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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Center Yourself

Readers, I have to admit I'm a little shakey. Lots of logistics wobbling me. Packing for vacation, the logistics of picking up the rising 10th grader from camp, then meeting the college student outside Boston, then journeying to our beach rental. All that kind of thing on top of the general, you know, situation with our Commander in Chief. It seems like a good day to reiterate one of the planks of my scaffolding of success: centering

As in, remember what’s in your control and what’s not. As in, pack your bathing suits and stop refreshing Twitter to see if a bomb has gone off. As in, center yourself within your Stephen Covey circle of influence and work from there. 

Don’t buy it? Well, if you don’t take my word for it - “it” being “the importance of having some kind of centering practice”— take Joseph Campbell’s. This is from an interview with Bill Moyers about the universal myth he derived based on his study of world religions. This universal myth he called the monomyth, because he found it embedded in religions everywhere. From this myth he extrapolated his famous description of the The Hero’s Journey. That is the monomyth. Here’s the passage: 

BILL MOYERS: In all of these journeys of mythology, there’s a place everyone wishes to find. What is it? The Buddhists talk of nirvana; Jesus talks of peace. There’s a place of rest and repose. Is that typical of the hero’s journey, that there’s a place to find?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s a place in yourself of rest. Now this I know a little bit about from athletics. The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself. And it’s out of that that his action comes. If he’s all in the action field, he’s not performing properly. There’s a center out of which you act. And Jean, my wife, a dancer, tells me that in dance this is true, too, there’s the center that has to be known and held. There it’s quite physically recognized by the person. But unless this center has been found, you’re torn apart, tension comes. Now, the Buddha’s word is nirvana; nirvana is a psychological slate of mind. It’s not a place, like heaven, it’s not something that’s not here; it is here, in the middle of the turmoil, what’s called samsara, the whirlpool of life conditions. That nirvana is what, is the condition that comes when you are not compelled by desire or by fear, or by social commitments, when you hold your center and act out of there.

If Joseph Campbell says centering is important, then it is. See, the thing about The Hero's Journey, is that it's an analogy for the human journey, affectionately known as LIFE. So, how to do it? For me, it’s meditation. For you it could be something else. Deep breathing. Prayer. Running. Taking a walk. Baking. Baking's good.  

Recently I was talking to a friend who meditates sometimes. He said he hadn’t been meditating recently because where his meditation class met moved due to building renovations. After he said that, he paused. Then he said, “You know? That’s not the real reason. I could find the class. I probably should find the class.” The real reason, he said, was that after going there for a while he began to recognize people. Specifically, he saw coworkers. Specifically, a couple coworkers with whom he had conflicts. I could see how that would be weird. But, he said, the thing was that after meditation one day, he talked to one of those people and they worked things out. He thought that because he had it in his mind that she meditated, and she had it in hers that he did, too, they were able to de-escalate and resolve the conflict. 

He paused again and then said, “I guess that means it works.” 

Maybe it does. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Grit, Grittier 2

So, Readers, are we clear on what grit is? I’ve heard from a lot of people—meaning at least three—who want to know how to get grit. Well, before we try to accumulate it, we’d better define it. 

Grit is what you think it is: tenacity. But this new definition of grit adds the element of passion. So grit is perseverance in pursuit of something of intrinsic interest to you over a long period. That last bit about persevering for a long time is key. It’s not that you have to be single-minded or workaholic in this pursuit; however, your interest must remain over months, years, even a lifetime. That’s grit. 

Now, why is it important? “This book has been about the power of grit to help you achieve your potential,” says Duckworth in her conclusion. That’s why. I want to achieve my potential. I sure do. And I don’t think I have, yet. And there are a lot of people out there who want to, who haven’t yet. 

Next, we need to know that grit grows. It's not a fixed entity. Duckworth says so. Grit grows in two ways, “inside out” and “outside in.” Duckworth draws her conclusions from anecdotal evidence, interviews of people who “epitomize the qualities of passion and perseverance.” So take it for what it’s worth. She concludes there are four aids in developing grit inside-out. 

Interest - She interchanges this term with passion, and she seems to mean intrinsic motivation.

Practice - This is a form of perseverance that involves “challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery.” This sounds a lot like Carol Dweck’s growth mindset at work. The growth mindset is one that believes improvement by practice is possible. And it's about goal-setting. I've talked about this before. A healthy goal is one that is challenging by not too hard, something that makes you push yourself to achieve.

Purpose—Having a sense that what you’re doing is “both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others.” Now, I struggle with this one. I think many artists might. How useful or important to others is any creative work? It takes an internal mastery of self-doubt to see that creative endeavors have utility beyond the expression of one individual’s ideas. For me, self-doubt often overshadows that knowledge. It’s easier to be part of a sanctioned socially useful structure, such as teaching or public service, than to feel like you’re “ringing your own bell” by writing a novel, or, just as an example, a book about your struggles to find success. However, when self-doubt doesn't blot out everything else, I can see that others may find my thoughts useful. Perhaps as a cautionary tale. Perhaps as comfort. Smallest perhaps: as inspiration. 

Hope—This is another kind of perseverance, the ability to keep going “even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts.” So many things have been written about hope. It's a thing with feathers. It's eternally springy. It's a paradox (ever waiting, ever expecting, sadly never actually attaining). It's optimism. 

Duckworth calls these internal grit growers assets. She owns her debt to Carol Dweck in the book, and she builds on it here by telling us that these internal assets are not fixed. Like intelligence, compassion, and maturity, they are qualities that can develop over time. 

What about the outside-in approach to growing grit? (“Growing grit”—What an annoying phrase). I hear you asking, Readers. Well, in short, it’s about developing those aforementioned assets within a gritty culture and with the help of others. 

I’m liking this, because it aligns with what I’ve discovered about success, that it depends in part on input from like-minded others. Coaches, parents, and peers all help nurture, inspire, and challenge us in these areas. 

Does constant growth and effort seem exhausting? Do you think you would rather take a nap? Would you prefer to watch all nine seasons of The Office on Netflix? Well, take heart, because according to Duckworth, gritty people have more life satisfaction. So it’s worth it to develop those assets. And remember, persisting with passion—a.k.a. being gritty—does not preclude bouts of binge-watching TV. Not that Duckworth says so, but I extrapolate from the evidence.

Now, how exactly to grow grit? How do you really build those assets? Tune in next time, when I talk about Caroline Adams Miller’s book Getting Grit, in which she takes all this info to the next stage and talks specifically about how to become gritty. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Grit, Grittier
Well, Readers, I have been adrift from the blog, and the blog has drifted from my subject, success, over the last several weeks. Perhaps you are thinking, “Weeks? Try months! Months? Try years!” It is true, this blog is sometimes only related to success in the most tangential way. I like to think I exhibit some ingenuity in those linkages, and that keeps you all on at least a loose tether and interested in what on earth Hope is going to say next. 

Some of you like it when I tell stories from my life. (Hi, Dad!) Because then you know what is going on in my life. Some of you like it when I get into some tips for success and living well. So as the old saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time. 

But you can sure hope they’ll keep reading. 

Because I keep on writing. I persevere. I persist. I exhibit grit. And grit is what I want to talk about. In fact, I have to apologize to you, Readers, because Grit, by Angela Duckworth, happens to be one of the more intriguing and helpful books on success I have read. Along with Mindset by Carol Dweck it has been among the most influential. Yet, in going over my blog, I can’t find any posts on the topic. Perhaps I wrote one and forgot, but perhaps I just overlooked it, as one overlooks something familiar and integral, such as the family dog. Until you trip over him. Or he demands your attention by sticking his nose into your hand. 

What is grit? Is grit muscling through weekend traffic on 495 and 95 to and from visiting your rising 10th grader at her theater camp's performance day? Is it sitting through four musicals and plays in one day, sitting, let me just add, first outside on wooden planks, then inside on theater seats, then outside in the amphitheater on split logs that are trying to pitch you down a hillside, then inside in the theater, and finally on the floor on a sleeping bag that might be infested with fleas?

Sadly, no, that is not grit. Although there was plenty of grit around. But this is a different kind of grit.  Did you ever read that book, True Grit? They made a movie out of it in 1969, starring John Wayne and Kim Darby. And the Coen brothers remade it in 2010 with Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. Well, True Grit is about pursuing a goal with single minded passion and going through a lot to reach it. It, in the story, is the girl’s father. 

Well, Duckworth came to study grit from an interest in achievement. She was a student of famous psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and she was trying to figure out how talent, skill, effort, achievement, and success were all linked. She noticed, through her own and others’ research and experience that talent alone was not enough to succeed. A person needs skill, in addition to talent. In fact, she discovered, talent is intertwined with skill. Talent is “how fast we improve in skill.” 

In short, spend a little time with Duckworth, and you’re in the pond with the ducks. By which I mean, she continues the work of Carol Dweck that erodes the myth of the genius born with “natural talent.” Until I read Mindset, which I've written about in several posts, I was one of those people who fetishised the idea of the natural genius. Duckworth’s not saying there aren’t differences in the ability with which we may improve in skill, i.e. differences in talent. However, talent alone doesn’t make for success. In fact, she says, talent, which correlates with, for example, high SAT scores, does not predict success in life when pursuing sustained pursuit of goals. 

So what transforms talent into skill? Duckworth says effort

Talent x Effort = Skill

But in seeking to achieve a challenging goal, skill is not enough, either. Achievement requires effort, too. 

Skill x Effort = Achievement. 

Which means, according to Duckworth, that effort factors into success twice. She says, “If I have the math approximately right, then someone twice as talented but half as hardworking as another person might reach the same level of skill but still produce dramatically less over time. This is because as strivers are improving in skill, they are also employing that skill…..[Then] the striver who equals the person who is a natural in skill by working harder will, in the long run, accomplish more.” (p. 51) 

Grit is “passion and perseverance.” Grit is enjoying “the chase” as well as “the capture.” That is, having a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one. That means you believe in your ability to improve. Another indication of grit is the ability to be “satisfied being unsatisfied.” That is, the ability to return to your work, your project, your book, your painting, your research, day after day, knowing that every day you haven’t yet achieved what you wanted, but that every day you are making it a little closer to your goal. 

What makes us work hard over a long period? Passion. I think you could safely call this intrinsic motivation. A growth mindset helps us persevere. And when we persevere with passion over a long period, we exhibit grit. 

So now I’ll bet you all want to know if you have grit. I do. I have grit. Of that I am one thousand percent positive. Which is nice for a change from my usual state of self-doubt. I know from looking at how I live my life. I am a writer. Still. After decades of effort. But I also know because Angela Duckworth has a little quiz in her book, which I took, and yes, I have grit. You can take the quiz here:  

Let me know how gritty you are! 

Don’t be afraid. I feel like this is all good news. Success is largely in our control. We tend to get grittier as we mature. "Grit is growable," says Duckworth.  More on that in a future post. Plus, if all goes well, I will have an interview about this topic to share with you. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Inner Game of Life

Oh my word, my desk. My desk is in such a mess. This is what working on a book looks like in my part of the world. Meaning in my study. 

It took me way, way too long to find my notes on The Inner Game of Tennis. I had to return the book to the library, because I had renewed it twice and someone else had put a hold on it. Which goes to show you that it’s an excellent book, first published in 1972 by W. Timothy Gallwey, at that time a tennis coach. In future, a life coach. His book became a best seller, not only because tennis was super sexy back then, what with Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert and those incredible icons, but because the book spoke to non tennis players as well. Everyone likes a good sports analogy, so learning to play tennis well became an analogy for success in other (business) realms. 

And, in fact it transpires that I have not found those notes. If only I could find those notes. I found the dog treats I use to lure Milo to sit with me upstairs when he would rather patrol downstairs. I found the little sticky note tabs I like to mark pages with when I’m looking for juicy quotes. I found the chunks of Himalayan pink salt I bought from a Himalayan pink salt-and-other-holistic-and-New Age-gewgaw-selling shop in Troy. The 9th grader and I were showing our French exchange student around and I felt too guilty tromping in and out without buying something. Salt, like talk, is relatively cheap. Also, if it actually does absorb the bad energy from my laptop and purify the air, as claimed, then—yay! We were looking for hipsters that day in Troy, by the way, since apparently they’re not in our exchange student’s town in France. No hipsters in the Himalayan pink salt-and-holistic-gewgaws shop. Perhaps that was to be expected. We did find a couple working in the barber shop. Then it began to rain, and we headed for the car. 

But I digress. I wanted to talk about The Inner Game of Tennis, since Wimbledon is happening now. I did find a short note about the Inner Game, but not the longer notes. The short note was almost overridden by my jottings on color and value, which I took, while avoiding work on my book, from a blog about fashion and choosing the best colors for my skin tone. Did you know there is much more to choosing colors than undertones? There is also the amount of contrast. Color contrast and value contrast. 

I don’t remember what any of that means, at this point. 

But here are a couple of key ideas from The Inner Game. The whole book is about unlocking your potential, and if that seems like a cliché, just remember that Gallwey was one of the originators of this self-help idea. There’s so much in the book that has been taken and developed and studied and better understood over the last several decades since it was published that I see why it’s considered a bedrock text. 

Unlocking potential takes some skill, but the essence of it is cultivating relaxed concentration. To do that, says Gallwey, you have to learn how to stop Self 1, which is the conscious, superego-like self, from getting in the way of Self 2, your unconscious self, controlled by the nervous system. The interplay between these two selves determines how well you can translate your knowledge into action. 

Now, Gallwey is talking about tennis. Specifically, he believes that after you’ve learned the basic strokes, your Self 1 is a big saboteur. Doubt and self-criticism live in Self 1. Self 2 is the keeper of muscle memory and innate confidence. So, to perform at your best—in the zone—occupy Self 1 with something concrete on which to focus, such as keeping your eye on the ball. Focused on the ball, Self 1 forgets to be all judgmental and doubtful. In fact, Self 1 practices non-judgmental seeing. This frees up Self 2 and thus, with a combination of mindfulness and concentration and release, you have relaxed concentration. 

There’s one more key skill Gallwey teaches, and that is picturing the outcome you want. For example, want to stop serving into the net? Literally and metaphorically? Picture your serve going over and landing right in the box. Then focus on the ball. Voilà

See what I mean about all the elements that are current? You have the two selves (Kahneman). You have your mindfulness (Jon Kabat-Zinn and everyone). You have your positive thinking (you name it, she says it). You have flow (Czikszentmihalyi). You have maximizing potential. You have success


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sharpening the Saw, Covey's Habit Number 7

One of the current joys in my life is the dance group to which I belong. It grew from the NIA class at the Y. One of my fellow NIA classmates, who is in her eighties, suggested forming a dance group to our teacher and from there, things took shape. We performed last fall to major, major, MAJOR acclaim, which I think I’ve mentioned. No? Well, we did perform, and the audience was larger than expected, and the response was terrific. Possibly everyone who came to see our group of women ranging in age from early fifties to early eighties, was just so delighted we didn’t make complete asses of ourselves that their applause was a little louder than necessary. I don’t know. From my vantage point, on stage, with house lights off and stage lights on, I couldn’t see a thing except my co-dancers, and we looked terrific for a group of novices. At least we were having fun, being scared, rising to a challenge, bonding with each other, performing. Doing something different than usual and stretching ourselves creatively. We were sharpening the saw, as Stephen Covey would say. 

Sharpening the Saw is Covey’s Habit Number 7 of Highly Effective People. It’s about the spiral of renewal. Sharpening the saw hones and polishes what he considers the four dimensions—physical, mental, social or emotional, and spiritual. This habit encircles all of the other six habits and makes them possible. 

Now I wasn’t trying to sharpen my saw. I just followed my interest in NIA, my friendship with my NIA teacher, and the enthusiasm of the tall, elegant eighty-plus year old classmate who wanted to dance. But in doing so, I can see that I am indeed working all these elements. New friends, new movement, a different kind of creative activity, the challenge of assimilating and translating a piece of choreography all work these elements. 

So our little dance troupe meets weekly and since we haven’t been rehearsing we have been exploring different kinds of movement. This troupe is supposed to be a collective, but since only two of us are actual dancers and choreographers, the rest of us are happy to be clay or pawns or whatever. I should speak for myself and not for the others, I guess. I’m happy to be clay or a pawn. I just enjoy the movement and the cameraderie. I’ll do whatever. And so lately I’ve been doing Feldenkrais. 

Feldenkrais, brought to us by one of our leaders, is a type of bodywork. “Bodywork” is a word, by the way, that can only be used seriously by dancers; otherwise, it sounds ridiculous. Feldenkrais was a Russian dude with bad knees who figured out a way to move through relaxing and ease and eliminate pain and constriction. If that sounds odd and contradictory, it is. I used to see advertisements for Feldenkrais—“moving through pain”—and made fun of it, because, you know, moving through pain doesn’t really sound enticing. But I was being perverse. Getting to the other side of pain? That sounds enticing. And I guess if you have to move through pain to get to the other side, well, then maybe it’s worth it. 

I dunno if you’re like me and find that everything seems like a political analogy these days, but if so, I am sorry. I’m almost finished with Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. I have to read it in bits, because it’s, well, it’s depressing. Hochschild is a liberal Berkeley professor of sociology who spent several years getting to know the residents of the most conservative county in the most conservative state she could find, trying to suss out why they vote the way they do when it seems counter to their interests. Of course what she finds is a bunch of really nice people who are racist at their very cores, but not overtly. It’s the kind of book that makes me wonder if perhaps  the South would just be better off seceding. Anyway, it’s a close investigation of a region, and it’s illuminating, if painful. 

Anyway. Feldenkrais. Moving through pain. This involves lying on a yoga mat in the airy upstairs of the barn where we rehearse and listening to the voice of Annie Thoe, Feldenkrais teacher, available on YouTube and Spotify, telling us to breath into our left shoulders, then into the volcanos of our left breasts, and me thinking, Okay, what the heck. I’m okay with visualizing the inside of my lung and my breast as a volcano or whatever. I’m up for whatever if it's relaxing and takes me to the other side of pain.

There’s a lot of breathing and close focus and attention involved. These are all good things to cultivate, and indeed, a quick search online reveals that Feldenkrais believed his method of healing the body would generalize to improvement in other aspects of life. Remains to be seen, just as it remains to be seen whether the close investigation of the reddest county in the reddest state yields any improvement in the functioning of the body politic. 

After lying on our backs and moving with ease and relaxation, we put away Annie Thoe. We stand up and move as if we’re seaweed or as if we’re being tugged towards one corner of the room by a magnet and we’re resisting. 

We recently decided to work towards another performance, so these exercises might eventually translate into something on stage. I don’t know. I don’t really care. I’m easily led, apparently. 

But the thing is, it feels damn good. 

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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.