November 30, 2012

Nick Flynn and Experience

Don't you love it when you come across a writer who does something that makes you go, "Wait! You can't do that?!" but then they totally get away with it?  Like in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald tells it from Nick Carraway's point of view yet you slide easily into Gatsby's past without raising a question.  Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is the same way.  It's a memoir, and Nick does things that with any other writer you'd say, "You can't do that!" but Nick gets away with it.  For example, he tells parts from his father's point of view. It's amazing and he pulls it off.  So, speaking of memoirs, today a quote from Nick.

Nick Flynn (via)
"In my experience, whatever happens clings to us like barnacles on the hull of a ship, slowing us slightly, both uglifying and giving us texture. You can scrape all you want, you can, if you have money, hire someone else to scrape, but the barnacles will come back or at least leave a blemish on the steel." ~ Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City 

November 29, 2012

Spout, Ho!


I’m working toward starting the memoir.

Ooooh!  Did you feel that?  The chill that went from  the hairs on my head to the tip of my toes?

That’s because it scares the batshit out of me, yet it’s the thing I think I was meant to write, the work that I’ve been trying to get good enough to attempt my whole life.

I have a YA manuscript I want to finish, and then I want to go full steam ahead on the memoir.  Many of the small things I’m doing right now ~ essays, etc. ~ are work toward the memoir.

But the thing is:  a memoir that includes your family is nothing short of treason, isn’t it?  In order to write truthfully about the secrets of the family, you’re betraying them in the process?  See, that’s the part that scares the heck out of me.  Me being the youngest and the peacemaker, am I brave enough to be truthful about my take on things? 

Yet it’s a story that I feel HAS to be told.  You see, I want to focus on the 80s and 90s when my family had a whole Hatfields and  McCoys thing going ~ no one was ever shot but dogs were and gas tanks were sugared and there were fist fights and people tried to run over people with cars, legal battles.  I want to find the truth of it, to try to suss out my truth.  And interwoven through it is the whole gender thing ~ women in my culture are second-class citizens, something I struggled with for a lot of my life.

One of the reasons, though, I feel that it’s the story I was destined to tell is that I had no voice as a child and so this is the story that will vindicate that feeling of helplessness and ~ I’m just now realizing ~ rage.  I don’t want revenge.  I just want to understand.

November 28, 2012

A Conspiracy Against the Cultivation of His Talent

James Baldwin (via)

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next--one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech--and something of Dickens' love for bravura--have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.) ~ James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes"

November 12, 2012

In Honor of Veteran's Day and All Who Served

In honor of Veteran's Day and all those who served, an amazing painting and an amazing poem.

Soldier, by Adi Nes

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

November 9, 2012

“What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Dr. George Vaillant (via)

An absolutely fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking, nuanced piece in the Atlantic:  What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It was published in 2009 but I just came across it thanks to the wonderful Byliner.

Shenk reports on one of the longest running longitudinal studies in the United States, the Grant Study, named after its initial benefactor W.T. Grant. It is a study of 268 Harvard men, began in 1937, that would “attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men.”  They are anonymous, though JFK and Ben Bradlee were two of them. 

There are so many fascinating things about this study, and Shenk does an amazing job of following the threads and illuminating the complexity of it all.  For example, he investigates the psychological complexity of the study’s long-term director Dr. George Vaillant.  Of course I would encourage you to go read the whole thing yourself ~ or like me, print it out and read and reread it. 

I love the fact that Vaillant uses pseudonyms for the subjects that are literary references ~ names like Bill Lomen and Alan Poe ~ and this: “Above his desk hangs a letter from a group of his medical residents to their successors, advising them to prepare for Vaillant’s ‘obscure literary references’ by reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

I could go on and on, but instead I just wanted to highlight the findings ~ what Dr. Vaillant suggests are contributing factors of happiness.  From the article:

The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.
Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.
At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).
In contrast to Anna Freud, who located the origins of defenses in the sexual conflicts of a child, Vaillant sees adaptations as arising organically from the pain of experience and playing out through the whole lifespan. Take his comparison of two Grant Study men, whom he named “David Goodhart” and “Carlton Tarrytown” in his first book on the study, Adaptation to Life, published in 1977. Both men grew up fearful and lonely. Goodhart was raised in a blue-collar family, had a bigoted, alcoholic father, and a mother he described as “very nervous, irritable, anxious, and a worrier.” Tarrytown was richer, and was raised in a wealthy suburb, but he also had an alcoholic father, and his mother was so depressed that he feared she would commit suicide. Goodhart went on to become a national leader on civil-rights issues—a master, Vaillant argued, of the “mature” defenses of sublimation and altruism. By his late 40s, staff researchers using independent ratings put Goodhart in the top fifth of the Grant Study in psychological adjustment. Tarrytown, meanwhile, was in the bottom fifth. A doctor who left a regular practice to work for the state, a three-time divorcé who anesthetized his pain with alcohol and sedatives, Tarrytown was, Vaillant said, a user of dissociation and projection—“neurotic” and “immature” defenses, respectively. After a relapse into drug abuse, Tarrytown killed himself at 53. Goodhart lived to 70. Though Vaillant says that the “dashing major” of midlife became a stolid and portly brigadier general, Goodhart’s obituaries still celebrated a hero of civil rights.

And so this hierarchy of adaptations is how we deal with our world and shows how healthy are reactions are to it.  I’ve heard other studies and approaches that mirror these findings in different ways ~ Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, Shann Ray’s ideas based on Jung about writing from places of darkness and light, and more.

One of the things I love about this is that it shows I’ve come a long way with my adaptations but that I also have a ways to go.  My adaptations are healthy to mature.  Not that I don’t sometimes lapse (like when the cat wakes me up yowling at 3:30 in the morning and then my back goes out as I’m stretching, as happened this morning - my adaptations were somewhat less mature).  But I think it’s the journey that’s important and so I feel like I’m making progress but still striving. A good place to be. Writing is my saving grace.

Here are some other things that make a different, the study says:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.
Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.
What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”
The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves.
Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

So, in additional mature adaptations, it’s “all the things you learned in kindergarten.”  Eat well, exercise, do unto others what you would have done unto you.

It’s comforting to find that everything you thought was true is borne out.

November 7, 2012

Yes! But ...

Yes, I am ecstatic! Yes, I am elated!  Because my guy won, and everything I believe has been affirmed.

But has it?  This country is split, and I remember how I felt in 2004, and so I mourn too for a little less than half the country, even as I don't understand why.  How can they possibly believe some of the things I find so repugnant? Something I'll be investigating for a long time.

Was it a crushing victory? Did the voters give an overwhelming mandate? Yes we won, but are we any closer to working together for the good of everyone?

I'm not nearly as confident as everyone else seems to be.  But I'm hopeful.

November 5, 2012

Getting to Know the World One Person at a Time

Something I've wanted to do for a long time is to find an English-language newspaper from somewhere across the globe and follow it for a week or two.  Read the local news and the obits and the feature stories.  Then find another newspaper and follow it for a while.  The world is such a fascinating place.  It strikes me that this would be the ideal way to find out about the world ~ get to know it place by place, person by person, story by story.

November 2, 2012

Cool Person Guest Blogger Daisy Hickman

You know, there are some people in this world who always show up, who always support those around them.  In a small town, they’re the ones welcoming their neighbors with cassaroles and volunteering at special events.  Daisy Hickman is one of those awesome people, and I feel very honored to know her. 

So today’s Cool Person Guest Blogger is Daisy Hickman, poet, author, and blogger.  She has a bachelor’s in legal studies and master’s in sociology ~ an interesting combination ~ and she is the founder and proprietess extraordinaire of SunnyRoomStudio, a creative space for kindred spirits. Every Friday she posts or hosts other bloggers on spirituality, creative pursuits, nature, and meditative musings.  You can find her at SunnyRoomStudio on Facebook, @dhsunwriter on Twitter, and sunwriter [at] via email.

A more caring person, you’ll never find! (A bit of a confession: she so generously sent me this guest post ages ago, and I’ve been a very neglectful host.  I apologise, Daisy!)


To Catch the Sky

Thank you, Tamara, for your kind invitation to share a few words with your readers.  It’s my pleasure.  And this morning, walking through McCrory Gardens—a wonderful 25-acre expanse maintained by SDSU in Brookings, South Dakota—I encountered some stunning autumn colors that seemed like an inspirational backdrop for a guest post.

It was the blissful kind of day when one could easily imagine sharing time with Thoreau or Whitman. 

Our dogs, Noah and Orion, two spirited, high-maintenance schnauzers, were with us, and apparently, quite happy to be running around outdoors on a 78 degree day at the close of September.  With nature as our other companion, we explored groves of trees—maple, ash, and oak—awash in color; marveled at the lush prairie grass, swaying in the warm breeze; enjoyed interludes of silence.  My husband, John, is from Ohio, so we went looking for the buckeye tree, and I was interested in finding the showy mum garden. 

But, otherwise, we walked along without specific direction or targeted ambition. 

Like small fish in a large pond, we swam easily with the motion of color that surrounded us.  Golds, reds, yellows.  The deep orange of a tall, striking tree that one could only notice by looking up and out. 

“Wow,” we said, when we spotted it.  It looked brilliant and imposing, like a skyscraper in Manhattan.

And the tree seemed all-knowing, as if a trusted keeper of important life secrets.     

I’m not certain what kind of tree it is, so am including a picture.  

Of course it doesn’t really matter.  A generic label could never capture its grandeur, its perfect sense of place amidst the hues of autumn, the silky blue sky overhead, which framed it. 

But when I looked for a quote to include, I found this:

“October's poplars are flaming torches lighting the way to winter.” ~Nova Bair 

Perhaps the tree is a poplar.  It fits the description.  If not, however, I’m perfectly content to simply let it be a tree.  An autumn tree that speaks of a dynamic, ever-changing universe and nature’s inexplicable beauty.  What we don’t know in life, can be as wonderful as what we do know. 

It’s purely a matter of releasing our minds from the drudgery of thought – permitting them to run free against the finery of an autumn landscape. 

The peacefulness of a moment in time is never dependent on thinking; rather, it is a powerful spiritual gift that awaits us when we decide to claim it.  When we are ready to walk with nature hand-in-hand as intimate friends, while looking up now and then to catch the sky.

Thank you so much for visiting, Daisy! I'm honored!
Daisy Hickman

November 1, 2012

Shrug Off Your Old Self

My daughter the Spider Princess and my son the Zombie went to Safe Treat at the University of Wyoming Student Union last night.  It was so fun.  I’m so glad all the groups across campus put this on.  Every year, the whole building is packed with ghouls and goblins small and large, and the grown-up kids seem to have just as much fun as the small ones.

My daughter looks forward every year to having her face painted.  Even if there’s a long line, she insists, and she agonizes over which design to select.  The line was short this year, so my son got his painted as well.

It’s fascinating to me, this assumption of another character.  One of the main reasons I’m a writer is because I’m always fascinated with people’s motivations, and so it’s doubly fascinating about why certain people choose certain costumes.  Someone withdrawn and demure goes all out for Halloween and puts on a costume of a true psychopath.  Someone who you’d think would be wild and go all out refuses or chooses something very conservative and traditional.  Very interesting stuff.

This fits well with other things I’ve been thinking about.  Self-improvement, for example.  That’s another way in which we envision a character and then we try to assume that character.  We imagine this ideal person ~ more beautiful, stronger, more effective, smarter, funnier, whatever.  Then we try to find ways to assume this ideal. 

We have these goals in life, and we try to achieve them.  Sometimes it’s something small like not eating that donut in the office break room, and sometimes it’s huge like moving to another continent or effecting world peace. 

And if you’re like me, when you’re in a mood of self-improvement, you try to do it all at once ~ lose weight AND eat healthy AND write the next great American novel AND be a better mother AND be a better wife AND exercise every day AND be more effective at work.  You know how it is ~ I want it all and I want it now.

But I think it’s a worthy endeavor in general, this assuming of alternative identities.  It allows us freedom to imagine ourselves as something different, to break out of our ruts and expand imaginings.  And we have these built-in times in our lives when we can do this ~ Halloween certainly, but also when we move or go away to college, when we make a new friendship or date a new person. 

Heck, when we get a haircut.  You know the saying: change your hair, change your life.