Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mish-Mash

This winter has been so strange.

Normally, I curl up with books and read my way into spring, but this year, my circadian rhythm seems to be disrupted by icicles and wind-chill.  I fall asleep really early, and wake up really early--only to fall asleep again an hour or two later.

It's finally happened.  I think I'm actually hibernating.

I confess, I've spent the past two weeks trying to be cheerful about the weather, and then, sometime on ... Saturday, I think... I just snapped and began to use words like "ENOUGH" and "sucks" on a regular basis, often while looking at piles of snow and sheets of ice.

Because really, Mother Nature, it's just enough already.  It's almost MARCH now.  It's time to be a bit more mindful of that fact.  And I know, "March winds" and "like a lion, blah, blah, blah," but I say again, "ENOUGH."

My spring break is in a few weeks and if I don't see something that offers a few very clear and unambiguous hints of spring (no more of this raising the temperature 40 degrees only to drop it 50 a day later), I'm filing a formal complaint.

All this to say, I think my blogging brain has also run low on anti-freeze.  Because I'm finding it hard to think of things to blog about (besides constant complaints about the weather, and no one needs that).

So what follows will be a mish-mash of observations that have marked the past several weeks.  In the words of Bette Davis, "Buckle up.  It's gonna be bumpy ride."

I was reading Bill Streever's book, Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places, a few weeks ago.  Oddly enough, while reading Heat, I stumbled upon a description of Barrow, Alaska, the community located near the northernmost point in the United States, Point Barrow.  (Apparently, Streever also mentioned Barrow in his book, Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, which makes total sense, but for some reason, I just blew right past it and didn't even notice.)

So, geography fun-fact--here's where Barrow is located:


Yeah.  I know.  Wow.  A total reminder that I need to just shut up about the cold and the wind chill, because some people are actually choosing to live in a place where it doesn't ever get much above 40 degrees Farenheit.

So of course I Googled "Barrow, AK" because I wanted to find out more.  The first thing I thought upon seeing a picture of Barrow was, "That place looks like that place in that movie."  (When I talk to myself, my language-skills are often sub-par.)

By "that movie," I'm referring to the movie in which a cute little girl is transformed into a vicious, blood-sucking vampire right in front of a gigantic Pepsi machine.  (Much to Josh Hartnett's dismay.)   I remember this because at the time that I was watching it, I commented to a friend that, "If I were Pepsi, I would have objected to the product placement in that scene."

Call me old-school, but I think there are some situations in which subliminal messaging may not work to your advantage.

The film I was thinking of is "30 Days of Night."  And, as it turns out, that film--or, more accurately, the graphic novel on which the film is based--is set in Barrow, AK.

Which, just so you know, tends to get about 90 days of night, in any given year.  30 days of night is being very optimistic, once you move that far north of the Arctic Circle.

In a totally different moment of enlightenment, I had a (fairly typical) conversation with my best friend about The Guess Who's song, "American Woman."  (Sidebar: if you watch a few of the "Sisters" videos made by The Kloons, you'll get a pretty good sense of the kind of conversations my best friend and I tend to have.  I think it's a function of knowing someone for 30 years or so.)

Anyway, I confessed to her that the song "American Woman" has always troubled me.  There's no context in the song for why all of the women of the US are being lumped together in this way and then painted as some kind of ... well, I don't know what, really.

I can't imagine that anyone out there is unfamiliar with the song, but if you are, here are the lyrics.

I told my friend, "It seems to me that if he's had a bad dating experience with an American woman, then fine, I can understand that, but I don't see what her citizenship had to do with it, and the song certainly doesn't explain or clarify that.  So I'm left wondering, what exactly does he plan to do?  Not date American women anymore?  Is that really fair?  Is he really willing to openly declare himself to be that narrow-minded?"

So my best friend clarified that she thought--and she emphasized that she wasn't absolutely certain about this--but that she thought that the song was supposed to be referencing the Vietnam War.  Not... dating.

My response: "It is?"

Her reply: "Yes, I think so."

My response: "But why call it 'American Woman'?  They're blaming Vietnam on American women, now?  When did that start?"

Her reply: "Well, I think it's because, you know, the nation is a woman.  Symbolically."

My response: "It is?"  (A brief pause.)  "Do the current members of Congress know this?"

So this sent me off on another Googling expedition, and I must say, my Barrow-search was far more satisfying.  Because the writer of the song "American Woman" has apparently tried to argue that the song isn't meant to be misogynist or anti-American at all.  He claims he "just wrote it."

Hunh.  I must say, I'm willing to give all kinds of artistic licence to pretty much everyone, but I really think you're going to be hard pressed to argue that a song with lines like "American Woman, get away from me" is not designed to diss or reflect negatively on either Americans or women.

Just saying.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Kintsugi

Recently, I've been thinking about the Japanese art of kintsugi or "gold joinery" (also called kintsukuroi).  Traditionally applied to ceramics, kintsugi operates on the assumption that broken isn't bad, it's just... part of life.

So, in the practice of kintsugi, a broken plate or bowl is not discarded.  Instead, it's repaired, openly and apparently, on the assumption that the process of mending the broken item is part of the item's "life" or history.

This isn't your mother's Gorilla Glue, either.  Kintsugi typically uses a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum to create obvious--and, implicitly, beautiful--seams that mark the damage done to the original object. 


I think what fascinates me about this concept is how foreign it is to an American consumer culture that focuses on having the "newest" of anything and everything and how quickly we resort to discarding things that may not work as well as we'd like them to.

We tend to consider things in terms of polarities: health vs. sickness, whole vs. broken, new (or young) vs. old, and along the way, we (implicitly or explicitly) privilege one half of the binary, granting it the predominant value and devaluing its opposite.

But maybe life isn't made to be conceived of in terms of clear oppositions.  Kintsugi suggests, in an indirect way, an appreciation for the nuances of wear and tear--that they can come to be part of the overall design and beauty of an object.

I wonder how different our attitude toward the world around us--and the people in it--would be if, when it came to repairing the problems or damage caused by ourselves or others, we poured what is most precious to us into the seams and divisions that mark our ruptures and disconnections.

Instead of thinking about restoring people to a state of pristine health and youth and happiness (something that never really exists outside of Hollywood and Big Pharm ad campaigns anyway), we look for the opportunities and possibilities for beauty in the midst of damage.

The art of kintsugi suggests that the beauty of art lies in the life that it lives in a world full of unpredictability and accidents.   It is a reminder that the beauty of art can--and should be--a reflection of the beauty of life.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Kindly Change

On the eve of Valentine's Day, I think it's only appropriate that I blog about two articles about relationships that I've read recently that I think offer invaluable advice.

The first, by Duana Welch, focuses on two crucial qualities that should characterize every relationship: kindness and respect.

As Welch points out, "Kind people treat others well regardless of what type of day they're having."  Easier said than done, some days, but I think Welch's point still holds.  People who regularly use the excuse of having a "bad day" as a pretext for lashing out are probably fundamentally unkind.  Because, as Welch also points out, kind people generally try to go out of their way to avoid being mean-spirited even when they don't like someone.

This is because, on a very basic level, being mean-spirited conflicts with their core values.  In my own experience, when I find myself being unkind or saying unkind things, I know that there's something seriously wrong with me, with the situation and with the way that I'm feeling about the situation.

In most cases, what's bothering me is something much deeper than what is happening in the moment itself.  Typically, I'm feeling hurt or threatened in some way, and my unkindness is a way of saying "back off!"

And this leads to the second relationship quality that Welch (and Aretha Franklin) identify as crucial: r-e-s-p-e-c-t.  Again, easier said than done, particularly when you fundamentally dislike another person.

Welch suggests that you should pay close attention to how a person treats other people--not just how they treat you (the person they presumably like).  If they can navigate their way to at least a semblance of cordiality when they are confronted with a person they'd rather not encounter, chances are, they believe that human beings in general--and not just the people they happen to fancy--are deserving of kindness and respect.

The second article, by Steven Stosny, examines what psychologist John Gottman identifies as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (relationship-apocalypse, that is): criticism.

I think this is a tricky one because I really do believe that people who are critical of others think that they're doing the world a favor.  Who better to point out the flaws of others and right the world's wrongs than the critical among us?  They possess such keen insight... or so they think.

As Mark Twain once quipped, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's bad habits."

The problem, of course, is that the critical among us become so fixated on the bad habits of others that they lose sight of a few of their own.

Perhaps more importantly, however, as Stosny points out, frequent practitioners of criticism end up working against their own interests.

Criticism is one of the least effective ways of bringing about change.  If you want people to mend their ways, you need to get them to cooperate, somehow, and agree to work toward the goals that you believe are important.

And so I ask you: consider the last time you spent a chunk of time having your faults pointed out to you by a certain someone.  How cooperative did you feel when it was over?  Chances are, if you went along with anything they said, you probably did so in order to shut them up, and if you did, you then undid whatever you did the minute you could.

More likely, you simply dug in your heels and became defensive.  Because, as Stosny points out, criticism fosters resistance.  It's as simple as that.

If you want someone to change what s/he is doing, you need to find a way to first show that you value them for who they are.  In a nutshell, be kind and respectful and you won't need to criticize.  As Stosny points out, criticism is really a form of ego-defense: it's not about what the other person is doing, it's about what the critical person feels about him/herself in relation to the other person's behavior that fuels criticism.

Criticism isn't about trying to change someone else, really--it's about trying to control them.  And the desire to control is, in the end, neither kind nor respectful.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Taking Care

It's been a ... complicated... week, involving lots of repairs and maintenance.  To things like cars, bathrooms, and, well, my own little eyeballs, actually.

So it's been a week in which I've occasionally had to remind myself to "breathe" and that "this too shall pass."  (I sure would prefer if it "passed" sooner rather than later, obviously.)

I've been doing some reading about what's known in psychology as a "Caretaker" personality.  In fact, I took a little test, and it was determined that I fall in the category of "Pathological Altruist."

Oh dear.

I can't say that comes as much of a surprise.  At best, I was hoping for the label of "Protesting Colluder" (because I really do protest--honest, I do), but when I read the description, I knew I would come up a "Pathological Altruist."
"...you find joy in giving to others.  You like making others feel happy.  You often surprise others with thoughtful gifts and doing favors.  However, you may find it uncomfortable and a little embarrassing when others do the same for you.  You don't know how to accept thanks, or you may brush off gratitude or blush when others are appreciative.  It may take you quite awhile before you notice that your needs, wants, and feelings are not paid much attention... Although you may notice some internal anger about this unfairness, it is probably very hard for you to share this feeling with anyone." (Fjelstad, 41)
Until I go bat-shit ballistic, that is.  Then I start "sharing my feelings" right and left, using all kinds of choice words and colorful phrases that many of my close friends have acknowledged (after the fact) that they found ... surprising.

A friend of mine who's both a linguist and a non-native speaker of English once said, "I must say, you've clearly mastered both ends of the linguistic spectrum when it comes to English.  I would never have believed that someone who can speak and write with such poise and elegance could also hit on such truly vulgar phrases to describe her gut-level reactions to people when she's angry."

I think that's a strong sign that I'm indulging in Caretaking to a "pathological" extent.  If you take care of everyone but yourself, eventually, you will feel exhausted and wounde and start to scream with sheer resentment.

Not that anyone is really inclined to listen to you, by that point.  You've trained people to steam-roll over your needs or your feelings and they are basically at a point where they can easily assume that you don't have any needs or feelings, really, because you've spent months (if not years) pretending that you don't.

Not good, obviously.

I've known for a while that this is an issue with me, and I've worked for years (seriously--this kind of behavior dies really hard) on setting better boundaries.  I've gotten a little better when it comes to professional relationships (emphasis on little there, because I know that I have miles to go), but it's something that is particularly hard for me when it comes to personal relationships.

As Fjelstad points out, the Caretaker personality is formed in family relationships, early on.  And once established, it's a hard pattern to break.  At times, it becomes so engrained in the person's sense of self, that they aren't even aware that it's a behavior, per se.  To the Caretaker, this just feels like being "who you are" or who you "want to be."  It becomes intricately tied to the person's sense of self and personal values.

I've found a lot of advice that has been very helpful.  One image worked particularly well for me: a person can "help" in the sense that a lighthouse helps. 

Obviously, lighthouses are there to safeguard all the ships at sea.  However, lighthouses don't wade out into the ocean and board a ship and try to steer it to safety.  They just stand there.  They're a light of optimism and caution--the shoreline is right here, but be careful, so are the rocks--and people can choose to be guided by the light.  If they don't, though, don't blame it on the lighthouse.

A friend of mine who is an attorney told me years ago that, in her profession, she had had to learn to distance herself from situations in which she was beating her head against a wall offering advice that was never going to be listened to.  She said, "It's very hard to accept, but sometimes, senseless though it is, the train just has to crash.  Don't be on board when it does."

She added that, in her experience, people are just as happy when someone shows up to help pick over the rubble and support someone in rebuilding a life, and that they're more likely to be able to do that without anger or judgment if they've taken care of themselves.  

Another friend of mine who has survived a train-wrecked life agreed.  She said that she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the people who showed up after it was all over and helped and encouraged her to find a different path.  She said, "I found that this was the best way they could show their concern and friendship for me."

She said, "At the time when my life was out of control, though, they left.  And at that time, I had all kinds of bitterness--I went on and on and on about 'loyalty' and 'betrayal' and 'true friendship.'  But in hindsight, when I think about it now, I say to myself, well, of course they left.  They had to.  No one could be dealing with me, the way I was.  It wasn't going to help.  I had to crash.   I'm glad they weren't on board for that."

In a sense, my friends were describing a category identified as "Self-Protectors":
"Self-protecting Caretakers have learned to step away from the drama... You set limits and refuse to interact with [people who are] manipulative and demanding.  By thinking ahead, you plan your interactions... You work consistently to be aware of your own thoughts, needs, and beliefs in order to maintain a separate sense of yourself." (Fjelstad, 43)
Achieving a sense of self-protection in a Caretaker is hard-won, of course: "You may feel like you are being mean, uncaring, and manipulative... Every decision and behavior on your part has to be well chosen to keep yourself out of the emotional drama" (43).

In the end, however, Self-Protecters "come to understand that expecting [others] to change is futile.  Being kind and considerate and at the same time setting boundaries and limits ... is a constant challenge, but this is the primary goal of the self-protecting Caretaker" (44).

It's a goal that involves taking care of oneself so that one can take care of others-- a choice that will, ultimately, embody the kind of altruism that is inherently appealing to the Caretaker personality.  It is consciously choosing to be care-full of oneself and careful with others.

So this is my New Year's Resolution for 2015: to become a Self-Protecting Altruist, instead of a Pathological one.