Friday, May 24, 2013

Great news! Someone has great news! Too bad there's a 75% chance you will fuck it all up. THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.

Where the hell have I been?  Writing has been a supreme challenge lately.  I haven’t tackled anything new since doing WRITE CLUB in January, except for a few blog posts and a story for a birthday party.  The last two pieces I’ve performed here in Chicago were both written almost two years ago, so I’ve spent a good chunk of the last few months editing.  But my lack of fresh nonsense has left me a bit, well, creatively constipated.  I finally found myself with an unexpected day off and something inspiring to write about, so here goes.

My friend Jill and I recently spent a week in a dune shack on Cape Cod.  The shack was an experiment in time travel to some degree, as it had no electricity or running water. The basic amenities included a wood stove, two rock hard twin beds, a composting toilet, and a recently added porch with some decent Adirondack chairs.  There were seal sightings and drunken book burnings and we crashed a big gay bachelorette party in Provincetown, all of which will all be discussed in a separate post soon.  As serendipity with strangers is a recurring theme in my most cherished stories, this particular snippet was first on my list to share when I was again reunited with my computer.

On Thursday morning, I was attempting to knock off some of the daily shack maintenance chores.  I was out at the well, pumping water for washing dishes and armpits and such, when two hikers approached the front of the shack.  They called out, “Hey!  We don’t want to scare you!  But are we going the right way to see the water?”  Jill and I saw very few people out on the dunes during our week there, most just passed by with a friendly wave as their only acknowledgment.  I told them, yes, just a few yards up and over the next sand dune and they’d be at one with the ocean.  “Do you live here?” they inquired.  “Oh, God, no.  We’re from Chicago,” I replied, laughing at the notion that the shack could be our regularly scheduled reality.  “THAT’S HILARIOUS,” said one of the girls.  It all seemed pretty hilarious at that moment.  They agreed to stop by on their way back to Provincetown after they had some beach time.  

They made good on their word and after a brief bit of yelling back and forth across our back yard, we invited them to check out the shack.  We found out that Katie is from New Jersey, Shannon is from West Virginia, old friends on a girls trip to Provincetown, rounding out their stay with a hike through the dunes.  After a few easy laughs at the state of the shack, Katie suggested we all play Bananagrams, a game Jill and I weren’t familiar with, but we were more than willing to get our asses kicked by our new friends.  Throw in some trail mix, we had ourselves an impromptu Thursday afternoon word nerd deck party.  

We made the standard getting to know you jabber, discussing our jobs and our interests.  Shannon is a design consultant, making the world more beautiful, one room at at time.  Katie is working on a degree in positive psychology, using cognitive behavioral therapy to help soldiers reduce their levels of stress and depression.  We launched into a fascinating conversation about storytelling and related research on shame and vulnerability…we all agreed that it was divine intervention that they happened to wander by our dune porch on that morning.  In discussing communication skills in intimate relationships, Katie had some insights that have stuck with me and I immediately felt compelled to share them with others.  She told us that people gravitate towards the notion that the real test of a relationship is how your partner or friend treats you when times get rough.  Standing by people in the face of adversity is certainly important, but how that other person treats you in the face of good news is also pivotal, particularly in terms of initial reaction.  Katie explained that there are four common reactions to good news, and three of them cause more harm than good.  Katie had Jill present her with some good news, illustrating for us the four reactions.

Jill:  “We’re spending a week in a dune shack!”

Katie: “Huh.  That’s cool”.

The passive constructive response.  A conversational dead end, your good news has nowhere to go.  Thanks, Apathetic All Star!

Let’s try this again.

Jill:  “We’re spending a week in a dune shack!”
Katie:  “Hey, great.  Did I tell you about MY vacation plans?  I’m going to visit some friends in XYZ.”

The passive destructive response.  Your good news just got hijacked.  Thanks, It’s All About You!

And now for our third (and possibly worst) response.

Jill: “We’re spending the week in a dune shack!”
Katie:  “Why would you want to do that?  That seems like a weird plan. Have you really thought this over?”

The active destructive response.  Your good news just got shut down and shat upon, big time.  Thanks, Dream Crusher!

And finally, drum roll, please.  The response, we’ve all been waiting for….

Jill: “We’re spending the week in a dune shack!”
Katie:  “That’s great!  Where is it?  When are you going?  Do you have any pictures that I could look at?”

The active constructive response.  This response helps both people share the joy in the good news.  Through showing interest and approval, the connection between the two people is strengthened.  Trust! Intimacy! Bonding!  Woo hoo, NOW WE’RE COOKING WITH GAS, PEOPLE.

Putting it in these terms makes it seem pretty obvious, perhaps your initial impression is “Well, duh.”  But I was struck by how many times I’ve used one of the three wrong answers on others.  Instigated by distraction, by jealousy, by insecurity, you name it.  Sometimes this sort of communication is simply a bad habit. Ironically the most damaging response (the active destructive) often comes from a platform of genuine concern and caring.  We discussed how we had knee jerk reactions of “Are you SURE this is good news?  What about this possible outcome?” (inserting worst case scenarios, ad nauseum) because we truly feel committed to the other person’s well being.  There’s no contention that your concerns aren’t valid, but it’s good to recognize that this reaction can often cause serious erosion to your connection with that other person.  We’re back to another concept I struggle with fairly often, the one where it’s better to be kind than to be right.  Might be time for that forehead tattoo.

Katie, Shannon, Jill and I had a fantastic adventure in Provincetown later that night…far surpassing the expectations of two girls who’d gone days without taking a proper shower.  More on that soon, as well as my realization that I may have spent the last three decades as a mislabeled introvert.  Dune shacks, they’ll show you what you’re really made of.

2013 has been treating me exceptionally well thus far.  I have a great house with two supportive roommates, a smart, kind boyfriend who is more fun than pillow fighting a barrel of monkeys, a writing group that rocks my world, and many wonderful friends that I treasure.   They all encourage me to be brave, to take risks, all the while reassuring me that they will be here for me regardless of the outcome.  Am I still an anxiety powered powder keg full of crazy?  YOU KNOW IT, PEOPLE.   You know it.  I know you expect nothing less.