I didn’t feel inclined to do much writing last week because, among other things, I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to imagine the future. What with the entire world having been totally upended this year, I felt as if I’d lost whatever intuitive sense of direction I might once have had. Because telling stories to make sense of a confusing modern world is the central theme of this blog, it seemed rather pointless to write about being lost in a sea of befuddlement. (Well, except that putting the word “befuddlement” into a sentence just now was kind of fun.)

Then I started reading an apocalyptic business book that projected automation would destroy most of the world’s jobs in the near future. Before this year, I had dismissed that scenario as highly unlikely because it looked like we had plenty of jobs, with more coming open because of retirements and lower birthrates. But now, with a pandemic that could go on for a long time, what business owner wouldn’t want to replace sickly, unpredictable, and expensive humans with robots and intelligent software?

Large robot leaning over a wall.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

That line of thinking put me into quite a funk, and I considered talking it over with my 119-year-old future self, Fannie the Fantastically Adventurous. She might be able to offer some helpful insights and encouragement. But no, that wouldn’t do; I already wrote a post last year in which I asked Fannie for career advice. Something more was needed.

“Yoo hoo!” A waving hand appeared in my imaginary inner landscape, connected to an arm that was nicely toned, if a bit wrinkled. The rest of the body soon came into view, dressed in lime-green workout shorts with a matching tank top and sports bra. This visitor had just been outside on a humid afternoon, judging from the damp, sweaty curls tumbling in all directions over her shoulders. A thin line of gray roots was barely visible under the brown curls.

“I’m Kass,” she informed me, “your 76-year-old future self.”

“Is that short for Cassandra?” I asked, wondering where a future me would have gotten that name. Usually when new characters introduced themselves, I knew their origins; but this time I had no clue whatsoever.

“No, it’s Kass with a K. And it’s short for kicking yours.” Kass smirked in a way that made her look more like a juvenile delinquent than a respectable lady of her claimed 76 years.

I briefly considered tossing her back into whatever murky pool of my subconscious mind had spawned her. Curiosity got the better of me, though; and I decided to take her bait, even if doing so might have been against my better judgment.

“If you’re from my future, aren’t you supposed to be kind and forgiving toward me?” I demanded. “That’s the whole point of imaginary conversations with younger selves, right? You help them to put things in perspective and to understand that their mistakes weren’t really as bad as they might have thought.”

Kass waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and made a “pfft” sound.

“Yeah, right—like you were kind and forgiving when you told our past self Queenie to take a hike?”

“Well, okay, that wasn’t very nice,” I had to admit. “But I did it without thinking, I apologized to her, and then I went back later and told her she was brave for standing up to social pressure.”

“Aren’t you the noble one.” Kass sneered, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at me. “I’m not feeling nearly that altruistic right now, and that’s mainly because I am still recovering from all your ridiculous fears and insecurities. Fannie has had a much longer time to mellow into a wise old woman; I’m not nearly there yet. Just this afternoon, I was out for what should have been a nice relaxing jog in the park, until your annoying self-pitying thought loops about life’s unfairness showed up and ruined it.”

“Queenie had a few things to say when I felt like that,” I pointed out. “She told me that it wasn’t fair to blame a bad day on a younger self, who was likely finding it hard enough to stay positive without the added stress of being responsible for how her future selves might feel. And I would add that is especially true in 2020, when everyone in the world is stressed out.”

“Aw, boo-hoo-hoo, so unfair, poor tragic long-suffering little you. Cue the violins.” Kass made exaggerated fiddling motions in the air. “We both know that you’re super lucky, compared to what happened to a lot of people. So get over yourself already.”

She dropped her hands into a more relaxed position at her sides and took a deep breath before going on. “And in particular, you need to stop judging yourself as a stuck-in-a-rut failure for not having a clear sense of career direction—or any other kind of direction that you feel you’re lacking. You live in a time when the world is changing so fast that almost anything might happen. Recognizing that fact doesn’t make you less insightful or motivated than anyone else.”

Turning that over in my mind, I couldn’t dispute her point. Clarity wasn’t easy to come by these days; and framing its lack as some kind of personal failure did not, in truth, make any sense.

“As for work,” Kass concluded, “just think what might have happened if you’d felt inspired to change careers or start a new business in 2019. Many people did just that—and then the pandemic hit, and they lost everything. So, your uncertainty turned out to be a blessing, even if it didn’t seem like one. Be grateful for it, give yourself permission to chill out and relax for now—and be open to new opportunities finding you later, when the time is right.”

She gave me a smile that actually looked like it might be a real, good-natured smile this time. “And then, maybe, I can finish my next jog without interruption.”

I enjoy having a digital art display on an otherwise blank wall because I can imagine it as a window into many places. The company that made it is no longer in business, though, and I can’t always count on being able to log into the online art library to change the picture. Not enough bandwidth where it is now hosted, apparently. Of course, I’m lucky that it still functions at all, rather than ending up as just a dead screen.

It’s a bit of a disruption to my routine because I had gotten used to changing the picture every morning, so as to imagine myself starting the day in a new and different place. Now I can rarely log in that early and instead have to wait until the afternoon. Today I wanted to display this peaceful image of a garden path, but I had to try several times before it worked.

Flagstone path through a perennial garden.

(Photo credit: Jennifer Rafleyan)

I found myself thinking about how people create calming rituals and routines to make a busy, complicated world feel a little more manageable. When it works as intended, it’s all good; but when something doesn’t go quite right, it becomes another source of anxiety.

Looking at it in perspective, the time of day when I change the picture is so insignificant that I shouldn’t care at all. Most disruptions to everyday activities are just as small and unimportant, but people often find them hard to cope with anyway. That’s probably because in the modern world, there is always so much going on at once, the least little disruption can feel like it might all spin out of control.

That feeling is just an illusion, though, like the window on my wall that isn’t really a window. Those little disturbances and interruptions usually cause no problems at all. The more difficult part is simply to convince the subconscious mind that it’s all okay. Looking on the bright side, a nice, relaxing imaginary walk along the garden path should help with that…

August 2, 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

To simplify their lives, my husband’s parents try to avoid scheduling more than one activity on the same day, which they view as “too much confusion.” I usually am more flexible than that, but this week definitely had more confusion than its fair share.

Monday started out pretty good when an energy-efficiency rebate check from the power company arrived for replacing the old air conditioner. Unfortunately, the equally old refrigerator died on Monday evening, so that money now has to go toward its replacement.

No food got spoiled because the freezer side is still working and my husband brought an old dorm refrigerator (left over from when our daughter was in college) upstairs from the basement. Still, it was disruptive, what with going shopping for the new refrigerator and having computer issues at work.

Tuesday was a dark, rainy day. I got confused driving to the appliance store because the street numbers changed from one city to another, and I had to call my husband (who was meeting me there) to find out where to go. I put an image of a dark, tangled tree on my art display because it seemed to fit.

Dark tree outlined by pale green leaves.

The new refrigerator is on order and should arrive next week sometime, so the confusion won’t last forever. Yesterday evening we went rowing on a nice calm river. Getting outdoors and spending time in nature always helps to calm the mind and the senses.

I recently had a midyear conversation with my manager about resources available for building more skills, among other things. The company has been encouraging employees to use online training materials for personal development.

My manager said that she had been talking with other people in my workgroup about their plans. Some wanted to keep doing the same job, while some were looking to change positions or to retire, and others hadn’t settled on what would be next.

Although she didn’t come right out and ask, I got the distinct impression that there was a question in there; so I replied that I was in the “not sure what comes next” group. That was true enough.

I have been doing pretty much the same work for many years and sometimes feel as if I’ve gotten stuck in a comfortable rut (which I didn’t say). The job is well suited to my temperament and skill set, and my manager and coworkers are very nice people.

Rutted road bordered by telephone poles and fences.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

In our turbulent modern society, there is now an expectation that we need to plan far ahead. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on valuable opportunities and put ourselves at risk of falling too far behind to ever catch up. It’s no longer enough just to be a responsible adult who is working and paying the bills.

There are rational reasons for that fear. Many people really did end up in bad situations because they lost a job to offshoring or automation and did not have the skills needed to get a better job, or they wanted to retire but did not have enough savings. So, now we’re always seeing news articles that admonish us to save much more, improve our skills at every possible opportunity, and plan our entire lives in great detail.

There is an emotional cost to all this pressure, though, which I don’t believe our society is fully taking into account. When we’re expected to run faster on the hamster wheel at all times, we get stressed out. And stress causes health problems, detracts from mental flexibility, and leads to persistent feelings of being overwhelmed and insecure. Then, on top of all that, we feel guilty for not doing a better job of managing our stress, and we get even more stressed.

So I’ve decided that I am not going to worry about what might come next. Why should I feel obligated to live up to some arbitrarily created checklist—which, given how fast the world is changing, may not even come close to my actual future circumstances? To me, it makes much more sense simply to exist in the moment, saving a reasonable amount and learning enough to broaden my horizons, but without forcing anything. Then, maybe, when the time is right, discovering “what comes next” will happen naturally.

I went rowing with my husband during the eclipse, along with a few other people in the rowing club. That made it feel more like an adventure. We brought our eclipse glasses into the boat and, as the light faded, we stopped rowing from time to time and watched the eclipse’s progress. it wasn’t total where I live, but it got dark enough to look almost like nightfall was approaching.

Two pairs of eclipse glasses on a wooden table.

On the river, we had a great view of how confused the wildlife got during the eclipse. Birds flew up to trees and wires to roost, cicadas started singing, and ducks and geese climbed out of the river and started waddling off to wherever they go at night. Then the light started coming back and many of the birds just flew around in circles looking totally befuddled. Their little bird brains couldn’t deal with the fact that it had been getting dark, but all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.

As civilized humans who spend most of our time indoors, we don’t have that sensitivity to the natural world—at least not consciously. If we hadn’t known there was an eclipse, we might easily have looked out the window and assumed the dark sky was just some clouds blowing over. Then we’d have gone back to work and thought nothing more about it.

I wonder, though, if maybe there’s a primitive part of our brains that gets just as confused as those birds about all the unnatural things in our modern environment. Maybe our inner troglodyte peeks out every now and again, muttering to itself in a very worried tone, “Hey, what are all these bright lights in the middle of the night when it’s supposed to be dark? And why are we all staring at little glowing screens instead of looking at normal stuff like trees and fields? Eek! Too freaky! I can’t cope!”

Of course, there are many other reasons why we have so much anxiety nowadays. Mainly I think it’s because the world has been changing so fast that it can be hard to keep track of what’s going on around us, whether natural or otherwise. More time spent in nature surely would do us all some good, though.

I had a busy weekend with a lot going on. It’s all good, but it left me feeling like I need to give myself more time to just rest and breathe. Also, can’t forget to de-stress by looking at a few good cat pictures, right? Wouldn’t want to end up like this poor kitty…

Cat picture that says "I'm so stressed out over being stressed out that I can't even remember why I'm stressed out... and it's stressing me out!"

In the interest of avoiding stressed-out kitty syndrome, I put a beach photo on my art display this morning, with a nice relaxing view of the tide coming in. That, along with getting some exercise rowing for an hour or so this evening, should do the trick.

Beach photo with rising tide

I’m hoping that this post gave everyone visiting my blog a little bit of stress relief too!

May 14, 2017 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Last weekend, I mentioned to my husband that I had noticed the water was running slowly in the kitchen sink’s tap from the reverse-osmosis filter. He changed the filters and repressurized the tank. At once, the water flow was much better. As with most time-change items, the improvement was much more noticeable than the slowly degraded performance from one day to the next had been.

Reverse osmosis filter unit under the kitchen sink.

The water from the tap looked frothy all week. Even now, it still has a few air bubbles, which naturally happens as a result of servicing the system. Not a problem—it just takes a while for the air bubbles to work themselves out.

That’s true with many kinds of maintenance; it takes a little time for things to settle afterward. It’s not all that different from what goes on in our personal lives when we have to deal with changes in society and technology. However much of an improvement something may be, it’s unavoidable that there will be some amount of disruption.

Getting anxious when things look different is a natural reaction. But rather than letting our worries build up, we might do better simply to recognize that small disruptions happen and that, often, they’re no more of a problem than if they had been just a few air bubbles.

January 16, 2017 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

We the People of the United States of America seriously need to chill out.

Among other things, that means stepping back from the political nastiness and having respectful conversations with each other, instead of yelling at each other. Calling people ignorant never made them any better informed.

We live in a modern nation with a strong tradition of democracy, not in a primitive land of warring tribes. Our fellow citizens in the next county, whatever their race or religion, are not going to attack our homes in the middle of the night. Whatever we may think of the government and the economy, we’re not dying of starvation in the streets. By historical standards, that makes us very fortunate indeed.

Word-art of a woman with an American flag covering her head that says "We the People are greater than fear."

Fear corrodes. When we make decisions based on fear—when we go through our days full of anxiety, feeling as if disasters are everywhere and we’re about to be attacked at any moment—not only do we make poor decisions and get stressed out and unhealthy; our society’s collective health also suffers.

Yes, we have real concerns, and there is much in today’s world that needs attention. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to look at every political dispute like it’s a fight to the death. If we want to imagine ourselves charging heroically onto a battlefield, that’s what war movies and video games are for. Social and political issues, like everything else, are best addressed through kindness, decency, respect, patience, hard work, and staying true to our values.

On Tuesday afternoon when I went to vote, it was dark, windy, and chilly here in Ohio; the past week’s unseasonably warm weather had turned to more typical November conditions. Although I try to cultivate the habit of finding something to appreciate in each day, rather than using words such as “dreary” and “gloomy,” I was finding it hard to take a more cheerful perspective—especially after I got home and noticed this:

Aluminum fence bent at top by a leaping deer.

Apparently this damage to my backyard fence was caused by a deer jumping over it. There is a small patch of woods along the edge of the subdivision, and we sometimes see deer walking across the front lawn, but usually they just amble along without causing any problems besides munching on an occasional shrub. I certainly wouldn’t have expected a deer to leap a six-foot aluminum fence! It must have been reacting in a panic to something—a coyote, perhaps, or a large dog.

Finding itself in an enclosed backyard, which surely must have left it feeling trapped and even more panicky, the deer then escaped by bursting through the fence at the back corner.

Aluminum fence broken by a deer.

It probably will be a while before a contractor can get us on the schedule to replace those damaged sections, and in the meanwhile my husband zip-tied some pieces of wood across the gap to discourage any more deer from getting into the backyard.

I suppose I’ll never know what made that deer so frightened. Maybe when a subdivision was built in the middle of their natural habitat, leaving only a little strip of woods, the whole herd got more anxious than they were before. Even if they didn’t clearly understand what was changing as the houses went up one after another, they might have had a vague sense that something didn’t match the way they remembered it.

That’s probably the best explanation I can come up with for the current state of our politics, too. The world has been changing so fast that our mental maps can’t keep up with all the newly created landmarks that diverge from our expectations, and sometimes we just get spooked.

A contractor is going to come out tomorrow and estimate the work. Unfortunately, it won’t be as easy to quantify and repair the damage done to civil society by the scorched-earth politics of recent years, which has cost a lot more than money. One of the saddest things about it is that the younger generation won’t even remember that there was a time when politicians were expected to behave decently and work together to serve the community. We need to set the bar much higher—not only for the behavior of those who want to hold public office, but also for our personal responsibility to set a better, more respectful example.

September 28, 2016 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

Twice recently I’ve had a dream in which I am sitting in a parked car with the engine running, and it suddenly starts rolling backwards. I try to brake and to turn off the car, but the computer is malfunctioning and won’t take any input. The car keeps on rolling away no matter what I do, and I know it’s just about to crash into something when I wake up.

A car wouldn’t really do that, of course, and there is nothing scary happening in my life right now. So I’m guessing that the dream reflects a fear that I might somehow “roll back” to stressful times in the past when I felt like I wasn’t in control. How to deal with it? Well, mainly I’d say that I just need to take a few deep breaths and stay focused on the safe, straight road ahead.

Straight road with colorful autumn trees on each side.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Also, there’s no need to keep a narrow focus and look only at the pavement. Much better to slow down and take enough time to appreciate the pretty landscape, the soft sound of leaves rustling in the wind, and the crisp autumn air. There is always something in the moment to enjoy!