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Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

Dear Vienna, I love you. But…

It is easy to hate the U.S. these days. I don’t mean the land which, from sea to shining sea (with the exception of that 880 mile stretch on I-40 through Texas), is one hell of a country. And I don’t even mean most of my 321.4 million fellow citizens, including the almost 63 million who, out of fear, desperation, lack of belief in basic American principles or, sorry, just plain stupidity (Bring coal back? Really?) voted for the man who makes it so easy to hate America.

And it is easy to love (at least parts of) Europe. And not just for usual reasons Americans fall in love with Europe, like food, art, music, history, charming villages, vibrant cities, joie de vivre, dolce vita, food and um, food. But, these days, for France’s spirited stance against right-wing extremism and Germany’s open borders, for the Netherlands pioneering LGBTQ policies and Scandinavia’s take-it-for-granted egalitarianism.

I’ve just spent three weeks living in Vienna. I say “living” rather than visiting because I wasn’t so much a tourist. I worked. I lived in an apartment. I shopped at the local Spar. I did laundry and hung it on the line.

I absolutely love this place. What’s not to love? The city regularly ranks #1 as the most livable city on the planet. It is a city of baroque castles, 19th century palaces, gilded concert halls, grand gardens, sweeping public squares and an urban forested oasis twice the size Central Park. And did I mention free health care, almost free higher education, efficient inexpensive public transport, six weeks of paid vacation, parental leave for both parents (which can be taken sequentially) and really really good bread? Also, consider this: UNESCO has listed an “official” Viennese pastime as lingering over an espresso drink with a pastry while reading the newspaper. That’s right, I said READING the NEWSPAPER.

But, lest you think my hatred of my homeland coupled with my love affair with The Imperial City (nice nickname) has completely blinded me to the latter’s shortcomings. I hereby declare that Vienna is not perfect. That’s right. You heard me.

Here are two of the city’s most egregious faults.

Toilets. As in few and far between. As in, they cost money. I mean, I pay $400 to see my physician for 15 minutes, but I’ll be damned if I have to pay 40 cents to take a pee. And then there are the porta-potties, as we call them, which you can sometimes find in parks. Is the CEO of the Austrian porta-potty companies a 2 year old? PiPiBox? ToiToi? Really. Is there no dignity in urination?

Spargel. Or, for you non-German-speakers: asparagus. It is spargel season here, and Austrians go nuts for it. And by “it,” I mean big, fat, thick spears of overcooked white asparagus drowning in cream sauce. It’s crime against the vegetable kingdom. Asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable: thin, bright green spears served naked and al dente, the way god intended.

So you see, Austria, you’re not perfect.

Only nearly so.

May 10, 2017   5 Comments

Dear America, Get over yourself. Love, Europe.

I decided to practice what I’ve been preaching. I know: What a novel idea.

When I talk to journalists, as I have been doing for the past week and a half here in Vienna (and in workshops elsewhere), I stress the importance of being smarter than the material you want to write about, of not writing until you have done the careful work of trying to understand what lies beneath the surface. I stress the importance of not imposing yourself on a story, not striding in brimming with self-confidence you have no right to feel, firing away questions you think are important, setting the parameters instead of discovering them, establishing the tone instead of listening for it.

I had set myself the task of trying to see how Trump’s America was “playing” in Europe. Well, in Austria, in Vienna. This I would write as a blog post, a dispatch from overseas. And so, not practicing what I preach, I proceeded to ask everyone I met, “What do you think of America under Trump?” And I got opinions. I got opinions that had a lot to do with whom I asked (schreibers, kunstlers, lehrers) and how I asked it – I do not have a poker face, and anyway, my phrasing “Trump’s America” is kind of a giveaway. That and the Bernie sticker I still have on my macbook air.

Then I caught myself (well, after three days I caught myself), and I shut up, observed and listened. Just what I tell others to do.

Here’s my report:

My fellow Americans, we should get over ourselves. No we shouldn’t stop making noise and taking to the streets and supporting the organizations and policies we believe in. What we should stop is thinking we are it. Because we aren’t anymore. The writers and waiters, the teachers and grocery store shoppers, the social democrats and unionists and other Lefties are looking elsewhere for inspiration. We are not the guiding light. We are not the world’s leader (in anything that is important). We have nothing to teach others about how to act ethically in the world, about how to treat our citizens with dignity, about how to create a just and joyful society.

Spain was once it. Britannia once ruled the waves. The Ottomans. The Romans. I understand that the Habsburg Empire used to be quite the deal.

But greatness ends. The man who ran on “Make American Great Again,” has, if the conversations I’ve been listening to are any indication, succeeded in lowering the world’s opinion of us to the extent that they care much less than we think about “Trump’s America.” They worry that we will do harm to the global environment. Yes. But they look to alternative energy innovations in China. They look to health care successes in Scandinavia. They look to the Netherlands for enlightened LGBTQ attitudes and laws. They look to Canada for compassionate immigration and refugee policies. They look past America.

What do they think of America under Trump? They think America is increasingly irrelevant. They think we – like the rest of the world – should look elsewhere for inspiration and innovation, for compassionate and egalitarian ways of behaving. They think we have a lot to learn.

May 3, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments

Facing — DEFEATING — ageism

Among the countless things that anger (stun, depress, disgust, worry) me these days is institutionalized ageism. Yes, I said ageism. Not racism, sexism, homophobia. Well, of course racism, sexism, homophobia. But those -isms and –phobias are at least part of our national conversation. We have created policies around them. They are discussed in schools, in the media, on the lecture circuit. I am not saying we have conquered these forms of discrimination, just that we are aware of them and sometimes do the right thing. Although now less than before.

And then there’s ageism.

It is not just firmly embedded in our culture, it is mostly invisible — thanks to the imposed and self-imposed ghetttoization of the elderly (from nursing homes to retirement “communities”). And accepted virtually without question. Old people? Hell, yeah. They are frail, useless, boring, sexless. The street signs show us what we think: A silhouette of a stooped (oh that dowager’s hump) old lady grasping a cane. She can hardly place one foot ahead of another. Watch her struggle as she totters, oh-so-slowly, across the street.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.

Really?

I am about to go to my weekly volunteer stint at Food for Lane County’s Dining Room where we feed (restaurant-style not soup-kitchen style) 300 or so people every day. For some this will be the only meal they eat all day. Although there are a few younger volunteers, most who work these shifts are retirement-age and some are decades past retirement age. This place, like so many other volunteer-staffed social service agencies, could not exist without OLDER PEOPLE giving their time and energy.

Yes, I said ENERGY.

The Dining Room shift is two hours of constant movement. A number of us wait tables, taking (and remembering) orders, bringing plates of food balanced up our forearms, and glasses of milk and mugs of coffee on laden trays. One volunteer constantly circulates with a big dessert tray. Another constantly circulates bussing and cleaning tables. In the back, people are scrapping huge pots and pans, chopping bushels of apples, working the steamy dish pit. This is not easy work. I clock two miles on a shift and often work up a sweat.

My co-workers – many in their 70s, some in their 80s and at least one in his 90s – work just as hard.

Because, my friends: This is what OLD really looks like.

I want to replace the image of the “don’t hit this frail old lady” street signs with empowering images of the older people in our midst. I want our heads, individually and societally, to be brimming with images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person.

The photo is of a 3000-year-old olive tree (in Crete). Which is doing just fine. And bears olives every year.

April 12, 2017   3 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

I gotta little list

I love making lists. Even more, I love checking off items from the lists I make. Often I do something that is not on my list, and I add it to the list just for the joy of checking it off. Oh yes, I know some of you do this too. I have also been known to make lists of my lists. That may be taking it too far.

Here is a list of the reasons I love making lists.

1.  Making a list quiets the omg moments that keep me awake at 2 am.
2.  Making a list is a low-bar entry to actually doing whatever needs to be done. Sure, no sweat, I can make a list! It is way less scary (not to mention time-consuming) than starting the project itself.
3.  Lists break down huge tasks (writing a book, getting rid of a President) into manageable action items.
4.  Lists simplify life. Whaaat? All I have to do is these 5/ 10 things!
5.  Lists help me think things through. They demand logic.
6.  Lists clear my brain. I no longer have to try to remember all this. I wrote it all down!
7.  Lists are finite. It may not seem like it, but my tasks are not endless!
8.  Lists keep me from procrastinating. Uh, Friday…and two more things on the list? Better get to them.
9.  Crossing something off a list = instant gratification.
10. If you save your lists (um, yes, I do), they provide an historical record of your life. A power point diary.

I also love to READ lists: The 500 greatest albums of all time. The 100 books everyone should read. Twenty places to visit before you die. Top 10 most popular lists on listserv. When the “25 random things about me” crazy hit Facebook, I read everyone’s list. Most favorite part of the old Letterman Show…can you guess?

March 29, 2017   3 Comments

D E T E R M I N A T I O N

What does it mean to be determined?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, like many of us have, as we watch –in a state of almost indescribable horrific awe — the actions of a man determined to bring disrespect, dishonor and ridicule on the office of the presidency. And on our country. Which is to say on all of us.

But I have also been thinking about our determination, determination to show ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and the rest of the world what we value and what we are willing to fight for.

Which has got me thinking about what determination actually is and how to nurture it in ourselves and others. Because we need a lot of it. And we need it now, and we need it for the long haul.

Lest you think determination is an unpleasant scowling, grit-your-teeth experience, let me suggest just the opposite: Determination is a positive emotional feeling that involves persevering toward a difficult goal in spite of obstacles. It is about facing challenges with (I love this phrase) anticipatory enthusiasm. In the field of positive psychology – the best thing to happen to psychology since Freud died – determination is studied and identified as a constructive and optimistic force that compels us toward action and results in important outcomes.

One obvious outcome is that we “win.” Our determination defeats the obstacles. But that may be an in-it-for-the-long-haul outcome. What about in the meantime? In the meantime, as we are being our determined selves, we are nurturing perseverance and resilience. And as we persevere, we develop important coping mechanisms. As we persevere, we get stronger.

Determination in the face of daunting obstacles strengthen and empowers us. Strengthens and empowers. It fuels us. It stokes the fire.

Oh, and here’s something else from the woman who brought you Counterclockwise (that would be me): A number of studies have linked the meeting of challenges with determination to increases in physical health and mental well-being. Some specific positive outcomes include illness resistance, increased survival rates and decreased levels of depression.

March 22, 2017   1 Comment

Liar, Liar, President on Fire

What we are seeing, what we are in the throes of, my fellow Americans, is part Huxley, part Orwell – and a whole lot of Leon Festinger.

OK. So Huxley is obvious. As in Brave New World, we are seeing the construction and manipulation of a “state” based on the principles of obedience, homogeneity and consumption. Indoctrination is not via hypnosis but rather tweet blasts and bald-faced lies masquerading as “alternative facts.”

And then there’s Orwell, literary creator of a dystopia controlled by privileged few and headed by a leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality. (Um…?) Remember newspeak and doublethink? War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Black is White. A true believer not only proclaims black is white, but believes black is white and forgets that anyone ever believed the contrary.

But who the heck is Leon Festinger?

Leon Festinger was an American social psychologist best known for developing the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you are faced with reality that goes against what you firmly believe. For example, you firmly believe – you have been led to believe (you voted based on the belief) – that the Affordable Care Act is “imploding,” and that Trump’s plan will, as promised, insure more people, giving them more choice, at a lower cost.

Then you are faced with the reality of that Plan: that millions of people will lose their coverage or not be able to afford coverage (so choice is not an issue) and that the cost for those who most need insurance – hint: not the young and healthy – will increase (and I use this word advisedly) astronomically. And that you, working-class, rural, Red state supporter, are in the crosshairs.

What do you, true believer, do with that information?

Leon figured that one out back in 1956 – it’s known as “belief disconfirmation” — when he and colleagues wrote When Prophecy Fails. Here’s what happens: In the face of patently contradictory, inarguable verifiable information, your original belief is…deepened. Or, slightly reconfigured to make room for the clearly contradictory information without that new information materially changing your original belief.

You may have heard about the famous study that underlies this finding. It had to do with an apocalyptic religious cult, members of which had given up homes, jobs, material possessions — and left their families – in preparation for the end of the world. The world was ending because of Sodom-and-Gomorrah type corruption (like, oh, being able to use the bathroom of the gender you identify with). Only the self-sanctified members of this cult would survive, spirited to the planet Clarion by an alien spaceship. No, this is not the plot of a 1950s sci-fi pot-boiler.

The world would end (big flood) right before dawn on Dec. 21, 1954. The rescue spaceship would arrive at a predetermined place on the stroke of midnight.

The cult assembled. Midnight stroked. No spaceship. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they foolishly given up everything? What Festinger found was that to resolve the dissonance between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world beliefs (oh, let’s just call them Trumpisms) and the earthly reality (oh, let’s just call it reality), most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. Instead, they decided to believe the alternate facts their leader presented: The aliens hadn’t arrived not because the prophesy was false but because the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance. In the face of the prophesy-that-didn’t-happen, people did not leave the cult. People did not stop believing in the corruption of the world and their own sanctified status. In fact, they got out and proselytized.

As Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”

March 15, 2017   4 Comments

Put your best fork forward*

March is National Nutrition Month! (“Put your best fork forward” is the catchy tagline this year.) Let’s all celebrate by 1) eating a wonderfully nutritious, real foods/ whole foods meal 2) enjoying this brief romp through the history of diet fads — which SPOILER ALERT are not about good nutrition.

1820: Vinegar and Water diet made popular by Lord Byron, who, I must add, died at the age of 36. So maybe not.

1825: Low Carb Diet (that’s right, in 1825). It first appeared in The Physiology of Taste by Jean Brillat-Savarin, a more-than-pleasantly plump French lawyer and politician who pretty much invented the gastronomic essay, aka food writing.

1830: Graham’s Diet, invented by the man who would found the American Vegetarian Society and, more importantly, invent Graham Crackers, without which there would be no s’mores. PS: He believed vegetarianism was a cure for masturbation. What about that, you vegetarians?

1863: Banting’s Low Carb Diet, which was so popular that “banting” became a common term for dieting during this time period.

1903: Fletcherizing. Horace Fletcher’s dietary advice to insure high-level wellness: Chew your food 32 times. No not 33.

1917: The birth of “calorie counting” (damn) with the publication of Lulu Hunt Peters’ book, Diet and Health.

1925: The cigarette diet, as in “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Really.

1928: The Inuit Meat-and-Fat Diet calling for consumption of raw fish, caribou and whale blubber. Not wildly popular.

1930: The first of the liquid diet drinks, courtesy of a Dr. Stoll and – 1930 being a big year for fad diets – the Hay Diet which proclaimed that carbs and proteins could not be consumed together. Whaaat? No steak and potatoes?

1934: Bananas and Skim Milk Diet (backed by – here’s a surprise – United Fruit Company)

1950: Another hallmark year: The Grapefruit Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet. And people say the 1950s were boring.

1964:The Drinking Man’s Diet (like on Mad Men)

1967: Birth (that’s a pun) of the hCG diet, a combination of injections of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (produced in a pregnant woman’s placenta) and a 500-calorie diet.

1970: The Liquid Protein Diet. One version was marketed as The Last Chance Diet, a name it earned when several people died using the product.

1976: My favorite: The Sleeping Beauty Diet in which the dieter is heavily sedated for several days (and thus doesn’t eat).

1981: Beverly Hills Diet. Unlimited quantities of fruit – and only fruit – for the first ten days.

1985: The Caveman Diet in which one enjoys foods from the Paleolithic Era. Yes, the Paleo craze has been around for this long, longer if you count the whale blubber version.

1987: The Scarsdale Diet – low carb, low-cal. Its originator, Dr. Herman Tarnower, was famously murdered by his mistress, the head of a posh private school.

1988: Calorie Restriction (CR) Diet in which you satisfy all nutritional needs while consuming 30 percent fewer calories than your body requires. Forever. This is very very difficult to do. (Plus you look unpleasantly cadaverous.) The good (and bad) news? This diet works.

1990: Return of the Cabbage Soup Diet. Because it worked so well the first time.

1994: The high-protein, low carb Atkins’ diet.

1996: Eat Right for Your Type, a diet based on your blood type. O. No.

1999: The holy triumvirate: Juicing, Fasting, Detoxing.

2000: Raw Foods.

2006: Maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne. ‘Nuf said.

2010: Baby Food Diet: 14 jars of baby food a day. Diapers optional.

2012: The ascent of Gluten Free.

2014: The Bulletproof Diet, the secret of which is drinking “bulletproof coffee” (coffee laced liberally — as in 400 cals a cup — with butter or coconut oil).

2016: The Mono Diet is a one-food-and-one-food only plan that continues to resurface, year after year. 2016 was The Year of the Banana.

Not to mention: tape worms, Bile Beans, cotton balls, feeding tubes…What’s next? Don’t answer that.

 

 

March 8, 2017   2 Comments