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Entries in happiness (92)

Wednesday
Jul272016

Just Show Up

Empty chairs awaiting actors for a reading of my friend Abby Koenig's new play. Houston, Texas. January 25, 2016.

You don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do.

So you don’t say anything. Worse—you don’t do anything.

Even worse? You say and do nothing and then you either disappear entirely from the person’s life or you let an unconscionable period of time go by and then, upon seeing them again, intentionally fail to acknowledge what happened and your subsequent silence and absence.

I get it. I’ve done it.

And I was wrong.

In fact, the entire premise for my paralysis was misguided. You don’t have to say anything. You can erase the question mark around what to do.

The next time something happens to someone, however big or small the troubles, show up.

Even just to bear witness. Even just to show them that someone cares. Even just to sit, talk about it, not talk about it, talk about something else, stay quiet. As my Indiana family would say, “Visit.”

While an acquaintance sat at the bedside during her mother’s final days, one of her mother’s longstanding friends showed up and stayed for an hour, perched on the edge of the mattress, rubbing lotion into her mother’s arms and hands and talking softly. Over a decade later, the daughter still speaks of the kindness. And you know what? I’d bet the mother, even unresponsive, felt gratitude, too.

Shortly after I got the news about Ramona and grief racked me, a friend came by, met my pup for the first time, and sat with us on the couch over tea. She stayed only a couple hours. We talked about a lot of nothing in particular.

I still feel the love.

I’ve heard people grumble about going to funerals because a dead person doesn’t know you went. Even still: Show up. Let the people left behind know that the man, woman, or child who died mattered. Share a story. If you didn’t know the deceased person, let your grieving friends or family know you care about them and their grief. Pay respect for a life lived. Provide comfort.

When people go through rough moments or patches, they need community. Community means other people—even people who don’t know what to say or do.

And if you feel like showing up doesn’t mean enough (even though it does), just pick a doing, any doing:

  • Bring food to share in the moment with the person or people in need or food that can easily get reheated in a short time without much trouble.
  • Clean their home or a portion of their home or hire someone else to clean it.
  • Take their kids for an afternoon.
  • Get your friend out of the house and his or her head—plan an activity you know your friend enjoys and go do it with him or her, even if you don’t typically like that type of thing.

Most importantly, do not ask people in distress what they want or need. They likely don’t know and, if they do know, they probably don’t want to bear the guilt or shame of feeling needy and making requests. Telling them to think about what they need and pressing them to ask for something from you adds burden when they need relief. Get it?

And don’t forget: All you really need to do is show up.

When has someone just shown up for you?

Wednesday
Jul132016

The Monthly Postmortem

Setting up in my home office-nook for my monthly postmortem. June 2016.

In January 2014, I began a process of sitting down to postmortem the month just passed.

In writing “postmortem,” I use the same business jargon you may have heard in the office after a project for which the team wants to review what went well, what went badly, and how to apply the lessons from the effort in the future.

My personal monthly postmortem extends beyond business, although I do include my professional efforts in the mix. After all, work takes a lot of space in my life, but work doesn’t consume my entire life—or it shouldn’t.

All this preface to say: You should try it.

The Basics

I schedule my monthly postmortem shortly after the month ends. With so much underway at any moment, I can easily forget what happened only a few weeks before.

Call me old fashioned, but I do my postmortem in writing, with pen and paper. I have my reasons:

  • The process feels more reflective and meditative. I can type much more quickly than I can write anything by hand.
  • I rarely write by hand. Infrequency makes taking the time to sit down and scribe out my thoughts in pen on paper, as they arrive, special. Further, typing and writing by hand have a different tactile sensation and use different motor skills, which rarity makes feel more intense.
  • It seems as though I internalize what I’ve written better when I’ve scrawled it out longhand. Science may back up this impression: Subjects in a Princeton−UCLA study about, yes, studying found that people who wrote notes by hand had a better conceptual grasp of the material.

Setting Up

To get started for each postmortem, I pull up my goals list for the year as a refresher on my key areas of focus and my calendar in Outlook, which gives me a quick reminder of the month and its major moments. (Even shortly after the month ends, I seem to easily forget what happened during the course of it.)

I have a dedicated notebook for my postmortem musings, so that I can go back and review previous months and see patterns.

The Postmortem Process

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, I start by outlining what I call my “losses,” which can refer to actual losses and setbacks and also can include steps I didn’t take, mistakes I made, and opportunities I missed.

Rather than develop a simple laundry list of woes, I assess each one in turn with the following questions:

  • Why did this happen?
  • What can I list as key takeaways? What can I say I learned?
  • How will I apply my learnings to address or avoid a similar situation in the future? Or how can I ensure important steps in my forward progress don’t fall off my radar going forward?

Starting with the bad gives me the chance to end on a high note—with my “wins.” What did I handle really well? What did I get done that keeps me on course?

As with the losses, I review each win with an eye to preserving the positive:

  • What did I learn?
  • How can I ensure I keep up the good work or behavior?

Results

More than I expected I would, I’ve found that I internalize the lessons from my postmortems each month.

When I flip back to past months to review historical wins and losses, I see that my reactions to given situations have improved—sometimes without my even fully realizing the positive change. Problematic behaviors have eased and good behaviors feel so entrenched that I almost don’t remember reacting in any other way.

Why?

Mostly, I credit taking dedicated, focused time to think through needed changes and externalize my thoughts in writing. I feel the surveillance factor has a role as well. After all, who wants to have to write down the same failures each month? Or, when reviewing past postmortems, see the same missteps over and over again?

Do you do any sort of postmortem?

Wednesday
Jun012016

Things I Learned in the Grand Canyon

Self portrait with blue rock. Grand Canyon, Arizona. April 24, 2016.

Either at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon or somewhere near the nadir, I realized that I find hiking boring.

This shocked me. For years, I’ve believed that I like hiking. And frankly, it seems like I should like hiking. I like spending time outside. I like exercising. I like physical challenges. I like to push my limits.

So… Leslie likes hiking. Right?

In this I-like-hiking conviction, I’ve mused about great hiking locales and have even planned and taken hiking trips. I’ve hiked with a close friend in Glacier National Park over a long weekend. I’ve hiked numerous sections of the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, near where my father has a house in Alto. I’ve hiked here and there over the course of many years.

And recently, I had a friend talk me into—without trouble, mind you, because until halfway through this trip I believed I liked hiking—a day hike down into the Grand Canyon, an overnight in bunks near the Colorado River in a camp called Phantom Ranch, and a subsequent day hike back to the rim.

Aside: If you like hiking enough to go without sleep for forty-eight hours, I’d recommend this particular Grand Canyon experience. As for me, I consider the learning that I don’t like hiking my valuable takeaway from the trip.

Along the trail, my friend called out the names of plants and birds. He commented on the weather patterns, geological changes in the cliffs, and the chemical makeup of rocks (lots of different types of metals, of course). We stopped to marvel at vistas along the way. (Without question, the Canyon is far more beautiful looking up from the inside than you could ever imagine when looking down from above.)

We had a lot of hiking time.

We had two entire days and one sleepless night to contemplate life and the experience of hiking.

And during these contemplative hours, I realized that I don’t care what humans call rocks or geologic formations or plants or birds or most wildlife.

Further, I realized that the other people we encountered interested me a heck of a lot more overall and in general than the rocks and geologic formations and plants and birds and other wildlife.

We met a couple from Orange County who seemed about as out of place as I felt and who wondered over dinner at the bottom of the Canyon how long it would take it get out of there—equally as ready as me to have it over and done. We met a couple celebrating the husband’s sixtieth birthday by hiking all over the Canyon for a long weekend. We passed a quantity of French speakers and a few people speaking Chinese.

I talked for quite some time with the Orange Country couple. As for the foreigners we passed, I wanted to know why they had come to the Grand Canyon. I don’t know what compels Americans to do it, other than a sense of patriotism and appreciation for the natural wonders in our immediate midst. So what does the Grand Canyon signify for people who’ve originated elsewhere?

To me, signs of life mean signs of human life.

Yep, as I trudged around the Canyon, I realized that I really like observing people-animals. And seeing what they’ve built and done.

When I scanned my hiking memories to test this hypothesis, the people with whom I traveled and the human life we encountered stuck out the most—not vistas, flora, or fauna.

In the Lincoln National Forest, I got lost in the rain with my boyfriend and the hiking stick he found and we held petty arguments due to ongoing relationship tension and stress over whether we’d ever find our way back to civilization. On that same hike, we saw a high-in-the-sky aerie for a park ranger and got to look out her windows and talk about her life.

In Glacier National Park, a nearby bear forced a good friend and me to talk loudly while quickly hiking down the trail when neither of us felt quite like chatting, given disagreements caused by the friction of travel and the difficult places we’d found ourselves in our lives. On a jaunt later that same weekend, I remember finding our way into a hippie commune and getting a glimpse of alternate lives lived in the wilderness of Montana.

And although I like the outdoors, I like the outdoors in civilization most of all. Watching the runners on the Grand Canyon trails, it dawned on me that I don’t particularly like to run in parks. I don’t even enjoy the paved trails in dedicated urban exercise areas. I prefer to run on city streets.

So I faced it: I like the great outdoors. In the city.

I may rank as a confirmed introvert, yet I haven’t a misanthropic constitution. I find people fascinating. (I just don’t want to interact with all of them.)

After all, I majored in history. More specifically, I majored in intellectual history. If history tells the tales of people, intellectual history tells the tales of how people have thought over time and from whence their ideas sprung. And my favorite classes, other than history? Psychology. Anthropology. The people subjects.

Case closed.

Tell me about your last epiphany.

Saturday
Mar122016

That Time I Bought a Mattress

The first night with our new mattress, Ramona decided she preferred the old pillows. Even a dog doesn't fall for the hype, people. March 2016.

I don’t know about you people, who must buy mattresses weekly to keep the sheer volume of mattress stores in business, yet I’d only bought mattresses twice in my entire life.

My first personally purchased mattress came from IKEA in London, where I’d relocated without any furniture (or mattresses). I bought my second mattress when I moved from London to Houston (also without furniture or mattresses). Unbelievably, for reasons other than mattress purchases or use, I made this second mattress purchase nearly fifteen years ago.

I’d still not have recently purchased my third mattress if I hadn’t made the now-questionable decision to dump my old guest-room mattress, which came from a friend’s then-new wife. She no longer needed it once they married, so she’d had it in storage for a while when I moved to town. So who knows its age. I would ask her, if she and my friend hadn’t long since divorced.

When I made the decision to get rid of the old guest-room mattress, I thought buying a new mattress would cost a few hundred dollars. And I figured, without buying into the mattress-industry’s marketing-manufactured hype about purchasing a new bed set every eight years, a new mattress with all today’s vaunted mattress technology (memory foam! sleep numbers!) might feel nice in the master bedroom, with my current mattress relegated to the bedroom down the hall.

And then I went to a mattress store.

Unsurprisingly, the only other person in the store sat behind a desk in the back. Again, I call this unsurprising because I hold firm (no mattress pun intended, but I’ll just leave it there) in questioning the validity of most mattress stores. The world doesn’t need more mattress outlets than ATMs. Especially with most furniture shops and department stores also selling, you follow, mattresses. Can you say “racket?” Maybe “front?”

Byron put up with me nicely. I give him extra credit, in fact, for staying unflapped even after I barked over his greeting that I wouldn’t buy anything at all that night, not whatsoever, and that I wouldn’t even make a decision or hint at one. Get that, Byron? Back off, Byron.

Aside: I hate to have someone sell to me. Yet I sell to people. Let’s not muse on what a psychoanalyst would say.

I learned that unless I wanted what effectively would feel like a cot, I needed to spend four figures.

And lest I think a four-figure mattress top-of-the-line when it comes to mattresses, Byron walked me to a showpiece that cost a solid five figures. Actually, I think the thing topped out with all bells and whistles at about $17,000.

Seventeen. Thousand. Dollars.

In other words, buying a mattress may require the same investment as a buying a decent used car.

Now, everyone with whom I have shared my shock—including Byron—wants to tell me that I spend eight hours a day on a mattress, so what seems like an unreasonable expense actually makes sense.

Clever. The mattress store people got to you, didn’t they?

Let’s dissect this fallacy:

  • The vast majority of mattresses that ranked above the quality level of camping cots felt much the same after a brief prone period. The only difference came from the increasing awkwardness of lying there, work-clothes-clad, on half a dozen mattresses in succession while a Polo-shirted salesperson stood nearby. Paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for one mattress over another above the cot level seems crazy, by this measure.
  • I will sleep for the majority of the eight hours I may spend on this mattress each day. While sleeping, I lose consciousness. Therefore, these eight hours don’t compose time spent fully aware of the amazing experience of lying on a ridiculously expensive, automobile-level investment. In a car, I can at least with full consciousness (one would hope) experience the joy of driving.
  • The majority of the human race across the globe sleeps on pallets on hard surfaces such as, yes, the ground. This includes the Japanese, who traditionally sleep on mats on the floor. Note that research often lauds the Japanese for having one of the healthiest cultures on the planet.
  • Lest you argue that, majority-of-humans and Japanese aside, sleeping on volumes of fabric, polymers, foam, springs, and what-have-you feels better, some studies indicate that sleeping on the ground reduces pain and discomfort. Further, no reliable science has found that mattresses improve health and wellness.
  • Further, experts say that humans sit too much, and have equated sitting and smoking. Sleeping in one of these new-fangled beds that crunches the body into a slightly more horizontal seated position for a lot of extra money seems ill-advised.

After much griping and incredulity spread far and wide to friends, coworkers, and even a couple strangers at a business event, I bought a mattress. My purchase-experience takeaways:

  • For a long stretch before and after the purchase, buying a mattress will cause emotional distress.
  • You will not feel excited by the major-capital-expense purchase of a new mattress, unlike how you might feel after acquiring a new-to-you car.
  • Shock, awe, and begging may get you a few concessions and a freebie or two from the salesperson, who wants to avoid post-traumatic-stress disorder from dealing with your mattress-purchasing psychological fallout.

I wish I had more heartening advice.

How transpired your last mattress-purchase?

Thursday
Jan012015

Shrugging off 2014 and Staring Down 2015

New Year's Day should always include the bright, optimistic green of matcha. January 1, 2015.

Like some sharks, humans must keep moving to survive.

A date marking the start to a new year—an arbitrary designation—has only the significance we give it. Though I recognize that one day looks much like any other and agree that no one should wait for any given date to start or stop anything, we all need prompts.

Since I started truly setting and tracking my goals a few years back, the end of the year has served as my prompt.

Reviewing 2014

I didn’t come anywhere close to achieving my goals in 2014.

However, a year-end review showed more progress than I’d noticed, even if it did highlight a few spectacular failures and starting-point mistaken notions.

Though I slaved away professionally in 2014, I didn’t make my professional goals. (Far from it.) And because I worked ridiculously hard all year, I failed at hitting my spiritual targets. (I define “spiritual” as mental wellbeing and happiness.) As I’d weighted my professional and spiritual life facets most highly for the year, much of my frustration with 2014 came from my failures to make the progress I’d wanted my most critical areas.

Silver linings:

I hit my health goals out of the park, doing better than I’d have expected on all targets, even the hardest ones. (In a recent yoga class, I mused that I may have hit better health in 2014 than I managed throughout the last two decades.)

Further, I met most of my financial, family, and educational targets—although I can’t give myself much of a back-slap there, as I hadn’t cast any of those facets as stretch areas.

And I met my social goals, yet I see in hindsight that I didn’t set my targets well in this area. With my professional life running rampant over every other aspect of my existence in 2014, even meeting my meagre social goals left me feeling that I didn’t spend nearly the time I would have liked with the people who matter to me most.

I See You, 2015

My professional goals still get top billing in 2015, as a few epiphanies over the past year have begun to blossom. I feel solid enthusiasm about what I have underway, though I’ve stayed realistic about the challenges and possible obstacles.

No false confidence here.

The dissolution of toxic professional stress will make achieving the goals I’ve set in other facets easier as well. (How could it not?) I’ll reenter the world of the living. I’ll have more flexible and free time. I’ll see a little more of the world—and even my own little corner of it. (Yes, beyond the office.)

I’ll read more. I’ll actually get some of these nagging writing goals tackled, goshdarnit.

My poor house, which needs some love and attention, will get it. I’ll keep at the health and financial improvements. And I’ll serve as a much, much better friend and family member.

And I’ll get back to this blog, from which I took a much needed break at the end of the year. I had to cry uncle somewhere.

Will I write as many posts? Maybe at times. Will the nature of the content evolve? Probably.

Yet everything moves, evolves. As it should. People and things that stop evolving stop growing. And when they stop growing, they stop fully realizing the possibilities of their existence.

Goal setting pushes growth.

What do you see on your 2015 horizon?