The Romantic Chemistry of Real Life, Talk Therapy, Net Books, and Prison Terms

August 26, 2010

Dear Family,

Jeff and I watched “Sleepless in Seattle” a couple nights ago. There was good acting and lots of great dialogue, and even though I know the world does not need any more movie reviews, I am somehow compelled to share mine anyway:


1. Man's wife dies (very sad), and he and his young son (a nauseatingly sweet and well-adjusted young man) move to Seattle. Two years later, Son wants Dad to get remarried, and calls a radio show to ask the psychologist/host for advice (subsequently landing Dad with some airtime.)

2. Cut to Woman, living on the east coast, whose fiance loves her not only failing to bring enough “magic” and “surprise” into their relationship, but also...has _allergies_. Therefore, when she happens to hear Man on the radio, discussing his deceased wife, of course she realizes: Forget That Pesky Upcoming Wedding! This _New_ Guy Is the One For Me.

3. Despite some cross-country logistical challenges, and the fact that they've never spoken to one another, Man and Woman manage to dispose of their current love interests in order to find True Infatuation at First Sight with one another, on Valentine's Day, at the top of the Empire State Building.


1. Seeking “perfection,” fulfilling fantasies, not having allergies, looking over your shoulder for the Next Best Thing, and waiting for your partner to Read Your Mind--these are some of the most important tasks in life. Doing these things will allow you to A). second-guess your current committed relationship, and B). proceed into Totally True Love as awesome as Tom Hanks' and Meg Ryans'. (At least, we infer that it's awesome, although we only get to view the first 2.5 minutes of the actual partnership because of the rolling final credits.)

2. It definitely doesn't hurt a relationship if both the man and woman are really rich.

3. If you're unmarried, female, and “over forty,” then you should endeavor to be just like Meg Ryan: articulate, perky, gorgeous, and not actually forty; and possessing an adorable smile, and no split ends or overactive sweat glands. Also, not only should you be healthy, but you should make sure that you don't even _know_ anyone else who has even a single solitary health concern.

4. The odds of having a successful relationship that is built, at its foundation, of sheer fantasy: at least 2000:1. (Meaning: if your fantasy guy/gal is someone you've never met, and lives across a continent, and has never heard of you...well then, you should totally Go For It!!)

Was this movie sponsored by the “American Couples' Counselors in Need of More Business Association”?



“It's a really really loud noise sound.”

“If you touch that [fire], do you get died?”

He sits with his legs splayed, really cute and absorbed, building Jem-henge out of Cuisinaire Rods: “This is an itty bitty bridge, an' this is a big bridge, and this is an itty bitty bridge.”


I am writing on my new computer! It just arrived, and I'm going to bore you by telling you that it's a tiny brown Toshiba NB 305 net book which can run for hours on its little battery and is super portable. I love it. :)

For awhile now, I've been using a second-hand, six-year-old, ten-pound laptop that can run for 18 minutes on its battery and which shuts itself off with no notice if it overheats. I am the first to note that that old thing is a more economical, ecological option. And yet...I love my new little computer. :)

See, last week I finally realized that if we were to purchase a netbook, it would be a one-time expense equivalent to what we now spend each week on groceries. I'm not sure what that justifies or means, exactly, except that I don't often purchase non-food items.


My mother tried to put it gently. “It's not exactly easy to introduce new ideas to you...” My sister said, “I wish you could see this really great person I'm seeing...” My brother is fond of explaining that, anyway, “You can't be a real Jew without a good therapist.”

(To be fair, they did have some slight reason to be concerned, since I was at that moment utterly unable to speak as I lay sobbing on the floor in a fetal position, unexpectedly letting off some steam of my own long after Ben's explosion had subsided.)

Anyway: I am visiting a therapist for a few weeks - not to delve into a deep-seated childhood trauma, but to pragmatically implement some basic stress-management techniques. Studies show that when people are accountable to someone (i.e. when a person is paying someone else to tell them what to do), they are much more likely to follow through.

I know, or have been told, so much of this stuff. But now I can say, “My _therapist_ told me I have to do some deep-breathing exercises every day, so I better do them.”

I can also explain, “Boys, my _therapist_ says that even if you're both yelling at me at once, I still have _choices._ And therefore, even though it seems to make you both yell louder, I am now choosing to do twenty-five jumping jacks, because this will shift my cognitive focus away from its current desire to leap from a very high mountain top.”

I can remind myself that my _therapist_ agrees that it's important to make sure I Put On My Own Oxygen Mask So That I Can Help Children Put On Their Small Metaphorical Masks, to prevent mass suffocation or some other similarly grisly end...

Oh, there are such boatloads of useful coping strategies that I can access, and they are all so Buddhistly, wonderfully calming when I'm discussing them with another sympathetic adult! I can see how I could get into this sort of thing.

Really, I'm appreciating the chance to make a commitment to self-care and stress-reduction with the aid of a witness. And I'm trying hard to meditate on the Cracks Between, those little moments of peacefulness that can descend (or be compelled to descend, if we're talking cognitive behavioral techniques) while doing the most mundane things.

Thanks to my friend Daphne, I'm taking lots of deep breaths in calm moments, with positive, relaxing visualizations. The idea is that then, in a biofeedback sort of way, I can use those same deep breaths to ease my anxiety, when it gets bad, by remembering that everything is actually okay. Sometimes, when things really aren't okay, I'm trying to take more deep breaths – with the aim of remembering that soon, the child's screaming (or whatever the stress) will be over. And when it finally is over, at least for the moment, I'm trying to use more deep breaths to pick myself up again, and keep going.

I'm breathing so much lately that I'm practically hyperventilating.


A Little Parable About Stress

Back in the eighties, my friend was arrested along with a couple dozen other women who were protesting governmental nuclear activity. The twenty four women were sentenced to two weeks in prison, and were put in a windowless cell designed for eight persons. For the seven days, they were told that it was “too rainy” to go outside to exercise. (They later found out that the weather had been perfectly fine.) The toilet was in a corner of the cell, and everyone had to take turns sleeping under the bunks, since it was so crowded.

The amazing thing, my friend told me, was the way that _every single woman_ pulled together under the stress. One woman taught songs to everyone; another told stories in installments every day. Everyone told jokes. They cheered each other, cooperated, laughed, and stayed overwhelmingly positive and supportive to one another. And soon enough, it was day #10, when the women were informed that they would be let out of jail three days early.

As soon as the good news came, my friend said, people started arguing and stressing and whining, and by the time they got out of prison, their little cohesive social group had fallen apart entirely...

I can't help but make some observational, non-scientific conclusions from this story. Isn't it interesting what we humans can do when we have to? Isn't it amazing how challenging it can be to make basic changes to our expectations, even when the changes are good? I am fascinated by how, in my recent experience, it sometimes feels easier to do something that is incredibly taxing and draining than it is to do the same thing with the knowledge that soon, if all goes well, you won't need to do it anymore.


The song that has been stuck in my head all week is a gorgeously lyrical one, and as far as Jeff or I can tell, it's about a giant squid.…


The other night, just after solving a problem from her chemistry textbook, Maya told me the answer to it: 80 million tons of magnesium are extracted from seawater every year in the USA. This made me think: isn't it crazy, how MANY different jobs there are? I mean, generally the options sound so limited: doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse... And here it turns out that there is a job, “Magnesium Extractor.” _Somebody_ does this! What about all the others? Somewhere there must be Slow Cooker Designers, Life-Jacket Testers, Borax Miners, Loaders of Box Cars, Operators of Machines that mold Silly Bands...

Someday I'd love to travel around the world with the express purpose of Finding Out What People Do.


Katie planted a long row of big, beautiful sunflowers at the entrance to the berry farm, and every time I go by I admire them. For weeks, though, I kept wondering: Why didn't she plant them so that the flowers faced the entrance, so we could see them better??

Until it finally hit me, just recently: the entrance faces north, and sunflowers face the SUN.

Sometimes I feel like such a Human.


When I'm in the middle of making an obviously botched left-hand-turn (and I'm not moving because if I went backward, I would get run down by west-bound traffic, and if I drove forward, I'd get run down by east-bound traffic), this is what I wonder: what is the _point_ of the guy behind me leaning on his horn as hard as he can, for the entire thirty seconds that it takes me to complete the turn, even when I wave apologetically to acknowledge my mistake?? Which type of accident is he hoping to encourage me to get into?


Ben came back from Graham's house the other day with the most exquisite origami box I have ever seen. She'd coached him on the instructions, and it took 16 pieces of paper, and he'd walked over to her house all by himself, waving backward toward our window the whole way.

This is when I cry, because my child is so talented, and with any luck, we're all going to help him to overcome his challenges so that it's the talents that can shine so strong while the other stuff slips away.


Last weekend there was a torrential rain that went on for several days and blew in from the wrong direction, signaling that fall is coming.

It also signaled that Jeff's parents were coming to visit. Poor Jan and Sal! I think it has rained every time they've visited Ithaca for the past three years. Even when they come in the middle of a drought, it rains.

We still managed to have fun, though – and it's so clearly nicer for everyone, now that Ben isn't so anxious and so enjoys to have people paying attention to him. He was so happy to see them, and this allowed us all to be so much happier, too.


Tonight for the first time I made a Chuck Roast. I also ate some of it. It wasn't as gross as I thought it would be, considering what a large chunk of cow it was. Kind of like really savory seitan. Everyone said it was really good, although I have nothing to compare it to.


And now, I must to sleep.