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On the Spot: What's conspiring against this vacation?

It seems as if everything goes wrong just as you're about to make a getaway. That might be the cue to look at what your brain is trying to tell you, good or ill.

October 28, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Question: Ever feel like Pharaoh in "The Ten Commandments"? Just before I go on vacation, bad things seem to happen: burglary Thursday, date cancels Saturday, email goes out Monday. Why?

Jack Schwartz

Los Angeles

Answer: And now the grand finale: When Schwartz returned home from his vacation (which he enjoyed), he found 400 dead ants in his freezer. They might have been in search of water or just a cooler place to be. Or they might have been part of an insidious plot to torment Schwartz and others like him who can't go anywhere without an aperitif of awfulness.

Assuming that life is one giant conspiracy against your happiness can bring you some comfort from what seems to be constant victimization.

But, professionals suggest, you might be better off pointing your finger at your brain.

"Our brains are masterful meaning makers," said John Zavodny, a philosopher and director of the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities at Unity College in Maine. "This is what we do. This is how we have survived as long as we have without seriously big claws or big teeth. … We've lasted because we saw meaning in everything."

That can protect us. "When I am hiking, I see snakes everywhere," he said. "There's a twig; it's a snake. I'm never right about it — maybe once every 100 times it is a snake."

But, he adds, "it does me no damage to make meaning in these circumstances. ... If I'm wrong and I see a snake and I think it's only a twig and I get bitten, I'm dead."

When the worst doesn't happen, it can reinforce our belief that we've somehow warded off calamity.

Simon Rego, a cognitive behavioral psychologist in New York, calls this a "type of information processing bias."

"If you walk out of your office and say, 'Let me pay attention to all the things that go wrong,' it skews the way you see your day," he said. We are "filled every day with information that gives us joy and sorrow, stress and pleasure," Rego said. The kind of day you have largely depends on "the overarching philosophy of how we approach the day."

Schwartz (and the rest of us) also might think about ingrained but unspoken issues surrounding time off. "The reason things seem to go wrong before people take a vacation is because unconsciously they are fearful that they are wasting time and money, and that they will miss out on opportunities while they are gone," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist on the clinical faculty at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Before you pack your bags or step foot on the plane or get in the car, try putting your brain on vacation — a vacation from making meaning, from seeing ill, from manifesting doubts.

"What do you think of the world?" William James asks in "The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy." "These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some ways or other, we must deal with them. In all important transactions of life, we have to take a leap in the dark. … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice. But whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril."

Think there's a conspiracy against vacation? You might want to make a different choice. You're still going to have dead ants when you return from vacation, but you might have had them anyway. If your thoughts are now turning away from the vacation ruination theory and to the insect torment theory, you might want to seek professional help from, at the very least, a sympathetic exterminator.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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