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GP16Mar05: The Digitally Distressed and Getting on with It

More Than a Health Club.  We had another fine stay last week at one of the many Kimpton Hotels (now there are 35), boutique getaways slightly off the beaten path in major cities around the nation.  See www.kimptonhotels.com.  Oh, how they have improved since our stay decades ago at the Bedford in San Francisco!  It was the first property in the chain, and we found it so depressing we moved out after one night.  Back then, in Baghdad by the Bay, there was a host of more spritely, small hostelries such as the Vintage Court, home to a very hot restaurant called Masa, where one could park in reasonable comfort for the night.  But Kimpton has shown the most staying power, has gone upmarket, and is a lot more comforting today than one might have surmised from its roughhewn beginnings. 

Yoga.  We find the staff eager to please, if sometimes untutored.  Moreover, Kimpton offers a few touches others have not thought about.  For today’s digitally stressed traveler, a health club is not enough to get reconnected to oneself.  At Kimpton, “a complimentary yoga basket is available for delivery to your room that includes a yoga mat, strap and block from Gaiam and an issue of Yoga Journal Magazine.  Free instruction is available on” the television, though for some strange reason the sound was not working on that particular channel last week.   None of our colleagues have tried this amenity, but the back and forward bends, as well as the legs on the wall exercise, do look like they would loosen you up. 

Founder Bill Kimpton, who was taken by cancer in 2001, was a fellow of some breadth, with enough investment banking moxie to build a little empire.  Interested in spirituality and mental health, he served on the boards of the Hoffman Institute and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and he founded the Mental Insight Foundation in 1996, trying to advocate treatment of depression through meditation and other means that excluded drugs. 

Age of Anxiety.  In mid-twentieth-century America thinking people knew that we had become caught up in an Age of Anxiety, which even then served as creative fodder for the interesting voices of the period.  The English poet W. H. Auden, who came to make the United States his home, authored an 80-page poem in 1948 called The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, set in a bar in New York City which set out the quandary experienced by man adrift in modernity.  This so inspired the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein that he wrote Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety.  See www.hyperion-records.co.uk/notes/
67170.html.  It is this very same anxiety, but compounded in cyberdom, which yoga at Kimpton and elsewhere seeks to partially alleviate.  There are large-scale business opportunities for those who would deal imaginatively with these clouds of free-floating anxiety, new market niches ranging well beyond the mantras of fringe groups, the pharma nostrums at the drug store, and the Fountain-of-Youth weekend spas tirelessly plied by resorts and luxury magazines.      

The Unbalanced Life.  In the current issue of CIO magazine (March 15, 2005, pp. 44-46), Steve Sheinheit, who is Chief Technical Officer of MetLife, tries to tell us how he has gotten control of his life, achieving some balance between the claims of work and the needs of home.  Indeed, he has made things a little smoother by managing “business and pleasure concurrently.”  The parts of his day are not neatly divided between work and home, but each may intrude on the other.  (We would expect in time that urban planners will arrange better connections between our work and leisure spaces as well).  Nonetheless, as we read about him, his life still seems to be out of control.  Humorously, he mentions how, on a trip with his wife to Carmel, she sarcastically intoned over the phone to their daughter, “Dad, the BlackBerry and I are having a great time.”  He does quite a patch of emails at 2 a.m. in the morning. 

His life, it seems, sums up why we have gone past anxiety, angst, and unease to panic and unbearable stress.  We are digitally oppressed at all hours by our several electronic contrivances.  And, some 15 years of notoriously  bad governance, particularly at the federal level, have left us super-exposed to the naked economic pressures of a merciless global economy wherein we work 16 hour days to generate enough output and productivity  to compete against other nations with vastly lower costs.  One pundit at Morgan Stanley would claim that we really have not achieved higher productivity: we are all just working harder for relatively less. 

The most stressed, we believe, are knowledge workers who work in round the clock call centers, their lives more arduous by far than Mr. Sheinheit’s.  Their bosses simply wonder how many calls they can grind out each hour.  They not only process vast amounts of information both over the phone and on the computer but often participate in numbing conversations that are emotionally draining.  In our practice, we have had to look at how these dutiful servants of this service society can best restore themselves after each taxing interchange. 

What to Do About It.  There’s a bevy of odd nostrums for dealing with the pressure many are feeling.  Some are turning their backs on their careers and everyday endeavors. Gary Kasparov at 41 has just given up the competitive chess circuit to think about global issues and to labor for democracy in his Russian homeland.  A few are just ducking, trying to fly beneath the radar, avoiding the tumult by staying out of touch.  Others have even taken to smashing computers and other techie toys—a revolt against machines that don’t work or work too well.  Kent Norman, cognitive psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Automation Psychology and Decision Processes at the University of Maryland loves to kill computers and keeps track of others who do.  For more about all this, see http://lap.umd.edu/computer

The Eagles, a music group that has long taken account of our aches and groans, probably has as good advice as any for those of us who are gnashing our teeth in their song “Get Over It”: 

Get over it
Get over it
If you don’t want to play, then you might as well split
Get over it, get over it. 

For now, anyway, the stresses of the world just are not going to abate, so you might as well make the best of them, turning to yoga or perhaps even better seeking some more creative outlet for the turmoil you feel as you wend your way through the day.  Stress is here to stay, so what are you going to do with it? 

William James.  We like to call William James the father of American pragmatism, though some would give the laurels to John Dewey, Charles S. Peirce, or others.  Pragmatism was and is America’s single great original contribution to philosophy.  Ever so roughly it said an idea has no meaning except as to how it works out in practice: we can see the worth of an idea by finding out what consequences ensue as a result of believing in it.  This is a gross simplification of pragmatism and its several meanings, but, in general, it wanted to see what the payoff was in human affairs of an idea or concept.  James was particularly interested in the interplay of psychology and philosophy, and  essayed on the very power of belief to positively alter an individual or a community.  Our interest here in James lies in the fact that he and his family were a mass of psychoses and neuroses but that they each converted their internal turmoil into creative outpourings:

Indeed, the entire James family is fertile ground for historical psychoanalysis.  There is Henry James Sr., the erratic and domineering father, plagued by anxiety attacks, prone to beating his children, and desperately hungry for public recognition of his goofy philosophical work.  There is Henry James Jr., the great expatriate novelist, a repressed homosexual whose bundle of neurotic complaints easily rivals William’s. There is poor depressive Alice James, William and Henry’s sister, who suffered a succession of nervous breakdowns.  And there is abusive, alcoholic Bob, a failed businessman, failed father, and struggling painter.  Of all William's siblings, only Wilky, who died in his 30s of premature heart failure, seems (perhaps) to have avoided the taint of the James neurosis.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that this family produced so much work of enduring merit.  Or does it?  Could it be that it was not in spite of this neurotic crucible but because of it that William and Henry achieved such success?  …  And it is impossible to fully understand the genesis of pragmatism—his amalgamation of psychology and philosophy—without reference to the neuroses that racked him.” (See Scott Stossel’s review of Genuine Reality:  A Life of William James at www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/books/98/03/26/WILLIAM_JAMES.html.)

Suzanne Langer.  We hear little about her today, but Suzanne Langer (1895-1985) could be termed a rather brilliant philosopher of art who lit up a slew of American educational institutions.  Just as Alfred North Whitehead strived to set the philosophical basis for science, she worked to establish solid underpinnings for the arts.  We remember her as the persona who taught us that worry is okay as long as it is turned to good use.  Her 1940s book Philosophy in a New Key was once (maybe it still is) the all time best seller of the Harvard University Press: we suspect Lawrence Summer, now president, should be citing it frequently to prove the natural superiority of lady philosophers, since he has gotten in Dutch lately with his musings about feminine shortcomings in math and the sciences.  She said, “Art is the objectification of feeling” and, further, “the symbolic transformation of experience is an essential human need.”  It’s merely a corollary of Langer to say that the way to deal with agony, ecstasy, digital stress, and the sundry feelings that are aroused by a world that is too much with us is creative symbolism.  Creativity is simultaneously our hope for dealing with reality and escaping it.  Isn’t that what James did?

Carly Simon.  Carly Simon, daughter of a publishing family, is a singer and songwriter  extraordinaire.  See www.carlysimon.comHer output is both voluminous and complex, fully tapping into the rather deep well of feelings that have so complicated her life.  As all entertainers, she is too plugged into a world of  media that makes human beings  conductors for incessant messages.  She admits to a 1,000 fears, and new phobias seem to crop up every month.  In her humorous self characterization, she admits to early breakdowns that taxed her and tried the patience of others.  While in France, “I had the first of many nervous breakdowns, brought on by an allergy to the local wine. My sister had had enough of my nerves and got married to a psychiatrist and had a child, Julie.”  There is no doubt that her songs are about her considerable pain and confusion or that it is the songs that keep her afloat.  She, too, seems to prove the notion that creativity is the way to deal with a troubled psyche 

Get on with It.  We don’t know whether you should get over it, but we’re confident we should all get on with it.  As we have mentioned in previous letters, with the advent of 2000, we have entered a whole new world, but most of us stubbornly persist in running our lives as if the Cold War were still here, 85% of our commerce was within our borders, and problems get solved by throwing endless resources at them until they disappear.  Part of the stress we feel stems from our penchant for hanging onto the past, while the future runs us ragged.   

As we now go about our days, stretched taut like rubber bands, we dimly realize that something has to change.  Perhaps our inner turmoil will propel some of us toward creative, future-looking acts, even if the keepers of our civilization try to keep things just as they were.   We had best focus on those who have cast one foot into the future simply because their troubled spirits and manic energy won’t allow them to walk in any other direction.  They will get us where we gotta be. 

P.S.  For a great lesson in why you should not rely on the federal government or Harvard University to make our health system healthy, read “The Quality Cure?,” New York Times Magazine, March 13, 2005, pp. 46-51.  Here we learn about David Cutler, a Harvard economist, who says we can set our health system right by improving the care doctors render.  Another band aid and certainly not a cure.  We do have to get quality up, but we do have to get costs down.

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