Friday, November 28, 2014

Thankful for the small things

A lone pelican works our cove, swooping with his huge beak pointed downward, keen eyes following fingerlings below the surface of the water.

He spots a fat one and forming a dagger with his body, he plunges, then bobs to the surface, tilts his enormous beak upward and lets his holiday hors d’oeurvre slip down his throat.

Then, extending his neck, he spreads his wings wide, flaps once, twice, and rises again into the hazy sunshine.  Magnificent.  Serene.  Emblematic of the beauty of nature and the cycle of life.

Across the alley, my neighbor’s boys jump on their trampoline, rising above the fence line in counterpoint, their longish hair rising too, outward, and their arms for balance.  Their young voices call out into the crisp air. 

Leaves on the gingko tree in their yard fan out yellow now.  And behind it, what is that tree?  Scarlet!  Dazzling.

My cat hops onto my lap as I write, turns and curls into her coziest configuration, pushing her nose and lips against my hand as she goes.  Her predecessor lived to 21 years so I’m hoping she will accompany me into my old age.  We are of like minds, after all.

I hear our boomerang son in his room below me, cajoling his online international team members in World of Warcraft.  He’ll be with us another year or so as he reestablishes himself on solid ground this time.  He’s smart and strong and good.  Just like we hoped and planned for, if a little tardy.

Mr. Plath and I have been married almost 25 years now and we have that easy comfort of a pair of old shoes. 

2015, our Silver Anniversary year is shaping up to be a memorable one:  He’s retiring come February and already dancing the happy dance of a short-timer.  A party is definitely in the offing. 

We’re planning a nostalgic repeat of our honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls coupled this time with a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  While we’re in the neighborhood, we might head over to Fenway Park to see Pablo Sandoval play.

There’s even talk of a third pilgrimage to Alaska this year to catch some halibut for the freezer – you really only need one!  Maybe we’ll go to Kodiak Island this time.  See glaciers and bald eagles.  And a moose.  Or a grizzly.  Through the binoculars!

That book I vowed to complete in 2014 is close to its checkered flag.  One last push and I’ll move it to the next phase, still muddling along, learning as I go.

On Facebook, past students send out their Thanksgiving wishes.  Some are married with babies and toddlers and I feel like a virtual grand-mamma.  The least taxing role of all, but still heartwarming.  Maybe before too long the Boomerang Kid will produce some progeny and we will be real-time actual grandparents! 

Oklahoma friends and family send smiling pictures and “wish you were here!”  Out of focus or too far from the lens – it’s OK.  The message still hits the mark.

I have it easy for Thanksgiving dinner again this year.  The Plath family gathers in Sacramento.  Siblings, spouses and the next generation, and the next, arrive bearing side dishes.  Cheesy broccoli and rice casserole.  Candied yams.  My sister-in-law is the only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t want leftovers.  She always sends lots of turkey home with us.  Yum!

My beloved 94-year-old father-in-law will make the trek and hold court at the dinner table.  Seeing him gaze into the eyes of his great-granddaughter is mystical and life-affirming.

These next few weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year are some of my favorites – joyful and sentimental.  I’ll decorate the house this weekend and have as many mini-parties as I can to share it and show it off and celebrate.

Oh!  A pair of swans glides across the cove now!  And Pachelbel on the radio!  My mother would love this!  She raised me on classical music and Audubon.  Thanks Mom. 

So there it is – my thanks-giving. 

I could go on, but you get the gist.  Life is so good.  Bittersweet and sweet.  Better than I ever imagined it could be.   

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Black, white and gray

As is well-established by science, there are two types of people in the world.  There have only ever been two types.  Two types alone.  Amen.

Any effort to define and sort people into a third group is futile.  A fourth?  Abomination!

People love the binary and in fact will self-sort.

You’re either built for comfort or built for speed.  You declare yourself a lover not a fighter. 

You recognize the universal duality as you go about your daily life:  There are those who signal and those who blithely change lanes.  Those who listen and those who merely wait their turn to talk.

Cat people.  Dog people.  Wallflowers and dancers.  Math people and the rest of us.   

Don’t mess with the order of the universe.  Coke or Pepsi, man.  Make your choice!  Commit!

It’s been true since Noah built the Ark.  Two by two, dude.  Two by two.

But the wise guys at Personality andIndividual Differences just couldn’t leave it alone.  They just had to tinker.  Guess which of these two groups they fall into – those who make things simple and those who make things complicated.

And the result of their meddling?  The title of their research tells it all:  “How many diurnal types are there?  A search for two further ‘bird species.’”

First of all – Diurnal?  Diurnal?!!  That in itself is a tipoff.  Who says ‘diurnal’?  These aren’t red-blooded American lab geeks. 

You’re not a ‘diurnal type’!  You’re either an early bird or a night owl.  Period. 

But evidently, if your family names are Putilov, Donskaya and Verevkin, you just had to investigate.  You had to fiddle with the American way of life.

Sure, Mr. Putin’s emissaries start with larks (early birds) and (night) owls, like normal people.  But they immediately get into unnecessary subtleties.  What does it matter if you don’t fit the pigeon hole? 

Because you do fit it! 

Do not attempt to resist your label.  You lark you.  You owl.

Admit it.  You’re in one of two sleep-over camps:  1) you prefer to get up early and prance around cheerily as though you are something special.  And so you go to sleep early because even you, in all your insane optimism, cannot sustain that level of irritating merriment past dark.  Thereby you are an early bird – a lark.

 Or, 2) you prefer to rise according to the prophecy – when the mid-morning sun is on your face and the cat is desperate for nourishment.  You go about your business like a sensible human being and get your news of the world from Jon Stewart and StephenColbert, thereby demonstrating your night owlishness.

Don’t fight it!  Resistance is futile.  And rough on the feathers.

But here we go:  Thanks to the Ruskies we now have two more types of sleep/wake patterns to cope with somehow.  They identified a third group of extremely annoying people who feel high energy in the morning as well as at night. 

Where do these people fit in?  What are we normal dichotomous folks supposed to do with Diurnal Group #3?  They probably put ketchup on their hot dogs for God’s sake. 

I’ll bet they unwrap packages by slipping their fingers along the edge of the seam, loosening the tape, just so, saving the paper and ribbons for reuse.  I really hate these people.  Really, I do.

What shall we call these giddily energetic folks?  Why hummingbirds of course!  They’re probably high on sugar water.

And then there’s the fourth group who feel lethargic all day.  These guys make us night owls look bad.  If we nap during in the afternoon to make up some REM time, the logic holds; but Group 4 sullies that fine institution.

There, there.  Poor weary you.  You’re too worn-out to eat the crust of your pizza.  You don’t have the strength to sort your Skittles.

Look, just because you lay about heaving heavy sighs, back of your hand to your forehead all day, doesn’t mean you deserve your own avian appellation. 

But it’s too late now.  The damage is done.  Patterns detected and documented.  The only thing remaining is the moniker.  And the Russians don’t disappoint.

What better name to call such a ringer?  Number 4 in a two-category world?


Friday, November 14, 2014

Call me Neo

 You’ll excuse me if I seem etheric.    

I have passed through a complicated mass of neurobiology and entered the flow state.  The deep now. 

Always seeking the cutting edge, and in accordance with the latest research, I have eased up on my gray matter accelerator and backed off my normally ultra-quick sharp-as-a-tack-edness.

But Carolyn, you must be thinking, why would you do such a thing? 

I’m so glad you asked. 

I have gone deep to improve my performance in the realm of mental acuity.  I read about it in an article on Big Think titled, “Your Brain Performs Better When It Slows Down.”

At first glance, that might seem like a paradox; but it made immediate sense to me, being pretty darned acute already. 

Of course!  Thought I.  I want to expand my awareness.  And at last, I can quit gritting my teeth and ease into amplification; turns out, a pokey perceptual pace performs preeminently!

That’s what best-selling author of TheRise of Superman, Steven Kotler, talks about on Big Think – “the optimization of consciousness through flow states.” 

And I’m all over it.

The best way to describe a person in flow, e.g. me, is a person who obtains the ability to hone her focus on the task at hand so keenly that everything else falls away. 

That is so me!

Sometimes, I am so immersed in writing this very column, Dear Reader, that time “dilates,” which means it slows down (You’re welcome).  

I strive for that freeze frame effect Kotler references, just like the one Keanu Reeves has in The Matrix when Laurence Fishburne is trying to teach him martial arts, or kill him.  

According to Kotler, Keanu and I are in “bullet time.”

Conversely, he says time may speed up and five hours will pass by in what seems like five minutes.  Not sure what that means on the actual clock.  Did I miss my nap?

But yeah.  There’s nothing else quite like it.  Not since the sixties anyway.  As though wading through molasses, I can navigate my slow crawling stream of consciousness.  Everything is within my reach – eventually.  I pull words out of the cosmos as if they’re Carl Sagan’s teeth.  Whatever.

And, Kotler says, when in flow, “all aspects of performance go through the roof.”

It’s relative, of course.  I mean, if a person’s mental performance in her normal, anxiety-ridden, distraction-filled, scatter-brained time is at a baseline of, say, four, then the ceiling is considerably lower.  Think old English thatched-roof bungalow.  It’s fairly easy to reach up and touch it.  

Still, it’s an improvement.

Big Think says it’s a common myth that humans use only 10% of their brains.  If that were true, an optimal “flow” performance would mean the brain works harder and faster to achieve 100% efficiency.  But Kotler says that’s backwards –

"In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down, shutting down.  The technical term for this is transient, meaning temporary, hypo frontality.  Hypo – H – Y – P – O – it’s the opposite of hyper – means to slow down, to shut down, to deactivate.” 

OK.  He seems a little condescending.  I mean really.  We get the transient hypo frontality thing, Mr. I’m-the-Brainiac Scientific Guy.

And since the prefrontal cortex calculates time, when we experience this transient hypo frontality, we lose the ability to sense past, present, and future.  Hence, flow.

As Kotler explains it, "We’re plunged into the ‘deep now.’”

So it’s all good in the deep now, even if it is a bit of a conundrum:  You get to the flow when performing at high levels.  And when you’re in the flow, performance levels are enhanced. 

Kotler says scientists have studied flow for 140 years and it is present in every altered state from dreaming to mindfulness to psychedelic trips.  Umm hmm.  

When in the deep now, your sense of self-doubt and your brain's inner critic are silenced.  This results in boosted states of confidence and creativity. 

That will come in handy because I’ve been thinking for a while now that it would be fine with me if my Inner Critic would just Shut Up.  She’s messing with my flow, man.

In the meantime, I’m scheduled for a cookie with the Oracle.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Land of the free; home of the sorta happy

I’m about to realize a life-long dream – moving to the Happiest Place on Earth!

I’ve had it with all this marginal joy!  It’s just not good enough.  Why settle for 16th best?

That’s right.  The United States ranks 16th among the top 25 happiest countries in the world, according to a study conducted by Juliana Breines, Ph.D. of Brandeis University and online source of good news, usually:  The GreaterGood Science Center:  The Science of a MeaningfulLife.

Our blissful country didn’t even make the middle of the pack of republics populated with gleeful peeps.  Nope.  This land of opportunity was topped by the likes of Finland and Bulgaria.  The Czech Republic!

My favorite guy is a Czechoslovakian and I’m a nervous wreck.  I took him home to meet my folks.  But my folks said they don’t accept Czechs.

Sorry.  I know I’m distracted.  I had to take a moment to process the news of my melancholy.

I had no idea.  It’s mortifying.  All this time.  Tripping along as though I were content! 

And who’s Number One?  Croatia!  That’s right!  That bright destination spot of the Eastern Bloc countries:  Croatia! 

OK.  Croatia is really #2 on the list following Costa Rica.  But everyone knows Costa Rica must be happy, right?  It’s no fun to write about that!

So – Croatia.  Based on this survey, moving to Croatia would constitute a 14 point jump on the contentment countdown.  In one fell swoop!  And who doesn’t love a fell swoop?

But when I think of Croatia, all I can picture is a damp World War II nation of blues and grays; head scarves; bad posture; plows strapped to tired horses in fields of … OK.  I’m a typical US citizen who knows virtually nothing about anything outside our borders, save Cancun and Cabo.

Speaking of which, why didn’t Mexico rate higher on the happiness index?  Oh wait.  It did.  #11.  Incredible.

Anyway, I looked it up.  Croatia…here it is:  Formerly a single party Socialist union; declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991; became totally cool thereafter.  Sunny beaches and high Human Development Index. 

Who knew?  The pictures are beautiful.  And they have a travel bureau.  I’m going to live there.

Or Denmark.  Denmark tops another international happiness survey carried out annually by Leicester University inEngland.  The US ranks 23rd on that one, by the way.

What in the world could possibly make the home of Hamlet so much flippin’ fun?

CBS News talked to Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of SouthernDenmark, who found it odd too.  So he conducted a careful investigation and published his results in study called, “Why Danes are Smug.”

He says it's because they're so glum!  Wha??  They get happy when things turn out not quite so badly as they expected.

That’s it!  The key to Danish happiness:  Low expectations! 

Don’t aim for the moon, Frederik.  Be glad you get a filtered view on a cloudy night.  

Danish national anthem – sing along with me - Denmark, oh Denmark!  You could easily be worse!

I didn’t find a list where the US ranks first in anything except maybe list making.  We come in 6th when compared to more individualistic cultures.  Those happiness measures tap personal accomplishments and self-esteem as sources of happiness.  Ffft!  

We score well in the category of “Flourishing,” a measure focused on individual achievement.  Sample question: “I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me.”  The Croats couldn’t care less.

Yep.  Costa Rica and Croatia beat us out in Subjective Happiness.  They report that they are extremely happy.  We report we’re happy, kinda. 

Get this – in spite of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram,LinkedIn and all that crapola, the Croats and the Costa Ricans score higher in Social Connections than we do.  What’s up with that?  I’m gonna unfriend them!

Low levels of Stress.  High Life Satisfaction.  Yadda yadda yadda.

So I guess they’re pretty laid back.  Denmark too.  I picture them all hanging out in their European cliques singing “Zippity Do Dah!”

It just makes me mad.  I mean where do they get off being happier than we are?  The very nerve!

I might just take my hard-earned American money and, and…  Maybe I’ll move to Disneyland.