Heuristics for Living

If you don’t know what a heuristic is, it’s a short cut for a body of experience, a rule of thumb that lets you make better decisions. Here is a list of some that I run my life by. The dark secret of heuristics is they are hard to learn without living the lesson.  So good luck.

  • Optimize for Joy
    Make life choices based on if it increases or decreases your overall joy. Especially job choices.
  • Get Paid to Learn
    You can pay to learn, like at a school or conference. Or you can get paid to learn, but being at a job that grows you and gives you opportunities to learn. To be honest, I like both. I like to learn.
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Get
    This is a reminder that while you do not get everything you ask for you, certainly never get things you don’t ask for.
  • Rejection is Often Surprise
    This has been a hard one for me to learn, so I heuristic’d it. Often when I introduce an idea to an exec, he’s reject it out of hand. But later he’ll bring it up (sometimes as if he thought of it.) I realized that when an idea is quite new, most people’s first instinct is to reject it, so it’s better to not take those first reactions as law.
  • Do the Hard Thing
    Putting off conversations that must be had make them worse, and the situation more miserable.
  • Honesty Needs Compassion
    Honestly and compassion are not opposites. Honesty is more powerful with compassion.  It is not compassionate to tell someone everything single thing you think. It is not compassionate to give them a truth in a way they cannot hear. You must seek to love the person who you are sharing your truth with, and shape your truth so that they can hear and understand it. And respect it may not be their truth.
  • Comparison is the Path to Misery
    This was best said in Nonviolent Communication:
    To feel horrible, first look at swimsuit models. Are you as good looking as them? Then check on biographies of great people. Have you accomplished as much as they have? Even neighbors or friends on Facebook seem to have nicer things than you and go more interesting places.
  • Walk Away from Crazy
    I have found out the hard way when people show themselves to be genuinely unbalanced, it’s better if I withdraw. It’s not always possible if it’s loved ones who are suffering, but if a stranger (or acquaintance)  has shown themselves to be destructively random, I find it’s better for me to disengage.
  • Their Shit Is Not Your Shit
    Again, I don’t think I have much to explain. It’s just good to remember that when someone is spinning around in a state, you can choose to not take that on. You can support them with love without having to actually take on the thing that is clearly making them temporarily nuts (for full-time nuts, see above)
  • Understand, then Be Understood
    We all get super excited about our stuff, but usually it’s better to take the time to understand the person we are talking to, so we can share/teach/persuade more effectively.
  • Cruelty is Suffering
    When someone is suddenly cruel, it’s often because they are hurting and lashing out. Be more compassionate to the cruel, not less.
  • When you are tired of saying it, they are starting to hear it.
    No one is so fascinating that every word is memorized. Get used to repeating yourself, if you have a message you want to be retained.
  • Your Body Knows Things
    Pay attention to your body. Are you hands wringing? Is your stomach churning? Is your leg twitching? You are receiving a message that you are in turmoil, and it’s worth taking a few moments to breath into that loci of anxiety. As well, hunger, tiredness and achiness from inactivity all deserves to be heard and attended to.
  • Compassion Starts at Home
    You can not be kind to others until you learn to be kind to yourself.
  • Enough Instead of More
    When do we have enough money. Enough food. Enough tvs, cars, electronics. What do we really need to live? .

That’s just a few, I make up more as life teaches me stuff. What are yours?

The Joy Protocol

“Optimize for joy” was the advice my friend gave me when I decided to leave the job that almost killed me. I had been striving for title, money and status, trying to prove my worth to myself. But when I resigned, I committed to focusing on becoming the person I wanted to be and living a life worth living. I studied books, listened to lectures, ran and meditated and traveled. Balance entered my life, and I treasure my time with my daughter, travelling and being with friends, as well as teaching and writing.

Yesterday I was listening to Christopher Hitchins’ eloquent revising the ten commandments into three*, and I decided to forge my own guidelines for living joyfully. The goal is to increase your joy and also to increase the joy of people around you. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. These uncommandments are based on a wide variety of sources, but most heavily drawn from Marshal Rosenberg and Brene Brown’s work, mixed with Buddhism and Lean Startup. You work with what you know.

  1. No one should command you, including you.
    “Should” and “commandments” are constricting and depressing. Consider experiments, explorations and “works for me, so more of that.” As the wise Stuart Smalley once said “Stop shoulding all over yourself.”
  2. Instead of resolving, try experimenting.
    We go on a diet, we fail, we quit. We resolve to quit smoking, we smoke, we give up. We are always deciding to stop or start or change… and it collapses and then we feel bad. At least that’s how I was doing it.
    Instead, try setting up a time-bound experiment, and evaluate if it increases or decreases your joy and well being. For example, instead of “going on a diet,” try, “I’ll give up wheat for two weeks.” By making it simple, narrowly focused with a clear end point, it’s easier to commit to. And the end of it, you can evaluate if you feel happier, and if the initial loss of the pleasure has worthwhile positive effects.
  3. Forgive yourself while staying on track.
    In yoga, guided mediation always include the phrase “if you find your mind wandering off, do not become mad at yourself, but gently return to your breathing.” That sums up how to approach all efforts. If you ate a cake after dinner, don’t become angry, but gently return to your effort to eat more healthily. Gentle, forgiving persistence seems to work better than recriminations and punishments for me.
  4. Respect that you are a body, a mind, a spirit and a heart.
    Often when we get busy, work demands we give all from just one part of ourselves. For me, and probably you, it’s our minds, chasing emails and knocking out the powerpoints. But to be happy, we must move our bodies, care for our emotional well-being, and find meaning as well as work the brain.
    Each day, do a check in with all four aspects of yourself. Does body need a run? Need a massage? Does heart need to connect with a friend? Or a good cry or laugh at the movies? Does spirit need to sit quietly in nature and commune, or do some work for a charity? And poor, overworked mind. Does mind need to sit quietly and attend to breathing, or is it hungry for Aristotle’s Poetics? Get in the habit of checking in with yourself, and you can avoid a number of troubles from back problems and misplaced friendships.
  5. Check your assumptions and habits.
    I had lunch with a friend the other day, one with whom I have killed many a bottle of red. And he told me he stopped drinking during the week. He had the habit of sharing a bottle of wine every night with his wife. And one day, he wondered if that was a good way to live, and tried out not drinking during the week. And then discovered he had significantly more energy. Suddenly it was easier to help his kids with homework, easier to get into work, easy to have hard conversations as well as pleasant ones.
    What things do you do just because you do it that way? Can you experiment with doing something different, to discover if it really increases your joy?
  6. Don’t spend time with people who deplete you, hold tight to those who nourish you.
    We all have those friends, those folks we see and afterwords we need to lay down. Perhaps they aren’t friends. Perhaps we don’t really need to see them.
    We all have those people who we met and they were so wonderful, but you know, you get busy and the week is crazy and following up just fell off your radar: don’t let that happen.
    I have a trick for making sure my life is full of wonderful people. When I meet someone who I really connect with, I write their name on the window above my desk. I also put in friends I adore and haven’t seen in awhile. That way when I lean back and stretch, there they are, reminding me I want to call them. I want to have coffee with them. I want them in my life.
  7. Express gratitude regularly. Daily. Hourly.
    Every single study will tell you to do this if you want to be happy. And it works. It just works.
    But as well, when you express gratitude to another human, you connect to them meaningfully, and you are less alone. They are less alone.
  8. Judging decreases happiness.
    Sure, you might get a quick ego lift when you see a slovenly coworker or a later-than-thou mom come to pick up her kids, and think “well, I’m better than that!” But when you judge others, you get in the habit of judging. Then you start judging yourself. You start getting paranoid about who is judging you. And bang: head full of weasels screaming about how awful the world is and how you are no one to judge since you are awful and so on. Better to not go there.
    As well, judging kill the dialog. When you judge someone, it’s easy to turn off your ears. But if someone says something outrageous, instead of judging, ask yourself “why are they doing that?” Then ask them, tell me more about that? You may find out this “bad person” is confused, ill-informed, or suffering and lashing out. Or maybe you just heard them incorrectly. Asking for clarification can lead to connection, and that will increase both of your joy.
  9. Compassion is for everyone, including you.
    Empathy is when you can feel what another is feeling. Compassion is empathy with a action item. Do not just feel; act with loving kindness. For years I worked in the design profession, where they are proud of the empathy they have for the end users of the product they make. But those designers who were so concerns for the happiness of their users would turn around and denigrate their coworkers as stupid or lacking vision — especially those running the business. When I moved into the product management side, I saw the tremendous pressure business put on those folks, and the suffering it caused to be disrespected by their coworkers.
    It was easy to have no compassion for those we don’t understand. But just like when we stop judging, once you work to understand those around you, you can offer them support and solace. Every human is worthy of your compassion. Including you.
    Brene Brown tells of a story where her preteen daughter suddenly starts saying she’s fat and ugly. She wonders where that behavior came from, until she sees her daughter looking into her bedroom, where Brene herself is in the mirror complaining she’s got to lose weight because she look like cr*p. At that moment she decided to stop judging herself, and forgive herself her foibles.
    We do not have the resources to give to others unless we start by being kind to ourselves. Do it to model self-compassion to your children or do it just because it increases your joy.
  10. Meditate
    I had two more items, but realized they both were results of this simple practice that will do so much for you. One was nurture mindfulness. Often we have negative emotions, frequently caused by our bodies — hormones, sleep loss and light can all trigger bad feelings. and your brain, just trying to be helpful will explain it to you, brings up your mean boss and short deadlines, and then you feel worse. But if you meditate, you become aware of the feelings as a conscious observer, and your brain doesn’t try to explain them. You can just sit with your emotions, and observe them, and let them fall away. And that ability to let bad feelings fall away follows you into other parts of your life, so the annoying bits and pieces don’t get you down as much.
    The second item was to fill your well. By your well, I mean your reserves of energy and joy. So much in life will deplete our reserves: crowds for introverts, noise of the quiet people, lines for the impatient and so on. But when you meditate, it’s a little time just for you to caretake and find peace.
    So the tenth uncommandment is Meditate. Considering trying it for a week.

I was barely able to cram this laundry list of things that have helped me into ten. I hope one helps someone sometimes have less misery and more joy.

Buddha said it best: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We can chose how we live in this world.

*Yes, I am an atheist. But that doesn’t mean I am not deeply concerned about how to live an ethical life, nor respectful of wisdom coming out of religious traditions.

Poem for Pixels

Why don’t you call?

Instead, I get a spring flurry of notes,
electronic molting without
the downy warmth of a voice.

Each shapely hieroglyph hangs
on the warm and singing screen
waiting to be misinterpreted.

The voice isn’t that great of a friend either.
Sure, I can hear a note of fear
or desire, but really,
how does that compare with the orchestra of
the face? I was suspicious of the phone
and embraced e-mail, quicker than love letters,
yet providing time for obsessing and crafting a reply
until my lover wrote.

He can always find a way to say less.

from 1996, but still relevent

The End of the World

I was in line with a woman to buy Christmas dinner. We had both waited a very very long time to be served by the butcher, and now were waiting to pay. She was huffing and complaining about the wait, the people out-of-town, work, etc. She said, doesn’t it get to you? All I could say was:

I am so grateful to have family to be with this year. I’m so grateful to have a daughter to clean up after and feed. I don’t mind waiting, because I’m buying food so I can make my family happy. And since Connecticut, I’m so grateful I can’t really feel to mad at any little thing like this. Line, no line, I’ve got my daughter. So I don’t mind.

She said she was talking to her son who didn’t want to go to school this morning because he was afraid. Of something might happen. And she told him he could stay home, if he really was so scared. But he had a report to turn in, and he felt responsible. And she was proud of him. And we agreed, each of us with one precious kid, that the child was what mattered. That we can go home and hug that kid, that is everything.

You know, you can be in a line and hate it, or be in a line and not mind it. The experience is yours, not the situation.

I said, well the world didn’t end today. And added, it was never the apocalypse. Mayans just have 4 thousand-year eras, and it ended today, like new years eve.

And she said maybe we are ending an era too. and maybe the next one won’t have things like what happened in it.

And she paid for her stew meat, and said happy holidays and was gone.

I hope she’s right.

The Rape

When I was a kid, and living in Des Moines, the old woman across the street was raped. I was in fifth grade, so probably ten years old, and ran with a pack of boys and girls who migrated up and down the street freely and unwatched by our parents. The neighborhood was “in transition” whatever that meant. It was affordable to my law school parents, and we lived next door to a rare black family. Apparently there had been property value conversations when they had moved in. They were clearly wealthier and more respectable than anyone on our block, and my parents, hippies to the bitter end, had discussed it at the dinner table in tones of outrage. My dad probably took the homeowner’s side briefly in the argument; they would do that as law students. They discussed and argued everything, as far as I can tell the only thing that kept us from learning much about the world was boredom with adult topics.

I can remember going outside the house that day, and seeing police on our street. There were cars outside, and cops going up and down the narrow wooden staircase that led to the old woman’s apartment in the back. It was an unusual sight. Even though we knew there was danger lurking around us in our neighborhood where muggings and robberies sometimes happened, we all thought our block was safe. We kids knew every corner of it, every mulberry tree, every back alley. And later, in the twilight as we played statue and tag and caught fireflies, we discussed it.

Some “kid,” as he was described by one who really was a kid, had broken into her apartment. Another said it was someone who delivered groceries. Someone else said he’d come to her door with a knife. Everyone knew the same thing. He’d raped her. He’d stolen her money. He’s run away. She was in her sixties. And He’s stolen twenty-eight dollars. Both seemed equally impossible. Who rapes a woman in her sixties? Who chances jail for 28 dollars? and we went back to playing in a world that made no sense at all.

But at dinner my dad said what we had said, how strange it was. And my mother said “Rape is not about sex. It’s an act of violence.” She was burning with anger. My dad did not take the rapist’s side. Not even as an exercise. Not when my mother’s eyes glowed like that.

Later I saw the old woman, briefly. She was back from the hospital, carrying bags of groceries up her back stairs. I watched her closely. She looked incredibly old to me then, though now my mother is the same age. She had white-yellow hair, and a long camelhair coat, and a purple and yellow bruise around an eye. No one would have accused her of aging well. No one would make catcalls to her as she walked by a construction site. She was invisible with age, or I would have thought.

She moved away at the end of the month. Some students moved it. I forgot about her.

But I’ve been thinking about her lately, as politicians discuss rape. She was too old to conceive, so the question of her carrying to term was not one she had to deal with. If the politicians thought of her, when they thought of rape, they would think of rape differently. The politicians wouldn’t think of young women scantily clad off to clubs where they can be misunderstood when they say “no”; they’d think of their mothers and wives.

I also burn with anger like my mother did. I picture the politicians up late at night, reading the “good parts” of the bible, like Judges 5:30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?— A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?” or Deuteronomy 20:10-14 “And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.” And perhaps they think the womb of a woman is the right of every man. And I shudder.

Rape is an act of violence with a portable weapon. and just because that weapon can be used for love or to get children, at the moment it is only a weapon. When a person is beaten to death with a rolling-pin, no one thinks it’s an act of baking gone wrong.

If a pregnancy results, no matter what you think that means about life, it doesn’t change the act was rape. It was not a method of conception. These are not the days of Judges 21:10 when there was fear the tribe might die out. Rape is nothing but another way to beat a woman into submission, to terrorize another human being, a prove to yourself you have power when you are a small, wicked thing. It is a beat-down with a particular weapon on a particular body part. But it’s still a beating.

Only the language of crime should be used when discussing it. Only a tone of and utter immovable intolerance should be used.

Please vote today. Please make sure we remove anyone who thinks there is any excuse ever to treat a woman like spoils of war, like a piece of cloth or livestock.

Please stand firm and unbending for all the women. We need you.

Hallow'd Eve

Halloween isn’t supposed to be complicated. It isn’t known for family drama. It isn’t known for political reformation like Thanksgiving. It’s the easy, gateway holiday. This year was the first year it fell on a day my ex-husband normally has my daughter.
I didn’t think he’d care about it. He’s from France. They don’t really do Halloween there. It hasn’t caught on. But he has friends here in American that do. His friends have one of those houses you see on your block that is completely transformed on October 29th. The house is full of people the 31st. The house is tidy November first. And he wanted our daughter to enjoy it.I wanted to walk from house to house watching people admire her costume. I wanted to remind her to say thank you. My parents had done that for me.

Compromise is survival trait when you are divorced. So is adapting to shifting circumstances. We sent a series of restrained emails. We queried the contested child. It led us to agree on her splitting her time between trick or treating with me and attending the party. We calculated the amount of driving and handing off and potential drama. we settled on her trick-or-treating with me first. After I’d drive her over.

One key problem arose. She didn’t have a costume at my house. Well, she didn’t have the costume she expected to wear. Our house is lousy with costumes; she goes to the Farmer’s Market as a Pirate and the car wash as a ninja. As well, she could be an elf or a princess or a mermaid or a asian princess in a kimono. Just not a fox. Fox was at Pappa’s house. She disappeared into her bedroom. I took the pumpkin out to the front yard to disembowel it.

And there among the Styrofoam tombstones appeared the miracle. A snowy white elf with green wings and and pale white arms and legs, and a crown of flowers. She had mashed up a mix and invented herself.

All the driving is worth it. All the emails are worth it. She’s worth it.

The fairy in the graveyard

Watching dreams

When I was little, I had night terrors. The first dream i can remember was cookie monster swinging on the bedroom drapes to “get me.” I had other dreams as well; ordinary nightmares and good dreams so vivid I’d wake up in the morning both exhausted and exhilarated. But as soon as I was old enough to read books without pictures, I began researching ways to get rid of the bad dreams. That led me down a path of life-long research. When I found something interesting, I’d usually try it on my most convenient subject: myself. My adventures in self-experimentation have led to some effective ways to defuse the fear left from a bad dream (though no way to avoid them) as well as multiple dream diaries, transcendental meditation and learning how to lucid dream. For what it’s worth, if you keep a regular dream journal you can remember five, six, ten or more dreams. I stopped because I didn’t have time to write them all down each morning and to be honest, they aren’t typically very interesting. We all think dreams are fascinating, but when you start remembering all of them you realize you spend a lot of time dreaming about setting the table and very few Bond-style plots show up. I think it must be only the really juicy ones that wake us most of the time

Oddly (or obviously?) I also suffer from semi-regular insomnia. Getting to sleep, and worse, staying asleep has been an ongoing problem. I have come up with many tricks over the years. For awhile I would image I would cut off parts of my body, from the toes upward, and throw each part down a bottomless dark well. This was actually quite soothing, as the discarded parts couldn’t wiggle anymore and keep me up. I’m sure there is a shrink out there rubbing his hands together in glee right now. I came up with a better technique in college. I went to sleep every night to the same movie when I didn’t have insomnia. Then when I couldn’t I’d put the movie on and fall right to sleep.

The movie?

“The Big Sleep.”.

As of late, though I still use the palov technique here and there, most nights I play a new game. I call it watching dreams. First you lay down comfortably, and quiet your body. Next you must quiet your brain. As they say in yoga, don’t beat yourself up about it if you start worrying about work or such, just dismiss the thoughts as they show up.

Once your mind is quiet comes the good part, though admittedly it is a little tricky to acheive. If you keep your eyes closed, but watch, your brain will start showing you images. And if you stay passive, they will start knitting together into little poems of imagery. Not much plot usually, but a steam engine will become bluebells in a waterfall then a dog asks you the time. They are compelling and sometimes pretty like surrealism paintings can be. Be careful, if you try to make them make sense you’ll wake up.

Around this moment, if you haven’t been diligent you’ll be asleep. And so it’s a fine cure for insomnia. It only works if your conscious mind won’t be silenced. Then pop in the movie.

But if you like dreams and if you can be miraculously gentle in keeping in one part of your mind in the world and the other part watching your unconscious quietly, you may be able to watch the dreams for some time. I find if I do it napping in the sun, I can stay wakeful enough to note down some interesting bits and prolong the dream state. But mostly I do it as I fall asleep. I do it for the sheer pleasure of the strange art my undermind makes.

The First Door

There was a door at the bottom of the staircase in the first house I can remember living in. It was an old house, “destined to be torn down” my mother would say as she drew winnie-the-pooh on my bedroom wall.
It was a white door, with a window in the top half. Outside, you could see the branches of a tree that had grown next to it, and squirrels would come up and look in the window. My earliest memory is my father holding me up to watch the squirrels. Squirrel we’d cry! As if it was a lemur or elephant: an exotic treat.

This door never opened. On the outside, it led to a four foot drop. Maybe there were stairs there once, but not in the time I lived there. I can recall having a Dennis the Menace Visits the Winchester Mystery House comic I read over and over again, a nd I’d imagine maybe our house was built by this strange woman too, this door was there to confuse ghosts and keep us safe. I never felt so safe as I did in that old house, doomed to be there some day.

I ran by that door down the stairs at Christmas, to discover the present I didn’t think I’d get, had showed up. Long afternoons I laid a blanket out in front of the door, arranged all the stuffed animals around and dance to Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary and Free to be You and Me. The door, never to be opened, watched.

And when we moved away, I hoped we might finally open the door, and look down into the thistles and tall weeds that grew at its foot amidst the ruble of the stairs. But it was painted shut. Is a door a door that never opens? Or is anything that might take you somewhere else a door?

Travel Notes

Japan. Nijo castle.
I never saw a place that not only said no photos but no sketching. The wall paintings are lovely. It’s really the opposite of a western castle, empty as possible. I can only imagine how cold it was in winter.

Thailand. Wat Pho.
Sitting in a courtyard in wat pho surrounded by buddhas its hot and quiet but there is a breeze coming up. I can hear singing and praying. Tomorrow is the new year. Despite the sea of people out there, singing, eating, building sand castles in this courtyard I am almost alone. Only a few stragglers come through. I have room to make some peace in me.
Why am i alway rushing? where to?

Thailand, gas station outside of Bangkok
We like to see monks do ordinary thing, play with water in songkran, light a cigarette, because we suspect them of not being human. Of having some great secret link to the divine. When they act like us, we feel relieved. Maybe that link is available to us too. or for the bitter souls, maybe they aint so goddam special

The Judge

Thinking this morning about some of the people I love/have loved, I realize I’m drawn to narcissists. I wondered why; the streak of selfish behavior should put me right off. But the narcissist never judges you. Mostly because they are only vaguely aware of you. But it is very freeing to not be judged. You can make mistakes, say dumb stuff, forget things and never get shamed for it.

I think i will try to find people in my future who also do not judge, but because they accept; not just the attention, not just the company but becase they accept the complete person I am. We are all package deals without substitutions. I’ve had more than one relationship fall apart when the other persn wanted to chinese menu me.

I think we love people more because the faults are those we can live with than the fine qualities people have. Everyone has fine qualities, but not eveyone has faults I can live with. Apparently I’ll take nacissism over judging. But Narcissism has a slow poisonus effect; eventually you realize the person will keep taking as much you give wihtut feeling much need to return it, this turns into slow resentment and eventually hte,a nd may lead you t ehavior that makes you turn that hate on yourself as well.

So along wihth the judge, who I remove from my life, goes the self-centered. A dear freind of mine once peeled all the people from his life while dimished joy rather than increased it. Perhaps I shall follow his lead. It will be painful, but I’m not Mother Teresa. Im just trying to live my own life.