Archive for January, 2014

Managing Inclement Conditions: What’s the Forecast for You?

January 30, 2014

It is cold here in Washington! Icy, arctic, and frigid. Bone chilling cold with the forecast for more of the same over the next several days. Now, while it’s true that Washingtonians love to whine and overreact about their weather, the fact that this Polar Vortex Redux is so out of the ordinary and prolonged means that we need to do more than bleat and bellyache: we need to readjust to current, uncomfortable conditions and get on with the business of living.

 

Ever since I left my life back in the perfection that is Santa Barbara and relocated to DC, I’ve had to adjust to less than ideal conditions. This has not always been easy. While it’s true that I’m a Capital City native and there is much about this wonderful town that’s familiar to me, I was away for a long time; and, it was during those years, I became an adult. In my absence, Washington changed a lot, too. So, in many respects, the city and I are strangers to one another.  The DC I knew was a place for a person I am no longer.

 

Re-booting is a hard enough process as it is, but to re-boot in a place that’s quasi-familiar lends itself to many trapdoors and inaccurate assumptions that make it trickier to negotiate than if I were to move to, say, Kansas City or Toronto or somewhere utterly foreign, where my life really would be tabula rasa. Instead, I find myself reverting to all sorts of faulty, hardwired expectations: that it takes 15 minutes to get anywhere in the city, that it’s far less populous than it actually is, and that those of us whose professional experience doesn’t originate in Washington will be perceived as having something valuable to offer. Wrong on all counts.

 

While my life readjustment process from West Coast to East is dramatic and highly visible, yours may not be so obvious; still and all, if you wish to remain sane and move forward in a constructive manner, you, too, must re-boot. But, what does this mean for you? Which parts of your life are you willing to adjust? How much compromise of your goals is required in order to retain the parts of your life you cherish while providing the room and flexibility for you to pursue those new elements you so desperately wish to pursue? We don’t get everything we want, but we can attain some of the things that are important to us. Somewhat akin to living with this bitter cold, how much are you willing to work around in order to “get out there” and engage in fulfilling activities? Or, do you prefer remaining housebound rather than summoning the will to unpack your winter gear, negotiate the occasional icy sidewalk, and head out? Which choice are you making?

 

What I have learned about this business of forced adjustment and compromise is that the entire process goes way more smoothly once I recognize that my willingness to embrace a different way of thinking about things—thus relinquishing my old operating manual of assumptions—makes all the difference. For example, my job search process will be made easier if I simply find a way to work around the fact that employers in DC don’t care what experience you gained outside of the District. I may consider this a stupid and arrogant belief on their part, but acknowledging the fact that this is how they operate now means I can devise another strategy to achieving my goal of finding employment. Their attitude is beyond my control and I can’t do anything to change it. It’s inconvenient, it’s a pain in the ass, it requires me to do something I’d just as soon not do, but it’s the only sure-fire way of ensuring I make progress towards my goal of finding a job here in Washington. So, let’s focus on you now. You’re the one who’s uncomfortable about X,Y, or Z in your life. You’re the one who has the nagging, steady urge to do something else.  Something you’re not doing today. So, what is it? How do you get there from here?

 

Things don’t always work out the way we expect or want. People change and we don’t necessarily embrace the direction they’re headed. Much to our confusion and personal dismay, we find we now want different things than what we’ve built up and based our lives on up to this point. What, then, must we do?

 

It’s similar to the frigid weather DC is experiencing—unwelcome developments that we must adjust to in order to move forward. We do not let the cold define us.

 

The point of this blog post is to get you thinking about how you might ameliorate a chronic challenge in your life. What (or who) is it that continually bugs the $%*!@#$%! out of you? If you don’t find a new way to think about this problem, it’ll only fester, so you need to adjust how you handle it. The cold returns every winter, but I make it worse when it dictates what I do.

To Notice or Not to Notice, That is the Question

January 28, 2014

In many respects, my father and I rest on opposite ends of the bell curve when it comes to how we choose to approach and interpret all that goes into the business of living one’s life. Some of this differentiation may be a child’s predictable reaction against their parent, but other elements originate from a stark difference in our temperaments. Nowhere is this contrast more glaring than in my hyper-awareness of noticing what goes on around me, whereas he glides through life oblivious to about 85% of any and all inter-personal exchanges. Where my radar is attuned to picking up variations in parts per million, my dad lacks an aerial antenna. For as long as I’ve known him, it’s just how he is. This remains a source of perpetual astonishment for me—I cannot fathom how he manages to make his way in this world being so unaware. Which brings me to the topic du jour: given that there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both ends of the personal observation spectrum, how do we, as re-booters, find our way to that serene middle where we are sensitive to the important undercurrents, without being distracted by all the flotsam and jetsam?

Obviously, if I weren’t an inveterate and dedicated people watcher, I’d not be writing this blog. There is nothing as haphazard and varied as human motivation and choices; it’s a study subject that never grows old, at least not in my book. The way I explain this to myself is that, as a child, there were enough random, unwelcome reactions by certain relatives that I felt forced to develop an early warning system for shifts in familial tides; these skills have proven to be hugely useful throughout my career, so, overall, they’ve played a positive role in my life. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to the conclusion that my life experience is much improved when I practice greater discrimination in my people watching activities. The reasons for this include a) not everything about others is endlessly fascinating and most is inconsequential, b) unless there’s a more important, “big picture”/extrapolation-about-human-nature reason to observe someone, it easily devolves into voyeurism—and we have the Real Housewives series to fill that distasteful hunger, and c) watching and assessing human behavior can be exhausting. So, these are my reasons as to why it’s not good to pay attention to those around us.

On the other hand, being tuned out means we miss much of what makes life interesting. To have the ongoing sitcom that is life pass right over our heads means we’ve eliminated a rich vein of humor from our daily experience. People are funny! They do funny things, everyday, and failing to notice these one act plays is a genuine loss. Our peers are our best instructors, and we can save ourselves a whole lot of grief if we learn from their trials and errors—but you have to pay attention. That being said, I am willing to concede that my father’s existence is a whole lot more tranquil than mine, simply because he hasn’t a clue. He doesn’t bother to notice what signals people send and then is shocked, shocked! by the eventual outcome. (Really? If you’d paid attention, it might not have come as such a surprise.) But, I admit that up until that unwelcome denouement, he hasn’t drained his energies by fretting. So, he’s got that going for him, and it’s not a small point. Ignoring the vast majority of what’s going on around us permits us to focus our energies on matters of particular consequence. A third advantage to being tuned out is that we don’t run the risk of forming opinions or getting emotionally involved in matters that are really none of our business. For example, we don’t worry about what others think of us. How much time have you, personally, wasted doing this? And what has it gotten you? An ulcer? A hangover? What positive outcome follows from torturing ourselves over other people’s opinions of us? Practicing disinterest about issues or people creates psychological space for us to engage in more worthwhile activities. Limiting what we notice allows us to create clear boundaries between what is important to us and…everything else.

How do I strive for that middle ground? Well, it ain’t natural or easy, I assure you. Mostly, I have to remind myself that much of what I notice is inconsequential and deserves no commentary—it simply isn’t any of my business and I do myself no favors by forming an opinion. And then, I refocus my attention on something I actually care about. It ain’t a perfect system, but it’s the only one I’ve got. Does any of this ring true for you? Where do you come down on finding that middle point of the bell curve? Thoughts? Ideas? Feedback?

 

Anyone? Anyone? –doo economics?

 

(Maybe, this is simply one of those topics you’ve decided best be tuned out…)

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Old Dogs, New Tricks, and the Formidable Powers of Neuroplasticity

January 23, 2014

The most powerful sex organ of the human body is the brain. Your eyes don’t see, your ears don’t hear, and your fingers don’t feel; your brain does—do you find this surprising? Instead, what these sensory faculties (eyes, ears, fingers) do do, is transmit patterns along nerves to the brain, which then interprets them into perceptions: I love him. I see the mountain. I hear the orchestra. I feel your body.

 

What’s important to remember is that when one of these sensory faculties is compromised or destroyed, it doesn’t mean that the brain can no longer do its interpretive work—which is where the field of sensory substitution and neuroplasticity enters the picture. As long as the signals can be transmitted to the appropriate part of the cerebrum (for sight, for hearing, for touch), our brains will continue to interpret the data. We can still see, though our eyes don’t work. As I recently learned during an iPhone tutorial, there is more than one way to accomplish a goal. The brain’s ability to adapt to changing stimulus—say the deterioration of a sense—is what brain plasticity is all about. Which makes this research into “seeing through sensation” so fantastic!

 

Now, what does any of this high falutin’ science business have to do with re-booting? Well, I’ll tell ya. Sensory substitution and cortical remapping are powerful analogies for those of us who fear that by losing X, we have forfeited the ability to enjoy Y.

 

Not true.

 

Far too many people live their lives wistfully looking in the rearview mirror. Whether it is a result of the developments associated with physical aging, a loss of a relationship or job they loved, or some other seemingly catastrophic event, they worry/fear/believe that the joys they experienced at that earlier point in time are now foreclosed to them. “I can’t run like I used to,” they declare. “I’m too old a dog; my knee is destroyed.  I’ll never feel the thrill of crossing another finish line.” Or, “She can never be replaced in my heart, so I guess I’ll consign myself to a flat lined existence.” Or, “We used to have so much more money, and now look at us. How will I ever give them what they deserve?” Before reading any further, I want you to take a moment and think back to some time in your life where you’ve told yourself something similar or watched someone close to you make a comparable decision about their life.

 

Now, I am not minimizing the grief of genuine loss and ability, truly I am not, but one of the core qualities of re-booters is resilience, often evidenced by a determination to cultivating our own forms of achieving our goals using new approaches. We, re-booters, are cortical cartographers! Just because you can no longer run in the race, does that mean you can never experience the thrill of crossing a finish line? Of course not! Changed doesn’t mean bad. Maybe “different” brings with it something even more fantastic! Just because the “love of your life” is no longer present, is it impossible to imagine a future where you feel fully loved and understood? Are you so ready to close that door simply because the periphery vehicle (ex. your great love) which transmitted those signals to your brain is no longer available? This is where cortical remapping comes in, my friends. Synaptic pruning! Cross modal plasticity! Here is where you try a different path, practice it, and become acclimatized to a new mode of seeing, an innovative path towards perceiving sound. Shouldn’t this same approach be used when re-booting your life? You are seeking out a more joyous way to live after something has gone seriously askew. You are the blind man discovering another way to see. You are the dog determined to learn new tricks. It’s not too late. You’re not too old or too hurt or too dumb. But you have to try. You have to be willing to push through those first couple of times that may or may not work, that feel awkward or funny or just plain hopeless. Give yourself the freedom to redefine what it means to do these things, in a way you’ve never before considered.

 

I mean, who’s to say that the feelings of genuine acceptance and patient companionship don’t provide more powerful perceptions of intimacy and fulfillment than that generated by the roar of hormones and youthful beauty we once experienced? I, for one, am unwilling to roll over and play dead.

Critical Thinking Skills, People!

January 21, 2014

A key part of the re-booting process usually involves a serious review and assessment of erroneous assumptions we made in the past. As my first grade teacher, Mrs. Davidson, so memorably taught me, “to assume is to make an ass of you and me.” So wise and yet, that hasn’t stopped any of us from doing so. In fact, we need to operate on the basis of a lot of assumptions in order to get through the day: we assume the sun will rise each morning, we assume that we’ll be able to make it to work on time, we assume our kids will get back from school safely, etc. Based on the information we have, we assume all will be well.

Except when it isn’t. It’s only then, when it’s too late, do we think to ask ourselves if we missed anything. If we, somehow, overlooked a sign of trouble or deception. We took it for granted that what we were told was accurate…because it was easier to do so.

But back to Mrs. Davidson’s adage and what this has to do with improving our re-booting process: we have many good, solid reasons for presuming a lot about our lives and the world around us, but because we have such good reasons, it is all too easy to slip into that comfortable lull where we blithely accept what others tell us. The problem for re-booters is that something significant in our lives feels out of place or wrong and demands to be remedied, so now we are forced to endure the uncomfortable but necessary exercise of reexamining our erroneous assumptions.

Take me, for instance. I grew up with relatives who vociferously championed qualities such as loyalty—in my own, weird little world, familial love was described in battle terms, “You can count on her in the trenches” or “He’d take a grenade for you,” that sort of thing—so, years later, when I found myself in an intense relationship where “loyalty” and “integrity” were liberally bandied about, I responded like Pavlov’s dog, assuming that the terms were intended in a reciprocal manner. But, they weren’t. In this particular relationship, loyalty only went one way. Where I erred was that I failed to question my assumption that it was a two-way street, despite there being manifold examples that I might want to reconsider what I presumed to be the case. And then, when everything blew up, I saw things as they were, not as I had hoped them to be. That was a hard lesson to learn.

Now, I’m no Oliver Stone conspiracy theorist, but I want you to be aware of the fact that questioning what you’re told extends from the most intense of relationships all the way to impersonal documents that we’d have every justification to believe were reliable. For instance, in the recently released US Senate Intelligence Committee investigative report on the September 11, 2012 deaths in Benghazi, Libya, buried on page 41, is a reference by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller that 15 people, “supporting the investigation or otherwise helpful to the United States have been killed in Benghazi since the attacks…It is unclear whether their killings were related to the Benghazi investigation.”  Now, to me, this appears to be a fairly significant turn of events, and yet, neither the Republican commentary at the report’s end mentions this nor did the Wall Street Journal or New York Times see fit to include it in their articles published the following day. Seriously? Fifteen people somehow tied to the investigation of this attack die or disappear and the matter isn’t investigated further? The committee and major national newspapers are ok with it being left “inconclusive,” really??? And what does this signal to you about how you might read articles about this (or other) matters in the future? This is what I mean when I refer to critical thinking skills.

The way I see it, a sampling of events of recent memory serve as evidence of the great strength of our democracy: for instance, neither Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, nor Gennifer Flowers has died or disappeared. For the man who introduced into the national consciousness words such as “obfuscation” and a parsing of the intransitive verb “is,” with as much at stake as there was for Bill Clinton, nobody mysteriously vanished. Or, the fact that nary a single shot was fired during (or subsequent to) the Florida 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election, hanging chad recount is HUGE! But, what about the 15 people related to the Benghazi investigation? Let’s just hope that some of the other, ongoing Congressional inquiries exhibit more, uh, curiosity and examine this disturbing matter.

A different example of critical thinking stems from a January 10 Wall Street Journal  article that discusses the issue of student subsidies in higher education. What caught my interest was buried about 2/3 of the way through the piece where the state higher education chancellor for Nevada, Dan Klaich, is quoted explaining the necessity for such subsidies. “What we have in Nevada is a huge low-income, first-generation population. If you lose this generation, you’re going to end up paying for it on the other end. It costs eight times more to put a person in prison for a year than to educate them at the University of Nevada, Reno.” Now, whether you are in favor of such subsidies or not is irrelevant for my purposes; what I want you to think about is the premise behind Mr. Klaich’s position: that people who don’t go to college will wind up in prison. Really? Is there no happy ending for them? Is it reasonable to assume they are doomed to live out their lives as felons? Wow! Now, just reflect upon all that goes into making a claim like this: anyone who doesn’t go to college is a sure bet for the pokey–that’s bad enough–and universities are the only thing that stands between you (the taxpaying subsidizer) and the crime-filled chaos that is sure to follow if you don’t pony up and keep our universities running. Trust us, we’re educators, we’re smarter than you!

I am using these examples simply to prod you into staying vigilant about questioning whether the information or representations that are put in front of you may require additional scrutiny. As Ronald Reagan so often said, “Trust but verify.”

I know how tempting it is to accept information as it is offered, without doing any extra work to determine if what is being said makes sense. There is a significant dissonance in each of the above examples that demands you pay attention. Use this technique when examining the dissonance in your own lives. Ask yourself, “Why does this not feel quite right to me? Is there any more to this? What am I assuming to be the case? Am I missing some key piece of information?” My fellow re-booters, please, do me the favor of reminding yourselves to exercise critical thinking skills at every turn. This is a core line of code in your re-booting process.

Don’t Overthink It!

January 16, 2014

As a Taurus, I am inclined to action. I like making a plan, getting things done, and crossing tasks off my list—the way I see it, this frees me up to do whatever I want, once my goals are accomplished. But, however straightforward things may appear to me, I recognize that it isn’t nearly this clear cut for others. To you, I have this to say: don’t overthink it.

 

Remember, we all aim to be conscientious and comprehensive in our assessments and choices, but the fact of the matter is, everything worth doing involves risk: relationships, occupations, passions, what have you—exploring new territory mandates that we take steps that feel inconvenient, sacrifice other activitiess that we enjoy, and generally extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps because those of us who are Tauruses have thick skulls, we are better suited than most to stampeding blindly into the future, but I’ve gotta admit that there are one or two of you out there in the Zodiac universe who have formidable exoskeletons as well—you can take a licking and keep on ticking.

 

Ok, so why am I blathering on this way? Because way, way, waaaaay too many of us overthink the changes we wish to make using “being responsible” as an excuse not to take action. To you I say, responsible assessment has its limits and when taken too far, inevitably results in paralysis and lost opportunities. You won’t have the same chances forever, so if you snooze…you lose. This may sound harsh, but life moves on and the doors that are open today may not be open tomorrow. You know this, even if you are loathe to admit it.

 

I’ll tell you a story about myself. For much of my life, I was plagued with unhappiness about an element of my appearance; my insecurity was so great that it dictated much of how I interacted with the world—and forced me to develop qualities and characteristics that I hoped would distract those around me from judging me for my “so obvious failings.” Despite the fact that my friends constantly reassured me that it wasn’t the problem I considered it to be, I also know that how I felt about it drove everything in terms of my ability to relate to others and embrace the opportunities that came my way. But, making the change I believed I needed involved significant risk on my part—physical, emotional, and mental. I had to get to a point where dealing with whatever possible, unknown aftermath of my choice was more attractive than living with the misery of my current situation. I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it. I tried a variety of strategies that never quite worked. What pushed me over the edge was when I turned forty. For me, turning forty was a significant marker into full-on adulthood. I gave myself a little talking to and basically said, “If not now, when? What makes you think this will be easier ten years from now?I knew the answer. I knew that my ability to do certain things and enjoy certain experiences would not be enhanced if I waited—in fact, my chance to do these things would likely diminish if not outright disappear. I had to take that risk. And, so I did.

 

Taking that risk has made a world of positive difference for me, despite the fact that the results weren’t, exactly, what I had expected.

 

It matters not what my particular decision was about; what matters is what this adjustment is for you. Yes, there are risks involved. And, yes, there are possible prices to pay. But, how much better off are you going to be if you delay? Like Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, doors can disappear, passages vanish, and there you’ll remain—paralyzed by your responsible thoughts. Is that what you want?

That Was Then, This is Now (2014)

January 14, 2014

Hey, kids, and welcome back to another fabulous year of Dignitary’s Retreat! Having concluded my union-negotiated winter break, I am back in the saddle, relaxed, refreshed and rarin’ to go. But, first off, let me take a moment to thank you, my devoted readers, for your interest and support. While I love doing what I do, the fact that you find it worth your time to read my posts, consider my posits, and see how they might integrate with your lives, well, all I can say is that means a lot to me. Together, let’s make 2014 a year of increased activity and insight, so…buckle up!

 

As the calendar year turns over each January, it’s a natural time to do as the Roman god of passages and transitions, Janus, did—look backwards and ahead. Where I want to focus today’s post is on the little matter of personal identity and how much of the past we carry into this thing we call ourselves versus who we allow ourselves to be going forward. (Oh, brother, you mutter, here she goes again talking in circles.) Now, while it’s unavoidably true that a great deal of who we are is based on our families and experiences, it is not dispositive—which is what a lot of people get tangled up in. There is a strong and understandable tendency to define ourselves according to what our families told us about who we are—and I have no problem in taking pride and finding solace in a shared familial past—but the past is the past. I mean, you weren’t the one hopping on board some creaky ship finding your way to the new world! You didn’t do that, somebody else did. And, if they didn’t do that, maybe they were the ones to raise a family of 13 on the Dakota plains or build a business empire in Atlanta or survey Alaska before it became a state—or even rob a bank, thus spending the rest of their lives in prison. My point is that as much as any of these episodes may have influenced your life experience, they do not define it.

 

You do.

 

So, my first question of the year, fellow re-booters, is how much of the past sets the parameters for who you are today? How far are you willing to allow other people’s choices, mistakes, or expectations to define your definition of yourself? For example, are you the caretaker of three generations’ worth of stuff you didn’t choose and would just as soon not have? What makes you hold onto it all? Now, substitute the words “perspectives” or “emotional baggage” for “stuff” and see what happens.

 

In my experience, I have seen people cling to the past because they’re too afraid to believe they might be worthwhile in their own right, without all those ancestoral references or achievements which make people sit up and take notice. Or, they fear that if they let go of large parts of the past such an action, somehow, invalidates the deceased relatives they loved and cherished. Letting go is tough, I know. But in order to make room for new things, in order to cultivate the wonder that accompanies new experiences we have to let go of the old. The same is true for you—are you, today, the same person your parents told you you were? Could they possibly know everything about the person you’ve become? Of course not! And, who you thought you’d be at fifteen is not an entirely accurate picture of who you have become. So, think on this awhile. It’s a new year and time for a new understanding of who you are—unbound from the choices and expectations of those who came before.


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