Friday, September 23, 2011


The summer season of making jam is pretty much over - although I'm still knee-deep in pickles and tomatoes. The more batches of jam I made in the past few months, the more times the word "jamming" (oh, let's be properly ΓΌber-cool and call it "jammin'") popped into my consciousness. So when a word or idea won't go away, it's telling me to write about it. FINE. I'LL DO IT. NEVER MIND THAT I NEED TO MAKE MORE PICKLES.

You know what jammin' means in music: A bunch of people who don't necessarily play together on a regular basis bring their chosen instruments and their knowledge of/experience with music to an improv session. They use the tools of their trade to turn the unknown and unexpected into something beautiful that brings joy and wonder to their listeners and to themselves. Sometimes the results are transcendent, and nobody quite knows what happened - they're just glad it did.

Not so very different jammin' in the kitchen. You need some essential equipment and basic knowledge, along with the commitment to practice your skills and the willingness to make mistakes. Then you take off on a riff that builds on what's already been done. Not enough blueberries for this batch? What about adding the white peaches you bought this morning? Wait, you harvested the last of the early summer strawberries - those go great with blueberries. Would a touch of cinnamon make the combination sparkle? What the heck; try something new and add a little lavender instead!

Sometimes everything comes together like magic; other times, not so much. The more you do it, the better your instinct gets for what works, what you need to do by the book, what you can go wild with.

So here's the thing my brain was trying to tell me: Jammin' is living. Jammin' is relationships. Be a student of life. Study the theory and put it into practice. Gather your tools, skills, experience, passion for living, and take off on a riff that builds on what your companions have done. Take chances but don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this all alone. You make beauty by listening and responding to the music of the other players. Don't fear the new, and don't throw away the old. It all has value. Stop trying to predict and plan exactly what will happen next. Let the music tell you where you need to go. And - play, play, PLAY.

Time to get back to those pickles.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Triangulation works better in trigonometry class

People love to gossip (heck, it's possible that all primates or even all mammals like to gossip). It's fun to feel that you're in on a secret. Gossip can be socially advantageous. You can elevate your status in your circle of friends, family and rivals by passing on scuttlebutt that others don't know. If you're cautious, gossip can help you find out who your allies and your enemies are. You can use that information to get a promotion at work, or drop a toxic "friend," or find a significant other. But you can also seriously trash your close relationships, and end up feeling as if you're caught in a very large and sticky spiderweb.

In the social sphere, triangulation is a cousin of gossip, but is usually less casually engaged in, because (other than in the workplace) we almost always triangulate amongst good friends or family members - people we care about. Say you have an issue with your partner ("Person A"). If you're prone to triangulating, instead of sitting down with Person A and dealing with the issue face to face, you tell your troubles to Person B, who knows both you and Person A.  Person B now has the choice of validating you by siding with you in your conflict with Person A, trying to stay neutral (good luck with that, Person B!), or risking her or his relationship with you by telling you that s/he doesn't want to get pulled into what is essentially none of her/his business (this third scenario almost NEVER happens, in case you hadn't guessed).  

Modern technology - Facebook and texting and tweeting and the mobile electronic devices we keep flesh-welded to our hands - make triangulation and its fallout much worse. Who can resist immediately gratifying the temptation to vent frustration without a moment's forethought by posting something snarky on FB for all the world to see? Or calling your BFF to bitch about how Person A didn't do such-and-such, or how Person A's friend, Person X, dissed you by defending Person A's actions, and so forth. It can be emotionally satisfying to tell others how misused and misunderstood you feel, especially when those whom you tell, though they can't do anything whatsoever to repair the situation, will sympathize with you and help cast you in the role of the poor little wronged victim.

1) You are not a poor little wronged victim; you are an adult. Unless you are  being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, running to a third party who knows you and the other party so you can get your side of the story told first and get a big hug is a childish response, not suited to adult relationships.

2) If Person A, with whom you have the issue, finds out from someone else that you have gone to Person B with this private matter, you have now damaged your trust with Person A, which makes it even more challenging to resolve the original issue between you.

3) Once you experience the ease of dumping your issues on someone who likely will be sympathetic to you without raising any uncomfortable questions, rather than directly facing the person with whom you have a conflict, it becomes that much more tempting to avoid doing the more difficult thing, which is to confront the issue with the person who could actually help resolve it. Triangulation can become an ingrained habit. That's good fodder for sitcom scripts, but not for engaging in thriving relationships.

4) Triangulation tends to self-propagate and go viral. Person B, to whom you first complained about Person A, goes to her friend, Person C, to complain about your inability to solve your own problems, or her inability to figure out how to help you. You all know each other, and it's all too easy to start constructing a drama and NOT talk face to face with the people involved. Then you've got a colossal entanglement, and after a while it's a wonder your heads don't explode from guessing what everyone else is thinking/feeling. You really could use your energy for more productive (and more pleasant) activities.

You're in a fine mess now, aren't you? What to do?

First, start reframing your relationship struggles as private matters. It's hard to realize, in this tell-all culture, that you really don't have to share everything with everybody, all the time. If you need a hug from a friend, just ask for a hug. You don't owe her a play-by-play in order to get some friendly comfort. 

Conversely, avoiding triangulation doesn't mean you can't talk to ANYBODY about your problems - even a friend or your mom. But before you start blabbing things that can't be taken back, go through two processes: first, make sure you know what your own motivation is for revealing your troubles - do you want comfort for your pain, advice about where to go from here, compassion because you acted like an idiot and can't face saying you're sorry yet, or validation that it's all the other person's fault and no one understands you? If you're looking for an excuse to blame someone else, or an excuse not to examine your own behavior, then it's best not to take that very wiggly can of worms to a close friend or relative. That's why God made therapists and unbiased third parties. 

The second thing you need to do, IF you decide to take your problems to Person B, with whom you are close, is to be honest with Person B about your motivations. You have to be able to express what you need from them, and you have to be able to ask if they can be "on your side" without siding against Person A. You also need be able to trust in their honest response about whether they can do that, since not six people in a thousand are capable of that level of impartiality. Make sure you've asked the right person to listen to you.

And when you ARE ready to address your conflict with Person A - and sooner is better than later - for heaven's sake, don't try to do it with texts and emails, or even with phone calls (though phone calls will do if you have no choice because of geographical distance). About ninety-seven per cent of human communication is non-verbal, through body language, facial expression, vocal inflection and other cues. Don't cheat yourself of the opportunity to understand what's going on BENEATH the words, because that's where you'll find a place to heal the hurts, mend fences and understand one another a little better. Underneath the words is where you find love.

Leave triangulation to trigonometry, where it's actually a useful tool.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The hardest question of all

Few couples who are in a good, committed relationship, who are seriously contemplating marriage or who are in the midst of planning a wedding ever consider the possibility of facing a problem in their relationship that they can't resolve. Even fewer couples ever TALK about that possibility. When it's good, it's good. Commitments, and especially weddings, are in service to romance, to promises of spending the rest of your lives together, to feeling as if together you can tackle anything. And I happen to believe you can...I just don't believe it happens magically or naturally. 

Building a marital partnership (whether or not you are legally married) which is, to use one couple's description, sustainable - one which will endure all the tests and all the changes that life brings - takes hard work and endless practice. The love that makes us want to marry, as wonderful as it feels, is not in itself sufficient. A sustainable partnership requires a level of authenticity, honesty, persistence, self-reflection and vulnerability which most of us have little experience with and have absolutely no desire to cultivate. It's too hard and too risky, because (and don't you know this already, on some level?) you can't wait for your partner to be the first to start. It's up to YOU to be "transparent" in your marital relationship, and to continually work towards creating an environment in which your partner can do the same.

It's natural always to want to bring the best of yourself to your partner, and a strong relationship will make your "best" even better. BUT - paradoxically, the only way to be that "best" is to allow yourself to share your self-judgments about your "worst" with your mate. So here's the hardest question of all about your marital relationship: Are you willing and able to share the "worst" and "weakest" of yourself with your partner?  Can you bring your shame, doubts and fears and lay them before your spouse, without expecting her or him to fix them, but trusting that she or he will see you compassionately and support you lovingly? Before you answer that tough question, take a look at some specific examples of the kind of thing you might someday have to be willing to say to your mate. Could you say, for instance:
  • "I think I'm addicted to gambling (or pornography, or alcohol), and I need help. I don't know what to do."
  • "I've been having suicidal thoughts, and I think I may be clinically depressed. I'm scared."
  • "I've done something I'm deeply ashamed of and I'm afraid that if I tell you about it, you won't love me any more."
  • "This job I've taken to support the lifestyle I thought we wanted is killing me. I feel like I have to make changes but I don't want to disappoint your expectations."
If your answer is, "Yes, I could say that," congratulations on building a powerful foundation for a lasting marriage. But if you can't imagine ever revealing any of these things to the person you believe you want to spend the rest of your days with, I urge you to reexamine the reasons you think you want to commit a lifetime to this relationship. If you aren't yet married, don't get married until you are ready to confront this issue. If you are already married, it's never too late to begin this exploration. 

If you cannot share with your spouse or life partner what you consider to be the least of yourself, you'll be condemned to a life of wearing masks, in the one relationship above all where you should feel free to be ALL of who you really are. Unmask yourself with your partner. Get help doing it if you feel it's too difficult to tackle on your own. You will never be sorry you did, and your relationship can be forever stronger, fuller, more joyful and more interesting because of your efforts.