Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Season

The end of the semester has arrived, so that means it's Grading Season in my world.

Oh yes, it's true, there are other activities that accompany this time of year, that make it very easy to avoid grading. Like this:

The above is often accompanied by other activities, such as this batch of sugar cookies, decorated like snowflakes, to commemorate the first snow of 2017. (Because really, it's important that things be documented and commemorated with sugar cookies.) 

Needless to say, the combination of Grading Season with the activities documented in the images above leads to a high-calorie, inherently sedentary lifestyle during the month of December.

So I have bitten the proverbial bullet and, in fact, committed to the Runners World RunStreak.

For those who don't know about this small piece of (possible) insanity (and who don't feel up to clicking on the link I've provided), to participate in the RW RunStreak, you commit to running at least a mile a day, every single day, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.

At this point, we're on Day 24 (I think), and I've made it this far, but in all honesty, I'm really looking forward to crossing the proverbial finish line on this thing.  (Less than 3 weeks to go!)

Don't get me wrong, it's done wonders for my fitness. I was never a runner, much less a Runner, and the other day, I ran 5 miles on the treadmill with a pace of 11 minutes, 30 seconds per mile.

There was a time when this would have seemed to me to be sheer nonsense--nothing short of inconceivable.

That said, running is just not my favorite activity. I'd rather be swimming. I'd rather be on the bike. And although the latter isn't really possible in the Northeast around this time of year, the former is, but I'm finding that my necessary running is stealing away time I'd prefer to give to swimming.

But this too shall pass, and the fact is, during the spring months, it will be easier for me to run than it is to get to a pool to swim, so I need to think of this Winter of My Discontent as giving me options that will come in handy in the months to come.

And I do feel a nice sense of accomplishment when the runs end because, as I said, it's nothing short of miraculous (to my mind at least) that I've been able to incorporate running into my fitness regimen to the extent that I have, over such a short period of time.

This morning, however, my swimming and my running are being put on a temporary hiatus by my car.

I'm sitting in the repair shop waiting for the remedy to a low-pressure tire problem. (Update: The tire had a nail in it.)

But as I sit here and think it through, I've decided that this is all very well-timed and probably for the best.

I just finished a semester that involved a lot of driving, I've got a brief hiatus, and then I need to do... more driving. So if the tire had to go, this was the time to do it and I'm grateful it chose to do it in my driveway, not while we were barrelling down an interstate somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, I was hoping to get a bit of grading done while I wait, but as it turns out, I can't load the website that I need to access to do so. So I did what I could, and now... I wait. 

And blog. And contemplate the fruits (and occasional frustrations) of The Season.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

If You Asked

If you asked me where I've been for the past... nearly a month now, I would probably say I've been grading, cleaning, and running errands.

Because that's what it's felt like for nearly a month now. Yes, I've done a little teaching, and no, I've not done any writing, because I've been grading, cleaning, and running errands. I appear to be doing about 4 loads of laundry per week--I actually have one load drying right now, and I really should fold it, but I'm afraid if I do, I'll never get this blog post written.

And I want to blog, because it gives me time to regroup. And these days, that's much needed. So I'm determined to regroup here tonight, because tomorrow, a friend arrives for a visit, which means I won't have time to blog until early next week (and I'm committed to getting back to the blogging).

When I pan back from the past month, I can see where the time has gone. On the one hand, I decided to do the Runner's World RunStreak. This means, I'm committed to running at least a mile a day for the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

And apparently, I take my commitments seriously because today, it snowed, so I made a little plan to get myself to the gym so I could do the run on the treadmill. It was going quite well--I stopped in at the gym in the middle of my errands (see what I mean?), got into the locker room, reached into my gym bag and realized that, instead of bringing shorts or sweats or some type of bottom-based workout wear, I had simply packed ... a second shirt.

I suppose I could have slipped my legs into the armholes and made some kind of makeshift bloomers, but I thought it was best that I not do that. Instead, I decided "screw it"--and I went out and hopped on the treadmill and ran an 11-minute mile... in my jeans.

I mean, who cares? I was wearing my sneakers and a t-shirt, it was just the jeans that seemed out of place on the treadmill. But I chose one in the back, so no one could see me, and then I ran like the dickens, before anyone could comment on what a dork I seemed to be.

Speaking of Dickens, I'm rereading Our Mutual Friend and gearing up to write an article on it. This may be why, the other day, it dawned on me that I had actually bumped into a character from Dickens' novel.

Let me explain. Several years ago, I hired a painter. He was a jerk and the job turned into a disaster. (I blogged about it here.) If you actually clicked that link then you know that this event happened nearly 4 years ago now.  (Back when Downton Abbey was a thing.)

Fast forward to last week. I was running errands (see, this is what I'm saying!) and as I walked into the convenience store, I thought that the guy coming out the door might have been the Pesky Painter... but I wasn't sure.

You see, I've moved on with my life. He wasn't stunningly attractive (thank god, because what a total waste of good looks that would have been), but he also wasn't terribly remarkable in any other way either, so if he's not in my home, paintbrush in hand, then I really can't say whether or not I'd be able to pick him out of a lineup.

I simply thought for a moment, "hey--that might be that painter," and then I walked by and began searching for the milk that I needed. It took a minute, because I had to decide whether I wanted whole milk with a not-so-good date or 2% with a slightly better date, ascertain whether better days were to be had from the milk way in the back of the display case, the whole nine yards.

I made my decision, shut the door of the cooler and turned to head to the cashier. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the guy who had been coming out the door while I was going in was standing at the end of the aisle glaring at me. When I turned to leave, he glared a bit more vehemently at me, and then turned on his heel and left.

So I guess it was that painter after all. And I guess he's not "over it." He's apparently holding some type of odd grudge that manifests itself in random acts of glaring and staring.

My best friend was bewildered because, as she put it, "Typically, it's the person who was harmed in some way who holds the grudge. That dude did a number on your house--it took you a full weekend to fix all the things he did! So why on earth does he have a grudge against you?"

I had no answer for her at the time, but now I do: he's a real-life Silas Wegg, from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.

In OMF, the character of Silas Wegg runs a little stand that sells cheap trinkets and, well, crap, basically. He sets up his stall in the same place every day and over time, he comes to imagine that he is connected to the upper-class inhabitants of the house on the corner where he spends his days. He doesn't know them, but he sees them coming and going, so he gives them names and thinks of himself as part of their world.

That is, until they move away. Shortly after they do, a man approaches him with an offer of a job. Wegg is sneaky and shady, so he takes the job but is clearly bent on bilking the guy in every way possible.

And then he learns that the man is going to move into the house on the corner. Well, this inwardly sets Wegg off: he sees the man as usurping what was rightfully his (i.e., Wegg's), even though he had no claim to it, no knowledge of it, and at the end of the day, isn't even a very nice person, if you get right down to it.

Nevertheless, he resents the innocent man and goes out of his way to try to thwart him.

Because it's Dickens we're reading, Silas Wegg's character is rather exaggerated, but I have to say, I think Dickens was onto something in his depiction of a man who resentfully holds a grudge about something that 1) never happened to him, and 2) doesn't concern him in the slightest.

If he were depicted in the twenty-first century, Silas Wegg would stand in a convenience store aisle and glare, I'm sure of it, and with any luck, Dickens will also prove to be right about what happens to the Silas Weggs of the world.

In the meantime, I have papers to grade, a house to clean, and errands to run.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Finding the Right Fit

Almost exactly 7 months ago (on Easter Sunday), I decided I was tired of feeling outta shape.

Through hormone changes and stress and inactivity and lackadaisical eating habits (i.e., the aging process), I'd maxed out the recommended weight for my height.

I know that to many, the number on the scale is "just a number," but for me, the number on the scale has always been pretty good index of my overall fitness level.

I'd always been at the low end of the 20-lb range for my height, but now, I was at its utmost limit. If the pounds kept coming, I would officially be heading into uncharted territory.

More importantly, truth be told, I felt like a chubby load of crap. This couldn't be my future.

For the record, the things they don't tell women about menopause would fill VOLUMES. "Hot flashes." That's all I ever heard about. "Some women get them, some don't. They're uncomfortable."


Try migraines. That wake you up in the middle of the night and last for 3 days. Good luck exercising with a migraine. I actually tried it (more than once), because I thought maybe swimming would help it go away. (It did not.)

Try eczema and food allergies and skin so dry there hasn't been a lotion invented that will soothe it. I still remember several night being unable to sleep because of how badly my skin itched. (And yes, that's with lotion on it.)

Try heart palpitations and night sweats and waking up every. single. hour. to use the bathroom--so, 8x a night. Even though you stopped all liquids before 7 p.m. Not a recipe for a good night's sleep.

Try muscle aches so bad you have to sit down and rest after carrying the laundry up from the basement.
There was the summer I couldn't eat more than a quarter cup of food at a time without feeling like I was going to barf. That lasted for about 2 weeks.

That was followed by a couple of weeks when I was reluctant to leave the house, because I felt like I had to go to the bathroom... constantly.

Luteal cysts every month for over a year. (For the record, feeling a "fire in your belly" is only good when it's figurative, not literal.) 

And the weight gain, my god, the weight gain. I would go to bed and wake up heavier than when I went to sleep. I don't know how that happened, but it happened.

And no, thank you, peeing 8x a night didn't help anything. Again, I don't know how that's possible, but I'm here to tell you, it's possible. I've lived it.

And speaking of not helping anything... doctors. Yes, I went to my ob/gyn. He ordered a couple of tests, found nothing, and told me to find a gastroenterologist. Even I knew it wasn't a digestive problem.

So I went home, googled a bunch of my symptoms, and found page after page after page that used the word, "perimenopause." (Last visit to that ob/gyn.)

A friend of mine also helped. She's in med school, and over lunch I described my woes to her. She commented that, pre-menopause, the hormone fluctuations are "insane." And they all interact, so the insanity gets even more ... insane.

She also commented that, over time, the insanity would stop and things would eventually settle down. There was just no telling when or how or how much.

I clung to that information, though. And then, one day, miraculously, the insanity had dwindled. And, when it became a little insane again--because in my experience, the fluctuations go on-again, off-again for a bit--I was able to remember that it had stopped and it became easier to be patient.

But the weight gain remained and would not budge. In April, I finally said, enough is enough. I decided I was committed to trying to lose it.

Everything I read warned me that it wouldn't be easy, that metabolism changes with age, that weight gain is "typical," etc. etc.

I said, "I don't care, I want my old body back." (Sans hysterical hormones, obvi.) So I committed to exercising regularly all summer long. That took care of about half of the weight I had gained.

Then, I participated in the Million Miles, and got a Fitbit. That helped me a lot, actually, both in terms of getting a good exercise habit (walking) in place and figuring out how to sync my exercise with my food intake in the wake of my new metabolism.

7 months later, I've lost 15 lbs and 2% body fat. And I'm toying with the idea of participating in the RW Run Streak this year. We'll see.

What I've learned in all of this is, it's not possible to turn back the clock. But it is possible to have a healthier body even as you age-- it just takes more time and patience. 

Everyone's body will change with time, and there's no avoiding it: those changes are often not going to be good ones.

I'm lucky. The changes I faced were ones I could cope with and adjust to. And on days when I didn't feel like sticking to an exercise regimen or I wanted to eat all the ice cream, I paused to think about that.

Some days, I said, "Screw it--I want ice cream." 

But other days, I thought, "Meh... I'll hold off. I have the luxury of good health. I can do what I need to do to support that."

In the end, I didn't get my younger self back. 

I got a new one: older, wiser, and--wonder of wonders--currently in better shape than my younger self ever was. 

I found the right fit for me.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Recently, I finished an interesting book, written by Susan Forward with Donna Frazier, entitled Emotional Blackmail:When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You (1997).

Although I wish the authors had not made their subtitle quite so cumbersome, I found the book quite interesting.

Forward analyzes the way in which emotional manipulators use FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt) to achieve their goals. She will argue, however, that it always takes two to tango:
Our compliance rewards the blackmailer, and every time we reward someone for a particular action, whether we realize it or not, we're letting them know in the strongest possible terms that they can do it again. (xiv)
As a recovering Rescuer with a "Caretaker" personality, I can relate--but for years, I simply never realized.

That's because for years, I was unclear about--and uncomfortable with--the need to set limits. As Forward points out, "Appropriate limit-setting isn't about coercion, pressure or repeatedly characterizing the other person as flawed" (11). These are the traits that characterize emotional blackmail: behaviors and verbal tactics that induce feelings of fear, guilt, and/or obligation in their "targets."

If you never learn about appropriate limit-setting or see it modeled as a child, you never realize this. Instead, you think that this is simply the way that conflict--any and all conflict--plays out. People want something, so they ask, demand, insist, and persist--regardless of how you feel or respond.

And if you resist, the tension escalates until you feel the pressure of what their words and behavior imply or demonstrate: "I can't believe you're saying no... it's no big deal, why can't you just do this one little thing for me?" "You don't know your own mind--I'm sure if you think it through you'll realize I'm right." "If you decide not to do this, I hope you're willing to live with the consequences."

That's the sound of emotional blackmail.

If you never learn the steps toward a healthy resolution of conflict, you simply perceive all conflict as "bad," not as a normal part of a relationship between two different adults with different needs, desires, and world-views. 

As Forward notes, "If people genuinely want to resolve a conflict with you in a fair and caring way," they "talk openly about the conflict," take time to find out how you feel and, in particular, why you feel resistant, and "[a]ccept responsibility for their part of the conflict" (13). 

Blackmailers don't do this because they aren't seeking resolution. Instead, they want to win and get their way. Again, as Forward points out, "[i]f someone's primary goal is to win," they "try to control you," "ignore your protests," insist on their own superior motives, and "avoid taking any responsibility for the problems between you" (13-14).

If you simply think about the difference between these two ways of handling conflict, you'll be well on your way to identifying the emotional blackmailers in your life.

In my own experience, I think of the emotional blackmailers I've encountered as "steam-rollers": if they have a need, they either don't pay attention to, consider, or credit your perspective, or if they do, such attention is minimal and dismissive.

The goal is to steam-roll over what you think or how you feel, and get to the point: the fact that, to their minds, you "need" to meet their "need," in the way that they think you should.

Forward identifies several types of emotional blackmailers: "Punishers," "Self-Punishers," "Sufferers," and "Tantalizers." In every instance, the goal is to get the other person to do what they want by invoking FOG (i.e., feelings of fear, obligation and/or guilt).

Ideally, in the blackmailer's world, we will cave before we even have time to think about whether or not we really want to do what they're asking.

In order to stop the pattern of emotional blackmail in a relationship, it's important to "interrupt the ritualistic pattern of resistance, pressure and capitulation by changing the reactions" that compel us to behave as if we're "on automatic pilot" (145).

Forward offers a (very!) handy acronym as a reminder of this need to interrupt the pattern and its dynamic: SOS.

Stop. Observe. Strategize.

According to Forward, "the first thing any target of emotional blackmail has to do is nothing" (153).

No decisions are required the moment a demand is made. You need time to think. Contrary to what the emotional blackmailer would have you believe, this is not a crisis.

If they're not bleeding from their eyeballs, they're not in crisis. No, I don't need to let you know RIGHT NOW whether I'll serve on that committee. I'm not required to commit to lending you $1000. before I hang up the phone. Just because you need a ride bright and early in the morning and called at an ungodly hour to request one, does not mean I need to call you back, even though your voicemail message insists that this is the case.

For Rescuers and people with "Caretaker" tendencies, insisting on time to think means learning to live with a certain measure of discomfort. In this respect, as Forward points out, we're complicit in the blackmail scenario: we don't like discomfort, so we comply immediately, to end the conflict, big or small.

In short, we're used to simply capitulating in order to get out of the FOG.

The goal of SOS (Stop, Observe, Strategize) is to obtain a measure of detachment in order to consider how you really feel and what you'd really like to do (or not do) in the face of the blackmailer's demand(s).

This leads to the second phase of the SOS. Once you "Stop," you need to "Observe" both the blackmailer and yourself--in particular, what you are feeling, and why, and what happens when you do nothing and simply tell the blackmailer they're going to have to wait while you think it through.

Again, in a healthy relationship, telling someone "I need time to think about that..." will provoke the following response (or some variation on it):

"Okay. Let me know when you decide."

In a blackmailer's world, delay is not an option. So the response will be insistent, angry, or dismissive/belittling. (They may demand to know "when" they can "expect" an answer from you: don't fall for this. It's simply a way to get you back on their crisis-timeline, meeting their needs on their own terms.)

If you give yourself the opportunity to observe this reaction, you'll know what you're up against. 

Which leads to the final stage of SOS: Strategize.

This stage involves thinking through the nature of the demand: is it really "no big deal," or something that you don't mind doing? If so, then ready agreement may be in order, and you can quickly get back to the person and say "okay."

Responding "quickly," after you've thought it through is fine. 

Responding "immediately," without thinking it through, is not necessary and not wise. That's the difference between a relationship characterized by "healthy limits" and one based on a dynamic of emotional blackmail.

If you're facing a demand that involves your integrity or a major life issue--if capitulation has the ability to harm your own life or the lives of others-- then it's time to strategize a bit further.

To help with this process, Forward offers a series of questions that a person should ask themselves before saying "yes." If the decision involves a major life choice, she suggests extending the decision-making for timeline as long as possible, in order to think through all the possibilities and options.

When it comes time to communicate a decision to an emotional blackmailer, Forward suggests an additional layer of strategy--in particular, using "nondefensive communication, making an ally out of an adversary, bartering and using humor" (195).

In all of these cases, the goal is to defuse the situation: to ensure that the blackmailer's "blame, threats and negative labels" fail to spark the sense of conflict that has previously worked to induce FOG and capitulation.

Forward recognizes that the advice she offers is easier said than done. One of the advantages of her book, I think, is that it offers very specific scripts and strategies that she advises practicing in order to gain the ability to withstand emotional blackmail.

We all realize that sticking up for yourself when necessary is a good thing. But for many of us, sticking up for ourselves when we've been trained from childhood to believe that doing so is a form of selfishness and always a potential source of harm or distress for others, is a challenge.

Forward's book offers a clear way to meet this challenge and change the dynamic.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Last year, I blogged about Robert I. Sutton's book, The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (2007).

Even if you have the good fortune to be not only surviving, but thriving, in a civilized workplace, I recommend Sutton's book, if only because it emphasizes how easy it is to become ...  an asshole.

Recently, Sutton published a shorter book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt (2017).

Although I think The No Asshole Rule is the better book, if you're pressed for time and feeling like crap because of the way that other people treat you at work, The Asshole Survival Guide can help.

Sutton wrote the second book a decade later, after he received thousands of emails from people out there in the great big world--people who are suffering and struggling and surviving the assholes in their respective little worlds.

Pastors wondered what to do about individuals who volunteered their time, only to be assholes to those around them.

CEO's struggled to cope with "boardholes" (individual board members who behave like assholes) or "doucheboards" (entirely dysfunctional boards).

And workers wondered how to live with people who seem determined to bully and demean, often with no ostensible reason for their behavior.

For the last decade or so, bullying and incivility have been on the rise. (Gee, I can't imagine why.) And if you think it's limited to "mean girls" in high school or email or social media or the internet (or, more recently, politics at the highest level of government), think again.

In 2006, an Ohio State University study "estimated that abusive supervision costs U.S. corporations $23.8 billion a year (based on absenteeism, health-care costs, and lost productivity)" (10).

That was over a decade ago. Odds are, the estimated costs of workplace bullying have risen and will continue to do so, unless and until we openly confront and address the problem.

Sutton's book attempts to do just that, while at the same time meeting the needs of those who believe they are suffering in abusive workplace environments.

The first step, Sutton argues, is to diagnose the problem and its extent: are you dealing with just one bad apple, or has the entire bunch been spoiled? Is it a temporary problem, or a more or less permanent one? Do you have any power at all in the situation, or are you simply suffering?

Sometimes, the survival strategy is simple and straightforward: get away from the asshole.

Although you might think that you have to quit your job to do this (and in some cases, you might), it's also possible that you can limit your interaction with the person in question or move to a different department.

If the problem is a systemic one, however, avoidance and escape may not be so simple. However, Sutton believes that it is important to be realistic and acknowledge the damage done by assholes-- not the least of which is that, over time, they will turn you into an asshole as well.

Hanging in there and "toughing it out" may seem like a virtuous way to live. But in the end, it may cause you to become exactly what you fear and loathe: an asshole.

Not a very virtuous way to live after all.

In the spirit of the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Sutton suggests that it's better to refuse to connect with an asshole--in any context, no matter how seemingly lucrative or conducive to your career it might initially seem to be--than it is to have to figure out how to devise ways to avoid or disconnect from the person later on down the road.

Cultivate good radar, learn to spot the assholes, and cut your "losses" while they're still only imagined or potential losses, rather than real ones.

As a friend of mine once reminded me, "No one needs extra crazy lying around."

If it looks like a person might be the type of person who will bring "extra crazy" into your life--whether deliberately or inadvertently, in tiny doses or big, two-ton barrels--think before you engage with them. As Sutton notes,
I focus on reducing the amount of exposure because jerks are a lot like sick people who are infected with a dangerous and contagious disease. We human beings "catch" many of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from others (even when we don't want to). Becoming "infected" changes us (usually for the worse), and we pass our negative germs along to others (even if we don't intend to). (67)
Think of assholes as germ-carriers, and wash your hands of them as quickly as possible. Better yet, avoid contact altogether. Make a mental note to keep your distance, the way you would if you saw someone looking bleary-eyed and snuffling and sneezing at their desk one morning.

You wouldn't think twice about protecting yourself from the flu, if you knew you could avoid catching it.

Abusive and manipulative people are infected with a toxic and highly contagious way of behaving and interacting with others.  Protect yourself accordingly.

If you can't avoid or distance yourself from an asshole, try to slow their roll. A University of Chicago study scanned the brains of teens with "aggressive conduct disorder": "[w]hen the researchers showed the bullies pictures of people who were experiencing pain--for example, from a hammer dropped on a toe--the pleasure regions of their brains lit up (this did not happen to the kids in the control group)" (73).

If you've ever found yourself confronted with an asshole doing what they do best and thought, "It's like... they get off on being an asshole...", you're probably right.

Although the "findings are tentative" (73), there does seem to be a way in which bullies truly enjoy tormenting others (internet trolls provide perhaps the most obvious anecdotal evidence of this).

Given that the asshole may actually be enjoying the interaction, it becomes even more imperative to just... not respond.

But if you don't have that luxury--if you simply have to respond, because you work with the person and s/he has power over you--you can consider adopting my own personal mantra that I've honed over the years. It goes like this:

"There's no law that says I have to respond to you in a timely fashion. You can wait."

Bullies and emotional manipulators like to impose a timeline consisting of one point: the right now.

The goal is to see you flustered and flurried and upset, so that you drop everything to handle their ... well, bullshit, basically... as quickly as possible.

But when you do, know now that it will never be good enough and it will stop nothing. So... do what works best for you. If it's not really urgent--if it's only "urgent" in the sense that the asshole "needs" it--make 'em wait. They will be less likely to approach you with their needs in the future, if those needs tend to go largely unmet. 

On the flip side, Sutton notes that "One way that assholes leave others feeling disrespected and demeaned is to ignore them as people. That is, to treat them as if they were invisible. A classic crappy move is to treat someone like a piece of furniture that you use but do not acknowledge as a human being--no eye contact, no smile, no thanks, no connection of any sort" (76).

I've experienced this one myself. It can be exasperating, even for an introvert, because human beings are social animals. The assholes who treat people this way have an instinctive understanding of that: their behavior is essentially exploiting this facet of human interaction and connection, to make you feel like an outcast.

My way of handling this situation is best summed up in an old Far Side cartoon:

Be the guy with the wheelbarrow.

As Snow White advises, "just whistle a happy tune." Better yet, as Sutton advises (and I'm paraphrasing here, but not by much): "Cultivate the fine art of not giving a shit."

If they want to treat you as if you're invisible, let them. The world is full of better people than that, so be invisible to the assholes so that you can be fully present to those who will like and respect and admire and care about you.

Because time and time again, research suggests that the people targeted by workplace bullies or abusive managers are generally smart, conscientious, and productive.

Ironically (but not surprisingly), these workers are also consistently better-liked across the board, outside of the bullying environment.

Don't let some asshole(s) change that. 

Monday, October 23, 2017


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.
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


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


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:

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


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.