The transvestite in the ladies’ room

The Ladies' Room

Most of what you see and think is a lie.

I started thinking about this when a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that someone I regarded highly was “a real jerk.”

“How do you know?” I asked. She explained that she was at an event and overheard him say something that seemed, well, jerky. There was a pause as I sat there, waiting for more evidence, but that was the only encounter she ever had with him. She hurriedly mentioned that a friend of hers’ had also heard he was a jerk. Noticing the incredulous expression on my face, she said:

“Well, I just know.

Connecting the dots

What my friend was doing was connecting the dots (albeit only two of them in her case). It’s something we all do to make sense of our world. Here are a few famous examples.


From the countless dots in the sky, we select a few, connect them, and almost magically flesh out Orion the Hunter or Pegasus the Flying Horse.

“Do we see reality as it is?”

We’re all wired to connect the dots, but sometimes that wiring can lead to mistakes. There are some wonderful TED talks that describe how we perceive things and show how easily we’re fooled.

In a magician’s talk, he noted how “we are always solving. We are always trying to decode our world.” And he used that impulse to trick his audiences.

In a talk on optical illusions, the founder of an art and science lab showed how we could think of the same information very differently under different conditions.

“The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what’s true for sensory information is true for information generally. There’s no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

So, how do we see? Well, we see by learning to see. The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information, and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world.”

A cognitive scientist explained our (mis)perceptions in slightly more technical terms in his talk “Do we see reality as it is?”

“When you simply open your eyes and look about this room, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are engaged. Now, this is a bit surprising, because…the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. But that doesn’t explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to?

Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It feels like we’re just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we’re constructing everything that we see. We don’t construct the whole world at once. We construct what we need in the moment.”

The transvestite in the ladies room

In short, we take in some bits of information and make up the rest, filling in all the missing pieces.

A story from Loving What Is made me laugh, as it highlighted how ridiculous and misleading our stories can be. It made me think of all the tragicomedies we each write every day, and how our need to make sense of the world can lead us wildly astray.

It also made me think of how simply being mindful of the stories we make up and asking ourselves Is that really true? can help us be happier and more open.

“Once, as I walked into the ladies’ room at a restaurant near my home, a woman came out of the single stall. We smiled at each other, and, as I closed the door, she began to sing and wash her hands. “What a lovely voice!” I thought. Then, as I heard her leave, I noticed that the toilet seat was dripping wet. “How could anyone be so rude?” I thought. “And how did she manage to pee all over the seat? Was she standing on it?”

Then it came to me that she was a man – a transvestite, singing falsetto in the women’s restroom. It crossed my mind to go after her (him) and let him know what a mess he’d made. As I cleaned the toilet seat, I thought about everything I’d say to him. Then I flushed the toilet. The water shot up out of the bowl and flooded the seat. And I just stood there laughing.”

The Ladies' Room

“Beginner’s mind” in everyday life

I was at the top of our narrow sloping driveway, sitting on my bike, after my father had just removed my training wheels. I was five, and my older brother was there too.

“Ready?” my father said, and let go. Gravity took over, and I squeezed the handlebars as I went faster, quickly veering too far right until I crashed into the building next door. I lay there stunned, with my ego and my knee badly bruised.

“You didn’t hit the brake!” my brother scolded, and I felt stupid on top of everything else. I vowed not to try again any time soon.

That was one way to begin. Afraid and without proper preparation, I was focused solely on the outcome. I took the failure personally and gave up instead of persisting. It was a mistake I was to repeat.

There are, of course, better ways to approach something new.

Beginner’s mind

A phrase that captures the more positive aspects of a fresh perspective is “beginner’s mind” (or Shoshin 初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism.

“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

I had seen the phrase before, but it was only as I began learning to play the piano recently that I could appreciate the meaning

Playing with two hands

I approached learning the piano differently from learning to ride a bike. I was without fear of judgment and without expectation. In my second lesson this past week, my teacher showed me a version of “Ode to Joy” that required playing with two hands.

“Are you crazy?” I joked. “This is only the second lesson!”

In my head, the coordination required for playing with two hands was beyond me. But despite my trepidation at taking the next step, my teacher guided me and I got it after a few attempts. My playing was lacking grace and tempo, and was filled with mistakes, but I knew that practice would be my ally. I smiled with the fulfillment that comes with getting better at something.

Biking to work

The next morning, I practiced playing with two hands before work and could see more improvement. Alone in the apartment, I even applauded myself after a minor breakthrough.

I was experiencing the “openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” of beginner’s mind.

It was while I was biking to work shortly after practice that I remembered the story of my first attempt to ride on two wheels. I also remembered the freedom I felt when I eventually did learn to ride. The feel of independence, the feel of the wind.

I pedaled slowly along the Hudson River. I paid attention to the breeze and the smell of the water, and to the shapes of the clouds. To the tourists strolling and consulting maps in different languages. I nodded good morning to the Statue of Liberty.

Beginner’s mind, I thought, doesn’t just apply to “studying a subject.” It can apply to each and every day.

Beginner's mind on the way to work

Loving What Is

I’m sitting in the park on a gorgeous day, and I see a young mother trying to restrain her 1-year old son from making his way toward the grass.

He’s happy and excited, and the mother is getting increasingly upset.

“Wait. Wait. WAIT. Wait. You’re not following directions!! Sit! Wait. Wait.”

The boy simply saw the grass and wanted to go there. But the mother couldn’t accept that.

It was a laughable scene, until I realized I was doing the same thing every day throughout the day.

“Make a right on Warren.”

We’re coming down West Street and we’re almost home. My wife makes a simple suggestion: “Make a right on Warren.” It’s a block ahead of where I normally turn.

I’m instantly annoyed, and I show it. We’ve had this conversation before. She thinks she can optimize the route based on the lights and save us a few seconds. Why does she care where I turn? Why is she always optimizing everything? She should think about something else!

It’s such a small thing, and yet I can feel my body tense up as I express my irritation. I immediately regret my reaction, but it’s too late. It seems like I’m wired to respond that way.

Loving What Is

Well, after 51 years, I may have discovered a remedy. I found it in a book recommended by my good friend Eve (note to self: always read what Eve recommends).

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, “enables you to see what’s troubling you in an entirely different light” by having you ask yourself “four questions that can change your life.”

Loving What Is

It sounds ambitious, but it’s quite simple, and the many dialogs between the author and a wide range of individuals helps you see how to apply it.

The main premise is that suffering tends to come not from what happens but from what we think about what happens and what we think should happen. My wife’s suggestion about where to turn was simple and harmless, but it triggered a set of thoughts that made me upset.

What if I could train myself to think differently?

Doing The Work

Byron Katie refers to applying the ideas in her book as “The Work.” The first step is to complete a worksheet with judgments you’re making about someone. Here’s a common example.

My boss should appreciate me more.

I want him to give me more recognition and praise for my work.

He should be more caring.

I need him to see the big picture and not focus on small things.

I don’t want to get any more urgent emails from him about things that aren’t important.

Then, armed with four questions, you practice inquiry to dive into those judgments:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn the statements around in various ways to examine them more deeply. For example:

I should appreciate me more.

I should appreciate my boss more.

The triggers for me tend to be when I apply “should” and “need” to other people. They tend to pit me against reality and, as Byron Katie says, “you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

I’ve been practicing doing The Work for a few weeks now, and I’m noticeably calmer. My wife’s suggestion is just a suggestion. An email from the boss is just an email. I can’t know their thinking or their story. It’s my thinking and judgements that are the problem. If I embrace what is, then I change my thinking and I feel happier.

Next time, I’ll make the right turn on Warren. And I’ll smile.

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?”

She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that maid me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends – smart and accomplished – would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading “be free where you are” comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I’m not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert.

They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here.
I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to ‘add’ to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. “Are you serious? Will you really practice?” I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride