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Dead-end Friendships

Dead-end Friendships

As we get older, we get wiser–at least that’s the assumption. So it makes perfect sense that as we get older, we stop trying to keep friendships that don’t work all that well going. Sometimes it’s easy because you interests change, and you just don’t see each other. But sometimes, you have to step up and decide. When you know it’s not working for you anymore, you waste precious time and energy continuing with it. And even if the other person is benefitting, it’s not a friendship if you both aren’t working at being friends.

Victoria Kubiaki on Unsplash

So what are the clues that tell you when to say “Enough!” (or to just mutter it under your breath and stop trying)?

  1. How do you feel after you’ve spent time with this person? Are you energized? Or do you need a nap–or a hot fudge sundae–to overcome what you just went through?
  2. What did you talk about when you were together? Is that something you are interested in? Did you feel like an equal in the conversation?
  3. Was it “all about me” for the other person? Were you listening to his/her problems, conquests, projects, and/or glory for most of the time together? How much interest did he/she show in what was going on in your life when you tried to talk about it? (If you are choosing not to talk about yourself, that’s a different issue.)
  4. What are you getting out of being friends with this person? Does he/she provide something you need? Or are you just going along for the sake of avoiding conflict?

We need friends. But they have to be real to meet that need. Is that what you have going?

The reasons we make friends vary all over the map. And having friends does require tolerance and acceptance of the fact that we are all different. But different and balanced are two very different things. If you don’t feel good about having spent time with that person after you do, dig down to find out why. Is the friendship going both ways?

Is she/he helping you become a better person? Sometimes, the dis-ease you feel is because the person reminds you of what you want to be but aren’t working on. In that case, much as there’s a bad feeling after you part, there’s also an “I want to do better” echoing in your head.. That’s a true friend.

On the other hand, if you come home feeling invisible, it may be because the person you were with didn’t really put effort into seeing you. No one needs that. Spending time with that kind of person is a waste of timne. Don’t go there!

What’s in a good friendship?

  • People you enjoy being around. Life’s too short to hang around with Grumpy Gus, Negative Nellie, or All-About-Me Al.
  • No worries about “what people will think.” In the first place, nobody cares who you hang out with except you (unless you are 12–then your parents care and they are right to do that). Age, skin color, social background, etc. make no difference in whether you can be friends.
  • Diversity–but not as a way to be politically correct. A wide range of friends is part of living a big life. That casts a wider net for new experience and knowledge. Be friends with kids, with the very elderly, with CEO’s, with janitors. Be open to friendship whenever you meet someone new.
  • FUN! That’s the bottom line. If a person is fun to be with, he or she is good friend material. Authentic playmates aren’t always about fun. They are the ones who will be with you in thick and thin.

Dead-end friends are not fun. And they are not good for you. It’s okay to let them go (even if they insist you are a selfish, mean, intolerant person because you are no longer their captive audience and/or slave).

Are Cookies Wrong?

Are Cookies Wrong?

I owe my older son three batches of homemade cookies. It’s the remaining part of a gift certificate for “one six-month taster membership with Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs.”  I gave it to him for Christmas.  Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs is just me having fun in my kitchen, and this gig has been fun for both me and this son.  (And that doesn’t even count the Guinness Brownies we tried on St. Patrick’s Day).

But I’ve been reading The Abascal Way, a book that explains why what– and how–we eat as a culture is all wrong, and what makes more sense.  Cookies are definitely not part of what makes more sense.   So I’m having second thoughts about saying “I love you” to my son with refined sugar, refined flour, and bad fat.

I’ve given cookies as a demonstration of love ever since I was old enough to make them.  Both my sons, my step grandson, and each of my life partners have gotten full batches of their own favorites many times.  I even managed to ship a batch to Australia that were still edible when they arrived.  I’m a good Cookie Mom.

I do put thought into making them more nutritionally commendable.  Whole wheat flour works–sometimes.  Dried cherries—high in nutrients—taste pretty good.  Really dark chocolate is “healthy.”  The molasses cookies I made with oat bran in them when my sons were teens were favorites for a few years.  (Alas, Abascal doesn’t consider oat bran particularly healthy…) The guys in my life have been okay with me sneaking “good for you stuff” in their goodies over the years.

But this book made me look at this fun part of my life through a stronger lens.  Am I harming my sons—and all of my loved ones—with these nutritionally derelict professions of love?  No matter how much good stuff you cram into them, if you want a cookie that tastes like a cookie (rather than cardboard), you need to use significant amounts of refined sugar, refined flour, and bad fat.

I’ve focused on keeping my kids healthy since they were born.  Have I been wrong with the cookie thing all these years?  Or does the plus of being a tasty “I love you” offset the negative that they’re made with “inflammatory foods?”

This dilemma isn’t just about cookies.  Am I being loving when I serve red meat to guests?  Am I doing the right thing when bringing gourmet macaroni and cheese to a potluck?  Where does “smart eating” intersect with “having fun together?”  It’s just not the same when a group of friends sits down to brown rice, steamed veggies, and ice water.

There are a lot of “shoulds” in this nutrition thing.  How many of them are legitimate? How many of them are essential at all times?  How many of them are too much?

The first piece of the answer lies in giving up the General Manager of the Universe title (one more time).  The only thing I control is whether to create and give the cookies.  The recipients are adults–they decide what to do with them.

When my kids were little, they didn’t get cookies whenever they wanted them.  They had to eat balanced meals and cookies were a treat in addition to those.  They grew up to be both wise about their nutrition and good cooks.  They don’t exist solely on cookies when I give them.  For all I know, they may be choosing to throw most of them away (but I doubt it).

Abascal adds a bit of advice that helps.  She recommends that when you give yourself a treat made of “bad stuff,” you promise yourself to eat some vegetables soon.  It doesn’t have to be in the next fifteen seconds, but sometime that day, eat a few extra antioxidants.  Progress!

I don’t have a lot of traditions with my kids.  I did that on purpose because there were too many when I was a new mother and it was an incredible source of stress for my young family.  But cookies are one of our traditions.

So, after much thought and a bit of angst, I’ve decided there will be more cookies from the Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs.  I might try to make some with brown rice flour.  Or they may arrive with a bouquet of curly kale.  If I give them, they will be tasty though—and they will say “I love you” as always.


Give a Caregiver a Hug

Give a Caregiver a Hug

Adult caregiving hijacks your life. None of us agree to do it because it sounds like fun. But when a loved one needs it, we step up.  Ongoing, it’s a daunting job; at times, it’s downright harrowing.  Once you are in the middle of it, reality warps.

An article published by the American Medical Association reported, “One of society’s greatest assets is the many family members who provide care to ill or disabled relatives.”  One study estimated there were over 15 million American adults serving as unpaid caregivers—in 1998.  And yet, the needs of those doing it remain unnoticed.

Last week in a single four-hour stretch, I spoke with three different women friends, each up to their ears in challenges related to caregiving for aging loved ones.  Each had taken on the caregiving role in addition to the ample responsibilities they still held as professionals.

The first was weathering a major health scare with the man in her life. She had taken him in when he got sick and then became his advocate through all the tests and procedures.  She was struggling to find the right boundaries in what she did for him.

The second needed to find a way to convince her parents to let the housekeepers, who were provided as part of their assisted living rent, into the apartment to clean.  Her folks said there was no need.  But she could smell their unit when she got off the elevator.  She’d been cleaning every time she visited and worrying in the interim that they might get evicted.

The third has been spending her own money for a caregiver for her husband, so she can continue to work as a college professor.  He has a non-Alzheimer’s version of dementia.  She has power of attorney and pays his bills.   His funds could easily cover the cost of the caregiver, but she thought she had to pay for it herself because he would have refused to let her spend money for that if he could still think.  Reality tilts in odd ways when you’ve been a caregiver for long enough.

It’s easy to think it would be different if you had to do it.  That you would draw clear boundaries and insist things be done your way.  But that’s the cruelest part of the caregiver role.  When it gets intense, you don’t realize the boundaries are out of whack or that what you’re doing doesn’t make good sense in the broader scheme.

It’s a lot like the classic experiment with frogs.  They did a study where researchers put a frog in hot water.  It jumped out to safety immediately.  But if the water was cool when the frog was put in and was heated gradually, the frog kept swimming until the water was so hot the frog died.

We do the frog-in-slowly-warmed-water thing as caregivers.  As the disease progresses beyond what we can really handle, we just keep going.  Our own lives evaporate.  We think we are doing fine when we’re not.

Three years ago, I became caregiver to my boyfriend when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Every day there was a new problem, and always one with which I had zero experience.  With each new side effect, I had to figure out something new that was needed to keep him safe and, hopefully, comfortable.  The volume of work was massive, and the possibility I might hurt him by not doing the right thing was terrifying.  Yet when friends asked me how I was doing, I’d say “Fine.”  I wasn’t being a stoic angel of mercy.  I was too worn out emotionally to find more honest words.

In an ideal world, unpaid caregivers would have mandatory breaks.  No one’s going to legislate that.  So it’s up to the rest of us to make a difference.  If you know someone who’s caregiving, do what you can to provide support.  A hug is a good start.  But then offer to do something specific.

I am all too guilty of saying “Call if you need anything” and leaving it at that.  For a long-term caregiver, there’s not enough mental juice available to convert those words to something useful.  “Would you like me to clean the kitchen?”  Or “Why don’t I sit with Aunt Irma for the afternoon so you can get away?” works better.

Caregiving is hard duty.  If we all remember this and offer support in all the ways we can, we can keep each other from ending up in need of care ourselves because we carried too big a load alone for too long.


Happy Shoes

Happy Shoes

Do you have a pair of “happy shoes?” Maybe you need one.

I am blessed to have a son who is  one of the world’s happiest people.  If left to his own sense of how the world works, he always manages to see something good to focus on.  He clued me in to the idea of happy shoes.  He’s a tall guy and wears size 13’s.  When you see him in a pair of bright yellow vinyl sneakers with happy faces on them, you can bet something wonderful has happened in his life.  He recently wore them for his daughter’s birthday party.   But the real reason for the shoes was adversity that dogged him for five years.

He was the nice guy in the wrong place when the financial markets turned to goo.  He’s financially conservative but the company he’d been working for had gone in a bad direction and ended up imploding.  Prior to that event, he’d been able to find another job in a matter of days if not hours.  But with gazillions of financial professionals out of work, most of the jobs drying up, and the blot of “that company name” on his resume, the months turned into years.

His financial conservatism meant they’d been saving for this potential disaster.  Plus his wife still had a well-paying job.  The hit was ugly for the family wallet, but it pegged to downright grotesque in terms of its potential for destroying his self esteem.  He was a professional with good credentials.   In the aftermath of the finance sector’s meltdown, that probably worked against him even more–the “overqualified” issue.

But he didn’t sit on his hands while he waited for the right job to come along.  He  did all the things they advise doing.  (You will never find a guy more effective at networking.)  And when things didn’t turn around quickly, he didn’t head for the bar in frustration.  He just kept on believing it was going to work out while he did everything he could think of as the process dragged on and on.

He started studying for the CFA–an arduous credentialing process that some say is more demanding than an MBA.  He also remodeled their entire downstairs and  rebuilt a rock wall in the backyard.  He was in the middle of remodeling the kitchen when “the right job” finally materialized.

At some point in all that, he found these shoes–for when he would begin to celebrate the wins again.  He believed things were going to go right eventually. And they have.  When he passed the CFA’s (which really does take years), he sent a photo of his foot–in a happy shoe.  The image filled me with joy–and I wasn’t even the one who’d gone through the massive work effort to make the achievement happen.

I have a pair of silly shoes–pink suede, slide-on, sneaker style, 3″ platform shoes.  I got them for a costume party and they make me laugh.  (I am 5 foot 8.)  So I keep them.  But are they my happy shoes–or just my silly shoes?  What would it take to make them my happy shoes?

That’s beside the point.  The question here is how do you–and I–celebrate our wins?  And are our loved ones in on that?

Early in my writing career, I would treat my husband to dinner out when I finished a book  manuscript–simply because I wanted to celebrate that.  (Let’s not quibble about who’s “supposed” to buy in such circumstances.  Reality is often less romantic than we’d prefer.)

Going out to eat (at least if you don’t do it all the time) is a nice way to acknowledge completing a big job.  But you’re done  with the celebrating in an hour or two and the loved ones who are a thousand miles away don’t get to feel your joy.  Happy shoes send the message all day long and over the internet if you snap a photo.

I think I need some happy shoes.  I think you do, too.  Life is good–and when it’s even better for the moment because something good happened, it’s nice to mark that well.


Bless the Caregivers

Bless the Caregivers

The next time you’re stuck in traffic, say a little prayer for caregivers.  You probably know some personally, but even if you don’t, every one of them needs all the help they can get.  Caregiving is an impossible role.

When children are first born, taking care of them is pretty daunting.  You don’t know what they need–or want.  You don’t know how to do whatever it is that they are wailing for.  You are sleep deprived and shackled to someone else’s needs all day every day.

This is what it’s like to be a caregiver.  Except babies grow up.  When you are caring for someone as they advance into feebleness, usually because of some physical condition, you don’t have a timeline that reassures you things are going to get better.  To the contrary, in typical caregiving situations, things are growing progressively worse.

Babies will cuddle and coo to make you feel all the strain is worthwhile.  That’s not what happens with end-of-life caregiving.  Often, instead of gratitude, a caregiver gets sworn at and cursed out because of the nature of the decline.

Even in the simpler cases, where someone you love has a grave illness and you’ve stepped in to help on a temporary basis, you have no idea how long it’s going to take for that person to get well enough to take care of themselves.  And while you are doing that noble work, your own life is quite literally hijacked.  Plans you made get turned on end.  Projects you had planned to work on gather dust.  You cook what the patient needs not what keeps you healthy.  Even going out for a walk may not be feasible.

Instead your focus becomes someone else’s needs.  And that someone, who used to care for you in many cases, is so far into the difficulty that they don’t even know what they are asking of you.  Often, a loved one does this work without relief.  It seems so trivial, this loss of identity–at least if you’re not the one experiencing.  But being sucked into someone else’s illness and decline drains your own energy and joy in life with alarming speed.

Right now I can name five friends currently caught in this kind of caregiving.  Two have husbands with Lewy Body Dementia (a form of decline that puts Alzheimers to shame in terms of the amount of “on call” attention the person demands).  One has a husband with a mystery malady that’s caused him to lose 75 pounds–and this man was not overweight to begin with.  One is caring for her mother as she deals with terminal cancer–and the mother/daughter bond has not been that loving one we all wish we had.  And one is dealing with a stroke-incapacitated alcoholic husband with dementia who could just as easily start the house on fire as take a nap.

This kind of caregiving takes an incredible toll.  You don’t know what’s going to happen next but whatever it is will not be fun.  Every new turn in the patient’s health creates a new sense of being inadequate.  So often you have no idea what to do–but you know you have to do something.

You end up on a first name basis with nurses and pharmacists, social workers, and therapists of all sorts.  You’ve memorized what is and isn’t covered under current health care arrangements.  And still you are caught by surprise.  Again.  And again.  And just when you think you are done for the day and are starting to unwind from the tightness of what’s being expected of you, all hell breaks lose and you’re in the emergency room until three in the morning.

Caregiving is hero’s work.  They need more support than they get from the community.  A lot more.  So at a minimum,  if you a lucky enough to be out and about all by yourself, doing what you want and having a lovely day, say a prayer for the caregivers.  Even if you are having a crappy day and are trying to please the boss from hell, put in a good word for those doing the caregiving work.  There is none harder.

They give so much and no one even notices.

Living a Hijacked Life

Living a Hijacked Life

Unless you are a complete loner, at some point, your life is going to be hijacked. It may come gradually, like when you learn you are going to be a parent. It may come with great celebration, like when your daughter gets engaged and you become enmeshed in wedding planning. It may come suddenly, like when someone you love has a medical emergency.

I am submerged in the third of the above-mentioned scenarios.  My boyfriend fell playing tennis last week and broke his wrist in “several” places.  He will have surgery later this week, after which he will be in a cast for three months, maybe more.  For the foreseeable future, he will need me to drive him to his appointments, tie his shoes, and yes, cut his meat.

And that means, of course, that the things I was going to do in my own life are going to get at least postponed and more often erased.  It also means that when his needs veer in an unanticipated direction, what  I’ve committed to for myself gets cancelled on short notice.  I’ve been down this road with this man before. It really does feel like a hijacking.

I was raised in a family that values helping.  I do like to make a positive difference in others’ lives.  But I will not pretend I’m delighted with this turn of events.  I’ve been riding shotgun on his cancer detour for the last two years.  Before that, there were other situations where he needed my help  because of health challenges.  Just how often am I supposed to let this guy’s problems take over my life?  Am I enabling a “drama queen” with all this helping?

He was not looking for this kind of attention when I met him, I am certain of that.  He still does all he can on his own and tries to help with chores even with one arm wrapped in fiberglass.  So no, I don’t think this is a situation that demands the tough love of walking away.  It’s life–at it’s most maddening.  My life.  And his life.  Intertwined as they should be when you are blessed to have in your life people you care about and spend a lot of time with.

When things happen to me more than once, I see them as lessons I didn’t learn well the first time.  This is one of those situations.  Maybe you can learn from me.  So what’s to learn (and do/no do) when your life gets hijacked?

  • Forego the martyr routine.  It’s highly over-rated.  Sure, you can’t do what you had wanted to do with your time.  But you still need to take care of yourself along with meeting the other person’s needs.  If you literally have no time to lavish on yourself, you can still maintain your posture and make an effort to breath deeply.  Maybe a 5-minute meditation or a 20-minute nap is feasible.  I do laps around the hospital when I end up waiting there.  Find the things you can do for yourself and do them.  You are the only person who can totally deny yourself what you need.  Don’t.
  • Expect whoever has stolen your life to do as much as he/she can for themselves. That gives them as much dignity and sense of worth as possible and you a breather.  It’s tempting to scurry around trying to make everything right for that person, but that doesn’t serve either of you as well.  Even with children, this is the case.  A newborn is helpless and pretty demanding.  But babies who have alone time (in an infant-safe place, of course) learn faster than those whose parents haul them around and entertain them every waking minute.
  • Find the balance points.  If you are doing all the giving in this context, look for receiving in other contexts.  Maybe you get to watch the TV show you want together instead of letting him have his preference.  Maybe what you have for dinner is your preference instead of his (or hers).  This feels “wrong” because so much of the focus is on the “sick person” but trying to balance things where you can does a lot to forestall resentment and burnout.

When a loved one hijacks your life, respect your own feelings about that.  Yes, you want to give the care that’s needed.  No, it’s not automatically what you want to do at a specific moment.  When it isn’t, feeling frustrated or just plain angry is normal.  Find safe ways to channel that away.  (I yell in the shower and also find moving dirt in the garden helps.)

And see it for the gift it is. Yes, your life has been hijacked.  That means someone trusts you enough to ask your help.  You are a good person.  But please, be good to yourself, too.


A Proper Hello

A Proper Hello

You can learn the most amazing things from the littlest people. Last week, my one-year-old granddaughter taught me a huge lesson about saying “Hello.” She knows how to do it right. Me? Well, let’s just say I’ve gotten a bit too complacent.

When someone Cora loves comes to where she already is, her excitement at seeing him or her is expressed with her whole body.  A huge smile spreads across her face–ear to ear, no kidding.  She throws her arms open in welcome and starts forward, a miniature version of an Italian grandma.  (She has not one drop of Italian in her.)  Then comes the best part.  She does this delighted little happy dance where she hops from foot to foot in rapid succession before she comes running toward you.

That welcome still has me smiling a week later.  In fact it impressed me enough to decide I want to do a better job of saying “Hello” to those I love myself.   The first test of that commitment came yesterday.  I wasn’t expecting myself to pull off the happy dance but I wanted to at least offer  a warm, sincere acknowledgement of my joy at seeing someone I care about.

The friend I was going to visit was one I hadn’t seen in more than a year.  She’s helped me through a very rough patch and is, truly, a dear friend.  But despite my desire to be obviously joyful when we first met, things didn’t quite work out that way.  She was taking the dog out when I got there.  You can’t interfere with a dog’s business.  And then her husband appeared from the backyard, and we got lost in conversation quickly.  So much for the delighted hello–happy dance or not.

It was wonderful to see her again and great that we had the chance to get together.  But why didn’t I greet her with open arms and obvious joy?  Was I on autopilot?  Was I too timid?  Or was the whole idea really out in left field?

Maybe it was none of those things.  I wanted to make sure my friend knew I appreciated the chance to spend time with her. That happened.  We talked about many things and enjoyed catching up with each other’s lives.  Did we both miss out by me not doing that little happy dance?  Probably not.  But I still wish my exuberance had been a little more obvious.

Ironically, since we are both grandmas, I ended up telling her about Cora’s full throttle hello.  And she asked why she hadn’t gotten that.  I didn’t (and don’t) have a good answer.  It would have been fun for me. But it’s Cora’s way to say hello.  I’m not sure I can make it mine.

Maybe it’s not Cora’s hello that I need to master here.  What I want to do better at is acknowledging the presence of a special person when we first reconnect.  That can be my kids. Or grandkids.  Or siblings. It could be friends, neighbors, or long lost cousins.

More often though, it’s my significant other.   And sometimes, when we return to each other’s company, even the basic word “Hello” gets lost in hauling in groceries or making sure the garage door closed properly.

Life would be sweeter if I remembered a happy “Hello!” though.  If I want to be happy, I need to acknowledge the things that make me happy–like returning to the presence of someone I love.  Then again, maybe I need to come up with my own dance.


To Plan or Not to Plan?

To Plan or Not to Plan?

At the moment I am on the road–with a guy who prides himself on not planning. I am a planner. A very good planner.  When I take charge of something, it gets done–right, on time, under budget…all that.

So far, I have not gone into catatonic shock in this effort to not plan, but I am starting to ask myself some important questions. As in “How much of this trip should I really be doing his way?  Am I denying who I am in an effort to “get along?”  And the really scary one–“What do I gain by not getting it my way when I don’t?”

Maybe they are questions we all need to ask ourselves every once in a while.

I decided to try “his way” on this trip just to see if I could learn to be more relaxed about how I travel.  But this version is a whole lot less relaxing for me.  It’s the same issue we have with laundry.  He thinks it’s easier to do it when he runs out of clean clothes.  I do mine so that I always have clean clothes–which makes life simpler for me.  I don’t discover I need a certain pair of jeans washed twenty minutes before I want to put them on.

On a trip, when he doesn’t plan and I don’t plan, we end up checking into a dumpy motel at the end of the day exhausted by what we ended up having to do to get that far.   We pay way too much for the lousy lodging.  We miss things along the way that we might have liked to see because we didn’t know they were there.  We didn’t tag up with friends and family living nearby because we didn’t bring their contact information along.  But we do have total flexibility and plenty of room for spontaneity.  So it really is a matter of trade offs.

So I guess that’s what I’ve learned this time:  This “not planning” is harder, more expensive, and seems to me to net us less interesting days.  I’m not in favor of planning every second in advance–or even every day.  But thinking more about what might be part of where we are going and checking information about what that would add/subtract just makes for a more refined product–vacation.  But that’s me.  He’s just in favor of hitting the open road and seeing what happens.

So why are we doing it all his way?

Well…I said I would this time, and that’s a biggie for me.  I agreed to do this trip with minimal planning.  But there’s more.  I have spent two weeks making my own life more stressed for the sake of him having everything the way he likes it–every day.  What’s with that?  Why am I not admitting what I need and asking for it?

It is with horror that I have to admit that I am still running the old tapes…You know, the ones about the high priority of pleasing your man.  Argh!!!!!  That is not what I want to do.

Stress as a Duet–an Important Insight

Stress as a Duet–an Important Insight

All of us get stressed–just not the same way or at the same things. The way we react to that stress is unique to each of us as well.  But when I read about one key aspect of all these differences, an insight formed that has helped reduce the anxiety my sweetheart and I were feeling about a particularly stressful situation considerably.

Much as I mention this in the context of a primary relationship, being aware of this difference can help you get through tough situations with kids, coworkers, parents, or friends–anyone with whom you’re trying to get something difficult done.

The key distinction?  Whether we over-rev or pull back when things get tense.

Brene’ Brown marked this difference in her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection.  The book is about other things. (Its subtitle is  Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are).  However, she includes the observation that there are two ways to deal with stress in terms of taking action:  Some of us kick it into an extra gear, working to get far more done than is reasonable.  Some of us pull back and attempt far less because of the emotional onslaught.

Let’s make something clear here.  Neither way is better.  They are just both ways people deal with a situation that feels out of control.

The situation that my sweetheart and I found ourselves in was a practical one.  We weren’t worrying about the deep issues of coupledom.  We were trying to get a house ready to put it up for sale.  Anyone who’s sold real estate knows this process is a bit like a negative version of the parable of The Loaves and the Fishes.  For every task you get done, two more pop up that must be done to make the place look presentable.

I usually “rise” to such occasions by revving at a faster and faster rate to get it all done.  I don’t do other things that also need attention.  I short myself on sleep.  I drive myself past the point of physical exhaustion.

My guy goes in the other direction.  He pulls back–to regroup or just plain rest.  He takes longer breaks, has long talks with the neighbors, and runs trivial errands.  Until I realized this is part of our differences in coping style, it was the source of a substantial amount of frustration.  I was in the the fast lane, moving toward outright resentment at well above the legal speed limit.  Why was I working so hard if he was going to take a break and watch TV?  Especially since it was his house we were getting ready for the market!

I was working that hard because that’s how I have always dealt with this kind of stress.  He was watching TV because that was how he deals with this kind of stress.  Let me reiterate.  Neither way is better.  They are just very different.

Knowing that, we were able to begin talking about what each of us was doing–and able to laugh a bit about how odd it must look to each other.  From there we could start to move toward a more common approach–mostly because a lot of the stress went away once we saw how much each other’s coping style was affecting the process.

Is this difference entering into something you’re trying to get done?  (I now realize one of my kids is like this as well–and over the years we butted heads more than a few times because of it.)  The best way to deal with stress is to get rid of it.  And sometimes, just recognizing that the person you’re in it with is not like you in how they are dealing with it is a great start.

Thanks for Making Me Laugh

Thanks for Making Me Laugh

Some people just leave you feeling a lot better about how your day is going. They are usually not the ones urging you to stay the course when everything is going up in flames or down in smoke.  The folks who do the most good are light-hearted.  They are the people who make you laugh.

Certain people  can do this no matter what you talk to them about.  When I was managing natural gas distribution for a bunch of small towns in Iowa, I worked with a corporate Public Relations person who had this talent.  For those three years of my life, it seemed like some major thing went wrong at least once a week—and usually on Friday at 5:00 PM.  But even when we were working on how to handle things like grand larceny and onsite protests, this woman would manage to say something that made me laugh. I’ve had my radar tuned for these kind of people ever since.

The kind of friend I just described is priceless, no doubt.  But there are other ways people help you laugh.  The people who are willing to do silly or outrageous things with you are a blessing, too.  My siblings do this for me.  One brother and I spent months on The Nun-of-the-Month Club—a complicated practical joke that provided on-going “laughter therapy” that whole time.

Being silly can diffuse something potentially infuriating.  After a 20-year marriage that involved losing the argument about having a “real Christmas tree” every year ended, I was keen to honor my own preferences. But my kids were not available to celebrate Christmas until January 8 that year.  Even in the Pacific Northwest, trying to keep a real tree fire-safe that long seemed impossible.  I definitely didn’t want an artificial tree yet again.  The whole thing seemed unreasonable to me.

I was so close to exploding about it that I didn’t do anything at all—until a few days before Christmas.  Then I asked my brothers, who were both coming to dinner on Dec. 25, to help me build a tree out of odds and ends.  Bless them, they took my silliness seriously and brought supplies and ideas to add to what I’d come up with for the project.

And thus started one of my best Christmas memories ever.  My sister-in-law said we sounded like a bunch of little kids.  After the design and structural support phases were done–where we acted like intelligent adults, we attacked the challenge with the exuberance of five-year-olds.  We even put a name on the thing, using leftover mailbox letters that had been hiding in my garage. We had such a good time with the whole effort we almost forgot about Christmas dinner.

Sometimes, the angels who make you laugh are very young.  The first time I babysat my first granddaughter overnight, both her parents and I were a bit concerned about how it would go.  As my “secret weapon,” I’d brought along a bin of silly stuff (mostly hats) that I started collecting after reading Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet.  My pint-sized charge very carefully put sixteen strings of Mardi Gras beads around her neck and then donned a plastic Viking helmet from the bin.

Not only did our little Mardi Gras Viking Princess make me double over with laughter, the photo I texted to her anxious parents helped Mom and Dad relax and enjoy their getaway.  Sometimes it’s what a child says. Sometimes, it’s what she does.  Sometimes, it’s what  you do together,  But so often they are the perfect tonic for an otherwise hard day.

Yes, we are blessed when there are people in our lives who make us laugh.  But it’s about more than just having a special friend or a happy child that can get you guffawing.  It’s not just a case of having someone who helps you laugh.  We’d all be a lot better off if we could help others laugh, too.  It’s a great form of giving.

At one point in my life, I decided I needed to study humor.  I got a lot of books on it and started working through them methodically.  That proved absolutely lethal–I killed the very essence of “funny” by approaching it so rationally.  So let’s not get too serious about this.  Humor is delicate, highly situational, and personal.  Just stop fretting about everything and say—or do–what seems funny to you.  With that strategy, you can even make yourself laugh.

I did confirm one really important universal truth about this funny business at a writers’ conference a while back.  Jonathan Winters, one of the wackiest guys on TV at one point, was a surprise guest speaker at the humor workshop one day.  His advice:  Laugh with people not at them.  Laughing with people says “We’re in this together and we can handle it.”  Laughing at people says “I’m better than you—or him.”  That’s not humor; it’s meanness.

So that’s your homework for this week.  Laugh.  Then make someone else laugh.