Cleaning out the Little Closet of Horrors

photos_Lydia_portraitWith Lydia, my college-age child whose winter break coincides with mine, I am cleaning out our Little Closet of Horrors. It is a home storage area that makes me shudder and mentally throw up a brick wall of denial every time I open it or think about it. Too many bath towels, three aerobeds (why three?), out-of-use curtains, and boxes and boxes of family photos fill this closet.

What most terrifies me is the archive of photos. Although boxed, they have not been organized — it’s clutter! — and they may prompt memories, both happy and sad, that I’d rather keep in deep brain storage.

So, Lydia is helping me. The photo at left is of her in the first minutes of our multi-day project, which started last Monday. We brought all the boxes down from the second floor closet, stacked them, and began.

I originally thought of calling this post, “The benefits of not writing.” In the past several months, I have deliberately set aside Writing — and by that I mean my writing, not the writing I do for work or keeping in touch with people — in order to make extra money through freelancing, fulfill the responsibilities of my primary occupation as writing teacher, and tackle a long mental list of broken or disorganized things around the house that needed fixing or organizing.  About a week ago I scrolled through all my iPhone photos from 2015, and I saw evidence of all I had done in the second half of the year:

  • cleaned closet and drawers ruthlessly, even giving away a 10 year-old seersucker suit from Talbots I had been hanging onto for the day I needed to bring jaunty and preppy back into my life;
  • donated most of the books leftover from both college and grad school because if I need to read Scarlet Letter or Wide Sargasso Sea again, they’re in the library;
  • removed and junked the toilet in my first floor bathroom and installed a brand new toilet ALL BY MYSELF;
  • earned about $19,000 this summer in freelance income from four projects;
  • emptied the attic and basement of both trash and unused items;
  • organized the garage;
  • replaced the shower diverter in our tub’s spout;
  • repaired my garage door; and
  • ran and skated hundreds of miles, thereby keeping the body itself in good repair.

I was only able to do these things because I had deliberately set aside writing. Really, I said to myself, “I am not writing now.” In doing so, I put aside the constant anxiety and distraction that a skilled writer feels when she imagines that, by doing a normal thing like raking leaves or making beds, she is wasting her talent. In not thinking about my wasted talent, I accomplished a lot, and Writing was not hanging around my ankles, pulling at my skirt, asking for attention. Let’s say it had been sent away to summer camp or boarding school, and it was having a good time without me.


As of now there are just a few items remaining on the household mental To Do list, and the scariest one has been the Little Closet of Horrors. What a gift that Lydia agreed to work on it with me! That is something to do in life: when terrified of a task, get someone to join you or at least sit with you as you confront it.  In this case, a collaborator. Continue reading

Art and method of the interview


Maura Flanagan

Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.

These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.

It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.

Continue reading

You say editor; I say writer

Health Axioms, cover image, as poster

Health Axioms, cover image, as poster

With my MIT friend and colleague Juhan Sonin (a founder of Involution Studio Boston and, like me, an instructor on MIT’s 2.009 product design capstone course), I have been working on the text for Health Axioms, a beautifully illustrated set of cards that conveys health knowledge and preaches action. After almost a year, the project is coming to a finish. I’m so excited! The art, text, and package are smart.

Two weeks ago, I went to Invo’s fourth-floor studio in Arlington Center for a review meeting with the team, which includes artist Sarah Kaiser and Juhan’s colleague Harry Sleeper.  Propped on the final stair landing was a full-size poster of the package cover (see image). Around the studio hung more poster-sized images of individual cards. I suddenly pictured these in doctor’s offices and clinic waiting rooms. I imagined people inspired to move more, eat better, meditate, seek comfort, find happiness, and track data as a result of sifting through the cards.

It’s great to be on an effective team and produce a high-quality product. At the end of the meeting, Juhan wondered aloud if it really takes about a year to design and develop something good or, if we all had concentrated on it full time, could we have pulled it together in a month?  Knowing myself, I’d say the year was necessary. But high-energy quick thinkers might be as effective under a tighter time constraint. This much is true for all of us: quality work takes REVISION. Designers, you might call this iteration. No matter the time frame, a good product evolves over many versions. (And the first one sucks.) Continue reading

Ready or not for my close-up

A good thing about living in a household with artistic people is that there is always someone around to sing a song, pick up the guitar, give technical assistance with Photoshop or Audacity, draw a picture or diagram, edit a draft.

This morning, before she headed to camp, I asked Grace to take a photograph of me for a post I was writing for my blog on A Sweet Life. I gave her a few suggestions: I wanted a close-up of me; fatigue or frustration would be the emotional message; and I didn’t want my facial expression to convey the message — it had to be posture or color or something else.

We sat in the kitchen at the table, she across from me. She stage-directed me. “Use two hands.” Then, “Try one hand.” Or, “Too much hair.” She’d look at the camera display screen. “Smile a little so your face is smoother, but not so much that you’re smiling.” “One more time, and sit forward.”

She picked one. Wow, it looked so stark and real. I could see a ligament in my neck where it meets the collarbone and the nasolabial fold that improves when I’m smiling. But I wasn’t smiling. Did I really want to look this plain? Couldn’t I get this junior artist to put a visual spin on it?

“Could we try Toon Camera?” I asked. Continue reading

– Stories, built

My MIT friend and colleague, Lisa Dush, also runs Storybuilders, which helps organizations and individuals make digital stories. In January, I went with her to Washington, DC to work with the staff of College Summit, a really cool nonprofit organization that works with high schools to raise their college-ready culture and get more kids into college. For two full days, we worked with the six staff members on developing and revising their stories, recording the audio tracks, uploading photo files into the video software, and constructing the mix of words, sound, images, and effects. Later, Lisa worked with the College Summit folks on production.

She recently sent me a link to the finished stories! Here is Darin’s on College Summit alumni leaders. Even though I heard Darin read his story aloud many times during workshop, and also looked over his shoulder as he sorted through images, I was surprised and moved by several moments. This is a powerful testament to peer mentors (and superhero underpants).

More of the College Summit stories can be found at the Storybuilders’ site on Vimeo.

– If you teach

… you may be interested in this short article, written by me and friend & colleague Lowry Pei and published this week in Tomorrow’s Professor.  It’s on ways to use informal writing and peer response in any class you teach, in any discipline.

Excerpt, Ways to Teach Peer Writing and Response:

Writing’s role in critical thinking and learning has been well documented, and it has important social and pedagogical functions as well. Collaborative writing and peer responding helps to create the network of relationships that makes a class succeed. Informal writing and small group work varies the classroom experience and transfers more responsibility to students. Even in large lecture courses, in-class writing and response time fosters ideas, problem-solving, and playfulness and makes a space for everyone to say something to someone. From our own practices and from colleagues’ across the disciplines, we’ve assembled a kit of basic principles and tested exercises that could help teachers consolidate and improve the ways they teach peer writing and response in any course, with any size class, at any level of student mastery.

This one — like another piece on teaching writing we published in October 2007 — also goes to eleven.

– Rights

On a “Bill of Rights,” collaboratively written by elementary school students in our neighborhood afterschool program, I spotted this item, which is my favorite on the list:

We have a right to be helpful and be helped.

Imagine, the same person, child or adult, could be both helper and helpee. Maybe even on the same day. I like that.

– Power tool

A few weeks ago, Eli came across instructions online for making his own messenger bag out of fused plastic bags. He e-mailed it to me and asked if we could make one. In the past few days, we did.

An absolute novice, he approached the sewing machine tentatively yet was open to advice and coaching. After his first few wandering seams, he got the hang of it. And eventually he got into it. From start to finish, we prepped, cut, sewed, and finished that bag together. I believe that Eli experienced the awe and sweetness of having one’s hands close to substantial mechanical power and guiding that force with purpose.

Eli guides fabric in the machine

If you know Eli and me, and you’d like to see highlights from our project, then click here for a slide show (and choose “Gallery View” for most pleasing size). If you’re a sewer, or if you enjoy reading accounts of do-it-yourself projects, then read beyond this paragraph for my description of how we adapted Bre Pettis’s directions to make Eli’s bag. At the very end, you’ll find a photo of the bag we made. Continue reading

– Hanging drop

Until I looked at Laura Splan’s watercolors in blood, I hadn’t thought of my own blood as paint or ink. Yet, it is. Many times a day I prick my finger, squeeze a drop of blood from it, and touch the drop to a test strip inserted into a glucose meter. After I’m done with the procedure, my fingertip often keeps bleeding, even though I’ve stopped being aware of it. So, as I put my hand on the mail, or a page of my glucose record log, or the Times, my blood smears and makes it mark. On paper, blood is permanent.

Hanging drop of my blood

Before I drive or teach — two activities during which I don’t want my glucose level to drop precipitously — I check my blood sugar. Once without my noticing it I left a smudged arc across the front page of a student’s paper. As I handed it back to her in class, she noticed it, and she visibly recoiled. “Ach, what’s this?!” Oh, shit, I thought. “I’m sorry, that’s my blood. From my finger. I’m so sorry.” I knew her as a fragile person, intensely worried about her own symptoms. Damn, why couldn’t I have smudged my blood across the paper of one of the nursing students?

Clearly, the traces of my blood on paper are not intentional or artful. Still, Laura Splan’s work put me in mind of them, and I started wondering about what I could do with all those smears. At the same time, I’ve been reading this sparkling, ruminative book, I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (Brian, you would like this), which has a long section on math theorums and proofs, and I’ve been thinking about how much I loved geometry and calculus in high school and college. But, I didn’t go down the math path when I could have, and that knowledge is rusty and faded.

I’m in a predicament. I can’t draw, but I want to use my blood as ink. And I can’t, really, do math, but I want to use math in some way.

Ah ha! (When I was on staff at Simmons College, I was in a cross-disciplinary workshop on teaching writing in which the participants shared a lot of cool assignments they give to students. Donna Beers, a math professor, would sometimes get her mathematics education students to write what she called a numerical autobiography. At the time, I tried writing mine, but it quickly bored me: age, weight, street addresses, telephone numbers, age of first period, age of first kiss, number of children, favorite number, et cetera. No focus, no shape.) New, better idea — I could attempt to compose a numerical memoir piece, based on my life with diabetes, and I might get Eli, one of our in-house artists, to collaborate and contribute photographs that illustrate measurable moments! (He agreed.)

I even have the draft of a beginning, which is something I cut from another piece I wrote. Its working title, which came to me as I was driving around thinking about this, refers to the many times in a day or week I have to puncture myself. I’d like it to catch the reader’s eye.


Number of Pricks

For several days in the fourth week of February, 1992, I was in the hospital. I was 26 years old and eight weeks pregnant with my first child. I had learned, the morning of the day I was admitted to Brigham & Women’s, that my blood glucose was high, around 300, and that I had diabetes.

By the end of day one I started injecting myself. The nurse offered to do it, but I said, “I might as well start.” She demonstrated on an orange; I jabbed the syringe filled with insulin into the flesh at the back of my arm and plunged. Mechanically, it is not difficult.

That night, lying awake in my hospital bed, I estimated my life expectancy – I chose 76 because it was 50 years beyond my then age and 50 is an easy integer to work with — and I multiplied four injections per day by 365 days by 50 years.

Here’s the equation. Solve for X.

4 x 365 x 50 = X

My thoughts were so scattered that I couldn’t do the simple math in my head. The next day I called my father, the math teacher, who advised against calculations: Do one thing, he said, and then do the next. Don’t count beyond today, or backwards, just take the next injection. Sometimes that trite “one day at a time” advice works; what he said helped.

More than 15 years and 20,000 injections have passed since that first day. And although I have come to take the long view when it comes to diabetes and follow a regimen that I hope will get me to old age with my feet, eyes, gums, and kidneys intact, it is what I do and don’t do during any one day — the increments of insulin dosing, carbohydrate counting, blood glucose checking, aerobic exercising, and portion measuring — that adds up to a life with Type 1 diabetes.

[end of excerpt, beginning of experiment]


Picture of my November 14th fingertips by Eli Guterman

– This one goes to eleven.

At the end of the spring ’07 semester, my friend and colleague Lowry Pei and I were catching up and talking about some habits that should be basics for writing teachers. The next day Lowry suggested, by e-mail, that we generate a list. We opened a new Google document and became more purposeful. Our motivating idea was to (in LP’s words) “make the statements as direct and concrete as possible, make the list fit on (let’s say) a 3×5 card, hand it out: instant faculty development.” Soon, what started as a conversation became a deliberate collaboration; by the end of August, we had winnowed down and finished our compilation, and published it, simply, as a handout for faculty workshops.

And then we worked on it some more. Just a few days ago, to a broader audience, Tomorrow’s Professor published an expanded version of “11 Things You Could Start Doing Today for the Benefit of Your Students’ Writing.” May it be useful to you, if you teach.