Monthly Archives: March 2013

Object Hygiene

“Possessions are a responsibility,” Ali says. “My dad taught me that when I got my first car.” One of the things I love about Ali (and there are a lot of them) is her ability to state the obvious in a way that allows me to actually hear it.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of object hygiene – the practice of healthy object management. Objects, both material (our stuff) and abstract (our thoughts) occupy our attention, and consume our energy. The more space that current objects occupy, the less room there is for new objects to emerge. If my (mental or physical) space is cluttered, it’s hard to notice, use, and enjoy the objects around me. Clearing objects from my space creates the emptiness that is essential for growth, healing and creativity.

I’ve started paying a lot more attention to what’s got my attention. Who, or what, am I thinking about? How frequently do I revisit a thought? What am I touching? I am constantly moving and maintaining the physical objects in my life. A LOT of my energy goes into keeping track of things, and putting things away. My kids have really poor material object hygiene, but pretty good abstract object hygiene. I’m fairly lousy at both, but getting better.

Objects have an attention intensity – the amount of attention being allocated to an object. How frequently do I “touch” an object, either with my mind or my body? The objects that consume the most attention, it seems, ought to be prioritized for processing.

I’ve also noticed also a temporal weight to objects, especially material objects. Newer objects are harder for me to get rid of. “Oh, but we just got that…” The newness seems to distort it’s actual value.

Simplification of the the complex, and abstract and material inversion. Sometimes, physical objects get represented by an abstract object, or vise versa, especially when they’re complex. Humans are fundamentally lazy, or brilliantly efficient, depending on what kind of spin you want to give it. It’s a lot of work to pay attention, and constantly readjust our mental schema to account for new information. Everything around us, and everything we do, is a complex object chain – a series, or compound, of abstract and material objects. How sensible to, then, to create a shorthand version of reality to keep things moving along. Unfortunately, sometimes we also edit out information would benefit us. It’s like filleting a fish with a chainsaw and deboning it with an ax – fast, but coarse and wasteful.

Behavior – our reaction to objects – is itself a complex combination of abstract and material objects. For example, running an errand (behavior) requires a mixture of thinking and interactions with material objects (including our bodies). Because even a very simple task is such a complex object chain, we simplify it in a “single” abstract object (go to Target and buy mattress pads). (Even the words that make up that thought object are complex objects. “Target” represents a complex physical object (the store) a complex abstract object (the business) and also the outcome of my own abstract process to purchase my mattress pads there, instead of say, from Amazon. The words have both an abstract representation in my head, and a physical representation on my screen, and yours. But I digress…see why it’s so helpful to have shorthand objects?)

The reverse is also true, material objects can come to represent complex abstract objects, often feelings or experiences. The piece of jewelry that represents love. The graduation gift that represents years of hard work and achievement. When material and abstract objects merge this way, they get super-sticky. Material objects become much harder to clear, when I have an emotional attachment to them. And removing the physical, does not necessarily remove the attachment to abstract object. But maybe it would help? I’m not sure how that correlation plays out…The primary attachment is to the emotion, I just transfer that attachment to the object. Why is that? Because the immediacy of the physical representation is satisfying and always available? It doesn’t change or slip away on me like thoughts and feelings do? It’s a simple way to revisit a pleasurable memory – we are pleasure mongers, after all. We like fixed states because they’re simpler, I think. It’s the same reason we editorialize reality into simpler narratives, it’s less work, but it’s also pleasant to feel like we understand things.

The more hygienic I am, the less mental rent and physical energy objects consume. Some objects, like tasks, are easy to clear just by executing them – these are good to do as quickly as possible, lest I waste mental energy (ineffectively) pre-processing them while they sit in the queue. Others, like working out my theory on object hygiene require a lot more time and attention to process – I have (want) to develop the object before I can dismiss it. There is a nourishment quality to this. I feel good when I grow the object, I want to invest in the object, and doing so is satisfying to me.

Objects it would seem, have a life cycle, and, I think, an inherent (but probably relative) value based on the cumulative effort (attention) applied to the object over its life cycle. This is what makes memes so powerful, and economic crashes self-fulling – they’re just concentrated, collective attention. It’s also the reason why businesses misvalue so much of what they do and produce. A lot of (unintentionally) miscalibrated value-attachment happens, from the cost of meetings, to accurately amortizing business assets. I see this in publishing all the time; content is frequently misvalued. The cost to produce something is not the same as it’s market value, and market value is not static. The financial economy and the attention economy are increasingly interdependent, making it all that much harder to quantify what makes products – and how we create those products – successful. Context also influences value – culture and need are just two contextual components of an object’s value; I’m sure there are many more.

So, objects come into my space, and how I process them impacts how much attention they consume. But I can also control objects, by controlling my space. Fewer physical objects require less maintenance. Working from the office, instead of working from home, strongly influences my abstract objects and behaviors.

Material objects are easier for me to control. On Wednesday, I rearranged my kids’ rooms and cleaned out a lot of toys to donate. Our whole house (or at least the main level where the bedrooms and living space are) feels more spacious as a result. It’s stayed much cleaner over the last few days. I have more objects I’m excited to reduce. Killer categories include clothing, dishes, and paper. Clothing and dishes require a lot of regular maintenance – gathering, sorting, washing, putting away. They also take up room, we have closets and cabinets full of them, for special occasions, for different seasons, for different sizes, for kids and adults. It’s starting to become too much. And paper, my God, paper for all kinds of things: financial paper (bills, statements, catalogs, coupons, checks, cash), work paper (concept sketches, presentations, business cards, player rosters, meeting notes), kid paper (artwork, funny things they said and I wrote down, school reports, school notices), behavioral paper (to do lists, appointment cards, phone numbers to call), edification paper (books, magazines, recipes). So much paper.

I couldn’t believe how many toys we had. Where had it all come from? Brendan and I had only purchased about 30% of it. What is it about me, about our family, that attracts so many objects? Why do people give us so many things? How will my object hygiene start to alter my object frequency – the rate and types of objects I attract? I also suspect that we each have a different object tolerance – the volume of objects we can comfortably interact with.

There are fascinating implications for how technology influences object hygiene. Digitization allows us to concentrate and distribute objects with unbelievable intensity and speed. The natural throttling that used to occur through the physical embodiment of an object (a manufactured book, an in-person conversation), is rapidly diminishing. Objects can be condensed into a teeny, tiny physical representation, and shared broadly and rapidly. We are suddenly able to hyper-amplify abstract objects, and hyper-replicate physical objects.

We end up in this digital wraith space where the abstract and the material get really blurry – objects like email, videos, blog posts and tweets seem physical because we can see them, and we experience them through a physical device, but they’re really mostly abstract – they’re other people’s thoughts. Our old processing mechanisms for physical items and mental thoughts, can’t keep up with the object assault; our objects are exponentially outpacing our ability to process them. In the digital age we are all, increasingly, producers, distributors, and consumers of digital objects. It seems wise to think about how to do this responsibly, so we don’t all go insane, trying to keep up without ever being clear about what’s actually happening.

Dinner for Ali

My Photo Stream3

Ali is a beautiful person. I’m really lucky to know her. We’re about the same age, our kids are about the same age. We have┬ásimilar┬ápersonalities. We both grew up in Vermont, and moved to the same town in MA, before we ever met each other. Funny, huh? Sometimes it takes a while for things to happen.

I made dinner for Ali yesterday, because she had a lot going. It was the highlight of my day, cooking dinner for Ali, listening to pop music, dancing in my kitchen, making beautiful food for someone I love. Thanks Ali. Thanks for being so special.

(re)Acceptance

I am realizing that acceptance is not static, not an attained state. I move in and out of it. I’ve had periods of true peace around difficult feelings, difficult truths, only to find that peace gone later on. This has been frustrating. It’s felt like a failure, or a backslide. It’s caused me to question the authenticity of the preceding peace; perhaps it wasn’t genuine, if it wasn’t lasting…

But acceptance is a flexibility. It’s elastic. We expand into it slowly, deepen into it with practice. Like a full, attentive stretch, it’s most satisfying when we listen for, and honor, the edge of our ability on any given day. Some days we are bound, some days open. Reaching, or offering, beyond our capability is uncomfortable, and leaves us susceptible to injury. Over time, with repetition and patience, our baseline changes. The heart, after all, is a muscle; it unfurls too.

I am dazzled by the plain, unassuming language of my body. It teaches through action. It’s so literal. I am humbled by its knowledge and grateful for its quiet, loving service.

Drinking Jonah

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You look so good. You smell so good. You sound so good. You are just a little bundle of goodness. He’s mesmerizing. I allow myself to stay lost in him for a few moments more. I bet, if I ate you, you would taste good too.

I start to wonder, what would babies taste like, if I ate them? I bet they would be delicious. Sweet, melt-in-your-mouth flesh; a concentrated flavor of lightness. Like if you made an extract of the flavor delicate. I imagine a bottle of “delicate extract” sitting in my cupboard next to the pure citrus oils. What would something like that cost? Saffron would blush at it’s own commonness. Beluga eggs would squirm beneath each other to the bottom of the tin, tucking their pearly shoulders in modesty. There would be, too, a most exquisite fat, that would crisp up beautifully. Caramelize to a rich, golden bite, a moment of gossamer crust atop the chewiness of sugar, warmed back into itself many times over. Better than the skin of a suckled pig’s belly, expertly cooked. Crispiness that would be the offspring of a sugar-snap snap, and a crumbled autumn leaf.

Yes, Jonah, you would be delicious to eat, but then you would be gone. How much nicer then, to drink you in the moments of every day. To submerse myself in you without drowning, so that I may quench my thirst to love. How many times have we done this, you and I? I have felt your face in my neck a million times. I have sighed into our caress for eons. Hello again, my darling. You feel so good.

Gentle Teeth

gentle-teeth

I just became aware of these when I laid a spoon on a book to hold it open while I my hands were otherwise occupied with Jonah. It kept slipping off and the book would snap shut. So I turned the spoon over, rim-side against the paper, and it held perfectly. I just needed to reverse smoothness into friction. Both were right there for me to choose, to notice, and apply for the benefit of my current context. And I thought: yeah, tigers have gentle teeth to carry their young, I bet there are all kinds of gentle teeth. I’m quite taken with this notion of a right-sized bite; a speck of ferocious love; vicious strength, dialed back for sweet holding. I think it’s beautiful. I’m going to look for more of them.

Desire, it’s Tricky

I had a great experience dropping Colin off at daycare the other morning.

We’re in his classroom, I’m talking to some of the other kids. They’re doing these poses and I’m telling them the yoga move it looks like. You’re a tree! That’s a warrior three, it’s a very advanced pose. Nice job! Colin, when he’s nervous or anxious, does this weird, non-verbal activity, usually on the perimeter of whatever is going on. It’s almost a spasming to thrust himself into reluctant participation; like a pantomime of anxiety. I notice this happening, so I go over and talk to him.

What’s going on buddy? You okay?
More gesturing. Raised eye brows, open mouth. An awkward downward dog.
Hey buddy, come here. I pick him up. What’s going on?
Well, Mommy, I really love you, and want you to stay here with me. But you said you would do my shark game.

It takes me a second to process this.
Ohhhh. You like having me here, but you also want me to get your new video game set up on your tablet. But I can’t do that if I’m here with you, right?
Yeah.
Yeah, it’s hard when you want two different things at the same time. Isn’t it?
Yeah. I don’t know what to do. It’s tricky.
It is tricky. You’re really smart. I love you.

He rests his head on my shoulder, and I twirl side-to-side. I am so proud of him. He’s grappling with internal conflict, in a way that’s so simple and so human. So four-year-old. It’s beautiful. He’s torn. He’s acting it out because it doesn’t feel good to keep it inside. He’s trying to figure out how to reconcile two things he wants, but can’t have at once.

We talk a some more. I watch his classmates swirling around Jonah in his car seat, and try not to get too distracted. Loquacious Julia comes over and wants to show me more poses. I panic a little at being asked to split my attention. I really want to stay focused on Colin. I don’t want to hurt this little girl’s feelings. I want them both to be satisfied. It’s tricky. I decide to just tell the truth. I’m going to talk to Colin for a little longer. Julia skips off.

I’m delighted to be going through this experience with him. I’m glad to just be a part of it. I feel so lucky that I got this glimpse inside my beautiful boy. I feel so lucky that I get to hold him as he works it out. So grateful that the baby isn’t crying, that I’m not thinking about being anywhere else but here, in these excellent moments.

Eating Oranges in the Sun

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The lamps above me swing in the breeze,
creaking, like dreams at the gallows.
We came here to live, the willing,
and the unwilling.
Sometimes, hating God is all we need
to know that He exists.
Sometimes, belief emerges from everything it isn’t.
If you paint everything that is not the chair,
you still end up with a picture of a chair.
A cameo. A relief.
I eat oranges in the sun,
while the breeze rolls my edges
in and out
of the clear light.

Meditating With a Baby On

I have recently started a practice of daily meditation, and sometimes I like to experiment with meditating different ways, either out of curiosity or necessity. Today, Experiment #6: meditating with a baby on. I figured, what’s the worst that can happen? Nothing. And, as an earnest student, I’m really hoping to experience nothing, so that would actually be perfect. But something did happen.

Jonah’s breath was about three or four times faster than mine – that little pant that babies do. So I’m noticing my breath, and his breath, and how they’re different. And then I notice my pulse, or what feels like my pulse, in my body, but then I realize I can’t tell if what I’m feeling is my pulse, or his breathing. They were merged together, we had blended together into the same space, and I couldn’t tell his breath and my heartbeat apart. I had this overwhelming sense of oneness with him. And as he’s breathing, strapped across my chest and belly, I feel the energy in my upper teeth and jaw getting pushed up and down, in the same rhythm. He breaths in, my energy pushes up, he breathes out, it ebbs back down. His breath melted through my flesh, and rolled, sweetly, in and out of my body. It was awesome. It was this gentle entwinement, – two people made out of the same, shared thing, swaying into unity at the boundary lines.

And I’m feeling so happy, my heart is brimming with love, and the experience is so cool, and I’m getting more excited and happy about the whole thing, and as I do, it starts to slip away. And I think, right, right, don’t get attached to the happiness, ahhh! stop trying to live up to the expectation of pleasure you’re starting to create around what’s already happening. And I’m laughing at myself, because I’m trying so hard not to try hard, and I have pretty much no idea how to just exist. And then Jonah farts, and it smells terrible, and that makes the whole thing even funnier, and it strikes me that this exactly what life is all about: the ordinary sublime. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, I still haven’t taken a shower, I spent two hours in the morning driving to a haircut appointment I never made it to because I got stuck in traffic, I’m meditating in my little ranch house in the suburbs, with a farting baby who is breathing in my teeth, and I am supremely happy and amused by the whole thing. I’m an incredibly ordinary human being having this beautiful spiritual experience, and I think: this is so cool, this is so cool that this is what life is like. Tears come to my eyes and I feel so much happiness and love, and I feel so good that I try to step further into the feeling, and it fades again. And I start giggling because I’m so human, and I already forgot the thing I just did a few seconds ago, but I’m so happy I don’t care. I think it’s adorable. I’m an adorable little human that’s crafted from the profound – everything about my existence is ridiculous and beautiful, and I’m so grateful to have caught, felt, actually lived, a glimpse of it. It was really cool.

Why I Write

I write for myself. It helps me understand my reality, my truth. It’s often easier for me to say to others, what I’m reluctant to say to myself. When I speak from my heart to another person, what I’m usually doing is speaking to myself with love. It’s neat.┬áSo I’ve decided to do more of it, and share it, because I feel good when I do. I understand things better. I see more beauty in the world. I see more balance. Everything is nicer when I pay attention to what’s actually happening. Writing helps me focus.

I’m an experiment; writing is a good way to keep track of what’s going on.