Mindless entertainment?

We all need something to do to help us relax. Whether it is listening to music, knitting, or kick boxing, we need a place to go to shut out the noise around us. It’s part of leading a joyful life.

scrabbleOn Nov. 9 2016 I discovered that my little nepenthe, playing online word games through Facebook, had a major flaw. It was connected to Facebook and that meant that every angry, fearful or obnoxious thing being said by anyone I’d ever befriended floated by in the lower left corner of the screen. This clearly was not going to work, at least not for the next few weeks.

I’m not sure why I Googled solitaire, except that this game I’d seldom played struck me as the epitome of a simple, mindless activity. I ended up at a lovely place called World of Solitaire where it didn’t take long to discover that this game requires complicated strategy and a good memory, and it is fiendishly addictive.

solitaire2As I played game after game in the waning days of 2016, I realized that I had to adjust to the idea that I could not always win. I’m used to winning, and as a matter of personal philosophy I never think it is impossible. Yet the fact was that between 8.5 and 18% of the games I was playing could not be won no matter what I did. It seemed to be a timely lesson.

Then I began to realize that winning a single solitaire game doesn’t matter, it’s all about how many you games you can win in your time frame. I began to design strategies for myself, and each one sounded wise beyond the realm of cards.

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4.  Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5.  Always leave yourself an out if you can.

solitaireFunny, the number of games I won more or less doubled once I got my hands around these ideas. Then, for my own pleasure I added two more.

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.  (My favorite deck and background is shown to the left.

February is more than half over and I’m still playing solitaire. I may tire of it eventually but for now it continues to calm me down. I’m also putting more energy every day into trying to shape the politics of this country, doing my best to nudge both friends and strangers towards compassion, inclusion, and an optimistic view of who we are and how far we have come. These days I contact my congress people, I sign petitions, and I’ve even marched once and probably will again.

And as I do these things I tell myself

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5. Always leave yourself an out if you can.

And, just to make sure I enjoy the journey, I add

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.

(For more thoughts on Solitaire and life, see Solitaire and Nuclear War.  The rules for the version of solitaire that I play are shown below. The rules for my new found zeal for political engagement can be found all over the internet, including on Facebook, which I am once again using.)

rules

Am I capable of learning to like anything?

I conducted psyche experiments on myself when I was a child. You can’t blame me. There were things I needed to know, and I was my only cooperative subject. For instance, were all my preferences acquired tastes? This was important. If they were, then maybe I would eventually like beer, which was good because this appeared to be a necessary component to getting along as a teenager. On the other hand, it meant I might eventually wear pink polyester stretch pants like my mother, which was a horrifying concept. Either way, I had to know.

teaI also drank hot tea as adolescent, and somehow ended up with a box of Lapsang Souchong tea. If you’ve never tried it, it has a strong smoky taste and the first time I had it I gagged, then realized I had the perfect tool for my experiment. Could I change my own mind, and learn to love the taste of this tea?

I made an impressive effort, concocting strange myths about the origin of the taste relating to magic creatures in the woods drying the leaves over tiny bonfires and telling myself the burning embers imparted unknown powers to the daring humans willing to sip the strange potion. It worked. I slowly convinced myself that the taste was mysterious and intriguing, and once I began to enjoy it I could acknowledge that the myths were hogwash and it just plain tasted good to me. I still like it to this day, and story of how I came to do so makes me smile.

bonfireMy twelve-year-old brain didn’t think to take this to the next step, and I’m glad it didn’t. Lapsang Souchong tea is all well and good, but could I have forced myself to like, I don’t know, human blood, or, well, fill in any number of things for which I’m glad that I don’t have a yen. I was happy finding out that I could convince myself to like something if I worked hard enough at it. The question I didn’t ask was: could I get myself to like anything?

Or maybe the better question would have been: could I get myself to want to get myself to like anything?

I’m writing this blog on January 20, 2017, the day of inaugurating a president for whom I have no respect. In spite of my Midwestern working-class roots, I do not identify with his supporters. I consider my experiment with Lapsang Souchong tea, and wonder if I could feel differently?

I realize that there are three very different things are going on.

One, there is politics. I mean actual policy preferences. Mine are the result of a lifetime of observation and analysis and they reflect my core beliefs. I’ve agreed with some U.S. presidents more than others, and none of them completely, but I have respected that every single one of them was trying to do what he thought was best. But I don’t even know what this president believes in; he’s been conducting a reality show for over a year, not sharing his vision. I do dislike most of his choices in advisors, but I realize that is not the real source of my disrespect. I may not agree with his selections but these men (they are mostly men) are entitled to their world view. As an adult, I can hold a certain amount of understanding for the opinions of others.

barbecueThen there is style. Not his style; he acts like a flashy rich guy who is full of himself and I don’t think anyone actually likes that. I mean the style of his supporters. I don’t feel commonality with them because mostly their tastes aren’t mine. But they could be. I can teach myself to like a lot of different things and I still am. I could enjoy country music and barbecue instead of yoga and wine and I would be every bit as happy and fine a human being. That’s what Lapsang Souchong tea taught me. Taste is taste. Mine isn’t better than yours, and no one’s taste is unworthy of respect.

But it’s the third component that is the driving force behind my lack of regard, and that is trust. I don’t trust this man because he has raised saying anything he pleases to an art form. Half-truths, quarter-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out as needed. People are insulted and belittled to serve his quest for popularity, much like in the world of an adolescent. Slights are responded to without reflection on the consequences, to him or to his country. And I don’t think you can teach yourself to like being led by, or being at the mercy of, someone you cannot trust.

Picture3Forget the politics, forget the style. The heart of the matter here is the heart. There is some inherent core decency, a certain regard for truth and a desire for kindness that I cannot define in words so much as I can feel in my heart, and no amount of effort will get me to want to embrace a lack of this. In fact, nothing would make me want to make the effort to do so.

Looks like it took a few decades for me to finish answering my own question, but I finally did.  No, I cannot get myself to like anything, and I’m glad that I can’t.

None of us are normal, if we’re lucky

My friend’s husband often brings her coffee in the morning. He confessed to me that if he really wants to make her smile, he brings it to her in a mug that matches what she is wearing. “Don’t tell her about that,” my friend responded. “Now she’s going to think I’m crazy.”

true voice 8Well, yes, wanting your coffee in a mug that matches your clothes is probably not normal, but my friend should know by now that I never thought she was normal, and I honestly don’t know anyone else who is either. So no worries about the color thing; it’s just another quirk.

Did you know that I code all of my to do lists? I have seven different symbols I use, depending on whether the task described is a household chore, or related to my writing, or a favor for someone I love. Seriously. I do this. Is that normal? Probably not, but it makes me happy.

Which gets me back to my current fascination with happiness. A few weeks ago I wrote about a report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University about which countries have the happiest people. The results  came from asking people to evaluate six parts of their lives which account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed these six up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness.

Today, I’m thinking about the freedom part.  We usually consider freedom in grandiose terms, as in the right to free speech, or to bear arms, or to choose our own religion. Obviously these are important topics, but I think it is the little freedoms to be ourselves that make for true delight.

Yes, we all do have to fit in enough to function at our jobs and be able to relate somewhat to our friends and family. Past that, though, it’s the goofy little things about us that make us smile. Getting to be quirky, our own harmless kinds of quirky, yields not only happier people, I believe that it also yields healthier ones — physically and mentally. In other words, acting a little odd doesn’t make you crazy, it helps you to stay sane. And once a society starts to tighten the constraints on individual expression, that society gets more pathology, not less.

good sign 2We tend to take the freedom to dye our hair purple or own six gerbils or collect rugby memorabilia as a given, because no one passes laws against these things. But society has other ways to force us into abandoning our happy little habits. Work places, living spaces and organizations all impose restraints which should be for the good of the group but which sometimes seem designed more for conformity. Religions restrict behavior in ways intended to be for the good of the individual, but many edicts seem to be more about simple control. Perhaps most effective in today’s world are the many public ways we have of shaming each other into conformity. From commercials that make fun of the outliers to posts on social media, we exert a pressure on others to conform to the styles and tastes of the herd.

I contend that the endless struggle to be normal is much like the endless struggle to make more money and have more things.  Up to a point it yields a certain amount of happiness,, and then after that it just doesn’t make a lot of difference. In fact, endlessly chasing after the money to buy the latest possession (yes, I’m talking about you iPhone 6s Plus) is like endlessly trying to have the latest possession to fit in. Neither is really going to make your insides glow with joy. And now we have a study to prove it.

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates meFour Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

 

 

It didn’t take a spaceship

Dalai 6I had this odd reoccurring daydream that started when I was about thirteen and kept me mentally entertained whenever I was bored.

I was on a spaceship by myself on a very long journey. I was quite happy about it, and was planning my schedule. How would I use my days? I’d allocate time for exercise (practicing yoga, perfecting the hula), for chores (doing fun space ship things) and for learning (French? Ancient history? Organic chemistry? Modern literature?). I would try to think of every aspect of my being and how to best enrich it and then I added to and rearranged my schedule endlessly, much to my own delight.

I’m serious.  I spent hours doing this. I have no idea why.

Then, of course, I grew older and filled my life up the way that adults do and I forgot about my favorite fantasy. A few decades passed, and now I realize that I should have given it more thought. If I had, I might have realized that

  • In spite of a friendly nature and tendency to smile at people, I am an off the charts introvert. Anyone who fantasizes about being alone on a spaceship as a child should not be surprised by her Myers-Briggs test results twenty years later.
  • There was no need to fight my compulsive desire to make lists. It was a losing battle. They say be true to yourself and planning my day is being true to me.
  • I love to learn, and should have made more time for it sooner. I’m making time for it now.
  • I don’t like other people telling me how to spend my day. This makes me a poor candidate for a traditional job, but a job is what I needed for the last couple of decades. We don’t all get the luxury of deciding that working for someone else is not our cup of tea. However, today I do have the option of working as a consultant in my field, and I should embrace this opportunity (and its many downsides) with all my heart.
  • We all want to be happy.  Knowing yourself is a giant part of finding fulfillment and contentment. Listening to your oddest, most secret dreams will tell you how to seek out joy in your own life. There are no right answers.

raising7Why did I suddenly remember this daydream? Well, I have a little more flexibility and free-time in my schedule now than I’ve had for years. With it has come an increasing excitement for planning my days and filling them with just the right mix of activities that enrich every part of my being. So I guess that is the last and most important thing I learned.

I don’t have to be sequestered on a spaceship by myself in order to do the things I want. I get to do them right here, right now, and can even sometimes share my joy with another like minded soul or two. In other words, I get to have my childhood fantasy, and it’s better than I thought.

The real eulogy that I never gave

It was written eight years ago and it is the oldest file on my computer. I found it cleaning out a folder called “other writing” looking for any forgotten gems that I might want to roll into the book I’ve just started. It isn’t the oldest thing I’ve written of course, I’ve been doing this stuff since junior high. But most of that is all gone now. This isn’t.

I hear my own voice, from the year my mother died. I’ve changed in the passing years, and I’m not sure I agree with all of this now. But I think it is a perspective worth sharing. It’s called “Teach your children.”

You teach your children every day.  Not by what you say but by how you live your life. It is so easy to find yourself teaching them that life is drudgery, that marriage sucks, that work is to be avoided, and that you never get a fair deal.

I will never get to deliver the eulogy for my parents which I would like.  But if I could – it would go something like this.

Dalai 9The most offensive and ridiculous thing my parents ever said to me was “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.”  They thought it was terribly funny, which made it all the worse.  And they quoted it often.  You see, my parents basically liked to drink, gamble and have sex.  And overeat. They  avoided cigarettes and drugs, although my father smoked for awhile and tried pot in his youth.  I don’t think stopping either had much to do with self restraint – rather the first was more of an aesthetes choice and the second had more to do with what vices were readily available within their social circle.

And while my parents were busy enjoying life and telling us not to, they were also, in a way they never suspected, busy teaching me and my sister.

And what were we learning?

  1. If you want to have a good marriage, have all the sex you want but only have it with your partner. Nothing else will result in love after 40 plus years and having someone love you when you are 60 is about as good as it gets.
  2. If you are going to drink alcohol, only drink after five o’ clock except on holidays and special occasions. Only get drunk on weekends and not on all of them. This works a lot better if you can manage to be a happy, or at least not a belligerent, drunk.
  3. Gamble all you want, but never ever what you cannot afford to lose.
  4. Keep you weight to within 40 pounds of your ideal.  There are a lot of ways to die and frankly odds are yours will have nothing to do with your weight if you keep it somewhere under obese. Meanwhile, you will enjoy your life a lot more.

So today – I am slightly chubby and happily married for 26 plus years.  I drink less than my parents did, which is good, but I do drink only on nights and weekends. I hate most forms of gambling but play the stock market as hobby, but of course only with what we can afford to lose. I pretty much have a great life.

It is a shame I will never get to deliver this tribute, because it brings two things to mind which should be said.

  1. I hope my husband and I have taught our children as well.
  2. Thanks Mom and Dad. I am doing what you did, not what you said, and it’s working out just fine.

Are you “performing,” or performing?

I get the idea for this blog post while I’m doing yoga, right when I am instructed to be “totally present in the now.” This is a common prompt for anything involving meditation, but the problem is that the instructor takes it one step further and asks us to reflect on what keeps us from doing so.

“I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamors.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But then another voice in my head speaks up, and it is less anxious to please.

“Just how effective a human being do you think you would be if you didn’t focus on getting something done?” it asks. “Performing the tasks that help you survive is what buys you the freedom to sit around and chant om and do this other shit.”

“Shhhhh!” I hush both voices, and then just when I finally have things under control, the yoga instructor joins in the conversation.

true voice 5In fairness, he is a profound individual, and on occasion he will mix his own insights into the class practice and this always enhances the class for me.  This day, he has an answer for the question he has just asked. And he wants to share that answer with us.

“Performing,” he says. “You can’t be present in the now when you are performing.”

“I got that one!” the eager student yells in my head. “Performing tasks. It is one of the three things I said. You heard me. I got it. And I get extra credit for coming up with two more answers, too.”

Only it turns out, I didn’t get it. My yoga instructor is not concerned with my performing tasks or my living in the past or the future. He seems to think those are pretty trivial problems. He is hoping to help me avoid acting like I am someone who I am not. He believes that you can only be present in the here and now, when you are authentic.

Okay, that’s another idea. Decades ago we told each other not to be fake, but recent years have introduced the similar concept of personal authenticity. I like the nuances of this new word better. Unfortunately, though, the contribution from the instructor gets the various voices of my monkey mind going once again.

“Do you even know what is authentically you?” one asks. “Good student, good mother, good worker, good wife. You’ve played roles all of your life. When didn’t you?”

“Well yes, we all play roles to some extent.” my calmer and wiser monkey mind chines in. “It doesn’t mean those aren’t facets of the real you. They’re just not all there is to you.”

“Go deep beneath your roles and your accomplishments,” the instructor continues. He is managing quite well to be part of this conversation. What the hell. I take a deep breath and try to distance myself, to become the objective observer he is urging me to become. What do I see?

Psychedelic 16I see a soul sitting quietly on a mat. She cares deeply about things, but has learned to muffle the intensity of her emotions as their force often bothers others.  She wishes to be liked, and she knows that people seldom enjoy another who is too passionate. She is a ridiculous goody-two shoes (is that even still an expression?) who hates injustice, despises bullying, and truly believes in living an honorable life. She exaggerates to tell a story but won’t tell lies, and she would rather be by herself than with most people. Finally, she has never felt like she was normal and she thinks people would like her better if she was.  She has no idea how to go about being so.

“That’s it,” the instructor says. “Reach for the authentic you.”  I occasionally wonder if the man is telepathic.

The woman on the mat looks up at me and she smiles.  She is usually happy, but I know that she is happiest when she is writing. When something she writes comes out just the way she wants it to, she wants to stand on top of a table in a crowded place and scream “yes” several times at the top of her lungs, but of course she knows that would make her even less likable. And possibly incarcerated.

We are moving into end-of-class shavasana now, and a quiet corner of my monkey mind points out that I haven’t exactly been silent throughout today’s practice. No I haven’t. I’ve enjoyed this search for the true me, though, and think that it has been as good as enjoying the quiet in my head would have been. Many paths to the top of the mountain and all that. Today, this was my best way to be in this moment. I think that it doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about focusing on the past — see my post Bring back the good old days? on my z2 blog. For thoughts about my never ending preoccupation with performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. And for my concerns about planning for the future, see Prepare for the worst? on my d4 blog.)

When I wrote this scene in y1, I was scratching away at the idea of a person’s authenticity being tied into doing the things that they love. Now I’m even more sure that is true. Enjoy this short excerpt.

“What’s this?” he asked Toby, lifting a large bulky paper sack out of the dinghy.

“Tonight’s entertainment,” Toby replied. Afi’s eyes widened as a single, almost forty-inch-long fire knife fell out onto the sand, its regulation fourteen-and-a-half-inch blade glistening. There was a fire wick and a small can of outboard motor fuel.

“It was just sitting there when I walked into the farmers market,” Toby confessed a little sheepishly. “The man was quite happy to sell it to me, and I figured you could use it to at least start getting back in practice.”

fire dancingAfi shook his head in disbelief and Toby thought he saw a hint of tears in Afi’s eyes. “After dinner I want you to show me and our new crew member what you can do with this,” Toby said.

So after food was finished, the knife and wick were prepared, and as the very last glimmer of light vanished off to the west, Afi did a careful hand spin with the burning baton. Then he tried a slow figure eight. Then a cautious toss and catch, followed by a slightly more confident toss and catch behind his back. Then a bolder under-the-leg throw. He was grinning now, and the muscle memory was coming back. Joy and Toby watched in increasing wonder as Afi’s hesitant movements transformed, until he was confidently moving the glowing stick to the beat of drums only he could hear in his head.

He began to stomp his feet as he moved, adding head movements in the Kiribati style. Toby and Joy gained a sense of the rhythm to which Afi was moving. Joy began softly clapping with the motion, adding a little percussion. Afi grinned in appreciation and she clapped more forcefully. As his movements sped up, her clapping sped with them, and the two of them were working together now to create the performance. Joy clapped. Afi spun the fire knife. Toby watched in absolute fascination. Finally, by the end of the dance, Afi had become a whirling, glowing swirl of orange flame, powered by Joy’s now jubilant participation and by his own sheer joy in the exhilaration of doing something that he truly loved.

My Imaginary Time in Witness Protection

I finally figured it out. When I first moved here five months ago I thought that my main problem was exhaustion. I had been working long hours, living various places, and moving heavy things for months before the move. I would be happy here just as soon as I got caught up on sleep. Or as soon as I got finally got unpacked, or found the right drapes and got them hung.

Psychedelic 14After a few weeks, I realized that my restlessness wasn’t just caused by fatigue. I had left friends and family a thousand miles behind. I had no cell phone coverage and no land line. I knew no one here, and no one I knew had ever been here. I’ve died, I thought. This feels like I’ve died. Well, my husband was here with me, equally discombobulated. Maybe we’d died together? Scenes from the movie “The Sixth Sense” kept running through my head. Was it possible?

I looked out the window and saw the gorgeous mountains and bright blue sky and amended my assessment. Clearly if I’d died, I’d gone to heaven, whatever that was, and I should be happy. There were reportedly far worse alternatives. But I still just felt confused and disconnected. Being in heaven didn’t turn out to be such a great thing.

I was also unemployed, by choice, and this should have made me wildly, deliriously joyous but it didn’t. I had hoped to write for forty to sixty hours a week, but the open expanse of time was overwhelming and for the first time in my life I could barely write for an hour.  I signed up for yoga classes mostly for an excuse to get dressed, look at a clock, and get out of the house. The yoga turned out to be wonderful on many more levels, and one day one of the wiser instructors managed to give me a key clue to my dilemma.

“Today, let go of whatever it is that defines you, to you,” the instructor suggested.

That’s it! I almost said it aloud. What defines me to me! It was my job. Rather my profession and all the people who knew me as such. It was where I had lived. It was the places I liked to go, for lunch and ice cream and shopping. It was the clothes I wore to work and my habits and the way I lived my week and now all of that was gone.

It made perfect sense. I’d come to define myself by a fairly shallow set of behaviors and now that I had none of them, I needed to redefine me and I wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it.

I’ve gone into Witness Protection, I thought. Nice home, just enough money, and none of my old self to fall back on. No one knows me here, or knows what I can do. I’ve lost myself and I need to make a new me.

I mean, being in witness protection is an amazing opportunity if you think about it.  You get to leave a lot of baggage behind. You can be nicer, more fit, interested in birds or herbs or any old thing you want and no one is going to ask “What’s gotten into you?”

A little bit of looking around established that a lot of people of all ages have moved to this area, and some have taken on some amazing challenges once they did so. Who knows what they were like before. I could redefine me too.

What do I want to be? Well, I am and always will be a writer and now that I’m making sense of the void that intimidated me at first, the writing ought to come more easily. But writing will also always be a solitary part of me, and it’s the social, interactive parts that are needing the fleshing out.

I’d already taken steps to reconnect with loved ones.  I’d gotten a new cell phone carrier with coverage at my house. Some friends and family came to visit and that helped and now I’m making plans to visit some of them. But I had to figure out what else defined me besides a connection with those who will always be close to me.

bolder7Well, I want to help people; I want to put something back for all the good fortune that I’ve had. So over the last week I’ve found four or five volunteer opportunities I’m excited about and looking into. It turns out that I don’t like being broke or never working as much as I though I would, and it looks like I’ve also found a chance to work a day and half a week. The money and the structure will help. Better and better.

I already like the ways I’m starting to define me as me, to me, and once I’m comfortable enough I won’t be in witness protection anymore. I’ll just be Sherrie, the lady who works from home on her computer a little and volunteers over there every week and writes books on the side and does a lot of yoga and seems very happy in her new life.

(Read more at “My Imaginary Prison Time“)