I’m NOT Fine ~Death to Small Talk

death to small talk
Copyright : Peter Bernik

I’m in a great mood right now. Surprising, huh? I usually write when I’m depressed, pissed off or at least lethargic. Never fear, because the other day, I wasn’t in a great mood. I was in a horrible mood, but necessity dictated I go out into the world, so I did.

As I went, I was determined not to tell people I felt “fine.” I’ve gone out with this decree in my head before. When people ask, “How’s it going today?” I think, I’ll tell it like it is. Though I fantasize about responding with, “shitty, actually,” I know I’m not confrontational enough to pull it off; I hate making people uncomfortable. But I figured  I could say, “Not great,” or at the very least, “Meh.”

It turns out, it is a physical impossibility for anything other than “fine” to escape my lips. The clerk at the grocery store asked how I was, and I said, “fine.” I didn’t even realize it until thirty seconds later:

Wait, did she ask me how I was? Did I say “fine?” Crap, I did. Damnit!

It’s like breathing. I don’t think about saying “fine,” it just happens; I’m barely aware of it coming out of my mouth. Bottom line is, people use it as a greeting and aren’t actually interested in how you are (unless you are indeed “fine” or “great” or “fabulous.”)

The thing is, though, what are they going to say when I give less than, “Gosh, gee, ain’t it great to be alive?” They will probably…

A. Be sorry they asked.

B. Ask what’s wrong even though they don’t want to know.

C. Be baffled when I shrug my shoulders and say, “Just one of those days, I guess.”

I’d like to be honest about my feelings when people ask, even if it’s a stranger. I don’t want to pour my heart out to them; that’s part of the reason for the knee-jerk “fine.” I just want to be able to use an adjective that actually applies to my mood and/or day. In my ideal world, where everyone admits they’re not “fine” all the time, it would go something like this:

Stranger: How are you today?

Me: Not great, actually.

Stranger: Oh yeah? I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.

Me: Meh. It happens. How are you?

So here’s the question: Have you ever answered “How are you?” with something other than the expected positive affirmation when talking to a stranger? How did it go?

 

My Own, Finished Steaming Pile of…

nirzar-pangarkar-85500-unsplash
Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

I am great at starting projects. I have started writing a book at least six times in my life. In the past several years I have begun learning to knit, gathered pictures for a collage I never finished, and started a quilt using old fabric. Okay, I gathered the material in a big kitchen bag beside my bed, but I don’t actually know how to quilt, so it just sat there until I got tired of Jason complaining about all my unfinished projects lying around, and I hid it in the closet where it still resides today.

Sometimes I just lose steam. That’s what happens with writing. I’ll get this great idea, usually while I’m lying in bed on a weekend morning. I’ll run downstairs and tippity type away, banging out several chapters. That might happen a few more times until I get a quarter to a third of a novel…and then I quit. I used to think I was just lazy, but then I realized it’s that I get cold feet. I start to think the idea sucks or I can’t think of what comes next without it feeling contrived. Several months of hesitation go by where I find every excuse not to write. Suddenly, whole closets need to be cleaned out and rearranged. Suddenly, I need a Twitter account. Then I lose the thread of the story. Half a year later, I have another blinding flash of genius whilst lying in bed, and the cycle begins again. I am really good at starting stories. Is there a career in that?

As time went on, I doubted I was capable of completing a novel. I couldn’t even finish knitting a pot holder, after all. So this last time I got an idea, I told myself I would finish, no matter how doubtful I was and no matter what steaming pile of inconsistent plot and shallow characters I ended up creating. I had to know I could finish, quality be damned.

As I wrote this last story, there were days I was inspired and tippity typing at my fastest, but there were more days when I sat, typed two halting sentences, deleted them, then went for a walk. But, I finished the damned story. At this point, I’ve been over it so many times, I think it might be crap. I don’t know; I really can’t tell anymore. And there are problems with it that I don’t know how to fix.

I enlisted my sister as a beta reader because despite being my sister, I know she’ll tell me the truth, which is why I am scared to read her feedback. It’s dismaying to think the thing you’ve wanted to do pretty much your whole life, the thing you’ve finally accomplished, might be awful. I also know I have more stories in me, but finishing that first one was like wringing the last drips from a washcloth. I’m not sure I have it in me again.

But, I did it. I wrote a novel. It might be a steaming pile of crap, but it’s my steaming pile of crap. And it’s finished.

Coffee Pods, Banana Peels, and Impending Doom

img_1348.jpgI ordered a book the other day, and then I forgot I ordered it because it took longer than the customary speed-of-light Amazon delivery. Then I remembered yesterday and thought, Where is that book? It was in the mailbox this morning, and it showed up exactly when I needed it.

They’re building a new shopping center down the road from us. I don’t know what will be in it, but it nicely complements the half-empty one less than a mile from it. I read a blog the other day about consumerism and how advertising is always trying to convince us we need stuff, pointing out our supposed flaws so they can sell us eye creme, Spanx, and protein shakes. I would’ve been pumping my fist in solidarity if it hadn’t been for the pop-up ads on the post making me wonder if the hypocrisy was totally lost on the author.

There is so much shit wrong with this world politically, socially, environmentally. It seems capitalism is failing us, as businesses act with self-interest — build more stuff, sell more stuff, convince people they need more stuff — instead of what is in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes it is clothed in a disguise of altruism, which is either intentional misdirection on their part or self-delusion and rationalization, but it always results in the making and buying of stuff.

I look at all of this, and I have a feeling of despair, of helplessness. I can clean out coffee pods to recycle them all day long, I can compost every last banana peel we make, I can avoid driving to reduce our carbon emissions. But what real difference is that going to make when industries, the biggest purveyors of environmental pollution of all kinds, aren’t following suit? Because it’s more expensive or a pain in the ass or people just don’t like change, they aren’t going to do it. Because industry is self-serving, and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say they don’t give a shit about the future of our planet or humankind. They *might* care on an individual person level, or they might give lip service to it, but those who could implement real change through business policy aren’t going to.

And then I get You Are Here in the mail, and I read these lines:

You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in unexpected and accidental ways. You won’t always see the wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you. But I promise you they are real.

IMG_1350This isn’t empty platitude from a self-help guru or motivational speaker. It’s an honest accounting by the author, Jenny Lawson, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease. Most of the things she writes are darkly humorous accounts of her childhood and her struggles with illness. Coming from her, it reads less like someone trying to cheer me up and more like a sister in suffering giving me a hug, shoring me up, and telling me to keep the faith.

My mother’s guiding principle in life is to “leave things better than she found them.” Mine, I guess, is similar. I want to recognize what is real and raw, emotionally, for so many of us. I don’t need to offer mind-blowing advice or shout it from the mountain for all of humanity to hear. But if a few people read what I write and it makes them feel less alone, makes their lives just a tiny bit better, that’ll be enough, coffee pods and banana peels be damned. Thanks, Jenny, for reminding me.

Hammer Therapy

Hammer, nails on wooden boards outside on construction site
Copyright : Jozef Polc

When I was thirteen, my dad threw a hammer at me.

Now before you go getting all shocked and jumping to conclusions, I should point out, he prefaced the throw with, “Here, catch,” as he gently lobbed it about six feet to my outstretched hand. Also, we were on a roof, and I suck at catching things.

Okay, full story: My dad, mom, sister, and I were up on our roof hammering shingles into the addition to the house my dad had just completed. We have always been a full-on, do-it-yourself family, occasionally to the point of what some would call stupidity. When Dad said, “Here, catch,” and I realized he was going to throw a hammer I was expected to successfully receive, I was terrified I’d miss it and Dad would be mad. I did miss it, and it clattered to the roof, knocking some of the surfacing from the brand-new composition shingles. He was mad. It was the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, do you know what composition shingles are? ‘Cause I do. That’s how I was raised — knowing a lot of random construction details most non-construction people neither know nor care about. And yes, it’s a point of pride. Go ahead, ask me how dual vanity sinks are plumbed. I’ll draw you a diagram. If you want to know how a post-tension slab foundation works, I can give you details on that, too. Mind you, I couldn’t actually build one, but I could definitely write a manual.

But I digress. So I missed the hammer, and Dad got irritated at me. He said something to the effect of, “Goddamnit, April! Why didn’t you catch that?”

Mom then came to my rescue with, “Because she knew you’d yell at her if she didn’t!”

I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, Yeah. Yeah, that’s why! It was a revelation; nerves had gotten the better of me, and I didn’t even realize that was a thing that happened until she said it.

I tell this story, because how can you not tell a story that starts with, “One time, my dad threw a hammer at me…” and make people wonder? And because it’s a snapshot memory that stands out in technicolor clarity in my mind. It was when I realized that pressuring people to perform can have the exact opposite of the desired effect, and it gave me an inkling of insight into my own psychological hangups.

The moral of this story is, you’ve got to verbalize your children’s emotions for them from time to time to help them label those emotions. Or maybe it’s that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be perfect all the time. No, no, I’ve got it. It’s…

If you really want a kid to learn something, put them on a roof and throw hammers at them. Right?