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Maurice Sendak

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Over the past few days, Maurice Sendak’s name and many accolades in his honor have been on the air and in print due to his death on Tuesday at the age of 83. I don’t have much to add to those surveys of his life and career, so I will link to a few of them below.

But I can add that, though I hadn’t dwelled on Sendak in years, he was a great influence on me, and I was in the very large camp of enthusiasts about his work. The New York Times obituary notes that his “books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children,” and I was one of those children (born exactly in 1960). For many long years–long after I moved on from story-hour childhood–I had a Sendak poster on my wall—the one with Max swinging from the trees with his monster friends. I still have it tucked away somewhere, those nightmares and dreams of childhood put away but not forgotten.

It strikes me, too, that Sendak was a person after my own heart and in keeping with the themes of this blog. He was indeed a Joyous Crybaby, one who brought the sorrows of children into the light and made it okay, even imperative, to acknowledge them. It’s hard to imagine how it is that so many children have loved this quality in his work for so many years and yet so many adults have grown up to retreat into a hyper-cheerful denial with their memories of childhood’s insights buried all too far in the closet. Sendak believed in the “rightness of children’s perceptions,” and he has often noted how the demons of his own childhood—the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, and his own experience of measles, pneumonia, and scarlet fever at a young age—did not go unnoticed in his own psyche. If, as Sendak’s work has always asserted, children can and do face the demons in their world, shouldn’t adults be able to acknowledge their existence, too?

Sendak was a touchstone of genuine emotion. He will be sorely missed.

Washington Post (contains numerous good links to other commentary)

New York Times

NPR’s Fresh Air

An Encounter with Buddhist Meditation

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In my ongoing quest for understanding about the life of the feelings, yesterday I attended a half-day event on “Dealing with Destructive Emotions.” Now, this was not some egregiously awful, dumbed-down positive psychology event, but a “meditation workshop” led by Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist monk.

I had had the pleasure of joining a group that took Dr. Kerzin to dinner on a previous visit to UCF last April, and I found him charming, compassionate, and intelligent. He had been particularly kind to me in that vulnerable time after my brain hemorrhage—that time when some people were so very kind and others showed their cruelty and indifference so clearly. I also know and admire the two organizers of the event, both of whom are leaving UCF for better positions elsewhere, and I wanted to support their final efforts here.

In addition, though I’m not a Buddhist and I can’t even claim to be all that knowledgeable, I was motivated to attend because I find much appealing in the Buddhist approach to happiness. I’ve posted before about the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, and there are other ways in which I think the Buddhists have it right. For one, they readily acknowledge that suffering is also a part of life, and they refrain from the blame that so many purveyors of popularized positive psychology allow themselves to indulge in.

For instance, in the talk I link to above, Dr. Kerzin cites a study about women with breast cancer and happiness. What’s different about this from so many of the kinds of “if you’re happier you will be healthier and live longer” assertions is that Kerzin notes not that the happier patients who lived longer were somehow innately more happy as persons (and therefore superior), but that they received tender loving care and that it was this compassion that contributed to their happiness and better health outcomes.

I think this is a radically important difference. In Buddhist thinking, we are responsible for helping ourselves be happier, but we are just as called upon to help other people. That mutuality and interdependence is key to keeping the search for happiness from becoming a weapon against those less fortunate than oneself. This kind of nuance distinguishes many Buddhist teachings from a lot of junk positive psychology, and so I feel myself more open to its strivings for a better world.

But I also attended with some apprehension based on my own make-up as a human being. As I put it to my husband yesterday, my pathology is such that group hugs just make me feel more alone and alienated than almost anything else. I am squeamish about crowds of all sorts, and the most common of types—the roaring audience of the sporting event or the rock concert—I find downright revolting, terrifying, really. Even a lecture given and a meditation practice led by someone I find intelligent and compelling can make me feel queasy in a large-group setting. When everyone else is sharing life-affirming togetherness, I usually feel more and more as though I don’t belong anywhere. So, I went with my mind as far open to that sort of thing as I could pry it, though I knew I would find myself uncomfortable. I assured myself that I nonetheless would be able to use it as a point of useful contemplation. Everything, as they say, is grist.

The day was divided into three segments, one before lunch and two after lunch. Each hour, Dr. Kerzin would talk for a while, take questions, and then lead a brief meditation.

In the opening session, Dr. Kerzin talked for quite a bit about where he had recently traveled, where he was traveling next, and the few days he had spent on a silent retreat near Deland, writing, reading, and kayaking. He talked a bit about his encounter on the St. John’s River with an alligator, which he would touch upon throughout the talk.

What I noticed right away was my own destructive impatience. I wanted Dr. Kerzin to start getting to the point, to give me something that I could take away from this talk. He wasn’t, after all, talking in any way about how to deal with destructive emotions, but about the pleasures and challenges of his lifestyle.

After a while, he transitioned into talking about the way that Buddhism defines “destructive emotions” or kleshas in Sanskrit. (He gave us Tibetan terms as well, but I could not venture to spell those.) He spoke of the three roots of these kleshas—anger, desire, and distorted ignorance—from which negative feelings arise. This all seemed obvious to me—of course, while I understand the need to define things clearly, I felt I knew what destructive emotions are, including the ones I was having in that moment. I wanted not to define them, but to work on “dealing with” them.

By the end of the day, I would realize, of course, that in itself this was a productive lesson for me. As the day went on, it dawned on me how utterly exhausted I would be by giving a program that lasted so many hours, especially one where my presence and wisdom might be sources of expected sustenance for so many. And yet, Dr. Kerzin did not show signs of exhaustion or stress. The slow pace of his talk, rather, allowed a relaxed approach that might help prevent burn-out. I will think much more about this as I return to teaching next year with a desire not to kill myself with frenzied overwork.

Kerzin’s entire first segment, it seems to me now, was about sticking with things and how you can do that in spite of impatience. He noted several times the Dalai Lama’s fondness for saying, “Never give up,” and he went through a long and rather elaborate description of various phases of awareness and practice—at first, you may have an intellectual understanding, and only later will that become felt or experienced. You start with an awareness that there’s another possible way of responding other than getting angry, and from the brief “sigh of relief” that can give, you keep trying and move on to being able to laugh at appearances, then to a point when “love boils up” and the conflictual appearances subside.

As I sat in the ballroom, I contemplated a task that faces me today—calling the health insurance company and the hospital about bills that I’ve been receiving and don’t understand. If there is one thing that sends me into a rage, it is dealing with the medical world in our bureaucratized and profit-motivated system. The last time I talked with someone in the billing department at the hospital and he kept repeating, “That’s our policy,” I ended up calling him a drone. He got all insulted and told me he was a human being. I told him he didn’t act like one. It was a terrible impasse all around. We’ll see if I can do better today, because one thing is certain, and it’s that my fury about this system does me no good on a daily basis. I need to transform that fury into larger action rather than letting it eat me up or letting it make me mean.

At one point, as in the video above, Kerzin asked the audience if there was anyone who had let go of all of his or her anger. There were actually a couple of people who raised their hands. Perhaps it was then I began to feel alienated. How can anyone claim that? I felt suddenly as though I were in a room of poseurs, fake Buddhas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have no anger left in me, only what it is like to keep trying to let go of it. Probably, if I’m honest, I’m not even fully convinced that I should let go of all of it.

Kerzin ended the first session by taking some questions and then leading us in a five-minute meditation, starting and ending with a toll of a chime, in which we were to empty our minds and concentrate only on our breathing. Once, years ago, when I regularly practiced yoga, I could sometimes do this. Lately, I can only observe as the thoughts fly in and out of my brain like so many pieces of confetti. If meditation could produce a panic attack, I’m a likely candidate these days.

Once dismissed for lunch, I discovered my blood sugar was a low 63, and I stumbled out onto the empty campus and found a vending machine. No doubt the low affected my responses, and I hoped I’d feel better later on. I had told myself that I would go to the library over the hour-and-a-half-long lunch period, but it was closed for semester break, and so I sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunshine until the ants started biting my ankles.

As I watched two middle-school-aged boys playing in the fountain, I contemplated Kerzin’s talk. I was grateful at his nuance. It seemed to me that some of the audience questions had been agenda-driven and tended toward the oversimplifications that so offend me. Kerzin always made important distinctions. “Anger,” he noted, “needs to be distinguished from strength and courage and passion. The problem with anger is that its motivation is harm or revenge, even directed at oneself.”

“Fear,” he noted, on the other hand, “can in itself be sensible.” When you face an alligator, he noted, some fear is a correct response and can keep you alive. “Fear becomes a problem when it becomes habitual anxiety that doesn’t serve to remove you from the danger.”

Dr. Kerzin started the afternoon sessions with reminders once again to be patient and to be gentle with ourselves and others. Once again, he made a distinction important to me: If you ever think you’ve “got it,” he said, you are falling into a trap, the trap of arrogance. He emphasized the lack of right answers and formulas.

He posed the question of how it is that distorted ignorance appears and noted that it’s built in to the assumptions we live with and are born into. Then he used an acronym—PPI—for permanent, partless, and independent. Leisurely, he discussed how people assume these qualities for themselves and other things in the world.

Another destructive emotion invaded me at this point… I felt a little bored. Certainly, on an intellectual basis, I have understood a world that is ever-changing, multi-faceted, and interdependent for a long time. True that I often don’t experience it that way, and in that ballroom I felt atomistic as can be. But this wasn’t introducing me to new concepts.

I felt relieved when we moved on to the practice of a new meditation—that he called “tonglen”—where you breathe in the sorrow or pain (of one person or animal or a group or opened to the general sorrow of the world), and then transform it on the out breath to healing love to alleviate that suffering. It was striking to me throughout the day that Dr. Kerzin included animals as sentient beings, especially because I was once again very worried about my elderly cat, who had done so well over the past couple of weeks but who has now taken another down turn. I was grateful to be able to focus my meditation at least in part on my little cat.

After this second meditation, while we took a short break, I also thought about how it is that I am a practice person rather than an intellectual one. This, of course, is always a factor in academia and one of the reasons why I seldom feel truly at home there. Academia is a traditionally scholarly place, and scholars are oriented toward concepts and ideas, whereas artists of various stripes are oriented toward practice.

This led me to thinking about myself in the context of a large lecture hall full of people. I feel so fortunate to teach the generally small and often truly intimate creative writing courses that I teach. For some in the ballroom yesterday, there was a sense of closeness and sharing encouraged by Dr. Kerzin, but because I am so used to the much more intimate workshop setting, it continued to feel rather abstract and distant to me. This made me grateful for the usual practice of which I’m a part, and reinforced once again my sense of the value and specialness of that method. There are workshops that do unfortunately become the site of intimate brutalization, but for the most part I think the creative writing workshop is a primary location of exploration and sharing of human qualities. When Kerzin mentioned how in his study with his Buddhist teachers, there was often a lot of laughter, I thought of my workshops.

The last hour of the day, Dr. Kerzin mostly took questions from the audience. Several people seemed to me again to have come with agendas—to show off their knowledge, to question him about Taoist principles (not his area), to demonstrate to this wise man how good they were. One even seemed to have that good old positive psychology agenda. I had heard him during the break talking about studies that supposedly showed that people could affect reality with the strength of their thoughts. He asked about the Buddhist precept that “nothing exists.”

Dr. Kerzin gently corrected him. The Buddha, he noted, taught that nothing exists in itself, but he also taught that there is a reality behind the common reality based on experience. The way that we commonly perceive things may be an illusion, but a belief that nothing exists at all would be considered nihilism, and is not a tenet of most kinds of Buddhism. (See also, the third paragraph in the Second Dharmachakra here.) This is another one of those oversimplifications that tend to infest people’s thinking, and I was grateful he pointed that out.

We ended the day with a walking meditation, in which we all stood, found a spot in the room and began walking as slowly as possible, paying attention to the way our feet moved and touched the carpet. This was delightfully new for me. Sitting meditation was always hard for my fluttering mind, but recently has also become physically hard for me with my back aches. Many of the yoga practices I used to do to work on my sense of balance (such as the tree pose), I simply can’t hold now. Even walking itself has sometimes become painful with my arthritic foot.

I found it amazingly challenging to walk so slowly, and it proved a great balance exercise. It also was easy on my foot, as the slowness prevented any pounding of my bones on the floor. Perhaps it was also true for me that the activity helped calm and focus my mind, so that I felt more meditative than I usually ever accomplish sitting.

Besides, as the featured video below will show, it’s wacky to do in close proximity to others, and I am always glad to greet the wacky. Finally, I enjoyed all the other people in the room, their various and varied bodies moving around the space, encountering each other and yet not colliding, all of us doing the best we could do at this deceptively simple task.

It was a good way to end the day, and I came home with plenty to think about and the empty spaces in my head in which to do so.

I enjoyed the walking meditation so much, I’ll include links to a few more videos about it in addition to the one below.

Minimalist instructions (1 minute, 40 seconds)
Calming verbal instructions with pretty pictures (3:12)
Monk Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrating and discussing walking meditation (5:44)
Longer step-by-step instructions (10:00)
Perky, Westernized instructions (2:49 plus ad)

First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

Coffee Shop Consequences

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I like my decaf coffee as strong as any caffeine-lover.

I’m about to offend some of you addicts: coffee addicts in particular. I put it this way because what I want to say is that caffeine is a drug, and it’s a drug whose consequences are mightily ignored. I had reason to contemplate this fact yesterday because I went into a coffee shop.

The man behind the counter was about my age—the hair drawn back into a pony tail had grayed, and wrinkles crisscrossed his forehead and cheeks. When I entered through the back door (from the parking lot), he was seated at a large sink washing plates. He looked up sideways at me, but didn’t move. The recognition that passed over his face wasn’t real recognition, just typing. Immediately, I could see he didn’t like me.

Mind you, I had never been in this coffee shop before. I knew of it from my students, who sometimes spoke of its open-mic nights and artsy vibe. The only reason I had stopped there was because it sat directly between the hardware store, where I had gone to buy some plant potting supplies after my haircut appointment, and the hospital medical plaza, where I was due in an hour for an MRI, another MRI.

While I stood waiting, I glanced around the dingy interior. A young man sat behind me at a table, tapping into his laptop, a knit cap pulled down over his head in spite of the 85-degree day. A young couple sat holding hands on one of the sofas in the open area up front, a laptop on the coffee table in front of them, their intensity focused between the three of them. In an upholstered chair, another young man sat with his back to the counter; I couldn’t see his face, but he, too, was young and seemed to be reading, his hair sticking up with gel around his cranium as though very excited about the ideas he encountered. But he slumped in the chair, one leg thrust out as though barely able to hold him up. Bright mid-afternoon light streamed through the front windows, picking up every crumb and smear on the filthy floor. I didn’t mind. I have worked in many a dirty restaurant in the past. All I wanted was a peaceful place to pass half an hour or so, reading the book I’d brought along for this very possibility of a time gap.

Finally, the aging hipster stood up, wiped his hands across his apron and asked me, “What can I get you?”

“A medium decaf latte, with skim if you have it,” I said.

He moved over to the espresso machine. “What size?”

“Medium,” I said. I liked that Austin’s menu board used small, medium, and large instead of the deceptive and silly tall, grande, and venti.

“You said decaf, right?”

“Yes,” I said, and then because the barista response is so predictable, I tried to make light of my request. “You don’t want to see me on caffeine.” I wiggled my fingers in the air.

He did not smile. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But I was starting to get worried. I mean, I was the brain patient, and my short-term memory seemed better than his.

“What kind of milk do you want? We have whole, half and half, two percent, soy, and skim.”

“Skim is good,” I said.

I tried not to stare as he moved around the space, tamping the coffee and turning the levers, so I looked back out the front window as a kid wheeled off on a bicycle. When I turned back, the guy was putting the whole milk back in the fridge. I decided to let it go.

Then he asked if I wanted whipped cream. A little surprised—since when is whipped cream part of a latte?—I shook my head and said no emphatically. He poured the last of the milk with its top of foam into the cup, then lifted a plastic bottle and squirted Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over the top before I could say a word. Who puts chocolate syrup on a latte? My god, I thought, he must have a lot of those little girl customers to whom coffee drink means sugar drink.

I gave the man my five-dollar bill, then transferred the change into his huge and stuffed tip jar. Briefly I contemplated the ridiculousness of this current coffee fad. We’ve all gotten used to the idea that these large sums are worth it to get exactly what we want in a cup of coffee.

However, I at least seldom get exactly what I want in a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, and I am vowing now to give it up pretty much entirely. If I have to meet someone at a coffee shop, I will order something else. Because I am very tired of baristas giving me caffeinated coffee when I order decaf. And I am tired of the attitude that also sometimes comes with such a request. Still, I would rather have the put-down attitude and get my decaf than have the silent but disobedient person who chuckles as he gives me a drug that my body cannot handle.

One barista even asked me once why I bothered if I was going to have decaf. Usually I am mild in my response—after all, these people have my coffee in their hands—but what I always want to say is, “Can’t you see that the person who orders decaf is the one that really loves coffee? All I want it for is the flavor. You caffeine drinkers are simply using it as a vehicle for your stimulant. Why not just take it in a pill if that’s your motivation for drinking coffee?”

I am a genuine coffee lover. I love the smell of it, I love the taste of it, the darker the better. Unless I drink the occasional latte, I drink it black as I can get it. I seek out French roast or at least Italian when buying it for home use, though it can be hard to find. I virtually never add sugar to it.

Yet, over and over and over and over, these macho little baristas (who are indeed always skinny) turn up their twitchy noses and their stubbled chins at me, and treat me like I’m some sort of inferior being for asking for decaf.

Maybe they find an excuse to treat every mature person this way. I forgive them over and over and over again for being young. I was young once myself, and in my waitressing days, there were numerous times when I would pour a decaf refill from the regular pot. But I only did it in an emergency—when the decaf pot had run dry. True, I didn’t fully understand the importance of the request, but I never sneered. Still, sometimes I tell myself that every time I get a cup of caffeinated coffee it’s just karmic justice. But I’ve paid those dues enough now, and I’m over it. And there’s no excuse for a middle-aged barista acting this way. The coffee world has supposedly opened up in the past decade, and the idea is that there’s a wider variety available and more understanding about coffee.

However, no one wants to hear much about the destructive nature of caffeine or admit it by providing someone a decaf. Smokers love smokers, and caffeine junkies love caffeine junkies. Mind you, I have nothing against caffeine junkies—unlike smokers, their addiction doesn’t waft over into my nostrils. Unlike over-drinkers, they don’t wreck cars and kill people.

Or maybe they do. We’re all familiar with the upside of caffeine consumption—the alertness and fatigue-fighting aspects that seem to apply to both cognition and physical activity. But there are downsides, too. The Mayo Clinic website reports that in addition to the usual side-effects of insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and irritability, more than 500-600 milligrams of caffeine (about two Starbucks tall coffees) a day can produce stomach problems, fast heartbeat, and muscle tremors. Jack James of the National University of Ireland, Galway, notes (about halfway through this interview) that blood pressure changes from caffeine consumption may be a major factor in cardiovascular disease. A whole host of studies note the bad along with the good in caffeine consumption:

* Good news, bad news
* Fitness benefits and risks
* Be cautious
* Negative may outweigh any positive
* Cognitive impact is mixed

You’ll note that all of these studies rely on an understanding of how much caffeine is consumed, and if you’re curious for yourself, here are some tools for gauging your own intake:

* The Caffeine Database
* Center for Science in the Public Interest caffeine chart
* Starbucks caffeine information

Of course, as with any drug, people’s reactions to caffeine vary enormously based on an individual’s sensitivity. Caffeine is associated with panic attacks, and studies have clearly shown this association, especially for those prone to panic attacks or major depression. But even some in healthy control groups reacted to caffeine with panic attacks or anxiety, whereas none did without caffeine.

And, though not prone to panic attacks or major depression, I’m one of those people who is sensitive to caffeine. Even one cup can make my hands shake and, later, will most assuredly keep me awake all night, no matter how exhausted and strung out I am. This is what happened to me yesterday.

I sat down with my cuppa in Austin’s and opened my book in pleasurable anticipation of my hour of reading. The music blaring from the speakers distracted me a little, but again I felt good-humored about the off-key adenoidal voice, amateurish strumming, and angry-young-man lyrics. “Everyone is interesting but you,” sang the adolescent, who then spat out several expletives. I decided it was the nastiest acoustic music I had ever heard, and it amused me no end that this placid coffee house in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Orlando ebbed and flowed with such anger. It went on song after song, and I wondered if the recording featured some local singer, or even the barista himself. It was so bad I had to wonder.

My lack of suitability for this place also flowed over me with the music. I was too old, had no tattoos or body piercings, and was wearing light-colored cotton and sandals. My difference didn’t really matter to me, but soon enough I would think it merited punishment from the coffee tsar. I sat back and turned the pages in my book.

Then my fingers started to feel a little panicky.

Now, an MRI is not an experience to relish. Before yesterday, I’d already had two in the previous 16 months, and I wasn’t really looking forward to another hour in the noise chamber with my head in the tight frame and my eyes shut to prevent claustrophobia, trying to keep my mind busy with thoughts of words, and glasses of wine, and the smell of jasmine on the breeze. So I thought I was just getting nervous about that. Eventually I closed up my book, tossed the cup with its last bit of chocolate syrup and milk foam in the trash, and headed for the hospital, leaving the grunge scene behind.

The MRI was uneventful except inside me. I struggled to hold still as I had never done before. I could feel my fingers and toes wiggle slightly as though they belonged to a different person than me. Half way through, the technician pulled me out of the tube in order to inject me with a contrast dye, and I asked him if I could please please move my hands just a tiny bit.

“As long as you don’t move your head,” he said. It was almost a relief when he pulled my hand over to the side and flexed it back and forth, tied the strip of rubber around my wrist, then slid the needle into the vein above my metacarpals.

During the second set of scans, I found myself holding my breath in order to try to stay still. When I let my breath out, I felt the air rush past my philtrum, tickling me in agonizing fashion. “Be still,” I thought, “and dream of Jean-Dominique Bauby.” It might cause some people panic to think of something like locked-in syndrome when inside an MRI machine, but the experience inevitably makes me think about what I would do if I couldn’t move forever. I try to think about the centrality of my mind to the life I live. I wonder about staying in my mind forever.

Finally, the technician extracted me from the machine. Even after just an hour, I was stiff and took a few minutes to shift around and stand up. I was very happy to get into my regular clothes and walk down the hall and out into the now waning sunshine and to drive home to my dinner.

It wasn’t until midnight that I fully realized the barista had given me caffeinated coffee. In typical fashion, I simply couldn’t unwind and get drowsy. I was tired, exhausted even, from the hour of assaultive noise in the machine and the long day of now-distant work before that. I had watched mind-numbingly dumb TV for two hours, and I expected to sail away into slumber readily. The past three weeks had been some of my best sleep nights in several years. All the work that my husband and I had been doing to help me sleep had been working.

But, no. I tossed, I turned, I played game after game of Scrabble on the iPhone. I turned the phone off and counted backwards from a thousand. I got down to one and started back up, trying to count by threes so some concentration would be required. Bruce sighed and turned over again.

Then it hit me.

“The bastard,” I said out loud.

“Wha?” Bruce roused from his sleep briefly.

“That bastard gave me caffeinated coffee!”

Eventually I got out of bed, took a Tylenol PM, went to the spare bed on the other side of the house so I wouldn’t disturb Bruce any further, cursing the Austin coffee man in one fluid tirade. I felt almost as though I’d been slipped a mickey or doped with rufies.

I gave up caffeine years ago during graduate school because I noticed not only that it kept me from sleeping well, but that it made me irritable and easily annoyed. It made me say things I didn’t mean or that I shouldn’t have said even when I had thought them. Once, at the over-caffeinated end of a long semester, I told a fellow grad student that I hoped I never had another class with her. She’d been characterized by snide asides and had given the most idiotic presentation I’d ever heard in a graduate seminar, but there was no point in me being mean to her. Later, I apologized, but I knew in the immediate aftermath that I had to give up the drug.

All these years later, I wonder if anyone could devise a study that would look into the social cost of caffeine. Sometimes I’m so astounded by the rampant aggression around me—that anger that seems to be bubbling right under the surface so much of the time—that I feel the only rational explanation is that caffeine is making everyone crazy. I think about the Romans and their lead pipes and cooking vessels perhaps being a contributing factor to the downfall of their civilization. While the lead poisoning theory remains unproven and under continuing investigation, I can’t help but think sometimes that I am caught in the midst of a decline in our society that seems to have some chemical basis.

One report in the Washington Times notes that “the rise of coffee parallels the rise of the Internet” and that because of our increasingly connected world and the demands of “economic turmoil in a hypercompetitive global economy,” we “need caffeine… more than ever.” It also notes the increasing concerns about the use of caffeine (usually in the form of soda or energy drinks) in children and adolescents.

What studies show—and, I might add, what just makes sense—is that the combination of this stressful world and the biochemical effects of caffeine is preventing people from getting the sleep they need to be effective and is irritating the heck out of people.

We don’t usually factor in caffeine’s effects when we track causes for auto accidents, though at least one driver recently claimed “caffeine psychosis” for his running over several people. There’s even a growing sense that using a little caffeine to make driving home after drinking a little safer relies on a dangerous myth: drunkenness is simply combined with inappropriate bravado rather than alertness. One trucker comments on Life As a Trucker about “the adverse effects of sleep deprivation and excess intake of caffeine” contributing to road rage. One attorney’s webpage notes that even without alcohol some caffeine-induced symptoms can “dramatically increase the likelihood that a driver will operate his or her vehicle in an aggressive manner or succumb to road rage.”

We don’t factor in caffeine the way we do alcohol and crack when people are arrested for violent crimes. While I agree with the author of this editorial published in the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper—that caffeine intoxication should not usually offer a good insanity defense in criminal cases—the fact that a few people are claiming it indicates that it’s becoming more believable. Most of the cases in which caffeine is correlated with behavioral problems seem to involve the combination of alcohol and caffeine found in some energy drinks and in “monk’s juice.” But in spite of pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks being banned in 2011 by the FDA, due to numerous college-student deaths and studies that show they break down inhibitions dramatically, the ingredients to make your own are readily available and commonly used. Even energy drinks that don’t contain alcohol are beginning to be linked—in studies and in patterns noted by police forces—to risky and anti-social behavior. A handful of studies are cited on the LiveStrong page about Caffeine & Psychosis, noting that these studies do demonstrate that caffeine can exacerbate certain mental illnesses.

We certainly don’t factor in caffeine when we talk about the ridiculous and verbally violent depths to which our political rhetoric has fallen. Although there seems to be an anecdotal consensus that something has changed in the tone of our national and local politics, the evidence is frequently cited that politics has always contained its share of abuse and conflict. Certainly, as this slide show indicates, politicians have been drinking coffee regularly for quite some time. There is, however, one blog, started in 2011 and partly covering the current presidential campaign, that has been perhaps appropriately titled Caffeinated Politics.

Something else has also shifted: while awareness of caffeine’s two-sided impact, both bad and good, has become more widely understood, it has attracted its own fanatics on both sides of the issue. We have anti-caffeine crusaders and we have pro-caffeine defenders reminiscent of the temperance reformers vs. the anti-prohibitionists in the early twentieth century and creating something like the current hostile divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Let me say very plainly that I’m not a prohibitionist in terms of alcohol or caffeine. I even believe that most drugs that are illegal today should be legalized or at least decriminalized and that our funding should go to treatment of addictions rather than punishments for them. (And I am well aware that decaf coffee is not completely caffeine-free, so I am even indulging in that drug myself in a small way, as well as the occasional drink.)

But I am very tired of being mistaken for a prohibition-like fanatic when I request decaf (or, for that matter, when I don’t spend my entire evening slurping down massive quantities of alcohol). Baristas, bar tenders, and partiers have a tendency to treat me as though I offend their sensibilities. What I offend, of course, is their dedication to their drug, a clear sign of addiction.

This reverse moral opprobrium is fascinating to me. We have gone so far beyond the mentality that drugs are bad that a person who doesn’t partake of them is somehow the one labeled negatively. Although the political parallels eventually break down, there’s still a similarity to the world of extremes.

Of course, what this has to do with is the kind of phenomenon my husband fondly refers to as tribalism. We live in a time when we can’t be sure who we’re with and to what extent they are like us. Even the trivial bond becomes all important. Do you share my love of caffeinated coffee or might you betray me? It’s laughable, really, but it happens all the time.

Bruce has never been a coffee fan. He never drinks it either at home or away. When he walks into a coffee shop, he orders tea and never has to utter the dirty “decaf” word. He is also one of the calmest, most considered, most fair-minded men I know. I won’t give up my beloved decaf French roast in the privacy of my own home, but I am thinking I will adopt Bruce’s habit in the coffee shop world. As a tea-drinker, even an herbal tea-drinker, I may not be a compatriot, but I’m less likely to seem like some caffeine addict’s enemy and find myself secretly drugged.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock

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In my last post, I mentioned that some things change, but that sometimes and in some ways they don’t change enough. This made me think about, among other things, the nature of time and progress. I believe that one reason why humans have such a desire for progress (as exhibited, for instance, in the exaggerated claims that some people make about cures and longevity and silver bullets of all kinds) is that we hope that our time spent passing through life will make a difference.

We all live, we all die, and we desire some meaning in the pattern, some difference from the ordinary in our own passage.

I can’t wait to see Christian Marclay’s film The Clock. Am I wishing away my time? I don’t know, but I do know that even just reading about this film has made me more conscious about saying that “I can’t wait” for something.

The Clock is a 24-hour pastiche of clips from movies (and a few TV shows), synchronized to an actual 24-hour time period and shown according to the clock. If the show time is 4:00 p.m., the movie starts at 4:00 p.m. It reminds its viewers of the time they are spending watching a film.

It is tied to so many of the themes I’m interested in:

* the nature of pastiche and re-use and when that’s a good thing instead of plagiarism
* the conventions of art and the subversion of those conventions
* the nature of time-wasting, and how often we waste our time with falsity (Alain de Botton comments here.)
* the fluctuation of emotions and how different moods rely on each other for existence
* the meaning of originality (This New Yorker article discusses Marclay’s method of using interns to find relevant film clips, but the responsibility he took for editing the 24-hour film out of those clips.)

So far, The Clock has only been shown in a few art galleries and museums. It has not come to Orlando. But one thing that fascinates me is the idea that the film could play continuously in a movie theater and that one might drop in every now and then to spend an hour or two or four or six, as the New York Times reports has happened at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery. I know my own physiology would not allow me to watch it for 24 hours straight, and so I think about how I might experience it. One person online even suggested that it would be great to have it streaming into one’s mobile device as a perpetual clock.

Oops. I’m late. I meant to post precisely at 12:04 to coordinate with the excerpt above. But time is a formidable mistress to please. I even like thinking about what it means that my timing is so often imprecise. The Clock has me floating more aware in the medium of time. And I haven’t even seen it yet. I look forward.

Devious “Discretion”

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Russian pictogram for silence.


A couple of people have recently asked me if I’ll be going to a high school reunion this summer for all graduates from the 1970s. This is more likely than that I will ever go to a college reunion. My thirtieth-year college reunion occurred last summer, and I wasn’t there. I had a great education, which I enjoyed immensely, and I have donated to my college every year since I graduated. It was a time when I came into the bohemian aspects of my personality, discovered my sexuality (the pleasure meant a lot to a person who had to stab herself frequently with needles), and realized that there’s a larger world than my Tennessee hometown had indicated. I had been an odd girl in my Tennessee high school, but I fit in at Carleton.

So, why, then, am I more likely to go to a high school reunion? I mean, I was miserable in high school. But while I had high school friendships that ended, they did so simply. There were changed interests and hurt and loss involved, but never maliciousness. On the other hand, the end of my time in college was marred by the fact that a friend of mine turned rather viciously on me. I still have no idea why. After numerous phone calls and attempts to talk to her about why she’d gotten mad and would no longer speak to me—I even attempted to take a bus through a blizzard to talk with her—I retreated from an entire group that I thought at the time would be my friends for life.

None of these people would talk to me about what was going on. They said they didn’t want to get in the middle, and that I’d have to talk with her. She refused to talk with me. It was a conundrum I couldn’t solve.

La Discrétion, n.d., attributed to Claude Marie Dubufe (1790-1864). French.

One of these friends, years later, admitted that Karen had produced this effect in all of them by claiming discretion. She told others that she wouldn’t talk with them about why she had turned on me because she “didn’t want to make them think ill of someone else.” In other words, she implied that I had indeed done something terrible, so terrible that, if she told them, they would also find me repugnant. Imagination rushed in where fact was missing. Somehow, they all came to believe that I had wronged her.

Maybe even I came to believe that I had done something terrible. What else would have made her behave this way? I’m a person capable of self-reflection, and I pondered it for weeks and months, years, even, but could never figure it out. Of course, I make mistakes, like any human being. I can be harsh and judgmental without even realizing it. I can be too direct and can hurt people’s feelings by the strength of my own. Sometimes I am inconsiderate and selfish. But if I hurt a friend in some way like that, I would gladly apologize and rectify it. Not to be given a chance to do so was a huge blow to me. That my idealized college experience came to such a crashing end demoralized me for a long time.

Since then, I have, however, encountered this kind of devious discretion numerous times. Much to my chagrin most of its perpetrators seem to be women, and in my adult life they have not usually been friends but colleagues and co-workers. (I choose my friends more carefully now.) Over the years, I have discovered that there are many motivations for these people to make certain things unspeakable. It almost never has to do with the actual horrible nature of what they refuse to speak about. Rather, it’s that their reactions are logically indefensible. So they hide behind “discretion.” They work by false insinuation. This kind of “discretion” is one of the worst kinds of gossip.

Gossips, n.d., Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940). Russian. This work is in the public domain in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 80 years or fewer.

For instance, I once had a colleague who was always saying things to people like, “Why is X so angry? Why is there so much conflict?” She acted distressed about these things, but, in fact, she created them, at least perpetuated them. If you asked her why she thought X was angry, she would say, “Oh, I don’t think it would be productive to tell you. It might hurt your feelings.” X might or might not in fact not be angry at all, and there might be no conflict to speak of other than the ordinary tension of people working together. But other people believe the underlying assumptions when people ask things this way and then refuse to give details.

It’s still amazing to me how effective this strategy is. I have fallen for it myself. Once, for instance, I failed to be as welcoming to a new colleague as I might have been because another person made vague allegations against her. In retrospect, I regret this. She ended up fast-tracking out of our shared work environment, and I later concluded that her accuser was less than truthful in an attempt to cover over her own insecurities.

It’s why my favorite rhetorical device is the enthymeme, and I always try to remember to question the unstated assumptions in what people tell me. What’s the evidence that X is angry? I try to go back a step and ask another question instead of leaping into speculation. I try to remember that the person who makes such vague allegations may be sincere, but may also be manipulating me into believing that X is angry. She may be trying to disrupt my work relationship with X or to create some false closeness to me. She may be promoting her supposedly more cheerful personality over X’s supposedly grumpy one. She may simply be a person who is herself terrified of any level of irritation or dissatisfaction. But one thing she is not doing is being, as this particular person often claimed, truly discreet or a positive, healing force in the workplace, trying to bring people together.

Genuine discretion might be that person asking X herself whether she is angry and what that is about. It would require that person to absorb what X said and perhaps to try to help X with her anger if she had some, without judging the person or situation that X was mad about. Discretion is about understanding that everyone in a situation, even an arena filled with conflict, probably has a legitimate and important perspective.

I have learned so much from my husband about this. My husband is a person who is truly discreet without ever sacrificing his honesty or his integrity. As a university department chair, he may work behind the scenes to try to benefit situations and people. He definitely does not blab about every frustration he has or every emotion he sees in another person. However, he’s very good at insisting that everyone has something good to offer and working to bring that out. He never pitches one person against another.

Certainly, I don’t mean some reverse sexist point by all this. I have certainly seen men who do pitch others against each other, and women who don’t. And I believe that women often turn to strategies like this out of a sad training that they get in childhood and in school and in their early work experiences—that directness is punished in women. I know it has been in me. I have had bosses both male and female say negative things about my honesty and integrity that I don’t believe they would ever say to a male employee.

Afternoon Tea (or The Gossips), 1889, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). English.

This has been on my mind recently as Newt Gingrich calls a woman who testified to Congress about birth control a “slut” and as Rick Santorum asserts that abortion should be illegal even in situations of rape and incest. This has all been on my mind as we cling to the remnants of feminism in a world where feminism is so often deemed by the young as “unnecessary.” Let us really think about how we teach our young women to be. Let every woman challenge repeatedly the idea that she must use her wiles as a primary source of success and dampen down her honest self.

Little Gossips, 1888, Jane Sutherland (1853-1928). Australian.

Real discretion is something I value. So is an ability and willingness to work out misunderstandings and disagreements with open hands, and to let go of grudges. Both of those things are hard to come by in the work world and sometimes even in one’s private life, if there even is such a thing anymore. I believe that these are important ways that each of us can contribute to a more genuine world.

I come back around to Adrienne Rich again, this time as an essayist. In “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” in the collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence, she notes the following:

“Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.” [I would note that any honorable human relationship that is based on respect includes some love, and Rich clearly doesn’t mean only romantic love.]

“The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.”

“The liar has many [so-called] friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.”

Even silent stones can speak slander. The Three Gossips rock formations in Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Tiziano Lombardi.

It’s My Party

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Today is my birthday, and on this occasion I’ve been thinking about my long struggle to be myself. It was on my birthday half my lifetime ago that my mother characterized me as having been “born seven pounds of resistance to the earth.” This blog demonstrates, I think, that the same trait still prevails in my personality. Why? No one knows. All the psychological explanations in the world fall a bit short of defining us, clarifying us, making us all make sense to ourselves and to each other.

I think that’s one reason why I have always been drawn to narrative over theory, as much as I see the usefulness in theoretical approaches and have flirted many times with various theories and their smacking smart practitioners. But, narrative, thank god, doesn’t quite have to make sense in the tidy way that theory does. Narrative accepts a lot of mystery, as Flannery O’Connor would put it. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see,” she notes in Mystery and Manners, “but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

Narrative is about seeing, and my blog obsession with a full range of emotions (rather than an enforced uniform positivity) is about seeing what is there, not just what we wish was there.

So, today I picked Bryan Ferry’s cover of “It’s My Party (I’ll Cry if I Want to).” It’s an anthem of defiance of social expectations, and it reminds me of my own perverse habit of pointing out the less-than-perfect in the world. I like its bald self-assertion—because, truly, denial of the self is desirable in only a very narrow range of circumstances. Most of the time, if we acknowledge ourselves and our own vulnerabilities, we can do the same for others as well. On my birthday, I like thinking about all these various paths we are each on and the ways they intersect and sometimes collide. A life, is, after all, an individualized journey, and I celebrate the unique natures of my friends and enemies alike (the latter at least in theory and narrative, if not in daily experience). Vive la différence.

The song was written by John Gluck, Wally Gold, and Herb Weiner and was most famously recorded by Lesley Gore in 1963. Her It’s My Party album has crying as its theme and includes the luck-and-love-have-shifted song “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” But Bryan Ferry’s cover is the version I remember, and when you start wishing that you could stop passing through more birthdays, retrospection seems to be built in. We also have the perspective that allows us to roll our eyes, especially at our previous youthful selves that put on relationships and discarded them like dirty clothes. And to laugh a little at our tears of yore.

Imitation Isn’t Always the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Ernest Hemingway with his son John Hadley Nicanor (Bumby), 1927.

One semester I had a student who turned in a story that I believed was plagiarized from Hemingway. The student had frequently spoken of his admiration of the minimalist master, and the story he turned in had the tell-tale traits, at least superficially. I had seen (even assigned) emulations before, but usually they were ham-fisted, amateurish, and identifiable as copies. Usually my students couldn’t keep their own personalities from peeping through. I had also seen completely plagiarized stories—once a student had turned in an entire Stephen King story with even the title intact. So I began searching for this Hemingway story.

I couldn’t find it. And I had to admit that if I couldn’t find it, the student probably hadn’t found it anywhere either. Creative writing students seldom plagiarize, and in my experience they never do so with enough leisure to hide their trails. The story, I decided, also didn’t quite have the Hemingway attitude toward women. I finally came to the conclusion that this student had just written a very good stylistic emulation of Hemingway. The following year I had him in another class, and by then he had begun to write like himself.

This is the usual trajectory for writers. But it might be different for a talented painting student.

At any rate, the production of fake manuscripts by dead famous authors is not a big business. It’s been known to happen, but the difficulties seem to surmount the temptation. Even though the Antiques Roadshow estimates that the lost suitcase of a pile of Hemingway’s manuscripts might reap $3 to 4 million if it was ever found, no one has tried to fake it. Instead, literary hoaxes tend to be more of the James Frey variety, with an author claiming a realm or set of experiences themselves that are false. These are the cases that seem to most common in accounts like Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes.

However, in the world of the visual arts, this kind of forgery is not at all uncommon. It’s one of the fundamental differences between the various arts, and it is based on the reproducible nature of the written word and music. Original manuscripts and scores may be valuable, but the real money is in an original artwork like a painting. A literary work may be experienced a million times over with the same power even from a cheap paperback copy, and the power of music lies in the details of its performance, but the original painting can only be experienced first-hand, in person, in the flesh. Even rough, imperfect, one-of-a-kind preliminary sketches made in preparation for prints can take on more value than the prints that were their ultimate end.

The New York Times covered such interesting happenings in the art world this week, with a different kind of retrospective from that of Cindy Sherman—an account of what is evidently a fraud perpetrated on the art world for nearly twenty years. A small-time art dealer, Glafira Rosales, is now tangled in legal troubles for numerous paintings she sold as works by some of the best-known Modernists—Rothko, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, and Pollock. Ann Freedman, former president at the famous Knoedler gallery, was evidently drawn into the fraud, bought several of the paintings herself, and helped to sell others for millions of dollars. Now Knoedler has closed and many of the paintings’ purchasers are suing for their money back.

And yet, the case points out the extent to which artists can be imitated, just as writers can. Pastiche, in fact, frequently forms part of an artist’s tutelage, and sometimes people are very good at it. What is viewed as a helpful learning practice becomes criminal, however, if someone gets too very good at it. And in the art world large profits can be had in this way.

In the recent case reported by the Times, there is no conclusion. No forger has been revealed, and some still claim that these paintings might, somehow, be authentic, even though some of the paints used in them were not available commercially at the dates they were claimed to have been painted. But I am compelled to think about that forger or those forgers and how he or she or they decided to produce these masterful paintings and put masterful names on them. These are paintings that fooled some of the world’s experts, and someone decided that money and the satisfaction of skill and cleverness would prevail over someone’s performance of his or her or their own talents. Well, being able to fool the experts is, I suppose, a talent of its own.

I can see the appeal, actually, of working for a fame in someone else’s name.

Of sticking it to an art world where fame and income are restricted to a very select few even though many have talent to spare.

Of playing a trick on a universe where work that is done out of deep, self-motivated reaches of the imagination is then commodified and traded like so much chattel.

And yet…

There is such a hateful despair in the theft involved. It’s hard for me to see one artist doing this to another or to herself or himself.

These cases seem to me to illuminate the chasm between the two channels of art: the need to communicate through whatever medium, on the one hand, and the business of buying and selling and making contacts and fostering fame on the other. It’s not a new conundrum, and different writers and artists and musicians have answered it differently over the centuries.

For myself, it is true that I would love to sell another book sometime, to be paid for my labor. But that isn’t why I do it. I watch so many of my cohort desperately scratching at the door, and I both admire their business sense and wonder what their work would be like without it. Obviously, balance is in order—I would not have all my writer friends starving and homeless, and I would enjoy a world where expertise and skill in the arts were respected far more than they are these days. I know that a lot of writers, musicians, and artists do what they think they have to do to survive and thrive. But I would not have us all pretending to be Motherwell or Rothko or Hemingway, in either name or fame. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the artist who engages with the world without constantly grasping at fame—whether in his or her own name or that of another—is all the more free to pursue the ragged path of art.

What Comes After Valentine’s Day

Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Are you ready to make plans for New York now?” Bruce laughs a little hopelessly as he asks.

I feel the panic rise in my throat like a hairball, even though we are lying in bed. He thinks that a trip is in order for me to meet with my new editor at Oxford and with my agent, who has been unwilling to give me the time of day. He thinks my new relationship with Oxford will make her take notice. And last year we missed making our usual annual pilgrimage to see our dear friends there because I’d had a brain hemorrhage.

Bruce loves the city, loves clearing away all travel challenges with his efficient handling, loves touring galleries, sitting in cafes, and walking the bustling streets, hour upon hour. He loves the atmosphere of culture and excitement that we just don’t have in the city where we live, which is a suburb through and through. He loves to fall into step with our friend Craig, their long legs matching in pace and rhythm as they talk about Kant or Hegel while John and I try to keep up behind them. He loves revisiting his favorite painting in the Met, Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, and holding my hand while we stand in front of the soulful eyes of a man long since dead whose pain and dignity we can still feel. He and I both love that a slave could hold himself so proudly, undaunted by the injustices of his world.

Last time we flew to New York, however, my feet swelled so badly I had to get a new pair of shoes. Now I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my right foot. Now I have mysterious and as yet undiagnosed damage in the left basal ganglia of my brain. Six months of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and I still feel uncertain in the world. I want to stay close to home.

So I cry and tell Bruce that I can’t do it. Not yet, while I don’t know what the future holds. I tell him angrily because I am afraid. I tell him that I know he wants to travel—he wants to take me to Berlin this summer and to Kenya someday soon—and that he may have gotten a bad deal when he married me just two and a half years ago. It has not been a very romantic time since we got married, especially the past year and a half since the brain hemorrhage—and now all this.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I may just have to travel by myself.”

I know this is his attempt at letting me off the hook, but it makes me cry harder. It makes me angrier.

“Oh, great,” I say. “It’s not like I don’t want to go. Don’t you understand? I can’t physically do it. I can’t pound the concrete with you and Craig. I can’t stand for hours on the hard museum floor. I will be in agony if I try to do that. But being left behind doesn’t sound like that nice of an alternative.”

We lie silent for a few minutes as disability wafts over us in the air from the slowly turning ceiling fan.

It is a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but the day after I have a lumbar puncture scheduled for an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid. We have no plans to celebrate the love holiday. We both know that it is a marketing ploy, and we agree with efforts to knock back the Romantic-Industrial Complex. We have also each spent enough Valentines Days alone over the years to have experienced the whole thing as yet another competitive way for some people to feel superior to others—“I’m loved and you’re not. So I’m a better person. Hah.” We are aware of all of that, but we also are just tired and distracted by my health and other depredations of things we hold dear (like our lives’ work in higher education). These things put a damper on the mood.

Bruce is no Newt, but I am also well aware that the divorce rate is higher among couples where one member becomes chronically ill or disabled, and I am well aware that men leave disabled women more often than the other way around. I have also been rejected many times in my life, and I wonder whether Bruce wouldn’t be happier with a spryer partner.

“You may not like this idea,” he says, and I steel myself. “But what about seeing the museum in a wheelchair?”

It is not what I feared, but exactly what I’d been thinking about myself—ways to make things at least somewhat possible. Accommodations, I’d told myself, that’s the key.

“I like it just fine,” I say, and I hear Bruce sigh a little with relief. “I mean, it’s not thrilling, but I have no problem with having a chair to sit in while I look at paintings.”

“We can just take cabs everywhere,” he adds.

“I like it,” I say. “You know, that seems a lot better to me than your leaving me, either on all your travels or completely.”

“That never occurred to me,” he says. Even though this is only one of the reasons I love him, it is a big deal. Maybe one day it will never occur to me either.

Learning to Cry

A few months ago, I shared the viral You Tube video of the woman crying about cats on a dating site. It was a spoof, of course, but it made me wonder how many such videos there are out there. And since my latest post focused on a topic partially related to teenagers, I thought I’d share today what I found when I looked.

This is both hilarious and a little scary, especially, I imagine, if you are a parent of a teenager. Because what I found was a lot of teenagers teaching other teenagers to fake cry. Many of them are aspiring actors and actresses, but many also mention fooling their parents or other adults.

There are dozens of these videos on You Tube alone, almost all of them featuring young people. I featured two that I thought were particularly funny—the goofy boy and the sulky, manipulative girl. But look at more for full effect.

* This girl wins the prize for the fastest fake crying.

* This one recommends the chemical method.

* This one notes that her method is superior since you don’t need any Vicks.

* This fellow recommends exercising the “muscle in your tear duct” so that “even a grown man can cry.”

* The music here gives a yoga feel to crying.

* And this little girl wins the prize for the youngest I could find. She has a really hard time faking, but she is determined.

Because most of these efforts come out of the acting world, there is an underlying ongoing debate about method acting (“think about something sad”) and practical aesthetics or theatrical acting (“exercise the muscle in your tear ducts” and “hold your eyes open til tears build up” or “push” or even “rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub under your eyes”).

Since the goal of most actors, whether method or otherwise, is to create authentic feeling in their audiences, this week I’m going to contemplate the relationship between artifice and authenticity. They are not simple opposites. At least not for everybody.