Familiar and New

Have you seen a movie recently? Heard a song? Would you describe it as original, or did it have echoes of other movies or other songs?

Everything around us is some kind of mixture of familiar and new. Things we recognize, and things we’re coming across for the first time. Ideas, people, experiences, sensations, places, and ways of seeing the world you already resonate with. And ones you’ve just encountered and aren’t sure about.

We each look for a desirable blend of familiar and new, whether we think of it in those terms or not. Yours is different than mine, which is different than hers. Familiarity makes us feel at home, safe, and comfortable. New things are often exotic, enticing, and compelling–though sometimes strange, distasteful, or just wrong. Being exposed to things that you never have before stretches you as a person, whether you come to see them as interesting and good or not.

The balance is regularly strained. Too much novelty can lead to overstimulation or feeling overwhelmed. My brain hurts. Slow down. That’s too much, too far, too different. At the same time, too much familiarity can result in boredom, feeling stuck, or narrow-mindedness.

When we think about the music people listen to, most of us don’t want a bunch of things we’ve never heard. We play songs we know and have an emotional connection to. Songs that you can sing along with, dance with, cry with–with a new single or album thrown in from time to time.

A similar thing is true of movies. There seem to be more sequels and remakes all the time–revisiting and remixing familiar story worlds. They take audiences back to something they already have a connection with while adding characters, places, and themes that expand that world a bit. Sequels are all about finding the perfect balance of familiar and new. Some are much more successful than others.

The tension of familiar and new is at the heart of politics. For some people, new policies, new ways of talking about the common good, and new coverages and rights are rejected as radically other—even if they would directly improve their own lives. They make a case to keep things exactly as they are–or even to go back to some supposed golden age (which usually wasn’t super golden for everyone). The political status quo is a comfortable retreat in the face of a to-be-determined future.

The thing is, none of us are meant to stay the same. We’re not meant to live in the past and the comfort of how things have always been. We need a core of familiarity so that we have a sense of self and of home. But we also need to be challenged with new things. It’s what makes you more engaged, more interesting, and more interested.

Even now, much of what is familiar to you was once brand new. You’re more open-minded and growing as a person than you might realize. Have you always thought the way you do? Eat the things you eat? Spend time with the people you spend time with? Take care of yourself the way you do self-care?

Much of what seems new and novel today–and perhaps overwhelming–will tomorrow become familiar. And then you’ll be ready to be challenged and grow some more. New things and ideas and relationships–without breaking your brain or feeling lost and untethered.

What’s familiar and what’s new to you is always changing. Life pushes and pulls you forward. It doesn’t do you or the people around you any good to guard yourself with familiarity. Know what’s home and what makes you, you–and get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

A World of Hurt

Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.

There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.

When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.

Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.

Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.

We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.

Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.

As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.

How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?

When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.

It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

This Week in Upgrades: January 23

Bonjour, mes amis. A pleasant Monday to you. How are things?

LA has been getting all kinds of rain. Awesome. My Packers got crushed by the Falcons yesterday. Not awesome.

A new president took over. And millions gathered in solidarity in cities across America.

It’s been an eventful week. I hope you’re hanging in there.

 

Here are some of the most interesting things I saw this week:

This would definitely make flying more enjoyable.

Has Iceland figured out how to prevent teen substance abuse?

Social media has not been kind to teens’ sleep pattern.

2016 was the hottest year on record. Will climate change be on the Trump administration’s agenda this year?

Netflix has expanded the Chef’s Table approach to the world of design.

Cough syrups are a wintertime staple in the medicine cabinet. But do they actually work?

As antibiotic resistance increases, do insects hold the key for the future of our immunity?

Chronic diseases are not an inevitability of aging. It’s more about how we live.

If you put sriracha or hot sauce on everything, this is some promising news.

Moving beyond snobbery. The best beer to drink is the one that fits the occasion.

Don’t forget to be awesome.

Own It

Have you ever found yourself in denial? In denial, looking for a believable explanation why you didn’t do anything wrong?

Sometimes we try to preempt the desperation for explanation by acting in ways that can be qualified in a favorable way later. By looking for the sweet spot of ambiguity as you go. Plausible deniability. Intentionally doing just enough so that there’s wiggle room. Keeping your opinions and participation vague by design so that you can wait to see how people respond.

If others like what you did, you can stand tall with pride, take all the credit, and let the praise wash over you. If others don’t like what you did, you can deny away and distance yourself from what happened.

I didn’t say that. That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t in charge of it. I was going to but I couldn’t. I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t me.

You’ve never done that, right?

Plausible deniability has become a way of being for many. Relationships are scary. Bosses are scary. Looking like a fool or a failure is scary. Making mistakes and dealing with the consequences is scary. Best to make sure you have a way to keep up appearances in case things go south. Staying on the path of plausible deniability keeps you in the safe zone.

But safe is not where life is. It might prevent you from pissing someone off or losing followers on social media. But it will also prevent you from being your real self and having real relationships with other people.

Expressing ideas and opinions you stand behind, making mistakes, and confidently trying things that might fail are essential to becoming a more flourishing person. If you get knocked down, you learn how to get back up stronger and wiser.

So stick your neck out. Be yourself. Own what you say and do. We need to embrace the scary and the relational friction and being knocked down if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

 

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

Staying on Top of Things

I got terrible grades when I first started college. I didn’t know how to study well. I often didn’t even make time to study. In fact, there were a lot of things that I didn’t find time for: doing laundry week-to-week, burning off the freshman 15 at the gym, picking up a part-time job, exploring the campus, and more. There’s a lot to do and stay on top of as a college student: the fun stuff and the necessary stuff. For most of my first year, I felt like I was spinning plates. And a lot of the plates were crashing to the ground.

Struggling so hard at managing my time and making sure things got done has forced me over the past several years to get much better at all of it. College, alone, turned into college plus a part-time job. Then, after graduation, a full-time job. Then it was full-time job plus grad school. And after that, a different, more demanding full-time job. Each step presented new challenges for staying on top of things. I never was perfect at it then nor am I now, but I feel like I’ve at least found some things that help me do much better overall.

What works for me may not work for you. But if you find yourself having a hard time remembering to get stuff done or figuring out how to organize your time, perhaps give some of these things a try.

Use your phone’s calendar and reminders. There are plenty of things to dislike about what smartphones and smartphone culture are doing to people. But for me, the Calendar and Reminder apps on my iPhone have become invaluable. There are too many things happening in a week–let alone a month or over the next year–to try to remember it all in my mind. I need the pensieve-like effect of transferring things from my brain into my phone.

Calendar is good for things that you know will occur at a specific time. When you open the app, you can see when you have available time to make additional plans, and when you’re booked up with events you already entered. Calendar allows you to set up alerts in a range from at the time of the event up to one week before. More than once, I’ve been busy doing something and then I get the notification that I need to be doing something else in 15 minutes. I set up alerts with enough time so that even if I completely space out about what’s coming up, I’ll still have enough time to get ready for it: changing clothes, commuting, etc.

Reminders is good for things that you need to do soon but aren’t sure exactly when you’re going to do them. It’s a digital replacement for handwritten to-do lists. Send the birthday card. Pick up flour. Deposit the checks. Call the fam. If you figure out a task should happen at a certain time, or when you’re near a particular place, you can add that too and you’ll get a notification later. I like Reminders because when you’ve done something on your list, you tap to make it disappear. There’s a satisfying feeling of accomplishment as you get things done and shorten the list.

Prioritize the essentials. Fill out your Calendar first with things like work shifts, meals, workouts, class times, projects and assignments to submit, time with significant others and friends, and the like. If you want to keep your job, you better know when you’re working and have alerts or alarms to make sure you’re there doing the work you need to be. If you want to stay healthy, you can’t just work out one random afternoon per month. Block out a few times per week in your Calendar, and hop to it when you get the notification. You may be tempted to swipe to clear it and go back to Netflix. If you want to get solid grades, you have to actually show up to most lectures and have some hours blocked out for studying. Library: 7-11pm, into the Calendar, as many days as you can fit it. Making time for your relationships goes without saying. But if your week is somewhat busy, you may have to plan ahead when you’re going to hang out with the people you care about.

Is it weird to make an event like Lunch: 12:30-1? Perhaps. But when people’s choices for eating are increasingly a quick smoothie or fast-casual takeout at whatever time of the day it can be squeezed in, having the regularity of sitting down to eat something decent around the same time, day-to-day, is important. Similar things are true of sleep.

Do chores and errands on regular days as much as you can. Groceries on Sunday. Laundry on Tuesday. Dishes every other night after dinner. Bills on the 2nd of every month. And the rest. Whatever days make the most sense for you.

Put them in your Calendar so you don’t forget and don’t put them off. You can set events to repeat for upcoming weeks if you’re going to be able to do those things on the same day again in the future. The more you do the essentials in the same week-to-week pattern, the easier it becomes to remember what’s coming up and get it done without stressing out.

Don’t beat yourself up if you get a little off schedule. If you’re going to be a little late to something, give them a heads-up and politely apologize. If you didn’t do something when you planned to and you can reschedule it–then reschedule it. The world will keep spinning if you do laundry on Thursday instead of Wednesday (though you might find yourself out of clean socks).

 

Set aside unstructured time. No one wants every minute of every day planned out. That’s a good way to go crazy. Things become too robotic.

Unstructured time is the cheat meal of staying on top of things. So pick an afternoon or a day where nothing that happens in it will be predetermined. Maybe you’ll grab coffee at a new spot. See if a friend is free. Read a book straight through. Drive off on a day trip. Who knows. Relax and let time unfold without obligation, deadlines, and expectations. Live for a little while as if all your work is done–even if it isn’t. You’ll come back to things fresh.

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 5

Hey, you! Welcome to December. Is yours off to a good start? The weather has been pleasantly wintry in LA all week (as far as wintry Southern California weather goes). And I was delighted to watch my Green Bay Packers play in a game featuring lots of snow. Snow angels included. That’s as close as I’m going to get this year to the white Christmases of my childhood. I’ll take it.

I was also extremely delighted to find out shortly after the game that the Dakota Access Pipeline construction is being halted and rerouted. A huge victory for Native Americans and other peaceful protesters. This could be a major turning point. Though it’s just the beginning for a better relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government, and for breaking our fossil fuel dependency and the future of the climate. So much to do still.

Here are some other things from this week you may find interesting…

Social media could be a powerful tool for good, but right now it’s too much like television.

Over-planning your free time can take the fun out of it.

ICYMI: The Baby Groot Movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser Trailer

Warming global temperatures may release a lot of carbon from the soil. Everything is connected. We’re setting off some dangerous feedback loops.

Ever wonder whether a fake Christmas tree or a real one is better for the environment?

Looks like Apple is going to make a (self-driving) car after all.

Give it up for an invention that meets a real need. Well done.

How about that? Raising the minimum wage works out pretty good for communities. Let’s do that nationally, yeah?

If the holiday season has you in the mood to be generous, these are some of the best charities you can donate to.

Have a great week!

How to Adult: Holidays

Los Angeles has, at most, two seasons. There’s a sunny and hot one, and a sunny and slightly cooler one. There are very few days with rain. Few days that are even overcast from morning to night. On most days out of the year, it could be any month if you weren’t looking at the calendar.

This was quite an adjustment for me. I spent nearly 25 years growing up in Wisconsin where there are four clearly defined seasons. You can watch and feel the transitions from one to the next. The summer thunderstorms. The colorful fall leaves. The first flakes of snow. The plants climbing out of the spring dirt.

These natural beats mark time throughout the year. They give you a sense of the change as time passes. Yet also a sense of rhythm and familiarity as many of the same beats happen from one year to the next. The more true seasons and seasonal signifiers, the more connected to time we feel.

We, humans, have added to nature our own markers through the year: holidays. In the United States as recently as the 1830s, there were only Independence Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Christmas. Since then, we’ve expanded to days like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day. And there are several more informal holidays like Super Bowl Sunday, Black Friday, and national food days for everything from Baked Alaska to leg of lamb.

Holidays give us more beats to mark time through the year. And unlike seasons, we control what holidays are and what they entail because we constructed them. Being relatively older, Thanksgiving and Christmas have particularly deep roots. If you celebrate one or both of them in your family, you’re likely to have a whole host of traditions, favorite things, and memories associated.

The foods you eat, the decorations you put up, the things you watch together, the gifts you give and how you give them, the religious rites you partake in, and more. It can go from the super specific to the broad and ineffable: from the dish that grandma works all day to make and serves at 4pm to an intangible feeling of love and warmth.

Holidays give us rhythm like seasons. You might not circle National Leg of Lamb Day on the calendar, but you undoubtedly look forward to holidays with more depth and memory–Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. They are moments and spaces in time we come back to year after year so that we can remind ourselves of who we are and what we care about. In places like the endless sunshine of Southern California, or in the distracting bustle of work, school, errands, and bills we can lose track of the passage of time, and with it our self-identity.

Holidays are pockets throughout the year that, no matter what is happening or will happen, we stop and come together with the people we care about. For at least that day, we’re making life happen instead of life happening to us. We have ways of honoring and relishing that day with others.

So as we move into Thanksgiving week and the rest of the major holiday season, spend some time reflecting on and enjoying the traditions, the favorite things, and the memories. And make some new ones!

The heaviness of the election still weighs on many. Amongst family and friends, there are starkly different political views. It happens. We should absolutely talk about those things together when it’s the right time–openly, patiently, respectfully, constructively. But before you go on a rant about who won and why the world is either saved or ending, reach out for a hug, tell them you’re thankful they’re there, and peel some vegetables for the casserole. Put on the movie or the game you all snuggle up and watch together. Reminisce about the travel obstacles you overcame in years past to be together. Grieve the emptiness left by family and friends who are no longer around to celebrate.

Time passes unceasingly. Seasons, holidays, freezing and thawing, growth and death. We never know how much time we have, but at least we have today. And once in awhile today has added layers because we’ve designated it a holiday.

Stop and take notice. Give thanks for the people around you. Embrace. Remember. Make life happen.

May you find rhythm, togetherness, and identity through the march of time.