Monday, July 23, 2012

The most "awesome" blog post ever

I realized it this morning when I called the pharmacy to ask for a prescription refill. The person on the phone told me my medicine would be ready after 11, and I responded, “That’s awesome. Thanks!”

Then I hung up the phone and thought, “Wait – that was good service, which is nice and all – but it probably wasn’t really ‘awesome.’”

And then I thought some more, and it hit me that I’ve gotten into the habit of over-emoting in response to mundane things. “Amazing” and “awesome” are two of the adjectives that immediately come to mind.

And I’m not the only one who’s fallen prey to this tendency: A friend visited Chicago this past weekend and posted on Facebook that his trip was “awesome.” (Was it really? Or was it just relaxing and fun?) And as I was exiting the elevator, a man told a woman on my floor to have an “amazing” week. (How about just an uneventful, productive one?)

I decided to do a little research on how the over-emoting tendency happened to evolve. Here’s what I found out: not much. Linguists don’t seem to have much to say on this topic. But some trace using the word “awesome” to describe things that are not to – I kid you not – Spicoli.

Who was Spicoli, those of you not as ancient as I am may ask? Jeff Spicoli was a surfer-dude character portrayed by Sean Penn in the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Spicoli was perpetually stoned and, in one key scene, had a pizza delivered to his high-school classroom. Spicoli was, many would say, awesome.

But I digress.

Here are some things that are truly awesome, or awe-inspiring: the Grant Canyon. Niagara Falls. Stonehenge. The birth of a child. Surviving a plane crash. The word “benign” on a pathology report.

Here are some things that are not awesome: a new package of post-it notes. A good haircut. A trip to the Amana Colonies (unless you, or someone you know, gives birth there). A piece of gum, even if it’s really flavorful. A refill of my thyroid medication.

As a younger person who wanted very badly to be taken seriously in my professional life, I was very careful about my word choices. Now, as an old, lazy person who’s confident in her ability to make a living with the use of words, I’ve ironically become careless in the way I use them personally.

When I really think about it, what gets me is that using words like “awesome” and “amazing” makes me feel silly and sort of disappointed with myself for being unable to come up with anything better.

And others apparently are disappointed with me as well, even people I don’t know: I just read that an English poet has launched a campaign to stem the overuse of “awesome” … which is great, but ironic in that the English are just as guilty as overusing the word “brilliant.” (This I know first-hand, as I just returned from an awesome, brilliant trip there.)

In an effort to remove the words “awesome” and “amazing” from my vocabulary, I’m going to make an effort to match my adjectives the emotions that the particular actions generate in me. To the pharmacist: “That’s really helpful; thanks.” To the car dealer who comes down $1,000: “That’s a relief; I think I can work with that price.” To a friend who’s hired for a new position, perhaps a simple “Congratulations; that’s great news.”

But as I mentioned, I’m lazy. And I know myself; my best-laid plans often don’t make it out of the starting gate. But if I can at least be aware enough to improve my vocabulary, maybe people will be better able to focus on what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it.

And that, in a word, would be … satisfying.

Certainly not awesome.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wallowing in nostalgia can make you happier? See, I told you so.

As my dad grew older, one thing we noticed was that even though he often could not remember what he'd eaten for breakfast that morning or the dog's name, he could recall, with startling clarity, things that had happened during his childhood. In fact, as he lay in a hospice facility getting ready to leave us all, he frequently conversed -- and often laughed -- with his mother, who died in 1936.

I thought about that this morning as I perused the posts on Lost Des Moines (LDM), a Facebook group page that's one of my favorite haunts. (And before I go further, let me address this: Yes, I'm online a lot. But I justify this, when people ask how I find the time, by telling them quite truthfully that with the exception of the news and a few weird cable things, I don't watch much TV. So while my husband is indulging in seven straight episodes of "The Walking Dead," you can find me at the computer. That's not a value judgment; it's just the way we are.)

Anyway ...

My time on LDM has reinforced the fact that people -- myself included -- are comforted by nostalgia. That's not news, but the revelation for me, I guess, was that you don't have to be 850 years old to want to turn back the clock and spend some time in the Land of Long Ago.

It also struck me, as I became familiar with some of the LDM regulars, that they aren't housebound and bored; with very few exceptions, the folks who spend the greatest amount of time on LDM are busy people with full lives.

So I decided to do a little research on why we enjoy talking about department stores that are long-gone, how we felt about our kindergarten teacher or whether the ice-cream man came down our street. According to BBC News' Stephen Robb, it's pretty simple: We like to talk about the past because it makes us feel good.

In a report for the BBC in 2010, Robb cites a study from the University of Southampton that found remembering past times "improves mood, increases self-esteem, strengthens social bonds and imbues life with meaning."

"Most of our days are often filled with with routine activities that aren't particularly significant: shopping for groceries, commuting to work and so forth," the article also quotes psychologist Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University as saying.

"Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful -- to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning."

The article also quotes experts as cautioning people against wallowing constantly in nostalgia. For most of the people I know, though, it's not that way; LDM is more of a nightcap, a place to spend 10 minutes talking about making out at Lost Planet or waiting in the parking lot for Valley West Mall to open on its very first day.

It's also, I think, a way for us to be reassured that we simply belong. My husband and I grew up in different states, so we have no shared frame of reference; it makes him feel comforted, then, to talk with folks back home about their common experiences, just as it makes me happy to talk with others who remember when Valley High School sat on a dirt road and 50th street in West Des Moines was "out in the country."

I do enjoy wallowing in nostalgia, I guess, from time to time. But I'm also very much present in the here-and-now, so I think there's probably a healthy balance there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, a conversation is starting on LDM about Heaven to Seven, an Urbandale store where I was fitted each year for my grade-school uniforms. If that rivets you as much as it does me, take a few minutes and stop on by.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why Anderson Cooper's Announcement DOES matter (and not because it means I'll never be his wife)

It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I really like Anderson Cooper, and have for some time. I like him on a lot of levels, but primarily because he's a such a good journalist that I trust everything he tells me.

So it wasn't surprising, when the news broke yesterday about Anderson's announcement that he's gay, that people emailed me and came up to me at work and said, "Aren't you disappointed?"

(Well, maybe the question was a tad surprising, in that it was strange; as I don't know Anderson in real life AND am happily married AND never had any real hope of dating Anderson, let it be known that Anderson's publicly announcing his sexual orientation didn't disappoint me.)

But anyway ...

Following Anderson's eloquent email in which he not only announced his orientation but his reasons for not having previously gone public with it, I want to go on record as saying I like him even more now because I'm even more convinced of his bravery.

My friends who asked, "Why should his coming out be a big deal?" are exactly right; in my opinion, it shouldn't be any bigger deal than "announcing" that one has blue eyes or brown hair. But, like it or not, in many circles, it still is.

Much like overweight people, gay people are one of the few groups against whom it's still regarded as "safe" to discriminate. And if you think that such discrimination is prevalent in our country, try some others; in Uganda, as Anderson's close friend, the comedian Kathy Griffin, points out, a "Kill the Gays" initiative is encouraged.

And as Griffin also points out, Cooper, as someone who routinely travels around the globe, could very well now be targeted because of his honesty.

A man or woman's personal life is entirely his or her business, and only he or she should get to decide what, if anything, to share with the masses. But as Anderson writes, silence can equal perceived disapproval -- even with oneself and one's choices. And one can argue that in general, openness and honestly signify a healthy sense of self. And isn't that what we're all after?

It's for that reason that I hope Anderson's announcement proves encouraging for other closeted gay and lesbian individuals. I know at least two, and they're afraid; they're sure that such an announcement could cost them their careers and their families. One has children; another has parents who believe homosexuality is a sin. They fear disapproval, and they fear loss of love.

I would imagine Anderson had chosen not to come out earlier because he, too, had feared those things, but at some point, he stopped being afraid. This is why, then, that his announcement is important: It could, in some way, encourage my friends and so many others living secret lives to lose the fear, be who they are and live the rest of their lives as open, happy, healthy individuals.

Until then, I'll be a little prouder the next time I watch Anderson ... even though, as of this week, I've had to give up my "dream" of one day becoming his wife. :)