Get Over Yourself

It used to be that, generally speaking, particularly in what was referred to as "polite society," people kept their opinions to themselves. It was considered good etiquette to avoid incendiary subjects; we've probably all heard the old adage that it's best to avoid discussing politics and religion. I think this idea was on its way to being pitched out the window during the civil rights and women's rights movements, and then on into the environmental movement, when we saw a rise in tribalism and identification with causes. When "all politics is local" became the cry of special interest groups, the need to assert one's adherence to ideologies became quite important to some. (Ever thought about when bumper stickers really took off? It was in the '60s and '70s, for sure.) 

In his book Seculosity, David Zahn presents the thought that other social scientists have observed: as society has moved away from the formerly religious underpinings of gathering and belonging, individuals instinctively search for something to which to belong. We find our people in political parties, social causes, obsessive attention to body image or fashion or home remodeling/house flipping or whatever seems to ignite our passions for getting with other people who have the same ones. Along the way, we make sure everyone knows our passions and we have given ourselves permission to press them upon all passersby. 

Thus, I cannot go for a run without seeing a sign in the window of a home proclaiming, "In this house, we . . . " with a detailed list indicating the owners' politics. As I run by, I think, "Hmmm. Wonder why they think it is important that I know that." I don't know them. They don't know me. What compels them to make sure everyone driving by knows what is believed inside? I could understand a religious proclamation. But this is the same to me as listing foods to be avoided or the best breeds of dog: purely personal preferences.

Certainly the rise of online communication, including the ability to comment on articles and blog posts and tweet our opinions on anything and everything, has turned us to a practice of always making sure everyone knows our thinking on every subject at any given time, and insisting that if others do not agree, they are scum. When we see this practiced all the time, we begin to fall into it ourselves. 

Here's the thing: it's a mark of self-regulation to keep our opinions to ourselves. I don't need to know what you think to work with you. I can't read your mind, so don't help me with that if you know it could cause conflict. You don't have to like me to treat me with respect. It's none of your business how I vote, what I read, and the beliefs to which I subscribe, and I don't need to know the same things about you. None of us knows what another thinks unless the other opens their mouth to tell us. Zip it. It really is best to avoid some topics, and it is simply one of the timeless principles of good behavior to keep opinions to ourselves and get along. 

I'm Judgmental

Allow me to just put it out there. I'm judgmental. Yes, I do the horribly socially unacceptable activity of judging. I mean, I don't spend a great deal of time on it--it happens in passing most of the time. There are times when I focus on being judgmental, but I don't like to broadcast it. 

I judge between right and wrong. I do. Without this ability, I might kill someone who is ruining my day, and murdering someone is wrong. I judge what I will have for lunch. Some days I feel like Mediterranean, sometimes just a sandwich. I judge whether or not a restaurant is a good one for me. I judge whether my workplace is clean and orderly, or whether I work with a bunch of slobs (whoops! there I go!). 

I read there are some with brain injuries who cannot make a decision between a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich because the judgment center has been damaged. Without judging capabilities, we will be forever indecisive. We will agonize over the blue or the green shirt, tea or coffee, Collies or Shepherds. Here's the solid truth: to prefer one thing over another is not judgmental. It is preference. To see something that is not right and call it that is not judgmental; it may be based on my moral code, my religious beliefs, my personal philosophy, or my understanding of science and technology. It might be mere common sense (which few seem to subscribe to anymore). (Whoops, judging again.) 

People are so fond these days of saying, "Don't judge me!" I get it. We hate to be held in the balance and found wanting. I don't like to be judged unfairly. But therein lies the key: we don't want to be unfairly judged, or judged hypocritically. And I'm amused by those who say, "Don't force your moral beliefs on me." That's what laws do--they enforce a moral code society has agreed upon. We keep changing it up, and we get mad at people who hold on to the old ideas of what's right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable. So you think something is fine while someone else retains the belief a practice or way of thinking is not okay, but there you go, judging them--and, might I say, unfairly and hypocritically. 

I can look at a person who is grossly overweight and think, "Hey, that doesn't look good." I don't consider that body-shaming. It's my perception. I don't shout out, "Hey, you look awful!" That would be rude. But I judge. And guess what? I've been overweight. I consider myself overweight. I look at a morbidly obese person with the knowledge of how awful it can feel being in a body that won't cooperate, no matter how many diets one has tried. I listen to hateful, angry people and think, "I don't want to be like that." Yes, I judge that as unacceptable. I avoid hateful, angry people who insist I think as they think and believe as they do. 

I have strong religious beliefs. I don't force you to believe with me. Because I believe them does not make me judgmental. Because I prefer certain types of people does not make me judgmental. Because I Iike my world doesn't make me judgmental. It makes me human. So let's all hush and go on about our business. 

It's a Mad, Really Mad World

I don’t need to tell anyone that civility has taken a nose dive in our society. It’s not just the extreme hatred, vitriol, and invective hurled at those who disagree with one another. It’s not merely the rudeness and disrespect and self-absorption we see in everyday life. It goes deep into the collective soul and exemplifies the simple, timeless truth that “out of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Referring to people in the most vile and offensive ways is hardly sneezed at anymore. Speech peppered with cussing and swearing is offered up by five year-olds. People used to curb their bad speech around children or women or the elderly, or in what we used to call “polite company,” but now children and women and those who are supposed to be older and wiser think nothing of shouting out the most disgraceful and vulgar verbal abuse. The f-bomb is part of common discourse, often several times in one sentence.

How we speak represents us, just as much as does how we write, how we treat others, how we present ourselves, and how we deal with conflict. The way in which we communicate indicates whether or not we know how to exhibit character and civility and anything resembling respect and professionalism. To be able to convey strong emotions, delight, disgust, or heartfelt confession, one needs to have a vocabulary to support some kind of intelligent discourse, but we speak sometimes like a people who know little more than grunts or gurgles. We are foul-mouthed because we don’t have any other words to express ourselves. We don’t know how to use words effectively. We’ve lost the art of the withering comment or the thinly-veiled insult many of us love so much in Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, portrayed so exquisitely by Maggie Smith in Downtown Abbey. “Vulgarity is no substitution for wit,” she snapped, and a truer word was never spoken.

We think we are providing emphasis by using words that used to shock or embarrass—but they don’t anymore, and now they don’t provide any emphasis, either. They limit us. They are tired, worn out, unable to articulate what it is we really want to voice.

That’s why I’d love to bring back old words, words long gone from our lexicon, words so old hardly anyone knows they once existed:

Instead of accusing someone of being an idiot, why not call him a moonling or a porgly?

Tired of someone who complains incessantly? You know she is a smellfungus.

I need another word to describe that meal, since I refuse to call a pizza “awesome,” so I’m going to use superlobgoshious.

And those of among us who curse like sailor (or truckers, or dockworkers)? Muck-spouts, I say.

When I'm Good and Ready

Still enjoying Live Long and . . . , William Shatner's just-published autobiography. Subtitled What I Learned Along the Way, Shatner delivers his thoughts on relationships, life philosophy, and memories of childhood, interspersed with some marvelous, funny stories one can almost hear him telling in that famous voice. He considers what it has meant to him to work and how he has approached it. “Just like everybody else, I have been working my entire life,” he writes. “I started working on a radio program when I was six years old and just never stopped. I never saw a reason to stop. There was never anything I wanted to do more than what I was doing. In some ways I have been a workaholic. I rarely go to Hollywood parties or just spend hours relaxing. For me, working is my relaxation.”

Here's the truth: some of us plan to work into our 70s if a company can be open-minded and farsighted enough to grab onto us for dear life. At some point, the corporate world is going to have to completely shed its last unjustifiable prejudice and retain the worker who desires to contribute well past what is now considered the age of retirement. We have the answers they need and the experience they may not yet realize they need. It’s funny to me how anyone can honestly dismiss an older candidate with the thought that he or she probably won’t be working very many more years. Who offers a job anymore expecting someone to stay for 20 years? How often have any of us have known a new employee to call one week in, saying they won't be coming back? All of us have watched those hired only a year ago, or 2, or 5 years ago, pack up and move on, or not work out at all and get a pink slip. If you think about it, there’s no guarantee any company will be around very long, much less aging workers. Why wouldn’t a company want the expertise and talent I possess for a good 8 or 10 years? That’s enough time to find someone young and put them under my tutelage.

I love my job, and I’m grateful to have been hired for it when I was past a certain age by a company that seems to have no qualms about hauling my decades of experience in the door. I have to admit that like Shatner, work is frequently my relaxation, and I want to keep doing it as long as I am having fun. There will surely come a day when the frustrations outweigh the benefits and I will quite happily hang up that part of my life and move on to the next. I hear of too many energetic, productive people who are gladly working well into their senior years to discount the possibility that I might be one of them.

Having loved his profession and the serendipitous path it has provided for him, Shatner notes, “No one should retire when their work remains pleasurable. What would I do if I retired? That’s the question I would ask anyone, whether they are a nuclear physicist or a laborer. If your job isn’t pleasant I understand the need to change, but retiring to sit on the back porch and rock will atrophy not only your body but also your mind, and it will do it within months. . . . People may retire from a job, but I don’t believe they should stop working.” I agree. We should live long, and work long if we want to, and prosper.

My thoughts exactly, Captain Kirk

I used to feel privately guilty for not setting goals for my marriage (as one person says I should do) or my year (says another), or make a 5-year plan (as so many motivational speakers insist is necessary). "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail," I'm told with emphasis. "If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get anywhere." I'm supposed to have planned out my career path, my dreams, my big ideas. Because I didn't, I've apparently gotten nowhere and am just a total loser.

So I was delighted, absolutely delighted, to read a particular passage from Live Long and . . . , William Shatner's new book. The man so famously known as Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is now 87 years old and going like a house afire. He's busy, he's on the ball, he's as bright a bulb as ever, he's got a gazillion followers on Twitter, and people like him make me know that each generation is redefined by the people who represent it most brilliantly.

Shatner begins the book by speaking gratefully of his long life and the mysteriously wonderful things he has been able to do, things he never expected, never looked for, never planned for. Here's the passage that made me nod in complete and thankful agreement:

"Years ago people confidently planned for their future, picking a profession and studying for it and working hard at it only to discover years later that this profession no longer existed. Technology had replaced it. The path that people had pursued so diligently and in many cases had become expert, had come to a dead end. . . . If I do have any wisdom at all it is limited to the area of my own experiences. . . .

"My career and my plans have always been dependent on the next phone call. And I never knew when--or even if--the phone was going to ring. We are under the illusion that we choose our own path, but we don't. The road isn't even paved. The road is being tarred as we go along. Those big rollers are just ahead of you and you walk along the road that you think you have chosen, but in effect you have little control over your life. Circumstances visit and you go along. You follow the winding road, you make some choices, but for the most part we are dependent on factors not under our control. Things happen. I never thought I would be an actor. I never thought I would make albums or write books. I never thought I would make speeches on subjects I had to research. All the various things that I have done--the acting, the traveling, the music, the books, the horses and motorcycles--all were not things I dreamt of doing. The opportunities presented themselves and I embraced them."

Honestly--I couldn't have said it better myself. Too many successful lights in our world became luminaries because they followed what came along, what appealed to them. Don't beat yourself up if you aren't a big goal-maker. You just might boldly go . . . you know. Where no one's ever.

Practice can get you within spitting distance of perfect

It can be enormously difficult to forgive and be empathetic and practice kindness in a workplace where people seem to utterly absorbed in themselves, their stuff, their places, their domains. It means we must go out of our way to cultivate a way of responding that is counteractive to everything going on around us and counterintuitive to our personal survival skills. To decide to practice virtuous behavior is a challenge no matter how you look at it.

Take the angry confrontation, for instance: someone berates you openly, maybe publicly. They say something particularly nasty in the hearing of others. PRACTICE your response: “Jim, this is hurtful and unnecessary. Let’s talk when you’ve calmed down.” REHEARSE walking away immediately.

A coworker makes a snide comment that could be meant as a joke, but you’re not sure. PRACTICE saying, with a smile on your face, “I hope that’s meant to be funny and not nasty. Is it?” REHEARSE keeping your voice calm if the response is, “Oh no, it’s nasty. Your work is rotten” (or whatever), and saying, “Then let’s discuss this like adults and dispense with the sarcasm. Shall we go to my office?”  PRACTICE keeping your cool, particularly if the other person is emotional.

Consider this truth: you may be the only person in someone's life who has any interest in being empathetic or kind or generous. REHEARSE new ways to relate to people like this. Put on your creative thinking cap and make the person your project. A door might open that allows you to provide them with insight into why they don't get along with others.

Superiors act like fools? Forgive. Let them go. People who require your services treat you like an underling who has no feelings? Forgive. The alternative—living with poison in your veins—is a pain in the butt. Extending yourself is an honest-to-goodness, this-is-hard-but-I’m-doing-it-anyway, nothing’s-going-to-stop-me-now decision. Sometimes you drop the ball. Sometimes they get the best of you. We fall down, but we get up.

Practice and rehearse until being kind, forgiving, and empathetic is part of who you are. Character can be strengthened. Make yours rock-solid.

Silence as a practice

George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, says silence is a diminishing national resource. We assert that we despise noise, and yet we generate so much of it. While getting gas for my car this morning, the young man next to me had his car stereo cranked up and his driver’s side door open so he could bathe himself (and everyone else) in the beat. I’m agog at those I encounter on my drive to work who are listening to the headbanging kind of music that makes me want to veer off of a cliff. How can people begin the morning with that? To me, it’s like inviting chaos to the start of the day.

We complain of noise pollution but crank up our lawnmowers on Saturday mornings. We stand outside at our cars chattering in the middle of the night when sound carries so fluidly, unaware of those we are keeping awake. To be honest, I’m guilty of leaving a television on in the kitchen simply for the grounding voices seem to provide. I love a nice, loud Zumba class at my local ballroom studio, where the sound system puts us into step even when most of us are world-class klutzes. The truth is noise is a stimulant. It pumps us up. It signals to us there is some kind of life going on around us—not always the kind we want, but noise means people are present, and we crave connection. Noise is addictive. How often have you heard someone say of a place, “It was too quiet.” What do they mean? What do you mean when you say it?

“Instead of being against noise,” says George Prochnik, “I think we need to begin making a case for silence.” Silence is not the complete absence of sound. There’s noise everywhere—even if it’s only the beat of our own hearts. Silence is that pulling down of the distraction and decibel level to a quiet state of mind where we can truly hear ourselves think. Here’s what I know: some people can’t stand their own thoughts. They have no place to take them. There’s been no development of an inner life.

Nourish an inner life. Embrace silence. 

Perfectly Ordinary

Here's what I like about getting older--my own getting older, anyway: I'm discarding a lot of crippling thinking. I don't buy in to the pushy, relentless, rigorous notions of success that are so talked-about and blogged over. I am sick up to my ears of the ubiquitous platitudes that plaster our days: "YOU are the only person standing in the way of your success!" (No, sometimes it's my father with Alzheimer's or an overwhelming mound of debt.) "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" (Unless it weakens you considerably.)

I don't see success as spectacularism. Yes, I like exceptionality. I believe we're all unique. I believe in sharing that uniqueness and, when necessary, standing out in ways that show people that uniqueness. One of my living mentors and exemplars has a saying: "It takes so little to be above average," and I agree with that, particularly in a world in which slovenliness and a complete lack of common sense is pervasive.

But everyone is not spectacular. Everyone is not going to--nor are they capable of--being extraordinary and phenomenal. Many of us are merely ordinary, and how sad that our culture has come to equate "ordinary" with "loser." All of those sad contestants trying out for "American Idol" left with their tails between their legs labeled as such, unhappy that they couldn't get into the ranks of the staggeringly impressive. That's what we've become--a constant, never-ending series of tryouts for some version of "American Idol," and if you don't get picked, well, it's your own fault for not realizing you are committing the cultural sin of being just okay.

Guess what? Ordinary is pretty darn beautiful. I'm quite impressed with the ordinary people who make a tasty nonfat no-foam latte, the ordinary mechanic who works on my car, ordinary acquaintances I enjoy seeing at business meetings who brighten my professional life. I like ordinary days. I don't know why we can't be grateful for an ordinary marriage when so many have dismal ones, or why we don't see being an ordinary family as a blessing. My family was pretty darn ordinary and I turned out okay. Yes, there was dysfunction--an alcoholic/drug addicted brother (which I wrote about in my book, The Prodigal Brother: Making Peace with Your Parents, Your Past, and the Wayward One in Your Family), but guess what? That's ordinary these days. Hardly any family has escaped being touched by drugs, or alcoholism, or abuse of some kind, or mental illness, or disease . . . and yet, like ordinary people, we make it through.

Instead of focusing on the things that make me feel inadequate and zeroing in on my flaws, I honestly make effort to avoid them or simply ignore them. If I can't do anything about them--can't afford that neck lift just yet, can't change jobs right now, can't stop the world so I can get off--I have to find my happy place inside and go with the flow until things change, and circumstances are always subject to change. I fuel myself on that hope and pop the gear into drive and keep rolling. Others are far more driven to hit the heights of success no matter what the toll. More power to them. I'm taking time to enjoy ordinary pleasures and be delighted by ordinary joys. Join me?

Bombs are flying everywhere

I went into my local Barnes & Noble bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and felt almost assaulted by the titles of books displayed prominently that included the f-bomb. No less than three books with the bomb in the title had slapped me by the time I made it to the information desk.

I am compelled to ask--what is it, oh Author, that you feel can only be communicated with this word? Is your vocabulary so limited, your ability to communicate so reduced, that this is the only way you can express something emphatically and with emotion? Or are you going to tell me there's nothing emphatic there, there's nothing emotional at all in your choice of words? You just like it. You think it's funny and eye-catching and OH. SO. DIFFERENT.

You are so different that you are part of a trend. Wow. Congratulations on being so cutting edge that the title of your work can't even be announced in most company--I won't even say "polite company," because polite is clearly something you consider worthless. That title can't be announced on most radio and television shows, can't be displayed in most libraries, and even the current vulgarity of our culture will prevent most people from stating the full title. You have proudly announced to the vulgar culture that you are hand-in-hand with it, you will pander to it, and you delight in it. Yeee haaaa! Go ahead, then. Enjoy that distinction.

(I went, by the way, to purchase Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin. Absolutely brilliant, very strange and wonderful, translated from the Russian, written by a man with deep knowledge of Russian medieval history. He knows lots of words, thankfully.)

The Every Day Battle

In the spring of 2007, I reached the moment of truth regarding my weight. In a visit to my doctor, I was horrified to find I was well over 200 pounds. My diet of choice, which had worked pretty well for me for some time, was just not doing the job anymore. To be honest, maybe that charge belonged to me—I’ve never been a fan of exercise, mostly subscribing to the kind of greeting card humor that rang true: “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes.” 

I was overweight as a child. Weight has been a lifelong struggle. When I was in my teens, I silently vowed that if I ever reached 200 pounds, I would kill myself. I realize that for many people who are seriously overweight, 200 pounds was a long time ago, but does it matter? I felt like a cow. My size 16 clothes were hateful and shopping was humiliating. I resented my body. It seemed to have its own personality—demanding, hysterical, devious, childish. I couldn’t rein it in.

So here I was at the doctor’s office, asking what in the world I could do if the diet that at least held the fat dragon at bay had stopped working? “Just try something else,” she said, “something different.” A Weight Watchers group was starting at work, and I was desperate to try anything, because I truly did fear I might commit suicide. In the 10-week program, I lost 20 pounds. I was back under 200 (barely) but now had a little incentive, so I kept going in 20-pound increments. Each time I’d say, “Okay, that wasn’t so hard,” and I’d stick with it. I did this until I had dropped 85 pounds. I had not been this weight since I was 12 years old.

It took me 2 years to get there. I started to look ill. I had never been thin and I wanted to know what it felt like to wear a size 2 for a while. I’ve put that behind me, but I found out that maintenance is way, WAY harder than losing. I mean that. Since reaching a weight in 2009 I’d longed for all my life, I’ve gained 15 or 20 pounds, and sometimes that sends me into serious depression. It’s very hard to get used to this body being acceptable. I exercise. I started lifting weights six months ago, and that seems to help a great deal. “Find something you love to do,” the experts tell us. My problem is  there is nothing I “love” to do. Exercise is a detestable but necessary function. I enjoy riding a Trikke (check it out—, but getting my act together to do it is still a chore. Because significant physical activity was not a regular part of my growing-up years (save gym class in junior high and high school), it never became a habit. I must do it as though my life depends on it or I simply won’t do it. What has become a habit is beating myself up about this, even though I've resolved this year to stop doing that.

If you have never been significantly overweight, you don’t understand. People say, “You look GOOD!” I know how crazy I must sound. This is a mental block that many of us who have lost a lot of poundage deal with. It is a daily battle—one I guess I consider worth it, because I get up and fight it every day.