Sunday, October 15, 2017

"My Left Foot"

Recently, I read a very interesting memoir, My Left Foot (1954), by Christy Brown.

You may know the story from the 1989 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker: both actors won Oscars--for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively--in 1990.

Brown was born in Ireland in June of 1932; in the first months of his life, it became increasingly clear that he had cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder caused by brain injury or malformation that occurs before, during or after birth.

My Left Foot opens with an acknowledgement of this context: "Mine was a difficult birth, I am told. Both mother and son almost died. A whole army of relations queued up outside the hospital until the small hours of the morning, waiting for news and praying furiously that it would be good" (1).

Both mother and son lived, but as time went on, it appeared that the news wasn't unequivocally "good." The physical impairments caused by cerebral palsy vary from person to person: in Brown's case, they were quite severe. His memoir is called "My Left Foot" because it eventually became clear that this was the only limb that he could reliably control.

Over time, Brown would learn to paint with his left foot

He also used it to write and to type, despite the fact that, in January of 1949, he was advised by a specialist in London that if he wanted to be "cured eventually," he must "resolve never to use [his] left foot again" (115). Brown's reaction was predictable:
My left foot! But that meant everything to me--I could speak only with that, create only with that! It was my only means of communication with the outside world, my only way of reaching the minds of other people and making myself articulate and intelligible. The rest of me was useless, worthless, and that one limb, my left foot, was the only workable thing in my whole body. Without it I would be lost, silent, powerless. (115)
The choice Brown was given was a cruel one.
He was told, "If you continue to use your left foot you may one day become a great artist or writer with it--but you'll never be cured" (115).

Ultimately, he "promised" never to use his left foot again.

Brown eventually broke this "promise" in order to become a writer.

One day, frustrated with dictating his thoughts to his brother,  Brown "tore off [his] left shoe, ripped off [his] left sock with the other foot" and "[s]eized a pencil between [his] first and second left toe and began to write:
I wrote and wrote without pause without consciousness of my surroundings hour after hour. I felt a different person. I wasn't unhappy any more. I didn't feel frustrated or shut up any more I was free, I could think, I could live, I could create. ... (166)
Brown's memoir as a whole is about what it means to be free, to think, to live, and to create when one must do so in spite of severe physical impairment and in a world full of people who seem either unwilling or unable to conceive of physical difference as anything other than an impairment.

Significantly, Brown's family was not made up of such people. He credits his mother, in particular, for being "determined to treat [him] on the same plane as the others, and not as the 'queer one' in the back room who was never spoken of when there were visitors present" (2).

In short, he claims, "I was her child, and therefore part of the family" (2). At the end of My Left Foot, Brown describes how, at a public reading of his work, his mother was given... a round of applause and a bouquet of roses... in recognition of her efforts over the years.

(That was back in the day when it was considered impolite for women to openly object to astoundingly patronizing behavior.)

"The others" that Brown refers to are his many (many!!) siblings. At the outset of his memoir, Brown states, "[t]here were nine children before me and twelve after me, so I myself belong to the middle group. Out of this total of twenty-two, seventeen lived, four died in infancy, leaving thirteen still to hold the family fort" (1).

Let's pause for minute here, and take that in. His mother's determination to see him succeed held fast despite the fact that she was pregnant more or less constantly for twenty-two years and raising  a lot of other children in the interim.

So, if you get right down to it, the rest of the world has no excuse, really.  

In addition to the influence of his mother, Brown's large family structure had its advantages, at least when it came to the community's perception and acceptance of his difference. As a child, Brown was often out in the streets with his brothers, who "took [him] with them when they went out to play in the streets after school, pushing [him] along in a rusty old go-car which they called [his] 'chariot'" (18).

In contrast to his later experiences as an adult, Brown revels in the years spent with "boys from our own neighbourhood who were young enough and frank enough to accept me as one of themselves without asking any questions" (18). In fact, he argues, "many of them regarded my affliction as some queer sort of symbol of superiority, almost of godliness, so that they treated me with deference, respect, in a strange childish way" (18).

Brown's memoir is a brief but fascinating account of his "affliction" and its varying contexts throughout his childhood and into his early adulthood. Sadly, Brown's life ended in 1981 when he choked to death during dinner; after his death, there were allegations that his wife had been both abusive and alcoholic, and Brown himself had become extremely reclusive and dependent on alcohol.

My Left Foot describes only the early decades of Brown's life, but throughout his memoir, he grapples with the discrepancies between his mind and his body, his capabilities and his community. His story has moments of sheer joy, in a narrative that, as it unfolds, consists of increasing measures of sadness, depression, and disconnection.

Ultimately, Brown prompts us to think about what it means to define someone in terms of their physicality by compelling us to think about what his left foot meant to him-- and, in turn, what it might mean (and symbolize) to us.       

Friday, October 6, 2017

One in a Million

A week ago, I completed my first "Million Miles" challenge for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Foundation, its purpose is "to raise money and awareness of childhood cancer causes, primarily for research into new treatments and cures, and to encourage and empower others, especially children, to get involved and make a difference for children with cancer."

As many of my blog readers already know, childhood cancer directly touched my life. My best friend's son (and my godson), Ezra, died of brain cancer in 2011.

He was only 10 years old.

Ezra was diagnosed in October of 2011, and spent his birthday--October 25th--in the hospital recovering from surgery. I got the news of his diagnosis two days after my own birthday.

Childhood cancer changed everything about my life.

I used to love celebrating my birthday. After Ezra's diagnosis... not so much. Since 2011, I quietly commemorate it, at most, because it feels wrong to do a whole lot of celebrating around a time that ended up so... painful and wrong.

I remember the song I was listening to on my iPod when I checked my messages and got the message from my best friend about the diagnosis.

I've never once listened to that song since. I can't even face the thought of hearing it. (I suspect it would provoke some kind of low-grade PTSD in me if I tried.)  I don't even want to mention it, because I'm superstitious about the fact that if I do, I might actually hear it.

I love to bike. For years, I always felt like it enabled me to reconnect with my "inner child."

I lost count of the number of times that, after Ezra's diagnosis, I found myself walking my bike home after heading out for a ride, because I was crying too hard to ride.

The thought that I, a 40-something-year-old woman, could bike and a child that I loved could not floored me on more than one occasion.

So when my best friend formed a team to participate in Alex's Million Mile campaign this year, I knew that it was something that I wanted to do and that, in many ways, it would be therapeutic for me.

The goal was for the participants to collectively walk, run, or bike a million miles during the month of September and raise $1 million for childhood cancer research.

In the end, the campaign collectively completed 876,000 miles and raised $995,802. for childhood cancer research.

Not. Too. Shabby.

Our team, Ezra's Entourage, set a fundraising goal of $700. We had a lot of introverts on our team, and by nature, we're not terribly keen on fundraising, although like many, we don't mind money. (In fact, some of us rather like it.)

We raised $885. (I'm relatively certain a few people probably unfollowed me on Facebook because they became terribly sick of hearing me ask for donations on an almost daily basis for an entire month.)

Our mileage goal was 800 miles. We reached 998 miles.

Sidebar: If I'd known that was how it was going to turn out, I'd have done the extra 2 miles myself so we could say we reached 1000 miles, but that's probably just because I have an odd visceral obsession with certain kinds of numbers. I strongly suspect I'm the only team member lying awake at night thinking about that, so I'm going to let it go. (But note to self for next year.)

Personally, I reached 250 miles. My initial goal was 100 miles. Suffice to say, I'm really proud of myself, because that boils down to a little over 60 miles a week of walking and/or biking.

More importantly, it was, as I anticipated it would be, wonderfully therapeutic. I finally got a chance to use my bike rides to help children who are--unfortunately, unfairly--going through what Ezra went through.

Whenever I started to think about whether I was tired (or hot or hungry or sad) on my walks, I thought about the fact that all of these things would have been a non-issue for me if I'd been presented with the option to walk (or bike or run) to save Ezra's life.

All of us on the team would have done all of what we did and more besides, no question, to save a child with cancer.

As I walked and biked, I was often reminded of the Bible verses that the minister read at my dad's funeral.

My dad's birthday is shortly before mine: he met Ezra once, when Ezra was quite young. At the time, my dad found it very funny that Ezra just happened to be wearing a checkerboard plaid shirt, because that was my dad's favorite pattern. And my dad was a runner.

So throughout September, Ezra and my dad were often on my mind as I walked and biked, and many times, I remembered the words of Isaiah 40:30-31.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Kindergarten Forever

A friend recommended a book last weekend, and I ended up thoroughly engrossed by it. Mitchel Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2017) addresses the question of how to foster creative thinking--although Resnick's focus is on children, as he points out, it's also relevant for anyone "who is curious about kids, learning, and creativity" (4).

Prior to the invention of the first kindergarten in 1837, teachers typically practiced what Resnick calls "a broadcast approach to education" (7).  They stood at the front of the classroom and "broadcast" information to students who in turn copied it down and perhaps recited it back later.

By contrast, the first kindergarten opened by Friedrich Froebel in 1837 operated on the assumption that "young children learn best by interacting with the world around them" (7). Resnick extends this assumption to argue that "the rest of school (indeed, the rest of life) should become more like kindergarten" (9). 

In particular, Resnick considers the creative process as a "Creative Learning Spiral" like the kind pictured below:

Mitchel Resnick, Lifelong Kindergarten (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2017), p. 11
This is the creative process typically fostered in a kindergarten classroom: children create the things they imagine, play with them, share their creations with others, reflect on any problems that arise, and then re-imagine, re-create, re-play, etc.

Unfortunately, Resnick notes, this process often ends when kindergarten is over. In order to develop more creative young thinkers he argues, we need to follow four "guiding principles": "projects, passion, peers, and play" (16).

Resnick also takes the time to dispel numerous misconceptions about the nature of creativity. Too often, we think of the creative process only in terms of artistic expression--in fact, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs (among others) need creativity as well, and creativity is not, as we so often assume, something that only a select few can experience or practice (18).

Perhaps more importantly, creativity isn't about instantaneous inspiration or insight: instead "creativity is a long-term process" (19) and one that can be nurtured and, to some extent, taught--"so long as you think about teaching as an organic, interactive process" (20).

I think the reason that I found Resnick's book so engrossing is because it both echoed and expanded my own thinking about the nature of creativity. When I teach writing, I often have to alert students to the fact that papers take time to emerge--ideas and arguments don't spring forth fully formed, and it can take a while to figure out not only what you are going to say, but how you are going to say it.

Both of these steps are part of the process of creativity, and perhaps thinking about them as moments of "play" is a useful way to break out of the worry that we aren't going to sound "smart" or "sophisticated" from the very moment we put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard).

Maybe we'll sound downright silly sometimes. Maybe what we create in writing will be very different from what we imagined.

And maybe that's okay. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Labor of Love

I planned to write this post on Labor Day, which was nearly two weeks ago now. That's how the time has been going.

But as the title suggests, it's been going well. The semester is back underway, and it's going along swimmingly (and in my world, anything involving swimming is a good thing).

We're still cranking along, raising money and racking up miles for Ezra's Entourage. I'm proud of myself, because I made my mileage goal only ten days in to the challenge, so everything from this point on in terms of miles is just additional fitness--which I can very much use.

I've done my best with the fundraising, but I'm still well short of my $$ goal on that front (as our all of our team members), so any love that anyone can show to any one of us, in the form of donations, great or small, I'm more than grateful for.

I'm also finishing up a donation project for Knit Aid. It's turned into a bit of a last-minute scramble (doesn't it always, when it comes to knitting?), but I'm hoping to add one last cowl to a box of hats, scarves, mittens, and cowls that I will be sending to support refugees in Europe.

I'm putting the finishing touches on a syllabus for a new course on representations of disability in literature that I'll be teaching this spring--this means that, in the upcoming days, I may actually have a few books to blog about, for a change. I know I've slacked off on that front a bit in recent months, so my plan is to try to do a bit more of that, since it will be a way to crank out a few more blog posts more regularly.

And this is something--blog writing--that I think I'll be able to recommit to in the upcoming months, if only because all of the various articles (there were 3 this summer) are now either in print (the one on Hersey's Hiroshima is available here, if anyone is interested), poised to appear in print (the second one on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales is due out in October), or under review (the one about Capote's In Cold Blood and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is awaiting a second-round decision).

So the only academic writing that I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks involves a grant proposal (which I have essentially written, I just need to attend a workshop, get input, and put the finishing touches on that) and a possible conference paper proposal, which I'm not entirely wedded to--I may just give myself a break and let that slide. We'll see.

But before you think I've done nothing but work for others, rest assured: my labor of love has born fruit--literally--in other ways.

After so many summers of unending struggles and more or less constant disappointment when it comes to growing tomatoes, this summer feels like quite the triumph. Yes, I had less luck with other veggies (broccoli, I'm looking at you), but I finally managed to swing it when it comes to the tomatoes.

Needless to say, I'll be saving the seeds and dreaming of doing it all again come next year.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Starting September

It was only 63 degrees in the house this morning--just a wee bit too chilly for an early morning bike ride--so I'm making a virtue of necessity and writing a (long overdue) blog post instead.

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Classes started this week, and they're off to the wonderful start that always seems to occur.

It's a way of making me less sad to see summer go, getting the chance to see students' bright new and in some cases familiar faces again.

I've signed up to participate in Alex's Million Miles, a fundraising drive to benefit the search for a cure for childhood cancer.

With that in mind, I acquired a low-tech Fitbit, so I've been enjoying getting familiar with that (I can see how people can become obsessed with such things).

For my part, the advantage of the Fitbit, besides logging miles for my fundraiser is simply that this winter, I will no longer be able to delude myself that I've been active when I'm clearly not. 

Since it's late summer right now, though, I'm active. And how. Today's plan is to clean the gutters and take a bike ride. Yesterday was a massive yardwork day, documented in the following "before" and "after" photos:

It was a task that took several hours, needless to say (and racked up all kinds of miles on my Fitbit). I'd been dreading it from the moment I decided "those bushes need to just GO" a couple of months ago.

There was just no trimming them in a way that made them look better, because their innards were dead. In my experience, that's a pretty common phenomenon when you inherit evergreen bushes put in by a previous owner. People like them because they're "low maintenance," but don't realize that "low maintenance" is not the same as "no maintenance."

This particular bush was a kind of "weeping evergreen"--my neighbor called it "the Cousin It" bush. When I bought the house, it had grown halfway up the lower windows and wept its way over and onto the lawn. Which it was slowly killing, as acidic evergreen needles will.

I trimmed it, and at first, it looked okay. But here's the thing: if you don't trim and cut evergreens back regularly, right from the time you plant them, eventually, you have bushes that are just a mass of empty branches inside, with no growth, hidden only by the outside branches, which just get longer and longer.

This summer, I was pretty much done with dealing with this bush because I could no longer cut it back so that it wasn't a) killing the lawn, and b) covering half of my living room windows, without exposing the empty innards.

It just didn't look good anymore, and wasn't going to look good again any time soon. Add to that the fact that those branches are scratchy and when I trim it, I end up covered in scratches that swell up and itch (apparently, I'm slightly allergic to whatever kind of conifer it is), and it was just time for it to be on its way to that Great Greenhouse in the Sky.

I put in a pair of purple rhododendron bushes instead. They're small now, but they'll fill out, and I can prune them myself right from the get-go. They'll also do well given that the soil is still going to be acidic: I dug out the roots (yes, I really did--that was the main struggle), but there are inevitably going to be remnants around for a while to come, so this way, they'll help instead of hurt.  

And, I like rhododendrons. I already have some light purple ones in the back of the house that do quite well, so I'm hoping that the little Labor Day struggle this year will yield something nice come spring.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

In the End Zone

I feel like I've spent the last week staring at the calendar in stunned surprise. How did it get to be more than mid-August already? Where did the summer go?

On some level, I know where it went. I wrote an article from scratch, and got it published (due out on Sept. 1st). I saw another through the page proof stage (due out in October). And I significantly revised a third, which is now being re-reviewed.

That's a lot of writing, plain and simple.

There was a conference presentation in May. There was a wonderful week-long vacation with my best friend and her family.

And for the past week, there has been a lot of doing the various odds and ends that need to happen before a semester starts: syllabi to check or revamp and then post online. Course assignments to figure out.

All the summer behind-the-scenes business that goes with being a professor.

I've also gotten involved in a few charitable causes: one involves fitness, the other two involve fiber (knitting and crocheting, that is). They're going to ensure that September is a busy month.

In the meantime, I'm savoring the last week of total freedom. Here are a few of the things that have come with it:

This sequence of photos sums up the summer quite nicely. It's been productive and wonderful, full of health and happiness. And as sorry as I am to see it go, I feel like it's put me in good shape to greet the things that come with the end of summer and the start of school.

Monday, August 14, 2017


I've spent the past week on a little vacation, and what a wonderful one it was!

It included movies, a day at the beach, a lot of ice cream, tours of interesting historic homes, miniature golf, go-kart race cars, and climbing and traversing an aerial obstacle course made of rope bridges and zip lines.

Yes, you read that correctly: I set down the knitting and went a-climbing at an "adventure park."

It bruised both my ego and my body, but I did it. The zip-lining was actually fun, but crossing rope bridges and logs and narrow beams suspended high in the air was challenging, to say the least.

I'm not afraid of heights, really, but I also don't consider myself Cirque de Soleil or tightrope-walker material, and this was kind of that.

My people are solid citizens, going back generations. If you need light and nimble and graceful, you'd best go elsewhere and find someone else.

But if you want someone to yell and maybe throw a punch or block and tackle, my people are your people.

In general, I prefer a more stable substratum beneath my feet, and this park denied me that. I didn't really realize that it would, or I probably wouldn't have gone--and that would have been a shame.

That said, I would never throw shade on anyone who took one look at this place and said, "Not for me."

Their website offers perhaps the best description of what I undertook: "Each trail has 12-14 elements which include tunnels, moving planks, zip lines, rope walks, cargo nets, and similar features."

"Elements." Isn't that a nice word? Yeah, I thought so too. FYI, this is what they mean by that:

Needless to say, my best friend's kids LOVED it. It was a great idea. For them. They want to go again.

For her part, my best friend said, "Okay, it's like we're in the army." This was when we were talking about crawling through a barrel suspended 20 feet in the air, like so:

My BFF handled the things like a boss, though. She went on some of the more difficult trails and owned it. I felt slightly queasy just looking at a couple of the "elements" that she tackled.

Me? Well, I fell off an "element" on one of the intermediate trails. This one, actually: 

Yes, that's an "intermediate" "element," and no, that's not me in the picture. I got to that midpoint, the whole thing began swaying when I tried to transition from one beam to the next, and I slipped and fell and ended up dangling next to the beam instead of perched on it like the little sparrow I was supposed to be trying to be.

So I had to have a staff member come up and attach me to a pulley and lower me to the ground. They don't put that image as their cover photo on Facebook. (I hope.)

Once that had been accomplished, I crawled off to tend to my wounded ego. I also took that opportunity to marvel at the large hematoma on my shin--that was from a previous "element."  This one, in fact:

Those logs eventually go up a little incline. One of them swung back and hit me in the leg. It hurt, but I was so high from the adrenaline rush that comes when you're clinging to a wire and thinking you might actually have paid for a ticket to die that I just thought, "ow" and kept going because all I wanted was to reach that glorious, beautiful, three-foot wide platform on a tree that means that you've completed an "element." 

To her credit, the staff member who helped me tried to convince me to keep trying after I fell.

I appreciated her confidence in my strength and balance. I think their attitude is, it's a question of mindset: if you put you mind to it, you can do it!

They're so young, these park attendants. It's really sweet to see. Such a shame they'll eventually get older and learn that things like time and gravity are not kind and not at all on their side.

Her attitude was, even though all 140 lbs of me was dangling between those two beams in that center photo, theoretically, with the right attitude, I could have pulled myself up on a narrow wire, set myself back on that swaying beam, and continued. That was her claim.

I mentally calculated all of the various laws of physics that were not in my favor as I listened to her. As I said, I sincerely appreciated her optimism. To hear her describe it, I was a mere wisp of a thing and with a simple grunt and a "hey, presto!" I could right myself and be on my way.

She cheerfully told me that the alternative was, if she came up there, all she would do would be to lower me to the ground.

I confess, I've replayed that sentence several times in my mind since this incident and I'm really not sure why that would have ever been unappealing, in that situation or in any other situation in which a person found herself helplessly dangling 20 feet in the air.

Suffice to say, I'd had it with that particular "element" so my mindset was basically, "Oh, f*** this, I'm nearly f***ing fifty years old and I have nothing to prove. I have a Ph.D. and right now, I'm feeling pretty stupid for even attempting this, so get me OFF this effing thing. Please."

But I didn't say that. I just cheerfully said, "Okay" and nodded vigorously to encourage her to climb up there and help me. Which she did.

But inside, I was terribly disappointed in myself that I'd fallen and given up. 

Luckily, I was with friends, who were more than helpful and sympathetic. Eleven-year-olds can be very kind to us grown-ups sometimes. And other people came up and told me that were not at all surprised that I had fallen, because they had been 100% certain that they were going to fall too and that it was only by the grace of God that they had (somehow) managed not to.

Once I got over the initial discouragement and inclination to just give up and go home and eat all the ice cream, forever and ever, I was able to go back and try again.

I didn't go back to the same obstacle course: I just didn't feel up to it. But I tried another one that was equally difficult, but in a different way, and I was able to complete it.

Maybe someday I'll attempt the other course again, but right now, the thought of it gives me the willies.

Interestingly enough, before I went on vacation, I was reading Anders Ericsson and Robert Peel's book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2017).

Ericsson and Peel argue that research suggests that "potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn't a way of reaching one's potential but rather a way of developing it."

Oddly enough, I thought of this after I was back on the ground and it helped inspire me to keep trying and attempt another aerial trail.

Because, as Ericsson and Peel insist, "We can create our own potential," but "[i]f you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve" (18).

The trick is to push yourself "outside--but not too far outside" your "comfort zone"  (41).

The "element" I fell on was too far outside of my comfort zone--that much was clear to me.

And because I knew that it was, I was willing to try a different trail that put me "outside--but not too far outside" my comfort zone.

I'd already done an easier trail and felt confident on that, so I knew I was ready to move to the next level of difficulty. I knew it wasn't that I "couldn't do it," it was simply that I couldn't do that particular element on that particular day, because it was only the second trail I'd ever attempted.

So I opted for a trail that my friends and the staff worker had told me I should try. It was equally difficult, but in a different way. And I did it.

Don't get me wrong: the minute I did, I was like, "Okay, I am DONE, and I want ice cream and no one had better say a word to me about not having ice cream, because I just will not even at this point."

Because being just far enough outside of your comfort zone to be challenged and learning and stretching your potential is exhausting, no question. 

And maybe also because I'm still nursing that hematoma and there's now a large-scale bruise covering the front half of my right leg from shin to ankle.

Here's hoping it's gone in two weeks or else I may have to teach class wearing my winter boots.