The Brain Spectrum Between Fake and Real

Maybe I’m missing the whole point. But I think I get it…and I don’t get it. What’s with all the hullabapoo over this “lifestyle porn” thing plaguing and rumbling many of my Facebook friends? In my humble opinion, it’s about people creating a perception of who they want the world to think they are. Think about that.

We’re all guilty. I’m absolutely guilty.

Long before there were blogs or Photoshop to create these perceptions and spread them around, I owned a private photo studio specializing in children and family portraiture. Over twenty-plus years I had some fun clients like Gap and Nordstrom. I even did some work for Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. But the bulk of my business came from locals who wanted me to create an image of their family for them to share with the people they cared about.

It was my great joy to do so.

But sometimes families with six, eight, ten kids would appear all dressed like they were ready for the cover of Vogue. I’d do a quick calculation and realize they’d spent at least $400 to dress each member. That meant thousands of dollars had been invested just in the coordinated wardrobe—oft times more. Sometimes this was for real, but sometimes…

“Excuse me,” the mother or father would whisper, “but can you hide the price tags? We’re taking all of this stuff back as soon as the photo shoot is over.” (Nordstrom, my employer, had a very lenient return policy)

I felt like I was being dragged into something deceitful, if not dishonest.

I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence. It wasn’t.

I wish I could say I refused. I didn’t. I did talk it over with my manager who only shrugged.

By the last few years of my profession, I was a somewhat jaded by the whole appearance thing. By then I’d photographed thousands of families who were kind and generous. When they sat before my lens it didn’t matter what they wore. They were beautiful people because they were genuine. Their love for one another shone through. Then they’d be the families that were unkind to each other, unkind to me, unkind period. But oh, how they wanted the world to see them as successful and loving. They were dressed, coiffured, and made up. They posed just right and beamed on cue. And yes, they looked good on film.

I closed my studio more than ten years ago, so I’d put those people away with my old Hasselblad equipment until all of this “lifestyle porn” stuff surfaced. I realized then that my experiences were relevant to the work I’m now doing—brain studies. Here’s what I discovered: We’ve got two recently discovered regions in our brains that help us process fact from fiction—the anterior medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulated cortices. fMRI data registers activity in these regions during autobiographical memory retrieval and self-referential thinking. That means our brains inherently tend to believe what’s real over what’s not. Good news.

Navigate this tricky part with me. We can change our brains by telling ourselves something over and over. So when we “appear” to be something and pretend to be something that we’re not, we confuse our own thinking.

This isn’t always a bad thing. It works for positive affirmations. We tell ourselves that we can accomplish something until we accomplish it. Bravo! But…when we tell ourselves that the doctored image that we send out into the world is real, we reshape neuropathways and alter the shape of cells, not to mention our lives. We deceive not only our friends and neighbors, but also ourselves.

But it goes deeper than that.

Why in the world do we think that we need to be something that we aren’t? What if the whole world just stopped faking it? What if we admitted that being married is very, very hard? That being single is hard too? What if we admitted that parenthood is colored in something duller than bliss? What if we talked honestly about the weight of debt? What if we told the world that we’re disappointed in life? And in ourselves?

What if we exhibited the confidence and worth to cry for help? What if we posted reality?

Oh, yeah. Never mind. I know what would happen because it’s happened. When people post the truth, things get uncomfortable. We ask, “Why on earth would someone post something like that?” And so we generally turn away. It’s easier to look at smiling, fit success than it is to look at weeping, muddled struggle. It’s how we’ve trained our brains.

Big sigh here because my brain hurts and my heart hurts. I don’t know the solution.

I only know that it’s exhausting to pretend for the sake of appearance. Frankly, I’m reached the age and wrinkled stage when I’m gonna put my resources elsewhere. Love me for who I am, or don’t love me at all.

I guess that’s what my rant is all about today. I want you to wrap your arms around yourselves and accept you for who you are now. Not who you used to be or will be. Extend that same unconditional love to others. Even to those who are still “posing to pretend.” And I’m going to ask you to think about how this world would change if we could learn to relate to each other in “real” time and “real” ways…if we could cut the crap and get to the heart. You know when you hear a story or see a face and your limbic system lights up with “ME TOO! ME TOO!” That’s the reality that connects humanity. Phoniness drives us apart. Friends, there’s room for all of us. And all of our flaws. There’s love enough if we’ll let it be enough.

That said, I’ve got a confession to make about where I fall on the fake spectrum. Sometimes I Photoshop my images (mostly my booty, but sometimes the bags beneath my eyes). And I might as well tell you the story behind the above photo. It’s NOT the Christmas card image I sent out for the world to see a few years back. That one was of my six kids standing still and smiling. This one—the real one—is the shot when Dallas made a snowball, aimed and fired at his brother Collin, but hit his sister Devyn smack in the face instead.

THIS one is precious to our family because it’s a recording of the “real” us. I didn’t send it out because it wasn’t picture perfect. Now, that I’ve learned some of the lessons I’ve learned, I kinda, sorta wish I had.

And I wish that we could start a dialogue about the freedom of reality. Maybe you could even include some images and stories of your own. That would be nothing shy of wonderful.

Meet My Friend Margaret

This is Margaret. She is one of my great blessings and cherished friends. If I could, I’d give all of you a friend as dear as Margaret. If I searched every dictionary out there, I still couldn’t find the words to express how much she means to me. I suppose that’s because friendship isn’t measured in words…it’s measured in memories.

Margaret and I go way back through a lifetime of memories. I was still a teenager when she was my university professor. Then she became my mentor. Then a mother to an orphaned me. And now a friend who doesn’t spare my feelings to let me know what I’m doing wrong and how I can improve.

Margaret believes in me. She prays for me. She calls me to ask, “How are you doing?” (WHO does that?)

A true friend never shades you, never stands in that little ray of light that life’s directed right at you…they step back so you can grow, but stay close so you know you’re not alone. Margaret has not only done that, she’s brought the light when my world was nothing but darkness.

She and I could not be more different. She comes from a different family background, a different economic standing, a different faith, and our politics collide. Her life’s experiences in no way mirror mine. Yet we’ve forged an inexplicable friendship, and I just want to share her wonderfulness with you. With the whole wide world.

When I think of my friends I think of each as a unique flower that makes for a beautiful garden…a sanctuary of sorts where I go to for safety, love, peace and inspiration. Oh, and truckloads of laughter and fun. Friendship is my refuge and my rescue.

Yesterday after lunch at PF Changs, Margaret cracked open her fortune cookie and laughed. It read: The best years of your life are ahead of you.

I cried. You see, even though she doesn’t look like it, and most assuredly doesn’t act like it, Margaret is well past 90. So I’m just hoping beyond hope that fortune cookies don’t lie. And I’m hoping that you’ll take the time and make the effort today, to connect with a flower in your friendship garden…bring it water, bring it light, bring it love. That’s how gardens grow, my friend. And you all make mine beautiful.

Your Brain On Christmas Crack

A cherished friend of mine is battling cancer this holiday season. I hate cancer. So I’m done buying it snacks and showing up every day to hand feed it. And I’m going to repeat a story you’ve probably heard, hoping it will save you from the suffering my friend is enduring.

A wise Cherokee chief was teaching his son about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil; He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
“The other is good: He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandfather looked into the eyes of his little grandson and said, “This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”

The old chief said, “The one you feed.”

What does this have to do with cancer and Christmas? Cancer loves to eat two of the most popular things we produce during the holidays: sugary treats and stress.

“The other white powder” has a couple of things in common with crack cocaine: it’s deadly and addictive. Refined sugar shows up in over 80 percent of the foods we choose to eat, and yes, cancer cells gobble it up.

Lab rats that were fed a 30-day diet of Christmas cookies, candies, cakes, pies, and donuts (fructose fueled foods) not only showed cognitive impairment (they couldn’t remember how to get out of their maze), they became depressed and lethargic and sick. While you can’t grow cancer cells with sugar, or kill cancer cells with sugar deprivation, you can increase the risk of certain cancers, not to mention obesity and diabetes which both make you more cancer susceptible.

I’m on a campaign to change my own neglected life. I want to live to see my children raise my grandchildren, like little Nellie who is in this photo with my son Collin, as Santa. My health is now my priority. That’s a complete change in my life. I’m still fat as Santa Claus, but every day when I remember which wolf I’m feeding, it makes it easier to make the wisest choice.

So next time you’re craving something sweet, reach for nature’s treat—a piece of fruit with plenty of fiber to help balance your blood sugar.

And while you’re stressing about decorations, gifts, parties, money and relationships this holiday season, think about this—stress causes the over production and release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters that not only damage your neurons, they influence the development of cancer cells.

What starts in the brain ends up in the body. That’s why your thoughts can lead to illness and migraines…you can’ t think a thought without producing a chemical reaction. It’s a fact.

So relax and release stress. Release the right kind of chemicals by thinking peaceful, powerful thoughts. Focus on what matters and let go of what doesn’t. Choose healthy, whole foods over snacks made of sugar and flour. And please, in the true spirit of Christmas, gather the people you love most and cherish them fiercely—starting with that precious soul in the mirror. I want you to be around next year so we can celebrate when my Santa suit doesn’t fit quit snug.

LINKS:

Rock CL, et al. Nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2012;62:243.

 

Kushi LH, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2012;62:30.

 

What you need to know about cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/overview/allpages. Accessed Dec. 3, 2013.

The REAL Santa

So I met the real Santa Claus the other day. He was taking a quick break from his shift at the mall, sneaking out the back way because kids were still lined up and his bladder was about the burst.

“Santa, you got a minute?”

“Not really,” he said, bouncing on the tips of his boots.

“I’ve just got a quick question,” I pestered. “I’ll walk you to the restroom and keep aggressive kids at bay.”

“Fine.”

“So how’d you get to be the real Santa?” I asked.

He turned his head so fast I saw the elastic string used to tie his beard tight. The guy had dark stubble beneath all the snowy white.

“What are you, a wise guy?”

“I guess,” I said. “I’m a writer, and I noticed the sign in front of your North Pole photo display.”

We both glanced past the gingerbread wall at the sign that, in bold red letters, declared: The REAL Santa.

His bells jingled as he hurried through the curious crowd. I had to jog to keep pace.

“Listen,” he said, “if you want to know how I got the job, I’ll tell you. My brother used to have it. Then he died and they gave it to me. Big bellies run in our family.”

I felt a little foolish for even asking, but I was curious. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ve been trying to feel the spirit of the season. When I spotted your sign, I figured you’d have some insight on the real deal.”

We were almost to the restroom. He paused long enough to nod in my direction. “You got kids?”

“A houseful,” I said and something pricked my heart.

He lowered his voice and crooked his finger so I’d lean in to hear. “I’m not sure what you’re after, but I’ll tell you this—I’m not the real Santa. You are.”

Right then two little boys came tumbling out the restroom door, twins about four years old. They made a beeline for the man in red while I ambled back the way we’d come.

I was searching my brain, trying to fine some profound meaning in Santa’s two-word response. That’s when I stopped right in front of the Christmas display, complete with gingerbread siding, synthetic snow, a camera and a big ol’ digital printer, and the empty red throne waiting for Santa.

The line coiled all around the North Pole display. Little kids, big kids, babies, and in-between kids. Some dressed right off a Gap Kids cover, others looking like they’d just rolled outta bed. They were with parents trying to hold hands sticky from the free candy canes elves were passing out. One mother clutched both a toddler and an infant, squirming and crying, but matched perfected in red and green stripes. A grandma looked weary and threatened coal if her grandson got out of line “one more time.”

Then above all the bustle, I heard, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Santa was back. He jingled and jollied his way to his chair while elves hurried to snatch credit cards from adults’ outstretched hands. Twenty bucks for a snapshot of their precious little one on Santa’s lap. But the first little girl in line was having none of it. She writhed and screamed like she was about to get immunization shots.

“Mommy!” she screamed.

Her mother bribed her, threatened her, then finally hid out of the way, just around the corner of the gingerbread wall.

That’s when my answer began to come. That’s when I realized what Santa meant.

I kept watching and sure enough, the scene repeated. When children went to have their photo taken, the adult that brought them, the one that loved them so very much, stepped out of the way, right smack dab in front of the sign that declared: The REAL Santa.

The truth was so Christmassy plain and perfect…even I got it.

And I think you will too.

 

Some People You Might Want To Thank This Season

This is so incredibly cool. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the “spirit of Thanksgiving” before. I mean, it’s not really about food, is it? Crap. All these years I’ve missed the joy that I’m feeling this season. Oh sure, I know the 1621 story of the Colonists and the Wampanoag Native Americans (only because I looked it up). I stick a fake turkey on my entryway table. And every year at the dinner table we bow our heads and give thanks, then we circle around one-by-one citing something for which we are thankful—all before we dig into a feast of a million calories.

But I’m feeling something novel this season. I’m feeling thankful. And grateful. My heart’s a little tender because my mind has been dwelling on people who have blessed my life and the lives of my loved ones. The photo is of my son, Collin, when he was in elementary school. Creative teachers morphed him into a pilgrim. They taught him history. I’m grateful for teachers who care about kids.

Which leads me to this…a different type of gratitude list. Hopefully, this one will do for you what it did for me…conjure up some pretty terrific memories and instill a sense of debt deep within the soul. All for people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. All kinds of people.

Granted, some of the folks on my list are dead, so thanking them gets a little tricky. But not really. I carry the memories of my parents and grandparents. I share stories about them with my kids. Every year my daughter makes Grandma’s walnut pie. Tradition lives on.

You might have to dig into your past to link back up with some people like former teachers, mentors and benefactors. That’s okay. If you can’t reach them by phone, email or social media, you can drop a snail mail note, or just send them positive energy. It works. Good thoughts have connective power. Good thoughts have the power to turn a mundane holiday into a gratitude feast!

I wish I’d gotten into the festive spirit of Thanksgiving long ago. But Thanksgiving isn’t a time for regret…it’s a time for remembering and realizing that there is always, always someone for which to be grateful.

Here’s a possibility pool:

  1. The woman who gave birth to you
  2. The man you call Dad
  3. The one who taught you to pray
  4. A neighbor who loaned you what you lacked
  5. The person who taught you to ride a bike
  6. Someone who makes you laugh out loud
  7. Your best secret keeper
  8. The friend who forgets your darkest past
  9. A grandparent who nurtured you in any way
  10. Someone who cooked you a meal
  11. A reader who shared a great book with you
  12. Someone who pardoned your error and didn’t bring it up again
  13. Whoever once helped you clean your room
  14. Anyone who helps you feel safe and secure
  15. The person who gave you your first job
  16. A doctor or nurse who cared for you when you were hurt or sick
  17. The God who gives you everything
  18. An aunt or uncle who has been your advocate
  19. The person who introduced you to Shakespeare
  20. A dance partner
  21. The one who helped you mend a broken heart
  22. Someone who took you to a ballgame
  23. Whoever washed and ironed your clothes
  24. A cousin you love
  25. Whoever taught you to drive (or to drive a stick)
  26. Karaoke partner
  27. Whoever gave you a cherished pet
  28. Someone who cleaned up a mess you made
  29. The person you kissed in the rain
  30. Your typing teacher
  31. The one who held you when you cried
  32. A road tripping partner
  33. A hiking buddy
  34. Anyone who lightened your load
  35. Someone who held your hair back while you puked
  36. The person who pushed you highest on a swing
  37. Whoever taught you to whistle
  38. Your shenanigan partner
  39. Someone who chastened you because you deserved it
  40. Someone who loaned you money
  41. Whoever taught you to tie your shoes
  42. The person you call your best friend
  43. The person you consider your first friend
  44. A sibling you could be closer to
  45. A soldier
  46. A preacher
  47. Someone who helped you study for a test
  48. A music teacher
  49. A nemesis who teaches you about yourself
  50. The God to whom we all owe our all…He deserves a double mention!

 

100 Unlikely Things To Be Thankful For

I’ve always thought that thankfulness is expressed in words, while gratitude requires action…deeds…we’ve got to do something or it’s not true gratitude. My deed is to drag out this image of my son Eli and our neighbor’s turkey Gobbles. Rest assured no turkey was harmed in the taking of this photo, but the deranged look in little Eli’s eyes is what draws me in, knowing that his gentle soul would never harm a living thing, makes me laugh. I share it with you because it means a lot to me and so do you…all of YOU who sacrifice 90 seconds of your day to read my blog. I’m grateful. Thank you!

To get the holiday week in gear, I came up with a list of things that I have no business taking for granted. Most of them are not typical items on a “thankful for” list, so I hope that a quick read will generate your own thoughts, and I hope you’ll take a few seconds to share with us what you are thankful for.

  1. Tweezers
  2. Public libraries
  3. TED Talks
  4. Friends who have more than you do, and are willing to share
  5. Mentors to you and to those you love
  6. Teachers and all smart people
  7. Anything or anyone that makes you laugh
  8. Antibiotics
  9. Duct Tape
  10. Science and its discoveries
  11. Children’s picture books
  12. Flush toilets
  13. Exercise
  14. Heat
  15. Grocery stores
  16. Toilet paper
  17. An accessible God
  18. Aviation
  19. Opportunities
  20. Clean sheets
  21. Windex (trust me, we’ll get to this later)
  22. Memories
  23. Mother Eve’s courage
  24. Toothbrushes
  25. Fly swatters
  26. Refrigeration
  27. Someone who listens to you, really listens to you
  28. Forgiveness
  29. Our ability to change
  30. Movement, all kinds of movement
  31. Books
  32. Ancestors
  33. Bubbles (Don’t ya just love bubbles?)
  34. Fresh fruit
  35. Zoos
  36. Auto mechanics
  37. Karma
  38. Silence
  39. Mountain trails
  40. Good, brave cops
  41. Differences
  42. Music
  43. Balls, the kind that bounce
  44. Snow capped mountains
  45. All forms of freedom and the soldiers who fight for ours
  46. Self-discipline
  47. Phones
  48. Miracles
  49. Clean warm showers and baths
  50. Technology
  51. Flowers
  52. Farmers
  53. Sleep
  54. Intuition
  55. Order
  56. Dance
  57. Photographs
  58. Transportation
  59. Chairs
  60. Pillows
  61. Dishwashers
  62. Schools
  63. The movies
  64. Toys and games
  65. Light and darkness
  66. Animals
  67. Sun, moon and stars
  68. Faith
  69. Internet
  70. Baby diapers and wet wipes
  71. Travel
  72. Your brain
  73. Your body
  74. Mother Earth
  75. Your health
  76. Medicine
  77. Stories
  78. Storms and rainbows
  79. Second Chances
  80. Sunrises and sunsets
  81. Beaches
  82. Human touch
  83. Doctors
  84. Waterfalls
  85. Clean blank sheets of paper
  86. Paint
  87. Carpet
  88. Mirrors
  89. Safe drinking water
  90. Children, everything about them
  91. Healing
  92. Unpolluted air
  93. Honesty in people
  94. Colors
  95. Progress
  96. Museums
  97. Abundance
  98. Children’s playgrounds
  99. Love in its endless forms
  100. This very moment

This Might Just Make You Happier Than You’ve Been In A Long Time

This is my precious G-baby, Adelaide. We like to swing together, so this week while I’m pumping my way to the sky she says to me, “Did you feel that? Something just sprayed me.”

We’re in a forest in Florida so it could be anything, but I go with, “It’s probably just tree sap.”

“Or bird sweat. It could be bird sweat!” Her shout startles a flock of fowl skyward.

“Or bird sweat,” I concede.

We swing side by side for a few more pumps when a warm, wet glob plops down on my forehead. While I’m wiping it away lil’ Miss A turns to me and makes a face. “I know what it is, G-Mom.”

I don’t even dare to ask.

“It’s squirrel pee. It’s raining squirrel pee!”

Mercy me! Squirrel pee.

I start to giggle. Then I laugh. And then I’m happier than I’ve been in a very long time.

Know why? Because I’m feeding my brain all the good stuff. Look up a hormone called prolactin. It’s usually associated with female milk production, but since my lactating days have long since dried up, this is the cranial magic that breaks down barriers between individuals and allows us to bond. Mother/baby, G-Mom/G-baby, Stranger/Friend, etc.

We humans are not meant to live life solo. We’re meant to bond by dancing and singing and thriving in tribes. Survival depends on it.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, my heart is with my “tribe.” It’s also with those who are without a tribe. I’ve been there. I was raised in foster care. Some homes made me feel welcome and safe. Others made sure I felt isolated and inferior.

No child should ever feel those feelings or be that vulnerable to predators.

So here’s what I hope we’ll do this week. I hope we’ll seek for ways to include others. It’s not hard to find lonely people. They’re on the streets, in nursing homes, and in our own homes. Next I hope we’ll find a way to better bond with each other. To pardon old trespasses once and for all. I hope that we’ll invest in experiences rather than things. Make memories. Shop. Cook. Create. Laugh. Reminisce. TOGETHER!

Nourish our bodies with healthy food and our brains with healthy neurotransmitters that come from bonding, laughing, being grateful—from tossing stress out with that nasty, soggy little giblets package you find when you violate a turkey’s cavity by sticking your hand where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s the deal. You are meant to be happy. You deserve to be happy. Happiness thrives when it is shared. So I pray that you’ll find yourself showered this holiday week with unexpected delights. Maybe not squirrel pee, but then again…it worked wonders for me.