Monday, May 30, 2011

Get Good and MAD

There’s an old Sesame Street cartoon about a cranky goat that gets picked on by the other animals.  He teaches kids that “It ain't b-a-a-d, to get m-a-a-d.” 

I guess this is a good message, right?  If you’re being bullied, or treated unfairly, it’s pretty normal to feel angry.  Maybe yelling and screaming and jumping up and down is an appropriate response. 

On the other hand, there might be more effective options.  While the cartoon didn’t come right out and say “fight back,” it didn’t offer any other advice either.  It was just about validating an emotion, I guess.

I read a book recently that validated this emotion in another context.  It talked about the (perfectly normal) anger that parents sometimes feel towards their children.

The book, The No Cry Discipline Solution, provides lots of tips and ideas for encouraging good behavior “without whining, tantrums, and tears.”  (From the kids too!)  It’s a great resource for parents of young children--  I wish I would have found it sooner. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the center section, called “A Peaceful Home:  Staying Calm and Avoiding Anger.”  In this part, the author, Elizabeth Pantley, first addresses the guilt parents often feel when they get angry at their kids.  Then she explains the different levels of anger (from “displeasure” and “annoyance” to “rage” and “fury”), and she shows how anger can escalate if not checked.  Finally, she offers some specific steps to manage anger and solve the underlying problem, before you lose your self-control.  In a nutshell:  Stop (freeze, halt, interrupt your rising anger); get away from the situation; calm yourself (with deep breathing, for example); then analyze the problem objectively.

This is great advice for anyone, not just parents. 

As Pantley says, uncontrolled anger can be dangerous.  Forget the advice to “let it all out.”  Letting it all out can lead to aggression, according to psychologists, and keep you from finding a more helpful solution.

Thinking about this, I’ve concluded there are actually two kinds of anger—or two kinds of expressions of anger—the good and the bad.

Good anger:  Indignation over injustice
Bad anger:  Road rage

Good anger:  Boycotts and protests
Bad anger:  A shouting match

Good anger:  Writing an impassioned letter, signing a petition, calling a senator
Bad anger:  Punching a wall… or a person

It seems to come down to self-control.  When you’re angry about something, personal or public, if you keep your cool you might actually be able to do something productive to address the situation.  However, if you let your anger consume you, you not only lose your control, you lose your opportunity.  (Not to mention your credibility.)

Speaking of anger, here’s something that makes me really mad:  Senseless violence and government decisions that promote war instead of peace.

I don’t know if you heard, but the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week for a bill that would turn over the power to declare war from Congress to the president.  Yikes.  This same bill would deauthorize the U.S. Institute of Peace.  Established in 1984, the U.S. Institute of Peace is one of the only institutions in Federal government working to support peacebuilding.  Its budget is equivalent to about five hours of the war in Afghanistan.  Yet, to “save money,” the House wants to get rid of the peace institution.  

What the—?

Sounds like a strong message that some of our leaders don't think peace is even worth pursuing.

That’s one good way to express some healthy anger.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fighting Zombies

What’s up with the zombie craze lately?  Why is our culture so fascinated by the undead?  It seems like every time I turn around I’m seeing another reference.  (Spooky.)  I just read that zombies will make an appearance in a couple of summer movies (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Super 8); people are still talking about various zombie TV shows (especially The Walking Dead); and zombies are even featured in political commentary and CDC Disaster Preparedness, with their tips on surviving a zombie apocalypse.  No kidding.

Now and then, Sage will still play the surprisingly fun and quirky computer game “Plants vs. Zombies” that we bought her for Christmas a year ago.  Sometimes I play with her—our favorite mini-game is called “Vasebreaker Endless,” and it really does go on forever.  You just play and play until the zombies get the better of you, and then you have to be careful not to start over again.  Like all addictive games, there’s a risk of turning into a zombie yourself.

Maybe that’s the source of the fascination.  The zombie is an archetype of ourselves—or at least a frightening version of ourselves in lives not fully lived.  We may look like we’re alive, but sometimes maybe we’re just going through the motions.

A lot of times it’s because we are tired.  I know I feel like a zombie until I’ve had my coffee every morning!  And/or we’re busy, busy, busy.  And/or we're overworked or overwhelmed or distracted.

See, it doesn’t necessarily take another zombie to make you one. 

I’m reading an interesting book right now called The Power of Half:  One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.  It’s about a family that decided to sell their mansion and move into a home half the size and the half the cost—and then donate the difference to charity.  Before they made the decision to do this, they were living the American dream of upward mobility, which meant accumulate, accumulate, accumulate.

It’s to their great credit that they chose to jump off that treadmill (as they called it) and start giving away some of the excess.  A LOT of the excess, actually.

The story is inspiring—even for those of us who don’t live in mansions.  What gets me thinking is not only the fact of what they did, but also their approach and their philosophy.  In the intro, they include this quote (by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne):  “He who does not live in some degree for others, hardly lives for himself.”

Talk about fighting the zombie.

Speaking of living a purpose-based life…. I went to my sister’s graduation ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  (She earned her M.A. in Public Administration. Yay, Jill!)  The keynote speaker was an alum, Julie Lumien, who has committed her entire adult life to service.  She taught in Zimbabwe, was a community organizer in the West Indies, and was, and still is, a leader in various peace, justice, and community outreach programs.  She also shared a quote that I really like.  This is from Howard Thurman (yet another inspiring life, Thurman was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.):

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

At least, I think the graduation speaker shared that quote.  Now, I’m thinking I read it someplace.  (Geesh, maybe the zombies did eat my brains after all.)

Anyway, inspiration abounds.  Life is meant to be lived.  REALLY lived. 

Of course, there are numerous ways to do that.  At a minimum, we can enjoy the time we have.  We can look around and pay attention now and then.  And maybe we can touch another’s life along the way. 

Go Plants!  

Monday, May 16, 2011

Losing my Leaders

Interesting timing… interesting times.  After 22 years of Mayor Daley, we now have a new mayor in Chicago.  And with the new mayor comes a new Administration—which means there will be a new commissioner for the department I work in.  Politics is heartless, isn’t it?  We had an excellent leader at my office, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s a new day and a new vision. 

Time for “change.”

I’ve seen lots of people come and go (mostly go) during my years at this job, as well as previous jobs.  Some people left by choice, others by circumstances beyond their control.  Oftentimes, the news was startling to me.  On one level, I understood:  People move on.  People gotta do what they gotta do.

But on another level, I’m like a little kid, thinking, “No. You can’t go!  It won’t be the same here without you!”  

When co-workers leave, there’s definitely a gap.  You miss their contribution as well as their company.  But when a boss leaves, you lose some certainty as well.  It’s a little unsettling.  Nobody knows quite what to expect.  What will the new head honcho want?  And how will it affect ME?

I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Besides my workplace, people are leaving at my church too.  A few people are moving away—including the pastors.  Yeah.  The pastors, and founders, of the church are leaving, which pretty much means this particular church will be dissolving. 

Admittedly, this is an unusual situation.  It was a small, unaffiliated church, with sort of an alternative, progressive approach to things.  It suited my little family perfectly.  It’s sad that it’s ending.

It’s always sad when friends move away.  “Change” often sucks.

It’s just kind of weird that I’m losing two leaders in my life in the same month. 

PLUS, Oprah’s last show is this month too!  Okay, so I haven’t watched the show in ages and this doesn't affect me personally AT ALL, but still.  Queen/guru/icon Oprah was something special, and now she’s leaving Chicago too.

And, of course, Michael Scott just left too!  Okay, so he’s fictional, and I actually haven’t watched The Office in awhile either.  But still… 

People are moving on.  People at the top, the ones we look up to.

What does it all mean?

Maybe it’s a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.  Life IS change, constant change.  We grow, we change.  It shouldn’t be a surprise.

Or maybe it means I shouldn’t put too much reliance on leaders.  I can be my own leader.  I mean, it’s fine and good to have role models… but not so wise to hitch your wagon to one leader (no matter how charismatic or messianic, presidentially speaking).

Or maybe it’s a reminder that communities are just as important, if not more important, than their leaders.  The leaders may be leaving, but the people are still here.  Just like family… we’ve still got each other.

Well, MAYBE (if I can overuse that word), it’s all those things and more.

I'll keep pondering it.  And I'll try not to worry about it.  It is what it is, as they say.  But, it is interesting.... 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Unfortunate Events

When A Series of Unfortunate Events, by “Lemony Snicket,” first came out in 1999 and the early 2000’s, I remember noticing but not having any idea what it was all about.  Now that my eight-year-old daughter is into the books, I am finding out.  For the past year or so, Sage has been following the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans—and wanting to be an inventor like Violet, staying up late to read like Klaus, giggling at the funny words baby Sunny says, and reviling the evil Count Olaf. 

Sometimes Sage will read the books on her own, but more often I’ll read them with her.  We’re currently up to Book the Seventh, The Vile Village In this installment, the children have found that their new guardian will be a village, under a new program that took literally the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.”  

Unfortunately, natch, the village is ruled by a Council of Elders who expect the orphans to do the chores for the entire village.  These stern, uncaring elders also enforce thousands of random rules.  The punishment for breaking a rule is to be burned at the stake.   

Oh, and the strange village is also inhabited by thousands of crows.  The elders all wear stuffed-crow hats and require the children to clean the large crow-shaped fountain, “Fowl Fountain,” at the center of the town square.  Apparently the village was founded by a group of “fowl devotees.”

Besides these less than comfortable circumstances, the Baudelaires are also worried about their friends who have been kidnapped by the evil Count Olaf and wondering when the scoundrel will show up in their lives once more.  Count Olaf is the nemesis who has been after these children for their inheritance ever since they became orphans in Book One, The Bad Beginning  

Then, in Chapter 5 of The Vile Village, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny receive some astonishing news.  The elders tell them that Count Olaf has been captured-- the heartless, detestable murderer, Count Olaf.  Imagine their relief.

And yet, when the children are told that Count Olaf will be burned at the stake, their relief is mixed with a confusion of other feelings:  “Although they despised Count Olaf, the children didn’t like the idea of lighting him on fire.  Burning a villain at the stake felt like something a villain would do rather than something done by fowl devotees.” (Page 109).

Sage and I read those words last night.  Then we read on to find out that the condemned man shared a couple of features with Count Olaf (a single eyebrow and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle) but was not, in fact, Count Olaf.      

Those nutty crow-hat wearing elders wouldn’t listen to the children, though.  Nor would they listen to the man himself, who tried to tell them he was not Olaf.  The Council of Elders had made up their mind:  They would burn this man at the stake the very next morning.  No trial necessary. 

Well, this is the kind of preposterous scenario that happens in Lemony Snicket books.  It’s farfetched.  It’s silly.  Fortunately, we don’t live in a time or place where leaders will just kill a criminal without having a trial, without following an established legal process based on constitutional law and due process and agreed-upon principles of justice and fairness. 

Oh wait.

Maybe we do, considering the big news from Pakistan last week. 

Well, the book goes on and, as it happens, there is no burning at the stake. Instead, the innocent man is murdered in his jail cell before the appointed hour.  (Lovely bedtime story, I know.)

In yet another unfortunate twist, the Baudelaire children are accused of the murder (by a "famous detective" that no one has ever heard of).  And now the townspeople and the Council of Elders become an angry mob chasing the children with torches.   

Towards the end, however, the mob lose their steam.  They become confused when their new Chief of Police breaks Rule #67 by using a mechanical device.  As one of the elders says to the officer, “I don’t think you should break the rules in order to capture people who have broken the rules.  It doesn’t make sense.”  (Page 238.)

Before long, the villagers learn that the recently-arrived detective was the real Count Olaf.  And the Chief of Police, of course, was Olaf’s associate.

What a silly, na├»ve little town. 

Yeah, this is quite a goofy series.  It’s funny at times and frustrating at others.  But sometimes, like in this book, it’s pretty clever in its subtle social commentaries.

I read a headline yesterday that said followers of Osama bin Laden vowed to avenge his death.  Wait a minute, I thought.  Killing bin Laden was meant to avenge all the deaths that he had caused, right?  You can’t avenge the avenger.  Or avengee.  Or whatever.  Then where does it end?  You’ll have a never-ending string of back-and-forth revenge killings, like some kind of backcountry family feud.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not losing sleep over the death of a terrorist.  But I’m not celebrating either.  Hearing that a man was shot to death does not seem to call for a party.  What it calls for are questions.

Over the past few days, there have been lots of accolades and smiles and cheers about this killing.  But I’ve also heard people express concerns—about how it all went down, and about how in the world people can rejoice.

I am grateful for that second camp.  It gives me hope.  That group may not be as vocal or as listened to, but they’re out there, proving that our world is not, in fact, as insane as the world created by Lemony Snicket.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

One does matter

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the world’s problems.  As our population grows and grows, it’s also easy to feel our little selves shrinking in significance.

Sometimes I struggle with this feeling.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by celebrity charity work.  Lots of celebs, it seems, want to make a difference and use their fame to better the world.  Just pick a star and there’s probably a charity they’ve donated to or a cause they’ve volunteered for.  There’s even a website devoted to tracking the activities of such do-gooders:

It’s heartwarming, in a way.  Really.  It’s good to know that so many of these beautiful people whom we admire so much want to give back and use their good fortune to help others.  We all know about the high-profile mega-charity work of Oprah, Angelina and Brad, and Bono.  And Willie Nelson, of course (as I wrote about in my last post).  But did you know about Ashley Judd?  Or Jude Law?  Or Natalie Portman? Or the host of others?

Like I said, I think this is terrific.  But, it also makes me slightly discouraged.  I mean, all these people, with all their influence, all their money, all their bright ideas, and charisma, and resources.  And look at us still.  It’s still not enough.  If these people—the most admired in our society—can’t persuade the rest of us to start caring and do something, then who can?

I know I’m not being totally fair.  Oprah’s Angel Network, in its 13-year run, inspired thousands of people to donate time and money to those less fortunate.  And all the various celebrity telethons and benefit concerts, such as Hope for Haiti Now, have brought in millions of dollars.

And yet… donating cash to help the poor, or the sick, or the hungry—that should be a no-brainer.  There’s such a great need, and more people SHOULD donate what they can, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing.

Getting people to change their behaviors—now, that’s another story.  No matter which sexiest man or woman alive is on the soapbox, it’s apparently not enough to convince the critical mass that climate change is a serious (majorly serious) threat to humanity.  And it’s evidently not enough to get people to stop with the wars already.  There are still so many human-caused problems….

If THEY, the rich, famous, and adored, can’t get people to change, then what difference can I possibly make?

Well, (I say to myself), that kind of defeatist talk is certainly not helping anyone.

The fact is, one person CAN make a difference. I’ve written before about how we influence one another ("I'll have what she's having").  It takes just one action to start a domino effect.  One person can sway one other person, or ten others, or more. One person can be a leader. 

(Have you ever been the person who starts clapping, in one of those uncertain situations where you could clap or not, and soon everyone else is clapping too?  Isn’t that the coolest?)

Aside from trend-setting and teaching and modeling, there’s another reason one voice matters.  It’s the same reason so many movements focus on the one simple thing:  one vote, one dollar, one action.  It’s because all these ones add up.

It’s like Jojo, the smallest Who on the “dust speck” in Horton Hears A Who!, by Dr. Seuss.  No one would believe Horton when he claimed there were tiny little people living on a speck on the flower he carried in his trunk.  The only way the Whos could be saved from being dropped in a pot of boiling Beezle-Nut oil was if they raised their voices loud enough to be heard by the sour Kangaroo and the other doubters. 
“We are here! We are here! We are here!” they shouted.  Over and over, as loud as they could, they shouted and hollered, and rattled and clanged, and yapped and yipped to save their lives.  But it wasn’t loud enough.  They were on the verge of being dropped, when—at the very last minute—little Jojo added his voice. 

“We are here! We are here! We are here!” 

THEN, they were heard.  And then they were saved.

So, you see?  Every voice counts. 

Join the chorus.  One voice for peace, and another and another.  The more voices out there, the bigger difference we can make.

Thanks for listening.