Buck Brannaman & the lesson of solvitur en modo, firmitur en rey.

buck_dvd_cover

My sister and I have something in common when it comes to two of our closest friends. My sister’s college roomate, now a wife and mother of three and my best friend, a husband and father if two. both suffer from significant depression.

Each has issues with their spouse and children. But, I’ve identified a significant difference between the two and the difference was manifest in the one of two sentences that each of them chose to sum up their condition.

My sister’s friend says, “I just don’t want to feel like this any more.”

My buddy says. “I know there’s no help for me. This is just how it is.”

A while back, I felt motivated to share a DVD I own called Buck. It’s the now-famous story of horseman Buck Brannaman. I saw it on TV years ago and I never forgot it. It’s one of a handful of DVDs I’ve ever actually bought and I take it out from time to time just to watch a few scenes.

Now, the funny thing is that I have very little interest in riding horses. I’ve probably been riding ten times and on seven of those rides my steed was made of plastic. Still, I am fascinated with the way Brannaman conveys information. Earlier this year I went to see one of his clinics at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. It was fascinating. Now, Brannaman is not always a little ray of sunshine. But, what attracts me to his method is that it’s heavy on sensitivity and what I call, self-discovery. By that I mean that he’s not merely encouraging sensitivity toward the horse. Rather, he’s saying that sensitivity toward the horse is mandatory and that developing a sensitivity toward the horse you’re riding leads to sensitivity towards oneself and other people.

As I’m prone to do with nearly everything, I apply this to golf. Golf is nearly always taught as a prescribed method of creating a specific series of movements. Of course the golf swing is comprised of motions, so this make sense on one level. But, if you scratch the surface with the best golf instructors they will often admit that what they’re really trying to teach is a feeling that can be hard for some players to feel. I’ve even spoke to one teacher who told me he sometimes tries to trick his students into buying into a motion he thinks will create a feeling that will somehow unlock a better swing. Talk about tricky, but learning isn’t always easy and straightforward.

I’m sure you’re wondering how this applies to the first couple paragraphs. I have to admit that at the time I loaned my friend the DVD I wasn’t sure either. I just had a feeling. Now that he’s watched it I think I have handle on what I wanted him to get out of it. Some of the lessons resides in a line Brannaman refers to in the film:

Solvitur en modo, firmitur en rey.

This is Latin for gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it. Like I said, Brannaman should have been a golf teacher. I think my friend has lived most of his life believing that something done out of the gentleness of love must always be done in that same gentle way. Over the decades, this gentility-first ethos has spawned inaction and passivity where verve and action were needed. That first quote of his, I know there’s no help for me. This is just how it is rings like the very bell of negativity derived from passivity.

I think this is a heck of a difficult thing for my friend to become aware of at this point in his life. He’s gotten so good at applying this mentality to himself even though he would never prescribe it to his children. He has created a bizarre and damning corruption of the old line, Do as I say and not as I do. He has failed to see the real lesson he’s passing on to to children through his actions and his words.

My sister’s friend went out and got help because she didn’t want to keep feeling as bad as she did. She was prescribed with antidepressants and got better. Of course, science has found that people get better from depression for a number of reasons. For the fortunate, the brain’s chemistry normalizes over time all by itself. For some, antidepressants assist in the recovery of this balance. Sometimes the brain recovers from the causes of the depression, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, only with time and perspective.

But, before people get better they have to want to get better. Do we really need to talk about the connection between attitude and health?

I watched Brannaman work with a person as his clinic who told him, “Buck, I think all this leg work (in getting the horse to turn) has numbed my horse up.” Brannaman looked at the back end of her horse and said, “Well, a fly just landed on your horse’s flank and he flicked it away with his tail. If your horse can feel a fly, he can feel your knee. The question is, can you become sensitive to how your horse feels what he feels?”

Sensitivity, or what I prefer to call awareness, is what we should all be looking for. It doesn’t matter if we’re learning a new golf shot or we want to learn how to tell a horse to stop or go or we want to know how to relate more effectively to ourself or other folks. We must be aware in a way that gives us the best chance to learn what we need.

My dear friend has lost this awareness. He can’t bring himself to flick that fly off of his leg and so it’s going to keep tormenting him until he does. My sister’s friend felt the same way but she acted on her awareness that help was close by. I remember hearing Dick Cavett say that in the depths of depression the cure could have been as close as the other side of the kitchen table but he just couldn’t bring himself to reach for it.

I spend a couple hours each week talking to my friend and thinking about his plight. I try to monitor how he’s feeling without asking about it relentlessly. I try to point out options when it comes to his work and his life and his family. I encourage him to try new courses of action, new ways of doing things and different ways of thinking about his ife. He speaks frequently of his experience of what he terms existential dread and crisis.

He’s not joking…

So, I wonder about the internal force that pushed my sister’s friend to reach out for help and the internal deficit that makes my friend unable to do the same? Is optimism a prerequisite for a willingness to ask for help or even the belief that help exists? If it is, I’m quite sure I don’t know of a way to motivate optimism in anyone, even someone I know as well as my old friend. You can lead an horse to water or a friend toward help but in the end it’s up to the horse and the friend to care enough to help themselves. Ever the optimist I’m confidant my old friend will have a quenching drink from the fountain of help this year.

 

 

 

Buck Brannaman & the lesson of solvitur en modo, firmitur en rey.

Choosing to Live the Dream

I have a friend who likes to ask me what I would have liked to have done with my life. The unspoken assumption is pretty obvious; there’s no way I could be happy the way things turned out.

But the fact is I am with the way my life turned out.

My friend likes to wonder if I would have enjoyed being a full-time writer. I don’t believe I would have. I can’t imagine enjoying the grinding existence of the working writers I know. Life is more than writing for me. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand how many writers manage to squeeze in enough living to justify the amount of time and energy they devote to writing. Writing, for me anyway, is my response to some aspect of the life I’m living. Put another way, you can have a full life without writing but I don’t believe you can write anything worthwhile without living a full life.

There are other fundamental limiters to my writing and those are the honest and undeniable limits of my talent and inspiration. My inspirations simmer, they seldom boil. Also, I have many other pulls in my life and some of them also involve a kind of creativity and a smattering of inspiration. I love to golf and to hike and to take photographs. More than anything I enjoy being around the people whom I like and love. Writing much more than I already do would vacuum up precious time that could be spent actually doing other things and enjoying other people.

Today I bought new tires for my beloved Mini Cooper instead of buying a new car. I would like to be able to buy a house but the housing market rises faster than I can earn more money. I’ve been working to develop a business association with a high-end manufacturer in Sweden for the last five years. Would it have been easier to do if I had more cash on hand? Most certainly. Still, as has been better said by a million other writers before me the only thing I would truly like more of is time. In the end, it seems to me that we have a choice; we can either embrace life’s limitations or thrash against them.

By accepting those limitations, we allow ourselves to get started on some of the things we say matter to us. But, if we spend too much time thrashing about we’re likely to find our energy sapped before we even have a chance to bring our better selves to bear on projects that could be worthwhile.

Now that’s what I call wasted energy.

And so, I am truly living the dream. My health is good. My loved ones are many and nearby and the world is full of things that fascinate me. From time to times those fascinations inspire me to write. Living the dream is a choice I’m happy I made.

Choosing to Live the Dream

Treating and preventing plantar fasciitis

For those who have never dealt with it, let me assure you that plantar fasciitis is a very annoying malady. I’ve had it twice, once about a decade ago and again over the last few weeks. When you have it, you just want it to go away. There’s nothing like foot (and back) pain when it comes to making pretty much your entire life difficult. It’s the kind of discomfort that’s perfectly suited to taking the fun out of even the most enjoyable activities.

The first time I had it, I was gleefully ignorant about questions regarding the causes of plantar fasciitis. Now, the questions about cause and prevention are very keen to me. The most simplistic explanations tend to point to improper (unsupportive) shoes and the need for proper arch support and maybe even orthotics. The more thought-provoking information contends that plantar fasciitis is actually caused by the weakening of the foot and that this weakening is caused by overly supportive shoes and the excess heel striking they encourage.

As an aside, I should say that my current battle with plantar fasciitis came after playing golf with minimalist golf shoes. Still, I’ve now come to see those shoes as less of the cause of my discomfort and more the things that pushed the progressive weakening of my feet into the fore. Two of the more interesting contentions from what I’ll call the unconventional plantar fasciitis information sources are these:

1) That arch supports don’t actually support the foot’s arch, they only serve to limit circulation to the area and weaken it. The logical foundation for this argument is the fact that structural arches do not derive their support from their centers but rather from the end, which would be the ball and heel of the foot.

2) That a lack of flexibility in the toes (particularly the big toe) contributes to plantar fasciitis. It’s said that the big toe should have 80 degrees of extension. This allows the toe to extend when the foot strides forward. But, when this kind of full extension is impossible (mine extends less than 50 degrees) it causes an excessive load to the root of the plantar arch and causes the foot to twist during the stride.

Putting these two contentions together brought me to the belief that my feet had suffered a cumulative injury. I could sense this before I had the informational ammunition to support the opinion. My feet just always felt squished into shoes and I had lost the ability to walk barefoot without feeling like I was putting my feet at risk.

It’s easy to conclude that regaining the strength and flexibility of my feet, toes and ankles are a priority. So far, I have done as much barefoot walking as possible, even at work and especially once I’m at home. I am also doing twice or three times daily massage of the rear of my foot using balls of various hardness (from golf balls to tennis balls).

I’ve also sought to walk more lightly and with less heel strike. That’s a big challenge because I tend to walk fast and I spend most of my time on very hard and frequently slick surfaces. It’s a all very much a work in progress but I am optimistic.

By the way, I have found both of these sites to be invaluable:

A physical therapy website with a great treatment guide for plantar pain sufferers.

An excellent video explaining the role of big toe flexibility in plantar pain.

Treating and preventing plantar fasciitis

Maintaining optimism in times of change

That’s an odd title, of course, when you consider that change is the universal constant. At times it’s easy to think things have stayed the same for a while and then you get a glance at a few extra gray hairs here and there and you realize it’s been going on for a while without you noticing it.

As I mentioned in another post, my job of the last dozen years will come to an end at the end of July. Whether it was a great run or not, it has come to an end as do all things. This change has imposed itself on me in a very obvious way that cannot be ignored. I can miss a few new gray hairs for a while but I cannot miss the end of a longstanding position.

“That is no country for old men.” John Butler Yeats

That is the first line of Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium. I interpret the poem and that line differently than most. In it, I hear that the future does away with the aged; that country is the future. In Hamlet, Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country. Both writers sought to make the future a place as well as a time. In doing so they sought to make time into something less amorphous and more comprehensible.

As writers often do, they were trying to tell us something. For me, the lesson is that these times of obvious change are cosmic favors. It’s up to me to see it as such and to seize the opportunity. The angst of times like these is driven by uncertainty and the question of whether I am up to challenges the future has in store. So often, the changes brought by time happen when we’re unaware or distracted by other things. But, this change, by the sheer obviousness of it, is calling out to me to make it into a time of gain rather than loss.

I am looking forward to a very interesting fall and winter. Both should be seasons of great opportunity; the kinds of opportunities that only a big change can bring.

Maintaining optimism in times of change

The value of faking optimism

This article is pretty interesting. It’s one of the few I’ve read to focus on the idea that even if you don’t feel optimistic it’s beneficial to act optimistic. The article asks reader to channel their inner Tiggers rather than succumb to their usual trend toward their inner Eeyore.

Two of the more intriguing elements of the article are the ideas that the way people walk and the way they imagine themselves can be so important to a person’s sense of positive and negative outlooks. I usually prefer to walk quite quickly when my interest is getting from one place to another. When I notice my shadow I see a figure that’s canted forward slightly and moving briskly. It sometimes feels like a happy gait but more often it just feels purposeful.

Imagining myself is really tricky. After thinking about it for a time I realized that I usually imagined ideas, actions and things. I want to work on my book or practice my golf swing. The “I” in both of those sentences and thoughts feel a bit less significant than golf and writing. The article quotes Jeff Wise from Psychology Today:

He states, “People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do? This approach works because of the rather surprising way that our brains form self-judgments. Numerous experiments have demonstrated that when it comes to forming beliefs about our own character and proclivities, we don’t peer inward, as you might expect; instead, we observe our own external behavior. If we see ourselves carrying out a particular action—whatever the actual motivation—our self-conception molds itself to explain that reality.”

I confess I find this to be a little tricky. It’s easy to imagine myself practicing golf but it’s harder to imagine myself as the better golfer that would result from lots of practice without putting in the practice first.

Rather than focusing on my future golf-self or my future writer-self I tend to focus on the next step. There’s an old saying that goes, “What’s the most important step on the journey to the of the mountain? The next one…” But, maybe the next step focus doesn’t do enough to develop optimism? Miguel Cervantes wrote, “Love not what you are, but what you may become.” It may be that you have to envision your future and better self first and then imagine what that future self would do. That seems like a more inspiring approach…

The value of faking optimism

Is optimism tied to American-style individualism?

A person can be optimistic about a lot of things. A sports fan can be optimistic that their favorite team is going to have a good season. Some people are optimistic about the future. But, does optimism spring more readily from a culture that also values individualism?

This article sets out to show just such a link.

As an aside, I’m always surprised that the Germans are such a dreary lot.

The piece cites a Pew Research Center study of 44 countries that focused on people’s sense of control and also the effect of hard work. The results show that Americans believe both in the ability of the individual to exercise control and also in the value of hard work to affect an outcome.

Seems sensible but, then again, I’m an American.

Our individualized optimism is even set apart among other wealthy nations. Again, what’s Germany’s problem? They build some great cars and have the Autobahn for goodness sake.

I find the study results interesting because I do not find the average American all that optimistic. Instead I see and hear a sense of stuckness from a lot of people. People are questioning the cost and benefit of everything from education to government. Certitude of mission seems in short supply. Not even NASA seems sure of their mission these days.

Still, there’s a kind of resilience alongside the uncertainty, a kind of confidence borne of the unusual alchemy of democracy and individualism. As attitudinally challenged as we are here, I’m glad I’m not in Germany.

Is optimism tied to American-style individualism?

Flow & living as an art

A couple years ago, when I first started to think about optimism I considered the phrase, living is an art.

It seemed like a pretentious notion, perfectly mated to new age sensibilities. As time went on I began to think that even if it did seem pretentious it might very well be true.

The word flow triggers the same response. This article defines flow and describes its eight ingredients:

1 The experience occurs usually when we are involved in tasks that we have a good chance of completing.

2 We are able to concentrate fully on the activity.

3 The task has clear goals.

4 The task is such that it gives us immediate feedback on how well we are doing.

5 Our involvement is “deep but effortless” and this “removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.”

6 There is a sense of exercising control over our actions.

7 Concern for the self disappears but paradoxically our “sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.”

8 We lose our normal sense of time “we can feel either that it has speeded up (and passed quickly) or slowed down.”

Just to show how challenging flow can be when it comes to, oh let’s say, golf and writing consider my take on them respective to those activities:

1 This is a very poor fit. The sense that the task of writing and golf can be completed is completely absent from the experience. There’s always another swing to be made and another word to be chosen.

2 Yes, full concentration on both golf and writing is highly desirable.

3 Yes, the goals are clear (usually).

4 Um, sometimes the task gives immediate feedback and sometimes it doesn’t. I can spend quite a bit of time writing only to realize days later that what I wrote didn’t really work. Similarly, working on golf involves a good bit of sideways and even some backward steps. It’s simply a very hard game and reliable feedback isn’t a constant.

5Effortlessness in golf or writing is both rare and short lived. It does happen, it’s glorious and then it’s gone.

6 Certainly, control over actions is a feature in both golf and writing.

7 The disappearance of the self is a tough one, too.

“Just be the ball.” -Ty Webb in Caddyshack

8 The emergence of the stronger self is true. Success brings confidence. In golf, I can recall certain shots, the way impact felt, the way the ball flew and I can imagine myself doing it again. Good writing, too, breeds an excitement about the next idea, the next event and the next part of a story. Time does speed up when I’m writing, but that’s mostly because I am always putting it between the rock and a hard place of other activities that demand my attention. Golf has an easier time of it; if I’m on the range or the course the nature of time does change.

More flow is a good thing, but it’s not always easy to achieve.

Flow & living as an art