Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The New Normal

I could never write about 9/11.   It wasn’t for lack of trying.  Over the years, I’ve tried writing about it several times.  Just a few weeks after the towers fell, one of my journalism colleagues sent out a request for publishable words on the tragedy.  He wanted someone to write something that conveyed a broader perspective, and meaningful insights for the rest of the country.  I wrote something.  I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I can tell you that it wasn’t insightful.  Or inspiring.  Instead of conveying a sense of universal meaning, it  sounded trite and overly sentimental.  Where I wanted to pose some deep, searching questions, I only offered a kind of sad, desperate window onto the fact that none of it – nothing I was going through – made any sense to me at all.   
On September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose.  And a friend of mine – a brave and caring firefighter -- went to work and never returned.  He had a beautiful spirit and a gentle soul.   He knew his work posed dangers — including terrorist-sponsored ones -- but before that tragedy happened, none of us really imagined that his life, and those of many of his colleagues, would be extinguished by an act of such monstrous and intentional evil.  Nothing in my human experience had ever prepared me for losing someone in that way.   Like many people who lived through those events, it took me weeks to accept that my friend was gone.  In part that was because the bodies weren’t immediately recovered.  In part, it was because we were all in a state of shock.  In part, it was because for a long time, all of it – the death, the destruction, the pollution, the chaos, the terror –seemed utterly unreal.  For the family members of my friend and all those other victims, of course, it was even worse.
            Over the past week, in the wake of the tragic and surreal events at Sandy Hook, I’ve been searching – again -- for something insightful or meaningful to write.  Until now, I haven’t been able to think or write anything about that massacre that reflects more than my anger and despair.   I’ve been trying to deal with it, in large part, by reading what other people are writing.  For me, the most meaningful writing focuses on heroes.   Just as during 9/11, I find the stories of heroism to be uplifting and hopeful and real.  They help to convince me that even in our worst, most tragic moments, we might – all of us -- be better than the sum of our basest instincts. 
And yet the Sandy Hook events have been reminding me – in some very raw emotional ways – of those weeks after 9/11.  It’s not exactly, or even nearly, the same.  I didn’t lose someone close to me.  Let alone one of my babies.  I didn’t know these people in Connecticut.  I have never, to my knowledge, been to their town.   I haven’t been dealing with the aftermath of those violent events for these many days -- which will soon turn to weeks and months --with no end to the trauma in sight.  I was no more there – in Newtown – than I am there when another innocent life is lost, anywhere world.   I wasn’t there at all.  Those are not my lost and wounded children.
But like many people in this country, I have felt heartbroken.   I understand that some people haven’t experienced it quite that way.  I’ve read many times over the past several days – and heard people discuss it -- that innocent children are killed every day, both by guns and other forms of violence.   I know that those deaths don’t affect us in the same way, in part because they receive less attention in the media.   But I can’t discount the scale of this tragedy because for me, it was different.  Partly, it was different because the setting was more public, the coverage was more pervasive, and there were so many, and so very young, children terrorized and killed at the same time by the kinds of guns that have already been used to kill many other helpless and innocent people. 
It was also different for me, personally, because I could relate to them in some very basic and personal ways.  For better or for worse, I think, we can more easily empathize with people who remind us of ourselves.  People die at the hands of their own guns all the time, but I don’t keep guns in my home.  I’ve never known anyone whose child was lost because he or she got hold of a relative’s gun.  I know that children die at the hands of their own parents, but I don’t live in a violent household.  Children die in troubled communities, where they feel scared to walk down the street at night.  I wish no child ever had to endure these realities, and if they were on the news every night, admittedly, their parents’ losses would probably feel closer to my reality.  But that is just not the case.
            My reality is that I live in a small town.  My kids go to a nice public school in a community where people – both in the school and around it – know and like and help each other.  My children are young.   My younger one is in kindergarten, and often spends her evenings practicing her writing.  She writes the names, over and over, of each and every one of her fellow students.  She likes knowing, and thinking about them.  She likes going to school, even though it means going away from me, because she loves her teacher.  When I go to school to help out, the children all know me.  Many of them hug me.  They tell me, over and over and over, when their moms are coming in to help, to the point where I’ve memorized their mom’s volunteer schedules.   The tender-hearted love of a kindergarten child – any single one of them -- is so simple, and sweet, and innocent that it has been difficult for me, every day, not to imagine the children in Newton being exactly the same way.
And I remember what it feels like to try to move on, after all hell breaks loose.  In the several months following September 11th, the families accepted and said goodbye to their loved ones.  It was too much death.  But after the memorials and funerals were over, it also became clear that life, for the rest of us, wasn’t the same.  The toxic dust had long settled, the pile was cleared, the streets were re-opened, and life as we knew it returned to a more or less regular schedule.   New York -- the city of dreamers, and freedom lovers, and urban thrill seekers – would always be great.  The people, as a community, really pulled together.  Yet alongside the new security measures, the barricades, and the new flight patterns, a broader anxiety also endured. A pervasive feeling that the city had lost a measure of its innocence, its reckless youth, its unbridled creative joy.   Over time, we got used to that, and sometimes even forgot things had changed.  But there was a new mindset governing the city for years, characterized by more fear and more caution. 
It was, simply put, a new normal.
            I’ve heard that phrase – new normal – used several times already in regards to the recent school tragedy.  People have invoked it as they've expressed concern that elementary school shootings might become more regular events in our society.  We all hope, and pray, they don’t.  But in a more immediate sense, as I’ve recalled the traumatic weeks after  9/11, I’ve been thinking about that other new normal.   The one that happens in our minds, at the level of a new collective fear and sadness and especially, the loss of innocence.  Those children's death shook many people to our core.  Before this happened, many of us didn’t associate our local elementary schools with fear, not this kind.  Now, we have a set of images and categories and circumstances in our heads that may make us wonder, every day, if our kids are safe.  Now, we live with the daily reminder, when we bring the kids to school, that they may not be safely sheltered from other people’s madness and violence.  I don’t know how many other people are feeling that way.  But to the extent that many others are, we're all, now, living with a new normal.
I wish I had some more meaningful insights, or an inspirational perspective to share.  I’ve always admired writers who can bring great personal insight to a difficult time.  I’m not talking about a policy paper, or a program for the future, but an emotional tribute.  The ability to reach out from a place of pain, and form a narrative that others can relate to and possibly learn something from, is an important skill. In times of communal crisis, particularly, people’s stories can help to remind of us of our collective humanity.  And that is no small concern.
            The one memory from 9/11 that is giving me some small comfort is knowing that eventually, this new normal will get better.  It will get better as we help each other cope.  It will get better if we can come together to change our violent problems.  But mostly, I think, it will just get better with time.  As time passes -- and as long as tragedy doesn’t strike again -- we’ll feel incrementally more comfortable.  We will, hopefully, stop looking back at our children in the schoolyard, wondering if they're safe.   Over time, the new normal will come to feel, just, normal again.   That sounds like a sad, desperate thing to say.  And it may not resonate with what anyone else is feeling right now.  But at this point, accepting the new normal and moving on is the absolute best I can hope for.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Welcome to WOG Season!


Holiday Season is officially upon us.  
And holiday season has something for everyone. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Mayan End of Days. And for everyone, there is WOG.

      What is WOG, you say?  Well, technically, WOG is not a word.   It’s an acronym.   I made it up in my head to describe my eating habits from Thanksgiving to the drunken binge of St. Patrick's Day.  It stands for Winter Onset Gluttony. 
       If Winter Onset Gluttony sounds like Adult Onset Diabetes, then you know where I'm going with this.  Because that illness doesn’t happen overnight either.   It happens one, reindeer-shaped cookie at a time.   Or in my case, one round peanut butter cookie with the Hershey's Kiss in the middle at a time.  Contrary to what I have always believed, it turns out that a Hershey's Kiss does not have fewer calories just because it's stuck in the middle of a nutty, buttery cookie.  
       Frankly, I’m not sure if WOG works better as a noun or a verb.  But fighting holiday WOG is definitely an issue for me. And that is saying a lot.  Because triple chocolate cookies are a staple in my house, all year round. We also go through a lot of avocados, spring onions, poppy seed bagels, and those noodles that are shaped like tennis rackets.   I believe the precise term for those is “raquettes.”  Which makes a lot of sense, because the only thing more French than tennis is pasta.
       Most of the time, I think WOG works best as a noun, because it sounds like several other words of the same ilk. The most obvious one is HOG.  As in, “I already ate four pieces of that chocolate that our financial planner sent us.  I can’t believe I'm such a hog.”    And I would feel worse about having done that, if I didn’t believe that caramel was invented in heaven.   A brown chewy candy that you make by simply melting sugar?  Let me be the first to say, “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus!” 
      Another close cousin to the word WOG is NOG.  When I first posted this, a friend of mine wrote, “WOG NOG.”  Exactly.   Because nothing says “fight the holiday bulge” like a beverage made from half a dozen raw eggs, a pint of cream, and a cup of sugar.  Throw a few ounces of bourbon in there, and you might as well just sign up for the next Weight Watchers meeting.   Egg Nog – or Glog, as it was once called – originated in Europe. And that is quaint.  But I think it should now be considered the official drink of the American holiday season.  Just like Denny's is now the official American diner.  Back in early modern Europe, only the upper classes could afford to drink something with that much fresh egg and cream.   It was only when the British settled in America that gluttony was democratized.   Plentiful farm land, an abundance of spirits, and voila -- a classic American cocktail that a whole nation full of alcoholics with high cholesterol can enjoy!   In our house, we at least try to drink organic Egg Nog.   Because, dammit, if I am going to work that hard all winter to grow an extra layer of fat around my middle, I want it to be hormone free.
      Sometimes, however, WOG works best as a verb. Especially in its gerund form of WOGGING. In December, particularly, I find myself overeating at so many consecutive holiday parties that I actually start to overuse the word overeat.   When I first wrote this post last winter, for example, I was sitting in a Green Bay Packers sweat suit at my dining room table, enjoying a cheesy slice of leftover pizza for breakfast, while I waited for two sticks of butter to reach room temperature. We had leftover pizza because we'd ordered it for the kids, so we could go out to a Mexican restaurant for chips, guacamole, some kind of appetizer that could best be described as blobs of cheese in a creamy anchiote sauce, seafood crepes, and two glasses of sangria.  After that, we stopped by a holiday party and drank two glasses of passion fruit vodka punch and ate some homemade pineapple upside down cake. 
      I justified all that eating on the grounds that I had gone to yoga the day before.  Although, in fact, I had gone to yoga because the night before that, I had gone out for a bacon cheeseburger, sweet potato fries, and a 4-glass sampler of local beer.  Was I a little concerned that it was only mid-December and I was already waking up on a Saturday to put on a loose-fitting sweat suit that says “MEET ME IN THE END ZONE” in giant block letters on the back?  Yes.  Yes, I was.   And there's a reason I didn't write a post about jogging.
      Behind many cases of WOG, there is often some kind of stress.   In the current economy, for example, my anxiety spikes whenever I see my financial planner’s name.   Even if it's on a friendly holiday card and attached to a box of chocolates that opens out like a drawer for easy access.  I generally cope with stress eating by reminding myself that dark chocolate has been tied to heart health in several major studies.  Doctors might say, I suppose, that chocolate flavinoids are less beneficial when they are encasing a full square inch of fattening caramel.  But if you could see the stressed out, manic look on my face as I'm shoveling those caramel candies into my mouth, you would be wise not take that moment to give me a lecture on healthy eating.  
      Yes Indeed.  WOGGING sounds curiously like another activity that many of us do in anticipation of the holidays.  That is WIGGING.   As in, wigging out.  December is that special time of year when everyone looks forward to celebrating Christmas, or watching the first snow, or -- if they have kids -- watching other people celebrate New Year’s Eve on television.  At least until 10:30 pm, when they all go to sleep.  It's also a time when friends reach out and send each other holiday cards. And the Target Corporation reaches out to sell a cluster fuck of Chinese-made consumer shit, so that no one has to think about where their gifts are coming from. 
       But as easy as Target makes it for people to get through their holiday list -- with those oversized red carts and that quality in-store dining -- holiday shopping often feels like the emotional equivalent of getting pepper sprayed in the face.  That is because it all happens in the brief four weeks between the day we express gratitude for all the stuff we have by ingesting tons of sweetened starch -- aka Thanksgiving -- and the day we get a bunch of new stuff and throw our outdated crap into a landfill.  On top of the shopping, you still have all the parties, holiday decorating, family events at school, piano and ballet recitals, theater performances, and holiday cards.  This year, I am spending the bulk of my "December free time" taking my children to and from Nutcracker rehearsals, where I enjoy watching emaciated women do a lot of exercise while I sit on my ass and draw whiskers on baby mice. 
       Last week, my regular tree company delivered -- and put up -- our Christmas tree.  Once again, I celebrated my inner New Yorker by unceremoniously driving my car to a nearby parking lot, pointing to a tree, and paying someone else to deliver it to me.  Once again, I thanked the delivery guys for helping me to avoid one of my least favorite spousal arguments of the holiday season.   Last year, when I made a similar remark to the tree guys, I thought I had maybe said too much.  But on the way out the door, they confessed to me that they heard that from women so often, they were considering wearing t-shirts that said “Couples Therapists.”  
      For me, WIGGING really turns into WOGGING when I get into that holiday habit of eating things just because they’re there. Around Christmas at my mom’s house, there are always several plates of kolache – a Czech pastry that looks like a round pillow of dough with a dollop of fruit in the center. There are also gingerbread cookies, sugar cookies, and an assortment of candies in candy tins that are – fittingly, I think – shaped like obese members of the Claus family.  I know I don't need extra sugary sweets.  But I can't help myself.  Those red and green m&ms just look even more irresistible inside a fat tin belly. 
      At my own house, I bake a lot during holiday season.   I bake a lot in general.  Mostly because baking quick breads flavored with pumpkin, banana, or zucchini is the easiest way to get fruit into my younger child.  As winter approaches, I find baking particularly soothing. It’s warm. It smells nice. It’s formulaic. Also, I believe that gingerbread settles the stomach. This is particularly true if you decorate your gingerbread cookies to look like people you dislike and then systematically break off their limbs and devour them.  That is a bit more like the practice of Voodoo than Christmas, but -- wasn't Marie Laveau some sort of Catholic?  The other great thing about making cookies is that you can give some to your kids’ teachers. When you wrap them up and include them in the box with a soulless gift card, it doesn’t seem quite so much like you’ve ticked something off your to-do list.
       For the record, Urban Dictionary defines “wigging out” as a feeling of “mild depression and high anxiety when one has binged on large amounts of psychoactive substances,” and then those substances ” where off.” I read urban dictionary a lot because I like to be hip to the youth slang.  And maybe the phrase “where off” is a new form of slang.   Then again, Urban Dictionary advertises “douchebag” mugs for holiday gifts.  So they might just not bother running the spell checker.  In any case, Urban Dictionary says that people usually counteract the feeling of wigging out by drinking alcohol, smoking weed, or consuming “large amounts of anti-anxiety benzo pills like xanax.”  You will be relieved to know -- and so will your children's elementary school teachers --  that Target pharmacies now carry a wide variety of benzodiazepines. 
      But another option, friends, is that you just give in to the WOG. With the holiday season upon us, that’s easier than buying prescription drugs.  And, remember: Peppermint bark is good for your heart.  Contrary to what Seinfeld said, sweat suits were not just invented as a way to tell the world you've given up.  They were also invented as a way to hide your expanding waistline.  And at the end of the day, it really IS pretty easy to consume large amounts of alcohol, when it’s all mixed up in a tall festive glass of raw custard.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Monologue: A Heart to Heart with My Cats

            Cats,  I feel like we’ve grown a little estranged.   Lately you seem – well -- emotionally distant. When you first moved in, we were so close.  I’d come up the stairs to find you curled up on the furniture across the room.  You might raise your head, to see what all the noise was about.  You might even look over and blink.  Very, very slowly.  Later, we’d all sit together in the TV room.  I’d sit on one couch, and you’d sit nearby on another couch.  Or sometimes, an armrest.
            But now, it might be time for us to talk.  Maybe you have some things you need to get off your chest.  Actually, I have a few things to cover myself.  Just a few little household issues.  And I’m happy to get the ball rolling on that, cats, because I’d really like to get back to our domestic status quo.  Of mutual love, respect, and virtually parallel co-existence.

            So first off, let’s talk survival.  I know cats are not, technically speaking, a fully domesticated species.  A lot of modern household conveniences don’t make sense to you. 
But you should know: that power cord is not a snake.   Those other two power cords – not to mention that lamp cord you chewed on -- also weren’t snakes.  If they had been snakes, you definitely would’ve killed them.  You tore right through the skin-like insulation, and ripped out their internal wires.  So way to go on that.  But just to reiterate: those weren’t actually snakes. 
           Here’s a list of some other household items that are also not snakes: ribbons on birthday gifts, tomato stems in the fruit bowl, my legs under the comforter, necklaces, Barbie hair, untied shoelaces, and ball point pens.   None of those things are, in fact, alive.  They do move when I’m trying to use them.  They also move when you bat them with your paw.  That’s called action/reaction.  (Don’t ask).   I only mention it because I’d like you to stop systematically destroying the things I need for my everyday life.  And also because, remember that time one of you swallowed that elastic headband?  Well, I’m not trying to point any fingers.  But it cost a lot of money to remove it from your stomach, and keep it from getting stuck in your intestines.  You almost died.  We had to nurse you back to health for days.  You’re welcome, by the way.
            Let me ask you this: Do you have a problem with house plants?  I guess it’s a moot point, since we don’t have any.  We used to.  Before.  I tried to put them up high, out of your reach.  But you just couldn’t leave them alone.  After you started puking frothy vomit all over my dining room, I gave up.   Funny story: If you go through a list of plants that are toxic to felines, you’ll see that cats are basically allergic to the entire natural world.  I’m not sure what went wrong with your selective natural instincts there.  I’m also not sure how cats got to be a cult animal in ancient Egypt.  Especially since that country has several different varieties of extremely poisonous lilies.  But then again, the Egyptians built the pyramids.  If they could engineer a feat like that, I suppose they could figure out how to keep a few of the pharaoh’s ceaselessly puking cats alive.
           I’m going to let you in on another little secret.  I live here.   As the main human resident of this house, I may periodically do things you dislike.  Like turn the corner into another room, where you were sitting by yourself.  Or put on a hat, and subtly change my normal appearance.  Or come into the house -- at any time of day -- with a crinkly plastic bag full of groceries.  If I forget to warn you about the groceries beforehand, I’m sorry.  Totally my bad.
            I realize these behaviors sometimes startle you.  I’ve gathered from your crouched posture that UPS boxes seem particularly menacing.  Of course they do.  They’re large and brown, they’re eerily silent, and they float through the air like a perfectly square owl with no wings.   It makes slightly less sense to me why – once you’ve conquered your initial fright – you insist on walking over and sitting right beneath me, in the exact spot where I’m about to put the box down.   In those situations, I’d really prefer if you just kept a safe distance and watched from your perch on my favorite chair.  Feel free to shed while you wait.  Thanks for your cooperation. 
            I have a couple of minor observations on the outdoors.  You can’t catch a fly through a double paned window.  You might be able to catch moving spots of light on the leather bar stools.  But that will be momentary, and the scratches on the chairs will never go away.  Also – and I hate to be the messenger here – you can’t catch a chipmunk through a screen door.  You’ll just tear holes in the screen with your claws.   To be fair, I’m not sure the chipmunks have figured that out either.  But they have smaller brains than you do.  For a chipmunk, a good day in nature’s lunchroom is when he can gather some acorns, store them in his cheeks, and get back to his underground tunnel before he’s nabbed by a hawk or a badger.
            When you stand there watching them – perfectly frozen, like you’re about to pounce from inside the screen – it’s sometimes hard to believe you actually share genetic material with lions.  I mean, I sense that you’d rather be outside.  You stalk, and hunt. You have ears that are specially attuned to high frequency noises.   But trust me when I tell you, those hawks would go after you first.  You wouldn’t survive one minute in the jungle.   You’re house cats.  The groceries freak you out, and you’re afraid of the upright vacuum.  Own that. 
            On a similar point, that front door is never going to open by itself.  No matter how long you sit there waiting.   It takes a person with opposable thumbs – or even just hands -- to turn the handle and push it.  I recognize your customary lack of interest in almost everything I do.  It bores you most days just to shoot a sideways glance in my direction.  But try to hear what I’m saying about the front door.  Because the one time you did dash outside, you only prowled about five feet into the driveway and then took cover under the car.  All it took was an open can of tuna to lure you back in.   Was that adventure really worth all the time waiting at the door?  You could have been meditating.
            I know you’re not willing to carry your load around here.  You’re not like other house pets, who feel an odd and inexplicable allegiance to the people who feed, groom, and shelter them.  But how about you just try to help me, help you  You may be familiar with the phrase “it’s not all about you.”  Well, I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it’s literally not all about you.   Sometimes I just have to go to the bathroom.  And I want to go alone.  And I don’t want someone rubbing up on my leg while I’m trying to do that.  It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten to feed you.  I just haven’t done it yet.  
            Also, the kitchen faucet is obviously awesome.   Sometimes it’s very quiet.  Other times, water comes out of it.   You find this fascinating because you are hard wired to hunt for fresh sources of water, despite the fact that I’ve filled up your water bowl every day of your life.  When I go on vacation, I pay someone to fill it up.   Well, nature trumps nurture.  I get that.  But when I’m standing at the sink doing the dishes, it would help me if you didn’t jump up, walk on that narrow strip of counter in front of the sink, and stick your ass right in my face.   Just a thought.  
            On that note, stepping into the litter box to take a shit – while I’m squatting there cleaning up your old shit -- isn’t cool.   I don’t even expect that kind of behavior from my kids, and they’ve thrown up on me several times.  Once right on my face.  But they also enjoy spending more than seven minutes a day with me.  Their affection for me isn’t limited to climbing up on my chest, head butting me until I scratch their ears, and then biting me when I don’t scratch in the right spot.  Seriously, cats.  It’s that kind of needy psycho behavior that drives some people into the arms of canines.  If that happens, you have only yourselves to blame.
            The rest of the things on my list are just common sense, "fully-domesticated species" kinds of stuff.  Like, you know how you get grossed out when you step on something sticky or gummy or wet?  That’s how I feel when you lick each other’s assholes while I’m eating my lunch.  I know you have rough sandpaper tongues.  And no way to hold toilet paper.  But if you really have to perform that Caligula-style bathing ritual in the middle of the day, please do it in the privacy of another room.   I’m trying to have a sandwich.
            Also, there’s nobody in that closet.  Thanks for checking.  But I’m pretty sure none of your feral enemies are hiding behind my shoes today.   And speaking of closet doors, here’s another tip: If you have to work that hard to push your way in, there’s a chance it might be hard to get back out.   Remember that time you crawled behind the dresser drawer and you were trapped for more than four hours?  Different door, same concept.  Every single time.  
             I wonder if what’s really been bothering you lately is that I closed off my bedroom.  I do apologize for that.  But even if you stretch your whole front leg underneath the door, you're not going to get in.  When one of you urinated on my brand new mattress – like five times – I had to close off that part of your territory.  I guess I misunderstood, but I had always thought cats were exceptionally clean.  Maybe you just confused my bed for the litter box.  I get that.  A bed is all warm and soft and fresh-smelling.  Not that different -- at all, really -- from those plastic boxes filled with ammonia-soaked granules of clay. 
            Still, cats, I do have limits.   I know it doesn’t seem that way, given that I spend a significant portion of every day dealing with your creepy glaring and obsessive pacing and regurgitated hairball vomit.  But peeing on my bed went over the line.  It just went too far.  I seriously almost lost my shit, and plugged in a snake for you to chew on.   Just kidding. I don’t want to confuse you.  That’s actually a power cord.
            Anyway, I couldn’t do it.  Instead I took all the bedding off the mattress, threw some of it away, and stayed up half the night washing the rest.  Now I just make sure the door is closed all the time.  Somewhere in your predatory, anti-social brains, you might be asking yourself: why?  Why do I do it?   The answer, of course, is that I love you.  I value our owner/pet relationship. I’m glad you both live here.  I honestly can’t imagine life without you. 
            The other answer is that I like keeping my door closed because you’re both up a lot at night.  And we both know that you wouldn’t hesitate to eat me if you could only find a way. 
            So I’m glad we had this talk!  I feel much better.  I hope you’ll come to me with any concerns you have in the near future.   For now, don’t worry about anything. Just sit tight, and enjoy your little cat nap.  I got this.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Mom, A Shrink, Is Retiring

Good Evening.

There have been a lot of heartfelt and beautiful sentiments expressed here tonight, about my mom and her long career as a clinical psychologist.  So I feel sort of bad – for you all -- that I’m speaking last.  Because I am not going to speak from the heart.  At all.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am Connie’s second child.  Or to put it in psychological terms you would understand: the one who dethroned my older brother.

That, of course, was a paraphrasing of Alfred Adler’s theory of individual psychology.  I have absolutely no idea what it means.  However, I feel competent to pretend that I know what it means -- in front of a large audience of people.  That is because I have a healthy and intact ego.  Also, I was raised by a therapist. 

Some people will tell you that being raised by a therapist can lead to psychological deficiencies.  They may cite to you the old adage: that the Tailor’s kid has always holes in his shirt.  Except in the case of a Freudian’s kid, I think the shirt would actually be the kids’ personality structure.  The holes in his shirt would be things things like Projection.  Or Dissociation.   It might even be Repression -- although in that case, the proverbial shirt probably looks more like swiss cheese, has no buttons whatsoever, and an entire sleeve has been ripped off, in a fit of self destructive rage.

But there are some really positive things about being raised by a shrink.  Like, we learned a lot about ourselves.  Or at least, the pathologies we were likely to suffer from.  One thing I really appreciated about being raised by a psychologist was being told exactly what development stage I was going through.  While I was going through it.  

And that was great because really -- what teenager doesn’t like to be told that they’re only making bad choices because they have an immature prefrontal cortex?  Or that you feel embarrassed by your parents – not because they say weird things about your prefrontal cortex – but because you are undergoing a normal process of individuation.

To be serious – for just one moment – my mom is a superb parent and professional.  We know that because everyone else has already said it tonight.  But now that I’m an adult -- and have my own kids -- I can really appreciate my mom’s therapeutic insights even more.  I was especially grateful for her help when our second daughter was potty training.  Because despite my mom’s best efforts, I’m a control freak.  And as you all well know, getting into a power struggle with your four year old, about when and where to go poop, can have severe and lasting consequences.  

My mom’s expertise especially comes in handy when we need her to babysit.  Because she’s very easy to manipulate.  All we have to say is that we’re worried about one of the kids.  And she will throw a dollhouse in the back of her car, grab a bag of handmade, felt-covered wooden figurines, and toss in a miniature potty chair.  Just in case anyone wants to get down on the floor and do a little role play.

Given what a true therapist she is to her core, I know that my mom will do fine out in the real world.  The only concern I really have is that she know – while she’s going through it-- that retirement might turn out to be a big transition for her.   That is why I have put together a short list of developmental insights of my own – to help you, mom -- so that you can be prepared for what you might face. And again, everyone, please keep in mind -- as I run through this list -- that I know absolutely nothing about actual psychology.

First, mom, retiring can involve fears of the unknown.  To some people, it can feel very scary.  Like they are falling off a cliff.   Mom, it’s going to be important in the next few years that you practice object permanence.  Even when you’re sitting in your bathrobe at 11 am -- cutting out clippings from the New York Times, or making biscotti along with a cooking show --  try to remember that people – real people -- are out there for you.  Also, if you have any problems with reaction formation, now would be a good time to let us know.  Because going out and actually falling off a cliff -- just to dispel or counter your fears – is probably not going to be a good choice. 

Second, mom, retiring can give some people anxiety.   And sometimes, even depression.  That is obviously different for everyone. But as you know, anxiety and depression are just anger turned inwards.  So mom, if you’re feeling anxiety, try to figure out what’s actually making you angry.  Most of the time, it will probably be dad.  So dad, you need to get ready for that too.

Third, retirees can sometimes feel adrift without a lot of structure.  Another way to say that is, after a lifetime of working, they can have trouble self-regulating.  Mom, I don’t have a lot of original advice here.  Except to say that Carrie and I are here for you -- ready for you to come over and do some “play therapy.”  Also, remember that you have a completely mature prefrontal cortex.  Use it. 

And fourth, people who retire sometimes forget to take advantage of the freedom they finally have -- to pursue their other dreams. Mom, I know you’ll have a lot of fun and exciting things to do once you settle into your new phase in life. 

But just remember something you never failed to tell us: Life is about balancing intimacy and autonomy.  You don’t need these people anymore.  They were just here to raise you.  Until you were ready to fire them.  Now, you are about to go through a normal process of separation.  And my advice to you, based on my own experience as a teenager, is this:  If you ever find any of them embarrassing, don't bother telling them.  Just tell them to duck down in the car, when your other friends are walking by, and pretend they aren't even there.

Thank you, and good night.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Aliens are Super Fun

            I recently read in the Paper of Record that Twentieth Century Fox had pulled the “teaser trailer” for their upcoming film, Neighborhood Watch. The trailer depicted the film’s stars patrolling their neighborhood turf to the sound of hip-hop music, while they mimicked gunplay with their hands.  According to the Paper of Record’s article, the public outcry that erupted after the actual neighborhood watch shooting in Florida may have “spoiled the fun of a movie that cost over $50 million to make and will cost tens of millions more to market.” In fact, the article said, the trailer wasn’t the only problem.  The film’s very name – Neighborhood Watch – guaranteed that it would have been tainted by “even a whiff of the vigilantism at issue.”  

            Personally, I found this surprising.   I mean, Wow.  Even a whiff of the vigilantism?  It wouldn’t even take a bona fide smell to taint that up?  Or a putrid stench?  Who goes to the movies these days -- gloomy search-and-rescue dogs?   Given the sensitivity of moviegoers' noses, studio insiders say it was an “unfortunate decision” to release the trailer in the first place.  That does seem unfortunate.  It’s always a stroke of bad luck when people spend $50 million dollars of their own money to make something fun, and then real events just come along and ruin it.  That’s especially true when the fun thing isn’t really even about the thing that’s spoiling the fun.    The real movie isn’t about black music, or gun violence.   It’s about ALIENS.   Oops - spoiler alert!   But c’mon, public outcriers. Lighten up.  Aliens aren’t violent.  They might kill a few people once in a while, in their quest to take over the planet.  But they’re definitely not vigilantes.   They’re totally made up.   That’s what makes them so fun!  

            Moviegoers need to keep this marketing tragedy in perspective.  Is it the studio’s fault that their trailer played on unfortunate racial stereotypes to make the actors look all scary and violent?  That was just a joke!  That's why they call it a "teaser" -- Get it?   And they only did that to keep the alien invasion angle a secret, so the movie would be more fun.  But now -- insert sad face emoticon here -- the fun might be ruined.   Maybe the real problem is that Americans are too quick to stereotype movies based on their hilarious teaser trailers!

            Frankly, Americans would probably be happier if they just stopped taking whiffs of vigilantism altogether.  Whiffs of vigilantism are bad for people who want to have fun.  And also, people who like animals.  Fox knows this because the movie, We Bought a Zoo, didn’t do very well either.  The fun of that movie was spoiled when people got a whiff of dozens of dead animals, who were shot trying to escape from a real private zoo in Ohio.  As it turns out, whiffs of dead animals don’t sell movies about handsome widowers who buy private zoos.  Even Matt Damon couldn’t blow fresh air back into that zoological stench.  SO not fun!  

            Of course, Fox doesn’t know for sure that carcasses tainted the film.  It might just have been a bad movie.  With a stupid premise.  But market research was also kind of tricky.  Because first of all, no one at the studio knew what Ohio actually was.  Some Hollywood insiders were quoted as saying they thought it was a prison somewhere in California.  Like upstate, near Vacaville.   Others said they heard it was a really big zoo.  Eventually, someone remembered it was actually a state.  Just a really boring one.  Where people have ugly feet, like Hobbits.  And lame parties, that aren’t even on the beach.  And that didn’t seem fun to anyone.  So they decided to cut their losses and just stop doing research.  What -- go to Ohio?  No way!

            Now, it seems, the best hope for Neighborhood Watch might be to delay its release.  At least until real events stop stinking everything up.   But conventional Hollywood wisdom can’t get behind that decision.  The producer of Collateral Damage said he thinks that delaying his film’s release for several months after the 9/11 attacks actually hurt its performance at the box office.  It only made $40 million dollars!  Worse yet, it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s worst films.  

            The studio tried to rebound from that financial disaster by putting Schwarzenegger into a new acting role.  It was called Governor of California.  Unfortunately, real events came along to spoil that movie too.  Like when the governor’s wife got a whiff of the fact that he'd been supporting a mistress – and his out of wedlock offspring – for decades.  Right under her roof.  Well, not always right under her roof.  Sometimes, he kept them in a hidden underground bunker.  I think it was somewhere in California.  Like upstate, near Vacaville.  

            Well, truth CAN be stranger than fiction.   And that’s so awesome, as long as the studios can still figure out how to profit from it.  Like they did with Erin Brokovitch.  For that film, Julia Roberts won an Oscar.  During her speech, she almost remembered to thank what’s-her-name.   Or like, The China Syndrome.  That was so fun because a real nuclear meltdown actually happened right after the film came out. I think it was somewhere in Ohio.  And don’t forget about Titanic!   No public outcry to spoil that fun!   The only good news in all this tragedy is that the studio will probably survive.  And that's good because you can never have enough parties on the beach.  Or nice pedicures.  The studios also know that regular people -- like those poor Ohio prisoners -- need them to keep making movies.  Because sometimes, the real world just isn’t that fun.  And when it really starts to smell, that's the best time to bring on the aliens!