Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What Goes Around...

Yesterday was marked by a surprising little blast from the past.

Late in the afternoon, I was in my kitchen, singing along with the iPod and making homemade condensed cream of chicken soup. (It's quite delightful.)

So first off, here's the recipe for the soup, and here's the song. (Let it never be said I don't have my priorities straight when it comes to providing relevant details about my day.)

I turned around as I was singing for my supper, and behold, what did I see? The woman from about five years ago--the one who hassled me on my blog for... a year, I think it was?... because she thought I was trying to steal her boyfriend. 

She was parked in her car by my mailbox. Lights on, motor running, just sitting there.

Hunh.   (That's exactly what I said at that precise moment: "Hunh.")

I waited to see what she'd do. Eventually, she drove to the end of my street, paused for a minute or two, then turned the car around and quickly left. (I live on a dead-end street. She drives a big white Jeep. Navigating the turn-around takes a minute.)

As I was busily thinking "hunh," I decided to ask my neighbor if maybe a friend of her daughter's had been visiting or something, even though I had a pretty strong suspicion that I knew exactly what I had just seen, although I really didn't know why I would have seen it.

So I sent my neighbor a message asking her precisely that, and mentioned the big white Jeep. And then I opened my Facebook feed and saw that as I'd been writing my message, my neighbor had posted a picture of the note she'd just received in her mailbox.

From that woman.

See, the thing is, nearly two months ago now, the woman was campaigning for public office--again--and she stopped by my neighbors' house, looking for their vote.

Apparently, that didn't go well. The woman tried to hide the fact that she was not only a Trump supporter, but a delegate for Trump at the RNC last summer. She did this, I can only suppose, because she wanted to get a foot in the door when it came to getting my neighbors' votes.

My neighbors do NOT like Trump. (Nor do I, actually.) (Obviously.)

So yeah, the integrity thing with this woman? Not so much.

Long story short, when this incident occurred a couple of months ago now, my neighbors told her to leave, she argued with them, they told her to LEAVE, she argued with them. So they forcefully told her to get off their property, and then she (finally) left.

The point of her anonymous note yesterday? Well, it seems she had dropped by to gloat over the fact that Trump had won.

So yeah, the maturity thing with this woman? Not so much.

Because of the sheer coincidence of the whole thing, I knew she was the one who'd left the note, because I'd seen her. And I'd noticed her, because of all of those delightful, pithy pissy comments and random insights about the nature of love, life, and human relationships that she'd offered up on my blog back in the day.

So I told my neighbors what I knew and what I'd seen.

And they contacted the police.

Which means that, at this point, if she shows up at my neighbors' again, she can be arrested. The police advised me, via my neighbors, to please call them if I see her sitting in her car outside my house again, so we can all arrange it so that she can't hang out on our street anymore.

The moral of the story, boys and girls? Well, honestly, I think there are two morals here.

First, "once an asshole, always an asshole."

I mean, seriously. Do you really have no life and no hobbies and nothing better to do than sit in a parked car at sundown the week before Christmas, penning anonymous notes to people who are more or less total strangers to you, just to gloat about a Trump victory?

And using an exclamation-point smiley-face in said note, no less. (I didn't know anyone over the age of 13 still used those after 1985. Color me duly informed.)

The other moral of the story? "You reap what you sow." Big league (and/or bigly, depending on your hearing).

Because back in the day, this woman put her hot little fingers to the computer keyboard every chance she could, deliberately trying to sow a whole lot of anger and animosity and chaos in other people's lives.

She went out of her way to try to destroy a friendship of mine. And then she went out of her way to try to make me feel even more unhappy than I already was at the time, because of my godson's death.

But here we all are, five years later. My friend is my friend again, and has been for a couple of years now. He was actually over for dinner the other night, and it's probably a good thing she didn't happen to bump into him when he was, because I think he may have had a few choice words for her at this point.

But as I told him last night, it's just not worth the effort. 

She's simply reaping what she tried to sow in other people's lives, in her own life. Because what goes around, comes around.

And these days, a whole lot of anger and animosity and chaos seem to be coming her way on a regular basis. To such an extent that I actually find myself feeling sorta sorry for her (most of the time) now. And I've even begun laughing about her antics a lot more--and a lot more heartily and happily--than I did five years ago.

And that's a good feeling: to be able to look back at a shit-storm someone tried to spin your way, and just shake your head and... laugh.

I suspect she'd insist that we're all delusional and she's better and smarter and happier than the average bear, but "the lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Because the fact of the matter is, if you feel the need to drive to someone's house, sit in your car, and take the time to write a gloat-note, it means you're really terribly insecure.

And that you never actually feel like a winner, even when it looks like maybe you've won, somehow.

And really, that's just sad.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Snarl

Every now and then, I like to check out books about writing.

Whether it's a book about the writing process or about how to be a more productive writer or about how a well-known writer thinks about writing (to wit, my October blog post about Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), I like to have the chance to think about this activity that shapes such a big part of my life.

This weekend, I stumbled upon Hillary Rettig's The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block (2011). While I'm not sure I'd whole-heartedly recommend it to seasoned writers--there was a lot in it that wasn't really applicable to me--I did like the way that she approached one of the most fundamental impediments to writing:

Procrastination.

Rettig argues that procrastination is a state of "disempowerment" that stems, not from any "intrinsic deficiency or deficit on your part" (1), but from outside forces that operate as "obstacles" ("an activity or circumstance that competes with your writing for time and other resources") or "triggers" ("feelings that interfere with your ability to write") (2).

If we're under-productive writers, Rettig argues, it's not because we're lazy or lack willpower. These are merely "symptoms" of a state of under-productivity, but the judgmental and moralistic labels we assign to these symptoms are crippling.

For Rettig, this is what separates the prolific from the under-productive. Prolific writers are kinder to themselves. They attribute a lack of productivity to the obstacles or triggers that disempower them and set about finding ways of solving these problems.

More importantly, prolific writers (according to Rettig) do their best to prevent the kind of obstacles or triggers that inhibit their productivity. In particular, they don't succumb to perfectionism because, "it's mainly perfectionism-fueled fear (or terror, really) that fuels procrastination" (6).

I think Rettig has an excellent point. In my own experience, writers who want to write, but can't, often have an inability to move past a few basic roadblocks. In many cases, they think they have a project, but they're not sure if it's "good enough," so they wait for conclusive proof that it is (or will be) before they start writing.

The problem is, there's no such proof available. At least, not until you actually begin writing and the project begins to take shape. But even then.

Because ye gods, early drafts can be terrible things. Just appalling. I mean... you don't want to see what kinds of things can end up on a first draft.

And that can be extremely discouraging. I know this because I too have produced what Anne Lamott refers to as "shitty first drafts." Oh, so many, and oh, so much... shit.

Because that's the way of it. Every now and then, you'll have what seems like an epiphany and a really great sentence or paragraph will descend from your brain to the page via your fingertips, but even then, you may eventually have to face the fact that, although it has its own measure of greatness, it actually doesn't really belong in the thing that you're writing at the time.

Sigh.

When you can't write--or can't get started writing--you typically think of this as a "block" (i.e., the famous "writer's block" that every writer has felt and feared).

Rettig offers a useful way of rethinking this obstacle and the feelings that accompany it: it isn't really a "block," it's a "snarl"--"it's a giant spaghetti snarl with at least a dozen (or, more likely, two or three dozen) 'strands,' each representing a particular obstacle or trigger" (8).

Needless to say, as a knitter, I liked the idea of the "snarl" as opposed to the "block." Because snarls can be exasperating and look like the end of the world in the world of wool and other fibers, but snarls can, in fact, be undone. As Rettig points out, "[t]he fact that your block is really a snarl is great news because a snarl can be untangled far more easily than a monolith scaled or chiseled" (8).

And this rethinking and reimagining the nature of what it is that is impeding your progress is a great way of managing--if not overcoming--it. As Rettig argues, "the shortest route ... to maximum productivity is to work patiently within your human limitations so that you have a chance to regain your confidence and focus" (50).

So, instead of beating yourself up for all of the writing you haven't done, or lamenting the fact that you awoke with a scorcher of a headache and therefore didn't get any writing done yet again, the idea is to acknowledge the limits and "work patiently" within them.

This was a wonderful reminder for me, because as I've acknowledged repeatedly this year, I've not been particularly happy with my own level of writing productivity, particularly here on my blog. I've gotten other things written, but they've gone much, much more slowly than I would like.

And I've kicked myself for that, both publicly and privately. So Rettig's book was a reminder that I need to stop doing that--as she points out, "[f]ormulations such as 'The project was a total disaster,' 'I'm a total loser,' and 'It's going to take a million hours to edit this thing' are not helpful" (29).

I've said many of those things over the past year, many times. But since reading Rettig's book, I've been trying to catch myself when I do this and remind myself to "problem-solve" instead: what's the problem I'm facing and what can I do to unravel the snarl a little?

And I try to take a moment to remember the things I have accomplished. Because this too is a dilemma: even when you're productive, if you're perfectionist, the things you accomplish don't seem like enough at the moment when they're achieved.

You've been trained not to rest on your laurels, so you don't. Which isn't "bad," per se--one could argue that it's a way to foster humility. But it also isn't "good," really, because you spend so much time lamenting the things you haven't done and so little time acknowledging the things that you have completed, that you end up misperceiving your own efforts and achievements.

You snarl at yourself, because all you remember are the snarls.

But there's more to the fabric of writing, and if you can--as Rettig argues--"lose [yourself] nonjudgmentally" in your work, you will join the ranks of the prolific and the productive writers of the world.

For my part, that is precisely where I hope to be next year at this time.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Season

Well, the end of the semester is upon us, which means that I'll be doing a whole lot of writing and a fair amount of grading in the next few weeks, now that classes are essentially done.

But this time of year also means that I can get my craft thing on like there's no tomorrow. So that's what I've been doing.

A LOT of cookies have been made. I'm not sure who's going to eat all of them, because my cats don't seem all that interested in them. So I guess it's up to me...

I've also been knitting and knitting and knitting. Because if it's going to be cold and dreary and a little snowy, and then get even colder and drearier (and perhaps snowier?), then that's just what has to happen.

I finished one little gift, and since I'm quite certain the person who will be receiving it doesn't read my blog, I'll post a couple of pictures.

It's a scarf: an easy knit that opens out into a lacework pattern when you wet-block it, like so:


I confess, it looks kinda cool on the blocking squares, doesn't it? But no, it can't simply remain there. It must go out into the world, sorta like so:

I know the picture leaves a lot to be desired, but trust me, single-handedly figuring out how to photograph a 5-foot long scarf on a cloudy winter's morning (read: no natural light anywhere, really) is just not part of my skill set.

And I didn't feel like trying, let's be honest. I made the scarf, that counts for a lot.

Because while working on the scarf, I also decided to experiment and try making a few Christmas ornaments for my tree. Specifically, I decided I wanted to try to knit a couple of snowflake patterns, and see how they turn out.

Well, they turned out just fine (look to your right), but knitting them takes a while and involves a lot of stitch markers and near-insanity, so that's why, of the two you see pictured to your right, only one is actually knitted (the one on the left).

The other one is crocheted. That went about a bazillion times faster, so that's what I opted to do when the madness came upon me and I decided to make a few more.  Like so:

In the picture on the left, they're drying after being soaked in cornstarch.

It's a way to stiffen them, so that they hang like ornaments, rather than folding or flopping like doilies.

There are several ways to stiffen a snowflake (okay, that sounds odd, but bear with me): you can use glue... yes, I was a bit skeptical about that as well, but yes, you can.

Or, you can use cornstarch, which is what I did. The advantage to glue is, it's permanent. The disadvantage to glue is, it's permanent.

With cornstarch, if something happens to the ornament--I'm envisioning something analogous to what happens when you neatly pack away Christmas lights and the cords spend the summer having group sex (or something), so that they're hopelessly entangled when the Yuletide season rolls around the following year.

With corn-starched ornaments, if there's a problem--if they get bent while being packed away, or a little grubby or whatever--you just wash 'em out and re-starch 'em.

The starching is a sticky mess: I just went old school and added a tablespoon of it to a half-cup of water, boiled and stirred, let it cool a bit and then plunked those bad-boys in. You have to be careful, because you don't want to mess with boiling hot cornstarch: it will both stick to your skin and burn you.

In short, if you're not careful, it will burn you and then keep on burning you. Just like some people... but I digress.

To keep my strength up while being crafty, I came upon a wonderful recipe for garlic rosemary chicken with cranberries--because I need to supplement the cookies with a bit more nutrition, I think. So this was that, going into the oven:

Again, my apologies to the vegetarians and vegans out there, but I do have to say, this recipe was quite good.

And I hate to say it, but I'm looking for a reason to make it again soon, and I haven't even finished all the leftovers from the first time around.

But before I do that, I need to actually do a bit of work.

Because although the semester is rapidly winding to a close and classes are basically over, it ain't over until it's over. And it ain't over just yet.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

And Again

I seem to be on a kindness kick this month because last week I stumbled on an  article by Emily Esfahani Smith  entitled, "Masters of Love" that appeared in the June 12, 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

Smith's article looks at the research of psychologist John Gottman. In the 1970's, social scientists began to wonder why the divorce rate was escalating; they sought to identify the factors that make or break a marriage.

John Gottman's research is a major contribution to this effort. Gottman discovered that the #1 predictor of divorce is... contempt.

Because when you're contemptuous of someone, you're just being mean. You're assuming a position of superiority over the other person and deliberately belittling that person and his or her feelings or concerns. You're fueling a long-standing attitude of negativity towards the person in particular and your relationship in general.

In short, you're communicating a measure of annoyance and disgust. And in doing so, you're demonstrating an underlying lack of respect for your partner. Over time, this attitude will erode a relationship to such an extent that it will either end entirely or continue on, haltingly and unhappily.

As Smith points out, Gottman argues that there are two types of relationship participants: "masters" and "disasters." The relationship "disasters"among us operate in fight-or-flight mode, but physiologically and emotionally.

As Smith notes, "Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked."

By contrast, "masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable." This doesn't mean that they never fought; it means that when they did fight, their experience of discord and disagreement was far less disastrous, both to the health of both partners and to the relationship in general.

These observations lead Gottman to argue that the key to a successful marriage or relationship is kindness and admiration.

Unlike the "disasters," who "are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes," the "masters" cultivate a "culture of respect and appreciation"--as Gottman puts it, "they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for," a mental habit that they constantly bring to bear on their relationships with others.

And this constant mental exercise bears fruit. As Smith points out,
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
"Masters" have cultivated the strength it takes to be kind and generous, even when they don't feel up to it and this, in turn, translates into successful relationships and/or a happy marriage.

To become a "master," though, you need to practice.

Practicing kindness doesn't have to involve constant gift-giving or self-sacrifice. In fact, simply being happy at someone else's good fortune can go a long way towards strengthening the muscles of kindness in one's psyche.

Or, trying giving others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming that people are out to get you or deliberately doing things to annoy you, assume that they probably mean well (don't ignore obvious evidence to the contrary, of course). If there's evidence that the intention is good, go with that.

This one is tricky, though, because you don't want to fall prey to what my best friend and I have come to refer to as "Operation Butter-Up." For those of us with Caretaker or "Rescuer" tendencies, people with less than honorable intentions can work their magic on us all too easily.

We want to believe that they "mean well," so we feel guilty when we have to say "no" or when we try to draw a line in the sand and assert our own needs and feelings.

The key, I think, is to measure the extent to which you feel that you are operating in a space of trust and intimacy. If the Sabre-Toothed Tiger that is your spouse suddenly, voluntarily, offers to do something "nice" for you, watch out.

If the general atmosphere isn't (or hasn't been) one of overall kindness and generosity, chances are, you're getting a dose of Operation Butter-Up.

In that case, be firm about your boundaries: "no" means "no," and if they mean you well, they'll understand and respect that, even if they don't like it all that much.

Because kindness isn't about an absence of conflict or disagreement. Kindness is about responding to conflict or disagreement in ways that don't demean or belittle those around you. It's about demonstrating a generosity of spirit, even when you may not feel all that generous, because you haven't lost sight of the overall admiration and respect that you feel for the person you're interacting with.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kindness Again

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." --Franklin D. Roosevelt

What a week.

It had quite a bit more emotional turmoil than usual, and for my part, I decided I needed to take a step back from it all and just... breathe. And knit. And talk to my cats. And do some yard-work. And read.

Today is World Kindness Day. I really hope at least a few people can get on board with that. Because we really do need a lot more of it in the world right now.

Ironically, one of the things I've been reading lately has everything to do with the phenomenon of kindness--specifically, an act of unkindness known as "mobbing."

"Mobbing" is often considered synonymous with "bullying," but there are some key differences. In particular, according to bullyonline.org, "bullying" is "typically perpetrated by one person although others in a workplace may join in." 

Mobbing, on the other hand, "involves a group of people whose size is constrained by the social setting in which it is formed, such as a workplace. It might seem to the target as if many people are involved but in reality the group might be small. The group members directly interact with a target in an adversarial way that undermines or harms them in measurable, definable ways."   

Although mobbing involves a group, there is usually a "ringleader"--someone who is essentially instigating the behavior and/or recruiting and then egging others on. They may do so directly and aggressively, or they may practice what psychologists call "relational aggression"--that is, they attempt to harm the "target" or victim by damaging or attempting to manipulate the person's relationships with others.

Most people are familiar with "relational aggression" in the context of adolescence. Because females are somewhat more likely to practice relational aggression than males, it's often thought of as the "mean girls" phenomenon. 

As Ditta M. Oliker points out in "Bullying in the Female World: The Hidden Aggression Behind the Innocent Smile" (Psychology Today, Sept. 3, 2011), 
The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking).  Most damaging is turning the victim into a social "undesirable".  The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless...  The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.
I first blogged about mobbing about six years ago, thinking about its connection to what's known as "group polarization."

More recently, I read Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry's Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Bullying and Aggression (2013). 

As Duffy and Sperry point out, bullying and relational aggression become "mobbing" when the management of an organization--specifically a workplace--not only allows the behavior to continue, but either participates in it directly or covertly sanctions it.

Because the ... wrinkle... in current HR policy and practice is, mobbing and workplace bullying are not illegal.  

Wrong, yes, absolutely, but not illegal. Mobbing cannot be considered harassment or discrimination, unless a victim can prove that s/he is being targeted because of their "protected status." 

In effect, a victim is put into a position of actually wishing that someone would say something sexist or racist, so that s/he could take action against the behavior. 

That's a bad place to be, emotionally and psychologically.

In addition, although many would say, "Oh well, it's just work, why do you care?", as Duffy and Sperry point out, work is a major component of our lives.  It's often a source of self-esteem and self-definition--to say nothing of a resource for friendship and social support or contact.

On this point, Duffy and Sperry cite the claims of Janice Harper, an anthropologist who writes about mobbing. Harper was "accused by colleagues and students at the University of Tennessee of trying to get information about uranium so she could build a hydrogen bomb"--an accusation that led to her being subject to and ultimately exonerated by an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Harper states, "Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if you are being mobbed that those closest to you might betray or hurt you. What I am telling you is that in almost every case I guarantee they will...". As Duffy and Sperry conclude, "In a society where the line between work and personal relationships is fuzzy and blurred, the loss of work relationships during a mobbing is devastating."

Ironically, the victims of mobbing or workplace bullying in general are almost never accused of incompetence. Paradoxically, in the midst of outrageous claims (like "she's trying to build a hydrogen bomb"), no one ever says that the person is, you know... bad at their job.

That's because, sadly, the targets are usually people who are more than competent employees. They're often extremely good at their job, actually, and this may in fact be one of the reasons why they were targeted for bullying or mobbing in the first place.

As The Workplace Bullying Institute points out, targets of workplace bullying are often more competent than those who attempt to bully them. They are typically "independent" and "more technically skilled" than the bullies, "ethical and honest" and generally "non-confrontive."

One warning sign of a possible instance of workplace bullying is ongoing gossip that a co-worker is emotionally unstable or overly reactive. In many such instances, the facts often suggest that the person has been constantly goaded and/or mobbed until s/he suddenly "snaps" and responds aggressively.

When this happens, the victim is immediately chastised for inappropriate aggression--ironically, s/he is sometimes accused of "bullying" others. 

However, as psychologists routinely point out, conflicts and/or the verbal outbursts that may accompany them-- limited, context-specific, non-physical, non-abusive, largely infrequent displays of temper-- are actually not uncommon or inappropriate in a healthy workplace.

So the very fact that someone's brief display of anger is immediately highlighted as "abnormal" is, in many ways, a red flag that may indicate an unhealthy work environment. As Duffy and Sperry note, "Such labeling of victims as 'disturbed' or 'unstable' after they have been egregiously provoked and then responded with anger or another emotion is classic in workplace mobbings."

Why might co-workers mob or bully someone? As Oliker points out, "Motivation ...  usually includes: a desire for power, for control, for achieving greater social status and popularity, jealousy, fear and derailing competition."  

According to Duffy and Sperry, one of the earliest--and most easily remedied--signs of mobbing is what they refer to as "unethical communication." In the 1980's, Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann "emphasized the significance of unethical communication in the development and acceleration of workplace mobbing"--he argued that it "both ignit[ed] workplace mobbing and ... power[ed] it once it got started." 

Duffy and Sperry offer a long list of behaviors that fall under the category of "unethical communication," specifically, "gossip, lies, rumors, innuendo, ridicule, belittlement, disparagement, humiliation, false information, dissemination of such information, failure to correct false information, leaks of personal and confidential information... isolating a worker, ignoring an employee, giving an employee the 'cold shoulder'."

You get the picture.

General, run-of-the-mill unkindness is ultimately what sparks mobbing and workplace bullying. And it's on the rise: recent estimates suggest that approximately 30% of all workers have experienced some form of bullying in the workplace.

The good news is, it's probably not that hard to stop participating in unethical communication or to recognize it when we hear it. 

Once we become aware of what it is and how toxic it can be, we can make a concerted effort to stop it (if possible) or, at the very least, refuse to participate it. And if we occupy managerial positions or positions of authority in the workplace, we have an ethical duty to intervene and stop it.

If and when we do, we will be one step closer to making kindness an everyday occurrence.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Nearly November

It's hard to believe that, in about 60 days, we'll be wrapping up 2016.

I enjoyed the Read-A-Thon this year. In a lot of ways, it was just what I needed--to sit and read until my brains fell out. I finished re-reading Morrison's Beloved, and actually came up with an idea for an article.

So this week I spent a little time researching and jotting down ideas for that. It's not like I have, oh, say, 3 other articles backlogged in various states of near-completion.

Seriously. I need to get on that. Right now, the reading (and other things) are going well, but the writing (sort of) continues at a bit of a snail's pace.

And because the reading has been going so well, there's this. I'm back working on the squares for the blanket.


That project has picked up a bit because last weekend, I learned a new skill: how to knit two-handed, two-stranded colorwork.

Although it sounds complicated--and sort of is--it's not something I'd ever suggest a beginning knitter contemplate, much less attempt--if you're a seasoned knitter, it's not so nutty.

When you knit colorwork, you have two colors of yarn (obviously). You knit stitches with one, carry the other behind the knitting and then knit stitches with the other when you want to include the second or contrasting (as opposed to the "main" color).

So, in the photo above, the really dark blue is actually the main color, and the lighter blues and green are the contrasting colors.

Normally, you knit either right-handed (English or American style--often called "throwing") or you knit left-handed (European or Continental style--often called "picking"). The difference between the two lies in the hand that holds the yarn.

Word on the street is, Continental style is faster, and that's probably true, although experts disagree about whether "faster" knitting necessarily produces more knitted items. Some studies (yes, they do studies about knitters and knitting) have shown that the most productive knitters aren't necessarily the fastest, they simply knit a lot. So every spare moment they have, they knit a bit. (I suspect I'm beginning to fall dangerously close to landing in this category.)

With two-handed, two-stranded colorwork, you knit both right and left handed, simultaneously. So, you hold one color yarn in your right hand, and one color yarn in your left hand, and you knit right handed when you need to knit stitches with the right-handed color, and you knit left-handed when you need to knit stitches with the left-handed color.

It makes colorwork a LOT faster. It's a slow and slightly cumbersome process when you first learn, but for a seasoned knitter like myself, it's actually sort of interesting to practice. I practiced a little with the colorwork square pictured above and I also just practiced knitting continental style separately, so I could get used to that.

You just need to develop muscle memory in your hands for the new knitting technique, and that will necessarily take a little time and patience.

So I simply set aside about an hour a day to practice, and if it got too annoying, I'd quit after an hour, but if it was going "okay" I'd keep going after an hour, until it... got too annoying. And then I'd just go knit something in my old, right-handed way, and be happy and relaxed.

In the meantime, after five months, I finished my first lace-knitting project-- a shawl.

As I commented to friends, I'm not really sure when I'm going to wear such a thing, since I have to keep it from the kitty cats (my Freya likes to chew wool, which is not a great habit to have in a knitter's home).

And I'm an introvert, so the whole glamorous night--on-the-town idea leaves me blinking and staring in slight bewilderment at the people who suggest such things, but as I told them, "I suppose I could give it a try."

In all seriousness, though, I do have a couple of nice summer dresses, and there's no reason I couldn't throw this on as a fancy kind of "jacket." I'll just have to adjust to the idea that I'm not wearing an actual jacket, and I'll be good to go.

So why did I make the blessed thing, if I don't wear shawls? Really, your question should be, why am I going to embark on making another one, if I don't wear shawls?

Because I like the way they look. Because they're cool and challenging, and sometimes a knitter likes a challenge, for no real reason at all.

And because in my mind's eye, I really can picture myself sitting out on my patio on a spring or autumn evening, reading a book and sipping a little tea with this wrapped around my shoulders.

And that, to me, is a little slice of heaven.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon (2016)

I'm late to the sign up for the biannual Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, but I discovered that it is fact today (starting in an hour) and I do in fact have a lot of reading to do this weekend, as well as a need to stay on-task with my blog so... here goes!

I'm in the thick of things with school right now, so I need to finish rereading Toni Morrison's Beloved. So that's first up on the list.

Several weeks ago, I started reading Rebecca Skloot's non-fiction work, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I'm just shy of half-way through it, and I'm really enjoying it, so I think I might be able to finish it, if I read the way a Readathoner should.

Last night, I started a semi non-fictional work by Georgina Kleege, Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Kleege is blind herself, and her work engages with the figure of--you guessed it-- Helen Keller in order to think about the representation (and idealization) of people with disabilities.

It's a mix of biographical information about Keller's life, coupled with Kleege's reflections on what we both know and don't know about Keller's own reaction to the events of her life. I'm also really enjoying this one, so I think I've good a good set-up for an enjoyable start to the Readathon.

I also have several (ha!) books stacked off to the side that I'd like to get to. I'm working on creating a course on gender and (dis)ability in literature, so I've got tons of works that fall into that category--from short plays like William Gibson's The Miracle Worker and Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man and Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God-- to a memoir about a black woman's experience of depression, Meri Nana-Ama Danquar's Willow Weep for Me.

I also started a novel months ago (I last remember reading it on the beach, actually, so it's been a while), M. G. Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I need to finish it.

If none of these hold my attention (although I'm optimistic about getting through several of the plays, actually), I'll crack open Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones, or a two-part memoir by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not.

Full disclosure: I also need to run some errands and do some yard work, so I'll be taking a couple of breaks along the way.

But right now, a day immersed in books and relatively disconnected from social media--with the exception of the occasional blog-post update here--sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Blank Page

A couple of weeks ago, I set aside the "serious" academic reading to read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000).

I don't usually read books about writing, despite the fact that I'm an English teacher, because I don't usually find them all that interesting or useful. (Please don't tell me that Strunk & White's Elements of Style is an exception. Yes, I've read it. I bought it years ago. I've never once used it.)

And I don't usually read Stephen King's work because I just can't handle horror.

When I say that, people look at me in shock and surprise--like, "You admit you're a wimp?"--but I would like to point out that I do read non-fiction accounts of Auschwitz survivors and victims of apartheid and former Gulag inmates. So no, not a wimp. Just not into the horror genre.   

But I give King all kinds of kudos for being a very interesting and imaginative storyteller, and someone who can obviously turn a story into the kind of writing that people want to read. (I put him in the same category as Edgar Allan Poe, actually.)

And that, in my opinion, is one of the definitions of a "good" writer.

So I was not at all disappointed with King's memoir. It is both well-told and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. He's a great storyteller, across the board, and a thoughtful writer. For critics who envision him simply churning out one thoughtless text after another, for profit: you're wrong.

King's observations about writing were interesting and insightful. In particular, he argues that writing is not something that can be approached "lightly":
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. (105-106)
I think this assertion is a point well-taken. Often, people think that they "like to write" or "wanna write" and so they simply sit down and start writing. While there's nothing wrong with this as a feel-good enterprise or hobby, it does not make someone a writer, much less a "good" writer.

I think people who approach writing in this way assume that, whatever thought they manage to express is by definition "good," because they feel they've been "inspired" to write.

You can have inspiration out the wazoo but suck as a writer.  There, I said it.

Thinking is one thing. Writing is another. This blog is a good example of that. I've had all kinds of thoughts this year, and yet, I've been more than a little remiss when it comes to sitting down and writing them.

As Dorothy Parker once said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat."  Too true, Dottie, too true.

I particularly like King's overarching advice about vocabulary and sentence structure: keep it simple.

King notes that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones" (117). Instead, King advocates "us[ing] the first word that comes to ... mind, if it is appropriate and colorful" (118).

I would agree. If nothing else, stick the word you had in mind in there and move on. You can always highlight it with a note to yourself that you might like to find a better one later on. But go with the initial impulse, because you want that initial impulse documented and you don't want to slow your roll when it comes to writing.

Figuring out a new word for an idea you've expressed is a "revision" activity, not a "writing" activity.

The same holds true for sentence structure or style. As King points out, "simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric" (121).

As a writer and academic, I see this particular episode of "Lost" on a regular basis. People--myself included--will often write long sentences and claim that they "need" to "say it that way" because the idea is "so complex."

But really, we do it because we want to sound "smart."

And sometimes we do. But more often, we just sound frightened and confused.

A long, meandering sentence suggests that the writer has an idea--a small one, perhaps. They think it could be a larger idea, but they aren't sure of that yet and they aren't sure how that's going to happen (if it's going to happen), so they just write and write and keep writing, even when they realize that they don't know what they're even writing anymore, much less why.

They craft a long, rhetorically twisted sentence to suggest that their idea has length and breadth when all they had was a short idea with all kinds of potential depth and possibility.

Stretching that out in a long sentence creates the equivalent of a taffy-pull. When you pull taffy, you're adding air bubbles. You want to do that with taffy, because it makes the candy lighter and chewier. 

When you pull sentences like taffy, you're also adding air. Your reader may have more to chew on, but the idea is now light and airy too.

As King points out "Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation" (128). Let go of the fear that you won't sound "smart enough" and let go of the affectation in your vocabulary, and your writing will improve because your ideas will be succinct and substantial.

Not surprisingly, King is also an advocate of extensive reading: "You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so" (147). In fact, King argues, "if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that" (147).

I would agree. There's not much more I can add to that assertion. If you like to write, you should like to read because reading is spending time thinking about ideas and writing.

If you only like to write, but can never "find time" to read, you're kind of implicitly saying that you only like to read your own writing, and while that may be understandable, it's just not going to help you improve as a writer.

King made me laugh (with embarrassment) when he identified several of his personal pet peeves when it comes to writing:
I have my own dislikes--I believe that anyone using the phrase "That's so cool" should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases "at this point in time" and "at the end of the day" should be sent to bed without supper (or writing-paper, for that matter). (121)
Oh, boy. Well, at least I never wrote "That's so cool." (I think.) (God, I hope...) But those last two phrases?  I confess, I've used 'em quite a bit. Particularly on the blog.

Okay, so... note to self. Some people hate that.

Another item that sets King's teeth on edge is the use of adverbs.

For King, "Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind" (124). He argues that "they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after that..." (124).

I'm generally opposed to hard-and-fast rules about whether a particular grammatical feature is "good" or "bad," so I can't get on board with King's anti-adverb stance (at least, not totally and completely) (see what I did there?), but I was glad for the jolt of sudden self-awareness.

Adverbs are terribly addictive. You can totally start out using them for one reason and generally, they'll be okay, but eventually--ultimately--you'll find yourself overusing them constantly. Unthinkingly.

So I like King's warning: "The adverb is not your friend."

Because this statement reminds me that, before I invite adverbs to the house-party that is my sentence (or paragraph), I need to think about whether I want them there. Do I have to invite them? They seem to have a habit of ending up in a drunken sprawl, barfing all over the furniture and ruining what might otherwise have been a pleasant evening. So perhaps not.

This is why reading is good for your writing. Because even if you don't agree with what you read in a fellow-writer's writing, you can learn from it.

I now pay more attention to my adverbs and, much to my surprise, I find I have to agree with King more than I thought I would. Adverbs are often a mark of timidity (rather than precision or clarification) or they serve as a kind of rhetorical flourish (i.e., affectation).

I'm still wrestling with what to do about his other pet peeve. At this point in time, I've recognized that I resort to such phrases when I'm trying to "wind down" a blog post, and I can't quite figure out how to do that.

I feel like I'm going to be pushing my reader off a small cliff when I end a post without any grand sense of wrap-it-all-up resolution, so I try to gently slide them to the edge of said cliff, in the hopes that they won't then notice the sudden drop. And yes, I now realize that, at the end of the day, this is ridiculous.

Clearly, I need to come up with a better solution.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Unexpected

I did not expect to find myself this far into October with only one blog post written. 2016 is definitely going to go down in my personal history as the year that the blog did not go as expected.

I did not expect to come down a cold for 2 of the 4 days of Fall Break.  This was so unexpected, in fact, that I spent a full 12 hours or so in denial--"darn allergies!" "whew, I'm tired--must be all the fresh air!" that kind of thing.

I did not expect that I would make the radical decision to keep a garden in the fall.  This means... well, let me just show you what this means:

If you have no idea what you're looking at, you're looking at the frames for low tunnels.

They're actually quite easy to make: you drive 18" rebars into the ground, and then you arc 10 ft. lengths of 1/2" PVC pipe over them.

And then, eventually, you put Agribon fabric over the hoops, and voila, you have low tunnels.

During the day, the sun warms the soil, but as temps cool in the fall and early winter, all of that "radiant heat" is lost at nighttime. By constructing low tunnels, you're trapping the daytime heat in the soil so it won't simply... float away... at night.

If the soil stays warmer, the plants will be happier, obviously, and continue to grow.

That said, however, you can't just grow any old thing--tomato season is done, people. Nor can there be cucumbers.

But some plants actually do better in spring and fall, when temps are cooler, and some plants are somewhat hardy and can hold out through early winter.  So I'm attempting to grow some of those plants, and see what happens.

I've got beets (red and golden), brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli (an unlikely prospect, I know, but I'm giving it a whirl), leeks and lettuce.  So far, things are doing pretty well.  I've started putting the fabric over the tunnels and closing them (more or less) at night. 

I did it last night, and unless I'm losing my marbles (and I may very well be), it looked like the plants were happier for it in the morning. The true test will be tomorrow night, though, when it's supposed to be much cooler--not frost or freeze warning cool, but... much cooler than it's been.

I'm working on it bit by bit, because getting the fabric in place is a bit of a chore. It would be easier if I had an extra pair of hands, but I don't, so I have to just work at it bit by bit, and I figured that would be better to do if it wasn't a race against the clock to beat a freeze warning.

This way, the thinking goes, it will be easy-peasy to close up the tunnels when the nights (and days) are truly much cooler than they are now.

I've also been working on some knitting. Specifically, I'm working on finishing up a bunch of projects that I started ... well, last spring, probably. Some dragged on through the summer, but some just got set aside.  I do that a lot.  And then October rolls around and I'm finishing up a tank-top.

What I've promised myself, though, is that this time around, I'll finish these summery things up and then go right to a more winter-based project. So that I can actually wear a newly-finished project because it's seasonally appropriate.

All of this gardening and knitting, though, means that I'm not doing as much writing or reading as I'd like, so right now, it's about balancing the unexpected while keeping on track with the things I need to be doing.

And I need to master this balance within the next 24 hours, I think, because I'm getting my first batch of grading... tomorrow.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back On Track

I really think 2016 is going to go down as the year that simply didn't have enough days in it. Because it really and truly can't be October 1st already. 

I don't know how that could have happened.

The good news is, this morning I finally finished the article I've been working on for months and months. I thought I'd be disappointed that it took so long (because truly, it did) but the fact of the matter is, I'm just so happy it's submitted and off my desk that I can't even bring myself to feel the slightest hint of disappointment.

It's gone.  It's outta my hair.  Hallelujah. I think the article itself is either "good" or "okay," depending. I definitely don't think it's "bad," and in the life of a writer, that's about the best you're going to hope for.

Because sometimes, you think something is "good" and then you read it the next day and realize that you were delusional. And sometimes, you think something is "bad" and you read it a year later (because when you think it's "bad" you really can't face it any sooner than that), and you realize it "isn't so terrible after all."

So the best I'm going to say is that I think the article is "okay" or "pretty good" (see, I've already begun to qualify it a bit, because less than 10 lines ago, I was calling it "good"--this is what I mean).

A friend on Facebook shared an article yesterday that was, in essence, the perfect rainy September Friday afternoon article to share with a fellow academic on Facebook.  It's called "How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe," by Carl Cederstrom and Michael Marinetto, and it's been on my mind for the past 24 hours or so.

Cederstrom and Marinetto argue that there are basically 4 ways to avoid the anxiety that comes with being a professor and/or working in academia: 1) kill your institutional aspirations, 2) identify yourself as an amateur, 3) stop writing badly, and 4) start teaching well.

I have to say, I'm coming up on my 20-year teaching anniversary at my current job, and I think Cederstrom and Marinetto are right on the money.

If you want to be a "presence" in an academic institution--the person that everyone counts on to meet the needs of the institution--your intellectual aspirations will suffer.

It's just that simple. There are only so many hours in the day, and no one can think deep thoughts or read intellectually engaging material if they've spent too many of those hours attending meetings and filling out forms and discussing all of the various goals and drives and initiatives and what-not that are strewn along the highways and byways of academia.

I would argue that those who do so--or who simply try to do so--often end up angry and bitter because they've dedicated their lives to advancing an institution only to realize that institutions are entities that can't really care about anyone very deeply or for very long.  They're businesses, although in many ways, they possess some advantages that businesses perhaps don't possess, because they can look like communities, but... they're not.

Cederstrom and Marinetto suggest that, to be a less anxious academic, you need to "cultivate an indifference and apathy towards institutional demands." In short, care less about whether or not that report or assessment gets done, and whether or not someone besides you ends up doing it.

Their point is, once you've done this, you have more time to focus on the things that actually make you happy and productive: good writing, good teaching, and a love of knowledge.

I think it's interesting that Cederstrom and Marinetto embrace the spirit of "the amateur" because in academia, "amateur" is typically synonymous with "anathema."

No one wants to be an "amateur" because everyone wants to be a specialist, no matter how obscure or arcane the specialty might be.

But when you think about it, cultivating this kind of hyper-specialization means that you cultivate your own eventual obsolescence. In plain English, you ensure that you will become out-of-touch and incapable of communicating with others about matters of interest or importance (whether those matters are interesting or important to you or to others).

As a result, you will write badly--if at all--and you will (in my humble opinion) teach even worse.

If you're an amateur, however, you acknowledge that you love ideas and you love to move among ideas, teaching and testing and tempering them with the new knowledge that you constantly acquire.

Instead of drilling down into the depths of a specialty, you ride the currents of your intellectual interests, and go where they take you--this, at least, is my sense of Cederstrom and Marinetto's advocacy of amateurism.

This doesn't mean that you become a dabbler or a dilettante; amateurs take their interests and their ideas seriously and they pursue them with passion. 

They simply don't lose sight of the big picture, and because they are always thinking about this larger context for their ideas and interests, they realize that a single-minded focus on a singular interest isn't necessarily the way to enhance one's intellectual capabilities.

My only concern with Cederstrom and Marinetto's argument is with its claim that this will enable one to live "less anxiously" in academia. I think that's only true if a person makes his or her peace with the fact that, by making the four choices they describe, a person will relegate him or herself to positions of minimal prestige within an academic institution.

If power and glory are your thing--if you figuratively want your name in lights at the institution where you work-- the advice that Cederstrom and Marinetto offer will not give you what you seek.

It will, however, give you a sense of personal purpose and fulfillment. And if this is what you seek, then you will, ultimately, live less anxiously in academe. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Staying Civilized

It's been a busy couple of weeks.  (Let's leave it at that.)

I've been reading some interesting books about organizational psychology, and the most recent was really rather delightful.  It's Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn't (2007).

I'm sure the title pretty much had you at "hello," but I'll tell you a bit about it nevertheless.

Sutton examines a prominent feature of contemporary life: the assholes among us, including--sadly--our very own selves.  He acknowledges that, yes, it might be more polite and "appropriate" to call them "jerks," but the fact of the matter is, we all know what they are, and we all know what we call them.

Assholes.

So there it is.

Sutton argues that we all have the capacity to be one, at various times and under various circumstances. In effect, we're all what he calls "occasional" or "temporary" assholes, and he offers advice for getting the asshole within under control.

The larger and more toxic problem, however, are the "certified assholes." These are the people who don't have another operating system: they are (or have become) 24/7 assholes.

And we all suffer as a result, particularly if they happen to be in our immediate daily environment (Sutton focuses on assholes in the workplace, but obviously, his observations can extend outward into the world at large).

Sutton applies a two-pronged test for determining "whether a person is acting like an asshole":
1)"After talking to the alleged asshole, does the 'target' feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular does the target feel worse about him or herself?" (8)
2) "Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?" (8, emphasis in original)
Simply put, if they always make you feel like crap and never pick on someone their own size, they're probably a certified asshole.

Sutton then offers a list of "The Dirty Dozen"--everyday behaviors that assholes regularly use as part of their social repertoire.  I'm including the list (found on pgs. 9-10 of the Kindle file) in full.  (Try not to glance up and stare too noticeably at anyone in your immediate environment as you're reading it.  Be subtle.)

1. Personal insults
2. Invading one's "personal territory"
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
5. "Sarcastic jokes" and "teasing" used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering e-mail flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or "status degradation" rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they're invisible

Some of the items are obviously more egregious examples of assholery than others (uninvited touching and threats, for example), but what I like about this list is, it cover all the little things too--the things that leave you lying awake at night, wondering "whether they did it on purpose" or "meant well, but didn't realize," or if you're "reading too much into it."

For example, when you make a point or offer an observation or suggestion, and the person just stares off into space and then continues on as if you haven't spoken.  That's item #12--"Treating people as if they're invisible"--and no, there's absolutely nothing wrong with your point or suggestion, you were totally right to try to offer it and yes, they should have the courtesy to respond politely, if minimally.

They're simply being an asshole.  Oh, and the "teasing" one. Yeah, okay. "Insult delivery system." I thought so. Good to know. (Asshole.)

The problem with such behavior, Sutton points out, is that research has shown that one nasty interaction--no matter how minor-- carries approximately 5x the impact of a positive interaction (28).

And if you're baffled by that person who "seemed nice" until s/he got some kind of advancement at work, well, Sutton notes that
A huge body of research--hundreds of studies--shows that when people are put in positions of power, they start talking more, taking what they want for themselves, ignoring what other people say or want, ignoring how less powerful people react to their behavior, acting more rudely, and generally treating any situation or person as a means for satisfying their own needs--and that being put in positions of power blinds them to the fact that they are acting like jerks. (63)
So much for "doing good" and becoming a spokesperson for "the little guy" once you're promoted to a position of power and authority.

In short, not being an asshole is both a challenge and a choice. And the odds are not in your favor.

Ironically, Sutton argues that the best prevention against becoming an asshole is realizing how very easy it is to do so. He argues that we need to "view acting like an asshole as a communicable disease" (84), and notes that "A swarm of assholes is like a 'civility vacuum,' sucking the warmth and kindness out of everyone who enters and replacing it with coldness and contempt" (85).

God knows we've all been there, at some point.

So what's an aspiring non-asshole to do? Well, if you don't want to be sucked under and you can't simply quit your job and/or otherwise leave the asshole(s) behind, you need to consciously and deliberately limit your contact with the most egregious cases, to the best of your ability. In particular, Sutton advises,
Go to as few meetings with known assholes as possible, answer inquiries from them as slowly and rarely as you can and when you can't avoid them, keep the meetings short.  ...you may need to unlearn what we were all taught in grade school: that the 'good kids' stay in their seats and endure everything from mind-numbing boredom to demeaning teachers. (90)
I like Sutton's observation here, because I do think that there's a way in which assholes play on the notions of civility that they in turn suck out of the very air around us--namely, I get to be an asshole, but if you walk away or refuse to subject yourself to it, you're "being rude" and acting like "a jerk."

Methinks not, actually.

Sutton also points out that "reframing" the experience--as with all experiences--is helpful. An Australian friend of mine in grad school once used to say, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." In a similar vein, Sutton advises that, if you're in the proximity of assholes on a regular basis, "use ideas and language that frame life in ways that will make you focus on cooperation" and "adopt a frame that turns your attention to ways in which you are no better or worse than other people" (94).

Telling yourself, "It's not me. They do this," and reminding yourself, "I'll be okay, at the end of the day," are powerful ways of withstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous assholes.

Ultimately, indifference and emotional detachment are your best options. The more you get drawn in by others' assholery, the more likely it is that you will begin acting like an asshole yourself, even if "only" in self-defense (remember, being an asshole is highly contagious).

While cultivating a profound, deep-seated, existential indifference to assholes, you also want to celebrate the little things--what Sutton refers to as "small wins." If you're feeling beaten-down in one set of circumstances, make an effort to spend more time elsewhere, and choose circumstances where you can have a voice and do some good things that make you feel proud and accomplished.

What you don't want to do, however, is enter a stage of denial. Acknowledge the assholes for what they are, and be aware of what they can do--"don't let the bastards grind you down"--but don't entertain any illusions that they'll change their ways.

Because, as Sutton points out, "if you are subjected to mean-spirited people for long stretches, unbridled optimism can be dangerous to your spirit and esteem" (117).

If a certified asshole does something nice, be pleasantly surprised, but don't be deceived. As the old psychological adage has it, "Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior," so generally, once an asshole, always an asshole.

That said, however, Sutton strongly cautions against labeling others as "assholes" too quickly, simply because they have a blunt, gruff, or less-than-appealing interpersonal demeanor.

Some people come across as potential "assholes," but they really aren't, actually, and it takes getting to know them to realize that they just have a social "surface" that's less polished or pleasant than we might prefer or be used to.

Once you get to know them, you realize that they don't meet Sutton's guidelines. They don't constantly make other people feel like crap, actually, and they don't aim their venom at people who are less powerful than they are.  In fact, they may not even have any venom to spew. They may be perfectly nice people with a rough exterior or a cold demeanor or an abrupt and brusque way of speaking to others.

In the long run, if you're unable to fully and broadly implement the "No Asshole Rule" in your life, the best advice Sutton can offer is to expect the worst, but hope for the best, do what you can to make good things happen for yourself, find better people to interact with, and, when embroiled in a shitstorm of assholery, remind yourself that "this too shall pass" (as my mom used to say).

And when it does, you'll be just fine, thank you.  (Not that you care.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lapsed

Yes, I vanished.  For over 2 weeks.

I wish I could say I was vacationing somewhere perfectly wonderful or figuring out how to invest my lottery earnings, but... no such luck.  At first I was simply busy, then I was going a bit crazy, and lately, I've been settling back into simply busy.

The good news takes two forms: on the one hand, the bit o' crazy I experienced this time around seemed to have the effect of a lightning bolt on my brain.  It motivated me to write and write and write, and I'm nearing the end of an article that I'm quite happy with and embarking on another one that I anticipate being happy with as well.

By a strange coincidence, when "the crazy" hit this time around, I had been reading Mark Goulstan's book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life (2015).

While I wouldn't say it kept me from going crazy myself--I had a couple of sleepless nights in there and the stress was palpable--I do feel like reading about some of the insights he offered helped me get to a place of calm more quickly than I might otherwise have.

I've blogged a bit in the past about being a "Pathological Altruist"--basically, someone who gets often pulled in as a "Rescuer" in the Karpman Drama Triangle or who takes on a "Care-Taking" role in relationships, attempt to solve others' problems to such an extent that it creates problems for myself.

So this latest flare-up was, in some ways, a good measuring stick for how far I've come.  I got angry, I got obsessive, I got down to brass tacks and figured out what I wanted to do, and then I stated what was on my mind, clearly, firmly, definitively.

And I didn't succumb to guilt or emotional manipulation.  I insisted that others take responsibility for their own choices.  And although it annoyed me when I was pretty sure I wasn't being listened to, I didn't keep trying to make my points: I knew I had been clear, I knew I'd done all I could do, and I knew I needed to walk away.

So that's what I did: I said, "I'm stepping away from this--don't follow me," and left.  And as a result, after 48 hrs of crazy, I felt calm and collected and in control.  There wasn't the same repetitive anxiety and relived frustration I've experienced before.

A couple of Goulstan's approaches in particular helped me. As I mentioned (I think) in a previous post, Goulstan suggests taking inventory of the "irrational" or demanding (i.e., "crazy" and "crazy-making") people in your life by "taking stock" of what you think you should be getting from them versus what you're actually getting.

So, Goulstan suggests,
Ask yourself: Can you rely on this person for emotional or psychological support, or is the person distant or even abusive? Can you rely on this person for practical help, or does the person let you down whenever you need assistance?  Does the person accept responsibility for his actions or blame others? Is the person reliable or unreliable? Is the person self-reliant or needy? (35)
The goal, obviously, is to determine the level of reciprocity in the relationship.  If you're always supportive, helpful and reliable, and the person tends to leave you twisting in the wind... that's not good.  If said person often blames others when s/he leaves you twisting in the wind... that's even worse.

Goulstan acknowledges that "[s]ometimes you'll owe the person loyalty 'just because.' Because you're grateful for everything she did for you earlier. Because it's not her fault that a trauma or illness is making her behave irrationally. Because you love her, no matter what" (36).

And while that's fine and a fair choice, Goulstan also points out that sometimes "you'll discover that you're sticking with an irrational person simply because you don't want to feel like a bad person yourself" (36)--in particular, you feel guilty for having "bad thoughts" about the person.

Goulstan argues that, if you feel like this, "it's a very strong sign that you need to disconnect from the person" (36).

Which is always easier said than done, obviously.  Goulstan offers some help, in the form of "the DNR method for escaping a relationship": "Do Not React," "Do Not Respond," "Do Not Resuscitate" (36).

Not reacting simply means not making the person's problems or responsibilities your fault or responsibility.  It's their point of view, their problem, and their responsibility.  Not yours.

Not responding is not saying anything that can be twisted and used against you--not giving the person a way of making their problem your problem, fault or responsibility.

Not resuscitating is simply refusing to engage with the person in way that enables him/her to "rev up and try to rehook you."

If you do all of these things, you'll get out, but it's up to you to stay "out." The person will probably try to hook you back in, particularly if you've helped solved their problems in the past. So it's up to you to not let that happen.

Personally, I'm a big believer in the power of peace and quiet. I really think that, for most psychologically healthy people, getting a toxic or difficult person out of one's life is such a relief that you aren't really tempted to go back to them.  They're hard to miss, because the "good" times with them are few and far between or in the far-off past--in a sense, they've overdrawn their emotional "account" with you and have been kiting checks at your expense for a while now.

Goulstan also offers what I find to be even more helpful advice: suggestions for getting your own "crazy" under control, particularly in moments when you're dealing with an irrational person.  He frames these suggestions as a series of "weapons."

First, you can stop thinking of yourself as under attack and instead, pause and say... "Opportunity for poise" (59).

While it may sound silly, it has a basis in neurobiology.  When we're under attack, our amygdala kicks in and we go into "fight, flight or freeze" mode--we can't deploy the more rational centers of our brain. 

So actually saying something like, "Opportunity for poise," either mentally or out loud, engages your cerebral cortex. It forces the more rational, less emotive centers of the brain to kick in a bit.  And if you repeat the phrase, they will begin to take over.

I really want to get better at implementing this weapon.  I'm still a bit to prone to hit "WTF?!" mode.

Another "weapon" that Goulstan suggests is "Picturing Your Mentors." I'll admit, I've done this.

When I'm under attack or someone is making me feel bad or foolish or whatever, I'll picture my dad standing behind me. Or various friends and advisors I've had over the years: I think about what they would say and what they would advise me to do in the moment (usually, "Keep your mouth shut: they're not worth your time and energy!") and I feel much stronger as a result.

Because it can be hard to stand your ground when crazy piles onto you.  But feeling like you have the presence of a "posse" can really help.

A more detailed suggestion that Goulstan offers is an "Eight-Step Pause."  Basically, in this instance, you systematically take stock of how you're feeling physically and emotionally, what your impulses are or might be, what the consequences of acting on those impulses might be, and how else you might respond (insights and possible solutions).

Once you've catalogued those, you can figure out what the benefits would be of acting on the insights and solutions and decide to take action.

Again, the idea is to move out of the "fight, flight, freeze" response which is purely emotional and impulsive (and often not good or useful) in order to tap into the more cerebral reactions.

In effect, you are "training yourself to be saner" (66). Instead of succumbing to anger and fear, you have resources at your disposal for remaining calm.

Instead of reacting to a lapse in your own sanity brought on by the irrationality of others, you act from the place of your own integrity and sense of self. 

A difficult task, but an important goal.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Interpersonal


I think this is my favorite of the Persian color-work hexagons so far.  And yes, I'm slowing down on them, but it isn't a race (is it?) and I've been doing a bit more reading lately.

Case in point: as I mentioned in a previous post, I picked up a book that talked about a reconfiguration of Karpman's Drama Triangle.  While I can't say I'd recommend David Emerald's book, really (the set-up was little too hokey for me), The Power of TED* (The Empowerment Dynamic) offered an interesting way of rethinking Karpman's ideas in a structure that is more--you guessed it--empowering, rather than debilitating.

So, as I mentioned, instead of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer, Emerald refashions the points of the triangle in a way that rethinks the "Victim Orientation" towards the world.  Because the other points of the triangle are defined by their relationship or interaction with the Victim (and because Persecutors and Rescuers also adopt a "Victim" mentality when caught within the Drama Triangle), Emerald argues that a reconfiguration of the "Victim" role can lead to a changed dynamic within the Triangle itself.

Instead of Victims, Emerald argues for "Creators"--that is, individuals who focus not on dealing with (or simply enduring) "problems," but on creating "outcomes."  This change in a person's "Orientation" toward his or her life can, Emerald argues, change the dynamics of the Drama Triangle because it rearranges an individual's "focus."

As Emerald argues, the "delusion of the Victim Orientation" is, "you believe you're reacting to a problem, when you are really reacting to your own anxiety."

Instead, Emerald suggests that, as a "Creator," "[y]ou orient your thoughts and actions toward creating what you most want to see or experience in life."  Rather than always reacting to a problem, you train your energy and focus on bring about the things you want in your life--even if it's only by taking what Emerald calls "Baby Steps" in the direction you want to go:
"Taking a Baby Step means doing the next logical thing in front of you--making a phone call, having a conversation, or gathering information. Each step you take either moves you closer to your vision or helps you clarify the final form of your desire outcome."
Ultimately, in a "Creator" mindset, you decide which problems you'll focus on, and your selection is based on the idea that you address the ones that "will best serve your outcomes."

The other points of the Triangle are reconfigured accordingly as well: Persecutors become "Challengers" and Rescuers become "Coaches."

By considering problems or problematic individuals as "Challengers" rather than "Persecutors," the idea is that you eliminate the Victim mentality and recognize that, no matter how difficult, life circumstances can offer an opportunity for growth and learning.  In effect, "Challengers" are the vehicles of that great universal teacher, experience.

And in a similar vein, Rescuers under Emerald's reconfiguration of the Karpman Drama Triangle also move into a more instructive--and constructive--role.  Instead of saving a Victim from his or her problems, "Coaches" do exactly what their title suggests--they offer suggestions, but without becoming "attached to any particular outcome."  Thus, Emerald argues,
"A Coach ... remembers that other people are creative, resourceful whole beings, capable of creating their heart's desires--again, whether they know it or not and whether they act like it or not.  A Coach assumes others are responsible for their life choices and experiences."
As a recovering Rescuer myself, I particularly liked Emerald's advice for making the transition to a "Coaching" mentality:
"Be curious.  Ask questions. ... A Coach's major contribution is in the questions he asks. Rescuers have a tendency to tell others what they should do, giving advice or instruction.  Coaches make occasional suggestions, but without concerning themselves with whether other people follow their recommendations."
The reason I like this description is because it taps into the things about the Rescuer role that are good: Rescuers do want to help.  Unless the person occupying the role is particularly toxic, it isn't always about control for a Rescuer--they really empathize with a Victim's pain.

But you can't fix other people's problems for them.  You just can't.  They have to do it for themselves.

So the idea of offering suggestions and support but reminding oneself to remain detached from the other person's decisions is a helpful way of enabling a Recovering Rescuer feel ... helpful.  Without becoming helplessly caught up in the kind of drama that inevitably unfolds when you want or expect or even try to change someone else's behavior.

I've also been reading the work of Mark Goulston, a psychologist who writes about how to communicate well with others.  I've finished his book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone and next I'm going to be reading his latest work, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life.

Because I don't know about you, but the title alone had me at "hello."

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Good Finish

It's been a busy week or so, but a productive one.  I finished the editing project I took on--on very short notice--at the start of the month.

And I finished five days early, thank you very much.  So I felt really good about the extent to which I stayed focused and on track with that.

That said, I still need to finish the article that I've been working on... forever.  I set myself an end-of-the-month deadline for that as well, so... fingers crossed.

But in the meantime, while procrastinating on that, I guess you could say, I managed to get my courses ready for the fall.  So those are poised for the start of the semester which is, at this point, only about a month away.

(SOB.)

Sorry, couldn't help that.

And this week marked a little gardening triumph.  Last April, I planted potatoes in both a tower and in a raised bed.  On Wednesday, I decided to bite the bullet and see how the plants in the raised beds had fared.

Planting potatoes isn't difficult, per se, but it has some little quirks.  The largest of which is that you can't really see how, when or even IF the plant is actually producing potatoes.  You'll have foliage, you'll have flowers, you'll even have "fruit" appearing above ground, but the actual potatoes themselves?

They grow as "tubers" on the "stolons" that form underground  Like so:

Source: http://cipotato.org/potato/how-potato-grows/

There are a couple of ways to tell if things are going okay: one of my friends told me, "If you've got flowers, that's a good sign."

And the foliage should look healthy, obviously--because potato plants will just grow upwards seemingly indefinitely, and if you keep piling dirt up over the leaves and around the stem ("hilling"), you will get more potatoes (at least in theory).

So this was the theory behind the potato towers that I built.  But because I had never grown potatoes before, I decided to also plant them in a raised bed and see what happened--that way, I could decide which was easier or more productive.

The only way to harvest potatoes, is to dig around the plant (carefully) and extract the potatoes, or dig it up (carefully) and then put it back.

I started by digging around the plant a bit to see if there were any potatoes at all (my fear being, obviously, that there wouldn't be) and what size they were.  If you wait and let the foliage die back, you'll have better-sized tubers (potatoes), but you can also harvest "new" potatoes, which will be smaller.

So this is what I initially found, when I dug around the base of one of the plants:


On the basis of this, I made an executive decision (formulated as "oh, what the hell--why not just dig them up?" and I dug the 4 plants in the raised beds up.

This was the result:

Potatoes!  Both red and yukon gold, in a variety of sizes (and shapes).

That's a 10 qt bucket, so that means that, from 4 plants, I got (very roughly) about 20 lbs of potatoes.

I put the decent-sized ones in the basement to "cure."  This means letting them rest so that their skins toughen up a bit, and the you can sort through and deal with any that are diseased or problematic.  They have to be stored in the basement because, if exposed to light, potatoes will take on a greenish color.

If they do, it means they've produced "solanine" and shouldn't be eaten until you peel them and remove the green (it's a sign of chlorophyll, which tends to suggest the plant is producing solanine as well).  If they're really green, well...you'd have to eat quite a few to get actually sick and they aren't going to taste very good, in all likelihood.

Luckily, my potatoes aren't green, and I have a nice darker corner in a humid basement, so they're resting comfortably.

In the meantime, however, I ate the smaller ones (because I have cats and if you line up a bunch of small, golf-ball sized objects on a shelf, you're just asking for trouble).

Here's what they looked like, all ready to be made into herbed-salt-and-vinegar potatoes:


The ones that weren't eaten?  Well, stored in a dark basement at temps above 40 degrees Farenheit, they should last for several months.  Stored at a slightly lower temp (35-40 degrees F), they'll last about six months.

But I don't have a root cellar, so I'm simply going to have to monitor and eat them before they go bad.

And given how good they taste, I don't foresee that being a problem.