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Category Archives: Psychology

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.


Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.


Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.


Snowflake obsidian, with its supposed healing powers. Even if for me those are symbolic, it soothes.

Today, I want to offer my version of a self-help project. I had to laugh when this idea came to me last week because it resembles in some ways the same kind of saccharine self-help project that all the fake happiness gurus promote. Once again, I find myself making what is perhaps a narrow distinction: my self-help project, I believe, is different in that it acknowledges the full power of negative things in my life. It simply is an attempt to create a space, albeit small, where I can retreat from some of those negative things.

This all came about because several people suggested strategies for coping with my return to campus from my lovely year of sabbatical—my trainer suggested that I spend time between classes going through my assigned stretching exercises—“It will be more crucial now more than ever,” she said, “in order to keep the stress from making you seize up again.” One friend noted that I should make a common practice of shutting my office door. And my dear friend Gigi said I needed to fill up my pockets with snowflake obsidian and create an altar in the corner of my office.

I liked all of these ideas, but dwelt a little bit on the last one. To what could I make an altar that would transcend the moment? And would I want one that everyone who walked in my door could peruse and comment on?

I decided instead that I would make a sabbatical-in-a-drawer.

Note that I am still in the idea stage of this project. I have cleaned out a desk drawer at work and started collecting things to put into it—photos of Bruce and the cats, little tchotchkes that remind me of far-off places and people, beautiful fabric, and, yes, bits of snowflake obsidian, that healing gem. I’m also planning to buy a calligraphy pen and some nice paper for a list of my stretches and some little reminders, such as “Think about what you want versus what your ego wants” and “What’s different now?” Maybe I will even include a small frame to remind me to keep shifting my attention from the unhealthy scene right in front of me to the wider horizon or the inner landscape.

One of the things I really like about this idea is that it won’t be out for everyone to see. Rather, when I have a few minutes and need a little rest, I can simply close my door and open the drawer. In it I hope to create a little magic and a lot of distance from the day to day that so often burns me out. It may be a little like the wardrobe in the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yes, these worlds of the imagination have their own dangers, but they are ones we can confront, ones we long for.

My desire to keep it private makes it a little odd for me to write about it here on the blog, but one of my friends said she really wanted to share the idea with another friend of hers, and we started talking about the whole concept of sabbatical and how we could import that into our daily work lives. People in most walks of life, after all, don’t have the option of official sabbaticals, though I did find some web resources for those wishing to negotiate one in other professions. I heartily recommend you do so if you can. At any rate, even for those who have the possibility, there are few of them and they are very far between.

Many of us also live with heavy workloads and a lot of stress, even when we love what we do. And many of us work nearly non-stop, seven days a week. Few of us any longer have a designated day of rest, much less any longer period of time when we can pause and reflect on our work.

Until I looked up the word in the dictionary, I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between the words “Sabbath” and “sabbatical” (duh). But the idea of sabbatical goes back to the Bible and Leviticus 25:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,

“Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them: ‘When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord.

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard and gather in the fruit thereof,

but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land, a Sabbath for the Lord; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard.”

And, of course, to Genesis 2:2-3:

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had made.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.

This ancient acknowledgement of the need for rest and refreshment after labor is one that is increasingly lost. Even in academia, sabbatical no longer really means “rest”; rather, it means working independently outside of the classroom. (We are required both to submit a plan of work in applying for one and to send in a report on our accomplishments when we are finished.) So, in one sense, my transition back to the classroom has not been difficult—it isn’t as though I have gotten used to doing nothing much. I have simply shifted my attention back to student work and less toward my writing, but the fact of work has remained continual.

Emotionally, however, sabbatical was indeed a vacation—I didn’t have to deal with the office politics that eat up so much energy and create such feelings of despair in me. And so I find that I can create a sabbatical-in-a-drawer—a little free zone of emotional sustenance and beauty in a sometimes challenging world.

I would love to hear about other sabbaticals-in-drawers that any of you make or similar ideas that help you keep your sanity and find moments of rest and emotional nourishment. These are, after all, requirements of life.

Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears

An image from Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011.

A Joyous Crybaby reader out in California emailed me the other day and asked if I had ever heard of Laurel Nakadate. He said that my blog reminded him of her work 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (performed in 2010 and first exhibited in 2011). No, I didn’t know of her, but I looked her up, and Nakadate’s work in photography, video, and film is fascinating. Thanks, Christopher Wu, for pointing her out.

Whereas I thought about making myself cry every day for a year, Nakadate actually did it, and 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears records that experience. In fact, she notes in this interview with White Hot Magazine:

the original reason why I started this project—I was looking on Facebook and on other websites and I was seeing how everyone fakes happiness all of the time. I mean, is it really true that all 3,000 of my Facebook friends are happy every day? ‘Cause according to their pictures they are! I just thought in direct retaliation against the concept that we should fake our happiness every day to present the right façade perhaps I’ll deliberately turn the other way and take part in sadness each day and see where that gets me.

It got her somewhere indeed. She notes that the project had the following effects:

* Though the project was “grueling” and “hard,” she grew “to depend on the consistency of the daily performance” and gained “more comfort than I imagined it could bring.”

* She began to think of crying in a different way, less as a “tsunami” and more just “a fluid thing that occurs, … a part of living.”

* People have started talking with her more freely about sadness and her art has started “a conversation about a taboo topic.”

So today I share with you the work of Laurel Nakadate. Photos from this project are available in book form, with an introduction by wonderful writer Rick Moody, as well as a sampling in this We Find Wildness blog post. She is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

What Do We Value?

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Image of the U.S. pointing to Justice with Hope alongside, on the East Pediment of the U.S. Capitol Building. Original sculpted by Luigi Persico, 1825-1828, called Genius of America.

I was thinking the other day about our pervasive pursuit of personal happiness (as distinct from the public good). When I started this blog, I noted that I thought the unrelenting focus on something called “happiness” is not only not the way to find it, but is… er, well, kind of tacky. In other words, I worked from the assumption that something “higher” or “loftier” than personal happiness must be at work in someone’s life for them even to deserve to be happy. Not that we always get what we deserve.

I’ve been contemplating lately what those higher or loftier values might be and how they are related to living the good life.

Here’s my initial venture into a list, but I would love to hear from you, too, about what drives you beyond a self-centered desire for a selfish kind of happiness or success.




Service to Others (in work or other activities, even personal ones, such as “be a good mother to my children” or “be a good friend”)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also come to realize where so many of us today encounter our inspirational ideas: from TEDTalks, which have become a defining phenomenon of our time. They have become as all pervasive as the pursuit of happiness, and their stated purpose is to introduce to larger audiences “ideas worth spreading.” In other words, TED has an organizational goal of improving human life. It occurred to me that examining the TEDTalks at least a little bit systematically might lend some insight into what we perceive to be important to that endeavor.

Maybe I thought of this because so often the TEDTalks I see posted or that someone sends around have to do with “happiness.”

Search for the term “happiness” in the index of the TEDTalks, and you get 7,136 hits. By comparison, if you search “compassion,” you get 2,090 results. “Justice” garners 3,487 results. “Integrity” 5,911.

The phrase “service to others” garners a mere 33 hits, only 4 of which seem to link to TEDTalks themselves; the other hits are in bios and the like. “Happiness,” on the other hand links mostly to talks on happiness and quotes about it. Only 2 of these hits link to bios—those of happiness/success gurus Srikumar Rao and Martin Seligman.

Does this perhaps indicate that, though we want others to believe that we are invested in service to others, we really find personal happiness more important? Or does it mean that service to others is more important to people’s self concepts, but what they believe others are interested in is personal happiness? I’m not sure—and maybe it even means nothing important—but these numbers reflect what is to me an odd imbalance.

These results are for any tiny mention of each term, but even when we look at the TED “themes,” we note that “What Makes Us Happy?” is a popular theme with 87 talks devoted to the topic. Of the 47 themes, the happiness one ranks just above the middle of the pack at 20th. “The Charter for Compassion,” on the other hand, boasts only 8 talks, the lowest of any category. Even food beats it out at 23 talks, and the ocean at 43. There are two education categories with a combined total of 107 talks. “Not Business as Usual” garners 162 talks. TED, like every other organization, must play to its audience—in this case largely business people. Its sponsors are all mighty corporations such as Prudential, IBM, Pfizer, American Express, and Johnnie Walker. Interesting bedfellows when it comes to saving the world.

TED does have a theme called “Rethinking Poverty,” which seems to be the one mostly devoted to issues of justice, at least that of an economic variety. It contains 96 talks, ranging over a wide array of subjects, from “Breakthrough designs for ultra-low-cost products” to “How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place,” to “Hidden hotbeds of invention.” Many of these talks focus on the experiences of poor women (sex trafficking, infant and post-partum mortality, malnutrition, etc.); many others focus on technological innovations to help people, especially in poor countries. Technology is one of the foundational topics of TED, the other two being Entertainment and Design, so this is no real surprise.

TED talks, have, also not surprisingly, been criticized on a number of counts, including their corporatization, their being a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism,” for “low-grade intellectual fraud” masking as smartness, and for the fact that the statistics and science used in them are frequently quite questionable.

So, there’s what TED provides to us for its own perhaps blinkered needs, but there’s also what people watch. The single most-watched one is Sir Ken Robinson on “schools kill creativity,” the title of which is, I should add, quite misleading. If you look at the list of the “20 most-watched TEDTalks (so far),” you will see the technological emphasis of the TED audience, as well as its desire for positivity—“insight,” “thrilling potential,” “astonishments,” “best,” “magic,” “breakthrough,” “nurturing,” “genius,” “happy,” “success,” “orgasm,” “great,” and “inspire” are all words that appear in the titles of the top 20. “Kill” and “danger” are the only remotely negative words.

One TED speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, went so far as to do a statistical analysis of what facets of a TEDTalk make it more or less popular (see below). When he did the original talk in 2010, “happiness” came in at the second most popular term, after “you.” In a June 2011 update, “you” was still at the top, but “choice” had edged happiness into the number 3 position, emphasizing, I suppose, that there is even more talk about how we’re responsible for choosing our own happiness.

Of course, Wernicke gives this talk with much good humor—and laughter from the audience. This kind of deprecation of the TED endeavor is part of the purported sophistication of its speakers and its audience. What’s interesting to me is that Wernicke can make the kinds of solid statistical observations he makes without commenting on or evaluating them at all. In other words, it’s fine with him that “happiness” is the top topic or, as he puts it, if you’re going to give a TEDTalk it should be on a topic that “we can connect to both easily and deeply.” (I’m not sure what he means by deeply, when the maximum for a talk is 18 minutes long and since Wernicke developed a tool called the Ted Pad to give people the formula for creating a good or bad talk.)

Wernicke has since also given a second TEDTalk that boils the entire endeavor down into a single 6-word sentence. He did this through “crowd-sourcing,” that is, paying people on the web to summarize various groups of TEDTalks to come to a complete summarization of 1000 talks. Though Wernicke found the original summarized submissions “flat” or “lacking” or only partial in their insight into what the TEDTalks were all about, here’s what he came up with when combining and shifting the words around : “Why the worry? I’d rather wonder.”

Wernicke stops there, as if this insight is enough. And for me, this TEDTalk sums up what is wrong with the entire genre: the smug, secure, positivity of those who are already well-off and largely satisfied with their lives but still looking for more personal fulfillment.

What else matters—to you or those you see around you?

TEDTalks and Keys to Happiness

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I began my blog journey with a desire to understand my own reaction of irritation in the face of the “positive psychology” movement and to explore what motivates me in contrast to an obsession with turning personal happiness into yet another competitive achievement.

Today I bring to you two TEDTalks on the subject of happiness. For me, these two talks demonstrate the gulf in quality among those connected to “positive psychology.” Dan Gilbert (above) I can respect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions he draws from his data. Shawn Achor, on the other hand, I find the twenty-first-century version of a snake-oil salesman.

There is much that overlaps in their TEDTalks—the jokes, the anecdotal examples that render their data amusing, their clunky Power Point slides. Most important, though, both talk about the ways in which we can or do recast negative events in our lives to render them more positive.

But I see differences:

Dan Gilbert notes toward the end of his talk that some things that may happen in our lives are actually better or more desirable than others. Though he insists that we overrate the impact of one result over another in terms of our happiness, he is not disconnected from reality. He is interested in what humans share in terms of how they react to life events, and he asserts that reframing unfortunate events is a human trait we all participate in.

Shawn Achor unfortunately ends his talk otherwise: with a list of ways in which we can retrain ourselves to be happy. His talk is oriented around our deficits, even as he makes fun of psychologists for wanting to diagnose illnesses in order to keep “sick” people coming back for more treatment. Happiness is something that requires treatment and training just as much as getting over any depression or other “below average” state. Achor’s talk is full of logical conflicts like this—and he even admits that the data he puts on the screen is nonexistent—he uses it just to make a point about the evils of averages. Right before this exhortative end, Achor throws out a bunch of numbers but doesn’t really tell us where they come from.

Both Gilbert and Achor rely on a connection to Harvard University for their status as experts, and both have published popular books on happiness (Gilbert’s is Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, and Achor’s is The Happiness Advantage, 2010). And this leads me to something that’s a big difference for me, but evidently not for others. Dan Gilbert really is an expert.

Though Shawn Achor has made himself a guru, he has no degree in psychology at all. His bio on his corporation, GoodThinkInc., says that he “spent over a decade at Harvard University where he won over a dozen distinguished teaching awards,” and here and there he is referred to as “Professor Achor.” Yes, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from Harvard and a master’s in Divinity in “Christian and Buddhist ethics.” However, he never held a position above that of “teaching fellow,” which this link makes clear is basically a teaching assistant.

He also claims that his company conducts research into happiness, and it contains a “Research” page. But go to that page and what you find is pretty thin. There is a link to yet another business that Achor has “founded,” which, even though it is called the Institute for Applied Research, clearly involves only coaching courses, no research at all, though it does boast of several large business clients. And there is a link to an 800-word column Achor wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, though it does cite some research, notes only one “study” his company performed, which was a post-experiment assessment of the company’s employees and apparently has never been vetted for its experimental legitimacy. In other words, Achor performs “studies” to prove to the corporations who have bought his coaching services that it was worth the money.

Gilbert, on the other hand, has a PhD in social psychology from Princeton (and a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado), and is actually on the faculty and runs a research lab at Harvard. This is not to say that he doesn’t have a stake in the tenets of positive psychology, but his approach is more balanced and therefore less punishing. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review’s coverage of his work, he notes, “Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people…. Rich people are happier than poor people.” Note that he doesn’t say that “happy people are healthier than sad people.” Nor “Happy people are richer than unhappy people.” He doesn’t reverse the equations of causality in destructive ways.

Therefore, even though I have questions about some of the implications of the research results that Gilbert mentions in his TEDTalk, I feel that it’s at least based on research and not on pure gloss designed to sell a service to line his pockets. I hope it doesn’t seem as though I am splitting hairs. These things make a difference to me as I try to understand what sources of advice and inspiration are really that and what ones are potentially damaging shams.

What makes a difference to you in a happiness guru? Which ones irritate you and which ones make sense, and why?


Does It Matter Whether a Smile Is Real?

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The relationship of our happiness to our willingness to fake it has been the topic of debate for a long time, and many a bromide supports the idea that it’s a good thing to fake it if need be. Consider these:

Fake it til you make it.

Go through the motions, and the motives will follow.

Keep smiling—it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to.

Keep your chin up!

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

Put on a happy face! (my video selection above, from the film Bye, Bye, Birdie, 1963)

Of course, there are many sources that repeat this general idea endlessly. But there are also sources that report on the nuances and limitations of such ideas, that qualify the findings of all this research that supposedly demands smiling even if you have to fake it.

Follow with me a kind of trajectory:

First, there’s this kind of thing that notes we have plenty of reasons to smile even when we don’t feel like it. Even when you go to a more professional psychology source that cites particular studies, there’s a kind of silly gloss on it all that bugs me. Take the final study noted on the PSYBLOG—the report here ignores the fact that causation has not been established, only the barest correlation. Photos of baseball players over the years show that the ones that smiled more lived longer. What this most likely proves is not that if you smile more, you will live longer, but that if you are healthy, you will smile more.

I get purely annoyed by this kind of thing. Partly because few of these sources even acknowledge that there is also plenty of research that shows the opposite—the fact that faking happiness can in itself have a negative impact. Here, a study notes that fake smiles can deepen depression, and here that faking happiness at work over time has negative health consequences.

As an aside, I think that the questionable research about smiling at work and the increased productiveness of employees in a good mood is particularly dangerous. While the Wall Street Journal here gives a well-balanced sense that it’s not a matter of axing the less cheerful, but of businesses actually taking some responsibility to provide resources for good cheer, all too often we see imperatives that become dictatorial and inhumane, as in the situation described here of the enforced-smile McDonald’s counter clerk. Not to mention those hideous hiring tests that seek to classify personalities and refuse jobs to those who aren’t as perky as others, no matter their competence.

All of the articles that I read about negative consequences of faking or that call into question the assertions about the benefits of positivity, of course, have to mention those positivity assertions. There’s an odd unevenness in this regard. The sane side has to acknowledge the overly simplified positivity side, but the positivity side feels no compunction whatsoever to mention the nuances and limitations of this body of research.

In a recent example, Jane Brody wrote a column for the New York Times, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.” If you read the comments, you will note that there are many who leap to agree and many who bare their teeth and attack the Brody bromides. Yet, when Brody followed up about the responses she received, she acknowledged only the “hundreds of comments from readers who testified to the value of living life as a glass half full.” She doesn’t deign to even acknowledge the other kinds of responses she received.

Don’t we have to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong when professional science journalists won’t even acknowledge that the science is mixed at best on these matters and that there are people who hold different perspectives? It taxes my credulity, especially when even an undergraduate college student can summarize the research so clearly in such a short paper as this one. The student clearly acknowledges there’s only a minor correlation, but even she has wrongly concluded that “smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!”

And let me observe that people have been trying to prove a stronger correlation and causation since Darwin’s time. They have been unable to demonstrate the facial feedback theory in all these years in spite of overwhelming resources spent toward that end.

However, you can go on to find scientists who are laboring to truly understand emotions in a complex and useful way—and one that won’t be used to hammer people over the head uselessly and cruelly or dismissively. One of these I’ll discuss in my next blog post, but, for now, I invite you to head over to the BBC Spot the Fake Smile test.

If we’re going to be constantly interacting with people who believe that faking their smiles will actually make them happier and that it will earn them our trust, forgiveness, sexual interest, and a whole host of other benefits, then perhaps we want to be more savvy about these fake smiles. I scored 19/20 right, which is evidently quite unusual. Maybe I should publish a paper about the benefits of skepticism: it helps you spot one of those fake cheery people from a mile away. And run like hell away from them and their agendas.