Saturday, April 23, 2016

Thoughts on Prince

The musical world lost a genius, an innovator, and a true legend. Two days ago Prince passed away at the age of 57.  While I didn't know him personally, nor was I fully aware of his exceptional abilities that would make him an icon, I did know that I enjoyed his music and it was a big part of my middle and high school experiences.  He was on my clock radio and at the school dances, providing a soundtrack for those days and nights filled with innocence and uncertainty.

As I've been watching tributes and hearing his songs there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential pop musicians of our time. He has left a tremendous legacy and everyone is talking about how amazing and phenomenal he was and the mark he left on not just America, but the on world. And something has struck me so profoundly among the accolades:

He was 5'2".

He was a scrawny, androgynous looking, African-American man from humble roots in Minneapolis.

He had a penchant for bedazzled suits, wild hair, and combining gold lame pants with platform boots and no shirt.

But back in the late seventies and early eighties, none of the physical stuff mattered. It was radio, NOT video, and most of the time when we heard a song we liked we may have only had a passing idea of what the artist even looked like. The outer appearance didn't seem to matter much to Prince himself either because when asked how he wanted to be remembered he simply replied, "The music."

The music.

He may have only been 62 inches tall, but there was enough talent in that frame to fill a mountain. He could play any instrument, and play it flawlessly with soul and passion. He could jump between pop, soul, R&B, and jazz with the expertise that few on the planet possess. When Eric Clapton was asked "How does it feel to be the best guitar player on the planet?" he responded, "I don't know, why don't you ask Prince?"

In the 80s, wild hair and extravagant outfits were the norm.  Remember Boy George, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Twister Sister? Prince fit right in with that era, and when that style trend ended, his signature flamboyance cemented him as eccentric and unconventional.  When he famously broke with his given name and officially replaced it with an unpronounceable symbol, people thought he went off the deep end just for the sake of being weird. (It turns out, there was a very specific, rather ordinary reason for doing what he did, according to him.) But whatever anyone thought of him based on his appearance and public behaviors, no one could ever deny the magnificence of the music.

He had immense talent, and his height and physical appearance were secondary. 

I do not think that is the case now.  I believe that if Prince was introducing himself to the world now, he would have not made it past the first round of American Idol, America's Got Talent, or The Voice. He did not have the physique or "typical" look of what constitutes a "star" these days.  He did not have a soaring voice that could belt out high notes for 16 counts.  He didn't fit into one specifically marketable category - he wasn't grunge, or singer/songwriter, or Top 40, or classic rock.

Which, by the way, is what made him so great. He was all of those genres put together.  Artists today are pigeonholed into "You're country," or "You're alternative," and if they try to cross over into another type of music they are told "It won't sell. The public won't get it." (Unless of course you are Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, or Taylor Swift, who can breeze effortlessly between country and pop hits because they share the trump factor of looking exactly like Barbie dolls.)

32 Grammy nominations, 7 Grammy awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, 4 Number One American Billboard Chart Hits, more than 100 million albums sold worldwide - for those of us who enjoy empirical data, the numbers don't lie. Prince was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that he was not conventionally good-looking and that 99% of American men were more than an entire foot taller than him.

Nobody cared.  Talent won out in this case and hopefully people will remember him and give the kids with potential, who look more like him than the quarterback, a chance to perform and pursue their dreams of becoming musicians.  Prince can be a lesson to us all. It doesn't matter what your outside looks like, it's what is inside your heart, your mind, and your soul that really counts toward having a happy and successful life.  He also always stayed true to himself in spite of fallouts with record companies and press who dubbed him "unwilling to play the game." His nonconformity was also what made him so great and so admired. Prince was Prince, and that was more than enough.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Anger is Poison

Yesterday I got really angry. We're talking boiling, hopping, furiously angry.  Something happened that triggered an old wound and while I knew the entire time that I shouldn't be angry, I was.

And how.

My family and I were all sitting around getting ready to watch a movie and the thing happened (via text message) and while I didn't bother to address it (wasn't the time or place) I sat there, silently seething to myself, all the while ruining the first 20 minutes or so of what was an excellent movie, that I had been looking forward to seeing for months.

As I sat there, trying to will myself out of my intense ire, something came to me that I had read recently from Laura Ingalls Wilder from around 1880:

"It was then I learned, many years ahead of the scientific discovery, that anger poisoned one, for I went home and to bed sick at my stomach and with a violent headache."  

There is also the Mark Twain quote that I have posted before:
"Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which is it poured."

Now there are times when anger is necessary, and even beneficial.  If people hadn't gotten angry about the lack of civil rights we might not have the 15th amendment. Or women's suffrage. Or the success that comes from people being angered by someone else's criticism and wanting to prove them wrong. But usually, anger is just a destructive emotion, that leads to nothing but bitterness and illness from carrying it around with us.

So how do we let go of anger? It is not easy.  I think some excellent advice comes from Thomas Jefferson:

"When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry count to one hundred."

This is a superb tenet in my opinion, especially in the age of immediate texting and instant messaging. I could have very easily sent back an acid-laced text, which would have probably resulted in at least an hour of back and forth anger spewing, which would have most likely resulted in a face to face fight with someone, which would have ruined not only our lovely evening, but quite possibly many days afterward. Which would have all been caused by my old feelings of resentment and frustration, which would have caused the other people to be surprised and bewildered at my reaction. In short, an angry response would have caused nothing positive, but instead a lot of negative and I decided that I didn't need that in my life right now.

So what did I do? I started counting.  When I got to ten, I kept counting.  I lost track at some point because I let myself get lost in the movie, and after about 40 minutes I forgot about what was making me angry.  When I think of it now, the next morning, it's more of a diffused disappointment. I'm not stark raving mad, but rather tired and slightly annoyed at having to deal with the situation.

This whole experience made me realize this: Anger is indeed poison. To our mental state, to our physical state, and to our spirit. It eats away at our joy and our potential for success. It also squelches one of the most important emotions we can possibly have:


There can be no room for hope when angry.  When you're sad or disappointed, you can still hope for a better outcome next time.  But when you're angry, the anger can be consuming. It can cloud every other emotion you have until you deal with it, and if you don't deal with it, it feeds upon itself too, getting stronger with each passing moment until all you are is angry. Anger can be like a pot on the stove - its just simmering and simmering until eventually it boils over, destroying everything close to it. Anger burns. It burns our hearts, our minds, and our relationships with others.

It also destroys any possibility for true happiness.  Anger seems like it's more powerful than joy, although it shouldn't be. It seems like joy can be fleeting, while anger can stick around (and does) for years, or even decades.  Last night I had a choice. I could have stayed angry, and had my special family time ruined irrevocably, or I could have let the anger go, and instead focus on the beauty and preciousness of the present moment. I'm proud of the choice I made, especially because there was a time when I would have chosen the former over the latter.

Of course there are times when it is necessary to get angry. And I'm not suggesting that anyone be a doormat and just take abuse or injustice. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that last night I faced the dilemma of allowing the knee jerk reaction of anger to take over my happiness or not. Which meant stopping myself in the midst of the reaction, assessing how I wanted to feel and what I wanted to do, and making the conscious decision to release the anger.  It was really three distinct steps, during which I felt the pull of the perceived "deservedness," and "justification," and the "I-have-every-right to feel this way" the whole time.

It's nice to feel like anger, or non-anger, is a choice.  And it's nice to feel like we have control over our anger instead of the other way around.  There are so many anger-filled triggers out there (especially during election season) but it's so empowering to believe that we have the strength within ourselves to choose how we react.  Anger may be poison, but we always have the option not to drink it. Every time.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The "O" word...

No, not that "O" word! Minds out of the gutter please people! :)

I mean the word "overweight."

I have heard this adjective to describe a person's looks for literally as long as I can remember.  It occurred to me recently that this is actually a terribly inaccurate way to describe someone.  Because when you say that something is "over" something, it implies that the something that it's over is empirically acceptable, and if you stay within that something you will not have to pay a penalty.

For example, the post office has its standard weights and measures, and if a package is oversized or goes beyond the arbitrary standard that someone devised, you have to pay more to ship it. The same goes for freight companies, airline baggage, and for the slicer at the deli.  And I understand that. You have to have some standard in place to base prices on.

However, if a person is described as overweight, the implication is that there is some standard that they are supposed to be.  Regardless of body type, genetic makeup, cultural background, or lineage.  Why is this? Do we call a person whose height measures 7 feet "over-tall?" What about a person who shops in the petite department - are they "over-short?"

Allow me to go on for a moment: If someone has sized 15 feet are their feet "over-long?" If an adult can only find hats that fit in the children's department, is her head "under-sized?"  The simple fact is, there is no standard height or weight of a human being so no one can be "over" or "under" anything!

In American culture it is perfectly acceptable to be whatever height you were genetically predestined to be. Same goes for DNA-determined attributes like eye color, hair color, nose length, hand size, etc. But is it NOT socially acceptable to be the weight that some of us were genetically predestined to be, and we have to work very hard daily to combat the genes that make us a certain size.  For some of us, it is truly as difficult as trying to change our eye color from the inside.

When I was studying to become an ASL interpreter I met a lot of Deaf people and learned some fundamentals about Deaf culture. What they communicated over and over again was "Don't call me 'hearing impaired!'  That makes me sound like I'm a regular hearing person who is broken and therefore defective. I'm NOT! I'm a whole, normal, Deaf person."  Being deaf is not a wrong or bad thing. It's simply a part of who they are intrinsically, the same as their hair color, their height, or their shoe size.

The same goes for us that the media would deem "overweight." And while we're usually not paying extra money for our oversized-ness, we are definitely paying for it in shame. Shame from the co-worker who doesn't say "You look so pretty today" but instead says, "That dress is very flattering on you." Or from the photographer who says, "Hmm....turn your head more this way so we don't see the double chin." Or from the relative who says, "Don't wear horizontal stripes dear, it widens you."

Who the hell decided how much space each human being is supposed to take up on the Earth? Why was it established that thin is to be aspired to and anything else means you're a lazy, unhealthy, unworthy person, regardless of what you do or how you treat others? Why are all of the celebrity news stories about how quickly they lost their baby weight or how their new workout regimen allowed them to get their next movie role?

It's really mind-boggling when you think about it, but because it's been drilled into our collective brains for so many generations we believe that, at all costs, thin is better.  Which is very interesting because I saw Bo Derek give an interview a few years ago and she said very matter-of-factly, "It's about how the bones line up, I was born with it. But a couple of hundred years ago I would not have been considered beautiful. I would have been the too-skinny scullery maid." In Fiddler on the Roof he laments wanting his wife "looking like rich man's wife with a proper double chin." All of the woman painted during Renaissance times had ample curves and were clearly wealthy enough to have their portraits painted.  A woman's natural body was celebrated and if you had some meat on your bones it signified prosperity and affluence.

But ever since Miss Scarlett laced herself into her respiration restricting corset, "the thinner the better" has been the female mantra for beauty and even for acceptance.

Now of course I'm not saying that obese (another "O" word) people are healthy and shouldn't lose weight for a variety of reasons.  But at least calling someone obese is the same as calling someone tall or short. It is just a description that doesn't imply a negative comparison against a standard.

We are all a combination of the genes from the thousands and thousands of people from our hereditary line. Even before birth we each got what we got.  In Scandinavia, a lot of people got "tall and blond." In Asia, a lot of people got "short with black hair." In Africa, a lot of people got "brown skin and curly hair." These are all socially acceptable monikers, and in some cultures,  the more ethnic you look, the more beautiful you are considered.  But for us in America, who are a mix of wherever our ancestors came from and whoever else they ended up with, it's the Barbie Doll standard, or you're labeled something derogatory.

Thankfully, things are changing.  Fashion designers are limiting the number of anorexic models they hire.  Larger-than-usual-sized women are finding success in the entertainment field. A size 16 model was recently featured on the cover of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated (but not without multiple days of people constantly talking about it and weighing in - pun intended - on their positive and negative thoughts about it.)

It is my hope that the standard continues to change as the mainstream media gains more awareness of the detrimental effect that the pressure to achieve and maintain a certain weight, regardless of one's genetic predisposition, has on girls and women.  Calling people "overweight" implies that there is something wrong with them and they are not acceptable just as they are. BUT THERE IS NO STANDARDS OF WEIGHTS AND MEASURES FOR HUMAN BEINGS! We're not being shipped, we're not being packaged for transport, we're just trying to spend the short time we have here on Earth as happily and as peacefully as possible.

Can you let us?