Friday, July 29, 2011

What Are We Waiting For?

I believe way too many of us live our lives in the conditional mood. This is another one of my core principles. To illustrate what I mean, I want to talk about computer programming. No, I know, but it'll make sense. Sorta. I promise.

Back when I was a wee little tot, they brought a bunch of Commodore PET computers into my tiny Catholic school. We were the first class in the history of Corpus Christi to be learn computer programming, the wave of the future!(TM)

Once a week, we learned to do simple problems and animations in BASIC (we saved our work to cassette tapes, that's how old school I am - none of your fancy floppy diskettes here!), and to be honest I only remember two things. Every line of code must begin with a multiple of 10, and how to construct an "if/then" statement.
Life before USB
photo by Toni Saarikko

Simply put, you told the computer that "if" the result of a certain line of code was X, "then" the computer should do Y. Like, "if" the answer to a math problem was input correctly, "then" the screen should display my crudely animated fireworks. Hey, math was not my strong suit, so every right answer was cause for celebration.

So. What do DOS computers and their antiquated programming languages have do with better living? Simple. Too many of us (including me way more often than I'd like) go through life shackled to "If/Then" thinking.

  • If I get a promotion, then I'll be able to work on that project/issue/area I really care about.
    If you care so much, why don't you try to work on that project/issue/area now, promotion be damned? Seriously, you're going to spend AT LEAST 25% of your entire time on this planet engaged in "work." And if you drop dead of work or stress related ailments, that number only goes up. Maybe you should think about how you could be happier there, rather than dreading it.

  • If I make $X-thousand a year, then I'll think about having kids.
     I know kids are expensive. I really do get it. And I would never in a million years want to raise a kid the way I was, in poverty and worse. But life is crazy. And uncertain. And no time is the right time, no reason is the right reason. If you want something as demanding and fulfilling as children in your life, and you feel like you're psychologically and emotionally as ready as you can be, just freaking do it. The money, the house, the vacations - that stuff will come or it won't, but you'll always have your kids and you'll always be their parent. Trying to put a financial metric on jumping off a cliff is crazy-talk.

  • If I could just get a chunk of time off, then I could write that book I've always talked about.
    This one is particularly debilitating, and really, fill in the fulfilling pursuit of your choice: painting, acting, learning Japanese, building custom hot rods. It's one of those lies that feels true. I know, because I clung to it for a long time. Too long. Life is short. We all have to make choices about what to do with our time. Choose your choice. If what you're doing is more important than what you say you want to do, great. Awesome. Own that and stop arguing with reality. But if the other thing, the thing you keep putting off, if that is really what you want to be in the world, then for the love of all that's holy, do it. And not when someone hands you the time; when you TAKE the time with your bare hands, like some sort of creative Viking marauder. You'll feel better, you'll live better, and you'll love better. Trust me on this.

  • If I get married, then I'll think about where I want to live and in what kind of home.
    I know that this may sound skewed towards women, but I have known a number of men who used the same logic to live in miserable squalor. Contrary to stereotypes, they didn't revel in it, either - it dragged them down, body and soul. But I've also known women who put off seeking their highest ambitions because quote-I don't know where my husband's job might take us-unquote. Some of these women were married. Some of them weren't even seeing anyone. The mind, it boggles. This life, this is the one you have. The only one. Planning is good. I love to plan. But planning will only take you so far. Sometimes, you have to plunge or you risk being carried away on someone else's current. Create the life you want now, and when change comes, you won't have to mourn that you never had it.
Creative Vikings Unite!

You can see how destructive this kind of thinking is. But it's so a part of us, so crucial to the ways we justify putting off our own happiness, that most of the time we shy away from it, like a horse wearing blinders.

The second half of each of those statements is a thing you could actually have, if you just stopped fiddle-farting around and got out of your own way. The first half? Sure, those would all be nice. But what do they all have in common? They are things that, to one degree or another, are NOT within your control. So what you've done is ceded your heart's desire to outside circumstances. And when you don't get the promotion, or the time off, or meet the perfect partner tomorrow, you haven't just lost out on one life-enriching thing; you've lost part of your deepest dream. And that, my friends, is corrosive. It eats away at all the good things in your life. You know that spiel about a dream deferred? Turns out he wasn't kidding.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thought For the Day

"One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion."
- Simone de Beauvoir

Today's quote comes courtesy of Project Angel Food, whose mission is to deliver free and nutritious food to people facing devastating illness. It is one less way they have to face it alone.

The shared grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
Cimetierie du Montparnasse, Paris 

Photo by Angelle Haney Gullett, March 2009

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Asking For Favors

So as some of you may have heard, the Songwriter has a new solo album, Secular Jukebox, coming out this summer.

Speaking of the record, you can listen and comment here, 
or sample and buy your very own copy from Amazon, iTunes, or CD Baby
It is an amazing album. And every purchase helps keep the kitties in food. 
Don't buy it because I said so. Buy it because my cats are cute
Or, you know, because you love good music. That's nice too.

It won't make us rich, but we try to break even so we can keep making more art. It's like a little cottage industry, really. He writes, plays and records the thing. We both pitch in to do promo work. And then he plays the gigs and hawks the record there, too. Here in the House of DIY, we do it all. And what we can't do, we have to ask for as a favor.

Now, I'm not so awesome at asking for help. This is because I secretly believe I am a missing X-Man whose mutant superpower is being able to do every single solitary thing that crosses my path and do it perfectly or nearly so, without a smidgen of help from anyone ever. I help them, you see, not the other way around.

This belief has not been so beneficial to me, as you might imagine.

So I have had to try and teach myself to ask for favors, and I've come up with some internal guidelines that might be useful to other folks, possibly those afflicted with similar X-Men style delusions.

  1. Be relaxed and cultivate an atmosphere where it is okay for your friend to say no. Better to get a 'no' and stay friends and move on than to get a 'yes' that colors your relationship with resentment and obligation.
  2. When someone does say yes, experience and express sincere gratitude. This is good for both of you.
  3. Never ask somebody to do for free what they do for a living unless its a very good cause, it also benefits them in some way, or they owe you one.

You've probably noticed that these are all about drawing boundaries. There's a reason for that. Boundaries help. I'm not saying boundaries are always awesome and made of ice cream and butterscotch and should never be challenged. But they should always be clear, so if you are going to break them, you have a pretty strong idea why. They make everybody more secure and more comfortable. Good fences, good neighbors, etc. And good friends and neighbors are the kind that might be willing to do you a favor.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Eating Cake for Science

From a party at The Red Carpet for my Pop & Stepmom & their friend Mike. 
Eating cake in a bar is pretty much my idea of heaven.

Deborah MacInnis is a researcher and business professor at USC. And she and her colleagues have found some super interesting data on the effects of shame and guilt vs. pride on people's behavior around temptation. In this case, an inordinately large slice of chocolate cake.

Participants were told they could eat as much cake as they wanted. But first, they had to indulge in a little mental exercise. One group was told to focus on the pride they would feel if they did not eat the cake. The second group thought about the shame they would feel if they ate the cake. And the control group was told to cake it up to their heart's content.

Guess which group ate the least cake?
We discovered that the study subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake consumed far less than those who focused on the shame of succumbing. They also ate less than the control group. In other words, when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption.
Pretty cool, no? Feeling good about yourself is stronger than feeling bad!

But the part I find the most compelling is this:
Our research also indicated that not all bad feelings are equal when it comes to undermining self-control. For example, when we asked subjects to anticipate guilt instead of shame, it made them eat more cake. Guilt, it turns out, carries a triple whammy: It concentrates thoughts on the temptation rather than on self-control; it makes you generally feel bad, weakening resistance; and it heightens the expected pleasure from being bad, which makes the temptation more tempting.
What MacInnis found, and the thing that bears more looking into, is that the most effective way to do what you want (in this case, to not eat too much cake) is to focus on yourself - your strengths, your potential to feel good, rather than something outside of yourself that you don't have any control over, like the deliciousness of chocolate cake.

Also, I mean, come on: Cake! For Science!

Human behavior: To resist temptation, forget guilt or shame and think positive (L.A. Times)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

For Example ...

What's it look like, to live Using the Good Soap? Let me illustrate with a recent story...

One day, not long after we had moved from the Little City to the Big City, the Songwriter got into a car accident. He wasn't hurt, but our trusty little $1600 Nissan was crunched beyond repair.

Now, thanks to Big City amenities, this wasn't a total tragedy. We could both take public transit to work, we had a grocery and a coffee place and a Jamba Juice within walking distance, not to mention the fine SoCal weather to make it all practical.

So we did the unthinkable in L.A. We lived without a car.

If we wanted to go to the desert or Ikea, we rented a car for the weekend (thank you, ASCAP discount!)

We talked about getting a car. We talked about whether we even wanted a car (most days, not really). We talked about seeing just how long we could go, like it was some sort of sustainable living Survivor challenge. And eventually, the days when we really did wish we had a car started to stack up.

But it was kind of miserable, scouring Craigslist, day after freaking day, trying to find something in our price range that a) wasn't on its last wheels or b) didn't smell like decomposing socks or c) need some major mechanical system replaced (Dear CL sellers: There is no such thing as "just a new transmission").

Also, it would be nice if it looked cool. Or at least not embarrassing.

At last, our patience was rewarded. The Songwriter found something. Something special.

Meet Nic.

He's a 1984 Cadillac Seville with 32K original miles. I admit I was a little skeptical at first, largely because of this:

Nic* is what is commonly called a "slantback" which always sounds like some sort of inappropriate ethnic slur to me. (As opposed to all those appropriate ones?) I wasn't a big fan of this design feature.

But as the Songwriter pointed out, this car looked like something. It had style. My grandfather always loved Cadillacs, and he had a '59 this exact color. What can I say? I melted.

This car gets us places, which is its utilitarian function. But it also makes us smile when we look at it, and feel good when we're inside it (tufted. leather. seats. Seriously.) We tinker, fixing up this or cleaning that. It brings us joy, in addition to bringing us groceries.

And that is the way I want to live.

*I originally named* the car for the Dogs D'Amour song "Lady Nicotine," because it is the warm color of a white guitar that has been in too many smoky bars. The Songwriter liked this in concept, but pointed to the great hulk of steel and said, "Look at it! That is NO lady!" I had to agree.  So now he's just Nic.

*What do you mean you don't name your cars?! You're weird.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Part II - Self Denial DNE Self Sacrifice

In the last entry, I wrote about not being able to deny your way to happiness. This is an idea that's been lingering around the edges of my conscious thoughts for a while, but it wasn't until I started writing about these things that it crystallized for me. (As another important mentor, Dr. Cynthia King, told me, "If you want to know what you think about it, WRITE about it!" She was dead-on, as usual.)

At the end of that post, I touched on the idea that there is a difference between self-denial and self sacrifice.

Self-denial is giving up chocolate for Lent. At best, it's a test of our wills, to see what we can do when we really put our minds to it. People who report strong positive feelings after a period of fasting or a juice cleanse are getting the psychological boost that comes from meeting a personal commitment and achieving something through sheer force of will.

But at its worst, self-denial can degenerate into martyrdom and exhibitionism, a desperate performance that says, "Hey, look at me, see how GOOD I'm being by not allowing myself to have/do this thing?" This might be followed by "Don't you feel SORRY for me?" or "Aren't you IMPRESSED?" or, most usually, "Doesn't that make you LOVE me more?"

These aren't said out loud (usually). But we've all gotten the message, loud and clear.

And after all that, you feel needy and (possibly) pathetic, as well as grumpy that you didn't have any chocolate or bacon or whatever. And everybody feels awkward and put-upon and (possibly) uncomfortable around you. They stop returning your e-mails. They avoid your calls. And you end up even less happy than when you started.

So, if that's self-denial, what's self-sacrifice? I define the difference this way. Self-denial is for its own sake. There's no reason to do other than the act of denial. Self-sacrifice involves giving up something we want or that matters to us in service of a higher good.

And the highest good in the human experience is the well-being of others. And it doesn't matter if it's big or small. I give up eating the last of the Thin Mints so the Songwriter can have them at the end of a bad day. My grandfather gives up his every waking hour (seriously, three jobs) to put his six girls through private school. Millions of everyday people give their time, money, and sometimes their lives to create better communities or a safer world.

We recognize self-sacrifice and we respond to it. That's why it's so popular in movies and fiction. It moves us.

It's when we give up something that matters, to us, or someone else, or preferably both, that we create meaning. We're humans. We like meaning. We're wired for it. We search for it. And if we can't find any, we'll try and make something up, to get us through the night.

Look, I'm not saying we all need to be Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. Just that we should quit pretending that self-denial is about anything other than ourselves and our own egos. That isn't going to make us feel any better. But thinking about meaningful ways to give something to others, instead of giving something up, just might.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You Can't Deny Your Way to Happiness

These are all actual thoughts that I have actually had. I have combined and condensed where applicable:

  • It's too much trouble to cook just for me.
  • These PJs are worn out/ill-fitting/uncomfortable, but it's okay; it's not like anybody important sees them.
  • This tool/appliance/software doesn't do a very good job at what I bought it for, but it would be wasteful/self-indulgent/selfish to spend the money to replace it.
  • I love the way I look in this dress, but all the other girls at the bar will probably be in jeans. I don't want to feel out of place. (N.B. - this is an interchangeable dilemma; if I choose jeans, the other girls will all be rockabilly dolls, etc.)
  • I have always wanted to go to New York (or L.A., or Berlin, or Ankor Wat) but it seems like a pipe dream. I should be more realistic.
  • I would love to learn to speak Japanese (or Russian or play the cello or snowboard or write code) but I don't really have a good reason to learn it. It would just be a waste of time and money.
What I realize, when I lay them all out like this, is that the underlying message of every blessed one of them is, "I don't deserve any better."

If you've ever had thoughts like these, you know it's true.

So. We all know that, no matter how much it might goose the economy, you can't actually buy your way to happiness. Everyone from the Bible to the Beatles has been pounding THAT message into us.

But what they don't tell you, what maybe they don't even know, is that you can't deny your way to happiness, either.

Take a second with that. Let it sink in.

An brilliant friend and mentor of mine, Annette Oxindine, introduced me to the Victorian concept of the Angel in the House, or rather, Virginia Woolf's spoof of it:
She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it ...
Seriously. Does she sound happy?

[A feminist aside, of which I have many: If you think we've progressed in the intervening century or so, if we've come so far, if we've left the Angel in the House so far behind, what is Superwoman Syndrome? What sets us up for The Mommy Wars?]

But I think our girl Ginny got it wrong on one of her particulars above. (Please don't hurt me, Annette!)

There is a fundamental difference between self-DENIAL and self-SACRIFICE. That, however, is a whole 'nother post ... 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gratitude, courtesy of Louis CK

That thing I was talking about, how we live in unprecedented prosperity and don't appreciate it?

Yeah. I'm not the only one who's noticed.

Louie CK on Conan: Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

Love and props to the Songwriter for sending me this!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Core Principles: Gratitude, Self-Worth, Pleasure, & Generosity

Some more thoughts on what I mean when I talk about "good" and maybe a stab at the core principles of what I'm yammering on about.

On the face of it, I can see how this whole endeavor might look like rampant materialism. Everything you've been perfectly happy with up until now is shit, I seem to be saying. You must immediately discard it all to make way for "good" shit.

Maybe you chalk this up to the object lust of a poor kid longing for the better, more expensive things that life has largely denied her. It could seem like I'm using the same tactics (fear of inadequacy, manufactured dissatisfaction) that Madison Avenue has already honed and deployed to great effect.

This isn't true. Well, I do still suffer from the poor kid thing, but I'm working on that.

I'm advocating a way of being, not of buying.

Anyway, I thought I would lay out what I actually believe about all this stuff, some core principles, if you will.

Use The Good Soap is all about:
  1. Gratitude. We live in a time of unprecedented abundance. I am not kidding. Un-fucking-precendented. Someday, historians will prove that the average high school girl in 2011 owned more dresses than Cleopatra. And while this isn't always a universal good, the truth is that most of us have a whole hell of a lot, relative to most of humankind throughout most of history. We are the lucky ones. It does us good to stop and reflect on that. It can put a little bit of shine back into our lives.

  2. Self-Worth. Oh, guilt. Where would Western Judeo-Christian civilization be without your self-hating embrace? More generous and kind, maybe? More at peace, perhaps? Nah. Surely not. But, lemme ask you: Why don't we think more critically about the way we approach ur lives and the stuff we surround ourselves with? Because many of us (fellow recovering Catholics, I'm looking at you) have been reared and socialized to feel guilty when we think of our own needs, guilty when we ask for what we want, guilty when we want to steer our lives in a direction contrary to those around us. Guilt is a feeling of being unclean and unworthy. Self-worth and joy are its opposites and its antidotes.

  3. Pleasure. If the guilt industrial complex has cornered the market on self-loathing, it has ordered a hit on pleasure. Pleasure is forbidden, which can make everything sweeter, from the taste of hot fudge as you lick it off your lips to the sensation of warm sand against your skin (or someone else's!). But pleasure is more than just being "bad." Pleasure is important, in all kinds of ways and for a plethora of reasons. It reconnects us to our own bodies and helps us be fully present in the moment. An expanded definition of pleasure and its enthusiastic embrace is something I'm gonna talk about a lot.

  4. Generosity. Growing up in violence and poverty put a chip on my shoulder and sent me out into the world with a heightened sense of my own difference. No matter how nice people were to me, I found it hard to shake the feeling that I had my nose pressed against the glass of life's better restaurants, and that everyone else had it easier, not to mention was having more fun. When I started practicing generosity, mainly of the emotional/spiritual kind, everything changed. The imaginary window that separated me just dissolved and not only did I get to eat the food and enjoy the company, I got to invite other people to join the fun.
Yeah, I think these are the big ones.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Because I Promised

I am embarrassed by the lack of photos on the blog so far, but until I figure out what to do about it, and because I did promise ... cats!

This is Cleo aka Slinky Kitty.

For reasons that seem obvious. The Songwriter rescued him when he was a wee spastic kitten and brought him home to me one night after band practice.

He has grown into a wee spastic cat. But he's 14, and I love him to bits when he lets me.

And this is his little, er, well, younger brother and housemate: Vincent aka Fat Cat.

The open file folder is for scale. Seriously, he has these short little legs and this cute little head that looks like a baseball perched on a furry bowling ball.

He is 7, and we also call him out PBS: Puppy-Baby-Substitute. He will lick your hand (and face, if you let him) like a dog, and will also flop back into the crook of your arm to be cradled like--you guessed it--a baby. He is like no cat either of us have ever owned, and we adore him for it.

So that's it, those are the furry residents of our little home. Warning: I am likely to post pics of them when I can't think of anything good to write.*

*amongst sci-fi/fantasy writers of my acquaintance, this process of wasting time on meaningless things when one should be writing is known as "catwaxing." Hence the tag.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Define Good

So what do I mean by "good," anyway?

Good freakin' question.

I guess my conception of it goes back to being a kid. Then, the rules seemed pretty clear. "Everyday" was for the family. "Good" was reserved for company. This division encompassed everything from dishes to hand towels to furniture. For example, company got to experience Great Aunt Charlotte's living room with the plastic covers OFF.

So I've got some of that rattling around in my head. But that's not what I mean, by "good," not exactly. Let me riff for a bit.

I have a friend named Mary Ellen. She is an awesome woman, who has raised two of the nicest, most decent and grounded adults I know. She taught home ec in the same small town school where her husband taught English, and when she retired from teaching, she started making wedding dresses and costumes for ballroom dancers out of her home.

Mary Ellen is funny and smart, and the very picture of Midwestern Protestant pragmatism. But one day, she confessed to me that she had a vice. Huh? I had known her for years, and had never seen her touch anything stronger than orange juice.

Her vice, she told me, was good bread.

What made it good? The taste, the texture, even the way the loaf looked - like it had emerged from a pair of hands, each imperfection like a finger print. It was good because it gave her pleasure on multiple levels. That's an easy, intuitive thing I think we all understand.

So why the hell was it a vice? Because it costs more? The marginal increase was less than a glass of soda from TGI Fridays and the benefit infinitely greater. Because, I don't know, refined carbs are the enemy? I agree we choose many foods that feed without nourishing us, but I defy you to say that handmade bread is one of them. Because women (and increasingly men) are bombarded with crap like this every day of their lives?

My guess on the vice angle is because it was for her pleasure alone. If she could say she was buying it for her family, or to support a local sustainable bakery, it would have been seen as a virtuous act. But because she wants it for no other reason than it gives her pleasure, it's bad. A vice.

I get this, because I get caught in this thinking trap, too. Do you? Or is it just me and Mary Ellen? What "vice" is really something you enjoy but feel too guilty to cop to deserving?

This is screwed up. This is what I want to change.