Better Questions

9 Jul

​Did you ever stop to think about how you got to where you find yourself now? How you have convinced yourself that you have nothing of value to add in a conversation? How you worry about any eyes that might be watching your every move, waiting for you to fail at whatever it is you’re trying to do? How you know what you feel, what you need in life, but don’t feel good about going for it? Or how you have no idea of what you want, because your thoughts about keeping the status quo or meeting others’ expectations take up too much space in your mind? Do you feel stuck, with no idea of how to move forward? Do you feel overwhelmed by deciding a first step, or the need to, one day, decide a thousandth step?

We ask ourselves a lot of questions, but I’m thinking they are the wrong questions. What if we replaced those fearful, oppressive questions with questions like why not me? Why don’t I give myself the benefit of the doubt that I have what it takes to succeed, no matter how long it takes? Why don’t I try doing something different, or thinking in a different way, no matter how small? Why don’t I shut out the world for a bit and develop my own wisdom about myself and the world? Why don’t I set aside my feelings of guilt or letting others down and help myself? Why don’t I take time to get to know myself better? Why don’t I come through for myself as the person who accepts me?

We perpetuate our anxiety when we hold our lives captive with hurtful, unproductive questions. Take stock of your thought life and where you might be able to stop those negative thoughts in their tracks with a little more awareness and love for yourself. You are worth saving. 

A Medical Miracle

1 Jan

I’ve known about my flat feet for more than 30 years, and it seems that now, after all this time, they want some attention. I’ve recently noticed some foot and ankle pain that has been lingering for a while, and I set up a podiatrist appointment to see what was going on.

My podiatrist is awesome enough to have her own x-ray machine in her office, so we were able to take a closer look right away. The highlight of that visit was not that I have tendinitis and plantar fascitis in my right foot and ankle, and that today’s supportive shoes are much, much more attractive (Hello, Clarks!), but that this troubled right foot of mine actually had an arch.

image

Not a mani-pedi day, obviously.

This is as groundbreaking to me personally as when people came to realize the earth wasn’t flat. The x-ray showed that I had about a 12-degree angle in my arch area, rather than none at all. This is a little less than half an arch–my podiatrist said the angle of arch for a normal foot is 28 degrees. She also was surprised by the amount of arch my foot actually had, mentioning she assumed it would be completely flat by just looking at it, just as I had done for as long as I could remember.

It’s odd to realize something I believed to be true for so long was so far off base. Yes, there are issues with my feet, as evidenced by the prescribed foot exercises I didn’t really stick with as a preteen; the ugly red, hard-bottom orthopedic shoes I received during this time that looked like tap shoes, but were, sadly, just uniquely colored corrective shoes (these were also abandoned quickly); and, of course, my current woes. But the problem either wasn’t as bad as my young mind believed, or my situation improved somewhat over the years while I still worked under the more catastrophic forecast that I internalized many years ago.

It makes me wonder about other areas in my life in which I may be sizing myself up with outdated or incorrect information. Will another wise observer bring good news to me that changes my mindset in other areas, like my podiatrist did? Or will I have the courage to be that person for myself, by challenging the thoughts I’ve been holding onto that only serve to hold me back?

Are there areas in your life that could benefit from your own internal truth-seeking gaze?

While I ponder ways to continue to strengthen and heal my resolve and my spirit, I am strengthening and healing my foot and ankle with different kinds of stretches, time with an ice pack, and new kicks (Asics for outside, and Birkenstocks for around the house for now, until the weather warms up). I’m glad there is a solution for this problem, and I look forward to walking on in life with a stronger, more grounded gait, as I set out to do the same in other areas of my life.

Mad Men’s Final Moments of Zen

3 Jun

image

When Mad Men first started in 2007, I had been working in the marketing industry for a few months, albeit with an in-house Big Pharma agency. My big task on my first day was to quickly review a prescribing information document for a new drug that had recently been approved for use, a key document required to be delivered with any promotional materials. I remember the hustle and bustle of everyone in my department pitching in to move along dozens of jobs that would become the advertisements and sales materials that would herald the arrival of this new drug. It was exciting.

About three years later, at a bona fide agency, I worked some long nights and weekends to do my part with finalizing sales materials, ads, Web sites, and other kinds of materials for public consumption. I soon became accustomed to the frantic, adrenaline-rush highs of advertising and marketing, but in my personal life I was also experiencing the lows of loneliness, regret, the work-life balance woes of new motherhood, and the awkwardness I felt with making connections with others. I did not always deal with these struggles with grace, but I always hoped for better. It was from this vantage point that I became engrossed in the spectacle of Mad Men.

On the small screen, I saw people in the never dull advertising world of Sterling Cooper, and its later iterations, with similar highs and lows. Like Roger Sterling charming his way through business lunches and dinners, leading coups that lured premium companies onto the client roster, but struggling with mortality after a heart attack. Or Pete, on the fast track to success, yet always feeling like an also-ran in his life. Or Peggy, steadily climbing up the career ladder while reminded of the ghosts of a child sent for adoption and dead-end romantic relationships. Or Joan, similarly staking her own vaunted space in the company, yet reminded of compromises she made to get there, and plagued by all the other ones that men expected her to make to go further.

And then, of course, there’s Don Draper, who confessed in one of the last episodes to being responsible for a man’s death and succeeding to steal that man’s identity, to grab a blank slate life that he filled with equal measures of achievements and deceptions for himself and others, until it burst, revealing to him a yawning chasm of isolation. (Now that elevator shaft moment a few seasons back makes sense to me.)

When the hefty price tag paid for use of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles at the end of a 2012 episode was revealed, I thought the creative team could’ve just as easily gone with “Eleanor Rigby” instead, with all the truly lonely, sad characters that populated the show. There was always a thread of people wanting more out of life, but not sure how to get there, or not satisfied with the next steps they made. But the last season began to show a way out of that morass of melancholy for many of the main characters.

image

One of my favorite recent episodes was the one last year in which the core band of marketeers were working to develop an ad for a fast-food burger place. The initial target was moms who wanted to provide for their children but felt guilty about not providing a home-cooked meal. But ultimately the team settled on highlighting the restaurant as a place for disparate people to eat together and share laughs and life. They encouraged a notion of making your family out of whoever was around that you really cared about.

I liked the notion in that episode of Don, Peggy, and Pete breaking through their individual personal hells, breaking through their past and present annoyances with each other, to realize their shared connection, and that what they shared sometimes brought peace of mind to each other. This episode, and its contented last scene, to me foreshadowed the way all three of them lashed out with a mix of desperation, excitement, and/or confusion toward unexpected connections that shook up their bleak worldviews in the very last episode.

Whether getting a second chance with an old connection, embarking on a new and unproven relationship, or shamelessly breaking through a false veneer of self-sufficiency and control in exchange for healing, for me the final trajectories of these three characters (and the similar life-altering decisions made by Joan, Roger, and Betty) exemplified moments of strength and love that we are often too proud, or too afraid, to grab for ourselves.

Jon Hamm and show creator Matthew Weiner both alluded to the fact that the final vignettes for these characters didn’t mean that their lives were smooth sailing after these brave moments, just that they saw beyond their set patterns to make changes that brought them closer to better versions of themselves. Isn’t this also the best we can ask ourselves as we journey through life? I found their actions to be a good reminder for me to seek out the areas in my life that may call for bravery to effect change.

Mad Men made ennui glamorous (like Betty languishing on the psychiatrist’s couch early on), but through the haze of so many cigarettes and glasses of scotch, the emptiness, to me, was stark and oppressive. If the show captured the disillusionment that crept into America’s consciousness going into the 1970s, as Weiner indicated, several of the main characters had been leading the charge on that sentiment for quite some time, yet they also stumbled on ways to possibly escape it. The vulnerability and decisiveness that the characters showed to get to these new chapters in their lives, in my opinion, gives us something more valuable to hold on to than the cumulative knowledge of retro fashion and period music that we gained from watching the show.

I Did the Thing, And I Survived

29 Mar

Over the winter I experimented with preparing my natural hair for cold weather. On one weekend, once my hair had been blow-dried, and I’d worked an insane amount of coconut oil into it, I noticed in the mirror that my ends looked raggedy. This wasn’t the first time that the ends of my hair looked dry and split, but it was the first time that I decided I couldn’t go walking around with them looking like that.

So, I cut them off. Nothing too professional; I just grabbed sections of hair and then cut, cutting about 3 inches off on one side of my head, then the other, and then the back, while trying to make them look roughly even. (I did get a lot of help from this video, though.)

It was quite liberating to cut my hair. I hadn’t done it in the past because I was afraid of how I might completely miss the mark with my haircut. But, reality finally sunk in on that day: hair grows back, so I wouldn’t be stuck with my results forever. I also trusted that I could more or less do a consistent job all around. Would I really be so horrible as to cut three inches from one side, and eight from the other and end up looking like Pepa’s old asymmetric bob? Nope.

This 10-minute interlude in my life taught me a lot about taking risks and the promise of resilience. Someday we get to a point where we’ve had enough of whatever we’ve been stalling on doing, and just wake up and do it. Maybe in a fit of frustration, maybe with sound mind and jangly nerves, but whatever our mindset, we’ll finally do the thing, and then wonder why it took us so long. Maybe we’ll have a bit of “Did I really just do that?” buyer’s remorse for the new thing we’ve signed up for, but more often than not, we carry on with a triumphant sense of accomplishment.

I’m glad I took the risk. I’m proud of how smooth my ends looked this winter. I’ll know how to care for my hair in the future, but beyond that, I’ll also know that I’m more capable than I give myself credit for, and that there are often simple, effective solutions for our problems when we push fear aside and take decisive action.

Coming of Age…and Then Aging

16 Jul

Sacha Jenkins, a veteran journalist, artist, and all-around creator and curator of culture, earlier this year participated in a Google Hangout discussion that was orchestrated by the good people at Afropunk, titled, ”What Is Black Music?” During this discussion, Jenkins, who was born in the early 1970’s, recounted enjoying punk music and skateboards in the 1980’s, and being pelted with 40-oz beer bottles by members of his black community who didn’t share his tastes. During the Afropunk discussion, which touched on how the scope of black music creation and consumption has broadened over time, and how different generations and music industry execs feel about those changes, Jenkins seemed genuinely pleased that, for the most part, the tide has turned and younger generations of African Americans can now openly express themselves in ways that were previously not embraced by a culture with strong monolithic tendencies.

Jenkins’ past and his outlook on the future of music for African Americans resonated with me, because I, too, grew up on the cusp of this cultural shift. I didn’t trade in my Strawberry Shortcake lunch pail and bike for safety pins and Manic Panic hair dye, and I didn’t get assaulted with flying glass objects, but I did receive a lot of quizzical stares from my elementary school peers one afternoon for not knowing who New Edition was during the early 1980’s. I suspect that if I were coming of age nowadays, the awkwardness I felt would’ve been lessened by it being more likely to find a crew with the same diverse interests as me–either in person or via social media.

I have a son who is on the slow march toward pre-teendom, and part of me worries constantly about how socialization will continue to unfold for him, but then I relax as I see the confidence and comfort he seems to possess with regard to being himself. Exhibit A: For the second year in a row, my son has gotten a mohawk after school has ended. Right after the final 2014 bell rang, my husband carted him off to the barber to get his summer hairstyle. Same as last year, he was beyond excited, but then went on with his life, no hesitation or second thoughts. If he had grown up when and where I grew up and stepped out of his parent’s car with a mohawk, unless he had Rick James, Melle Mel, or a member of Bad Brains as a father, it would’ve been the same as an alien emerging from a UFO. Thank goodness times have changed.

Along with the ways in which our culture has become more open, I admire the confidence about his individualism that my son is showing. I have wanted him to wander his way through life with courage, wonder, and love for others, and things like this make me smile and think he’s on his way to establishing and enjoying the value of being his own person.

The early years are so crucial for developing identity and learning to have comfort in one’s own skin–not just for African Americans, but for boys and girls and people of all ethnic groups, nationalities, religious orientations, gender identities, sexual orientations, etc. And, it’s not just young people who have a monopoly on identity-driven angst, of course; we “mature” adults have lots to navigate as well.

After my son received the mohawk, we were at our local Pathmark on a weekend morning, and a 40-something woman complimented him on his haircut, adding that she wanted one, too, but couldn’t because it wouldn’t fly at her job. She lamented having to tone down her style as she aged. I took her envy of his mohawk as a serious wish rather than a cheeky thing said by an adult, after noticing her jet black, spiky hair and studded shoes.

I understand where she’s coming from, as I find myself having to deal with being on the right-hand side of the bell curve for age of concert-goers at certain events, or critically analyzing individual strands of hair in the mirror to determine whether they’re gray or just ultra-shiny and reflecting light.  As much as we solidify (or have solidified for us) in our formative years who we are and how we express that, I’m reminded that aging can create a psychic tsunami that may force us to reevaluate who we are and how we let that show. I like to think that in the second act of my life I’m better equipped to continue to be the person I want to be, rather than letting socially driven anxieties take the reins again.

People-Watching for Navel-Gazers

26 Jun

I’ve heard more outgoing friends and family talk all my life about the enjoyment they derive from being somewhere public and just watching the people go by. Like sitting on a bench at the mall with no set agenda, lingering in the cafeteria or food court after the last bite of your meal has passed your lips or stationing yourself in one spot at the park or on the beach without a book. (???) As someone who has been more focused in a public setting on getting from Point A to Point B without directing attention to myself, partaking in this original “reality TV,” or human terrarium sort of thing has not been a guilty pleasure of mine.

I realized yesterday, however, that I’ve been missing out on opportunities to get more comfortable with myself and others by not doing this. Constantly being “in your own world” out in the world–where there are people, for goodness’ sake–does not put you at ease when it comes to being around people. It just adds to any feelings of loneliness or being an “other” outside of the group that you may already have.

I was at a park festival this past weekend and, for the first half of my time there, I focused my attention on the bands playing on the stage smack-dab at the bottom of a gently rolling hill, and the ongoing concert dialogue I was having with my husband (“The slide guitar guy needs a solo!” “They should stick to instrumentals…”), while watching to see if my son, off in the distance, would ever get his turn in the bouncy house that seemed to have a tighter velvet-rope policy than some clubs in LA or on the Vegas strip. During the second half of my time there, after my husband took our son to go wild on nearby playground equipment, I remained on the grass, leaning against the packed-up comforter that we decided not to spread out, with my tote bag of granola bars and water bottles leaned up against my leg, while I read a book from the Kindle app on my phone and continued listening to the bands. And it dawned on me that I had disconnected from the event.

I thought that I should actually try to engage with the event in some manner; otherwise, I could’ve stayed home, posted up on a lounge chair in our sunroom, and done the same thing. So, I set down my phone and began to scan the crowd. I saw people of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages vibing to some of Philly’s finest local music. I saw clouds of dust being kicked up by kids tossing off their shoes to take their turn in the coveted bouncy house. I saw teenage twins, in salmon pink, chasing gleefully after each other. I saw couples dancing together, resting against each other on blankets, or simply chatting, like I had been earlier with my husband. I saw dog lovers leading, or being led by, their dogs across the large swath of grass. I saw small groups lining up to buy food from the awesome-smelling barbecue vendors stationed about. I saw a dad play keep-away with his two children by putting a soccer ball up the back of his shirt. I saw lots of people having fun in lots of different ways.

I had had a rough week before that day, and I thanked my husband for getting me out of the house and getting me out of my bummed-out mood. But I also need to thank him for the valuable lessons I received from watching people in that setting, rather than finding ways to mentally keep them at arm’s length. It allowed me to examine the ways that people without shyness just simply exist and enjoy life in public settings. Seeing people express themselves through their clothes and hairstyles in ways that complimented them and their personalities also was beneficial, as I had also not been in a good self-image head space that day. All in all, it was another message received that there’s a whole big world out there to explore, and that I can jump in and begin exploring it by appraising it for what it is, rather than first building up a contingency plan for it, to ward off potential discomfort and awkward moments.

Are You Fed Up Yet?

22 Jun

I recently spoke with someone who lately has had a lot of wins in fighting back against his social anxiety impulses, and a word of wisdom he left me with was that things begin to change when you get fed up with how things are currently going. This makes a lot of sense to me, as you have to have a certain amount of “fire in your bones” to make any kind of change a lasting one.

Hearing this advice got me amped and made me want to address the things in my life that have me fed up. This is what I came up with:

  • I am fed up with getting the jitters in disagreement and confrontation situations.
  • I am fed up with not having the courage to be the first one to say hello when I pass someone. (Rejection sucks.)
  • I am fed up with panicking when dead space begins to grow in a conversation that was previously quite lively.
  • I am fed up with stopping short of indicating to a potential new friend that I am interested in hanging out a second time.

What are you fed up with when it comes to forming relationships that last? Make a list of your own.

Now that we know we’re fed up, what do we do? Something is the short answer. Something different that starts to chip away at the big, bad things that have us fed up. Something small is fine for starters, as we build up our confidence, as I’m learning from this book, on setting “stupid-small,” impossible-to-fail goals to encourage lasting change..

How do I know this to be true? There are areas in my life which formerly were big sources of fear and anxiety, but now, not so much:

  • Looking silly in front of others–I have since racked up my share of goofball moments, or faced challenges that gave me pause, like rock climbing. And I’ve failed, publicly, and miserably (Exhibit A: walking into a glass door at a previous job)–and I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve simply forced myself to have new experiences, or I’ve convinced myself that my embarrassment will pass…and it has!
  • Small talk. People say that riffing off of things in your environment as conversation sources, in addition to the weather or current events, is helpful. I agree that it’s true, and I’ve reaped the benefits from that.
  • Being myself. I am much more comfortable with revealing my likes and dislikes, and in generally letting my personality shine through in my words, actions, and dress. To do this, I got comfortable sharing on Pinterest (and Twitter, too, I suppose), and also in observing others who express themselves in unique, honest ways.

I never really thought of change being predicated on exasperation with the status quo–I guess I’ve focused more on the positives of advancing toward the new behavior. But that doesn’t necessarily address the inertia of your comfortable old habits. It makes sense to find a way to let my fears know they are not welcome in my mind anymore.