A landfill is a dumping ground for random objects and things. I figure that this blog is going to serve as a dumping ground for my random thoughts - therefore, it's a mindfill.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Monet and Psychology: The Sky is Green

It's been a long week and now it's the weekend, so I've resorted to recycling another one of my old essays. Think of it as a "Greatest Hits"...or something like that.

One thing I have learned is that no matter how screwed up your life is, there is always someone out there whose life is infinitely more like an episode of Jerry Springer than yours. There’s always a friend out there who has real problems that dwarf your own. This just demonstrates why the old saying – “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” – is not usually the reality of the situation. It’s all a matter of perception. Our lives are, as we perceive them to be. For that reason, the “grass is greener” maxim is somewhat true. If we perceive the grass to be greener, then we will believe that it is. But in reality, it’s like a painting by Monet. When you stand at a distance, your brain tricks you into thinking that what you see is a beautiful, cohesive, image. This is “the other side of the fence.” But when you look at the image from close up, what you see is a collection of strange colorful glops of paint that more closely resemble Rorschach’s inkblots than they do any thing you’ve ever seen before. Our perceptions dictate how we see our lives versus others.

We see our own lives from so close a proximity that it is like looking through a microscope. Thus, we are left with the Monet looked upon from an uncomfortably close distance and the unrecognizable blobs of paint. Our lives look very unartistic from this range. At the same time, we are viewing others’ lives from afar. As a result, we soak in the complete, and to our brains, more beautiful image.

There is a similar concept to this in Social Psychology (I know, here I go again spewing from my psychology textbooks) called the out-group homogeneity effect. As is often the case with psychological concepts, this is a very long name to describe a rather simple concept. Psychologists, along with lawyers and philosophers, are most often paid by the word in case you’re wondering why there is a virtual cornucopia of long-winded titles for simple concepts. Since I was a psychology major and I graduated from law school, you the reader are now subjected to me also using long titles to describe simple concepts. Sorry. I’ll return to the simple concept now. The Out-Group Homogeneity effect basically means that we perceive those not in our specific group – race, gender, socio-economic background, university affiliation, whatever – as being far more similar to others not in our group than those within our group are to us. In other words, “They (fill in the blank with whatever group you’re referring to) are all the same.” We view those not within our immediate group as being vastly different than we perceive those we see on a daily basis. This is the Monet principle again. Those that aren’t in our group are perceived from a distance and the formless, shapeless, blobs of their lives, seem to run together into a beautiful, well-defined form. Those that are in our group – and most specifically ourselves – are viewed from up close and we see the ugly blobs of our lives rather than the total picture that we see of others. The end result is that we usually perceive our own problems, however minute, as far more serious than they truly are.

Granted, no one is ever going to adhere to this concept entirely, to do so would almost certainly require us to cease to view our own problems as problems, which even minor usually tend to be actual problems. Instead, we must learn to place things in their proper perspective. We must learn to view our lives as those around us do. We must be able to step back from time to time and view things from afar. There are times when our problems are the biggest problems of the day and there are times when our problems just don’t matter. We need to learn when these times are. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers (wow, I never thought I’d ever say that!), “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

In doing so, we learn how to view our lives in the big picture and we see them as we would see a Monet. So rather than the random spots and brushstrokes of color, we see the whole beautiful picture. Then, we deal with our problems when the time is right.

Dealing with your problems leads to another psychological issue of perspective. A lot of times, our problems are problems because we perceive them as such. Therefore, we see something in our life that bothers us, and we tend to view it as a problem thus making it so. It is sometimes the case that the only reason that this is a problem is because we view it as such. In order to deal with this, sometimes we have to manipulate our perception to rid it of the problem.

Everyone has heard the old maxim that we can’t control what others think of us. We all know this to be true. Well, that is unless you work in the public relations industry or are part of the White House Press Corps. Then you are sure that you can control what others think, or at least what they should think about someone. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we have no chance at controlling the thought patterns of others in relation to their opinions of ourselves. The best we can do is to act in a way that we want others to see and allow them to believe what they will. The truth is usually somewhere in between our thoughts and theirs. Even if you act consistently with the Golden Rule in every occasion, there will be those who choose to think ill of you. So why bother trying to alter others’ opinions of yourself.

Instead, alter your own perception on things. If you do something because someone tells you to do it and you are worried that you are solely acting in that way because they control you, then convince yourself that you are doing it because you want to do it. Now, instead of them thinking they have control over you and you thinking they have control over you. They think they have control over you and you think you had fun. You can’t change what they think, so change what you think. Now obviously this has its limitations. If you go around convincing yourself that the sky is green, you won’t be well adjusted - you’ll be nuts. And others will think you’re nuts anyway, so you’re screwed either way.

So our lives are all viewed through our own perceptions. How we choose to perceive the world around us determines how we perceive our own circumstances. There are those of us who choose to view our lives as a Monet – from a distance to enjoy the overall image and the breathtaking beauty or up close where all we see is the various blotches of color with no beautiful image and nothing but chaos. This describes the vast majority of the population. Which group you fit into is up to you. But I would recommend to you this, most art museums place ropes in front of the Monets to keep the viewing public at a distance. Take a hint from them. Then again, there are others who choose to view their lives as an Escher, there are staircases leading to nowhere in particular and nothing makes sense. For those people, it might be a little more than a matter of perception, it may be a matter of medication or lack thereof. But that’s another topic for another time.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Weekend Warrior

Ok, so I'm not as young as I used to be. This is a realization I've had to come by, albeit kicking and screaming. But I think I'm finally ready to admit it. For those of you that don't know, I play in an amateur baseball league. We play on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Well, after yesterday's game, my body is just a little bit sore. Unfortunately, it's my legs that are the most sore. So all day at work, my walking resembled more of a pained waddle than a confident or athletic gait. It wouldn't have been so bad except that the three pregnant women in the office were making fun of me for it. Let me tell you, that is a humbling experience.

Anyway, the whole thought of getting older is a little frustrating to me. I guess I have a little bit of Peter Pan syndrome - I don't ever want to grow up. I always told myself that as long as I could do the things athletically that I always could, that I wasn't getting any older. I could show up at the baseball field, lace up my spikes, and play with no worries. No post-game ice sessions or ibuprofen cocktails needed. Unfortunately, those days are behind me and it's days like to today that hammer that point home to me.

Oh well, I guess I can always continue to act childish.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

After All, Freud Was a Man

Ok, so I figured it'd probably be a good idea to actually post something worth reading in this thing. But, since I don't really have anything on my mind at the moment that's pushing any of the creative buttons in my head, I thought I'd post one of my older writings. By the way, all of my future postings won't be this long - I promise. Anyway, enjoy...

For years, men have been inundated with information as to how we are to act and be. Granted, women deal with the same problem (probably even to a greater extent.) But that is not the focus of this piece. No, this piece is centered on something that I actually know about – being a man. What problems could possibly be involved in this? That’s what I’m going to attempt to make known.

Back in the Stone Age, men were far simpler creatures. They were loud and dirty and went around hitting women over the head with clubs. (Ok, except for the last part, maybe not that much has changed.) Their lives revolved around hunting and gathering. They would leave in the morning and not return home until they had hunted or gathered something for the family to eat. Basically their main concerns were which animal skin to wear and the direction of the wind. Well, that and whether they could outrun their friends in case dinner decided it didn’t want to be dinner. That was one benefit of the hunting and gathering lifestyle – one didn’t spend a lot of time sitting around the cave. Our primitive ancestors weren’t asked to do much housework.

As time progressed, men progressed as well. I know in some cases this is debatable, but for the most part it is true. Suddenly, hunting and gathering was no longer the only concern of the species. For most of the formative years of maledom, hunting and gathering was actually replaced with fighting and thus the golden age of military history was born. For centuries, brave men went off to war and fought valiantly for whatever the cause. Some of these men had a deep desire to fight and possibly die for the underlying principle for which that particular war was being fought. Still others simply wanted to get out of the house for awhile. Whatever the reason, men had advanced societally.

While there still are wars being fought, for the most part they are now left to those who make fighting and the military their job, once again shifting the burden away from men-at-large to provide the necessary manpower, for lack of a better word. This has led men to further progress away from their hunting and gathering background and more towards a sitting and watching existence. Personally, I think had cable existed in the Stone Age, there would have been a whole lot less hunting and gathering.

So what was the purpose of this historical backstory? To be honest, I have no idea. I really just wanted to use the phrase hunting and gathering a lot. That’s not a phrase that comes up in daily conversation very much at all outside of an anthropology classroom. I just thought a little branching out was in order. Oh well.

The crux of this discussion revolves more around the attitudinal shift guys have had to deal with in recent years and the sometimes fine line we walk on a daily basis in trying to balance the expectations placed upon us. Men are expected to be strong, confident, and display leadership. They are also expected to be nurturing, supportive, and understanding. While these things are not mutually exclusive, they can often tug in opposite directions. They end result is often a feeling more usually reserved for those taffy stores you see in every beachfront town on the East coast.

Before I go any further I think it is critical to point out that this is intended in no way to promote male chauvinism or any other attitude that would demean women or undervalue them in any way. For my entire life, I have been brought up with the belief that women should be on equal footing with men and I have tried to make sure I never do anything to go against that. So please do not take this in that way. I am merely trying to point out some of the things that I deal with on a daily basis as a man and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Getting back to the task at hand (by the way, have you figured out yet, that I really have no clue where I am going with this – and that’s why we have taken a meandering path to this point?) I hope to make light of some things using personal experiences.

Men, for the most part, are called upon to perform a difficult balancing act on a daily basis. We are asked to maintain a certain level of manliness, hearkening back to our prehistorical, hunting and gathering (there’s that phrase again) days. We are also expected to balance that with the more enlightened man of the modern era. This is the man that is expected to be sensitive and share interests other than hunting and gathering. (I’m not going to say it.) In a way, this is very similar to the Freudian theory of personality. Freud espoused the idea that we have three distinct stages of development that we must go through and that we have to deal with even after having gone through them. Freud, of course, called these the “Id”, “Ego”, and “Superego”. For the purposes of this piece, think of the “Id” as the hunter and gatherer (…never mind…), the more primitive, base instinct. There is a beer commercial where a guy talks about eating ketchup packets as a meal - that would be this side. The other two represent a more highly developed stage of personality. This is the stage that is more civilized. I think the “Superego” is the side that can pick out a good wine to go with fish or something like that. Either way you look at it, Freudian theory stated that we wrestle with these stages throughout our development. And it is this struggle that forms our personalities.

Recently I had an interesting experience. I was out running some errands – ok, I was buying bread – and I started friendly conversation with the girl behind the counter. I had no purpose in this conversation other than to make the few minutes I was there buying bread a little more pleasant. After a couple of minutes of nothing more than friendly banter about some of the items in the bakery, my friendly sales clerk proceeded to offer me a bagel – on the house. Now, this gesture amounted to little more than a free $.75 gift. But it did present an interesting question in the mind of this guy. When a female in such a situation is as friendly to you as this, should you bite and ask her out?

Now, the male brain – and yes, there is such a thing – is wired with two distinctly different poles. One part is an evolutionary throwback to our hunter and gatherer, animal skin wearing, pre-enlightenment, days. That part of the brain revels in the thrill of the chase and believes that men as a right should take every opportunity like this and instigate such a hunt. Granted, this is also the same part of the brain that created the pickup line. So, it doesn’t exactly have a history of being very intelligent.The other part is that of the modern realist. This is the part that usually controls the finances and other mundane daily items. When this side kicks in, you are faced with the realization that the bakery girl is in the service industry and her job is to be friendly to customers. I remember a couple of years ago when I was eating dinner with a couple of buddies of mine at a restaurant. We had a really friendly, attractive, waitress, who my friend thought was paying special attention to him. After he contemplated out loud to me about whether or not he should ask her out, he was reminded by my other friend that “She is a waitress, she is going for a bigger tip, you idiot.” In the end, he didn’t ask, so we’ll never know. But this is the fine line we walk on a regular basis. I have encountered this several times. Being the overly cautious person that I am in this area, I tend to listen more to the realist side of my brain in such circumstances. My rule of thumb is this: “If she is in the service industry, and especially if there is a tip involved, SHE IS JUST BEING FRIENDLY!” While I have no idea if this is indeed true, it has saved me from some potentially very embarrassing moments – or so I would think.

Then again, we are guys, sometimes this practical, logical side has a tendency to be overpowered by the other more testosterony side. (That is a word, I looked it up. It’s a type of pasta eaten by really hairy Italian guys with unbuttoned shirts and large medallions hanging around their necks and wearing pinky rings…ok, maybe not) This is the side that often leads guys – and not necessarily single ones either – to leave very large tips to very attractive waitresses. I know this. I was a waiter for two summers while in college. I witnessed this many times and always got a hearty laugh out of it, especially when the waitresses would come back to the server area and talk about it. They always joked around about the guy who thought they she was flirting with him and left her a huge tip. Another thing, this doesn’t work both ways. I NEVER got a large tip for flirting with a woman at one of my tables. The only time I got a really large tip was when a kid spilled his drink all over me and the family felt sorry for me. Even with this first-hand knowledge, I still have fallen into this trap before as a restaurant patron. Let’s just say that a buddy and I left a 60% tip once for a waitress we thought was particularly attractive and particularly flirty. It would have been a little smaller but we kept upping each other in some bizarre attempt to curry more favor with her. I think at one point, he attempted to throw his watch into the pot. At the end of the night, neither one of us left with her – of course. We were a little bit lighter in the wallets and she had a nice story to tell to the other waitresses.

So that is the mental balancing act that all guys wrestle with on a daily basis. This is the Freudian progression we undergo regularly. We try to listen to both sides. A lot of times, this isn’t a problem. Every-once-in-awhile though, the cave man on the one shoulder has a tendency to scream a little louder and we revert to our more primitive selves. It’s these times that we leave a little lighter in the wallets or a little red-faced from some really cheesy pickup attempt gone awry. But it is also these times that leave everyone with a good story to tell. So instead of getting upset at how stupid we can be sometimes, be thankful for these moments. If it weren’t for these, things would be a lot more boring.

A little introduction

I've had a couple of friends tell me that I needed to start my own blog. I resisted for awhile based on my own perceived laziness. But, I finally gave in and decided to dip my toes in the shallow end of the blogging pool. Hopefully, I'll do a better job of updating this than I think I actually will. I guess we'll see.