Collisions

Last week, my Thursday came to a screeching halt when I was on my way to pick up a grocery order, literally screeching, as I slammed on my brakes right before another vehicle struck mine. I was daydreaming at a four-way stop and entered the intersection at the same time as another vehicle. Quickly, I was jarred back into reality as my peripheral vision picked up the oncoming grill of a black jeep. I was able to stop, but the other driver couldn’t, plowing into my front end. It shook me, but it was a low speed collision, and our airbags didn’t even deploy. Immediately, the other driver began screaming and swearing, to the point where a woman came out of her house to stand by my vehicle, just in case. In that moment, I saw both the best and worst of humanity.

Ironically, I had been musing after a few near accidents – a car that pulled out in front of me, a car that switched into a lane I was entering – how close catastrophe always is, a fractional change of time, a glance in another direction. I suppose that is why when catastrophe finally struck, I was relieved it wasn’t worse. No one was hurt. My kids were not with me. It was still traumatic, but I wasn’t shouting f-bombs into the neighborhood or weeping. I was just waiting to get to the other side – to the report, the insurance claims, and finally home. The last time I was in a fender bender, it was in the Meijer parking lot. My husband and another driver both backed up at the same time. The other driver had a crying, screaming meltdown, leaving her car blocking traffic and making the situation worse for anyone in the near vicinity. In situations like these, the outcome is always the same, you make a report and go your separate ways. Why make it more difficult and unpleasant? In these situations, I felt I was struck twice, first by someone’s vehicle and then by their emotions. The latter has been more traumatic for me, giving me flashbacks and causing my heart to race.

I can keep my emotions in check, but it’s my thoughts that tend to go vogue. The last time I was the driver in an accident I was sixteen. I was on my way home from Foreign Language Day at a nearby university and wanted to get home to prepare for a trip to Toronto with the National Honors Society – the jet-setting life of a nerd. Because I was in a rush, I passed a slow-moving pick up at an intersection. The pick up turned into my vehicle and we both ended up in a ditch. Amazingly, I only had a bump on my forehead, even though my brother’s Thunderbird was now embedded in a ditch bank and partially under a full-size pick up. I wedged myself out of the vehicle and ran for help (this was before cellphones). The other driver, who was the mother of one of my classmates, had to be taken away in an ambulance. I remember sobbing in my mother’s car, afraid that I had killed someone. Luckily, I didn’t. The other driver had a concussion and a broken arm, minor injuries all things considered.

It’s difficult knowing every time you go behind the wheel or in a car that you are entering a world where accidents are always possible, even if you are the best and most aware driver. However, distractions multiply the chances of a catastrophe. During each of my behind-the-wheel accidents, I wasn’t thinking about driving, I was thinking about where I was going and what I would be doing in the immediate future. Each I could have prevented. This is what haunts me, that my mind was not on protecting and considering everyone else on the roadways, that this lack of focus could be deadly. To overcome my initial fear getting back on the roadways, because there is no stopping in my life, I have begun cataloging everything I see when driving – the road signs, the other vehicles, the people on the sidewalk, etc. My intention is to be a more mindful driver; however, I may be becoming neurotically hyper-vigilant.

Taming the Anxious Mind

This week I am learning the limitations of my cognitive powers and how anxiety is a full body experience. No amount of philosophy or mindfulness has been able to stop the stress dreams, the stomachaches, or the clenching of my jaw. I am on a steady diet of high fiber, probiotic foods and meditation, yet still I am struggling. Even when I have successfully shut down my rehashing of events and can recognize no reason for stress, a knot of nerves keeps emitting distress signals. All I can do is ride out the storm and do what seems to bring me the most relief: exercise, time outdoors, and creative expression.

Each day my attention has been divided in multiple directions: work, school volunteering, extracurricular activities, my daughter’s health issues, household management, etc. When I am in the grips of anxiety, it’s easy to get frantic with all that I could be doing, but I am currently not. This is when I need to really turn to my mindfulness and simplify my schedule. I have limitations and that is okay. I cannot fall into the trap of social comparison, measuring myself against those that *seem* to be doing it all flawlessly.

This past weekend, I mixed up the time for my daughter’s last soccer practice and showed up to the fields three hours late. When I realized my mistake, I could not help being swamped with agonizing regret and self-loathing. Who does this? I hate to fail others, and I hate to make mistakes, but no good comes from wallowing in negative feelings. All I will do is keep myself in this cycle of turmoil, bad outcomes, and recovery. Instead, I need to reflect on the cause and work towards a positive course of action to avoid further mix ups.

Writing about this makes me feel marginally better, as if I put medicine on a wound. This weekend I have made concerted efforts to speak my feelings, not hold them in and have them mutate into some other form, such as grumpiness. It’s the advice I give my children – give a name to it, so that we can deal with it. Negative emotions hold less power in the light.

Return to Meditation

It’s funny how the less busy I am, the more I need meditation. When I have my normal teaching schedule, I have a clear set of tasks. Grading papers, because of the focus required, seems almost like meditative training. When your mind begins to wander, you must always return to the paper, like a meditation guru returns to the breath.

However, when my days are not filled with eight hours of must-dos, I am unmoored and pulled in the many directions of want-to-dos. I want to work on my garden. I want to write more. I want to plan a summer schedule. I want to clean my office and bedroom. I want to cook some healthy dishes. So I turned to meditation today in order to increase my productivity and avoid decision paralysis — what should I be doing now? When starting to read Tim Ferriss’ Tools of the Titans, he stated 80 percent of his 200 featured “titans” had a type of meditative or mindfulness practice. As I titan-wannabe, I gravitated to this actionable item. I can do this.

When I hit play on my Google top search result of five-minute meditations, I was struck with the irony of doing a mindfulness meditation now in order to do more later. I was focusing on the present in order to better perform in the future. Part of mindfulness is letting go of the rehashing and rehearsing cycle we all fall into. It was hard to use meditation to prepare for the day without bringing in a rehearsal of what I could write or do. The meditation I chose asked me to focus on my feet, stomach, and breath. It did not ask me to draft a to-do list. And that is a good thing. I need to appreciate what I am doing now instead of thinking about what else I should/could be doing. If I do this, no moment will be lost.

Mindful Eating with MyFitnessPal

For my last post, I discussed how I developed mindful spending skills through my upbringing. This mindfulness did not translate, and actually at times interfered, with a mindfulness about food. Sometimes we ate just to extract value. To this day, my parents favorite type of restaurants are buffets. I also ate, and still do to an extent, for many other reasons other than hunger. Some I find to be perfectly acceptable, such as eating to celebrate. Others I find to be less justifiable, such as munching to break up the monotony of the day.

I am a grazer. While this means I have been able to avoid the pitfall of buffets and usually always leave a restaurant with a box, I am also constantly nibbling, usually when I pass by a kitchen or office snack table en route to a different task. I truly have no idea how many calories I usually consume a day, and I have always been resistant to the idea of tracking what I eat.

The term “self-monitoring” makes me feel like I am oppressing myself, enacting a more efficient type of discipline than the those exerted on us through institutional spaces.  Yes, I have read a lot of theory on social power, particularly the work of Michel Foucault. It makes me want to avoid any sort of “tracking,” especially when it is tied to a networked program, such as MyFitnessPal.

However, I am putting my paranoia aside for 30 days and giving this food journaling/calorie counting approach a try. Two of my co-workers have already lost 10 pounds through this process. I am a bit more skeptical, which means I may already be dooming myself to fail.

Today was my first day. I am hungry, but I am unsure if I want to max out and eat my remaining 214 calorie allotment. Overall, I did consume more sodium and fat than my app thinks I should. I could have eaten more protein and carbohydrates. Maybe I can squeeze in one more snack…

The Many Virtues of Frugality

While other children grew up collecting baseball cards and stickers, I grew up collecting coupons. At the library we would sort through a virtual box of money, extracting coveted name brands and the promise of free food if we timed our purchases right. Long before I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, I was a practitioner of the ancient rhetorical concept Kairos. To employ kairos in a speech, you must be aware of the mood of your audience, the context of the situation, and any atmospheric influences. Timing is more than simply showing up and reading from an index card at an appropriate place. The same goes for shopping. In this way, frugality is a difficult concept to apply for those who like to make a grocery list and enter and exit the store as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, I spent nearly two hours scouring their aisles of Meijer and contemplating my choices. It was a moment when the discount stars were aligned in my Meijer world, total purchase mPerks and credit card discounts that could be combined, plus Mother’s Day specials. On a different day, I would not have splurged on the higher end hanging baskets. However, when all the discounts and sales combined, I felt justified in my purchase.

This lengthy foray into the world of bargain shopping would not have been possible before my winter semester of teaching ended. In work intensive times, the variable of convenience reins, which is part of the problem with American life. When we are wrapped up in the hectic life of work, children, and activities, we become less mindful at the stores. We grab our grocery carts and rush around the stores, our minds engaged on what else we have on our agenda. A few weeks later we are presented with a credit card bill for $2,000 and wonder how it is possible that we spent so much money over the course of a month.

Being raised pinching pennies, I am mindful of every dollar I spent. I can recall every item that I spent too much money on by rushing my purchase, as I have constantly rehashed it (which isn’t really healthy either, but that is a reflection for another time). Because of this, I have never had issues with my credit card, paid off my student loans six months after graduation for both of my degrees, and have a healthy savings.

This success has bled into other areas of my life as well, a phenomenon that is well explained by the Marshmallow Test. In the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel led a study where children were given a marshmallow. They were told if they did not eat the marshmallow before the researchers returned that they would get an additional marshmallow. One third did not eat the initial marshmallow, practicing the willpower skill of delaying gratification. This ability to delay gratification was a predictor of future success. Frugality is essentially going through the marshmallow test every time you go to the grocery store. You have a choice, you can either get an item that is not on sale and end up with less groceries for your budget, or you can wait until an item is on sale, so that you can buy more food for the same amount of money.

I write this to remember these lessons and how they shaped me, as since I have had children, I have begun to prioritize convenience over saving money. This is not always wrong, as some weeks, you need what you need when you need it. It is being mindful of when you are making a necessary purchase and when you are making one just because you are in a hurry and your willpower is depleted. It is also about creating financial literacy for my children and teaching them the value of waiting.

Defining and Inspiring 30-day Challenges

Today, I am inviting you into my classroom. Our goal is to create a life experiment to potentially form a new habit. For inspiration, I played two different TED talks in class. The first, “Try something new for 30 day” by Matt Cutts, is essentially a three-minute commercial on why people should embark on a 30-day challenge. For the second video, I gave my class the choice of two A.J. Jacobs talks, one about his year living Biblically and one about his quest to live as healthily as possible. Both illustrate a writer who sets out on a quest for knowledge by asking one key question, what if?

A.J. Jacobs’ work is a great model for the famous Ken Macrorie assignment, the I-Search essay, which is essentially a research narrative told in the first person. The added bonus is of course the reality TV-esque component, where we get to read about A.J. taking all advice to the extreme. It’s the print version of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days. I also find his work more every-man, than the less accessible, but still highly entertaining life experiment guru Tim Ferriss.

If anyone wants to follow along at home, we are reading an excerpt from My Life as an Experiment, “The Unitasker.” Here A.J. Jacobs seriously pursues the concept of mindfulness, a big buzz word in our multitasking digital age.