Friday, September 14, 2012

Beauty Spotting

In an effort to make date night awesome or just have activities to do together I've come up with a few things.
We're going to do this one tonight weather permitting.

Beauty spotting
Walk around the city you live in with your lover, a bit like a tourists, bring your camera. Takes turns with the camera taking only 1 good picture of a thing that is beautiful or good. Do not tell the other person what you are taking a picture of or why. The other person must wait if their partner has not yet taken a picture. You will each need to explain why the other person thinks the thing they are taking a picture of is good or beautiful.  
Review the pictures one by one at a cafe, park, or restaurant over drinks or dinner.
Go through the pictures sequentially and the person who didn't take the picture must explain why they think the other person took the photo, identifying the element of the picture that the other person intended to capture and why.
Switch it up, keep it lively. You can purposely make up silly reasons or back stories of the people involved or pick the "wrong" thing on the photo to talk about. Compare with the "real" answers of the other person if you'd like to, or you can volunteer your reason, especially if it's way different than the other person's. Find other variations of things to do with the explanations.
Enjoy the conversation and silliness that ensues. 

If you find yourself impatient with the other person taking pictures, let that be your cue to remember to be patient with your loved ones and let them finish their activities and sentences. We're too eager to make our points or do our activity and not always listening and allowing the other person space/time for their activities and thoughts.
You may notice that in order to keep track of what the other person is doing or looking at or taking pictures of you need to be especially observant. This is purposeful.
By looking for good and beauty around us we become more thankful and aware of how great the place where we live is and the good things happening there.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Caring for the poor? Who's job is it?

I like to vastly oversimplify things, but perhaps this isn't such an oversimplification when I think about it.

I read a very interesting article posted by Rod Hardy: Really liked the article, gave an interesting perspectives.  Near the end of the article one of the people talk about how the scriptures, and specifically the Book of Mormon talk a lot about caring for the poor.

If we translate that into politics many people interpret that as the government caring for the poor, but should that be so? The scriptures mention very little of institutionalized giving to the poor outside of church institutions. It's hard to suss out some of these things though as it's not specific, or when the government is a theocracy. So understanding that we're not in a theocracy in the US, and that in fact this is a very diverse nation and many people don't even believe in God, how should we handle caring for the poor?

How do we think is the best way to go about caring for the poor? Should it be the government's job to take care of the poor? Charities (whether religious or not)? Corporations (via charitable giving, stimulating employees to give of their time, or charitable giving)? Individuals (perhaps via voluntary donations of time and money individually or via charities)? or some mix of them all?

Overgeneralizing things a bit it's easy to say that Democrats would favor a government system to take care of most of the needs of the poor, with others stepping in where the social safety net has gaps. There is a general distrust of corporations to do this, because of perceived abuses by large companies in dodging taxes, lobbying government and other things, so they don't believe that they will help much. Many of the most devout of the democrats find it a pleasure to pay their taxes and they willingly do it and see it as their patriotic duty.

Overgeneralizing things a bit it's easy to say that Republicans want the government out of the charity business, except of course when it comes to medicare which they're very, very much in favor of. In this camp there is a general distrust of government run programs because of perceived lack of efficiency and corruption. Republicans generally hate paying taxes, they see it as a waste, something that is forced upon them, and stealing from their earnings. They loathe being told by the government who to help and when. They want to make those decisions themselves (or keep it all, though I don't think this happens as often as some people think).

In my opinion I'd like to see lots of opportunities for people to serve others. I also think that if people had to be humble enough to ask for and accept help it would actually be helpful for all involved. It would help those who are serving to become more humble as they realize that they can do something meaningful for others, and that what they do really matters. If we leave it all to the government we take away lots of opportunities to serve others and grow together as communities. If the government does nothing at all though, this is not a very good choice either.

My perspective is this: the government should provide some sort of basic social safety net. Determining what that is, to me at least, is the real issue here. I think that should this safety net become too encompassing it will in fact lead to people being less charitable with their time and money: why should they do it, if indeed it's not their job, but the government? They've already paid their taxes, why do more? I've seen this attitude here in Holland. Several of my friends here have either alluded to this or outright stated that this is the case.

So does that mean I'm voting for Romney? Probably not. He seems to be a respectable person, but I don't trust that he'll do the right thing. I do not think you can simply yank these things away from people. People need not to be outraged at government cutbacks in such programs and lament them, but instead say, "how can we do this better locally?" This will not always be comfortable, and it cannot be left to "someone else." It will become our job to help take care of the poor, to feed them, to clothe them, and to house them.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What are option dialogues and why are they awesome? (and a plug for Rekha Neilson)

An option process dialogue is a session with a mentor that asks you non-directive questions, always starting with the question: What do you want to explore?
I've been involved with counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists and each of them have their place and have helped me in different ways, but the thing I've felt was the most powerful has been option process dialogues. I think this is because it relies on you supplying your own answers and relying on your own wisdom and trusting yourself. It is empowering and leads to in(ter)dependence rather than continued need to see the practitioner. The other reason it is powerful because it facilitates self-reflection on beliefs and the things we tell ourselves in a very fast and direct way. I've seen again and again how a simple belief that I empower that seems to be a useful/good belief can become something that helps me create negative and unhappy experiences for myself.
Here's an example: Don't waste (natural) resources. That seems pretty good right? Most people can agree with that. Well when I empower that belief in every detail of my life and then judge any waste as a bad thing and then choose to feel bad about it, or panic and try to stop waste from happening in my office, house, family etc. and get upset when it does happen then I think one can easily start to see how this belief combined with other beliefs (such as wanting to do things perfectly) can become a huge source of unhappiness or anxiety. You see your kids pouring out juice or some other liquid that costs money, or will ruin the thing it's being poured on and you run to stop them, get angry at them, perhaps frighten or intimidate them with your response. I think it's obvious how this can work.
I've worked with 3-4 different people as option process mentors. They all have been pretty good, but I've often been very disappointed in terms of how much they charge per session. It's often VERY expensive. When you hold beliefs like I do about not wasting resources (though I'm empowering that in different ways now so I can create more happiness for myself) then you don't like spending big amounts of money... assuming you even have that much. I'm talking $150-$500/hour. The best mentor I've worked with has been Rekha Neilson. There were two reasons we started working with Rekha:
  1. Rekha is located in the UK, closer to us in ever respect than any other mentor.
  2. Rekha has excellent rates (25 Pounds first session and 40 Pounds per session thereafter if you buy in increments of 10).
The reason I'll continue to work with Rekha for a while is that she's awesome. I get SO much out of each of my dialogues with her. She is totally present with me (as much as such is possible via Skype) and non-judgmental, and asks such great questions. I'm constantly amazed how the questions totally unearth the kinds of logic and beliefs that I use to make myself unhappy, or angry, or fearful. I've left every session choosing to be energized and having learned more about myself.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Overcoming Task Anxiety

I spent all of yesterday at a really great course on Productive Dialogues and influence. It was excellent, but I came home at the end of the day pretty tired.
I saw the pile of emails in my personal/university inbox and my very long task list in my outlook from work and just didn't want to do much.
I had prepared with my materials for two tasks I've been putting off, an expense report and a luggage damage report to the airlines. Often I find that being prepared really helps me get things done, but not this time. I was tired. Instead I hemmed and hawed and did nothing. 
When in that situation I think I'd rather just make a decision to take the evening off of work, give myself permission to just relax, or to get on those tasks.
I arrive at work this morning feeling like I have too many things to do. Notice though that this is a feeling, something I'd blown up and imagined in my head. At that time though it was all too real and felt kind of paralyzing, especially since I was supposed to take my laptop in for service and possible replacement this morning an hour after I arrived.
I realized that I failed to mention that having "too many tasks" to do feels like I'm being pulled in many directions at once, it's almost physically painful. Many or all of the tasks seem to be equally pressing and need to be done now. This is about executive function. Some people seem to be able to handle this rather well. Others, not so much. This is made much easier when I do client work, because it's always easy to see what needs to be done next, and I can just prioritize that instead of the myriad of other things pressing for attention. When I'm running my own PhD project supervising two students, and have all these IT issues in the mix, not so much.
I realized that the amount of data I needed to move and/or back up before taking my laptop in was very significant and would take hours. Often I would just let that kind of change in plans and perceived delay get to me. Inflexibility in thinking or plans is something that helps me choose anxiety and I'd like to work on that. I decided though that clearly the tech would not wait for me, he'd move on to his next thing, especially since when I set the appointment he didn't seem to care when I would come. I started copying and backing up let it run in the background.
What next then? My email was backed up because I of being at a course all day on Wednesday and not being able to deal with that, plus some from Tuesday that came in late after had checked it. I just started working the inbox, doing all the small stuff and putting the bigger stuff into my to-do list. Before I knew it, I had my inboxes cleared out and my to-do list wasn't that much longer for all of the work. My computer was still backing up things so I started in on a writing task, using my 10 minute timer. Thinking "I'll just do it for 10 minutes" is a thing that can really help me get going on tasks and I was able to get some things written.
Soon all my files were backed up and my tasks worked on and my email boxes at zero. Sure I had plenty to do later that day but it was ok.

Lessons learned

Letting things build up can make it seem worse than it really is. When it can't be avoided, I think if I just plan on working on it for 10 minutes will deflate some of the anxiety about that.
When things go wrong, look for something you can do. If I just take some time to think about what I can do instead instead of stressing out about the things I though I was going to do then it turns out to be ok.  I was able to take care of small things that had been needing done on my list. When I went to take the laptop in I packed some paper-based work I could do with me.

Oh and in the end the tech was able to simply swap out my hard drive into a nearly identical computer without any difficulties and no data lost and relatively little time used in the effort.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

ADD and grad school

So most of you know that I'm a PhD candidate at Delft University of Technology here in the Netherlands. Grad school is intense. I have to admit I've found it difficult to keep up sometimes.
At one point late last year I knew that things really weren't going very well for me. I realized that paper deadlines were slowly sapping any joy I had in life out of me. I had a hard time getting anything done. I was choosing an experience for myself that was very stressful and difficult. I was depressed, very depressed and having a hard time even getting out of bed in the morning. I did get out of bed though.
When I was talking about the experience with a fellow PhD candidate the other day she said, "how did you do it?" She knew another friend of hers who was in a similar situation and had taken a 6 month leave in order to deal with her depression and ADD diagnosis. What got me through was my family.
My incredible wife Vanessa has been my mainstay and support. I have to give a lot of the credit to God, because he was there helping me and her too. He also gave us the gift of our children. Now you all who have kids (and many others I'm sure) know how challenging parenting can be. Throw in some special needs and it can be an explosive mix sometimes. Despite all of that though, my kids inspire me to be a better person. They love so much and unconditionally. We get to share so many hugs and kisses each day, and special times where I can really see what love is all about and why we're really here.
It is because of them that I kept going, and I'll give myself a little credit too, I'm tenacious. Even when I'm barely hanging on, barely making it through, had very little hope or faith, I still held on.
So I was on Skype with one of my supervisors (I have two and two other advisors) and she asked me how I was doing and it all poured out. She knew something was off. We had a long talk about everything and she was so supportive and loving... it was a blessing. I asked her about talking to my other supervisor and advisors and she encouraged me. I did that. My advisor at Philips Research said that given how things were going in terms of my health I should at least mention it to my manager. I had that discussion too.
It was all very positive. I felt somewhat ashamed but none of them did anything to engender that... it was an experience I chose for myself. In telling them what was happening with me it also spurred me to action. I had a plan to see a psychiatrist and get evaluated. They all agreed it was a good plan and added a few little tidbits here and there. All good advice.
Get these great T-shirts from PhD comics

Soon thereafter I went and did all of that diagnosis stuff, I did it while attending a conference. I did a number of questionnaires and bunch of the history before arriving, and then scheduled various things during the lunch breaks including some SPECT brain scans. I got some very pretty pictures of my brain activity and that helped pinpoint exactly what was happening with with me. ADD, depression (well duh!), anxiety disorder, and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) among others.
I even shared a cab from the venue to the clinic with a fellow attendee (they dropped me off as it was on the way to where he was going) and he was respectful of the whole thing.
What I'm trying to say is that grad school and ADD, and an academic career can be successfully mixed. I think that in some ways it can be helpful. Sure conference deadlines are fixed, and grading has to be done by certain times, but with some external structures to help, good teaching assistants, and being open and honest with people things can be pretty good. Not that I've decided to do the fully academic thing, but I think it can be done.
The hardest thing for me by far about grad school is the reading. I love reading in general, but conference papers, and especially journal articles are written in a special way that, in some ways, seems to be a kind of gauntlet that is placed between the authors and their peers and the rest of the world. They use complicated words and dense sentence structures. They go on endlessly about the minutia and theory. It's worse than philosophy much of the time (I know my BA is in Philosophy, at least philosophy tries to really deal with the world as it is and so much of academic work is so reductionist.). So getting through reading and then remembering any of it or being able to really engage with the material is difficult for me.
Since getting some treatment (anti-depressants, stimulants are recommended for someone with anxiety) it's a little better, but reading just 5 or 10 minutes at a time is what works best for me. I set a timer (use and just read for that period of time. No matter what else happens I stick to it. I need to pee, get a drink whatever.. that can wait until the 10 minutes is up. I remember something really important I need to do, I have a post-it not on my desk and write it down, stick it on my monitor and get right back to reading. I typically have my noise cancelling headphones and some kind of lyric-free music on. Often when the time is up I'll do another block of 10 minutes again because I finally got into it a bit. If I didn't I can also take 2 minutes to do something else like facebook or get a drink etc. This strategy works for writing as well and has been really, really helpful for me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hello world, I have ADD

I was trying to find the best way to creatively say what I've known for sure now for going on 4 months.
I have ADHD, primarily Inatentive type. I.e. I'm not hyperactive, but I think that anyone who knows me, knows that I'm not hyperactive, instead I tend towards being low energy in general.

My son has ADHD, others in my family do. A large part of it is heritable. If a family member of yours has been diagnosed and you want to support them, or you perhaps even suspect it yourself, read (or listen to as I did) this book: Delivered From Distraction by Dr. Hallowell. The approach in the book is relentlessly positive, because there are certainly upsides to have ADD (the official name is now ADHD, but ADD is somewhat better. In the book they make the point that everyone else may as well have Attention Surplus Syndrome and that psychiatry and western medicine is really into pathologizing everything because that's what it's good at). It's like having a racing car brain, but sometimes we need to get better brakes and learn how to use them.

This book opened up my eyes and I went and had a full psychiatric evaluation. The whole works. Let me say all those tests they have you take and the history... wow, it take a lot of time. In the end though the history is the key part and that part is good in a way because it helps you consider your life systematically and thoroughly more than one would otherwise.

So living with diagnosed ADD (as opposed to undiagnosed ADD) is good, as it reveals lots of key insights. I've dealt with depression in my life as well as feelings of addiction with pornography and anxiety (particularly social anxiety, and every time I tell people that they are surprised because "I seem so social and good at networking" no really people, unless I know people at a gathering I'm almost always uncomfortable, sometimes painfully so and I just have to get out). It's easy to see a more clearly though how ADD is the primary issue and the others are secondary, caused by going undiagnosed for so long and the negative feedback I keep on getting from others and myself.

I had to have some conversations with those I work with about what I've been going through. I felt embarrassed about it. All my advisers have been supportive, some extremely so. My manager at work has been understanding and helpful. I found it difficult to do, but it got to the point that the pain of not talking about it was worse. In fact when I read this article about a baseball player who was suspended because he tested positive for amphetamines (i.e. adderall a legal prescription drug, but he failed to properly notify he team and have his Dr. sign the proper forms). He was suspended. He didn't want to talk about it because he thought it would be hard, he didn't know how to do it.

For years we've been telling people with different kinds of so-called mental illnesses that they are bad people, that they must be lazy, or not willing to work or just stupid. They could never be much in this world. Some of us buy into that and keep on repeating it to ourselves (I know I have). So often early intervention can help with many things. People (like me before) don't want to take medication because there this vague notion that if you have to take a medication for a mental illness it means you're a bad person, or weak, or should just be more organized, shape up, be a (wo)man, do your work, and pay attention. Yet statistics and many scientific studies show that for ADD medication will significantly improve the lives of about 80% of people. Of course medication is only one part of a good program, one cannot ignore the rest, but if it works why not do it. In addition some things don't have medications that work well, like Autism, though there are other approaches that can do amazing things.

So this post is not poetic, or very funny, or have a lot of good stories and examples in it, but it's how I'm feeling. Let's stop stigmatizing people because they have a disease, or are a certain way, or love a certain kind of person, or believe in a different god or gods, or don't believe in god, or used to believe in god and got fed up with "organized religion," or are more/less educated that you, or have what you think is a better/worse job.

In short, let's stop judging others.
One of my favorite quotes in the last several months is this one heard quoted over the pulpit from a bumper sticker:

Don't Judge Me Because I Sin Different Than You

Not that I'm implying that ADD is a sin, or any of those other things I said either, but it's easy to interpret them as sloth, greed, lust etc etc. So stop your judging (if indeed you were) and start loving and supporting people.

He who loves the most wins

OK enough truisms and seeming clich├ęs. 

Just a second.... how was I going to end this?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The boxes we live and think in...[thoughts on banking systems]

Have you ever heard of the phrase "think outside the box"? Well I'm here to tell you about how the box comes about.

In order to make sense of the world we start making assumptions about the way it works from a very young age. This generally serves us very well, but sometimes it serves us very poorly indeed. From this mechanism we figure out that when you let go of something it drops, when you hit something it makes a noise, and that if you yell you can get things to happen sometimes. We get more sophisticated when we figure out what counts as a dog and how milk can go bad. All these things help us learn how the world works. Through the process of time we start to accept limits on certain concepts, and these become the boxes we so often live in.

Today I wanted to talk about banking. In America there's been a lot of talk about capitalism, banks, and especially investment banking. Some people call some of the people who are upset anti-capitalist, and indeed a very small percentage of them are, but most are not. Most are saying they want something to change about the way investment banks work.

I'm not going to talk about investment banks, but retail banks, the banks that you and I use each day.

In America banks are set up a certain way, in the last 10-20 years US Banks have stopped charging monthly fees. This has been hailed as good for consumers. Often there is no minimum balance and many banks pay a (very low) interest rate on balances. Again these are changes from the era before where some banks required minimum balances and deposits or a minimum opening balance. The problem though is in all the other fees that the banks charge. If you manage to overdraw your account (which is really easy for most people to do, even when you have some savings) the fees start to kick in. Let's say you have a thing where the bank will transfer money from a savings account to your checking account if you overdraw: $12 fee. If the bank pays a check when overdrawn $30+ fee. A bounced check is about the same. Receiving a wire transfer from overseas $50 fee. Ordering checks often costs something, having a debit card costs something, using other bank's ATMs and there is a fee, and double that or more for ATMs outside of the country. Don't write too many checks or some banks will charge per check a $1 fee. Many fees can repeat again and again as more items come out of your account. The bank will charge you for bringing a lot of change to them, or a myriad of other things as well. That "Free checking account" you were offered can easily cost someone $200/year in fees if there is only one incident of being overdrawn, and even without such an incident it often costs $50 or more.

Here in Holland (or more properly The Netherlands) banks work a bit differently. They won't change foreign currency for you, and most branches don't have tellers (though the ATMs take deposits and other things in real time with the currency and coins properly counted and immediately credited) and their customer service is... well generally lacking (though that's a Dutch thing, not a bank thing) . They charge us a few Euro every quarter, totally less than €15 year in fees. If we overdraw? no fees! If our account is negative for a week before my next paycheck come in, no fees! When I wire money in the EU it's a couple euros to send (and the receiving party has to pay the same amount as a fee) and to the US it's €6. A debit card (they call it a PIN or MAESTRO card) will cost you €10 to get initially. Wire transfers from outside the EU don't cost anything. Never any fee for using an ATM from any bank anywhere in the world. Checks don't exist in this country and haven't really ever been used widely. Instead people send you a bill with a reference number. Before online banking you went to the post office and paid the amount into them along with the reference number and they would then get the money to the person with a postcard telling them to come and pick it up or via a deposit to their account. In the modern era one can transfer directly to another account in the country free of charge, and all banks can handle any transaction as long as you have a reference number for a bill or an account number you want to pay to. You can do all of this online. This means that paypal is MUCH less interesting here because anyone can pay to another person without any hassles or fees.

So let me tell you, banks here are profitable and they work just fine. They don't screw you over and they're still in business. They don't use checks and the world still keeps moving. What we need to realize in America is that our way is not the only way and that there are lots of capitalistic markets out there that function much different than ours and they still work and they are no heavily regulated neither are they socialists. We need to be humble and willing to learn from others. We need to reform and that won't be an easy process.