Friday, February 21, 2014

Weekend Anticipation

As the fog and the rain and the "thunder-snow" roll in, this is what awaits me:

Box o' Sock Yarn

Homemade Blueberry Liqueur

Comfort Food: Kidney Beans with Fresh Local Sausage

High-protein Health Swap: wheat berries (instead of rice or pasta)

Chef's Assistant (worried because I'm not paying attention to the stove)



Ready to Snuggle at a Moment's Notice

Thursday, February 20, 2014


It’s coming up on the anniversary of my mom’s death and, as always happens with such milestones, I’ve been thinking about the past.  In particular, I find myself thinking of all of the times when I wished I’d said what I was thinking at the time when things were happening.

During my mom’s illness, I was dating someone. Around the time that my mom died, that particular dating situation unraveled as well. So, from now on, I’ll always think of the two things as intertwined.

I remember that, on the night my mom died, I arrived home at around 10:00.  I was alone with my mom when she died. I remember that one of the nurses on duty that night was very young—so young, in fact, that she reminded me of my students.

She was very sweet. I could tell it bothered her, witnessing this.

I remember how this very young nurse stood, in her down jacket, in the doorway of my mom’s room. Her shift had ended. She stopped by to ask me if there was anyone she could call for me. Anything she could do for me.

She knew my mom was going to die that night. We both knew it.

I remember thinking that she was very sweet and so kind, that she couldn't leave her shift without stopping in to try to make things better for us. I told her, gently, “No. Thank you.  There’s no one.”

She looked so sad that I felt like I had to say something to make her feel better. So I finally just said, “Sometimes, this is just how it is.”

It was a strange moment. She wanted to take care of me, and instead, I ended up trying to take care of her. When she left, I remember thinking, “She’s going to go home and call her mom tonight.”

Two hours later, my mom died.

I remember that I came home, I sat with my cat for a while, I called some friends, and then I went to bed, sometime around midnight. 

I remember that, the morning after my mom died, at 5:00 a.m., my phone rang.  I remember that I was in the middle of a strange dream, and I woke up thinking, “What's happening?”

It was the hospital. They wanted to know whether I would be willing to donate my mom’s organs.

I remember that I got really angry. I’m not sure, but I think I kind of yelled at the woman on the phone. I told her that my mom had died 8 hours earlier, that I didn’t really need her calling me and waking me up at 5:00 in the morning to talk about my mom’s organs, and that I had a hard time imagining who they intended to give those organs to.

I told her, “My mom died of a massive bone infection. She had MERSA. I don’t think you want her organs.”

The woman on the phone said, “Yes, that’s true. We don’t want her organs. But you could donate her corneas.  That’s why we’re calling, because we have to remove them within 24 hours, so if you could just...”

I think I said, “I’m not interested in donating my mom’s corneas,” and hung up on her.

I remember that, a few hours later, at 9:00 a.m., the sister of the person I was dating called to say how sorry she was to hear the news about my mom. She told me, “I’ll be around all day. Call anytime. If you need to talk. Whatever. Just call. I’m here.”

So when the guy I was dating wrote an email to me that night and said, “I’ve been trying to get your number from my sister all day… I’ve been meaning to call…” I knew immediately that he was, in fact, lying.

And I remember thinking: “You can’t date the kind of guy who has no qualms about lying to you on the day your mom dies. This isn’t a good man.”

I distinctly remember thinking that, less than 24 hours after my mom died, all he was worried about was “covering his own ass” and "pretending he was a nice guy."  I remember thinking those exact phrases, when I read his email.

But I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time.

I should have dealt with it.  When he called later that evening and announced that his phone wasn’t fully charged and might die at any moment, I didn’t want to deal with that either.  He spent the entire conversation talking about the movie he was watching.  And then his phone died.

I remember just turning my phone off and going to bed. I just didn’t want to deal with him or with any of it.  I remember thinking, "Who cares?  This is so silly.  This thing with him---it doesn’t even matter, really.  It's so stupid.”

When I look back now, I marvel at how naive I was, and how determined I was to try to find a way to insist to myself that really, there was no reason we couldn't have some kind of friendship.

Looking back, I realize that, the day my mom died, I stopped believing he was a genuinely good person.  I just didn't have the energy or the courage to act on that belief at that time.  

If I had it all to do over, I would have simply stopped contacting him. I wouldn't have bothered with a big "conversation" and I wouldn't have tried to communicate with him about any of it, because it was clear he wasn't listening anyway.

He was too busy worrying about himself and thinking that he "knew" me and "knew" what I was thinking and feeling. I should have simply shrugged my shoulders and walked away.

I think that, when you experience a significant loss, you go through a period when you just don’t want… more loss. So you cling to whatever you have, even though you know you’re just deferring the inevitable.  At the time, it feels like it should be "easier" to do it that way.  But it isn't. 

In my own case, it was a mistake, because the man involved clearly thought that I was in love with him.  In retrospect, it is clear to me that nothing I could have said or done would have led him or his sister or their friends to think otherwise.  They had decided what they thought of me, and nothing would change that.

So I should have saved myself time and energy and just stopped it all cold.

When I look back now, I feel grateful that I came out of it unscathed, despite the bad memories.

And oddly enough, the bad memories don't really trouble me as much as I thought they would.  I have good memories of my time spent with him and my former friendship with his sister, and in the end, these are the things I find myself returning to--although they're now bittersweet, because I know that I'll never be that naive again.

And when I think about the day my mom died, I marvel at what odd oscillations it contained: absolute kindness from a stranger, total insensitivity from a friend.

In the end, I accepted all of the losses that day contained. 

Most importantly, looking back, I realize that I learned two lessons. I learned that sometimes, life will force you to decide: will you be kind to other people, or will you be kind to yourself?

Be kind to yourself. Always. If the other people in your life are truly kind, they’ll understand and support your decision.

And I learned that loss is sometimes unavoidable. We can only choose how we will accept and respond to it.  And then, hit "send."


Monday, February 17, 2014

A New Day (With Poincare)

As soon as I finished writing my grousing and grumbling little blog post yesterday and hit "publish," I began to feel better.  I started to remember all of the people out there who are enduring far worse weather--and circumstances--than my own.

And oddly enough, my day became productive.  I did a whole bunch of reading that I needed to do, that I hadn't been able to motivate myself to do for days on end.

Perhaps more importantly, I woke up this morning muttering to myself and composing the sentences and short paragraphs I needed for my various ongoing writing projects.

When that happens, I just get up as quickly as possible, feed the cats, make the coffee and power up the computer.  I remind myself not to get distracted: the writing needs to be done in those moments--it can't wait.

Two hours later, it was done.

In "The Foundations of Science" (1908), the French mathematician Henri Poincare wrote about the psychology of creative activity.  Poincare argued that, contrary to popular belief, work in the sciences, typically thought of as entirely dependent on deductive reasoning, was in fact inductive as well.

You had to imagine connections you couldn't necessarily see.  To stand as valid science, of course, they had to be proveable, but that didn't mean that you could always discover them simply by deducing them from the available evidence.

You had to believe it to see it.  And when you saw it, you had to prove it.

Poincare analyzed the way his own mind worked when formulating mathematical theorems: it required both conscious and unconscious activity--sometimes one first, then the other, sometimes the other way around.

He described how he sat and sat at his desk for days, puzzling over a theorem he couldn't formulate, a connection he couldn't make.  Then one night, he drank black coffee, couldn't fall asleep and came up with all kinds of ideas and connections.

The next day, all he had to do was write them down.  And they worked.  He solved what he couldn't figure out, simply by not focusing on it.

In other cases, he didn't have time to think about an idea or to write it down.  Often, while traveling, an idea would come to him that hadn't arisen when he was at home, working.  In those instances, he simply didn't have time to write it up, so it had to wait.

But when he went home, he was able to write it up and flesh it out.

The British novelist Virginia Woolf used to talk about the need for days of "wool-gathering."  Frustrated with her inability to write, she would repeatedly remind herself that sometimes, the land needs to lie fallow, the ideas have to percolate, and the mechanics of creativity have to wait.

The danger of this, of course, is that the writer enjoys this process so much that s/he never writes.  Ideas can seem interesting and swirl around in limbo, but the actual work of formulating them requires conscious effort and decision-making.  It won't always be airy and pretty and full of potential.  In order to put the pieces together, you have to commit to actually sitting down and putting the pieces together--a process that is sometimes rife with frustration.

Poincare argued that we need the focus and discipline of the conscious mind to bring the creative insights of the unconscious mind to fruition, and the inspiration of the unconscious mind to fuel the pragmatic labor of conscious thought.

I would argue that, in many cases, there are mental blocks to doing this, obstacles that we aren't even aware of (frustrations, annoyances and fears).  Unless we confront those and clear them out of the way, they'll continue to block the reciprocal exchanges between the conscious and unconscious mind that can lead to solid insights and good work.

And we may not even realize that this is in fact why we can't move forward and get the work done.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Coming Up Short

For the past week, I've been wracking my wee brains, trying to come up with a blog post.

It snowed again this week.  Twice.  And now, I'm officially sick of reading.

Yes, I said it.  And I'd like to pause for a minute, repeat that statement, and think about what it implies.

I.  am sick of.  READING.

There has been too much snow.  Plain and simple.  That is what this means.

I can't speak for anyone else on the East Coast, but I'm glad February is a short month and we're rapidly nearing the end of it.  Spring fever is going to hit hard this spring.  I'll probably be sitting outside in shorts and a tank-top the minute the mercury rises above 40 degrees.

Meanwhile, my circumscribed indoor-life has been limited to 1) talking to my cats, 2) reading for my classes (which may or may not be cancelled at any given moment), 3) knitting, and 4) watching the Olympics.

Occasionally, I mix it up and go out and shovel.  Or quickly get groceries before the next round of snow.

In short, I'm beginning to feel seasonally disgruntled and overwhelmingly bored--in that order.

Meanwhile, the Classics Club Spin has been spun and my "must-read" for the next month is #20--Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith.

I have mixed emotions about this.  I read the book years and years ago, and I remember that I did like it.  So that's good.  On the other hand, I was kind of hoping the spin wouldn't give me a "re-read."

But it did.

Really, I think it's just Wintertime Blues right now for me.  It's cold and everyone's tired, cranky, running a low-grade case of cabin-fever, and praying that the power doesn't go off.

We need a change of pace.  It's time.

I found myself telling myself last night to remember the last line of Percy Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind."

"O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Good Turn

I've been having a really nice end-of-the week because, when I arrived home on Thursday after the ice-storm, I discovered that my neighbors had cleared my driveway for me with their snow blower.

This was beyond wonderful.  I had to do my porch and that snow was quite heavy, what with the sleet and the ice all mixed up in the process.  And it was much colder outside of course.

And they did the WHOLE thing.  It's a two-car driveway.  They didn't just do a section so I could park--they done cleared it.  So instead of gritting my teeth after a four-hour drive, parking on the street and thinking, "Okay, let's go do this...," this is how I felt instead.

And no, these are not the neighbors I shoveled out earlier last week.  And these are not the neighbors who plowed me out in the previous large storm several weeks ago.  It's a totally different set.

I love having so many great neighbors.  It just makes you feel better about the world.

To celebrate, I went out and bought myself some self-striping yarn to make a nice bright pair of socks. Yes, I'm still working on the dark blue ones--I'm on the home stretch with those.  But a bright spot in a cold winter deserves a bright spot in a cold winter, so I splurged on some hand-dyed yarn from a local artist, and this was the result.

It's a sport weight, 100% merino wool from Quaere Fibre, so it knit up quite a bit faster than the blue ones I'm making, which are in fingering weight wool (6 sts/in for the former, as opposed to 8 sts/in for the latter).

The color is "Botanical Garden."

So, a little less than six weeks into the New Year, and one of my New Year's Resolutions has been met to such an extent that I'm now slightly addicted to knitting socks.  And really, if you check out this Pinterest board, you can see why.

I wasn't sure if I'd want striped socks, because I tend to be a bit more sedatedly socked than that.  But this could be the start of a new trend for the future because I really love the pink toes and the little splotches of green on the heels.

And they really are warmer (finally!  my toes are no longer cold!) and more comfortable.

Yes, they'll need to be hand-washed or at least put in the gentle cycle, but hey, if I make 7-10 pairs, I can have a week's worth of socks, that need to be washed... once a week.  That's totally do-able.  And if it guarantees me this little slice of heaven that is the phenomenon of hand-knit socks then I say, bring it.  

I also found a wonderful recipe for cream of spinach soup.  (In a previous life, I was in fact Popeye.)

I read a book that wasn't very good, but I don't have the heart to diss it, because they author's heart was totally in the right place.  I know that sounds odd, because I usually diss whoever about whatever, but in this case, I won't.

I also won't include the title or author, though, because I don't want anyone to think I'm recommending it, because I really just can't.

But the book talked about how technology and social media have distanced us from things of value in our lives--we no longer focus on simple, face-to-face interactions and connections to people, objects, and processes.

The author points out that, although we all seek happiness, we regularly make choices that are counterproductive to any kind of happiness.  And as a result, we end up overbooked, overweight,  stressed out, and depressed.  We're consumed by distractions.

The night after I read this, I was channel-surfing, and I happened upon a show (granted, it was a Hollywood gossip/entertainment show) that spent five minutes instructing all of us in the art of "taking a good selfie."

Okay, unless we're talking about a hand-knit-sock selfie (see above), this is a truly pointless activity.  The point of taking pictures used to be to commemorate something: a moment with family, a beautiful scene, what have you.

Selfies are basically YOU, narcissistically taking a picture of YOURSELF, cropping and shopping and filtering it so that you look far better than you ever do in real life, and then posting it on Facebook or Twitter so you can prove (to a whole lot of people you probably don't even know) that... what, exactly?

That you're home alone taking pictures of yourself?  That you're out in public taking pictures of yourself (and ignoring the world around you)? And that you're doing so without a shred of humor or irony?

I prefer Edward Munch's selfies: "Self Portrait in Hell."  Or "Self Portrait with Malaria."

Selfies can easily seem like harmless fun (and to some extent, they are), but the point is, there is no point: it's an essentially meaningless activity.  You're no better for it, at the end of the day, and neither is anyone else.  Selfies are put up on social media and their subjects then just wait for the influx of (empty) compliments: "nice pic!" "you're so pretty!" "SEXY!" "wow--you got tan!"

And if there aren't enough resulting compliments--and the irony is, no matter how many there are, it will never quite feel like "enough"--people feel a little depressed.  So they return to social media for another fix--an activity that, in the end, fixes nothing.

I'm not going to cite all of the many, many studies out there that show that spending lots of time watching TV or interacting on Facebook and Twitter lead to depression and irritability and a sense that one's own life is not as interesting as everyone else's.  They're out there.

So the point of this book was that we need to regain our sense of focus by finding "focal activities": things that really require us to engage with the world around us in a productive and self-affirming way.  Cook something.  Make something.  Sing something.  Build something.  Read something (something longer than an online article).

Take a walk.  Take a run.  Visit a friend--NO, don't text them, VISIT them.  And when you do, don't text anyone else the entire time you're there.  Stay in the present and don't drift off into the vagaries of cyberspace.

Because at the end of the day, this may very well be why people lack a sense of accomplishment and suffer from insomnia.  If we aren't using our energy in ways that help us recharge, it's no wonder we end up feeling drained.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Taking a Spin

I haven't been participating in The Classics Club as much as I'd like to lately, so I'm going to do one of their Spins and see if I can find time to complete it.  (Not always easy to do when the semester's on.)

So, the first step is to list 20 books from my Classics Club reading list.  Next week, the Club will announce a number from 1-20, and my goal will be to read the book with that number by April 2nd.

I think I can do it.  Here's the list:

1.  Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
2. Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
3.  Don DeLillo, Underworld (finish)
4. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
5. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
6.  Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey
7.  Jon Okada, No No Boy
8. Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svjek
9. Chang Rae Lee, Native Speaker
10. James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
11. Toni Morrison, Sula
12. Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
13. Frank Norris, McTeague
14. Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place
15. Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
16. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
17. Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (reread)
18. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
19. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
20. Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith (reread)

There are definitely a few on this list that I'd really prefer to "have to" read.  And a few that I'll heave a bit of a groan if I have to face them.  But really, I'm a book addict, so in many ways, a list like this is a bit of a "high" for me--I love having stacks of books I "need" to read and I think this is a nice, solid list.

And since February is Black History Month and the Classics Club is focusing on African American literature of the Harlem Renaissance, I've included a few titles that fit under that category.  If I can find the time, I'll try to read at least one of them, even if it isn't one of the numbers that's picked.

Because if we keep having snow days every week, I'm going to need something else to do.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Secrets of A Successful Snow Day

This time I was prepared.

Last time we had a snow day, I was caught with my figurative snowpants down.  I was bored silly.  This time around, I vowed it would be different.

And it was.  As I sat watching That Pathetic Excuse for A Super Bowl last night, I mentally began planning how I would pass the time, if the snow came.

[Quick Sidebar: Anyone else notice how, for the past, ohhhh... ten years or so, we've repeatedly been promised an "exciting matchup" of football teams, and then one of the teams ends up trailing by 30+ points at halftime and all the "excitement" we get is a brief glimpse of Janet Jackson's star-studded nipple?  (Which I missed, actually, because I was in the other room washing dishes and then checking email with the TV muted, the year it happened.)  (I just don't care about Justin Timberlake.)  (Or Bruno Mars, actually.)  Even the commercials have become quite pitiful: cars and beer and celebrities.]

Okay, so anyway, back to the topic of The Successful Snow Day.  It really has been a better day all around, if only because it has been possible to go out into the snow and enjoy the beauty of it without worrying that you'll freeze your ever-lovin' tuckus off.

That is key: a worry-free experience.

Another key: generosity of spirit.  To celebrate the beautiful snow day, I did what I usually do--I shoveled someone else out.  I don't know why I do that, but I feel it is my mandatory act of random, snowy kindness, and I do it whenever it snows.  (It also makes up for not being able to go to the pool or for a long walk--because it certainly counts as exercise.)

I made a large pot of beans, that I will probably incorporate into a soup.  I found a recipe for pancetta and bean soup with spelt (instead of rice or noodles), and last time I made it, I used wheat berries: they're higher in protein (6-7 grams) and whole grain.  Kind of a nutty flavor, sort of like barley, but not quite.

This time, I'm going to try farro instead of wheat berries, to see which I like better.  I haven't actually been able to find spelt, but as I may have mentioned, spelt is really just European wheat berries.

Then, I figured out what to do with the unopened bottles of wine that have been left of my hands, post-holidays.  I used to love drinking wine, but I've slowly had to accept the fact that I kind of can't anymore.

I have what is known as a "histamine imbalance."  Basically, my body's histamine levels get out of whack somewhat easily, and when they do, I have an allergic reaction (that has in fact required the use of an epipen at at least one point in the past, so it's somewhat serious).  But if you test me for food allergies, you'll come up with nothing.  Zip.  Nada.  Nil.  (So glad you drew blood just so you could tell me that.)

For some reason, wine has recently been causing a problem, so I've stopped drinking it.

But because I plan ahead, I still had these unopened bottles that I really, in all seriousness, can't quite bring myself to drink, and that were far too much to cook with.

But, I can make vinegar with them, because I've made a nice quantity of apple cider vinegar and it turns out, you can use the "mother" from that (if you don't know what a "mother" for vinegar is, read this post) to make red wine vinegar as well.  So I'm all set: I have multiple vinegar "mothers" at this point.

Because I can't drink wine, I tried switching to beer, but really, I'm just not a beer-babe.  But then I spotted hard cider and thought, "Why not?"  So that's what I've switched to.

Quite frankly, I'm not sure why people drink fermented grain when they can drink fermented apples and it tastes so much better, but.. so be it.

But that meant that I had to look up the history of hard cider, because I can't just drink something and enjoy it without wanting to know, "Where have you been all my life?"  And then that reminded me that I wanted to look up the history of Chinese tongs.

No, they're not for picking up barbecued meat. They're the benevolent organizations and self-governing bodies formed by Asian American immigrants in the early 20th century.

After delving into all of this, I had several other projects planned.  There are buttons I need to sew onto a recently-made hat.  I have a sleeve of a sweater to work on--and then, actually, I have the sleeve of another sweater to work on.  I have a sock to finish: I made the heel on Saturday, and it nearly drove me both blind and insane.

As God is my witness, the next time I make a sock, I will NOT make it dark blue.  It makes it all too clear that bifocals are on the horizon for me--and that's about all that is made clear in those tortured moments.

I also have a book I downloaded onto my Kindle, but I'm not sure it will be good, so I won't talk about it just yet.  It's about finding focus in a world full of distractions--in particular, learning not to get sucked in by technology.  And yes, I decided I would savor the irony by loading it onto my iPad.

It's my little way of keeping both sides of the debate in check.

Meanwhile, if you're on the East Coast and it's snowing where you are, go out in it.  It really is a beautiful day.  A day to breathe and celebrate life's small, simple successes.