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My Mini-Me

I’ve always said the real reason people have kids is because we are all, at heart, narcissists.  I was absolutely right.  I gave birth almost 12 weeks ago to the most darling, beautiful, amazing little Celena—ahem, Mari Mae—who continues to inspire and delight me every day.  With her splotchy hair that is growing in weird places that still hasn’t made up its mind which exact color it wants to be and what are turning out to be big blue eyes, my little Gummibärchen is everything I ever wanted in a tiny daughter.  Except she’s not so tiny.  8 pounds at birth, she’s still growing like a weed. And looking so cute and chubby in her swimsuit, also like me! Oh, how I wish I had her confidence on the beach! ;)

MM Chubby Beach

I used to wonder how parents of ugly children could think they were so cute, and now I understand why. It’s not that parents think their kids are necessarily the most beautiful of all; it’s simply that they are enamored with having progeny that look like themselves. I don’t think I was the cutest baby. From all accounts, I was a hot purple mess until I was at least 6 months old! (Or maybe that was just the photo quality of the 1970s??) But when I compare pictures of me with pictures of Mari Mae at the same age, she looks like utter perfection: just like Mommy!

Hi World

Perhaps this is the real secret of evolutionary genetics? Passing on genes that mimic us, tapping into that selfish part that loves ourselves the most… Maybe that’s really why parents love their kids so much, simply because they are an extension of themselves.

Poor Luke. He has to endure me talking about this incessantly.  “Doesn’t she look like me, babe? Look at those dimples on the top of her cheeks! Just like mine!”  I’m sure he wants to gag sometimes. So far, the only thing Mari Mae has inherited from him is her temperament, for which I’m very grateful. Luke is super easy going and kind, while I’m high strung and impatient. If she acts as sweet as Luke, that’s wonderful. Not that I don’t want Mari Mae to look like him—if she ends up inheriting his height, thick golden locks and gorgeous lips, even better! But I’m sure no matter what she looks like or acts like, we will join the throng of annoying parents who think their kids are the best at everything.

She is, of course, a genius. I realized from the beginning that she was exceeding her milestones at a rapid pace. Eye contact? Check. Neck movement? Check. Cute gurgling sounds? Check.  We even practice rolling over and standing up several times per day, along with lots of tummy time.  How could she not be ahead of her peers, with two full time parents hovering over her every movement, praising her efforts?  She’ll be talking and walking in no time, for sure!

Alas, my glorious babymoon is coming to an end and Mommy will return to work full time soon. Boo!  If I had my way, I would be at home gazing into those smart little eyes and practicing baby pushups with Mari Mae all day long!  Lucky Luke! Now Mari Mae’s real education begins: learning German, or rather, Bavarian.  I’m hoping she’s a quick learner, so she can teach me her linguistic tricks and I can finally communicate with the Bauer side of the family! Get cracking, Mari Mae!

AF Mommy

In all seriousness, the past three months have been the very best of my life.  All of the clichés are true: when I first saw Mari Mae, it was the single best, most emotional moment I have ever experienced. She made and still makes my heart swell to proportions I never thought possible.  Everything is now about this child. Every decision, every meal, every job, every vacation—it’s all about creating the best environment for our little girl.  She deserves it! I can’t wait to see how Mari Mae turns out, but if it’s anything like her parents, I’m sure she will be pretty amazing! ;)

family

A recent Skype conversation with my German boyfriend went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you? <simultaneously smiling and looking discreetly at the small video of myself displayed in the top left corner, trying to tame and tuck my hair behind an ear>

Him: Perfect, now that I talk to you!

Me: You look so cute!

Him: You looks so cute too!  But I don’t can hear you!  <fumbles around with something on his laptop> I call you back! <Skype session ends>

Me: Hello again!

Him: Hello!

Me: I read your email. Thank you! You’re so sweet. And your answers to all of my questions are so funny. But I don’t understand one of your questions: “What is your favorite rate from me?” What do you mean by “rate”?

Him: <puzzled look on his face> I mean something what I say and you laugh about it. Do you understand?

Me: <puzzled look on my face> Do you mean… joke?

Him: <starts typing on his laptop, presumably trying to translate “joke”> Joke… hmmmm…. Yes!  Joke! That’s what I mean. <smile>

Me: <smile> Ah, ok. I understand. I will think about it and reply in my next email! <smile>

Him: Ok, Schatzi.

Me: I love it when you call me Schatzi.  So much better than Snooki!

Him: I did not call you Snooki! Only Schnucki!  But zis was so funny, when you thought I call you Snooki from Jersey Shore!  You know Schnucki mean “darling” or “sweetie” for us Germans…

Me: Yes, I know all about your strange terms of endearment…

Him: <feverishly typing “endearment” into his online translator>

Me: Like the time when you called me a snail?? Or a slug?? <laugh>

Him: <Eyebrows go up when he sees what “endearment” means on the screen>  Oh yes! Ok, <laughs> but I don’t say slug… I call you “Schnecke,” which is also a very cute name!

Me: How is a slug cute, exactly?

Him: No, Schnecke is meaning a snail… It’s a pastry for us, like in a circle.Tastes very good! Very sweet!

Me: Well, since I don’t speak any German, I guess I will just have to trust you. <smile>

Him: You speaks some German! You say “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”

Me: Yes.  And “Ein Bier, bitte! Danke!” Very important words! <smile>

Him: Of course!  I love that my little American loves beer like me. <smile>

Me: I know. We are twins!  <smile>

Him: <smile>

Me: <more goofy smiling>

Him: <more goofy smiling>

And this goes on for hours….

I’ve been with my magical German unicorn* for a few months now, and it has opened my eyes to many previously undiscovered relationship truths.  At least undiscovered by ME.  Generally speaking, I tend to be a slow learner and a late bloomer in this arena.  At my age, I thought I had everything about relationships figured out. Well, certainly the “Things Not to Do” category, such as avoiding long distance relationships at all costs, not dating younger men because they’re soooooooo immature, and seeking out guys totally unlike me because, I’m like a real pain in the ass, you know? Right?!?

Well guess what?  So.Not.True.

Relationship Truth #1: Long Distance Relationships Don’t Suck; People Suck

Now of course I don’t mean that it’s fun to be separated for long periods of time from the person you care about.  That part actually does suck.  A LOT.  What I mean is that it’s not a given that every Friday and Saturday night away from each other is going to end in a Trans-Atlantic screaming match because SOMEONE DIDN’T CHECK HIS PHONE FOR 12 STRAIGHT HOURS—AGAIN—AND CONVENIENTLY SLEPT THROUGH NOT ONE OR FIVE OR TEN BUT fifteen CONSECUTIVE CALLS TO THE HOME PHONE, ONLY TO EVENTUALLY RESPOND WITH, “Hmmm, I guess I must have been really passed out!” Grrrr. Not that this has ever happened to me.  47 times.

Nor does it mean that it’s inevitable on a random Tuesday you are simply going to run out of things to talk about… and the awkward pauses and silences grow and Grow and GROW until you have to resort to white lies (<fake yawn> “Oh, I’m so tired… I think I’m going to bed early tonight!!”), gimmicks (“Ok, ok… so SERIOUSLY.  If you had to carry around a hammer every day for a year OR show up to your company’s annual Christmas party naked, which one would you choose? Be honest!!”) or the worst of all: manufactured drama (“Hmmm.  So let me get this straight: You’re saying that if my face was horribly, horribly disfigured and I was paralyzed from the waist down from a derailed roller coaster accident, you really would leave me?? Nice… Really nice.”).

Nope. Doesn’t mean that at all. I can tell you that my unicorn has never left me waiting very long for a phone call response if he’s busy, and I think that only happened once in four months.  Of course this implies an understanding and respect for work schedules, rest and time with friends and family—totally essential.  And absolutely no screaming whatsoever.  I think if either of us raised our voices even half an octave, one or both of us would cry.  No snarky comments. Very little sarcasm (unless it’s directed at the legitimately mean or stupid observable actions of others). Strong desire to stay in a semi-constant state of communication, as much as humanly and pragmatically possible—thank god for phones, texting, WhatsApp, Skype and airplanes! An ardent curiosity about each other, from the mundane (favorite pizza?) to the sublime (favorite pilsner?). And most important of all, old fashioned kindness and consideration.  You know, like calling when you say you will, and writing an interesting and flirty email reply even after you’ve worked all night long and all you want is to crawl into bed and sleep for the whole day…

This, everyone, is what makes long distance relationships work.

And I’ll go even further: As in my particular case, sometimes starting out a relationship long distance can actually be a blessing in disguise because it forces you to get to know each other on a more cerebral and emotional level first, before the physical aspect takes an overwhelming hold.  Instead of countless hours holding hands and making out, you have the time to talk about potentially sensitive topics and important issues that would normally be relegated to later. Or never.  I love the fact that my unicorn (Shall I just call him Fritz? Unicorn is starting to sound a bit… emasculating), I mean Fritz, and I had serious chats about politics, religion, “The Rules,” why Germans like to eat very weird meat products and why Americans love war and hate sex well before all I could think about was kissing his cute face.  In a long distance relationship, you have the time to solve the world’s problems, one question at a time.  This is great! Do you think people in normal relationships talk about the Euro crisis or French xenophobia when they’re lounging in bed on a Sunday morning?? No, no. This is only done properly over a late afternoon (CST)/late evening (GMT +1) Skype session with plenty of booze on hand. I am so grateful for these moments.  How else would I know that Fritz’s favorite snack is a disgusting Bavarian sandwich called “leberkäse” (which translates to “liver cheese”—shudder!) or that he randomly met Roberto Benigni in 2004 at an Italian restaurant in Munich or that his favorite childhood cartoon was “Gummibären”??

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[Now I already know what you’re thinking… That my relationship is so new and rosy right now, but eventually I will eat my words and recant everything in this post because everyone knows: this kind of giddiness and romance doesn’t last forever.  Got it.  And you’re probably right.  But the thing is, I’ve never gone even *this* long without a modicum of snarkiness, sarcasm, irritation or boredom. Never, in my whole sordid relationship history!  In fact, in starting a new relationship, I don’t think I’ve even gone a few weeks without thinking something wasn’t quite perfect, or there wasn’t a glaring issue to contend with (e.g., hate mail from exes, secret office romance,  I-wanted-him-and-he-didn’t-want-me-until-one-day-he-wanted-me-after-I-went-on-a-date-with-someone-else-but-I-always-resented-him-for-the way-he-treated-me-those-first-six-months, etc.). I think I have FINALLY stepped into healthy, grown up relationship territory, and it feels really really good.

Of course everything isn’t TOTALLY perfect.  Fritz has these sandals…  He got them in Greece—10 years ago <cringe>. And they look like women’s sandals, not kidding.  I’m generally used to European men wearing, shall we say, girlier outfits than the average American dude (man capris are a good example of this, as well as man satchels), and I think it’s fair to say, after living in Europe for almost seven years of my life, that I have a higher tolerance for this kind of fashion than the average American girl.  But these sandals… OMG. I wish I had an actual picture of them to show you, but instead I will provide a picture of what they look like:

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Now do you understand my horror?? (And for the record, Fritz, these are NOT flip flops!)

I only highlight the Shoe Dissatisfaction to demonstrate that this relationship is not, in fact, perfect. I realize we will have serious issues and hard times ahead of us.  For example, I know nothing about European football, or as only Americans call it, soccer. I’m sure for Fritz, this is a VERY BIG negative about me.  I remember very clearly during one of our first email exchanges, he asked me very seriously, “So what do you think about Jürgen Klinsmann??” And I was thinking, Oh geez... This is probably some big-time European leader I don’t know about and I’m going to feel really stupid after I Google him...  And you know who he is? From Wikipedia: a German football manager and former player who is currently the coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.  Oh yeah, Duh!   When I discovered this, I couldn’t stop laughing. And then I started crying, because I realized I was dating one of those guys... You know—the kind of guy who cries when his football team loses and can’t speak to any human for about 6 hours, give or take. I experienced this firsthand after the recent loss of FC Bayern München to Chelsea just a couple of weeks ago, and I gotta tell ya: I felt woefully, WOEFULLY unprepared for how a girlfriend is supposed to act during those unfortunate circumstances.  I’m sure Fritz has an idea in his mind of how his perfect football-loving girlfriend would act, participating in near year-round football watching, harmless ribbing and informed football club conversation over mass quantities of beer… Well, at least I’ve got the beer part down. And I’m all about the fan t-shirts and scarves!!]

Relationship Truth #2: Age is Only in Your Alcohol Tolerance

Let’s face it, people: I’m part Irish and I was raised by the Dutch. This gives me A LOT of leeway when it comes to alcohol consumption. Of course my Dad never drinks more than two beers, but nevermind that.  I know the rest of The Netherlands is filled with all sorts of alcohol and drug-imbibing folk who think nothing of chugging ice cold Bokma Gin for breakfast.  It’s this tangential legacy of which I write.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that after going this long without a husband or children to care for, or any real sort of adult responsibilities like a house or a dog or even a plant in my 3X years, that I’ve developed some other hobbies. Like partaking of fine wines and award winning beers in my free time. Or, doing jello shots and playing Flip Cup all day on my friend Sean’s party barge once (or twice) a summer.  Or, occasionally walking home barefoot from 6th Street at 3am on a random Thursday.  Immature? Sure. A little sad? Maybe. Boring?? NEVER!  That’s because age is not is just a state of mind, it’s also a matter of how much booze you consume on a weekly basis. And this, my friends, is why it’s completely appropriate for me to date a 2X-year-old German!  Make sense now??

Of course Fritz is entirely mature about alcohol, as only a German who’s been drinking since he was 13 can be.

So truthfully, our ages even out: Fritz is really mature for his age, and I’m immature for mine.  I think we average out somewhere around 30, and I’m really okay with that.

Relationship Truth #3: I Am Not the Reason I’m Still Single (But I’m Sure Glad I Am!)

Over the years I’ve formulated many theories as to why I’m not married.  They’ve ranged from I don’t want a man to I’m a psychotic lunatic.  And while it’s true that I did go through a solid decade of pretty radical feminism (Anyone remember my bumper stickers??) and I do think that some men have tended to bring out the worst in me, I’ve come around to the idea that I am really not, at the end of the day, The Problem.

The Problem, I believe, is simply being with The Wrong Person. The Wrong People don’t bring out the best in us and, dare I say it? sometimes unleash a Beast.  You know, the “I know this isn’t right but I’m in denial and I will fight for this relationship ‘til the death!” Beast.  A veritable relationship Kraken, if you will.  My scary Kraken has been released on a few occasions, and to my ex boyfriends I can only say: I’m sorry you were The Wrong Person.

The Right Person never releases the Kraken. Maybe a… little yapping Yorkie or perhaps an annoying squawking parrot once in a while, but never the Kraken.  Because The Right Person doesn’t exasperate you to the point of hopelessness; doesn’t take you for granted; never makes you feel inferior or inadequate; pays a good deal of attention to you; and generally makes you feel so good about yourself that you want to give yourself high fives all day long and makes you laugh so much you almost pee your pants.  The difference between the Right and Wrong Person is like night and day, or like leberkäse and… something delicious.

I’m sure there are several more Relationship Truths I am on the cusp of discovering, but this is what comes to mind for now.  I suppose if I could add just one more to the list, it might be something like:

Relationship Truth #4: The Brothers Grimm Had it Right (I Think)

I remember a scene from a 1980s television show which I can’t recall right now but Wilford Brimley was one of the actors, and he said to his teenage granddaughter who just had her heart broken at the Homecoming dance or whatever, “I’ve always thought it was strange when someone talks about the ‘love of my life’ … how that special, unique person is never in China… or in Mongolia, or in Peru.  No, that person is almost always within a 50-mile radius of where she lives.  Coincidence? I don’t think so. Because usually we’re content to just look in our backyards for the most important partner we will ever have in our entire lives.”  And even at that age, in my elementary, “My Little Pony”-obsessed state, I was able to read between those lines. That is, Don’t settle for the first thing that comes in your path!  Take your time to find The Right Person!  Be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs before you find Prince Charming!

Who says 80s television was terrible?  Everything I learned, I learned from 80s TV.  Probably.

In this vein, I applaud the use of a German-English dictionary.  I fight for the right to Oktoberfest party, even if I have to hold the giant glass mug with two weak American hands.  I might not understand the preoccupation with David Hasselhof beyond Night Rider or why it’s wrong to mow your lawn on Sundays, but I sure can appreciate a culture that celebrates everything in life, from cabbage and onions to pigs and wine, with a Fest!

If I could be fluent in anything, it would be my own instincts, to understand and appreciate enough about myself to know what feels right and what feels like it should be punched square in the jaw.

In the meantime, I’m content to continue with my German lessons.  :)

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Homecoming

From my journal, dated 7 January 2008:

“I want to brush my teeth outside tonight and sleep in a hut.  I want to walk around in the grass and see the stars and the moon so bright it stings my eyes and feel the weight of the sky on my shoulders.  I want to hike a tall hill and then look down on the rolling slopes below, green and lush and soft and serene.

Tonight the convenience of the bathroom and the toilet and the refrigerator and tap water is making me annoyed.  I just want some godammed fresh air in my lungs and wake up to the sounds of animals and the earth.

I’m enclosed in these painted white walls. My spirit is suffocated. I’m surrounded by people and noise and activity, and yet I am so lonely here.  Like a wild beast in a cage.  Homesick.

To go back there, I would fight lions.

I want to feel the sun on the back of my neck and my bare arms, tanning my skin.  To feel the burn in my thighs while I climb a rocky road with a load of school books and pencils.  To splash cold rain water on my face first thing in the morning, before tea.  To hear the sound of blanketed quiet.

I don’t feel right here. I’m not content here.

My soul is not here.  It’s back in Transmara.”

Can’t wait to go back to Kenya!  Missing it so much today…

So here I am, on my balcony, at sunset, writing.  Which is, for the record, my #1 favorite thing in the world to do.  (Besides the obvious favorite things to do.)  I haven’t done this in the year since I moved to Austin, and in fact, I don’t think I’ve done this since like… 2009.  It’s long overdue.

I just got in from an evening designed to center and celebrate myself.  I did this not because I’m one of those New Age folks or one who thinks that individuals really matter, but really for a very practical reason: I’ve been so stressed  out at work this week that I’m afraid the cold sore that rears its ugly head every time I get super stressed will surface again right on the right corner (my side) of my bottom lip.  It’s horrid.  The last time this happened was my last week in the Air Force back in 2007, and it wasn’t pretty.  I had to brief the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary with visible herpes on my mouth, which was awful and was probably the most likely reason they were so nice to me that day.

But anyway, I’m trying to relax and decompress and slow down a bit tonight to avoid heading back into work tomorrow and bashing people’s heads together.  I had to take many, many deep breaths today and remind myself that this is just work, it’s only labor for wages, that whatever happens doesn’t and won’t define me as a human being, and that I can only do what I can do, etc, etc.  But it was a struggle.  Especially when I saw person after person leaving right at 5:30.  Huh?  You mean my emergencies don’t rate cutting into your dinner time, mister??  And then I realized that, unlike my middle aged, married-with-kids male peers, I don’t have a life.  So for me to stay at work until 8 or 9pm, while annoying and interfering with my happy hour schedule and beauty sleep regimen, is much easier for me than for guys who have lovely spouses and beautiful children and dogs and whatnot to go home too.  Sad but true, people!

So there I was… At work.  At my desk. Discouraged.  Worried.  Afraid my cold sore would reappear.  And I made a command decision to take myself on a lovely date tonight.  I drove home, freshened up, and then proceeded downstairs to one of the many dining establishments on the street level of my building.  I enjoyed a flight of pinot noir wine—three delicious half glasses—and a small caprese salad which was just great.  I caught up on work emails, checked Facebook, read the news (Is our country’s credit rating really going to be worse than mine in my mid-twenties??) and tried to savor and enjoy the moment.  It started working.  And, as with what usually happens on really good dates, I didn’t want it to end. So I took myself to dinner at a local Italian place.  I had a nice meal and more red wine and thought about how absolutely lucky I am to live where I do and do what I do and have who I have in my life.  Sigh.  Good times.

But then my Muse starting kicking in.  And by “Muse,” I mean that wonderfully bitchy, compelling and completely calming and ingratiating at the same time voice in my head that is always chastising me for not writing more.  Muse loves many things: Beef filet cooked medium rare, nice weather, a scenic view… But Muse’s favorite is booze.  Particularly really nice wine or the ultimate—dirty vodka martinis.  Over the years some of my best introspection/writing/creativity has been induced by such yumminess.  Muse just loves that stuff.

Good wine + a breezy balcony + a gorgeous sunset + writing about stuff that matters to me = one of my favorite ways to spend an evening.  It’s about damn time.  We don’t need to concern ourselves just right now about why it’s taken me so long to get my butt out here.  It might have something to do with the Texas heat or my emotional state or simply that I haven’t been ready to.  Who knows?  What’s important is that the tradition continues.

I noticed something tonight, when I was sitting at the table at the restaurant finishing my meal.  I realized that I write and even edit in my head.  I had already sketched out the first few paragraphs of this entry in my brain before the check had arrived at my table.  And further, I had even edited my notional copy, noting when I should change a comma to dash for more emphasis and when I needed to use “herpes” versus “cold sore.”  Ah, my mind.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Just like my tush, there’s no telling how amazing it could be if I actually exercised it more often!

Booze Muse indeed. :)

She stood in front of the mirror and dabbled a couple of drops of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle on her neck. Suddenly the hotel bathroom transformed from the stark, white marbled mausoleum into a Parisian garden.  Or café.  Or sidewalk.  Whatever.  Anything was better to imagine than the very real view of the Detroit parking lot through the drapes.

She walked back toward the over-pillowed bed and sighed.  Sat down on the edge and closed her eyes, letting the scent fill the room with remembrance of beauty, confidence and better times.  Like two days ago, when she wasn’t so sad.

Sitting there, work out attire still on her body and hair falling out of her ponytail, she was trapped.  Not just in the room but in her muscles and veins and by her nerve endings.  Make it stop, she felt.

A hundred years ago this girl would not have existed.  There was no precedented time and place for a female of her age and class to be out in the world on her own, making her own money and her own mistakes without a gaggle of interveners.  Indeed, this was a unique time in history for an unmarried, unchildrened thirty something.  The dark circles under her eyes told the story of repression, suppression, liberation, post-liberation, determination and finally, cautarization. 

She yearned for corsets.

I think that lately God has been giving me some tests, and I, I’m sorry to admit, have been failing them.  Repeatedly and miserably.  I might have been a good student in regular school, but I am getting like an F- in God School.

And by “God” I mean the Universe or something, because there doesn’t seem to be any real consensus on the matter.  As for pronoun usage, I just stick with “he/his” because it’s easiest; if I use “she/hers” people think I’m being a smartass, and using “it” conjures up something more like Stephen King than anything holy.

These tests have come in many forms.  Usually the most direct kind, like when I say something definitive to myself like, “Today I’m not going to do XXX” and then I’m presented with that very temptation. And I fail it.  Except I don’t realize in the middle of the failure what’s actually happening in time to rectify it—  Always, always, I realize my mistake too late.  (Maybe what I should actually start praying for is the ability to realize even mid-mistake what I’m doing and then be able to change it, if I can’t manage to eliminate starting to make a mistake all together.  Hmmm.)

So yes, I’ve begun praying again.  But not like Jesus praying, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t a) believe Jesus is still alive (don’t stone me, please!) nor b) believe that any higher Being/Creator really wants to hear whining.  So when I pray I don’t really direct it to any one Being in particular, and I try to keep things very short and simple. I’m sort of like that SETI satellite we put into space years back that keeps sending out random radio signals just in case something or someone hears it and has the intelligence to respond. Yeah, that’s it.  Like the SETI satellite.  I just thought of that one—that’s a GREAT analogy.   That satellite is just cruising through the universe right now—I’m not even sure we even know where it is anymore.  We tried to put directions back to earth on it, referencing the part of the Milky Way galaxy where we reside. And it has a sketch of a human on it too, just so whoever finds it knows kind of what they are dealing with.  Well, that’s sort of like my prayers: genuinely interested, randomly directed and a bit strange.

[Author's Note: "Satellite" is not the correct terminology, since it refers to something in orbit.  More specifically, my references are to Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 and Voyager spacecraft.  Sorry for any snickering this may have caused.]

But, and you won’t believe me when I tell you this but it’s absolutely true: my prayers are always answered.  I always get what I ask for.  I’m basically like a super hero and praying is my super power.  Kind of ironic, isn’t it? Sort of like how my middle name is Faith.  I have witnesses to this power, should you doubt it.  I am 5 for 5.  I have asked for exactly 5 things in my life, and I have gotten all of them.  “Only 5?!?!” you scoff.  Yes.  I knew even at a young age that God wouldn’t be pleased if I asked for things I had the ability to control, like getting a good grade when I hadn’t studied properly for an exam or scoring a soccer goal when I hadn’t been practicing enough.  I also knew he wouldn’t be amused if I wanted something completely selfish, like for a boyfriend to come crawling back to me on his hands and knees or to be voted Homecoming Queen.  So, I saved my prayers for things I thought really mattered.  In order:

  1. When I was 7 years old, I prayed for my Grandma and Grandpa Wilkerson to become Christians one day, because I feared for their eternal souls.  I cried and cried myself to sleep (this horrifies me now) night after night, thinking of them perishing in hell.  (This was the direct result of my Baptist indoctrination.)  Nevertheless, I prayed that prayer, and years later, it was answered.  That was an example of a long-term prayer. (I wonder what would have happened if I had asked for them to convert to Buddhism??!)
  2. When I was in college, my then-boyfriend Dav’s blind dog was lost.  He stumbled out of the house when the door was cracked and ventured into the woods behind the house.  We looked for him for like 8 hours with no luck.  Even though I thought this prayer was borderline selfish (someone clearly shouldn’t have left the door open), I prayed for his return anyway.  No less than 30 seconds later, a van drove by (miles from the house, mind you) and a guy stuck his head out the window and asked, “You guys didn’t lose a blind dog, did you?”  That was an example of a speedily-answered prayer.
  3. The next time I prayed, it was for more practical reasons.  I had some things stolen from, of all things, the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse outside of Dallas, Texas.  We had parked a truck there while we were eating, en route from Tennessee to San Antonio. I had a bunch of my personal belongings in the back of the truck, which was covered by a tarp.  Some hooligans cut the tarp while we were inside and stole a briefcase of mine that contained my social security card, my birth certificate and about every other form of important identification you can think of, not to mention some very sentimental photographs I kept separate and locked.  So I prayed to get that back.  And wouldn’t you know it?  A couple of months later, a lady tracked me down by phone and said she had found a mysterious briefcase right outside her office door at a Wal Mart store, as if someone had intentionally put it there to be found.  It was, of course, mine.  When I received it in the mail a few days later, everything was in it, exactly where I had left it. Not one thing was missing.  That what a “WHOA!! Dude!” kind of answered prayer.  Definitely weird.
  4. The fourth time I asked for something in prayer, my Grandpa Wilkerson was very sick.  He almost died.  I prayed for his recovery.  He did recover, a few weeks later.  I’ve been secretly grateful this mid-speed answer prayer occurred when it did, because he became SO sick toward the end, I almost asked for him to die because I couldn’t stand to see him suffer any longer. Boy am I glad for that timing!
  5. I went a long time without praying for anything specifically after that, mainly because after my Grandpa recovered, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful and selfish.  But alas, I did pray just a few months ago for my friend Stacie to have a baby girl.  She has 4 boys and has always wanted a girl, and let’s just say that Stacie could really use some extra special kindness in her and her family’s lives these days, so I did exactly as she asked (she also thinks I have special powers) and prayed for her to have a girl.  And she is having one.

Coincidence?!??  Perhaps.  It’s hard to say.  Like I said, I’m 5 for 5.  This could be jinxing me right now, like the time I bragged I had never lost a game of spades to some friends, which was completely true even after years and years of playing spades, and then promptly got my a$$ handed to me in the next game.  This could be like that.  In fact, it probably will be. But I digress!

Back to the tests I’m failing so miserably.

So I’ve been trying to work on my character, because character is important.  And by character, I mean being ruled by principles rather than emotions.  We all know those people who are governed solely by their emotions and how absolutely exhausting they can be.  Well, I was sort of getting like that.  Reacting to things instead of being proactive about things.  Allowing my feelings to determine my courses of action instead of following prescribed actions because I know they are good for me and others in the long term.  You know, that sort of thing.  So I want to strengthen my character, and this has been a topic of recent prayers to God/the Universe. 

So God/the Universe’s response has been, I think, to present me with some practice and trial runs.  Confidence builders, some might call them.  Except you can’t build your confidence when you fail them at every turn, as I’ve been doing.  Grrrrr.  

It goes something like this:

Me: “God/Universe, help me to learn patience with those who drive me crazy.”

God/Universe: <Puts someone in my path who will undoubtedly try to drive me crazy>

Me: <Not only do I not demonstrate anything resembling patience, but manage to insult the person even worse than normal…>

:(

Another example:

Me: “God/Universe, help me to not be judgmental and not keep a record of wrongs. Help me learn to take handle each new thing as exactly that and not try to rack and stack it against a history I have locked away in my brain.”

God/Universe: <Presents me with a new “thing” to deal with>

Me: <Not only do I not stifle an impulse to be judgmental, but I accuse this person of every single horrible thing I can possibly remember him doing, spanning over 2 years!!!>

You get the picture?  I suck.

If my life were simply a Comedy of Errors skit (and trust me, the thought has crossed my mind), I could turn this into something really entertaining.  But I hope and trust that’s not the case.  So identifying this inability to follow through with seemingly mundane and ordinary tasks is horrible on many levels, not least of which is realizing that I might, in fact, have flawed character that spans many aspects of my life.  I suppose it’s good that I figured this out when I did, so I have that much more time to work on it, however unsuccessfully, for the rest of my life.  Had God/the Universe NOT put these tests in my path, I might have continued to move along without any clue of just how inconsistent, emotional and fleeting  are my relationships with others.

Hmmmm.  I’m formulating a prayer right now.  :)  In the meantime, please bestow to me the patience and hold off on the judgment that I myself can’t seem to reciprocate!

Since my last post, I’ve continued to study on this idea that depression might be a result of the lifestyles of the modern world.  I’ve enjoyed reading the comments on this blog as well as casually exchanging ideas about the topic with friends over beers.  It’s interesting stuff! 

I’ve recognized some common threads in my discussions, but the most telling one of all is that:

It’s taken for granted that living in the modern world is better than living primitively.  In presenting arguments about the causes and treatment of depression as an illness, there tends to be no discussion about whether or not lifestyle contributes heavily—if not exclusively—to the effects.  It’s ironic that the one thing people never seem to think about or want to explore is the very thing I believe is the prime cause.  Most of the people I encounter in my life, across America, Europe and Asia, come from developed countries and enjoy a very high standard of living.  That “high” standard of living affords them luxuries like electricity, running water, permanent houses, motorized transportation, easy access to processed foods (e.g., grocery stores teeming with already-picked-and-cleaned vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, you name it) and restaurants—all designed to make life “better.”  In this case, BETTER = EASIER.  And for the purpose of my thesis, EASIER = BAD.  “Bad” in the sense that 1) having more time on our hands means more time to think, and 2) thinking can lead to self analysis, and 3) self analysis can lead to sadness or depression.  If you take 1) out of the equation, then you might still get 2) but rarely 3). 

Where is she getting this? you might be asking, and rightly so!  Most of these hypotheses I have come up with from observing myself and others around me, but recently I read an interesting article published in the New York Times Magazine online entitled “Depression’s Upside.”  Although the author presents the case for potentially positive reasons for depression which are dubious, I gleaned from it some interesting parallels to this discussion.

To start off with, it’s necessary to put this debate within a historical context.  The author writes, “Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. that ‘all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.’ This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem ‘Il Penseroso’: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.’ The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?’” 

It’s true that the three men quoted above made a living out of thinking and writing (as opposed to physical laboring), but doesn’t that make my argument even more compelling?  I know what you’re thinking: So you’re saying we’re better off without our artists and musicians and geniuses, or the very people who made it possible for you to type up this diatribe on your laptop? For the record, no.  Sure, we have great works of art and accomplished amazing feats of engineering and progress in the sciences, but are we presumptuous enough to believe progress wouldn’t come along without side effects?  Perhaps all that free time for introspection also paves the way for our mental unraveling.

Relatedly, I was pleased to read there’s some actual science behind my thinking.  The author writes, “In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination [the thought process that defines the disorder] as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.”  So if there’s a behavioral process and cause behind depression, then it follows that changing or stopping that process might curb it.

Even in the “Depression’s Upside” article, there’s no question about whether or not a lifestyle in which one simply has more time to think is better or worse than one in which an individual is so consumed with living in the present that there isn’t time to agonize over and replay sad events in his or her mind, again and again.  Put another way, rumination might be the process or vehicle of depression, but what causes rumination?  Is it a foregone conclusion that humans will ruminate from time to time, some more than others?  Or is rumination just a symptom of a larger problem, perhaps that modern lifestyles are basically unfulfilling?

When I say that maybe modern lifestyles are unfulfilling, I mean the coupling of two things: 1) the modernity itself, defined by easy access to technology in developed countries, and 2) the lifestyles/jobs/careers chosen in our modern age.  So it’s not just that you have extra time to sit around and think due to technological advancement, but also that the things you have to sit around and think about aren’t that great.  If I’m unhappy cleaning people’s toilets or making my uber-rich spoiled brat of a CEO even wealthier, it’s even more miserable to have the time to sit around to stew about it. 

It’s human nature to take things to the extreme to which we’re allowed, right?  So if you eliminate the option to, say, throw a tantrum if your survival depends on it, you’ll probably be more prone to make the wise choice.  I’m reminded of the stark differences in the way modern women give birth and the way women give birth in the bush.  Women in developed countries enjoy maternity leave, bed rest and comfortable hospital beds for recovery, if they choose.  African women in the bush are lucky to have a doctor or nurse within 20-50 km, much less the luxury of not having to work right before and after birth.  And you can forget painkillers!  I’ve seen a Kenyan woman work until the very moment of delivery, then promptly get back on her feet the following day with a baby strapped to her back so she can work, arms free.  My point here is not to disparage women who choose to take it easy before and after giving birth (god knows they’ve earned it), but that we generally deal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.  If my American friends had to give birth in the Serengeti sans doctor, they would deal with it and bounce back accordingly. If that meant having to walk  a kilometer or two to the nearest well the next day to draw water for drinking and cooking, they would do it.  Humans are great at rising to the occasion, when the occasion calls. But we are also great at choosing the easier path, given the option.

I’m rambling on about this only to substantiate that if self pity is allowed, then people will do it if it suits their purposes.  When it ceases to suit their purposes, they will stop.  In the same vein, there are those who suffer from depression and stop grooming, bathing, using the toilet, and even neglect their children. Isn’t it possible that people do this because they can get away with it?  Unless they have a death wish (and some seriously depressed individuals do try or succeed in committing suicide), they probably have enablers in the form of people or technology.  Maybe they have doting companions who pick up their slack in the home, or maybe they are able to sit around the house and rely on pizza delivery for nourishment—whatever the case, that wouldn’t fly in other parts of the world.  If you’re useless to people who depend on you for money, food, protection or nurturing, you don’t get coddled; you get straightened out. Try getting shunned, kicked out of your hut, carrying only a wooden stick to defend yourself and hunt in predator infested grasslands.  I bet you would take notice.  I realize I’m supplanting one extreme case for another in this example, but it’s totally true! 

I hear people all the time saying things like, “It’s all relative.”  Exactly, everything is relative.  What’s horrible to one person might be wonderful to another.  The realization and experience of this might just be the cure some people are looking for.  I can see it now on TV or in the travel agent’s office window: “Depressed? Sad? Can’t stop ruminating?!? No worries!  For the low cost of $X, you can enjoy a week- long stay in beautiful Stockton, California, working alongside migrant workers.  Depression be gone!  If you have time to think about anything else besides staying hydrated, finding enough food to eat and keeping a roof over your head, we’ll refund your money, guaranteed!  You’ll return home to your mortgage, beat up Chevrolet and crabby boss a changed person!”

In an attempt to explain how depression can be a useful tool, the author highlights the research of Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia:

“Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

We could go around and around all day about whether or not it’s good to be sad because it makes you more introspective and, therefore, more prone to change your circumstances.  But the most important takeaway from this story is that depression has a cause and that cause is preventable—or, at the very least, manageable.  Although I can’t prove it, I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as depression without a reason. I suspect there are good reasons for it: boredom, idleness, feeling disconnected from family, friends or people in general, or feeling (and perhaps actually being) useless or underutilized, just to name a few.  It shouldn’t be a given in the mental health community that depression is part of the human framework and here to stay.  If we explore further, maybe we will find that we’re “paying the piper” for our evolutionary choices and we’re not moving in the right direction.  Put simply, maybe modern folks are not leading the lives we were programmed to live.

Has it occurred to anyone else that maybe we got it all wrong?  I don’t just mean slavery, nuclear weapons and trans fats—I mean just about everything?  Jared Diamond is the well known author of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” but well before he wrote his best seller, he published a little essay entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” published in Discover Magazine in May of 1987.  The shocking argument of the essay is that the adoption of agriculture paved the way for “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.” 

To substantiate his claim, he provides examples of diet:

 “While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and ninety-three grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat seventy-five or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.”

 “Today just three high-carbohydrate plants–wheat, rice, and corn–provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.”

health and nutrition:

 “One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’9″ for men, 5’5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5’3″ for men, 5′ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.”

disease:

“…the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp.

Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.”

class divisions:

“Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, nonproducing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses…. Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a Bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?”

sexism:

“Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts– with consequent drains on their health… Women in agricultural societies were [are] sometimes made beasts of burden.”

 Could we add depression to that list of Diamond’s examples?  He sums it up well:

 “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited us from outer space where trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a twenty-four hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. It the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day,from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p.m., we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade and that have so far eluded us?”

If Forgas is right, we should tap into that part of our brain that’s generating depression, collectively ruminate on this, learn the lesson and make the change.  

But knowing our species, that’s not likely.  We’ll wait until we’re forced to.

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