More Than a Candy Crush: The Life Lessons I Learned From Candy Land

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While browsing last-minute gift ideas for nieces and nephews the other day, I stumbled upon an old classic–the game of Candy Land.

Instantly I was transported to images of my 5-year-old self crouched in front of a multi-colored board lined with peppermint edges and game pieces that were as life-like as my imagination could reproduce in the ’80’s.

My friends and I spent countless summer days cross-legged and sweating over that flimsy board. There was a thickness in the summer air and an even thicker competition, as we embarked upon a magical journey through “candy cane forests and a sea of swirly twirly gumdrops” in a race to the finish. It makes me wonder if Buddy the Elf took a short cut through Candy Land en route to NYC.

During those magical, sugary hours, I was learning at more than I realized. As I reminisced this week, the thought came to me that Candy Land provides the perfect metaphor for the path to change. So I set out to see if I remembered accurately.

This iconic game comes with an important history. It was first manufactured in 1949, after having been invented a few years earlier by a woman who had polio. She used the game in children’s polio wards to provide a welcomed diversion from their illnesses and from their traumatic and elongated separations from family. There’s a fascinating article that provides an in-depth analysis of the connection between polio and Candy Land’s auspicious beginnings, and how the whimsical fantasy of a world made of candy was a great way to soothe both the frenzied hysteria and the very real anxiety that surrounded the disease.

As an aside, this article entertains the idea that the polio epidemic overwhelmingly shifted the cultural parenting tide from free range parenting to anxiety-driven hovering, and it laments how that cultural change continues to impact modern parenting styles.

The history of the game continues with multiple overhauls (e.g. the 1990’s exclusion of Plumpy); and enduring celebrity remakes from Dora the Explorer to a SpongeBob version. To date there have been 40 million copies sold, making this iconic board game a household name.

So why has this particular game withstood the test of time? Maybe it’s just the brilliant marketing to kids with a kaleidoscope of colors, delicious characters, and an edible plot line. Or, maybe not.

I wonder if the original creator knew how accurately her game predicts the path to successful change. From changing our eating habits, to planning cross country moves, to switching jobs, the path to change looks remarkably similar across the board (pun intended).

Here’s a quick sketch of the game for those who are unfamiliar. I’ll mostly be referencing the version that originated in 1985.

There is a winding path that spans the board and is divided into color blocks and locations. All locations are candy-related: plum swamps, licorice lanes, gum drop stops, etc. The players take turns picking a card that has an image of a particular color block or candy location that maps along the board. The player who picked the card moves to that spot, and then each player continues picking cards until one of the players advances far enough to reach the end: home. However, there is a catch. If you pick a card that coincides with a location that is further back on the board, you are required to retrace your steps. There are also certain places where you can get stuck (in a variety of sticky situations) and lose your turn. But in a whimsical balance, there are candy-coated shortcuts to accelerate your journey as well. So you could jump ahead of and then fall behind other players from one turn to the next.

Without opening a discussion on free will versus “Playing the hand you’ve been dealt,” let’s take a look at some of the toothsome (and gritty) truths that the Candy Land journey shares with the change process:

1–It’s non-linear. It’s not a straight forward journey. It is a forward, backward, and then sideways journey…And then backward again, with a couple steps forward, until you get knocked sideways and end up dizzy, and don’t know which direction you’re headed in.

2–Sometimes there are shortcuts…sometimes there are not. More often than not, there are not.

3–Sometimes there are obstacles…and more obstacles. Perseverance is key.

4–Stuck isn’t really stuck. Even with the obstacles, there’s a way forward. There’s always a way forward.

5–Often times there are setbacks (which are different than obstacles). In the game, there’s a looming awareness that you could end up retracing your steps at any moment. Expecting those setbacks leads to a quicker recovery time.

6–There is an end…and that end is home. The original 1949 version had each player nostalgically arriving at home, and for good reason. At the time, children with polio had to endure traumatic separations from their parents for months at a time while being treated. The reminder of home as the end goal presented comfort and hope. For us, home may be literal or metaphorical, but it’s always the place where transformation has occurred and where comfort and contentment reside.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of Candy Land’s predictive validity as a formula for success, let’s talk about the best part. For those of us who are obsessed with change, and its importance, and who spend our days pondering the minutiae of it all, this game takes us right back to the basics.

Us adults over-complicate the process. Candy Land is that sweet reminder of how simple the message is: stick to the path, persevere, keep the end in mind, and eventually you’ll get there.

Who better to glean wisdom from than children? As the great Madeleine L’Engle once said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

That literary pearl certainly applies here. If adults don’t get the formula for change, if they over-complicate it with a long list of defenses, why not teach it to kids instead?

I remember the rise and fall of my 5-year-old ambitions with the twists and turns of that game. Maybe at that age I was better acquainted, more familiar with, the path to change than I realized. Maybe it’s that my 5-year-old self could stoop more easily to keep her ear fixed to the ground–to pay attention. Whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion I was closer to wisdom at 5 than I am now.

I’m thinking of marketing my own version of Candy Land with fill-in-the-blank obstacles to help us plot our individual journeys to change. It will be complete with winding candy paths, sticky barriers, sweet short cuts, and a road that leads to “home”.

Any takers?

Nietzsche’s Playbook

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This is a picture of an Andrew Wyeth. I stared at it, at this particular angle, for a long time; examining it with head tilted, then through the camera lens, then squinting, then wide-eyed. This picture renders paint and canvas invisible. They are no longer the mediators of this curtained scene. It is just me, tucking myself behind the curtain to stare at trails and trees. It is me breathing in the fresh air, no paint residue to stale it. It is me observing the pastoral scene sans canvassed limits.

I would argue that Realism (as a genre) succeeds when it removes the obstacle of the medium (paint, canvas, clay, metal) to reveal the transparent image. Well done, Andrew Wyeth.

I would also argue that we’re attracted to Realism because of this very ability to suspend our disbelief; this art feels true to every fiber of our beings, and we want it to be so. It’s serene, crisp, and lovely. It’s better than believing that we’re observing a flat panel fixed to a matte wall. In literature, we call this suspension of disbelief verisimilitude—when an author helps us ignore his fabrications because he has given us a reason to believe, against our better judgment, that his words are true.

In our daily lives, there’s another name for this phenomenon: functional nihilism. “If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist.” This is a suspension of our disbelief through willful ignorance. We are choosing to ignore part of the story.

If I don’t think about the canvas barrier that separates me from Wyeth’s pastoral scene, then it doesn’t exist, and I’m whisked away to a world of my own making, one where I don’t have to leave the wooded shelter…ever. You can see the appeal, here.

Freud would call this denial. But that word is overwrought and misses the juxtaposition of violence and pragmatism. We do violence to our memories by sentencing them to oblivion; and we do it practically as a survival mechanism—so we can function.

The heart-wrenching pain of ending a relationship can turn the best of us into functional nihilists. We want to annihilate the beautiful new beginnings that are now sickening and painful. We also want to crush the painful endings that leave us feeling vulnerable and hurt; because to replay them daily, to allow them to be a part of our moment to moment experience leaves our nerve endings perpetually exposed. Who can function when they are perpetually replaying a traumatic scene?

This pragmatism is enacted without discrimination. We willfully forget embarrassing moments, immoral decisions, and guilty feelings as well as major failures, childhood traumas, and relationship endings. This nihilism also applies to procrastination. If we don’t think about what needs to be done, we aren’t obligated to do it.

As with all of our defense mechanisms, we believe the benefit outweighs the cost. But we are blinded to what that cost is, to ourselves and others. Last year I met a woman who shared that she had gone through a bitter divorce. She was happy to declare that she was now “over it”. Intrigued, I asked how she had accomplished this. “I moved across the country.” She said. “Now I don’t have to think about him anymore.” As I listened to her story it became apparent that she had given up a huge support network, a great job, and an established life to get away from her ex-husband. Sadly, in her attempt to avoid one man, she lost almost everything else. And if the payoff was to forget him, it didn’t work. He consumed most of our conversation.

My heart goes out to this woman. Her story, though a dramatic example, is similar to our own. We are oblivious to what we’re sacrificing in our attempts at annihilation. We may not have moved across country, but we have lost out on meaningful living, nonetheless. As for this woman, whenever we engage in functional nihilism it can’t help but impact our relationships, our work, our sense of well-being–our lives.

If we take a page out of Nietzsche’s Playbook, we will find our nihilism expanding beyond the borders. We will find that, over time, what seemed functional now consumes us.

What are those events, relationships, beliefs that you’ve done violence to? If you’re honest, what have you lost in the aftermath of your annihilation?

So as not to leave us in the abyss, this is only part of the story. We can move beyond functional nihilism to embrace growth and healing. We can overcome our propensity to avoid. When we do, we no longer have to suspend our disbelief, because the healing is tangibly, palpably, and delightfully real.

To My Clients About Your Meds

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Dear Esteemed Clients,

This letter, although personalized, is for all students/consumers of Psychiatric medications. It is written with the demoralized patient in mind and heart.

I’m attending a Psychopharmacology conference this week. Not because I love the world of diagnosis, medication, and clinical treatment (although it has an essential place), but because I want to understand you and your medications. I know your medication management can feel more like a high stakes poker game than a streamlined science. You wait for the river to turn up aces and you get twos instead. That is, you hope the benefits will outweigh the side effects, but your current cocktail of tapering, titration, or cross-tapering leads to yet another bad withdrawal effect.

I also know that you suffer the side effects in silence. You tolerate restlessness, sleeplessness, weight gain, mood fluctuations etc., because you think this round of medication is the best it’s going to get, OR because you don’t know how to communicate your symptoms. I want you to know, I hear you. And, you don’t have to settle.

Your doctors are stretched thin in a system where more hours are spent doing administrative work than face to face with patients. And you feel it, acutely. You feel the sterility of baring your soul with their backs turned because they’re typing furiously at the details of your medical confession. You feel their harried pace as you’re pushed in and out of offices. You feel your brain shut down as you’re pressured to share all pertinent diagnostic information in 2.5 minutes. Your doctors have a near impossible task, and so do you.

I hear you. I’m at this conference because I want to better serve you and your pursuit of medication management. I, too, am tired of the many complexities of collaborating with other professionals, and I’m tired of how that affects my ability to advocate for you. I believe there’s a better way, and I’m determined to find it.

So here’s what I want you to know:

1–Self-advocacy is essential. It’s easy to assume your doctor is all-knowing and there’s a great chasm between their expansive knowledge and your limited understanding. But you know your body better than anyone else. You know when something doesn’t feel right. You know when it does. Please advocate for yourself if you know something is wrong. Ask questions; give feedback; keep working at it until there’s a manageable solution.

2–A lot can be done to manage side effects. If your side effects feel debilitating, speak up. You don’t have to settle. It may be a simple tweak, or an added booster medication that can make all the difference.

3–Data is a doctor’s gold mine. Create a medication timeline with dates, symptoms, and previous medications prescribed, and side effects. This will provide a reference point for you, me, and other important providers. The more exact data you can give to your doctor, in simple format, the better he or she can eliminate months of trial and error. And don’t forget to tell your doctor about all vitamins and supplements, because they may interact with your medications.

4–Journal your treatment. After you start a new medication, jot down some brief, daily notes about experienced symptoms and changes. What do you feel physically, and what do you feel emotionally? You can use ratings on a simple scale, and there are even forms you can fill out, if you prefer. This will provide practical information to help you dialogue with your doctor and it will help your practitioner more accurately assess the efficacy of treatment. And if you’re concerned that your medication isn’t working, you’ll have data to support that conclusion. Data that will help them avoid other medications that could result in similar side effects.

5–Avoid the “medication dump”. The Psychiatrist’s worst nightmare is the patient who abandons their medication due to initial side effects without a plan and without communicating with them first. Valuable time is lost when you start a medication, go off of it due to side effects, but don’t see your doctor for another six weeks. That’s six weeks of continued suffering to then end up back at square one. This is demoralizing, among other things. IF your side effects feel unbearable, don’t suffer in silence. Call your doctor. If you can’t reach them, talk to your pharmacist. Many insurance companies also have a hotline for 24-hour consultations with a Nurse Practitioner or doctor. That hotline is another immediate option in case of emergencies.

I hope this list empowers you to make a paradigm shift: narrowing the gap between “omniscient” practitioner and “fragile” patient. Much can be done to increase collaboration, limit side effects, and establish a healthy, working relationship with your doctor. And this, of course, applies not only to psychiatric medication but all facets of your healthcare as well.

As I absorbed the myriad of psychopharmacology data this week, I was reminded that in spite of having a nearly impossible task there are Doctors in this world who care and are fiercely committed to your well-being. So am I. They’re listening; I’m listening. Talk to us.

With Your Health In Mind,

Amy

The Time Traveler’s Guide

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Twice a year we get to participate in the mystical journey of time travel, springing forward or falling backward in space, also known as Daylight Saving.

For all you grammar geeks, here’s a logophile’s take on those semi-annual time shifts:

“The official spelling is Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight SavingS Time.

Saving is used here as a verbal adjective (a participle). It modifies time and tells us more about its nature; namely, that it is characterized by the activity of saving daylight. It is a saving daylight kind of time. Because of this, it would be more accurate to refer to DST as daylight-saving time. Similar examples would be a mind-expanding book or a man-eating tiger. Saving is used in the same way as saving a ball game, rather than as a savings account.

Nevertheless, many people feel the word savings (with an ‘s’) flows more mellifluously off the tongue. Daylight Savings Time is also in common usage, and can be found in dictionaries.

Adding to the confusion is that the phrase Daylight Saving Time is inaccurate, since no daylight is actually saved. Daylight Shifting Time would be better, and Daylight Time Shifting more accurate, but neither is politically desirable.”  (source)

Apparently Counting Crows got it right; maybe we should take a cue from their playbook and refer to the fall backward phenomenon not errantly as Daylight Saving Time, but as musician-inspired Daylight Fading Time (DFT?).

For many, in spite of the ribbon-wrapped extra hour of sleep, daylight fading brings an unfortunate down side: Seasonal Affective Disorder.  As the darkness creeps in earlier and earlier through the winter months, many are plagued with depressive symptoms including lack of motivation or loss of interest, fatigue, tearful affect, irritability, and sadness.  See NAMI’s description for more.

You may already know seasonal mood changes have been linked to vitamin D deficiencies and are often treated with light exposure therapy and/or vitamins.  What you may not be aware of is some of the changes in “activities of daily living” (as we say in counselor speak) that accompany daylight-fading time.  These scheduling changes come with the natural rhythms of the winter season and couple with plummeting moods.  The combination of winter and the holidays creates the perfect storm for depression.

Let’s look at a typical scenario.  Margaret is a 55 year-old mother of three.  She glances at the calendar this morning, mug in hand, and almost spills coffee all over herself when she sees Nov. 1st.  Her initial association is accompanied by swirling thoughts and frantic internal checklists.  She’ll run to the mall later to find Macys already lit with Christmas lights and red-toned boxes, taunting her about unchecked items.  If we observe her life from November through February, we’ll find a common theme.  The chaos, cold, darkness, and disruption leave her primed for depression.

There are the obligations: parties, school events, and family gatherings.  And there are the accompanying details: what to bring, who to call, and booking travel dates.  There are the physiological changes: less exercise (due to cold weather and time commitments), a diet higher in sugars and fats, and less exposure to sunlight, along with stress carried in the body.  There are increased financial pressures and disrupted routines with extra hours at the office and schedules ubiquitously wrapped around vacation time.

During winter we may have to work doubly hard to avoid plummeting emotions.  Like swimming upstream, the winter months leave us swimming against a current of emotions furiously attempting to sweep us into depression.

Every year I find myself setting goals to counteract this.  Every year there are sneaky stressors that threaten to pull me down anyway.  I would prefer to avoid the work of planning for the winter months.  And yet, the work of planning is easier than the inevitable emotional and physical fallout when I don’t.

As daylight fades, at the very moment I’m posting this, consider the work that will go into preventing a slope into depression.  And consider the work that will go into counteracting it if you don’t.  If it’s inevitable that you’ll face the fading sunlight, how can you prevent the darkness from becoming internal?

 

Your fellow time traveler.

 

 

Fall Reading List: Twenty By Twenty

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The sun passed the celestial equator this week, ushering in the autumnal equinox with a flurry of Boston weather.

Along with brown boots, over-eager squirrels, and the imminent threat of an unencumbered view of Wal-mart, I associate the Fall with sky-high stacks of books. The crack of dusty leather bindings and thin, sharp edges reminds me of the leafy season. So when I think of reading lists, I think of Fall.

Unfortunately, for many the Fall also ushers in the busy season of life, making it especially difficult to indulge long lists of literature.

I’ve wanted to share a reading list with you for a while–one that speaks to translating life from the office couch to the kitchen table. In fact, I’ve been really excited about it. But I also want it to be accessible for those buried under Fall to-do lists that stack higher than my dusty books.

SO…I have a proposition for you.

What if instead of an Autumn book challenge, you tackled an Autumn word challenge?

What if you took a new word every day for twenty days and contemplated that word for twenty minutes, digesting it slowly–moving it across your tongue, chewing it to one side of your cheek, and swallowing it one…bite…at…a…time?

What if that Fall reading list could be accomplished in spite of busyness by boasting the brevity of Twitter and the beauty of Instagram?

Would you be curious?

Here’s how it works. I’ve provided the pre-primed word list. Set the timer for twenty minutes of uninterrupted contemplation (set aside technology) and start with word one–see where it takes you. You can write about it, draw about it, or just reflect. When your time is up, stop where you are, leaving it unfinished. Then pick up with the new word the next day. That’s it.

This Fall word list, the best of the orchard’s apples, is hand-picked to increase our understanding of the inner monologue.

The associations we’re each drawn to in a word reflect the inner sanctum of our current thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It’s an exercise in self-awareness.

IF you drown out the noise and savor each word, and IF you digest one a day, you’ll be amazed at what might surface and how it might propel your journey–a one-a-day vitamin for the spirit.

You can journal through it, sing through it, yell through it, or whine through it. All are great options.

I’ll be digesting this list myself, with musings to come along the way.

I’m inviting you to join me on an inner journey that moves from dusty cover to dusty cover.

You ready?

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Beauty and the Selfie

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“‘I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.’ Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: ‘to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.’” –Marcel Proust from “On Beauty and Being Just” by Elaine Scarry

Observers of beauty desire begotten immortality.

This is a fascinating assertion made by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard. Her definition of beauty is currently lost in translation in pop culture, which is why reviewing the points made, including those on replication and contractual agreements, primes the pump for a revitalized conversation on this well-worn topic.

Why does a man stare at a beautiful woman? According to Scarry, he stares because of his ardent desire to take in the beauty he sees until it becomes immortal, forever imprinted in his mind with all of its original, immutable features. Scarry says this: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them.”

You’ll have to forgive me for writing in essay form today, but it helps communicate her perspective, and I think her perspective is one that’s readily applicable to everyone from Facebook moms to LinkedIN execs.

According to the above quote, when we try to capture beauty, we recognize our mortal limitations, and observers of beauty desire begotten immortality. Once gone, the object of our admiration loses some of its original qualities in the fading recesses of our visual memories. How do we combat this in our quest to immortalize beautiful things? We find tangible ways to copy them. If beauty cannot remain immortalized in visual memory, we strive for the next best thing, to replicate it. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Beauty, upon becoming conscious of its tragic mortality, demands replication.

What’s the favored cultural choice for replication? The selfie. This self snapshot is a personalized way to copy our favorite moments, in freeze frame (recognizing their transience), with the hope that others will see and appreciate the aesthetic value. There’s an added benefit that others get to enjoy those moments with us. The selfie is a fun and practical way to mark events when others aren’t around to play the role of photographer, but as an example of beauty it falls short.

In selfies, the observed and observer are one and the same. The subject that is emanating beauty must attempt to copy itself. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but it deceptively supports the cultural ethos that tarnishes beauty’s reputation. This ethos is based upon a one-dimensional view of beauty that is superficial and self-conscious. Let me explain. In photography, the photographer plays the role of narrator, editing with the frame, choosing just the right light, and electing the exact moment to snap, the one that will best capture the edges of the human spirit. With the selfie the defined narrator is also the protagonist in the story. Therefore, the narrator loses essential perspective.

The outcome is this. What we end up capturing is not a self-forgetful photo that replicates beauty, but a contrived and self-conscious interpretation of what we think others want to see. In our self-consciousness we end up masking the attributes that would enhance others’ enjoyment of the aesthetic, we lose the three-dimensional replication. In this sense, the selfie is flat and one-dimensional. It captures us from the physical angles we believe enhance beauty–the eyes and cheekbones and lips, and these traits can be very appealing–but in our preoccupation with being photographer and subject, simultaneously, we lose our ability to unconsciously express a soulful beauty. The contrived nature of the photo whittles away some of the genuine expressiveness that would enhance the emanating internal beauty.

The exception to the selfie rule is when there’s more than one person in a selfie, at which point you may see less self-consciousness from those who aren’t playing the role of narrator. This advances the argument that beauty is best captured by an observer who is other-than the object of beauty itself.

Have you ever seen the candor in a captured expression that enriches the picture because of its self-forgetfulness? For example, a surprised or wide-eyed look, an unabashed and wide grin? These are all vestiges of the internal beauty rising to the surface at just the right moment of replication. Often, this effect is due to the interaction between the photographer and subject, an interaction that advances the storyline. This robust and non-superficial snap of beauty is best captured when the subject is acutely unaware of what he or she is emanating.

When we replicate beauty through photography, the interaction between photographer and subject can enhance the emergence of beauty in ways that allow it to be photogenically captured. This interaction hints at the communal nature of aesthetic emergence.

If beauty demands a separate observer (narrator) to interpret and replicate it, then beauty cannot be self-interpreted or solitary. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception. In its etymology, ‘welcome’ means that one comes with the well-wishes or consent of the person or thing already standing on that ground. It is as though the welcoming thing has entered into, and consented to, your being in its midst. Your arrival seems contractual, not just something you want, but something the world you are now joining wants.”

The moral of the story? If we apply Scarry’s definition, then beauty is best interpreted, replicated, and celebrated not in the solitude of the selfie, but in engaged and receptive community.

I truly hope that you who are camera shy will reconsider allowing yourself to play the singular role of subject. I hope you will take the risk of being photographed at varied angles and with unfiltered expressions knowing that beauty may emerge in unexpected ways, and interpreted differently than you would interpret it yourself. Can you dare to allow your beauty to be interpreted by other narrators? Can you dare to believe your own attractive qualities, when replicated, may contribute to the well-being of your community?

Communal observers of beauty desire begotten immortality, because true beauty points to that which is life-giving.

Musings: Back to School

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I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. –Maya Angelou

I would favor an addition to the list: the first day of school.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles that rite of passage. Parents are in mourning, children are celebrating…or is it vice versa? Teachers are bracing, ready to relive the Cold War and bunker under desks. Okay, maybe not all of them. Some teachers like the first day of school, much to the parents’ confusion.

Yes, you can tell a lot by that first day. So much of our cultural cadence fixes on the rhythms of the school year. And, I must say, so do our emotions. Those emotions, representing the collective cultural psyche, ebb and flow with the learning calendar. During the school year, routines re-emerge and the pace accelerates. We’re mostly all hurrying at the same times and slowing at the same times, with anxiety and impatience or boredom to match.

School year boredom is conquered by leaping from one awesome event to another. We’re perched precariously on the edges of our calendars to avoid landing on the unspecial days. And when there’s been too much family time or too much school time without the proper balance, there’s a palpable tension in the air, everywhere. We’re all a bit more impatient for things to reset, whether it’s for Christmas break to finally end, or for Spring break to hurry up and get here.

When we spend our time leaping from one event to another, time accelerates. And when time accelerates too quickly, we lose our bearings. We end up destabilized and anxious about lost time. We can also end up disillusioned by the special moments we’ve been living for that have failed our lofty expectations.

As we begin another school year and face the possibility of being swept up in the cultural tide, I hope we’ll each consider this. The first day of school can be a rite of passage into another year of life on fast forward, or, an opportunity to hit pause, observe, and decide: Will I show up for every single day of my life, poised and ready? Or will I discard the in-between moments and live for the highlight reel?

You can tell a lot about a person by how she handles the first day of school. But you can tell a lot more by how she handles the second day, the twelfth day, and the ninety-seventh.

Is Facebook the New Debbie Downer?

Debbie DownerThe true-to-life nature of SNL’s sketch on Debbie Downer now has backing from the Facebook Team. According to a Facebook research study, it turns out our moods are directly affected by what our friends share on social media.

I was sent a Mashable article on the ethical implications of this study and traced it back to the origin to uncover the conclusions of this peer-reviewed research.

Along with Cornell and UCSF, Facebook researchers used their news feed algorithm to edit the posted content on almost 700,000 user profiles. They skewed the feed either positively or negatively and then analyzed the resulting posts. The hypothesis was that the ingested content would affect the readers’ emotional states and contribute to an increased emotional response in their own posts. But the question was whether it would be correlative or inversely correlative. In other words, would reading positive content lead to writing more positive content or to writing more negative content? And vice versa.

The results? In short, they found that those whose feed was skewed positively ended up posting more positive content themselves and, conversely, those whose skewed negatively posted more negative content.

For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer. However, in psychology theory it doesn’t always pan out this way. Some research supports the opposite results that positive content skews negatively as a bias effect (meaning we’re socially influenced and typically react against that influence by assuming the opposite emotional response).

However we view the ethical implications of this research, it supports an important counseling idea: co-rumination. This is the belief that our moods are affected by the moods of those around us. This is so pervasive that, cognitively, when we hear others share negative beliefs about themselves, negative information, or critical ideas, over and over in a cognitive loop (rumination), we’re more likely to internalize those beliefs and feelings ourselves and start our own pessimistic loop.

Debbie Downer is a great example of this. Maybe you’re having a good day, but then run into Debbie who shares bad news, or you read something depressing on the internet. How do you feel afterwards? How does that content affect you? Now, imagine that Debbie doesn’t just share one piece of bad news, but fifteen horrible tragedies; how do you feel then?

In a digital world, we’re more vulnerable to absorbing large quantities of information in a shorter period of time than we were in bygone, analogue eras. Much of what we absorb has an emotional bias, whether we’re aware of it or not. This means that what we’re ingesting from our news feed can be metabolized differently depending on the emotions underneath that content. And anybody who knows dieting knows that metabolic rates can either make or break weight loss. In the same way, our ability to metabolize emotional content will affect the way we feel, think, and react—making or breaking our day.

This means intentional decisions about who and what we learn from are important to our emotional well-being. It also supports something else. Absorbing information well means we need to learn to stand on our own two feet. (More on that later.)

Have you considered how much you’re impacted by what you see and read on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? It would be easy for any of us to believe we’re above such impressionable responses, but as social creatures we were made to respond to the emotions of fellow humans, so whether we like it or not mirroring their responses is instinctual and catalytic.

So if this post made you angry, or sad, you can just call me Debbie Downer, blame your mood on my irritating ruminations, and go back to scanning memes and witty aphorisms. Or, you can start viewing social media just a little bit differently.

For my part, I’m curious about Mark Zuckerberg’s emotional response when he sees articles like this hit his own news feed…

Magic Ball

Magic BallIn the brick-lined inner sanctum of Camden Yards, magic was made Thursday night.  The magician’s hat descended after an unexpected sleight of hand by catcher Caleb Joseph.

Joseph is a recent addition who competed for backup catcher in spring training.  He was sent to the minors but got his big break when Wieters hit the disabled list.  Joseph was catching for Matusz, deadly against left-handers but currently facing right-hander Jose Reyes.

Picture this four-second trick.

Second 6: Reyes takes a full swing and tops the ball.

Second 7: It hugs the foul line as it bounces towards first base with Reyes running in tandem.  Joseph pops out from behind home plate.  Instead of running in a straight line to the ball (the natural path) he darts left towards the infield to get a proper angle on the ball and gain momentum to field it cleanly.  Halfway through second seven, Joseph, expertly positioned for momentum, has to make the decision to field the ball or leave it.  The instinctive response for a catcher in this position is to let the ball roll foul.  Joseph doesn’t do that.  He bypasses that inclination and fields it cleanly.

Now, there’s a first base rule that avid fans and Caleb Joseph alike are singularly focused on in the space between seconds 7 and 8.  This rule is known as interference.  Forty-five feet into the run towards first base, the single white line splits in two, and if there’s an infield, first base line play the runner has to stay between the two lines or the catcher can hit the runner for an out.  Usually, hitting a player running to a base doesn’t incur an out.  But in this case if his foot touches the infield he could obstruct the natural path of the ball and interfere with the defensive ability to throw it.

Second 8:  Reyes lands at the split.  He’s forty-five feet into the run and has reached a definitive boundary: the baseline.  This is the two, white lines he must live within until his foot lands on first base.  Since Joseph has the right angle on the ball, it won’t take long to throw.  But as Joseph scoops up the ball barehanded, Reyes passes that boundary and his right foot lands on the infield white line.  This means that Reyes’ left foot HAS to touch down in the infield.  Joseph anticipates the implications of Reyes’ right foot placement in a millisecond.   In that flash, he has to weigh four trajectory choices: 1. The natural choice: Go further inside, to the left, and throw to the first baseman 2. The long route: Go out to the right and throw to the first baseman, who is poorly positioned on the opposite side of the bag. 3. The prayer: A lob toss over the runner’s head to first base.  They don’t practice lob tosses in training, so the potential for error is high.  4. The Baseline Rule: The least instinctive option.  Hit the runner with the ball before he lands on first base.  The players’ jersey numbers are stamped in the middle of their backs.   The steadiest part of a player, while he’s running, is his back.  It’s also the widest part.   This creates the perfect target for a defensive bulls-eye.

Second 9:   Joseph opts for the Baseline Rule.  He flicks the ball and hits Reyes squarely in the back—squarely on the number 7.  The number seven is often used to symbolize perfection, completion, and fulfillment.  There was a sleight of hand Thursday.  That bulls-eye on 7 brought a sense of fulfillment, but not for Reyes.  Reyes had been duped.

__________

Reyes and Joseph both made split-second decisions.  The details of those decisions look like minutia: a quarter-inch foot placement, a 15 degree wrist flick, but they symbolize the difference between magic and mediocrity.

Humans are said to be creatures of habit.  Our everyday decisions can become robotic and patterned.  I wonder how often those decisions affect the broader outcomes in our lives.  Those patterned, habitual responses make the difference between success and failure.

The decision to hit the snooze button for an extra 15 minutes may leave you tired and rushed, affecting your productivity for the rest of the day.  The decision to watch TV instead of studying for the exam may leave you anxious and defeated, and ill-prepared when the exam time comes.  The decision to yell at your spouse rather than biting your tongue may mean hours of escalating arguments.  The decision to work late and miss your daughter’s soccer game may mean her getting the message that she’s not all that important.

Our productivity and relationships would benefit from baseball’s lessons.  To be aware of routine decisions and how they impact our lives is to be aware of how we shape the world around us moment by moment.

How do we create this awareness?  Close your eyes and play through a video of your own.  Observe a video of your typical day from beginning to end.  Pay attention to the routine decisions you normally take for granted.  I wonder how many decisions you make in a given four-second period that you aren’t even aware of.  Now, consider how those decisions impact your life.  What would happen if you chose to change even one of them?  What would happen if you were aware of those decisions, moment by moment, and chose the options that honored the people you love and the goals that matter?

The great thing about baseball is that it levels the playing field.  No matter how many gold gloves a guy has or what his batting average is, in any given play the backup catcher can don his magician’s hat and trick the all-star into an out.  Our little decisions do matter.  They level the playing field.  And if they level the playing field, then it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll choose magic or mediocrity.

The Ant and the Flower

ant and flower

 

Aspiring gardeners everywhere converge on flower shops during Memorial Day weekend to populate yard and house with perennials, bushes, and baskets.  This tradition always reminds me of a lesson I learned growing up.  My mom is a fantastic gardener with a vast array of knowledge about the little known intricacies of plants.  When I was young she shared the story of an often overlooked symbiotic relationship: the ant and the flower.

The peony is a long-stemmed perennial with lush, green foliage and an oversized, fragrant blossom.  It’s the supernova of flowers with a tightly confined bud that bursts open to reveal free form, vibrant petals in full bloom.

I rarely see this flower featured in vases, centerpieces, or clipping gardens, and with good reason.  Its indoor unpopularity can be attributed to the transportation of an unwelcome house guest: the ant.

When the peony is in its constricted bud form, the ant is drawn to its sticky, sweet sap.  The ant will journey to the center of the bud, loosening the petals as it squeezes in between, pushing its way to the sweet nectar.  Over time, some believe it is the ant’s journey inward to the nectar that opens the petals, exposing them to the sunlight and completing the transformation from bud to bloom.  Once the flower blooms, the ant leaves.

Without the ant, full bloom is unlikely.  The internal petals are shrouded by the constricting outer ones, and sunlight is prevented, leading to browned and shriveled buds that drop from the stem.

Some say this is merely a tale–ants aren’t essential for the transformation to occur.  All agree, however, that if the ants weren’t there, other bugs would eat away at the plant, thereby killing it.


There’s a symbiotic relationship between our past and present.  If the bud to flower transformation is growth, the ant is the past nudging its way into the center of that bud, intrusively pushing until it opens.  Once the transformation is complete, it leaves.

Most of us dissect time into separate blocks.  We say, “It’s in the past,” meaning that what happened at a single point in our life story no longer affects the way we interact with our current reality.

We have a greater propensity to believe this when we’re in pain.  This is a protective mechanism.  If we tell ourselves an experience is in the past and no longer applies to our present, we can suppress the painful feelings and associations that go with it.

The past is the intrusive ant, imposing upon the present flower.  Without the present, the past remains untranslated; without the past, the present remains underdeveloped.

All of us have negative, patterned responses that insist on surfacing, episodically.  This can come in the form of hair trigger reactions to yelling, or compulsive nail biting when we’re under stress, or over indulging in our hobbies when we’re angry.

These responses are markers of our past bleeding into our present.  They represent the way we’ve learned to compensate.  Most of us blindly engage in these responses with little thought to how they originated until they become untenable.

If we choose to notice them, they are clues to understanding that symbiotic relationship, and how the translation of the past can transform the present.

This Memorial Day weekend, when you observe the blossoming spring foliage, consider the ant and the flower.  What are the responses in your world that are markers of the intruding past?  What is unfinished in the growth process that necessitates the symbiosis?

As I write this, there’s a tiny, black ant dancing across my keyboard.  I feel a little surge of excitement, as if he’s a welcome herald, signaling that my life is about to change.