Reflections on Group Living

I’m sitting in a chair in a rental house in Black Butte Ranch, 40 miles from Bend, in the high desert of Central Oregon.

I’m with nine other people from Olympia. Cycling enthusiasts all. We’re riding 500+ miles in five days. With around 30 other people from the area.

At least 500+ miles is the plan. I don’t think I’ll make it, not because I’m not physically able to, although that’s a possibility, but mostly because I’m not mentally up to it. The friends I’m with passionately love cycling. I like it.

Today we rode from Bend, up to Bachelor, towards Sunriver, up Forest Road 40, to Elk Lake, past Bachelor again, and back to Bend. 100 miles, over 6k of climbing. The middle 30-40 miles were as scenic as any 30-40 mile stretch in the country. Very sorry dear reader, but I opted for a light jacket over my camera. Terrible decision.

My challenges are three-fold, the first less relevant than the next two. First, unlike many of my companions, I don’t dream of riding 100 miles every day. Mentally I have to toughen up.

Second, imagine this, some of my companions are more social than me. One extrovert today tried to chat me up while we were climbing one of the most difficult sections. I was on the edge physically and didn’t have sufficient oxygen to respond. So I rode in silence. No hard feelings I don’t think because it was more of a “I want you to know I exist” stream of consciousness. Still, I found it really irritating. Maybe I should have said what I was feeling. . . please just let me suffer in silence.

Third, group travel is always a test of patience. The more people, the more waiting. Someone is always slow moving and running late. Tonight we waited 30 minutes for someone to shower when all of us were anxious to stuff our faces in town.

When in groups, irritability induced by different personality types and having to wait for one another are inevitable conflicts and yet we’re masterful at suppressing our frustrations and pretending as if everything is perfectly okay. The challenge for friends, teachers and students, partners, spouses, families, and small friendship or work groups is to anticipate conflict and not overact to it by learning to talk about one another’s feelings openly and honestly. So that things don’t build up to a point where there’s very little hope for constructive conflict resolution.

I’m not any better at this than you just because I’m communicating this idea and you’re more passively reading about it. I’m a typical male, meaning a masterful suppressor of conflict. We dust seemingly small things under the rug all the time only to have them angrily pour out every blue moon. Tonight, I could seek out my housemate and caringly explain my thought process today so that she’d better understand the next time we’re in the same situation. Instead, I’m going to bed.

 

Stoic Insights on How to Put Up With Put-Downs

One of my running partners manages a hair care sales team. Last week he began a run by telling Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man that he had a new product for him. Some concoction that would make his hair thicker. “What about me?” I asked. “If anyone needs it, it’s me. What am I chopped liver?” “You’re too far gone!”

From my notes from William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life:

Understandably, people are sensitive to insults. Rather than deserving our anger, flawed people who criticize us deserve our pity. As people make progress in Stoicism they will become increasingly indifferent to people’s opinions of them. Because they are indifferent to others’ opinions, they feel hardly any sting when insulted. One of the best ways to respond to an insult is with humor, especially self-deprecating humor. Sometimes the best response is no response at all, to calmly and quietly bear what has happened. That robs the person of the pleasure of insulting us.

Self-deprecating humor is like Bill Wither’s music or sunshine in the Pacific Northwest, you can never have too much of it. The trick is to make so much fun of yourself than no one else can compare. In the past, I’ve singled out Tina Fey as a self-deprecating sensei worthy of study. Now, meet her equal, Emily Yoffe or Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudence. Prudence somehow answers impossibly difficult questions about all sorts of interpersonal, romantic, and sexual dysfunction. One of her most recent Q&A’s made me laugh aloud. Do not ruin it for me by suggesting some college students wrote it late at night as a prank on the electronic magazine. It has to be authentic.

Q. I am having a rather silly problem with my otherwise wonderful wife. She gets up early every morning before work to go to the gym, and then takes a shower when she gets back to our small one-bedroom apartment. After her shower, she says she gets overheated easily while we’re both getting ready for work. I can understand that—I’ve already showered while she’s gone, she’s been exercising, and then she’s showered, plus she needs to use a blow dryer to style her hair. But her way of dealing with this is to walk around almost naked (in just her bra and underwear) until she absolutely has to get dressed to leave for work. She eats breakfast like this, puts on her makeup this way—she basically just goes about her morning routine with barely any clothes on and sometimes she skips the bra entirely. Under other circumstances, I would enjoy this. But when I’m trying to get myself ready for the day, this is kind of distracting. I find myself getting aroused, and since we’re both trying to get out the door for work, it’s a bad time for sex. But then I get to work and I’m frustrated all day long. I’ve tried raising this issue with her (delicately) and she gets offended that I can’t control myself after we’ve been married for eight years, which I find offensive. She’s the one walking around half-naked. How can I try to resolve this with her peacefully?

A: Ah, tempus fugit! At this stage in my life, the way I turn off my husband is to walk around naked. This is a sweet dilemma, so it’s too bad you both get so annoyed with each other over the fact that after eight years the sight of your undressed wife bouncing around the apartment is so arousing. I get letters from women wishing that their husbands weren’t lounging around with the family jewels draped over the upholstery (they do not find it a turn-on). But I think yours is the first from a guy who finds his wife’s toilette so distracting he can’t get out the door. But surely, once you’re at the office, you are able to focus on the marketing data and don’t spend the whole day moaning over your morning testicular vasocongestion. If you’re not able to move on and save it for later, you sound very juvenile. Instead of continuing to fight over this, try taking action (not the kind of action that will make you late for work). Buy a pretty, short, sheer robe for your wife and give it to her as a gift. Explain that she’s so damn attractive that if she were a little more covered in the morning it would help you focus on the day ahead. Tell her she of course doesn’t have to wear it, but you know that color looks great on her, and you hope it’s lightweight enough that she can put it on without getting overheated. Let’s hope that she takes your gesture in good spirit and likes the robe. Of course, if it’s silky and sexy, seeing her in it may have the unintended consequence of overheating you.

Prudence’s line about turning off her husband provided the second best laugh of the week. The best goes to my daughters, one of whom posted this picture to her Facebook page.

The two things I'm most proud of in todo el mundo.

The two things I’m most proud of in todo el mundo.

How to Live—Patrick, Jess, Alyssa

• Patrick and Jess married in August, 2012. Eight months later they were watching people finish the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded next to them. Both lost left legs. Patrick, “We’ll figure this out.” Jess, “As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were.” A touching story about love and resilience nicely told by Eric Moscowitz. For anyone wanting inspiration on how to live. And listen to Patrick speaking last week. “Sewing the threads of community.”

• Last week, Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the last eight years, gave her first interview. Hagiographic, but lots of excellent insights, especially on the importance of selflessness, teamwork, and kindness. A must watch for my daughters.

 

 

Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80′s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”

How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

Just Maybe The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Friend, Spouse, Work Environment

Generosity? Dependability? Energy? Care? Smarts? Loyalty? Connections? Kindness? Humility? Patience? Optimism? I’ll wait while you cast your vote. . .

My answer came to me Friday night at the Puget Marina off Johnson Point Rd in North Olympia. The Puget Marina has the single best view of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier of any one place I’ve ever stood. I was there Friday night because Scott, a principal friend, was being celebrated for his ten plus year tenure at a local high school. He’s beloved by his faculty and staff in large part because of his sense of humor. Here’s a little flavor flav of his personality. He’s the guy on the scooter who can’t squat worth beans.

When our new high school grad watched that vid she said, “Our principal could never pull that off.” Few principals could because they’re keenly self conscious, just like people more generally. Most principals continuously worry, what kind of persona am I projecting? Authoritative enough? Professional enough?

Faculty and staff told funny stories all night. There was a moving mixture of laughter and tears. One person said Scott’s greatest talent is being able to switch smoothly from serious to silly and back again. There’s a lot to having and using a sense of humor thoughtfully. I think it’s at least partially learned. Too bad we don’t think, talk, or teach about it.

Day-to-day life is challenging; consequently, pressures continuously build. Humor is an indispensable pressure relief valve. It’s a salve for the super serious and the sad. Or in other words, all of us at times.

Friday night I realized Scott is wonderfully comfortable in his own skin and with those he works. Somehow he’s learned to sidestep the trap of self-consciousness.

I dug the evening because the informal vibe stood in such amazing contrast with my work environment at a university. Sometimes I wonder if PhD stands for Prior humor Disassembled. I challenge you to find a less humorous setting than a typical university faculty meeting. Just brutal. Everyone wondering if they’re coming across as smart enough. Maybe Scott should consult with Deans on how to make their own rap videos.

The other day on my Twitter feed, another reminder of humor’s value compliments of Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia fame. She tweeted, “Walked to my friend’s house to pick up my bike, cycled home, took a bath. Pretty sure I just completed the Portland Triathlon.” Anyone know Carrie? I want to be her friend. Maybe I’ll invite to her a faculty meeting.