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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Not Every Post is Pithy: Part Two

I am taking a break from washing my hands to update you on my life. Isn’t that what you all want to know about? There’s nothing else going on to think about, is there? Did I miss something? Are not we all focused on my big decision: which graduate school should I choose?

Since you asked, Readers, I chose the more convenient, less expensive, less prestigious, more flexible one. And I feel good about it. Many of you chimed in to offer opinions, as I requested, and the preponderance of opinion was that choice. If I were aiming for an academic post, or if I were twenty years younger, I would choose the more prestigious program. But, as many of you said, people understand that when you’re older, you choose what works best for your whole family.

I attended a Q & A event for the program last Thursday evening—online, I hasten to add. I didn’t get to meet and greet the entering members of my class, but I saw some of their names on the chat sidebar and I am sure they’re a wonderful cohort.

I hope I get to meet them eventually.

As it slowly dawns on all of us that we need to practice social distancing, the memories of chance interactions with strangers become sweet.

Recently, I had the mixed pleasure of traveling via aeroplane to visit my father. My aged p (pronounce “age-ed pee” please). Flying during a pandemic had a throwback feel. Half empty planes. Two seats to myself. Extra snacks. I used some of my precious hand sanitzer and hunkered by the window.

While in Washington, I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my aged p. This was a surreal experience, in the age of pandemic. The place was empty. There was another woman waiting for her medicine and she got to chatting with me. Chatting at me would be a more accurate description, but I responded, as a fellow venturer into the weirdly quiet streets. She told me she had flown over from the UK a couple weeks earlier on a jumbo jet with forty people on it. This reminded me of the olden days when a person might buy a coach ticket and get a center row of four or five seats to herself to stretch out upon.

When the medicine was ready, the cashier said she needed to update the profile for this prescription. “Date of birth?” She asked. I told her, “May Eleventh, Nineteen Twenty-Five.”

Readers, the look she gave me, head half-cocked and twisted towards me to take a closer look, crease between her eyebrows making her look quizzical and dubious, was priceless.  It took me half a second. Then I said, “I know. It’s amazing. My secret is Botox, Fraxel Laser, and Pilates.”

We all had a laugh. Tonic for the times, for sure. By the way, of the three things mentioned above, the only one I have used is Pilates.

Yesterday, en route to pick up the college senior from her shut down college, I stopped at an almost deserted rest area on the Mass Pike. I opened the door with my hand in my coat pocket, using the edge of my coat like a potholder. A man walking at least six feet behind me said, “Yup, that’s how I was going to do it.” I felt compelled to say, and did, that I have been opening doors that way for years.  “Me, too,” he said. Solidarity among the germaphobes. It reminded me of a dinner out with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Cambridge years ago. Ethiopian food, you may know, is eaten with the hands, off of a communal platter. Before we ate, we each went off to the bathroom to wash hands. The restroom was in a hallway separated from the restaurant by a closed door. This meant there was an extra door to open between the bathroom and the restaurant. This was a door with a regular knob, which meant that on the way back, you had to find a way to twist the knob without getting your clean hands dirty. Knowing my friends as I did—each was decidedly on the “phobe” side of germ—just for fun, I asked the table, “So what did you use to get through the door?” I don’t remember what I used, probably the bottom of my shirt, but I do remember my rock climbing, dear departed friend Steve, said he used his foot. He lifted his leg to demonstrate how he could maneuver a doorknob with a sneaker-clad foot. Impressive.

Also proves the point that one should always open a door with hand protection. You never know whose dirty foot has been on the knob.

Now it is time to figure out how to teach online, and to do laundry.

Before I go, however, here is a picture of a panda:
By Tamarocochinop* - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Because not all words that begin with "PAND" are bad. (Credit to Frances for her joke about hating all words that begin with "PAND" these days.)

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Not Every Post is Pithy: Professional Success Decision

Hello, Readers. I have to make a decision. I dislike decision-making. Deciding means giving up something while embracing something else. Deciding means change. Change means scary.

Change is also inevitable and good. Repeat twenty times a day until believed.

I have been accepted to both graduate MSW programs. Now I am deciding between them. What’s an MSW, you may ask. It’s a Masters of Social Work. A do-gooding, pay-nothing professional degree. I want to become a psychotherapist. The goal is to help traumatized children and the worried well. Maybe a sub-speciality of bereaved children. Why? Because I was one. I relate to them. My little neighbors down the street are bereaved twins. Their mother died when they were just two. Now they have a step-mom and they seem to be thriving. I hope they do. It’s a permanent loss, death. Therapy is most likely a must to cope, at least at some point.

Anyway, the decision to go to graduate school in middle age is not one I take lightly. But my definition of success contains the professional element. As in, I don’t feel successful without having a profession. Writing has not worked out as well as I would have liked. Meaning that I haven’t attained enough professional success with it to be able to call that my profession. To have that be my professional leg of the success chair. Other legs being health, family, friends. And, Readers, something in me is pushing me outward. My children are leaving home. I am confident the high school senior will get in to one of the nine colleges to which she has applied and she will leave, just as the college senior has left. We have entered a new phase, one of continual leaving and visiting and leaving and it’s never living together again.

This is sad. So very sad. It’s also what parenting success is. The fledglings fledge. They flit, they float, they fleetly, fleetly fly, leaving the momma bird to her middle age spread, hypochondria, and a big choice: how to deal with the next portion of life. The answer for me is to become something else, now that being mom is not a 24/7 physical, mental, and emotional full time job.

I have a friend around my age who keeps saying she is dying. She's actually very fit and healthy, and when she says it, she's not being a hypochondriac, she's being pragmatic. I think she’s preparing herself for the eventuality. I admire her willingness to stare at that old Death right in the punim and prepare herself by saying, yeah, I’m coming, eventually. But the other day, when she said it, I said, You’re no more dying today than you were ten years ago. After all, we’re always dying, if you want to look at it that way; but if you look at it that way, then just because you’re a particular age, say fifty-five, doesn’t mean you’re dying more than you were.

Is that crazy of me to say? I know that the longer I’ve lived, the more years I have eluded death, the more inevitable death becomes. But the whole idea of coasting downhill I reject. We are alive until we are not, and that has been true since the moment I was born, yanked out of my mother’s body by forceps, I believe. This is why my head is so misshapen. I hope I never lose my hair.

The point is, I know myself too well to think I can spend the next quarter of my life at home, being introspective, without developing some serious hypochondria worthy of a Jane Austen character. (The husband and I just reread Persuasion for our book group.) I need to get out in the world, and out of myself. I need to do something that helps others. Something that is definitely a profession, so when people ask me what I do, do being italicized, I can answer with something that makes me proud.

I guess it came down to how much I want to work on myself. I could continue to try to accept myself just as I am and to work at feeling I have done enough. I could continue to meditate on and rationalize that success does not have to mean success as a professional woman, and that the problem and solution lie within my attitude towards myself. If I can just accept myself as being enough, then all will be well.

Or I could say, well, a professional identity is important to me. I’m a Gen X woman, bred to be a multi-tasking superwoman, and I don’t have to struggle to let go of that aspect anymore. I can embrace the desire for a professional identity now. I can accept myself AND I can move into something else for this stage of life.

There's another facet to this gem. The whole hierarchy of needs developed by Maslow*. He theorized that we are all born with a motivation to self-actualization, meaning to develop our full potentials.
Image result for maslow's hierarchy of needs images creative commons
Later, he updated his theory to say that we're motivated to a step beyond self-actualization, to self-transcendence.
Image result for maslow's expanded hierarchy of needs images creative commons

This stage is characterized by a desire to take one's accumulated knowledge and share it with others for their benefit. Perhaps Maslow had it right. Maybe I am at that stage.

So now I choose: the more prestigious, more expensive, much more inconvenient program with a more ideal curriculum, or the close to home, less expensive program with the adequate curriculum.


* Here is a good summary, with visual aids, of Maslow's theories:

Monday, February 3, 2020

Success in the time of Rump

Readers, since everything old is new again, always and forever, perhaps it’s time for a review of one key strategy for success. I am talking about Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have my college students read this book. I have them do an exercise from it. The exercise is to visualize your funeral. I know that I immediately think of the made for TV movie, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” whenever the idea of attending my own funeral comes up. How often is that, you might ask? Well, at least once a year, when I tell my students to do Covey’s visualization. It’s in the chapter about Habit 2, “Starting With the End in Mind.” This habit focuses on living according to deep values, rather than shallow ones like power, money, and prestige. This exercise is about getting your priorities straight by imagining how you would want to be remembered. You’re supposed to visualize four speakers’ eulogies, a family member, a friend, a co-worker, and a person who knows you from the service work you do. The idea, obviously, is to look at all realms of your life, not just professional, where we tend to focus our evaluations of whether we are successful. The other idea, obviously, is to get you to distill your life to what’s really important. Ideally, you will discover that what matters is not how much money you made, or what rank you achieved, but how well-rounded you were, that you were of service to others, that you worked hard, and that you had a web of friends and family love supporting you. And that you should incorporate service into your life. Service for others. A worthy ideal.

Do you think our leaders in the  U.S. Senate should do this exercise? I do. I mean, there are several whose funerals I would happily visualize, but my eulogies for them would probably not jibe with what they’d like to be remembered as being. It’s probably too late for course-correction, but perhaps not. Hope springs eternal, as Alexander Pope wrote approximately three hundred years ago. The rest of that couplet is not often quoted, as it’s less optimistic than those words suggest. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; man never is, but always to be blessed.” I believe Adam Schiff will be happy with his eulogies. Sadly, I imagine Mitch McConnell would also be satisfied with what he would imagine his eulogies to be. Ain’t it just the truth that people don’t think they’re the bad guy, even when everyone else knows they are?

Moving on. This is not a political blog.

Now the thing I forgot when I gave this assignment to my students this year, was that Stephen Covey tells readers to visualize their funerals three years from now. Try reading eighteen essays by eighteen-year-olds about their funerals three years from now. It’s jarring. They would be seniors in college. Nobody wants to think about seniors in college dying. It’s bad enough thinking about senior citizens dying. Once you get past that, though, what they write is really touching. They come across as nice people. Like, they want to do good, whether for strangers or by being supportive of friends and family. How can the future be bleak when so many young people want to be good?

A couple of weeks ago, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times. In case you didn’t know it, this year is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Apparently in schools, Holocaust education has been lumped together with anti-bullying education, and students are told that they should stand up to bullies. “Don’t be a bystander,” they are told. “Be an Upstander.” The high school senior confirmed that she has received this message. So did many of my college students. This article, though, titled, “The Road to Auschwitz Wasn’t Paved With Indifference,”** takes a contrarian stance. The gist: most people are not capable of acting heroically and that’s okay. The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if more people were simply not doing bad stuff. You don’t have to be an “upstander” to badness to save the badness from taking over. You just have to not engage in the badness. In fact, says this author, promoting the idea that everyone has to be an upstander—standing up to the badness at risk to life and limb or livelihood or mere convenience—is counterproductive. It creates a sense of helplessness, since most of us know we’re not heroic. She writes, “It’s hard to be a hero, to risk your safety and personal commitments in order to help a stranger. That’s a big ask. And by asking people too much, we make being moral too hard — which, paradoxically, can make immorality too easy. “Clearly, being moral is too hard, I’m no hero! Forget it!” we can imagine people thinking.

The author continues, “The truth about how massive moral crimes occur is both unsettling and comforting. It’s unsettling to accept how many people participated in appalling moral crimes but comforting to realize that we don’t have to be heroes to avoid genocides. We just have to make sure not to help them along.” In other words, don’t join in. If everyone doesn’t join in with the bad seeds, then the bad seeds won’t take over. Now, if only the Senate Republicans were listening to their inner voices clamoring for them to do the long-term right thing, the thing that would make them proud at their funerals.

Oops, veering into the political again. It is honestly hard to avoid, although avoid politics I do try.

In my attempt to avoid politics, I came across this font of wisdom, “8 More Habits of People Who Always Have a Clean Home.” I figured—no, more correct to say I hoped— to learn something to help me have a neater home. My home, you see, is rather untidy. I defy you to tell me it’s dirty. But I cop to mess. Particularly to mess created by books and magazines and newspapers. On every single horizontal surface. Dirty, though? Not so much, thanks to the wonderful woman who cleans the house. Still, every so often I hope to become more magazine-spread friendly. Thus, I read the article. But what did I learn? I’ll tell you, to save you the trouble of clicking on this article that got published even though so many of mine have not. Guess what those habits are? Of people who have a clean home? Guess what they do to have a clean home? They put away their dishes. They wipe their counters. They have places to put things. They vacuum. They tidy. Plus three more ways people who have clean homes manage to have clean homes.

Oh my Gawd. They clean.
I'd be lying if I said this was atypical. 

Look, if you want real advice, do that funeral visualization. Think of what you want people to say about you at your funeral. Do you want them to say, “She always had clean counters and an amazing centerpiece?” I know I do. So, I shall have to act accordingly. That is my lesson to you. It is clear, I have my priorities in order, just like those Senators. Now all I have to do is clean up my act.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Annals of Adulthood: All Things Are Delicately Interconnected

T-shirt from Mass MoCA. Saying by Jenny Holzer. Message from universal wisdom.

Perhaps you are wondering why I am writing again so soon. Perhaps you think I have something to suggest about current events. I do not. Perhaps, however, I can offer a diversion from the news, and from videos of burnt koalas and the dauntless people rescuing them.

Readers, here’s a thing that happened. I went to the gym of a Saturday morning, to participate in a much-ballyhooed cardiokick class. I was a little nervous about taking this class. Rumor reports it is the hardest cardio class at the Y. I had “missed it” by accident multiple times, but that day, I had no reason not to go. The husband was riding his new exercise bike. What was I supposed to do, nothing? Allow him to throw my personal motto—“It’s almost always better to exercise”—back at me? So I decided this was the morning I was going to make it to this class. In other words, it was a relief when I arrived to discover that the class had been cancelled.


I decided to use the empty studio to do some yoga and stretching. Mid-sun salutation, the door flang open and a woman strode in. She had the purposeful stride of a mom with limited time away from her kids. She was wearing thingys for music in her ears and did not acknowledge me.

Now, I had set up in a corner of the room. It was a back corner, away from the mirror and from the door. Unobtrusive, and out of sight of people who might press their faces to the door to see what was going on in the studio. It was also near the rack with dumbbells. Please note there are two racks of dumbbells in the studio, the one near where I was developing my positive prana energy, and the other across the vast empty space where no cardiokick was underway.

You can guess where this is going. After she flang open the door, this woman strode in to the nearest rack for some dumbbells. I would’ve gone there, too, the rack being nearest the door. What I would not have done, however, is proceed through my barbell routine, including lots of squats, right beside the rack. Why not? Because there would have been another person in the giant room who had been there already and who was nearby. So nearby that if I squatted I would have my derriere practically hanging over her mat.

I kid you not.

This harshed on my mellow. I tried in best yogic fashion to let it go, but really, when her a** began to cantilever over my head, I felt the ole blood boil.

What did I do, Readers? Did I give her an old New York talking-to? Of course not. I am now much more enlightened (see previous post). I considered how her a** in my face was possibly more my problem then hers. I considered whether I wanted to ruin both our workouts by having a direct conflict. I decided yes to one and no to the other. So I got up and moved my mat about ten feet away. In a pointed manner, I must admit. You know, in a vigorous way. As if to say, You probably should have moved your cantilevered a** about ten feet away from me, Lady. In case you did not notice I was there.

But I did not say it. And, to be honest, I think she did not notice. She finished her workout and left.

What can I say about this?

I took from this interaction an intention to try not to be as oblivious as Cantilevered A** Lady. I realize I may be misinterpreting her actions. It is possible she was not oblivious. She might have been a hundred percent 'blivious, as far as I know. She might have been an intentionally rude person. But I chose then and choose now to believe that she was not intentionally rude. She was distracted. Or concentrated. Or both.

And I have been that way at times myself. Times when I am upset. Maybe to the outside observer I have seemed normal while inside my thoughts were circling, swooping, screeching and creating an almost unbearable cacophony that kept me from seeing much beyond my immediate space. Maybe I have symbolically cantilevered my a** into someone else’s space and never even known I did it. Maybe because the person I annoyed was kind enough to let it go.

Am I kind enough to let it go? (See previous post about enlightenment.)

Yes. I did. I said nothing to her.

No. Here I am, days later, telling everyone about it.


Sometimes the important thing is what you say or don’t say, or do or don’t do in the moment.

So maybe this is just an apology, too late, of course, to anyone I’ve cantilevered my a** over without awareness. I am going to try, going forward, to do my literal and figurative exercise out of the way.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Annals of a Type B Guru

Jan 1, 2020

Happy New Year, Readers! Happy 2020.

It may not be hard to remember to write 2020. It flies off the fingers easily. Twenty-twenty. 20-20. Let’s hope the whole year is easy. Let’s hope, as my friend A said, that when it comes time to vote, everyone has 20/20 vision this year. Let’s hope that we can all apply a little clear-eyed hindsight to our future visions.

This blog post is not going to lay out any resolutions. Nor is it going to contain a recap of the highs and lows of last year. I am annoyed at myself for posting less often than I want to, and there are many reasons for this. Father in hospital being a big one over the last month. The high school student performing in the All-State Symphony and filling out college applications being another. Grading the end of semester papers a third. Those are excuses, however. I realize part of why I haven’t been blogging as often as I used to is that I am suffering from perfectionism. Or at least my Type B personality version of perfection. In short, I want everything I put out there for you, Readers, to be pithy, or at least witty. Maybe I am letting perfect be the enemy of good, as the saying goes.

Or perhaps perfection is too lofty a term. As I mentioned, I am a Type B personality, and we Type Bs are not known for perfectionism (and certainly not for perfection). That’s the stuff of the Type As. Type Bs are likely to make a quilt, for example, that ends up with one strip that is an inch longer than all the others. This would never happen to a Type A. So then Type B has to rejigger the strip, maybe rip out a quilt block and trim it or turn it or something. You know, adapt it and make it work better. By the way, this quilt is another reason I haven’t been blogging as often as I like. But, still it’s another excuse.

Even if perfection isn’t my aim, better is the enemy of good, as writer Amy Halloran (  put it at our holiday gathering of local writers. Better can be the enemy of good, too. Because even if you’re wise enough to know perfection is impossible, better is always possible. I truly believe in better. My life has been all about being better. Sometimes, however, good is best. Sometimes good is better than better. Apportioning effort is also necessary for survival, even for success.

While walking the dog the other year, I was listening to a Gil Fronsdal podcast called “Caring for Yourself and Caring for Others.” The other year. Yesterday, to be exact. Yesteryear, one might even say. He was discussing a Buddhist sutra that talks about how to be happy. One way to care for yourself is to live ethically—abide by the precepts like Do No Harm, (is that the Buddhist precept, or is that a medical precept? Who knows, I am tired. Last night was New Years Eve and it was a late night.)  Another aspect of happiness is that caring for others develops your own happiness. The idea is that by developing kindness towards others, you make yourself happy. This taps the philosophical question whether altruism is really altruistic if it makes the do-gooder feel good. According to Buddhist philosophy, the overlap between altruism and happiness is natural and inevitable. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. Just because altruism makes you feel better doesn’t mean it’s not altruism.

Gil Fronsdal mentioned during this talk that at some point in the Buddha's life, he had about 60 enlightened followers. It struck me that I would never imagine that I could be capital-E Enlightened. Yet the Buddha had 60 guys who were enlightened during his life. Perhaps he was just that good at teaching. But that is not the point. The point is, I had a thought. I thought, what if I am enlightened? I mean, think about it. I’ve been meditating off and on for twenty years. I’ve had lots of therapy. I’m introspective and I’m planning to become a therapist (I.e., to help people deal with their emotions and life challenges). What if I am enlightened? How would that make things different? Consider that enlightenment is often described as coming in a flash, an epiphany. Which means enlightenment might not be a permanent state, existing off on an astral plane, unbothered by anything human, being just a floating protoplasm of wisdom, tantalizing mere mortals who want to to tap that.

What would it mean if I were enlightened? Maybe enlightenment just means something simpler and more down-to-earth. Maybe this is it, that’s all there is, that’s all she wrote. Maybe enlightenment means that I know I have ups and downs and arounds of emotions, that I don’t like some of those emotions and wished they would go away and that I could be this amazing, placid, font of light and whatnot. Wisdom. Love. Positive energy. Peace. Meanwhile, at the same time that I wish to be that avatar of goodness, I’m embarrassed to say so, and that’s just the way it is to be me.  Maybe enlightenment is going about the daily rounds understanding that sometimes you’re up, sometimes down, and that it’s always changing. That love is sometimes encrusted under resentment, or tucked away from harsh feelings, or even hidden from your own view.

And that it’s exactly the same way for everyone. So, cut them some slack. Or at least have empathy, even if you cannot excuse their behavior (not right action) or their nasty words (not right speech).

Isn’t all this just a way to say maybe it’s okay to say I’m okay as I am. I don’t have to be other than what I am, my imperfect self, my wabi-sabi self, my kintsugi self. Maybe there is no better than that. Maybe good is better.

Maybe enlightenment is that moment you understand something important —an epiphany, possibly an ineffable one—and then it slips away. Maybe the slipping away part is part of the enlightenment, too. You know it’s coming at moments, in flashes, or phases. And other times you’re just a bitch driving a car and flipping off an old lady who’s driving too slowly in the left hand lane.

Here's a final thought for the new year. since I am supposed to dispense advice and tips on how to live successfully.  As Jon Kabat Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, “As long as you’re breathing, more is going right for you than wrong.” Or something like that.