Category Archives: Observations

The Lint Trap

Am I the only person who has managed to do laundry for decades without learning that occasional white spots or streaks on dark clothes are caused by too much undissolved detergent? Please don’t embarrass me by replying, “Well, duh, everyone knows that!”

Anyway, I know this now. And while I was emptying the lint trap today — today being laundry day around here — it occurred to me that we often accumulate little unwanted specks of debris in our psyches, too.

Mental “lint” accumulates when we’re exposed to too many little bits of negativity. It could come from the news. The jerk driver who cut you off. A chance remark by a nasty neighbor or co-worker. It could even be a self-deprecating thought that makes us doubt our own worth.

And, just like doing our laundry, we need to regularly empty our mind’s lint trap and start afresh. At least once a week.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Money Isn’t the Root of All Evil

Jealousy is.

Money can fund philanthropy, the arts, technical innovation, beauty, medical breakthroughs, and many public services we take for granted.

Jealousy has a lot less to recommend it (though it might provoke healthy competition).

In our tiny neighborhood, jealousy has recently run amok. Sometimes expressed in the loathsome designations “up the hill” or “down the hill”, we’ve got an awful lot of neighbors (in both senses) obsessively focused on who has a better view, a nicer house, a prettier yard, or an apparently easier life.

Oh, this is seldom verbalized in any direct way. The jealousy is cloaked in righteous indignation: “Those damn so-and-so’s are breaking the rules again!” by allowing their dog to escape the yard and do its business “wherever it chooses”. The finger-pointers didn’t bothered to learn that said dog was dying of cancer and unable to control its bodily functions. (Dog died=problem solved=do move on, please.)

Then, there are false and oft-repeated claims that the committee responsible for managing the landscaper’s schedule spends the budget keeping the areas near the ocean looking good “for the benefit of the people who live down the hill”. Yet, these same folks are the first to grumble if their view becomes overgrown.

And finally, complaints about matters long since resolved, such as whether someone’s outdoor lighting is too bright. (Consider: #1 There are no street lamps in the community, #2 Ever thought about getting window shades?, #3 Maybe if you asked nicely?)

Sheesh. Have a nice glass of vitriol and (don’t) call me in the morning. I’ll be working on my next rant.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A Productive Day

The older I get — and the longer COVID drags on — the more content I feel with small accomplishments. Here’s my list; what’s yours?

  • Cook something
  • Clean something
  • Plan something
  • Go somewhere
  • Write something
  • Read something
  • Fix something
  • Toss something
  • Learn something
  • Solve something
  • Contact someone — phone, text or email; bonus points for an in-person visit!
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A Week Away

Back in June, when it was becoming impossibly hot and boring living in our rental apartment (with molasses-slow progress on our home renovation), Dear Husband and I decided to brave the outside world and travel out of the country.

Armed with passports, vaccination cards, entry documents, and recent COVID tests, DH and I embarked on a short Viking river cruise to Lyon and Provence. The tipping point was their excellent health and safety program, in which every crew member and passenger takes a short, non-invasive COVID test daily. At least we’d be protected within our bubble.

A few highlights, as this is by no means a comprehensive travelogue:

  • Watching the world flow by from our little balcony
  • Cocktail hour with witty and cultured new friends K and S
  • Breathtaking mountain views of the countryside
  • Strolling through Arles
  • Morning croissants and coffee
  • A day on our own in Avignon visiting two museums (classic and contemporary) and finding a terrific place for lunch
  • The uniformly excellent food, wine, service and crew on board

And a couple of lowlights:

  • The airports in Marseilles and Frankfurt (our connection), which were overcrowded and understaffed, with insuffient time to check all passengers’ COVID documents
  • Not enough time in Lyon; we will have to return!
Tournon-sur-Rhône
Les Baux-de-Provence (from the bus)
Tournon
Just drifting along
Saint-Barthelemy-le-Plain
Soon to be sunflower oil
Arles
Arles Arena
One family’s multi-generational olive oil mill in Fontvielle

Damocles

How long is it before procrastination takes on the mythical proportions of an Impossible Hurdle? My plan to write about our recent excursion to France has turned into a post about NOT writing it (“for now”, says the procrastinator-at-large).

So what is the origin of the story (also the phrase, “hanging by a thread” to denote looming disaster or apprehension)? The History website enlightens, as follows:

History Stories

What was the sword of Damocles?

What was the sword of Damocles?

EVAN ANDREWS

The famed “sword of Damocles” dates back to an ancient moral parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.” Cicero’s version of the tale centers on Dionysius II, a tyrannical king who once ruled over the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Though rich and powerful, Dionysius was supremely unhappy. His iron-fisted rule had made him many enemies, and he was tormented by fears of assassination—so much so that he slept in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and only trusted his daughters to shave his beard with a razor.

As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions.” The parable later became a common motif in medieval literature, and the phrase “sword of Damocles” is now commonly used as a catchall term to describe a looming danger. Likewise, the saying “hanging by a thread” has become shorthand for a fraught or precarious situation. One of its more famous uses came in 1961 during the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before the United Nations in which he said that “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

How Do You Remember?

After many years together, I’ve recently discovered that my dear husband (DH) and I have very different ways of recalling events that have happened to us. This isn’t about what we remember (or block out, as the case may be!) but how we recreate those situations in our minds.

DH, who is an artist, remembers as if he were watching a movie. It is completely visual.

I, on the other hand, remember as if I were reading a novel; that is, while I might visualize certain aspects of the story, the narrative is generally descriptive and verbal.

I found this quite fascinating, and it makes me wonder how you, my dear readers and bloggers, remember things. SInce most of you are writers, do you also imagine a story being told to you? Or do you conjure up vivid pictures?

Dreams are quite different, I think, as they seem to always be visual, whether we are involved as characters or as onlookers. Is this true for you? Do share!

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

The Nature of Friendship

With some of my favorite people about to move out of the neighborhood, I’ve been realizing that friendship is largely situational.

In childhood, we make friends through chance commonalities. We may live on the same street. Go to the same school — where we often become friends with the person who sits next to us because their name starts with the same letter — or play the same sport. Or fidget through the same religious services.

As adults, we might meet because our children know each other. Become friends with our co-workers. Live near each other. Volunteer for the same causes; attend the same church, mosque or synagogue; chat on a trip; or detest a common enemy.

Many connections fade without the proximity that is friendship’s oxygen. And that’s ok: they enriched our lives while we shared common experiences.

But if we’re lucky, a special few survive geographical separation because our deeper interests and affection forge a long-term bond.

So, in honor of all our besties, some wise quotes:


“An old friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a dead body.”
Jim Hayes

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.” Mark Twain


“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
Sylvia Plath

“Friends give you a shoulder to cry on. But best friends are ready with a shovel to hurt the person who made you cry.”
Unknown


“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’”
A. A. Milne

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Marriage: Live, Learn, and Prosper

For my stepdaughter’s upcoming bachelorette weekend, attendees have been asked to offer a piece of marriage advice. Below are some observations to ponder, serious and otherwise.

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com
  • “A wedding may require a team of professionals; a marriage only requires two amateurs.”
  • “It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” ~Rita Rudner
  • “In olden times, sacrifices were made at the altar. They still are.”
  • “Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.”
  • “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”
    ~Benjamin Franklin”
  • “Marriage is the bond between a person who never remembers anniversaries and another who never forgets them.”
    ~Ogden Nash
  • “The best way to get most husbands to do something is to suggest that perhaps they’re too old to do it.” ~Anne Bancroft
  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”

On a less-snarky note, the following is a good checklist for how to get along in any long-term partnership. Condensed here, so click for the full article.

Remember Your Commitment
Life is busy and unpredictable. You both signed up to ride together during whatever comes your way. A foundation of love and caring helps you get through the tough times.

Assume the Best of One Another
Unless you’re married to a total rotter, your partner probably means the best. Even if they piss you off — and they will — their intentions were likely pure. So, as a general rule, assume you both have each other’s best interests in mind. (Unless proven otherwise.)

Don’t Ever Stop Trying
Make the commitment to keep being generous, showing appreciation, and saying thank you more than you probably are. Being taken for granted is never sexy.

Stop Stonewalling
This is the act of shutting down during an argument. The person stonewalling stops responding and maintains a calm exterior, which tells their partner that they don’t care at all about what they’re saying. What to do instead? Ask for a break. Then return to the discussion — sooner rather than later — when you’re ready.

Communicate Respectfully
Argue and attack the issues at hand without getting defensive, digging up the past and throwing it in the other’s face, dismissing a partner’s experience, or any other caustic habit.

Always Be Flexible
Life’s full of surprises, not always pleasant ones. A couple’s ability to ‘go with the flow’ – especially when it’s dramatically different from what they expected – gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and get to know each other in ways they might never have known before.

Curiosity Saves Couples
Your partner will likely change over time, so being open to the ways in which he or she changes can allow you to identify the ways you’ve changed as well. Shared curiosity — learning a new skill, hobby, traveling, etc. — creates new opportunities to bond.

Be Willing to Grow and Learn
Everyone screws up, says dumb things, gets stuff wrong. It’s all about how people react that defines a relationship. Being willing to admit mistakes, and apologize sincerely, is an important key in creating a deeper bond with your partner.

Stop Invalidating
This type of belittling can be incredibly destructive to a relationship, implying that what they’re doing or saying means they must be either crazy, stupid, or some combination of the two. It can happen in a quick, almost casual manner (“That’s ridiculous”), or it can be passive-aggressive, telling a partner how they should react before you even speak (“Don’t freak out, but I have to tell you something…”). Marriages thrive on mutual trust, respect, and security. Without this, the relationship will eventually corrode.

Prioritize Sex and Date Nights
When you’re busy, this means putting it on a schedule and sticking to it. Like other self-care activities (e.g., going to the gym) if you don’t block time out in your schedule, it’s not going to happen. Especially if you have young kids.

Get on the Same Page
Whether it’s how and what involvement the in-laws will have, how many activities the kids should participate in, or even when/if to have children, having the same priorities builds trust and reduces stress.

Learn How to Move On From Arguments
Disagreement is unavoidable in any marriage — as are spats, snipes, and all-out fights. “It’s important to talk about what happened afterward and own your part,” says one marriage and family therapist.

Laugh it Up
If you can laugh together, you can survive anything.

Always Be Validating
Having your partner listen, appreciate, and understand you speaks to a basic need for connection. It’s okay to disagree, as long as you respect each other.

Stop Obsessing Over Who Wins
When couples respect each other, they can accept not being right in favor of maintaining a healthy balance. Successful couples choose their battles, knowing that closeness can sometimes be more satisfying than being right.

Make Time for Self-Care
Don’t just take care of your spouse; look after yourself. That means exercising regularly, eating well, getting enough sleep, and making regular doctor and dentist appointments. Investing in yourself and your own well-being shows your partner that you want to be at your best for them.

Pay Attention to the Little Things
For couples who have mutual respect, small gestures are second-nature. A simple love note, a slightly longer hug or kiss goodbye can make your partner feel validated and appreciated.

Give One Another Space
It’s important to be supportive and engaged with your spouse. But you also can’t hover over them and try and solve all their problems for them. Have enough faith in each other to know when to step back and let them handle something on their own.

Do You Have PPSD*?

(*Post-Pandemic Survival Dysfunction)

Even as daily life seems headed towards recovery, it’s hard to relax. This insightful analysis explains why “burnout” only begins to describe what so many of us have been feeling.

[by Soo Youn, The Washington Post]

Why burnout won’t go away, even as life returns to ‘normal’

For Marcia Howard, the Cheez-Its were a breaking point.

At her son’s first in-person school event this year, she realized she forgot to bring the class snack.

“I just broke down in the car and I started crying,” she said. As a class parent, she was torn up about forgetting the crackers. “It turns out everything has been overwhelming. And there’s no shaking it.”

Howard started a new job at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic working as a creative operations director at a Fortune 500 company.

“I’m a Black woman. Between the pandemic and everything that happened to George Floyd and the summer of protests. . . . I had that first wave of, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m tired. I don’t feel like I can do anything. I stay up all night, looking at my phone and just really can’t focus,’ ” she said.

Then the fall came around, and it became clear many schools wouldn’t fully reopen for in-person learning.

“I’ve never thought about quitting more,” said Howard, who lives in New York City.

She’s been told by her company that she can take time off as she needs, but it’s just not that simple for her, she said. “It is all really wonderful to hear. But trying to prove myself in a corporate environment as the only Black leader, can I?” Howard said.

In February, she says she was told by her therapist that she was on the verge of depression.

“I feel like everyone is starting to think the world is getting back to normal, and I just can’t even bring myself to be hopeful about it,” Howard said.

With vaccinations initiated for half of Americans over 12, and guidance on masking and social distancing easing, the triage stage of the pandemic is lessening for some in the United States. Yet external progress markers can disguise – or even induce – a flurry of conflicting emotional, physical or cognitive states. Like getting sick right after turning in your last final, for some women who bore the brunt of domestic burdens while juggling work pressures for over a year, the breaking point may come with the breathing room.

As the country races toward a “normal” summer, for women like Howard, the picture doesn’t match up with her reality. She’s still struggling through a burnout unlike any other.

“Traditionally, we think of burnout being a state where someone is increasingly overwhelmed with the tasks in their lives, feeling a markedly decreased sense of accomplishment and effectiveness in what they are doing, and feeling like the things they loved to do now feel like just additional tasks. After a time, there can be mental health consequences,” said Maureen Sayres Van Niel, a Boston-based psychiatrist.

The pandemic magnified that condition exponentially.

“We had women with and without children managing situations that had life and death consequences in their daily lives: how to provide food for their families when the deadly virus was omnipresent or they were suddenly without an income, how to care for an elderly mother without physical contact,” she said. “Burnout in the traditional sense doesn’t capture the sense of the past year’s events.”

By March 2021, 1 in 4 Americans adults suffered the loss of a close friend or relative to the coronavirus, according to the KFF coronavirus vaccine Monitor; about 1 in 3 knew someone who died. And for those with family and friends in countries where death tolls are mounting daily, there is little relief.

“By mid-summer many will likely be feeling conflicting emotions such as relief that they are protected against the virus and happiness to see friends and family again. But having these new freedoms allows us to reflect on what we just lived through, what we endured, and what we lost. We will then be able to really feel our burnout, to let it surface,” said Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper. “People will need time to process what they have lived through.”

People are also mourning the loss of jobs – as well as routines, health, opportunities and time.

Baltimore-based psychiatrist Kimberly Gordon says burnout isn’t an adequate term. She treats patients from underserved communities and has lived and worked through traumatic events like Hurricane Katrina. She frames the current conversation as one of moral injury, a term referring to “the strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person’s moral or ethical code.”

“Burnout suggests that the problem resides within the individual, who is in some way deficient. It implies that the individual lacks the resources or resilience to withstand the work environment,” according to a 2019 study published in the journal Federal Practitioner.

That’s impossible, the authors say: “While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those practices, it is absurd to believe that yoga will solve the problems.”

The problem with using the term burnout, Gordon said, is that people equate it with a failure of their own, compounding the issue.

“You take these people who are really passionate and energetic, who want to do a good job, and they lose their motivation,” Gordon said. “Moral injury addresses the systems issues that lead to burnout, and calls for systems to address those issues.”

For some, the moral injury felt like betrayal by employers, the government and neighbors.

Jennifer Casaletto, an emergency physician in North Carolina, remembers one of the lowest points in the middle of the pandemic, a period she refers to as “backstabbing.”

“That was one of the hardest humps to get over, realizing we’re still going to work risking our lives and the lives of our family, and our friends telling us ‘This is completely overhyped.'” She recalled an incident during which a neighbor brought their child to Casaletto’s house to get stitches, then told her they were going on vacation to Mexico and were hoping to get around having to mask on the plane.

While the pandemic has been hard on everyone, women are bearing the physical and mental load of burnout unequally, emerging data shows.

In March, the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index found 30% of women said they felt “overwhelmed or burned out” over the past year, compared with 21% of men.

“The pandemic has also laid bare the ways in which the society and its institutions were not created with the biology of women workers in mind,” Sayres Van Niel said.

Mental health professionals suggest telling employers about what you need to be more productive at work.

“We think of ourselves as passive participants in our workplace but we can actually have an active role in the culture,” Gordon said.

For example, say you can work until 7 p.m. but you need child care. One of Gordon’s patients recently told their manager they were manic depressive, and they were able to come up with a more flexible schedule.

“It’s really important to find workplaces or create workspaces, where people can have courageous conversations,” she said.

She also recommended making small changes in everyday life, like exercise or watching a comedy special. Little daily tweaks can be more effective than a week-long vacation over time, she said.

Howard, the Fortune 500 director, says she tries to work in a daily bath and is focusing on a renewed exercise routine. There’s still plenty for her to be stressed out about: an upcoming minor surgery for her son, family reunions with mixed vaccination statuses and a recent emergency room visit for the family cat.

It can feel like the rush to reopen is happening too fast, she said, putting her at odds with others who are thrilled to take off their masks and return to “normal.”

“I’ve just realized that I don’t have to be there. . . . I don’t emotionally have to get there. I can take my time recovering from the past year and a half. I’m sitting with my feelings and it’s still normal to be unable to focus.”

– – –

This story first appeared in The Washington Post’s The Lily publication.

Good News Monday: Something In Common

In recent years, our little community has sadly become increasingly polarized, what with strongly-held opinions on such crises as “LollipopGate” (did the former head of the vegetation committee instruct landscapers to trim certain trees in unnatural shapes?),”GateGate” (did the front gate close on a neighbor’s car through malfunction, or was this an error on the part of the driver?),”PoopGate” (did a neighbor deliberately not pick up after their pet, or did the outraged complainant mistake a clump of mud for dog poop?), and “SnoopGate” (did a neighbor repairing storm-related damage to his home knowingly violate The Rules? And could the “concerned party” have asked the owner directly about his repairs? Or — gasp — maybe offered to help rather than contacting the Powers-That-Be as a first resort?) Deep breath.

There seems to be no shortage of time for people to complain, yet little interest in listening to the other side. And it’s all gotten notably worse since the last US election, with the endless repetition of bs about “stolen” votes. I swear we have grooves in our roads from everyone digging in their heels!

So it was with great interest that I read the following piece on studyfinds.org. Perhaps there’s reason to be hopeful after all.

U.S. Politics - Democrats and Republicans, donkey and elephant on flag
(© Victor Moussa – stock.adobe.com)

(© Victor Moussa – stock.adobe.com)

Political polarization study finds liberal and conservative brains have one thing in common

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — There seems to be no end in sight to the political divide splitting America in two right now. While political polarization is not a new phenomenon, researchers say they still know very little about what causes people to see the world through an ideological bias. Now, a team from Brown University reveals liberals and conservatives actually do share some common ground — they all hate uncertainty.

Their study finds the brains of “political partisans” on both sides of the spectrum show an inability to tolerate uncertainty. These individuals also have a need to hold onto predictable beliefs about the world they live in.

Examining a group of liberals and conservatives, researchers discovered watching politically inflammatory debates or news coverage exacerbates each person’s intolerance of the unknown. Liberals began to display more liberal thinking and conservatives moved further to the conservative side. Despite their ideological differences, the team finds the same brain mechanics are driving this behavior.

“This is the first research we know of that has linked intolerance to uncertainty to political polarization on both sides of the aisle,” says study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown, in a university release. “So whether a person in 2016 was a strongly committed Trump supporter or a strongly committed Clinton supporter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that an aversion to uncertainty only exacerbates how similarly two conservative brains or two liberal brains respond when consuming political content.”

Political views not to blame for polarized society?

Study authors used fMRI scans to measure brain activity while participants watched three different programs. The 22 conservatives and 22 liberals viewed a neutrally-worded news report on the very polarizing topic of abortion, a fiery political debate segment, and a completely non-political nature show.

After seeing the videos, participants answered questions gauging their understanding and opinions of the different segments. They also completed political and cognitive surveys measuring their intolerance of uncertainty. According to study co-author Jeroen van Baar, the results show political polarization is less about what people think and more about how their brains cope with the world around them.

“We found that polarized perception — ideologically warped perceptions of the same reality — was strongest in people with the lowest tolerance for uncertainty in general,” says van Baar, a former Brown researcher now at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.”

“We used relatively new methods to look at whether a trait like intolerance of uncertainty exacerbates polarization, and to examine if individual differences in patterns of brain activity synchronize to other individuals that hold like-minded beliefs,” FeldmanHall adds.

Birds of a (political) feather flock together

The study also reveals brain activity and neural responses in partisans diverge between liberals and conservatives. Researchers say these differences reflect each side’s subjective interpretation of the content they’re viewing. People who strongly identify as liberals processed political videos in a very similar way to other liberals in the study; a trait called neural synchrony. Study authors discovered the same thing when examining the brains of conservatives.

“If you are a politically polarized person, your brain syncs up with like-minded individuals in your party to perceive political information in the same way,” FeldmanHall explains.

The results also show people displaying a higher level of intolerance for uncertainty are more sensitive to politically polarizing content. Surprisingly, the news report on abortion with a completely neutral tone did not exacerbate the group’s polarized perceptions.

“This suggests that aversion to uncertainty governs how the brain processes political information to form black-and-white interpretations of inflammatory political content,” the researchers explain.

“This is key because it implies that ‘liberal and conservative brains’ are not just different in some stable way, like brain structure or basic functioning, as other researchers have claimed, but instead that ideological differences in brain processes arise from exposure to very particular polarizing material,” van Baar concludes. “This suggests that political partisans may be able to see eye to eye — provided we find the right way to communicate.”

The study appears in the journal PNAS