April 2009

Inspired by my brother Damian and by the book My Year of Living Biblically, I’ve been taking a weekly sabbath this term. I am not religious but the idea of a day in which I was not allowed to work fascinated me. It seemed like a good way to take care of myself. It has been great. It is a radical lifestyle change for me, almost shocking. I have four rules for the day:

1. No school or business related work at all.

2. No fretting.

3. No counting, timing, or keeping track of anything.

4. No planning.

It’s a work in progress. Some grey areas I’m wondering about are reading and writing. So far I haven’t been doing them, except some brainstorming… which can verge on planning, now that I think of it… well, that’s why it’s a work in progress. The key elements are that it is restful and rejuvenating, and that I only do things for the pleasure of doing them, not for some future result.

I almost called this post “My Fledgeling, Faltering Sabbath,” because after three good weeks, I worked straight through last weekend, ten hour days, just like old times, and it’s looking like I’ll do the same this weekend. I have a draft of my thesis due on Tuesday (actually it was due tomorrow, but I renegotiated) and I will need at least every coherent hour until then to pull that off. I wonder if I can get back on track. Often I find that I only stick with things as long as I have a “no exceptions” rule. “Trying to do such and such a little more” is rarely effective. And I don’t have a religious community to keep me on the straight and narrow. Hmm. It seems like breaking my sabbath to worry about my breaking my sabbath.

Stereotypes are not just ideas. They actually exist, like sinister puppeteers in our brains, pulling our strings at the sight of race, gender etc. Trying to suppress the puppeteers makes them stronger. One way to weaken them is by keeping your attention on taking perspectives: What would it be like to be that person? Not that kind of person, that specific person.

(Want convincing? See Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal or Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708-724.)

As I was leaving campus I saw an earthworm crossing the sidewalk. I usually rescue worms that are obviously alive and in danger but tonight I did not. It was a big one, with a lot of energy, cruising along pretty fast. It was already more than halfway across, and I was the only one on the sidewalk. I considered encouraging it to move more directly toward the edge–it was moving at an angle–but it might curl up and stop moving if I messed with it and I figured it only needed a minute to make it across at it’s current trajectory. And if I went to the effort of squatting, I might as well just move it to safety, but I didn’t see any little sticks handy to move it with and those guys can be hard to pick up with the fingers… Anyway, I didn’t intervene. Though it might not  sound like it, this took just a few seconds.

I was about five feet past the worm when two young women, deep in a conversation about not overdressing for a party they were planning to attend, crossed the street and walked past me, towards the worm. I considered saying something like “Look out for the worm,” but I did not. It felt awkward when I thought of saying it. I thought “What are the chances that one of them will step on the worm anyway?” I did turn around to see, though, and one of the young women stepped right on the worm. I went back and checked. Maybe there had been a stick nearby. No. The worm’s guts were all hanging out and half of it was writhing around. It looked pretty painful. Now I took the time to find a stick and move it to the side. Sometimes worms can survive this kind of thing, right? It didn’t look survivable.

This morning, as I was walking to the bus stop, I saw a family of ducks trying to cross the road. The traffic at that spot on Franklin Boulevard, right before it crosses the Willamette River, is  heavy. It’s the main drag into Springfield from Eugene and the I-5. Prospects were not good for these ducks. It was a mother and seven or eight tiny, fluffy, cute ducklings. I love baby ducks. They are about my favorite animal. They were already off the curb, committed. What could I do? I stopped traffic and herded them across. It took a while, but the motorists seemed supportive. One old hippy  gave me a thumbs-up. When they were across and the traffic started to whiz by again, I realized that the ducks were still screwed. The mother hopped up the curb to the bank, but the babies couldn’t make it. They aren’t very good jumpers. So I decided to help them out again. When they saw me walking towards them, though, they ran away, directly onto the storm grate. It turns out that baby ducks are the perfect size to fit through a storm grate. Immediately, several of them are caught in the grate and I rush over and start pulling them out and setting them on the curb as fast as I can but one of them falls through. It was only about four feet down, but I couldn’t reach through the grate and I couldn’t lift the grate up. It was either locked somehow or super heavy. That little duckling was so pathetic down there, peeping and swimming around in the muck. It was distressing. The mother was already heading down the hill with the others trailing behind.

A homeless woman panhandling on the next corner asked if I’d stopped traffic for those ducks. She seemed to approve. She seemed nice. I wondered later if she’d been thinking something like, “Wow, a guy who helps ducks. Surely he’ll give me a buck.” I did not give her any money.

I called the Springfield Public Works Department and left a message about the duckling and a couple hours later got a message back: “Hi Nathen, this is Linda at the SPWD. We did send over our first truck driver and he checked all of the catch basins, east and westbound, north and south side, at the bridge, and we did not find a duck, but the water is moving pretty fast through there, so either it got swept away or it safely got out. We did not find a duck. Thanks for the call.”

I was a little suspicious, because the water in the drain had hardly been moving at all, and there seemed to be little tunnels down there that the duckling could swim through, so they wouldn’t necessarily have seen it. So, on my way home, I listened at the grate, but no peeping.

I am a few weeks past halfway through my 38th year, conveniently marked by my brother Damian’s birthday, and the start of my spring term. Here’s an update on how my intentions for the year are coming along.

1. Add new knowledge to the field of social psychology: I have just finished (I hope) crunching numbers for my honors thesis, and I can say that I have helped produce some new evidence, at least. It is not as sexy as I had hoped, but I have learned a whole lot about the process of psychology research, and that is the main point, as my advisor keeps reminding me.

2. Break my habit of scratching and picking my skin, including biting my lip: I have made some progress here, using a technique Reanna told me about: snapping myself with a hair band around my wrist whenever I had the urge to touch myself. My success varies clearly with my stress level. It requires mindfulness. Another insight/confusion: picking and lip biting, I can tell, are pure stress responses, but the scratching I think is more than that. I seem to be an itchier than normal person. A dermatologist told me that it was the “notoriously harsh” hand-made soap I have been using. I accepted that explanation until I realized on my ride home that he had been wrong. I only use soap on a few key areas. By his reasoning my armpits should be itchier than most of me, and they are not. Any ideas?

3. Celibacy: This has been no problem. I have not been tested, however; no one that I am aware of has wanted to have sex with me. When I first told Grace about this one, she said, “You are going to learn a lot from doing that, but you know, now that you are committed, you will immediately meet someone who will make it very challenging.” Well, not yet.

4. Dance every day, working on 1) musicality 2) vocabulary 3) style: This is going pretty well, though some days my dancing is just a token, so I could say I did. I had a big breakthrough in musicality on my fast dancing at Seattle Balboa Festival in February. The choreography I have been working on with Karly has been helping my working vocabulary. And the main reason I decided to take ballet is to improve my poise and lines. It is easy for me to get into an I-could-be-doing-so-much-more/better state. There is a guy who started in the same beginning class that I did in Eugene who really dove in and is now a rock-star dancer in Portland, winning national competitions. But I still give myself a thumbs up on this one.

5. Finish bachelor’s degree: Yes. I am on track to graduate with honors on June 13, 2009.

6. Get accepted into a couples and family therapy graduate program: Yes. I start in the University of Oregon’s CFT masters program on September 29 (happy birthday to me!), 2009. I’m very excited.

7. Maintain this blog: I have a lot more ideas for posts than actual posts, but I am pretty happy with NME so far. It has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. I get about 20 clicks a day, on average, which seems pretty respectable. The lowest I go is three (two of which are my ever-hopeful-for-a-post Mom, I just discovered), and my peak was 62 on March 31, the day after I posted the guide to my sidebar. I wonder who you all are.

8. Meditate every day: Yes. Sometimes just a few minutes, but yes.

9. Produce a record with David Waingarten: This is not going to happen this year, which I’m sad about. I love this guy’s voice and songwriting. He also makes movies, though, and that’s what he did with his time and money this year. The movie looks good, though. Here’s a preview: This Is Now

10. Record an EP with my band, Abandon Ship: This project is not on schedule, partly because of #12, below, and partly because of how much work an honors thesis is, on top of an internship and classes. I am working on it , but it will almost certainly not be done by my birthday.

11. See healthcare provider each month until all my body concerns are resolved: Yes, I have been doing this. I’ve seen a dermatologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and two chiropractors. I’m disappointed with the results, so far. I seem to be collecting concerns faster than I am resolving them. Hmm… That makes it seem like I am on my last legs. I am quite healthy, overall, actually.

12. Set up a slick system of musical collaboration over the internet and use it regularly: This has come together much slower than I anticipated, but I have every reason to believe I will be up and running by early May. I can hardly wait.

13. Shift my schedule three hours earlier for at least one term: In bed by 11 pm: I’m very happy with this one, so far. I have not pulled it off perfectly for a term straight—my dance schedule conflicts somewhat with it—but I’d say 90% of the time I’m in bed by 11:30, at least, and that means I’m waking up naturally before my alarm 90% of the time. I love it!

14. Sing out every day: I have not been doing this as I had hoped. I am still inspired to sing out like my friend Zen Zenith, but I have not been working on it with any regularity.

15. Take African dance classes: Yes, I have taken two classes from master dancer Alseny Yansane, and they were awesome. Unfortunately, I have been having this low back pain that has kept me from dancing with that extreme athleticism. When my back stops hurting, I will go back.

16. Write at least one song per month: Nope. I have not written even one complete song. Ouch.

17. Make at least one of each item in Maya’s cookbook: Yummm. I have made four of 19 recipes: Fluffy Whole Wheat Pancakes, Super Hero Granola, Corn Chowder, and Maya’s Tomato soup. They were all excellent except I burned the granola.

I watched a training video for recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder in psychopathology yesterday. Part of it was a Vietnam veteran describing his stress cues—he had to monitor and manage his stress level carefully so that he wouldn’t become scary or dangerous to those around him. He said something like “If I find myself scanning the bushes for gooks, or deciding which person in the room I would need to kill first, if it came down to it, I know that I need to lower my stress level.” The man’s story was moving and I cried quietly throughout it, but at that moment I was surprised to find myself a little jealous of him. My thought was “It must be nice to have such obvious stress cues.” It wouldn’t be nice at all, of course, but the sneakiness of my stress cues does make it difficult to manage my stress, which is a big part of my ongoing project to master being kind to myself. I was inspired to come up with a list of stress cues that I could try monitoring, to see if it’s helpful. Here it is so far:

I can feel tension in my solar plexus and between my shoulder blades

I am craving sweets

I am having trouble with focus or motivation

I am grinding my teeth, usually along with a drum beat in my head

I am biting my lip or picking at my skin

I am in the grip of an unpleasant emotion

I am experiencing intrusive thoughts

My writing or typing gets sloppy

I am easily frustrated

I am feeling jumpy

Sitting up straight seems out of the question

What is the sensation of exerting mental effort? It takes energy to think and focus attention, but we can’t directly feel what is going on in our brains. There are no sensory nerve endings in there. I can understand why we feel tired after thinking a lot, but I don’t understand why thinking hard feels effortful in the moment. It really does, though. Some of the thinking I’m doing feels like pushing a boulder up a hill, except more confusing, and my body aches with it–more than I would expect from just sitting and typing and looking at notes. My only idea is that I’m unconsciously flexing muscles when I think, especially in my face, neck, and back, and that produces the sensation of mental effort. What do you think? I’d sure like to be able to apply my brain fully without flexing any extra muscles.

Suntop in Bathtub

Suntop in Bathtub

These are the people I live with. And the dog. When this photo was taken, Kyla Wetherell lived with us, but she missed the shoot. She has since fallen in love and moved out. I miss her. We have two cats, now, not pictured. They are probably nice and definitely reclusive but they don’t make up for Kyla. Anyway, left to right, we are Joe Dillon (student of engineering, writer), Luna (pug, lover of fluffballs), Kat Reinhart (student of developmental neurobiology, cyclist), Nathen Lester (student of psychology, dabbler), Tilke Elkins (artist, author), and Nicholas Walker (inventor, programmer). I’ve known almost everyone here for years: Joe the longest, for nine years, and Kat the shortest, for six months.

Suntop Action

Suntop in Action

I went to Joshua Tree for spring break. It was great to see my parents and most of my brothers. Today was the first day of astonishingly pleasant weather of the year in Eugene, and it reminded me of how astonishingly pleasant it is in Joshua Tree almost every day this time of year. The first wave of spring wildflowers are carpeting the open desert–yellow ones called desert dandelion. Unfortunately my camera is broken and these photos are a bit blown out, but they are better than nothing. In the first one you can see that the elm is budding. The building is our sauna. The hammock is one of my favorite spots to chill. The object in the foreground is a solar water heater. In the back on the right is Grandpa Bob’s workshop and my dad’s venerable motor home, Inertia.

Elm, Wildflowers, Hammock, Water Heater

Larrea tridentata, Malocothryx glabrata

Ouch. The color is off. Imagine the sand much less pink and the flowers more yellow. The bush is a creosote, which have 70 foot taproots, and one of which is 11,700 years old, out near Lucerne Valley.

Compared to me at my peak, in junior high school, I am not homophobic. I wasn’t even that homophobic then, on the full scale of the trait, but “gay” was definitely a put-down and though I didn’t know that I knew any LGBTQ folks at the time, I had the sense that they were lower on the hierarchy of normalcy than I was.

I’ve come a long way. Last fall, for example, a young woman leaned her upper body out of the passenger window of a passing car to shout “fag!” at me, and I was merely amused. (Tilke told me later it was probably because I was wearing red pants. Heterosexuals are allowed to wear blue, black, khaki, and camouflage pants.) It’s impossible to measure, of course, but if you forced me to say, I’d guess I have about 1% of the homophobia I had then. I don’t mean to make that sound like that’s a big deal—it’s just growing up. One of the main things I think “growing up” means is coming to not feel threatened by things that aren’t threatening.

But getting rid of what co-counselors call ‘oppressor patterns’ like homophobia is kind of like learning to tune a guitar; the further you get, the harder it is to do. Tiny increments that used to be inaudible to me, now sound teeth-grindlingly out of tune. It’s like my mom always says, “Whatever you focus on expands.”

I’m thinking about this because I’ve started taking a ballet class—two, actually, four hours a week—and we started right out with a move that poked me right in the homophobia, a ballet leap called grande jete. It’s a beautiful motion, but I get a little uncomfortable watching men do it. And there’s something about doing it myself that makes me squirm. And being seen doing it e,specially by strangers, set my emotional alarms off. I haven’t been able to deconstruct it much, yet. My body just shouted “wrong!”

I’m looking forward to whatever insights come from this. My first guess is that it’s fear of ridicule. Whatever it is, facing it could really help my dancing. I’m from the punk rock generation. We’re not allowed to be passionately graceful. It has to look accidentally or clumsily graceful. That is holding me back.

Here’s some amazing leaping (though I don’t think any of these are grande jetes):