Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

www.poochprofessor.com


Monday, December 25, 2023

The Power of Deferred Resolution

How do you sit with uncertainty?

Most people do not do it well. Our brains are wired to search for solutions to problems, and we really, really like knowing the answers. Lots of people have negative memories of school because not knowing the answers—especially in front of our classmates—resulted in failing and embarrassment. Who doesn’t have memories of an English teacher scolding us for not knowing exactly what a novelist, poet, or playwright meant in his or her work?

We seek a diagnosis when we go to the doctor. It feels shocking when the doctor confides that he or she doesn’t know what’s wrong with us, even after multiple tests. A cloud of confusion settles into our very cracks, and we, typically, assume the worst1. If this person who has studied extensively about the very sort of thing I am presenting doesn’t know what it is, what hope do I have of getting the correct treatment?

Medicine’s default state is uncertainty, but the culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity. This means that doctors will conduct test after test and prescribe all sorts of treatments in an attempt to understand what malady we actually have—and they still get it wrong too often. Misdiagnoses in medicine are dismayingly common.

In part, this is because there isn’t time to languish amongst uncertainty in the medical field—lives are at stake. A few days could mean the difference between life or death in some cases. The doctors rush to find answers, and in that rush they sometimes make mistakes because they aren’t looking in the right place. (If you were a fan of the TV show “House” from a few years ago, you know what I mean. A grumpy misanthropic doctor can always figure out the weird diagnosis in time after he and his staff struggle with it for the majority of the show.)

When we are faced with uncertainty, we want answers and we want them sooner rather than later. But this can be a problem, and there may be a better way.

In his book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes writes,

“Dwelling calmly among feelings of uncertainty will make you more likely to make a rational decision. The longer you sit with the not knowing, the more your odds of making a rational decision increase.”

Think about how you feel when presented with problems, in your work or your life, that don’t match up to what you expect or know. How much information do you seek, especially if you feel pushed for time? Do you stop asking questions when you have heard enough to make a “diagnosis”? Why?

According to Holmes, “people under time pressure seize on earlier information and ignore later cues.” This means that we could ostensibly miss the correct solution, because we are blocking out later information.

This uncertainty can be daunting, but you shouldn’t fear it. Rushing to find the “right” answer can cause more problems than it solves. Humans have a tendency towards closure, so when we are faced with a conundrum, we try to make sense of it. Holmes explains,

“This tendency {towards closure} has vast repercussions…it changes the way we evaluate an idea or consider an explanation, and it makes us less creative and more confident about a course of action even when we are wrong. Cognitive closure is a bit like shutting the windows of our open minds. When various pressures pile up, these windows don’t merely close…they slam shut, and they lock.”

In my dog training practice, I sometimes find myself puzzled by a dog’s behavior and I am unable to come up with a quick answer. When I get stuck, I know I need three things: time away from the work, a way to clear my mind from the work for a few hours, and a different puzzle that is not too difficult2 to solve. I need some time to gestate, to think about something unrelated. If I don’t have enough time to engage in an unrelated-to-dogs hobby (such as a walk in the woods alone) before I need the answer, I will seek out a crossword puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle, or even Sudoku (which I rarely play for fun) to help me try to order the world a bit differently. Studies show that when humans are faced with uncertainty, we seek closure anywhere we can find it-—and this can help us have breakthrough insights in regards to unrelated problems.3

Norman begins to hyperventilate when he sees the doctor. “Doc, I’m sure I’ve got liver disease.”

“Nonsense!” says the doctor. “You’d never know if you had liver disease. There’s no discomfort of any kind.”

“Exactly!” Says Norman. “Those are my precise symptoms!”


Training yourself to embrace uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s a valuable skill, because we all understand that life contains a multitude of problems to solve. Rushing for closure is rarely the best way to get ourselves unstuck.

Dwell for a bit in the not knowing, and see if an answer doesn’t come.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1.   1.  Our brains are hard-wired towards negativity; this is called the “negativity bias.”

2.     If the puzzle or problem you choose is too difficult to solve, it will just frustrate you further, instead of giving you a "win." Conversely, it shouldn't be so easy that you can solve it in a minute or less. Go for medium difficulty, where your brain is engaged for a while, and you will stick with it until you solve it.

3.     You might be surprised to learn that everything is related, really.


Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Persistence Payout

 

Anyone who owns a dog is familiar with “the stare.” And as an evolutionary technique, it’s a damn efficient one—most people give in to it, many without even thinking. The moment your dog comes to live with you, he starts learning about you. He’s a veritable researcher, taking note of your body language, your tone of voice, your tics and fidgets. He can’t understand the vast majority of the things you say, but he learns pretty quickly that some behaviors he exhibits Always Work, some Never Work, and a few Sometimes Work in order for him to gain the resources he desires.

Some of the behaviors he learns to employ to get a resource are quite adorable, and they play into our connection and love for the dog, meeting many of our needs. These are the behaviors that Always Work in terms of the dog getting resources we dole out (food, treats, petting, playtime, access). For instance, the outdoor-focused dog who stands by the door and when you look over at him, he does this cute spin-around-and-bark-twice-thing that always makes you laugh, or at least smile, and usually talk to him in a happy voice as you run open the door to let him out.

That spin-bark is a learned behavior, consistently reinforced with rewards. It’s like a soda machine, because it always pays out. And while the barks may be slightly annoying at times, the cuteness factor of the perfectly-executed spin usually overrides any annoyance you might have with the trick.

The dog has learned that he can make you do something he likes by performing this series of behaviors in this specific context. And let me be clear: this is not necessarily a bad thing; letting the dog out has advantages, of course, and the dog who lets you know that he needs to go out to do his business is more helpful than the dog who just pees in front of the door if you haven’t noticed him standing there.

So, both human and dog benefit from this purposeful manipulation.

Of course, there are some ways in which the dog uses behaviors to manipulate his humans that are not beneficial to the humans, like barking at people to demand that they pet him, shoving gross, dirty toys or balls onto them to force a game, barking and jumping on his humans to demand food or treats. These demands are generally ones people find unpleasant (and they call us to fix). Some annoying behaviors are just annoying (barking/whining), and some can be downright dangerous (e.g. sliding between our legs as we are walking, or jumping up/putting teeth on people).

Fixing these behaviors begins with the owner agreeing to stop rewarding them: with attention, petting, food, or a door opening to the outside (many people don’t even realize that they have been inadvertently teaching the dog to continue these unruly shenanigans by responding to them). When these behaviors are rewarded, the dog learns that they either Always Work, or Sometimes Work. If we want them to stop, we have to make sure they Never Work from here on out.

(As you probably know, while this advice is 100% true, it’s not always easy for mortals to follow—because, well, people love their dogs and they mistake ever-ready indulgence for showing love.)

So what happens is this: the dog starts to learn that certain behaviors Sometimes Work.

And that is a lesson that we, in most situations, do not want pet dogs to learn. (Cue “Jaws” theme here.)

Allow me to pivot momentarily to get to the reason I decided to write this post. I am a fan of the Washington Post’s advice columnist[1] Carolyn Hax, who is a brilliant advice-giver and always makes me want to be a better human being; she understands nuances of behavior and how to tell people what they need to hear with straightforward kindness while avoiding platitudes.

She responded to a letter a few days ago and it was spot-on. A letter writer (LW) had complained about a “friend” who kept asking her to do unreciprocated favors constantly, and would get really surly (and push and push even harder) when she occasionally said no, so LW would end up hemming and hawing and finally giving in and doing them anyway, to “keep the peace.” (Yes, as I read this letter I literally screamed, “you are training her to breach your boundaries! Stop doing that! Also, she isn’t your friend.”)

Hax replied, with way more restraint than I, “you will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence,” and my nucleus accumbens lit up like a Jumbotron.

We want the dog to know, definitely, which behaviors Always Work, and which behaviors Never Work.

When we refuse to reward a behavior most of the time, but occasionally give in to the dog’s barking, jumping, pawing at us or putting teeth on us, whether it is for our attention, or food, or play, or access to an area or item, we are teaching them to be more persistent in their efforts to gain that thing by using that behavior.

Basically, the dog thinks, “it won’t always work right away, but there’s a good chance that if I keep at it, it will pay off for me eventually.”

Persistence in a working dog is like a steering wheel in a vehicle—you have no “drive” without it. You want a persistent border collie herding your flock of sheep, a persistent cattle dog herding your cows, a persistent police dog chasing a suspect, a persistent hound dog following a scent. All of these dogs are bred to stay with a task and not give up if it becomes too difficult, or because they got distracted.[2]

But a pet dog with a lot of persistence who exhibits “bad” behaviors consistently can be a pet owner’s nightmare. Most people who acquire a dog will be much, much happier if he doesn’t score high on the persistence scale because that dog will just be easier to own and train and live with.

“You will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence” applies so much to pet dogs that it’s uncanny.[3]

We encourage persistence in the dog when we withhold reward for a period of time before delivering it. (Yes, this works for behaviors we do like, too—but we are focusing on negative behaviors for now.)

Let’s say Boopsy is barking at you for attention while you are working on your computer. You are deep into your spreadsheets and you are able to tune her out for a while. (Last week, you were jumping up as soon as the barking started, but you’ve realized the error in that.) You ignore. The barking continues, and it starts to grate on you. You know you shouldn’t address it, because any attention from you at this point—even just a glance in her direction--will count as a reward. But it’s now driving you insane. You also know that yelling at her to stop Never Works (for you), and the only way to turn off the din is to get up and give her a toy to play with, or pick up her leash.

Whichever of these you resort to will not matter, because both send a message: bark at the human long enough, and eventually they will cave.

Conversely, if the barking for attention never works, the average, not-bred-for-persistence pet dog will give up that behavior after a few tries, and it will be Problem Solved.

(Unlike people, dogs stop doing things that never work for them. They stop much sooner if the behavior has never, ever worked than if it used to work but now does not work.)

And, next time, if you get Boopsy a bone to chew or a toy to distract her before she starts barking, when she is actually calm and is just watching you from her bed a few feet away, she learns that being calm and watching her human will pay off. Problem Solved, AND new behavior learned.

Ignoring behaviors you do not like that are designed to get your attention will stop when they do not, in fact, get your attention. But ignoring these behaviors for a period of time and then rewarding them by giving in will actually strengthen them! Whoops!

If it’s a behavior you enjoy, it doesn’t hurt the dog, and you aren’t one day going to change your mind and want to put an end to it, no problem. Strengthen away!

But if you want a behavior to stop, you never want the dog to learn that “persistence pays.”

My best advice? Figure out which behaviors are beneficial to you and the dog, and strengthen them from the beginning, purposefully; and decide which behaviors you do not enjoy that do not serve you or the dog, and make sure they never get rewarded in the first place.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

[1] Do you pronounce the ‘n’ in this word? Or do you say, “colum-ist”? I think most of us say “columNist,” but…why? We don’t say “columN.”

[2] A well-bred working dog doesn’t get distracted away from the work—he lives for it. The work is the reward.

[3] “Never” isn’t really the right word here, because you can actually put persistence to your advantage with the “stay” (and other helpful) commands.

 


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

What Drives Your Dog?

All domestic dogs were originally bred for a purpose: to serve humans in some fashion. How dogs were domesticated itself has multiple theories, but that they were domesticated to assist us is not scientifically in question. One of the smartest things humans ever did was to start creating specific breeds of dogs to perform tasks for us.

 This handsome devil is a Beauceron, a
French breed used to guard and
herd sheep. Do you have sheep?
We needed confident guardians for flocks, temples, businesses, and homes. We needed agile farmhands to herd the livestock without injuring it over terrain we couldn’t reach; hounds to sight, scent, chase down, and tree the game (and tell us loudly where they had done so); and bird dogs to locate, flush, and retrieve the fowl we hunted (someone should have realized early on that a dog who could pluck feathers cleanly would also be very valuable). We needed ratters to keep the rodent population in check, husky-type dogs to pull our sleds, and even small dogs to be lap-sitting companions (and loud, ankle-destroying, blanket-adoring, shivering protectors).

Of course, nowadays most dogs in developed countries are not chosen as working companions but simply as pets. And many dogs bred for other purposes are actually pretty good at being our pets, because we needed dogs to be able to work, but we also wanted them for company and comfort. So we selected for working ability and pro-sociability in many breeds. Mix some of the breeds together and you get desirable (and undesirable) snippets of each breed represented.

But no matter what, your dog, mixed or purebred, comes with innate drives to perform certain behaviors. And without proper outlets to express these drives, your dog will become bored, destructive, stressed, neurotic, and potentially even dangerous.

So giving our dogs a job to do helps them in numerous ways, even if it isn’t the exact job they were bred to do (but the closer you can mimic that, the better…and, let’s face it…some of us are decidedly not working in the field of our degree, are we?). Ideally, you should never acquire a dog with innate drives that are in opposition to what you want the dog to be for you and what the dog will deal with regularly¹. It’s not fair to the dog, and it’s a huge headache for the majority of owners over time, many of whom end up giving up on the dog, or worse--relegating it to a life of frustration because it will never have its needs met.

But people often choose dogs for looks, or for familiarity, for some unconscious ideal they need the dog to meet, or because “it’s sad and needs me.” Choosing a dog is often an incredibly emotional decision and rationality rarely makes an appearance, unfortunately. This leads, at best, to owners having to step up and do right by the dog no matter how much work it is for them (and despite most people in this situation swearing up and down that they will not give up on Fido, most do have a breaking point, which is often well past the point where Fido’s behavior has been cemented), and, at worst, to poor placements where Spot ends up living life at the end of a chain or in an outdoor kennel with very little human contact or stimulation.²

Ask any reputable dog trainer what’s the worst that can happen to a dog and they will describe the latter. It’s enough to make us weep, rend our clothing, and quit the profession, truly. (For the record, we’d much rather see the dog rehomed properly than relegated to a life of nothing. If you cannot meet the dog’s needs, rehoming is the kindest option.³)

Drive is defined as the ability and propensity of a dog to exhibit a particular pattern of behaviors when faced with particular stimuli. Drives are triggered by these particular stimuli and expressed in a typical and predictable way that is associated with the particular stimulus.

Maria Orlova, pexels.com
I said "drives," not "driving." He's not
taking you to the airport.

A well-bred dog will often exhibit behaviors related to its innate drives when it is just weeks old. The Border collie puppy will show the classic “stare, stalk, chase” sequence when placed near sheep. The pointer puppy will stalk and hold a point. The beagle puppy will follow a scent, ignoring distractions.

The Belgian Malinois puppy will take the pain of “puppy mouthing” to a whole new level of discomfort. (They don’t call them “Maligators” for nothing.)  

Knowing what your dog is driven by will help you train him to be a happy, well-behaved, fulfilled member of your family who could have been taught to bring you the paper from the driveway every morning, but now will never know this skill in our digital age.

So, how do you know what your dog’s drives are? Well, if you own a well-bred specimen of a purebred dog, you should be ahead of the game, as a more deeply researched dive into the breed standard will, at the very least, tell you what that breed was bred for, and how those drives should manifest.

This Chihuahua fancies
himself as a ratter. After
years of trying, he
finally caught something
.

(Granted, dogs are individuals. I’ve known retrievers that didn’t give a fig about carrying anything orally, much less bringing it back to you willingly and happily. I’ve met terriers who’d lie down, yawning, as they watched a squirrel dart past them, bird dogs who completely ignored anything with feathers, and hounds who rarely engaged in sniffing and wandering, even at liberty. 
But these examples are as rare as a month with only 29 days.)

But what if your beloved Mr. Wigglesworth is of, shall we say, dubious parentage? Sure, nowadays you can have him tested, but most of the tests are questionably reliable and most people don’t do them, anyway.

What is the mutt owner to do?

Here’s an idea: observe your dog. Find ways to put him in environments (safely, please!) that would allow him to choose an activity of his own accord in order to fulfill himself. (NOTE: running up and down a fence screeching at the neighbor's dog is NOT a healthy activity, so please stop allowing it.)

In your yard or familiar environments, watch how he plays with (or ignores) other dogs, how he interacts with people, especially kids, and how he engages in particular activities.

Better yet, take your pooch for a walk in the woods (and, at a separate time, in a large open field), on a long, non-retractable leash, and, within reason, let him wander and explore. How much sniffing does he engage in when no one is hurrying him along? What does he do when a squirrel torments him from a few feet away, or anything furry races off nearby? Where is his gaze? Does he look skyward often, or seem very interested in flying creatures? Maybe he enjoys dropping down to loll in the grass or dirt, or purposefully roll in some unidentifiable substance (probably goose poop or worm guts—let’s be real).


Does he scan for creature movement? Give chase? Does he stick his nose in every hole or crevice? Dig furiously? Does he pay attention to you when not being asked to? How does he react when he experiences something he is unfamiliar with? Does his reaction to an unfamiliar thing change if it is a person who appears in view, as opposed to something small scurrying about? What does your dog do if you happen to chance upon a.) a deer, b.) a small-footed man wearing an obvious toupee, c.) a young person carrying more than 2 unripe mangoes, or d.) a friendly yeti?

If you have a fenced yard, you may be inclined to just observe him when he is outside poking about, instead of leashing him to walk elsewhere. Certainly, you might be able to answer some of the above questions in this manner (well, probably not the yeti one), but unless his natural drives are very strong, he may just be happy to lounge in the sun because the environment is familiar and boring.

So dropping the both of you into unfamiliar natural territory, preferably territory teeming with all manner of sights, sounds, and smells that dogs generally react to, is more likely to make this little test an educational one for you.

Additionally, you can assess doggy drives using toys and treats and play: throw toys of varying types, or attach a string to a toy and drag it around where your dog can join in the fun; create noise and excitement with toys; hide treats in increasingly more difficult locations; start running and encourage your dog to chase you (I don’t recommend this last tip if you made the mistake of getting a Malinois puppy).

Once you have a decent idea of what your dog enjoys doing, you can create situations that allow him to express those drives safely, thereby giving him positive outlets for his energy and giving him true mental stimulation at the same time, which makes for a contented dog, and makes you An Exceptional Owner.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1. E.g. don’t choose a dog with guarding drives and then expect it to be perfectly happy with people just walking into your home without knocking, or your kids’ friends coming through doors breathlessly, completely unannounced. Effective training can help curb some of the behaviors related to the guarding drive, but training cannot override genetics.

2. Some breeds like livestock guardians were indeed created to work independently from human oversight, but that does not give owners license to neglect them.

3. This whole idea that “people who get rid of dogs are trash and unworthy of owning a dog” is an unkind fallacy that serves no one positively and productively; as with most issues in life, it is not black and white, but full of many shades of gray. Rehoming a pet that you cannot properly care for is not shameful.

4. Look, I shouldn’t have to say this, but exercise caution here. If you already know your 100+ lb dog will take off running after anything that moves, when that long leash gets taut, you can be severely injured trying to hold onto him, so be smart.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Knowing What You Don't Know

“Dying is a wild night and a new road.” ~Emily Dickinson

 Who am I to sit in this chair at this desk and write about what death is?

Well, who am I not to? Just because billions of words have already been constructed into prose sentences, lines of verse, graphic novels, plays and librettos and screenplays and choral masterpieces, and varied and spectacular similes and metaphors on the subject of death doesn’t mean I cannot write about it, too.

It’s not like I can write about it in such a way that you, the reader, would read it and suddenly truly understand death, anyway. I suppose I could lay down a lot of verbiage about somatic death, or what happens to the body when the brain dies and the heart stops. But I could not do this better than a lot of people already have. In other words, the facts about our death and decay are fairly* well understood by scientists, healthcare professionals, coroners and funeral directors, and researchers, at the very least.

But this missive about the one constant we all share, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, creed, gender, religious belief, sexual identity, social status, level of wealth, and I.Q. isn’t headed in the direction of facts about the science of the body becoming unalive.

What I want to explore is the nebulous, the liminal, the subjective, the profound, the parts of this “wild night” that are barely within the realm of comprehension, much less firmly on the surface of true understanding.

No matter what religion you are (or aren’t), no matter what you believe, or how firmly that belief has you in its hold, no matter how you try to wrap your brain around the subject, none of us really know what death actually entails, do we? Oh, we think we know! Some of you are very sure, in fact. Most people know that they don’t know, and are happy to not ever speak of it again, thank you very much. And then a small number of us know that we don’t know, but we very much want to discuss it because it is the one reality we all share—the most existential attribute that makes us human.


And when those of us in the last category get together and start talking, a lot of people find themselves quite uncomfortable, as if talking about death invites Death to come down with a gleaming scythe gripped in his bony hand to smite us. Better not to speak of it, for fear of inviting it.

Talking about death and dying does not invite death. Death will arrive when it is time, regardless of the nature of our conversations.

“Because I could not stop for Death--He kindly stopped for Me--/
    The carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality.” ~Emily Dickinson

 

It was after midnight one warm, breezeless Spring night in 1998. In that liminal space between consciousness and deep sleep, I lay beneath the open window covered only by a thin sheet. Out of nowhere, the window blinds began to sway, pushed by air from outside, moving enough to smack the edge of the window frame a few times, which, combined with the delicious evening air suddenly flowing over my skin, was enough to rouse me. The rush of welcome air lasted about 20-30 seconds, I’d guess, and then the sultriness returned. My eyes found the cobalt numbers beside my bed: 2:17 a.m. I fell asleep.

I was about an hour into my workday the following day, chatting with a co-worker, when I asked about a former co-worker who had become a friend, Jeff, who had left our store about 3 weeks prior and was dying of AIDS in hospice not far away. “Any news?” She shook her head. Cue the day forward; I’m in the break room after lunch and she touches me on the shoulder. “He’s gone. He died last night, Frank said.” I nod somberly and she tells me the funeral information will be disseminated soon.

When I have occasion later that afternoon to ask Frank more, he tells me that Jeff went peacefully early this morning. Frank is a detail guy, so I knew he would know even more than that. “What time?”

He doesn’t skip a beat. “Time of death was recorded at 2:16 a.m. I know because my phone rang less than a minute later.”

I am a person who adores reason, who bathes in rationality, who hadn’t embraced religion or even spirituality for over a decade when Jeff died. I didn’t believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, Heaven or Hell, or anything for which no evidence existed. Though he and I shared a kinship in regards to our private lives, Jeff wasn’t a “ride-or-die” friend—we had known each other on the job for less than a year, and only at work.

But I knew, right as that time signature came from Frank’s lips, that Jeff had visited me on his way out, on his way to wherever it is he was headed. I "knew" it then, and I still "know" it now, all these years later; the knowledge mostly sits in a corner of my mind and all my other thoughts tip their hats at it from time to time and they race (or shuffle) past.

Is it explainable in rational terms? The breeze is; even “out of the blue” on a breezeless night, it is well within the realm of possibility. The timing of the breeze? Of course not. I wouldn’t deign to even try. Can it be easily dismissed as coincidence? Absolutely. Have I, someone who believes very strongly in the randomness of the world, dismissed it as coincidence? No.

“I don’t know if it is true, but it is useful.” ~Anonymous


You see, it doesn't matter what I believe, and it doesn’t matter what the real explanation is for the phenomenon that cascaded through my open window that night. I have attached a belief to it and no reason exists to dismiss that belief, despite the chances of it being a deliberate visit from the spirit of my work friend on his way out of consciousness forever being extremely slim.

It comprises part of my shelf of beliefs about death, you see. It sits there, minding its business, a small scrap in the overall file folder, a folder that grows constantly as I process more thoughts and feelings about this unknowable subject.

It’s human nature to want to know what happens to us, to our consciousness, to our non-physical being, at the moment of death, of course.

But what if an answer to this question simply cannot be found, regardless of how many words we write, conversations we have, or experiences that waft through our windows on breezeless evenings? What if we are forced to sit with uncertainty, as long as we live, regarding this question?

I’m OK with that. I hope you can be, too.

~Mailey

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 *"We still know very little about human decay, but the growth of forensic research facilities, or ‘body farms,’ together with the availability and ever-decreasing cost of techniques such as DNA sequencing, now enables researchers to study the process in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. A better understanding of the cadaveric ecosystem – how it changes over time, and how it interacts with and alters the ecology of its wider environment – could have important applications in forensic science. It could, for example, lead to new, more accurate ways of estimating time of death, and of finding bodies that have been hidden in clandestine graves."

~Mo Costandi (The Guardian, May 2015)

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Your Life Dreams are Thieves

 

“Our purest dreams steal something from our lives.

They can only live if something else dies…”

 


As I idled in traffic one breezy spring morning, the lines above leapt out from my car stereo and gripped my brain, demanding my attention then and there—and I began to feel my emotions welling (as they are right now, as I compose this). What was required of me in that moment was to connect the dots between a book I’d been devouring breathlessly, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman1, pause the song until I could pull over and scribble the lyrics and the jumble of thoughts into my Field Notes notebook, and then to slide that leather-bound constant companion between the seat and the console and look up through the open top of the Jeep at the cloudless sky and memento mori.

(A bit of an aside: does this sort of thing happen to you, this scramble to record a thought you know will slip away? Does it feel like desperation? One could argue that it’s a function of aging; we realize at some point that we will not remember an insight and we take measures to shore up our abilities: surround ourselves with notebooks and pens and sticky notes everywhere and memo minders on our phones and whiteboards on multiple surfaces. 2

So, yes, on the aging front I won’t quibble, but it isn’t just that for me. I’ve carried a book, a notebook, and a writing tool with me everywhere as long as I can remember, because there are so many more elements I experience than I can attend to at a time; the world around me constantly sparks my imagination and, no matter our age, we can only hold so much at once.)

Why did these lyrics grab me? Time is a fickle mistress, isn’t she? We tend to think we have way more time than we actually do; we see the future with rose-colored glasses as a huge, never-ending expanse of time in which All The Things will be able to be explored.

In order to pursue Activity A, we will have to pause or cease Activities B-Z because of the way in which we mortals experience time. This, on a micro level, means that dinner with your family at home means you can’t be attending a lecture or concert across town; and choosing to take a job on Wall Street means you have to give up the idea of spending that same year on a fishing trawler or hiking across the Caucasus mountains, because you cannot be in two places at once.

And this means you must constantly make an array of choices that could lead to extraordinary experiences, pure regret, or something in between.                                  

Every experience you choose removes another experience from the realm of possibility in that time frame. And you might, remembering Frost’s words to “mark the first [road] for another day,” declare yes, if I choose K, I cannot do Q right now, but I will do it in the future, won’t I? If it matters, I *will* get to it, right?


Ah. It seems you may have forgotten the next lines Robert wrote, Dear Reader. 3

The idea that your life dreams are thieves may shock you, or disappoint you. It may jolt you awake, smear you with intense FOMO, or be of no real concern to you because you didn’t realize you had a choice of aspirations.

(The song is looking at the macro, of course, but the concept applies even when reduced, though it wavers, when reduced, from a “life dreams” level.4)

What do your dreams steal from you? Following them eliminates all the other dreams you might have pursued. Following them means that the activities and tasks you did to “move the needle” toward your goal happened instead of other activities and tasks and experiences you might have had or done.

For most of us, following our dreams means honing in and tuning out distractions, over and over and over; we structure our time and curate our activities for a goal out of necessity, typically not knowing what we are bypassing or missing.5

And here’s another truth about choosing to follow our dreams: since we have a limited amount of time, we must often jettison activities we enjoy (that may even be work-related) that are not moving the needle forward for us. This has happened to me in the last several months as I change careers in midlife, and I am still grieving the loss of those activities, most related to my previous career, that brought me so much satisfaction and pleasure. But we have to make the tough choices in regards to our time.

“…And our purest dreams
Steal something from our lives
They can only live
Because something else dies
But they lift us up
And they make us walk so tall
Got it all…got it all…got it all…”

~from “Love Too Much” by Keane,
lyrics by Tim Rice-Oxley

 

 ***********************

 

1.   Not your run-of-the-mill self-help book about time management, so don’t dismiss it. It’s a deep, thoughtful treasure trove of head-slapping insights and I re-read it constantly.

2.  During the pandemic, the wife and I invested in some nice glass whiteboards and installed them in multiple places in our home. Are they a beautiful addition to our d├ęcor? No. Do they improve the look of our space? Also no. But have they helped us by giving us a close-by way to jot things down and remember? Yes. I wish we’d done it sooner.


3.  ”Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.”

4.   E. g. the time you spend doomscrolling social media is time you are not reading that stack of books on your nightstand (or writing your own book); the 3 hours you spend at the bar is time you are not training your puppy, studying for your finals, cleaning your house, or any number of other tasks that may or may not be more important.

But reducing the theme to this micro level brings in more factors, one of which is how we ascribe importance, and even morality, to certain tasks, and how we guilt ourselves while doing so. If you are having a great time laughing and making memories with your friends while at the bar, who is to say that the experience is worth less than the tasks you are foregoing?

5.) This post is in no way an admonishment to abandon your dreams, by the way. Do that only to make room for new ones. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Enduring the Erosion

The breeze slides off the lake, slips nimbly up and over the ragged, red clay bank, and swirls in eddies around my bare feet. It shimmies past the perspiring skin on my arms and legs just enough to keep me from retreating to the air-conditioned camper. The water is mostly still today, only occasionally ruffled by a pleasure boat. I am fully ensconced in the shade of several young white oak trees, trees whose leaves capture (but fail to hold) the edges of the breeze caressing us all.

Many thoughts have been breezily swirling in my brain since we arrived to this quiet cove yesterday, though I fully admit to pushing some of them away so that I might remain fully present. I don’t push them away because they are unpleasant or difficult (though some are); I simply, right now, want to focus on, well, a tree.

What has captured my pen today is one singular oak to my right, the same age as her sisters (I’m guessing 25-50 years old, which is, in oak years, practically newborn*). She is the victim of unfortunate circumstance, an event probably created by drought, likely in the last 3 years.

The earth simply could not hold her where she planted herself, on a promontory too close to the water’s edge, and erosion beneath took its toll eventually, causing her to now be tilted precariously towards the water at a 45 degree angle. Her branches are in full summer outleaf and her trunk remains stubbornly sturdy; the top edge of her root ball has feathered away, though, and the exposed roots show minimal, but concerning, damage.

I have no idea how long she will persevere in this this inalterable state, and I find myself wondering how she will cope with this predicament, how much further she will fall over time, and how much time she has left, knowing full well only two things: she will never ponder these thoughts, and now, I will never not ponder them.**

Perhaps she will compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on her skyward side, strengthening the ones already there, or curving her trunk, to act as ballast.

Perhaps she will call out to her brethren and sound an alarm, and they will come to her aid, as trees do--sending nutrients through the mycelium to boost her and hold her steady against the wind and water and the ravages of time.

Perhaps she will be able to hold herself in this altered state for many years, and perhaps not. She has no idea how long the remaining dirt under her will last, and she may not be able to compensate being fully waterlogged at the base once it gives way.

And then there’s the question of what will happen if roots, trunk, and branches become partly or mostly permanently submerged. White oaks are hardy, sure, but they are not suited for under-the-waterline stasis like a bald cypress, swamp tupelo, or even a willow. She could live for years more--even if she slips below the waterline. But she will likely not thrive in that state and would certainly not reach full age and mass.

Her roots hold fast to the remaining bank for now, and she continues to hold fast to her white-oakness; what other choice does she have, really?

It makes me think about how we humans cope with change, how we adjust ourselves when things interrupt our growth and/or purposely or unconsciously try to drag us down.

The tree doesn’t need to “think on her feet.” She holds this new line as only she can: with blinding slowness and complete neutrality, with steady composure, without dread. It will take months, nay, years for her to make adjustments to trunk or branches, and they will be so incremental that they would hardly be noticed with the naked eye. The challenge she faces is not one where quick thinking matters; she will adjust, but with no haste.

Meanwhile, life/the Universe flings all manner of feces at us daily: we lose jobs, our spouses divorce us or we divorce them, partnerships dissolve, our beloved soul friends move away physically or drift away emotionally (the latter, of course, being even more painful), our pets face trauma and illness and we must face their mortality, and our loved ones face illness, adversity, and death. Our hearts break, capsizing upon themselves in white-hot agony, and we are stripped bare by the futility of circumstance. Our existence can be thrown into chaos with one phone call, one unnoticed red light, one instant of distraction, even one stumble off the curb. Change is the only permanence in our lives, and often, we are not ready to face it, let alone cope with it in healthy ways. It’s funny: humans have adjusted and adapted over centuries to all manner of newness and strangeness, and persevered. But we crave consistency and sameness, routine and ritual, nonetheless.

And there is nothing wrong with this craving. Wanting consistency, desiring ritual, and needing routine have helped us adapt, actually: stability is nothing to sneeze at. We are creatures of habit.

But the Universe doesn’t really care about that, does it? We know that Life Happens--and storybook endings rarely do. We know, intellectually, that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa, that adversity doesn’t discriminate, and that life is actually rarely fair. So that means we realize that change will come and it may often be unwelcome, but we must cope. What other choice do we have?

And, unlike this young tree facing adversity, we often need to adjust to change very quickly, even though what we’d really like is More Time to learn how to cope with the inevitable erosion of what we are used to. Our heads understand what is needed, but our vulnerable hearts are slow to catch up (and often too swift to declare they will never embrace vulnerability again). The tree, lacking a breakable heart, has nothing but time to adjust, but we are rarely afforded that luxury.


As we feel our feet being ripped from underneath us, find ourselves tipping toward the water as the earth sloughs away, we realize that we can change nothing about the circumstance but ourselves: we can compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on our skyward surface, strengthening the ones already there, or curving our trunks, to act as ballast. We can reach out to our brethren for aid, and open ourselves/be receptive to the nutrients they provide us.

We can experience change (and the knowing that it will always be watching us from just outside our awareness, peeking through a crack in the curtains, waiting to pop over for a “quick chat” just when we have settled ourselves into a cozy  nap in the familiar) by activating the stalwartness we, like the tree, already possess.

The leaning tree cannot control the erosion, nor can she adapt quickly to adversity, change, or distressing situations. But she copes, regardless. And we learn, sometimes against our wishes, that we can cope, provide ourselves ballast, and thrive over time despite adversity, discomfort, and even heartbreaking pain.

What other choice do we have?

****************************************

*The common folklore is that oak trees grow for 100 years, live for 100, and die for 100.

**Will I think about this tree constantly? Of course not. But will I think of her regularly? Yes, because I think about trees a lot anyway, and this one in particular has captured me on this day--and forever.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Let Yourself Shatter


“On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
the round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous, nobody can tell what I lack.” ~Sylvia Plath

 

If you have been alive long enough to have experienced the end of a serious relationship, the death of a friend or loved one, or have shared your life with animals for any length of time, you have known loss and you have tasted the bitter nectar of grief. It’s an intense, heavy emotion that, when it hits, often sideswipes us with its raw power.

It’s quite likely that your first experience of death was indeed the death of a beloved pet from your childhood—an event you probably recall with incredible clarity, even now, and, being human, you also remember the heart-rending pain you felt afterward (for some people, the pain is so giant that they refuse to own pets ever again). If you are like me, you still grieve at least one of your long-lost dogs—very possibly as acutely as if it just happened. The loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family or friends, partially because our culture makes intense grief surrounding pet loss just not socially acceptable, and partly because pets are some of our most intimate, most unconditional relationships. Those of us who share our lives with pets often experience grief multiple times over our lifetimes because pets live such transitory lives compared to ours.

Grief makes most people uncomfortable. They don’t like experiencing it, and they feel helpless when they encounter it in others. It’s incredibly awkward to be involved in some basic daily task in public and see someone who is actively grieving: we don’t know whether to ignore, try to help, or overtly avoid them. As someone who has broken down in public several times, tears streaming down my face as I sobbed uncontrollably and collapsed in the coffee aisle, suppressing the urge to wail, I have seen the looks of those nearby as I considered that I probably should “get myself together” and “not make a scene.” That’s some powerful cultural conditioning and I actively began to fight against it when my mother died suddenly in 2019.

I grew up believing that grief was a private thing, a linear thing, something to be “gotten over,” something intimate (not discussed outside the circle or after the funeral), something slightly shameful, even. This is what author Miriam Greenspan calls “emotion phobia”: a culture-wide fear of the raw power of emotion and its expression. It was drilled into most of us in childhood, sadly, though shaming, ignoring, or the threat of punishment. “Even if we were not humiliated, punished, neglected, or whipped into shape for having ordinary human feelings, by the time we are adults, we are expected to restrict their free flow…we have been taught that emotions are not appropriate except in the context of intimate relationship,” Greenspan writes in her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions.

Everyone feels awkward that you aren’t yourself anymore, so they try to buck you up with platitudes. But you don’t want to be bucked up! Your heart is broken and you just want it reassembled—but there is no way out of this black maw except through it. You cannot drown your grief, or eat/sex/drug it away, or pretend it doesn’t exist, because it is a living part of you. Stop worrying about what others, especially strangers, think--or if they feel uncomfortable. Feel your grief; reach down inside you and grip it and hold it still for as long as it takes; it writhes and bleats and it burns, even, but you must own it—completely.

And here’s a recommendation that will free you: stop saying “I’m sorry” when grief washes over you randomly and you break down! Never apologize for having feelings, especially these powerful ones that make us so human and that we have all felt at some time or another. Death and non-death loss are part of life, like it or not, and embracing your pain is the only way to find your way out of it.

 

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.” ~Shakespeare

 

Grief is not linear; it is not “five stages” that everyone needs to follow in a certain order, and it is not shameful; it is sloppy and jagged and you will not feel large enough to contain it sometimes.

Sorrow and regret and anger run in a malevolent pack, barreling towards you, threatening to mow you over and leave you a pile of dust that could blow away on the slightest breeze. Let them! You will likely disintegrate, but only temporarily.

Author Glennon Doyle writes, “Grief shatters. If you let yourself shatter and then you put yourself back together, piece by piece, you wake up one day and realize that you have been completely reassembled. You are whole again, and strong, but you are suddenly a new shape, a new size…”


It’s been said that we do not “move on” from loss. We only move forward. The pain will indeed ease over time, but it never truly departs. Sometimes it takes up residence on the periphery of your consciousness, and other times, it comes in and sits down at the table and demands to be noticed. This is all a normal part of the healing process, which is messy and can feel unsettling.

But it does get better. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to seek help: support groups, talking with understanding friends, practicing keening, being in nature, caring for pets and children, volunteering, exercising, eating healthfully, meditation and gratitude practices are all ways that others have healed.

You will heal, too.

"Grief is a house
where the chairs
have forgotten how to hold us
the mirrors how to reflect us
the walls how to contain us

grief is a house that disappears
each time someone knocks at the door
or rings the bell
a house that blows into the air
at the slightest gust
that buries itself deep in the ground
while everyone is sleeping

grief is a house where no one can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
or out.”

Jandy Nelson

 

 

Monday, July 12, 2021

Going Gray

The older I get, the more gray I become.

I’m not talking about my hair. Everyone gets gray as they age. My father’s hair was completely gray by 40. Mine would be salt-and-pepper if I let it grow, but I’ve been shaving it for years because I enjoy not having to mess with my hair and I enjoy that it is less expensive, easier to maintain, and keeps my temperature lower (menopausal hot flashes are not fun, kids). I do love gray hair on others, though, and I would have zero issue with the color now.

But this isn’t about hair.

I’m talking about my worldview. And when I mention a “gray worldview,” I’m not talking about a dismal, dreary, “it’s a gray day outside” perspective, or a “gloom and doom” perspective.  I’m not despairing. I’m not unhappy.

You see, I’m not a pessimist. I’m an optimist with experience.

For me, adopting a gray worldview means being able to see the world in many shades of gray, and less in absolutes, less in pure “black and white.” It means realizing that though I may not be the brightest, or smartest, or most educated, I am nevertheless striving every day to be a critical thinker who is constantly trying to see the world past my own perception.

This isn’t easy. At all. It takes work and it can be uncomfortable work. No one likes to realize that a lot of what they think could be, well, wrong. Or misguided. We must consistently and urgently challenge ourselves to think in different ways because it is impossible to grow without doing so.

And we like routine. We like thinking the same stuff all the time. We like not being challenged mentally and emotionally, especially when it comes to our core beliefs. Many people enjoy stagnation because it is like putting on a favorite pair of jeans or the softest t-shirt you own: it’s comfortable, and easy. Westerners, by and large, enjoy ease—especially ease of thought.

Think about it: when’s the last time you started a conversation, on purpose, with someone who has opposing religious, political, or social issue beliefs than you do? I’ll bet it has been a long time, if ever. When is the last time you chose a book to read that challenged your beliefs?

It’s time that we purposely push ourselves to walk in unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable, territory when our physical safety is not at risk. We need to not just have the uncomfortable conversations, but start them. And I’m not talking about social media, which is often a terrible place to have deep conversations about any topic, much less a topic that will create discomfort.

No, these conversations are best held in person, either one-on-one, or in small groups. They are best held when our bellies are full, we are sober, and we are well rested. They are best held when we cannot escape easily, cannot defer our answers, cannot deflect.

We need to be prepared to not know the answers, but to figure them out as we go. We need to learn to sit with discomfort, look it in the face, and not shy away.

We need to be prepared to say to the others in the conversation, “That is not a perspective I have ever considered, and now I have some thinking to do. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Harli Marten
We need to be prepared to feel dumb. To feel small. To feel the hot flush of embarrassment, even, because we have put ourselves “out there” and been corrected, ideally gently. (Embarrassment is always survivable.)

Our conversation companions may not play fairly, but we can. They may shout, but we can speak normally and thoughtfully, regardless. They may get angry and try to leave, but we can stay, take deep breaths, and continue on.**

Does this feel too frightening? See below for how you can prepare.

Many issues surround us daily that require critical thought and the adoption of a gray worldview. Black and white thought will not solve our problems. For most of us, the world’s problems are not even in our capacity to solve, but when we speak of them or put energy into trying to understand them, we must try to do so in ways that will aid in the solutions. Why? None of us can solve world hunger, or the healthcare crisis, or climate change, the inefficiency of government, or the problems of white supremacy, racism, and sexism by ourselves. You and your friends talking about them in your backyard on a sunny day will not solve them, either. So why does it matter how you discuss them? What is wrong about bitching and complaining about the problems we all have in common that are well beyond our capacity to solve?

It matters because it is far too easy to have unfiltered opinions, to vent, to cast aspersions on the evildoers, to marinate in the frustrations of the world. Our brains are wired towards negativity and we get careening down that fast track and have no desire to put on the brakes. And we need to do the work to put thoughtfulness out into the world, uncomfortable as it may be, difficult as it may be to see the good in situations that frustrate—even pain—us. Doing so stretches us, not to a breaking point, but to a growing point. There can be no growth without stress and we should care what energy (for lack of a better word) we thrust into the universe from our heads. We should want to have all the information before deciding what we believe about important issues, and we should want to be able to change what we believe when, and if, more information comes to light to challenge our beliefs.

Otherwise, we are simply stagnating, and that doesn’t help anyone.

If the thought of engaging people you know and care about on difficult issues fills you with dread, I have outlined an exercise below that can serve as a handy “warm-up” to in-person discussions. What have you got to lose? Feel free to try it once or a few times, then post a comment about your experience.

If this sounds scary, you can prepare yourself beforehand by simply seeking out books or other sources extolling beliefs and attitudes with which you disagree, and exploring them while alone. Practice hearing, watching, or reading the info and just listening instead of objecting. Try putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes and trying to understand why they believe the way they do. Even if you fail at understanding their point of view fully, you have stretched your abilities to withstand concepts with which you disagree.

Then put the book down and go for a walk outside (shoot for 20 minutes, uninterrupted). I suggest a familiar place, so you can think about what you just read or watched instead of having to think about where you need to turn or worrying about getting lost. Leave your phone and headphones behind. Let your thoughts flow through your head without trying to dam them up or divert them away. Just let them come. If you are feeling angry or frustrated by what you consumed, ask yourself why. If you are confused, then allow yourself to be confused as your feet move you through the space; the rhythm of walking on a path is often a balm for soothing confusion.

I often talk to myself, out loud, as I take these “debriefing” walks. It helps me to hear myself asking questions, even if I cannot answer them right then. If I’m especially perturbed by the content I just explored, the first few moments as I process angrily probably look super weird to my neighbors. But I’m too old to care.


Are you a runner? You may be inclined to process by going for a run instead of a walk. Try to squelch that impulse and just walk instead. Walking after such a mental (and often emotional) exercise is actually better than running, because running will raise your heart rate and your breathing and will, in itself, become a diversion. And this outing is NOT about diversion. It is about processing while moving in a calibrated way. Movement dissipates stress, and all you need right now is to reset slightly while not avoiding the discomfort of thought. You will find that your swirling thoughts will settle themselves as your feet push you forward. The rhythm of your movement will begin to have an impact on the rhythm of your thoughts, and you will feel the discomfort melting.

You will likely return from your walk without having adopted the view of the speaker or writer you imbibed 20 minutes earlier. No problem! Adopting their viewpoint was NOT the purpose of exposing yourself to that POV, or the walk afterward. However, if, once you arrive back home, you are still “fired up” and even more entrenched in your prior beliefs, then you still have a few questions to answer. It’s fine to put them aside for a bit if you need to attend to other pursuits, but allow make yourself return to them later.

(It’s unlikely that one reading/video followed by one 30-minute walk would change your worldview completely. If it does, so be it—you probably already had your doubts and that’s fine. My point is that you should not consider this exercise a failure, regardless of what you end up believing as you remove your walking shoes.)

Ask yourself questions in the continuing days, too. Don’t push them away. They are an important part of coming back into your comfort zone slowly.

Now, when the opportunity for a potentially uncomfortable conversation in person arises, you will be less likely to avoid it, and you may very well feel confident enough to start it. This is a huge step in personal growth and you should be very proud of yourself.

*This does not apply if you are in any true physical danger. You must advocate for your physical safety (remember, discomfort is not the same as physical danger, though it will often manifest in our physical bodies). Do not have these conversations with someone who has physically, verbally, or emotionally abused you or threatens to become violent (talk to a therapist instead).