Archive for October, 2009

The Kaleidoscope Turns

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I watched the film Mon Oncle d’Amérique with my father about twenty years ago. If I remember correctly, it began with rats in a maze, then went on to tell the stories of several people going through changing times.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the film was a way to explore theories of behavioral psychology. (I do not subscribe to the theory of behavioral psychology, but due to my recent head injury, I cannot explain why. I just remember that I don’t.)

In any event, I remember the film primarily because the characters were going through traumatic, life-changing events. Events for which there was clearly a before and an after.

Generally, it seems that life shifts gradually or in fits and starts. There are certain times, however, when our lives are marked by sudden, graphic, and violent change.

I find myself in such a time right now. The prognosis is positive–I should fully regain my mental faculties–but I may not.

And, this has gone on long enough now, eight days, that even should I fully regain my senses… something will be different. Perhaps it will simply (profoundly) be a genuflection before mortality. I do not know. I have difficulty imagining the future. And I have difficulty living in the present, not knowing, not knowing, not knowing.

The pieces of my life, the parts that made up my days and dreams, have been turned and shifted. Light glances through the prisms like a kaleidoscope, shattering and remaking the image.

What Is an Animal?

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I just saw an amazing Ted-talk by Theo Jansen on creatures he has…. “built”.

Jansen is an artist. Using yellow plastic tubing, he has created moving sculptures that feed on the wind, store energy, sense the waves, sense the dry sand, and walk.

He hopes to keep improving the design so that the sculpture-creatures can live on their own, in herds. So far, he has invented a new “wheel” and created a binary brain with which they count the number of steps they are from the water and the dunes, thereby using an “imagination” to locate themselves. (Forgive me all the quotes, but I have a hard time knowing how to present this information.)

This short video (only eight minutes) is one of the most mind-boggling things I have seen of late.

What do you think?

Post Concussion Syndrome

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

What do you call it when you have a constant headache, short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, emotions running amok, ongoing tiredness, and constant nausea?

Answer: Post Concussion Syndrome.

Apparently, I sustained a concussion in the car accident last Monday. The doctor whom I saw on Thursday  told me I was out of the danger zone (I would already have been dead). So that’s a relief.

The other good news is that these symptoms could clear up in as little as two weeks, on the outside in 4-6 weeks.* Which is good. I was afraid for my faculties, quite literally. It is distressing not to be able to rely on one’s usual mental and emotional states.

Essentially, a concussion such as the one I sustained is called a mild traumatic brain injury. (There are also moderate and severe classifications of traumatic brain injury.)

The top three causes of traumatic brain injury (TBI) are motor vehicle crashes, firearms (non-fatal firearm injuries generally result in TBI), and falls. (My information on TBI comes from this website.) writes something about TBI that would give anyone pause: “Prevention of TBI is the best approach since there is no cure”. Essentially, it gets better on its own or you learn to live with a permanent change in your abilities and/or personality. Which begs the question, what makes you you?

At least, I feel the question begging me. Right now, I am not as smart as I used to be. I am also tired all the time, and very emotional, disoriented, and nauseous. With headache.

But foolish as it may be and much as I value my health, it is my intellect I miss the most.

I like being smart. I’ve always felt blessed that I have such a powerful tool at my fingertips. I’ve always felt that I could bend my attention to almost any topic and, with effort and time, come to understand it. I’ve felt as if my mind is a key to the universe.

At the moment, it seems that I do okay on description (such as this writing), although it is more difficult for me to come up with the right word or to remember sentence construction.

But comprehension and analysis are very affected.

I have trouble understanding directions, whether it be directions to go somewhere or to do something. Meaning is harder for me to grasp.

And, I am unable to analyze, which is extremely disconcerting. For example, a client just sent me a form I had previously evaluated and to which I had made revisions. This time around, I looked at the form, but I could not see it the way that I used to be able to.

I cannot remember what changes I recommended, nor can I identify what further changes should be made. This used to be… like falling off a log for me. So easy I could do it in my sleep. Now I cannot do it at all.

I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that we have an essential self, a soul, that transcends the here and now. Which means, we are more than our best qualities and certainly more than our worst qualities. But I confess I had not expected to confront what it means to be me without what I consider to be one of my best and most helpful qualities, even for a few days…

Perhaps at some point I’ll come to appreciate this experience. For the moment, all I feel is loss.


*On the other hand, according to my research, some folks with mild traumatic brain injury experience post concussion syndrome for a year or more. Remember my friend whom I wrote about here with the head and neck injury from the community swimming pool? Her neurologist told her not to expect to recover her full cognitive faculties for a year.

Ode to Engineers and Crumple Zones

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

We were in a car accident Monday afternoon, rear-ended by a driver going too fast to stop.

My car, which usually has a convex front, is now concave. The radiator is all smashed up, poor thing. The hood folded into itself, upset at being shoved into the SUV in front of it. And the headlights fell out of their sockets.

I suppose all this is to be expected when a two-door coupe is crunched between two SUV’s.

But, and here is the miracle, the cabin of the car was less affected by the impact than the front of the car. The doors open and close just fine, the windows are all intact, even the trunk opens and closes easily, despite the rear impact.

For this, we have engineers to thank. And crumple zones.

When cars were first built, they were designed to withstand all kinds of impact. But in the racing world as well as in everyday driving, people noticed that while the sturdy cars withstood rolling and flipping accidents relatively well, the drivers generally died.


Over time, beginning with Mercedes-Benz in 1959 (according to a Wikipedia article on crumple zones), engineers developed the idea of designing automobiles to absorb the energy from an impact, rather than transferring it to the passengers. Less energy transferred to the passengers equals a reduced likelihood of serious injury or death.

If a car looks bad after a crash–all crumpled up–that’s actually a good thing. It means the crumple zones successfully dissipated the energy from the crash rather than transferring it to the humans.

Once the crumple zone concept became a standard feature in automobile design accidents became less deadly to passengers in that respect, at least.

Aren’t engineers wonderful?

The Exercise of Kindness

Monday, October 19th, 2009

The Gift of Volunteer Work

I have a friend who is stressed by her financial worries. I shared with her the following information about the value of doing volunteer work, from Martin Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness. (I’ve written about this book and Seligman’s work here and here.)

Here is the passage:

The students in one of my classes wondered if happiness comes from the exercise of kindness more readily than it does from having fun. After a heated dispute, we each undertook an assignment for the next class: to engage in one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity, and write about both.

The results were life-changing. The afterglow of the “pleasurable” activity (hanging out with friends, or watching a movie, or eating a hot fudge sundae) paled in comparison with the effects of the kind action. When our philanthropic act were spontaneous and called upon personal strengths, the whole day went better. One junior told about her nephew phoning for help with his third-grade arithmetic. After an hour of tutoring him, she was astonished to discover that “for the rest of the day, I could listen better, I was mellower, and people liked me much more than usual.” The exercise of kindness is a gratification, in contrast to a pleasure. As a gratification, it calls on your strengths to rise to an occasion and meet a challenge. Kindness is not accompanied by a separate stream of positive emotion like joy; rather, it consists in total engagement and in the loss of self-consciousness (Authentic Happiness, p. 9).

As I quoted this passage to my friend, I realized that I could go in for some “life changing” myself. I’ve hit a slump in the last few days and find myself flirting with the doldrums.

Upon reflection, I realized that although I do regularly engage acts of kindness, I haven’t engaged in formal volunteer work for some time.

Upon finishing my email to my friend, I resolved to find a project for which to volunteer. (Isn’t the key to good advice following it yourself?)


One agency I called is setting up a food pantry, soup kitchen with dining hall, clothes pantry, and after-school center in a local church. As the volunteer coordinator ran down the list of concomitant activities related to that project, she mentioned that they were hoping to paint murals in the new center, too.

Murals! I love murals, and I would very much like to move from the solely appreciative side of the art form to the practicing side. What better opportunity?

Happy at finding a fit, the volunteer coordinator took my information, and I should hear back from her regarding logistics in the next few weeks.

The Wheels Start Turning…

As I began to envision the mural at the church, I wondered what the theme might be. In addition to honoring the wishes of the church itself, it is my belief that the input of the youth who would use the facility is also critical.

And, what if the local students (elementary, middle, and high school students) joined in the production of the mural? It would truly become a community project, one that would instill pride and elicit joy for years to come.

If one mural is good, then two murals are better, right?

As I began to sketch out ideas and conduct preliminary research on the internet, I realized that I’d like my immediate community to benefit from mural creation, too. (The community center mural will be in the next town over.)

My town has two murals (that I know of), and I enjoy both of them. One faces a local art gallery, and the other adorns a former factory that has been converted into loft apartments. But I’m not sure if there are murals created by and for children.

In my preliminary research on the web I found a site that uses student art to create a mural. With that in mind, I began to wonder: What if we created a mural at a local elementary school, using the students’ ideas for a theme and their artwork for the design? It’d be a terrific project for students and youth as well as for adults and businesses in the community.

I contacted a local elementary school principal to see if she would be interested in having a mural at her school building.

Eureka! She was!

I’m now in the process of gathering resources (primarily human for the time being) and information. For example, the art teacher at the local high school has said that the art club would be interested in helping out. I also have ideas of other groups in the community who might want to help.

I’ll meet with the principal next week to discuss details and sketch out a plan.

I feel better already. :)

Choosing the Greater of Two Goods

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

I have a friend who leads workshops for business people (entrepreneurs and other captains of industry), and I was fortunate to attend one of his workshops recently.

At one point during the workshop he stated, “When we wake up in the morning we only have two choices of how we’re going to feel–”

He paused, allowing the audience to suggest what the two choices were. People guessed “good or bad” or other, similar options.

After allowing folks time enough to ponder his question, my friend stated with a broad smile: “When we wake up in the morning, we only have two choices of how we’re going to feel: good or great.”

My friend argues that we have a choice of how we feel (and his arguments are supported by sound research), and, since we have a choice, why not choose to feel great?

I’ve been thinking about this idea for some time. In fact, I think about it every morning as I wake up. It makes me smile.

I’ve also begun to wonder–are there other situations in which we have the opportunity to choose between good and great?

After all, I think most of us are familiar with the expression “choosing between the lesser of two evils”, but isn’t it odd that we don’t have a similar expression “choosing between the greater of two goods”?

I’m not sure if as a society we deal so well with choosing among good possibilities that to make mention of it would be superfluous or whether as a culture we are often too pessimistic to consider that there may be more than one good choice. I suspect it’s the latter.

I’ve been re-reading Martin Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness, and I find there is much to commend a positive outlook. (I’ve mentioned Seligman in this blog before, in my post “All’s Well That Ends Well”.)

In the beginning of the book, Seligman demonstrates why it’s a good thing to be happy. He writes that the research on happiness “adds up to an unambiguous picture of happiness as a prolonger of life and improver of health” (p. 40). After making his case for happiness, Seligman spends the rest of the book explaining how we can become happier. (Let me be clear, this is not a “self-help” book that touts feel-good “philosophies”. Rather, Seligman, a college professor and former president of the American Psychological Association, writes from a foundation of sound academic research.)

Early in the book Seligman describes the research of Barbara Fredrickson, who found that positive emotions “broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself” (p. 35).

Seligman continues just a few pages later with this idea:

There is an exciting possibility with rich implications that integrates all these findings: A positive mood jolts us into an entirely different way of thinking from a negative mood (p. 38).

The author suggests that a negative (or pessimistic) mood is useful to call upon when doing tasks that require critical thinking. (He gives examples like doing one’s taxes, preparing for a test, etc.)

However, for situations requiring a creative approach, Seligman suggests a positive mood is a more effective resource in approaching these tasks.

In light of Seligman’s work, my friend’s question as to what type of day we shall have when we wake up becomes more compelling. When we put ourselves into a frame of mind in which we choose between the greater of two goods (shall we have a good day or a great day?), we open ourselves up to creativity, discovery, and opportunity.

What type of day will you have today? Good or great?

Quote: “I am the man who plays by his own rules”

Monday, October 12th, 2009

I have a friend whose four-year-old son has taken to proclaiming, whenever someone addresses him by his name: “My name is not Matt. I am the Man Who Plays by His Own Rules.”

How’s that for a well-developed sense of self?

Sleeping in the Rain

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

I read a book on camping in which the authors described a very wet night during an extended hiking trip.

While they and other campers holed up in a small, crowded, wet cave, one of their friends went back into the rainstorm to sleep.

“What are you doing?” they asked him.

“I’m going to sleep outside. It’s only rain,” was his answer.

The authors met up with their friend the next morning. While they had spent a sleepless, uncomfortable night in the crowded cave, their friend looked cheerful and rested. He’d had a good night’s sleep after all.

I was reading this story in an effort to educate myself regarding the mysteries of camping. However, somehow my camping-inexperienced yet literal mind decided that sleeping in the rain is the hallmark of a true camper. And, continued my one-track mind, if I want to be a good camper, I, too, must sleep outside in the rain.

On a conscious level I knew this was malarkey. Sleeping in the rain indicates nothing except, well, that you’ve slept in the rain.

But that conviction lay in my mind for years. Until a week ago Monday, that is, when I actually slept outside in the rain.

It was me, a sleeping bag, and a blue plastic tarp. By the end of the night I was shivering,  my right leg was soaked through, and the tarp was holding water. But, I had slept outside in a rainstorm!

Now all I need is to find another book on camping, so I can see what I need to learn next.

Ode to a Clean Bathroom

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Companies in the United States realize the importance of clean bathrooms to a steady flow of commerce.

Target stores, for example, have signs on the back of the doors to the bathroom stating, “We want your shopping experience to be pleasant” and underscoring their commitment to clean bathrooms. Since companies like Target don’t do anything without a reason, I am sure someone has conducted a study and found that Americans spend more money in establishments with clean bathrooms.

I first began paying attention to the aesthetics public restrooms fifteen years ago when my friend and I traveled Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy via Eurail.

I quickly learned that my friend was very particular about bathrooms. She wouldn’t make use of a bathroom if it wasn’t clean. Furthermore, she preferred not to even risk entering a bathroom that didn’t meet her standards, so she’d ask me to reconnoiter the bathrooms. I was a bathroom scout.

I was reminded of my friend’s preoccupation with clean bathrooms when I visited South Korea five years ago. As my group made its way across the country via bus, we had occasion to stop at quite a number of rest stops.

I was surprised by the bathrooms. Not only were they clean, they were… pleasant. Every bathroom I entered was spotless, and they all had gardens. One even had canaries singing in a bird cage.

When I mentioned my surprise to a Canadian friend who had worked and lived in Korea for a number of years, she told me that it was an effort on the part of the Ministry of Tourism.

Apparently, twenty years or so ago the Ministry of Tourism commissioned a study to identify how they might increase tourism to the country. The study’s main finding was that international tourists thought the public restrooms in South Korea were atrocious. The study suggested that improving the bathrooms would contribute to increased tourism.

The Ministry of Tourism decided to upgrade all the bathrooms on the highway system as a result of the findings. Hence, the pleasant bathrooms I encountered in my travels.

I can only assume the clean bathrooms contributed to an increase in tourism. I’m not sure anyone travels to a country because of its bathrooms, but I’m sure folks may well avoid a place they feel isn’t “clean”. Landscaping and singing birds have to help, right?

I wonder if I should get canaries for my own home.

Nah, probably not. I’m not looking for tourists…

No Battle Cry for Ice Cream

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Do you ever read something and love the image the words conjure up? I just read a phrase I liked so much, I made it the title of this post.

Sonia Simone blogs about marketing at Remarkable Communication. (She is also Senior Editor at Copyblogger, which is an online resource for folks who write and market blogs.)

In a recent post she tells the story of a friend of hers who’s starting a new business. Her friend has begun to doubt herself as she’s come up against difficulties in her path to entrepreneurship. In answer to her friend’s doubt, Simone acknowledges that it is hard to build a business.

Here’s the quote:

Some days, it’s hard

The whole reason we have battle cries is because sometimes it’s hard. You notice there’s no such thing as a battle cry for enjoying an ice cream sundae.

Here’s to colorful writing!