Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Echo Location

She scrapes bow across strings whose low moan rises to a shriek.  Her elbow a piston, it turns the wrist in a blurred ellipse that frees a cry, a frenzy.  Two boys appear from behind the stage, leaping sideways across the brush that separates this place from the garden plots where an old woman in a headscarf shambles between rows watering broad petals of cabbage.  One of the children waves a stick like a flag.  His face is a wide grin that says, see me, see me.

Another boy in a man’s body perches on the edge of a chair on this portable stage.  Shaggy hair falls across his forehead as he leans into the music.  He is from Ireland and lives in Portland where he has his pick of women.  He does to the accordion what Kobe Bryant does to a ball.  We call this thing “playing,” this version of play unlike anything the rest of us will ever experience.

Bent at the waist ever so slightly, he gazes far off towards what must be the west where a weary August sun peels back the day’s skin and exposes the pink, swollen flesh of dusk.  The grown boy’s fingers are dervishes in harmonious riot, balletic and blind, somehow whirling an unbroken ensemble piece on that tiny stage of keys.  I look where he is looking — in the direction at least because what he sees is all his own.  I want to imagine his eyes fixed on a montage of hills, rain, soil-scarred hands lifting open a latch and reaching for him.  Just as likely, behind his eyes growls a gauntlet of fractured traffic between the airport and the next gig.  Or a dim wash of notes.  When I look that way, I see only the deep outline of trees against a sky now a garnet throb.

Then the breath, the snared half-second of surprise when bow and key and string and drum, all stop —

it’s only a pulse of the heart yet it stretches, stretches like the still air across embouchure, its reverberation through a valley of brass.  It stretches like a quantum measure that is neither real nor measurable.  Swelling up into that pause (which may be the end of all history and also may not contain a single new beginning) surges the cry of cicadas thick in the shadowed branches.  Through the crack too flaps the leather wing of one bat dipping for a moth then careening off, this also in the direction our accordion boy looks but doesn’t see.  Not what I see see anyway, and certainly not what the bat sees, though his vision may be closer to that of his chiropteran brother, a sightless echoing that delineates a terrain through sound, through a chorus of shape and motion.  Maybe he draws a whole universe like this, one round, rapid beat after another firing across a field of night.


 

Free Cookies

cookie starry night

No more food bans.  I’m finished with their flimsy pretense of protection.  It’s like crawling into a tent to shield yourself from a lightning storm.  You’re as vulnerable as a vole naked in a meadow, but you choose to believe that half millimeter of nylon will hold back the sky.

I’ve banned cookies from my diet for so many years now, I’ve lost count.  Alcohol, just as long.  I’ve tried banning breakfast cereal, meat, and ice cream.  I’ve recently banned wheat.  I say I feel great.  Part of me does.

Meanwhile, the deeper and more integrated me — the me that’s more than parts — recognizes that there’s something seriously nuts about cramming myself into an ever narrowing range of acceptable foods.

Continue Reading »

Free Refills

unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

Becoming Who

creaturehood

As I shift, so does my son.  I invite him to “special time,” a goofy name for a powerful connection, and he first rolls his eyes. “I’m not doing that.”  The idea of playing just with me for 30 minutes is near the bottom of his list.

“You get to be in charge,” I explain.  “It just has to be between here and the park.”  Also, no screens, and no one’s hurting anyone else.  Other than that, we can do anything he wants.

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Can I throw pillows at you?”  His eyes have stopped rolling and now they’re fixed on me.

“Sure, as long as you’re not hurting me.”

“Can we go outside and play a tag game?”

I laugh “Of course.”  Tag is the one thing that I almost always resist when he suggests it.  Chase  my son endlessly around the neighborhood?   I’d rather stay in and clean hair out of the bathtub drain.  As it turns out, it’s not tag or pillows.  “Pirate ship!” he shouts, and runs into the living room to start moving furniture.  We pull out the ladder for scaffolding, king-sized sheets for the mast.  Bug creates turrets using plastic wine goblets.  He also creates something called a “maker” which is a kind of on-deck factory that turns raw materials into weapons.

If someone asked me to describe my son with naked honesty, I might say obstinate, aggressive, bright and powerful.  Curious but easily frustrated.  Sometimes cold and snubs emotional connection.  The boy hates to lose.  He’s an Eeyore on steroids.

If that same someone were to walk into our house during our first shot at Special Time, they’d see an entirely different boy.  Here is a child who is eager and spunky.  He’s creating an elaborate game with unclear structure, and he’s persevering with enthusiasm.  As he turns the form of Minecraft into a real-life activity, he’s engaging me in fizzy conversation.  He’s cracking jokes.

The visitor in our house would meet a boy who is close to his mom, sharing and cooperating, confident enough to be fine with uncertainty.  Here is a Piglet who is ready for anything.

So which boy is he?

We like to think of personality as fixed.  That person in our life is a certain set of characteristics:  maybe kind, a little introverted has good follow-through on commitments but fumbles in front of crowds. This is the person we know, and because we know she’s this way, we have a sense of predictability in our friendship, workplace, or marriage.  If people are changeable, how could we function in our roles?

Indeed, we haven’t needed to ask this question much because most of the common (if mistaken) personality theory that dominates our lives reinforces the notion of consistency.  It’s how we end up with ENFJs in workplace training with ISTPs, figuring out how to cooperate on a team.  Nevertheless, as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) knows, the test has its flaws.  A question comes up:  “As a rule, you proceed only when you have a clear and detailed plan.”  The test-taker then has to think, In a project meeting with my co-worker?  When coaching my kid’s basketball team?  Cleaning my closets?   Working out at the gym?

Which rule for “as a rule”?  The trainer is little help.  She’ll say, “pick one area of your life and stick with that.”  This test is supposed to map a person’s defining characteristics yet allows the random selection of context and perspective?  A little skepticism is fitting.

The fact that organizational leadership and development professionals still rely heavily on the MBTI is not confirmation of its reliability.  Indeed, there is no replicable research to back it up, and the science is flimsy at best.  The lack of connection to any empirical evidence about “personality type” should gut its foundation and release its hold on us.

“What concerns me is the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to it without the examination of the evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.


– Lillian Cunningham, “Myers-Briggs: Does it Pay to Know your Type?” in The Washington Post, December 14, 2012.

Corporate training is a $50 billion a year industry.  Its influence is one reason we still believe so firmly in fixed personality traits.  Another is based in the theory that we simply see what we want to see, that we seek out examples of certain traits and fix them to people.  Personality, then, is an illusion.

Yet another curious idea is that personality, while unfixed and changeable overall, is consistent in a particular context.

Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, has another intriguing idea. . . He thinks we actually are seeing consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation,” he says.  Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.”


– Alix Spiegel, “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” from Invisibilia on NPR.

Every so often, I look up exes to see where they’ve wandered.  It’s a rare indulgence — rare enough that when I find them again, they have crossed oceans of life.  One fellow was all braggadocio masking incompetence and sloth.  He was stuck in debt and working a customer-service job he hated.  Now runs his own business.  His company lead tours in the mountains and edu-tains high school groups in the nation’s capital.  The contrast is startling.  It’s a marvel that he’s so completely not who I thought he was. . . or rather, that the man he was at that time and place was only one slice of a much larger, evolving person.

Traits may not be as inherent as we assume.  Change the context, and the person himself can change.

If I want to become someone different (as indeed I do, with regard to how I approach my career and family), it’s not going to work for me to do so in the current stage-set of my life.  If an environment rewards mediocrity, how can a person develop drive?

Shifting the situation invites a reworking of the self.

Taking on a project in a volunteer setting, or stepping into a leadership role in the kiddo’s school, or diving into HOA budget management, or committing to a regular childcare exchange with other parents in the community. . . these are just a few of the ways to “become” someone different.  A new role in a new context allows for the cultivation of qualities not yet fully formed in the familiar self.

My son and I are not “who we are,” despite the inane it is what it is trope that comforts our dissonance and excuses our inertia.  If we aim to invite a fuller version of ourselves, then we must change what we do, and where, and when, and how.


 Image:  Micah Bazant from the Trans Life & Liberation Art Series

 

 

fairy pot

When we stop trying to find the solution, the solution finds us.  The idea of “adding in the good stuff” is all the rage healthy living.  Don’t worry about giving up cheese fries and soda.  The pull of the food industry is powerful, and fighting it grinds our sense of efficacy down to sawdust.  Instead, do a few leg lifts while brushing teeth.  Put leafy greens beside whatever else is on the plate.  Keep the focus on adding the wholesome.

This same bubbly counsel showed up in a recent parenting class.  When an attendee began slipping down the shame spiral about their ineffective parenting, the instructor reminded us not to worry about what we’re doing wrong.  “Do more of the good stuff,” she said.  Put special time on the schedule.  Focus on connection over correction.

Eventually (the theory goes) these little bits of goodness will crowd out the destructive patterns.

If this works with diet and family, why not mental health?

Continue Reading »

turkus mother son

. . . a discouraged child tends to focus increasingly on her anxious desire to fit in and quickly loses sight of the needs of others in the family.  Children are always trying to improve their sense of securely belonging as valuable members of the group, and they fear losing that connection.  Therefore, the more the child’s discouragement deepens, the less capable she feels of interacting with others in useful ways.  Instead, she is more likely to resort to misbehavior to connect inappropriately, to feel negatively powerful, and finally to gain at least a perverse sense of respect before giving up when her attempts fail.


– Linda Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin, Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense

My boy has been back with me for a week.  During that time, I have not screamed once.   I have not stormed out to cool down.  We have been on time for camp drop off every morning without a fight.  Bug has gotten himself out of the bath, teeth brushed, and into bed before 9:00 every night without me raising my voice or lifting a finger.

On July 7, I made a commitment to heal our family.  This is a tall order.  A family is more than just one mom and it would seem that one mom alone can’t overhaul a whole family culture.  Each of us can only control ourselves.  As it turns out, this may be the concept that brings the most significant change to our family.

When children are very small and dependent on us, we can haul them out of troubling situations and put them in their cribs at specified times.  We can decide what food is in front of them.  As they get older, this control shifts.  They fight their own playground battles.  They can get up out of bed and turn the light back on.  They can snub dinner and sneak treats from the fridge behind our backs.

A parent cannot control a child.  Control is an illusion.  Dominance as a method of control is an illusion. A parent can withhold, wheedle, punish, threaten, bribe, and ignore, but even with these dangerous tools, a parent cannot control a child.

What a parent can do is model healthy choices and guide a child to build the capacity to navigate the world.

I made a commitment to learn whatever I could to strengthen our family.  The past few weeks, I have planted this commitment into the center of my days.  Between reading and journaling to reflect on the approaches I’ve taken (and might like to try), I’ve immersed myself in a 16-hour Parenting Encouragement Program class.  The process has been intense and even transformative.  That word that usually makes me roll my eyes, but in this case, “transformation” about captures what’s happening here.

My son comes off the day camp bus in a foul mood and immediately lays into me for some perceived slight, like asking him to please hand me the tablet so I can charge it.  He is furious, steaming, telling me he hates me.  These are his steps in our standard friction-filled dance, one we’ve been perfecting for years.

Now, I choose a different dance, one that improvises and responds.  First I catch my breath.  No reaction.  I ask myself quietly to note that Bug’s behavior is a textbook version of discouragement, that he is actually seeking connection and a sense of belonging through a mistaken goal of taking revenge on me.

A parent cannot control a child.  A parent can only control her own choices.

I choose my words with care.  “It seems like something is really bothering you.  I’m sorry it’s hard.  Remember that it’s not okay to call me names or hurt me.  When you are ready to talk about what’s bothering you in a less hurtful way, I am here to listen.”

He continues to simmer and spit but it’s cooling down.  I sit quietly and breathe, remembering that my son is a creative child, he’s bright and resourceful.  That he is learning, as I am.  Even in my silence, I keep my mind on the goal of encouraging him and helping him feel connected and capable.

After a little while, after we’ve moved on to the next phase of our evening, he quietly — almost distractedly — says, “You should write a bad review of that camp.”

“Really?” I say, just as casually.  “And what would I write in this review?”

Then he opens like the sky.  Something happened this morning at the high ropes course.  A misunderstanding, a punishment he felt was unfair.  We talk it through and I match his tone.  Attentive but calm, like this is any old conversation on any old day, not a huge issue.  I do not come up with a list of solutions or reprimand him for what most likely stemmed from his failure to listen to instructions.  I reflect back what I’ve heard and capture what his feelings might have been about this.  Finally, I say, “Would you like to think through what you could do if this happens again?  Or to keep something like it from happening next time?”

Bug shrugs and says “maybe,” then turns to his crafts.  He’s had enough for now.  Enough is fine.  Enough is miles ahead of where we were a month ago.  Enough is a victory.  When and if he does want to tackle the issue, I’ll be ready to help him tap his courage and find his way.

I can only control myself.  The choices I make contain the threads that stitch together this family.  When Bug and I were stumbling through our difficult 9-day stay-cation together in June, this was my commitment:

I am determined to sustain a creative, positive planning attitude for the duration of this stay-cation with my son.  This means I am equally determined to postpone any self-improvement initiative that might divert energy from our formidable endeavor.

Now I see that these two journeys — family health and personal well-being — are part of the same whole.  Indeed, they turn on the same axis.  The more skillful a parent I become, the more loving our relationship, the more encouraged my son, and the more nourishing our home.  From this place, we all grow.  In this place, we thrive.


Image: Pristine Cartera Turkus, “Mother & Child”

CCT

You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.


– Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

With a little vacation away from work and my kiddo off canoeing at day camp, it’s time for a fix of woods.  I pull up Hiking Upward to find something near enough to hit in a few hours but far enough for solitude.

This is the goal: solitude.  And its accompanying quiet.

Humans are social creatures, sure, and we need to be in proximity to people as much for a sense of connection as for all the stuff — the supermarket and hospital, the auto mechanic and school.  To survive, we need to be in community.  Even so, too much proximity to too many others can take its toll.  The buzz of engines and clang of machines, the soundtrack of urban and suburban life, can jam the signals.  When I start to notice myself too focused on the clock and task list, too alert, too aware of every demand and every passing vehicle, I know it’s time to seek out a forest.

Hiking Upward’s interactive maps let a user explore a stretch from southern Pennsylania to northern North Carolina.  The descriptions cover each leg of the journey and reviewers add details to keep things up to date.  Many of the reviews make note of the presence or absence of “road noise,” which is almost impossible to escape anywhere in the mid-Atlantic.  The site rates each hike on five characteristics: difficulty, streams, views, camping, and — yes — solitude.

For a mid-July hike in Virginia, shade would be more important than peaks.  Quiet, most important of all.  Out west in the Shenandoah and beyond, several hikes hit all the right numbers.

The problem is that lately, I’ve been taking care to drive less.  My dual commitments to frugality and environmental stewardship have me hopping on the bus and train when I can, even though this choice extends the commute.  Bug and I bike around the neighborhood for fun instead of driving to parks further away.  My shopping and entertainment are much closer to home, and I make every effort to combine trips by doing things like picking up groceries during my weekday lunchtime walk then lugging them home on the metro.

This desire for the woods is in direct conflict with the desire for sustainable living.  Still, the girl hungers to be out in the quiet.  By the time I’ve gone to bed, I’ve settled on a regional park about 16 miles out of town.  It seems shaded enough, isolated enough, and close enough that it would meet all the criteria without my little Corolla belching too much carbon monoxide back into the atmosphere.

Thankfully, sleep has a most refreshing effect on my conflicted mind.  Blessed is the deep rest that washes clear the path.

I wake to this thought: I want to go somewhere free of road noise, and I’m going to put my car on the road to get there?

The hypocrisy makes me smile.  I climb out of bed determined to make a choice that will honor both of my commitments.

With my hiking gear already in the car and my kiddo packing up his sunscreen and bug spray for day camp, I hop back online.  Where can I hike without leaving town?

Fairfax County, Virginia is home to environmental leaders whose dedication far surpasses mine.   My neighbors have been working for decades to protect the fragile watersheds that sustain our region.  In the 1990s, a critical mass of residents and leaders began to plan the 40-mile long Cross-County Trail. Its path  moves through vast ribbons of green whose undeveloped foliage act as sponges to filter pollutants from our streams.

This trail weaves in and out of neighborhoods.  It follows busy roads to connect sections of woodland.  I’ve walked parts of it further east, popular sections next to parking lots and ball-fields.   Those areas are wide and groomed, with bikes and families and runners.  But miles of the trail wind through areas that are hard to find unless you know where to look.

The truth is, I’ve never thought much of this local trail as a “hike.”

It’s time to change that.

One section of the trail happens to be within a few hundred yards of the bus pick-up spot for Bug’s camp.  The Corolla will clock exactly zero additional miles and I can be hiking.  So this is what we do, Noodle and me.  We drop the kiddo at the bus, I shrug into the backpack, and we start walking.

Around the golf course, behind houses, and into the woods.

Woods!  Woods like forest, like Shenandoah, like a wild place.  Creek crossings.  Lush carpets of ferns.  Damp oak leaves drooping across the sky.  Solitude, yes — in three hours, only four people pass us.  And while the occasional distant leaf blower or lawnmower jars me back to this zip code, the morning is almost entirely quiet.

“Quiet” isn’t the same as “silence.”  Truth is, when we need to replenish the spirit, silence is not really what we’re after.  Rather, we crave the absence of pressing need, the muting of the incessant clatter that keeps us in a heightened state of reactivity.  Quiet is far from quiet.  It’s a music, a pulse of wildness that tracks the beat inside us.  Quiet is the chittering throb of cicadas, the swooping cry of an unidentified bird.  The small crystal shattering of water over stone.

Eight and a half miles we walk through the morning, through our very own town.  I see its raw underside, the part that feeds us whether we know it or not.  It nourishes us without us drawing down its riches.

It’s here.  It’s not just in our backyard, it is our backyard.

It turns out that it is indeed possible to hike close to home.  Isn’t a hike just a walk with intention?  Even a cross-county trail isn’t a requirement.  A hike can cover suburban neighborhoods and city streets.  Seeing any stretch of ground as hike-able reveals a whole new terrain.

Of course, it isn’t new at all.  It simply asks to be entered as if it contains the possibility of wildness and wonder. It simply requires of us “a willingness to trudge.”

We teach our kids to revel in the natural world in ways that minimize damage to it.  We don’t let them deface trees or leave trash.  As grownups making our more complicated calculations, it’s critical to remember that the same simple rules apply.  If we want to keep finding refuge in the forest, if we want our grandkids to seek sustenance in the unbuilt world, then we need to do our part to sustain it.  Sometimes that means choosing not to go at all.  Sometimes means opening ourselves to the wild places waiting right outside the door.