The Power of No

The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.

No to My Phone

My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.

When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.

No to Coffee and Wine

 This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.

It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).

For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.


No to Stuff

Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.

I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.

Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.

No to Negative

The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.

It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.

No to Gremlins

We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.

So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.

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The Urge to Scream “I Am Here!”

This morning I noticed that a hydro box across from the East City restaurant where I meet my father for breakfast every Sunday had been spray-painted. Large, blue, drippy letters screamed: MAX. I don’t know Max but he certainly wants us to know him, or at least, know of him. Maybe Max is the kid on the corner with the hair, clothes, and piercings that beg to be noticed or the quiet kid in the back of the class or maybe even the ambitious young man slaving away in the cubicle that the boss never seems to visit.

Max’s urge is ancient. We have always wanted to immortalize ourselves. In the Second World War, the first American soldiers to arrive anywhere drew on buildings, bridges, and abandoned vehicles a rough figure of a man looking over a wall with the caption, “Kilroy Was Here.” At the Potsdam conference where postwar Europe was planned, Americans built a special washroom for Stalin, Truman, and Churchill. Stalin was the first to use it and upon returning asked, “Who is Kilroy?”

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Most of us want something more personal. Hospitals, schools, galleries, and more boast names on brass plaques and atop buildings so we know who donated the cash to construct them. The philanthropy is good but the naming instructive. The urge’s obscene extreme lies in Donald Trump’s outlandish monuments to himself, each with his name glaringly displayed.

Are Trump and the philanthropists merely peacetime Kilroys or Max with money? Is publicly recording our name a primal or spiritual desire to make sense of our brief lives through recognition and remembrance?

Maybe it’s the same urge that leads to our wanting pictures of ourselves. Consider our walls and old-fashioned photo albums, rich with family pictures of good times and travels. But these are private records, unlike Greek and Roman emperors who posed for statues and Renaissance Lords for paintings as public demonstrations of wealth and power. They were slow-motioned selfies.

In 1839, Philadelphia’s Robert Cornelius set up his camera, rushed before it, and created the world’s first photographic selfie. Selfies were encouraged in 2009 when Facebook asked for profile pictures and democratized in 2010 when Apple’s I-Phone 4 produced the first forward-facing camera. Private became public. Diary entries formerly protected by tiny locks were suddenly blasted through global megaphones.

In January 2015, Psychology Today summarized studies concluding that those who take and post lots of selfies are narcissistic and guilty of self-objectification. That is, in an apparent contradiction, they have an inflated view of their self worth while simultaneously associating that worth with their physical appearance. American doctors noted a startling number of young people asking to be surgically altered for the sole reason of looking better in selfies. Another study suggested that those who post a lot of selfies may not be narcissistic or self-objective when they begin, but repeatedly posting the images turns them that way.

Numerous studies have concluded that while harming ourselves we are also tearing society’s fabric which is based on humility and mutual accommodation. Too many of us have become more concerned with reporting on our lives than living them. We rob ourselves of fully enjoying an experience by stepping outside of special moments to instead fashion images of us appearing to have fun. We have become more concerned with online followers and “friends” than real friends, often turning away from real friends to interact with faux online ones. As a comedian once observed, “Do you want to test your online friend list? Post that you’re moving on Saturday and see whose there to help lift your fridge.”

We’ll survive. The teenage girls now duck-facing and gape-mouth smiling into their cameras will grow up and so will Max. Plus, like always, as soon as enough adults start posting selfies, it will cease to be cool and kids will move on. But we will adopt whatever new technology allows us to deal with the old urge some feel to scream “We are Here!” as did the Whos to Horton. Meanwhile, according to psychologists, the happiest among us will spend less time recording our lives or caring about people we barely know in order to more fully enjoy those lives and the ones we love.

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