The Math of Life

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

–Annie Dillard, author

Let’s talk about the math of life.

If you could mash all the similar stuff together, how long would you have spent driving or sleeping?

I used to live in northern Virginia, not far from the capital. I worked in DC. It was only 19 miles, but the commute used to take me an hour, easily. Sometimes an hour and a half. I moved away and I moved there, so that commute was only a small part of my career. But what if it wasn’t? If I started working at 21 – and that’s late for a lot of us – and I worked all the way until retirement at 65, that means two hours of commuting a day for 44 years, or 32,032 hours spent in my car, fuming at idiot drivers, mentally rehearsing excuses for being late to a meeting, and just being angry.

Say you sleep for 8 hours a night. Eight hours a night for seven days means 56 hours a week. That means 2912 hours a year. Now, let’s pretend you live until you’re 80. That means you will have slept 232,960 hours before the…well, the final sleep. That’s a lot of time not living.

How much time are you spending on pleasure?

Most of us schedule a vacation.

We block time out to go away, to goof off, to travel. But if we go away for a week or two, what happens the other 50 weeks of the year?

There are two things I love to do: dance and ride horses.

For years, I did neither.

Recently, I started going to a dance studio for weekly drop-in lessons. Sort of Bob Fosse style dancing. I am terrible. I know this when I glance in the mirror and see my own performance, just a beat behind the other dancers in the class. But I am exhilarated. I can not tell you how happy I feel when class is done, how present in my own body, how sexy.

And horseback riding?

It’s expensive. There aren’t any good stables closer than an hour away.

Can you hear the excuses?

Maybe I can’t afford the time or the money to ride every week. But every quarter? I can do that. That’s four hours of bliss I’m putting back on my calendar.

And you know what else I’m adding back onto my calendar?

Unscheduled play time. Remember that? Time to think, time to create, time to be. I don’t have an agenda for this time, I’m just going to include some unplanned time every week and the only rule is I can’t work.

Math has never been my strong point, but I’m going to try to make the math of life work for me instead of working for some mathematical equation that never adds up…you know the one…the one where you work 60 hours instead of 40 and still expect to have a full life with the rest of the hours.

Take out the almost 233,000 hours you need to sleep. And then add hours of pleasure.

Because, if “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” – I don’t want to spend my life miserable. Do you?

Listen to the companion podcast. 

Hourglass

 

 

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Robots

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I love knowing stuff. Maybe that’s why I’ve been glued to the TV during the run of Jeopardy champ, James Holzhauer, who has a system – he goes big right away in the categories so he buys himself some cash to lose if he needs to – but who also has an astounding array of facts inside his head.

It’s amazing to watch.

I’m really good at memorizing. Being able to memorize helped me in school. Ask me those same things the day after the test, and I’d look at you blankly. I hadn’t really learned anything, I’d just memorized.

I  was having lunch with some friends recently and they all have school-aged children. They were talking about what a struggle school is for their highly creative children because they are being taught facts in order to spit those facts out on standardized tests that will make them – and their schools – look good. It’s important to look good. Funding for the schools depends on it.

But, of course, what’s happening is that the kids are learning information and not how to think. They aren’t learning that the nifty thing they learned in history class is the reason the other nifty thing they learned in science class matters. They aren’t learning with heart. In fact, I would argue, they aren’t even learning.

Ask them after those standardized tests if they remember anything. I’ll bet their minds purged the facts just as thoroughly as mine used to.

You know what stuck with me, through all of my school years and even now?

Stories.

Stories that took those disparate facts and shaped them with context and emotion and memory. Stories may or may not do it for you. But they probably do. There is nothing so comforting as the “once upon a time…” You just sink into it, don’t you? It’s how we humans keep the dark away.

Some of the news I watch is all worried that robots are going to take over our jobs. But robots can’t yet mimic the nuance that is story. I was reading a story about robots writing news – they can gather appropriate facts, but journalists don’t have to worry yet, because they can’t arrange the facts into the kind of flow that is almost intuitive with humans. It’s the way we communicate. It’s full of nuance and sometimes full of contradictions. Robots don’t handle nuance or contradiction as well as we do.

Even outside of writing, decisions get made based on intuition and experience and just that indefinable “something” – robots don’t have our bias, but they don’t have our gut either.

Robots can analyze data at breath-taking speed, but I can’t see them making that dazzling leap that we humans do when we jump into innovation because something that has nothing to do with what we’re working on, just might work for what we’re working on.

I’m not worried about robots taking over our jobs. I’m worried about humans being turned into robots because they are being fed facts – information and not knowledge.

Artificial Intelligence Brain

 

Listen to the companion podcast. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting Her Back In

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People tell you that you should remove toxic people from your life.

But what if you’ve removed someone from your life not because they are toxic but because you were toxic when you were with them? And what if they want back in now?

I had a friend when I was in college.

When I met this friend my first night at the college dorm, I was blown away.  She was sophisticated and glamorous. Everything I hadn’t tried in high school, she had already done, and more. She made being bad seem like fun – kind of like those bad girls in the noir detective films. I was smitten.

We moved from the dorm into an apartment together. It was a big party. Until it wasn’t.

The stuff I thought was so sophisticated turned into adult-sized problems I just wasn’t mature enough to handle.

A few years passed. My friend married an older guy with a lot of money who seemed pretty decent, but the marriage didn’t last long. I found my own – not older — guy and we moved in together.

We weren’t super-close anymore, but we were still friends.

Until the time – the second time, actually – I got a call in the middle of the night from the cops. My number was the emergency number my friend carried. And she had overdosed – again. The cops wanted me to know what hospital she was going to be in – again.

When she was sober, I told her not to call me again. I told her I needed to save my own life and I just didn’t have anything left to give her.

Years went by and then, last month, there was a message in LinkedIn. She had kept track of me. She could understand if I didn’t want to connect, but she had always loved and admired me. How was I?

I let the message sit for days.

She seemed to be doing well, based on what she wrote me about her life. I was happy to hear that.

But did I want her back in my life?

I am left to wonder. If I don’t offer to repair the friendship, am I trying to punish her somehow for things that were completely out of her control? Am I protecting myself from future heartache in case she’s not as put together as her message made her sound? Am I afraid that her sadness might somehow smudge the happy-happy now I’ve created? And am I the person I thought I was if I just shut her out again?

I don’t have answers. I don’t want to hurt her. I just don’t want to hurt myself either.

Listen to the companion podcast. 

 

 

 

Touch

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Are you a touch-me-please or a touch-me-not?

Vice President Joe Biden has been in the news recently because he’s a handsy guy and he apparently smells women’s hair and some of the women are really uncomfortable with the whole thing.

And I have to say, the whole tenor of the news coverage leaves me…uncomfortable.

Full disclosure here. I’m a hugger.

Humans need touch. Babies who are left without cuddling fail to thrive. Scientists have studied hugs and they’ve found that hugs can affect your mood and your stress level in a positive way.

When you’ve had a tough time, hugs can heal when people just can’t find the right words. In fact, sometimes words do more damage because people say the wrong thing, or they try to fix the problem for you when all you want is empathy.

One immunologist says that our brains use physical experiences and objects as sort of memory anchors that affect us long into the future. They can be bad experiences, but the bonding ones – like hugs – affect us too.

Hugs can heal – but should we stop with all the hugging?

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons you might not like hugs. The hugger could be using the hug as a sort of power play—when the person doing the hugging is aggressive about it and uses  it to make the person being hugged feel powerless. Or maybe you’ve undergone a trauma. For someone who has been abused, a hug can feel like confinement.

So maybe we should never hug. Or maybe never hug in the workplace

Because my need to touch definitely does not trump your agency over your body. You are the boss of your body.

But touch is human. It’s an instinct we have from birth.

I don’t think you can penalize someone for that instinct.

And that brings me back to the whole Biden story.

Women who say they were uncomfortable with Biden’s handsy style – and he was handsy with everyone, by the way – men, women and children – have the right to be uncomfortable. For sure. But did they tell him? Or did they wince in silence and resent him all these years? If they told him and he continued…then yes, let’s condemn him. Or now that it’s been all over the news and he says he gets it…let’s see if he changes his behavior.

But I worry a little that, by framing these women as “victims,” we risk demonizing all human touch. And that risks isolating all of us on little islands of touch-me-not. Even if we desperately want or need that touch.

Listen to the companion podcast!

 

Human Touch

Great to Good

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Tim Curry  supposedly said that the dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.

I try not to have too many regrets, but sometimes it’s harder than others to stay juicy.

I recently turned 59. And something about realizing it was my last year before turning 60 made me reflective. The sixties are the decade of retirement and endings…I mean, I know in my head that’s not true, but that little negative voice popped up and said I’d better take stock of what I’ve done in life.

Or maybe it was the drivers’ license.

I live in South Carolina. In its wisdom, my state refused to make its drivers get the kind of license that the rest of the country uses because it’s hard to counterfeit, which I guess we need in this post-9/11 world. But South Carolina thumbed its nose at the Feds until it realized that meant we couldn’t travel without passports. So now we need to get new driver’s licenses.

It took forever and about 300 pieces of paper to prove I was who I said I was. The woman at the photo counter said I could take my glasses off. And I could smile. I had some witty quip. Don’t know what it was, but while I said it, my mouth fell open into a wide laugh, my eyes squinted, and my chin tucked, making about five extra chins. And, click! There’s your photo!

I look like a pasty pumpkin with raisin eyes.

Think I’m exaggerating? My husband looked at it and visibly shuddered.

Try living with THAT for 9 years when the thing expires!

So, of course, I obsessed and stared at the photo all the way home.

But what if it did? Photos don’t lie, right?

And if I’m wrong about the way I look, what else am I wrong about?

And then, I thought about the (very) long list of things I may never achieve:

  • Be a great dancer
  • Be a star athlete
  • Play the piano
  • Start a nonprofit
  • Run for office
  • Get my novel published

 

I am realizing that I will never be great. At anything. That being good – or even average — is going to have to be good enough.

Business books tell you how to go from good to great. I’m learning how to go from great to good.

But ultimately, I think I’d rather keep falling on my ass after the leap than sitting on my ass refusing to even try.

And that driver’s license? I got it retaken. And I did smile, but not the full-on chortle that brought out the extra chins. It’s not going to be on any magazine covers, but it’s not going to scare the children, either.

LISTEN TO THE COMPANION PODCAST

Daydreaming youth

Let’s Pretend

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Have you recovered from losing that hour yet? Daylight savings time. I love farmers, but I hate the time change that’s based on an agrarian society.

It got me thinking…I’m not the only one who hates daylight savings time, so why do we put up with it? It’s basically a mass hallucination, right? We all agree to pretend that it’s an hour later, or earlier, depending on the season.

I guess I was thinking about how easy it is to convince people of something, whether it’s true or not. It’s not REALLY an hour later, we’re just pretending it is.

In an era where politicians swear to the truth of invisible crowds or invisible walls, and people spread fake news on social media, I guess the truth is no longer an objective fact, it’s just what we all say it is.

I read an interesting article about the so-called brain attacks on our emissaries in Cuba. Remember that? People were showing up with weird brain symptoms and anti-Cuba politicians were calling for retribution. Except…if you read the follow-ups from actual scientists rather than jingoistic politicians, the truth is stranger than some secret super-weapon. There was actual physical evidence of damage. But… Physics shows that no weapon that could cause that kind of damage could also target so precisely. Spoiler alert? Scientists are concluding that it’s a giant case of mass hysteria. Now, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t actual physical damage. It means that we can convince ourselves of something enough to cause our own bodies to damage themselves.

Like daylight savings time, it’s a case of everyone acting as though something that doesn’t exist…does.

I wonder what it would be like if we could all pretend something really cool instead.

If we can pretend that time has changed or that brain damage has been caused, can’t we pretend that illness can be stopped?

There is such good evidence about the connection between the mind and the body. If you are depressed, you are much more likely to have physical symptoms, from the loss of appetite and the inability to sleep, to inflammation, chronic aches and pains, and even heart disease.

And it works the other way around, too. People who are more resilient emotionally tend to be more resilient physically.

Some people believe in prayer. They think that, if enough people pray, their loved one will live or get better.

What I’m suggesting isn’t all that different. It’s just not appealing to a higher power, it’s taking the human ability to fool ourselves and using it for good.

What if we all pretended that everyone had good intentions, for example? Anyone who showed symptoms of hatred without cause would be regarded with puzzlement. We’re all pretending bigotry doesn’t exist, so how can you be saying these things? Are you sick? Ignorant?

I know, it’s kind of naive of me.

And, back to daylight savings time.

My dogs used to wake me up at 8 am on the dot. They aren’t part of this great pretend game we all play, so now they wake me up at 9. And, for anyone who wants me? I’m still waking up at 8 – it’s just an hour later, and you call it 9.

Listen to the podcast! 

Sourdough Lessons

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Bread is considered one of the most humble of foods. Little did I know that humble bread would humble and humiliate me in a battle to doughy death.

A year or so ago, I thought it would be cool to have a sourdough starter. I kept it in the refrigerator in a glass mason jar with a hinged top that locked into place. I’d feed it every week or so if I remembered and the stuff would separate into a murky whitish putty underneath a cloudy liquid. Sometimes I would make bread, adding yeast because that’s what you do when you make bread, along with the sourdough starter. The bread was okay, nothing great and kind of dense. My husband went on the no-carb wagon and the bread-making got farther and father apart.

And then, one day I noticed that my sourdough starter had started growing green fuzz. Not in the starter itself, but up the sides of the jar and in and around the rubber sealing ring of the lid.

I joined a Facebook group of sourdough experts and asked around. I was right – green fuzz is no good. I dumped the whole thing. Didn’t even keep the pretty jar.

After a few weeks and lots of lurking on that Facebook page, I began to see the error of my ways. I had starved my starter. That cloudy liquid on the top was called hooch and it’s like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – it’s your starter saying, “Feed me, Seymour!”

Without enough good bacteria, the mold had gotten a toehold in the jar.

Okay, I could do this.

I sent off to San Francisco – home of all things sourdough – for a new batch of starter. I ordered a new pretty jar. And I began again. I even named my starter this time, a sarcastic name, but still a name. She is Princess.

I fed Princess more consistently. When I was ready to make bread, I took some starter out, fed that, and let it rest and do its thing.

I followed the recipe to the letter. The dough was wet and not particularly springy. But I had faith. I baked. It took longer than the recipe said, but I knew I wanted a dark crust. So I baked longer.

The moment of truth: I cooled my bread and cut into it. A crusty, dense hockey puck, the middle still raw and the crust nearly impenetrable.

Over on the Facebook page, the group was posting photos. Golden loaves and boules with elaborate carvings of leaves and braids. I had a hockey puck and these people were practically making sourdough castles complete with moats and dragons.

I tossed my hockey puck – honestly, not even the birds would eat it. And I tried again.

The process takes days. You have to take Princess out and let her warm up, take out a little bit and feed that, do more adding, waiting and something called folding. If you start early Thursday morning, you should have bread by Sunday night.

But I did every step. Gave it extra rising time.

This time, a Frisbee. Edible and cooked through, but hardly lovely. Barely bread. More like a cakey focaccia.

I’m going to try again, of course. My persnickety princess of a starter is not going to win.

Vicki from the Facebook group told me what I’ve come to learn as the real truth:

She said:

“When I really put my mind to it, really pay attention and stay in the moment (i.e. I’m mindful), the bread is much, much better than when I dash through it thinking about other things. Sourdough really responds to thoughtful hands. Mindfulness isn’t what I had in mind when I started baking, but it’s what I discovered along the way.”

Fine. Mindfulness is a lesson I am still trying to learn and if sourdough is here to teach me, then I’ll try to learn that. Sourdough…it’s science, it’s art, it’s Zen. And it may be more than I can handle.

 

Listen to the companion podcast