Coffee Pods, Banana Peels, and Impending Doom

Jenny Lawson, You Are HereI 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.

Welcome to My Brain

fullsizeoutput_4440Sometimes I have the urge to write but not about any particular topic. It’s like when I was little and would say to my mom, “Let’s talk about.” She’d ask, “Talk about what?” Me: “Things!” I was in the mood for conversation about nothing specific.

Here I sit, typing away, stream-of-consciousness style. When I do this, sometimes something brilliant comes out. Sometimes it’s rambly drivel. Most often, though, it’s one or the other, I’m just not sure which.

Sometimes when I’m editing my own writing, I read it for so long, I lose sight of what is great and what is crap. I cease to be able to tell the difference. It makes sense, really, since it’s all subjective, and my moods can at times be less like a rollercoaster and more like the heart monitor line for a particularly erratic patient.

It’s cold outside right now. It’s early November in Austin, and it is like 30 degrees — highly unusual. Of course, Texas weather by nature is unpredictable, just like my moods or that suffering heart patient, so really “highly unusual” isn’t highly unusual at all. In two days, it could be 85 degrees, and we’d all be like, “yeah, pretty much.”

Our heat isn’t on yet, partially because of the aforementioned possibility of imminent summer weather and partly because when we turn it on for the first time each season, it smells musty, dries the air and clogs all of our sinuses. So I’m sitting here, cross-legged in my office chair, bundled in my robe and a scarf, drinking ginger tea mostly for the warmth of it.

I can see a gerbera daisy blooming outside my window. That’s how ridiculous the weather here is. A few days ago, it was warm enough for flowers to poke their heads up and bask in the sun. Now it’s cold enough to kill them.

There’s a squirrel sitting up in the tree over the shivering red daisy. It’s very still (for a squirrel), huddled for warmth, maybe munching one of the millions of acorns that cover our yard and driveway and force me to wear shoes so I don’t impale my feet.

So this is why I bother to free-write like this. I’ve just realized the metaphor between my ephemeral mood swings and the Texas weather — can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

I recently applied to a program that helps authors write, publish and promote their books. Some of the questions on the application asked what my motivation was for wanting to publish a book. The application was completed and submitted over a week ago, but it’s caused me to ponder the intricacies of my relationship with writing.

One of my favorite things is when someone tells me they read a post of mine and they connected with it. They thank me for writing it because it cheered them knowing other people have the same struggles as they do. Or just knowing that other people struggle at all. With social media, sometimes you feel like you’re the only one not going on fabulous vacations and getting your shit together.

That’s what I want. I want to connect people. I want people to realize they don’t have to play perfect; we can like and respect each other, warts and all. No matter our backgrounds or how different we may seem at a distance, up close we all have fears, weaknesses, confusion. And that’s not a negative thing; it’s part of life. What makes life good is that we can share our problems with others and find support and sympathy instead of judgment. That interconnectedness is what bolsters us to pick ourselves up and move forward after a fall.

No one is an island…or rather, no one thrives as an island. It’s not about our ability to make a lot of friends. Whether you have one close friend or twenty, it’s more about our ability to view other people as nuanced humans instead of one-dimensional labels. Woman, Liberal, Republican, Gay, Catholic, Transgendered. Those are infinitesimal pieces of an identity.

We are all humans who laugh and cry and worry and meander through daily existence no matter where we live. When we can see that human-ness in the forefront, before we see the labels, we can truly work together towards common goals that will make this world better for all of us. See, I told you this stream-of-consciousness thing turns out well sometimes.

I considered editing out all of the free-associative stuff at the beginning of this post, since the meat of it doesn’t start till halfway down the page, but I decided I kind of like it. It reminds me of writing a letter to a friend, where you touch on topics from the mundane to the mystical. I’m all about being real and real isn’t always a neat little post with nice transitions and perfectly-related sentences. My real brain is much messier than most of my writing. Don’t worry, though. I won’t let it go to my head.

 

Can You Be Pro-Life AND Pro-Choice?

 

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Work together, people!

I’ve always thought of the pro-life/pro-choice issue as polarizing, and in today’s political discussion, it sure feels that way. Recently, however, I realized something: it doesn’t have to be.

When I was in high school, I used to roll my eyes as my guy friends argued and postured with each other. Their classic argument:

Guy 1: I’m stronger.

Guy 2: No, I can swim faster.

Guy 1: No, I’m stronger.

Guy 2: But I can swim faster!

They thought they were in disagreement when they weren’t even expressing two opposing viewpoints. It was ridiculous; they were defensive and insecure and/or just liked to argue.

Similarly, the pro-life and pro-choice viewpoints don’t have to be diametrically opposite from each other. You can believe that life is sacred and still believe in a woman’s right to safe, legal abortion. But really, whatever you believe about the legality of abortion, I bet there are a few things — vitally important things — most of us on both sides of the issue can agree on.

No one is like, “Yeah, abortions are awesome. SO much fun!” Even those of us who believe they ought to be legal see it as a last resort. What I’d much prefer is that we dispense with arguing with each other and start talking about what we can do to support women during their reproductive years to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy — something we can do through improved health care; more robust, consistent sex education; and access to birth control. What would happen if we took all the energy we spend shouting, “Get your laws off my body,” and, “Abortion is murder,” and used it to solve those issues?

We can all stand around with our signs, our chants, and our self-righteous rhetoric, or we can talk to each other like rational adults and actually DO something to improve outcomes for women of all races, religions, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses. We are all in this thing together, and I do mean ALL of us — not just white people or women or straight people or able-bodied people — every last person on this earth. Let’s finally act like it.

Politics, Ugh. But Still…

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I’m feeling a little bummed. I’ve spent probably an ill-advised amount of energy debating other people on Facebook over the past few days. I normally stay out of social media arguments. They have a tendency to devolve into name-calling, personal attacks and a lot of unnecessary exclamation points. But recently, I’ve come across a handful of people online who are willing to have civilized intellectual conversations, even though our politics don’t agree.

It’s mentally exhausting.

It wore me out supporting my point of view with informed commentary and research, and it was good for me. It’s easy to engage in e-shouting and spouting violent solutions to get rid of the opposition. It’s much harder to have an actual dialogue involving a well-thought-out exchange of ideas, where you are forced to take a look at your own beliefs and why you have them.

It’s no secret I lean liberal.

And it’s easy and comforting to submerge myself in my liberal compatriots, where we all like each others’ posts and it’s a big love fest. Comeraderie is great, for sure, but the challenge of those who don’t agree is too.  During the online conversations I chose to participate in over the weekend, I learned why some of my conservative friends think the way they do, and I was prodded into putting a critical eye to my own beliefs.

I didn’t change my mind; neither did they. But we (or at least I) came away with a better understanding of people. Most of us want to do what we think is right; we just don’t all agree on what that is. Talk about the American way. And those that are willing to open their minds and hearts enough to have honest conversations with those on the other side of the issue, those are the people we need working for us.

Vice puts it this way:

Political discussions seem to go one of three ways, whether online or off:

  1. Everyone agrees with each other because we’ve built social circles that don’t include anyone who doesn’t share the same views as the rest of the group.
  2. People get very angry.
  3. People with opposing beliefs speak to each other in a way that is productive. Each explains his or her viewpoint, and both walk away understanding the other side a little bit more, even if they haven’t changed their minds.

It rarely goes the third way.

I’ve seen politicians and the general public alike resort to yelling threats and personal attacks at each other. I get the frustration; it’s human. But…

if we can take our egos out of it for just one conversation, imagine what we could do together.

Image credit:  Lorenzo Rossi

I Haven’t Written Lately Because Listicles

Celebrity Affair CollageIt’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. My paying work picked up its pace over the past several months and the kids are out of school. Something had to give, so I intentionally put blogging on the back burner, as much as it pained me to do it.

I love writing here, because I can write whatever I want, in whatever format I want and with whatever whimsical made-up words I favor. The only problem is, no one pays me to write my weird personal stuff.

I recently started writing for a parenting website that is committed to listicles (an article in list format – Jason says “listicle” sounds like male genitalia). The website has very specific requirements for word count, amongst other rules for achieving ideal SEO (search engine optimization.)

When I started, I found the restrictions…well, restricting, but now, I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of creating an engaging list within the site’s parameters. And I like that I can create these articles with internet research alone and don’t have to talk to any real people or rely on them to send me information. (Introverts unite!…separately, in our own homes)

The real challenge, though, is choosing a topic. I get paid based on the number of times my listicles get clicked on, so it’s in my best interest to pick popular topics. Some of the most-read ones involve shaming celebrities and ideas that have no other value than to shock the reader and allow them to judge people. They’re the train wrecks of the internet. You know the type: Ten Shocking Celebrity Parents Who Don’t Raise Their Kids Right. Yeah, Homey don’t play that. And by “Homey,” I mean me. But…

I found I can dress up the meatloaf – meatloaf being my own preferred topics: women’s reproductive rights, body and fat positivity, and judge not, lest ye be judged. (Yes, the atheist just quoted the Bible.) I can take a topic like Eight Times Celebrities Messed Up Their Marriages – a potential train-wreck article – and give it value. I can turn it into a lesson on not judging others, even celebrities who are always, always in the public eye. I can use the shocking title to grab you and, now that I’ve got your attention, give you something that does more than entertain. I can feed you something that really makes you think and reflect. Example: I wrote this article, 12 Shocking Stories of Women Who Performed Their Own Abortions, and made it into an analysis of why they did it and how restrictive abortion laws can force a woman’s hand. (One of the things I love about the site is they don’t mind if I get political.)

So, in the vein of not judging, I have stopped judging listicle-type articles for their titles. I’m not the only writer out there trying to make people think instead of just gawking at disasters. Some listicles actually have substance. But, once I’ve read the content, make no mistake; I will be judging.

It’s Full of Stars

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Several years ago, I walked into a coffee shop. I had some time to kill before an appointment and a good book to read. As I approached the counter and inquired about decaffeinated options, the barista asked me, “What are you reading?” It was Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. He hadn’t heard of it but commented that he liked to read but hadn’t read anything recently. I, in an uncharacteristic spurt of extroversion, asked, “What did you like to read?” Then, his eyes lit up, as he began to talk about quantum mechanics and string theory, subjects of which I have an extremely tentative understanding, but his passion for it was captivating. In the few minutes it took my coffee to brew, he explained to me how everything in the universe was made from the same source, if you believe the big bang theory, so the elements in our bodies are the same as those in stars millions of light years away. “We’re all star dust,” he said with child-like delight. Then, my coffee was ready.

The whole conversation lasted less than five minutes, but the star dust thing stuck with me, and I feel just as delighted by the fact as that barista seemed to be. It’s where poetry and science meet. It makes good, logical sense, AND it feels right. The idea that we are made of the same stuff as whatever is on the other side of the universe is calming and comforting to me, and I have integrated the idea into my spiritual contemplations.

It’s a cool idea, but what does it mean in everyday life, besides being fun to think about? As I look out my office window, I see a tree, the house across the street, a white SUV. The elements in all of these things are the same as what is in me. My neighbors who have different political views than I do are made of the same star dust as I am. People who are a different nationality, race, age, body shape, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity than I am  – same star dust. The idea that, at our cores, we are all made of the same stuff means there’s no reason for us not to help each other, show compassion towards one another and work together to fix what is broken with our current world.

If we are the same as stars so far away, we can only imagine their existence, it’s a no-brainer that we are the same as each other. We are all in this thing together, so let’s act like it.

Image by  ESO – http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1207a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27850385

Election

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I wrote this the day after the election but didn’t publish it. I was afraid I was still too close to give a fair, big-picture account of my feelings about it. Now, on inauguration day, I’ve re-read it, and I still believe it. Un-edited, here it is:

I know you’re probably sick of hearing about it, but I have a lot on my mind concerning what happened in the 2016 presidential election. Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant. I got my ranting out of my system yesterday morning in the bathroom, as Jason and I were getting dressed. He very graciously did not point out I was acting like a lunatic.

Watching Hilary Clinton lose Florida, and then all the other swing states, was like watching in horror as the Longhorns lose to Iowa State at home, only I didn’t have the reassurance, “it’s just a game.” The outcome of this “game” we have to live with for at least four years. I fell asleep on the couch after it became apparent Donald Trump would win. I awoke around 3am and checked the news on my phone, hoping against hope, but my fears were confirmed. Donald Trump, the man who was portrayed as America’s rock-bottom president in a prescient Simpsons episode in 2000, was the president elect.

The day after the election, I couldn’t focus on work. I kept wondering why? Why, America, did you vote for a man who, according to all evidence, is racist, bigoted, misogynistic and narcissistic? I couldn’t fathom it, so I took to the radio. I listened to National Public Radio a lot of the day – election analysis by experts, thoughts on what a Trump presidency means for the U.S., interviews with Trump supporters, both politicians and average people. I had discussions with friends on both sides of the campaign.

This is what I discovered: overwhelmingly, those who voted for Trump were after change. They didn’t want another career politician influenced by special interest groups, moderating their views to keep everyone happy and not listening to what the people wanted – jobs and help for business owners. Though it is not clear they will actually get these things under Trump, they believe he is a better bet than Clinton.

While I see their point, and it is somewhat of a relief not to hear anyone saying they supported Trump because they think all the Mexicans need to go back to Mexico or because they think grabbing women by the pussy is acceptable behavior, I still don’t agree. While most Trump supporters are focused on shaking up Washington and what Trump might be able to do for businesses, I focus on his character, what he might do to the environment, what he might do to immigrants, and, scariest of all, who he might appoint to the Supreme Court. My heart hurts for all the people who are scared of being deported. Whether it can actually happen or not, living in fear is no way to live, especially for children.

Character is important. Online, I read a retort to those concerned about Trump’s personality: “People say all the time that their doctor or lawyer is an asshole, but they are a great doctor/lawyer. What does his character matter if he can get things done?” My response: he is not a doctor or lawyer. He is the president of the United States. He represents the American people, and he’s responsible for maintaining relations with other nations. I’d say decent character is a little important.

I understand the concern that Clinton won’t follow through with promises. She has outright contradicted her own positions at times, and the way her views became more adamantly leftist after beating out Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination smacked of political maneuvering – an effort to gather Sanders supporters to her side. I don’t quite trust Clinton, but I do think her heart is in the right place. She is striving to break that elusive glass ceiling, and she genuinely wants a more inclusive America. She has dedicated her life to making the changes she sees vital; I admire her for that. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. But does that lifetime of politics disallow her to see the forest for the trees? Is she so entrenched she doesn’t see what is really going on in our country with the average person? Does maneuvering for power to push her agenda cloud her vision of that agenda? Maybe. It doesn’t seem like any of us so much voted for one candidate as we did vote against the other.

Bottom line, I still think I’m right: while Clinton may not have been the shake-up Washington needed, she was a far better bet than Trump, whose hyperbolic, self-centered ways of thinking quite frankly scare me for our country. His acceptance speech was conciliatory and gracious – a relief to hear – but, as one New York protester said, “he can’t just erase all that other stuff he said.”

When my 8 year old asked me who won, and  I told him, he said glumly, “I guess everyone’s moving to Canada.” While I may have said that flippantly in the weeks before the election, I realized, that’s not where I stand. Now that Trump is president, and we’ve had our day of ranting, obsessing, mourning , commiserating with like-minded friends and contemplating, where do we go from here? The United States is my home, and there is no place I’d rather live on earth. I feel damned lucky to be here, and I have a strong sense of loyalty. The democratic process, imperfect as it is, needs to be protected. I don’t agree with the outcome, but the people have spoken. I have hope, though. I hope I’m wrong. I hope all the people who told me Trump won’t be able to set women’s rights back and build a wall are right. I hope everyone who said his dramatic campaign statements were only for the sake of media attention (much as I abhor the tactic) is correct.

I am still worried, but I hope, and I will be here, in my small and humble way, to hold Trump accountable. Bernie Sanders said several months ago, in a plea to his supporters, that we needed to vote for Hilary Clinton, even if we were concerned she wouldn’t follow through with her promises, because the Democratic party’s platform is good and solid. We needed to elect her and then hold her accountable, he said. Trump is not my choice, but he’s the one we’ve got. When we sign up to be Americans, which we all do by living here, we agree to abide by the democratic process. One of the best things about our country is that, even if we make that implicit agreement, we are free to shout as loudly as we want when we don’t agree with what’s going on. I urge you to do the same. Whether you voted for Trump or not, hold him accountable for what you know in your heart and head is right. Because, as divided as the nation may seem, we are all in this together. We will all reap the benefit or pay the price, and we must work together.

Trump is what we have to work with. I accept it, even if I don’t like it. I will do as Clinton suggested in her concession speech: I will give him the chance to lead. I will do my best to be open-minded and fair. I will pay closer attention than I ever have before to politics, I will hold him accountable, and I will be loud when I don’t agree. It’s a very American thing indeed to stand up for what’s right. I truly hope he means what he says, that he wants to be president for ALL Americans. I hope he means all genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, ages and abilities. And I don’t mind saying that I hope, four years from now, the Democratic Party does a better job of getting some qualified person elected.

But, if all else fails, I’ll nurse my sorrow with some wine and Saturday Night Live…which is sure to be awesome for the next four years.

Flag Image Copyright: hausdorf / 123RF Stock Photo