SHOCK AND HORROR AT 50TH YEAR CLASS REUNION

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It happened this summer, on a seemingly innocent trip to the ladies room.

The 50th was my first ever class reunion.  I’d brushed aside notices for earlier ones, but when the invitation came, with a warning that it might be our last, I thought what the hell.  Give it a shot, though I’d been less than two years at East High, transferring from another high school in Washington State.  My stepfather had been promoted and we were settling into our best-ever home when he had a bad accident, lost his sanity, and was institutionalized indefinitely.  My mom, a licensed practical nurse, found us a small rental unit within walking distance of the school, barely affordable on her tiny salary.

In my mind, the only people who’d visited us in that spartan little place were a few family friends, my brother when he was on leave from the Coast Guard Academy, and my only boyfriend before college—a fellow nerd who came to do homework together when he was competing with me to get straight A’s.  I couldn’t think of anyone else, having assumed the place wasn’t presentable like the home we’d been forced to leave.

At the reunion memories were jolted by name tags that reproduced our high school yearbook photos.  One stylishly dressed woman peered at mine, shouted my name and gave me a hug.  I quickly scanned her name tag, pulled a blank, but greeted her as though we’d been pals.  Another woman remarked cooly that I used to teach her younger brother to play the drums. At once a buried memory arose of a series of determined little boys who’d come for drum lessons with me in the tiny living room of that modest rented home. How could I forget?  But I almost had, having given up playing drums to study the piano and survive in a tough college.

The most fun was standing in line for the cash bar, shooting the breeze with folks who did not recognize each other.  This required us to gamely summarize what was noteworthy about our lives.  We looked out over the room and concluded that, all things considered, we’d held up pretty well for our age.  Pretty soon all class members were called to assemble outside for a group photo. Several amateur photographers appeared besides the one hired for the occasion, so it took time.

After the group photos I headed straight for the rest room in a cluster of unfamiliar women.  Two of us were washing our hands at the sink when one caught my gaze in the mirror and said, “I know you.  You invited me to your house one day with two other girls. When I slid over on your sofa to make room for them I accidentally sat on my glasses and broke them.  You said to me, ‘You’ll pay for that,’ and none of us could think what to say. I was never in your place again.”

She walked briskly alongside me as we left the restroom, looking into me for an explanation.  This was clearly unfinished business, as raw and deep for her as it had been half a century ago.  Honestly, I could not recall the episode, but was stunned to hear about my ancient gaff.

“Wow,” I said, glad to be five decades removed from it.  “What a DUMB thing to say!”

Instantly, she responded as if to console us both. “We were children.”

Well, I said to myself, 17- or 18-year-old children, not toddlers.  For her sake I tried to sound upbeat, stretching toward philosophical.  “Life sure is amazing.  I have no memory of this, and you’ve remembered it for 50 years!”

Unsatisfied, she looked back expectantly, as though we both knew it was our only chance to settle the matter.

“It’s true we were children,” I said, “But I don’t know why I would say something so stupid.  I would not have wanted you to feel bad about breaking your glasses.”

She nodded, and made a guttural sound. “Maybe,” she suggested, “you were attempting some kind of humor?”

I recognized the truth.  “Yes, that had to have been my intention.  Obviously, I failed.”

No comment, but affirmation in her silence.  I wanted to know who she was, but couldn’t bring myself to cheapen the exchange by looking at her name tag.  We’d been walking briskly, and before I could think of anything more to say she disappeared into the ballroom.

Within a few days the episode and the mortification I’d felt afterwards had resurfaced. I wished I could have told her: “I was so horrified that I’d dropped that bomb, I was sure you’d want nothing more to do with me.  So I avoided you and didn’t have the nerve to ask you over again.”  But it takes time for such thoughts and words to form.

Still, I want to believe that this frank soul got what she needed from our brief encounter.  Chances are, it was not by chance that we met in the ladies room.  She must have seen me leaving the photo shoot and seized her only opportunity to solve something she’d puzzled over for 50 years.  It could have been the reason she’d attended the event.

This person drew my attention to something that had caused her pain and made her feel rejected.  I didn’t catch her name, but she knows mine, and by some miracle I hope she reads this.  So that I can thank her and say it was my loss that we did not become friends.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?

 

 

ATTENTION LEAPING FROM THE MODERN LOVE SECTION OF THE NEWS

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Hundreds of comments, millions of hits and Facebook shares resulted from the New York Times Styles Section piece called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Len Catron.  Tons more responses resulted from the paper’s followup publication of the 36 questions Catron used to test whether she could fall in love with the man she agreed to try the psychological experiment with.

Catron admits she fell in love with this man, without confirming that it was due to the series of Qs.  Many responded that they definitely did not fall in love when they tried the questions, but that is not my point.  I want to refocus the discussion on the source of attention—and motive—of the originator of these questions so carefully crafted to induce feelings of love.

The first 12 Qs are more catchy than invasive, a gently powerful hook.  They show exceptional focus on what is entirely particular about the person questioned.   Whom would you have as a dinner guest if you could invite anyone in the world?  What for you would constitute a perfect day? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?  and, If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

The Qs probe progressively deeper once the door has been opened:  Why have you not done something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  What is your most treasured memory?  Your worst memory?  How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?  When did you last cry in front of someone, or alone?   –  No wonder one commentor planned to use the list to increase her number of meaningful interactions in a day!

This list is no idle compendium, but the product of an extremely high quality attention arising from a professional study of human nature.  As Catron acknowledges, it was  compiled over 20 years ago by the psychologist Arthur Aron, who used the Qs successfully to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.  Although Catron’s piece received much feedback from people who failed to fall in love after answering the questions, certain factors stand out that might have triggered the love interest of those who found themselves “falling.”

First, the questions are not mere pretexts to put forth one’s own views, mainly because each participant has to answer the same questions.  They are also crafted to induce two people to become more open, honest, and vulnerable to each other—in a challenging but not too threatening way.  They do not ask, for example, about income, past sexual relationships, politics, or people the subjects hate.  They are also a primer for how to draw someone out while paying respectful, truly interested attention to them.

Still, you don’t need a clinical psychologist to give you a fine tuned list of inquiries.

Sometimes an opportunity arises that does not lead to falling in love, but a lasting bond gets created anyway.  One such opportunity arose when I was in college, when I found myself sitting in a car full of students driven by a Caltech professor named Max Delbrück.

Carl, my date, was a Caltech student who sat in front next to the door, with me in the middle.  The back seat held three or four more students, chattering loudly as we traveled toward a social event I’ve forgotten.  But I never forgot my quiet exchange with the driver, whom I’d never heard of.  (He was quite an influential biophysicist, I learned later.)  I didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to the driver in silence, or ignoring him by talking with Carl.  I was curious about his accent, so I asked where he grew up.  Germany, he said.

It went on from there.  Did he have any siblings?  He was youngest of seven.  Did he get along with them or were there conflicts?  What were his parents like, and what brought him to the States?  He answered everything with a no frills, eloquent candor.  I don’t remember what he asked me, except that I replied just as frankly.  He was not a professor at my college so I had nothing to lose, and I was terrible at small talk.  Carl told me afterward that he couldn’t hear what Dr. Delbrück and I were saying over the din in the back seat, but he knew it was special because he’d never heard Max—who was known for a rather gruff manner—speak so personally.

After that outing Carl reported that Max made a point of asking him how I was doing.  When Carl told me that Max was always helping others with their research—offering ideas that won them win Nobel Prizes while never winning one himself—I sent up a fierce prayer that one day Max would get the recognition he deserved.

Years later, when I picked up the New York Times and read that Max Delbrück had received a Nobel Prize, my heart glowed with joy and pride for my once and ever friend.  That is the power of simple, honest attention.

“How do you like to go up in a swing?”

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 “Up in the air so blue…”  Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with.  As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher.  In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off.  Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact.  Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.

As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults.   Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings.  So heartless.  But to return to the subject: attention.

Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park.  A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father.  Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative.  He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.

As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!!  His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.

What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw.  A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination.  He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded.  There were no other children on the swings at that hour.  But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.

The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me.  Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology!  Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it?  [See Introduction post.]

My heart went out to that little boy.  Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.

 

The Grandmaster – Master Class in Attention

Right away, most people who see “The Grandmaster” will be bowled over by its visual virtuosity.  The movie’s fight scenes zing by with balletic grace and the rhythmic flourish of great music.  The plot begins to bubble when a secretly trained female kung fu expert from the North appears to challenge the main character, who’s been chosen as best of the Southern Chinese masters.

The pair’s eye-popping altercation entices us into a haunting near-Platonic love story.  That element, alas, is invented.  In a way the film pays tribute not only to a legendary teacher of Bruce Lee.  It also draws attention to the unknown women who managed to master forms of the martial arts despite the entrenched tradition of denying this knowledge to females.

The movie presents two kung fu artists at the pinnacle of their powers: Ip Man, the real-life southern Chinese master played by megastar Tony Leung; and the daughter of a fictional great northern Chinese master, Gong Er, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang.  [The movie’s original title was “The Grandmasters.”]

The Sino-Japanese War, the invasion and occupation of China that led up to the Asian theatre of WW2, rears its ugly historical head.  Viewers are informed that during his time Ip lost two daughters to starvation.  (The real Ip was survived by two sons…were his sons fed better during the hard times—a long and ignominious tradition in more than one society—or were they born later?)  I’ve read that the Chinese language version of the film is 30 minutes longer because gruesome facts of the Japanese invasion are shown in more detail.

Despite the historical gravitas, visual thrills, and emotional pull of all these factors, to this attending metaphysician, they remain surface attention-grabbers.

Below these layers, I was intrigued by the amazingly non-hostile look in Leung’s eyes as he takes on a raft of arrogant martial artists in challenge matches throughout the film.  Especially in his duel with Gong Er, his expression is humble and alert rather than macho and patronizing.

In all Ip/Leung’s battles, of course, he is fighting for his life, or at least his honor, should he be spared by an opponent.  But what an outlook!   You have to see the set of his face, the quiet, non-hostile readiness for each attacker, to appreciate how wonderfully this actor portrays his character’s confidence—visible in the quality of his attention.  Why does he look so consistently, um, friendly?  It’s disconcertingly unwarriorlike.  But convincingly, uh…masterful.

Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that Tony Leung trained for three years before the cameras rolled on his portrayal of Ip Man.  Some very well known kung fu masters participate in this film, several of them having helped train Leung.  Is that why he looks at his opponents with something akin to respectful fondness?  Or does he somehow exude a feeling like that of Wilfred Owen, the WW1 British poet-soldier who wrote of his adversary as “My enemy, my friend”?

Ziyi Zhang has a background in dance, but she also trained rigorously in kung fu before being filmed.  She looks demure rather than friendly, and intent on defending her father’s reputation. Their convincing performances, even with occasional use of body doubles, is steeped in painstaking prior attention to training and fitness.

Perhaps the highest moment of artistry—and depth—comes in a snow-flecked nighttime showdown on a train platform in Hong Kong.  Gong Er has caught up with her nemesis.  This man, an orphan her father trained to succeed him, betrayed her family’s honor by collaborating with the Japanese, and expelled her from her family home.  By the time they meet we know that their form of kung fu is lethal, this guy has no conscience, and it’ll be a fight to the finish.  A terrible moment comes when she is pinned, her head inches away from the wheels of a passing train.  One more shove and she’d be decapitated.  Somehow she escapes his clutches and renders him unable to rise from the platform.  When he tries to appear noble in surrendering his position, she replies, “Let’s be clear,” and states firmly to his followers that he has done so only because she’s defeated him.

Uh-oh.  Didn’t the Chinese originate the concept of saving face?  And isn’t that expression crucial to the quality of attention one might expect to receive from others?  What Gong has done is vindicate herself, whom this traitor threw out of her home with a sneering put-down that she was ‘only a woman.’  But she has also humiliated a man desperate to retain the admiration of his followers…a man who’d used all his skill to try to kill her.

We watch her leave the scene in apparent serenity, only to observe how, in the privacy of her home, she coughs up blood.  Afterward, she stops practicing medicine and becomes addicted to opium.  One has to assume that this is no idle indulgence, but a last resort to endure mortal pain.

Alas, the price of revenge is steep.  Gong accepts it, diverting her attention away from disappointment and towards readying herself to die.  Was her father right all along?  Now she is too injured to carry on her father’s teaching, and too weak to heal others.

Meanwhile, Ip locates her after the war in Hong Kong, and she accepts his invitation to tea.  He does not know the price she has paid to avenge herself and her father, and hopes she will look upon him as more than a rival she narrowly defeated years ago.

Alas again.  She admits she has cared about him, even uses the word love, but says this will be their last meeting.  Only the viewers know why she is so discouraging to him, and are allowed to taste the bitterness and honor of her confession.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but no sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen can match this quiet conversation over tea between two incredibly attractive characters who do not so much as touch hands.

Ip, so innocent in his optimism, urges Gong to continue her father’s teaching.  As if most of her has already died, she answers that it is part of life that great forms of knowledge have been lost or forgotten.  She says she has already forgot the “64 hands” for which her father was legendary.  As though passing a mystical baton, she expresses hope that Ip will continue to teach and expand his own knowledge.  From what we know, he surely did.

The most memorable adage from The Grandmaster comes from Gong Er’s father, via his daughter.  She tells Ip that there are three essential things in life: being, knowing, and doing.  In a flashback we also see that he told his unfaithful but ambitious disciple never to think himself the best: “There is always someone better.”  True mastery implies humility.

Leaving open the possibility that someone can always do it better, even if one has mastered something, is a wonderful insight into the finest quality of attention—ever willing to respect and admire others.

What a movie.  What a master class.

Attention Lurking in the News, #4, Part Two: On Food Addiction and a Lost Friend

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Content that has depth and complexity is like a person.  We have to study it, and delay passing judgment until we’ve done our best to understand the subject.  Sometimes, like a cheating lover, the devil is found in the details.

Take the recent investigative ‘content’ concerning our nation-wide obesity problem. The Times and NPR reporters have produced in-depth reports on how the fast-food industry has devoted decades of scientific research to getting us addicted to processed foods with just the perfect “bliss point” of fat, salt, and sugar.  Like the cigarette companies before them, they buried smoking-gun memos that exposed their intention to create widespread addictions.  One snack food, they crowed triumphantly, successfully canceled out consumers’ ability to feel they’d eaten anything of caloric value!  We could eat this sugar-salt-fat delivery system forever, our bodies tricked into not signaling when to stop.

On a personal level, we know the kind of effort it takes to understand opposing views, say, among two friends or close relatives.  How much listening, weighing of another person’s life history, struggles, family influences, successes and failures, loves, losses and (most stubbornly concealed) sources of shame.  Try as we might, we can miss the real reasons behind seemingly irreconcilable differences.  But because we care about these individuals, we keep trying–observing, storing information, pondering.  One could call this reflective attention.  Some mysteries do seem to open up in time.

Because of the recent revelations about how food industry giants have done their utmost to get us to eat more often and in larger more fattening proportions, I recently gained insight on a long-ago disconnect with a former friend. The last time I’d socialized with her was years ago in the late afternoon, at her place, when her daughter came home from middle school saying she was hungry.  My friend offered the already overweight girl a large box of cookies, and returned to our conversation.  Her daughter stayed with us, and I must have shown concern–never mentioning it, of course–that the child was eating her way through the entire box–at least 20 cookies–and her mother was not even reminding her that they’d be having supper soon.

After that my friend became distant.  She and her husband were both seriously obese, and might not have been able to teach their daughter to restrain from overeating when they couldn’t control their own food addiction.  From studying alcoholism, which runs in my family, I learned that addiction changes our brain chemistry.  When addicted, our brains still know the right thing to do, but the chemical switch that enables us to take action, or to stop ourselves, gets turned off. And because our mind knows it’s right and can’t make us do it (without a lot of help and moral support, such as 12-step programs), guilt and shame result.

It wasn’t that my friend stopped liking me, it was that she didn’t want to feel guilty when I noticed her not dealing with her family’s obesity problem.

The obesity epidemic, thanks to the scrutiny (a first-rate version of attention) of content providers, now has a fighting chance of moving toward a cure.  So – three cheers for real content and the journalists that provide it, and three more for the attention we hope it gets!

Attention Lurking in the News, #1: Keeping Love Alive

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There will be more of these, so I’ll number them.

Quite often I find myself reading something supposedly about something else, only to find that it’s actually about attention.

The first to catch my eye recently was an article on page one of the New York Times Sunday Review, 12/2/12, fetchingly titled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.”  It was written by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor from U. Cal. Riverside, author of a forthcoming book, “The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.”

(Jane E. Brody, the NYT’s Personal Health columnist, further comments on this piece in her January 15th column, “That Loving Feeling Takes a Lot of Work.”)

Lyubomirsky bases her essay on studies of couples married for 15 years.  First comes the unshocking observation that newlyweds tend to enjoy a burst of happiness—given the technical term “passionate love”—for about two years.  During this phase, she writes, one can “experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned” because we are on a cloud held aloft by intense longing and attraction.  Not all of us recall being blissed out by dental sessions and snarled traffic when we were smitten.  We might relate more to Lyubomirsky’s reference to the 2004 movie “Before Sunset.”  In it, two former lovers meet up a decade after their intense romance, and agree that if they had stayed so in love they would have made nothing of the rest of their lives.

Nature, it appears, helps even things out a bit so the organism can survive.  Viewing passion from the angle of attention, we have to admit that when passion rules so much attention gets channeled toward the beloved that the basic things that sustain us—like eating, sleeping, and accomplishing things so we feel we are contributing something of value to the world—lose out on the invisible energy that keeps them, and us, going.

Humans (and probably most other complex organisms) are geared for routinization—technically called “hedonic adaptation.” Interestingly, this adaptation cuts many ways, negative and positive.  It enables us to endure the suffering of poverty, illness, failure, and loss of loved ones.  But it also draws our attention away from the pleasures of luxury, success, and gratified passion.

Attention, though capable of intense concentration, likes to roam free of fetters, including the fetters of suffering and wonderful pleasures.

From an attending metaphysician’s viewpoint, it becomes obvious why material possessions lose their luster more quickly than people.  Which is the more moving target, therefore the greater challenge, to one’s attention?  How long, usually, can an elegant new car, a designer gown, or even the latest coolest electronic device command one’s interest, compared to a human being, whose interests and moods can change, and whose thoughts can explore and mature?  The former are products of human skill, and do not change unless reproduced or modified by the latter.  And human skill is ever changeable.

So people usually win out when it comes to commanding our attention longterm.  Nevertheless, those we become familiar with tend to lose that exciting mystery of the unknown.  Guess who loses it first.  This truly was a surprise.  According to the research, women lose interest in sex first, “because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.”

Hmmm.  This puts a whole new light on men who dump their middle-aged wives to marry younger women.   Could they actually be the failed lovers of women closer to their own age whom they couldn’t keep interested?

But many women do stay committed to their husbands, even if their sexual ardor has receded.  What keeps them interested?  Could it be that they are frequently involved with children, who are always changing, growing, and surprising them?  Maybe the men they’re with also manage to grow?  It’s not impossible, as some might suspect.

Back to Lyubomirsky.  We learn that longterm happy couples adapt to the routines of life together by means of a less impassioned but comfortable “blend of deep affection and connection,” described as “companionate love.” During this longlasting  phase, research suggests that what keeps happy marriages most pleasurable is the element of surprise.

Experiments have been conducted in which couples rated activities as “pleasant” (e.g. seeing movies, visiting friends, creative cooking) or “exciting” (e.g. skiing, dancing, concert-going).  Couples who selected the exciting stuff and spent 90 minutes doing these activities each week for ten weeks reported greater satisfaction with their marriages than those who did the merely “pleasant.”

But what, we ask, makes one activity “pleasant” rather than “exciting”?  The author doesn’t explain, but does say this: “Surprise is a potent force.  When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. (My emphasis.)  We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us.”

But if we can’t arrange to hit the ski slopes or go to a dance or a rock concert, maybe we could choose to pay a better quality of attention to those around us?  It might make us happier to listen more fully when someone is offering an opinion, or describing something that happened, and respond just to that?  Rather than—as so often happens—waiting to give our own opinion or our turn to describe an event in our life?  (Not to say that our opinions and experiences should always be squelched in response to those of others.  It’s just that, if we’re really listening to someone, is it always relevant?)

Smartphones and earbuds seem to divert an awful lot of people’s attention away from the persons they are with.  I suspect many of us have seen young couples seated across from one another in restaurants, engrossed in their devices rather than each other.  To an older person, it looks like a recipe for breakup.  Social pundits bemoan the loss of conversational skill amongst the young.  It seems that they don’t know how to pay attention to one another long enough to exchange real thoughts and ideas, but they’re adept at texting others where they’re shopping or eating, or whether they like a particular movie. Young folks call it sharing. Whether actual conversation emerges is unclear, but not impossible.

For me, the most intriguing idea arrives when Lyubomirsky refers to a series of studies showing that people had longer spells of happiness “when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.”

Wow.  The power of dark energy, of invisible attention.  For me it begs the question, Where can one get the chance to deliver an unexpected act of kindness, or a moment of surprising care?

Offhand it’s impossible to say, but I’ll offer a few modest examples.  One comes from a man I know who called a friend, an older man who’d been married over 35 years.  His friend answered the phone, but told him he’d call back later, because he did not want to interrupt the conversation he was having with his wife.  The caller was so impressed he told me about it as an item of stunning import.  You’d think this man, married so long, would have found it more than easy to take a friend’s phone call, not having to excuse himself.  But like the caller, you’d be brought up short by the quality of attention being protected by the man’s response.

Another comes from a shopkeeper who sold my husband of 13 years a pair of earrings for my birthday.  The pair he chose were unusual in color, so I took them back to see if I could exchange them for a similar pair in a color that would go with more of my wardrobe.  As soon as the proprietor saw the earrings, he remembered my husband.  “He took a long time deciding on those,” he told me in a respectful tone–the respect directed toward my husband. “I think they meant a lot to him.”  That did it.  I’m wearing them.

Then there was the time an old friend came to visit from Europe, arriving jetlagged and exhausted.  She placed her well worn shoes in the hallway next to ours, and took a much needed nap.  While she slept I took pity on her scuffed-up flats, stealthily giving them a thick coat of polish and a shine to last.  I had zero interest in having my handiwork admired, least of all to be thanked.  I just hoped, when my friend was ready to set forth, that she’d put on her comfortable old shoes and be vaguely surprised that they looked good.  Of all the fun things we did during her visit, to be able to create that minor mystery was the most delightful for me.

Would you share a moment of intriguing attention from your perspective?  Views of other attending metaphysicians are most welcome.