May 10

Toxic

Toxic – adj.  1) containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation  2)  extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful (merriam-webster.com)

“By definition, a toxic relationship is a relationship characterized by behaviors on the part of the toxic partner that are emotionally and, not infrequently, physically damaging to their partner. While a healthy relationship contributes to our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains energy.” (Thomas Cory,  http://www.healthscopemag.com/health-scope/toxic-relationships/)

 

I’ve been thinking about toxic relationships a lot lately. Thankfully, I’m not a participant in any myself, but they seem to be on the rise all around me this spring. Spouses, siblings, parents and children all spouting nasty venom in various ways, hurting the people who love them and often shocking those of us who are just observing.  I’ve seen so much of this stuff lately; I’m starting to recognize patterns.

Pattern 1 – Observers can usually see both sides of the situation. At first.  Both parties usually start off looking justified. Those around them begin discussions appraise both sides equally. He’s a hot mess; she’s an enabler. She’s mentally ill; he’s trying to keep the family together. Initially, both parties strike observers as contributing equally to the problems.

Pattern 2 – One of them goes off the rails. Cheats on the spouse and abandons the family. Goes off on a terrible rant and starts talking about the other person behind their back. Runs off and spends the family’s entire savings.

Pattern 3 – Once Party A goes around the bend, they usually lose the support of people around them. In most of the toxic relationships I’ve witnessed, Party A is the one who comes off as the cause of the toxicity. Maybe he/she didn’t start it, but they go too far. They become so self-absorbed and self-justified, they indiscriminately hurt everyone around them.

Pattern 4 – Party B tries to salvage the relationship, often at terrible cost to their own self-esteem, physical health, financial well-being, or other relationships.

Pattern 5 – Party A moves on and tries to cover his/her tracks. They break past connections and attempt to keep new friends from knowing about their previous behaviors. They may also try to vilify Party B to deflect any blame.

Pattern 6 – Some people, even some who are Party A, never have another toxic relationship; they were just part of a bad combination. Other people are just toxic themselves. They repeat these patterns over and over again during their lives. They leave a wake of destruction, divorces, broken hearts, arrests, bankruptcies, and abandonments wherever they go.

 

I would never presume to offer expertise on this topic. I am no psychologist, plus I’ve had little personal experience with these types of relationships (just lucky, I guess). If you need help, the internet is actually a pretty good place to start.

If you do a little research and realize you are in a toxic relationship, take steps to protect yourself. But don’t fall into Pattern 2! You can back away from a toxic person without hurting everyone around you. And remember – if Party A walks away, they are doing you a favor. Yes, it will hurt. But think of all the future pain you will avoid. Let them go.

 

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May 1

Consider Your Source

Let me preface this by saying, I love lots of people with divorces and bankruptcies under their belts. Some of my favorite people have been arrested and gone through rehab. Everyone makes mistakes. Lord knows I make plenty. But I know it. The following is about people who are blind to their own faults, people who screw up regularly, often hurting those around them, and then want to give other people advice.

I have two college degrees.

I’ve been married only once, for going on 20 years now.

I have two happy, healthy, well-behaved kids who love me and their father.

I have a nice house in a safe neighborhood.

I’ve never been arrested or had any charges or lawsuits brought against me, including divorce or bankruptcy.

My husband and I are saving up for our kids’ college educations as well as our own retirements.

Am I proud? Well, sure. A little. I’d say about 50% of these achievements came through hard work and thoughtful decision-making.

But I know the other 50% had nothing to do with me. It was a combination of privilege, luck, and help from other people. The fact that I was born to two college-educated, middle-class American professionals who loved each other and their children? That was luck. Because of my privilege as a white, middle-class kid whose parents had been through the university experience, I was able to breeze through school and attain my college education in four years with no debt.

The fact that I fell for a brilliant, hard-working guy who was determined to build a comfortable, loving home for his family? That was mostly luck and some help from a friend who introduced us.

The fact that I’ve never been in any legal trouble? Well, it certainly helps that my parents set great examples for me. That they provided me with everything I needed so I never felt the need to seek acceptance, confirmation, confidence or really anything else in drugs, risky relationships, or other bad choices.

The fact that we have a nice house and some solid investments? Again, help from my parents who paid for most of my college expenses. (And luck, of course. All that could disappear with another nasty financial crash.)

I had help from some good people.

I KNOW from good people.

I take advice from good people – people who know what they’re talking about because they have proven expertise and experience.

So when people with NO such expertise or positive experience give me advice, I bite my tongue. When people with a track record of terrible decision-making try to tell me what decision to make, I often do the opposite of what they’ve suggested. Interestingly, it’s the folks with a long history of failures who seem to want to offer advice most often. I suppose they have to justify all their mistakes somehow; they tell themselves that all these missteps have made them wiser. They, therefore, feel justified in sharing their acquired wisdom.

Except that many of these people often keep making bad choices.

From where I’m sitting, most of them don’t look seem to have learned anything.

I nod and smile. Walk away. I’ll stick with what I know works – thoughtful decision-making, advice from the successful people I trust.

All this to say: consider your source. Always.

Consider your source.

You wouldn’t buy a Rolex from a seedy-looking guy in a trenchcoat, right?

Don’t take medical advice from an electrician.

Don’t take legal advice from a plumber.

Don’t take ethics advice from (or vote for!) a guy with multiple bankruptcies, lawsuits, and divorces.

Consider your source.

January 17

Sports are Stupid

“Sports are stupid.” “I’m not interested in sports.” “It’s so boring, the same thing all the time; you just change the colors of the uniforms and the shape of the ball.”

Lately, my Facebook page has been littered with complaints and memes against sports. Although I consider myself a sports fan, I’m sympathetic. At certain times of the year, sports can be overwhelming, and right now is one of those times. We just came out of a rather historic college football championship (Yay, Big Ten!). We’re in the midst of the NFL playoffs (Go, Colts!). Both the NBA and college basketball are in full swing (Pacers! Hoosiers! Bulldogs!). It’s hockey season, and baseball clubs are gearing up for spring training. To top it all off, there’s some big story in the news about a race car driver with an assassin ex-girlfriend?

“Too much sports!” my anti-athletic friends cry. I get it. Truly, I do.

As I said, I consider myself a sports fan, but to be honest, I follow only football and basketball, a little baseball, and even less tennis. Hockey, soccer, golf, and auto racing leave me cold. As a native of Indianapolis, I get a lot of crap for that last one. So when my friends whine about being bored with or tired of sports, I sympathize.

Still, there are moments when people tend toward pride in their disdain for all things sport. There’s a tinge of snobbery in their voices when they announce, “I don’t know anything about football/baseball/basketball/etc..” That’s when I get a little less sympathetic.

For various complex reasons I won’t detail, I spent much of this week with academics – PhD candidates, tenured professors, and deans. Though I teach at a university, this is not the circle I usually run with. They are nice people; most of the people in my department are fun and friendly, despite their obscene educations. Most of the time I spent with them over the last few days was quite enjoyable as we interviewed job candidates. I realized a couple things, though, that jump-started my thinking on this whole sports topic. First, I’m one of the few Indianapolis natives in my department; true academics bounce around a lot. Second, many true academics pride themselves on not following sports.

Since we were interviewing out-of-towners and sports are one of Indy’s biggest claims to fame, the conversations occasionally tended toward things like the Indy Motor Speedway, the Super Bowl, Lucas Oil Stadium, and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Inevitably, I would comment on these topics with some fact I thought was safe (“The Colts are playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship this weekend.”), and the whole table would look at me like I’d just sprouted a unicorn horn from my forehead. I would then clam up for the next fifteen minutes. I know many of these very educated people are so immersed in their fields of research that they rarely have time for frivolous activities of any kind, but it’s their pride in knowing nothing about sports that surprised me. Many of our students love sports. Many of my fellow faculty and staffers at the university love sports, so spurning them as worthless feels a bit unkind.

Some of my FB friends express similar contempt, though for different reasons. They love art, music, “the theater.” They see sports as the antithesis of these things, a competitor for fans and funding. For them, sports vs. high culture is an “or” proposition, in much the same way Christian fundamentalists view evolution vs. creationism. But I know many people, like myself, who love both high art and sports. I can go to the opera or the symphony on Saturday night, then spend Sunday in front of the TV, screaming obscenities at the NFL refs. For me and many of my fellow sports fans, these two worlds are not mutually exclusive.

Sports are certainly as much a part of the human experience as art. The ancient Greeks and Romans gave us both, as did the Egyptians, Aztecs, and Mayans. Both athletes and artists have been revered for millennia, and they actually have a lot in common. Both work hard for physical perfection, practice constantly, and have their every move scrutinized by fans and media. Sure, those at the tops of their professions make ridiculous salaries. Do NFL players deserve multi-million dollar contracts? I don’t know. But they are entertainers just like Oscar-winning filmmakers and actors who often rival or surpass these athletes in salary. Both fields are so demanding that people at the top rarely stay there for long. Bright careers burn briefly in sports as well as art.

Both art and athletics teach valuable lessons effectively: teamwork, discipline, strategy, and focus. Throughout our educations, most American students are given opportunities to participate in plays, art classes, musical performances, and myriad sports. Many of us do both. (I dated a guy who played football AND marched in the marching band. At halftime, he played trumpet while wearing his football uniform.) All these experiences are valuable and value many of the same attributes. To disdain sports while revering the arts is rather short-sighted.

Though most of us will not go into a profession in art or sports, we can still benefit from both. One of the things I love most about sports is how they foster a sense of community. Go to a ballgame and look around. You’ll see people of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Christian, atheist, Republican, Democrat, anarchist – they can’t agree on anything outside the stadium or gymnasium or ballfield. But while that game is going on, they’re all on the same team (or maybe two teams). For me, sports are a great way to find common ground. I can walk into a party where I don’t know a soul and start chatting with anyone in a team hat or school t-shirt. “Oh, did you go to Miami or are you a fan? Pretty cool how they beat Duke the other night, huh?” Twenty-minute conversation starter.

Do sports create problems? Domestic violence? Cheating? Fan-on-fan brawls? Of course. It’s a human endeavor. If a human is involved, there will be problems, just as there are cheating and plagiarism in academia, copyright infringement and exploitation in the arts.

I understand how people can get tired of sports they don’t like. I understand the need to protect oneself from the onslaught of football/basketball/auto racing talk. Outright scorn, however, is narrow-minded. Sports offer many benefits, especially in a country struggling with obesity. Perhaps a little hero worship of Lebron James or Peyton Manning will get chubby Charlie off the couch and outside to play a little ball. That’s not a bad thing, nor is the stress relief that engaging in or watching sports can provide.

Over the holidays, my husband’s dear sister passed away at the ripe old age of 48, after a painful battle with cancer. She left behind a loving husband and two grieving teenagers. To add to this good time, family politics put my husband and his brother in a very uncomfortable position. We had to inform our two children that the remainder of their holiday break would be spent on the road to frigid, frosty New England and at funeral gatherings with lots of sad people they didn’t know. That week was awful in pretty much every way you can imagine. As we tried to drive home, we hit a snowstorm that slowed us to a crawl. I was keeping our worried families updated on our progress via text messages, and I was relaying a litany of woes to my sister.

“At least the Colts won!” she texted back.

And in spite of all the sadness, stress, and difficulties of the week, I smiled.

Stupid? Maybe. But we all need a stupid reason to smile once in a while. If nothing else, sports can give us that.

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February 13

The Problem with Sherlock (Holmes)

Since the end of the BBC’s season 3 of Sherlock, the blogosphere’s been buzzing like angry bees from one of Holmes’s hives. “Too sentimental!” “Too unrealistic!” “Sherlock’s gone soft!” “High-functioning sociopath we can deal with, but murderer?!”

True, Mom and Dad Holmes may have overstayed their welcome in season 3. Although Mr. and Mrs. Cumberbatch were adorable and quite good, perhaps Sherlock should’ve shooed them out of the season altogether when he shooed them out of 221B Baker Street. “Delayed action stabbing?” A super-fine blade slipped through a heavy-duty, military-grade, wool uniform? Stretching our credulity a bit. And so much sweetness this season with the addition Mary, the precocious little Archie in “The Sign of Three,” Christmas at the Holmes’ house. Only to have the sweetness snatched away to be replaced by the unexpected bitterness of a hero-turned-killer?! What’s going on?!

Fellow Sherlock fans, I beseech you to keep calm.

Nothing that happened this season is out of step with the rest of this magnificent series. Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss are staying true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle and sticking with the paradigm that has made this show the closest representation of Doyle’s books ever brought to screen.

The problem of all screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories is one of perspective. In the novels and short stories, we perceive Holmes through the eyes and voice of John Watson. Most of the work is in the first person, with Watson playing narrator. It is brilliantly done. Without Watson as the reader’s intermediary, Sherlock Holmes would never have become the icon he is today. To his contemporary audience, Holmes would’ve been insufferable. Rude, self-absorbed, impatient, monomaniacal, at turns lazy and crazed, Holmes would hardly have appealed to most Victorians on his own.

That’s where Watson comes in. The Dr. John Watson of the books (and happily, Martin Freeman’s John Watson) saves us from being subjected to Holmes directly. Smart, brave, loyal, adventurous, Watson represents the kind of man Victorian Britons aspired to be. He’s a successful doctor and a decorated military veteran. In short, he’s a good man. Dr. Watson is admirable, and he admires Sherlock Holmes. We hear only those things about Holmes that Watson finds fascinating, and we hear those things in Watson’s voice. We see Holmes through Watson’s lens, somewhat clouded by amazement, confusion and, let’s face it, some hero-worship. But it works beautifully, and the result has been 130 years of Sherlock Holmes, flourishing and adapting to new audiences, new settings, and new media.

Which brings us to Sherlock.

Like all other screen adaptations, Sherlock has had to deal with the problem of perspective. Unlike a book, in which the narrator is responsible for what the reader sees and hears, on film, the audience gets a direct feed. Watson is still there with us, but he’s no longer standing between Holmes and us. He’s one of us, an observer; he’s lost his ability to protect Holmes for our prying eyes.

Admirably, Sherlock has not resorted to the merely 7% effective solution so many other adaptations have taken. To soften Holmes, many productions turn Watson into comic relief; he becomes a chubby, walrus-mustachioed clown. (Moffatt and Gatiss had some fun with that convention this season, giving Freeman a much-maligned and short-lived mustache worthy of Nigel Bruce.) But this tactic is unfair to Watson, Holmes, and Doyle. Watson is not a fool; he’s a doctor. He’s not clumsy or oblivious; he was a soldier. What’s more, Holmes would not suffer a fool. He has very little patience for stupid people (or normal people!), so it would be incongruous for him to want a silly man as a companion. Doyle never wrote foolishness into Watson’s character. Any comedy in the stories usually comes from Holmes’s snide remarks about silly people around them.

A few productions, most recently, those with Robert Downey Jr., have tried a different strategy – turning Holmes into comic relief himself.  Downey hams it up, using his big, brown eyes to great effect. And the movies use quite a bit of physical humor to keep Holmes from intimidating the audience too much. Of course, adding some sexual innuendo in the form of Irene Adler keeps things light as well.

Sherlock has used the Irene Adler trick too, but one of the things I love about this series is its Watson. Martin Freeman’s doctor is as close to Doyle’s doctor as I have ever seen. The character is brilliantly written and acted.

And therein lies a problem.

Without a foolish Watson, Sherlock’s Holmes is intimidating, awkward, bipolar, manipulative, even vicious. At times, Cumberbatch’s spot-on performance can be difficult for even modern TV audiences to watch. Many bloggers remarked on the painful awkwardness of “The Sign of Three,” with Holmes’s awful, rambling best man speech. Well. Yes. Of course, it was. It would be.

Without turning Watson into a buffoon, Gatiss and Moffatt have used a number of foils to tone down Sherlock’s hard edges. Irene Adler, of course, cleverly represented as a female Holmes. James Moriarty gave us a truly evil Holmes. Mycroft is “the ice man” version of Holmes. Magnusson was the amoral capitalist version of Holmes. These foils have worked well, helping the audience realize that, yes, Holmes may be a high-functioning sociopath, but by comparison with Mycroft, Moriarty and Magnusson, he’s a swell guy.

Season 3 was no less true to the formula Gatiss and Moffatt have developed to stay faithful to Doyle’s vision: Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a horribly abrasive genius; Freeman’s Watson is smart and solid. Foils were used to make Holmes appealing by comparison. Knowing their hero had to kill Magnusson at the end of the season, Gatiss and Moffatt may have overbalanced a little, but not much. Holmes’ execution of the villain is not that big a shocker. Magnusson, like Milverton in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” had to die. In Doyle’s story, Holmes watches the villain’s murder, does nothing to stop it, and prevents Watson from turning in the killer. To actually pull the trigger is not much of a stretch. So all the cute and sweet this season perhaps wasn’t necessary for modern audiences, but it was certainly true to the formula.

Even the “delayed action stabbing” is not so bad when you remember how faithful Gatiss and Moffatt are to Doyle. Yes, such a method of killing someone is unrealistic. But then, Doyle’s stories are not always steeped in real science either. Phrenology, anyone?

For those Sherlock fans who are also Sherlock Holmes fans, this season was not so problematic perhaps as for those who see the show in its own self-contained bubble. Still, those who are concerned that the show is devolving should take solace. It is being quite true to a successful formula, and it is still one of the best things on television.

Fans of the books, however, may be starting to fear that, at the rate the show is burning through Doyle’s storylines, can it really last much longer?

January 6

Greetings from the Polar Vortex!

The temperature is currently -9 degrees in my hometown. Our forecast low for tonight is -14 with a windchill of -38. Yesterday we received 11 inches of snow. It’s January 6th, and we are already on the leaderboard for monthly snowfall totals: 5th snowiest January in Indiana history!

I love it.

Truly, I do. My Facebook page is full of weather posts – pictures of snowscapes, screenshots of temperature readings, grumbly memes about winter. These posts are overwhelmingly negative. Even the sunshiny brightsiders in my life are grumbling (Geez, all it takes to destroy their positive outlooks is a foot of snow and some sub-zero temps? Wimps.)  A few of my fellow winter-philes are enjoying this, but even we understand that this kind of weather is extreme and dangerous to the foolish, infirm, or impoverished.

Since I’ve checked on my all my chickens and found them all safe in their nests, though, I’m going to revel and bask in this tundra. While the folks around me whine and complain and wish away the white, longing for flip-flops, heat, sunburn, sweat, mosquitoes and drought, I’d like to point out that this weather is NOT all bad. In fact, there are some really great things about it!

1. Those West Nile mosquitoes that will arrive with spring? This weather reduces their numbers: “Cold temperatures perform a great public health service by killing off disease-mongering insects” (Harvard Health Letter, 1/10).

2. The cold also helps destroy icky water-borne microorganisms, the kind of nasties that thrive in the tropics and temperate zones.

3. By essentially quarantining people for several days, this severe weather can help to slow down the spread of the worrisome flu epidemic we saw last month.

4. Crime goes down with the mercury; you’re less likely to be the victim of a violent crime committed by a stranger when it’s cold.

5. This weather SLOWS things down. This is one of the things I really appreciate about a good, hard winter. My life (and the lives of many people I know) is too fast. Not like in an Eagles’ song kind of way, but in a our-family-has-no-white-space-on-our-calendar-for-three-weeks kind of way. An I-have-to-buy-a-birthday-gift-for-Jimmy’s-party-on-the-26th-even-though-it’s-only-the-5th-because-I-won’t-have-any-other-time-to-do-it kind of way. I hate that. In weather like this, there is no hurry because NO ONE is in a hurry. Heck, we can’t even leave the house! Wonderful.

6. This weather makes things quiet. Another reason I love severe cold snaps: for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t awakened by the damn dogs next door.

7. The snow covers up the ugly. Weeds, brown grass, litter, the junk in the renters’ yard? All covered up for now. :)

8. With little else to do, chores become diversions. My house has never been cleaner! I’ve re-organized closets, sent several boxloads of unnecessaries to Goodwill, dusted the whole house. The kids haven’t even complained when they’ve had to do their chores because, well, they’re kind of bored at this point. We were supposed to go back to school, but we’re closed tomorrow.

9. Shoveling snow is good exercise. My husband’s burned more calories in the past two days than he probably did in the two weeks previous!

10. Playing in the snow is a lovely, novel means of family fun. In Indiana anyway, our winters are usually more cold than snowy. When we do get big snows, it’s unusual enough that we want to get out and play in it. Before the hazardous temps moved in, we played outside for an hour. (Our snowman is nearly buried in a drift today, though. Poor guy.)

11. Sub-zero temps allow intelligent people to more easily identify the stupid people in their lives. These morons will pop out all over the place to proclaim that global warming is a hoax.  (Scientists, can we please just kill the phrase “global warming?” It’s confuses the morons. “Climate change,” please, scientists.) Evidently, the record-breaking heat currently happening in Australia doesn’t count for the stupids because it’s not happening right in front of them; heat only counts if it’s where they are. Anyway, it makes for a super-simple way to identify all the people I need to hide on Facebook.

So for those of you in the frigid with me, stay safe and try to appreciate some of the benefits of this crazy weather. For those of you enjoying warmer climes, don’t gloat too loudly; my bitter friends may come after you after the travel restrictions are lifted!

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