Need Help Concentrating? Try the Refrigerator Method.

An open refrigerator full of food and drink
When I was a kid, my mom got annoyed when she saw me standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open, deciding what to eat.

I was wasting energy, letting cool fridge air out. But also, I was wasting time.

She’d tell me to think about what I wanted to eat first, then open the refrigerator, get the item I wanted to eat, and take it out. Remove the phase where I gaped at all the food inside, cool air flooding out around me.

There are several ways this memory resonates with me now. For one thing, my mom’s German efficiency. For another, my family’s good fortune, that any time I opened up the fridge, I’d always be able to find something to snack on.

But it also makes me think about how I use social media, and the internet more generally.

*

My mom’s rule was the same for TV as for the fridge. If there was a specific show she wanted to watch, she’d turn on the TV to watch it, and turn it off when the show ended.

This is so different from how we use the internet now. We go on Facebook or other sites to see what’s going on, and the sites are designed to deliver the most addictive kind of intermittent reinforcement (where you get rewarded some of the time, unpredictably). So we just stay on. And time slides past us, like cool air from the fridge door.

Lately, to staunch this time flow, I’m applying the refrigerator method. I’ll go on a news site to read a story, and then get off. I’ll dive into the Class III rapids of Twitter for 20 minutes for Twitter, and close my laptop when that time is up.

I’ve found this helpful because it builds my self-control and my patience. It also helps my brain feel less frantically stimulated by everything I could be reading, watching, and thinking about at any given moment.

*

In Cal Newport’s wonderful book Deep Work, he examines methods for concentrating and producing high-quality results while surrounded by distraction and stimuli.

The book is full of practical advice, but it’s also philosophical. “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on,” Newport writes.

Let’s get stingier with our focus. Let’s narrow our spotlights. Let’s turn them off regularly to let them recharge.

Photo by osseous, via Creative Commons license.

Read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and his Study Hacks blog.

Listen to Ben Domenech’s interview with Cal Newport over at the Federalist Radio Hour.

One Question Never to Ask

A cat stretched out in the sunshine, exposing its bellyThe other day, an acquaintance asked me when my due date is.

I’m not pregnant.

Yeah. So that was less than good.

*

Now, just to give some context, I was wearing a form-fitting outfit, and that form includes a substantial bust and a curved belly. I don’t look particularly pregnant, but I could see how, if boobs + belly = pregnancy is an equation in someone’s mind, they could jump to that conclusion.

When I informed my questioner that I’m not pregnant, she apologized, and I told her it was OK. Then I left the venue where we were and went home, feeling sick and weak, as if I’d been groped by a dirty old man.

*

I was angry at my questioner. But I realized that my feeling of illness and violation didn’t come from her question. It came from my telling her that her question was OK.

My instant reaction—gut reaction, speaking of bellies—was to take away her discomfort and embarrassment, instead of voicing my hurt feelings.

I don’t like schooling people or calling them out, even when they’re wrong (or I think they’re wrong). I don’t enjoy debate or discord.

But I need to develop some game in those arenas, because the default of saying “It’s OK” when it’s not feels so toxic and nauseating.

*

I still don’t know what the “right” response would have been. Maybe “I know you didn’t mean to, but your question hurt my feelings.”

But with a question like that, there is no correct response. How do you respond to a question that should never have been asked?

Humor would have been great, if I could have mustered any. I was about a million miles away from a quip to defuse the moment.

I’ve been trying to love my body extra hard since this ego-blow. And I’m reminding myself that this was one moment of thoughtlessness—hardly a ripple in the ocean of my human interactions this week or this month.

But damn. The power we have to start an earthquake under each other’s happiness.

Maybe the moral of this story is that I should take an improv class.

Readers, what would you have said?

Photo by liz west via Creative Commons on Flickr.

In Praise of Low-Salt Language

 

Salt Shaker

Am I a prude? Am I uptight? No one’s ever told me so.

But the conversations I overhear every day gross me out.

A lot of this comes from overuse of one word: shit. People always talk about how their sports team “shit the bed,” or how work was a “shitshow” today.

The words we use bring a particular energy into our lives. Language reframes our reality. That’s why Republicans and Democrats use different vocabulary to describe the same thing: “illegal aliens” versus “undocumented immigrants,” for example.

If a topic is being debated, one word changes the flavor and texture of that debate.

If we talk about shit all day, why are we surprised when we feel shitty when the day is over?

Watch Our Language

A lot of the signs at the Women’s March said stuff like “Get the Trump government out of my fucking twat” and “My menstrual blood will rain down upon you, President Douchebag.” (Can you tell which one of those I made up?)*

Many of those signs were funny, and they did help blow off steam. But their tone alienated many moderate and conservative women who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the marchers’ cause.

Graphic: No Longer Novel?

The general public conversation has taken a turn for the graphic. We’ve come a long way from when Lenny Bruce was arrested for his stand-up. He’d barely be rated PG-13 today.

It’s terrific that comedians like Nikki Glaser and Amy Schumer can be frank about sexuality, bodily functions, whatever. But as with anything, “strong language” weakens when it’s overused.

Obscenity can be deployed for humor, for shock value, for emphasis. None of those work when it’s utterly routine.

We can still speak our minds while speaking carefully.

Flaunting Brainpower

When she was in 6th grade, my friend Calista’s teacher pulled her aside to ask her to swear less. “Why?” Calista demanded, chip on her shoulder.

“When you swear, it hides your intelligence,” her teacher explained.

Calista still remembered this moment 20+ years later. It was a powerful message: Anything that hides our smarts is a hindrance.

A Modest Proposal

Guys, let’s put the “gentle” back in gentleman. You don’t have to be super-saintly in your discourse, like my friend Joe, who often drops H-bombs (that’s for “heck,” of course).

But listen to yourself. See if you’re repeating the same phrases over and over. If so, are those your words, or someone else’s?

And are they saying what you really mean?

Women, when you hear yourself being salty, ask yourself if that’s the flavor you’re going for. Maybe it is. In that case, great!

But as in cooking, when language is oversalted, it gets unappetizing. And can raise blood pressure.

Join me in this experiment. For a day, or a week, talk as if your grandma or grandpa were listening in on your every word. If you start to get crass or obscene without purpose, find other, more creative ways to express your ideas.

Let’s elevate our language above the run-of-the-mill shit.

* The second sign’s wording is my own invention.

Photo by Araceli Arroyo, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Invisible Friendships

A stone wall with a plant growing out of the stones.
When I was a kid, I had lots of friends, and I took them all for granted.

Today, each friendship feels miraculous. Maybe because I’m older, and have lost friends along the way. Maybe because growing up means taking less and less for granted.

It’s hard to describe a friendship. It doesn’t have the narrative arc of a love affair. There’s often no rhyme or reason.

It’s a mosaic of moments that don’t make a picture until I stand way back.

A stone wall with colorful lichen.

Lara became my friend when she showed up on my family’s doorstep one day 37 years ago. We were both 5 and lived in the same neighborhood. As my mom tells it, Lara knocked on the door out of the blue and asked if I could play.

She was shy and quiet, huge eyes in a heart-shaped face. Mom went and got me, and Lara and I went out.

There was never an objective to our time together. We would climb a tree and talk. We would hide under her bed and read.

We played Monster, a tag variation, with her little brother Brian. We had picnics featuring Ants on a Log, AKA Feet in the Mud: celery sticks spread with peanut butter, punctuated with raisins.

A stone wall running up a hill, with a forest on one side.

When we were in third grade, Lara’s family got MTV. One evening she called. “You have to come over now. They’re gonna play Beat It, by Michael Jackson, and Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic, back to back.”

I ran all the way to her house, counting the seconds it took me to get there (about 100). In those days, if you missed a video when it screened, you might never get to see it again. We got to see both videos, each the height of cool in its own way.

A stone wall with thinner and thicker pieces.

Lara’s the only person who ever slapped me in the face. We were arguing, and I said something mean or rude. The slap was not hard or painful, but it was shocking. I knew I’d provoked it. As soon as it happened, it was over, and we let it go.

Lara was always reading. She got that from her parents. There were huge Stephen King novels all over their house. For warm, kind people, they had an affinity for horror stories.

Their house was safe enough to watch scary movies in. One night in junior high, I stayed over and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I couldn’t sleep, and turned my head in the middle of the night to see a claw, like one of Freddy Krueger’s, reaching for me.

I stared, frozen. It didn’t move. It turned out to be a piece of yarn from the blanket hanging over the top of the couch, magnified to a weapon in my bleary gaze.

As teenagers, we watched Twin Peaks. Every Thursday we would convene at Lara’s house. Her mom would make treats related to the series–cherry pie or doughnuts. I don’t think I ever brought food to share. As far as I know, my selfishness troubled no one.*

Once, in high school, my tampon leaked and left a bloodstain on her family’s couch. Lara cleaned it up, flipped the pillow over, and got me additional period supplies. With other friends, I might have felt mortified. With her, I knew she wouldn’t judge me.

This calmness in the face of bodily functions turned out to be a professional asset, since she is now a doctor.

A stone wall covered with green grass.

In our adult lives, Lara and I see each other about once a year. We don’t talk on the phone, and when we do see each other, the conversation follows familiar paths: her sons, our careers, our parents’ health.

It’s rarely been a confessional friendship. Other girlfriends hear more details about my love life, my fears and insecurities, my political leanings.

With Lara though, there’s a unique bond. She’s known me for so long that I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not.

Lara was my original friend. She will always be in my life, the same way I will always be from New Hampshire.

Our friendship didn’t grow like a tree from a seed. It feels more geological, like a New England stone wall, built from many smooth pieces. Nothing holding them together but gravity.


*After I wrote this, Lara told me that I did in fact bring doughnuts to our Twin Peaks nights. Phew!

Photo credits, all via Creative Commons on Flickr, from top to bottom:
stone wall, by Kris Chapman
Stone Wall, by Randen Pederson

06-28-08_2, by Steve
stone wall, by Siaron James
stone wall, by liz west

Fresh and Tasty News Across the Spectrum

A pile of newspapers in purple light.Because American politics are so volatile now—or at least, because the volatility now feels personal to me—I’m finally reading the news. Lots of news.

It’s been painful, during the campaign, election, and first 100 days of the new administration, to realize how little I’ve understood my own political identity.

I was raised by liberal progressives in a libertarian state. That’s shaped me. That’s not going anywhere.

But my own beliefs, I’m realizing, are more centrist. And I feel more and more frustrated with liberal discourse and media. There’s a lot of arm-waving and chest-beating and hair-tearing-out, less of an attempt to truly understand oppositional viewpoints.

So I’ve settled on a news diet that feels pretty nutritious. Your mileage may vary, and I’m not saying that the following are The Only Sources. But they’re helping me feel better informed, and less stuck in my liberal/progressive echo chamber.

From left to right on the political spectrum, here’s where I’m getting my news.

I listen to National Public Radio in the morning. I like the warmth and breadth of their coverage, and it’s also been great to see them bringing in intelligent Republican and conservative commentators. Listening every day feels calming and empowering. My station is WBUR and I kick over a monthly donation to help them do their good work.

I also just subscribed to The Washington Post and read their online edition. I grew up in a household of New York Times devotees, and wanted another well-respected publication with a slightly different point of view. So far their overview of politics seems pretty good, though their journalists vary in the rigor of their reporting and in their writing style. Still, I like this publication for helping me get a big-picture view of what’s happening in DC.

On paper, I read The Economist, which has done more than any other news source to keep me sane over the last few months. They have a dry British humor, and are fiscally conservative, socially more liberal. It’s enthralling to watch their reaction to our new administration, and to compare them with US news sources.

On the right, I read Jonah Goldberg’s weekly email newsletter for the National Review. I first heard Jonah talk on NPR, and was struck right away by his quick wit and broad knowledge. We differ on a lot of points, but he always gives me something to think about and a new lens to view politics through.

Also on the right, I just started reading The Federalist. Again, a lot of their writers are coming from a different viewpoint from mine—which is uncomfortable, but useful, for me as a reader.

I especially admire their senior editor, Mollie Hemingway. Her recent takedown of sloppy journalism in widely read liberal sources is crisp and well researched, and reveals some fundamental issues facing all sides of the press today.

There are many other great pubs out there, both online and in print. Which ones are you turning to in these tumultuous times?

Photo by Jon S via Creative Commons on Flickr.

I’ve got the dirt

A spider plant on a bookshelf.Since last summer, the plants in my office had been distressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a bad parent. They were doing OK. I watered them and stuff. They always got compliments from visitors.

But I could tell they were getting too big for their pots.

So, after much delay and a journey to Home Depot…

Plants on a bookshelfMy plants have room to spread their roots and grow. See how happy they are?

A big plant in a blue pot.People can easily get into a similar situation. Even if we’re lucky enough to have soil and water and sunlight, if we’re stuck in a pot that’s too small, we’ll wither.

These days, I’m thinking about ways to re-pot myself. I have soil (health and home), water (income and stimulation), and sunlight (love and respect). I’m fortunate, and I’ve worked hard to get those things.

But my roots are getting tight.

A small spider plant in a pink pot.Have you ever re-potted or transplanted yourself? What did that mean? How did it go?

Striking a Match

A multicolored box of matchesI just signed up with a matchmaking service.

It was expensive. It was terrifying. And I’m incredibly excited.

I signed up because, at the age of 42, I’m single and looking for a wonderful man. I’ve been on and off of dating sites for 6+ years. I tried Rachel Greenwald’s program. My friends have set me up with their friends. I go to Meetups. I volunteer. I’ve checked out every venue from contra dances to church services.

In other words, I’ve been working hard on this.

I have my flaws and issues, for sure. But I’m also a catch.

Yet somehow, I’m still on my own.

*

Since the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over when it hasn’t worked, I am now done with Match.com, Bumble, and their ilk.

I’m trying something new.

This matchmaking service interviews its clients and gives each of us a dating lesson via Skype or Facetime. I haven’t done that part yet, but it sounds fascinating.

Then my “dating director” starts sending me descriptions and pictures of her clients, one at a time, whom she thinks I’ll enjoy meeting (and vice versa).

This leads to a date—usually after-work drinks or a weekend brunch. The service handles everything. They pick the venue where we meet, make a reservation for us if needed, coordinate the logistics.

My date and I don’t have each other’s contact info. We can ask for that at the end of the date, or go our separate ways.

*

So far I’ve been sent my first match, and my wingwoman at the dating service is lining up a time for us to meet.

I will keep you all posted.

Have you ever tried a matchmaking service? If so, what was your experience like?


Photo by Jeff, via Creative Commons license.

2017: Year of the Tumbling Elephant

A tarot card depicting an elephant in midair, falling off a cliff.I often do a tarot reading for myself on New Year’s Eve, to get perspective on the coming year. The card above is one of the nine I drew in this year’s reading. It shows an elephant tumbling off a cliff into turbulent ocean waters.

Traditionally, this card (the 5 of Pentacles) signifies discontent with the material aspects of life. It can mean going begging for something, especially something tangible like financial security.

The artists who created this deck put a different spin on the card. This is more about upheaval, and about launching yourself into something new and potentially dangerous.

The elephant’s eyes are open. She’s either jumped, or she’s been pushed, but at this point it doesn’t matter. The foamy waves are just below and there’s no telling how deep the water is, or how hard she’ll hit it.

This card came up when I asked about career, so it may indicate getting laid off, or instability at my workplace. It could also mean a dramatic job change.

But it also resonates with our country’s political situation, and my attempts to understand it and to get involved in a way I haven’t been before.

I didn’t even think about the Republican = elephant significance, but this isn’t a partisan card. Many of us are feeling like we’re in midair right now, and are wondering what kind of an impact is racing toward us.

At least my eyes are open. This elephant can swim. Maybe those coins falling off the cliff with me will act like life preservers.

How would you interpret the image on this card?


Photo by me, of the 5 of Pentacles from the Roots of Asia Tarot.

Best Reads of 2016

A bookshelf piled with colorful books.I read a lot. Probably about one book per week. But I have a terrible memory. Most of them fade from my brain within a few days.

Not these books though. These books made an impression. They’re the ones I can’t stop thinking about, the ones that keep springing to mind in conversations about unrelated topics.

Off the top of my often-rock-hard head, here’s what’s sticking with me from 2016.

Mysteries/Crime Novels

The Juniper Song series, by Steph Cha. I love modern takes on classic noir, and this series by a young LA writer is delightful. The protagonist, Song, is a Korean-American fan of Raymond Chandler who falls into becoming a private detective. She’s gruff and loving, with a core of steel, and makes terrible decisions regularly (always a plus for a protagonist). As with all great noir, LA becomes its own character, from starlit Hollywood sign to seedy underbelly. Start with Follow Her Home, the first in the series.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen. This is probably the best-written novel I read this year. It’s about the first eight black police officers in Atlanta, Georgia, right after World War II. Feels alive and raw, especially with the violence and anger igniting around race today, but leaves you with a feeling of hope, not despair. Also pulls off the hat trick of feeling completely authentic without becoming stiff with research.

The Trespasser, by Tana French. French is a reliably excellent crime novelist from Ireland. Her first novel, In the Woods, is not only one of my favorite mysteries, but also one of my favorite novels, period. This new one, as always, features characters who feel so real I can’t believe they’re not walking around Dublin right this moment.

Nonfiction

Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein. A frank, thoughtful, and lively examination of the messages around sexuality that girls are absorbing, and how they are responding. Good for anyone who is close to a pre-teen or teenage girl.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and has an intelligent perspective on white poverty in that region today. I like how he has compassion for the people he’s writing about, and never condescends, while also being crystal-clear on how this population does itself injury.

Naked at Our Age, by Joan Price. Price is an authority on sexuality later in life. In this book, she shares stories and tips on maintaining a healthy sex life at any age. I appreciate her clear and candid voice, and also her broad view of human sexuality—there are many ways to find intimacy and fulfillment, and most of them we don’t usually see portrayed in the media. Her website is also a terrific resource.

Fiction (Plunge into the Darkness)

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis. Already reviewed this one here, but it’s worth re-mentioning. Thrilling and original, with another awesome tough female protagonist.

Fiction (Take Your Mind Off The Darkness)

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. Fun and engaging story about two families living in hipsterized Brooklyn.

I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy. Delicious cotton candy about a commitment-phobe undermining herself on the eve of her wedding to Mr. Right (or is he?!).

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these, and which books made an impression on you in 2016.


Photo by The Real Cloud2013 via Creative Commons license.

Shadow of a mean girl

A human shadow on fallen leaves.When I was in third grade, my friend K and I used to make fun of another kid in our class. Let’s call him Joey.

I don’t remember why we chose to do this. Neither K nor I was a cruel or thoughtless kid. Maybe a bit smug, because we were two of the best readers in class and a bit high on our own perceived braininess.

Anyway, I remember lining up to go to the cafeteria, and if K or I were near each other in line, and Joey was close by, we would pretend to have a magic spray can and would spray each other “to get rid of the Joey germs.”

At some point, Joey told on us, and our teacher asked us what was going on. I denied knowing anything about it. In true Walter Mitty fashion, I got away with it, since I was generally a good kid and my teacher had never known me to bully anyone.

*

Now we have a bully in the White House, plus many instances of kids and adults saying really unkind stuff to each other, some of it in his name, some not. This is making me think about why we have such a strong tendency to put each other down.

We tend to malign and torment others when we feel weak ourselves. The Joey germs thing might have been K and me buying a little insurance against being considered nerds or geeks ourselves (though I totally was branded a nerd a few years later, karma being a bitch and all).

There’s a lot of discussion right now around feelings of disenfranchisement and powerlessness, and how those are impacting our society. One basic fact that isn’t getting much play is that it feels good to be mean to other people.

It really does. If it didn’t feel good, we wouldn’t do it so much.

*

There’s a multi-part thrill to being a dick to someone:

  1. It makes me feel like I’m stronger and more powerful than them.
  2. I know I’m transgressing a boundary and violating a taboo.
  3. Thus, bullying someone else makes me feel like a bad-ass, instead of downtrodden. And if others join me in that behavior, we must be right. K wouldn’t have been spraying away those Joey germs if I hadn’t been laughing along.

At my work at a disability institute, part of my job is to use accurate and respectful language. For example, the term “mental retardation” is falling out of favor, because “retarded” is widely seen as a slur. “Intellectual disabilities” is the term of choice now.

But the words “retard” and “retarded,” especially applied in instances that have nothing to do with disability, feel great to say. Growing up in New Hampshire, stuff we didn’t like was “wicked retahded.” A stupid movie was retarded. My friend’s mean older brother was acting like a retard.

And those words felt good in my mouth. They felt dangerous and tasty. They made me feel like I had the upper hand, somehow—just like with the Joey germs.

So I can imagine that for someone who feels weak and angry, calling someone with disabilities a retard, or using any other taboo or pejorative term, and hearing others laugh, might hit that same deep note of satisfaction.

*

Here’s the thing, though. The satisfaction curdles fast.

Unkindness spirals back upon us like a whip. If we put down others, we get the momentary buzz of being, socially, the stronger party. But once that fades, our weakness and fear return, amplified.

Then, the next time, it’s not enough to spray away the Joey germs. Next time, maybe I shove Joey. Or leave dog poop in his locker. It takes more and more mean behavior to make me feel secure.

In fact, the more my behavior escalates, the more I carry around what Patton Oswalt calls “a poison vein of self-loathing.”

*

I’m cutting myself some slack about Joey, since I was eight and was still learning how to be a social human being.

I’m less willing to cut adults slack when they act like this.

Part of being an adult is going for longer-term satisfaction. Life is the ultimate long game (ideally). We have to go for long-term pleasures, like treating people decently so they’ll do the same for us.

Right now, we’re being trained to think short-term about almost everything. Our phones bring us data without effort. We can download and stream millions of hours of video in any given moment.

This all discourages contemplation. It makes being alone with our thoughts—including our fear and guilt—less and less common. More and more avoidable.

*

So one way to get over this epidemic of meanness is to slow down long enough to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s head.

What’s it like in your head, reader?

Probably a lot like the way it is in my own head. Full of ideas, emotions, fear, joy, and confusion.

I’m sorry I was mean to you, Joey. And I’m sorry that I lied about it.

I hope I didn’t inspire you to go out there and be douchey to others.

I hope you’re not out there spray-painting swastikas on mosques.

If you are, I take a tiny part of the blame. And I also forgive myself.

I was a kid.

Now we’re both adults.

Let’s play the long game.

* Patton’s blog post is about being the guy who hangs out with the bully and eggs him on.

Photo by me.