The Reality of Water

Whenever I think of taking off on foot and seeing where the trail leads me, I always come up against one truth that pops the dream and brings me back to reality.

Water.

There is a drought in the west this year. Water is being drained from Lake Mead as if it were a bathtub with the stopper removed. Some communities are warning residents to conserve, while the developers continue to build houses by the hundreds in this area alone, which will cause further problems in the future. Certain watering spots along the southern SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAportion of the Pacific Crest Trail have dried up, forcing thru hikers to carry more water, drink less, or arrange for water deliveries.

A gallon of water weighs almost nine pounds, and hikers generally consume a gallon a day so carrying just a couple of days worth of water makes for a very heavy pack. Some cross-country walkers fashion pushcarts to carry the necessary water through the long desolate waterless areas, but wheels of any kind are usually not allowed on trails in national parks, so that is not a solution for PCT thru walkers.

More than anything else we take water for granted, and yet it is the one thing we cannot live without. Supposedly we can live without food for three weeks, but a mere three days without water puts us in serious trouble. Actually, we’d be in trouble long before the three days were up, with skin rashes, thick tongue, and hallucinations leading the list of dehydration horrors. Add heat and wind to the trauma, conditions that often prevail in the desert west, and we’d have a serious problem within just a couple of days.

Considering that 75% of us are chronically dehydrated, there is a chance that we wouldn’t even last two or three days. And considering that in 37% of Americans, the thirst mechanism is so weak that it is often mistaken for hunger, we could be dying of thirst and not even know it.

Even mild dehydration will slow down our metabolism as much as 3%. And a mere 2% drop in body water can trigger fuzzy short-term memory trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on the computer screen or on a printed page. And perhaps even lead us to make critical errors of judgment on the trail. To make matters worse, our thirst mechanism often doesn’t kick in until we’ve already lost 2% of our body’s water volume, which means we need to drink before we even get thirsty.

Water is vastly important, more than simply a means of survival.

One glass of water shut down midnight hunger pangs for 100% of the dieters in a University of Washington study.

Lack of water is the #1 trigger of daytime fatigue.

Research has indicated that 8-10 glasses of water a day could significantly ease back and joint pain for up to 80% of sufferers.

Drinking eight glasses of water daily will decrease the risk of colon cancer by 45%, plus it can slash the risk of breast cancer by 79%, and one is 50% less likely to develop bladder cancer.

In addition, extra water can help alleviate pain from heartburn, arthritis, colitis, angina, migraines. It can help lower cholesterol, help cure asthma, hypertension, excess body weight, and ulcers.

And, if that’s not enough to make you want to drink more water, water can also help plump up the skin and make you look younger, especially if you are aging prematurely.

Drinking eight glasses of water a day is considered old-fashioned now, and unnecessary, but who are the ones telling us this? Doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the soft drink industry, that’s who, the very people who will benefit by our dehydration.

Even though I do drink plenty of water, I tend to get dehydrated easily, which leads to chest congestion (probably to protect those delicate tissues), coughs, and fatigue. I always carry a bottle of water with me, sometimes two. I can’t even imagine going without water for a single hour out in the desert winds and heat, let alone two or three days. (I’m going to have to rethink my water source. I can’t stand the taste of this tap water, though the unpalatable truth is that it takes three times the amount of water to make a water bottle than it does to fill it. Yikes. I always used to attach a filter to my water faucet, but since this isn’t my house, I can’t do that.)

I suppose I could pick a trail with plenty of watering spots and just carry a load of water purifying tablets, though considering all the hikers who have warned me I would need to pack antibiotics and drugs that would cure Giardia if I should get infected, I’m not sure I’d trust those purifiers.

There has to be an answer to my dilemma — going on an epic adventure without having to deal with water issues — but so far, I haven’t found it.

Meantime, I’m going to take a break and drink a glass of water. I hope you will too.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Gyro Thinking

A gyro ball is a piece of exercise equipment used for strengthening the wrist, fingers, and forearm. It’s about the size of a tennis ball, and is composed of an outer covering and a free-spinning inner gyroscope. The faster the inner ball spins, the more strength you need to hold on to the device, and yet, all you need to keep the gyro going is a gentle circular motion of the wrist.

It seems to me that sometimes we can get caught up in gryo thinking where our thoughts spin and spin, and all it takes to keep those thoughts accelerating with ever increasing strength is to nudge ourselves with reminders of those thoughts. Sometimes the gryo gains such strength that it seems impossible to ever break the cycle.

In my case, what winds up my gyro are affronts. Pure hurts I can deal with face on. Pure anger generally burns itself out Ferris wheelwithin a few hours or maybe a couple of days at most. But affronts — being disregarded or deliberately disrespected — go deep, probably because they touch on ancient hurts and ancient angers.

This is a game two can play. If another person also experiences a similar slight or an offense from the same source, you can really rev each other up. You start out by talking things out, but so often what you are really doing is keeping each other’s wheels spinning.

I’ve never heard of gyro thinking, though I’m sure there is another, more technical name for it. It’s just something I have recently become aware of. (Which makes me wonder — did my having a name for such thinking make way for the concept itself? I only made the correlation after hearing about a gyro ball exerciser and learning how it works.)

I’m not subject to such spinning thoughts very often any more, but when I do feel affronted, I am learning not to feed the gyro. Learning to let the thoughts pass through my mind without holding on to them. Learning to let the spinning wheel turn on its own until it comes to a peaceful stop.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Scheduled Obsolescence

I’ve grown up with planned obsolescence, so that idea is nothing new to me, but scheduled obsolescence took me by surprise.

There are various types of planned obsolescence. Psychological obsolescence is common in the fashion and automotive industries. Each year, the companies create new designs to make last year’s designs psychologically less appealing, though the product itself is still usable. Physical obsolescence is prevalent in other manufacturing fields, where the designers decide how long a product should last and then only use materials geared to last that long. (In a way this makes sense — if a vegetable grater, for example, goes dull after a year or two, there’s no real reason to make the thing out of expensive materials that will last long after the product has outlived any usefulness.) Often, manufacturers even go so far as to use inferior materials that will make the product wear out faster and speed up replacement time.

Some people argue that planned obsolescence encourages competition and improvement while others claim it increases waste. I don’t believe in waste, though I do understand the need to keep the economy going — if everyone was like me, the economy would have ground to a halt years ago. I mean, how many people out there bought a car forty-two years ago and are still driving it as their one and only source of vehicular transportation? (If you guessed the car is a Volkswagen you’re correct. Back then, Volkswagen bragged about not believing in planned obsolescence, which has worked in my favor.) And then there’s my poor hair dryer that died just this morning — it was only twenty-five years old! If you’re smart (or thrifty) you can often bypass planned obsolescence by doing such things as unplugging lamps and other electrical equipment rather than using the cheaply-made and soon-to-break on/off switches. As for fashion — well, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what was in fashion, either today or twenty years ago.

In some cases, planned obsolescence worked in my favor. Planned obsolescence (thank heavens for spell check! I have mistyped the word obsolescence every single time I’ve used it!) helps keep products cheap. When my camera died after only a couple of years (oddly, the screen burned out right after I took what turned out to be the last photo of my now deceased life mate/soul mate), it would have cost more to repair the camera than to replace it. And when that second camera died in a tragic fall shortly after purchase, I was able to get a replacement that works better than either of the others.

But I’m getting off track. As I said, I’m used to planned obsolescence, but last night I came up against scheduled obsolescence. The end of support for Windows XP made me interested in when support for Vista, my current operating system, will end. I discovered that the end had been scheduled for April 10, 2012, but that they extended it to April 10, 2017. Whew! I still have three years! By then, of course, my computer will be so outdated and so slow I will probably be glad to update my whole system. Or maybe technology will have changed out of all recognition making me want to hang on to this poor machine until its last byte. If nothing else, I could use it as a word processor, unconnected to the internet. That way any vulnerabilities won’t be a problem.

Still, it does seem strange to have the exact date when my operating system is scheduled to become obsolete.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Are You Lazy? Am I?

There are hundreds of laziness tests on the internet that will tell you how lazy you are, that is if you’re not too lazy to take the tests. A Facebook friend recently took one such test and posted it on his profile. He commented, “Some of the choices are disgusting!” And he is right. Some of the choices are disgusting — it’s amazing to me that anyone thought of putting them on a list, let alone considered doing such things. The test seemed more an indication of how much of a slob you are than how slothful you are.

But . . . (you knew there would be a “but”, didn’t you?)

The test made me think about what laziness really means. According to my dictionary, “lazy” means “disliking activity or exertion; not energetic or vigorous.” It comes from the Middle Low German word lasich meaning “feeble.”

To us, laziness has negative connotations. When we say someone is lazy, we are generally referring to an able-bodied person who has the ability do a task but doesn’t. The word itself, however, has no such pejorative meaning. Just because people dislike exerting themselves, it doesn’t mean that they won’t. And just because people like to be involved in activities, it doesn’t mean that they will. And anyway, who is to say that disliking exertion is wrong? You don’t always have a choice in what you like or dislike. Besides, the whole thrust of human invention has always been about making things easier for us rather than harder.

napIf you are in a communal situation, such as a marriage, a family, a job, it is necessary to keep up your end of the work, but failure to do so isn’t necessarily because of laziness — it could be a sense of entitlement, insensitivity, or thoughtlessness. But if no one is depending on you, who is to say what is laziness? If you’re not engaged in any activity, but don’t need to be, what is wrong with lolling around doing nothing? Who says we have to fill our days with activity? I consider myself lazy because I am not currently working on a novel, but why should I write? Just because I can? At the moment, writing won’t improve my life, won’t gain me recognition or riches. It will simply use up time, and for now, I am using my time for more physical pursuits. (Oddly, the idea of my laziness — my lack of energy — is so ingrained, I don’t consider myself unlazy while doing these various physical activities.)

Not everyone has the same level of energy. Some of us are “not energetic or vigorous” by nature. We have to push ourselves through life, one trudge at a time. Others shoot through life like rockets, spewing excess energy to the winds. If the low-energy person is resting from his/her exertions while the high-energy person is still zooming around getting things done, why is the first person considered lazy? Both are doing what their natures dictate.

It seems to me that there isn’t really such a thing as laziness. For example, people who scam the welfare system in the USA are often considered as being too lazy to work, but the system is so laborious that many people who are eligible do not have the energy to deal with the bureaucracy. Those who do know how to work the system in nefarious ways are not lazy — they are awash in a sense of entitlement that borders on fraud.

If we can do something but don’t, if we choose to stay in bed instead, it could be that we aren’t lazy so much as that we need the rest. Despite all the machines that have been invented to make our lives easier, our lives are stressful. If someone repeatedly hits the snooze button in the morning, it might not be a sign of laziness but of exhaustion.

More than that, what we call laziness seems to be lack of motivation rather than a true disinclination to work. We almost always find the time/energy to do the things we love if the rest of life doesn’t get in our way. (To most of us, work is what we don’t want to do. The lucky ones are those who get paid for doing what they want to do. Tests have shown that if people are allowed to work on whatever project they wish when they are at their jobs, they are happier, more productive, and work longer hours. If they have to work on a project that is assigned, that they have no affinity for, then their job suffers.)

We get out of bed on Saturday if the sun is shining and we are going for a run/walk/hike/picnic — anything that’s fun. If only bad weather and detestable chores await us, we have no motivation for getting out of bed, so we stay there. And what is wrong with that? Again, I am not talking about a communal living situation such as a family. In that case, it’s only fair to do your share of the chores. But if no one is depending on you, it makes no difference if you wait a few more days to clean the house or do laundry.

Perhaps I’m wrong in my assessment about laziness, but I’ve decided to strike the word from my vocabulary anyway. No more laziness. If I have no inclination to do a chore, then I’m gathering my strength. If I have no desire to write, then I’m letting my ideas steep. If I have no will to exercise, then I’m giving my muscles a rest.

Works for me.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Meaning of Flowers

“Say it with flowers” is an ad slogan dating from 1917. Apparently the slogan strikes a chord with us, otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted almost a hundred years, but what, exactly, are we saying when we say it with flowers?

Roses Yellow Rose with Ladybugsay “I love you,” but each color has a has a secondary meaning:
Red roses — Love, passion, respect, courage
Yellow roses — Joy, friendship, freedom
Pink roses — Happiness, gratitude, appreciation, admiration
Cream roses — Thoughfulness, charm, graciousness
Peach roses — Admiration, fascination, enthusiasm
Orange roses — Desire
White roses — Innocence, purity, secrecy, reverence

Some flower meanings seem obvious, either because of their names, their common usage, or their natures:
Aloe — healing
Forget-me-nots — remember
Monkshood — beware
Narcissus — egotism
Orange blossoms — eternal love or fertility
Poppy — oblivion or eternal sleep
Sage — wisdom
Venus Flytrap — caught at last
Violets —modesty
White lilies — purity
Withered flowers — rejected love.

Other flower meanings seem haphazard, as if the symbolic language was assigned randomly without much thought:
Daffodil — regard
Hollyhock — ambition
Morning glories — affection
Peony — shame
Sweetpea — departure and/or thank you for a lovely time
Sunflower — false riches
Wintergreen — harmony
Wisteria — welcome

Most of us have our own meaning for flowers. For me, lilacs mean remembrance, but in the languange of flowers, lilacs mean first love. (Which works well for me, too, since the man lilacs make me remember is my first love.) And for me, big red poppies mean lack of luck since unluckily we can’t plant them anymore.

In the end, though, sending flowers always means the same thing: “I am thinking of you.”

It’s kind of odd, now that I think about it — the few times someone sent me flowers, I was truly touched, but never in my entire life have I been able to send flowers to anyone. Whenever I considered it, all I could think of were the soon to be dead blooms and the screams of agony of the flowers being so cruelly lopped off the plant.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Spending Too Much Time in Shuttered Rooms

After my life mate/soul mate died, it was all I could do to get through the day. I couldn’t imagine a future without him in the world. Didn’t want to imagine it. When my grief started to wane and I could again contemplate the future, I would wonder where I should go to settle down, but my mind always rebelled at the thought. Settle down? Alone? How? He was my home. Without him, there was no home, just a place, and one place seemed the same as another.

Although I am gradually coming to terms with both my loneliness and my aloneness, I still rebel at the thought of finding somewhere to settle when I leave here. (I am currently staying with and looking out for my 97-year-old father.) For a person with hermit tendencies, such as I, settling down alone sounds like stagnation. At the beginning, I would do things, of course, but then as time passed, I would become entrenched in my habits, would get tired of the same sights, the same errands, the same . . . everything. And my world would shrink and continue shrinking until I became the crazy cat lady sans cats.

Most people have not been able to identify with this scenario. They see me now, embracing new ways of living, and say that it will always be so. Perhaps they are right, but still I do fear the stagnation that would come from being too long entrenched in one place alone.

The truth is, whether we are aware of it or not, some form of stagnation happens to all of us. In “It’s a Nomad, Nomad World,” Bruce Chatwin spoke of our heritage as nomads and explained the necessity for keeping on the move, especially by foot. Chatwin wrote:

Some American brain specialists took encephalogram readings of travellers. They found that changes of scenery and awareness of the passage of seasons through the year stimulated the rhythms of the brain, contributing to a sense of well being and an active purpose in life. Monotonous surroundings and tedious regular activities wove patterns which produce fatigue, nervous disorders, apathy, self disgust and violent reactions. Hardly surprising, then, than a generation cushioned from the cold by central heating, from the heat by air conditioning, carted in aseptic transports from one identical house or hotel to the another, should feel the need for journeys of mind and body, for pep pills or tranquillisers, or for the cathartic journeys of sex, music and dance. We spend far too much time in shuttered rooms. . . . 

The best thing is to walk. We should follow the chinese poet Li Po in “the hardships of travel and the many branchings of the way”. For life is a journey trough wilderness. This concept, universal to the point of banality, could not have survived unless it was biologically true. None of our revolutionary heroes is worth a thing until he has been on a good walk. Che Guevara spoke of the “nomadic phase” of the Cuban Revolution. Look what the Long March did for Mao Tse Tung, or Exodus for Moses.

I have no interest in being a revolutionary hero or even a spiritual leader who wanders in the wilderness until fate thrusts me into a new role. But somehow, I instinctively knew the truth — that settling down means mental stagnation. When you live with someone, you don’t stagnate quite as much because there is someone to help disrupt the rhythms of your life. But who disrupts the rhythms of your life when you are alone? (Cats, I suppose, which could be why so many old women alone end up tending  a houseful of cats, but that’s not for me.)

I do not know if I am physically capable of a life on foot — I’ve never been athletic. Even if my capabilities weren’t an issue, the problem of getting enough water seems insurmounatble. The sheer volume of water a person needs is staggering. Some areas in the west, you can go up to hundred miles between towns, and in the wilderness sometimes it’s almost as far between watering holes. Considering that a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds (just the water, not the container), and considering that a someone on foot needs to drink almost that much a day, and considering that at the most I could walk 10 miles a day (and that is being optimistic),  I’d need to drag along almost 84 pounds of water. (I read about a college student who dragged that much water with him on a cross-country trip. Actually, he didn’t drag it, he pushed it. Used some sort of cart.)

I don’t know what the answer to my conundrum is, but I have a hunch it will take care of itself. I’d probably start out in my ancient vehicle, and if it broke down or fell apart . . . well, then I’d have to finish the trip on foot.

It’s also possible that I end up doing what everyone does in the end — spend my life in shuttered rooms.

As a matter of fact, right at this moment, I am in a shuttered room. It’s not so bad.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Perpetuating Gender Roles

A fellow Second Wind Publishing author posted an article that took me aback. Her post, Wives are Awesome, spoke of marriage roles, and how from the moment men took their vows, all the troublesome details of running a household vanish. Their wives make sure they have their favorite shampoo, their clothes are clean, the coffee brewed.

It was a clever article with a great punch line, but it surprised me to learn that women are still mommying their husbands to such an extent. I thought this sort of gender role disappeared a generation ago. It’s women’s prerogative, of course, to arrange their lives however they wish. I can even understand how it happens. In the throes of new love, women do what they can to mothermake their husbands’ lives easier, and over time, this role of nurturer becomes ineradicable.

It’s not just men who perpetuate such a role — women do, too. When a friend disagreed with my stance on women’s issues (apparently, as a thinking woman, I’m supposed to automatically be a feminist), I asked in rebuttal what percentage of household chores he did. He said, “I do everything I’m asked.” The assumption that household chores were his wife’s obligation and that she had to ask for his help made my hackles rise, but then he added, “She doesn’t like the way I do some things so she doesn’t ask.” I had no response to that, of course. It’s hard to share equally in the responsibility of running a household when one of the partners insists on holding the reins. (The moral of the story is, if you want your partner to do a greater percentage of the household chores, don’t complain about the way he or she does them. Let your partner work in his/her own way in his/her own time.)

Getting such glimpses into other people’s lives makes me realize how easy I had it with Jeff, my now deceased life mate/soul mate. We “wifed” each other, doing what was necessary without ever asking the other to do something. And if one of us didn’t like the way the other did a chore, we did it ourselves. (He once mentioned he didn’t like the way I did dishes. I didn’t say anything; I simply left them for him to do.) Whichever of us noticed that the carpet needed vacuuming or that a floor needed scrubbing (or rather the first one who was bothered by it) did the task. Mostly, though, we did things together or split up the responsibility without making a big deal about it.

Although it might not seem like it, roles really are changing. It’s no longer assumed that women who marry will take up where the husband’s mother left off, nurturing him as if he were still a child unable to fend for himself. Sometimes men take on that role for their high-powered wives. Sometimes both share equally in the responsibility and sometimes the couple hires a housekeeper to look after both of them.

When Jeff died, the thought of growing old alone panicked me. I’m okay now, mostly because I don’t think about it. Still, I do wonder what would happen if I met someone new and fell in love, but the thought of ever setting up a household with anyone again is beyond my imagining, especially considering problems of aging, possible health issues, and entrenched behavior, such as his expecting to be “wifed”.

Even if I found someone who would be willing to “wife” me, I wouldn’t be interested. Having someone look after the small details of my life sounds like a burden. It’s amazing to me that so many men willingly shoulder the load.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Lilacs For Remembrance

Long before Ophelia begged Laertes, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,” mourners would throw rosemary into graves as a symbol of remembrance.

Rosemary doesn’t mean much to me. It’s not an herb I like, nor is it a plant that has any association for me, though there is a humongous rosemary bush outside my father’s house that was once a potted rosemary Christmas tree. (Until I saw the bush and heard the story of its origin, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a rosemary Christmas tree.)

LilacsTo me, lilacs are for remembrance. I grew up in a large family with a scraggly yard. Except for occasionally mowing the lawn, no one bothered much with keeping the yard nice, though when I was in second grade, I was allowed to grow a small garden. (“Grow” is a misnomer. I planted sweet Williams, and one or two flowers even came up despite my massive neglect.) Surprisingly, a lilac bush thrived in a corner of that unkempt yard. Though no one ever took care of it, never even watered it, it managed to bring forth gorgeous and gorgeous-smelling blossoms every spring. Truly a miraculous plant.

Many years later, my now deceased life mate and I transplanted an unruly lilac bush that blocked a gate. We ended up with dozens of plants, enough to surround the whole property. Apparently there were plenty of live roots left because eventually the original bush grew to be as large as it was before we’d massacred it. Western Colorado is often visited by late frosts, so we didn’t always have lilac blossoms, but the spring before he died, the entire place was wreathed by luscious blooms, a luxury he once could only dream of.

A year after he died, I was Blindsided by Lilacs. I’d come to a desert community to look after my aged father. The vegetation was completely different from anything I was familiar with, so there were no scent memories. Then one April day, when I was walking down the street, the smell of lilacs wafted toward me from an empty lot. Instantly, I was back in full grief mode, unable to stop crying for days. Today, I felt sad and needed to feel close to him, so when I passed that still empty lot, I went to inhale the blossoms and think of him.

I’d never put flowers by his photo, not wanting it to seem like a shrine, but today I picked a sprig of lilac and brought it back for him.

Sitting here now, I can smell that lovely fragrance, and I remember.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

We Are Public Property

”You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” The author of these words, Anne Lamott, was speaking about writing, but her comment also holds true of life. Everything that happens to you, everything someone did to you, everything someone said to you, all belong to you. These things are a part of you and your life story, and you can do with them as you wish. (Ownership doesn’t negate Untitledtresponsibility or consequences, however. If you write or talk about what people said or did to you, they have no obligation to like it. You might even lose them as friends, assuming you were friends in the first place.)

The corollary to the quote is that other people own everything you do or say to them.

We are savvy enough online not to write or post anything we don’t want coming back and slapping us in the face or kicking us lower down on our anatomy, long after we’ve forgotten what we posted, but offline, we are much more casual, saying whatever comes into our minds whenever there is someone around to hear our voice. Most people, don’t really pay attention, so what we say drifts past their ears or in and out of their mind moments after our words are spoken. Except, of course, when we say something we wish we hadn’t. Those words remain hanging in the air long enough for them to register. Many times people have quoted something I said back at me, and it stunned me, usually because I didn’t remember telling them, or at least not the way they understood my words to mean. Not that it’s a problem. I have no secrets. Offline, as well as online, I am what you see.

Still, it is a bit of a revelation to think that we extend way beyond ourselves. If people own what we do to them, then our actions are public property. If people own what we say to them, then our words are also public property. We are not the autonomous creatures we think we are, safe within our own little sphere of noninfluence. Just as we are continually affected (and infected) by others, they are affected (and infected) by us.

It’s a sobering thought, and one that should make us think twice about what we say to people and how we treat them.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Gossip: Healthy or Destructive?

For more than three decades, I didn’t spend much time in the company of women. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of worked out that way. My life mate/soul mate and I did most things together, including work — trying to build our business. He was also my best friend, the person I most wanted to be with. We had wide-ranging interests, and we talked about life, books, movies, history, philosophy, ideas.

I knew some women, of course, but not well, and I never participated in any group activities. After his death, though, I got afternoon teainvolved with many people. I joined a grief support group, and we had plenty to talk about — our deceased loved ones, our many losses (we lost not just the person, but the life we shared, our hopes, plans, and a feeling of “home”), our pain, our slow rewakening to life, and ourselves.

It wasn’t until recently, when I started taking exercise classes and came in close regular contact with a group of women that I ended up in a situation I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Idle chitchat. Gossip. Talking about each other, especially about those who weren’t present.

At first, I didn’t think anything of it since the remarks weren’t malicious, but when I found myself making comments (nothing bad, just things another person had done or said to me) I began to feel uneasy. I’m no paragon, but I do like to do the right thing. Eventually I came to the conclusion that we’re women. We talk about people. It’s who we are. (Though studies have shown that men gossip just as much as women do.) I have no delusions of being exempt as a topic of gossip — I always figured that in my absence they talked about me, but it didn’t matter. It’s not my business what other people think of me. (Strange. I just realized that once I took the opposite tack, that it is my business.) In fact, after one lunch — yep, we often exercised then went to lunch afterward to replace more than the calories we burned — I had to leave before everyone else, and when I got up to go, I gave them a big smile and said, “Now you can talk about me.”

To be honest, we talk mostly about ourselves (though food is a strong second topic). The comments about others were quite remarkably sparse, perhaps because we spent most of our time togther concentrating on our movements. Talking about our families and absent friends was simply a way of passing inactive moments.

But the truth is, even if I thought there was anything wrong with the remarks, I would not have walked away. I found such talk compelling. Intriguing. Connecting. Privileged.

After coming to an accommodation with gossiping, I didn’t think anything more about it until a few days ago when one of the women called to let off steam about a reprimand she’d gotten that day, which she felt was uncalled for. Since I too was upset about something that happened in that class, we commiserated with each other at great length. I thought it was over and done with until today when she called to ask if I’d repeated a specific, totally innocuous remark she’d made during our commiseration. I hadn’t repeated her remark, but she was so upset, the call ended on a bad note.

As a result, I am rethinking my position. I want to try to stay away from any remarks about others, which sort of leaves a void in the conversation. Most people after or even during exercise have no interest in deep discussions of important ideas or significant events, (not even me, though at other times I’m all for such discussions), but I’m used to being quiet, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The idea of not being privy to insider remarks, however, has left me feeling bereft. Such conversations were so compelling, I can still feel the pull — a sort of magnetism — when I think of the exchanges (though to be honest, I can’t remember many of the actual remarks. They truly were innocuous and not at all malicious.)

I’ve spent the past few hours doing what I always do when faced with a conundrum — research, in this case, researching why gossip is so fascinating. (Not celebrity gossip — I have zero interest in such unimportant folk. Unimportant to me, anyway.)

According to an article in Psychologies Magazine, Gossip builds social bonds because shared dislikes create stronger bonds than shared positives. Two people who don’t know each other will feel closer if they share something mean about a third person than if they say nice things about them. It’s a way of demonstrating their shared values and sense of humour. Add to that the thrill of transgression, since we’re supposed to be nice and positive.

However much we may disapprove of gossip in theory, it’s very common behavior, says social psychologist Laurent Bègue. “About 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present, and most of these are passing judgement.”

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brains; language came about because of the need to spread gossip, and not the other way round.

Participants in a one study were asked “to gossip with a friend about a mutual acquaintance, as the researcher filmed the exchanges. Those who rated their self-esteem highly showed a clear pattern: they spread good gossip when they felt accepted and a more derogatory brand when they felt marginalized. The gossip may involve putting someone else down to feel better by comparison. Or it may simply be a way to connect with someone else and share insecurities. But the end result is often a healthy relief of social and professional anxiety.

Other studies show that gossip is a way of defining group behavior and keeping the group intact, which is a survival skill left from our tribal days. Even today, talking about what others have done is a way of defining group values. If you talk about someone who disrupted a class or who slacked off at work, it’s an object lesson, showing the rest of the group what actions are acceptable. (Do what the teacher says, don’t play around in class, make sure you shoulder your share of the burden.) Talking also helps prevent problems from getting out of hand by letting members of the group vent their frustrations with other members.

So, according to an article in C. Health “We shouldn’t think about gossip as just a time-wasting, tacky habit. It can actually be a valuable social tool to help us understand and get along better with those around us.”

Whether gossip has a healthy role or merely a destructive one, we are infinitely fascinated by other human beings, and gossip tells us not only about the gossipee but also the gossiper.

Still, I think I’d feel better if I stop making comments about what other people said or did to me. At least most of the time. Anne Lamott said of writing, and the same might be true of talking: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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