Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happiness: State of Mind or Circumstancial?

I had dinner last night with an old friend who has gone through probably the most traumatic experience of all my close friends. Her father, who was by far the most important person in her life, died after a painful bout with brain cancer when we were sophomores in college. I remember thinking at the funeral, will she go another day in her life without crying? Will every "happy" occasion be marred with a tinge of sadness that he could not be there to experience it with her? That was four years ago. Since then she managed to have the ups and downs one expects not only from a college kid but from someone who lost "the love of her life" at twenty. Somehow after falling into a deep deep depression and fleeing to Europe for a year to escape the reality of her new life, she managed to graduate on time from an Ivy League school Phi Beta Kappa (for those of you do not not speak super-smart, that means graduating with above a 3.75 gpa).

So over salad in my small apartment last night, we discussed what it is like to deal with sadness. I have endured a few quite sad events over the past few years, the two most tragic of which involve both my parents separately. So understandably, I have become in these past few years, quite a serious person. I find myself more often deep in thought and conversation than discussing why Heidi married Spencer or what happened on Saturday night. My seriousness has also made me realize how important it is to plan fun things in life as well. When the lowest of the lows would come, a fun party or dinner or movie trip was what picked me up and made me feel 23 and not 50 in the type of issues I had to deal with. Watching my Phi Beta Kappa friend stress about boyfriends and jobs and losing 4 lbs last night was almost refreshing. Will I some day have such an easy going life that this is what I worry about? If she can overcome that tremendous amount of grief, surely I can!

When I expressed to her my intense desire to one day wake up and think of nothing but work, my friends, my plans and my boyfriend, she said one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. "You know to people that don't know you, you seem pretty normal" I laughed at the picture it painted of me but appreciated the sentiment nevertheless. So my question is: Is happiness a state of mind (as I have often preached) or circumstantial since most of my "happy" friends have pretty carefree lives? I would say that your state of mind determines whether or not you will let unhappiness cripple you. I am pleased to say I still get up and go to work each day, go out socially several nights a week and actually have fun when I am out most of the time, exercise occasionally, shower, read, go to Ballet class, take voice get it I'm not in bed for weeks on end! But do I think one can wake up and flip on the happy switch? Everyday I wake up determined to be happy, and every night I go to sleep, well, not sleeping but instead thinking...when will all of this stop? When will I be left unburdened by other people's mistakes and problems?

So I am trying my best to think "full steam ahead" and "be happy" but I also know that the sadness will not disappear with each declaration of my resolve. In someways I believe accepting its' presence prevents me from shoving it to a deep down spot where it will stay until it erupts in the form of a bad marriage, passing it onto my children, a drug habit, alcoholism, theft, murder, abuse, obesity, mental I'd rather take it in stride. Oh and for those of you who know me, a little TLC never hurt the healing process : )

Friday, January 30, 2009

Old Lady with a Cat

Nobody ever imagines that they'll be the old lady with a cat. I love cats, so it doesn't sound too terrible to me but I imagine the connotation is that this old lady, lets call her Sue, lives alone, is depressed, has given up on finding love, has let herself "go", harbors anger or sadness from a traumatic experience that makes her grumpy, shes difficult, she shops at Zabars, she lives on the Upper West Side, she's probably an angry liberal, and she has a fat cat. It's pretty funny to think of myself as Sue, mostly because she's a liberal. But I was thinking about this because I was watching one of those mind-numbing makeover shows today that sucks you in like two fat ladies having a "my man" fight on Jerry Springer. As I watched the doctors and makeup artists pick at her saggy face and gray frizzy hair, it occured to me that though I'm young and haven't quite let myself "go" yet, I'm in a loving relationship, I shop at Whole Foods, I live below 14th street and my two cats were given away when I went to college, I could eventually become Sue. I imagine Sue's life to be like this pit I've been in for the past few years. Even when I figure out that I could scale the wall and though it'd be dangerous and hard, I would eventually get out, I sit at the bottom and wait. I hear myself inside my head saying, "Why can't you just try to scale the wall, just give it a shot?" And still I sit. Sometimes I get up the nerve to scale the wall for a few minutes and then when it gets too hard or I think I'm going to fall, I go back down and sit. Luckily at the bottom of this pit is a computer with highspeed internet, a flat screen TV with new shows and movies a click away, my cellphone, my favorite magazines, a bed, food, a get the idea. It is nice and comfortable down there but I'm sure Sue's pit is too. All the same things await me outside the pit, but up there I'm also free from the burden of eventually having to scale this wall to see daylight. I know it is not my fault I am in this pit. In fact, I was thrown down here for no reason by a couple of different idiots around me and life since then, needless to say, has been pretty traumatic. Some people are in a deeper, scarier pit than I but generally most people are above ground. I know that I'm neither some people nor most people and that their circumstances will not help me scale this wall. As it turns out, there are several good shows on TV tonight.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do You Think Someone Notices?

I often watch people I know and those I don't, out of interest, nosiness and self validation. At the gym, I look around and wonder, what drives these people? Does the heavy woman walking slowly on the treadmill think she is actually burning any calories? Or is this her first attempt at exercising and therefore should I be commending her for even being here? Is the hot ripped guy self absorbed or did he used to be fat and had to overcome teasing and self doubt for those abs? Does the skinny pretty girl working it on the elliptical subsist on crystal light and water and come everyday no matter how bad the hangover? Or is she just naturally skinny, beautiful and cares only enough to make a once or twice a week gym visit. I often choose the latter option to feel better about my far from daily exercise routine.

Work is another place that baffles my understanding of what motivates people. Why do some people work so much harder than others? Why does everyone look so busy when I pass by their computers? How does one become a "workaholic"? My understanding of the suffix -aholic or -addicted is of an enjoyable activity like drinking or drugs or brownies or sex or entertainment or travel, or more drugs or sex or drinks.

Love I get.
Parental, marital, sisterly, brotherly, owner to pet, girl to doll, I get what motivates parents to sit through freezing cold sporting events when their child will never play and get up at all hours of the night to drive drunk teenagers home. Obviously accomplishment, vanity, health, praise, productivity, fear of failure, embarrasment, poverty, disappointment are all possible motivators...but still. A love of spreadsheets? People who get to work unnecessarily early when they know no one will see them come in? Explain these logic-defying acts!

Karl Marx = 19th Century fortune teller

"Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalized, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism." -- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867

Someone sent this quotation to me last week and I thought, wow, eerie. Karl Marx's view of the world and it's economic development couldn't be more opposite from mine but to think that anyone, 140 years ago, could have predicted the state our country is in today, sent a chill down my spine. My suburban raised boyfriend thinks I am a broken record since I've been whining about the waste and consumerism religion that has taken over most of America for the past three years. When I visit his family and drive down the strip mall lined avenues or into the mega store parking lots or wonder through the mini-cities often called "malls", I feel sick and saddened. I grew up in Manhattan, the epi-center of consumer culture, luxury and excess so it seems nonsensical that my visits to "greener pastures" would leave me so sickened by our country's new set of values: Ipod + My Car x Sam's Club = happiness. However, the most sickening part to me isn't just that our country is obsessed with buying or playing everything, its that most don't ever realize they've been played. This culture of buying BIG and OFTEN that dominates most of the US was pressed upon them by brilliant corporations that saw that a suburb was a suburb was a suburb. The formula for a Sam's Club or a Walmart or a Chili's could fit easily into all of them with hardly a hiccup because like most their suburban locations, these chains lack distinctive character.

Character is what makes a place a place. Though New York City has more stores, restaurants and ways to spend money than almost any place on earth, most New Yorkers would not be caught dead eating at a Subway or going to a bedbathandbeyond. Though these places are often cheaper than many New York establishments and plentiful in our concrete grid, the neighborhood coffeeshop, pharmany and the established homeware shop are an invaluable part of each community. They give to what could be just any other city, a city with so much flavor it has become the most used film set in the entire world.

Walmart and Target saw that with the development of Suburban America came a lack of things to do with free time. It wasn't the country where skating on ponds, cross country skiing, fly fishing, riding horses and other such wholesome activities were easily accessible. And yet it wasn't a city where creative films, the theater, opera, ballet, concerts, events, museums, galleries and an endless supply of new restaurants and bars were at one's finger tips. No it was in some new grey area in between. A place with proximity to a major city, a patch of green grass for each house, tons of space for parking lots, closets so big they could fit a year's supply of paper towels, gas stations, good public schools and not much else. So, what better for the baby boomers to do than spend money they didn't have (thank you visa!) and waste gas they didn't own (thank you radical islamic dictatorships!) driving from chain store to chain store and most of all not doing, seeing, learning or experiencing hardly anything new or intellectually enriching.

Some people refer to this as the dumbing down of our society. Nowadays, people think the Discovery Channel is as educational as it gets and that learning stops when you graduate from college. And people wonder why we are falling fast behind India and China... but who really cares about all of that country progress nonsense when there is a Real World marathon allll weekend?!

Lets turn off the TV. Lets create towns again where you can walk to what you need or can take public transportation or ride a bike instead of just packed cities and suburban sprawl. Think of the weekends as a time to enrich your mind, not your credit card debt. Get out of the house. Laundry everyday? Once a week is just fine. Drive twenty minutes on a highway to a restaurant chain? Would you leave your refrigerator door open for 45 minutes? The baby boomer era exited last week with our first President born after the 1950's. Regardless of his politics, lets take that as a ready, set, go...and I don't mean drive.

*I commute to work in Westchester via cab, then train, then a car, have been to many Target-esque chains in my life, watch two hours of TV a week, and buy things with regularity. I'm getting there but am certainly still an excessive, wasteful American.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Answering the important questions of the world

A foot-long salami arrived today in a big box with tons of packaging and a thank-you-for-your-business note that made me shake my head disapprovingly because everyone really needs to understand the dire situation our planet is in. Even though I sometimes leave a light on and drive my SUV 90 minutes a week, those are honest mistakes and a lack of choices. I will NOT allow myself to be understanding of these same excuses for anyone else. I began my morning by vigorously pursuing the answers to my many questions about the salami. Who really eats salami? Is it better hot or cold? Why would this upscale food store be sending out gifts in January in a recession (or depression depending on how fatalist you are)? Do they send the salami because nobody is buying it in the store? Since I know we do not shop at this store, why would they bother rewarding us for our non-patronage? Is salami pork or beef? What sort of cheese goes best with salami? After grilling my father for answers while he simultaneously attended to many trivial matters at the office, I wondered, is there a reason I am so fixated on who sent the salami? While pondering this question, my younger brother walked into the room and announced that today was the day for me to set up a blog. With many family, boyfriend, career and world issues on my mind, some totally normal for a 23-year-old girl and some so outrageous I would not need to dramatize a book or movie made about my life at present, how could I attempt to focus this blog in any one direction? Even if I tried to write just about politics, somehow the salami or my hot and cold relationship with exercise or my chapped lips would creep into the posts. Right then, I answered my own question about why I fixate on fermented sausage AND because I am totally unqualified to make the following assumption, I will go ahead and generalize that society also participates in the following behavior. When the future of our planet, national and world economy, political system, safety and security as well as my job, career, personal happiness, family life and health all seem to be uncertain, full of obstacles and painful to deal with, why not fixate on who sent the salami? Insert (into red) celebrity gossip, the Oscar nominations, your Facebook newsfeed, what will happen tonight on ___, the flabby stomach you acquired in December, chapped lips (I cannot find a cure), what restaurant to make a reservation at three weeks from now, the cold weather, whether to take the subway or a cab anywhere, when to take your vacation days, chapped lips, chapped lips, chapped lips.