Friendships

Are some relationships just time bombs waiting to blow up? Explosives and a clock wired to detonate at a certain time?

Or are they just balloon fantasies we have blown up that will eventually float away, or lose air and flatten on the ground?

It takes a while to get to know people and sometimes we hate to admit we’ve invested too much time in someone who is too fundamentally different and so we keep going …

… until one day a minor disagreement, light shining brightly, sets off the tick, tick …

… the fadeout … the flyaway …

Would it have made any difference earlier to re-wire, to point out the obvious?

Hard to say. What it comes down to is this. If the relationship is a bomb, you are damned if you do speak up and damned if you don’t. It will blow – sooner or later.

If it’s a balloon fantasy, thoughts hanging in your imagination, the first sharp poking or wind blowing will flatten and send all hopes flying.

********

Lately I’ve seen a lot of articles on friendships. What are the types of friendships? How many friends do most people have? Are we losing the ability and desire to cultivate friendships? More than one article points out that we are connecting less. Families are shrinking but houses are getting bigger. Many people have replaced conversation with compulsive phone checking and texting. I see this myself every time I eat out or attend a gathering.

The articles I read on friendship don’t help me, not really. I’ve had so many friendships come and go, partly because I’ve moved often and had at least 25 jobs. Many friendships are circumstantial. They don’t take hold and last beyond living or working near each other or belonging to some group. I’m more diligent about maintaining connections than most people are. I’ve learned to lower my expectations, to be more realistic about what people can offer, or choose to offer. And to truly enjoy the friends who are in my life now, even if I don’t see them often.

Some articles categorize friendships, generalize about how many we need. I question their accuracy. After all, each of us is different, not to mention at different stages of life or living in different parts of the country or world. Introverts like me prefer fewer, but deeper friendships. Extroverts can never have too many friends. With all kinds of variations in between. People who live in one town all their lives might have more life-long friendships than those who live in transient neighborhoods. Married or living-together couples rely on each other for friendship; students and workers have built-in friendships.

It’s not until we live alone, children gone, retired or working at home, that we realize more fully how fortunate we are to have friends. We should not take them for granted. Nor should we close the door on new friendships. Cultivating friendships – new and old – is an art and a commitment.

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In the News: Driving Me Batty

Bagged saladsThe recent news that someone found a dead bat in a packaged salad mix is pretty horrifying, but I admit a welcome relief from other current news in the world, such as Number 45’s latest temper tantrum tweet or a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight for no good reason.

Also, I’m not missing news of April the Giraffe. Is she about to give birth? Any day now for two months. I wish her well but also wish the vets at the Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, New York had more accurate information.

So, for a while I get to ponder the bat issue. From both the bat’s perspective and imagining myself opening that bag.

That poor bat. How did it go from hanging in a cool, dark cave to hanging out in a lettuce field or factory? Was it exploring or confused when it accidentally got stuck in a head of lettuce or assembly line machinery? Did one of these workers see it and decide to leave it (for any number of reasons): http://www.oceanmist.com/video/romaine-harvest-2/

After interviewing a scientist who wrote a book and a blog about food safety, I usually stay away from pre-packaged salads. They are the most likely to be contaminated, she warned. But there are the occasional times I’ll grab a bag of greens, especially when I’m entertaining. I would NOT be a happy host if I got down my special salad bowl, poured out my lettuce and out plopped a flying rat. Or would it be folded inside, clinging to the cellophane? Actually, it was dead, partially decomposed, and the two people already munching away on the salad had to go for rabies testing. In another recent incident, a woman opened her salad package to find a LIVE scorpion still crawling around inside.

I’ve only had two experiences like this in my life, neither as horrifying. When I was about 11, my mother showed me a box of oatmeal crawling with weevils. It took me YEARS to get over that. I still ate my oatmeal most mornings (my dad was Scottish) but I cringed with every speckled bite. Do you have any idea how many specs of dark color appear in oatmeal?

My second experience involved a rice cake 20 years ago. You know, those faux crackers supposedly good for you made of sawdust and cardboard. In an effort to be virtuous and save time while out running errands, I bought a single, wrapped rice cake in a health food store. I opened it and took a bite. Then I noticed a black what looked like wire sticking out from the piece in my hand. I looked closer. A roach! A whole roach inside the rice cake. Since then, rice cakes have evolved into flavored and seasoned snacks, but there is NO WAY that attempt at sophistication has me fooled. Gag me. I will not eat you if you are the last food on earth. No wait, that’s roaches ….

Should We Raise or Lower the Bar?

“Believe me, there is no such thing as expecting too much.” Susan Cheever, American author

“It’s expectation that differentiates us from the dead.” Sheila Ballantyne, American author

“If you have too much expectation, you may come away disappointed.” Dalai Lama

What should we expect – in relationships, in life?

The word expect, from the Latin exspectare, to look out for, has a range of meanings.

On the lighter side, it can mean to think something will likely happen. For example, you will wake up in the morning, your car will start, you will get to work on time, your friend will show up for lunch when she said she would. Synonyms are hope, look forward to, anticipate, think, believe, imagine.

On the heavier side, it can mean looking for something from someone you think is rightfully due, or a requirement to fulfill an obligation. For example, I want you to do your share of chores around the house, we expect you to be here at work by 9 a.m. Synonyms are require, want, insist on, demand.

My late mother-in-law told me when she got older that she had given up having expectations. “That way I’m never disappointed and pleasantly surprised when something nice happens.” At the time, I thought this was sad, almost like admitting, “I’m not going to be getting much.” How can we not look forward to things, have desires? Has she just given up?

Recently, watching Season 7 of “The Good Wife,” I saw a similar exchange. The scene takes place in a bar where Alicia and her new law firm partner Lucca are discussing jobs and men. Lucca, a perky thirtysomething, says “I don’t have any expectations.”

Alicia looks at Lucca with her slightly weary, fiftysomething expression and says, “Really? That seems so sad.”

What does it mean to have no expectations? Buddhists advise letting go of the “wanting mind,” which they consider the source of much suffering. If we stop attaching ourselves to specific outcomes and try to flow with the unexpected, we can be closer to enlightenment, or at least calmer along the way.

On the other hand, some old and new age philosophers advise us to visualize what we want, to attract what we deserve. Expect everything and the universe will deliver. Think and Grow Rich, wrote Napoleon Hill in 1937, setting off a chain reaction of self-help, create-your-own reality books.

So, which is it?

Now that I am older myself, I think I see what my mother-in-law was saying. She didn’t mean she was letting go of all expectations. For example, she still hoped to wake up in the morning (although realized she might not) and looked forward to gatherings with friends and family. These are lighter expectations, reasonable hopes for a healthy person.

What she meant was that she was letting go of unrealistic expectations from people and the world. A devout Christian, she was big on forgiveness and acceptance. The world tested her many times – a mentally ill son, a granddaughter who died of alcoholism, children marrying and divorcing, coming and going.

Living in an old house, she often made requests for help that could seem like demands to family members who were busy working, living their own lives. Was she expecting too much? Perhaps at times. But we all knew she had been unconditionally generous with us (most of the time, anyway).

It has taken me a long time to even begin to understand this in my own life. To see that there is a difference between reasonable and unreasonable expectations and that they sometimes get mixed up. We are all sliding around inside the kaleidoscope, seeing the world and each other with shifting needs and perspectives.

For example, I hope when I go to a gathering that I meet someone interesting. When I start a new writing project, I look forward to learning and being appreciated. These are all possible and more often than not, they do happen. But if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I may feel a little disappointed but I don’t lose all hope.

I no longer expect that anyone I meet will become a lifelong friend or even like me. I don’t expect people to change fundamentally who they are or to see the world the way I do. A curious and somewhat naïve person, I have been quick to jump into friendships and slow to realize that others are often more discerning than I am and may not be available for friendship or even friendly complements on the job. They are too busy, too different, too indifferent – or they just have other priorities and that’s okay.

I hope when I post or send out an essay that I connect with at least a few people, make someone laugh or an editor want to publish my writing. But I don’t demand it, or expect fame and fortune. If that happens, as my mother-in-law said, it is a pleasant surprise.

Acts of generosity do happen and often at unexpected times. It pays to keep our minds and hearts open to that possibility with a sense of curiosity and adventure. The bar is fine where it is. No jumping or stooping required. Just keep moving forward.

Mental Fitness: It’s in the Bag (Somewhere)

Do we need brain exercises to keep mentally fit? Some of my friends think we do and work out online with programs like Luminosity. Science so far says no to games, yes to learning new things, such as a language or musical instrument.

I’ll leave more evolved answers to experts.

I’m not big on computer games or puzzles, prefer learning by reading and writing.

And just dealing with everyday challenges is often enough for me. If I don’t stay alert, I can get run over by a car or a tyrannical government.

Or have to pay for my 50th bag because single-use plastic bags are now banned in California (a ban I support) and stores are charging us for paper bags and reusable plastic ones. BagsAnd because I’ve left the other 49 tossed in my kitchen or car. And forgotten that cool canvas tote and the mini-tote my kids gave me for Christmas. They are either 1) in another purse or 2) hanging with my purses in my bedroom closet.

So how to remember? I joke with all the store clerks. They don’t remember either.

I could Google for ideas. But I’m stubborn and like to learn on my own (aka the hard way). I like to imagine and analyze.

I need to keep my bags in more than one place since I shop in different ways. Sometimes I drive, sometimes I walk to a store and sometimes I stop in spontaneously while out walking.

Since I most often drive alone, it makes sense to pile some bags on the front passenger seat. They are too easy to forget in the trunk.

I have a small kitchen, so not much room there for extra bags. I already stuff baking pans in my dishwasher, which I never use. I could make room for bags, but as with the car trunk, out of sight, out of mind. My mental powers do not yet penetrate metal. Perhaps a hook for the more attractive totes? Not much wall space either.

TotesNow that I think about it, remembering to always carry the mini-tote in my purse is probably the best solution. Always with me, like my wallet and lipstick and iPhone and keys. Then – remembering it’s in there! I’ve left stores several times now, paying for a bag and then realizing halfway home that the little tote is still inside my purse.

But I am starting to remember. Grab one before I get out of my car or yank from purse before I reach the checkout counter. A new habit, light gradually revealing a conscious image, synapses connecting. It took a year to navigate the debit/credit card chip reader scenario, to learn to be quick before the clerk flashes a new screen. (The clerks and screens are all different.) I do that pretty well now, except when the bag boy or girl interrupts to ask: Do you need a bag? Paper or plastic?

Habits take approximately 66 days to form, according the latest research.

Another month to go. And I’ll have bags, bags, bags for life.

And then be ready for the next challenge. Bring it on.

tote
Emily McDowell studio
Los Angeles

 

Merry, Merry Memories

Merry Pig and ElvesI have some extra time after getting my car serviced, so stop in at the mall across the freeway. I’ll just stroll around for a few minutes, maybe get some gift ideas, extra exercise.

It’s crowded, surprising for a week day. I crawl through the honking, swerving cars into the parking structure. Dodge clumps of people in Macy’s, my thoroughfare out to the mall. (San Diego malls are outdoor malls.)

Swoop into the tsunami of humanity. No poking along for me. As I set my sights on a far end, I realize I am charging at full speed, head bent. I am a blur in passing windows. So is everyone else, the running of the bulls, not wanting to be gored in the butt.

Then I realize we are trotting along to Christmas music! “We WISH you a Merry Christmas, we WISH you a Merry Christmas, and … ” Puff, puff, huff, huff, faster, faster, be jolly dammit …

My god, we have not even stuffed and been stuffed with our Thanksgiving turkey! Yes, Christmas decorations went up soon after the pumpkins came down, but isn’t our official first shopping day the day AFTER Thanksgiving, Black Friday? Why pipe in, force feed us, the holiday music so early?

I break away and descend the long escalator. There at the bottom luring us into his candy cane house is Santa. BIG Santa, we’re talking six foot four or more. Handsome. I swear he twinkles his eyes at me. He is probably bored, since only one cranky child lurks on the other side with a father trying so hard to be patient.

I smile at Santa and jump back into the river of merriness. The rapids circle me round and dump me off back where I started. It’s time to go home, to check where I’ve stored my holiday spirit.

********************

Memories from 30 years ago pop up. My year as a shopping center promotion assistant. Sandwiched in between my careers as an advertising writer and a journalist. My job was to help the marketing director, Irene, write stories about the 60-plus stores for the local paper and plan and set up promotions for the upscale center located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. An older woman who had returned to college late in life, Irene encouraged me to finish my degree in journalism and let me work a flexible schedule. Her job as head of the merchants association was like working with 60 shrieking children, but she handled it with aplomb and humor. Allowed me to bring my sons to promotions such as Casino Night – play that roulette wheel! – and 4H Club Spring/Easter Farm Days featuring kids’ chickens, goats, pigs. One day a pig got loose from its pen. Irene and I chased it through the shopping center as it rooted its way through the flower beds. We caught him, muck up to our knees.

At Christmas, we set up the Santa house, scheduled the professional freelance Santas and hired local high school students to be the helpful elves, corral kids, take photos. More than one Santa showed up drunk. Up went the sign, “Santa will be right back,” until we could scramble up a replacement. And more often than not, the elves did not show up at all. Irene and I pulled on the elf costumes and stood inside the little house with Santa.

One busy weekend day, we looked out at a long line of parents, grandparents, children.

“Oh my god,” said Irene, under her little elf hat. “There’s my neighbor. I was just bragging to her about my great new job.”

********************Elves and Pig

When I left that job to work down the street for the local paper, Irene gave me a going-away present, a little ceramic pig. “This is to remember.”

The pig has come with me to every job since. Now it sits on my desk. At this time of year, the elves look on.

The Days after November 8

First morning, I wake up so sad. My mind is not moving well, under a dark cloud.

I cannot focus on my writing, do not have the heart for it.

I drive to the library neighborhood a mile away, dropping a memoir I just finished on living with heart disease into the return bin. I read it because I know the author and because I figure heart disease will get me eventually. Dad dead of heart attack, 52, uncle 54, his daughter, my only cousin, at 54. I’m interested in knowing more about the vegan diet the author adopted. The book offers some helpful information, books to read, and also confirms my suspicion I don’t want to write long memoirs about my emotional journeys.

I consider walking around the bay. It shines bright at the end of the street. Too bright, too harsh! So I stick to the still shady side of neighborhood streets, walking past old bungalows, new condos, apartment buildings.

Middle School
Pacific Beach Middle School. I hope they are learning to think.

I pass a young father wheeling a stroller. He smiles at me, a sad smile.

I pass a construction site where workers are talking, some in Spanish, some in English. I wonder how they all voted, if they did. If any are fearful, any emboldened.

Since I know I won’t work today, I drive north to a small shopping center with a post office and a bookstore. Buy 40 Forever stamps, Gifts of Friendship, cherry trees (celebrating the bond between our country and Japan) and classic Pickup Trucks. In the bookstore, I look for recommended books on heart health and find instead hundreds of books on every other disease and diet on earth.

The clerk and the woman ahead of me are discussing the election, both young women. They are not happy. So, when it’s my turn, I say something and am met with silence. Was it me, older, silver hair popping out now, or was she preoccupied? Her eyes were on the bedroll and backpack someone had left on the floor in the main area. I ask where the coloring books are and she takes me to a far corner.

“Sir,” she says to a scruffy, older man, leafing through magazines, “I have to ask you to move your belongings.” He ignores her, picks up another magazine, and I examine the coloring books, my calming hobby. Flowers, animals, mandalas? I choose “Johanna’s Christmas: A Festive Coloring Book,” by Johanna Basford, my favorite coloring book creator. Why not some red and green cheer between now and the end of the year?

While I’m looking, a young Asian guy in a chair near me starts talking. At first I think he is talking to someone, then I see he’s alone, and I think maybe he’s reading aloud with ear plugs. He’s holding a book. There are many Asian students now at nearby UCSD. But then I realize he is just talking to the air.

When I pay for my book, I ask the clerk about him. “Oh, he’s harmless. He comes in here every day. He’s homeless.” She didn’t look at me as she says, “Have a good day ma’am.”

Outside the store, I see myself reflected in the window. Silver hair flashing. Slightly bent. But moving forward, determined, not defeated.

Back to the library, now open. I find the book I want by Dr. Neal Barnard, “21-day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health.” The title is really a hyped-up hook for adopting a plant-based diet. It is sensible and well-written, not a front for selling vitamins or alternative cures. I sign up to receive information from his organization, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

I dive into the book. This is my next challenge, in addition to keeping my sanity. I’ve made several attempts to give up meat and dairy since reading “Diet for a Small Planet” 40 years ago and hearing Dr. Dean Ornish speak 20 years ago. I fall back into old ways. I’m ready to move forward again. That determination. My heart has been broken many times, but I want it to keep beating for more years, more writing.

Second day, it’s yoga. Everyone is very quiet and leaves without talking.

I want to write. Some of my friends are writing beautiful mini-essays in emails and Facebook posts. I cannot summon the will. I can barely read the analysis. Everyone has an opinion on who did what wrong. And what will be right or wrong in the years to come. And how we should let love overcome, blah, blah.Middle School

Writing group, our leader is sad. No politics in here, she says. We will write about our feelings but we don’t have to share. Or about overcoming a challenge, which we can share. One woman’s reads a long, colorful description of her marriage falling apart. I love it, but the leader doesn’t. Let’s write about a memorable Thanksgiving, she suggests. There are many funny stories and the mood lifts remembering kinder days.

After group, shared calming chamomile tea and conversation at a local Irish bakery with a writing friend, like me a former journalist.

Third day, yoga again. I am so tired. The young, 30-something teacher has us do twists for the second day in a row. She is a good teacher but clueless about what 60-something bodies can do. In the spirit of yoga, I do what I can and accept where I am.

We are non-political in the studio, but one woman, also named Linda, lingers after class to spout off. The young teacher joins in and we commiserate. I can barely summon feelings, because I am numb, in shock.

Little flares of anger are spiking up. I “Like” some insights on Facebook but refrain from disliking “the new President deserves respect” or “shut, up whiny Liberals.” I read my heart healthy book, shop for good food, and mull over how to best use my talents to make some kind of difference. I will not change minds, that I know, but perhaps I can inspire courage, reason, tolerance.

Fourth day, I am angry. Another yoga teacher, another class. Supposedly gentler, but more damn twists! Plus instructions to run our thumb down from the big toe to alleviate anger. Chi walking and talking. This just makes me more angry. Not many agree with me, and I try to be tolerant, but this type of irrational thinking, belief systems without evidence, is what leads humanity to make bad decisions. To demonize individuals and groups without facts. To ignore facts and reality.

I go to the local mall to walk around and escape. It’s crazy. Like we’ve all been let out of the nuthouse and are eager to jump into Christmas. The Body Shop has re-opened after remodeling and the gay man clerk with the earring and the spiked hair helps me find my grapefruit scented lotion. A woman in a hijab smiles at me. I feel like crying.

I prune down my Facebook followings. So far, I have not unfriended anyone, but I have blocked those who spew hatred.

Fifth day, I feel better. Perhaps it is the new diet. I feel resolve to stand up for what I think is right and to live as well as I can in my remaining years. I post an article by Gloria Steinem on Facebook. A man I know comments with a long, misogynistic rant, “there was no misogyny in this election.”

The UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff explains the disparate views of the world well. Conservatives see a world that requires hierarchy and authoritarianism. The strong leader, the good father. People are more bad and need to be kept in line. Liberals see a world that benefits from people working together, equals. People are more good than bad and need to help each other. Once people have developed a certain view, or frame as he calls it, it is hard for them to shift. To reach one another, we have to find common values. Areas where the views overlap.

In some areas, such as the future of the planet, we don’t have time to dally here. It won’t matter if a climate change denier is looking backward or forward or sideways if he or she is underwater or cannot breathe or eat. The planet has a plan of its own.

I get the results from my 23andme ancestry search. My sister and I both decided to do this and sent in our samples within days of each other – unknown to each other! We joked that we mailed our sample kits at the same time we mailed our ballots.

We share our results. About 74 percent British and Irish for me, 72 percent for her. (Our father was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and our mother in Montreal, as were we, of English and Scottish background.) Four percent French and German (slightly more for me). That must come from our one great-grandmother who was American, from St. Louis. About 16 percent Northern European for me, 23 percent for her. A small amount of Southern European and North African, more for me.

One difference is that I am two percent Scandinavian and she 0.7 percent. Maybe that’s why I got the liberal gene and she the conservative? A far-reaching attempt at humor. Of course, back when our ancestors were frolicking with our future DNA, kings and chieftains ruled and many Viking settlements perished because they refused to hunt fish like the Inuit and spent money and supplies on churches rather than crops.

My sister and I don’t carry markers for any major diseases. (Heart disease specifically or broken hearts are not included in our reports.) The one gene variant we share is for deafness. So we both could go deaf. Actually, I think I am losing my hearing. And to tell you the truth, I only partly care.

Spirit Orbs

My daughter-in-law believes that globes of light appearing in photographs are caused by the supernatural. Spirit orbs. Ghosts of loved ones (or maybe hated ones) from the past returning to hover and glow between the heads and trees we capture today.

No matter that one of her Facebook friends – and they are both photo experts, professionals – explains the phenomenon in scientific terms. It’s light bouncing off a particle of dust or pollen, a drop of rain. It’s a speck of foreign material in the camera lens. Real, explainable in this world. Not from another world, a parallel universe.

She is not buying it, prefers to explore other layers, levels of meaning, possibilities.

“Look at this,” she says handing over a recent family photo. A group of us crowding together and smiling. Were we in a foreign land? Possibly. Behind us, a white ball, not a sun or a moon, just hanging, nebulous and yet unmistakably there.

Photos ghosts
Is that Grandma hanging out with us on the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

“Who could this be?” She is convinced it is either my mother or my former husband’s mother, my sons’ grandmothers, who died a few months apart, just before this picture was taken.

 

So why would either woman want to be with us? Are they just hanging out? Are they envious? Do they have an uplifting message? Final words of wisdom?

As a skeptic, there is no way I am going to leap into the spirit world. But I can leap from what is reflected in the photo into my own reflections. The way I used to with Tarot cards. No, I the Hanged Man does not mean I am literally hanging from a tree upside down with a rope around my foot. He represents transitions, being suspended between decisions.

So for the recent trip photo, I am imagining these two women I admired being with us every step of the way, having enough energy, even as their gauges wavered at 90, to enjoy themselves and our company. To feel a part of us, as they often didn’t as they aged.

Next best scenario, they love hearing about the trip when we return, looking at every photo in our slideshows or photo books. Who else would do that? Perhaps they are envious, but not to the point of glaring from their little orbits. Nor are they offering advice, at least not day-to-day nagging, more like should you disagree and drive each other crazy sometimes, learn to forgive, expect less and give more. Be kind on Facebook.

Looking at old-old photos, I wish the granny globs of light could talk to me. Do not waste your time with this group of people; they are not looking or listening. Marry the Sea Scout who takes you sailing with his mother. Yes, you will be a widow at 60, but you will be happy and left with some youthful good looks and lots of money.

Watch out for that wizard at the company Halloween party, standing beside you in the witch costume beside the pumpkin orb. He charms everyone with his smile and is so happy, happy to be your assistant. Not really. He plans to carve you down to size.

Bypass the cowboy swinging his lasso on another hallowed eve. He is too much for your gentle Tahitian, even with the flower in the back of your hair, meaning you are looking. Heed your own first impression, “What an ass.” Run from the golden ropes.

Of course there was no such message from the spirit world and you unwisely tie the knot until it unravels. There are rays of light beaming in one of the wedding photos. My two mothers, too kind to say I told you so.