Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Control Your Perceptions, Create Your Life:
Lessons From a Road Trip

(A Chance to Practice What I Preach)

As you probably know, I tend to be a big proponent of the idea that our experience of life isn't determined by the events of our life but rather by our interpretation of these events. This of course is not a new idea, it dates at least from Marcus Aurelius. Even though it's ancient wisdom, it's not widely acknowledged and it certainly isn’t always easy to live by. It's much easier to blame a bad mood on external events than on our inability to control and manage our own state.

Like other skills, controlling one’s own state takes practice. Fortunately,I recently had the chance to practice a lot.

A couple of weeks ago Jackie and I took a wonderful trip. The plan was to visit Jon in Philadelphia around the time of his birthday, then visit the Brandywine Museum on our way to visit our friends Chris and Jeff who had just bought a winter home in the mountains of  south western Virginia. Finally, we planned to swing through northern North Carolina before heading home.

It was to be a classic American road trip.

park signWhile we were in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia International Flower Show was in its final weekend (BTW - it's a fabulous show. If you ever have the opportunity, definitely check it out). We saw that as the perfect synchronicity addition to an already great trip. The stars were aligned in our favor.

We figured things would be pretty hectic around the convention center, so we decided to leave the car in a parking structure close to Penn and take a cab to the flower show. That was, in fact, a good idea. The weather was great and after the record snowfall of this winter the good people of Philadelphia were more than ready to take in a flower show.

Philidelphia Flower ShowIn this case, they had an especially good reason. The show is fabulous. I won’t tell you all that’s there, but I will tell you that a very small part of it (but still big) is one end of the convention center set up with vendors selling all manner of neat stuff.

You probably won't be surprised that we made a few purchases. We also were a little late in leaving the flower show for a dinner reservation at a restaurant a few blocks from the parking structure. We had a most excellent cab ride – fast enough to be exciting but smooth enough to feel safe - and arrived at the restaurant just in time.

The plan was for Jon and Jackie to go in and get our table while I took our packages back to the car in the parking structure so we wouldn't have to deal with them at dinner.

It had been a beautiful early spring day, but now that the sun was setting the air was taking on a chill. Jackie and I had both left our coats in the car and I decided that I was going to wear mine back to the restaurant. I wondered if she might like me to bring hers back as well so she could wear it after dinner. I tried to call her on her cell phone (how did we ever communicate without cell phones?) to find out.

She didn't answer, so I put my cell phone in my pocket and carried on. Rushed on, actually. To passerby, I’m sure I looked like a man on a mission. I was in a bit of a rush because I wanted to get back to the restaurant as quickly as possible.

As is often the case, things tend to go wrong when you're in a rush.

I got back to the car. Just as I was opening the trunk, Jackie called me back. I put the packages down in the trunk, fumbled around for my cell phone, found it, and learned that Jackie would, indeed, like me to bring her coat. I said "Great", slammed the lid of the trunk shut and only then reached into my pocket for the car keys to open the door to retrieve the coats from the back seat.

I didn't find the keys in that pocket or any other pocket, no matter how many times I checked. Nor did I find them anywhere under or around the car. As much as I didn't want to believe it, the keys were, as you've probably guessed, securely locked inside the truck.

car keyIn the old days of simple car keys, I used to carry a spare in my wallet to correct for such lapses. However, the keys to this car have one of those fancy electronic security and remote opening circuits built in. It’s bulky and awkward and doesn’t fit into a wallet so I don’t carry an extra key these days. I was now 4 1/2 hours away from the spare in my top drawer of my dresser.

I called AAA. They were very friendly and professional and gave me a two-hour timeframe for somebody to show up to help. I then called Jackie and Jon to let them know I'd be running a little late and to go ahead and start dinner without me.

So there I was in a parking structure having an experience that wasn't one I would've picked. It certainly wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a fellow, but it also wasn't as nice as having a great dinner with Jackie and Jon and was definitely a hassle. I could feel my good humor starting to slip away. My challenge was not to let this glitch disturb my state of mind inordinately. 

It was interesting to observe the mental machinations I went through. It was easy to get into berating myself for being so careless. That’s something I’ve always been good at and it felt easy and natural to go there.

I was also particularly clever at finding ways to try to blame Jackie. After all, she didn't answer her cell phone the first time and then she called me just as I was putting the packages into the trunk. What’s up with that?! How did she know the perfect time to sabotage me?

I was also tempted to go into a general rant at the universe and a "why me" litany.

Obviously, none of those thoughts felt very good and they certainly weren't going to change the facts of the situation. I was going to have to deal with being locked out of the car one way or the other. How I experienced that process would be up to me.

I was on the third floor of the parking structure and there were some pretty nice views of West Philadelphia from there as the sun set. I tried admiring the scenery for a while. It worked some, but sure didn't make me forget I was locked out of my car.

I tried listing all the things I had to be grateful for my life. It's a pretty long list so it took a while and it kind of worked. But I kept thinking that what I wanted to be grateful for right now was having my car keys in my hand.

I did some EFT (an “acupuncture without needles” method that helps smooth out glitches in the body’s energy system) style tapping. They say try it on anything, and I’m always glad to. It often helps and never makes things worse.

parking structure

After 45 minutes or so the sun had set, the air was colder and I was getting tired of waiting. Jon had mentioned trying to call Penn Security to see if they might help since it was a University of Pennsylvania parking structure.

I made that call, and within 5 minutes, my man Aaron showed up, yellow lights flashing on the top of his security patrol vehicle. He was great. To begin with, he didn’t make me feel like a fool for locking my keys in the car (“Happens to all of us sometime.”). He also had a lot of confidence (“I’ll get you going in no time.”).

He almost didn’t pull his car into a parking spot, but decided to just in case somebody drove into the structure in the minute or two that it was going to take him to open the car.

I remember the days when you could use a straightened piece of coat hanger wire to hook under the lip of the old manual push-pull locks cars used to have. Contemporary methods of forcing entry aren’t much more sophisticated. The basic process is to use a plastic wedge to force a space in the door jamb, then work in a slim jim (a 4’ long, bendable metal rod with a handle on one end and a 90 degree bend in it about 2” from the  other end) and use that to push the unlock button in the car.

Let me right now give a testimony to Lexus security systems. It will keep anyone out of your car. Even you if you don't have your key.

To begin, Aaron had trouble even getting the wedge in. The door frame was quite rigid and “This here is some good quality rubber” referring to the seals around the door. He had to resort to his back-up tool: two sheets of thin, rigid plastic with an air bladder between them. He was able to work the plastic into the jamb, then inflated the bladder enough to get the tip of the wedge stated. Once he had enough space he started working with the slim jim.

I’ll spare you the details. He was good, but the security system was better. Basically, when it’s activated, it turns off all the electric buttons that unlock the car doors or the trunk. It also, as we discovered, inactivates the door handle so even pulling that open from the inside doesn’t open the car.

Aaron was good-natured all along, but as you might imagine, as time went on he began to suffer from a combination of mild frustration and embarrassment. Still, it was pleasant to talk with him. I learned that he’d been with Penn security for about 2 years and liked his job. He figured he had opened cars over 400 times for people that had locked their keys in. Apparently, it’s one of their most common calls. If nothing else, that information made me feel a little less foolish. The fact that this was the first time he wasn’t successful didn’t help much, though.

AAA logoEventually, we ran out of ideas and decided to wait for the AAA guy. Aaron stayed – he wanted to see just how this other fellow would deal with it.

When I called AAA, they had asked the make and model of the car, so I thought that they would know the security system they were dealing with and send along someone with the technical equipment to overcome it. I was expecting some computerized gizmo, something like the computer-in-a-brief-case that I used to use to reprogram a patient’s pacemaker just by laying the receiver on their chest over the pacemaker and typing in what I wanted to do. That computer could even automatically recognize the type of pacemaker the patient had and boot up the correct program. I thought (hoped?) the man from AAA might have the automotive equivalent.

He didn’t.

What Chris had was a slightly newer wedge and slim jim than the one Aaron had. He said there were a couple of tech guys that did have the computer kind of stuff, but on the weekend it was him.

Virgina horse farm in early springNow while I won’t say I was enjoying the process, but it wasn’t too bad either. I was learning a little about breaking into cars (never know when that might come in handy) and I was also enjoying interacting with these guys who did an entirely different kind of work than I do but who are also helping people.

Well, guys being guys, Chris had to retry all the things we’d already done. Aaron and I understood perfectly and were glad to have him give it


Virginia Horse Farm, Early Spring

a go.

Actually, I was hoping we hadn’t pushed the buttons hard enough or something and he’d be successful. I like to think that I’m mature enough not to let my male pride keep me from not appreciating someone else succeeding where I had failed, especially if that success meant I could get into my car.

Chris didn’t have any more luck than we did.

The options were narrowing and none of them looked too good. A few of them were: Wait ‘till the Lexus dealer opened on Monday and see what they suggested. Call a locksmith and see what they could do (Aaron said that could cost several hundred dollars and might mess up the car). Rent a car and drive home and back on Sunday for the spare key.

Still I wasn’t getting very upset. Just remembering that I wanted to feel good no matter what helped me stay positive. I also knew that getting upset wouldn’t make the situation any better or give me any new options. In fact, I fully knew from the science of HeartMath (after all, proving that we teach what we need to learn, I am a certified HeartMath instructor :-) - that being in a stressed state would limit my ability to see possible creative solutions.

Jeff with horsesSo I was trying to focus on the positive aspects about how this wasn’t a serious problem on the scale of possible life problems and about how helpful these two fellows were being. I was also looking for the

educational aspects oexperience, doing EFT, using HeartMath technique…  In short, I
Jeff introducing us to his horse Mason and Mason's friend
was practicing a whole bunch of self-management techniques I’ve learned over the years. Funny how even knowing what I know and believing what I believe, I still could easily slip into a reactive blame mode if I wasn’t careful.

In the end, it was Aaron with the creative solution. He had the idea that if we could unhook the car battery it would inactivate the security system and maybe we could open the door then. 

The hood release is a mechanical cable and not affected by the security system. Aaron was able to use the slim jim to release it, Chris had a wrench to disconnect the battery and then, yes!, pulling on the inside door handle with the slim jim opened the door! High fives all around.

Story’s not entirely over though.

We opened the trunk and I found the keys. Remember how I told you this was one of those fancy electronic keys? Well, apparently when I was rushing around shifting things in the trunk I had dropped something heavy on the key, completely crushing the plastic casing holding the electronic gizmos. The key was in multiple parts. The car turned over real well, but didn’t start.

At this point, I was really wondering what was going on with my car karma.

taped car keyFortunately, this fix wasn’t as long or as complicated. We tried fitting the pieces back together and held them in shape with electrical tape Chris had it his truck. It worked.

My Taped Car Key


So ended the locked car saga.

Who knows why it happened? My point in telling you this long story was to give an illustration of how we always have options in how we respond to the events of our everyday lives. The events do not determine the quality of our lives, the options we choose to make do.

As the cliché goes: you can’t control the wind, but you can control the set of your sail.

Too many people respond automatically according to habits they’ve developed. It seems to me that you can often see the results of a person’s habits of thought etched in their face as they age. Some people would say “Well of course I’m upset (or angry, or sad, or frustrated, or…) over this – who wouldn’t be?”  They don't see that they have a choice, that they can choose how they respond, that there may be other options. Instead, they respond automatically.

I have a friend who chooses to look at every event in his life, wanted or unwanted, as a “gift.”  It doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful sunset or an employee being belligerent and disrespectful or a major IRS audit or his mother having a stroke, he chooses to see all these events as “gifts.”

I’m certainly not at that point. For that matter, I’m not even sure I agree with it as a philosophy. However, I do know that it’s a much more useful mind set to have than a sad-sack, woe is me approach, or an anger response or any of the other more common responses we all witness every day.

Personally, I choose to use unwanted events as a chance to practice managing my internal state. There are lots of ways to do that. It's a good thing because I often seem to need a lot of them.

One of my teachers (Abraham, channeled by Esther Hicks) advises to simply "find the thought that feels better". Good advice, and like a lot of good advice easier said than done. But it does get easier with practice.

breakfast with Chris and JeffAnd by the way, a “thought that feels better” doesn’t have to be a cheerful, happy thought. It can be a miserable thought. It just has to be better than the one you’ve been thinking. For example, someone who

Breakfast with Chris and Jeff
   feels depressed            and  overwhelmed is in a very tough place. From there, a thought of anger is an improvement. It has more energy and it contains the possibility of action. So for them, angry thoughts will be better feeling thoughts than depressed thoughts. Moving in that direction will be an improvement.

But they don’t want to get stuck in anger. Or go back to depression. They should settle into it for a little while, and then find a thought that feels better than anger. Perhaps it will be annoyance then mild annoyance. Or maybe it will be frustration. From the new perspective, perhaps they can find thoughts that express the possibility of hope, and then maybe actual hopeful thoughts.

And so on up the emotional scale.

There are a lot of other techniques. They really do help. I mentioned EFT and HeartMath and Tony Robbins’ problem solving questions. They are all good methods. I used them all in the garage that night. This has gotten a little long so I won't explain them all now - we can save that for another time.

Maurino'sThe reason I was using all those techniques was because I was committed to not having this little glitch ruin my good mood. I was in the middle of a road-trip vacation with my wife, visiting our wonderful son and on the way to see good friends in a beautiful

Maurino's Lunch. Local musicians meet here Tuesday night's for informal jam sessions in both the front and back room. Fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica, stand-up bass, trombone... The players come and go all evening. Good fun
part of the country we hadn’t seen before.  We had just been to a fabulous flower show, we all have good health and really 99.9+% of my life was continuing to go beautifully. It would have been silly to let this little event distract me from all the good I have in my life and ruin the trip or even the evening.

Unfortunately, I’ve let equally trivial events do just that in the past, which made me all the more determined not to let it happen again.  I’m glad I didn’t this time. We’ve been home for a couple of weeks and the car issue seems a minor aspect of the trip. It’s become a funny story I can tell people, and I’m sure the story will be part of our family folk lore for years to come.

As it turns out, the car adventure didn’t quite end when we drove out of the parking structure. About 20 minutes later, as we were almost at our friends’ home where we were staying, there was a loud crashing/scraping noise from the rear if the car. As the service manager later explained it to me, the parking brake had “exploded.”  Who knew parking brakes could do that? Let me tell you, though – when it happens, it makes an impression.

So I had a chance to find out about car dealerships in the Philly area and the availability of rental cars on a Sunday and I had yet another opportunity to practice state management.

But all that’s a story for another time…

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