Category Archives: Zeitgeist

Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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It’s such a good feeling

My son and I have been watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lately. It’s much easier than I realized to get engrossed in the land of make-believe and film footage of the crayon factory as an adult. But it’s even easier to rest in Fred’s compassion.

“He seems like a question answerer, conscious child idea conceiver Carl Sagan,” said Declan, looking for (and finding) the right words.

The man understood how hard it can be to be a person, especially a child. That’s been tough work for us lately, so I’m glad to be parenting in a digital age that can take us back in time.

Whether he was singing about liking people for true reasons, or his daily celebration of the fact that we’re alive and growing inside, he had this way of creating safety and space. Even though he has passed, I’m amazed to see that the shows still hold that power for my son.

In one episode, someone in the land of make-believe had invented a machine that could see into people, see something true about them, like the warmth of their heart or their love of chair-making.

When it was over, and the camera began panning above Mr. Roger’s colorful neighborhood houses and toy cars, Declan snuggled his face into my neck and pretended to look into me.

“There is lots and lots and lots of love,” he said. “And lots and lots of art, writing especially. Buddhism. The ocean. Me.”

He stopped, leaned back, and smiled at that thought for a moment. Then he snuggled back in and continued.

“All the art you’ve ever seen in museums. All the music you’ve ever listened to. Not just me but everybody you’ve ever known or loved. All the trees and flowers you’ve ever seen or smelled. All the places you’ve lived. Dogs and dolphins and other animals you loved. Blue sky. Clouds. Rain. Storms. Hurricanes. Your reflections.”

“My reflections?”

“Yes – both kinds. The ones you’ve actually seen and.. your thoughts.”

And that one. That one from my son, inspired by Fred Rogers. That’s a reflection I want to keep forever.


More Fred, because even if you think you outgrew him, you didn’t:

His touching 1969 Senate hearing testimony in defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes his reading of “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

You can watch or listen to most of his songs on the PBS web site.

Fred’s goodbye on his final program, which is especially sweet for parents who grew up watching him.

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I guess I picked the wrong night to fall asleep at nine

My mom broke into bedtime last night to deliver “good news and bad news” to me.

Apparently we are descendants of early U.S. settler Richard Treat, which means that we are distant relations of many historical figures I’m not all that fond of, including Samuel Colt (who popularized the revolver), Henry Ford II and (ahem) the Bush presidents. It’s no wonder these people have gotten under my skin so much over the years… they’re family!

This also makes us distant relatives of Thomas Edison, author Stephen Crane, Robert Treat Payne (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), actor Treat Williams and writer/playwright Tennessee Williams. Some good news there, indeed.

I really didn’t have time to process this as I was trying to get my son to sleep early for the last night of spring break. We were reading “Merlin’s Tour of the Universe” by Neil de Grasse Tyson (in which he pretends to be an omniscient visitor from the Andromeda Galaxy).  As I read the evening’s last paragraph, there was a joke about restaurants on the moon having no atmosphere.

“I don’t get it,” said Declan.

He knows that the moon has no atmosphere. but had no idea what would be different about a restaurant’s atmosphere than anyplace else on Earth.

“It’s a pun,” I said, and began describing restaurant atmosphere to him. He interrupted me when the switch went off in his brain: “Oh I get it, I get it. It’s an idiom and a pun.”

I lay there, hugging his soon-to-be-six-year-old body in my arms, wondering how long it will be before he starts correcting my grammar. This time next year? I fell asleep.

I woke up at 4:30, looked at my phone and found out that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I watched a recording of Obama’s speech and accidentally woke Declan up, who sat up and said, with a start:  “Morgan Freeman said that! He said dogs were escaping, the hills were falling down…”

I’m not sure at all what that means, but, like most dream statements, I believe it to be true.

So I missed the news and the social media frenzy because I was dreaming about lightbulbs. Since I am rested this morning, I don’t think I’ll turn on the news for a while.

Usually, when I think of September 11, 2001, I feel a catch in my left knee. It’s a muscle memory of the last time I visited the south tower observation deck as a teenager, when it was so windy we couldn’t go outside. You could feel the structure swaying. I remember how my body tried to compensate for that unsettling feeling.

Today I don’t feel that, but I don’t think it’s because someone died. It’s because it’s disarming news, and my inner Pollyanna would like it to be just that. Disarming. News.

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Willliams

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Pink stink

I had an impossible time finding a plain pink shirt for my son when he was two.  I wound up buying him a tie-dye with a big pink heart in the center instead. He wore it all the time. It suited him. He’s also had whatever length of hair he likes his whole life, usually preferring it long. He was accidentally called a girl by strangers regularly and he was able to shrug it off ninety percent of the time, because neither his dad or I treated him as though liking so-called “girl” looks or toys or colors was weird or problematic. If anyone thought his masculinity was being damaged, they didn’t say it to my face.

So I don’t understand why the J. Crew catalog ad with the company’s creative director Jenna Lyons and her pink-toenailed boy caused any kind of stir. The idea that boys doing “girl” things could cause “gender confusion” seems inextricably tied to a horde of old-school chauvinist ideas that don’t help anyone of either gender.

And the idea that the boy will be bullied because of this picture? Only possibly by children of the kind of parents that consider such things damaging or outrageous. If you ask me, instilling those kinds of limitations on everyone’s boy- and girl-ness or, even worse, antagonizing the choices of lovely, curious children on the basis of such limited perceptions is far more damaging than all the pink toenail polish in the world.

P.S. I loved Jon Stewart’s “Toemaggedon” coverage.

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After teasing us with several summery days, snow and hard frost decided to try and pin spring back down. It can’t last. The hyacinth have already pushed through.

I feel like pushing through, too.

My son is becoming a more private person, so I’ve been rethinking this space and what I can write in it. I’m not exactly sure I have it figured out, but I think I’m ready to try.

I miss writing as a daily practice.

And if it doesn’t work out, then… April Fools.

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Things I have learned from the gym

There are things in this world you aren’t likely to know until you start spending your time on some kind of aerobic machinery in front of a bank of 8-10 televisions, each one tuned to a different station.

For example:

1. It’s possible that the bearded dude from “Taxmasters” law firm does not have a movable spine. His eyes move as he speaks, but it’s a little like watching a marble carving of a person that’s been set into one side of a fireplace or the other, depending on which way he’s fixed on the camera in any given commercial. It’s strange, bearded and unnatural.

2.It is possible to work out regularly and feel good while paying more attention to the way your body is changing for the better than whether or not you are losing weight.

3. The appeal of Dr. Oz is obvious, even if you watch him without any sound. His headlines convince you that he has the answers to virtually any health and wellness question. Then, just as you think about turning away, you see him dancing in a segment called “New Year, New Rear” and you realize that when he’s not busy saving your life, he’s busy being kind of hot in more than his usual “I care about your emotional and physical health, even while I’m busy having this made-for-TV bone structure” way.

4. A large number of people who achieve their 15 minutes of fame on morning television do so simply by being absolutely, unapologetically spastic. It’s enough to make you think that this “Tressant Supreme” ad, featuring Kelly Ripa, really isn’t so far from the truth.

5. Somewhere out there, there is allegedly a “Soul Train Workout.” I have looked, and so far it eludes me, but just knowing that it could exist gives me a new faith in humanity. In the meantime, I’ll just have to practice the Soul Train line at home with headphones, because who wouldn’t want to do this?

Soul Train line – Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady”

6. Most of all, there is a point when you start going to the gym (or doing whatever exercise thing you do) religiously, and you bypass the crankiness and soreness it brings about and begin to feel good. Instead of stressing out about whether or not you have time for a workout, you realize that without that workout, stress will continue to leech your time and your self-esteem and your sleep.

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Hey you guys!

The Electric Company took me to lunch.

By the Electric Company I mean American Electric Power. And by me I mean to say myself, along with several other Ohio bloggers. And by lunch I mean the ever-outstanding Alana’s Food & Wine, which the powers that be specifically chose because of its locally-sourced menu.

I’m now looking forward to the day when, instead of tracking the number of power stars we’ve obtained on Super Mario Galaxy, my son and I can track a more important statistic – the exact amount of electricity we use on every circuit in the house.

Caveat: I am being compensated or blogging about this and my time.  The opinions expressed, like anything I write here, are exclusively mine.

Anyway… California’s ongoing struggles with power consumption have clearly given utility companies in large states like Ohio plenty of ideas about what it could face in the near future as its infrastructure ages and demand for a steady supply of juice keeps increasing.

If AEP is to avoid building another big fossil-fuel power plant and move toward greener energy sources, then a change in the way consumers use electricity is needed. The problem has been that most of us have little or no idea exactly how we use our electricity or which appliances suck up the most energy. Even if we have something like a programmable thermostat to control our air conditioning, we may or may not have any idea how to use it.

In partnership with Silver Spring Networks, AEP is getting ready to pilot a “Smart Grid” program in northeast Columbus called “gridSMART.”  In a nutshell, this technology gives consumers more power to see exactly where, when and how they are using electricity, and the option to save money by using that electricity differently.

In addition to a more itemized vision of our energy use, AEP plans to roll out optional pricing plans that give customers financial incentives to use less power at peak times in the summer (keeping a/c temps a little warmer in the afternoon, for example, doing laundry early in the morning or charging an electric car in the wee hours, for example).  You will even be able to sign up to get rebates in return for using a Programmable Communicating Thermostat that allows AEP to automatically bump up your air conditioning a couple of degrees during an “event” – a time period in which the power grid has become overly taxed. (We were told that customers will be able to override this if they need to.)

Another advantage of the technology is that it will alert AEP about outages without our having to pick up the phone, which should help the company restore power more swiftly.

Of course, most of the city won’t have access to this new technology for a few years, but if end up somewhere where I can take advantage of it, you can bet that I, and the young statistician I live with, will use it.

I wrote this post after attending an informational luncheon on behalf of Silver Spring Networks and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift bag and gift card as a thank you for taking the time to participate.

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