Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Announcement: Owen's blog is moving

Hello dear friends! This is just a brief announcement to say that I'm moving my blog to my new website, which as of this writing is mostly empty but for the blog posts I've copied there.

You can find my new posts, including today's (Three ways to do your to-dos) here:

Does He Collect Butterflies will go back to being Clara's blog with the occasional guest post by me. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Optimization Metrics

Clara and I have to take a written exam in order to transfer our driver's licenses to Minnesota, so we're studying the Minnesota driver's manual. In the section on crosswalks I found this instruction:

The problem is that you can't leave an intersection both as quickly as possible AND as safely as possible. To leave as quickly as possible would be to sprint the last few yards, raising the chances of tripping and falling. To leave as safely as possible would mean walking slowly and carefully, constantly scanning your surroundings for new dangers, which is not particularly speedy.
This curve represents the boundary of your possible choices for how to cross the street. Anywhere inside the curve, you can increase either your speed or your safety, or both. Combinations of speed and safety outside the curve are beyond your ability, such as trying to go both as fast as you can and as safely as you can, the way pedestrians in Minnesota are charged to do.

Of course, no one is really bothered by this in practice; what we actually do is something like "leave the intersection as quickly as possible while still staying reasonably safe."
But this is only one way of solving the problem: you could decide instead that you need to leave reasonably quickly and then go as safely as you can at that speed. And either way, the choice of how safe is "reasonably safe" or how quickly is "reasonably quickly" is a little arbitrary.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up is to try to make clear the idea that even if two people value the same things, they might disagree on where to allocate their efforts. This is especially relevant these days, as so many people seem to be talking past each other about what they want for our country. We all want everyone to be better off, but there are many ways to gauge the wellbeing of a population, and you can't optimize them all at the same time. Here are some examples:

  • How good the best are. This is how we compare countries in the Olympics, for example.
  • How good the average are. This is what we are thinking of when we worry that U.S. students are falling behind those in other countries regarding their math scores, or when we compare different countries based on their GDP per capita.
  • How good the total is. If a life is valuable in itself, then all things being equal a larger population is preferable to a smaller one. Measures along these lines include total GDP; policy based on improving that might involve promoting birth rates so we have a larger workforce.
  • How bad the worst are. If we want to improve the minimum quality of life in the country, we should concentrate all our efforts on those people who need our aid the most.
  • How far apart the best and worst are. If we want everyone to have equal resources, then we should keep on robbing the rich to give to the poor until there's no difference, regardless of where that middle point ends up being.
  • How many people fall below a certain threshold. If we've drawn a poverty line and only want to reduce the number of people below it, it's better to adjust handouts so that everyone just makes it above the line, regardless of how much worse off those above the line end up being.

One of these may sound more like your preference than another, even though they're all based on some way of trying to make things better for everyone. It's impossible to optimize with respect to two different metrics at the same time, so you have to choose what to fix at "reasonable" and what you optimize given that, and the choice of "reasonable" is a little arbitrary. So next time you're in an argument with someone, please remember that they might just be trying to optimize according to a slightly different metric, and just because they disagree with you doesn't mean they don't value the same things.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Turning token actions into keystone habits

Last time, I talked about the idea of encouraging big life changes by making small changes to your environment:
  • become a writer → keep a journal nearby at all times
  • take charge of your health → put the cookies at the back of the cupboard
  • organize your household → dedicate a spot for give-away things to live until you get rid of them
This isn't the only way of making a life change, but "soaking the nut" by consistently taking small actions in the direction of a new lifestyle is remarkable for how little energy it takes in the long run.

In Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit, small changes that provide a structure for adding more habits later are called "keystone habits." Their essential feature is that their small steps encourage "small wins," building momentum and setting the stage for more success. Often these beneficial side-effects are unplanned: Duhigg tells the story of a weight-loss trial in which the participants were merely asked to keep a log of everything they ate, but many of the subjects started unbidden to use the data from their logs to make food plans they approved of and could stick to.

But sometimes small wins don't set you up for more small wins; sometimes they seem to discourage them.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Soak the nut

Growing up in my family, my sister and I took turns with the chore of washing dishes every evening. This was not a job I liked, and there were many ways I tried to get out of it:
  • Before dinner, I would do some other extra chore, so that when the calendar was checked to see whose turn it was, I could exclaim with indignation, "It's my turn? But I set the table!"
  • Right after dinner, I would conveniently have to go to the bathroom. For me, the toilet has always been a place where I feel I can dawdle guilt-free, because after all, who can seriously tell you to hurry it along if you need more time? But this was more procrastination than a ploy to get out of dish duty.
  • When I finally did drag myself to face the mountain of dishes in the kitchen sink, anything that needed to be handwashed or that didn't fit in the dishwasher I would squirt with a generous helping of dish soap and fill with water. If anyone asked, I would say they were "soaking overnight," and—ta-da!—the next day they wouldn't be my problem anymore.
This all changed when I started living on my own, without the never-counted blessing of a dishwasher, and with no one else to wash my dishes if I didn't. I realized that it was much easier to clean up if I did so right after each meal, rather than waiting for food bits to harden and then be soaked and scrubbed later. I resolved never to procrastinate by soaking dishes again.

But when Clara and I moved to the Netherlands, the rhythm of our life changed from me preparing and cleaning up after each meal at home, to me scooting out the door right after breakfast, bringing home dried-out leftovers containers, and doing all the day's washing-up after dinner in the evening. I was back to scraping dried food off of dishes, perpetually wishing I had gotten to them sooner.

One day, I guiltily tried soaking a stubborn pot in soapy hot water. But so as not to break my resolution, I only left it a few minutes before giving it another scrub. When I did so, I was amazed how much was already coming off—not everything, but more than I expected after such a short time. So I dumped the now very dirty water out of the pot, refilled it with more sudsy water, and left it again for another few minutes, after which it practically wiped clean.

This reminded me of what a famous French mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, had to say about problem-solving. He compared the idea of cracking a mathematical nut by hitting it as hard as you can with your sharpest chisel to the approach that he usually took himself:
I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!
—Grothendieck's Récoltes et Semailles, p. 552
translation by Colin McLarty

Now this soaking technique is a regular part of my dish-doing routine. I look around to see what dishes look most difficult to scrub, give them a quick swipe with a soapy sponge as I get started, and periodically rinse them out and swipe them again as I wash everything else. Usually by the time the other dishes are done, so are they, and with almost no effort.

But what really struck me when I thought of the Grothendieck quote was not a low-effort way of washing the dishes, but a low-effort way of making life changes. When I dread the effort required by a change I want to make, I remind myself to "soak the nut" and consider the small things I can do now that will make bigger changes easier later. For example, I've wanted for a long time to be a writer, but I've always felt like I'm not talented enough and don't have anything to say. So last year, I ditched the big heavy journal I never used and started keeping a smaller one nearby, just in case I had any thoughts I considered interesting; I only wrote in it about once every month or two. Eventually that increased to about once a week, and later I committed to writing every day. Then I started picking out the ideas I wanted to share, and wrote a blog post occasionally. Now I've committed to a post a week, and my list of post ideas just keeps getting longer. And it all started by making a tiny change that made it a correspondingly tiny bit easier to write down my thoughts.

Photo by Rusty Clark, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


I've decided to officially change my posting schedule from Mondays to Wednesdays. I originally chose Mondays so that I'd have the free time in my weekends to mull over what I wanted to say, but now the weekends are the only days I get to spend with Clara and I have more free time during the week. I'll kick off the new schedule this week by posting a followup to this post, containing more examples from my life and an exploration of when tiny life changes encourage growth ("keystone habits") and when they just defuse the energy that could have gone into something greater ("token actions").

Monday, September 12, 2016

The quest for a dresser

We are making great strides in moving in. We have a books on our shelves, hooks for our keys, and cookies in the cookie jar.

But one of the things that was surprisingly difficult for us was finding a dresser. Most of our furniture came from IKEA, and we were able to check out the various options in the IKEA in Haarlem before we left the Netherlands. That way, we were able to get our new apartment pretty much mapped out before we came.

But while there's much more closet space here than in our place in Leiden, the rooms are more square, so wall space, not floor space, is at a premium. That means using taller, narrower storage whenever possible, so we wanted one of these dressers from IKEA:

But when we looked to see what was available in the states, what we found was more like this:

Where are all the tall, narrow dressers? IKEA isn't offering them anymore in the U.S., the country where they have been sued for the wrongful deaths of several small children who have been crushed in the last few years by chests of drawers tipping over. When we went on our big trip to IKEA last week, signs exhorting customers to affix their furniture to the wall were everywhere.

My knee-jerk reactions:

  • "I don't have children! Why shouldn't I be allowed to buy furniture for myself, just because someone else might do so irresponsibly?!"
  • "The furniture already comes with brackets to mount it to the wall, and the instructions include that step!" (Sure I've ignored that step in the past—living in a cinderblock dorm room does tend to prevent one from making any kind of hole in the wall—but the consequences of that neglect are my responsibility!)
  • "If IKEA really were contrite about these deaths, they'd pull the furniture line everywhere, not just in the one country where they got in trouble!" (It's as if, when they rolled out the slimmer and eco-friendlier KALLAX replacement for their iconic EXPEDIT series, they had only done so in countries that are particularly uppity about environmentalism.)
  • "It's not even that big a problem!" I mean, yes, it is an enormous problem if it's your child, and apparently a child in the U.S. is killed once every two weeks by furniture tip-over, which is awful. But given that there are over 21 million children under the age of 5 in the U.S., this works out to a probability of about 99.99938% that your newborn will survive your furniture.  If we were looking at, say, the Netherlands instead of the U.S., at this rate there would be a high probability of no child ever being killed by an IKEA dresser.

But on reflection, maybe discounting the size of the U.S. isn't such a good idea. Maybe a big country, where precedents are set for many at once and where legislative decisions have an exceptionally wide scope, has an extra responsibility to err on the side of safety. Maybe that's why small countries should belong to supranational organizations that impose annoying regulations.

But what does all this mean for us? It means we got our dresser at a thrift store.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The unexpected things you need when you move in

This is the week we finally made the move to Minnesota, and so far it's gone wonderfully. We completed the two-day drive without incident, we've assembled six carts' worth of Ikea furniture (just the desk is left!)—we've even gone to the state fair:

That's right: all-you-can-drink milk for just $2.
There have been a few things that have been difficult for us, though. With all the packing, re-packing, purging, and shipping, we are frequently unsure where we put the [fill in the blank] or whether we kept it at all. So for future reference, we've been making a list of the items we don't usually travel with that would have been really helpful to have easily accessible when we arrived.
  • Scissors
We knew we would want to measure our apartment as soon as we got here, so we stopped by Target to get a tape measure right before we left Virginia. The only tape measure they had was the same price as a tool kit that also contained a tape measure, so it was a clear choice to get the set. But far more useful than the tape measure have been the scissors—we have had so many boxes to open and packaging to cut through that it would have been a nightmare without them. The other tools have been useful too, what with all the furniture we've been assembling, but the scissors take the cake.
  • Water
We don't know yet how clean the tap water here is, so we've been really grateful for a 24-pack of water bottles my parents gave us right as we were heading out. Now we have a filter, so we have ready access to water we feel good about drinking, but in those first few days it was really helpful not to have to worry about how we would stay hydrated.
  • Plates/bowls/utensils
Seeing as we didn't want to eat out every meal, we were very glad that our plates and bowls were in some of the first few boxes we unpacked. All our silverware is in the shipment coming from the Netherlands, though, so we had to buy some inexpensive utensils to use in the interim. 
  • Can opener/knives/pot and pan/spatula
Again, we knew wanted to do some cooking, but didn't think about how we'd need tools to do it. It was a sad moment when we realized we'd bought canned beans to use for dinner and had no way to get at them. Fortunately one of our neighbors just moved in as well, and he had a spare one left by his previous tenant. Whew!
  • Soap
All kinds: dish soap, hand soap, bath soap, laundry detergent. It was embarrassingly long before we got all of those.
  • Paper towels and toilet paper—thanks for the tip, Keslei!
Clara and I each bought some of these paper products right away when we arrived, so it wasn't a crisis for us, but they were definitely handy and not something we usually travel with!
  • Quarters
While going through my old belongings at my parents' house, we found a film canister of quarters that I used to use for laundry. Turns out our laundry room here needs quarters too, as does the bus fare ($1.75 off-peak).
  • A place for dirty clothes
When we did finally do our laundry, we were pulling out dirty clothes we'd tucked away in all our bags and suitcases. No wonder we felt like we had no clean clothes! Don't be us. Keep the dirties in one place so you can wash 'em when you need to.
  • Shower curtain, liner, and rings
We have a shower curtain somewhere, but purchasing the other two (and more necessary) ingredients was another of those embarassingly belated tasks.
  • Lamps and light bulbs
Our living room doesn't have any built-in light fixtures, so for a while we just had to stop working there when it got dark. As of today, we have brought that room into the age of the electric light!
  • Checkbook
This really stands for all forms of payment—you never know when you might need cash or credit in an emergency—but the one we have been least likely to carry with us is our checkbook. These days we almost never use checks, but our landlord wanted a check for our first month's rent in exchange for the keys to our apartment. We ended up having to stop at a bank two states away and get a single page of three checks so that we'd have some when we arrived.

Thanks for reading! Anything I'm (still) forgetting? Any tips for the next stage of moving in, where the space is livable enough to get by but there's still a lot left to do? I'd love to know!

Monday, August 29, 2016

When is a mixture better than a middle?

We often optimize by looking for a nice middle partway along a spectrum:

  • Exercising means challenging your body enough to respond but not so much that you hurt yourself.
  • Astronomers look for potentially habitable planets in the"Goldilocks zones" around other stars, the bands where it's not too hot and not too cold.
  • It's appropriate to get to the airport not too late but also not too early.
  • Ordinary fruit juice tastes much better than straight-up concentrate does (oops), and also much better than plain water mixed with the tiny amount of juice left over from the last time you filled your glass.

This idea goes back at least to Aristotle, who claimed that virtues (like courage) are means between two opposite extreme vices (like cowardice and foolhardiness).

So when I read Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, a book about how to prepare for the unexpectable, I was surprised to find that regarding the choice between high-risk high-growth investing and the low-risk low-growth options, he recommends not a middle ground, but a mixture: having some very dependable savings and some investments that are risky but full of potential. That way, you guard against catastrophe but stay open to good opportunities.

This got me wondering: When else is a mixture better than a middle? Another example would be a painting: a mixture of colors is much nicer than a canvas covered in a single average:

Pretend the left-hand side is a painting.
If I can spot the conditions that make a mixture better than a middle, maybe I can optimize in ways I'd never thought of before.

It certainly isn't always the case that a mixture of two extremes is preferable to a single middle: I'd rather be always courageous than sometimes cowardly and sometimes foolhardy. It's easy to see why a mean is better than the extremes in this case: the extremes are both bad! So that's one clue for when a middle is definitely better than a mixture: think whether the extremes are desirable or undesirable.

But just because the extremes are desirable doesn't mean a mixture of them will be. I like food either hot from the stove or cold from the fridge, but lose my desire to eat leftovers when I unevenly microwave them, leaving tongue-burning hot zones beside pockets of still-cold areas.

Or even worse, I like milk and I like orange juice, but mixing them produces a revolting curdled mess. (Thanks for that lesson, summer camp.) But orange cake with creamy icing is lovely, so sometimes it's the way you mix two things that makes the difference.

So a middle is better than a mixture of extremes when the extremes are both bad. And when the extremes are good, sometimes a mixture is worse than just sticking to one or the other. So when is a mixture the best way to go?

I think the answer resides in whether the extremes are alternatives or complements. Hot and cold are alternatives; you cannot heat and cool the same thing at the same time to enjoy the benefits of both. But opposite colors are complements: opposite colors can be sometimes be enjoyed even more side-by-side than alone. I caught on to this distinction a couple of weeks ago when my father-in-law mentioned growing morning glories and clematis on an arbor at their community garden. "Clematis takes longer to grow but is hardier, so it should be a good alternative—I mean complement—to the morning glories." Aha! A mixture can be better than a middle or extreme when you enjoy the extremes for qualities that aren't, in principle, mutually exclusive. Then you just have to find a way to combine them without destroying those qualities you like.

This explains Taleb's investing advice: the opposite approaches of high-risk/high-reward and low-risk/low-reward have complementary virtues, so a mixture makes more sense than a single medium.

Since I started working on this post, I've been thinking about what other areas of my life might benefit from mixtures as opposed to middles. For example, I like how personal tutoring is, and I love how many people an internet video can reach. I've often told myself that I'm aiming for a reasonable middle ground by teaching classes of 20 to 30 students, where I can interact with each one in some small way. But maybe it would be better if I instead worked more as a tutor and made more videos, to get more depth and breadth of interaction from a mixture of approaches than any single one would provide.

Here are my questions for you:

  • What are some more examples? What are some areas where you regularly use a mixture of more than one approach to get the best of multiple worlds? (Answers may involve food, exercise, relationships, chores, work, fun, finances—you name it!)
  • When is it hard to tell whether a mixture is better than a middle? I've mostly been focusing on cases where it's easy to tell, in order to try to get the principles down, but the next step would be to try to apply those principles to cases that are otherwise hard to analyze.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dual Adverbs

Recently I discussed my new project for trying to benefit the people I talk to and make them feel more comfortable. One of the ways I've been trying to do this is to find two ways of saying the same thing (like "Have you taken out the trash yet?" and "Have you taken out the trash already?") and look for subtle differences in meaning.

And sometimes I get distracted by patterns.

There are several pairs of words like "always" and "sometimes" that I've been calling dual adverbs, because "not always" means the same thing as "sometimes not":

  • "Strangers are not always nice." = "Strangers are sometimes not nice."

"Everywhere" and "somewhere" work the same way, in that "not everywhere" means the same as "somewhere not":

  • "It's not messy everywhere." = "Somewhere it's not messy."

(These are reminiscent of the dual quantifiers "for all" and "there exists" from logic: If it's not true that all cars are red, there must exist a car that is not red, so "not for all" = "there exists (such that) not." That's why I'm calling these pairs of adverbs dual.)

Another example with a similar flavor is "totally" and "partially": not totally = partially not.

But here are some examples that surprise me, where it's not so easy to see it as an instance of "for all" versus "there exists":

not often = usually not

  • "It's not often raining" = "It usually isn't raining."

not yet = still not

  • "It's not ready yet" = "It still isn't ready."

My pattern-collecting self wants to keep on looking for more pairs of dual adverbs, but let me ask you: what do you think are some of the subtle differences between the meanings of these sentences? What does one suggest that the other doesn't? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, August 15, 2016

On not exuding confidence

I'm what you could call shy. Here's what happens when I am in a conversation with people I don't know very well.

  1. My joints start to feel stiff and my breath gets shallow. Everything feels hard to move and I have to concentrate on breathing normally and not clutching one arm with the other.
  2. When I have something to say, I run it through my mind several times to see if someone could misunderstand it. But by then the moment will have passed and I keep it to myself. The result is that I sit around for a long time feeling like I've been working hard at the conversation, but without actually saying anything.
  3. Eventually I realize that if I want to speak up I'll have to forgo the review process and just say something as it occurs to me. Often what comes out is indeed insensitive or ungracious in a way I didn't mean, but apologizing feels like it would just make the whole situation even more awkward (and would mean looking for another moment to interject), so I clam up again.
  4. Finally, I retreat into my own world for the rest of the conversation.

Guess which alpaca I am.

I know that this is something I should work on if I want to make new friends more easily. The internet advice on becoming more self-confident in social situations generally falls into three categories, and I can see how they would be helpful:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

  • Practice coping with discomfort by trying new things regularly. Do something daily that's a little scary. Accept that meeting someone new may always be uncomfortable but resolve not to let it stop you.

I'm 100% on board with this idea, especially since trying new things is something I already approve of, although I'm not systematic about it in any way yet.

Fake it 'til you make it

  • Smile, adopt an open and expansive posture, and generally do what you think someone who feels at ease would do. Eventually, you'll feel genuine self-confidence.

I do sometimes "fake it" in this way—I have yet to "make it," but it does make the process less awkward for the other person.

Think positive

  • Tell yourself that people will be happy to get to know the real you. Imagine yourself interacting with people and it going smoothly and easily.

I don't do this so much, because it feels silly, but I imagine it would help.

So I have this problem, I've known for a while what I should be doing about it, but I haven't made much of an effort. Why not? If you're being charitable, you could say that I just haven't gotten around to it yet, but after some introspection I realized there is another reason:

I don't want to be confident.

Here's why: when I think about people I've met who seem to exude confidence, I have no desire to be like them: they take up too much space, they talk over me when I try to get a word in edgewise, and in general they make me feel even more like retreating into myself. I don't want to do that to other people. So I may not enjoy being shy, but I don't approve of the alternative.

Or rather, I don't approve of what I have perceived as the alternative. But here's what I realized next: Self-confidence doesn't mean being the "alpha male" in the room, someone who gets a boost by being superior to everyone else. No, it is the opposite; self-confidence is freedom from needing anyone else's approval. That led me to my third realization:

If I learn self-confidence, and feel free from trying to earn others' approval, it frees me up to pursue other outcomes for my conversations. In particular, if I value making other people feel comfortable, then I can spend my self-confidence on that, thinking about how I can help people feel at ease and safe. I can aim to have the people I meet leave feeling good about themselves if I'm not worried about whether they feel good about me.

So that's my new goal for developing my social skills: learn to feel sufficiently at ease in social situations that I can stop thinking about myself and focus on how to benefit other people.

Care to help me with this project? I have some questions for you.

  • Have you had a history of social anxiety or awkwardness? What has helped you?
  • What are some times you have really felt comfortable around someone you didn't know very well yet? What did they do to make you feel safe or understood?

Let me know in the comments!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Enjoying Leiden on foot

We did a lot of walking around on the last few days we were in Leiden, for a couple reasons:

  • We had to transport several large objects (including four suitcases and a couch) across the city, which meant lots of walking to and fro.
  • On our last day, we sold our bikes as one of our earlier errands, so everywhere else we went that day (Hortus Botanicus, De Valk, etc.) we visited on foot.

These were reasons of necessity, but I really appreciated having the opportunity to notice new things about Leiden that I never had before. For example, over many front doors there there are rectangles of glass spanned by arcing dividers, and I made it a project during these walking adventures to photograph as many as I could spot. Here are a few of my favorites:

I love the way every one is different, but they are all stylistically unified. And all so beautiful.

How about you? Have you ever made a happy discovery because you were forced to go at a slower pace than you were used to?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Habits of Variety

I noticed recently that I've been trying to live my life according to two conflicting principles. On the one hand, I am always trying to give my life the structure of good habits. I journal every day, I write a blog post once a week, and I am currently working on the habit of washing my glasses every morning. I like not having to make the decision every day; instead, I made the decision once and act on it again and again, preferably without having to think about it.

On the other hand, I want to fill my life with a variety of different experiences. I suspect that life seems to go by faster the more each day is filled with familiar things one can experience without noticing: unlike our first few months here in Leiden, when everything was new, the last year has flown by at a terrifying rate. And sometimes a lack of variety can be dangerous: eating the same thing all the time can lead to vitamin deficiencies, and exercising only some muscle groups can lead to imbalances.

I haven't yet fully sorted through how much I want to do intentionally and how much I would like to mentally automate. But it occurred to me that it's also possible for a habit to promote variety in one's life. For example, a friend of Clara's planned her meals around whatever organic produce was on sale that week. That simple rule allowed her to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables from week to week without having to specifically plan out a rotation.

photo by Carol Moshier
Then I realized that I had developed some habits of variety myself without realizing it. There are several ways to bike from our apartment to the opposite side of Leiden, and instead of going the same way every time, I fell into the rhythm of going one way when on my way to work, another way on my way to Dutch class, and a third way for Bible Study, even though it didn't make much difference to the travel time. That way I'd keep visiting different parts of our beautiful city without having to plan it.

I also exercise using an ipad app that takes you through a different combination of exercises every time you use it, and which is designed to gradually ramp up in overall difficulty as you get stronger. In the past I've gotten bored by exercise routines that are basically the same week after week, but this method has let me practice both consistency and variety in my physical fitness.

In each case, the habit is tied to a regular trigger that varies: which produce is on sale, or what day of the week it is, or what exercise the app tells me to do next. I think that's the key to making the behavior both habitual and varied.

Here are some other areas of my life into which I'm thinking of incorporating more habitual variety. Suggestions are welcome!

Fun spending:

It's inefficient to spend money on the same fun activities every week if the fun gradually diminishes. What are some ways I can make sure my money goes toward a variety of experiences, while still keeping to a tight budget?


I would love for chores to be one of those habits I do without thinking. I wash the dishes every day, but how often am I supposed to dust behind the refrigerator or clean out the junk drawer? It's hard to make a habit out of things that are only necessary once in a while, so how can I make sure I'm getting to everything regularly without thinking about it too hard?


At this point in my life I've accrued a lot of friends from all over the world, but it takes more effort to keep in touch with the ones who are farther away. (This is especially relevant to me now, as I prepare to move to a new home over four thousand miles away.) What are some ways to habitually reach out to more of my friends, and not just the ones it's easiest to talk to?

What are your ideas? Do you have any habits of variety you've found helpful?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

"I feel stupid."

  • "I should hang onto this piece of paper, but I don't want to get out the filing stuff..."
  • "I should get out the packing list and double-check, but I'm pretty sure I've got everything..."
  • "If I leave now, I'll be early, so I'll get back on the computer and try to just check one thing this time..."
I hate thoughts like these, because later, when I need that paper and can't find it, forget the pajamas, and find myself running late, my brain remembers and says, "See? You knew better!" It makes me feel so stupid. In fact, that's what I say, out loud and to myself: "I feel so stupid!" But there are a couple reasons why I don't like this phrase and want to handle the situation differently:

Stupidity is not a feeling.

I know that I am fast at some things and slow at others, and that the former is generally more pleasant, but strictly speaking, "smart" and "stupid" aren't in themselves feelings. Why is this useful to point out? Because there's nothing I can do about my intelligence, but I can address the causes of my actual feelings. In this case, those feelings are usually shame over having made a mistake at all, and disappointment because I expect myself to be someone who doesn't make the same mistake twice.

Intelligence is not a virtue. 

I talked about this idea a little before, but it's something I have to keep reminding myself. My worth doesn't come from my intelligence or history of good decisions. I don't have to earn my right to exist. The sooner I can stop beating myself up about whether I'm as smart as I think I should be, the sooner I can focus on what I can actually do to make a difference next time.

For example,

  • I can designate a place for important papers to go temporarily, and then file them in batches when I have the time.
  • I can store the packing list inside my suitcase so I don't have to consciously go get it when I'm packing.
  • I can keep a book in my bag so it doesn't matter if I get somewhere early.

These sound like smart things to do! But notice that these methods are all ways of making up for something that is harder for me than I wish it were, like leaving on time or putting things where they belong. In order to do so, I have to first accept that I am not great at everything, and that I don't need to be. Only then can I hope to improve for next time.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

To create is to commit

I love yarn. I love blank journals. I love new boxes of crayons. But when it comes time to cast on for a knitting project, put pen to page, or make the first waxy mark on a clean sheet of paper, I hesitate, vacillate, and procrastinate. Why?

These objects embody creative potential. That yarn could become a cozy sweater or a pair of mittens, that journal could be for research or sketching or the things I encounter that surprise me. But as long as I haven't started, these are all still possibilities. So to get myself to get started, this is what I say:

To create is to commit. 

You can't erase crayon, and you can't be creative without making some irreversible choices. Sure, most word processors let you hit backspace, and unknitting isn't that hard either, but eventually you will have to hit submit, or wash and block your finished garment. The potential in yarn and paper is only there if you can choose to do something with it.

This is why I'm writing a blog post here every week. I've "started" several blogs with no blog posts because I haven't decided yet what I want my theme to be. Life? Habits? Communication? Books? Math? I could dither forever. But waiting to start until I have the perfect idea will mean I never start, so I'm starting before I feel ready, and I'll figure it out as I go. And then every week, I wonder whether one of my other post ideas would be more timely or important than the one I'm working on, and equally whether maybe I should wait to post that one until I can really do it justice. So I tell myself that to create is to commit, just pick whatever topic I feel like I can manage to write about in one weekend, and do it whether what I make is any good or not.

And sometimes I manage to use those crayons too.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

American Girl Doll Time Travelers

Hello Friends.

I am very glad to have left this blog in my husbands' immensely capable hands, while I've been doing other projects, but today I am tired and frustrated with moving nonsense, and I was thinking about dolls and I had a revelation about how my childhood could have been much, much cooler. 

I, like many middle class girls growing up in the 90s, had an American Girl doll. I had Samantha, the awesome, give women the vote and stand up against child labor, rich, orphaned little lady who lived with her grandmother. I thought she was marvelous, even though her hair didn't match mine because she clearly had the best clothes and my mom did a ton of work making all her outfits for me. I really loved her, and was super impressed with how beautiful she was, but I struggled a little with... how to play with her?

I had several other much less expensive dolls from various birthday parties or whatnot who were all the same size and would all play together... but Samantha was so much bigger than my other dolls and came prepackaged with such a strong story that I struggled to add to it, or mix her in with dolls with dresses from no particular era, but certainly not 1900s America. Even when I got together with friends and brought Samantha it was hard to play with her, even if the other girl also had an American Girl doll, because how can Samantha play with Kirsten? Kirsten died years before Samantha was born! Kirsten doesn't even speak English, she speaks Swedish, and... they lived in such different worlds... what could they possibly do together? I mean, you can just pretend that Samantha is not Samantha and dress her up in Kirsten's clothes and pretend they're both living out on the prairie and act out some of the stories from Kirsten's books, but... that never seemed like fun. Besides, Samantha's clothes are undeniably the prettiest.

HOWEVER. Today I had the revelation of how I could have played as a child with other friends who had dolls from different historical periods. Clearly the American Girl Dolls should be time travelers. Then Kirsten and Samantha (and Addie and Felicity and Molly and no one else because the others don't count) could all travel through time and space and learn lessons, celebrate holidays, and save the day as a team. We could have taken our dolls to whatever place or time period we happened to be learning about. Who says these girls all have to stay in America!?

This was my revelation. I don't feel a burning need to go play with my childhood toys now, but I do kind of want to read some fanfic adventure stories. 

That is all. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

What to do when Facebook arguments suck you in

It's happened again: someone's made an inflammatory comment on what's clearly a totally reasonable Facebook post, and you feel your response buzzing in your fingertips. You have two choices: let them have it ("it" being a polite and measured rebuttal, of course) or walk away. The problem is that neither approach is really satisfying.

The problem with engaging

About a decade ago, I used to get in a lot of arguments on the internet. Back then, the debates I dived into were mostly academic, like whether a "neutral" English accent exists, or whether a plane really could take off from a treadmill (the latter, ironically, on the xkcd forums). The amazing thing is that even when you explain to someone that they're wrong, why they're wrong, and how they can be right in the future, they still don't change their mind! They can even seem more convinced of their own position than when you started. So why engage when it's a waste of time?

The problem with ignoring

There's one obvious problem with walking away: someone is still wrong on the internet. But there are subtler problems too. When we pay more attention to content with a worldview similar to our own, algorithms like Facebook's are designed to show us more of that. And when we see less and less of people who disagree with us, it's easier to reduce their views in our minds to simplified caricatures, really held by no reasonable person.

"You don't decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don't actually see what gets edited out."
But we don't even need an algorithm for this to happen. Even if we like having a mixture of perspectives in our lives, a slight desire not to be the odd one out can cause us to naturally segregate ourselves—for an interactive blog post on this idea, see the Parable of the Polygons, an allegory of small individual bias leading to large-scale intolerance.

I wonder whether these effects have to do with the rising levels of political polarization in the U.S. over the last decade.

So what can you do? If ignoring people creates division, and engaging doesn't necessarily help either, what's left?


It's easy to skim and jump straight into respond-mode. It's harder to pause and ask yourself what's going on in your friend's head—are they feeling angry? Frustrated? Hopeless? Even better: make a guess, and ask if you're right! "It sounds like you're worried that... Is that right?" You may find that there's something else going on than you thought.

And sometimes, showing that you're willing to hear their point of view means that they will spontaneously reciprocate. Since I resolved more often to reflect the desires people were expressing, I was surprised how often I found out they already were considering the viewpoint I'd wanted to share.

But since that doesn't always happen, I like to let go of the idea that victory is making sure your view is the last one heard. If everyone has that goal, no one wins. Instead, reaching a target of just one moment of understanding—even if it's you understanding them—is satisfying and leaves the internet a better place.

If you still feel the need to respond...

Okay, so sometimes you really, really want to make sure your views are also expressed. How can you do that without escalating to frustration?

  •  Dress your opponent as Iron Man

A straw man is when you attack a weaker version of someone's argument, so that you can win more easily. But the point is not to win, the point is to be right—so what's the rightest version of what they're saying? Show them that you get it, that they don't need to pull out the rhetoric in case you haven't heard it before.

  • Share information, not counterarguments.

After you've shown them that you understand where they're coming from, only then are you in a position to explain why you disagree. But in the spirit of honest communication, don't just pull out the standard rhetoric of your side. Better is to share the facts that caused you to join that side in the first place. After all, that's what convinced you.

I came across a nice summary of this conversation style in a blog post by Eli Dourado on why experts don't always agree:
Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

And while you're at it...

Part of the reason these techniques are so effective—listening carefully to the emotions underlying differing viewpoints, rephrasing your opponents' arguments to sound as honestly convincing as possible, and sharing information that might shed light on why we are disagreeing—is that they have the uncomfortable benefit of making it more likely for us to change our own minds in the process. Because we all have to be willing, at least a little bit, to change our minds, if you want our friends to do so too.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Already" and "yet"

It's funny how a small shade of meaning can color a whole sentence. Compare these two questions:

  • Have you taken out the trash yet?
  • Have you taken out the trash already?

These two questions mean exactly the same thing, in that the answer to one will be Yes or No exactly if the answer to the other is too.

But what comes with that Yes or No? A Yes answer to the first question means that you have met the questioner's expectations. A No means that you failed. But for the second question, it's less clear what the expectations are: does the questioner have something else they want to stick in the garbage before it goes out? Or are they heading outside anyway and wondering if they can take the trash on the way?

I like to use "already" instead of "yet" in sentences like these, because I try to keep expectations and judgements out of questions where I really am just interested in the answer. Here's another case where "already" can alleviate the tension of not meeting the asker's expectations:

  • What's your next blog post going to be about?
  • Have you already chosen a topic for your next blog post?

If you haven't chosen a topic yet, the second question is much nicer to answer.  Here are some more examples:

  • When are you going back to Europe?
  • Have you already made plans to visit Europe again?

  • Where are you going to live in Minneapolis?
  • Have you already found a place to live in Minneapolis?

(The answer to that question, by the way, is Yes! We're excited to get there and show you around like we did for this apartment.)

Let me close by saying that I don't have anything against the word "yet." In fact, I get quite a boost from appending it to negative statements about my ability:

  • I don't know any martial arts... yet.
  • I can't read French very well... yet.
  • I'm not very good at drawing... yet.

I say this about a skill even when I don't have any plans for learning it... yet!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Health is not a virtue

I was a healthy child. I had a healthy immediate family, too. We all got sick occasionally, and my sisters and I have all broken a bone at some point, but we just weren't the sort of people to have chronic ailments or other serious health concerns. At least, that's the best I could muster to explain my surprise each time when, over the years, we've had cases of autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression, and cancer. So I'd like to correct my impression that health, like other positive qualities, is a virtue.

Health is not a virtue.

Health can be a consequence of conscientious behavior, but is not a reward for it. Taking meticulous care of oneself might not be enough to ensure good health, so even those who work hard for their health cannot take 100% credit for it. As far as my thinking goes, I'm going to try to detach the fortuity of good health from the virtuous behavior of creating a healthy environment for myself and the people around me.

Beauty is not a virtue.

I feel pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes of beauty, but what's the point? To give people something nicer to look at? What I really want is the value people ascribe to those who are beautiful. What if instead we valued people who make others feel good about themselves, free to admit their insecurities without fear of judgement?

Youth is not a virtue.

Somehow, as a child, I had the never-fully-expressed, even to myself, idea that old people were that way because they deserved to be. That I, of course, would never be old, because I am young and therefore deserve to be. I remember the first time I saw a photograph of my grandfather when he was my dad's age—that was the first time I really understood that (if all goes well) I would sometimes be my parents' age, and they my grandparents' age, and I too would grow wrinkly and white-haired. I would like to think of the elderly not as a different species, but as a wise group of people whom I would like to join and from whom I can already be learning.

Intelligence is not a virtue.

My intelligence has been a central part of my identity for as long as I can remember. I like a mental challenge much more than a physical one (although that's no longer as true as it once was), and I'd much rather read and think than speak and do. But when wanting to appear intelligent keeps me from speaking up when I don't understand, or trying something hard that I might fail at, not only do I lose out, but so does everyone else who might benefit from my input. Instead of valuing intelligence as a virtue initself, I propose that the truly virtuous are those who put effort into solving real problems, and who make it easier for others to do so as well.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The three stages of correcting failure

James Clear recently wrote a blog post on what he calls the three stages of failure, which I found quite insightful. I'd like to respond here, so I'll briefly review his definitions and advice, and at the end I'll give some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders.

The three stages of failure:

  1. Failure of tactics. These are failures of plans falling through, and the advice for combating them is a process of measurement and review so that you can make better plans in the future.
  2. Failure of strategy. This is when you carry out your plans but they don't give the results you want. Here, the advice revolves around the idea that you may have to try several strategies before one works, so implement them one after another as quickly and cheaply as you can.
  3. Failure of vision. This kind of failure is when your plans succeed, but the success doesn't match your goal. The advice here is to reflect on what you truly want from life, and then stick to your guns when other people criticize you for working toward it.
What I'd like to add to the article is a discussion of identifying to what stage a particular failure belongs. The article includes an example where a failure of tactics could have been mistaken for a failure of vision—if work isn't going well, how can you tell whether you need a new plan or a new career? The line between tactics and strategy is also notoriously fuzzy: the New Oxford American Dictionary defines them respectively as
tactic: an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.
strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
To me, the main difference is that tactics comprise specific decisions while strategies are broader decision-making rules. A failure of tactics, then, is when you don't achieve the specific sequence of actions you plan out, while a failure of strategy is one where your rule for making plans isn't resulting in the outcome you want.

So here's my suggested framework for identifying and correcting failures of all three types:

  1. If you're not following through on your own plans, it's a failure of tactics. Change your methods.
  2. If you're completing your plans but they're not giving the results you want, it's a failure of strategy. Change your plans.
  3. If your plans are succeeding but the results aren't aligning with your values, then it's a failure of vision. Change your goal.

Note: these must be checked in this order. You can't know whether your plans are succeeding until you can carry them out fully, and you can't know for sure whether your vision is the right one until you get close enough to see it clearly. I think this may be why Clear calls them the "stages" of failure and not just three "types."

The need to correct failures in order also explains a comment I hear regularly from self-help gurus like Ramit Sethi, who complains that people only want finance tips and tricks when he's trying to get them thinking about what it means to live a rich life. But if people are finding that they aren't following through on their plans now, it makes sense for them to want to fix that before trying to make a career change. I suspect that follow-through is such a transferable skill that it's regarded as a character trait, and that once you have it, it's easy to regard it as a neutral background on which the "real" struggles of strategy and vision play out. This reminds me of Scott H. Young's thoughts on the role of free will in success:
[That free will counts for more, the less unlikely success is,] may help explain why so many obviously advantaged people primarily credit effort for their successes. From their perspective, it was effort that mattered. Since they actually had reasonable chances to succeed, strength of conviction of the choice made to pursue it became a dominant variable, even if for most people it isn’t.
If you're at the level where fixing failures of tactics is second nature to you, then whether or not you can fix failures of strategy or vision is what matters. But if you're not at the level where you can follow through on your basic plans, then no amount of visionary introspection will help.

I'd like to end with some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders. Here's how 7 Wonders works if you don't know it: Every round, each player chooses a card from their hand to add to their civilization, then passes the remaining cards to their neighbor. Early in the game, these cards are mostly materials like wood, stone, or cloth, and later many of the cards require you to have access to several of these materials in order to "build" them. (If you don't have the resources you need, you can also use the ones your neighbors have—for a small fee.) These more expensive cards give you points, and the winner at the end of the game is the one with the most points.

Failure A: Perhaps you know that the green "science" cards are worth a lot of points if you can collect several of them, so you decide that every time you get a science card you can play, you'll do so. At the end of the game, you have accrued a respectable array of science cards, but most of your points are in this one area and it wasn't enough to win you the game. What kind of failure was this? It's a failure of strategy: you successfully followed your decision-making rule, but you didn't achieve your goal of winning. So try changing your plan. Perhaps in a small way—at the end of the game, an additional science card may not increase your points by as much as some of the other cards, so you decide that in Age III you'll relax your buy-science rule and just get whatever card is worth the most points at that moment—or perhaps you'll try another strategy entirely and focus on having access to enough resources to buy whatever cards you want at any time.

Failure B: Now let's say that your plan is to get points by completing "phases of your wonder," which have a fixed cost like other buildings you might want. The final phase is often very expensive, perhaps requiring four copies of a single resource, like stone. You go to build it, and discover to your chagrin that there isn't enough stone between you and your neighbors to accomplish it. What kind of failure was this? You didn't follow through on a plan you made, so this is a failure of tactics. So try implementing a new habit: at the beginning of the game, when collecting the resources you will need later, keep an eye on what your neighbors have, both to make sure a couple of each resource will be available to you later, and also enough of the single resource you will need if you want to complete all the phases of your wonder.

Failure C: You've tried various strategies, and are starting to win the game more frequently. But some of those strategies, like playing cards solely to keep other players from benefiting from them, bring you closer to your goal of winning but are making the game less fun. (If this doesn't sound like you, just imagine you're me.) What kind of failure is this? Your plans are succeeding, but the outcome isn't what you thought it would be. This is a failure of vision. So change your goal: perhaps play to maximize the number of points you have at the end, instead of your probability of winning. This means that you devote less effort to screwing over the other players, and lends itself more to playing against your past and future performance. Not comparing myself to others, only to my past and future selves, is a habit I try to cultivate anyway, so this way of playing fits better with my personal values.

Monday, May 16, 2016

"Should" without the anxiety

  • I should be saving more.
  • I should be traveling more.
  • I should wash the dishes.
  • I should figure out what I want to do with my life.
  • I should read more books.
Statements like these flit through my mind all the time. Clara wrote a few months ago about the way "should" statements induce anxiety: Whenever I book a flight, the "Can I afford this?" voice pipes up accusingly, and whenever do I sock away money for a rainy day, I worry that I'm not enjoying the sunny ones enough.

But here's something Clara and I have been doing lately to soften those "should" statements: add an "if."  Compare:
  • I should be saving more.
  • If I want to have more money set aside for emergencies, I should save more.
  • I should be traveling more.
  • If I want to have a more varied experience in Europe, I should be traveling more.
When I articulate why I would want to save or travel, getting the underlying desires out in the open, it makes the conflict between those desires and not between the actions they demand.  Rather than choosing the lesser of two guilty feelings when I'm deciding where a dollar goes, I can let my desires for variety and security reach a compromise, like "It's okay to spend Y per month on travel if I'm on target to save up X months of rent in case I lose my job."  Knowing that all my inner voices are heard is a great relief.

Sometimes, the exercise of adding an "if I want" is helpful in other ways.
  • I should do the dishes now if I want to have the counter clear to prep food on later.
Just visualizing the outcome I want can make it easier to get off my bum and do it.
  • If I want my life to have a clear path, I should figure out what I want to do with it.
I do want to know where my life is going, but even the best plans don't always work out.  When I accept that nothing in the future is certain, I feel less anxious about the vague need to "figure things out."

And sometimes, adding on an "if I want" is just silly:
  • I should read more books if I ... want to read more books?
Poof!  There goes the guilt about not reading enough.  I read for fun, not because I should!

This adapts well to "You should" statements too, by adding an "if you want."  Which of these would you rather hear?
  • You should defrost your freezer!
  • If you want more space in your freezer, you should defrost it.
Why yes, I do want more space in my freezer!  But that's just one of many wants, and I don't need to act on them all right now.

I try to make sure I phrase my exhortations this way, to give someone an out if their priorities are different from mine.  Telling a student "If you want this passage in your thesis to be clearer, you should add more exposition" goes over much better with the "if" clause than without, if they turn out to be worried about exceeding the thesis page limit.  And when I hear "You should...", tacking on an invisible "if I want..." in my mind makes it much easier to keep from getting angry that people don't understand my unique situation.

To sum up, here's my attempt at a tweet-able epigram:

If you want to say "should," you should say "If you want."
(Click to tweet)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Moving to Minnesota!

This beautiful photo was available through m01229's flicker
This week, Owen and I decided to move to Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota English department has offered me a PhD position, which essentially means I will be paid to study and teach Shakespeare. This is a great joy. This is what I want to spend my whole life doing. This is reason enough to move, but there are many other reasons I'm excited for this new place to call home.

For my European friends: That's Minnesota.
One reason is a strangely sentimental layover from an odd chance on a new year's eve. When I was in grad school and Owen and I were still just dating I was supposed to fly out and spend the week with him and his family in Seattle. There was a blizzard in NYC, and my flight scheduled to go through JFK was cancelled, so I had to find a different flight through Minneapolis. As we landed it was a perfectly clear night and I got to see the sudden skyscrapers of the twin cities all lit and beautiful, and heard a mother from a seat behind me asking her daughter, "does it look like home?", in a comforting, midwest accent. And I was just a little overwhelmed that I was getting a glimpse of the place my parents had spent eight years of their lives. It was a 20 minute layover, but I think of it six years later with a great deal of fondness.

I can imagine you thinking, "So your parents lived there for a bit, and you have a happy memory of a layover there. What else is nice about Minneapolis? Isn't it just supposed to be super-extra cold?" I mean, yes. Yes, it is. But I like winter. I've dressed as winter at a costume party, and I grew up in Rochester, NY which has fierce winters. Not as cold as the midwest, I grant you, but cold enough to know it and miss it in the years I've been away. Yesterday it got below freezing here and I was so happy to be out biking in the snow I found myself singing out loud.

(If you're not convinced but want to look at lots of beautiful wintery pictures click here:

This happiness, (however naive) is a great thing, because Minneapolis is one of the best cities for biking in the US, even ranks internationally in top 20 lists for biking cities, even considering the fact that it has brutally cold winters! You can read about one author's incredulity on this matter here. Their extensive bike-only freeways, their financial investment in making biking safe in the city, a prospering bike-share program, and mentality that biking is normal and expected make it much safer than elsewhere in the US.

People in Minneapolis are not just bikers, they're also readers. They're regularly listed as some of the most literate of American cities, ranked number one this past year by USA Today. I don't know how much time I'll have for pleasure reading on top of my regular coursework, but it will be such a joy to be able to be inside libraries of books I can read, and be surrounded by people who care about reading. And check out the beautiful new Minneapolis Central Library!

This will be me. 
There's such a great cultural scene in the Twin Cities! So much great theater! With a fringe festival! And Music! And excellent public radio! Although I am a little crushed to be moving to Minneapolis just as Garrison Keillor may be retiring from hosting A Prairie Home Companion (a radio show I grew up with, thanks to my parents' years in MN). In case you do not yet know the sound of Keillor's voice, let me introduce you via the Writer's Almanac.

We won't leave until the summer, but wherever live takes us, be it Minnesota or beyond, I hope to (as they say on the show) be well, do good work, and keep in touch. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

How to get to La Sagrada Família on a six-hour Barcelona layover

After Clara and I booked our recent trip to Rome, the airline changed our flight times and we ended up with a six-hour layover at the Barcelona airport on our way back. This airport is beautiful and calm and not a bad place to spend six hours if you want to get some work done*, but on this particular trip we wanted to make it into Barcelona proper to see at least one sight: Gaudí's masterpiece basilica, La Sagrada Família.

Our first leg landed at noon and our second was due to depart at about six pm, so we had almost exactly six hours to make it to and from the city center. The internet was not very helpful in telling us how to get there, so I'm sharing what we learned in hopes it will benefit someone else. What follows is how we spent our time, hour by hour:

12:00-12:30: Get off the plane and follow signs for public transit.
We were aiming for a bus, but found ourselves at the metro: this turned out to be a great discovery as the metro connection to the airport seems to be relatively new.

You'll need two Aeroport-metro tickets per traveller: one for the way there and one for the way back. As of this writing, each ticket costs €4.50.

12:30-1:30: Take the metro to the Sagrada Família stop.
To do this you can take the L9 Sud line all the way to Collblanc, where you ascend an infinite sequence of escalators to transfer to the L5. Take this line to the stop called Sagrada Família. We found it helpful to pass the time with games and snacks.

1:30-2:00: Eat lunch.
We got cheese, bread, fruit, nuts, and chocolate at a grocery store about a block from the Sagrada Família metro stop and ate it on a park bench. For two people for lunch it was about 10-15 euros, not bad and very speedy!

2:00-3:00: Bask in the amazing church.
You don't want to skimp on this step.

3:00-4:00: Return on the metro the way you came.
Take the L5 line to Collblanc, then transfer to the L9 Sud and go all the way to the terminal where you originally entered: For us it was Terminal 1, the last metro stop on the line. It's extra important to hold onto your metro ticket for the return trip, because you'll need to feed it into a machine both when you enter at Sagrada Família and when you leave at the airport.

4:00-6:00: Your two hours at the airport before departure.
Congratulations! You've made it there and back again.

What made this possible: We entered the basilica via the very short timed-ticket line by booking our tickets in advance. The tickets are for fifteen-minute entrance windows (we selected 2pm, so could enter anytime between 2:00 and 2:15), so we did some serious calculating trying to figure out the earliest time we could be reasonably confident of being there. Our flight was actually a half-hour late—we were supposed to have a 6.5-hour layover—so we're glad we included as much wiggle room in our estimate as we did.

*We know the Barcelona airport is so nice because our voyage to Rome had the same six-hour layover. Clara filmed one of her videos there in a spacious and nearly empty waiting area with amazing natural light, and I got a lot of work done on my applications.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Empathy and action: thoughts on old news.

Let me open these reflections with a story. During the horrifically devastating 2004 Tsunami I remember my sister and my mother having quite different reactions to the news. My sister was visiting home at that point (I believe it was near Christmas?) and she was glued to the computer, watching as the death toll rose, just stricken and horrified by the immensity of the tragedy. My mother took the little old Hungarian lady out to go grocery shopping. Both of them were a bit peeved at each other. My sister, because my mom wasn't paying attention and didn't seem to care about this massive tragedy, and my mom because she didn't see my sister's tearful observation as useful or helpful, whereas helping Mrs. Jakob, an elderly lady with no car, was both a necessity and a way in which she could actually lessen the need of the world. Before it sounds like I am slamming either of family members, let me clarify. If there is a villain in this story, it's me. I was also mildly peeved at my sister, but only because her using the only computer connected to dial up prevented me from AIMing with my friends. My sister is generous with her talents and her resources, my mother listens with knowledgeable concern to the affairs of the world. But at that moment my sister was empathizing, my mom was moving her feet, and they were both frustrated at each other for not responding to the tragedies and needs of the world in the same way.

The Peace Palace displays a French flag in flowers after the attacks
In the past few years I've been seeing a lot of similar conflict not in my household but in my newsfeed as people respond to the news in different ways. Because our world is much more connected now even than it was twelve years ago, and I can listen to the news from everywhere not just my hometown or home country, and this raises a lot of questions about what should be newsworthy. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the world, and as follows, the internet flamed with a gigantic flare of empathy and solidarity for the city of Paris. And immediately following rise was a criticism of that very empathy. Personally? I found this criticism for the show of support of Paris a bit grating. Because on the on the one hand it feels like ragging on people as they express and experience their grief. No one quotes numbers and figures to one whose brother just died in a car accident. From where I'm living now, Paris is my neighbor, a mere 2.5 hours by train. I've visited Paris three times in the last 14 months. My friends live there. For millions of Americans, Paris is the only place outside the US they've ever been, the easiest place for them to picture in Europe. Of course everyone responds with grief.

But on the other hand, the criticism had some truth to it, because when similar acts of violence happen in other parts of the world, there is nothing close to the empathetic cry of solidarity. Paris feels like my neighbor, because it is close geographically and culturally to me. I've never been to Syria. I've never seen a film set there. I've read portions of exactly one book set in Syria and it was about the conflict. When I hear about a bombing in Syria I don’t immediately respond with shock and rage because that’s what I expect from news about Syria. Which reminds me of the Black Lives Matter movement-- a voice in America calling out against an expectation of violence against blacks, a more casual look at police violence if it concerns people who aren’t white. And again, here we find people not seeing other people as their neighbors, not empathizing with their sorrow. Because of course both of these things are wrong. Jesus calls us to consider as our neighbor not people we feel close to, but everyone. We make people our neighbors by showing kindness to them, by seeing their struggles as if they were our own, and by caring for their needs.

There’s been a lot of recent criticism of politicians saying that they’re praying for families who have lost loved ones, but consistently voting against laws that (these critics believe) would make the use of guns safer in this country. In December, media of all varieties was abuzz with comparisons of politicians calling for action, versus those merely expressing condolence or only prayers. And while accusations got a little ugly in this case I think this example continues to bring up some interesting questions about empathy. People say, “when you pray, move your feet,” but I think that it applies not just to prayers but to our feelings as well. How much do I get upset about something in the news because I fear that the people around me don’t seem to care? Maybe if I care extra, maybe if I am really, really, really sad about a tragedy involving someone who seems marginalized maybe that will make it better?

I recently read the somewhat mediocre novel, Sarah’s Key, and in this book an American expat living in Paris learns about French collaboration in the Jewish deportation. Her fascination with this history, and particularly the story of a particular girl becomes and obsession. At various times in the story it becomes clear that this story of this child is more important to her than her marriage, her daughter, her job, and it seems at the same time somehow noble and also unhinged. She wants to apologize, she’s sorry it happened, she’s sorry she didn’t know, she feels personally responsible somehow, if nothing else, for not knowing. This journalist character is full of feeling but none of it is productive.

To contrast with this fictional journalist’s emotional fixation, the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam tells the evocative stories of the Dutch under the Nazi occupation. One temporary exhibit was about the “hunger winter” and the children sent away from their families in city. They were sent to households in the country not because of air raids, like in London, but because The Netherlands is a small densely populated country and everyone was in such danger of starvation at the end of the war. The exhibit followed the stories of eight children, told in text and video by the now aging men and women themselves. You could watch videos of an old woman talking the time when she was just seven years old standing in line to get food and seeing someone keel over, dead of starvation right in front of her. You followed these children and their stories through the exhibit, seeing photos of their thin frightened faces, watching the elderly men and women cry at their memories, and every part of it was hard to watch. One child was sent to a part of the country where they speak not Dutch but Frisian, and when he returned to his family, could no longer remember any Dutch, another returned to find his siblings had all died, just heartbreaking stories every one of them. Then at the end of the exhibit, when I was all ready for closure and the happy ending, in the past there was a display about children dying of hunger today. Not many Dutch children starve these days, but children elsewhere do. The museum called for donations, and for activism. They wanted to transform all of the easy empathy we’d found by listening to sweet old Dutch ladies into food for hungry stomachs in Zambia or Tajikistan.

I was devastated by the end of this exhibit, but also incredibly impressed because learning to feel with another person’s hurt takes effort and determination, and it’s not any fun. They’re two distinct steps: the empathy and the action, but they’re both important, and they go hand in hand, because it is very hard to fill a need, to soothe a hurt if you do not see it. I hope that more and more I will be someone who is active in my engagement with this world. Conscientious, well informed, and especially quick to listen to those with whom I may disagree. When I pray (or cry, or empathize) I want to move my feet.