Yesterday, still in bed, I resolved to have a full day without a complaint.
I lasted until 11:00 AM.
When the telemarketer called.
I complain. You complain. My dog complains. Everyone complains.
I bet the Dalai Lama complains that the place is too damn quiet.
It’s only natural. I mean, there’s so much out there whose purpose seems to revolve around irritating us.
But I think I would be happier if I didn’t complain so much. Because complaining exists to remind us of how unhappy we are.
When I think about complaints, I see that there are various categories of complaints.
That’s the stuff that everyone complains about – mostly just out of habit or as a filler for conversation. The Weather. That’s probably Number One. Getting Old goes in this bucket… for the most part anyway. Getting up in the morning. No one expects you to solve any of these complaints. But we agree they are universal. No one is really hurt, no one is really mad. So go right ahead – everyone will agree with you, and so those complaints feel pretty good.
All minor aggravations that depend on whether you encounter them and in what mood. Dog poop is a good example. It’s not so bad from a distance, but considerably irritating in a flipflop. Potholes. Pens that won’t write. And any interactions with utility companies, cable TV, or telemarketers. It’s hard to avoid complaining about this stuff, and folks are bound to agree with you. The danger is that situational complaints are cumulative. A dripping sink and dead phone and a cat sharpening its claws on your leather recliner can add up to a melt-down at your in-laws.
This is the stuff we SHOULD complain about. Inequities in education and health care. Racial, religious, or gender inequalities. The abuse of the vulnerable – children, animals, the aged. The destruction of our environment. We should complain loudly – and constructively. Assemble, protest, vote.
These complaints are hurtful. Some in small ways – some more serious. But they hurt. They hurt others because they are almost always personal. And they hurt you because they can fill up your space with dissatisfaction. There will always be someone more successful than you, richer than you, more beautiful than you, luckier than you. Complaining about them makes you hate them for their good fortune and hate yourself for your shortcomings.
Maybe going a day without a complaint is an impossible goal. But I will try for a full month without a noxious complaint.
So far, so good. It’s 4:23 PM. Day One.
But the weather sucks.
I am a ranker.
I love to put things in order. Not in my home… that is often order-free. In my mind.
I rank objects by how much I like them. What is my favorite color? How about my next-favorite? We have a set of coffee mugs – 6 mugs, each a different color – with white polka dots. My husband and I both love these mugs. But I have a ranking of which one I love most. I love the yellow, then the blue, then the green, then the purple, then the orange, and lastly, the red. Sometimes this changes slightly. Sometimes I love the green a bit more than the blue. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t love the red cup. I love them all. But in order.
I have an order to my lipsticks.
I have an order to my paintbrushes.
To my TV Shows. To Movies. To Music. To Books.
I don’t think of this as judgmental; I am not criticizing my lipsticks. They’re all quite wonderful. But my Marc Jacobs “Send Nudes” is the first wonderful lipstick. Ulta’s “Raspberry Beret” is the second wonderful.
I put my sweaters in my drawer by rank. And I am a bit more fickle with clothing, so I have to rearrange a lot.
I saw a meme recently that said you were an adult if you have a favorite burner on your stove. I thought, Of course! What kind of monster would not?
I play a lot of online Gin. And I have found that there are certain playing cards I like. I like nines. then fours. If I am collecting suits, by all means it is clubs. That doesn’t mean I won’t discard them, since I also like to win. But winning with my preferred cards feels especially good.
All of this meandering (and I have a ranking of words too… and I especially like ‘meandering’) is leading me to a concept that I have only recently accepted.
Ranking my loved ones.
Oh, this sounds cold, I know.
But honestly, didn’t you have a best friend when you were a kid? Maybe even now? Didn’t you have a favorite aunt?
And it doesn’t mean that you didn’t love your other aunties. I loved all my aunts – very much. But there was one.
When Speed-Dial was first introduced, my mother announced to us that she had put all her children’s numbers into the system. She ranked them, at first by age, but after a while, with her deliciously tart sense of humor, she began to rank us by other criteria. She moved us around. She delighted in telling us who was currently #1 and who had slipped.
This was just for her own amusement, but why not use this idea for a good purpose?
I have been contemplating my family and my friends. And consciously doing what my emotions have been doing all along – ranking them.
I love them all. My husband, my mother, my sisters and my brother, my cousins, my in-laws, all their little spawn, my friends, my clients.
But there is an order. A formal order which can change tomorrow. Or not.
I am sensitive enough not to reveal the order of human beings that I love. But I know it. It makes a difference to me. I am glad to know this about these loved ones.
And yes. I meant it when I said I do this for a good purpose.
Here is the purpose:
Now that I understand who is the first of my loved ones, which of them make up the top of the rankings, then my purpose becomes clear. These are the people I need to TELL. These are the ones I need to listen to. To spend time with. These are the people I need to shower with love.
And those who are still loved but who are further down in the my love rankings? Well, I have a goal for these souls too. To ask myself why they are less important to me and what I could do to either add to their significance or else worry about them less.
Sometimes, maybe often, the people who are most important to us can be taken for granted. We can become so comfortable and complacent – sure that the love is and will always be there.
But once you realize which people are the most important people in your life, you might actually treat them like the most important people in your life.
Learn who they are.
Happy Holidays – all of them –
from the gang at
Not Quite Old
The Kitties – (Left to Right) Athena, Thor, Niko, and Lillian
The Doggies – Henry and Theo
And Moonlight, the Horse
And of course, from Nancy & Tom:
May your days be merry and bright!
A few folks have written wondering about my disappearance.
Thank you, everyone, for worrying about me.
I’m not giving up the blog.
I have just had a temporary career (perhaps ‘hobby’ is a better word) switch.
As I have shared with you before, I’ve been painting watercolor pet portraits for a year or so. And I sort of over-committed this Christmastime.
I just couldn’t bear to say no to anyone who was looking to give a gift of a portrait of a beloved pet.
So I said yes to everyone. Absolutely everyone.
And so I’ve been painting. And painting. And painting. Every single day.
Poor Theo and Henry and the cats are bored and have already alerted the SPCA of their horrid neglect. My husband has also called on whatever protection society cares for ignored spouses.
But I am just about finished. And considering there’s only a bit more than a week before Christmas, it’s a good thing I am about done.
I will write again after the holidays. I haven’t abandoned you at the side of the road with my family. Just sidelined for a few weeks.
I can prove my alibi:
Here’s just some of the portraits I have done. These are just from the past two weeks!
I have even done a HUMAN!
This is Nonna Maria, who is 108 years old. (and I did her twice, since the person who commissioned her wanted her portrait for two gifts.)
So forgive me, as I hope my family will eventually forgive me.
I’ll be back!!!
A few months ago, I wrote about my upcoming 50th high school reunion (Using And Losing Time).
I was anticipating the event with both pleasure and anxiety. I was looking forward to seeing old friends again. But I worried that I had not been as ‘successful’ as I would have wished. That I wasted too much of my life. I had frittered away my future.
And of course, I worried that I wouldn’t be pretty enough, thin enough, popular enough. OMG, (which no one said way back then, btw (which also no one said)) – my worries have not changed in HALF A CENTURY!
WTF (which also no one said)...is wrong with ME????
So anyway, I watched my diet sort of successfully, dropping about 8 of the 15 pounds I figured would make my figure perfect. So I was half perfect. I bought a gorgeous dress that was too dressy for the occasion, but how was I to know the party wouldn’t be like a senior prom for actual seniors? I rescheduled my hair appointment so my gray roots would not be poking through. I did a practice run of my makeup. I even intended to add some falsies of the eyelash variety, but in the end was more worried about having them detach and fall into my salad, so went with my own skimpy lashes.
I had daydreams of creating an Entrance. Of being the center of attention. Of being the fascinating extrovert I had failed to be in high school.
But of course, I am not an extrovert. I am a people watcher, not a people magnet. I think perhaps I could command an entourage if I had a basketful of Reese’s peanut butter cups. But it was two weeks before Halloween, so that was not an appropriate entrance.
Still, I did enjoy myself. Oh yes, I was overdressed, but I knew I looked nice, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I saw many old friends. And they were as sweet and loving as I remembered. Some classmates who were acquaintances but not friends back then were warm and sincerely (or pretended to be sincere) interested in me. If they were just pretending, then I thank them for their good manners anyway.
More than 130 of our 450 classmates attended. A good showing, I think, after the passage of fifty years. An indication that being teenagers together was a sweet experience that we could still share.
But sharing that experience has left me surprised too.
Surprised at our differences.
We were a homogeneous group. After all, we were all exactly the same age, attended the same school, raised in the same town, affected by the same world events. And our town itself was homogeneous. Smack-dab middle class – not many of us either rich or poor. Our homes, our streets, our families were all but interchangeable.
And yet, looking around that room that should have been filled with such similarity – I saw not uniformity, but amazing variety.
Some of us looked old. Some looked young. Some were fat and some were thin. Some were healthy and some disabled. There were bald heads and extravagant hair. Sequins and tee shirts. Successful entrepreneurs and folks who struggled. Long happy marriages, newlyweds, singles, long-divorced. Parents, grandparents, childlessness. Religious. Atheist. Liberal. Conservative. Living abroad. Still living in the same house. Haughty. Modest. Loud. Shy.
I was astonished by the diversity of people who should have been all alike.
Which makes me consider the bedlam of this world.
My classmates who shared such common experiences are not common. They aren’t clones. They are all unique.
So what of people who do not share such similarity of background?
If folks raised the same grow up to be so different, what chaos comes from a world where folks have such a disparity of experiences?
And optimist that I am, I see that it is not so much chaos after all.
Oh,I recognize that there is war and hatred and unrest and bitter disagreement. But I am profoundly impressed that we have even a teaspoon of stability in this world. Why – with such dissimilarity in this world – we have not descended into complete anarchy is a testament to the intelligence and goodness of human beings.
I am amazed that we can communicate with any level of understanding. That we can buy and sell in global transactions. That we can accomplish objectives in the workplace. That we can build a school and send our children to be educated. That we can bring food into big cities and the internet to the rainforest. That we can take care of strangers in hospitals. Hell, I am impressed that we can drive cars without smashing into each other.
It seems to me that Humanity is an insane collection of differences that we all overlook in order to survive.
And most of us even smile through the insanity.
Having high expectations can be a very good thing.
Mostly, because I have found that when you expect the best from people, they usually give it.
This is my best example. Our foyer.
The carpenter who laid this floor had never done anything like this before. We showed him a photograph from a lovely mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast in Newport. We wanted to recreate the gorgeous floor. We told him, “Study the photo. Think about how the parquet was done. You can figure it out. You can do it.”
And he did it.
And here’s an even simpler example:
Many years ago, when my nephews and niece were little, everyone was at my little condo for a party. My niece came into the living room to tattle on her brothers. “The boys are in the bedroom with the Legos and they are making a huge mess.” And I said, “That’s okay, because I know your brothers are also really good at cleaning up after they play.” My niece looked at me skeptically, but went back to the bedroom to tell her brothers what I said. After everyone had gone home, I walked into the bedroom. It was spotless.
So yes. I love having high expectations of people. I love to trust that folks will do the best the can. And I might be disappointed once in a while, but honestly – not that often.
But I also see that high expectations – especially for things (not people) – can get in the way of your enjoyment of the simple things.
I am the leader of a book club.
I started the book club after I retired in order to discover new friends and new ideas. The book club has been going strong for eighteen months now. And I have made some wonderful new friends. And read some wonderful books in the process.
But oh my, once in a while we have a clunker.
We are trying now to add some criteria to better ensure that our book selections will be good ones. Because sometimes we have let someone choose a book just because they haven’t selected yet, and it’s nice to give everyone a turn. And sometimes they pick a book out of the blue that they know nothing about, but they think we all might like it. But we don’t.
It’s what happens then that is interesting.
Some people – for the best of reasons – they want to enrich their lives reading great books – are tremendously disappointed by a mediocre (or worse) book. The comments tend to be along the lines of
- “I can’t attend the meeting because I have nothing good to say.”
- “I’ll never get those hours back.”
- “What a waste of money.”
- “Don’t ever let that person choose again.”
- “I’ve read 20 pages and I’m stopping right there.”
I always feel really bad when that happens. Sometimes I dislike the book myself. But I can still discuss it. Civilly. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer myself and so there is always an underlying empathy for the author who spent months and years putting the story together. When writers critique other writers, we try very hard to pick out something good about the writing and make sure we emphasize it, in addition to pointing out what may not be successful.
And as far as “a waste of time” goes – well, yes. I would rather spend my time reading something that thrills me. But if you have ever watched television or played a computer game or gone for a drive on a Sunday afternoon or even listened to a five-year-old tell a very long story – well, just don’t talk to me about how your hours are too precious. We all waste a hell of a lot of time. Reading anything does not qualify as a waste.
I once witnessed someone (forgive me because I am pretty sure I have told this story before) pick up a book from a friend’s kitchen table and say, “Who is reading this trashy novel?” I was mortified. Not for the person whose book is was but for the rudeness of the person’s comment. It’s a book! It’s reading! That’s ALWAYS a good thing! Nancy Drew leads to Jane Eyre and Jane Eyre leads to Jane Austen and Jane Austen leads to … anywhere!
Now I agree that life is too short to spend time reading a book you don’t like. There are just too many good books out there to read a poor one. But although I may not always finish a mediocre book, I will always start a book with high expectations and give it a chance. Who knows? It may surprise or please or teach you.
Last month our book club had a rather unfortunate choice. At the prior meetings, no one was forthcoming with suggestions but one very nice woman brought up a novel that was set in a time period that interested her. So we went with it.
It was not the worst book I ever read – but it was far from the best. It was ordinary in every way. The heroine was perfect. The hero was perfect. The plot and the writing were not perfect. And the ending was predictable.
But the time period – World War II – was interesting, with an original point of view.
Many of these very smart and nice women in the book club, moaned and groaned about the assigned book. Some complained to me privately in emails, some just said “uggh” when the time came during our very good luncheon to discuss the not-so-good novel.
There is one woman in our book club – she is brilliant and well-read and soft spoken.
She said, “World War II was a fascinating time for everyone, and especially for women, who took on responsibilities previously denied them. I brought a few excerpts from a little memoir my mother wrote. She was in the military during the war.”
And she shared with us the captivating and strong and sweet reminiscences of her incredible mother.
Which we would not have known existed if we hadn’t been unfortunate enough to choose that lousy book.
Which is pretty fortunate after all.
This saying was popularized back in the 70s and is mainly attributed to Robert Schuller, a televanglist I didn’t much like. But I did like this axiom. And it came into prominence again in this decade as the result of a terrific TED talk by Regina Dugan.
Several years ago, I found the quote on a paperweight, and I bought it as a gift for my husband. My husband is a super capable guy, and I have never seen him fail at anything. But he’s cautious. He worries about trying things. He worries that he won’t be able to figure out new problems. He sometimes will not try stuff because he thinks he won’t be good at it. He doesn’t want to look foolish. He worries about failure.
I am familiar with these worries. Not only because I have lived with him for so many years. But because I share some of those same worries.
But somewhere in me, I have a intrinsic confidence that I can eventually handle whatever I need to. My husband has always handled what comes at him too. With as much or more success than I have had. But he doesn’t really believe it.
So I gave him the paperweight. I thought it might inspire him. Instill confidence.
A paperweight? Instilling confidence?
Great expectations from 3 inches of pewter. Yeah, that was a little naive.
But still – when you see or hear something everyday, sometimes it eventually imbeds itself into your brain.
And my husband has tried a few new things. He started horseback riding at age 71. At 73, he bought his own horse. That’s courage. (not pewter) He’s a cautious rider. But he rides.
As we get older, instead of being more cautious, some of us actually get a little braver. Maybe we say, “What the hell?” Maybe we want to fill our boring ebbing days with a bit more excitement. Maybe we have less to lose? Or maybe our dwindling fear comes from dwindling brain cells.
And as I get older, another question emerges that is as interesting to me as “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
What do you want to do so badly, you don’t care about the outcome? If you don’t care if you fail, if you look foolish, if you’re laughed at or pitied….or even if (gasp) it costs you money?
I like to post on Twitter in the guise of my dog. It lets me say stuff I might be embarrassed to say as me. Yeah, that’s dumb. I have a sneaky feeling most people know it’s me. It’s a foolish conceit, but I don’t mind looking foolish. I don’t mind being a silly old lady who pretends my dog has a philosophical bent.
And just this week, Theo wrote:
I think if you only like what you’re good at, you won’t be doing much of anything, because you won’t try anything. You have to be bad at something first before you get good. You don’t play a concerto the first time you sit down at the piano. Everyone knows that. But the trick is to like the piano even when you are awful.
But what if you never get good?
I have been practicing Yoga for 18 years now. I am in the beginner class. If I am fortunate enough to still be taking Yoga classes 18 years from now, I am fairly certain I will still be in the beginner class. I think they call it a “practice” for a reason. There is no Yoga recital – just practice. I am terrible. I like it anyway.
Perhaps the key to being brave is the inability to be embarrassed.
My mother’s very best advice to me was: “You can do everything! You won’t be good at everything. But you can do everything.”
I’ve learned that failure isn’t so bad. It’s an outcome that’s not only possible, but probable. It’s survivable. You just need to stop caring whether you look foolish. Enjoy the experience, even if the ending is terrible. And, once in while, after you do something badly for a very long time, you may find that you start doing it pretty well. Then very well.
It’s rare. But it’s awesome. It’s worth it.
What do you want to do passionately enough that you don’t care if you fail?
There’s a woman who belongs to the same circle of friends as I do. I don’t particularly like this woman.
I don’t like her politics. I don’t like most of her opinions. We don’t enjoy the same hobbies. We have little in common.
But she lost someone close to her and yesterday was the sad anniversary of his passing.
She met up with the rest of us, as always. She was outwardly cheerful.
A lot of us do that.
We pretend we are okay. We go through the motions. We smile. We even laugh. We continue to participate in all our little activities. They are necessary distractions. They help. But they hurt too.
I say that we have little in common.
But we have THAT in common.
That we go on with our lives, and keep our pain in check.
Don’t we all have that in common?
As she was leaving our little get-together. I took her in my arms and hugged and kissed her.
It was brief.
After all, I don’t really like her.
I thought perhaps she could use some affection.
Because I could use some.
We have that in common.
Maybe I like her a little.
A very scary event is on the horizon for me.
My 50th high school reunion. FIFTY!
I remember my parents going to my dad’s 50th. Oh my god, they were so OLD. It’s a good thing I’m so much younger now than they were then.
A reunion is a wonderful time to gather and … measure.
How old do we look? How many children? How many divorces?
How much have we accomplished?
Of course, we could and should ask ourselves this every day. But we don’t.
And by “accomplished,” I don’t necessarily mean how much money or career success or fame we’ve managed to stockpile in the 50 years we have been officially grownups.
All that is nice, of course. I’ve done okay on those counts. I’ve had a rewarding career, and lots of nice stuff in the closets of my nice house.
But more important than success is whether my life FEELS like a success.
In some ways, the answer is YES.
Most significantly, I have tried throughout my life to be a good human being. I try to think the best of people, to understand others, to be kind. I have succeeded in this. I like myself.
For personal fulfillment, the two novels I wrote satisfy me in ways I cannot even describe. I hold those books, read those pages, and think “I did this!” It nourishes my soul.
I never had children, and that is a huge sorrow – and maybe writing stories is a poor substitution – but I do believe there is some of the same feeling there. I have created something of worth. Something I am proud of. Something that will live on after me. No, my books won’t remember me or love me, but it is the best I can do. It will have to do.
And I love the watercolors I have produced. By putting paint to paper, I’ve been creating small joys for others. I may not be immortal, but maybe a few pets are memorialized for the humans who love them.
Back to the reunion.
I looked at our Class Reunion website yesterday. There is a memorial page on the website for those of us who have died. We had a large class – over 400 graduates. The remembrance page had more than 40 names. Ten percent of my classmates are dead.
This fact astonishes and saddens me. Fifty years since high school is a very long time. But we are not that old. None of us is seventy. In ten or twenty years we will be old. Right now we are only just past middle age. Only some of us never got there.
Our losses, our deaths, will only accelerate now.
We have only a limited time left to measure our accomplishments.
There’s nothing wrong with slowing down – with taking life a little easier as you age.
But how I want to squeeze in more accomplishments! I want to feel that I have contributed to the world. I want to feel important- not necessarily to the world, but to myself.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed with shame. The shame of lost time. The shame of future lost time that I know I will waste..
I dawdle too much. I daydream too much. I fritter.
I wonder what I might have accomplished in those hours of television. Crosswords. Twitter. Solitaire. Magazines. Shopping for more nice things for my nice closet. I wonder what I will not accomplish in those future hours of wasted time.
John Lennon (and actually many before him) said, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” And I agree. Not every moment of your life needs – nor should be – momentous. Watching a sunset has benefits that will not show up on your resume. Or playing with the dog. Or filling in that last square in your crossword puzzle, for that matter.
But the conflict between leisure and the need for accomplishment escalates.
I need to enjoy what short time I have left here. But I want to have something more on my list of what made my life worthwhile.
I will keep my crossword, I think, as perhaps it helps keep my brain sharp. But a considerable amount of Twitter time needs to be redirected. Twitter sometimes entertains, but more often makes me angry. I will try checking in a few times a day – with my oven timer set on 15 minutes.
I will keep playing with my dogs. In fact, I will play more with my dogs. My blood pressure will thank me for the shift from tweets to barks.
And although I love TV, I don’t think “Say Yes To The Dress” will be part of my legacy. A third novel however, just might.
Will I be more successful if I write three books instead of two? Probably not. But will I feel that I made some use of whatever time I have left? I probably will.
And I will search for more. Question more. Explore more. Learn more.
When I go to my class reunion in the Fall, I will smile and say hello to all these nice people who share a common incomplete mission: To be happy and fulfilled before we say hello to our completed companions.
______________________________________________________________________________PS. If you live anywhere near northwestern Connecticut, and you’d like to feel more connected and productive in your writing, I have convinced my friends, authors/editors John and Natalie Bates , to lead one of their terrific one-day intensive writing workshops. The date is September 14th. For more information, click on the banner at the top of the page, Writers Workshop Of Litchfield.
Years ago, a close friend asked me for advice on her workplace issue.
She worked in a very small office – I think the staff totaled no more than five. She had very little in common with any of her co-workers. She was unhappy and had tried various methods to improve her relationships with the rest of the office staff.
She had tried seeking them out, looking for commonality. But they had belittled her interests and done little to share their own.
She had tried offering to help with everyone’s work load. But they had responded by telling her they were perfectly capable of doing their jobs without her help.
She had tried bringing in goodies – baked goods and fruit and candy, but they were left untouched.
She had tried commiserating if they complained, or expressing enthusiasm for whatever made them happy. She agreed with them outwardly even if she privately disagreed. They responded by making outrageous statements, and then feigning shock if she agreed.
She had reached the invisibility stage. She went to work and did her job in silence. She interacted only when absolutely necessary.
And she was miserable.
I wasn’t surprised at her misery. A big factor in liking your job is having friends there. You go and see people you like. You talk. You laugh. You feel like part of the team, part of the family.
And job satisfaction in turn is a big part of life satisfaction. You spend the majority of your day at work. How can you go home happy after eight hours of anxiety?
I told her to look for another job. That she had exhausted all strategies and she should move on. And also that, although many people enjoy the atmosphere of a small office, she should consider looking for employment in a larger corporation. I had seen from my own college and workplace experience that, instead of feeling like an faceless cog in a big impersonal machine, a diverse environment had given me a much better chance to find kindred spirits. I had hundreds of chances to find like-minded friends, not five.
“It’s like dating in a really small town,” I said. “It’s wonderful if your soul mate is one of the only three guys your age who live there. But if one is a drinker, one is gay, and one has his heart set on the girl who is prettier than you, who do you marry? You have to say adios to Hicksville and move to the big city.”
“Oh, really?” my friend replied. “That’s how you solve a problem? You run away?”
That surprised me. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. Was running away from a problem my preferred solution?
And you know what?
Problem avoidance is not necessarily a bad choice.
“Maybe,” I said. “Only I don’t call it ‘running away.’ I call it: ‘I don’t really have to live this way if it doesn’t make me happy.'”
My friend did eventually leave that job. But she stuck it out way longer than I would have. I guess I admire her in some ways for not giving up. But mostly, I think it was a shame that she stayed unhappy for too long.
Yes, we should confront our problems.
Yes, we should be brave.
But sometimes, confronting our problems and being brave also entails running away.
It is not so cowardly to say, “I don’t have to take this anymore”