Making Peace with the Guilt Monster

My wise graduate school buddy Jan once said, “Guilt is never a good reason to do anything.” I do agree with this sentiment, though I long ago lost count of the wide variety of things I have done and the countless times I have done them out of guilt. I joke that it is inherent in the Jewish experience (and the Catholic, Baptist, and, well, pretty much all of the Judeo-Christian tradition—which explains my friends who’ve become Pagans as well as those who’ve become atheists perhaps better than just about anything else I can think of), but it does burden me.

Now, I’m better than I used to be, working harder to distinguish purely guilt-induced motive from guilt-plus, where there is some other reason I might do something as well as a little guilt engine driving it. Compromise, the Golden Mean. I still haven’t gotten to the anti-guilt state my friend Rick touts, embodied in his slogan “Always take more than your fair share of the available resources.” Even though he is careful to point out the qualifier “available” here, it just smacks of more greed than I can usually muster. (But then, I’ve seen Rick, too, knuckle under to guilt, that Great Equalizer—we all do.)

This topic came up for me this morning in particular as I watched my son amble off from my car to his first-grade classroom. Chewing his hair a bit, walking with a casual, weaving gait, he was making his way casually and calmly. I caught myself thinking, as I have thought before, how he has his own little life that I am not part of. And how that is FINE. I want him to have a life of his own. For one, it takes some responsibility off me for what his moment-by-moment existence consists of. This is not to say I like our educational system, Bush’s inane and evil “No Child Left Behind” test-mania plan, our particular grammar school, or my son’s particular teacher. But I like knowing my child has some responsibility for himself as he makes choices of friends, playthings, how to color his worksheet, when to ask for a drink of water, and what in his lunch to eat and what to mash into a little ball in the bottom of his lunchbox for me to clean out. And I like this, at least in part, because it frees me of responsibility (a.k.a. guilt) for a few hours of the day.

(This definitely clarifies why being the parent of an infant was so horrific for me. There is no moment of the day when you are not totally responsible for an infant, and with my guilt already riding high, having an infant pushed me over the edge for a while, even with a superb co-parent along for the ride.)

Taking care of others’ needs is really tough for me. I do it lots, and I’m good at it. It has been a big part of my psyche from a very young age. But being good at it means it drains me. More specifically, I’m thinking as I type this, responsibility and guilt are very much blurred in my worldview. The difficult but intelligent Papusa Molina once said in a workshop on diversity, “Responsibility can be defined as the ability to respond.” Who can respond should. Who can’t need not feel guilty every moment of the day over it. But to what in this life can I not respond, with all my middle-class privilege (while others starve, suffer, die)?

How much money to charity is too much?
How many rescued pets is too many?
How often is leaving our son with a sitter too many?
How many visits to family instead of vacations is enough?
How many cookies are too many?
How often can you just let the phone ring and not answer it?
How often is often enough for taking the dog for a walk?
How long can you avoid housework without feeling like the Queen of Filth?
How much money do you give to friends whom you want to tell to “learn to budget”!
When will I stop feeling guilty that I had only one child?
How much work is enough, and when will I feel like “enough” IS enough?

The list goes on and on, and some days are better than others. Some days I don’t ask any of those questions at all. But most days I at least ask some. And, honestly, I think I differ from others not in how many questions I ask myself or how frequently I ask them (my guilt does usually come in leading question form, not in exclamation) but in how openly I admit (to myself and others) that I have such guilt.

Just don’t worry about it” doesn’t work for me any more than for most of my friends and family. But some people are much better at blocking than others. And I know I annoy my friends most when what I say and do interferes with their blocking ability. When I confess to guilt, I bring up the subject for them. Sorry, friends, that’s just how it is. In fact, it's part of my best self, the one that analyzes and processes and works to make sense of things rather than just letting life flow by unquestioned. (Wow, not much guilt about being myself on that score apparently, hoorah!)

Actually, despite the sometimes crushing burden of guilt I take on, I do like myself. I do like my “ability to respond” and willingness to do so on many fronts. Perhaps this is a defensive strategy, praising myself for how much guilt I take on. But what else is our personality made up of apart from ways of seeing and ways of defending our ways of seeing? Coping strategies, blocking strategies—all kinds of strategies that spin around in our over-evolved heads. All that and blogging (don’t want to let too much time slip between posts or I’ll feel guilty about THAT!) keeps me a happy, busy (and busy-ness is next to godliness) human bean.


Google Trends-iness

Mark Morford has inspired me again. Today’s column was on Google Trends, a handy service where you can look up which places in the world most often use Google to surf the Internet for certain terms (stats change daily). Morford discovers that Elmhurst, IL, for example, is the US city that most often looks up “anal sex” and “porn.”

Morford is wise in noting that this is more pseudo-information than truly useful fact. I definitely see the trend he sees in Elmhurst, but if I look up “feminist,” is it feminists or anti-feminists who are looking it up most? What do “global trends” mean when we have language issues (what is the equivalent word for “feminism” in Polish, Hindu, or Zulu)? Clearly, this tool has serious limitations. …But it’s addictive.

Here are some of the Googlicious factoids I discovered today:

Nowhere in the world do people look up the term “Christ” more frequently than in Nashville, TN, but it is Ashland City, TN and Lebanon, TN that top the list for looking up “Nashville.”

Delhi, India is the #1 city on the planet for looking up “namaste,” “masturbate,” and “hero.”

Halifax, Canada is off the charts on the term “empire,” with New York, London, and other US, UK, Canadian, and Australian cities trailing far behind.

Washington DC is champion for “feminist,” “genocide,” and “nuclear.”

The US is nowhere in the top ten for looking up either “Islam” or “clitoris.”

“War” is looked up much, much more often than “peace.”

...What can you learn today?


ok ok......i give up.........you win..........CUTE ATTACK!!!

..........must sit down...............
............too much cuteness.............
.........somebody help me..........
i'm gonna lose my Cynics Anonymous membership card
.....don't let anyone see me with this goofy look on my face.........


Bifocal Bliss

In addition to the awful CAT scan (about which I’ve already blogged) and the recent horrid cystoscopy and the forthcoming ultrasound (the bladder and kidneys are fine, now let’s look at those uterine and ovarian cysts we found during the CAT scan, my dear) and annual routine mammography, today I went to the optometrist. My distance vision is definitely worse than it was a few years ago (and I haven’t had my eyes checked in six years, their records say—whoops), and I hate night driving now. Plus my reading glasses are clearly not strong enough anymore.

I find out from Good Dr. Martin that I’m now a welcome member to the Over 40 Eyes Club, in that I am now officially farsighted. The previous/ongoing issue of problem with focus remains and is worse. I think my vision, which was 20/20 or better beforehand, got ruined by living in front of a Macintosh SE while writing my dissertation, back in the dot-matrix, pre-www days of 1990-1991. In any case, the prescription for the old glazzies is now higher, the distance vision is shot, and so...I must now embrace the wicked truth that, in one week when it’s time to pick up my fabulous new pair, I will be an Official Bifocal-wearing Old Fart.

The Doc did some laughing at my/our expense when I asked if I could have one pair of reading glasses and one pair of driving glasses. After all, I still don’t have to wear them all the time and they are for two separate purposes (hence the “bi” in “bifocal”). He said many people “in denial” do this until they just get over their vanity and acknowledge that this is just how things go when you hit your 40s. As your reading prescription gets strong enough to avoid the whanging headaches you’ve been denying have any relationship to your vision, it also means that when you look up from your book at your clock or your dog or your child smearing mashed potato on your clock or your dog that the world will be a fuzzy, blurry place. Now he did not say all of this, just the “denial” part. And he is, of course, absolutely right in my case.

Of course, as with all good pity parties, we must eventually stop the dance and take a moment to acknowledge that the cup may, indeed, be half full. I can still wear the glasses for reading and driving and keep them off other times. I made it 30 years with no glasses and another 10+ with weak ones. But the Bifocal Train is pullin’ into the station and I gotta ride it, however far from Youth Town it may be headed. Chugga chugga wooooooooo wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Trying to Blog About Breakfast on Pluto

I’ve let my viewing of Breakfast on Pluto simmer a week now, trying to figure out what I have to say about it. I watched the bonus materials, including the making-of documentary; I’ve perused IMDB for info on Cillian Murphy (whom I did not recognize from Batman Begins – I remember finding him very offbeat-sexy in what I felt was an otherwise uninspired movie); I’ve thought about the film’s relationship to others, from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to Hedwig to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. And then I’ve thought about the film’s themes: what it says about youth and seeking meaning/purpose in life; defining/finding family; Irish politics; culture, subculture, and gender/queerness; etc.

In the end, I find myself wanting to read the novel that is so highly praised to see if perhaps my “It was good but not great” response to the film has something to do with the translation of novel to film. And I look forward to seeing more of Cillian Murphy’s work, ideally outside the superhero or other trite Americanized genres.

Meanwhile, I’ll read some more reviews and welcome feedback here about others’ experiences of the film.


Trying to Do Deadwood

In preparing to teach a course on gender and film this term, I spent some time with westerns. It’s not a genre I’ve ever been drawn to, any more than action-adventure generally. However, reading theory about men watching men in action (a.k.a. violence) sequences and homoerotic repression has given me a lens through which to grasp the western genre when handled in interesting ways (despite several attempts, I can’t get through Rio Grande and I think I may always find classic John Wayne films insufferable).

Given this interest and friends’ recommendations, I wanted to give Deadwood a try. Since it is on DVD, seeing the first season, episode by episode, seemed ideal. Because I don’t watch violence easily or lightly in most circumstances, I liked the idea of choosing when and how I’d watch it. And I like Ian McShane from his days in Lovejoy.

I’ve watched the first three episodes now, so I thought I’d weigh in on my response so far. First, this is typical genre stuff. The “Wild West” is as cartoonish as in good-old classic Hollywood westerns, and then you layer on HBO-style “gritty realism” (without ever dipping into actual “reality”). You get tons of swearing, hookers with gonorrhea, drug addiction, and a big death toll from living in a “real” squatter gold town beyond the reach of the U.S. government (Deadwood was, indeed, a real town similar to what is shown on the show—not to mention the name of a popular laid-back bar in Iowa City). You mix in some “real” famous people (Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok) and dance around historical reports of their relationships while making a bunch of crap up as you go along to heighten tension.

Heightening tension gets at the heart of my current response to the series. There is so much tension, so much wondering who will get killed when and by whom, how dastardly will the next murder be…that it keeps my adrenalin flowing at what I can only call a toxic level. SO MUCH fight-or-flight response just isn’t good for my nervous system. Doesn’t matter whether I watch it at night (then have to find some way to come down for the next hour so I can go to sleep) or in the morning (then have to find some way to purge adrenalin that feels like a hit of speed or a dozen cups of coffee); in either case, I feel positively poisoned from riding the tension rollercoaster.

I know some people are addicted to this kind of a ride, and it definitely is a physiological experience as well as an emotional and marginally intellectual one. I’m guessing The Sopranos works similarly on people, as did NYPD Blue. I want to compare it to a literal rollercoaster ride, though for me it lacks the high.

It might help me if there were more character development in these first episodes. McShane’s Al Swearengen is about the best I’ve seen in episodes 1-3, especially if you like watching train wrecks. His depth of unethical, immoral, vicious behavior coupled with sociopathic calm in line delivery is engaging, in its villainous way. But watching him slap around prostitutes or order the murder of children gets exhausting, and predictable, fast.

And Calamity Jane better get more interesting – fast. Such an opportunity, and they have her cower before Swearengen without the (feminist) kindness of having him trigger memories of abuse as a child or some credible reason to bring down this calamitous cross-dresser. Her relationship with Hickok, however unrequited, has great genderbending implications, but so far the show is making her more the butt of jokes than a truly compelling character. She doesn’t have to be Xena, but she should be compelling. But hell, so should Hickok. Not to mention Seth Bullock, the dullest character this side of any western (does he have the ability to look at someone in a way other than up at an angle from beneath his hat/brow, or has someone told the director this is “sexy”?). And Sol Star (oy vey that name) is our token Jew (ho hum).

I do get that Deadwood is a show about westerns even more than it is a western. It’s a postmodern western. It’s a metawestern. But then, not really. I think my biggest criticism is that it isn’t fully in the genre and it isn’t fully outside the genre. Some will say this is its brilliance. But until it has some characters that truly grip me, it’s a long hour. Just pass me some of Alma’s laudanum so I can come down more quickly after the adrenalin poisoning and I’ll try to make it a few more episodes before I move on to something else.