Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving!

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Me and a couple of my girlfriends put together an ACE Thanksgiving menu. I thought I'd share a couple of the dishes... I only have recipes for the ones that I made, so I'll just give the titles of the things the others made, and you can google them.

I am blessed beyond measure. To be able to share a special day with friends is incredibly important. I am so thankful that we have such good friends and that they are willing to indulge a couple of Americans in their need for tradition. And it doesn't hurt at all that they're good cooks.

I decorated the apartment a little- in my mind's eye it was much grander than it turned out. But I was pretty pleased with the home-made decs. 

(that last one is Mike's Opie-dog-turkey)

For starters, we had Jamie Oliver mulled wine. It was incredible.  We followed the recipe pretty closely, although put in a little bit less sugar than the recipe said (mainly because we ran out). It was really beautiful, not too spicy or sweet. It was a really nice warm starting drink. It snowed about 4 inches here, so everyone was coming in from the cold, and it was nice to be able to give them something warm on their arrival.

For meat, we had "turkey a la Minnesota". We couldn't find a whole turkey, that didn't cost a kidney, so we had to make due with a turkey crown. This was PLENTY of food, so it's probably good we didn't have a whole turkey. Basically, I followed Alton Brown's roast turkey recipe and added some sage butter rubbed under the skin. I also used some heather rock salt instead of kosher salt in the brine, which gave it a beautiful smell. And I didn't use any oil for the aromatics. I thought it was too much with the butter under the skin. We also had a lovely French Canadian meat pie called Tortiere, which was really savory and lovely. Finally, we had apple cranberry sausage stuffing. It was a perfect compliment to the meat pie and turkey, because it had a nice sweet flavor.

For sides we had maple butternut squash casserole, sweet potatoes with sugared pecans, a lovely Jamie Oliver salad, rolls, my grandma's mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and whiskey gravy. I only have the recipes for the mashed potatoes, corn pudding, and gravy.

Mashed potatoes:
1 lb potatoes quartered
1/2 heavy cream
milk
salt
pepper
5 tbsp butter

In a large stock pot, boil the potato quarters until they fall apart when pierced with a fork (10ish mins). Drain and transfer to a bowl. Add small cubes of butter, salt, pepper, and the cream and smash (if you don't have an electric mixer) or mix (if you have an electric mixer), add as much or little milk to get it to the consistency you want. More milk is runnier, less is chunkier and stickier. Add more salt, pepper, and butter to taste.

Corn pudding:
Cook's note: this is almost my most favorite christmas/thanksgiving dish ever. It's a Mike's Alabama/Kentucky family special. It's loooovely.

3 Tbs flour
3 Tbs sugar
5 eggs
1/2 C milk
1 14 oz can creamed corn
1 14 oz can whole corn drained
1 C heavy cream
2 Tbs melted butter

In large mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, salt and pepper to taste.  Gradually whisk in cream.  Add eggs and whisk till smooth.  Stir in milk and all corn.  Drizzle the butter on top.  Bake 350 for 45 min. or till set.  (around 1 hour for me)

Whiskey Gravy:
1/2-3/4 cup whiskey
flour
1/4 cup cream
milk
drippings from the turkey
salt and pepper to taste

Start by making a roux in a small-medium saucepan with the cream and flour. Whisk the flour into the cream over low heat. Whisk in enough flour to thicken the cream. Add in the whiskey- the more you add the stronger the taste. Pour in 5-6 ladles of drippings from the turkey. Whisk in milk and more flour to thicken. For thicker gravy add more flour, for thinner add more milk. Keep over low heat. Add in more drippings or more whiskey to taste.
We would have had pumpkin pie and tartre al sucre (french-canadian sugar pie) but it snowed about 2 inches in an hour, on top of the 5 inches that we already had and everyone needed to get home... it wasn't the perfect end to the dinner, but it was a great meal, great camraderie, great homey feeling all the same. 

It's still pouring snow, so we might be stuck here for the next week. Thankfully we have enough leftovers!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Now...

My advisor and I are starting to build a rhythm to our conversations. We talk about the advisor-student stuff, then future stuff, then personal stuff, and finally always end the conversation with me asking “anything else you need from me?” and him recapping the conversation, and mirroring the question back to me- “do you need anything from me?”. Today, I said, I didn’t think so, but could I get back to him later. See, I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks entirely mentally engaged in finishing a really complicated thesis chapter. (And by finishing I mean writing a complete first draft. Yet to be commented on by my supervisors. So not finished at all.) I am only just now coming back up for air and starting to think about my final PhD study. My supervisor said, yeah, it’s a funny thing about research, you’re always in the past or in the future. You’re never right now. I laughed, but that really struck me as a profound statement. You’re either writing up what you’ve already done, trying to defend it, or thinking about what you’re going to do next, trying to avoid the pitfalls that will inevitably be there.

I think this observation, about always living in the past or future might be inherent in the way that society works today. Society and culture don’t lend themselves to being in the moment. You need to meticulously plan and be very deliberate in your actions to be successful. Forget ‘to be successful’. Just to have enough money to eat! A heavy societal premium is placed on those that can anticipate possible problems and account for them before they happen. Simultaneously, we are anchored (a psychological principle) in our past. We are who we are because of what’s happened to us. The way humans perceive the world is based on their point of reference. This isn’t just a philosophical argument, either. It’s how the brain works- short term memories are the most easily accessible, therefore are used when making decisions. Long term memories are deeply ingrained in our neuronal patterns (long term potentiation). Plus, because humans are cognitive misers (not using more resources than required) we seek out patterns that are familiar or confirm our hypotheses about the world around us. So truly, we are physiologically and psychologically stuck in either the past or the future.

Yesterday evening I got the opportunity to go to an advanced yoga class. I haven’t done real yoga in a while (the crap they do at the gym- fitness yoga- doesn’t cut it. Not to sound like a yoga snob…  wow. I am a yoga snob…) and it felt amazing. The teacher said something that I remember my first yoga teacher always saying at the beginning of class- “let your mat be your island. This is just you and your practice. Let everything else go and focus on where you are right now.” I tried to breathe, and focus only on the now, how my feet felt on the floor, how my back expanded with each breath, how my arms were positioned… eventually I was able to pay attention only to my practice, but it took a little while.  I kept inhaling and thinking “breathe innnn (oh my god did you send Tim that email about the simulation on Thursday), breathe outttt (shit, no. it’s ok, just do it when you get home. Oh crap you didn’t look up the bus) breathe innnn (schedule, oh well you can drop by tesco on the way home and grab milk) breathe outttt(and maybe some chocolate. you are doing yoga right now, so eating chocolate is totally ok)” and so on…  It’s almost like the devil in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The book is beautifully conceived as a collection of letters from a senior demon to one of his demons in training, who is also his nephew. The henchman is always asking questions about how to bring his human over to the devil’s side and away from holiness. Screwtape, the demon, tells Wormwood (henchman in training) to distract his Patient (the human), to interrupt his prayers with mundane thoughts, to undermine the Patient’s faith using the treasured tools Doubt and Loneliness.  Sitting there, trying to breathe and be in the moment, I kept getting distracted by my own Wormwood, who had built a little nest on corner of my mat.

It’s really counter-intuitive to live in the now! How do you pay attention to now without judging it, comparing it to previous experience, thinking about what could happen next, planning the next position, the next class, the next the next thenextthenext… Eventually, through the class, I was able to focus only on my world on the mat, and gradually Wormwood moved and sat right outside the door waiting for me. After the last pose, corpse pose, I felt renewed. Like there was fire in my muscles and I’d been wakened.

As I left class, my advisor’s earlier quote came back to me. Initially, my brain greeted this statement with an automatic anxiety response, tensing my shoulders and frantically scrambling around in the dusty mind grapes trying to remember what I have to do when I get home tonight to be ready for tomorrow. I took a deep breath. The breath reminded my body of where I had just been. Not frantic, not anxious, just patiently existing on my own mat. I tried to reframe my thinking about tomorrow and instead of anxiety, think about the opportunity.

It’s just interesting the juxtaposition between past, now, and future. It’s essential to attend to all three, but impossible to do so.  Or at least, I haven’t figured it out yet.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A bit out of my league...

Ok, so today I want to talk about something entirely different than I usually do.

Basically, I want to write about the psychology of the subprime mortgage crisis in the states. I want to do this, not because I think I am the first person to have thought that this would be a good idea. I am sure somebody has written a book on it and probably been on Oprah or at least the Freakonomics podcast. I think that there’s such a huge human psychological element to all this and I don’t think it’s been explored adequately. I think people have focused on the psychology of the outcome of the financial meltdown (people losing houses and jobs, fear, greed, anxiety) and have focused on individual stories (for example: Planet Money, a free podcast from NPR does a great job of asking real people about what has happened to them as a result of the meltdown.) But I haven’t read a book yet that specifically discusses the psychology that got us to the point of meltdown. The closest thing I’ve read is Michael Lewis’ FANTASTIC book The Big Short (which if you haven’t read it, STOP READING THIS, and get in your car or go to Amazon and buy it. It’s fascinating.) In this book he articulately details the story of those that saw the meltdown coming, how they were able to predict it, and exactly what they did about it.  He hits on some of the psychological details of how people were able to see a pattern in the chaos, but doesn’t really focus on it.

Disclaimer time: I am (as will become increasingly obvious) not an economics expert. I am a person who reads a lot, and because we’ve been overseas for most of this disaster, I’ve been able to watch it from afar. I care very much about my country, and about what’s happened and will happen to small businesses, retirement, and future funding for health care and education in America, so I think I have a vested interest in doing my best to understand what’s going on.

I have found that to discuss anything about this financial meltdown, (which I would’ve called The Big Clusterf&*%k (TBC) had I been Michael Lewis, but to each his own) you have to understand a little bit about why it happened. I think this is an imperative step, and I also think it’s one that most Americans have thus far successfully avoided. Which is very unfortunate. Because that leads to discussions not based on fact, not even on theory, but based entirely on emotion. And while I will discuss that later, I don’t think that emotion serves us well when we are trying to understand something like this.

Again, I am not a financial expert, so I am going to explain this how I understand it. Go and ask your broker/lawyer for the real story.

First things first. TBC happened because of subprime mortgages, we all know that. A subprime mortgage is a mortgage that is given to a borrower that is ‘below ideal’. Now this doesn’t mean that they are a farmer with a 14K income asking for a 2Million loan (although that did happen). This is anyone that has a lower credit rating, therefore has a higher chance of defaulting (not paying) their mortgage a) on time or b) at all. Just because subprime mortgages were a centerpiece to TBC, that doesn’t mean they’re always bad. Initially, they were designed to help people “get a small piece of the American dream”. Help those with poor credit get into a home, which could build equity and eventually help them to improve their credit.  This is point of interest for psychology 1 (POI for PSY 1).

Subprime mortgages were given out by mortgage lenders, not always banks. These mortgage lenders make their money off the top by setting up the mortgage. Therefore, they have no vested financial or personal interest in the loan actually getting paid off, rather they get paid when the loan is made. This is POI for PSY 2.  These lenders then sell the mortgages to banks. Again, taking a little off the top for expenses and whatnot.

The second problem is that all these mortgage loans were made with ‘variable interest rates’ which is exactly what it says it is. The interest rate is one thing at one time and could go up or down (probably not down, but could) depending on a variable interest rate index, which I think is set by the Fed. I can’t find it online from a credible source, so don’t quote me on that. So the interest rate would be 6% when you bought the house, but would skyrocket to 18% 3 years in. This is why there was a housing bubble, which seemed to suddenly burst, but it could’ve probably been predicted had anyone put the pieces together. Everyone started defaulting on their loans when their 3 year grace period was over. Suddenly, they weren’t paying for their houses, but just for the interest. This is POI for PSY 3.

Ok, so now you’ve got a bunch of subprime mortgages that aren’t owned by the mortgage lenders, but rather by various banks. The banks then, in order to have liquidity (cash), sell the mortgages to investors. Here’s where things get kinda messy. The mortgages are packaged. Normally when this happens, mortgages are packaged with a lot of other loans that the bank makes, like car loans or college loans. These are not debt from a single person, but from a variety of sources. Not even always just from the one bank. This is done because it diversifies the package (my new favorite euphemism), which means that, as a whole, the package of loans is safer. It’s safer because there is heterogeneity in the package so people won’t be as likely to suddenly default on a school loan, a car and a house all at the same time. I believe this is the point in the process where the package is renamed ‘Mortgage Backed Security’. I am not sure about that though.The problem started because now, for whatever reason, these packages of loans were mostly mortgages- and above that, mostly sub-prime mortgages.

So the bank sells the MBS to an investment facility. The investor can be other banks, individuals, groups, venture capital firms, etc. Really, anyone wanting to invest, but usually a large company. Now, again, this is where I get a little fuzzy. I think what happens is the MBS’s are split into Tranches based on risk. Tranches (French for slice) is a ‘grouping’ of the MBS’s. so it goes:

 

Mortgage backed securities (MBS) are rated by national rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s (of S&P 500 fame). Rating is just like grading, only it’s based on risk of default. The agencies look at what’s in the MBS and say, ‘what is the risk that this won’t be paid off?’ and then grade it. The grading scale is from AAA (the best) to AA to A to BBB to BB to B (worst). AAA means that there is virtually no chance of default. B means, ‘yeah, this is crap. Sorry.’ So these groups of loans are rated and then assigned to a tranche based on risk.

As I said, the ratings are based on risk of default. However, as you can see with all these crappy mortgages all in the same package, the rate of default should be pretty high, right? Well, here’s where things become very fishy.

What started happening is whoever puts together the MBS’s started packaging them in such a way that they looked better than they actually were. This was easy to do because when rating the mortgages, only the AVERAGE risk score for the entire group was examined. AVERAGE. NOT THE MODE. NOT THE MEDIAN. THE AVERAGE. This is important because there could be a few really low risk mortgages in the MBS, and they would bring the whole score up. This is POI for PSY 4.

There is more to this part of the story, but I don’t completely understand it, so I don’t want to discuss it too much here. Suffice to say, there was also a ‘redefining’ of what AAA meant. Basically, things that were formally A grade or even BBB, were now being considered AAA. I don’t understand how this happened, so further research on my part is needed. I think I don’t understand this because it seems so completely backhanded and wrong I can’t wrap my mind around how it happened legally. 

We’re almost there! Don’t go to sleep on me now!

So creators of the tranches (the original investors) then have people invest in the tranches. Within these there is a hierarchy. So there are people who are at the top of the tranche down to those at the bottom of the tranche. However, those at the bottom are still better than those at the top of the next tier lower tranche. The people that have invested at the top of the tranche get paid off first, so when the poor subprime mortgage borrower sends his/her monthly check, a percent goes to the investor at top of the highest (AAA) tranche first, then whatever’s left trickles down the tranche. If anything is left after it’s gone through the AAA tranche, then it goes to the AA tranche and so on…

Phew! Wowsa. OK.

So there are many places where this house of cards could get caught in a slight breeze. Or tornado. Basically, it’s people buying risk.  They are making a bet that someone they don’t know will pay off their mortgage on time, and in the prescribed increments.

This would work, except that it doesn’t. It worked for a long time, but people got cocky. And even more appalling then the rampant cockiness and blatant greed is that people didn’t take the time or make the effort to understand what it was they were buying or selling. I mean, I know hindsight is always 20/20, but when you have someone walk you through the story of how things got the way they are, I don’t understand how you can’t see the problem from a million miles away. Maybe it’s like that Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail bit where the guy is running toward the castle and every time the guards look at him he’s still far away and then all the sudden he’s at the gate and clotheslines them both. Or maybe people didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘variable’.

POI for PSY 1: I think it’s fascinating that ‘The American Dream” (capitals intended) includes owning a house. Americans in the 80’s and 90’s and 00’s believed that it essential to own a house. The government encouraged it, by offering tax incentives to own a house.  News and magazines encouraged home ownership, offering great deals on various appliances NEEDED for YOUR NEW HOME. Commercials showed the typical American family outside of a home with a white picket fence. The commitment to home ownership is quite an emotional one.  Its branded into the psyche of most American children. The goal is to own a house, once you own a house, you’ve made it. Psychologically, renters are people who can’t put down roots. Home-owners are people who are serious about their neighborhoods, who value their community, even attend PTA meetings and take care of their yards. This brings perceived stability to neighborhoods and families that “make sense” to the rest of the neighborhood. The psychological pressure to own a home is tremendous in the US. It’s just what people do.

POI for PSY 2: The point of interest here is how important personal relationships are. As I said, I was listening to Planet Money and the hosts had bought a $1000 toxic asset, so a lower tranche group of MBS’s. They went to meet a guy whose mortgage they had invested in. As it happened, the guy was a 80 year old retiree who had made a ‘strategic default’ meaning that because his perfect credit rating is no longer of the utmost importance at age 80, he defaulted on a $300,000 mortgage. But when the two people who owned his MBS went to meet him, they asked why he stopped paying. He said he couldn’t afford it, and it wasn’t worth it to him. But what I thought was most interesting was what he said next: he said, if I’d know it was you guys that owned the loan I would write you a check right now. How fascinating. He liked the people who’d invested in his mortgage, and felt personally liable to pay the mortgage. But when the investor was a faceless entity, he was able to change is moral creed and allow himself to not follow through on his loan. 

In the past, mortgages were made by local banks and the person who gave you your mortgage probably knew you, did a thorough credit check, checked out the property you were wanting to buy and it’s value and probably checked your references. Now, mortgages are these impersonal things, a transaction, not an interaction. I am not saying that the old way was the best. It was slow and sometimes too personal (I don’t like this guy so won’t give him a loan), but there was an element of human decency in it. People had to interact with each other. You know who had your mortgage and you knew who was loaning you the money to buy your house.  There’s an element of responsibility on the borrower’s side this way. The borrower actually understands and cares where they are putting the loan, because they’re paying back a real person. Not a faceless entity.

POI for PSY 3: The idea of a variable interest rate is such an American creation. The reason why everyone votes for lower taxes for the rich is because most people believe that some day they will be that rich person. Again, the American dream.  I think this belief is akin to the reason why people took out variable interest rate loans. They always want to believe the best- have the most positive possible outlook. We will be making more money in 3 years, or interest rates could go down in 3 years. In psychology, this is also called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when people favor information that confirms what they already think. They don’t seek out disconfirming information, rather find all the confirming stuff.

I also think that this idea of actually taking advantage of a 3 year variable interest rate could be cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when two conflicting ideas are held simultaneously. People think their choices are correct despite evidence to the contrary. For example: I believe that I will get paid more in 3 years and I just got told that there would be massive layoffs at work.  Cognitive dissonance causes emotional turmoil, and results in self-bargaining and convincing ones self that the evidence is wrong or at least that the possible results of the behaviour probably won’t happen to me. Smoking is the oft used example. I smoke because I like it even though I know that it causes lung cancer, heart disease, obesity, general smelliness, etc.

The cognitive biasing and dissonance in the housing market, I think, had a huge impact in the months and years leading up to the crash. People were convinced they were invincible despite massive evidence to the contrary.

POI for PSY 4: The last point I want to make is about measurement. My friend Cakil always says that statistics is the only weapon that we psychologists have. I think this is true. Using the average instead of the mode or median is ridiculous. There is potential influence of outliers, the mean never tells the whole story, doesn’t give you any information about what’s actually in this group of mortgages…  I am sure that someone much much smarter than I has pointed this out. I don’t want to labor the point more than to say  SERIOUSLY??

I think there’s a lot more to big disasters like this than just what’s on the surface. There was a long lead up to this. If you have spoken to me in the past, you probably know about the ‘Swiss Cheese Model’ of error. Basically, what it says is that errors are lying dormant in a system. The system has layers of defense, but they have holes in them, much like slices of swiss cheese.  Infrequently, these slices or layers are arranged in such a way that an error has a free path through all the layers of defense and takes everyone by surprise. This shouldn’t be the case, because it’s been sitting their laying in wait, but it does. Every time. I think, in the financial meltdown there is something far more fundamental wrong with our system than financial regulations can fix. There’s a psychological issue, a relationship issue, a person to person issue.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just do it.

I want another glass of wine.

But I have come to the age that when I have another glass of wine, sometimes it gives me weird dreams, sometimes I can't sleep well, or sometimes I don't sleep at all. When did that happen? And while we're on the subject, when did I get so many grey hairs? Last February, Mike and I were at the Louvre- ON VALENTINES DAY- standing in line, waiting to get in, and he looks at me lovingly and says 'You've got more grey hair now. I just saw a new one.' not in a snarkey way, just in a really lovey, kind way. I laughed. Cause what else do you do in that situation?

I am feeling very... intense about my PhD lately. I have absolutely no perspective on it. Everything about it is life or death. I mean, cognitively, I know it isn't. But whenever I have an advisory meeting, or have to turn in a paper or chapter I have this uncontrollable emotional reaction. I don't really understand where it's coming from. I'll be talking about the design of my next study, and then suddenly be all teary, worrying about whether or not it'll work, and how am I going to write this, and how the eff am I going to defend this in my viva?? I guess that's what this process is about, but I find the constant fear life sucking. The PhD is such an ego-centric exercize. All of it is "how am I going to (fill in the blank)?" not we. Not us. Not team. Just me. ME defending MYSELF and MY IDEAS. I really genuinely don't like that. I don't do well in an environment that is centered on me. I really don't enjoy that attention. I don't want it, and I don't want to be that person. Plus, I don't think that's what life is actually like. I really hope not, anyway. That's for another post, though.

And, really? Really?? This is what I am going to spend my time worrying about? I mean, my life is pretty freakin great. How is it that I spend so much of my mental energy worrying about this?

I was called my dad the other night. I told him I needed a pep talk. I told him that I hate my PhD right now, I am sick of not knowing what I am doing, I really don't understand the minutia of research, and most of all, I DON'T CARE. I just want to help. I just want to be done with this and move on. I want to do something that matters, not format my chapters with 1 inch margins, and headers and footers and my page numbers in the RIGHT corner (cause god forbid they're in the left!).

And you know what he said? He said, Sarah. Get. Over. It. You have to do this. You have to finish. You can't be a swashbuckler until you're a sailor (how awesome is that metaphor??). He said, you just have to tick the boxes and do what you're told. You have to format your papers and you have to get over your hesitations. You will do good, but you have to do this first. Just finish. Head down. Remember why you're doing this. Just finish.

This advice is very interesting, especially coming from my dad. My father is one of the most passionate, go-all-out people that I've ever met. He can't half-ass anything. It's not in his blood. And for him to tell me to just move forward and finish was really eye opening. So, he's not telling me to half-ass this, but he's telling me to get over it and just do it. Stop questioning every little bit. Put the blinders on and keep your head down for the next 10 months. And finish.

I guess I always thought that this process would be one in which the things that I thought and believed would be confirmed and that I could move forward confident in my own ideas and my own well-formed, well-articulated, theoretically-grounded positions.  I don't know how I didn't realize how naive this is... And not just about research. About life, about friendship, about what it is that I actually like to do, about being a grown up.

The thing I've learned, more than anything else during this PhD is exactly how little I do know. 

I've also learned that a little perspective can go a long way. Not that I, in any way, have this mastered. I most certainly do not. But it's like the grey hair. It's coming. And no matter what I do, it'll be there. And I suppose the thing is to accept it, and just move on. With the PhD, it really is just a matter of finishing. The best PhD is a finished PhD. Head down. Just do it. Cause what else do you do in that situation?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Practice makes perfect?

Lately, I have become a bit obsessed with the idea of ‘practice’.  Practice is a repetition or rehearsal of something, an action, activity, work, and so on, in order to become skilled at it. It is both a noun (‘standards and practises’- spelled with an ‘s’ if it’s a noun) and a verb (‘I am practicing violin’- spelled with a ‘c’ if it’s a verb. My mom will laugh at sentence, I hated practicing violin and probably never used this phrase in my life, except when lying to my violin teacher about my upcoming week’s activities). The definition hinges on ‘ACTIVITY’. The DOING of SOMETHING over and OVER in order to become better at it. Sometimes, when you’re really good at your specific activity, you move from the verb to the noun (medical practise or law practise).

I really like this idea that you aren’t ever really done- even if you’re an expert, you still have to practice. In fact, it’s what you do every day.  You go to your job to keep getting better at your job. It’s one of the things that I love about yoga- you’re never perfect at it, you’ve just got to keep working on it.  Even the people that do it every day still strive to attend to their practice and make it stronger.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues (and has the science to back it up) that there’s a magic number of hours that people need to do something to transition from good to great. When people cross the threashold of 10,000 hours, they somehow move from good at something to very very very good. He uses examples from sports, music, medicine, even art. After working on a certain activity for 10K hours, people reach a state of expertise.

Ok, after reading this part of the book, I think to myself-  “SWEET!!! That’s all I have to do!! Get to 10,000 and I’m home free! I will be Good. At. Something. Important. I wonder how many hours I’ve done so far, probably like 5,000. I feel that I am at about 5,000 hours of expertise.” So of course, I calculate it.  I started as a research assistant when I was a junior in college at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base (3 months, avg 40 hours a week= 480 hrs) then stayed on through my senior year (8 months, avg 20 hours a week=640 hrs), then started my master’s program with about a 3 month break between, for 2 years (21 months- vacation and times when I was goofing off, avg 40 hours a week = 3360), then Mayo for 2.5 years (25 months- wasn’t always doing research and was on vacation, avg 40 hours a week= 4000 hrs), then PhD (22 months- lots of goofing off, avg 40 hrs a week= 3520 hrs). 

HOLD UP A SECOND.

Now I am no statistics genius, but I think that adds up to more than 10,000. Crap. Where’s the magic? I am in fact at a surplus of 2,000 hours! Damn. Damn damn damn.

Perhaps it’s because it’s just not that simple.  Maybe it’s more than an endurance sport. If it were only endurance, this would be a lot simpler. There must be something else to this (please, let there be something else to this). I went back to the book and continued to read. As it turns out, experts are made because an expert works not just on the stuff they’re good at, but also the stuff that they aren’t good at. It’s not just the PRACTICE that’s important. It’s also that you have want to become BETTER at what you’re not good at already. That is significantly trickier.

How do I take this next step? How do I move from endurance to confident, passionate, thoughtful? And significantly for me, how do I do it in the way that I want to? To achieve the things I want to?  To find what’s best not just for me, but for my family? What are the things that I am not good at that I have to practice?

I’ve realized over the last 6 months or so that I struggle with the ‘philosophy’ part of getting a PhD. Seems silly, like I should’ve realized that was part of it before I started… Well, I don’t always read the directions before I attempt to put together the swing set, just ask Mike. I thought this would be a place where I could hone my skills, I could become better at solving practical problems, I could explore new health care and teamwork innovations and apply them within a new domain. As it turns out, yeah, that’s part of it, but it’s not the entire thing.

Philosophy: phi·los·o·phy (n.)

1.    Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.
2.    Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.
3.    A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry: the philosophy of Hume.
4.    The critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs.
5.    The disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law, and theology.
6.    The discipline comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
7.    A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory: an original philosophy of advertising.
8.    A system of values by which one lives: has an unusual philosophy of life.

Fascinating. The definition of this word is absolutely fascinating. I almost can’t believe it. The problem lies right there in the definition. I mean I love pursuing wisdom by intellectual means and self-discipline. I 100% believe in that. But, one of my biggest problems with getting a PhD is all the thinking about thinking. The lack of actual DOING- ‘rather than empirical methods’ and ‘underlying theory’. I had a fight with my advisor on my first week here because I want to focus on the front line, and how my research will impact what people DO, ie: will impact PRACTISE!!! He said to me, ‘well, Sarah. We’ve also got to think about how you’re going to contribute to the theoretical study of leadership.’ I must’ve made a face or something, because he said ‘what?’ and I almost said, well, I really don’t care about that so much.  Mercifully, my frontal lobe kicked in and I just shrugged.

As I approach my final year of the PhD, I am getting deeper and deeper into the philosophy bit, and I feel that I am losing my touch with reality. I still go back to the OR from time to time to remember why I am doing what I do, but it’s a struggle.  Mike says that this is a good thing because now I know more about what I should and shouldn’t do with my life, and he’s absolutely right. But for now, this is the part of practice where I have to work on the stuff that I’m not good at, and don’t really enjoy. Because maybe I’ve miscalculated, and my 10K is just around the corner.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hope again

I just finished my first triathalon. I am absolutely shattered now. Good shattered (I think), and was actually contemplating doing another, but that was directly after this one finished, so I think I'll blame it on the adrenaline. I was not first, in fact I was absolutely nowhere near even the middle. I wasn't last but was DEFINITELY near the end. But I finished and I am pleased with that.

As I was cycling (which might get a blog post on its own because of the mental struggle I had with it), there was one point where I was on a downhill, finally able to rest my legs for a second. I started to think about the fact that today is the 4th of July, a great celebration back home. I remembered all the times I was with my family on the 4th, at the local YMCA watching the fireworks from the Salem Fair, or the couple of times we watched the fireworks in DC (once on the top of a building, overlooking the mall. Unbeatable.), and the shows we saw in Minnesota... it was a really nice, brief respite from thinking about how I could no longer feel my legs, and at what point should that become a reason for concern. In my mind, I started doing a little baseball announcer-esque pep talk: "aaaanddd here's Parker! she's coming around the bend! she looks exhausted!! but! look at that!! she Just. Keeps. Pedaling!!! wow! she's not stopping, folks! she's going to finish!!!" Had I not been certain that I would've fallen off my bike, I would've given my adoring fans a little wave.

I realised that little glimmer of hope was something akin to what I feel when we watch the World Cup. Not the same exactly, becuase I don't play in the World Cup (yet.), but that feeling of... wait a sec... this could happen! this could actually happen!

We've watched most of the games, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. It's been a great cup to watch, lots of unexpected results (France and Italy out in the first round!??) with the big stars not really making an impact (Rooney, Ronaldo, Messi, etc). When we watched the USA games, I absolutely chewed my fingernails till there was nothing left. I turned into a crazed screaming fan, yelling at the refs, unreasonably criticizing professional players, seeking out my own vuvuzela...

What has struck me, and what I LOVE about the world cup, is how much it brings people together. Sure teams win and teams lose, which is heartbreaking... but this beautiful game is so inspirational to people across the world. I saw this youtube video of Landon Donovan's 92nd minute goal, and it made me so happy, I got teary. It's like in the 91st minute, all these people are just normal people watching the same game at the same time. BUT at 91:45, they are all instant best friends. Hugging, kissing, jumping around like maniacs, comparing USA jerseys and singing the same songs. And it was happening all across the world. Mike and I screamed so loud that our neighbors came to check on us. Of course, it's not just USA fans. The Spain fans were having a coronary last night when David Villa scored his late goal. People screaming and hugging, proudly waving their flags as high as their arms can reach. All of a sudden with just a touch of a little ball into a net, people have a reason to hope and believe that something that they really want, something that the entire world recognizes as a symbol of the highest standard of sporting excellence, is in their grasp. And they cheer, because they believe that THEY can do it.

Hope is such a strong emotion. Just that little bit of hope is... it's addictive... it's like crack. Hope crack. Once you have a little bit of it, you just want, nay NEED, more.  You go looking for it, if you can't get your fix.

So, on this 4th of July, I am thankful for hope, finite distances, the World Cup, and the USA. Now, off to bed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

So I don't forget...

To be fully human, people ought to have as authentic a relationship as possible with others. They should know that in their deepest being they are intrinsically free to reconstruct and transform themselves, and they need to grant others the same powerful freedom.




David Spiegel, M.D

Monday, June 14, 2010

Epic Fail

Today, for what feels like the billionth time, I sent my advisors a redraft of a manuscript I'm working on. This process is so absolutely soul-crushing, it's difficult for me to justify why I keep doing it.

First, I spend weeks (months) working out the perfect data analysis plan, only to find that as soon as I run it past someone else, it's got about as many theoretical imperfections as Branch Dividianism for Dummies by David Koresh. I rework the plan, now it is less heinous, but only slightly, like Jabba the Hut when he's asleep. I go back to the drawing board, which is actually my highly unromantic desk, only made tolerable by the random pictures I've put up and a little piece of paper that says 'Beer is for Champions (aka Sarah)' made for me by my husband.  I sit and stare at the gross blue cubie dividers, wondering whether they're made out of the same material as the carpet on the floor, and if I were to rip the material off, drape it over myself and curl in a ball on the floor if perhaps I'd be camouflaged enough to have somebody else do my PhD. Then right at the end, I could pop up and say- "Oh wow! This looks really great! Nice work! I'm back though- I was here the whole time! You look exhausted, why don't you just crawl under this nice blue carpet and rest for a while. I'll take it from here."

Anyway, eventually my advisers feel enough pity for me that they allow me to move on from Analysis. Perhaps they can tell that I am having statistics nightmares (which actually scare me more than mass murderer nightmares. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING is as scary as a statistics nightmare. Not only are there all these greek letters, odd symbols and assumptions you've inadvertently violated, but the fact is that, if you're dreaming about them, statistics has invaded your subconscious. Is nothing sacred?!) or maybe they think that if I go down this path, I will see the err of my ways and then realize that I should just start all over. With Psychology 101.  Or maybe take up basket weaving.

After the Analysis is complete, the next step is to figure out What The Data Mean... the academic question is always "What story does it tell?" I think this is a really nice way to think about it. The problem is, even though I've been doing research as a living for 6 years now, I still can't always answer this question. My advisers or a fellow researcher will ask and I imagine myself to be a beautiful but dark criminal ingenue, who has finally been caught and is sitting in a small room in the heart of France, with a single 20 watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. 'I am not sure,' I say evocatively. 'What story do you think it tells?' Then I realize, I am quietly drooling on my cigarette, which has been transformed back into a ballpoint pen, and I actually haven't said anything at all. I might've grunted.

After putting together a story McGuyver-style (duct tape, potting soil, and a pig valve), then comes the writing-up. I tend to spend 2-3 days thinking about a particular paper. I write the easy part first, the method and the results (because goodness gracious, if I can't write that after all the previous hoo-ha, then it's back to the 'drawing board'- NOOOO!) Then I write why each one of the results is interesting. I actually ask myself 'why is this interesting? why should anyone, other than my mom and husband (xoxo) care about this?' Most of the time, the list that I come up with gets whittled down to a couple of key points, the rest are thrown away. I was heartened to learn that writers for The Onion actually come up with 600 headlines per week, for only 17 or 18 to be chosen. That's 583 throw aways, and those guys are geniuses.

Then I send the manuscript draft off to my advisors. This is the particularly ego-damaging point. Here is where completely valid, obvious, supremely helpful comments are made. Comments that basically make you hang your head in school-girl shame, mumble something about not knowing that Wikipedia isn't a reliable source, and go back and rewrite most of what you've done so far. I always have this moment where I am just shaking my head in disbelief... how in the world did I not think of that? Seriously, a 7 year old boy with a Buzz Lightyear t-shirt and an imaginary friend named Bucket could've thought of that.

So, today, I sent the manuscript off to my advisors. I now have between 24 hours and 1 week to build myself a strong foundation (mainly made of pinot grigio, After Eights and brownies) prior to impact.

The whole reason I started this particular entry was because I have been thinking a lot about failure lately. That sounds harsh... I've been thinking about the condition or act of not achieving a desired end or ends which I (and the princeton dictionary) define as a failure. How it feels to me to not do something to the standard that I know I can do it. And, more importantly, how awesome it feels to get it right, after seriously hard work. But how risky it is to actually try at something... I mean, to try, you are giving yourself the option to fail. As long as you don't try, you're safe. Or if you do try, but don't try as hard as you can, then you can write it off- 'I didn't try that hard. It's ok.' I've always believed that if I work hard enough, and seriously give things my all, that I will be successful. What I've realized, through these paper writing... exercizes... through running, through moving to a foreign country, and many other things, is that failure, really and truly, isn't that bad. When I feel that I've failed, I can't look at myself. I can't look myself in the eyes. But gradually, I begin to take the little failure lessons and gather them like pickup sticks. (Currently I have so many pickup sticks that I am going to soon begin work on a George Washington-esque log cabin.) I am becoming less and less afraid of dismal, never ending, failure. Because failure hasn't been like that for me. In my experience, it does end. And people who love you will continue to love you in spite or even because of it. In fact, I am beginning to think failure is, in some respects, imperative.

Enough waxing philosophical. I am going to go get Bucket and crawl under a piece of carpet with a brownie or two.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I smelled a smell of time gone by...

It has been absolutely beautiful in Aberdeen this last week. Blue skies, birds chirping, beautiful green leaves and pink flowers blooming on the trees. And it's been warm. Not hot, not even warm enough to give you a light sheen of sweat. But its been a breezy cool warmness (nonsense sentence alert!). Because of this wonderful break in the weather, I have had the windows (and at times the doors) open most of the week, have been hanging laundry outdoors and have been spending loads of time outside.

I took a walk over lunch with a friend today in a beautiful park near school. As we rounded a bend, I was all of the sudden I was no longer in Duthie Park walking on this lovely tree lined path, but I was  at the Red Lane Swimming Pool, the pool of my childhood. (Sadly, I am realizing now that I can't remember if this is actually what it was called... Red Raquet Swim Club!!! That's it!!! That's what it was... maybe... I think... )Anyway, all I did was inhale, and I smelled the pungent aroma of chlorine and fertilizer and there I was, transported. In an instant, I recalled playing shark in the deep end, my first bikini, Dad throwing us what seemed like miles in the air into the pool, Matty complaining when he had to sit out of the water for half an hour after lunch. I remembered the lifeguards, signing in, when our favorite babysitter Stephanie would take us there in the evening, eating pizza AT THE POOL. I thought of cookouts and greased watermelons and attempting to play tennis with my friend Chandler when we got too cool for the pool. I remembered the horrible bathrooms, warm juiceboxes, waiting out thunderstorms, the nasty kiddie pool, how pretty my mom looked in her bathing suit lounging by the side of the pool, the first time I jumped off the diving board, and the slide, oh the slide!  Then, with an exhale, it was gone.

This happens to me all the time. Whenever I smell freshly cut wood or mud, I think of my Uncle Mark. He's a builder. I say 'builder' because he's not just an architect, a project manager, or a worker... no, he BUILDS stuff. He is one of those people that when you see him do his work, you realize, yes, he is doing exactly what he's meant to do. When I would get to visit his sites, or when he would come to dinner at Grandma's he always smelled like fresh cut wood and mud. Sometimes, if I am really homesick, I go to Lowes or Home Depot (B & Q over here) just to smell Uncle Mark.

Once, Mike bought Old Spice deoderant and aftershave. As soon as he put it on, I told him he couldn't wear it any more and immediately went out and bought him new stuff. I don't know if my grandpa wore Old Spice (I am very embarrassed that I don't know that) but when Mike put it on, he smelled exactly like Gramps, and I couldn't handle it. Every time I got near him, or he gave me a hug, all I could see was Grampa's big hands and tiny eyes. I would remember sitting next to Grampa and I could almost hear Jeopardy in the background, watching him doing the Roanoke Times crossword.

After college graduation, my friend Libby and I went on an epic European adventure. We backpacked across Europe, getting a taste of what life was really like after all those amazing insulated years at Witt. We went to a place in Italy called Sienna. It's the perfume capital of the world. We went into one of the perfumeries and I was attracted immediately to the rose scents. As I inhaled I was back in my grandmother's bathroom watching her put on her makeup and smooth lotion over her skin. I bought hardly anything on that trip, because all the money I had was spent on planes, trains and hotel rooms, but I bought a bottle of rose scented perfume. I hardly ever wear it because I don't want it to run out.

White Diamonds or CK Be take me alternatively to my first kiss, my aunt's house, or to college. I don't know why these three things, but it always happens. Charcoal on the grill reminds me of the 415 Stonewall Circle driveway, leather and sweat and cork remind me of my dad. There are so many little smells that have such big implications in my memory.

Because the olfactory bulb, or the cluster of nerve endings that makes up your sense of smell, is so close in proximity to the hippocampus (the part of the brain that deals with memory) and is part of the limbic system, memory is highly related to smell. The limbic system is responsible for things like homeostasis, feeling full, feeling hungry and sympathetic nervous system response. It is also the  center of emotion. Between the hippocampus and the amygdala (responsible for emotion generation), a human's entire basic response system is located here, in the very center part of the brain (if you cut the brain in half). So, it's not just some phantom thing that smell is so strongly associated with memory. Smell is PART of memory. Smell not only illicits memory, but emotional memory, almost instantly.

There are two things that facinate me about this. First, that the memories come back so quickly, so furiously, and absolutley simultaneously. It's almost overwhelming at times. The second is the combination of the biological, psychological, and the emotional and spiritual... all of which comes from the brain. This brings up so many questions... how can I better utilize my sense of smell? Should I start studying with a candle lit and then bring that candle to my viva? what smells are important? do certain emotions have smells (ie: pheremones, but on steroids)? Are there certain smells (ie: cholrine) that bring back similar memories for people across a culture? That'd be an interesting experiment...

For now, I will just be happy with my random, unexpected flashes and will welcome them whenever they ascent (PUN!)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

mmm... dinner...

Tonight I made delish vegetarian bean burgers. Before you non-veggies go 'ewwww' or 'booorrrrinnnggg' just know that my husband ate 2 of them without complaint. I got the recipe from Everybody likes sandwiches which is a great cooking blog my dear friend recommended. I really like the style of the blog and especially the style of the recipes. They're EASY.

So here's my take on her southwestern black bean burgers. The changes and substitutions were made mainly because I didn't have the ingredients or they weren't available in the UK (ie: black beans). Her recipe sounds amazing, so might want to do it her way first... or actually, do it my way first, and then do it her way and realize how much better her way is, rather than be disappointed by mine.

2 cans of kidney beans
 3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T cumin
1 T chili powder
1/4 t paprika powder
1/4 t red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
3 T greek yogurt
1/2 cup bran flake cereal
3 T corn or vegetable oil
 4 hamburger buns, toasted

In a blender or food processor, blend together 1 can of beans, garlic, yogurt and spices. When that’s blended, put into a big bowl and set aside. Blend the other can of beans with the bran flakes. Put into the bow. Stir everything with a wooden spoon until you reach a consistency that is enables you to form patties. Too soft? Add in more oat bran. Too stiff? Add in a bit of water. Shape patties into 8 burgers and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Heat oil in a skillet over med-high heat and brown each side, about 3 minutes per side or until slightly crispy.

I threw extra strong cheddar on and put them into the oven with the buns for about 3 mins. Then I cut up some avocado and put it on top. I wish I'd had more condiments- tomatoes and mustard would've been ace, but oh well. We had fruit on the side. It was lovely.

Although, I have a feeling I'm going to be hungry again soon. Note to self: need more filling sides.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Strength of Culture

This American Life, a podcast I listen to religiously, did a piece a couple of weeks ago on Haiti called 'Island Time'.  The show examines life post-earthquake for people on the ground, the people who've lost everything, and how these people, along with NGOs, volunteers, physicians, economic experts, are using their different areas of expertise to try to rebuild or more effectively build a stable Haiti. During the first act (that's what they call segments of the show. I think it's a throw back to the old days of radio as a storytelling medium, rather than an archaic method to get news that only Grandparents and Liberals use) they focus on the story of one woman and her mango trees (not a euphemism). This woman has a couple of mango trees on her farm, which would be extremely profitable, if she could water them regularly, harvest them and get a good crop going. 

Mangos are the top export for Haiti.  This tiny country grows enough mangos to satify all the American demand, but they're not grown on large farms, rather by individual farmers, like the woman, with only a few trees. Therefore, the exporters have to figure out a way to gather all the mangos together before they can be shipped. Americans like their mangos beautiful, pinky and green on the outside and firm to the touch. Haitians don't care if the mangos are bruised, nor what they look like on the outside, just that they're edible. So once each individual farmer picks the mangos, he or she stores them under their beds or in piles outside their homes, because they're so valuable. As you can imagine, this leads to quite a bit of bruising and marking on the skin and overexposure to the sun. Then a middle man comes, buys the mangos, and brings them to a city via donkey and cart for export. This process, developed over centuries, ultimately leaves many mangos unsuitable for export.

Exporters and NGOs have tried to work with people, give them plastic crates to store the mangos in, keep them safe, but people don't understand that this is what the crates are for. The process of picking the mangos, putting them directly into crates, and setting the crates out for exporters to pick up is so non-sensical to the farmers, that they don't do it. They end up using the crates as seats or as shelves, because using them as a vessel for mangos is ridiculous. This seems like an easily solvable problem. Just tell the farmers to use the crates. Tell them that if you do, you'll make more money. Easy.

As the story goes along, you find out that the crates were brought to the woman farming the mangos by some guy she'd never met. He was white, articulate, drove a car, and just handed out the crates. He made no explanation other than, do this, it'll decrease the bruises. But to this woman, who cares about bruises? The mangos taste good. This woman hasn't ever been away from her small village. She can't even imagine an American, much less an American grocery store where young mothers carefully examine every mango, to find the best ones to feed their children (I am not criticizing, I do this. I am extremely picky in terms of how my food looks). It just doesn't make any sense to her. In her culture, having a good mango is good enough. Because she doesn't value these things, she has a hard time conceptualizing why another person would.

I heard a similar story not too long ago at a talk I went to about using science and innovation for development.  During this talk, the speaker told a story about how scientists had engineered a new type of sweet potato which had been infused with beta-carotene for consumption in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. He said that when they first introduced the new potato, it was extremely difficult to get the people in the villages to eat it. The scientists were frustrated. They'd spent all this time and all this money to develop this new, healthier, vitamin fortified sweet potato and now the people won't eat it, even though it's good for them, and will improve their health. As it turned out, finally (FINALLY) the researchers realized that people weren't eating the potatoes because they were a different color than the traditionally grown white potato. People thought there was something wrong with them because they were a different color and tasted funny.  

Another story, not quite as dire, but with a similar theme: When Pele first came to the US to play with the New York Cosmos, after a game he looked at his feet and saw that they were green. He immediately told the manager that he quit, citing green foot fungus that he'd contracted since coming to America. He was in a panic because he said his feet were his livelihood, and since coming to America they'd gotten sick. What had actually happened was, in an effort to make the field look better, the grounds staff had painted the dirt field green, and the paint had come off on the players' feet.

The point I am trying to make, sloppily, is the importance of culture in the evolution of improvement and innovation.  Not just culture, the individuals that are part of that culture. In the first example, the woman needed to be trained on how to use the crates, taught that there are people who value the look of the mangos, not just the taste. The exporters needed to translate the desires of the customer back to the woman in a way that she would understand. She's not stupid, she just doesn't know, or have the capacity to figure it out on her own. In the second example, the scientists didn't take the culture of the villagers eating the potatoes into account. They thought that because the innovation was good, was healthier, that people would automatically be on board. But this isn't the case. People need to understand the WHY, not just that it's better. In the Pele example, again, it's a classic clash of cultures. At one point in his career, Pele played on dirt fields. Lush, green, grassy fields aren't always the norm. But in American sports, the spectacle is really important. Sometimes, it's half the fun (see: Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders).

There are also more subtle examples of culture within culture in the world around us. In the work that I do in the hospital, culture is extremely important. There's a surgery culture, a nursing culture, an ICU culture, an ER culture, etc. Some sort of patient safety innovation that works in the OR, might not work in the ER. Not just because the work that they do is different, but because the people, the culture of these areas, is different. What we're talking about here is the idea that another culture might value a particular quality that you, in your culture, find to be ridiculous, or superfluous, etc. The point is that if you want to innovate, make change, and hopefully improve life for someone else, culture is extremely important. If you want to make a lasting change, it's imperative to work with the system that people have established, not criticize it, and to innovate both from a bottom-up and top-down approach.

People are extremely important. In almost every circumstance I've encountered, the people have built a culture for a reason. They do things in a certain way for a reason. To ignore the history and context leads to instability and usually only temporary improvement.

There are two quotes that keep running through my head as I write this.
1) 90% of success is just showing up.
2) People don't care what you know until they know that you care.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Normal Curve

It's been almost 2 months since my last post. I don't know why it's taken me so long to think of something to write, but it has. I've got little scraps of paper all over the house, in my purse, in my backpack, with ideas scribbled on them but nothing has struck me as substantial enough to write about. Not that this is the pinnacle of what I've come up with, but I feel that it is important to write something.

The last 2 months have been interesting. After running the half in Inverness, I basically stopped running. I don't know why. At first, I thought I just needed a break. My body was exhuasted and injured, so I took 2 weeks off deliberately. Then I started swimming and biking to work (not swimming to work. swimming while at work, and biking to work). I was going to do a triathalon in July, so I thought this'd be a good way to start gradually training. I did that for about 2 weeks, but it really wasn't all that fun, so I didn't stick with it regularly. And, I still didn't really want to run. I thought, maybe I need to get back to yoga. Even though the classes that I take aren't very challenging, I find that I can challenge myself with yoga. However, we only have yoga classes available twice a week, and for whatever reason, I didn't regularly sign up or go. What the heck? This is stuff that I like to do... why don't I want to do it?

Also, stuff with school has been in a weird state of suspended movement... like my work is a piece of fruit in the jello salad my grandma used to make. I keep working, keep struggling to make progress, but somehow nothing was happening. I got to work around 8:30 usually, come home between 5 and 6, and still nothing... How is that possible? what do I do all day? I know I fool around on facebook, but honestly (I swear!) it's not what I do all day. I am not depressed by this fact, just incredulous really.

Finally, Mike and I have been blessed in the last 2 months to have his mom and my dad and brother visit. This has been absolutely great. Karen's trip was great, we did some unexpected exploring, thanks to Mount Egiondoarioihallloaiwhefjnlhge in Iceland. It was wonderful to see Karen, she's such a balanced presence, and I admire her so much. Plus, she and Mike are so close, I think they bring out the best in each other. It is a beautiful thing for a wife to watch her husband be so peaceful. 

The week after Karen left, my dad and bro arrived. I thought it was going to be dad and his wife Jen, but everyone (and I mean everyone) except for me knew it wasn't Jen that was coming. Since February, it was going to be Matt. They surprised me at the airport, and I almost passed out from joy. What an awesome gift. We went all over the place exploring... it was amazing to get to know my brother a little bit better. Because we've not spent any substantial time together in ages, I really don't know him as the man he's become. I felt extremely blessed to get this time with him to get to see what he's really like. And I think, aside from being a supreme pud, he's extremely cool.

Soooo... in reflecting about the past couple months, I've realized that what I've been seeking is 'the sweet spot'. In cognition, sports, workload, many things really, there's a sweet spot. The sweet spot is the place between things being too easy that there's a performance decrement and where things are so hard, there's a performance decrement. If you look at a normal curve  you can see that there's a line in the middle- that's the performance sweet spot. By performance I mean the ability to accomplish a goal. This could be anything: learning lines for a new play, writing a thesis chapter, shooting foul shots. The point is, go to either of the extremes, and performance will decline.  Research has shown that people have individual sweet spots. What works for me, probably won't work for someone else. It's entirely personal. Research has also shown that performance can be augmented by short periods of challenge, but that if that challenge is extended for a longer period of time, performance will eventually decline.

I think that that's what's happened over the last couple of months. I've been at the physical, mental, and emotional extremes. My body was tired, my brain was tired, and my soul needed some extra attention. Spending time with family has just made it more and more apparent that in order to be the best person I can be, I need to be around family and friends. I need to allow myself to find my balance and once I've found it, to just sit there and enjoy it, wallow in it, instead of struggle against it. I am going to make an Almost Half Year Resolution: I promise to chill the f out. I promise to try to be more balanced, and to pay attention to important things and let little things go. I promise to forgive myself when I go into my 'hulk moments'.

Nice. ok. here we go.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lady on the bus

I watched a lady getting on the bus the other day. As the bus pulled up, she didn’t do the standard hand out signal…

A brief editorial aside: When I signal for the bus, I do it as nonchalantly, bordering on grudgingly, as possible. I try to make as little external deal as I can about signaling that I’d like to get on this bus. Internally, I am screaming, pleading for the bus to stop. As a person who has previously (naively) thought that the bus would stop if you were standing at the agreed upon bus advancement location, only to walk serenely toward the street and get splashed with puddle as the bus zooms past at mach 7, I know the importance of a good external signal. You have to strike the right balance between seeming almost too cool for the bus like you might call it back, but only after at least a week, like you are doing it a favor by riding on it and hand-wringing desperation- PLEEEEEASE STOOOOOP-I’ve-already-left-7-messages-on-your-voice-mail-but-I-swear-I’m-not-crazy-I-just-stopped-my-medication-because-I’m-actually-doing-a-lot-better-just-ask-my-cat-Schnoodles. This is important because if the bus doesn’t stop, that’s you screwed for another half an hour on the side of the road- IF the busses are running on time. And remember, you are in Aberdeen, where more than likely, if it’s not raining, it will soon.

Secondary editorial aside: it’s been absolutely beautiful in Aberdeen for the past 5 days, so based on my experience, there’s a 10/365 (2%) chance that it won’t be raining.

Back to the lady getting on the bus. What struck me was that she didn’t do the blasé hand out nor the anxiety spasm. She waved for the bus. Almost like you’d wave when you are at the airport and see your family car coming around the bend toward the pick up area. It was that kind of happy wave. The bus stopped (obviously, how could you not, she’s obviously happy to see you) and she got on. She immediately struck up a conversation with the bus driver, oblivious to his curt answers and lack of eye contact. She mentioned the weather (‘bonny’), how she’d counted out her change to be ready just for him (‘1.50 on the nose, thankfully I found that extra 5p in my pocket!’), and that she was going to the ASDA for her weekly shop (‘I always do on a Thursday’).

As this lady walked down the aisle she looked and made eye contact with almost everyone. Rule 1 in the Laws of Interacting With Strangers is Don’t Ever Make Eye Contact. You are basically giving all those people permission to talk to you, to interact with you, and you have no idea what could happen next.

Another aside: I have been known to be an ‘Eye Looker’. I look everyone in the eye as they pass, and I sometimes smile if they make eye contact with me. One day, I did this, and ended up spending the next 30 minutes on a street corner in Rochester, MN talking to a woman who was an 87 year old, chain smoking, mail order bride from Russia. She was nice enough, but she was Crazy. I try to limit my ‘eye looking’ to days when I don’t have much to do.

This lady on the bus had absolutely no regard for these rules. She looked everyone, even the drunk people, square in the eyes, smiled, and proceeded down the aisle. Although there were many open seats on the bus, she chose one sitting next to another woman, directly in front of me. She smiled at the woman, and sat down. She was quiet for a few moments as the bus pulled back into traffic. I could see her sizing the lady next to her up- it was almost like she was deciding the best way to initiate an interaction. This is the 2nd rule of the Laws of Interacting With Strangers- if no one has said anything to you, you don’t have to start anything. But this lady… she went right ahead, complimented the bus rider on her shoes, and asked her where she was off to on ‘such a bonny day’.

I took off one of my headphones (tactic to avoid talking to strangers) and eavesdropped on these two women chatting. They were lovely. Perhaps it’s that Aberdeen has a small town, everyone-knows-everyone feel, or that they were just both extremely kind people, but they were both very willing to chat away to each other. They somehow got onto their kids and grandkids, realizing that their grandsons played football (soccer) together. It was a lovely thing to watch. I was watching a relationship form. It was really… refreshing.

When the bus got near to the ASDA, the ladies were wrapping up their conversation, saying that they’d probably see each other at one of the upcoming matches. And the one lady got up. She didn’t have my vantage point, but I saw the driver look in his mirror at her as she rose, and slow down a bit, so that the stop wouldn’t be quite as jolting. This could’ve been because of her age, or it could’ve been, and I choose to believe that this is the reason, because he wanted to do something nice for her, in his small way. Perhaps he appreciated that she was oblivious to him acting like a stranger to her. She instantly brought him, the lady sitting next to her, and me all into her world. She welcomed us in, in fact. I admired her willingness to connect, her openness to the possibility that it’s worth saying hi to someone, and to try to find a way to connect with them, regardless of the potential risks. I thought it was really lovely the way she didn’t give anyone a choice in whether or not they would be part of her world. She just made it so.

As she rose and gathered her bag, I caught her eye, and we both smiled.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Moving!

In the last 6 years, Mike and I have lived in 8 houses, 6 cities, 5 states, and 2 countries. Needless to say, we're getting pretty good at moving. We have packing down to an art- Mike is better at the meticulous stuff, fitting all his video games into one box just perfectly. I am better at the organization stuff- making sure we have a car big enough for all our crap, making sure we have all the appropriate keys, making sure there's gas in the car, getting directions, etc. We always throw out a boatload of stuff every time we move. We've done this so many times, that we don't even have to have a game plan any more. I know which things I am supposed to pack, and Mike knows what he's supposed to do. We don't even fight anymore about what goes where.

That's the good stuff.

The less good stuff: we both HATE moving. HATE packing. HATE unpacking. CAN. NOT. STAND. IT. Plus, I don't really think that moving so many times is a thing to brag about. It's not good to have to send bi-annual 'new address' emails. It doesn't take a psychologist to know that it doesn't take much for people to stop trying to find you, because you've made it so difficult to do so. It's not anyone's fault but ours. We both realize this nomadic-ish existance makes it tough to create lasting friendships, which is why we so deeply value those that make the effort to be friends with us, and stay friends with us, despite all this... and why we both feel that facebook is one of the greatest inventions of our time.

I titled this post 'Moving exclamation point!' for a reason. We are moving into a great new place, a little further out of town, but much better for Opie, and the house is absolutely lovely. It's a bit more than we need, but it's got some great benefits. The downstairs is laminant flooring, which means we can actually clean the floors (as opposed to basically moving the dog hair around on the carpet at our previous flat), the kitchen is great, with lots of cabinets and cookware. The neighbors seem to be really nice, which is always a bonus. We feel really fortunate.

I was in the local giant superstore on Friday afternoon after we'd done the majority of the moving, and realized that I have a mental list of most of the things that we always need when we move:

1) Swiffer- greatest invention ever. even above facebook.
2) throw-away kitchen cloths- for cleaning the new place.
3) hand towels- because I throw away all the ones from the old place.
4) candles- to make it more homey, and smell nice.
5) light blanket- somehow we always need one of these. And maybe by 'we' I mean 'me'.
6) dog toy for Opie- so he likes the new place.
7) beer and wine- so we like the new place.

If we have these things, we're okay. Silly, but true. There may be others depending on where we move, but these are the constants.

So here we go. We moved into the new house- swiffer and all. There's a bunch of photos of our new back yard, and Opie's new outdoor dog run. There's the lovely new kitchen, very modern looking, and our living room (with roundy staircase?!?). The bedroom and bathroom are both great, very nice size for us. We are very happy.






Sunday, March 28, 2010

Heart Surgery

I always loved science, specifically anatomy and physiology. I really loved when we got to dissect pigs and frogs in high school. As a psych major, we weren't required to take any advanced A&P courses in college,  but we did get to do neuroscience. I loved it. During 'family dinners' my junior year of college, I would tell my housemates all about the brain, specific neurotransmitters, why people can't quit smoking, why smell is so strongly associated with memory, why we get drunk and then subsequent hangovers... I thought I was going to study the brain as a career. As it happened, I got the opportunity to work in a few very applied settings, and realized that I really love the application of science to solve practical problems.

However, if someone had told me that I would get to watch surgery as part of my professional life, I would've laughed. I feel like the luckiest person in the world when I get to go into the operating room. I am always amazed at what happens in there. Before we moved to Scotland, I used to get to go down to the cardiac surgery operating rooms whenever I wanted to and watch the surgeries (I wasn't just going down to watch, it's not a sporting event, I actually did some studies and all that). The awe never has worn off for me.

When I first started spending lots of time in the OR, my job was to help think of ways to improve teamwork and patient safety in the cardiac surgery division. However, that's pretty difficult when you know absolutely NOTHING about the task that the team is trying to accomplish. So for a few weeks, I just went down to the OR and watched. I remember the first surgery I was in, the surgeon introduced me to the team, and the circulating nurse asked if I was squeemish. I told her I didn't know, becuase I'd never seen anything like this before. She said 'if you start to feel woozy, just try to fall backward' (ie: not onto the sterile table). Helpful tip.

As the surgery started the circulator came over to me and said 'You can go stand up at the head of the table if you want'. So I went around where the anaesthetist stands, and asked if I could look over. Side note: in some surgical disciplines, they hang a sterile sheet between the patient's head, where the anesthetist works, and the surgical field. The sterile sheet is a bit like a huge flexible post-it, with adhesive on one side that sticks to the patient, and then gets pulled up and clipped to IV poles on the anaesthetic side. This way the anaesthetist can monitor the patient's head and all their equipment without worrying that it'll get blood on it from the surgery.  Surgeons and anaesthetists call this the 'blood-brain barrier' (brain joke!). Anyway, so I went around and stood on a stool and looked over the sheet. The surgical assistant was watching me (probably for signs of faintness, and to make sure I didn't touch anything sterile), and when I caught his eye and almost laughed out loud. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a heart! A real heart! It was beating, moving, keeping the patient alive, even though their chest was cracked open. It looked like a science project. As a novice, I almost forgot that there was a person, a living breathing thinking feeling person, attached to the open chest that I saw.

The heart is awesome (not in the 'duuuude! awesome!!' way, but in the formal definition of the word). It's not like a balloon that fills and then empties. Rather it's a muscle that twists on itself to push the blood through. It's such a complex thing. If you make a fist with your hand, and then squeeze it, pinky first, then ring finger, middle finger, index finger, and hold it, then release, that's a beat. It is a muscle. You can strengthen and train it like you can any other muscle, and it atrophies or stops working properly if you don't care for it. On the outside, it looks very smooth, usually pink, but it depends on the age of the patient and the progression of the disease. The inside is very complicated, lots of small compartments and intricate muscles and valves that open and close to allow blood and nutrients in and to push waste out. When one of these valves or chambers is broken, it means that bad things are coming in when they shouldn't, and good things aren't coming in when they should.

In order to do heart surgery, the team must stop the heart from beating (in most cases, sometimes they do beating heart surgeries) which they do by re-routing the blood into a machine that oxygenates it and sends it to the brain and body, and that takes the waste out when the blood comes back the other way. There are about a million very complex steps to this process, which I know very little about, despite some very patient and intelligent people explaining it to me over and over. This is called cardiopulmonary bypass. The point is, they have to stop your heart in order to fix it. They have to do a manual reset.

Throughout history, emotions have been associated with the heart, although most scientists will say that they exist because of interactions in the brain. I've said time and time again 'I know it in my heart' or 'my heart is telling me...', 'my heart goes out to you', 'my heart will go on' (just kidding) etc. Even in the bible there's reference to God hardening pharoh's heart. Aristotle (I think it was Aristotle) rejected the brain, seeing it a superfluous to the heart, which he thought was the seat of emotion and reason. Historically, the Egyptians thought that the heart was the center of emotion because the pulse would change with great emotion, and would create visible differences in the psyche.

There is some research that says that the heart has an effect on emotion because it effects blood flow to the brain and oxygenation, which makes sense. Negative emotions, stress, frustration, anxiety, can lead to heart diesease. It's also been shown that the heart has a very strong electromagnetic force, because of all the electrical activity that's going on in there. I suppose this is why sometimes I can swear that I've felt my heart hurt or swell or twinge when something really good or really bad is happening. 

Its really interesting to consider that there's such a connection between the physiological and the psychological. I've heard that a lot of heart surgery patients feel like their heart is giving up on them when they are faced with heart or valve disease. Like their heart rejected their body. Maybe all it needed was a manual reset? I don't know. There's a small but forceful push in medicine to start to investigate more holistic treatments for patients- ie: treat the patient not the disease. Using things like yoga, psychological therapy, homeopathy, etc. as a compliment to surgical intervention to fix a leaky mitral valve.

In my work, I don't interact much with patients, rather with their care-givers, hoping to improve the system in which the care-givers work, thus improving outcomes for patients. But this is a really interesting, and entirely different perspective that I've only recently begun to think about.  Obviously, it's something I need to think about more.