A Life Well Lived

Freshman year college, Introduction to Philosophy final. This question: What is a life well lived? I don’t think I have ever doodled quite so much in task avoidance of an exam: smiley faces, question marks, asterisks between points and counterpoints. My planning sheet looked like a football scrimmage diagram that had been created by drunken acrobats. Once I scribbled over the unnecessary parts, I was ready to write. The challenge: turning one remaining sentence into a 2,000 word essay. I quoted my Aristotle, celebrated Socrates, and pondered how thoroughly entrenched in freshly rendered manure I had become. I turned it in without editing. It was, I felt at the time, the best I could do. Actually reading what I had written would have been an acknowledgement that I had no clue what I was writing.

Over 25 years later while in the midst of the household junk dumping that nicer people would call spring cleaning, I discovered my college essays in the catch-all closet. I read through my papers and came across the philosophy final. I laughed when I realized I believe the same answer to the question now that I did when I was 18. Either this is evidence that I have been stunted in wisdom since late adolescence, or that my closely held definition of a life well lived had come to fruition during the course of my life thus far.

It’s far too simplistic to argue that having natural beauty, or money, or intelligence help people live their lives more easily. There’s a galaxy of difference between living life easily and living it well anyway. I understand that some people want glory, some want to be acknowledged as the best category of their choice, some want to be remembered in history, and some want to make it through the day. I couldn’t possibly place a value on someone else’s quest for a good life because I’d be evaluating their life based on my own belief set. That’s not usually a recipe for understanding.

In my quest to live life well, I’ve had to reevaluate the types of jobs I can do and the contribution I can make to my larger community. I have learned that the only thing that keeps me getting up and at ‘em every day is my trust in the process. I worry about people who don’t make mistakes, probably because I make so many myself. Without mistakes, I’m not sure I would have ended up with a job I adore and friends/family who make every day much more significant (both good and not-so-good).

About 15 years ago, I went to a seminar about life planning for children with special needs. The speaker was brilliant. She presented the five essential questions that all people must answer:

  1. What will you do for money?
  2. Where will you live/what type of housing?
  3. What will you do for fun?
  4. How will you give back to your community?
  5. What help do you need to reach your goals?

These are essentially the same questions that I ask myself regularly. These relate to the answer on my philosophy final. I didn’t even know at the time that I was making some kind of sense to myself; I thought I was just writing an essay for class. Funny how our assignments sometimes turn out to have meaning after all. My answer is pretty simple: A life well lived is one that gives meaning to the person without harming others, kind of a Hippocratic Oath of living as part of the world.

My Whatever Friends

I am a cup-half full kind of gal – in fact, even when there is only a dropperful of water in my cup o’ life, I will still call that cup half full. It may be optimism, it may be happy denial, but it is a fundamental truth of my character. I am, however, a fairly guarded human person and while I am perpetually grateful for that half-full cup, I am also aware that the cup has cracks. No life, including mine, is free from difficulties that threaten to spill that half-full cup all over the floor with no one but myself to wipe it up. If I can claim to have any gift in this life, it’s that I am extraordinarily proficient at patching and repairing my half-full cup. The difficulty of this gift, though, is that very few people realize I need patching.

Enter my whatever friend. The school where I teach recently had a talent show. We had a difficult time deciding on the top four acts because we enjoyed them all so much. We calmly discussed the relative strengths of each performance and, without bloodshed, arrived at our list. The next day, I was talking to my whatever friend. She shared her perspective, which was balanced and thoughtful. We talked about other social activities–to which I hadn’t been invited–and I expressed feeling hurt about being left out. It wasn’t intentional; I just hadn’t been with my friends when they decided to go out. Sound like elementary school yet? It should, because I know I was being childish. In the heat of the moment, even though no one was angry, I blurted, “Whatever,” and I left her office in the me-version of a huff.

This was an unworthy huff. There was nothing to be huffed about; no insult had been rendered. I wasted a good temper-huff on nothing. The fact that the next day I was flat on my back in bed with the flu might have had something to do with my behavior, but I still own it. Later that day, my friend emailed me and said she owed me a hug. I huffed out a “Whatever,” and she was being all gracious and lovely? I was floored. Most of the time, because I am usually fairly good natured, people respond with shock and horror when I’m less than pleasant, but she hung around to let me know she forgave me.

We are both passionate about our jobs. It’s not uncommon for the type of intensity we work with to filter into other areas, which is why we make good sounding boards for each other. She’s one of the few people I know who likes me even when I’m being annoying and childish. I can’t express adequately how grateful I am for the gift of her understanding, so I try to repay her by not being a childish human person very often.

My social networks have been repeating this meme about friendship: “A true friend is someone who thinks you are a good egg even when she knows you are slightly cracked.” I haven’t known many people who look beyond my zippedydoodahness and yeah-everythingness to see the questing and questioning person underneath. She does, though. My whatever friends are the brothers and sisters of my heart.  I love them very much and consider my cup not only repaired, but full-to-bursting with the gift of their friendship. In friendspeak, to them I say, “Whatever.” That’s the best whatever that exists.

 

It’s Spring and There’s Adventure in the Air

Spring Break. Beaches, parties that would make Bacchus jealous, youngsters celebrating the equinox of the transition between adolescence and adulthood. I’m not sure why spring break is advertised as a singularity of the young, nubile, college-aged person. When I look at my passersby on the highway, I see as many retirees tooling around in their motor coaches as I do cars full of beach-and-hotel gear. And why not? Road trips are adventures with nothing but miles of open roads and pitstops at highway drive-throughs to sustain and fortify the spirit.

If one reads the “Bucket Lists” of the YouTube genre, taking a roadtrip with friends is one of the “Must Do” items before shackling oneself down to a life of sensible shoes and Dockers. I see that, but I raise it with the family road trip. There’s nothing quite like 500 miles to the next pitstop to bring out the reality of family dynamics. We have the impatient souls, the dreamers, the drivers (both actual and backseat), the occupiers – and some combination of those qualities, all cramped up within the confines of four wheels and no bathroom.

I have two favorite road trips, both of which have happened while I’ve been a mom. The first one was when we rented a car and drove around the Arizona-Utah-Nevada triangle. We discovered that the signs posted on the side of the road recommending “only vehicles with four-wheel drive” actually meant only vehicles with four-wheel drive. After about 500 yards on the rocky, potentially breaking-the-undercarriage pathway of a road that had never been completed, we arrived back on the main stretch of highway, which was really only slightly more effectively paved. Gotta love the threat of imminent rockslide to bring out the adrenaline. Lesson learned from that experience: the kids are both comfortable with their father’s driving and don’t mind mountains. I am perpetually impressed with my husband’s driving, but I really, really mind mountainous road. I mind mountainous driving very, very much.

The second road trip of great familial significance was a multi-state trek to look at colleges and train routes. This is an unusual combination, perhaps, but it worked for us. The interesting thing that occurred was that, for people who aren’t used to resting for any stretch of time, much less for miles on end, we were happy to read, relax, sleep, and argue about whether it was worth it to drive 45 minutes out of the way for a Taco Bell (it was). We learned that veering off the predesignated path is sometimes more fun, even if it takes mom another 45 minutes to make it back to the highway.

Road trips have provided me with a zen-like appreciation of the Moment. It is difficult to recreate that presence and celebration of the now in our daily lives. Too much gets in the way. The gift of a road trip is that, yes, someone will throw up in the car, a gasket will blow off of something, you’ll have to spend the night in a place that’s … kinda weird, and you’ll have to rely on maps when the GPS goes offline. In other words, you’ll learn to rely on yourself.

For those of you who are young and glowing with youthful exuberance, get that road trip on. For those of us who have actually traveled a road or two, get that road trip on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spring, or a vacation, or a long weekend. Go where the water bottles and the roadside attractions will take you. I suggest they’ll probably take you back to yourself. That’s a pretty great destination.

Who’s Your Momma?

I grew up in a matriarchal household, with a single parent mom and a single parent grandma as my role models. They were capable, confident women who showed me that not only could I be anything or anyone I wanted to be, I should be. The debt I owe them cannot be paid in mere thanks; nevertheless, I’m grateful for their influence.

My grandma was not a cookie-baking sweetheart; she could freeze the heart of a lesser mortal with a glance and she swore so vibrantly it was impressive. She was funny, and flawed, thoroughly human. Her approval was not readily forthcoming. In fact, while so many people talk about wanting the beneficence of their fathers or mothers, I sought the approval of my grandma precisely because it wasn’t easy. Grandma was prickly, testy, and wonderfully cranky. She had the proverbial heart of gold and kept it well hidden underneath layers of sarcasm.

My mom worked 60-hour weeks at a job she did not love, and still did not complain whenever I wanted her to act as my personal chauffeur. She thought my brother, sister, and I were amazing, even when we were adolescents. She shared with me her love of books, and still impresses me with her intelligence. While grandma protected her heart, my mom wore hers on her sleeve. There was no doubt when she was pleased with us, or confounded by us – there still isn’t. I have a middle name which she used to communicate the depth of trouble I was in, and a longer first name to help her express her joy. “Elizabeth!” meant I had been extraordinary; “Elizabeth Diane!” meant I should prepare my apology.

Now I’m a mom. The only thing I am absolutely certain about regarding my kids is that I am profoundly grateful for their presence in my life. They are at once the ones I know most personally (obviously) while at the same time being completely themselves — they are my beloved strangers. I only know what they choose to share with me, but what they choose to share shows depth, humor, and kindness. I am by no means a terribly wonderful mother. I am capable of the same level of sarcasm my grandma possessed, and I have tended to act more as a momma bear than has probably been necessary. In fact, I’m sure of the last one.

The kids seem to forgive me for it, though. As young adults, they both tease me about my flaws, but it’s done with a smile and a hug to soften the blow of acknowledging that momma isn’t perfect; thankfully neither are they. I have no idea what kind of legacy I’ve raised. I do know their world is vastly more complex than the one I grew up in, but they give me hope.

I have no need to wait for a greeting card holiday to ruminate on all that moms – parents in general – accomplish in raising their children. It makes no difference to me what the “mom” looks like, or even if she’s female. A mom is anyone who cares more for someone else’s well-being than their own. I am beyond exasperated with the stay-at-home vs. working mother debate (because, let’s be real, both are working), with whether a dad can make a good mom or whether there can only be one mom or dad per household. I think we have more important things to worry about, like these other people who need us.

If you are a person who is raising some other person with love and strength and grit, who would rather be hurt yourself than hurt them, who would gladly work that 60-hour week so that your person can make it through their childhood relatively unscathed, then you’re a mom and I thank you.

What is everyone else up to?

Comparing and contrasting is both a survival skill and a killer. As a survival skill, nothing beats out our ancestors’ ability to discern what was yummy from what was going to kill them. This is some pretty high-stakes trial and error going on. Still, as we’ve evolved from hunters and gatherers of food and shelter to hunters and gatherers of “stuff”, we seem to have taken a life skill and turned it on its philosophical noggin to become a competitive sport.

First, there’s that whole parental compare/contrast gig: “Oh, yeah, Bob has been performing differential equations in his head since he was four. You mean Mark doesn’t?” Or, “Oh, that’s … sweet how Paul color-coordinated his Leggos. Do you think he needs an evaluation?” Moving on, Mark might be the ‘smart’ one, Paul the ‘good looking’ one, and David the ‘kind’ one, but in the act of assigning those roles, have we not inadvertently stuck the people into categories that don’t belong? What happens when David is kind and intelligent, but Mark is already the smart one, so Fred can only be kind? What if, oh my goodness, in a family of labels, Fred goes label free? I can assure you that Fred will be aware of this lack of moniker, even as he might secretly like floating invisibly through that labeling dynamic.

We are a social species and a competitive one, which is all fine and spiffy, up until we evaluate ourselves based on those comparisons. It would be great if, as Garrison Keiller wrote in Lake Wobegon, everyone was above average, but it’s not going to happen — well, unless we change the definition of average. In a land of happy statisticians when it behooves us to be so, data – regardless of subject matter – has a mean, an average. Some are above the mean, and some below. Some are too busy living their lives to care what the mean means (I had to), and I celebrate them.

Extending this compare/contrast gig to our sociability, we spend an inordinate amount of time comparing our own activities and preferences to those of others, paying no attention, it would seem, to whether our definitions of ‘fun’ or ‘happy’ match up. There is now such a thing as a “Facebook effect,” which is a phenomenon scientists have studied suggesting that the more time people spend trolling through their social media, the less happy they are. I do not pick on Facebook; I just Googled studies on the subject and Facebook was the social site mentioned most often. Still, this is pretty interesting. We already compare ourselves to ideals of beauty/handsomeness, intelligence, money, possessions – and now we have to compare ourselves to how social OTHER people are? Stop the ride, I want off.

I admit to a certain tendency to think the rest of the world is having way more fun than I do, but that’s because my kind of fun doesn’t involve a whole lot of noise (unless it’s a concert. Then I’m way in). When I see Facebook posts of the people I genuinely like out and about engaging in activities that are ‘fun’ to them, I admit to a certain pang of what I guess is jealousy, but is probably more an acknowledgement that, while they’re out there doing these activities of happiness, I am secretly very happy to relax at home. I am the poster person of an ambivert, an introvert who really likes people and loves to spend time with them in small groups, for a limited amount of time. I have, however, noticed my ability to self-evaluate based on what everyone else is up to. This is silly because I just typed that I most enjoy being home.

In the interest of social science and self-development, I am going to pay attention to this “other people” tendency. I am going to spend the next week keeping a journal of how often I compare myself to others, either positively or negatively. I like to think I live in an Alwaysliz bubble of tolerance for others, but I’m not the most tolerant person of myself. I’m bugged by the feeling that I ought to be doing “something” better, but what that thing is eludes me. I, like many others, feel like an average daisy in a field of brilliantly-colored poppies and calla lilies. I happen to like daisies, so I don’t usually mind, except for the times that I do. To be human is to be fraught with contradictions, and this, I hope, will be a good exercise in acknowledging the glass-half-fullness of my days. Pick up your notebook and join me if you like, not as a compare/contrast, but as an intersection of who you are and what you like most about yourself.

 

* I used generic male names throughout this musing, not out of gender specificity, but out of gender neutrality, much in the same way that all the officers on the Starship Enterprise are addressed as ‘sir’.

Getting Your Geek On

I come from a family of scientists. That I am not a scientist by trade is more a matter of my stubborn streak than anything else. My siblings studied science, so I merrily skipped on over to the Humanities to hang out. I eavesdrop extremely well, though, and whatever they were interested in studying I was interested in listening to. My reality has been shaped by a hunger to understand, appreciate, and celebrate the living crap out of, well, everything. I am a captain of the geek squad, proud to serve in my unbridled enthusiasm for learning about A Thing … and then social enough to share with anyone who will listen.

 

It was a pivotal day in my time as a mom when my daughter came home from school extolling the virtues of trigonometry. To her, trig was breathtaking, astounding even. At that moment, she joined the ranks of the people I admire most: the people whose desire to learn is fueled by an appreciation of something greater than themselves. She’s in good company. Neil deGrasse Tyson, my current reigning sexy-man-of-science, has said that the universe for him is poetic. Phil Plait, my big brother of science, has the wit and intelligence necessary to take the urban legends of astronomy and give them a whuppin (check out Death from the Skies). Bill Nye, my favorite goofy man of science, has made science fun for all of us, even as his message is drop-dead serious: There’s science going on all around us, and we’d do well to learn about it.

 

I have been a begrudging participant in the familiar debate of who is smarter: sciency people or artsy people. I strongly suggest that a debate like that is missing the point. We need the artists every bit as much as we do the scientists. When we are passionate about A Thing we are more fully alive, more than mere spectators in the drama of life unfolding around us.

 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a painter or a poet, a chef or a chemist, an astrophysicist or an accountant, there’s room for you to do Your Thing, whatever that is, and make sure to share it. We all benefit from it. This goes above gender, culture, and socioeconomic status. This goes into the heart of what being human is all about. Whatever that Thing is that makes you excited, especially if you have more than one thing, get on it. Learn about it, talk about it, share it, and celebrate it. It’s time to get your Geek on.

 

My Achilles Heel

Mythology and superhero adventures are the allegorical foundations of my life. In particular, I like the myth of Achilles because, while he was all coated in a magical protective layer of awesome, he was still vulnerable. Achilles was only durable, not immortal; even lesser immortals can die if we follow Twilight and our other legendary monster stories. We all possess some version of an Achilles heel, a fatal flaw or weakness in our character. I have no superpower, I’m not imbued with any special characteristics, and I clearly haven’t been bitten by a vampire, so it would stand to reason that my Achilles heel would be a little less majestic. I humbly submit to you that my Achilles heel is Girl Scout cookies.

Some people spring clean to rid themselves of the year’s miscellany. I clean to make room for the cookies. My kitchen pantry is never as organized as it is when I have cleared the path for the Thin Mints and Trefoils. Occasionally, I will invite a Do-si-do or Tagalong into the house, but not often enough that it would ever take the place of the telltale green and blue boxes lining the cookie shelf in happy seduction.

I scoff at the notion of the serving size. The Trefoil is arguably the most versatile of the cookies because of its light and airy goodness, but is anyone able to stop at five? Five? That’s not a serving. I measure my serving sizes in sleeves. One sleeve is a serving. More than that and I get a tummy ache; less than that and I am not saturated with the joy of all that is a Trefoil.

Thin Mints share their place of glory and destruction in my heart and temporarily on my waistline. Normally I’m not a big chocolate mint type of gal. My husband loves nothing more than chocolate mint chip ice cream; I can pass. Chocolate mint syrup? No thanks. Chocolate mint brownies? I might try one, but only because I’m trying to be polite. I will, however, cheerfully push you aside if you think you’re taking the Thin Mints out of the pantry without express approval in writing that you may have a couple.

What is happening here? Am I possessed of Girl Scout demons? The draw, I believe, is their limited availability. I have tried repeatedly to convince myself that they are not any more special than any other cookie available. I have tried and failed terrifically. I don’t care what logic dictates, I’m listening to my id, my essence, my cookie lust. Maybe it’s the memories they evoke. I remember exchanging cookies with my cousin in the best version of a barter economy I have experienced before or since. Here, I’ll give you two peanut butter yummies and in exchange you’ll let me wear your favorite sweater. No problem.

The Girl Scouts, a wonderful organization, have excellent marketing management strategies at their disposal. Limited exposure gives one an act-now/suffer the tummy ache later mentality that’s highly successful if I’m any indication. I have never participated in a blind taste test, so I couldn’t really judge whether they are tastier to my palate or whether, like some people on Halloween, Spring is simply my cookie frenzy time of the year.

I used to think my weakness was chocolate, but I have been known to say, “No thanks” if I’m not in the mood for a sweet morsel. The way to my heart is evidently stamped with the Girl Scout seal of approval. What this suggests in terms of the longevity of my lifespan or my ability to leap tall building in a single bound is, well, absolutely nothing. I just think it’s a good idea to look at whatever our Achilles heel(s) may be and acknowledge them. Hi Girl Scout cookies. I’ve been waiting for you.

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