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Make Your Own Little Corner of the World Better

Everything seems wrong. The world feels like one huge scary mess. Forty–three people killed in Beirut while going about their daily lives. One hundred twenty nine people murdered in Jihadist attacks in Paris. Russia announced a terrorist’s bomb brought down their airplane. Two Air France planes were diverted due to bomb threats. Hotel siege in Mali. Enough already. I feel helpless and don’t want to hear any more.

Terrorism, ISIS, radicalizing children – these are too big for me to feel like any sense of power to change. I don’t even understand it. Just as I was contemplating an escapist move to a back woods bomb shelter with lots of chocolate and good books I remembered a conversation I’d had with someone recently. He was talking about the Affordable Care Act. Was it a perfect law? No. A perfect solution? No. But did it move us closer to where we need to be? Did it make things better? Yes. He felt it did. That thought has continued to creep into my mind.

I can’t change the weather patterns, ease global suffering, or stop Trump from talking. I have no power to affect the Packer’s protection of Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. But I can affect my own little corner of the world. What I do can make things better. Small seemingly insignificant changes in the moment can make things better.

Change the emotional energy. In traffic and and generally annoyed? We know moods are contagious. Sitting in the anonymous interior of our cars it’s all too easy to spew vitriol with a facial expression that would scare a marauding army. What if we changed the mood by taking a moment to pleasantly acknowledge the driver who let us merge? Perhaps a little wave? How about smiling at a 4-way intersection and inviting the other driver to go first instead of racing them to take-off? Prefer something higher tech? MotorMood, an invention of Jesse Kramer, is a device which allows you to communicate with other drivers. No, there’s not an option for a visual of your middle finger. It’s a little gadget that illuminates a smiley face. Research shows we react positively to smiling faces, even emoticon faces. A small act that might make someone feel a little better.

Notice people when they’re doing something good. Pause in your busy day to look a clerk in the eye and really acknowledge them. Think it was their dream job to stand on their feet and ring up your groceries?Just the other day I was waiting in line to pay for my artichokes. I don’t know exactly what had gone wrong with the person in front of me but when I came on the scene the customer was angry and belittling to the clerk. The clerk did a masterful job of handling it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done as well because my instinct was to shove my artichokes down the customer’s throat. When I reached the head of the line I told the clerk what a wonderful job she’d done of handling the situation and I empathized with how hard a job it was. She got a little tear in her eye and told me it was the nicest thing anyone had said to her in a long time. What did it cost me? Nothing but it made her feel a little better. And me too.

Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Boy howdy, this doesn’t come natural to me. The inside of my brain is usually poised for negativity. It’s how we’re wired but I seem to excel at it. Yet all that negativity does not make me feel good and it oozes onto others. Maybe that customer in the store was not a full-time raving asshat. Maybe she was just having a really, really bad day and and her obnoxious behavior was the culmination of all the frustrations. It doesn’t excuse it but it makes me feel better to imagine it was an aberration. I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for my tantrums.

Connect with others in small moments. In spite of social media our world has become increasingly impersonal and disconnected. You don’t have to become everyone’s best friend but acknowledging others is a micro-connection. In his book on improving performance in medicine, Atul Gawande suggests “asking an unscripted question” as a way to make a real connection with a patient. What a great idea. I think women might be better at this in everyday life. “Wow, I love your shoes, where did you get them?” is an acceptable question to ask someone even in a bathroom. Men, don’t try this. I’ve been told there’s very rigid rules for communication in men’s bathrooms. Just stick to business.

Think about what your face is doing. I went to get my haircut the other day and there was a women in the salon whose face was set in such a scowl that I wanted nothing to do with her. Turns out she was actually quite pleasant and was probably blissfully unaware of what her face was doing. When we have a bitchy resting face it’s a force field which repels others. If that’s the look you’re going for then carry on but if you want to feel better and put positive energy out in the world, soften it up. We actually feel better when we aren’t scowling. When we smile our brain gets feedback from our muscles which improves our mood. So it’s good for others and good for us too.

I haven’t read the news yet today and I’ll probably be sorry when I do. Mayhem surely is being plotted as I write. But all around me people are just trying to get by and doing the best they can in every day life. I want to notice them and do what I can where I can to make my little corner of the world better.

I See Good People

Last weekend I went to a dog event, an agility trial to be exact. Agility is a competitive sport and sometimes people are known to get grumpy, snarky, and petty. In an attempt to curb any such behavior the sponsors of the event initiated a game. In the spirit of Halloween and the Sixth Sense they called it “I See Good People.” Everyone was given little slips of paper with a ghost on one side and a place to fill in the blank “Thanks______.”  The idea was to catch people doing something positive. It could be anything. Showing good sportsmanship, giving encouragement to someone, lending a hand, you name it. Once you saw a “good person” you filled in the blank, put your name on it, and gave it to the good person you noticed. They put their name on it, probably after having a warm fuzzy feeling, and then the little slip went into a bowl for a drawing. The prize was minimal, the good feelings were priceless.

Being positive does not come naturally to most of us. Our brain is uniquely sensitive to all things negative. This negativity bias gives us an advantage in the evolutionary sense. Walking along smelling the roses and whistling happy tunes wouldn’t have insured our ancestors stayed around long enough to contribute to the gene pool. Survival required acute sensitivity to potential harm. So our evolutionary history ensures that we notice and react more strongly to all things nasty. Not only do we notice them but negative experiences engage the brain more powerfully than positive experiences and they are also stored in memory more quickly. As Dr. Rick Hanson put it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Oh fabulous, my brain is velcro for bad thoughts and my butt is velcro for bad calories. That explains a lot.

We are also acutely sensitive to other people’s emotions. Known as social contagion it means we can catch the feelings of others just like catching a cold. And due to the negativity bias we’re more likely to notice and “catch” people’s negative emotions. So if you have someone in your life, at work, or at an event who is spewing negativity like a snake spews venom, you’re going to notice and it’s going to spread. Quickly. It was quite an inspired idea to get those of us at the agility trial to “see good people.” Essentially it meant we actively engaged our brain to consciously look for the positive. That is quintessential mindfulness. Once we noticed it, the game got us to process the positive behavior longer and at a deeper level because we needed to write about it (on the little slip of paper) and talk about it with the other person. That ensured it would make it into our memory. How brilliant is that?

In reality we can’t all live on a beach and we’re not wired to be positive all the time. Just the opposite in fact, but we can be aware of our automatic tendencies and try to consciously capture the positive when it ‘s out there. Look around. Who knows, maybe you’ll see good people. Maybe you’ll even be one.

Want to read more?


Agility not a sport? Watch and learn.

Risk and Rejection

After months of relentlessly writing a weekly blog post you might have noticed I went missing. At least I hope someone noticed and wondered what happened. No, I did not go into the witness protection program although if Raylon Givens had been the one to transport me to my new secret location I might have considered it. The reason for disappearing from blog-land is more pedestrian. Writing is hard. Rejection is painful. And I’m wimpy.

I wonder how Robert M. Pirsig, the motorcycle riding philosopher and author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, persevered through four years of writing followed by rejections from 121 misguided publishers. Eventually it was published and sold 5 million copies but where did he find the fortitude to submit it one more time? I believe he’s clearly made of stronger stuff than I. It’s not that I can’t put my nose to the grindstone and soldier on. I did, after all, earn a Ph.D. which is not for the faint of heart. But school had a familiar and reassuring format. Assignment, completion, feedback, grade. Study all the time, take exams. For me that worked pretty darn well. But writing is different. It’s a black hole, a void into which you send something and if you hear anything at all, it’s usually rejection. I understand better than ever why Sally Field exclaimed “you like me, you really like me,” as she accepted her Oscar. Never mind that the quote has changed a bit over the years, the reason we remember it at all is because we get it. At some level we all want to be liked and rejection sucks.

In fact our brains crave acceptance. We are hard wired to want to be liked and seen in a positive light by friends, family and even those we’ve never met. Research has shown that when someone likes us, the dopamine pathway, our brain’s pleasure loving reward center, lights up in neuronal joy. Better than sex? Maybe not but it looks pretty similar on a brain scan. To our long ago ancestors rejection from our human herd meant death so we’ve evolved to seek connection and avoid being an outlier. Rejection sucks so bad it’s a greater predictor of adolescent violence than being in a gang or taking drugs. And many acts of domestic violence, work place rage and school shootings are the final desperate act of someone who was rejected. Luckily I don’t pack heat.

Not only does rejection hurt emotionally, but it screws with us cognitively. Scientists have learned that the pain of rejection will temporarily cause us to score lower on tests of decision making, memory, and IQ tests. So when we most need to have our wits about us, they fail us. To make matters worse, we often add to our misery by beating ourselves up. We tend to focus on our short-comings and take it to the extreme leading to a precipitous drop in self-esteem. As Harriet Lerner put it, “Rejection is a fast route back to childhood shame.” Oh yeah, I’ve traveled that highway.

Rejection is so hurtful, it’s a wonder anyone ever asks someone out, apples for a job, or submits anything for publication. But what’s the alternative? The only way to avoid rejection is to never take a risk. Stay home. Remain mute. Not much of a life. Not being liked or accepted is part of the human condition. Everyone faces it sometime but writers are particularly rejection prone. Lerner’s classic book, The Dance of Anger, was rejected for five years before finally finding a publishing home and selling 3 million copies. If you want to write, or live in the world for that matter, the lesson seems to be –  keep on keeping on. Take risks, deal with the rejection. I’ve given myself a good talking to and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep writing and consider myself in good company as I rake in the rejection.

But changes are a comin. To you faithful readers, mostly friends who know me personally, thank you for reading. I plan on changing this blog to a different web host, translation free web host, so that I can continue writing posts while considering bigger projects. Maybe even writing them. Maybe even submitting them. I’ll let you know as the changes take place. I wouldn’t want to lose you in cyber-land. After all, like Sally Field, I want you to like me. Really like me!

Talks I found inspiring:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating here.

This is a longer listen but really, really worth it. Here is J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement speech on the “benefits of failure.” Very funny and incredibly inspiring. Listen here.



Customer Service? What a Shocker

Summer is officially over now that Labor Day is in the rearview mirror. But it’s still warm and lovely and not too late to reflect on the summer road trip – as quintessentially American as apple pie and baseball. This year I joined the throngs of road warriors to set off across the west on a visitation. I didn’t have national parks or other typical vacation destinations in mind, my purpose was to visit people who have the bad taste to not live close to me. Luckily they reside in some pretty beautiful places. Unlike the Oregon Trail pioneers, I traveled in air conditioned comfort with plenty of music and podcasts to keep me entertained. I had a Rand-McNally road map to guide me and a dog as a companion, no oxen.

The stats:

  • Almost 3,000 miles.
  • Twenty days.
  • Four states.
  • One cracked windshield.
  • One broken tooth.
  • Many wonderful people

The highlights:

The speed limit in Idaho is 80 mph on freeways and 70 mph on back roads. I sped along roads that made me feel like Thelma and Louise on the lam. When I did happen to see any people they seemed perfectly pleasant so I didn’t need to blow up any truckers.

Speaking of nice people, one day I pulled into a small nondescript gas station in Helena, Montana. Suddenly I saw four smiling men approaching my car. For a moment I feared it was a terrorist attack in clever disguise but no, it was something I hadn’t experienced in about 40 years. Incredible customer service. One man filled the gas and checked the fluids. Another opened my car door and chatted me up while he vacuumed my car. Yet another cleaned every piece of glass on my car while the fourth checked the air in my tires. I was then presented with a paper summarizing the fluid levels and sent on my way with best wishes for a good trip. If you’re ever in the area, check them out. It’s Tim’s Exxon where the motto is “Service like the ’50s & 60s.” It made me swoon.

My experience at Tim’s made me think about customer service in general. Really great customer service is so rare these days that when it does happen it bowls me over. At another gas station in Montana I had a brain dead moment and couldn’t make the pump work. We Oregonians lack practice in pumping our own gas since we’re legally not allowed to be self-sufficient. So I had to ask the young man on duty for help. He came out to assist with genuine good cheer and asked about my trip and told me someday he’d like to move to the big city – Missoula. This was not a person with barely disguised contempt covered by a smile as fake as a three dollar bill. He actually seemed to enjoy talking to me and helping me. It made my day.

Then I left Montana and that was the end of that. Oh sure, on the rest of my trip I had adequate service. No one slapped me upside the head when I asked for something but I missed the feeling that for a brief moment I was the most important customer they ever had and as a bonus they actually met my needs. When was the last time you had service like that? Just consider calls to tech support. I have to gird myself psychologically to call and usually it ends with the problem being unresolved while the technician in India reads from the computer screen “how else may I provide you excellent service today?”

After arriving back at home, somewhat worn out from the miles, I needed to attend to that broken windshield. Much to my surprise I experienced even more great customer service. What’s going on? Is it the end of days? I called Safelite to schedule an appointment. They will come to your home which is delightfully hassle free. A time was agreed upon and on the day of the appointment they called to confirm and tell me precisely when they would arrive. They sent an email with a photo of the technician so that I’d know who to expect. And then he actually arrived when he said he would and was pleasant and efficient. There was a problem with the type of windshield in my car (which was no fault of theirs) so they rescheduled, apologized profusely, and gave me a big discount for my inconvenience.  And the entire time the technician was informative and genuinely pleasant. Swooning again.

What we all want is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. As Dr. Winch pointed out, customer service respects our time, our dignity, and our intelligence. When customer service employees treat me like the police treat a perp, my dignity is diminished. If I’m fossilizing while waiting on hold and a recorded voice tells me my call is important to them, I know they are dirty rotten liars. If it was that important they’d be talking to me. If they have done nothing to fix the problem but tell me they were happy to provide me excellent customer service I can only imagine they believe I have the IQ of an earthworm.

My road trip allowed me to connect with old friends and to see exquisitely beautiful country. But the surprise was to encounter such amazing customer service. It makes me smile just to think of it and I’ll make a point to use these businesses again. Or tell you about it. Isn’t that the point? Comcast, are you paying attention?


Heinously Hot, Hot, Hot


During the wet, dark and dreary days of winter, I often dream of the sunny days of summer and eagerly anticipate their return. I should be careful what I wish for. Summer’s here and Dorothy Parker’s words ring in my head, “what fresh hell is this?” Here in the west we are in the midst of a serious heat wave. June broke all kinds of records and July, although only a couple days old, is following the pattern. Yesterday it was 100 degrees. That is just wrong. I realize that may be nothing compared to what those poor people in Pakistan have faced this year, but I live in the northwest where we like our temperatures somewhere between 70 and 75. We’re weather wimps. Continue reading…

Lies and Liars

Brian Williams, former NBC anchor of The Nightly News, recently began his mea culpa tour on the Today show. When pressed for details he did the evasive two-step by claiming he got things “mixed up.” He never came right out and said “I lied and more than once.” (I’ll bet he never inhaled either.) As an anchor at a major network, Mr. Williams was in a position of unique responsibility and visibility. Why would he lie? It seems obvious someone might call him out on his deception. He betrayed people’s trust and should have consequences but he’s certainly not alone in his lying ways. People lie. And that’s the truth. Continue reading…

Psychopaths: Manipulation Maestros

As I write this post the search continues for the clever convicts who are on the lam from the New York prison. Their escape is reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption complete with a trip down a pipe to freedom. One little difference is that Shawshank was a movie and the protagonist was an innocent and wronged party. These escapees are vicious cold blooded killers and it’s only a matter of time until they perpetrate more murder and mayhem. Speculation abounds on how they pulled this off but one thing is clear, they had help. Some of that help came from Joyce Mitchell, a 51-year-old prison employee. On the surface she appears to be an average hard working wife and mother but she’s now told  authorities she had planned on picking them up and heading off with them. Instead, at the last moment, she checked herself into a hospital with a panic attack. Good idea, she had a lot to panic about.

What would make a woman do something like this? Shouldn’t it be obvious these guys are murderous scumbags and they might be using her? It’s obvious to those of us watching this drama unfold from a distance but psychopaths play people like a violin and Joyce was this duo’s concerto. Those in the know at this correctional facility report that inmates regularly look for the “weakest links” among staff. Once they find their potential victims, the manipulation begins, a process of “grooming.”  It’s not like an inmate would walk up to a staff member and say, “hey baby, you’re cute, want to help me escape?” Even the most vulnerable would think something was wrong with that brazen request. Instead it’s a long, slow process that unfolds in the tiniest increments. A compliment here, a “disclosure” there. They know how to make a person feel good, or helpful, or needed. At first they insinuate themselves in the tiniest of ways. Over time the staff member may begin to divulge personal information giving the psychopath even more grist for the manipulation mill. The inmate will make the person feel listened to, cared about, understood. The inmate works hard to get the staff member to see them not as the incarcerated criminal they are, but like a friend, brother, son, or even lover. At some point the staff member may do just the tiniest of favors for the inmate and then – gotcha “Downing the duck” as it’s called by the inmates. Now the victim is owned.

Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt describes money or emotions as two primary motivators that influence people. In this case it appears emotions drove the getaway bus. Richard Matt, one of the murderous duo, apparently charmed Joyce and over many months convinced her they were in love. Research has shown that women are attracted to the “dark triad” traits typically found in the bad boys behind bars. If you don’t look beneath the surface the personality traits of extroversion, callousness, impulsive behavior, and narcissism make a man look outgoing, confident, masculine, and charming. If they happen to have physical traits that are attractive, the duck may be downed sooner than later. Personally I fail to see the attraction with these two but maybe they just aren’t photogenic or green isn’t in their color wheel.

Keep in mind all psychopaths are not found behind bars. They are all around us and research has shown that even in brief encounters they are experts at reading body language and non-verbals to zero in on the perfect potential victim. But other times psychopaths have successfully chosen assertive, outgoing, confident women. Men are victims too. There is no one path to being manipulated by a psychopath. Don’t fool yourself, we could all fall prey given the right circumstances. Just ask Frank Abagnale, the famous con man portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Catch Me if You Can. He fooled some of the smartest people around while he posed as a pilot, physician, lawyer, and professor. And he’s still raking it in, he’s just gone legit now.

Want to read more? 


The Long Goodbye

It’s early morning, I’m sipping coffee, and my old girl is resting on a fluffy dog bed as close to me as she can get. In the past her preference would have been to drape herself across my lap and lick my face, arm or whatever was readily available. A 70 pound lap dog. Now her arthritis makes that too uncomfortable so she settles for a bed and close proximity.

Ceanna Rose, a Gordon Setter, is now 11. Not so very old but she’s a big girl and aging fast although you might not notice at a superficial glance. She’s still lovely to behold with nary a grey hair. She’s eager to go for a walk and always ready to eat. Everything. There are moments when she shows a joie de vivre. She still enjoys laying on the grass in the sun and greeting her friends at the Sunday morning dog gathering. But every day I am saying goodbye.

My relationship with Ceanna has been a troubled one. I never felt the unequivocal to the depth of my soul aching love I felt with my heart dog. Many times I wished Ceanna would find another family. Just go away. She had health issues, emotional issues, and personality issues. The trifecta of frustration for me. But she was also sweet, loving, and loyal. I felt compassion and care for her and worked hard to give her a good life. Now the thought of losing her brings a sense of deep sorrow accompanied by a thread of relief. Relationships are often complicated.

For many months her back legs have been getting more unstable. The muscles in those legs made strong from agility have atrophied. Her toes are turning in and she trips herself. She has started to fall and each one is like a betrayal. Ceanna looks surprised her body isn’t working. The world was always scary to her, now it must feel like the sky is falling. There are also signs of doggie dementia. She gets stuck staring at something or waits immobile in a room and doesn’t seem to know what to do. Her eyesight is apparently fine but she has trouble going through doorways and overall she seems more restless unless she’s dead asleep. With my vet’s help we treat what we can but the reality is I’m saying goodbye.

Watching a dog age is an emotional journey. Along with the pain of losing a companion, it’s a harbinger of our own decline. I feel this more acutely as I get older. Ceanna’s knees creak, my knees creak. She can’t remember how to leave a room, I can’t remember where my coffee cup is. Watching her lose her independence stirs a primal anxiety in me and I know what I’ll be thinking about in the nighttime. Saying goodbye is about loss, it’s a reminder of all the losses we’ve felt in the past and the fear of those to come.

Goodbyes are part of the human condition. Ceanna is luckier than I in this regard. She is fully present in the moment and doesn’t contemplate the existential meaning of life. She doesn’t feel regret or embarrassment about the past, although maybe she should given the mayhem she’s perpetrated. But she doesn’t, nor does she worry about the future. She’s in the moment. Her feelings, good and bad, come and quickly go. She’s not worried about whether she’ll make it to Thanksgiving. My responsibility is to make her moments as good as they can be. Salmon treats and massages will fill her days. There’ll come a time when the bad moments she experiences far outweigh the good, and then it’ll be time for the final goodbye.

Ceanna Rose when she could still hop on to the couch.

Ceanna Rose when she could still hop on to the couch.

Savor the Moment: Banish the Night Visitors

Ah, my sweet bed. A comfy, cozy haven. I love being  tucked safely under the covers in peaceful bliss. All is well. And then . . .the night visitors arrive. Those pesky thought intruders that come unbidden at random times but are most reliable in the early morning hours. As I slowly start to wake up they appear at the threshold of my consciousness and enter without waiting for an invitation. They’re often a decidedly dark cast of characters and I really wish they’d take up residence at a Motel 6 instead of in my head. On occasion, there are a few lighter visitors, the thought equivalent of Girl Scouts selling cookies. I welcome those, who doesn’t like a little Thin Mint thought? But it’s the others that fill me with dread.


Usually the thoughts announce themselves with a question. “Is today the day?” When I was much younger the questions would have been full of youthful drama. Is today the day I fall in love? Get into graduate school? Sail off on a schooner? But now the thoughts are harbingers of existential dread. Is today the day it happens? “It” is not a good thing. Is today the day my body fails me? My brain betrays me for good? Or the most terrifying of all, is today the day I become incapacitated and dependent on others for everything? These are not totally irrational thoughts. We all have a “use by” date and I’m approaching mine but where’s a little denial when you need it?

Since this is not the crowd I’d invite for house guests I work on escorting them out but they don’t go easily. Hints are ineffective. Getting annoyed only causes them to hide for a moment before they reappear like a drone on the horizon. The more I try to actively push them out, the more they push back. So I give in. Sometimes I just observe them like leaves floating on a river. Sometimes I try to actively invite other thoughts into my mind. I seek out positive possibilities where I can find them. Maybe today’s the day it’s going to be a nice morning and I could enjoy a moment outside with a cup of coffee. Maybe today’s the day I get to have lunch with a friend. Or perhaps today I get to run my dog in agility. Unlike the dark visitors that push for center stage these thoughts need to be drawn out. Actively engaged with. Since denial has never been in my repertoire I have to consciously alter my focus to something hopeful and life affirming because staying in bed and contemplating the menu of mayhem that could befall me is a waste of the moment and doesn’t end well. I’ll bet the Wicked Witch was having a pretty good day until that house fell on her. If she’d squandered her time worrying about Dorothy she would have missed out on some witchy pleasures in the meantime.

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.”                                                                                ~Leo Buscaglia

Having intrusive thoughts of existential worry does not mean you’re crazy or abnormal. For most of us, it’s just a part of the human condition. Don’t berate yourself for your thoughts but try not to keep looking for the house that could fall on you. Turn to the simple pleasures of the moment. Sip and savor.


Here are some good reads on mindfulness to consider:


Bedroom Antics

I remember when “going to bed” was an entirely different experience. I used to be able to sleep most anywhere, if sleep was what I wanted to do. As long as there was a relatively horizontal surface I was good. A fluffy pillow was a bonus. You could have parked a Mack truck under the mattress and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. But sleep was just one thing one did in bed and not necessarily the best thing. Just take your clothes off, jump in, and go for it. A candle was high romance. Continue reading…