Great Expectations

The biggest problem in life is the image in our heads of how it should be. (Unknown)

Last December, anticipating an easy hour’s daylight drive to pick up my son from the airport, I was startled to get an e-mail from the ticketing agency saying: He had either missed his flight OR his flight had been cancelled.

Before I launch into anything else here, I would like to point out that one-contingency-fits-all, or more accurately, all-contingencies-fit-one emails are a bad idea. They leave far too much to the imagination and no clear thing the brain can seize on. Had the airlines cancelled the flight? Why? Would there be another? When? Had my son missed his flight? If so, had he been in an accident traveling to the airport? Slept through his alarm? Was he ill?  

Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “Why didn’t she just call him?” Well, my son conducts his life not on a smartphone but on a Nook tablet. Don’t ask why. He’s all grown up now, so I just smile and nod. To each his own.  

I did, of course, pen him an e-mail. Just as I hit send, an e-mail popped up from him. His flight had been cancelled and his new flight—whenever it left—wouldn’t get in to North Carolina in time to make the original connection to Hartford.

I was still reading this when I got an update from the ticketing agency saying not to worry, his new flight would arrive in time to make another connection. I could pick him up at 12:30 a.m! Yes, thirty minutes past midnight on wintry roads that had thawed during the day and were now rapidly re-freezing. By this time, my son was apparently on the boarding line with his Nook in airplane mode. Silence.

During this entire circus, I doubtless appeared very focused and busy with cyber-correspondence. Inwardly, though, my head danced with images of slick roads and onslaughts of freezing rain, as we risked life and limb to drive to an airport in the middle of the night to meet a flight that my son might or might not be on. And then, either way, drove back home in the wee hours.

To calm myself, I repeated, in mantra mode, two of Thomas Jefferson’s Ten Rules—the two I always invoke:

1. How much pain the evils have cost us that have never happened.

2. Take things always by the smooth handle.

 Effect: negligible.

Around 11:15 p.m., just as Ed and I were about to suit-and-boot-up for the mission, I received yet another update from the ticketing agency. My son’s new flight had missed the promised new connection. He was stranded overnight in the airport, waiting for the first flight out, and would arrive in Hartford at nine the next morning.

I was relieved. Laughed loud and hearty. Reminded myself that old Jefferson had nailed it. Paused to reflect that when I was 20, none of this would have ruffled me. We’d have hopped in the car at midnight—what’s a little ice and snow?—cranked up the radio, and gone, probably stopping for pizza slices on the way. Everything was an adventure then, scheduled or not.

In those days, I had few, if any, expectations.

Ay, there’s the rub.

Our Need to Control Outcomes

Several years ago, I wrote about the expectations we have for ourselves—how they tend to be stringent and unforgiving, so that even when we succeed in many areas, we have trouble forgiving ourselves for all the ways we perceive we fall short.

But what about the billions of everyday expectations we have for how things will go? That people or stuff will arrive as scheduled? That a vacation or holiday gathering will go as planned? That we’ll get ten pages done on our book today? That we’ll find the perfect present for our spouse/partner in time for their birthday (don’t worry, Ed, I’m still on the case!)?  

The greatest moment on the marvelous TV series House occurred when, after some fiasco or other, Dr. Cameron wailed “But that’s not how life’s supposed to work!” and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House piped up, “Life’s supposed to work?” Ed and I couldn’t stop laughing, and we still toss that line back and forth. But at some level, we also still believe it. I think most of us do. And it zaps our happiness. We’ve got enough bad actors in office all across the globe doing that. We don’t need to do it to ourselves.    

Let’s be honest. Life is uncertain. Worse, it’s unfair, meaning we crave certainty to ward off the unfairness. If I cross myself three times, kiss an owl, and turn to the full moon at midnight, everything will be okay. That will be $100 please, and you’ve been suckered.

We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. And sometimes, things just go wrong. But what if we changed one word in that sentence? Sometimes, things just go differently.

The Grand Master Plan

Okay, let’s follow the strands of one classic set of expectations. I call it The Grand Master Plan. It goes something like this:

If I go to college, I’ll get a good-paying job in the field of my studies;

In the course of this job, I’ll receive periodic bump-ups in title and salary;

With a salary that keeps rising, I’ll buy a series of successively bigger houses, drive late model cars, and take exotic vacations, with ample savings left over for a comfy retirement.

Whew! Not expecting too much, are we?

I recently came across an interesting little stat. A survey of some 7,000 college students revealed that they expect to earn $60,000 in their first job after graduation. The reality, however, was a median salary of $48,000 for those with 0-5 years experience. Oops!

And what about that starter home, the first in a line that leads to the 5,000 square-foot mansion with a home theater, built-in pool, and tennis court? Well, millennials are discovering there’s one teensy little problem, or more accurately three BIG ones, with that expectation: Affordability, high student debt, and less loan availability. Oh dear.

I cite these here to illustrate how, when it comes to this or any other Major Life Plan, we may get:

1. The whole shebang.

2. Some of the shebang.

3. None of the shebang. Personally, I wouldn’t put my money on #1. However it goes, life’s highly unlikely to follow the neat script of our expectations, which rarely takes into account impossible bosses, downsizing and layoffs, serious illnesses, nasty accidents, messy expensive divorces, unexpected children, or just plain realizing we HATE our line of work. All sorts of things happen on the bumpy road of life.

It Can’t Happen to Me and Other Hilarious Notions

Even if the whole shebang does seem to be going according to plan, we may be surprised by some of the “hidden costs” our expectations exact. A Bankrate poll found that 63 percent of millennial homebuyers (ages 23 to 38) have regrets about the house/condo they purchased. The biggest reason? They had no idea that owning a home would involve so much money (insurance, property taxes, repairs) or consume so much time (maintenance). All this in addition to the down payment and monthly mortgage which, incidentally, many of them took on a second job to afford. How to cope? Take on a third job? Rob a bank?

Sometimes, things just go differently.

We know this. We see it happen to other people all the time. But there’s something in our Homo sapien genes that just digs in and says It won’t happen to me. Call it denial. Call it stupidity. But it’s there. Googling stuff for my August post, I came across an arresting report about the number of Americans (a clear majority) who now believe climate change is real and will hurt their neighbors and family. Weirdly—and I had to read this twice—these same people don’t believe it will hurt them.  

It’s a short hop from expectations to a sense of entitlement. 

Life’s supposed to work…

And when, inevitably, it doesn’t, we hyperventilate, suffer disappointment, stress out, and feel we’ve been cheated. All of these are unhealthy happiness zappers. Even at the granular everyday level, and maybe especially there, we get knocked upside the head by the zillions of little things that happen differently from what we expected. Our weekend at the shore gets rained out. Our car breaks down during the morning rush on our way to a job interview.

But if you can keep your cool in the car breakdown scenario, and remind yourself this was a much stickier wicket in the days before cellphones, you could call that employer and suggest conducting the interview via Skype over the phone (while you wait for Triple A). If I was hiring, I’d give extra points for your calm and your spur-of-the-moment problem-solving skills.

For our sanity and happiness, we need to stomp out this “life’s supposed to work” myth. To be rocked by every little deviation from the expected, it’s like death by a thousand cuts. So, take a deep breath and pledge to ask yourself one simple question when things take a different turn: Would I be so unhappy about X if I wasn’t expecting Y? Short of life-threatening catastrophes, this question is powerfully effective at putting things in perspective.

He Traded in His Suit for a Truck: One Man’s Road to a Happier Life

Some years back, my first husband and I bought a house with an enormous garage—a good thing overall, but that garage was filled with a ton of junk, and part of the deal with the seller was that if we wanted the junk removed, we had to arrange it ourselves. So I combed the newspaper ads and called a kid with a truck. He was a pleasant kid in his mid-twenties, and as we packed and hauled several loads of stuff to the dump/recycling center, he talked about how he got into the moving business. Growing up, he had always wanted to work in a bank. He imagined himself as some sort of bigtime financier, maybe ending up on Wall Street. In preparation, he ticked all the boxes: Went to a good school, got the degree in finance, and was hired by a bank for a management position with solid future prospects.

He hated it. Hated the attitudes, the work, the whole banking ethos. Whatever it was he’d been expecting all his young life from the bank world, reality proved quite different. The upshot? He quit. Bought himself a used truck and started moving stuff for people. He expressed no embarrassment or distress at confessing that reality had not met his expectations. He did not apply the word “failure” either to the outcome or himself. In fact, he seemed very relaxed and happy that he had escaped that life and found something better suited to his temperament.  

That kind of flexibility is what we all need. And like this kid, we seem to come by it effortlessly when we’re young. As I said up top, everything feels like an adventure in our early twenties, but it doesn’t stay that way for most of us.

Hey Man, What Happened to the Joy?

So, where does all that joie de vivre, live-in-the-moment feeling go? Why do we seem to grow less tolerant of the unexpected (surprise!) as we age, and more insistent on everything going according to plan?

I tried googling this topic to see what insights the wizards of psychology might offer, but not much popped up, so I will give you my own ponderings

I think when we’re young and our independence is shiny and new, we focus more on the journey than the destination, a thing we may have only the vaguest of notions about at 20. We’re generally open to experimentation—what happens if …? After all, isn’t the journey—the side roads and the unbeaten paths—where all the truly great stuff happens, the stuff that inspires, that feels like living? Why do grown-ups, the kind with 401Ks and 30-year mortgages, tend to frown on going with the flow?

To be fair to, with all the stuff many of us are balancing at 30 or 40 or 50—spinning plates!—job, kids, house, it can feel like we NEED everything to go according to plan or it will all blow sky high.

But it can still blow sky high. Ask the USDA scientists who were told this past July that they had one week to move family and household to Kansas City, Missouri or resign. On top of the logistical challenge this order posed for many of the families, the scientists had to cope with what the American Federation of Government Employees has called an apparent “attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”

Being told you have one week to transplant your household across country or resign is a HUGE surprise. Fortunately, most of our “unexpecteds” are much less life boggling.

How Do We Live Without Expectations?

The short answer to that question is probably “much more joyfully.” More freely, more creatively. We could recognize and seize opportunities as they arise if we stopped insisting that something work exactly this way!

Say, you’re serving a sit-down dinner for eight——but then the stove dies, and you blow a gasket. Rant against the injustice of life, break down weeping, take a sledgehammer to the stove. All of the above.

You dreamed of dazzling your guests with your award-winning Beef Bourguignon Well, the reality is it ain’t gonna happen, so are you going to have a meltdown and cancel, or are you going to chill and order take-out pizzas OR run to the store for something you can throw on the grill OR take everyone out for a curry? And laugh with your guests about best-laid plans.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I bought a book What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Great title. The authors knew they would corral about a zillion pregnant women with that one. But only now, many years later, can I give you the true answer to that question: Expect anything because anything may happen.  

I repeat: We control very little: What we do and how we react. That’s it. But within that, we wield enormous power. It’s not that everything “happens for the best.” It’s that things happen and we can make the best of them, or not.

As my pal Jefferson said: Take things always by the smooth handle.

You’ll avoid the splinters.


Never Cease Being Amused

“As long as you can laugh at yourself, you will never cease to be amused.”  (Anonymous)

[Note: Even hard-working writers have to jump ship and go AWOL now and again, so I’m leaving you a lighthearted post to get you through the psychotic times in which we find ourselves. Never mind that you’ve seen it before. It will do you good to see it again. As for my own rejuvenation, I intend to visit every pub and bookstore in London. Cheers! See you with an all-new post in October.]

Some months ago, a friend shared a story at a party. The NGO she works for is part of a global project involving a half dozen other NGOs. Right in the middle of a networking weekend, no one could get access to the project’s shared online folder. People from Amsterdam to San Francisco were frantically e-mailing each other: Where’s our data?! When the dust settled, it transpired that one of the participants had moved on to another job and wiped the old files from his computer to gain usable space. Unfortunately, he was listed with Google as the administrator on the folder. When he erased his copy, he unwittingly erased all the members’ copies.

comedy-oops-button-5-ways-to-avoid-embarrassing-moments-on-social-mediaEveryone at the party had a good laugh over this little tale of digital mayhem. Probably because: 1) we could all imagine ourselves doing something equally stupid, and 2) we were relieved we hadn’t been the one to do so in this instance.

Since then, I’ve often found myself chuckling over this incident and wondering if its innocent perpetrator saw its humorous side—after all, no one was hurt and though it was a nuisance, the remaining NGO members were able to reconstruct the folder from their individual notes. I hope he can laugh as we at the party laughed, but I’m doubtful. We tend to suffer the embarrassment of our mistakes for a long time. Sometimes to the grave.

There’s a lot of pressure to perform to perfection out there. Mistakes are anathema—heads will roll, et cetera—yet who among us doesn’t make them?

To compound the problem, we are vulnerable to something psychologists call the “Spotlight Effect.” When we think we’ve screwed up—called a prospective employer by the wrong name, tripped over a cord as we made our way to the podium to give a speech, sent the wrong manuscript to an editor—we tendcomedy-credit-writingpad-com-embarrassing-moment-615x461 to freak out, imagining that everyone saw, that everyone now thinks we’re awkward, stupid, incapable. This magnification of our own mistakes has two negative effects: 1) To avoid any risk of humiliation or rejection, we become much more guarded in what we say and do; 2) As a consequence, we drain a lot of the joy from our lives.

Tragedy + Time = Comedy

My husband once set his hair on fire while trying out an expensive cigarette lighter in a posh department store. My friend Pete swallowed a piece of ham tied to a string while doing an experiment on peristalsis. I hauled around my three-week-old son at the bottom of a Snugli, like a sack of potatoes, until a woman in the supermarket told me there was a little button-in cloth seat for newborns. Embarrassing? Well, in the case of the peristalsis experiment gone awry, maybe more frightening than humiliating. The point, though, is that these anecdotes, told and retold over the years, have become the source of much hilarity and bonhomie. As comedian and writer Steve Allen said: Tragedy + Time = Comedy. Our most embarrassing missteps become our funniest stories, the ones everyone asks us to repeat.

But what if we just cut to the chase and start laughing at our foibles the moment we spill the lasagna all over our lap, drop our cell phone down a restaurant toilet, forget to attach the CV to our job application? Life should come with a beeper, warning us when we’re about to screw up, but it doesn’t, so we need to adopt the ability to laugh at ourself.

My dad could be ornery, and he was not much with the compliments, but he could always laugh at himself. It’s probably the most important thing I learned from him. I remember one time in a restaurant, he was fixing his coffee. “Geezus, this cream is thick,” he remarked as it fell in chunks from the little pitcher into his cup. “Oh no,” my mom cried, “that’s my blue cheese dressing. I asked for it on the side.” Now, my dad could have blamed his mistake on the low lighting or the waitress’s failure to set the blue cheese next to my mom’s plate or the stupidity of a restaurant that would put both cream and blue cheese in identical pitchers. But he just laughed. Because it was funny. Because there’s no point in pretending you didn’t do what you did. Because no one is perfect. And then he ordered a fresh cup of coffee.

Mistakes—we all make ‘em. So, laugh it up. And if the people around you can’t cope with this very human reality, maybe you just need different people.


Keep On Keepin’ On

I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.  (Anne Frank)

Every night at 11:00, when MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams announces “This is Day Seven-billion-eight-hundred-gazillion-and-ninety-two of TheRUMP Administration,” I experience both the lung-crushing weight of enduring years of this Death Star travesty, and the heady elation a survivor feels that, yes, despite this horror show of horror shows, “I’m still here!” as Steve McQueen’s Papillon said.

Adaptation: The Dark Side

Adaptation, that Darwinian perennial, is generally held to be a good thing. Succinctly put, without it, we die. But it’s long been my contention that everything embodies its opposite. If there is light in the darkness, there is also the potential for darkness in light. With live-saving adaptation, the darkness is that we can also adapt to horrendous circumstances, passively accepting once-unthinkable situations as they play out repeatedly.

Like polar ice caps melting…and melting.

Like the deaths of people with diabetes who simply can’t afford their insulin as Big Pharma greedily jacks up the price again and again.

Like the mounting deaths, abuse, and trauma of immigrant children at the U.S. southern border, a violence that is entirely the result of intentional policies. Zero tolerance.

Staring at journalist Julia Le Duc’s haunting photo of El Salvadorans Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria—their bodies washed up on the northern banks of the Rio Grande, the child tucked into her dad’s T-shirt for safety, her arm flung round his neck—one cannot escape asking: What kind of government/nation/world not only allows these atrocities, but actively encourages them? And what sort of people would tacitly accept this?

Feet in the Street: We Are the Resistance

The Women’s March in January 2017, following TheRUMP’s inauguration, made worldwide headlines. With participation in the U.S. estimated at 3.2 to 5.2 million people across 680 marches, it was the single largest protest ever in this country.  

In that same month, tens, possibly hundreds of thousands gathered at airports around the U.S. to protest Executive Order 13769: the Muslim ban. I couldn’t get hard numbers, but this photo essay at argues for the higher figure. An ocean of folks defending immigration, families, and democracy.

In April of that same year, with TheRUMP withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and poised to gut all environmental protections, the People’s Climate March brought an estimated 200,000 protesters to Washington D.C. and many thousands more at some 300 sister marches around the country. 

Ten months later, the high school kids—survivors of  the Parkland shooting—crushed it, organizing numerous protests and walk-outs throughout the country, inspiring rally crowds, and speaking to the media with an eloquence and clarity most would have thought beyond their years. (Getting shot at can age you real quick.)

Recently, the Los Angeles Times ran a deeply moving story about Japanese internment camp survivors protesting TheRUMP administration’s plan to move 1,400 immigrant children to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. (Just in case your history teacher skipped this one: More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were put in prison camps for the duration of WWII, and Fort Sill was one such location.)

There to “protest the repetition of history,” as one camp survivor, 75-year-old Satsuki Ina, put it, the group refused the police order to move until they made their case to the crowd who’d gathered to hear them speak. Their message? “We need to be the allies for vulnerable communities today that Japanese Americans didn’t have in 1942.”  [Photo: Ansel Adams, Library of Congress]

There is no doubt—‘we the people’ have been amazing. Up on our feet and into the street. The question is: Will we be able to sustain this level of in-your-face commitment to save the planet, the tattered shreds of our democracy, and the hopes we all hold for a peaceful life, a more humane world?

The Struggle Continues … and Continues

Already, there are signs we are flagging. The crowd that came to hear the Japanese internment camp survivors at Fort Sill totaled just 200. More troubling, the number of participants for the 185 Close the Camp rallies held across the nation on July 2, was in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands one might expect to protest the horrific camp conditions immigrants—many of them children—face at the border. More than one news source capped the number of New York City protesters at just 450. Four-hundred-fifty? For a city of more than eight million?   

The Women’s March, too, has shrunk in size, dropping from millions in 2017 to roughly 700,000 in 2019, and a substantially reduced number of sister marches. This, despite the ever-increasing threats to everything the Women’s March stands for: human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, immigration reform, healthcare, reproductive freedom, the environment, workers’ rights, freedom of/from religion.    

In the article recounting this downward trend, The Washington Post asserts that “Public demonstrations remain a powerful medium for people who wish to be involved politically. A significant proportion of the country’s population continues to reject President Trump’s agenda — and to put feet to pavement to make that point visible.” But the Post also notes that “Seeing a smaller number of events over time is a typical pattern for social movements, which usually see protest-fatigue and attrition. A decline in the third year was predictable.”

Actually, we’ve seen this movie before. The shooting murders of 13 people at Columbine High School rocked the nation in 1999. Days of headlines, public outrage, and demands for stricter gun laws followed, and then trailed off … until 32 more people died in the mass shootings at Virginia Tech eight years later, and we started hollering about the need for gun control all over again. But in that interval, there had been over a dozen mass shootings, and there would be another nineteen before 20 little kids and six adults were gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  

And then 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof would shoot up the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing nine black church members (2015). Another 49 would die the following year in the Orlando Nightclub Massacre. And the year after that? That was the year of the Las Vegas Strip Massacre. Fifty-eight more lives. Gone.

There was a brief rowdy wake-up in 2018 when 17 kids were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The survivors of that shooting spree rallied us, mobilized us with their anger and their hope. But overall, our response to mass shootings has gone from a roar to a whimper, a whispered thoughts and prayers. Most mass shootings don’t even make the news, perhaps because they’re not news anymore. But the literally brutal truth remains that since Sandy Hook—just seven short years ago—there have been at least 2,153 mass shootings, with at least 2,408 killed and 8,951 wounded. And Mitch McConnell is still refusing to take a Senate vote on the House bill requiring universal background checks for all gun sales.

The Challenge: All Eyes on the Prize

Why is it so hard to sustain action? Most Americans think immigration is a good thing for our country. A majority of us now believe climate change will harm our neighbors and our family. Most of us favor stricter gun laws. We don’t like what’s happening. We are horrified by families being separated at the southern border, by kids being told to drink out of toilets and forced to sleep on concrete floors or sleep standing because there’s no room to lie down.  

Are we just plain exhausted? After all, it is Day Seven-billion-eight-hundred-gazillion-and-ninety-two of TheRUMP Administration, and each day seems to bring a slew of new threats: a possible war with Iran, the death of Roe v. Wade, the EPA’s green light for Monsanto’s neurotoxin chlorpyrifos that damages children’s brains and kills the bees who pollinate the plants that feed us. The blatant racist tweets and rally cries to “Send them back!” TheRUMP/Barr relay team’s refusal to recognize the House as a legitimate branch of government with the right to demand (and receive) information and issue subpoenas—a refusal, in fact, to recognize the rule of law our Constitution mandates.

Does repetition—atrocity upon atrocity—make for passivity and resignation? We may not like the beheading of journalists, the cruel destruction of families, the poisoning of our water and soil, but we live with a lot of things we’re not crazy about because they are part of the daily landscape and our lives are finite, our hours filled beyond bursting with work, family, school. Who among us, faced with the prospect of yet another protest/march/rally on a blustery winter evening or a sweltering summer weekend, is not momentarily lured by the desire to drop into the nearest recliner and binge-watch Stranger Things?

We are not a heartless nation. I think Michael Moore nailed it when he said we live in a liberal country—that the majority of Americans are very liberal. We don’t condone what’s happening. So how do we keep going, day after day, year after year to defeat the yellow-haired Gorgon and his cadre of silent but deadly billionaires? How do we save our democracy and crush the forces of darkness?

Help, I Can’t Save Everyone

For Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, a crucial factor in overcoming inertia is to accept our human limits. Don’t get bummed out by the fact that you, as an individual, can’t do it all. Every action you take, every phone call you make matters. No effort is wasted, he stresses. “Even partial solutions can save whole lives.”

Slovic’s response grew out of decades of research pursuing the question: Why do we so often ignore mass atrocities? Why are people able to look the other way when the lives of 100 million+ Americans with pre-existing conditions will be at risk if the courts (with the president’s blessing) rule to kill the entire Affordable Care Act? How is it possible for so many people in a slew of countries to turn their back on the 65.3 million refugees and asylum seekers who will perish from violence or starvation without our help?

Slovic attributes this seeming indifference to something he calls “psychic numbing.” We are very willing to reach out and help someone in dire straits, but as the number of “someones” increases—even from one to two—we begin to experience an emotional distance. The 2015 death of the little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while he and his family were en route to Greece, seeking sanctuary, affected millions. Donations for immigrant relief spiked for a month or so, then plummeted as the issue faded from the death of a single child to the plight of survival for millions.

Large numbers overwhelm us. They give us what Slovic calls a false sense of inefficacy—the feeling that being able to solve only a part of the problem is no help at all. He cites an experiment that showed people were less likely to take action to save 4,500 refugees if they were in a camp of 250,000 than if the camp contained only 11,000 people. The larger total number of refugees made people feel like they had failed by not saving more lives—a higher percentage—even though the actual number saved is the same in both instances.  

Slovic’s advice? When the numbers start to feel overwhelming, we need to rely less on our emotions and more on our reasoning. We also need to get the facts, something Americans, with our long history of relative isolation and insularity, aren’t always so keen on. For example, the fact that the vast majority of immigrants in the U.S. are in the country legally is a truth known by fewer than 50% of Americans. Ignorance of such facts puts us all in danger. The Bush Administration was able to pull off its invasion of Iraq, leading to a war the world is still suffering from, in part because 70% of Americans believed the administration’s lie that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  

We Can’t Afford to Be Insular

In his article, Salon writer, David Masciotra stresses that American insularity also prevents many people from heeding the warning signs of history—how easily a democracy may be transformed into a dictatorship. “Fascism is not an overnight development,” he writes. “and when your country is …debating whether its treatment of immigrant and refugee children qualifies for the term ‘concentration camp,’ you have already taken a few large steps down that deadly road.”

His concern is echoed by the Never Again movement, an exciting group of progressive Jews who are organizing other young Jews to protest at immigrant detention centers around the country, most of them far from our southern border.

“Jews know what happens when ordinary people don’t intervene when they see the signs of mass atrocities,” says Alyssa Rubin, one of the movement’s organizers. “Ordinary people, on an everyday basis, are allowing ICE to operate in their cities. We’re trying to make it impossible to ignore that ICE is everywhere, all the time.”

During their first day of action (July 2), Never Again managed to shut down traffic during rush hour in Boston as 1,000 activists marched from the New England Holocaust Memorial to the Suffolk County House of Correction where ICE is detaining immigrants. Thirty-six protesters were arrested. Undaunted, the group has continued creating headlines like these:

Dozens Arrested as Over 1,000 Jewish Activists and Allies Shut Down Entrances to ICE Headquarters Demanding Closure of Trump Detention Camps (Source)

Meet the young Jews chanting ‘Never again!’ and blocking streets to shut down Trump’s camps (Source)

J. Aaron Regunberg, one the protesters arrested outside a detention facility in Rhode Island, stresses that Never Again is more than remembering how the Holocaust ended. “It’s also about how it started, with a gradual process of legal exclusion and state-sponsored dehumanization that led eventually to the deaths of my grandpa’s family and so many millions of others,” the former state rep and current Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor said. “It’s about understanding the path from beginning to end, and then throwing ourselves in the way of that path however we possibly can.”

Our Actions Do Have Consequences

Maybe we can’t save everyone at every moment, but our actions do have real and powerful consequences. Remember the thousands of ordinary Americans who flooded congressional Town Halls and Congress itself in 2017 to demand their health care—the ACA and Medicaid—be protected? They spoke up, they blocked halls, they made NOISE, and the GOP backed down. (Though, with the new Barr-approved GOP lawsuit to dismantle the ACA now working its way through the courts, we may have to start making NOISE again real soon.)

Public outrage—letters, petitions, phone calls—over the award of a Harvard research fellowship to former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder forced Snyder to decline the offer. A whole lotta people believed that Harvard could find someone better than a man now under criminal investigation for his responsibility in the Flint, Michigan water crisis—an ongoing disaster that has left thousands of children with lead-poisoning and a city without potable water on tap—and they spoke out.

I recently received this e-mail from UltraViolet:

Yesterday UltraViolet members were joined by MoveOn, Planned Parenthood-IL, Women’s March-IL, Women Employed, CREDO and a lot of soccer fans and equal pay advocates to deliver nearly 200,000 petition signatures (including yours!) to the U.S. Soccer Federation to demand equal pay for the women’s national team.

None of us in that 200,000 saved a life with this petition—or maybe we did, the roots of women’s oppression run deep and lives are lost as a result of gender inequalities. But it was the right thing to do. Everything is connected. We are all connected.

No Business As Usual

When four students were gunned down at Kent State in 1970 for the “crime” of protesting the Vietnam War, “No business as usual,” became a rallying cry across college campuses. In my view, they had their priorities straight. We cannot sit down and shut up when lives are at stake.  After all, in the roll of the dice that is life, every Eric Garner, each Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez could have been us. And if we cannot find the strength to keep hollering, eventually it will be us. As author David Mitchell stated in his brilliant novel Cloud Atlas, one day “a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” 

I opened this post with a quote from Anne Frank. I will close it with another: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.”

We all need hope. So, take a deep breath. Believe you have the power to change things for the better, to make a difference, to save lives. Stand up, fight back. You are the Resistance.

See you on the barricades. 

The Stuff of Memories

History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

The hurricane [Katrina] flooded me out of a lot of memorabilia, but it can’t flood out the memories. (Tom Dempsey)

I recently embarked on a grand project—okay, a ridiculously optimistic task of overwhelming proportions: Cleaning the attic. When Ed and I bought this house ten years ago, one of its selling points was a walk-up attic, essentially an entire third floor. We were thrilled to have a place to hang out-of-season clothing. A space for additional bookshelves—we are constitutionally incapable of walking past a bookstore. The square footage to house all those odds and ends kids leave behind when they toddle off into the larger world.

But the yin to the yang of so much space is that one tends to fill it. We Homo sapiens abhor a vacuum as much as Mother Nature does. Long story short: Our attic is overflowing with stuff no one has looked at since, well, a long time. In some cases, this tallies in the decades. There is much wisdom in the advice that if you haven’t opened a box since the last time you moved, take that sucker and toss it, no peeking.

And yet, when it comes to memorabilia—photos, letters, journals, ticket stubs—there’s a sense of sacrilege about jettisoning these tangible links to our younger selves. A fear that without them, the hours and days of our existence will vanish, traceless, behind us.   

Dealing with the Deluge

There’s no doubt that we are an acquisitive race. But up until the 20th century, one’s personal memorabilia was likely to be limited to the blue ribbon won at the county fair for jam-making or a prize pig, the fancy bookmark commemorating victory in the 8th grade spelling bee, a homemade lace-edged Valentine from the once-adolescent stringbean boy you married three children ago.

No longer. Beginning with the instantly-popular picture postcard in the 1890s, the industrial revolution brought an endless stream of keepsake possibilities into our lives. Gift shops sprouted in every museum and gallery. The souvenir stands that sold commemorative plates and dish towels at events like the New York World’s Fair became souvenir shops crammed to the rafters with I ♥ NY (I ♥ London, Paris, Singapore…) mugs, magnets, T-shirts, keychains, and a zillion other tchotchkes. Now, virtually every restaurant and bar offers pint glasses and (more) T-shirts to immortalize the beer or taco you enjoyed there. I admit, I’m a sucker for the tees, but it’s hard to wear all the places you’ve been, and impossible to store their number in anything short of a cargo container.  

With the frenzied digital age, the stream has become a raging river, until we now believe we need to own a piece of every experience. Every movie we enjoy, we can keep forever with the purchase of a DVD. The song that recalls that first dance with our honey? The CD is just a click away. And Smartphones have made it possible to photograph every moment of any experience—a dinner with friends, a day at the shore, every frigging flower that blooms in our garden—then post it all on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

We are overwhelmed by the volume and weight of these souvenirs, these material proofs that we have lived, loved, traveled, and yes, eaten.

Opening box after box, I discovered elementary class pictures, report cards, birthday cards, the angsty poetry of my adolescence, photos of college friends, and a ream (or two) of correspondence from a time when people—young people!—actually wrote 6, 8, 10-page letters. Also a hefty number of journals that if read to recapture my life in the past, would rob me of the time to live it in the present.   

Almost as soon as I started to sort through this avalanche, I was rendered catatonic by the decisions I faced, what to keep, who to keep. How much of what from whom to keep. I recycled a stack of particularly vomitous poems written at 13—I fed them to the shredder, actually; not the sort of thing one wants to be remembered for—took an Excedrin and went back to querying agents. It’s an onerous task that would make querying feel preferable by comparison.  

But guilt soon drove me back to the attic, as I pictured family members having the job of sifting this mostly (to them) meaningless muck after my demise, scratching their annoyed heads, saying, “Why the hell did she save all this crap?”

What is a Memory?

Before digital photos—back when you had to buy a roll of film, pay for developing the pictures, and find a physical, real-world place to stash them—an overseas jaunt to Paris might result in 40 pictures total. You standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Your friend/sister/significant other before the Arc de Triomphe. A shot of you both in the Tuileries. Today, it’s more like 400 pics including every croissant you ate and all the patisseries you passed. All of it stored electronically, to be looked at once, twice, never?

I remember a guy with a digital camcorder strolling through the Piazza del Duomo in Florence in 2003, filming everything. I mean, that camera never left his eye, so in the truest sense he wasn’t seeing anything. Even then, I thought He’s never going to sit down and look at 24 hours or 72 hours or two weeks of video. Today, I’m certain of it.

So, what is a memory? Can it be captured for all time by a physical object? When I was a kid, my family took a trip that included Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain. At one of the 5,000 Stuckey’s in that state, my brother bought a souvenir—a man flushing himself down a toilet, the words Good-bye Cruel World chiseled into the base. Granted, it’s hardly a replica of Big Ben or the Taj Mahal, but a souvenir is a tangible item meant to recall an intangible experience. I have no souvenir of that vacation, but I have an enduring memory of crossing the swinging bridge at Lookout Mountain, an 11-year-old kid, high above the earth, feeling capable, feeling powerful, the world in miniature far below.

Some moments we never forget. And maybe, those are the only moments we need to remember.

The Winnowing

From three large cartons, I winnowed my treasures of the past down to one small box. I kept one letter or card—the funniest, the most touching, the one that best captured the sender—from the dozen or so people who, with the clarity of time, turned out to be the ones who really mattered.  

The three passionate letters declaring undying love I received from someone named Christian, I chucked. No idea who he was, but I hope he’s had a good life. He seems like a nice person.  

Gone, too, is the black-and-white roll of film from my two weeks at Camp Shawadasee, shot with my parents’ Brownie box camera at age 10. Twenty little photos so grainy and gray, I can only vaguely make out the camp’s water pump in the sea of blurred faces.

Farewell to the packet of weekly letters I wrote my first-grade classroom parents, apprising them of events and home assignments.

And much, much more.

I did keep a small bundle of photos. My college roomies and me, dressed up as the rock band Kiss for a Halloween kegger. The snap of good friend Teraze and me setting off in my VW Beetle for the wonder and mysteries of a new life on the East Coast. The three-girls-stuffed-in-a-photo-booth pics from freshman year Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale. The face of our young selves is perhaps the most meaningful keepsake, but we don’t need zillions. A pic of our high school BFF, the college roommates with whom we stayed up all night discussing the meaning of life, the friend we backpacked Europe with. One well-chosen photo can evoke an entire relationship.

We Don’t Keep Souvenirs of the Bad Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t save souvenirs of our worst moments, the ones that brought us to our knees, but we remember them anyway:

Kent State 1970. A group of kids in my civics class, crowding around my desk, towering over me, shouting, “This is America. Love it or leave it!” in response to the black armband I wore to mourn the four college kids murdered by Nixon’s National Guard.

The summer afternoon I came home to find my beloved cat Tia’s throat cut by a vicious neighbor’s scythe.

Science tells us that we remember bad or tragic events more clearly than good ones because the heightened emotions they evoke sharpen those moments in our memories. But I don’t know. I have plenty of great memories that are as alive for me today as the hour they occurred:

Jumping on a rope suspended from a branch high above my head and swinging out over a ravine fifty feet below, yelling “Tarzan!,” the wind whipping through my hair, the thrill of the earth dropping away, the utter joy of being nine years old without fear that the limb would break (but wise enough not to tell my parents).

The night I arrived at my new apartment in Boston, having driven from the Michigan of my childhood, through Canada, upstate New York, and all of Massachusetts. Eleven p.m., one-hundred degrees outside. I dug out a glass from a box and poured myself an Irish whiskey. I was making my dreams happen.

What You Can’t Forget

Sometimes mementos are too fresh to sift easily, too significant to toss lightly, but I’ve found ways to downsize the horde. The 62 VHS tapes of my kids are now a slim 2-volume DVD set. From the stack of restaurant cards, exhibit programs, and theatre tix amassed during our 2014 trip to London, I cut up bits of my favorites and découpaged them onto a small box for Ed. The artsy postcards from our 2012 Paris jaunt have been reduced to a representative sample and framed for our guestroom.

The two-dozen family photo albums and box of homemade Mother’s Day cards (I confess, I’m a sentimental old mommy), I leave to my kids—hopefully, in about a hundred years—to sort through what they wish to keep of their childhood.  

For now, I’ve stored the pared-down box—the little packet of letters, the envelope of photos—in the attic once more, where it takes up a tenth the space it used to. Perhaps I’ll revisit these culled remnants of my youth someday down the line and then let all that stuff go. Really, the stuff is unnecessary. You don’t need to remember everything. You can’t remember everything. But you will never forget the moments and the people that have shaped your life.

You Can’t Do It All*

*But you can do some of it.

Clusters of dust drift across my floor like tumbleweed as I write this. Cheeze-it crumbs dapple my keyboard and a pile of dead electronics awaits a Staples recycling run. In such moments, it helps to laser-focus my gaze on the words I’m typing. Isn’t that why they blindered horses on busy urban thoroughfares back in the day—so they could navigate whatever the distractions? I’m on a mission here.

I google total number of books on how to get organized. I google this several ways, expecting to get a number like 29,836, but all I find are other people’s lists of the best how-to tomes. Lifehack touts “35 Books on Productivity and Organizational Skills for an Effective Life,” aggregated by a Carmen Sakurai who bills herself as a “Mental Declutter, Stress Management & Burnout Prevention Coach.” Try fitting that into the little space provided for “occupation” on your 1040 tax form.

Matthew Kwong

Scrolling through the list, I find “life-changing”, “surprisingly simple”, “stress-free” methods for decluttering my home, achieving financial success, turning trials to triumphs, increasing my state of flow, and mastering work-life balance. All, apparently, achievable in less time than I spend not doing them now.

I laugh out loud when I get to #22: One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good  (Regina Leeds). Now, I’m sure Ms. Leeds is a fine person and has a place for everything/everything in its place, but in my experience for good, like forever, is a promise best made very sparingly and only after much soul-searching.

On the next site I jump to—“15 Best Organization Books (including minimalism, and decluttering books)”—one of the recommended tomes promises Organize yourself in 24 hours! Gee, Ms. Leeds gave me an entire year.   

Jeremy Beadle

More interesting, though somewhat alarming, is the ad at the bottom of the post for something called the Blinkist app. I give you its sales spiel verbatim:

Blinkist summarized over 2,000 of the bestselling books and put them into condensed 7 to 15 minute reads (or “blinks”).  The idea here is to give you the key insights and important lessons — without wasting your time on pointless information.

Blinkist book summaries are perfect for anyone who wants to maximize those random moments when you have to kill time. Like when you want to kill time before an appointment or you’re standing on a long line at Starbucks.

You can use Blinkist to complete a book daily, learn the valuable lessons, and avoid the fluff that often pad longer books.

Perhaps being a writer, I’m a tad biased, but what do they mean by “wasting your time on pointless information”? In the reference to ‘fluff’ to be avoided, are we talking the research, the interviews, the historical grounding, the sifting of facts and opinions that the author spent years aggregating? Are books something we “do” in random moments when we want to kill time??! What next? War and Peace as flash fiction?


Sorry, I got sidetracked there, something the completely-organized person would never do. But I like getting sidetracked every now and then, or even frequently. Sidetracks are where all the interesting stuff happens, where new ideas reveal themselves, where we evolve. Charles Darwin happened on his theory of evolution precisely because he let himself get sidetracked while investigating the geology of the Galápagos.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the quality of time spent rather than the quantity of stuff done in it.

Rules For a Fulfilled Life: Who Makes Them?

There are lots of ways to live your life. You can reside in a yurt on a mountaintop and raise goats. You can be a nomadic traveler and work your way around the globe with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for people. You can teach yoga in the middle of New York City or tutor kids to improve their literacy skills in Appalachia. In any of these, you can live out of a suitcase, choose your clothing from the piles scattered about the floor, select outfits from your clutter-free, color-coded walk-in closet with built-in storage. You can have a dirt floor, walk softly among the dustballs, or Swiffer away every speck of grime. In any of these scenarios, you may find your life fulfilling, or not so.  

This mantra of the highly-organized life as the one true path to fulfillment is predicated on several assumptions: 1) our home is a showplace above all else; 2) anything worth doing is worth doing as quickly/efficiently as (in)humanly possible; 3) organizing every aspect of our lives leads inevitably to peace of mind and worldly success.

The highly-organized life also has a LOT of rules. Group like with like. One-in-one-out. Keep your to-do list current. Label everything. But overarching these is the mother of all rules: A highly-organized person is one who gets everything done, and done to perfection. In life-organization land, dusting is no less important than writing Pride and Prejudice, or reading it for that matter. No less valuable than taking your child to the park for an afternoon of kite-flying. If the end goal is to arrange your life so that you can accomplish everything, then nothing has any particular significance. Slotting in 2.5 hours weekly for “quality time with children” on your Google Calendar becomes one more item to tick (though in my experience, children aren’t much into organization and tend to be very “unslottable”).

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say right now: You cannot do it all, no matter how many time-management books you read, or motivational tapes and Ted Talks your earbuds soak up. More to the point: Why should you even try? Who made “doing it all” the sine qua non of modern life?

Weirdly enough, I think one of the early cheerleaders for hyper-organization was women’s magazines. Although the beginning of the 20th century witnessed a craze for time and motion studies, spearheaded by industrial engineer Frederick W. Taylor, the mania for organization in every facet of life only went viral after World War II—when it became a priority to get those Rosie-the-Riveters out of the workplace and back to the hearth. But the little lady needed something to do there. She could only listen to (and later, watch) so many soap operas a day before she reached for the mega bottle of Valium (and many housewives did). Solution? Get her hooked on the wonders of organization.

In a Machiavellian way, it’s a brilliant distraction because the totally-organized life is an endless process, its own raison d’ être. Group little Johnny’s socks by color and sort them into compartmentalized containers. Roll and store your magazines in a decorative wine rack. Arrange the spice cabinet alphabetically. Arrange your days by task: Dusting and vacuuming on Mondays, laundry and mending on Tuesdays, give the bathroom a good scrub on Wednesdays (don’t overlook the grit between the floor tiles!). Thursdays … Over and over, week in and week out, down through the months, the years.

Please pass the Valium. And maybe the Prozac.

Though today’s time-crazed working women (and men) no longer have the hours to devote to house and yard chores in a hands-on way, getting organized is still a prime focus. In fact, it’s bigger than ever, as the explosion of how-to books I cited earlier shows. For one thing, we all have much more STUFF to be organized. And a full calendar of activities for every member of the family. Spin-cycling classes, gymnastics, summer camps, pottery workshops.

Who Profits From The Organized You?

You’ll notice in all this frenzy, that there’s a lot of product. That’s because marketing folks, and the companies they shill for, have big money to gain from helping you get organized. Shelving, bins, car-trunk organizers, magnetic meal-planning pads, even a woven elastic organizer because, as the plug says, “without it, all your things will just swim around loosely in your bag.” In fact, offers “100 Home Organization Products You Need in 2019” (More Valium, please!) with this come-on: CHANNEL YOUR INNER MARIE KONDO WITH THESE GENIUS HOME-ORGANIZATION PRODUCTS. Streamline the chaos, once and for all! We may be in the midst of a tidying renaissance [the ad copy runs]. Thanks to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show, cleaning the house and keeping it decluttered has undergone the ultimate rebranding, from a long-neglected chore to an Insta-worthy bragging right!

Please, spare us from thousands of images of color-coded, stacked, folded, bin-slotted stuff.

Profiting, too, are the almost limitless services that promise to deliver total-and-perfect organization right to your doorstep: Meal kit delivery services like Home Chef and Blue Apron, pick-up and drop-off dry cleaning and laundry services like Washio, dog walking and grooming services, house cleaning services, lawn-and garden care services, grocery and pharmaceutical delivery services. With any luck, and a whole lotta $$$, you may never have to waste a moment on household drudge chores again. You may not even need to leave your home.       

But if you do venture outside the house, say, to earn a living, have no fear. Corporate America has got this organization-efficiency thing nailed. CEOs everywhere are highly attuned to what time and motion experts a hundred years ago could only dream: Employee-monitoring software systems, productivity charts, employee competitions, and in-house motivational seminars. Now everyone can churn it out 24/7 at warp speed (while the CEOs tee off at Pine Valley or Cypress Point).

Stop This Merry-Go-Round, I Wanna Get Off

My radical assertion: Being organized ≠ being productive.

Would we have The Starry Night if Van Gogh had been concerned with streamlining his clutter? Would we have Remembrance of Things Past if Proust had been watching the clock, focused solely on the number of words he was generating per minute rather than their quality? I feel pretty certain Beethoven never troubled himself about under-bed storage or shelf doublers.   

Forget charts, pocket organizers, calendar apps. At every moment in life, you can do one of two things: Something that is important to you or something that’s not. And gazing at the stars is a legitimate activity.

If you often get to the end of the day with the feeling that you actually “missed” the day in all the scurry, try this:

Jot down the names of 4-5 people you love. Do you get to spend enough time—or even some time—with these people (and I’m not talking a joint trip to the supermarket where you race up and down separate aisles to get the shopping done in record time)?

Now, do the same for 4-5 things you really enjoy doing. When was the last time you did them, or are they always on the list of stuff you promise yourself you’ll do when everything else gets organized?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in priorities to know what’s important to you.

So, let the dust clouds roll (unless dusting is on your really-love-doing list, in which case we may be talking extensive therapy needs). Let those blue jeans and tee shirts jumble happily together, draped over a chair or nestled on the floor. Rip that damn meal planner from the wall and cook up something you actually feel like eating now. Go write War & Peace, the unabridged version, complete with all the “fluff.”    

There are many ways to live life. One of them is right for you.