Reaching Costco Nirvana

My new favorite cereal costs twelve dollars a box.  


That’s $12–not $1.20.  Yep, “expensive” cereal has jumped from six dollars a box to twelve dollars a box—only a one hundred percent increase.  Why?  

Because people like me will pay it.  

Why will I pay it?

Because I’m forty-six years old and it’s sold at Costco.  And buying that cereal is my way of going back and assuring my broke, twenty-six year old self—who couldn’t even afford a Costco card—that cleaning other people’s toilets while nine months pregnant was worth it.  (We were apartment managers in a sketchy Portland neighborhood. Our car got stolen the first night we were there. But that’s this whole other story.)

Some people feel they’ve “made it” when they buy a big house or take a cruise; I feel I’ve made it when I buy a twelve-dollar box of cereal at Costco.  Because in my post-apartment-managing mind (which is also riddled with PTSD), a twelve-dollar box of cereal is a luxury reserved for the wealthy—which, if I buy it, obviously includes me.  

This logic applies to all of my Costco purchases.  The more overpriced junk I buy, the more fully I feel that I’ve arrived.  Last week I found myself—the mom who’s always researched recipes, made weekly menus, typed up shopping lists and then hauled my three kids to myriad stores to find the best deal—pulling pre-made meals out of the Costco cooler and tossing them into my cart.  Pre-made, people. I used to coupon, for Pete’s sake.  What had I become?  Not just glamorous and glitzy (though there’s certainly that)  but also lazy and careless. Much as I’d like to blame this buying-instead-of-cooking on getting older and savvier, the hard truth is that I’m also getting older and lazier, at about the same rate.  Am I proud of this newfound apathy? No. Am I too old and lazy to change it? You bet I am.   


Which barcode sounds good for dinner, dear?

When I was twenty-six, I knew plenty of forty-six year-old mothers who refused to cook for their families; they even seemed proud of it.  “I don’t cook for my kids anymore,” they’d announce, shaking their heads, “it’s just not worth it.” I’d smile and nod while judging them ferociously.  What kind of mother doesn’t cook for her children?  I’d think, my whole twenty-six years brimming with indignation.  Doesn’t she care if her kids eat?  

Now that I’m forty-six, I understand:  NO.  AS A MATTER OF FACT SHE DOES NOT CARE IF HER KIDS EAT.  Because her kids will no longer give her the stinking time of day.  Her kids don’t even show up til after ten most nights.  The years of mommy-coddling-littles are long gone; it’s blood-for-blood with these teenagers now.

Add to that the New Money Factor (see:  twelve dollar box of cereal) and you have the perfect formula for spending money instead of time on our children.  It gets a bad rap in certain parenting circles, but we Costco moms know better.  Some things just work:  Ungrateful kids + crappy reheated food  = more Netflix time for us.  

So the next time our teen comes tromping through the front door wailing “Mom, I’m STARRRRVING!  What’s for dinner?”  we will be justified in our smiling reply:  “Cereal, darling.”  And if they say Cereal? Again?” we’ll simply point to the cost and say “See how much Mommy loves you?  Twelve whole dollars worth, that’s how much!”  

They might have a rebuttal here—something about health and nutrition and a mother’s loving care and blah blah blah, but we won’t have to hear it because we’ll already have Netflix cued up and turned up—way, way up.  The kids can fend for themselves; The Crown starts in November.  I’m just saying.

Look at the ceiling, not the bar.

This morning I engaged in Day Two of Weightlifting.  It was big day for me, because:

I made it past Day One.  

I’ve read all kinds of exciting things about how building muscle will strengthen my bones, straighten my spine and burn my fat.  We’ll see.  

Right now it feels like I’m ten years old again, using my noodly arms to shove my brother off when he’d sit on my chest and hock a loogy in my face. (He thought this was funny.  It would have been, had it not been so abusive.)

Lying on the bench, pushing the weight of the bar (yes, just the bar) away from me, I took care to follow the manual’s strict instructions to focus my gaze on the ceiling:

 the trainer said, look at the ceiling and just see the bar.  The bar moves and the ceiling does not, and the ceiling is therefore your position reference for the bar.  

In other words, I was allowed a glimpse of the bar out of the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t allowed to focus on it.  This was tricky; how was I supposed to move the bar without even looking at it?  

If I could stare that bar down—eye of the tiger and all that—surely I could beat it.  Wasn’t that why people stared themselves down in the mirrors at the gym—to size up the challenge?  Locking your gaze on the target feels good. But then the trainer went on to say this, and I’m not even making the all-caps part up:

DO NOT look at the bar as it moves; DO NOT follow the bar with your eyes, but just stare at the ceiling.  You are going to make the bar go to that place every rep. 

Man this trainer was bossy.  But since he’s ripped and I’m me, I decided to give him his say.  I looked at the ceiling, not the bar, and pushed. And then I pushed again, and again—all while keeping my gaze fixed on the ceiling.  And guess what? My noodly arms were able to get that bar to the exact same place every single time.  

I’d thought the bar was the thing, but it wasn’t.  The ceiling was the thing.  

And later (while mopping my floor, natch) it dawned on me:  I am the bar. I am the bar.  Not as long and slender, perhaps, but the bar nonetheless.


So if I am the bar, what is the ceiling?  Well, that’s a loaded question. (Forgive the pun; we “load” weights on barbells.  Okay, we don’t, but other people do.  I load nothing because I can barely lift the bar.)  But in short: if I am the bar, then the ceiling is whatever I’m aiming for.  

It’s simple.  Except it’s not.

Because if I am the bar—not the ceiling—it means I have to look past myself to get to where I need to be.  Which is hard, because I’d really rather focus on myself, and only myself, all the time. (Have you noticed? I haven’t noticed if you’ve noticed; I’ve been too busy focusing on myself.)

Here’s a few examples:

Health.  The ceiling is my goal of health and strength, and my body is the bar—or tool—that allows me to obtain it.  So if I take my eye off the goal (health and strength) and cast it only to the tool (my body) my gaze lowers, my focus shifts, and I can’t get the bar—my body—anywhere.

This is why people who starve themselves to “get skinny” rarely stay that way; they focus on the tool instead of the goal; on their body instead of their health.  (It’s also why staring at your muscles in the gym mirror doesn’t do a whole lot to build them.)  

Learning.  When we learn for the sake of learning—not just for “self-improvement”—we look beyond ourselves and, almost accidentally, improve ourselves.  I’ve always thought that reading self-help books won’t improve us as much as reading good books will. If our aim is to really learn—not to pad ourselves with learning— then self-improvement will follow.  Because bar follows the ceiling.

Relationships.  This one’s tricky because it involves other, presumably flawed people  But when we choose to care more about the ceiling of our relationship than the bar of our own feelings (pride, victimhood, resentment), we set our sights higher and our feelings fall into their proper place.  

This doesn’t mean swallowing feelings to keep the peace; it means minimizing Self and maximizing Other.  (Other doesn’t necessarily mean others.  It means a goal other than Self.)  It means we turn away from the mirror and toward the relationship.  This takes discipline and humility and grit; it takes the best of our maturity.  But it’s the only way we can get out of the way, so the bar can follow the ceiling—so we can adjust our self to the relationship instead of adjusting the relationship to our self.  (Which never works anyway.)

 Me. (And maybe you.)  So this week, as I huff and grunt that big heavy bar toward the ceiling, I’m going to think about grunting my big heavy self—leaden with ego and indignation and self-pity—toward the ceiling too.  I’m going to stop staring at the Bar Of Me. Because there are better things to glorify.  

Sure, I’ll always be able to see the bar out of the corner of my eye, but that’s exactly how much emphasis it deserves in this upward push of life.  I am relevant to the push, I’d even say I’m crucial. But I am not the destination of the push. I am not the ceiling.

And thank goodness for that.

Re-post: A Case for Loneliness (and snozzberries.)

Originally posted 8/9/2015


Do you remember the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Mr. Wonka is showing the children his “lickable wallpaper?”   He points out each row of colorful fruit, excitedly explaining that oranges taste like oranges, strawberries taste like strawberries, and “snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”  His voice is giddy with the revelation.

Veruca Salt then replies, snotty as ever, “Snozzberries?  Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”

At this, Mr. Wonka cups her cheeks and then quietly delivers my favorite line of the movie—of any movie, really.  “We are the music makers,” he tells her, “and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Come on.  Does it get any better than that?  I don’t think Mr. Wonka was necessarily talking about music here.  But I do think he was talking about dreams.

The line is actually the first of a poem, “Ode” by English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy:

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;—

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

This poem, like all good poems, makes me a little sad.  Maybe it’s because along with music and dreams come words like lone and desolate; alongside maker and dreamer, we have loser and forsaker.  Maybe it’s because the movers and shakers soak up the pale moon, not the warm sun.  Or maybe it’s that despite all that loneliness—because of all that loneliness—they are the ones who, in the end, change the world.

Loneliness seems a terrible reward for changing the world.  But it has always been required for that particular feat, hasn’t it?  Maybe that’s the saddest truth of all.

Loneliness is only ever romantic in hindsight, when it’s endured long ago by someone else.  For the lonely here and now, it is empty and silent and shameful.  And unlike other human woes, loneliness gains no sympathy from its onlookers.  How could it?  The dreaded mark of loneliness is that it’s suffered alone.


But sometimes, I think, loneliness is on to something.  When we feel disconnected from the crowd and withdraw into ourselves—even (hopefully) for a short time—our mind may just be doing some different, deeper work that can only be done during the long days of Lonely.

When do you do your best thinking?  Your best dreaming?  Your best music-making, problem-solving, relationship-repairing work?  When you’re lonely.  Not just alone, but lonely.  Those ideas start percolating long before they’re put to paper and pen, days and weeks and months before that problem finds its solution.  Those ideas start to swell, bubble by tiny bubble, when we surrender to the sentence of loneliness.

Creativity, in its myriad forms, requires more than physical solitude every now and then because creativity can’t be called forth like a dog in the occasionally idle hour.  Creativity requires the ability—the learned skill—of detaching our minds from the peripheral buzz to explore the silent and sumptuous life of the imagination.  Unearthing it takes time and patience and yes, loneliness.  Because when we are lonely we are sadder but softer, quiet but curious, mournful but malleable.  When we are lonely, we listen.

Maybe to make the music, we must sit by the desolate stream.  Maybe to move the world, we must forsake what we once thought it was.  Questions that wilt under a bright sun can blossom under a pale moon.  Loneliness takes us there to answer them.

So if you are lonely, if you feel different, if you sense a gut-twisting gulf between yourself and Everybody Else, take heart, my world-forsaking friend.  You are simply wandering for a bit—as we all must wander for a bit—along that lone sea breaker, while your might and mind conspire to change the current of the world and the canvas of your world.  And change it you will, because you are the music maker.  And you, the dreamer of dreams.