Living Consciously

What Does “Adult” Mean?

As a child, I used to think there was a portal to adulthood that everyone passed through at some point—on their 21st birthday, maybe, or when they graduated from high school or college, or at some other magical milestone that I would reach someday. On the other side of that portal would be “the answers.” The confidence, wisdom, and grownup status to know, in pretty much all circumstances, what to do and how to do it.

By now I know better. If such a portal exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Oh, I know what “adult” means in the legal sense. It refers to someone who is old enough to legally vote, buy alcohol, enter into contracts, serve on juries, and do other grownup stuff like get tattoos or piercings without needing anyone’s permission. Continue reading

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If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | Tags: | 1 Comment

Everyday Lifesavers

“I saved his life.”

Unfortunately, whatever lifesaving the sixtyish woman at the next table had done, it wasn’t exciting enough to make her raise her voice as she chatted with her husband about it. That one tantalizing phrase was all I overheard.

This left me to wonder about the rest of the story. Whose life? How did she save him? Rescue him from drowning, or a car crash or a conflagration? Give him a kidney? Was he a child? Was he even human? Maybe he was a dog or cat they had 30 years ago, for all I know.

That’s the frustrating part: I don’t know. And I never will. Because as an unrepentant but courteous eavesdropper, I do know it’s bad manners and worse strategy to lean over and say, “I didn’t quite get that—could you please speak up?”

After I finished wondering about the other woman’s mysterious lifesaving, my mind took the next logical path. I started wondering whether I’ve ever saved anyone’s life. Continue reading

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 4 Comments

Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

Categories: Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.

 

This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

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Adventure Travel

Last month I spent two delightful weeks in New Zealand. One of things I discovered is that tourism there is designed for the adventurous. You’re invited to roar along rivers in jet boats, bicycle up and down mountains, climb mountains, leap off of mountaintops with a parachute, bungee jump, ice-climb on glaciers, and hike on trails where signs warn you that rocks might fall down upon you at any moment.

I’d like to tell you more about one of those adrenaline-boosting choices. Join me in your imagination, and let me take you on an adventure.

First picture a deep, narrow gorge with a cold, fast-moving river at the bottom. Scared to death, you’re standing at one end of a bridge that spans this gorge. You take a deep breath and start walking onto the bridge. You glance down at the water—a big mistake, because you can see just how far down it is. You could change your mind and go back, but your friends are cheering you on and you don’t want them to think you’re a chicken.

At the middle of the bridge you are met by an athletic guy who, in an annoyingly cheerful and encouraging manner, fastens a harness around your ankles. You just hope all the cords and fasteners are as secure as he reassures you they are. You do your best to listen carefully to his instructions, but you’re so nervous you can hardly comprehend them.

Finally, when he seems to think you’re ready and you can’t think of any reason you aren’t, he opens a gate. You step out onto a platform at the edge of the bridge. You gulp. You gasp in one last deep breath and squeeze your eyes shut. Just before the annoying guy has to push you off, you jump.

You plunge headfirst toward the water. You’re falling so fast you can’t breathe, and at the same time everything is in slow motion so it feels as if you fall, and fall, and fall for a long, long time.

At last you hit the end of the bungee cord. It isn’t the whiplash jerk you were expecting, but your head feels thumped, and your stomach tries to push itself into your throat, and there’s an endless spine-stretching moment when the rope starts pulling you up while gravity is still pulling you down.

You bounce back up, then down again, then back up and down, at the same time swinging forward and backward like a human pendulum. You open your eyes, then quickly shut them again because the upside-down view of the world makes you dizzy. Your heart is pounding so hard you can feel it in your ears. Your upended lungs feel so squashed that you can’t get enough air.

What seems like hours later, the swinging slows and stops, leaving you dangling at the end of the line with your arms hanging. The blood rushing toward your head makes your brain feel too big for your skull.

Then something grabs one of your limp arms. The pickup team in their little inflatable boat has reached you. They haul you in and undo your harness. You collapse in the bottom of the boat, shaking all over. You feel a strong urge to curl up into a ball and burst into tears.

From what sounds like a long ways away, you can hear your friends cheering. You’ve done a bungee jump, and you might even live to tell the tale.

That’s our adventure. It’s finished; please take a deep breath. We’re all okay, except that I need to explain something.

I have no idea if this description is accurate, because I made it up. I didn’t—wouldn’t—couldn’t—ever jump off of that bridge. Just watching other people bungee jump was more than enough adrenaline rush for me. I don’t have the kind of physical daring for stuff like that. Or the disregard for my well-being. In fact, I secretly suspect that bungee jumping was invented by a cabal of chiropractors and massage therapists as a way to increase their clientele.

I didn’t try parasailing, either. Mountain climbing? Forget it. Glacier climbing? Not a chance. Jet boats? No, thanks. Though I did hike a couple of trails where signs warned me that rocks might fall down upon me at any moment.

I also stood with one foot on each side of a spot that is adventurous in a way that thrilled the geologists in our group: the Alpine Fault. The Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet and slide past each other at this fault, which extends through much of New Zealand and where earthquakes can and do happen regularly. None did while we were on the spot. I was grateful.

Otherwise, our group explored spectacular landscapes: Sharp-edged young mountains carved by glaciers. Dry rocky hills pockmarked with old gold mines. Thriving farmlands fenced with trees sharply trimmed into tall hedges. Rain forests so green and lush that it felt as if lingering over a picnic would put you at risk of being covered with moss like everything else in sight.

We also learned a bit about the history and culture of this fascinating land, from the Maori who arrived first to the various Europeans who came later. We discovered why flightless birds probably evolved that way (predators in the sky but not on the ground) and that several of them, including the country’s iconic kiwi, had to be brought back from near extinction after predators like the stoat were introduced. I learned that the New Zealand accent is much easier to appreciate than to imitate.

Along the way, I was reminded that for me, the adventure of travel isn’t a physical one. I don’t need the adrenaline rush of stepping out of my physical comfort zone. It’s more interesting—and quite exciting enough, thank you—to venture out of my emotional comfort zone.

That kind of adventure travel involves having the conversations that help me learn a little bit about other places, other cultures, and other people. It requires me to be both a curious and a courteous visitor. And perhaps most important, it means keeping one thing in mind: I’m among people whose landscapes seem exotic and whose pronunciation seems strange to me. At the same time, they might be seeing me as someone who comes from an odd place and talks funny.

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Digesting Everything I Needed To Know

Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but I didn’t. Possibly because I never went to kindergarten.

But I did learn, not quite everything I needed to know, but a lot of useful and interesting stuff from Reader’s Digest.

In a household where both parents and all four daughters were avid readers, there was a lot of competition for the fat little magazine when it showed up in the mail every month. My memory is that it often had the bad timing to arrive on housecleaning days, which meant Mother would stash it somewhere until the work was done. There it sat on top of the fridge, out of sight but not out of mind, its unread jokes and stories a distracting temptation while we vacuumed and dusted. It was a strong incentive to be the first one to finish, of course—though, oddly enough, quite often the person who got to it first was Mother.

Reader’s Digest was a predictable mix of material that was mostly condensed and republished: a long excerpt from a nonfiction book, at least one story of a dramatic rescue or recovery, short pieces of insight and observation, and, of course, the jokes scattered throughout the pages like chocolate chips in the cookie.

I read the whole thing. It’s a bit surprising, all these years later, how many things I remember. (None of which I can think of right this minute, but I could call you later when they surface in my brain. Would two a.m. be convenient?)

I do recall the awfulness of one story about a girl who was about 11 or 12 (close to my own age at the time) and dying of leukemia. During her last days in the hospital, her parents told her if there was anything she wanted, they would do whatever they could to get it for her. She had just one wish: to see her brothers and sisters one last time. But hospitals then didn’t allow kids under the age of 14 to visit, and rules were rules. As I remember it, the parents didn’t even ask. The best they could do was sneak the oldest sister in for an illicit visit. The unkindness and unfairness of that sad story made me angry at the time. It still does.

As an adult, I continued to subscribe to Reader’s Digest for years. While its formula didn’t vary much, the content did evolve over the years as society changed. This was brought home to me once when I bought a box of books at a garage sale. In it was an aging little paperback of “Playboy Party Jokes.” I opened it, prepared to be suitably shocked. But the book was even older than it looked; I had already read most of the jokes in Reader’s Digest.

One of my high school teachers warned us not to use Reader’s Digest as a source for any assignments. Always go back to the full version of an article wherever it was originally published, he said, because “they chop off the ending to make room for all the jokes at the bottom of the pages.”

This was sound enough advice as far as it went, but even as a teenager I knew he was mistaken about the editing process. The Reader’s Digest editors may have made lots of cuts, but they used their red pencils more like scalpels than hatchets. It’s an example I try to follow as an editor myself. Possibly some of my current or former clients may disagree. Unfortunately, their comments had to be deleted due to lack of space.

Categories: Just For Fun, Living Consciously | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Thankful for Small Things

When it comes to being thankful, of course what matters most is family and friends—those wonderful (well, most of the time) people who make life such a joy (well, most of the time).

But I’m grateful for plenty of minor things, too. Such as:

Bathrobes. On a cold morning, nothing quite matches the cozy pleasure of slipping into a soft, fleecy robe that wraps you in warmth from chin to ankles. Then there are luxurious silky robes that make you feel like a Hollywood star from a lavishly costumed 1950’s movie. Cool cotton robes just right for summer mornings. Practical terrycloth robes. Given enough cash and closet space, I could easily become the Imelda Marcos of bathrobes.

The taste of a crisp slice of apple with peanut butter on it. And the fact that grocery stores now have so many scrumptious varieties of apples—Gala and Fuji and Honeycrisp and more—besides the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smiths I remember from childhood.

Peanut butter itself, for that matter. (Hint—try it in oatmeal.) Thank you, George Washington Carver.

Seeing deer in our yard. Sometimes, like this morning, it’s the flash of a white tail disappearing into the trees. Sometimes it’s a browsing mule deer that acknowledges us with the twitch of a big ear as we walk past, but who isn’t even concerned enough by our presence to stop chewing.

My African violets that bloom so beautifully year-round, in spite of the haphazard care that they get.

Colored pencils and calligraphy markers.

The washer and dryer right there in our very own laundry room.

Bad puns and wordplay. Such as the editor’s favorite breakfast, synonym rolls. Or the fish in schools who sometimes take debate. Or, perhaps appropriately to the season, the fact that the roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. Who got that way, of course, from too much Pi.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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