Waves of awareness

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I’ve always looked forward to vacations and generally had a good time. Part of what kept me at my last job at the university so long was that I was given very generous amounts of paid vacation(for US standards at least). The thought of only getting 10-12 days of earned vacation was unpalatable. I decided to switch jobs anyhow, and then found out that I could transfer my accrued leave to my new position, it gave me peace of mind.

This year my vacation felt different that I felt that I really needed it. In the past I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed them for the change of pace and environment and the opportunity to spend more down time with the family, but it wasn’t the same sensation of needing that break. I’m not quite sure why this is. My job is not stressful and I get along relatively well with my colleagues, but perhaps being in an office all day makes me feel wiped out by the end of the week. Other than working in fast food while I was in high school, I haven’t really experienced this before. I feel lucky that in my work since graduate school I didn’t really feel wiped from my work. I may have been tired if I stayed up late several nights in a row to get something done, but not this sense of mounting exhaustion as the week comes to an end.

This vacation also just was a blast. When I arrived at my in-laws house that first day, I immediately felt like I was in vacation mode, as compared to most times when it takes a few days to settle in.
I surfed nearly every morning, and the conditions cooperated so the first week at least I got really enjoyable waves every day and even had a great time at Newport Beach. (Usually it’s too flat and I have to go to Huntington)There was something so invigorating about surfing good waves in the morning, then having the rest of the day open. Just being able to be active and in the water everyday felt so healing for my mind and body.

Another factor that made me enjoy it so much, as silly as it sounds, is that my girls were able to get past their fear of waves enough to finally go boogie boarding. My wife only was half joking when she said that this was a dream come true for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be fortunate enough to have one (or both) of my daughters accompany me surfing, but being able to finally play with them in the waves was a delight. My older daughter has wanted to boogie board for several years now, and despite being an strong swimmer, she had always been held back by her somewhat irrational fear of waves(anything up to her ankle was too much). Since they both could it enjoy the waves more, we spent much more time at the beach than our past trips. My younger daughter isn’t a strong swimmer, but still enjoyed floating on the board and having me pushing her into waves. I was grinning like an idiot the entire time. I was finally able to share an activity that is such a huge part of my life with my daughters. I felt so alive and connected to my kids.

I came home feeling sad to say goodbye to the carefree time we’d had, as well as the warm water and fun, but feeling content, and appreciative of my how much my daughters have grown. Being more connected to them more than usual also gave me a different perspective.

In the end, I think it’s the opportunities that vacations give people to reset their internal state that I appreciate. During my normal week, it’s a rush of making lunches, taking kids somewhere, going to work, coordinating pickups , heading home, eating, putting kids to bed, maybe watching a TV show with my wife, then going to bed(usually after wasting too much time on the computer). By being able to put my work aside, and not worry about a million things I not only have the time to do the activities that I want, but also to spend more relaxed time with the kids. We went for bike rides(another new skill for my younger daughter), swimming, to get donuts, or ice cream on a few occasions, I just felt more engaged.

I’m excited that I was able to connect more with my daughters around the beach, but at the same time I’m wary of not letting this be, in my mind, the only way I can connect with them. My father-in-law who always laments that he doesn’t get enough time with my kids in order to connect with them also claims he can only connect with the kids when swimming. In other circumstances he just kind of tunes out. We all went to dinner with him and he basically ignored his daughter and grandkids and spent the whole dinner talking about an app he has been working on for years. To me it was kind of shocking, he doesn’t get to see his daughter or grandkids that much, but he just tuned them out the entire time! I don’t want to end up like that and through watching his interactions or lack of have intuitively known that I also have to engage the kids in activities that are meaningful to them.

In the end, during this last vacation to experience of sharing an activity that means a lot to me with the kids has opened my eyes or perhaps reawakened me to the pleasure of engaging more with the kids. I can come up with all sorts of excuses for why it doesn’t happen at home(e.g. they only watch TV, etc) but I want to be mindful of ways to engage with them. As they get older, hopefully their increased skills and interests will not be outweighed by the normal desire to not want to do stuff with their parents. We’ll see.

Until then, I’m pretty sure I am going to take advantage of a program where I can take a 5% paycut for an additional day of earned vacation per month. I’ll be one hour short per month of what I used to earn, but I’m think that the payback in terms of time with my family (and now the physical rest from work) are very much worth it, not to mention that I think my body will need the break!

Lessons from the cubicle

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I’m now spending my days in a stereotypical cubicle.

I started a new job a few weeks ago. After knowing that academic research wasn’t really my thing, after 12 years I left academia, and more recently “working” at home, for what I assume is a typical office environment. I put “working” in quotes, because I am realizing that I had it pretty easy the last few years. The nature of my work shifted over time so that I very rarely had reason to head into the lab in San Francisco. I did was asked of me, but it didn’t involve too much effort, and I still had plenty of time to go to appointments, help with the kids, get distracted on side projects(although I tried to stay on task) and take my regular summer and winter vacations.

Now I’m a civil servant working for the state, sitting at a desk in a grey cubicle, that I am expected to be at for 8 hours a day. The vacation earned per month is less than half of what I got at the university, and even after 30 years of working it would still not reach that same amount. A surprising amount of innocuous websites are blocked by the firewall. No personal e-mail access and anything related to sports is blocked. I also run across blocked sites frequently when looking for help with different office software. Any sort of streaming is blocked and of course all web usage should be assumed to be monitored. I hit so many blocked sites(by accident) that I’m sure I’ve been flagged or something. The positive take is that it’s much harder for me to get distracted or lost down the time-vortex known as the world wide web.

The first 2 weeks were torture since I didn’t have much to do. I tried to keep busy on some projects that the guy next to me needed help on, but that didn’t really fill too much of my time. I did manage to spend some time taking on some online tutorials on a database programming language that I inferred I would need, but a lot of the time I just felt trapped at my desk, waiting for the clock to reach the designated hour. While things have recently begun to pick up, I’m also realizing that most people around me are swamped with the amount of work they have. I might be in the sweet spot now, where I have stuff to do but don’t have any major projects of my own to stress about.

What worries me, is my seeming irritation at the constraints of a “typical job”. I dislike having to sit there even if one’s work is done. It bugs me that if I have to leave a hour or two early one day for a meeting at my child’s school, it isn’t automatically understood that I can make up that time, rather than have to use up leave. It should be fine, but the fact that it could even be an issue was mind boggling to me. I was thinking more about this, and realized that I haven’t worked 40 hours in a week for a very long time, if ever(not counting being a student). I know I prefer freedom in scheduling, but perhaps I’m not willing to put in the effort to support myself with that type of job. I’ve had a few bouts of depression since I’ve started, and my wife has commented that I seem kind of down overall.

Despite the rough start, I’m giving myself some time before I make any hard judgment on this new position. I’m not ready to say that if my bristling at the constraints is some deep core things, or if it’s just because I haven’t had to deal with before, my stint at McDonald’s in high school excluded. And despite the expectation of being swamped in the future, I’m still looking for areas where I might be able to bring my interests into the work that is asked of me. I’m currently looking into visualization of big data, and am trying to learn how to get existing data into a format compatible with Network Graphs I’m not sure it’ll be useful, or that anyone will care, but at least it gives me something that is interesting to me to do.

A few years ago if I had found myself in this position I would have become despondent. I would have felt trapped and been beating myself up for giving up my former work environment for where I am now. I miss the flexibility of my old position, and the lack of it now is adding to my wife’s stress, but there were a lot of things about that job that I didn’t like. What I’ve most learned after all these years, is that I don’t have to stay in something that I don’t like. I actually found some notes from some therapy sessions in grad school(about 14 years ago) and one of the points my therapist was trying to make at the time was that the choices I make are very rarely irreversible. That message has been to me for about 14 years, but it’s only recently that it’s begun to sink in. It’s a lot easier to keep going and be curious (despite the frustrations and bouts of depression) about my new job when I know I can quit or find something else if I decide to.

So, even though I long for the weekends in a way that I never have before, I’m still trying to keep my curiosity alive and learn what I can in my new position. Not only about the work itself, but also the experience of working in what to me is a radically new environment. I’m enjoying not having to drive or BART into San Francisco,I read about some horrendous BART delays last week, but rather riding my bike. In the 3 weeks since I’ve started biking it no longer hurts to sit on the bike saddle, and I can make it up all the way the big hill heading home. It’s a very short ride so I’m still not getting the exercise I need but it’s something, and I enjoy it. I was able to transfer my unused sick and vacation leave from the university to my state job, which gives me a buffer at puts me more at ease. It’s also nice not taking work home with me, scheduling around the girls is difficult, but when I’m home I’m done (other than catching up on my personal e-mails). All in all, it’s important for me to remember that every job will have its advantages and disadvantages, and perhaps I’ll come to value the advantages of this job. Hell, it may even be time to decorate my cubicle.

Housing in a new era

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It was a fruit tree that kicked off the internal housing debate this year. Fall is probably my favorite time of the year, as I’ve mentioned before, and Hachiya persimmons are a symbol of it’s onset. There’s something very poetic about the fruit(technically berries) turning from green to orange as the leaves of the tree go from green to brown and eventually drop. I’m not referring to Fuyu persimmons, that you can slice up like an apple, but the ones that have to be really mushy, like a sack of jelly before you eat them or your gums feel dried out and nasty for a few hours. There is something about the forced wait to enjoy those that mirrors the idea of waiting for fall and for all that comes. Those are the ones I was taught to love by my mom when we lived in Davis.

Recently we were up in the Berkeley Hills at an acquaintance’s house and besides a great view of the bay, they had an enormous Hachiya persimmon tree abutting the two levels of deck at the back of the house. I suddenly missed having fruit trees like we did at the two houses I lived in with my parents throughout my life. The idea of being able to have fruit trees triggered this ongoing debate I’ve had in my head for years. On one hand is the notion of having a place that is “ours”, where we could arrange as we wanted inside and out, and plant fruit trees or whatever in the yard. On top of that the notion of having some sort of security in housing is appealing. On the other hand is the knowledge that it’s incredibly expensive to own a home, with the insurance, taxes, upkeep, etc. Furthermore, in a fictional scenario where we could actually afford to buy a home in the bay area, all of our savings would be tied up in the house! I’d be much more stressed than I am now about keeping my job, and probably wouldn’t have as much wiggle room to look for other careers.
After some reflection and discussion with my coach, I’ve to understand that the core desire was for a feeling of comfort or cozyness, perhaps wanting to feel safe. Growing up, home always felt safe, and I associate a home with a sense of comfort and safety. Since we can’t afford a house in the bay area, my task for these weeks has been to figure out how to make my current living situation feel more cozy and comfortable.

I had some ideas on where to start(the living room), but then the election of 2016 happened and kind of derailed all that. Now it seems harder to find much comfort anywhere. I’ve been preoccupied worrying about the increase in hate crimes, the threats to reproductive rights, the environment, social safety net programs and maybe even the survival of the US as we know it. I ran across a terrifying article: “ Autocracy:Rules for Survival“, which raised the realm of possibilities for the incoming administration. I’ve discussed the implications of all of this with a friend from graduate school and he, thank goodness, has acted as a calm reassuring voice. He’s optimistic that the democratic institutions of this country will be enough to survive and repel an attempted establishment of an autocracy. I want to be as confident as him and listen to the voices saying that it was only campaign rhetoric but he, like most of the polls and media, was convinced what happened couldn’t. Still, I hope. I put on a good face to keep the kids feeling okay, but I’m really scared inside.

Coming back to the persimmons, it turns out my sister’s co-worker brought a bunch to work, which she in turn brought to me, and there are more should I want them. I’ve pureed most of them and ate a few out of hand, luckily most my wife and kids are a bit leery of the texture so I get them all to myself! Basically, it turns out I don’t actually need the tree.

I’m beginning to come out of shell shock from the election and for “comfort” have started wearing a robe around the house in the morning. I’ve also started thinking about ways of making the living room more comfortable again. No obvious answers yet, but the desire is there. As far as owning a house, I know it’s impossible right now. I’m actually a bit more comfortable having our money more “liquid” vs having it tied up in a house. As my friend wrapped up our discussion, if an autocracy were actually established here there wouldn’t be much to depend on but “passports and money”. Hopefully we as a country make it through okay, but if things go from bad to worse I may be looking for persimmons in another country.

Life lessons from Bathrooms

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The men’s bathrooms during my tenure at Berkeley tended to be very interesting places. At first I couldn’t figure out why the stalls made of marble or similar material tended to have holes carved in them. At some point it was explained to me that they were Glory holes . They were often plugged up with toilet paper, so it wasn’t intimidiating, but it seemed kind of crazy to me why were there. Then there was the one time a guy decided to leave the stall door open. I heard him sit down, but couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t closed the door until I went to wash my hands at the sinks opposite the stalls and saw that he was publicly masturbating. It was such an unexpected turn of events that I quickly left after washing my hands, but I was more amazed than anything else. It turns out this particular bathroom was a known anonymous sex spot. On the less steamy side, many bathrooms had sayings written in the grout between the tiles. The idea was usually to take a known saying and replace a word with “grout”. An example could be instead of Tears for Fears’ song lyrics “Shout, Shout, let it all out” they would have written “Grout, Grout, let it all out”. (Completely coincidental selection as an example, but very apropos for a bathroom setting!) They tended to make for interesting and entertaining reading and helped pass the time. I’m actually curious if grout writings have decreased with the rise of cell phones.

Despite the adventure and humor in many other bathrooms, my mind recently came back to the small bathroom, not used by the student population in general, that was in the lab where I worked. The building that housed the lab and bathroom was a bit older and consisted of concrete floors and walls with drywall making a few small office areas on the edges of the wide open floor plan. The bathroom itself was also antiquated and cramped, with the institutional metallic walls for the one stall(no point carving out glory holes there), a tiny window that let in a hint of light if anything, an old looking urinal and a matching old fashioned porcelain faucet and powdered soap dispenser.

The most memorable feature for me is the vent. Since the small window didn’t do too much for ventilation, most of the fresh air came out from vent, and it came out hard and fast. What made it memorable was that it was pointed directly at the single toilet. The urinal was no big deal, but using the toilet itself was a bit more complicated. For the 2 years that I worked there, I don’t think I ever managed to get a toilet seat cover to stay on. Invariably, when I had to use the toilet, I would squeeze my way into the stall, close the door, grab a toilet seat cover(or toilet paper if there were no more covers), lay it on the seat, turn around to sit and realize that the cover or paper had been blown off. This led to an awkward dance of laying one piece of toilet paper on one side, sitting down on that same side while lifting the other, trying to get a strip of paper on the other side of the seat and sitting on it before it blew off. These days I probably wouldn’t even bother with the paper, seeing as how it wasn’t a widely used bathroom, but back then it seems I was pretty adamant about having protection on the seat. What surprised me then and now, was that I always seemed to forget that the vent WAS going to blow any covering off the seat before I was able to sit. Perhaps it was because no other bathroom on campus gave me such problems, or maybe it was just some part of my brain that wouldn’t store that crucial bit of information.

I’ve been in some sort of therapy or another for years and years. Even though I’ve made substantial gains in a lot of areas in my life, when feeling down I often feel like I haven’t made any progress. As usual my ongoing issues with finding a better fit for my career is a trigger of sorts and an area in particular where I often feel that I am stuck, and not learning from my mistakes or at least not changing my behaviors enough to make a substantial difference. I tend to succumb to the same triggers and thought patterns again and again. The vent+stall+toilet paper scenario seems like a very good analogy to my situation. Here, rather than dealing with a vent blowing off my toilet seat cover, I have some sort of inner process which ends up blowing my confidence or energy to take on new projects or search out new careers right out from under me. It often seems I have an idea of something I might want to do, but as I am turning around and getting ready to pursue it, this inner process blows it away, then I am left trying to juggle my responsibilities and desires with an awkward dance (and some avoidance).

Coming back to the toilet analogy, while I writing this blog I started wondering what if instead of trying to remember an awkward process of holding down the paper in the line of a strong torrent of air, I changed where the air was flowing? In theory, I could have, temporarily at least, attached a piece of cardboard up near the vent to direct the air elsewhere. In reality it would have been taken down by custodial services, but I like the image; I could have fashioned some clip on device that I would place on the vent before trying to get the toilet ready. Then all I would have needed to remember was the deflector.

In my life the trick is finding out what the deflector for the negative thoughts and doubts are especially when it comes to feeling stuck around my career search. When it comes to depression in general I recently rediscovered, after forgetting for the millionth time perhaps, that doing some physical activity acts as a deflector for the depressive thoughts. Since my last post, I’ve had at least two instances where I realized I was feeling depressed and rather than go and lay in bed alone, in the dark, I went out and did some sort of exercise. When I got back, I felt better and had basically been able prevent the depression from taking a stronger hold.

While I’m not sure how to apply the “deflector” idea to my career quest, at least the image is very clear for me: if my career fears are the vent, and making progress is the act of getting to sit on a paper-protected toilet seat, it’s time to stop trying to remember what do when I’m the direct line of the air, and find some way to move it aside or divert it long enough for me to sit down. Either way, it’s probably better than whatever the life analogy is of unexpectedly finding out the person in the stall next to you wants to take advantage of the glory hole!

Roses and Time

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A few weekends ago my good friend from Australia, who I wrote about here, and his wife stopped by the Bay Area for a couple of days on their way to New York. Given that my daughter was celebrating her 9th birthday by hosting a sleepover at our house(it actually wasn’t as bad as I had feared!) I didn’t get to spend much time with them that Saturday. However, thanks to the generosity of my wife, I was able to spend all of Sunday with my friends. We went from the observation deck of the Lawrence Hall of Science (where, incidentally, I proposed to my wife) to the Marin Headlands to North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco. I enjoyed playing tour guide, and also just getting hours to walk around, and talk with my friend and his wife.

What most struck me was the couple of hours spent at Vesuvio in North Beach. I occasionally meet friends for a beer in the evening from time to time, but this was different. Being able to sit and talk knowing we had many hours before having to be at the airport was so liberating. It had been a bit chilly outside, so it felt great to sit in a warm comfortable room, with interesting stained glass and a great overall feel. It brought to mind the international trips I used to take with my wife before we had kids. During those trips it felt like we had all the time in the world and could just relax into where ever we were. An image has stayed with me, of me and my wife at a Spanish cafe in Melbourne, Australia during our trip in 2001. There was a stained glass window above the door with an image of a red rose. We had stopped in to get a quick bite but it started pouring outside, so we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon there. The joy wasn’t necessarily in drinking alcohol, but rather being able to talk, laugh, eat, listen to the music playing on the stereo and not have any worries at the moment. Those couple of hours with my friends at Vesuvio brought back some that feeling, and I realized I missed having those carefree periods of time and the chance to really be present with people. I was feeling connected again.

That feeling of connection and happiness was short lived; the next day I was triggered by a meeting with former colleagues. Seeing how much more productive and creative in work these people were made me question what I was doing. I sat with that for a day, then started questioning whether I would ever get my act together career-wise, and how I would probably never be able to buy a house, and what did that say about the professional side of my life, and so on down the tubes of misery.

As usual I can recognize that this is the depression speaking, but on some level I think it serves a purpose. I’m over 40, and even though I don’t work in Tech, where ageism is brutal, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m running out of time and options. I’m worried that the efforts I make, such as a great online class I took from Samantha Sutton PhD, don’t carry over because I lack the follow through. I’m taking some steps, such as setting up informational interviews, but it’s much easier to focus on the immediate tasks on hand I have to do for work, than to step outside my comfort zone and explore the unknown so everything seems to get pushed back. I’m not sure where to go next in this process, but I need to start moving.

Since then my feelings about work have gone up and down, I’ve gone from an intense pride and love of my kids to exasperation and annoyance, and back. I feel like I float between my various projects and responsibilities and have a hard time feeling grounded. I’m just not sure what do, and generally fear that everything will be too hard(and I’ve noticed that I tend to shy away from things that I think will take too much mental energy).

I want to find a way to more often feel at peace and connected, be able to enjoy the people in my life and their company and to feel relaxed. I want to be able to carry this with me where ever I happen to be, even if it’s not in a cafe with roses of some sort in the window.

If you can’t surf, fix a stereo

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I have often found that lessons learned while surfing(or at least while waiting for waves) have translated to issues outside of the water. Unfortunately I haven’t been in the water much recently. I did however start working on repairing my old stereo receivers again, and found that there were lessons to be learned there as well.

One of my “issues” regarding work and career, which usually metastasizes to other areas, is the belief that I can’t stick with things long enough or focus hard enough to get anything meaningful done. The initial thought of “I don’t have the willpower to push through anything” leads to “It’s not my work that’s the problem, it’s me!” which eventually leads to me concluding that I am totally screwed. I’ve had periods where I have been able to recognize that these thoughts aren’t true and that I could point to areas in my life where I did stick with something long enough to get a result I was proud of. However, these moments are usually fleeting or I tell myself that they don’t really count.

Overall I’ve been doing better recently. I’m still on a low low dose of Wellbutrin, and it seems to be helping. I feel less anxious about my future, more content with my skills and talents at work and not beating myself up as much. However, I’ve still worried from time to time about my lack of determination or resolve. Working on my receiver this past week has shown me that that I can in fact overcome obstacles and persevere with something when I find it interesting enough. It also serves as a reminder that my wife and coach aren’t just being nice when they say that I CAN stick through things.

I haven’t worked on stereo equipment for a few years now. My last project was fixing up a Pioneer SX-737 for a friend, and even posted about it. My stereo had been working fine, and I was distracted with other activities, so my other vintage equipment just sat gathering dust. Then, maybe a year ago my receiver started losing a channel. Initially I could fix it by wiggling the volume knob, but it got to the point where it was consistently only playing through one speaker. I felt that I was too busy to start digging into it at that moment. I also felt overwhelmed thinking about all the steps required to fix the thing: troubleshooting, scouring the internet for replacement parts, making a list, making substitutions for unavailable parts, ordering the parts, taking things apart, removing old components, putting the new ones in and finally closing everything back up. It so happened that I had a modern A/V receiver on hand that a friend had given me, so I just hooked that up and took my old stereo receiver up to the attic.

Things were okay for a bit, but at some point I realized that I really didn’t like the sound from the new stereo. Even though I don’t normally play music very loudly, the A/V receiver seemed to lack power and any sort of oommph. The music sounded okay, but it was lacking something. To put it simply, I just found it underwhelming. I finally got fed up enough to bring my old stereo back down and start to dig into it. I had originally thought that the problem was with the phono(record player) channel, but it turned out to be the volume knob. Since it’s nearly impossible to find a replacement knob for this unit I decided to see if I could fix it. I mustered up my courage, removed the knob from the Printed Circuit Board(PCB) and then mustered up even more courage to take the thing apart. I cleaned it as best as I could, put it back together and back in the unit. To my surprise and joy both channels were playing cleanly! I was relieved to have fixed the problem(and not destroyed the volume knob) and also encouraged by my success with a repair.

Being able to fix one unit encouraged me to revisit the first unit I ever started working on, a Pioneer Sx-838. I found it many years ago in a pile of bulky waste on the curb, given the dates of manufacture, that thing is just about as old as I am. At the time of discovery, I had found some initial problems and with the help, from the forums at audiokarma.org , had done some first pass repairs. They helped a bit but hadn’t really fixed the problems and I was pulled in other directions so it went into storage. After my repair of the volume knob of my other receiver, I pulled the Pioneer back out and started putting it through the normal tests. I found some of the old problems as well as some new ones. I wanted to start repairing it but found myself hesitating once again on making and ordering a parts list. However, after stalling for a couple of weeks I finally took the plunge and spent some time looking for information and making the parts list. I started back in on the repairs and realized that I had actually learned a lot since my last go at this receiver. I found that some of my soldering had been done poorly, and that I ignored parts I should have replaced the first time around. I also learned some new desoldering skills in the process of working on it again. I finished the first part of the repair the other night, and for the first time since I’ve had the unit, I was able to play music through it and not hear any hiss in the background! Emboldened by yet another success, I am updating other parts of this receiver that don’t deal directly with sound, but should make the unit live a longer life. I’m also trying to decide which of my other units will be my next project!

I didn’t realize this at first(only after some proofreading), but that A/V receiver is the perfect analogy for my job. Both involved chance encounters, both consisted of safe backups I knew I had, so I didn’t work too hard or spend the time and energy to go through the process of fixing up the one I really liked or wanted. Like that A/V receiver, my job is “fine”, some would even argue I am lucky to have it. It pays the bills, is convenient and has some really nice perks. I’m even able to enjoy it from time to time. However, deep down I know it is not doing it for me. I want to feel some power and excitement when I play the music that is my life, I can tell there is a difference between just getting the job done, and getting it done with gusto and emotion. Getting to this more powerful job/living is going to require my pushing through a lot initial resistance, but hopefully life and music will end up sounding much better.

Once I’m done with the repairs, my plan is to give this receiver a turn as my main stereo. Along with providing me with energizing sound and serving as proof that I have the determination to see things through and end up at a better place, I hope it will serve as a constant reminder that settling for what is easy and on hand to get the job probably won’t give me the joy I seek. Now I need to find the motivation to start getting up early and back in the water!

Australia, 20 years later

Harbour bridge from Circular Quay station

Harbour bridge from Circular Quay station

During my first night in a dorm room (in a “college”) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, I was greeted by a thunder storm the likes of which I had never seen before. I was used to occasional thunder storms in the winter but this was completely different. Here, being late summer, it was warm and humid out while the rain fell in sheets and the lightning flashed with a frequency and strength that I had only read about. I remember laying in my bed and being absolutely amazed by the storm. It was a bit scary but also exciting beyond compare, very much how I was feeling about starting my year in Australia.
February, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of my arrival in Sydney, Australia. I went my junior year of college to the University of New South Wales as part of the UC Education Abroad program. I’ve kept a running count of how many years it has been, 5 years, 10 years, etc. The 20th was no different, but it served as a kind of milestone, since that trip was almost half of my lifetime ago. I don’t tend to fixate on past events as much as I used to, but I still can get very nostalgic. Seeing pictures of me and my friends from that time brought up a lot of really good memories and induced a heavy wave of nostalgia.

I started thinking about the nostalgia for that period that I was feeling. The obvious factors were the lifestyle. I was studying seriously, but unlike my time at Berkeley I was going out a lot more, had a close group of friends I spent a lot of time with and even got to do a bunch of traveling with a friend around Australia. There was also the effect of seeing how young I and the friends I am still in touch with looked in those pictures. I also remember how optimistic I was for my future, I wasn’t even worried about a career because it seemed so natural that I would go into academics.

The positive memories were the ones that came up first, but I had to remind myself that I initially had a very hard time. After deciding that the rooms in the college/dorm were too expensive, I decided to look for off-campus housing. I crashed on my friend’s floor for a week while I was searching. I eventually found a room nearby. The house was okay, but one of my flat mates turned out to be rather difficult to be around, and the biggest roaches I had ever seen were waiting for me at night when I had to walk out of the house itself into an enclosed laundry room to reach the toilet. I also was missing home a lot. Being away from California made me appreciate a lot of things I had taken for granted (Mexican food was a huge one).

Besides being homesick and the suboptimal living situation, the main issue affecting me was my, still bewildering, choice to try and keep a relationship with my on/off girlfriend back home. We’d met 6 months before my trip and I insisted that we keep the relationship going. Obviously, trying to maintain the relationship while I was overseas was emotionally taxing and led to unnecessary drama. I also feel that in trying to maintain that relationship, I was much slower in fully become part of my new environment. I think perhaps knowing that I had a relationship back home to attend to kept me preoccupied with home too much. I also missed out on several potential relationships with female classmates. On the upside, I also got to experience a truly dysfunctional relationship with the same girlfriend when I returned home, and was much more appreciative when I met the woman who was to become my wife.

Sydney really only felt like home the second half of my trip. I remember returning from my month long trip around Australia during my winter break. It was night, and coming in over the Harbour Bridge I could see the lights and familiar landmarks. I felt at home, and was surprised to have that sensation. I went on to move in with a much better group of people which made my living situation much more comfortable and fun (and I am still in close contact with one those flatmates). I knew how to get around, had my favorite cafes and restaurants and was more aware of the music scene. I also noticed that more of the Australia students at the university approached me that second semester and I made more friends.

I look back on my time in Australia as a remarkable year. It was a turning point in my life; I learned that there was more to life and college than just studying all the time. I learned to go to my friends for help when I needed it, and to be there for others. It also just exposed me to a very different world for a year. There are so many indelible memories and images I have from that year. A small sampling include walking home one night and having a flying fox drop out of a tree close to my house just as I walked by and then seeing another one silhouetted against the moon as I looked up, the animals(emus, kangaroos, etc) at the nature preserve coming to eat our leftovers as we were leaving during the orientation week, having dingos steal my friend’s shoe while sleeping on a tarp on Fraser Island (and discovering that Sand Flies are a million times worse than mosquitos), my flatmate and I hiding behind a door trying to swat a flying roach and seeing the Crowded House farewell concert outside the Opera house. These images and memories never fail to warm me inside, and opens a deep longing that period of my life.

On my last day in Sydney two very close friends, that I happen to still be in contact with, drove me to the airport. We had some coffee in the café, laughed and joked and reminisced about my year. Then it was time to go. It was odd to find myself feeling that I was leaving rather than going home. I started crying as I hugged them goodbye, and my tears fell like a late summer storm, sheets of warm rain, well after Sydney’s beautiful Harbour and Opera House fell out of view.

Dreams in the new year

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I have been thinking about a new job for quite awhile. I would say “looking” but my wife(and the more honest part of me) would quickly point out that I really don’t “look” very much. Let’s say I dream about a new job. The dream itself has been really hazy, but the idea of “something else” has been a constant. A few weeks ago I interviewed for a job with the State. It was all a bit fast, a friend of a friend was the director of the specific department, and I had initially just been curious about what kind of work there might be for someone with my background. Things progressed quickly, and before I knew it I was interviewing, and then a little bit later I was offered the position. The exact work wasn’t quite what I had been “dreaming” about, but I thought it would be interesting enough, and very safe and secure. I then had a bit of a shock when I realized 1) that the initial pay would be significantly lower than what I am making now, and 2) that the earned leave/vacation was less than half of what I get now. More importantly, after about a week of anxiety and feeling torn, I came to realize that although it would have had some great benefits, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I had an emergency session with my therapist/coach, and with some inventive and intuitive exercises, I was able to vocalize what a part of me had kept to keep hidden, that I wanted something with a better fit, that is something more in line with my values and interests.

It had been hard for me to allow that thought that I want “something better” to be there because I always fear that I am asking for too much. Here was a job close to home, with life time security, and probably interesting work. I was crazy to pass it up! Who was I to think that I deserved, let alone could find a better option? With the exercises I did in my session, I was able to not judge that feeling, and let it come up. I realized that my vacations are incredibly important to me; it’s the few times a year when I get to be with the family and not deal with the stress of school and work. We can be together and have fun. I also realized that the kids are getting older and we can start doing new activities as a family and also that they won’t be wanting to spend that much time with us pretty soon, so I should take advantage of it while I can.

It was an incredibly hard decision to turn down the offer, and I almost threw up after letting the person who interviewed me know. I sent a heartfelt letter expressing my appreciation for the time and effort to bring me in and my reasons for turning down the job. It’s very possible I will regret this decision down the line(I still do from time to time), but I feel I have to really try to find what I want this time around, rather than just take whatever falls into my lap. Despite the incredible benefits, I know I don’t want to stay where I am. The work itself is okay, but I am too isolated and the limited interactions with my advisor aren’t that fulfilling. I also feel that if I tried to stay in academics I would keep falling in the same rut as I have the past 11 years. The State job would have been fine, and I’m sure I would have done pretty well, but despite the security, working in the same job for over 20 years, in order to make the pension make sense, it seemed constraining.

The exercise with my coach was very interesting. Using purely intuition, I laid out 3 potential paths, represented by scarves of 3 different colors, and selected photos at random that belonged to each path. The 3 paths were, 1)take the state job, 2)try to stay where I am, and 3)the unknown, or to follow my dream. Each path had it’s own theme and scenarios along that journey. The unknown path is what I choose. We constructed a story from the photos. To summarize, my vision is hazy but it will come into focus. There will be tough periods ahead, but if I keep moving forward with determination there will be joy and peace at the end of that journey. It was scary to choose that, but on some level deep down it was I knew I was feeling, I just needed the safe space and process to allow that choice to be made.

As this process has been unfolding I was bombarded by the word “Dream” everywhere I turned. From Dizzee Rascal’s “Dream” on the radio, in which he tells of becoming a successful musician.

The song’s chorus is:
“I like the talky talky happy talk
Talk about things you like to do
(Talk about things you like to do)
You got to have a dream if you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

To quotes involving dreams in my daughter’s mindfulness coloring book such as “Dreams are illustrations.. from the book your soul is writing about you” to the idea of dreaming of new potentials in the book Who moved my cheese? that I found at my in-laws house during vacation.

I’m scared. I have moments, especially after some of my job search training exercises where I think what I am looking for, decent vacation time, interesting work and team, and a good location are a pipe dream and then kind of freak out. I have to remind myself that I have time still to keep searching and stay on the path I want. I also try to remember that I want to show my girls that it’s okay to reach for your dreams, that even if you go through tough times, you can lead a much richer life. So I’ll keep bringing that dream into focus, and keep pursuing it. I still fear that I am asking for too much, but for once I’m letting myself dream a bigger reality for myself than I have for a very long time.

A work in progress, or scattered musings

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It seems that work and career is where my ongoing issues and fears most manifest themselves in my life. It’s been an ongoing issue for over 10 years now, and a reliable trigger for my wife and I to fall into our cycle. I’ve been reflecting back over the past couple of months and having an impossible time organizing my thoughts in a coherent standard format despite a week of attempts, so I’ve decided to make a list.

Concerns or fears about looking for job

  1. I don’t know what I want to do
  2. I can’t stay where I am now indefinitely, and even if I wanted to I haven’t performed in the manner that would be necessary to make it work
  3. I’m scared to take on role where I wouldn’t have much training or experience
    Despite knowing that most positions are landed by contacts or networking, I’m scared to work for someone who knows me for fear that I will end up disappointing them(kind of happened with my current boss)
  4. Lack of energy and motivation in the search, possibly because job option in the works(like last time), so hard to motivate and put myself out there to find even more options

Things that have made me feel good in past few weeks

  1. Meeting up with former colleagues who I feel know and respect me, personal interest in me
  2. Feeling like I was part of a group and able to contribute following a presentation I gave at a small workshop for work
  3. Getting positive feedback from my supervisor following presentation

I have come to believe that I could work happily in almost any field, as long as I had the right environment, which would consist of:

  1. Being part of a collaborative and supportive team
  2. Feeling that I was able to contribute and felt appreciated
  3. Having a supervisor that also acted as a mentor, that could help me grow professionally

I’ve wrestled with these issues before, and I have an internal debate going on. One side says that I’ve done alright, but I really haven’t thrived due to missing key factors in my environment. The darker side says that I am not trying enough and have passed on countless opportunities to take projects and run with them. They both seem true, and perhaps are not mutually exclusive.

I actually went to see my old psychiatrist last week because I feel so stuck when it comes to career searching. He suggested a limited course(~6 months) of low dose of wellbutrin and adding exercise and diet changes to give me enough energy to overcome the activation energy peak, or at least to act as the catalyst (I forget what grade I learned this in, but that image has stuck). I was reminded that regular exercise is a very effective way of dealing with depression. He also said that my going into defeated or hopeless states of inactivity is my way of dealing with stress or anxiety. Other people, like my wife, deal with stress or anxiety by going into a hyperactive mode. I don’t think I’ve had my reactions described in that light and found it very helpful, it gave me a context in which to view my reactions. Rather than thinking “I’m just messed up”, I can use the framework to address the problem of stress and how I deal with it.

My original plan was to try to the regular exercise and other behavioral changes, and if needed start up the anti-depressants. However, like trying to search for a job, starting an exercise routine kind of never happens for me. In couples therapy we realized that while my inability to act was making me depressed and even more inactive, it was making my wife even more agitated. After some discussion, I have decided to start a short term course of low-dose wellbutrin to hopefully give me enough energy to organize some sort of exercise practice for myself and to also devote more energy to networking and finding a career, I just have to go pick up the prescription. I have resisted going back on anti-depressants for a long time because coming off Zoloft last time was a year-long nightmare of insomnia(had to give up roasting regular coffee and can only roast and drink decaf now), digestive and heartburn issues and flashes that felt either like electrical currents going down the back of my head or that would rev my mind up so much that I couldn’t lay still. But I’ve been stuck for too long in a rut, I need to make some change happen, and wellbutrin is supposed to be one of the easier anti-depressants to come off.

We’ll see in about 6 months how I’m doing. Hopefully I’ll have landed a better fitting job, in which I get to work with a collaborative and supportive team that will allow me to feel useful and will have a boss that I can connect with. Having the flexibility to exercise regularly would be great , and not going through horrific withdrawl symptoms would wrap up this dream scenario nicely!

Riding it out

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We recently got back from our usual summer vacation down to Southern California. I got to rest, catch up on some movies, spend time with the family, and watch the kids swim and play with their cousins. My daughters are starting to seem so much more grown up all of a sudden given the new activities they can do. My older daughter has been riding a bike for a couple of years now, but usually is very nervous and scared to go fast. On this trip she was riding much faster and confidently than usual. My younger daughter has improved a lot in swimming, up to where she can kind of float on her back, and can go underwater and is also doing much better on the bike with training wheels.

As part of this growing up my eldest has begun to start listing all the things she wants and begins to get unhappy that she doesn’t have them. Some of these things are typical kid things like certain clothes or toys, but others include the desire for us to own a house in Berkeley (rather then rent in Oaklnd)and for us to buy a car with a 3rd row so “mommy” can drive her and a bunch of friends around. It’s humorous, but I think also illuminating. It helped me realize how I deal with my desires can affect my mood.

On my trips down south, I try to go for an early morning surf session as often as I can. The conditions are more consistent down there, and I have more time to go than at home. I find that these sessions serve as the fuel for my day and also helps me keep my surfing ability up. Spending time in the water gives me a chance to slow down and ponder my life and run across new ideas and insights. This time around if felt different. I was able to enjoy my surroundings, but the surfing itself didn’t give me energy, moreover it left me feeling frustrated. This went on for almost 2 weeks.

Analyzing it a bit I have come to believe that, like my daughter, I was letting my desire for something bring me down. In my case, I wanted to be a better surfer. I felt horribly limited by, what I found to be diminished, abilities. I wanted to pick better waves, be more aware of what the wave was doing and respond in an appropriate fashion. I wanted to be able to go across the wave rather than just make the drop then find myself surrounded by white water. I wanted to be in better shape and not get winded so easily. So many wants!

All this wanting left me frustrated and very unfulfilled. This in turn started a downwards spiral in which I felt that since I would never have enough access to the ocean to improve my skills then I would always be stuck and frustrated. Therefore, I should consider giving up surfing. Then I got knocked underwater and found that my ability to hold my breath seemed much reduced relative to even a few months ago, and then I started beating myself about getting so out of shape. My ongoing back issues(and a new sprain after surfing) just added to the misery. It sounds ridiculous reading it now as I write it, but at the time the thoughts felt very real and strong.

One of the tenets of Buddhism that I ran across in my reading up on mindfulness a few years ago is that attachment is often the root of suffering. It turns out upon further investigation that it is one of the three poisons of Buddhism. It often gets mistranslated as desire is the root of suffering, but I think it helps to keep the two clear. To me, attachment is fixating on a particular desire. I can want to be a better surfer; if I can acknowledge that thought,and let it pass, then it doesn’t affect me too much. However, if I fixate on that thought,and keep coming back to it, I can get very depressed.

On some level I was aware of this, and was able to prevent the negative thoughts from taking a complete hold. I kept telling myself that these were just negative thoughts and that the feeling would pass. It kept happening, but I kept going out when my back would allow it. Towards the end of the trip, I went out on a smaller day and actually managed to have a good time. I think I wasn’t too worked up about making the most of the waves, since they didn’t look as good as the previous days, my expectations were lowered and I was able to have more fun rather than beat myself up for not having caught that last gorgeous wave.

On our return, it kind of hit me what a great trip we’d had as a family. We spent a lot of time together, survived the drive there and back (a first), had a great time in Catalina, where my older daughter overcame her fear of the ocean and went snorkeling with me. We got to see a bunch of the famous Garibaldi and various other fishes. I arrived much more energized at work, eager to follow up on projects and get things done. Even if the surfing hadn’t provided the usual energy, the time with the family certainly did.

I was reading the latest issue of the excellent magazine,Surfer’s Journal (my neighbor gave me a subscription for my birthday),and ran across a column in which the author expressed the view that surfing doesn’t have to be about finding the “perfect” wave or having the perfect ride. At its core, surfing should be about catching a wave and having fun. During this trip it seems that I forgot to enjoy the basics, and got caught up in the things I couldn’t do well. I still would like to improve my surfing skills. I’m not sure where the time for that is going to come from, and how exactly that will happen, but I will try to focus on finding the basic joys in life in the meantime. I’d like to teach that lesson to my daughter somehow. There are so many things that she will want in life and not get, I’d like for her to be able to not let those desires overwhelm her. Rather, I’d like for her to focus on the joys right in front of her, even if it’s something small like racing as fast as she can on her bike.