Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

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One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.

Among those in the business of telling you how to change your life, it is universally contended that the best method is to choose the most important change you can make, make it, and then move on to the next one. Continue reading “One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.”

In the Face of a Royal Pain

Among the armfuls of books I pillaged from the closing of the local Borders was one I first read over five years ago, Sex With Kings, which tells the story of various royal mistresses in various European countries over the last 500 years. It’s not quite as salacious as it sounds, and I found it even less glittering when rereading it.

You see, royal mistresses sometimes weren’t very pretty, and even the most beautiful woman at court might not hold the king’s interest for more than a few weeks. (Madame de Pompadour, the quintessential royal mistress who held the attention of Louis XV for 19 years, didn’t even have sex with him for most of that time.)

To be the maîtresse en titre (“official mistress,”), a formal position that was usually held for years, even decades, required intelligence, loyalty, creativity, and, most often, a sweet disposition that put the king above all else.

In her early years as royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour was often required to accompany Louis on his frequent hunts… in all kinds of weather. Despite the fact that these excursions often gave her pneumonia, she put on her riding habit and omnipresent smile and went off to join the king.

Perhaps her best role was that of royal listener. The king had the unfortunate habit of recounting the same stories innumerable times, of discussing the same themes – hunting, illness, and death. And his mistress, who hated talk of hunting, illness, and death, concealed her yawns behind a smile….

Nor could she leave her apartments for exercise or a change of scene lest the king suddenly appear wanting food, conversation, or sex. Despite the daunting challenges of her schedule, she never permitted herself to show fatigue, boredom, or illness, never expressed frustration, anger, or crankiness.

Two incidents in particular show her remarkable self-control under constant and extreme stress:

In one case, Madame de Pompadour, suffering from a horrendous migraine, sent the king word that she was ill and unable to attend dinner. He insisted she come down anyway. And so she went, and was pleasant to him when she got there.

Later, her 10-year-old daughter and only child died at school. Within two weeks, Madame de Pompadour’s father also died. But it would be fatal to bore the king with her grief. Someone who saw her soon after reported:

“I saw the Marquise for the first time since… a dreadful blow that I thought had completely crushed her. But because too much pain might have harmed her appearance and possibly her position, I found her neither changed nor downcast.” Though the prince saw her chatting cheerfully with the king, he thought that she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

In fact, there is only one recorded incident of Madame de Pompadour losing her temper at the king, and I suspect that was a deliberate strategy to make her point.

In the end, her reign over the king ended only with her early death – likely hastened by the constant strain on her health for those 19 years.

My point? Yes, she chose her career and evidently thought the rewards were worth the suffering, and while I might not agree with her weighting of those things, the fact remains: if she could show that kind of patience, forbearance, and calmness of temper for that long, and in the face of that kind of unreasonableness – how do I ever think I have any excuse for showing my annoyance?

Accomplishing Something by Doing Nothing

Last weekend I finally did what I had to do: I declared that I was officially becoming a hermit, and then cut out all thought of everything that didn’t absolutely have to get done to make as much time as possible for nothing. And Monday morning, I actually felt refreshed for the first time in memory. I learned a few things along the way.
 
Lesson 1: Know what works for you. Take the effort to really observe the effect, rather than assuming it.
 
A few months ago I ran across the first hint about what needed to be done in a Rands in Repose article titled Chill. Rands talks about trying biofeedback as a way of curing migraines: 

It gets interesting when you start ignoring the feedback. “Rands, we’re going to try different relaxation techniques and see what works. How do you relax?” 

TV? She turned the TV on for ten minutes. “Yeah, that doesn’t relax you. Your brain is working.”

Closing my eyes and breathing deeply? Five minutes later, “Again, it looks like you’re thinking too much about not thinking. You’re not relaxing.”

What about reading? She pulled a book off her shelf and I started reading. Within a few minutes, all of the feedback pointed out that my body was diving into a deep relaxation.

“Rands, reading chills you out.”

I realized, as perhaps I had suspected before, that watching TV is not particularly restful for me; watching at my desk, as I often do, is even less so. And yet it has been my “chill out” of choice. I reason, watching TV burns about the same amount of calories as sleeping, so it should be almost as restful, right?
 
Lesson 2: You have to prepare to relax just like you would any other activity. It’s like dieting, when you remove the junk from the house and stock up on fruits and veggies, knowing that you’ll eat what’s on hand rather than going to the store for what you really want. Make a path of least resistance to something that’s actually good for you.
 
The other reason I use TV to unwind is that it’s something that doesn’t have to be thought about at all. I have several favorite shows, and I simply click on the next episode of whichever one I’m most behind on and let it pour into my brain effortlessly for the next hour. 
 
To not do that, to do something else, becomes quite an ordeal by contrast. What should I do? If I read, what should I read? One of the “should reads” stacked around the house? But that requires so much mental energy. Something lighter? But which exact flavor of lightness would I like? And so on. But I know there are authors whose work is serious enough that I don’t feel guilty, and compelling enough that I can’t put the book down – just what you want in this situation. I happened to have one on hand for the past few weeks, and will definitely be going to the library regularly for more.
 
Lesson 3: Priorities change, and balance is needed.
 
For many years I embraced the school of thought that “People who need people are too needy for me.” Then I reached a place where I was lonely every Sunday, so I adopted an approach much like Jim Carrey’s in Yes Man: I said yes to everything I possibly could. Eventually I built up a social life to the point that, in recent weeks, I resented every social activity I “had to” go to, yet felt socializing was too important ever to refuse. 
 
A friend reminded me of the extrovert/introvert continuum: some people get their strength from being around people, and some people get it from being alone. Most fall somewhere in the middle and need both within reason. Sure enough, a few days of determined solitariness – I hardly spoke a word or heard a human voice that first day – were enough to make me cheerfully accept company again.
 
Lesson 4: Once you know a thing – don’t forget it.
 
I knew about the effect of reading vs. TV. I knew about my need to be alone sometimes. And I knew that 10 p.m. is my magic bedtime. For some reason there is a disproportionate difference for me between eight hours of sleep starting at 9:45 and eight hours starting at 10:15. And yet, night after night, I would go to bed well after that cutoff. Remembering that and shifting back to a schedule that works better for me has had a huge effect. 
 
Granted, many of the pressures of the past few months lifted at least somewhat in the past week, which helps. But I have no doubt that these “new” practices are largely responsible for the improvement in my sense of well-being.

The Perfect Problem

There is not a day in the week I’m not exhausted. Of course, a very few moments of self-pity are enough to remind me to question the assumption behind it: do I really think that isn’t a common, perhaps nearly universal complaint?
Do I really think that traditional and especially subsistence farmers (most of the world for most of history) aren’t constantly worn down?
Do I really think salaried employees who don’t leave on the dot of 5 come home bounding with energy?
Do I really think that single parents, or parents working multiple jobs to support their family, or even married, stable, middle-class parents don’t have more demands on them from more directions than I can even bear to think about?
Unfortunately, this method of gaining perspective only makes me feel worse: thinking about others’ suffering doesn’t change mine, but now I also feel bad for being such a baby about it, plus I feel frustrated by a world system that does so little good for anyone.
So my first question is this: does that kind of comparison make you feel better, and if so, what is the mental process you go through to get that result?
My second question is this: do you have any advice on how not to be a baby about your own difficulties? I know the obvious solution is just to put your head down and push on, and there are definitely times to do that, but it doesn’t seem like a good way to live over the long term. The question is really: what do you do, and how do you not get discouraged, when you lift your head and see the full bleak reality – and don’t see a way to change it?

Tectonic Shift

It’s been months since people first started saying I’m the busiest person they know, but the shock hasn’t quite worn off yet.

As I’m looking forward to the month ahead – wait, make that the next two months – and back over the last I-don’t-know-how-long, I’m beginning to think they might have a point. But I’m so used to feeling like the one who never goes anywhere or does anything that I have a hard time believing I’ve now overcompensated to the point of being busier than everybody else on the planet. Do these people have an unnaturally calm group of friends? Or am I like the house you want to buy – the least impressive in a very nice grouping? Hard to say.

What I can say is that after having class two nights a week, I expected to be overwhelmed with the comparative free time – but if I have a night “off,” it’s not because nothing was planned, but because I was too tired to do it. Conversely, planned nights of restful seclusion always get filled with something or other. The odd empty few minutes get stared at with fascinated bewilderment. “What are you, and how did you get into my life?”

The strangest part of the epithet is that it’s most often given in response to an apparent constant whirlwind of social activity. My first reaction is to inform the people making that comment that they’re insane. Me? Social? I never do anything! But here’s a fun little exercise: make a list of the social activities I’ve taken part in during the last 7 days:

  • impromptu dinner party
  • a hike
  • movie night
  • an unannounced drop-in from a neighbor
  • drinks with a work buddy to catch up on the recent upheavals
  • (and the one planned one which required doubling up with Friday’s traditional family dinner and racing back and forth across town)

Suddenly it all makes sense. Of course, all of that – and trying to catch up on 17 hours of self-directed training in time to have a couple of weeks “off” before school starts in 5 weeks – will interfere with writing a blog, advancing a career, trying to read 7 books at once, tackling the endless projects and chores of one’s own household, and exploring the cultural offerings of greater Los Angeles (three years, ten months, and counting, and I still haven’t made it back to the LACMA). Not to mention all of that is suddenly crammed into 4 weeks instead of 5, because the last week will now most likely be spent on a surprise work trip to New York.

All right, so I’m willing to admit I’m busy. This is strangely hard to get my head around – considering I used to feel life was so empty that I wanted to have five children just for the sake of “living in the middle of Grand Central Station.” Evidently I can create that just fine on my own, thank you very much.

But then, after a few months of the constant stress, you get to the point of bragging about being busy; it becomes a twisted competition of identity:

“I did six hours of overtime this week.”
“You still haven’t reached my normal workweek!”

“I had to go in [x hours] early today.”
“No sympathy from me. Do you know what time I have to leave for work every day?”

“I don’t know when we’re going to hang out – things haven’t slowed down as much as I expected.”
“Tell me about it! Now you know what my life is like.”

I suppose if you’re missing out on everything else you might like to do, or feel you are, and at the same time feel you’re not accomplishing what you should be, you have to raise the perceived value of what you are doing.

All the same, what I would really love is just one minute to do nothing but BREATHE. Not go anywhere, and not do anything.