Posted by: Nancy | April 9, 2015

A more colorful world

Ever since David Eagleman made me aware of my umwelt, I wanted to expand it.

“Umwelt” is one of those strange and appealing words that sounds slightly unsavory, a bit dangerous. It describes the surrounding world, or as Dr. Eagleman explains it, the bubble of the world that each of us is capable of sensing.

Our umwelts vary. bloodhoundFor example, humans and animals have different experiences of the world. He notes that bloodhounds have a superior sense of smell; the bloodhound umwelt is much richer in its olfactory experience than the human umwelt.  The bloodhounds might feel sorry for us with our inferior sense of smell; but as humans, we don’t know what we are missing. It’s not an absence we notice.

In the same way, Eagleman explains, humans can only perceive a small fragment of the energy spectrum. We can see a rainbow of colors, but we don’t perceive ultraviolet light or x-rays or other wavelengths. We don’t even know what all is out there because we don’t have senses to detect it. Our umwelt is limited to what we can experience; we don’t miss these other experiences because we don’t even know that they are there.

But maybe not for long.

Eagleman and others are now experimenting with ways to expand our senses. The work is fascinating and a bit mind-blowing, pulling on new monitoring devices, data feeds, and wearable sensor technology. Eagleman’s work involves using wearable sensors as a new interface — electromagnetic sensors on human skin. The skin feels the impulse and relays the sense — data — to the brain, which learns how to process it.

An unrelated study in Japan, researchers gave blind rats a neuroprosthesis that fed geomagnetic data into the rats’ brains. Within three days, the blind rats were able to navigate mazes as well as normal sighted rats. “We were surprised that rats can comprehend a new sense that had never been experienced or ‘explained by anybody’ and can learn to use it in behavioral tasks within only two to three days,” the researcher said.

expanded umweltEagleman postulates that interfaces could take vast data feeds — like from the cockpit of jet or from a systems operations center. One could learn to discern abnormalities and detect issues that arise from the patterns in the data flow. It could be that you hear the data, or you feel it on your skin, or you taste it… you sense the health of the operation.

Bring it on! I want to try this. What are the other colors? What are the other feelings? What are the other dimensions? Will this lead us to understanding the spiritual world better? Will we experience the multitude of parallel worlds postulated in string theory? What are the other experiences that are just waiting for us?

Sadly, like the human who can’t conceive of the richness of the bloodhound’s olfactory senses, I can’t imagine what I’m missing.

Sum cover

Thanks to TEDxKC for the simulcast from Vancouver. I first encountered Eagleman through his book, Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives

More on Eagleman at his website: http://www.eagleman.com

More of his discussion of the Umwelt in an earlier piece on The Edge

Posted by: Nancy | March 26, 2015

Fitting In, Standing Out, Breaking Chains

For women in business, there is a continual dilemma: How can one fit in well enough to be accepted, yet stand out enough to be uniquely valued?

We haven’t cracked the code yet:

  • Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit Closeup of rusty but durable forged together chain linksagainst Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers unveils some of the inner workings of a highly respected venture capital firm. There’s an uncomfortable familiarity in the riveting testimony about the divergent perspectives of Pao’s performance and attitude. She had positive evaluations, yet she also was described as aggressive (when she wasn’t being meek), uncollaborative and unlikable.
  • From a Time Magazine excerpt on Lean In: Research shows that “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Author Sheryl Sandberg continues: “When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is ‘not as well liked by her peers.’ She is probably also ‘too aggressive,’ ‘not a team player,’ ‘a bit political’; she ‘can’t be trusted’ or is ‘difficult.’ Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”
  • And, closer to home, the real dollars-and-cents impact of this is visible in the Women’s Foundation’s compelling research showing that women continue to earn significantly less money than men for the same positions. On average in the state of Missouri, women earn 71 cents for every dollar men earn.

If one of us is chained, none of us are free.

How are we to deal with fitting in, standing out, and being likable? It may be easier to figure out how to fit in and stand out than to solve for likability.

Fitting in: For example, to fit in, one strategy is to start by wearing the same uniforms as the rest of the team at the table. In most cases, it’s men in dark suits at the table. So wear a dark suit.

ID1301160-solbergb

Betsey Solberg of Fleishman-Hilliard made this point at a recent gathering of the Kansas City chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. She was wearing a black suit with a bright scarf (see photo), and noted she has about 14 others in her closet, that dark suits are about all that she wears. This isn’t blind conformity or denying a personal style; it  signals professionalism and removing yourself from being the topic of the conversation.

Or not. There’s an alternate viewpoint, most recently articulated in The New York Times, describing the decidedly “girlie” attire of Michelle Obama as a rejection of the Merkelization of women’s political dress. It may be time for an opposition to the dark suit strategy, also known as “bore them into talking about business.” I love the conclusion by columnist Vanessa Friedman:

How do you erase a stereotype? You confront it, and force others to confront their own preconceptions about it, and then you own it. And in doing so you denude it of its power.”

Standing out: So enough about fitting in; how about standing out? All of us want to be a part of the team, but also to stand out apart from the rest of the team. My choices for standing out call for demonstrating service and intellect, and building trust.

Service is an old-fashioned and little-used word at work, but I think it needs some additional attention. Service can be leadership; it is an attitude and it always is honorable. One who focuses on serving others — the team, customers, mission —will always be more valuable than the one who’s working her own agenda.

Another way to stand out is intellectually. Be smart, knowledgeable, and have the data to back up your insights. And there’s no replacement for trust, in any setting: Always stay true to your word; be the one who can be counted on to help solve problems.

Likability: But solving for likability? I’d rather remove it from the equation. You can’t make people love you.

It helps me to remember that the only thing I can control is myself. Focus outward: Start with basic human respect for others and work on ways to help others (service). And then hold yourself — and others — accountable for fairness in how we treat each other. Apply fairness to men and women, all positions, incomes, ages, races, religions, preferences, capabilities, etc. Remove likability from the equation — you don’t have to like someone to treat them with respect, with fairness.

If one of us is chained, none of us are free.

Posted by: Nancy | February 20, 2015

On Stories and Experiences

The poet is a young man, what is called a “millennial” these days. He walks onto a sparse stage, alone, carrying a backpack. He begins hesitantly, awaiting the inspiration of the muses to guide him.AnIliad

At first, it’s a little awkward for us around him. What is he doing? He appears self-conscious before all of us, we who sit and judge.

He persists and slowly his presence and manner feels less contrived. He overcomes his vulnerability; or maybe we accept his vulnerability and generate compassion toward him. We listen, and he becomes passionate about the telling of his story — one of the oldest in the world.

It’s a vivid modernist retelling of The Iliad that has me musing about the power of stories.

I think stories are like evidence of quantum theory. When you listen to a story, your brain acts as though it is experiencing the story firsthand. The words and voice stimulate neurological behavior identical to the actual experience. An action in one dimension creates a reaction in another, a connection somehow, across time and space.

Our brains behave like participants, rather than spectators, during stories. The words we read or the voices we hear become neurological impulses and trigger chemical reactions — we feel the story in emotions. That’s why we remember stories better than lectures, that’s why scientists say that humans are wired to tell stories.

Stories are the way inside the mind, and also, in business, the currency of marketing. Social media flourishes because it feeds storytelling of the most personal kind, and we can’t resist. We are vulnerable to stories, we say they touch our hearts, but truly, they invade and infect our brains.

Back to the performance: The poet was telling essentially the same story that survived as an oral tradition for hundreds of years — perhaps thousands — before it was ever written down.  It is a story so important that it had to be shared and kept alive; people dedicated their lives to telling this story. And now, this young man joins their ranks. Brilliantly.

I’m grateful that this tradition persists. I’m grateful for the performers like the poet, and for storytellers in general, whether in book, prose, song, video, or today’s interactive digital media. Ones and zeros, voices in the dark — as long as we are telling stories, we are figuring out how to make sense of our world. We are showing that we are human, and there is hope for us to learn new stories.

I’m in.

Resources:

  • National Geographic review of “Why Homer Matters”;
  • The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall (Mariner Books)
  • Art Credit: Blacktop Creative, reproduced from the program of An Iliad, which was performed at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Jan. 23-Feb. 15, 2015
Posted by: Nancy | February 12, 2015

“When Great Trees Fall”

I have been thinking of my family lately. In my mind’s eye, younger sister is at the center and she is represented as the tree. The rest of the family, my three brothers and I, are in a circle around the tree.

I have written of my sister before. She has Down Syndrome, and at 51, she has had many remarkable adventures and experiences: success as an artist, competing as an athlete in Special Olympics, a 25-year career with a public library, international travel, a love of dining out and trying new foods, the companionship of many friends. And from most who know her, a constant love.IMG_1818

The role of the siblings around her has changed over time. When she was very young, we provided nurturing and guidance and room to grow.  Later, we celebrated her successes and delighted in her joy. And now, as she is declining, we stand to support and cherish her.

We who make up the circle have grown closer together by her presence. She is the center, the focal point of the family, our reason for connection. We have also become better, stronger people because of her. She taught us patience and tolerance, how to laugh and take risks, how to really know joy.

These days, after her latest setback (a result of seizures and diminished brain capacity), we gather around her even more tightly and tenderly.

We struggle with her struggles, but I —we— will not mourn what is lost.

We will celebrate what exists in her still — the essence of her beautiful spirit. I see her earliest mannerisms, they way she brings her hands together and twinkles her fingers in joy. She laughs and giggles. She still tells herself stories, making sense of her world as best she can. She still is attracted to art and wants to create, she tries to establish her process. She still loves all those around her.

Her core is unchanged. We know she will lose more of her physical and mental abilities. We know that ultimately we will lose her physical presence. But I now realize that I do not need to feel less loved. All her love, her essence, does not change.

Back to the tree — the image came when a friend recently reminded me of Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall. (The poem appears in her fifth volume, I Shall Not Be Moved.)

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.

Our souls,
dependent upon their nurture,
now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.

We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of
dark, cold caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Posted by: Nancy | January 9, 2015

Je suis Charlie

je suis charlie

Posted by: Nancy | January 7, 2015

Absurd and Brilliant

A few weeks ago, my true love and I were in Buenos Aires. We had been walking that beautiful city, exploring parks, shops and the La Recoleta cemetery (4,800 exquisitely decorated vaults and home to a colony of feral cats!).  It was a pleasant day, but when a sudden rain shower threatened, we ducked into what promised to be a lively cafe.

IMG_1755IMG_1759

It was bustling and noisy. It was a multilevel cafe, with tables spilling out to the sidewalk and  inside. Beyond the inner tables was a broad stairway to a second level that contained the bar, kitchen and additional tables.

The crowd was diverse. There were older patrons leisurely sharing a bottle of wine, perhaps regulars. Nearby was a large loud table of young men and women, in jeans, with a pile of backpacks nearby. There were several small tables of executive-looking men and women in office attire — suits and ties, skirts and high heels — ordering quickly, likely from the nearby commercial district. And us, comfortable and happy to be there.

Nearly every spot on the walls and pillars was decorated. Most of the decorations were from a bygone era — flamboyant, gaudy, eccentric advertisements for soft drinks or fragments of pop culture images like Elvis Presley. I was happy that our corner featured works of Robert Doisneau — the famous kiss, boy with baguette and so on.

I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of a picture that hung above a nearby table:

IMG_1753

It made me laugh at its absurdity and brilliance. I was swept away imagining the sounds of the lone cello, the music that only the mountain could hear, the poignance of the act and the commitment of the cellist. I remember taking my love’s hand, caught in a moment of happy emotion.

Later, haunted, I researched the image: this was one of a series of photos of Maurice Baquet by Robert Doisneau. The two were friends and shared a joie de vivre, a spirit of playfulness that feels so very French to me — one of the reasons I love France and its people.

Maurice was an accomplished cellist as well as a member of the 1936 French Olympic Ski Team and an expert mountain climber. The amazing photo was taken at Chamonix; I also found a lovely interview with Maurice (posted by his son the French actor Gregori Baquet). While I had trouble following all the details of the interview, Maurice is positively joyous throughout and it is obvious that he loved this act of making music for the mountain.

I tell this little story to illustrate the power of communication when it evokes emotion. The photo provided lessons — a demonstration of collaboration, creativity, and taking chances on something that might seem utterly absurd, all balanced by the incredible planning, the painstaking artistry, the years of practice and preparation that preceded the act. Risks taken over a lifetime created this image — a tribute to the human spirit,  absurd and brilliant.

 

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/5837491″>Maurice Baquet</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/gregoribaquet”>Gr&eacute;gori BAQUET</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Thanks to Gregori Baquet for sharing the video. 

Posted by: Nancy | December 23, 2014

Developing a Voice

From the Women’s Foundation Luncheon program, Dec. 5, 2014

Dr. Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, was in Kansas City recently speaking to a sold-out audience at the Women’s  Foundation annual luncheon. I knew she’d have a lot of wonderful things to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how impressive and inspirational she was.

She was polished and natural, comfortable telling her stories and making strong points based on facts (for example: women are an undervalued resource). Her straightforward approach conveyed power, yet she was also charming. Her diplomatic skills were evident, as was her commitment to service.

I had the sense that her commitment was to a service greater than politics. I admire that. I wish it was not so uncommon or old fashioned to see in our government leaders. Taking an oath of office is a commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic governance, by and for the people. It is a commitment to serve the country, and that is a responsibility and a duty that should override any loyalty to a single political faction.

Much of her talk, I realized later, was about her personal journey and the process of developing a voice. She told of the first time she entered a room as the Secretary of State with a roomful of men, and how she planned to spend the meeting listening and absorbing the situation. But when she sat behind the microphone labeled “United States of America,” she realized she MUST speak. She may not have felt ready, but it was her duty and that gave her confidence to act.

She has a famous quote (highlighted in the luncheon program): “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” In her closing, she offered bits of advice, including an encouragement to invest the necessary time to develop your own  experience — don’t be obsessed by the clock, she said. And, she invited all to join her in working toward change: “Refuse to be silent — we need every available voice to speak out.”

Her comments reminded me of something Miles Davis said: “You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

In both, there’s a sense that perfecting a voice takes time and courage.

Thanks to the Women’s Foundation for this extraordinary event.

Posted by: Nancy | November 28, 2014

Experience: Nothing is Wasted

penelopeI came across a quote that helps place life events in perspective: “Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.”

It’s from the new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, by Hermione Lee. She’s talking about the value of painful experiences. It’s a message to take to heart.

You could choose to put painful experiences out of mind quickly. It can be a kind of coping mechanism to push aside pain,  to set the memory out in the weather so rain and wind over time will erode the sharp edges of the experience.

Or you could turn that painful experience into an obsession, holding it tightly at the forefront of all thoughts; turn it over and over, endlessly examining the experience and relivingIMG_1232 the anguish.

In an interview, Hermione Lee shares that she likes to use a motto from biographer and novelist Victoria Glendenning: “Nothing is wasted.”

Lee says: “It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, ‘But something will come out of this.'”

Penelope is right — it’s what you do with the experience that matters. It’s better to embrace an experience, to explore it fully, and understand it.  You don’t get over it, you use it. You find the balance to own the experience, accept vulnerability or failure or betrayal, recognize loss, hold fast to your moral core, find sustenance there. You may not lessen the loss (all pain is loss) but you can save it and use it as a lesson for future acts.

Posted by: Nancy | May 5, 2013

Fragile

bleeding heart

I’ve been struggling to understand how to reconcile two alternate human traits — how we can be so fragile and yet so resilient.

It is so little to be missed. Just a breath, really, and then the delicate, insubstantial wisp of life is gone. Utterly gone.

It may be that we are always in the presence of death. It may be that some see and feel it more closely than others; sometimes we may not notice it all until it is within our immediate circle. We forget about it until we cannot ignore it.

I have mourned the loss of many friends recently. I have been surprised and saddened; I have cried for the gaping loss and emptiness. I have cried for my own loss and for the loss of others who loved the dead and now go on alone.

And yet… elsewhere, expecting to see death, I am surprised by the display of enormous willpower and unknown strength. The tenacity of living.

In the midst of frailty, in the feeling of being breakable and insubstantial, there can appear a vast power of living.

How strong we are.

How fragile we are.

This week, in my garden, I found my early spring bleeding heart plant bowed with snow. It had been a freakish snowstorm, and now it looked so sad I turned away, not wanting to dwell with the image. The next morning, the snow had dropped away and the pale crimson blossom stood out brightly, still full and healthy.

Today it was bobbing and bouncing  in the breeze , and I imagined it stretching gently, equally happy to greet the rain as the sun.

Posted by: Nancy | February 25, 2013

The most important thing

I’m not sure I can explain that title.
eggshell

It came to me as I was thinking about a funeral, or really, a wake that we attended this weekend.

It was for a good friend, and it was almost too much to think about that he would no longer be there. I was sad for my own loss, but I was heartbroken thinking about his family, especially his wonderful wife who adored him.

I was thinking about how sudden it was. I mean, we had just been planning dinner. I still had his last email in my inbox — waiting for a response.

I was thinking about why it shook me: no more email, no chatter, no jokes, no goofy videos. (One of my favorites was Jay Leno interviewing the woman who performed CPR on a chicken. It lived.)

I would miss his droll wit, his absolutely perfect use of expletives –timed and punctuated for maximum effect (usually hilarity, although sometimes used in admiration). I would miss his laughter. He loved to laugh.

I already miss his support. He would make me feel like I had the world in my grasp. And I would believe him, too, because he was that kind of guy. I felt loved; he was that generous, so generous I now believe everyone who knew him felt that.

So at the wake, we all laughed until we cried. We laughed at his old jokes, his long stories, his vast interests in even the most obscure things (Laser egg art?) and his belief that he was surrounded by the most interesting people in the world.

And in those few moments, we were. He had, once again, transformed us all.

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