Friday, January 28, 2011

open to change

They don't "follow" rules here. It's rather comofrting.

My new haircut, Katy's new haircut

A week ago I put about everything I own into my car and moved up to Rhode Island, from North Carolina, stopping overnight in New Jersey at the delightful home of darling friend Katy.

Now I'm sitting at the kitchen table of my new home, with my new flatmate, in a new city, a new state, with a new bank, a new haircut, a new internship and experiencing a new culture.

They say that Rhode Island has a lot of corruption. That's probably an overstatement, but there is a laxity that seems to be threaded through everything. Rules aren't followed the same way here. Driving, for example, is a bargaining game. If there is only barely room for one car on the road (what with parked cars on both sides and severe snow banks), you negotiate who gets to go through the narrow spots first. Stop signs are a suggestion, but a suggestion even for the streets that don't face them. Signalling? Optional. Turning left on a red light? Ok now and then. There's a lot of casual finger waving from the steering wheel. None of it so far has been the least bit grumpy.

I got a new bank account today, and, after some 90 minutes of chitchat and paperwork, my Banking Representative® introduced me to the branch manager. He said to make sure I be aware of and take advantage of all the benefits of my new account. I asked about waiving fees for international money transfers, which wasn't listed. He looked down, thought about it, and said ok. He said if I find I have those fees, to talk to him and he'd get them reversed.

Of course, I had just opened a lot of interesting accounts with them, but still, it's this attitude.

I went to a full-service laundromat today with my bag of dirties, asking about their fluff-n-fold service. They told me the deal, and said it was a busy day so it wouldn't be ready til noon tomorrow.
"Ah, noon?" I asked, just to confirm.
"You want it a sooner time? We can do that if you need it a certain time in the morning?" The owners squinted at me congenially, proposing.
"Noon?" I countered.
"Yeah, noontime, we'll have it ready then."

Yes, these places want my business. Yes, they want to appear friendly and welcoming. But I get the impression at the coffee shops, on the phone with the guy who runs the parking lot I use, with the waitresses and the neighbours and the grocery store check-out clerks that there is a more flexible attitude here.

The banking rep lady even took me back behind the tellers, past the area with the safe, down into the staff-only basement, so I could use the small, strange ladies' room!

A year ago I think this would have driven me crazy.

Everything is sort of lax, slightly unpredictable, up for renegotiation. Where are the guarantees? The commitments? Will pedestrians retreat to the sidewalks or stay on the streets? Why didn't that car look before reversing right in front of me? Will I get kicked out if my flatmate's landlord finds out I'm subletting the spare bedroom? And all these promised favors, will they be retracted?

The truth is, of course, that nothing is ever guaranteed. We never really know what's going to happen next, to us or to others. Every single day things happen that remind me that I have no guarantees.

I actively look for these things. It's sort of a little inside joke I have with the universe. Every single day it proves to me that I am not in control by presenting to me something I couldn't have predicted.

I think sometimes in the back of our minds we assume that certain things are, well, certain. Almost as if we were in control of this place. Heck, I can't even fully control when I finally throw back the sheets and decide to climb out of bed instead of lazing about with my iPhone.

So, every day I keep an eye out for stuff that happens that demonstrates that I'm not in control. Stuff that sort of surprises me. Some religious types might call it "proof that God exists" or that S/He is running this place instead of me.

Some days it's a bizarre piece of litter on the sidewalk -- a child's sundress on a fence, clean and pressed, in the middle of winter. Other days it's an email from an unexpected source, or a strange sound filling the parking lot.

Sometimes it's the sudden absence of a familiar item or routine occurence. 

We are always out of control, and frankly, it's pretty great.

Especially in a place like Rhode Island where it seems it's expected that there's going to be some of the unexpected. I'm going to try to relax, shrug, and wave my neighbor in the car next to me through the intersection.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1000 Awesome Things?

A friend recently suggested I submit something to

Even stinging cuts can be awesome.

I really like Neil. I saw his TED Talks video and found I really agree with his philosophy and was touched by his story.

But something about the website/concept doesn't sit that well with me. Some of the things are sort of selfish. Virtually all of them involve gratification. 

What I find inspiring is being able to take delight in things that Neil would probably NOT consider awesome.

Suppose you are having a really shitty day because a ton of dirty snow got in your car and you had to sit in it and your butt got all cold and wet, and etc etc. 

I'd love to see someone describe how THIS is still awesome. And I mean AWESOME.

Because ideally we'd be able to experience the world where everything was awesome, right? Not just the things we already think are cool, because that's easy. That's like just skipping to dessert and pronouncing cake to be where it's at. 

I say Brussles sprouts are just as tasty, even if they are a little burnt.


Then sometimes I think (because clearly I have thought about this website quite a bit) that maybe I have to start relishing even the "good" things in life more, if I have such hang-ups over them / this website!

ahaha, nah, I enjoy the shit out of life. :)

So, I decided to submit something not "obviously" awesome. 

Life cannot be a game of hopscotch, jumping from gratification to gratification. The entire experience of being alive can be blissful, and our preferences for the smell of coffee over the smell of boiled cabbage lead us to frown when we're over the stew pot.

My submission: "humdrum overcast days"
Those days that at first glance make you go "bleh" ... but they don't have to. One on such day in college a friend said he loved this sort of weather, and I thought, "Awesome!"

Ok, at first I thought, "Are you nuts?!" but then I realized that if I could enjoy overcast days as much as brilliant sunshine-y days, I'd be a much happier person.

So often we only seek out things we already consider pleasurable. In their absence we flounder, miserable, searching for the next whiff of coffee or perfect-nacho-off-someone-else's-plate. Not everything is immediately jubilant, but it doesn't mean we can't come to appreciate -- nay, REVEL -- in all the other details, too.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

breaking bad habits

Maybe you have resolved to start, stop, or alter a habit in 2011. Sometimes it's stopping a habit that is the hardest, but if you can narrow down the exact moments when action is critical, the whole process is much easier. (You can modify these steps to form a new habit, too.)

NOTE: If you are dealing with a habit that involves addictive or illegal substances, or anything with physical withdrawal symptoms, you should also have a read through the book The Addiction Solution and follow its guide.

Ok so anyway, if you are just trying to stop obsessive thoughts over a love interest, or snacking in front of the TV, or playing computer games so much, stuff like that, here's a guide to reaching your goal sooner.

  1. Firmly decide that you want to break the habit.
  2. Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

That's it!

Oh ho, if only we could all just do things so simply! Wouldn't that be great? Actually, with some practice you can definitely get better at this stuff. Let's look at these two parts separately.

Firmly decide that you want to break the habit

Each word here matters. It's a decision, a conscious decision. Imagine life with the habit, and life without the habit. Imagine a situation where you typically do the thing, and consider that one day you may instead not do it. Is this something you want?

Hmmmm... if you're like me, at this stage, even this stage, a little whisper of doubt creeps in and says, "Actually, I sort of like this bad habit for some reason." Well, tough. You need to decide this before you start. Make up your mind. Think about your long-term future, think about your ideal lifestyle, think about your best version of your Self. Still want to have the habit?

You need to want to change. This is when you do your research on what is good or bad, your soul-searching. Now, in your philosopher's armchair, not later when faced with the temptation itself. Some part of you wants to change. Focus on that part.

Decide firmly. And to break the habit, not merely put it aside for a while.

Not easy! But again: much MUCH easier now than when the thing is right in front of you.

I recommend taking 10 minutes right now on this. Set a timer so you don't "waste" any extra precious internet-surfing time (I know how it is...). For the first 5 minutes, just clear your mind. I have a meditation guide explaining what I mean by this, but maybe you have your own method. Then take 5 minutes and really focus on this decision. Take as much time as you need, but I find a timer helps me get started and focused.

Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

So, if you normally come home and go straight to the bad-habit computer game, this means coming home and then remembering you were not going to go to the game anymore. And then not playing it.

What do you do instead? Saying yes is so much easier than saying no, so figure out beforehand that you will be saying yes to some other activity -- instead of thinking about this as saying no to the game. You can be saying yes to a better future, or you can be saying yes to watching youtube videos. It's going to be a lot easier to have prepared activities in mind, mostly things you generally enjoy doing.

Come up with a bunch of things you'll be saying yes to, both philosophical and concrete. Come up with a bunch of replacement activities, both fun things and productive ones.

And now, it's time to practice. You've already firmly decided you want to break this habit, remember. Remember this because you're about to face the toughest part of breaking the habit.

In reality, there are very few pivotal moments in this whole thing. It's the moments at which you decide to do the activity or not. Included in this is those moments where you realize you're doing the thing, and you either continue or you stop. These are the only moments you need to worry about, and the only ones you really need to prepare for. So the idea is to practice facing these moments when you're of solid mind and strong desire, so that when you face them in reality you'll be better off.

Take another 10 minute chunk of time. Again, spend the first 3-5 minutes just clearing your mind. It's going to be important to focus. For the remainder imagine a future situation in which you normally do the habit, and then imagine yourself not doing it (by doing something else instead). As often as necessary, go through the first exercise of re-affirming your desire to change this habit and all the reasons for doing so.

Again, this might be pretty tough! That slimy thought of "actually I don't mind this habit that much" may come back to strangle your will with its fat, greasy fingers. But keep deciding, and keep practicing, and brush those tempting hands away. Of course it's hard. You would have broken this habit long ago, otherwise. But it's easier to decide now during practice than during the real thing.

And so, next time you are actually faced with the decision, go through your plan. Reiterate to yourself the reasons for stopping, and recall your firm decision to stop. Then do a different activity instead of the habitual one.

Remember: just like how in practice you can fail and falter a few times and that's ok, the same thing goes for real life. Don't give up just because you didn't do it perfectly the first time. That's fine, it's all fine, everything is fine, just keep practicing and following through will be easier and easier!

Have you tried this and found it successful? Any tips to make it even more effective! Please leave a comment letting me know!