Return to the Black Lodge

Two women in front of a red curtain, holding signs that say "Damn fine."My friends and I attended a Twin Peaks party recently. (That’s me on the left, with Nance on my right.)

Watching that series as a teenager changed me. I’d never seen anything like it. The ways that David Lynch played with mood, with surrealism, with music: It was a show that constantly took risks.

Lynch is talented at creating a dream state on screen. His films have the inescapable logic of nightmare. He’s never afraid to discard rationality, taking a short cut right to the viewer’s lizard brain.

At the party, the hosts showed the very last episode of the series. There’s a long sequence where the hero, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), has entered a place called the Black Lodge (all red curtains and zigzag floors).

The Black Lodge is a kind of underworld, or limbo, where our hero’s soul is in peril. But the threats aren’t clear-cut. There are demons there, it turns out, but there’s no stake-to-the-heart opportunity.

Cooper keeps walking up and down the same red hallway, parting the same billowing curtains, and finding himself in the same room, with increasingly disturbing results. There’s a hum in the background, almost too low to hear, like the space itself is alive and malevolent.

He encounters people who speak strangely to him, in distorted English with subtitles. Lynch created this effect by having the actors record their dialog backwards, and then playing the audio track backwards. The effect is creepy in an Uncanny Valley way: Almost human, but not quite.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Lynch understands that the darkest places aren’t necessarily haunted houses or unlit basements. They can be suburban living rooms. They can be a train track among the pine trees.

And they can be a room with a zigzag floor, billowing red drapes, people talking backwards, and no way out.

During the screening, my fellow fans were in high spirits, laughing and clapping at some goofy elements earlier in the episode. But in the Black Lodge sequence, people got quieter and quieter, drew closer to the person sitting next to them.

The episode is about 25 years old, so that’s some staying power.

*

Agent Cooper was always on the prowl for a “damn fine cup of coffee.” In tribute to him, I brought a couple of signs saying “Damn fine,” and invited people to pose with them.

Some folks came in costume! Here are two Dr. Jacobys (Jacobies?):Two fans dressed as Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks.This Agent Cooper was also damn fine:A fan dressed as Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, drinking coffee.I’m looking forward to seeing the upcoming reboot of the show, which I’m sure will be damn fine itself.A seated woman's legs, stuck out in front of her chair, with a pink skirt, low cowboy boots, and a sign saying "Damn fine."

Read this wonderful Guardian piece about why the world needs Agent Cooper now more than ever.

On Letting (Worthy) Men Lead

A couple of dancers in purple, her hand on his heart, looking playfulIt can be hard for a strong woman to let a man lead.

Many of us have been taught that we’re supposed to be independent and self-sufficient. The concept of a man taking care of us is framed as retrograde and sexist.

But the ability to lead, to initiate, is traditionally masculine. And it’s highly attractive when men know how to do this.

Here’s the problem. Guys—kind, smart, educated, right-thinking guys—are taught that women must be treated as their equals. Fair enough. Essential, in fact.

But guys extrapolate, incorrectly, that they shouldn’t treat a woman like a lady.

That, on a first or second date, they shouldn’t hold the door for her. Pick up the tab.  Lean in for a goodnight kiss.

They get scared to lead.

Problem is, those traditional courtship rituals exist for a reason.

They work.

A couple dancing side by side, looking joyfulI don’t think I’m alone in this. I like it when a guy pursues me. I like to be courted. In the dance of relationships, I like to be led.

In dancing, when both people try to lead at the same time, it creates problems.

This doesn’t mean that Ginger was a doormat for Fred to wipe his shiny shoes on. It means that she, as the saying goes, did everything he did, except backwards and in high heels.

And she let him lead. Which is why they’re so beautiful when they move together.

For a while I was going to contra dances, where many women dance with many different guys over the course of an evening. It was fascinating to watch the way men would approach their chance to be close to me, and to move with me.

Some would hold me away from them carefully, like a breakable object.

Others would try to get, let’s just say up close and personal. Which could be nice, or gross, depending on the guy.

A man and woman dancing, lipstick on his cheek, looking blissfulBut I remember this one man who said at the end of our dance, “I want to dip you. Lean back.”

I leaned back, but I didn’t put my full weight into it. That would have meant ceding control to him.

“Relax,” he said. “I’ve got you.”

So I decided to trust him, and swooned backwards, nearly to the floor. And he held me, and then pulled me back upright.

So gentlemen. Don’t be afraid to tell a woman you want to dip her in the dance.

Ladies. Lean into it. Let him hold your full weight, if he’s brave enough to offer.

And under no circumstances ever give your trust, your control, or your metaphorical steering wheel to an unworthy dude. Even temporarily. It will end in an ignominious crash and bruising.

The right man will make you feel weightless, whatever you weigh.

He’ll make you feel like a great dancer, even if you have two left feet.

The power is entirely yours, women. You get to choose to whom you give your trust.

Don’t let the wrong man dip you.

A man dips a woman in a dance


Photo credits:
2017-02-17–22-17-56–6275–X-T2 by Richard Seely
Barcelona Swing by Jared Goralnick
Midsummer Night Swing at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center by Diana Robinson
Barcelona Swing by Jared Goralnick

 

 

Need Help Concentrating? Try the Refrigerator Method.

An open refrigerator full of food and drink
When I was a kid, my mom got annoyed when she saw me standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open, deciding what to eat.

I was wasting energy, letting cool fridge air out. But also, I was wasting time.

She’d tell me to think about what I wanted to eat first, then open the refrigerator, get the item I wanted to eat, and take it out. Remove the phase where I gaped at all the food inside, cool air flooding out around me.

There are several ways this memory resonates with me now. For one thing, my mom’s German efficiency. For another, my family’s good fortune, that any time I opened up the fridge, I’d always be able to find something to snack on.

But it also makes me think about how I use social media, and the internet more generally.

*

My mom’s rule was the same for TV as for the fridge. If there was a specific show she wanted to watch, she’d turn on the TV to watch it, and turn it off when the show ended.

This is so different from how we use the internet now. We go on Facebook or other sites to see what’s going on, and the sites are designed to deliver the most addictive kind of intermittent reinforcement (where you get rewarded some of the time, unpredictably). So we just stay on. And time slides past us, like cool air from the fridge door.

Lately, to staunch this time flow, I’m applying the refrigerator method. I’ll go on a news site to read a story, and then get off. I’ll dive into the Class III rapids of Twitter for 20 minutes for Twitter, and close my laptop when that time is up.

I’ve found this helpful because it builds my self-control and my patience. It also helps my brain feel less frantically stimulated by everything I could be reading, watching, and thinking about at any given moment.

*

In Cal Newport’s wonderful book Deep Work, he examines methods for concentrating and producing high-quality results while surrounded by distraction and stimuli.

The book is full of practical advice, but it’s also philosophical. “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on,” Newport writes.

Let’s get stingier with our focus. Let’s narrow our spotlights. Let’s turn them off regularly to let them recharge.

Photo by osseous, via Creative Commons license.

Read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and his Study Hacks blog.

Listen to Ben Domenech’s interview with Cal Newport over at the Federalist Radio Hour.

One Question Never to Ask

A cat stretched out in the sunshine, exposing its bellyThe other day, an acquaintance asked me when my due date is.

I’m not pregnant.

Yeah. So that was less than good.

*

Now, just to give some context, I was wearing a form-fitting outfit, and that form includes a substantial bust and a curved belly. I don’t look particularly pregnant, but I could see how, if boobs + belly = pregnancy is an equation in someone’s mind, they could jump to that conclusion.

When I informed my questioner that I’m not pregnant, she apologized, and I told her it was OK. Then I left the venue where we were and went home, feeling sick and weak, as if I’d been groped by a dirty old man.

*

I was angry at my questioner. But I realized that my feeling of illness and violation didn’t come from her question. It came from my telling her that her question was OK.

My instant reaction—gut reaction, speaking of bellies—was to take away her discomfort and embarrassment, instead of voicing my hurt feelings.

I don’t like schooling people or calling them out, even when they’re wrong (or I think they’re wrong). I don’t enjoy debate or discord.

But I need to develop some game in those arenas, because the default of saying “It’s OK” when it’s not feels so toxic and nauseating.

*

I still don’t know what the “right” response would have been. Maybe “I know you didn’t mean to, but your question hurt my feelings.”

But with a question like that, there is no correct response. How do you respond to a question that should never have been asked?

Humor would have been great, if I could have mustered any. I was about a million miles away from a quip to defuse the moment.

I’ve been trying to love my body extra hard since this ego-blow. And I’m reminding myself that this was one moment of thoughtlessness—hardly a ripple in the ocean of my human interactions this week or this month.

But damn. The power we have to start an earthquake under each other’s happiness.

Maybe the moral of this story is that I should take an improv class.

Readers, what would you have said?

Photo by liz west via Creative Commons on Flickr.

In Praise of Low-Salt Language

 

Salt Shaker

Am I a prude? Am I uptight? No one’s ever told me so.

But the conversations I overhear every day gross me out.

A lot of this comes from overuse of one word: shit. People always talk about how their sports team “shit the bed,” or how work was a “shitshow” today.

The words we use bring a particular energy into our lives. Language reframes our reality. That’s why Republicans and Democrats use different vocabulary to describe the same thing: “illegal aliens” versus “undocumented immigrants,” for example.

If a topic is being debated, one word changes the flavor and texture of that debate.

If we talk about shit all day, why are we surprised when we feel shitty when the day is over?

Watch Our Language

A lot of the signs at the Women’s March said stuff like “Get the Trump government out of my fucking twat” and “My menstrual blood will rain down upon you, President Douchebag.” (Can you tell which one of those I made up?)*

Many of those signs were funny, and they did help blow off steam. But their tone alienated many moderate and conservative women who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the marchers’ cause.

Graphic: No Longer Novel?

The general public conversation has taken a turn for the graphic. We’ve come a long way from when Lenny Bruce was arrested for his stand-up. He’d barely be rated PG-13 today.

It’s terrific that comedians like Nikki Glaser and Amy Schumer can be frank about sexuality, bodily functions, whatever. But as with anything, “strong language” weakens when it’s overused.

Obscenity can be deployed for humor, for shock value, for emphasis. None of those work when it’s utterly routine.

We can still speak our minds while speaking carefully.

Flaunting Brainpower

When she was in 6th grade, my friend Calista’s teacher pulled her aside to ask her to swear less. “Why?” Calista demanded, chip on her shoulder.

“When you swear, it hides your intelligence,” her teacher explained.

Calista still remembered this moment 20+ years later. It was a powerful message: Anything that hides our smarts is a hindrance.

A Modest Proposal

Guys, let’s put the “gentle” back in gentleman. You don’t have to be super-saintly in your discourse, like my friend Joe, who often drops H-bombs (that’s for “heck,” of course).

But listen to yourself. See if you’re repeating the same phrases over and over. If so, are those your words, or someone else’s?

And are they saying what you really mean?

Women, when you hear yourself being salty, ask yourself if that’s the flavor you’re going for. Maybe it is. In that case, great!

But as in cooking, when language is oversalted, it gets unappetizing. And can raise blood pressure.

Join me in this experiment. For a day, or a week, talk as if your grandma or grandpa were listening in on your every word. If you start to get crass or obscene without purpose, find other, more creative ways to express your ideas.

Let’s elevate our language above the run-of-the-mill shit.

* The second sign’s wording is my own invention.

Photo by Araceli Arroyo, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Invisible Friendships

A stone wall with a plant growing out of the stones.
When I was a kid, I had lots of friends, and I took them all for granted.

Today, each friendship feels miraculous. Maybe because I’m older, and have lost friends along the way. Maybe because growing up means taking less and less for granted.

It’s hard to describe a friendship. It doesn’t have the narrative arc of a love affair. There’s often no rhyme or reason.

It’s a mosaic of moments that don’t make a picture until I stand way back.

A stone wall with colorful lichen.

Lara became my friend when she showed up on my family’s doorstep one day 37 years ago. We were both 5 and lived in the same neighborhood. As my mom tells it, Lara knocked on the door out of the blue and asked if I could play.

She was shy and quiet, huge eyes in a heart-shaped face. Mom went and got me, and Lara and I went out.

There was never an objective to our time together. We would climb a tree and talk. We would hide under her bed and read.

We played Monster, a tag variation, with her little brother Brian. We had picnics featuring Ants on a Log, AKA Feet in the Mud: celery sticks spread with peanut butter, punctuated with raisins.

A stone wall running up a hill, with a forest on one side.

When we were in third grade, Lara’s family got MTV. One evening she called. “You have to come over now. They’re gonna play Beat It, by Michael Jackson, and Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic, back to back.”

I ran all the way to her house, counting the seconds it took me to get there (about 100). In those days, if you missed a video when it screened, you might never get to see it again. We got to see both videos, each the height of cool in its own way.

A stone wall with thinner and thicker pieces.

Lara’s the only person who ever slapped me in the face. We were arguing, and I said something mean or rude. The slap was not hard or painful, but it was shocking. I knew I’d provoked it. As soon as it happened, it was over, and we let it go.

Lara was always reading. She got that from her parents. There were huge Stephen King novels all over their house. For warm, kind people, they had an affinity for horror stories.

Their house was safe enough to watch scary movies in. One night in junior high, I stayed over and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I couldn’t sleep, and turned my head in the middle of the night to see a claw, like one of Freddy Krueger’s, reaching for me.

I stared, frozen. It didn’t move. It turned out to be a piece of yarn from the blanket hanging over the top of the couch, magnified to a weapon in my bleary gaze.

As teenagers, we watched Twin Peaks. Every Thursday we would convene at Lara’s house. Her mom would make treats related to the series–cherry pie or doughnuts. I don’t think I ever brought food to share. As far as I know, my selfishness troubled no one.*

Once, in high school, my tampon leaked and left a bloodstain on her family’s couch. Lara cleaned it up, flipped the pillow over, and got me additional period supplies. With other friends, I might have felt mortified. With her, I knew she wouldn’t judge me.

This calmness in the face of bodily functions turned out to be a professional asset, since she is now a doctor.

A stone wall covered with green grass.

In our adult lives, Lara and I see each other about once a year. We don’t talk on the phone, and when we do see each other, the conversation follows familiar paths: her sons, our careers, our parents’ health.

It’s rarely been a confessional friendship. Other girlfriends hear more details about my love life, my fears and insecurities, my political leanings.

With Lara though, there’s a unique bond. She’s known me for so long that I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not.

Lara was my original friend. She will always be in my life, the same way I will always be from New Hampshire.

Our friendship didn’t grow like a tree from a seed. It feels more geological, like a New England stone wall, built from many smooth pieces. Nothing holding them together but gravity.


*After I wrote this, Lara told me that I did in fact bring doughnuts to our Twin Peaks nights. Phew!

Photo credits, all via Creative Commons on Flickr, from top to bottom:
stone wall, by Kris Chapman
Stone Wall, by Randen Pederson

06-28-08_2, by Steve
stone wall, by Siaron James
stone wall, by liz west

Fresh and Tasty News Across the Spectrum

A pile of newspapers in purple light.Because American politics are so volatile now—or at least, because the volatility now feels personal to me—I’m finally reading the news. Lots of news.

It’s been painful, during the campaign, election, and first 100 days of the new administration, to realize how little I’ve understood my own political identity.

I was raised by liberal progressives in a libertarian state. That’s shaped me. That’s not going anywhere.

But my own beliefs, I’m realizing, are more centrist. And I feel more and more frustrated with liberal discourse and media. There’s a lot of arm-waving and chest-beating and hair-tearing-out, less of an attempt to truly understand oppositional viewpoints.

So I’ve settled on a news diet that feels pretty nutritious. Your mileage may vary, and I’m not saying that the following are The Only Sources. But they’re helping me feel better informed, and less stuck in my liberal/progressive echo chamber.

From left to right on the political spectrum, here’s where I’m getting my news.

I listen to National Public Radio in the morning. I like the warmth and breadth of their coverage, and it’s also been great to see them bringing in intelligent Republican and conservative commentators. Listening every day feels calming and empowering. My station is WBUR and I kick over a monthly donation to help them do their good work.

I also just subscribed to The Washington Post and read their online edition. I grew up in a household of New York Times devotees, and wanted another well-respected publication with a slightly different point of view. So far their overview of politics seems pretty good, though their journalists vary in the rigor of their reporting and in their writing style. Still, I like this publication for helping me get a big-picture view of what’s happening in DC.

On paper, I read The Economist, which has done more than any other news source to keep me sane over the last few months. They have a dry British humor, and are fiscally conservative, socially more liberal. It’s enthralling to watch their reaction to our new administration, and to compare them with US news sources.

On the right, I read Jonah Goldberg’s weekly email newsletter for the National Review. I first heard Jonah talk on NPR, and was struck right away by his quick wit and broad knowledge. We differ on a lot of points, but he always gives me something to think about and a new lens to view politics through.

Also on the right, I just started reading The Federalist. Again, a lot of their writers are coming from a different viewpoint from mine—which is uncomfortable, but useful, for me as a reader.

I especially admire their senior editor, Mollie Hemingway. Her recent takedown of sloppy journalism in widely read liberal sources is crisp and well researched, and reveals some fundamental issues facing all sides of the press today.

There are many other great pubs out there, both online and in print. Which ones are you turning to in these tumultuous times?

Photo by Jon S via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I’ve got the dirt

A spider plant on a bookshelf.Since last summer, the plants in my office had been distressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a bad parent. They were doing OK. I watered them and stuff. They always got compliments from visitors.

But I could tell they were getting too big for their pots.

So, after much delay and a journey to Home Depot…

Plants on a bookshelfMy plants have room to spread their roots and grow. See how happy they are?

A big plant in a blue pot.People can easily get into a similar situation. Even if we’re lucky enough to have soil and water and sunlight, if we’re stuck in a pot that’s too small, we’ll wither.

These days, I’m thinking about ways to re-pot myself. I have soil (health and home), water (income and stimulation), and sunlight (love and respect). I’m fortunate, and I’ve worked hard to get those things.

But my roots are getting tight.

A small spider plant in a pink pot.Have you ever re-potted or transplanted yourself? What did that mean? How did it go?

Striking a Match

A multicolored box of matchesI just signed up with a matchmaking service.

It was expensive. It was terrifying. And I’m incredibly excited.

I signed up because, at the age of 42, I’m single and looking for a wonderful man. I’ve been on and off of dating sites for 6+ years. I tried Rachel Greenwald’s program. My friends have set me up with their friends. I go to Meetups. I volunteer. I’ve checked out every venue from contra dances to church services.

In other words, I’ve been working hard on this.

I have my flaws and issues, for sure. But I’m also a catch.

Yet somehow, I’m still on my own.

*

Since the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over when it hasn’t worked, I am now done with Match.com, Bumble, and their ilk.

I’m trying something new.

This matchmaking service interviews its clients and gives each of us a dating lesson via Skype or Facetime. I haven’t done that part yet, but it sounds fascinating.

Then my “dating director” starts sending me descriptions and pictures of her clients, one at a time, whom she thinks I’ll enjoy meeting (and vice versa).

This leads to a date—usually after-work drinks or a weekend brunch. The service handles everything. They pick the venue where we meet, make a reservation for us if needed, coordinate the logistics.

My date and I don’t have each other’s contact info. We can ask for that at the end of the date, or go our separate ways.

*

So far I’ve been sent my first match, and my wingwoman at the dating service is lining up a time for us to meet.

I will keep you all posted.

Have you ever tried a matchmaking service? If so, what was your experience like?


Photo by Jeff, via Creative Commons license.

2017: Year of the Tumbling Elephant

A tarot card depicting an elephant in midair, falling off a cliff.I often do a tarot reading for myself on New Year’s Eve, to get perspective on the coming year. The card above is one of the nine I drew in this year’s reading. It shows an elephant tumbling off a cliff into turbulent ocean waters.

Traditionally, this card (the 5 of Pentacles) signifies discontent with the material aspects of life. It can mean going begging for something, especially something tangible like financial security.

The artists who created this deck put a different spin on the card. This is more about upheaval, and about launching yourself into something new and potentially dangerous.

The elephant’s eyes are open. She’s either jumped, or she’s been pushed, but at this point it doesn’t matter. The foamy waves are just below and there’s no telling how deep the water is, or how hard she’ll hit it.

This card came up when I asked about career, so it may indicate getting laid off, or instability at my workplace. It could also mean a dramatic job change.

But it also resonates with our country’s political situation, and my attempts to understand it and to get involved in a way I haven’t been before.

I didn’t even think about the Republican = elephant significance, but this isn’t a partisan card. Many of us are feeling like we’re in midair right now, and are wondering what kind of an impact is racing toward us.

At least my eyes are open. This elephant can swim. Maybe those coins falling off the cliff with me will act like life preservers.

How would you interpret the image on this card?


Photo by me, of the 5 of Pentacles from the Roots of Asia Tarot.