Doggy Mindfulness Practice

We have had Bucky our dog for two months now and if it wasn’t for me being busy worrying about my PhD program this blog quickly would have become the blog version of Marley and me. Bucky is now all we talk about and my parents will call to ask about or facetime with their granddog.

Before I got a dog I knew all of the research about how dogs are helpful for people with anxiety. My psychiatrist even jokingly wrote me a prescription that said, “get a dog,” about a year before we got Bucky. What I didn’t realize was the ways in which having a dog would make me connect with the world in a way that was far and above the mindfulness practice I attempted to do.

When you have a dog (unless you are an ass) you do not look at or talk on your phone when you walk your dog. Therefore, walking a dog is like a mindfulness walk where you actually notice your surroundings (especially when your dog poops on them). If your dog is afraid of a lot of things like Bucky, you notice the noises that your neighborhood makes and recognize where the fire hydrants and mailboxes are located (because your dog crosses the street to avoid them), as well as where the garbage barrels are because you are always looking for places to throw out poop bags.

As a dog owner you are part of a whole new culture and community. Before I had a dog I never knew there were dog groups where people met every week to take their dogs to play. Shaun and I have “shopped around” the dog spots in our neighborhood. We eased into dog park culture by meeting our friends and their dog there. We met the crazy lady who knows the ropes of the park and talked our ears off. We learned that you should always stand with your knees bent or you will fall flat on your butt in the middle a group of dogs like I did last week. The next week we tried a dog park in a fancier neighborhood and were shunned by the older dog owners. We learned there was a “popular dog” that everyone (dogs and people included) loved, but who we decided we hated as soon as he picked on Bucky. Finally, the next week we found our group at the Saturday morning meeting spot at a field near our house. We luckily drove by one day and were welcomed immediately. The group of people we see once a week is not the people we would normally be hanging out with regularly on the weekends as they range in ages and backgrounds. However, every Saturday for the past four weeks we bring Bucky there and he catches up with his friends while the parents make small talk. We have learned about each others lives and the dogs’ personalities. They have seen Bucky come out of his shell every week and get over his fear of tennis balls. It is comforting to have the routine and familiarity and Bucky seems pretty thrilled too.

It is not only the regular groups that form a sense of community. When your dog is as excited about seeing other dogs as Bucky it forces you to talk to strangers with dogs. I have already written about the power of talking to strangers, but it is even more powerful when you have dogs to aid that interaction. You watch the dogs interact and comment on their quirks. This week we even started our own dog party because we saw our neighbor (who we have barely talked to) out on a walk with her dog and encouraged her to join us at a nearby field. Before we knew it people passing by joined with their dogs and there were six dogs frolicking on the first spring night. We got to know our neighbor and her dog and made plans for summer barbeques in our adjacent backyards.

It has not all been smooth sailing transitioning to life with Bucky. Just this evening Bucky pooped in the middle of the kitchen floor while Shaun and I were in there preparing dinner. As a clean freak Bucky has challenged me to let go of obsessing about whether everything is always clean and neat. When I was worrying out loud to Shaun about whether our house smelled like poop despite my cleaning and I explained to him that this was hard for me as a clean freak he responded in his straight forward manner with a smile, “Well why did you get a dog then?” Recently, Bucky’s new habit of tearing apart toys and dispersing the stuffing around our living room leaves me to spend every morning picking up toy guts.

Before we got Bucky people loved to tell us how much hard work it is to have a dog with some people even telling us not to get one. I always found it strange because it was often people with dogs. You never hear people warn you about this with kids. I guess I didn’t quite believe the warnings. But the thing is even with the frustrating moments of picking up poop in the middle of the kitchen or from our living room rug (maybe he has IBS like his mom) I have realized that having a puppy is like any other loving committed relationship. It has enormous highs and has certainly changed our lives for the better, but just like with any relationship you have to accept the person (or animal) you love even with their flaws. No one said unconditional love is always easy.

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Our first day with Bucky – lots of smiles and nerves (him too)

Do Men Get Coffee?

I don’t usually write about my research or political issues on this blog which could be an act of avoidance because it certainly is a big part of my daily life (as it is for most women who are aware of and experience sexism in our society). I think there are important questions of how certain situations in daily life are different for men and women and men and women of different positions.

Part of my problem is that I notice I put myself in subservient positions because of several reasons. One, I am a people pleaser and care about customer service after spending my late teens and 20s working in a make-up store and on a political campaign trying to get people to donate money. I also think I still feel like I am in a lower position or still see myself in that first job as a paralegal in New York City when I thought I would get ahead by being helpful and friendly (but really there was no getting ahead in that job). I look back now on my performance review and a male attorney praised me because he noted that even when I was making copies I did it with a smile. Now I am not saying a good attitude shouldn’t matter, but can you imagine this ever being part of a young man’s performance review? Why should it matter if I smile while making copies as long as you get your organized copies? Is it to make the people asking me to do these menial tasks until 10pm at night feel better?

Finally, I think I have been trained differently than my male peers. In order to get ahead I have always been taught to work hard and go above and beyond, but this looks different for young men versus young women. When I have been given this advice by well-intentioned people I don’t think they have the same image of a hard working woman versus a hard working man. A hard working man does not have to be always smiling or pleasant or subservient. He asserts his role, intelligence, and position, which is not related to being friendly or accommodating? If it is, terrific, but it is not what he is judged against.

This thinking all started because of a frustrating situation I was in today where I organized an event with a speaker. I am a PhD candidate and was with two professors in a room full of younger masters’ students who are at this event because I invited them. For some reason I let my role becoming giving people food and make everyone comfortable. The professor speaking at this event is someone who I think does not particularly like me or my research and in my nervousness instead of trying to demonstrate what a bright researcher I am and competent individual, I got up immediately to get him a water and as a side note asked if he wanted coffee. I guess I stupidly thought it wouldn’t feel like I was a waitress and that he would turn down the offer for coffee, but he took me up on my offer and asked for water and coffee. I did not receive a hello, or eye contact, and felt I had to make myself invisible as a person to get this coffee and water and deliver it quietly so as not to disturb the men having small talk. Then he asked for food and instead of someone sitting near the food helping pass it along I had to quietly walk across the room as the designated female caretaker to get it for him. I was not acknowledged when the event started except to ask questions about the food I ordered for everyone.

I am not trying to blame this one individual, but instead to reflect on myself. I internally scolded myself for acting this way, but was it really my fault? I don’t know another way of being that does not involve trying to be polite and friendly, but when does this become more than just being friendly, but becomes minimizing myself as an academic or professional. Maybe this is just me being sensitive and maybe the option is to not care whether I get coffee, but whether I am still getting ahead at the end of the day as an academic. In the meantime, I will be getting coffee for myself so I can keep working my butt off to produce the work that will help me advance.

I Love College

I have a clear memory of starting college and feeling as if I had been waiting my whole life for that experience. My first night in the dorms was specifically memorable because I had a near death experience. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and there is a sizable homeless population there. The homeless people are known in the community and at times are not so happy with the college population. Our first night of college we had left piles of boxes outside the dorm and it is unclear if it was on purpose (hopefully not) or maybe just a stray cigarette, but all of the sudden there was a small fire that spread to the dorm. In my first night in my dorm I woke up to my new friend down the hall opening our door and telling my roommate and I, “You have to get up! There is a fire.” Then we realized that an alarm had been going off (I think in our sleep we tried to ignore it initially and hoped it would go away). We all ran to the stairs in our PJs and slippers and could already smell the smoke (even though we were ten floors up). I remember trailing behind someone and just hoping as we made it down a level that we weren’t going to encounter the fire on the next stairwell. We made it out safely and all stood outside laughing to ourselves (and maybe half searching for some adult supervision that was not there). However, the scars of that night have stayed with me as I always think I can smell smoke and don’t like living in an apartment on the top floor. That is the thing about college, even though its not your most “formative years” developmentally, my college years had probably the biggest influence on who I am today.

I am thinking about college so frequently because I basically live in it everyday. For the past few years while getting my master’s and now getting my PhD, I have taught yoga to undergraduates and been a teaching assistant in undergraduate political science courses. On the first day of class when I sit in the lecture waiting for the professor to arrive I like to think to that I blend in and that they can’t tell I am the teaching assistant. I enjoy eavesdropping to their conversations and wondering what I would be thinking and feeling in their position when I was in college. From the outside these students seem so much more knowledgeable and self-confident than I was in college.

Part of me still feels like a college student, from that excitement for learning, doubt about one’s path, the desire to succeed mixed with insecurity, and the earnestness. When my young girl students come talk to me about classes or want my advice on career path I see myself in their questions and hope to guide or inspire them in some way. When I teach undergraduate students about international relations, I call on the quieter ones and force them to share their opinion or encourage the type A over-achievers to relax a bit. It is like talking to past versions of myself, but at the same time I realize that I am no longer that person. I now somehow the person these students ask for advice and who potentially looks from the outside like I have it together.

Recently, a professor I had in college came to speak at my grad school. When I took his class I remember I sat in the front row and never said a word. I think I once forced myself to attend his office hours, but neither of us really knew why I was there (now I am an office hours pros always coming with questions and knowing how to guide the conversation). I sat in the first row listening to his talk and tried to take myself back to being that 20-year old girl in his class at college and never knowing I would end up in a PhD program studying what he was talking about. I remember one time after his class I told a friend his career path looked appealing and that maybe I should be a professor and he said, “Well it’s really hard…” At the time I accepted this and thought that meant I couldn’t do it.

After this talk at my grad school I purchased his book and dutifully stood in line feeling to get it signed, feeling more confident and adult than last time I saw him speak. He gave me a look of recognition and when I shook his hand I told him I was in his class he said he knew I looked familiar. He seemed delighted that now I was in grad school pursuing my PhD. I left feeling as if I had won some sort of award. I am not sure why it meant so much for me to be recognized. I think I had felt I was invisible in classes in college, even though the classes had an enormous impact on my life. I also realized that this professor’s excitement at seeing how I had progressed after his class was the same gratification I feel after advising a student.

At times it is hard being on college campus all the time and feeling so on the outside of things. There are days when I look at the students and think how lucky they are to be in the midst of what was such an exciting time for me. Is my desire to be a college professor a form of Peter Pan syndrome? Is it just that I never want to leave the place that made me so happy – where for the first time I felt excited to learn, where I could learn whatever I wanted, and had the independence and freedom I was ready for since I was 10 years old? Hopefully it is the better alternative and I am just hoping that after taking my class, some young girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself and thinks it might be too hard to be a professor, takes the risk.

 

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Graduating college…(the first of many graduations)

*Not what I am writing about, but always thought this was a catchy song.

 

Zumba is my new anti-depressant  

Lately I have been in a bit of a funk. I have battled with bouts of depression since college and while I am not feeling as bad as I have during those other periods I have been feeling down a lot and lonely. I think this is a December thing for me. I already wrote about how I often get a case of the shoulds during this time, but December is also a time of transition which tend to be tough for me. December was frequently a tough and boring time for me as a Jewish kid in the suburbs whose friends were celebrating Christmas. I was often bored at home imaging what Christmas must feel like. At least that part is now over since I get to celebrate Christmas with Shaun’s family!

As a perpetual student December is also a time of breaks and transitions. In the past my transition has been pretty clear though, transitioning to a new semester, and being able to count how many semesters I have left. Now I am still a little fuzzy on what my career will look like in the near future. This is a bad recipe for me – unstructured time, alone, with lots of questions about my future, during a transition.

I have always known exercise could help with my mood, but I think I found a mood booster that is more than just exercise. Some sort of happiness blog or column I read recently suggested trying new things that you might not be good at. In this spirit, I decided today to try out my first Zumba class. I have actively resisted Zumba classes for years and have been unable to avoid picturing what I would look like in the class. I took jazz and ballet as a kid, but my mom said I didn’t quite have rhythm and she would occasionally have to stifle laughter while watching me. I am also a huge klutz so that also did not make me feel confident in my potential Zumba skills. When I texted a friend saying I was going to the class she said, “I would pay someone a lot of money to be a fly on the wall for that.” All this in my mind, I decided to try out a Zumba class at my gym where I don’t know any other members and felt anonymous. Even if I was embarrassingly terrible I would probably never see anyone in the class again.

When I showed up there were four other women in the room all over the age of forty and with seemingly little Latin dance expertise. I told the woman next to me I was a first-timer and I was nervous and she assured me to just “keep moving” and I would be fine. When the adorable Latina instructor came in with her sparkly white high tops I felt even more nervous. She also did not seem to plan to give many instructors since she blasted music and had no headpiece speaker to guide the class. She starts signaling with her hands to start.

I started the class timid and would not take my eyes off the instructor.  I worried that if I looked away suddenly the class would be spinning in one direction and I would be jumping up and down. This also had the added benefit of avoiding watching myself in the mirror. I started out nervous and rigid in the moves, trying to treat it like a science, move hip left like instructor. I would not shimmy matching the instructor because I was not sure if this was “part of the sequence.”

After twenty minutes I realized I could just forget trying to look like the instructor and could just move my own way to the music. I started moving my hips and actually dancing along to the music. I was probably jumping up and down like a crazy person, but when I got sight of myself in the mirror instead of being embarrassed I just smiled. This was fun! I would scan the room and see that no one else was that good and maybe I could actually be okay at this. By the end of the class I was shaking my hips, shimmying and adding in my own flair to the sequence. I even got distracted near the end planning whether I should start taking salsa dance classes and perhaps this was my real calling. Or maybe it was just that I should have done dance classes as a young child that were exclusively with middle age women who were not concerned about looking cool and just wanted to get their work out in.

From what I know about many Latin cultures, dancing is a big part of the culture, and maybe many Latin people are so good at moving their hips because they have been socialized to just try it out and let go. During class I felt that that people in many cultures in the US have been deprived of this joy. Why shouldn’t I dance more and move my hips even if I don’t look quite cool yet? Maybe eventually I will (wishful thinking), but even if I don’t there is something powerfully cathartic to just moving and having fun. We can’t all be Shakira, but why shouldn’t we all get to give it a shot? You won’t know if your “hips don’t lie,” if you never try. If you end up looking like an idiot (or Elaine from Seinfeld) at least you got some endorphins flowing, listened to good music, and smiled.

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Sick Days

Today I am “taking a sick day” (or since I am on school break and work on my own timetable maybe I should just call it a “do nothing day”) and recovering from a stomach bug. It wasn’t the worst stomach bug I have had, but I was pretty miserable last night and now am trying to rest and drink fluids. Its 1:45pm and I have already finished one movie. I am starting to feel better as the day goes on and starting to feel my usual guilt about spending the day on the couch not doing anything “productive” (even if that means going to the grocery store).

I had so much guilt when I was younger about everything. I always was in fear of breaking some moral code. When I didn’t feel well I would agonize over whether I should go to school and if I was really “sick enough” to stay home. I was worried that what if I started feeling better everyone would think I had been faking. Meanwhile, my parents or school authorities knew me pretty well and never thought this, but I still felt like it was violating some moral code to take a sick day if you weren’t deathly ill.  I think this was also tied to the fact that in order to feel like I was taking a sick day I couldn’t have any pleasure and should be miserable the whole day.

I have no idea where this feeling came from and I was surprised to realize it has still stuck with me. I feel wary of being taken care of because I expect the person taking care of me to to say, “oh come on you are fine.” For some reason thinking that I only can be taken care of when I am in the worst situation. Forgetting that I am happy to take care of the people I love and they are happy to take care of me – in all levels of “severity”.  In line with my idea of being content. I am trying my absolute best to just be. I can feel happy I am feeling better and not worried that I am overreacting by laying on the couch all day. Furthermore, it is quite amazing that I am sick at a time when I have no pressing obligations and can lean into it.

Some people advocate for taking sick days every once in awhile to let your body just rest and recover from life. Maybe my body would rest, but I would really have to work on getting my mind to shut up. Some parts of my uncomfortableness with taking a sick day result from the fact that I think I should spend all my time doing something productive. Despite the fact that I do know there is value in just resting and reading a book. The other part of my difficulty with taking a sick day is that I function by routines and plans. When my plans change I often feel out of sorts. Again, something else I know I need to work on because I have learned that no matter how amazing I am at planning, there are too many things I can’t control.

I am going to look at taking a sick day as practice for me and part of my process of growth. Maybe I keep coming down with bugs because I need to figure out how to slow down and learn how to rest and relax (either that or my weak stomach). And if I am really all about following directions, guilt was not part of the doctor’s recommendations.

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Here is little Phoebe in her business woman outfit who was very concerned when she took sick days

 

My power phrase

In yoga teacher training we all had to come up with our “power word/phrase.” It was supposed to keep us motivated and focused. We would repeat it constantly and often yell it out (it seems weirder describing than it did to do it). In yoga teacher training my word was “growth” and I really did embody that idea throughout the process (even if it meant accidentally basting myself with toasted sesame oil). I might have grown throughout the process without me yelling the word in a circle at my fellow trainees, but perhaps staying focused on it helped the growth process.

My phrase for the past six months that I continue to try to focus on when I feel anxious or down is “be content.” I wrote it on the whiteboard in my office and try to keep reminding myself of it. I need this reminder because I hear my thought process and often feel like I am personifying the phrase that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” When I was so busy in the fall studying for my comprehensive exams for my PhD program I dreamed of being done with my exams and “free.” Now that I am “free” I feel like I am floating in the program and don’t know what I should be doing. I know this is not how I want to live my life, but I am working on breaking the cycle.

The idea of being content does not mean that I need to always be happy. It is the goal of being okay with what I am doing in a particular moment. This is in contrast to the feeling that I should be doing a certain thing at a certain time. Even when I am trying to take a break for a week (like this upcoming Christmas break) I think about what that should look like and try to plan it out. Then when it doesn’t meet expectations because for example I remember I hate DIY projects and crafts (as mentioned in my last post) or I am really not able to focus on reading that non-fiction book that I “should” read, I feel disappointed.

The times I especially need to work on being content are in moments of stillness or unstructured time.  I occasionally experience FOMO (fear of missing out) when I am not a part of certain social events (either by choice or circumstances) but my issue is mainly “Fear of the Shoulds” (#FOTS?).  If everyone is at holiday parties and busy this week, should I be doing those things? If everyone is studying for finals should I be busy doing school work even though I don’t have finals (luckily)? It is unclear how everyone can both be at parties and in finals, but rationality easily gets lost in the should.

My mom has always told me to take should out of my vocabulary. What if I didn’t even let my brain go there? It is in line with the idea that sometimes the more options you have the worse off you are. I could reduce my options by not thinking about what everyone else is doing or what I envisioned I would be doing and just be present in what I am actually doing in that moment.

I am currently blogging on a Tuesday night, while some friends are at holiday parties, other friends are studying for finals, and other friends are finishing at their jobs. I am doing my best to not judge which options or better or worse or what I am used to and feel okay with blogging away. Anyway, I should stick to my goal of blogging more regularly anyway…

Creativity is so in

Creativity is so iLately, everything I read and listen to discusses the benefits of creativity. Maybe it is self-selection and I am just absorbing podcasts, books, and articles about the topic, but I think there is something in the air.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as a creative person. I am not very good at art although I would very much like to be. I get frustrated doing any sort of artistic DIY project and have given up slash half-heartedly attempted knitting, scrapbooking, and all the other trendy artistic related hobbies people say will benefit your life. I also stopped playing guitar which is one that still bothers me.

Although I am not artistically or musically creative I am beginning to broaden my definition of what creativity looks like. I was certainly a creative child, not the artistic kind, but in the sense that all my childhood memories involved some type of imagining. My mom used to say that I sounded so convincing talking to my imaginary friends when we would drive somewhere that occasionally she would look back in the car to confirm there was no one there. I had imaginary friends, worlds, and detailed plot lines. I used to sit in the wardrobe in my room and convince myself that it felt cold and I was going to be able to walk into Narnia. I talked to a magnolia tree in our backyard (likely due to lack of friends) and would sit on the big branch singing and talking to the buds.

As I got older my imagination had to invent new ways to keep busy (since it was no longer acceptable to talk to magnolia trees) so it got busy imagining drastic situations occurring that had no basis in reality. This was problematic because my imagination is so convincing it was easy to forget that it was inventing its own stories about the future. In an effort to keep that imaginative child alive and keep my adult imagination busy on positive things I am determined to try out this whole “creative lifestyle.”

Writing has always been my creative outlet. I remember when I was around ten I wrote stories about this character Izzy and her large family. I feel happy thinking about how much I loved it. I have also always loved writing letters and emails. One of my favorite gifts was when my mom made me a binder of all of the emails I wrote to her from my study abroad in Argentina. I wrote detailed emails about loneliness, uncomfortable situations, new friendships, and exciting adventures. I think about it now and realize that students who study abroad no longer have that excitement because everyone has wifi and it is too easy to just connect anytime. They do not have the feeling of waiting for the computer in a youth hostel with such excitement simply to read and write emails. I am fairly certain I almost got in fights with people who took “too long” when I was counting down the minutes to hear from family and friends in the states.

For my second big adventure abroad instead of long emails I wrote blog posts. I had the same fulfillment in being able to write about my embarrassing moments, the people I was meeting, and again the loneliness.

So even if no one reads my posts and I am not sharing adventures from Manchu Picchu or a safari in Kenya I will keep blogging. I will refrain from judging what I write and whether people will like it and remember that this is not a chore or a job, but is something I need to do to keep being me.

Creative inspiration:

  • The New York Public Library Podcast, “Moth on the Power of Storytelling” (made me smile and gave me goose bumps – my favorite quote, “stories are magic”)
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast of the same title
  • Tim Ferriss Interviews with BJ Novak and his one with Rainn Wilson (guess he was on an Office tribute?)

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