A Child With Autism

Our 5 year old son’s preschool teacher asks me regularly what she can do to help Parker.  I never know how to answer her.  Sometimes I get the feeling that she thinks I don’t care enough to offer anything valuable.  I’m actually incapable of offering anything valuable, because I don’t know what this is.  I understand autism intellectually, but our experience with our child isn’t a Wikipedia entry.

Everything that worked yesterday to get him moving, or prevent him from aggravating his younger brother, fails today.  My wife and I feel a lot of guilt for not always knowing how to react.  Parker is such a sweet kid and I can’t imagine a life without him.  I worry about him not being able to make friends in junior high.  Not being able to find a partner.  Not being able to experience life within normal parameters.

We have become more isolated.  Our 6 year old next door neighbor wants to play with Parker regularly.  But we limit it.  The neighbor is a charismatic, athletic, outgoing boy.  I fear that if he gets to know Parker too well, he won’t like him.  But this is me projecting; trying to orchestrate the social interactions between children.  I want to protect Parker from the cruelty of the world — cruelty that he doesn’t have the capacity to understand.

I embarrassed myself in the preschool carpool lane.  It had been a particularly stressful day, with little sleep from the night before.  Once again, Parker refused to get in the car until I thoroughly answered a nonsensical question, while cars backed up behind us.  I could feel the heat of mental strain building up with every car that pressed into the lane.  Finally I managed to get him into his car seat, where he thought it would be a good idea to deliberately poke me in the eye for no reason whatsoever.  So I barked at him for what was probably 10 seconds, but in hindsight seems like 10 minutes.  Mothers in the carpool lane were staring at me while I lost control of my ordinarily mild demeanor.  I’m sure I looked like a Neanderthal to them, while yelling in the face of a 5 year old.  They don’t know that loud sounds coming out of an angry face have little to no impact on him at all.  Sometimes he seems to think it’s a game.  The social cues aren’t there.

I should be doing a better job of preparing for moments like this.  Rather than using the carpool lane, just park the car and walk inside to retrieve the kids.  But there is a conscious denial that still insists we can do things the way that everyone else does them.   We can’t.  I don’t feel victimized by this.  Nor do I feel a sense of martyrdom.  Everyone has problems to solve in their lives.  Some more significant than others.  Ours just exist somewhere along that continuum.  I am, however, having a tough time accepting it.

This has come to dominate our lives over time.  I don’t resent Parker.  He didn’t choose this.  The real frustration comes from not being able to fix it, because there isn’t anything to fix.  This is who he is.  I know there are Dads who really hope their kid will make the baseball team, or one day take over the family business.  I just want Parker to be liked, because he is such a likeable boy (when he isn’t poking his Dad in the eye).  It’s really the only thing I care about.  Everything else is icing.



This is a post from years ago on an older blog.  Nostalgia.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I’m a married man now. Most married men I know can do…you know…stuff. Fix cars. Put a new roof on. Plumbing. Surely, now that I am also married, the knowledge of these mysterious arts were bestowed upon me when I uttered the pivotal words, “I do.” Much in the way that a baby bird one day is pushed from the nest by his mother and suddenly grasps the majesty of flight. I have a giant bald spot like a married grown up. I find that I can drink 3 cups of coffee before bed and still sleep through an earthquake like a married grown up. I have had more than one casual conversation about my prostate with other married men. It all fits right?

So when I discovered a tiny leak in the water supply valve connected to our downstairs toilet, I instinctively knew that I could fix it. So off to the hardware store I went. “Excuse me, can you tell me where the plumbing section is?” I felt so proud asking this question. Now Jimmy, the guy who works at OSH, knows that I am a married grown up. A real-high roller I am. He points me in the right direction and I head to an area to find a replacement toilet water supply valve. There were about 500 of them. All different. Some had nuts sticking out on the sides. Some had a nut on one side and threads on the other. Some had 3 nuts and no threads, all at different angles. Some nuts were in the bag, not connected to anything. Then I started to go nuts. Not a single one looked like the valve on our toilet.

But, confidently, I knew that my newly acquired knowledge of all things fix-it would point me in the right direction. So I picked one. I bought that and a large bag of black licorice which I mostly finished before I was out of the parking lot. Because grown-ups eat black licorice. I knew it would make me strong for the job ahead.

I arrived home and went into the basement for the toolbox. I sifted through the ragtag bunch of hand-me-down tools, trying to decide what I would need. Windshield ice scraper? Mmm…probably not. Can of Fix-A-Flat that expired in 2003? Perhaps. Let’s start with a wrench and some pliers. I headed back upstairs to the bathroom and laid out a nice work area with my tools, parts, and a hot cup of joe. I even had black dress socks on with my flip flops. Now that’s grown up. I inspected our leaky water supply valve. Like a doctor examining a patient. Very thoroughly. Then I looked over at the replacement part I purchased from OSH. Then I looked at our leaky valve. Then back at the replacement part. This went on for about 5 minutes. I needed a break.

Being somewhat computer savvy, I decided to check out some videos on the You Tube for a little guidance. What a great resource! Not only was I able to discover several step by step videos guiding me through the whole process, I also discovered that I didn’t have a single supply required to do it. Back to the hardware store. Only this time I chose a different hardware store. You see, if you go to the same hardware store twice because you mistakenly bought the wrong thing, then you’re caught. Then they know you don’t know what you’re doing. They’ll talk about you on their smoke breaks. “Did you see that jackass in the plumbing section?” It’s like taking a mistress to the same restaurant that you frequent with your wife and kids. At TruValue, I was anonymous. An anonymous plumbing expert.

As I stared at a wall containing 500 other replacement supply valves that didn’t look anything like the 500 at the first hardware store, Cesar recognized the stroke affecting the left side of my face and helpfully asked me if I needed anything. “Is there a standard size for replacement supply valves on home toilets?” Cesar asked me if the pipes were galvanized. I wasn’t sure how to answer that question since the only context I could think of for using the word ‘galvanized’ was ‘The rebels were galvanized in their plight to overthrow a ruthless dictator.’ My confidence was waning. But I really wanted to be a big-shot, so I couldn’t bear the thought of telling him I didn’t know what a galvanized pipe was. “I think it’s partially galvanized.” He looked at me for a long, long time. “Why don’t you just take these two. If one of them doesn’t work, you can bring the other one back for a refund.” Thanks Cesar.

Our condo complex only has one water shutoff. If I turn the water off in our condo, I have to turn the water off in the other 5 condos connected to our building. I thought it neighborly to wait until midnight to start this project so as not to interrupt everyone’s Sunday afternoon. So off I went to wait tables for 6 hours. So many unruly children. So many unhappy people. So much pain…

Back at home from work. I was really quite excited to start this project. Plus, Anne was home, so I could show her what a reliable and resourceful husband I am. “You need any help?” “Nope, I’m good. You just relax.” I’ve got it all under control. All under control…

It only took me about 20 minutes to remove the old supply valve and install the new one. I did it just like the You Tube video instructed. Everything fit nicely. I went down to turn the water back on to the condo and came back to congratulate myself on a job well done. I went into the bathroom and there were no leaks where there had been before. Except…now…there was a new leak. The mother of all leaks coming straight out of the copper pipe. Shooting up to the ceiling. Shooting me in the crotch. How the hell did that happen. I wadded my ego up into a little ball and threw it into the trash. “Anne, can you come help me?”

I asked her to go to the front of the building and shut the water supply off so that I could readjust the fitting. Just like the video. I mean, exactly. I called her to turn the water back on. Hallelujah! Now the leak is even bigger! “TURN IT OFF, TURN IT OFF, TURN IT OFF!”

We were at Defcon 5 now. I started the reassembly process over. Only this time I needed Anne to hold one tool while I turned the other tool. So as to ensure that everything was perfectly snug and pointing in the right direction. I don’t know why they put the water supply valve in a place where only a spider monkey with a contractor’s license can reach it, but we were on top of each other. Anne’s face almost in the toilet tank. My legs cramped around the bowl and my head sort of upside down-ish. By this time my patience was running out. I was getting that adrenaline surge that allows a baby to lift an overturned car off of his mother. Man, that fitting was on tight now. You’d need a blowtorch to get it off again. I sent Anne back down to turn the water back on. Our HOA president came outside because he thought that a burglar was lurking around in the bushes. By this time it was 1:30 am. I called Anne. “Go ahead and turn it on.” The leak…was…even…bigger. “S**T! F**K! ASSBASTARD!!!” My outburst sent Pickle, our dog, upstairs and under the bed, where she shivered in the dark for 20 minutes before Anne found her. I’m sure our next door neighbors were convinced that things weren’t working out too well for the newlyweds.

See, the problem we had now was that I had to admit to myself that I could not fix this problem. But that also meant that I couldn’t turn the water back on for the condo at all until a plumber could fix the problem. So when 5 other units awoke to have showers, brush their teeth, and make coffee on Monday morning…there would be no water. Anne suggested we should call a 24 hour plumber. I knew we would pay a ridiculously high price for that. I had experienced it with a 24 hour locksmith. 24 hour also means 24 times what it would normally cost to do the job. I think she saw some crazy in my eyes, so she didn’t push the issue. She’s good that way. I paced, and I thought, and I paced, and I thought of any possible solution to this problem. We went downstairs to watch the “how-to” videos that showed me how to do this in the first place. “You see Anne? You see? Didn’t we do exactly that? Didn’t we? Here, watch it again. Isn’t that what we did? I did that right there right? Didn’t I”? I found myself talking defiantly to the computer. Scolding the teacher for giving me a bad grade when I followed instructions exactly. As if You Tube would come upstairs and fix the leak since it was its fault that the problem wasn’t solved. Anne just quietly looked at me. The way that we look at the yelling people all over Los Angeles who push around shopping carts full of empty cans and bags of garbage. She finally had had enough and decided to go to bed. I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t good company.

As a last resort, I went upstairs to the leaky valve to give it a last once over. Then a Eureka moment came over me. I picked up my hammer and I banged it. And I hit it, and I banged it, and I hit it. It didn’t fix anything, but it made me feel a little better.

I decided that the best thing to do would be to set my alarm for 5:30 am and turn the water back on for the complex so that people could live their lives in the morning before work, and sit under the leak with some towels and a mixing bowl to avoid any water damage. I had let my neighbors know the day before what was going on, and sent them a follow-up email at 2:30 am, hoping they would check their email before work. I shut the water off, and went to bed for 2 1/2 hours.

5:30 AM — The alarm goes off. “S**T! Where am I? Am I at summer camp? NO! I’m late for school!” It took a couple of minutes for the confusion to wear off. I took Pickle down with me for her morning walk. It was still dark, so she seemed a little out of sorts. On my way back, I stopped at the water shut-off and turned the water on, as I had promised my neighbors. Back in the house, I discovered that the leak seemed manageable by just setting a bowl under it to change out every few minutes. But as the pressure built, things began to get out of control again. I had no choice but to shut off the water supply again, hoping that by 7:00 everyone else had already taken a shower and would soon be heading to work. By this time I just decided to take the whole leaking assembly off of the copper pipe leading into the bathroom so that the plumber would be able to start fresh with the pipe.

After shutting the water off I went downstairs to look for plumbers who could come over fast. As I meandered through various websites, I heard a familiar sound. Like a shower or sprinkler. “NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!” I sprinted back upstairs in a panic. As I flew past Pickle, she got spooked again and hid in the pillows on the couch. Some jerk had gone to the water shut off valve and turned the water back on. Now, mind you, maybe they hadn’t checked any of their emails. So I gave them the benefit of the doubt. But wouldn’t you think that if the water supply valve is shut off, it’s shut off for a reason, and might be worth investigating?

Since I had only an exposed copper pipe leading into the downstairs bathroom, a flood of water was spewing forth as if a prankster had run a garden hose in through the open window into the bathroom. I was almost up to my ankles before I was able to jam the leaky water supply valve back onto the pipe, to at least mitigate some of the leaking. By the time I was able to get outside to find out who had turned the water back on, whoever it was already was enjoying a nice, warm shower.

A few of the neighbors called me to find out how the plumbing was going, so I was able to narrow down the mysterious water-turner-onner culprit to 2 units. One is a really nice couple with a new baby. But he has had some plumbing problems of his own, so I suspect that he wouldn’t just go turn the water supply back on without checking to see if something was going on. The other is a couple who really don’t speak to anyone and I have found to be somewhat off-putting. But, the HOA is starting legal action to begin foreclosure on their property as they haven’t paid their HOA dues in over a year. I’m on the HOA board. Payback’s a bitch.

The plumber showed up at 9am and fixed the problem in 4 minutes. I laid down to try to sleep for a couple more hours, but Slingblade who lives at the adjacent house decided to mow the lawn just as I crawled back into bed. So, I’m on my 5th cup of coffee, and am wondering if we should look into getting Pickle into therapy for PTSD.

A Hotel Room Workout For Travelers

When I traveled for work, not every hotel was equipped with a gym.  Occasionally I would take a jog to explore the surroundings, but I’m a “strength first” type of guy.  Often I had to use whatever was available in my hotel room, which typically wasn’t much.  I like to keep things simple with 5 basic movements that can be progressed or regressed dependent upon ability. Usually I would do it as a circuit, but it can be done however you like.  These 5 movements will hit every major muscle group, and they still make up the bulk of my training today.

The exercises are listed in order from easiest to hardest.  I like to keep repetitions between 8 and 12 with a slow, 2 and 2 pace.  3 to 5 sets per movement.  You can mix up the exercises as you like.  If you’re not sure what an exercise is, a quick search will provide instruction.

HIP HINGE:  Hip Bridge, Straight Leg Hip Bridge, Single Leg Hip Bridge, Straight Single Leg Hip Bridge

SQUAT:  Bodyweight Squat, Lunge, Bulgarian Split Squat, Pistol Squat

PUSH:  Pushup on Knees, Pushup, 1 arm Pushup on Knees, 1 arm Pushup

PULL:  Generally you’re limited to the One Arm Dumbbell Row.  I would either use a heavy piece of luggage instead of a dumbbell, or fill a bag with full water bottles.  Use the bed as a bench.

ABS (For Time):  Plank on Knees, Plank on Hands, Plank on Elbows, Side Plank

There are thousands of exercises to choose from in each of the 5 categories, but all of these have served me well over the years, and anyone can learn to do most of them.  Especially when space, equipment, and time are limited.

Tips For Thanksgiving

While food wasn’t necessarily my first go-to when choosing something that would allow me to disappear from life, there is no question that at times I have eaten myself numb.  But that numbness gives way to gastrointestinal pain, which gives way to the creeping sense that I wasted my youth.

We all know that the holidays can be tough when it comes to food choices.  Eating yourself to paralysis lends itself to a lot of sitting in front of the TV, questioning a whole host of other life choices.  Each year a number of my clients will ask what they should do about Thanksgiving.  I’m not the kind of trainer that believes people shouldn’t fully embrace holidays.  The occasional overindulgence can truly be enjoyable.  It is when overindulgence becomes compulsive that it loses its joy (me with alcohol).

Whether you’re just trying to avoid the annual holiday weight gain, or are genuinely afraid of losing control at the dessert table this Thanksgiving, here are some tips that have changed the way I approach holiday indulgence:

Step 1 — Be fully hydrated before you start eating.  Thirst and hunger can often send mixed signals.  Drink plenty of water.  I’m not saying fill your stomach so full of water that you can’t eat.  This isn’t about trying to fool yourself into thinking you’re already full.  It’s about making sure your body knows when it is actually hungry vs dehydrated.

Step 2 — Fill your first plate with turkey (a little gravy is fine), and green vegetables.  Even if the veggies are full of butter and bacon, don’t worry about it.

Step 3 — Finish your first plate and chill out for 5 minutes with a glass of water or iced tea.  If you’re still hungry, get a second plate of turkey and green vegetables.

Step 4 — Chill out for 5 minutes, drink water or iced tea

Step 5 — Eat as much stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and dessert as you want.

At first glance, this looks like a competitive eating menu and a one-way ticket to morbid obesity.  But it is really about timing.  A few years ago, my M.O. was to get a serving of turkey, 2 or 3 servings of stuffing, a serving of candied yams, and some cranberry relish in my first plate.  The second I finished my plate, I filled it up with more of the same.  I had plenty of room for dessert, and I wrecked those pies.  These days I don’t even make it to step 5.  So what’s going on?

When we go into a Thanksgiving meal, we’re usually famished.  Our blood sugar is extremely low (and we’re probably dehydrated).  Immediately we jam ourselves with starches and sugars (with a little protein thrown in).  Starches and sugars begin to digest in your mouth before they even reach your stomach.  The pancreas goes into high gear to produce enough insulin to kill the sugar assault.  Because we’ve overdone it on the sugar, the insulin can overshoot the mark, and we begin to receive signals that we need to eat, even though our stomachs are completely full.  I think we can all relate to feeling like we can’t eat another bite, and then 30 minutes later we’re munching on a little of this and that once the starches and sugars have broken down.

When you follow steps one through 5, there is no insulin spike.  Proteins and fibers digest much more slowly, and the pancreas doesn’t have to go into hyperdrive to regulate blood sugar.  The physical food itself is much more dense, but less calorie-dense than the same volume of stuffing and yams.  Your stomach stays full longer, with no new signals to continue eating due to a blood sugar roller coaster.  By the time you get to Step 5, eating as much dessert as you want is likely to include a half slice of pumpkin pie.

Here it is broken down:

12 ounces of dark meat turkey (that’s a lot of turkey) = 588 calories

3 cups of green beans = 132 calories

2 tbsp. butter = 200 calories

2 servings turkey gravy = 100 calories

Total = 1,020 calories


6 oz dark meat turkey = 294 calories

1 serving turkey gravy = 50 calories

2 cups of stuffing = 428 calories

2 cups candied yams = 300 calories

Total = 1,072 calories

At first glance, that appears to be a lot of calories no matter which way you go, and the difference is negligible.  I should point out that this is the kind of volume that I personally eat at Thanksgiving.  I weigh 200 lbs and carry an above average amount of muscle mass.  The real point here is that after finishing the second option, your insulin will be going crazy to reset your blood sugar.  After milling about for an hour, you’ll be ready for dessert and plenty of it.  After finishing the first option (if you can finish it at all), it is unlikely that you will be overly enthusiastic about the dessert table.  It is just as unlikely that you’ll want to eat much stuffing and candied yams.

Give it a try.  I think you’ll be surprised.


A Simple Exercise Approach If You’re Over 40.

These days it takes me a little longer to get up off of the floor.  When I attempt to sprint, I curse the practical joker who put concrete in my shoes.  My shoulders are beginning to feel like my knees, and my knees feel like a migraine.  At 42, I’m not an old man, but my body is approaching middle age with an ego that still thinks college dorm life is a real possibility.

I have done a lot to my body over the years.  There was a time when I didn’t notice any real consequences from the abuse.  I assumed that I had dodged all of the bullets.  Turns out that the ramifications of that abuse wake up all at the same time, sometime after 40.  Disc compression from high school football.  Worn out knees from distance running.  Dodgy shoulders from kickboxing.  Several years of drug and alcohol dependency.  I don’t regret any of it.  Even the substance abuse.  While I am not proud of that particular decade, I learned a lot of priceless lessons while fighting for sobriety that I may not have learned otherwise.  When my clock runs out, the “bucket list” won’t be very long.

Even into my mid-30s, I wanted to be as strong, fast, and powerful as my genetic limits would allow.  I pushed, and pushed, and pushed.  But it’s harder to recover from that kind of training now.  At this age, living as healthfully as possible, I’m still not faster than the chain-smoking 23 year old me.  My goals had to change.  I’ll never be a professional fighter.  I’ve injured myself twice while training for powerlifting competitions.  My knees won’t allow running on pavement anymore.  Most of my goals were about serving me anyway.  I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that, at least in terms of athletic endeavors.  Competition can be healthy, particularly if you’re competing with yourself.

Something changed after I became a parent.  Anne and I got started late.  Parker is 5 and Max is 2.  This peculiar sense of mortality and danger emerged in a way that hadn’t existed 20 years ago.  I jumped out of small airplanes a few times.  Now I won’t get in one.  I’m more cautious when I climb ladders.  I am continually on the lookout for sharp objects.  Everything shifted from a focus on competition, to a focus on surviving an emergency.  I don’t obsess about every possible danger in life, lest I become agoraphobic.  But there is an awareness about things that simply weren’t on my radar before.  Am I fast enough to push one of my kids out of the way of a speeding car?  Am I strong enough to lift a store display rack that falls on one of them?  Can I catch and overpower a kidnapper?  Can my ribs withstand a flying elbow from a 5 year old who attacks me while I’m napping on the floor?

Thankfully, at this point in my life, I can safely answer yes to those hypothetical situations.  But I don’t want to take it for granted.  I also can’t afford to train like a Navy SEAL to single-handedly stop a Red Dawn (aging myself) that only hits our house.  There has to be a realistic balance somewhere.  Most possibilities in life exist on a spectrum:

Church Softball <—> The Olympics

A cold <——> Ebola

Ronald McDonald <——> It

It is impossible to prepare for every emergency.  But people often lose their lives in emergency situations because they simply aren’t fit enough to remove themselves from the danger:

*Unable to break a window in a submerged car.

*Loss of balance while standing on a roof.

*Unable to move out from under a heavy object.

*Unable to climb to avoid danger on a lower level (flooding, dogs, Ronald McDonald)

So what kind of fitness should we seek to maintain in order to survive emergencies that primarily require fitness as a survival tool?  This is not an exhaustive list, and while these are bare minimums, it is a good place to start.  If you can achieve any of these standards without much effort, but struggle on others, then spend time on the most difficult movements:

— At least 1 solid chest to floor pushup with a perfectly planked body.  1 perfect pushup is a lot more challenging than 10 sloppy ones.  (A 50 lb box has fallen down the attic ladder and you will suffocate if you can’t push it off of you, or squirm your way out from under it).

— At least 1 kipping pull-up.  It is very challenging for most women over 40 to do one strict form pull-up.  But I’m talking about being able to climb over a fence or wall, in which you’ll be using your feet and legs to assist you.  You gotta get over that wall by any means necessary.  It doesn’t matter how pretty it looks.

— At least 1 partial range dip.  You’ve pulled yourself to the top of that wall, now what?

— A smooth, balanced Turkish get-up on each side of the body using only your bodyweight.  If a bookshelf falls on top of you, getting out from under it by maneuvering away from it is a lot easier than trying to bench press it.  The get-up is a great way to learn to coordinate the entire body.

— At least 30 bodyweight squats, a little above parallel is fine.  Your legs should always be stronger than your arms.  If not, you will eventually have a problem.

— Drag yourself across the floor 15 feet using only your elbows.  You fell and broke your hip.  Nobody can hear you.  The phone is in the other room.  Incidentally, if you’re over 65, store your phone where you could reach it from the floor.

— Deadlift 45 lbs with perfect form.  This is not a heavy deadlift, and it is unlikely that you’ll have to deadlift your way out of an emergency, though you might have to one day lift something off of someone else.  However, perfecting deadlift technique by practicing with a light to moderate weight will help prevent future emergencies (throwing out your back while doing yard work).

— Walk for 2 hours.  Your car broke down in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no signal and you haven’t seen a car since morning.

There are an infinite number of physical standards that you can apply to any potential emergency.  Soldiers, firefighters, and police officers obviously have to maintain a more rigorous set of standards.  But this list will give you a fighting chance if you’re surprised by something in your day to day life.  When was the last time you tried a pushup?  Feel free to add to the list.








Recovering From Life pt. 3

…cont’d from pt. 2

So, what does all of this mean?  It means that we all have a tremendous amount to overcome in our day to day lives before we even get out the door.  Our pre-programmed, but outdated, survival behavior is interfering with our ultimate desire for “happiness” and “peace.”  Throw in modern stressors that our evolutionary mechanisms are not equipped to address, and we begin to work at full capacity just to make it to the end of the day.  It’s as if we’re being asked to program a computer with a hatchet.  A hatchet is a useful tool that served our ancestors for thousands of years.  But it isn’t useful for programming computers.

When I was struggling to get sober in the early 2000s, people kept telling me that if I could learn to live in the “now” as often as possible, most of my problems would begin to take care of themselves…including my drinking.  I genuinely didn’t know what that meant.  Most of the time I was obsessively worrying about what was going to happen, or regretting what had already happened.  If there was a “now,” it was, “Now I’m drinking.”

Over time, it became clear that I couldn’t think my way out of the problem.  A neuroscientist or psychologist can probably explain this more articulately than I can, but our very existence is defined by paradoxes.  If we try to stop thinking about something, we will only think about it more.  If we “try” to sleep when we’re having trouble falling asleep, we are doomed to stay awake.  Broccoli doesn’t taste like doughnuts.  Sitting on the couch feels better than exercise.

Another paradox that I find truly baffling:  With most things in life we instinctively know exactly what to do.  We know it intellectually, but there’s a little monster inside that keeps steering us in the wrong direction.  I knew that a 12 step program could help me get sober, but instead I switched from vodka to beer.  I knew that if I changed my eating habits I could probably win the battle with chronic acid reflux, but instead I just took more medication.  Again, this is probably something on which a psychologist could enlighten me, but for now it’s merely a puzzling observation.  I do, however, believe it is somehow tied into the conflict between modernity and our outmoded survival mechanisms.

We know from experience that if we actively focus on spending our conscious time in the moment we are actually in, rather than in some moment in the past or future, things generally go more smoothly.  Much less anxiety or pangs of regret.  But it feels so tempting to nurse an old resentment or drive the possibilities for disaster right off of a cliff.  Those thought patterns are always harmful.  Yet we persist.

How exactly do we go about staying in the now?  It is pretty simple really.  Despite the immense complications associated with human evolution, and the aspects of our minds that we do not yet understand, it is possible to override the discordant noise that constantly hums in the background (or foreground depending on the kind of day you’re having).  There is nothing new or groundbreaking here.  But as our lives are dominated by paradoxes, most of us do not take advantage of these tools.  We don’t make time for them because we are overwhelmed by everything else that we know we must do.  But here’s another paradox…the more time we spend using these tools, the more time they produce.  It becomes self generating.

Time is in many ways an illusion.  Many theoretical physicists have debated the concept of time as a purely human construct.  I’m not going to delve into this debate here, but there is no question that our perception of time is impacted by our quality of mind in any given situation.  “Time flies when you’re having fun!”  Conversely, many of my personal training clients insist that I am lying to them when I say that they’ve been holding a plank for only 30 seconds.

Twenty four hours is twenty four hours.  But the rate at which those hours seem to pass are largely determined by how present we are throughout the day.  If we spend our time at work dreading a difficult conversation at home, it will feel like we can’t get anything done.  If we spend time with our kids dreading all of the work we have to do on Monday, it will feel like we aren’t in our children’s lives.  However, with a few simple tools we can shift our perception in such a way that time seems to expand.  But we have to make time for these things first.  If we only get to them once we’ve worn ourselves out with all of the other “stuff” we have to do, we will never get to them, and we’re right back to where we started — out of time.

There is no shortage of scientific information available that explains the “how” and “why” pertaining to these tools.  I am just going to share my own personal experience with them.  These tools help me stay sober all the time, and at peace most of the time:

1 — Daily meditation using the Headspace app.  I am fairly new to this.  Maybe 3 months in.  Focus has sharpened.  General demeanor has softened.  I find that I am able to apply the principles while driving and literally experience nothing but the act of driving.  It is a very new and foreign feeling.  Traffic frustration has just about vanished.

2 — Martial arts, or any other complex high-skill sport.  It is nearly impossible to get lost in distracting thoughts while performing a highly technical movement.  Exercise alone is certainly beneficial to the mind as well as the body, but it is the intense concentration associated with a highly technical physical activity that brings the perception of time into “right now.”

3 — A skilled hobby.  Like exercise, hobbies of any kind are terrific on any level.  But I’m referring to hobbies that take a great deal of practice in order to master the activity.  Woodworking or learning a musical instrument are good examples.  Again, we’re trying to bring the mind down into the thing we are doing, rather than letting it carry us up into the clouds.  The more technical the hobby, the more anchored the mind becomes.

4 — Keeping a journal.  This can be about anything.  There is something liberating about writing thoughts down.  Things that spin in our minds throughout the day tend to stop spinning once written down.  It’s as if we’ve moved them from our mind into a separate storage facility.

5 — Once per day, take contrary action.  It can be completely random.  If you order coffee every day, pick tea one day.  If you turn on the news first thing in the morning, turn on some music one day.  This may seem silly and arbitrary at first.  But I find that when I get into the habit of mixing up mundane things for no reason, it feels much more natural to find another option when it really matters.  For instance, when I’m having a bad day and I want to take it out on my family.  Or someone cut me off on the freeway and I want to pay them back.  This is a “wax on, wax off” approach that works when our instincts are getting pushed around by stress.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear any tools that you use to keep you “in the present.”


Recovering From Life pt. 2

…cont’d from pt. 1

Two proposals, for me, have clarified just about everything we struggle through in our day to day psychological lives, and they have to do with formerly necessary survival instincts outliving their usefulness.  They have become a liability in that they cause stress that is pre-programmed and unavoidable.  However, it is manageable when we can come to terms with the reality of what these stressors are, and catch ourselves before we stumble into an instant gratification sinkhole in an attempt to escape them.  We can, on occasion, learn to stay in the present.  But it takes practice, and it doesn’t always go smoothly.

I am paraphrasing these proposals in order to apply them to my own understanding of the stressors to which I am referring.

#1 — Historian Yuval Noah Harari indicates in “Sapiens” that nature’s great predators are majestic and confident — all the time.  Tigers are a great example.  They embody the essence of a successful predator.  One doesn’t look at a tiger and think, “Gosh, he really looks worried about his day.”  Prey animals, however, display a very different energy.  Our neighborhood is full of rabbits, so I’ll use them as an example.  Everything about these rabbits exudes anxiety.  “Is that gonna eat me?  What about that?  Where are my kids?  Are they being eaten?  CAR!!!”  The best analogy I can think of is when you’re playing chess or tennis with someone who is significantly better than you.  You will constantly be on defense, and never have the opportunity to mount an offense.  That is the rabbit.  Always reacting, never plotting.  Harari’s proposal is that humans very rapidly transitioned from primates who were both predator and prey, into the ultimate predator.  The transition happened so quickly that we were never able to fully evolve out of the anxiety and mistrust that defines the rabbit’s existence.  Harari argues that this makes us extremely dangerous — The predator instincts of a tiger in direct conflict with the prey instincts of a rabbit.  One doesn’t have to think for very long to recognize that this can be a horrifying combination.  An extreme case would be Hitler, for example.

#2 — In an interview with NPR, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright discussed our ceaseless general dissatisfaction…with everything.  For instance, “This house is too small.  I need a bigger house.  Now this bigger house is too small.  I need a bigger house…and so on…”  Wright explains that this drive is what kept us from becoming extinct.  If we stuff our bellies at Thanksgiving, and our brains tell us we’re full for 6 months, we will starve.  If we have sexual intercourse one time, and decide that it was so satisfying that we never need to do it again, we will simply vanish as a species.  One can see how these things can run haywire in a society that is not only marked, but plagued, by abundance.  We are biologically programmed to eat until we are as full as possible, and as a result we see obesity and type 2 diabetes becoming epidemics.  I am not making any specific moral value judgments about pornography, as that is not the purpose of this discussion, but it is clear to me that the required survival instinct for existence occasionally (if not often) becomes a self-destructive obsession when pornography is available 24/7 for free.

If we throw all of these anachronistic survival tools into the modernity pot and stir it up, it becomes rather obvious why our collective mental seam is splitting:

“Tom loves his wife Julia, but he can’t stop thinking about his secretary Heidi.  He isn’t in love with Heidi.  He just wants to have sex with her, one time.  But he knows that he must pretend to be in love with her in order for Heidi to consider any such proposal.  Tom hates himself for this.  He sits in church, ashamed.  He becomes more withdrawn from Julia because he doesn’t want to hurt her, but he can’t stop obsessing about Heidi.  Julia suspects that Tom no longer finds her attractive, but she’s too afraid to confront him about it.  She decides that it’s because she has gained too much weight.  So she goes on a diet, which fails.  Soon, she transitions into binging and purging.  Suddenly, she loses interest in her suspicions about Tom, because the binging and purging cycle has become her first priority.  She buys a gym membership, and starts working out 7 days per week.  A 20-something bond trader named Dan begins flirting with her on a regular basis…and so on, and so on.”

It has become crystal clear to me that this entire scenario is a direct result of the exponential rate at which the human mind adapts intellectually, while being simultaneously imprisoned by biological survival instincts which adapt and modify much more slowly.  The intellect and instinct go to war with one another, and both sides lose.  In my totally unscientifically tested opinion, this results in increased rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.

I don’t want to get into an abyss about whether or not we have free will, but neuroscientist Sam Harris indicates that, for the most part, we do not.  For the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant in that, for me, it explains many of the paradoxes and neuroses associated with trying to resist our instincts in order to function in a modern, civil society.  I’ll use myself as an example.  “I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today.  Alright, fine, I won’t drink tomorrow.”  I spent so much time obsessively trying to fight the urge to drink, that all I could think about was drinking.  The misfiring instinct to fill myself up with something that I “needed” was fighting me back harder than my “will” could overcome it.  As far as I can tell, the instincts always triumph in a battle of pure will.  How many of us recognize that we are eating too much, and yet feel powerless to stop it?  In that case, we are losing the battle with our instinct to ingest as much energy as we can to ensure successful procreation.  It is like building a dam to block the water, but the water keeps rising infinitely.  We have to learn to dig a new channel for the water to move in a different direction.  It is a futile endeavor to try to restrict it entirely.

cont’d in pt. 3…