Friday, December 30, 2011

Ditching the "Worst-Case Scenario"

Throughout childhood, my education, and all the corporate career years, I was well-indoctrinated into the common practice of preparing for the "worst case scenario." Who among us didn't have a parent who told us we had to wear clean, un-tattered underpants because if we got hurt, the rescuer or doctor would discover the quality of your "drawers." My mom wouldn't let me wear blue or purple nail polish because if they found me after an accident, they would get one look at my nails and think I was in cardiac arrest. Never mind that my fingernails could have been perfect accessories to some cool outfit, we had to act as if the worst thing would actually happen!

My college degrees are both in Engineering, which at its core, applies science and math towards solving problems. The discipline is aimed at finding solutions, but the art is to find a good solution. Engineers are stereotypically a risk-averse bunch, and much thought goes into minimizing the risk of bad outcomes, also known as worst case scenarios. If any of you non-Engineers are glazing over at this point, I'll simply offer exhibit A, which I'm sure you're familiar with.

You'll probably agree that most of us, whether we know it or not, are in the habit of anticipating that things will go wrong. This way, we can play it safe! I still recall one of the key principles I learned in Dale Carnegie's "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" training back in the mid 1980's: 

----> When you're making a decision or a change in direction, first identify 
the worst case scenario. Accept that as an outcome. And then improve on it. 

That is, start with thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Then, after you accept that as what could happen, start working on what you want as a better result. And this principle was offered to help you "stop worrying" over the worst thing that could happen!

A couple of months ago, on a bike ride, my friend Sherry and I were deeply engaged in conversation about "the law of attraction," which basically says that you attract into your life whatever you think about, and that your dominant thoughts will find a way to manifest. So as we pedaled, it occurred to us that if you're making decisions and living life with a mindset of avoiding the worst-case scenario, then the very idea of investing mental energy in the worst-case scenario could easily lead to the manifestation of that worst case! WHAT IF, we thought, you assume and plan for the best possible outcome? What could life be like? What if we stopped worrying about what bad or scary things might happen and start imagining all the amazing things you could bring about?

I decided to put this into practice last month after John and I received the news that the many cracks in the facade of our 7 year old house were not the cause of water damage, they were a symptom of something a lot more serious: construction flaws that allowed rainwater to get behind the high-tech coating and moisture barrier system and start rotting the wood panels underneath in the frame of the house. It had to get fixed, and sooner was deemed to be definitely better than later. The "old me" would have freaked out, looked for finger-pointing opportunities, obsessed about the extent of the damage and potential cost, and worried about starting such a project at the start of our rainy season and just prior to an extended home exchange where other people will be living in our house for 6 weeks in January and February! Instead, I accepted this event as an opportunity to practice the assumption of the best case scenario. Who knew that a former engineer (not to mention an old dog!) like me could let go of all those ingrained habits and work on preparing myself for experiencing the best possible outcome?

Emotionally, intellectually, and physically, I consciously "let go" of involvement in the project, choosing instead to focus on expecting and envisioning progress and on-time completion. Husband John liaised and built an alliance with the contractor, our original builder and our architect, who all rallied around the project and agreed to financially support the project. They set goals to get the problems corrected by the end of the year without the involvement of lawyers and insurance companies. We knew it would be smoother, more collaborative, and less costly for everyone to spend our time and money on fixing the problem, not paying attorney fees and wasting time in litigation.

Scaffolding up, exterior stripped down to the wood
Six weeks ago, the scaffolding went up. We had to duck to go in and out of the front sliding doors and the garage entry/exit was tricky! The day after Thanksgiving, demolition began as the layers of exterior coatings were chiseled off, from the color-impregnated acrylic coating, to the 1.5" thick white styrofoam insulation, to the black paper coating atop the wood. Then they started pulling out nails to remove and replace the sheets of plywood, and they removed and resealed each one of our 16 windows. It was noisy, it was messy. But every morning, anywhere from 3-7 guys started arrived and began working between 7:30 and 8. They (mostly) cleaned up after themselves, they were polite and pleasant, and they worked hard. I asked questions and John gave me updates, but I pretty much stayed out of it. When the contractor came over to check progress and talk with his crews, I talked with him, but never about details, and mostly about life in general and how pleased I was with the work and his guys.

So how did it turn out?

  • Do you remember I mentioned we are at the start of our rainy season? Every single day during the demolition and re-construction was sunny. The mornings started in the mid-high 30 degree range, but quickly warmed up to high 50s and up. So the weather was even better than we could have even hoped for. 
  • There were no rain delays and mild temperatures allowed the new exterior coatings to be applied and dry/cure easily. 
  • John and I were able to go about our business of getting the vineyard ready for the next growing season, confident that the work would get done without our hovering.
  • The color match is perfect. 
  • The landscaping around the scaffolding is pretty much unscathed, save for lots of tiny bits of styrofoam in the mulch.
  • The final detail steps were completed on December 28 and the scaffolding was removed on the 29th, before the end of the year, as planned.
  • John, ever my hero, steered the process like a champ, and joined me in assuming the positive outcome.
  • I stayed calm, eerily and deliciously serene, throughout the whole process. I marveled both inside and aloud at how well the project was progressing, and regularly "checked in with myself" around the fact that I was consciously practicing assuming that the best case scenario would happen.
This born-and-bred East Coast gal, formerly "type A to the max," did it! I practiced the law of attraction and I planned for the best case scenario, and it happened that way! Cycling partner and native LA gal, Sherry, pronounced that I am now officially a Californian (After 20 years here, I know she meant that in the nicest and grooviest way!) I'm not sure how I could ever again feel like planning for the worst case is the right choice for me. Sure, things may not always go the way I think they should or could, but I know that I can take things as they come and adjust as needed. 

So while I will always wear clean underwear and will probably abstain from blue or purple nail polish, I'm not preparing for the worst anymore! And I know this is an improvement -- I am a better, a free-er, and a happier person for the experience of planning for the best.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas

Even though I was born and raised "a nice Jewish girl," my mom, brother and I always celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.  In our rendition of Christmas, there was obviously no religious connection, but we always had a Christmas tree (with presents underneath) in the living room, a big styrofoam Santa Claus face hanging on the front door, and a sprig of mistletoe hanging in the kitchen. We knew all the words to every Christmas carol, faith-based and seasonal, and sang them heartily.
Christmas morning, 1969, with my mom and 7 year old brother.
Note the "irreverent" pregnant angel topping the tree.

In college, by my junior year, I was living in an apartment, and my roommate and I got a tree and hosted a tree trimming party (any excuse to have a party and serve cocktails!) We thoroughly enjoyed our first "adult" tree in our own place.  Sharon and I strung popcorn garlands with our friends, received some very cute ornaments (I still have the skiing teddy bear), and took advantage of some strategically placed mistletoe.
Christmas 1980: Catching my friend Tommy, under said mistletoe.

Over the years, without the pressure of kids in my child-free household, I've sometimes skipped the whole tree and decorating thing at Christmas, but more often, John and I have gone to tree farms and cut ours down. Despite the fact that there is a tree farm 1/2 mile from our house, and we don't even have to go on a public road to get there, I just am not "feeling it" this year.  

Ditto with the exchanging of gifts.  I did select and order books to be shipped across the country as gifts for our young nephews, and I feel good about that.  But I just feel kind of... I can't come up with the right word for it, and I don't know how to spell the sound coming from my mouth, but I just don't feel like buying "things" for people. I'd much rather "do things" with people, and enjoy their company, but this is difficult with both our families and many of our friends thousands of miles away.

I'm feeling a little baffled by this gift-giving disdain, because I've always loved Christmas! Yet kind of like Linus Van Pelt, I am turned off by how over-commercialized Christmas has become in our country. Decorations and music in the stores by late October. The 2+ month flood of television commercials (which at least I can fast-forward through!) 24 hours of Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Huge stacks of advertising inserted in the newspaper. Coupons stuffed in the mailbox. Everything on sale in the stores. Spend, spend, and spend more. I mean, why do I have to buy "more stuff" for the people I love? To prove what? Do they really need anything? I simply don't want to buy presents just to check off that I did so or just because I have always given gifts. Will they be upset or feel slighted if I don't buy them gifts? And if they do, how do I feel about that? Actually, just putting these thoughts into words is helpful and rather liberating.

Turning inward, I feel very happy and secure this holiday season.  I'm healthy, grateful for what I have, and engaged in activities and groups of friends that I enjoy.  I see plenty of people around me who are not so fortunate, whether their despair is economic,  poor physical health and/or diminished emotional well-being, and it troubles me. I have been volunteering some of my time and money, and trying to offer kindness and compassion, yet I know I can't save the world, or even substantively help very many people. 

So when is it all enough? When are love and compassion and gratitude the gifts that are the most meaningful? And will I be able to give those things to everyone who is open to receiving them? And can I make this the way I live my life, and not just the way I live Christmas?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Spiders and Snakes

I was never what you would call a "girly girl," but I was also never very fond of bugs while I was growing up. Many childhood "bug" memories stick with me, and most of them still kind of make my skin crawl.
  • My childhood home was in an apartment in Langley Park, Maryland, just "over the line" from the city limits of northeast Washington, DC. Heat and humidity define summers there, and our air conditioner was always running on high. I remember some sort of leak and the resulting wet areas of a rug. When I lifted the corner of the rug, several large cockroaches scurried out. Ewwww!
  • The cockroach disdain grew from there! In 10th grade biology class, we were assigned a project to collect and mount insects from all the different classifications. The insects were placed in a "kill jar" and then mounted to a foam display board, with a straight pin piercing the insect's middle (thorax!) section. I captured a cockroach, committed insecticide with the kill-jar and then mounted it. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a scratching sound. When I turned on the light, I found the cockroach alive and spinning in place around the pin, using his legs to propel the rotations. I kid you not! General disgust of cockroaches notwithstanding, I had extra reasons for really hating those things.
  • I was a Girl Scout for only one year, at age 11, because my softball and basketball team practices were scheduled to be on the same days as scout meetings. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, and I chose to go for sporting glory over badge-earning endeavors. Anyway, Girl Scout cookie-selling season came around and my mom volunteered to take charge of cookie delivery and storage for our troop. Imagine hundreds of boxes of cookies in our apartment-size living room! The individual cookie packages were packed inside large cardboard boxes, which were stacked everywhere. A few days into this, we saw ants on the wood floor around the boxes. Moving the boxes revealed more ants, and finally, we discovered armies of ants inside the boxes. Zillions of ants marching all over the cookie packages... Ugh!
  • Another ant incident comes to mind -- I'd forgotten I even had this memory! Raisin Bran cereal... Pieces of raisin skin would rise to the top in my cereal bowl, floating around in the milk. I swear for the longest time I was convinced they were ants! And I still won't eat Raisin Bran. And candied dates, which we always had at our house during the Passover holiday, looked like cockroaches to me.
  • Finally, snakes have always been part of my consciousness.  And courtesy of my mom, not in a good way! She is an ophidiophobe, one with an irrational fear of snakes.  It's as true now as it was then that even when she sees a snake on TV, she screams. Whether it's Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the animated "Jungle Book" movie, or a National Geographic documentary, you know the scream is coming.  Even when we went to the National Zoo, she would warn us to stay away from the snakes.
So I'd never been a big fan of the creepy or the crawly or the slithery creatures. I thought nothing of squishing them, swatting them, and disposing of them down the toilet. When I started practicing yoga and exposing myself to some Buddhist teachings, my stance softened. After all, "they are sentient beings" just like you and me. And "I am not separate" from them. When I moved up to the Vineyard -- the "country" -- I really changed my thinking.

In and around my house, landscaping, garden and vineyard, there are spiders of every kind. I'm pretty sure they view our property as an arachnid safe haven, and invite all their friends and family to move in. I still draw the line at scorpions (and black widows!) inside the house. All of those are scooped up and relocated outdoors. But spiders are okay! We have reached an understanding, a d├ętente, and we coexist mostly peacefully, indoors and out.

Spider at home in its web in the syrah vines
As for snakes, they've played some new roles in my life. Turns out that my husband collected snakes as a kid, so he's comfortable around snakes and can quickly identify beneficial and harmless snakes from the nuisance and dangerous snakes. Rattlesnakes have a frequent summer presence here in the heated rocky foothills. I've found them in the vineyard, in the sheep pasture, in the garage, and sunbathing in the driveway. After my dog was bitten on the nose (and survived) and my cat was bitten on the neck (and didn't survive), rattlesnakes get no slack, zero tolerance. Farmer John whacks them with a hoe, slicing off their heads. DONE.

A rattler, with the hoe that felled him
But gopher snakes, garter snakes, sharp-tailed snakes, and king snakes are welcome here.

A long garter snake made an appearance while brother and S-I-L,
Lawrence and Nelli, were here. John had to convince them it wasn't a rattler.
I enjoy seeing these snakes around. It's become a game with us to see who spots them first, and I always do a "victory dance" when it's me!  When I see a spider in the house (like, every day), I'll often say hello to it, hoping they don't mind that I call them all by the same name (Spidey.)  

Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I would ever actually view spiders and snakes as salutary creatures, let alone worthy co-inhabitants of my home and planet Earth? I've come a long way baby!