Monday, April 26, 2010

Welcoming Waters

I am blissing out at water yoga.  There are just a few of us in class this day and things are particularly peaceful, the water heavenly warm, cradling me, taking me at once inside myself and outside myself, or more accurately outside my “life.”  Wouldn’t it be something if this could be my life, instead, this peace, no phones, no computers, no demands, as my teacher would say, “nowhere to be, no one to be.”

I become a kinder, gentler person here.  Moving slowly through poses that induce a deep, deep relaxation.  Inhaling, exhaling, following my breath--as I expand my chest, I expand my heart, just as surely.  Here in this house of compassion, this pool of compassion. 

Perhaps the cold-hearted and hot-headed dictators of the world need to take a dip, I muse almost sleepily.  No way everyone could do yoga like this and still do evil, is there?

We move to the shallow end of the pool for some of our standing poses, warrior poses, and we become women peace warriors, torsos erect, arms out on a flat plane, and we bend one knee and stretch into our peaceful power, fierce but graceful.

Every week we are as diverse a bunch as you can find, but today in particular this pool is like, well, a melting pot, or perhaps a rich stew, of abilities, of nationalities, of ages.

A new student who is blind learns to trust the water and the teacher and the foam noodle that supports her, and her daughter offers her some coaching while moving through the poses herself.  Before class starts they circle around the interior of the small pool so she can feel its kidney shape.

Another woman with a hairline fracture on her foot sits in a chair on the apron of the pool, doing poses as best she can from her seated position.

Yet another woman on crutches arrives as class is nearly over, having gotten our new schedule mixed up.  Our teacher welcomes her; we wait for her to make her way in and join us for the final floating relaxation exercise, so she doesn’t miss this very special time entirely.  This place has its own personality, created by those who host it and those who find their way to it.  Expansive always, compassionate always.   

Our teacher herself lopes alongside as we go through our exercises, unable to come in because her arm is in a cast, but still casting her calming presence.  

The water yoga is a home to all.  People come sometimes for just one class, sometimes for a few on an extended visit from overseas, joining those of us who are local and who try and come every week.  We have students speaking many languages; sometimes we have simultaneous Croatian to Italian to English interpretation and back around again.  Other times it’s English to Hindi, or Spanish or French.  We welcome men, too, but it’s been a while since a Y chromosome has been in the class, and we’ve settled into a circle of women. 

I look back and laugh, remembering my arrival at my first class here.  I’d left chaos at work, the traffic was a nightmare and I was late.  I blew in the door grumpy, having decided there was no way I was going to do this again, for how crazy was it to become wildly stressed in order to attend something I came to for de-stressing?  I almost hadn’t come in, as I was close to tears and the world felt like it was spinning out of control. And then I stepped into the water, and before an hour had passed I was hooked.  Week after week, year after year, I step in and shed my cares, some weeks with greater difficulty than others, but that’s part of the practice, too, as much as the stretching and the breathing. 

Healing waters.

Sacred space.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Encode This

Did you know that the human brain’s short-term memory can only store 5-9 things at once?  What a relief, we’re not losing our minds!

I’m reading a book I’m very excited about:  Getting Organized in the Google Era: how to get stuff out of your head, find it when you need it, and get it done right by Douglas C. Merrill.  Merrill is the former CIO of Google. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive science from Princeton University.  He was Senior VP at Charles Schwab and Co. and an information scientist at RAND Corp.  Oh, and he has dyslexia, so if you’ve got reasons why you can’t deal with information overflow, you’ve got nothing on him.

This book is brilliant.  It is also exactly what I need at a time in my life where I’m having enormous challenges aligning my desire to simplify my life with the increasing complexities of said life, and the staggering volume of information I intake and try to manage personally and professionally. I’ve been giving a lot of spiritual consideration to how to cope, but this book offers excellent practical tools.

Things are all off kilter.  I can recall arcane bits of information from the past as well as volumes of work-related data of late, yet sometimes I can’t recall the word I’m searching for as a sentence is coming out of my mouth. Like many of my generation I joke nervously about possible reasons that in fact are deadly scary, like early onset Alzheimer’s.  However, I’ve had enough conversations with doctors to know that most of us, me included, are not suffering from any disease except the disease of stress.  Throw in a few hormonal issues here and there and you’ve got a recipe for forgetfulness.

So with all this information coming at us from every direction, how do we figure out what to keep and what to toss? (Yes, it’s mental decluttering.)  Here’s where Merrill’s book comes in.   The basic answers are filtering and encoding (storing for long-term memory).  He talks about how our brains work and how search engines—especially Google (which he hastens to add he is not a stockholder in)—work, and what we can and can’t expect to retain and access and use efficiently in our heads, on paper and digitally.  It might surprise you to know he comes down on the side of paper sometimes.  Also surprisingly he has tons of paper on his desk, and to manage that he uses a sophisticated system of—piles.

Merrill is not offering one-size-fits-all solutions.  But as computer-savvy a 53-year-old layperson as I think of myself, I learned a lot about more ways I could be using Google and the Internet to make my life simpler.  Like folders.  In classic inside-the-box thinking, when I moved the bulk of my communications and information accessing and storage to the computer, just as I had been wonderfully organized with paper filing systems, now I set up elaborate filing systems in both my email and my Word documents using digital folders.  When I moved to Gmail, I discovered the magic of labels, instead, and was released from my remaining perfectionist tendencies by the realization that even if I didn’t label and categorize, I would still always be able to find anything I wanted!  And contrary to things I’d been hearing for years (especially from proponents of Outlook) cautioning against using your Inbox as your filing system, I have been doing just that on Gmail—a system Merrill recommends, too.   

Merrill writes in a very easy-to-read engaging style, not tech-speak—your eyes will not glaze over.  My only complaint is that, with the exception of a useful sidebar on password creation, he doesn’t address the very real security concerns people have about all of their information being in “the cloud.”

Merrill puts a name on the increasingly stressing aspect of my work, which I just refer to (distastefully) as multitasking—“context shifts”—and calls them out as mentally draining and depleting (I would add psychically, spiritually and physically, too.)  He offers strategies for managing both voluntary and involuntary context shifts, in how you structure your day, try to prevent distractions, use note-taking as a tool, participate in meetings (YUCK—there go wasted hours of my life I’ll never get back!) and sleep.

Like many other thinkers I’ve been reading recently, Merrill urges us to leave behind the concept of “work/life balance” as our goal (he calls it “a mirage), but rather try to integrate the two.  I still am somewhat resistant to that concept though I admit it does conform more to the realities of modern life.  I’m experimenting with it…any readers out there have thoughts on this debate?

“[R]esolve to use paper or digital tools based on authentic goals for the information you receive or record, not on emotional attachments, engrained habits, generational preferences, or fears.  If you truly want to be more efficient, challenge the ways you’ve been organizing the information in your world and open yourself to new ways of doing it.”
                                                                                Douglas C. Merrill

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How China Drove Me Crazy

Some of my most vivid memories of my years living and traveling in Asia are of the driving.   My first road remembrances originated in my year in Taiwan fresh out of college:

  • Flying around a huge traffic circle in the back of a taxi in the middle of Taipei my first day there, 60 miles an hour, huge suitcases leaning on me because there was no room in the subcompact’s trunk, no sign of any seatbelts, when the door flew open and I found myself hanging on for dear life
  • Multiple accidents across the city each night when drivers—who, for some reason I never understood , turned off their headlights every time they sat at a stoplight—would smash into each other when they forgot to put the lights back on
  • The cab crunch—where there are two lanes of traffic and you’re driving between the vehicles in each lane (trucks, for maximum effect) and you close your eyes and have no idea how you come out the other side in one piece.   The first time this happened to my friend Kelly and I we were clinging to each other for dear life, hands held in a death grip, and I drew blood
  • The classic, family of five on a motorcycle  (motorcycles were the main form of transportation in the city)
  • Drivers’ utter disregard for every safety device offered by the car  (turn signals,  for instance) or the road (lanes, for instance)
  • Hugging tight to a handsome young man on the back of his scooter, speeding through a steamy Taipei night.  (But that is a story for another day…)
Reading Peter Hessler’s new book Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory brought back these memories as well as many from later living in mainland China, in all too familiar driving conditions despite nearly two decades having passed. 

I knew I was in for a ride when I was roaring with laughter from the first chapter.  Hessler shares questions from China’s written driver’s exam that speak volumes about the society.  For example, coming to a flooded road, should you (a) examine the situation and proceed with caution, (b) accelerate, or (c) “find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you?”  While this is funny in any case, it’s particularly funny when you’ve travelled and lived in China enough to know that answer (b) is the most drivers would pick, with (c) running a close second.  China may be a towering economic power but to say it has its quirky moments is an understatement.

Driving anecdotes aside, it’s still the China I remember – on Hessler’s first trip out of Beijing he makes it only as far as Inner Mongolia before awakening one morning to be told police are in the lobby, and they kick him out of town.  Driving on, he reaches another town six hours away, where the police have already been alerted, and is kicked out of there.  Southwest Airlines will never do a commercial in China using its “Feel Free to Move About the Country” slogan, because, well, you’re not. 
Question 352 on the exam seeks the correct response to a motorist asking you for directions and the choices are (a) “not tell him,” (b) “reply patiently and accurately,” and (c) “tell him the wrong way.”  Again, you may not know, but (c) is the ringer.  At least when I first traveled there in 1980, asking directions always resulted in being sent on a wild goose chase (or in one unfortunate case, in having the person I asked hustled away abruptly and ominously by police who appeared out of nowhere).  It was, I concluded, a combination of pressures, 1) that giving information—even what we in a free society would consider innocuous information like directions—to a foreigner wandering unescorted was very risky business that could have grave consequences in this repressive and xenophobic regime, and 2) that if you didn’t know the answer you would lose face, so very important a cultural concept in China, so it was preferable to bluff and give wrong directions rather than fess up that you didn’t know and lose face.

Fast forward 17 years to my living in Tianjin as a grownup, with a young child, considerably less cavalier when it came to driving dangers.  I had to ride periodically to a doctor’s office in Beijing (which I always referred to as three hours and 20 years away from the city we lived in) -- 3 hours of pure torture, cars driven by guys who’d had their licenses for two minutes, going 90 mph on tires whose expat manufacturers would tell you over drinks were only safe for 50 mph, sharing the road with donkey carts piled impossibly 30 feet high with hay, going 0.5 mph.  And did I mention the road between Tianjin and Beijing was notorious for dense fog and multivehicle pileups?

Still, it was all a fond if ludicrous trip down memory lane to read Hessler’s stories of China driving in the new millennium, complete parallels to Taiwan driving in the 1980s.  Do not miss his hysterical riffs on the meaning of all different kinds of honking signaling both routine and insane road maneuvers.  He concludes, “[T]here’s a short basic honk that simply says: My hands are still on the wheel, and this horn continues to serve as an extension of my nervous system.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Confessions of an Anti-Domestic Goddess

I am the first to admit, I am a fan of shortcuts, cheats, faking it, prepackaged and prepared.  Now I have met my cosmic twin, and she is Lisa Quinn.  I’m referring to our philosophies on housekeeping—the less the better, the simpler the better.  Quinn is a writer, TV host and “recovering Martha Stewart junkie” (we part company there as I’ve always thought of Martha as the devil incarnate).  She’s the author of the new book Life’s Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets: Your Ultimate Guide to Domestic Liberation.  

I knew I’d found a kindred spirit when I reviewed the list of chapters in the table of contents: “The Lackadaisical Lifestyle,” “Not-So-Good Housekeeping,” “Slacker Chic,” and “The Half-Assed Hostess.”  Paisan!   One of the basic tenets of our shared philosophy is that you must never buy stuff that has to be ironed or hand-washed (whether it’s clothing or china or linens). Seriously, is this a good use of your time?

She and I have matching brown thumbs--she kills plants, too, though I may exceed her in this regard.  Every time I receive a plant from someone that isn’t made of silk my eyebrows hit the ceiling in alarm--have these people met me?  Some hardier greenery may hold on a few months but most succumb much more quickly.  I’ve conducted funerals for more orchids, ferns, violets, palms and other household plants than most families have for goldfish and hamsters. 

I long ago decided that if I waited to entertain until my home was perfectly clean, perfectly tidy, perfectly anything, I would never have anyone over at all.  So I tidy the necessary surfaces, invite friends for potluck, and throw open the door for a relaxed wonderful evening. 

Quinn’s hilarious rants combine with tips that will make your domestic life easier (like “17 Meals from a Deli Chicken” and “Interior Finishes That Hide Most Dirt”—news you can use!).  One of her most brilliant ideas is to bag the book club. “Who’s got time for a book club?” she argues. Instead just invite your girlfriends over for a magazine club, reading from your favorite “rags.” Perfect, right? You still get the sharing of ideas over a few bottles of wine, but without all that prep time. (And after all, the glass of wine is more than half the equation, isn’t it?) 

I was recently reminded of how, shall we say, progressive, my views of housekeeping truly are when I had to interview a cleaning company.   The owner me for my pet peeves in a cleaning service and I told her how the company doing my home now could never seem to make my bed the way I like it.  I gave her a quick demonstration of the way I do like it. She then demonstrated to me how she would make it with a special fold that would make it look “pretty” when you walked into the room.  I stopped her halfway through—“Listen,” I said. “I live alone.  I don’t care about a pretty fold in the covers; I care about how it feels. No fold, it makes the covers come up too high when I sleep.”  Bemused, she agreed to note my preference.  Later, she tried to talk to me about what cleaning products she’d recommend between their visits every two weeks.  Again, I had to stop her. “I’m going to be brutally honest with you.  There are no between cleanings.”  I can barely keep up with the clutter.  I’ll wipe the kitchen counter if I’ve made a mess, or use a disinfectant wipe once in a while, but that’s about it. 

Thud—that was the sound of my mother keeling over from horror and embarrassment.  She bemoaned to me years back, “Oh, Karen, you’ve really lowered your standards.”  I prefer to think of it as having raised my standards—for self-care, for giving myself a break, for choosing to give other activities and people higher priority than being a “wife” to my house.  And it fits with my strong gravitational pull as I get older and wiser toward comfort over all else.  Plus I am a master at turning what might once been regarded as “lazy” into, instead, and with a certain self-righteousness, “eco-friendly.” 

In my never-ending quest for simplicity I recently performed my most bold act yet—I cancelled my subscription to Real Simple magazine.  Good tips, but still too much pressure!