“Mom, I’m scared.” Yeah, me too.

I'm thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

I’m thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

As parents, we are often called upon to allay our children’s fears.  Spiders, the dark and blood are common fears among the kid-set.  But what about when their fears overlay our own?  What about when the things they fear bring about thoughts about what we fear in ourselves and our own lives?  When your 8 year old says, “I’m afraid that you might die in a car accident,” is there a little voice in your own head that says, oh my sweet girl, that scares the shit out of me, too.

The things I am scared of now are not the same things I was scared of in my twenties.   Then, it was more about worry over getting my heart broken, obtaining a speeding ticket, sleeping through my alarm or getting caught with an open bottle of beer in my car.  Now, my fears directly relate to my people.  I’m sure yours do, too.  Am I doing damage by the way I parent them?  Subtext:  will they get pregnant at 18 and drop out of college?  Am I giving my husband the attention he deserves?  Subtext:  will he finally get tired of the fact that I put my pajamas on at 7:30 and go have an affair?  At this point, all my fears come down to one basic fear:  There are people in this world for whom I am responsible.  They count on me.  I can’t screw this up.  It is no longer just about me.

This week has piled fear on top of fear in our country: bombs, jihad, chemical explosions and all manner of anarchy.  The footage of those young guys calmly preparing to kill people is disconcerting to say the least.  The London marathon, held this past weekend, reportedly had significantly fewer and more jittery spectators in attendance.  My daughter, despite her fears, rides in the car with me on a nearly daily basis. So it got me thinking.   How do we do it?  How do we get past our fears?  Of course, there is a fear and subsequent emotional response when we encounter situations which make us afraid.  Your lovely amygdala, almond sized in the temporal portion of your brain, mediates the fear response.  When you get sweaty palmed, tight lipped and tummy-sick from fear, you have your amygdala to blame.  So what keeps this little guy from going into overload?  Another structure called the rostrate cingulate tells your amygdala to chill out.  In my daughter’s case, having been in the car many times, the rostrate cingulate quells the fears by relying on prior evidence that this car thing is actually pretty safe.

That little gem the amygdala.

That little gem the amygdala.

And also, there is Brene Brown‘s work which tells us that “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”  According to her research on courage and vulnerability, anything worthwhile we get in life is basically because we put ourselves out there.  And being fearful is in direct conflict with being joyful in the world.

Ok, so I get it.  Fear is part of life.  We rely physiologically on fear to prepare us in case we need to get the hell out of a situation.  We need to walk through fear to feel relief and relinquish the idea that we actually have some modicum of control in our lives.  I think about people like Woody Allen or author Jonathan Goldstein, who have made careers out of their fretful, some would say neurotic manner.  Both are highly successful, but retain a certain level of skepticism and arms-distance from the scarier aspects of life.  Then I think about adventure junkies like that rock climber who doesn’t use ropes.  Or people who hike by themselves for vast distances without knowing where they are going.  We are all part of the same human continuum.  After the Boston marathon, we can choose to never do a sponsored race again.  We can live in blame.  Or we can sign up.  And show up.  And see what happens.

In suburbia, I have heard people wondering if this is the “new normal.”  Worrying about the future of our children.  Of our country.  I get it.  I worry, too.  While following the news coverage of the hunt for the suspects, I heard the story of a community in the heart of the lock down.  The families gathered in a neighbor’s house, made pancakes, the kids played in the playroom and the adults made inappropriate jokes and speculated on the reasons the suspects did what they did.  What an awesome gathering!  What a remarkable way to heal.  Together.  Because really, aren’t we all just a little fucking over being afraid?

So, yes, my 8 year old is afraid.  She frets.  She worries.  But I admire her deeply.  She tells me what scares her.  She trusts me listen, help and most importantly, not judge.  With such unabashed honesty, her giant pooling eyes well with tears.  But she is so smart.  She knows she doesn’t have to go it alone, that sharing gives purpose and meaning to things which make no sense.  In her fear, she does not blame and she does not get angry.  And after we talk and snuggle, she’s better and runs off to play.

We could learn a thing or two from her.

It's okay.

It’s going to be okay.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen from Mt. Hood MaMa Iphoneography for her beautiful photos.  Don’t be afraid to check out some of them.

I confess. I didn’t work out today.

I'm thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I’m thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I didn’t go to the gym today.  My gym shoes lie dormant in the shoe closet, festering in dark silence.  My yoga mat sits neatly rolled up in the corner.  The pad of my index finger did not sit on a screen to check me into the gym.  My dog did not pant gratefully, then flop onto the cool tile after a run.  My speedy green road bike hangs on it’s hook, its odometer stuck on the same number from my last ride a few days ago.  Still and peaceful in my drawer, my heart rate monitor awaits it’s next challenge.  But my brain?  Ah, my brain.  That’s been going a thousand miles an hour.

The clock now reads 7:47 pm, and I am still thinking about where I could have squeezed in a workout.  (Okay, dammit!  Not “thinking.”  Obsessing.)  In the 45 minutes I had before I picked up the kids?  Could I have gotten up early?  I should have gotten up early.  The mental space taken up negotiating, fact checking, brow beating and ass kicking has been a workout in and of itself.  I mean, seriously.  What a waste of time.

Now, I grew up Catholic and my husband is Jewish so we are no strangers to guilt around here.  But my fellow suburbanites also carry around a fair bit of guilt themselves.  They work too much.  They don’t exercise enough.  They don’t make enough money.  They should be more crafty, more creative.  More interesting.  Less critical.  More kind.  More productive.   They should take more classes, go back to work.  (I swear to you all overheard in one happy hour).  There are multiple structures in your brain which are responsible for how you perceive and process guilt.  What motivates one person is different than what motivates another, but we are all profoundly and universally influenced by community.  This means that if your friends and community didn’t exercise, it would be a hell of a lot easier to hit the snooze button rather than get up and go to the gym.  Conversely, this is often why groups like Crossfit and for me, my yoga community, are intrinsic motivators.  You think about who you will see and who will miss you if you don’t show up.

In suburbia, if you see other people making good money, working out/looking fit, having good marriages and managing their time wisely, you want to do it too.  It’s a testament to my social network and neighborhood that there are some pretty hot 40 somethings (with great lives to boot).  So that’s probably why I feel bad when I miss a workout.

Personal blame, like when you are a lazy ass and don’t work out and beat yourself up for it, is mitigated in the subgenual cingulate cortex by the limbic (primitive and emotional) region of the brain.  These layers of emotion, blame and guilt make for some very busy collaborations.  It also makes sense to me, given all the stuff your cranium is processing, that you would be exhausted.  At this point, you should do yourself a favor.  You should, as my grandma used to say, shit or get off the pot.  For me, I should either not work out and chalk it up as a rest day or I should just go work out and be done with it.  Today, I am choosing to call it a night.   And I’ll tell you why.

First of all, it was a great day.  Beginning with a fun field trip with my 8 year old daughter, followed by getting some errands done, doing some writing, talking with a friend and ending with some real magic, it’s okay that my day didn’t include breaking a sweat.  Also, rest days help the following day to be stronger and better.  Maybe it will help that nagging knee pain I’ve been experiencing.  Maybe I’ll tackle an 8 or 10 miler tomorrow with my pup.  And you know what else?  There is SO MUCH more time in the day when you don’t work out!   I got my paperwork organized for work tomorrow, got my daughter to swim lessons on time, grudgingly mailed the taxes my hubby thoughtfully prepared, wrote a note to my sister-in-law and did some yard work.

As for the magic, the picture below was a rainbow we saw right out my front window tonight.  We would never have even known it was there if my neighbor hadn’t called to tell us to look out our window.  Thank you, neighbor.

Thank you, community.

No more guilt for me.

Now that's a little suburban magic right there.

Now that’s a little suburban magic right there.

Thanks again to Barbara Paulsen for the image at the top of this post.   She continues to inspire me with her creativity.

Happy Birthday to Suburbo-types! And me!

We’re all in this together.

Okay it’s not my birthday until mid-November, but this week marks a year since suburbo-types was up and running.   (Suburbo-types is only 1, but as my daughter pointed out, I am going to be 44, not 43 as my brain had originally thought.  Nice.)  It’s a natural time to think about this project, what I’ve learned and where it’s heading.  Originally, suburbo-types was meant as a platform for my understanding of the truth of our relationships in suburbia, how and why we stereotype each other and to gain a fuller understanding of my fellow suburbanites.  Alas, a year later, I have no solid answers, but the questions are evolving.  And the truth as to why I began is starting to make more sense to my often hard-headed skull.

It’s a biologically human and rational inclination to desire contact and connection with others.  In the months before I began the blog, my best friend Tracy moved away and I found myself wanting to get to know people more.  Tracy was my lifeline as we raised our babies together (our kids are the same ages). We talked on the phone sometimes 3 times a day.  My baby projectile barfed! Her baby sprout a tooth!  I’m worried, I’m scared, I feel incompetent, I’m lonely!  I was able to say whatever I wanted and I knew she understood.   It is an intense time for all new moms, but it was made easier by Tracy who juggled making me laugh, listening to my incessant chatter and hearing every word I uttered without judgment.   She is still there for me, but she lives 2 hours away, works and has a life of her own.  So do I.  But when she left, I wondered how I would ever feel as connected again.  Not to mention the pain of living so far away from my family, especially my new niece.

Shameless promotion of adorable new niece.

In the wake of going back to work part-time, raising young children and navigating the suburban landscape, I found myself being incredibly judgmental and critical of my suburb-dwelling peers.  I was constantly sizing people up, and in the end, I was really only judging myself.  I realize I was making other people seem scarier than they were to protect myself from, what, getting attached and having THEM move away too?  Maybe it was easier to keep everyone at arm’s distance.  But as I came out of my shell,  and as I met new friends and let myself (and them) off the hook a little more,  I came to see that all of us hide a little and we certainly protect ourselves.  Maybe we criticize others for how they parent, how they dress or what they say.  I am guilty of doing these things too, but I am willing to let go of it bit by bit to make the suburbs feel less strip-mall and more Main street.  In Dave Goetz’s book Death by Suburb:Keeping the Suburbs from Killing your Soul, he states that cultivating deep friendships (note: not the get your mail for you, wave from your car-kind), those that bring deep joy and satisfaction, is the antidote for social climbing,  people pleasing, ass-kissing and perpetuating your mask.  I know, deep, right?!

In the compelling book Incognito by neuroscientist David Engleman,  he lays out a complex interplay between two parts of your brain.  The first, the prefrontal cortex,  does it’s best work by stretegizing and analyzing.  It plans and thinks.  It tells you that you have exactly 24 waking hours on the weekend in which to do laundry, finish that report by Monday, help with homework, make meals, prepare for the coming week etc.  Then, the more primitive limbic system, or emotional control center, begins to feel the freak coming on at about 4 o’clock on Sunday when all that shit has no chance of getting done.  It works the same way when you are building relationships .  The prefrontal cortex examines what you will say or wear, then the limbic system causes you to worry about that joke you told or the red shirt that you wore that may have been just a little too low-cut.  All of us have these two characters battling it out in our heads.  For me,  genuinely connecting to others and putting myself out there makes my inner soldiers a little less likely to get into full-blown war.

The suburbs have always felt a little lonely to me.  They with their picket fences and closed doors.  Unknown neighbors.  Long driveways.  Pruned bushes.  What’s really going on in there?  (okay, not everything: private is private) This writing, although making me incredibly vulnerable and fearful at times, has freed me to explore uncharted waters.  Who is beneath the facade.  Where the truth lies.  All the topics for suburbo-types come from conversations I have had or overhead somehere in the ‘burbs.   And the interviews are attempts to understand there is a lot to know about each of us.  Really, it’s just so we all know that those we surround ourselves with are more than who we see.  Of course, you don’t want to be too vulnerable.  You don’t want to tell someone that you are living a shame-based existence the first time you meet them.  The fact that you slept with the entire football team your sophomore year of high school?  Probably TMI.  You have to have a strong base to hold up the weight of the relationship.  Thanks to you,  I hope is what the community of suburbo-types is starting to do.

So, for the coming year, the blog will be focusing on more interviews, more subjects that maybe we all think about a little bit but don’t talk about very much and just being here for a safe 5 minute read during your busy lives.  Please let me know what you’d like to see, any polite criticism (I am human, after all) and insights into your suburban life.  I value your feedback and don’t publish it if requested.

Mt. Hood Mama Photos is responsible for the lovely image at the top of this post.  My sister is responsible for the cute baby photo.  And the cute baby.

Notes on Aunties and Airplanes

I am crying.  I am on a plane and I am crying and hoping nobody notices.  Except the flight attendant who gently is waving a tissue at me while looking in the other direction.  I like her.

You see, I just came home from visiting my little sister’s new baby.  She and her husband have been trying for years and finally adopted little Vivienne.  Let me tell you about her, okay?  Thanks.

She hums sweetly when she is drinking a bottle.  She giggles at my mom.  She has slate blue eyes and blondish eyebrows and light brown hair.  Jess calls her “Squidge” because she wiggles and stretches and grunts and you know, squidges.

My suburbia is more than 3000 miles from her suburbia.  Being away from family is hard.  In my little corner of the world, many of the people I know are from somewhere else.  It helps when you move to someplace where lots of other people are new, too.  They welcome your idiosyncracies and your story because it’s not familiar, and it gives you a chance to reinvent yourself.  But parts of it suck.  Such as lack of direct flights,  a whole day spent in travel, lack of family to babysit your kids, I can’t jump in my car and go for a visit or out to lunch, my kids miss them, it costs a fuckload of money to get there, I have to stay at their house and they are really over us by the time we leave.

The pain feels vaguely like a steel pipe has been inserted into my throat and chest and I can’t breathe very well.  The tears start stinging when I think of the gentle click of the infant swing, the sound of a cry which resembles a mini party horn, and the tiny farts produced by a vigorous backwards stretch.

Evidently I am not getting over this anytime soon.  Deep sigh.

When I get together with my sisters, the discussion inevitably shifts to childhood memories, the level of dysfunction in our extended family and jokes at my mother’s expense.  She is a good sport.  Also to my dad, who has been gone over 18 years now.  Though not biologically related, little Vivienne is a ringer for my dad with the receding hairline, chubby cheeks and brown hair.  She also shares his unequivocal love for my mom, finding her curly red hair and her willingness to make a fool of herself quite hilarious.

Would I do it again?  Move so far from my family?   Well, it was before any babies were born.  And I do love where I live.  It would definitely have been a tougher choice.  But we have embraced our community and our lives here.  Life is rich and good.  My friend Marci says friends are the family you choose.  And it comforts me to know that I have chosen well.

Gossip Girl, um, woman

Looking back on it, spreading that gossip was not a good idea.  In high school there was a girl named Tina who was adorable and cute and all the boys liked her.  Some of my friends told me that she was having sex with lots of boys and that she was “easy.”  This information was unverifiable at the time, but I distinctly remember feeling a something in my stomach resembling a heavy meal. What I have come to believe is twofold:  that feeling was and is entirely real and also that the feeling is my instinct telling me something.  That is why it is called a “gut” instinct.  I knew Tina and this characterization did not sit with me.  Turns out, my instinct was correct.  Tina was not in fact easy, and this was a malicious rumor being spread for a reason I did not know or understand.  But I told the gossip anyway, even though the words leaving my mouth gave me pause.  Why do we spread gossip?  In my home of suburbia, I can attest that a certain amount of gossip goes on.  Maybe not as much as high school, but it happens.

From an evolutionary perspective, gossip was a way for our ancestors to get ahead or warn others about someone in the clan.  In that way, it can be seen as protective.  Scientists call this “prosocial” gossip.  It serves the purpose of informing others about the tricky, dangerous or dishonest actions of someone in the group.  It causes us to pay attention and be on the lookout for this group member, whom we have been warned could hurt us.  Getting this type of information can clearly be useful to us humans.  Staying away from a person who wants our mate, is vying for the same bison herd or is prone to violence is obviously beneficial to the early human.  But what about now?  What is the reason we use prosocial gossip?

Actually, gossip in suburbia can be seen as altruistic.  Stay with me here!  In scientific studies, the gossip actually lowers the gossipers’ stress and lowers their heart rate.  Your friend who just told you not to tell so and so anything private wants to warn you that unless you want your dirty laundry aired, best to keep your mouth shut in certain company.  Maybe you want to know someone who would be a good resource for finding you a job.  Or a new husband.  Either way, you want someone who will not broadcast your intentions.  A friend who cares about you may not want to speak ill of another, but your wellbeing is on the line and so they tell you not to trust someone else with that information.  All very socially supportive and nurturing to our species. See!  Gossip is not all bad!  Gossip also fires all those warming, connecting and friendship making neurons that feel so good when making friends.   Also, when you know others are talking, you are less likely to do something offensive within the group.  It sets up a check and balance system so that the offending parties remain on the outskirts of social acceptance.  So maybe you shouldn’t do things like sleep with your friend’s husband, hit your kids just because you are having a bad day or say mean things about people just to be mean.  Just saying.  Because we will tell that shit.

Malicious gossip is another beast altogether, as I was speaking of with Tina.  I often wonder how she was scarred by such gossip, and how it may have changed her and who she was.  Hearing a bit too much of the word “slut” in the news lately, I have been wondering about this.  I’m so sorry Tina.  If it makes a difference, I always knew it wasn’t true.

“Anyone who has obeyed nature by transmitting a piece of gossip experiences the explosive relief that accompanies the satisfying of a primary need.”    Primo Levi