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messy-paints-pixa

I bet that a lot of people reading this post are making resolutions for the new year, and I suspect that cleaning up messiness both literal and figurative in their life is on many of those lists.

Your parents have been telling you this since you were a kid. Your spouse, roommate, officemate and others may have been suggesting it. I am constantly trying – and failing – to achieve a state of orderliness that I can maintain.

The  chaos of a house or room or closet, garage, basement, or even a desk drawer or desktop just seems wrong. I also think that achieving even a small feat of order – such as an empty inbox – gives us not only satisfaction but the hope that we can accomplish the same order in our larger areas. may even in our personal life.

People are writing books about how to clean and organize, and I wrote here about the combined joy and sadness of throwing things away. But that process (and those readings) can make you very anxious and just remind you of your failures to get rid of the mess.

A good amount of the rhetoric of the recent election was about cleaning up the mess in Washington D.C. and across the country. Donald Trump’s campaign was a mess. But he won.

chaos-phone-lines-pixa

But I have to thank podcast episode 53 of Hidden Brain for turning me on to the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For the New Year, I appreciate a book that  celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives.

Embrace the messiness and chaos! It is important. Stop resisting.

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but he looks at research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, and examples of people who did extraordinary things in messy and chaotic ways.

Some qualities that we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – seem to require a degree of disorder, confusion, and disarray.

This messiness doesn’t have to be visible, like that pile of stuff on and around your desk. Think about how unexpected changes of plans and unplanned events can generate new ideas and opportunities. Yes, these things can also make you anxious and angry, but you need to let that part go.

The book (and the podcast for the not-lazy but more aural learners) can help you stop underestimating the value of disorder. I’m typing this on the couch surrounded by unread magazines and notes for things I want to write and the remains of breakfast – and I feel fine.

messy-rope-pixa

Fight the urge to untangle the rope mess.

dolphin-pixabay image

Dolphin stuck in the desert

Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.

You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.

The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.

In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”

I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.

Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.

Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.

I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep.  I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.

Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.

According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.”  Set a reminder for next weekend.

Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.

Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.

I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.

For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:

  • My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
  • My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
  • and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
  • I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
  • I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
  • I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
  • My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.

I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

axe-chop

My first association if I hear “Norwegian wood” is the 1965 Beatles song on Rubber Soul. That album, and particularly “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” made a big impression on me when it was released.

My second association is a novel I read back in 2000: Norwegian Wood  by Haruki Murakami. At the start of that novel, the protagonist hears an orchestral cover of the Beatles’ song and it sends him to a place of loss, nostalgia, and back to the 1960s. I checked back on the book before I wrote here and discovered that the book’s original Japanese title, Noruwei no Mori, is how the Beatles song is translated and that it means more of a Norwegian forest (a wood) rather than wood as in furniture (which is what the song implies).

Mori or forest is the closer association in my third and newest association with Norwegian wood. This is the title of a Scandinavian publishing phenomenon that is not a Stieg Larsson thriller, but a kind of handbook for chopping, stacking and burning wood.

I first heard about this book on a podcast at the start of the year, but I only recently encountered the book on my local library’s shelf. Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting is a bestseller in Norway, Sweden and Britain.

It is ostensibly advice on how to heat your home with wood. But the way that it goes into the history and details of the very old traditions for cutting and stacking wood and our more primal passion for open fires, seems to have moved people beyond a how-to or DIY book to viewing it as a kind of book of practical philosophy.

I have skimmed the book and learned about Scandinavian culture and more about the chopping, stacking and drying processes than I probably need. My home did have a wood stove years ago, but we got rid of it when my sons first came into our lives – fears of burns. I have a firepit now and I readily admit to really enjoying making a fire and sitting next to it with a drink and just staring at the flames.

But how does a book about chopping and burning wood become a bestseller? How many of you reading this have a desire to learn how to build a smokeless fire? It seems that the appeal is at least half in the parts that are less about making that fire. For example, he offers advice about choosing a husband based on his wood pile.

“It’s a very common thing among older Norwegian men to create this enormous monument of firewood that outlives them, and also a very nice heritage that they leave behind.” With a bit of woodpile envy in mind, size matters and so does creating a “sculptural stack.” In Scandinavia, local papers run competitions to find the best woodpiles.

Lars Mytting covers all the phases through gathering the wisdom of growers, choppers, stackers and burners. He covers the science of tree culture and of combustion. I suppose there is some “renewable energy” interest in all this, though fires are quite polluting, especially if built poorly.

I think the real bestseller broader appeal is more of a meditation on the human instinct for survival, and a call back to some part of us that has mostly died out. These ideas might rekindle a spark of the neolithic you hiding inside.

Who doesn’t love sitting by a campfire or fireplace? We even get into fake fireplaces and flames and have watched a Yule log burning on video. A Norwegian television program based on the book aired in 2013 and they followed the show with a six-hour video of an open fire in a hut. Along the way, it had a million people tuned in. People were live-tweeting the logs burning and commenting that it was time to get on a new log, or suggesting they add more spruce or birch.

Lars Mytting was born in Fåvang, Norway in 1968. His “definitive wood-cutting bible” is a good fireside read as we enter late fall and winter and fireplace season.

I am more of what Mytting calls an “armchair wood chopper” as I don’t go out in the woods with an axe or keep a stack in the backyard. But, as the author’s neighbor told him, “a wood fire is about so much more than heat.” Luckily, my Paradelle neighborhood never gets down to the -30C mark, but I get great comfort from the firepit even on a cool 70F summer night, and I love the smell of fresh-cut wood.

And I still want to cut logs and build a little cabin one day. It will have to have a little wood stove or fireplace too.

 

The scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget
when the veil falls.
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in its hair.
– Hans Børli

Pie and Pi

A graphic I found by doing a Creative Commons search – but it was made by a friend. Coincidence or…? via lemasney.deviantart.com/

I came across a book at the library this past week quite by coincidence. Well, maybe..

The book is Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence. Don’t be frightened by it being written by a mathematician, Joseph Mazur. It is about the seemingly improbable, surprising moments in our lives that seem to be coincidences. Maybe you attribute those events to serendipity. Or Fate. Look at some of the synonyms for coincidence: correspondence, agreement, accord, concurrence, consistency, conformity, fluke, harmony, compatibility. Do you attribute these kinds of events to coincidence or something else?

Others have said that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.” In 1866, the British mathematician Augustus De Morgan wrote, “Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.”

What are the odds of being hit by lightning  once? More than once?  Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Virginia who spent a lot of time outside in all kinds of weather was struck 7 times.

Enter the mathematical concepts of probability. This was one of those things that actually interested me in that rare interesting math class I was required to take.

Have you heard of the birthday paradox? What is the lowest number of people who must be in the same room to make it likely that at least two people will have the same birth day and month? Answer: 23. With 30 people in the room, the probability of a shared birthday is about 0.7 (or 70 percent).

Joseph Mazur knows that we are intrigued when someone wins the lottery four times in a row. How did you react when you learned that Abraham Lincoln had dreams that foreshadowed his own assassination? Creepy?

That statistics course you had to take may have taught you about correlation and causation. People confuse the two. Maybe cavemen believed that waking up caused the sun to appear.  You talk about a friend you haven’t talked to in years and they call you on the phone that day. Correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not imply that one causes the other.

Some of Mazur’s examples seem to be “pure coincidence.” You find  your college copy of Moby Dick in a used bookstore in Paris on your first visit to the city? How do we explain the unlikelihood of strangers named Maria and Francisco, seeking each other in a hotel lobby, accidentally meet the wrong Francisco and the wrong Maria, another pair of strangers also looking for each other?

Mazur asserts that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small the probability, it is bound to happen to someone at some time.

“What are the odds?” is what you might say in one of these situations. Like a déjà vu experience it might feel like some ripple just went through time, space or your universe.

In the paper, Methods for Studying Coincidences, mathematicians defined a coincidence as a “surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.”

In The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, David Hand says that principle “tells us that events which we regard as highly improbable occur because we got things wrong. If we can find out where we went wrong, then the improbable will become probable.”

It’s no coincidence that ukuleles are popping up in ads on Facebook and other websites this week for me, because I was searching and looking at them on Amazon.com last weekend.

There’s the joke about two guys in a Dublin pub drinking and discovering a series of amazing coincidences in their lives. Another patron listening is stunned by the coincidences. But the bartender says, “Nah, it’s just the O’Reilly twins have been drinking too much.”


More Reading

theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/the-true-meaning-of-coincidences/

washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-improbability-principle…

Connecting with Coincidence: The New Science for Using Synchronicity and Serendipity in Your Life

There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives

Maps like these in classrooms inspired the urge to wander in me as a 1960s kid.

I won’t be hiking the “Wonder Trail,” as Steve Hely did, but I did read about it.

I once upon a time made elaborate plans to hike the Appalachian Trail. I did the research, bought maps, joined a hiking club and started doing sections of it near my home for practice. On one of those hikes, I blew out a knee and blew up my plans.

But I still love to walk, though I wouldn’t classify the walks as hikes. And I like to armchair hike through books. Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is one I read and watched in its film version recently and wrote about here. Bryson planned on doing the Appalachian Trail too.  When I read Into the Wild, I identified with Chris’ wanderlust, but it didn’t make me want to reach for my backpack and hiking boots and head off to Alaska.

The Wonder Trail is the story of a trip from Los Angeles to the bottom of South America. It is travel writing, history, and comic memoir. The comic element is the least surprising since Hely was a writer for 30 Rock, the Late Show with David Letterman and the animated comedy American Dad.

The book is in 102 easily-digested short chapters. He makes his way to Oaxaca, Mayan ruins, Inca ruins like Machu Picchu, jungles, and beaches of Central America, the Panama Canal, the Galápagos Islands, the Atacama Desert of Chile, all the way to Patagonia.

Hely presents lots of places to get lost.

“If someday I am forced to become a fugitive, hide out someplace where no one knows my name, no one will ask too many questions, and no one will think to look for me, a little house up on the hilly shore of Lake Ati- tlán might be the spot. Although of course now I’ve given that away. And while I know I can trust you, Reader, I can’t trust everybody, so maybe I’ve just blown it. Or maybe this is part of my game. I’m just trying to throw you off my trail. Lake Atitlán is exactly where I’ll be. Except I won’t be. Don’t look for me there.”

This is not a book to read if you are planning to walk the path that Steve walked. Is he a real travel writer? Well, this is his second travel book. The first was The Ridiculous Race, another comic travel tale that started when Steve and her Harvard Lampoon buddy Vali Chandrasekaran challenged each other to a race around the globe in opposite directions.

It reminds me of the old Around the World in 80 Days. – the Jules Verne novel or one of the movie version. (I saw the 1956 film as a kid and it was more comic than the book and also not a handbook for world travelers.)

I suppose a reader or reviewer might find The Wonder Traildisappointing” if they are looking for a travel guide. As an armchair traveler, I was looking for escape.

 

Hely’s website is, unsurprisingly, stevehely.com

Pebble meditation is a technique to introduce children to the calming practice of meditation. It was developed by Zen master, best selling author, and  Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Thich Nhat Hanh. In A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles and A Pebble for Your Pocket, he offers illustrated guides for children and parents.

It can be practiced alone or with a group or family and can help relieve stress, increase concentration, encourage gratitude and help children deal with difficult emotions.

A very simplified how-to of the process:

  1. A participant places four pebbles on the ground next to him or her.
  2. At three sounds of a bell,  each person picks up the first pebble and says, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Flower, fresh.”  Breathe together quietly for three in and out breaths.
  3. The next pebble is for “Breathing in I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid. Mountain, solid.
  4. Pebble 3’s recitation is “Breathing in I see myself as still, clear water, breathing out, I reflect things as they really are. Clear water, reflecting.”
  5. And the fourth pebble has us saying “Breathing in I see myself as space, breathing out, I feel free. Space, free.”
  6. End with three sounds of the bell.

This technique is not only for children. I would compare my own use of a grief stone to this practice. In some workshops, participants may find pebbles that can represent people in their lives and use that pebble when they breathe in and out and feel connection to that person.

There are pebble meditations that focus on specific areas of growth. For example, using the six paramitas, or six perfected realizations, are the elements that help us cross from suffering to liberation. The six are generosity, diligence, mindfulness trainings, inclusiveness, meditation and understanding.

Another pebble meditation uses the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), another uses  the Four Immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

Some people write words on the stones and use them on a regular basis.

What is there about the physicality of a pebble that helps one connect to a particular idea?

 

Here, Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation is presented by Plum Village brother Thay Phap Huu.
(From the DVD, “Mindful Living Every Day,” an orientation to the Plum Village practice of mindful living, available at Parallax Press

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