Saturday, March 31, 2012

Of Garbage and Gold

There are two kinds of people – those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t.

No, I’m not a classification freak. At least not usually. But every once in a while I see an unusual response that just begs to be classified. I thought about dashing off a 2x2 grid and being done with it, but eventually gave in to the impulse to define it better, so here goes.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of getting unhappy when presented with certain stimuli. Defiance from your child, a diagnosis of cancer, decline in portfolio value, flat tires, roof leaks, and so on, all commonly considered adverse events. So getting unhappy in the face of such provocations is common – pretty much the default.

Readers of this blog, and students of beliefs and happiness in general, are familiar with not getting unhappy when presented with mild or even grave provocation. It takes some work in the beginning, tends to get easier with practice, and if you’re able to cleanly execute certain swaps in your belief system, can actually get effortless and almost instinctive in wide swathes of your world.

Then there is being happy or not getting unhappy when there’s no provocation. This is pretty common – most people put in great effort to steer clear of possible provocations. One moves to get the right weather, switches to the career of one’s choice, picks comfortable friends and hangouts, and so on. We get happy when we get a raise, a gift, a free upgrade, and so on.

The zinger, is when one gets unhappy in the absence of provocation, or even in the presence of ‘happy’ stimuli. That’s when somebody is still feeling unhappy when things are motoring along just fine in their world. Maybe they are holding on to unhappy memories or nursing a grudge. Maybe they are almost afraid of feeling happy for fear of being unprepared for the adverse event that’s surely around the corner. Worry falls in this category – giving attention and energy to a future event in gross disproportion to the probability of its occurrence. Some ‘look the gift horse in the mouth’ – ignoring the benefits we did get and focusing on those we didn’t.

A parallel, from the world of alchemy:

1. You get garbage -> treat it as garbage .

2. You get gold -> treat it as gold.

3. You get garbage -> convert it to gold.

4. You get gold -> contrive to convert it to garbage .

An instance of #3:, during a recent conversation on a charged topic, a family member made a remark – a throwaway comment delivered with a touch of sarcasm that neatly put it in the category of garbage. The commonly accepted reaction would be to treat it as garbage (it is garbage, isn’t it?). One could respond with more garbage, or, with great forbearance, one might choose to ignore it to gain the ‘moral high ground’, so to speak. But the alchemist’s way would be to treat it as gold! Ah, what a wonderful chance to display love in action towards this family member, to allow them to open up and unload the intense feelings they clearly have, to explore their motivations (maybe it’s love underneath that unhappiness!), possibly to even heal some of the hurt, eventually to get closer to them.

(For examples of #4, see Teflon’s post from yesterday, Shortcuts to Unhappiness).

Ultimately (to switch from alchemy to chemistry), both garbage and gold are merely protons, neutrons and electrons, just in different arrangements. But it can be fun to name those arrangements and play with them.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Shortcuts to Unhappiness

In 2009 Iris and I spent Thanksgiving weekend with with Mark K and my dad (Lee). Mark and Lee share a finely honed skill set that allows them to transform any silver lining into the darkest storm cloud. After careful observation and analysis, I believe I've codified their methods into something that I've entitled Shortcuts to Unhappiness.

If you have a strong commitment to and strive for unhappiness, please know that proper and regular application of these simple and easy-to-do techniques can lead to sustainable and high quality depression and anxiety. If you're someone who wants to become happier, please know that regular application of these simple and easy-to-do techniques can lead to sustainable and high-quality depression and anxiety.
  1. Attribute everything to genetics or environment
    There's nothing so fundamentally disabling and dis-empowering as making everything you do a result of your upbringing or your genes. Healthy maintenance of challenges such as worry, fear, jealousy, anger and anxiety requires no more than saying, "It's just who I am!"

    If you're struggling with addiction, take comfort in knowing that there's nothing you can do about it. You're genetically predisposed to overeating or drinking excessively. You're wired that way. It's just your lot.

  2. Remind yourself and others that optim-istic is not real-istic
    Whenever you encounter someone who is sickeningly optimistic, write them off as a flake and remind yourself that you're not a pessimist, you're a realist. Optimism just sets you up for disappointment. It's better to never have tried than to have tried and been disappointed.

  3. Avoid meaningless activity
    Psychologists tell us that happy people are active people. The specific activity doesn't matter as much as the being active part; it can be climbing mountains or washing dishes or walking around the block with your kid. Just knowing that activity could improve your outlook on life, might pose a significant threat to your unhappiness. No worries! Simply dismiss anything that you're capable of doing as not worthwhile or meaningless.

  4. Dwell
    A beautiful side-effect of low activity is that it gives you plenty of time to dwell on the past. When dwelling try to focus on those things that you regret or people who have "hurt" you or treated you unjustly. If you find yourself slipping into a happy memory, pull a little unhappiness jujitsu; flip it into how sad you are that the happy memory is now just a memory.

  5. Kill curiosity before it kills your cat
    One of the more powerful weapons in both Mark's and Lee's arsenals of unhappiness is boredom. While sharing about my weekend with Jonathan, he wondered aloud how anyone could ever be bored. (Jonathan is a man of a million ideas with the activity levels required to actually implement them.) He then said, "What happens to people that they lose all curiosity?"

    When it comes to unhappiness, Jonathan's a lost cause. However there may be hope for you, even if you buy into the whole genetics thing. The problem is that each of us is born with at least a modicum of curiosity. To sustain unhappiness you must kill it. You must learn to find nothing interesting or inspiring.

  6. Make every situation a dilemma
    The most effective way to stay stuck in a situation is to force-fit all decisions into a dichotomy (an either/or decision) in which both alternatives are wrong. Forget the fact that there are infinitely many solutions to any problem by insisting that there are always two, neither of which appeals to you.

  7. Obligation before desire
    The buddhas of unquenchable unhappiness have a secret they want you to know about: always assign higher priority to your obligations than the things you want, specially when it comes to relationships.

    Start by recognizing that only people who are related to you genetically are your family. Remind yourself that the strangers whom you meet along the way, (the ones with whom you share dreams and passions, the ones with whom you can say anything, the ones that you love to be with) are not your family. Your family is your blood. You're genetically bound. These are the people you should be with, specially on holidays.

  8. Jump to extreme examples
    I have two words for you, "Michael" and "Jordan". Those with a strong commitment to unhappiness frequently site Michael Jordan when attempting to prove that they're stuck with their lot in life. The statement basically takes the form of, "Thinking that you can simply decide to be someone or do something is a load of crap. For example, you can't just decide to play basketball like Michael Jordon!"

    Alternatively, you can use "Tiger Woods" or my dad's favorite, "Bobby Fischer". In the end, whenever someone proposes that you can step beyond your existing boundaries, that you can simply decide to be something you're not, remember "Michael", "Jordan".

  9. Keep guilty secrets
    My dad discovered early on that guilt and regret are powerful sources of unhappiness, perhaps the most powerful. Through years of experimentation he learned that you can turbo-charge guilt and regret by keeping them secret. If at all possible, never share your sources of guilt and regret with anyone.

  10. Answer personal questions with references to others
    Sometimes it's difficult to keep a source of guilt, remorse or regret a secret. A pesky son or interested daughter-in-law may persistently ask you questions about you and what's going on inside.

    If you're stuck with them for a weekend and can no longer avoid the questions, answer them. Just use examples from someone else's life, or better yet, people generally. When asked how you feel about a specific event say something like, "You know, anyone who went through an experience like that would..."

    By never answering personal questions personally, you can guarantee that your secret sources of guilt and regret never see the light of day. This will establish a limitless wellspring of unhappiness.

Here are a few other tips that might come in handy.
  1. Surround yourself with low energy people with a keen eye for what can go wrong
  2. Become obtuse and literal whenever someone suggests an abstract concept that you think might just work
  3. In the event that someone tries to help you, insist that you do it yourself
  4. Take everything personally
  5. Reserve words like every, all, and always for things you don't like
  6. Dissect, pick-apart and scrutinize things you do like
  7. Keep an account of what people have done to you
  8. If someone does something nice for you, question their motives
  9. Always end conversations just before reaching closure

Whether your destination is deep dark depression or bountiful bliss, I hope that my little guide will make getting there more enjoyable.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Faking Zen

Jeremy explains, "The problem is that in order to play the kick drum consistently and in perfect time, I need to keep my foot and ankle completely relaxed."

"Uh huh", I respond.

"Yeah, but whenever I focus on my kick drum, my foot and ankle start to tense up."

"Uh huh."

"But if I don't focus on my kick drum, I lose track of it. I play inconsistently and out of time."


"So, how do you focus on something without being focused on it?"

Scott says, "I know that I play better when I'm confident and unconcerned about the outcome."

Iris responds, "Yeah, you play great!"

"But I don't always know that I'll be able to play what I'm trying to play."

"Why does that matter?"

"Well, what if I get all confident and everything, but then I screw up."

"What if that happens?"

"Well then I'd have had false confidence."

James says, "Look man, I'm an optimistic guy. I don't just see the glass as half full; I see it as 90% full."

"Why 90%?", I ask.

"Well, 100% would be too much. I don't want to become delusional. You know how some people become so intent on being positive that they live in denial. They get to the point where they can't even see the problems that are right in front of them."

At the core of everything meaningful, there lies a paradox or so it would seem: the explosion of passion that comes when we let go of what we want; the dissolution of fear that comes when we embrace it; the optimism we obtain when we view the negative full-on without filters.

Sometimes the apparent paradox can be distracting. After all a paradox is a clear indicator that there must be something askew. The answer we think is there isn't quite right. So we fake it.

Rather than being positive, we act positively hoping that our actions will positively influence the outcome. We feign confidence. We feign being at ease. Why? Because we want the results of optimism, confidence and easiness.

However, being any of those things so as to achieve a goal undermines the authenticity (and effect) of being them. The moment we suspect that it's not working, the optimism, the confidence, the easiness all begin to erode.

The zen of it lies in detaching from the outcome while still wanting the outcome more than anything. That means being positive, optimistic and happy, even if what we're seeking were never to occur. It means being confident no matter how many mistakes we make. It means seeing just how terrible things are and then deciding, "It's all good."

Happy Thursday,

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Have A Dream

I have a dream that one day humans will look back and find it difficult to believe that violence was ever used to resolve conflicts between countries, communities, and even individuals.

I have a dream that one day all children will have a chance to be educated in a culture of complete acceptance and mutual respect, where if a child were to say “2+2=5”, the teacher would reply with “Hm, I get 4. Can you show me how you get your answer?”

I have a dream that one day we will all realize (make it real, put in practice) that happiness is our default background state and unhappiness the exception, not the other way around.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Teflon: His Hat Went to Vegas Without Him

"Lucky hat? Lucky hat my butt." The man jabbers into his iPhone as he makes his way from Flatbush up 7th Avenue. "If this hat's lucky, then I'm Britney Spears."

The hat thinks, "Hey, I wasn't the one who kept shouting 'let it ride' at the roulette table. What kind of idiot bets everything on red, every time? If you'd only walked over to the black jack table, I could have helped you out. But nooooooo, not you. 'Black jack is for suckers!'. How could anyone think that black jack is for suckers, specially with me around."

The man laments his saga: delayed flights, failed attempts at room upgrades, never scoring, on the floor or elsewhere. "It's this stinkin' hat I tell ya. I never had such bad luck until it came along."

With that, the hat lifts its brim ever so slightly, catches a gust of wind and sails off the man's head. The man reaches for the hat with his cell phone hand, catches his forehead with an unkempt fingernail, and shouts "Ow!" as the phone clammers to the pavement on Lincoln Place.

As the man bends over to pick up the phone, an oncoming bike messenger looks up from his texting to see his way completely obstructed. The messenger vice grips his brakes. The bike stops. The messenger doesn't. As he flies over the stooped figure, he hears the man grumbling, "Who needs that stupid hat anyway."

The man stands and continues on his way home. The hat now airborne knows that it can't sustain flight for long. It looks for a place to land.

Amidst the sea of black-clothed locals, it spots a bright cyan-colored jacket born by a hatless woman with sun-streaked blond hair. It thinks, she must be for me. It adjusts his brim and angles in for landing. Just as it reaches her, it lifts its front brim causing it rise high into the air, stall and then drop.


"What was that?", the woman thinks as she reaches up searching the top of her head.

Her fingers gently caress the hat and then grip it more tightly as she lifts it from her head. She turns it over and around. "What a beautiful hat", she says. "Where'd you come from? Surely someone is missing you?"

That hat thinks, "If only you knew." Looking up at the adoring face it thinks, "Wow, jackpot!"

The woman looks around trying to discern who might have lost the hat, but none of the passersby in either direction have even slowed let alone stopped to look for an errant hat.

She looks at the hat and says, "You know what? I'm just going to think of you as a gift from the universe. I'm running late on my way to the airport. I'm heading to Vegas and ran out of time to shop for a hat to go with the black outfit that I wear with the band. You look perfect."

She slips the hat on her head. The hat tightens its band. It fits perfectly.

She grabs the handle of her suitcase and makes her way down the stairs to catch the subway.

The hat thinks, "Lady, this is your lucky day."

Happy Monday,

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Faith: His Hat Went to Vegas Without Him

The first response to our writing exercise from yesterday is from Faith.

Plenty of time if you haven't yet spent your ten minutes.

Happy Saturday,

Twirling it on his fingers, the price tag still dangling, he stares wistfully out the window.  People hustle by, busy with their lives.  They seem so intentional: creating their paths, their ways in the world.  His watching them create their lives seems ironic to him.  Everyone sees him as one of those people who makes things happen, a mover and shaker. 

At work he's the go-to guy, a real 'Go-Getter', but that's easy.  He's smart. He always knows what to do. He doesn’t even need to want the results.   If it makes the company money, makes the bosses and owners happy, makes him look good, he does it! 
Today, this moment, is different. What does he want?  He's on vacation, sitting in the airport, twirling his hat, waiting for his flight to Vegas.  He’s puzzled by a sudden sense of uncertainty.  He wants to go to Vegas, right? 

His friends are already there, and he promised to meet them.  They were thrilled to hear he would be on vacation and thought his joining them would be just perfect.  Little Jimmy would be so excited to see his favorite ‘Uncle Z’ as he is affectionately called.  He saw no flaw in the plan, so he made the arrangements.

So, here he is at the airport.  Why the angst?
Hey mister!  That’s a great hat!

A young man of about 13, of clearly eclectic tastes stands in front of him, looking with interest at his twirling hand. 

Thanks, son.  Where are you headed to?

To Las Vegas, with my family.  I’m on a break from school.
The clouds start to part; a thought begins to form, faintly.  Where else would he be right now if he weren't on his way to Vegas?  The thought becomes bigger and clearer transforming from the subjective to the imperative.  "Find out!"

Son, I think this hat really fits your style.  Why don’t you take it with you to Vegas?  I’d love it to see Vegas and I’m headed somewhere else today.

At the delighted look on the young man’s face, he hands him the hat, takes up his bag and walks towards the exit sign.

Friday, March 23, 2012

His Hat Went to Vegas Without Him

We sit at the bar at Railroad Street chomping on Poor Boys. I flip my Mac around to show Kevin a some of the pictures from Vegas. We talk and laugh. Kevin heads off to attend to another patron.

I flip the Mac around and notice a photo of Iris in her stage-wear. I tell her, "Wow, you look really great. That outfit works for you. I love the hat."

I think, "Where'd that hat come from?"

I closely look at the picture. Something stirs in my mind's eye, a miracle. It's… it's… it's a from a Thanksgiving miracle.

I turn to Iris and say, "That's Mark's hat. Mark Kaufman wore it to our house when he showed up on Thanksgiving morning with lox and bagels exactly when he said he would come."

Iris says, "What?"

I say, "Your hat, the one that looks so great on you. It's Mark Kaufman's hat."

Iris says, "It is?"

I say, "Yeah, his hat went to Vegas without him."

Both of us simultaneously look up to the right and say, "Hmmm… His hat went to Vegas without him."

We turn our gazes to one another and say, "That's a great title for a story."

Your assignment today, should you choose to accept it, is to write for ten minutes on the theme, "His hat went to Vegas without him." Tomorrow, we'll post some of the stories (or at least one of them). If you'd like us to post your, just email it to me or Iris by the end of the day today.

Happy Friday,
Below are some photos for inspiration.

A Hat to Replace

Hat Checking In

Hat at Airport

Hat Admired

Two Hats

Three Hats

Four Hats

Five Hats

Hat Desired

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Still with Me

Scott says, "While you shovel through the room? I don't get it."

Iris asks, "Is shovel the wrong word? I know how to say it in Dutch. What's the right word English?"

Scott answers, "Well that depends. What are you trying to describe?"

Iris responds, "Ummm... Have you ever watched old people walking?"

I say, "I think you mean 'shuffle'."

Iris says, "Yeah, that's what I said, 'shovel.'"

I say, "Not shuVV-el, shuFF-el."

It's Wednesday night, time for rehearsal with No Room for Jello. Iris and I are performing at a songwriters' showcase tomorrow night and we've finally got around to trying the new songs she's written over the past couple of days.

Iris' first song is about a couple, the parents of her high school boyfriend, Jacco. For Iris they were more than that. At a time in her life when pretty much everyone and everything was unstable, Jaap and Ria took her in as one of their own. Even today, Iris feels a deep sense of gratitude for who they became for her.

Last time we were in the Netherlands, Iris visited the Ria and Jaap. Both Ria and Jaap had been diagnosed with cancer at about the same time. While Ria had recovered, Jaap was at time of the visit in the final stages of his illness. Iris says that physically he was clearly challenged and you could see the pain come and go, but at the same time he was just as wonderful as ever. He was interested in people and made many jokes, including the more typical Dutch sarcastic jokes about his illness. He and his wife did everything possible to enjoy the moments they still had together.

After her visit, Iris jotted down some words for a song. After a couple years patiently waiting, the words found an outlet last night.

The past is gone, the future stopped
There’s nothing else than today
I fluff your pillows and I bring you tea
Do anything to make things easy

Sometimes it hardly bearable
To see how pain makes you cry
But then your frail hands grab mine
And you plead with me to not resign

With all you have, you still hold on, you fight so hard to stay
Yet no matter how you try, life slowly drifts away,
These are the last weeks you’re here with me
While you shuffle through the room,
I’m grateful that you’re still with me

Your sweet mouth feels soft as ever
And you’re sharp like nothing happened
With humor you fight your fears
Why can’t you stay for many more years

The time goes on and I can’t stop it
The moment comes to say goodbye
The doctors give you three months,
Until I’ll have to let you fly

With all you have, you still hold on, you fight so hard to stay
Yet no matter how you try, life slowly drifts away,
These are the last weeks you’re here with me
While you shuffle through the room,
I’m grateful that you’re still with me

While you shuffle through the room
I’m grateful that you’re here with me

If you happen to be in the Berkshires and you'd like to hear the premier performance of this and other songs, please join us tonight at the Live Music Cafe, I183 Art School, 13 Willard Hill Road, Stockbridge (Interlaken).

Eight singer/ songwriters will perform between 7 - 9. For more information, surf to

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pickin' and Choosin'

Feeling overburdened and fatigued? Let's skip past all the usual suspects and get right to the root cause. As much as you might have hoped for a treatable physical condition, it's not fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue or mono. You may experience stress and anxiety, but they're symptoms, not causes. While causal, sleeping less and sleeping poorly are not root causes.

Nope. None of these is the culprit. The real culprit is decision-avoidance. Pretty much everything else is symptomatic of your not wanting to choose... choose which of the spinning plates must fall... choose which of the needy can take care of themselves... choose to accept what is and to make it great.

That's pretty much it. If you're feeling stressed or just plain fed-up, then the path to a happier future probably lies in making choices.

What's that you say? You have no choice?

C'mon now. You always have choices. Note that I didn't say "find a choice", I said "make a choice." Choices are created, not discovered. You can whip one up out of pretty much anything you have on hand. However, some of the best choices seem to be composed of well understood personal priorities.

Speaking of personal priorities, how many of your priorities of late are your priorities. I understand that if you're doing them, they're your priorities. However, there is an important distinction I'd like to call out: primary versus secondary versus tertiary priorities.

Primary priorities are the ones you would hold if you had no one depending on you or asking you for anything. This goes beyond your family, friends and colleagues. It includes bill collectors, banks, credit card companies, etc. Primary priorities are the ones you would have if you absolutely and positively had nothing that you must do.

Secondary priorities are the ones that you make important because they're important to someone who is important to you. They're not the ones you would pick if alone. However, they're the ones that someone you love has chosen.

Tertiary priorities are the ones you hold because you want to support someone you love in her pursuit of her secondary priorities.

We could continue down the chain. However, I would suggest that anything that might be classified beyond tertiary isn't worth considering.

Stress, anxiety, fatigue and anger tend to result from an overabundance of tertiary and secondary priorities. So you may want to cut back on some of them. This involves a bit of research. First, you want to ask the person whose hand-me-downs you're maintaining whether or not he actually consider the hand-me-down important. You may be surprised. He may say, "No."

If she says yes, you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to continue. As you consider this be aware of the word "need". It's exceptionally rare for someone to truly "need" you to implement her priorities. It's almost always a case of want or convenience.

If you decide to continue with a secondary or tertiary priority, then decide to embrace it fully. Love it. Enjoy it. Make it a delight. If not, then clearly and matter-of-factly inform the hand-downer that you're no longer accepting hand-me-downs of that nature and move on.

An alternative to choosing what not to do is to become more intimate with your primary priorities. Explore them. Make them big. As you do so, they'll displace others.

Forget about the new diet. Forget about the exercise plan. Forget about seeing a doctor or getting away. It's time to make lasting change, time to pick and choose what's important to you.

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Silence.  An agonizing, soundless scream.  Too intense for utterances, so there is silence.  Gut wrenching, nails scraping across the chalkboard all day, fire alarms ringing in antagonism with each other, throat clogged up so much it's constricting breathing... silence.

After all, what's the point of sound?  What will it matter?  The crowds all around, they don't hear the sounds, they don't see the pain.  They move along, all in step to some invisible drummer, all to the same predictable beat.  Their sounds so predictable, so anesthetic, so normal, so ... silent.  Multitudes, like ants, marching to the tune of their own silent scream.

A sound, it pierces the silence.  A scream, a gut wrenching, nails scraping across the chalkboard all day, fire alarms ringing in antagonism with each other, throat clogged up so much it's constricting breathing... scream!  The screamer looks up in relief.  I heard myself! she thinks.  I broke the silence.  I made a sound.  Does it make a difference?  Does it matter?  Does it make the pain go away?  Who knows.  But the sound, it means I'm alive.

Alive.  An active agent, with living, moving parts.  Spinning around, looking around, seeing the moving hoards, she raced into action.  A wild dash, a beeline to the nearest unsuspecting minion. With all her strength, she crashed into another human body.   Surprise registered on the face of the human, as his body stumbled, arms flailing and reaching for... anything.  She watched, realization dawning.  I'm alive.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Owning It

The exhaustion pours from his chest with each exhalation.

How long is this going to continue? I don't know how much more I can take.

He stands up, his head and shoulders rising above the barrier that separates his cubicle from the rest of the office complex. The digital clock on the wall reads 2:00AM. He closes his eyes to listen. Is anyone else in the office. The silence is interrupted by the ignition of the heating system. Relays trip. The furnace fires up. Air rushes through the exposed overhead ducting and out the vents.

"So is anyone here?"

He hears his voice sucked into the sound damping materials that line the ceiling and walls. There's no response, not even the hint of an echo to keep him company.

"Shit, then why am I still here?", he asks himself aloud.

He sits, walks his chair across the plastic carpet-liner to his desk, and stares at his computer.

How am I gonna make any sense of these numbers without anyone here to explain these anomalies. If it's so goddamn important, why isn't anyone else here to help me.

He here's his own reply, "Because you volunteered to do it, idiot. You were the one who raised his hand in the meeting and said that he'd take care of pulling together the numbers. You were the one who told the rest of the team to have a great weekend because you had it handled."

But I never thought they'd take me up on it. When they did, I thought for sure that someone would volunteer to help me or at least show up to check in. Now what the hell am I supposed to do.

He rocks back in his chair and lifts his feet to his desktop. Stretching back he stares upward at the ductwork and sound soak.

He tells himself, "Well, there's no one to blame but you. You made your bed; now, lie in it."

Surrendering to his fatigue and self-disgust, he closes his eyes. His facial muscles relax. His breathing slows. His chin drops forward.

His eyes blink open. In one motion, he rolls his feet off the desk, sits upright and stands. The clock reads 2:15AM as he walks past it to the break-room. He slides a bill into the vending machine and presses the C-key followed by the 1-key. The mechanical arm rises to the slot and delivers him an ice-cold Diet Coke. He buys a bag of nacho-flavored chips and walks back to his desk.

A little caffeine and MSG ought to do the trick. No one to blame but me. No one to get me out of this but me.

With a new sense of determination he looks at the spreadsheet that's daunted him for the four hours. He forces himself to slow down and work through each formula.

Five minutes later, he finds the errant one. He corrects it. Half the red-flagged errors disappear from the screen. He smiles and takes a sip of his Coke. He continues working slowly and easily.

He breathes a sigh of relief as he files his paperwork and heads toward the door. The clock reads 3:00AM.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, March 18, 2012


The Berkshires is no silicon valley. While there are a few software programmers and hardware jockeys, we don't have many computer scientists or biomedical engineers. We may have just one. So it's not often that I get to dig into technology with people who understand it.

Over the past fews weeks I had the opportunity to meet with real tech geeks: CIOs, entrepreneurs from MIT, etc., people who live and breath high-tech. Anticipating the meetings and conferences, I was excited to be talking about technology and innovation, to brainstorm, to explore with people who get it.

However, it didn't really go that way. Sure, everyone with whom I met was smart. They satisfied all the standard metrics, e.g., high IQ, academic success, deep knowledge, etc. Yet, the meetings felt sluggish.

In a conference on innovation in healthcare systems the proposals represented nothing more than incremental change to the status quo. Meeting with a gadget guy from MIT, it took longer to convince him that I could transform his sensor data into useful information than it would have taken to complete the software.

All in all, everything went fine. I was able to quickly recognize the disconnects and recalibrate my explanations and expectations. (BTW, that's pretty new for me.) Still, the whole experience left me wondering: why is it that really smart people think so slowly.

I've known for years that I think differently than other people. As a kid, I heard about it all the time as my thinking differently was viewed as a liability, not an asset. While I don't accept notions of "being wired differently" (I don't think any one of us is hard-wired), I do accept that people sometimes develop unique approaches to thought. To me it's a difference of method, not physiology.

So I accept that I think differently. I acknowledge it. Yet as I stand in the shower this morning I realize that I have no clue about what it means. How exactly do I think differently? What's different about my process? What works? What doesn't work?

I flash through several meetings reviewing the signals that indicated a communications-disconnect, what I did to recalibrate my explanations, what worked and what didn't work. The word "associative" pops into my brain. "Associative thinking", I say aloud as I turn off the water, my head still half covered with shaving cream.

I drip my way to the laundry room to find a towel. I'm not sure what the formal definition of associative thinking is, but that sounds right to me.

A common thread emerges. In each instance of disconnect I'd made a leap in logic, a leap that seemed perfectly clear to me but managed to lose everyone else. To reconnect I'd go back to the jump-off point and build a sequence of logical steps based on the knowledge of the person with whom I was speaking. Working incrementally, it was easy (albeit painfully slow) to communicate how I'd reached my conclusion.

So, one of the ways I think differently is making leaps when others are moving stepwise. How is it that I make the leaps? I think that's where the associative part comes in. Thinking about my experience just prior to taking leaps I realize that each leap is immediately preceded by an aha best expressed by "Oh, that's just like..."

I look at a problem and recognize it as being quite similar to another problem for which I already have a solution. In cases where the two problems reside in the same domain (e.g., software or graphics or hardware or music) people follow. However, when the association crosses domain boundaries, people get lost.

I know this is a bit vague and general, but I feel like I'm closing in on it. For example, it's easy for me to hear music and play it in realtime. I'm quite certain I do it differently than many others. Whereas some attempt to isolate each of the notes being played and then play them, I don't listen to notes. Instead, I listen to tonal color.

A dominant-seven chord has a very distinctive sound or color. So does a major-seven with a raised eleventh or a fully-diminished chord or dominant-seven with a sharp-nine. The root note may change, but the color never does. You don't need to know all the chords in all the keys, just the color of each chord type.

You don't even need to memorize all the colors. All you need to do is know different songs in which each of the chords is used.

Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage is built on suspended dominant-seven chords with a nine and thirteen. Each time I hear a suspended dominant-seven chord with a nine and thirteen I think, "Sounds like Maiden Voyage". Light of the World from the musical Godspel starts with an Eb-seven-sharp-nine. Each time I hear a seven-sharp-nine I think, "That sounds like Light of the World".

I never try to figure out all the notes. The process of association is so much easier and faster. The only time I do go through all the notes is when I need to explain why I believe the chord is this one versus that one. However, having the answer already makes it easy to backtrack.

The tricky part is when you're sitting with a bunch of guys from MIT's Media Lab and you've segued through music on your way to a computer science solution. For now I'm happy to have them suspend disbelief long enough to give me a chance just to show them.

I think I'm starting to understand it. Time to finish shaving my head.

Happy Sunday,

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Cleaning

One of my favorite anual events is spring cleaning. I get this ridiculously disproportionate sense of satisfaction sweeping the garage or buffing streaks from the windows or tossing out all the stuff that seemed so necessary in late autumn. The process is meditative, even spiritual. It's cleansing and renewing.

For me, spring cleaning is one of life's do-overs. It's a chance to step back, reset and try again. It's also a chance recalibrate intentions and expectations. Perhaps most importantly, it's a chance to purge.

I think that the power of spring cleaning lies in the purging. Purging is multidimensional. Sure, you can purge the accumulated deposits of winter dirt and filth, but you can also purge other things. You can discard or give away unnecessary physical possessions. You can abandon old plans and goals the motivations for which you forgot long ago. You can forgive debts (financial and otherwise). You can be forgiven. You can watch the vestiges of resentment and indignation wash down drain along with the dirty mop water.

Purging is important because each of us is finite. Every little thing we carry forward requires us to forgo something new. Each one may not seem like much on its own, but that twist in your stomach every time you think about an interaction you wished had gone differently, that irking sensation you feel at the mention of the name of someone who slighted you, that sigh you utter each time you look at your pile of unfulfilled commitments, all those things add up one-by-one like newspapers collecting in the garage. Before you know it, there's no room for the car. After a while you can't get to the bicycles.

Yeah, spring cleaning can be a wonderful experience, physically and metaphysically, especially when you pursue it liberally. By liberally I mean this: if there's any question at all as to whether or not you keep something, you toss it. You don't second guess. You don't look back. You don't sneak down to the trash can late at night. You toss it and move forward.

Sure, it's not quite spring, but then it's never too early for a little spring cleaning.

Happy Saturday,

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unconditional Love, Myth or Fiction

July 3, 2004. It's eighty-degrees and dry, not a cloud in the sky. About seventy of our closest friends and family have gathered beneath a pavilion that stands between the VFW hall and the Charles, just on the Cambridge side of the Cambridge/Watertown border. Pretty cool since we only invited about thirty-five.

The music starts. Everyone rises and turns to see the bride and her father emerge from the hall. Iris and her dad glide across the grass to the back of the pavilion and then slowly process up the aisle that divides the two clusters of card-table chairs. Her dad mumbles to himself, trying to remember the words he'll say when the Buddhist priest/justice-of-the-piece asks, "Who gives this woman away?"

Iris is radiant. She beams as her gaze floats from face to face, each one reflecting the joy that she feels. My smile is so wide that I can feel cheek muscles starting to lock up.

Seconds later, Iris stands next to me. Her dad shuffles back to his seat. The priest asks everyone to be seated. Iris and I take seats at the front facing everyone as friends and family take turns standing at the lectern to share stories and insights through spoken word or song.

Time for the vows.

In our first meeting with the priest, he gives us a little booklet of commonly used vows. Later that evening I hear Iris laughing as she reads through them.

I ask her, "What are you reading?"

She says, "These vows that the priest gave us this afternoon."

"They're funny?"

"Yeah, ridiculous."

"For example?"

"For example, this one talks about us being two halves that when brought together will become a whole. Isn't that ridiculous?"

I sit next to Iris. We read through the vows together. She puts down the booklet and looks at me. We decide that we might as well write our own vows. Forget about two halves creating a whole. We'll talk about two wholes creating something even bigger. Forget about needing each other. Forget about unconditional love. Forget about obligation.

We write are vows as we would have them and email them to the priest.

While most people can get onboard with the idea of two wholes rather than two halves, they seem to have a problem with the idea of a marriage without obligation or commitment. Many have a problem with the absence of unconditional love.

Yet that's the basis of our relationship and it works remarkably well, at least for us.

The absence of obligation and commitment is actually biblical. In Matthew 5:36-37, Jesus is quoted as saying, "And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

No matter how strongly you feel or believe in your intentions, you cannot guarantee them. The number of variables outside your control far exceeds the number inside. The best you can do is to state your intent.

When you do more than this, what starts as a commitment morphs over time into an obligation. You no longer do what you do because you want to do it in the moment. Instead, you do it because you said you would some time ago. When this phenomenon is applied to love, love dies.

The best you can do is to state your intention. For us that came in the form: I intend to love you more each day than the day before.

I really like this intention because a) it's real for me, b) it's active and growing (many commitments tend towards maintenance and preservation), and c) it takes place one day at time (it has no words like always and forever.) I would even suggest that if your intention were a lifelong commitment, then this approach would have a greater probability of success (both quantitatively and qualitatively) than obligation.

What about unconditional love?

I believe that unconditional love is a philosophical concept with no real-world correlates. I've never met anyone who loved unconditionally. The ones who claim to tend to redefine love to accommodate it's absence in various situations. They use phrases like tough love and love the sinner, hate the sin. Rather than simply saying, "You know, there are things that you do that leave me feeling anything but love."

Iris and I are clear on things that we don't want in our marriage, things that would be deal-breakers. We could say that we would continue to love each other after a breakup because one or the other of us became abusive. We might in fact do so. However, from a practical perspective regarding our staying together as partners, we have conditions.

When you throw the word unconditional in front of the word love, you hasten love's transition to obligation. So, if your intent is to love deeply and fully for the long haul, I would avoid the unconditional part.

Our vows stated, we reach the time for the exchange of rings. The priest explains that rather than exchanging rings, we have a determined a different way to express our intentions for our relationship. We proceed with the unveiling of the matching tattoos that pretty much cover Iris' left-upper and my right-upper arms.

Later people comment saying things like, "I don't get it. You have a relationship with no commitments, no obligations and conditional love, and yet you have matching tattoos to signify it? What happens if the relationship ends? You'll still have that tatto?"

"Yup, I would. The tattoo would still symbolize my intent when I got it. Nothing would ever change that. I wouldn't want to forget it, even if our intentions weren't fulfilled."

I guess it's a funny way to think about things. What do you think?

Happy Wednesday,

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Best Day Ever

Carla, the woman at the registration desk says, "Welcome to the Wynn, Mr. Tuomenoksa."

I pause a moment before responding. She doesn't look Finnish, but she just pronounced my name after looking at my driver's license.

"Thank you", I say. "We're glad to be here."

"I have a room for you on the fifth floor. However, if you'd like I can upgrade to a suite one of the higher floors for just fifty-dollars per night."

Iris tugs on my arm and says, "Let's stay on the fifth floor. That's where the rest of the band will be."

I thank Carla for the offer, but decline. She completes our registration, hands me our keys and then holds up a little map that will guide us through the casino to the guest elevators.

I slot the keycard into the door, listen to the tumblers click. As we enter, I hit the light button. Lights all over the brighten slowly like an accelerated sunrise. The curtains automatically draw open. The music system plays quiet jazz. The room welcomes us.

Iris and I look at each other and then pan the room. It's gorgeous. It's huge. The view is great. There are more than ample plugs for our Macs, iPads, Droids and music gear. There's beautiful desk and glass-topped table.

I ask her, "Gee, I wonder what a suite on the upper floors would have been like?"

I catch myself. We've just entered the nicest hotel room ever. We're staying here for free as a part of our compensation for the gig. I'm about to dim that experience by thinking about what we might have missed.

I stop myself. I look at Iris and say, "This is the best hotel room, ever."

Iris and I sit with my dad on a dock-side restaurant in Sea Bright New Jersey. We're on the river side of the narrow strip of land that separates Rumson from the sea. It's 75 degrees. A cool breeze stirs the awning above us. We all stare as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon.

Our waiter comments, "Isn't it beautiful."

We all nod and continue staring.

A few moments later, I hear him at the table next to us. He makes a similar comment.

I hear a nasally reply that sounds almost annoyed. "I guess so. Still, it's not as nice as last night."

The funny thing about the word "best" is that we tend to use it literally in situations where there's no way we reasonably could. We rarely (if ever) perform the data collection and analysis to justify the use of best. Yet we use the word often.

I'm not suggesting that we not use the best. I'm suggesting that we recognize that best does not represent a quantitative evaluation. It doesn't even represent a qualitative one. Typically we use the word "best" to represent our experience of the moment. Best is an experiential phenomenon.

The reason I suggest this is that it allows us to increase the frequency best-ness in our lives. Quantitatively, you can only have one best-day-ever. Experientially, you can have as many best-days-ever as you have days. For that matter you can have as many best-meals, best-sunsets, best-hotel-rooms, best conversations, best-anythings that you want.

Wow, this is my best post ever. Isn't that cool?

What will you make best today?

Happy Monday,

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Surprised by Joy

Iris walks into the house, her arms loaded down with mail. It's not that we just received a bushel of bills; it's just that we live so far out in the sticks that the post office doesn't deliver to our house. So we have post office box in town and we visit it rather infrequently.

Half way through the stack of bills, advertisements, magazines and papers, Iris uncovers a rare a item, at least in our house. It's a letter and it's addressed to me. I look at the return address an see that it's from Nancy Allen. Nancy's the mom of Sarah, my son Luke's wife.

I open the envelope. Iris plops down next to me to see what it says. I read Nancy's letter aloud. It's a condolence note regarding the death of my friend Jonathan. Although Nancy only briefly met Jonathan at Luke's wedding, her note touches me deeply, bringing a deep sense of joy and gratitude.

I wanted to share it with you.

Dear Mark,
I hope this letter is finding you well. I am writing to acknowledge the loss of your good friend Jonathan.

May I express myself from Luke's telling of your relationship with Jonathan.

May every reminder of Jonathan be one of great joy for the good fortune that you've experienced in your heartfelt, cerebral friendship. Whether earnestly working on a project together or playfully tipping the world off its axis, you've shared the delight of being able to express, listen and exchange in rich conversation.

May I compare your relationship to a full-bodied glass of wine, complex and full of character, a collage of flavor, especially well balanced with a long-lasting finish. Or perhaps a vibrant tennis match, swing for swing, full of strength, energy and enthusiasm, and when the game is finished you can surely say, "Now that was a fine match!"

Sincerely, Nancy

I feel that sense of gratitude and joy each time I read the note.

Thank you, Nancy.

Happy Sunday,

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How You Spend It

Funny thing about saving time is that you can't. Time cannot be saved for use at a later date; it can only be spent in the moment. Once it's spent, it's gone.

As I considered the first four questions that Sree posted Monday I kept coming back to time. How much of my time do I spend on activities that I really care about, that bring the greatest joy, that leave me feeling most alive, that cause my heart to sing? Some? None? Most? All?

If not all or most, why not? Am I withholding them from myself as some type of motivator? Do I not deserve them? Can I not afford them?

Here are a some of my answers.

When am I the most alive?
I feel most alive when I'm fully engaged in the moment. In particular, there's a realtime component that makes a huge difference, a demand to perform with all I have right now.

I feel alive and present when playing music; however, I feel most alive when improvising or playing a song we've never before played.

I feel alive when cooking, but most alive when creating a meal from whatever we have lying around the kitchen.

I love hiking trails in late fall and early winter, when the chill demands that you keep moving. I enjoy coding, but I love it when I have to bring a new concept to life in software.

What brings me the greatest joy?
My greatest joy is seeing people overcome. I love the expressions of ah hah when the light finally dawns on a daunting problem. I revel in the look of satisfaction when, for the first time, someone does something she had considered impossible. Watching someone loosen his grip and finally let go of the things that have been holding him back brings tears to my eyes.

But there's more... Philosophizing with my bandmates while smoking cigars (inside). Listening to a writer read something she's just composed.

What makes my heart sing?
Iris. Seeing my kids. Playing with my grandkids. Listening to passionate musical performances. Watching an exceptional athlete. Finding a solution from an unlikely source. Breathing crisp, winter air. Hearing the birds chirping on an early morning in spring. Flying up and down the notes of my saxophone. Jamming til the sun comes up.

What do I really care about?
Iris. My kids, my dad and my friends. Being useful to those around me. Doing my best at whatever task I undertake. Being fair. Listening well and being heard. Loving and being loved.

How You Spend It
Looking at my answers, I think I'm doing better than I thought I was. There are specific activities on which I'd like to spend more time. However, overall I'm spending a pretty hefty amount of time on activities that I care about, that leave me feeling alive, that bring me joy and that make my heart sing.

My time budget is in better shape than I thought. Still, I see how I could better spend it. I've been playing music with the bands two nights a week; maybe it's time to play music three nights or four nights a week.

My kids are all married and none lives nearby; perhaps it's time to schedule regular visits.

I spend lots of time writing software, but some of it's become old hat. Might be time to look for new opportunities to do something that might be a real breakthrough.

Yeah, you can't save time; you can only spend it.

How's your spending going? How would you answer the four questions above? How would your partner answer them? (Do you know?) How much of your time are you spending on the things that are important to you, the activities that bring you joy, that make your heart sing, that leave you feeling most alive?

Happy Thursday,