Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Home Stretch

Needless to say, it's been busy.  A review of the past week or two, in pictures, is the quickest and easiest way to sum it all up.

"Is that the thesis?"
First, there was the grading.

Then, when that was finished, there were the TWO revise-and-resubmit requests to get--and keep--working on.

I haven't finished them yet.  One (on Zola) is grinding along at a snail's pace--did I mention I don't like Zola?  Yeah, I don't--but I'm hoping I can have it done before the year's end.

My self-imposed deadline was originally December 1st, but obviously, we blew past that a while ago.

The second revise-and-resubmit required additional research.  This is the project on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, that I've blogged about before, and I will say, it's the project I prefer to work on.

More or less.

The reason I say "more or less" is because it's never a whole lot of fun when editors tell you that to further enhance your analysis of the Soviet Gulags (forced labor camps), you should do a bit more research on... the Holocaust.

So yes, that's what I've been doing for the past month as well: reading more about the Holocaust and specifically Holocaust testimonies.

This may have something to do with why I haven't been blogging the way I've wanted to.  One finds oneself speechless at the end of a reading day made up of Holocaust testimonies. 

I'm also reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853).  I started it years ago, and didn't like it.  A week or so ago, I decided to give it another shot.

I still don't like it.  But at this point, I'm about halfway through, so I'm determined to power through it to the end.  That will then give me something to complain... I mean, blog... about.  (I believe it's on my Classics Club reading list, but I'll have to check.)

In better news, though, there has been knitting.  Lots and lots of knitting.  And this is a joy to me, obviously.  My latest happy project is a pair of cat mittens. 

At this point, I only have the one.  I binge-knit it on a day when all we had was fog and rain and general dreariness.

I made the executive decision that such a day was not meant for reading Holocaust testimonies or overwrought nineteenth-century novels with narrators who are just so damn full of themselves it's hard to care what happens to them (that's a little teaser for my summary of review of Villette).

 Pictured at the right is palm of the mitten.  Note the little paw-prints.  Kinda cutesy, but it involves kitty cats, so I don't care. 

Judge me all you like, I have cats and I adore them.

Needless to say, the mitten will require its mate.  I only made the one during the binge-knit, because that in and of itself took all day and I went to bed around midnight woozy with wool.

I will also need to put the thumb on it.  I hate doing the thumbs of mittens, so I save them for the very last and then just grit my teeth and do them. 

And then I will be happy.  Because I will have a second pair of mittens that fit...ahem... like a glove and that pretty darn pretty.

And I even blogged about it all.  Now, if I can just get Zola on his way for the holidays, I'll be all set.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"The Sadim Touch"

First off, let me say that I've already made my New Year's Resolution for next year, and it's to see to it that I get back to blogging.  I don't know what happened this year, but I know I'm not happy about the fact that my blogging dwindled so drastically.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the matter at hand.  Today, I had a case of what's known as "The Sadim Touch."

What is that, you ask?  Well, I'm sure you're familiar with "the Midas Touch," wherein everything you touch turns to gold (even though that may not be the smartest idea in the world, as Midas himself quickly discovered).

The "Sadim Touch" is the Midas Touch in reverse (Midas - Sadim, get it?) wherein everything you touch turns into... something that is definitely not gold.

Case in point: I tried to make two types of candy today--a chocolate peppermint bark and marshmallows.  I've made marshmallows before.  I never had a problem.  So today, I grabbed the nearest recipe I could find, and got to work.

It didn't work.  Granted, I couldn't find the wire whisk attachment for my mixer.  And I'm not sure where it could be, either, if it's not sitting right there next to the mixer, so the hunt for it is going to consist of me sitting on the couch wondering--I can't even begin to look for it, since I have no idea where to start.

But as it turns out, the recipe I used was not my usual marshmallow recipe and when I self-righteously insisted on checking my original recipe, it turns out that there were significant differences between the two.  So I guess in that sense, the "Sidam Touch" wasn't really my fault.

Regarding the peppermint bark.  I made it, and I guess it's okay, but I think that whoever came up with the need to temper chocolate in order to make decent candy was certainly no friend of mine.  It just seems very hit or miss, and yes, I used a candy thermometer, but no, it didn't seem to help.

So the peppermint bark exists, but I don't think the chocolate is tempered.  I fell prey to my own temper, though, and tossed it in a freezer bag in the fridge announcing, "Well, I don't know WHO is going to want to eat this, so I guess I'm stuck with it."

I'm not sure what my point was with all of that, because a) it's chocolate, and b) it's peppermint flavored with peppermint candy in it.  Who wouldn't want to eat it?

I think the thing is, when things don't turn out exactly as I hoped, I tend to be a bit hard on myself.  Which is a bit odd, because when friends do or make things that don't turn out exactly as they had hoped, I'm always ready, willing, and able to point out that it "doesn't matter," and that it's "fine" and that "no one cares."

You'd like I'd extend myself the same courtesy I extend others, but for some reason, I don't.  Maybe that should be another component of my New Year's Resolution for next year: to cut myself some slack.  (Just not when it comes to blogging.)

In the meantime, if you're wondering what I've been up to when I haven't been blogging, here's a brief review, in pics.  There's the Christmas tree:

There's my first attempt at making a "painted" pie crust. Hence the apple pie with an apple tree on it:

(Next time around I'm going to try to make the "trunk" of the tree a bit narrower.)

And there's a new pair of mittens, which I'm quite pleased with, despite the fact that it has been too warm to wear them pretty much ever since I finished them.

Next time around, I think I'd prefer it if they simply had solid-colored thumbs.  I'm not too keen on the patterned thumbs, quite frankly, but they look fine when I'm wearing them so... all's well that ends well on that front.

So these are the things I've been up to instead of blogging.  Along with grading and trying to get two articles revised and resubmitted.  But the end of the semester is here, and we're well into finals, and in a few short weeks, 2015 will be a thing of the past.

Wait.  What?  Where on earth did the year go?

Friday, November 27, 2015


The semester is coming to an end at a rather alarming pace, but I decided to conveniently ignore that fact and do a little "fun" reading instead. 

I put the word "fun" in quotation marks because I'm well aware that what I consider "fun" is not necessarily what others consider "fun."

Moving on.  As regular readers of my blog know, I'm a big fan of the work of Sherry Turkle, so I was particularly excited to get my hot little hands on her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in A Digital Age (2015).

I came to this book after reading a blog post by a friend.  In effect, my friend wrote an open letter to Apple asking if she could please have her family back: smartphones had lured them away, both from each other and, apparently, from themselves.

Turkle's latest book addresses precisely the problems that my friend describes in her blog post-- namely, families (and individuals) who spend more time staring at screens than they do interacting with friends and fellow family members. 

With the advent of laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we seem to have lost the ability--or the willingness--to engage in face-to-face conversations, a problem that is becoming particularly acute for children and teens.  As Turkle points out,
Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and message, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.  They didn't grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk. (12)
In the place of conversation, Turkle argues, we have provided myriad opportunities for mere connection.  We connect with people via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, email, texting or other social media platforms, but we don't thereby converse with them.

Electronic communications like texts or emails typically focus on communicating information.  Conversations, however, perform a different kind of emotional "work." It is a work that can be both time-consuming and disjointed or messy, but it is, in the end, highly necessary to our very existence as human beings. 

As Turkle points out, many--if not most--people prefer to communicate via email or text not only because it renders the exchange more efficient, but also because it allows for a greater sense of control.  You can "edit" yourself ahead of time and craft the "self" you wish to present to your e-locutor--this is one of the much-touted advantages of electronic communication.

The problem is, as scientists have recently discovered, "the parts of the brain that allow us to process another person's feelings and intentions are activated by eye contact" (170). 

So, if you're still wondering why that email or text exchange with that person you really do love and care about went so terribly, terribly wrong, and how it's possible that the two of you could so misunderstand each others' good intentions, wonder no more. 

Because you were typing and texting instead of looking each other in the eye, there's a good chance that your brain missed all kinds of cues that would have enabled you to perceive the other person's feelings and intentions before things became so horribly derailed.

And if you think, "Well, but I use emojis and emoticons and I'm real good with the whole punctuation thing," think again.  Scientists have studied the use of emojis and emoticons and punctuation in the communication of feelings and intentions.

And no, their effect is not the same--or as effective--as eye contact and face-to-face communication.

What I have always liked about Turkle's work is the fact that, despite her warnings about its (often negative) psychological effects, she isn't anti-technology. 

Instead, Turkle advocates a greater awareness of the psychological effects of technology and the nature of our relationship with it, in order to make us more cognizant of the choices we could--and should--consider making when we turn to our devices.

Take, for example, the often-heard claim that we are "addicted" to our phones.  Turkle argues that it is unhelpful to frame our relationship with our devices in these terms because our devices aren't drugs (no, really, they aren't). 

Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other forms of technology serve a purpose; unlike heroin or crack, we aren't simply turning to them for the "high" that they offer.  They're quite useful, when used thoughtfully and deliberately.

At the same time, however, Turkle also acknowledges that technology offers a certain allure that is very hard to resist.  In fact, she argues, "we are all vulnerable to the emotional gratifications that our phones offer--and we are neurochemically rewarded when we attend to their constant stimulation" (125-126).

Let's say it again: we're vulnerable.  Devices like smartphones make many things easy--and that's not  a bad thing. 

On the other hand, however, given that we are "wired to crave what neuroscientists call 'the seeking drive'," a drive that is fulfilled by scrolling through apps or a Facebook newsfeed or a Twitter feed, we are at risk when we overindulge in our use of technology or when we use it without recognizing the neurochemical responses it provokes in our brains--the needs it feeds without ever satisfying.

As Turkle points out, many people testify to precisely the misgivings that she is articulating.  Some people have even begun to take action.  They now buy "retro" phones which allow them to talk and text, but which don't allow for the installation of numerous apps.  They set aside "device-free" or "wireless-free" times and locations: instead of being "always on," they deliberately choose to be "occasionally off."

Ultimately, Turkle's advice is simple: remember that your phone isn't an accessory.  It's a "psychologically potent device" that provokes neurochemical stimuli and seems to reward them (albeit temporarily).  So use it with care and with caution, and be aware of what you need it for, and why. 

To the extent that, as Turkle argues, your smartphone "changes not just what you do but who you are" (319), you need to be cognizant of what you want it to do and why, so that you can remain in control of "who you are" and who you want to be.

You probably don't want to be some wrinkled old geezer who sits all alone, staring at a phone.  So stop staring at it all the time: look around and look at other people.  Turn it off, from time to time, and ride out the uneasy feelings that you'll initially experience when you do. 

They'll eventually subside and in their place will come a new set of feelings and connections: ones born of eye contact and conversation and commitment.  

In the end, Turkle's most powerful advice is quite simple: "We don't have to give up our phones, but we have to use them more deliberately.  And sometimes, just as deliberately, we need to take a break" (316).

Sunday, November 15, 2015


This week, I finished reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012).  My best friend recommended it to me about a year ago, actually, so it's been on my list.  I tend to like books about adventure and travel and, as an introvert, I'm always interested in the phenomenon of solitude, so this book was, in many ways, right up my alley.

In 1995, the then-26-year-old Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon--a total of about 1100 miles.  The journey was, in many ways, an effort to reclaim her life and her sense of self.  After the death of her mother, Strayed... well, strayed, actually, into infidelity and drug use, a path that cost her her marriage to a man she loved deeply.

So Strayed's memoir is both a hike-narrative and a reflection on her past.  As the title suggests, it's an attempt to explain how she went from "lost" to "found."

I actually enjoyed the book as I was reading it.  But now that I've finished it and had a couple of days to think about it, I confess, I have a few misgivings.

On the one hand, having completed the book, I've grown increasingly aware that Strayed didn't really spend all that much time describing the Pacific Crest Trail itself.

Yes, there were descriptions of her hikes and her camp sites, and yes, in a few brief instances she offered insight into the historical background of the Trail and a few scenic points along the way.  But if you're looking for a hike-narrative that showcases a narrator who really reflects on the natural world around her and thinks about what she sees and her place in the larger scheme of things, this probably isn't the book for you--it's a bit light on those particular points.

Which leads me to my second misgiving.  Strayed goes from "lost" to "found," perhaps, but the entire trajectory encompasses her ongoing reflections about ... herself.  From beginning to end.  There's no real effort to think about what her words or behavior might look like from the point of view of anyone else (her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, her husband) and as a result, I felt like a lot of the self-reflection pretty quickly degenerated into self-justification.

"Why did I sleep around and ruin my marriage?  I don't know, but I slept around.  I just did."

"Why did I do heroin?  Was I trying to self-destruct?  Maybe.  I'm sure I wasn't an addict, though."

As far as epiphanies and self-awareness go, I've read better.

One reviewer said that if you don't mind listening to a friend complain constantly about his/her own stupidity, you won't mind Strayed's memoir.  While that's a bit harsh, I would agree that the reviewer has a point.

Because I too grew a bit tired of hearing about how, yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to use heroin, but she wasn't addicted... really... and yes, she knew it was "wrong" (maybe?) to cheat on her husband (repeatedly), and she felt absolutely terrible when she confessed all of this too him and it was obvious he loved her and all, BUT...

You see what I mean.  I kept telling myself, "She's young, she's young," but at one point, I got annoyed and answered myself: "YEAH, but she's not THAT young, and this behavior is really kinda self-involved and stupid."

And for me, that was what was missing from the book: a direct acknowledgment of just how self-involved and stupid some of her choices were.  I didn't get the sense that she really came to that level of self-realization by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail--instead, it seemed that the trail served a more cathartic purpose, helping her cope with her mother's death at age 45 from cancer.

As far as the hike itself, a couple of things bothered me.  The first was the repeated references to losing her toenails because her hiking boots were too small. 

Now granted, I get skeeved out when people's toenails fall out, and yes, I know it happens.  But I don't want to hear about it.  I just don't.  I was willing to let it go the first time, but when she kept mentioning it, it seemed a bit juvenile, actually.

To me, it was like the elementary school kid who does the gross thing that makes everyone go "Ewwwww...".  At some point, they're just doing it to make people go "ewww"--to me, that was the only point to the repeated toenail-descriptions.

In all honesty, I don't really know how Strayed managed to hike as far as she did, given the condition of her feet.  It seemed to me that, at some point, continuing on was really kind of senseless, actually.  Because with the exception of one other equally inexperienced hiker, it didn't seem like others on the trail had the extensive foot-issues that she faced.  Probably because they made sure their hiking boots fit before they, you know, went hiking.  For a thousand miles.

Which leads me to the second thing that bothered me about the hike.  Strayed really didn't know what she was doing and she really didn't have any hiking experience.  To spontaneously decide to undertake an 1100-mile hike without really doing any research or learning anything about how to survive beyond what the salespeople at REI tell you, isn't a noble undertaking, in my book.

It's just silly and risky and rather self-centered.

Add to all of this the fact that Strayed comes across as a bit... boy-crazy.  I'm using the teenage language here, because that was really how it came across after a while: she's boy-crazy.

Because every time we rounded a bend on the trail, we seemed to come upon a "stunningly" or "startlingly" handsome man.

At first, I kind of laughed and chalked it up to coincidence, but after about the fifth time it happened, I came to the conclusion that Strayed was probably setting the bar rather low.

Because she contemplated sleeping with several of these guys, within (what seemed like) mere minutes of meeting them.  And at other times, she found herself compelled to fend off a couple of creepy dudes that no woman in her right mind would have chatted with or shared a drink with or whatever.

Suffice to say, I was not amused by her "Gee, it turns out, I'm the prettiest girl on the whole Pacific Crest Trail" routine.  Give it up, sister, and hike.  Just... hike.

So all this to say, by the end, I was getting a little jaded and tired of her... persona. 

In fact, my reaction was, "You know, if I hiked 1100 miles, I'm pretty damn sure I wouldn't encounter this many sexually attractive guys who just happen to all be sexually attracted to me as well.  And I'm quite certain that if my toenails fell off and I couldn't really lift my backpack because it was so heavy and I ran out of water in the desert, I'd be giving myself a serious talking to about getting myself better informed about what I was doing before I went out and tried to do it."

In the end, I was reminded of a comment that Jon Krakauer included in his book Into The Wild, about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless who hiked into the Alaskan wild and ultimately died there.

One of Krakauer's readers commented on an early version of the story: he said that hiking into the wilderness with no awareness of the possible risks and no knowledge of the skills needed to survive  is both selfish and disrespectful.  The reader had no patience with the romanticized idea that one could simply "find" oneself out in the wild:  he speculated that it was nothing short of miraculous when individuals who did such things actually lived to tell the tale.

Strayed was, as she herself admits, one of the lucky ones who did.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


I've been rereading and teaching Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981) this week, and I've been enjoying the chance to return to this novel after many years.  Quite frankly, I'd forgotten how interesting the language, imagery and narrative style are: when I assigned the novel, it was primarily for the historical content.

Kogawa's novel focuses on the relocation and dispersal of Japanese Canadians at the start of World War II.  Similar to the Japanese-American Internment in the United States, in Canada, Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were required to leave their homes on the West Coast and reside in the (more remote) interior of Canada.

Kogawa tells the story of Naomi, a Japanese Canadian who is forced to relocate with her brother, Stephen, her uncle, Isamu, and her aunt--in Japanese, the word for "aunt" is "obasan"--from the city of Vancouver, first to the town of Slocan (540 miles away) and later to Lethbridge, in the province of Alberta (approximately 730 miles from Vancouver).

Naomi is only five years old at the outbreak of World War II; her confusion at the forced relocation is complicated by the fact that, shortly before the outbreak of the war, her mother returns to Japan for what is supposed to be a brief visit to pay her respects to her dying grandmother.  Naomi's mother never returns.

The novel is thus about Naomi's attempt to make sense of what happens--politically, socially, and personally--in the wake of her experiences as a Japanese Canadian in the 1940s.  In particular, Kogawa organizes the novel around the motif of silence: thus, the opening sentences assert,
"There is a silence that cannot speak.
      There is a silence that will not speak."
This distinction between "cannot speak" versus "will not speak" is integral to Kogawa's representation of the Japanese Canadian interment, relocation and dispersal.  Given what happened to Canadian citizens in what was supposed to be a democracy, what should be remembered and retold to future generations?  Is it best to leave the past in silence?  What effect does it have on future generations if the stories of "what happened" remain unspoken?

Kogawa complicates what we might think are easy answers to these questions ("children deserve to know the truth" and "people should be told") by examining the nature of the stories themselves: what happens if the stories that "must" or "should" be told are so horrific or traumatic that the tellers themselves are reduced to silence?  What if they will not speak, simply because they cannot?

Kogawa uses the natural imagery of tides and stone as a way of reflecting on the nature of change and the unyielding resistance that is required for survival in the wake of the attitude and events that Japanese Canadians experience at the outbreak of World War II.  Naomi's uncle Isamu thus makes "stone bread"--a substance that Naomi and Stephen refuse and/or find themselves unable to eat.  Reduced to eking out a living from the bare minimum of subsistence, Isamu learns to bake a bread that, although hard as a rock, nevertheless provides the necessary nourishment.

In the end, this is the essence of Kogawa's text: a reflection on what it means to survive, to endure and to hope in the face of virulent racism, political persecution, and the loss of nearly everything that one loves and values.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Only the Lonely

This week, I read an interview with John Cacioppo (published in September 2012).  Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

Cacioppo works in the field of social neuroscience: basically, he's interested in what happens within and to our brains when we interact with the world around us.  In particular, Cacioppo became interested in what happens to the human brain when it doesn't interact with others--even though it might really, really want to. 

In short, Cacioppo analyzes the phenomenon of human loneliness.

I find his research really interesting because, as an introvert, I'm often perplexed by the fact that I generally don't seem to feel lonely in the same way that other people do. 

In fact, friends have pointed this feature of my personality out to me on more than one occasion: after a breakup with a significant other, one of my good friends commented, "Well, if he thinks he's going to stop by and get an ego boost because you're alone now, he's definitely barking up the wrong tree.  I honestly think you prefer to be alone."

When I worried that perhaps I made people feel that they were being troublesome or unwelcome in my home, my friend quickly clarified.  Apparently, I do very much enjoy the company of my friends and I'm very welcoming and inviting and clearly miss them when they're gone, but... I don't "need" people in my life, I "want" them in my life.  And this distinction is very clear in my day-to-day lifestyle.

Cacioppo's research investigated the threshold of loneliness and identified that the difference between an introvert and an extrovert can be mathematically noted.  Extroverts seem to need approximately three friends to feel connected, while introverts need only one.

Cacioppo's research has also demonstrated that loneliness is just as bad for human health as smoking and even worse than obesity because it seems to stem from neurobiological factors.  According to Cacioppo,
Lonely people are often completely unaware that their brain has gone on alert. An isolated rat put in an open field will walk around the walls and avoid the middle, which is called predator evasion. We find lonely people are hypersensitive to social threats.
This may also explain why, once people find "Lonely Street," they have a hard time relocating.  Because they don't realize that they are, in Cacioppo's words, "hypervigilant for social threats," they go through life in "self-protection mode."

If a lonely person interacts with someone whose behavior is "ambiguous" (i.e., they're not feeling the social love), the lonely person will tend to respond to that behavior as if it is a potential threat.  In effect, they will engage in a form of "predator evasion" that will result in two things: a high level of cortisol (the stress hormone) and a continued state of loneliness.

So what's the cure for loneliness?  Perhaps not surprisingly, it isn't simply finding another--or "the right"-- person since, chances are, a lonely person's default social setting will be to respond to others as potential social threats, regardless.

As Cacioppo points out, "much of what happens in loneliness is not conscious. Lonely people don’t know it, but they lose the ability to control their impulses, which also happens in isolated nonhuman animals. It really is a brain state."

The cure, then, is to gain greater awareness of one's own state of mind when lonely--to pay attention to how and why one responds to or interacts with others in particular ways.  Because, as research has shown, the issue isn't really one of quantity, it's a question of quality.  Cacioppo notes,
what’s important is having friends on whom you can count. Popular people and billionaires have more than enough friends, but they can be very lonely because they can’t trust anyone. 
Similarly, social networking sites, while better than nothing, are not entirely helpful if you're not using them to "leverage face-to-face interactions" but instead looking to things like Facebook or Twitter as a "substitute" for face-to-face encounters.  (Introverts often acknowledge that they prefer social networking precisely because it avoids the pressure of face-to-face interaction, but my guess is that this works for them because their inherent threshold for experiencing loneliness is higher.)

In the end, the key to alleviating loneliness seems to be a greater self-awareness in the face of one's personal interactions with others.  Through this increased self-awareness, Cacioppo suggests, an individual can experience a greater sense of control over the periods of isolation in his/her life.

Along with that self-awareness comes a willingness to perceive social interactions in a spirit of "fair competition" (to remember that others who are critical of you are often the ones who challenge you to become better or more successful) and positive interaction. 

Good times make for good friends, and this investment can prove to be a powerful inoculation against loneliness.   

Friday, October 16, 2015

Tis the Season

Don't worry: unlike Lowes, I'm not talking about Christmas at this point.  I mean my Birthday Season.

And so far, it's been delightful.  A nice mix of work and play (which is harden to attain than you might think).

On Monday, I went on a 7-mile hike, which was just the ticket because it meant that on Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt quite content with the idea of sitting at my computer and churning out a research proposal.  Which I did, and I'd like to think that because I had such a nice day off, I did a good job.

I've been swimming and biking and lamenting the fact that, in a few short weeks, it will probably be too cold to bike anymore.  Actually, given the weather forecast, I think it's going to be too cold to bike this weekend, in fact. 

I just finished reading Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan's book, Buried in the Sky (2012).  As the subtitle--which I didn't include here, because really, it's too long, guys--indicates, it's about the Sherpa climbers who were involved in the avalanche disaster on K2 in August, 2008.  Because typically, no one mentions the Sherpas involved in mountaineering--the focus is always on the western climbers.

One of the co-authors of the book was good friends with one of the Sherpa climbers who was killed, so she wanted to right that wrong and bring some attention to the lives and roles that they play in international mountaineering adventures. 

Unlike so many of the books that focus solely on the mountain itself--whether it's K2 or Everest--Zuckerman and Padoan look at the sociological and political context for the sport of mountaineering in Pakistan and the Karakorum mountains (where K2 is located).

And while I'm on the subject of good books, I don't think I mentioned--because I've been so remiss about blogging for the past month--that I went on a bit of a Neil Gaiman bender (seriously, I was slightly woozy at the end of 48 hours) and read Coraline (2002) and Neverwhere (1996). 

I loved them.  They were just so different and so imaginative--they appealed to the side of me that really likes gothic literature, I think.  And of course Gaiman's dark humor, in Neverwhere in particular, was always a treat.

I like the idea of an alternative world in Neverwhere so much that I'm hoping to maybe write about it at some point--the idea of situating a world underneath the city of London, in the networks of the sewers, is fascinating to me.

Which brings me to the other book I'm reading right now: Lee Jackson's Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (2014).  It's about all of the various ways in which the Victorians had to cope with the... filth... of London.  So each chapter is organized around something kinda disgusting: dust (i.e., ashes), poop (aka "night soil"), soot, fog--well, you get the picture.

It's really interesting, actually.  (I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not like the other girls.)

So as you can no doubt tell, it's shaped up to be a very nice birthday season with lots of reading and knitting and writing.  But rather than leave you with images of night soil and London filth, I'll finish with one final pic from my day off.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Made It (Mostly)

In a few short hours, it will be fall break.  Or, as I like to think of it, the official kick-off of my Birthday Season.

Unlike many, I enjoy celebrating a birthday.  A friend of mine once told me about a friend of his who celebrated, not just a birthday, but an entire "Birthday Season."

This meant that, at any time during the 4-6 weeks up to and after his birthday, he could celebrate-- on the pretext that it was his birthday.  It was the notion of a "Holiday Season" taken to its logical conclusion.

Needless to say, I loved this idea.  So, Birthday Season, here I come.

The Season can't arrive a minute too soon, because this week has offered very little to celebrate (except the fact that I got the first batch of papers graded).

On Tuesday night, I was barreling down the highway at a... brisk rate of speed... and I hit some kind of thing in the road.  It was outta nowhere, and there was just no avoiding it. 

Long story short, it blew the tire on the driver's side.

So there I was, facing my nightmare: alone and stuck on the side of the interstate at 10:30 p.m.

But it turned out okay: got a cop, then a tow truck to move the car somewhere the tire could be safely changed (no, I didn't do it myself--if I'm already paying for the tow, why would I?), had a nice new spare, all was quickly good again.

Except that we needed to put air in the tire.  But even this seemed like it would work out well, because a gas station with an air pump was only about 500 feet away.

Except that the pump didn't work.

Still, no problem, the tow-guy knew another place only about a mile or so away, and the tire was okay to drive on that distance.  Off we went.

That pump didn't work.

At this point, the only option was to put the car back on the flatbed and find a place with a reliable air pump.  To do this, we had to drive south for a bit.

Did I mention I was traveling north?  Yeah, I was.  So, we back-tracked.

As I pointed out to the tow-guy, this meant that I was going to get the chance to go back over the spot where I hit the piece of crap that totaled my tire.  Maybe I could hit it again.

I also pointed out, during a brief lull in the conversation, "I can't believe we're driving around looking for air right now."

He was good natured and good-humored, and I must say, I never expected to be quite so happy at the sight of a fully functioning air pump in my life.  That Shell gas station had a slightly heavenly aura around it, if I do say so myself.  But by that time, I was getting pretty tired, so I may have been hallucinating.

But as Shakespeare and I always say, "All's well that ends well."  I got in at 1:00 a.m., about 2 hours after my previous ETA, but I made it.

And in a few short hours, I will have really made it.  Let the celebration begin.

Friday, September 25, 2015


I've been on a bunch of binges lately.

First, there was the reading-binge.  I spent a solid 48 hours reading Neil Gaiman.  I started with Coraline (2002) and then moved on to Neverwhere (2003).  I loved both of them.  They were just so weird and different, it was downright wonderful. 

While I was reading them, I concurrently embarked on a knitting binge.  I've been knitting for over 30 years of my life, so yes, I can knit without looking.  It isn't really that hard, once you're a seasoned knitter: you just need to get up the nerve and take the plunge and stop looking and just... knit.

So, I worked on knitting a scarf while reading and, strange to say, it turned out that the color of the scarf kind of matched the plot of the novels.  Dark and moody.  That doesn't usually happen, but suffice to say, I now think of the scarf as my "Neverwhere" scarf (and not because I'll never wear it).

I've been on an exercise binge.  I swam a mile yesterday, and then took an adventurous bike ride today that didn't really pan out as well as I had hoped.

I was hoping for some really nice views and a relaxing ride of about 25 miles.  I ended up with very bumpy roads and hills with long inclines and traffic and a couple of missed turns that ended up leading me onto even bumpier roads.

Plus, the view deteriorated the further I went, and I didn't want to go further in the hopes that it would get better, in case it didn't, because I already knew that on the return trip, the view would be basically not that great for at least half of the trip.  So I only went 15 miles and then I turned around.

The thing was, the view at the park where I started was actually quite nice, so when I returned, I took out a little beach chair and--you guessed it--knit for a bit.  So all's well that ended well, on that front.

I've also been on a soup and bread-making binge.  I keep making soup.  Soup, soup, soup.  I think it has something to do with it being the first day of autumn this week.  And I think the bread-making is simply following in the wake of the soup-making, because really, what's a nice soup without some nice bread?

I made two loaves (a binge, like I said) of oatmeal honey bread.  And I have to say, given that I have a house full of homemade jam from this summer, homemade bread seems to be the only sensible way to go.

Because homemade jam without homemade bread is just nonsense, and I won't stand for it.

I've also been getting--or getting set to get--a million and one little household tasks done before autumn sets in.    The down side of this is that it seems to take all day to do this, so I'm not getting as much writing done as I'd like.

But I'm hoping that this weekend can maybe mark a turnaround on that front.  Because in a few days, I'll have grading to do.  Yes, the semester's officially underway, and we're about to be in it

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"After A While"

I came upon this poem today.   I really like the wisdom and the perspective that it offers on relationships, so I'm sharing it here.

After A While

After a while you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn
that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t always mean security.
And you begin to learn
that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of woman,
not the grief of a child
and you learn
to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is
too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down
in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn…
~ Veronica A. Shoffstall (1971)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tuning In

I happened upon a couple of articles this morning that I found worth considering (this seems to be happening less and less, in my world).

The first, despite what I consider to be the overly heavy cheese-factor of its language--witness the title ("undeniably magnetic") and sentences like "People will feel you because you are feeling yourself"--offers some interesting points about what it is that makes for strong, supportive social interactions.

Introverts often struggle with social situations and with building relationships, but as Gabiola suggests, there is an inherent attractiveness in qualities such as quiet strength and grounded self-knowledge.  As she points out, it is possible to be "quiet and fierce."

When you know who you are, you can see people for who they are.  In a sense, by being tuned into yourself, you can, when you interact with others, tune into who they are and see them for what they are, without a lot of the noise and worry and distraction. 

The article I found a bit more compelling, however, is Brianna Wiest's summary of "10 Things Emotionally Intelligent People Do Not Do."

As Wiest points out, we spend a lot of time focusing on logic and reason as components of human intelligence, but undervalue the way in which emotions function in our day-to-day lives and decision-making processes.

"Emotionally intelligent" people--that is, people who "have the capacity to be aware of what they feel"--avoid falling into this trap.  They recognize that emotion, although subjective, is an integral component of any human relationship or interaction.

Thus, Wiest argues, they acknowledge the extent to which their emotions are responses, not realities.  They face an objective situation and they feel how they feel in response to it.

At the same time, however, they accept that--as psychologists will tell you--"feelings are not facts."

That doesn't mean, though, that feelings don't matter.  It means that something about the situation is triggering an emotional response.  If, for instance, you come home at the end of a long work day and think, "No one wanted to have lunch with me today.  I think everyone hates me," then you are responding emotionally to a reality.

No one wanted to have lunch with you today.  As a result, you feel like everyone hates you.

That doesn't mean they do.  It just means no one was able to have lunch with you today.  And you feel the way you feel, perhaps because you're tired and overworked and lonely and missing a friend who recently moved away.  Or any number of other realities.

Emotionally intelligent people manage to gain a measure of control over such responses, however, because they realize that their emotions are internal, not externally driven.  It isn't really about whether or not people would have lunch with you; it's about how you feel inside right now.

Because the fact of the matter is, if your internal barometer is low, all the lunches in the world with all the most wonderful people in the world won't really make you feel any better.

Which leads, in turn, to yet another capacity of emotionally intelligent people: they don't assume they know what will make them happy.

At first glance, this seems odd.  How can you be happy if you don't know what will make you happy?

Well, because the fact is, you don't know what will make you happy: you only know what you think should make you happy and you know what has made you happy or unhappy in the past.  A tendency to confront the future as a way of making up for--and remedying--the mistakes of the past or as a way of replicating previous moments of happiness closes you off to the fact that the future is always potentially quite different from the past.

As Wiest points out, "there are equal parts good and bad in anything."  In effect, emotionally intelligent people live with that, instead of framing experiences in terms of an all-or-nothing notion of "happiness."

Because emotionally intelligent people also realize that happiness is a choice that you can't always make, that being fearful is a natural reaction to change, and that having bad feelings doesn't mean you have a bad life. 

This is a point I've seen a lot of people stumble over: they think they have to be happy all the time, and if they aren't, it means they aren't happy and life isn't... good. 

I often wonder, "How happy do these people think the rest of us are, on any given day?"  I think the pharmaceutical industry has led them to believe that we're all just constant sunshine and roses and songbirds inside, and if you don't feel similarly, there's something wrong with you.

Personally, I think that, if this were the case, there would be no art.

Because, as Wiest points out "infallible composure is not emotional intelligence."  The emotionally intelligent don't suppress emotion; they work on managing it effectively.  And they screw up on that sometimes--as everyone does--and they know that this too is okay.

Because in the same vein, they realize, "I decide." That is, "They don't allow their thoughts to be chosen for them."

"You need to not be so sensitive...", "you need to calm down...", "you need to lighten up and learn how to take a joke..." 

Well, yes, maybe you do need to do all of those things.  But that's for you to decide, since these are your thoughts.  Maybe the person who's telling you these things is doing things that are insensitive or annoying or not funny.  Maybe this is a good person who's just being a total pain in the ass right now.

If so, you DO have the right to think, "Wow.  You are a serious pain in my ass right now."  And behave accordingly.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that "feelings don't kill."  

Feelings just happen.  Emotionally intelligent people know this, and they don't label those feelings "good" or "bad," they just accept that, right now, this is what's happening.

Which leads to one of Wiest's final points--and one of the most compelling, I think: emotionally intelligent people "don't just become close friends with anyone."

Trust and openness are slowly and steadily built over the course of a friendship or relationship.  They aren't automatic or instantaneous.  They can be damaged by words and actions and they can erode, over time, if they aren't maintained. 

When someone proves to be untrustworthy, that's a sign that maybe that person shouldn't be a close friend.  And if they already are, maybe they shouldn't be.

Because emotionally intelligent people recognize the nature and influence of feelings on their own lives and happiness, they acknowledge that this kind of situation isn't the end of the world because how they're feeling isn't reality itself.  It's a feeling.  It will change.

Ultimately, I think emotionally intelligent people realize that happy, stable lives are the product of a lot of constant balancing and decision-making in the here-and-now.

Sometimes the scales dip one way or the other, but in the end... that's life. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Station Eleven"

I'm participating in a panel discussion of Emily St. John Mandel's novel, Station Eleven (2014) on Tuesday, so I thought I'd blog about it as a way of thinking through what I have to say about it.

Typically, I have a gut reaction to a text, so I often start from there and then try to figure out why I feel that way.  In the case of Mandel's novel, I found myself thinking "More plague, less apocalypse, please."

Now, this may simply be a measure of my own personal literary preferences.  I'm not keen on "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" or dystopian literature in general.  I HATED Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example.  Couldn't even finish it.  And NO, I'm not linking to it here in my blog either.  I just big, fat, friggin' didn't CARE what happened to anyone in that novel. 

For the record, if, while reading a novel, I find myself tipping over sideways on my couch, closing my eyes and shouting, "Oh my GOD, give me a BREAK!!!" that is a sign that I really don't like the novel.  This happened TWICE while reading The Road.  I have never read another word McCarthy has written.  Sorry, no.  Can't do it.

So as I found myself thinking "more plague, less apocalypse," I tried to figure out what I meant by that.  And I think it's this: is Mandel's plague supposed to be "realistic," or is it supposed to be allegorical?

For example, in The Plague by Albert Camus or Boccaccio's Decameron or Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year or Jose Saramago's Blindness, there are descriptions of an actual plague, but in many ways, the idea of the plague itself is transformed into a larger concept.  It's a vehicle for thinking about the meaning of art and life, for example.

I think this was what Mandel was going for, but I'm not totally sure.  But I want to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one, because I have to say that, if her plague was meant to be "realistic" in any way, I was not at all convinced.

At the start of the novel, a pandemic of "Georgian Flu" sweeps across the globe, wiping out 99% of the human population.

I had two reactions to this: first, stop blaming everything on Russia and Central Eurasia.  Second, why invent a "new flu," when there are all kinds of longstanding diseases out there that could easily reach pandemic proportions and wipe out over 90% of the population?

Did it HAVE to be 99%?  Would 95% have been just as good?  That was my thought about this element of the novel, and I confess, I started to feel like I needed to just let it go, because I was being a bit of a pill about it.

That said, though, I think I got hung up on it because without a convincing plague, the emotional impact of the text is diminished.  And it seemed to me that Mandel really skirted the issue of the symptoms of this plague in order to focus on the post-apocalyptic outcome.

I don't mean to be a nudnik about this, but the thing is, if all I'm gonna have is a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms that will last for--at most--48 hours and then I'm gonna just... croak, basically, well, then, that's not so scary to me, really, particularly if I'm going to be feverish and hallucinating for the last 24 hours of that time.

The symptoms of things like smallpox and cholera and ebola and bubonic plague--now, to me, those are scary.  You don't just die: you suffer and THEN die.  So I started having a weird suspicion that Mandel wanted people to be frightened by the idea of a plague, but not too frightened, if you get my drift.  And I felt like that was kind of a cop-out.

To me, that was also what happened in her depiction of "The Prophet."  There was a lot of build up, and then... it was over.  With a lot of things left unexplained and unresolved, and conveniently, everyone who could explain or resolve them was quickly dead.  So... oh well!

I don't like when novels do that.  If you paint yourself into a literary corner, you need to figure out how you're going to get us out of there.

I guess, ultimately, I found myself wishing that Mandel had narrowed her scope a bit, maybe, and done a bit more research.  Because again, personally, I find it VERY hard to believe that humans suddenly lost all ability to figure out and reinstate things like electricity and running water and radios and airplanes.

I get that the human population died off and that the remaining humans had to do what they could to survive, but the knowledge was still there and all it would take was a willingness to find it and use it.  This was what I found myself thinking throughout the novel, and oddly enough, at the end, Mandel herself suggests that this is in fact possible and plausible and may be happening.

But if that's the case, then I sort of feel like I was subjected to an emotional bait-and-switch: you seemed to be saying that the world as we knew it "ended," and would never return, but then, maybe... it can!

Which is it?

I think Mandel wanted to end on a more positive note than the rest of the novel struck, and I think that's understandable--most plague narratives do end with the end of the plague and a restoration of normality.  But they don't undercut the overall existential significance of the situation they've just spent hundreds of pages describing--and this is what I felt that Mandel does, actually.

What I found interesting in Mandel's novel, however, is the way in which she incorporated the intertextual references to Shakespeare--this is something that, if there were world enough and time, I wouldn't mind teasing out a bit further.

I liked the character of Miranda in particular, and I kept wishing I had a better working knowledge of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," so I could pick up on the interconnections between the two works.  Because in Shakespeare's play, Miranda is an innocent pawn and an essential optimist.

So I thought that it was interesting that it is Miranda who is the author of the "Station Eleven" comics that play such a key role in Mandel's text.

Similarly, I think it would be interesting to think about the way that Mandel's novel is tracing out issues of generational succession by organizing so much of the text around a famous actor who plays King Lear.  Lear is all about self-aggrandizement and an inability to see the very clear (and very disastrous) future that one is creating with each (foolish) step or decision one takes and makes.  I think this resonates with the larger idea of the plague that Mandel is using, and I think it is interesting that she interweaves this idea with Shakespeare's repeated use of "another world" or a fairy-tale dream world in "The Tempest"and "Midsummer Night's Dream."

I haven't said a lot about Kirsten Raymonde, the novel's central protagonist, because quite frankly, I found her a bit disappointing.  I felt like I was sorta trapped in a cross between The Road and The Hunger Games while reading the episodes that dealt with her life.  Kirsten Raymonde struck me as Katniss Everdeen on The Road.

On the one hand, she has clearly been traumatized by the apocalypse because of her year of living on the road (hello, Cormac McCarthy), but... she can't remember any of it.

So... we... I... just... yeah, okay, I don't get it.  You imply trauma (in the form of rape and desperation and survivalist killing), but then basically dodge the implications of this for the character by repeatedly telling us, "she can't remember!"

So, why tell us?    Again, it felt like emotional bait-and-switch to me.  You're drawing me in with a premise, and then shoving it aside with no additional explanation or development.

Similarly, at the end of the novel, there's a sudden implication of ... ghosts.  Wait, what?  Now, 30 pages from the end, I'm getting... ghosts?  I would have preferred to see this motif earlier and more often, actually--I think it would have worked with the other motifs Mandel was employing.

My overall evaluation of Station Eleven?  It was okay: I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it.  I don't know that I'd really recommend it to anyone, but at the same time, I do think that, if you're drawn to post-apocalyptic literature, there are worse texts you could be reading, and Mandel's novel does do some interesting things and raise interesting ideas.

I just wish she had done more with them.  As I said, I would have preferred a narrower scope and greater attention to detail.  But that's just me, obviously.  And for the record, Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award, so there are many, many people out there who would disagree with me on many of the points I've raised.

Friday, September 11, 2015


After being ill for so much of July, I really thought that August would be my month to get back on track.  But over Labor Day weekend, I decided I needed to face facts: I was officially discombobulated.

Although my health was doing much (much!) better, I was still having trouble focusing and moving forward on the things I needed to get done.  I tried to ignore it and think that it was just the end-of-summer pile-up, and in some ways, it was, but in other ways, it wasn't.

So I decided that I needed to get "recombobulated."  No, that's probably not a word.  But the good news is, it doesn't have to be.

Because regardless of what the name was for what I decided, it worked.  I'm back on track.  I'm working my way, slowly and steadily, through the pile of stuff I wanted or needed to get done, and life is feeling pretty good. 

So I guess that means I finally managed to recalibrate my brain and my life and my body so that things are in sync.  (It's about time.)

Today, I got a nice swim in and then did a marathon session of running errands.  We're talking 5 hours here, people.  That got me caught up, so that next week, I can focus on the home maintenance issues that need to be faced before the fall sets in.

Lest you think the errands were totally unenjoyable, I'll post this pic:

Because yes, I went apple-picking.  I'm thinking that this weekend, there just might be time to make a batch of apple-carrot muffins: fresh apples, and fresh carrots from the garden, so... it sounds like it was meant to be.

In the meantime, I'm basking in the feeling of being back on track.  I got a bit of writing done this week, and I've been able to focus on reading and I'm nearly caught up with that. 

The good news is, this means I'll FINALLY have a few new ideas and things to post about, instead of just occasional updates about my so-called "life."  (Like the fact that I finally finished a sock this morning--those kind of updates.) 

It's a good feeling: reaching a Friday and feeling like you've reclaimed yourself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Gone, Gone, Gone"

Life has such strange starts and stops; it always seems to unfold in waves of good and bad.

I say this because I have several friends right now who are struggling, and I'm remembering my own struggles and how much my friends helped me during those times.

This song makes me think of them.  

You're my back bone.
You're my cornerstone.
You're my crutch when my legs stop moving.
You're my head start.
You're my rugged heart.
You're the pulse that I've always needed.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum my heart never stops beating...

For you, for you.
Baby, I'm not moving on.
I'll love you long after you're gone.
For you, for you.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Harvest Time

I honestly don't know where the weeks are going.  I wanted to know, so I looked back at my photos, and this is what I found:

Then there was this:

Yes, it's harvest time.  And back-to-school time.  Next week is the first full week of classes. 

It's also the start of apple-picking season, in case you were wondering about that.

Meanwhile, I'm reading and getting back into the swing of writing--just not on the blog, unfortunately.  But I'm going to see if I can change that.  Just as soon as I finish these socks.

Because yes, it's gotten to a point where I have THREE DIFFERENT pairs of socks underway and on the needles.  This may be a sign that I have some kind of psychological sock problem.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that it is.  And yet, I don't care.

The final image of the post: some balsam plants that I grew for the first time this year.  It's an interesting plant and flower, I think.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


I can't believe that I actually let 2 whole weeks go by without blogging once, and I can't believe that next week, classes start, which means that the summer is essentially all but over.

The good news is, I've been away from the blog having fun with friends.  This involved things like going to the beach, bowling, eating multiple servings of pizza and ice cream across intervals of less than 24 hours, flying a kite, and seeing important, ground-breaking films like "Inside Out" and "Ant-Man" and "Home" and then discussing their relative merits and citing lines from the films whenever applicable.

Suffice to say, I now live for the day when I can say "Curse your tippy-toed tallness!!" and mean it.

There were some less than stellar moments, of course.  Like the 16 hours of driving it took to accomplish an 8-hour round trip.

I mean, really.  At some point, everyone else just needed to get OFF THE ROAD and let me through.  I actually shrieked this out loud somewhere around about Hour #12, but my windows were up so I don't think anyone actually heard me.

All I know is that it did nothing to help with the traffic.

We also encountered an odd personality at the beach.  There was a woman in charge of the ladies' restroom.  I'd never seen such a thing before, and I'm quite certain I've never seen this particular woman before.  I'd have remembered her.

Let's just say, I walked away wondering if her position was paid for with state funds and thinking that maybe a letter requesting that this funding be cut wouldn't be a bad idea.

Without getting too... earthy... in my descriptions, I will simply say that I went into the bathroom stall for the usual reason that people enter a bathroom stall and when I did, I decided that it was also an opportune time to get the seaweed--and, more importantly, the bugs that live on the seaweed--out of my bathing suit.

So I hung it on the hook on the door.

No sooner had I done this than a little MOP began to be shoved under the stall door, in what can only be described as a very passive aggressive gesture.

Because yes, my bathing suit was dripping.  Did I mention I was at the beach?  There's water there.  Quite a lot of it, actually.  (I suspect this is why there are drains on the bathroom floor every 2 feet or so.)

I decided to simply ignore the mop and focus on the task at hand.

As I tried to do so, however, an angry little voice said, "I don't know WHO's in there with the DRIPPING bathing suit, but these stalls are NOT for changing."

I paused and reflected on this announcement with a fair measure of bewilderment.  And then I simply said, "Okay."

Because the fact of the matter was, I was NOT changing in the bathroom stall, and when I emerged, that would become quite clear.

I do wish you could all have seen the look on the woman's face when I exited the stall.  Because yes, she had positioned herself so that she could accost me a second time about following the rules of her rest area.

As I gave her a steady gaze of self-righteous vindication, she announced: "You can't be in those stalls if your bathing suit is TOO WET.  You need to either use the shower stalls or wrap up in a towel."

I confess, I'm proud of myself.  I didn't say, "Soooo... you're saying people need to pee in the showers if their bathing suits are too wet?  How do we know what's considered 'too wet'?  What if my towel is also 'too wet'?  How can I relieve nature's call and still abide by your bathroom code of conduct?"

What I did say, however, is something I've learned to use in such situations: "I'm sorry if I've upset you."

The nice thing about this phrase is, unreasonable people will generally assume that this is an apology.  In fact, however, it's my pleasant little way of acknowledging to the universe at large that I think that maybe you're slightly insane and there's nothing I can really do about that."

(Sidebar: The down side to this is that when friends of my own say, "I'm sorry if I've upset you," I tend to read this as them telling ME they think I'M slightly insane and there's nothing they can do about that and I get rather offended.  Which may or may not ultimately reinforce their original point.)

With the Bathroom Nazi, though, the phrase had the desired effect.  She smiled and said, "It's okay--you didn't know."

At this point, I cheerfully acknowledged, "It's true, I didn't!"

Needless to say, she loved this.  She took her little mop and went back to her little chair by the doorway confident that she had managed to educate an ignorant, drippy little beach-goer.  Her work was finished.

Or so she thought.  Because later in the day, I will confess: I took a shower in one of the stalls and, when I finished, I slipped behind her back into a bathroom stall and let my bathing suit drip and drip and DRIP.

And then I stepped over the resulting puddle and went on my merry way, enjoying these last few wonderful weeks of a summer that has gone by much too quickly.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Savoring the Summer

I can't believe how fast the summer is going or the fact that it's been almost TWO WEEKS since I last blogged!!

Meanwhile, I have company coming for a visit next week, so I need to get cracking.

So what have I been doing?  A few stints at the beach.  A whole bunch of bike rides.  Several swims.  A few nice lunches out.   I think I'm fast realizing that the summer will soon be over, and I want to make sure I spend as much time outdoors as I possibly can.

That said, I've been reading Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart (1943), his memoir about his experiences as a Filipino migrant worker in California and the West in the 1920's and 30's.

I also found a lot of food for thought in Robert Taibbi's essay, "The Relationship Triangle."  Taibbi bases his work on Stephen Karpman's concept of the "Drama Triangle," and the extrapolates from that premise to consider its role in adult relationships in general.

As a reforming (or recovering?) "Rescuer," I liked the fact that this essay offers a great ego-check.  Because I think that often, Rescuers do tend to delude themselves into thinking that playing the Rescuer role somehow proves that they are a "good" person.

They may very well be.  Odds are, though, that, like all of us, they're a mixed bag.  Some good motives, definitely, but some sketchy ones in there as well.  

The point is, I think Rescuing is a role that is easily entangled with a sense of one's moral values, and as a result, trying to escape from it (or simply stop playing it in general) often carries a very large sense of guilt.

Rescuers are particularly prone to succumbing to emotional sabotage in the form of claims that they are being "mean."  And while people may say, "Well, but that's just silly, you have to take care of yourself, obviously!", to a Rescuer it is in no way obvious that this is the case.

As Taibbi's essay points out, Rescuers are created in childhood, and their behavior is the result of years of a kind of conditioning that repeatedly insists that 1) their own feelings aren't really valid, and 2) that "caring" about someone means putting the other person's needs ahead of their own, even if that person's needs are unreasonable or overwhelming or downright crippling.

I like Taibbi's point about how, in a sense, rescuing enables to Rescuer to "fix his own anxiety" by focusing on someone else's problems instead of looking inward. 

Because really, for most people, looking inward really isn't always all it's cracked up to be.

One of the things I've personally found particularly helpful is, when confronted with the potential to play the Rescuer, to recontextualize the situation as if it were unfolding between myself and one of my friends who don't "require" rescuing, even when their lives are in turmoil or disarray.

Because the fact of the matter is, Rescuers don't typically rescue absolutely everybody.  They just have a particularly demanding cohort of friends or family who tap into their tendency and use it to keep the Drama Triangle up and running.  

Put simply, I think it's helpful for Rescuers to imagine the interaction unfolding as if they won't be compelled to adopt a Rescuer role: what would they say about what they want or how they feel under those circumstances?

The point being, Rescuers have to regularly remind themselves that there are contexts in which being "the strong one," the one who "fixes everything," the one who always "shoulders the burden," and behaves as if s/he is impervious and invulnerable isn't the norm and isn't what is (by default) expected of them. 

And when it isn't what is expected of them, things turn out just fine for everyone.  Funny thing, that.

In those moments, a Rescuer can begin to realize, "Well, now, wait a minute: with Person X I can say and do Y and they don't think I'm 'mean' at all.  They don't even bat an eye about it, actually.  But with Person Q, it's always about how 'mean' I am when I try to say 'no,' even though I always try to say it as kindly as I possibly can...". 

As Taibbi points out, the key to stepping out of the Drama Triangle and its dynamics is to recognize the roles that you are playing and the assumptions that you are making about what "has" to happen in your interactions with others that end up keeping you locked into it.  

One way of becoming more aware is to strategically remember the times and situations in which you play a very different role and then consider what would happen if you transposed those behaviors and exchanges onto the currently-unfolding Rescuer dilemma.

It may not cause the Drama Triangle to collapse, but it will make its trajectory and the lines of energy between all of the players much clearer.  And with that clarity will come, I think, a better sense of what works best for oneself.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer Harvest

Okay, so last week went about as well as could be expected, what with a doctor's appointment and a medical issue.

But the good news is, by Wednesday night, things started to turn around--probably because a friend stopped by on short notice and we went out for pizza--and by the weekend I was back in the pool and back on the bike and back to being myself.

Because I confess, at one point during the whole... whatever that was... I started to think, "Am I just being a lazy wimp?  Do I just need to pull it together and cut the crap and stop whining and get cracking?"

In a word, no.  Now that I'm back to feeling like myself, I can definitely say, I was not feeling like myself there for a couple of weeks.  Funny how, once the tide turns, you start to think, "Okay, yes... this is what it normally feels like to be me... I can get stuff done if I feel like this...".

But one of the good things that did happen last week was the garden took off a bit, because we had a bit of a heat-wave.

I hardly dare say this for fear I will jinx it, but the tomatoes actually have appeared.  See?

I really don't want to say too much about them because, again, the jinx, but the top pic is of Polish linguisa and the bottom is of a charmingly-named variety called "Mr. Stripey."  (Who could resist that?)  Both are heirlooms.

Meanwhile, it's going to be Round Three for pesto-making this week (I've begun giving it away, I have so much of it):

The heat wave wreaked a bit of havoc with the cucumbers though.  Too much sun and it was simply impossible to give them enough water to handle it.  So I lost a couple of those, but there is this wee gherkin of hope:

The broccoli is, in a word, bitchin':

And I've been having regular helpings of kale for the past week.

This week, there will be carrots on the menu as well.

My neighbor dropped by and we chatted.  She asked me what this particular flower was, and I sagely told her, "I have absolutely no idea.  Obviously some kind of lily."

The story behind this startling feature of my garden: one year, I ordered a bunch of things from a garden supply company.  As a "bonus," I got a "free bulb."  (Yes, just one.)

So it arrived, in a little plastic bag, with absolutely no indication of what it was or how it should be planted or cared for.

So I said, "Good luck, Bulb!" and planted it.  For the past two years, this has been the result.  It smells amazing, and if you saw the stem, you'd say it looks like it belongs in a rain forest.  Apparently, I planted in the absolutely perfect spot.  It's an odd feature of my garden, what with there being just the one, but what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

And I must say, it's so dramatic, if I had several, my garden might start to look like Land of the Lost or something.

So all this to say, in the end, there were some good things about last week after all.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Unbeliever

“People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” -- Albert Camus (Stockholm, 1957) 

Earlier this week, I had the chance to reread 20th-century French novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus' lecture, "The Unbeliever and Christians" (if you click on the link, you can read the lecture). 

In 1948, Camus was invited to speak at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  While this might not seem all that surprising, given that he was by that time a very famous novelist and philosopher, it is somewhat surprising given the fact that Camus was an outspoken atheist.

In fact, Camus' atheism is the cornerstone of all of his writing and philosophy.

So let's pause a moment and take this in: in 1948, a monastery of priests in (at that time, predominantly and devoutly Catholic) France wanted Camus, an atheist, to come talk to them for a bit.  (In his November 6, 2013 essay, "A Secular Saint," Jason Berry notes the enormous influence that Camus' thought and writing has had on many people of faith, including Sister Helen Prejean.)

Camus' lecture "The Unbeliever and Christians" is one of my favorite, not simply because of its content, but because of the way in which Camus negotiates the terms of his intellectual exchange with the priests who have invited him to lecture:
"Inasmuch as you have been so kind as to invite a man who does not share your convictions to come and answer the very general question that you are raising... I should like first to acknowledge your intellectual generosity by stating a few principles."
Camus thus begins by acknowledging the intellectual kindness and generosity implicit in a willingness to open a dialogue with someone when you know for a fact that s/he does not--and will not--share your beliefs.

This is typical of Camus' approach.  In his conception of debate, profound intellectual disagreement never negates the need for kindness and respect--for the recognition of generosity and the claims of hospitality.

I think we live in a world that all-too-readily glories in the intellectual smackdown, where the ostensible goal is always (or at least often seems to be) to prove another person wrong--to make him or her look or feel "stupid" or "small."  We think that to do so somehow "proves" that we have "won" a moral or intellectual victory over others.

Have we, though?

I often think of Camus when I witness this tendency.  In 1944, Camus publicly disagreed with fellow-novelist Fran├žois Mauriac.  In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Camus advocated the execution of Nazi collaborators and former members of the Vichy government; Mauriac (a devout Catholic) opposed the imposition of the death penalty and argued in favor of mercy and reconciliation.

In the ensuing months, as the trials unfolded (and degenerated), Camus would publicly state in an editorial: "We now see M. Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.”

Can you imagine a prominent public figure in the world today having the courage to openly, clearly and publicly state (and about a highly controversial political issue, no less), "He was right, I was wrong"?

I kinda can't.

Several years later, Camus himself was publicly attacked and intellectually ridiculed by his former  friend, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  After the publication of The Rebel in 1951, Camus found himself on the receiving end of a very public and very unpleasant intellectual smackdown--it would have a profound effect on his life and his career as a writer.

As the epigraph to this blog post suggests, Camus simply could not endorse a political world-view that ignored its potentially personal, human consequences.

Given a choice between an abstract conception of "justice" and the personal fact of his mother's existence, he would choose his mother.

Although he was ridiculed for openly expressing this opinion, I think Camus had the courage to articulate a feeling that most of us in fact share.  We regularly endorse and believe in abstractions such as "justice," "freedom," "faith" and "hope" (to name only a few), but we often think about them in very depersonalized ways.

If we personalized them, would we see them differently?  Would they seem more or less ethical?  This is the question that Camus constantly probes.

Camus insisted that intellectual ideas and philosophical abstractions must always be personalized, if we truly want to understand their ethical impact and make informed decisions about what to endorse and how to behave.

In short, we need to see the people who will be affected by the implementation of our ideas and political values.  We need to consider the implications that an act of "justice" might have on the life of someone's  (possibly your own) mother.

This highly personal approach resounds throughout Camus' 1948 lecture at the Dominican Monastery in Latour-Maubourg:
"I believe indeed that the Christian has many obligations but that it is not up to the man who rejects them himself to recall their existence to anyone who has already accepted them."
In effect, Camus argues that it is not his place, as an atheist, to "call out" Christians for "not being Christian enough."  (I think the movement known as "New Atheism" could perhaps take a lesson or two from this attitude.)

He refines this point a bit, however.  Camus insists that if he calls out Christians for their ethical behavior-- if he "allow[s] [himself] to demand of [them] certain duties"-- it is because he believes it is "essential" for everyone to practice these duties, whether or not they identify as Christian.

He then offers a somewhat startling premise (startling for an atheist, that is):
"I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it."
In effect, Camus is stating: "I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe what you believe, I'm saying that I cannot."

How different would our daily dialogues and debates be if they started with this simple premise? 

This assertion leads to Camus' third and final principle:
"I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all.  On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."
In short, Camus argues, "I'm not here to change you; I'm here to talk to you."

He then proceeds to criticize what he believes is a lack of ethical action on the part of Christians in the wake of various forms of political violence.  As he points out, "Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun."  Camus chooses to join the forces of dialogue.

As I think about the world we live in today, I find myself feeling--as Camus did--a "deep longing" for the kind of dialogue that operates on a premise of respect, a dialogic framework of the kind articulated by Camus himself.

I think that we underestimate the value of a conversation premised, not on effecting an immediate change in (someone else's) perspective, but on understanding the beliefs and apparent values of our interlocutors.

I think we often seek the "reconciliation that would be agreeable to all" (a noble effort, obviously), but we do so without first hearing--and understanding--who people really are and what is on their minds.  I think this is why our (supposed) reconciliations often fail.  

Don't get me wrong.  There are a lot of things about the world that I would very much like to see changed, and I feel a deep conviction that the changes that I believe in would be good ones.  I'd like to think that they would make the world a better place.

But lately, I try to regularly remind myself that maybe the people I disagree with also think that their ideas would make the world a better place.  This doesn't mean that I agree with them or agree to a world in which their ideas hold sway: I will still continue to think and act and vote in accordance with my own beliefs and principles.

It simply means that, if and when I listen to them, I actively try to refrain from demonizing them as "evil" or "ignorant."  I let them be who they are and speak their minds--and then I object, if I feel I need to object, on the grounds of my own personal experience and understanding.

"The only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."  I'm fascinated by this idea; I confess, I don't really know if it's feasible or if it's just too simply, impossibly idealistic.  I suspect that, in many ways, Camus and I are both guilty of profound political naivete.

But I also think that what is being played out (and played up) on social media and in the news media is not genuine dialogue of the kind that Camus envisioned on that day at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.  And that saddens me.

In the end, like Camus, I believe that the goal of dialogue--and of life--should be, "if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it."