Monthly Archives: October 2013

Talking to Tables

Do you ever find yourself talking to inanimate objects? I was grocery shopping today and apologized to the shelf I bumped into. Just an automatic response to a stimulus, but not appropriate.

Kudos to my parents for ingraining basic manners into my behavior: if you bump into someone, say you’re sorry. But the shelf wasn’t a someONE. It was a someTHING. My brain took the paradigm of “apologize when you bump into someone” and generalized it to “apologize when you bump.” It’s interesting how habits form and evolve like that. There’s so much people do on autopilot.

My husband and I moved into our current home just over 17-and-a-half years ago. I drive to my house on autopilot. Of course I respond to brake lights in front of me and obstacles in the road, but I’m not actively thinking about where to turn. These days that’s a bit of a problem, because they’re doing major construction on my street’s access road to our west, and the access road to our east is one-way. This means that getting home actually takes some planning.

The first few weeks of the construction I went the wrong way and had to turn around in a parking lot about 95% of the time. Over the next several weeks my record has greatly improved – I now go the correct way about 98% of the time (just in time for them to re-open the west-side road at the end of this week).

We do so many complex things that a huge proportion of what we do has to be automatic. Can you imagine having to think about taking each step as you walk from one room to another? Or about having to think about each separate word when you read? Or about every detail involved in making a peanut butter sandwich?

But this wonderful ability to make things habitual or automatic can work against us in some circumstances. Do you automatically grab a snack when you watch a movie? You’re probably not even hungry when you sit down on the couch to start watching a film after dinner, but you had a box of buttered popcorn or Junior Mints enough times when watching a flick that grabbing food when you watch a movie is now automatic. Breaking this automaticity requires consciously thinking about whether or not you are actually hungry when you find yourself opening the fridge or the pantry or a bag of chips.

Luckily, we can also make the tendency to form habits work to our advantage. After a week or so of taking a brisk walk each evening or after a few times of responding to stress with deep-breathing techniques, we are well on our way to automatic behaviors that will help us live healthier and more peaceful lives.

Most of us are likely to have a large bowl of candy near our front door now for the trick-or-treaters. There will likely be a bunch left over. Showing restraint with the leftovers by spreading them out so that you only have a few pieces each evening can actually establish a new daily candy-eating habit. You’re better off splurging on whatever you’d like from the bowl on Halloween and then getting rid of the rest of the candy the next morning so that you’re not eating it on multiple days and setting a new pattern. (Of course you should not do this if you have diabetes or any other medical condition requiring careful control of carbohydrate intake.)

Enjoy your Milky Way bars. I’ll be enjoying my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They’ll be out of my house by Friday and I won’t get into a sugar pattern that drags into the November/December holiday season. But I will say I’m sorry if I bump into you. Or if I bump into your table.

When Stress Brings its Own Antidote

A little bit of stress can be good for us. It can perk us up, energize us, get the blood flowing, and push us to move forward. A body reacts to stress by releasing chemicals which cause, among other things, a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, which facilitates fight, flight, or, as the case may be, finishing a paper before a deadline.

But constant stress is not good for us. Those chemicals which facilitate our fight or flight response damage blood vessels over time, make us gain weight, and make us lose sleep. So it’s important to find ways to negate that stress: deep breathing, exercise, meditation – regularly practicing these techniques helps protect and heal both mind and body from the ravages of excess tension.

Of course it’s sometimes hard to remember to breathe deeply or to take a walk when someone ticks you off while you’re in the middle of doing something else. Just yesterday morning, I had difficulty remembering to breathe deeply or take a walk when one of my sons ticked me off while I was doing dishes. The off-ticking issue involved a cell phone and a snarky comment accusing me of an invasion of his privacy (which I had not, in fact, committed, although it would have been well within parental perogative to have done so), which progressed into a gruff, teeth-clenched, really-not-overly-polite-or-nice-on-either-of-our-parts exchange of words and glares. This exchange lasted about 20 seconds, at which point another son entered the room, heard the argument, and said, “Oh, the reason your text message had been opened is that you plugged your phone in my spot overnight and I thought it was mine.”

Brief exchange between the two boys. Smart-alec comment from the other son who had observed the whole thing. A “Sorry Mom, my bad,” from the originally obnoxious one. A few more sarcastic jabs and laughs among the three boys. I smiled a bit but was not yet ready to let go of my annoyance, so I went back to loading the dishwasher while continuing a tirade in my head.

And then the most beautiful sounds from the piano came wafting in from the living room. It was the kid with whom I was trading snarls just moments prior, playing a song he knows I love. And my anger melted away just as quickly as it had flared up. The lilting melody, the rich harmonies, the sheer beauty enveloped me. I turned off the water, walked into the living room, and watched my son’s fingers fly along the keys as his body leaned into the emotions of the song and swayed with the rhythm.

I sat and listened. And watched. And loved. And forgave. And my shoulder muscles relaxed. And my blood pressure returned to normal.

Damn, the kid’s good.

Baseball and the Fight Over Obamacare

Once a Red Sox fan, always a Red Sox fan. But when you live your adult life in Metro Detroit, you grow to love the Tigers. Although I was too emotionally spent sports-wise on Saturday night from Michigan’s quadruple-overtime football loss against Penn State to worry much about the outcome of the first American League finals game, game two caused some dissonant feelings: I was thrilled that the Red Sox won, but also a little sad that the Tigers lost. That’s baseball. Someone wins, someone loses.

Sadly, our national discussion on healthcare reform has become a win-lose debate. People identify with one team or the other, there’s a “my guys versus your guys” mentality, and the fans on each side are trash-talking rather than engaging in constructive conversation. The goal has become beating an opponent. It’s the equivalent of “The Yankees stink” – no respect, just vilification of the “enemy” and a focus on winning as opposed to getting-it-right.

We all have our favorite teams. Our teams are part of our identity – we’re Red Sox fans or Tigers fans because we grew up in Boston or Detroit, or we love the Reds because they won the World Series when we first became interested in baseball. We’re proud of our teams and want them to do well because it feels like we win when they win. And when someone is playing against our team, they’re playing against us.

But even in baseball, where the loyalties run deep, there can be an appreciation of talent and skill that isn’t bound to team allegiance: the All-Star game. The best of the best. All working together. No, the All-Star teams don’t have the cohesiveness of the regular teams, but the members all respect one another and the fans recognize the expertise. There’s not really a rabid fervor over American League versus National League, but more of a communally shared admiration of an ideal.

If the discussion and forging of policy must be like a baseball game, let it be an All-Star game. There’s wheat and chaff on both sides. Get rid of the bad stuff. Glean the best. There is the potential for remarkable good to come out of this. Few would argue that it’s bad that no one can now be denied medical coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Few would argue that bureaucrats should make medical decisions for patients. Keep the good. Get rid of the bad. Tweak it as necessary – put in a relief pitcher when needed. Use a pinch-hitter. Use a pinch-runner.

The near-lifelong Red Sox fan in me and the adoptive Tigers fan in me want to share the glory of the AL title. Maybe not an equal share – probably around 60-40. That cannot happen in this case.

One team will win the American League series and one team will win the World Series. But our entire country stands to win (or lose) the battle for optimal healthcare. Let the battle be an All-Star game.


Suburban Drama With Universal Themes

Turf wars. Power. Control. Even when everyone’s goal is the cultural enrichment experiences of children, these primal drives can rear their ugly heads.

Our school district is keen on music. Not only is the administration committed to top-notch music education programs, but the parent community gives generously of both manpower and financial support, and the community-at-large is monetarily supportive. Up until this school year, there has been a parent organization of instrumental boosters who dedicate significant time and money (through donations and fundraising efforts) to support the band and orchestra programs throughout the district. One big, happy, musical family – think “Partridge.”

But this year the orchestra has split from the instrumental boosters and started its own association. There is much snipping and moaning and complaining from a lot of families. Since our family has two kids in the band program and one in orchestra, I’ve been bouncing back and forth from various levels of “somewhat irked” to “significantly ticked off.” The two organizations are ostensibly still working together for a few of the major fundraisers, but there is bickering over the details of distribution. Families now have to decide whether they’re representing the band or the orchestra when they volunteer to take on a shift. What used to be one donation check to a big general pot (with occasional extra contributions to specific projects) now has to be divided, but it’s not exactly clear how to divide it.

I am well aware of how lucky I am to live in a community that is so supportive of arts education. And I am equally aware of how the current “problem” is insignificant in the grand scheme of things (or even in a much smaller scheme of things, for that matter). But this small-scale secession mirrors those on larger scales. It speaks to issues of money, power, control, self-interest, and perceived fairness. Such issues arise in families, schools, workplaces, government – pretty much anywhere you have more than one person and a finite supply of anything. They certainly come to play within the details of how the medical world functions. Who’s making medical decisions? Is it the primary care doctor? The specialist? The patient? The patient’s family? The insurance company? Who has how much say in each decision? How much does each provider of the care get compensated? Who pays for what and how much do they pay?

In our community, the friction (which, by the way, originated and is contained among a very small contingent) is an inconvenience. The overall music programs will retain their excellence, and although fundraising and allocations are at this point dividing, the music community as a whole is strong, and the kids and families are all friends, looking out for and supporting one another. We value our community. I would love for our elected government officials to reflect this overall good will towards their fellow humans as they work to resolve our federal budget conflicts.

Yes, we each need to be our own advocates. But “our own” includes more than just our selves. It includes our families. Our friends. Our block. Our neighborhood. Our school. Our school district. Our county. Our state. Our country. Our world.