Archive for September, 2012

Touchstones for Today

September 27, 2012

Sometimes, the world can seem like a crazy, scary mess. News outlets shout at us about all the chaos occurring or about to break out across the globe. But, in the midst of this, we continue to live our lives, day by day. At times like these, as part of an effort to ground yourself and move forward in a coherent manner, I find it useful to remind myself about a few basic truths. When your life is a mess, or you’re simply confused, here are five things for you to check in with yourself about, to make life that much more secure and sane:

Who do I know who loves me?
Parents count, perhaps siblings, children or other relatives? Past or present lovers, spouses, or friends? Be honest; you have been loved and are today.

What public achievements can I claim to be wholly my own?
Bar memberships, athletic awards, diplomas earned, culinary, artistic, or musical output? How about accolades from a community group?

What private, good moments have I had?
An honorable break up with a former flame? A returning of found money that wasn’t mine? An emotionally generous moment with someone who didn’t deserve it? Did I respect the space of someone who didn’t want my company?

What wrongs have I made right?
Have I apologized to someone, when I could’ve slunk away or denied my role in a particular mess? Have I been willing to step up and be the first to make amends? And beyond this, was I willing to accept an apology sincerely made?

When have I spoken up against a wrong?
Instances like the poor school bus monitor in upstate New York—have I voiced my objection to bullying? As in Nazi Germany, the worst things happen when good people fail to speak up against tyranny. Did you see someone shoplift something from the market? Cheat or mistreat someone else? What about other, “small” misdoings?

In each of these instances, we could easily argue it, “wasn’t that important.” Or tell ourselves that we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. But, at the end of the day, these are the same decisions that we have to own, fully, as our own choices and actions. It is these choices that make our society work! We may sometimes err in our decisions and subsequent actions, but if we abdicate all responsibility, then society is…lost.

Think of the women in burkas—nobody is speaking up for them. So they remain living their lives afraid, silenced, uneducated, and encased in black cloth. Do they even dare to imagine their life another way? How about the men who make sure they dream no further? I doubt it.

My point is, you are not bound and silenced. You are free! As heavy as life may sometime feel, you have a responsibility to make this world better than it is, but you have also achieved things of which you need to be proud! Think on this.

Tread Lightly

September 25, 2012

Most people I know are their own harshest judges. The bar they set for themselves is way higher than the one applied to anyone else. If you’re at all like me, you may even specialize in setting impossible or conflicting standards, so the goal line is never crossed. The natural result of such behaviors usually involves criticism, generally from ourself, but often from others, too.

Criticism is a tricky topic—especially if you’re undergoing those first, tentative phases of re-booting your life. As with anything new, missteps are a part of learning. We’re bound to do it awkwardly or miss the mark or feel stupid as we try. What happens next is key.

I think we’ve all found that critical remarks linger far longer in the psyche than praise does, and that is a tragedy. Because while criticism can serve an important and constructive role in terms of informing us of a blind spot we may have or showing us better, more common sense ways of handling a situation, delivered unkindly, criticism’s sting can wipe out any potential benefit.

Often, I have to catch myself when I am about to launch into a self-critical tirade or silently think my critical thoughts of others. One is as important as the other because silent thoughts are nearly as destructive as spoken words. There’s a well known acronym about giving criticism which I believe bears repeating here; it’s THINK.

T: is what I’m going to say Truthful?
H: is it Helpful in this situation to say it?
I: is the error Important enough to speak up?
N: is the error/fault obvious? Is it Necessary to point it out?
K: am I being Kind by speaking up? What is my motivation in giving this criticism?

Some difficult things to hear are said to be kind, so please don’t take my words as a warning against criticism, it’s just that you need to tread lightly. These days, everyone is suffering from so much information overload that it can be challenging to hear what the other person is saying. We’re inundated with a hysterical form of exaggerated arguments that the media broadcasts and many people have taken that as the form to mimic. How you deliver a message is nearly as important as the message itself.

The Storybook Version of Ourselves

September 20, 2012

When you think about yourself and who you are, what image pops into your mind? We all tell stories to ourselves about ourselves. We create our own myths. And while, like just about any joke ever told, there may be some underlying truth to this story, it gets enhanced and exaggerated for our own, deep seated purposes. Often times, the image we hold of ourselves is not an accurate reflection of who we are or can be.

Are you The Victim or The Martyr? The Misunderstood Genius? The Big Man on Campus? The Beauty Queen? The Rescuer? The Misfit? The Loser? The Righter of Wrongs? The Poor Little Match Girl? The Prophet? The Alienated Artist? The Sole Voice of Reason?

Who do you think you are?

Truly.

Part of re-booting involves determining who you really are versus who you think you are and then trying to merge these two identities. Unanimity of purpose is the goal here. Instead of fighting with yourself on a daily basis, a clear understanding of who you are will work wonders in making sense out of your life. “Ah, is that all?” you reply sarcastically. I know, I know; easier said than done.

So here’s one way to go about it.

When you think of yourself, what storybook character comes to mind? Somewhere, deep in the recesses of your brain, there lurks a character with whom you identify. Who is it? For me, my character is a combination of Ferdinand the Bull and Seabiscuit. There you go: that’s the way I see myself. So, now you have to do this for you. Once you have that answer, I want you to list out the qualities (good and ill) of this character and compare that list against yourself—and be fair about it!

Ask yourself, is this comparison accurate? Do the parallels between me and my storybook character make sense? Eliminating everything related to superpowers, we identify with characters for their human traits and struggles. For instance, what saved Harry Potter in all those adventures wasn’t magic. Rather, it was his human qualities of loyalty, friendship, courage, etc. that got him through harrowing circumstances. I may not have horns or hooves (at least according to most people), but I have heart and endurance. I can also be lazy and frequently overlooked as an oddball. So, that’s another thing I have in common with my four legged friends.

Once you have a grasp of this list, think about what you might say to your character to encourage him as he wrestles with discouragement or rejection or loss. What about him would you point out as a strength? Or, keeping your similarities in mind, go back and re-read that iconic story—what qualities did your hero call upon to master this challenge? How might you do the same in your life?

Utilizing a storybook character is a safe way to think about ourselves because it provides enough psychological distance that we allow for more possibilities in the character than we do for ourselves. And, it may just open some new doors.

Give it a try. It’s just a story.

Elizabeth Bennet’s Embarassment

September 18, 2012

One of the benefits to my particular version of re-booting is that I have a lot of free time on my hands. Having been a bookworm all my life, I am indulging in the pleasures of returning to the classics: Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, The Sound and the Fury, Tom Sawyer, as well as a few more recent works. Immersing myself in the language and lore of these iconic stories not only allows me to escape from my daily worries about The Rest of my Life, but reminds me that such struggles have plagued humanity, lo these many years…

It also gets me thinking about how funny and ridiculous people are. Indeed, humor is probably the best possible go-to remedy for just about any of humanity’s ills. We all have the crazy, embarrassing relative who insists on being themselves at the worst possible moment. The trick in re-booting, however, is to recognize that their behavior is not a reflection of us and to learn not to overreact to their foibles.

For instance, in Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is trying to persuade her father to forbid her silly sister from traveling to Bath (where she intends to flirt with soldiers).

He listened to her attentively, and then replied, “Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other….”

“If you were aware,” said Elizabeth, “of the very great disadvantage to us all which must arise from the public notice of Lydia’s unguarded and imprudent manner; nay, which has already arisen from it, I am sure you would judge differently in the affair.”

“Already arisen!” repeated Mr. Bennet. “What, has she frightened away some of your lovers? Poor little Lizzy! But do not be cast down. Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth a regret.”
….
With this answer Elizabeth was forced to be content; but her own opinion continued the same, and she left him disappointed and sorry. It was not in her nature, however, to increase her vexations by dwelling on them. She was confident of having performed her duty, and to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of her disposition.

This extract from Jane Austen’s work has much to recommend it. The fact that Mr. Bennet was unconcerned that his daughter was going to make a fool of herself and pragmatically lectured Elizabeth that someone who cannot tolerate a bit of absurdity is not worth bothering over is well said. We’ve all acted foolishly and, yet, others have somehow seen their way clear to continue to enjoy our company and love us for who we are. Isn’t that a relief? It is for me. Further, the fact that his darling Elizabeth was dismayed was not so upsetting to him that he changed his answer simply to placate her. A wise man, indeed.

And, to Elizabeth’s credit, although unhappy with her father’s stance, she didn’t dwell upon something she couldn’t change. She didn’t pout or mope or try to cajole him into changing his mind; she went on with her day, knowing she had done all she could do and that was that. We can learn from our heroine. How often have we fixated on something about which we can do nothing? How often have we let our impotent unhappiness about another’s behavior impact our day or our perception of ourselves? I’ve spent way too much time in my life fretting over how another’s behavior would adversely reflect on me when the truth is (and it can’t be repeated enough) a person’s words and actions and attitudes are about them; they are not about you, no matter how closely associated you are.
This is a key rule to re-booting, my friends. And once you fully embrace this, you’ll be able to go out into the world feeling a whole lot more free. We all know couples where one of the two is an unmitigated ass and the other perfectly pleasant. In nearly all such cases, our assessment of the pleasant partner remains undamaged despite the downside of their other half. Mostly, we just feel sorry for them and wish them well on their escape.

My point is that when you find yourself caught in an undertow of embarrassment not of your own making, remind yourself that it’s not about you. And trust that those who know you recognize this, too.

Fighting City Hall and the After-Bounce

September 13, 2012

It’s impacting all of us, everyday. Traffic and the inevitable stresses and strains of our growing urban areas. Regardless of your specific locale, we each have to wrestle with challenges resulting from increased density—and just be grateful we don’t live in Cairo or Mexico City or Mumbai because it’s way worse there! Previously, I have written about the life lessons to be taken from nuisance issues such as predatory towing, but today, I am focusing on the ability of one person to effect change. Now, for those of you who may claim to have no interest or concern about such pedestrian issues, I urge you to keep reading as one of my goals with this blog is to interweave daily experiences and how we might apply them to bigger lessons in our lives.

Attention Re-booters of the world, you, too, can fight The Man and win! I bring to you a message of empowerment and hope.

You   Can     Fight            City Hall.

Now for the details: here in DC, I live on a street on the edge of the District that was formerly a bucolic thoroughfare en route to Montgomery County, Maryland. No longer. Alas, times they are a changin’. The hospital about two blocks down from where I live has expanded significantly, and with it came attendant parking and traffic issues due to the enormous increase in people needing to visit the hospital. In the past few years, it has gotten so bad that the drivers race along my street (they race because everyone in DC is very, very important and busy) or park tightly up against either side of my driveway (so they don’t have to pay for hospital parking) that I can no longer see beyond the cars when pulling onto the road. This has resulted in so many third finger salutes that I have lost count, and enough near collisions that something had to be done or someone was going to be injured.

Suffice it to say, that I have been steadily working on this project by lobbying a variety of Powers That Be for over a year. I made a little progress last year with the installation of the signs, but it didn’t fix the parking or speeding problem. Yesterday, after a hair raising close call of their own, a resident of my household asked me to give it another try. So, I emailed my regular roster, using appropriate superlatives and demanding a constituent meeting, etc. hoping, but unsure, that my efforts would be answered. Lo and behold, not only did I receive an email and three calls back just today, but some wonderful men showed up and installed a speed trap camera right by my driveway! This camera snaps photos of scofflaws and sends them ticket$$$.

I was elated to have managed this! I couldn’t wait to share the news, but when I proudly revealed the results of my efforts, the very first thing this person did was complain! They immediately complained about how the camera was installed and where the parking lines are being reinforced. I couldn’t believe it.  The very person who begged me to make something happen, now expressed dissatisfaction with the results. This response to my efforts deflated me entirely.

Part of me wanted to snap back at them and suggest they take over this project if it was so poorly managed. Part of me wanted to fault myself for things I couldn’t control. Part of me remained stunned that, instead of thanks and celebration, I got criticized. My reactions weighed on my chest and I fumed silently, disappointed that I didn’t get the gratitude and reaction I was expecting.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you made an effort only to have it ill received? How did you handle it?

I’ll tell you what I did. First, I reminded myself to keep my sharp comebacks to myself; snapping back at someone never helps. Second, I reminded myself that sometimes people say things that sound more critical than they intend. Third, I reminded myself that getting this far with City Hall (especially one as unresponsive as Washington, DC) is a significant achievement, even if it isn’t 100% perfect. And fourth, I reminded myself that were it not for this one person’s negative reaction, I’d still be happy about what was accomplished! Therefore, my challenge was to let the criticism go.

I know what I did was a good effort. I was able to enact change that will improve the safety conditions for anyone coming and going from my house. And, further, one person’s criticism should never have that much impact on how I feel. This is the all important after-bounce I refer to in the title of this post.

With determination and perseverance, you can effect change in your life, too! And, perhaps even more importantly, you can learn to handle the seemingly negative reactions of others in a more intelligent manner. An integral part of re-booting, if ever there was one.

Minor Puzzles and a Rant

September 11, 2012

Excuse me while I rant a bit. Have you ever noticed a widespread trend and thought, “Huh?” What is it with all these game apps for mobile phones? Why is it that people feel the need to be entertained every moment of the day? What is this all about?

 

It’s not even a question of lessening the boredom of an unexpected delay–I watch adults playing games on their phones in the Metro, at work, in the gym, walking on the beach in Santa Barbara. I Don’t Get This. How can these games be so engaging to the exclusion of everything else? Aren’t people concerned about being so distracted that they aren’t aware of what’s around them? To me, nothing is as interesting as people watching—observing families at the airport, in the market, sitting in outdoor cafes—this is the real entertainment! Why would you forgo a free cabaret like this in order to purchase (with real money) fake cows for your fake farm on Zynga?

 

And, curmudgeon luddite that I am, why does anyone want to keep in touch with so many people all the time? Do you have that much to say? Is your life that fascinating? Is theirs? How is it even possible for people to get addicted to Facebook? What does all this palaver mean?

 

I find transition times, such as that of the commute to and from work, or daily rituals such as walking the dog or exercising to be an opportunity to unwind and mentally shift from one part of my day to the next. These monotonous tasks permit me to mull over what I’ve accomplished and what needs to happen next, or random ideas and insights will pop into my head as I huff and puff my way on the Precor. Perhaps I am alone in seeking solace from this 24/7 nonstop distraction, because what I see, instead, is all of my fellow exercisers eagerly watching tv or sending emails or even chatting away on their phones as they multitask their way to health and fitness. Is it so terrible to have “dead time?” What is it they’re afraid will happen if they actually have time to think?

 

And, another thing. Different topic. Life is not a costume drama. Fall Fashion Week is currently in full swing in New York. Those glorious trends that we will see show up next Spring are now being modeled on runways throughout the City. And as arty and cutting edge as a lot of these designers are, what does it say about their vision of dressing women that if I saw even one of those Ralph Lauren models gamboling along K street dressed in one of his 1920’s flapper get ups or those ridiculous Tommy Hilfiger fake country club get ups, let alone wearing a Marc Jacobs giant fuzzy hat, I’d think they suffered from some sad delusional condition. Honestly! Who buys this stuff? And where do they wear it?

 

Personally, I’ve harbored a secret theory that certain designers get a perverse pleasure out of creating outfits as unattractive and ridiculous as possible and then seeing who will bite. It’s the only explanation I can drum up for the success of the colossally ugly and impractical Louis Vuitton luggage. Has anyone seen the Emperor?

Magnifying the 97% Mystery

September 6, 2012

The media is all abuzz about the discovery of the actual function of 97% of the human DNA, previously labeled as “junk.” Published reports from The Encode Project, involving teams of basic research scientists from across the globe, have stated that this heretofore wasteland of cellular matter, lo and behold, actually plays an important role in regulating activity within the cell; thus opening doors to a much more personalized approach to medical care for each of us.

 

Bravo to our basic research scientists and the federal funds used to jumpstart this huge project.

 

What does the Encode Project have to do with re-booting your life?

 

Just this: for decades, this 97% of the human DNA was labeled and relegated to rubbish status. Cutting edge scientists of the day could see that there was “stuff” there, but because these parts of the DNA didn’t include genomes that programmed protein creation, it appeared superfluous to them. In other words, although right in front of them, they didn’t know what they were looking at.

 

Analogy: as multiple search committee members told me when I used to work on academic searches, “If I haven’t heard of Candidate A, she must not be worthy of the committee’s consideration.” Really? Alas, I have found that it’s a rare bird who regularly takes into their calculus that they may not have a grasp of the entire universe.

 

Think about it: for decades, the scientists knew they only understood 3% of a cell’s DNA and yet they labeled the 97% remainder as “junk.” Why? They didn’t know what they were looking at or what purpose it might play, and so dismissed it. What part of this approach makes sense? Now, I am not a scientist and I am oversimplifying the evolution of this issue, but I am pointing out a practice we are all guilty of: because we don’t necessarily understand or wish to face the complexities of something right in front of us, we dismiss it and turn a blind eye. It’s junk to us.

 

From everything I know about Mother Nature, she does not waste effort. Look all around you in the natural world and this theory will be confirmed. So, given such a basic understanding of how Nature operates, how in the world could the prevalent, longstanding thought among scientific research circles include an outright dismissal of 97% of the human DNA as scrap?

 

Intrinsic to the impetus to re-boot is the knowledge that there is something better “out there.” We mat not be able to envision it or we may dismiss what’s right in front of us as useless, but at least part of us keeps pushing to find it. My point is that, like the scientists of the Encode Project, we need to revisit that part of ourselves which is before us, but we have labeled as unworthy or not bothering with. Does it, in fact, serve a purpose that we may have previously overlooked?

 

Ask yourself the following: what is it about my life that I am not seeing? What is it that I refuse to acknowledge plays a more important part in my life than previously understood? Could this part serve as my own regulatory control?

 

As we mature, we learn to revisit issues with a different eye. We can understand and appreciate things differently than in the past. For instance, Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic children’s tale, but it has an entirely different meaning for adults. The fact that children can’t appreciate these nuances does not lessen the enjoyment or power of the story, but the way they see it is not the end of the story.

 

What is your 97% mystery? What huge element of your life have you been unwilling to acknowledge or explore or understand because it just seems “purposeless,” or could open up a can of worms that you fear would be so complex it exhausts you to think about it? Perhaps you no longer lack the vocabulary to understand this part. Perhaps, by trying, you will unlock a vast array of secrets that will help you live a more fulfilling life.

 

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “We don’t always know what we don’t know.”

The importance of this statement is the ongoing willingness to hold out the possibility that maybe we don’t know everything. Maybe there is more that we simply haven’t considered or even been able to recognize. Re-booters have that willingness to believe there is “more” out there than what we know now.

 

Get out your magnifying glass and get to work.

Political Conversion Theory

September 4, 2012

Although reflective of a general decline in organized worship across the country, for Washington more than most places, politics is the new religion. This being a presidential election year only makes it worse. As a beneficiary of and stalwart supporter of democracy, I would love to believe that this interest in politics is based on a thorough investigation and understanding of the issues, but I don’t.

Rather, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that while some small part of political affiliation is based upon public policy preferences, most of the stridency which attends politics as I see it is simply a poor substitute for a “Greater Cause” to believe in.  Instead of the River Jordan we immerse ourselves in oily waters, slickened by the ooze of self-dealing and promises unkept.

In previous posts, I have mentioned the fact that humans love drama. To be patient and moderate in our ways is considered at best foolish and nothing worth remarking upon. But to express moral indignation! Ah, the thrill of this sensation. To yell and scream and fume and march. To point fingers and shudder. To turn our heads away in disgust. Or, another tactic: to use a patronizing, patient tone that conveys how silly and shortsighted the Other is. Well, that is satisfying.

Whether it’s Washington or Santa Barbara or some hotbed of political discontent in the middle of the country, where the congregations of churches and synagogues dwindle, we must find a substitute for our focus. And, alas, politics has become the approved alternative. Nobody cares anymore whether or not you go to church or how you actually conduct yourself on a daily basis, but your stance on immigration, abortion rights, taxation, and a few other hot button topics will, all too often, determine who your close friends are and whether you’re considered intelligent, let alone a truly good person. Suspicion of the Other has extended its gnarly finger far beyond the confines of church pews.

Shunning. It’s a tough world out there.

Instead of weekly worship, we read the op-eds. And the only op-eds that get printed are those that express righteous indignation. This is the 21st Century version of fire and brimstone. The hymns we sang have been replaced with chants for rights. A drumbeat to rouse the masses.

Moderates, by nature, are measured and quiet and hesitant to express their opinion in the face of such loud, angry mobs. So, they’ve been squeezed out of the political process on both sides of the aisle. Is anger the only way to rule? Since when did all matters of public policy devolve into a high stakes game of chicken? And why is it that the mentality of ten year old boys has taken an entire government hostage? How does a moderate make his or her voice heard in this cacophony of bilious bile?

People need something to believe in; they will accept what is force fed them if they lack the strength or creativity to seek it out on their own. These days, God is Out and Politics is In. We are sheep. But our new Deity is one built on covetous rage or colossally idealistic beliefs. It is a False God that demands tributes in the form of campaign dollars, votes, and alliances only with those who see things as we do.

The unkindness, intolerance, and hypocrisy for which organized religion has become so well known has simply shifted over to politics. We see it all around us. But like sheep, we know not where else to go, so we either stand there immobilized with all this swirling about us or indignantly join the braying. A sad choice, if ever there was one.

But this is the moment where we need to get creative. We need to be clever and determined as to how we might lift up the tenor of this chorus. What might you do?

The road to Damascus may require us to revisit places heretofore abandoned.


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