Monday, October 23, 2017

Apologies

I recently read Harriet Lerner's Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (2017).

Lerner's approach to apologies is both practical and interesting. She highlights the advantages of the effective apology--namely, it's brief and doesn't include the word "but" or "if" (as in, "I'm sorry for X, but [insert explanation undoing apology here] or "I'm sorry if [you seem to think I did something I should be sorry for, because I really can't see it]").

Perhaps more importantly, Lerner acknowledges that "[s]ometimes, the failure of the other person to apologize when they should hits us harder than the deed they should apologize for" (4).

Even when offered, an apology may require its "own time and space to take hold": pushing a person to forgive and reconcile may make the person feel "wronged all over again" (22). As Lerner reminds us, "[t]he purpose of an apology is to calm and soothe the hurt party, not to agitate or pursue her because you have the impulse to connect, explain yourself, lower your guilt quotient, or foster your recovery" (23).

In other words, when you apologize, it's not about you.

I like the warnings that Lerner offers about apologizing because in my own experience, I've found that mishandled apologies can begin to mark the decline of a friendship.

A friend was absent from my life during a period of time when I really could have used all the friends I had. When she returned, I'd suffered a significant loss. She called me one day out of the blue, apologized for being absent and then began to cry about the fact that she felt terrible because she had been such a bad friend. 

Long story short, I ended up consoling her.  Even as I did so, I remember thinking, "Yeah, this is really a bit much, calling me up to apologize for being a crappy friend and then turning it into an occasion where I get to console and reassure you ... while I'm smack-dab in the middle of planning a funeral for a loved one..."

In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that, because several years later, faced with a very similar situation, she did it again. At that point, when she began to cry, I had very little to say.

When I look back on these incidents, I can't say that I resent the fact that I didn't get a sincere apology--I just feel a bit relieved that I've let the friendship fade.

As Lerner points out, "Part of a true apology is staying deeply curious about the hurt person's experience rather than hijacking it with your own emotionality" (29). In the case of my absent friend, the proffered apology definitely rang false because it was hijacked by her own needs.

That's not to say, however, that every apology has to be marked by prostration and wholesale remorse on the part of the offending party. Instead, Lerner argues, "[w]e can learn to listen differently, to ask questions, to apologize for the part we can agree with and define how we see things differently" (36), a process that deepens intimacy by adding nuance to the existing relationship.

This is easier said than done, of course. As Lerner points out, when someone accuses us of causing pain or discomfort, "[w]e automatically listen for and react to what is unfair and incorrect" (43). And, when we hear it, we react defensively.

I think this is because, as Lerner repeatedly observes, we (erroneously) tend to think of apologies as all-or-nothing phenomena.

If I'm angry with you, it's all your fault. Except that often, it's not. As Lerner notes, "[a] sincere apology means we are fully accountable for the part we are responsible for, and for only that" (46)--apologizing to someone doesn't mean that we're required to "passively accept criticisms that we believe are wrong, unjust, and totally off the mark" (45).

(I wonder how many families out there know this? Offhand, I'm guessing maybe three. Because this sure doesn't sound like the way apologizing went in my family over the years...)  

Lerner suggests that if we want to evaluate the sincerity of an apology, we should watch the follow-up, rather than focusing excessively on the apologizer's tone or expecting immediate evidence of wholehearted contrition at the very moment of the apology.

And what happens if you don't even get a much-needed apology?

Unlike many, Lerner is not an advocate of "forgiveness" for its own sake. She argues instead that "we don't need to forgive the actions of an unapologetic offender to find peace of mind" (142) and that too often, we conflate "letting go" with "forgiving" (143):
We need to accept the reality that sometimes the wrongdoer is unreachable and unrepentant--or perhaps long dead--and we have a choice as to whether we continue to carry the wrongdoing on our shoulders or not. (142)
Whether or not we "forgive," we can, in Lerner's words, opt to "dissipate" the "emotional charge" of the event for which we never received an apology. For her part, Lerner notes,
In the absence of a sincere apology--or some way a person might show me they are truly sorry and will not repeat the injury--I have no idea what it means to forgive a harmful or hurtful incident, though I know what it means to love that person anyway and wish them well. (145)
Ultimately, Lerner argues, "the word forgive is much like the word respect. It can't be commanded or demanded or forced, or gifted for no reason at all" (145). Perhaps more importantly, she insists that forgiveness can be a measured concept--"you can forgive the other person 95 percent or 2 percent or anywhere in between" (149).

But even if it's 0 percent--if you really just can't forgive another person, whether or not you've received the apology that you think you're due--you don't need to cling to the kind of anger, bitterness, and negativity that accompanies the memory of the other person's misdeed. 

In the absence of an apology, you can still cultivate empathy, kindness, and compassion. As Lerner points out, "[n]ot everyone is capable of radical forgiveness, nor does everyone strive for it" (143-144).

That doesn't make you an unkind, closed-minded, or hard-hearted individual.

It just makes you human.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"My Left Foot"

Recently, I read a very interesting memoir, My Left Foot (1954), by Christy Brown.

You may know the story from the 1989 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker: both actors won Oscars--for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively--in 1990.

Brown was born in Ireland in June of 1932; in the first months of his life, it became increasingly clear that he had cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder caused by brain injury or malformation that occurs before, during or after birth.

My Left Foot opens with an acknowledgement of this context: "Mine was a difficult birth, I am told. Both mother and son almost died. A whole army of relations queued up outside the hospital until the small hours of the morning, waiting for news and praying furiously that it would be good" (1).

Both mother and son lived, but as time went on, it appeared that the news wasn't unequivocally "good." The physical impairments caused by cerebral palsy vary from person to person: in Brown's case, they were quite severe. His memoir is called "My Left Foot" because it eventually became clear that this was the only limb that he could reliably control.

Over time, Brown would learn to paint with his left foot

He also used it to write and to type, despite the fact that, in January of 1949, he was advised by a specialist in London that if he wanted to be "cured eventually," he must "resolve never to use [his] left foot again" (115). Brown's reaction was predictable:
My left foot! But that meant everything to me--I could speak only with that, create only with that! It was my only means of communication with the outside world, my only way of reaching the minds of other people and making myself articulate and intelligible. The rest of me was useless, worthless, and that one limb, my left foot, was the only workable thing in my whole body. Without it I would be lost, silent, powerless. (115)
The choice Brown was given was a cruel one. 

http://ifi.ie/film/archive-at-lunchtime-prog-1-free-event-aug-2014/
He was told, "If you continue to use your left foot you may one day become a great artist or writer with it--but you'll never be cured" (115).

Ultimately, he "promised" never to use his left foot again.

Brown eventually broke this "promise" in order to become a writer.

One day, frustrated with dictating his thoughts to his brother,  Brown "tore off [his] left shoe, ripped off [his] left sock with the other foot" and "[s]eized a pencil between [his] first and second left toe and began to write:
I wrote and wrote without pause without consciousness of my surroundings hour after hour. I felt a different person. I wasn't unhappy any more. I didn't feel frustrated or shut up any more I was free, I could think, I could live, I could create. ... (166)
Brown's memoir as a whole is about what it means to be free, to think, to live, and to create when one must do so in spite of severe physical impairment and in a world full of people who seem either unwilling or unable to conceive of physical difference as anything other than an impairment.

Significantly, Brown's family was not made up of such people. He credits his mother, in particular, for being "determined to treat [him] on the same plane as the others, and not as the 'queer one' in the back room who was never spoken of when there were visitors present" (2).

In short, he claims, "I was her child, and therefore part of the family" (2). At the end of My Left Foot, Brown describes how, at a public reading of his work, his mother was given... a round of applause and a bouquet of roses... in recognition of her efforts over the years.

(That was back in the day when it was considered impolite for women to openly object to astoundingly patronizing behavior.)

"The others" that Brown refers to are his many (many!!) siblings. At the outset of his memoir, Brown states, "[t]here were nine children before me and twelve after me, so I myself belong to the middle group. Out of this total of twenty-two, seventeen lived, four died in infancy, leaving thirteen still to hold the family fort" (1).

Let's pause for minute here, and take that in. His mother's determination to see him succeed held fast despite the fact that she was pregnant more or less constantly for twenty-two years and raising  a lot of other children in the interim.

So, if you get right down to it, the rest of the world has no excuse, really.  

In addition to the influence of his mother, Brown's large family structure had its advantages, at least when it came to the community's perception and acceptance of his difference. As a child, Brown was often out in the streets with his brothers, who "took [him] with them when they went out to play in the streets after school, pushing [him] along in a rusty old go-car which they called [his] 'chariot'" (18).

In contrast to his later experiences as an adult, Brown revels in the years spent with "boys from our own neighbourhood who were young enough and frank enough to accept me as one of themselves without asking any questions" (18). In fact, he argues, "many of them regarded my affliction as some queer sort of symbol of superiority, almost of godliness, so that they treated me with deference, respect, in a strange childish way" (18).

Brown's memoir is a brief but fascinating account of his "affliction" and its varying contexts throughout his childhood and into his early adulthood. Sadly, Brown's life ended in 1981 when he choked to death during dinner; after his death, there were allegations that his wife had been both abusive and alcoholic, and Brown himself had become extremely reclusive and dependent on alcohol.

My Left Foot describes only the early decades of Brown's life, but throughout his memoir, he grapples with the discrepancies between his mind and his body, his capabilities and his community. His story has moments of sheer joy, in a narrative that, as it unfolds, consists of increasing measures of sadness, depression, and disconnection.

Ultimately, Brown prompts us to think about what it means to define someone in terms of their physicality by compelling us to think about what his left foot meant to him-- and, in turn, what it might mean (and symbolize) to us.       

Friday, October 6, 2017

One in a Million

A week ago, I completed my first "Million Miles" challenge for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Foundation, its purpose is "to raise money and awareness of childhood cancer causes, primarily for research into new treatments and cures, and to encourage and empower others, especially children, to get involved and make a difference for children with cancer."

As many of my blog readers already know, childhood cancer directly touched my life. My best friend's son (and my godson), Ezra, died of brain cancer in 2011.

He was only 10 years old.

Ezra was diagnosed in October of 2011, and spent his birthday--October 25th--in the hospital recovering from surgery. I got the news of his diagnosis two days after my own birthday.

Childhood cancer changed everything about my life.

I used to love celebrating my birthday. After Ezra's diagnosis... not so much. Since 2011, I quietly commemorate it, at most, because it feels wrong to do a whole lot of celebrating around a time that ended up so... painful and wrong.

I remember the song I was listening to on my iPod when I checked my messages and got the message from my best friend about the diagnosis.

I've never once listened to that song since. I can't even face the thought of hearing it. (I suspect it would provoke some kind of low-grade PTSD in me if I tried.)  I don't even want to mention it, because I'm superstitious about the fact that if I do, I might actually hear it.

I love to bike. For years, I always felt like it enabled me to reconnect with my "inner child."

I lost count of the number of times that, after Ezra's diagnosis, I found myself walking my bike home after heading out for a ride, because I was crying too hard to ride.

The thought that I, a 40-something-year-old woman, could bike and a child that I loved could not floored me on more than one occasion.

So when my best friend formed a team to participate in Alex's Million Mile campaign this year, I knew that it was something that I wanted to do and that, in many ways, it would be therapeutic for me.

The goal was for the participants to collectively walk, run, or bike a million miles during the month of September and raise $1 million for childhood cancer research.

In the end, the campaign collectively completed 876,000 miles and raised $995,802. for childhood cancer research.

Not. Too. Shabby.

Our team, Ezra's Entourage, set a fundraising goal of $700. We had a lot of introverts on our team, and by nature, we're not terribly keen on fundraising, although like many, we don't mind money. (In fact, some of us rather like it.)

We raised $885. (I'm relatively certain a few people probably unfollowed me on Facebook because they became terribly sick of hearing me ask for donations on an almost daily basis for an entire month.)

Our mileage goal was 800 miles. We reached 998 miles.

Sidebar: If I'd known that was how it was going to turn out, I'd have done the extra 2 miles myself so we could say we reached 1000 miles, but that's probably just because I have an odd visceral obsession with certain kinds of numbers. I strongly suspect I'm the only team member lying awake at night thinking about that, so I'm going to let it go. (But note to self for next year.)

Personally, I reached 250 miles. My initial goal was 100 miles. Suffice to say, I'm really proud of myself, because that boils down to a little over 60 miles a week of walking and/or biking.

More importantly, it was, as I anticipated it would be, wonderfully therapeutic. I finally got a chance to use my bike rides to help children who are--unfortunately, unfairly--going through what Ezra went through.

Whenever I started to think about whether I was tired (or hot or hungry or sad) on my walks, I thought about the fact that all of these things would have been a non-issue for me if I'd been presented with the option to walk (or bike or run) to save Ezra's life.

All of us on the team would have done all of what we did and more besides, no question, to save a child with cancer.

As I walked and biked, I was often reminded of the Bible verses that the minister read at my dad's funeral.

My dad's birthday is shortly before mine: he met Ezra once, when Ezra was quite young. At the time, my dad found it very funny that Ezra just happened to be wearing a checkerboard plaid shirt, because that was my dad's favorite pattern. And my dad was a runner.

So throughout September, Ezra and my dad were often on my mind as I walked and biked, and many times, I remembered the words of Isaiah 40:30-31.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Kindergarten Forever

A friend recommended a book last weekend, and I ended up thoroughly engrossed by it. Mitchel Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2017) addresses the question of how to foster creative thinking--although Resnick's focus is on children, as he points out, it's also relevant for anyone "who is curious about kids, learning, and creativity" (4).

Prior to the invention of the first kindergarten in 1837, teachers typically practiced what Resnick calls "a broadcast approach to education" (7).  They stood at the front of the classroom and "broadcast" information to students who in turn copied it down and perhaps recited it back later.

By contrast, the first kindergarten opened by Friedrich Froebel in 1837 operated on the assumption that "young children learn best by interacting with the world around them" (7). Resnick extends this assumption to argue that "the rest of school (indeed, the rest of life) should become more like kindergarten" (9). 

In particular, Resnick considers the creative process as a "Creative Learning Spiral" like the kind pictured below:

Mitchel Resnick, Lifelong Kindergarten (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2017), p. 11
This is the creative process typically fostered in a kindergarten classroom: children create the things they imagine, play with them, share their creations with others, reflect on any problems that arise, and then re-imagine, re-create, re-play, etc.

Unfortunately, Resnick notes, this process often ends when kindergarten is over. In order to develop more creative young thinkers he argues, we need to follow four "guiding principles": "projects, passion, peers, and play" (16).

Resnick also takes the time to dispel numerous misconceptions about the nature of creativity. Too often, we think of the creative process only in terms of artistic expression--in fact, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs (among others) need creativity as well, and creativity is not, as we so often assume, something that only a select few can experience or practice (18).

Perhaps more importantly, creativity isn't about instantaneous inspiration or insight: instead "creativity is a long-term process" (19) and one that can be nurtured and, to some extent, taught--"so long as you think about teaching as an organic, interactive process" (20).

I think the reason that I found Resnick's book so engrossing is because it both echoed and expanded my own thinking about the nature of creativity. When I teach writing, I often have to alert students to the fact that papers take time to emerge--ideas and arguments don't spring forth fully formed, and it can take a while to figure out not only what you are going to say, but how you are going to say it.

Both of these steps are part of the process of creativity, and perhaps thinking about them as moments of "play" is a useful way to break out of the worry that we aren't going to sound "smart" or "sophisticated" from the very moment we put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard).

Maybe we'll sound downright silly sometimes. Maybe what we create in writing will be very different from what we imagined.

And maybe that's okay. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Labor of Love

I planned to write this post on Labor Day, which was nearly two weeks ago now. That's how the time has been going.

But as the title suggests, it's been going well. The semester is back underway, and it's going along swimmingly (and in my world, anything involving swimming is a good thing).

We're still cranking along, raising money and racking up miles for Ezra's Entourage. I'm proud of myself, because I made my mileage goal only ten days in to the challenge, so everything from this point on in terms of miles is just additional fitness--which I can very much use.

I've done my best with the fundraising, but I'm still well short of my $$ goal on that front (as our all of our team members), so any love that anyone can show to any one of us, in the form of donations, great or small, I'm more than grateful for.

I'm also finishing up a donation project for Knit Aid. It's turned into a bit of a last-minute scramble (doesn't it always, when it comes to knitting?), but I'm hoping to add one last cowl to a box of hats, scarves, mittens, and cowls that I will be sending to support refugees in Europe.

I'm putting the finishing touches on a syllabus for a new course on representations of disability in literature that I'll be teaching this spring--this means that, in the upcoming days, I may actually have a few books to blog about, for a change. I know I've slacked off on that front a bit in recent months, so my plan is to try to do a bit more of that, since it will be a way to crank out a few more blog posts more regularly.

And this is something--blog writing--that I think I'll be able to recommit to in the upcoming months, if only because all of the various articles (there were 3 this summer) are now either in print (the one on Hersey's Hiroshima is available here, if anyone is interested), poised to appear in print (the second one on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales is due out in October), or under review (the one about Capote's In Cold Blood and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is awaiting a second-round decision).

So the only academic writing that I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks involves a grant proposal (which I have essentially written, I just need to attend a workshop, get input, and put the finishing touches on that) and a possible conference paper proposal, which I'm not entirely wedded to--I may just give myself a break and let that slide. We'll see.

But before you think I've done nothing but work for others, rest assured: my labor of love has born fruit--literally--in other ways.


After so many summers of unending struggles and more or less constant disappointment when it comes to growing tomatoes, this summer feels like quite the triumph. Yes, I had less luck with other veggies (broccoli, I'm looking at you), but I finally managed to swing it when it comes to the tomatoes.

Needless to say, I'll be saving the seeds and dreaming of doing it all again come next year.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Starting September

It was only 63 degrees in the house this morning--just a wee bit too chilly for an early morning bike ride--so I'm making a virtue of necessity and writing a (long overdue) blog post instead.

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Classes started this week, and they're off to the wonderful start that always seems to occur.

It's a way of making me less sad to see summer go, getting the chance to see students' bright new and in some cases familiar faces again.

I've signed up to participate in Alex's Million Miles, a fundraising drive to benefit the search for a cure for childhood cancer.

With that in mind, I acquired a low-tech Fitbit, so I've been enjoying getting familiar with that (I can see how people can become obsessed with such things).

For my part, the advantage of the Fitbit, besides logging miles for my fundraiser is simply that this winter, I will no longer be able to delude myself that I've been active when I'm clearly not. 

Since it's late summer right now, though, I'm active. And how. Today's plan is to clean the gutters and take a bike ride. Yesterday was a massive yardwork day, documented in the following "before" and "after" photos:



It was a task that took several hours, needless to say (and racked up all kinds of miles on my Fitbit). I'd been dreading it from the moment I decided "those bushes need to just GO" a couple of months ago.

There was just no trimming them in a way that made them look better, because their innards were dead. In my experience, that's a pretty common phenomenon when you inherit evergreen bushes put in by a previous owner. People like them because they're "low maintenance," but don't realize that "low maintenance" is not the same as "no maintenance."

This particular bush was a kind of "weeping evergreen"--my neighbor called it "the Cousin It" bush. When I bought the house, it had grown halfway up the lower windows and wept its way over and onto the lawn. Which it was slowly killing, as acidic evergreen needles will.

I trimmed it, and at first, it looked okay. But here's the thing: if you don't trim and cut evergreens back regularly, right from the time you plant them, eventually, you have bushes that are just a mass of empty branches inside, with no growth, hidden only by the outside branches, which just get longer and longer.

This summer, I was pretty much done with dealing with this bush because I could no longer cut it back so that it wasn't a) killing the lawn, and b) covering half of my living room windows, without exposing the empty innards.

It just didn't look good anymore, and wasn't going to look good again any time soon. Add to that the fact that those branches are scratchy and when I trim it, I end up covered in scratches that swell up and itch (apparently, I'm slightly allergic to whatever kind of conifer it is), and it was just time for it to be on its way to that Great Greenhouse in the Sky.

I put in a pair of purple rhododendron bushes instead. They're small now, but they'll fill out, and I can prune them myself right from the get-go. They'll also do well given that the soil is still going to be acidic: I dug out the roots (yes, I really did--that was the main struggle), but there are inevitably going to be remnants around for a while to come, so this way, they'll help instead of hurt.  

And, I like rhododendrons. I already have some light purple ones in the back of the house that do quite well, so I'm hoping that the little Labor Day struggle this year will yield something nice come spring.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

In the End Zone

I feel like I've spent the last week staring at the calendar in stunned surprise. How did it get to be more than mid-August already? Where did the summer go?

On some level, I know where it went. I wrote an article from scratch, and got it published (due out on Sept. 1st). I saw another through the page proof stage (due out in October). And I significantly revised a third, which is now being re-reviewed.

That's a lot of writing, plain and simple.

There was a conference presentation in May. There was a wonderful week-long vacation with my best friend and her family.

And for the past week, there has been a lot of doing the various odds and ends that need to happen before a semester starts: syllabi to check or revamp and then post online. Course assignments to figure out.

All the summer behind-the-scenes business that goes with being a professor.

I've also gotten involved in a few charitable causes: one involves fitness, the other two involve fiber (knitting and crocheting, that is). They're going to ensure that September is a busy month.

In the meantime, I'm savoring the last week of total freedom. Here are a few of the things that have come with it:




This sequence of photos sums up the summer quite nicely. It's been productive and wonderful, full of health and happiness. And as sorry as I am to see it go, I feel like it's put me in good shape to greet the things that come with the end of summer and the start of school.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Peak

I've spent the past week on a little vacation, and what a wonderful one it was!

It included movies, a day at the beach, a lot of ice cream, tours of interesting historic homes, miniature golf, go-kart race cars, and climbing and traversing an aerial obstacle course made of rope bridges and zip lines.

Yes, you read that correctly: I set down the knitting and went a-climbing at an "adventure park."

It bruised both my ego and my body, but I did it. The zip-lining was actually fun, but crossing rope bridges and logs and narrow beams suspended high in the air was challenging, to say the least.

I'm not afraid of heights, really, but I also don't consider myself Cirque de Soleil or tightrope-walker material, and this was kind of that.

My people are solid citizens, going back generations. If you need light and nimble and graceful, you'd best go elsewhere and find someone else.

But if you want someone to yell and maybe throw a punch or block and tackle, my people are your people.

In general, I prefer a more stable substratum beneath my feet, and this park denied me that. I didn't really realize that it would, or I probably wouldn't have gone--and that would have been a shame.

That said, I would never throw shade on anyone who took one look at this place and said, "Not for me."

Their website offers perhaps the best description of what I undertook: "Each trail has 12-14 elements which include tunnels, moving planks, zip lines, rope walks, cargo nets, and similar features."

"Elements." Isn't that a nice word? Yeah, I thought so too. FYI, this is what they mean by that:


Needless to say, my best friend's kids LOVED it. It was a great idea. For them. They want to go again.

For her part, my best friend said, "Okay, it's like we're in the army." This was when we were talking about crawling through a barrel suspended 20 feet in the air, like so:


My BFF handled the things like a boss, though. She went on some of the more difficult trails and owned it. I felt slightly queasy just looking at a couple of the "elements" that she tackled.

Me? Well, I fell off an "element" on one of the intermediate trails. This one, actually: 

 
 
Yes, that's an "intermediate" "element," and no, that's not me in the picture. I got to that midpoint, the whole thing began swaying when I tried to transition from one beam to the next, and I slipped and fell and ended up dangling next to the beam instead of perched on it like the little sparrow I was supposed to be trying to be.

So I had to have a staff member come up and attach me to a pulley and lower me to the ground. They don't put that image as their cover photo on Facebook. (I hope.)

Once that had been accomplished, I crawled off to tend to my wounded ego. I also took that opportunity to marvel at the large hematoma on my shin--that was from a previous "element."  This one, in fact:



Those logs eventually go up a little incline. One of them swung back and hit me in the leg. It hurt, but I was so high from the adrenaline rush that comes when you're clinging to a wire and thinking you might actually have paid for a ticket to die that I just thought, "ow" and kept going because all I wanted was to reach that glorious, beautiful, three-foot wide platform on a tree that means that you've completed an "element." 

To her credit, the staff member who helped me tried to convince me to keep trying after I fell.

I appreciated her confidence in my strength and balance. I think their attitude is, it's a question of mindset: if you put you mind to it, you can do it!

They're so young, these park attendants. It's really sweet to see. Such a shame they'll eventually get older and learn that things like time and gravity are not kind and not at all on their side.

Her attitude was, even though all 140 lbs of me was dangling between those two beams in that center photo, theoretically, with the right attitude, I could have pulled myself up on a narrow wire, set myself back on that swaying beam, and continued. That was her claim.

I mentally calculated all of the various laws of physics that were not in my favor as I listened to her. As I said, I sincerely appreciated her optimism. To hear her describe it, I was a mere wisp of a thing and with a simple grunt and a "hey, presto!" I could right myself and be on my way.

She cheerfully told me that the alternative was, if she came up there, all she would do would be to lower me to the ground.

I confess, I've replayed that sentence several times in my mind since this incident and I'm really not sure why that would have ever been unappealing, in that situation or in any other situation in which a person found herself helplessly dangling 20 feet in the air.

Suffice to say, I'd had it with that particular "element" so my mindset was basically, "Oh, f*** this, I'm nearly f***ing fifty years old and I have nothing to prove. I have a Ph.D. and right now, I'm feeling pretty stupid for even attempting this, so get me OFF this effing thing. Please."

But I didn't say that. I just cheerfully said, "Okay" and nodded vigorously to encourage her to climb up there and help me. Which she did.

But inside, I was terribly disappointed in myself that I'd fallen and given up. 

Luckily, I was with friends, who were more than helpful and sympathetic. Eleven-year-olds can be very kind to us grown-ups sometimes. And other people came up and told me that were not at all surprised that I had fallen, because they had been 100% certain that they were going to fall too and that it was only by the grace of God that they had (somehow) managed not to.

Once I got over the initial discouragement and inclination to just give up and go home and eat all the ice cream, forever and ever, I was able to go back and try again.

I didn't go back to the same obstacle course: I just didn't feel up to it. But I tried another one that was equally difficult, but in a different way, and I was able to complete it.

Maybe someday I'll attempt the other course again, but right now, the thought of it gives me the willies.

Interestingly enough, before I went on vacation, I was reading Anders Ericsson and Robert Peel's book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2017).

Ericsson and Peel argue that research suggests that "potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn't a way of reaching one's potential but rather a way of developing it."

Oddly enough, I thought of this after I was back on the ground and it helped inspire me to keep trying and attempt another aerial trail.

Because, as Ericsson and Peel insist, "We can create our own potential," but "[i]f you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve" (18).

The trick is to push yourself "outside--but not too far outside" your "comfort zone"  (41).

The "element" I fell on was too far outside of my comfort zone--that much was clear to me.

And because I knew that it was, I was willing to try a different trail that put me "outside--but not too far outside" my comfort zone.

I'd already done an easier trail and felt confident on that, so I knew I was ready to move to the next level of difficulty. I knew it wasn't that I "couldn't do it," it was simply that I couldn't do that particular element on that particular day, because it was only the second trail I'd ever attempted.

So I opted for a trail that my friends and the staff worker had told me I should try. It was equally difficult, but in a different way. And I did it.

Don't get me wrong: the minute I did, I was like, "Okay, I am DONE, and I want ice cream and no one had better say a word to me about not having ice cream, because I just will not even at this point."

Because being just far enough outside of your comfort zone to be challenged and learning and stretching your potential is exhausting, no question. 

And maybe also because I'm still nursing that hematoma and there's now a large-scale bruise covering the front half of my right leg from shin to ankle.

Here's hoping it's gone in two weeks or else I may have to teach class wearing my winter boots.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Freedom

As I mentioned in a previous post ("Freeing Myself"), I opted to participate in "Plastic Free July" this year.

The goal of "Plastic Free July" is to reduce--or eliminate--your dependency on plastic.

Because all that stuff eventually ends up in the oceans. And in the landfills. So anything we can do to reduce that tendency is good, and this is goal of Plastic Free July.

So now that the month is over, here's what I've noticed and learned.

First, when you start paying attention to it, you begin to realize that plastic is EVERYWHERE. And you find yourself feeling a bit appalled by it all. Everything is wrapped in it (whether it needs to be or not) or made from it (whether you want it to be or not).

That wasn't always the case. You begin to notice how plastic has crept into almost every aspect of our lives and that this is why it's become such a problem for the environment.

Secondly, you feel a little sad when people don't seem to care. I didn't go around preaching the gospel of Plastic Free, certainly, but I did notice that a lot of people seem to not even notice or, if they do, they aren't motivated to do anything about it.

But that said, there are a lot of people who do care and who did notice, and who actually told me that they'd liked some of my plastic-free suggestions.

So this was good. A couple of little boosts of energy and inspiration like that made it easy to keep going from week to week, implementing changes and sticking with a (mostly) plastic-free lifestyle.

Because I was trying to eliminate or reduce my reliance on plastic, I found out about a number of new products and buying options.

For example, there's this (humorous) toilet paper company: https://us.whogivesacrap.org/

They sell toilet paper and tissue made from recycled paper and/or bamboo, at reasonable prices. You can buy in bulk, and they'll ship it right to your home.

And none of it is wrapped in plastic.

I also invested in bamboo toothbrushes (for when my current plastic one wears out) and a stainless steel water bottle. I've begun using beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap.

I've learned to say, "I don't need a bag" when shopping (because 9 times out of 10, you really can just carry stuff in your arms). For the times when I need something to carry things in, I've gotten better about remembering to bring my own bags with me to the store.

And that's where I've made the biggest changes: at the grocery store. Personally, I don't use a lot of take-out, so straws, cups, take-out containers... they're not a big part of my plastic use.

But the grocery store... well, that's a different story.

So I focused on that as my target goal and I set out to change my ways.

First, I stopped buying any produce wrapped in plastic. That was relatively easy, except for some reason, no one seems to want to sell cauliflower that isn't wrapped. But I'll keep looking.

Second, I stopped putting produce in plastic bags. I acquired a bunch of muslin bags and mesh bags, to go with my reusable shopping bags.

Third, I took all of the old plastic bags I had and put them in the recycling bin at the grocery store.

And, most importantly, I stopped using plastic bags for garbage.

This was a big step for me. I've been composting for several years now, so my garbage doesn't fill up terribly quickly anymore, and when it does, it's typically "dry" garbage. But I still put it in a plastic bag.

I decided that really, there's no reason to do that. More often than not, I have some kind of bag in the trash (as part of the garbage), so if I need to put stuff in a bag, it goes in the bag that's already part of the garbage. Otherwise, it just goes in the can and then, when the can is full, it goes out to the curb.

Because I've eliminated all "wet" garbage (it's going into my compost) and scaled back on plastic, there really isn't a whole lot going out to the curb these days.

Thanks to Plastic Free July, I think I'm at the point where I'll have to put the garbage and recycling out for collection once a month now, instead of once a week. And what I'm recycling is more often than not either cardboard, paper, or glass. Not plastic.

It may be silly, but that makes me happy.

And yes, I know I'm just one person, and the landfills are huge and the problems of plastic in the ocean and the environment are enormous, but it has to start somewhere.

And if I can help contribute to that process, then that's what I'd like to do. And it's what I did for the entire month of July!

So now, I'm committed to staying "free" for the remainder of the year. With my newfound awareness and sense of accomplishment, I'm hoping that the changes I've implemented during "Plastic Free July" become lifelong.

I'm glad I found out about the movement, and I'm very glad I participated. It's been a successful and enlightening month.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Heart of Guilt

I read an interesting book this week, Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart (1994).

Gilmore's brother, Gary, was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977. At the time of Gary Gilmore's execution, the death penalty had only recently been reinstated: he was the first person put to death in the United States in almost ten years.

In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had determined that executions constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and, given the appearance of racial bias against African American defendants in particular, it was determined that the death penalty might also constitute a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the wake of Furman v. Georgia, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in the United States began.

In 1976, however, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court established guidelines that states must follow in capital sentencing in order to ensure that the imposition of the death penalty does not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."

The Supreme Court determined that there must be objective criteria that guide and limit determinations of whether or not to seek the death penalty (and this objectivity must be guaranteed by an appellate review of all death sentences) and the judge or jury (whoever hands down the sentence) must be allowed to weigh the record and character of the defendant.

With the guidelines established by Gregg v. Georgia, the death penalty was once again considered constitutional. In Utah in particular, defendants sentenced to death had the option of death by hanging or by firing squad.

What made Gary Gilmore's case unusual was the fact that, when he was ultimately sentenced to die for his robbery and murder of two men over the course of two nights in Provo, Utah, he insisted that the sentence be carried out. Gilmore opted for death by firing squad, stating, "I'd prefer to be shot," and openly objected to requests for a stay of execution filed on his behalf (by his mother and the ACLU).

If you've read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1977) (or if you've seen the 1982 movie starring Tommy Lee Jones), then you're familiar with the story of Gary Gilmore's crimes, his trial, and his eventual execution.

Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart tells a different story-- namely, the story of the Gilmore family, both before, during, and after Gary Gilmore's crimes, conviction, and execution. As Mikal Gilmore insists in the prologue,
I have a story to tell. It is a story of murders: murders of the flesh, and of the spirit; murders born of heartbreak, of hatred, of retribution. It is the story of where those murders begin, of how they take form and enter our actions, how they transform our lives, how their legacies spill into the world and the history around us...

I know this story well, because I have been stuck inside it...
His story is an interesting one, in no small part because he is well aware that, due to the eleven-year age difference, his childhood was nothing like that of his brother Gary. For whatever reason, Mikal was his father's favorite son and spared the relentless emotional and physical abuse that was inflicted on his older brothers.

His memoir is an elaborate and eloquent reflection on the nature of guilt and judgment, both his own and others'.

In Shot in the Heart, Gilmore is brutal and unsparing in his reflections about himself, his parents, his brothers, the legacy of his family, and the toll that the notoriety of his brother's crime and punishment ultimately took on all of them.

Gilmore's opening sentence echoes Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov on the eve of his double-murder, Gilmore describes how he too has "dreamed a terrible dream." 

Shot in the Heart weaves Gilmore's dreams with his family's stories of ghosts and hauntings and long-standing secrets.

And although Gilmore acknowledges that he has been "stuck inside" the story of murders, hatred, and retribution that mark his family, he also remarks on the irony of the fact that he is in many ways an outsider in his own story. There are gaps he can't fill, questions he can't answer, answers he will never find.

I read Mailer's The Executioner's Song over a decade ago, and I confess, I found it underwhelming. 

Quite frankly, I think Mikal Gilmore wrote a better book. I say this even as I acknowledge that, as Gilmore himself points out, his book does something very different from Mailer's.

Personally, I prefer what Gilmore's book attempts--namely, an understanding of the human circumstances and consequences that surround a situation like the one that eventually engulfed his brother.

When I read The Executioner's Song, I felt like I was inundated with details.

And I mean really inundated. I distinctly remember opting not to read a full 100 pages of the book, once I realized that Mailer was including the court transcripts of Gilmore's trial... after he had already summarized the trial in extensive detail.

I've read War and Peace and I teach a course on 19th-century British novels. It takes a lot for me to decide that a novel "too long." But that was how I felt about The Executioner's Song. It did not need to be nearly 1200 pages long. (YES. It IS. This is what I'm saying.)

In retrospect, the reason I came to that conclusion was that it never felt like Mailer was giving me a sense of ... the human meaning behind it all, for lack of a better phrase.

I set Mailer's text down feeling like I knew a whole lot about what happened to Gary Gilmore and nothing at all about Gary Gilmore. It was clear that something had gone seriously wrong in his life; it was clear that his more or less constant incarceration in "reform schools" and prisons from the age of fourteen until his death at the age of 36 had contributed greatly to that.

It was clear that he was, by the time of his death, a vicious and truly troubled man who came from a troubled family environment. And yet, I could never quite fathom why he insisted on being put to death--and to me, that was important, to try to come to some kind of understanding of that or to offer us the chance to reflect on it.

To hand the reader reams of court documents and letters and interviews... that simply didn't help me understand what I wanted to understand about the case.

That's why I think Mikal Gilmore's work is the better effort. It represents a whole-hearted attempt to understand his brother Gary, in spite of the distance--both temporal and psychological--that always existed between them. But it also doesn't shy away from the horror that was his brother's life.  

Mikal Gilmore makes no excuses for his brother. He is honest about the anger and frustration and desire to simply escape what his brother wrought in his life and in the lives of his family members.

But he also mourns the brother he lost. And I think it is the combination of these two very different kinds of pain that make his writing incredibly powerful and his memoir well worth reading.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Anniversary


Tomorrow at 5:38 a.m., it will be 6 years since this sweet boy, my little friend and godson, Ezra, passed away.

This picture was taken in 2009, when he and his mom and brother and sister came to visit me in my little rental house by the bay in RI, the year I had a sabbatical.

That was a little over a year before everything changed and all of us were blindsided in a way that left none of us the same.

When I took this picture, I named the file "Ezra the Thoughtful." Because that's what he was: thoughtful. In every sense of the word.

He had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. Bugs, birds, books, cars, coins, toys, rocks, movies, games... the list of things he wanted to find out about--and then tell you about--was unending.

I remember that, shortly after he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, I went to visit, and he sat with me, showing me all the rocks in his rock collection. He explained each one and where he had found it, and why he liked it.

I remember at the time thinking that it just wasn't possible that there would be a world someday soon, and he wouldn't be in it. It just wasn't possible.

But it was. And it is.

And I think, for all of us who knew him for the short ten years he was with us, since he left, the world has always been a little darker, the light always a little dimmer, the faith and hope never quite so strong, as it was when he was with us.

Once you realize that, yes, bad things really can happen, for no reason, and no, things don't always work out for the best (far from it), and goodness and innocence and love are absolutely no protection against anything, you change.

The change isn't good or bad, it is just is. 

Sometimes, people who've experienced it will tell you that this is how it is, that this can happen--like I'm doing now.

And you can say, yes, you know and you believe it, but unless it happens to you, you just don't know. And you can't possibly believe it, because it really is unbelievable. 

You look back at who you used to be, and sometimes, you marvel at how naive you were.

How naive and how lucky. You had the luxury of ignorance. That's a luxury you only realize you enjoyed once it's gone. 

But instead of staring at that bitter reality, I choose to remember other realities.

Like the reality of Ezra's silly laugh when he and I played with his toy dinosaurs when he was a toddler. I  can still hear it sometimes, when it's late and I'm home and things are quiet and I'm thinking about him.

Or the reality of his love of cake and ice cream and any kind of sweets he could get his hands on. (We shared that love.)  His birthday was exactly one week after mine, and every year, he and I would consult (very seriously) about the kind of cake we were each going to have for our birthdays that year.

Or the reality that he had an amazing ability to draw and build and create, and that we all marveled at it, at how early he showed so much creativity and promise. I think we all looked at the things he made and wondered what great things the future would hold. 

And of course, there's the reality that he once--accidentally, of course, without realizing what it meant--gave his mom and I the finger.

My best friend, his mom, wrote this in 2012, on the one-year anniversary of his death:
Ok. the joke is over, Ezra, you can come out now.  It's been one year, that's plenty of time to carry on this never-ending game of hide and seek.  Who or whatever is in charge of the universe, we've had enough, send him back and let everything go back to the way it was!
A year of marking time, recalling dates, seasons.  What were we doing at this time last year, etc.  So what goes on during the second year after death, I wonder.  More of the same I suppose, each year a little farther away, a little duller, the hole filling in with what I don't even know.  Yet it all does often feel still so fresh, so much like we are right back there in that hospital room again . . . waiting, emptied out of hope...

You begin to realize how the loss of one person leaves such a void, it overwhelms you, catches you off guard regularly and often, like ocean waves hitting you unexpectantly and unceasingly, the bigger ones toppling you over.  You must pick yourself up again and again.  But they are always there to hit you another time.  Another wave of grief.
That's the reality that we still live with.

If you're waiting for the cliched ending, the one with "closure," you won't be finding it here.

On the morning my dad died, when I knew he would die, I was devastated. But at one moment, I also had an odd and profound sense of peace, that I can't quite explain.

It was as if the world went quiet for a second, and I realized that yes, this is just... this. 

The day I arrived at Ezra's hospital room and saw that he had taken a sudden, terrible turn for the worse, I remember feeling an overwhelming feeling that this was just... wrong.

Profoundly, biologically wrong.

And that this would never be something that led to a feeling of peace.

I remember that, I started to cry and cry (and cry), and that I didn't think I was ever going to be able to stop.

My best friend's mom came and found me crying. I remember she hugged me and cried too, and said, "I know."

I think that's the only reason I was able to stop crying. At the time, all I could say to her was, "It's just so sad."

And that was that. And it was when I changed.

And I know that, although Ezra would be sad to know that he changed my life in that way, I also know that he would understand that the change that happened was inevitable, because he had changed my life in so many good ways.

A few weeks after Ezra died, his little brother, who was eight years old at the time, wrote the following:
Ezra was my brother until he passed away.  He was the only brother I had.  He died because of a stupid tumor.  His favorite shoes were orange and yellow crocs.  His favorite jacket was black.  His favorite television show was The Nature Show, and his favorite thing to do was play outdoors.  I really loved Ezra.
So did I. We all did.

We still do.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Little Things

It's been a week of fits and starts and frustrations, and tonight, I'm feeling a bit sad about that. You know, when you had big plans to get a lot accomplished and... nada.

But instead of wallowing in it, I'm trying to take stock of the little things I've done this week that were, in their own small way, worth it.

For example, it's blueberry season. I went for my second picking session this week, and got absolutely soaked. If the phrase "catch your death" had any relevance, I would have caught it--it was that kind of chilly and rainy.

But that was okay. I pick a lot of berries every summer (in case you hadn't noticed) and I've come to expect that at least once, I'll get soaked to the bone and at least once, it'll be so hot that I'll think I'm going to pass out right there in the field, unable to get my berries in a basket (so to speak).

When I got home from berry picking, instead of getting down to work, the way I'd planned, I decided I'd better harvest the basil and make pesto. I was afraid the basil would bolt and go to seed, and although I didn't plant as much of it this year as I normally do, I still didn't want to lose any of it simply by not cutting it back in time.

The weather has been cool and rainy for the past couple of days, so it was the perfect opportunity to get these smaller harvesting tasks done.

It was also perfect weather for working on several of the many large knitting projects I have nearing completing. In particular, I'm finishing up an actual dress (yes, you read that right) that I spent months and months knitting.

If I can finish the pocket tonight (and I think I can), all I'll have left to do is one 3/4 length sleeve. Then it's block it, finish it (it will need a button or two) and... it will be done at long last, ready to wear next winter.

I'm also 3/4 of a sleeve (I sense a trend here) and a neckline away from finishing a sweater that would also be nice to have ready to wear next winter.

And then there are socks. Those are always little things that fill in the gaps between big knitting projects. And that work well in the summer, because let's face it, no one wants to sit with a big alpaca wool dress on their lap in the summer. They just don't.

I've been doing a bit of weight training this summer as well, and I added a little more weight to my bench press lifting--that may seem like a little thing, but when you try to lift it, you notice, trust me.

That's said, I'm happy because I'm now bench-pressing 70 lbs, whereas at the start of May, I could only lift the bar itself (45 lbs). My goal is to see if I can get to 100 lbs at some point--maybe by this fall? (Maybe not?)

I also read a little book, that I think is part of why I'm winding down my Saturday evening feeling a little sad. It's Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air (2017). Although it's good, and I recommend it, it's also quite sad.

Kalanithi died of cancer when he was only 37. He was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer around the age of 35, which is when he began writing his book. It describes his life up until his diagnosis, and then his illness itself.

He was unable to document much of his time during his illness because he was so sick. He died somewhat suddenly, after his aggressive cancer "flared" when chemotherapy no longer worked.

Obviously, this is probably not the kind of thing I needed to be reading, given that this is July and I'm rapidly approaching a couple of difficult anniversaries when I lost people close to me to cancer... but there it is. I read the book.

I think I sort of felt like I "needed" to read it now, because I have a funny feeling about this time of year--almost like I don't think it's right to be... too happy, maybe? I don't know how to explain it, except to say that, when you go through some really difficult times at a particular point in the year, I think you forever feel like that phase of the year is a bit of a memorial to that time.

It's not possible to not sense the memories in the air, if the weather changes and suddenly, it's the way it was that year, for example. It's like it's a time that you always carry with you, and even though you're on the other side of it now and can look back and marvel at what you endured, you still feel like it's with you, in a way.

It's a big thing, marked by memories of all the little things, that made you who you are today.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Freeing Myself

I really can't believe we're already over a week into July. Yes, I know there was the little holiday there right at the start of the month, but still.

My latest news is, I've pledged to participate in "Plastic Free July." If you don't know what this is, you can probably guess.

Based in Australia, "Plastic Free July" is designed to encourage people to reduce their use of single-use plastic items (straws, cups, water bottles, soda bottles, produce wrapping, etc. etc.). Basically, you pledge to try to help cut back on the use of all of that plastic out there that you're only using once and then throwing away.

Because once thrown away, it ends up in the landfills or the oceans. And that's just not good.

I confess, I don't do a lot of take-out coffee or food, so I'm not a big contributor on that front.

So, to do my part, I decided I would eliminate using plastic grocery bags.

In particular, I would no longer line my smaller trash cans with those little shopping bags. I took ALL of them (and ye gods, I had a lot) to the grocery store and stuffed them in their bin to be recycled (it was the best I could do!) and that was that.

I haven't been able to bring myself to not line my larger trash can with a plastic bag. They recommend using newspaper instead, but I don't really have any.

What I can tell you (okay, that was a little unintended pun with the word "can" there), is that I've significantly reduced my trash overall.  And I mean, significantly.

Yes, I'm only one person, but because pretty much all "wet" trash from food or eggs (everything minus meat or dairy) now goes into my compost, I'm emptying my actual garbage can every 2 weeks, at most, instead of weekly (or more than weekly).

This is something.

I'm giving reuseable beeswax food storage wraps a try, to help eliminate plastic wrap. So far, so good: I find that I prefer them to plastic wrap, which I was never a huge fan of, quite frankly.

I've also decided to really try to reduce--if not eliminate--my use of paper towels. (Yes, I know they're not plastic. I'm on a little roll, though. HA--I did it again with the pun.)

I'm using rags, whenever possible, and as it turns out, it really is often possible.

For the most part, it's been a question of adjusting my habits and catching myself not reaching for the easy solution offered by a single-use disposable items.

I'm planning, at some point, to make a trip to a local co-op to see about buying bulk foods. This is going to need a little bit of planning on my part, though, if I'm going to opt out of the plastic bags. I'll need new container options.

I've gotten so that I bring my own containers to the grocery store to put veggies in, after my friend mentioned that having them roll around the cart (which is what will happen if you no longer use those little baggies) was no fun.

I'm actually reusing the old plastic veggie containers I had from before-- I'm re-purposing them, in short, which is a good thing. (Just be sure to take the bar code off the base of them.)

As I've said before (almost four years to the day, in fact, in my post entitled "My Half-Life: A Pale Green Wrapper") make these kinds of adjustments works best if you find one thing you can commit to, and then build on that over time.

And if it doesn't work for you, it just doesn't. But you try and you gain awareness, and maybe you simply cut back--or you decide to make some other thing that will work for you.

If you're interested in Plastic Free July, they offer a really handy chart with suggestions for actions that you can take. It also shows the effect that any change you implement will have on the oceans, environment, and land-fills. It's available here, and I really hope you'll join in and give it a try!

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Week in the Life

And what a week it's been--for the garden, that is.

Right now, we've been enjoying some really wonderful garden-growing weather. Last weekend, we had a downpour in the morning, followed by temps that slowly rose into the 80's. Needless to say, these guys loved it.


Usually you have to choose: heat and sunshine, or watering? We got both, and not too much of either (which is often a problem).

I've done things a bit differently this year, most notably putting down mulch, and also spreading plants out a bit more. I used to put the same plants all together, and I still do that (melons, sweet potatoes, cucumbers), but for some of the other things, I spread them around different spots, or put them in different kinds of containers so that I don't lose I'm less likely to lose absolutely everything if we run into a problem with bugs or blight or whatnot (tomatoes, I'm looking at you).

I've also tried to get a bit savvy about pairing plants. So, I planted squash in a spot where it can spread out and maybe, just maybe, use those trademark enormous leaves to provide a bit of shade for my lettuce leaves, so they'll last a bit longer.


I also put broccoli in with the same agenda: can it provide shade as it grows, and extend the lifespan of my lettuce (since the typical July heat and sun will make it bolt in no time).

I've also put basil around the tomatoes this year, instead of planting it all in one planter. It's rumored to keep the bugs away, and I really don't need tons of basil this year--I'm still working through the pesto of years past (my two storage freezers were the best investment ever).

And speaking of storage freezers and investment, yesterday was a day for cherry-picking. It's a 70 mile drive each way for me to get to a place that has them, so every year it's always a bit up in the air whether time will be on my side.

This year it was. I didn't take pictures of them, but trust me, they are quite wonderful. I put over half of them in the beloved freezer, and I'm enjoying the rest. During the winter or next spring, I'll have plenty to make into jam--right now, I'm still working through last year's batch on that too.

Sunday will include a wee bit of raspberry-picking. Although the big push for those usually comes in early August, the first early crop at the picking place was apparently large enough that they've opened it up to the public for a one-day, four-hour extravaganza.

I will be there.

And of course, any minute now, blueberry season will be upon me.

As I said, as a week in the life of the garden (and other assorted fruit), it's been a good one. A growing season to be very grateful for so far.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Obsession

No, I'm not talking about the Calvin Klein fragrance.

Although when you get right down to it, the weirdness and stupidity of those old Calvin Klein cologne commercials (sorry if I seem judgmental, but I really thought they were weird and stupid) fits with the weirdness and stupidity of obsession itself.

I'd like to think that the fact that I can say that and see it quite clearly means that I'm at least poised to embark on the road to recovery with my own current problem.

In my case, the obsession is really more of a compulsion. If you're wondering what the difference between the two is, it's the difference between a thought and an action.

An obsession is a recurrent thought. A compulsion is a recurrent action. You can do something compulsively without really being aware that you're doing it. In the case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the two are wedded: a person worries constantly about germs, said person compulsively washes and cleans.

In my case, I've found that the summer months have led me to compulsively check a particular Facebook page, even though I know there's no valid or worthwhile reason for me to do so. 

Because I know that, I was able to stop for a bit, but then I fell off the wagon this weekend. To such an extent that, yesterday, I began nattering on about it and a friend eventually said the word "obsessed" (forcefully).

My friend is very patient and understanding, but let's face it, no one needs nattering, particularly when it's become anxious, emotionally overwrought nattering. (I think this means it's technically no longer nattering, but I really want to use that particular word, so ... there 'tis.)

And no, I'm not going to tell you what page it is, because I don't want others to suffer, I don't want to drive traffic to said page, and--most importantly--I don't want you to look at it and think, "I don't get it... THIS is what you keep looking at? THIS?"

On that particular point, I can't handle the truth. So simply swap in some internet site or FB page that has you in its cyber-clutches and move on here.

Because let's face it, I'm not alone in this. It's a common problem. And in a minute, I'll explain why.

I think that, for the most part, my FB checking is compulsive--under normal circumstances, I don't get caught up in worrying about it. But clearly, it does have the ability to cross that line and turn into a source of worry.

So what is an (Over) Thinker to do?

Well, first of all, I did what any sensible person would do: I went out and bought a book, so I can read about it.

Then, I did what any sensible person would do: I read an article. This one in particular. 

As Begley points out, the way that Facebook works is a recipe for compulsion, because it taps into what our brains are wired to respond to: it offers "intermittent/variable rewards."

Sometimes, there's something "good" and we feel like we've hit the mother lode. Other times, not so much.

Actually, most of the time, not so much, but that doesn't matter. The fact that it happens intermittently and variably means that it creates a situation of "low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities" that  are "catnip to the brain." (Being a cat-lover, I love when a writer assumes that we're all basically cats.) 

Compulsive checking of Facebook is also a way of relieving anxiety (theoretically). At some point, however, it can reach a tipping point and it's now a source of anxiety... and yet, we keep checking, to try to alleviate the anxiety that the checking has caused.

Stop. The. Madness.

Easier said than done, of course. Some people are able to white-knuckle their way with willpower until they've broken the cycle. Some people are able to come up with other distractions and over time, the compulsion dissipates.

Until it's baaaack.

I decided that I want this compulsive checking gone, though, so I'm breaking out the big guns.

If you want to change a behavior, you need to track it--so that you cognitively recognize what you're doing and hold yourself accountable.

I've already been using Marshall Goldsmith's idea of "active questions" to stay on-task with other behaviors I want to implement, so I decided to add this to my list of questions that I ask myself at the end of the day: "Did I do my best not to compulsively check this particular page?"

But then, because I know me, and I can be a bit of a slacker at times, particularly if I manage to convince myself, "Oh, what's the harm??" I decided that simply scoring my success wouldn't be enough.

Don't get me wrong, I'm the girl who wants to get the highest grade in the class. So on the one hand, the idea of scoring how well I'm doing is definitely a good approach for a personality like mine.

But I decided that, since I really want to kick this habit, I'm going to up the ante. And I decided the best way to do this would be to tap into my other obsession.

No, not cats. The other one.

Yarn.

There is some seriously expensive yarn out there in the world, my friends, and I. Want. It.

But the frugal, sensible Thinker in me can't rationalize buying it. My inner yarn-hedonist has tried, oh, how she has tried.

"If you're knitting something with it, it's never wasted money." "Whatever you make would last forever... you could will it to someone when you die, so then it would be, like, more useful." "You could just buy a little bit of it and make something small--it's not like you're thinking of making a blanket with the stuff...".

You get the idea. I've withstood this self-induced pressure for a while now, because in some way, I know that if I succumb, I will feel guilty that I spent too much and that I hadn't really "earned" it.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

So here's what I've decided: I get 10 points every day that I stay away from that FB page. When I've accumulated 1000 points, I can buy the nice yarn. If I stay on track, that will fall right around my birthday, so that would be a win-win, guilt-free extravaganza, as far as I'm concerned.

If I slip up on any given day ... I lose 100 points.

The funny thing is, the minute I put this system in place, my brain was like, "Done. So now we wait... and in the meantime surf yarn websites and figure out what color yarn we want and what pattern we're going to use."

I think what happened that caused this to "click" with me is simple. Previously, there was never any incentive for me to not check it (low risk), and nothing ever-present to my mind that reminded me how much it paled by comparison with the things I value and enjoy spending my time on.

Problem solved. The fact that checking this might lead me to lose out on (or delay) my achievement of something that I want--and the fact that I now have a very concrete reminder of what that is--turned the situation from an abstract problem to a concrete goal.   

Today will be my first 10-point day. Only 99 more to go. I'd better get cracking on the yarn searches.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bartleby

Recently, I had the opportunity to reread a story that I enjoyed years ago, when I first read it, but that I hadn't had a chance to return to: Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853).

If you've never read it, but would like to, you can get a copy of it here (via Project Gutenberg) or here (as a PDF).

I'm not a fan of giving away the plot, so I'm going to focus predominantly on the things that struck me upon rereading it, in light of some of the other reading and thinking that I've been doing lately.

Perhaps the most famous component of Melville's tale--and a ready source of fascination for scholars the world over--has been the impact and significance of Bartleby's repeated comment, "I would prefer not to."

Initially and inexplicably applied to any and all requests that his employer makes of him, the phrase takes on additional resonance as the story unfolds. Interestingly, the narrator of the story admits that he feels "unmanned" by Bartleby and his phrase: as his employer, the narrator expects Bartleby to simply comply with his demands, as part and parcel of his job as a scrivener.

When Bartleby fails to do so, the narrator increasingly finds himself at a loss for a solution to this odd behavior.

Herein lies the genius of Melville's story: by stating, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby is not simply resisting the dictates involved in fulfilling a job that demands his compliance. He's also undermining the system itself by pointing to a flaw in the definition of "work"that underlies his employer's requests and the logic of Wall Street labor in general.

As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out, Bartleby doesn't say, "I won't do it." And then again, he also doesn't say he will do it either.

Saying "I won't" is an overt and straightforward form of defiance. Instead, Bartleby has the nerve to express a preference.

The employer/employee relationship, as the story's narrator understands it--and by implication as we ourselves have generally come to understand it--isn't supposed to allow for the expression of a personal preference with respect to our job.

It's a job; we're paid to do what we're told to do.

As the narrator tells Bartleby at one point, "Either you must do something, or something must be done to you." This is the logic upon which the narrator operates, and by implication, it is the logic that underlies the workings of Wall Street and the definition of labor in America.

Do or be done unto.

But what does this assumption (as the story points out, the narrator is a lawyer who makes a good living operating on assumptions) do to the idea of the laborer as an individual?

The brilliance of Melville's formulation of the problem is the confrontation of power implicit in Bartleby's response. When an employer asks us, "Will you, would you, or could you" questions with respect to the tasks that we are being assigned, we're not really supposed to feel entitled to say "no."

If we do, and the employer listens, then the kudos typically go to the employer, because the assumption is that s/he is not required to consider the question of their workforce's "preference" in any given situation.

If, as employees, we say "no" outright, we are putting ourselves in the position of being perceived as not doing our job. As actively defiant.

But what is involved in doing our job is not necessarily always clearly spelled out when we take the job itself. Instead, it often depends upon our employer's understanding of our role and responsibilities, because our employer is by default the one with the power.

By saying, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby confronts this assumption outright. An employer's power lies in the worker's compliance. But without Bartleby's compliance, the job can't and won't get done.

Bartleby's phrase also encapsulates his implicit refusal to be labeled a "bad" or "negligent" worker. He simply has "preferences" with respect to how his time and his labor are employed, and he does not operate on the assumption that those are set aside the minute someone else begins paying him for his work.

Obviously, Bartleby could be fired--that would be a much simpler and less philosophical story, obviously.

But instead, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" muses on the implications of Bartleby's brand of resistance.

One of the points I find most interesting is the fact that Bartleby's behavior is characterized as "contagious." Shortly after Bartleby begins deploying his famous phrase, everyone in the office is inadvertently remarking upon their own preferences, even if they openly disagree with Bartleby's peculiar behavior.

Likewise, at the end of the story, we learn that, according to rumor, Bartleby was previously employed in the "Dead Letter Office" in Washington, but lost his job due to "a change in the administration."

"Dead letters" are letters that cannot be delivered to their recipient, but that also cannot be "returned to sender." If the rumor is true, then, as the narrator points out, Bartleby's previous job probably consisted of opening these letters and then burning them.

The narrator sees this as the daily experience of profound despair by a man already "prone to a pallid hopelessness."

More importantly, I think the conclusion of Melville's story is designed to make us question where Bartleby belongs and what his work or his preference for not working might mean in the overall conception of business-as-usual in America.

Does work really define who we are and who we are perceived to be, even in spite of ourselves? Is productivity a measure of our meaning?

And what does it mean for us, and for humanity at large, if they are?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Poised for Growth

I've been doing the mental equivalent of tossing and turning all day today, because I knew I need to write a blog post, and I actually have a nice literary idea for one, but I've been doing so much academic writing lately, that when I finish it, I can't quite bring myself to write yet another literary thing.

My literary writing brains are worn out at the end of the day. And my fear is, if I write a blog post in the morning, I'll never get to the academic writing I need to do.

Such is the quandary. The struggle is real. (Note: I didn't say "worthwhile" or "valid" or even "interesting," just "real.")

But then it dawned on me: I've been spending so much time on the garden for the past two or three weeks, I might as well blog about where I am with that and save the other post for another day. (It will get done this weekend, I swear.)

The garden seems to me to be off to a slow start this year for a few reasons. First, the weather has been very ... volatile. It rained a lot, which wasn't bad, and it was chillier than normal for much of the month of May, and that wasn't bad either, really.

But it did mean that things didn't really grow after I planted them. Which brings me to the second reason why the garden seems a bit behind this year: I didn't have a chance to start anything indoors.

So everything went straight into the ground, as seeds, and it was sink or swim. There was no time for screwing around.

And I have to say, I think it turned out okay, even if it is a little behind where it usually is (and I'm not all that sure it is, that's just my sense). Because in years past, I start seeds indoors, get them to the point of transplantation and then BAM! dampening off!  BAM! sunburn! BAM! rabbits! BAM! bugs!!

So this year, because things just grew when they grew, it seems like they're a bit hardier. At least, that's the hope.

So okay, what do I have this year? I have all kinds of things growing. I planted melons, like so (please excuse the odd angle in some of these pictures, I was taking them quickly, before the battery died):


And I planted sweet potatoes, like so:

There are beans in with the melons and sweet potatoes, because my sense is that beans make the other plants rather happy.

I have a ton of itty bitty tomato plants in grow bags, but I didn't take pictures of those, because they're so small they're not terribly impressive.  But I also installed a new planter and put some tomatoes and basil in that, and here those are:


These are cherry tomato plants, so that's why they look a bit more impressive. My neighbor and I were chatting about gardening, and he characterized cherry tomatoes as the "weed" of the tomato plant family. (He means "weed" in the sense of "invasive, fast-growing plant" not "weed" in the sense of marijuana.)

At this point, I'll take it. (And by "it," I mean fast-growing cherry tomatoes, not weed.)

The overview of the garden beds right now is underwhelming, I'll admit, but I'll also admit that I'm optimistic.  Here that is:


The leeks (front right) and potatoes (back right) are doing pretty well. There are also carrots in the back, but you can't really see them.

And if you take a closer look, like so, you'll see it's not entirely terrible (again, apologies for the oddly angled shot):


That's lettuce in the front on the right side--it's doing quite well, because the temps haven't been terribly warm, and it's been cool and rainy. In the back are two types of squash--spaghetti, on the left, and acorn, on the right.

And if you know anything about squash, you know that in a few weeks, I'll no doubt be complaining bitterly about how they're taking over my entire garden.

I also have a couple of broccoli plants--you can see one staked on the right edge of the photo up above. I really tried not to plant quite so much this year--I have a billion tomato plants, but life has taught me that you really need a lot of those, because they have a tendency to, well, die, sometimes rather unexpectedly.

I'm also experimenting with composting and mulching this year, to see if that helps. If nothing else, it's sparing me a whole lot of time spent watering (well, that and the rain, obviously), and I'm curious to see if it helps the garden to grow a bit better. I just put some old grass down yesterday, and it may be my imagination, but I thought everything looked quite pleased with that this morning.

And on that note, I'll leave you with a picture of hope. Several years ago, I planted sweet william and for at least 2-3 years, I could never get any decent plants because the bugs ate them. (And I mean ate them.)

I had sort of given up all hope, when lo and behold, last year, I had an amazing little bed of sweet william.

And this year, it's even better! The other day, we had a heavy rain, so I clipped some of the ones that had been beaten down by the storm. They're a reminder that, sometimes, when it comes to gardening, you just never know.