Archive for February, 2010

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If I Were a Rubber Band, This Would All Be a Lot Easier

February 28, 2010

Fall seven times, stand up eight.
• Japanese proverb

It’s crunch time. Quiet week. The week before finals in a quarter cut short by budget cuts. I’ve been sick for several days and all the neatly arranged piles accompanied by carefully compiled lists are still sitting here, waiting for me to get busy. I’ve lost time and I cannot retrieve it. If you know me, you would think that this would mean that I am filled with energy, ready to attack the piles and cross off each item on every list as I methodically work through all the things that I have to do. You would be thinking wrong.

Instead I am filled with a sense of ennui engendered by my loss of momentum. I pick slowly at my have-to-dos, getting things done because, after all, I have to. There are students and others counting on me, but still, I cannot regain my enthusiasm. Duty is a familiar friend and I can dance to her tune, but I want delight to return. I want to feel enthusiasm and energy for my work and I do not.

I’ve written before about being overwhelmed by having so much to do that I’m paralyzed by it all, not knowing where to begin. I know that students experience this, especially if they get behind due to illness or other life circumstances. I know too that the only way through these feelings is to keep on going and doing. I know that if I give in to the temptation of doing nothing, things will get worse, not better. I know this because I’ve lived it.

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after some kind of life disruption. A rubber band is resilient, returning to its original size after being stretched. In human beings, one quality of a resilient spirit is the ability to regain momentum. Each time you do so, you gain confidence in your ability to do it the next time. Keeping on even when you don’t feel like it is empowering. I know that if I move forward productively there will come a time when I will once again feel energized by accomplishment.

I’ve used one of my favorite quotations twice before, on October 29 and December 30 of last year. It resonates with me because it’s from the poet James Whitcomb Riley, a cousin whose poems my grandma used to recite to me when I was little. When I read his words, I think that Riley must have experienced these same feelings of overwhelmedness and discouragement, that he must have had times when he just didn’t feel like going on, but he continued anyway. He said about his creative work that “[t]he most essential factor is persistence—the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.”

I do want to make it clear that I’m not talking about the doings of duty, those things that you could say no to, but don’t because you feel obligated or have gotten yourself into something you should never have begun in the first place. I do believe in saying no and even in extricating yourself from the unnecessary through honest communication. But every life also includes choices that require follow-through, not simply because you have to, but because you want to, because they include small acts that lead to the achievement of your larger goals. It is these things that build resiliency. I’m counting on this even as I write these words.

What do you need to do to put yourself on the path to final success this quarter?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
• Miyamoto Musashi

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If You Always Look for What You’re Looking For, You’ll Never Find What You Didn’t Expect

February 27, 2010

Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for. . . . .One aspect of serendipity to bear in mind is that you have to be looking for something in order to find something else.
• Lawrence Block

The internet is especially useful when it comes to looking for one thing and finding another. Just about every site is rife with multiple distracters and it’s easy to forget what you were looking for in the first place as you are drawn down the rabbit hole of chance. I was hunting for motels in Baltimore, Maryland, when I ran across a reference to the American Visionary Art Museum. I don’t follow up on everything that interests me—who has the time?—but the brief description was entrancing. Since I’ll be in Baltimore in June, I took the bait.

I’ll also be teaching a course called Creativity in the Classroom in the summer and I was interested in AVAM’s mission statement defining visionary art as: “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself” (http://www.avam.org/). So many people with whom I’ve worked over the years both as a teacher and in creative private sector jobs have not seen themselves as creative, and I think that much of this self-doubt stems from large-scale definitions of creativity that leave most folks thinking that nothing that they do is good enough to be considered creative.

Serendipity is creativity at work. It’s the connecting of one thought with another. It’s linking two disparate things to create something new. It’s realizing that you can use a shoelace to repair a car when you’re stuck on the interstate or that duct tape really does have a thousand uses and maybe you’ve just discovered number one thousand and one. It’s a hundred desperate uses of safety pins or chewing gum or Bandaids® for something for which they were never intended.

Our daily acts of living are often creative. The educational goals of AVAM, available in the brain food section of their website, support the realization of the power of creative living regardless of where an individual’s talents lie. They are:

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.

2. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life—particularly students.

3. Engender respect for and delight in the gift of others.

4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.

5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration and creative self-reliance.

6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.

7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

I find many things that Maya Angelou has written meaningful, but my favorite quotation, the one I use to begin my creativity syllabus, is this: “We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old someone has knocked creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.”

Sadly, I think that this is often what school does: teaches us to still our creative inner urges and purges us of the belief that we are in any way special if our talents do not fit into those traditionally honored there. We leave thoroughly grounded in what we do not do well, hoping never to have to do any of it again, when instead we could have learned what we might become.

Have you ever been looking for one thing and found something else that was especially meaningful to you? And if you happen to be a teacher or a learner, what educational goals would you write?

We need a new frame of reference in which to picture ourselves growing and recognize how the confluence of inner resources and life circumstances can present us with opportunities to revive our lives in meaningful, satisfying ways.
• Gene D. Cohen (2000),
The Creative Age, p. 77

I think a lot more decisions are made on serendipity than people think. Things come across their radar screens and they jump at them.
• Jay W. Lorsch

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Ever the Optimist, I’m Often Surprised by Reality

February 27, 2010

I am a relentless optimist. I’ve said that before. And I’m especially an optimist whenever I get sick. I always expect to feel better soon. I usually feel better soon. I am surprised when I don’t.

It’s 9:41 on Friday evening and it’s the first time today I’ve felt like writing anything. I thought that time at home would be time to catch up. Time to get things done. Time to think. I was wrong. But I’m still optimistic about tomorrow.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

If an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, “Well, this isn’t too bad.  I don’t have my left arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me whether I am right-handed or left-handed,” but most of us would say something more along the lines of “Aaaaah! My arm! My arm!”  ~Lemony Snicket
 (Daniel Handler)

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Strange, but True—I’d Rather Be Working

February 25, 2010

When you’re plastered to the bed by fever-sweat and the television is on, but you’re not watching because your head hurts too much to do anything, but it’s audio company and provides the illusion that you’re at least doing something—after all, there might be a quotation or two to capture—some things stand out. Apolo Ohno, for example. This American Olympian keeps going even when he isn’t feeling well. He uses DayQuil® (and probably NyQuil® too). I hear this and I feel guilty.

It’s the flu and cold season and I hear that Dr. Mom (or maybe it’s just Mom) will keep you going with Theraflu® supersaver deals available somewhere near you. I feel even more guilty. And I’m fortunate. I can stay home. I have paid sick leave. Many Americans do not—a third of them according to U.S Department of Labor estimates—and many of them show up at work when they’re contagious because they don’t feel they have a choice. Congress is considering legislation that would guarantee sick leave for workers. This makes sense to me.

I am wondering right now if the clerk at a large name-not-to-be-mentioned superstore who was clearly ill and wiped her nose with her hand and then packaged my purchases caused my current illness. I tried to be careful when I got home and washed my hands as I unpacked and wiped things off with antibacterial soap, but still, I wonder. I wanted to walk away without my stuff, but I didn’t. I wanted to say something to her or to her boss, but I didn’t. I was afraid to cause trouble that she might not be able to overcome.

I’ve worked in jobs where I had no sick leave, where it was suck-it-up-and-work or they’d find someone else. Students often find themselves in these kinds of jobs. Factor in the possibility of sick children and there are lots of people out there using vacation days (if they have them) to stay home with their kids. I’ve been there, throwing up into the wastebasket next to my desk because I knew I’d lose my job if I went home and I knew I’d need my vacation days when daycare called and said I had to come pick up a sick child.

So what does this mean for students? Most teachers will understand the occasional student absence due to illness, yours or a child’s. We have our own struggles with this because we hate to cancel a class that only meets once or twice a week. If you’re a student, don’t use up your illness credits when no one is sick. Being hungover or tired or needing to get work done or study for another class isn’t being sick. You may need to stay away from class when you really are ill and it will be harder to do so if you’ve used up your professor’s good will.

Sick leave. Your thoughts?

I’ve known people who were sick as a dog and come into work anyway and loaded up on Theraflu® and energy drinks and that’s how they got through their shift.
• Nathan Rice, food server, Los Angeles

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What Do You Do When You’re Feeling Too Rotten to Do Anything?

February 25, 2010

Note: It’s Wednesday, February 24, and it’s 4:50 in the afternoon. There’s no late posting of something daily here.

Nothing. Nothing that you don’t have to do. Nothing that you want to do. The optional is off the table. The whole idea of working when you’re sick seems to have become a cultural expectation. Pills and medicines promise to mask the pain and keep us going. I’ve been keeping on today without medication, although I’ve been dosing myself with tangerines, decaf tea, and lemon sorbet. I’ve done the things I have to do and I don’t have energy for anything else.

In The Way of All Flesh (1903), Samuel Butler said, “I reckon being ill as one of the great pleasures of life, provided one is not too ill and is not obliged to work till one is better.” I’m not immersed in any kind of great pleasure with this awful whatever it is—bad cold or some version of the flu—but I’m not doing any more work today unless an urgent email comes in. Even as I word process these words, I realize how silly they are. I’m going to try to quit checking on what I imagine I ought to do and go to sleep.

What’s your cure when you’re feeling rotten?

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.
• Irish proverb

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Self-Amusement—It’s Not What You Think

February 23, 2010

There’s no excuse to be bored. Sad, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there’s no excuse for boredom, ever.
• Viggo Mortensen, actor, poet, musician, painter, photographer (Hmmm–no wonder he’s not bored!)

I am easily amused. I am glad that I am easily amused. When I read a headline that says “You Really Can Be Bored to Death, Researchers Say,”* I am particularly delighted that I am never bored. This is not to say that I am never doing something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or that I never have to sit through long meetings about things I don’t care about. I do work, after all, and no matter how engaging any job is, there’s likely to be some drudgery attached to it.

Still, my mind always actively seeks out ways to connect whatever it is that is not interesting to me with something that is. Just like the occasional student in the classroom, my mind wanders if I’m not interested in what’s happening. (Most of you are interested in all your classes, right? Say “of course” right now.) The difference between boredom and interest in potentially unengaging situations is that I have learned to discipline myself to pay attention to the things that matter whether or not I have a personal connection with them.

When I realize that I’ve gotten myself into something that has no relevance for me, I tune out and write poetry in the margins of my notebook or make lists of things I need to do or jot down some notes about projects I’d like to begin. If you’re a student in a class that you need to pass, whether it’s a prerequisite or part of your major or minor or just one that you need to keep in order to hang onto your financial aid, disciplining yourself to be interested in the initially-boring-to-you is a critical student success skill. Tuning out is not a wise choice. You know where it leads.

I must say that I am also aware that it’s refreshing to quiet my all-too-active mind. To sit still and let life flow around me. To empty my mind. This is not boredom, but is a deliberate rest that relaxes. It’s difficult to achieve. The seldom-bored mind does not like a void—it rushes to fill the emptiness with a deluge of swirling thoughts that must be captured and sorted. Beware the temptations of mind-emptying-nothingness. While it can certainly be beneficial for your health, this is not a skill that should be practiced in the classroom.

Cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg claimed that “the life of the creative person is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” This definitely relates to developing the skills of interest in school. As a creative human being who’s taking classes to get knowledge and skills that will help you have an interesting life, learning how to be interested even in those things that don’t at first appear to have any relevance for you is crucial.

What deliberate steps can you take to avoid boredom in school?

You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea.
• Earl Nightingale

Nobody is bored when s/he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true.
• William R. Inge

When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.
• Steven Wright, comedian, actor, and writer

* http://www.ebn.benefitnews.com/blog/daily_diversion/you-can-bored-… (a post by Kelly M. Butler)

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Twelve Things to Remember

February 22, 2010

The wisdom of the wise and the experience of the ages are perpetuated by quotations.
• Benjamin Disraeli

I love books of quotations. I know that it’s possible to Google® quotations about just about anything, but the problem with such searches is that they limit the serendipity of discovery. I like hunting through quotation books for the same reason I enjoy searching the shelves in bookstores and libraries. I never know what I’ll find.

If you’re looking for something specific, the internet and Google® searches are extremely helpful, but if you’re just on the prowl for general inspiration and ideas—something to prime the pump of thought—books of quotations on a broad range of topics can be extremely helpful.

They also help me feel less alone. They help me realize the commonality—and differences—of human experience. They encourage me to formulate my own thoughts about things that matter. This weekend I bought The All-American Quote Book by Michael Reagan and Bob Phillips (1995) at a thrift store. This paperback promises on its cover to provide “a wealth of wit and wisdom” (and it only cost fifty cents). As I paged through it this morning, I found Marshall Field’s* “Twelve Things to Remember” (p. 65):

1. The value of time.
2. The success of perseverance.
3. The pleasure of working.
4. The dignity of simplicity
5. The worth of character.
6. The power of kindness.
7. The influence of example
8. The obligation of duty.
9. The wisdom of economy
10. The virtue of patience.
11. The improvement of talent.
12. The joy of origination.

As I read Field’s twelve things, I began to try to formulate my own. This is not as easy as it might seem and it’s a useful braindance. At first, I stymied myself as I tried to come up with a dozen most important things, but then I realized that things to remember could be an endless list. Here’s the start of mine:

1. That people are different.
2. That creativity is evidenced in many different ways.
3. That people need your smile.
4. That little things matter.
5. That you should sometimes speak up.
6. That you should sometimes stay silent.
7. That life happens whether you’re an optimist or pessimist.
8. That optimism is more fun.
9. That people need to have fun, laugh, and be playful.
10. That kindness is a deliberate choice—patience too.
11. That money helps, but it is only a tool.
12. That quality is a choice.

I could go on. I could change my mind. I could. But I won’t. I’ll post this list and revisit it sometime to see what I’d add or delete. Meanwhile, it’s back to the book and the hunt for inspiration so I can write my way into another day.

What twelve things would begin your list of things to remember? (This is also a great dinner table or study group conversation starter.)

There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man [women too] that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes.
• William Makepeace Thackeray

* Field (1834-1906) was the founder of Marshall Field and Company, a Chicago-based department store eventually acquired by Macy’s. I remember shopping at Marshall Field’s in Chicago with my mother. Even a person’s name can evoke many memories.