Monday, May 25, 2009

Sharing Happiness

"An unshared happiness is not happiness." -- Boris Pasternak.

Not being an absolutist, I'm reluctant to agree with Pasternak totally. There is, however, a germ of truth in this that I wish to explore.

It is certainly possible to be quietly happy about some things and feel no need to find company to share them with. The things that give this kind of happiness vary from person to person. For me, it tends to happen most often with what seems to be small in the grand scheme of things. When I finish making something with my hands, I do not need to show it to all and sundry in order to savor the satisfaction and gentle happiness that I feel. I can hold the finished sock, shawl or dress and smile all by myself before I move on to the next thing. And for quite awhile after it is completed, it will generate the same little joy whenever I use it.

Another experience where this occurs for me is when I am walking among the trees. Many times I not only do not need to share the connection and happiness I feel in this experience, I do not want to. There is a depth of feeling within me at those times that defy the ability to share. Or, at least, I've yet to find anyone to share it with whose presence would not detract from the feelings it generates within me. I wonder if the experience would be enhanced or merely take on a different feeling if I ever were to find someone to share it with. But, for now at least, it is a stand alone joy that is not diminished by being solitary.

The ocean, on the other hand, absolutely demands a companion for me to feel the greatest happiness. There is an overwhelming power generated by the ocean that requires that the experience be shared. I feel that I cannot hold it alone. And, while I realize no two people will experience it in the same way, the feeling is so vast that another silent witness makes it easier to find the depths of joy and awe that it can give.

There are also some events and accomplishments that are, somehow, lessened without the sharing of them. Sometimes these are the milestones in our lives. Large or small, joyful celebrations are not as joyful without friends or family to share them with. Other times, it is the recognition of achievement or the difficult challenge met that generates such a bubbling up of happiness that we must tell everyone dear to us about it. And, absent dear ones, we will stop mere acquaintances or total strangers and tell them because we cannot contain the feeling within ourselves. The efforts or hopes that we've held closely to our hearts erupt and overflow when they are realized. It's the feeling of someone about to become a parent who tells everyone about the coming baby. It is the person who has struggled to achieve a dream who is finally able to say, "I did it!"

I wonder if there is any real difference in the types of happiness, beyond the circle it finds its voice in. Some might argue that it is better to feel the fullness of joys within ourselves, not needing to share it. Perhaps even suggesting that exuberance is unnecessary to joy. Other might agree with Pasternak that sharing is necessary to the fullness of happiness. I feel that there is no duality to happiness; it is a both/and rather than an either/or proposition. There is quite simply no right or wrong way to be happy or to express it.

Society imposes unspoken expectations and restrictions on the level the expression of joy may take. These tend to be based on the perceived value of the experience and the age of the person experiencing it. In fact, if people do not express an 'appropriate' response to a happy event, they can be condemned either as unfeeling or childish. If anyone much older than 5 years old becomes too thrilled at the sight of a daisy, they will most likely be seen as a simpleton. If someone fails to celebrate anything at the same level as those around them, they are seen as unfeeling and perhaps depressed. Society demands conformity even in expressions of happiness. How sad.

The challenge in expressing happiness, as in most other things, is to give it our own authentic voice and the devil take the hindmost for what others think about it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


You may think I'm odd, and you wouldn't be the first, but I love to walk through cemeteries. By walking I do not mean taking a casual stroll and enjoying the breeze through the trees. I mean spending hours tramping up and down looking at the tombstones. It isn't out of a sense of morbid fascination with death. Rather it is a fascination with people. When I go to a cemetery, I don't so much see markers and tombs, I wonder about the people who were laid to rest beneath them.

A dear friend and I have been exploring the older cemeteries in the area. The oldest cemeteries here only go back to the mid-1800s and, thus, are relatively new as cemeteries go. There are local notables from the founding of Oregon in the pioneer cemeteries, even a few folks that are known further afield. Those are interesting to search for. But I much prefer wandering among the unknown, lesser lights and speculating about their lives. And, on occasion, I'll do research on my findings, if the tombstone provides an interesting tidbit to follow up on.

Several years ago, I was on a kick of reading about the so-called Wild West and noticed that Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil was buried here in Portland. That piqued my curiosity. How in the world did he end up way up here? I researched Mr. Earp to a fare-thee-well and made a mental note to track down his grave someday. Much later the topic came up, somehow, and I babbled on about it as I am wont to do when I learn something that fascinates me. My friend suggested that we go find him and we were off within a few weeks. And find him we did, in the largest cemetery in the area. We had to walk all over the place looking for him on a hot day. We had a general idea of where to go, but if we hadn't stopped at the cemetery offices, we would have never found him. Now the gravestone wasn't all that interesting, but it was kind of neat that we found it. During however many hours we spent there, we found many interesting names which led to some reflection, some confusion and some research. All in all, a very worthwhile trip. So worthwhile, in fact, that we planned on another one.

Next we traipsed up to a smaller, old cemetery in Vancouver, Washington. We weren't hunting up anyone in particular, but we do keep track of which date on the stones is the oldest. Now into a comfortable routine of poking around, clearing off moss and looking for interesting things, we wandered around for a couple of hours. I had the find of the day not long before we were planning to leave. I almost walked on a nondescript stone that was flush to the ground. On it read: Edward Gallagher, (dates) and "executed by legal hanging." I made note of it for further research. My friend and I then spent a little while wondering if there had been any 'illegal hangings" up there. I found out later that day that we'd found the only person to be executed in Vancouver. His attorney attempted an insanity defense, and truth to tell the records certainly read like Mr. Gallagher had some screws loose. But such a defense was pretty hard to establish back in 1890 and he was executed about 8 months after the murder had been committed. Alright, I'll admit that one did grab the less noble parts of my curiosity, but it was fascinating.

Most recently we investigated one of the pioneer cemeteries here in town. It was beautiful with over a thousand trees and dated back to 1846. It houses the resting places of most of the families whose names grace the streets around town. The place was so interesting that we were surprised when we realized that we'd been there for four hours. We found children and their families, a madam and a prostitute, firemen, Masons and Odd Fellows, new Russian graves and old Japanese ones. Every bit of it provoking speculation. There is the corner where the Chinese workers from the turn of the century "used to" be buried. There had been a government building erected over it and when the building was razed, they discovered that there were still many graves there. There is an entire section of tombstones written in Japanese. And, being me, I can't stop wondering how Seizo Furukawa, aged 22 came to be buried here in 1900. I also find myself smiling when I think about the big stone with the proud name James Gray Flowerdew. He just HAD to be a very nice gentleman with a name like that. Or, at least, that's what I want to believe.

For me, the cemeteries are the historical record for the average person. I want to recognize them and learn about them. When I read the stones, I give voice to names that have not been spoken in 100 years. I make note of the interesting epitaphs and touch history with a small 'h', connecting with those who have gone before. I notice the contrast of recent stones nestled up beside stones that are 100 years old and wonder what I think about that. Does it mar the historical continuity? Or is it just a reflection of the reality of it making no difference to the dead who they lie beside?

Oddly enough, all this tromping about doesn't make me dwell on death itself. But rather on life. And although I don't much care what happens to my body when I'm no longer using it, when the time comes I very much hope someone puts up a stone. I kind of like the idea of someone reading my name a hundred years hence and wondering about me for a moment.

The explorations will continue with Pere Lachaise in Paris definitely on the agenda. And while the people and the people who knew them are long gone, their names have been heard and may turn up in one of my stories someday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Socialized health care.

"Every reasonable human being should be a moderate socialist." -- Thomas Mann.

As I was out running errands today, I saw two different anti-socialism bumper stickers. Living in a state that has occasionally been called the People's Republic of Oregon, I found that a bit surprising. Sure, I'd heard the word socialism thrown around during the last election, generally by folks who seemed to be equating it with Soviet style communism. And there has been some noise about not wanting to be like Europe with its social democracies. But I'm skeptical that those tossing the word around and labeling it as "EVIL" really understand the economic and political concepts behind the word. I'm beginning to believe that the term has become merely a synonym for "whatever we don't like" for some people.

There are at least 5 different definitions of the word socialism in the dictionary, ranging from the Marxist transition phase of society to the idea of state socialism where major industries remain privately owned with some legislation aimed to benefit working people. A moderate socialism would seem to fall into the later definition.

One of the first things I learned in philosophy class was to define what the terms mean before you engage in a debate over them. Currently, I think a lot of the hue and cry over socialism arises from people using more than one definition for the word, thus making it impossible to exchange ideas. A simplistic example might be the use of the word 'bad' in slang. In some circles 'bad' means good. And if someone from one of those circles were talking to someone who believes that the word 'bad' means bad, there would be a total lack of communication even if they basically agreed on the worth of whatever was being described. Thus, I believe that part of the disagreement arises from talking about different things. If one person equates socialism with the former Soviet Union and another understands it as basic societal safeguards for citizens, they are not talking about the same thing and argument is useless for both sides. But that is not all of it.

Some people seem to equate democracy with capitalism. There is nothing at all in our constitution that links the two concepts. According to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary capitalism is "an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market." It is an economic system not a political system. And, given the instability it has given to so many 'regular' people, I can't help but wonder why many folks hold onto it with such religious fervor. It doesn't seem to offer much for those outside of the ownership and investment groups. And I believe that we'll wait a very long time if we are waiting for the tender mercies of the corporations to help us out.

From what I can tell, much of the hysteria has arisen over the possibility of health care for everyone in this country. This truly confuses me. I have a very difficult time imagining what the downside of that might be. We currently have somewhere around 47 million people without any health care at all. This is not because we have 47 million lazy and good-for-nothing fellow citizens. For most of them it is because insurance and medical treatments are far too expensive in this country. A study by Harvard University found that 50% of all bankruptcies in this country are directly due to medical expenses even among people with some level of insurance coverage. Having the prices of services (and everything else) being determined by a free market, as with strict capitalism, results in hardship and unnecessary suffering, which eventually will undermine everyone's well-being.

So what would be a possible downside? Less money for the for-profit health care corporations? Somehow that doesn't seem too awful compared to a family who must go without basic preventative medicine simply because they can't afford it. Smaller profits for individual doctors? I don't know that that is terrible either given that my personal physician says she would welcome a universal system with open arms. Having patients who can not afford vital treatments because of a lack of coverage seems much worse to her. An increase in personal income taxes? Perhaps, but given that approximately 54% of our government expenditures are going towards military spending, might it not be better to divert a small portion of that for the health care of our citizens?

Obviously, I can't answer that for everyone and not everyone is interested in exploring it very deeply. As one of those who can't afford to get sick, I know that I would prefer that it work that way.

"The forces in a capitalist society, if left unchecked, tend to make the rich richer and the poor poorer." -- Jawaharlal Nehru.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I used to believe that I was bad at waiting. I'd joke that patience was a virtue that I did not have. But that wasn't true. I'd simply equated not liking certain kinds of waiting with an inability to do so. As it happens, I am very good at some types of waiting. Other types not so much at all.

From the time I was a child, I disliked waiting for "surprises." It felt like I was being taunted every time I was told there was something wonderful coming, but that I couldn't know what it was and I'd have to wait three weeks to find out. Either the long lead up doomed the pleasurable outcome because of the embellishments that time gave to the surprise or it wasn't worth the big build up to begin with. It was frequently disappointing and I began to dread the wind up to birthdays and Christmas. Excessive anticipation killed the surprises and I came to dislike that sort of waiting. I still do. I'd rather a pleasant surprise come to me out of the blue without the advance notice.

In the more mundane sorts of waiting, I am fairly unflappable. Traffic jams, supermarket lines, doctors' offices, do not faze me in the slightest. They are the sort of every day waiting scenarios that are predictable and only surprising in their absence. And by their very predictability, I am able to head them off at the pass and react calmly because I have been able to plan for waiting activities to fill the space. Thus there is no sense of wasted time.

There is the process type of waiting that only wears thin near the completion of whatever it is one is waiting for. The last half of my last semester in undergraduate school was sheer hell. I knew that I wasn't going to learn much of anything in the remaining weeks and figured they should just give me my degree and let me get on with my life. I was already done, despite still having time to put in. There was a similar sensation towards the end of my first pregnancy. By eight and a half months, I wanted to be finished and went a bit nutsy when the pregnancy extended three weeks beyond the expected due date. I wanted to move onto the mother stage and I desperately wanted my body back. I manage to wait through those sorts of things, because really what choice does one have? But as a known completion approaches, the patience in waiting begins to wear thin.

There is a kind of waiting where one not only can manage to wait just fine, but also to hope that the waiting can be extended. When a bad outcome is certain, such as with a death or a final parting from someone dear to us, each moment of waiting becomes filled with the experience of a savoring of the other person's presence that we would stretch out endlessly, if only we could.

As I've gotten older, most types of waiting have become easier to live through. I've learned not to load expectations onto anticipation. I've learned not to focus so much on the completion of something while I'm still in the process of it. But there is one sort of waiting that I haven't yet mastered and wonder if I ever will.

I have a great deal of difficulty living through the waiting when I do not know if or when an expected or hoped for outcome will occur; the sort of waiting that appears to be without end and which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This can occur with both good things and bad things. The waiting by the phone for news from a hospital. The waiting to find out if hard work will result in success. The waiting for hopes and dreams to come to fruition. The waiting without any sort of control over a result. Perhaps that is a waiting that I will learn to do more easily over time, but at this point in my life it feels more like a releasing or giving up than waiting.

And now I wonder if it is really a question of waiting. The frustrations may arise more out of a lack of control in a situation than passing time. Might I not get more frustrated in traffic if I am in a hurry or if it is an emergency? Might I not get less frustrated if I were able to release all imagined control over outcomes? Is it about waiting at all? I am beginning to believe that it isn't, but rather about circumstances and what is more important to an individual in any given moment.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Have you ever noticed how complicated shopping can be? Recently, I spent far too much time trying to find a tube of toothpaste, only to be thoroughly thwarted in my efforts to find a plain old tube of Crest. There was tartar control, mint, tartar control with whiteners, sensitive, sensitive with whiteners, cherry cream and citrus splash, but no plain old regular flavored Crest. This got me to thinking about a couple of things. Why do we perceive a need for all of these variations on a theme and why do we feel frustration when "our" regular brand is missing?

Back when I was a kid, there were few brands of tooth paste, with only Crest and Colgate holding any prominence on the shelves. There were also some older folks who still used just baking soda. The big innovation came when they introduced mint varieties. And that was pretty much it for toothpaste.

At some point, someone at either a toothpaste company or advertising agency decided there was money in having a dizzying array of toothpastes on the market. And they must have been right because more keep appearing and are, obviously, being sold. The question is was there a need or was it only the marketing that made us think there was a need? It maybe a chicken and egg sort of question. There must be something in us that craves variety or these things would gather dust on the shelf. What might that be?

We could speculate that, as a species, we survived because of our ability to eat a wide variety of foods, and perhaps that is why we crave differences. But then again, that might apply only to food. Maybe the ad men are more clever than we suspect and the craving is purely manufactured and has been for so long that it is at the point of our being unaware of how we are being manipulated to go after the "new and improved." It could be a combination of these things or something else entirely. But whatever it is, we support many enterprises because of our perceived need for variety.

The other side of the question involves our reluctance to change our selection once we establish our personal preferences. After my fruitless search, I finally succumbed to buying a tube of Citrus Splash Crest and am committed to using this tube. At least twice a day for many weeks to come, I will have to brace myself for this less than wonderful toothpaste experience. So why I wonder does someone who is flexible on many, many things have a semi-serious issue with the flavor of toothpaste? And for that matter, any other slight shift that may come our way?

I guess that I could muse on the merits of one flavor over another, but I think it is something more than just a toothpaste issue. I suppose it could be a matter of familiarity or comfort. Perhaps it comes from our having to make large adjustments throughout life to the point that we don't like to deal with it on the small daily matters. Who knows what we will have to deal with outside of our doors, so we want no surprises or innovations in the brushing of our teeth. I know a cloistered nun who once told me that it wasn't desirable to have surprises at the dinner table. Maybe we are all like that on different issues. Changes in the little things in our daily routine upset us because we rely on the small things for essential stability. We may not be able to control the market or employment or interactions with others, but we should be able to rely on our toothpaste or coffee or what have you.

I'm hoping it is not a sign of limping into a new career as a curmudgeon. There's probably nothing more disconcerting to me than the idea of becoming a person of a certain age who rails against change and all those young whippersnappers. I think it is rather a sign of trying to find security for ourselves, things that remain stable despite the shakiness of many things in our lives. It's not earth shattering or of terribly high importance either, and I'm certain that it varies for everyone of us. And if clinging to the small securities gives us small comfort, perhaps it is a really good thing. But I do still wonder about it. And I plan to hunt for another tube of plain old Crest when the time comes for a new tube.