Sunday, October 7, 2012

Philosophy Under Fire

It's easy to say "Que sera, sera," when you're sitting on a beach, contemplating a second or third lime slushie, watching the birds fight over the bread crumbs from your picnic.

It's a bit harder to be philosophical when the earth is shaking and you hear bullets whizzing overhead and you'd like to relocate to a more pleasant location, but just now you're committed to this battle in this place.

If life is like going canoing, then my normal state of mind is a peaceful lake full of interesting water birds and breathtaking clouds and colors painted across the sky.

This week I left the lake and went through some rapids. Very bumpy, exciting rapids, for someone who lives most of her life on the flat lake. And while the canoe never actually overturned, I was hanging on tight.

I don't want to go into more detail, because this post is about happiness, not about all the reasons why my life isn't perfect.

A few weeks ago I said that you can train yourself to be happier, in the same way an athlete can train their body to be stronger.

This week, all I have to say is this:

No matter where you are in your life, whether you're already riding the rapids or whether you're becalmed on the calm lake, at some point in the future, it's going to get harder. And that's probably sooner rather than later.

(And people say I'm an optimist.)

My point is that if you can't be happy or at least cheerful when everything's going pretty well, you're probably not going to survive when everything stops being so easy.

So load up on life preservers and be ready for the rapids. If you're prepared to be happy under any circumstances, there's very little that can hurt you.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Happiness is Being at Peace With Yourself

I'm amazed every time I see a movie or read a book where a character does something immoral, and then goes down to the bar, drinks a glass of whiskey or what-have-you, and complains that they're not happy.

To clarify: it surprises me that they're surprised.

To apply this to real life, haven't you noticed that the meanest people you know are the unhappiest? That the dishonest people are always twitchy, expecting to be double-crossed at any moment?

My mom always said this is because we naturally expect people to do what we do, and that's definitely part of it.

But everyone is born with a conscience. Some people manage to kill their conscience so entirely that they can do wrong without even a slight twinge, but most of us live in a gray moral zone of constant discomfort from all the small 'white lie' type wrongs we do.

It is impossible to do wrong and feel right. You don't need to murder someone to agitate your conscience. You don't need to commit any black sins or crimes against humanity to be tortured by the still small voice inside of you that whispers "You know better than that."

My wisdom teeth are coming in, and sometimes I get a little piece of food stuck there, way back at the back of my mouth where I can't reach with a toothpick. The pressure is so small that I can hardly tell that it's there, but my mouth is sensitive enough to feel the pain of something not right. I catch myself rubbing my tongue against my back teeth over and over until my tongue is raw and almost bloody, until finally, at last, the small speck of whatever it is - this happens most often when I eat nuts, which is why I avoid crunchy peanut butter - comes loose. Then, even though my tongue is still sore and raw, I feel a moment of relief, and relax muscles I didn't know where tense. Everything is right again.

That is what a guilty conscience is.

Guilt and happiness are opposite states of being. You cannot be happy when you're guilty. You may be guilty, and have a moment of pleasure, but that is not happiness.

Now if it were easy to always do the right thing, or if no one was ever tempted to do the easy wrong thing instead of the hard right thing, I would feel no compulsion to write this series of essays on happiness. Maybe I would write about sentient earthworms instead. (I have.)

When I have a hard day, I tell myself that it has been a 'trying' day - I've been on trial, tested to see what I will do when it's not easy to be happy. Anyone can smile when the sun shines, but can I be happy when it pours? (Incidentally it rained three days this week, and my umbrella made me very very happy.)

This week was a trying week, and what was on trial was my honesty. Three separate incidents occurred that tested my honesty under the pressure of 'if you do nothing, no one will know.'

Incident one occurred at work, when I realized as I was about to mail a check to a vendor that I had entered it incorrectly in QuickBooks, and the check was for the wrong amount. The difference was so small that it's doubtful the vendor would have tried to get us to pay the difference. I could have sent the check as is, and 'no one would know.'

If I hadn't caught the mistake, it would have been only an accident, and not dishonest, but as soon as I heard the words 'no one will know' whispered in my ear, I got up, printed a new check for the correct amount, voided the old check, and asked my manager to sign the corrected check because I had made a mistake. A small embarrassment and inconvenience to save my honesty.

The second incident was scarier, bigger, with more teeth. I realized that because some additional service had been requested, an invoice to a customer was more than double the original quote. I guessed they wouldn't be too happy about that. But I already had the credit card on file; I could have avoided an uncomfortable conversation by charging the card, sending the receipt, and then dealing with it when and if they called. But I wasn't comfortable with that; it was like a piece of nut wedged in my teeth.

I called the man who had requested the testing, and then emailed the card holder, explaining the change in the invoice total and offering him the opportunity to change his payment method if he preferred to use a different card.

I hadn't heard anything back from him four days later, and I felt that honor was satisfied, so I charged the card and emailed the receipt to the cardholder, again with a note telling him to call if he had any questions.

I got an email back saying he had already called and discussed the charge with someone else, and he was fine with it.

(How often do we stress about these things only to find after the fact that there was no need to?)

The last incident, which really put the cap on the whole week and convinced me that there was a deliberate theme to this series of trials, was when I scraped someone's bumper while parking. There was someone blocking the main aisle, so I didn't have as much room to turn as I normally did. I thought, oh, there's not enough room, I better park farther back. Then I thought, nonsense, I can make it, and I'm tired and worn out and I don't want to walk from the back of the parking lot.

I should have listened to myself the first time.

I got out and inspected the damage, which was small. Barely two inches of scraped paint. Considering the age of the car, and the number of dents on the fender, it was barely noticeable at all.

My neighbor (who was still blocking the aisle in her car) saw what I was looking at, and called "Oh, just leave it. He'll never notice."

I left a note with my name and number explaining what had happened. I haven't gotten a call. Considering this happened several days ago, I really doubt that call will come.

It doesn't matter whether he calls me or not. What matters is that I chose to be honest, even when there was no benefit to do so, and no penalty for ignoring the issue.

When I think of that, I feel a soft peace inside me. I say soft, but I don't mean yielding. It was a trying week, but I proved my honesty to myself. Next week, if my honesty is tried, I will have even less hesitation in doing what I think is right. If my honesty is tried this way every week for the rest of my life, soon enough I will have a sense of honesty hard and sharp enough to cut through any lie. And just like buying an umbrella before it rains, it makes me happy to strengthen my honesty before I'm actually an important person, faced with actual moral dilemmas that seriously affect other people. (Nothing I just recounted constitutes a moral dilemma. I knew what the right thing to do was. It just wasn't much fun to do it.)

Do what is right, and happiness will follow. Continue to do what is right, every week, and in time you will find that it is not as hard as it was when you began.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happiness Is a Muscle in the Heart

This is the first of a series of essays about happiness that I've been talking about for forever (okay, six months) and finally decided to write so that I can talk about something new.

Yesterday I called my aunt with big news.

"Guess what!"


"I just bought my first umbrella!"


We both laughed, but it was another one of those times when people laugh when I'm at my most serious.

Purchasing my first umbrella was a solemn occasion. I tried out almost every umbrella Walmart had available. I opened and closed them to determine their size. I considered somberly the difference between a small umbrella that folds up to be shorter than the length of my shoe and an old fashioned cane-shaped umbrella that can double as a weapon in times of emergency. I contemplated colors: polka dots on white, polka dots on black, stripes, tropical leaves, leopard print, pink, turquoise, and even clear plastic so you can look up through the umbrella and see what the rain looks like.

I selected a compact black umbrella (size XL, for Jumbo Family) that will blend nicely into the dark of night when I finally begin my ninja career. It will also cover me and my backpack with lots of room to spare.

Now I have an umbrella, which delights me. At first I thought this was because I'm easily delighted - which is certainly true. But it's not the whole truth.

I'm easily delighted because the happiness muscle in my heart is strong.

Just like anyone can sprint downhill, anyone can be happy when everything is going well. But it takes a lot more stamina and endurance to sprint uphill. It takes training to be genuinely happy over a new umbrella.

But the happier you are, and the more often that you're happy, the stronger that happiness muscle gets. It's like lifting weights.

For example: It's late September now, and in Texas it's still fluctuating between upper nineties and high sixties, but in another month or two winter will be upon us. Wind. Storms. Rain. Cold. But as long as it doesn't actually rain sideways (which is not something I would put past the weather around here), I will be nice and dry. Hooray for umbrellas!

Now I could wait to be happy about being cold and dry instead of cold and wet until the bad weather starts. But why wait to be happy later when you can get a head start today?

If you can find happiness in a new umbrella, you can find happiness in almost anything.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Preparations for the Impending Apocalypse

Over the last few months I have become interested in the idea of building up some food storage. Despite the low probability of a zombie attack, having a stockpile of life-sustaining supplies is useful in a number of unusual and dangerous circumstances. Tornadoes. Floods. Siege. Sudden onset of crippling agoraphobia. Rioting mobs. World-wide peanut butter shortages.

This last possibility, in particular, has been very motivating. I love peanut butter.

However, my pantry closet has a total of three shelves. Each shelf is about ten inches wide. Even an unfailing optimist (which I clearly am not) would have difficulty believing that's enough storage space for a month's supply, let alone the three months I hope to eventually build up. (If I'm caught up in a crisis so severe that it lasts longer than three months, I will undoubtedly have other problems before I run out of food.)

So the first step of my journey was to procure more adequate shelving. Ideally this shelving would be lightweight and mobile so I could take it with me when I move. Also ideally it would hold canned goods (and peanut butter) with a minimum of wasted space. And my last ideal would be that these magical shelves would be cheap.

I looked online. You can get a set of metal wire shelves of the general dimensions I desired for... $130.00. Plus shipping. So somewhere in the range of $150 when all is said and done. And since all of the shelves I saw were designed for garages and industrial kitchens, one set of shelves usually had four to five shelves total, instead of the nine or ten I thought would be perfect for canned goods.

So instead I embarked on a journey to build my own shelves for less money and more shelves in my shelves.

Never embark on a journey. It's very bad for your health. Not to mention your nerves.

I drew up my shelf plans and estimated that my total cost would be about $60-$70 dollars. (And I looked at Home Depot's website to make that estimate, so I wasn't just pulling that number out of the air, either.)

At Home Depot, all went well until I couldn't find the lumber I had found on the website. I settled for a beautiful whitewood pine that smelled nice, was the same dimension, and cost $2 more. I didn't think it would make that big a difference. A very friendly Home Depot person cut it into 22'' lengths for me.

Cost on leaving Home Depot? $92.61.

Well, okay, that was still cheaper than any of the shelves that wouldn't really work for what I wanted that I'd seen online. And I was going to end up with perfect, custom made shelves, right? That's worth ninety bucks. Onward!

I arrived at the construction site (my aunt's house) where I was planning to build these magical shelves, both for the empty driveway and the availability of a borrowed power screwdriver. My aunt and uncle left for the evening, leaving me confident in my shelf-making abilities (I was confident- they weren't so much), and certain that they wouldn't be back for many hours, leaving me plenty of time to clean everything up when I was done. There was also the bonus of knowing that no one would try to park on top of me while I worked on my magical shelves. I waved them off to enjoy their evening, serene in the knowledge that all was well. I would spend thirty to forty minutes putting together my magical shelves and then I would kick back for the rest of the evening in the glow of a job well done.

Then I discovered that in the expensive scramble at Home Depot, I had lost my beautiful professional-looking graph paper shelf-plans. Suddenly all was not well at all. I had a pile of lumber cut to size (so I couldn't return it), and only a vague recollection of my cunning plans of how it was all supposed to go together. I was Free Babysitter In Chief, so I couldn't drop everything to run back to Home Depot looking for a piece of paper that had probably blown away.

Well, I wasn't going to quit after spending $92.61 on a bunch of boards. I just had to make new plans, that's all.

I made new plans. They were not beautiful or professional-looking.

I continued anyway.

I went ahead and screwed the sides, tops, and bottoms of both shelves together, which is when the next of my series of unfortunate events occurred. The power screwdriver was a plug-in model, much heavier and more cumbersome than the power screwdriver I used in my golden childhood when I could raid my father's toolbox whenever he wasn't looking. It was also older and more tired than it looked. It started to overheat. After forcing it to finish putting together the frames for my shelves, I unplugged it and banished it back to the garage before it could spontaneously combust in my hands.

This left me with the good old nail-and-hammer plan.

I soon discovered that when the helpful Home Depot person cut my boards into 22'' lengths, he had cut them approximately. They were all aproximately 22'', but some of them were closer to 21 1/2'' and some were more like 22 1/2''. This meant that I had to kneel on the wood to make it bend inwards, or use the hammer to knock a shelf into place between the sides before I could nail it in place. And since he had efficiently cut three boards at a time, that meant every time I found one shelf that was off I knew there were two more just like it.

This was bad for morale. So was the fact that I was working under a tree that kept spitting acorns at me. And the fact that in spite of a nice limpid puddle on the other side of the street, all the neighborhood mosquitoes chose to swarm me instead. There were usually three on me at a time; I didn't swat at them often, because it's a bad idea to wave your arms wildly when you're holding pointy nails and a heavy hammer.

After banging together the first shelf (which took far longer than it should have - it was now dusk, and thirty minutes were long gone), I made a shocking discovery.

The driveway was slanted.

Which meant that my shelves, which I had built on a diagonal on that slanted driveway, were also slanted.

I would like to claim that the shelves were crooked because of the driveway, but I must admit that it was probably because I only bothered to make measurements and markings on one side of the shelves. I eyeballed the other side. I was still cherishing illusions of a quick and easy project, and was skipping steps you really shouldn't skip.

I observed the slanted shelves, and the fact that despite the fact that the sun is supposed to set at 8:30 pm, not 7:45, I was running out of daylight. I continued.

I got out my 1x2s and put them on the back of the shelf, preparing to hammer them down for reinforcement. I noticed dismally that the straight-up-and-down 1x2s made the crookedness look even worse. Oh well. I nailed the first 1x2 at the top, and walked to the other end of my six foot shelf to nail it down there before doing the second one.

And made another discovery. My shelves were only approximately six feet long. And since I had asked that the 1x2s be trimmed down to 6 feet, they were about 3/4'' too long.

I'm very proud of the fact that I took this moment to not cry.

After an (internal) scream of ultimate suffering, I determined that I could swivel the 1x2 to make a diagonal across the back of the shelf. This downplayed (very very slightly) the crooked shelves, and meant that I could finish the blasted thing. I then leaned the finished shelf against the wall, displaying it for the amusement of anyone who might pass by.

The second shelf went better. Mostly because I did make measurements on both sides of the shelf this time. However, it was past dark at this point, so I had to turn on the porchlight and work in the narrow sidewalk in front of the front door. I knocked over my box of nails. (You know it had to happen at least once.) And I was so tired that more than once I drove a nail all the way through only to find that I had entirely missed the shelve.

Finally, about three hours after I had begun my half hour project, I was on my last nail. I positioned it carefully, and took a moment to look at it silently. We eyeballed each other, the nail and I, like the last survivors of two enemy armies. Wounded, weary, but ready to kill each other before we fell down dead. If I hadn't felt so irritated, it would have been a very moving, almost zen-like moment.

I determined that in this horrendous project that had gone wrong in so many ways, this nail - the last nail - was going to be perfect. I balanced myself, raised the hammer, and brought it down in a perfect blow.

The nail bent.

I took a moment to not swear.

Then I straightened the nail and hammered it in until it cried for its momma.

Then I responsibly picked everything up and put it away, and put the shelves on their sides so they wouldn't fall on the head of any innocent passerby, and collapsed on the couch inside.

My aunt and uncle got back from their date twenty minutes later.

It took me about half an hour past that to recover enough to be able to drive myself home.

I spent a lot of time thinking about life, the universe, and everything while I was working on those shelves, and I came to several conclusions.

If all my preparations for the impending apocalypse are so harrowing, by the time the world really does end it won't faze me a bit.

Mosquitoes give up before I do. I'm not certain that this is a good thing.

Now that the shelves are inside my pantry, no one is going to notice that they're crooked unless I open the door and point it out.

And in spite of the fact that my aunt laughed when I said I'd wrap everything up in half an hour, I still think that my plan was perfectly sound. If my boards had been cut to a consistent length, and if I hadn't lost my plans and didn't have to stop every fifteen minutes to try to remember the measurements I made six hours before, and if the power screwdriver hadn't thrown a tantrum, then I really could have put the shelves together in half an hour (or forty-five minutes, if you allow for water breaks.)

In other words, if nothing had gone wrong, everything would have worked out just right. There's a duh thought for you.

Behold my beautiful shelves:

They may not be worth $92.61 by themselves, but the story adds value. There's nothing like tales of suffering to make the time just fly by when you're barricaded inside, waiting for the rioting mobs to get bored and go home.