40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a lit­tle before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled mus­cle act­ing up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gob­ble a bunch of Advil and hob­ble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly won­der if I should mosey over to the Emer­gency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a cou­ple more Advil, pack up my com­puter, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eat­ing my crois­sant and sip­ping cof­fee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my lap­top screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely fig­ured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giv­ing me grief. It was a kid­ney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a cal­ci­fied some­thing try­ing to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from get­ting one.

It’s really good you came in,” said the med­ical tech­ni­cian, who started the IV drip to admin­is­ter pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought any­thing to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Hol­i­day greet­ings from the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room! Work­ing hypoth­e­sis: kid­ney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences bet­ter by craft­ing the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or some­thing like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talk­ing about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was fin­ish­ing up a col­umn for Sec­on­dAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Hap­pi­ness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times best­seller The Hap­pi­ness Project. I’ve some­times jok­ingly call Plan B Nation  “a Hap­pi­ness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s pic­ture per­fect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wan­dered to two of Rubin’s pre­vi­ous books—Forty Ways to Look at Win­ston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re inter­ested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in def­er­ence to whim­si­cal­ity, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my mis­ad­ven­ture. “I was so con­vinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it hap­pened, Lisa had her own such story. Walk­ing down a dark Brook­lyn street a num­ber of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking char­ac­ters ambling towards her. If you see some­thing sus­pi­cious, always look at your watch. A friend had described hav­ing done just that after see­ing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Tow­ers. Now Lisa did it her­self. In an instant, she saw her­self on the wit­ness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

Oh! I’m not a wit­ness! I’m the vic­tim!” was her first aston­ished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” cre­ate sto­ries, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accord­ingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But help­ful as our minds may try to be, they some­times lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appre­ci­ate a Kid­ney Stone

1. It wasn’t some­thing worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind peo­ple in the Coo­ley Dick emer­gency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the dis­ap­point­ment of can­celling hol­i­day plans (had been feel­ing a lit­tle glum about not hav­ing any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t hap­pen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screw­ing up any­one else’s hol­i­day plans

7. It gave me an oppor­tu­nity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appre­ci­ate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the qual­ity of open­ness that I’ve been mulling; the abil­ity to see out­side expec­ta­tions. In brief, my ini­tial ten­dency was to attribute this to a flar­ing of a sports injury. In fact, it was some­thing different.

10. I told a nurse about Gree­nie pill pock­ets for her aging cat

11. I appre­ci­ated liv­ing in a place with easy access to med­ical care

12. I now know what these symp­toms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drink­ing more water.

14. Another way to con­nect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least some­times, I’m get­ting bet­ter than I used to be about life not going accord­ing to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appre­ci­ate FB—didn’t have to call any one per­son but had com­mu­nity sup­port, felt not alone + knew I had some­one to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appre­ci­ate insurance

22. Made me appre­ci­ate Mass, where health insur­ance is affordable

23. Made me appre­ci­ate my apartment—quiet, rest­ful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appre­ci­ate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to con­nect with others—and maybe help some­one else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research sug­gests that help­ing oth­ers makes us hap­pier than doing things for ourselves.)

Everything’s a (funny) story

Stand­off with bad dog and cheese

Well, not every­thing. But this is: Back in Cam­bridge for a quick overnight visit, I’m head­ing down Mass Ave towards Har­vard Square. As it hap­pens, my trip coin­cided with Har­vard grad­u­a­tion, and throngs of well-dressed cel­e­brants are head­ing off to par­ties and din­ners. But I have a dif­fer­ent agenda: I’m on my way to a toney lit­tle gro­cery in hopes that some Boar’s Head turkey and Swiss will entice my friend Betsy’s bad dog to let me back in the house.

Wubby growls when I return. I toss her a slice of (fancy, expen­sive) cheese. She growls again. I back off. She gob­bles up the cheese. We repeat this futile exer­cise another two times. Well futile for me, not for her. I beat a hasty retreat to my car to con­tem­plate next steps.

Betsy’s at a meet­ing at a Boston law firm and won’t be home for another few hours. Her hus­band is out of town. I need to get back home to west­ern Mass, but first I need to col­lect my stuff from the third-floor guest room.

I call our friend Jan, whose Eddie is the dog behind Cam­bridge Canine.

Betsy’s dog won’t let me in the house,” I say. I explain the situation.

I’d be scared too,” she says. “I wouldn’t try again.”

Not the answer I was hop­ing to hear. I try to look on the bright side. “Maybe I can get a blog post out of it,” I say reflec­tively. “Though I can’t really get any writ­ing done. My com­puter is in the house.”

That’s good for the blog post,” observes prag­matic Jan. She’s a blog­ger too.

So here’s the thing, the point behind this story: Even as I schlepped down Mass Ave, even as I bran­dished cold cuts to an inex­plic­a­bly hos­tile dog—usually Wubby loves me!—I found myself fram­ing the events as an amus­ing story. First as a Face­book sta­tus update, then as a lit­tle essay. And, as I see it, this is a very good thing.

In the pre-social media world, this would not have been my default mode. I would have been seething and stress­ing, not tak­ing men­tal notes with an eye to writ­ing a blog post. I would have been focused on the fact that I needed to get home and this shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing. There would have been no upside. There would have been lots of down.

In the wake of Facebook’s IPO, the debate over life online—pro and con—shows no sign of abat­ing. The cover story in this month’s AtlanticIs Face­book Mak­ing Us Lonely?—has 18,000 Face­book rec­om­mends as of this writ­ing. I, how­ever, just don’t buy it. Take my trip to Cam­bridge: I was able to meet my California-based friend Mar­cia for cof­fee only because I knew—through Facebook!—that our vis­its would coincide.That Jan and I enjoyed a fan­tas­tic south­ern feast at Tupelo can be traced to the fact that my friend Jen’s hus­band is the chef there. I first met Jen (I know, it’s con­fus­ing Jan and Jen: two dif­fer­ent peo­ple) on Twit­ter and often con­nect with her now via Face­book. And come to think of it, I actu­ally first “met” Jan online as well—the strength of our real-life friend­ship is such that I can eas­ily for­get that.

As I once wrote on Huff­in­g­ton Post, there is no mono­lithic Face­book. Face­book is what we make it. One of the major cri­tiques often levied at the social media giant is that it encour­ages a focus on self-presentation at the expense of authen­tic­ity. But I see it very dif­fer­ently. Is the funny story about me attempt­ing to pla­cate Wubby less real, less true to my expe­ri­ence than a nar­ra­tive that would have had me frus­trated, anx­ious, and on-edge? Absolutely not—because as I cre­ated the funny story, it became my expe­ri­ence. And, I would add, I am far the hap­pier for that.

As for my story’s coda, I did finally get into the house. Betsy raced home to cor­ral Wubby. I grabbed my stuff and got on the road. The whole episode delayed my trav­els for maybe 90 min­utes. And now I have writ­ten this. And you are read­ing it.

Why birthdays matter (& why they don’t)

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last win­ter, I was asked to talk about Plan B Nation on New Eng­land NPR. I’d just launched the blog the month before. I was pretty thrilled.

As I pre­pared for the inter­view, I spent a lot of time think­ing about what to say and how to say it. What aspects of my Plan B Nation jour­ney should I focus on? What would lis­ten­ers find inter­est­ing? What would they find helpful?

One thing I wasn’t too wor­ried about was being caught off guard. I’d already writ­ten about unem­ploy­ment for the mega web­site Salon. The facts of my story were already out there. Or so I thought.

How old are you?” The ques­tion came at the end of the inter­view, almost an afterthought.

I didn’t answer right away. I real­ized that I didn’t want to say.

Is my age really impor­tant?” I finally asked (or some­thing equally lame).

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I balked at this ques­tion. I just knew that I felt strangely com­mit­ted to hold­ing back The Num­ber. And if I was unclear myself, my inter­viewer was baf­fled. “You talk pub­licly about unem­ploy­ment and AA, but you don’t want to give your age?”

I had to admit she had a point, but that didn’t seem to sway me.

It took some time for me to piece together what was going on here. The fact is, age has con­se­quences. These are less appar­ent when our lives are set­tled, with the big ques­tions of love and work at least tem­porar­ily resolved. But if you’ve been on a dat­ing web­site, or applied for a job lately, you’ll know what I’m talk­ing about. After a cer­tain point, num­bers rule us out far more often than they rule us in.

But even more significant—at least for me—is the issue of how age defines us as nor­mal, or, well not. Our cul­tural assump­tions around age are deep and per­va­sive. The “stage the­ory” pio­neered by Erik H. Erik­son and pop­u­lar­ized by Gail Sheehy in her block­buster 1974 best­seller Pas­sages is premised on the notion that our lives move through pre­dictable stages that cor­re­late with our ages. “The Try­ing Twen­ties,” “The Dead­line Decade” (that’s your thir­ties, y’all!), “The Flour­ish­ing For­ties,” “The Flam­ing Fifties”—Sheehy neatly labeled what are increas­ingly, for many of us, messy realities.

The more I think about it, per­haps the biggest rea­son I resist being defined by age is that the train of asso­ci­a­tions feels so pow­er­fully mis­lead­ing. For those of us whose lives have fol­lowed uncon­ven­tional patterns—for me that means not get­ting mar­ried, not hav­ing kids, and pur­su­ing a career path more mean­der­ing than directed—age can tend to put the focus on what we haven’t done rather than what we have (which for me includes, among other things, design­ing and co-founding the Mis­sis­sippi Teacher Corps, writ­ing and pub­lish­ing two nov­els, prac­tic­ing law, liv­ing in places rang­ing from the Mis­sis­sippi Delta to Man­hat­tan, and now think­ing long and deeply about the issues I’m explor­ing in this blog.)

And yet, despite every­thing I’ve just said, I do pay atten­tion to birthdays—though for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons than I did when I was younger.

For me, birth­days have become a point of reck­on­ing, a marker in the steady pro­gres­sion of days that helps me take stock. As I’ve writ­ten before, I’m some­one who tends to have a hard time appre­ci­at­ing how far I’ve trav­eled and what I’ve done. I tend to focus on “what next?” rather than “what then?” Birth­days help counter that. Like the New Year or any other reg­u­lar marker—and the more, the bet­ter, I say—they offer an oppor­tu­nity both to appre­ci­ate progress and to look ahead. (For me, this always involves a ram­bling foray through my trusty desk diaries.)

This past year: So much! Start­ing this blog, for one big thing. Writ­ing for Salon, the Chicago Tri­bune, Sec­on­dAct (where I have a new bi-monthly col­umn), and now, Psy­chol­ogy Today. Option­ing my sec­ond novel for film. Design­ing and lead­ing a writ­ing work­shop for fos­ter kids. Pick­ing blue­ber­ries. Mak­ing pesto. Hik­ing the Seven Sis­ters. Train­ing for a 5K. Mak­ing some really good friends and strength­en­ing ties with old ones.

Oh, and for the record, I’m about to turn 52. I really don’t mind giv­ing my age: I just don’t want to lead with it.

Poultry vs. Prada

As per­haps you’ve heard—because, really, I won’t shut up about it—I have a new purse.  It’s made of rub­ber and looks pretty much exactly like a chicken. It cost $34.99 on Amazon.com.

The last time I was this excited about a purse was more than a decade ago. I was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan, and the purse was Prada. It cost some­thing in the range of $500, and I did not buy it on Amazon.com.

This real­iza­tion got me think­ing once again about the ways my life has evolved since mov­ing back to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts a year and a half ago. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve been reflect­ing on the key role of “ref­er­ence groups” in shap­ing con­sump­tion patterns.

I first came across this term in soci­ol­o­gist Juliet B. Schor’s The Over­spent Amer­i­can: Why We Want What We Don’t Need while research­ing an essay for Sec­on­dAct on The Secret to Liv­ing Well on Less. As Schor explains it, we tend to com­pare our own lifestyles and pos­ses­sions “to those of a select group of peo­ple we respect and want to be like, peo­ple whose sense of what’s impor­tant in life seems close to our own.” This is our ref­er­ence group, and it’s mal­leable. It shifts over time and depend­ing on life circumstances.

Not sur­pris­ingly, my Man­hat­tan ref­er­ence group was way dif­fer­ent from my ref­er­ence group in a col­lege town smack in the heart of what’s often dryly referred to as The Happy Val­ley.  And if that’s not a clear enough expla­na­tion, con­sider this socio-cultural map of Mass­a­chu­setts. (N.B. We are the bright pink sector.)

Image credit: The AwesomeBoston.com

As I wrote in my living-well-on-less essay, the fact that I’m spend­ing far less money these days isn’t because I’m now a “bet­ter” or less mate­ri­al­is­tic per­son. What’s changed isn’t the core of who I am. What’s changed is who I hang out with.

But while I may not be a bet­ter per­son, I do have a bet­ter life. And by “bet­ter” I mean more in sync with things that really matter—the things that really make me happy.  By way of illus­tra­tion, I offer the fol­low­ing comparison:

What I Got out of My Prada Handbag

I do not love shop­ping, and for this rea­son, it was great to have a sin­gle item that, by dint of sim­ply car­ry­ing it, would take me pretty much any­where. In 1990s New York, the uni­form of black Prada purse, black dress, black boots saved me count­less hours of bore­dom in our finer retail estab­lish­ments and, despite the hefty price tag The Purse car­ried, it likely ended up sav­ing me money given the alternatives.

Plus, it was, in some strange way, like being part of a club—or at least putting in an appli­ca­tion.  As I recall—and it’s get­ting a bit hazy now—such acces­sories were pop­u­lar at the time in the NYC pub­lish­ing world, and while I was still prac­tic­ing law, I wanted to be writer. I can’t say that the purse helped me write, but it sym­bol­ized the inten­tion, and in this way, it may have helped just a bit in keep­ing the dream alive.

What I Get out of My (Non-Prada) Henbag

I make peo­ple smile. And laugh! They stop me on the street and say: I LOVE YOUR PURSE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT? Then we chat for a bit. They tell me why they love the purse—about their friend who has chick­ens or their own chick­ens or how much bet­ter fresh eggs are than the ones you buy at the super­mar­ket (true), and then we smile and move on, but it’s sort of like I have a new friend somewhere.

When I meet some­one who loves the chicken purse, I also know I’ve met some­one with whom I’ll likely share other com­mon ground. Car­ry­ing the chicken purse is like walk­ing a puppy. Like it or not (and I do), I’m going to end up more con­nected than I was when I left my house that morning.

As go my purses, so goes my life.

The other day I bumped into a friend on Main Street, and after show­ing off the new hen­bag, I launched into a dis­qui­si­tion on my Poul­try vs. Prada mus­ings. I could tell he couldn’t fathom the notion of spend­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars on a pock­et­book. But rather than say­ing so, he sim­ply observed, “I think you’re head­ing in the right direction.”

The neigh­bors

 

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniver­sary of my exit from the salaried work­force and my entry into what I’ve taken to call­ing Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Har­vard Law School, where I’d han­dled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writ­ing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplo­mat­i­cally, not an easy time. The econ­omy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I men­tion the Great Reces­sion?) Floun­der­ing in spring 2009 put me in excel­lent com­pany. Yes, I was freaked out and unem­ployed, but I cer­tainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the road I’ve trav­eled since those anxiety-ridden days and feel­ing a lot of com­pas­sion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been think­ing about what I’ve learned and what might be worth shar­ing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Tran­si­tions take a long time.  

I’ve writ­ten about this before, and it’s a really impor­tant point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life acci­dent.”  Five to seven years is com­mon.  A related point: Tran­si­tions tend to meander—to be less like lad­ders and more like the clas­sic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the cen­ter, almost arrive, and then sud­denly find your­self on the outer rim, and then, just as unpre­dictably, back at the cen­ter again. I often find it help­ful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Some­times the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leav­ing the Boston area for more than a year on the the­ory that wher­ever you go, there you are. Could mov­ing to another place really make me hap­pier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequiv­o­cal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that mov­ing to an area that I love is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant step I’ve taken to move my life for­ward.  In par­tic­u­lar, mov­ing to a place where I have a strong net­work of friends has made every­thing far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start mov­ing anyway.

Tran­si­tions, by their nature, gen­er­ally involve a tem­po­rary loss of clear inner direc­tion.  That was cer­tainly the case for me: I was search­ing with­out really know­ing what I was look­ing for (which, not sur­pris­ingly, made it really hard to find).

Look­ing back, one of the most use­ful things I did dur­ing this time was to take action even if noth­ing felt quite right—to exper­i­ment, try things out. That’s how I came (lack­adaisi­cally, glumly) to write my very first per­sonal essay—which led to a blog on Huff­in­g­ton Post, which led to writ­ing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writ­ing for Sec­on­dAct (includ­ing Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly col­umn), Psy­chol­ogy Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remark­ably enough, actu­ally does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across sim­i­lar advice in books by career guru Bar­bara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good fortune—you won’t stum­ble on oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do some­thing you stir the pot and intro­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that seem­ingly ran­dom ideas, peo­ple, and places will col­lide and form new com­bi­na­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mind­ful­ness by now, but this qual­ity doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff is a pio­neer­ing researcher on this topic, and her book Self Com­pas­sion: Stop Beat­ing Your­self Up and Leave Inse­cu­rity Behind is geared to a pop­u­lar audi­ence and pro­vides an excel­lent roadmap for fur­ther exploration.

5.  Let your­self be surprised.

The biggest dif­fer­ence between lucky and unlucky peo­ple may be that lucky peo­ple are open to see­ing the unex­pected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expand­ing your periph­eral vision can do a lot to expand your oppor­tu­ni­ties.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to con­sciously expect the unex­pected. (Most recent exam­ple: I’m about to go off to look at a poten­tial new home that I dis­cov­ered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far bet­ter than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both mean­ing­ful and cre­ative. I have a great com­mu­nity in a place where I love liv­ing. The road I’ve trav­eled to get here was pretty remark­ably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did some­thing wrong. It sim­ply tells me that I’m human.

You can’t find the answer if you don’t know the question

3D Character and Question Mark

Live the ques­tions now,” the poet Rainier Maria Rilke famously exhorted in Let­ters to a Young Poet, a mes­sage that has since found its way onto count­less inspi­ra­tional greet­ing cards and posters. “Per­haps then, some­day far in the future, you will grad­u­ally, with­out even notic­ing it, live your way into the answer.”

Great advice so far as it goes but also incom­plete: For the Question-Driven Life to work, we have to choose our ques­tions wisely.

What is wrong with me?

Why is this tak­ing so long?

What is his problem?

I’m pretty sure these are not the sort of ques­tions Rilke had in mind, and yet all too often they’re the ones I find myself living.

In Real­ity Ther­apy, a book I skimmed some months back while unpack­ing boxes from stor­age, psy­chi­a­trist William Glasser stresses the impor­tance of stay­ing focused on our basic needs in the here and now. (In Glasser’s view, we have two core psy­cho­log­i­cal needs: the need to love and be loved and the need to feel that we are worth­while to our­selves and oth­ers.)  In this spirit, I’ve found that ask­ing the ques­tion “What do I need right now?” can be a big help in cut­ting through cir­cu­lar brood­ing tape loops.

The Flu­ent Self’s Havi Brooks offers another take on this ques­tion that I really like, one that incor­po­rates her own quirky lex­i­con: “What can I do right now so I can feel safe, sup­ported, and sov­er­eign?”  (As a side note, when I first played with this ques­tion a cou­ple months back, one of my scrib­bled responses was to try join­ing Click Work­space in hopes of mak­ing my writ­ing day feel a bit less iso­lated. Guess where I’m writ­ing this post right now? And quite hap­pily, I might add.)

A few more ques­tions that have served me well recent months:

What is use­ful in this?

Is this necessary?

What do I need to take time to appreciate?

Such ques­tions have the advan­tage of being both dis­tract­ing and empow­er­ing. It’s far eas­ier to stop dwelling on a topic when I swap it out for another. (Baby, meet paci­fier. Dog, meet chew toy.) Plus ques­tions tend to put me in a prob­lem solv­ing mode. They’re a way to take con­trol of a prob­lem that seemed to have con­trol of me.

The­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Werner Heisen­berg deter­mined that the mere act of obser­va­tion affects the behav­ior of quan­tum par­ti­cles. While the sci­ence of this is far beyond me, I see an anal­ogy here: The inter­pre­tive frames through which we view our thoughts trans­form the thoughts them­selves. View­ing a prob­lem through the right ques­tion may in time turn it into an answer.

What does “live the ques­tions” mean to you? Please share your thoughts below.

Another reason regrets are dumb

Chicken-regrets illustration

You’ve doubt­less heard the maxim that “You don’t regret the things you do. You regret the things you don’t do.” I’ve never under­stood why so few are both­ered by the major log­i­cal flaw here: You can’t do two things at once. Choose X? You can’t choose Y. Regard­less of which path you choose, there’s some­thing else you won’t be doing.

I think about this a lot when I’m ques­tion­ing past choices or start­ing to second-guess deci­sions made months or years ago. More and more, I’m con­vinced that regrets aren’t signs of bad decision-making but rather reflec­tions of tem­pera­ment and cog­ni­tive style. Regrets don’t reflect objec­tive truth. They’re sim­ply interpretations.

A cou­ple years back, I dipped a toe into the crit­i­cal mael­strom sur­round­ing the book Marry Him, writer Lori Gottlieb’s exhor­ta­tion to younger women to marry that nice if slightly dull boyfriend instead of hold­ing out for true love and risk end­ing up (like Gottlieb—and me) sin­gle at midlife.

Along the spec­trum of Marry Him commentaries—which ranged from the vir­u­lently pro to the vir­u­lently anti—the review I wrote for the Chicago Tri­bune fell some­where in the mid­dle. While I cer­tainly got where Got­tlieb was com­ing from, I couldn’t buy her solution—and not because of its dubi­ous pol­i­tics but because I couldn’t see it work­ing. (Indeed, with some dark humor, I couldn’t stop pic­tur­ing a sea of future middle-aged women, curs­ing that stu­pid book that con­vinced them to marry the guy they’re divorcing.)

The fact is, life is risky. There are no guar­an­tees, no fail-proof roadmaps to a fairy tale end­ing. The answer isn’t to blame our­selves or to look for ways to game the human con­di­tion but rather to do the best we can and accept our essen­tial limitations.

I recently inter­viewed psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff, a lead­ing expert on self-compassion and author of a book by that name, and was struck by what she had to say on this topic: “We love to have an illu­sion of con­trol because it makes us feel safe. In an ironic way, I think what hap­pens when we crit­i­cize our­selves is that we’re say­ing ‘Oh, I should have had con­trol.  If it was some­thing I did, then I did have con­trol, I just made the wrong move.’ When in fact, the real­ity is that I didn’t have a lot of con­trol. I did my best, but I couldn’t make things turn out the way I wanted them to. In a weird way, some­times it’s less scary to peo­ple to blame them­selves than it is to admit that we human beings often don’t have a lot of say over our lives. It’s hard being human!”

My thoughts exactly.

The notion that our biggest regrets tend to stem from things we failed to do bears a strik­ing resem­blance to the maxim that “the grass is always greener on the other side”—the salient dif­fer­ence being that the two are invoked to make oppo­site points. Here again, I’m reminded of the 28 con­flict­ing legal rules famously set forth in a 1950 law review piece. When judges go about inter­pret­ing laws, there are “cor­rect, unchal­lenge­able rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in hap­pily vari­ant direc­tions,” the author dryly concluded.

For her part, along with urg­ing read­ers to make haste and marry, Got­tlieb set out to do the same her­self, albeit belat­edly.  Her pri­mary strat­egy: Be less picky. She expounds on aca­d­e­mic research that places peo­ple in two rel­e­vant groups: “max­i­miz­ers,” who demand the very best, and “sat­is­fi­cers,” who do fine with good enough. As Got­tlieb sees it, the solu­tion is clear. She just needs to switch teams.

It wasn’t until after my review was pub­lished that this thought occurred to me: Got­tlieb has a beau­ti­ful child, a suc­cess­ful writ­ing career. Wouldn’t a true sat­is­fi­cer start by focus­ing there?

Life Experiment #5: Do Less

mornig green tea

I’d pretty much made up my mind to call off my 2012 Life Exper­i­ments exper­i­ment start­ing this month. I’d already aborted Life Exper­i­ment #3 (tak­ing a photo a day dur­ing March) after less than a week, and more and more, I’d been feel­ing that I needed to prune my to-do list, rather than adding to it.

And then, it hit me: That could be the focus of this month’s Life Exper­i­ment. And so it will be. For me, this month is going to be all about doing less.

But first, I want to take a moment to appre­ci­ate how hugely much I accom­plished dur­ing the month that just ended. All too often, I tend to ask myself: What have you done for me lately? I also have a default answer: Not nearly enough.

In fact, that’s rarely if ever true, and it cer­tainly wasn’t true in April. And because things tend to feel more real if I write them down, that’s what I’m going to do. So here it is, my per­sonal selec­tive account of What Got Done in April:

  • Researched and wrote a 3,000-word fea­ture story for Psy­chol­ogy Today (now slated for the magazine’s Octo­ber issue)
  • Wrote and deliv­ered a 30-minute talk—“Inside the Down­turn: Thoughts on the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Costs of Longterm Unemployment”—to our Regional Employ­ment Board.
  • Signed on to write a monthly column—“Notes from Plan B Nation”—for Entre­pre­neur Media’s SecondAct.com (first instal­la­tion forth­com­ing this month)
  • Com­pleted 2011 taxes (thanks Tur­b­o­tax!), sorted out health insur­ance issues, and wran­gled a sick cat (thanks Wendy and Susan!)
  • Applied for jobs and con­ferred with edi­tors about future free­lance projects, includ­ing an upcom­ing book review assign­ment for the Chicago Tri­bune.
  • Guest posted on The 52 Weeks
  • Fin­ished up co-facilitating See­ing Their Voices, a work­shop for fos­ter kids that will cul­mi­nate in a photo and writ­ing exhibit at the state­house this June.

I also did purely fun stuff: A South Face Farm Sug­ar­house out­ing with the Bask­inettes. Lots of cof­fee dates. Movies. Two lovely seders and an Easter hike with friends.

Does that seem like a lot to you? It seems like a lot to me—especially since I’m not nat­u­rally inclined to multi-tasking. When left to my own devices, I’ll always go deep rather than wide. But there are times—this past month, for example—when that’s sim­ply not possible.

And here, I have to give a shout-out to bread­crumbs and bas­ket weav­ing, aka Life Exper­i­ment #4, which helped me more than I could ever have imag­ined it would. Metaphors have tremen­dous, if often unrec­og­nized, power. I could say a lot more on this sub­ject, and at some point I will. But for now, I’m going to stop. Or rather: I’m going to start doing less.