Archive for June, 2013

The Art of Accompanying Others

June 27, 2013

The majority of topics explored in this blog focus on one’s personal experience of life, however, we are all fortunate enough to play important roles in the lives of others, and it is this, more outward focus, that is the topic of today’s post. Whether we are responsible for the rearing of young children, cooperating with friends or colleagues, or trying to negotiate complex and sometimes frustrating relationships with our spouses, siblings, or parents there are many ways in which our primary task is to serve as a support to others. It’s not about us.


I have a friend in Santa Barbara who is a brilliant, young pianist. The topic of her final lecture, before being awarded her doctorate, was dedicated to composing a new piano reduction for Mozart’s 5th violin concerto in A major (an orchestral piece). Historically, piano reductions were used as a way to familiarize audiences with complex musical pieces when they did not have access to orchestras. The audience heard a version of the larger work by way of a performance of piano and one other instrument, such as a violin. Today, the role of a pianist playing reductions is often to rehearse and prepare their soloist partner for an orchestral performance. As I listened to my friend’s lecture touching upon various arcane music theory, what jumped out at me was the question of how to distill complex life philosophies, works of art, etc in a manner which retains the “spirit of the orchestral composition” while simultaneously presenting the work in a practical manner that supports the performance of the soloist. In other words,


How do you best convey the spirit of something highly complex while keeping it practical for a much more limited reality?


Reductive thinking, philosophy, and cooking all present slightly different views of the same general principle—a dissection and intensifying of a larger, more complex original source piece. For instance, do you understand the essential melody and harmony of a piece sufficiently well to distill a great work into a brilliant accompaniment? Which parts do you include? Which parts should be omitted? Or, how might a parent convey to his child an overriding life philosophy in a manner a child can understand, but leaving room for it to be applied on a grander scheme as the child’s abilities grow and expand? And, most importantly, why are you making these choices?


Finesse and an appreciation for the bigger picture is the commonality that runs through any successful distillation. In cooking, if you expose a sauce to too high a heat for too long, the whole thing burns and is ruined. Too much reduction, and the orchestral piece devolves into an arrangement for piano, missing much of what made the original composition so brilliant. Too little, and the reduction cannot be performed by the pianist, thus accomplishing nothing if the goal is to assist the solo performer, allowing them to shine.


If our overall goal is to support others, we need to do our best to understand what the “big picture” needs are for the person we are there to support. Whether this is a violinist practicing to perform with a 70 piece orchestra or a child taking his first steps towards self-sufficiency, we need to remember that our role is not to dominate the score, but to provide assistance by carefully choosing which chords we think add value to another’s performance. 


The Secret Swagger of Security Badges

June 25, 2013

I doubt there is any city, other than Washington, where wearing a security badge is a fashion statement. As ubiquitous as the uniform of a grey pin striped suit and polished oxfords for which DC is justifiably famous, you can’t take a step downtown without seeing the laminated ID badge, displayed as proudly as a Texas belt buckle.

I am on the ornery side when it comes to privacy (personal blog aside), so it surprises me to witness people so at ease with displaying their badges outside of their highly guarded workspace. On the Metro, Theresa Jones (employed by the FBI) lets it all hang out; Javier Gutierrez is equally blasé about who knows his name and where he works (EPA). Confident that the badge opens doors for them, these worker bees don’t think twice about broadcasting their identities when exiting their exclusive access areas. The badge is “all;” it serves as confirmation that they have passed muster, a part of some rarified circle.

As I ride alongside of them in one of Metro’s orange carpeted subway cars, their badges gently swaying as the car swooshes through the underground tunnels, I stare, transfixed, at their casually displayed IDs. I begin to wonder about the metaphorical security badges we each carry. What quality or experience do each of us invest in which provides us a (private) sense of security and confidence? Is it our family background? A diamond ring we wear? Our job title or bank account balance? Or, perhaps, our secret pride lies in flouting convention? When I think about it, I’m pretty certain that there is something we each feel secretly smug about. For example, a man who carries a condom in his wallet—even if it is never used—may be the talisman he needs to believe himself to be a rogue of sorts; it’s what he needs in order to carry himself with a certain swagger.

Taken from a slightly different perspective, what might others observe about us as the basis for our feeling secure or accepted? Is it the same thing that we would secretly admit to ourself about ourself? Perhaps your relatives say you take a secret pride in how “family values” oriented you are? (No matter that your definition excludes any other approach as valid.) Or, perhaps, your work colleagues would say that a lot of your confidence comes from an overinflated sense of your own educational pedigree. Is this what you secretly call upon when entering a room full of strangers, making a pitch for their business? Do you realize how much others can see about you? How does this make you feel? Vulnerable or blasé?

What is your personal security badge?

I’m not sure if this blog post makes any sense, but I hope I’m getting my point across. There’s nothing wrong with having a metaphorical security badge—we all do it. I just think we tend to forget that people see more than we realize. Self-knowledge is a useful quality because we can remind ourselves when we get too far off course. As a Re-booter still very much in the thick of struggling to launch a new life, it’s hard for me to identify that “secret thing” I feel smug about. Having your life upended can serve as an effective counterpoint to that sort of pride, I assure you! Right now, there ain’t that much I can look to to bolster that part of me, but I know I’ve got it. Maybe this is a useful lesson, feeling as though my secret swagger eludes me. What about you? 

Contradictory Impulses

June 20, 2013

One of the many odd things about the way I lived my life in Santa Barbara was the fact that while it was very important to me that I lived near the ocean, I never went to the beach. Though I enjoyed the whole SoCal lifestyle of outdoor volleyball, little kids with sand pails, dogs happily chasing sticks into the waves—I loved knowing it was there—I forewent it all. My very favorite SB restaurant is (literally) right on the sand, but would I set even one dainty toe in the grains? No, I would not. Concerns such as tar on my feet (SB has loads of natural tar seeps), sunburn issues, and overcrowding kept me away.


So, how much could I “really love” something that so consistently failed to entice me? And yet, I am stalwart in my adoration of the ocean and preference for life at the shore. It’s just the way I roll.


This contradiction got me thinking about other types of mismatch in our lives. It makes no sense to me that I can love being by the sea and yet actively avoid it. What gives? Am I just fooling myself? Am I so stunningly lazy that I can’t be bothered to drive 10 minutes down the road and pull into the beachside lot? Have I bought into a mythical lifestyle so I feel like I fit in? Yes, I know how strange this is.


Which is one of the reasons that when I made the choice to move back to DC, away from the soft breezes and sunny climes of Santa Barbara, I reminded myself that I actually hadn’t gotten to the beach enough to justify my staying put. To be honest, years ago when I first moved from Washington to Santa Barbara, I experienced the reverse concern about leaving a large city—but, heading West, I reminded myself that it wasn’t like I was going to a disco every night or whatever it is “Big City” folk do to embrace their urban jungle.


So, what’s my point in sharing this with you? My point is twofold: #1 It’s worth observing the contradictions in yourself and making an effort to recognize they exist because they can have a funny way of influencing your decisions if you don’t keep an eye out. #2 I believe it makes it easier to sympathize with another’s contradictory struggles if we acknowledge our own.


This tussle extends far beyond geography. For example, I may really want a particular job or relationship or whathaveyou, but whenever I get close to getting it, my gut clenches and all sorts of alarm bells go off warning me that this may not be the right choice. For me, it’s purely an emotional response since I have a “thing” about feeling trapped or stuck, but the fact that I now recognize I do this has made it a lot easier for me to cajole myself through this temporary panic. I murmur soft, reassuring phrases to myself (keeping an eye on the Exit Sign) and, in nearly all cases, my concern fades away.


So, what about you? What sort of crazy, head scratching contradictions do you have? Have you even thought about it? Any theories as to why you are so perplexing? Can you see this pattern in the people close to you?


I know someone who loves to be organized and talks about it incessantly, but is one of the messiest, disorganized people in my acquaintance. That’s a contradiction! Or how about someone who loves to cook but refuses to eat? And, taking it a step further, what if you love or admire someone but you refuse to tell them? How about that? Tell you what, think about this for awhile, see what insights you can glean about yourself, and I’ll take you to a beachside disco, my treat.

What Are You Wistful About?

June 18, 2013

Wistfulness is a funny thing. Sometimes we are wistful for things we, actually, wouldn’t want to revisit as adults; other times, we long for experiences or people we’ve cherished for many years. What is it that you miss having in your life?

For me, there are people (well, one person, in particular) and past experiences that I wish I had in my life right now. There are also people and experiences I wonder about that I have never known—this second group falls much more into the romanticized category than the first because I know too much about the prior to think it would all be idle bliss.

Are either totally foreclosed to me? Probably not.

So, what will it take to get me closer to them? A dollop of brave initiative and a whole lot outside of my control. Not exactly a recipe for success, is it?

No, but the part we tend to forget about when feeling wistful is that somebody else is sitting there feeling wistful about us, too. Yes, this applies to you. I promise you, for as much as you may be dreaming about someone or something, there is (more likely than not) somebody who dreams about having you in their life, too.

Do you remember that marvelous song from the musical Annie,” Maybe”?

Maybe far away

Or maybe real nearby

He may be pouring her coffee

She may be straightening his tie!

Maybe in a house

All hidden by a hill

She’s sitting playing piano,

He’s sitting paying a bill!


Betcha they’re young

Betcha they’re smart

Bet they collect things

Like ashtrays, and art!

Betcha they’re good —

(Why shouldn’t they be?)

Their one mistake

Was giving up me!

Who or what did you give up you that you wish you hadn’t? Why did you do so? Overall, did you make the right decision? Why do you still think about them? What does this person or past experience mean to you? How might you recapture this?

Someone I know back in Santa Barbara has a very complicated domestic situation which involves several unhappy and dysfunctional players. This is not so unusual. We all know people embroiled in scenarios which are complicated, unpleasant and sad. But the frustrating element of the scenario that comes to mind for me is the fact that my main contact’s only answer to any discussed alternative is “No.”

No, no, no, no, and no. No, it wouldn’t work to try X. No, Y is impossible because of [fill in the blank]. No, I’ll just have to make the best of it. No, it’s my role to be a martyr and guide these other dysfunctional players through this.


Really, is your answer to dysfunction and wistfulness always going to be No?


Does feeling wistful but throwing up walls against action get you anywhere constructive? Does it truly serve the people around you to maintain a dysfunctional ecosystem?

Trust me, I get it. As a Re-booter of the First Order, I am sympathetic and understand how frightening, inconvenient, and unpleasant upsetting the (dysfunctional) applecart can be. I had a million good reasons for why I “had” to remain in a situation so toxic it was poisoning my worldview and impacting my health. I was terrified, furious that I was being forced into such an untenable situation, but my fear overrode it all, so I sat tight, hating every minute, until life made sure I had no choice but out.

The point of this post is to prod you into asking yourself how many roadblocks you are throwing up to avoid taking the steps necessary to move closer to that person or experience that has haunted you all these years. And, they would only haunt you if there were something “real” there! This isn’t some flash in the pan, passing fancy. If you are still wistful, that tells me that you may want to look more closely, give yourself a fighting chance to find out. Don’t find another reason to say no.

What Does Scarcity Mean to You?

June 13, 2013

I have a good friend whose father, as a boy, lived through the Great Depression. He went on to thrive in his life, building a successful dental practice and providing for his bustling family of five children. But, having survived such lean times as a child, despite his financial success, he was always thrifty and hated to waste food. Which is why he insisted on eating a pork chop that his wife had lovingly wrapped in tin foil, placed in their freezer for later, and labeled 1972. The aforesaid chop being proposed for consumption a good twenty years later sufficiently alarmed his daughters that they forbid their father from taking a bite before they checked with Poison Control. Said experts advised my friends that the meat would probably be a little tough, but it wouldn’t kill anyone. And so, the good doctor dug in.

I love this story. I love everything about it. But, it also got me thinking about the experience of scarcity and what people do with it.

Over the course of our lives, we all undergo a form of scarcity, be it a scarcity of material goods, a scarcity of love and approval, or a dearth of another sort entirely. And, no matter where we are in the world, it is far more probable that any physical deprivations we have suffered pale in comparison to those of our forbearers, so we need to be grateful they took the hit for us. But what about those other types of deficits? How do we compensate for them? Do we even need to? Must our life scales be continuously full and balanced?

My grandmother loved to serve meals using up all the leftovers she found in the fridge. It gave her enormous satisfaction to announce that, “it all evens out.” I’m not totally sure what she meant by that, but I suppose it had something to do with not letting anything go to waste—which is one of the things I’ve had to unlearn in terms of not needing to finish everything on my plate. As Americans, we exist in a culture that champions the idea of abundance for everyone in all arenas of life. While it’s wonderful to enjoy such bounty, somehow along the way, this morphed into the misguided idea that we have to make things “right” for everybody, all the time. To wit, all kids should be awarded trophies and promoted to the next level, regardless of skill. Or accommodations must be made to spare everyone and anyone a sense of disappointment, exclusion, or insult. Since when? Why would we perpetuate a practice that is not remotely connected to how life actually works?

Scarcity of some of these experiences provides a wisdom of its own. We learn to value things that don’t come readily– hence, the 1972 pork chop—and we also learn to do without. The value of this lesson is not to be minimized. For instance, I was never invited to prom and the one time I screwed up my courage to ask a boy in one of my classes, after 3 days of waiting, he turned me down. Ok, so that’s a pretty devastating thing for a high school girl, but I survived. Sure, part of me feels a little like a freak for having never having been to prom, but so what? It’s good for me to have dealt with this because I’ve learned that I am more than that and can apply this wisdom to future letdowns. Plus, for someone who has been blessed with a life of a fair amount of privilege, this disappointment (among others) has imparted a level of empathy I am deeply grateful to have.

There’s a lot more to be said on this subject. For now, however, I charge you to consider some of the scarcity you have felt and what you have done with this experience. How has it impacted your attitude towards not getting something you desperately wanted or pursuing something you desire? Have you learned to live successfully without? Perhaps its made you more appreciative of those times you do get to be with that special person or enjoy that elusive experience. I suspect there may be other benefits as well, as odd as it may sound to perceive deprivation as a bittersweet positive. Re-booters recognize that not getting everything you want or need provides its own form of reward.

Laying Down New Tracks

June 11, 2013

Personal perspectives are not immutable. How we perceive, interpret, and understand the world shifts as we grow and change. This statement, of course, is applicable only to those adults who are brave enough to allow themselves to be transformed. People who insist on a single, inflexible frame of reference cling to that familiar and worn out perspective for dear life.


How many people do you know who stubbornly refuse to release old ideas and opinions?


What fixed ideas do you hold? Yes, you. You’re guilty of this as much as anybody else.


I say this as an expert clinger-onner. In fact, in previous years, I might have been described as a Champion of Rigid Thinking. Now, to be fair, as a Taurus, this sometimes comes with the territory, but even we bulls have had a moment or two where we’ve managed to un-root ourselves. However, just because I have singled my Sun Sign out does not mean the rest of you are off the hook! I can say with confidence that I know folks representing each of the Zodiac out there who have demonstrated great flair and elan for fixed thinking.


Re-booters are aware of this danger and recognize how much better life can be when we take that terrifying step of letting new perspectives or interpretations enter our lexicon. But don’t just trust me on this. Everything from common sense to scientific research to mythology supports the theory that our experience is directly related to where we focus our attention. If we look to be insulted, we will be. If we think of ourselves as lucky, we can find examples to support that, too.


My dad believes he has incredible parking karma, and you know what, he does! He’s gotten parking places that astound me—when he moves on to the Great Beyond, this is what I want to inherit. Parking karma is priceless. On the other hand, his utter refusal to change the way he thinks about and behaves with regard to old relationships has handicapped his life and made difficult situations actively painful for those around him—including me. Fixed thinking doesn’t just hurt the “thinker,” it can harm a lot of others, too.


The collateral damage related to such intransigence is only part of my point. Recently, Alison Gopnik of the Wall Street Journal wrote about scientific studies which track how shifts in mental attention are reflected in different neural pathways being laid in the brain. She writes, “In fact, the response patterns of most brain areas changed when people changed the focus of their attention. Something as ineffable as where you focus your attention can make your whole brain work differently.”


Masuro Emoto, a Japanese author and entrepreneur, best known for his claims that human consciousness has an effect on the molecular structure of water, wrote a marvelous book called The Hidden Messages of Water which demonstrate some of his experiments tracking molecular changes in vials of water which were labeled with different words such as love, envy, hate, fear, gratitude. When you consider Emoto’s experiments in light of the fact that water makes up about 60% of adult body composition, what we tell ourselves and how we choose to experience the world have a direct, physical impact on us.


There’s an old Cherokee legend about a man instructing his grandson about internal battles. He describes the struggle as one between a good wolf and a bad wolf. When the boy asks him which wolf wins the battle, the man replies, “The one you feed.”


So, what about you, my fellow Re-booters? Which wolf do you feed and under what circumstances? (Remember, it’s possible to have amazing parking karma and nurse a decades old fury.) Which long time relationship do you refuse to reconsider in a new light, determined to hang on to whatever romanticized image or annoyance or hurt feelings you experienced in the past? Or, perhaps, you continue to believe that your lackluster performance in school or having been fired once upon a time is a fair and accurate summation of your worth? And how might such a line of thinking have impacted your physical wellbeing? Is your hearing or eyesight loss possibly related to a refusal to listen or to see things in a new light? How have your interpretations about life impacted those close to you?


Would it be really so terrible if you simply decide to change how you thought about “that thing?” These are simply seed thoughts, my friends; let them filter through your consciousness awhile and see what might occur to you.

The Dark Horse

June 6, 2013

At what point in your life have you felt like a dark horse? Maybe you feel like one right now. Actually, I do. As I continue to struggle with the endurance test of looking for work, I’ve come to feel more and more like a dark horse as I network, plead for informational interviews, grovel for low paying contract work just to get my name out there, and submit innumerable resumes and cover letters with zero response whatsoever. Yeah, I think that pretty much qualifies me as a dark horse.

What aspect of your life lends itself to this overlooked, dismissed spectre? Do you see it as a secret advantage? One person observed of me, “You’ve been under-estimated all the way along; that’s a very powerful position to be in.” Or, does it feel more like a perplexing frustration? Years ago, when I couldn’t secure any interviews for summer positions, a law school counselor described me as “an undiscovered diamond.” (It was a nice image, but her help didn’t extend to anything more concrete.)

What publicly unacknowledged talent or dismissed contribution or simple rebellious streak lurks within you? At some point in our lives, we all experience this feeling. When did it happen for you? What did you do about it, if anything? How have you incorporated this into your own, personal myth?

While there are elements to the Dark Horse experience that can feel disappointing, there is a certain amount of concomitant excitement—sort of like Clark Kent without his cape. We know what power and spirit dwells within us, even if others can’t see it. I imagine some Dark Horse candidates cross over into Feeling-Like-A-Fraud territory, but that’s not what I’m aiming for here. Is there a snort of anger with a Dark Horse? Yes, I reckon there is. After all, the rationale behind the horse being dark is because people don’t see it; and everyone wants to be seen. Or, rather, for those who expect to be seen, instead, to pass unnoticed feels like an affront. Does what I’m saying make any sense?

Of course, the entire gestalt of the Dark Horse rests on the premise of requiring the acknowledgement of others. But, at the end of the day, Re-booters know that they need to be self-evaluating, self-motivating, and independent from such third party assessments–a popular refrain here at Dignitary’s Retreat. Had we achieved perfection of those self-evaluating qualities we’d never feel like a Dark Horse because it wouldn’t matter who “sees us”! Hah, well, perhaps I’ll get there in a future lifetime because, in this one, I’m not so self-sufficient.

So, what about you? Where do you stand on this Dark Horse business? What has been your experience with it? Did it anger or frustrate you when it happened? Did it spur you on (ha ha) to action so you’d be seen? Did it make you question yourself? Or perhaps you felt secretly powerful? Maybe something else entirely? Where are you today?

When are you at your best?

June 4, 2013

We all have moments when we shine. There are things in our lives that each one of us does well—different things, of course—but we need to own these talents and take pride in them. And, fortunately, there’s always more than one thing we’re good at. We may be fast runners and good cooks. Perhaps we are adept at soothing those who are troubled and we happen to have a green thumb. Or, say, a great talent for playing an instrument, as well as being an excellent driver.


It’s important to acknowledge your talents and use them as stepping stones in building confidence for other skills which don’t come so naturally. A Re-booter knows that we must start from our strengths in order to grow. All too often, however, people make the mistake of diminishing their capabilities, describing them as “worthless” or “unimportant” or “not nearly as good as” someone else’s. Whether they truly believe this or are doing so for modesty’s sake is immaterial. It is a sin to disdain your God given gifts.


How would you like it if you heard another adult telling a child that what they achieved or produced didn’t count? Same concept! Don’t do this to yourself!


But back to my main point, which is that in order to cultivate additional skills, we must start from our strengths. “How can being a master griller have anything to do with learning to write computer code?” you ask. Well, as I once counseled a woman who was desperate to leave the legal profession but didn’t know how to get launched in a non-legal arena, you break down what you’re good at into its various parts and then draw parallels. Say you’ve left the military and are back in the civilian world, nobody cares whether or not you can shoot a Howitzer, right? But, they do care about precision, accuracy, responsibility, respect for hierarchy, polite manners, professional appearance. Most employers care very much about those skills and practices, so you start there.


Likewise, when tackling a new challenge, I recommend that you summon that feeling of confidence you have each time you exercise your genius and project ahead to a moment when you will be as skilled at this new activity as you are with existing ones. Confidence, fellow Re-booters, confidence is key! Believe me, much of the time I have to project confidence on my theoretical, future brilliance because the present doesn’t always show such promise—but it does give me courage to try. This technique applies as much to the mastery of new situations as it does to the acquisition of skills. When you summon memories of previous success before stepping into an unfamiliar circumstance, you increase your likelihood that things will go well.


Regular DR readers will recall a post I wrote a few weeks ago where I mentioned utilizing the strategy of “fake it ‘til you make it,” during a period of my life when I felt scared, alone, and very depressed. This post strikes a somewhat similar cord except you aren’t faking it! Your talents and genius are real. You know you can trust them. Holding onto this self-assured mindset when launching into unfamiliar territory is a help. We all know how fast the world is changing and we have to change with it. There was an old sixties musical entitled, “Stop The World I Want to Get Off” which pretty much sums up how we each can feel on off days. But, you can’t. You’re on this joyride with the rest of us. The way I see it, we’re all on the same conveyor belt, moving at the same rate, in the same direction, and unless and until we hop off entirely, that belt ain’t stoppin’ for nobody.


But you, you are a Re-booter Extraordinaire! You embrace change—well, at least to a certain extent—and appreciate how change can improve life, even if it makes you feel scared or lonely or as if it’s beyond your ability to handle. Yeah, I’m talking to you, kiddo. So I write this post as a reminder that your talents travel with you—use them as a springboard to additional success.


Homework assignment: think about some new skill or situation that intimidates you. Now ponder it from the mindset you have when you are doing something you know you’re excellent at. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Play around with what might happen were you as brilliant at it as you’d like to be. Next time the opportunity arises, act as if you already know what you’re doing. Go for it! It’s yours for the taking.

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