Examining the unlived life

Alex has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his description of his early college self. And i would say it's only been fairly recently that I've decided to bias myself towards action -- even fidgety action -- over excessive rumination. (Just look up what "brown study" means.)

I think had Alex pushed farther, he would have probably detected fear prompting the defensive thinking posture he (we) adopted. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being loved. There are damn few Socrates in the world whose motivations are not based on fear; for the rest of us, I think we adopt that intellectual camouflage and hope for the best.

And I loved this description of one of the risks we run by overindulging our penchant for thinking over a livelier balance between thought and action:

Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It’s not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.

Anyway, his post reminded me for some reason of this wonderful Alexander Theroux quote from his novel Laura Warholic:

I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be ... I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish.


"The enemy"

Here’s a quote from Stephen Fry’s novel Making History, one of the few passages that struck me as admirable in that lamentably bad book.

If there is a word to describe our age, it must be Security, or to put it another way, Insecurity. From the neurotic insecurity of Freud, by the way of the insecurities of the Kaiser, the Fuhrer, Eisenhower, and Stalin, right up to the terrors of the citizens of the modern world –

THEY ARE OUT THERE

The enemy. They will break into your car, burgle your house, molest your children, consign you to hellfire, murder you for drug money, force you to face Mecca, infect your blood, outlaw your sexual preferences, erode your pension, pollute your beaches, censor your thoughts, steal your ideas, poison your air, threaten your values, use foul language on your television, destroy your security. Keep them away! Lock them out! Hide them from sight! Bury them!

(originally posted 2010-11-22, updated for micro.blog)

When actresses like Hathaway (and, to a lesser degree, actors like Gyllenhaal) decide to bare all, they inevitably justify the choice by saying it was integral to the character. Of course nudity is integral to the character; so is buying groceries and paying the bills, yet directors don’t feel compelled to show that stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about a character taking off her clothes to have sex—that’s how most of us do it. Conversely, a person’s refusal to undress during sex gives us a world of information about who he is (three words: Eliot Spitzer’s socks).

Career Fare

Attended a career fair for master's and PhD students yesterday. I haven't been to such a thing in a long time and it was personally instructive, even though it may not turn out to be professionally lucrative.

There were two facing rows of tables lining a long lobby, with tchotchkes and mini-candy bars available occasionally, big poster displays, modest table displays, handouts, and many young people dressed up and with up-to-date resumes.

As I wandered through, it reminded me of some speed-networking events I've been to, modeled on the speed-dating event. I methodically (which is what I am) walked down the east row of tables first, talked to a few people, judged within a few seconds whether they were interested in what I had to sell or whether I had a chance at all of impressing the company or organization rep, and then made my way down the west row of tables. Along the way, I eavesdropped, picked up literature (when did that sacred word become so devalued as to refer to company-shilling handout sheets?), and weighed whether it was worth it to me or to them for me to stand in line and make a pitch.

In truth, many of the vendors were after hard-science skills or hard-core qualitative research skills, and I have neither of those. I was surprised to find that I was able to talk to about 3 vendors who I think I could help and whose mission I felt meshed with my skills and background. I had gone in expecting not to stay long, and I was out within an hour. Still, I needed some event to get the ball rolling -- update the resume, clarify what I want, start calling on my network -- and this more than served that purpose.


More on panic and discomfort

Mark Z at ZhurnalyWiki paid me the great honor of referring to my panic post. He ended with this thought:

And of course there's my favorite strategy: try to identify what causes panic and avoid situations where it might arise.

Sensible (and I think a little tongue-in-cheek) advice, though I believe there is more to this issue and I fear I lack the articulateness and critical thought to tease out all the threads. Still, let's try.

I take banjo lessons and my teacher one day asked me why I was taking a particular song at such a slow speed. "It's the speed I'm most comfortable practicing at," I said.

His reply was a zen slap: "Your comfort is not our concern." He explained that if I continued practicing only at speeds that "felt good" then my improvement would proceed so slowly as to be invisible. Instead, it was better to crank up the metronome to faster-than-comfortable speeds, stress myself a little, and build up the muscles, resistance, experience, whatever, so that I could see improvement happen faster. Even if I go too fast and have to step back to a slower speed, I'd still be practicing at a more intense level than had I plodded along at "safe" speeds.

This is advice applicable to any activity where one may want to see progressive improvement: weight training, long-distance running (waves to Mark Z), scholastic work, leadership skills -- deliberately putting yourself in an uncomfortable place in measured doses so that one gains the skills to operate competently with a higher or more capacity. (One key, I think, is defining the "measured doses" -- you don't go from couch potato to marathoner in a day.)

But I should note that, on days when it's obvious that I'm feeling off or am easily irritated by my performance, my teacher backs off on that advice and will instead say, "Take it easy. Some days, you only need to go at speeds where you're comfortable. Don't beat yourself up." So the wisdom, I guess, is knowing the difference between challenging oneself and abusing oneself.

With banjo, I intentionally crank up the metronome past my comfort zone and stress myself to play faster so that I can encourage my mind to confront and solve the problems I'm facing with fingering and rhythms. I know why I am putting myself through this discomfort -- so I can play better. And when I practice a week later, the section that had previously given me so much trouble is now comfortably folded into my normal practice, causes less stress, and is now a building block to help me conquer more complicated material.

What's needed here is my own willingness to confront a shortcoming. With any sort of training of this nature, a teacher or mentor is helpful. They can provide methods or rituals or processes we can employ that, over time, help us break the challenging problem down into pieces that can be easily solved, thereby reducing the discomfort and anxiety to mere questions of technique and experience. For example, only tackle four bars of a new song at a time till you feel they're not unnatural under your fingers, then tackle the next four bars, then play all eight bars at a slow speed and then faster. Jog at an easy pace before you start sprinting. And so on. After a while, what seemed difficult or impossible is routine. One of the things my first coach noticed was that, once we get past a block or remove an unhelpful attitude or behavior, we find it hard to remember what our problem was to begin with or why we thought we had a problem at all. The new neural pathways that we've laid down bypass -- and maybe help us forget -- the pain we'd previously put ourselves through.

Now we edge from discomfort to panic. Deliberately putting oneself outside of one's comfort zone is one thing, but life often thrusts us without warning into situations over which we have no control. In my still-young life, for example, I've been dumped, laid off, endured and recovered from detached retinas (both eyes), and forced to confront my moral/emotional/intellectual/human shortcomings in many other ways. I read a quote (from Alanis Morrisette, of all people) that said we're all going to go through shit at one time or another, and we're all going to get through it, so it doesn't pay to worry about it. That's useful to keep in mind, I guess, but hard to pull from memory when you're in the throes of panic (particularly when you're in an emergency room). It's during the panic times -- particularly times of illness -- that I call on my meditation and yoga experiences to put my mind in a more helpful place that will help me endure what I'm going through, help channel my emotions so they don't fuel panic, help improve my resiliency. Many of these situations we cannot avoid, we can only face them as well as we can. If you have someone's hand to hold, even better.

But then, there is that class of panic that is irrational -- fear of bridges, fear of elevators, fear of your thesis advisor (!). It's not realistic to avoid bridges or elevators or your advisor all of the time. And it's at that point that you dip into the various books and stuff I pointed to in the panic post, or enlist a therapist or counselor who can help you confront that fear or help make it go away.

Looking back on my spring, my panic was alleviated by my being surrounded by very understanding people who were able to relive me of some responsibilities that were simply more than I could handle, provide needed advice and -- importantly -- perspective on the situation, and generally just let me jabber as I tried to make sense of this experience. (Actually, I think making sense of something comes with time and distance from the event; when I'm in the weeds, I just want to get through it and make the pain stop).

I could have stayed in the PhD program, well outside of my comfort zone, where I was experiencing myriad panics at all sorts of levels -- scholastically, logistically, with personal relationships -- told myself that I'm not supposed to be comfortable, reconciled myself to living with the frustration, and just gotten on with it. Several people I know did that. But there are problems with that mindset: I didn't know how to measure progress in any of these areas so I had no objective markers to show whether I was progressing or regressing. I didn't have any methods -- apart from brute application of time and energy -- to help me get through the different types of work I was called on to do. I felt stuck in the same place and didn't see my situation -- or myself in that situation -- improving.

But my biggest problem here was that I was never clear on why I was doing the PhD. And because I didn't know why I wanted the PhD, I couldn't understand why I had to suffer what I was suffering. If I had had a clear picture of the destination, I could have found a way to suffer through the journey.

Anyway -- some more jabbering on a topic that, were I to talk about it with everyone I know, would make even me bored. Best to talk about it here where I can get it out of my system and spare the ears of my dear friends.


In fact, study after study has shown that simply monitoring your behavior is a powerful intervention in itself. The problem is that self-monitoring required planning, motivation and vigilance - things that most of us trying to change a behavior lack (hence the reason we have a problem to begin with). Fortunately, there are a range of technologies -old and new - which make self-monitoring our behavior easier and more effective than ever before.

I remember some years ago someone (unfortunately I can’t remember who) wrote to me to describe his time management method.

He had a tickler file numbered with the days of the month, i.e. 1-31. Each day he would put all correspondence received into the tickler file for that day. So today is the 16th, and it would go into the compartment for the 16th.

First thing each day he would take out of the tickler file for that day all the correspondence he had put in it a month previously. He invariably found that 95% of it had happened anyway, or was no longer relevant.

I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but he seemed very happy with it!

November 16, 2010 at 14:08 | Mark Forster

Last month, husband was in a grumpy mood. We have a rule for those moods: Accomplish something! Pick something off the list, pretty much anything, and do it. Usually, it’s something that’s been bothering you for a while so getting it off the list will be a load off your back, but not something that makes you feel frustrated just thinking about. Something that gets you moving, and that you will take pride in.

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Brooks applies chaos theory in an interesting way, too, by boiling its lessons down to three actionable questions: What do you know? What do you not know? What can you learn? Asking — and answering — those three questions can help you take all of that panic and uncertainty and wrestle it into something you can work with while simultaneously expecting the unexpected. Because after all, you really do have no idea how this will unfold.

Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this. Undergraduates made more accurate predictions about their affective reactions to a 5-minute speed date (n = 25) and to a peer evaluation (n = 88) when they knew only how another undergraduate had reacted to these events than when they had information about the events themselves. Both participants and independent judges mistakenly believed that predictions based on information about the event would be more accurate than predictions based on information about how another person had reacted to it.

The “I am doing” mind hack: Being present is important, but I find it hard to be mindful when I’m busy or stuck in my head. To get yourself back into the moment while doing something common, such as drinking your morning coffee, try this re-centering technique: Simply tell yourself what you’re doing right now in very simple language, such as “I am drinking chocolate” or “I am playing with my daughter.”

Toecovers

The latest memoir we've been reading is Betty MacDonald's "The Plague and I," the 1948 follow-up to her wildly successful 1945 humorous memoir about being a chicken-farmer, "The Egg and I." (The latter book also introducing Ma and Pa Kettle into popular culture, so please appreciate the research that goes into these posts.)

"The Plague and I" is a most unusual follow-up, in that it documents the nine months MacDonald spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Seattle in 1938, when she was 30 years old. This was, remember, a time before antibiotics so the treatments and the martial discipline imposed on the patients to cure them seem draconian and almost inhumane today. Yet, despite the harshness and coldness of the regimen -- and, often, the nurses -- she tells the story with warmth, humor, and jaw-dropping details, and credits the sanatorium with saving her life. In the last chapter, she finds that adjusting to "normal" life proves just as difficult as her entry into the sanatorium.

One of the episodes she writes about is the institution's inane "occupational therapy" -- here, "occupational" meaning "to busy one's hands to take your mind off your troubles" rather than, as Betty hoped, "to prepare for a job when we finally make it out of here." Instead, the OT leader has her charges make what Betty calls "toecovers." Her description of toecovers had Liz in stitches so I thought it would be worth preserving here. It's a nice homely word for something this world still needs a name for.

Toecover is a family name for a useless gift. A crocheted napkin ring is a toecover. So are embroidered book marks, large figurines of a near-together-eyed shepherdess, pin-cushion covers done in French knots, a satin case for snapfasteners (with a card of snapfasteners tactfully enclosed so you won't make a mistake and think it a satin case for hooks-and-eyes or old pieces of embroidery thread), embroidered coat hangars, hand-painted shoe trees (always painted with a special paint that never dries), home-made three-legged footstools with the legs spaced unevenly so the footstool always lies on one side, cross-stitched pictures of lumpy brown houses with "The houfe by the fide of the road" worked in Olde Englishe underneath, hand-decorated celluloid soap cases for traveling with tops that once off will never fit back on the bottom, crocheted paper knife handle covers complete with tassel, bud vases made out of catsup bottles, taffeta bed pillows heavily shirred and apparently stuffed with iron filings, poorly executed dolls whose voluminous skirt are supposed to cover telephones.

A toecover is not a thing that follows economic cycles. During the depression when everyone was making her own Christmas presents, toecovers abounded. In good times toecovers are not made at home but are bought in the back of Gifte Shoppes whose main income is from the lending library in the front.

 

Panic

Alex Lickerman is a physician and practices Nichiren Buddhism, and he writes a weekly blog titled Happiness in this World. Each post is calm, sane, sensible, well-reasoned, and usually includes those boldface steps on things to do or remember that us blog-readers love to bookmark yet never follow up on.

His post on How to Thwart Panic struck very close to home for me as I experienced that feeling quite a bit this past spring. As he says, the mind cannot always be trusted. It has picked up habits of thought that do not serve us anymore and that we would do well to challenge.

Alex provides good basic info, but a few details to some of his points may help.

  • When you feel yourself starting to panic or feel anxious, examine the thought and try to classify it based on this list of cognitive distortions. These distortions, and the idea of mentally challenging these thoughts, was popularized by David Burns' book Feeling Good. I would say that book, and a later book by Burns, When Panic Attacks, offer terrific advice and dozens of techniques to employ that will help you get over panic, procrastination, and other mental maladies.
  • When in the throes of panic, stopping to rate the discomfort on a 1-10 or 1-100 scale is a good way to take a step back and look at yourself objectively. Moving from an all-or-nothing mindset to more of a continuum mindset has been very helpful for me.
  • Burns has a very good and easy technique where you draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, write the anxiety-producing thought on the left side, and then on the right, identify the type of cognitive distortion you're using, and then write a logical refutation of the bad thought. The trick to this is that your refutation has to be something your brain will believe. It can't be a cliché; it needs to make sense. So if the bad thought is, "I'll never get this project done," I would identify that as a magnification error (or awfullizing as Albert Ellis would call it), and then write this refutation, "I have gotten many other projects done in the past, and I will certainly get *this* project done. I may not get it done in the next 5 minutes, but I can certainly work on a piece of it right now. I've found that in the past, when I start working on a project, and taking action, the anxiety tends to dissipate very quickly."


The Suck Fairy

From Jo Walton at Tor.com comes the idea of The Suck Fairy, that scourge of re-reading that somehow curdles fondly remembered books upon second reading. Working alongside the Suck Fairy are her siblings the Racism Fairy, the Sexism Fairy, and the Homophobia Fairy, according to Walton.

One might add the Bad Writing Fairy; sometimes re-reading fondly remembered pulp adventures from my junior high school years (I'm looking at you, Doc Savage) highlights the sheer awfulness of the prose.


My nephew's philosophy

My brother's oldest son, Stuart, was asked by his teacher what he liked about school. He answered, "It's not about what I like, it's what I have to get used to."


If you were born on this day...

Here's what the local newspaper's horoscope had to say for those lucky enough to be born today, whether this year or earlier:

During the next four weeks you need to keep a low profile and not take any gambles with your career or money. The stars are not dire, but your timing could be off. By the end of October, you will be rolling in the clover.

And Freewill Astrology had this nice thing to say for the upcoming week:

Albert Einstein was extremely famous during his lifetime. Although he had no publicity machine promoting him, his face became an iconic symbol for genius. "Einstein" was, in effect, a brand name that made people think of creativity, wisdom, and imagination. There were times that bothered him. "I am no Einstein," he said, preferring to be his raw self rather than the idol on a pedestal. I offer his example up to you, Libra. You can benefit from slipping away from, ignoring, and even rebelling against your image right now. Return to the source of your ever-evolving life energy.


Stevereads

Stevereads tackles the history of the first Star Trek books, which were collections of stories from the original series. I well remember being mesmerized by the covers and the thrill of reliving this series, whenever I liked, in book form. (Man, I'd have loved Wild Wild West novelizations too!) (interesting that those two shows were contemporaneous). Just seeing those images of worn and creased covers parts a veil in my heart and I am 11 years old and standing in front of a shelf of books at Crabtree Valley Mall's Walden Books (it was two words back then) and calculating how I could get every one of those books for my very own. The nascent collector and hoarder of books was born.

Steve Donoghue has apparently been around since the days of the first Trek fanzines and writes with authority not just about that era of human achievement. He seemingly does nothing but read and writes -- with charm, vigor, intelligence, shrewdness, and a wicked sense of humor -- about what he reads. What I love about his blog (and what has moved his posts high in my Google reader feeds) is his catholic taste in subject matter: popular magazines, comics (he's a Legion of Super-Heroes fanboy), foreign literature, Elizabethan/Victorian/Edwardian literature, and -- probably his most cherished category -- historical fiction and literature, especially Tudor-era novels. Click on any month under his Archives link and wallow in the variety and types of reading matter this fellow ingests. It makes me wonder how much he reads that he doesn't write about.

In addition to his blog, he contributes reviews to Open Letters monthly site, for which he is an editor. Recently, he wrote a long and satisfying post on Pindar, encapsulating not just the era in which Pindar wrote, but what makes Pindar worth knowing about and reading about.

But though every post promises something new I've probably never heard of before (I've added many a book to my Amazon wish list based on Steve's recommendations), it's the barbed wit that keeps me coming back. Here's one of my favorites from his Star Trek books post:

Fans ate it up, and by this point they had guaranteed the continuation of their own feeding in the only way that ever guarantees such things: they put their money where their mouth-breathing was.

Read any of his Vanity Fair or GQ posts for drive-by snipings of this week's celebrities.

And while I enjoy his whimsical reading projects - such as his reviews of romance novels on which cover model Paul Marron appears -- I like that he doesn't shy away from tackling more worthy subjects. He recently gave the National Geographic a right thrashing for its King Tut cover story and laments Christopher Hitchens, in several senses of that word. And he's not forever carping or sniping, though lord knows, there always seems to be more bad than good out there (especially in the penny press).

I enjoy his clear-eyed appreciations and opinions of well-known authors or classic works, such as Dracula and his hellspawn, Gore Vidal's essays, Howard's End and on and on. But I particularly enjoy his touching appraisals of quixotic little books that were sent out as letters in bottles, and whose delicate and touching messages found in Steve the perfect reader.