Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Wolf at the Door (If We're Lucky)

This summer, I read (most of) Edward Humes' book, Eco-Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I haven't finished it yet, but it's on my reading list for Christmas Break.

One of the organizations profiled in Humes' book is The Center for Biological Diversity.  Humes' description of their approach and their work has stayed with me all of these months and I've included a link to their site on my list of "Worthy Causes" because, in my opinion, they rock.

The Center for Biological Diversity uses relevant legislation--in particular, the Endangered Species Act--to force government action on issues of conservation and wildlife preservation.

A bi-partisan venture signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon, the Endangered Species Act is the only legislation that allows an individual citizen to directly petition the government to list a particular species if:

1) the species' habitat is currently being or has the potential to be destroyed, modified, curtailed or threatened
2) the species is being "over-utilized" for commercial, recreational, scientific or commercial purposes
3) disease and predators have significantly reduced the species' population
4) existing modes of regulation are proving to be inadequate
5) other natural or man-made factors are affecting its existence

In weighing the evidence presented, economic concerns cannot be taken into consideration: the petition for listing a particular species must be weighed solely on scientific and commercial data.

Executive Order #12291 signed by President Ronald Reagan in February of 1981 and requiring a cost-benefit analysis of all government agency activities was rejected by Congress; the House Committee stated, "economic considerations have no relevance to determinations regarding the status of species" (Stanford Environmental Law Society, The Endangered Species Act Stanford University Press, 2001, pg. 40).

Since its inception, the average annual rate of listings has steadily increased.

Ford Administration:  47 listings, 15 per year
Carter Administration: 126 listings, 32 per year
Reagan Administration: 255 listings, 32 per year
Bush Administration: 231 listings, 58 per year
Clinton Administration: 521 listings, 65 per year
Source: Greenwald, Noah; K. Suckling and M. Taylor (2006). "Factors affecting the rate and taxonomy of species listings under the U.S. Endangered Species Act". In D. D. Goble, J.M. Scott and F.W. Davis. The Endangered Species Act at 30: Vol. 1: Renewing the Conservation Promise. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. pp. 50–67. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1597260096/.
Under the administration of George W. Bush, the number of listings dropped to an unprecedented low: as of 2008, there had been only 60 listings, or an average of 8 per year.

In addition, a report by The Washington Post in March 2008 showed that, beginning in 2001, the Bush Administration implemented "pervasive bureaucratic obstacles" designed to limit the number of listings.  (Juliet Eilperin, "Since '01, Guarding Species Is Harder: Endangered Listings Drop Under Bush", Washington Post, March 23, 2008)

Today, The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the Department of the Interior for "failing to develop a recovery plan for wolves in the lower 48 states," as required under The Endangered Species Act.

Obviously, there is much work still to be done.  To date, however, The Center for Biological Diversity has been successful in 93% of the lawsuits it has filed.

The wolves are in good hands.

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's Official: We Are Weird

Okay, so in my Internet ramblings over the past several days, I came upon something that is, in my opinion, truly odd.  And let's not forget, I'm the one who had Stinkhorns in her garden last fall.

For the child or child-like adult who already has everything, you can now give a unique kind of stuffed animal.  It's not actually an animal.

It's not a Beanie-Baby, not a Cabbage-Patch Doll.  Gone is the craze for Tickle-Me Elmo.  Barbie who?

Now you can give them a GIANT Microbe.

What parent wouldn't want to know that their child is going to bed tonight with Chlamydia or the ClapAnthrax is very cuddly-looking, and Flesh Eating has its own cute little knife and fork.

For anyone interested in history, there's The Black Death or Cholera.

I was prone to Earaches as a child, and I think if you had given me this when I was in the midst of one, I would have stared at you blankly and then started to cry.

And if I had ever known that this is what Food Poisoning looks like, I'd have barfed an extra time or two.

My personal favorite: Gangrene.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cynic's Cure

In the entryway to my house, I have a cheap, cheesy, kitschy little ceramic sign that I love.  It says, "Be Wise.  Be Kind.  Be True."

I recently severed all ties with someone I had once considered a friend because, although he was very wise in many ways, he was neither kind nor true.  To me, or to other people, as it turns out.

I admit, it took me a while to accept this; I tend to want to err on the side of optimism.

I think of what John Mellencamp sang: "Save some time to think/ Before you speak your mind/ Many of your friends, they will not understand/ And to them, you must be kind."

I'm writing this because I'm currently reading Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear.   Although it's a little discouraging to realize how easy it is for politicians, used car salespeople and pharmaceutical companies to manipulate even the best of us, Gardner offers a lot of really interesting facts about the psychology of fear.

In particular, Gardner discusses the psychological phenomenon known as "confirmation bias."  Psychologists have shown that, "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that supports that view while ignoring, rejecting, or harshly scrutinizing information that casts doubt on it" (110).

So once I decided my friend was no friend, it was unlikely that I'd be receptive to information that might cast doubt on that conclusion (no such information was forthcoming, by the way).

I think this is also probably why, among the other epithets he hurled at me in ALL CAPS, I was suddenly called a "progressive" (even though I'm not).

According to Gardner, "Once a belief is established, our brains will seek to confirm it" (111).

More specifically, Gardner notes that "seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strange and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Worse still, if we happen to stumble across evidence that runs contrary to our views, we have a strong tendency to belittle or ignore it" (112).

To me, this explains the current political climate of the United States.  The Tea Parties, Conspiracy Theorists, Right-Wing, Left-Wing, Conservatives, Progressives, Liberals, and Radicals--in short, the whole psychological smorgasbord.

What's particularly discouraging is the fact that when, in 2004, 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans were shown pictures of Bush and Kerry and had their brains scanned, the MRI's showed that "When people processed information that ran against their strongly held views--information that made their favored candidate look bad--they actually used different parts of the brain than they did when they processed neutral or positive information" (113).

What is worrisome to me, from an intellectual standpoint, is the way in which confirmation bias can quickly turn healthy skepticism into cynical mistrust.  As Gardner observes, "Where a reasonable respect for expertise is lost, people are left to search for scientific understanding on Google and in Internet chat rooms, and the sneer of the cynic may mutate into unreasoning, paralyzing fear" (107).

As an example of this, Gardner cites the experience of an expert charged with finding a location for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility:
"At the Siting Board's open houses .... people would invent scenarios and then dare Board members and staff to say they were impossible.  A person would ask, 'What would happen if a plane crashed into a concrete bunker filled with radioactive waste and exploded?'  We would explain that while the plane and its contents might explode, nothing in the disposal facility could.  And they would say, 'But what if explosives had been mistakenly disposed of, and the monitoring devices at the facility had malfunctioned so they weren't noticed?'  We would head down the road of saying that this was an extremely unlikely set of events.  And they would say, 'Well, it could happen, couldn't it?"
To me, this passage speaks to what I see as the two sides of the WikiLeaks coin.  On the one hand, I'm all in favor of governmental accountability: if people in power are up to no good, the people who entrusted them with that power have the right to know about it.

On the other hand, however, I'm not sure that what Assange and his Wiki have been Leaking is all that surprising, really.  By his own admission, Assange is a journalist who understands the need for national security and the need to protect the safety of diplomats and other government officials.

He therefore understands that governments do all kinds of Top Secret things to and for each other, and they always have.  Even those allegedly honest, upright Founding Fathers of ours did it.   Read James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy.  Ian Fleming's James Bond.  Frederick Forsythe.  That kind of thing.

What I find most troubling about the Leaks (I feel like I have to capitalize that word, but I'm not sure why) is the way in which they're being prefaced and packaged as they're being disseminated.

On the WikiLeaks website for Cablegate (hardly an innocent title), it states,
The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.
This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.
Then, under the heading, "How to Explore the Data," it states, "Search for events that you remember that happened for example in your country. You can browse by date or search for an origin near you.  Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best."

It might as well say, "Tap into your confirmation bias.  Really.  Go nuts.  Light up your MRI like a Christmas tree."

Setting aside the fact that no American schoolchild is taught that George Washington couldn't tell a lie (we're taught that this was a story--a lie, actually--made up about Washington long after the fact), it seems to me that WikiLeaks is stacking the deck a bit here.

First you tell me what I'll find, and then you tell me to go ahead and randomly find it.

The fact of the matter is, if these cables didn't come with this kind of suggestive preamble, I don't think a single American would ever bother looking at them.  In and of themselves, they don't make for very exciting reading, unless of course, you're looking for what they "really" say because you've already been told what they "really" say.

If the documents expose corruption, so be it.  Put them up and let people draw their own conclusions.

Again, I don't object to exposure of government corruption, in America or elsewhere.  But I do question the tactics used on WikiLeaks, because I think they encourage the kind of cynicism that Gardner describes.

Skepticism fosters freedom; cynicism ultimately fosters nothing but fear and bias.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Much Is Given, Much Is Required

In an earlier posting, I wrote about the paradoxes of humanitarian effort and individual identity in a wonderfully cathartic, deliberately ironic, and ever-so-slightly snarky post designed to assuage my own disgruntled inner diva.

It worked, by the way.

The moral of the story: never, ever piss off a writer.  At the time, she may just sit quietly and take it, but really, she's collecting material.

And trust me, she will write it up.

One of my favorite descriptions of the problem of humanitarianism occurs in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  Early in the novel, Dostoevsky describes a man who is a great humanitarian: he "loves people in the abstract" but can't stand to be in the same room with another person for very long.

Face it, we're all a lot more lovable in the abstract.  Some of us maybe more so than others.

This is what I questioned in my earlier post: to what extent should humanitarians be expected to be self-conscious about their own shortcomings?  If people are doing good in the abstract, does it matter if they're sometimes--or often--not very nice to the people around them?

Really, who is it that makes up the "humanity" of the humanitarian? Is it just an abstract concept or is it meant to refer to actual, flesh-and-blood people?

Ideally, it should be both, I think.

Maybe it's just me, but when I watch and hear advocates for alleged improvements to our lives and our world seize the bully pulpit and rip into everyone around them, I can't help but think, "Wow.  Really?  You're here to help?  Then why am I suddenly so frightened?"

Not that humanitarians don't have a good reason to be angry.  I mean, really, look around.  But personally, my penchant is for people who engage in quiet, unadvertised acts of kindness and altruism on a day-to-day basis, regardless of whether the scale is personal, local, national or global.

The people who do the most good are often the ones you hear talking about it the least.  And in some ways, that's a good thing.  My mom used to call it "modesty," and she insisted it was a virtue.

Maybe we need more of that kind of virtue out there too, mixed in with our humanitarian efforts.  Hey, it can't hurt.

Anyway, I thought that I'd use this post to identify some of the causes I find compelling.  'Tis the season, after all.

While wasting time on the Internet (aka "doing research") one day, I stumbled upon GoodSearch.  For every web search you conduct, GoodSearch "donates 50 percent of its sponsored search revenue to the charities and schools designated by its users."  (The revenue is generated by advertising.)

So finally, here's a way to put all of the ads for unnecessary consumer crap out there to good use, while procrastinating.  Who could ask for more?

If you're still worried about how much crap you buy, you could take a look at one of my favorite blogs by The Yarn Harlot, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee.  I'm an avid knitter and she has a wicked sense of humor, but she also has a strong sense of social purpose.  She started "Knitters Without Borders"--an effort designed to raise money for "Doctors Without Borders."

Basically, she suggests that, over the course of a week, you think about whether what you're about to purchase is a "want" or a "need."  Buy only what you need, and donate the money you would have spent on "wants" that week to Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders also works alongside Partners In Health, an organization founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, who is the subject of Tracy Kidder's book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (mentioned in my "Crazy, Sexy, Cool" post). 

Because I'm a knitter and I'm always knitting anyway, I like to give my many afghans to an organization called Project Linus.  Project Linus collects handmade blankets and quilts made by donors and distributes them to shelters, hospitals, and social service agencies for children who are seriously ill, traumatized or otherwise in need.  They also have sales, so if you can't make a blanket, you can always buy one at a Project Linus event and the proceeds will go to help the organization.

Because of my own personal experiences over the past four years, I've become a staunch proponent of continued and increased funding for and awareness about hospice care in the U.S..  The Hospice Action Network is a good place to go for updates about health care reform that impacts hospice funding.  Hospice care costs a fraction of what end-of-life hospitalizations cost.

I'll offer my own experience as an example: two months of hospice care for my dad, covered almost entirely by Medicare, cost less than $10,000.  The week-long hospital stay for my mom prior to her death, also covered almost entirely by Medicare, cost well over $50,000.   Hospice care is humanitarianism at its best.  The fact that it is also cost-effective is simply a bonus.

Finally, a blog that a friend of mine called my attention to: "The Year of Mud: Cob and Natural Building."  You may have seen Mike Rowe work on building a cob house on an episode of Dirty Jobs.  In this blog, Brian "Ziggy" Liloia chronicles the process of building his own cob house as part of his involvement in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

The title of this post is taken from Luke 12:48.  The verse concludes, "from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why I Teach

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  --Philippians 4:8

A friend of mine shared this verse with me today and, after posting it on my own Facebook page, I decided I wanted to blog about it as well.

I believe it speaks to what I love about my job as a teacher. 

I get to spend my day contemplating and reconsidering what is considered to be noble, true, right and pure.  I get to spend every day in the presence of intelligences greater than my own, and I get to focus my exclusive attention on things and ideas that people and cultures have historically struggled to define as excellent and praiseworthy.  

Even on days when I have to teach about books, lives and events that seem to encompass the very antithesis of all of these qualities, I am always thinking about such things, if only by default and by means of stark contrasts. 

I'm always amazed at my luck.  Not everyone gets to do this on a daily basis.

I think that the advice that Paul offers here goes beyond the suggestion that we should "accentuate the positive," as the old Johnny Mercer song has it.  "Eliminating the negative" is always easier said than done, and sooner or later, we're all doomed to "mess with Mister In-Between." 

The question, though, seems to be where we choose to mentally and spiritually set up shop.  Do we allow our minds and our words to embrace spite and negativity, or do we train our attention on the ideals that we wish to see in our world, even if we don't think we've seen them for quite some time?

For my own part, I hear Paul's words in Philippians in concert with Christ's words in Luke and Matthew.  While it is sometimes necessary to form a judgment of others' conduct and to acknowledge when words and behavior aren't acceptable to us, I think we do well to always remember the question posed in Luke 6:37:  "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Imaginary Diet

I've never really had a problem with weight, and people often ask me, "How? Why?"  They usually assume it's because I possess some form of iron-willed discipline or a crazy metabolism or an addiction to exercise or a need to starve myself for an unattainable image.

Really, it's none of the above.  Obviously, I've been blessed with good health, and I do what I can to maintain it by exercising and--my personal favorite--sleeping.  I don't eat out much and I don't eat processed foods or fast food if I can possibly help it.

My last cheeseburger at a McDonalds was in November; prior to that, the last time I remember eating at a Burger King was at the airport in Montreal in August of 2005.

If it's sold in a box or a can, I check the label and usually, once I see the sodium content and the words "high fructose corn syrup" or "guar gum," I pass.  I don't drink soda.  I don't drink diet soda.  

I don't actually ever tell myself I can't have these things.  I can, obviously, I just don't want to.  I love to cook, so in a lot of ways, I think that safeguards me from mindless consumption: I like the process more than the product.

In "Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption" (Science, 10 Dec. 2010, Vol. 330, No. 6010, pp. 1530-1533), Carey K. Morewedge, Young Eun Huh, and Joachim Vosgerau describe a series of experiments designed to examine the relationship between imagination, habituation, and food consumption.

While everyone knows that habituation--repeatedly scarfing down large quantities of something--leads to "a decrease in one's responsiveness to the food and motivation to obtain it," Morewedge, Huh and Vosgerau argue that imagined scarfing is just as effective as actual scarfing.  In short, their studies suggest that "mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus."

I'm an imagination-junkie, so I'm thrilled to hear this.  I tend to think that for most people, problems with food and weight gain--when they're not clearly linked to a physiological issue (and for most people, they're not)--are compounded by the mindlessness that American culture all too often seems to encourage.

Collectively, as a nation, we like to sit in front of the TV and eat.  I don't have a TV, but when I'm in front of the DVD player or at a friend's house, I generally don't eat.  

When I'm bombarded by images of all that allegedly savory and undoubtedly salty fast food out there, I tend to picture the last time a plate was set in front of me at Chili's or Applebees or The Olive Garden.  Not all it's cracked up to be.  I visualize what that McDonalds cheeseburger really looks like, smushed flat and crooked, with its thin pickles and watery ketchup, wrapped in paper and flung on a tray.  

I wonder whether the hunter-gather civilizations of history would envy me, really, if they saw what I was having for dinner.

In a previous post ("Mindful Memorizing"), I talked about Ellen Langer's work on "mindfulness" versus "mindlessness."  Interestingly, Langer has repeatedly found that mental attitude exerts an enormous influence on things we typically see as unchanging and out of our control, including aging and addiction.

When I do watch TV at a friend's house or stop to take a look at the world around me, I'm struck by how much of American culture today encourages mindlessness and helplessness, and how much of our "mindfulness" is strategically shaped.  

Turn on the evening news.  Somebody who looks and thinks differently from the way that I do hates me and has to be labeled accordingly.  They may even be about to blow me up--if they do, I'll never see it coming, unless I stay tuned.  

Meanwhile, somebody I already know, who looks just like I do and has allegedly misappropriated my tax dollars for the last twenty years, also hates me and has to be labeled.  Apparently, they too may have tried to blow me up and I never saw it coming, but if I stay tuned, I'll find out.  

Really, just stay tuned.  It doesn't matter why or what for or who's doing the tuning.

In the midst of a political and social rhetoric peppered with the encouragement to "inform ourselves" and be "pro-active," I can't help but be struck by the extent to which we are all repeatedly and deliberately primed--in real-time and in prime-time-- so that no one is ever out of tune or out of touch with what we're supposed to be doing and thinking to, for, and about everyone else.

In American culture today, we're encouraged to "find out," but we're never encouraged to question.  Why should I find this out?  Who says it's important?  What is the source of this information?  Who sponsored these studies?  

Who came up with these labels for everyone and everything?  Why does everyone always seem to hate someone else?  Why do they think they "know" each other, before they've ever met or talked?  Why do they assume everyone is the same?  Why can't people even talk to each other politely and respectfully anymore?

I'm going to stick to my imaginary diet and leave the TV off for now.  Mental food for thought is far more satisfying.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Memory's Turn

"We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement."  --George Eliot, Middlemarch
I just finished reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for class, and I'm always struck by the ending of the novel.  Speaking after the funeral of Ilyusha, the nine-year-old boy that he had befriended, Alyosha tells the other boys who were Ilyusha's classmates,
"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory... People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory ... is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us" (734).
The idea that there is safety in the memory of one's own acts of goodness--in the memory of the goodness of one's own life-- is interesting to me. 

As Eliot suggests in Middlemarch, we all arrive at a dangerous threshold in our lives, an edge marked by moments when we are "led with dull consent," not to commit acts of great evil or injustice, but simply to become less kind and less brilliant than we always hoped and believed ourselves to be. 

We all risk becoming people whose lives are marked by "insipid misdoing" and "shabby achievement."  We let ourselves become less than we could be, and--what is perhaps even worse--we simply watch what we are becoming because we lack the incentive to stop. 

We know that others are leading us in a direction that doesn't look good, even from a distance.  The horizon is bleak, but we go along with it because we can't envision another direction. 

Or because turning back or turning around is just too damn hard. 

Life makes us tired, sometimes.  And people will laugh at us and think we're foolish for not wanting to be what they themselves have become.

So how can mere memories of the times when we were good, kind, connected and living up to our own hopes and high standards help us?  According to Dostoevsky, reminders of what we once were can buffer our moral selves in significant ways. 

If we were once good and kind, we can always be so again.  We can remember who we were and what we felt, and that will protect us. 

What if we took the measure of ourselves and of others by taking an inventory of the good memories we all have?  Would we see a very different person?

I'm not suggesting overlooking our own or others' faults, since we all do and say bad, unjust or cruel things, and we all need to be held accountable for those words and actions. 

But maybe we need to remind ourselves of ways to achieve a more balanced perspective in our assessment of our own and others' moral failings, insipid misdoings and shabby achievements.  Maybe the reason so many people don't turn back or away from the future selves they see themselves becoming is because they believe that it is too late, that they've gone too far.

Maybe it's up to the rest of us to remember--and to remind them--that it's not.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Closer to Fine: Thanksgiving week

In 1988, the Indigo Girls sang,
I'm trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously;
It's only life after all.
I drove 9 hrs each way this week to spend time with my best friend and her family: her ten-year-old son was diagnosed about two weeks ago with an aggressive form of advanced brain cancer. 

When I arrived late at night, we sat and chatted for a bit.  I commented on how annoying it must be to keep getting the Thanksgiving cards the kids were making at school, with "Give Thanks" arched over a traced-hand turkey with colored finger-feathers. 

I suggested that maybe we should get a red crayon and scrawl "GO SCREW" on all of them and send them back.

She said, "Yup.  That's pretty much where I'm at right now."

But then, the next morning, things began to look up.  Her son was finally released from the hospital, so we all got to spend time together and with him for the first time in a long time.  No need to assign shifts to determine who would be watching the two younger kids and who would be driving to the hospital to sit with him.

What was most amazing, though, was the kindness of everyone around us.  When the daughter of a neighbor learned the news several weeks ago, she set up a rotating system of people to bring dinner to the house every other day--and they make really good food, too. 

When my friend called to tell her that her son was home now and that I was visiting, so we'd be fine, the neighbor said, "I don't care.  We're still bringing the food.  You should enjoy your time with your friend and relax.  We want to do this.  We want to help."

Two days later, her son's teacher showed up with two enormous gift baskets--one for her son, one for the entire family.  They were filled with food and games and books and cards.  People gave donations.  The entire fourth-grade class came together to contribute and send these baskets to us the day before Thanksgiving.

This is what I admire in other people, and what I consider humanitarianism, really.  Small-scale attention to details.  In a world full of people who offer nothing but more or less empty words and pat responses, there are so many people who just get up in the morning and hit the ground running. 

They don't ask, "What can I do?", they just show up and do it.  They say, "Here's what I'd like to do," or "Here's something that I did--I hope it helps."  And then they go on their way.

When you see that much compassion, you remember the root of the word itself: from the Latin, patior, pati, passus sum, compassion literally means "to suffer together" or "to endure together" ("com-" derives from the Latin prefix cum, meaning "together" or "with"). 

If we must suffer, we will endure it together.  In shared suffering, you don't turn away from the sadness of life, you acknowledge and face it in company with others.  You do what you can, instead of lamenting that there's nothing you can do. 

Really, there's always something you can do. 

Seeing this outpouring of support also made it much more difficult for me to tolerate the high-maintenance people out there.  Because of course, they're still out there, and they don't stop for nothin' or nobody.  The next verse of the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine," continues, "Well, darkness has a hunger that's insatiable/ And lightness has a call that's hard to hear." 

I've come to realize that it will always be particularly hard to hear for those who can't seem to just shut up for a minute and let some one else's feelings and needs take precedence over their own. 

I think they often end up suffering alone, though, and they never understand why.  That's punishment enough, in the end.

For my own part, I spent time posing as Darth Vader's sister (her story has yet to be told).  I channeled my inner White Witch in snow-covered Narnia, and I played the game of Life.  I somehow managed to only pull down a $20,000. a year salary, even though I was a doctor (maybe I was doing a lot of pro-bono work?). 

I also bought a boat, a house, a log cabin, went on a safari, and threw a party for this year's Grammy winners.   As I told my friend, it was clearly "The Game of the Life I Would Never Lead."  She said, "It does seem like you're making some bad financial decisions, but I blame that worthless blue peg of a husband of yours.  It all started when you got married."

I nearly had a coronary playing soccer, baseball-tag, and basketball.

The night before I left, my friend's eight-year old turned up the radio.  It was playing his favorite song: "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge.

Friday, November 12, 2010

You Say You Want A Revolution

In 1968, The Beatles insisted, "when you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out."  In his Nov. 10th Op-Ed. article, "Jefferson's Army of Nation Builders" in The New York Times, Dominic Tierney suggests that the Lads from Liverpool may have had something in common with the founders of the United States, namely, the realization that "we all want to change the world," but that ultimately, "you better free your mind instead."

Tierney notes that the traditionalist assumption that the "core mission" of the American military is to develop and wage ever-more-effective forms of conventional warfare in fact runs counter to the original purposes of the United States Army.

Envisioning a flexible corps of soldiers who could also serve as engineers, builders, topographers and scientists, early American leaders emphasized the role of the military in the maintenance of the emerging nation's own infrastructure, as well as its function as a first line of defense.

I think this is a really interesting point to consider, and not just because I'm a pacifist who thinks that no one should ever shoot or blow up something if somebody else cares about it.  The mindset of a reformer and a builder is fundamentally different from the attitude of a destroyer--although it's unfortunately true that the former can all-too-easily mask an agenda characteristic of the latter.

If we define military might solely as the ability to destroy and dominate as quickly and effectively as possible, we will quickly find ourselves at an effective impasse.  Once we've blasted the shit out of whoever or whatever we've defined as "the enemy," then what?  We send soldiers home to deal with the physical and emotional trauma they've endured, and troops eventually withdraw to watch the mess we said we were going to "fix" (i.e., attack) enter a new phase of collective chaos.

I wonder whether we've slowly come to limit our understanding of what it means to defend and protect the things that we value by overemphasizing technological flash over philosophical substance.  Action movies constantly reiterate the idea that, if someone loves you, they'll hunt down all real or perceived threats to your well-being and avenge your pain and anxiety in dramatic and explosive and sometimes terribly disgusting ways.

But to defend and protect can also mean to provide for and support the things we cherish over the long term--and that doesn't necessarily have to translate into billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech missiles and jet fighters.   The fear of losing our technological edge is certainly worth addressing; an outdated or outsourced military is an obvious liability.

At the same time, however, the technological edge may not be the only advantage worth pursuing: instant destruction at the push of a button is ultimately a very short-term achievement.  A military tradition made up of thoughtful, informed and variously skilled soldiers is, on the other hand, a long-term benefit.

In the end, I'm with Lennon and McCartney: "when you want money/ for people with minds that hate/ All I can tell is brother you have to wait."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Happy Medium

A little over a century before the famous whisper of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999)-- "I see dead people"-- the American novelist Henry James writes a similarly eerie tale of ghosts and visions, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). 

James' story is published a year after an even more famous novel that details the exploits of the Undead--Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

As my previous post ("Hereafter") suggests, I'm really interested in representations of the figure of the medium.  I'm fascinated by people who see dead people, or who think that they see dead people, or who simply claim to see dead people so that they don't have to get a real job like the rest of us.

In Stoker's novel and James' story, respectively, the characters of Mina Harker and the Governess at Bly both try to transcribe and comprehend what they've seen, heard, read and written.

In James' novella, a young woman accepts a strange assignment: a handsome London bachelor hires her as a governess for his niece and nephew and sends her to live at his country estate at Bly.   

The only job requirement is that she never contact him, ever, about anything, no matter what.  She is given permission to make all decisions involving the children and the household. 

Oddly enough, she seems to think that this means that the children's uncle might have a little thing for her.  Apparently, that's what guys do when they really like you: they give you a job that takes you miles and miles away from them and then tell you never to contact them.  (I think someone may need to tell this woman, "He's just not that into you.")

Soon after her arrival, the governess receives a letter announcing that the nephew has been expelled from school--for what, exactly, no one will say, and as it turns out, no one wants to ask either.  This is Victorian England, and people don't talk about such things (which of course leads everyone to speculate wildly about what exactly "such things" are.)

In the meantime, the governess begins to notice something strange.  She keeps seeing an unknown man hanging around the premises--walking back and forth on the tower and peering in the window.  She describes him to the housekeeper, who comes to the conclusion that the strange man is the uncle's former valet.

Except he's dead.

So too, as it turns out, is the little girl's previous governess, who coincidentally had an affair with the valet.  It's not long before the new governess begins seeing her as well.

Or so she says.  Ultimately, James' tale revolves around this uncertainty: is the governess slowly going crazy, or does she really see dead people?  And if so, what do they want, exactly?  Unlike Shyamalan's slightly more benevolent take on ghosts and the afterlife, in James' story, the ghosts, if they are "really" there, are up to no good.  They've come for the children.

Similarly, in Stoker's Dracula, the Count is quite horrifying.  When he orders take-out for his beautiful vampire-girlfriends, he brings back a baby for them to feast on.  When the baby's mother comes beating on the door of his castle, screaming for him to give her back her child, he sics the neighborhood wolves on her and quietly watches what they do.

So the role that the female protagonists play in James' story and Stoker's novel is quite significant.  They are not simply mediating between two worlds or two realms of possibility.  Their words shape the reader's ability to comprehend and interpret what may or may not be happening in situations in which it is possible that their otherworldly visitors may not be forces for good.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Love in Action

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian priest, Father Zosima, counsels one of the women who comes to see him to "avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. ... Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute."

Realizing that his advice is hardly uplifting, Father Zosima adds,
I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage.  But active love is labor and fortitude...
The labor and fortitude of active love, Father Zosima realizes, are qualities that often go unrecognized, unattempted and unapplauded.  Dreamy love is full of PDA's, admired by all, showy and demonstrative. 

And, ultimately, quite brief.  It simply doesn't have the staying power because it is marked by none of the struggles that characterize active love. 

I once (quite naively, I admit) commented to a friend that I never understood why men send women flowers when they've done something "wrong."   Why not simply acknowledge a mistake and then make a conscious effort not to do it again?  Wouldn't that be a stronger testimony of love and respect, ultimately? 

His comment: "Okay, so you're saying that, instead of flowers, you want someone to actively and consciously try to be a better person on a daily basis?  Flowers are a helluva lot easier."

It's true, they are.  But they may also be vestiges of the kind of falsehood that Zosima describes.  I can convince myself that what I did wasn't really wrong if my conciliatory gift is accepted.  I'm lying to myself, of course, because what I did was actually wrong and I know it, but it's only a small lie.

But as Zosima suggests, the little lies build up.  Deceit is part of human nature--notice, he doesn't tell the woman not to lie.  He tells her to pay attention to her lies, to recognize them as lies, and then try to avoid them.

Just like his notion of active love, his conception of honesty is one of action, of constant watchfulness and effort that may or may not be successful at times.

But as Zosima tells the woman, "I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it--at that very moment I predict that you will reach it."

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Recently saw the movie, "Hereafter."  Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film delves into the territory of American Spiritualism--a movement that has a history spanning well over a hundred and fifty years. 

The film itself was only okay.  Some interesting ideas, obviously, but ultimately, it drew the same, old, familiar conclusions.  Yes, the dead are still with us, but no one knows why or for how long or where they are, exactly. 

And in the end, it doesn't really matter because eventually we'll all find true love or reunite with a happy family (once mom finally kicks heroin), and then we won't care so much anymore.

I actually went to see the film because I'm in the process of reading a book called Talking to the Dead, about Maggie and Kate Fox.  As teenagers, the Fox sisters claimed, in 1848, that they could communicate with spirits. 

Living in a series of rental homes in Western New York State with their parents and/or various friends and family members, including their older sister, Leah (who also developed "the gift"-- coincidentally right around the time it became clear that it might bring them all a lot of money and fame), the girls claimed that spirits were rapping (as in, knocking, not as in Snoop Dogg) answers to their various questions. 

Apparently, all kinds of people heard this rapping, unless of course, you asked questions that the spirits didn't feel like answering, at which point, they'd rap out the equivalent of "Leave me the hell alone, already." 

Furniture went flying, tables levitated, and there were all kinds of crazy antics, including slappings, quakings, and gyratings.  People almost had seizures.

Sounds like an episode of "Real Housewives."

In 1888, after years of fame and fortune and no telling how many seances, Maggie Fox stepped on stage and claimed that they had made it all up.  A few years later, she claimed that no, they hadn't made it up.  This time, she claimed that they had been pressured by forces within the spiritualist community (in the form of jealous, flesh-and-blood mortals) to admit publicly that it was all a hoax.

Clearly, the Fox sisters and all who have followed in their wake have struck a collective American chord.  We want to believe.

I'll share my own hereafter story.  Several months after my dad died, a friend was staying at my house.  She had been in a serious car accident and was confined to a wheelchair for several months.  My house had the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom all on the first floor, so she roomed with me for a while.

One morning, she told me that, the night before, she had wheeled herself out onto the porch and her father, who had died about six years previously, was sitting there waiting for her. 

He told her that he knew what had happened to her and that he had wanted to come by and see how she was doing.  She invited him in and told him, "I want you to meet my friend--you never had a chance to meet her," and apparently he said, "Oh, I know her.  I've heard a lot about her.  You'll both be just fine." 

And then she woke up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest

I haven't blogged in a while, but I like to think I have a very good, and possibly very original, excuse for it. 

My best friend's son is scheduled for brain surgery on Monday.  Over the past two weeks, I've been calling her constantly, and constantly feeling more or less helpless.  How do you support someone under such circumstances?  Can friendship ever be enough?  Can it even be adequate?

They say that, if you want a good friend, you have to be a good friend.  I think that, in my experience, the exchange and reciprocity of a good friendship is always ongoing, mutual and, at times, nearly instinctive.  I have never had to think so much about what being a good friend would involve or entail, until faced with my friend's circumstances.

How can I support her, and her son?  How can I offer her a counterweight to life's overwhelming heaviness right now?

I remember when I was suffering myself, what made the greatest impression on me was the fact that, when there were no words, my friends still struggled to find something to say.  In the end, the fact that they always continued to try outweighed the words themselves.  Their silence became a comfort because I knew what was behind it.

So often over the past few years, I have felt the meaninglessness of my parents' own suffering, but now, oddly enough, I often feel that what seemed meaningless to me then has had a kind of purpose for me now.  Having gone through what I went through, I've been able to talk to my friend differently than I would have done several years ago.  I can listen to her anger and frustration and suffering in a very different way.

When I hear echoes of my own sadness, magnified a thousandfold, I can wait in silence and let her feel what she feels, without feeling anxious or worried or trying to offer a (non-existent) solution.  I know something about where what she's feeling comes from.  I know that too often, people can't or won't listen to someone in so much pain--not because they don't care, but simply because it comes from a place that is too dark and frightening for them to endure. 

But if we don't endure it, how can they?

In the end, maybe all we have is the importance of being earnest (to borrow a phrase from Wilde and use it in a very different way than he ever intended).  We can only think, constantly, about what it means to be a friend and how best to make that known to the people we care about, and then act on those thoughts and hope, fiercely and determinedly hope, for them.

I found a quote from Winnie the Pooh this week that has helped me think through these ideas.  At one point, Christopher Robin tells Pooh Bear, "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." 

This is the essence and the earnestness of true friendship.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ordinary Instant

On Thursday afternoon, I checked the messages on my cell phone.  Everyone who knows me knows I'm notorious for leaving my cell phone off or set to such a low volume that I never hear it unless I happen to be 1) sitting right next to it and 2) actually looking at it.

There was a message from my best friend.  We've known each other since I was 16.  In all those years, I don't think more than a week has gone by that we haven't been in touch.  We don't do email or Facebook or MySpace.  We either write letters (yes, actual letters, written by hand) or we talk on the phone.

She's lived in California, Mexico, New York, and South Carolina, while I've hobnobbed up and down the East Coast.  For 26 years, we've been in touch weekly and, when there's a crisis, daily.

Her nine-year-old son, my little godson, has been sick for about a month.  At first, it seemed like a stomach bug coupled with nerves about starting a new school year.  No big deal.

Then it seemed like maybe an anxiety problem.  A thyroid problem, possibly.  Lyme disease?  Migraines.  Something neurological, somehow.

The message on Thursday: a brain tumor.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion comments on her husband's sudden death from a heart attack: "Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."  She describes how she leaves out the phrase "the ordinary instant" to describe the life-changing moment itself because "there would be no forgetting it:"
It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it... confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy (4)
How could we not have known? How could we not have expected it? How could something life-changing not have heralded its own arrival?  How could it not have warned us, so that we could be ready, somehow? 

We would have tried to be ready, if we had known.

You wake up in the morning and think, "This can't have happened.  There's been a mistake.  It'll stop now."  The unthinkable and the unbearable have no right cloaking themselves in the ordinary instants that make up our lives. 

But they do.

And suddenly, all of the unnoticeable and tedious minutes that accumulate in our lives become terribly precious and we wish we were back in the thick of them.  Back in a life where nothing ever happens and where it would feel good to be bored, because we now know the alternatives.

There is no solution, of course.  Sometimes we make a path through our lives, and sometimes we have to follow the path in front of us because there's simply no way around it.

George Eliot once wrote, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." 

Great pain and sadness require great efforts of human consolation, and there is no impulsive gesture equal to the task.  Only the painstaking ordinary attentions that make up a series of small and inadequate kindnesses.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Birthday Post

 O may my heart’s truth
   Still be sung
      On this high hill in a year’s turning.
                                                      --Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"

Today is my birthday.  I'm 42.  In American culture, it seems like no one ever celebrates their birthday (it's a downer) and no one admits their age (it's a downer).  I do both.

I wonder why we fear aging.  Actually, I know why.  We fear death.  We think of age as a diminishment of who we are, a mark of the ever-increasing incapacity to do, say and be what we want to be.

But this is life.  When we enjoyed youth, we knew that time would pass and age would come and with it would come a range of different experiences and, with any luck, a little wisdom too. 

Why fear what can't be changed?  Why not simply head towards it, with dignity and thoughtfulness, savoring what the journey brings along the way?  Why assume nothing good remains to us, when there's so much evidence all around us that that simply isn't true?

Faces filled with botox and collagen erase all of the story lines of who we are and how we got to be who we are and where we are.  When I see someone who's had all of that done, I feel like I don't know what to look for or what to pay attention to about them, what questions to ask them about who they are and what life has meant to them.

Instead I just wonder, "Isn't it weird to want to have a needle stuck in your forehead or your lips, when you don't have to?"

I would never want to be 18 or 24 or 30 or 35 or even 40 again.  It would mean I would have to move backwards in time, erasing all that has come to me in the meantime, and all simply for the sake of a youthful appearance that was never the sum total of who I was anyway.

Every year, on my birthday, I check my life over, to see if I have any regrets from the previous year.  If I do, and I can fix them (and I usually can, because no more than a year has passed since the last time I checked), that's what I do.  Mostly, I spend the day being quiet so that I can measure the weight of time on my life.

Today, I'm thinking of the lines from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday."

Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true


Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Howl" and the Ferlinghetti Case

This weekend, I saw the film "Howl."  Focusing on Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," the film explores the poem itself, Ginsberg's own experiences with the Beat Generation and its major figures (specifically Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady), and the subsequent trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on charges of obscenity, for his publication of Ginsberg's poem.

For me, the film was a bit disappointing because my interest, besides Ginsberg's ideas about writing and his poem itself, is in the trial, not in the escapades of the Beat Writers (admittedly, they have never been my favorites: I appreciate what they're doing and why, but I just can't get past the blatant misogyny and stereotyping of women).

In his ruling on The People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Judge Clayton W. Horn offers a fascinating and nuanced interpretation of the issue of obscenity and its relationship to the protection of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

It's particularly interesting to me that, at the outset of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn was regarded as relatively conservative, and that this was initially viewed as a severe handicap for the defense.  It was generally assumed that his interest in upholding the prevailing moral standards (which condemned the practice of homosexuality and any expression of homosexual desire) would outweigh his ability to look at the case objectively.

Under the Statute referenced by Judge Horn, material can only be deemed "obscene" if it exists solely for the purpose of eliciting "erotic allurement" in the average reader and if it possesses no redeeming social importance.

The fact that Ginsberg's poem represents specifically homosexual desires and experiences is obviously an underlying factor in the prosecution's charges of obscenity.  The concern that the poem "Howl" will deprave and corrupt the average reader seems to boil down to a rather thinly-veiled concern that its publication will ultimately encourage or endorse homosexual practices in American society at large.

Basing his ruling on the precedent set by Roth v. United States, Judge Horn notes that "Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press."

In short, sexual content alone does not mean a work can be considered "obscene and indecent."

Specifically, Judge Horn argues that the poem "Howl" possesses redeeming social importance.  In a concise summary of the poem's themes and literary strategies, he notes that "The first part of "Howl" presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition."

Most interesting--and most relevant for our current political climate, I think--is Horn's conclusion regarding the choice of language that Ginsberg used to convey his subject.  In response to the State's claim that Ginsberg could (and therefore should) have used other words than the ones he chose to depict his subject, Horn argues, "life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns."

In 1957, a conservative judge upheld the idea that conformity is not a formula for the conduct of our lives as Americans and that we are fundamentally guaranteed the right to think in ways that are inherently different from one another.  As Horn notes, "The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance."

I wonder how and why, a little over fifty-three years later, we seem to be headed in a direction in which we systematically resent having our collective complacency disturbed by novel and unconventional ideas.  If the writers who framed the Constitution respected the value of innovative ideas and endorsed a framework in which those ideas would be awarded fundamental and overarching protections, why then have we increasingly resorted to referring to the document itself as a kind of inflexible standard against which to measure the rightness (or wrongheadedness) of our direction as a nation? 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Secret Deposit of Exquisite Moments

In Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the narrator describes how Clarissa Dalloway arrives home after running errands for her upcoming party and thinks that "moments like this are buds on the tree of life" and that in everyday life, "one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments."

When she is teased about how much she loves to give parties, Clarissa recognizes that, "What she liked simply was life."

Considering that I'm writing this post while in the middle of a full-fledged cooking extravaganza for a party I'm giving tomorrow afternoon, I obviously agree with Clarissa.

Parties are what we pay back to daily life from our secret deposit of exquisite moments.

I'm not talking, of course, about keggers or other alcohol-soaked events in which people end up in the back of police cars or lying unconscious on other people's lawns in the wee hours of the morning.  I'm also not talking about highbrow cocktail parties where everyone is dressed to impress (and usually unimpressive in every other category).

Instead, when she asks herself, "what did it mean to her, this thing she called life?", Mrs. Dalloway describes how, when she thinks of the people she knows, she "felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it."

"It was an offering; to combine, to create."  An offering to life itself, a chance to overcome the inherent separation that marks our lives.

My neighbor down the street stopped by yesterday to see if I'd need extra chairs or another table.  My neighbor across the street called over to me to tell me not to worry, that the storm will clear everything up in time for good weather tomorrow.

Paying back to life from their own secret deposit of exquisite moments.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My To-Do List

I found a great quote online that is guaranteed to freak out the anxious among us: "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday."

I also found one that I had to reread several times: "Worry ducks when purpose flies overhead."  I thought "worry" was an imperative, so I thought I was being told to go out and bother mallards while purpose was winging its way over my head. 

My confusion was doubled when I tried to figure out why "purpose" would be flying overhead, what it means for "purpose" to fly, really, and why bothering ducks would be the appropriate response to this.

I then began to get images of being pooped on by the ducks I had worried as they flew overhead, since it seemed to me like that's probably what they'd do when they escaped and flew away from me.  And I wouldn't blame them.

It all became much clearer when I realized that "worry" was being used as a noun and "duck" was the verb.  So, it's "Worry" that is "ducking"...ohhhhhhh.... okay.  Got it.  Still don't understand it, really, but I've got the grammar straight now, and that's something.

I love looking up inspirational quotes online, because it can use up all kinds of time when I'm supposed to be  doing something else.  And yet I never feel guilty, because I'm panning for electronic nuggets of wisdom and who knows how helpful that will be for me someday?  It may clarify everything, once and for all, and then I'll be able to get to work and be even more productive.

I remember visiting a stressed-out friend once when I was also quite stressed out.  Although that might sound like a recipe for disaster, we actually had a great time.  She had a copy of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff), so we read it to each other over lots and lots of cups of coffee.

By the time we were done, we had diagnosed pretty much everyone in our lives as demanding, self-centered bastards and we were quite pleased with the fact that we had put up with them for so long.  It showed how wonderful we were, even when people were totally out of line.

We then spent the rest of the weekend yelling out inspirational phrases from the book to one another.  So, when she would say, "I really need to run about 63 errands today," I would shout, "When you die, your 'in'-box still won't be empty!!" and we'd go get cake instead.  Or, when someone left me 4 messages on my voice mail, I'd stare at my cell phone and announce, "Yeah, well, sucks for you dude, because 'just because the ball's in my court, doesn't mean I have to pick it up!'"  And we'd go get lunch. 

I have a very similar approach to something that most people dread: the To-Do List.  I often write up my To-Do Lists in the evening, since I find that my work ethic is strongest after I've wasted an entire day drinking tea and telling my cat how cute he is.  Because of this, my Lists will often say things like, "Study Russian again." "Read Moby-Dick again." "Paint living room." "Prepare for class."  "Finish article on Defoe."  "Finish article on Moby-Dick."  "Vacuum."  "Call plumber."

When I was in a therapy session one time, my shrink asked me what I wanted to work on for our upcoming sessions, and I cheerfully gave her my list.  She then told me that all of that sounded fine, but she wondered if she could add something to it.  I told her, "Certainly!" (after all, I'm always open to suggestions), and much to my surprise, she wrote "Work on setting reasonable goals and expectations."

In my opinion, that one came pretty much out of left field, but I let it slide.  After all, she's the trained professional.

What I realized is that she misunderstood my understanding of the To-Do List.  Every morning, the first thing I do is clarify what I'm simply not going to do that day.  So, "Vacuum," no, I think it's fine--I picked up a couple of dust-bunnies on my way to the coffee pot this morning.  "Read Moby-Dick," no, I'm not interested in whaling today. "Write an article," well, really, I can't write if I'm being pressured to do it, I need to relax a bit first, and then maybe I'll call the plumber. 

My To-Do List is like a series of inspirational quotes for me.  Wow, what if I really did that.  That would be awesome.  I'd be like Einstein or something.

Instead, having ignored everything on my To-Do List, I now have the freedom to revise it.  So I set the bar nice and low.  I'm not above putting a load of laundry in and then writing, "Laundry" on my list--as I see it, I'm halfway there, so I might as well get credit for it.  Go me.  Since I'm on a roll (pun intended), I'll then write, "Make a sandwich."

I can't tell you how good it feels to realize that it's noon and I've already done two things on my newly revised To-Do List.  Plus, I'm in a good mood, so I can tell my cat how cute he is and really mean it.

And when the laundry's done, I can head off into the stressed-out world and watch everyone else trying to get ahead and finish everything on their lists.

Poor anxious fools.  If only they knew how easy it could be.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Compassion & Consequences

"Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have." 
--Marva Collins

This Sunday, my dad would have been 78, so I've been thinking a lot about him over the past week and I've been reflecting on many of the things he taught me (both directly and by example).  I've had some personal struggles and difficult decisions to make lately, and through all of my thinking, my dad's ideas and example have always been in my mind.  So this post will be about those ideas.

When I was very young, probably no more than 10, my dad told me very seriously, "When someone cares about you and means you well, they look you in the eye and they tell you the truth, even if they know it's not what you want to hear.  If they can't do that, for whatever reason, then they aren't looking out for you, no matter what they say.  You have to remember this."

My dad had a very strong sense of responsibility and integrity; over the years, I have very much learned to value and appreciate the strength of character it takes to maintain such qualities.  The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that a sense of moral responsibility is often lost in philosophical generalities.  We know the Golden Rule ("do unto others"), we know about "right" and "wrong," but because those maxims are so abstract, we cannot act with ethical responsibility unless we confront "the face of the other." 

So in a sense, my father's advice was a kind of practical echo of Levinas' philosophical understanding.

My dad believed that words and actions had consequences and that people had to live with the consequences of what they had said or done.  We all make mistakes, but my dad made a distinction between the kinds of people who are willing to own up to their mistakes and accept the consequences that stem from them, and those who own up to their mistakes and believe that's all that should be required of them. 

Unfortunately, words and actions and their effects aren't easily erased.  

Although he was in no way a spiritual man, my dad would often end a story of someone's misdeed or mistake with the comment, "There but for the grace of God go I...".  It was an overt acknowledgment that, under different circumstances, he too could be where the other person currently was, in a state of sadness and difficulty. 

I think this is the essence of compassion.  It is not a willingness to overlook or ignore mistakes or deny their consequences, and it is not a willingness to give everyone a free pass if they simply say they're sorry.  It's a recognition that, when we see people who have done wrong, we should always remind ourselves that we too have the capacity to do wrong, and view their action through that lens.

I read George Eliot's novel Middlemarch while my dad was dying, and there is a scene in it that I particularly associate with my dad.  At one point in the novel, the young and irresponsible Fred Vincy borrows money and Caleb Garth, the father of Mary Garth, the woman Fred is in love with, agrees to guarantee the loan.

Caleb knows that his daughter is in love with Fred, and he believes that Fred is trustworthy and will repay the debt on time.  When he doesn't and the loan comes due, Caleb is forced to pay, depleting his family's already strained finances.

When Fred comes to explain himself, he is full of excuses--he blames the situation, the circumstances, Caleb, society, expensive horses--you name it.  He wants Mary to still think well of him and to believe that he is what he has claimed to be.  He thinks she is being unfair to him.

He tells her, "I am so miserable, Mary--if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me," to which she responds, "There are other things to be more sorry for than that.  But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world: I see enough of that every day."

When Caleb later talks to his daughter, he knows that he will have to do more than simply discuss what has happened.  As a good father, he will need to look his daughter in the eye and tell her something that she doesn't want to hear.

And he does.  He tells her simply, "I'm afraid Fred is not to be trusted.  He means better than he acts, perhaps.  But I should think it a pity for anybody's happiness to be wrapped up in him."

But later in the novel, when a business opportunity comes his way, Caleb takes Fred under his wing.  Fred has suffered the consequences of his actions, but that doesn't mean that he is denied any chance of rebuilding the relationships he has damaged.

He has to learn how to take responsibility for his words and his deeds, instead of blaming others for the dilemmas he has created for himself.  When Fred's actions show his willingness to work and to put others' interests ahead of his own, he finds a new path that leads him back to the people that he has always sincerely loved and cared for.

I think this ending is very much the spirit of my dad's own optimism about people.  It is the fine balance between compassion, character and consequences that we all strive to strike.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How does your garden grow?

I have a little house that I love,with a pretty little yard and several flower beds that I enjoy tending.  So, imagine my surprise last Sunday morning when I was walking around the yard with my cup of hot tea, surveying my kingdom, and discovered several of these lining my flower bed:

According to www.mushroomexpert.com (which is where I found these images, which may be subject to copyright), these startling fungi, known as "stinkhorns," can suddenly sprout up out of nowhere and grow to almost 10 inches in a few hours.

Imagine that. 

Blushing profusely, I ran for a shovel and quickly and discreetly dumped them over the fence into the yard next door.  Children sometimes play in my yard.  I can't have X-rated fungi, I just can't. 

There's probably an old Blue Law still on the books somewhere that prohibits unmarried women from having mushrooms like these in their yards.

But apparently, they can be persistent little buggers, popping up again and again in the most untimely and unsightly fashion.  I found a few more this Sunday as well--for some reason, Saturday night brings them out in full force.

Apparently, if you don't want to touch or handle them, you can simply pour boiling water mixed with bleach on them, and that will solve the problem.

Or, you can dig or rip them out by the roots, and then pour boiling water mixed with bleach on the ground and that should also solve the problem.

And yes, they are edible.  Sometimes they're used in making face cream.

Mother Nature is definitely a single girl with a sense of humor.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Difficulties of Anger

Mark Twain once said, "When angry, count to four.  When very angry, swear."

As I watch the austerity protests sweep across Europe and listen to the rhetoric of the Tea Party and other (in many cases, justifiably) disgruntled groups here in America, I've been thinking a lot about the phenomenon of anger.  As I look to other writers and thinkers for advice and inspiration, I'm particularly struck by the fact that many of them express serious doubts about the value and efficacy of anger, even as they acknowledge the prominence of this very troublesome and all-too-common human emotion.

For instance, Albert Einstein cautions, "Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools."  Benjamin Franklin admits, "Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one," and as a result, "Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame."  Likewise, Seneca, the Roman philosopher and tragedian, observes, "Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful than the injury that provokes it."

Philosophers seem particularly concerned with remaining calm.  Not surprisingly, the Greek Stoic Epictetus tells us, “When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”  (He doesn't mention, of course, that we'll forget our anger because we've now made ourselves majorly depressed.)

Others seem more goal-oriented.  Plato argues, "There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot."  So, really, if you can do something about it, do it, and if you can't, you can't.  In effect, Plato seems to suggest that anger is simply a waste of time: it's either a pointless substitute for action or an emotional response to helplessness that won't change the fact of our powerlessness.

Aristotle offers food for further thought.  He notes, "Anyone can become angry--that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way--that is not easy."  How to tap into useful, productive, well-directed anger, that is the question.  How can we know when the time is right for anger? We usually know it only after the fact, because we're already angry-- and at that point, the urge to justify ourselves by whatever means possible is nearly overpowering.

The idea that there are various ways of being angry is worth considering.  I think we tend to think of anger or rage as a blanket-emotion.  It usually covers a multitude of situations and sensations, but if we force ourselves to be precise about the nature and cause of our anger, a funny thing happens.  We calm down.  We get clear--very, very clear--about what exactly it is that's bothering us and why, and we can even sometimes begin to let people know what they need to do to stop ticking us off.

I think what concerns me about the many angry people and political movements that I see is their almost complete lack of clarity, precision and--in the most extreme cases--coherence.  People are angry about anything and everything.  Mention something annoying, and it's quickly added to a list of grievances, with no time for thought or reflection.  We're just mad, damn it.

I think crowds can be useful manifestations of anger, but too often they come to represent forces of unthinking rage--something that's often dangerous and usually unproductive.  There is strength in numbers, but there is also chaos in crowds.  They are easily led by emotion and rarely follow a logical train of thought to its many and multifarious conclusions. 

When we're angry, we stop asking questions.  We yell, insist and assert.  And we almost never listen.

One of my favorite quotations about anger comes from the Greek playwright Euripides.  In his play, The Medea, Euripides dramatizes the nearly-nuclear fallout that comes when the Greek hero Jason decides to leave his witchy-wife Medea and their two children and marry--of course--a much-younger princess.  As Jason and Medea angrily accuse one another of being the one who screwed everything up, the Chorus comments, "It is a strange form of anger, difficult to cure/ When two friends turn upon each other in hatred."

I think this is the difference between "objective" anger and "personal" anger.  When some idiot cuts us off on the highway, we feel angry, but the anger is somehow detached from us.  It isn't personal, it's just a guy--or girl--doing something annoying that can create really serious consequences that we'll have to deal with.

When we're angry at a friend, though, we feel betrayed.  When we feel this way, getting clarity is much, much more difficult than it might be in a case of objective anger.  We find it much harder to be precise about the cause of our anger, and articulating a solution is often nearly impossible.  We're just hurt-- really, really freakin' hurt-- and we can't believe that this one person of all people is the one who has caused our pain. 

I think that in some way, this is what is lurking behind the anger of the crowds and political movements awash on the American and European landscapes lately.  A strange form of anger, difficult to cure.  A collective sense of betrayal at something or someone we trusted. 

But have we earned that sense of betrayal?  When all of the banks and governments were doing what they were all doing for a decade or more, we weren't angry.  We weren't even paying all that much attention, because hey, it wasn't our problem if no one knew where the money was, so long as the stock market was up.  It wasn't up to us to keep tabs on it all, to make people and institutions accountable, if we weren't feeling the consequences of their actions.

But as it turns out, it was up to us and it still is--and unfortunately, it will be for months to come.  So which is it: are we angry because of something we couldn't do anything about, or are we angry about something we could have done something about, but chose not to?  Were we helpless all those years, or did we just choose not to act? 

I think if we all consider and answer these questions, we can begin to move from anger as a personal outlet to an anger that can be used at the right time, for the right purposes and in the right way.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Creative and Intellectual Productivity

This week, The MacArthur Foundation announced the MacArthur Fellows for 2010.  These lucky men and women will each receive $500,000. over the next five years, with no strings attached and no need to report to the Foundation about how they ultimately spend it.  Known as the "Genius Awards," these grants reward productive and creative individuals with the money (which in turn gives them the time) to do what they want.

I love this idea.  Every year, I eagerly await the news of the new Fellows and, for some strange, vicarious reason I have yet to comprehend, I'm always extremely excited for them.  I actually spend a few minutes trying to imagine what each of them will do over the next few years.  I even email all of my friends to let them know that the award winners have been announced.  (Over the years, my friends have learned to use the delete button regularly, and they either completely ignore or, if trapped, quietly humor my idiosyncrasies.  It's just one of the drawbacks of having a friend who's a bookworm and a complete nerd.)

I'm reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment right now, and this announcement started me thinking.  On the one hand, I think giving people lots and lots of money for creative and intellectual projects is wonderful, but on the other hand, here I am, reading an amazing novel by an amazing novelist, and he wrote it totally under the gun. 

Because he had backed himself into a serious financial corner, Dostoevsky was compelled to borrow money from his publisher in exchange for a promise to produce a new novel.  If he didn't produce one by November 1, 1866, the publisher would be granted the rights to publish all of Dostoevsky's works for the next nine years, without compensating the writer at all.  Basically, in July of 1865, Dostoevsky gambled all future profits from his writing on the certainty that he could produce an entire novel in a little over a year.

It was an insane bargain.

He had no idea at the time that he would write anything like Crime and Punishment.  But as the months wore on, Dostoevsky became consumed with writing what would become one of the greatest novels in world literature.  He postponed writing the novel he had promised his publisher in order to focus on publishing Crime and Punishment in serialized installments.  In October 1866, he finally admitted to a friend that he was, in fact, screwed: he was not going to be able to meet his end of the bargain.

Realizing his predicament, the friend suggested that Dostoevsky hire a secretary and dictate the novel instead of writing it out himself.  He did and, in an odd twist of fate, he not only ended up keeping his end of the bargain, but also meeting the woman who would eventually become his second wife.  Oh, and he finished writing Crime and Punishment too.

Literature abounds with stories like these: William Faulkner claimed to have written As I Lay Dying in the space of six weeks, working as a nightwatchman.  He said that he set out to write a novel by which he could stand or fall as a writer, whether he ever wrote anything else afterward.  And I must say, it is an awfully good novel...

Interestingly, Robert Boice, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at SUNY-Stony Brook has written extensively on the phenomenon of productive writers in academia, and he takes issue with the idea that people are most productive as writers and thinkers when they are granted extended amounts of time in which to write.  In fact, Boice argues, the most productive writers and thinkers are often the ones who are busiest with other things: they manage to fit their writing into an already overbooked schedule and somehow, some way, they actually make far more progress on their work than those who are given world enough and time.

Some good news for all the rest of us out there who don't stand a snowball's chance of ever getting a Genius Award.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Teach Your Children (A Whole Lot of Unanswered Questions)

One of the recent trends in American media coverage that both fascinates and dismays me is the focus on education--or, more specifically, on teachers.  Bad teachers, that is.  How many of them there are.  How we're all sick of it, goddammit.  How they're wasting our money, and we're not going to take it anymore. 

Look at them, you know who they are, you probably had one yourself at some point.  They do nothing all year, and then they have summers off.  You can tell they're doing nothing, because look at how stupid everyone is (present company excepted, of course).  Look at how stupid children and teenagers are today; it's embarrassing.  None of us were that stupid when we were fifteen or ten or five.  We know, because we remember.  We were definitely a lot smarter, no question.

The debate is interesting, strange and somewhat terrifying to me, particularly since I'm a teacher myself.  I don't have any answers to the problems it poses, just a whole lot of unanswered questions and some observations that I'm not sure I can coherently connect, but well, here goes nothing. 

On the one hand, I can't help but notice that golden parachutes are STILL floating to the ground all over Wall Street, but we've all become strangely fixated on how teachers' salaries are way too high, given what they "do" (i.e., nothing). 

But if teachers really are doing nothing, well, at least they aren't doing what Kenneth Lay and Andrew Fastow and Jeffrey Skilling did.  That should count for something nowadays, shouldn't it?

In a world of corporate fraud and financial collapse, it seems to me that we've become obsessed with results and accountability, but only in the classroom, not the board-room.  It is very odd to me that there have been no discussions whatsoever of administrative salaries in higher education.  If you think you're pissed at Bobby's fourth-grade social studies teacher, check out what the Assistant to the Assistant Principal at his school made last year, and then find out what exactly he or she did to earn that salary.  See what I mean?

We can always find someone to blame, someone who's making more than they should be and doing far less than (we think that) they should be doing.  But what good is finger-pointing, when the facts are clear: the money isn't there, it hasn't been there for a while, and it isn't going to be there for quite some time to come. 

So what the hell are we going to do now?

President Obama has weighed in, indicating that it's not about money, it's about standards, and that American kids may need to go to school longer as a way of off-setting their apparent inability to retain information over the dog days of summer.  In a really interesting blog posting on nj.com, journalist Bob Braun argues that no, yes, it is about money, and that there is a direct correlation between money and academic performance.  According to Braun, "Wealth and achievement are inextricably linked. Give the College Board, the agency that produces the SAT Reasoning Test, your family income numbers and your race and educational level of your parents and it will predict your scores and almost always be right."

But this means, of course, that the SAT's, like most standardized tests, don't measure "knowledge" at all--something all of us in higher education have known for a very long time.  And yet, we still elevate them as way of evaluating whether teachers are doing right by our children: if test scores are low, somebody's not doing what they're supposed to be doing and the country is suffering as a result. 

I think we hold these kinds of standardized, evaluative measures in high regard because they're a ticket to something we've decided we should all strive for.  Something expensive and time- consuming, but ultimately very valuable.  What that "something" really is, though, we're not so clear about.  

I think that what is at issue is an underlying crisis of American identity and self-definition.  Who are we?  Who do we want our children to be, and what do we want them to have?  If we don't want our children to be the Kenneth Lays and the Jeffrey Skillings of the future (and in some cases, I wonder whether maybe we don't care if they are, so long as they're smart enough not to get caught), what do we want them to know, value and strive towards?

A hundred years ago, the answers to these questions may have seemed far simpler, although I don't think they ever really were.  If your family was poor, you went to school only if and when your family could afford to do without your labor.  In many rural communities, education was more or less seasonal.  If you weren't in school, chances are, you were working, and at that time, most people had to work. 

In today's world, we have come to regard labor with an odd kind of voyeurism.  Like many, I'm a fan of Mike Rowe's show, "Dirty Jobs."  But when you think about it, this show's popularity is a really interesting comment on contemporary American culture.  We don't want to actually DO these jobs, we want to watch someone else do them and get dirty, so that we can laugh. 

Personally, we'd all prefer to stay clean and get paid a lot more money doing a lot less "work," because if you're smart enough, "real" work should be nothing more to you than a form of entertainment.   And, at the end of the day, this is what we want for our children, to some extent. 

I find it interesting that Rowe's experience with the show has alerted him to a crisis in America's infrastructure, and he is committed to raising awareness about and reevaluating the definition and significance of manual labor in the United States (check out his site for more about his project, "Mikeroweworks"). 

I think his arguments are interesting and persuasive, and they lead me to wonder, is our current focus on teachers' salaries in higher education really "about" something besides education and the opportunities that we want for our children?  Is it really about the financial identity that separates the middle class from the working class?  Is our anxiety about upholding the social markers of education a way of deflecting our fears about the harsh realities that have been spawned in the wake of Wall Street's collapse?