Saturday, December 9, 2017

If You Asked

If you asked me where I've been for the past... nearly a month now, I would probably say I've been grading, cleaning, and running errands.

Because that's what it's felt like for nearly a month now. Yes, I've done a little teaching, and no, I've not done any writing, because I've been grading, cleaning, and running errands. I appear to be doing about 4 loads of laundry per week--I actually have one load drying right now, and I really should fold it, but I'm afraid if I do, I'll never get this blog post written.

And I want to blog, because it gives me time to regroup. And these days, that's much needed. So I'm determined to regroup here tonight, because tomorrow, a friend arrives for a visit, which means I won't have time to blog until early next week (and I'm committed to getting back to the blogging).

When I pan back from the past month, I can see where the time has gone. On the one hand, I decided to do the Runner's World RunStreak. This means, I'm committed to running at least a mile a day for the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

And apparently, I take my commitments seriously because today, it snowed, so I made a little plan to get myself to the gym so I could do the run on the treadmill. It was going quite well--I stopped in at the gym in the middle of my errands (see what I mean?), got into the locker room, reached into my gym bag and realized that, instead of bringing shorts or sweats or some type of bottom-based workout wear, I had simply packed ... a second shirt.

I suppose I could have slipped my legs into the armholes and made some kind of makeshift bloomers, but I thought it was best that I not do that. Instead, I decided "screw it"--and I went out and hopped on the treadmill and ran an 11-minute mile... in my jeans.

I mean, who cares? I was wearing my sneakers and a t-shirt, it was just the jeans that seemed out of place on the treadmill. But I chose one in the back, so no one could see me, and then I ran like the dickens, before anyone could comment on what a dork I seemed to be.

Speaking of Dickens, I'm rereading Our Mutual Friend and gearing up to write an article on it. This may be why, the other day, it dawned on me that I had actually bumped into a character from Dickens' novel.

Let me explain. Several years ago, I hired a painter. He was a jerk and the job turned into a disaster. (I blogged about it here.) If you actually clicked that link then you know that this event happened nearly 4 years ago now.  (Back when Downton Abbey was a thing.)

Fast forward to last week. I was running errands (see, this is what I'm saying!) and as I walked into the convenience store, I thought that the guy coming out the door might have been the Pesky Painter... but I wasn't sure.

You see, I've moved on with my life. He wasn't stunningly attractive (thank god, because what a total waste of good looks that would have been), but he also wasn't terribly remarkable in any other way either, so if he's not in my home, paintbrush in hand, then I really can't say whether or not I'd be able to pick him out of a lineup.

I simply thought for a moment, "hey--that might be that painter," and then I walked by and began searching for the milk that I needed. It took a minute, because I had to decide whether I wanted whole milk with a not-so-good date or 2% with a slightly better date, ascertain whether better days were to be had from the milk way in the back of the display case, the whole nine yards.

I made my decision, shut the door of the cooler and turned to head to the cashier. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the guy who had been coming out the door while I was going in was standing at the end of the aisle glaring at me. When I turned to leave, he glared a bit more vehemently at me, and then turned on his heel and left.

So I guess it was that painter after all. And I guess he's not "over it." He's apparently holding some type of odd grudge that manifests itself in random acts of glaring and staring.

My best friend was bewildered because, as she put it, "Typically, it's the person who was harmed in some way who holds the grudge. That dude did a number on your house--it took you a full weekend to fix all the things he did! So why on earth does he have a grudge against you?"

I had no answer for her at the time, but now I do: he's a real-life Silas Wegg, from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.

In OMF, the character of Silas Wegg runs a little stand that sells cheap trinkets and, well, crap, basically. He sets up his stall in the same place every day and over time, he comes to imagine that he is connected to the upper-class inhabitants of the house on the corner where he spends his days. He doesn't know them, but he sees them coming and going, so he gives them names and thinks of himself as part of their world.

That is, until they move away. Shortly after they do, a man approaches him with an offer of a job. Wegg is sneaky and shady, so he takes the job but is clearly bent on bilking the guy in every way possible.

And then he learns that the man is going to move into the house on the corner. Well, this inwardly sets Wegg off: he sees the man as usurping what was rightfully his (i.e., Wegg's), even though he had no claim to it, no knowledge of it, and at the end of the day, isn't even a very nice person, if you get right down to it.

Nevertheless, he resents the innocent man and goes out of his way to try to thwart him.

Because it's Dickens we're reading, Silas Wegg's character is rather exaggerated, but I have to say, I think Dickens was onto something in his depiction of a man who resentfully holds a grudge about something that 1) never happened to him, and 2) doesn't concern him in the slightest.

If he were depicted in the twenty-first century, Silas Wegg would stand in a convenience store aisle and glare, I'm sure of it, and with any luck, Dickens will also prove to be right about what happens to the Silas Weggs of the world.

In the meantime, I have papers to grade, a house to clean, and errands to run.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Finding the Right Fit

Almost exactly 7 months ago (on Easter Sunday), I decided I was tired of feeling outta shape.

Through hormone changes and stress and inactivity and lackadaisical eating habits (i.e., the aging process), I'd maxed out the recommended weight for my height.

I know that to many, the number on the scale is "just a number," but for me, the number on the scale has always been pretty good index of my overall fitness level.

I'd always been at the low end of the 20-lb range for my height, but now, I was at its utmost limit. If the pounds kept coming, I would officially be heading into uncharted territory.

More importantly, truth be told, I felt like a chubby load of crap. This couldn't be my future.

For the record, the things they don't tell women about menopause would fill VOLUMES. "Hot flashes." That's all I ever heard about. "Some women get them, some don't. They're uncomfortable."


Try migraines. That wake you up in the middle of the night and last for 3 days. Good luck exercising with a migraine. I actually tried it (more than once), because I thought maybe swimming would help it go away. (It did not.)

Try eczema and food allergies and skin so dry there hasn't been a lotion invented that will soothe it. I still remember several night being unable to sleep because of how badly my skin itched. (And yes, that's with lotion on it.)

Try heart palpitations and night sweats and waking up every. single. hour. to use the bathroom--so, 8x a night. Even though you stopped all liquids before 7 p.m. Not a recipe for a good night's sleep.

Try muscle aches so bad you have to sit down and rest after carrying the laundry up from the basement.
There was the summer I couldn't eat more than a quarter cup of food at a time without feeling like I was going to barf. That lasted for about 2 weeks.

That was followed by a couple of weeks when I was reluctant to leave the house, because I felt like I had to go to the bathroom... constantly.

Luteal cysts every month for over a year. (For the record, feeling a "fire in your belly" is only good when it's figurative, not literal.) 

And the weight gain, my god, the weight gain. I would go to bed and wake up heavier than when I went to sleep. I don't know how that happened, but it happened.

And no, thank you, peeing 8x a night didn't help anything. Again, I don't know how that's possible, but I'm here to tell you, it's possible. I've lived it.

And speaking of not helping anything... doctors. Yes, I went to my ob/gyn. He ordered a couple of tests, found nothing, and told me to find a gastroenterologist. Even I knew it wasn't a digestive problem.

So I went home, googled a bunch of my symptoms, and found page after page after page that used the word, "perimenopause." (Last visit to that ob/gyn.)

A friend of mine also helped. She's in med school, and over lunch I described my woes to her. She commented that, pre-menopause, the hormone fluctuations are "insane." And they all interact, so the insanity gets even more ... insane.

She also commented that, over time, the insanity would stop and things would eventually settle down. There was just no telling when or how or how much.

I clung to that information, though. And then, one day, miraculously, the insanity had dwindled. And, when it became a little insane again--because in my experience, the fluctuations go on-again, off-again for a bit--I was able to remember that it had stopped and it became easier to be patient.

But the weight gain remained and would not budge. In April, I finally said, enough is enough. I decided I was committed to trying to lose it.

Everything I read warned me that it wouldn't be easy, that metabolism changes with age, that weight gain is "typical," etc. etc.

I said, "I don't care, I want my old body back." (Sans hysterical hormones, obvi.) So I committed to exercising regularly all summer long. That took care of about half of the weight I had gained.

Then, I participated in the Million Miles, and got a Fitbit. That helped me a lot, actually, both in terms of getting a good exercise habit (walking) in place and figuring out how to sync my exercise with my food intake in the wake of my new metabolism.

7 months later, I've lost 15 lbs and 2% body fat. And I'm toying with the idea of participating in the RW Run Streak this year. We'll see.

What I've learned in all of this is, it's not possible to turn back the clock. But it is possible to have a healthier body even as you age-- it just takes more time and patience. 

Everyone's body will change with time, and there's no avoiding it: those changes are often not going to be good ones.

I'm lucky. The changes I faced were ones I could cope with and adjust to. And on days when I didn't feel like sticking to an exercise regimen or I wanted to eat all the ice cream, I paused to think about that.

Some days, I said, "Screw it--I want ice cream." 

But other days, I thought, "Meh... I'll hold off. I have the luxury of good health. I can do what I need to do to support that."

In the end, I didn't get my younger self back. 

I got a new one: older, wiser, and--wonder of wonders--currently in better shape than my younger self ever was. 

I found the right fit for me.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Recently, I finished an interesting book, written by Susan Forward with Donna Frazier, entitled Emotional Blackmail:When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You (1997).

Although I wish the authors had not made their subtitle quite so cumbersome, I found the book quite interesting.

Forward analyzes the way in which emotional manipulators use FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt) to achieve their goals. She will argue, however, that it always takes two to tango:
Our compliance rewards the blackmailer, and every time we reward someone for a particular action, whether we realize it or not, we're letting them know in the strongest possible terms that they can do it again. (xiv)
As a recovering Rescuer with a "Caretaker" personality, I can relate--but for years, I simply never realized.

That's because for years, I was unclear about--and uncomfortable with--the need to set limits. As Forward points out, "Appropriate limit-setting isn't about coercion, pressure or repeatedly characterizing the other person as flawed" (11). These are the traits that characterize emotional blackmail: behaviors and verbal tactics that induce feelings of fear, guilt, and/or obligation in their "targets."

If you never learn about appropriate limit-setting or see it modeled as a child, you never realize this. Instead, you think that this is simply the way that conflict--any and all conflict--plays out. People want something, so they ask, demand, insist, and persist--regardless of how you feel or respond.

And if you resist, the tension escalates until you feel the pressure of what their words and behavior imply or demonstrate: "I can't believe you're saying no... it's no big deal, why can't you just do this one little thing for me?" "You don't know your own mind--I'm sure if you think it through you'll realize I'm right." "If you decide not to do this, I hope you're willing to live with the consequences."

That's the sound of emotional blackmail.

If you never learn the steps toward a healthy resolution of conflict, you simply perceive all conflict as "bad," not as a normal part of a relationship between two different adults with different needs, desires, and world-views. 

As Forward notes, "If people genuinely want to resolve a conflict with you in a fair and caring way," they "talk openly about the conflict," take time to find out how you feel and, in particular, why you feel resistant, and "[a]ccept responsibility for their part of the conflict" (13). 

Blackmailers don't do this because they aren't seeking resolution. Instead, they want to win and get their way. Again, as Forward points out, "[i]f someone's primary goal is to win," they "try to control you," "ignore your protests," insist on their own superior motives, and "avoid taking any responsibility for the problems between you" (13-14).

If you simply think about the difference between these two ways of handling conflict, you'll be well on your way to identifying the emotional blackmailers in your life.

In my own experience, I think of the emotional blackmailers I've encountered as "steam-rollers": if they have a need, they either don't pay attention to, consider, or credit your perspective, or if they do, such attention is minimal and dismissive.

The goal is to steam-roll over what you think or how you feel, and get to the point: the fact that, to their minds, you "need" to meet their "need," in the way that they think you should.

Forward identifies several types of emotional blackmailers: "Punishers," "Self-Punishers," "Sufferers," and "Tantalizers." In every instance, the goal is to get the other person to do what they want by invoking FOG (i.e., feelings of fear, obligation and/or guilt).

Ideally, in the blackmailer's world, we will cave before we even have time to think about whether or not we really want to do what they're asking.

In order to stop the pattern of emotional blackmail in a relationship, it's important to "interrupt the ritualistic pattern of resistance, pressure and capitulation by changing the reactions" that compel us to behave as if we're "on automatic pilot" (145).

Forward offers a (very!) handy acronym as a reminder of this need to interrupt the pattern and its dynamic: SOS.

Stop. Observe. Strategize.

According to Forward, "the first thing any target of emotional blackmail has to do is nothing" (153).

No decisions are required the moment a demand is made. You need time to think. Contrary to what the emotional blackmailer would have you believe, this is not a crisis.

If they're not bleeding from their eyeballs, they're not in crisis. No, I don't need to let you know RIGHT NOW whether I'll serve on that committee. I'm not required to commit to lending you $1000. before I hang up the phone. Just because you need a ride bright and early in the morning and called at an ungodly hour to request one, does not mean I need to call you back, even though your voicemail message insists that this is the case.

For Rescuers and people with "Caretaker" tendencies, insisting on time to think means learning to live with a certain measure of discomfort. In this respect, as Forward points out, we're complicit in the blackmail scenario: we don't like discomfort, so we comply immediately, to end the conflict, big or small.

In short, we're used to simply capitulating in order to get out of the FOG.

The goal of SOS (Stop, Observe, Strategize) is to obtain a measure of detachment in order to consider how you really feel and what you'd really like to do (or not do) in the face of the blackmailer's demand(s).

This leads to the second phase of the SOS. Once you "Stop," you need to "Observe" both the blackmailer and yourself--in particular, what you are feeling, and why, and what happens when you do nothing and simply tell the blackmailer they're going to have to wait while you think it through.

Again, in a healthy relationship, telling someone "I need time to think about that..." will provoke the following response (or some variation on it):

"Okay. Let me know when you decide."

In a blackmailer's world, delay is not an option. So the response will be insistent, angry, or dismissive/belittling. (They may demand to know "when" they can "expect" an answer from you: don't fall for this. It's simply a way to get you back on their crisis-timeline, meeting their needs on their own terms.)

If you give yourself the opportunity to observe this reaction, you'll know what you're up against. 

Which leads to the final stage of SOS: Strategize.

This stage involves thinking through the nature of the demand: is it really "no big deal," or something that you don't mind doing? If so, then ready agreement may be in order, and you can quickly get back to the person and say "okay."

Responding "quickly," after you've thought it through is fine. 

Responding "immediately," without thinking it through, is not necessary and not wise. That's the difference between a relationship characterized by "healthy limits" and one based on a dynamic of emotional blackmail.

If you're facing a demand that involves your integrity or a major life issue--if capitulation has the ability to harm your own life or the lives of others-- then it's time to strategize a bit further.

To help with this process, Forward offers a series of questions that a person should ask themselves before saying "yes." If the decision involves a major life choice, she suggests extending the decision-making for timeline as long as possible, in order to think through all the possibilities and options.

When it comes time to communicate a decision to an emotional blackmailer, Forward suggests an additional layer of strategy--in particular, using "nondefensive communication, making an ally out of an adversary, bartering and using humor" (195).

In all of these cases, the goal is to defuse the situation: to ensure that the blackmailer's "blame, threats and negative labels" fail to spark the sense of conflict that has previously worked to induce FOG and capitulation.

Forward recognizes that the advice she offers is easier said than done. One of the advantages of her book, I think, is that it offers very specific scripts and strategies that she advises practicing in order to gain the ability to withstand emotional blackmail.

We all realize that sticking up for yourself when necessary is a good thing. But for many of us, sticking up for ourselves when we've been trained from childhood to believe that doing so is a form of selfishness and always a potential source of harm or distress for others, is a challenge.

Forward's book offers a clear way to meet this challenge and change the dynamic.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Last year, I blogged about Robert I. Sutton's book, The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (2007).

Even if you have the good fortune to be not only surviving, but thriving, in a civilized workplace, I recommend Sutton's book, if only because it emphasizes how easy it is to become ...  an asshole.

Recently, Sutton published a shorter book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt (2017).

Although I think The No Asshole Rule is the better book, if you're pressed for time and feeling like crap because of the way that other people treat you at work, The Asshole Survival Guide can help.

Sutton wrote the second book a decade later, after he received thousands of emails from people out there in the great big world--people who are suffering and struggling and surviving the assholes in their respective little worlds.

Pastors wondered what to do about individuals who volunteered their time, only to be assholes to those around them.

CEO's struggled to cope with "boardholes" (individual board members who behave like assholes) or "doucheboards" (entirely dysfunctional boards).

And workers wondered how to live with people who seem determined to bully and demean, often with no ostensible reason for their behavior.

For the last decade or so, bullying and incivility have been on the rise. (Gee, I can't imagine why.) And if you think it's limited to "mean girls" in high school or email or social media or the internet (or, more recently, politics at the highest level of government), think again.

In 2006, an Ohio State University study "estimated that abusive supervision costs U.S. corporations $23.8 billion a year (based on absenteeism, health-care costs, and lost productivity)" (10).

That was over a decade ago. Odds are, the estimated costs of workplace bullying have risen and will continue to do so, unless and until we openly confront and address the problem.

Sutton's book attempts to do just that, while at the same time meeting the needs of those who believe they are suffering in abusive workplace environments.

The first step, Sutton argues, is to diagnose the problem and its extent: are you dealing with just one bad apple, or has the entire bunch been spoiled? Is it a temporary problem, or a more or less permanent one? Do you have any power at all in the situation, or are you simply suffering?

Sometimes, the survival strategy is simple and straightforward: get away from the asshole.

Although you might think that you have to quit your job to do this (and in some cases, you might), it's also possible that you can limit your interaction with the person in question or move to a different department.

If the problem is a systemic one, however, avoidance and escape may not be so simple. However, Sutton believes that it is important to be realistic and acknowledge the damage done by assholes-- not the least of which is that, over time, they will turn you into an asshole as well.

Hanging in there and "toughing it out" may seem like a virtuous way to live. But in the end, it may cause you to become exactly what you fear and loathe: an asshole.

Not a very virtuous way to live after all.

In the spirit of the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Sutton suggests that it's better to refuse to connect with an asshole--in any context, no matter how seemingly lucrative or conducive to your career it might initially seem to be--than it is to have to figure out how to devise ways to avoid or disconnect from the person later on down the road.

Cultivate good radar, learn to spot the assholes, and cut your "losses" while they're still only imagined or potential losses, rather than real ones.

As a friend of mine once reminded me, "No one needs extra crazy lying around."

If it looks like a person might be the type of person who will bring "extra crazy" into your life--whether deliberately or inadvertently, in tiny doses or big, two-ton barrels--think before you engage with them. As Sutton notes,
I focus on reducing the amount of exposure because jerks are a lot like sick people who are infected with a dangerous and contagious disease. We human beings "catch" many of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from others (even when we don't want to). Becoming "infected" changes us (usually for the worse), and we pass our negative germs along to others (even if we don't intend to). (67)
Think of assholes as germ-carriers, and wash your hands of them as quickly as possible. Better yet, avoid contact altogether. Make a mental note to keep your distance, the way you would if you saw someone looking bleary-eyed and snuffling and sneezing at their desk one morning.

You wouldn't think twice about protecting yourself from the flu, if you knew you could avoid catching it.

Abusive and manipulative people are infected with a toxic and highly contagious way of behaving and interacting with others.  Protect yourself accordingly.

If you can't avoid or distance yourself from an asshole, try to slow their roll. A University of Chicago study scanned the brains of teens with "aggressive conduct disorder": "[w]hen the researchers showed the bullies pictures of people who were experiencing pain--for example, from a hammer dropped on a toe--the pleasure regions of their brains lit up (this did not happen to the kids in the control group)" (73).

If you've ever found yourself confronted with an asshole doing what they do best and thought, "It's like... they get off on being an asshole...", you're probably right.

Although the "findings are tentative" (73), there does seem to be a way in which bullies truly enjoy tormenting others (internet trolls provide perhaps the most obvious anecdotal evidence of this).

Given that the asshole may actually be enjoying the interaction, it becomes even more imperative to just... not respond.

But if you don't have that luxury--if you simply have to respond, because you work with the person and s/he has power over you--you can consider adopting my own personal mantra that I've honed over the years. It goes like this:

"There's no law that says I have to respond to you in a timely fashion. You can wait."

Bullies and emotional manipulators like to impose a timeline consisting of one point: the right now.

The goal is to see you flustered and flurried and upset, so that you drop everything to handle their ... well, bullshit, basically... as quickly as possible.

But when you do, know now that it will never be good enough and it will stop nothing. So... do what works best for you. If it's not really urgent--if it's only "urgent" in the sense that the asshole "needs" it--make 'em wait. They will be less likely to approach you with their needs in the future, if those needs tend to go largely unmet. 

On the flip side, Sutton notes that "One way that assholes leave others feeling disrespected and demeaned is to ignore them as people. That is, to treat them as if they were invisible. A classic crappy move is to treat someone like a piece of furniture that you use but do not acknowledge as a human being--no eye contact, no smile, no thanks, no connection of any sort" (76).

I've experienced this one myself. It can be exasperating, even for an introvert, because human beings are social animals. The assholes who treat people this way have an instinctive understanding of that: their behavior is essentially exploiting this facet of human interaction and connection, to make you feel like an outcast.

My way of handling this situation is best summed up in an old Far Side cartoon:

Be the guy with the wheelbarrow.

As Snow White advises, "just whistle a happy tune." Better yet, as Sutton advises (and I'm paraphrasing here, but not by much): "Cultivate the fine art of not giving a shit."

If they want to treat you as if you're invisible, let them. The world is full of better people than that, so be invisible to the assholes so that you can be fully present to those who will like and respect and admire and care about you.

Because time and time again, research suggests that the people targeted by workplace bullies or abusive managers are generally smart, conscientious, and productive.

Ironically (but not surprisingly), these workers are also consistently better-liked across the board, outside of the bullying environment.

Don't let some asshole(s) change that. 

Monday, October 23, 2017


I recently read Harriet Lerner's Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (2017).

Lerner's approach to apologies is both practical and interesting. She highlights the advantages of the effective apology--namely, it's brief and doesn't include the word "but" or "if" (as in, "I'm sorry for X, but [insert explanation undoing apology here] or "I'm sorry if [you seem to think I did something I should be sorry for, because I really can't see it]").

Perhaps more importantly, Lerner acknowledges that "[s]ometimes, the failure of the other person to apologize when they should hits us harder than the deed they should apologize for" (4).

Even when offered, an apology may require its "own time and space to take hold": pushing a person to forgive and reconcile may make the person feel "wronged all over again" (22). As Lerner reminds us, "[t]he purpose of an apology is to calm and soothe the hurt party, not to agitate or pursue her because you have the impulse to connect, explain yourself, lower your guilt quotient, or foster your recovery" (23).

In other words, when you apologize, it's not about you.

I like the warnings that Lerner offers about apologizing because in my own experience, I've found that mishandled apologies can begin to mark the decline of a friendship.

A friend was absent from my life during a period of time when I really could have used all the friends I had. When she returned, I'd suffered a significant loss. She called me one day out of the blue, apologized for being absent and then began to cry about the fact that she felt terrible because she had been such a bad friend. 

Long story short, I ended up consoling her.  Even as I did so, I remember thinking, "Yeah, this is really a bit much, calling me up to apologize for being a crappy friend and then turning it into an occasion where I get to console and reassure you ... while I'm smack-dab in the middle of planning a funeral for a loved one..."

In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that, because several years later, faced with a very similar situation, she did it again. At that point, when she began to cry, I had very little to say.

When I look back on these incidents, I can't say that I resent the fact that I didn't get a sincere apology--I just feel a bit relieved that I've let the friendship fade.

As Lerner points out, "Part of a true apology is staying deeply curious about the hurt person's experience rather than hijacking it with your own emotionality" (29). In the case of my absent friend, the proffered apology definitely rang false because it was hijacked by her own needs.

That's not to say, however, that every apology has to be marked by prostration and wholesale remorse on the part of the offending party. Instead, Lerner argues, "[w]e can learn to listen differently, to ask questions, to apologize for the part we can agree with and define how we see things differently" (36), a process that deepens intimacy by adding nuance to the existing relationship.

This is easier said than done, of course. As Lerner points out, when someone accuses us of causing pain or discomfort, "[w]e automatically listen for and react to what is unfair and incorrect" (43). And, when we hear it, we react defensively.

I think this is because, as Lerner repeatedly observes, we (erroneously) tend to think of apologies as all-or-nothing phenomena.

If I'm angry with you, it's all your fault. Except that often, it's not. As Lerner notes, "[a] sincere apology means we are fully accountable for the part we are responsible for, and for only that" (46)--apologizing to someone doesn't mean that we're required to "passively accept criticisms that we believe are wrong, unjust, and totally off the mark" (45).

(I wonder how many families out there know this? Offhand, I'm guessing maybe three. Because this sure doesn't sound like the way apologizing went in my family over the years...)  

Lerner suggests that if we want to evaluate the sincerity of an apology, we should watch the follow-up, rather than focusing excessively on the apologizer's tone or expecting immediate evidence of wholehearted contrition at the very moment of the apology.

And what happens if you don't even get a much-needed apology?

Unlike many, Lerner is not an advocate of "forgiveness" for its own sake. She argues instead that "we don't need to forgive the actions of an unapologetic offender to find peace of mind" (142) and that too often, we conflate "letting go" with "forgiving" (143):
We need to accept the reality that sometimes the wrongdoer is unreachable and unrepentant--or perhaps long dead--and we have a choice as to whether we continue to carry the wrongdoing on our shoulders or not. (142)
Whether or not we "forgive," we can, in Lerner's words, opt to "dissipate" the "emotional charge" of the event for which we never received an apology. For her part, Lerner notes,
In the absence of a sincere apology--or some way a person might show me they are truly sorry and will not repeat the injury--I have no idea what it means to forgive a harmful or hurtful incident, though I know what it means to love that person anyway and wish them well. (145)
Ultimately, Lerner argues, "the word forgive is much like the word respect. It can't be commanded or demanded or forced, or gifted for no reason at all" (145). Perhaps more importantly, she insists that forgiveness can be a measured concept--"you can forgive the other person 95 percent or 2 percent or anywhere in between" (149).

But even if it's 0 percent--if you really just can't forgive another person, whether or not you've received the apology that you think you're due--you don't need to cling to the kind of anger, bitterness, and negativity that accompanies the memory of the other person's misdeed. 

In the absence of an apology, you can still cultivate empathy, kindness, and compassion. As Lerner points out, "[n]ot everyone is capable of radical forgiveness, nor does everyone strive for it" (143-144).

That doesn't make you an unkind, closed-minded, or hard-hearted individual.

It just makes you human.

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.