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Category Archives: Psychology

Dissecting Dissection

Students at a school in Texas played a "prank" with a cat from dissection lab. Photo from PETA website:

There’s a lot going on in my life this week, but even with my own personal dramas unfolding, both happy and sad, the thing that has moved me most is a conversation I had with a friend last Sunday. Her teenage daughter, she told me, was being compelled in her high school biology class to dissect a cat.

For a sweet young girl with two pet cats of her own at home, even the announcement of this practice had proved traumatic, but she had asked her parents not to intervene, as she also felt the pressure, like most teenagers, not to be different, not to make a scene. She had been careening through emotional conflicts ever since the teacher had announced the upcoming procedure in no uncertain terms.

As soon as the words came out of my friend’s mouth, I recoiled. I couldn’t imagine myself as a teenager having been required to do such a thing. The frog and the sheep heart had been bad enough, and suddenly long-forgotten sensations of evil in the biology classroom and lab came over me—the rank smell of formaldehyde, the freezing cold temperatures preferred by my hugely obese biology teacher, the glittering edges of the scalpels, the shockingly bright yellow strands of fat in the frog’s belly, the vaguely sexual implications in the way that the teacher had made us run our fingers into the slimy aortas of our sheep hearts while he leered at our trembling hands and bitten lips.

It isn’t that I don’t understand the need for dissections to be performed. I believe that it’s important for all young people to acquire a basic knowledge of anatomy, and I believe in the value of the higher study of biology. I even went on in college to take not only Bio 10, but also Field Biology, and in one we dissected chicken embryos and in the other we collected specimens, including insects we killed and birds and other creatures we might find dead. These classes also provided much discussion revolving around respect for the life forms with which we dealt, a wider context, if you will, than simply learning anatomy.

I also have a good friend, a former field biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service who now teaches middle-school biology. He is far braver than I in the face of animal death, and in his many long bicycle rides, he comes across many injured animals that he puts out of their misery by breaking their necks. After he and his wife and I had observed a rabbit hit by a car one evening when we were out walking, I watched him go into the shrubs to perform this act of kindness. It is indeed only his knowledge of anatomy and his toughness in the face of death that allows him to do it, though it hurts him every time.

But for a school or a teacher to require high school students to dissect animals frequently kept in the home as pets, without doing mental health checks of these students or preparing them emotionally for such an event seems to me sadistic at the least. I told my friend so, and she encouraged her daughter to ask for an alternative assignment. Her request was granted, and she is now being allowed to do a “virtual” dissection in a separate room.

In the meantime, I found out that the Humane Society “opposes the practices of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms for numerous reasons.” Not surprisingly, most animal welfare organizations also speak out against it–PETA, the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Welfare Institute, and In Defense of Animals. All of these organizations support the use of computerized imaging software or plastic models (both of which are long-lasting, re-usable, and ultimately cheaper) to teach anatomy to any but those involved in veterinary and other fields of learning where hands-on experience is required.

In fact, the Humane Society cites several studies that demonstrate higher levels of student learning of anatomy with computer simulations, and other studies note that the practice of dissection in high school discourages students from further study in biology because, obviously, they are not prepared to deal well with it emotionally. It is simply inappropriate and does not meet any feasible educational goals. Even the National Science Teachers Association now recommends non-dissection practices.

I also found out that Florida is one of ten states that has a law that requires that students be offered an alternative assignment without penalty (Florida passed the law in 1985). Of course, my friend’s daughter’s teacher did not exactly offer it. Instead, this young woman had to buck convention and go to the high school counselor to ask if such a thing would be possible.

To me, this indicates a real problem with this particular teacher and maybe with the school. It seems to me the teacher broke the law. But even more disturbing is that, in spite of numerous protests over the years, cat dissection is still used in numerous public school systems, including that of Miami, where my friend and her family live. Why this practice continues in any high school anywhere, I have no idea.

The issue of high school cat dissections was raised a couple of years ago in a case in which a Miami teenager was arrested and charged with a spree of cat kidnappings, killings, and dissection-like manglings. Recently, the case against this teenager, Tyler Weinman, was dismissed, and he and his father are countersuing for malicious prosecution. They claim that a pair of wild dogs killed the 33 cats that were found in the two neighborhoods that Tyler lived in with each of his divorced parents. The case had been entirely circumstantial, and the Weinmans found a forensic expert who would testify that the cats were killed by bite wounds, not the cutting instruments that Tyler supposedly had in his possession.

Whether Weinman committed any crimes in this situation or not, two things are salient. First, he behaved very strangely with the police by eagerly describing the tearing sound made when a cat’s skin was removed during his high school dissection (also reported by CBS and NBC). Secondly, it was not difficult to believe that a teenager who was having emotional difficulties with his parents’ recent divorce would commit such crimes. It was proper for the charges against Tyler Weinman to be dropped if the case could not be proven, but that does not mean that it’s not a problem for high schools to be teaching dissection of cats. In fact, the connection was so intuitive that the case immediately set off a debate about the use of cat dissections in Miami high schools.

I’m not saying that all students taught this way will go out and slaughter family pets. But it is clear at the very least that the lesson in school gave this student knowledge that he could have used to torture animals in his neighborhood. And, although the study of sociopaths is difficult and ambiguous, there is some evidence for the Graduation Hypothesis, the idea that one (of numerous) signs of a potential serial killer (of humans) is the youthful torture or abuse of animals. Why should our schools provide any potentially disturbed young men such tools?

Some educators continue to insist, however, that such instruction is beneficial. This article about the Tyler Weinmen-dissection issue quotes Milagros Fornell, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami-Dade schools, as saying that “I don’t think you want to take your animal to a veterinarian that doesn’t know what the inside of an [actual] animal looks like.” No, I don’t. But I can’t emphasize how utterly and totally inappropriate, even stupid, I think Fornell’s response is. High school is a far cry from veterinary school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3,011,040 students were expected to graduate from high school in 2009, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only about 2600 graduate from veterinary school every year. Those who enroll in veterinary school have been sifted by admission requirements and by their own dedication and desire to help animals, not hurt them. Even though far more graduate from medical school (16,838 in 2010), these veterinary and medical students are not equivalent as a group to all high school students.

It is also true, as one university educator noted in that last article about Tyler Weinman, that millions of cats are euthanized by shelters every year. If a cat is going to be euthanized anyway, what is the harm of using its body to teach? None. However, this line of procurement is not at all clear, and the cats and other animals used in dissection labs are obtained in a variety of other detrimental ways. At least one study cited by the Animal Liberation Front of cats obtained there noted that some procurement companies in Mexico paid for employees to go out and steal pets for $1 each. Procurement methods are often brutal and/or environmentally harmful, as noted by Dying to Learn.

For me, the justifications given by these educators are downright dodgy. If the reasons they give for continuing this practice are so clearly false, then what are the real reasons? Sheer stubbornness? Habit (it’s always been done this way)? Some questionable relationship with purveyors of dead cats, rats, frogs, and other creatures? Or just a complete avoidance of really thinking about it at all?

Most of the justifications given are based on the premise that those who oppose dissection in high schools oppose all dissections under any circumstances. And some no doubt do.

But most, including many animal welfare agencies, argue very specifically that dissection has its place. It’s only appropriate, however, a) if the students are given the proper emotional screening so that we don’t help produce any more Jeffrey Dahmers, b) if even the emotionally healthy students are of a maturity where they can handle it, c) if the lesson taught goes beyond anatomy to discuss the method of procurement to make it clear that no animals were killed expressly for the purpose of dissection, and d) if a discussion is begun about the ethical use of animals and the related problem of pet-animal overpopulation in the U.S.

And for me this last point is key to why this issue makes me think about the issue of authenticity.

In the U.S., we have a widespread schizophrenia–or at least a serious cognitive dissonance–about domestic animals. More than 62%, or more than 3 in 5, of households have at least one pet. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers, and the relationship between pet and person is often profound. Marketers know that “pets sleep in bed” and “get gifts.” They are often considered beloved members of their family.

Yet, according to the ASPCA, 3 out of every 10 dogs and 7 out of every 10 cats that enters a shelter is euthanized due to lack of a home. That is 3 to 4 million a year. This doesn’t even count the ones that eke out a meager existence or die from illness or injury after being abandoned or abused.

In my humble opinion, it would be of far more use for high school biology classes to take or send students to animal welfare organizations to observe, or to invite veterinarians into the classroom, and to get students talking about humane treatment of pets and other animals. I believe that your average high school student would learn far more about the sanctity of life and far more of use to our society by some participation in humane education than they do in an anatomy lab. A high school biology class could even be devoted to discussion of spay and neuter efforts and could thereby help lower the number of those cats that are euthanized every year. And, yes, I realize that some students would giggle, but such programs already exist for even younger students.

I urge everyone to find out what the practice is in their local area, and educate the educators about alternatives to animal dissections in high schools. Support strong local and state laws against animal cruelty. And instead of buying your fat and happy dog or cat one more bag of treats, make a donation to or volunteer at one of the many animal welfare agencies, national or local. If you’re an animal lover, any of these will be an act of great authenticity.

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.


* * *

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.

Invisible Illness

This month marks the 40th anniversary of my diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes. Other than my trumpeting this fact to a few people (and here on the blog), there will be no fanfare. I find it more seemly that way, even though that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about it. And it’s not that diabetes survivors are never honored—the Joslin Clinic in Boston has a program to give certificates at the 25-year mark and medals at the 50-year mark, and last year they celebrated a fellow who had achieved 85 years with diabetes. It’s just that most people who become medalists have to nominate themselves.

Even the term “diabetes survivor” seems funny. We don’t think of it as a terminal disease, even though diabetes kills more than breast cancer and AIDS combined. Most people, in fact, have a lot of misconceptions about diabetes, especially Type 1. I’ve already written about that, years ago, in Sweet Invisible Body. The title of that book comes from the very fact that you can live with diabetes and pass for (and even be) healthy most of the time. Many people never see the disease. I even hesitate to type the word “disease” instead of “condition.”

Some years ago, I faced this issue in a different way. I was doing scholarly work on three writers with serious early-age chronic illness—Katherine Anne Porter (TB), Carson McCullers (rheumatic fever and early strokes), and Flannery O’Connor (lupus). I encountered two distinctly different sets of academic communities that were relevant to my work—one was Medical Humanities (and its sub-set Literature and Medicine, perhaps best represented by the journal of that name) and the other was Disability Studies.

Those titles speak volumes. The Disability Studies community was formed mainly by those with disabilities who desired to be recognized in all their complexity and diversity. The Medical Humanities, on the other hand, focused more on physicians, nurses, and their traumatic encounters with patients’ illnesses or how the humanities might teach humanistic values to numbers-oriented medical personnel. The trouble for me was that I didn’t conceive of myself as disabled, and I wasn’t a health-care provider. I wanted a community of those involved in “Illness Studies” or some such. In spite of the fact that people have been writing literary work about illness for as long as literature has existed, there was no such thing.

Although I have kept an interest in both fields, it’s no surprise that the work in Disability Studies was a lot more directly touching to me. I was closer myself to being disabled than to being a physician, and I was tied to the “patient’s” perspective. So for a number of years I participated in online Disability Studies discussion groups. Of course, these groups did not base membership on whether or not an individual was disabled, but there were sometimes discussions of what counts as disabled. I recall a generous openness in terms of various levels of ability, both physical and mental, and a sense that disability of some sort or another is in most people’s future if not their present. I remember that one person commented to the effect that those who exclude themselves completely from the category are disabled by their own ignorance about it.

In a book called The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (1997), Arthur Frank pointed out that this same logic holds in terms of illness as well as disability. The end of the twentieth century saw an enormous rise in chronic or treatable-but-never-cured illnesses. Diabetes is like this, and cancer has become more this way as treatments have improved. And now, through genetic testing, we even have the ability to diagnose illnesses that aren’t even manifest. Invisible illness has shaded over into virtual or nearly nonexistent illness.

This is why the distinction made by my recent commenter on the “Just Crazy, Not Sexy” post is important. She noted that, though I objected to cancer guru Kris Carr’s “claims to have cured an incurable cancer with self-help and alternative therapies,” Carr “is well aware that she has cancer still” but “believes that her diet is keeping the cancer inactive.”

Remission is indeed distinct from cure, and I should have been more precise, even though I think that the overall impression given by Kris Carr is that of illness banished pretty much entirely. What’s fascinating about Carr is the extent to which it is convenient for her to have cancer with no symptoms and no effects of her illness. In other words, she does indeed have knowledge that she has an underlying condition that could one day affect her health, but right now it doesn’t.

This goes to show that illness does have something to offer: part of the mythology of illness is that it can make one wiser (if it does not make one bitter and therefore evil). Carr claims the wisdom, however, without the pain and suffering that supposedly lead to it. In fact, her claims cut in opposite directions: Carr has the imprimatur of serious illness, but she also has the success of triumphing over that illness and restoring her own health. It’s a powerful combination that attracts many followers even though it is full of contradictions. There aren’t too many people who can stay in that position for long—a couple of years ago I wrote an essay (next to last in this e-book on The Patient) about the “Dying Professor” (Randy Pausch) who stormed the world with his optimistic reaction to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, only to succumb the following year. People mostly quit paying attention to him after he was truly ill. (Or they respected his privacy, if you will. Actual illness is ugly and therefore largely hidden.)

I think one reason why someone like Kris Carr has such appeal is that many people still want to think of illness as a temporary situation rather than a permanent situation or marker of identity. In spite of the fact that Frank identified us as living in a “remission society” more than twenty years ago, where illness is almost the norm, there has been no rise in “Illness Studies” and little formalizing of what it means to live as a subject of medical intervention and awareness of the body’s limits for years on end. For many people illness still seems to be short-term—they catch a cold or get a bacterial infection and are definitely ill, but soon enough their good health is restored. That’s the model of our medical world—illness properly treated ending in cure.

In 1999, when I published Sweet Invisible Body, the Guardian published a large (and very negative) article about “malady memoirs” that the author characterized as “malingering” and trivial besides. The author didn’t mention my book, but it was one of about twenty whose covers were reproduced above the article. As an example, the article’s author wrote a satire about an in-grown toenail. That, I thought, is someone who really thinks everything can be cured. That is a healthy person, someone in whose eyes illness is simply an uninteresting transient weakness or something to be hidden. Such reviewers are common, and they judge illness memoirs with a broad brush rather than making distinctions between good writing and bad.

Even many who are ill or who understand the value of examining such experiences prefer the stiff-upper-lip mentality or the “it’s a blessing in disguise” mentality more than something more complex. One of the main reasons they do, I believe, is because they are rewarded for it. It is not the depressed or symptomatic sick person who gets on national TV. Randy Pausch—because of his cheerfulness not because of his illness—gained many privileges, such as visiting with his idol Sting and tossing a football with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Kris Carr—because of her insistence on a can-do attitude not because of her asymptomatic illness—has become a self-help brand-name. The Make-a-Wish thing seems appropriate to me for ailing children, but there is a strong push for a trip to fantasy-land for adults as well, as long as they “deserve” it by being upbeat.

One thing that it’s important to note is that plenty of avowed healthy self-help gurus give us the same basic message that Kris Carr does, only they don’t have the added value of supposedly having overcome cancer (even if in the fine print it’s only “remission”). The cancer’s remission is added “evidence” of the effectiveness of her self-help recommendations.

Why does it matter to me that Kris Carr isn’t symptomatic, that she hasn’t actually experienced much sickness over the years she’s been building her cancer guru empire?

The status of someone in a particular identity category is something we grapple with every day in the field of creative writing. Male writers write women characters, and black writers write white characters, and vice versa. Sometimes fiction writers even use a first-person narrative voice for a character completely unlike him- or herself. We reserve and defend the right to do so. That is what imagination is for, and much good writing takes this kind of imaginative habitation of another life. The best of such efforts, of course, produce great literature suffused with empathy and near clairvoyance.

Yet I believe it does take a sense of responsibility to inhabit a different kind of persona—it is not something to be done in a cavalier fashion. That is why even fiction writers do a lot of research. That is why it’s a perfectly legitimate criticism of certain macho male writers that their female characters are flat and inaccurate. That is why I was so ecstatic and relieved a couple of years ago when one of my students (a young white twenty-first-century male) wrote an honors thesis that was a novel set in the 1930s with an African-American main character, and the African-American historian on his committee said, “I don’t know how you did it, but you really nailed it.” (He did it, I note, by a deep desire to understand, not by a desire to use, usurp, or pretend.)

In memoir writing, this issue is perhaps just as complex and vexed though in different ways. In spite of many naysayers like the Guardian reviewer, memoirs about chronic illness continue to proliferate. I’ve read a lot of them, and sometimes I even sympathize with the Guardian reviewer because a lot of them are poorly written with little insight. In fact, even supposedly literary ones tend to be characterized by a kind of rah-rah boosterism or tried-and-true emotional answers. James Frey’s infamous A Million Little Pieces, which was, after all, essentially a story of overcoming the illness of addiction, turned out to be a false memoir. Some of us suspected it was before the scandal hit—because his story of curing himself of alcoholism seemed way too easy.

As a person who writes fiction as well as nonfiction, I think frequently about identity and identity categories. Certainly, the fact that “it really happened” is never enough to justify a piece of writing. Many in the world of memoir-writing, including me, also support the use of the imagination in writing them. But it’s all too easy for us to ridicule the many slavish readers who thought that Frey offered them hope and a method for overcoming their ills and then became naively furious when he turned out to be a fraud. Yes, they were naïve. Yes, there is often an unfortunate confusion between self-help books and memoirs. But he’s the one who was a fraud. Both fiction and nonfiction should be more truthful than the bull he sold.

So, what is the distinction between imagination and fraud? The two are often closely tied, and many terrific writers are known as frequent fabulists in daily life as well as on the page.

What, in fact, constitutes a truly inspirational story? Do such stories always need to end in triumph?

As a person with a long-lived illness who encounters frequent and ever-increasing symptoms, but who manages to hold death and more severe disabilities at bay for now, I have to answer in a certain way. I have to say that for me Samuel Beckett’s narrator in The Unnameable, sums it up well: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” This is the balance of emotional honesty, and it is based on genuine experience, not what sells. It also, it seems to me, reflects a deeper optimism than “I’ll go on” by itself would. I also have to say that imagination is distinct from fraud, and that there is such a thing as emotional honesty in whatever genre.

It’s the difference between a discreet poisoning and a mere threat, between a stomach ache and gold-bricking. It’s the difference between what is there that we can’t see and what isn’t there at all, at least not yet. It is a tricky little devil to put a finger on.

Smile or Die

Accusations of “hate” and “unhealthy” negativity are frequently made by those in the positivity camp against those who aren’t. It’s one of the ways that they shut down discussion and examination of the actual claims of positivity.

Yesterday, I got a new comment on one of my earlier posts—the one called “Not Sexy, Just Crazy.” The commenter accused me of “hate” because of my critique of those I see as promoting the false idea that positive attitude and vegan diets can be effective linchpins (all by themselves) of treating serious illness. On Thursday, I’ll take up an important distinction that this commenter made—that between cure and remission—but today I give you another wonderful RSA Animate video of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about how it is that positivity is often itself much more cruel than realism. In this video, Ehrenreich focuses on economic cruelty, but elsewhere she has addressed the issue in terms of her own experience with breast cancer.

I think that “hate” is much too strong an emotion for what I feel toward Kris Carr and those like her in the “heal yourself” and “be happy [whether you really are or not]” school of thought. However, this raises the question for me of what is actually deserving of hate. One reason why I don’t hate Kris Carr is that I don’t really know what she is thinking, and so perhaps she is sincere and perhaps she is deluding herself as much as everyone else. In that case, she certainly deserves pity more than anything near hate.

However, even though I reserve my hate for those who participate in less well-intentioned forms of harm (such as genocide and war-mongering), I do believe that those in the positivity movement often harm others and therefore deserve at least some kind of approbation. I think that group-think of most kinds is detestable, and I think that people who are so insecure about the “positive” path they are following that they can’t even hear or consider other kinds of paths, that they get furiously angry about anyone who questions whether or not their path is right for everyone…well, there’s just something supremely ironic about that.

I am bemused by all those positivity types who are so angry with me (and others) for not being one of them. They can tell me repeatedly that my anger isn’t “healthy,” but, whoa, they seem more angry than I am. That, I believe, is the result of false positivity—ultimate anger, disappointment, even cruelty and marginalization of others. Genuine positiveness is something else entirely.

The Queen of Garbage

Recycling transfer station, Gainesville, FL. Photo by BWingYZ.

I sometimes feel like the Queen of Garbage. Around our house, I’m the one who mostly deals with it. This is not the result of some plot on Bruce’s part— I am the long-term expert at dealing with kitty litter (and, to be honest, kitty vomit), and I am just far more obsessive about garbage than he is. A friend once told me that I reminded her of Andie MacDowell’s character in the film sex, lies, and videotape (directed by Steven Soderberg, 1989) who sat in her therapist’s office worrying about a barge of garbage stuck in the East River. My friend thought this comic.

My first memory of playing this role arises from my early teenage years when my old friend Sharon visited my family one summer. Sharon’s parents and my parents had played bridge together when we still toddled around with pacifiers in our mouths, and we’d stayed friends of the summer-visit variety. When Sharon saw me take a pile of newspapers down to the garage one day and add it to the considerable stash along the far wall, she asked me what was going on.

“The Boy Scouts do a drive every year to recycle the papers,” I told her. “And see here?” I showed her the extra garbage cans we kept for glass and aluminum. “We take these to the K-mart recycling dumpsters, too.”

“Your family is a bunch of fanatics!” she said. “You’re crazy!”

Thirty-five years later, I feel sure that Sharon and her family recycle, too, but even now there are a lot of people who don’t.

Bruce and I purchase a lot of stuff through the mail. Evidently everyone on our street buys a lot of stuff through the mail. As far as I can tell, I am the only one who bothers to break down boxes for recycling. The recycling people will only take the cardboard if it’s flat. We let boxes pile up in the garage for a while, and then I go out with the hunting knife I found when I bought a house years ago and cut them down. Sometimes I think about the new life I gave the once abandoned knife—that’s a kind of recycling, too.

And I spend hours trying to find homes for the stuff we don’t use. Recently I made a trip to Goodwill with a carload of household items—glass cookware we can’t use on the new induction stovetop, extra mugs that overflowed the cabinet long ago, some of the plethora of cloth book bags that we seem to pick up at every conference we attend. I was dismayed to learn that Goodwill won’t take blinds, as I had finally convinced Bruce to give up a large bamboo blind that we have no place for in the house we bought three years ago. I didn’t, however, put it on the curb. Instead, I put it back in the garage and began making a list of things we can give away or sell for cheap through Craig’s list.

I did a lot of this when Bruce and I moved into our house together. We owned two lifetimes of accumulated stuff, and we had to winnow it down. But Bruce laughed at me when I said we should do something with all the boxes. We had a lot of boxes—too many to break down for the recycling truck. Bruce was ready to put them on the curb. Instead, I posted them as “free” on Craig’s list. Bruce said no one would want them, but within an hour, I had six different people offering to come and get them. They were perfectly good boxes.

My grandmother, on the other hand, hoarded. It’s a thrifty habit. And like the genes that change our metabolisms when we try eat less to lose weight, I’m sure the saving gene once had a good purpose, too. But we live in a time of overkill not of scarcity, both with food and with stuff. It’s no wonder that obesity and hoarding both seem to be on the rampant rise these days. At least, I tell myself, I don’t hoard.

Nowadays, I take any peanuts and other plastic-y packaging stuff to our local UPS store, where they are glad to re-use them. Because they don’t pick up office paper curbside, I haul mine to campus. I’ve taken metals to a metal recycling business, and I’ve taken electronics to a business across town that supposedly re-uses parts. (It seemed to me that mostly they were in the process of smashing every part and extracting the metal, too, but at least I tried.) I take my diabetes pump supply cast-offs to the fire station in sharps containers for proper disposal of medical waste. (This is relatively easy here where there’s a fire station program, but for years I had to hunt down ways of getting my medical waste into a proper channel.) And I make frequent trips to the garbage transfer station in our area to drop off the many dead batteries that we have from my insulin pump, blood sugar meter, TV remotes, fake candles, and various computer peripherals like mice. I like the transfer station the way some people like the wrong side of the tracks—it is like a glimpse into another world entirely, with the huge, lumbering trucks and cavernous space filled with the detritus of our lives: scary and all too real.

I do other things, too, to try to be environmentally responsible. I long ago quit buying water in bottles, for instance. Bruce and I have a collection of long-lasting drink bottles, and I drink water out of the public water supply. It is the cleanest and safest in the world, after all, even if it’s not from some “pure” spring in Fiji. It was easy to make this change after I saw the water bottling plant in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, where I once lived. Bellefonte’s public water supply came from a spring, so a company bottled it and sold it as “spring water.”

Both Bruce and I—and most of the people I know—try to make choices along these lines. Most of us feel that the earth is a ticking time bomb of pollution and poison. I go to a lot of trouble, but I know it’s not enough. I often wonder if the gasoline I’m using to drive stuff around to these various places is worth it, and I’ve had my suspicions that all the stuff that gets picked up curbside is just dumped back in with the rest, a kind of p.r. stunt. I’ve known people who do a lot more than I do—one who gave up cars completely, one who left his job as a philosophy professor to join an organic farming cooperative, others who established careers related to protecting the environment or educating kids about it.

Recently, one of these latter—an old friend who works as an attorney for the EPA—lamented that she believes that recycling has become just a sop to make people feel better. I know she is right, and she made me think about what it means to be environmentally friendly. How is that term defined in a meaningful way? The EPA has, in fact, deemed the term useless in the commercial world due to a lack of clear definition.

For most of us as individuals, it’s very confusing, and I believe that most of us do only what we can see, what is simple, and what is right in front of us. I find it worthwhile to turn off the lights when I leave a room—in fact, I follow Bruce around and turn lights off after him, too. But in more complicated situations, it’s frighteningly hard to tell what’s for the best. When Bruce and I bought our house, we needed to replace miles of hideous, worn and dirty beige carpet. I did hours and hours of internet research about purveyors of wood flooring, looking for a company that had responsible environmental and labor policies. Pretty much all of them claimed they did.

We went through a similar task when we looked for our wedding rings. Mining—both metal and diamonds—is a particularly nasty business that most of us never see. But in my younger days, I’d driven around Copperhill and Ducktown, Tennessee, and I had seen first hand mining’s destruction. Though much of that land has now been reclaimed, it was denuded for better than a hundred years. I wouldn’t want to live there even now. We bought rings made from recycled metal. At least that’s what we were told. We don’t feel any ability to really know the impact of our choice.

All of this raises for me again and again what it means to be genuinely one thing or another. How do we gauge our own intentions? Do I recycle just so I can have the imprimatur of a “good person”? Do the hours I spend sorting garbage and cutting down cardboard boxes mean anything besides just another form of waste? And are my intentions what matter? No doubt they are good, but I may not demonstrate enough follow-through or commitment. Other things distract me, and my carbon footprint no doubt remains too large. At least, I tell myself, I have been doing a few things over many long years. At least I am not a Johnny-come-lately to trying to do my part.

Bruce and I were talking about this the other day, when I was contemplating to what extent I’m just a half-assed person with commitment issues. We started to generate a list of other ways in which he and I each have been unable or unwilling to “go all the way.” Some of these are not so clearly desirable as environmental sustainability and concern, but they share the expectation of purity.

Bruce and I started our list by chuckling over what I have for a long time called “macho yoga.” Just a few days ago, the New York Times featured an article about the dangers of yoga. I was glad to see them finally catching up to reality. Back in State College, Pennsylvania, during my grad school years, I classified the yoga schools and instructors in town into the “gentle” camp and the “macho” camp. My friend Mary, a returning middle-aged college student, alarmed me when she told me that after a month, her college yoga class was doing headstands. I said, “No way. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Sure enough, she herniated a disc. Yet in our town, there was a certain éclat of the macho yoga schools, and they turned up their noses at anyone else. At a party once, I had one of them tell me that I couldn’t be a true yoga devotee unless I did headstands. I already knew that I was never going to do headstands.

Bruce told me about his own discomfort with the proselytizing brand of Christianity that he was inculcated in when he was at Bible college. “I still consider myself a good Christian,” he said, “but I know a lot of people wouldn’t. For me, it’s more of an internal thing.”

Along similar lines, I have found myself uncomfortable with confrontational politics. Off and on over the years, I have made numerous attempts to advocate for candidates I believe are better than worse, to engage in canvassing, to make phone calls as elections neared, and so on. My brother has always been good at debating issues and has long been involved in local politics, but I am terrible at it. I feel that it’s necessary, but it just about gives me heart palpitations and I usually just end up making someone mad. I am much better at writing things down, and I hope that my occasional forays into issues in this blog is a genuine way that I can make a contribution, even if it isn’t protesting in the streets or knocking on doors.

Perhaps most important of all to me right now is the issue of our marriage. It took me 49 years to get married, even after a therapist told me in 1983 that I had commitment issues. Even now, happily married to a great guy, I tell myself at least once a week that it won’t last. I have learned to talk back to myself and say, “Yes, it will,” but I have a fear of disappointing both of us. I often wonder if I am a genuine wife or if I am kidding everyone including myself.

These constitute an array of issues that I feel very differently about—I want to be totally committed to my marriage, I want to be a better environmentalist, but I have accepted my low-level role in politics and I have no desire whatsoever for Bruce to become more evangelical or for me to do more strenuous yoga. Yet it was interesting to compare the ways that definitions of terms define us in each of these arenas.

This is an enormous issue in today’s political world. In an article in the upcoming February 2012 issue of Harper’s, “Killing the Competition,” Barry C. Lynn notes that the powers-that-be “have undermined our language itself” by redefining various terms. “Corporate monopoly? Let’s just call that the ‘free market.’ The political ravages of corporate power? Those could be recast as the essentially benign workings of ‘market forces.’” In another recent article, Rodolfo F. Acuña notes how euphemistic language is being used as a tool for racism. Acuña is a lightning rod in battles in Arizona over a recent law that was passed that made it illegal for “any school program to advocate the overthrow of the government, ‘promote resentment’ toward a group of people or ‘advocate ethnic solidarity.’” Like those three things are necessarily related. In other words, any kind of ethnic studies (except, of course, white) has been shut down in Arizona, where attorney general Tom Horne has re-defined many life-long Americans of color as “separatists.”

I don’t have any final answers to any of these definitional questions. The EPA is right, and we all need to look closely beyond the title of “environmentally friendly.” We all need to look closely behind all the double-speak of politics, and we all need to look at how we define ourselves.

I may not be the best environmentalist in the world, but I will still claim the title of Queen of Garbage around here, and I have every hope that my role will be valued in my life-long marriage.

Painful Positivity at the Gym

My Y uses these new computerized bikes, too. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nistas of the U.S. Navy.

Mindless positivity is rampant at the Y where I belong. It’s all part of the gung-ho, cheerleader/coach kind of thing that is supposed to help motivate us non-athletes to get in better shape and, more subtly, part of the prosperity gospel that implies that God wants us to be happy and healthy, not to mention rich. Recently, the YMCA changed its official name to just “the Y,” and I had a momentary hope that the more supercilious aspects of the Christian basis of the Y would abate. It was only momentary.

* * *

There’s one indoor cycling instructor who otherwise teaches a great class. But at the end of each one, she calls out to each departing participant, “Have a blessed day.” She says “blessed” with two syllables, and I cringe every time.

* * *

One day, another spin instructor surprised the class with a lecture on excuses. “We all have problems,” she said. “Your back or your knee or your whatever shouldn’t get in your way. You just have to push yourself beyond it.” I looked around the room at us middle-aged professionals mixed with the occasional housewife. “I don’t let my aches and pains get in my way,” she smiled. “So, no excuses. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone!”

For a long time, it’s been well known that effective training takes sensitivity to where you are in the moment and is most effective when you push yourself only hard enough, not too hard. Haven’t these people ever heard of target heart rates or the ten-percent rule? I stared at the heart rate chart on the wall and wondered that no instructor in my spin classes ever mentions it.

I realized that most of these young-ish people who exercise several hours a day in their role as instructors simply think that most of us are lazy. They must get frustrated at not producing fitness “successes”—those who lose and keep off the extra pounds or who turn into ideal amateur athletes. But what I see is that their methods drive people away. The expectation of transformation is unrealistic. It’s hard to get past that sense of failure and just keep on muddling along at our distracted, so-so, not-top-priority way. Every January, I watch the result—the full classes that will gradually winnow down and then fill up before beach season with a whole different group. The Y will keep hounding us to bring in new members.

Last summer, in fact, I nearly became a total gym drop-out. I’ve belonged to the Y for several years, and have had some great instructors. But trends sweep the field of fitness just as they do other arenas, and lately one particular indoor bike company sold its bill of goods to my Y. These are sleek bikes with computerized screens, similar to the ones on the treadmills and Stairmasters upstairs. The old Schwinns are out.

Now in every class, we are constantly barraged with numbers. We are told repeatedly just where our RPMs should be. As a sometimes nod to the variability of our fitness, the instructors might say, “I won’t tell you where your tension level should be, but keep your RPMs up with the rest of us.” Others simply say, “Everyone should be running at 90 RPMs and a pressure reading of 14.” This is insane.

No doubt the numbers on the screen could be well used by individuals to compare their performance between one ride and the next, but the way the instructors have been taught by the company to use them, they create a Procrustean bike. They have eliminated one of the best things about previous cycling classes, which is their ability to accommodate anyone with any level of fitness. Our Y has already started designating which spin classes are “basic” and which are “advanced.” This is a totally unnecessary move and one that simply complicates busy people’s schedules. By golly, though, they have got to be using the technology in a high-profile way, and the only way to do that is to talk out loud about the numbers.

The bikes create a lot of these tail-wagging-dog issues. Spinning has for many years been done in dark rooms. The first time I ever went to a class, the fellow next to me told me that he’d managed to lose twenty pounds over the previous two years by sitting in the dark on the back row where no one bothered him. I myself enjoyed the darkness because it helped me concentrate on my own workout instead of watching what other people were doing, as is so often a problem in other kinds of exercise classes. Now, however, we are told that cycling in the dark is bad. Supposedly this is a general industry-wide discovery—“engagement is better”—but I recognize in it that one bike company’s influence. Their computer screens are not back-lit and can’t be used in the dark.

I have watched as the classes have become more and more dominated by younger people and the middle-aged people like me revert to the individual machines upstairs and drinking coffee in the lobby. But maybe, I think, this is the intention. Get the riff-raff out of the spin classes. Return spin to the kick-ass reputation it sometimes have. It is all about that image of what the Y is, and I imagine that attracting younger, more stylish members is a marketing goal.

My mind reels back to decades ago when I made my first decision to start working out. At the time I was a staff member at a university, and I convinced my friend and co-worker Charlene to go with me to the university gym. At one point, in the middle of our ride on the stationary bikes, she said, “Lisa, I don’t think we are really the types for this.”

It was true that we got some stares in the weight room. At the time it was inhabited mainly by men who looked as though they belonged there. We fielded a few mild insults and shaken heads over the low weights we would use. The guys would stand over us impatiently and sigh as we did our reps.

“Charlene,” I said, “I am just tired of letting the assholes have everything.”

I have seldom looked back from that moment, and I have belonged to a gym constantly since then in spite of not being the type. The recent regime changes at the Y, though, have made me wonder. My mother has been lifting weights since she got diagnosed with osteoporosis a few years ago, but she has stayed fit well into her seventies mainly by walking.

* * *

Another spin instructor one day before class was holding forth about how she doesn’t believe in therapy. “You can’t change the past,” she proclaimed to her captive audience. “You just need to forget whatever it is and move on.”

“Ah,” I said from the middle of the room, “but you can change the past.” I finally got her to admit that you can at least change the way you think about the past. But I could tell that she didn’t think that mattered.

I accept this kind of supposedly motivational positivity as par for the course in the world of health and exercise. Taking control of your life and letting go of the negative go hand-in-hand with movement, evidently. I have to say I prefer the positive style over than the one where the instructors yell at you and tell you that you’re failing. But sometimes the two seem to me to be two sides of a coin.

* * *

Before an indoor cycling class a few weeks ago, the instructor whirled through the small anteroom where several of us were changing our shoes. I hadn’t been to her class many times before, but I was trying to change my schedule around a bit. She tossed down her bag on the instructor’s dais and stomped back past us to the water fountain.

“I just can’t believe people,” she said, glancing toward one of the other women. She bent over the water fountain, filling her bottle. “You’d never believe this client I saw just now.” She explained with a sweep around the room that she’s a home health care worker. “We try to help them,” she said. “I tried to be nice.” She turned her head to the side. “But he was so un-American.”

I steeled myself. The other women murmured their sympathy and went back to tying their shoes. But the instructor bull-dozed on. “I mean, he’s… Well, he’s fat,” she said, screwing her nose up a bit. “And he’s diabetic and all that. I keep telling him that he has to eat better, and what does he say? He says it’s all because he lives in America!” She sputtered. “I just can’t tolerate that kind of anti-Americanism.”

I didn’t really know her well enough to get into it, so I sat horrified as she went on. “You know, I live in America, and I’m not fat! It’s all his own fault and he wants to blame the greatest country in the world.”

This exchange (or lack thereof) has haunted me since. That so many of the Y instructors use themselves as the measuring stick to judge other people haunts me. That this particular woman’s inability to sympathize with an immigrant who has left his native culture and perhaps the loving support of his family haunts me. That he lives in some crappy apartment with a stove that hardly works and so chooses to eat fast food haunts me. That she believes that the best way to help him is to blame him haunts me.

Well, a lot of stuff haunts me. I think that over the past months of my genuine emotion exploration, what has been most useful have been reminders about self-compassion and compassion for others. It’s even a tenet of positive psychology. It’s just a part that a lot of positivity enforcers forget.

The Sweet Hereafter

Today’s post commemorates Mychael Danna‘s soundtrack music, but also the film it was written for, The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, and the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel and the movie, though distinct, both illuminate the aftermath of a tragic accident of a school bus and how it changes the people of a small town.

This is as wintry a tune as can be, and, though we don’t have much in the way of cold weather in Florida, I know that many are going about new semesters at school (or just another work week) in the snow or chilly rain or snappish air today. May this song make us all take a moment to remember to be careful in all our rushing around.

All of us, no matter the weather, suffer the blame game. We give it and we receive it from others and ourselves. At times designating responsibility is perfectly appropriate, but often the anger that goes along with blame masks the emotion that’s more at root and more genuine: sorrow. That old human condition is as tough as it is beautiful.

Here’s the trailer for and review of the film, and a brief interview with Russell Banks about his inspiration for the novel. And here’s an auto playlist for Mychael Danna in case you have more time for peaceful, interesting music in your day or evening.


If I remembered nothing else about Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, I would remember the reason for that title. Sebold, who was raped at knifepoint while a college student at Syracuse University, was told by the police immediately afterward that she had been “lucky” not to have also been murdered.

Unlike Sebold, I have never been raped by a stranger on a dark city street, but I have been told repeatedly how lucky I am when it seems an odd concept to apply. It’s hard to argue with this statement, as, yes, things could almost always be worse. When one survives, when one has a loving family, when one lives without severe economic hardship, when one has decent health insurance, one is lucky indeed. So, yes, I am lucky.

Still, I find it peculiar that so many people are so eager to tell me that I’m lucky, or worse, that I am blessed. This came up again a few weeks ago when I was in an elevator going to see my podiatrist about the newly diagnosed arthritis in my foot. I ran into a woman that I had met through my work with the UCF Book Festival. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while, as last year I’d missed some meetings after my brain hemorrhage. When she asked about my absence, I filled her in. She looked me up and down and immediately noted that God must have been looking out for me and that I was blessed to have escaped unscathed. (A certain Christian version of “lucky” is “blessed,” though those folks might see a big difference since they believe in a huge difference between random luck and God’s beneficial intervention. To me, these two terms have substantially the same effect, which is to deny my inferior suffering.)

A couple of weeks later, I was diagnosed with another health problem, which the docs and I are still sorting out. This is potentially a very serious issue, and no doubt I’ll talk about it here once I know what is going on. At any rate, within two hours after I’d received the initial news about this new wrinkle in my medical saga, my phone rang and it was my endocrinologist’s nurse, to whom I had placed a call with a question a few days earlier. When I told her about my new diagnosis, she, too, immediately launched into a discourse on how lucky I was because what had befallen me hadn’t been more severe than it was. She went on to tell me how she had seen patients who’d had more severe versions of my problem and how “pathetic” they were.

On the whole, yes, I feel lucky. But in that moment, within two hours after I’d received news of a new, serious health problem, it seemed incredibly insensitive for her to launch on my luckiness. Didn’t she know that my chances of becoming one of those severely impaired patients had just doubled or quadrupled? I wanted to tell her to go out in the street and find someone with no major health problems at all. “Tell that person she’s lucky,” I thought.

A couple of days later I talked to one of my friends who a few years ago received a double mastectomy due to Stage IV breast cancer, and I asked her if people tell her that, too. Of course they do. She said that she’s even been told she was lucky to have a double mastectomy because she just doesn’t have to worry about that any more. Some fools, she told me, even tell her that her breast cancer should be the best thing that ever happened to her. We talked about the difference between believing that an illness is a blessing and believing that a person can take an illness experience and learn and go on with better insight. Some people don’t seem to understand the distinction. We both feel that it’s up to us to determine the meaning of our illness experiences, not up to strangers to assume a stock meaning such as “If you’re not dead or severely crippled, you are lucky.”

On the surface, of course, it’s not bad to be reminded that things could be worse. The other day I did that very thing when an acquaintance posted on Facebook the question, “Could this day get any worse?” It seemed to mostly be about things like her sports team losing, so I said, “Yes, yes, it could. But I hope it gets better.”

I hope it gets better. Even when someone has some small thing go wrong, they deserve our empathy or at least our sympathy, the latter being recognition of a feeling we might not share. I sometimes wonder why people are so stingy about such things. I’ve come to believe that it’s a very selfish defense mechanism, augmented by an oversimplified belief that being upbeat is always beneficial. I mean, I don’t care that my friend’s sports team is losing—really, really don’t care—but I can still give her a word of encouragement. And encouragement doesn’t deny reality. I’m not going to tell her that her sports team is blessed because they lost 21-14 rather than 21-0.

In fact, this lack of empathy borders on the narcissistic, and I feel as though it has become rampant in our society as the tenets of positive psychology get oversimplified and dumbed down. Because people are so filled with this idea that “positive” is helpful, they fail to even register what other people are feeling, much less to respond appropriately.

And there is a huge fear of being “sucked down,” being forced into negativity. These people who want me to feel lucky don’t want my sadness or concerns about my health to worry them. But one of the things that is often forgotten in the common sources of advice about overcoming negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and fear is that the biggest fear of all can sometimes be the fear of these emotions. What does it mean when what we have is an unhealthy fear of fear? If a drop of sadness threatens to flood us with sadness? If we are more anxious about anxiety than about its original source? We are hard-wired to have these negative emotions, and they are part of our survival mechanism. To constantly blunt them with platitudes is to live a stunted life.

I don’t mean that we should respond to every and all emotional demands. Some are inappropriate. Some we don’t have the means to deal with. But it is just as easy to say, “I don’t know what to say. Glad it’s not worse” or “Hang in there” or “I hope it gets better” than it is to tell someone else they are blessed.

I feel very lucky about many aspects of my life. But I sure as hell don’t feel lucky about my health these days. I am trying to get better at expressing my negative reaction to those who assume I feel only lucky. I did manage to tell my endocrinologist’s nurse that it wasn’t very helpful for me right now to hear about all those worse off than me. But she kept insisting that her message was one I should hear. In person I have to admit I would have been tempted to shove her across the room. Instead, I am trying to practice my words of explanation and wondering how close I have to get to “F*ck off” before I can make people like that get it. Whatever response I have to health news, it’s up to me to decide, not up to them to tell me how I should feel.

Place Connections

The sign at the top of the Schoolhouse Gap trail, where we hiked this weekend.

Whenever Bruce and I return home from a trip out of town, he says, “I miss everywhere but Orlando.” I usually bristle when he says this, wishing somehow that we should be loyal to the city where we live. I try to emphasize in my mind the comfort of our home, the pleasant view of pines and palms and palmettos out the wall of sliding glass doors across the back, the presence of my sweet kitties, the large live oaks that line the streets of our neighborhood and trail Spanish moss like so many dream clouds. There is a lot to like about where we live and how we live.

Yet it’s true that I haven’t found a sense of home here, and I am reminded of that every time I go back to East Tennessee, as I did over Thanksgiving weekend to visit my dad and his wife. I have that creeping middle-aged feeling that it was a good place to live, though I couldn’t wait to get away from it when I was young. There was, after all, a whole world to explore. Surely in all that world, I thought, there must be some perfect place.

Now, when I go back to Sequoyah Hills, where my family lived for three years during the late 1960s, and where my father has lived the past fourteen years, I think it might be the most perfect place. I feel at home in my body there, and in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, even though my connections to both places and to East Tennessee in general might seem tenuous.

One thing I always notice when I’m back in East Tennessee is just how nice everyone is. On this trip, Bruce and I stopped off at a convenience store for drinks, trail mix, and a pack of sandwich cookies to take on a short hike in the mountains. In spite of the fact that the stretch of Alcoa Highway we were driving along is not doing too well—numerous storefronts papered over and a few buildings bulldozed—the clerk was cheerful. She rang us up promptly and politely asked if we wanted a bag. As I put my wallet back in my purse, she actually said, “Y’all come back soon!” I laughed and told her we were just visiting so it wasn’t likely, and then I felt stupid, as though this might be rude. So I added, “But next time!” and she grinned at me and waved as we pushed through the door.

This always happens when I am in East Tennessee. Always. It’s not that I never encounter a grumpy person there, but such are greatly overshadowed by nice people, friendly people, people willing to chat, people who treat you like you are another human being. I don’t realize I miss it until it’s there in front of me again.

I wonder about it, too. For a long time, I wondered if it meant that people were dumbly accepting of their “place” in life. I mean, shouldn’t clerks in convenience stores, working the Saturday after Thanksgiving, be somewhat resentful of those of us cavorting in the woods on vacation? Doesn’t their cheerfulness let me off the hook too easily in my middle-class life? I mean, no revolution is going to come from that attitude!

There was always a kind of acceptance exhibited by people in East Tennessee that my restless soul never felt, even when I lived there. My family was more about ambition and less about community, though years later my mother gave me a T-shirt that says, “If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.” Even though I readily acknowledge the down side of too much acceptance of the status quo, I also think I would have done well myself to learn better the importance of commitment to community and of a sense of self-worth that is rooted in something other than achievement.

There is, in fact, something in kindly behavior that asserts (better than resentment) that we are all fellow travelers and that we all deserve each others’ respect. There is a lack of shame in a habit of friendliness, a democratic sense that we each play an important role in life unfolding. I find again and again that in East Tennessee, there’s less adherence to a corporate script and more ad libbing.

My dad used to tell a joke about this. It involved Air France opening an office in Knoxville and a young local woman who got a job there making airline reservations on the phone. The manager from France worked very hard to train the young woman to answer the phone properly with a sophisticated tone, but on her first day on the job, the young woman picked up her first call and said, “Air France” [with the trained lofty accent]. Kin I hep ye?”

Even more than this native kindness, though, I feel a connection to East Tennessee simply through my senses. I feel it through the easy adjustment of my body as the car curves along the hilly roadways. My lungs seem to expand and my nostrils open wider in the pine-scented air with the right amount of moisture. The light creates halos around people and objects in its brightness that is seldom harsh. Even the sound of dogs barking in the evening is resonant and pleasant, deep and cushioned by the hills and trees, and so unlike the shrill, neurotic sound of dogs in Orlando.

But, of course, there’s also a lack of complication that I’m suspicious of in my view. Going “home” is like being a tourist in my own past—there were indeed fewer complications when I was a kid. Even the difficulties I recall are blunted with distance. No doubt I had sharp emotions then as I do now, but in retrospect, they fade and the familiarity of the place feels only good. I wonder if nostalgia can ever be a genuine emotion.

It sure feels real.

Sandusky and the Democratic Need to Speak Out

You might not think that the Penn State child abuse scandal and Occupy Wall Street have much in common. But maybe I can explain why I will celebrate OWS every day until they are smashed completely by those who don’t want to hear it. It’s not just because they have a point, but also that they are willing to make it.

I spent 14 years in State College, Pennsylvania, first working at Penn State and then earning two graduate degrees there. I never met Jerry Sandusky, met Joe Paterno only once briefly, and only met Graham Spanier a handful of times, though I worked for his wife as a research assistant for a year and sometimes filed papers in their presidential home.

In spite of many claims circulating these days, a devotion to football is not required for membership in the Penn State community. I attended one football game in all my years there, and I left at half time, though I was sitting on the fifty-yard line in the company of a member of the Board of Trustees who was much older and more important than me. This latter was a situation chock full of a low-level sexual harassment that I managed to deflect, but I remember how it felt to say no to a person vastly more powerful than me. Maybe those connections cause me to want to comment on the recent scandal, or maybe it’s just my status as a human being.

Certainly the internet has been lit up with outrage about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior and about possible cover-ups that occurred in the Penn State football program and beyond. I participate fully in some of this outrage—we should assuredly feel it when any child (or adult, for that matter) is sexually assaulted —much less numerous ones over years. Certainly we should expect that all people who witness such a situation, directly or indirectly, should find it worth their trouble to do all in their power to stop it.

But when we expect the latter, we are hoping for people to break an ingrained habit that we usually approve of and take for granted in other situations, a habit that is generally rewarded. Granted, a crime, particularly of a heinous nature, should call for the setting aside of politeness and self-interest. But why is it that so often it doesn’t?

When, in fact, was the last time that you or I looked the other way and didn’t speak up in the face of an injustice, wrong, or lie? Probably yesterday if not today. So I agree that much with neoconservative columnist David Brooks’s recent opinion. I don’t, however, believe it’s because we’re all just inevitably sinful. As Daily Kos blogger Frederick Clarkson pointed out, that’s a dodge. Instead, I believe that, especially in many of our places of employment, we are trained in an anti-democratic obedience that is a hard habit to break. It takes a lot to rehabilitate Pitt bulls that are trained to fight; most humane associations euthanize them rather than ever expect them to recover. Like Pitt bulls trained to fight, people trained to be yes-men and yes-women have a hard time overcoming the pattern.

I also agree with much of what Michael Berube said recently in the New York Times about the Paternos’ academic heritage remaining intact. I wonder, however, whether greater faculty involvement in the governance of Penn State would have made a huge difference, as he claims. Faculty are not fundamentally different from anyone else, and they are no strangers to politics that favor yes-men and yes-women. Faculty are no strangers to pumping up numbers for the image of a program when the reality is not so keen. Faculty are no strangers to unfair practices, and many faculty have never spoken out about even the less drastic (and less risky-to-reveal) wrongs they might witness in their daily work. What Berube suggests would only help this kind of situation if it were one in which faculty themselves did not have to fear repercussions from those more powerful than they.

This is by no means exclusive to universities with football programs. Even though laws that protect them somewhat have been on the rise since the late 1980s, whistleblowers from all walks of life report the high price they often have to pay for their honesty, even when the behavior they report is criminal. (Just type “whistleblowers pay a price” into Google for 2,960,000 hits. Or read this other New York Times column by Alina Tugend who traces psychological research into why this is.) People lose their jobs, entire careers, their marriages, their homes, sometimes even end up on welfare waiting for cases to be resolved. Even in a best case scenario, people who blow the whistle look forward to years of punishment.

There’s another complication here as well, and I finally figured this one out after reading Sara Ganim’s Patriot-News account of conflicting testimony about reported incidents with Sandusky. The article does a great job of laying out all the different indications there were that something seriously wrong was going on. Yet, I didn’t quite agree with its last statement that, “everyone cannot be telling the truth.”

What the litany of reports reminded me of was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the reports by the Rogers Commission that came out afterward analyzing how on earth NASA could have launched a mission with a combination of factors almost certain to bring the ship down and kill its seven crew members.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant at Penn State, in fact, we used the Space Shuttle Challenger as a prime example in composition classes of why clear and honest communication is important. We used it as a case study of how communication can go wrong. Engineers knew that the Challenger was likely to fail, but the authoritarian culture of NASA and the media pressure due to the inclusion of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe on the flight made those engineers afraid to assert what they knew in no uncertain terms. As the warnings went up the chain of command, they were repeatedly weakened until they became completely vague euphemisms that did not indicate the extent of the danger. Thus, the fatal decision to launch in spite of low temperatures for which the O-rings had never been tested and were unable to hold.

Here’s how the evolution happened at Penn State, as well laid out by the Patriot-News article:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room.

It’s like a game of Telephone, only the scrambling isn’t random; rather, the message remains coherent, just weaker and weaker.

It is also, Tracy Clark-Flory notes on Alternet (originally Salon), very common for child sexual abuse to be overlooked, ignored, or covered up. By no means are McQueary, Curley, Schultz, Paterno, and Spanier alone in their inability or unwillingness to face up to what was going on.

None of that excuses what happened at Penn State, either the abuse perpetrated by Sandusky or the failure to stop it by others. It does, however, make surprise about it somewhat disingenuous.

And, in spite of my disagreement with David Brooks’s “original sin” kind of thinking, it also means that one of the many places we should look in the aftermath is within ourselves. We can hope that each of us would have the decency to stop and report far and wide such events and suffer the counter-accusations, the damage or complete destruction of our own careers, and the necessarily long, perhaps public, involvement in attempts to rectify something dirty and disturbing. I hope for myself personally that I would have the nerve, and I think I would. Still, while most of us may not be sick or criminal in the vein of Sandusky, we are a lot more like the others than we would like to admit.

So it disturbs me that most of the “attempts to heal” that I’ve seen focus on this false question, “How could it happen?” rather than “How can I prepare myself never to fail in this way?” Externalizing all the blame is inappropriate. We need instead to create different habits in ourselves: habits of telling the truth and speaking out.

Even when we have perfectly good reasons for speaking out, we may be discouraged from doing so. There are kinds of damage less than losing an entire career. There is damage that isn’t even as clear as pepper spray in the face of a protester.

I myself was told by an administrator at my university that in order to make my way in the face of certain manipulative and back-stabbing behavior I just need to get more “strategic” myself. I told him I would rather fail completely than become devious and dishonest. And there’s a very good chance that I will fail by a certain set of standards. In some ways I already have.

Recently a colleague of mine in another place has been sidelined from a program she developed precisely because she criticized the performance of a senior-level administrator for some serious errors. Now an additional faculty member has been added to help further the program and, now that there’s potentially someone else to run it, that senior administrator is saying that she won’t approve of the next phase (investing the resources to create an international center likely to have some renown) unless my colleague be excluded from having anything to do with the program she created. All because the administrator doesn’t like this person.

I also have an acquaintance who was sexually assaulted by an employee of the college where she worked. Because there was no “proof” the institution refused to act on her complaint, and her colleagues wanted her to shut up about it so as not to damage the institution’s reputation. She became—in my eyes, undeservedly—a pariah and eventually left for another, lesser job.

None of these situations is as clear as the issue of speaking out about a child being raped, of course. But I do believe that those of us who are in the habit of speaking out about lesser wrongs are more likely to speak out about greater wrongs. We know how to bear the anger. Some know how to withstand the pepper spray and tear gas.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s very hard to tell the difference between a truth-teller and a mere trouble-maker or even an asshole. For those of us who are not complete corporate or university sell-outs—yes-men and -women who have consciously prioritized getting ahead—the main quandary is how to create the habits in ourselves of telling the truth without becoming simply obnoxious.

We all know the types that everyone avoids, whose sense of what is wrong in the world may be paranoid or self-serving or just plain crazy. We know the ones who are just angry all the time and who will lash out at anyone with an accusation.

In order to try to prevent my own corruption in this regard, I have to always remember that other people see things differently and have a perfect right to do so, that I should say what I think but be ready for the (sometimes legitimate) push-back, and that I will never, ever be popular. Even accepting all that is no guarantee I won’t end up either fudging the truth sometime to get ahead or obsessing about something others see differently. All of us can only try to remain aware.

Beyond myself, I grieve a societal structure that is based to such an extent on a false meritocracy. The belief that greatness necessarily rises to the top poisons a lot of our professional interactions. This, too, is a difficult issue for me. As a teacher, I do indeed want my students to grant me the respect and authority accorded by my education and experience. Fundamentally, though, I don’t want anyone to think they are ultimately inferior or superior to me. I squirm within a university hierarchy in which individuals are expected to show constant deference to those in higher positions and where any questioning, no matter how polite, is considered disrespectful.

Hierarchies are based in the idea that some people are superior to others. This should be in a limited and role-based way at best. But too often, the skinny woman just thinks she’s a better person than the fat one. Too often, people believe that the wealthy deserve it. Too often, the boss sees himself as having a God-ordained entitlement. And in situations like the one in which Michael McQueary witnessed his “superior” doing something terrible, he responded with the assumption that others were in charge, others were responsible, others knew better than he did. We are asked to respond this way almost all the time.

On the other hand, I have in my mind’s eye an image of Myles Horton, one of the co-founders of the Highlander Folk School in East Tennessee that became a training ground for labor and Civil Rights leaders in the 1940s and continues social justice work today. Horton came to speak at my undergrad institution in Minnesota one spring in the early 1980s, an old man who still had a lot to say. I was dating a boy who was interested in Horton’s politics, but I went to see him partly because I was homesick for the gentle rising East Tennessee spring while I sat in a snowbound Minnesota April. He kindly spoke to me about the mud and the unfurling of the bright green, baby leaves and the redbud blossoms, and then he turned to the larger audience and announced, “Democracy is not efficient.”

There is a way of thinking about democracy that means “equal opportunity” to scramble to the “top” with those at the top necessarily defined as deserving. And there is another way to think about democracy, which is that no matter where on the ladder one is, one is an equal as a human being and has rights. Though there is no party or political persuasion that is without its spin, euphemism, power dynamics, even sexual misconduct, I lean left because I think the left’s vision of democracy is closer to the latter than the former definition.

No, democracy is not efficient. If all the managers, administrators, and bosses in the world had to listen and respect others, it might be a boatload of extra work for them. I watch, in fact, as my husband tries to chair a department this way, and it’s hard. He comes home exhausted by the sometimes heated arguments of his department members. I always tell him that they are truly better off because people are willing to put it out there, in contrast to my own department, where it is all under the surface and uglier for it. So, that’s not an easy prospect. But deep and abiding democratic values, practiced daily, might be the best bet against silences that harm and kill.

The Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was first popularized at the Highlander Folk School.