Tag Archives: life

The endless, futile yet imperative quest for Utopia

My dad always told me “There is no utopia.” I now live on a tropical beach yet lack the mountains. Italy seems like heaven, yet I’ve been told living there can be quite the headache. Does any one place or country have it all?

I just returned from a beautiful paradisaical island, one of the most scenic and culturally rich places I have ever been. Yet the people are imprisoned; unable to leave and forced to live in poverty under a government that controls many aspects of their lives. There is none to minimal internet access and very limited opportunities.

In the United States we enjoy a world of comfort and convenience; luxuries like continual hot water, air conditioning and 24/7 access to shelves upon shelves of food, products, and anything we could possibly desire are so commonplace they are totally taken for granted. However, the streets seem dead in comparison, and our depression and stress rates are sky-high.

The people in Cuba live very rich lives, but in a very different sense of the word ‘rich.’ There, the streets are vibrant and alive with humanity. People interact in the plazas and shelter together under trees in the rain.  Neighbors are lifelong friends. Children play soccer — with a ball that looks like it has been in use for half a century — in the street. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and they disfruta la vida.

Because they are so poor, many grown adults — in their forties — live with their parents. Here, this situation carries an enormous stigma, and of course is widely seen is undesirable. But their family ties are so naturally close that it comes across as rather pleasant. One night, the 60-something senora I was staying with celebrated her birthday. Her 45-year-old daughter bought her a new dress, and together, with several elderly ladies from the neighborhood, danced to Latin music in their tiny entryway, door open to the street, until 3 am. I can’t picture that scenario happening often here in the USA, where most major cities are characterized by strangers shuttling around in their vehicles between big box stores.

World travels and several articles have made me ponder what an ideal lifestyle, and ideal society, looks like. I don’t think it’s utterly capitalist or utterly socialist, but perhaps somewhere in-between; it features a return to a more primitive lifestyle, yet incorporates the best modern advances.

Ayn Rand had a point. Innovators make life better for all of us. Yet at the same time, the linear trajectory of endless growth, consumption and development obviously cannot be sustained without huge cost to the environment. If maximum material wealth and profit is our ultimate goal, we will fulfill the American Indian prophecy that Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

American Indians, like many indigenous societies, lived within a circular paradigm. They did not seek material wealth but to enjoy quality of life and freedom while living in harmony with the natural world. They used what they needed and were not overly attached to material objects.

Many leading thinkers agree that we must reform and re-imagine our current culture if we want to save the earth from ecological catastrophe, and thus ourselves. A recent Aljazeera.com article “The Trouble With Discounting Tomorrow” talks about how nations need to cooperate to achieve a sustainable future. In the latest Discover Magazine, Geoffrey West, an eminent theoretical physicist, remarks:

“We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it … even though innovations [such as creating new energy sources] reset the clock, from the work that I’ve done, I think all they do is delay collapse.”

Another book, Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think argues the opposite stance, that technological innovations will create a world where all nine plus billion of us will live robust lives characterized by artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and cellphones and laptops for all.

It’s interesting to think outside of the box, to consider what your ideal world looks like: Is it urban, rural or a mix? Do you require a mansion, a fleet of cars, and tons of the latest gadgets, clothes etc. to be happy? Or would you be content in a small, eco-conscious cottage, with access to pure water, food, air, and all that nature has to offer? How much does community, family, and an active and interactive daily life factor into this equation? The question of what constitutes utopia has been on the mind of many a critical thinker unhappy with the status quo, from Thomas More to Jonathon Swift to John Winthrop.

I recently ordered a book from Amazon.com: The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. I was drawn to it because I sense that the way humans have been living in the past century is not really the way they were designed to live, nor is it close to how they have lived for thousands upon thousands of years. Many people instantaneously consider ancient cultures to have hard, short, and disease-ridden lives, but this is not necessarily the case. The native peoples of the Americas were noted as being strikingly healthy, sound and beautiful, and many studies have shown (such as The China Study) that native societies were often very healthy — with minimal chronic disease, perfect teeth, happy minds, etc — until introduced to a more modern, processed diet and lifestyle. They also enjoyed a healthy balance of equality, individual freedom and community. Many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are actually far more common now, due to sedentary living, nutritionally devoid food and countless environmental factors.

There are people today who are seeking a more ‘primal lifestyle.’ Mark Sisson (check out Marksdailyapple.com) discusses the question of hunter-gatherer longevity here. He espouses sunbathing, walking barefoot, eating natural, staying active — lots of common sense things that a lot of us in the first world have to make an effort to do. David Wolfe is another nutritionist who espouses a more eco-conscious, enlightened lifestyle. This type of thinking looks backwards as well as forwards; it is progressive, alternative and visionary while cherishing ancient wisdom and common sense.

I think my personal utopia would constitute a blend. It would be closely in tune with nature and do as little harm to the earth and its creatures as possible. It would feature composting and gardening. Yet I would also want access to the internet and the world’s knowledge. I would like proximity to people whom I care about, a family and community that supports one another, yet I would want solitude and total freedom. I would like to retain the ability to travel and to experience diverse cultures, Latin, European and beyond. I’m not sure if this personal utopia is possible; according to my dad, it isn’t. Yet you can’t stop the human spirit from striving.

Brave New World 2012

Everyone who has taken a basic English literature class has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were written in the 20th century and projected dystopian visions of a government-controlled, post-industrial world. The future imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four is decidedly more bleak and unpleasant. Huxley’s is still a prison where Shakespeare is banned, but punishment for dissension is merely exile to a remote island as opposed to Orwell’s having your head stuck in a cage with rats, being beaten and otherwise tortured until you are forced to admit that 2+2=5.

Social critic Neil Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.‘ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” [Emphasis added].

I think that as of 2012, we are leaning more towards Huxley’s visions, although there are echoes of Orwell such as:

Surveillance and Police State — GPS tracking through cellphones; monitoring of internet, social media and email usage (which the NSA is tracking); drones;  hidden cameras; the erosion of civil liberties following 9/11 (including the possibility of indefinite detention without trial); police brutality … there are rampant examples of a growing police state and the power of government to monitor, track and control its citizens.

Telescreens — Televisions are not (that I know of) a two-way monitoring device, but they are often constantly on in people’s houses which does have a distracting and conditioning effect. Commercials and programming sap people’s time and subtly direct them to believe and think certain things, and the mainstream media is often directed by the special interests of large corporations as well as the government.

This document has further comparisons:

1984 : Ministry of Peace
Now : Department of Defense

“Useless statistics, incorrect economic predictions, and slanted opinions polls are presented on the Evening news as ‘legitimate news’, to give people the impression that ‘things are getting better’, and that all people agree with the popular way of thinking … History is being rewritten, to conform with modern beliefs” (See Howard Zinn’s a People’s History of the United States for proof).

and

“There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed  (or threatened) on another nation to keep the military machine rolling … From Goldstein’s book – “The effect (of the atomic wars) was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped. All three powers merely continue to produce atomic bombs and store them up against the decisive opportunity which they all believe will come sooner or later. And meanwhile the art of war has remained almost stationary for thirty or forty years. Helicopters are more used than they were formerly, bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles, and the fragile movable battleship has given way to the almost unsinkable Floating Fortress; but otherwise there has been little development. The tank, the submarine, the torpedo, the machine gun, even the rifle and the hand grenade are still in use. And in spite of the endless slaughters reported in the Press and on the telescreens, the desperate battles of earlier wars, in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of men were often killed in a few weeks, have never been repeated.”

But, like in Brave New World, our current paradigm is much more benign, though fraught with insidious forces. Not through sleep hypnosis or electric shock conditioning, but by being exposed to thousands of ads per day, we are brainwashed to buy buy buy, that “ending is better than mending.” Our economy depends on large scale consumer consumption of mass-produced goods, and planned obsolescence is necessary as well as the reinforcement of the belief that the accumulation of material goods is one of life’s main aims.

While not engaging in getting and spending, we of course should be playing. In Brave New World spending time alone and in introspective, intellectual pursuits is discouraged. Deep thinking and thinking “outside the box” is grounds for exile, and high culture artifacts and classic literature is banned. Instead, empty, superficial activities are encouraged. We don’t play centrifugal bumble-puppy, but the popular entertainment of today (shopping, movies, video games, TV, YouTube, social media) sure do offer a lot of time-sucking, vacuous fluff.

And then of course, if your mindless job and even more mindless entertainment is not enough to distract you from thinking about the Why and Wherefore of it all, as well as alternate ways of living, then you can just pop a pill and feel good at all times. People who are real and fully alive either live as savages on reservations or are banished to remote locales.

Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 as a non-fiction follow-up in which he concludes that the world was becoming much like he predicted, mainly through the use of subliminal suggestion, subtle but powerful societal pressures  and prescription drugs.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1999 article called “Why Americans are Not Taught History” that references both books wrote: “For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

Our educational system is deplorable and cultivates an extremely ethnocentric worldview. Cultural norms in fashion and entertainment are reinforced through the popular entertainment of television, music and mass media, creating superficiality, homogeneity and rampant commercialism and materialism. Whether deliberately or not, Americans are being dumbed down — by the school system, by the media, by the low-brow culture and entertainment, by distracting us with shiny new high-tech gadgets, and by the large-scale use of chemicals in food, water, air and pills/Westernized medicine. If you dare to challenge the status quo, to suddenly say “Let’s stop and look at the logic of what we are doing here,” to challenge the institutions and authority figures and 9-5 schedules and the way things are, well, you’ll end up like the Occupiers. Battered, belittled and finding yourself, like John the Savage, alone and futile in your rage against the machine.

How do you define Success?

When I was a 23-year-old novice writer at an edgy alt-weekly mag, I once discussed the meaning of SUCCESS with a fellow writer a decade or so older than myself.

He drove a beat-up car — jalopy is a nice word — and rented an apartment. He was single. He wasn’t very, as they say, financially “well-off.” He wrote, he observed, he experienced, he analyzed, he read, he traveled. He was free, open, curious, fulfilled, alive. Was he successful?

“Depends on how you define success,” he said to me, in a conversation about the implications inherent in pursuing the writer’s life, the peripatetic life.

I often feel constrained by society’s definition, the capitalist Modern American Society a la Mitt Romney definition: vast amounts of wealth; stocks and bonds; accolades and titles; multiple vehicles; big houses; marriage and kids.

Let me preface this little diatribe by stating that I don’t think any of these things are unequivocally bad — and that each and every one can indeed be the most fulfilling, joy-giving element to someone’s life. One woman may want nothing more than to raise her children in a snug little cul-de-sac, shuttling them to and fro in her safe SUV. Another might want nothing more than to achieve an executive title in her field. The tricky part comes when people feel pressured to conform to certain roles that don’t truly make them happy, simply because they feel pressured to be seen as traditionally successful by their parents, peers and society at large.

Several studies have suggested that once basic needs and desires are met, more wealth does not translate to more happiness; several ‘developing’ countries outshine the United States in regards to overall levels of happiness. Many indigenous cultures — before being colonized and decimated — were certainly very happy living simple, sustainable lives that didn’t include lots of superfluous material things and distractions. Wealth and prestige and progress can all be good things, but if they are pursued relentlessly and single-mindedly, this free-market, first-world mindset can cause environmental degradation and other ills.

To many, a house and a car and a career and a family are the pinnacle of a fulfilling life — security, prestige, and the nicest decorated house on the block.

But what about the girl who feels she just has to get married by a certain age or face being seen as an outcast, a spinster? Or the person who chooses a career path simply because their family wants them to, or it pays well, or makes them feel validated? Or the person who takes on mortgage and debts to accumulate these outward signs of having made it, only to be eternally enslaved by these all-important physical possessions? At what cost, and what do we sacrifice, to achieve conventional success? Can we step outside the paradigm, have the courage to let down those around us, to be true to ourselves? What does your inner self really want?

Getting married, one year later

In a few days, I am going to celebrate my one year wedding anniversary.

I was never one of those girls who dreamed about getting married. In fact, I didn’t actually want to get married. I liked being totally independent, doing whatever the hell I wanted. A light sleeper, I couldn’t imagine sharing a bed with anyone. When I was younger, I was also more insecure, and I cringed at thinking about a man seeing me without makeup. I thought I would have to look good at all times or he would be totally turned off.

Maybe I have a higher level of testosterone, but I never craved intimacy or companionship. Nor did I want a different partner every night. I just didn’t mind being alone. I was just doing my thing. And I liked the spontaneity of my life as a young single girl in Las Vegas, and the fact that at any point in time, I could take off and move to Timbuktu.

Well, I did end up moving on a whim, to Miami. And I thought that my ‘young, wild and free’ lifestyle would continue, considering I was on South Beach. For about a month, as I met tons of random guys on the beach and palm-lined streets, I was heading in that direction. And then I met James.

Marriage does involve trade-offs. I did give up some of my freedom and some of that excitement that comes with not knowing where the night will take you and dancing til the sun comes up. Since I now have to think about things like the future, I can no longer just take off and move — although I still long to. I have to factor in his plans as well — his career, his obligations. And now I have a freaking pet, which is almost as bad as having a kid in terms of not being able to run off to Italy for a few months. Of course we can still party and we can still travel, but it’s just different. And I knew it would be.

I used to talk about this with my friend Emily, a wild redhead I used to party with in Vegas who just got married herself a month ago. We wondered if we would feel the same way at 33 as we did at 23. At what age would we get sick of dressing up and going out all night? Would we become cougars? We couldn’t imagine anything better than a night out on the town, getting tons of attention, feeling like goddesses.

But a couple years later, here we are. And we are both happy. Emily married an ornithologist and is about to spend a month backpacking through Eastern Europe. I am living in a cute art deco apartment right on the beach, with my sexy husband and adorable rabbit. And while I feel like I’ve had to give up certain things — as I think anyone who is married does, including sleeping with other people — here are some of the things that are nice:

He thinks I’m beautiful at all times, and tells me so. He rubs my feet, puts tanning oil on my back, gives me his opinions on all kinds of things from what to wear to what to do with my life, and agrees with me when I rant about the injustices of the world and the annoying habits of other people. He wants me to live my dreams. He would give up anything to make me happy. He makes me fresh-squeezed juice and fruit smoothies and macaroni and pretty much anything I ask him to, whenever I want it. He buys me presents. He loves my goofy side and all my quirks. We can share all sorts of inside jokes no one else would ever appreciate. He comforts me and praises me and makes me laugh and laugh at myself. He is someone to bike ride and kayak with and play Scrabble and paddleball with and do everything with. He understands me, not just the good things about me but the bad too. He makes me feel safe at night. He drives me around and pays bills and carries groceries and heavy things and fixes things and kills bugs and opens jars. He cleans and does dishes and works hard. He lets me nag him incessantly. He calls me out when I act like a spoiled brat. He sees me at my worst moments — when I’m being selfish or in the throes of PMS — and it’s okay. He accepts me at my strongest and my weakest. He is a hot date for anything — weddings, museums, dinners, parties, and yes, occasionally some dirty dancing in a nightclub. He tells me what looks good. He helps me to be less self-indulgent, and more selfless. To be more patient. He is someone to tell my dreams to, and fantasies, and fears. Someone to tell absolutely anything to. In short, he is my best friend.

And now, I find it hard to sleep alone. I like his scent and the touch of his skin. I like to feel his whiskers and muscles and rough large hands. I like knowing he is there beside me.

I know people who are both for marriage and against it. My little sister got married at 19 and now can’t wait to start a family. I know many women like this, who just love everything to do with weddings and marriage and family life and the home and domesticity. And there are others who wouldn’t dream of settling down, and who are living an awesomely adventurous lifestyle, traveling the world and partying every night.

I guess it’s hard to have it both ways, but maybe it’s possible. Maybe some day we can run off and travel the world together. At least we share the same dream, and we can make it happen together.

The best night’s sleep

Last night I slept on the sand, keeping watch over a turtle nest that is about to hatch. If they hatch while no one is there, every single baby turtle will disorient towards a ridiculously bright parking lot street lamp, and ultimately die.

Artificial light at night is sometimes necessary, but it can severely affect both animals and people.

A European scientific committee recently found that “Exposure to light at night (independent of lighting technology) while awake (e.g. shift work) may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and also cause sleep, gastrointestinal, mood and cardiovascular disorders.”

Other studies have linked nighttime fluorescent light exposure (while both awake and asleep) to stress, cancers, shortened life span, dental caries, diabetes, ADD and a long list of other problems.

Those of us who live in cities can never fully soak up the rich darkness of night or bathe in the crystalline star and moonlight. Stars are hardly visible, and when it comes to the cycles of the sun, moon and earth, we are, as Wordsworth wrote, “out of tune.”

Lying there with my back firmly against the sandy ground, I marveled at how utterly majestic and gorgeous the night sky is: giant white clouds rolled in from the horizon, changing shapes in unpredictable ways. The few stars I could see invoked wonder — although it made me sad to know there were so many obscured by the city’s lights. When I was on the small Carribbean island of Vieques, I was able to witness the glorious Milky Way for the first time.

I felt my tension melt away, felt connected to and cradled by the vast universe. The turtles know to hatch at night through innate cues, one having to do with electromagnetism. I can’t explain it, but I think the moon and the night exude a special energy upon the world’s creatures, one they need to stay fully balanced and well.

For millennia, man rose with the sun and, if he stayed awake after sunset, did so talking, laughing and singing around a campfire. At Day’s Close explains how artificial lighting transformed the night into a time for revelry, rendezvous, political intrigues and downright debauchery. The evolution, if you will, of nightlife.

Nightlife is grand and exciting. I love staying up late — to work, play or just hang out. My chronotype and circadian rhythms dictate that I am a night owl. Some studies say that night owls are more intelligent, creative and have more “staying power.” However, since our 8-5 society favors morning larks, they tend to be healthier and happier. That makes sense because I absolutely dread waking up early. And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make myself go to bed early. Earlier risers, interestingly, were also found to be more conscientious and cooperative.

Exposure to lighting and age can affect sleep patterns, but about 50 percent is genetically determined. But beyond all this there is another modern technology that affects health and sleep quality: electromagnetic pollution. EMFs emitted by cell phones, laptops, modems, alarm clocks, wires and more can subtly affect us in a variety of ways. Some people are more “electrosensitive” than others. Many people are negatively affected without even realizing it. But try a night away from it all, and you will be able to tell the difference.

My best night’s sleeps occurred when I was removed from radiation and electropollution: the time I slept in a centuries-old estancia in the Argentine countryside; the time I slept in a wooden cabin in the snowy mountains of Utah; the time I slept in a hammock in the high desert valley of an isolated Indian reservation; and nights like last night, sleeping while connected to the healing powers of the earth, lulled by the sounds of the waves, caressed by a light breeze, and pondering the endless beauties and eternal depths of the universe.

Feed your soul so it can shine

So, coincidentally — or perhaps via some kind of metaphysical wordpress connection — one of the blogs that I follow happened to post pretty much the exact same post as me on the exact same day. And the post was about how thoughts are energy and therefore have power to influence reality and create synchronicities. Interesting.

The blogger also touches on a related topic that I’d like to explore. “There is a reason why we never feel good after watching the 6 o’clock news,” he writes, explaining that the negative information creates a negative vibration in and around us. Just as our mentality can affect our reality, so too can others’ energy affect us.

However, if we are in a negative situation and cannot help it — say you fall ill or get injured or thrown, as Victor Frankl was, in a concentration camp, your mind can overpower your surroundings. Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”; “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves”: “A human being is a deciding being”; and, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When we cannot choose our circumstances or the company we are surrounded by, we can still choose what to think and how to feel and behave. But if we can choose our circumstances and company, then we should do so with consideration, because I believe that energy is contagious.

I was raised in the Mormon religion and Mormons are not supposed to watch R-rated movies. Now, this may seem strict and silly to some, and yes, it does to me. However I have found, now that I am “allowed” to watch them, that I often don’t enjoy them. I am referring more to horror films that portray people being abused or killed, or films that otherwise show and celebrate depravity and amorality. It just isn’t pleasant to watch. I don’t really consider myself a prude and I like a good psychological scare, but I feel there is a line. I can’t tell you where it is drawn, but I know when it is crossed.

My husband doesn’t share my qualms and has no problem watching people being slaughtered. Maybe I just have a more sensitive spirit. But I have a theory that our souls are fed just as our bodies are, and in time we can become affected on a deep level by the things we read, watch and listen to. I like some good dirty rap every now and then, but on a consistent basis, I feel a lot better not being exposed to radio, TV, commercials (oh, the horror) and what otherwise passes for entertainment and popular culture in contemporary America.

Nor do I have Enya on repeat, but if I need to “detox” from the work week or am feeling under the weather, a good dose of classical music does magical wonders.

I love the ancient Greek concept of arete, the striving for excellence in mind, body and soul. Says Paul to the Philippians in the New Testament: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

By exposing yourself to the writings of great men and women (Ben Franklin! Aristotle!), to enlightening arts and music, to nature, to people of good character, ethics and ambitions, you can develop your spiritual side, nourish your soul and become a better version of yourself with higher quality thoughts and goals.

Listen to your inner essence and it will tell you if the vibrations are harmful or helpful. Whether through meditation, prayer or otherwise deliberate questing, you can tap into a higher, benevolent wisdom. In this world we can choose to wallow, wander, or climb to higher planes.

It’s a daily choice. What will we seek out? How will we spend our time? What will we take in? Over time, you will see the results. You can become spiritually deprived, and therefore morally confused and dimmed, or you can get that special glow that comes from cultivating honor, virtue and integrity. Says Aristotle: “Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts … Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Yes, you are special. Believe it.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” — Buddha

Back in the ’60s, a CIA investigator named Cleve Backster claimed to have discovered that plants can detect thought. More recently, a researcher named Dr. Masaru Emoto claimed that water can also detect thought and form crystals that reflect positive or negative vibrations. Both have been called pseudo-scientists and have acquired plenty of skeptics.

I don’t know if their claims are true or not, but I do believe that thoughts have power. This is the reason why hypochondriacs often fall ill and why people who are given placebos often quickly recover. The power of positive thought is huge. Likewise, when someone is consumed by negative thoughts, whether it be anger or depression, that energy is palpable to everyone within their radius. I believe that if you told yourself negative thoughts consistently, you would begin to manifest those beliefs. The same with positive.

Repeating to yourself affirmations or mantras like “I am beautiful, I am strong, I am healthy, I am well” can only serve to make you stronger, happier and more radiant. You should be able to love yourself and be your own best friend. This doesn’t mean that you are better than others. Indeed, there will always be someone more beautiful, smart, strong, accomplished, etc. But there are truly great things about you. For example, I have a spectacular belly button.

In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” he says, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself … Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son/Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding … Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from/The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer … If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it … Mix’d tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you! … I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious/Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy/I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish … I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world …”

He loves himself because he realizes the gift of his body and of life. It may not be a perfect body, but it is his. Fifty years before him and across the Atlantic, William Wordsworth composed a similarly rhapsodic “Ode” about the miracle of life: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting/The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,/Hath had elsewhere its setting,/And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness/But trailing clouds of glory do we come…”

David McCullough’s commencement speech made the internet rounds a few weeks ago, shocking and delighting many with his seemingly refreshing message: “You are not special.” The speech made many great points, and the underlying theme is to stop congratulating yourself for merely existing and go out and accomplish something worthwhile. It’s true that life is hard, and that it’s particularly hard for today’s graduates and others dealing with the recession, and that it’s important to work diligently and be realistic. But I also think it is dangerous to tie one’s self-worth to, for example, a high-powered career title, a Nobel peace prize, a huge bank account, lots of Facebook friends, etc. Sometimes I feel like we feel so pressured to accumulate outward signs of success. If your personal goal in life is to earn an Olympic medal or a doctorate in quantum mechanics, than that is an admirable ambition. But if you really just want to enjoy the simple pleasures in life and don’t do anything that everyone else thinks is grand — if you don’t ever get on reality TV or lauded by Oprah or get mentioned in The New York Times— that doesn’t mean that you aren’t insanely special. And you should tell yourself, every day, that you are, and you should believe it. And when you do, you will eventually find your own path, your own life’s fulfillment, and lots of joy. We may not be perfect, but we have a whole lot of potential. One of my favorite quotes is by Nietzsche: “One must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” And finally, from Edison — not anyone’s over-indulgent mother — “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

The inevitable passage of time

A train passes close enough to hear
But not to see.
My brother’s in the bunk bed.
A giant tree
I loved to climb but had to call my dad
Or neighbor’s dad to get me down.
I felt the spirit of that tree
It welcomed me. I returned despite the tics
And mother’s warnings.
Isn’t that the way life has to go?
Some calls must be answered
Calls from boys, especially
When you’re in full bloom
Your skin like dew, your hair like silk
Made for men’s fingers.
I still loved trees, more so at twilight
In parks, when it was just me and him
We could lie in the grass and kiss for hours
Entranced by mutual beauty: lips, eyelashes,
The scent of my neck, thanks to my mom’s perfume
Things went downhill from there. Don’t they always?
Isn’t that a common theme?
In life’s hills and valleys, is there a peak?
Some people seem trapped in an abyss,
But that’s not me.
Right now I live on plains, flat lands to the horizon.
There aren’t even any waves, imagine.
A lack of seasons, that longed for eternal summer.
Sometimes I dream of trees and mountains
And even snow
Of boyfriends of my past who are married now
Happily living with their precious son
On the opposite coast.
I’m glad. It sometimes seems things are
The way they’re meant to be.
I think about those scenes, of course.
And of little brothers, fathers who now are old
And I marvel at the age I have become.
It is sad but true. Do I wish I could rewind?
Go back to neighborhoods and silly thoughts,
Moms in kitchens, school tomorrow.
Do I miss my far-flung friends? Sometimes.

3 steps to a long and healthy life

I want to share two informative infographics making the rounds online. The first shows the top healthiest countries in the world (Iceland, Japan, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland) and hints at how they got that way.

Mainly, eat more fish and locally grown fruits and vegetables (rocket science!). But there are three other things we should keep in mind that are a little more surprising:

1) Engage in moderate exercise, the kind that used to accompany a normal life. You know, walking, gardening, the kinds of activities that  are now often obsolete. Not only are these low-intensity movements pleasant and conducive to deep thinking and de-stressing, you will find them a lot easier to incorporate than that 6 AM hell session at the local CrossFit. Quote: “Walking is the main mode of transportation in the world’s healthiest countries.” In the city where I grew up, Las Vegas, people don’t do a lot of walking; many American cities were built around the car. So you may have to find a walking path and consciously schedule a morning or evening stroll since we no longer walk to school, work, the store or our friends’ houses.

2) Have a purpose. Many people just go through the motions in an unfulfilling job, or feel confused about what they want from life, or are just burdened by a vague ennui. First of all, recognize that you are not alone and that this is often a normal part of life, and secondly, that homeless people have become millionares, junkies have turned into sought-after public speakers. Try some serious deep thinking (best performed on a long walk!) to figure out what you love to do and what really makes you happy. Then take the first step to making that dream a reality. Once you figure out what you want, the universe will help you get it. And as I have learned, that frequently isn’t material possessions or even a trip to an exotic locale; producing creative, valuable work and being engaged in stimulating activity where you are challenged, learning and can be proud of the end result often provides a deep sense of joy.

3) Go easy on yourself. Of course, for all things there is a season. If you are spending most of your time engaged in meaningful work that you believe in, then the times of rest are that much sweeter. Don’t confuse a good work ethic with flat out career obsession. Life is short. Don’t spend it all working and miss out on life’s little pleasures: relaxing on a beach, soaking in a bath or spending a night out on the town once in a while.

The other infographic shows how long it takes common items to break down. As you can see, plastic bottles, disposable diapers and plastic bags take the longest time, around 500 to 1,000 years. I wrote recently about using re-usable glass bottles instead of plastic (better not just for the earth and marine species but for you as well) and I am going to make a deliberate effort to start using a re-usable bag at the grocery store and farmer’s market instead of plastic bags (I always recycle, but with that sort of life span, they would be better off being banned altogether).

My magical, illegal, debatably unethical infiltration

That verdant landscape and pristine bodies of water between the parks? Really a parking lot.

All day long I was fixated on the map. I was sure there was a way to get from boring Universal Studios to the much more exciting Islands of Adventure. A way, of course, that didn’t actually involve paying for a ticket.

My family wasn’t listening to me. They were happily going from Jaws to Spongebob Squarepants 3D and back. My 10-year-old brother, Andrew, did desperately want to see the recently built Hogwarts Castle, home of the high-tech new Harry Potter ride, but my frugal father (who had snagged our deeply discounted passes off some Disney-scamming black market) would not oblige him. My husband, James, didn’t believe it was possible.

There was a part of me that wanted to put the “adventure” into Islands of Adventure, a part of me that was just as cheap and subversive as my father, and a part of me that felt there was something ironic about the idea of infiltrating a microcosm of our manufactured society. It felt like something David Foster Wallace would write about.

It was almost evening. I felt guilty about ditching the family on a family vacation, but sometimes people have to go and make their own path. Over some deep-fried amusement park fare, I again studied the map. In the space between the two parks there was a painterly terrain of green vegetation and a large blue lake. I assumed that the periphery of the park was guarded with a tall fence, perhaps barbed wire and surveillance cameras. I would have to crawl through acres of wilderness and take cover under what looked like low-lying trees if a helicopter were to pick up the trail, then climb an imposing fence.

I begged James to walk over to a far back corner with me just to scope things out. He reluctantly agreed.

We stood for a minute watching families take pictures in front of a large façade mural of the New York Public Library. There was a chain-link gate surrounding a ride to our left. James tried the little steel latch. It opened.

We walked through, thrilled at this first bit of luck. Suddenly, we were in what was apparently an employee parking lot — not, as the map had led to me believe,  undeveloped Floridian wilderness a la Lord of the Rings. There were small nondescript buildings, a few parked cars, and regular people walking about. “Act casual,” I hissed. “If anyone asks, we work at Dip ‘n’ Dots.”

No alibi was necessary. No one looked twice, presuming we were off-duty park workers. We passed a corner security office, guards standing out front. We turned left, then right. We didn’t know where we were headed, seemingly guided by an invisible Cheshire cat.

We crossed the street into another parking lot, bizarrely adorned at one end with a large funhouse mirror. A guard walked directly in front of us, and we followed him nervously. He was heading into the mirror! At the last minute, he stepped through a small, hidden hole beside it, through a gate hidden by greenery.

We stepped through after him and looked up to see the impressive entrance of Hogsmeade, the whimsical village leading to the great Hogwarts Castle. Happy families crowded into quaint-looking shops to buy overpriced wands; others lined up to buy pumpkin beer from fake wooden street carts. Magical.

“I can’t believe it!” We exclaimed, while still looking over our shoulders. Perhaps they were observing us on a security system and would pounce at any moment! I considered buying an overpriced Grinch sweatshirt as a disguise, but settled for putting on a hat. We threw our things in a locker and began hitting the rides with exuberant, triumphant glee.

But my family was still over at Universal Studios, wondering where we had went. I texted my older brother and urged him to join us. He bravely said he was on his way.

Meanwhile, James and I were having a blast. We rode in a log down a waterfall and snagged an awesome drop picture. We went on the giant green Incredible Hulk Coaster, screaming as we went upside down, feeling like teenagers. We got soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and air-dried as we ran through Toon Lagoon.

Then my brother called – he had made it to Hogsmeade! We met up at the Hogwarts Express and I began eagerly telling him about all the awesome rides we should go on. “I’m going back to get Andrew,” he said, and to my disappointment, immediately left. I did very much want Andrew to ride the famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which I was saving for last. I hoped he would make it before the park closed for the night. But I wasn’t about to test my luck.

As we continued our coaster spree, I kept eagerly checking my phone. Finally, I got a call. My brothers had been apprehended. Apparently having a child with you is a red flag; grown adults, presumably, wouldn’t engage in such infantile, unethical behavior. My poor little brother spent the rest of the night locked in a security office, getting grilled and sobbing. My brothers were banned from the park for a year.

What could I do? I was in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and it was an hour ‘til closing. I couldn’t leave without hitting the creme de la crème, the crown jewel, the grand finale. And it exceeded all my expectations.

By the time I emerged from Hogwarts Castle, it was night. The park was lit up and ethereal. I lingered at the colorful, fantastical Dr. Suess Landing, marveling at the dreamlike scenery. I didn’t ever want to leave.

But all great journeys must come to an end, and so I allowed myself to join the satisfied hordes heading for the exit. But I’ll never forget the sensation of stepping into a wonderland; a wonderland made, it seemed, just for me.