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Tag, you're it - Martha Randolph Carr

There are so many different ways to complain. The most obvious is the plaint that begins with someone else's name, who we've either married, raised or refer to as parent. Start any conversation with "my mother" or "my husband" and watch people's faces glaze over just a little.

They know that what's coming is a long diatribe where you're the overburdened victim, or, as you like to see it, the unrecognized heroine who valiantly puts up with someone else's unrepentant idiocy.

The second most popular grouse is the reply to the innocent question, how are you? We might start with a limp little, fine, but that's just filler while our brain searches the files for what's eating at us the most right now. Is it the bills that are coming due? Maybe it's the acid reflux that's kicking up again.

That's a good one, and from there I can move on to how much that little purple pill is costing me, which will give me a chance to mention the bills right there at the end. If the other person caught in our net happens to join in with their own story, we patiently wait for an opening and dive right back in, hoping to top their troubles.

If their story really is bad, we aren't compassionate so much as disappointed as we mumble, "Boy, that really is bad." In the world of bellyaching, it is common practice that the worse woes get heard first, and we are now stuck listening to someone else.

If it's cancer or bankruptcy or adultery, the bylaws state we are going to have to wait for another day or another warm body to even mention our large cell phone bill again. Thank goodness for cell phones, which make it so much easier to recruit another listener.

The third favorite is the surprise attack. This is reserved for the champion complainer. No matter what topic comes up, he is going to twist the conversation into a lament and if he's on a roll, a conspiracy. I got caught in that one yesterday. I arrived early to a meeting and was sitting there with a few other people I didn't really know as we waited for the others to arrive. A casual mention about the train pulling up just as I got to the subway platform was all the young man next to me needed and he was off and running. The trains weren't working, they were really breaking down and that was because of the MTA who were lining their pockets with our money and it was only going to get worse because of the oil crisis.

Somehow the housing meltdown got thrown in and the word stock market crash and bank run were mentioned. It was a thing of beauty with references to newspaper articles and recent NPR shows.

When caught in this tailwind, the only options for the listener are to join in with gusto, move far enough away or say nothing and let him talk himself out. I got lucky because a new arrival innocently asked what we were talking about, and as he recapped, I quickly moved to the other end of the room.

All of these tried and true methods of complaining are actually tiny little games we play when our self-esteem takes a real dip. Rather than admit our fears, we'd rather look for anyone who we feel is measuring up even less than we are and point it out. Maybe even point it out directly to them. The game is on and we are busy trying to look away from the idea that we might be the loser. Tag, you're it.

However, there is another option and it has pleasant side affects as well. If we stop complaining altogether, no matter what, and instead say out loud what we are really worried about, we have the opportunity to change.

Instead of tearing down someone we claim we care about, we could come clean. We could try saying that we would like to pursue a different career, but have a pile of debt and don't know what to do first. Or, even say, I'm lonely and I'm not sure how to fix that.

This requires a secret ingredient, though, in order to work effectively. We have to first trust that something bigger has our backs, and second, be willing to do something about what we don't like. The basics of the idea are that, if we keep taking the next step right in front of us,things will eventually work out. Stick to one day at a time, focus only on what can be done right now, actively search for anything we can feel grateful for -- and then let the rest go.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at : Martha@caglecartoons.com.