Home Base (continued)

The Form and Function of Home

In part one we saw that feelings associated with home base are not necessarily the same feelings we have while in our parents’ house(s)—maybe that home feels homey, maybe not. Here we have an incredibly useful tool: the distinction between the form of home and the function home base.

If I live in the Waltons’1 house and every member of my family lovingly bids me “Goodnight, Mark-Boy!” then the form of my home (the house and the family in it) and the function of home base (accepting, sheltering, embracing, and supporting me) are in perfect harmony, even through the leanest times of the Great Depression. If, on the other hand, I live in the workhouse and my request for a second helping of gruel is met with, “Whaaat? MORE?” and I am chased, caught, and caned,2 then the form of my home (the orphanage where I and the other Dickensian waifs live) and the function of home (welcoming, feeding, protecting, and comforting me) are rather different.

The extreme contrast between The Waltons and Oliver Twist is for the sake of clearly illustrating how the relation between form and function can vary widely, and therefore how important it is to distinguish them. However, detecting the distinction is often a far more subtle proposition. This next example is about the form and function of a parent, not home per se, but I hope it will be useful, as feelings concerning home and parents can be strongly correlated.3

I was talking with a young woman who still lived with her parents. She wanted to share difficult news with her mother, and was trying to decide whether it felt safe to do so. I asked the woman how she wished her mother would react to her news. Her first thoughts on this were (paraphrased):

    —I don’t want her to be judgmental, or to try to manage it or fix me.

After she reeled off a number of familiar, unwanted responses that she had gotten from her mother on past occasions, I prompted her to describe what she did want in this instance.

    —I want her to be accepting and supportive. I want her to be calm, because I’m not calm about this, and I need her to be there for me. I want her to be strong and comforting and helpful, and… and…
    “Motherly?” I asked.
    She stopped and looked up, then smiled ironically. “Yes, motherly.”

In that moment the woman realized the distinction between the person of her mother and the experience of being cared for in a motherly way. The form mother and the function mothering do not necessarily coincide, but they can, and in this woman’s case the mother was often quite motherly. (It is important to bear in mind that a distinction is not the same as a division.)

Extending the above example, with its flexible relation between form and function, to home, we can notice that though our physical home functions more or less in providing the feelings of home base such as security and support, it is nevertheless those feelings that we crave and that sustain us. We want the function more than the form. Who would choose to live with creepy Mrs. Danvers at Manderley, or with megalomaniacal Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, when they could live instead with warm and attentive Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in a humble dam?4 And why do we desire these feelings? It isn’t merely because they are pleasant (though most often they are), any more than the young woman wanted her mother to be strong, comforting and helpful just to be able to brag about how awesome her mother was. She wanted to feel her mother’s stabilizing strength and comfort and assistance because in nature that is what “motherly” actually means. Just so, the feelings of home base inform us that we are indeed secure and supported. We want the feelings of home because we want what home functionally provides, and we know we have it when we feel it.

In other words, the feelings of home are the indications of an experiential reality. In this very important sense, the feeling of home is more real—that is, more self-consistently the “real thing”—than any apartment or house, mansion or lean-to that we call home. Whereas our physical dwelling is variable in evoking the feelings of home to a greater or lesser degree, the feelings of home base themselves tend toward constancy; i.e. homey always feels homey. (When is the last time you felt at home by virtue of feeling unwelcome?) Mr & Mrs Beaver’s House We can rate a place, any place, according to how well it functions in helping us feel accepted, calm, comfortable, and welcome to enter and stay as long as we wish. Like a motherly mother.

In a forthcoming chapter we’ll delve into what these constituent feelings of home base are in more detail, so that we can better recognize them and distinguish them from home-in-name-only experiences. In doing so we will discover a deeper connection even than the above analogy suggests between the experience of home base and natural motherliness. Already we’ve noticed similarities: accepting, calming, comforting, there for me—these are what we want from our home. The reverse would be absurd. Imagine at the end of a busy day returning to a home that functioned to reject, irritate and agitate you, and then sometimes, without warning, relocated itself.5

What’s important is that we can now think in terms of the kinds of experiences we want from our home base as distinct from our given circumstances. In this differentiation lies freedom to choose and opportunity to create an environment that nurtures us.

  1. The Waltons (1971–1981), possibly the most heartwarming TV series ever. 

  2. This is the response, as I remember it, in the musical version, Oliver! (1968). In Dickens’ original Oliver Twist, Oliver is either threatened with a blow or actually struck (“The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle”), violently grabbed, perhaps overhears an adult prophesy that he will someday be hung by the neck, and is then locked in a dark room for a week, after which he is sold for three and a half pounds sterling. 


  4. Manderley: the mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Xanadu: the palace of Charles Foster Kane in Orsen Welles’ Citizen Kane. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam-house: from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

  5. Alas, some unscrupulous landlords have been known to foster such conditions. 


Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!


Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)


Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.

  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 


How we live

All men and women are born, live, suffer, and die; what distinguishes us from one another is our dreams, whether they be dreams about worldly or unworldly things, and what we do to make them come about… We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time and conditions of our death. But within this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we live.

— Joseph Epstein


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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