Monday, May 28, 2012

Light my fire

I am reading the novel Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, a LONG fictional work about the life of Marilyn Monroe. First of all, it’s interesting, because Norma Jeane Baker’s life was already tragic, so I’m not entirely sure why Oates made the changes she did. For example, Wikipedia tells me that Norma Jeane Baker’s grandmother, Della, would not take her in, so the child spent her first 7 years in foster care with one set of foster parents, until her mother, Gladys, came back to claim her. However, in the novel, Norma Jeane spends her early life with her grandmother Della, until she passes away, forcing her mother to take her back.  (I suppose the author could be building something specific. I’m still at the very beginning, so I can’t even say whether I’m liking the book yet or not. It’s taking a little while to get into it.)  But I have become more fascinated with Marilyn Monroe lately.  To be honest, I was never much interested in her, and therefore knew very little about her; it took the show Smash (please don’t judge me) to pique my curiosity.

However, there is something in the novel that got me thinking. In the book, Norma Jeane is with her mother until her mother suffers a “nervous breakdown,” sending her to a psychiatric hospital, and Norma Jeane becomes a ward of the state, sent to live in an orphanage. This nervous breakdown occurs during August in southern California when the famous Santa Ana Winds are blowing, which supposedly cause people to do crazy things. This has remarkable parallels to Janet Finch’s White Oleander – in her novel, the main character’s mother poisons her boyfriend, landing her in prison, and the main character in the foster care system. All of this occurs – you guessed it -- while the Santa Ana Winds are blowing.

What is it about these winds?

A brief google search didn’t find much that seemed to have scientific validity. Some people makes claims about the “positive ions” in the winds that make people more irritable or prone to fighting. However, I think the real issue is that these winds tend to play a major role in the wild fires that often plague southern California that time of year. Here we have this natural, recurring force, these winds that come back year after year, stirring up trouble, spreading fires during the hottest time of the year. It can’t be avoided or controlled, and the potential for great destruction is always just around the corner. As a literary device, what better way to explain the utter insanity and catastrophic destruction of a child losing her only parent, and entering a chaotic world where she doesn’t belong to anyone?

(There’s another reference that comes to mind – the final episode of season 1 of Weeds **stop reading now if you haven’t seen it**. But the winds and the fire are used in this episode, too, to show the complete desctruction of Nancy’s previous life, and how she has, essentially, gone a little bit (or a lot) cuckoo.)

Then, I have this other moment, where I think to myself…why do I need scientific proof to show that the winds cause changes in people’s behavior? Maybe they just do. There are so many things in life that are beyond our human ability to understand. I believe in a higher power. I believe we are all connected. I believe, that in the end, one way or another, in this life or the next, everything will work out.

I have no proof of any of these things.

Sometimes I’m not sure how to reconcile these two parts of myself – the one part that insists on science, data, graphs, and peer-reviewed journals, and the other part that believes in magic and ghosts and the beautiful inter-connectedness of human beings. I mean, I’ve spent quite some time working in research, and trust me, it is not perfect. Nothing is. Can it be just as foolish to believe in science as it is to believe that people do extra-crazy things during the Santa Ana Winds (or the full moon? Or when the northen lights are extra active?) Maybe it’s all just an excuse.

I guess that is the beauty of gray. I love that song by Live, and I love my friend, Dana, who first made me realize that things are not black and white. We live in a wacky world, where things are ambiguous and rarely certain. We are subject to nature, to fire, to tragedy. The Dalai Lama says pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. All we can do is try not to get burned. One thing though? If you don’t think you can care for a child, please don’t have one. There are few things I feel more strongly about than the necessity of equal access to birth control, and the horrifying nature of our foster care system - two related topics that get me fired up. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Old news

I tend to go through cycles with the news....Sometimes, I have absolutely no clue what is going on in the world. Other times, I just cannot get enough NPR. Or I will fall down the rabbit hole, reading story after story after story on But clearly, I have not been in this phase for a while, because when I announced indignantly to Alex yesterday, "They are limiting the number of stories you can read on the New York Times website now!!!," he said, "Uh yeah. They did that like forever ago." (For the record Alex, they just reduced the number of articles from 20 to 10 per month in April, a mere month ago, and apparently that reduction is enough to mean that I am finally getting little alarming pop-ups urging me to subscribe! Before, I guess I just wasn't that aware because 20 was as good as limitless for me. Ha, which is obviously why they reduced the numbers -freeloaders like me!)

But before my indignation struck, I read a lovely article by Jane Brody about how being an optimist is good for your health. (If you haven't reached your limit of articles yet, you can read it here.) You are more likely to take care of yourself, more likely to tackle problems head-on with a can-do attitude, and therefore, more likely to live longer, happily. As an optimist myself, I love that a science writer chose this topic for her blog. As a school psychologist (well, almost - I guess I'm being a little optimistic here!), I love that she gave recommendations for how to make yourself more optimistic if you aren't naturally inclined to be so. She suggests one of my (and Alex's) favorite mottos: "Fake it 'til you make it!" I like this quote for so many scenarios, because I think confidence is the key to everything (even more than talent, given a certain baseline.)  Buddha says, "What you think, you become." But there is also the flip side of that - what you do defines you (thank you, Batman Begins.)  If you are a pessimist, thinking negative thoughts, then your actions are likely to follow and that will be who you are. However, sometimes the easiest way to change a thought pattern is to change what you do first. Start acting the way you think an optimist would act, and you just might meet enough success to change how you think!

Perhaps, it's just crazy enough to work! (Or, we are just a bunch of optimists agreeing with each other, and all the pessimists are saying, Eh, I always knew I would die young anyway....)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Invisible made visible

I stole the title of this entry straight from this week's This American Life podcast (which I am not really going to write about, other than to say, it was very entertaining! I actually laughed to myself on my jog today.) I am mostly using it to refer to myself! During the semester, you couldn't see me, but now you can! Hooray! I am back in the land of the living. Maybe I should just go ahead and call myself a summer blogger. Lord knows I probably will always be too busy during the school year to construct a proper sentence. (Well, a proper sentence that has nothing to do with the WISC or the WRAML or the BASC or any of the other alphabet soup tests I will spend my life writing about. I digress, already!...before I've even gotten started!)

It has been nice to have more free time! I am slowly regaining my executive functioning skills, getting some more exercise, cooking healthy meals, and - most exciting of all - reading fiction again! I have already finished The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (the first book club book I have completed on time in approximately one million years), and 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson. Both were good! The Tiger's Wife was a great book to do for book club, and would probably be even better in an English class, because there is so much awesome literary stuff in it.

I also just started a book called The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier. I'm only a short way into it, but the basic premise is that it takes place during what becomes known as The Illumination - a period of time when suddenly, pain is visible as a light emanating from the person's body. Pain includes physical pain - the first character accidentally cuts off the tip of her thumb and goes through a painful surgery and then later amputation of the thumb above the joint. She and her doctors and everyone around her can see just how much it hurts her by the intensity of the light. Psychological pain is also evident, which as a person in the mental health field, I appreciate. In the novel, you see this especially as a glow in a grieving young man who lost his wife in a car accident.

It is an interesting concept. I'm curious to see where the novel goes. How would we treat each other differently if each person's pain was clearly visible to us? Would we be nicer? I have to say, if I walked up to someone who otherwise appeared to be fine, but then noticed they had the glow of Depression or the light of Anxiety, or a stubborn chronic pain in their knee that showed as a pulsating light...I would probably be nicer.

Even though other people's pain is generally invisible to us here in the real world, chances are good that many of the people we come across in our day-to-day lives are experiencing some kind of suffering. Really, if pain became visible as bright light, we would probably all go blind. In yoga, we are taught to practice Karuna, or compassion. Other translations indicate that Karuna consists of actions we take to diminish the suffering of others through gentle kindness and active sympathy. So let's try to do it just by being nice. If someone is rude to you, go ahead and assume that there is something hurting them that you can't see, and forgive them. Give them your gentle kindness. Give them your compassion. Even though we can't make pain visible, we can make our kindness visible! I think that's probably a better way to go, anyway!