Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Doctoring (the Evidence)

If there's any advantage to having been intermittently under the (unbelievably dreary!) weather lately, it's the fact that I had the chance to read two really interesting books.

Brendan Reilly's One Doctor: Close Calls, Cold Cases and the Mysteries of Medicine (2013) is an engaging and eye-opening memoir.  At the time when it was written, Reilly was Executive Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs at New York Presbyterian-Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.  His narrative opens on a Saturday morning in the ER--as Reilly quickly points out, he's one of the few doctors who still works on weekends--and follows Reilly and the cases he encounters of the span of several weeks. Midway through the narrative, Reilly reflects back on his years as Chief Medical Resident at Dartmouth College.

 In an era of increasingly specialized medical practice, Reilly represents a dying breed of primary care physician--the generalist.  In One Doctor, he examines the significance of the many changes he has witnessed in the health care industry over his 40-year career.

The fact that health care in the US is, ultimately, an industry driven by profit is perhaps one of the strongest notes that Reilly's memoir sounds.  As he considers his own experiences, he incorporates some startling statistics.

For example, in 1975, "health-care spending in the US amounted to 6 to 7 percent of the nation's $1.6 trillion gross national product.  Thirty-five years later, in 2010, US population had grown 50 percent... and health care spending had grown more than 2000 percent (to 17% of the nation's $14.6 trillion gross domestic product)" (164).

As Reilly points out, we have some of the most expensive health care in the world.  The question is, who benefits?  Definitely not the patient, Reilly argues. He points out that, in 2000, 98,000 people died in the hospital, as a result of medical mistakes.  That's more than the number of people who died of breast cancer (42,000) and in car accidents (43,000), combined (29).  It's slightly little less than the number of people who died of HIV (16,000), breast cancer and auto fatalities combined.

In short, Reilly's memoir will make you angry and, if you've even been a patient or compelled to advocate for a patient (particularly an elderly patient), you'll find much of what he says all-too-familiar.  His book is a long-overdue wake-up call, but it's one that the health care industry probably doesn't want anyone to hear.

In a similar vein (excuse the pun), I also really enjoyed Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (2010).

In chapters organized around specific poisons (arsenic, wood alcohol, radium, thallium, carbon monoxide, chloroform, cyanide, mercury, and ethyl alcohol), Blum examines the work of Charles Norris, New York City's first Chief Medical Examiner and forensic chemist and toxicologist Alexander Gettler (pictured below, circa 1922).

Blum's narrative looks at how and why the rise of forensic medicine accompanied the "social experiment" known as Prohibition (and its ultimate demise).  Her style is an interesting and informative blend of scientific fact--did you know that radium is similar in chemical structure to calcium, and that this is why, when absorbed, it quickly travels into the bone marrow?--and historical event (Blum looks at various prominent cases of poisoning and murder that made headlines in the first half of the 20th century, along with issues of worker-safety that evolved during the Depression).

It's a fascinating angle from which to considerJazz Age America, and Blum offers a compelling account of the unsung heroes who helped to raise awareness about the dangers of toxic compounds that were, unfortunately, all-too-readily available in the decades before government regulation.

If you're looking for interesting and informative reading, I highly recommend both Blum and Reilly's respective texts.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


To say that the last week hasn't gone as planned would be an understatement.

I woke up last Saturday with some kind of chest-based, cold-type ailment (a by-product of Christmas shopping the week before, no doubt), so I decided to hunker down and read and by jiminy, by Monday I was 100% better.

Or so I thought.

Monday and Tuesday went swimmingly.  Got tons done, poised for the remainder of the week, smooth sailing, got the holiday-stuff under control, best laid plans and all that... well, you see where this is going.

Wednesday and Thursday became suddenly, startlingly stressful, and by the time I got it all back under control, I emerged from the fog to realize that the 48-hour headache was a sign that... the illness was back. 

So yesterday, it was back to the drawing board: hunker down and read.  And drink lots of juice and eat well and go to bed early. 

And again, it seems to have worked.  I don't usually get terribly sick (although, when I do, I apparently really mean it because I ended up in the ER twice this year, and at an emergency care clinic once), so I can usually shake things off.  Knock wood.  (I know, I'm an idiot for even writing such a thing: it's like I want the damn lightning bolt to blast me out of the chair here or something.)

While I was in the throes of recovering from all kinds of stress and unhappiness induced by, well, other people (Sartre really was onto something with that whole "hell is other people" idea), I stumbled across an article in Psychology Today by Douglas T. Kenrick.

Thinking about the wisdom he would like to pass on to his children, Kendrick asked readers of his column to weigh in and offer their own pearls.  In the meantime, he consulted with "several prominent positive psychologists, a few authors of well-known books on human behavior, a couple of especially insightful clinicians, a handful of pioneering researchers who have pondered human behavior in light of evolutionary biology, and several non-academic friends whose personalities and sense of humor have had an inspiring and positive effect on those around them."

The most frequently-offered bit of wisdom boiled down to something quite simple: "Be kind."

This hit home for me, because my own stress this week had been caused by someone who was, quite frankly, not kind.  And who showed no signs of becoming kind any time in the near future.  And it resulted in a situation in which I had to deal with all kinds of unnecessary stress and distress.

So when Kenrick pointed out that "being kind" sounds a lot easier than it actually is, my response was, "Yeah, I feel you on that one."

How can you be kind to unkind people?  To people that you are 100% certain don't give a (to put it bluntly) rat's ass whether or not they are needlessly upsetting you and complicating your life.  Who can't even conduct a polite and professional conversation with a relative stranger without trying to bully and gloat?

Oy.  It's a world.

And as Kenrick points out, there are basically 5 obstacles to kindness: 1) others aren't nice to you; 2) others will attempt to exploit your kindness; 3) we tend to overvalue ourselves and undervalue others; 4) there's a price to be paid for being kind and 5) some people just don't have a clue.

I experienced all of the above in a 20-minute phone conversation on Wednesday afternoon.  It took me two days to recover, and I really think the experience was physically so draining that it gave that little cold-bug a renewed foothold in my body.

I say again, Oy.

The aftermath of such experiences is, we kick ourselves for being kind.  "NEVER again, asshole!" is my mantra in the wake of such moments.  "Everyone can just go kiss my ass!" is another frequent refrain during such episodes.

But you have to get out of that mindset, quickly, I think, because it really is soul-sucking.  What's wrong with being kind, after all?  Nothing.  Not. One. Thing.  More people should try it.

That said, I think Kenrick offers useful advice for those of us who are averse to being treated like doormats for other people's shitty shoes (sorry, I'm clearly still working through some residual anger here).  It's a strategy proposed by game theorists: when people are nice, be nice back.

But when people are not nice, you respond in kind (relatively speaking).  Snark can be met with snark.  But then, you immediately go back to being nice.

The goal is that, over time, the person realizes that if they try to exploit or be unkind to you, they won't get away with it.  But if they treat you kindly, well, then, they can expect the same from you in return.

Kenrick has less concrete advice (in my opinion) for the handling the other obstacles to kindness, but in essence they boil down to remembering, in the words of my mom, "It takes all kinds to make a world."

Yes, people will overvalue themselves and undervalue you.  Try to see the humor in it.  Really, it's all you can do.  I think of the line from "Dirty Harry": "You're a legend in your own mind."  In the moments when you find yourself dealing with a self-declared legendary personality, try to step back and savor the sheer fictionality of it all. 

In terms of the advice he offers for people who have trouble being nice (although, I must say, if you're aware that you aren't nice, you're really about 90% cured already--the ones I encounter haven't a clue), he points out some real basics.

Stop whining.

Keep your promises.

Help others without expecting anything in return.

Be likeable.

Show an interest in other people's lives.

All of these things are ways to move through the world kindly.  And, if you practice them enough, they become habits (of a sort).  So that when you do have the occasional, inevitable Wednesday-from-Hell, you'll find that you have something to fall back on.

Friday, December 12, 2014


I've once again been MIA for over a week and, once again, the days have passed in the blink of an eye.

Which is somehow fitting, because I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2007).  Although Gladwell has come under fire for his work--in particular, for the fact that his information and narrative style are often organized around anecdotes rather than concrete data--I did enjoy Blink and I think it offers some interesting points about the way human thinking often works (or doesn't work).

Blink became enormously popular because, for many, Gladwell seemed to be giving us all kinds of permission to stop over-thinking everything and simply "go with our gut" to make decisions that intuitively "feel right."

And, yes, on some level, Blink explores the potential benefits of doing just this.

Except that Blink is also about the very real dangers of doing just this.  Written seven years ago, Gladwell's book is particularly timely right now, because it also reflects on what happens and how things can go terribly, terribly wrong when people make snap decisions based on unexamined impressions.

As the Bronx police officers did in the shooting death of the unarmed Amadou Diallo in February 1999, an incident that Blink examines in some depth. 

Gladwell probes the information offered by ongoing studies in stereotyping, one of the most insidious forms of "blink" thinking.  When we stereotype, we allow the unexamined, illogical gut reactions that have been insidiously (or not-so-insidiously) instilled in us by our surrounding environments and social contexts to determine our behavior.  And we do this even though these gut reactions in fact contradict what we consciously want to (or even believe that we) believe about others.

We act on impulses or ideas we didn't realize we had and that we might never consciously choose to act on, if we knew we had them.

Gladwell points out that, contrary popular belief, extreme stress only enhances quick thinking and decision-making abilities if a person's heart rate falls within a very specified range--between 114 and 145 beats per minute.

In this range, individuals seemed prone to experience the sensation that "everything was moving in slow motion" and they were able to process events and react with feelings of keen acuity.  This is the stuff on which action-adventure films capitalize (think of the many scenes in "The Matrix," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Kill Bill," etc. etc.)

Beyond 145 beats per minute, however, all bets are off, as complex motor skills begin to be impaired and vision becomes restricted.  Aggressive behavior mounts to a point at which people can become inappropriately aggressive.  In these cases, their reaction is not keen or intuitive, it's simply an insane reaction to an insane amount of stress.

At a heart rate of 175 beats per minute, stressed-out individuals will often void their bowels.  In such situations, the body is under such duress that it physiologically overrides the more reasoned "you-need-to-wait-until-you-can-find-a-bathroom" impulse ingrained in us through potty-training.

I don't think you'll get Uma Thurman or Angelina Jolie to do their own stunts in that kind of action-adventure scene.   

If a person's heart rate is greater than 175, s/he is little more than a stressed-out loose cannon.  His/her perceptions of reality are no longer reliable.  All cognitive processing has stopped and the primitive emotional centers of the brain have taken over.

As Dave Grossman, former army lieutenant colonel and author of On Killing (2009) has argued, the person has become the human equivalent of an angry dog--they can't be reasoned with.

Under these conditions, a person may in fact do things that s/he wouldn't otherwise do and s/he may also be unable to do things that, to us, seem quite simple--this is why, in emergencies, many people dial 411  instead of 911.

This may also explain why, in cases of police brutality, incidents of racist behavior and stereotyping are both painfully obvious and preternaturally extreme.  Stereotypes are rigid systems of thought that are ingrained in us in ways that operate below the level of consciousness. (Ironically, our brains seem to subconsciously store stereotypes in the same basic category as the impulse to spontaneously void our bowels.)

When it starts hitting the fan, stereotypes all-too-easily become the (subconscious) default settings that guide  actions and perceptions.  This becomes particularly likely if events steadily escalate to such an extreme (think: "life or death") that the people involved are no longer processing reality correctly.

If you're thinking, "Well, luckily, this can't happen to me because I don't have any engrained stereotypes or implicit, intuitive thoughts of this nature," you need to check out Project Implicit.

Project Implicit is a study designed to measure our implicit (think: split-second) social attitudes--those elements of our reactions that we can't control and that we may not even realize we have.  It measures the way in which our intuitive responses have been shaped--without our realizing it--by the social contexts in which we live and by which we've been systematically conditioned.

I can almost promise that you won't like what you find out about yourself, if you take one of Project Implicit's 5-minute tests.  (They actually have a disclaimer warning people that they may not be happy with their test results: you have to explicitly agree to be willing to read opinions that may disagree with your own deeply-held beliefs about who you are and how you think, feel, and react to people of different races, sexualities, genders, and abilities.)

As Gladwell points out, studies have shown that the way to counteract incidents of police brutality is not simply through community outreach programs or sensitivity training, but through the better enforcement of proper police training techniques, on the ground and in real-time.

The only way to avoid the bad, split-second decisions that result from the distorted and inaccurate perceptions brought on by stress-reactions is to try to slow down the unfolding of the event itself.

Police procedures are designed to do exactly this, but if officers are less than diligent in adhering to those  procedures when approaching what might be an unfolding crime-scene, before a suspect is encountered, they may be missing opportunities that would give them the additional time and space needed to react appropriately and rationally.

Police officers have to respond quickly: their ability to do their job relies on immediate, accurate, and appropriate responses to highly stressful situations.  No one questions the inherent difficulty of doing this.

At the same time, however, police officers must walk a fine line.  If they respond too quickly and/or succumb to the inherent stresses of the situation itself, they will simply not be able to do their job appropriately.

It's easy to sit on the sidelines and judge or speculate about what we ourselves "would do" when faced with such situations, but the fact of matter is, in situations of severe stress, when individuals believe that their very lives are in jeopardy, they aren't themselves.

In such moments, people make snap decisions that lead them to do things that they--and others around them--have a hard time believing that they are capable of.

In the wake of the recent grand jury acquittals, my guess--and this is only a guess--is that, when called upon to testify about incidents of police brutality, the police officers involved may offer testimony that is very emotionally compelling and oddly... persuasive... to those who are sitting in the jury box, listening to it.  It's highly probable that the officers involved really do believe that they saw what they saw, and that they really did think that they had to do what they did--because they weren't "thinking" in the way that you and I think of "thinking."

I suspect that grand juries and police brutality cases are, on a very basic level, recipes for legal disaster.  Calm, quiet people in an unstressed situation are being asked to weigh evidence and sit in judgment on the rights and wrongs of highly emotional circumstances that involve stereotyping, high-stress reactivity and scenes of significant social disparity--elements that in turn culminate in violence and death. 

I think that, rather than try to solve the problems that are clearly occurring when grand juries are asked to decide police brutality cases, a better way to protect everyone involved--both the police and the public--might be to use what we already know to be true to better train police and inform the public. 

For example, psychologists and police officials already know that high-speed chases--or chases of any sort, actually--get out of control very quickly.  The heart rate of everyone involved becomes extremely elevated, perceptions become skewed, and the ability to accurately process who is doing what and when (to say nothing of why) is severely compromised. 

The key seems to be to do everything possible to avoid forcing--or allowing--split-second decisions to be made under such circumstances.  Because, more often than not, those decisions will be seriously flawed and based on misperceptions.

A lifetime of consequences can result from a bad decision made in the blink of an eye.  Individual actions and reactions can--and do--have large-scale social ramifications, as we have all witnessed in the events of recent months.

Another option is to better train people in ways that can help inoculate them against the debilitating effects of stress.  If you systematically accustom a person to physiological stress, you can lower their resulting heart rate and potentially keep them within that narrow window of opportunity in which split-second decisions aren't inherently misguided and disastrous.  (The key word being "potentially.")

Ultimately, I think we are best served by remembering one of the key points that Gladwell makes: split-second decisions are precisely that.  Split-second.  

Standing on the outside and reviewing events that have already occurred, we tend to think of them as unfolding across a much longer expanse of time.  It always "feels" as if all of the parties involved had enough time to make better decisions, and we tend to assume that they naturally had the presence of mind--that they were still enough of "themselves," in short--to do what was obviously sensible and appropriate.

We know what they "should" have done, we think of this as unfolding in an indeterminate expanse of time, and we can't imagine why they did otherwise.

And sometimes, yes, events do seem to unfold in just this way.  For instance, Gladwell cites the story of a police officer who confronted a 14-year-old gang member in flight who, in fact, did have a gun and who was reaching for it at the moment when the officer confronted him.

The police officer claims that he didn't shoot because, throughout the incident, he remained instinctively aware of two things: the suspect's age ("He was fourteen, looked like he was nine"), and the fact that, as the arresting officer, he had time--as he put it, "something in his mind" told him that he "didn't have to shoot yet."

The police officer instinctively "felt" that he had time to give the boy (and note: he never lost sight of the fact that the person confronting him was, in fact, a child) the benefit of the doubt, and that was all it took to change the outcome.

As Gladwell points out, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 was an incident that lasted, in its entirety, a total of 1.8 seconds.  The attempted assassination of the president of South Korea (an event that resulted in the deaths of the president's wife and an 8-year-old boy) lasted all of 3.5 seconds.

The incident involving the police officer described above was similarly brief, and yet it resulted in a very different outcome.    

Gladwell's Blink also looks at the potential benefits of intuitive decision making, of course, and I find his ideas and arguments on this front equally interesting and compelling.

Anyone who works in academia knows that, at times, the influx of research and ideas and acronyms and "information" and statistics and who knows what-all can get positively overwhelming.

Research any paper or idea long enough and, by the time you're through, you won't know what it is that you want to argue.  There's always more reading to be done, but at some point, more reading isn't going to clarify anyone's thinking.

You're simply going to be buried in information that will ultimately impede rather than enhance your decision-making abilities.  In those instances, it's a case of becoming fundamentally unable to see the forest through the trees.

Gladwell describes a particularly compelling instance of this when he chronicles the experiences of General Paul Van Riper in the Pentagon's Millennium Challenge war games in 2000.  Riper led the "Red Team"--the putative enemy of the United States' Blue Team.

The Blue Team had all of the advantages of technology and research on their side.  They devised strategy upon strategy, they created acronyms, they "knew" all about their enemy and his vulnerabilities.  As Gladwell observes, "With the Millennium Challenge ... the Blue Team was given greater intellectual resources than perhaps any army in history."

Van Riper's Red Team, on the other hand, was to be led by a "virulently anti-American" "rogue military commander" who "had broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf." He was "harboring and sponsoring four different terrorist organizations" and he exhibited "a considerable power base from strong religious and ethnic loyalties" that "threaten[ed] to engulf the entire region in war."

Needless to say, the Blue Team felt it had the clear advantage.  Until the Red Team sank 16 of their ships in a surprise attack.

Van Riper's explanation was simple: rather than running elaborate scenarios or conducting extensive research, he simply noted that the Blue Team would "adopt a strategy of preemption."

So he struck first.  And in the blink of an eye, it was over.

This is the essence of Blink.  Thought is good.  Information is good.  Training is necessary.  And insight is  indispensable.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Show"

The month of November represented an all-time low in my blogging history, with only 3 measly posts.  I'm not really sure what happened, except that I was busy with all kinds of things that even I knew wouldn't be particularly interesting to anyone but myself.  And I was away for a weekend.  And then there was Thanksgiving.

So I'll do the month in review, quickly.  Hitting the "highlights," so to speak.

I switched from reading about things like Gulags and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Trials when, one day after writing up a letter of recommendation for a colleague, I caught myself thinking that I would leave a printed and signed copy on my printer, "in case I disappeared in the night or something."

I wish I could say I was mentally "kidding," but I may not have been.  So I switched to reading about happiness studies for a bit.

Turns out, people who expect the worst (like, say, "disappearing in the night") are often happier than people who don't.  Apparently, we set the bar rather low and are therefore quite pleased when things go reasonably well on any given day.

This probably also explains why I was thrilled by my customer service experience the other day.  I've blogged about my past experiences this year-- suffice to say, they haven't been good.

The woman I spoke to the other day, though, assured me that I qualified for a $150. credit, and that since they had made a mistake on my bill, I'd get a $30. credit for that, and then she hacked $10 off of another charge and told me that she decided to "make it $20" for no real reason that I could discern.  And then she announced that my monthly bill will now be about $40. less per month than I had been led to believe it would be.

Nor was this the only such episode.  I went to get the oil changed in my car, and I told the guy I needed to be out by 3:30 p.m., so if it wasn't possible, just let me know and I'd come back another day.  It was 2:00 p.m. when I told him this, and the shop was quite (quite) busy.  Frickin' full, in fact.

Turns out, it's totally possible if the guy you're speaking to happens to be the service manager and vested with the power of bumping you ahead of 5 other people who got there before you, just because.

I think maybe it was the new sweater I was wearing.  (I finished the two of them that I started a couple of months ago, which means I'm actually making some headway on my stash.  This, too, was November.)

In that spirit, I was working on a sock in the oil-change waiting area, and I had an encounter.

Full disclosure: I had previously seen this woman in conversation with the customer service reps.  She was  crowding them in a major way.  

The service rep finally asked her to please move back behind the counter.   It was that bad.

The woman did, but just barely.  I thought maybe she was just a close-talker.  (Either that or she was what my mom used to refer to as "a plain old pain in the ass."  Sometimes it's a toss-up which way it will go.)

Anyway, this woman eventually launched herself into the waiting area where I happened to be sitting in an armchair, glancing at the covers of the magazines on the table next to me while I took out my knitting.

Mind you, this table was round, and about 3 feet in diameter.  Not a small table, in short.  As I was glancing at the magazines, this woman suddenly leaned down so that she was peering into my face and said, "Okay, I'm going to put my coffee cup down here, so I'm going to have to move these magazines, okay?"

Okay.  She had all kinds of room to put her befrigged cup down, and I don't know about you, but I don't like when people kind of stick their face in yours to get your attention.  Boundaries, close-talker, BOUNDARIES.

But I just smiled and said, "Sure."  So she set her cup down, but it didn't end there.  (Of course it didn't.)

Because then she suddenly said, "Okay, I'm just going to take all of these magazines and put them back on the shelf.  All right?"

I was still looking at the covers of said magazines when she said this.  (Of course I was.)

And so I found myself faced with an existential dilemma.  I wasn't really all that interested in any of the magazines, I was just looking at the headlines for a bit.  I planned on knitting, not reading, but now the question was, did I want to let her get away with what we so clearly had going on here?

It was a power-struggle for control of the waiting room coffee table.  As God is my witness, that's what it was.

I believe that, in the grand scheme of things, it's best to pick one's battles, so I said, "Sure.  Fine."

I did so, however, with a slightly bewildered look designed to suggest a feeling of, "Why on earth would anyone care so much about a table and a few magazines?"

Anything I could do to deflate her sense of control and conquest, I decided, was worth doing.  Because if history has taught us anything, it's that you can't let some people take the proverbial Sudetenland just because they happen to think that they should have it.

So that said, I made another executive decision.  I sat there, staring at my knitting and thought, "I'm having a nice day.  Do I really want to voluntarily sit next to someone who I already know for a fact is inclined to crowd and hassle everyone she comes into contact with?"  Because at this point, this was the 4th odd incident involving her that I'd witnessed or been a part of.

This is the difference between being 46 and being 26.  Twenty years ago, I would have thought, "Oh, I don't want to move my seat.  She might realize I'm moving it because of her and she'll think I'm rude and maybe  feel bad."

As a Seasoned Forty-Something (who may or may not be rather jaded about humanity at large), I'm here to say that I not only moved my seat, I looked directly at her for a full minute before I did so, just to make sure that she stood some chance of realizing that I was in fact moving my seat because I didn't want to sit next to her.

Because really, she needs to get a little awareness.  It's a waiting room coffee-table and a few magazines.  I'm not optimistic that awareness is what was achieved in the wake of all of this, but I can safely say that I did my part.

I wonder what she did to the manager when she realized he bumped my car ahead of hers.  She arrived well before I did, he told her, "hour and a half!" and then I left in... 45 minutes.

Sometimes, you have to enjoy the show.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Full Circle

I finally have a minute to breathe before the Thanksgiving holiday, so I wanted to blog about something that I've wanted to write about for a few weeks, but that I felt that I couldn't/shouldn't, until I had a bit of time to devote to it.

It's a post in which, by force of habit, I find myself feeling the need to choose my words carefully.  But it's also a post that I very much want to write, because it revolves around what it means to be thankful for long-term benefits that seemed like very negative experiences at the time in which they happened.  

It's about the paradoxes that appear when life suddenly comes full-circle.

Those of you who know me and/or follow this blog regularly (all 5 of you) may remember a struggle that I went through several years ago, after I casually dated someone when I was on sabbatical.  

When I returned to RI for the summer this year, he tried to reconnect with me.  We actually haven't spoken in several years, and quite frankly, I wasn't looking to change that.  

But this summer suddenly offered me a chance to gain some closure, so I took it.  It was a huge weight, suddenly and surprisingly lifted from me.  

Don't get me wrong: I have no interest in chatting with him, be it ever so briefly.  Based on past experience, no good can come of it.  

In fact, a large part of my closure involved making it clear that while I don't consider him an enemy, we just aren't going to be friends again.  That yes, it's all water under the bridge, but in the end, it's left the bridge too washed out  for me to contemplate crossing it again.

For me, he's just someone that I used to know.  Sometimes, that seems like a good thing--that I knew him and that he was part of my life for a while.  Sometimes, it feels like a bad thing, because in the end, it really wasn't worth all of the drama and unhappiness. 

That's how I've felt for a really long time now.  I'm thankful that life gave me the opportunity to communicate that openly.  I know it wasn't what he was looking for, but I'm grateful that l had the opportunity to say, "This is who I am.  And this is how I feel."

Several weeks afterward, I opened a news website to see that his ex-girlfriend was running for mayor.

No, I'm not kidding.  

Those of you who know me or who read my blog in the summer months of 2011 already know the story with her.  I'm not going to waste words or finger-strength reiterating it here.  

It was very odd to see her popping up on a somewhat regular basis and to think, "That's that... woman."  Especially so soon after the sudden and unexpected encounter with her ex-boyfriend.

It's an odd thing, when your past suddenly walks onstage into the present.   (She lost, by the way.)

In the end, I'm thankful for the odd turn of events that marked this summer.  Because as the summer unfolded, it became clear that, when it came to this woman, a lot of other people had had experiences with her that were very similar to my own. 

I came to realize that what happened back then had nothing at all to do with me or my blog.  Those were just the excuses that people used to do the things that they wanted to do and that they would have done anyway, regardless.

I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.  It happened, but it ended.  This year, for the entire summer, I was lucky enough to get regular reminders of that fact.

I always chalk the good things in my life up to my dad, because I know that if there is such a thing as an afterlife, he'd be doing what he could to make sure that things always work out okay for me.  So I'd like to think that this summer of sudden, unsolicited insights came from him, and I'm very thankful that it came at at time when I was open to receive them.  

But then he would know that too, now wouldn't he?

Sometimes, when things come full-circle, they arrive somewhere very different from the place from which they began.  

And for that, I'm incredibly thankful.   

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Life, Uncaptured

It's been a kind of crazy week.  (Again?)

I went away last weekend, on a bit of a spur-of-the-moment getaway.  For me, "spur of the moment" means I only planned it a few weeks ago, instead of a few months ago.  It went so well, though, that I think I'm going to be tempted to do more of that in the future.

Especially since, when I came back, I had all kinds of energy and productivity.

But then, Tuesday night (well, Wednesday morning, actually), bam.  Sidelined by the histamine imbalance: I ate the wrong thing for dinner and spent the night paying the piper.  As I told my best friend yesterday morning, "I feel like I've been hit by a truck in the shape of a tuna-fish sandwich."

So I was out of commission for most of the day yesterday, recovering and waiting for the benedryl to work its way out of my system.  (At least I managed to avoid the ER this time around.)

One thing these chronic conditions teach you is patience.  I had a big long list of things I was going to get done yesterday, and it had to be scrapped in favor of simply focusing on getting the one thing done that I couldn't not do (a super-important committee meeting).

I used to feel really angry and frustrated when I got sidelined like that.  But now, perhaps because I've had it happen quite a few times this year, I think I have a bit more equanimity about it.   (Not a lot, but a bit.)  

I focus on recovering from, instead of reliving, the problem, and remind myself that it's a set-back in an otherwise generally positive move forward.   My health is far better this year than it was last year at this time, and that's definitely something.

In what will seem like a non sequitur, I read an article in Psychology Today this morning that examines the need to constantly photograph our surroundings.  In the age of the smartphone, we can't imagine not taking a picture of a beautiful sunrise--or sunset--but we often do so at the expense of the experience itself. We're so busy thinking about the picture and the subsequent social media posting, with all of its attendant praise and feedback, that we miss the moment itself.

I often think about how my generation was one of the last (I think) to grow up in a world in which the ability to take photos (or videos) was somewhat circumscribed by the necessary expense and often-unwieldy size of a camera, the need for film, and the subsequent need to take that film somewhere, pay to have it developed, and then wait a week and see if any of the photos you took actually look... good.

Don't get me wrong: I like a world of photos of everyday life, as opposed to a world filled with special-occasion-only photos.  And I like that people can stay in touch and share their experiences more easily.

But I do think we've lost an aspect of that experience and that what looks like "connection" may not really be true connection at all.  If you can't photograph something, you have to live it and remember it and figure out a way to store that memory.  And if you waste that moment lamenting the absence of your smartphone or the presence of a dead (or dying) phone-battery, then you truly waste that moment and the richness of its presence.

When I went to Paris in 2007, I deliberately didn't bring a camera.  I'm not a photo-person in general (as my blog so clearly testifies), but in this case I decided not to have a camera because I wanted to see Paris, not worry about getting a good picture.  It was the first time I travelled somewhere without a camera.

Oddly enough, it's one of the trips I remember best.  I remember the sights--but I also remember the sounds and the smells and the look of the city itself.  It was raining at Versailles, and I remember what the gardens looked like in the rain, and how cold it really was inside that damn palace if you weren't going to be wearing silk and fur and lighting enormous fires in every fireplace.  I remember the sound of the music on the Pont Michel and the tortuous streets of the Ile Saint-Louis.  

I also remember the Eiffel Tower--both what it looks like up close, and in the distance, as a feature of the Paris skyline.  I have my own, personal (mental) images of the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, and I would venture to guess they're as vivid as anything I've seen on social media.

My point is, I think that sometimes, opting to remain in the moment instead of constantly thinking about what the future will hold is actually a really good strategy for living a good life and forging rich and happy memories.  

When illness hits, you're in it, no question, and reminding yourself that "this too shall pass" is actually a good way of coping with such moments.  

But when life itself is happening--whether in the form of a vacation or a relationship--I think that occasionally reminding oneself that trying to "capture" a moment is always an inherently futile gesture isn't necessarily a bad idea.

It compels us to truly live those moments instead.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


By a strange twist of fate, this year, my Halloween was all about Frankenstein.

I went to see the National Theatre Live's rebroadcast of Frankenstein shortly before Halloween, because I'm going to be teaching Mary Shelley's novel for the first two weeks of November.

A little over a decade ago, I actually published a scholarly essay about Shelley's Frankenstein.  It looks at the issue of "responsible creativity" in the context of Mary Shelley's reworking of the Prometheus myth.

Prometheus is the Greek Titan who steals fire from Zeus and gives it to human beings.  In Aeschylus' play, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus does this because he feels sorry for humans: Zeus has created them, but then left them to fend for themselves and they are suffering as a result.  Implicit in Prometheus' defiant act is the idea that, by giving humans fire, he gave them the ability to challenge the divine.  (Needless to say, Zeus is not pleased.)

Shelley's Frankenstein,  I argued, is concerned with the moral obligations that a creator entails when s/he creates life.  In particular, I examined the scenes in which Frankenstein and his Creature debate their mutual obligation--or lack of obligation--towards one another.

So this has been my first time returning to the novel after a long hiatus from teaching it.  And thinking about it.

In many ways, I think now what I thought then: that this is a surprisingly complex novel for a self-educated woman to have written in 1818--when she was only 18 years old.  Mary Shelley zeroed in on an issue that directly impacts women (giving birth) and examined the concept through the lens of science and technology--creating a dynamic conflict between Victor Frankenstein and his unsightly creature that would stand the test of time and lend itself to being told and retold.

The story of the novel is an overwhelmingly sad one: Victor and his creature mirror one another, in terms of their desires and ambitions and voices, yet few literary protagonists have ever spoken to each another at such cross-purposes.

That is what has always stood out to me about the conversations between Victor and his Creature: the extent to which they both argue themselves into positions from which they cannot compromise.  Victor admits he was wrong to create the Creature, but he cannot conceive of acting on that admission in any way other than to claim that it is his "right" to kill it.

The Creature, similarly, argues that he would have been good--that he is good at heart and always wanted to be kind and virtuous--but others have made him what he is (both literally and figuratively).  If others reject him, what option does he have but to seek destruction and revenge?

To kill and to seek revenge: these are the only two options that Victor and the Creature seem to be able to entertain with any seriousness.  Their vague attempt at a compromise--the Creature will go away and leave humans alone if Victor makes a female creature to be his companion--is entered into half-heartedly (at best) on Victor's part and seems to be little more than a last-ditch effort on the part of the Creature to carve out an existence for himself that doesn't involve desolation and revenge.

The novel is also a retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost: as the Creature himself admits, he "should be Adam," but he identifies instead with Satan--cast out, he seeks to destroy everything dear to those who have rejected him.

To some extent, the Creature can't be Adam, however, because Victor is only playing God.  Unlike the omniscient deity, he shows little or no concern for the welfare of others and he is remarkably adept at rationalization and self-justification, particularly when it feeds his overwhelming sense of pride.

In a sense, if the Creature is Satan, so too is Victor.

An element of the novel that, to my knowledge, hasn't ever been explored fully is the way in which Frankenstein, as a "modern Prometheus" is more like the brother of the Greek Titan, Epimetheus.

In Greek, "Prometheus" means "forethought."  "Epimetheus," on the other hand, means "after-thought."  According to the ancient myth, Zeus created the first human woman, Pandora, and then gave her to Epimetheus.  (Bear in mind, Prometheus had warned his brother not to accept any "gifts" from Zeus, because he suspected reprisals for his act of stealing fire.)

Pandora had a container (a kind of jar, actually, but the word pithos was translated as "box" and the image of "Pandora's box" has stayed with us).  She opened out it of curiosity, unleashing all of the evils of the world.  She shut the lid as quickly as she could, but the only thing she managed to trap inside was... Hope.

Like Epimetheus, Victor Frankenstein's actions are frequently marked by after-thought rather than fore-thought.

The question remains, however, whether Shelley's text can in any way be viewed as a hopeful one.  Victor dies, and the Creature simply disappears.  The narrator, Walton, is forced to turn back from his quest and return to home and family.  The secret of the life that Victor created--how exactly he managed to animate dead matter--dies when he does.

Or does it?  It seems to me that, if there is a kind of hope underlying Shelley's text, it lies with the reader.  Will we learn to see what Victor and his Creature do not?  We will understand that, when the forces of nature itself have been tampered with, when death is brought back to life and life itself becomes riddled with death, questions of right and wrong and justice and responsibility become insoluble problems that can only be endlessly debated, to the point of despair and destruction.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I've said it before and I'll say it again.  There is a "customer service" crisis in America right now.

I think it stems in large part from a fundamental misconception about the meaning of the words "customer" and "service."

"Customer" means I'm the one paying for an item that helps to keep a few people employed.  "Service" means you should probably do your best to help me and be nice to me, otherwise I may take my money and go elsewhere.  That latter thought should make you a little bit worried and sad, if you're running a business.

I really don't get the rudeness-thing.  It's at the point where I don't like to call customer service and I don't like to email them, but mistakes seem to be the norm and as a result, I kind of just don't even like to buy things anymore.

This is great for me, of course, but maybe not so great for the economy at large.  Although yes, I know, I'm only one very small cog in a mighty machine.  But still.

Latest case in point: I placed an online order, and I know I put in a shipping address that is different from my billing address.

As God is my witness, I know that.  I distinctly remember unchecking the "same as billing address" box, taking the extra 3 minutes to fill out a separate shipping address (why can't first and last name just be on the same line, as in:  last name, comma, first name?) and then running my wee index finger along the screen to double check that yes, I had filled it out correctly.  To save myself all kinds of trouble.

A day later I found out that my credit card didn't go through, so I had to call them about that.  So I did, they put it through, and the problem seemed to be solved.  My delivery could begin winging its way my way.

This morning, I discovered that they shipped my order to my billing address.  I called Customer Service, without a whole lot of hope, I'll admit.  My main--nay, only-- hope was, maybe they could contact the shipper and give them the address I had requested in the first place.

The woman who answered the phone--and she was a native speaker of English, so no leeway on that front--refused to believe me, when I explained what it appeared had happened.

She said, "Oh, no, that's not possible.  We don't EVER change shipping addresses."

I explained that I thought maybe it had just been changed when the credit card number was reentered, you know, a mistake, maybe, to which she said, "Oh, no, that's not possible.  We don't EVER change shipping addresses."

I'll spare you some of the gory details here and simply tell you that she said the above two sentences no fewer than 5 times in the course of our 5-minute "conversation." 

I really don't get this "service" "strategy."  If you attempt to engage me in a conversation, I tend to try go with the flow of said conversation.  So, for example, if you say you entered a shipping address different from the one that the merchandise is now being shipped to, I would probably say, "Okay, just a minute--let me check on that for you."

And then, if I have bad news to tell you, I would say, "I'm sorry, but from what I'm seeing here, it looks like the shipping address we have for this order is the same as your billing address...and the package has already shipped, so I'm afraid there's nothing I can do..."

I would try to trail off pleasantly, hoping that 1) you won't begin screaming at me in senseless rage, and 2) you will maybe suggest some way we can wrap this up on a friendly footing, perhaps by offering additional information so I can get a better sense of what happened here to create this customer service... rift.

If you told me that you called my company 2 days previously because they had to make adjustments to your order in order for it to go through the Customer Service system and be sent on its merry way, I might say, "Hmmm... let me see here," and stall for time while I weigh any and all means I might have at my disposal to help and/or pacify you.  

If I had none, I would say, "Unfortunately" (or "I'm sorry," since they're basically synonymous) and then I would explain why I couldn't change the shipping address at this time.  Again, my goal would be to keep you as a customer since I work for Customer SERVICE, and I would enlist a pleasant and professional demeanor and a seriousness of purpose as my best --nay, my only-- assets in this endeavor.

Did I mention that the 5 statements of  "That's not possible, we NEVER change shipping addresses" alternated with approximately 5 claims of, "Well, you must have input the wrong address.  That's the only way that this could have happened.  I'm sorry, but you are the one who input your billing address and that's why it's being shipped there."

Yeah.  Okay.

I don't think I'm a difficult person to get along with.  My neighbors have spontaneously commented on more than one occasion that I'm "one of the most easy-going people they know."   They have often remarked that they can't imagine what it would take to get me angry, because I'm inclined to see the humor and try to laugh most things off.

Up to a point, that is.

So, for example, when this Customer Service representative told me "That's not possible," I was going to point out to her that in fact, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle suggests that many chains of causality that might otherwise seem unlikely are in fact possible.   That's a picture of Heisenberg to the right over there and quite frankly, I'd rather he had been my Customer Service rep. this morning.  (He certainly looks far more cheerful than the woman I spoke to, despite the whole uncertainty-thing.)

I didn't mention Heisenberg, though, because before I could, the Customer Service Representative I was speaking with launched into an oddly aggressive series of questions: WHY was I going to be out of town for the weekend?  WHY didn't I have a mailbox at my billing address (I do, actually, just not one big enough to hold packages), WHY didn't I just call the post office and tell them to hold the package until I came back, and HOW LONG did I intend to be away?


I left a little pause there in the blog post, to reflect the fact that this barrage of questions forced me to pause and collect myself lest I explode in a responding current of senseless, expletive-riddled anger.  Something I'd really rather not do, given the choice. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I have a Ph.D. in literature, but once a blue-collar working girl, always a blue-collar working girl.

Hence my immediate (and admittedly unfortunate) reaction to such kinds of verbal onslaughts is something along the lines of "Stick it up your ass, honey."

It's not very literate, I know, which is why I now pause in such moments, to try to gather my more educated sense of self.  I seek to marshal better verbal resources than phrases involving orifices and objects.  (I mentally remind myself to, "Be Buddhist about it.")

Because this is not the first time that this has happened to me.  On more than one occasion, a Customer Service rep. has demanded to know (in what I personally would characterize as a very "how-dare-you?" tone of voice) why I was where I was, doing what I was doing.

I wanted to point out that, in fact, I was engaged in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I also wanted to ask, "Well, but why are you where you are, doing what you're doing?  Why are any of us here, really, doing any of the things we're currently doing?"

Instead, in all of these instances, I patiently explained "the situation." I must say, though, that I'm slowly learning that being patient and polite in the face of such questions is somewhat pointless because 1) the person doing the demanding isn't ever satisfied with the answers, and 2) it makes no difference, they're simply going to say, "That's not possible: we don't EVER [fill in the blank]."

I ended up hanging up on this particular Customer Service Representative this morning.  Seriously.  I generally don't hang up on people, but in the past year, I've hung up on a Customer Service rep. three times.

And we haven't even hit the Holiday Season yet.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid. 

After I hung up, I tried an email.  At this point, I wasn't even asking for help anymore, I was simply filling an emotional need to say, "Hey, look, you know, this was kinda rude, treating a loyal customer this way.   I placed an order, a mistake was made, I called to ask for help to see if it could get fixed, and I got told to just deal with it."  (Which is true, the Customer Service rep. actually said, "Well, you're just gonna have to handle it yourself and figure something out, because there's nothing we can do."  Just like that, too.)

I received an automated email response in return in which they told me they looked, the shipping and billing addresses were the same, it had been shipped, so "apologies for any disappointment."

That's what they said. "Apologies for any disappointment."  I didn't like that.  That was my tipping point in all of this.

I kind of felt like, you know, I don't deserve to be treated rudely or spoken to like a petulant child, when I am (was), in fact, a paying customer.   And my purchase had been a substantial one.  And I had dealt with this company since the early 1990s.

So I wrote back to say that "disappointment" wasn't the issue, that customer service had been rude, and that I would simply return the delivery when it arrived and no longer do business with them.

They sent yet another automated response in which they "thanked" me for my "input" and said that they would "address" the issue "in the future," because "all feedback, whether positive or negative" is very important to them.

They actually signed it, "Your friend at Company X, Jill."  So they've emptied the word "friend" of all meaning as well, to add to the vacant terms "customer" and "service."

So I wrote one last email (no one can ever say I'm not persistent) in which I said, "You clearly don't care about keeping a customer who has spent a great deal of money on your merchandise over the past 20 years.  No need to send another automated reply that says nothing."

And that was the end of it.

Quite frankly, I don't know about how any of you out there would feel after such an altercation, but I now no longer want what I ordered.  I can't imagine keeping it or feeling good about it, because I would always think about the fact that I paid a lot of money for it and I was treated rudely in return.

My dad used to say, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."  Lately, "customer service" bites.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


I can't believe how fast the weeks slip by. 

I've been reading Shawn Achor's book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (2010).  Achor is one of the leading practitioners of the movement that has come to be known as "positive psychology," and his particular specialization is (as the subtitle of his book suggests) its application in work-settings.

Many scoff at the field of "positive psychology," in large part because of its very name.  It conjures up images of people who are way, way, way too happy and cheery (and who we all secretly suspect of overindulging in various pharmaceuticals on the sly), people who think that all we need to do is "accentuate the positive" and there will be no such thing as depression.

People who seem to seek to deprive us--and the world at large-- of our trademark snark.

This isn't that.  (Thank god.)

The field of positive psychology began when psychologists began to realize that the preponderance of psychological studies deal with illness, with helping people who are depressed or otherwise struggling with mental or behaviorial issues.

Positive psychologists argue that this has skewed the discipline of psychology as a whole.  Because the fact is, people are, at various times in their lives, happy and successful.  They aren't always sad and depressed and struggling.

And some people appear to be happy and successful for long periods of time.  Others show a remarkable amount of strength, resilience and optimism, even in the face of serious adversities, such as life-threatening injuries, illness, grief, and unemployment.  They may not be "happy," per se, but they are doing a damn good job of coping with some serious life-shit (to put it bluntly), and it would be a disservice to simply categorize (or treat) them as if they are (because they implicitly "should be") "depressed."

The argument positive psychologists make is that, in order to better understand how and why human beings flourish, instead of simply studying the negative side of human psychology, we need to study its positive attributes and examples, in order to better understand what underlies these attitudes and behaviors.

So this is Achor's background and his task: to examine and inform us about how and why some people achieve success and happiness at work, and why that success and happiness (Achor and other positive psychologists actually prefer the term "flourishing" rather than "happiness," since it is weighted with fewer preconceived notions) often translates into other aspects of an individual's life.

Achor's The Happiness Advantage in particular identifies seven key principles that consistently underlie the behaviors and attitudes of successful workers, even during times of large-scale layoffs and economic crisis (Achor situates the context of his book in the global economic collapse of 2008).

Although Achor gives each of these principles a catchy label to make it more memorable, I'm going to eschew the labels and just get to the gist.

1) People who flourish have a brain that is "primed" to experience happiness.  In effect, they take advantage of neuroplasticity, the way in which the brain's neural pathways and synapses can be modified by changes in behavior, environment, and/or thinking.

As Achor points out, this can be accomplished in any number of ways: through meditation, by engaging in random acts of kindness, by consciously creating a more positive environment or surroundings, by exercising, by finding something to look forward to, by engaging in activities that we know will tap into our individual, character strengths and even--surprise, surprise--by spending money.

The caveat with spending money, however, is that it shouldn't be spent on stuff.  Instead, research has shown that money (when available) can bring happiness when it is spent on doing things, not on "having" things.  Studies have shown that "prosocial spending"--that is, spending money in ways that enable you to do things and/or connect with others--produces stronger and more positive emotions than the purchase of material objects, which produces only a temporary "high."

2) People who flourish have a mindset that selects and filters for positive experiences, even in the face of adversity.  As Achor argues, we can't change reality, and sometimes reality kinda sucks (don't I know it).

At the same time, however, we can choose how we react to these (occasionally sucky) realities by "adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances" (63).

As a friend of mine once told me during a particularly challenging period of my life, "Keep your eye on the prize.  Look towards the horizon."

3) People who flourish avoid focusing on--and thus creating--patterns of stress and negativity in their lives.  Achor uses an interesting example to explain this one.  As anyone who has played video games for several hours knows, they can have an odd effect: you think you begin to "see" the patterns of the game in the world around you or you find yourself thinking about your surroundings in the context of the game you've just been playing (for a bit too long, perhaps).

This is because this is what the human brain does: it scans the world for what it has practiced seeing and processing.  So, if you've played the game of negativity for a bit too long, chances are, those are the patterns that you will see in the world around you, patterns of stress and negativity.

4)  People who flourish opt for mental pathways that lead them up and out of suffering, defeat or crisis.  Psychologists have begun to study the concept of "Post-Traumatic Growth"--instead of simply focusing on PTSD, they look at examples of human resilience (and eventual flourishing) in the wake of traumatic events.  Achor notes that
People's ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it) (110).
5)  People who flourish focus on mastering small, manageable tasks and goals, particularly when they are at risk for being overwhelmed by life's challenges and/or making irrational, ill-timed, or ill-conceived decisions about how to respond to them.  They have, Achor argues, "an internal locus of control"--a "belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes" (130)-- that helps to ground them.

By contrast, people who have have an "external locus" tend to see the events of their lives as dictated by outside forces over which they have little or no control.  (In short, they play the blame-game on a regular basis.)

6) People who flourish cultivate good habits and actively work to eliminate the bad.  As I mentioned in an earlier post ("Life-By-Numbers"), cravings tend to last no longer than 15 minutes, so if we can find a way to wait out a craving, we can eventually adopt better behaviors.

Similarly, Achor argues that new patterns of behavior can be instilled in as little as 20 seconds (in some cases) if we rely, not on willpower (which doesn't work), but on putting good habits on "the path of least resistance."  If you make it easy to do the things you want to do ("lower the barrier to change" [161]) and simultaneously make it just a bit harder to do the things you don't want to do, you can change your patterns of behavior for the better.

7) People who flourish have a strong network of social support that they can draw on in times of stress.  In short, they have a posse: people that they know they can count on when the going gets tough, because these are relationships that they have actively promoted and cherished when the going wasn't so tough.

If, after reading all of this, it sounds like happiness is a lot of work, well, yes, in a way, maybe it is.

But I think that, if you consider an activity or time when things worked well for you, it is probably the case that at least one of the principles was operating somewhere in that mix.

No one would deny that there are numerous advantages to happiness; the drawbacks of unhappiness, by contrast, are legion.

So why not invest, at least in a small way, in making an effort to opt for happiness?

Saturday, October 18, 2014


I've been wanting to blog about Ebola for the past week, but it's taken me some time to collect my thoughts and figure out what I want to say about it.

Earlier in the week, I spotted a tweet that essentially wondered why over 4000 people can die of Ebola in Africa and no one notices.  But when less than a handful of people are diagnosed with Ebola in the US, it's a national crisis--this was the gist of the wonder.

I responded: "We can't imagine a global pandemic when we hear 'Ebola in Africa.'  But when we hear, 'Ebola in Dallas,' we suddenly can."

I want to reflect on why that is.  I've been thinking all week about what a disease--or an epidemic, or a pandemic--requires of us imaginatively.

I've been thinking all week about how imagination can shape political action (or apathy) and influence our success in coping (or our failure to cope) with a virulent strain of hemorraghic fever like Ebola.

In his novel, The Plague, French writer Albert Camus comments on how difficult it is for us to understand massive destruction on a global scale.  We simply can't imagine the numbers, because it's outside of our frame of reference.  We don't know 4000 people, so we can't imagine death on such a scale. 

Of course, in this age of Facebook "friends" and Twitter "followers," we can imagine a sense of connection with numbers of this kind, but I think that we often don't.  Imagine if you went to bed tonight, knowing that Ebola was "out there" and by this time next week, over half--if not all-- of your Facebook friends were gone.

That's Ebola.  Right there.  The entity pictured in the image to the right does that.

In The Plague, Camus argues that, to make wide-scale destruction imaginatively possible for people who are currently living quiet, comfortable lives, you have to contextualize it in a way that they can imagine.

Camus suggests that people imagine a movie theater in their hometown--one that they go to themselves regularly--and then imagine it filled with people at a Friday night showing. 

Then, he says, imagine all of those people are killed, suddenly, inexplicably.  The theater reopens the next day, fills for a Saturday afternoon showing, and again, everyone in the theater is killed.  Imagine this happening on Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night.  And on into the week.  Imagine it simultaneously happening at other theaters.  Suddenly.  Randomly.  Restaurants.  Malls.  Unpredictably, and seemingly unstoppably, the numbers begin to add up. 

To imagine this happening day after day, for no apparent reason and with no discernible end in sight, can help us imagine the devastation of a plague as something that might affect us.   Camus argues that, in this instance, because we can imagine the place (a theater we often go to with people we know and love), we can imagine the people who might be found there on any one of these disastrous occasions.

We can imagine loved ones who might be inadvertently caught in the trap, and friends who might be suffering as a result.  The numbers "mean" something to us.

As Antjie Krog argues in Country of My Skull, it forces us to confront an unimaginably painful reality, one that we hesitate to even articulate:
"How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you?" 
If we can't force ourselves to imagine this in this way, Camus argues, the numbers will always remain somewhat meaningless.  We can't see the people in the numbers, and so our imaginations fail us.

We know it's bad, but we don't know how bad and because we can't see what that means, we will fail to act accordingly.

I first found out specifics about Ebola--and Marburg viruses in general--when I read Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (1994) several years ago.

Preston looks at the origin of the virus itself and its sporadic impact on various African communities during the 1970s and early 1980's.  Because yes, as the tweet that I initially responded to clearly pointed out, Ebola has been cropping up sporadically in Africa for several decades now.  And Marburg--an equally virulent but somewhat less lethal strain of the same virus (Marburg is often identified as a "cousin" of Ebola)--has been previously diagnosed in Europe and it too traveled to the US on an airplane.

Preston's descriptions of what the Ebola virus does to the human body are horrific and seemingly unimaginable.  Ebola begins with a headache that appears a week or so after exposure to the virus, and then quickly escalates to nausea and vomiting.  Describing the first known case of Ebola, Preston writes,
    ...on the third day after his headache started, he became nauseated, spiked a fever, and began to vomit.  His vomiting grew intense and turned into dry heaves.  At the same time, he became strangely passive.  His face lost all appearance of life and set itself into an expressionless mask, with the eyeballs fixed, paralytic, and staring.  They eyelids were slightly droopy, which gave him a peculiar appearance, as if his eyes were popping out of his head and half-closed at the same time (11-12).
The eyes become bright red and the skin becomes yellowish and speckled with red.  Over time, the skin will begin to appear to be a massive reddish-purple bruise as the spots and speckles merge and expand.

And the vomiting will become far, far worse.  Unimaginably worse.

In the advanced stages of Ebola, the body begins bleeding from every orifice, because the blood's clotting factors no longer function.   Ebola attacks the connective tissue in the human body, which explains why the victim's face begins to take on an odd appearance.  The brain and internal organs bleed and slowly liquify.  The lining of the intestine or the surface of the tongue may actually be expelled from the body during a bout of defecation or vomiting.

I think Preston's description encapsulates the paradox of imagination that surrounds Ebola.  These symptoms are so horrifying that we can't even imagine suffering of this magnitude.  We can't imagine that this--this--could possibly happen to the (reasonably) hale and hearty American bodies we see all around us. 

And yet, we can, in a way.  We can demonize the disease and respond with fear, and that fear can be fueled by descriptions like the one that Preston offers--even though that was not necessarily his purpose in writing it.

Fear is both an understandable and appropriate reaction to Ebola.  The disease is contagious and it is officially categorized as "extremely lethal"--it is more lethal yellow fever, which has a mortality rate of approximately 5-10%.  It is more lethal than smallpox, which has a mortality rate of approximately 30%.

Ebola has a mortality rate of approximately 50% or higher, depending upon the strain.

But in a way, this is also a vulnerability in Ebola.  As Preston points out, Ebola viruses are efficiently lethal when it comes to humans--they often kill their human host quickly and horrifically--but this means that, in order to survive, the Ebola virus must constantly be infecting a new host.

Unlike HIV or tuberculosis, which infect a host and then linger over time, doing slow but sustained (and initially, invisible) damage, Ebola consumes quickly and then jumps, from person to person or across species.

In its ability to jump species, Ebola is not uncommon.  The flu can do it.  And HIV.  And rabies.  What Ebola does seems unimaginable, but in fact it is not.  It's unfortunately somewhat common among virulent viruses.  It's what makes them virulent.

So I think that, as we imagine Ebola and what it means for the world at large, we need to shift the focus of our thoughts and our imaginings.

We focus on symptoms that come straight out of a horror film, instead of imagining the causes that brought us to this point.

Scientists speculate that Ebola may haunt us today because, in the 1960's, it became profitable to capture, sell and ship monkeys from Africa around the world--often to pharmaceutical labs where they were the subjects of animal testing.  A monkey--like a human--can be infected with Ebola and remain symptomless (at least initially).  You wouldn't know they had the virus simply by looking at them.

So in a sense, Western economic demands may (indirectly) be what brought the virus out into the open and  put it on a plane.  Monkeys of a variety of species, in close contact with their human hunters, captured and enclosed in cages with others who may or may not have been infected.

Blood, feces, saliva, sweat, semen, vomit.  A virus-jumping paradise.

It seems to me that, if you inadvertently helped create the problem, you need to deliberately help devise a solution.  Particularly if you earned a profit from something that has now become a massive problem for thousands of impoverished people in multiple countries. 

The solution to "Ebola in Dallas," whether we like it or not, is "better health care in Africa."  If American corporations can imagine cornering capitalist markets and turning a tidy profit from Africa's resources, we can--and should-- imagine better healthcare systems in Africa as well. 

I think this is what we need to begin to focus on in our imaginings of Ebola.  Not hordes of dead Americans bleeding from every orifice, but scores of clean, efficient hospitals in Africa.  

You can't ban travel to or from countries infected with Ebola.  And even if you could, it would make little or no difference.  Imagine this: on any given flight on any given day, you are potentially exposed to all kinds of airborne pathogens that could do all kinds of nasty things that you and your body wouldn't like one bit.  It doesn't have to be Ebola.  Ebola is just what is happening right now.

This was the reality before the Ebola outbreak.  It will continue to be the reality after the Ebola outbreak.  If we can imagine testing people for fevers at airports, why can't we imagine sending some of the latest medical equipment and supplies to Africa on a regular basis, to help stop the disease before it gains a significant foothold like the one it currently has in West Africa? 

Put Ebola in the same category as rabies and HIV and the flu, and suddenly you can imagine this disease--and our response to it--a bit differently, I think.   

We don't have cures for rabies or HIV or the flu.  But we do have treatment plans that minimize the risk and alleviate the effects of these contagious diseases.  These diseases lit the spark of humanity in us, and as a result, people stand a better chance of surviving them today.

We can--and have--imagined all kinds of ways to help prevent other viruses from spreading quickly and exponentially.  We imagined scenes in which they could no longer do untold damage to the human population at large, and we worked collectively to try to make them real.  We eradicated smallpox.

I think we can do the same for Ebola.  Imagine that.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Week

I've been looking forward to this week for a long time.

Why, you ask?  Because tomorrow and Tuesday are my Fall break and Saturday is my birthday.  So it's kind of like my "Birthday Week," really.  A definite wish come true.

The main issue I've been wrestling with for the past 48 hours is whether to make my cake now, or wait until later in the week.  I'm leaning towards "later in the week," because the fact that I have a few days off this week means that there is a very real risk that those days could easily be spent consuming cake.

To such an extent that it might be essentially gone by the time the actual birthday rolls around.  And I'm not sure I possess the willpower required to not go and make myself another one, if that happens.  (I think it's bad mojo to not have cake on your actual birthday.  It sets a very bad precedent for the upcoming year, imho.)

So I've opted to wait on the baking.  That said, I made apple-cranberry muffins.  I've already eaten 3 of them.  (This is what I'm talking about.) 

Today was actually a very nice way to start off the week because, truth be told, yesterday was a bit of a bust.  It rained all day and, for whatever reason, I could not get myself moving.  I blame the (children's) benedryl that I had to take in the wee hours of the morning: I was sleepy all day.

Yes, that's right: I take children's dosages of OTC medicines and they put me out of commission for an entire day.  I'm just not cut out for hard-core drug use--I know that about myself, thank you very much. 

I did do a whole bunch of reading, though.  (In between dozing and taking selfies of my kitty cats who, I must say, look much cuter dozing than I do.)  On the advice of a friend, I'm reading Antjie Krog's The Country of My Skull (1999) about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  (I'll blog about it when I finish.)

I must confess, I am woefully ignorant about South Africa.  I mean, yes, I know about apartheid (I came of age in the '80's, after all, and Bono made sure we all knew what was going on there) and I know about Nelson Mandela, of course, but in other respects, I can't deny it, I'm woefully ignorant.

For example, did you know that South Africa doesn't have an official capital city?  In fact, it has 3: Cape Town (seat of Parliament), Pretoria (seat of the President and Cabinet), and Bloemfontein (seat of the Court of Appeals).   And the Constitutional Court convenes in Johannesburg.  Plus, South Africa completely surrounds the land-locked country of Lesotho.

I didn't know these things--although I should have, obviously--but now I do.  So that's something accomplished yesterday.

I also worked on knitting a sock while I was reading.  This is pretty much what I accomplished (bad picture alert):

It's the top portion of a sock, in Stroll Fingering, "Cupcake."  It actually does look kind of like a chocolate cupcake, believe it or not, in terms of coloring--browns and pinks.

I've developed this new habit of working on two different socks for two different pairs of socks simultaneously, alternating between them from day to day.  For some reason, I think it makes the sock-knitting go faster.  I know that doesn't make a whole lot of sense and really isn't very logical at all, but that's how it feels. (I suspect it falls in the category of a "variety is the spice of life" kind of thing.)  So here's the other sock that's currently underway in my world:

I honestly don't remember the name of the color for this one.  As you can see, both of them are at exactly the same point in the knitting process: the only thing left to knit on each is the foot.  And then, I will start the process all over again, to make the second sock for each pair.  I alternate between them, as the mood suits me.

And yes, this is a slight shift from all the work on sweaters that I did last weekend.  But fear not, I will return to those as well.  Right now, the only thing I need to try to do is not buy myself more yarn for my birthday.  That would be foolish, but it is always a very real possibility in my world.

I have also discovered a time-saving secret that I will share with the world at large: whenever possible, you should run errands on Sunday mornings, between 8-9 a.m.

Yes, I know there's that whole "sleeping in on Sunday" thing that most people do, but in my own personal case, my kitty cats have decided that that just isn't good for me, because it means I risk missing precious minutes of their early-morning adorableness.  And they just won't have it, I tell you.

So I'm up in the morning, always, and this morning, I headed on out and managed to go to Lowe's, the grocery story and Petco, all within the space of an hour.  And I got everything I needed for the week.

I even got this little box of eco-friendly fire-starters, since I'm getting myself supplied with firewood for the season.  I have no idea if the little jiggers actually work, but what I can tell you is, they smell.  Not badly (luckily), but boy, they sure do pack a wallop.  Close them into a small space (like your car) for about 5 minutes and woo-wheee.

I put them in the basement, on a shelf immediately opposite the cats' litter boxes.  I figure the two entities can duke it out for smell-supremacy.

Meanwhile, although I have a serious birthday-break this week, my time is still somewhat spoken for.  I enjoyed a mini-harvest earlier this week (look to the right), but the mini-ness of the harvest means that I will inevitably need to do a whole bunch of end-of-season gardening sometime soon.  To say nothing of the leaves that have yet to fall.   

I'm rather pleased, though, because for the first time in, well, ever, actually, I managed to grow some spinach.  (That's what's in the plastic container.)

I also have another cord of firewood to stack this week.  I will have grading to do.  And a whole bunch of work for a committee I'm serving on.  And all kinds of professorial odds and ends.

But that said, I'm gearing up for a few more bike rides this week since pretty soon, it will be too chilly to go on them with any regularity (at least, too chilly for me).  I took one today, actually--it was odd to see the park and the beach empty.  Seems like only yesterday, it was August.

But yes, it's autumn.  Here's to a wonderful week.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I read a quick little article the other day that offers advice for obtaining happiness and a better quality of life overall.  You simply need to remember a few key numbers. 

2: Implement a "2-Minute Rule."  If you see something that needs doing and you know it will only take about 2 minutes to do it, just do it.

I can testify to the effectiveness of this rule.  I rarely have a lot of email in my inbox, my office has minimal junk-mail clutter, and my bills are paid when they arrive, not at the end of the month.  The minute I see an email that asks me a quick question, I answer it--even though, on occasion, I don't feel like it or the question might need me to (quickly) look something up.  Same with snail mail: I get it, I sort it, I toss it out.  I don't take it back to my office to "sort through later," because that's how things pile up.  Bills don't usually take that long to check and pay, so they (often) fall under a 2-Minute Rule (but not always).

5: Implement a "5-Minute Rule."  If you don't want to work on something and feel yourself poised to procrastinate indefinitely, commit to working on it for 5 minutes.

Again, this rule works for me.  I often say, "Okay, well, just start it and see what you're going to have to do later."  Or, "Make an outline and a plan, just so you have a sense of direction."  If you can commit to 5 minutes of diligent work, that 5 minutes will often turn into a longer stretch of time (often, but not always).  Sometimes, you'll realize that it's actually a task that can fall under the 2-Minute Rule.

11: If you don't have time to really exercise, just exercise for 11 minutes.  That's the minimum amount of exercise-time per day you can incorporate into your life and still see significant health benefits.

15: Cravings typically last no longer than 15 minutes.  If you crave a food you've told yourself you need to eat less of, give it 15 minutes before indulging.  Or, if it's a habit you're trying to break, commit to doing something else for 15 minutes and see what happens.  You may be able to ignore or wait out the impulse.

20: When stymied, take a 20-minute break.  If you do and then return to what you were struggling with, you may find that the answer is suddenly crystal clear.  Your brain has had time to chemically respond to the stress of the original struggle, so the problem looks intellectually "different" now.

43: This is the maximum number of minutes of daily exercise needed to reap significant health benefits.  So, if you start with 11 (the minimum), you can increase it little by little, knowing that 43 minutes is the target. 

The original July 24, 2014 blog post by Meg Selig in Psychology Today, on which my own post is based, is available here, if you're interested in further reading.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Brief Wondrous Life"

My first attempt at reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) about a year ago was not at all a wonderful experience, but it was, in fact, quite brief.

I just couldn't get into the novel, largely because of the narrator (recently, this has been a problem I seem to have quite often, although after sitting in on a colleague's class on Disgrace, I'm feeling better about that particular novel).

Diaz's narrator is hyper-masculine and, well, pretty foul-mouthed.  So be forewarned: you may not like what you hear from him.

What made my reading of the novel a success this time around was the fact that I--oddly enough--had read Diaz's other work, in particular his short story collections, Drown and This is How You Lose Her.   I say "oddly enough," because... it's the same narrator.

Yunior is the narrator of Oscar Wao, and he is also the narrator of Drown.  If the narrator of This is How You Lose Her isn't Yunior (and I honestly can't remember for certain if it is or not), it might as well be: it's the same kind of voice.

The difference, for me, was that Drown offered shorter narratives--so I could face the prospect of spending less time looking at the world from a perspective I didn't really like, at the end of the day--and the stories in the collection look at Yunior's childhood and teenage years.

I found that, once I had spent small snippets of time in the narrator's mind and I had some insight into why he spoke and acted the way that he did, I could manage Oscar Wao far more easily.

I think it was also a question of timing: like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz is from--and writes about--the Dominican Republic, and like In the Time of the Butterflies, Oscar Wao tells a story that is, at least in part, set in the DR under the dictatorship of Trujillo.  So personally, I found it really interesting to look at how Diaz's novel incorporates the issues of history and memory (largely through the use of footnotes that are, at times, only semi-serious), in contrast to Alvarez's treatment of a similar topic and time period. Diaz in fact references Alvarez's novel in Oscar Wao.)

I also found Diaz's use of sci-fi narratives and comic book heroes a really interesting way of thinking through the relationship between cultural myths and personal identity.  Diaz rethinks and rewrites the motif of the immigrant's journey in interesting ways: the story of Oscar, his sister Lola, and their mother Beli doesn't simply rehash the idea of coming to America and making a better life for oneself.

Instead, Diaz's novel questions what it means to leave--and what it means to return, after having left.  Instead of a straightforward, linear narrative of departure, Diaz inverts the chronology of his story, starting with Oscar, Lola and Beli in the US, then working backward to tell the story of Beli and Beli's family, then moving forward again to the present day--only to have the novel culminate in a scene of return.

Oscar Wao isn't a satisfying story, in a lot of ways.  If you like a novel that offers answers and provides closure, I don't think this novel will do it for you.  But if you like a novel that is about the complexities of process, then Diaz's novel will certainly offer plenty of food for thought.

Having concluded the novel, I find myself thinking a lot about the question of sympathy: what does it mean to sympathize with a narrator or a character?  What traits align our sympathies with a particular figure, and why?  If a novel chooses to upend those sympathies--to select figures with whom we are probably going to struggle to sympathize--does it change us as a readers?

My short answer to that question is, yes, I think it does.  In ways that I am only beginning to comprehend and articulate.