Saturday, September 27, 2014

Our Village

I just downloaded the book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, by Susan Pinker, based largely on the strength of the book review by Kate Tuttle (Boston Sunday Globe, August 31, 2014). I haven’t read it yet, but - spoiler alert! – the punch line is already revealed in the title, that our interactions with other people can make us happier. Or, to borrow a line from my next book: “Other people can be the source of our greatest joys – and sorrow.” And, don’t I know it – living in a village within a village, a condo community within Aqua Village, aka Watertown, where we’ve had terrorists running through our backyards, while at the same time neighbors baked cookies to take to the Police and Fire Department the next day, since there wasn’t much else to do while in lockdown. And we take great community pride in our Faire on the Square every September, and our parades, with veterans marching proud in uniform.
Anyone who has ever lived in a condo community also knows the joys and pains that can come with that new set of house keys and carefree lifestyle. A condo association operates like a miniature democracy, where the political is exquisitely local, representing a microcosm of society. When all is well, no one shows up to meetings, and all is quiet. The equivalent of low voter turnout. But when there is a problem (read: something that is going to cost more money and/or offends their moral sensibilities), owners will come out of the woodwork, showing up in droves.
When we first moved into our condo twelve years ago, we discovered that there was some major work that needed to be done. As I saw it, our options were to fix things, or buy a new refrigerator, so we would have the box to live in. We were surprised to discover a small contingent of owners who were completely opposed to the work. They had planned on staying just a short time, and didn’t see why the financial burden should fall on them during their brief stay here. It was maddening, but the whole thing was ultimately resolved in the way of a true democracy, through passionate debate, analysis, and some compromise. It has been several years now, and things have been thankfully peaceful. 
This summer we did something different that wound up making a big difference. In the past we’ve always grilled on the deck side of the building. It seemed to make sense, but it always felt a little desolate, as we’d pop out, grill our food, and run back in with our dinner. (Of course, with the grill off the deck in accordance with local fire codes.) Our neighbors seldom came out to visit on this side of the building, but it didn’t seem to make sense grilling on the other side, with all the ambience that an asphalt driveway can provide.
This summer, we made a conscious, deliberate decision to do something different. We decided to dedicate ourselves to “chillin’ and grillin” every night possible, weather permitting, having a cocktail and throwing our white plastic Adirondack chairs out on the driveway. It did not feel terribly chic or elegant, but it was easier to grill on the garage side, as it simplified grill clean-up.
A surprising thing happened. The driveway side also faces another bank of units. Our neighbor, Mike, stopped by and talked more often as he took his little Chihuahua for a walk. We initially exchanged quick greetings with our other neighbors as they each came home in turn, which gradually turned into longer exchanges, and ultimately inviting them to join us, pulling out another chair or two, and having longer conversations. We’ve always liked our neighbors; we had just never had a chance to really get to know them. New neighbors moved in. We met them and learned their names and where they came from. Looking around one night, it occurred to me what a diverse group we had – Greek, Italian, Russian, French. We had almost every type of salad dressing represented!
One of my favorite memories was the third of July (before the washout on the fourth), when we had a spontaneous get-together, with neighbors stopping by, leading up to the high point of the night when a few of us started singing the song, “Que Sera, Sera.”  It probably didn’t hurt that we’d all had a beverage to start out the night.
It was with relief, then, that I read Jeff Jacoby’s column about the reported health benefits of moderate drinking, as in a drink (for women) or two (for men) per day (“Why Can’t Alcohol Labels Tout Benefits?” September 10, 2014). It’s a controversial topic, to be sure, as pointed out by Dr. Richard Saitz in his letter to the editor September 13, 2014. The topic was debated September 18th at the Boston University School of Public Health. If I were invited (I was not), I would have argued that it probably has less to do with the amount of alcohol ingested (a documented toxin), and far more to do with the laissez faire attitude, the desire to kick back and relax.
The way I look at it, our summer of chilling and grilling was our attempt to imitate the French, and not just by branching out and trying a bottle of Vouvray – which is as fun to drink as it is to say. Many studies have tried to figure out why the French seem to have such better health. It may have absolutely nothing to do with their diet or exercise, or the copious volumes of wine they drink. It could be all about attitude. And the French, with their je ne sais quoi, have it right. They are the very creators of the term c’est la vie.
That’s what we had going for us this summer. Not caring how our chairs looked set out on the driveway. Just enjoying life and the company of our neighbors. As we enter the late summer, early autumn of the year, and of our lives, maybe happiness is more about letting go. Caring less, forgetting more, and taking nothing personally. Forgetting can be just as important – and effective – as forgiving. Many of the problems of this world are due to an inability to forget. McLean is experimenting with a couple of ways to erase painful memories (“McLean team explores mechanism for erasing painful memories,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson, September 1, 2014). An article that same day in The Globe Magazine reported on research at the University of Illinois linking hyper-connections in the brain with depression in young adults (PLOS ONE, August 27, 2014). Simply put, a lot of connectivity in the brain can predispose someone to ruminate more, which is also linked with depression. We think, therefore we are sad! When all we need is a little more “Que Sera, Sera.”  Or, as Miguel de Cervantes wrote so many years ago in Don Quixote: “Quien canta, sus males espanta!” Translated to English: He who sings, scares all his troubles away! (Our singing may have scared away more than just a few troubles.)
To borrow a quote from Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Founder and Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, in the article “Getting Past Hurt” in The Boston Globe Magazine September 14, 2014, speaking on how to heal traumas: “In the same way that people can drive each other mad, the company of people, and being understood by people, can also heal us.”
So, it is with some sadness that we are cleaning up the garage and getting things ready to be put away for the winter. I will cherish these last few days while the weather is nice enough, and the sun stays out late enough, for us to enjoy our last few opportunities to grill and chill for the year. I can definitely say that we had a happier summer, though, having benefited from the company of our neighbors – our Village!



This is a fresh piece, the inspiration being our summer of chillin’ and grillin’ - and a series of articles I read in The Boston Globe over the span of a few weeks, that all seemed connected to each other, at least to me.

There is hope that as the season changes, maybe we will just migrate to indoor activities together, like assembling pans of lasagna or enjoying giant pots of soup, making gnocchi, bread, and cookies. We will bring the summer inside. I am reminded of an Albert Camus quote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

There’s a party going down in Aqua Village! Watertown’s Faire on the Square is this weekend, all day Saturday, September 27, 2014, at Saltonstall Park! Stop by and enjoy some last days of summer and interaction with the local villagers. Enjoy our village!



De Cervantes, Miguel. 1605 and 1615. Don Quixote.
Jacobs, Rachel H., Jenkins, Lisanne M., Gabriel, Laura B., Barba, Alyssa, Ryan, Kelly A., Weisenbach, Sara L., Verges, Alvaro, Baker, Amanda M., Peters, Amy T., Crane, Natania A., Gotlib, Ian H., Zubieta, Jon-Kar, Phan, K. Luan, Langenecker, Scott A., and Robert C. Welsh. 2014. “Increased Coupling of Intrinsic Networks in Remitted Depressed Youth Predicts Rumination and Cognitive Control.” Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE), August 27, 2014.

Jacoby, Jeff. 2014. “Why Can’t Alcohol Labels Tout Benefits?” The Boston Globe, September 10, 2014.

Johnson, Carolyn Y. 2014. “McLean Team Explores Mechanism for Erasing Painful Memories,” The Boston Globe, September 1, 2014: p. B5.

Pinker, Susan. 2014. The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter. USA:Spiegel & Grau.
Salahi, Lara. 2014. “Hyper-Connections in the Brain Linked to Depression,” The Boston Globe, September 1, 2014: p. G11.
Tuttle, Kate. 2014. “In Brief.” The Boston Sunday Globe, August 31, 2014: p. N19.
Van der Kolk, Bessel, as told to Rachel Deahl. 2014. “Getting Past Hurt,” The Boston Globe Magazine, September 14, 2014: p. 18.


© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt

Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Dangerous Question

I was at lunch with a friend a few weeks ago, at a café in Concord Center, when the usual mid-life questions came up. If I weren’t doing what I’m doing, what else would I have done or become? Unfortunately, this question often spurs a complete rewind of time. The question becomes: “If I had it to do all over again, what would I have done differently?”  This then turns into an alternate life imagined, one that cannot be realized now, because so many other dominoes would have had to have fallen to put me in this different place, pursuing a completely different calling, on a different path, even perhaps with a different person. Our friend and poet, Robert Frost got it only half right. There’s not just one road not taken, there are a thousand countless roads not taken, not lived, not rendered, not realized.

This of course creates insurmountable barriers to actually doing any of these things. That ship has sailed, as they say. My wish is that people could imagine a different answer to that question, by in fact asking a slightly different question, one that doesn’t trigger a complete rewind. If you want a different answer, ask a different question.  Maybe even a dangerous question. It sounds a little cheesy, I think I first heard it on a talk show, and it turns out there is even a book by this same title, but I threw it out on the table:  “What would you do if you had no fear?”

My friend announced that if she had no fear, she would take the cookies off the table next to us, but since we’re civilized, she would ask the diners at the table next to us if she could have one of their cookies. And she did! And they said, “Sure,” and so my friend had a cookie, and they even offered me a cookie, too, which I accepted, because it just seemed wrong not to. While funny, there is an essential truth buried in this story. Sometimes we simply need to ask for what we want or need. We have to take the lid off our expectations. Ask the crazy question. The dangerous question. Take a chance. Put yourself out there. And hopefully you’re allowed back in at the café. And even if you’re not, don’t be afraid of being on the outside looking in. Too often, we box ourselves in, afraid to reach out beyond our safe and known existences. Afraid to fail. Afraid to feel. When the greater risk is not even trying.

Sometimes we need a nudge, a kick, a push, something that slaps us across the face and wakes us up to the fact that life is flying by, and the only failure is the chance not taken. Maybe just asking the question is enough. Sometimes it’s a life event that leaves you raw, with your eyes wide open suddenly to the life that you’ve become.

What does it take?

How much does it take to jar you from your slumber? How deep in misery must one slide before losing sight of a way out; so deep in the mire, one cannot even begin to climb and find their way out.  The one thing I learned from playing rugby, that I use every single day, is the ability to fall, and get back up again, over and over again.

An Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind: “We are all lying in the gutter; some of us are gazing at the stars.” Wherever you are, can you still direct your gaze to what may be, what might still be possible for you? Can you see it? Can you shift your focus, imagine doing something different, and then take that first tiny step towards it?

That’s what my cookie-craving lunch friend did. She had been talking about wanting to become more physically active, and not just planting herself on the couch when she got home from work. So, when she went home that night, she went for a walk instead, and was being a good citizen and picking up trash along the side of the road when she came across a cardboard box, which turned out to be occupied by a bunny rabbit, trying to chew its way out. It had clearly been abandoned and left for the coyotes, so she rescued it and brought it home, and she now has a pet rabbit. But, if she hadn’t wanted a change, and hadn’t gone for a walk, she would never have happened upon the bunny. You really never know what is around that next corner – or what you might find in a cardboard box along the roadside. I can’t guarantee that everyone will find a bunny in a box, but if you can figure out something you can do right now, right here, today, to move your life in a better direction, you won’t regret it.  It may not happen in leaps and bounds, but at least it will be happening. Starting is the hardest part.

Post Script

When I showed this to my lunch friend later, she replied: “To tie the whole thing up in a neat bow, in one Native American tradition, a rabbit is associated with being so fearful that you draw what you fear to yourself. In another tradition, a rabbit represents the ability to make a spiritual leap to a higher level of understanding. Your blog of course deals with fear and overcoming it so you reach that higher level. Very cool!”



This was written in June 2014, as I was just starting to write again. My anthem for the summer was “It’s Time,” by Imagine Dragons. It is indeed time to begin.


© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt

Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.