Monday, April 27, 2015

Anxiety, the Internet and Shark Attacks

My vacuum brand name is Shark. And it is purple. I am not sure if there are any actual purple sharks out there (my guess is no but maybe there are), regardless, it was my vacuum named Shark that helped me this morning.

You see, I am one of the millions of people out there that suffers from anxiety. I have since I was little when I would go to my mom and say, “Mom, I’m worried.” It is not as severe as some, it is not consistent. It is sometimes quick, sometimes loud, sometimes paralyzing, always unwelcome.

And it can strike at any time.

Today was one of those times.

It started off with a nightmare from last night. A truly horrific nightmare involving violence and death that I probably could deconstruct in a therapist’s office if I wasn’t financially challenged.

Sidenote: I paid several hundred dollars to the State of California for my taxes. Today I received a refund check in the mail. I was so excited until I opened said refund check. It was for $6.54. Now you are just mocking me sir.

Back to anxiety. It started off with a nightmare that was neither food nor media induced. And then a single thought happened. It involved my unknown future. And this thought lit the match that burned the straw that was on the camel’s back. The train left the station. And once the train leaves the station it is nearly impossible to stop it. 

Especially now.

The Internet can be friend or foe and in this case it was foe. For every thought that was in my head, for every irrational fear, there was a news article there waiting for me.

Okalahoma City Bombing. Climate change. Footage of the avalanche on Mount Everest.

It never used to be like this. I am not talking about sensationalizing news. I am simply talking about access to news. Back in the day when people lived hundreds of years ago your fears were limited to your surroundings and your neighbors. You couldn’t worry about terrorism in the Middle East because you didn’t even know the Middle East existed. How can I worry about the Great Barrier Reef dying and the ocean’s ecosystems being disrupted if I never see the ocean?

And you are right; some of it is sensationalizing the news. Bad news sells. Period. We hear all about the people that lost their lives in a fire but no mention of the millions who woke up this morning, had coffee, went to work and came home after having a fairly average day before they settled into Netflix. That story is just not told.

The Internet makes news easy and accessible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I don’t think we are even beginning to understand the psychological impact of being perpetually traumatized. What does constant instant bad news do to us? With a smart phone in nearly every hand the Internet becomes a minefield of your worst fears you can’t tear yourself away from.

So it was with me this morning.

Bees are dying, so is a young mom with cancer, so are people trapped in earthquake rumble in Nepal. I am crying.

It doesn’t matter how irrational the fear is or how unlikely something like that will happen to you. And worse, there is nothing you can do to elevate the suffering. For them or for yourself.

Most people I know that are really anxious people are also highly empathetic people. And in today’s digitized world you go from imaging life as a black man in the south, to being a refugee smuggled on an overcrowded boat, to being diagnosed with some mysterious illness in an instant. You feel it. You absorb it. It is all consuming.

And it is extremely hard to explain it to someone that doesn’t struggle with it.

I can try.

Imagine trying to stop a train using nothing but tissue paper.

I will write more about anxiety in later posts. It is a complex multifaced beast.

But for now I want to give a special hug to those that suffer from anxiety and another hug to those that love someone that suffers from anxiety. And still another to those that simply want to understand people who have anxiety.

Speaking of hugging, did you know that studies are finding that cuddling helps alleviate anxiety,  reduce depression and boosts the immune system? Pretty groovy huh?

But what does one do when one does not have someone to cuddle with?

That is where my Shark comes in.

This morning while I was on my bad news train I came across one article about a shark attack in southern Australia. The man lived, thankfully, and something else happened. 

I realized that there was a zero percent chance that I would be attacked by a shark today.

I know that sounds crazy, that I would methodically think through the unlikely scenario where I would voluntarily drive myself to the beach or get kidnapped and taken to the beach. And then I would be forced into the water where a shark would happen to be. I even went through those crazy indoor pool scenarios that we all have. (I blame Spielberg)

Nope, zero chance I would be eaten by a shark today.

And somehow, that was enough. I looked up at that moment and noticed the name of my purple vacuum cleaner.


I smiled.

You will not attack me Shark, I will be the master of you this time! I will turn you on and off as I so choose. You will suck up dirt on my command.

You will not get me today.

The train slowed down. I got off at the next station. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Of Mice and Mercy

The view must be spectacular from a castle.  It really must. Isn’t that one of the requirements of a castle, to have a spectacular view?

I think it must.

Or so it goes in fairytales at least. Castles must come with a great view. Grand landscapes. Tall towers. Water surrounding or nearby. The stunning focal point. The grand ballroom. The ornate furniture. The luscious garden. The handsome prince.

Such is the case in the new Disney film Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh that I, a thirty something, went to see in a movie theater unaccompanied by any children.

I was a bit cynical and snickered a little as I paid for my ticket. Turns out I was pleasantly surprised. I entered the theater a cynic and left smiling. I was inspired. Enchanted even. I loved it.

Now you may say I have a soft spot. Whenever I did the “What Disney character are you?” quiz I always got Cinderella. But there is something else here I want to take in.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Sweet family, pretty girl, parents die, stepmother and daughters make her a slave. Throw in mice, a fairy godmother, a prince, a ball, some amazing shoes and on to happily ever after. This is Disney 101.

But this time Disney did something I did not expect. Yes Cinderella is beautiful and the prince is handsome but this isn't a story about good-looking people. It is a story about GOOD people.

Cinderella is good. She has a life mantra that guides every decision she makes. It was
given to her by her mother. Have courage. Be kind. 

This mantra is woven into her character throughout the whole story. It shows in the way she loves her father; her respectful treatment of her stepmother after his absence; her resolve to stay at the house she was raised in out of her mother’s memory; how she treats the poor; how she lets mice ride in her shoe; how she shows both grace and strength upon meeting the prince.

It’s not in the ballroom by the way. In this version she meets the prince riding furiously in the forest as she tries to let off steam. (An all kind no strength person would not do that.) She defends an animal the prince is hunting and doesn’t catch on he is a prince. She is herself. He instantly recognizes a kindred spirit and is smitten.

Ahh the prince. It's true he has a chiseled jaw and ocean blue eyes but there is much more to him than that. We see this man loving his ailing father and standing up for his principals. The PRINCE is strong and kind too! Cardboard cut out he is not.

How often is that story told? When do we get to see two people fall in love that both possess inner strength, boldness, compassion and love? It is beautiful to see.

But the greatest sign of strength and kindness is at the end. Mercy shows her lovely face again.

Cinderella is locked in the attic, her stepmother deliberately keeping her from happiness. She escapes and the shoe fits. Upon leaving her childhood home, she turns to the same stepmother who treated her appalling bad during the whole of their relationship and says, “I forgive you.”

Now granted Cinderella is hand in hand with the prince at the time she is saying it. So it may be a little easier for her to do then it may be for us. But we saw her practicing mercy so much by then you knew her forgiveness is sincere. And here when she has the perfect opportunity to get even she declined. She passed on cruelty and walked out the door free to live her new life.

There is more to this story that I won’t tell here. The stepmother’s cruelty is explained and a little heartbreaking. Cinderella is able to have her happy ending because of the mice, reiterating that you never know how being kind to others will create opportunities undreamt of.  These stories can be told another time.

The point of this story is simple. Have courage. Be kind.

I want to be Cinderella. And not for what she looks like or what she gets, but for who she is.

 Right now I am wearing a dress with a scoop neck like her. I am in my room in my condo that sits on a hill. I imagine it as a castle. (Did I mention the main paint color I used is called Princess Ivory?) But it is not the glass slippers I am after. Or the dress. (And it was a DRESS.)

I want to have courage and be kind.

Okay, maybe I want the dress a little too.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Now is the time to seize the day

“Now is the time to seize the day. Answer the call and don’t delay. Wrongs will be righted if we’re united. Let us seize the day.”
Newsies, the Original Broadway Musical

Wow, he just kept going. The young actor kept spinning and diving and sliding and jumping and tapping and flipping. Then there was another and another. The stage became full of young men leaping around and singing at the top of their lungs. The audience jumped to their feet at the end.

I did too. I love theater and I love this musical. Newsies! It was first a movie of my youth and then adapted for Broadway.

I was intoxicated with nostalgia that night at the Pantages Theater. I smiled at the memories flooding through my head. I was in middle school again.  The sing-a-longs with my friends. The heated debates on who the cutest Newsie was. (I was the odd one out and picked David). The Sunday afternoon replays on T.V.

And here I was, seeing it live and on stage. The choreography alone was worth the price of a ticket.

I spent the next several days humming the music, being grateful for a memory of my smiling middle school self and thinking that is all there is to it.

That wasn’t all there was to it. 

Wikipedia struck again. I got a little curious and asked myself the question, “ I wonder if Newsies is based off of anything that actually happened?” A few clicks later I found out that it is. 

On July 21, 1899 the New York City Newsboys went on strike because the cost of a bundle of 100 newspapers went from 50 cents to 60 cents. That was a huge blow to their already meager profits. They decided to fight back.  They organized. They held rallies of 5,000 plus. They effectively shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. They even had a leader. Kid Blink was his nickname; he was blind in one eye. They won. The strike was successful.


When I was watching Newsies from the audience I spent a fair amount of time wallowing in my guilt for eating a cheeseburger then sitting down in the cushion seat while the dancers on stage danced the equivalent of roughly 3 marathons.

I missed the bigger headline. 

Luckily, music sticks to your soul and finds a record player somewhere in your heart. I continued to hum.
Now what is staying with me is the gumption and grit these kids had. They were survivors yes, but they also saw injustice and they acted. 

Can I say the same?

I have a disease that I think many in my generation have. Heck, many people have. I live in an age of cynicism and criticism. We are told, no, we are TRAINED to think critically. Now don’t get me wrong, it is good to think critically. But when that is the only thing we are trained to do we become a generation of bystanders.

The sterile criticism leads to cynicism. And cynics become pacifists. Not the non-violent Gandhi kind. The silent majority kind. The turns a blind eye to justice kind. That kind that would rather sit in the bleachers than go out on the field. The kind that doesn’t get their hands dirty. The kind that takes no risks. The kind gets the future they are handed.

The kind I am guilty of.

I don’t want to be. I look around at some of the injustices of this world. Human trafficking for goodness sake. Climate Change. Education. Underfunded mental health programs. Homelessness. Poverty. The increasing income gap. War.

It can be hopeless. Being a critic seems like a good gig.

And yet I find myself humming a song and feeling inspired. The echoes of the striking Newsies are finding themselves in the crevices of my mind. I don’t want to be a comfortable critic anymore.

What to do? I am not sure. What to say? No idea. It is too overwhelming? Yes of course it is, but so what? Start small.

Where to start? Maybe it is to say I’m in. If orphan kids led by a half blind boy in 1899 can band together to make a tangible difference, what’s my excuse? Really, what IS my excuse?

With a shaky imperfect heart I am putting the paper down. I am throwing away my cheeseburger. I am getting off my seat cushion and heading down onto the field.

Wanna come? I hear it is more fun down there anyway. The view is certainly better.

“Once we’ve begun. If we stand as one. Someday becomes somehow. And a prayer becomes a vow.” Newises, the musical

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vengeance is mine?

Vengeance is mine. Vengeance is mine… Vengeance is…

Not mine. I want it to be mine. I really do. Except when I am the one who commits the crime. Then I don’t want anything to do with vengeance.

Vengeance is mine.

Vengeance is not mine.

And even if it was, what should I do with it? Not what I want to do with it, but what I should do?

What do you do with it?

How many of us found ourselves wronged by someone? If you answered no, I would like to meet you. But my guess is that you live alone on some Castaway-like island with miraculous wifi and I couldn’t meet you even if I wanted to.

Which leaves the rest of us. 

Vengeance. Revenge. Words fraught with emotion. Blood boiling, heart pounding, stomach-churning emotion. The words themselves sound like they are looking for a fight.

And we do fight, don’t we? Even if the fight never leaves our heads. If we don’t act out revenge we certainly stew in it. At least I do. We think, dream, and plan the exact scenario when we can return the most pain to the one who pained us first. They deserve it right?

Especially if it was intentional.

And if we do act, if we do seek revenge, it feels good. Maybe. For a moment. Maybe for a long moment. But what happens then?

What happens in our world? I look around. It is more than just Hatfield vs. McCoy. It is Republican vs. Democrat. Palestine vs. Israel. Man vs. Woman. Citizens vs. Police. Black vs. White. US vs. Russia. Brother vs. Brother. Father vs. Son. One side lashes out, the other side fights back. Justly or not. Back and forth. On and on. The punishment must fit the crime. The crime must be avenged. More wounds. More pain. More revenge.

We still haven’t said enough. No wait, there are some that are whispering those words of mercy behind tears. We just haven’t stopped yelling at each other so we can hear them.

And we desperately need to hear them.

If I were to ask you the name of the person or persons who wronged you the most, my guess is that most of you would have someone come to mind. People that really hurt you.

But instead, I am going to ask you to think of a time when you deserved punishment and received a pardon. How did it feel? What happened afterwards? What did your heart do in that moment? Imagine if that spread.  What would a forgiven world look like?

I am not going to insist or guilt you into forgiveness. It doesn’t work that way. And there some of you with wounds so deep that I would never dream of telling you what to do with them. My heart bleeds for you.

But for some of us it is time to let go. I think we know when to say enough. Even if we don’t want to know. We know.

And if that is you, be encouraged by this Easter weekend. Forgiveness costs but it also brings new life.

So I will join you. I will pick up my pain and my burning heart and trudge up the hill of grace.

Mercy is waiting for us there, with a big smile on her face.