Sunday, May 24, 2009


My sister and I were having dinner when she said, "Did you know the house we lived in was haunted?"

"The one on Hitchcock?" I asked.

"No, the one on Sierra Vista."

I laughed. That house was the stereotypical suburban 3-bedroom-2-kids-and-a-dog house with a spider plant in a macrame planter on the front porch. The creepiest thing I'd ever seen there were the Vincent Price movies I liked to watch on weekends. Haunted? Right.

"It was," she insisted. "Do you remember the remodel?"

My sister and I shared a bedroom until she was 7 or 8, and then my parents converted the playroom into her bedroom. I knew the playroom wasn't original to the house, but I don't remember it being added on.

My sister says remodeling increases paranormal activity. "The original owner was blind, and I used to see this man staggering around like he was drunk. He bumped into things because he didn't know where things were anymore. And he used to bumble into my room at night and grab my feet."

I stared at her. One night when I was about 10 or 11, I woke up screaming because someone had grabbed my feet. Hard. That experience became the mother of all nightmares - the one by which all others are measured. I've had some bad dreams in my life, but none but that one ever ended with the vivid physical sensation of being grabbed.

I told her about it. "But it was a dream," I said. "Mom told me it was just a bad dream."

"It wasn't," she said, delighted. "It was the ghost."

"But it never happened again," I said. "Just that one time."

"Did you believe her?"

I was silent. I hadn't, at first. But Mom kept repeating, "It was just a dream; go back to sleep." I argued tearfully, because I couldn't block out the memory of those hard hands clenched around my feet. It was so real. But mom said it was just a dream, the room was clearly empty, except for me, and the house was empty, except for my family. All the evidence pointed to "No one could have grabbed me." I decided dreams could be that vivid and seem that real.

My sister nodded, seeing the answer in my expression. "That's why it only happened once. You closed it out. That's probably why you've never had any paranormal experiences. You don't believe them and you don't want them."

In retrospect, I'm glad I closed out that particular belief: "Our house is haunted by a blind guy who wakes you up out of a sound sleep by grabbing your feet." Who needs that kind of thing when there's a math test in Mrs. Dunlop's class the next morning? Maybe I can attribute my good grades to good study habits, but maybe my good study habits were a result of being immune to spooky distractions!

My sister has always been sensitive to weird things, and I have typically been oblivious to them. But then, because of my copyediting experience, I can spot an italicized comma or a boldfaced period where most people can't. You find what you look for, and over time, you become more sensitive to certain types of information. Which means you notice it more often. Which means you're likely to believe there's more evidence for it than there actually is.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Do it badly!

I once knew a sociologist who told me most innovations (scientific, creative, business) were made by people under age 30. What a sad statistic, I thought. Why? What happens to our brains as we age?

I think it's less about what happens to our brains and ore about what happens to our beliefs. As we get older, I think we tend to specialize. We get good at certain things and excel. We prize efficiency and become impatient with bumbling. Because trying new things means making mistakes, we try fewer new things. Most people don't like to make mistakes.

My dance teacher in Los Angeles, John Hertz, used to say, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." His words have resonated with me over the years. It took me five years of dancing once a month to learn to waltz without stepping on my own feet. I learned most from the better dancers: the ones who took the time to coach, and the ones who led by example and gave me something to strive for. I'm so grateful to the patient men who were willing to dance with a rank beginner. I know I slowed them down. My stumbling kept them from dancing at their highest level... at least, when they were dancing with me. But their examples inspire me to pass it on. When I'm paired with someone who doesn't have my experience, I remember their model of patience and kindness and do my best to come from that place.

As a rank beginner at dancing, my head sometimes filled with self-criticism. "I should be learning faster; I shouldn't be making those same mistakes by now; I should be more careful; I should concentrate more; I should relax more." At other times, I let go of the need to live up to anyone's expectations, and I found that place of persistence, curiosity, and experimentation that Richard Bandler describes as the attitude of a magician learning a trick: "That wasn't quite right; let me try it again."

Mistakes are part of learning. Good teachers support their students with patience and encouragement. Of course, there's also the challenge to improve, but correction is tempered by confidence in the student's ability. Where do we get the idea that we must do everything perfectly the first time, or if we don't get it right, we weren't meant to do it? That seems to me to be a discouraging approach.