The Vicarious Life

I suppose most kids start thinking about how they want to live their lives from a fairly young age. My granddaughter Caroline, for instance, goes through spurts of wanting to be this or that when she grows up. (This week, it’s a farmer.) As for me, I was content enough enjoying my childhood in a loving family environment, and I really never gave serious thought as to what my life would be like once I became an adult and had to make my way in the world. I was satisfied to let life unfold as I went along.

If I had made specific predictions, I never would have envisioned marrying an alcoholic/later sober man who would become a pastor, living in Maine, being a medical transcriptionist, or even playing the harp. The way my life has revealed itself has been much more interesting than I could have ever imagined.

Now that I’ve lived over half of my life expectancy, though, I do notice a trend. It has been too tempting to experience life vicariously. There’s a reason for this. Secondhand encounters are safe. They can be controlled. They make it possible to experience the enjoyment of something without the work and the risks.

Many people don’t realize that I have traveled all over the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia - I’ve been to them all. I’ve watched them make cheese in Switzerland. I’ve ridden in the gondolas of Venice. I’ve even stayed in the best hotels. Maybe here I should mention my traveling companion, Samantha Brown. She works for the Travel Channel, and every time I tuned into her show, she took me somewhere new and exciting. I didn’t have to apply for a passport, buy luggage, or go through airport security.

That’s not my only use of vicarious living. I vicariously garden, too. I love to look at other people’s flowers, maybe even buying some to sit on the table. I didn’t have to get down on hands and knees in the dirt and dig, weed, fertilize, and water. I let someone else do that. I just reap the results. I have been known to do the same when I drool over others’ quilts while mine sits waiting to be finished, and when I marvel at intricate cross-stitch when I haven’t picked up a project for years. I’ve perfected the technique of exercising vicariously, too. I can put in an aerobics DVD and sit down and watch it with impunity and a bowl of ice cream.

Unfortunately, that last example doesn’t do anything for me, darn it. Where is vicarious living when you really need it? Sometimes I feel like the Little Red Hen’s pals. “You do all the work, and I’ll reap the benefits. Deal?”

The key word in vicarious living (besides the lazy part) is the safety of it. By not traveling, I don’t involve myself in the risks thereof. By not gardening or quilting or cross-stitching, I don’t have to watch myself fail to live up to my own expectations (or others’). I can be a cheerleader. I can root from the sidelines. I can feel good about appreciating everyone else's hard work, but at the same time, with enough introspection, I eventually feel a little disappointed that I’m not personally playing the game enough myself.

Every once in a while, I will come out of vicarious living and do something or create something, an experience which always makes me vulnerable to failure or danger, but gives me enormous thrill and satisfaction. Take the sea kayaking last August with Audrey, for instance. The whole idea freaked me out. I could have watched a DVD of kayaking, or even watched Audrey go kayaking, but instead, with her encouragement, I stepped out of my vicarious mode and just did it with her. I sat down in that kayak, feeling the hard plastic under my legs. I felt the salt water spray on my face. I worked muscles I didn’t even know I had as we paddled along. No vicarious living, that. Every nerve, bone, blood vessel, and brain cell was working overtime. I was in the moment.

It would be nice if one could really lose weight vicariously, or really feel the immensity of the Grand Canyon from a 25-inch screen, or feel heavenly rested in a 5-star hotel bed just because Samantha told you what it was like. Life doesn’t work that way. I can enjoy the flowers someone else grew, or the meal someone else cooked, or the quilt someone else made - but deep down I realize that the actual process of growing or cooking or quilting was as much a pleasure as the final product. The bug bites, steam burns, and needle pokes are just part of the experience, for without them, you might as well watch someone else do it. The discomfort (whether physically or emotionally) is just part of the package. There’s nothing like an unexpected needle poke into your finger while hand quilting to bring you into the present moment. To that I can attest.

The older I get, the more I feel the need to push myself a little. Oh, I’ll never go rock-climbing (and nobody better try to talk me into it!) or do something that would terrify me enough to send me to the mental hospital, but as I age, I find myself content with less risks. Why bother? Why indeed?

I read a magazine article recently about a women who lives in the country and started her own business of selling organic food, then expanded her catalog offerings to include everything about her country life, including home decorating accessories. She said that she realized there was a whole customer base out there that wanted the fantasy of living in the country on a farm without really living in the country on a farm. She said she was happily willing to fulfill that need. For her, though, she loved the reality of actually living in the country on a farm. There are apparently thousands of people out there who are vicarious farmers. (Take note, Caroline.)

I have had some rich experiences in my life, but some I passed up. In college, my music professor asked me to try out for the touring choir. I was too scared I wouldn’t make it that I didn’t even audition. He wanted me in it (he was the decider), and he did everything he could to get me to try out without guaranteeing I would be accepted. I just wanted that guarantee that I would not fail. I never did participate in touring choir. Oh, well, they went overseas and that would have scared me, too.

This week my dear friend Sally passed the Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam for which I have been so earnestly studying. I joked with her that maybe she could add my name to her test, and I could get the reward without the hard work. Alas, it was not to be. I’ll still have to take the test myself. But that will make the pleasure of passing it (I don’t even want to consider the alternative, but it’s there, of course) all the greater.

Ed and I are seeking contentment. Every once in a while, the contentment becomes too easy and it’s time to push ourselves again. I really don’t want the word “vicarious” to be in my obituary. (However, if you do put it in, you’d better at least spell it right.) If you ever feel I need a little shove, feel free. I've got a lot of livin' to do.

To Have and To Hold

One of my Internet friends recently posted about her experience of finding a stack of letters that she had written to her grandparents when she was a little girl. Judging by the excerpts she offered, the letters were poignant, funny, very affectionate, and must have been a cherished treat for the recipients, who wisely and fortunately kept them.

Somehow I just don’t think a stack of e-mails would have meant as much as the pages and pages of scrawled handwriting from a 7-year-old.

You know you’re getting older when you start complaining about the lost values of the good old days, denouncing what society and time have done to our old-fashioned traditions and art forms. I guess I’m joining the chorus of people bemoaning the loss of the handwritten letter - even as I obviously have to reluctantly admit that I am almost exclusively a keyboard writer. It’s not that I don’t want to send handwritten letters - I wish I could. The fact is that after all the years I’ve been typing my correspondence, my penmanship has become virtually illegible! What is that saying? Use it or lose it? As part of that scenario, I have obviously learned to value immediate transmission over days of postal transit, clarity over character, and - my favorite - ability to edit with a few keystrokes over erasing, drawing lines through, or - horrors! - starting the whole thing over.

But in the process of changing the way I communicate, I regret what I have lost. I don’t have letters I wrote to my grandparents, but I have letters I wrote home from college, and letters my parents wrote to me while I was away during my one-year attempt at formal higher education. Around the time I first started this blog, as a part of our simplification process, I chose to go through all the things I had saved from my past to weed out what was not extremely meaningful, and I ended up posting about my dad’s letters to me. They were written on church bulletins, which, of course, lacked enough space to write a normal letter, so he would write in circles around the lines of text until there was no space left. (He was a choir director, and our lives revolved around church when I was growing up; he knew the bulletins were as much “news” as his circuitously written comments.) I get a thrill every time I see something in my dad’s handwriting. I recognize it immediately. He made every cursive capital “E” with somewhat of a flourish, and frequently he signed things with his initials, “iet” - then circled it as one entity. It’s hard to do that on a computer. On some of the bulletins, my mom even wrote a sentence or two, in her own distinctive handwriting.

When I was in the beginning stages of wanting to know everything about Abraham Lincoln (probably in junior high), I bought a reproduction of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s now familiar handwriting. The printed version is just not the same. Ed and I watched a documentary on Mark Twain last night - and marveled at how centuries of authors have written their books in longhand, word after word, page after page. I can barely make a legible grocery list.

Today, I send e-mails (which contain information that can be saved, but not in an aesthetically pleasing way) and make phone calls (which are only saved if I leave a message), and, of course, I post in this blog, which is, in a paradoxical way, the most permanent and transient of communications. I type out my Christmas letter every year, and I have concluded that I stick a family picture in each envelope as a personal touch to lessen my guilt over the accompanied computer-generated correspondence. I make my own greeting cards, it’s true. But I make them with software and I print them off on my ink-jet printer. My real kudos go to people like my daughter-in-law, who does hands-on scrapbooking with paper and glue and - yes - real handwriting. There's something appealing to be able to hold a message in your hand, inhale its accompanying scent, run your fingers over the words, and maybe even to pick it up again and again to read with renewed pleasure.

Ed says every gift comes with a curse and vice versa, and herein lies the dilemma. I generate with care my blog posts every week, in the same old font, the same old format, with the only individuality being in the words and thoughts themselves. My handwriting is not involved. I don’t sign my initials and circle them, nor do I craft the eccentric capital E’s that occasionally I have done through the years, subconsciously as a tribute to my father. Nobody will print off my blog on pretty stationery and wrap its pages up in velvet ribbon and put it in their treasure chest for posterity. Yet, without access to this form of communication, how would I have had my words read in China by Doug? How would I have come in contact with some of my Internet acquaintances that I have met through this medium? Without the ability to craft essays with the ease of a keyboard and screen, would I have had the self-discipline to sit down and write my thoughts out in longhand on a regular basis? I think not.

I was asked recently if I anticipated that my blog would serve as a legacy for my grandchildren. I certainly hope so. But this week I'm wondering whether I shouldn’t throw a few handwritten letters in the pot, too. Now that's something to really "hand" down.


Backgrounds don’t get the attention they deserve. Take music, for instance. You can buy a CD with a featured famous singer, but whoever notices the musicians supporting her/him in the background? Yet, what would the soloist be without all that support?

CDs are the least of my worries, though. My personal ongoing frustration involves backgrounds in photographs. Those who know me well are aware that I take a lot of digital pictures. I will soon have almost 20,000 photos in my iPhoto library on my computer. I can attest that it is very difficult for me, as an amateur photographer, to find a good background. It’s something that has always bugged me.

For Caroline’s 4th birthday party, Rachel chose the theme of “books.” She had books displayed around the house, gave books as favors, asked for book donations for United Way, and she wanted a picture of Caroline reading a book to display on the party invitations. I sent her over a hundred pictures from my collection of Caroline reading books, looking at books, and carrying books. Out of all those photographs, she ended up choosing one taken on her front porch, because, as she said, “the background was decent. All the other pictures had messy backgrounds.” (You know - the usual house clutter. Usually my house.)

In my last post, I decried the subtle use of photo manipulation to drop 10 pounds off the subject because it was not a “true” picture. Using that argument, a messy background in a candid picture is really a “true” picture - but, of course, not an aesthetically pleasing one.

I make sure to take a family photograph for our Christmas letter every year. There are always the usual annoying things to deal with - getting a picture with everyone looking at the camera, keeping little ones happy, deciding what to wear, how I can best hide in the back somewhere - but the most aggravating thing is wondering where to stage the photo. I never can find a good background. That’s usually because - well - our house is lived in. It’s not a showplace. It’s not a magazine spread. And it’s definitely not a studio.

The outdoors can provide a lovely background. For some reason, though, nobody wants our Christmas picture taken with everyone bundled up in coats, standing outside in cold Maine weather with frozen smiles on their faces. (You have to admit, though, that’s realism at its best.)

Rachel recently took the girls to a department store photography studio. The photographer spent the whole time trying to get the girls to smile (waving Elmo at them) and directing them to sit up straight, shoulders back, heads not tilted, etc. Rachel said every time Caroline was ordered to change one thing in her posture, something else went awry. It was a very anxiety-provoking and tense situation for everyone involved.

It stands to reason that the best person to direct a family photograph is the family photographer - and that’s me. This background problem frustrates me. I have everything else I need. I have decent photography skills. I have an adequate camera. I have a tripod. I have some idea of balance and lighting and all that sort of thing. I have photogenic subjects. I just lack the background. I think there are probably a lot of people in my situation.

So here’s my idea. I think every mall ought to have a studio for rent by half-hour increments. The studio should contain all the accoutrements of a professional photographer’s studio - the steps, benches, cushions, and chairs, the lights, the cute little accessories like teddy bears and so on - but most of all, those great backgrounds, like the billowing white curtain, the professional gray screen, and the pull-down seasonal backdrops. The client brings the camera and the family. There is minimal set-up cost for the rental agency, as they don't have the expense of cameras and paid staff. It would be more relaxing for the people being photographed without a stranger poking and prodding and cajoling and barking orders. You have to admit - relaxed family members make better photographs.

I believe I’ve covered most everything. Oh yes - one wall would have to be a giant window, where mall shoppers can enjoy watching the amateur attempts - and make sure“indecent” photographers find the studio an irresistible setting for their craft.

I think my idea has merit. Ed, of course, thinks it’s unfeasible. I won’t go into his list of reasons here. Suffice it to say he has never had to coordinate a family photo. So if you have money to invest in this studio-rental project, contact me ASAP. Christmas is only 7 months away.

Something to digest

Fat has been in my head all week - I guess you could call me a fathead. Have you ever had the feeling that there is some undercurrent of significance at play when you find yourself out of the blue reading about certain topics over and over without meaning to?

It first started when we came across articles and books detailing what is wrong with the way we eat in this country, in addition to, of course, what we eat, why we eat, and whatever other adverb you’d like to insert. It is generally accepted that the USA has a long way to go. We eat too much fast food, too much fake food, too many preservatives and chemicals, and our food travels thousands of unnecessary miles to our plates. While other countries take hours for a meal, we feel that we need to finish ours in minutes. While some countries are lacking food, ours is on the whole overfed yet malnourished (because of the quality of food we eat). We’ve become so big as individuals that when they renovated Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, they tried to keep it authentic to how it looked in Lincoln's day, but had no choice but to widen all the seats to accommodate our modern bodies. That’s pretty sad, when you think of the expansive dresses they wore back then, isn’t it?

OK, so Ed and I started discussing our food supply and eating habits, and then, when I was perusing a gadget catalog, I noticed a T-shirt that said, “I’m not fat - I’m AMERICAN!”

The next thing we read was that in Formosa, the parents have historically instructed their children to eat until they were 85% full, and no more. That way, they avoided the obesity that has plagued the USA - where, as Ed chuckled, our parents were telling us to clean our plates because “children were starving in China.” Some of them weren’t starving - they were just being taught to eat sensibly, while we were getting fat, trying to finish off “their” food.

So where does this rambling lead? To an e-mail I received the other day. For some reason, this e-mail brought together every book, every magazine article, every piece of information about fat that has crossed my life this week. The e-mail was from Hewlett Packard, and they were announcing their latest camera - it makes you skinny. I’m not kidding. It comes with some kind of software in the camera itself called a “slimming” option. Here is their spiel:

They say cameras add ten pounds, but HP digital cameras can help reverse that effect. The slimming feature, available on select HP digital camera models, is a subtle effect that can instantly trim off pounds from the subjects in your photos!
With the slimming feature, anyone can appear more slender—instantly.
• The effect is subtle—subjects still look like themselves
• Can be adjusted for a more dramatic effect
• See a before and after version, then decide which to keep

Has it come to this? I know photo manipulation has been used in the ad industry for a long time - and I have used it myself on a few occasions to remove errant bra straps and such - but really, do we need to have a slimming feature in our cameras? Can we not even take an honest photo - is it just too real?

I, for one, will not buy it. I will not “touch up” a candid photo of myself. I choose the cheaper, more sensible, more authentic method. If I don’t like it, I delete it. (This is why there are very few pictures of me in my collection. I don’t like most of them.) Of course, the catch is - I’m forced to lose weight the old-fashioned way. Sigh. I’ll just consider it my sacrifice for integrity.

Big Kudos to Publix!

I read in the newspaper this morning that Publix has now converted all of it's generic brand milk to hormone-free! Woo Hoo! AND, they aren't even changing the price. Even sweeter!

Part of my simplicity journey is about living consciously. Frugal, sure, but conscious- that's the key. Living "simple" to me doesn't have a lot to do with money. Well, it has a lot to do with money in the aspect that by changing the way I live, I change the way I spend, but what I mean is that it's not *all* about saving money. It's about being WISE with my money.

Anyway, back to the conscious part.

One of my biggest goals is to buy/eat more local produce and "natural" foods. I would rather eat less and and have quality, healthy foods than to eat more and it just be junk.

So thanks Publix! You've appealed to my quest for healthy as well as helped my featherweight purse. But really, this is just step 1. What I'd love to end up doing is buying local milk. I'll get there. Slow and steady.