First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

Creativity, power, and compliance


The writing of this post, though not the content, was inspired by this link, on writer’s block, anxiety, and writing itself as the therapy:

It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.”

I don’t feel as though I have writer’s block, but I haven’t been writing. Why not 20 minutes a day? Start now.

I went to a lecture today for one of my classes at MIT, 2.00b Toy Product Design. The professor was leading students through a list of commonly misunderstood and misused terms: engine vs motor; nut vs. washer; die vs. tap; and so on. He got to energy vs. power. He asked for the definition of energy, and a student answered close enough.

He asked, “What is power?” and a student blurted out, “A great responsibility.” I laughed, the professor laughed, and many students in the class laughed.

The definition for power actually is “amount of work or energy transfer per unit of time.” It’s a rate.

I learn a lot in these classes about engineering. In another class this week, I deepened my knowledge of stepper motors. These are very ingenious things.

But this afternoon, as I left class and walked to get some dinner because I have a night lab at 7 PM also in the toy design class, I was thinking about power as a responsibility. The professor had added, after the laughter died down, that he hoped it wouldn’t be used for evil, and he meant the social relations kind, but I suppose also you could apply it to the physics principle. Let’s not use machine power, for example, to plow a vehicle into a crowd.

I have power, and I have prerogative as to how I’ll use it. Over the weekend a dear friend gave me a high compliment: she said I was one of the two most “self-directed people” she knows. That is a kind of power. Therefore, it makes me bristle sometime to have people try to exert their power over me – not the law so much (I’ll comply with that), but the demands or instructions of others especially when they are not consistent with my values or desires.

Jimmy, my husband, once said I am “typical GenX: outwardly compliant and inwardly defiant.” This is true too. Even when I bristle at the demands of others, I often will fulfill them, for peace or ease or even the satisfaction of others.

Is there another generation that is inwardly compliant and outwardly defiant? Some people are this way. They act out, though inside their desires are conventional. (I think of compliant as having to do with some set of rules or expectations or sentiments shared broadly in the culture, and not, oh, compliant with the weather.) An employee, for example, may make a lot of commotion at work in the form of complaints or acting out, but inside s/he is really wanting job security, a promotion, and praise. S/he looks like a change maker or ballbuster but really her/his comfort zone is in safe territory.

Some people want others to have power OVER them to keep themselves in line. Like a friend who says, “Please yell at me if I start drinking too much.” Okay, in that instance, that can be a nice thing for a friend to do, be your external monitor, but it also means you don’t have to muster up your own power. Continue reading

Jane’s junk: keep or torch?

box 1Even the neatest among us have loose ends stashed somewhere. A second closet full of clothes. An attic full of old furniture and toys. Paint cans in the basement. Old parts and garden tools in the garage. Out-of-battery watches in the bedside table. Hand-knit baby sweaters in the cedar chest.

They’ve been there for years, perhaps almost the whole time you’ve lived in that house, since your children were babies at least. You know where those leftovers  are: which box, which corner of the attic. In your mind there floats a vivid image of the folded stacks of baby clothes, the jumble of toys, the keepsakes wrapped in tissue.

Knowledge of them and their location is a weight. You want to get rid of them yet you are afraid that these items, which you haven’t needed in ten years, in twenty, will someday be needed.

In my house, there is a box full of notebooks on a shelf in the basement. Calling the contents “Jane’s Junk” when I was consolidating them was easy. That they belonged to me was more important than what they were: stuff I had archived; ideas and observations I had recorded.

Here, a sketchbook in which I had rubber-cemented magazine and catalog images of clothes I liked. It was a wish book, for how I could look if I had the money or if I were a different person with a different body.

box 3

Even more, there are notebooks filled with dated entries. One captures ideas:

11-9-90: Company that takes all store returns, then returns in bulks to the stores. (Name ideas from Jimmy: Take Me Back or Return to Sender.)

12-7-90: There are ice cream shops, and frozen yogurt shops. Why not pudding shops? “Puddin’ Heads”

7-15-91: Story idea: Old woman in nursing home. Young woman comes in once a week to give knitting lessons. Makes old woman think she will not die as long as this continues — it’s like a hope holding her to earth. One week young woman does not come in.

1-20-92: Maps for the car that do not have to be folded — roll into a tube, or a window shade

11-8-92: Baking sweets without sugar, for local sale or catering. Or, a “sweet of the month club” for diabetics.

^Eventually sell to Harry & David.

2-24-93: “The Medical Consumer” — a consumer mag. to cover medical industry — does Consumer Reports already do this?

4-6-93: Christmas present for Brian. Call Yosemite gift shop. “Go Climb a Rock” t-shirt.

I never became an entrepreneur even though this little book is FILLED with random business and product ideas. I look back on these notes, and they have no present-day use. I have no plans to become one, ever. Good thing — I don’t see a pudding cafe generating a lot of business. Continue reading

Imagine a point in the future when you will look back at this moment

be awesome

There is this notion of “anticipatory regret” that is supposed to make you avoid doing something bad by anticipating or imagining the negative consequences of the action. You know, you won’t lie if you imagine untangling yourself from the inevitable web of lies spun out of the first one.

Years ago, I read the novel Therapy by David Lodge. For a long time, I attributed to that novel a different, more positive take on anticipatory regret: that it can help you do something good and desired that you imagine feeling future sadness about if you don’t do it. As I remembered the plot, I recalled that the middle-aged Tubby, who was invited to go on a pilgrimage with his former sweetheart, goes with her because he imagines that someday he could deeply regret not going.

I recently re-read Therapy — which sadly does not hold up well, though I remember it as a shining moment in my history of reading pretty much all of Lodge’s novels up to a point — and, although Kierkegaard’s arguments about regret are part of Tubby’s inner calculus, I found nothing about anticipatory regret.

Perhaps the different take was and is my own.


In the spring, for one of my classes I got into the habit of holding open office hours in a classroom, so students could drop in and talk to me about the assignment and, if they wished, sit for a while and write together. One time, 10 students showed up and stayed! Another time, only one did, but he stayed for two hours to work on his report. He would write, ask me a question, write again, say something out loud, write again, and so on. “What do you write?” he asked me at one point. This was an unexpected question, it being a computer science (writing) class and me so clearly not a computer scientist. Why would he, or any CS student, care?

I hemmed. I hawed. “I have written some essays… tried my hand at poetry… last summer wrote a story.”

“What about a book?”

“Well, a while ago I started working on a novel, but then I stopped because I thought it might not be so good for my mental health.”

“What do you mean?” He was still looking at his own screen, writing.

“Like, the story was too close to home. I wondered if I should be getting my thinking in order instead of projecting it all on a novel.” As I was saying this, it sounded stupid to my own ears.

“THAT IS MESSED UP!” he exclaimed, kind of laughing. “That does not make any sense.”

I, sheepishly, “Well, it did to me, at the time. But, yeah.”


You know, when you say something out loud, or you write it down, then you have to think about it.


Continue reading

Well-made path to nowhere

We’ve lived in our house since June 1999. In the backyard, under a huge Japanese maple, is a dry, packed-dirt patch that has defied the planting of grass and flowers. Because it’s a long and narrow strip that follows the length of my neighbor’s fence, it has always seemed to be a natural location for a stone path.

But paths should lead you to a spectacle or stopping place, and one planted there would only lead you to my neighbor’s gate, which is never used. These neighbors are homebodies — the indoor kind — and we never stand in our backyards talking or offering pies to each other or doing whatever friendly people divided by fences do.

The path idea, though, had planted itself in my mind. Several weeks ago I picked a Saturday and wrote on my calendar: rent roto tiller! With that, a project was set in motion.

It takes longer than a morning to make a path. The labor happened over a few weekends; as of yesterday afternoon (Sunday June 2nd), it’s done. Here is how it unfolded in 10 illustrations: nine photos and one movie.

1. Tilling begins.

1 Path

2. Tiller does its thing; man follows. (Note: this is 7-sec movie.)

Continue reading

Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications

homemade seed marker

homemade seed marker

In the spring of 2009, I planted a sunflower folly in half of the front yard: link. It was a dramatic success. For me, it had been an experiment as well as a therapeutic act after I had experienced a major disappointment. In September, the growing season done, I was content with the results of my folly, documented them, and set the idea aside.

A month ago, as she watched me start the spring clean up, Lydia asked, “Can you do the sunflowers again? I loved that.” So here I go again, although on a smaller scale.

This time, instead of planting half the front lawn, we tilled up the barren strips that lie between the road and the town sidewalk. Sunflowers can grow anywhere, and the poor quality of this soil will not deter them. The flowers’ appearance will also delight passers-by and provide us with a visual screen.

Mail-order seed packets

Mail-order seed packets

Seeds were purchased from Burpee and Gurney’s. Because the planted area would be smaller, I only ordered six packages total, in a variety of colors and heights:

  • Elf: yellow, 14″ to 16″ stems (Burpee)
  • Sunspot: yellow, 2′ stems (Gurney’s)
  • Chianti Hybrid: burgundy with gold, 4′ to 5′ stems (Burpee)
  • Hybrid Double Shine: fuzzy orange, not many seeds, 5′ stemps (Gurney’s)
  • Coconut Ice Hybrid: white, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)
  • Solar Flare: flame red, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)

After tilling (thank you, Jimmy), Lydia raked and smoothed the dirt. I sprinkled on some foul-smelling fertilizer, and we used the eraser ends of pencils to make 1″ holes for planting the seeds.

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia came up with the planting scheme: tallest flowers in the sight line from our front windows, with shorter ones surrounding them. Her first proposal was that we “throw them down and let nature take its course,” but that was not enough of a scheme for me.

supplies: landscaper's cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

supplies: landscaper’s cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

This was quick work. After planting, I watered the dirt lightly, put down some landscaper’s cloth with big staples (I used black cloth this time because I could grab it at Home Depot, but wish I had the white that I mail-ordered and used for my first folly). I made some improvisatory seed markers with the seed envelopes, some gardening sticks, and binder clips. See above.

I drank espresso. Winston kept us company.

Winston, good company for gardeners

Winston, good company for gardeners

Official planting date: Monday, May 20. Stay tuned for progress reports.


Previous posts on the Sunflower Folly of 2009, in chronological order:

  1. Sunflower folly: link (with full instructions)
  2. Sprouts: link (first sprouts, 13 days after planting seeds)
  3. First sunflower: link (first sunflower, 73 days after planting seeds)
  4. Habitat: link (folly as habitat for a wild rabbit)
  5. Harvest: link (sunflower harvest, four months after planting)

The pitfalls of self-selection

soldiers affixed to wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

This morning I went to the free lessons provided to members of the MIT Figure Skating Club, which I joined this year. The teaching is professional and attentive, and groups are small. Weekly attendance varies, though, and there is sub-par continuity.

Today Esther, the club founder, announced the start of lessons at 9:30am, and she directed absolute beginners to one teacher, beginners to another, the “somewhere between beginners and intermediate” to two teachers working together, and the intermediate to the fifth teacher. I swizzled over to the group with a lot of room for in between, where I consider myself.

The two teachers for that group, Susan and Alex, suggest we divide into two sub-groups: “If you can do the backwards crossovers well, skate with Susan. If you’re still working on them, skate with Alex.” I skated over to Alex’s circle. We warmed up by practicing forward moves around our circle.

At Alex’s signal, we switched to backwards crossovers. I practiced haltingly, stopped to watch the others, practiced some more, and watched some more. I looked over occasionally to Susan’s circle, too, to watch their attempts. (Often I can learn as much from my slightly better peers as I do from the instructor.)

Here’s one thing I noticed: every single skater, but for two in Alex’s group, was struggling with the crossovers in some way. The self-selection into groups, therefore, was according to a criterion that could be too loosely interpreted (if you can do moves “well” versus “still working on them”). Except for the two skaters who had (wrongly) sorted themselves into Alex’s group and who could do the backwards crossovers very well, we were all still learning, practicing, working.

Nothing bad came of this. We all got excellent instruction, including 1:1 coaching, and plenty of practice time. Still, perhaps the self-sorting could have gone better if Susan had said, “Skate with me if you can do the backwards crossovers in a fluid motion and are now working on the second push; skate with Alex if you haven’t gotten to the second push yet.”

This is recreational skating, so there is little at stake. However, think about how this happens in other educational contexts or at work. People are asked to volunteer if they are (self) perceived as “good” at something. “If you can draw, sign up for the graphic design committee,” or “If you have leadership experience, we need some committee heads,” or “If you’ve finished the homework, come work with your classmates who haven’t.” In every case, it’s possible that some not-very-qualified people who overestimate their own ability will end up in a high stakes position in which they’ll flounder. It’s also true that some very-qualified-yet-humble people will not volunteer for a role in which they could make a huge contribution to the group.

Last semester, for example, in one of the classes I teach in with students organized into project teams, I said to a student whose work I had seen, “We need you for the presentation slides. You have a sharp eye and a real sense of visual design.”

“Me?” she balked. “Oh, I just learned this stuff in a class last year.”

“Yeah, but it’s good.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she continued to protest.

Another student chimed in: “I’m good at graphic design. I’ll do it.”

The team elected the second student, who chimed in with great self-assurance, to design their presentation. It turned out fine; it was workmanlike. But did it pop? No.

This is an age-old problem: the egotistical will typically overestimate their abilities and the modest will underestimate (or under represent) them. As teachers or administrators, though, we must come up with more precise language and criteria to improve self-selection. We could also ask for examples and demonstrated skills.

more toy soldiers on wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

Flimsy, flimsy ego

rubber band heart, found by Grace on table, June 9

The ego can only bear so much.

On Sunday — skates tied, blood sugar checked (low), juice box drunk, and gloves on — I stood for a few minutes at the entrance to the Babson ice and watched the activity. There were about 8 young girls in shorts, heavy tights, cute sweatshirts, and lush ponytails jumping and turning and skating backwards with precision and verve. There were an equal number of adults in black track pants and black parkas standing near the boards, studying the girls. Occasionally, a girl would skate over to one of the adults and listen to instructions. Sometimes, the adult would demonstrate, beautifully, what s/he wanted the girl to do. The girl would do it.

And there was me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, hesitating. I had already paid my $30 to get on the ice for freestyle/practice time, and I had an appointment with Fred, who was already out there with a young girl, about halfway through the 80 minutes. I had arrived intending to practice. I stood there, losing my nerve.

As I told my friend Rosemary last week, as we stood in front of the shelf marked “Buddhism” in the Trident, my internal dialogue, for better or worse, is turned up pretty high. (I’ve heard this called “mind chatter.”) Sunday, as I stood at the gate to the Babson ice, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Nothing can come from it.”

“But I am doing this,” myself said to myself. I began.

As I skated, I was overcome with intense self-consciousness, and not of the good kind. I imagined myself getting in the other skaters’ way — the real skaters — and so I tried to stay out of their way. I imagined that one coach, a woman about my age, was giving me the hairy eyeball, as if to intimidate me off the ice.

I practiced the easy things, not wanting to make a mistake among the masters. I scolded myself. I propped up my ego by remembering something Grace once said when I was skating with her and confessed to doubts about my ambition. “Mom!” she said. “At least you’re out there and not sitting on the bleachers!” I practiced harder things.

I imagined again that hairy eyeball turned in my direction. I mentally constructed some believable excuses and apologies I would give to Fred when my appointment with him began.

Get a hold of yourself, Jane. Think other thoughts. Continue reading

A hard and bitter seed

heather, brought down by winter

The first few fragments here have been knocking at the door of my attention. So I wrote them down, and then I followed one sentence with the next, the next, the next, and so on. At some point it became what we call free writing, and it ended where it did.

I hate writing.
I hate skating.
Yard work.
Parenting sometimes, and reading.
All of these things I supposedly love: I hate them.

That’s how I feel on the verge of doing them.

A couple of weeks ago and with enthusiasm I bought some supplies for my yard clean up. I took the afternoon off. The next day I went out there and faced what I intended to do. Tear out two old bushes and bundle them up for the town’s compost pickup. Dig up the weed patch and lay down rolled sod, heavy and awkward.  Move an azalea, in too much sun, to a shady spot, and an American cranberry bush from shade to sun.

I sat in a dirty plastic lawn chair for a while and thought how it didn’t matter, how fruitless my effort would be. Who cares, really, who will ever notice, if the azalea gets more comfort in the shade and the cranberry more berries in light? Okay, I will notice. But I won’t always live here. Some future owner will look at my non-artistic, non-modernist attempts at gardening, rip them out, and install beautifully identical boxwoods with space in between. And the old screened porch (with original and much-repaired screens), buttressed by the elderly hydrangea, will get torn down to make room for a family room. And the ferns and hostas might seem like garbage plants to a fancier owner and end up in a brown paper bag on the curb.

Still, it’s possible to begin even with a fog of pragmatic despair hanging over me, so I did.

I feel this way, too, the more and more I skate. I must be improving, right? I can look back on five years ago, and even five months ago, and say to myself, “I can do this now. I can do that.” An hour before I gather my things and car keys to leave the house for the rink, though, I say to myself, “There is no forseeable outcome to this: no contest, no show, probably no mastery.”

But then I go, because it’s on my calendar and I promised myself that I would.

And I smell the dirt, or I smell the ice, and the shovel makes a sandy, muffled sound as it connects and the hockey player over there digs in until the ice groans its particular protest which is so satisfying to the human ear, and I feel as though maybe I can begin. (Beginning is a kind of restarting.)

At first I am hating it still, but I am also giving it a chance. I say, “Jane, try ten minutes, or thirty. If nothing happens, you can stop.” I am without grace, as though I really am a beginner, yet of course I lack the utter, naive enthusiasm of the absolute beginner. I am between beginner and master, that no man’s land. Continue reading