Thursday, May 24, 2007

Spring in Ankara

Just three days ago we had some friends visiting us from Canada. We took them to the castle at the top of Ulus and then to dinner in Kizilay and then to a little smoky bar to hear folk music. It was a warm spring night and for the first time Ankara actually seemed nice to me. My jaded perspective was jarred into seeing something different through the eyes of our guests. Not that Ankara has ever seemed so horrible to me but it is the biggest city I have ever lived in (population near 4 million) and is undergoing a kind of urban renewal so the abandoned sixties style soviet looking buildings that first greeted me here are being transformed with new facades and updates and the city is starting to look almost sleek and stylish in parts. And in other parts, I have seen a donkey pulling a cart, open fires on the sidewalk and all sorts of rubbish on the side of the road. But in the spring, when the trees are green, flowers are in bloom and the nights are warm, things look much more attractive and I can see the charm of the capital of Turkey.

Ankara is a livable city but not one people around the world want to visit. Which is a bit sad. I think it’s nicer than Istanbul, actually. Of course, its not Istanbul but I personally think Ankara is a bit classier and more manageable. It doesn’t have the Bosphorus or skyline of Istanbul but it’s got some nice broad boulevards for walking, a funky old district (Ulus), a stylish embassy area and adjacent shopping and a fun, comfortable, relaxed dinner/drinking district. So a few nights ago, even though being here in Turkey has been overall very stressful for me, I was enjoying Ankara and thinking that overall I am happy to have had this experience. I don’t want to challenge myself in this way ever again, especially with the reality of the bomb two days ago in Ulus, but I have gained perspective, confidence, compassion and understanding by being here.

Happiness is tricky and paradoxical, as it seems that hard work; challenges, discomfort and patience are necessary conditions for happiness. That happiness only emerges from these sources – surely, that is not the case, but it seems to me that happiness does require pushing the envelope in terms of what we expect from others and ourselves. And also, being willing to forgive and accept to a huge degree when these expectations fall short or are not met at all. I suppose it’s that idea of reaching for the moon so that even if you miss you will still be among the stars. Although, more accurately, given what we now know, is the idea that you should reach for the stars so that even if you miss you may be near the moon or Mars.

I just wonder, how come no one ever said: happiness isn’t easy? I think we all hope that it will be and is, and that when we have happiness, life will be easy. But happiness is more like a job than a beautifully wrapped gift under the tree; happiness needs to be nurtured, noticed and something that is consciously sought: like money. We try to accumulate money, we always think about money and we are always after money. Well, I think happiness needs the same constant attention – it’s just that it’s a different kind of currency. And my feeling is it’s a good idea to attempt to spend your happiness notes in places your might not at first think worthy of them, and to look for them in places you least expect!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reality Check

Envirowoman blogged about an article describing the huge amounts of plastic debris in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas that is well worth the read, sad though it may be.
While the topic is not a happy one, being aware of the state of the world makes it much easier to make choices that ultimately make us happier as we choose things based on their positive affect on ourselves, others, and the environment. I don’t really like reading depressing news, and often I skip right over all those headlines about troops dying in Iraq and clashes in Lebanon not because I don’t care or I want to be uninformed but because reading about Elizabeth Taylor’s Van Gogh – though that too is controversial – is much more neutral and easier to deal with. Also, I like to read things related to animals – someone’s Berenese Mountain dog had a litter of 13 pups or the stories about the little polar bear in the zoo in Germany – these are heartwarming and always have cute pictures.

Pictures of men running with guns and bloodied bodies are not nice. Nor are pictures of turtles choked by plastic ties cinching their middles. But even though these things do not make me happy I shouldn’t only read about celebrity gossip, developments in science and other things that do not cause me emotional distress or cognitive dissonance because then I lose sight of how fortunate I am. I am not suggesting that we only read bad or troubling news in order to give us a foundation of comparison so that we know how great our own lives our, but this is one reason to do it. And if I said otherwise, I would be lying. But also, knowing what is going on allows us to again, make choices that we can feel good about. Feeling as though I am in control or part of something that is a force of good or change is a component of happiness. Granted, I haven’t been doing much in the way of keeping up on US politics since I moved away three years ago but I have become more aware of systems elsewhere and have been attempting to keep an eye on things (if only politicians were fuzzy animals with innocent eyes, I would pay so much more attention to them!) in an attempt to make better, more informed choices the next time I vote absentee.

Balancing what to read in the news is a hard thing for me though. I am not an unintelligent person but it’s hard for me to follow a lot of what is going on around the world. Which is to say, I am not particularly well informed about past events around the world. I took a number of history courses in high school – world history until the mid-1800s and US history until the mid 1900’s but I managed not to take any history courses at university given my majors and quite frankly I lack a lot of the knowledge base to keep up on things. But that is a lame excuse for not trying and I am trying to be more aware of things. But sadly, the plight of those two folks building their dream home (their third home!) on an island in Florida published on The New York Times online gets more of my attention. As do blogs on design, crafting, personal finance and happiness. But I do try to give myself a reality check because my own happiness ultimately, is in some small way tied to everyone else’s and in a huge way, contingent upon the well being of the planet.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reply to Robin

Robin’s comment:

“I think this level of discipline is challenging for many people though (including me). How can we not make ourselves miserable by beating ourselves up if we don't reach a goal? It's a tough dilemma!”

is a great one.

I think discipline HAS to be a very personal matter. It has to be self-initiated and self-defined. My idea of discipline with regard to exercising probably seems lacking to a tri-athlete but for me, it requires a huge amount of discipline. Now, how to avoid misery? I think the first and most important thing is to focus on what you have done to reach the goal each day. Always focusing on what has happened or is happening each day alone is important for not beating yourself up about what you have done in the past or might not do in the future.

So for me, I am still trying to build in a regular yoga practice. I have only practiced twice for about 15 minutes just before bed over the last four days. My goal is to do yoga everyday but instead of focusing on not having done as much as I wanted to do, I focus on what I can do today. And, this is why I do practice for a few minutes before bed. Because it is the time of day when I say, “oh I wish I had practiced!” So when I say that to myself, I decide, “why not practice?” Just spend 10 or fifteen minutes gently stretching and over time that will make a difference and become a habit even though it does not feel like enough. Clearly, this does not work for all goals but I have a checklist in my head and ask myself throughout the day what I can tick off and if I haven't checked one off I try to figure out if I can fit it in somehow.

This brings me to the important point, I think to avoid beating yourself about discipline, there are two measurements, if you will, to consider. 1) The act of undertaking action towards a goal which is binary – either you have or have not done it. And 2) The extent or amount of action towards a goal which can vary in all sorts of ways or be measured in all sorts of ways: minutes, number of pages written, number of laps around the track, number of thank you notes written etc. For me, I have decided that addressing Number 1, is key, at first. Before I can be someone who has great, endurance building runs 6 times a week, I have to be someone who at least attempts moderate exercise six times a week. Right now, that is my focus. I am aiming to just attempt an action towards my goal each day – it doesn’t matter if I do 20 minutes or 40, just by following through each day on that goal, I am making the action I want built into my life a habit and building up discipline.

Later I will focus on the extent or amount of action towards a goal. I can’t be biting off more than I can chew! The same goes for yoga. Even 5 minutes a day counts as a gold star in my mental chart. Later, after I have built up the daily discipline, I will work on increasing the duration of things like yoga and running. I think this is one way to avoid beating yourself up about goals and reaching or not reaching them. Really, I think what I mean to say is to focus on each day relative to the goal and do what you can in that day. Focusing on what could have been done yesterday is pointless and you can’t jump forward in time so really, it’s about what can get done towards the goal today.

Obviously this does not work in the same way for all goals and doesn’t even address other factors like the weather, other people, your own health etc., but I think separating the urge to equate doing something with doing an explicit amount is helpful. Just doing something at first is enough. Later working to accomplish specific amounts after something becomes a habit is the way I am approaching my own journey towards more discipline in my life.

Envirowomen is an interesting case of discipline as she attempts to live plastic free. Here is a great case of someone living with a huge amount of discipline but not letting her MAJOR SINS as she calls them, of plastic consumption, stop her from living plastic-free. Plus, I really like her blog and what she is doing and I like reading about plastic free resources she has found so I wanted to give her a shoutout.

Also, this person has a whole series of posts on self-discipline that are interesting.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Steinbeck inspired me to try writing my own fiction. It’s a bit lofty I know, but what the heck? Right now is a good time for me to try it and I found this website that made it seem remotely possible. Plus, it is a way for me to write about an issue in my life that causes me much distress. So it’s more like therapy and thinking about the story and working on it makes me happy! So one goal related to discipline is to spend some time every work day on my story.

Also, I just decided to start running/walking six days a week. This too seems like a huge impossible task but so far I have made it four mornings in a row with a run/walk between 20 and 30 minutes each morning. The goal of this is to build up some strength and endurance in my body. I am a tall woman and fairly thin but with big hips and bum. I don’t mind my body so much and generally am quite happy with it. What I am NOT happy about is the fact that I have lived in a country without a car for almost a year, I walk everywhere and yet, I still feel tired after walking 20 minutes. This seems wrong, wrong, wrong, to me. I am going to turn 26 this month so it seems like now is a good time to try to build up some physical strength and endurance. If it smoothes out some of the bulgy edges that is fine but mostly I just don’t want to feel like I have the lung capacity of someone twice my age - which is how I feel lately.

Hence, the idea is to run/walk six days a week. This actually is not very much. And I did not set out with that idea on Day 1. On Day 1 I just wanted to see if I could do about 30 minutes of walking / running. And I could. I emphasize the walk/run idea because I do not run for 30 minutes because quite frankly, I am just too out of shape for that. But I did some reading on websites, which suggest that the best way to build up strength and endurance is to start slowly by interspersing intervals of slow jogging with fast walking, so that is what I am doing.

I do know though that one of the keys to performance and improvement and production in ANY area or skill is consistency. I think back on how I used to practice the violin an hour and a half a week thinking that made up for not practicing for five days but realize now that if only I had practiced even just 15 minutes a day instead of lumping it all in one day a week, I might be doing something else with my life. Although I have no natural rhythm so that is unlikely! But I also thought about this idea of short consistent practice in terms of other habits. Like brushing your teeth. Most of us brush our teeth twice a day for a few minutes and that keeps them fairly clean and healthy. But think! If we thought that brushing once a week for 30 minutes were the equivalent of all those mini sessions the state of our teeth would be very different! Of course, it’s better than no brushing at all but the effects are not even comparable. So thinking that taking care of my physical self is like taking care of my teeth prompted be to make it a goal to run/walk six mornings a week.

I have to admit that I have yet to want to do this run/walk each morning. No, I’d much rather sit at home and have my breakfast while surfing the web. But I do truly feel better even once I am just out the door and walking outside - it is very warm here now so I do this in the morning between 7am and 9am before it gets too hot. And when I have finished my run/walk, I do feel good. Not great. That would be an overstatement but I feel ready to start my day. So really, this is hugely about discipline for me. About just getting on with it even though I don’t really want to.

Also, when I took some of the tests on Martin Seligman’s site, the number of questions related to goal setting and discipline struck me. I don’t know much about his research apart from what I have read in my undergraduate pysch textbooks (I do a very different kind of psychology) but it makes sense to me that happiness has a lot to do with discipline. This is related to feeling in control of things, being productive and achieving goals which one sets. Happiness seems very related to setting challenges for oneself and then tackling those challenges consistently in smallish increments everyday. This of course, results in achieving goals and conquering challenges while not letting them overwhelm you. Let’s see if I am singing the same tune in two weeks time!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The End

The story has several threads but one of the threads is that Doc needs a microscope to do his research on octopi. His friends on Cannery Row save up to buy him one in hopes that it will make him happier:

“And here they came down the chicken walk, balancing among them the tripod and long black tube. They crossed the track and the lot and they set the tripod down beside the car.

Mack cleared his throat. “Friends,” he said, “on behalf of I and the boys it gives me great pleasure to present Doc with this here.”

Doc looked at the gift – a telescope strong enough to bring the moon to his lap. His mouth fell open. Then he smothered the laughter that rose in him.

“Like it?” said Mack.
“It’s beautiful.”
“Biggest one in the whole goddam catalogue,” said Mack.Doc’s voice was choked. “Thanks,” he said. He paused, “After all, I guess it doesn’t matter whether you look down or up – as long as you look.”

A perfect ending to a tale of discontent as Doc's friends help him out of his rut. Friends are good. Friends are happiness incarnate.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Now it really is Sweet Thursday

I am not taking excerpts from the book that tell the complete story but they are chronologically correct and I think I just enjoy the descriptions and way with words and that is why I am sharing these. The last installment will be tomorrow.

Looking backward in time, you can usually find the day it started, the day of Sarajevo, the day of Munich, the moment of Stalingrad or Valley Forge. You fix the day and hour by some incident that happened to yourself. You remember exactly what you were doing when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

There is no doubt that forces were in motion on that Thursday on Cannery Row. Some of the causes and directions have been in process for generations. There are always some people who claim they felt it coming. Those who remember it say it felt like earthquake weather.

It was a Thursday, and it was one of those days in Monterey when the air is washed and polished like a lens, so that you can see houses in Santa Cruz twenty miles across the bay and you can see the redwood trees on a mountain above Watsonville. The stone point of Fremont’s Peak, clear the other side of Salinas, stands up nobly against the east. The sunshine had a goldy look and red geraniums burned the air around them. The delphiniums were like little openings in the sky.

There aren’t many days like that anyplace. People treasure them. Little kids are likely to give off tin-whistle screams for no reason, and business men find it necessary to take a drive to look at a piece of property. Old people sit looking off into the distance and remember inaccurately that the days of their youth were all like that. Horses roll in the green pastures on such a day and hens make a terrible sunny racket.

Thursday was that kind of magic day.”

I wonder if everyday is like this for someone, somewhere? I would imagine so. To a sweet Thursday!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

More on Doc

I love this book because of it captures moods with humor and accuracy. All too often I have been in this same situation as Doc:

“For days the flame burned in Doc, his phoenix thought. True, he didn’t have a proper microscope, but he had eyes, and he had, thank God, an analytic mind that could slough off sensations, emotions and pains. As he stared at the octopi his thesis took form.

Doc bought a package of yellow pads and two dozen pencils. He laid them out on his desk, the pencils sharpened to needle points and lined up like yellow soldiers. At the top of the page he printed: OBSERVATIONS AND SPECULATIONS. His pencil point broke. He took up another and drew lace around the O and B, made a block letter S and put fish-hooks on each end. His ankle itched. He rolled down his sock and scratched, and that made his ear itch. “Someone’s thinking about me,” he said and looked at the yellow pad. He wondered weather he had fed the cotton rats. It is easy to forget when you’re thinking.”

Feeling ambitious yet utterly stuck. I think a good deal of happiness comes from these ambitions or challenges we set for ourselves but it is so hard translating them into reality!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Sweet Thursday

I have just read Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday and I have wanted to share a few excerpts for the past two Thursdays. I can't upload the image I drew though and it is frustrating me so even though I like my posts to have an image at the top, this time, words alone will have to suffice.

There is too much to post at once so I will just have to post the joy I discovered in this book over a series of days. I forgot how much I enjoy Steinbeck. I am remembering how happy reading makes me…

From Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday:

“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there's time, the bastard Time. The end of life is now not so terribly far away - you can see it the way you see the finish line when you come into the stretch - and you mind says "Have I worked enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I loved enough?" All of these, of course, are the foundation for man's greatest curse, and perhaps his greatest glory. "What has my life meant so far, and what can it mean in the time left to me?" And now we're coming to the wicked, poisoned dart: "What have I contributed in the Great Ledger? What am I worth?" And this isn't vanity or ambition. Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay, no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments the debt only increases, and the quality of his gift is the measure of the man.

Doc's greatest talent had been his sense of paying as he went. The finish line meant nothing to him except that he had wanted to crowd more living into the stretch. Each ended with its night; each thought with its conclusion; and every morning a new freedom arose over the eastern mountains and lighted the world. There had never been any reason to suppose it would be otherwise. People made pilgrimages to the laboratory to bask in Doc's designed and lovely purposelessness. For what can a man accomplish that has not been done a million times before? What can he say that he will not find in Lao-Tse or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Prophet Isaiah? It is better to sit in appreciative contemplation of a world in which beauty is eternally supported on a foundation of ugliness; cut out the support, and beauty will sink from sight. It was a good thing Doc had, and many people wished they had too.

But now the worm of discontent was gnawing at him.”