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See Our Lights, Read Our Minds

Blogger’s note: Here is my favorite holiday post from 2008:

 

University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling studies what personal spaces — like offices and bedrooms — can tell us about their owners.  These rooms are particularly revealing about whether the occupant is open and conscientious, Gosling says.

All of this — which Gosling refers to as the “science of snooping” — validates my most recent theorizing about holiday lights.  So I’m not a scientist — big deal.  I’ve got two eyes and lots of opinions.

For example: Right now, around our neighborhood, holiday lights blaze at night.  All-white seems to be the predominant trend this year.  (This figures.  Our own house, of course, has multicolored lights.  If we ever get all-white lights, it won’t be till they’re out of style.)

But anyway, nosing around our neighborhood (which I cleverly disguise as “taking a walk”), I’ve come up with a new, important theory that Gosling might be interested in.  Here it is:  The more dramatic, professional and dazzling the lights, the less neighborly the homeowners are.

Take the people who live catti-corner from us.  At least, I think people live there, behind the big, unwelcoming, Gulag-styled brick wall they erected a couple of years ago.  Sometimes I see cars come and go, but I’ve rarely seen people.  Nobody in our neighborhood has ever spoken to them, either.  But we’re pretty sure the house is populated.

These neighbors’ lights, though — white, of course, and professionally installed — flash and twinkle all night long this time of year.  They’re not as warm and comforting as neighborly chats and waves, but at least they’re dependable.

At our house, you can see another personality dynamic at work.  Our lights this year look very much like the lights we displayed last year.  And the year before.  That’s because they’re the same lights we’ve had up for years; we just don’t turn them on till late November.  From this information, you can reasonably surmise that we’re slobs.  But, I like to think, we’re neighborly slobs.

That’s some information — but it’s only a start.  You can always dig deeper and find out more.

You can see, in our year-round holiday lights, the story of a long-married couple.  Every year, after Thanksgiving, he climbed up on the roof and decorated the house and it looked great.  Every January, she started nagging him to take them down.  Some years, when she was feeling especially vocal, they came down in February or March.  (January was always just a dream.)  Other years, they were up till May or till a new roof was put on.

The years passed.  One year, the holiday lights were still up in July. How do you ask someone to take the holiday lights down when it’s only five months till Christmas?  “Pretend they’re early this year,” he said.  She did.

After that, she knew it was over.  It was one of those battles she finally surrendered — like the dirty socks on the floor, homemade fireworks on the Fourth of July, presents on Christmas morning, instead of Christmas Eve.

She saved herself for bigger battles, such as which house they should buy (she had been right, everyone now admitted), whose marital duty it was to take care of last year’s little rodent problem (drawing on the little-known, but very helpful feminist belief that rats are men’s business), what to name the kids (pregnancy gives priority, in another heralded feminist decision).

So, you see — you think you’re just seeing holiday lights when you walk or drive past people’s houses.  But, really, it’s so much more.  We’re living our lives, baring our souls, dramatizing our intimate struggles — and putting them on display every year.

Just ask Sam Gosling.  He’ll back me up, I feel sure.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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The View From 65

1) These birthdays! They surprise me. Forty was fine. Turning 50 took me three years to acclimate to, at which point I was — obviously — 53. Sixty I hardly noticed.

Sixty-five, though, took me aback. For weeks, I’d been swamped with Medicare offers. My husband, who’s three months younger than I am and mentions it quite frequently, took to muttering, “How did we get to be this old?”

“I feel so eligible,” I told him. Eligible for government plans and social security and retirement, you name it, I qualified for it. “It’s an official age — kind of like turning 21.”

Except, of course, let’s get real. It’s not at all like turning 21.

Still, I did take one for the team and froze our property taxes.

2) I like math. Now, I keep doing the math and it’s unsettling.

In five years, I will be 70. In 15 years, 80. Hell, I’m almost two-thirds of the way to 100.

Juggling these digits in my mind. I am aware I need to unloose my death-grip on thinking I am middle-aged or even late middle-aged. I am young-old or old-young, depending on my mood.

3) “I thought I’d come to terms with aging,” my (younger) sister emailed me recently.

Oh, yeah, me, too. After all, I’ve been working on a book about women and aging (Pucker Up!: The Subversive Woman’s Guide to Aging with Wit, Wine, Drama, Humor, Perspective, and the Occasional Good Cry, which will be coming out in March 2015) with my friend Marian Henley.

I have insights! I never lie about my age! I can be funny about it! I’m facing reality!

Yes and no. The truth is, I have come to terms, sort of, with being 65, with no obvious disabilities, in apparent good health, in relative financial comfort. (Like most cancer survivors, I have been fooled in the past about my presumption of good health. It’s better to assume nothing.)

Change any of these circumstances — the age, the health, the general well-being, the good luck — and I’ll be clamped in fetal position, howling at the rafters. You only cede as much ground as you are forced to, only come to terms with aging when you have to — and then grudgingly. I wouldn’t call myself evolved on this subject, but i do try to be honest.

4) The older I get, the more aware I am of how well and comfortably I live. Outside of my safe and cosseted venues, the world seethes with hunger, disease, poverty, and unrest. You don’t have to cross oceans to find hopelessness and despair; you can find them within a few miles of my comfortable high-rise.

My husband and I give money to worthy causes. I have done volunteer work and will do more. We vote a liberal ticket. Our hearts, I like to think, are in the right place.

None of this is enough.

How do you justify your own good life in the midst of this world, where so many millions of children are born never having a chance? Tell me.

Or is wallowing in guilt the most self-indulgent of emotions, doing no good whatsoever, but somehow making me feel I’m a better person for it?

5) I’m not aging alone. I laugh and blubber and talk endlessly about it with my husband and friends.

But there are other presences I feel, too, that are silent and invisible. They’re the friends I’ve lost, most of them to cancer. They didn’t live long enough to sprout wattles or varicose veins, they were never old enough for Medicare or Social Security. Martha, Katherine, Kathleen, Donna, Cindy, Clare, Paula, Alice, and too many others — I’ve had the opportunity to age that they never had.

Good friends once, they’re the ones who speak to me as the years pass. They remind me aging is a privilege. Sure, I’ve had my heartaches and losses and arthritic joints, yeah, I’m slower than I used to be. But I’m still here, right?

Enjoy it, I imagine their telling me. Don’t take it for granted. And, oh, yeah, honey — don’t screw it up.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read 60 Things About Turning 60, Part One and Part Two

 

 

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Our First Thanksgiving: You’re So Lucky You Weren’t There

Blogger’s note: This is one of my first and one of my favorite posts from 2007. It is, unfortunately, true. — RBP

 

Talk about bad. If the Pilgrims had shown up to the first Thanksgiving dinner we cooked, they would have taken the first ship back to the Old Country. They would have swum, if necessary, and we native Americans could have kept the whole continent to ourselves.

It was 1972. My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I were living in an apartment complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. The place had all the charm of a 1950s Soviet-bloc tenement.

We weren’t very popular. All the other residents were at least 105 and they suspected us of 1) being hippies and 2) being unmarried — both of which were true.

The apartment’s managers, a seethingly hostile couple in their later years, especially disliked us. They suspected that we were behind the posted note in the elevator that read: “Are you fat?  Do you live on the second floor?  If so, you may be ineligible to ride this elevator!  Please see me immediately.”  Then we’d signed the apartment manager’s name.

It was a harmless prank, we figured. Something we’d all get together and laugh about — except for the small problem that the apartment manager, a real sorehead, wasn’t speaking to us, as usual. This, we assumed, was because he had just posted a new rule on the trash chute outside our fourth-floor apartment: “Don’t put glass bottles in this chute!”

When we were bored, when we were feeling rebellious (which happened rather frequently), we occasionally left one of our empty gallon-size Cribari wine jugs dangling on a string secured by the trash chute’s door. The next person who opened the chute unloosed the bottle and it hurtled four floors downward, loudly crash-landing in splinters a few seconds later.

But, anyway, that’s just background. It was Thanksgiving and we were far away from our families and we weren’t very popular in our Soviet-bloc neighborhood. If we were going to cook a proper meal, we needed to rustle up some guests.

We found them on the second floor, a young Japanese couple who spoke almost no English. They’d never heard of Thanksgiving before, but they were elated to be invited anywhere for dinner. They said they could come.

So, we went into action. We bought a turkey. We bought packaged dressing. We bought canned green beans and a pre-made pie and a gallon jug of grape Cribari.

By the time our guests arrived, we’d already shoved our still-frozen turkey into the oven (with the little package of gizzards still intact in the interior). Being charitable, it might have smelled good, but who could tell?  The Japanese couple turned out to be complete nicotine junkies who sat and chain-smoked the entire time. They also repeatedly tried out what appeared to be their entire English vocabulary on us: “Smoke like a chimney!

Which was just as well, I suppose. They sat and smoked and we began to panic, prodding a turkey that still had crystals of frost on it. We managed to successfully heat the green beans and deplete the Cribari bottle. But we were growing more and more panicked as the hours began to pass and we began to snipe at each other.

“I thought you knew how to cook Thanksgiving dinner!”

“You know I can’t cook!”

“Smoke like a chimney!”

Finally, we hauled the turkey out of the oven. It was barely warm. We managed to peel off a few not-entirely-raw pieces and cover them liberally with a brown runny substance we called gravy. In fact, we covered as many things as possible with the “gravy.”

When we served them their plates, the Japanese couple stared with a combination of horror and extreme politeness. “This is a traditional American meal,” we told them — one of the biggest lies and most unadulterated slanders I’ve ever uttered in my life.

They put out their cigarettes and somehow managed to eat everything we’d served them, which is more than I could say of my boyfriend and me. (I seem to recall we slipped out for a hamburger after the meal was over.)

At any rate, owing to our guests’ enormous tact and diplomacy, we avoided an international incident that day.  We toasted a lot with the Cribari, planning to leave the bottle hanging by a string if we managed to finish it off.  The Japanese couple smoked even more — presumably to clear their palates — and drunkenly screamed, “Smoke like a chimney!” every chance they could get.

If they got salmonella or food poisoning, they never let us know.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read The Ballad of the Sick Husband

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The View From Behind

1) When I went to college in the late 1960s, behaviorism was all the rage. Why did people turn out so differently? Because the environments they grew up in molded them differently, that’s why.

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything,“ said B.F. Skinner, the reigning behaviorist. Even though Skinner was a man, his reasoning also had great appeal to the first wave of feminists, who favored the belief that men and women were different only because society treated them differently.

All this made sense to me and to my husband, who went to graduate school in psychology. When we had kids, we figured, we would treat them all – boys and girls – the same. That way, the boys could cry and play with dolls and the girls could be mean and aggressive and play football. Equality!

You know, it just didn’t work out that way. We had a daughter first, then a son. Our daughter was outgoing and curious. So was our son. But only our son practically came out of the womb making car noises. And only our son played with stuffed animals by body-slamming them against the wall.

We still believed in equality. But boy-children and girl-children were just different creatures.

2) Our son, age 5, is just outside our kitchen window with his friend Emma. He is slamming a ball against the wall. She is trying to talk to him. I am, of course, eavesdropping shamelessly.

“Nicky, I want to talk to you!” Emma says.

Slam, bang, thud.

“Nicky! I think I’m in love with you! I think about you all the time!”

Slam, thud, bang, thud, slam.

“Nicky! I’m trying to talk to you!”

Even louder slams, thuds, bangs.

“I wanted to tell Emma to hang it up — that it doesn’t get any better than that trying to talk to grown men,” I tell my sister later.

 

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 3) “Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some shocking news,” the assistant principal of the middle school said. He was calling in the early afternoon. “It’s about your son.”

Oh, God. This sounded bad. Really bad. I could hardly breathe.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, he got on the pay phone and called an indecent number,” the assistant principal said. He cleared his throat. “It was 1-800-SPANKME.”

I put my hand over the phone so he couldn’t hear me dying laughing. Finally, I managed to come up with an appropriate remark like, “Oh, no! Really?” before I collapsed, cackling, again.

In fact, I spent the rest of the day howling with laughter till my husband got home and then it started all over again. I think you can see where our son got his little problem with middle-school authority from.

4) When our son was nine, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After I came home from the hospital after my bilateral mastectomy, I showed him the exercises I needed to do to heal and keep the range of motion in my shoulders. Every afternoon, he would come into the den, where I’d be reading. “Mom!” he’d say. “You need to do your exercises.” He watched while I crawled my hands up and down the wall, gradually getting better.

Later, before I began chemo, I told him I’d probably have side effects like fatigue, hair loss, and vomiting. He brightened a little at the mention of vomiting.

Every day, he came home from school and asked, “Mom — have you vomited yet?”

He always looked so disappointed when I said no.

5)  And then there was the Halloween our son dressed up as a Republican. He slicked back his hair, donned a three-piece suit, and carried a briefcase to put candy in.We lived in Dallas then and were the only Democrats in our neighborhood; that year, our kid got more candy than anybody else on the street.

Later, we moved to Austin, so he retired his little capitalist outfit. Nobody in our Austin neighborhood would have given him even a half-digested Tootsie Roll for being a Republican.

6) When your kids are small, the stories you know and tell about them are more colorful. I guess it’s because you see almost all aspects of their lives — or hear about their misdeeds more quickly.

Your 24/7 access erodes as they age, though. Their stories become their own. When they and their friends get their driver’s licenses, even your last-ditch efforts at shameless carpool-mom eavesdropping expire. All of you still live under the same roof, but everything is different. Your children are semi-gone even before they’re actually gone.

And sometimes, you admit for yourself, it’s better you don’t know all their stories. Years later, when you hear carefully laundered accounts of their teen and early-adult escapades, you realize ignorance was a comforting buffer for all those years. Then you head for the smelling salts, if anybody still makes smelling salts these days.

7) Our son graduated from college in another state. He also spent a semester in Australia improving his English, I liked to tell people. But he then came back to Austin, where he’s worked the past six years.

It’s so lovely to have one of your newly grown kids in town. My husband and I’ve had brunch with him almost every weekend and it’s been great knowing he’s so close.

But now, he’s moved to Chicago. He’s 28, he’s untethered, he wants to do something new and go somewhere else. It’s a smart move, I kept thinking when he told me over dinner one night. Clearly, he’d thought about it carefully and planned it well. He’d grown up so much, he was so mature and thoughtful. I felt great for him and so proud — but sad for his father and me. We’ll miss him terribly.

There’s some kind of divided land you enter when you become a parent. Here is your kid’s welfare and well-being, over here is your own happiness. Ideally, they overlap completely — but only if you don’t live in a real world. Oddly, the results you want when you parent — that your kid becomes independent and strong — are also the impetus to their separating from you.

Again, it’s funny being the age my husband and I are. Sometimes, almost imperceptibly, we can feel our world shifting. We’ve seen and felt it shift for decades, of course, as our grandparents and three of our own parents died, and we became the center of our own family. We understood the shifting never stopped — but we didn’t quite get that it would happen to us, and so soon.

Leaving a restaurant one night after our last dinner with our son, my husband and I walked back to the car. It’s so dark this time of year, so lonely. I swear to God, I felt like I was 105.

As I sniffed loudly, my husband said he thought we should just adopt. Like, tomorrow.

That idea was so amusing and terrifying, I almost stopped weeping. Bring up another kid at our age? Good grief. You’ve got to be joking.

We won’t adopt. We’ll just adapt and get on with our lives. Parents need to be good at things like that, you know.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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30 Days to Something Better

 

Maybe you’ve noticed — there seem to be an awful lot of narcissists around these days. Or maybe people just routinely bring them up in conversations more than they used to.

Anyway, I didn’t think much about it till one of my friends, Meredith Resnick, wrote her second ebook about surviving a relationship with a narcissist. Since Meredith is an excellent writer, as well as a therapist, I told her I’d like to look at it.

Titled Surviving the Narcissist: 30 Days of Recovery: Whether You’re Loving, Leaving, or Living With One, it’s a deceptively simple book on taking care of yourself — wise, understated, and calm, like a good friend. It’s about taking your life back after you’ve been blindsided by trouble. And the trouble, I kept thinking, didn’t necessarily have to be a narcissist.

I asked Meredith a few questions about her book to clarify some points:

Can you define what a narcissist is — and isn’t? 

Unfortunately, the term “narcissist” has become a label for anyone who is annoying or self-centered, who is a media hog or rude. But a true narcissist is something far more lethal.

The relationship may start out with a kind of otherworldly charm, a sense that the person is too good to be true. Likewise, the narcissistic person may have you believing that you are too good to be true.

But a narcissist feels, internally, that they are nothing more than a black hole, a nothing, and, as you can imagine, this type of wound to the personality structure is terrifying because they trigger a fear of non-existence, of emptiness (but not in the Buddhist sense). These fears are very primitive, and take hold before language can be developed (meaning that the terror is present from a very young age).

Other traits include: grandiosity (“look at how great I am now,”) projection (“look at how lousy you are now” … see how it relates to the above grandiosity and projection?), lack of empathy, ostracizing, and more. It’s important, in my opinion, to focus on the pattern of behaviors, too, not just a one-time occurrence.

Why did you begin to focus on narcissists?

Like many, I’d been involved with narcissists on and off for years – relationships, at work, etc. But it was a particular incident with someone I had trusted that opened my eyes  and made me want to understand how I’d not seen what was so apparent now.

And how is it you chose 30 days as a basis for the book?

I feel like the first thirty days are some of the most tender parts of recovery because everything is so new. The truth is that thirty days can start at any time because as we get better, we grow, and with growth there is change, and change can be exciting but also make us feel tender and vulnerable. Also, I like how AA and other recovery programs ask newcomers to stick with something for 30 days, so you might call it a hat tip to that, too.

Can anybody get involved with a narcissist — or are some kinds of people more susceptible?

Yes, I think it’s possible that anyone could and that most people know one or more, though to varying degrees.

This book seems to me to be applicable to many other kinds of relationships that end badly. Do you think it’s specific to involvement with narcissists only?

I have been told by numerous readers that they feel that this book works across many relationships. I think this is the case because it focuses on helping the individual learn to focus on himself or herself which is, of course, where all healing begins.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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