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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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