Archive for August, 2009

When No Means… Yes?

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

There’s a sociolinguistic convention that puzzles me.

Sometimes I’ll be in conversation with a person and they’ll say something they seem to believe deeply, yet they will shake their head “no” as they’re saying it. I can’t figure out why someone would shake their head no when their words and the rest of their body language are saying yes.

Have you noticed this?

It’s an odd nonverbal signal, since generally shaking one’s head no as one speaks indicates either lying or a level of disbelief in one’s words. But I think there’s more to it than that, because in the situations I’m describing, the context suggests the speaker really does believe in what they’re saying. That’s why this puzzles me.

The only thing I can guess is that the speaker feels nervous about the depth of emotion they are expressing and so they shake their head no to deflect attention away from how deeply they feel. But I’m not convinced of this.

I’ve been trying to observe this convention more closely to formulate a better hypothesis, but it doesn’t happen often enough that I can detect a pattern with any confidence. I remain stymied.

Publish or Print?

Friday, August 28th, 2009

It used to be that a writer toiled in obscurity for a number of years, joined a writer’s group, honed his or her craft, and, through persistence, luck, and the self-addressed, stamped envelope, eventually caught the eye of an editor or agent. Bliss! Their name in print.

The internet changed everything, of course. Shortly after Al Gore invented the internet (joke), people realized they could write words online that others could read. After all, with the internet, you can publish your work easily. All you need is a website, a server, and a keyboard. (Oh, and words.)

I read once that Emily Dickinson considered herself a published poet because she had shared her poems with a small circle of friends, thereby making her work public. Borrowing Emily Dickinson’s distinction between publishing and printing gives us a way to interpret the change the internet has wrought in the writing world. With the advent of the internet, we once more need to distinguish between printing (having your writing physically printed, bound, and distributed) and publishing (making your work available to the public).

With the web, writers have so many more options. No more meddling publisher middlemen. Writers can take their craft directly to their soon-to-be adoring public. No need to wait until your book is printed to become an obscure writer–through the wonder of the world wide web you can become an obscure writer instantaneously.

For some of us, though, the allure of the printed page continues. Our fascination with the printed word has not worn away in the face of  binary programming. If anything, it’s gained a stronger foothold among those of us who insist to everyone and no one how important it is to feel the printed page beneath one’s hand and to actually turn the pages as we read.

While many folks rely on digital formats to read their news and novels, I’d wager there is a bit of the traditionalist in us yet as we reach not only for what is published, but printed.

The Tether and the Stake: Courage and Creativity in a World of Habit

Friday, August 21st, 2009

I know a woman who is painting her apartment. A crew of friends and family arrived at ten in the morning and went to work. They completed all the painting in a day.

The kitchen is a rich teal, the bedroom a deep rose, and the living room a bright beige.

She loves the teal.

She loves the rose.

She does not love the bright beige. She knew this within twenty minutes of the paint going on the wall.

I suggested that if she wasn’t happy, she should change the living room color. There was no better time to do it than that day: the place had no furniture and she had helpers. In a matter of hours, she’d have exactly what she wanted.

Her mother, too, said she should change it. (At that moment, I learned there is a particular satisfaction at having someone’s mother agree with you!)

No one else said she should change it, but then everyone else was painting. Her mother doesn’t paint, and I was only stopping by to deliver something on a day filled with refrigerator-related errands.

At the end of the day, she chose to leave the living room as it was. She said the paint color was “growing on her”. And, maybe it was, which would be good.

On the other hand, she might have been settling, which is not good.

My theory is that one’s home ought to feed the soul. You ought to be able to go into any room of your home and have the sensation of nurturing and care, a sensation of warmth and love.

You know when you sink into a hot bath and your entire body relaxes as the water envelops you? How the warmth and the water soothe the skin and the muscles? It’s the kind of experience that makes you say “ahh…”.

That’s what I think your home ought to do for you. When you walk into your home, it should make you relax and feel enveloped in warmth. It should soothe you. I call this soothing experience “feeding the soul”. If the “aha!” moment belongs to creativity and insight, feeding the soul is the “ahh…” moment.

(In fact, I’d wager there is a strong correlation between ahh… moments and aha! moments, between self-care and creativity.)

While one may not always be in a position to re-make one’s environment into an ahh… place, I suspect that sometimes it is force of habit rather than any real prohibition that keeps us from soul-nurturing choices.

Choosing actions that feed the soul takes practice. At least it did for me.

I had a seminal, life-changing moment in my first weeks of college. I’d stopped before a particularly lovely expanse of the grounds to take in the day. It was warm, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and there was a scent of flowers in the air. It was lovely.

Students were taking advantage of the weather and the earliness of the term to read or laze outside. They were stretched out here and there in the grass. A few were playing frisbee at the far end of the lawn.

As I looked across the stretch of grass, I really, really wanted to take off my shoes and walk across the grass barefoot. But I didn’t.

I didn’t take of my shoes because… well, because they were on, and it seemed like maybe it wasn’t a good idea to remove them outside of the prescribed taking-off-shoe times.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was bound by habit.

It was habit to put on my shoes in the morning as I dressed and to take them off at night when I undressed. Since I dressed and undressed in the privacy of my room, I perforce took my shoes on and off in the privacy of my room. The two had become so linked in my mind that the idea of taking my shoes off in public seemed risqué.

I stood there, staring longingly at the cushiony, green, green grass, and I felt silly. How could I have such a reluctance to take off my shoes and walk across the grass? All I had to do was take them off, carry them along with the books in my arms, and walk. How hard could that be?

Very hard, it turned out. It was only through force of will that I removed the shoes, took them in my hands, and set off across the grass barefoot. And, although I enjoyed the sensory experience, I also felt trepidation.

I have heard that elephants are trained very young to stay tethered to a stake. It is only when they are very young, of course, that it is easy to have a stake strong enough that an elephant cannot pull free from it.

Apparently, the trainer tethers the young elephant to a stake so strong the elephant cannot pull free. After straining and pulling unsuccessfully, the elephant learns that it cannot pull free, so it stops trying to do so. Once the elephant has learned this lesson, it never tries again.

The result is that you’ll see a full-grown, immensely strong elephant tethered to a stake that is nothing more than a post in the ground, which, given the elephant’s strength, must be akin to you or me being held fast by a toothpick.

What tethers the elephant is habit.

I wonder if we humans aren’t like the elephants in this story. After all, learning through experience is one of the most profound teachers we have. Through experience we learn such essential information as fire burns, water soothes, and snow is cold. Basic, life-sustaining lessons on which we base many, many subsequent layers of decisions.

Going against one’s learning and experience can seem crazy. And it would be crazy in certain respects. For example, my credentials as a competent adult would be put into question if I began to doubt that fire is hot and burns.

More importantly, I function more effectively and much more efficiently so long as I can rely on my experience to help me make decisions. Imagine needing to reconfirm every day that level ground is appropriate for walking, while walls and ceilings are not. That pants go best on the legs and shirts on the torso. That forks are better than fingers when food is hot.

But for elephants and perhaps for us humans, too, our experience can also hem us in. Thus, it was difficult for me to imagine walking across the grass barefoot. Although I could see others on the lawn with and without shoes, and that was quite alright for them, I was not the sort of person who took off her shoes willy-nilly in front of the whole world and strode sensorially across the grass.

In the end, it was reason that came to my aid. I knew (from my other experiences) that there was no reason to fear walking across the grass. This fear was so powerful, though, that I literally had to force myself to take off my shoes.

Isn’t that odd? It’s not as if taking off shoes was difficult for me, for which I am very grateful. Later that day, I would take off my shoes without a second thought. But that very same action of removing my shoes, once out of its ordinary context, was scary.

It was a courageous act to take off my shoes. Courageous because I was testing the tether and the stake. I was testing the parameters of how I saw the world.

In fact, by taking off my shoes and walking across the grass, I changed the parameters of my world. With those barefoot steps across the grass, I began to develop the courage to choose ahh… moments for myself, the courage to choose soul-nurturing actions, which has led to the courage to live a creative life.

I suspect that my friend with the apartment was reluctant to ask her friends and family to re-paint the living room. Perhaps within her experience, it’s alright to ask loved ones to paint once, but it was beyond the pale to ask them to repaint something they had already done in kindness.

Looked at in another light, though, it was really a question of just a few more hours of work. In a few weeks, those extra hours would be a faint memory. Her friends and family would remember painting, and they might tease her about changing her mind (“And then she made us paint it again!”), but they wouldn’t be tired still from the painting. It would just be a memory.

On the other hand, if she had repainted, the living room would have become an ahh… place for her, a soul-nurturing place. Every day for as long as she lived in that apartment, every time she walked into or looked into the living room, her heart would have eased and her soul would have been soothed.

As it was, the color was pleasant, and she liked it, but I don’t think it soothed her soul. If that’s the case, she settled.

The problem with settling is that it is a continuous act. If I were that woman, every day I walk into the living room and it doesn’t soothe my soul, I’m settling. Every day I don’t choose to create the ahh… moment when I have the opportunity to do so, I am settling.

I may not always have the opportunity to create the ahh… moment. That is a function of living in a world bound by time and space. It is also true, however, that sometimes I think I can’t alter my circumstances when, in fact, I can. This would be a tethered elephant moment. I suppose I could spend years and years trying to develop a faculty of discernment that would tell me the difference between those two types of circumstances. But I don’t feel I need to.

Instead, I’ve noticed there are plenty of situations that I can change, with the courage to do something differently. There are plenty of situations where I stand before the lawn, wanting to walk across the grass barefoot, and all I need do is bend down, take off my shoes, and walk.

I’ve discovered that the more I test the tether and the stake, the more ahh… moments I have. The more ahh… moments I have, the more my soul feels nurtured. The more I feel nurtured, the more creative I become. The more creative I become, the more courageous I become. And so on.

I admire those who go off into parts unknown, who adventure past the borders and boundaries of the everyday. I like to hear their stories and listen to their adventures. It is quite thrilling.

It isn’t the season in my life to go traipsing across the Andes or deep-sea diving for treasure.

A different type of adventure is available to me, though. I can live a life of courage within the borders of the everyday. I can create a life of daring in the simple act of taking off my shoes and walking across the grass.

Island Living

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I read a review several years ago of a murder mystery set on an island (somewhere off the coast of Washington state, I believe).

The author of the review began his article by stating that there can be no great loves or great hates on an island. If islanders were to allow themselves such emotional depths, these passions could lead to sorrow and grief.

It’s not unusual for great passions to lead to sorrow and grief. (If they didn’t, what would Shakespeare have written about?) On the mainland, however, one can run away. On an island, there’s no escape. Hence, a murder mystery.

I never did read the book that was reviewed, but the idea of islands not being an appropriate location for great passions has always stuck with me. I’ve not had occasion to doubt the reviewer’s word, however, never having lived on an island.

I’m on an island right now, and I find that, finally, I am gathering enough experience that I am able to dispute the findings of the author of the book review.

What is inciting such passion in me? What could be so important that every day I try and try again, every failure making me more resolute in my steely determination to succeed?

I confess, it’s my access to the internet that’s affecting me like this.

Generally, I have great luck with internet connectivity using my aircard. It’s almost magical how well it connects me to the internet. No matter where I am, it works. Until now.

For whatever reason, and I am sure the fact that I am on an island is no small part of it, I have poor and intermittent service. I cannot reliably connect to the internet, and if I do, I have no assurance of being able to complete my business before I am disconnected again. It’s worse than dial-up.

Now I am learning about the nature of passion on an island: Frailty, thy name is internet connectivity.

On the other hand, I’m still in the U.S., so I don’t need to worry about paying $62,000 to download the movie Wall-E. Now that would incite passion in anyone!

What Is Work?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I’m on vacation right now, so it’s a good time to muse on the nature of work.

We studied work in my high school physics class: work equals mechanical force times displacement.

Although this sounds pretty straightforward, “work” in the world of physics is not the same as effort or energy expended.

For example, since displacement means the distance an object has traveled, any object that has completed a circuit has not done any work.

My (patient) physics teacher and I went round and round as I tried to understand that a runner who completes a lap on the track has done no work, whereas a runner who runs halfway around the track has done the most work possible on that track.

I was stymied: how could someone who’s only gone halfway have done more work than someone who’s gone all the way around a track?

My problem was that I was getting hung up on the definition. I should have accepted that “work” was a construct within the world of physics. I should have asked my teacher why physicists came up with this definition. How was it useful to think of work in this way? But, I didn’t.

Now I find myself wondering about work again. What is work, exactly?

According to Merriam-Webster, work is an “activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something”. Although the next entry defines work as a means of earning one’s livelihood, this particular definition does not connect the idea of working to earning a living.

According to Merriam and Webster’s first definition, weight-lifting, dancing, storytelling, darning, skipping, and curling are all work. So are philately, horseback riding, and cleaning one’s home.

My problem is that in my head, the concept of work is deeply intertwined with the idea of earning a living. Thus none of the activities I mentioned above seems like “real” work at first blush.

An associate of mine reports a related difficulty. His relatives consider that he is “working” when he is physically working, but that he is “not working” when he is doing speculative, abstract work like reading blueprints and submitting bids.

I think many people would be hard-pressed to say that children work, even if they do exert strength and faculties to do or perform something. Or that the monk meditating or the nun praying is working.

I suppose it has to do with the difference between making an effort and making a living. For me, “work” has to do with making a living. Making an effort can fall under the rubric of work or play.

However, if I could wrap my head around Merriam and Webster’s definition, my pleasant vacation would actually be… work.


Saturday, August 15th, 2009

I’m grateful I don’t have to lick stamps anymore.

Do you remember licking stamps? They tasted pretty awful. Smarter people than I would use a sponge to moisten the stamp, but I always seemed to be in too much of a hurry for that.

Nowadays, stamps are stickers, which reminds me of when I collected stickers in sixth grade. (“Puffy” stickers or stickers with googly eyes were the most coveted in my circle.)

My favorite stamp experience was in Prague.

I had the good fortune of visiting Prague for a few days fifteen years ago. It’s a beautiful city, renowned for its architecture, bridges, and beer, among other things.

However, what stands out most in my mind was my visit to a Prague post office.

I mailed a few postcards at the post office on a Sunday, at eleven o’clock at night. I’d never heard of a post office being open on a Sunday, much less open until eleven p.m. (Now, I can’t remember why I was trying to mail postcards at eleven on a Sunday night.)

I was surprised by the hours the post office kept, but my favorite part of the post office experience was the stamps.

The stamps were beautiful. And they had no adhesive.

Once you bought your stamps, you moved to the side of the clerk’s window and used the little pot of rubber cement kept there for patrons to glue your stamps to your letters. Mailing letters became a do-it-yourself project!

Another post office experience I had was in England while traveling with a group of French students.

One of the teacher-chaperones (a French French teacher as it happened) had brought her mother and aunt along for the trip. The teacher’s mother, interesting woman that she was, didn’t understand that not everyone speaks French. No matter how many times her sister, her daughter, or anyone else told her, she couldn’t grasp that there were other languages in the world. To her, French was the language of communication, and that was that.

One day we were in the post office in a small English town, and I happened to be standing in line behind this woman. I watched as she approached the postal clerk’s window and asked for stamps. In French, of course.

Je voudrais des timbres, s’il vous plaît.

The postal clerk apologetically shook his head, saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”

My traveling companion, annoyed by the postal clerk’s gibberish, asked a little more loudly for stamps.

Je voudrais des timbres, s’il vous plaît!

More head shaking.

Now, she was exasperated. What kind of people did the post office hire? Didn’t they understand plain French?

She raised her voice considerably and spelled out the word “stamps” for the red-faced clerk’s benefit.


I looked around. The French French teacher and her aunt were far away, at the back of the line. I stepped in and translated for one party and then the other.

Transaction completed, clerk relieved, Frenchwoman’s letters mailed.

I wondered about her worldview. Did she think that all of England was populated by nincompoops who spoke gobbledygook?

Russian Dolls and Clutter

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Clutter is like Russian dolls.

I like Russian dolls: they’re pretty. They’re like a puzzle, always hiding another doll. I suppose they’re a matrilineal symbol, too. A woman from the womb of another woman, from the womb of another woman, etc.

I saw some Russian dolls for sale at a little shop in the touristy part of Sacramento near the California State Railroad Museum a few years ago. I didn’t buy them, though. I don’t know about you, but when I am in a tourist area, the sheer number of identical objects, row after row, make the objects lose their allure. For whatever reason, I don’t have the foresight to realize that what seems very “un-unique” at that moment will become interesting once it’s in my home, without its identical twins.

When I saw an incomplete set of Russian dolls as we were cleaning out my mother’s house, I pocketed them. And, as often happens when cleaning out a house, I found a few other things that I “needed” to have. The photo of me on my dad’s lap on the stoop of the Brooklyn brownstone near where I was born. The little black metal burro that was my grandmother’s. A book of folktales from my childhood. And a growing number of other objects.

By day three, I was so overwhelmed with the task of deciding what would go to charity, what could be sold on consignment, what could be given away, what must be thrown away, I began to reconsider my decision to take anything back home with me. How was it that it seemed so important to take these things back home with me, when just a few days before, I hadn’t even been aware they existed? I was surprised how attached I was becoming.

At first, an object may not have much allure. But if it triggers memories or emotions, then I start developing an attachment. The book on the table becomes “my book” on the table, the one I read while eating crackers and drinking ginger ale one long Sunday afternoon.

The memories and emotions from that first object soften my gaze on other objects, making me more likely to develop an attachment to something else. Once those memories and emotions start flowing, it’s like going one layer into the Russian doll. More memories, more layers, more Russian dolls opened.

At the end of the trip, I had “pared down” what I was taking back with me to two smallish piles. Well, okay, two smallish piles and a complete set of flatware from Thailand. And, of course, the Russian dolls.

What Changes You?

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Renowned motivational speaker Charlie T. Jones is known for saying, “You are the same today as you will be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.”

I heard this thirteen years ago on a car trip with a friend. We were listening to a cassette tape promoting a new cable television show. (Pause for a moment–a cassette tape that promoted a cable television show–that’s dated, even though it was only twelve years ago!)

Jones was a proponent of reading as a way of improving oneself, and his statement reflects that. I’d argue, though, that one’s experiences are tremendous influences on who one is and becomes. And, more than experience, I’d say it’s the choices we make that shape who we are and who we become.

What do you think? What changes you?

Book Review: Time Mismanagement

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

Just finished reading the book Time Mismanagement, by Tim Pusfew-Jit. I highly recommend it to anyone with too much time on their hands.

The book’s topics range from items of immediate import (setting your watch) to topics of eternal import (death and taxes). Pusfew-Jit offers 101 tips on how to be late, the ten best time wasters of the 21st century, and a compendium of excuses for lack of timeliness.

Additionally, the author waxes poetic about different philosophies of disorganization, ranging from ancient Mesopotamic legal codes regarding clutter to recent Liechtensteinian treatises on disarray.

Pusfew-Jit writes that there are three main levels of disorganization: clutter, mess, and mad scientist. According to Pusfew-Jit, disorganization is perhaps the most under-rated time waster there is. Four-fifths of the book’s chapters (chapters twelve, three, four, two, nineteen, eight, thirteen, and so on) are dedicated to the topic.

In all, the book was a very satisfying read. Pusfew-Jit was verbose in some parts and palaverous in others, which only enhanced the book’s nine hundred and two pages. I heartily recommend it.

(I’d give you a link to the book’s shopping cart page, but the last time I checked, it was out of stock and back-ordered. Maybe next week.)

Word Silliness

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Able was I ere I saw Elba.

I love words, and I like playing games with words.

When I hear a word, I sometimes read it backwards in my head, to see if it spells a different word.

My favorite word like that is “straw”, which spells “warts” backwards. If, like me, you’ve ever waited tables, you’ve probably had people ask you for a straw many, many times.


straw <—–> warts

makes that request pretty funny.

Of course, words like straw:warts lend themselves to palindromic sentences. I love palindromes.

(No, I’m not referring to the political personage who talks on and on.)

What I didn’t know is that palindromes are considered a type of constrained writing (the technique of writing within a certain set of rules). Nor did I know that the straw:warts dynamic also has a name: semordnilap. (Semordnilap is “palindromes” spelled backwards. See the Wikipedia article for all the other terms for semordnilap.)

An example of constrained writing that I remember from English class is alliteration, in which every word in a sentence or phrase must begin with the same letter. (Sounds simple.)

There can be problems with word play, though. For instance, when you are in the know, but others around you are out of the loop. Folks don’t take it kindly when they think you’re making fun of them.

As I mentioned before, I used to wait tables. The restaurant where I worked had 11 dining rooms, and two or three waiters worked in each dining room. A total of 75 people waited tables at that restaurant, with 26 waiters for each shift.

One day I was working in a dining room that had two other waiters. During the course of the meal, I realized that one waiter was named Bill and the other was from the Czech Republic.

I couldn’t resist when the man at one of my tables asked for the bill. “That’s Bill over there,” I answered.

The fellow tried again, this time asking for the check…