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.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Productive Week

It's been a good week.

I finished an article. Not the terrible Zola one, which I have set aside yet again.

I'm beginning to think that one falls in the category that Joli Jensen, in Write No Matter What, labels a "toxic project."

Her argument is, if you begin to feel nothing but loathing at the thought of working on a writing project, it's become "toxic" and it needs to just... go... or STOP because it will drain your energy and become a mental and emotional roadblock that makes it impossible to work on other things.

Jensen is (unfortunately) talking about much larger projects, but it sure does seem to describe that Zola article for me. So I set it aside, with the thought that I may "never return to it."

Given the sense of overwhelming relief and peace I felt when I reached that decision, I'd say "toxic" was the appropriate label for it at this point. I had begun to regret ever embarking on it, quite frankly.

But the good news is, I finished the article on Hersey's Hiroshima and I feel pretty good about that one.

And I got the page proofs for an upcoming co-authored article on Shalamov, so I feel very good about that, needless to say. It's always a great--and sort of surprising--feeling to see your work in print. Not just typed out on your own computer or whatever, but actually, officially typeset and about to appear in professional form somewhere out in the great big world.

And then, there was this:

I found a wonderful pick-your-own strawberry place in RI.

I haven't had such great luck with strawberries in RI. Typically, they're much better in NJ, I suspect because waves of godawful heat tend to hit NJ far earlier and far more often in the months of May and early June.

But we had one such mini-heat wave here in RI last week, for a few days, but I didn't mind it (I certainly never though of calling it "godawful") and this was the glorious result of that.

It was followed almost immediately by this:

The summer jam-making session have commenced, in short.

The end of the little spate of warm weather left much cooler temps, so I took advantage of the cool and breezy days to can some strawberry jam (in progress photo on the left), and to use up the leftover berries in the freezer and make some more blackberry jam and cherry jam as well.


So now, we wait for the raspberry and blueberry picking seasons to begin.

If the timing is right, I'll also get some more cherries. Really, nothing beats having fresh fruit frozen and stored for the winter.

Since we're looking at yet another rainy and chilly weekend, I'm hoping to get some knitting projects finished.

Because no one really wants to be knitting a sweater during the summer--unless it's something lightweight, and even then, not really. Not if it ends up big enough that it's resting on your lap in the heat. That's the kind of thing that can push someone over the edge, even if the resting item is simply made of cotton or silk.

God forbid it's woolen.

I also bought a bunch of books (for the Kindle of course) and hit the library, so I've got a couple more writing projects in the works.

I'm still trying to stick to the program of "Deep Work" sessions, bouts of a minimum of 15 minutes of writing every day, and "Active Questions" to check on whether or not I'm meeting my goals.

I think it's working, more or less. Some days better than others, but overall, I'd say it's working. At the very least, I feel a bit more "on schedule" and "in control" of my work habits.

I didn't do any writing for the past several days (see above: berries and jam take time) although I think I did do a 15-minuter, actually, on one of those days, I just didn't count it because it seemed so very piddly.

Prior to that, I had a 6-day span of "deep work"--concentrated, intellectual activity--that resulted in an article submission. This is good. And productive.

I'm hoping that the upcoming week will consist of "second verse, same as the first."

With maybe a bit of gardening and knitting--instead of berry-picking and jamming--thrown in.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Redeeming Value

I ended up feeling a bit under the (rainy, windy, gloomy, chilly) weather last Monday and Tuesday, so I feel like I've spent the past week playing catch-up. (Again.)

I'm nearing the end of the article on Hiroshima that I had planned to finish, oh, a while ago... but I really do feel like the end is in sight, and I want to say that I'll have it submitted in the next day or two... but I'm afraid to say that (for obvious reasons).

Jinxes happen.

So instead I'll focus on talking about the other things that I accomplished. When I was away from home April, the grill tipped over in my yard and lay there just long enough to kill off a grill-shaped segment of the lawn.

Being me, I did what only I would do.  I installed another planter. (What, you're surprised by that?) Here 'tis.


I put a couple of cherry tomato plants in it, along with some basil. Everything is teeny-tiny in my gardening world right now, because I plant the stuff from seed, so... it takes a while.

BUT, in my defense, I've got a nice variety of things coming up, and the heat wave we're getting right now is giving them the little boost of confidence they need to ... get growing! Right now, the melons, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, and potatoes are all looking like they're well on their way.

Fingers crossed.

I'm also pleased because my peonies have finally had the chance to put down solid roots and the blooms this year are quite wonderful. Like so:

They smell wonderful, needless to say.

My understanding is, a lot of people consider peonies an "old fashioned flower" so they don't plant them all that much any more.

I say, that's kinda foolish, because they're all kinds of wonderful.

And I mean what I say: I have no fewer than 5 peony bushes. They make great cut flowers--although once the weather gets hot, they don't hold up very well or for very long.

I planted a new type of perennial as well. I confess, this one was a bit of a mishap. I bought the seeds and planted them, and when they got big enough and I was ready to transplant them, I checked to see when they would be expected to bloom.

Imagine my surprise when it said that they wouldn't bloom at all the first year.

Oh.

This is why it pays to read the packaging all the way to the end, I suppose.

In any case, I tended them all last year, at a couple points wondering whether I was an idiot for doing so because after all, there was no guarantee they wouldn't just up and die over the winter and never return in the spring... and the seedlings were initially kinda frail, so a couple of them died within moments of being transplanted (yes, I exaggerate, but only slightly).

But good things come to those who wait, apparently, because, without further ado... the latest addition to my garden... Canterbury bells! 

They come in an assortment of colors, but most of mind are bluish-purple.

Which is fine by me, because I like that color, but at the same time, a variety would have been nice.

But we can't have everything, and at this point, I'm just glad that they survived and they look nice. They're quite striking--the stakes are about 3-4 feet high, and as you can see, they need to be staked, and they are generally as tall as the stakes themselves.

So it's a good thing I read the package far enough along to know to put them in back of other plants. They're actually right near my peonies, and I for one am happy with the result.

Speaking of results (or the lack thereof), I'm still on my fitness/weight loss quest. The fitness side of things seems to be progress much better than the weight loss side of things, but that may be because last week I went out for ice cream twice.

Once, to console myself for having not felt well on Monday and Tuesday, and once because, well, I just wanted to and I'd already gone once, so I considered the "weight loss" issue "on hold" for the week, given that I'd had to adjust to accommodate any number of unanticipated problems.

At least, this is how I rationalized it to myself.

But yesterday and today, I took a 20-mile bike ride, so I think I've more than redeemed myself, thank you very much.

And redemption was even sweeter than ice cream. I'll leave you with a glimpse of this morning's view from the bike...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Changing Times

As is probably pretty obvious by now, I'm a self-awareness and human behavior junkie. So it is not at all surprising that I picked up Marshall Goldsmith's Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be (2015).

I've blogged about Goldsmith's work a bit recently ("Here and There") and I must say, I found Triggers even more interesting.

Put simply, Goldsmith argues that "Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism" that profoundly affects our behavior.

I know, not a terribly new insight, is it?

But as my dad used to say, "Common sense isn't so common," and despite the fact that we know that our environment sets us up for some bad choices--from things as harmless as hitting the snooze button 16 times instead of heading out to the gym or getting into yet another blowout over politics with our brother-in-law at the family picnic to ignoring the doctor's warnings about our smoking --but we continue to make them anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, we make them despite the fact that we plan to stop doing precisely the things we know we shouldn't do.

Our intentions are good. Why do we keep getting sucked in and find ourselves at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. wondering why we felt compelled to eat 5 more slices of birthday cake?

Goldsmith argues that "we start each day as a bifurcated individual, one part leader, the other part follower--and as the day progresses, the two grow further apart." We wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (after we stop hitting the snooze button) and we decide that it doesn't matter if we didn't make it to the gym this morning!  We drive right by it on the way home from work, so we'll do our workout then!

Until we end up running late at work, and realize that there really isn't any point in doing a workout an hour before the gym closes...that's just foolish.  And anyway, we're hungry and the Chinese take-out place we love just happens to be right around the corner from the now-nearly-closed gym, so...

You know how this story ends.

Goldsmith argues that we start with a plan, like a boss. But then, as the day wears on--and ye gods does it wear on sometimes--"with little to no awareness, you assume a different role." But the leader in you thinks the inner-follower will stick to the plan, regardless.

But our inner-follower isn't like that. If the environment changes, the follower will rationalize not sticking to the leader's plan. And what's even worse, our follower-self will "flirt with temptation" precisely "[b]ecause of our delusional belief that we control our environment."

Ultimately, Goldsmith argues, "We willfully ignore how profoundly the environment influences our behavior" and instead "make excuses," "rationalize," and "harbor beliefs that trigger all manner of denial and resistance."

And sadly, "As a result, we continually fail at becoming the person we want to be."

Goldsmith's solution is interestingly simple: we need to take stock of our willingness to try (whether or not we succeed) and we need to do so by framing the behavioral change we wish to effect in terms of "active self-questioning" rather than posing "passive" questions about our desired behavioral change.

For example, if you go on a diet, chances are, at the end of the day, you ask yourself, "Did I stick to my diet?" If the answer is yes, awesome!  On to the next day.

But if the answer is, "Wellllll... not really," you will almost immediately begin blaming the environment somehow or finding an excuse (or beating yourself up for failing, to such an extent that you end up giving up entirely). You'll note that it isn't really not sticking to a diet if you only had the one cookie (plus the other two that your kids picked up and then didn't want) at that event earlier in the afternoon, because the cookies were made by a friend, and wouldn't it be rude not to at least try one? Of course it would.

You see where this is going.

Active self-questioning, Goldsmith argues, "can trigger a new way of interacting with the world" because "Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up."

Instead of asking "Did I [fill in desired behavior change here]?" you ask, "Did I do my best to [fill in desired behavior change here]?"

Instead of, "Did I stick to my diet?" the question becomes, "Did I do my best to eat healthy food today?"

And then, you score yourself on a scale of 1-10. So, the cookie scenario might earn you a 3 out of 10. Which isn't great, but if you think about it, it's easier to say, "Well, I'll try to at least get a 4 tomorrow!" 

More importantly, active self-questioning forces you to think about the extent to which you're trying and the extent to which you're simply giving up on the behavioral change you're trying to bring about.

According to Goldsmith, "Injecting the phrase 'Did I do my best to..' triggers trying. In a world full of triggers, active self-questioning helps you create your own trigger and train it on the behavioral change you wish to bring about.

Obviously, Goldsmith's book is full of other helpful (and interesting) suggestions, but if you'd like more insight into his strategy of using "daily questions" as a trigger for effecting positive personal change, you can check out his article "Why We Don't Become the Person We Want to Be" on his website.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Photo Finish

Yes, I have been away from the blog for two weeks. No this was not what I had planned on doing.

BUT, it's been time well spent.

I've been writing. In fact, there's a good chance that by the end of the week, I will have not one, but two articles submitted to a couple of journals. This would be beyond good. Especially since one of them--on the French writer Zola--has been the bane of my existence for a very, very long time now.

I'm sticking with the concept of "deep work" and positive writing sessions, and so far, it seems to be going fairly well. If I stay on track tomorrow and Wednesday, I will be able to say that, for the month of May, I had 14 "deep work" writing sessions--and I think the results speak for themselves, insofar as I'm poised to submit two essays for consideration.

I'd like to increase the number of sessions to at least 20 for the month of June. I think that's do-able, given that I managed to have 14 in May, in spite of having a week of classes, a week of grading, and a conference to attend this past weekend.

I also committed to finishing up a bunch of projects that have been waiting in the wings for a while now. That's a story best told through photos.

First, there was this summer sweater. (Pay no attention to the blocking pins along the bottom edge.)

I'm actually no longer even sure when I started this, but given that it's lightweight and made of flax, I suspect it was when weather was warmer, so ... probably at least six months ago.

It knitted up very quickly, obviously. I know the armholes look a little funky, but trust me, they're just fine--once you put arms into them, it all looks very normal.

I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing that needed to be done one it was to knit what's called an "i-cord edging" around the armholes and the bottom. (I'd already done it around the neckline.)

And yet, there it sat, for months on end, and on an almost daily basis, I would mentally remind myself that I needed to finish it up.

Kind of like with these socks over here.

In this case, I succumbed to a pretty typical case of "Second Sock Syndrome."

I went great-guns on the first, and then slowed to a crawl complete halt when it came to the second one.

I finally took it with me to a movie, and got several inches of it knitted up there, and then chose my subsequent reading material for the next few days rather carefully, with an eye to being able to finish a sock while reading.

The sad irony in all of this is, it actually only took a few hours to finish both of these projects. One wonders why I spent so much time delaying the inevitable, since there was nothing un-enjoyable about finishing them up.

I actually also (nearly) finished a second mitten. As you can probably imagine, mittens, like socks, are prone to the Second Syndrome: you make one, then you get bored with working on it and don't bother working on the second one.

Yesterday, I picked up the second mitten and realized that, once again, I really only had a couple of hours left of work to do on it, so I did it. All except sewing it together, which I postponed doing because by the time I'd finished it was getting dark, and the yarn is a dark yarn, and sewing seams with dark colored yarn is just a lot faster and easier by daylight.

So I set it aside.  I meant to get to it today, but instead, I did a batch of writing, made a small cake (which tastes good, but doesn't look so hot, which is why there's no photo of it), and worked on clearing more weeds out of the various garden beds in the yard.

While I know a lot of people on the East Coast are probably bummed because they're barbecues were rained out this year, I have to say, I was kind of happy we had a rainy Memorial Day.

It's been good for the garden, and a good way to get all of the small tasks done, in anticipation of a busy summer.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Here and There

A few months ago, I started Marshall Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (2007). I finally had a chance to finish it this weekend.

Goldsmith makes a living as a "leadership coach," which means that Fortune 500 companies hire him to work with executives who are generally successful, but who either have the potential to become more so or who may have a behavioral habit that runs the risk of derailing their otherwise strong performance--in Goldsmith's words, "People who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job--and don't realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career" (9).

His book is designed to explain his coaching process: "It's aimed at anyone who wants to get better--at work, at home, or any other venue" (14), and it operates on the assumption that "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great" (120).

Goldsmith argues that the "four key beliefs" that "help us become successful" (16) may make it difficult for us to ... well, level-up, so to speak. To get from "here" to "there" in our careers. According to Goldsmith, the beliefs that help us succeed and then, paradoxically, hold us back are: "I have succeeded," "I can succeed," "I will succeed," and "I choose to succeed."

If you're wondering how these beliefs could possibly impede our path to success, Goldsmith's claim is that these beliefs-- that "we have the skills, the confidence, the motivation, and the free choice to succeed"--cause us to become "superstitious" (25). More specifically, they lead us to confuse "correlation" with "causality."

According to Goldsmith, sometimes we're successful "because of" our behavior, and sometimes we're successful "in spite of" our behavior--and being able to distinguish between the two is what can move us from "here" to "there" (26). But if we always think we're successful "because of" our behavior, we'll never take stock of the ways in which we may be successful "in spite of" the things we do.

Goldsmith outlines 20 specific habits that influence our interpersonal behavior in ways that hinder our success. (No, I'm not going to list them all--you'll need to read the book.) He also includes a "twenty-first habit"--"goal obsession"--a trait that is generally an asset for anyone seeking success, but that becomes a liability when "we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission" (99).

In particular, we fail to understand "what we want in our lives" (99)--we think, "I'd be happy if only [fill in the blank with your goal]," without taking stock of the fact that we may be misunderstanding and misperceiving both our goal and its ultimate consequences.

The quintessential example, of course, is anyone who works hard to earn as much money as possible with the goal of providing a better life for their children, only to create a situation in which they no longer have any time to spend with said children.

Goldsmith offers a 7-step process for change that involves soliciting feedback, apologizing for past behavior, advertising one's desire to change, listening to others, thanking them, following up with them (to find out whether the changes we seek to implement in ourselves are really taking root), and "practicing feedforward" (asking people to suggest ways in which we might improve in the future).

As you can probably tell from this list of behaviors, implementing the change that will move you from "here" to "there" involves reining in a whole lot of ego and getting used to accepting criticism without comment.

In fact, one of the most interesting points that Goldsmith makes is that, when we receive negative criticism, we should simply say, "Thank you. I'll try to do better in the future." (Our tone should be neither snide nor snarky when we do so.)

We should resist the urge to become defensive because, as Goldsmith points out, no one can actually force us to heed their criticism and change our behavior in accordance with their particular desires or perspective. It's always ultimately our own decision whether to take the suggestion or not.

However, when we become defensive, we risk creating interpersonal friction, a phenomenon that will obviously make it more difficult for us to get from "here" to "there." (To repeat: "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great.")

If you're reading all of this and thinking, "Yeah, well, anyone who tells me I need to behave in a way that I think is just plain stupid should be told to go stick it where the sun don't shine," or "It'll be a cold day in hell when I let some smug bastard I work with tell me how I need to improve--talk about a train wreck!"  then you can see very clearly why change is so difficult.

(And perhaps, having realized that, you may also begin to realize why you are "here" rather than "there." Just a thought.)

Goldsmith's suggestion for changing our behavior is that we "Pick one issue that matters and 'attack' it until it doesn't matter anymore. If you're a bad listener, choose to become a better listener--not the best listener in the world" (192).

His argument is, we need to accept that there is no ideal human behavior, be honest with ourselves about whether we have a trait (or two) that needs changing, stop hiding from the truth about ourselves, and focus on changing the "one issue that matters."

And then, get started. Obviously, Goldsmith offers a range of concrete suggestions for how we can do that.

More importantly, though, Goldsmith acknowledges that we all have our own personal idea of what "there" looks like and if we truly want to identify what that is, we should simply imagine that we're 95 years old and have the opportunity to give our younger selves the advice--both personal and professional--that we think they will need to be successful.

Goldsmith suggests that, if we take the time to briefly write down both personal and professional advice for our younger self from our older self, we will find that ultimately, we have defined what constitutes our "there" (221).

And then, we can begin to get "there."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Springy

We've been having a rainy and chilly(ish) start to May, weather-wise, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot (so to speak) and try to get the yard and gardens under control.

The yard went okay until I hit a thick patch of grass and the mower crapped out. Never to start again.

I ordered a new starter, on the off chance that the whole not-starting thing was because, well, you get my drift, but no it wasn't the starter. But still, in the very fiber of my being, I did not want to send my little mower to the landfill.

So I found a place that repairs all kinds of tools and machines. At first, they were skeptical: it's not a pricey mower, so there was a good chance that repairing it would cost as much as a new mower. Maybe it was the motor that had "blown." Maybe it would be un-fixable.

It was "up to me."

I insisted they give it a look-see. When we got it inside and I showed them what was wrong, the guy said, "You know what? I take it all back. That just sounds like the starter isn't engaging--it may just need a new switch. This may actually be fixable after all."

They're going to call and let me know. Meanwhile, the grass is growing. Luckily I got the front yard mowed before disaster struck, so I'm at least presenting a semi-neat appearance to the world at large.

In terms of the garden, I've been able to leave the low tunnels up for a bit longer, since it's going down into the 40's at night. When I opened them up for the first time since January, imagine my surprise at finding a whole lotta leeks growing, as well as some carrots, brussels sprouts, beets and broccoli.

Not a LOT of these, you understand--just about one of each. Except for the leeks. Lots and lots of leeks coming my way this year, it would seem.

I also have garlic that survived the winter--or, more to the point, it survived the squirrels that like to dig everything I plant and fling it hither and thither.

I put in a bunch of strawberry plants in the new raised beds I installed last year. If I could create a situation in which I have strawberries in my own backyard every spring, I'd be a (relatively) happy woman.

As far as the rest of the garden goes, the plan this year is to attempt "square foot gardening."  I've put in a bunch of seeds (and some potatoes), but because it's been so chilly (and because it's only been 6 days), it's hard to see much progress just yet.

This is what the world inside the low tunnels currently looks like -->

(You can see all the leeks on the left. Unlike the current resident of the White House, I don't mind mine.)

The winter all but killed my huge rosemary bush, so I'm starting over on that front. The problem I always run into is, it inevitably gets so big it's nearly impossible to move indoors, and when I do, I don't have an convenient, sunny location to put it in.

So I try tucking it alongside the house. Some years, that goes okay. This year it did not.

Ditto for my lavender plant which was HUGE when I first moved into my house, so I finally gave it a home in the garden. The last couple of years have decimated it. If we get a winter where it rains, then turns to sleet over the course of a day, it wreaks havoc on lavender--that's been my experience.

To remedy this situation--and because I'm a little bit sentimental about my lavender plant, since it accompanied on many journeys through rental properties over the years--I've re-potted it.

I've decided that in its place I'm going to plant horehound. I need an herb that makes life easy for me, and this is an old-fashioned one that might actually give the pokeweed that likes to take over that particular corner a serious run for its money.

I need to get cracking on starting some tomatoes--I usually get them started in March, but this year, it was snowing and I just couldn't fathom a world in which I would come inside from shoveling snow and bust out the potting soil and containers and get to work.

So I may be a bit behind in that respect this year, except that in previous years, I start them super-early and then don't necessarily have all that much to show for it by May anyway, because it isn't really warm enough to put them outside and inside... let's just say, they reach a point at which they need to be outside.

And no, I don't use grow-lights. People think I'm insane, growing things from seed with no help from indoor lighting, but I kind of like just doing what I can with what I have on hand, and seeing what happens.

Yes, it means my garden looks a bit spare at times, but given that I can grow things from seed, without lights, I see no reason to stop doing that.

On a final note, I'm happy to report that the decorative pear tree I planted last spring is alive and well, and the lilac bush I put in alongside it looks... cute--all loaded with huge purple blossoms and all.

In short, I think it's safe to say that spring has sprung here on the "homestead."

The next big project has nothing to do with the garden: when I get a minute, I'm going to update the look of the blog. After nearly 7 years, it's time...