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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Home Truths for Successful Living

While scanning our bookshelves for a quick read, I came across a little book belonging to one of the children and untouched in recent years. Despite the lack of documentation, the book purported to contain facts. Not even a bibliography! My US History teacher would have been appalled!

Anyway, I read that if I were swallowed by a black hole, I would become elongated. Eeellonnnnnnggated was how the book put it. Well, I thought, I'm sure I've read that somewhere else. I mentally noted I would check this fact with the college student, who has two semesters of Physics in her head by now. Then I moved on to other thoughts. Such as the thought that if I were e-l-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, I might finally become the leggy ectomorph I am in my imagination. Of course my next thought was that I might end up a human chihuaha. Or corgi.

It was time to shelve that line of thought. I moved on to some home truths.

  • My dog smells. He isn’t supposed to, because he is a fancy designer dog, touted to have no doggy smell. Well. I’m here to tell you, he’s lying under the desk right by me, and he smells. It’s not a horrible, gag-inducing dog smell; his smell is milder, but still pungent. There is an odor, though, no matter what the dog people say. It’s equivalent in intensity to the scent of unscented deodorant and lotion. Unscented personal products have an odor.
    He has no idea
  • A frittata is a great, quick meal. I make a mean frittata.
  • “In life, if your focus is being something, then it’s not going to go very well, and it’s not going to be fulfilling. But if your focus is doing something, then that makes a difference.”* I didn’t say that. It’s a quotation from Jason Kander, former Secretary of State in Missouri and founder of Let America Vote, an organization devoted to combating voter suppression and increasing turnout. He’s beautifully describing the fixed versus growth mindsets defined by one of my heroes, Carol Dweck, as crucial to sustained success. 
  • To accomplish many challenges, especially athletic ones, it’s important to develop what W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis calls relaxed concentration. How to develop this? By visualizing your desired outcome, focusing on exactly what is happening in the moment, and allowing your unconscious mind to direct your actions.
  • Following through on your intentions is what separates the finishers from the rest. Just last week, I attended the husband’s work event as Supportive Spouse. I entertained myself by dressing in a poufy skirt and some bitchin’ metallic silver beads. One of the medical residents engaged me in conversation. When he learned I love podcasts, he began listing his favorites. After my eyes glazed and my tongue lolled and I glanced longingly at my congealing meal, he offered to email his recommendations to the husband. And he did, with recommendations for specific episodes. Of course, I can do nothing for his career, but I can vouch for his follow-through.
  • Sometimes you should just buy the thing, even if it’s not on sale. Sometimes the amount you'll wear the thing or use the thing brings down its cost per use to something reasonable. You should try it on, first, though. I mean, if it's a wearable thing. Deliberate in the dressing room. Maybe snap a mirror shot and send it to your friend for approval (If you're under 16, that is.) Then leave the store. Walk around. Tell yourself you’ll wait twenty-four hours and see if you still want it. Wait at least twenty-four minutes. Then if you still want it, go back and buy it. Then wear it, don’t pickle it, as my Aunt Wisdom says my grandmother used to say. 
*Check out Jason Kander's interview on the new podcast The Great Battlefield, all about how the progressive resistance to reactionary policy is organizing. 

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Act Local

Hello, Readers. Let's not say a word about the news, because it really sucks. Instead I want to talk about something that happened recently.

The other weekend my next door neighbor dropped dead. He was a grandfather, in his seventies, and had heart problems. Strange as it may seem, I never met him. I’d seen him driving by in his car. We’d waved. But we never crossed paths. However, his wife B and I meet frequently. She has a little dog. I have a big dog. She’s healthy and able-bodied and goes outside. We’re not exactly close. We chitchat. I knew he was not well. I knew she had a cute grandson and likes to golf. That’s about it. So when a swarm of emergency vehicles arrived on the street one night, I knew it wasn’t B.

The next morning, my phone rang. It was S, my next door neighbor on the other side, calling to see if everything was all right. I was embarrassed that upon waking up, the events of the night before were not on my mind, but they came back to me. I realized S had seen the ambulances, which had parked in front of our house as well as next door. In fact, the paramedics had been pulling a gurney towards our door when I opened it and told them the emergency was next door. I assured S we were all fine, but that the emergency had been at B’s house. We said goodbye and just then my neighbor across the street texted me to find out what had happened. I texted back that I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if I should call B. I wasn’t sure if I should bother her. My across the street neighbor texted that I should call her. So I paced around the kitchen for a moment, debating the merits of bothering her and seeming like a nuisance versus potentially offering help and getting a bit of information about what had happened. I remembered reading something about helping people in emergencies by being specific, rather than general, with offers to help.

Then I called B. She answered, and seemed tearful and happy to tell me what had happened. I asked if there was something I could do, then reminded myself to be specific, and offered to walk her dog if she needed to take care of funeral business. She declined, and we signed off. I reported back to my other neighbors what I had learned, that B’s husband had died suddenly, a few days before reporting to his cardiac surgeon.

The next day, Monday, around five pm, I put some meatballs the husband had made into a plastic container and took it over to B. Before I did it, I again debated calling. I debated offering to bring food. Instead, I decided I would just show up. No calling, no asking.

B opened the screen and ushered me in. I petted her little dog and she clutched the meatball container to her chest while she told me she had just gotten back from getting a funeral plot and when the obituary would come out. Then I went home. The next day, the obituary ran in the paper. There was to be a viewing two nights later and a funeral the morning after that. My across the street neighbor and I decided to go to the viewing, and so Thursday night we arrived at the funeral home I’ve driven past almost daily for eight years.

As we arrived, so were other neighbors. Inside, B and her son were greeting people. There were quite a few there, most unfamiliar, most grouped near the entrance. Through the crowd, I saw rows of folding chairs and at the far wall, a casket. A little glitch in my heart region registered it was open. I would have to deal with that.

B seemed very happy to see us, although still frazzled. She told us she was still in shock and even scratched her head like Laurel - or was it Hardy? She introduced us to her son, whom I had never met, as he lives in a different town. Then she thanked me for the meatballs. In fact, she said, “I have to tell you this. I almost said it when you arrived with those meatballs, but I knew it would sound crazy so I didn’t say anything.” She said she had just been home a few minutes after running around making arrangements for burial and the funeral and she had just been on the phone with someone saying how hungry she was, and how much she wanted some pasta with sauce, but she was too tired to go out and get it, when I rang the doorbell and showed up with the meatballs.

So, this made me feel happy. And I write this not to brag that I did a mitzvah, which is Jewish for good deed. I write this to remind myself that it’s better to do the thing that seems like a good thing to do than not to do it because you’re not one hundred percent sure. I did it despite my worries. Should I call B to find out what happened or would she think I was just being nosy? Was it my business? Would I bother her if I showed up? What if she didn’t like meatballs? What if she was vegetarian?

After she told me this, my across the street neighbor and I braved the end of the room with the open casket, and I had my first close up look at B’s husband. Neither of us lingered, although I noted the rosy tint of his cheeks and thought about the show “Six Feet Under” about a funeral home. Then we moved on to the photo display boards. There were casual snapshots from B’s wedding. Pictures of the young couple, he in a piped, wide-lapeled, suit, and she in something with lace and bell sleeves in that Seventies-hearkening-unto-Medieval-Europe style. My favorite shot showed B lifting her dress to her knee and revealing that with her shoes she was wearing knee socks embroidered with Mickey Mouse. This I found endearing.

What Martin Seligman said about depression being an inability to envision a better future has been dogging me. I think I have that. Getting out from under that viewpoint is a struggle. Following through on my impulse to do right helped me. So did seeing my neighbors scattered around the room at the viewing. As my across the street neighbor and I walked back to the car, we admitted to one another that seeing the body in the casket had turned our stomachs a little. It had seemed like the right thing to do to confront it, though. We were glad we did.
Nature. We must protect it.
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Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to Podium - A Person Wants to Be Helpful

This week finds me more focused than last. Right at this moment I have something in my contact lens making my eye uncomfortable and I am irritated by it and am imaging removing it and replacing it with a new one. A new lens, not a new eye, I hasten to say. This will make me feel better, and see better, which is good because I have to pick up the 9th grader from her rehearsal in an hour. Being able to see when driving is good.

See how much of what I'm thinking about at this moment involves the future? Apparently, this is status normalus for humans. This is what I've learned from a recent article in the failing New York Times Sunday Review.*  I have a beef with the title of this article by Martin Seligman, big name in Positive Psychology, and science journalist John Tierney, "We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment". While the article is fascinating, and is, I suppose, a way of bringing a new field of psychology to the attention of the general public, the title is, frankly, misleading. I wouldn't go so far as to call it click bait, but it is annoying. However, I will get to that. I suppose it was meant to catch the attention, since living in the moment via mindfulness is all the rage these days.

But the meat of this piece is that Seligman believes, “What best distinguishes our species” is our ability to “contemplate the future.” Rather than obsess over the past, people more often think about what might happen, a.k.a., the future. According to Seligman, anxiety and depression spring from having “a bleak view of the future.” Not from past traumas nor how they feel about what is happening at present.

A study of about five hundred adult Chicagoans yielded a lot of information cited in this piece. Using some kind of device, mayhap a phone, the study “pinged” these people multiple times a day and asked them to “record their thoughts and moods.” Turned out that thoughts of the future were three times more common than thoughts of the past. Also, participants reported being happier and less stressed when they were making plans. While they did report concerns about what could go wrong, they were twice as likely to be thinking about what they hoped would happen.

So prospection is our thang. We should rename our species homo prospectus, says Seligman. Although we don't want to think too far in the future, apparently, because only one measly percent of thoughts of those Windy City residents were about death, and most of those were not about their own deaths, they were about other people dying....

Anyway, prospective psychology has ramifications for studying treatments for depression, memory, and emotions. Since anxiety and depression are linked to the tendency to “over-predict failure and rejection,” and become “paralyzed by exaggerated self-doubt,” new therapies are trying to train patients to envision positive outcomes and to look at future risks realistically.

Two other intriguing developments Seligman and Tierney mention are that in brain imaging, the areas of the brain that light up while subjects are remembering are the same areas that light up when they are imagining something. The takeaway is that memory is fluid, and one of the explanations is that memory helps us consider future scenarios. The second interesting conclusion is that emotions exist to help us do this more rapidly and successfully.

So, Readers, the question is, what does this have to do with me? And of course with you - of course. After all, the cornerstone of my blog is the assumption that if it has to do with me, it may well be something to which you can also relate, and therefore this blog is actually helpful in some way. Because a person wants to be helpful in some way, usually. A person likes that.

Although I hope you don’t relate as readily as I to the bits about over-predicting failure and rejection and exaggerated self-doubt.

To be helpful, let me point out that one major takeaway— a  word I’ve now used twice in this piece of writing, when one use of takeaway is perhaps too many — is positive thinking helps in planning and achieving goals. We already knew that, didn't we? But, and here Seligman and Tierney underscore good old Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, if you’re pessimistic, just envisioning getting something you want is not enough. I've touched on this topic before. What you need to do is be realistic about the negatives. Pessimists find this reassuring, since they’re not just being blindly Pollyanna-ish about the future. That, according to a pessimist, is akin to daring the Universe to just shit on you.

Pardon the crassness. My children dislike my crassness. And I apologize for it.

But my point is that a pessimist is just not going to be able to convince herself that she’s going to succeed at the thing she wants to succeed at by simply envisioning it. You know, just imagining herself “podiuming” at the next Olympics, as the snow boarders like to say, is not going to be sufficient for a pessimist. A pessimist is going to have to imagine the practical impediments, also known as obstacles, to her achievement. This will accomplish two things, one magical, and one not. First, it will convince her that she’s not taking the Universe for granted by imagining an easy triumph, thus inviting the Universe’s wrath. This is magical thinking and thus seems irrational, but makes perfect sense to some people, such as me. Second, and more important, this strategy leads to an understanding of the steps she needs to take towards this ultimate goal. The term for this is mental contrasting. It’s the opposite of magical thinking, but it does produce results.

Now, back to the title of this piece. I’m sure Seligman and Tierney didn’t pick it, so I’m not going to blame them. However, it is misleading. It seems to indicate that mindfulness is unhelpful, because focusing on the present is not what we are wired to do. Let me point out that the study that helped determine the conclusions described in this article involved something called “pinging”. I hope it wasn't painful, but I can't say. Okay, I can. I know exactly what pinging is, but I'm being quirky and humorous. Anyway, persons were pinged throughout their days, and then, when pinged, these persons noted what they were thinking and feeling at those moments when they were pinged. Those persons, therefore, were practicing mindfulness. They were taking a moment to notice what was happening in the present. Simple as that. That’s mindfulness. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, mindfulness is awareness, and awareness is a form of intelligence different than thought. It was their mindfulness that allowed these subjects to inform the researchers what was going on in their brains. And it would be mindfulness that would allow those anxious and depressed personages to break their bad thought patterns about the future. They have to recognize the negative thought and replace it with a positive one. That’s called, in Buddhism, setting an intention. Intentions are future-looking. They are seeds of possibility. And setting intentions is one of the elements of meditation.  We want to create a better future for ourselves, even the pessimists among us who are scared they can’t. So, living in the moment is actually one of the better things we can do for ourselves.

So, let’s set an intention. I’m gonna, Readers. My intention is to be generous and truthful. I’d love to know yours.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

News and Tidbits

Hello, Readers. It’s taking a monumental amount of willpower to avoid the big, combed-over elephant in the room. The news has been riveting. But I am not writing about that. And I’m trying to marinate in it less overall. What this means is a short and scattered blog post. 

Tidbits and News:

Following my own advice from last week’s post on dealing with distraction, I have tried, somewhat successfully, to limit my exposure to the media, both formal and social, and to focus on my writing. That advice really came from the example of my friend C, mentioned last week, who has found the months since November 9th to be some of the most productive of her career. I tried to follow her example and to forge ahead. The result is that I do have a rough draft of approximately 90,000 words. All written last week. 

No, not really. That’s about 240 pages. Not possible for me to amass in one week. But the draft did start to coalesce over the last week. I read a little of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird every night to inspire me. In case anyone in the world hasn’t read that book, the title refers to advice her father gave her brother when he had a report on birds to write from scratch and it was due the next day. Take it bird by bird, was the advice, extrapolated to any writing and by larger and further effort to any daunting endeavor. Bird by bird. A way to get one’s writer self into the chair. 

Turning off the web browser is another crucial element I employed last week. 

In other news, the dog is afraid of the kitchen. I think he’s actually afraid of bees, but more specifically of things that buzz, including but not limited to bees, and by extension he is afraid of the places where things that buzz have recently been buzzing. That would be the kitchen. 
Now I’m not going to have any of that. He needs more grit, does that dog. And also he needs to be reprogrammed to like the kitchen again. I am hopeful that a little play therapy with him in the kitchen every day will work magic. I started out with one of the puzzles I bought him during a phase when I felt extremely guilty for his under stimulating life. And he does love the puzzles, which he solves with nose and paws, and which reward him with treats. 
Anxious dog

The college student is home for the summer! I picked her up on Saturday at noon, and I am happy to report that she was all packed up and ready to load the car. This kid is no snowflake. This kid has grit. What she doesn’t have is a job. She thought she had one, but it fell through. So she has been looking, along with every other recently arrived home college student who didn’t get a job over spring break. Which she did. But I guess not really. 

I read Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saundersand I liked it. I didn't love or lurv it, but I did like it. I liked its Buddhist elements, such as how life is full of suffering people and how we all need to be compassionate towards one another - and towards ourselves.

That’s about all. I think all that writing while trying to avoid getting sucked all the way into the news used up my available willpower and I’m depleted. That happens with willpower. It’s something that can be strengthened, according to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, but it also has limits. Like a muscle, it can grow stronger by use, but it can also fail from overuse. However, overuse, like a vigorous workout, will lead to strength. Unless of course you tear something. I haven’t torn anything, but I have worn out my willpower muscle. So keep me away from the cookies and the chocolate. And please consider this post a gentle limbering exercise.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Using the Scaffolding to Deal with Distraction

Current events are inconveniencing me, Readers. They are preventing me from splashing happily in my bath. They are keeping me from focusing with laser-like concentration on the frivolous, like the new makeup I bought Monday, after attending my high school reunion. 
Why after and not before, you might ask? Well, you might, except I’m not writing about it, due to my obsession with current events. 

Yeah, current events are jamming me up. I have to keep refreshing my Twitter feed because the conspiracy types are really getting me wound up. And the ones who are convinced we’ve become an autocracy on the way to full dictatorship are amping me up, too. Then I have to check in with Fox News to see what they’re saying, and then over to the failing New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s exhausting. All this energy expended in the mistaken, neurotic obsession, in the magical thinking that somehow, if I stay on top of new developments I will prevent something even more terrible from happening, or perhaps even solve our problems. 

All of which leads me to this grand point. Handling distraction - or not - is key to success. The latest news is today’s distraction. Tomorrow it might be something else. Please let it be something else, like buying makeup after my high school reunion, which was Monday’s distraction. That’s a much more relaxing distraction than worrying about the firing of the head of the FBI. 

Luckily, my scaffolding of success helped me out here. That is the point of the scaffolding. It helps you build success by providing you a structure to support yourself while doing so. 

Specifically, my like-minded others helped me out. We had our monthly conference call today. At the outset, my friend C (as in, we met in college) said to E and me that we could not discuss the elephant in the room, otherwise it would take up our whole time. But E and I both admitted that the elephant in the room had been gobbling up our attention. While we agreed not to talk about specifics, I suggested that discussing how to handle distraction seemed like a good topic. 

C responded that she had, in fact, not been distracted by this latest development. And indeed, when we three summarized our activities viz-a-vis our goals set at the end of our last conversation, of the three of us, only C had fully accomplished hers. Her secret to success? Simple. She had decided to stay focused with pockets of productivity. And the secret to those pockets of productivity was that she committed to using her better energy - during the day - for her work, and saving her checking in on the news for the evening. 

Talking to my like-minded others got me focused on my work today, and helped me resolve to use my better energy for my work, too. Talking to my like-minded others, a.k.a. my loving mirrors, helped me activate another plank in my scaffolding of success: getting centered. Talking about using energy wisely reminded me that focusing on what I can actually do, as opposed to things about which I can do nothing, is the best approach to life. Worrying about what I cannot control is unhelpful. As Stephen Covey states in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, your circle of influence is smaller than your circle of concern, but is contained within it. I have provided a handy graphic for you in the photo below. Yes, I realize the text is flipped. That's a technical by-product of using my laptop camera. The point is the concentric circles. By focusing on what I can do, I can, over time, expand my circle of influence within my circle of concern. This does not mean withdrawing from current events, however. It just means allocating time appropriately. Making calls to my government representatives can happen in my low-energy periods. Meanwhile, I can focus my better energy on my work. Starting tomorrow, of course. Now, I have to check the news. 

I'm your loving mirror, Readers. That's why the writing is wackbirds.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting & Life

"It turned out that this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said - gently - that they believe when a lot of things start going wrong all at one, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born - and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible."  - Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott

I’m reading Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. It’s part of my required reading for my book - reading other memoirs, or memoir-type books that might be kind of like mine. Of course we are all unique and different and individuals and all that jazz, but still, we are links in a chain. Maybe it’s odd to be a secular, mostly atheist Jew with Buddhist tendencies who relates to Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is a born-again Christian with neurotic tendencies and a sense of humor. Well, then I’m odd. So there you go. She’s funny and honest and upfront about her shortcomings and in that way I think the Venn Diagram of our writing overlaps.

If that is not being too bold.

Which it is not, I hasten to add.

Although I don’t exactly believe my own words.

And so it goes. Welcome to the mind of moi, Hope Perlman.

So what I wanted to say was, Hello, Readers, I am just coming off the two week visit of our French “exchange” student. The visit involved so much more field tripping and spending time around other humans than I usually want that upon delivering her to the grotty and miserable bus station in Albany at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning - yes, the 4 a.m. that is before the crack of dawn; the four a.m. that is the time of infinite night terrors; the 4 a.m. of insomnia — and then finding that the bus had been overbooked, and then standing around with fifteen or was it twenty or was it two hundred other bleary and annoyed parents delivering other visiting French students, and also with our own children, who promptly passed the ensuing hour sitting on the filthy floor of the station and playing hand games with their friends and crying and hugging until the new bus arrived at 5:15 am - I promptly came down with a fever, aches, weird stomach pains and postnasal drip. I had so very much else to do that day of the 4 a.m. delivery that I didn’t really admit to illness until it was all done and night had come. One of the first things, by the way, that I did, was to instruct the 9th grader to deposit the clothes she had been wearing when sitting upon the station floor into the laundry. Then I was on to other fry.

But yesterday there was no denying the illness, and so I spent a day doing what my body needed. It was a wonderful relief, Readers. I recommend it.

One of the benefits of having our “exchange” student (please see previous post to understand why I use quotation marks) was that I finally had that coffee with a mom friend that we’d been planning for a long time. I hadn’t seen her since before the election, and in fact, I was kind of afraid to. Not because we are on different political sides, but because I was afraid the thin gauze of optimism I have managed to enshroud myself with would disintegrate with a good old political discussion. But we had more immediate things to discuss, like how in hell to entertain French teenagers in Albany for two weeks. So we met and brainstormed, and my mom friend, who is more pessimistic than I am, even though my thin gauze of optimism is so very thin and gauzy, and I came up with some good activities.

I felt a little like country mouse and city mouse with my mom friend, by the way, since she’s a leggy ectomorph who dresses entirely in fleece and hiking gear and, well, I am not. But anyway, that was fun. But one of the ways our conversation got a little sharp and threatening to my gauzy wrap was our discussion of incivility and how rampant it is and how awful the things we hear on the news are that people say about one another and the partisan divide and the gap between the blah and the blah. And so on. And it was distressing to go over it all. And it is distressing.

And so I was distressed when I left our coffee. But then later I thought about this incivility, and I thought about where I see it. On Facebook, on Twitter, on snippets of the news that I watch on Facebook and Twitter. Of course on comments in the failing New York Times, but everyone knows better than to read those. And then I thought about my regular life, and I thought about incivility there, and you know what? I didn’t find a lot. I found mostly people being nice. Even the ones that might have voted for You Know Who. Like the retired guy down the street who mows his not very big lawn on a riding mower in a sleeveless undershirt. Always been downright civil to me, obviously a liberal feminist with a fancy dog. He’s the guy who once suggested that I “get a couple a frozen meatballs, put ‘em in a dog bag, throw ‘em in the freezer. When you go for your walk, take the bag out of the freezer, and there you go. Cop sees you. You got a bag. Smells a lot better.” See what I mean? Civil. And probably votes for You Know Who.

And then there’s me. I mentioned this before, but it remains true. I still feel this gentle little careful spot inside me that I am tending. It’s me being nice to people I encounter. Nicer, I should say. And it’s a result of the hammering my guts took by the election. It’s an awareness there are a lot of angry, miserable people out there, and I might as well try to not increase their reasons for their anger and misery. I’m thinking if I feel that way, a lot of other people feel that way, too, because I’m not so special or different. I’m not particularly mean or kind. And so that makes a lot of us trying to be nicer to everyone, and therefore increasing civility.

Today I came across this little nugget in Anne Lamott’s book. According to a guy she met who worked for the Dalai Lama, the Buddhists - or maybe the Dalai Lama and his workers - believe that when lots of things are going wrong all around us, it’s to make room for something beautiful to be born.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mental Contrasting and Ganesh for Success

Just a quick note this week. We have had a French exchange student with us since last Wednesday. Things are going well. She’s a very polite and quiet exchange student. The only thing I really don’t get about her is that she has left home without a book. This is a mystery to me. And it presents a bit of a dilemma for the 9th grader, who needs her down time, and would like to spend some of it companionably with our visitor reading. 


I say exchange student, by the way, but there is no exchange involved, unfortunately. This is because our school district no longer allows our students to stay with host families abroad. Our French teachers argued for it to no avail. 


Anyway, to entertain the visiting students, some of us got together for a day trip to Woodstock. Woodstock is not actually very near where Woodstock occured, but it is a very groovy town full of vintage clothiers, flea markets, incense, Tibetan flags, Indian prints, and all manner of yoga-related symbols, as well as expensive comfortable clothing and shoes - and good food. It was a win-win. I got into the spirit of things in one of these shops and decided I needed something Ganesh-related. In case you were wondering why, Ganesh is the Hindu god of success or of removing obstacles, which is apparently the same thing. 

I agree they are related. And Ganesh abounded in this shop. I chose a cool postcard with an image of Ganesh on it and went to buy it, only to be told by the cashier that the side of the shop where I got it was owned by someone else, and since my postcard had no price tag, she couldn’t ring it up on her register. 

Ganesh was an obstacle in this instance. And that, Readers, is ironic. 

However, for reasons of who knows what - maybe kindness, perhaps amusement - the husband liked this story and also thought I needed a Ganesh, so he ordered one for me from Amazon. It arrived today. 

I’m not entirely sure which obstacle I hope Ganesh removes. I hope that’s not a problem. However, it may be problematic, since I’ve learned that setting specific intentions is a potent way to get things rolling in the right direction. A general wish is kind of wishy-washy, if you will. What if Ganesh removes all obstacles? That could be mayhem. Some obstacles should remain in place. For example, red lights and stop signs and some kinds of inhibition. Let’s assume the idea is Ganesh removes obstacles to success. So, what success am I aiming for ?

I think we all know it. 

But while I like my little Ganesh, the more useful method of removing obstacles to success is mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is a method of visualizing yourself achieving a goal, then considering carefully the obstacles to it that you might encounter. Once you identify an obstacle, visualize yourself overcoming it and how you will do it. Then visualize your goal and another obstacle and so on. Thus you merge a positive mindset with the knowledge that you will have to work to achieve it, as well as that you have the ability and grit to do so. Recipe for removing obstacles. 

So my little Ganesh will sit by my computer as I write and will remind me that I have the power to remove obstacles to success. And also, perhaps, my little Ganesh will work some magic over the things I cannot control. 
A bird house in Woodstock, NY

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Find the Hidden Success Tip

I’m dialed up to “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhrrrrhhhhhh” on the stress meter today, Readers. Why? Well. PC Various. PC Various, as I like to say, is library lingo from back in the days when I worked for the Harvard College Library. It’s a holdover from the old cataloging system they used before switching to LC (Library of Congress) cataloging and automating. That was where I came in - applying barcodes to books while they got the automated circulation system, well, circulating. 

It was a stimulating job. I often took a snoozle over the keyboard of an afternoon. But I did get in a lot of reading. All three volumes of Bowlby on Attachment and Loss, for example. Somehow, despite my non-Protestant work ethic, the library did get online, where it remains. PC Various is a vestigial category my library friends and I toss around with one another.

And today, for no good reason at all, I have shared it with you, Readers. 

So one of the various reasons I’m stressed is that we are having a French exchange student come to stay with us for the next twelve days. Only some of us speak decent French and I’m not one of us. Zut alors! What shall we do? Keep Google Translate open on my phone at all times, for one thing.

Another reason is the salty taste I have in my mouth, which according to the interwebs could be due to post nasal drip or IMMINENT DEATH. I’m the worst kind of hypochondriac. I’m the kind that doesn’t actually ever want to go to the doctor, because if the doctor suggests some kind of test, out of an abundance of caution or to actually get to the bottom of something, I am possibly more afraid of that than IMMINENT DEATH. So now I have to get a blood test to check my thyroid. I didn’t even go to the doctor. I just called her. She hasn’t even checked my sinuses. She thinks it’s probably hormonal related to perimenopause. 

So I was right. IMMINENT DEATH.

Anyhoo, on the plus side, I made yogurt. The husband and the 9th grader got into it. We started adding things to those cunning little jars, things like maple syrup, vanilla, honey, and Ovaltine. Then they decided not to eat them. So I have to eat the sweetened ones, even though I’ve cut out a lot of sugar. Why? Why cut out sugar? Well, a couple of reasons. PC Various reasons, if I may. 

One: Goal contagion. Yes, remember Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD? Goals can actually be contagious. That’s why who you hang out with is very important, right? So in January I read in the failing NY Times about quitting sugar for a month. Then a couple of friends of mine tried it. Next thing I knew, I was trying it. And so, if you want to stay motivated to achieve some goal, find other people who are also trying to achieve it. It helps. 

Two: Willpower. I decided to try cutting out sugar for one month (except for birthdays) also because somehow the rise of Rump made me concerned about my ability to withstand, say, a long trek over the mountains to Canada to escape the Gestapo. I felt that under terrible duress, I might just collapse without my daily sugar. This seemed weak and foolish. I needed to prove I am not those things. Perhaps I have just proven that I am. Well. What can I say? 

Anyhoo, today as I opened my cunning little jar and scooped some yogurt onto my healthy mixture of cereals and nuts that I eat every morning to stave off IMMINENT DEATH, I felt a little sadness and stress in my heart over having to eat a sweetened yogurt, as if it would bring me one step closer to weakness and foolishness. 

Also on the plus side, along with that one little tip for success tucked into this strange piece of writing, I offer you another cool thing I love, that isn’t causing me stress: 

My Swedish dish cloth. 

It is biodegradable, dish-washerable, and totally adorbs. Also it works well. 

Now I must frantically try to organize my house for our French guest. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Envy and Healthy Discontent

Note the cunning little jars?
Readers, I was away last week and didn’t have time to write a blog post. I was busy traveling to see the college student perform and then taking her to Washington to see family during her spring break. Aside from that, I was busy being consumed with envy and dealing with it. Yes, I know. Embarrassing stuff, admitting to envy. Here’s the thing. It happens. Maybe not to you, but to me. Envy. This time it came from visiting some old friends I hadn’t seen in years who have amazing careers, amazing awards, and an amazing house in Cambridge. Also they are amazingly nice. Let’s call them He and She. 

What did I envy? Did I envy their jobs? Not exactly. They are so not me. But I envied their career success. Did I envy where they lived? Uh, hells to the yes. In a vibrant neighborhood outside Harvard Square. Just a couple of blocks from a neato retro shop where I bought a Swedish dish cloth, made of cellulose and cotton, dishwasher safe and biodegradable. Did I envy their Mies van der Rohe chairs and their renovated Victorian house? You betcha. Did I envy their homemade yogurt? Yes. Yes, I did. How could She have the great career, the great house, the great kids, and have time to make yogurt? Readers, this yogurt thing preyed on me. She had made it in these cunning little glass jars that she put on the table amongst the croissants and the fruit salad.

And where did all this envy get me? Into a funk, of course. Because I started to compare myself and my life, my town, my house, my professional success, my spouse to theirs. I confided my envy to my friend, let’s call her The Source of All Things, but I think she was perplexed that I would be so envious when I have so much good in my life. I confided my envy to another friend, let’s call her A. And she said, "OH Hope, you go into these downward spirals sometimes." Which is true. I do. And she spent a little time bucking me up. Spiraling me up, I suppose I should say. Talking about the things I know are true: that we all make different choices for different reasons, and one is not more valid than another. It’s not more valid to have an amazing professional career than it is to be a stay-at-home mother who fits in writing when she can. It’s not more valid to have a beautifully renovated Victorian house in Cambridge than a lovely home in the rather cloudy valley that is Albany County.

I also told my therapist, who said this was about whether I am enough. Which, let me tell you, depressed the hell out of me, because of course it is true, envy is about whether I am enough, and because it’s such an old story I thought maybe with all the seeking I've done behind me I might have reached the end of that one by now. And because I know the lesson, the rule, the central idea behind therapy and Buddhism and Judeo-Christian religions, is to accept myself, warts and all, as they say. You have to start where you are, as they say.

Fortuituously, a podcast on this very topic appeared on my phone, just in time. Gil Fronsdal spoke on contentment and discontent and stressed this very idea. Start where you are. Find a little something to feel good about. Maybe just that you have a few minutes to yourself to meditate. Maybe that you’re alive and breathing. Maybe that you have a full range of emotions to access. Accept them all, even the ugly ones. From acceptance springs contentment, or at least the opportunity for it. From this seat of self-acceptance you will then be able to assess the discontent you feel and decide if it is healthy or unhealthy. Are you discontented with your house or your job or your spouse for real reasons? If so, you will be much more able to act to change what doesn’t work if you do so from groundedness.

When I thought about the roots of my envy, I realized it was pointing me towards my work. I needed to focus on it more and move it towards a conclusion. So that was positive. Envy was a kick in the butt, in a way. I knew that if I focused on the work I was meant to do, I would reconnect with a central element of myself that brought contentment.

So when we returned from our visit to our amazing friends, I wrote a thank-you email. In it I asked for the yogurt recipe. My friend wrote back the next day. The yogurt, she said, is so easy. She bought a yogurt maker on Amazon for twenty-five dollars. She included the link, which I immediately clicked on, of course. There was this machine. There were the cunning little glass jars, included. So, Readers, I bought it. I haven’t yet used it, because I’ve been writing. When I get to it, I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Self-Transcendent Moi

Before I interrupted myself on self-actualization with my self-flagellating blog post of last week, I was writing about Maslow. The husband did not care for that post, by the way. Not sure why. I suppose I could ask him, but that would remove the mystery and the fun of conjecturing. Well, in fact I did ask him and his response was something about the psychology part being kind of dense. Was it too dense? I dunno. That was what I think he said, but I didn’t hear him clearly because I have a hard time with criticism and so you know, I would prefer not to. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a speech somewhere at some time (I came across a snippet of this on Facebook, as I come across so much drivel and dross and RBG, too) in a marriage sometimes it is useful to be a little hard of hearing. According to RBG, this rule applies to work, too. There’s a good tidbit for you, Readers, making your journey down the page (screen) today worthwhile, I hope. 

I think perhaps that post was a wee bit detailed and only the types like moi who like psychology - we psychologists manqués - are interested in all those deets about Maslow and his theory. They led to one of the more fascinating aspects of our culture - the counter-culture. I was speaking to a new reader just the other day about all the modalities of self-help and self-actualization that came out of the 1960s and 1970s with their emphasis on transpersonal psychology and peak experiences. There was EST and Primal scream therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Transactional Psychology, and — here’s one I had forgotten —Rebirthing. Rebirthing involved climbing naked inside sensory deprivation tanks and floating in the dark on salt water, in silence, which sounds terrifying, especially for people who don’t like to be out of control. In case you know any of those. I know I do. That counter-culture pop psych stuff was all very groovy and mind-expanding. Being a good liberal, I think that groovy and mind-expanding are good things. Frankly, if you think about it, modern psychology itself grew out of the counter-culture. There was Mesmer in the 1700s with his "animal magnetism" and hypnotism, and séances, and Freud and Jung. They were all counter-cultural in some respect. 

So anyway, did I mention that Maslow built his psychological theory on his interpretation of the lives of 17 people he considered exemplars of self-actualization? Like Abraham Lincoln. He did. His whole theory rests upon his subjective interpretation of the biographies of 17 people, mostly men. And upon this, in part, rests all of Positive Psychology. Gives one pause, does it not? Examine your sources, Readers. 

Also gives one inspiration, does it not? Take those risks and put out those ideas, Readers. You may be on to something significant. 

Speaking of taking risks, one of the characteristics of the self-actualized, self-transcendent person is willingness to try new things. Well, guess what? I tried a new thing. This might mean I am self-actualized - except probably another of the characteristics of a self-actualized person is that they don’t send emails in anger and then have to apologize. So. One step forward, one step back. In the same spot as before, I guess. 

Anyhoo, indeed I did recently try something new. I danced in a live performance on a stage. Nine (ten?) of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s spent six months rehearsing a dance choreographed by a dancer friend of mine who teaches NIA (Non-Impact Aerobics). Most of us came from the NIA class, but didn’t really know one another. It was a kind of what-the-hell decision that I have to say turned into one of my best choices. It was great. There was the dancing, which was really fun and challenging. There was the added physical exertion in my life that actually energized rather than depleted me. All that moving brought up memories of me as a young kid, eight or nine years old, which was a time when I felt like a dancer and very competent in my body. Those feelings were still inside and they came back. 

And there were the other women. It was really wonderful to get to know these ladies in a very particular way, starting with the physical. We had to get in each other’s space to practice and perform. We had to - weird - touch one another to do this. It was strange at first, and awkward, but by the end, I felt totally at ease. We had to try all kinds of movements and risk looking idiotic. But we made a safe community and gradually began to know one another. Our performance, which I had dreaded, turned out to be exhilarating. We had quite a large turnout for our show. The experience was a definite highlight. I think I can fairly describe it as self-transcendent; Maslow says creating art is an example of self-transcendence. As is motherhood, by the by, but that's a topic for another day.

So, am I self-actualized? Self-transcendent? Who knows. I guess it’s something to shoot for, or it’s an impulse that goads me onward and keeps life interesting. Yeah. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Stuck in the Middle

Hello,  Readers, 

The MIL alerted me to an article in Sunday’s failing NY Times by Henry Alford, who writes amusing pieces on social manners and such. It’s called, “I’m Not Okay. And Neither Are You,”*  and it’s about a budding genre of anti-self-help books. These books tell you that your existential despair is real and you might as well stop trying so hard to feel better, be better, look better, and that aiming for success or happiness is dumb. The title, by the way, in case you haven't kept an eye on the self-help genre for decades as I have, refers to a famous one from the groovy year of 1967 called, I'm Ok - You're Okby one Thomas Anthony Harris.

I found this article reassuring because one of the interesting aspects of trying to sell my book proposal has been the various potential ways editors would like to see my material packaged. And I have tried to comply. I have tried prescriptive steps to success (failed at that.) I have tried straight memoir ( failed at that.) The closest my book has come to getting picked up was the most recent editor, who worked with me while I tried sample chapters swinging from traditional how-to-be successful to a more personal approach. She declined the project, ultimately, as I have mentioned. It feels important to mention it again today because I’m in a shame spiral over a faux pas I committed, which led to a result that made me mad; this led to an email written in anger - always, always, always let those sit for at least 24 hours, Readers; 2 hours is not enough, no matter how many high-handed sentences you craft and delete - which led to further shame, which led to me publicly reminding you of my frustrating and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my book, as a way to publicly further shame myself.

That was a long sentence, but pretty well constructed, I think. 

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that one of the criticisms this most recent, tantalizing editor had was that from my writing it seems as if I am “still in the middle of it”, meaning still struggling with the definition of success. 

Of course I am! I am in the middle of it, because my feelings about me and success are cyclic.That’s one of the lessons I have learned. I have a system - a scaffolding, if you will - that keeps me going or gets me up and running again, and it works pretty well for awhile. Then it breaks down. That’s the nature of things. Why does it break down? Besides the inevitable entropy factor? Because carving a definition of success that goes against the seemingly immutable one I developed over a childhood and young adulthood in my East Coast Liberal bubble is friggin’ hard. And because to do so, I had to put aside some values that I thought were most important to me, that society told me were the most important, to find the ones that mean the most to me. 

Of course I’m still in the middle of it. How could it be otherwise when to feel successful as a mom, without a separate income and as a writer without a continual stepladder of specific achievements related to a career that are observable to the outside world means going against the predominant values of my culture? I will always be in the middle of it. That’s the truth. It remains a struggle because those values are still there within me, as well as around me. When things go well in my current situation, I feel successful. When I hit a glitch, I don’t. Sometimes this means I cycle through these feelings in a day, sometimes I’m coasting and then dragging for weeks. But my system, my scaffolding, works regardless. 

That’s my big takeaway. Just keep going. Be present, do the mindset priming, keep up with your community of like-minded others, evaluate your values, and set goals. As the stepmother used to say, with a sigh, when asked how she was doing, “Well, I’m still putting one foot in front of another.” It’s kind of an anti-self-help message, isn’t it? Admitting you’re always going to be in the midst. Life is not a linear projection always heading upward and onward. As Danish professor Svend Brinkmann is quoted in Alford’s failing NY Times article, “the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.” 

Of late I have been taking my advice. I am writing a draft of the whole book right now. Rather than shop the proposal and shape the sample chapters to various editor's wishes, I'm writing the book I would want to read. (I hope.) It’s going slowly and I’m forcing myself to move forward in it without rereading or revising any of it, so I have no idea whether it’s going well. But I’m hoping that if I just get it done, I’ll find a publisher for it. I’m grateful to Henry Alford for pointing out that there may be a genre for my book after all. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

In Which I Ramble and Say, "Oy," More Than Expected

Here is a beautiful quote from Leonard Cohen:

“That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” 

—“The Fires They Got” in T:The New York Times Style Magazine, March 5, 2017. p. 96-7

Oh my lord, WHAT am I going to blog about this week? I feel newsy not profound. The above quotation is profound. But what to make of it? The emergency becoming articulate. Is that my book? I’d like to think it will help people. I’d like it to be profound like Leonard Cohen. Literary but funny as hell and approachable. Wise but also goofy. Like me, right? I’m really describing me. I mean me as I would like to be. I'm actually anything but profound right now. 

What is on my mind, Readers? Dry mouth. I must be exercising more than I thought because I have dry mouth. Unless it’s a symptom of a disease. Diabetes? I’m not peeing all the time, though, which I thought was a symptom of diabetes. The die-ah-beetuss. 

Today, I watched Jennifer Scott’s video chat, “Tea With Jennifer” about the Oscars. I don’t quite know why she appeals to me. She and her books. They’re all about being proper, being poised, looking presentable. And she is so very dang earnest. So dang earnest she makes me type dang instead of goddamn, which would normally spring to my fingertips because, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a real sailor mouth. Such that the children - my children, that is - I don’t swear around just any children - say to me, “Mother, don’t say that. It’s crass.” Which is them throwing my words right back at me. As children do. 

But anyway. I watched the video and Jennifer Scott's earnest talk about the Oscars - whose dresses she liked, the tourist bus prank. The whole time she held her pretty teacup and saucer and was earnest. Gosh darn earnest. Which I am often not. And yet she appeals. She makes me want to “look presentable always” and other old school stuff like that. 

Speaking of the tour bus of tourists who were surprised by their appearance at the Academy Awards on camera, while I watched them process in, cameras raised, most of them dressed super-schlumpily, I thought of Jennifer Scott’s mantra, “Look presentable always.” Although on occasion I totally lose interest, most of the time I enjoy pulling myself together a little before heading out for my day. A little makeup, some thought to my clothes. While I am aware this is perhaps regressive and anti-feminist on some level, I enjoy paying that attention to myself. And I buy in to the outside in phenomenon. Sometimes the way to feel better is to look good. It does build confidence. Yes, that is sexist, most likely. You feel good when you look good because women have to look good. Yet I imagine plenty of men feel better when they know they look good. And it’s easier for them to look good than for a woman. Etc. And high heels - don’t start. The conflicts are endless. I like ‘em. I hate ‘em. I hate that I like ‘em. I don’t wear ‘em cuz they’re uncomfortable. But when I do put ‘em on, I like how I look in ‘em. The complexities. Oy. I reserve the right, via feminism, to care or not care about my appearance as I chose. 

Those schlumpy tourists. Oy. They were embarrassing. I felt embarrassed for them - and for myself as a fellow American. 

So that reminded me of traveling. Specifically, that I like to look decent while traveling. I am old enough to remember dressing up to travel by plane. Just last week, I traveled by plane with the 9th Grader. Due to various snafus, we ended up packing in one wheeled suitcase too large to carry on. We had to check it. I have to say, it was so nice to freely walk around the terminal with just my purse and book. And to climb into and out of the plane unencumbered. 

Sure, it took a little extra time - and extra money, which is really an outrage and explains why most of the time most everyone tries to carry on their luggage. Who wants to pay yet more money to check a bag? But the extra time was worth it, I have to say. I sauntered off the plane and went to the ladies room and it was all so easy. No maneuvering into a stall and out again with a suitcase. It was genteel. Almost. I mean, there was still the gauntlet of humiliation known as “Security.” Going through that was decidedly un-genteel. But then we were free to roam in search of chicken nuggets (the 9th Grader’s request, at 10:30 a.m.) The experience was almost pleasant. It was especially so on the return flight, when mirabile dictu, for an unknown reason**, we had priority tickets and got to go through security the old-fashioned way. That is, just going through the rectangular beeper doorway to the beyond with our shoes on. No shoes and belts in the grey bin. No mysterious machine with hands in “I surrender.” No extra wanding. No triple-check of my purse. No swabbing of the 9th grader’s stuffed animal to test for drugs. (That happened on the way down, FYI.) Just the rectangular beeping doorway and we were free. Without humiliation. How refreshing. 

But what is this emergency of which Leonard Cohen spoke. He had it in him. It was his creative urge. Do I have the emergency? Or am I just a dilettante? Do I have the emergency driving me to create? Or what? The emergency to create a kind of life? 

This quotation reminds me of Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I wrote about it here. In his theory of psychology, Maslow saw a return to human based philosophy and psychology.  His training had been in Behavioralism, but he felt that was too limited to explain psychology. He argued that there were higher needs than Behavioralism allowed. Those higher needs were biological in essence - they were “instinctoid”, he said, meaning they are almost like instincts, but not quite. This was the essense of Humanistic psychology, he said. Those needs were what he laid out in his pyramid. 

Maslow revised his initial hierarchy, by the way. In his original paper on the hierarchy, written in 1943, he topped his pyramid with self-actualization. However, after giving it more thought, he felt there was something beyond self-actualization that drove people. He said it was the urge for self-transcendence.  In a talk in 1967 at the Esalen Institute* where he introduced his revisions, he said, “The focal point, or the point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm comes when they answer the following kind of questions: 'What are the moments which give you the greatest kick, the greatest satisfaction? What are the great moments? What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?'"
I can’t help but note that Maslow and other humanist psychologists grew - well, that philosophy of psychology grew out of WWII. Viktor Frankl was one inspiration for it. He founded Logotherapy as a result of his experience in a concentration camp, and that became an inspiration for Humanistic Psychology.  Maslow was an American but was influenced by interacting with European theoreticians in the field. Maslow like Frankl and the others was an atheist. But that is not my point. My point is I don’t think it coincidental that my renewed interest in this psychology that pays attention to what it means to be human and how to be the best human you can be coincides with another dark political time. Or maybe just with air travel. 

*Edited by Dr. James Fadiman from the tape of a 1ecture given at the First Unitarian Church, San Francisco (under the auspices of the Esalen Institute), September 14, 1967. Copies of this tape are available from the EsalenInstitute, Big Sur, California

** I am not in actuality an idiot, but I do not know how I got Priority tickets in one direction. I didn't upgrade intentionally. But when I bought my tickets, the only seats left on the plane actually cost extra (a nice scam, right), so I guess that got us those Priority seats on the return flight.