Saturday, August 25, 2007

Like Ambien, but weirder

This one might be a little kooky. I don't even know if it works. But if it does, you might be able to make your sleep seem longer, no matter how long it actually is.

Everybody wants something different from sleep. I view it mostly as a chance to escape. It's a buffer between my days and nights, an opportunity to go far away from the working world before I have to come back. I've never cared much about waking up too rested, although it's certainly nice.

Thus, my biggest wish each night, whether I have five or six or seven hours until my alarm, is that my sleep feel like it lasts a long time. I want to avoid that horrible feeling where my cell phone beeps and I know that It Wasn't Enough. Because whether or not you enjoy your day, it's a long time until you get another chance to catch up on sleep.

But how to control sleep? It's the most mysterious chunk of our day. Eight hours can disappear in the blink of an eye, or three hours can seemingly take forever. Sleep is a maverick. It does what it wants.

Sometimes, though, it helps to ask for better sleep. Ask who? Ask yourself, or rather, your subconscious.

Say, "I'd like my sleep to last a looooooooooooong time tonight." Visualize it. When I get to the "loooooong", I picture myself traveling down a looooooong, endless road. Travel on and on for about fifteen seconds, or maybe even a little longer. Do it right before you go to sleep. Just ask politely. Don't demand.

Or make a deal with your subconscious. If you have a big presentation in the morning that's five hours away, ask for really deep, long-lasting sleep tonight, but say you're willing to give up great sleep on Friday night, when it doesn't even matter that much.

It's a simple concept, maybe even a little weird, but very few people ever try it. If it didn't work for me, I'd think it was silly to act like my subconscious mind is some entity that can be bargained with.

Now I see it as a part of my mind that wants the best for me - as long as I ask for it. Likely, it was thinking, "What the hell took you so long?" And I wake up almost every morning feeling like I had just the right amount of sleep, and that it lasted a looooooong time - no matter how long it actually was.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Comfort Zone

How much of my life has been dictated by the massive, lulling gravitational pull of my comfort zone?

If you're anything like me, your comfort zone has influenced too many of your decisions. It's kept you in mediocre places and situations and relationships and done its best to silence the voice that nags, "Maybe things could be better..."

In my early twenties, I wanted to build my comfort zone and stay there for the rest of my life. I wanted the job, the town, the house, the girl, and the habits that would stick with me until I moved into a retirement home. I didn't want to think anymore.

It makes sense. Living in your comfort zone is easy. You don't have to make decisions. You just have to follow routines. You don't have to learn new skills. You just do what you've always done, again and again.

I am not judging here. I still spend much of my life in my comfort zone.

Thinking new thoughts is hard. Doing new things is tiring. The idea of following a blueprint for the rest of your life is unbelievably enticing.

Plenty of people never leave their comfort zones. I don't want to completely knock this way of life, because you can still have a lot of love, fulfillment, and contribution in your zone.

I believe there's more to life, though. There is challenging yourself, making yourself uncomfortable, and seeking the rewards that are just on the other side of a scary situation.

During those early twenties, I spent three summers washing dishes at Ivey's Grill in Gainesville, Florida. Despite my Master's degree, I loved the idea of getting my hands dirty, running around, listening to classic rock, and helping make a restaurant run.

In the dish pit, every day was the same. It was more physically draining than anything I'd ever done, but there was no real challenge to it.

I always had the chance to move up to the kitchen, to do work just a little different and harder than washing dishes, and I resisted that chance for three years.

The dish pit was my comfort zone. I knew every aspect of washing dishes at Ivey's. Cooking represented something new, scary, different.

In my last week there, before I moved to New York, I started cooking. Tickets came in, and I made pancakes and omelets and stir fries and sandwiches to order.

What a revelation: it was fun, it was relatively simple, I was pretty good, and it felt great knowing that someone else was doing the dishes for once. The work felt more useful and meaningful.

Then, a week later, I left Ivey's and Gainesville and Florida for good.

I had one thought about the experience: Why didn't I try it earlier? I resisted the challenge and ignored the reward for three years. I had a good thing going, and I didn't want to leave it.

I chose the monotonous good over a lunge for greatness. What's left are three great summers that still reek of a wasted opportunity.

It's still a struggle to integrate this lesson into my life. There are so many situations where I choose the easy and familiar over the potentially wonderful unknown.

When I moved to New York, when I go on blind dates, hell, when I order something new at a restaurant, I have had to push myself kicking and screaming every single time.

The pull of the comfort zone is maddeningly strong. But you can overcome it, and one important step is simply to acknowledge how big a presence it is in your life.

Admit to yourself that you are doing some things not because you particularly like them, but because they are comfortable. Acknowledge if you are forsaking most of life's opportunities for a scant few that you latched onto early in life.

And then, bit by bit, push yourself kicking and screaming into situations that might bring you pain and pleasure that you can't even fathom right now.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Don't Burn Out!

I ran tonight, from my apartment to Central Park, around the reservoir, and back.

The scenery was pretty: the distant spires of midtown, the setting sun shimmering on the water, trees overhead, joggers taking it all in.

My running was not pretty. It was awkward, tense, and not especially fast. I no longer care if people think I look weird, but I do wish my form had been better.

I could have gone faster. I could have run with big strides and passed everyone. I also could have hunched over in pain after about five minutes.

Instead, I finished my ugly run after a half-hour, right in front of my apartment building. I was sweating, and my heart was pounding, but I was never in so much pain that I had to stop.

Thus, my advice: if you want to do something consistently, never traumatize yourself. Push yourself a little more each day, but never do something so painful that you will be too scared to do it tomorrow.

I have had exercising experiences that kept me away from the gym for weeks. I have had dates that drove me into my single shell for a month, and I have had healthy-eating streaks that pushed me into the waiting arms of a large extra-cheese pizza.

In all of these cases, making the short-term challenge overly painful just made things worse in the long run. The over-reaching goal wasn't worth it.

More successful people than me might dismiss this advice, and maybe rightfully so. Navy Seal trainees are probably traumatized every day, and they have to keep coming back. They'd laugh at this.

For most of us though, this advice makes sense. The idea of improvement doesn't involve reaching your goals on the first day. It involves learning to do things consistently, when you are tired or not in the mood, because you know you need to do them.

Burning out doesn't do anything except give you one more excuse for avoiding the routines you know are necessary. It should be avoided on your journey, and in all aspects of life.

Don't be so easy on yourself that you never face your challenges. But don't make those challenges so daunting that you are likely to skip them tomorrow out of sheer terror. Increase your challenges gradually, and you will eventually get to where you want to be.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Full Circle

I heard a song today that I haven't heard in six years. When the first few notes drifted out of my speakers, I experienced such a happy, nostalgic feeling.

For just a moment, I was back in college, working at the AV Center at the business school. The 2007 listening experience and the 2001 listening experience met, like the sides of a quilt being folded.

And what of the time in the middle? For the moment, it was pushed off to the side. It never happened.

I never graduated college. I never taught. I never moved to New York City. My experience of 2001-2007 was: 1) Hear and love the song. 2) Hear and love the song again. And it was always going to happen again.

This seems like too much for a novelty Latin song about mayonnaise. But it comes up a lot.

I just went to Washington, D.C. for the first time in 16 years. I laid my eyes on landmarks I hadn't seen since I was 11 years old.

When I saw the Lincoln Memorial or John F. Kennedy's grave - both unchanged in the ensuing years - the two viewings again joined together in my mind. It felt like I was always going to come back, no matter where else life took me, so I could complete the experience.

On the same trip, my Mom met up with a cousin she hadn't seen in 35 years. This had to happen, right? They're cousins. At some point, they were going to reconnect.

It seemed like these events were destined to happen. The original experiences had finally been validated. Everything came full circle.

I don't buy it.

I used to say about certain people or places that "our story will never end". That I am destined to encounter these people or places at regular intervals throughout my life, whether I want to or not.

This seems less and less realistic as time goes on.

Anything can happen in the time between meetings. People move. People die. People lose interest in each other. They fight and stay fighting at a distance.

To believe that an experience isn't complete until some meeting way off in the future is to do a disservice to that experience. It says that the experience, or the relationship, wasn't real or full enough by itself. It says that if fate intervenes and prevents things from "coming full circle", then things will forever be unresolved.

When I was a kid, I spent two Thanksgivings playing a bowling game in my backyard with some older cousins. The next year, they didn't want to play anymore, and I was devastated. The "tradition" was dead.

In situations like this, my new attitude comforts me. Every time I am able to continue a tradition, I am lucky. But the next time is never guaranteed, and it can never detract from the experiences I have already had.

I've always wished I could find closure with ex-girlfriends. Or run into old friends. Or hear novelty Latin songs one more time.

If I do, that's great. All of these things have happened before. But they didn't have to happen.

Each experience was done, finished, in the past. It didn't leap Evel Knievel-style over years of my life and continue where it left off. It stopped, and nobody knew if it would ever start again.

If elements of my past come back - if my favorite traditions continue - that is great. I welcome them.

But my life is complete up to this point. My past doesn't need help from my future. What happens from here on out - whether familiar or completely new - is a gift, but it is not guaranteed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I've had the annoying tendency lately to deconstruct everything in my world. I pick it apart and figure out if it is really necessary, if it is real, if it is primal, if it is a worthwhile way to spend my life.

Deconstruction can be useful. We do so many things because they are mindless habits, or because society dictates that we should do them, or because our parents did them. Or because we are scared or obsessed or have nothing better to do.

I spent much of middle school and early high school reading comic books. Those are now frustrating memories for me. I'll always dig comics to some extent, and I still think Superman is a badass. But it's scary how much time I spent obsessing over comic books for reasons I was unaware of.

I wish I'd deconstructed more back then. I wish I'd said to myself, "Ben, it's one thing to dive into a particularly fun comic book. It's another thing to mindlessly buy new comics each week when you stopped liking most of them years ago. You worry about maintaining and cataloguing your collection, which is slightly obsessive-compulsive. You're also avoiding the challenges and rewards of the outside world by keeping your nose buried in comics - good strategy!"

I never once thought about why I was doing what I was doing.

It is important to like things for reasons you are concsious of, and to be aware of the impact your habits have on your life. I could have spent my early teenage years doing more interesting, social activities with tangible long-term benefits. I could have been in control of my interests, instead of the other way around.

Still, it's possible to go too far with deconstruction.

I spent last weekend at a family reunion, and I immediately began deconstructing: Family is an arbitrary concept. I don't even know most of these people. Our blood is the same - so what? Am I supposed to be loyal to people - to love them - simply because we're related? How close are we if I see them once every few years? We're all just wasting our time. Everyone here is brainwashed except me.

You can make a coherent argument in most of these directions. I used to blindly believe in loving one's mother, until my college roommate made a convincing case that his mother was heinous and not worthy of his love.

I'm a lot more comfortable now loving my mother because she is a wonderful person who raised me well. That puts me in charge of my actions and decisions - not some archaic tradition or cultural assumption.

If you want to suck the joy out of living, though, you don't have to stop at habits and family. You can deconstruct religion, work, laws, pasttimes, friendships, birthdays, funerals, small talk, and all forms of entertainment. If you delve deeply enough, you can make anything in the world seem stupid and meaningless, done for reasons that make no sense at all.

A lot of times, though, life is simple. It doesn't demand deconstruction. A family reunion can be worthwhile if everyone there believes it is worthwhile. Family members love each other because it makes them feel good. Whether they do it consciously, or because they were indoctrinated at birth, the end result can be a wonderful thing.

The weekend was a lot more fun when I shut up my brain and appreciated the happiness in front of me. Sometimes things just are, for reasons that might or might not make logical sense.

It's important to deconstruct parts of your life. Chances are that you have a bunch of habits and routines that, upon closer scrutiny, you might be doing for reasons that make no sense to you. Clear them out and find better ways to fill your time. Act consciously, for reasons that are relevant to your life.

But deconstructing can also whittle life's possibilities down to a tiny list of things that pass all of your rational, logical tests. There's a level where nothing seems worthwhile or makes sense if you are too strict.

That's a scary level. Life should be about taking advantage of opportunities and enjoying the world's gifts. Dismissing those opportunities and gifts seems like a limiting, unfulfilling way to live.

Sometimes our traditions and assumptions are stupid and limiting. Often, though, they are the source of much of the world's happiness. You have the choice to stand back and mock people for following them, or to jump in and enjoy what everybody else is already enjoying.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

I'm still alive, and I appreciate everyone who has checked here in the last week.

Right now, I'm not feeling like much of a teacher or a talker. I'm living and experiencing and figuring things out - which is always the case.

But lately, I haven't felt like I have any answers. And in that context, lecturing to anybody about anything would feel disingenuous.

This will pass, probably in a few days. Keep checking back.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

What Just Happened?

A big theme in my life is noticing the moment. This counts for double when it is a moment I've worked towards, an achievement that's taken weeks or months of hard work.

That said, I like an achievement even more when I don't notice it at first.

For instance, I ran on the treadmill tonight at a speed I rarely hit. I flew, and I sweated, and the time passed without much problem.

It seemed natural, as if I'd always done it that way.

That's a wash. For most of my life, I couldn't run. I huffed and puffed and got side-aches after about two minutes. When I exercised, I walked. Period.

That was my life until a year ago, and now it seems like a distant memory. I take for granted how far I've come.

Hell, running is nothing if I don't leave my apartment, my comfortable bed and my air conditioning and my refrigerator, to go to the gym.

How many nights have I said "fuck it" and avoided the gym, avoided the world? Tonight, though, I was acting on a habit, one I've drilled into myself day after day.

I barely noticed I'd left my apartment until I was halfway down the street.

Last example. I was at lunch with friends this afternoon, and I saw a pretty girl sit down to eat. Without thinking much, I excused myself from my friends, walked over to the girl, and asked if I could join her for a minute.

The conversation was terrible, which I'll take full credit for. I ran away after a minute. But I did it.

For as much as I plan for and stress about moments like that, I'd only done it twice in my life before today. But even that miniscule experience brought me to a point where the approach didn't seem like a big deal.

It wasn't as significant as it used to be. That's huge. That means it's become normal, even if just a little.

This is a double-edged sword. You want to give yourself credit for your victories. You want to revel in them, enjoy them, celebrate.

But it is damn cool when you don't even notice them. And when you notice that, you'll have the momentum to plan and achieve other things that, if you're good enough, will also fly by undetected.