Friday, August 31, 2012

Pleasure Proxy

Today is "New Bone Day" at casa de Haskins. And as I sit here trying to write while listening to Beckett indulge in his fresh out-of-the-bag rawhide, I am wondering where I can find a human rawhide equivalent.  Something that makes me as happy and content and excited to be alive as Beckett's weekly treat does for him.  I am also wondering whether I selfishly give Beckett these little moments of enjoyment because most of my own happiness is vicariously derived. Usually, I find contentment in watching others have fun, and I enjoy the osmotic excitement I feel when my "New Bone Day!" announcement brings Beckett running, no matter where he is or what important job he is doing (or mess he is making) elsewhere in the house. Certainly, I want Beckett to be happy for his own sake, and I do believe that his display of lip licking and tail wagging whenever I hold out his new treat prove just how pure and uncomplicated his happiness actually is.  In Beckett's world, "I want something + I get something = I am happy."

But I also admit that in addition to making Beckett happy because I love him, I rather enjoy the simplicity of giving him something that seems to create such a positive reaction.  Because essentially, Beckett has become my pleasure proxy.

Now, I know plenty of people who do things for others at least in part because it fills the "do-er" with a sense of meaning. There is nothing wrong - and everything right - with enjoying a little of the positive energy we share with the world.  So I don't think I am at all unique in my emotional connection (Some might say dependence.  Some might say co-dependence.) to my dog.  After all, he is the being with whom I share my life.  He is where I have invested my time and my money and my energy since I brought him home almost a year ago, when he was nothing more than a seven-pound runt filled with parasites and worms and more medical problems than I could have imagined. While many people's children and partners occupy this central space in their lives, I have chosen to place my beautiful little Schnoodle there instead, so it makes sense that I am interested in what he likes, concerned about what upsets him, amused by his quirks and habits, and completely tuned into his abrupt shifts in mood or behavior.  But the interesting element to all this is that as time goes by, I am realizing that more often than not, Beckett's antics and his temperament are actually reactions to me.  So as convoluted as it sounds, as I key into what is going on with him, I am really connecting with something in myself.  This became painfully clear recently when, as Beckett and I were playing fetch, he grabbed his toy from my hand and accidentally bit into my finger, breaking skin and drawing a pretty significant amount of blood.  More shocked than hurt, I yelled without thinking: "OUCH!  DAMN IT Beckett!" which sent him running to his crate with his tail between his legs and his head down.  Fortunately, it took only seconds to reassure him, as I sat petting and hugging him, that I was okay, that I wasn't angry, and that he was not a bad boy. But my ability to scare and worry him without even thinking about the power that holds amazed me.  What's more, Beckett's refusal to leave my side for the rest of the night was both a sweet gesture and a sad reminder that I do influence him more than I ever realized. And more than I ever thought possible.

So now, even as I marvel at the pleasure I take in watching Beckett work his way through this rawhide bone, convinced that his excitement makes me as happy as watching other people eat satisfies my appetite, or seeing parents and their children at the park warms that small part of me that always longed for a family of my own, I wonder if perhaps Beckett's pure, uncomplicated happiness is actually a response to my "New Bone Day" excitement.  Maybe it is all in how we present ourselves to those who care most about us - When we hurt, they feel concerned. When we are happy, they feel a sense of joy on our behalf.  And when we are angry - well, they may run and hide at first, but generally, they care enough to stick by us until we stop bleeding and can honestly say that we are going to be alright.

I guess maybe that is what love is all about.  And I guess that the pleasure proxy goes both ways, regardless of whom we choose to share our lives with.  I am much more aware of the impact my volume and tone of voice have on Beckett now, and he seems to like the gentle, positive, upbeat tones best - so that is where I try to stay.  After all, it's hard to do anything but smile while you're announcing "New Bone Day!" to a puppy who has learned - from you - that this is what happiness feels like.

I would love to know what your pet(s) have taught you - about yourself, about life in general.  What are some of the ways you connect with your pet(s)?  What instincts do they have about you and vice versa?  Share here!

Until next time,
~~ Hasky

Friday, August 24, 2012

Where Happiness Lives

 "Happiness is born from letting go of what is unnecessary."  
(I attribute the above quote to Sharon Salzberg because I first read it in one of her teachings on meditation and, to date, I have found no other source.)

When I read Salzberg's statement and really think about its meaning, the question that arises for me is this:  What does "necessary" mean?  

If you're at all like me, you often say (and think) that you "need" something, when in fact you may just really want it.  When this was pointed out to me several years ago during a conversation about food cravings, I remember thinking that of course I wasn't really under the impression that I needed chocolate, even when I insisted that my body literally required a daily hit of the sweet stuff in order to survive.  As usual, my overly dramatic "I need chocolate" (most likely uttered while the back of my hand was pressed against my brow, swoon-style) was just more of my own special brand of point-illustrating hyperbole, not unlike my "I would die without my morning coffee" assertions and my "I can't handle Mondays" laments. No one ever actually died without caffeine (that I know of, though I am always interested in credible information to the contrary) and Mondays are neither handled nor un-handled. They simply are.  So, although untrue in a literal sense, these types of statements are powerful beliefs I often hold true. And the power I give these non-truths, often without even realizing how deeply I subscribe to them, is what allows me to hold myself captive at times.

That said, what is true, in my opinion, is the old saying - or at least my paraphrase of one variation on the old saying  - that "How you speak determines how you feel and how you feel determines how you act." This is probably why, both anecdotally and according to various credible research studies, the most successful, longest lasting changes come about when we simultaneously address all components of our thinking, feeling, acting selves.  Seems easy, no?  After all, with the exception of a few illnesses that result in loss of ability to control one's behavior, we are in charge - completely in charge - of whether and how we act.   Think about the last time you tried to "give up" something you didn't need but really wanted.  Was it a food?  A material possession?  A relationship or even a particular way of thinking about something/someone?  If all you did was tell yourself "No," each time you reached for that chocolate or slid that Mastercard out of your wallet for yet another impulse purchase, how hard was it to follow through?  Sure, you may have changed the behavior and proven to yourself that a Hershey bar is not actually essential to survival, but where did that take you for the rest of the day? Fixated on how much you still wanted the candy?  Or, if it was a thought process you were working on, did your choice to not lash out at someone eat away at you anyway, so that you felt angry and resentful toward that person in ways that drained your energy and focused all your attention on someone else, rather than on comforting and simply being with yourself?

I am interested in the suggestion I have often heard that it is never really "the thing" that we want, but the happiness we believe it will deliver to us.  Happiness, that invisible, undefinable, sometimes unidentifiable concept that always seems "right over there," just out of reach, though available to everyone else - especially the everyone else's we believe to have nicer homes, happier relationships, better behaved children, more advanced degrees, higher paying jobs, more attractive bodies, and greater health. This makes sense to me on a level I can't necessarily explain, but that seems logical. After all, what about a house - a pile of wood and nails and glass and carpet  - can actually make us "happy"?  Isn't it more about the concept of home, the longing for a place to feel safe and grounded and away from "the world" that fills us with what we think we can achieve through bankrupting mortgages and stuffy, upscale neighborhoods?  Yet because "The American Dream" tends to be more of a fantasy - or even a fiction - than an achievable reality, we stress ourselves out and go into debt and give up precious time with loved ones and the things we really enjoy as we struggle to make more money. On the other hand, sometimes we simply check out of life altogether in the absence of feeling able to achieve what seems unachievable.

I am definitely not suggesting that a complete lack of these things paves the road to happiness.  Poverty and isolation and family dysfunction are often so wrapped up in the depression and anxiety that spirals around us that it is often impossible to tell whether the crises cause the self-defeating feelings or vice versa.  What I am saying, however, is that I have come to believe that happiness continues to evade us because we don't even know how we define it.  We don't know where it lives or what it wants or what it even looks like, but we are pretty sure it is tangible, and we often believe - I think - that there is not enough to go around.  Our rush to beat everyone else to the happiness finish line requires constant dedication on our parts to get all this stuff as quickly (and sometimes as ruthlessly) as possible. 

Contrary to The American Dream story we have been told for decades, happiness is not a right - as much as I wish it were.  Even so, happiness is not an impossibility, either.  In fact, I think we have over-complicated happiness to the extent that we don't believe it can really be as simple as wanting it and finding it and experiencing it.  And that is why we can't yet believe that in letting go of what we do not need we can actually hold onto what we desire. 

This week I am literally letting go of things as I move from one apartment to another.  My new home has less space, less room for "stuff" I have acquired over the years, stuff I don't need, some stuff I don't even want and can't remember where or why I ended up owning it.  But it is a learning process, going through things and thinking about who I really am by looking at what I do and do not need, then thinking about what I do and do not want.  I encourage you to examine the needs and wants in your own life and see what you come up with. Though letting go of our attachments can be a hard and sometimes painful experince, it can be incredibly liberating, too.  And if you are willing and brave enough to try this, even starting with one little "junk drawer" in one room of your house, I bet, if nothing else, you will suddenly find a lot more uncluttered space in your life.  And in that space, where once there were things, there will finally be more room for you.

Happy "letting go" until next time,
~~ Hasky

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A week - and a blog post - full of challenges

The events of the past week have encouraged me (in a loud, coercive kind of way) to start meditating again.   For a while, my life consisted of a regular daily meditation practice that combined classes and workshops several days a week with meditating at home by myself in my quiet apartment on non-class days.  I found both experiences helpful in my quest for the relaxation and focus I hoped to achieve, as meditating with others is a very symbiotic experience of shared space/shared breath/shared energy, while meditating alone offers an opportunity to tap into one's own presence in a profound and necessary way.  Given the many benefits of meditation, I have no logical explanation as to why I simply stopped one day, though I do have an explanation: I felt better.  Not unlike a medical condition, that sense of "all better" that often kicks in when the treatment is doing its work often lends a feeling of faux recovery, as if anxiety and feelings of imbalance are curable and the desire for a more focused, more holistically healthy life has a definitive endpoint. 

But here's the thing: There is no "Wellness Finish Line."  Or, if Maslow is more your thing, no "Self-Actualization Finish Line."  All those sayings about life being a marathon and not a sprint, and about living through the journey and not living for the end result aren't only great tee-shirt and bumper sticker slogans - they happen to be true.  Overused, but true. The road to "Optimum" is endless, and in our goal-driven, time-sensitive, do-it-yourself world of 24/7 non-stopedness, many of us become anxious at the mere thought of any pursuit that doesn't have a measurable outcome or a final destination.  Certainly things would be different if life were like a Thanksgiving turkey and came equipped with one of those little white poppers to let us know when we had reached our full potential. But would things necessarily be better that way?  Is it possible that what keeps us reaching higher is the lack of restriction that a finish line presents?  I wonder how many marathon runners could keep running (and/or would keep running) if they were aiming for something a lot further away than that ribbon waiting just past the 26th mile.

So here is my first challenge:  I want you to use my slightly "out there" Thanksgiving turkey popper example above to learn something about yourself (and others).Aside: this is probably most naturallly done at Thanksgiving, while the turkey is cooking, but get creative and do it now if you can.  First ask yourself this question, and then ask others:  When that popper finally pops, do you say (either out loud or to yourself) the turkey is "done" or do you say the turkey is "ready"?  (Or do you use some other term/phrase for what that popped popper signifies?)

I only pose the question and point out the two answers I typically hear because I think "done" indicates that some extrinsic element has determined a thing to be over.  Ended. Finished.  "The turkey is "done" mentality signifies that the cooking of the turkey was the main event, and that the Thanksgiving dinner, the moment we believe we long for all year (those of us who love Thanksgiving anyway), is actually the denoument.  How depressing! 

Yet for those who say the turkey is "ready," the fun has just begun.  The dinner is the beginning of something, and the turkey (and all it signifies and symbolizes)  still holds a promise, rather than a past.  I don't know what all this means in the larger macrocosm, certainly, but I do find it an interesting experiment, and one that crept into my consciousness during a Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, when I realized that the people in my life tend to be "The turkey is done" people, while I am a "Turkey is ready," despite the fact that I am a vegan.  As is probably clear by now, this is not really about turkey.

I think this challenge and this examinantion of how we think and speak and act is all significant as I  approach meditation and begin again.  I have decided to start with the basics by turning to the book I used last year - Real Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg.  In her book, Salzberg - a meditation teacher for decades and an amazing woman in general - breaks meditation down into its most basic components, dispelling meditation myths (i.e. "Meditation is too hard for me" and "I'm not the type of person who meditates") and guiding practitioners through various types of meditation from breathing exercises to hearing and walking meditations and beyond.  More than anything, Salzberg encourages meditators from the novice to the experienced to make meditation part of everyday life by scheduling time and arranging a place and giving ourselves whatever we have - an hour, fifteen minutes, a few deep breaths - to connect with ourselves and simply settle in.  I encourage you to go to Salzberg's site for more information and helpful resources:

I think, if nothing else, that meditation is simply a way not to zone out, but to look inward without judgement, without that hurried, chaotic numbness that often pushes us through each day from one task to the next, so that for at least a few breaths, we are grounded firmly in the moment - which is a place we rarely give ourselves permission to stay for long, if we are even able to find our way there at all.  When we sit and breathe, we are not stopping anything.  Or, to put it in turkey terms, we are not done, we are ready.  We are not looking back, we are looking forward.  We are beginning something and we are hopeful even though we can't possibly know or predict what the outcome will be. Even though we are sitting still and quiet, we are moving forward.

I am going to be posting parts of Salzberg's 28-day meditation challenge here over the next few weeks - pieces I find helpful as well as things I find difficult. The goal for the first week of this challenge is to meditate for at least twenty minutes, three times during the week.  I find it helpful to have Salzberg's voice to guide me through these sessions on her audiobook version of Real Happiness, and though I encourage you to go directly to the master herself, you can also find free meditation podcasts online to help you, too.

I hope you will join me and post feedback here when you can.  I am interested to know both the outome of my little turkey popper experiement, and more interested in what you think of meditation and whether you think you will try this 28-day challenge - or any pieces of it that appeal to you.  "Progress, not perfection,"  they say.  Another great tee-shirt/bumper sticker slogan, and a perfect way to meet yourself in meditation one breath at a time.

Happy breathing until next time,
~~ Hasky

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sometimes a panic attack is just a panic attack ... I hope.

Today started like most of my days: Up at 4am, quick potty walk for Beckett, off fo the gym til 6:30am, back home, make lunch, feed Beckett, play with Beckett, walk Beckett, iron and laundry and dishes and commute to work by 9:15am.  I have always been a morning person.  And I love my routines. I never talk about the mental illness elephant in the room on this one - the fact is, I believe I need my routines. I cling to them as if Life were a car and my daily routine was the steering wheel not only guiding me from Point A to Point B, but guiding me there comfortably and predictably and with what I tell myself is absolute safety and security. Because, after all, if I can control my morning, I can control my world.  And nothing bad will happen.

The fact that this morning went as usual, right to the minute, made my 1:00 pm panic attack - the worst, most embarassing, most frightening one I have ever had - all the more surprising.  The truth is this:  I have anxiety disorder.  And PTSD.  The two are what I call 'linked but distinct" and I have spent a lot of time trying to live with them, knowing that kicking them to the curb isn't an option, but challenging them and recognizing them for what they are somehow disempowers them a bit.  But every now and then, I do get that abdominal twinge that tells me to leave whatever place I am in and go somewhere else.  Immediately.  And of course, I do just that, now that I have learned to put myself first in these situations, in the same way I would do whatever necessary to get insulin if I were diabetic.  In the same way I will go to any lengths to find my inhaler when I feel an asthma attack looming.  Anxiety is a medical condition, and it is one I have hidden for many years, occassionally revealing a funny little quirk about myself that makes people laugh (my obsessive WebMd googling, for example) or writing off a serious symptom as a minor character flaw (anorexia, anyone?).  I have recently started talking more about my struggles with eating, because those are visibly apparent, and I would  rather be upfont about what is really going on than to have people speculate that I have a more serious illness or, heaven forbid, take pleasure in misusing my body out of some kind of "I need to fit into a size zero" vanity situation.  But what is it about the mental piece of mental illness that scares us and embarasses us and silences us?

I am certainly not suggesting that everyone with any kind of mental health issue disclose the details - that is a personal decision and one with many considerations and a lot of self-searching involved.  But for me, there is some driving force urging me to simply, casually say "Yup, I struggle with this.  And it is what it is."  Yes, the blogosphere lends a level of comfort to this process that, say, a cup of coffee with a friend may not, though I am working my way up to that one, too. And I know this seems a strange topic for a blog that promises to look at the lighter side of life, but every now and then, it's ok to take a break. Or break a rule. Life is heavy. At the same time, I think honesty can lighten one's load sometimes - anxiety and all its associated symptoms from addiction to phobias to panic attacks to eventual physical illness is heavy.  Too heavy.  And it is an unnecessary weight added to the already painful and difficult experience of living in a world where fear and stress and constant worry are so exhausting that sometimes, many times, the promise of sleep each night is a reward for surviving another day.

So this afternoon, when I felt a strange spasm happening in my throat, when I felt that heavy feeling in my chest, when my inhaler and my deep breathing and my positive self-talk did nothing to help as my symptoms grew and seemed to take on a life of their own, I panicked about my panic - what I now believe was panic anyway - and I fled.  I grabbed my bag and staggered down the hall, down the elevator, and into the street in front of my office building.  I gasped and I heaved and I stuggled to swallow while my hands and feet grew numb and cold and my eyes went blurry.  I fell onto a bus stop bench and called an ambulance, promising myself this was panic and, as is a common panic symptom, believing I was dying.  Because nothing had happened at work.  Nothing had happened in my personal life.  Nothing had changed or triggered or set off the symptoms that I still believe will "work with me" if I keep them at bay.  Or keep them happy.  Surely, I reasoned, I was dying.

When the ambulance arrived, at the busiest intersection in Albany at the busiest time of day - think politicians, food vendors, a couple of kiddie field trips in the nearby park - I was relieved at first.   I sat on the bench while they strapped an oxygen mask to my face and a blood pressure cuff to my arm.  I let go of my body image issues while EMTs lifted my shirt and stuck electrodes to my stomach to read my heart rhythms.  I am amazed, at moments like this, that for all its awful qualities, panic is quite the antidote to pride and the quickest route to humility.  Still struggling to breathe, I climbed onto the stretcher and rode across the intersection, was stuffed into an ambulance, and
cried all the way to Albany Med while a kind EMT named Mark (Or Mike?  Matt?) told me that everything seemed to be looking good and that I was going to be ok.  "Don't worry," he assured me.  If he only knew.

At that point, my tears were coming from two places, really:  fear of what I worried was happening to me, and shame over what I suspected was actually happening to me.  Had I really just humiliated myself on the intersection of Swan and State streets, used necessary lifesaving resources that someone in an actual health crisis may have needed?  Had I walked out of my office with nothing more than an afterthought phone call ... all for this?  This illness I refuse to medicate and, until today, refused to even acknowledge to anyone other than my few closest friends and my therapist?

Yes, I had.

When I arrived at Albany Med, I was still struggling to breathe but feeling more and more like this was going to go the same way similar experiences had gone. Though worse and different than the others, it didn't seem to be a stroke ot a heart attack or some kind of major organ failure - since my heart rate and blood pressure were well within normal limits and my oxygen level was 100%.  (See, my ability to know all this proves that WebMd googling is useful on occassion.)  Still, I let the ambulance crew wheel me down the hall and take more vitals, check me in, and ask me some basic questions.  And then, just as I was in the middle of telling someone what health insurance I had, I watched the man on the stretcher in front of my shove the orderly standing over him.  "Chrissy!" the man started screaming, as he jumped off the stretcher and faced the commotion that was starting - unbeknownst to me - to erupt behind me.

And then I heard Chrissy.  She was a drooling, large black woman in a hospital gown, and she was angry.  I am pretty sure she was coming down from something, and as she screamed and threatened to kill people, to kill herself, to blow up the hospital, everyone came running. They flew past me - security guards, doctors, nurses, interns, medical students, I think even a janitor or two - jostling my bed in the process. Chrissy's boyfriend was headed toward her by now, begging the staff not to hurt her, while Chrissy continued to scream and wail and thrash and rip her hospital gown off her body.  While five staff grabbed and restrained the man, it took about ten to take Chrissy to the floor and stick a huge needle in her thigh while her boyfriend wailed and pleaded "Please don't hurt her!  She's mine!  She's mine!"  Turns out, he had tried to kill both Chrissy and himself this morning, and while his arms were laced with needle marks and razor slashes, Chrissy looked like she had been beaten and left for dead.  A few nurses asked me if I was ok, and all I could do was nod.  "I do this for a living," was all I could mumble.  And I used to.  Before I came to Albany for the safe desk job I have regretted since the day I took it.  I have seen domestic violence up close before, but never while I was stuck on a hospital bed, trapped in a locked down ER with no weapon or pepper spray to protect myself and no way to even get to my sandals, which I had kicked off so I wouldn't dirty the hospital's sheet.

It seemed to take forever to sedate both Chrissy and her boyfriend enough to get them to separate "pods," each guarded by armed security.  I was eventually wheeled back to my original place in the hall where I could listen to Chrissy "come to" every few minutes, at which point someone in charge at the desk behind me would order "5 more for Room B13."  And then all was quiet again.

As I lay there thinking about why I was here - I got angry.  At myself.  These two people were so damaged, so broken, and so beyond help, that the fact that I was there at all seeking treatment I likely didn't even need pissed me off.  I could understand the hospital staff's eye rolls and comments of "I'm so sick of this crap" and "Just send em' home and let em' duke this out."  I know I couldn't handle what they were trying to handle at that moment - in fact, I couldn't even handle a fraction of that,  one of the sad realities that sent me running for Albany seven years ago.  At the same time, I was sad.  I cried as I thought about where these two people were going to end up.  How they had ended up here.  What a good day versus a bad day was to them.  And what a luxury illness "anxiety" and "panic" must be to someone suffering the way they were obviously and painfully suffering.  I wished I could give them something.  I didn't know whether to watch and listen or pretend I was trying to give them something like privacy.

I contemplated walking out of the ER, more out of fear than guilt at that point.  But at that moment, the resident physician came over and apologized for "the drama" and said he would be with me shortly.  "No worries," I mumbled. I was the one who felt guilty.  I was the one who wanted to apologize.  But I couldn't make myself.

As I lay there for a few more minutes, realizing Chrissy must have been sedated again, I listened to a doctor talk to the woman on the stretcher in front of me - the stretcher Chrissy's boyfriend had been on before he was carted off to whatever isolation room would hold him.  Apparently, this woman in front of me had overdosed on something.  And the doctor was trying to figure out what she needed.

"Every time you do this, you come straight here," he told her.  "And I'm not sure what it is you want us to do for you."

"Well I don't know either," she whispered.

"Are you looking for help with your physical care or your mental health?" He was blunt.  Direct.

"Well, I don't know," she echoed herself.

"Are you coming here because you are looking for someone to talk to?" the doctor went on, cold but seemingly trying to identify what it was this woman was after.

"I guess I am," she finally admitted.  "My life is too hard.  And I need something.  I need someone.  I'm scared.  And as soon as I leave here and go home, everything feels bad again.  I don't want to die, I just want someone to know how much I want to die."

I didn't realize I was crying until a nurse stopped by and asked me if I was ok.  I told her I was fine, but I hurt.  I hurt for these people, these people in so much pain that they were never going to find the right band aid or antibiotic or xray to stop the bleeding or mend the break.  And I was one of them.  Not homicidal or suicidal or delusional or coming off a really rough high, but I was one of them nonetheless.  One of the misunderstood who believed that their pain was so real that others could see it, and help it, and make it stop.

As soon as the nurse walked away, I told myself that I was fine and I got up and walked out the front door.  I didn't stick around for the blood work and the xrays that would tell everyone what I pretty much already knew - I have anxiety disorder.  And a hospital ER was not the place I needed to be.  I calld a cab, got a ride to my car, and drove home to spend some time with Beckett.  My throat still feels odd, and my body still feels shaky, but all I can do is sit and wonder where Chrissy is right now.  Or where her boyfriend ended up.  Or whether the nameless woman whose face I couldn't see has overdosed again already.  Who are they and what will happen to them?  And who will care?

Well, even though I don't know them, even though I can't ever know what happens to them, I care.  I hope they find something like peace.  And compassion.  I refuse to believe that pain and illness and self-inflicted death is their fate.  It is certainly their option, but I hope - and I may even pray a little - that they find some reason to eventually get up and walk out of that hospital door because they can.  Because they have the ability to drive themselves home and get through another day and to know that they are worth that much.

Til next time
~~ Hasky

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lightening Up On Language

I give full credit for this post to my fellow MFA candidates, also known as the Lesley MFA Posse, who just this morning introduced me to "YOLO," a term I have been hearing for awhile but never understood.  An anagram for the phrase You Only live Once, YOLO is, apparently, favored by the "younger generation" - a category I still try to believe I can sometimes squeeze into like a tight pair of pants that just barely make it past my hips, but eventually (and very uncomfortably) fit, nonetheless.  As long as I don't exhale.

Even so, at 38 years old, I have never been a very skillful textist.  I am that annoying contact in your address book whose texts are almost always typed in complete sentences, with proper punctuation and all words fully spelled out.  While I pride myself on this at times, I am forced to admit that what I see as my attention to grammar and an effort at clear communication completely defeats the purpose of texting altogether - that abbreviated check-in kind of function for which the text feature was originally intended.  Problem is, I text more than I talk on the phone, so I put a lot of pressure on this tiny little window of opportunity to convey every thought and sub-thought I have whether I am arranging to meet up with someone for coffee or having an in-depth political debate that requires me to send my well thought out thesis in five separate texts.

Over the years, the people I text most frequently have commented - sometimes through jokes, sometimes referring to their suddenly-much-higher cell phone bills - about the lengths of my texts -- or, more specifically, the lengths of the words therein.  As a result, I have worked to bottom-line my thoughts and ... shudder/gasp/horror ... use anagrams whenever possible.  My repertoire is pretty limited to the basics: LOL.  IDK.  ROFL.  OMG.  And every now and then, when I'm having a particularly intense reaction to something, an OMFG seems to fit the bill and a ROFLMAO almost expresses the level of hilarity involved.  Always the resource-seeking researcher, I have found various glossaries and lists of texting shortcuts to assist me, but who in the world (besides a teenager of course) can remember a list this extensive: ?  I have to write out "Oatmeal.  Bananas.  Broccoli." when I go to the grocery store or I will forget at least one of the three items that necessitated the trip in the first place.

But the issue doesn't stop at texting, per se -- it seems to extend to speaking.  Or, as it is more aptly called: Text speak.  I am going to call it talkxting as a rebellious way of  taking language back and making it my own, though I don't assume my idea will catch on.  Not many of them do.  But what has become way too popular is this tendency to SPEAK the letters "O.M.G." and "I.D.K."  So when my friends mentioned this YOLO situation, they weren't referring to it as a texted phrase, rather as something people (again, young people) actually say.  "YOLO," they utter any time an old person (read: anyone over 30) questions or disciplines them. Though I haven't even talked to many teenagers since I taught ninth-grade English over a decade ago, I still hear the phrase often, in stores and coffee shops, on streets, even at the gym.  It is nice to finally know what it means, in the same way it was nice to find out that BOGO stands for "Buy One, Get One" Free last year. Although I don't foresee myself becoming a YOLO user (though the BOGO concept is right up my alley, and probably a topic for another blog post altogether).

You see, as someone who is more closely alligned to the teachings of Buddhism than to any other religious or faith-based organizations, I actually believe that we live more than once.  Or that if we do only live once, we continue to take on various forms through infinity, based on each version of life we lived before the one we are living now.  But even as I write this here, I realize that this is not the kind of conversation a frequent user of YOLO is likely to stick around for.  In fact, I imagine I would probably get a "WTH?" response  - as I probably should - for analyzing anagrams on this level.

As I think about the concept of lightening up in its many forms, this is one area that does sadden me a little - this lightening up on words and their meanings, on grammar and punctuation and, well, literacy in general.  While texting has its place and can certainly cut down on cell phone bills and time spent reading nonessential, though perhaps perfectly crafted information, I worry that it has become so ubiquitous that younger generations - the YOLO set - are not going to use text speak for the same reasons my generation may, but because they really don't know how to spell what they are trying to say.  Or, in some cases, because they don't even know how to say what they are trying to say. 

And while the addition of an emoticon often seems a helpful indicator of tone,  :) = smile, :( = frown, and so on. I still shudder at the memory of a rare text to my mother in which I inadvertently called her a "HO," not realizing I hadn't hit shift when typing the : and the ) that I had originally intended.  That was not an enjoyable early morning conversation, as I attempted to explain to my extremely conservative sixty year-old mother that I was merely trying to insert a smiley face at the end of my long and winding text whose content I can't even remember.

So I guess my final plea is this - there are so many ways and places to lighten up in life.  Stay word heavy.  Use as many words as often as possible.  Jump into complete sentences and correct grammar and splash around.  Learn all the rules about how to communicate with these little gems - after all, where else in life can you find something that is physically weightless but packs a punch, is completely free but increases your earning power, is always available and on the tip of your tongue even when you struggle to find it? 

Starting today, I do hereby commit to being a more savvy and courteous texter.  I even vow to try to understand some of the phrases I am hearing "on the street" - though I will be more careful about where I seek clarification (I probably shouldn't have asked what "FML" meant while in the middle of a work meeting).  And in return, I urge you to word binge, using the most perfect phrases and the most accurate words you can find when the situation calls for - or allows for - real language.  And when texting or talkxting seems a more appropriate alternative, well then FFS, anagram away!!



Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lightening Up and Letting Go

I feel anxious when my dog Beckett refuses to eat.  I think this simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense at all - which pretty much describes the mental duality of my existence.  While I prefer to hang out on the sensible end of the worry spectrum where most reasonable people would naturally become legitimately concerned about any living being who goes hungry for too long, I generally find myself as far away from this personal ideal as possible - somewhere between incapacitating anxiety and compulsive Googling of every symptom, both real and imagined, until I manage to transform the most inocuous symptoms into a life-threatening diagnosis.  For both my dog and me.

My fears are not entirely out of context.  After all, I am no more or less unique than anyone else when it comes to physical ailments.  I, too, have experienced my share of colds and flu bugs and pneumonia and strep throat.  Perhaps less common was the rare form of bacterial bone infection called osteomyelitis that I contracted first at age fifteen, then again at age thirty.  No known cause and --despite the necessary surgeries and months of intravenous antibiotics --  no guaranteed cure.  Certainly, that threatening osteomyelitis relapse clock often ticks in the back of my mind every now and then, but I have learned to hit the snooze button on my anxiety about a third recurrence, most of the time believing that worry will not stop the inevitable from happening.  In fact, worry is often a welcome sign for illness.
But here's where the challenge comes in. I am learning that while Beckett brings out the joyful, peaceful, calm person that I always suspected hid somewhere inside me, I often let his actions dictate my emotions.  And then I let my emotions drive my responses and define my behavior. Case in point: despite the fact that, for the past ten months, Beckett has eaten when he was hungry and stopped when he was satisfied, I put myself through daily stress and worry when he doesn't immediately empty his breakfast bowl as soon as I set it in front of him.  The difference now is awareness - I can at least see that I do this to both of us, and I am even starting to figure out why.

Because the truth is this: I am anorexic. In fact, I have been anorexic for most of my life.  Though I flirted with the vicious cycle of bulimia first, from ages 12-14, I eventually gave up the expensive, aggressive, all-consuming practice of bingeing and purging for the quiet and unassuming restriction of anorexia.  Most of my late high school years, all of my college years, and the majority of my adulthood so far  - my jobs, my relationships, my roles as friend and sister and daughter and student, and writer, and colleague and woman - have revolved around denial of food and feelings, and the guilt/fear/shame hybrid that has inevitably shown up any time I have given in to my appetites.  I have become a food restriction specialist, often pursuing starvation as if it were a career path, while developing an addiction to exercise that has left me with a resting heart rate of 42 bpm and more torn and damaged and constantly sore body parts than most eighty year-olds I know. (And before you ask, I actually know quite a few.)

I think it is precisely because of my lifelong marriage to food restriction and excess and elimination in its many indelicate forms, that I experience such intense worry every time I realize that Beckett is simply not going to eat whatever I have lovingly scooped into his stainless steel bowl.  The runt of his litter and a chronic sufferer of intestional parasites and digestive problems during his first few months of life, Beckett is no stranger to medical problems - or food aversions - of his own.  That said, when he refuses his special "sensitive stomach" dog food only to beg for the romaine lettuce and roasted green beans he can see me putting into my own lunch bag, I begin to suspect that he, too, is aware of the food games that I always thought only we humans played with one another - and with ourselves.  And while I do believe (as do most pet parents I know) that Beckett is far superior to any other canine on Earth, I don't think he prefers greens to kibble because he equates thinnness with perfection, which was always the logic at the center of my own preference for produce over carbohydrates. In fact, I don't believe Beckett thinks anything other than "I want green beans.  I like how they taste."  I think he employs the same instinctive logic when he whines for his sweet potato treats and "sits pretty" for his corn-free/wheat-free biscuits.  I don't think he ever worries or wonders whether one is more fattening or less healthy than the other.  I think, quite honestly, that he has a beautiful way of knowing what he wants and of doing everything in his power to give himself pleasure and enjoyment.

This was all on my mind this morning as I watched Beckett pick at a few pieces of dog food before deciding that he didn't feel like eating.  With a clean bill of health from the vet and a reputation for being a dietary diva, Beckett is medically fine and just ... being Beckett.  I constantly remind myself that when I recently took him on a ten-day trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, he refused to eat for almost four days, until, on day five, he got hungry enough, and I think he felt settled enough, to start eating again.  And all was well.  Despite the fact that I had spent days worrying about his refusal to eat, in the end, he ate when his body was ready.  Sometimes experiences like this remind me of the half joking/half serious curse my mother placed on me when I was very young and very stubborn: "I hope that someday, when you have children, they behave exactly like you are behaving right now," she would say.  Even though my life plans these days no longer include children of my own, I sometimes chuckle at the reality that I ended up with a dog who is putting me through many of the very same challenges I threw at my parents - some funny and quite common, some serious and scary. Certainly, as much as I love Beckett and as central to my life as he has become, I do sometimes wonder if my worries about his health and his refusal to eat are any indication of the helplessness and grief my parents must have felt all those years, watching me refuse the very sustenance they tried to give me, using starvation as a form of communication when no words would suffice.  I am doubly blessed that not only does Beckett eventually chow down, he communicates with me in a language all his own. All the time.  And if I don't hear or understand him, it is because I am not listening.

A few years ago, I asked my mother about the impact my eating disorders had had on her, especially when I was younger and hospitalization and feeding tubes started to enter the conversation. I wanted to know why she had suddenly stopped trying to force the anorexia out of my body and out of our lives.  After using every approach from ignoring the problem to suffocating it, from letting me feed  myself to force-feeding me through guilt and coercion, one day, she simply stopped.  She thought about my question for awhile before answering: "Heather, I just let go."  Those five words said so much.  My mother had let go of my illness and given it entirely to me.  It was a gift really, of the oddest kind, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless.  I don't know if she realizes that she taught me, in the letting go, that I, too, was capable of letting go of the struggles while hanging on to what was really important.  And though health and wellness remain a challenge, I am constantly teaching myself the lesson of letting go of the unhealthy to make room for what serves me and enhances my life. Beckett, of course, is one of my best teachers, especially as I watch him burrow through his bowl full of dog food to find the veggies I have strategically buried underneath.

I have committed to giving Beckett the freedom to eat when he is hungry and the freedom to stop eating when he is satisfied. I have decided to simply allow him to listen to his body's signals and to help him respond to them when I can. I figure I can learn from him, as I so often do, about how this all works.  And maybe, on this journey to health and self-awareness, I will even be able to lighten up with myself a little.  Maybe, eventually, I will even learn to just let go.

Til next time
~~ Hasky

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Non-parent's Dilemma

I am a non-parent.  "Non-parents" are very different from "people who choose not to have children" or "people who have decided to remain childless."  The non-parent identity (a hybrid adjective/noun/verb that reeks of "lack") clings to those of us who define ourselves (or are defined by others) according to the white space in our lives rather than by the tangibles.  Given my non-parent status, it is safe to say that I am not qualified to assess "good parenting" versus "not so good parenting" or "appropriate discipline" versus "way too lenient" non-discipline.  Which is why I try (though admittedly sometimes fail) not to offer parenting advice, engage in parenting discussions, or compare the behavior and disposition of one child to another.  Essentially, how others choose to navigate parenthood -- and sometimes even survive it -- is none of my business.

That said, I often struggle with how to respond when a child's behavior rises to a level that I find unacceptable.  This is especially challenging when said child's parents are present and seem indifferent to - or worse, amused by - the very behavior I consider problematic.  As a non-parent, I tend to think that these moments are nothing more than overreactions on my part.  I get that parenting is often a "pick your battles" kind of world, and I assume that the battles become less and less pickable over the years, until finally only the wars are worth fighting, and only the big stuff generates any kind of parental response.

This is all to say that, over the past few weeks, I have become aware of a new family in my apartment complex.  I usually see the mother and all five of her very young children walking and playing and splashing around in their kiddie pool when I pull into the parking lot or walk to my mailbox at the end of the day. The children are adorable - dark hair, big beautiful eyes, full of life and excitement ... the kind of life and excitement that often presents itself in the form of yelling. Everything. REALLY LOUD.  No matter what time of day or what level of urgency (i.e. "I'M SITTING ON THE SWING!" warrants the same volume level as "I FELL AND I'M BLEEDING!")  At these moments, mom is always - without fail - talking on the phone or buried in an Ipod or a book while her kids experience life right in front of her, yet so far removed from her presence.  I often wish she would just sit and watch them, but then the "non-parent" in me yells "It's none of your business.  Move on. There is nothing to see here." And on I go.

But last night was different.  Because last night, as my dog Beckett and I strolled through the parking lot, one of the children, the littlest girl who looks to be about four years old, screamed "CAN I PET THE DOGGIE?!" as we passed their driveway. 

"Of course you can," I responded quietly, modelling the volume level I hoped she would imitate. "I'm going to hold his harness, though, because he's very playful and I don't want him to jump," I added.  Yet before I could grab Beckett's harness, the child came bounding toward us with her arms stretched wide screaming "DOGGIE! DOGGIE! DOGGIEEEEEEEE!" which, of course, resulted in a barking, cowering Beckett.

"It's ok," I assured her.  "He just gets scared when it's too noisy or when you move too quickly."  I looked at the mom, who stood half watching, half reading whatever on her Ipod was more important than her barely-out-of-toddlerhood child.  "Here, I'll hold him so you can meet him if you'd like," I added.  By now, the little girl stood rigid in front of me, both arms folded, a dirty look on her face, a glare beaming out of her big, brown eyes.  She didn't seem scared at all.  She seemed ... angry?  Was that possible? 

"NO!" she snapped suddenly, answering my silent question.  "Now I don't WANT to pet him!"

Yup, she was angry.

"He's a stupid doggie and I hope he dies," she hissed before pivoting on her tiny flip flops and storming back up to her mother, who by now was looking at me with a "Kids ... what can you do?" kind of expression, complete with exasperated shoulder shrug.  Here's the thing: Don't ask questions - not even in the form of nonverbal facial expressions - that you don't want answered, lady. 

"Um, excuse me," I was more official now as I walked up the driveway toward mom and her suddenly-less-cute tot.  I bent down to the little girl's level and addressed her directly, in front of her mother, who was now, finally, completely engaged in the situation, and looking both worried and curious about how this rare confrontation of her child was going to play out.

"I'm sorry if my doggie scared you when he barked.  But he is a doggie, and he likes it when people are gentle with him and come up to him slowly." The little girl was quiet now, staring at me as if I  had several heads, none of which she cared to look at, and none of which she dared to look away from. 

"But calling him names and saying you wish he was dead are not going to stop the doggie from barking or jumping.  Only talking to him softly will help him do that."  And then I finished with: " And I would be very sad if anything happened to my doggie."  Then I waited.  I don't know what I was waiting for.  Part of me was waiting for her to tell me she wished I would die.  Part of me was afraid that, even in my attepmt to be gentle, she would start crying because someone had finally taken an interest (in the unfamiliar form of adult authority) in her behavior.

After a few minutes of staring at one another, the child looked away as I stood to walk back to my apartment, saddened by how effortlesly she had laid a death wish on my dog, because I knew she had no concept of what that even meant and no understanding of the power of words or the finality of what she had said. 

As I clicked my signature "Come" noise in Beckett's direction, I heard a soft voice ask "Does he like little girls?"  I spun to face the child again, because I couldn't believe she was capable of producing such a bearable volume level or such an innocent, genuine question.

"You know what?" I asked, as I bent back down and looked directly at her.  "I don't know.  He is never around little girls.  Or little boys.  It would be really nice if he could meet you and have a little girl friend, though.  What do you think about that?"

At that moment, even as a non-parent, I saw what parents mean when they describe a child's smile as "lighting up the world."  She smiled the biggest, brightest smile and walked over to me, put her hand on top of my hand, which was resting on Beckett's back, and said "I could be his first friend."  And then, before I could respond, she bent down and kissed Beckett's head.

As I got up to leave, I noticed that mom hadn't blinked in almost five full minutes, though she, too, was smiling.  I don't know if she was smiling because the little girl was finally calm, or if she was as touched as I was by the ability of a child, of her child, to show compassion, to admit that perhaps she had been wrong, and to open herself to the possibility of connecting to another living being (in this case both Beckett and me).  But whatever it was, I allowed myself to step into this unknown mother's world for just a moment - not as a parent, or as someone who had earned a full time membership in that world, but as someone who had seen a child in need of guidance and who had, despite mom's presence, provided what guidance I could.

I imagine the little girl and all her siblings will be out playing tonight when I take Beckett for his post-dinner walk.  Mom will probably be engaged with something electronic while her kids have once-in-a-lifetime experiences right in front of her distracted eyes.  But I also know that Beckett and I will stop by just to say hello to his new little friend, because even as a non-parent, I know that sometimes life isn't about picking the battles or fighting the wars.  Sometimes, life can be as simple as E.M. Forrester's suggestion: "Only Connect."