If you want to be happy move to a cold country?

beach vacationIt is hard to believe. Whatever happened to the idea that the ultimate in happiness was lounging on a tropical beach, umbrella drink in hand, while island music wafted by on a soft ocean breeze? Wait, that was the ideal vacation. What about the ideal life?

Well, the annual happiness report for 2016 is in and there is little that is sunny and warm about the locations that produce the most content people. The top thirteen, in order, are Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel, and the U.S.

winter-vacationsDon’t believe it? Then let’s ask exactly how this happiness thing is being measured.

This is the fourth such report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The results are not obtained by just asking people if they are happy. Rather, they come from asking people in 156 countries to evaluate various parts of their lives on a scale from 0 to 10. Lots of variables are examined, but six attributes account for most of the variation among countries. I would sum these up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness. And yes, I could see how those all would contribute to happiness.

(Note that the more precise, but less succinct people who generate the report refer to these as real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity as measured by donations.)

What countries currently have the least happy populations? Starting with the unhappiest, they are Burundi, Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Liberia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Yemen, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Yes, there are a lot of warm, sunny places in here. More to the point, there are places torn apart by war, struggling with disease, and centers of extreme poverty, so clearly this isn’t really about climate.

Other happy countries include Costa Rica (#14) Mexico (#21) and Panama (#25).  Plenty of wonderful beaches in all three places. Meanwhile cold weather hardly guarantees happiness, with Bulgaria coming in at #129, the Ukraine at #123 and #Mongolia at 101.

raising ecstacy 1It is often said that happiness is an inside job, and to some extent that is true. We all know people who can be miserable anywhere, under any circumstances. But on the whole, in aggregate, we humans do respond to our environment. If we are materially comfortable, in good health, surrounded by those we care about and by others we perceive as fair and kind, and if we are free to life our lives as we want, then well, guess what. We are more likely to be happy.

Hot or cold, in sunshine or in snow, those places that are wise enough to make it a priority to foster such an such an environment for all are going to be the best places to live.

 

It didn’t take a spaceship

Dalai 6I had this odd reoccurring daydream that started when I was about thirteen and kept me mentally entertained whenever I was bored.

I was on a spaceship by myself on a very long journey. I was quite happy about it, and was planning my schedule. How would I use my days? I’d allocate time for exercise (practicing yoga, perfecting the hula), for chores (doing fun space ship things) and for learning (French? Ancient history? Organic chemistry? Modern literature?). I would try to think of every aspect of my being and how to best enrich it and then I added to and rearranged my schedule endlessly, much to my own delight.

I’m serious.  I spent hours doing this. I have no idea why.

Then, of course, I grew older and filled my life up the way that adults do and I forgot about my favorite fantasy. A few decades passed, and now I realize that I should have given it more thought. If I had, I might have realized that

  • In spite of a friendly nature and tendency to smile at people, I am an off the charts introvert. Anyone who fantasizes about being alone on a spaceship as a child should not be surprised by her Myers-Briggs test results twenty years later.
  • There was no need to fight my compulsive desire to make lists. It was a losing battle. They say be true to yourself and planning my day is being true to me.
  • I love to learn, and should have made more time for it sooner. I’m making time for it now.
  • I don’t like other people telling me how to spend my day. This makes me a poor candidate for a traditional job, but a job is what I needed for the last couple of decades. We don’t all get the luxury of deciding that working for someone else is not our cup of tea. However, today I do have the option of working as a consultant in my field, and I should embrace this opportunity (and its many downsides) with all my heart.
  • We all want to be happy.  Knowing yourself is a giant part of finding fulfillment and contentment. Listening to your oddest, most secret dreams will tell you how to seek out joy in your own life. There are no right answers.

raising7Why did I suddenly remember this daydream? Well, I have a little more flexibility and free-time in my schedule now than I’ve had for years. With it has come an increasing excitement for planning my days and filling them with just the right mix of activities that enrich every part of my being. So I guess that is the last and most important thing I learned.

I don’t have to be sequestered on a spaceship by myself in order to do the things I want. I get to do them right here, right now, and can even sometimes share my joy with another like minded soul or two. In other words, I get to have my childhood fantasy, and it’s better than I thought.

The real eulogy that I never gave

It was written eight years ago and it is the oldest file on my computer. I found it cleaning out a folder called “other writing” looking for any forgotten gems that I might want to roll into the book I’ve just started. It isn’t the oldest thing I’ve written of course, I’ve been doing this stuff since junior high. But most of that is all gone now. This isn’t.

I hear my own voice, from the year my mother died. I’ve changed in the passing years, and I’m not sure I agree with all of this now. But I think it is a perspective worth sharing. It’s called “Teach your children.”

You teach your children every day.  Not by what you say but by how you live your life. It is so easy to find yourself teaching them that life is drudgery, that marriage sucks, that work is to be avoided, and that you never get a fair deal.

I will never get to deliver the eulogy for my parents which I would like.  But if I could – it would go something like this.

Dalai 9The most offensive and ridiculous thing my parents ever said to me was “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.”  They thought it was terribly funny, which made it all the worse.  And they quoted it often.  You see, my parents basically liked to drink, gamble and have sex.  And overeat. They  avoided cigarettes and drugs, although my father smoked for awhile and tried pot in his youth.  I don’t think stopping either had much to do with self restraint – rather the first was more of an aesthetes choice and the second had more to do with what vices were readily available within their social circle.

And while my parents were busy enjoying life and telling us not to, they were also, in a way they never suspected, busy teaching me and my sister.

And what were we learning?

  1. If you want to have a good marriage, have all the sex you want but only have it with your partner. Nothing else will result in love after 40 plus years and having someone love you when you are 60 is about as good as it gets.
  2. If you are going to drink alcohol, only drink after five o’ clock except on holidays and special occasions. Only get drunk on weekends and not on all of them. This works a lot better if you can manage to be a happy, or at least not a belligerent, drunk.
  3. Gamble all you want, but never ever what you cannot afford to lose.
  4. Keep you weight to within 40 pounds of your ideal.  There are a lot of ways to die and frankly odds are yours will have nothing to do with your weight if you keep it somewhere under obese. Meanwhile, you will enjoy your life a lot more.

So today – I am slightly chubby and happily married for 26 plus years.  I drink less than my parents did, which is good, but I do drink only on nights and weekends. I hate most forms of gambling but play the stock market as hobby, but of course only with what we can afford to lose. I pretty much have a great life.

It is a shame I will never get to deliver this tribute, because it brings two things to mind which should be said.

  1. I hope my husband and I have taught our children as well.
  2. Thanks Mom and Dad. I am doing what you did, not what you said, and it’s working out just fine.

Of awkwardness, birds and monsters

I have a secret motto for my writing. If I put it in my blog it isn’t going to be secret anymore, so suffice to say it has to do with leaving my fears behind as I pen my prose. I believe that if you comfort zoneconstrain yourself to write only what others expect, or what you think others want to see from you, or what you think is acceptable, then you will never write anything great.

So I was happy to see this on twitter the other day, tweeted by @HeyJamie, who is really Jamie Jo Hoang , author of “Blue Sun, Yellow Sky.” I’m not a big liker and re-tweeter, but this got them both.

Which brings me to the song “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters” by MGMT. Not the song itself, which I’ve loved ever since the first time I heard it because it somehow makes me think of magic, but rather my mention of the song in my novel y1 and the scene it was used in.

y1 is the story of a young man who can reshape his body at will. This is all well and good for his solving crimes but if you start to think about it a little more, sooner or later you end up doing this.

Zane had seldom altered his shape to appear female, but except for his height there was no particular barrier to doing so. He could approximate breasts and wider hips. A wig would work wonders. He could add years, and a more ambiguous ethnicity. He would practice making himself as short as possible. The stooping of age would help. Meanwhile, he needed to learn more about a part of Penthes that he had, up till now, ignored, like most people. That was the beauty of the janitorial group. They just did not get a lot of attention.

In his office, Zane began to gather supplies. A janitor’s jumpsuit just a bit too small for Zane, women’s sneakers, and an unattractive salt and pepper woman’s wig were locked in this bottom left drawer along with an old iPod holding the brightest, shiniest pieces of electronic dance music and remixes that Zane had been able to find.

This last item was so much more than his favorite songs. Over the past months he had discovered how he could use music as a tool to push his body to new limits, with the music he loved helping him concentrate as he became ever more adept at controlling his appearance at will. He had finally, reluctantly, let himself begin to refer to his gift in his own mind as “shape shifting” and he now thought of this particular music as his cache of shape shifting songs.

He plugged the iPod into his computer and let himself enjoy the wonderful Holy Ghost remix of MGMT’s “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” Zane savored the ocean imagery and the upbeat tempo of the song for a moment, then as he began to coax his body into another form, Zane tried to imagine how wonder itself might be shaped.

IMG_1625I don’t write erotica, so I didn’t end up taking this nearly as far as it could have gone, and yet, well, my hero’s inevitable transformation from male body to female body made me squirm a little at the fuzzy line between the genders. It was probably a good squirm for me to have, given that I live in a world that increasingly acknowledges how complicated human sexuality is and encourages every human to discover and be in the shape that is right for them.  I welcome this enlightened acceptance, but philosophical agreement doesn’t always convey complete ease with something, at least not right away.

So, as so often happens, my writing took me out of my comfort zone and I was the one who gained the most from it. My hero Zane changed his gender a few times before the book was over. I don’t know what my various readers thought of it, but by the last edit of y1, I was better off.

Back to twitter. One of my other favorite tweets came via writer Jose Iriarte, who described himself in third person as “a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher …  [who] writes because he can’t afford therapy.”

Exactly.  Except for the Cuban-American and math teacher part, of course. Otherwise, that’s it exactly.

While pondering your own monsters and other discomfort zones, you can listen to and enjoy Zane’s favorite Holy Ghost Remix of “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.”

 

 

Are you “performing,” or performing?

I get the idea for this blog post while I’m doing yoga, right when I am instructed to be “totally present in the now.” This is a common prompt for anything involving meditation, but the problem is that the instructor takes it one step further and asks us to reflect on what keeps us from doing so.

“I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamors.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But then another voice in my head speaks up, and it is less anxious to please.

“Just how effective a human being do you think you would be if you didn’t focus on getting something done?” it asks. “Performing the tasks that help you survive is what buys you the freedom to sit around and chant om and do this other shit.”

“Shhhhh!” I hush both voices, and then just when I finally have things under control, the yoga instructor joins in the conversation.

true voice 5In fairness, he is a profound individual, and on occasion he will mix his own insights into the class practice and this always enhances the class for me.  This day, he has an answer for the question he has just asked. And he wants to share that answer with us.

“Performing,” he says. “You can’t be present in the now when you are performing.”

“I got that one!” the eager student yells in my head. “Performing tasks. It is one of the three things I said. You heard me. I got it. And I get extra credit for coming up with two more answers, too.”

Only it turns out, I didn’t get it. My yoga instructor is not concerned with my performing tasks or my living in the past or the future. He seems to think those are pretty trivial problems. He is hoping to help me avoid acting like I am someone who I am not. He believes that you can only be present in the here and now, when you are authentic.

Okay, that’s another idea. Decades ago we told each other not to be fake, but recent years have introduced the similar concept of personal authenticity. I like the nuances of this new word better. Unfortunately, though, the contribution from the instructor gets the various voices of my monkey mind going once again.

“Do you even know what is authentically you?” one asks. “Good student, good mother, good worker, good wife. You’ve played roles all of your life. When didn’t you?”

“Well yes, we all play roles to some extent.” my calmer and wiser monkey mind chines in. “It doesn’t mean those aren’t facets of the real you. They’re just not all there is to you.”

“Go deep beneath your roles and your accomplishments,” the instructor continues. He is managing quite well to be part of this conversation. What the hell. I take a deep breath and try to distance myself, to become the objective observer he is urging me to become. What do I see?

Psychedelic 16I see a soul sitting quietly on a mat. She cares deeply about things, but has learned to muffle the intensity of her emotions as their force often bothers others.  She wishes to be liked, and she knows that people seldom enjoy another who is too passionate. She is a ridiculous goody-two shoes (is that even still an expression?) who hates injustice, despises bullying, and truly believes in living an honorable life. She exaggerates to tell a story but won’t tell lies, and she would rather be by herself than with most people. Finally, she has never felt like she was normal and she thinks people would like her better if she was.  She has no idea how to go about being so.

“That’s it,” the instructor says. “Reach for the authentic you.”  I occasionally wonder if the man is telepathic.

The woman on the mat looks up at me and she smiles.  She is usually happy, but I know that she is happiest when she is writing. When something she writes comes out just the way she wants it to, she wants to stand on top of a table in a crowded place and scream “yes” several times at the top of her lungs, but of course she knows that would make her even less likable. And possibly incarcerated.

We are moving into end-of-class shavasana now, and a quiet corner of my monkey mind points out that I haven’t exactly been silent throughout today’s practice. No I haven’t. I’ve enjoyed this search for the true me, though, and think that it has been as good as enjoying the quiet in my head would have been. Many paths to the top of the mountain and all that. Today, this was my best way to be in this moment. I think that it doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about focusing on the past — see my post Bring back the good old days? on my z2 blog. For thoughts about my never ending preoccupation with performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. And for my concerns about planning for the future, see Prepare for the worst? on my d4 blog.)

When I wrote this scene in y1, I was scratching away at the idea of a person’s authenticity being tied into doing the things that they love. Now I’m even more sure that is true. Enjoy this short excerpt.

“What’s this?” he asked Toby, lifting a large bulky paper sack out of the dinghy.

“Tonight’s entertainment,” Toby replied. Afi’s eyes widened as a single, almost forty-inch-long fire knife fell out onto the sand, its regulation fourteen-and-a-half-inch blade glistening. There was a fire wick and a small can of outboard motor fuel.

“It was just sitting there when I walked into the farmers market,” Toby confessed a little sheepishly. “The man was quite happy to sell it to me, and I figured you could use it to at least start getting back in practice.”

fire dancingAfi shook his head in disbelief and Toby thought he saw a hint of tears in Afi’s eyes. “After dinner I want you to show me and our new crew member what you can do with this,” Toby said.

So after food was finished, the knife and wick were prepared, and as the very last glimmer of light vanished off to the west, Afi did a careful hand spin with the burning baton. Then he tried a slow figure eight. Then a cautious toss and catch, followed by a slightly more confident toss and catch behind his back. Then a bolder under-the-leg throw. He was grinning now, and the muscle memory was coming back. Joy and Toby watched in increasing wonder as Afi’s hesitant movements transformed, until he was confidently moving the glowing stick to the beat of drums only he could hear in his head.

He began to stomp his feet as he moved, adding head movements in the Kiribati style. Toby and Joy gained a sense of the rhythm to which Afi was moving. Joy began softly clapping with the motion, adding a little percussion. Afi grinned in appreciation and she clapped more forcefully. As his movements sped up, her clapping sped with them, and the two of them were working together now to create the performance. Joy clapped. Afi spun the fire knife. Toby watched in absolute fascination. Finally, by the end of the dance, Afi had become a whirling, glowing swirl of orange flame, powered by Joy’s now jubilant participation and by his own sheer joy in the exhilaration of doing something that he truly loved.

“I Need A Dollar”

Every so often an artist captures a complex problem in a simple way. I’m in awe of the photo or sketch that conveys nuances in a glance, and of the poem, song or piece of flash fiction that evokes layers of meaning in its few words. The best of popular music manages this, I think. I put the song “I Need A Dollar” by Aloe Blacc in this small group.

Working hard, can’t get a break, can’t get ahead. Why is it all around me? Substance abuse for comfort? Substance abuse as part of the problem? Which came first? Is this life’s plan for me? Do I get some kind of reward after death for my perseverance? Or perhaps not. Maybe I should just give up now? Too tired to think it through. Another drink? Another day. It has to get better. Doesn’t it?

unlevelI hear a lot of questions in this song, and a lot of anguish, and the odd hope that the teller’s tale might be worth a few dollars in the end. Yes, it is a song to think about when you contemplate building a level playing field in this world.

Which brings me to the fact that I recently began volunteering at a shelter, and yesterday one of the employees discovered that I was from Houston. She felt compelled to share with me that Houston is the home of her favorite minister, someone I had never heard of named Joel Osteen.LAKEWOOD-CHURCH I’m not big on evangelical ministers or mega churches, but she went on about how great this guy was, so I looked him up. Yup, he has about 43,000 people in his church, is worth about 56 million, and lives in a ten million dollar home. What a great man. And, as the shelter worker pointed out to me, his wife is gorgeous, too.

Okay. Given what I know of evangelical churches, I suspect that most of this man’s money has come from people who desperately “need a dollar” and have been persuaded by him to tithe the tiny bits of what they do have to one who promises to bring them better fortune in this life or the next. Clearly, the person who is getting better fortune out of this is Mr. Osteen.

bottleYes, people can do anything they want with their limited income, and yes, most probably get some sort of comfort from this guy. At least I hope that they do. None-the-less I found his very existence to be even more discouraging than the verse about the singer’s good friends whiskey and wine. There are so many shitty ways to take money from the tired and discouraged who barely have it. And we keep coming up with more.

So many ways to lose. Maybe not a single way to win. Is this the way HAS to be?

So I listened to the song again, hoping that maybe Aloe Blacc had hidden an answer of some sort in with all his questions.

No, not really. But I continue to admire a singer/songwriter who at least asks the questions well.

(Note: I refer to the song “I Need A Dollar” in my book y2. Enjoy this excerpt and the link to my favorite video of the song which follows.)

Afi, meanwhile, had used most of his remaining cash to buy a used bicycle at a thrift store that he found near their rent-by-the-week apartment. Joy was annoyed at the frivolity of the purchase and said so, until Afi pointed out with a trace of irritation that he was trying to find a way to contribute. If he could get around, he might be allowed to perform for tips at one of the tourist places, bringing in at least a little cash under the table while she sought out the more dependable teaching work for which she was qualified.

She apologized with a simple “I’m sorry” but that evening as she watched him head off to towards the nice hotels on his beat up bike with his fire knife dancing supplies on his back, the Aloe Blacc song “I Need a Dollar” played in her head. As she sang along to the lyrics of a man desperate to make ends meet, she thought that perhaps she had sold Afi short by not recognizing his talents or his ingenuity. She owed it to him not to make that mistake again.

Late that night they shared a mattress and the comfort of worrying together.

This video of Aloe Blacc performing “I Need a Dollar” with The Grand Scheme at Southpaw in Brooklyn, New York, lets you see the artist close up and feel the fun he has performing this serious song. But the best part is the last two minutes, when he mentions his Jamaican roots and then adds on a short version of the song, reggae style. His compassion comes through along with his smile.

You Make Me High

The celebrations have wound down, and the fitness center parking lot is almost full as we collectively turn towards the gods of “let’s get this nonsense under control.” Less food, less alcohol, fewer late nights, and no more spending, we promise with one voice. At least through January.

I’m cleaning up things professionally and personally here, and am back to documenting the music I refer to in each novel. I love the songs I chose for my main characters, but it is a little more work to do this kind of blogging. Just writing whatever I feel like is so much easier.

But, it is January. Time to get serious and get the things that need doing done. So I was happy to find that the first song up was Kelis’s sensual, beautiful “Fireworks.” Ah, a bit of the December celebrations lingers on in this music.

What follows is a short excerpt from y1 about the song, and then then her classic video which somehow makes me think of the way every New Years Eve should feel.

The threesome continued to work together with a soft, easy rhythm, but Toby knew that the situation worked well because he was clearly in charge. In some situations, like on a small boat on a big sea, democracy remains a poor tool for day-to-day decision-making. So he gave reasonable orders with ample information, and his crew of two complied and gave input when asked or when they felt they had something important to contribute. It worked.

The only area of command that Toby gracefully relinquished was his control of the music. Clearly he was never going to enter the third millennium tune-wise if he didn’t let somebody younger serve as the boat DJ. He had to smile as Joy and Afi spent hours collaborating quietly over Joy’s MP3 player and selecting song sequences for his evaluation. Many got a thumbs down within seconds, before the three of them finally realized that current dance music was the one genre that they all consistently liked. So the latter days of the journey were spent listening to 2010’s top hot dance club songs, which had been downloaded by Joy in Fiji.

True to his promise to provide Toby with more current music about fire, Afi frequently blared the new Kelis single “4th of July” while he and Joy often belted out the lyrics in an effort to drown out the sound of the boat’s engine. After a couple of days Toby joined in the singing, and finally Kelis’ song became the preferred way of dealing with the occasional engine noise as baritone, tenor, and alto combined with all the volume each could produce. Joy promised Afi that she would download the video for him once they got to Toby’s little island hideaway. He just had to see all the great fire scenes in it.

Toby had to admit that he was enjoying the camaraderie and even just the distractions provided by his crew. Would their loyalty be as strong if they knew more about him? He tried to remember how he had left things at his place. What all was lying around? Would his crew even recognize the evidence of the other life he led? Most likely not. Nervously cleaning up once they arrived would only make him look dodgy. His best bet would be to open the place up to them and count on his new friends’ lack of interest in anything suspicious.

You can buy it at Amazon.