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Monthly Archives: September 2008

What if your happiness does not depend on getting what you want?

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A good friend wrote me an email this morning that included a lament on her current less-than-ecstatic mood. Her assessment of her options seemed to be missing something and this seemed like the perfect forum to respond. She said:

“I keep bouncing between being ecstatic and maudlin (in a teenage way, not a manic depressant one) for short periods, which is kind of irritating.  It didn’t click until yesterday that I’m currently in a transitional period, and sadly, I don’t like to be in flux.  I like things to be settled and I enjoy having my expectations closely mirror reality.   This leaves me with only one choice: muddle through until I get to the next place I’m meant to be and try to make the most of being where I am at the moment (irritatingly unsettled.)

After her comments, she asked me for a book recommendation from my favorite spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron, since Pema has so many amazing writings on finding (and redefining) the elusive state of happiness. Oddly enough, a blog post I’d read this morning had me already thinking about Pema and similar questions.

Dear friend of mine, and anyone who has ever felt as she does, go read or listen to Pema’s True Happiness. Life-alteringly good. I was listening to the audiobook just last night, and it seems to hold more wisdom with every successive listen.

I believe what you are experiencing, indeed, what many people struggling to find happiness experience, is the evil trap of expectations. In the book, Pema asks: What if your happiness does not depend on getting what you want? Breathe that in. Think of everyone whose happiness you admire, whose solidity of peace and contentment seems to be a part of them, not a part of their environment. Put another way, what if getting what we want doesn’t always lead to happiness? What if our expectations for what makes us happy are wrong?

Personally, I believe that expectations are the root of all evil. Well, perhaps that’s a bit strong, but living life with expectations basically means that you’re trying to predict the future, and base your happiness on the degree of correctness of your predictions. Not only are we wrong most of the time, but even when the outcome is good, perhaps even better than we expected, some part of us is usually disappointed that our expectations weren’t met. Intellectually, this is just ridiculous.

Perhaps you expect that friends will throw you a huge surprise birthday party at your favorite restaurant. You’d planned what to wear to the party, your gracious thank-you speech, and instead your spouse whisks you off at the last minute for a terrific weekend out of town. And perhaps you find yourself a little disappointed even as you’re enjoying yourself at the hotel pool. Does that make any sense? Expectations make it hard to enjoy life unless we guess exactly right. And sometimes, even when we’re right, reality doesn’t quite live up to our hopes, and we’re still disappointed. So what’s a happiness-seeker to do?

Throw the expectations out the window.

Yes, it’s a bit scary at first. It requires some getting used to living in flux, not “controlling” where you’re going by dictating what you expect and how fast you’d like it to happen. And I’m not advocating never looking forward to something, or tossing planning aside for spontaneity. But adopting a wait-and-see attitude, truly internalizing the idea that life, karma, God, or however you define the order of the universe, will bring you exactly what you need, brings peace. Suddenly, there’s no reason to try to guess what that might be in store, because you probably couldn’t guess anyway – why bother? And you also realize that the spaces between your expectations, the ones you’d been “living through” to get to the good stuff, are the good stuff. There are no moments to be just tolerated while you anticipate that party. Every moment is equally short, and to be cherished with the same fervor.

Let go of the steering wheel. Realize that life is not defined by what you think will make you happy nearly as much as by what actually does make you happy. Sometimes those things surprise you. Many times you’ll miss them if you’re hanging on to an expectation, looking past the now to that hope.

This is a central idea to my happiness manifesto, and one that I haven’t quite put into complete thoughts. I welcome your comments, and look forward to writing more on this to come. Until the, peace be with you, my friend. Enjoy your transistion as much as you look forward to being settled. There is beauty and mystery in every moment.

Easy money is dangerous

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Perhaps you also received an email recently that went like this: “George Bush has been in office for 7 1/2 years. The first six the economy was fine.” Then there were stats about how things were good, consumer confidence was high, gas prices and unemployment were reasonable, etc.

Then it said, “But American’s wanted ‘CHANGE’!  So, in 2006 they voted in a Democratic Congress & yep–we got ‘CHANGE’ all right.” This was followed by a number of facts about how things are bad. (see below for full text).

I usually don’t respond to these types of emails, but I don’t like what this says about our political system and the national debate. My first reaction is to go into an argument about causation and correlation, but I realize as I write this, my main plea is for an end to the propaganda. Aren’t we civilized enough to be measured and fair, use sound arguments, and stop acting like the other team is a bunch of evil people out to ruin the country on purpose? (And I’m talking to both parties).

Does anyone really believe that either party dictates the price of oil or the unemployment rate? If they did, wouldn’t they be eager to fix it all and prove how much more effective they are then their political adversaries?

Neither party is singularly responsible for a fall in consumer confidence. That poll is a measure of how people feel, and last July we hadn’t heard much about a mortgage crisis. Like an impending hurricane, no one is really worried until they see the giant storm on the radar. And frankly, I’m not sure you can point at either party for the failure of oversight in the mortgage industry. The markets failed us because everyone started grabbing mortgages they couldn’t afford simply because someone would give it to them. Easy money is dangerous.

Neither can one party be the sole cause of rising gas prices and unemployment. Prices are up because of supply and demand, (check out China’s massive growth in demand for oil in recent years), and because of inflation. Much of our rather significant inflation is due to a weakening dollar, caused by our Federal Reserve policy of printing money. Whatever you believe about our military efforts, we’ve been printing quite a bit of cash lately to pay for war efforts, rather than raising taxes, or cutting spending. Again, easy money is dangerous. This country has inflation to thank for much of the economic pain of late, including unemployment as companies must downsize to continue to afford the rising costs of everything else. Responsibility for inflation lies mainly with our national monetary policy, and neither party is solely to blame for bad monetary policy; the Federal Reserve is non-partisan.

But every single American citizen is to blame, for not being interested until our banks get close to failure and the economy is hanging off the edge of the cliff. It’s not sexy, or incendiary, or even fun, but read a bit on the gold standard, printing money, our national deficit, and the $430 Billion (with a “B”) we paid in interest alone on the national debt in 2007. (Compare that to NASA at $15 Billion, Education at $61 Billion, and Department of Transportation at $56 Billion). Then this country can have a serious debate about what ails our economy, not just the symptoms.

All of that aside, whatever you believe about politics and policies, I think we would be a lot farther down the path to figuring out these problems if we stopped pointing fingers. Everyone wants to blame everyone else, as if any one person or party runs the show. This is a democracy. WE run the show. Economics and war and social policies are hard things to figure out, with thousands of variables. We elect people to go to Washington and focus full-time on figuring out the answers, because we don’t have time to do so. These are regular people we elect, and too often they get picked based on popularity – based on their religion or hometown or their gender or their speaking skills, not their graduate school degrees in national defense or economics. So don’t complain when they don’t get it all right. This is complex stuff. And I promise they’re trying hard not to screw up in public. Most of them actually care deeply about this country, and are trying to do what’s best.

Here is my plea: couldn’t we please just get on the same team and try to figure things out? The 2008 candidates are currently close in the polls, which means that large numbers of voters won’t get their guy. If the losing team wants to sit around and kick the dirt, we’ll be hard-pressed to steer this massive ship of a country away from the iceburg. We all have to paddle. We all have to help our leaders figure these problems out. We all are responsible for the policies that bite us in the backside, and if we don’t want to pay attention, then we can’t complain about the effects.

Let’s stop voting for people because we like them, or because they go to church where we do, or because they’re female or black or a veteran. Vote for people you think are intelligent, and willing to get the smartest people in the room to figure out the problems, regardless of their party. Spend as much time reading balanced analysis of the problem as you do commenting on the cost of gas. And then tell someone else, teach your kids, and get everyone you know registered to vote. Because however you vote, I believe informed and alert citizens acting together to help Congress decide on complex policies, will almost always keep us out of most dangerous waters. And on the occasions it doesn’t, and we find ourselves in a place like we are now, we can weather the storm shoulder-to-shoulder with our compatriots, rather than tear at each other for the scraps.

These are lessons we teach our children, about squashing rumors, and looking for the good in others, and teamwork. About not judging a book by it’s cover, and forgiveness. Let’s try and make our political system reflect what is good, and true, and right about this country.

The original email:
On Thu, Sep 11, 2008 at 3:44 AM, <> wrote:

…..facts are facts!!
This has to make you think a little bit, if not then keep your blinders on!
George Bush has been in office for 7 1/2 years.
The first six the economy was fine.
A little over one year ago:
1) Consumer confidence stood at a 2 1/2 year high;
2) Regular gasoline sold for $2.19 a gallon;
3) the unemployment rate was 4.5%.
4) the DOW JONES hit a record high–14,000 +
5) American’s were buying new cars, taking cruises, vacations o’seas, living large!…
But American’s wanted ‘CHANGE’!  So, in 2006 they voted in a Democratic Congress & yep–we got ‘CHANGE’ all right.  In the PAST YEAR:
1) Consumer confidence has plummeted ;
2) Gasoline is now near $4 a gallon & climbing!;
3) Unemployment is up to 5% (a 10% increase);
4) Americans have seen their home equity drop by $12 TRILLION DOLLARS & prices still
dropping;
5) 1% of American homes are in foreclosure.
6) as I write, THE DOW is probing another low~~11,100– $2.5 TRILLION DOLLARS HAS
EVAPORATED FROM THEIR STOCKS, BONDS & MUTUAL FUNDS INVESTMENT
PORTFOLIOS!
YEP , IN 2006 AMERICA VOTED FOR CHANGE!…AND WE SURE GOT IT!!!….NOW OBAMA, the DEM’S CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT–AND THE POLLS SAY HE’S GONNA BE ‘THE MAN’–CLAIMS HE’S GONNA REALLY GIVE US CHANGE!!….JUST HOW MUCH MORE ‘CHANGE’ DO YA THINK YOU CAN STAND???…..

Put the book (or blog) down!

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I have spent the last few hours last full week reading, reading, reading. Poetry, magazines, news sites, rabbit holes of link after link after link; I read one author’s entire archived blog (more on her amazingness on another post). As I read I kept stumbling across brilliant thoughts and poems so good I wished I had written them.

Then a big realization hit me – I might have actually written such things, if I had been thinking my own thoughts, exploring my own ideas, and writing. It may seem obvious that someone who wants to write should pick up her pen now and again, but perhaps I’ve been just hoping that if I put enough good stuff in, a poem or great post would just appear. Alas, it would appear that I need to invest some effort in these endeavors to get the results. Sigh.

An old boss once told me that some days are for laying the foundation for creativity, and some days are for being creative. For me, reading is a major part of my foundation building, but the real work comes when I pick up the pen. And I think I’m ready for a creative day or two. I think it’s time to think my own thoughts for a bit, and pick up the pen.

The Year of Jen

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I knew, when the clock struck midnight on the first moment of this year, it would be a good one. I went so far as to declare it “The Year of Jen” (having been preceded in our circle by “The Year of Greg,” and “The Year of Adam,” I believe). 2008 had it in store for me. 2007 held a few learning experiences that, while I wouldn’t trade the lessons for anything, I was glad to have over.

There was the hellish demise of a long relationship that had gone from sublime to wickedly destructive in the span of a few years.There was the career path that left few hours (or kicking brain cells) for things I loved like friends, good books, and writing. There was a couple months of unemployment after kicking said career to the curb with no prospects – months spent trying to define my worth on paper and rewrite a resume that was almost five years untouched. It was a challenging year. But 2008 held promise. I had rebuilt old friendships neglected in the firestorm of the first part of the year. There was a new job starting January 2nd. I was single and well-adjusted and completely content. The holidays had consisted of being hugged and encouraged by all manner of family and friends. Karma owed me one, and 2008 was it.

I’m happy to say karma is holding up its end of the bargain.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately

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((Note to my friends back in Texas: I am not trying to make you jealous, promise))

Yesterday evening I got in my car and instantly rolled the windows down. Not out of habit, yet, but out of an almost subconscious desire for fresh air. My lungs and my skin have become rather used to the evening breeze as I drive, just as I’ve become accustomed to hearing the sounds of the cicadas as I drift to sleep or the neighbors’ kids playing in the yard as I sit at my desk.

Right now I can hear an ice cream truck, a cruise ship in the bay, and a happy dog greeting his family. The windows are always open and the world is coming inside.

This rather commonplace behavior wasn’t my habit a few short weeks ago. My Dallas life moved at highway speed, and air is not a gentle breeze at 80 mph, it’s a wind tunnel. Most importantly, sweating like a pig the summer air in Texas is just not my favorite thing. When S would come to visit me in Dallas, he would instantly roll the window down as soon as he got in the car. My fresh, made-up self would promptly melt. Not his intention, and he never seemed to mind, but I didn’t really understand how he could possibly prefer the hot, syrupy air over the efficiently compressed and forcefully cool Air Conditioning. Actually he’d last about five minutes and succumb, but the instinct was there.

And now I’ve come to see things the same way. Even on the mornings where it’s a bit cool to have the windows down, it feels so isolating to drive around with them up. Like I’m in my own little bubble or something.

The underlying realization is that I feel more connected to my life than I have in a while. I feel connected to the weather, and the cicadas, and my neighbors, because I’m letting them in rather than shutting them out. I feel more connected to the food I eat, because on many occasions I bought my vegetables from the guy that grew them. And because I don’t have a microwave, dinner require me to actually think about cooking, rather than relying on frozen food experts to decide what spices this particular dish needed. As I wash my dishes by hand — yep, no dishwasher either — the evidence of the meal is right there, asking to be contemplated, admired, and improved upon.

And when you walk places, you meet more people. It’s a lot harder to ignore the guy whose dog is sniffing your shoe than the lady in three cars over. People greet each other; sometimes with just a nod, usually with a “how are you?”, or if you appear to be pondering a streetside cafe, you might even get a “their food is amazing – try the capellini.” Not that people aren’t friendly back in Texas, but the only strangers I spoke to on a regular basis asked me if I wanted paper or plastic, or an appetizer before dinner. Now I have a whole contingent of neighborhood faces that greet me with some regularity, and new ones join all the time.

My senses feel rather like new skin after a sunburn, alert to every touch. It’s as though this new environment is allowing layers of complacency caused by repetition to be peeled back, exposing that which is very real, and asking me to interact. Life seems to taste better, smell more pungent, be somehow richer.

And yes, I know I’m completely romanticizing the experience. Not having a microwave or dishwasher can be a complete hassle sometimes. Sometimes the dogs bark A LOT. But it’s the price I pay for getting to live here, for being connected to my community in a way I haven’t before. Dallas for me was always about the people: my family and friends that made my life brilliant with their laughter and love. California, at this beginning point, is at least as much about the place, and my experience of it, and perhaps my experience of myself in it.

Thoreau, one of my very favorites, wrote these words on his retreat to Walden Pond, on gorgeous land belonging then to my forefathers:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” (emphasis mine)

How can it be that I am lucky enough to call paradise home? Mean or sublime, it is mine to discover.

Proust would be proud

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“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Marcel Proust

Today I have to take a moment to cherish one of my friends, N, who contributes greatly to my happiness on an almost-daily basis, despite living 1,300 miles away. One of the many lovely qualities to recommend N is her do-it-herself, up-by-her-bootstraps resourcefulness, and today I enjoyed her ability to take great pleasure both in her accomplishments (installing a new sink sprayer for the kitchen sink) and her failures (diagnosing the illness of a finicky lawn mower). In fact, some of my favorite N moments come when the fix isn’t quick in coming. Take, for instance, the conversation we just had a moment ago:

(mid-conversation on canceling guaranteed-to-be-bad dates gracefully)

N: So it wasn’t the spark plug

Me: huh?

N: Remember earlier today I was telling you about my dysfunctional lawn mower? Well, it wasn’t grumpy about it’s spark plug, because I turned the thing upside down, located the part number, called the manufacturer, located and replaced it, but alas, no go. I also changed the oil, but that didn’t make a difference either.

Me: (impressed) Wow.

N: So now I’m at Home Depot buying one of those old-fashioned ones that doesn’t need spark plugs

Me:  The Leave It To Beaver kind with the blades that spin as you push it around? They sell those at Home Depot? (who knew?)

N: Yep, that’s the one. I’ve canceled my membership at the gym, and I’ve decided that pushing around a lawn mower can substitute for at least some of the effort formerly employed there. Plus, the new mower will be carbon neutral. (How eco-friendly! She’d fit right in here in my new neighborhood!)

All I can say is that I really miss this girl, and thank goodness no one frets about “long distance” calls anymore. If only I could observe said wonder-girl self-propelling her new toy around the yard!

Cues

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The clapping game my friend Shayna uses with her first-grade class had us all talking over dinner the other night; the conversation started as a bit of a laugh about how she’s trained them, in a rather Pavlovian way, to stop what they’re doing pay attention when she claps. The kids have to repeat the rhythm pattern, and doing so makes them focus on her next instructions. We were marveling over how much more effective her method is than yelling, and it occurred to me that, for a first-grader trying to sort out all the noises and information flying at them, cues like the clapping game are vital. At six years old, kids are still learning methods and tools for prioritizing the data streaming at them, and volume isn’t always the best signal that something is important in our loud world. It’s no wonder that sometimes they get overwhelmed and sink into a meltdown. And I realized that the best teachers (and, as adults, the best managers) are those that teach us their cues for importance, and stick them with consistency. The boss that emails most everything, but lets you know that when she calls, it’s important; the way we know that a short car beep is a, “hey there” but a long one is a, “LOOK OUT!”

We don’t even always know when we’ve become attuned to the cues until we get around people who miss ours. Families have entire languages of cues that can dumbfound strangers. And in relationships, those who rely on cues rather than open communication may find themselves disappointed and confused when their signals are missed. Which leads me to stop and ask myself, what cues am I giving? And what cues from others might I be missing?