The Greatest Threat to American Democracy

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We live in interesting times. The other day, I had a sudden craving for my favorite Chinese fix : Szechuan Salt & Pepper Shrimp. Unfortunately, very few local Chinese restaurants offer this. So, I did what I usually do when I can’t find something I’m craving for in a restaurant. I decided to make it at home. After a Google search and reading several versions of the recipe I found that it requires a relatively hard to find ingredient, Szechuan Peppercorn, the highly aromatic spice that gives the recipe it’s distinctive flavor. Armed with a picture of it on my phone, I visited my local Asian Supermarket where a few minutes of wandering down the aisles and enlisting help from other customers led me to the coveted spice. I returned home with a small bag of it, in time to prepare my favorite food.

In many ways, I am grateful to be living in the twenty first century. I can expect to live much longer than my ancestors. Diseases which were considered fatal and incurable a few decades ago can be easily cured today, at least for those who can afford the treatment. Distances that took months to navigate in the past can be conquered in hours now. We can heat our homes without having to scavenge for wood, video chat with our friends living half a world away. If we need to learn about something we can do so from the comfort of our homes.

And, I can make an authentic Szechuan dish whenever I wish to.

And yet, life is far less idyllic, far less utopian than it was a generation ago. As we solve one problem, another creeps up. Old issues resurface in various guises, civilization seems to go around in cycles, as Foucault conjectured.

We read of meaningless violence every day, to the extent where we now come to expect it as a part of life. Children being harmed in schools. Worshipers in churches. We hear stories of comfortable retirement from past generations, but are not convinced if we will achieve that. We see the homeless, and others in poverty. We see middle class families facing bankruptcy, being denied available medical treatment due to lack of insurance coverage. We see our prisons fill up with meaningless and preventable incarcerations. We see the rising cost of education and the diminishing returns of a college degree. And, we hear the war drums marching on.

Given the plethora of issues our generation faces today, is it possible to pick one of these to be the greatest, the most consequential? Isn’t it true that the importance of an issue is relative to the amount of grief it causes to its sufferers, and therefore varies from constituency to constituency? To the unemployed, isn’t unemployment the biggest issue? To the woman who wants to choose, isn’t the right to reproductive choice the most important? To the person suffering without insurance coverage isn’t affordable medical insurance of supreme importance?

The most appealing aspect of a democracy is that it is a system of government where citizens solve their own problems. Sometimes they do it directly, and at other times indirectly. In Athens, the first democracy of the Western world, citizens would gather in a public place and debate a problem, and then use the process of voting to choose among the various proposed solutions. In modern times we choose our representatives to form a government who in turn debate and use other democratic processes to solve our problems.

Or, at least we hope so.

Given this framework, any problem can be solved using the democratic process. We simply need to vote for a representative who we feel will represent our issues, and once the representative gets elected through majority voting we expect her to work for us. And, given this assumption, all the problems that a society faces seem solvable, at least in theory, given a democratic framework.

What happens when the democratic framework itself is under attack? When we are no longer able to elect representatives who we feel will represent us, but see our representatives being chosen by the wealthy and the influential? What happens when ‘one person one vote’ is no longer the truth, rather, it is ‘one dollar one vote.’

That is the mother of all issues we face today, because it robs us of the very process that we use to solve issues. It is an issue that is not a threat to a particular constituency, but to all of American democracy. The role that money plays in our system today to influence the outcome of elections results in depriving the citizens of the influence that they, rightfully, should instead have. And, money elects representatives who. help the moneymakers make even more money, who in turn grow more powerful and continue to influence the elections even more, and the cycle perpetuates, leaving ordinary citizens in the dust.

To be fair, money has always played a role in elections. It is utopian to imagine an electoral process completely free of the influences of the wealthy. However, until recently, we have had common sense laws that limited this influence. We had laws in place that placed sensible limits on how much the wealthy, the corporations and. special interest groups could spend to ensure their candidates of choice get elected. An example of such a common sense law is the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

This sensible system of restraint came tumbling down six years ago, when five justices of the Supreme court sided with Citizens United to rewrite campaign contribution laws of the country. In one stroke of the pen these justices ushered in an era of unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and super-PACs, the vehicles of the wealthy. This single-handed assault on democracy has resulted in its greatest defacement that our generation has ever seen.

Citizens United vs FEC (2010) was the greatest example of a legal circus in recent history. In an unashamed display of judicial law making the five conservative justices of the Supreme Court banded together with the conservative lobbying group to overrule decades old rulings that had prohibited some forms of campaign contributions by corporations ( Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003)) while partially overturning the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 as unconstitutional. The ruling vastly exceeded the request of the plaintiff and was much broader and expansive than what the original complaint required. It was truly a case of judicial legislation. In the process the majority opinion changed hands from Chief Justice Roberts to Justice Kennedy as it became broader. The drama required two sessions of oral arguments.

The argument that the court used to overturn the previous rulings and invalidate the campaign finance law was that any limitation on campaign finance violated the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech guarantee and was thus unconstitutional. It maintained that the First Amendment guarantees any corporation the freedom to spend as much money it wished to influence the outcome of an election. In doing so, it asserted two things : 1) that money equates to free speech, and 2) that corporations are equivalent to human beings and enjoy the same protections of the First Amendment.

Now, one cannot come up with a finer example of distortion of constitutional interpretation, of judicial activism and of total disregard for common sense in law than what was displayed by the majority justices in this case. First, they said that money is free speech, that spending money is equivalent to speaking one’s mind and thus protected by the constitution. Living things express themselves in many ways : dogs bark, cats meow, humans speak. There are also non-verbal ways of expression, using body language, smiling, crying, sulking, and through creative endeavors like music, art etc. All of these are innate and natural. Money is not. It is a construct of society, an artificial one that allows us to navigate our day to day life. We had free speech and free expression before society invented money.

Individuals have more or less the same capacity to express themselves in basic terms. All we need to do is to open our mouth and say what we are thinking, or make a face, or wear a t-shirt that says something. The poorest amongst us is as capable in this respect as the richest, and likewise, the framers of our constitution understood this and enshrined the clause to protect us as an equalizing measure. Protecting an individual’s right to free-expression seemed to them as something natural and something which gave every member of society more or less similar rights.

This equation changes when money is equated to free speech. Individuals are no longer equal, a great disparity in their capacity to express themselves, through their ability to spend money, emerges. The billionaire now is a million times more capable of expressing herself than the person who only has a thousand bucks in her bank account. Our founding fathers must be turning in their graves to see their words being interpreted thus.

The second abuse that majority justices in this case perpetrated was to assert that corporations have the same protections under the constitution as individuals. I have two cats I adopted as kittens when they were eight weeks old — a boy and a girl. I often talk to them, I take care of them as I would my children. For all practical purposes I treat them as individuals. Many Americans believe that they will be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. While I do not believe in heaven, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. I can totally understand if you treat your pet as a human being, I do too. Heck, I can even understand if you feel your houseplant is human, but no stretch of imagination will convince me that a corporation, whose sole motive is to make money for its owners is a human being and should enjoy the same rights and protections.

The justices in their majority opinion said that since a corporation is an association of individuals it should enjoy the same protections as an individual. This logic is highly flawed. An association of constituents. is an aggregate entity and it does not assume the identity of its constituents. The identity of the aggregate is not the same as the identity of its members, and thus cannot be treated equally. There are many examples in case law where associations of individuals are treated differently than the individuals themselves. For example, a marriage is an association of two individuals, however, it is treated differently for tax purposes than the two members of said marriage would be if they filed. as single individuals. The law treats the association as a different entity than the individuals who constitute it.

The ramifications of the verdict of Citizens United vs FEC 2010 is more damaging to our. democracy than any other current threat. It enables billionaires like the Koch brothers and their corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to support their candidates of choice and to defeat candidates they don’t like. They can spend it in any way they like : run TV ads, phone campaigns, engage in lobbying, organize rallies, fund litigation… They can make sure anyone they want wins. And the people they support are obligated to them, owe them, to work in their favor after they are elected, crafting legislation that will help the rich and make policy decisions that will benefit the wealthy. This makes the wealthy even wealthier, and they can elect even more politicians to their liking and the cycle perpetuates. This comes at the expense of the common citizen, who have virtually no power today to affect elections when pitted against the money of the wealthy. No wonder the income inequality in America has reached unprecedented heights never before seen since the era of the Great Depression. The top 1% by wealth today controls more than 20% of America’s money. The last time this happened was in 1928.

It is not easy to fix this problem. Overturning Citizens United to limit the influence of the wealthy in the electoral process can happen in only one of two ways. When vacancies arise, a President may appoint justices in the Supreme Court who will be willing to overturn this should a suitable case ever reach the court. It is widely believed that as many of four justices may retire from the Supreme Court in the next four years giving the next President an opportunity to appoint their replacements.

The other way is create a constitutional amendment. This will require the support of the President, the Congress as well as the State Legislatures.

Both are difficult processes where success is not guaranteed, however, we will need to start somewhere. Unless we can fix the way our representatives get elected there is little hope that any of the issues that affect us will be addressed. As long as our representatives feel the support of the wealthy is all that matters they will keep on working for the wealthy only. The issues of the common individual will never be addressed. That is what is happening in America today.

The only way to fix this is to elect representatives who want to fix it, and the only way they will want to do it is if they do not feel they owe allegiance to the wealthy, rather to the common citizens. This cannot happen if we elect people who are too close to the rich and the corporations, who are too friendly with them and who benefit from them.

Looking at the spectrum of Presidential candidates today offers a bleak picture. The Republicans, of course, owe their allegiance to money. That is part of their political philosophy, but, the picture on the Democratic side is not pretty either.

The leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has deep roots in the wealthy and powerful community. She is the darling of Wall Street, of Media barons, of Big Pharma and many other wealthy corporations and individuals. Not only is she personally friendly with these people but she has in the recent past spoken at their venues. It his hard to imagine she will do much that will harm the interests of these friends and patrons of hers if she were to be elected as President.

The only candidate who has consistently spoken up about the usurping of the system by the wealthy and about economic inequality in America is Bernie Sanders. True to his commitment, his support is totally grass-roots. His campaign does not depend on the Super-PACs created by the wealthy and the powerful. He does not owe any allegiance to them. His voting record in Congress has consistently shown him to be the champion of the common American. Income inequality lies at the forefront of his campaign agenda.

Let us take our democracy back from the wealthy. Vote for Bernie Sanders.

Fixing your Frame : How to get rid of Limiting Thoughts

Ask a five year old to sing and dance in public, chances are she will do it in a heartbeat, in front of a crowd. Fast forward ten years, and ask the same person to do the same thing. Forget dancing, she’ll probably not open her mouth to sing even.

It is the same person being asked to perform the same activity. But, something has changed. She has been subjected to Social Programming.

Social programming tells us that we are judged by everyone at every moment, in everything we do. It asks us to be proper. It asks us to shrink our selves, to encapsulate and to build walls. It isolates us, builds a ‘me vs them’ paradigm where  the ‘me’ needs to conform to our perception of  ‘them.’

Social programming makes us docile members of the herd.

I came out of a long marriage a few years ago. My newly attained single-hood has since been an adventure in self-discovery and growth. I have learnt more in these past few years than in any comparable period of my life, however, looking back I see that my greatest achievement has been unlearning much of the social programming that was instilled into me since childhood.

My mantra today is : “who gives a fuck?”

Really, who does? And, even if someone does, how much will that affect you?

Surveys reveal that our fear of public speaking is second only to our fear of death. Yet, as individuals in private and comfortable settings we are often eloquent. When we are with friends we do not fear being judged, we are comfortable. We express ourselves freely.

We all live inside a box. This box is created by ourselves. It is a boundary that we impose on ourselves based on how we think others will perceive us, and based on what we think our own worth is. The higher our perceived value, the bigger our box is.

Think of a corporate organization. Who has the biggest ‘box’ there? The CEO. She is the boldest, and cares least about being judged by her employees. Inside the organization she has the highest perceived value. She makes demands of other people in the organization, she is not afraid to make herself heard.

A corporate organization has a hierarchy. The size of the boxes we create for ourselves there conforms to this hierarchy. Social interactions are different. There is no previously laid out hierarchy. We meet as equals, and yet a hierarchy creeps in. This is what we create at that moment. Some people are always the center of any party, others live in the periphery.

The amount of attention and respect we will get in a social interaction depends on the size of the box we carry ourselves in when we walk in. Some people call it our ‘frame.’ Most of us carry small boxes, with rigid walls, and at the first sight of judgement we shrink it further till it is so small we become invisible.

Our personal boxes are filled with our own limiting thoughts. Limiting thoughts are self-imposed boundaries. These are the result of social programming and the amount of validation we have received from others in life. Studies have shown that children who were validated and praised in their childhood grow up with a higher sense of self-worth. However, it is possible to break out of limiting thoughts in adulthood too. The way to do it is to start loving yourself as much as you can, being proud of yourself.

Think of all the qualities you have that make you a desirable person. Think of all the awesome things you have done in life, all the obstacles you have overcome. Think of all your friends who cherish you. Convince yourself that you are great. Internalize it. This will grow your box.

We may see an attractive person across the room, but our box is so small we cannot muster the courage to walk up and talk to her, introduce ourselves confidently. We are frozen by the thought of rejection : “what if she rejects me and doesn’t reciprocate my advances?”

What then? Really, who gives a fuck? Will you lose your shirt, your pants, or your job? Will the whole party laugh at you? Think that you’re loser?

Chances are, nobody will even notice.

As you will keep on expanding your frame you will find that you’re doing things that you never even considered doing. I used to have terrible anxiety approaching and talking to groups of strangers. I would think that my approaches were unwanted, and that I would interrupt them. Once I started doing it I found that in the vast majority of cases my approaches were very welcome, and most people did not consider me as an interruption but as a welcome and fresh relief.

No matter how good you get at socializing and attraction you will never be correct in judging the mood of your recipient all the time. Even the best attraction experts succeed only half the time. You will make errors. However, it is always better to err on the side of excess than on the side of shortage.

If you’re a guy who just met a woman at a bar and are having a nice conversation and you feel the time is right to steal a kiss then go for it. She might turn her face and offer her cheek instead of the lips. No big deal. Chat with her more and try again. And again. If she’s still hanging out with you then she’s attracted to you, she might just not be ready to make out with you yet. So, make her more comfortable till she gets there. In the end, you might never get the kiss, maybe not on that evening, but that’s better than leaving without trying.

It is important to not appear creepy in your advances though. What distinguishes creepiness? It’s sneaky and insecure behavior. The guy who brushes past a woman on a dance floor and gropes her is creepy. The guy who looks her in the eye and pulls her in for a kiss is bold. He carries a large box around him. He takes it for granted that people will be attracted to him. It is surprising how much you can get if you look someone straight in the eye and go for it.

So yes, be that person who looks others straight in the eye, doesn’t give a fuck, and does whatever he wants. Be the person carrying the largest box in the room. You are entitled to it.

Remember, much of the reality you live in is created by you.

NRE Forever

We are all aware of NRE, New Relationship Energy. Those heady days when we’ve just met our new partner and can’t seem to get enough of her. The excitement of discovery, the anticipation and the wait. The frequent messages shared back and forth, the all night discussions punctuated by sex. Or, the other way around.

Most relationships start with this. The driving force in this phase is the unknown and the discovery. Many call this the ‘honeymoon phase.’ For many of us the fondest memories of a past relationship stem from this time. Typically, this phase lasts three months to a year, and then reality strikes in, and we either settle into a solid stagnancy or break off.

Decay in most relationships start right after the NRE ends. Even in stable and well-established relationships the later times are never as good.

I am not aware of any scientific studies that have been done between the correlation of the length of the NRE period against the life of a a relationship but from personal experience and from observations I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is quite high. That is, the longer NRE lasts the better it is for a relationship.

What causes NRE to end? The answer is overexposure.

Those of us who dabble in photography are too aware of the pitfalls of overexposing a shot. Even a slight overexposure can flatten a photograph. It is the shadows that bring out the depth. My camera controls are permanently set to underexpose by half an ‘f’ stop. I find that makes the most interesting pictures.

Overexposure in relationships takes out the mystery and leads to enmeshment. Enmeshment leads to loss of our individuality and the emergence of couple identity. It has been observed that couples in long-term relationships start mirroring each other’s mannerisms and develop shared tastes and values that are antithetical to their individuality.

All this is good, but only to an extent. We have to remember that what makes us attractive is our individual identity, not our collective viewpoint. That is what drew your partner to you in the beginning, and you to her.

And, once we get to know everything about the other person she becomes predictable. Sometimes too much. This is comforting, but boring too. When we know what to expect we cease to be amazed.

So, the only way to lengthen NRE is by limiting the enmeshment. By having our own identities, our own visions and passions, and not giving in to the demands of a relationship at the expense of these. We also need to limit how much we disclose our inner selves and be careful of preserving boundaries. It is tempting to spend every free minute with our partner, but we have to understand that each additional minute we are spending today may steal several minutes from the future.

This is a fine line to walk. We get to know our partners by spending time with them. But, we cannot let that steal away from the time we need to spend with ourselves. We cannot grow the relationship without growing as individual selves. And, time apart may be as important as time together.

Underexpose your relationship. At least by half an ‘f’ stop.

How to handle Rejections

Many moons ago, when I was going through my divorce and just starting to date again I met a woman online. We connected over emails and messaging, she gave me her number and I called her up and finally decided to meet. The first date went pretty well, we decided on a second date, and then a third and a fourth. We had a good time during all our dates : laughing, chatting, holding hands. At the end of the fourth date after I had walked her to her car she suddenly turned towards me and said that while she enjoyed my company she did not think we were right for each other.

I was completely thunderstruck. This was so unexpected, we seemed to have such a nice time together. I did not find words to respond to her and she waited for a few seconds and then drove away, leaving me standing with my mouth open in the parking lot.

I put myself through agony for the next few days. Analyzing every little thing I could remember saying  to her and her responses to those. I was trying to figure out what had gone wrong and make sense out of it.

Finally, I sent her an angry message stating that she had hurt me terribly by leading me on. My reasoning was that if she did not like me why would she go out four times with me? Why didn’t she tell me so after the first couple of dates?

Anyway, the good news is we are good friends now, platonic ones, and she has since revealed  that she was seeing another person at the same time as me and was trying to make her mind up. The other person is culturally more compatible with her and so she had decided to continue with him. It’s been several years and they are still seeing each other.

Fast forward a few years and recently I went on a few dates with another woman and we seemed to have a wonderful time together. At the end of the last date, however, just before getting into her car she told me that she’d prefer not to see me again. This time, I smiled at her, gave her a warm hug, thanked her for being so upfront and candid, told her if she ever needed a friend she could reach out to me and wished her a safe drive home. She left smiling.

What was different? What had changed?

It’s me. I’ve evolved. I’m a different person now.

Guys, rejection is not a judgement on you. It does not happen because you aren’t good enough for her. Neither is it, as some relationship coaches advise, a reflection on the woman’s poor judgement and her inability to appreciate how awesome you are.

You are awesome, but not to everybody.

There are many reasons why a woman may reject a guy. (While I’m taking a heterosexual man’s viewpoint in this post I believe many of these ideas will apply to any person of any sexual identity and  preference attempting at courtship.) She may not feel a romantic chemistry between the two of you. That doesn’t diminish either you or her. It’s just a fact of life.

Or, she may be at a point in life where she is not ready to start a new relationship. She may have too much on her plate – her kids may be flunking at school, she may have an aging parent who was just hospitalized or she may be overworked and stressed at her job.

It is also possible, as it happened in my case in the first example that she is dating several guys and trying to choose the one most compatible and there was someone else who matched her criteria better than you did. No shame in that.

There is a myth in the dating coaching and pick-up community that if your ‘game’ is good enough you will be able to pick any woman up, and failing that means you’re either not good enough or the woman is crazy. This is absolute bs.

My post-divorce dating failures drove me to studying dating and pick-up techniques. I read numerous books, attended online and in person seminars, took courses and practiced the techniques in real life. I also studied female psychology and attraction extensively. I don’t study as much now, but that is only because I feel I’ve gotten reasonably good at this. I’ve been meeting women successfully both online and offline.

Last year when I was more active online there was a time when my response rate to messages  initiated by me reached 80%. About 20% – 30% of these were women who wrote back saying they weren’t interested. These were very attractive, smart and independent women, many of who were receiving more that 50 messages in their inbox on a typical day. Now, from what I hear from my friends and online surveys the typical man’s response rate to initial messages hovers around 10%.

I do pretty well offline too, when I have the time for it. I’ve gotten numbers from women at bars, at meetups, at shows, at community events… At one point I was seeing so many women at the same time that I would be going on dates with five different women on a typical weekend : Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening and Sunday morning and evening. I remember one weekend I was able to squeeze one person for an afternoon meet on Saturday between a morning and an evening date. It was getting difficult to keep so many people straight. I’d sometimes call Melissa as ‘Michelle’ and sometimes address Laura as ‘Linda,’ but that’s a different story because I don’t do that any more, I’m far more selective now.

But, I still get rejected quite often. As I said above, you may be awesome, but you cannot be awesome to everybody. You may have six-pack abs and resemble Arnold but there are women who will prefer thin and lanky guys. You may be very outgoing and you’ll be rejected by women who prefer shy people. I have an accent and it has mostly worked in my favor since many women seem to view an accent as ‘exotic’ but some women just don’t like accents. You may have facial hair and some women may not like you for that, or, you may be clean-shaven and be rejected by women for that reason.

Heck, not everybody likes Shakespeare, or Beethoven.

So, don’t take rejections as a personal judgement.

One great tool in handling rejections is to build your self-esteem up so that it is independent of external validation. However, this is easier said than done. We all are social creatures and depend on external feedback to evaluate ourselves, and in some ways it is the only way to go. For example, you may think you’re the greatest singer in town but if people run away every time you open your mouth then it’s time for some serious soul searching.

So, how do we rely on external validation and yet not be devastated when someone refuses to give it to us? The trick is to spread yourself out a bit, be good at many areas in life. Maybe you are good at your job and your employer appreciates you, that’ll help in building up your self-esteem. Maybe you’re a loyal friend and your friends love you. Or, maybe you devote many hours a week in community service and people have come to depend on you. Look for ways, other than dating, to find validation. See what you’re good at, the more things the better.

And, if you have looked and did not find at least a few things that you enjoy doing and get appreciated for then maybe this is not a good time for you to date. You may be better off devoting your time at self-development.

Also, it will lessen the sting if you acknowledge that the woman who is rejecting you is probably having a very hard time doing it. People do not enjoy making others suffer, not most people, anyway. When I break up or reject someone I feel so bad that at times I wish I did not have to do it. It is hard, and it takes a woman a lot of courage to say ‘no’ to your face. Appreciate that and thank her if possible.

Remember, dating is not about what you can extract from the woman, but what you have to offer to her. And, unless you can like and respect yourself, no one will like or respect you.

And finally, remember that the question to ask yourself before approaching an attractive  woman should never be whether you are good enough for her. It should be whether she is good enough for you.

 

Today is the Day

door

I am addicted to making lists. I was a scatterbrain growing up – forgetting to do things, to make submissions in school in time, and all the rest. One of my earliest memories is of a little strip of paper my dad would keep on top of a cabinet where he would jot his to-do list down and strike them off as each task was done.

Maybe I picked it up from him. Often, I would make lists on a post-it note while at work  and then bring it back home in the evening and go down the list doing the chores. Sometimes I’d use a bigger piece of paper, a notepad, to make a list for multiple days. Sometime ago I graduated to the Notes app on my smartphone and have recently started using the Reminder app. Now, I can make to-do lists anywhere : in the grocery store, while riding an elevator or while waiting in line for my bus to arrive.

While to-do lists are great, they can be overwhelming too. I am a big procrastinator. Sometimes when I wake up on a Saturday morning and see that my to-do list includes doing laundry, writing bills, cleaning my office room, getting my car serviced, buying grocery,  blowing leaves in my backyard, running to the post office to ship parcels and cooking I’ll often mumble to myself, “none of this is urgent, all of this can wait till next weekend,” and roll over into bed again.

But, next weekend is no different from this one, and while my list will undoubtedly grow in size by then, elves will not magically appear at my door to take care of things for me.

In one of its definitions Merriam Webster defines ‘chore’ as ‘a dull, unpleasant, or difficult job or experience.’ Little wonder I tend to procrastinate on getting to the ‘dull’ and ‘unpleasant’ stuff.

A few weeks ago I visited a friend who lives in Northern Jersey. She has recently added a bedroom on the second floor in her house above the garage and while the addition was complete the inside still needed some touch-ups before she could transfer her furniture and move in. There were spots on the walls that needed to be fixed, the trim, the doors and the windows needed to be painted. Being a single lady she did not have much help so she requested me to help her with painting the doors while she worked on other parts of the wall.

In truth, I’m not particularly fond of painting doors. I view the task as a chore. I have painted doors in the past but try to avoid doing it as much as possible. I have a door in my house that needs a second coat to match the finish on the trim and I’ve been ignoring it for the last couple of years. However, her eagerness to be able to move into the new bedroom was so obvious that I agreed to help her.

She handed me the roller, the paint, the mixing tray and a liner and I started work. It was white paint and I was using a foam roller which made it easier to paint into the ridges and valleys on the door without a brush. I finished the first coat, worked on the trim while letting it dry and then went back for the second coat. Painting a door white can be tricky, you want the grains to show but you also want the finish to be uniform. You use the roller on the flat part and the ends of the foam to go into the crevices, making sure there isn’t excess paint.

As I worked, it was fun to see the old color disappear and the new shine take its place. It was a challenge to achieve uniform texture throughout. After working on several doors and windows I found that not only a great deal of time has passed but I was also enjoying the work.

That came as a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t yearning for breaks. I wasn’t looking forward to getting the job done, I was actually enjoying the process of performing the chore. I was involved in the tiny details, my whole attention focused on the paint droplets that needed to be smoothed out, on the excess paint on the roller, on the areas that weren’t dry enough to paint over yet. I was fully inside that room, by the door, not thinking about work, not thinking about my next overseas trip or the upcoming dinner invitation.

I was then and there. I was giving my full and undivided attention to the task that needed to be performed. Not glossing over the little stuff but enjoying the little challenges. The mundane and boring had suddenly become challenging and exciting.

I was experiencing every moment of my immersion. I had no other goals at that moment but the successful completion of this ordinary task at hand. This is very contrary to my nature. I get bored with mundane stuff easily and thrive in the excitement of big challenges. I have chosen a profession that is fast-paced, high strung and packed with adrenaline. I thrive in such environments. I love extreme sports, I skydive, zipline and fly sports planes.

And yet on that day, the very ordinary task of painting doors provided me with as much fun as anything else I’ve ever done. What was different? Why hadn’t this ever happen before? Why was I constantly seeking fun when it was present in each moment already?

It happened because I was there, at that place and time, and I had allowed my full attention into the task. I was experiencing the immediate reality around me, permitting myself not to drift away. Like a cheetah on the African Savannah, her ears picking up the slightest sound, her nostrils the faintest scent, her skin fully aware of the wind blowing against it, her eyes intent on the slightest perturbation in the grass. A being that is fully present in its immediate reality, not thinking, not ruminating, not reminiscing. Just being.

There are two ways to look at life : as a series of hops between destinations that need to be arrived at. Mega destinations like getting into a good college, landing a fabulous job, getting married, buying a house… Or smaller destinations like getting a pay raise, the next vacation, the weekend dinner party… With this approach life becomes a steam of boring and mundane days punctuated by some fulfilling ones.

The other way is to look at life as a journey. Where the journey between the stops is as important,  or even more, as the destination itself.  Where each moment is an opportunity, an offering to us, to be relished, lived and above all experienced, with every last drop of juice extracted from it.

Then, magically, every moment becomes a moment of joy. Anonymous chores become memorable experiences. When we are fully immersed in the reality around us we cease to seek a greater reality. We marvel at how beautiful and how exciting every moment and every little thing is. Life becomes a steam of never ending joy, sourced by the fountain of wealth that is around us and our capacity not to ignore, but to experience every iota of it.

But, we have to be here, and now. Physically as well as mentally.

So, when I go back home today I will run down my to-do list and do as many task as time will permit. Not as chores, but as events to be experienced. I will look at the creases as I fold the laundry, smoothing out the fabric while feeling its texture. I will observe the spots while scrubbing my pans, feel the warm water between my fingers, enjoy the warmth, look at the beauty of the bubbles forming on the surface.

Today. Not tomorrow, not the day after. Today is the day.

Why are we so afraid of death?

trees_and_sky

Tomorrow morning when my alarm clock will ring, and after I’ve snoozed it several times, I will wake up to rays of the Sun filtering in through my window. If it is an overcast morning I will know that the Sun is still out there somewhere, hidden behind the clouds. I know that will be true no matter whatever happens today.

That is called a belief.

I also believe that fifty to a hundred years from now I will no longer wake up to see the Sun. I will no longer wake up. My body will either be ashes spread somewhere or buried deep inside a hole. I haven’t decided on that part yet.

Neither will the seven billion or so inhabiting this piece of rock today, or the billions that roamed before them. There will always come a day in every person’s life when she will not wake up to see the Sun any more. I have a very strong belief about this, stronger than the Sun rising tomorrow.

If I were religious I would happily believe that my eternal spirit will carry on its ethereal existence, divorced from flesh and blood, unable to drink wine, make love or ride in the subway, either waiting for its turn to reincarnate or frolicking in heaven, hopefully. But, I’m not religious. I don’t think about my spirit too much.

Should I be concerned that I won’t be here forever? Does that diminish what I am today? Does a part of me have to live on forever, or go away somewhere exotic after my body stops working, to make the life that I’m living today meaningful?

Is something meaningful only if it is eternal? Can fleeting things be meaningful too?

I used to love this woman deeply. I would drive over to her place in the evening, we would order pizza, or Chinese,  sit on the couch and talk, listening, saying, watching each other’s face, and at some point we’d realize it’s morning. Hours would fly by. We enjoyed every moment with each other. Our trips together, visits to museums, gardens. I used to write poetry for her. It was a relationship where happiness peeked out from every corner.

We broke up one day.We are still friends and still fond of each other but not in love. We have both been in other relationships since we broke up. Ours wasn’t the eternal love that we thought it was.

Does that make any of those moments less? Sometimes I walk along paths that  I have never taken in the past. I am not sure if I will ever take that path in the future. What I know is that I love the breeze flowing through the trees, the chatter of the birds, the shimmering on the surface of the water alongside, and I know that what I enjoy for that moment is all that will matter, independent of what the next moment will be.

My daughter will be going to college in a couple of years. There was a day when she would come running into my arms in her toddler steps when I came home. Nowadays when she’s with me she keeps to herself most of the time. I know we both care fore each other deeply, but the nature of our relationship has changed. She is a young independent woman about to set foot into the world by herself. I don’t know how far away her college will be, how many times she will visit me or call me. Where she will be after she graduates. I just know that no one will ever come running into my arms with toddler steps the moment I open the door.

Does the change make the past experience any less? Would I prefer she stay a toddler for ever?

In our search for eternity we often miss the beauty in the ephemeral. Society programs us to believe that if something ends it is not good enough. A consciousness that is not eternal is less. We are more obsessed about our afterlife and having a good time there than our life that is right here and right now. Death is either an ultimate annihilation, making everything we experienced meaningless or a gateway to a better life that we must strive and always prepare for.

Death is neither. It is an inevitable event. Like growing hair and subsequently losing it. Birth and death are the two bookends that hold the treasure of life in the shelf. We can avoid neither. But we can enjoy every moment we live between these two, knowing that each moment of our experience is true, undiminished in its transience, eloquent in its exposure, and that these moments individually add up to what we call our life.