Contagious Curiosity

March 13, 2020 is when the Covid lockdown started for me. That Friday my kid came home with all her books and schools closed. Restaurants and gyms shut down and we all stood very far apart.

I couldn’t stop watching the news to find out what I needed to know about this scary virus. We were shut out and shut down.

That’s two and a half years back. We are not shut down anymore. Well, not exactly. But we didn’t really have a grand-reopening. And here in California the government sends periodic warnings that it will happen again. I find myself falling into a now-habitual posture of a protective crouch.

In Chapter 21 of the last book I published The Russian American School of Tomorrow, the soviet refugee Alex said he did not come to America to live in Alaska. He wanted to be in the middle of the action.

I want that too. I didn’t come this far to sit it out.

I haven’t been participating in so long I’m afraid. This kind of cautiousness is a virus of its own.

I’ve been afraid to get out of the house and try things. I can feel it like a hundred invisible spider webs, tying back the confidence I felt once.

Monday night was Halloween, when children practice being bad—evil!—and brave. When the sun was down and the moon was up, we walked the streets and admired all the kids with their costumes.

On the inversion holiday, can I turn this unhappy cowardice habit into curiosity again? Is there a witchery I can stir up into wishes come true?

News channels are downers. Facts have limits to their usefulness. Possibilities can pick up where the facts end.

Returns on Investment

Ben Folds, the famous and popular songwriter and piano player, tells a story about how he first got a piano. He was a child, and his parents let him know they were getting a piano the next day. He was so excited he barely slept that night, going over in his mind all the music he would create once his fingers were touching that piano.

The next day was a shock. He could not in fact make the music he imagined right away. It took a lot of mistakes to get to where he wanted to go.

In one of my favorite books The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, the author who was a child chessmaster and become a martial arts champion as an adult has a chapter on investing in loss. I love this book because of the two seemingly polar opposites of expertise. The game of chess is exclusively the world of the mind. Martial arts is realm of the body.

And yet Waitzkin sees how excellence and competition in both these disciplines have overlap. Both skills require being bad at it when you start. Both skills require repetition and intelligent practice to improve.

I get how Ben Folds felt when the reality of his inexperience crashed against his artistic vision. I can see what I want to do so clearly I can almost touch it. In fact I cannot touch it. It doesn’t exist until I gain the skills to create it.

I have to try and fail. And try and fail again. Maybe my failure will be slightly closer to the goal after a few times.

I will surely lose when I compete against someone better than me. If I were only engaging with people who were less skilled than I would not gain skill. I might in fact protect myself from engaging with anyone to keep the status of winner. If winning were the point, I could make sure to compete with lower and lower skilled people and shrink to stay in those divisions.

Losing makes me better. It is unpleasant to be knocked down, outplayed and outfoxed by strategy. But it’s that pain and that gut punch that motivates me to get better.

I have to keep losing to make progress. Winning was never really the goal.








structure and repetition




Both feet have to be evenly placed, but that’s not enough. The rest of my body—my structure or my posture—has to be balanced. Then I can flex my muscles and swing hard to land the kick with power

I am trying to reach for new things, things I have not been able to do before. Well, that’s not completely accurate. I’ve done these sorts of things before. And yet, as I am gathering myself to do them this time and in this place I find myself off balance.

What if I’m doing it wrong? I could be mistaken, and the confidence I had at the beginning was utterly misplaced. The ideas I have worked before but they will not work now.

These imposter feelings, these doubts and insecurities are the mental equivalent of bad posture. If I stand on one foot with the other just a little toe point to the ground, I’m much easier to knock over. Entertaining negative thoughts are the same way. If my head is full of doom and failure I am likely to make mistakes.

When I practice martial arts, I take the time to stand properly. I didn’t have the knack of it at first but with time I have learned.

New situations are the same way. I don’t know how to hold the right stance at first.

With practice, with time, I can get there.

Repetition and refinement are key. Also, listening to coaching and watching others. I have done this before. I can do it again.

I’ll get the swing and deliver with power.

Make no room


The good news is, I have landed a job and I start this week.

I’ve spent the last month living with the constant distraction of being unemployed. For me a job means safety. Like a meerkat popping up on her hind legs, I am surveying the horizon constantly. It that a threat? Is that an opportunity I need to chase down? Where is the danger?

Stay Alert. Look for disaster.  I can be sure it’s always coming. What is a moment away from killing me?

Never shut my eyes.

Without the safe haven of a job, my frightened prey instincts are zinging. I’ve re-calibrated the state of my world to red- DANGER.

But I am more than prey. I also have to chase down my own quarry. Fear can inspire me to do that work—to get skilled and stay moving. Lord knows, I’ve burned that fuel before.

It turns out that if I’ve got any distance to travel, fear is a very unpleasant companion. It comes with poisonous by-products. Honestly? I’m not sure the poisons isn’t the main product. Fear is a motivator, but it’s not the only one.

Avoiding the negative is a big boost. Like touching hot metal, my hand jerks away fast. Thank you pain, thank you fear, for getting me out of the danger quick!

My life has been arranged so that I encounter true pain seldom. I have shoes and oven mitts to protect my skin.

Unemployment is painful, but doesn’t require instant reaction. The solution to resolving the unemployment is actually the opposite of the fear story. I have to convince a business that I am the answer to their fears.

I had to switch from focusing on the fear to the positive solution.

Fear is easy. That hyperdrive to Get Away is a button ready to press.

 Maintaining awareness of the positive is a lot harder. My wiser higher self can see possibilities that fear hides. The fear has become the enemy. The battleground is internal.

I’ve had to create habits and practices to win the battle of positivity. Setting the stage for quiet remembering. Vaporize the fear by not looking at it. Practicing the stories of possibilities.

As I start practicing the discipline of attention, I start to see that fear has henchmen. Each of us have an instinctual army ready to leap up into action, it’s a reliable response. But that’s not all.

There are henchmen ready to manipulate that fear to their own purposes. Marketing and publicity seekers, ones who seek to gather and manipulate attention are using fear like a tool. Stories that worm into my mind and ask me for attention, getting my heartrate up and my mind racing. The news is a common villain. Certain people I know can be drags on my potential.

I’d be angry at these henchmen. But they only succeed when I cooperate. I do not consent. Even if I have to move it out of my mind again and again, I will say no again and again. Fear is not welcome.

This is my space. I say yes to my own possibilities.

It’s not like I can avoid it. I speak English, so my experience of the world is slanted by Homer. I’ve talked about him and his Iliad before.

“Rage! Sing, Goddess…!”

The wars, the passion and the poetry could never—still aren’t! —be exhausted. The British university students kept on with their Greek translations well into Victoria’s reign.

What could compete with Homer’s words?

What indeed?

William Morris, famous for his arts and crafts textile designs, was also a poet and novelist. HE had an Icelandic friend who introduces him to an ancient Old Norse manuscript, which included the Volsunga Saga.

It’s from the 1200s, talking of historic events from 800 years earlier in Central Europe. The adventures described were dark powerful stories of the Volsung family, a fierce multigenerational story of revenge and the will-to-power.

Unlike the Greeks, these heroes were not the playthings of the gods. The tribal ferocity had a timbre rooted in the cold and dark north–a strange yet familiar indigenous epic. It wasn’t only England that was looking for its own unique identity in stories and language. The Brothers Grimm are just one example of the search for essential national identity through old oral traditional stories.

In the late 1800s industrialism and colonization had toppled old assumptions. Where did people fit in their lives and in society? The people were re-examining the stories of their own ancestors, not the re-purposed stories of Olympian gods grafted into the culture so long ago.

The emperors of industry didn’t trace their family trees back to kings. They filed their power in books managed by clerks. Sign here:

to pay back the loan

that lets you own

the smokestacks and the men who feed them.

Where is the heroism? What does success mean without the story of who I am?

Wagner was finishing his famous Ring cycle opera series with the Twilight of the Gods, based on the same stories. The story chronicles the end of the world. The time of the gods—heroism, honor and love—was ending.

What brought about this annihilation? How did it Wagner show this collapse?

It began with the craven breaking a contract. The God of all, Odin, made a contract with the Frost Giants to build his dream home, Valhalla. But he made the deal with no intention of paying the price.

But in the new world of industry and capital, where trust has taken the place of lineage, a broken promise proved to be the end of everything.

The Grimm brothers, Morris, and Wagner were trying to find a shared heritage, but Wagner brought it back to trust or honor. What allows us to be alongside one another if not trust?

This story, of the ring and the broken sword that begun in Old Norse was picked up by a more modern and familiar artist: Tolkien.

As powerful as a contract is in the world of the new middle class, Tolkien found another layer needed peeling away. He was chest deep in these indigenous stories—he was a linguistics professor. But before he brushed out his first tweed jacket, he joined the fight in World War One, seeing the worst of the modern reenactment of battle. Blood and sickness and death alongside his modern life.

The Volusunga Saga told the story of unbound ambition, constrained only by the limited power of what a collection of humans could do to one another. Humans had progressed since. The industrial age for workers led to the industrial age for warfare. The same tools that kept the smoke pumping out of the factories kept the men in place on the front lines to die in ways and numbers unimagined.

The 20th century epic story of the Lord of the Rings of Power followed a small insignificant hero. He refused to use the power. He never forgot where he came from, longing to return to his beloved shire. His sense of belonging and the peace of his community fueled his commitment to not only refuse the power, but to prevent it from being used by others.

I can read the story of the Volsungs. I wonder what they would think of us, 1600 years later. We have more power than they could have dreamed. Can we refrain from using it? Have we turned the hero’s story inside out?

pendulum

What with all the things going on in my life, I have fallen back on the comfort of puzzles. I can pick up a box with and interesting picture, open it and scatter all the pieces onto the table.

They don’t look like the picture. They are chaos and upside-down beige cardboard at first. The pieces are fragments of wildly unfamiliar and also impossibly the same shapes and images. I start to sort them and make sense of it.

In the world outside the puzzle box, I’ve experienced a rise in the number of disappointments and betrayals. I could give in to negativity and lose hope. There is certainly enough evidence to support pessimism. And yet, I will not resign myself to hopelessness.

So, the puzzles, with their promise of restoring order and even beauty from chaos are a way to fight back.

I flip all the pieces so their colors show. I touch them and look them over to get the sense of how this will work out.

What things do I know for sure? The one single straight edge is something I can rely on, that’s a place to start. The edges of the puzzle is a guarantee that I’m going in the right direction.

And yet…from the very beginning there is a battle.

How can this piece fit? Maybe this puzzle has the wrong pieces.

Or

Is something missing? The box was sealed but…

Maybe there was a problem and this time things won’t come together.

All the time I sort and look and fit the pieces together I am still doubting.

Did a piece fall and on the floor and get eaten by the dog?

WHERE is that one piece that has to have purple in it? I don’t see any piece with purple. This is the one the dog ate; I just know it.

I’ve put a few together now. Once, a piece was eaten by the dog. I know because I found that soggy chewed piece, rescued it and put it back together. It was funny looking, but it was complete at the end.

It’s a pendulum swing, between victories and despair. Every piece that slides into place is a satisfying payoff. And so quickly when I search for the next piece it can swing to the despair.

Putting that puzzle together is talking myself into faith every second. And as I practice faith and action in this small flat world that fits in a box, I am building the same for the larger world.

It will work. Things will come together. Have faith, and trust.

read the room

As much as I would like to be perfect, I am far from it. I have my proclivities and my blind spots. Unfortunately, I’m not always aware of which is which. I think I’m getting better at seeing which is which. I don’t know what I’m blind to, until I have a throbbing pain slam into me.

I have a lot going on in my head. The running conversation spills easily into my writing—my blog has been around for 20 years, and this weekly wonder newsletter for more than ten. I’m not short on thoughts.

Thing is, I am so busy listening to myself, I’m not so good at hearing what others might have to say. There is a saying “Read the room.”

Ah. The room and all the people in it have something for me. It seems I need to clear out a space in my head and give some attention to what is happening around me.

This doesn’t always come easy. I love to talk with other people, but when my mind is full it’s hard for me to set aside what I’m thinking about and make room for what others need from me.

And they don’t always even tell me. I have to sharpen up and look for signs. Are they tired? Are they excited? I have to be aware of what is happening in the minds and hearts of others.

With all the noise in my own head, I can easily overlook what’s happening for other people.

I’m getting ready for a job interview on Thursday. Wish me luck! I would love to be picked and I am flashing back to job interviews that have gone very poorly in the past. There was this one interview I finally got, and I was so nervous and desperate. I got on the call and tripped all over myself, barreling down on that poor hiring manager like a runaway freight train.

I hope I’ve learned a couple things since.

Like
Take a breath

It’s not all about me.

Pain is slow

Do you know how Winnie-the-Pooh gets down the stairs?

Being unhappy and in pain makes it hard to think of another way to do things.

Christopher Robin takes Winnie by the right foot and he bumps his head down the stairs banging his head at every step. Between bumps he tries to think of a better way.

Pooh is a very simple bear, and the banging means he never comes up with a better idea.

AA Milne is a genius. When life comes at me, I can’t think about much else but the onslaught.

Pain and unhappiness have the consequence of making me stupid. How unfair! Just when I need my wits about me the most I am beset with distractions. 

In my martial arts class, the Sensei will set up a challenge for us to see if we can retain our skills under stress

Close your eyes and spin around for 30 seconds. Now run across the room and open a combination lock. Can you do it fast enough to get away from an attacker?

And the stress of doing it under pressure makes it even harder!

I am not at my best right now. That’s the reality. The stress of knowing that I have the capacity to do better, be more clever and less clumsy makes me perform even worse.

That’s feedback loop I prefer to break. Just like when I’m dizzy and fumbling with that combination lock, I have to take a breath, remember where I am and have some patience with myself.

Senseis also say:

Slow is Smooth

Smooth is fast

I am not either. But If I concentrate on being smooth I am more likely to get faster. Or at least make forward progress. Fast is a goal too far.

But….what about us?

“When people show you who they are, believe them.” 

–       Maya Angelou

Since I got fired almost two weeks ago, I’ve been taking stock. This is familiar and painful territory. I have a strong urge to talk it through with friends. I am really missing one friend in particular, another professional woman my age that understood what it was like in the office.

I loved talking with her. In my mind, she got it. It was helpful to have a solid mutual understanding of what it was like in these kind of career moments.

It hurts to get fired—to get the chair pulled out from me as I was pouring my heart and soul into the job.

NO, YOU ARE NOT AT ALL WHAT IS WANTED.

I’m not? But can’t you see how I’ve been making everything come together? Can’t you tell how I’m doing exactly what is needed?

YOU MUST LEAVE AND NEVER COME BACK.

Ouch. I set the phaser of my face to “professional” and try to appear stone cold as I wrap up whatever last things must be done. Fill the box, hand over the hardware.

It turns out this job was not what I wanted either, categorically. Because they didn’t want my best. And I only do my best. They—this one and all the others which fired me before—were not what I thought and hoped they were.

I saw the signs. I knew this was coming. I hoped that I could blast though and prove how valuable I was.

I can fix it! Just give me a chance!


It turn out it doesn’t work that way.

I wish I could talk to my friend about it. We used to call every week. Well, almost every week. I would text to try to make a time to talk every week. Sometimes she would answer back. Sometimes she wouldn’t. I forgave her, she was busy. And a couple weeks passed without talking.

Until one day she stopped communicating altogether.

What?

I tried connecting again.

Like a punch to the gut, it became clear my role to was to pack up whatever remnants I had left in this relationship up and leave in a dignified way. The door is locked.

Just like after getting fired I can look back and see the things I chose to overlook. I have blind spots—things I disregard on purpose. I want things to work. I want these positions—relationships—to be different from what they are.

People are complicated; situations have many facets. But a few things are always true:
– I don’t know everything
– Everything is not about me


When it comes to a cooperation, or a collaboration, between people it takes both sides. I can’t do all of the work for both sides. It takes agreement. In that two-way signal, interruptions can come into either path.

It’s not just about me, and I won’t know what is about me and what isn’t. In the world of ignorance, my best hope it to dust off and keep moving past it. Wondering what I might have done differently is of limited use.

These different people told me who they are. I’d best believe them and get on to the next thing.







Balance

I’m always wanting to do great things. Little things lack pizzazz. I’m looking to make great strides and accomplish something huge. I want to be better than i am—stronger and faster than I am.

But I am what I am. I hope I could become more, but it takes time.

Time and effort. Frustratingly slow and ponderous time and effort. I wish it were otherwise.

I know it is not. I can only do what I can do, and I can only do it at the speed I can do.

It’s discouraging. 

It can feel like a reason to not try at all. How can my very small effort matter?

I’m thinking big, and yet small is all I can do. I want to give up. Why even try?

Someone once  told me when I am trying to turn things around, to see if I can make one degree of change. Turn it one little degree.

It’s not much but it is a change.  

It will make that much of a difference.  One degree might be all I can do, but if I can do that it will have to be enough.

I can do that, and if I keep trying I can do it again. Changes, if done consistently, can add up.

Making no change adds up. Nothing plus nothing times the days I keep doing nothing adds up to less and less time to make a change.

But 1 degree of change after 180 changes, results in a complete turn around.

Yes, I’m dreaming big. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a problem if I am only focused on the big goal and can’t beak it down into the steps that I can take.

The little steps…those tiny changes that seem inconsequential and barely worth doing.

The big dream can give me the reason to keep on with the tiny every day steps, to keep the steps going in the direction of the change i hope to see. 

It takes a lot of time, and a lot of little steps to get to the change I’m hoping for. It takes a big vision not to give in to the despair that waits every day.

Every day, make the little change that I can.  Keep the flame of the vision burning and keep my eyes on the big dream. Beautiful beaches are made of tiny grains of sand.