Thursday, February 25, 2010

Slow down, you're going to crash

"Fundamentally, every one of us feels extremely insecure. You could have a lot of money, lots of background, education, friends, resources, skills, but none of that is going to make any difference to your security. The more we seek security, the more insecurity that creates. There's something fundamentally threatening and insecure taking place all the time in our lives. Something's not quite as solid as we would like it to be, so we need lots of reassurance--some philosophy, some idea, some kind of backing from the world of comfort, the world of companionship. There is always hollowness, an emptiness taking place in us always. Basically, we feel we are broke and have a poverty mentality."--from Ocean of Dharma: 365 Teachings on Living Life with Courage and Compassion

Mike and I were driving home from a visit with friends and family in New Jersey a couple of weekends ago. I had five hours to sit and think of ways my life or the lives of loved ones could unexpectedly blow up. I have to give my husband a lot of credit for listening to me when I'm prattling on (and on) about car accidents and fires and homicide. I can make a long car ride a laugh-a-minute.

On Monday night Mike was in a good mood and spontaneously suggested dinner out. We went to a new bistro in Coolidge Corner that's usually packed every other night but Monday. Settling in with his Mac and Cheese doused with truffle oil, Mike looked utterly content, as if he were swinging on a hammock on a balmy spring day.

"What if I was in a fire and my face was horribly disfigured? Would you stand by me or look for someone else with a normal face?" I leaned over my plate of grilled steak with asparagus and potato cake to better hear his answer.

Before he could reply, I said, "Because I would stand by you. If your face was mangled in a four-car pile-up, I'd stay by your side."

Later, when we were walking home, sated and a little buzzed from our pints of beer, Mike started talking about joining the community boating group that sails on the Charles River in the summer.

"As long as you wear a life jacket," was my knee-jerk response.

Mike turned to me, his fist squeezed as if he were holding a microphone, "Now we go to Jenn, with The Worst That Could Happen Report. Jenn, what can you tell us?"

"You could fall overboard and drown."

"And that was Jennifer with The Worst That Could Happen Report. Back to you in the studio."

My mind has a tendency to attach itself to the worse-case scenario. I watch television shows like I Survived and memorize the survival tactics of people who get lost in the Amazon or stranded in a dinghy in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean--though it's unlikely that I will ever find myself in either place. Maybe someone I love will be on a boat that drifts off course. That person could call me and I'd know what to do to save them. I treat death like it's a test I'm cramming for.

I hate the thought of losing anything. But it's just that grasping--to things, to places, to people, that gets us stuck and causes suffering. The truth is (say it!) that I haven't been faced with any major losses thusfar in my life and I fear when something really bad does happen, I won't be able to handle it. In the grand scheme of things, I've been very fortunate. But it's hard for me to trust in good fortune because I know that at any moment it can reverse course and leave me stranded and alone.

The more stuff we carry around, the more stuff we fear we'll lose. The richer we are, the more we worry about being destitute (see, The Bag Lady Papers, or for that matter A Christmas Carol.) The more intimate we are with someone, the more we cling to that person. And so on.

How do we stop seeking security and start fearlessly living?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The gift of your attention

"Take some time each day and create a "no multitasking zone." It doesn't have to be for long; five minutes would be a great place to start, during which you can simply focus on one object (or task) at a time.

"Imagine what that might be like: when you're on the phone with a client, you're on the phone, bringing your natural intelligence and insight to bear. When you're typing an email, you're simply focused on that email. It's not hard to imagine the quality of results when you focus on the tasks at hand."--Jon Rubenstein, from Multitasking is Not Your Friend, posted on the blog The Buddha at Work on

My father spent many years waking up at 3AM. He'd go downstairs, make himself a cup of watered-down espresso, and then return to his study (once my room, eons ago) to do paperwork. I don't know for sure why, as a construction project manager, he kept farmer's hours. My guess is that he wanted time to focus on his work without any distractions. No one would be calling him on his cell at 3AM, no one would be sending him urgent email messages or pulling him into a meeting. Everyone else in the house was asleep, and he must have felt a relief at being left alone--to sip his coffee, review his notes, focus on one project and then the next. I imagine this was the time in his day that he was the most productive.

Waking up at 3AM is not the healthiest way to get your work done unless you're working the early shift. But there was no other time for him to concentrate--he left the house at 5AM and typically didn't return from his Manhattan office until 8 or 9PM.

I've been thinking about the concept of time, and how we handle the same 24 hours a day, every day. It seems like the trend is moving away from focusing on one project to trying to keep on top of five or more, all coming from different outlets: your cell phone, computer, Blackberry, etc. Attention Deficit Disorder no longer seems like an aberration in a minority of children. It is becoming normal, a necessary byproduct of our digital age.

I'm more like my father, I think--I like to focus on one thing at a time and give it my complete and undivided attention. I feel like switching over from writing a press release to, say, checking my email every five minutes or posting on Facebook is a bad habit, not a way to do business. Multi-tasking means it will take me three times as long to get one release written, and meanwhile I've spent most of my time on a bunch of small stuff that doesn't add up to a hill of beans at the end of the day.

I'm used to juggling different projects over the course of a day--to say in a job interview that you're able to multi-task is like saying you know how to fix a jam in the printer. But is it effective multi-tasking when you're answering an IM while reading a book review and finishing up an email to an author? Is it really a good idea to have seven windows open on your computer at once when three would be sufficient?

I guess when it comes to getting work done, I'm more of a serial monogamist than a swinger. I like to invest my time doing one task and then the other. I'm not like the curt manager who at meetings can carry on two different conversations at once. I am slow but deliberate, comfortable only when the noise fades away and I am completely engaged--in the act of writing the essay or talking to the friend or preparing the meal. Don't try talking to me when I'm working in the kitchen--I'm liable to get flustered and add an extra teaspoon of bouillon to the soup. For me it's all about being in the flow.

There are people who are effective multi-taskers. They tend to talk in sound bytes, they're comfortable with the 140-word limit on Twitter and the childish shorthand of "C U @ 8" of a text message, they see the value of flash fiction or CNN headline news. There are many advantages to being this kind of person--busy executives like people who are quick on their feet and can summarize the plot points and send one-sentence emails. Mike and I both have a tendency to write long, wordy emails and I'm sure most of what we write goes unread. I'm sure when you see this blog entry, you'll probably skim it, and I don't blame you.

But what about some appreciation for the uni-tasker? The person who deliberates rather than jumps, gives her friends or colleagues her undivided attention instead of interrupting them to take that call on her cell phone?

And what happened to just sitting and daydreaming? How about just doing nothing but sitting still and silent? I like to read on the train, but sometimes I find myself putting the book away just so I can stare out the window to look at the snow on the branches of the tall pine trees lining Beacon Street. An ex-boss of mine called it "sitting and staring at the wall." After a day of looking at a computer screen for 8 hours, I want to unplug and stare at the vase of pink tulips on the kitchen table, or at my husband's smile, or at the kitten as she prepares for another ill-fated sneak attack on my older cat. Without this time of "doing nothing" I become like a horse who won't move no matter how much you pull on my reins. But give me some time for quiet contemplation and I will gladly resume pulling the wagon.

So along with uni-tasking, why not try simply unplugging all your digital connections so you can sit there and do nothing. You're really not doing nothing you know. What you're doing is giving yourself permission to breathe in the present moment, noticing everything around you as if you had been asleep and now you're waking up. If we could all do this once a day, everyday, I think we could change this idea that so-called multi-tasking is the only way to live full, productive lives in the 21st Century.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Real Age

"The best age to be is the age you are."--quote used by Susan Moon in her book This is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity

I got a package at work today. It was my $9 trench coat. It actually costs $49, but I won't go into the long story of why it only cost me $9. This isn't a shopping blog.

I opened the box and took out the coat. It was red--I had wanted a red trench coat for years--I have it in my head that it's a French woman's wardrobe staple. The coat has horn-shaped buttons, like little chili peppers, and a belt to cinch it. But after examining the coat for a few minutes I thought, this is for Juniors. This is not for me.

So I have this thing about age. I define myself by it, and I also use it to judge others. I don't like to admit that I do this because--in all fairness--I think the older you get, the more value you have to society because of all your experience. It makes me furious when I see older people being treated like they're invisible or worse. But there are deep-seated ideas I have of what it is to be of a certain age. I obsess over being age-appropriate. I won't wear anything that's short or tight or is by a particular brand known for making clothes for younger women, even if the style looks perfectly fine on me. Recently, I looked at a picture of myself and the first thing I saw were the lines on my neck. "Oh, I hope you don't inherit my neck" my mother said without thinking. That's it, I said. I'm officially at the Candace Bergen stage of dressing--I'm wearing nothing but turtlenecks until summer!

And it's not just about appearance. As I get older, I worry that life is no longer that movie in which you're the starring ingenue. I'm married, settled in a job, I know where I'm going to live for the foreseeable future. To the outside world I'm all done...I'm figured-out. The End. But what happens AFTER the end of the movie?

I feel like I've lost what makes me mysterious, intriguing even. I don't feel as fully alive as I did when I was younger because so much of what was novel to me then is old news now.

I'm not saying this is rational thinking. Of course people continue to learn and grow after 35. I love being around older people (and NOT just because they make me feel younger!) Growing up an only child, I was constantly surrounded by adults and I liked it that way. Adults were dignified, worldly, intelligent in ways that none of my young friends were.

But emotions are rarely rational. If I could get my head and heart to engage in some sort of truce, I'd be a lot more relaxed. But head and heart are sworn enemies--in fact, they are dead to each other. My head says, stop limiting yourself! Wear the coat, go to the party, talk to those college students. When I was nineteen older people intrigued me, so why should it be any different for these new crop of kids? They don't necessarily care about my age, it's not a big deal.

But my heart says, Who are you kidding? You're washed-up. Old news. Might as well just hang it up and start wearing long nightgowns.

I didn't always feel like getting older was something to fear. When I was in college I desperately wanted to be older. I wanted to travel and write and be an editor and have a nice apartment and be married. I remember bringing pots and pans, nice dishes, even a marble cutting board to my dorm at Rutgers. In an effort to get to know people, I made them pasta and served it in ceramic bowls, not plastic, and with real silverware. People probably thought I was nuts. I dressed up for class everyday in silky shirts and sleek skirts and hosiery. This was in the early nineties when everyone else went grunge--wearing the uniform of plaid flannel shirts and dirty jeans to class--even the women. I rarely wore pants and NEVER would be caught dead in sweatpants, especially ones with the name of my school ironed-on the leg. One time I was mistaken for a professor and was flattered.

I remember going to see the movie Damage at the student center with a friend of mine. It was an over-the-top story of a love triangle between a father, son, and the son's fiance. I had read the book by Josephine Hart and I remember feeling very adult carrying it around. The movie starred Juliette Binoche, and at the time I thought she was just the most elegant, chic actress I had ever seen. A lot of it had to do with her trench coat and sassy haircut and casually-draped scarf that was all so very French. I walked out of the movie wanting her life. But I had to settle for cappucino and chocolate croissants in the college center Au Bon Pain.

Now look at me. I'm no Juliette Binoche, of course, but I'm a grown-up woman, with nice clothes and a cute, funny husband, and a job in publishing. I've been to Paris. Isn't that what I wanted back then? I even have the trench coat, though I haven't quite mastered the casually-draped scarf.

But here I am worried about being old and getting even older, and wishing I could be 22 again. But do I really? Many of us say we want to go back in time, but how many movies have there been where a kid switches bodies with an adult and later they both realize they were happier before? There are good and bad things about every phase and age of life, and it's delusional to think that being 22 again would make me happy, just like it's delusional to think having a new car or house or body would make me happy. This is who I am now. The past is past, the future is yet to be determined, but the present moment is mine.

At age 36, I'm hardly finished. You're never really finished until you're dead, and at that point, you probably won't care--maybe you'll even be glad to be done!

I read an article about cryogenics in the New Yorker recently and told some friends that I was considering being frozen when I died. They laughed. Why would I want to do life over again? It wouldn't be how my life is now, with my family and friends and familiar creature comforts. The world would be more like it was portrayed in Wall-E, run completely by computers in outer space somewhere.

No, the Buddhists are right. It's better to just allow time to pass, to not cling too much to the past. I'm at my best age now, and next year I'll still be at my best age.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Strike a pose

"It seems that it is a common experience to take extreme views; we don't usually find the middle view. For example, we come to a dathun and we're all just starting to practice. The first couple of days we think, "I am going to do this perfectly," and we practice with intense effort to sit right, walk right, breathe right, keep the silence, do everything. We really push, we really have a project. Then, at a certain point, we say, "Oh for goodness' sake! What in the world am I doing?" We may just drop the whole thing and go to the other extreme--"I couldn't care less." The humor and the beauty of practice is that going from one extreme to the other is not considered to be an obstacle; sometimes we're a drill sergeant, sometimes we're like mashed potatoes. Basically, once we have some sort of joyful curiosity about the whole thing, it's simply all information, gathering the information we need to find our own balance."--Pema Chodron, from The Wisdom of No Escape

Since writing about my first attempts at practicing yoga I've started taking a beginner yoga class once a week called "Yoga FUNdamentals." I go with Chloe, a friend of mine from work. It's a mad dash to the studio to get there, changed, and with my yoga mat out before the class starts at 5:30. Like the mediocre student who doesn't want to be called on for an answer, I always place my mat at the back of the room. That way I can watch the other, more coordinated students and make sure I'm not on the wrong foot or standing when I should be lying down with my hips aloft.

The first time I went to the class I had no idea what to expect. I hadn't taken an exercise class since that one failed attempt at bellydancing back in 2002. I've belonged to gyms before, but I always stuck to working out on my own. I would push myself, sure--but not too hard. It's like a colleague of mine said yesterday about taking a spin class, "I would never work as hard on my own as the class makes me work." I also have the annoying habit of "upward comparing." I find the best student in the class and watch her. Suddenly I'm stumbling more, or I notice my form is poor, or I stand on the wrong foot. I feel much less satisfaction with myself, even if when I started the class I thought, "This is good, I'm proud of myself for showing up."

Better to downward compare, to take a glance at the student who is struggling to keep up, who needs the teacher to come and readjust her position several times during the session. Unfortunately, that person is usually me.

So when I took my first yoga class, I worked hard (which for me is not giving up after twenty minutes to lounge around and eat chocolate cake. Hey, I exercised, I can eat sweets now!) I worked so hard that sweat dripped off my forehead and splashed on my mat. I realized how many muscles I hadn't worked in months, and that I had trouble bending over to touch the floor so I could only hang there, like a rag doll missing some stuffing. Early on the instructor showed us the Child pose, to be used whenever we got tired and needed to take a break. Of course I read this as only the lightweights go into child pose. I'm going to work through the pain.

When class was over, instead of letting myself feel good about doing it, or noticing those wonderful endorphins coursing through my body, I looked in the mirror in the changing room and was horrified by my red face and sweat-slicked hair that stuck to my forehead and cheeks. My friend Chloe, who is petite, nimble, and younger, and who seems to lack the self-consciousness gene (I always find myself befriending people like this, perhaps because I want to learn their secret or catch whatever positive vibe they have) took just a few minutes to gather herself and her belongings together before she was ready to go. Meanwhile, I flung powder on my shiny face and frantically tried to puff out my flat hair. We were going out in public, I was taking the "T" home, and I looked like a crazy lady. This was not what I took a yoga class for!

I ended up feeling so out-of-sorts that as soon as we stepped onto Boylston Street I hailed a cab. Actually, that's not all that uncommon for me, taking cabs. I consider cabs to be one of the treats afforded to middle class people like me. My husband, of course, would disagree, saying that I don't have the money to waste on cabs when I have a perfectly efficient subway system and a monthly fare card. But I love sitting in the back of a cab, being whisked away to my destination. I like having the whole backseat to myself and not having to be squeezed in the tube of a subway car, standing hip to hip with strangers and trying to balance myself and not fall on anyone as the train lurches and jerks.

When I got home, I was feeling down. Mike asked me how class went and I told him how hard it was and how much I was sweating and how disheveled I looked afterward. He smiled and said, "That's how you know you got a good workout." The following week, when I mentioned the same thing to Chloe, she said, "I thought you had a healthy glow." Hmmm...negative spin on yoga class--too hard, hate getting sweaty--meant that I would be restricted to Gaiam videos for the rest of my life. Positive spin--good workout, healthy glow--meant I could keep taking the class and who cared what I looked like, in class or after? I chose to be positive.

Happily the next class I knew what to expect and followed at my own pace. After all, with yoga you only go as far as you can. It's not a competitive sport. If someone can do the downward facing dog better than you can, they don't win a free yoga block. In fact, if you're really living in the moment you're not paying attention to other people at all. You're just following your own breath, your own ability, your own path.

I left that class just as red and sweaty as the previous week, but instead of looking at myself as a mess, I saw the promise of regular exercise. This time I felt the endorphins in spades. And I didn't hesitate to take the subway, facing the harsh light and what I perceived as the harsh judgment of others. It all felt good and promising.

Of course, not every class is like that. This past week I came in late as usual and tried to take my place in the back, but the very friendly, soft-spoken instructor invited me to come up front. I dragged my mat forward, dreading my new position. Put me in the front row of an English literature class, no problem. Put me in the front row for any kind of physical fitness and I start looking for the exit.

I made my share of mistakes, and noticed that yet again I was one of the few people the instructor had to adjust. At one point when she said I had to push down from my hips and then my stomach, I just fell flat. Was she kidding? I actually laughed at her, and she said, "Good, giggling is important."

When she didn't stop to correct my form or when she said "good job people" and didn't say except for Jennifer--I felt capable, basking in the praise. There was nothing I could do about other people and whether or not they were thinking "wow, that woman is a spaz." I also couldn't completely control my own mood at being asked to balance myself like a stork for five minutes (when is this class over?) And when my breath was getting particularly shallow, I allowed myself to retreat to child pose. That one is definitely my favorite.