Surviving the Small Stuff with the Help of Joan Miró

Since major losses are unavoidable, what can we control? Perhaps our reaction to the small stuff, the daily indignities and frustrations: the inevitable bruising in a crowded, high-speed, super-tech world preoccupied with itself.

Enlarge the meaning of those events and you will sink to the point of drowning.

You needn’t.

Maybe Joan Miró can help.

I was on the wet way to the Museum of Modern Art. Spirit-sucking morning weather was not predicted. No mention of violently chilly rain, driven in horizontal body blows by the air. The leering wind lifted skirts, groping for female skin. People halted at the lip of the 57th St. subway exit to avoid the deluge, lest umbrellas turn inside out.

An annoyance only, I thought or tried to think. I’ll soon be at the Miró exhibition.

Poor planning. Spain waited for me.

An entire country, to my surprise, was on Spring Break. Every Spaniard (so it seemed) left home to see the work of their Catalan/Spanish countryman, Joan (pronounced Juan) Miró. The 54th street lobby, the size of a high vaulted, grand church nave, impersonated a forest of bodies: little bodies held by big bodies, vigorous and infirm torsos, people in your way and you in theirs. The ticket-issuers were past the horizon.

I considered whether the art would be worth the travail, hidden behind the mob of which I was a part. Instead I pushed on, avoided the block-long coat-check line, and chanced no one would steal my umbrella from the unguarded stand on the wall.

The slow-mo mass inched when it could, grew when it couldn’t. My elevator made its tardy human deposit on the third floor, revealing a new throng already there. One stepped around traffic in front and beyond the drawings and paintings. Chatter above and a drone below. Periscopes were not for sale. 

But then Miró appeared!

Not the artist himself, dead since 1983. I’d not known much about him. Unfamiliar art must be encountered with an open mind. To achieve an aesthetic connection one must engage the maker. A passive viewer, waiting for a painter to do something to him, is unprepared.

Miró’s work is hallucinatory, not of this world, outside the real. Hitch a ride with him and he focuses you elsewhere, on escape, one of his personal preoccupations.

The lump of bodies no longer mattered much. The Catalan and I engaged in unheard dialogue. “Look here,” he whispered. “I’ll part the sea of souls between us.”

Even Alexander — he of the “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” — might have enjoyed it.

Here is advice, offered in the hope you will manage with grace most of the frustrating, sub-catastrophic times ahead.

  1. Fill your lungs to unwind the coiled spring inside you.
  2. Do not require perfection of life in any circumstance, except perhaps surgery. People cough when the music is still, highways suffer congestion when you are late, and any queue you choose will be the wrong one. Reframe your situation. The Buddah would suggest these obstacles offer you an opportunity to learn patience, for which gratitude (not resentment) is an appropriate response. Your choice.
  3. Remember, you are not alone. All in the legion of Miró’s admirers were at the mercy of themselves and each other. Though well-behaved, they doubtless wanted a solo turn in front of the art as much as I. Many had crossed the ocean for it.
  4. Save your indignation, disappointment, and sadness for bigger things. The life-wrenching, knee-buckling, terrifying battalions led by an indifferent Fate will visit soon enough. Small disturbances would escape your biographer’s attention. Make your life larger than such incidents.
  5. Be open to possibility: the delightful surprises, the beauty in the everyday, the small kindnesses others bestow upon you or you on them. In the course of my time at the museum I chatted with a couple of uniformed attendants who protect the collection, deal with emergencies, and give directions. They are people, too — challenged to keep a silent presence while performing their invisible work. A blind John Milton saw enough to know, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Do not think I am never maddened or impatient, unhappy with the conditions in which I find myself. But I try to effect change where I can, welcome the possible, and accept what is not.

Life offers many opportunities to make ourselves better and take in the loveliness still present in the world. Do not miss your Miró-moments, whenever they come.

—–

The Miró paintings begin with Persons Haunted by a Bird (1938), The Green Moon (1972), The Birth of the World (1925), and Painting (1950). The second image was one I took on the day in question, on Broadway near 57th St., New York.

Subtle Predictors of Relationship Success: What Time and Food will Tell You

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“Time will tell,” but not the way you think. How a person relates to time, not the passage of time, is telling. Immediately telling.

When you ask what kind of partner you need in a roommate, love mate, friend or boss, it’s easy to miss subtle signs. “Chemistry” is insufficient in a long-term love match, however necessary. Nor is it enough that “He’s a sweet guy.” How he relates to time and food is no less important than matters of money and sex, which I discussed just last week. My essay on the importance of cash and the conjugal to relationship success is here.

What might TIME tell you? Years ago, an (East) Indian acquaintance said, “Americans view time as the enemy, while we value time as our friend.” No wonder Westerners are in such a rush by comparison to some South Asia denizens, although I suspect their “westernization” has made time less friendly.

People obsessed with time are over-driven, insecure, fearful of failing or being left behind, unable to relax. They worry time may “run out” while someone else is ahead. Mortality concerns can drive this. The Death Clock’s ticking will not make your life more easeful, although some amount of mortality awareness encourages good use of the time you have.

Meanwhile, the chronically late — indifferent to the hour — display a lack of responsibility and consideration; at least on occasion expecting you to wait, thinking themselves entitled to tardiness. Delay controls others (intended or not), as in the CEO who makes you sit in the lobby long past your scheduled appointment. Lateness is his method of putting you in your place, affirming his dominant position.

Clock-watching has a short history. “On time” arrival only became possible when most everyone had a pocket watch or a clock nearby, and transportation (trains) capable of keeping to a schedule. Even into the tenure of President Lincoln, a precise start for a conclave was impossible if someone were coming from a considerable distance. The phrase “on time” didn’t exist until travel schemes were predictable.

The tyranny of the clock starts from that moment.

Knowledge of how a spouse or an employee deals with timeliness and deadlines is important to any successful home or work situation. A mismatch between two people in their response to time-pressure is like sitting a right-handed person to the left of a left-hander at dinner: they will often bump arms and hands as they eat.

Car trips taken by the time-incompatible couple unsettle both. One races to get to the destination ahead of schedule, while the other sits in fear of his life. Yet a good partner can calm the overstressed clock-watcher, providing the balance he needs: a person with perspective that not everything is a matter of desperate urgency.

Preoccupation with the seconds demonstrates little patience, triggering abruptness or irritation when things don’t move fast enough.

The minutes also figure into whether one can delay gratification. Parents dare not assume their small children will be responsive to the promise of distant rewards in return for good behavior. Most small kids are incapable of waiting the (for them) psychological eternity of a month or a year.

Even some adults find a challenge in the self-scheduling required to achieve long-term goals. They live unfocused lives, unable to structure the day to, quite literally, make the grade in college or graduate school classes, with their payoff of a distant reward. The academic equivalent of the Bataan Death March surely is a Ph.D. program. The Ph.D. Completion Project’s 2008 report on the success rate within 10 years of beginning that trek is 57 percent over all. The best advice I ever received was this, from my dissertation advisor: “The most important thing about your dissertation is to finish.”

Time fools us. We have a bucket list, but might kick it before we get to the carefully considered written items. We assume a dream deferred will be as fulfilling in twenty year’s time as it is today. Heraclitus knew otherwise. “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Why? The river has moved on and you have changed, as well. The guy who steps into the river at 60 isn’t the young man he was at 20, either inside or out. Ripeness is all. The attractiveness of the bucket list items can alter, just as the 18-year-old prom king and queen might not set you afire 30 years later.

Finally, the ability to endure a long delay for worthwhile goal finds the greatest challenge in matters of sex, especially for young people. However much some wish to practice abstinence, remember that our ancestors had strong sexual urges. Those who put off having intercourse reproduced less than those who didn’t. We have been tilted toward the sex act by evolution — sooner, not later. The coitus-deferring cave man is not the ancient father of our tribe.

 

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FOOD is more than a necessity. It can be sensual (as in the movies Tom Jones and Big Night). Meals and munching soothe. They are one way to appease internal emptiness, or attempt to do so. Butter and bread (choose you poison) calm the nerves. The offer of sustenance shows affection, from a mother to a child or a host toward guests.

Food (as in lavish dinner parties) takes the form of ostentation: look what I can do! Victuals are a medical intervention — chicken soup, of course! Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant self-medicating edibles can kill you, on the other hand, if you are morbidly obese.

Observe people eat. Speed-diners “chow down” too fast to experience the sensual pleasure of their fare. They attend to the business inside the brain, or read or talk. Their opposites consume slowly, preoccupied with holding court; as if the train (and their audience) will wait for them.

Food for the body builder or the anorexic positions mind over matter to bring the corporeal to heel — to make the flesh do one’s bidding against its wishes. By gaining control of nourishment and the cravings created by the metabolism, one controls or constricts distress, intended or not.

In places where starvation is occurring — think famines — the absence of food causes a severe dampening-down of feelings. In that circumstance, one cannot allow the emotions to gain sway lest they become unbearable. Those who “feel” too much do not survive.

My mother had an unhappy experience in high school during the Great Depression. With only enough money for a candy bar at lunch, food became a life-long preoccupation, well past the time of her malnourishment. Even into early old age she would shop for groceries every day, to reassure herself of an adequate supply.

Food is a dependable friend in an insecure world. Taste and mass quantities will never let you down. The sex-starved sometimes substitute this pleasure for that.

Last, food provides a protection against sex.* I have known female patients who wanted to keep themselves overweight for fear of attracting male interest, with its potential for rejection and heartbreak or sexual assault. Copious flesh was a necessary barrier, the walls of a citadel.

The next time you are on a date, rather than the usual questions, try those that might offer you a secret passage into the soul. Chemistry shoots off skyrockets, looks and “values” are crucial. Still, the things you miss in your dating intake interview will either eat you up on a daily basis or make routine events funny, joyous, and reassuring.

Most of us expect others to know themselves, so we ask questions hoping for enlightenment about mutual compatibility. Self-knowledge, however, is rarer than diamonds. In reality, we learn as much or more from the words unsaid and unknown to the new person himself, not to mention his behavior.

The sex of things is like quicksand, pulling you in. The pheromones intoxicate. The brain’s response to the chemical content of a first kiss says, “She’s the one!” But most of a life lived together is comparatively mundane. Compatible attitudes toward money and time are the breaking or making of affection. Sex and food mean more than pleasure and nutrition. Time and money concerns cannot be easily trumped by visceral attraction alone — in the short run, yes, in the long run… Marriages are for the long run, at least we hope so.

A relationship menu has two columns. One shows all the qualities you think you want: a good provider, a sexy partner, babies, etc. Column B is initially almost invisible, dwarfed by the giant font in Column A. Best to learn how to read the second column before you make your choices from the first.

*For additional commentary on the various psychological forms sex takes, please read this: Sex and Its Functions.

The Daylight Savings image comes from the U.S. Federal Government. The Supreme Pizza with Pepperoni, Peppers, Olives, and Mushrooms is the work of Scott Bauer. These are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Worry of Waiting and the Pain of Procrastination

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We wait. When we were small and Christmas was ahead, the calendar was stationary and the clock immobile. Kids “can’t wait” until the day comes, but they do. No choice.

We watch the watch too much for our health, whether the second hand moves fast or slow. The Algebra exam is tomorrow and you aren’t ready. An evening first-date comes on a “bad hair day” that makes you want to enroll your mane in obedience school, better to follow your comb’s commands.

I had my own battles with waiting and managed to create personal solutions, effective at least a portion of the time. In so doing, I realized some of our problems of waiting and procrastination are self-imposed. Time itself creates the others. I’ll begin with the former, but I hope you have the time to stick around for the latter.

I remember calling a high school beauty for a date. This wasn’t my first date, but among the earliest. I sat near the telephone. I looked at it. The phone peered back at me. The event became a staring contest. Who would break first? Would the phone disintegrate and vanish or could I muster courage and call. Minutes seemed like hours in agony. The longer I waited, the longer the suffering continued. I finally called. The bright and pretty blond said, “Yes.”

The solution to reduce my anxiety was already clear, but inexperience blinded me. The more I put off action, the more time I spent in a state of nervousness. I eventually recognized that, for myself at least, procrastination held no benefit. By taking challenges on with minimal postponement, I gained confidence and so reduced the disquiet associated with hesitation. The pool of cold water doesn’t get any warmer by looking at it and so it’s best to jump in.

The dread of waiting usually involves some catastrophization. At 16, getting rejected is an epic calamity. In my example, the urge to have a girlfriend was greater than willingness to accept a life without female contact. Unfortunately, for some, loneliness is the preferred choice. Put differently, anxiety is paralyzing and action seems impossible. Therapy can help with this, but watching the telephone will not.

A bit of courage is also required to take on the world’s #1 personal terror, giving a public speech. Not only is steadfastness needed to show-up for the presentation, but in managing the passage of time as you deliver the talk. Let me explain.

Imagine having been introduced. Restlessness among the listeners is apparent, perhaps even a few people are talking. Do you begin to speak over them or do you wait?

Experienced speakers allow time to look at the audience and to let the throng settle down. The inexperienced or fearful among us are prone to talk before everyone focuses on the podium. By waiting for them, they will understand the unsaid request for quiet, even in an auditorium filled with teenagers.

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Anxious orators often rush their words, believing they must fill the air with the alphabet lest people get bored. I take a different approach.

First, I memorize the speech. This takes a while, but allows for a security in knowing exactly what I want to say. I practice giving the presentation out loud. This is a performance, not a recitation of words dryly read from a text. The keynotes are drama and eye contact.

Some words should be louder, some softer. Portions of the speech are best when fast, others slow. Nervous orators are like long-distance runners who race as if competing in a sprint. They have nothing left for the final lap. Begin at an up-tempo and you can’t get faster. If, however, you start at a moderate pace, you can speed up or slow down as needed. Moreover, you won’t become breathless.

The speaker is wise to allow a few moments to pass without any words. Think of a landscape painting, one with foreground and background. Public presentation is like that, only the background is silence, so that the foreground (your words) stand out. This effect is created by a second or two of stillness, but takes some guts. The quiet might seem (to you alone) like eternity.

All of the above — whether waiting for Christmas or scared to make a phone call — have to do with time. While we can’t control time, we can control ourselves in relating to time.

Time can use us and mistreat us, or so we think. When we wish the hand on the clock to hurry up or slow down, time has the upper hand. For example, he punishes us when we want to be younger or older, when we are waiting in a long line, or when some important news is expected to arrive, whether not fast enough or too soon.

The alternative is to learn how to manage time, as I’ve tried to illustrate. We live “within” the passage of time. Each of us is a time traveler, like commuters on a train whose schedule we did not create.

Lacking control of this relentless force, we must come to accept him in the way of the Zen masters or the ancient Stoic philosophers. Fighting with time is like battling the whirlwind: he is an invisible enemy who evades the sting of our puny weapons. Life is, in part, a never-ending attempt to negotiate a truce in the war with time. The more we struggle by being impatient or terrorized, the more we waste him, or, he wastes us.

As an Indian friend once said to me, “Those of you in the West believe time is your enemy. In India, we think of time as our friend.”

What do you believe?

You might also find the following post interesting: The Frustration of Waiting in Line.

The top image is an Animated Flying Tourbillion by Freewilly. The second picture is Moiré Uhr by Benedikt.Seidl. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Frustration of Waiting in Line: Idle Thoughts about the Queue

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The folks in the above photo don’t look too happy. They are waiting for a bus in Chicago back in 1973. Just the year before, my grad school roommate Don Osborn told me that he’d had a nightmare about getting into his car, merging into traffic, and thereby creating complete and total gridlock — everywhere and forever. Talk about a long wait.

Earlier this month, a 125-mile traffic jam on the highway from St.Petersburg to Moscow lasted an entire weekend, Friday through Sunday. A snowstorm was identified as the cause.

At least the folks in the traffic jam presumably had access to car radios, music systems, and internet-connected phones. Those in the 1973 photo had none of those things. What might they have done to pass the time?

  • Talked to their neighbors.
  • Meditate (not as popular then as now, however).
  • Think about the things they were grateful for.

Based on their facial expressions, however, it looks as though they were preoccupied. They appear to be compulsively checking the horizon, hoping to spot the bus, forgetful of the old adage “A watched pot never boils.” Some are surely grumbling about the traffic, the lousy public transportation system, the cold weather; or worrying about the appointment for which they will be late.

A more productive activity would have been to think about the countless previous times they’d been late in their lives, caught in lines of one sort or another, and how life went on without tragic consequences. Or, they could have spent the time contemplating those who suffer real tragedies, and realize that waiting in line is small potatoes by comparison.

No one would have stopped them from looking around at the architecture or doing some people-watching. I suspect there were lists to be made, too. Things like:

  • What do I need to get at the grocery?
  • What are the things I need to work on to be a better person?
  • What have I been putting off that I need to put on the top of my to-do list.

They probably didn’t, of course.

Various estimates suggest that we Americans spend two to three years of our lives in line. A lack of control seems to be part of what makes this unpleasant. Many of the same people who hate being in line will procrastinate on tasks that cause them even more agony than a time-wasting queue. I recall my anticipatory anxiety as I contemplated calling a girl for my first-ever date in high school. I must have stared at the telephone (only land-lines existed back then) for an hour or more. I’ve long since learned that getting things over with quickly is not only more efficient, but reduces suffering; and, that the lead-up is by far the worst part of the process. She said “yes,” by the way.

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Another way of dealing with involuntary waiting is to reframe the situation. Instead of seeing it as a problem, you might look upon it as an opportunity to learn a zen-like patience. That attitude would cause you to be grateful to the inefficient checkout clerk at the store or the person in line ahead of you who has 13 different coupons to process and is writing a time-consuming check rather than using cash or a credit card. But, if patience seems a stretch for you, some effort to accept the things you can’t change could work to make you feel less aggravated.

Waiting can sometimes build anticipation in a good way. If the world were filled only with immediate gratification of every desire, I suspect we would value all those pleasures less. Waiting for a first kiss or the chance to attend your first Major League baseball game gives those (very different) events more meaning because of the wait. Waiting for a well-prepared meal leads to more satisfaction than a quick trip to McDonald’s. Indeed, the excitement of Christmas Day for small children is entirely dependent on the delayed gratification involved. The sheer joy of watching one’s children explode out of bed to open their gifts is something to behold.

Issues of fairness and self-recrimination seem to pop-up more in places where there are multiple queues. If you’ve chosen the slowest moving line, you’re likely to kick yourself or to get angry that “your” checker isn’t more efficient. On the other hand, if you happen to make the “right” choice of which line to stand in, you probably aren’t going to think you are the luckiest person in the world. In other words, the movement of your line matters more when it is slow than when it progresses rapidly.

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Funny that few people say they can’t wait to get to heaven. As much as the faithful identify it as the ultimate reward, doctors don’t see too many patients neglecting treatment of life-threatening diseases because they want to checkout faster. And so, most of us do our best to keep our spot in the mortality-queue static; and are happy to let someone else jump ahead, hoping in this kind of column alone, that things move slowly.

Even when we aren’t in line, we spend much time waiting. When you are little you can’t wait to grow up. A bit later, you can’t wait to get your driver’s license and then go to college. Then, too many of us wait for the weekend and are impatient to retire, waiting for the gold watch and the free time that comes along with a Social Security check.

Just perhaps, we are preoccupied with the wrong thing. Whenever we are “just waiting,” we aren’t focused on the present moment or anything that might be of value. We are, like the people in the top photo, looking down the street for the bus that is going to take us someplace better in the future, or so we think. Yet, most would agree, the time is going to waste.

The next time you find yourself in a slow-moving line, it might serve you well to consider another way to use your queue time. There is much to ponder, much to love, much to learn in life. The line might be a kind of study hall or a laboratory to make a new discovery. The queue gives you a chance to change yourself.

What are you waiting for?

The first image is called Queuing Up For the Bus, photographed by Paul Sequeira in Chicago, 1973 for the EPA. The final photo is of “Sailors assigned to the phone and distance line detail wait to start a replenishment at sea from the bridge deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43). Fort McHenry is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson). All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Simple Beauty of a Power Outage

Powerless.

They said it would be over by the next day; the Commonwealth Edison recorded message said so, that is, about the power outage that began at about 9 PM Tuesday night, June 21, 2011.

It would be over by Wednesday. An estimate? A guess? A hope? Of course, there was the caveat that it could go on until Friday night or maybe even longer. Storms, tornadoes, fallen trees, and downed power-lines had done it. Nothing to do but wait. And so we did nothing, my wife and I.

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The first thing we noticed was the quiet. Quieter than the usual quiet, which, it turns out, isn’t really still. No music, no TV, no radio, no computer (with its “You’ve got mail” greeting), no air conditioning; just the low-frequency chugging of a few distant gasoline powered generators. Everything by candlelight and flashlight. Time to sleep: earlier than usual, more dictated by the sun than by the clock.

Wednesday morning. Still no power. It is still still. How dependent are we on electricity? What about the food? The stuff in the refrigerator and the freezer? It is cool out, not to worry — yet. We will get ice, pack it in the freezer and refrigerator if we need to.

Things are slowing down. Listening to bird sound and song — pretty nice. The quiet seems to simplify things. The rooms look different by candlelight. The shadow of a lamp, not the usual light-giving object itself, but the elongated, misshapen outline of the object on the other side of a candle, cast against the wall.

Easier to think. Easier to read: no distractions. And then there is the pleasure of sitting in the dark or in the half-light, just listening to the small squeaks and creaks of the house; the small sound of footsteps, your breath and your heartbeat — all the things so easily missed, so meditative.

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The latest Edison recording said that the power was expected by 10 this Thursday morning. “Check that,” as Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse used to say — now the prediction is 2 PM. And later a real person at Edison tells me that we should be back to normal by 11 PM tonight, still Thursday. Maybe another trip to get ice will be needed.

Bored? Not at all. It is remarkable how interesting little things can be: the perspiration accumulating on your upper lip after you’ve lifted weights; the physical sensation of your feet as they touch the floor; the feedback from muscles and joints simply doing their job, if you are paying attention; the tiny sounds your neck makes when you turn your head; the air around your fingers as your open hands extend beyond the touch of the chair’s arm rests.

In T. S. Elliot’s words from Burnt Norton, I arrived

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

Friday morning, 6:03. The power company’s message now says that they think we will be back in business by 5:30 PM. Over 440,000 “customers” have been without power, meaning that many more people have been affected than originally reported. One-hundred-sixty crews from other states are working on the problem, along with the Illinois contingent of 440 repair groups.

By now I’ve finished Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science and am on the home stretch of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Thank goodness for the Light Wedge battery-powered reading accessories provided by my youngest daughter. Much better than candlelight.

The planned week off from work is stretched, but not by impatience; rather, by the ratcheting down of the slave-driving electronic grid and its attendant, inessential distractions. I have less to do, but more focus in doing it. A bit like an earlier time, I suppose — most of human history, after all, was lived by nature’s tempo, not according to man’s technologically created stopwatch. No electronically calibrated exercycle to use, so I walk more.

Remember how, when you were a kid in the car with your folks and a train stopped the traffic at the railroad crossing? How neat it was to look at all the different cars going by? How it made your eyes crazy with back-and-forth movement? How if the train was long enough you started to count the cars, all of them or just particular types like box cars or cattle cars? How some of the names on the sides of the cars suggested far away places — different states that you’d never been to? When did being “stuck” at a train crossing become an inconvenience and not a delight, something that slowed you down, something to get angry about?

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Two-thirteen PM Friday afternoon. The dishwasher is whirring! The lights are flashing! The power is back! Wow, electricity! The dazzle of a working computer, of artificial light, of TV!

That won’t last, of course. It didn’t even literally last because we lost power again one week later, again at night, although only for a few hours.

The long powerless interlude was pretty nice, partly because it wasn’t a flood or a tsunami; partly because we had hot water and motorized transportation; partly because it wasn’t too hot. Happily, as little as it was, it didn’t go on forever. Just long enough to give some perspective.

Take nothing for granted.

The photo reproduced at the top is called Old Bottles of Wine Aging by Candle Light, by Steffan Hausmann. The second photo is Sky at Sunset from Brancoli’s Crux on December 26, 2007 by Luccio Torre. Next is A European Penduline Tit in Estonia on June 19, 2010, the work of Alastair Rae. The final image is of a Class 50 steam locomotive near Gundelsheim Station, Germany taken on April 4, 1970 by Roger Wollstadt. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.