Sunday, November 23, 2014

Contact Hi

     Even though I'm essentially an introvert I do like to connect with people. I don't necessarily need for them to know my feelings or my regrets or my medical history but a hearty and warm "Hello" and smile are always awesome. Unless I'm writing, I always try to be engaged with the people around me, whether I know them or not. At the grocery store, for instance, I like to make eye contact with fellow shoppers, give them a kind greeting if our eyes meet, maybe a compassionate shrug as if to say "isn't it crazy that we have to buy our own food and toilet paper?"  I don't have to invest a lot. Chances are if this person is in need of some cash she's not going to ask me to borrow money and she's probably not going to pressure me to watch her cats while she goes to The  Caymens for a week but we've shared a moment and now she's more invested in me if, for instance, I choke on a grape that I stole from the produce department when I thought nobody was looking.  

     This is also crucial in elevators where it's especially important to size up the reflexes of your fellow travelers in case there is any kind of emergency. You also don't want to know when it's too late that someone has intimacy issues when you're curled in a ball crying and needing to be held when the elevator stops and the lights go out. You need that friendly elevator "Hello" that communicates "I've got your back, buddy. Go ahead. Be weak". 

     Of course, being socially open like this can lead to awkward situations as well and not everybody is particularly cool with the intimacy of even a generic exchange. Sometimes I find myself becoming angry or resentful with someone for not returning my smile or thanking me when I open the door for them. I know I shouldn't but I do.  Usually I can just brush it off but sometimes I take the slight personally and offer a mumbled "You're welcome, your majesty" or "Hello to you too, I'm sorry I'm so fucking rude". They usually can't hear me but it makes me feel better. It gives me closure and closure is important. 

     There is also the crazy awkwardness of the overly exuberant greeting of a stranger who looks vaguely familiar and so you give the "hey you....long time no see" surprised smile and hand gesture only to discover they are talking on their iPhone headset and you just happen to be standing in front of the ham. Don't panic. That was their faux pas, not yours. First of all, if holding a 4 inch phone to their ear is too much work they shouldn't be out in public anyway. Secondly, they're a mess and everyone knows it. Just keep walking, head held high and share an exasperated eye roll with anyone who may have witnessed the exchange. Now you're bonding again. 

     Of course there are times when it's best to keep to ourselves and keep eye contact to a minimum.... like visiting a prison or entering a furniture store.  Most of the time, however, it's nice to have a friendly connection with people whose paths we cross on our journey through life. And you really don't know if that smile you offer a stranger might be the only smile they see that day. So smile, say "Hello", open the door for someone. It doesn't take that much effort and the occasional moment of compassionate connection is worth a dozen or so blank stares. But please. No winking. Nobody needs to see that mess. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Label Me This

     As a writer I try to choose my words carefully. I think words have a lot of power even though they are (literally) harmless.  What we say to each other, what we call each other, what we  choose to express or not express has significance.  It's actually kind of peculiar if you think about it how much importance we place on words, especially words we use to label things or even ourselves.
     We have all seen word usage gone awry. The perfectly petite young woman telling us she hates herself because she's "fat". The awkward and terrible use of the word "retarded" to describe a malfunctioning toaster. Pretty much anything that people say that makes you want to slap them can be traced back to poor or inaccurate word choices. 
     Of course labels can be good too. Things can be "dangerously hot" or "unfortunately fragrant" or "alarmingly greasy" or "extra crispy". If things weren't properly labeled  we would have a hell of a time figuring things out. Advertisers in particular like to help us label things. Sometimes abundantly. But how else would we know that we are buying the freshest, most flavorful, new and improved, gluten free, non GMO, organic sugar snap peas? 
      It all can get terribly complicated and often we stumble over our choices to find the right word to use to describe something. I call myself a "gay vegan nerd" for instance but of those three things I'm only one of them 100% of the time. (I'll let you figure that one out for yourself).  I can also be exuberant , grateful, tall, confused, petulant, trustworthy, argumentative, gassy, generous and raunchy. We market ourselves just like advertisers market sugar snap peas, carefully choosing the qualities we want to show to the people supplying the adjectives that make up the lines to the barcodes of our relationships.  We size each other up based on both what we see and our own set of labeling standards.  The guy who thinks he's confident we may see as arrogant.  The woman who considers herself funny might be the person her friends avoid because she's obnoxious....or drunk.
     Words can also be terribly devastating for some people.  I don't need to list the words that are obviously offensive for you to understand what I mean but even then, if I did, there would be a discussion about the degree to which they are offensive or should be offensive or might be used to empower instead of hurt.  It's interesting how we let something so seemingly ephemeral as a spoken word wield such power against us (or for us).  I guess the trade off is that we have to be willing to give power to the terrible words if we are going to give equal power to the great, healing, encouraging words.  Of course words are supposed to represent things and feelings and states of being and textures and colors and moods. But sometimes they can hurt like daggers.
     Think about it the next time you encounter a stranger on the street.  See how quickly your mind leaps to qualify the other person by racking up a scorecard of adjectives before you even have the chance to say hello. What happens when you try to shut that off and just try to react to them as another human being?  What happens when you try to regard them like a generic package with a black and white label?  Of course you'll never be completely successful at it because that's now how the mind works, but what if you tried?  How would your assumptions about the other person be stifled until you had the chance to interact for a few moments?
     It's something to think about in any case.  Labeling people in any way is really what prejudice is all about.  Maybe you think you won't like a gay vegan nerd too much because of one of those three words and the meaning they have to you in your life.  Maybe I chose those three words because they best describe me or maybe I chose them because I wanted to change your perception of what they mean.  I guess the final determination is not in the words themselves anyway but in the actions of the people who use them.   At the end of the day, empty threats and empty promises both have the same value.  Saying something doesn't make something any more real than believing it. Even I have to take my fingers off of the keyboard sometimes and just be a gay vegan nerd. It may be a small part of who I am but it's what I call myself today. Tomorrow? Who knows. I've got a lot of years left, an open mind......and a really big dictionary.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Wonder Of "Me"

     I think we all have those people in our lives who are convinced that they are the center of the universe. When they enter a room, they expect and demand your full attention.  These are people whose egos are so large that they seem to create their own gravitational pull and even their own atmosphere.  When they arrive all of the oxygen is sucked out of the room, replaced most often with hot air with a hint of agony.  You dread their arrival but there seems no way to escape.  It seems too difficult a task to explain to them that their presence is no longer welcomed in your life.  They couldn't comprehend it.  So you adapt and develop a set of survival skills to help you get through and you try to be patient and be human and kind even while you may be visualizing their slow, painful demise.
     I had such an encounter today.  Owning a retail store I often feel like a sitting duck for random egomaniacs looking for a place to roost.  The trouble for me mostly is that I often don't know the difference between a genuine customer and someone who simply wants to fill my world with the wonder that is them. The shift becomes clear relatively quickly but those initial moments are often rife with anxiety for me.  Of course most people are nice, wonderful, pleasant......even those who might need a little more attention.  I love the give and take of a great conversation and the development of friendship that often comes from it.  Today's Mr. Wonderful held no such promise, however, and as my eyes glazed over and the protective bubble of disassociation enveloped me I found my way once again to another world where I was alone and happy and not being suffocated by his overwhelming amazingness.
     I often wonder what drives people to behave in such a fashion. Were they not adequately loved as children or were they loved too much?  Are they essentially broken and needy or just assholes?  I kindly confronted someone once about it (during an unexpectedly long silence during which she must have been choking).  Once she recovered she simply threw up her arms and said "I can't help it.  It's just the way I am.  You just have to tell me to shut up."
     Now maybe I'm old fashioned but I've always had the impression that once we got older than say....two that we were all on our own as far as communication goes.  I maybe will tell you that you have lettuce in your teeth or that you just spit in my eye but I like to leave the word part to you.  Whatever happened to the old social cues of looking over people's shoulders or openly yawning to suggest a change in conversation trajectory?  If we can't use the subtlety of passive aggressive facial gestures or openly lie about our schedules how can we ever feel like we are really connecting with other people?
      As I sat there today, distracting myself from what was being said at me by silently counting the "I's" and "Me's", I began to wonder how it would feel to never really be able to have a genuine connection with another person.  There is something so magical about being able to find a kinship with someone and that can only be found when there is some kind of give and take, some sort of genuine ability to connect and feel some compassion for another person.  This person didn't care about me....not visibly anyway.  I felt like any body would have done for his purposes.  Mine just happened to be the closest.
     I don't mean to sound judgmental really.  I guess I have enough of my own social bullshit to contend with that I don't get too caught up in thinking I'm any better than anyone else.  I am incapable of small talk and I tend get noticeably antsy when the conversation steers toward the weather or the stock market.  It does, however, make me aware of my place in the world and my relation both physically and socially to other human beings around me. I guess the very best part about being alive is to be constantly learning and growing and finding for ourselves a place where we feel happy and comfortable and at home.  In the process of that sometimes we discover something unexpected and beautiful in another person and it fills us with joy.
     I guess finding the occasional prince or princess is worth putting up with some terribly wordy, self-important frogs. But I have to wonder what becomes of all of those pretentious or arrogant or misguided opinions that float out in the atmosphere ungathered by a listening ear.  Perhaps they join cow flatulence and combustion engine emissions and chew their way through our ozone toward outer space.  Just a thought.....God knows I don't know many answers and I've already kept you long enough. I'm certain you must have something better to do than listen to me go on and on. 


Fear Itself

     I have a terrible fear of heights but it’s really my only “irrational” fear (except my fear of being decapitated on roller coasters but that one is less pervasive).  I used to blame it on being tall but when I think about it I’m really just about six or seven inches taller than the average man so it’s not like I’m just extra fearful of falling that half a foot.  I mean, sure when I’m on a ladder looking down at the ground I have a longer way to fall but let’s be honest; the ground hurts everyone the same when it comes up to meet you.  I think probably I’m just a gigantic baby. I think maybe I’m afraid of getting hurt and being in pain or breaking a bone (which I have never done before so that fear is multiplied by the fear of the unknown as well as recently watching “LOST” on Netflix in which everyone had at least six compound fractures each season and that looks like it hurts). 
     I call it an “irrational” fear because it really is something that never happens but it still consumes my thoughts.  I’ve never fallen off of a ladder.  I’ve never been blown by a rogue gust of wind off of the top of a building.  I’ve never been sucked out of an airplane mid flight and subsequently impaled on a mountain top.  And yet when I do something as simple as stand on a chair I feel like making a preemptive 911 call just to know there’s someone on standby.
     I remember growing up that my Mom was horribly afraid of flying.  She had always said that before she had kids she used to love flying (and, coincidentally, roller coasters) but that since she had kids it had become terrifying to her.  So we didn’t fly places much which was fine for me because when we did we always had to sit in the smoking section of the plane and it always felt like being in a smoldering phone booth anyway.  When we couldn't avoid plane travel it was mostly during take off and landing that Mom would be frightened.  Her face would grimace and she would grab on to my Dad’s arm as though it wasn’t also going to be sucked out of the plane with her as we hurtled helplessly toward earth in a fiery crash.  With tears in her eyes she would look at us kids as if to say “You ruined every bit of fun I ever had in my life” and then she would cry.  It was always a fun way to start a vacation. 
     What I find ironic is that now, after all of us kids have grown and are marginally happy, my Mom’s fear of flying is substantially less severe.  Now, with a good prescription and a pre-flight cocktail, Mom is flying to Europe every other year like a seasoned world traveler.  I’m happy for her.  She deserves to have this pleasure and go to places she’s always wanted to visit.  But it made me wonder about what happened to the fear.
     I think most times that what we say we are afraid of is not what we are really afraid of.  I don’t think my Mom was as afraid of flying as she was of not being there for her kids, to take care of us if something happened to her. I think that’s a common maternal instinct and probably a paternal instinct too (though clearly my Dad had other things to occupy his mind during take off and landing, like the Hulk-like grip of my mother threatening to cut off the circulation in his hand).
     When I woke up this morning I was filled with excitement to start writing my play and to add another entry to this blog.  I couldn’t wait to get started so I came in to work, got the coffee made and started writing.  Ironically the light bulb on the second floor of the gallery had burned out and I had to get up on the tall ladder to change it so I could see to write.  I got my ladder, the extension pole and the new bulb and eagerly climbed to the top and effortlessly changed the bulb.  I didn’t get dizzy.  My hands didn’t get clammy.  I didn’t envision myself falling onto the floor, head-first and tumbling onto the decorative pointy, phallic ceramic sculpture.  By the time I realized I had done it I was sitting back here, happily writing, doing the thing in the world I most love doing, plowing forward into my dreams without a thought to what might go wrong.

     Maybe fears are not what they seem to be.  Maybe fears are just a reaction to our own sense of the limited time we have on Earth to accomplish the things we dream of doing.  Maybe we aren’t afraid of falling so much as not having the courage to climb.  It’s funny how when things feel ok in the world it seems so much less fearful. It does for me anyway. Of course I will still duck my head the next time I’m on a roller coaster.  You don’t get to find out whether or not you’re going to be decapitated more than once.