How quickly things can change

July is nearly over. August is soon upon us. Back-to-school ads are starting to play on television and radio, which always makes me nostalgic as well as a little melancholy. Back-to-school time was always hard for me. I loved the summers, being free to come and go as I pleased, being able to stay in the woods at the end of our street, or playing sports with the rec league, having the freedom to do as I wished, as well as balance out my summer jobs with other things I wanted to do.

School was so contrived, so challenging, so threatening for me. I was bullied intensely in school – during my 5th and 7th grade school years, at two different schools – and I anticipated the start of the academic year with a mix of excitement and dread. I never knew how things were going to turn out, but I soldiered on and tried not to make things too difficult for my parents.

Looking back, I realize now just how much everything got to me. I tried not to let on that I was having a hard time with things. I’m not even sure if I fully realized how hard things were for me — it was all I knew, so I just kept going, tried to keep interested and engaged in life around me, and did my best under the circumstances. But it was so hard. I’m sure it is for everyone — I just didn’t know how to handle it well on the inside. I was so confused and so frustrated, so much of the time, but I just kept going

I just kept going.

One of the things that makes my memories of back-to-school so poignant, is how hard-up my family was, just trying to make ends meet. I hear all these stories, these days, about how hard things are for people, and I have a mix of feelings about that. On the one hand, I understand how difficult it is to not have the means to provide for yourself. On the other hand, I don’t understand how people can treat smart phones and expensive clothing and shoes and eating out like they are “staples”. When I was growing up, my parents had very little money, and we supplemented by growing our own food and making our own clothing and cutting corners wherever we could. Back-to-school was not about fashion and school accessories. It was about getting one pair of jeans, two new shirts, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and every few years a new belt if it was needed. My mother sewed a lot of our clothing, and we inherited a lot of hand-me-downs from cousins who had more money than we did. Brand new clothes were a luxury we did not take for granted, and we mostly bought them from a catalog, which sent the shirts and pants individually wrapped in clear plastic and packed into a cardboard box.

Looking around at the world today, I’m astounded at the glut of consumer items that are on the market today. It’s as mind-boggling as it seems pointless to me. So much that we have is little more than an expensive distraction from what we really need to deal with, and we can actually get by on very little, if we pick and choose carefully.

I grew up with a lot of scarcity – we had a big family, and my parents both worked jobs with small salaries. We made ends meet, and we didn’t starve. We had plenty of things to occupy our attention and keep us busy, and even though growing up was very hard at times, I still made it. And I learned a ton of valuable lessons in the process.

Probably the biggest lesson I learned, was how to seem rich even when I was poor. I came from a very poor part of town, but because I knew how to learn and I stood out as a smart kid in school who was also good at sports, I ended up hanging out with the rich kids a lot. For some reason, I’ve always ended up hanging out with rich people, even though a lot of days I don’t have two quarters to rub together, and I’m in constant danger of getting something turned off. There have been lots of times when I had almost nothing, I was dealing with debt collectors and lawyers, I was getting nasty-grams from the mortgage company, and utilities collections people knew me on a first-name basis… and I had to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay for car repairs or somesuch. But I always ended up hanging out with people who were doing really well.

And things always turned around. It’s weird, because when I think, “Things are going to turn around soon,” I often get this image of a down-and-out “loser” or gambler or some other sort of con artist who’s ignoring all the obvious signs that their life is shit and is going nowhere, thanks to their piss-poor decisions. That’s a classic line from someone who banks on a big score, rather than a lot of hard work over the long run, to get them where they’re going. But in my case, it actually seems to happen for me. Things do turn around. They look up. I perk up. And I get out of my poor-me funk and can get on with my life.

Things change. They really do. That’s something I need to really concentrate on and keep focused on. Because right now, things are looking pretty dismal. I need to do some house repairs, and the bids I’m getting are pretty far over what I can comfortably afford to pay – and that’s not even considering the structural issues the contractors may uncover in the course of the job.

It’s pretty friggin’ depressing, all around. I know it’s a process, and I know that there’s going to be some negotiation that takes place, but the whole situation just dogs me. I wish I just had the money and could move forward with it. But that’s not the reality. And I’m not going to have the money until I can change jobs and get a decent contract that pays me what I’m worth on the market, instead of this pathetic situation I’m in at work. Yeah, it’s a process. A pain in the ass process.

But that can change. Of course it can. I’m being silly if I think it’s going to stay this way forever. Life – by its very nature – is about change, so whatever situation I’m chafing about now, will by definition not exist in another six months. In some ways it will be better. In other ways it will be worse. Whatever. It will be.

So, life goes on. I signed up for Angie’s List today and found several more contractors who can come and bid on this home renovation project I have to do. If they can come on Friday, that would be ideal, because my spouse is going out of town for three days — and I’ll have that time to myself, to sort things out and put a number of things in order. My spouse has been having a lot of health troubles, and that’s been a huge demand on my time and energy. They don’t take care of themself — or chores around the house or the bills — adequately, so I end up picking up the slack and doing damage control. They’re also having a ton of problems with anxiety and depression, so that’s another significant demand on my energy — just keeping them out of the pit of despair…

It’s been working, but it’s been a ton of work. Oh hell, I should do this kind of thing for a living – I’d probably make a mint. If I can keep my profoundly depressed and anxious spouse at least somewhat functional — and active enough to go on business trips — I must have some mental health mojo going on.

Then again, it’s challenging enough doing this at home during almost every waking hour. Doing it for a living would probably put me over the edge.

… and it occurs to me that perhaps this is why I have chosen to work with computers for the past 20+ years — they never get depressed, they don’t overeat and neglect their physical health, they don’t constantly nag and harass me over every little thing, and I don’t have to be constantly careful about what I say and do because of a wild-ass irrational over-reaction based on some fantasy about what might be happening and what that might mean.

Yeah – no – going down a mental health career path doesn’t interest me. I take it back.

Plus, the pay really sucks, from what I hear.

Anyway, life goes on. I am doing pretty well, under the circumstances, and even though I’m not getting everything done that I have been hoping to, I’m still making progress. I’m learning as I go, and I’m adjusting my approach as needed. I get to decide how I feel about things, and what I do with the information I get. My life isn’t perfect, but my experience of it can change in an instant, so that’s what I’m focusing on — the experience.

Very few other things are under my control. But what I choose to make of everything that crosses my path, most certainly is.

So… onward.


Doing to be

I got home late last night. “Late” being nearly 10 p.m. on a work night. Greeted like a returning hero of sorts.

I was back.

I did it.

Part of me thinks this shouldn’t be such a big deal, and a week-long business trip to an industry conference shouldn’t elicit praise and celebration. But part of me also knows that I did good work on this trip, I made good connections, and I made a positive difference in the world, in however small a way.

I was courteous to my colleagues in the convention center. I was kind to the poor on the streets. I was considerate of the hospitality staff, wherever I went. And I actually convinced professional peers who have been afraid of the folks in my department, that we are here to help, and their opinion matters.

I met with wary almost-strangers, and parted ways with new friends.

Actually, come to think of it, I think this should elicit praise and celebration.

Gandhi and Mother Teresa might have done more. Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day probably would have done more. But for where I was, and what I did, I did alright.

Best of all, I did no harm. Which is a far sight more than many people do. And I looked people in the eye when they talked to me. Unless, of course, they were culturally uncomfortable with that. In that case, I looked away. Didn’t intrude. Either way, it was fine.

Thinking back, I will say that I had some very dark hours, on that trip. There I was, 2000 miles from home, sleeping in a very uncomfortable bed, off my daily routine, surrounded by people who all seemed to know each other, some of whom couldn’t be bothered to give me the time of day and actually ditched me several times. Assholes. And they sit right across the hall from me at work.

What the hell was I doing there? I asked myself more than once, at the end of long days, when the fatigue caught up with me and I couldn’t muster enough mojo to feel much of anything about anything other than dread and depression. Start of the day –> mucho moxie. End of the day –> zip, nada, zilch. It’s a rough, rough ride, going from way-way up to way-way down in the space of 18 hours, with your joints aching and screaming, your lower back in knots, your neck and shoulders a mass of tender ropes, your head pounding non-stop… And doing it four nights running.

So, I did the only thing I could — I went out for long walks after convention hours, then went back to my room and drew a hot bath and soaked till the pain was eased, and I could sleep.

In those minutes, as I was debating whether to numb my pain with Advil or get my mind off it with a walk… fighting off that gut-wrenching loneliness that comes from talking to your Beloved (or a good friend) and hearing their voice and knowing they are a looooong plane ride away, and as good as their voice sounds, it’s nothing like having them There Beside You… god, that hurts.

But then the thought came to me that this was a valuable experience to have. For as painful and as awkward as things were for me, I was probably not alone. I was at a conference filled with thousands of people who were also far from home, and many of them may have felt exactly the same way — all by their lonesome in a strange place, without the ones they loved nearby. And there were the ones from other countries and other cultures, speaking a different language and eating different foods and interacting in ways other than what they were used to… for them it must have been even harder.

And so I used it. I used that feeling, that pain, that anguish. I “sat in it” as my therapist friends like to describe it. I marinated in it. I didn’t turn on the television, I didn’t listen to my iPod. I just sat with it and felt it and knew it was real… and knew that there were countless other people in the world around me who were feeling very much like me, right at that same moment.

And I took that feeling, that sense, that experience, and I did something with it. I carried it with me, as I went out into the world, attending sessions at this conference, meeting people and talking with them — both officially and just by-the-by. I took that sense of loneliness, that isolation, and I acted as though each person I ran into felt exactly that same way. And when I caught their eye – or they caught mine – my suspicions were confirmed. And they appreciated the smile. Or the handshake. Or the nod.

See, here’s the thing for me… I’ve got my issues. Who doesn’t? But when I take those issues, those pains, those sorrows, and I do something with them, they completely transform my experience. They turn me from a lonely heart looking for love in all the wrong places, to a human being offering other lonely hearts the kind of compassion and human connection you can’t often get in this techno-virtual world, where the most contact some people have with the rest of the world comes from a few hours spent on Facebook.

And as I simply went through the motions of being courteous and kind and considerate to everyone I met, doing the same sorts of things over and over — holding a door open, nodding hello, smiling and giving someone’s hand a firm shake — I felt like I was coming back to myself. Instead of staying lost in the malaise of my own isolation, when I put the focus on someone and something other than my own insecurity and loneliness, I found the isolation lifting, dissipating, fading to the background. It was always there, but it almost didn’t matter — except for the fact that it made me more aware of the isolation that others were probably feeling, every bit as much as myself.

And in that doing, I became something other than what I was in the silence of my hotel room. In that doing, I found a sort of redemption — not only for me, but for those others, as well. Perhaps even for the others whom those others encountered later on each day. Doing my part to not let my insecurity and self-consciousness get the better of me, turned me into a ‘pebble ambassador’ of sorts — toss me in the human pond and see what happens to the ripples.

The more I did it, the better I felt. And by the time I left, the anxiety and fear and self-conscious insecurity and loneliness had all but gone away. They were always there in the background, sure, but it almost didn’t matter… except to remind me how the rest of the world just might have been feeling — and perhaps even moreso than me.


I’m fading, now. Fading fast. Time to sleep. I’ve earned it.

EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids

News from UC Berkeley highlights recent research that seems pretty important to me…

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

You can read the entire article here.

Personally, I’m not sure why this is so surprising to people. We’ve known for years that trauma causes changes to the brain — both chemically and cognitively and physically. And poverty contributes to trauma. Of course, there may be a chicken-or-the-egg connection — which comes first, the poverty or the impaired brain function? — but at least someone is getting tangible measurements about the interplay between socioeconomic status and cognitive functioning.

This puts a new spin on haves and have-nots.