  He flickers the gaslight lamps to frighten her and makes the benign seem sinister and unfamiliar.  She becomes paranoid and confused, often hysterical when things happen that no one around her acknowledges. 

I suspect that’s how it was for my Mormor, or grandmother.  Alzheimer’s moved things around, erased memories and replaced them with smoke and mirrors.  Of course she was sometimes hysterical.  Of course she became angry and paranoid. Her mind was no longer her own, and as the disease took up more and more space she was quickly lost.  I had always thought of Alzheimer’s as a gradual degradation, but hers was swift and merciless; a horrible end to a most spectacularly beautiful life. 

She leaves behind a legacy of strength and elegance. A fierce love for her family and the most unselfish desire to help others I’ve ever known.  She sacrificed so much in her life to ensure the happiness of people she loved, but did not once complain or draw attention to it. 

One thing I keep coming back to was the way in which she carried herself.   Always with grace and the kind of confidence that comes from knowing exactly who you are.  Her illness robbed her of that self-possession and that quiet dignity.  She became angry and increasingly violent.  She no longer recognized the people she had loved the most in her life, and in the end, her brain stopped functioning.  Her passing is a blessing in that she is finally free of a body that ultimately betrayed her. No more smoke and mirrors.  No more flickering gaslight in the night. Just peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Open Concept

This town is a house I haunt
Rattling chains in the attic above floors I once occupied
People I don’t know fill a space I almost recognize
They tore down old walls, added new ones and called it, “open concept”
Fresh paint covers the place I wrote my name in careful cursive
But when I close my eyes I still see it there on the baseboard
I can trace it with my finger from memory
On an island with no coast
Where I am the stranger
I am the ghost