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!

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!

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.

Aging in both directions

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I turned 40 last month. 40! My wife organized a wonderful party for me which ended with me, my sister and some close friends I have known since high school around a firepit at 2:00 in the morning, feeling full from paella, beer, s’mores and friendship. My wife kept texting my sister to tell her we were being too loud. 40. I’ve probably lived more than half of my life already. 40. Aren’t I supposed to have figured out my life by now?

40… One part of me finds it very scary, and I start worrying that career-wise I have wasted a lot of my life pursuing something that is not a good fit for me. On the other hand, other than the aches and pains that are more common than a few years ago, I don’t feel all the different. In the months leading up to my birthday, I had several people, mostly in their 60s it seems, independently tell me that 40 was young, and a lot of people they knew hit their stride in their 40s. My hope is to use that fear of having wasted a lot of my life and the optimism that I have more to come, in order to change my life and career. I want to not only find more meaningful work, or at least my make my current work more meaningful, but also be able to step back from the stress and annoyances and appreciate my family and life more fully. Tall order, but if this my mid-life crisis, I want to do something useful with it.

My eldest daughter has taught me something about aging as well. She’s about to turn 8. Behavior-wise, it has been a particularly rough few months, It’s been hard for both me and my wife. My daughter has been increasingly oppositional, has had issues with feeling bullied at school, and in turn has taken some of that out on her younger sister. With me, almost anything I say is greeted with eye rolls, or looks of extreme disgust and hate or just plain screaming in irritation. In addition, the slightest request is greeted with “You are sooo MEAN!” which often devolves into saying how much she hates me. I can usually let it roll off my back, but experiencing it over and over and over again allows that antagonism to sink in. With all of this behavior, I tend to think of her more as a teenager, and often forget that she is really so young.

It was in the midst of this, that I ran across a new teddy bear she had made at the mall laying on the floor of her room. It’s extremely pink, and she spent her own money to buy it a little dress. I found it so girly and young, that I was suddenly yanked out of the past few months and was able to see my daughter as the really young girl that she is. I could see her behavior as a coping mechanism for the discomforts she is going through in life. My wife had been telling me this for sometime, but it wasn’t until the teddy bear that it finally clicked. I also remembered the observation made by our couple’s therapist (our daughter’s behavior has been a major stressor in my marriage) that I am usually the only one who can get her to fall asleep(she has chronic insomnia). It doesn’t make the behavior any better, but it gives me something to hold onto when she is telling me how much she doesn’t like me. Being the only one to get her to fall asleep can be inconvenient, but I know in a few years time I will look back wistfully at our youthful 40 and 8 years of age, when I could lay next to her, scratch her back and watch my daughter fall asleep.

Notes from the past

September 1993, found on my dorm room door.

September 1993, found on my dorm room door.

My parents are selling the house. As I wrote before, my parents’ marriage is over. My dad moved into an apartment close to his work several months ago(we just moved the bunkbeds over there) and my mom moved in with her boyfriend last month. My sister was the was last one in the house, and she moved out last weekend to a studio apartment in another city. There had been some talk of renting it out, but in the end it looked like it was going to be too much work and they are preparing it to put up for sale.

I was in Australia as part of the UC exchange program when my parents moved from my childhood home in Davis. I was glad to miss that move, and am even more glad that they weren’t still living there when this all happened. I tend to form strong emotional connection to places and I think it would have been too hard to say goodbye to that house, especially if it had been because my parents were divorcing.

Despite not being my childhood home, I have grown attached to the newer house in Livermore. It was the place my wife first met my family on her way back to Southern California after college. It was the last place my grandparents saw us in the United States. We’ve spent our winter holiday’s there for almost 20 years, and for the kids it has always been their grandparents’ house. Despite the fondness, clearing out of the house hasn’t been as bad as I had imagined. Perhaps that is because it has not been the sanctuary it used to be for several years now. We actually hadn’t gone as a family(with my wife and kids) in over a year, because the comfort and joy that it used to offer disappeared along with my parents’ marriage.

Despite the fact that both my parents have moved out there, this is still a lot of stuff in the house. Oh god do they have a lot of stuff to get rid of! I went by the other weekend to collect some of my remaining possessions (mostly books and the like). I ran across the briefcase that my grandfather gave me as a high school graduation present.It holds even more sentimental value now. Among the Magic eye 3D-eye puzzles that used to run in the Sunday newspaper’s comics pages, and many of which I collected for some reason, and student loan documents inside the briefcaes, I ran across a note that someone had left on my dorm room door my freshman year. I didn’t know I had it, so it was a bit of a surprise.

I actually hadn’t thought of my neighbors, Ari and Michael, in the dorms for some time. I do remember Maryam, she was a high school friend of Ari’s roommate, Michael. Ari and Michael were something else. I guess they knew each other from High School and Synagogue. Ari apparently did not approve of Michael’s partying and started reporting back to his parents who in turn contacted Michael’s parents, and then they started checking in with Michael. Michael obviously did not take this well. For the last couple of months they shared that room, there were sheets hung across the room so they wouldn’t have to see each other. As for Maryam, I remember her as outgoing and assertive. The primary memory I have of her is a voice message she had left for Michael on the answering machine(this was before everyone had cell phones). I was walking by while he was listening to his answering machine and had to stop and listen. I had never heard anyone sound so hoarse and tired. I didn’t recognize the voice as hers, as it sounded so different. I asked if she was sick and Michael said, “No, that’s just her morning voice.” I remembering teasing her about it later.

I don’t actually remember getting the note, but I’m pretty sure of how I responded. I’m fairly certain I spoke with her on the phone and said something to the effect that I didn’t know how to play chess and left it at that. Maybe it’s my imagination, but part of me can hear her disappointment and annoyance. So 21 years ago I totally missed a literal sign that someone was expressing interest in me. It’s hard for me to remember what I was thinking at the time, but the fact that I kept the note says that I found it important. I’m not sure if I took the note literally or if I realized what she was saying and was too scared to take her up on the invite. Either way, I passed up the opportunity.

Regardless as to whether anything might have come of it, I’m struck by how I passed up an invitation to connect and get to know someone. If I had run across this note, say 15 years ago I would have been beating myself up for passing up opportunity to get to know a girl, and added it to my list of romantic failures and all-around-hopelessness when it came to dating in high school and college. At this stage in my life I’m glad to report that it’s not that I’m upset about missing out on the opportunity to get know a girl, it’s just that I passed up an opportunity to connect. Someone took a chance on me, and I totally blew it off. I’m relieved to know that at this stage in my life I am able to recognize it for what it was and if I knew what I know now I would have handled it differently but damn, how many invitations like that I have I turned down in my life either out of fear or ignorance?

More generally, how many invitations has life sent my way that I have totally missed? Relationship-wise, I lucked out and met the woman who eventually became my wife. In other areas though, especially career-wise, I think I still hold back out of fear. My life coach had me see the movie Yes Man last year. The basic premise is that the main character(Jim Carrey) starts saying “Yes” to everything, and as a result, all sorts of wonderful changes occur in his life. Perhaps 2015 will be the year I start saying “Yes”, at the least to messages left on my life’s front door.

Conspiracy Theories

IMG_6494

Several years ago I participated in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group to help with my depression. The group didn’t do much for me, but I did gain some insight from it. We had a session where members of the group were talking about different issues. I remember talking about the realization that since we live in the Bay Area, I would never be able to afford a house in an area that I would actually want to live in. Mundane, but at the time upsetting to me since I had grown up believing that since my parents bought a house(while my dad was still in grad school) that I naturally would follow in their footsteps. The most striking shared story was from a young woman who started with a tale about being in a minor car accident, but that quickly morphed into some weird conspiracy theory about the government or some shadowy organization being out to get her and ruin her life. I remember the rest of the group just kind of going quiet and realizing that perhaps this person might be better suited for more specialized help. The facilitator played it cool, but I really hope that he talked to her afterwards. What I took from this was the way in that people can distort reality. Not just this young woman who took a car accident and some random phone calls and assembled the pieces of the story in a highly elaborate conspiracy, but that even I was guilty of it. I think I thought of it as differing levels of reality distortion. I tend to twist or filter reality to push out any positive traits about myself and convince myself that I am a complete and utter failure, worthless and better off dead. Having that realization didn’t make the thoughts go away, those thoughts still float around in the back of my head at times, but they aren’t as powerful or present as they used to be, but it made it easier to see that perhaps I wasn’t viewing things from a completely accurate perspective.

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I started up couples’ therapy earlier in the beginning of the summer. The focus has been on recognizing how we trigger each other and fall into these negative loops. Our therapist specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and recommended a the book ‘Hold me Tight’ . It’s been amazing for me to be reading this book and look back on what we’ve been doing in our sessions. I can see how our patterns of behavior are very commonplace and how many other people react the same way I do to stressful situations with their partners.

Things have been stressful at home with a new schedule for my wife’s work and a new school for the kids, as well my starting a position in a new lab. It came to a sort-of-head the other night when my wife seemed to suddenly get really cold and annoyed with me. I asked what was going on, and she told me that she was really mad at me and had been for several days . She didn’t know completely why(although there are plenty of reasons), but there it was. Normally I would have stormed off and announced thoughts of how our relationship was doomed, and I that couldn’t do anything right.

This time around, those thoughts were still there, but at the same time I was also a bit mad and feeling that she was being unfair. From the reading and our therapy sessions I knew that me withdrawing wasn’t going to help, so I calmed myself down and tried to engage my wife in conversation to see what was going on. She was very resistant to talking about it(I found it interesting that I was the one trying to work out issues this time around), but in the end we did manage to discuss her stress and worries over work and the kids. Nothing was solved, but it felt like a bit of tension was released and were able to do it together.

This episode reminded me of a recent exercise given to me by my coach, I had to come up with a list of reasons that I am a good husband. Painting myself in a positive light of any sort is extremely hard for me, but this exchange with my wife and thinking back on the CBT group has pushed me to go ahead and do it. Here is a subset in no particular order:

  • I respect my wife as a person and individual.
  • I support my wife in times of need as well as in the pursuit of her own dreams and goals.
  • I am committed to bettering myself and constantly working on our relationship
  • I am conscientious of how my being away from the house can impact the family and make an effort to always check before participating in activities that will keep me out later than usual.
  • I take an active role with the children.
  • I am willing to adjust and shift my schedule if she has her own obligations to take care of.
  • I encourage my wife’s independence, but also appreciate shared time and activities.
  • I appreciate how lucky I am to such an amazing woman as my partner in life and try to let her know that.

So that’s it for now. It’s hard for me to look at this list and not want to qualify it or put some sort of disclaimer, but I’m going to let it be. I hope I can keep this perspective during the inevitable stressful periods that I will encounter in the future. I’ll work on reminding myself that difficult children, eye rolls and exasperation from my wife are not necessarily signs of a conspiracy proving that I am a terrible person.

Raindrops keep falling on my head

raincloud

The image above is a recreation of what our couple’s therapist drew. Yes, that’s me with the raincloud over my head. For some background, we started up couple’s therapy again because my wife has been so stressed with work, the kids in general, my daughter’s recent behavior(really worth a post in it’s own), and our lack of communication. During our last session after hearing my wife discussing her various stressors. I was asked what I was feeling. I responded honestly that I felt like a complete failure in all aspects of my life. I feel so unhelpful and disconnected from her and the kids, and I don’t know how to help. Saying it out loud really hit me hard, and I really felt off and a bit out of it for the rest of the day. The therapist made the drawing and asked what we could do so that I was not only protected but not alone under that raincloud.(the theme of our therapy has been for us to turn to each other during difficult moments instead of turning away). By this point I think I had shut down, but I also was taking the question quite literally. I really couldn’t come up with a detailed plan on what to do next. My wife, being much less literal than me, and quick on the draw, jumped in with “an umbrella for both of us”. She’s sharp that one.

The deep depression from that session lasted the whole day and night. Since then it’s come and gone, and I had thought that I was doing okay. But then, earlier this week I ran across an article entitled Five lessons I learned from dealing with depression . I found it an interesting article. Not because I got new tips or techniques for dealing with depression(I didn’t), but it made me realize more about how my depression manifests.

The first lesson was that our self perceptions are frequently wrong, but following that was the lesson that our feelings regarding those perceptions are valid. This is me! I tend to have a negative self image to begin with, but when I’m more depressed than normal I tend to get VERY negative. In therapy, the “I’m a complete failure at everything” was a perfect example of that. I wasn’t beling melodramatic, I really and truly felt it. What I’ve noticed, is that despite knowing somewhere in my head that I’m not an absolute failure, I can’t seem to answer back to that idea. After relaying the incident to my coach she wanted me to come up a list of achievements and things I have done and learned. I’ve done this before with her, but I couldn’t come up with a good list this time.(Some examples were learning how tie my shoes and driving stick shift). I could start formulating more substantive examples, but I couldn’t follow through due to a mix of immediately rejecting those since I felt I hadn’t done anything well, but also due to a part of me which consistently fights attempts to get out of that negative mindset.

This is where the idea that those negative feelings are valid comes in. The article goes on explain that being told that you really aren’t that bad doesn’t help much. Several years ago, during a more prolonged and severe bought with depression, I tried a Cognitive Behavorial Therapy group. The basic idea is that you take your fear or belief and map out what the worse case scenarios are. The goal is for you to realize that your perceptions are off and that that information will help relieve the anxiety or depression. It didn’t work for me. I could follow the thoughts out rationally, but it didn’t seem to matter, it didn’t help change my negative thoughts about myself. I also felt like it didn’t deal with the underlying emotional aspect, but I digress. I see that same pattern still when I’m trying to answer the negative voices in my head, it is so easy to dismiss the counterarguments to my depression as inconsequential or not really representative of myself.

Perhaps more worrisome, is that, when depressed, to embrace those counterarguments feels like I’m getting sucked out of a sad but comfortable place. It’s like laying in the mud at the bottom of the ocean, it’s lonely and not so pretty and there is a huge weight bearing down on me, but I’ m used to it. To be pulled all the way up to surface feels like it would take too much effort and it’s too scary. Like some of those deep sea dwellers, I would die up on the surface. There is also the feeling that I would have to exert more energy all around.

Reading the article made me realize that I’ve probably been much more depressed than I had thought recently. The stress over my work(I found another lab to work with, but still worried), the kids, and the tension between me and my wife have left me in a not so good spot. I noticed today I felt pretty good. Looking back I realized that I had pleasant conversation with the casual carpool driver (a complete stranger) and I had run a successful experiment with a colleague at work. It’s a reminder that connecting with people is so important to my emotional well-being. I’ve been working on trying to connect more with my wife, which has been hard with my daughter’s behavior issues, and it’s helped a bit. Time to start working on that large umbrella for my me and my wife.