Winter Gets Down to Business

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In January, winter really gets down to business. Just ask any of us here on the east coast, from Florida to Maine, who endured last week’s vicious attack of ice, snow and obscenely cold temperatures. We are just now emerging from our dens with a shaky confidence that life above ground will go on.

Listening to NPR, I learned that we were the victims of a Bombogenesis, an apocalyptic- sounding, meteorological term for when the barometric pressure drops steeply in a short period of time and so creates a “bomb cyclone.” Indeed it felt like a bomb, disrupting life wherever it hit.

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Photo by Nathan Wolfe on Unsplash

Now, everyone experiences a bombogenesis in her or his own way. As for me, icy roads are my kryptonite. I feel a sudden onset of paralysis and can’t leave home. Apparently, so too, do most Southerners. At the mere threat of inclement weather schools close before the first snowflake falls, sometimes as early as a day before. This same rationale grounded garbage trucks from their rounds last week, prohibited the mail from delivery, and left many businesses shuttered early.

To non southerners this behavior may seem paranoid, ridiculous and downright silly but I think it’s actually pretty ingenious. Southerners just know how to nuance a snowstorm better than anyone else. We have an unspoken but tacit agreement amongst ourselves that it’s okay to cancel all sorts of activities using the weather as an excuse to play hooky, and not just from school. There is a collective sigh of relief when the team practice, the

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Photo by Alex on Unsplash

book club, and the church committee meeting are all suspended until further notice too.

Because modern life is a sea of constant activity, we adults long for a chance to stop and rest. An opportunity to come in from the cold, to acknowledge and respond to our primitive instinct to hibernate in winter. Forecasts of snow and ice provide an excuse to stay home, to withdraw from the outside world and to draw near to the warmth of our own hearth. Witness the people all rushing to the grocery store to buy not only the obligatory bread and milk, but the hot chocolate, the wine, the popcorn. We are all planning and hoping to be captives in our respective dens and we want the larder well stocked.

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Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

And, if only for a few brief days, we want to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a good excuse to cancel school and other obligations and just stay home and sit by the fire.

 

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Expectations

There is a familiar and unhappy gap between our expectations and reality, and that gap is called disappointment. Sometimes disappointment is created by circumstances beyond our control, but more often than is comfortable to admit, it is of our own making. 

Here is a case in point.

x5dufb40Q0O%uCgBp4D5YAAbout a month ago I was in Chicago with a close friend to celebrate my birthday. My mother, daughter of Czech immigrants, was born and raised in the city and, if possible, I wanted to find some connection to, or some “taste” of Czech ethnicity that might still linger there. Our first night we discovered Bohemian House, at 11 West Illinois Street, a restaurant that features authentic Czech cuisine and beer in an Old World atmosphere. All was excellent and did not disappoint.

Buoyed by our success at the restaurant, the next day we set out to find Vesecky’s, a IMG_1185traditional Czech bakery in Berwyn, the once ethnically Czech neighborhood where my grandparents had lived. The recent reviews on Yelp were promising; “one of the best bakeries in Chicago,” said one writer. “great old school bakery,” “my Grandma loved it,” wrote another. Riding the “L” and then taking a bus for the hour long trek to Vesecky’s, my mouth began to water with anticipation of the goodies we would find within.

By the time we arrived I could already taste the apricot kolache and hoska bread I remembered eating as a kid. Predetermined to love it, I noticed, but failed to consider certain clues that cautioned a different reality. Anxiously I bought a box of treats and dived into them right then and there. With one bite, that reality became apparent, the only thing Czech about Vesecky’s was its name.

OIwIUf9jT0uPnTdbsaPDpgAs I stood there sorely disappointed I attempted to reconcile fact with fantasy. Upon entering the bakery, there was no delicious aroma permeating the air characteristic of  baking bread. On the contrary, there was a cold and sterile feel about the place. At first glance of the cookies and pastry behind the glass, my eye sent to my brain an image that did not match what I knew to be authentic, artisanal bakery. I realized that in my rush to conform reality to match my preconceived expectations I had set myself up to be disappointed.

Okay, so no real harm was done me. I wasted a mere $13.00 and I’ve enjoyed a laugh at my own expense in hindsight. What brings this story to mind is twofold. I cannot imagine a better time of year than the Christmas Season to talk about unrealistic expectations and their inevitable consequences. The happiness hype, the love and good cheer can ring hollow about now. And of course, some disappointments are much more devastating than eating bad pastry. I have lived that reality too.

But disappointment can also be our teacher and guide if we let it. So, by way of redemption and a happy ending, over the Holidays I taught myself how to make Vánočka, Czech Christmas Bread. (It is named after Vánoce which means Christmas in Czech.)  I kept my expectations within reason for a first effort and I’m pleased to report that it turned out great and was enjoyed by many.  I’m sure I could give Vesecky’s a run for their money!eJE4a9h3RUmNDgLDClp68w

Dear Readers, you can find the recipe I followed for Vánočka, and more great Czech recipes at www.czechcookbook.com 

ILLUMINATION

It is the season of illumination. Photo by Lena Orwig on UnsplashIn every town, large and small, on land and on sea, on foot or by car, through historic houses, gardens and even battlefields, you can experience a candlelight or electric light tour sure to get you in the Christmas Spirit. If the tour is by purchased ticket, they sell out weeks in advance. If it is open to the public, like our town’s Holiday Flotilla along the inland waterway, you must set out hours in advance in order to navigate traffic, parking and jostling crowds to claim a vantage point. As one advertisement for the Flotilla read, “80,000 people can’t be wrong!”

What feeling, or emotion is everyone seeking to experience through these hugely popular events? I believe the answer lies back in time and in our communal humanity. Photo by Davidson Luna on UnsplashThe appeal of light in darkness is as great with modern Peoples as it was with our Neolithic ancestors who celebrated the Winter Solstice. With the onset of winter, with it’s shorter days and longer nights, we are drawn to the light.

Ancient Peoples may not have understood the science behind the Solstice but they understood that all life depended upon the light of the sun. Taking nothing for granted and assuming nothing as certain, they paid homage to the sun and beseeched its return with rituals and celebrations. Naturally, those rituals revolved around the light of the fire rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnapwhich symbolized the sun and its life-giving energy. Eventually, Christianity superimposed their Christmas celebrations onto those familiar ones of the Winter Solstice incorporating many pagan rituals of illumination which we still recognize today.

In essence, nothing has really changed except for the multitudinous number of ways we humans can now create light. But the appeal and the sense of well-being light brings us, as we draw near to it, contemplate it, or surround ourselves with it, remains the same. As Moderns we may understand the astrological science behind the Solstice and we may not fear a never-ending winter, but we still feel winter’s cold, especially in a hostile and angry world such as the one in which we now live. Now more than ever we need the warmth and good cheer of colored lights, candles gleaming, and a roaring fire on many a dark night.candle-light

Dear Readers, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day be sure to raise your glass and say a word of good cheer for the return of the sun!

One Very Brave Cardinal

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By Heather Katsoulis from Southern NH – Vertigo, 

I’m holding my breath. Will he or won’t he? A handsome male cardinal is perched on a low branch near my bird feeder and he seems to be considering sampling the black hulled sunflower seeds that it contains. I recently hung the feeder and have been watching it expectantly for days but have yet to witness any takers. He would be the first, and hopefully an example for other birds to give it a try.

As I watch, he leans forward in lift-off position and makes the short fly-hop over, lighting on the spindly perch. He plucks out a seed and cracks it open with his strong beak, a perfectly designed tool for such a purpose. I can see the little dribble of hulls fall below him. Success! And I’m thrilled!

I pause to think about why this gives me such pleasure, such delight? I guess it’s knowing that I have no power to coerce this beautiful wild creature to take what I am offering. He deigns to accept my hospitality on his own terms, in his own time. In that moment I make one small connection to the Natural World bigger than Humanity. Will he come again? Will others follow suit? I hope so. But in the meantime, it is enough for me to watch and wait.

Dear Readers: Are you a bird enthusiast? Please share your bird watching story here!

When You Have More Skeletons Than You Know What To Do With

 

Dusan in the Sedlec Bone Church

I took these photos when I visited the Bone Church in 2007

It’s a dilemma. What do you do when you are the caretaker of the skeletal remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 people? Such was the legacy and dilemma left to a small chapel, now known as “The Bone Church” in the town of Kutna` Hora in the Czech Republic. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and The Bone Church, is certainly testimony to, (at least one man’s), inventive creativity.Sedlec Bone Church from 14th Century

 

Originally part of the Sedlec Abbey which was founded in 1142, the Bone Church sits atop the site of the Abbey’s old cemetery, a very popular spot in which to be buried in the day. Its popularity was due to the fact that the cemetery was rumored to possess an unusual Holy relic soil from Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s execution.Sedlec Bone Church

After many centuries, including the unprecedented ravages of The Black Death in the mid 14th century, the cemetery became filled to capacity and overflowing. When the present day Bone Church was built around 1400, thousands and thousands of skeletal remains were exhumed and stacked as there was no other place for them.Sedlec Bone Church

The task of bringing order to the “bone yard” fell to a wood-carver named Frantisek Rint, in 1870. Apparently, left unsupervised and to his own devices, Mr. Rint utilized his artistic talents and arranged the bones into the interior decorations and adornments that we see today. 

 

Dear Readers, please share any macabre places you have visited!

Sedlec Bone Church near Kutna Hora

This chandelier contains at least one of every bone found in a human skeleton!

 

 

Are You Missing Out?

The psychology of “The Fear of Missing Out,” is not new, but it may be reaching epidemic proportions thanks to modern technology. “FOMO,” (its acronym), is the belief that somewhere else, a rewarding experience is being had by others but not by you, and thus, you fear that your own life may be lacking in some way, a fear that must be as old as the human race itself. We are by nature curious creatures and our human brains posses the ability to imagine how things could be different. Both a blessing and a curse.

Capitalizing upon this aspect of human nature has fueled the rise of Social Media. Its creators openly acknowledge that their products have been designed to exploit FOMO  and therefore, they seed the rankle and discontent of always imagining a different and better scenario than the one we are living at that very moment.

Awareness of the many dark sides of the Social Media Medusa, including psychological dependence upon it, (a byproduct of FOMO) has been steadily growing and even sparking a backlash. Countless articles and books by psychologists, behavioral scientists, economists and professors of every stripe are sounding the alarm, if only to alert you to the fact that you are ultimately not the consumer but the product itself.

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote about the FOMO he witnessed in his own century saying,

“Hardly a man takes a half hour nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘what’s the news?’ After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast, ‘pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe.”

Fast forward to 2017 and I can only imagine his amazement and dismay to see modern peoples’ obsession with a certain small handheld device. But possessing a keen understanding of human nature, Thoreau would quickly “get” the allure of incessant news feeds, status updates, live streaming, and the billions of “tweets and likes.”

His response today, I believe, would be the same he gave his readers in his lifetime.

“What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old! When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.”

From his writing I glean: Seek out those things that are foundational, that never lose their value, that are ever fresh and relevant each time you encounter them. Look past the shams and delusions, the superficiality of what popular culture says is valuable. Discover, read, and study the classics in philosophy and literature. Stop looking down. Instead, look up and around and place yourself under Nature’s tutelage. Develop friendships that you maintain with the investment of your physical presence.

I know FOMO is real because I have felt its nagging prick. As a single person, without the benefit of a ready-made travel companion, I have felt it most often reading about the travels and adventures of all my coupled friends. But I shake off FOMO knowing that the life I’m living isn’t inferior, it’s just different, and it’s a great life. I am pursuing my dream of a life of Deep Work that rewards with a deep sense of well-being as I wrote about in my last post. And I’m trying to live as Thoreau suggests, consciously and with intent.

Dear Readers, when have you experienced FOMO in your own life and how have you processed through it?

 

“Deep Work,” What It Is, How To Get It

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say- ‘come out unto us.’ But keep thy state, come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity.”

                                                —–  Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Self Reliance”

Although written 176  years ago, Emerson’s astute words are eerily relevant today. Just substitute the words Email, Text, FaceBook or Twitter for his list of “emphatic trifles” clamouring for attention, and Emerson could easily be speaking to a 21st century audience. For who among us hasn’t heard the siren call of these addictive network tools, and social media platforms, and then surrendered to a “weak curiosity,” when we meant to be accomplishing our “real” work?Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

The first time I read Emerson’s insightful critique I felt instantly the sting of recrimination. I saw myself lured into confusion time and again, seemingly against my will. In a recent blog post, I examined how I use author Steven Pressfield’s rule of distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important to establish the priorities for my work. Once I know what I want to accomplish as a writer and an artist, I do those things first. But I also have a “weak curiosity.” Sadly, it is not enough to sequester myself in my studio because those “emphatic trifles”, only a click away, are incessantly knocking at my closet door.

Why is it so hard to resist their power I have often wondered? Is there any antidote to their addiction?  And, how can I build my resistance, so that I can regain control of my own attention and feel satisfied with my creative accomplishments at the end of the day?

I recently discovered Cal Newport’s book entitled Deep Work, Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, IMG_0971which addresses these very concerns. His book confirmed what I innately knew, that an environment of quiet focus is essential to produce quality work. But it also helped me to understand why and how technological connectivity can actually hinder my productivity, making me think twice about how much of it I want in my life. Most importantly, Deep Work provided me with tools and rules that I can use to minimize the powerful allure of the Internet and Social Media while maximizing my creative goals, both daily and for the long term.

Cal Newport, is a theoretical computer scientist and assistant professor at Georgetown University who has managed to become a successful blogger and respected author- without the help of Social Media, as he proudly claims. He defines Deep Work as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

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Photo of the author from the book jacket

He begins his book with the basic premise that now, and in the future, the best jobs and careers in our “technologically driven and constantly changing information economy” will be awarded to those who possess the Deep Work skill, because Deep Work allows you to “master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level again and again.” The problem for most of today’s knowledge workers, as he sees it, is that they have lost, or have never learned this skill.

Newport further asserts that it has now been well studied and well documented that much of the blame for this dearth of skill lies with the overconsumption of what he calls “network tools.” They are: “… a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.”

While initially his book seems to address those workers in his own sphere of computers and technology within the framework of 9 to 5, his book is for anyone who wants to succeed at anything that requires concentration, whether that be in a conventional workplace or not. It is for anyone who wants to know the sense of well-being and gratification that come from fully engaging their minds. For me, I found his concepts applicable to my own work as a writer and musician.Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Deep Work is divided into two parts. In Part One the Author begins by making three claims: Deep Work is Valuable, Deep Work is Rare, and Deep Work is Meaningful. Already convinced of the validity of these statements, I felt the urge to skip ahead to the practicum in part two, but I had many “aha” moments learning some of the neuroscience behind how our brains tackle cognitively demanding tasks which Newport divulges in part one.

For instance, studies reveal that multitasking creates a brain byproduct called  attention residue that impedes our focus on each subsequent task that we engage in. And then there is the fascinating psychology behind the state of “flow.” That sense of well-being and deep satisfaction that can only be entered into by a total immersion of concentration. Interspersed amongst the studies and research, Newport shares real life success stories of individuals who have understood the value of deep work, how they have used it to their advantage, and how assiduously they guard it, including one executive who took a round trip flight to Tokyo just to have all those hours of distraction free time on the plane to write his book!

In part two of Deep Work, entitled, The Rules, you will find both good news and bad news in the application of a Deep Work regimen. A first bit of good news is that, as humans, we have a limited capacity for cognitively demanding work, so you needn’t imagine yourself isolated and chained to your desk for hours on end. According to the Author, even experts, accustomed to intense concentration, only have about four hours a day worth of this “brain strain” in them. As novices, we should shoot for an hour and think of our Deep Work practice as a muscle we can build gradually with training. So, baby steps.

Now a bit of bad news. We are going to need willpower to attempt a Deep Work practice and “we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it up.” Citing recent psychological research on the subject, Newport informs us that “your will… is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires out.”  All day long as we resist distractions including television, the Internet, Social Media, (and all those other “emphatic trifles,”) we are making withdrawals from our willpower account. Between limited resources of willpower and undeveloped brain power it is imperative that we have a strategy in place before we begin.

To that end, Newport offers a variety of Deep Work scheduling philosophies to try out coupled with the support of routines and rituals and other pragmatic practices. He suggests that you “execute like a business” and employ tactics of lead measures, goals and accountability. But he also offers up the surprising good news that any Deep Work Practice needs a shutdown ritual that includes permission to leave tasks undone at the end of the day and to periodically be lazy, all without guilt.Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

Perhaps more than any other, the Deep Work rule of “Embrace Boredom” spoke most directly to my personal dilemma of distraction. According to behavioral research, 24/7 access to “on-demand” distractions, (like the internet via your smartphone, or a t.v. remote and hundreds of channels) is literally addicting to the brain. And, Newport writes, “…constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” (emphasis mine) Scientists say we have rewired our brains in this way making it difficult to flip the switch to “concentrate” even when we want to.

So, while we must train our brains to tolerate long periods of concentration, we must simultaneously and consciously work to overcome our brain’s craving for novelty and distraction. In other words, we need to “Embrace Boredom.” For practice, see if you can resist checking your smartphone every time you find yourself waiting for a friend or standing in line for more than five minutes. Newport suggests that we take breaks from focus rather than breaks from distractions, and he lists various strategies on how to schedule Internet usage even if your job requires constant Internet and email use.  

Photo by William Evan on UnsplashRule # 3 may be the most difficult and controversial of all, “Quit Social Media.” Albeit given with a dash of hyperbole and wishful thinking, Newport’s advice is worth your consideration and he makes a solid case for why we should quit it. Newport argues that FaceBook, Instagram, Google +, Twitter, and Snapchat, et al., are Social Media tools, and like any other tools we use, we cannot justify using them with what he calls an “any-benefit” mindset. We must weigh the pros and cons and find a middle-ground. In this chapter he elaborates with great tips on how we can assess our own individual needs and discover which tools truly add value to our work and personal life. He would also like you to remember that besides being highly addictive,

“These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.”

Herein lies the crux of Deep Work I believe, and it’s why Cal Newport’s book has so resonated with me. The myth that Social Media has somehow made us a more connected human race was busted long ago, and most of us would admit that we know the vacuous feeling of too much Internet and Social Media. How it drains us and leaves us fractured and unfocused.

For me, the concept of a Deep Work practice is to live more consciously and deliberately, choosing to protect my limited resources of time, energy, willpower, and concentration. I do not want to give others the “power to annoy me,” with their “emphatic trifles” as Emerson would say, due to my “weak curiosity.” More days than not, I want to know the satisfaction of having fully engaged my brain in the creative work I have already determined to be deeply necessary for my sense of well-being. I want to close my ears and my door on the confusion.

Dear Readers, can you relate? What Deep Work is inside you that you need to get busy doing? What are your biggest and most persistent “emphatic trifles” that are keeping you away from that work?