In search of “Instant Happy”…

For someone who likes to write as much as I do, I’m terrible at journaling.  I’ve tried various times since I was a teenager to be consistent at this, and have consistently failed.  It might have something to do with my OCD tendencies…if I don’t write EVERY DAY, then eventually I give up and just stop completely.  But the little book Instant Happy Journal:  365 Days of Inspiration, Gratitude, and Joy, by Karen Salmansohn (Ten Speed Press, 2015) caught my eye.  Since my retirement motto is “rest, reflect, reinvent, and read”, I’ve decided to give reflection and reinvention via journaling another try.

This perky little volume promises to “…train your brain to focus on where the most inspiration, gratitude, and joy are to be found.  Soon you will say farewell forever to a glass-half-empty mindset and say hello to a new awesome-seeker mentality.” Hmmmm.  Seems like a tall order, especially for a person chronically prone to cynicism and melancholy, when not downright depression.  And I’m particularly suspicious of “instant” and “happy” being used together. But I also know through struggling with depression that training your mind to be more optimistic and grateful is a key way to manage the harder periods.  So while some of the “prompts” (in education jargon) seem a bit forced, even silly (“People hear how you vibrate.  What did you do today to vibrate at your happiest?  What can you do more of?”), others ring truer.  “Talk about your blessings more than you talk about your problems” sounds like something my sensible – and seemingly perpetually happy – Nebraska grandmother would have said.

Based on a recent University of California study finding that those who wrote (albeit once a week) about what they were grateful for experienced an increase in overall happiness and well-being than those who wrote about problems or random events, this book does resonate with my own previous experiences.  I do find that when I can focus on my blessings rather than my problems I feel better about the world and my place in it. In fact, one of the most helpful writing experiments I’ve tried was a “gratitude journal”, where I sought to document five positive things every day.  Which, of course, I stopped doing when I failed to do it every day. What seems different about this journal is the assortment of “motivational quotes, scientific studies, and thought provoking questions” that provide variety and possibly even intellectual rigor to the process.   Given that I spent the weekend plunged into sadness over the Paris terrorist attacks and the inane reactions of many of my compatriots (I’ve GOT to stop reading Donald Trump quotes, they send me into spirals of despair…), I’m determined to at least give this book a try…this time with permission to not be perfect.  It may take me longer than 365  days to actually complete the journey, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my on-again, off-again pursuit of yoga, it’s that it’s okay to take breaks and return.  The value is in the process, not the pursuit of perfection.

There.  I feel better already!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.





Living with ambiguity…

One of the things that used to drive me crazy during my many years in the teaching profession was the steady stream of people who had it all figured out.  If everybody would just do things THEIR way, we could instantly transform education and save every kid.  Sometimes they were colleagues, sometimes they were administrators, sometimes they were parents, sometimes they were outside experts, sometimes they were the kids themselves.  I tried to always listen to what they had to say and take away from it what I thought might work in my own practice, but when I was asked to articulate my personal philosophy/style, all I could ever say was “eclectic”.  I know my lack of enthusiasm for adopting every new fad irritated more than a few folks, but it seems to be part of my personality that I see gray where others can only see black or white.  Very early in my career I observed that not every lesson worked with every class, and that not every technique or approach worked with every kid.  I tended, therefore, to try to navigate a middle ground, accepting that I wasn’t ever going to reach every student but hoping to at least not harm them in the process.

Jamie Holmes, in his new book, Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing (Crown Publishers, 2015), would say all these “do it my way” people have ambiguity intolerance and a high need for closure, defined by psychologist Arie Kruglanski as a “desire for a definite answer on some topic, any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity.”  It is Holmes’ belief that our modern world, with its explosion of information and global interaction, requires a heightened ability to not only tolerate, but actively embrace, uncertainty.  Divided into three sections, this book reviews and synthesizes current brain research on our human need to create order and arrive at conclusions and “closure”, explores situations where this need backfires and then proposes ways to refine and cultivate an appreciation of NOT knowing.

I always admire authors who can make complex topics accessible, and Holmes is adept at this.  His clear and engaging writing makes highly technical scientific ideas understandable, and his choice of vignettes to illustrate his various points are interesting and wide-ranging.  I especially liked his chapter on the way the Spanish clothing chain, Zara, was conceived and developed as a direct reaction to the impossibility of predicting the future, as well as the one on the benefits of becoming bilingual and the ways in which moving between languages allows us to more easily embrace uncertainty.

I did find it interesting that Holmes steered clear of two areas where I think the need for closure has resulted in dangerous divisions:  religion and politics.  I have a personal rule – reinforced by bitter experience – to never discuss these topics with anyone other than my immediate family and my closest friends, though, so I think from a publishing standpoint Holmes was wise to avoid them.  But as I read, I couldn’t help but think that much of what informs our current world difficulties stem from the propensity we humans have to need definitive answers, and to hold fast to those answers even when they are proven to be inaccurate or unsuccessful.  This need to view everything in black and white is closely related to new findings about the rising American political polarization, where an article in this week’s Washington Post by Max Ehrenfreund finds that “Americans increasingly view members of the opposite party with contempt and scorn.  They see them as less intelligent and more selfish…” That need for easy, precise answers and that casting of anyone who disagrees as “idiots” is really the only way I can think of to explain Donald Trump.  But as a student of history, I also find it perilous and alarming.  Certainly the state of education in this country, with its obsession over standardized tests and teacher accountability for those scores, reflects a belief that there MUST be a clear answer for the centuries old question of how and what to teach our children.

As I read Nonsense, I was struck by a sad irony:  the people who would most benefit from understanding the psychological and biological nature of our quest for answers and the value of developing a tolerance for uncertainty would probably never even consider this book. For what it’s worth, I want to state here:  I DON’T think that my friends and family members who disagree with me politically are “less intelligent and more selfish”.  I think they interpret information differently, but since I also think our society works best when we accept and compromise with other perspectives and interpretations, that’s okay.  I chose this book and enjoyed it immensely precisely because from a very early age I realized that there are a whole lot of unknowns in the universe.  The paradox is that the higher a person’s innate  need for closure, the less likely they are to accept the premise that we can’t always know all the answers.   I highly recommend Nonsense, all the same.  It is a timely, thoughtful, and important contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The allure of Morocco…

I’ve never been to Morocco.  When I was a student in Madrid in 1980, I wasn’t courageous enough to tackle the bureaucracy involved in visiting, and since then it just hasn’t been on my radar.  But I did recently spend a week there in my imagination, through my latest Spanish television binge-watch of El tiempo entre costuras/The Time In Between and the novel La reina de las dos lunas.

Just when I’ve been wondering if I should keep paying for Netflix, I’ve had two fabulous viewing experiences, first with Gran Hotel/Grand Hotel and now with El tiempo entre costuras/The Time In Between.  The later is based on a novel I had read and loved several years ago, by María Dueñas (Atria, 2011).  It narrates the story of a Madrid seamstress, Sira Quiroga, who goes to Tangier, Morocco, right before the Spanish Civil War with a lover who subsequently abandons her.  Recruited at the beginning of World War II by the English as a spy, Sira does eventually go back to Madrid, and then Portugal.  The book was a compelling read (and is widely available in English translation), but I have to say I love the television series even more!  It perfectly captures the sights, sounds, and most especially the clothing of 1930’s and 40’s Madrid, Tangier, Tetuán, and Lisbon.

Set several centuries earlier, in 1520, La reina de las dos lunas (The Queen of the Two Moons), by José Manuel García Marín (Roca Editorial de Libros, 2012), also takes place in Morocco and Spain, this time in Fez and then Andalucía.  As near as I can tell, this novel is not available in English, so if you read Spanish you might want to give it a try, though I’m not sure it’s THAT great of a read.  I liked the story well enough.  Christian slave, Estevan Peres, falls in love with the fifth wife of a sultan.  He manages to help her escape the harem and together they make their way to Spain.  I’m a little unclear why the Westminster College Hill Library had this book and not many others that I think most critics would consider to be much better, but there you have it.  I was drawn in by the time period, by the fact that I was looking for something to read in Spanish, and by the fact that the plot is based on historical evidence.  Isabel and Fernando’s grandson, Carlos I, and his step-grandmother turned mistress, Germana de Foix, served as the godparents for the escaped Yumana, renamed Juana de Carlos.  Is it coincidence that I’m also currently streaming and addicted to a Spanish television series, Carlos, Rey Emperador, about that same Carlos?  I think not…

I don’t have any big trips on the horizon, mostly because I need to regroup financially from almost continuous travel since July.  So I’ll have to be content with the next best thing…hearing Spanish on television and reading about places I want to visit while plotting my next real-life adventures!