Are We Monsters Yet?

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It will take very little evolution for us to turn into monsters.

Already, science says our love of screens has elongated our eyeballs and added a spike in the back of our necks  to support our heavy heads leaning over to text. It’s even called “text neck.”

But what if we do changes how we look, could that be a tool for figuring out our fellow humans? Or, maybe our fellow monsters?

It would save a lot of time if we could tell everything we needed to know about someone at a glance.

But, whether we are humans or monsters, we are flawed and our instant inspection is likely to be muddied by our own inherent biases. Turns out, we trust monsters who are like us, whether they deserve it or not.

Listen to the companion podcast! 

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Soulmates

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Did you know that one study claims that 73% of Americans believe in soulmates. More men than women – 74% compared to 71% believe they are destined to find their soulmates. I find the fact that men are the more romantic and optimistic kind of sweet. And 79% of people younger than 45 believe in soulmates, while only 69% of older folks do, maybe because they’ve been looking longer and there’s no soulmate on the horizon.

I do believe in soulmates.

Not that you can relax and not work at it once you’ve found your soulmate. There’s still a lot of showing up you have to do.

And I’m not sure I believe we only get one soulmate in life, or that your soulmate has to be a romantic companion.

What do you think?

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Hey, Dummy, It’s the Universe!

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I like to think of myself as fairly intuitive. But when it comes to my own issues, I am as blind as everyone else.

When I forget to drink enough water or get enough rest, it takes my body rebelling with a flat-on-your-back illness or a migraine to get me to stop. Apparently, I don’t notice the trend of not taking care of myself unless my body steps in.

And vague murmurs of discontent about work that I’m doing? I think I need a hearing aid.

Recently, I had been writing two monthly columns for a local publication. It’s a fairly small publication, but that’s ok. It was fun, it helped pay the bills. But it was not what I dreamed about doing. My dream has always been to write a novel. I have a manuscript I’m revising, but I still haven’t found an agent. They say that finding an agent can be a numbers game. You sent out at least 100 queries and then maybe one agent bites. Have I sent out 100 queries?

I have not. Because I have been busy.

Busy writing the columns and whatever other random assignments came my way.

And then the publication went belly up.

I was sad – I really liked that publication and the work was comfortable.

But that same week, I got a call from an editor at a larger publication asking if I wanted to work on a story. And an editor who has spoken at a writers’ conference remembered my manuscript and called to see what had ever happened to it, and wondered if I needed help.

You may say this was an example of one door closing and another opening.

I think it was the universe, slapping me upside the head and saying, “Hey, dummy, pay attention!”

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Corona-Beauty

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Do we want to go back to what we had before the quarantine? Maybe we can preserve some of what we have now.

I am not in any way minimizing the tragedies the virus has brought.

But there are some things that are actually good about this whole shelter-in-place thing. And, no, I’m not trying to be Polyanna.

But I am heartened that the planet is proving more resilient than we are. We’re seeing reports of coyotes, bobcats and bears in swelling numbers returning to Yosemite. Of people actually being able to see the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles because smog is down. More than 82,000 people have died from the Coronavirus in China. That’s probably under-reported, considering the Chinese government’s lack of transparency. But one Stanford University scientist says that almost 50,000 to 75,000 people would have died just from pollution. And the World Health Organization says 7 million people die every year from causes attributed to air pollution.

And, I get that dead is dead, so whether you die from Coronavirus or air pollution probably doesn’t matter if you’re the one dying. But…is there no way we can retain the good from the quarantine, so that 7 million people DON’T die?

The return of the environment isn’t the only thing we can find that’s good in the shutdown.

We have found out who is really important. It’s the people along every link of the food supply chain, from the farmers to the pickers to the grocers and delivery people. It’s the people who keep us healthy, from the doctors and nurses to the pharmacists to the people cleaning up after sick people in hospitals. And it’s the people we love.

And, I include ourselves in that list of who’s important. Before this whole thing began, when was the last time you spent time with yourself without the benefit of distraction? No book, no television or streaming, no music? Just you, your thoughts, your monkey mind and your insecure emotions? What a shock to find that maybe you’ve gotten a little boring, so boring that you bore yourself!

All of this self-discovery makes it hard to be happy, doesn’t it? You’re not alone. A Kaiser Foundation survey finds that 45 percent of Americans say the Coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health. The whole country seems to be in a low-grade depression.

So, how to be happy these days?

I did some research. The first source said you could be happy, even during a quarantine. They break it down to three equations.

But some of them aren’t all that helpful in these times.

So, I went to another source.

A New York Times journalist goes all the way back to the Holocaust for inspiration, citing what Viktor Frankl calls “tragic optimism.” Frankl, a holocaust survivor himself, describes tragic optimism as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”

That tragic optimism wound up affecting how quickly people recovered from the shock of 9/11, whether or not they had lost someone, and it shows up in the difference between people who recover from a trauma and those who develop PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

And, we have been traumatized, make no mistake about it. One licensed professional counselor, Jennifer Yaeger, has a widely-shared post on Facebook that talks about how this trauma affects us. We may become numb and shut down or we may become hyper-vigilant (scrubbing down groceries, for example). It’s hard to focus.

It’s time to be gentle on ourselves.

But it’s also time to look for meaning, while we have the time and space for this kind of reflection.

And, finding meaning, finding the good in this Coronavirus, is what is going to make us resilient. It’s what is going to make us bounce back when we do open back up.

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Sixty in a Coronavirus Age

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I turned 60 on the 29th of March. I had planned to make it a big celebration with my husband, daughter and son-in-law and a few hundred others all attending this big Great Gatsby party at a gorgeous mansion in Asheville. I had my flapper dress and fake pearls and bright red lipstick.  I had also planned a bit of self-reflection. After all, it’s a big decade-changer.

Well, then the Coronavirus happened and that big, fancy celebration is postponed until fall when everyone hopes life is somewhat back to normal. My daughter is an Emergency Room nurse, so she is not going to even visit me that weekend, in fears that she’ll infect me now that I am at the advanced age of 60.

When she first mentioned this, I protested that I wasn’t in the high-risk population (this was still when they thought only old people were getting the virus).

“You will be in two weeks,” she told me flatly.

Wait, what?!

Apparently, by the way, I am not alone in all of this. An article in the New Yorker says, “ A lot of us have spent the past week pleading with our baby-boomer parents to cook at home, rip up the cruise tickets, and step away from the grandchildren.”

I think it’s because we have spent a lifetime trumpeting loudly to society that THIS age, whatever age our generation is at the moment, is relevant and cool. Too cool to be one of those feeble old folks getting the virus, for sure.

So, I’m back to the reflection I planned on upon turning 60. It’s what’s left, and I have way too much time to do it in.

It wasn’t really the birthday gift I wanted. Because the reflection isn’t the most comfortable thing. So I do a bunch of fairly useless things.

But, once all my frantic activity stops, I do what is important. What has been important no matter my decade. I love.

Because that is all that matters. I’m not shy anymore about saying I love you. To everyone I can.

I thought 2020 would be magical. The two 20s together seemed like a good omen, the reference to perfect vision undeniable.

But maybe, the vision part of the year is seeing who we really are. Not just me, but all of us.

And, what do you know? The reflection part wound up being a pretty good gift after all.

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Waving off That Hug

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A few days ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of touch and how I had just come from a festival in the South and we all hugged each other.

It was kind of tone-deaf, wasn’t it?

And, if I didn’t think so, my readers certainly pointed it out.

I respect those who want to keep a distance and I would never force a hug on someone looking to take protective action. And if you are immune-compromised, or live with someone who is, I would hope you would not be out at festivals anyway.

For the rest of us…

I had two things in mind when I wrote that last blog.

The first was a conversation I had with a friend who worked for the World Health Organization. This was about the time that dish soap, hand soap, everything was antibacterial. Our homes were as sterile as we could make them.

“We’re screwing ourselves,” he said to me. “Germs always win, they just adapt. The trick is to expose yourself safely, not to bubble-wrap yourself.”

The second thing on my mind was what it felt like after 9/11 when I lived in D.C. There were those frozen into a kind of life paralysis by fear of the next attack. The dangers of terrorism were real, not imaginary, and there were those who refused to fly, refused to go to public places. But, there was a band of people who said, “If we don’t live our lives, the terrorists win.” I was in that last bunch.

My blog argued for hugging. I still argue for hugging. Social distancing is another kind of death for me, but I am not arguing for being reckless. In fact, I am likely to miss a dear aunt’s funeral because I am reluctant to fly and attend – not for myself so much (although that may play into it as the virus worsens) but for the elderly attending the funeral. I don’t particularly want to be a carrier any more than a victim.

There is a calculus when something like this happens to us. It’s a risk-benefit judgment. Is the risk of social contact with healthy people death-defying? Is the virus lurking like the potential terrorists after 9/11?

Where you fall on that risk-benefit analysis is completely personal. What my blog was trying to say – not well enough that it didn’t piss off a whole bunch of people, apparently – is that you need to factor the need for human touch and social interaction into that calculation of risks and benefits. Whatever you decide, after weighing all the risks and benefits, good for you. Stay well.

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Coronavirus and Hugging Your Neck

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You business types will shake hands. And then you’ll use your hands to touch god knows what and then your face. Because as we are all finding out during this Coronavirus outbreak, there is an irresistible and maybe biological need to touch our faces. Especially as the weather warms and allergies make your nose or eyes prickle and itch.

But I live in the South. We hug, y’all.  We “hug your neck” we “give us some sugar.” When we have not seen someone for a while, we give them a hug.

I was just at a big food festival in my city, Charleston. Thousands and thousands came through. Friends I hadn’t seen since this time last year, chefs and food writers and photographers and podcasters. And we all greeted each other the same way: a slight hesitation with a quirk of the eyebrow, a shrug and a big ol’ hug.

People who knew they had a compromised immune system – whether from history or medication, would wave us off and no one took offense if an elbow was proffered for a quick elbow-to-elbow greeting. And, if someone was coughing and sneezing, we’d give them a wide berth, but otherwise? Hey, great to see you, it’s been too long, c’mere!

But what about the Coronavirus? The risk is there, of course, but don’t underestimate those  hugs. In fact, apparently, the journal Psychological Science published a study in 2014 saying that hugs provide a buffer against stress that actually has a protective effect against respiratory infections.

I’m not saying hugging makes us immune to the Coronavirus, but it does toughen up our immune systems in general, and the benefits of human touch are not to be underestimated. We’re not swapping spit or rubbing noses, we’re just briefly embracing one body with another.

In fact, the same article that cited the respiratory infection study also cited a series of Dutch studies that showed hugging could relieve a person’s feelings of existential fear. And, in this season of a pandemic, a tumbling stock market and vicious politics, existential fear abounds.

As one fellow festival attendee said after we hugged, “We’ve all got to go some way. I’m going to lead with love. If that’s what kills me, so be it.”

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Why Are Some People Bad at Love?

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Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day was last month, but I’ve been thinking about love. Have you ever noticed that some people just naturally seem better able to love?

I’m not talking about sociopaths here, just the people who don’t have a knack for love.

Is it just the way some people are wired?

There has been some interesting science about what love does to the brain.When you love, you get a rush of endorphins and the whole rush can act like an opioid and get you a little hooked. A little love makes you want a lot of love. So maybe taking that first leap is the first leap to a lifetime of love.

It certainly makes you happier.

The National Science Foundation archives, citing a 2018 article in Current Psychology,says that compassion for others and maintaining friendships means happiness. In typical science-speak, they call compassion for others “CFO.” Friendship Maintenance is “FM” and both CFO and FM are “positively associated with happiness.”

One interesting note? Women tended to have higher scores on CFO and FM. Are you surprised, though? In many couples, it’s the women who are in charge of the social calendar and the social connections.

Empathy too plays a part.

The Journal of Patient Experiencetalks about how empathy declines after medical training. We’ve all had doctors with terrible bedside manners, right? But the journal goes on to say that a lack of empathy leads to patient dissatisfaction and dissatisfied patients don’t follow the recommended treatments, and that leads to worse health outcomes.

So, what’s this all mean?

Sure, love is important, but what if you’re not good at it?

Then, love badly. Love awkwardly. Love with an embarrassing lack of talent. But, really? Just love.  If you won’t do it for someone else, do it for your own health.

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When is Sorry Enough?

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It’s a cliché.

When a husband messes up, the wife gets flowers. Jewelry if it was a really big screw-up.

It doesn’t make up for the screwup, but it’s a ritual that shows contrition. And, in solid marriages, forgiveness follows, even if it takes a while.

Society doesn’t really have a contrition ritual. And it’s made us suspicious and unforgiving.

It’s good practice to apologize. Sometimes, even when you weren’t trying to be hurtful, you were just thoughtless.

I’m sorry.

It’s a good practice. In fact, during a period when our daughter never wanted to be blamed for anything, my husband used to tell her he would give her a quarter if she owned up to being wrong. She didn’t earn a lot of quarters. In fact, “no quarter for you” has become a family shorthand for pointing out when someone is refusing to take ownership of a mistake.

I was wrong.

It’s hard to apologize. Or, rather, it’s hard to apologize and mean it.

But lately, there’s another layer. It makes it impossible to make it right. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The cancel culture. It says that you should not do anything wrong in the first place, because you should have known. And if you do something wrong, you get canceled.

Two recent examples.

There’s this program in which chefs switch restaurants. This past year, they switched recipes instead. An Italian chef and his crew got recipes from an Asian restaurant in Australia and made the recipes. The Italian chef celebrated the successful dinner with an Instagram photo that was awful. His crew had conical Asian hats and even pulled their eyes up into a slant. Here’s the link, but you don’t have to see it to know how offensive this might be.

After a firestorm of comments, the chef pulled down the post and apologized. Here’s what he said:

“The shot in question was dictated by the excitement and enthusiasm that the confrontation with a new culture has generated in our daily work,” he wrote, “Now I realize, that I probably don’t know the subject of the question well enough and that I have underestimated its meaning.”

Is it adequate? Was he really sorry? That’s up to you to decide, but even after the apology, there were calls to boycott the chef because, well, he should have known. But what could he have done to fix what he had done?

Or take the Hallmark Channel, which offers the movie equivalent of comfort food.

An advertisement showed two women kissing after being married. Some vocal conservatives protested and the ad was pulled. And then the real protests started as Hallmark got letters and emails from people asking why they supported only hetero romance – although, really, has anyone seen these movies? If you’re gay – or even nonwhite – you’re the best friend or assistant, but never the star in your own Hallmark romance. Still. The CEO apologized, said he was wrong, invited the advertiser was back. I have no way of knowing if his apology was genuine. But, a few weeks later, he was out. What could he have done to fix his error in judgment?

We seem to have lost the ability to say, “Yes, and…”

Black and white. Evil on the other side of the political spectrum, with no room for compromise because why would you work with evil? And if a politician has grown and evolved past the flawed person he  used to be? If he is just as shocked as we are by his use of blackface when he was young and stupid? Well, too bad. There is no ritual to make it right.

We should have been pure in the first place. Because, otherwise, boycotts and firings and smudged legacies.

I am not saying we should ignore crimes. But if forgiveness is really never possible, then why bother sending anyone to jail? Just kill them and get it over with because there’s no room for rehabilitation or change or evolution or growth. Nothing can be done to fix it.

We don’t have a ritual for making up. Community service comes closest, but it doesn’t really help the person harmed, it just offers some generic volunteer hours to the community at large. And I’m not sure it teaches anything.

But still, there has to be some way back. Some way to make it right.

Starting with admitting we’re wrong. And then really working on fixing the divide. That’s worth a whole lot more than a quarter.

I am sorry

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Thrill Junkies

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What do you need to feel alive?

The question came up for me this week because Hurricane Dorian just gave Charleston a light smack compared to what could have been. And even after that one night of worry as the winds howled, I was bouncing with joy when the day after was sunny and cool and just amazingly beautiful. It was like the day after you’ve been sick when food that turned your stomach yesterday tastes amazing today.

I’m not sure if the day was actually any more beautiful than the day before Hurricane Dorian, but facing down the nasty storm made the next day’s weather seem more precious.

That contrast – danger and then exhilaration – was on my mind I was reading an article about three climbers – and not just climbers, Alpiners. Alpine climbing is crazy stuff. Why would anyone do this? I have to admit, I’m an indoor house cat. The closest I get to outdoor sports is the occasional trail ride and, even then, the horse is doing all the work. I’m not even sure why I was reading an article about outdoor sports.

Except, spoiler alert. The three climbers don’t make it. And the article was really about why people challenge themselves to this kind of sport.

And that was why the article fascinated me. How close do we need to get to mortality to feel alive?

I have done sky-diving and been on a trapeze and even taken one airplane piloting lesson. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I did each of these activities after some kind of trauma. Sky diving came after a really bad patch in my marriage. The trapeze lesson and the airplane lesson came at different points in the illness that would ultimately kill my mother.

They jolted me out of the numb despair. They gave me the illusion that I could conquer the world, even if I couldn’t conquer death or sadness. But all of those things were safe risks. I had an experienced skydiver strapped to my back when I jumped out of the plane – well, okay, when he jumped because I was about to change my mind but the weight of his body just pulled me out of the plane. I had a harness on the trapeze and a net below me. The pilot who taught me had a license and I didn’t take off or land the plane, just took over the flying while we were in the air and tried to keep the plane level. The odds of actual death were pretty small.

Not like my one friend who fought in Vietnam. The hyper-vigilance, the knowledge that your next step could be your last…he hated it. It messed with his head. But I remember him telling me somewhat wistfully, “Helen, I’ve never felt so alive and I’ve never found anything since I got back that made me feel that alive.”

And that made me wonder. How do we feel alive without facing down death? Is being alive boring unless we risk losing our lives?

Some would say that the fear of death focuses your gaze on your surroundings with an intensity you can’t duplicate.

I know that I have read that mindfulness —  being really present in your life – is the key to enjoying every one of life’s moments. But is being a thrill junkie a shortcut to being present?

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