I’m satisficed

satisficerThat’s not a typo in the post title — it refers to my stance as a satisficer. According to psych research, one is a satisficer or a maximizer. When you’re trying to make a decision, what is important to you? Being sure you get the VERY BEST option, or being happy enough with what you pick?

Here’s a real-life example of this. My husband and I eat dinner at a neighborhood diner in NYC on the nights he finishes working around 10PM. If you’ve ever been to a NY diner, you know that their menus can be huge. Here’s how we approach deciding what to eat:

ME: I start with the section I’m most likely interested in — let’s say salads. I read the first option on the list, then the second. Which of the two do I want? Then I take that option and compare it to the next one on the list, which of those do I want? With a series of pairwise comparisons, I end up with the one I’m most interested in from that section. (And actually, if I pick the same one two or three times in a row, I figure that one must be the one I’m wanting so I don’t even read the whole list.) I’m satisfied! It’ll be good, I’m done. And if I don’t know what I want, I do this same exercise with the sections first. Sandwiches vs salads — ok, a salad. Salads vs the daily special — ok, still a salad. Salads vs burgers — ok, still a salad. Then the pairwise comparisons within that section, and I’m done. I’ll be happy with my salad, because it’s just dinnerIt’s just a salad. It doesn’t have to be the most amazing meal I’ve ever experienced. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be the most amazing salad I’ve ever had!

MY HUSBANDHe begins at the top of the menu and reads every single item on the menu, beginning to end. He pauses, mulls each option (I wonder if the onions are grilled….do you think the tomatoes are good yet? Bad tomatoes would ruin the burger), goes back to an earlier option, keeps reading, keeps interrogating me and the waiter, and this is a slow process because he’s also extremely dyslexic, and when he gets to the end of the menu, several big laminated pages later, he needs to re-read the beginning page since he doesn’t really remember what those options were. Finally he’ll pick something, and as soon as he places his order he realizes that he really should’ve ordered the other thing, what he ordered won’t be as good as that would’ve been.

What matters to him is that he get the very best meal he can possibly have at the diner. I always feel sad for him, because he rarely enjoys his as much as I enjoy mine. And how could he? It carries a heavy burden! It has to be the best! Mine just has to be good enough to be an enjoyable meal. There’s a lot of evidence that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, and of course the distinction brings a lot of stuff with it, like temperament and personality (maximizers are more likely to be neurotic, for instance, and which came first, being neurotic? Maybe!). If you’re curious about yourself, here’s a little quiz:


My score is 75 (the possible range is 13 to 91), so I’m not completely without standards. 🙂 Like everyone else, I care about the things I care about! It’s just a question of how big an umbrella that is, right? Do I care about my meals? Yeah, sure, I like tasty, healthy food. Do I care about what I’m wearing? Sure, I guess I care enough. Do I care about my family and friends? OH HELL YES. Do I care about my ethical concerns? ALL THE WAY. Do I care about my car? Sure, to the extent that it’s safe and cost-effective. Do I care about how well my home is decorated? Enough. I still haven’t done anything at all with the dining room, and I’ve lived here almost four years.

Like temperament, I think this is kind of a “just who you are” deal. If you tried to force me to be a maximizer at that diner, I just don’t think I could do it. I might fake it if you held a gun to my head, but I’d be faking it because really, it just needs to be a good enough salad. I’d pretend to read all the choices, but I’d be thinking about something else. If you forced my husband to be a satisficer, he’d get kind of paralyzed and pick something because of that gun to his head, but he’d hate what he ordered and would be torn up the rest of the night thinking about the perfect meal he didn’t get.

And thus ends today’s psychology lesson, offered after a lengthy telephone conversation with my maximizer husband going over possible hotel options in Laos, with me saying, “Sure honey, I like that one! Well yeah, that one sounds great! I don’t know, I like that one too!” I probably drive him crazy. 🙂

all the feelings

Several days ago someone — I can’t remember who, now — said that others were telling her how to feel in the face of whatever it was, I don’t remember that either. (Too much Oliver, Marc, barbecue, and Tex-Mex intervening.) Anyway, that is familiar to me as it is to you: Oh, don’t feel that way. You shouldn’t feel that way. You don’t really feel that way, do you? You should be happy! And that got me thinking about this broad topic.

It’s one of my common old topics; I’ve loved to think about this for decades. My favorite paper I published when I was in graduate school was about valence and emotions, and the impossibility of assigning “opposites.” What is the opposite of love? Hate? Indifference? (Solomon, R. C., & Stone, L. D.(2002). On “positive” and “negative” emotions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 32, 417–443, if you’re into that kind of thing.)(And this tickles me so much:)

ha! Bob was the philosopher, not me. But I'm a philosopher-wanna-be.
ha! Bob was the philosopher, not me. But I’m a philosopher-wanna-be.

Anyway. Back to all the feelings. In addition to the problem of opposites (which is a very silly idea if you think about it), there is also the problem of complexity, and this struck me when my friend was talking about others telling her how she should be feeling. There are some emotions, perhaps, that are pure and purely one thing. I don’t really think so, but I’ll go ahead and plant that as a starting point. Most, though, are very complex; some of the complexity is in our awareness, and some may not be. An example will help.

UntitledLet’s say I get an email from my son who has not spoken to any of us for so long. I haven’t, but let’s say that yesterday I got such an email. And let’s say it’s a nice one, maybe even one that includes an apology for his general assholiness. How do I feel? Happy to hear from him after so long? Yeah, sure. Furious at him for jerking us around? Absolutely. Relieved to hear that he is OK? Well of course. Sad that he is causing me so much pain? Yes oh yes.  Hopeful that he’s gotten his act together? Well, a mustard seed but maybe not even that. I feel like laughing and crying and punching something all at once. What the hell do I feel? I can’t tell you in a word, or a sentence (other than “lots of things at once”). And there are other feelings that are deeply embedded and maybe so common to me that I don’t recognize them but they are DEFINITELY part of the mix. Desperate, perhaps, because I am afraid he will simply disappear / hurt himself / abandon us.

But I have experience with other people whose children have just sailed, relatively speaking, through adolescence and into adulthood without being such a jerk, and some (but by no means all!!) just cannot get it. They can’t get what’s up with him in the first place — but that’s OK, neither can I — and worse, they can’t get the complexity of my feelings in the face of what “ought” to be simply a happy thing. So I have actually had people dismiss my aggregate of feelings and kind of scold me, telling me I ought to just be happy.

You ought to be finished grieving.

You can’t be furious at him for dying!

You shouldn’t be mad, I didn’t do that on purpose.

You have no right to feel hurt, you did it to me in the first place.

I don’t know why people tell others how to feel, or that what they’re feeling is wrong, or not what they should be feeling. Maybe some people prefer a simple world where feelings are this or that. Maybe some people feel afraid of others’ feelings for a number of reasons — perhaps because they can’t fix it (like someone else’s grief), or perhaps because they’re scared of feeling it themselves. Maybe some people feel something so different and can’t imagine that you might feel/experience it differently.

Actually, I think we often do this to ourselves, too. Or I’ll just speak for myself: I do this to myself, too. For quite a long number of years, I couldn’t acknowledge that I was furious with my dad for killing himself (never mind the rest). It took a long time to realize that I felt it, and then a longer time to be OK with feeling it. Guilty, check! No problem feeling that one. Relief, check! Sad, …… um …… yes? Overwhelmed, check! Partly it was hard to acknowledge the anger because what do I do with that? OK, I’m furious . . . and he is dead. Can’t get any satisfaction by telling him, and telling other people didn’t drain my fury. (What did drain my fury is a topic for another post, and it took me so very long to get there and then magically I was there, and then I went to eat barbecue.)

Why do we resist the feelings that we feel? We can be so scared of the “bad” or “difficult” feelings that we fight them, resist them, push back. That doesn’t work, and the harder we push the harder we have to push. This is one thing meditation does to help; you become able to sit with whatever you are feeling and acknowledge it and that very fact, the very ability to just sit there, helps a whole lot. OK, this extraordinarily broken heart is not actually going to kill me. It feels like it will, but it won’t. It’s a feeling. Fury won’t kill you. Despair won’t kill you. Heartache won’t kill you. These feelings won’t kill you. You might do something with them, you might turn the fury, despair, heartache against yourself or against someone else and act on the feelings, but the feeling is not going to kill you. I learned this for myself in January 2013. I often had to clutch the bedsheets to bear it, but I felt them all and they did not kill me. (In fact, sometimes seeing that it won’t kill us can be upsetting — as if it “must mean” that the thing wasn’t that big to us after all. We are a funny species.)

Anyway. Whatever you do, don’t tell someone else how to feel. If they tell you how they are feeling, don’t tell them that they are not feeling that, or that they should not be feeling that. For heaven’s sake. They may be telling themselves the same thing, and need some space for it to be OK, some validation that they feel that thing. As is often the answer, here’s what you do: shut the hell up. Listen. Try to understand.

Busy busy Tuesday for me, and a gorgeous day forecasted here. Hope it’s the same for you (and don’t tell other people how to feel). xo

taking things personally

This is one that really chaps my hide. I usually hate it when someone tells me not to take things personally — especially when it’s a person who uses “humor” to cover mean little attacks. There’s no one in my life like that now, but there has been in the past (this is why they’re in the past). The problem is that a lot of thinkers who write about well-being and ease and happiness say the same thing. Don’t take things personally. Hmph, I usually think, easy for you to say.

But of course I also think it’s true, and it’s an issue of discrimination, when to let it go and when to see it for what it truly is. Some things simply are personal! There might be ways you could work with personal attacks so they don’t rile you up quite as much, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater to take nothing personally. (And anyway, the world IS personal to me! I attach to it.)

arrayIt’s easy to think about super brittle people, people who are almost always grabbing every tiny little slight, even if they have to explain it long and hard for you to see how it’s a slight. That is taking things personally, and it’s no fun on every front. It’s very hard and exhausting to be around those people, because they’re probably going to take offense at some point and you were just trying to eat your salad and never dreamed they’d take your carrot complaint that way. And it is surely no fun to be that person, feeling poked at all the damn time, believing that the world is out to get you. This is one of those little stories I write about on occasion. It’s easy to call to mind people whose radar is so keenly tuned, it feels like it must be a full-time job for them, responding to all the personal slights and attacks. But I guess we’re all like this, and it’s a matter of degree and specific topic, perhaps. I have my own very large array watching out for my pet painful topics. It’s an issue of figuring out your typical little stories and bringing awareness to them. Ah, I always sense rejection and I think what she just said was rejecting, but I know that’s my thing so I’ll ask. OR come up with an alternative explanation other than the little story version.

Because the truth is that most people are not paying attention to you. They just aren’t. You are the center of the world but so are they. You look out of your eyes and see everyone in your orbit — coming closer to you, moving away from you — but they’re not usually doing that. Usually they are looking out of their eyes and seeing you doing those things, while they are also trying to dodge asteroid fields and black holes. And their own droughts and floods and earthquakes and deep sea temblors, most of which you aren’t even noticing because you’re too busy dealing with your own.

It’s another good thing about getting older. Your skin may dry out, but somehow slights can just slide off it, at the same time. Not sure how that works. Meh, so what, next! First of all, you’ve got some perspective and really don’t give such a shit about the tiny little things that used to wrap you around the axle; second, you’ve learned how to discriminate a little more and know who you can trust and who you should watch a little more closely — and it’s not everyone, by any means; and third, if you’re lucky you’ve learned a few things about yourself and you aren’t as affected by casual weird remarks. Even if the person saying it means it, you call bullshit because you know yourself, and just move on. Whatever, weird person, that’s on you. But more, if you’ve paid attention as you’ve gotten older, you just know that most people are clumsy and not paying morbid attention to every single word they utter, interrogating it to be sure it won’t interact with everyone’s little stories. That is EXHAUSTING.

So cut some slack, let things go — not everything, but most — and tend to your own orbit and system. That’s plenty of work.

Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s so beautiful here; yesterday a high near 80 and today only 60, but hey. Sunny blue skies and 60 degrees in late January? I’ll take it. If we don’t celebrate our beautiful winters, the desperately hot and muggy summers win. Hope it’s not a gloomy day wherever you are.


ambiguityI am unambiguous about this: I adore ambiguity. Love it. It can be uncomfortable, and I may frequently have to pull myself out of little black and white boxes in the corner, where I’ll sometimes run for a thoughtless moment, but ambiguity is where it’s at, man. Because our lives are filled with it, and so is the world (although that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to know stuff, to state stuff with some degree of certainty, although it’s usually a much smaller set of certain things than you think). I remember when I started graduate school, my advisor said that to get a PhD in psychology requires a high tolerance for ambiguity. “Sign me up,” was my (probably only imagined) response. I haven’t always embraced it so much, but then again I wasn’t always very wise.

Freud said, “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.” His use of the word ambiguity meant — I think — the ways in which words can have different and even opposing meanings. Not just that things are vague. By that definition, I guess I’m not neurotic, though I didn’t need Freud to tell me that. I simultaneously relished each moment my husband was here and felt desperate that they were winding down, and looked forward with equal relish to having my place all to myself again. Relish on both sides of the equation, equal relish even, but opposite things to relish. I’m OK with that. I’m also OK with imagining that he felt exactly the same way; there was a time  that would’ve left me feeling rejected, but I know we all hold conflicting feelings and one does not negate the other.

My husband is one of the most intellectually complex people I’ve ever known, and he’s so advanced in his Buddhist path — just completing the 5th level of training — that he is comfortable in the ambiguity of the world in certain ways that I struggle with. But he frequently wants to know that what he sees/how he feels is the same that others see/feel. “Honey, do most people X?” “Honey, did they mean for us to hate that character in the show?” The most common thing I say to him when we spend time together is “I don’t know” because he asks unanswerable questions all day long. (It can be exhausting.) But these, checking on how most people see things, puzzle me the most. I don’t care if the writer/director meant for me to feel a certain way about a character, or if most people feel a certain way. I don’t care if most people in Austin do a thing, or if most New Yorkers do (or don’t). I’m comfortable with the fact that some do and some don’t and maybe today I do but tomorrow on the same issue I won’t. That’s fine with me.

One of the most fascinating things about ambiguity is what we do with it — we reveal ourselves, and if we pay attention we can learn something about ourselves. I learn things this way a lot, about myself and about people I know. Lots of situations are ambiguous and open to interpretation, and people often use the same old templates on ambiguous situations. One of my templates/systematic biases relates to rejection (I’ve written about this before, in my “little stories” post). A perfect example happened in August 1979; my then-boyfriend was being super weird. Strange, bizarre, nervous. He’d suddenly stand up, he was obviously distracted, and he seemed anxious. He said, suddenly, “Let’s go out to breakfast. I have to tell you something.”  So of course my immediate assumption was that he was going to break up with me. I was so sure of it. Instead, he asked me to marry him. That is so me. If ambiguous, then my bias toward expecting rejection comes out to help me ‘understand’ the situation. I’ve gotten so much better with this as I’ve gotten older (and as I went through graduate school), and being with Marc helped me with it a lot too. I’ve learned to challenge my biased reaction, to ask questions of myself and him, and to come up with at least one other explanation that might fit the actually ambiguous situation.

Honestly, that is one of the best techniques. Just come up with one other explanation. “Let’s see….he’s going to break up with me, or maybe he’s worried about something at work.” “Well, I think he’s either going to break up with me, or he had a nightmare that’s bothering him.” Just forcing yourself to come up with another possibility kind of breaks the hold that our one idea has on our imaginations. In fact, once I come up with an alternative, the whole scheme falls apart, the emotion drains away, and it’s much easier just to ask. (And a social psychologist would remind you to look for situational or environmental presses that may be influencing the behavior too. Just sayin’.) We all have systematic biases — every last one of us — and the more we rely on those biased responses, the stronger they become.

Living better through life experience and social psychology. 🙂 My work here is done for the day.

other people

When Marnie and Tom were here, we were talking about a young woman I know who is a mother and making what look like poor choices. It’s the ‘mother’ part of that sentence that matters, right? If she were just a woman making poor choices, we might shake our heads and tsk tsk a little bit because we love her and are concerned for her, but that’d be about the extent of it.  This is an issue I’ve thought about for decades. After I was a parent for a long enough time — maybe when my kids were midway grown — I began to deeply understand that I was still living my life and my kids were in it. My kids were part of my life, they were in my life, but it was/is my life to be lived. Maybe other people know that right off the bat, maybe others know it so well they don’t even think about it. Maybe I was just so young (I was), and maybe I had no self when I was a young mother (I didn’t), and maybe I was just so single-minded about raising my kids in a 100% different way than I was raised (I was). My eyes only looked outward, so what I saw outside of me was my life, entirely.

At some point I started being a factor in my own life, and I wasn’t very good at it when I started. This shift coincided with making a huge mistake, one I still regret, and while I can understand all the factors that went into it, it was still a mistake. We all have those. But to the point of this post, it was my life I was living, inexperienced as I was with that, and my kids were a huge and important part of my life but I was still trying to make choices for my own life.

i thouEnter Sartre, and Buber. People mis-use that Sartre line from No Exit: “Hell is other people.” People usually quote that line when they are talking about someone they dislike, or someone who is giving them a lot of trouble of some kind. Someone who consistently steals their lunch from the refrigerator at work, for instance, or a co-worker who is toxic. AAARGH, hell is other people. That person is hell, is making my life a living hell. But that’s not what Sartre meant. Sartre and Buber were both thinking about this issue of being the subject of your own life, and the way that others are the subjects of their own lives, too….which means they are seeing you as the object in theirs.

Sartre saw that tension as a terrible thing to experience. It always felt to me, when I read Sartre, that he experienced it almost as a physical violence, as if the other person was attacking, trying to flip him inside out or something. Trying to steal or even kill his very self. Buber’s take — I and Thou — was that we experience the other as an object but that is our work, then, to struggle to hold the other with the same central reverence that we hold ourselves. (This is a gross oversimplification of both, obviously, so apologies to Sartre and Buber for that.)

This is something I think about a whole lot, in two different streams. One stream relates to being a mother to my children, who may understand this intellectually but can’t understand it fully until they are parents of growing kids of their own. All kids judge their parents, of course, and do their best with the level of understanding they have at any given moment. That’s why our understanding of our parents changes as we ourselves get older and move through the stages of life our parents passed through. I try often to think about my mother as the I of her own life, making her own best choices for herself, and we kids were just in her life. It’s hard with her because she is a psychopath, but it’s still a very good exercise. There is a tension, certainly, for a mother; parents are supposed to make choices that are best for their children and that frequently means sacrifice of their own wishes and needs, big and small. Judgment is especially harsh for mothers, who are held to an even higher standard of sacrifice. It’s tough. My mother’s main and explicit lesson to us was, “Never have children, they ruin your life.” I remember being a young girl and wondering what the point was — I would have children and my own life would stop in service of theirs, then they would have children and their own lives would stop, then they would have children…..  Obviously I was missing most of the point and my life is as wonderful as it is exactly because I became a mother, but the question of a mother’s ongoing life is still (or can be) fraught in many ways.

The other stream of my thought about this relates to interactions with people in my life, of course. I think about this all the time and my thought is influenced by my training as a social psychologist. More than most, we social psychologists know the power of the situation to shape our behavior, and that it’s subtle and powerful and often outside our awareness and we do not like to believe it’s true. Oh no! I did that myself! I did it because…well, wait a minute, I’ll make up a reason. So when a friend does something that has a tinge of an effect on me, it’s easy for me to immediately wonder what might be influencing her action, rather than immediately assuming it’s something she’s doing to me. It’s a different slant on recognizing that she is the subject of her own life, but it gets me to that same neighborhood.

I actually think it’s a lot of fun to think about this in the midst of an interaction, either with a friend, or with a whole group of people. It’s a little shift of vision, that’s all, to see that she is seeing all of us as Other, and so is she, and so is he. There we all are, the subjects of our own lives seeing each other as objects. There we all are, with our own inner lives and conflicts and sore spots and prideful bits and secrets and worries, interacting with each other. Just realizing that every single person has a thick inner life going on that’s invisible to me also helps get me there where I want to be, trying to meet people with a kind of reverence for them as a whole living person.

The last Sunday of the year, y’all. I hope it’s a beautiful one.


I’m flexible about names, apparently. Eight have been associated with me:

  • Lori Dawn, the two names I was given at birth
  • Peters, the last name I had at birth
  • Snyder, the name I got when my stepfather adopted me
  • Galloway, the name I took when I got married
  • Alyssa, a new middle name I added when I legally changed my last name to Stone
  • H____, the last name I took when I married

My name has been complicated, beginning when I was about 12 years old and my mother remarried. To be fair, back then (c1970), it was super super weird to have a different last name than your parents. Super weird. Divorce was weird. I didn’t know any other divorced kids. And since we moved every little bit, every few months (or less), having to explain why we kids had a different last name from our parents became too much trouble so we all started using the last name Snyder. (Eventually he adopted us so it was our legal name.) But when I was Snyder, it broke my father’s heart. And when I said I wanted to use Peters, it enraged my mother, who hated my father and I gather hoped he would simply disappear entirely. My name was just such a source of stomach ache and trouble.

So when I married Jerry, and got the name Galloway, hallelujah! A name that wouldn’t get me in trouble anywhere. My name, finally, a name of my own. Even still, all these years later, once in a while I accidentally write Lori Galloway — sometimes I notice I’ve done it and sometimes I don’t. In a deep way, that feels like my real name, still.

being a rock but not rolling
being a rock but not rolling

After Jerry and I divorced, I kept the name Galloway. It was my kids’ name, and anyway it was mine too! But at some point, in graduate school, I decided it really was not my name and I wanted a name of my own. I wanted to choose a name that would just be mine, a name that would forever be mine and that wouldn’t cause me any trouble, ever. And so I thought and thought and thought. I didn’t want a name that had ever been associated with me, all of which were fraught in one way or another. I thought and thought and thought. I thought about meaning, I wanted a name that meant something deep for me, something that reflected a solid place — I thought of that line from Stairway to Heaven, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Yeah, I want a name that is like that. So many of the names I considered were too far afield — Biblical, Arabic-rooted, etc., and I’m a way-too-white girl to carry that off. Finally, a friend said, “What about Stone?” It was a thunderbolt, so very perfect. YES! Stone! That’s so perfect. Lori Stone, that is so perfect, and it has no connection to any other name I’ve ever had. MY name, my very own name, just mine. Added a new name as long as I was at it, another name with meaning (Alyssa means “sane one”) and since I was a student I was able to do it very cheaply with legal services through the university. The court gave me a paper with a kind of silly scroll printed on it, and the clerk handwrote my new name. Lori Dawn Alyssa Stone. My very own name.

About a year later, I was filling out a form that asked for my mother’s maiden name and without even a pause I wrote Stone. WHAT??? How in the world had I not realized that, how in the world had it been so gone in my mind? It was Big Daddy’s last name, my beloved Big Daddy, Harve Stone. There was nothing obscure about the name, and yet it had completely slipped out of my mind when I picked it.

I just think that is so so hysterical. Paging Dr Freud, although I don’t know what he would say about it. I don’t know why it was so absent from my mind, I can’t even make up a story where it makes any damn sense at all.

Marrying and taking Marc’s name gave me pause, but I liked his last name and I’m loose about that kind of thing. But it was always a problem, since I write publicly and he is a therapist and doesn’t want his patients to find me and learn about me or him (and me neither, at this point, since it was one of his crazy ex-patients who stalked and tried to sue me). And so I live between names again — publicly and in Austin as Stone, and professionally and in NYC as H___.  Both names feel normal to me, but I do get in a little trouble now and then. Which name have I been using at my hair salon? Who knows me with which name?

I think psychology is the most fascinating thing — the human mind, the human noise we all make, the human flailing and thrashing, the human heart, the human trying so hard, the human push for meaning. Whenever I think of this one, it makes me laugh so hard, but it also touches me. Oh, little me, what was going on there? What was that about?

Happy Tuesday y’all, we’re getting so close to Christmas! I hope you feel mostly ready, and mostly happy. xo


When I first heard this, I laughed. Sitting in my Intro to Social Psych class as an undergrad, I laughed. Out loud. It was the chapter on interpersonal attraction, and the claim was that “the propinquity effect” is one of the primary factors in interpersonal attraction. That means the main reason we find someone attractive is that they’re around. They’re nearby. On the face of it, it’s obvious (well how else could you ever find someone attractive, if you never encounter them! As a little girl, I used to worry, what if my true love is born in China and I never meet him?). And on the closer face of it, it’s disheartening. Really? That’s all it takes, is nearness? Is that all it takes, is that why we marry our high school sweethearts, is that why we hook up in college, because we see each other all the time so we are attracted?

braised tofu and quinoa salad, such a California dinner!
braised tofu and quinoa salad, such a California dinner!

Last night I thought about this while I was having dinner. There is a restaurant in my little boutique hotel, kind of sweet but small. The bar is a nicer place to sit, so I took a stool, ordered a glass of Pinot grigio and a salad, and started thumbing through a magazine I found in the lobby. The place was empty, just me and the bartender, but it was a friendly kind of quiet. He and I weren’t chatting at all, which made him my kind of bartender. He took my order (saying, “Nice!” when I ordered the salad) and then another woman took a seat at the bar. On the TV behind the bar, with the volume off, a hockey game was being played — the Stanley Cup maybe? — and the bartender noticed the other woman’s interest in the game. She said she loved hockey because she’s Canadian. Well, he’s Canadian too! And they were off to the races, talking and talking and talking, so excitedly. It was kind of adorable. When they started talking about how people get the Canadian accent so wrong (“It’s not aboot, it’s aboat!”) I decided to jump in too, since you know accents are one of my favorite subjects. Then she and I were talking when he turned away, then he and I were talking when her friend came, and it all started because the two of them were from Canada.

And I started thinking about how little we need to find each other. How little it takes to make a bond. Propinquity. Or how we grab these karasses, to use Vonnegut’s great word, and act like they really mean something important. But it’s a mistake to be contemptuous of these shared aspects of our identity, to dismiss the bond we can feel over having gone to the same school, having lived in the same city, having been born in the same country, or rooting for the same team. Those things don’t mean anything important in themselves, but they give us the merest little whisper of something we can grab, some tiny little way we can connect, and I find it so dear that we do that. It left me feeling so tender about people, watching those two Canadians, unknown to each other and living in LA, rush into eager conversation about what it really means to be cold (“I laugh when people here say they’re cold!”), how important hockey was in school, and then branching out into the rest of who they were. I think we long to do that, and we just need a touch of some kind to open that door.

One very interesting thing I’ve found about Beverly Hills — verified by both Canadians last night — is that the people seem very open and eager to connect. It’s easy for me feel put off by them because so often they are aggressively groomed (or else they remind me of the Dude) and boy that’s not me. I’m there in my traditional outfit — old, inexpensive jeans and a sailor shirt probably — with a need for a pedicure, hair carelessly tended to, mismatching accessories, no make-up, and I think we are just so different. But we aren’t, that’s my mistake. When I went to the restaurant for dinner a couple of nights ago, the waitress was sitting at a nearby table eating her dinner. She was exquisite, even in her black shirt and pants, the uniform of waiters. She got up and came to my table and the way she spoke to me, even with her soft voice, felt like she was my friend taking care of me instead of someone doing her job. After my meal, we talked for several minutes in a personal way and it was so lovely. At lunch yesterday, my client and I were eating at a sidewalk cafe and two cars smashed into each other right in front of us — very powerful and terrifying, I always forget how terrifying that sound is. The waiter came right over and talked about how people in Beverly Hills are always in such a rush, and we had a 10-minute conversation that drifted from this to that. I thought he was going to pull up a chair. Easy conversations all around, and not about the weather (maybe because the weather is almost always the same, and perfect).

I can’t wait to get home to Austin and have easy conversations with my people — it’s been interesting being here, and I’ve learned things and had lovely moments like the one I had last night, but I’m so ready. Tonight, though, I’m having dinner with an old friend from our high school years and his wife, also from his high school. They’re taking me to the Santa Monica Pier, so I’m sure I’ll have photos and stories to share. Happy Thursday y’all!

quick, try this

eIndulge me. Using your index finger, draw a capital E on your forehead. I’ll wait.

Did you draw it so it looked right to people looking at you? Or did you draw it so it looked right to you? If we’d been sitting together, would you have asked me which way I meant, or was it immediately obvious to you how you “should” draw it?

The first time I heard about this when I was in graduate school, it never even occurred to me that there was another way to draw it — so it was right for people looking at me, of course! No thought whatsoever about the possibility of drawing it the other way. Over the years I’ve done this with people and about 1/3 usually ask me which way I want them to draw it, and it’s just clear to everyone else. I’m curious about what it meant to you. Last night I asked someone to do it and he immediately drew it so it was right for me — obvious to him. So obvious.

It’s about a concept called “self-monitoring,” and if you draw it so it’s right to a viewer, you’re probably a “high self-monitor,” like me. We high self-monitors are keenly aware of social cues, we’re (to varying degrees) social chameleons, shifting the presentation of ourselves to fit our surroundings. We’re allegedly easily influenced by advertising. At an extreme, we exhibit a herd mentality. So we draw the capital E that way because we’re always kind of watching ourselves from the outside, watching and tweaking our behavior. I imagine there’s a pathological extreme, where we have no real sense of self and are completely different in different settings. I’ve known people like that, and they’re so creepy — there’s no one inside, it seems, they’re simply a mirror. But you know, like everything else, it’s about context, it’s about flexibility, it’s about being able to self-monitor when you need to. Here’s a story about using some self-monitoring to advance in your career.

Now, though — and this is funny to me — it’s equally obvious to draw it so it’s right to me. If I encountered this for the first time, it wouldn’t cross my mind to do it any other way. If you’re curious, click this link to take a little online test, developed by the researcher responsible for the construct, Mark Snyder. And the little survey supports the shift in me. Here’s my survey feedback:

Your score (9/25) indicates that you value staying true to yourself and are unwilling to modify your behavior just to get the approval of thers. You probably do not like to be the center of attention very often.

So there’s a little Fun With Psychology for you on this Friday!

Speaking of, FRIDAY, yay! Hallelujah! Oh wait…..it doesn’t mean anything much to me, I have so much work to do I’m working through the weekend. But that’s OK, I’m glad for the work and I did, after all, have three weeks off recently. Do you ever read out loud (not to small children, I mean)? I’m reading Blood Meridian out loud to a friend (my favorite Cormac McCarthy book, by far), a chapter at a time, and last night I read a chapter that described the first Comanche attack on the group, with page-long sentences, phrases strung together with ands, breathless to read but chilling and just right. My friend is a poet, and his poetry reminded me of McCarthy’s style — spare and biblical — so I forced him to listen to the book. Well, force was required with the first paragraph, but now it’s an eager experience. When I hit that long Comanche attack scene (Comanches represent! My people!), his eyes widened and he leaned forward and kind of raised himself off the chair a little bit, caught up in the horror but the brilliance of the language. It was so much fun, because after that passage ended we both just sat in silence, staring with our mouths open a little bit. And then he tried to say something about it but there was just nothing to say, every single word of the passage was just and only right, and it was terrible and magnificent. Isn’t it fun to have someone to share that kind of thing? Because you know, I can be intense about things like that, I can be swarmed by goosebumps and get really excited and geek out about McCarthy’s fondness for using the past tenses of slink — slank, slunk — and the brilliant way he uses the word slake….twice in that chapter…and how OH MY GOD that bloody wedding veil and the mirrors on the shield yes of course. And reading Blood Meridian reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s fantastic movie Dead Man, which we now have to watch. Having a friend who is a poet is just the greatest thing for me. Usually, if I start talking about those things (except with Marnie), my conversation partner’s eyes start shifting to the sides and then they remember they need to get to the dentist for that emergency root canal or something.

Anyway. Happy Friday, I hope it’s a beautiful day where you are. xoL

our crazy ideas

It’s the stuff of Philosophy 101 maybe, but I like to think about the huge power of the way we think about things. There have been times in my life when a lot of terrible (and terribly difficult) things were happening in a chain — as these things happen — and I’ve heard myself think, “I just can’t take any more.” And then I’ve had a little inner voice talking back saying, “What does that mean? Of course you can.” Having the idea that I can’t take more feels very real, but what would it really mean, not to take whatever else comes? That I leave town, go to some remote island where “things” can no longer find me? Does it mean I collapse in a puddle and then, magically, those bad things quit happening? Maybe all we really mean, when we say something like that, is “I feel like I can’t take any more, but of course I will.” But I don’t think so. I think we say that with some kind of magical wish or something, as if we’re calling ‘uncle’ to the universe, going belly-up. 

hardAnd then there’s “I can’t do that it’s too hard.” Or, “but it’s hard!” When I’m drifting off to sleep, I put the sleep-timer on the tv and often it’s the Food Network I land on, nothing there that will engage my interest and make me want to stay awake, and also no screaming. One night Restaurant Impossible was on, and a woman was struggling with standing up to her family, who were all taking advantage of her, and she said that to the guy — “But it’s hard!” — and he just kind of looked at her and said, “I know. And you have to do it.” That really got me thinking about all the times I give up right there, all the times I am chugging along, chugging along, and get to whatever it is that feels too hard and just stop. In some sense, that’s just an idea! It’s just an idea. Whatever is stopping me is probably hard for me and wouldn’t be as hard for others; it’s not like what’s stopping me is lifting the 2-ton truck that’s blocking the only road out of town. That would, in fact, be too hard. Too hard for my puny muscles, too hard to do all alone, yep, that’s too hard. But what usually blocks the road isn’t something like that, it’s usually something like not eating that bag of chips (“But I really really really want it! It’s just too hard!”) or saying something to someone (“But it’s too hard to tell my landlord/boss/friend, it’s just too hard!”).

I hit that “too hard” wall all the time and never thought twice about it until I saw that silly Restaurant Impossible show, isn’t that funny? It never occurred to me to question it, to talk back to it, really. To simply say to myself, OK, and? It’s hard, OK, but that’s an idea. It is hard to diet, to forgo that food you are really really wanting right then. It’s hard. It’s hard to make yourself get out and get the exercise you plan to get, it is, especially when you’re tired and worn out and gosh bed is so good. It’s hard to take a deep breath and go do that social thing even though you’re really so shy and scared. That’s hard! It is. But the idea of it being “too hard” is just an idea, and the task is really very simple. Put on some mascara, brush your hair, get in the car, and drive to the place. Open the car door, walk in, smile and say hello. Do what you can, stay as long as you can, talk back to yourself, and then you’ve done it. It was hard, but you did it.

“It’s too hard I can’t do it.” What can’t you do, really? You can’t go beyond the physical limits of your body (as in, lifting a 2-ton truck by yourself). There are undoubtedly psychological limits, too, that can make certain things too hard for people in certain circumstances, but they’re probably not nearly as frequent as we think. It’s an idea, that’s all. It’s just an idea we have. It’s not actually “too hard,” it’s just uncomfortable, or scary, or intimidating. It’s just that we have another idea we’ve made real — our idea of the outcome (that’s just an idea, even if we turn out to be right). We “JUST KNOW” that if we say something to our boss, we’ll get fired or there will be tension. And so we don’t say something, because “it’s too hard” because we know exactly what will happen. Two ideas in a row there, and we act as if they are concrete reality. Isn’t that funny?

And then the flip side of that funny is that when we do those things, we usually feel amazing. We forgo the bag of chips it was “too hard” to decline and we feel amazing! Proud of ourselves, better able to stick with the diet we do want to be on, strong. When we speak up, it might go badly but it might not — and even if it doesn’t go well, there is some pride to be felt in saying your piece. (And you avoid the self-recriminations of not saying your piece.) Yes, that was hard and I did it. You get the idea that you can do hard things. And the number of hard things in front of you diminishes, because you are a person who can do hard things. Hello, person who can do hard things! I really like you, a lot.

With that, I’m off to take a fast 2-mile walk. I don’t really want to, but I am a person who can do hard things. Sometimes. On occasion. Now and then. Today.

thoughts on happiness

If you’re new to my blog, you might be very surprised to learn that I’m a very happy person. For the last 2.5 months I’ve been mostly devastated and heartbroken because my granddaughter died, my marriage ended, and my life had to be totally uprooted and started over, halfway across the country from where I was living. I left New York City, which I loved, and moved back to Austin, a place I also love . . . but still. I’ve been very sad, because very sad things have been happening, but in the larger context I’m a happy person. And right THERE — right there we have to take a turn, because I want to know what you think that means, to be a happy person. Hell, I want to know what I think that means . . . which is why I’m writing about it, to figure this out.

Let’s start with deductive reasoning, beginning with my generally understood principle that I am a happy person. I am, even though I’m sad right now. I’m a happy person who is sad right now. After a lot of thinking about this for the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that in large part this is a function of temperament. The software that came with my system is happy. I’ll weeble, I’ll wobble, I’ll veer, I’ll even dip and wallow, but once things settle down, I return to my steady state of being temperamentally happy. I have known people who were temperamentally sad, or angry, or uncomfortable, or neurotic, or depressed, and that’s just their steady state. I’ve come to think that advising them to be happy is as silly as advising me to focus on and value all the discomfort, all the unhappy things. Sure, I can do that for a bit (even if you don’t ask me to), but before too long I’ll be reaching for perspective, or seeing things my way and there I am.

That’s not to say that we can’t help ourselves feel better, of course. There’s a whole industry of “be happy now!” advisors out there. Most of them rightly point out that it’s an inside job, and that if you think you’ll be happy when x or y happens, you’re missing the boat. And that’s also not to say that we’re stuck with how we are. But I’m fairly convinced now that these are issues of temperament and that’s more important than I ever realized.

But then there’s the question of what happiness is — a warm puppy? Laughing a lot? Feeling upbeat and Up With People all the time? Only seeing the sunny side? God almighty, I’d want someone to put me out of the misery of those last two versions of happiness. Such a sloppy word, happy. I think it’s used interchangeably with so many other words, and overlaps with so many things too (contentment, joy, for instance). So here’s where I’ll turn to deductive reasoning: I am happy, so what are the constituent elements of that? This is absolutely an issue where we all have our own definitions . . . and here are the bits of mine:

  • I tend to have a system that notices and is really grateful for small things. And I’m grateful for that. 🙂 The moon and stars, the sunrise and sunset, birds, fire, food cooking, those things grab me and take me out of myself and make me nearly unbearably happy.
  • My emotional system is quite complex and deep, so whether I like it or not, I feel things deeply and often and respond to the world emotionally. If I couldn’t feel sorrow, grief, awe, tender, wistful, joy, bliss, content, blue, anxious, and the dozens of other emotions that grip me, I think I’d be a much less happy person. So it’s important to my happiness that I can feel sad. Isn’t that funny?
  • I have passions, and lots of them. Words, music, art, story, people, making things, travel — I am passionate about all of that.
  • Relationships are so important to me and I am lucky to have a good many deep, meaningful ones. My children make me happy, even when we suffer together, and our relationships are the best part of my life, every day. I don’t have a hundred friends, but I have a lot of very deep friendships — and then a bunch of lighter ones. After my father killed himself 30 years ago, and my last words to him luckily were I love you, I’ve never parted from someone I love without telling them that I love them. I want people to know they are loved.
  • It always made me so sad for him — my husband was entirely unable to soothe or comfort himself, and he had a nearly impossible time taking comfort from other people, too. One thing that keeps me happy, I think, is that I am able to do this, on both sides. I have a lot of ways of comforting and soothing myself, and I do believe that’s an important part of happiness — self-regulation — because life is going to smack us around. It just is, count on it. I also take comfort from other people pretty easily.

But again, I think temperament has a lot to do with each of those things. I don’t choose to notice those various aspects of my surroundings, I just notice them before I think about it. I don’t choose to have the emotional responses I have; in fact, I can’t help it. I don’t even choose my passions, they just are. I’m sure I learned how to comfort myself, and how to love other people, but I think I’m also temperamentally pre-disposed. I am so grateful that these things are true for me.

I’ve become so annoyed by the happiness industry, writers and bloggers and self-help people who have 7 rules, 8 steps, 3 principles, whatever snazzy pitch they sold someone and now preach in syndication. Careful psychologists who study happiness, like Sonja Lyubomirsky, tend to emphasize the simple things, like the importance of being grateful and investing in important relationships; and again, I think if you’re temperamentally an unhappy or uncomfortable-in-the-world person, it can only help to shift your attention in these ways. I just think it’s a mistake for this industry to act as if all you have to do is X, Y and Z and happiness will be yours!

It seems to be a given that happiness is the desirable state, and I’m not convinced of that as an absolute truth. But let’s say it is a desirable state, and you’re not “happy.” I seriously doubt that taking on someone else’s program of steps and rules is going to get you there. You might pick up little tricks here or there, but if you just pay attention to yourself, you’ll figure things out on your own. It is an inside job, happiness, so if you’re not happy, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself (a) what that even means, to be happy; (b) what’s in the way; and (c) how you could go about getting there. 

And anyway, for you happiness might be kvetching with a similar-minded unhappy person about the unpleasant state of things. I’m always up for a little kvetching. 🙂

edit: You must read this breathtaking poem on happiness, by Dennis O’Driscoll. Thank you, Marnie dear, for sending it to me. I love it so much.

good thing of the day: poetry, and someone who loves you and knows you so well that she can send just the right one.

what is it like to be you?

​At the beginning of our trip — that seems so very long ago, now — we flew from JFK to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. My husband is Jewish, with Russian and eastern European roots, and he told me that he kept hearing the flight attendants saying blitzkrieg; after the first flight attendant served us, with her brilliant blond hair and bright blue eyes, her shiny healthy face and large white teeth, the song Tomorrow Belongs To Me popped into my head (from Cabaret) and I sang it in my head the whole trip.​

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Poor Germany, poor Germans, bearing the burden of that horrifying history.  I had two friends in graduate school who were from Germany; one came directly into our program, from Bavaria, and the other had moved to El Paso, Texas, when she was in junior high and she was treated very badly because she was German. Both my friends talked about how difficult it is to be German, the assumptions people hold about them, the history they’re held accountable for, even though they were both born in the early 1970s, I think. Both are kind and warm and gentle, and very loving people.

So I was thinking about what it’s like to be German, and I simultaneously thought it was a dumb, unanswerable question, and a very good question. I timidly floated the idea past my husband, leaning against the “dumb question” side of the fence and Buddhist that he is, he gave some kind of answer about the failure of categories. I kept thinking about it, though, and asked a friend of mine the question — what’s it like to be you? She said, “sad and empty.” OH….that punched me. It’s sad and empty to be her; even though I’d heard her say those kinds of things before, I guess I took them as feelings in passing. It asks a very different question than “who are you,” doesn’t it. I started thinking about different groups of people — disabled, Texans, southerners, statisticians, sanitation workers — and posed it to myself to see how one would answer it: “Lorraine, what’s it like being a Texan?” “Well,” I’d quickly say, “sometimes it’s mighty embarrassing if politics come up, but generally it’s like having a big secret you can’t wait to tell, it’s like having a whole huge story in your back pocket.” ​ The “what’s it like” question asks for feelings, while the “who are you” question asks for roles and nouns.

And then, social psychologist that I am, I started thinking about analytic strategies for understanding the responses, and how the responses to this question would hang together with other things. I have a friend who had a heart transplant as a young man after a virus attacked his heart, and in graduate school he wanted to understand how transplant recipients think about who they are — would those who answer the “what’s it like to be you” question by focusing on the bad stuff have different post-transplant responses than those who focus on the possibilities for restored life? ​

So here’s the answer for me, what it’s like to be me, if you were to ask me right now at this stage of my life (which brings up another issue, more in a sec): It’s amazing. It’s big, it’s rich, it’s deep, it’s vast, it’s wonderful, it’s complex being me. It just is, above and beyond the daily specifics. The bad stuff that inevitably happens doesn’t really change that, because it’s also about having perspective [most of the time]. It’s pretty great to be me. I wish I’d asked myself that question once a decade, or so​, because I’d like to see how — or if — it changed. I could ask myself now, “what was it like being me in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s” and I can easily cast back and think about my life then, but I wonder what I’d have said then. When I was in graduate school, I’d just told my advisor that I felt like I was better than I’d ever been, and he laughed (kindly, I hope) and said that he figured that was a constant for me, that I always felt like I was better than I’d been before. That’s probably true.

You know where this is going. What’s it like to be you? I really want to know.