Monday, February 28, 2011

Garden Dreaming

Here's another Etsy collection I put together because I am anxious to get back to my beloved garden. I can't wait to see what comes back up this year!

Garden Dreaming Treasury

Rediscovering the Importance of Girlfriends

There was a time in my life when almost all my good friends were male. Many years, in fact. Part of it was the novelty, because I had always been intimidated by boys in school. I grew up a little isolated and I barely understood other girls, let alone boys with their loud ways. As I grew older, I didn't feel comfortable with most women I met. I wasn't thin and I wasn't that concerned about dieting. I rarely wore makeup and never learned to do fancy things with my hair. I wasn't having children or hoping to have children. Most women I met I didn't feel like I fit in with. And after high school, I wasn't meeting a lot of other women anyway. I missed my high school girlfriends, many of whom had dispersed off into different parts of the country.

Over the years I met a lot of amazing, strong women. I had role models and old friends I had kept in touch with but from whom I was separated by distance. I am close to my mom. But I didn't have any women friends who I could call up and meet for lunch. I still don't have very many of them. But I have rediscovered why friendships between women are so precious. I've cultivated them where I can. Some online, some old friends I don't see very often, some old friends I've started to see more frequently, some family, some co-workers. Some the same age and some years older or younger.

I still have a lot of male friends. And they're great, I love them. They appreciate my cooking, remind me not to take things too seriously, feed my cats when I go out of town, carry things to my basement, help me with yard work and car repairs. Some of them commiserate with me over relationships and some make me feel funny or get angry at injustices they feel have been perpetrated against me. They take me to dinner, buy me silly little gifts when I'm feeling down and give me a male perspective on problems. My male friends are wonderful to me in many ways and I love them but they are still vastly different relationships than the ones I have with my female friends.

I've gone through some tough times in the last few years and in riding them out I've noticed a few differences in the way my male versus female friends react to problems. The men tend to disappear. They can't fix my problem and they don't know what to say so they kind of vanish into the ether until things even out. Some of them give me a lot of advice and then if I don't follow it, they get angry. Which really isn't that helpful when dealing with stressful situations. You want your friends around you, not purposefully staying away or being angry with you. I know not all men are like this but it's been my experience that its pretty common. They mean well, they just don't react in ways that I understand. Which by now I am starting to expect, even though it still hurts sometimes.

My female friends, however, will sit with me for hours. Sometimes we talk about our problems, sometimes we distract each other with other topics. Sometimes we don't talk much at all. The best thing is, they are always here (or there!) for me. Sometimes we can only talk on the phone, via text or over the Internet but even when they aren't "here" they are available, concerned, understanding and always ready with a sense of humor and a dose of perspective. Most of us have gotten to an age where we've had a few disappointing relationships with men, perhaps a divorce. Even if we're married we know that a romantic relationship, no matter how wonderful the spouse, can't and shouldn't be expected to meet our every need.

And so, if we're lucky, we have our girlfriends. These relationships are precious and we need to treat them as such. Though our lives are all busy, we need to keep in touch, reach out, get together, or simply send a note or an email. For all the smart, funny, caring, beautiful women I know... thank you. You are appreciated and you are important!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How do I love thee Roku? Let me count the ways...

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon here in West Michigan. One of the first we've had in a long while. What did I do to celebrate it? Caught up on episodes of Perfect Couples and 30 Rock on Hulu. What? It's still cold out. Besides, I opened the shades.

It's this Roku, see? It's given television new meaning for me. I'm not sure that's an entirely good thing for my productivity but it's nice on the weekends when typically I'd sit around watching stuff I hated just because I didn't feel like doing anything else and there was nothing on the 200+ available channels of "stuff" that I wanted to watch at any given time.

I bought the Roku because I wanted to save money. After seven plus years of being a faithful DirecTV customer, I was tired of seeing my bill go up and up and, well... UP. I'd been thinking about it for a while but I was having trouble making myself take the plunge. I'd always really loved my DirecTv. But, just before Christmas, I saw a special deal. Roku had a deal going with Netflix that if you signed up for Netflix on demand at $7.99 a month, you could take $20 off the price of any Roku unit. And so for $59.99 and free shipping, I ordered the Roku XD. I figured I had nothing to lose, it was less than the monthly cost of my (basic) DirecTv service and if nothing else it would be a nice supplement.

Considering I ordered my Roku during the Christmas shipping season it arrived incredibly fast. The box itself is tiny and incredibly light. I didn't have an extra HDMI cable so I hooked it up using the included RCA cables and breezed right through the little bit of setup it required, including applying software updates, joining it with my wireless network, adding channels and activating it to work with my Netflix and HuluPlus accounts. Because I have the slowest internet that AT&T offers (1.3 MB down) I figured I'd have to upgrade but to my surprise, the streaming worked just fine and I was still able to browse websites while watching TV.

In January I took the plunge and dropped my DirecTv service. I went from paying $68 a month for TV to paying about $16 a month for my Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. I was already paying for internet service and I didn't end up having to upgrade so no change there. Not bad. The interface is easy and uncluttered. The Roku works with Amazon Video On-Demand so you can rent and purchase content. There are also quite a few other channels available and several have been added just since I started using my box. One of the big draws is Pandora, everyone's favorite Internet radio.

It's not perfect. CBS isn't partnered with Hulu so none of their current content is available. You can watch it on their website but I can't stand watching TV on my computer. Mostly because whenever I'm watching TV I'm also on the computer! However, if you have a digital TV this can be remedied by hooking up and antennae to pick up local stations. (If you don't have a digital TV you'll still need a digital converter box to use with your antennae.) BBC America is another content provider that hasn't really jumped on the streaming bandwagon. I miss watching Graham Norton. I also miss The Soup and Chelsea Lately, a couple of big hits on E! that aren't currently available on HuluPlus. But I expect that as more people switch over to streaming devices that content providers will be forced to fall in line. And as much as I miss those few shows, I don't miss the big bill every month. It just wasn't worth it.

So far the biggest down side is that I find myself watching more TV. I have access to classic shows that haven't been available in syndication for years right up to current episodes of almost all my favorite shows and I can watch them when it's convenient for me without worrying about setting my DVR to record or worrying about filling up the hard drive. I've discovered new shows I didn't know existed because I was never watching during the right time slots. I recently discovered Raising Hope, Perfect Couples, the IT Crowd and I plan on going back to catch up on Parenthood from the beginning of the season. I can finally go back and watch Desperate Housewives from the beginning and figure out who everyone is. I can spend a boring Sunday watching an entire season of programming back to back.

The biggest positive, besides cost savings, has been the advertising. Netflix doesn't have ads during the content. HuluPlus does but it's very minimal and not obnoxious at all and doesn't distract from television viewing. It is exactly the way advertising on television should have always been and the way I hope it will remain, at least for streaming content.

There are a few technical glitches from time to time. It's a new technology, after all. Roku just announced that they sold their one millionth box during 2010. If you really think about it, one million is a pretty small number for a product like this. From time to time my box will freeze. Usually it restarts itself and it's a pretty quick process. Quicker, in fact, than waiting for my DirecTv receiver to start back up after a restart- or a rainstorm! Sometimes there are software updates that need to be applied which is so easy as to be almost automatic. Occasionally there will be an interruption in the streaming content but I think this has more to do with the content provider, or possibly my slow internet. I am always able to recover and pick back up where I was. Overall, I am impressed. The quality of the picture is clear, the sound is great. Everything syncs up fine and doesn't look pixellated or jerky. I can pause my viewing whenever I want and because the commercials are so brief I often do. No time to run out to the kitchen for a snack or take a bathroom break!

Streaming content changes your viewing experience. At first I found it cumbersome and somewhat overwhelming to have to decide what I wanted to watch rather than turning on the TV and just flipping through channels. It's a much less passive means of entertaining yourself. I got used to it pretty quickly though and I have to say, I really prefer it. I don't feel tied to my television at certain times and I tend not to turn it on simply for background noise so even though I'm probably watching more TV, my viewing is much more focused and the TV isn't on as much.

I love my Roku and I highly recommend purchasing one if you have any ideas about dumping your cable or satellite provider. It was the right choice for me and several friends and family members have happily purchased one at my recommendation. Even if you don't intend it as a replacement for cable or satellite service it's not a bad supplement to these services. If you're considering a purchase, however, remember that you will need to subscribe to Netflix and HuluPlus in order to get the most out of your player. Just keep in mind that if you order a box, you may spend more time watching TV for a while. Don't say I didn't warn you!


Friday, February 18, 2011

Tales from the Dark Side

Now that I've spent a significant amount of time extolling the virtues of Facebook, I've got another point to discuss. A somewhat darker point of view if you'll indulge me. Because I feel that for all the ways that Facebook can strengthen relationships, it can also tear them apart.

When I refer to relationships, I am not speaking just of romantic relationships but friendships and familial relationships as well. By now, even if we don't know someone personally who has had Facebook affect one of their relationships in a negative way, we've at least read about it. We've also seen horror stories of child neglect. I would argue that some of these stories are in the extreme. People who neglect their children for the Internet would probably neglect them in some other way if the Internet/Facebook wasn't available. People who cheat on a spouse might very well cheat with someone they didn't meet on Facebook. What should be sobering, however, is the thought that although we may not be endangering the physical well-being of our friends and families, we may be engaging in behaviors that damage our emotional connections to them.

I'm single with no kids at home. I don't feel particularly guilty about sitting by myself on the couch at night and engaging others via Facebook for hours on end. (Although sometimes my cats make desperate bids for attention.) What I do sometimes wonder is if in doing so, I am wasting time I should be using to develop relationships with the people around me. Not just the people I know, but people I should be meeting. But I'm an introvert. I don't play a sport and the idea doesn't really appeal to me. I don't attend church, school or have a particular hobby, like scrap-booking or playing the guitar which might put me in touch with other people. All my hobbies are pretty individualized, like reading, cooking and gardening. Could I join a reading group, take a cooking class or join some sort of local gardening group? Probably. But I don't, partly because Facebook gives me an out. Why put myself "out there" when I can sit at home on my couch where I feel safe and talk to people I already know, even if my knowledge of them is superficial and I may never see them in person again?

This isn't to say I don't value the relationships that Facebook has brought me. I've met some wonderful people online who I would have probably never encountered otherwise. They enrich my life on a daily basis and for that I am grateful. I've deepened other relationships which has been amazing, too. What I find missing is the ability to sit on my couch in the evening with another warm body across the room. I miss another voice, the easiness of being in the physical presence of someone who knows me well. I wonder how many people, like me, sit on their couch each night and communicate with others via Facebook while their kids play on their own and their spouse sits in silence on the other side of the room, absorbed in television, or perhaps on Facebook as well. Recognize yourself? I thought so.

I'm guilty as well. I have a Blackberry. An iPod Touch. I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Blogger, etc... I am never not connected. How many times have I checked my Blackberry during dinner? Answered a text? Checked my Facebook? Plenty of times and often to the irritation of the person dining with me. How many times have I sat and waited impatiently for a dining partner to do the same? More times than I can count. We live in the most connected time the world has ever seen. Almost any information is immediately and constantly at our fingertips and we have more ability than ever to influence and manipulate that information through sites such as Digg, Facebook and Wikipedia. We are marketed and advertised to constantly and we're learning to market and advertise ourselves, as if our personal preferences and habits are products of some sort.

I've been thinking lately that I need to make an effort to put down the phone, turn off the computer and reconnect. I've been thinking that I might start asking people to do that when they're with me as well.
I've been the person on the other side of the room being ignored in favor of the person on the other end of the computer. Sometimes it's ok but most of the time, it's not much fun. Although it's helped me develop and further some relationships, Facebook has also hurt several of my relationships. One or two of them have been damaged and/or changed irreparably. One friendship has ended for good.

I want to embrace social media and, for the most part, I do. But I have to remind myself of a few things from time to time:
  1. There are some things about me that no one needs to know about. Things that are private. 
  2. It's easy to get caught up in other people's drama, but you don't always know the whole story.
  3. The people in the room with me deserve my attention as much if not more than the ones on screen.
  4. Besides being supportive, offering my expertise/opinion and trying to make them laugh, there's not much I can do about other people's troubles. 
  5. People can pretend, online, to be someone they're not. Maybe not on purpose, and sometimes even people you may have met. Unless you know them very, very well, keep in mind that things and people online aren't always what they appear. 
When you think about it, these are pretty good rules to follow offline as well.

I love Facebook and Twitter. Foursquare is fun and blogging serves its purpose. They're all useful tools not to mention addicting and enjoyable. But they can be trouble if we let them. I want to manage my social connections, not allow them to run my life. So this weekend, in addition to spending time with my friends on Facebook, I'll be spending time with friends and family offline as well. All the way offline! And I challenge you to do the same. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When the Stars Align

As I said yesterday, I'm not a particularly religious person. But I have my own ideas about things. While I wouldn't say I believe in nothing, I also know the things I do believe in don't really match any specific doctrine.  I believe in karma. In kindness and empathy. In kitties. I believe in the leaves on the trees, the water lapping at the shore, the grass beneath my feet and the songs of birds in the morning. I believe it's good luck to stamp your hand when you see the first robin in the spring. I believe that talking about how well your car has been running will cause it to immediately break down. I believe that 13 is my lucky number and that although the meek may not inherit the earth, they sleep better at night. I believe that you love who you love no matter what parts they have. I believe in the masculine and feminine traits of the Divine, which I believe is all around us. I believe that what you send out comes back times three. I knock on wood.

And I believe that things happen for a reason.

Lately, I have to keep reminding myself of this particular belief of mine. Like any faith, in times of trouble, the doubts have a way of creeping in.

And yet, when I look back over the last several months, I can see a pattern. In December, I quit smoking.  I did this for several reasons, all of them about the usual- health, expense, inconvenience. Late in December I bought a Roku and in January I cancelled my expensive but beloved DirecTv.

In February I lost my job. The universe was preparing me.

June is the deadline for me to finish my long procrastinated BA. At least without paying a lot more money. Guess what? If I hadn't lost my job I wouldn't have known. And I've always wanted to get my Masters. Funny thing, they don't let you do that until you finish your BA. So guess what I'm going to do?

In January, a close friend underwent surgery for breast cancer. She usually provides daycare for her two granddaughters during the day but for the last few weeks they've had a "substitute." My friend has to go back in for another surgery and the "substitute" has to move along to another job. And because I'm not working I get to help out my friends while making some extra money.

I wasn't happy at my job and I hadn't been for a long time but I couldn't seem to muster up the courage to  leave. I had too many friends there and I was too comfortable. I didn't hate what I was doing but I didn't love it either. And lately I'd been having that used up feeling you get when you're reaching the end of your rope.

Things happen for a reason.

I have no idea what the future holds for me. It's scary because I'm not a risk taker. I'm not brave. I like to be self-sufficient. But I have faith. At least I'm trying. Because the universe is preparing me for Something Bigger. Something Brighter.

The Amazing and Heartwarming Power of Social Media, Part 2

In my last post I talked about how great Facebook has been for me in terms of having a built-in support system. In this post I want to talk about a couple instances of Facebook bringing people together and reminding me of what I believe is the basic goodness of humanity. Which is something that, if you read the news, you may have doubts about. I know that from time to time I sure do.

In December of 2010, shortly before Christmas, I lost a dear friend named Alie. Although I knew Alie in Real Life, I didn't get to spend a lot of time with her. We were separated by distance, circumstance and for about the last year, by the confines of her illness. Even when she was well, Alie wasn't a social butterfly. In fact, she was a bit of a recluse. Because of Facebook, I was able to get to know her much better than I would have if I'd had to depend on infrequent visits. Even more old-fashioned methods of communication wouldn't have worked for us. Although Alie was a talented artist and a great friend, she wasn't much of a writer and she hated talking on the phone. But Alie loved the Internet. Here she was able to move past her social anxieties and her physical limitations and socialize with lots of people who played the same online games and shared her interests in Pokemon, cartoons and Japanese toys. Through Facebook and other message boards and websites, lots of people were able to get to know Alie and many of them- including some of my Facebook friends- came to love her for her gentle personality, and empathetic, generous nature.

After Alie passed away, there were no services for her and those of us who knew her felt we'd had no closure. Alie was an artist. She worked with children because she understood them and the things that were important to them. She loved little bits and pieces of interesting things that other people had discarded and much of her art was based around found objects and drawings of sweet, cartoonish dogs. She also spent many of what she considered the best years of her life living in the city of Detroit. Alie loved the city and found beauty in its decay. I wanted to honor Alie in some way and after doing a little poking around on the internet I found an organization that I think Alie would have loved, called Arts & Scraps. It's in Detroit and they recycle cast-off industrial materials as art supplies for under-served kids. Through the Causes application on Facebook I was able to set up a Holiday Wish in memory of Alie and asked people to donate $10 or what they felt they could afford. My friends and I, most of whom had never met Alie, raised $195 to benefit Arts & Scraps. I was touched that people would donate and I know Alie would have been as well.

Thanks to social networking, I was able to honor my friend in a way that would benefit someone else. Thanks to my friends and Alie's, ninety-eight children will take home a bag stuffed with art supplies. Ninety-eight children will receive the power to create, to potentially discover a talent or a hobby that could change their lives. Not a bad legacy.

Add to this the over 43,000 people on Facebook who have turned out to Pray for Baby Miranda and I get a pretty warm and fuzzy feeling. Baby Miranda is the child of an elementary school classmate of mine, Chad Cole. I haven't seen Chad since probably 6th grade, nor can I say I've really thought about him much since then although I remember him as being a nice kid. We weren't particularly friends and he disappeared to go to another school at some point, I'm not sure when.

I happened to be in my hometown of Jackson, MI this weekend and heard about a car accident I might not have known about otherwise. Snow was coming down fast and it was windy. The roads slicked up in no time and a crash occurred on I-94, near the Dearing Road exit. The news of a fatality from the accident traveled quickly- Sara, the 35-year-old wife of my former classmate who was expecting their first child on February 23, was declared dead on arrival at Allegiance Hospital. For a while it looked like there was one positive. Doctors were able to deliver Baby Miranda alive. Because of the trauma Sara had received to her uterus in the accident, however, Baby Miranda had been without oxygen for too long and she was born with no brain activity. Doctors gave her until Tuesday evening and so Chad and his family were able to spend some time with their new family member. Sadly, Miranda Cole never developed any signs of brain activity and she was removed from life support Tuesday evening. In the meantime, Chad continued to update what had been the blog tracking their pregnancy, Our Little Secret. It's heartbreaking stuff, for sure.

And yet... in the midst of this tragedy, someone started a Facebook group inviting people to pray for Baby Miranda. And the numbers started climbing. Now I'm not a particularly religious person and I'm not usually much for prayer groups. I respect it, it's just not my thing. But I know how important it is to feel supported. And I can't imagine the grief this newly widowed man, who I remember as a child, has yet to face. Sara and Miranda are at peace, but for the third member of their family, life must go on. Chad's situation echoes that endured by a dear friend of mine, quite a few years back. Life goes on, but it's never really the same. The miracle here is that over 43,000 people from all over the world, stand in support of this man and his family. There will surely be moments ahead of him where even the love and support of 43,000 strangers, family members and friends won't feel like enough. But in the end, faith and the joined hands of a community of strangers supporting him may just begin to seem like enough again and spring will come and the sun will shine again.

For me, Baby Miranda helps put things in perspective. I may still feel panicky and a little lost. But my personal losses are minimal and fleeting. It's a reminder that whether it's a group of 10 or 43,000, people are still basically good and kind. That if you're lucky, just when you feel the most alone, there are people who you didn't expect to be there, lifting you up.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Amazing and Heartwarming Power of Social Media, Part 1

We hear a lot of negatives about social media in the news. If the studies and experts are to be believed, Facebook is tearing at the very fabric of our society. It seems like every day in the news, there are stories of marriages breaking up, jobs being lost, and even murders which can be traced in some way back to Facebook. Although I do think social networking has the potential to be abused (and if you really think about it, what in life doesn't have the potential for abuse?), I also feel the need to defend Facebook against the media's near constant allegations of evil because my experience has been almost universally positive.

I can't even tell you for sure how long I've been on Facebook. Maybe there's something, somewhere in my account settings, that tells me I've been a "member since" but I don't know where it is and I haven't been motivated to look for it. What I can tell you is that last year, a group of us planned our 20th high school class reunion and we did so for the most part over Facebook. If you had asked me five years ago if I would attend my 20th class reunion, I would have said no. Instead I wound up not only attending, but on the planning committee. Facebook put me in touch with former friends and classmates I'd never expected to see again. Rather than building up my reunion as an anxiety-laced event at which all my weaknesses would be simultaneously exposed to my former classmates, I was able to put things in perspective. I read their statuses. We've all grown up, become more ourselves and none of our lives are perfect. Instead of feeling competitive and possibly inadequate, I felt a kinship with my classmates that allowed me to enjoy the reunion and relish our shared history.

To me, Facebook has been like having the party you've always wanted to have where you invite all your closest friends and they all get along great and it's the most awesome time anyone has ever had. Which is reality would never work. Everyone would stand around uncomfortably and stare at each other and you'd be frantically trying to decide what music you could play that everyone would like or think of a joke that would miraculously break the ice and get all of your best friends to see that they should all be best friends too and everyone would hang out all the time and it would be super fun. Yeah, that would never happen. But the funny thing about Facebook is that sometimes it does. Sometimes my friends friend my other friends and they become friends and everything is super fun. Would those relationships carry over into real life? Who knows? But the one thing I do know is that without Facebook, that would most likely have been a moot question in the first place.

Last year I moved out on my own for the first time after a lifetime of living with other people. Not only did I move out, I moved out into my very own house. Buying a house had been my Big Dream for a long time and was something I'd thought I'd never get to do on my own, so it was a Big Deal for me. And because I was essentially going through the process by myself, it was even more important to me that my Facebook friends were with me, every step of the way, cheering me on. I mean who can argue with round-the-clock, unconditional love and support from a few hundred friends? It was pretty great.

Since I got the house, some not-so-great things have happened. A good friend of mine died too young in December, and most recently I lost my job of the last 12 years. There have been some good things too. I quit smoking and haven't had a cigarette since December 6, 2010. Each of these things has been made more bearable (and sometimes more celebratory), with the encouragement of several hundred friends, scattered all over the world. I don't know if my Facebook friends realize how much they've impacted my life and so I try to do my bit to cheer them on as well. So to all of you who laugh at my jokes, send virtual hugs when things are tough, donate to my causes, tell me how to unclog my bathroom drain, share my outrage over injustice and take the time to make me feel important... thank you. I hope I'm living up to my side of the bargain!