Light a candle and stop cursing

Light a candle...

We are in the new year. I wonder how everyone is doing on those resolutions. So many people make resolutions believing in some sort of magical properties of the holidays to make wishes come true. We believe that saying it at that time will just make it happen. *poof* I personally think that this is part of the reason that the majority of “resolutions” lose their resolve rapidly as the year waxes into the full winter and we find ourselves at another turning with the same wishes for betterment still on the “To Do” list with another celebration of the year end.

The weakening of resolve can be attributed to faith in an external locus of control that will somehow take away the key factor in success… hard work. As odd as it may sound, the facet of human success that is given the least amount of credit and yet should deserve the most is effort. Much attention and reward is given to factors and aspects of human existence over which we have no control. It sadly contributes to a loss of internal locus of control and a willing indolence in people who say, “Why should I make any effort? I cannot control the outcome.” From this mindset is conjured a believe in predestination and fate that smacks so strongly of arrogance that it deserves another smack… across the face. What? Did I stutter? Yes, arrogance, people! It is arrogant to assume that you have no control or impact on your own life because of predestination. That assumes (using a different part of your anatomy than your mind this time) that you are omniscient enough to know what the ultimate outcome of your life will be and so, therefore you aren’t going to put any effort into staying the course or diverting it. Wow… I must say, my own powers of divination are not nearly so well attuned. However, it makes a little bit of sense. Self-fulfilling prophecies aside, if you decide to sit around and put in no effort to achieve your aspirations or change your undesired situation, my guess is that you will likely end up exactly as you might expect… with no achievement and no change.

Now, this train of thought on which I bought a ticket this morning is no great epiphany or lightning bolt of originality. I cannot, to be honest, take credit for being the first, only, or possibly even most eloquent individual to ever ponder upon the inherent indolence of humanity. Thomas Edison was the first person to note that success is only partially explained by intellect and creativity and the majority of the credit should be given to sweat; “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Apparently Colin Powell had a more complicated recipe for success. Along with the hard work and inspiration, he also included learning from failure, and not giving up.

I must give credit to a friend and coworker for some of my own inspiration and insight this morning. He posted about the similarity of people and domestic rabbits who are happy to remain in the fouled warren of their own hutch in perceived safety than risk the unknown danger of exposure running free in the yard or home of their owner. He drew the comparison to men and women who choose to live in poor conditions even when opportunities exist to provide better alternatives because it is comfortable psychologically, less terrifying than change, and requires less effort on their part. And so, they stay and vent any frustration and potential energy to influence change in their situation by complaining impotently about the misery they choose over the fear they avoid. I responded to him that this was an illustration of the concept of “learned helplessness” originally defined by Skinner (in a horrible behavioral experiment with dogs. Look it up, because I am not going to go into it here and catch hellish emails from PETA or others believing I condone such.). What my friend was actually describing is actually a very common human experience. Fear of the unknown or expectation of adverse response is a paralyzing force that keeps status quo despite the discomforts or desire for better. Sadly, the fear of uncertainty frequently outweighs certain misery. For change to occur, motivation must come from changing that balance and reversing the conditions.

Transformation in a scientific sense requires energy to convert one thing or combination of things into another. The energy has to come from somewhere. No meaningful change will ever occur without concerted effort from the individual to manifest that change. If we want to change the circumstances of our lives, we need to provide the catalyst and energy to promote that change. If you don’t want to expend the energy, then be satisfied with the status quo and “quit yer bitchin’”. However, as Peter Benenson said, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Resolving to Solve in a New Year

New Year's Resolution

What is it about turning the page on the calendar that gives people the urge to make drastic changes in their lives? Is it the sense of renewal that a turning year brings that makes people believe they can erase the ignominy of the past year or past mistakes with changing the last digit of the annual sum? What happened to the positive points of that year? Do we keep it all, or should we erase the whole thing and go with the New Year as a completely new start?

The New Year is a time when people believe they can make a new start and make changes to their habits and behaviors in a positive way. It is, in a way, a representation of hope that things do change and that they can be better, that we do not have to accept the status quo and continue in old patterns of maladaptive behaviors forever. That being said, where did it all come from?

Apparently, this New Year’s resolving tradition has some seriously ancient roots. The Babylonians made promises to their deities every year to set their financial balances back to rights by paying back any debts of money or honor. The Romans made promises to Janus (yep, that’s where we get “January,” people) to start their year off on the right foot. Many other religious cultures have holidays of sacrifice and atonement (though not always falling on the western calendar New Year). So, the idea of making promises to change at the turn of the recognized year is not by any means a new tradition. That being said, the time frame for which we make our lofty, or not so lofty, goals for the coming annum should be recognized for the arbitrary thing that it is.

Our modern calendar is a great collaboration of historical conventions and narcissistic tendencies of various rulers, conquerors, and religious movements through the years. Science and fiscal convenience pretty much put the finishing touches with astronomical observations of solar year and figuring out how to balance the account of hours with appropriate counting of days. As it is, we still have to tack on the extra day every four years in February to make it all come out correctly. As our tiny blue planet does its wobbly little dance around our home star, it provides the circuit of time that provides a nice beginning and ending of that arbitrary temporal cycle that gives us a chance of renewal.

Almost half of the adults in America today make New Year’s resolutions. However, of that half, only about 12% actually make good on their promises. Sadly, only about half the people who make resolutions actually believe they will achieve the goals they set (possibly a contributing factor to that pitiful percentage that succeeds, but more on that later). Maybe it is a misunderstanding of what a resolution is? To dig into this, I decided that perhaps I should see if I could clarify matters of meaning. That word we keep using, I’m not sure it means what we think it means…

I’m going to pass over the musical references of progression from dissonance to consonance in a chord. An interesting sideline, and one that appeals to my heart, but not really illuminating for the chosen topic. We’ll also skip over the technical aspects of quality and acuity for digital media of the visual or auditory variety. The word resolution is the noun form of the verb to resolve. Not much help there. It also is a “state or quality of being resolute”… um, yeah. Ok, moving on. Being resolute means you are determined. Apparently, there are some people out there who missed that part, say about 88% of the people who make New Year’s resolutions, it seems. A resolution is also a course of action. Better. Maybe this is where we are all missing the boat, or rather where the boat is missing the destination and instead founders in the Sargaso of ill planned goals? So many people have ideas about things they want to change and positively no clue on how to go about it. Even if you know where you want to go, you need some plan for how to get there. So, finally, the last definition I want to address is that a resolution is “an explanation, as of a problem or a puzzle; a solution.” That is the best one I have seen so far. A resolution is a solution to a problem. However (and here I will listen for the groans and curses of the linguists), resolution looks like you are solving something over and over again, re-solving. Now, doing something again and again could be identified as practice, but it doesn’t always make perfect. Sometimes it does. It can also indicate if you are solving something over and over without satisfaction, that the approach may not be the best. It is possible that a different method might provide better results.

Overall, I still think I prefer the last definition. A resolution is a determined plan to solve a problem perceived in the current status of any given sector of our respective situations. We do not have to accept lack of total success as failure. It is just practice, and we can learn from the attempts.

Last but not least, making resolutions… As evidenced by the number of people who seem to lack confidence in their ability to reach their identified goals, and the actual number of people who let go of their resolutions sometime around February, perhaps there is a lack of skill or desire in making the promises of change to the New Year. In light of this potential problem, I’ve created a little instruction manual for making resolutions (and you don’t have to save them for the New Year as the steps are actually of the one-size-fits-any-date variety):

  • Identify the problem.
  • Identify what the solution to the problem might be.
  • Set a goal for the solution and visualize what the successful solution looks like.
  • Identify a realistic timeframe for the solution.
  • Think of it in terms of the present tense. Define the solution in positive, present tense, and concrete terms. I know this sounds strange, but think of it this way: If your solution or goal is for healthier living habits, saying “I’m going to start [eating better, exercising more, stop smoking],” your brain says “Great, let me know when you actually start!” Make your daily statement of resolve in a firmly determined way, “I am living a more healthy life by watching my portions” or “I am taking care of my body by exercising 30 minutes every day.”
  • Use visual cues and keep them before you every day. Pick positive images, because our brains gravitate towards the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.
  • Identify steps and initial goals (and realistic timeframes) on the way to the ultimate solution that you can check off as you progress.
  • Reframe backsliding or relapse in a positive way as opportunity for learning. Missteps do not have to result in a plummet back to square one. They are a cue to refocus on the path to your goal.

So, this little ramble started out to be a pondering of what and why people make New Year’s resolutions. It did not end up where I thought it would. Maybe that is a lesson, too. A journey of change sometimes ends up at a different destination than originally expected, and that isn’t always bad. Sometimes the goal is not the end, and in truth, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Changes that we decide to make for ourselves should be a journey of discovery, and it is the small, measurable successes along the way that matter and will motivate us to continue on the road.

Rant: It’s not all catwalks and sports contracts

People always say, “You are so lucky to be tall!” in voices that can be wistful, admiring, or more often catty with a soupcon of ridicule. It is the latter that is probably the more honest and accurate of the bunch.

For the most part, I wouldn’t change my height. It makes it easy to reach things on the top shelves or see over barriers and people, and the air smells better in elevators. However, there are a few things that people don’t think about when they look with an envious eye at the amazons of the world. It’s not all catwalks and WNBA.

First of all, trying to find clothing is just as difficult (if not more so) than for individuals of a less lofty stature. Finding a 35 or 36 inch inseam is damned near impossible, unless you go with men’s jeans… in which case, I usually look like I have a larger package than most guys I’ve ever dated. I really don’t need all the extra cargo space in the FRONT of my pants. If I try to purchase women’s pants, it is even more incongruous. Why would someone assume that if I am six feet tall my crotch to waist area makes up at least 2 or 3 feet of that?! Really people?! So, instead of fitting properly with a waist at the waist and crotch at the crotch, I can look like an Umpa Loompa or I can resemble some old man in a nursing home with my waistband in my armpits and the hem of my pants at midshin.

Forget finding a shirt. Seriously? Remember the ¾ sleeve fashion? I think that actually happened not because anyone actually looks attractive with sleeves that look too short but because no shirt makers could actually figure out that sleeves should come to the wrists… and don’t get me started about shoulders because I look like I could play center in the NFL and yet they want to add shoulder pads in all my garments. What sort of genius thought that was a good idea?!

Which brings me to my next issue… So, supermodels aside, no one really likes tall women. In fact, I dare say even the supermodels are not winning popularity contests for the same reasons. No one likes feeling short, small, etc. You get the point. So, growing up and even as an adult (though I hesitate to consider human beings capable of maturity) hearing names like ‘amazon’, ‘linebacker’, ‘giantess’, or hearing snickering comments about whether I produced testosterone or estrogen eventually gets on one’s nerves. Watching most of the guys show more attention to the cute, bouncy, curvy types who made them feel all big and strong… yeah that was a real pleasure. Just sayin’.

And then there are all the assumptions made about you if you happen to be tall, athletically built and actually play sports… you all know what those are. Hey nothing against it, but my gate don’t swing that way, and so don’t make assumptions about my preferences.

Then there is the whole employment issue. Ever noticed how petite women can be “fireballs” and people just laugh and smile and think it is great they are so assertive. If a man makes a point assertively, well he just made a good point. If a six foot tall female makes a point or is in anyway assertive, well, they are a bitch, intimidating, and don’t play well with others. Spectacular! If there is a negative interaction between someone of a lower stature or a male with a six foot tall female, it must be that the amazon was being a bully or emotional. Truth is, due to our Western European societal norms, it is more likely that the taller, larger female will back down because we’ve been taught that it is wrong to be a bully, especially anyone smaller… of course they neglected to indicate whether that was just physical stature or if the small-minded also applies. It has been scientifically proven that the vocal tones of the feminine voice triggers the amygdala in the male brain and therefore men are predisposed to assume that whenever a woman speaks she is being emotional. Get over it guys. I am probably less likely to storm out in a fit of tears than you are after our argument. Put on your big boy underoos and deal. Logical arguments involve using your brain not your assumptions (which I believe involve a different part of your anatomy).

Anyhow, I guess I’m done with my rant. I wouldn’t give up one inch of my height at this point in my life because it is one of the things that my dad gave me, but for the record it is nearly impossible to blend in with the crowd or go incognito, it is absolutely impossible to find a pair of pants that fits properly without tailoring, back pain and joint pain often go with the territory, and the air is not so rarefied at this altitude, I’m telling you. There are wonderful things about being tall, but every once in a while, I would like to be able to find a pair of sweatpants or pajama pants that fit…

***Originally I posted this on Facebook 5/2/2011 after a particularly difficult day of trying to find work attire at a department store and eventually giving up and walking out without buying anything. For the record, I still haven’t bought new wardrobe… This is a sad statement on the amount of hatred I have for trying on clothing. Given the current state of my work clothing, I will have to give in… soon.

Too Much Attention or Not Enough…

Most, if not all of us have heard the phrase “even bad attention is still attention.” This has been used to explain the delinquent behavior of youngsters possibly since the first humanoids started walking bipedally.  “Mog act bad… Mother of child not give proper attention… Must give attention with club.”

Actually, it is more likely to have been attributed much later in the nature vs nurture argument by other patriarchal types, like Freud, who like any good Victorian, blamed all things wrong with a child on the mother. It seemed like a reasonable explanation at the time. Fast forward to modern day. It seems that every single report of criminal behavior at some point focuses the microscope on the childrearing behaviors of the perpetrator’s parental authorities (be they the actual biological parents or not).

Now, I am not saying that the responsibility of molding of our young breed does not actually start with the parental figures. If you believe in tabula rasa (which I do not, entirely), humans enter this world as a blank slate with boundless potential and opportunity for the adults in their life to completely screw up. Yep, I said it. However, as I previously insinuated, I might not buy into all that. Aside from biology and genetics, of which I do not think even the under-rock dwellers can completely discount at this point in scientific discovery; there is the whole “village raising the children” philosophy (thank you Hilary for plagiarizing an African proverb and removing responsibility from satellite families and giving them someone else to blame). The point being that there are a good many adults that have influence over any one child. There are parents, extended family, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, and a plethora of other individuals who come in contact with and have some impact on the experiences of the child. As we all know, we are, at least in part, a sum of our experiences. In fact, sometimes it isn’t even a family member or caretaker that has the most significant influence upon the child. Sometimes it is someone they do not even know, but through the power of the media or the synchronicity of some other exposure to that child’s fertile mind, perfect strangers, fictional characters, and professional athletes and entertainers can have easily as much influence over the development of our young as the parents or guardians who raise them.

So, about this attention thing; I heard it again this morning in some news story or other, probably on a true crime story in the wee hours (thank you insomnia). The most amusing part of the story was the irony that the reporter or writer or narrator never once saw in what they were saying. The tale was one of a modern day “Bonnie and Clyde”. Both of them were ruthless, party-obsessed, and addicted to drugs and each other. I heard the announcer say that the girl was neglected and abandoned as a child, and she found in the boy a willing supplicant who would care for her and meet every whim and wish. The boy, well, this is where I wonder that the writers did not see what they were saying. He was a well-loved child, raised by his mother with excellent opportunities and upbringing. He wanted for nothing growing up.

Ok. We’ve got “Bonnie” who had a crappy childhood, and “Clyde” who didn’t, and they both ended up being horrible human beings cooking, selling, and using meth and stabbing a friend to death with a kitchen knife. Let’s see now… was it too much attention or not enough. Is there some magical correct amount of attention that results in a well-balanced, honest, and successful human? If I could figure that out, I would not nearly be as concerned about paying my bills for a while. What is this mystical, magical calculation of what constitutes “just enough” attention to give a child?

I’ve heard all the old school comments and conjectures about sparing the rod and about how when women stayed at home and were mothers. Don’t even start with me. Seriously, who, in this day and age can afford to be a stay-at-home parent full time? It isn’t even a matter of the excesses or luxuries that make it completely infeasible. Feeding and clothing is only part of the job. What about development and socialization? Then, there is the medical side. The cost of raising a child to adulthood at this time is approximately $241,080. That does not include college, if you desire your offspring to flourish with higher education and future occupational compensation. Also, this is a healthy child with no illnesses or unexpected injuries, and you can just forget about braces or birthday and holiday presents. Besides, it is attention that matters, right? Not the stuff? Even so, what does this mean for the average family? If you consider that the median income of your average American family is around $45,000 per year, that makes one wonder (at least it makes me wonder) how anyone has one child much less more than one child and manages to pay for them, and then expecting a parent to stay home to well… parent? Then, of course, there is the whole single parent situation. In that case, there really is not a choice, unless that parent is independently wealthy or receiving a more than realistic subsidy from state or federal funds.

Now that I have rambled sufficiently long to write myself into a corner, what conclusion can I bring this pondering to? Human beings are a mish-mosh of biological and sociological factors contributing to the best survival of the individual and their genetic make-up to be passed on to another generation. The human organism is indolent by nature. It wants the biggest bang for the least buck, so to speak. How can the least amount of energy result in needs met comfortably and adherence to the maxim “be fruitful and multiply”? What that boils down to is that cute tiny organism that comes into the lives of the individuals who fulfilled their biological directive will probably be mostly well balanced if provided with their basic needs (also providing that the genetic materials contributed were in pretty good shape). As the child grows, as far as I can deduce, the object is to arrange circumstances so far as to make the right choice less painful than making the wrong one. This is where parenting becomes less intuitive that you might suspect for all that the biological drives and instincts are supposedly programmed into all of us. The beauty of a society made up of individuals is that each person is unique in how their chemical and sociological combinations have created their preferences and abhorrences different than many others.

Sorry mums and dads, that means you can’t use one blueprint for all diaspora of your loins. Sucks for you. The ATTENTION required is that you need to know your kid. Know what they like and what they don’t. Know what motivates them and what keeps them from pursuing their best goals, and sadly, know what might be a deterrent from making a choice that would result to their own harm or harm to another. The hardest part is that once you have gotten through the proving ground of instilling some of these notions of what is ideally right or not so much, it is time to take off the training wheels and let them go to make some mistakes, fall and scrape their knees, and learn that the world has a few rough edges that they may bump against occasionally. Preferably, this should initially be practiced when the scrapes and bruises will not result in permanent damage, but will result in some permanent knowledge. A lot of times, this is where parents have the most difficulty. They hang on too long. They fail to give the child a sense of independence resulting in fear of making their own decisions or a lack of responsibility for doing so. It’s not that any parent wants to instill this sense in a child, but it remains too difficult to allow a beloved one to suffer pain, even if less than what they will suffer in future. As hard as it is, parents owe it to these individuals they wrought to provide them the best opportunity for success. The best opportunity, it seems is to pay enough attention to know the child. Spend enough time to make your company as much or more enjoyable than the TV, videogame system, or media stars that might otherwise be their primary interactions. And remember, parents, these are the people who may be choosing your assisted living center!

Wrapping memories…

Wrapping Memories

It was a tradition, always, that my father wrapped the presents. I’d even seen it go so far as for him to wrap his own, cleverly camouflaged in nondescript boxes provided by department stores the year before. I often questioned how the tradition came about, and considered whether his yearly holiday task had started in his tender years. I found myself imagining him as a small boy, rummaging around in the bin of colorful paper and juggling scissors and cellophane tape.

There was no question as to why the tradition continued. No one compared. His skill in fitting the paper. Always efficiently using only what was necessary to conceal the package within. The corners never gaped, and no matter the shape, he managed to create neat edges on all those brightly covered items arranged decorously around the tree.

At some point my independent spirit rebelled and I demanded my share in the holy wrapping ritual. I was graciously allowed to try my small hand at the task. I cannot precisely recall whether my efforts resulted in triumph, but I must not have done too badly as it soon became our shared chore. Not so much dreaded as relished. The time spent together estimating paper and ribbon, drinking hot chocolate or coffee, and listening to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, or Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The lights that made patterns on the ceiling changed through the years from multicolored flashes the small, white twinkling points. The tradition remained.

And as the time passed, new parts of my life invaded my sacred rite. Frequently working holidays in the emergency rooms, I would cross my fingers and race to the house, not even daring to pray that the pager would remain silent for fear of rousing the crisis gods and keep me from my wrapping with dad. It didn’t always work, but he tried to save me at least one, to keep our pact as the family wrappers.

It almost seems a metaphor now, as I think back. My father wrapped those gifts just as he wrapped our family, smoothing edges, tying loose ends, managing the dodgy elements that would mar someone’s experience. Yep, my dad did that. I never realized it for so long.

Then, he was gone. I remember that first year. I think I put everything in gift bags. It was a cheat. I just couldn’t bring myself to attempt the task alone. And I couldn’t ask anyone to help. Everyone else was suffering the same, well… almost the same grief. We all dealt with it our own way.

Little by little, I found myself stepping back into the position. Never fully. I could never fill those shoes.

So, as I sat in the middle of the living room floor, wrapping presents, the memories flooding  back. It wasn’t the same, sitting here alone and thinking as I fold each corner. Then, I caught myself. That frown. The way my hand folded the corner and I was carful to fold the cut edge to make a smooth edge on the end of a difficult package.

I stopped, stunned for a moment. I looked down at my hands at the nails that were more rounded than my mother’s. I saw my hands, built on a larger scale than most women, but the lines more delicate than would be considered masculine. I saw through the lens of memory my father’s hands guiding mine to fold the edges and place the tape. My eyes clouded. Had I hardened myself so much to fear of pain that I had also blocked the other part of my sacred charge, joy? That was what my dad always tried to protect, even when we moved and we didn’t have a tree or our old vinyl albums or any of the other anchor to the holiday traditions of home half way around the world.

I stared a while longer before returning to my task. I wrapped every gift. I regretted the reduction in number. Sadly, the reduction of individuals in our holiday gathering has changed the way we approach gifting. In years past, the sheer number of people created a mountain of gift offerings under the bedecked tree.

Through the years, those of us left have attempted to replicate the appearance through expenditure (that most of us could ill afford). This was a mistake.

The number of packages or zeros is inconsequential to the love and good will of spending time will of family and friends. Yeah, that’s all kinds of cheesy. I know it. It makes my back right molar ache a little typing it. Regardless, it is the realization that dawned upon me as I tried valiantly to coral the few boxes that were before me to bedeck with festive paper.

I finished my self imposed “chore”. I looked at the packages, arranged beneath the tree to best advantage despite the diminutive number. I realized that I had chosen paper as dad would have. No tags necessary because of the number, but also because of the way the paper and package spoke of the recipient.

I was correct in my anger towards the television commercials that stressed the importance of spending more money. Spending time is what matters.

So, this blog has turned into one of those sappy, emotion-ridden, epistles chastising you, like Ebeneezer to repent your monetary ways and seek the true meaning of Christmas (Ham? No, not ham you fat @#$%). However, that was not the intent of this particular (wordy) first entry into the world of blog. It was to say that this Grinch’s frozen heart was thawed slightly today. In memory of one who quietly loved the season, loved his family, and held it together without ceremony or letting anyone else know it.

May I carry that spirit beyond holidays to safeguard those who are dear to me, and may any reading this have a blessed holiday (with no reservation to any particular faith) and may your new year blessed in every way.

A blog about a few thing I picked up along the way… Hey driver, where are we going?!?