“What’s Your Problem?”

Healthy relationships thrive on communication.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. I’ve learned a great deal about communication from my healthy relationship with my husband. It makes me realize how messed up all my past relationships have been.

Years ago, pre-husband, when I had something that (I thought) was interesting to share, I’d say, “Hey Bob!” (Name changed because, to be honest, I really don’t care.)

He’d respond, “What’s your problem?”

That would take the wind out of my sails. Here, I wanted to tell him this cool thing I’d heard on NPR. I wanted to share a moment. A laugh. A smile. Instead of responding with enthusiasm, he’d come at me with his typical negativity.

For Bob, everything was a problem. Being alive was a problem. You’ve never met a sadder sack in your entire life. It made people uncomfortable. They wanted to avoid him. I didn’t realize how much his horrible attitude weighed me down until I got out from under it.

Who wants to be in a relationship where everything you say is interpreted as some sort of problem? I certainly didn’t. And even more insidious is the fact that clearly there was a lot under the surface that he was failing to say. He’d much rather be a martyr than assertively communicate and work out issues. No positive growth to be had there. Instead, I got the passive aggressive, “What’s your problem?”

Oh, I tried to talk to him about it on multiple occasions. He didn’t seem to think that any changes were needed, so I was left to realize that the problem was, in fact, his. I hope he hasn’t carried that on to future relationships. I would wish rather more for him than that.

But his Facebook page indicates that he’s still unhappy with life. It’s an endless litany of complaints, negativity, bitter humor, deep cynicism, and depression. Every once in a while there will be something pleasant in there, but if you count each post as positive or negative, the negative stuff outweighs those things ten to one, and half the time the positive things were posted to his page by someone else. It makes me sad just to look at it. It also makes me relieved that I’m no longer breathing that toxic air.

Now I’m married to someone who is interested in what I have to say. He also happens to have a lot of interesting things to say himself. I look forward to talking to him. It isn’t a chore for either of us. I save up stuff to tell him at that happy moment when I finally get home, and we communicate positively throughout the day. And now I realize that’s how it should be. How lucky am I?

Yes, life will throw its fair share of problems at you. There’s no denying that. But that’s not the lens through which I choose to view the world. It’s not my automatic assumption. I also happen to think that negativity is learned, and can be unlearned, but some people would rather wallow. I have no idea why. Clearly wallowing hasn’t made them happy or they wouldn’t feel the need to wallow.

I have this theory that people like this think that their attitude is something that they are helpless victims of, rather than it being a conscious choice. I would hate to feel that helpless. Yes, I struggle with depression, and there are days when I feel like crying, but for the most part, I spin my world rather than letting it spin me.

Your existence should not be a problem to overcome. There is so much to see and do and learn and be inspired by! There’s so much beauty and wonder! Life is such a gift and such an opportunity. It shouldn’t be squandered.

It’s delightful to be in a relationship that isn’t covered with a wet wool blanket of despair. My husband can put a positive spin on just about anything. If he sees dog poop in the road, he’ll say, “Thank goodness the dog wasn’t run over!”

I love that about him. So, so much. Life is good.

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Somebody Is Talking about You

Talking about one another is just what we do.

We all go through life telling stories. We talk about past experiences. We tell someone what we had for lunch. We recommend books, restaurants,  colleges, and potential mates based upon what we know. We discuss our plans, hopes, and dreams for the future. We give advice.

If these stories are compelling enough, they get repeated. How many times in the past week have you said something like, “I know a guy who…” or “I just heard…” or “Mary told me…”

Yes, gossip can be included under this overarching umbrella of communication. We humans love to gossip and speculate and draw conclusions. We all do it. Heaven knows I’m not immune. Fortunately, that is only one way to tell a story. I hope most of us spend more time on the high road than on the many other ones.

Either way, this propensity for storytelling is why I can say with certainty that somebody is talking about you. Because talking about one another is just what we do.

I recently learned that a friend sometimes uses my blog posts to help her clients improve their English language skills. I know another person who reads portions of my book to her Alzheimer’s patients and then asks them to discuss similar experiences, to help spark their memories. Both of these things make me smile.

Trust me, you’re being talked about. One can only hope that most of the things that are said about you are good. It sure does make me want to improve my odds by living a virtuous life.

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“Oh, George…”

Every once in a while, my mother used to talk in her sleep. It was usually something quite silly, and I’d have fun teasing her about it the next day. She would just roll her eyes at me.

But one night, when I was about 10 years old, she said, “Oh, George…”

She said it in a husky, passionate way. This was the first time I realized that my mother had a private life all her own. It kind of rattled me.

“Ma, who’s George?” I asked her over breakfast.

“George? I don’t know any George,” she said, looking confused.

I asked her what she had been dreaming about, but she said she couldn’t remember. (Come to think of it, what else could she have said to her 10 year old daughter at that moment?)

Some stories you never get to hear all the way to the end. This was one of those. It’s probably why it stayed with me, after all these years.

Now that I’m an adult, I hope and pray that there really was a George in my mother’s life. Born in 1927, my mother was a product of her era. I strongly suspect she didn’t “get around”, as the saying goes.

She was married twice. First, to my alcoholic and physically abusive father, and then to my step-father, who weighed 400 pounds, and was a perverted pedophile. If those were the only intimacies she experienced, I feel truly sorry for her.

My mother was a beautiful woman and an amazing human being. I hope at least once in her life she had an encounter with someone equally amazing who made her feel attractive and valued and appreciated. I hope that she had reason to have a secret smile on her face every now and then, to keep her spirit warm in the emotionally sterile world in which she lived most of the time. It makes me sad that I’ll never know for sure.

Everybody deserves at least one good “George”.

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Try Listening

I know a guy who talks so much that people actually scatter when they see him coming. He’s a nice guy. He means well. But he can suck, literally, hours out of your life as he holds forth on whatever he has chosen to blather on about on that particular day. And you’re expected to just stand there and say, “Uh huh.”

I doubt, even after all this time, that he knows much of anything about me. I can’t get a word in edgewise. And he doesn’t seem the least bit curious about anyone else. He never asks questions.

I think this is really sad. I personally would be bored silly if the only topic I was willing to discuss was me, me, me. I know me. I’ve done me. I’d much prefer to learn something new, or experience a unique perspective. This guy isn’t capable of that. His life seems very limited.

He also seems rather short-sighted. He doesn’t seem to notice people running away from him. I’ve seen people who have had to get rather rude to shut him up. One guy started his leaf blower right in the middle of a story. Mr. Talky-Pants didn’t even seem surprised or insulted. I bet things like that happen to him a lot. You’d think that someone who is that inwardly focused would be more aware of insults, but he lacks that quality.

When you are talking to someone, try listening as well. Every once in a while, check in with yourself and say, “Am I learning anything new?” If not, ask something. Show some interest in those around you. Keep doing that until it comes naturally to you. People will most likely be charmed by your sincere curiosity, even if it does take practice.

That, and knowledge is power.

A big rule of thumb is that if people are running from you, you are either too big of a proponent of open carry, or you most likely aren’t a pleasure to be around.

'Listen^_The_enemy_may_be_talking._Don't_talk^_The_enemy_may_be_listening.'_-_NARA_-_514901

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It’s Okay to Talk About Death

During the most profound parts of my grief over the loss of my boyfriend, I remember thinking, “I wonder how long it will be before I can talk about Chuck without making people uncomfortable.” I wanted to talk about him. I really did. Both good stuff and bad stuff. I wanted to process what I was feeling and why. But I found it really hard to discuss it with people because I felt as if I were making them squirm, and they didn’t know what to say.

How could I explain to them that it was okay to talk about Chuck? How could I tactfully make the point that death, as a general rule, is not contagious after the fact? How could I reassure them that they couldn’t possibly cause me any more pain than I was already in, and that, by talking about him, they were actually helping me? My energy was at an all-time low, so I wasn’t in the mood to school people.

Then the other day I came across the following in a book by Barbara Kingsolver, and as per usual, she really knows what to say:

“People who are grieving walk with death, every waking moment. When the rest of us dread that we’ll somehow remind them of death’s existence, we are missing their reality.”

This couldn’t be more true! It’s not like we’re taking a vacation from grief and by bringing the subject up you’re thrusting us back into that awful place. You’re not reminding us of something we’ve forgotten. We’re already there, people. And it’s okay. We’re going to survive. It’s just that it would be so comforting to talk about it, so nice to feel less isolated. So make the effort, even if it’s just to ask if we’d like to talk. It would mean more than you know.

I’m happy to say I’ve gotten past the worst of my grief (although it will never go away completely), but if anything could have made the experience easier, it would have been the general sense that I didn’t have to censor myself to avoid making everyone feel awkward. Please try to give that gift to the people you love who are grieving.

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[Image credit: nhfaithfusion.com]

The Thirty Million Words Initiative

If I haven’t said it recently (but I’m fairly sure I have), I absolutely love National Public Radio. I learn so much from NPR that I probably would never know otherwise. Case in point: the Thirty Million Words Initiative.

One of my all time pet peeves is parents who do not read to or communicate with their children. I’ve entered many a house where there are no books to be found, and the TV is tuned to soap operas instead of Sesame Street, and it makes me want to scream, “You are setting your child up for failure!”

Now, finally, vindication. The Thirty Million Words Initiative was started by Dana Suskind, a surgeon who wrote the book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain. In an interview with NPR, Suskind said, “The 30 million word gap comes from a very famous study that was done probably about 30 years ago by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, where they followed a group of children between 0 and 3 years old from all socioeconomic backgrounds. And basically what they found, by the end of age 3, children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds will have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. And this number itself was correlated not just with differences in vocabulary but also differences in IQ and test scores in the third grade.”

This gap comes from a combination of familial/cultural differences and the stressors of poverty. The words you use with your child have an impact as well. Some children hear as much as 6 times as many positive affirmations as other children do. Being belittled affects your development.

The Thirty Million Words Initiative is a program that encourages parents to tune in, talk more, and take turns with their children. To learn more about this, read the book, visit the website and support it. Set your child up for success.

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The World’s Best Bedside Manner

A little over a week ago I had surgery on my wrist. I was scared silly. Mostly because I’d be all alone during my recovery, but also because it’s downright unnatural to voluntarily subject oneself to getting sliced open. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind says, “Here. Cut me, please.” You have to be in a heck of a lot of pain in order to seek out pain as a remedy for that pain. After many months of procrastinating, I had reached that point.

I had every confidence in my surgeon. Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Joneschild, and she’s part of the Seattle Hand Surgery Group. I’d seen her several times prior to this last, surgical resort, so I had developed a great professional relationship with her. Not only does she clearly know what she’s doing, but she’s very patient when you ask her questions, has an excellent reputation, and, let’s face it, she wouldn’t have an office with such a spectacular view if she weren’t doing something right. So if you have problems with your hand or wrist, I highly recommend her.

The anesthesiologist, on the other hand, I only got to meet on the morning of the surgery. That’s, of course, pretty standard, but it doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. Here’s someone who can knock you out in a variety of ways, who you don’t meet until he’s about to knock you out.

In this case, I was to remain conscious. They were only numbing the arm and putting a drape across so I couldn’t see what was happening (for which I was extremely grateful). But I was still scared and I’ve no doubt that it showed.

But I was lucky enough to have Dr. Stephen Markowitz as my anesthesiologist. I’ve known a lot of great people in the medical field in my lifetime, but this guy really went the extra mile. Obviously Dr. J had to concentrate on what she was doing, so Dr. M started asking me about my job. What’s it like to be a bridgetender? What bridge do you work on? How high is it above the water? Any question he could think of.

Not only did this conversation distract me, but (and I have no idea if he was conscious that he was doing this or not) it also allowed my mind to leave a realm where I was feeling pretty helpless and scared, and enter a realm where I was an expert and actually had something to teach and contribute. The surgery was over in about 15 minutes, and I didn’t feel a thing, not even panic. What a gift.

I’ve got to say that my hand was definitely in good hands. I’ll be forever grateful for that. When you only have two of something, you tend to want to hold on to them at all costs.

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