Thrill Junkies

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What do you need to feel alive?

The question came up for me this week because Hurricane Dorian just gave Charleston a light smack compared to what could have been. And even after that one night of worry as the winds howled, I was bouncing with joy when the day after was sunny and cool and just amazingly beautiful. It was like the day after you’ve been sick when food that turned your stomach yesterday tastes amazing today.

I’m not sure if the day was actually any more beautiful than the day before Hurricane Dorian, but facing down the nasty storm made the next day’s weather seem more precious.

That contrast – danger and then exhilaration – was on my mind I was reading an article about three climbers – and not just climbers, Alpiners. Alpine climbing is crazy stuff. Why would anyone do this? I have to admit, I’m an indoor house cat. The closest I get to outdoor sports is the occasional trail ride and, even then, the horse is doing all the work. I’m not even sure why I was reading an article about outdoor sports.

Except, spoiler alert. The three climbers don’t make it. And the article was really about why people challenge themselves to this kind of sport.

And that was why the article fascinated me. How close do we need to get to mortality to feel alive?

I have done sky-diving and been on a trapeze and even taken one airplane piloting lesson. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I did each of these activities after some kind of trauma. Sky diving came after a really bad patch in my marriage. The trapeze lesson and the airplane lesson came at different points in the illness that would ultimately kill my mother.

They jolted me out of the numb despair. They gave me the illusion that I could conquer the world, even if I couldn’t conquer death or sadness. But all of those things were safe risks. I had an experienced skydiver strapped to my back when I jumped out of the plane – well, okay, when he jumped because I was about to change my mind but the weight of his body just pulled me out of the plane. I had a harness on the trapeze and a net below me. The pilot who taught me had a license and I didn’t take off or land the plane, just took over the flying while we were in the air and tried to keep the plane level. The odds of actual death were pretty small.

Not like my one friend who fought in Vietnam. The hyper-vigilance, the knowledge that your next step could be your last…he hated it. It messed with his head. But I remember him telling me somewhat wistfully, “Helen, I’ve never felt so alive and I’ve never found anything since I got back that made me feel that alive.”

And that made me wonder. How do we feel alive without facing down death? Is being alive boring unless we risk losing our lives?

Some would say that the fear of death focuses your gaze on your surroundings with an intensity you can’t duplicate.

I know that I have read that mindfulness —  being really present in your life – is the key to enjoying every one of life’s moments. But is being a thrill junkie a shortcut to being present?

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Listen to the companion podcast, Keep it Juicy! 

 

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Hacked

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One day, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that I wasn’t getting any emails to the account I use for my professional writing. I usually get so many emails, I have to put them in different folders just so I can find them again when I need them. But, I didn’t think too much about it. Maybe it was a slow day.

And then I tried to send out a newsletter for this professional association I work with. Not happening.

So I called the great people who host my website and email and asked them what the heck was happening. What was happening…wasn’t good.

I had been hacked.

Someone had gotten into my professional email and they’d sent emails to everyone in my address book. Everyone got something that looked like it came from me and it contained a link to a proposal I supposedly had written. I do write a lot of proposals, so that’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I would have sent that kind of email.

But, click on the link for the proposal? And, boom, you’re infected!

I decided I had to bite the bullet and send an email to all these important folks to tell them to NOT open the horrible email. You know, Dear person-I-want-to-impress: That email wasn’t from me. Sorry.

And that’s when it got worse. My email kept saying I couldn’t send the email.

Back on the phone with the tech folks.

Seems the merry hacker had left me a gift. First, he had written a rule that sent all of my incoming emails to the trash so I never got a chance to see them. That explained why nobody was emailing me.

That was a fairly simple fix.

And then Microsoft saw all those horrible emails from me and decided I was a hacker, so they suspended me. I couldn’t send emails because they thought I was a bad guy.

I imagined all those people in my address book getting infected because they had trusted me, trusted that when they got something from me it was clean. Because that’s the thing. I see now why they call it a virus. Getting hacked makes you feel unclean. Like you are Patient Zero in some kind of epidemic that stems from not washing your hands. You have the double shame of starting the epidemic and of having bad hygiene in the first place.

When you get hacked, you feel stupid, embarrassed and angry. And vulnerable. It’s like getting mugged.

Listen to the companion podcast. 

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Photo by Mateusz Dach on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

 

Smart? Better Rich!

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A lot of times you hear that the wealth divide is growing. In other words, the gap between the people with money and the people without…is getting bigger than the Grand Canyon. It’s huge.

We like to think that this is the country of dreams. If you can dream it, you can do it. All you have to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps. All you have to be is smart, or at least clever.

Well, unfortunately, a new study shows that’s just not true.

Let me tell you what the study reveals.

The study is by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

And what it shows is that fortune favors the kids …well, with fortunes.

Specifically, the rich kindergarteners with test scores in the bottom half, has a 7 in 10 chance of reaching high socio-economic status among peers as a young adult. A poor kindergartener with scores in the top half, because he or she is smart? That kid has only a 3 in 10 chance.

So the kid who starts out poor…even the bright kids who start out poor…are more likely to stay poor.

And the disparities continue. The kids with little money do worse in high school. And the report shows that disadvantaged kids with low math scores don’t immediately enroll in college. The rich kids with low math scores? They are more likely to enroll in a four-year college despite those scores, and they’re more likely to complete college degrees than even the high scoring poor kids.

You might wonder why.

The report says that the kids with money often have safety nets to catch them when they fall. The disadvantaged kids are less likely to have that kind of support.

I think it’s a lot more than whether mom and dad have milk and cookies for you at home.

Multiple studies have been done on bias, explicit and implicit. Even if someone thinks they are not biased, it is only natural to feel more comfortable, more relaxed and more able to identify with a job candidate who is similar to you. Since the well-off have all the well-paying jobs, it is no surprise that someone with a different background is going to start off disadvantaged in a job interview, and that falling back that started in school, just keeps going on.

The report recommends some policy changes that it says will help. But like all policy recommendations, I find these vague and hard to implement. There are four.

The report recommends:

  • interventions in early childhood education
  • continued interventions from kindergarten through 12th grade
  • Improved and expanded counseling in high school so that more students have the information and social supports they need to transition from high school to post-secondary education and training
  • And ensure that talented low-socioeconomic students get the most for their education by integrating career exploration and providing access to high-quality work experience at the high school and college levels.

I’m not convinced that these policy changes will fix what’s broken. Everyone says they want the best and the brightest, but at least on paper, what they’re often getting is the richest.

And I don’t have answers, but I’m going to keep on trying to be smart whether or not I get rich.

Money

Listen to the companion podcast. 

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. 

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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