Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thoughts on Robin Williams and Depression

I, like millions of others, was unprepared for how profoundly Robin Williams' suicide affected me. Let's face it - I didn't know the man, nor did most of us. Yet we yearn to understand why he did it. He was talented, he was wealthy, he was famous, he was a fountain of mirth - and yet he couldn't bear to stay on the planet another day.

For myself, Williams' death reminds me of the delicate knife's edge I walk when dealing with my own anxiety and depression.

I have experienced times when I felt like I couldn't bear another day of intense internal suffering. Most often, I survived those days by remembering things I had to look forward to. I found relief by anticipating a holiday or trip, or a planned gathering of friends.

On occasions when I could think of little or nothing to prevision, I focused on simpler future moments: like the golden sunlight coming in early November, or the next cool night I will relax by the firepit and watch the sparks waft toward the stars.

When even those simple anticipations eluded me, I tried to remember that life still holds a few delights and surprises I couldn't yet foresee. On the few dire occasions when I could think of nothing else, I told myself that there were jokes I hadn't yet heard that would coax future guffaws from my belly.

So when melancholy gets the best of me and I'd like nothing better than to avoid another day of pain, I tell myself this: If I were to force my premature exit from this planet, I'd miss something good I have yet to experience - maybe something important I was meant to experience?

I'm grateful that even in my moments of deepest anguish, I have had the capacity to remind myself that of the many good reasons I have to stick around. It's frightening to consider what might happen if I were so consumed by darkness that I could no longer imagine those future highlights worth living for.

I have a Tarot deck that depicts The Devil card not as a goat-headed beelzebub, but as a man and woman trapped in a dark hallway, held back by chains and material possessions. At the far end of the hallway, a portal opens to a bucolic landscape, but the man and woman can't reach it. That's what I think Hell is: the feeling of being so disconnected from the splendors of life that we completely lose sight of them.

Maybe we were so fond of Robin Williams because he gifted us with so many of the belly laughs that helped us survive our own trying times? So now, we can't help but ask ourselves, "How could someone whose powerful genius brightened so many lives be incapable of brightening his own life when he needed to? How did someone like Williams end up so far down that dark hallway that he no longer believed there was light at the other end?

Again, none of us really knew Williams, so we'll never know the answer.

Rather than try to make sense of Williams' death, I think we can best honor Williams' memory by asking ourselves a more pertinent question: "How can we avoid ending up in that same terrible place, where darkness becomes so pervasive that we no longer believe in the existence of light?"

Monday, March 17, 2014

Maybe Our Only Problem Is the Way We Approach Problems?

A problem is simply a situation or state that doesn't fit someone's desires or needs, and requires a solution to alter that situation or state to create a better fit.

When you consider the word "problem", does it have a positive or negative connotation? Your answer could make the difference between living a fulfilling or a frustrating life.

You may have heard the tale of the guy who went to a friend for help, complaining about the daunting number the problems he faced. His friend simply smiled and told him, "I'll take you to a place where nobody has a single problem!"

The complainer went eagerly with his friend to find the location of this magical place, only to have his friend lead him to a graveyard. "Here are all the people who don't have any problems!" the friend declared.

You could make the argument that life is a series of problems, and that the presence of problems is misery, while the absence of problems is joy. Sounds like a harrowing roller coaster ride! But what if we could smooth out that roller coaster simply by changing our attitude about problems?

When confronted with a problem, do you see it as a setback or frustration? Or do you see it as an interesting challenge that may lead to a fulfilling journey?

Problems are often unexpected or unanticipated. We see them as bumps in the road, setbacks in our schedules, pains in our necks. But what if we could remember that the process of tackling a problem often leads us to new insights or discoveries?

Instead of cursing under our breath when a problem arises, what if we could instead say, "Look at that hurdle someone stuck smack dab in my path. What a welcome surprise! I wonder where it will take me? I wonder what it will teach me?"

What if we embraced the idea that problems are the very things that make life interesting - maybe even exciting?

Perhaps we simply need to change the negative charge often associated with the word "problem". What if every time we see the word "problem", we instead replaced it with a word like "project" or "puzzle"?

When faced with a particularly difficult problem, would it help to visualize it as a fun toy like a Rubik's Cube and approach it with a playful attitude, setting a reasonable pace and making one twist at a time until we solved it? I think it's worth a try.

I started playing the violin in my early 30s, which is a relatively ancient age to begin the process of learning a challenging musical instrument. For at least the first year, it didn't sound pretty. One day while I was squeaking out a tune, I stopped out of frustration and dropped the fiddle in my lap. I sat and glared at it for a moment. Oddly, it felt like the instrument was smiling back at me – a mischievous smile, at that. That's when I knew.

I said to the fiddle, "You're going to take me on a journey, aren't you?"

"You bet!" the fiddle winked.

That was a couple dozen years ago. I have since moved from Los Angeles to Asheville, NC to be closer to the source of Appalachian mountain fiddling. In the process, I have transformed from a city boy in a swank bachelor pad to a chicken farmer living in a rustic mountain home with my wife and daughter. I've gone from angry and agitated to relaxed and happy. It has been one heck of a journey – a journey that would never have begun if I hadn't been confronted with the problem: "How in the world am I ever going to figure out how to make this fiddle sound decent?"

By the way, I already know what my next problem will be: to remember to heed my own advice next time I'm confronted with a problem!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Finding Balance Between The Digital and Natural Worlds

Lately, I've caught myself feeling an urgency to keep up with the myriad of new technologies, social networks, programming languages and website innovations that continually flood the digital market-o-sphere. 

I've been enamored with the digital world for 30 years. In many ways, it has served me well. The countless hours of unbridled productivity have far outweighed the hair-rending frustration of technical glitches.

Today, however, I am acutely aware of how often digital devices pull me further away from my natural patterns and rhythms. Computer gizmos have set a pace that keep me moving faster than I want to. It's like cleaning house while listening to the William Tell Overture. Before you know it, you find yourself out of breath, trying to beat the kitchen counter scrubbing world record. Music and computers are both alluring and both can easily alter your internal tempo without your even noticing.

That increased tempo was exhilarating when I was younger and brimming with energy. Fast forward a few decades, though, and I find myself scrambling to catch up with the constant and prolific introduction of the newest technology. Granted, some of that technology has gotten less complex in the last 10 years. It's just that there's so much of it, and it changes the instant we get accustomed to the last new innovation.

In the 1990s, I read that in the span of a modern career, we have to relearn 8 times more new information and techniques than our parents did. I expect that number has expanded even further in recent years. 

The shelf life of a newly-launched website is constantly shrinking. Better interfaces emerge, and hackers find new workarounds to security safeguards. When I tell my clients they need critical upgrades less than a year after their site has launched, they don't always realize that I am being pro-active to keep pace with innovations (and one step ahead of the latest security breaches). Some think I'm trying to foist premature, unnecessary upgrades upon them. I understand their doubts because I, too, often think: "It's all completely changed again? So soon??" It's hard not to be dubious when change comes at such a breakneck pace. 

It's hard to stay resilient when you're being asked to roll with relentless change. How much can we expect the human mind and body to keep up with digital paradigms that last but a fleeting moment? How long can we withstand a pace that differs so much from the organic cycles of the human body? How long should we even attempt to?

Personally, I need to strike a balance between the digital and the physical: to harvest the benefits of computing while also honoring my natural physical and emotional patterns. I want to live at a tempo that doesn't grind me down to the nub, I want to disregard the digital message that says, "Human, you're not accurate enough or quick enough. So either become superhuman or step aside." I want to reject that message in favor of a more authentic, human, organic life experience. I want digital devices to adapt to my speed, not the other way around.

I'm guessing that there are lots of people just like me, trying in vain to keep up with the digital parade, yet yearning for a more soul-nourishing lifestyle, a more relaxed pace. 

I am 55, and have a wife and 12 year old daughter. I can't work 70-80 hours a week any more, nor do I want to. But I still want to contribute to the world prolifically, authentically, humanly and honestly. I want to strike a balance of productivity and physical harmony. I want to use digital tools, not have the tools use me.

How do I find that balance? What can I do today to start making a change? 

It's the first warm Sunday of the season, so the solution today is a no-brainer: I will step away from the digital box, and go outside. Using all 5 senses when stepping away from the computer will help me better appreciate the moment.

Outside, I can see the white brightness of the March sun, and the way the bare tree branches wave in the wind, as if to beckon Spring to come closer.

I can hear the whisper of the breeze and the staccato knock of the woodpecker against Doug's maple tree.

I can smell that sort of fecund, fertile smell that the earth burps up in these in-between seasons, mixing with the faint smell of the few, vanguard quince and daffodil blooms.

I can feel the hair on my arms jostle in the wind, feel the slight sting of sunlight on my skin, feel my pores open up as my body's radiator remembers how to adapt to warm air.

I can touch the ground, still moist, still holding in Winter's cold beneath its layer of bedraggled grass, feel the tufts of grape hyacinth leaves poking through the firm layer of loam. 

Today's solution was easy. How to I get closer to that balance tomorrow? (Luckily, I've changed my mind about blogging. I used to think that I could only blog if I had the answers. I now believe that to run a successful blog, I simply need to keep asking the right questions. And finding out where those questions lead me.)

So what do you think? What is your relationship with nature? With the digital world? Is it in balance? If so, how do you keep it that way. If it's not in balance, what do you do to try and get back to a manageable equilibrium?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas Rowdiness and Quality of Life - Are They Connected?

Is Christmas revelry getting rowdier? And if so, is the trend toward a more raucous Christmas something new, or merely a resurgence of more ancient rituals, harking back to past times when opportunity and prosperity were at an ebb? 

Case in point: the annual SantaCon festivities, where gaggles of merry makers get their Kringle on for a massive, day-long bar hop.

Many SantaCon participants probably consider their event to be quite novel. After all, 2013 marked SantaCon's 20th year, which makes the event a baby in comparison to millenia-old Yuletide practices.

The seeds of SantaCon occurred as early as the mid 1970s, but SantaCon as we know it officially began in San Francisco in 1994, described by its original organizers as "a nonsensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year for absolutely no reason".

Others have a less charitable opinion of the event. The New York Times describes SantaCon as, "...a daylong pub crawl that begins with good cheer and, for many, inevitably ends in a blurry, booze-soaked haze".

Opposition to SantaCon seems to be growing, despite the fact that in recent years, SantaCon organizers have added a charitable component (contributing to Toys for Tots), in order to mitigate the bad PR created by the inappropriate behavior that naturally flows from public inebriation. In an attempt to tone down the event, SantaCon organizers have now begun to designate "helper elves" to detect and defuse inappropriate behavior before it gets out of hand.

Despite its unsavory aspects, I probably would have participated in SantaCon had it existed when I was a younger man, filled with spirit and irreverence. So why wasn't there a SantaCon-like event in the 70s-80s? And what has changed to incite gregarious events like SantaCon now?

The fact is, SantaCon would have been the perfect fit for the Christmas celebrations of past centuries, which more closely resembled Halloween than Christmas. 

A more mischievous Christmas makes sense when you consider the social aspects of early agrarian society. December was a time when all the crops had been harvested, and peasant farmers could enjoy a well-deserved respite from long days of toil. The year's batch of ale had finally fermented, and it was the perfect time to slaughter surplus livestock, since grain would soon become scarce, and the cold weather would preserve the meat through Spring. It only seems natural that the laboring class confronted this frightening season of darkness and bitter cold by engaging in excessive drinking, feasting and merriment. People adopted an attitude of "In your face, Winter!", responding to the tumultuous weather with their own brand of tumult.

Gangs of aggressive carolers roamed the streets, banging on doors, demanding that the occupants share their finest food and ale with the rambunctious merrymakers. It was a season of role reversal, a time to replace darkness with light, a time when the servants temporarily became the masters. A local ne'er-do-well was often ordained as the "Lord of Misrule". Rules of sexual conduct were temporarily suspended, and as a result, birth rates soared every September.

Those in power often tolerated the chaos, seeing it as a time when the poor and oppressed could blow off some steam (which would hopefully lead to more compliant behavior the rest of the year). But in the mid-1600s, straight-laced religious leaders attempted to outlaw these more belligerent expressions of Christmas.

The Puritanical-types of the 17th century succeeded for a decade or two, but in the end, hooliganism prevailed. By 1712, fundamentalist preacher Cotton Mather disapprovingly stated, "The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty . . . by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling." Sounds like a party to me!

Over the next century, however, new societal changes succeeded where the Puritans had failed.

As historian Stephen Nissenbaum cites in his 1997 book, The Battle for Christmas: "With industrialization in the early 1800s, people were moving to cities, where there was more economic opportunity and material goods were more widely available." In other words, an increase in quality of life tamed savage Christmas customs.

From the 1800s through to the new millennium, food was abundant at every season, and an increase in disposable income brought comfort and joy via consumeristic pursuits. The gap between the rich and poor narrowed, and most people's prosperity steadily improved. Now crafted more by merchants and marketeers than by organic social inclination, the manner in which we celebrate Christmas came to resemble the proverbial long Winter's nap.

That was the Christmas I knew as a child: a slumbering, suburban holiday filled with presents, food, relatively moderate amounts of drink for the adults and unmoderated amounts of sugary treats for the children. Christmas was primarily a domestic event, though we often went caroling door to door, expecting nothing more than to bring the joy of music to the homes we visited. Christmas was structured and lawful.

During these two centuries of relative stability and prosperity, silent nights reigned, and rowdier Christmas customs seemed to have been stifled for good. But as most people can personally attest, that stability and prosperity has steadily crumbled during the last 3 decades. It begs the question: are new customs like the gregarious SantaCon natural by-products of a loss of prosperity?

The future will prove if there is connection between quality of life and the amount of chaos that accompanies Christmas. If prosperity continues to contract, and the gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen, I expect these trends will naturally inspire more mischievous expressions of Christmas. If the rich and powerful tolerate more boisterous popular celebrations, as they did centuries ago, I expect the level of mischief will remain manageable. Otherwise, Christmas might devolve into a sort of Halloween on steroids and the current turmoil of SantaCon might in retrospect seem like a fond memory.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

You Are A Gold Mine!

When you hear the word "pretentious", the mind usually pictures people who are haughty and condescending, who think of themselves as being above everyone else.

However, the word "pretense" has a much broader meaning. Exhibiting pretense means attempting pass yourself off as something other than your true self.

So a pretentious person can be a someone who "puts on airs", behaving as if they were superior to others. But the opposite can be true, too - and probably far more commonplace. How many of us think we're more inferior than we really are?

How often do you belittle yourself and underestimate your own value? It's a bad habit I fall into more often than I'd care to admit, thinking I'm made more of rusty scrap metal than of gold.

Lately, I've been thinking about pretense from both of these sides. When I'm busy with work, I sometimes catch myself swelling with self-importance, thinking that I don't have time for other important activities, like keeping in touch with friends or spending time with my wife and daughter.

When work is slow, I sometimes forget about all talents and abilities I have, thinking that they must have withered away since nobody is seeking them out. This is the kind of pretense I've been struggling with lately.

I've been trying to find ways to remind myself of my talents and abilities - in other words, my value. I came up with the idea of telling myself, "You are a gold mine!" I like imagining all these gold nuggets of creativity buried within myself, just waiting to be revealed.

I then realized that reminding myself of my inner value isn't enough. I also need to roll up my sleeves and get to work to unearth that value and express it. So I figured that the natural follow-up to the proclamation "You are a gold mine!" is the statement "Start digging!"

I started by creating a graphic (it's what I do!), that I could put on the front of my computer to remind myself about my value - and the work required to make that value shine.

I then realized that other people might resonate with this message and want to display it somewhere so they can be reminded, too. So I created magnets, stickers, cards and other products using this design. Check out my page on Cafe Press if you are interested. Enjoy!

You are a precious, valuable person. Now get to work showing it!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Return to Bliss (formerly The Experiment) Days 2-5

It's day six of the return of The Experiment, and I'm just now getting around to my second blog post about it. I'm glad to say it's because my workload has increased dramatically since we started The Experiment last Fall, though it's been challenging to keep up with the tasks this week.

First off, at breakfast, Rebecca and I discussed a name change for our little project. We took into account some of the suggestions that people offered (thank you all!), and arrived at "Return To Bliss", which Rebecca agreed is her objective. I like that it can simply be abbreviated as R2B, (even though some might confuse the acronym with a Star Wars android).

Back to the week's tasks:

Day Two - Only one task, and I was successful in completing it. I wrote a poem about a river. In pencil, for some reason - I guess Rebecca thought it would be a more organic way to write than pecking it out on my iPad.

 I've been asked to write a poem before, and last time, I don't think I posted it. The critic in me tells me, "Don't you dare publish that thing on your blog! It's primitive, uninspired crap, don't you know?" And maybe it is. But posting it here is, in essence, my way of firing a salvo back at that pesky critic and telling him to drink a big steaming mug of STFU!  So here's my poem - published for all to see, you pernicious little critic. Take that!

Day Three - I didn't stare into a candle on Day One, so Rebecca added the task again. And again, I didn't do it.

I may have had 3 conversations when I didn't mention myself, but I didn't consciously complete that task, so I expect it will be repeated on a future task sheet.

I did meditate - both at home, and in the dentist's chair. While having a molar ground down for a crown, I visualized dancing around the house with Beth and Rebecca because I had just received my first residual check for a book I had written. The amount on the check was $4,300,000. I pictured living in my dream house, traveling, sending Rebecca to the university of her choice. And the best part of the fantasy was that it was only the first check of many to come. The dentist and her assistant both commented on what a great patient I was - one of the most relaxed they'd had in weeks! Visions of sugar plums will do that.

Day Four - Damn, there's that candle again. I really didn't want to take 15 minutes and stare at a candle flame. I guess I'm digging in my heels on this one. I wonder why?

I stayed off Facebook all day. It wasn't that hard. What with all the insidious new filtering schemes, Facebook is not as alluring as it once was.

There was only one occasion when Rebecca interrupted me while I was working, and I complied with the task. Interruptions are a tough one for me. I work in a main area of the house, and there are constant interruptions. This task reminds me I really have to get cracking on renovating our outbuilding so I can have an office space.

Day Five - If you look, Rebecca's candle drawings became more persistent each day I failed to complete this task. Finally, on Day Five, I did it - with a real candle, not the iPad. And you know what? 15 minutes went by much more quickly than I thought it would. While I stared at the flame, I visualized handling a tricky client with compassion and care, and resolving our impasse that way. Not bad!

I am still awaiting my task sheet for today, Day 6. Hopefully next week, I can make more frequent blog posts about Return To Bliss! Until next time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Experiment: It's Back On!

Imagine my surprise when daughter Rebecca handed me a note yesterday. I expected it to say something like "I love you, Daddy!", but instead it was a resumption of The Experiment we started last Fall.

For those of you who didn't follow The Experiment, it began when I was looking for an interesting way to shake up my morose and grumpy attitude, shake off some stress and introduce a little more fun and whimsy into my life. So I asked my daughter (who is nothing but fun and whimsy), if she would assist me.

I asked her to assign me daily tasks that I would agree to complete. It started out as a week-long commitment, but once the week had ended, it felt like we were just getting warmed up. So we extended The Experiment to last an entire month.

It was a fun month, and I completed about 90% of the tasks. And it was a success: after The Experiment ended, I was more joyful and less stressed. And I've been that way ever since. And, the tasks provided more opportunities for Rebecca and I to spend time together.

Rebecca and I discussed whether we should resume The Experiment since it was so fruitful. We hadn't set a start date or hashed out the details, but when she brought me the first task, I said to myself, "OK, here we go!" This time, I'm starting out feeling pretty good overall, so it feels more like exploration and fun than a quest to eradicate a bad condition.

Here's how I fared on Day One:

I didn't stare at the candle. I meant to, but I had just gotten my first smartphone around 5pm and I spent too much of the evening gazing at its screen instead, figuring out settings and such. Sorry!

I accomplished Tasks 2 and 3...well, maybe the jury's out on Task 2. It was a hectic day and I didn't consciously take an hour off work, but I am participating in Winter Feast for the Soul again this year (40 days of meditation) - so I did take an hour off to meditate. Does that count?

By the time I thought about telling 3 different family members that I loved them, it was dinner time. I told Beth and Rebecca I loved them, and then thought about who on the West Coast I would call. Rebecca cracked a mischievous grin and suggested that I think about the task a little more creatively. I pondered for awhile, with a few subtle clues, finally realized that I could tell myself I loved me! Apparently, that was the solution Rebecca hoped I would find, and she danced a little end-zone-style dance after I figured it out.

Tomorrow, I'll post the results for Day Two's tasks.

I'm also looking for a better name for this exercise. "The Experiment" doesn't seem to fit any more. It seems like we're past the beta testing phase with this practice, and the evolution of it deserves a better moniker. Got any ideas?