Conversation #3: Extra Special Extrovert

I spent an absolutely delightful afternoon with my friend Michelle at Pine State Biscuits last Monday.  It was sunny outside, a welcome change, so we took advantage by sitting outside in the sun.  Michelle is technically not a suburban mom, she lives in the city limits, but her upbringing was solidly suburban and she fits in well with suburbo-types.  Michelle is a “work friend,” she is an occupational therapist (like me) and we work together at a local clinic.   As a new hire last year, Michelle was the first OT I met and we worked together pretty intensely covering a maternity leave for another OT.  I instantly felt a connection to her, and you would too.  Trust me.  She is one captivating gal.

Michelle has a wide-eyed, curious, outspoken and open-armed view of the world.  She has a huge smile and you feel completely unjudged, listened to and giddy when you are around her.  The best word I can use to describe her is twinkly.  She is just that nice to be around.  Don’t get me wrong though, she has her opinions.  She is resistant to pigeon holing because she is a dichotomy in a few ways.  Michelle worries about underserved kids and families, but is also a cute dresser with a flair for color and finer textiles.  She is patient, calm and easy with the kids we work with, but will raise her voice when it comes to things she finds an outrage.  She is the parent of three Waldorf educated boys, shuns technology and enjoys the creative process.  However, she has high standards for her crafts.  No crap crafts, please.  Michelle believes in healing and the ancient practices of Qigong and yoga.  She is a certified cranio-sacral practitioner (and a few more certifications that are less known to readers) but the glory of a walk outside is also a direct route to curing what ails you.  She sits in the front row at her church so her boys are well behaved while in attendance.  Despite the stereotypes of churchgoers, Michelle is liberal and open minded and she has no tolerance for things which block the path to happiness, yours or her own.

“Most people would probably say I’m a good mom,” is what Michelle says when asked what is the most frequent compliment she receives.  That’s an understatement.  I personally feel empowered by Michelle’s parenting style which steadfastly upholds her ideals.  Those ideals would be togetherness, fun, firmness, free thinking and good old fashioned values.  She has an uncanny ability to not get sucked into peer pressure.  Talking about a friend who starts worrying about summer camps in January, Michelle says she shuts it down.  Her first priority is family time, not scheduling, worrying, list making and competing.  She says she can’t be bothered by that stuff, it’s a drain on her and all the things she would like to do with her family.  Michelle travels back to childhood home in New York at least a few times a year.  This is incredible to me, a native East Coaster.  Three kids and mom and dad making the cross country trek so frequently?   But when Michelle describes her family, I see why it’s so important to her.  While her siblings are all very different, their mom was the guiding force- always telling them that they could do anything and giving them powerful messages of self ability every step of the way.  Family is the center, and that is that.

Friendships are also a high priority for Michelle.  She gravitates toward others who feel the same way about family and together time.  Michelle is a self professed extrovert.  When I was younger, I probably could not have been friends with Michelle.  Her ability to completely pay attention to me, eyes never failing to connect, ideas always supported and firmly entrenched in an underlying confidence: this would have been unnerving to me.  It would have scared me and made me uncomfortable and nervous.  But now I welcome her strength because I think it strengthens me.  It motivates me to be a better parent, friend and less wishy-washy.  She understands that community begins with family and extends to friendships and neighbors and her loyalty is a result of that.  She craves relationships with other like minded people, like school moms or neighbors.  She feels drawn to others by something not quite known, but trusts her ability to recognize a friend.  She is practical too, instinctively knowing it’s harder to be friends with people whose kids are different ages.  Michelle and I are drawn together by the similarities in our husbands and how they think alike, in a very pragmatic way.  We also bond over our the fact that we are most definitely not techno-savvy. When it comes to gossip (topic of an upcoming post), Michelle enjoys a bit of it now and then but knows where to draw the line.  She stops if it comes down to saying something that you wouldn’t say directly to the person.  And she would.  Believe me.

In 10 years, when two of the three boys will be out of the house, she sees herself as being the same in many ways.  But she would definitely like to travel more with her husband, something she loves but has largely let go of in order to raise her family.  Michelle will no doubt be the same anchor for her children that her own family in New York continues to be for her.  She will be the same protective, loving and compassionate person she is, but with more time to sew and create.  She will be the same person with the same “can do” attitude.  I love that the next work day after I interviewed her, she came in and said, “I keep thinking of things I should have said when you asked me things!”  She is compelled to get it right.  Just by virtue of knowing her, so are you.  In 10 years, I am sure that Michelle will be sending home made care packages to her sons, continuing to frequently visit family members, traveling, voicing her opinion (loudly), struggling with technology, working a pop of color in her outfits, giggling, and in general making the world a better place.  I only hope I am still her friend to see it all.

Thanks Michelle!  Biscuits and tea are awesome.

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Are You Contagious?

In this world of heightened economic instability, so many of our friends, neighbors and family members are suffering.  They are scared and unhappy about having to work longer hours, be in fear for their jobs and make sacrifices to maintain financial solvency.  It should come as no surprise that our community is anxious and feeling the ship of normalcy list perilously against the tide.  How then, are we to come to their aid, when the rest of us are worried about our paychecks too?  Could it be as simple as being hopeful in the face of despair?  Can we influence our community with our own resolute assertion that things will work out?  Maybe.

In his groundbreaking book, “Connected,” and in his TED Talk, Nicholas Christakis (and co-author James Fowler) postulate that ideas, behaviors and emotions spread through social networks.   The degree to which these spread depends on your location within that network.  To be clear, good and bad spread through social networks like contagions.  Obesity, smoking, drinking, loneliness and depression all spread through social networks.  But so do happiness, inventiveness and altruism.  This news came as bittersweet to me.  Okay, so we can counteract some of the negative feelings and behaviors others may be having in unsure times.  But is that enough?  I say, let’s generate our own “quiet riot” of hope.

Things I can spread in my daily life in suburbia:

1.  Humor.  A good laugh is like a flu shot.  It’s preventative against all kinds of ills and just bad ju-ju.  You don’t have to walk up to a person who just got laid off and tell them a joke.  Just tell a joke, and let the social network do it’s job.

2.  Hope.  On 9/11/01, my husband and I brought home our first baby from the hospital.  It was incredibly stressful, but we rented Spinal Tap and talked and sat outside in the sun.  It was hard not to feel disrespectful, attempting to ignore the obvious, but it gave me hope that normalcy would return.  Small joys are underrated.

3. Give.  Give money?  If you have it.  Give time? Yes.  Give of yourself?  Absolutely.  It’s a proven fact that altruism spreads through communities.  That could mean a granola bar from your car to a homeless guy sleeping under a tree.  Or it it  could mean playing Wii with your child instead of checking your email.   It could mean going to a PTA meeting or bringing a meal to a neighbor that just had a baby.  In suburbia, our social networks will vibrate with a pay it forward attitude.

4.  Accept.  It’s not for me to judge anyone for needing help.  What’s so wrong with being vulnerable?  Our culture values independence, great!   But I’d like to put in a plug for being stuck in a shitty place in life.  From this place, my most vital life lessons were learned.  When your life sucked, how did your life trajectory change?  Did blaming help?

5.  Listen.  Someone has an idea, a complaint, a worry.  Your friend’s husband just took a 25% paycut.  Your neighbor’s mortgage is underwater.  Your friend’s financial worries are impacting her marriage.  They want to talk about it.  Shut up (I’m talking to myself here, too).  Listen.

6. Respect.  I hear so much talk about people finding their passion in their work, finding a job you love,etc.  Have you ever had a crappy job?  Of course it sucks, but there is dignity in any job that allows you to provide for your family, afford a good happy hour and gives you countless stories to tell your friends.  Sometimes you have to go to work full time at a job you hate and suck it up. There are so many jobs out there that would be really difficult for me to do, given my abilities and limitations.  A teacher, a postal worker, a computer programmer, a salesperson, a garbage collector, a carpet layer, a septic tank cleaner, a manufacturing job, etc., etc…  All of these jobs have taken a hit in the economy, in the media or in our stereotypes of what kind of person may do this type of work.  Fuck it.  These people work their asses off, and are doing the real work.  To them I say:  Thank you for doing a thankless job.  There is honor in what you do.  And if you can’t find a job, I respect your desire to get one.

This is an evolutionary advantage to social networks.  The more you have, the better your life is likely to be.  The collective influence of the whole network makes the sum greater than it’s parts.  Christakis believes that social networks are “fundamentally related to goodness,” which gives me tremendous hope.  We can make it together, without judgment.  Our suburban social network is ready for the lift.

For Deborah.

It’s gonna be alright.

Only the Lonely

Yes I like Oprah.  I admit it.  While Ihaven’t watched her daily in years, I did check in on Oprah’s Lifeclass which she held this past fall.  I loved the webcasts she did, it was delicious juicy fun.  Also pretty enlightening.  The webcasts were interactive with the audience, and a recurring theme was loneliness.  It took me by surprise how many people, a lot of them just like you and me, who were lonely.

What is loneliness anyway?  John Cacioppo, an neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, seperates perceived isolation from objective isolation.  Perceived isolation is that feeling of aloneness, even if you are among people.  Remember when you first left your 2 year old at home with a babysitter?  And she cried and cried for you?  She was with a caring adult but still felt alone.  My friend Claire told the story of dropping her son off at preschool as he tearfully asked her, “What if I feel lonely?’  She wondered how he could feel lonely among 20 other little kiddos, but it was his own perceived idea of being alone: being without her.   Human beings have the longest period of dependency of any mammal.   We are dependent on our caregivers for years upon years, both physically and emotionally.  Legally defined, we are not adults until age 18.  Some parents will likely dispute this age, regardless, we are needy little beings for a large portion of our lives.  During this time, we are building social relationships and making neural connections that lay the groundwork for our uniquely social brains.  We crave community and togetherness, although the amount may differ from person to person.  Cacciopo makes a fascinating argument that loneliness is an actual aversive signal, similar to hunger or pain, that we need connection.   Imagine that.  That gnawing and nagging feeling of loneliness, which we may not even be consciously aware of, is guiding us toward the gratification of being with others.  Thank you, brain.

At the other end of perceived isolation is objective isolation.  Objective isolation is when someone chooses to be alone in a physical way.  Living alone in the United States is at its highest rate ever at 25% per Cacioppo.  In his study of social networks in America, the number of social contacts we have has dropped 50% of the last 20 years.  Even more unsettling,  the number of confidantes people  have is shrinking.  In 1985, the average was 3 confidantes.  Sounds good, I mean these are very trusted friends.  In 2004, however, the single most common response was zero.  None.  No one to call when you get a raise or to talk about the last episode of “The Office.”  That feels sad.  People who are objectively isolated are not necessarily lonely.  I remember the day I moved into my first apartment, getting ready to start my first job the following week in a new and unfamiliar city.  My parents brought me a housewarming present and some groceries and after they left, I felt alone but…exhilerated.  Ready to start a new chapter.  That was not perceived isolation, I didn’t feel lonely or in need.  It was thrilling.

Loneliness is not only a negative signal to your brain, it can be a direct threat to your ability to live a fulfilling, prosperous and thriving life.  You begin to engage in hypervigilance when you are lonely.  Have you ever walked to your car at night when no one was around?  You become super-aware of sounds that may be a threat, you scan the parking lot for movement, your breath becomes rapid, your heart beats faster and you clutch your keys tightly.  You are hypervigilant.  Loneliness can do this to you as well.  It can affect your ability to think clearly, heightens your stress level and can even adversely affect your memory.  It can also influence how you act toward others.  My mother always used to say that if I said negative things about myself, it would become a SELF FULFILLING PROPHECY.  This was consummate mumbo jumbo to a kid but it applies here.  If I expect someone to be kind, they are more likely to be kind.  If I am lonely and I expect someone to be hostile, they may very well be hostile.  In other words, I can repel people just by being lonely and expecting to be lonely.  In college I knew a girl named Kristy (not her real name).  She would constantly buy people presents and offer to do things like drive them home for Spring Break or take them out to dinner.  She name dropped all the people she knew and places she had been.  This type of behavior put others off, it was repeling instead of being welcoming and warm as Kristy had intended.  In the end, Kristy was one of the loneliest people I knew because she was trying so hard.  Under it all, she was scared of being alone and tried to buy and talk her way into friendship.  Of course, this is below our level of awareness.  It happens almost without us knowing it. 

Additionally, loneliness saps our energy and disrupts our sleep.  Caccippo explains it like this:  Think of being a caveman.  You are worried that a bear will come and attack you while you are sleeping so you sleep with a stick next to you in case you are attacked.  Yikes!  In loneliness, the threats are not bears, but the social world.  Fears of interacting and experiencing even more isolation keep some from interacting at all.  At other times, their negative interactions as mentioned above can become a reason to just not even try.  Lonely people also suffer from this vigilance of the brain which can result in increased cortisol levels and thereby a weakened immune system and a decreased ability to fight inflammation.  Have you ever heard the expression, “he died of loneliness?”  Well, it may actually be true.  Loneliness is associated with early death, high blood pressure and obesity.  Loneliness also predicts depression, but fortunately lonely people are not necessarily depressed.  

Here’s the good news!  (Finally, right?)  Most of us are not lonely.  Our evolutionary ability to stave off isolation works for the most part.  In my part of the world, it can get pretty dark and gloomy during the winter months.  I find my gears slowing down and I come to the realization that I haven’t seen my friends in a while.  So I call them and make a plan.  This is my evolutionary biology telling me that my social networks and feeling connected are the way to a better life.  Just like my stomach growling means it’s time for me to eat.   In suburbia, that place I call home, loneliness is all around me.  It’s a statistical fact. But I know that each of us are doing the best we can with whatever we have at the time.  If someone I meet rubs me the wrong way, maybe they are really just lonely.  I know what that feels like.  Can I find it in me to turn that negative interaction into a positive one?  I hope so.