Take the Hand of the Monster

A few months ago, I realized that the Presidential campaign had infected everyone with an epidemic of negativity changing the daily focus onto what separates us as Americans. Had we forgotten what really matters?

Nostalgia bloomed for the days following the September 11 attacks when we were not individuals, but Americans united in our grief. Neighbors, strangers, black or white we stood together. We helped each other. We cared for each other.  We set aside differences ready to fight against a common (though mostly invisible) enemy.

As friends hotly debated politics during this summer’s picnics, I actually hoped something could bring us together again, and in November that something came to pass. Unfortunately, it was not the election of the first female President of the United States.

Is it fair to equate the 2016 election results with the events of September 11? Definitely not, but the fear is back, and it is as tangible as it was fifteen years ago. Also, for the first time since the closing months of 2001, I see a large percentage of Americans unified, driven, focused, motivated and taking action not for their own personal gain, but to protect and benefit their fellow Americans.

Our enemies have crawled out of the gutter to show their faces this time. They are not in some distant land, nor are they rumored, imagined, or invisible. They are here in our own streets, and there is a long battle to be fought ahead, but groups like #PantsuitNation provide a positive platform to foster enlightenment, a renaissance for unity in America. We are ready to take the hand of the monster and lead it into the light.

 

 

 

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Scratch Below the Surface

The other day, I watched my nephew play with his Lego figurines. His brow furrowed in concentration as he swapped heads and legs, helmuts and hair. I was struck by how the activity mirrored my niece swapping the outfits and shoes on her dolls. Same game, different toys.

We focus so much energy to highlight differences among us. Perhaps, if everyone looked more closely, we might begin to notice all the ways we are alike.

We all have opposable thumbs and carry both red and white cells in our blood. We all cry the same salty tears. Too many tears, lately.

The next time hate, anger, doubt, or fear focuses the attention on what sets people apart, pause and take a breath. Then, try to note some of the multitude of ways we are alike.

Different hair color, eye color, skin color: same fears and insecurities. Different religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status: same hopes and dreams.

Scratch below the surface, and recognize we are all human.

 

 

 

 

Smoking Gun

Until the 1990’s in America, smoking was an accepted social vice. My grandparents smoked. My parents smoked. Their friends smoked. My siblings and most of my friends smoked. Despite the habit being smelly, unattractive, and unhealthy, no amount of federally mandated warning labels discouraged people from lighting up.

Change came suddenly in the form of a social movement ignited by the media’s unveiling of ways tobacco companies lured in and poisoned the population for their own financial gain. As Americans, we might fight for the right to poison ourselves, but conspiring to make us look the fool? Turning us into patsies for profit? That blow to the ego demands retribution. Like a tidal wave, the momentum of popular opinion crashed effortlessly through previously insurmountable obstacles.

Almost overnight smoking was out. The backlash was so complete that venues in all 50 states banned smoking. Anyone unable to overcome the addiction has been ushered to a “designated smoking area” as the rest of us walk by and shake our heads. There is a big difference between being told what to do (government regulation) and finding out someone has been secretly screwing you over for years. Both scenarios invoke a “put up your dukes” mentality. We won’t stand for it, and true gun reform in America will need to come to light in the same way.

I don’t consider the right “to bear arms” in the constitution as intended for individual ownership. It is manipulative marketing, not unlike Joe Cool of Camel cigarettes convincing people to smoke. At the time the constitution was written, guns were kept in local armories and used only against large scale enemy attacks. Individuals riddling fellow citizens with bullets was unheard of and would certainly confound our forefathers. The article by Jill Lepore appearing in the New Yorker on April 19, 2012 entitled, “The Birth of the Modern Gun Debate” explained how the NRA evolved from a group of hunting and sport enthusiasts to the behemoth political lobbying effort that insists members would rather die than give up their guns.

Still, nations such as Britain and Australia have overcome their dependence on personal firearms. I have faith that America can, too. No one wants the government to infringe upon their freedom. The threat of legislation to control arms is a gift to the pro-gun lobby. With the media as their accomplice, gun enthusiasts push the button on the primordial fear response to bolster gun sales. But what if the issue of gun rights was reframed? What if it turns out the NRA is perpetuating a conspiracy? What if their real motivation is to encourage undesirable in the population to kill themselves off with all those guns? Far fetched, perhaps, but surely there is a conceivable angle to turn gun ownership into a stigma. Ideas once in fashion eventually fall away like the ash from a burning cigarette. We just need a perspective shift on guns.

 

Go With The Flow

My nearly 84 year old Dad always dismissed retirement communities as places where people go to die. He opted to live at home, alone. For safety sake (one of his favorite hazards includes leaving the gas stove on), I moved back home five years ago. Now he is sick and we are surrounded by annoyingly upbeat and optimistic doctors. It seems like the schtick for those who choose Oncology as a specialty.

Endless appointments, another test, different doctors in different locations, the multitude of details wears down the patient (and his family) mentally before the cancer wears him down physically. A few weeks into the process, I’m crushed under the weight of managing this medical menagerie.

The upside: the crazy, non-stop, ever changing schedule keeps me distracted from the fear.

I feel it there, like a bruise deep in my chest just below my sternum. Most of the time, I ignore it. At night in bed, I relax a little, and it starts to surface. I reach for my phone to call a friend, but by the time the keypad is lit up, I can’t dial. Any kind words of support will cause a complete break down and sap what little energy I’ve held in reserve. My ability to keep going seems contingent on going it alone.

My friends can’t cure the cancer. They can’t replace me at Dad’s appointments or fill out the tax returns that are due. No one lives close enough to wash the laundry or prepare daily meals, and while their words of support are genuine an heartfelt, it’s like offering a smile to a homeless man when he really needs a roof over his head. The weary anywhere might briefly benefit from a helping hand, but a single gesture doesn’t change the situation for the days and weeks that follow, and that is the reason I don’t ask for help now. One day is not enough, and by accepting help for one day, it makes the other days without help seem even more burdensome.

There is no definitive time line for Dad’s illness. I have no plans beyond what doctor we see today or what test they will perform. Cancer is the ultimate live in the moment and go with the flow scenario. Still, a question nags me at night as I try to sleep:

WHAT COMES NEXT?

This question applies to tomorrow, next week, next month, and the years that will follow. What comes next when there are no more doctor’s appointments? What happens when I wake up alone in the house with nowhere to be that day?

Like being toppled by a wave, my body spins, my arms thrash about, and my head tries to solve the problem. Which way is up? I need air. I can’t control the future, but I fight anyway. The simple truth gets overshadowed in the fray: if I stop fighting and let the wave carry me to shore, everything will work out the way it should. I know this from past experience, but in the moment, I don’t trust what has come before. I don’t feel reassured.

My impulse is to run away and sit under a palm tree sipping iced tea until the dust settles. To hand my situation over to someone else is incredibly tempting (assuming there was someone else who could step in), but the worst years of my life were spent letting other people tell me what to do, who to be, and how to live. Frustration, anxiety, depression, anger, these are symptoms of fear. The fear is weighing me down.

To bolster my own strength and perseverance, I focus on appreciating the extra time we spend together in the car, the enjoyment we get from critiquing bad paintings in waiting rooms, and the laughter that bubbles up imitating the nurse’s squeaky mouse voice. These are the positive side affects of Dad’s illness, and they contribute to a shared understanding of what is important and what is not these days. I’ve been through tough times before, and though the circumstances are different, the lesson is the same:

Stay positive. What I need will appear when I stop fighting myself, and go with the flow.

The Safe Choice

      When I bought my first new car, I knew exactly what I wanted. My dream car was expensive and entirely impractical. So, I test drove the safe, sensible car. I haggled over the car with good gas mileage, four doors, and trunk space. When the only available color in the standard sedan was gray, I should have recognized my mistake and walked away, but I convinced myself that the price was right, and I bought it.

      Six years later, the car that was meant to take me where I needed to go without complaint, died. The collective jaws of my friends, neighbors, and coworkers dropped. Everyone insisted the car should have lasted over ten years. This was not supposed to happen. I didn’t love the car, but it was the safe choice. The practical, reliable car meant to make my life easier kicked the bucket right after the warranty expired.

      I was left in need of another car. I could have purchased another middle of the road sedan (albeit a different brand, of course), but I decided to change tack and take a peek at used models of the car I had originally wanted but never looked at because I couldn’t justify a two door convertible that barely had room for groceries. I found a model from the prior year that had been a dealer’s test drive car. It had low mileage, no frills, was in my price range, and the color? Christmas Ribbon Red. Six years later, my dream car drives perfectly. I love it. I wish I’d realized sooner that the safe choice isn’t always right.

      Reasonable, rationale, and prudent choices are important. I make a lot of them everyday. I rely on sensible shoes. I eat sensible foods. I try to go to bed and wake up at a sensible hour. Playing it safe reduces risk, and can be beneficial, but as I’ve learned the hard way, the practical answer can also reduce (or eliminate) joy. Finding equilibrium between the safe choice and the choice that will make you happy in order to end up at the best option is important.

      Decisions are motivated by love and/or fear. I wear sensible shoes because I fear falling on my face or twisting my ankle in high heels (that would otherwise make my legs look amazing). Also, being comfortable trumps my need to look good. I choose to go to bed at a decent hour because I fear being exhausted the next day, and I love my bed. I eat sensible foods because I enjoy the taste of fresh vegetables and because I fear the reaction my body has to junk food.

      But when faced with a new opportunity, I keep an eye out for ways to indulge a more speculative option; to experience the joy that otherwise sensible judgements don’t offer. I’ve found that my impractical car makes driving to my practical job much more fun, and sometimes taking off for the weekend with friends when I really should be tackling my to do list makes it easier to face those chores next time. Veering from the expected when it really counts is a departure from ordinary to extraordinary, and by testing the waters of the whimsical, the frivolous, the foolish, and the experimental, you might discover something unexpected makes a lot of sense.