Sunday, April 28, 2013

Zen and the Art of Doing

Anyone who knew me during the first 35 years of my life would probably describe me as "Type A." A perfectionist, in love with control and order and predictability.  Far from being disturbed by that sort of characterization, I embraced it fully. I was in love with the concept of controlling my own destiny and often (quietly) railed against those who might stand in my way as I traveled down the neat and tidy path of my life as I envisioned it.

On the other hand, folks who have met me in the past few years might not agree.  I like to think that I have seen the error of my ways, addressed the driving forces behind my drastic need to control the parameters of my life and the lives of my children, and become much more accepting of the world and my place in it.  I am capable of letting go of worries about how others might see me and not nearly so frantic about working, working, working to prove my worth and avoiding all potential difficulties.

That said, I still have a bit of a mental struggle between "being" and "doing." I have a meditation practice that has served me well over the past several years and often at the first sign of trouble, my instinct tells me to slow down and check in with my gut. To be still and quiet and breathe instead of mobilizing for action to mitigate damage.  And yet, often as I am working to 'be,' I carry 'what to do' in the back of my mind like a pebble in my shoe. It is not front and center, sharp enough to make me stop and shake it out, but it's only a matter of time before I get annoyed and stop to examine it.  Even as I am simply experiencing the discomfort of a particular situation, working to not judge it and panic, I am acknowledging somewhere in my head that soon I will have to do something about this situation and this state of suspension is finite. Perhaps the most mundane, and certainly the most recent example of this in my life follows:

Last week I was suffering with shoulder and neck pain, popping Advil like black jellybeans on Easter Sunday, and wondering when I might find the time to go see my chiropractor. It was a particularly busy week for the girls, Bubba was in Europe on business, and I had a million projects to tackle, so my time was limited.  After two nights of migraines, I gave in and made an appointment for Sunday at noon, knowing that Eve had made plans with a girlfriend and I may have to cancel.  I put it to the back of my mind on Friday night with a little mental post-it that I had to cancel by Saturday at noon if I was going to.

Saturday morning, Eve's friend still hadn't called with the details of their plans. By Saturday afternoon, I had decided I would try to push the issue a little and let Eve know that I could either take her to her friend's house early on Sunday or for a couple of hours after my appointment in the afternoon.  I was still unsure whether Lola would accompany me to the chiropractor or not, and I was a little uneasy as to how it would all turn out, but I resisted the impulse to actively problem-solve.

Within five minutes of Eve texting her friend an inquiry about details, our home phone rang and it was a friend of Lola's, inviting her over to hang out for a few hours on Sunday. Within the next few minutes, Eve's friend texted back saying earlier was better for her and we should bring her in the morning. Problem solved.

On Sunday, what I got was a fabulous chiropractor appointment with a skilled practitioner who made me feel almost instantly better and a quiet house for three hours while I worked on a writing project I haven't been able to tackle yet this week.

But what I really got was the reminder that while sitting with uncertainty (no matter how small) does not necessarily translate to action, it often results in less action being needed.  If I had scrambled around trying to make arrangements for Lola or scheduling Eve's time with her friend, I would have used up precious energy for no real reason. What 'being' did for me was allow time for some of the details in the Universe to shift and provide a clear path for all of us. Had I pre-emptively cancelled my appointment so as to avoid the cancellation fee, I would have ended up frustrated that both kids were away and my neck still hurt.

Over the years I have noted the positive affects of not-doing again and again (this, by the way, is much different than procrastination, although I often convince myself that it is not and justify my procrastination by saying that I was simply waiting for 'things to work themselves out'). I am coming to trust in the partnership between being and doing, the yin and yang of them in relationship to each other, the notion that there is a time and a place for each and neither ought to be forced.  In my life, anyway, the more I can initially sit with a new situation and not succumb to that siren call to "Act now!" the less effort I end up expending to find a workable solution that feels right.  Beyond the weekly, mundane examples like the chiropractor appointment, there are many more monumental issues I have experienced in my life in which this principle is astoundingly applicable. Perhaps my new mantra ought to be, "When in doubt, do nothing for a little while. Just to see how things unfold." You never know - I may not have to do anything at all, and that is certainly cause for celebration.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Fallacy of the Bell Curve: Shooting for Mediocrity

Most of us are familiar with the idea of a bell curve.  If you grew up with public education in the US in the 1970s, you were likely steeped in it.  The idea is fairly simple:

"First, numeric scores are assigned to the students. The actual values are unimportant as long as the ordering of the scores corresponds to the ordering of how good the students are. In the second step these scores are converted to percentiles. Finally, the percentile values are transformed to grades according to a division of the percentile scale into intervals, where the interval width of each grade indicates the desired relative frequency for that grade.

For example, if there are three grades, A, B and C, where A is reserved for the top 10% of students, B for the next 20%, and C for the remaining 70%, then scores in the percentile interval from 0% to 70% get grade C, scores from 71% to 90% get grade B, and scores from 91% to 100% get grade A."
Okay, that's how we got our 'letter grades.' What I find particularly interesting about this method is the following statement - also from Wikipedia.

"The grading method can thus be tuned to determine the frequency distribution of the grades in advance, and if the intervals are already fixed at the beginning of a course, then so is the number of students who will receive each grade."

Regardless of how you feel about the format of "grading on a curve," it occurs to me that as a culture, we have bought into this notion and applied it to nearly everything.  We use the idea that most of us are going to be clustered into the center portion of the curve, sheltered under its wide arc, with only the outliers spread out to either side, to make sense of our world. We live our lives aspiring to be, if not to the far right side of that graph, at least safe within the numbers of other 'normal' folks like us in the main part.

And it's no wonder, because those unlucky folks at either end of the spectrum are often the ones who are dehumanized.

Consider a bell curve based on sporting ability.  The folks at the far right - the positive 2.5s and 3s - those are Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm. They are the ones we revere and admire and pay bucketloads of money to go see in action, but they are also relegated to that world of superhuman ability that makes them subject to expectations nobody can meet.  We idolize them and dehumanize them. We ask that they subjugate their humanity, their tendency to make mistakes and their desires for junk food and bad relationships, in order to explain to ourselves why they aren't in the same part of the bell curve as us.  And if they fall for any reason at all and show their flaws and foibles, we vilify them viciously before either ignoring them or dusting them off and placing them right back on that pedestal where we want them to be.

We have graphs for every kind of achievement and quality - musical talent, scientific thought, physical attributes - and we hold exacting standards for each of them. Talented musicians are prodigies whose lives are wasted if they deign to seek anything other than a life of fame and fortune by making music. Gorgeous models and actors are lauded for maintaining their ideal weight and if one should suffer some disfiguring accident we assume their life is now over.

And if we all adhered to our places on the bell curve, where might we be?  There would be no Temple Grandin, for she would be relegated to the negative twos with other folks whose talents don't fit in with our idea of 'normal.' The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks would never have materialized, given their place on the bell curve of gender and race.  It is so often those individuals who are willing to step outside of the interval that society has fixed in place for them who make the biggest impact, who believe that we have something important to learn, but they suffer greatly at the hands of those who would define them as less human simply because of that place they are supposed to occupy on the graph.  We are, so many of us, concerned with having what is average, what is normal, with sitting firmly in the middle of an entire group of others just like us, that we forget to dream. We accept the idea that the game is fixed, the intervals are set, and we have little mobility to the right or to the left. We know, from working out the statistics of the bell curve, that once you reach a certain point, it is simply too hard to break through to the top part of the curve.

It hasn't always been this way. Our country used to be one that fairly demanded difference. There was a time when our shores were flooded with immigrants that were welcomed and, although they didn't always have what they needed to get by, collaboration and innovation were praised, not to mention a survival necessity. That's not to say that there aren't shameful examples of exploitation and discrimination in our history, but there wasn't always this idea that being just like everyone else was something to aspire to.  In the 1950s when television programs began showing us what we should want, we stopped asking ourselves what we actually did want and found it was simpler to go along with the crowd. Unfortunately, that has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy for many Americans who would rather blend into the sheer numbers of others like themselves than celebrate their own unique attributes and talents. It has also made it much easier to dehumanize individuals at both ends of the spectrum, pitying those on one end of the curve and holding those at the opposite end to an impossible standard. We huddle in our "normalcy," afraid to bust out at either side and show our true desires and talents, content to paint ourselves in the colors of the masses and regard those remarkable individuals who stand out like exotic creatures at the zoo.  A dynamic, diverse society is one that allows for difference and celebrates every kind of unique thought, not one that is frightened of new frontiers and innovation. Let's scrap this bell curve and start looking at our world through fresh eyes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The "F" Word Rears its Ugly Head Again

I was asked today how I think my daughters' school views failure and I cringed.  I hate that word. It is so full of rot and worms and gut-wrenching stink.  The first thing I did was to reframe the conversation in terms of mistakes, and then I dug in deeper.

I don't know where we as a society got the notion that mistakes aren't allowed, or at least that only mistakes of a certain type are allowed.  I remember teachers handing papers back to me with a final grade written on them in red ink at the top and feeling either defeated or elated depending on the score (which I rapidly translated from a number score to a letter grade in my head, don't you know).  I remember accepting that this was the way it was. You get one chance to take that test or write that essay and the grade you get is the grade you get.  But that isn't real life, is it?  And it certainly isn't a reasonable expectation. I think if we asked, no parent or school official or teacher would say that they expect their students to come in, sit through a lecture, absorb everything the teacher says, and perform perfectly on an exam. Desire? Yes. Expect? No. Schools are for learning, and learning simply can't happen without missteps.

Last year, Eve had a math teacher who expected the girls to turn in corrections on their math homework.  If it was clear to him that they hadn't quite understood or mastered the content by the looks of their math papers, he would return them to the girls and ask them to rework the problems they had answered incorrectly.  He offered to stay in at lunch or after school to pore over the papers with students who just hadn't quite figured it out yet because his goal was that each of his students truly learn the material he was teaching. He didn't have a bell curve he was working toward.  He wasn't compelled by some external drive to "get through" a certain amount of material. He wanted these girls to understand what he was teaching and he lived it every day.

How often do we get "corrections" in life? Everywhere, I'd say.  Just because I try out a new recipe one night and it bombs, my family doesn't 'fire' me from cooking anymore.  I'm not branded a failure in the kitchen and asked not to return.  Life is about reworking problems, looking back to see where we went wrong and making it a little better next time.  Unfortunately, I think we don't offer our kids that much slack at school.  So many students are frantic to turn in perfect papers that they stay up all night tweaking every last detail or resort to buying someone else's work to turn in. They take round after round of pre-SAT tests in order to increase their scores as much as possible before applying to colleges.  They give up on themselves if they can't master a particular subject, or if they can't master school itself.  We are doing them a disservice if we continue to send them the message that there is only one way to learn and if they don't figure it out, they're doomed.

One of the biggest reasons I love the school my daughters attend is that the teachers embrace mistakes. They expect mistakes. They encourage the girls to step outside of their comfort zone and try things they are afraid of just to see what happens.  Yes, they have high academic standards, but those standards revolve around comprehension and utilization of the material they are taught, not regurgitating memorized material on a test or being at the top of the bell curve.  Their teachers believe that one of the biggest components of learning is not knowing. I mean, honestly, isn't that the only prerequisite for learning? That you don't already know?  In this equation, effort and resilience are the most important traits a student can have, and given that those characteristics are vital to the rest of their lives as well, don't we want to instill them in our kids instead of some completely unattainable ideal of perfection?

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Tyranny of Control

Ahh, control. The word has meant many different things to me in my life.  As a young child, I fantasized about having some, any at all.  I equated control with power and freedom.  As a teen, I was certain I was in control of my life - manipulating my parents carefully with my words and actions to convince them that I was mature and responsible and could be trusted.  I had been hurt badly, betrayed by friends and family, and was determined to set myself up in a tower of my own making that would ensure I was never hurt like that again.

As a young adult, I had to admit that I was most certainly NOT in control of much, living hand-to-mouth as I worked two or three jobs to survive my college years, making some really bad choices (like falling prey to the nice folks who sat at the Visa table in my school's common area) and suffering the consequences.  I struggled to rein in the world, eventually limiting my scope to a pretty small radius so that I could begin to find the way back to mastery.  Once I felt solidly on my feet again, I started to widen my range, only to lose it again when I had children.

It has taken me many cycles of loss and lockdown to discover that my life is happier when I let go of the need for control.  Consider:

Infants have no control over anything. Their bodies twitch and move without their input. And they accept that, they don't know anything else.  Sure, they get hungry and cry for help, or they need a fresh diaper and cry for help, but they are accepting of the fact that they need others to survive.  When they aren't crying for help, infants are absorbing. They are being. They are taking in everything around them, not attempting to control it or change it, just existing within it.

Again, when we get to the most advanced years of our lives, we have little control.  Many of us lose our motor skills, some of us lose our cognitive skills, and we all end up relying on others to help us.  There is no regaining the illusion of control that we had throughout most of our lives, there is no pill we can take to restore our muscle and brain function to what it once was (although I'm certain there are many, many millions of dollars spent working on finding one).  Some of the happiest people I know are those who have the least amount of control in their lives.

Michael A. Singer writes in his book, The Untethered Soul,
"We think we're supposed to figure out how life should be and then make it that way....How did we come up with the notion that life is not okay just the way it is...?"

Later he expands on that notion,
"You're either trying to figure out how to keep things from happening or your trying to figure out what to do because they did happen. You're fighting with creation."

Yup, that about sums up the vast majority of my life (and energy expenditure) to this point.  When I look at individuals who are not hell-bent on changing the external world or walling off their internal experience to fit their notion of what would make life pleasant, I see people who are happy. People with lives that actually are pleasant.  People whose energies are spent moving forward with things that are meaningful to them as opposed to defending themselves from the potential harm they could encounter.

Slowly but surely I am beginning to understand that my attempts to be in control of my own life amount to holding myself hostage.  I end up limiting my ability to experience the entire range of things I might see and do and feel because I am afraid that I might not be able to mitigate the effect of those experiences on me.    And in the end, the world I might create if I were in control would only contain the things I have encountered up until now and what a boring place that would be.  It would likely also be pretty lonely, given that a world where I never get hurt is probably a world without other sentient beings.  So while I'm not looking forward to having my heart broken or losing my physical abilities or memory, I'm not willing to trade my relationships or the wonder of new discoveries for absolute control, either.  I guess I'm going to have to keep working on being okay with pain and vulnerability. Damn.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Open Letter to President Obama With Deep Disappointment

Dear President Obama,

I was pleased when you were re-elected President of the United States last fall. I believe that throughout the campaign, you spoke with conviction and courage with regard to things that are truly important to you  and, while I didn't agree with all of them (our nation's energy policy being one of the most glaring examples), I happily voted for you. Happily, because I saw a common thread running through many of your positions - the acknowledgment that the easy way out is not generally the best way to do things, the acceptance of diversity, and the willingness to tread lightly and ponder solutions deeply. Those are qualities I admire in a person, especially in a leader.

But I have to admit I am very disappointed right now.  While you have expressed concern for families, both in talking about health care and education, wages and job creation, you have dropped the ball when it comes to food safety by signing HR 933 which contained what has commonly become known as the "Monsanto Protection Act."  You have proven yourself to be unwilling to protect our farmland, the quality of our food supply, our trade with other countries around the world, and the health of our nation's citizens by allowing Monsanto and other companies like it to act with impunity when it comes to manipulating both the food that is grown in this country and others as well as the supply chain of seeds themselves.

If we continue to be afraid to hold companies accountable for their actions by making them immune to litigation if their products prove harmful, we are simply substituting corporations for banking institutions in the "too big to fail" world and we will surely reap far worse effects than we did from the recession that began in 2008.

If Monsanto is allowed to continue to plant genetically engineered crops such as alfalfa that are resistant to pesticides, there is absolutely no doubt that the alfalfa will find its way into the food chain in ways that we can't undo. The genetic material from these seeds will contaminate soils, perhaps rendering it altered forever. These crops will pollinate other, non GE crops and change them forever as well.  The alfalfa can find its way into feed for even those animals that are organically grown, affecting both the livelihood of the organic farmers and the health of the consumers who buy them unknowingly.  That hurts American families.

If we continue in this vein, we will also isolate ourselves from the world economy when it comes to trade in foodstuffs.  Ireland and Japan have adopted laws against growing GMOs, Egypt has placed a ban on import/export of GMOs, the EU has strict labeling laws that have effectively stopped GMOs from being purchased for the most part.  None of these countries will be interested in buying food from the US if we cannot prove that our products are free of genetically engineered components.  That hurts American families.

In Japan, Keisuke Amagasa noted that, despite Japan's ban on growing GMOs,
"because Japan imports GM canola from Canada, GM contamination has already occurred and it is spreading to a much greater degree than one could imagine. Judging by the ominous precedent of Canada, once GM crops are cultivated, segregation between GM and non-GM will become almost impossible, and keeping pure non-GM varieties away from GM contamination will be very hard."
I don't know what your motivation was for signing this bill, but I do want to help you understand the wide-reaching effects that this kind of legislation will have on the American people. The people you stood up for during both of your campaigns. The people you continue to say you want to protect and support.  In signing this bill, you turned away from those individuals and chose, instead, to protect and support an enormous corporation that has no such convictions, whose only interest is continuing to make as much money as it can, no matter what the damage may one day prove to be.  There are many families in the United States who will suffer both short-term and long-term consequences of the Monsanto Protection Act and I am disappointed that this will be part of your legacy.  I don't expect to agree with everything you say and do, but I did hope that I could count on your willingness to fight for those individuals who cannot fight for themselves.  In taking up the mantle of Monsanto, you have turned away from that principle and I hope you find the courage and conviction to turn back before it is too late.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Meditation: A Poem

A river flows in front of me

Each intrusion of thought a leaf
falling atop the flow
Swept downstream.

Out of sight
Out of mind

There are no birds singing here
no deer in a clearing
no breeze rustling through trees.

There is no here here.
Only now.

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