Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just Being Happy

This morning, I saw a negative comment on Facebook about people who say “I just want to be happy” when asked what they want out of life. I started to respond to the post, but quickly discovered that I had more to say than was reasonable to share on someone else’s Facebook wall.  And, the number of things I had to say increased when I read another response in which someone snidely observed that the current generation had been raised with the idea that happiness was good.

So, I’ll start there. It is.

Happy people are, in general, kinder and more patient. They’re healthier. And, you know, aside from all that…being happy is just a heck of a lot nicer than being miserable.

I think that when people say, “I just want to be happy,” it’s a shorthand. I think they’ve recognized that being happy doesn’t depend on having a particular job or a certain number of square feet in your home or finally being able to buy that boat.  They’ve recognized that the details don’t much matter.

I don’t think I’d ever say “I just want to be happy” in response to “What do you want out of life?” But, that’s probably because I over-answer—I’m that person who makes you sorry you asked the question. I’d probably say something like:

I haven’t thought in those terms in years. I think wanting specific things—landmarks, achievements, jobs, material objects, etc.—is a trap. People spend years chasing them, thinking that they’ll be happy or content or confident when they reach that next bar, and for most it never seems to happen.  I just want to live life. Take what’s in front of me as it comes, be as honest and authentic and kind as I can be and keep exploring what life has to offer. Hope to leave every person I encounter just the tiniest bit better off than I found him.

But, most people aren’t writers. And, they have more respect for your time. And, honestly, when I do offer an answer like that, it’s typically unsatisfying to the questioner. That’s not a surprise, perhaps, because maybe the person who asks “what do you want out of life?” sees the world very differently than I do and can’t wrap his head around the idea that I really believe being too clear about what you want out of life is the death knell for happiness—it’s a framework that prevents you from fully seeing and appreciating what lands in your path.

I think most people have always just wanted to be happy. In the 80s, when I was a young adult, most people had clear, material visions of what happiness looked like. There was a career, an income level, a car, a neighborhood associated with “being happy, ” so those were the things they listed when asked what they wanted. I think that idea has been shown up for a lie, and that many people—not nearly enough, but many—are recognizing that checking off achievements and upgrading to the right zip code isn’t necessarily going to improve your experience of life. I think that many, many people achieved the things they “wanted out of life” and ended up spending a lot of time wondering why they still hated their lives.

I believe that people are happy when they live as they were created to live—and you can interpret that however you want; whether that means God or evolutionary brain wiring makes no difference here. I think that when we’re honest and authentic and when we live in community and reach out to help those around us, we become happier. I also think that chasing goals like political office or a big promotion at work or a beach house turns us away from all of those things—that people who are trying to get something tend to withdraw, to manipulate, to be more selfishly inclined. And, I just don’t know anyone who ever got happy by being selfish.

I guess, if you want a short answer, I just want to live life as it was meant to be lived. But now, if you’re the kind of guy who would ask me what I wanted out of life, I suspect that you’d follow up with something like, “But what does that mean?”

I have no idea. That’s the point. Life isn’t a Lego play set with an instruction sheet for making it look like the picture on the box. It sprawls out and unfolds and our “job” is to welcome the next new development and do the best thing available to us with it. And, when we do that, I think that most of us are happy—without having given a moment’s thought to trying to get happy.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stuff I Didn't Know I Missed

I rescued my daughter from the public school system in 2009, and we've pretty much never looked back. Until about a week ago, I'd have told you that neither of us had missed a thing.

She's starting community college tomorrow, and I've seen the error of my ways.

See, I'd completely forgotten about school clothes shopping.

Last week, I got a flyer in the mail advertising a shoe sale. Suddenly, it all came flooding back: the year that Tori bought all of her school clothes from the Avril Lavigne collection (you can never wear too many skulls and crossbones, right?); the fall that Matt wanted nothing but t-shirts featuring Goku from Dragon Ball Z; the end of the first summer Beth worked, when she was so proud and happy to be able to buy her own school clothes.

Thursday, we went school clothes shopping for the first time in five years.

Of course, we've bought new clothes during that time. Plenty of shoes, too. Since Tori got her own bank account, shoes seem to arrive on my doorstep more regularly than the local newspaper. But, there's something different about going out on the cusp of something new and building a wardrobe to suit what you want it to be.

So, that part was fun. We'll see what the school year holds.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Kind of a Non-Post

So, I'm not dead.

It's been clear for a while that I was going to survive--at least, to survive the issues that interrupted my life in November of 2012 and ate a full year of my life. But, that clarity came slowly and then I had a lot of rebuilding to do; I still do. And, I didn't blog. I've posted here exactly three times in the past year, and none of those posts said a whole lot.

Thing is, that's getting in the way. Every now and then, I have a blog post I want to write about a conversation with my daughter or a long evening working at a restaurant from my college days or why I've been wearing cheap perfume for the past few years, and I don't do it because it seems an odd way to jump back in.

It's awkward, just popping in to say, "I know you haven't heard from me in months, and the last time you did, all I could do was lament my medical problems and lack of income and lack of hope for the future, but that's all behind us...let me tell you a quick story about my aunt.

So, this is the icebreaker.

Next up, a quick story about my aunt and my perfume.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Tiffany Mash-Up

I wanted to call this post, "Google+ is Ruining My Life," but I was afraid you'd take me seriously and I'd get 25 helpful comments telling me how to turn off that damned auto-sharing thing. I've figured out how to do that, but the problem runs deeper: I knew I was in trouble the minute Google Authorship became a thing.

See, I have a lot going on.

On some level, I suspect that most people who interact with me are aware of that. But, that doesn't mean they're (you're?) interested in all of it.

For example, do my law school admissions consulting clients know that I also do marketing? Possibly. And they probably don't care. But, do the attorneys I do marketing for know (or want to know) that I also write romance novels, and I used to write erotica? Do any of you want to see pictures of my Hot Wheels? Read my dog blog post about killing fleas with oatmeal? Do the readers of my relationship blog want to hear tips on writing a more effective law school admissions essay? Check out the watercolors for my children's-book-in-progress?

Probably, if you're following me on Google+, it's because you're a lawyer, a marketer or a writer. Quite possibly, you have no interest in the crazy questions that I pull out of my search stats and answer on one blog, or the pictures of my family that I often post here...and I'd bet money that most of you would have been happier never knowing that I'm stalking Richard Grieco (professionally, of course).

But, there it all is. Google has decided to pull together my bylines and to auto-share everything that I post on any of my 13 blogs, and I've decided not to fight it any more.

I won't be offended if you unfollow me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fast Forward

It's been nearly a year.  Time is a funny thing, in that you can't catch it up. Last October I was in a cottage on Cape Cod, the two most important people in my life close at hand.

Tori and I took our coffee out to a small playground on the grounds and worked on a book together.

I saw the ocean every day.

I worked, when I needed to, in a sunny kitchen with ever-present traces of sand on the floor.

We went to Salem.

I have no idea what's going on here.

We visited three of my oldest friends, in three different states, and stopped to breath in the mist of Niagara Falls.

Then, in November, our lives collapsed. During those long months of illness and uncertainty, I often couldn't work at all. When I did, it was in tiny bites, on the most superficial of projects. Christmas came and went with little observation; it was only acknowledged at all because my beautiful daughter went into the storage under the stairs and decorated, inside and out, while I slept.

Then, springtime came and went. No long walks and badminton games in the yard this time around. We didn't ride our bikes to the park in the next town as we had last year. Jake loves spring, but those days slipped by with very little outdoor playtime.

In June, seven months in, I started to feel better. Not good, but well enough to function. But, by then, we were in deep.  Seven months without income took a serious toll, despite the generous support of some of our closest friends.  Tori had done her best to keep the house running smoothly, but it was new territory in a time of stress. I re-emerged at half-power, into a world of past-due bills, medical bills that seemed to continue to grow, a messy house and a broken down car.

And so, summer passed, too, in an endless cycle of pushing to catch up and then collapsing to recover. My only goal was to avoid falling further behind.

At long last, I'm starting to feel in control. Far from the top of the hole that kept getting deeper all year, but I can see that there's sunlight up there somewhere. But I can't help thinking about that time gone by. I can make up the money; I can catch up the projects; I can get to the bottom of that big bag of non-essential laundry that's collected. In time, all of those areas will return to normal, without a trace.

But I missed most of the year I was 46.  More importantly, I missed most of the year my daughter turned seventeen, and I missed ALL of the year my grandson was four.

I'm not usually inclined to think in terms of things lost. It's always a new day, and living in it means not living in the past--whether it's a past you cherish or one you regret. But the season turning back to fall is really driving home the way that chunks of our life can just disappear, and that the world shifts while we're away.

I don't have a lesson learned or a victory at the end of the path for this one. I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful to be working again. And I'm grateful that my daughter and I are both the kind of people who still found reasons to laugh and little moments to take pleasure in during this year. But we still missed what should have been my grandchildren's last extended visit before two of them started school. We still haven't been able to travel as the first feature film she appeared in makes the festival circuit. We still missed the last summer road trip before she crossed the line into adulthood. As the days get brighter and we regain our foundations, I'm sure I'll think about that less and less. Eventually, not at all. But it will never change.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

This, Too, Shall Pass

This lovely summer Saturday morning, I stood in my yard watching small planes come and go from our tiny local airport and thought about how everything fades.

In the summer of 1981, I watched my father and another man carry two people out of a burning twin-engine Cessna.  That sounds cool and heroic and like something to be proud of, and it was.  It was also like this:

We're driving down the road on a hot summer evening, 16-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Dad's Root Beer clanking in the orange and white cooler on the floor by my feet, heading to the drive-in to see The Fox and the Hound.  My mother sees the plane, flying low, and makes a comment about it and then a moment later a ball of fire rises into the air up ahead.

One moment, the music is playing and the night breeze is soft in my hair and the next my mother is reaching hysterically for my father's arm, saying something about the plane that doesn't make sense to me, and he's hitting the gas.  I can still see her forearm, pale freckles against a sea-green sleeve, reaching across to him.  I can see the way the fire rolled upward, like the mushroom clouds we'd seen in films at school.

My father got out of the car and my mother said, "Don't go in there!"  In a voice that was oddly calm, my father said, "I'm not going in there.  No one could be alive in there."  And then someone started to scream, and he was gone.

My mother hovered around the edges; I stayed in the car with my little sister, seven years old and repeating over and over again, "Let it be a dream. Please let it be a dream," as she cried.  But it wasn't a dream, and the smell that filled the air--a smell I won't describe for you--made it obvious that not everyone had escaped.

The pilot and his son died.  A young woman was thrown clear and my father and a passing truck driver carried a 16-year-old girl and her mother out of the burning wreckage.  They recovered; there were ceremonies and medals.  And for at least a decade, I watched small planes suspiciously, wary of any tilt that seemed too extreme, waiting for them to fall from the sky.

And then, this morning, I smiled at a small plane in the sky and realized that I didn't know when I'd stopped holding my breath.  I didn't know when I'd started seeing those little planes the way everyone else did, or whether the fear had faded away over time or abruptly been gone one morning.  Perhaps it was this morning.    But suddenly, I knew that sooner or later, everything fades.