Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sweet Gift

On Tuesday I tried acupuncture for the first time. It hurt. A lot.

Everyone (and by "everyone," I mean acupuncturists) tells you acupuncture is not supposed to hurt, even though it is a procedure comprised entirely of pricking a person with needles, leaving them in the skin and then moving them around. Still, those who swear by acupuncture say they don't swear in pain. These people are liars.

Granted, the needles themselves are invisibly small. Like Victoria Beckham-skinny. And even someone who hates needles (me) couldn't feel them go in at first. It's the moving those suckers around part that did me in. After placing a total of 12 needles in my legs and lower abdomen, the acupuncturist twisted each one until I felt a chord of discomfort braid itself through my system and zing its way out at another point entirely. The most painful one radiated from my lower right side straight into my shoulder. Totally weird.

But on Wednesday, I felt great! This could all be relative -- as in, Wednesday did not include any run-ins with needles -- but hey, pain-free is pain-free.

Why did a needle-phobe like me feel compelled to try this in the first place? Several reasons:

1. It was on sale. Usually needles are not a big clearance purchase, but the gym where I train clients offers a reduced rate for treatments like this for trainers like me.

2. My alter-ego Stressy is refusing to let me sleep. Or eat any vegetables. She clearly only likes Pop-Tarts and tortilla chips.

3. For pain relief. Two months ago I landed in the hospital with what I thought was an appendicitis. It turns out it was a ruptured cyst, which might keep happening. I am close enough to the poverty line to hopefully have eschewed the majority of the hospital bills, (Did you know a single dose of morphine is $200? No wonder people try to make drugs in their own kitchens.) but I certainly can't afford to keep popping back to the ER. Plus my whole right side hurts fairly consistently and is visibly swollen.

So I went to get pricked.

And it turns out Stressy was right to want all the Pop-Tarts she can handle. Apparently when we are in pain, our bodies try to heal themselves by craving certain foods. When that pain is localized in the lower abdomen, specifically to organs that correspond to the heart, we want sweet things. This is how someone like me who eats produce like a farm animal could go for a whole month without eating a single vegetable.

The connection between sweet and healing extends to other areas in our lives as well. Think of all the times we use sweet things as a soothing comfort or a security blanket...

  • Homemade cookies in care packages when we're far from home
  • Gingerale or Gatorade when we're sick
  • Hot chocolate when we're cold
  • Raisinets or Sour Patch Kids when we watch a scary movie
  • Lemonade or Soda when we're hot
  • Candy or ice cream when we're heartbroken

Or, as I have given before, sweet baked goods for grieving friends and family. I have made banana bread, cakes, truffles and other treats. I have also made full meals. But I usually come back to cookies.

There is something about a platter of soft and chewy, sweet and buttery, warm and melty cookies that reminds us of an older generation. Of caretakers and worry-free childhoods. Of safety and happiness. When we have lost someone important, there is a hole where these needs were once met. Cookies may only last a few days, a few minutes even, but the gift of cookies meets that need and reminds us there are others there who can pad the hole so it feels less jagged. Who can heal us, sweetly.

I made cookies for a grieving friend last year. The details are not important. What is important is a gesture that honors what the body craves. Our bodies are smart and they crave what will help. What will heal the pain.

Which is what brought me to acupuncture. And today I ate an apple without thinking twice about toaster pastries.

**If you are at all interested in acupuncture, I do highly recommend Korina at Happy Healthy Whole. She is extremely knowledgeable, compassionate and gentle.**

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Open-Ended Gift

I read somewhere recently that stress or fear or anxiety is really our minds trying to protect ourselves from pain that has already happened. So when we get all stressy about whether something will work out or we fear the outcome of the unknown, it is because we are starting to feel the pain of when this went badly before.

I have absolutely no memory of where I heard this and am now starting to wonder if I made it up, but it makes sense. Can't you just picture your body saying, "Hey, I remember this. You hate this. I'm going to squeeze you until you can't move forward into it anymore." Except your body doesn't realize you're already there. That memory, that moment of recognition was enough to throw your mind into a full immersion experience of all the pain you remember.

My life right now is as if  I threw a bunch of papers up in the air, and then they all froze. I know some of them will blow away and I'll never see them again, and others will land. I will pick up the ones that land and they will form a more structured path for my life to come. But right now there they are - encased in perpetual flight. Twisting and extended. Free and static.

For the most part, I am at peace with this. The control-y part of me wants a little more input in which papers come down - like everything would be perfect if I could just rank my options - but where is the fun in that? If you could rank everything, wouldn't you always choose paper number one? Instead of whichever one hits you in the face first?

So I am resisting that part of me that wants to be in control of everything. Because sometimes she is no fun at all. Sometimes the fun is in the creation of something new. The answer to the Open-Ended question.

As a Journalism major, I was trained to ask open-ended questions in interviews. In order to get organic, true responses from interviewees, you ask questions to which people have to say something back - not just yes or no. Anything that starts with "do you," "can you," "are you" are BAD questions for a reporter. (This is why sideline reporting annoys me. It's generally bad journalism.) Questions that start with "what," "why," or "how" invite a conversation. And that's what a journalist is supposed to do - create a conversation, preferably with really good quotes. Yes and no are not good quotes.

Interestingly enough, this is where my writing life and my teaching life most intersect. Because in teaching, open-ended questions are the best way to push a child's learning forward. Teaching is not about imparting knowledge. It is not placing information, however delicately, inside a child's brain. It is about creating a conversation that asks a child to come up with predictions and explore how those predictions hold up throughout new experiences. These explorations are done many ways, but one of the things we talk about at the museum a lot is open-ended materials.

Open-ended materials are not like snakes with a hollow tail. They are toys or objects that can be used in whatever way the child invents. Unfortunately, they are getting harder to find. Not in a, "We're running out of wood," sort of way. More in a, "The toy aisle at Wal-Mart only has Pixar characters in it," sort of way. There's an interesting (well, to me,) article that explains the deregulation of the toy industry in the 1980s, but to summarize, the 80s were when things like McDonald's Happy Meals took off. And the toys found in those cardboard M-handled boxes usually correspond to a popular movie or TV show. The success of Happy Meal toys led to a boom in action figures and other toys with pre-existing scenarios. Meaning, kids went from playing with "a doll," to playing with "this specific doll that does this one special thing and lives in this one special place and wears this one special outfit." All the imagination that goes along with creating a world for an unknown person is crushed when that person is replaced with a character from a world that already exists.

This is all to say that encouraging kids to use their imagination has become more difficult. Because if you travel the toy aisles, it is way easier to grab a brightly colored box of action figures than it is to seek out open-ended materials. Plus there are no commercials for plain old blocks, and you don't want to be the loser who brings the toy everyone ignores.

I, however, am not scared to be a loser. Last year, Target had cardboard bricks in their dollar spot. I should have bought 100 packages. Instead I bought one for one of the greatest two-year olds I know. I gave it as part of a family thank-you gift for hosting me for the weekend. This little girl has more toys than I have ever seen, and as a credit to her amazing parents, most of them are open-ended. So she was ahead of the game in terms of knowing she had options for what to do with the bricks. She did not look at them expectantly as if they should suddenly sprout video screens. Instead, she picked them up and began to build with them. What did she build? That's the beauty of the open-ended gift. It could have been anything. And we wouldn't know what it was unless we asked her. (Apparently she built a fort.)

On a related note, I went to the Indianapolis Children's Museum this weekend, which is the museum I grew up adoring as a child. It is the largest children's museum in the world. (Which is a little bit relative, as most other countries do not have children's museums at all. When I was in France last summer explaining my job, everyone was like, you work for a museum that has exhibits of children? It doesn't translate well.) And in every educational aspect within the exhibits, the ICM is right on point. The gift shop however, is another story.

The gift shop offered Legos. I LOVE Legos. As a child I would play with Legos for so many consecutive hours that the tips of my fingers would go numb from pressing the knobby tops together. I was constantly running short on wheels and doors, but I still managed to make an entire transit system. So when I saw Legos at ICM, I thought, "They must have cool Lego pieces here."

Instead, I found this many Lego sets based on movies, TV shows and pre-existing ideas:

This represents one fourth of the case, btw.

Super fancy Legos deserve black packaging.

Not sure why Star Wars is such a big deal here.

I found this many plain Legos:

Twelve buckets. I found twelve buckets of regular, open-ended Legos. AND those buckets were color-coded to be gender specific. Lego, you disappoint me.

If I ever have a daughter, I will buy her the blue bucket. Because f*** you, Lego. Stop telling us what to build. You are no fun at all.