It’s Called Gratitude

and thats right

Aaaah! Work has been chapping my ass lately! I’ve been on the road a lot, busting my hump ten or twelve hours a day, and taking responsibility for a lot of big projects. I’m not averse to hard work, and I like my job a lot … but there is also this situation where my compensation is not quite keeping up with the level of travel and responsibility and pain-in-the-neck-ness. (Literally … it gives me a pain in the neck.)

So … yeah … when I’m on hour five of my drive home from the client site, or hour eleven of thinking and talking about nothing but work, or day four of not having more than an hour or two to myself per day, it’s been really easy for me to slip into feeling anxious and unappreciated and all kinds of gnarly stuff I have no interest in feeling. It’s been hard to keep my attitude in check.

And it’s tricky … because this isn’t the kind of situation that I can just let go of. To let go of it entirely means that I will be allowing myself to be taken advantage of, and we can’t have that. But I can’t constantly be bummed out about it either, because that is just a raggedy way to live.

I do have faith that I’ll be able to work the work situation out soon — either that or I’ll find another job — but in the meantime, I’ve been struggling with how to stay happy right now. How to stay out of that raggedy, put-upon place. How to be patient, but not too patient, and also enjoy myself in the moment. And what I’ve come up with is this: consciously making the decision to be grateful.

Because here’s the thing — a year ago I was way more in debt than I am now, living in a house I didn’t want to live in and having no idea how I was going to get out of it. Two years ago I was riding four busses a day to go and make like twelve bucks an hour. Three years ago I had no income at all. Four years ago I had just lost my fancy job. Five years ago I was downsizing my fancy apartment because I had a feeling I was about to lose my fancy job. Six years ago I was making a lot of money but spending every last dime of it. Seven years ago I had just been dumped and was spending a lot of time in sweatpants watching cable with my BFFs Ben & Jerry.

You see where I’m going with this? Regardless of the BS I’m dealing with today, when I step back and look at the big picture I can see that many things in my life are wonderful, and have actually gotten appreciably better over time. This job has been part of that. And when I consciously focus on this fact, well, it makes my chapped-ass feelings go away like nothing else.

Human beings tend to focus on what’s messed up. Our minds seem to want to continually repeat the loop of things that are pissing us off, while at the same time, the wonderful things in our lives become as familiar as furniture, and we stop paying attention to them.

This is such A Thing that there’s even a word for it — hedonic adaptation. And it makes sense that we’d be this way, if you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors wouldn’t have gotten very far if they were so caught up in enjoying the sunshine that they didn’t notice the lion coming to eat them.

But hedonic adaptation can also turn us into bitchy ingrates. It can make our hearts pound in outrage over what are, in the grand scheme of things, very minor slights. It can make us spend all of our money and then some on fancy things that will only really provide a few minutes of happiness. It can make us place our attention on entirely the wrong things, and blunt us to the enormously positive forces that are working in our favor every single day of our lives.

The good news is that hedonic adaptation can be conquered, and even used to our benefit, but only when we develop the ability to keep being grateful for all the great shit we’ve got going on. How do we do this? The same way we tackle any other sort of insanity going on in our brains — we notice it, we shut it down, and we replace it with something else.

Like … sure, work is chapping my ass right now. But it also gives me a workable paycheck twice a month, and it’s sent me to fun places like Italy and Brazil, and it’s right next to a beautiful stretch of river, which I like to gaze upon when my tea is brewing. Most important, I have friends there, wonderful friends who know who I really am and still (generally) like me.

So, while I wait for the right time to fix the things that aren’t working, I’m trying to focus on these good things. Trying to stay in the moment rather than being crushed by the enormity of my responsibilities and all the things I have to do in the next few months and all the uncertainty about everything else. And so far it’s working pretty well. The prospect of having a four-day weekend this week is helping a lot, too … and mashed potatoes … and pumpkin pie … mmm …

At any rate, taking a moment to consciously be grateful for all the great things I’ve got going on beats the hell out of the alternative, which is muttering to myself like a crazy person about how unfair things are.

How about you? Have you got a lot to be thankful for? Have you noticed, like me, how much better your life is when you make an effort to be appreciative for good things instead of or at least in balance with being pissed off about bad ones?

Tell me what you think in the comments, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving. <3

My Dance Space, Your Dance Space

spaghetti arms

Do you ever wish the world was different? I sure do. Like … I want it to drive less like an asshole. I want it to stop imposing to boner-killingly impossible deadlines on me. I want it to value endless income less, and quality and friendship and gratitude more.

Sometimes all this wishing and wanting makes me rant and rave a little — or more than a little — about how things could be and how there must be a better way, about everything that is wrong with the world and how I would go about setting it right.

And, you know, I do have a bit of a gift for ranting … . so it’s kind of fun to me in a let’s-get-this-opposite-of-a-party-started kind of way. Which makes it hard to resist when I start feeling that urge to put on my ranting dress.

But, oh, how useless it is. It’s not like yelling at bad drivers or going on a tear about how the economy should be organized or any of my other favorite topics actually does any good. I mean, I might get a good zinger in here or there, but beyond that … what does it do, besides turn me into a ranting crazy person? (Which is not a good look for me.)

And it’s not just useless to rant and rave — it can actually be harmful. Because I end up fantasizing about people buying my book instead of sitting down to write more of them. Or I go off on inefficiencies at work instead of putting my head down and organizing my own projects more efficiently. Or I rail against consumerism and greed instead of reining in my own tendency to buy far more shoes and earrings than are necessary.

Instead of freaking out about things over which I have no control, the best thing I can do — that any of us can do, I think — is to focus on what we can control. Obviously. I mean, this is the crux of the Serenity Prayer, Steven Covey’s Seven Habits, and basically every self-improvement-style spiritual path. It’s the most basic thing in the world to understand, but not so easy to do. It requires that you constantly pay attention to what’s going on in your mind, and constantly draw it back to what YOU can do instead of how fucked everything is.

But it’s worth it … because when it gets down to it, the only way to change anything is to focus on what you can do, right? The only way to impact the wider circle is to start in a smaller one. There’s no guarantee that your small circle changes will ripple out, of course, but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to stop bitching and start moving.

This blog is meant not only to help you be less crazy but to help ME be less crazy. So … today I’m refocusing myself on my own dance space. Tightening up my spaghetti arms instead of flailing around expecting everyone else to fix everything. Doing what I can do as best I can. This includes taking care of myself — meditating, eating well, getting some exercise, getting some laughs and some zzzs — so I can then take care of business.

How about you? Are you wigging out about stuff you don’t have any control over? What can you do today to refocus on your own dance space?

Career Planning With Your Middle Finger

9 to 5 2

Yesterday I had coffee with one of my best besties, and she was describing to me some of the horrors of her workplace … which I have a feeling won’t be her workplace for too much longer.

As she told me about having to apologize to people who fly off the handle for no reason, having to take orders from people who have no idea what her work is about, and having to endure micromanagement from people who end their list of inane requests with statements like, “And don’t accuse me of micromanaging!” … well I started to get kinda pissed on her behalf.

So I asked her — what would happen if you just went in there with middle fingers blazing? Not literally, but figuratively … a symbol of an attitude of incredulity in the face of true silliness. What if you decided to do your job the way you think it should be done, “have to”s be damned, and tell the haters to suck it? What if you just ignored all the “helpful suggestions” and went about your business?

“I would probably get fired,” she replied, but I’m not so sure. Because, the thing is, she is excellent at her job. She regularly turns a routine task into something remarkable. Even though her bosses treat her like a child, even though they are batshit crazy and incapable of acting like adults, they still know that she does good work, and lots of it. And there is power in that.

So, from my point of view outside the situation, I can see that my beloved friend is suffering unnecessarily. She is in the sweet spot to get those middle fingers out and either transform her job into something she can deal with, or move on to something better.

How do I know this? Because I’ve followed the middle-finger career path for as long as I can remember, and people simply don’t treat me like this. When someone tries to micromanage me, well, that makes me giggle. When my boss asks me to do something in a way that I would never choose to do it, I explain to them why I’m not going to do that, and what I plan to do instead. When someone tries to force me to adhere to some stupid senseless policy, I am so busy kicking ass that I barely even hear them.

Is this because I am some magical creature that can’t be touched by the slings and arrows of modern work life? No. I think my ability to largely make my own rules in my work life mostly comes from the fact that I know how to flip a table when needed.

Do I mean actually flipping a table … not really. I mostly mean flipping a table in your mind. Cultivating a middle-finger attitude. Understanding that there are a thousand million jobs in the world, and as soon as you start thinking, “Whoa, shit, I really need this job,” they have you.

How do you do this? It starts by doing excellent work and knowing what you are talking about. So, if you are in a position where you’re not doing excellent work and you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s the first place to start. Get better. Work harder. Learn.

Once you are awesome at what you do, THEN you can get out those middle fingers and wave them around a bit to create a bubble of Haha That’s Funny That You Think You Get To Fuck With Me. Like, when your boss says something insane, you can laugh like you know she’s just making a hilarious joke instead of actually trying to tell you, the expert, how to do your job. Instead of apologizing to crazy people for triggering their craziness, here’s how you will start dealing with them: you will ignore them and keep being awesome.

Instead of apologizing to crazy people for triggering their craziness, here’s how you will start dealing with them once you get into that middle-finger state of mind: you will ignore them and keep being awesome.

I understand that not every workplace has room for the kind of freedom that I’m talking about. And I know that sometimes it takes a little while to work out an escape plan.

But, seriously, have you ever known someone who had a shitty job or a horrible boss, and they just bummed out about it for years on end and never did anything about it? This is what I don’t want to happen to you, or to my bestie, because it is unnecessary.

There are always more jobs, just like there are always more prospective romantic partners, more people we could be friends with, more opportunities that would be great for us that we don’t even know about yet. There’s no need to be so risk-averse that we allow ourselves to languish away in a bad place. We only need to learn to get out those middle fingers and stop letting other people dictate how we feel and behave.

So … what would happen if my friend flipped a table at work? If she stopped being so conciliatory and started waving some middle fingers around in a light-hearted but deadly serious way? I think she might be surprised to see a change in how her colleagues treat her, and even more importantly, a change in how she sees herself.

I’m not asking anyone to turn into a mega-bitch … maybe just a tiny bitch. No need to drive all your colleagues away, but if you get a reputation for being someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is that such a bad thing?

We ladies are raised to smooth things over, to say or do whatever needs to be said or done to keep a ball rolling, even if that ball is rolling over us. But sometimes that smooth path of least resistance involves more sacrifices than we should have to make. When that time comes, the best response, in my opinion, is to get out those middle fingers and let your voice rise up with Cee-Lo in a sweet, hearty chorus of “Fuck You.”

So here’s my advice to my gal, and to everyone who’s struggling with a shitty job where people treat you like an idiot: Stop smoothing over all the problems of the wackjobs around you. Do an excellent job, cultivate that middle-finger bubble, and realize that you already have the freedom to refuse to engage with insanity.

Thanks to Mr. Money Mustache for making me realize how applicable middle fingers are to just about everything, even grocery shopping.

Guaranteed Or Your Money Back

NERD

For many years, I have sought clarity, sanity, and peace of mind. I have desired efficiency of thought, and I’ve worked to cultivate the ability to appreciate my emotions without capitulating to them.

And on this quest, one thing I’ve noticed is how much my mental state is about context. Like, when I am looking out a window with a hot cup of tea in my hand and a cat in my lap, it’s simple to assume this stance, to stay quiet inside and look at myself with equanimity.

But when I’m in Sephora with a $50 eyeshadow palette in my hand and I’m starting to feel sweaty and fidgety and I just want to buy the damn thing to make it stop, even though I have like a bajillion eyeshadows at home and student loans debts still to pay and I am forty for Chrissake …

Or when I’m on the phone with someone who is telling me that I can’t have this very reasonable thing I’m politely asking for because of some arbitrary rule that doesn’t apply to my situation anyway and I’m one breath away from blowing a gasket …

Or when I wake up the morning after drinking five beers and eating a vat of chocolate caramel popcorn and feel like the grossest fattest fuck in the world and I never want anyone to look at me ever again …

Well, in those moments, it’s a little trickier. Which means a girl needs tricks. A system, if you will, a routine to run through in that last split second before the Crazytown coaster goes over the first hill and gains too much momentum to be stopped.

Luckily, I have developed such a system, and it actually, honestly, works. It’s based on Science, and even has a silly acronym to help you remember it. I’m so proud of this system that I named it after myself! I call it NERD. Notice, Exhale, Reason, Distract.

Here’s how it works. When you start to feel all hot and bothered in Sephora, and you’re rationalizing how this palette is different from all the others you already own, because it has a red purple instead of a blue purple, and you’re only forty points away from the next VIB reward anyway …

Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is notice that you’re about to do something a little crazy. You’re getting that hopped-up don’t-give-a-crap feeling, and you’ve gotten it before, right? You know what it means and what it feels like. Pay attention to what’s happening.

Then exhale. Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett had to wait, but you don’t. You can just force all the air out of your lungs in one big satisfying whoosh, whenever you want. This will cause fresh new air to rush in, bringing you into the moment and helping you step back from what’s brewing in your brain. Miraculous.

Next, reason with yourself. Picture the drawer full of eyeshadows you have at home. Think about your student loans. Imagine yourself with that red purple color on your eyes. Does it make you look pretty, or … consumptive? Is this the best use of your fifty bucks, or are you just being manipulated by a shiny colorful atmosphere that was, in fact, designed to manipulate you? It’s important to approach this step from the right perspective. You’re not arguing with your craziness, or getting angry at it — you’re just raising a skeptical eyebrow. And that’s all you need to do: pull the energy out of the hot and crazy part of your brain and put it in the cool Spock-like sector.

Finally, distraction. Do something else. Ask the friend you’re shopping with what she thinks of red violet eyeshadow. Go outside and watch some kids skateboarding. Indulge in a $6 ice cream, or in a rant about how ice cream now costs $6. Whatever. You just need to find something else to put your attention on. And reflect on the fact that we are all exactly like little children in that this totally works.

Wait — now what were you freaking out about again? Do you even remember? High five yourself because you just skipped a potentially costly trip to Crazytown, simply by remembering one goofy acronym.

Seriously, though. Honestly. This works. Sometimes it works so well that the first two steps are enough and you don’t even need to try to be reasonable — it will just happen automatically after you notice what you’re doing and start breathing.

So I hope you’ll use it — in traffic, at work, with family or friends who are driving you bananas. Anytime part of you wants to do something that another part of you recognizes as a bad idea, just notice what’s happening inside you and exhale. Breathe. Apply reason and distraction as needed. And — bam! Equanimity maintained, collateral damage averted, mental state/bank account/life improved.

Do you play any little games to pop yourself out of a stressful moment and just be cool? Are you willing to try the NERD thing, or is it just a little bit too dumb to follow acronym-based, internet-delivered advice? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

How Culture Makes Us Crazy, and Vice Versa

Here at Be Less Crazy, where we’re all trying to master our minds for sparklier lives and a more reasonable world — that’s what we’re doing, right? — we’ve talked a lot about how culture makes us crazy, and how we make it crazy right back.

But we haven’t gone into a lot of detail about how this happens. What is the mechanism by which society trickles down into our brains, and how do our brains trickle back up to the world at large?

I drew this little diagram to show how I think it works.

culture

Ideas flow in and out of us, and they are metabolized by humans at all levels of society, from individual to family to community to nation to world. This diagram shows the process, and it’s circular, like digestion or respiration. Which makes sense to me, because just as our bodies are built out of the physical stuff we take in, our minds are built of ideas.

So let’s jump into this at the place where the vast majority of our ideas come from — Culture, otherwise known as the sum total of what our environment offers us. Writ large, culture is the first picture of the Earth from space, or the tale of Cinderella, or the notion of motherhood. Writ medium-size, it’s seeing everyone around you growing up to go to college, or to sell drugs, or whatever is the norm for your community. Writ small, it’s the way your mom and dad talked to each other … the games you played with your friends … your grandma’s chocolate cream pie.

Simply existing in the world exposes us to a constant and endless stream of culture. Some bits we reject, some we accept, and some are just burnt into us through rote repetition. Over time, like a bird building a nest using twigs and trash and whatever else is lying around, we each create ourselves out of culture’s raw materials. We make different choices along the way and we come out with different end products, but the process seems pretty universal.

Once a bit is in us, it becomes a Belief, one of the prime directives by which we live. All the things we believe — from “Living indoors is better than living outdoors” to “Box wine rocks” to “Gay people should be able to get married if they want to” are simply cultural bits that we have validated with our personal stamp of approval. All are bits that our culture has convinced us are True.

But not all beliefs are created equal. Some are well-known to us, and well-loved. They swim in the sunny parts of our minds, right where we can see them. Others lurk deep within, down where it’s dark and mysterious and almost opaque to our vision. And these lurker beliefs can be troublesome, because they end up dictating a lot of what we do — even overriding higher-level beliefs — simply because we can’t see them. Tricksy.

Anyhow, if beliefs are the broad-stroke ideas we believe to be true, then Decisions are where we apply our beliefs to one particular moment. Just like beliefs, decisions can be transparent or opaque. We can be aware of why we’re making some choices and running completely on unexamined habit with others.

Either way, our decisions fuel our Actions. The actions we take are nothing less than outward manifestations of what our minds decide is true about a given situation. We act, and something changes. We make a dent in the world around us.

Another way of saying this is we contribute to Culture, little or big, bringing us back to the beginning of the circle. Our beliefs percolate back up into the culture through our actions, and they all contribute, whether it’s riding a bike to work or yelling at your partner or volunteering for a good political candidate or writing a helpful blog post or parroting terrible things you’ve read or smiling at an old person shuffling down the street. All of us are contributing to culture all the time. Everything adds up.

It’s important that we understand this, because I think lots of us tend to see ourselves as “in here” and the rest of the world as “out there.” Like we are our own little separate entities, making unfettered individualistic decisions all day every day, acting out of our own righteous self-interest, not really impacting or being impacted by the world very much.

But the reality is a little bit more subtle. The truth is, we are all breathing culture fumes in and out all day every day, and this process can’t help but re-arrange the furniture inside our heads. Sometimes in ways that are not helpful or to our liking. Some examples of this:

Body image. Culture tells us that there is a long list of ways in which we are imperfect, and that the harder we try to attain perfection, the more loved and valuable we will be. Of course, this sets us up for lots of crazy behaviors around food and how we talk to ourselves and even what kind of activities we allow ourselves to take part in. Ever skip swimming because you didn’t want to be seen in a bathing suit?

Our culture sets us up to devalue ourselves, which sets us up to do self-destructive things. Thereby putting another example of self-hating-lady-shit into the culture for some other poor young thing to experience. Aaah, the circle of life.

Romantic Love. Our culture teaches every young girl that love is by far the most important thing. We learn that a happy ending actually can’t even happen without it. We drink this up our whole lives, too, making us believe on a very deep level that a life without a special person is not worth living.

These beliefs then cause us to take actions in which we over-prioritize love more than anything else. Liiiike … feeling truly broken when no one wants us, or letting lazy broke-ass people move in with us because “we love them”, or sticking around someone terrible because we can’t bear the thought of being alone. And of course, all of these actions put more weak love-obsessed crap out into the culture for others to witness and be influenced by.

Money. Our culture teaches us that money = worth. That spending lots of money = being lots of happy. That one more pair of shoes is going to finally scratch that lingering shoe itch. All of which is, again, shit … but some part of us believes it, so we end up living it out.

We buy so much stuff we don’t even have room for it all. We go into debt, declare bankruptcy, fight about money … and basically become all the statistics you read about how terrible people are with money. All of this, of course, adds to the power of the money craziness snowball flying through our culture and sucking people up into it.

All of this leads me to only one conclusion: we can’t just go with the cultural defaults that have been installed in us, because THEY ARE CRAZY. They will lead us nowhere good … only to further frontiers of self-hatred, shitty relationships, and brokeness.

Put another way, our culture has its head up its ass, and the only way to change that is to take our own heads out of our own asses.

To achieve this, I think it makes a lot of sense to do a couple of things.

First, we need to shine a bright light on those murky lurker beliefs so we can understand what they are up to.

And second, we need to focus on the Decision step. Because even when our actions seem inevitable based on what has happened to us and what we believe, they are not. We always have decisions to make, and there is always power in them.

decisions

Decision is the step that takes place entirely inside our own minds. It’s the step where we can slow down and rationally consider our options and act only on the best one. Not the one that feels most familiar, not the one that’s an unwitting replay of a shitty old script, but the one that will actually improve things for us and for all the little levels of culture in which we’re embedded.

Clearly seeing how culture sets up our beliefs set up our decisions set up our actions contribute to our culture … well it just makes us better citizens, don’t you think? More powerful ones, too, because it means that we are capable of creating happier lives for ourselves and also changing culture itself in ever-widening circles of rationality and freedom. Once we take on our own individual craziness, we can’t help but infuse everything and everyone around is with blessed sanity.

Do you see this pattern operating in your experience? What different levels of culture are you embedded in? How are they impacting you? And how are you impacting them?

Be Less Crazy With … A Bike!

gertie

Gertie, my bike, faithfully carrying a box of wine in her basket

It started on our honeymoon in Costa Rica. Most tourists rent a car, but we chose not to, because our beautiful rental house in the jungle came with two bikes, and they became our main mode of transport.

Every day we’d take a quick ride into Manzanillo to pick up the day’s provisions of Heineken and avocados. Or we’d get going at sunrise and ride to the unbelievably beautiful and deserted beach called Punta Uva. Or we’d head up to the Chiquita Cafe to check our email, stopping for an early dinner at Pita Bonita and riding home in the pink-turning-purple dusk.

We rode to the Jaguar Rescue Center where I held a bebeh mernkey. We rode to Aquamor Dive Shop, where we rented snorkels then swam out to the coral reef to spy on all the fishes. We even rode with all our stuff on our backs to Le Cameleon, a fancy hotel where we had a mini-honeymoon-within-a-honeymoon, our dirty red faces standing out starkly against the all-white surroundings.

After I got over my initial terror of traffic and got a little fitter, I found that the ride to wherever we were going was always at least as fun as where we ended up. We saw giant blue butterflies, we heard the hilarious monkeys howling their hearts out, and we smelled the dirty sweet smells of the jungle. I got good at not running off the road while flicking off bugs who tried to hitchhike on my person. And I came to believe that nothing can ever taste as great as a cold Coke from a glass bottle, downed in one after a long sweaty ride.

Over our month in Costa Rica, I realized that riding a bike is one of the most fun things that we get to do as human beings! Wind in your hair, feeling like a kid, singing at the top of your lungs FUN. A major benefit of having a body.

Biking in Manzanillo from Megan Dietz on Vimeo.

And super pragmatic as well, as I learned on the day I walked to Punta Uva instead of biking. How slow those miles seemed to go! And how much I missed my own self-generated breeze in that hot Caribbean sun!

So, when we got back to Pittsburgh, even though it was already November and gray, I went and got a bike of my own. (At Thick Bikes, which is where you should go, too, if you are in this neck of the woods — they are so great!) And I had a blast riding her to work several times in December. But then there were other things to deal with like a dislocated shoulder and weird spells of vertigo and UNENDING SNOW.

Finally, last week, health problems sorted and snow all melted away, I got back on! Wednesday I rode the 6 miles to work, then met up with my friend Matt for dinner and The Book of Mormon (which was hilarious, btw).

Matt had his bike, too, so after the show we zoomed past the snarl of downtown theater traffic — later suckers!! — across the Smithfield Street bridge, and down the South Side trail to his house and my bus stop. This was my first night ride, and it was pure magic. Like we traveled through the back of a wardrobe to a secret Pittsburgh where the lights of the city dance on the river and dozens of bunny butts glow white in the darkness as they hop across your path.

I’ve ridden into work a few more times since then, and I keep noticing more wonderful side effects. Like this morning, when as soon as I turned onto the trail I was greeted by a herd of young daffodils nodding hello to me in the breeze. Or when I found myself singing as I rode underneath the highway along the edge of the Allegheny River. Or when I got to work, and my colleague came to talk to me about a big hairy project looming over us, and I noticed that it didn’t stress me out at all. Not a drop!

And, also, I feel extra cute! Have you noticed that? How, even if your body is exactly the same body as yesterday when you felt gross, doing something physical makes you feel hot again? Amazing!

I have to give thanks to A+ financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, whose post What Do You Mean You Don’t Have A Bike?!?! face-punched me into buying one and also helped me get over my wussiness about riding it in Pittsburgh. Yes, there are big hills and lots of potholes and many, many dickhole drivers. But also! Bunnies and daffodils and riverbanks and the complete lack of stress that comes after a good hard sweat!!!

And there’s something more, too. As MMM says,

A bike-based lifestyle is an all-encompassing change for the better. It’s like rolling back the past hundred years of humanity’s clueless paving-over of the surface of the Earth, without having to sacrifice a single benefit of modernization. It’s like shedding all of the stress and responsibility of adulthood that have crusted over you and going back to being eight years old again… without losing an ounce of that golden power and freedom that comes with being an adult.

A bike is actually an automatic life balancing machine, passively creating harmony in your life better than even the bossiest life coach could hope to do.

I can’t say it any better than that.

When I first got my bike, a friend asked me if I was going to become one of those people who gets in your face and yells, “Share the road, asshole!!!!”  Which is hilarious to think about, but no, that’s not me.

I think I’m just becoming someone who gets to fly down a hill at 25 miles per hour singing at the top of my lungs whenever I want. It feels exactly like this song sounds:

Anyway, do you have a bike? Do you ride it? WHY NOT YOU TOTALLY SHOULD!

 

Springtime Decrazification – LET’S DO THIS

windows

Open the window in the center of your chest,

and let the spirits fly in and out.

Rumi

I don’t know about you, but life has been a little nutty this winter. My brain has been soaking in stress chemicals, and my executive functions haven’t been all that “executive” – too much TV and chocolate and feeling the coldness of the earth leaching into my bones, not enough exercise and writing and generating my own heat.

Things are a little more stable now. My grandma is a little better, and my own non-life-threatening-but-extremely-life-disturbing health problems seem to have chilled out.

But, honestly, it doesn’t really matter how stable things are, does it? I mean, no one can fault me for stumbling around a bit the last few months – they have been intense! – and I don’t “fault” myself. But I do recognize that it’s kind of irrelevant. Life will always be full of hijinks and hilarity, but there are things I want to accomplish regardless. And there’s no way to accomplish them while slugging out.

So. Time for renewal. It is spring, after all, even if the weather doesn’t know it yet. As good a time as any for a decrazification, an exorcism of the droopy, lethargic spirits in my chest. Time to throw open the windows and let some fresh air back in.

What does decrazification look like? Well, it’s different for everybody. For me, it looks like making sure that I write and meditate and exercise every day. Because if I get those three things in, even if only for a few minutes, everything else seems to fall in line.

I could spend the next couple of paragraphs examining in great detail why exactly I resist these things that I know are good for me, time and time again, and instead choose to lie on the couch watching Tina Fey-era Saturday Night Live reruns. If I dig around in my past, I’m sure I can come with “good reasons” to explain my lameness.

But I’m not going to do that. Why? Because however “good” my “reasons,” they are also 100% irrelevant. Because trying to understand my craziness doesn’t really help me get over it. Sometimes it can even make it worse, because then I get wrapped up in thinking about my problems and why they bother me so much, and what events in my childhood set the craziness in motion, and isn’t it all so fascinating?

At a certain point, though, I realized that no, it’s really NOT that fascinating. It’s just garden-variety narcissism. I lose myself in looking at myself, and I fall in.

Does this happen to you? I remember a great story a teacher friend once told me, about an older man in one of his classes who had shown up one night excited about a huge breakthrough he’d made in understanding why he was late to everything his entire life. He told the tale of how, as a child, his father always made him wait in a car while he made sales calls, and some part of him hated it so much that he vowed never to wait for anyone ever again. Hence, he was always late.

As this fellow described his epiphany, he was full of excitement at finally having gotten some clarity around this previously opaque issue. And then my friend said, well, that’s wonderful, but I gotta ask, are you on time now, or not?

He wasn’t, of course. Why would he be? Understanding why he was late and learning how to be on time are two completely different skills. And yet we have this idea that the better we understand our own particular insanities, the easier it will be to get over them.

But that’s not really how it works. In truth, the only way to stop doing dumb shit is to just stop doing it. To stop mucking around in the origin story of our craziness and get over the idea that our neuroses make us special.

Because they don’t. The thing that makes a person special is how they show up in the world REGARDLESS of their neuroses. How they move past craziness, not how good they are at describing it.

So, no reasons, no excuses. No shame and no blame, either. Just the opening of a window … the feel of cool morning air on my face … the moment-to-moment decision to keep trying.

How’s your springtime going, love? Do you feel the need to air out your head, too?

How To Stop Raging Against Reality

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My grandma is hurting again. Last Sunday, she leaned over in her recliner to rearrange some books and she slid out of the chair onto the floor. And her hip broke.

This is the latest and maybe the gravest incident in a string that started about a year and a half ago, and I gotta be real about it — it’s been a tough time. Ma has had a heart attack, a MRSA infection, dizzy spells, multiple skin tears, limited mobility, and varying levels of lucidity. There have been dozens of visits to the doctor and to the ER, dozens of nights in the hospital, and two nursing home stays totalling up to more than seven months. There have also been countless hours on the phone and mountains of paperwork to fill out so that she can have medical benefits and at-home care and prescription coverage and everything else she needs. It’s a real project management situation.

On top of all that is the way she feels about what’s happening to her. My grandma has always been a quick and bubbly and memorably warm person, and she still is. She is a little forgetful, sure, and sometimes confused and anxious, but essentially, she is still herself. Unlike a lot of old folks.

And that is an enormous blessing, but also somewhat of a curse, because she understands what’s happening to her. She clearly sees that her capabilities are diminishing, and it sometimes brings her way, way down. So, on top of all the logistical and bureaucratic and medical stuff, my brother and I have also been trying to keep her spirits up, too. We know it could be a lot worse, but it still has not been easy.

Part of the difficulty is that the situation just fucking sucks. People say taking care of an old person is like taking care of a child, and I guess there are some similarities, but I think the comparison breaks down for one simple reason: children grow. They develop and change and great new things keep happening with them all the time. But with an aging person, it’s the exact opposite. With every incident, new levels of horror are revealed, and even the strongest souls can falter a bit in the face of it, I think.

But the other part of the difficulty is on me, because I have to admit that I am kind of selfish prick. I don’t want to get into my whole life story — at least not right now — but suffice it to say that my childhood was bananas, and I spent most of it trying to grow up quickly so that I would no longer be subject to the weakness and poor decision-making ability of the adults around me. That is way harsh, I know, but it’s the way I grew up thinking about things.

So, now, yay, I am a grown-up, and all I want is freedom, and I can’t have it. I can’t spend my day doing what I’d like to do because I have five phone calls to make, and I have to stop at my grandma’s apartment and pick up some clothes for her to wear when they transfer her from the hospital to the rehab place, and I need to take them to the hospital and talk to her and try to explain what’s going on and see the wildness in her eyes that means she is terrified. And I have to go to work and try not to lose it even though my heart is breaking. And then I have to drive out to rehab to bring her suitcase and make sure she’s settled in and comfortable. And by the time all that is over, I will be exhausted and it will be time to go to bed.

Sometimes I feel like Louis CK in this bit of stand-up — “Now I have an old lady.”

And sometimes I rage against it. Sometimes I cry my eyes out and drive around screaming at a God I don’t really even believe in that this isn’t fair, and what has she ever done to deserve such misery besides be a beautiful loving person? And what have I ever done? I’m a freaking orphan, shouldn’t I somehow be excused?

In short, I turn into the worst person ever — resentful towards everyone, entitled and selfish, full of anger and despair.

This is a pattern I found myself playing out a lot last year. I can’t call it a rabbit-hole, because it’s bigger and more menacing than that. I guess it feels more like a road with well-worn ruts that I sometimes just find myself on without even realizing it. Something goes wrong with my grandma’s health, or someone drops the ball on her care, or I hit my daily limit on dealing with bureaucratic bullshit, and suddenly I am the freaking Hulk. Impatient and surly and, eventually, ashamed.

I know there’s no point to it. It brings me no relief, no catharsis. It’s just an emotional reflex, a pattern of adolescent rage against reality itself, and it does nothing but sap me of my strength. I’m not, like, satisfyingly cried out after one of these rages. I’m red and raw. I’m spoiling for a fight.

Going away for a month gave me a lot of perspective on the situation, and since then, the raging hasn’t been as much of a problem. And I guess I was foolish enough to think I had magically conquered it through the power of, I dunno, travel-related attitude change or something.

But the other night, after a long day of work and a long emotional visit with Ma, I found myself driving home from the hospital scream-crying at no one. Knee deep in craziness, before I even knew what was happening. Again.

When I got home I sat on the edge of the bed in the dark and cried and ranted and felt wretched for a while. But then something new happened … a wisp of a thought drifted through my brain. What are you doing, honey? Haven’t you spent enough time playing this terrible loop? Isn’t there something else you’d rather do? Something useful, or at least not destructive?

And suddenly I was looking at myself. I was looking at the tornado of emotions rising up out of my chest, and I was breathing. And that gave me the blessed grace of space — space I needed to stop, to step back, to pop myself out of the swirling part of my mind.

From there, I was able to talk myself down, to be as reasonable and reassuring to my own self as I try to be to the people I love. I was able to say very accurate, rational, and kind things like Oh, my sweet Madge, anyone in this position would feel awful. But do you want your whole life to be about this? Isn’t there another way you can go about it? Can you acknowledge that this blows and let yourself feel sad without allowing it to turn into a fiery rage that burns up the rest of your life?

And then, having received a perfect dose of logic and sweetness courtesy of my brain’s sanest part, I felt myself open up. I felt the knots inside me untwist, and I felt the emotions flowing through me. And I remembered that taking good care of my grandma is not a burden that’s been thrust upon poor put-upon me — it’s a choice I have made. It’s something I can and should feel good about. It’s an important commitment, and I am fulfilling it the best I can.

But as much as I want to help, I simply don’t have the power to set my grandma’s world right. All I can do is take care of the logistics, love on her as much as possible, and let the rest of it go.

Because the reality is that she is almost 90. Shit is probably going to suck from now until the end of her life. But there will be moments of grace, too, as long as I can accept what is instead of raging against it.

You’ve heard me talk about the process of side-stepping craziness before — notice what’s going on, breathe, reason with yourself in a kind way, and turn your attention elsewhere. It ain’t easy, but the cool thing is that it seems to work the same for all kinds of irrational, unpleasant, hard-to-corral feelings, even existential rage at the impersonal cruelty of aging. Once you get good at noticing what’s going on in your brain, you almost can’t help but get a little saner.

It’s not magic … you have to keep trying as hard as you can and sometimes even harder than that … but it does work.

And as it turns out, I don’t have to look very far to find a role model — Ma herself is a master. (I don’t think a person can make it to 89 otherwise.) Time and time again I have witnessed the way she gets through hard stuff. She holds tight to her friends and family. She appreciates how good she’s got it and focuses on what’s possible rather than what’s not.

Most of all, she never gives up. Even when she’s worn out from surgery and can’t keep her eyes open, she keeps trying to connect, to soothe, to give and receive love. She has the heart of a warrior, my sweet ancient grandma. And I do, too, as long as I keep my craziness in check. Thankfully, I am learning how.

Be Less Crazy About Your Body, Injury Edition

Twenty thirteen got off to a pretty productive start for me. January 1st I slept in after a late New Year celebration, but January 2nd I got up at 5 am to meditate, do some yoga, and write. I’ve had this kind of routine before and it works beautifully — I love the feeling of heading to work knowing that I’ve already accomplished some goals for the day.

And I’m excited about my writing projects — this blog, columns for The Hairpin, and my next book, Be Less Crazy About Love. So it’s great to block in lots of high-quality early morning time to work on them.

For about a week, this was all working perfectly. Then, last Monday, around 5:15 am, before my first cup of tea, I stumbled on the edge of my yoga mat — irony!! — and dislocated my shoulder. Aaaaah! I got it back in after a few minutes, but Lord did it hurt.

My shoulders used to come out all the time when I was younger. In fact, genius that I am, I used to do dumb things with my hyperflexibility on purpose, to impress people, I guess? Sigh. There were probably better ways. Anyway, I haven’t had any problems with them for about ten years, which is great. But this dislocation was worse than the ones I did on purpose. More painful, for sure.

Even harder to handle than the pain, for me, is the anxiety that comes along with it. I have known people in my life for whom getting injured is not a very big deal, but I am not one of them. When I hurt myself, I have a tendency to feel extremely disconcerted, to get stuck in ruts of thought that are all about how weak and clumsy and stupid I am.

And most especially about how vulnerable I am. In every moment, so many things can go wrong … I could twist my ankle on that hole! I could trip and knock my shoulder out again! Anything can happen!

Which is always true, but hurting myself forces me to acknowledge that it’s true. And it wigs me out, more than a lot of people I think.

Why are you smiling?!? Don’t you know that your arm is broken, and that human life is tenuous?

I’m not sure why — it might be because I lost people close to me when I was young, and so have a bones-deep understanding of how quickly life can change for the worse. Or maybe it’s just because my imagination has always been a lot more active than my body.

At any rate, the last week has not turned out the way I was picturing. I have not been getting up at 5 am; I have not been abstaining from alcohol the way I’d planned. Instead I’ve been wearing a sling and popping Advil and watching lots of episodes of The West Wing.

But I am dealing with it better than I have in the past, I think. So far I’ve resisted the urge to cry and feel sorry for myself and what have you … I haven’t gone down the wormhole of worry and wigdom. Once again, my craziness avoidance techniques are coming through for me.

The most important thing is the simplest and the hardest — to notice when the anxiety whirlpool is starting to gather speed. Just noticing it gives me a little bit of power over it, because looking at it positions me outside of it. I’m not trapped in it, so I can see what it’s up to.

At that point I can pour on lots of reasonable objectivity, and sometimes even flip the situation to realize how lucky I am. Because having an unstable shoulder is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone — heck, it’s not even the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! Not even in the top ten! And, boy howdy, could it be ever so much worse than it is. Like, orders of magnitude worse. So that’s something to be grateful for, something to anchor me.

Something else to appreciate: I have had shoulder issues for a long time, and right now I have both insurance and a reason to get physical therapy, so I can finally deal with those problems. Ameliorate or even eliminate them! Which is actually pretty cool.

Replacing my upsetting thoughts with reasons to be grateful — plus a certain amount of sweet sweet distraction — has really helped prevent a lot of craziness from happening. And the more I practice, the easier it gets.

Yesterday I had my follow up orthopedic appointment, and the doctor told me that I’d be fine after a bit of physical therapy. And as it turns out, contrary to what I’d feared, I haven’t actually done myself any permanent harm with the genius shoulder-popping hijinks of my youth. Which is great!

So, though I am still feeling a little bit disconcerted and sore … I’m on the upswing, and I’m not wigging out. There is an inherent danger in being alive, but it’s useless to focus on it, because what can I do about it? It’s just one of those harsh things that is 100% true: humans are incredibly vulnerable.

Also 100% true: we are resourceful as hell, and we tend to survive a lot of messed-up things. More than that, we have the ability to learn from them, to decide what they mean for us, to spin the straw of distress into the gold of hard-earned, useful knowledge. That is the part to focus on. This injury is not only giving me a reason to sort out my shoulders — it’s also helping me sort out my mind.