Just another Mafioso

One of the first castles I ever saw was referred to by my friends as Castello Erasmo and it’s in Predjama, Slovenja. The story that brought me there is long and probably incredibly interesting in tabloid news style, but I’m not writing it here (maybe no where). The original structure (long gone) was built in 1274. The castle has since been rebuilt many times. Its protective palisade is the mouth of a cave. The castle butts up against a rock face.

I had not become a Swiss Medievalist Historian yet. It was my first trip to Europe — 1994 — and the trip was fraught, plain and simply fraught, but being born is NEVER easy and being born as an adult into a new life is REALLY not easy.

The guy for whom the castle is named was a robber baron who got into trouble with the Hapsburgs (pretty easy to do, I think, since they were everywhere). Legend has it that he met his demise (always wanted to write that) when he was hit by a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet. The coolest thing about the castle is that there is a way out the back that leads to the top of the cliff, pretty handy in times of siege especially as there was water up there.

“Wow. I didn’t even know Erasmus was in Slovenia.” I remembered reading In Praise of Folly in college. It was an interesting if fairly inaccessible satire for me at 18.

I did not know that Erasmus was a common name back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got home from Europe and found myself reading Erasmus (the famous one, the one who wasn’t a mafioso). I struggled with the Latin (never been one to take the easy or sensible or even POSSIBLE route) then gave up and read the words on the facing page (English). Sigh.

Live and learn.

I have a lot of respect for ignorance. THAT benighted journey took me to the Reformation, not Slovenia. OK.

You never know where ignorance will take you — ignorance + curiosity have taken me a lot of places I never imagined I would go. There’s something cool about being a self-taught kind of person, I don’t mean the person who ignores science and believes what they “learn” on Youtube about the Corona virus, I mean the person who wants to find out more about something and does real work, real research to find out. It’s different from school which goes in arbitrary stages — grades, exams, finals, finishes, OK, kid, you got this — but that doesn’t stop. As a teacher I really didn’t think I “taught” anyone anything. I just put the stuff in front of them and showed them something about how to do it and how they would know if they succeeded. I couldn’t “teach” them if they didn’t want to do the work needed to learn it. It was really ON them. At best I showed, facilitated and guided. The best thing I could do — I thought — was inspire in them the desire to learn it, to help them become open to a new experience (writing). Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing I learned about school in my later years is that it gives you skills you can use your whole life to learn things.

There are other castles built against cliff faces. I wanted to write about a castle like this and found one in Switzerland. I wanted to go see the ruins during one of my trips to Switzerland, but it turned out to be impossible for a lot of reasons — weather, family illness, time… It’s in the Canton of Solothurn, Ruine Balmfluh. It’s built against a cliff in the Jura Mountains.

It’s true what Europeans say about Americans, that we like castles. 🤪 Oh, and the word “palisade?” It is a pretty word, but not such a pretty thing. Some of them were pretty sinister.

Post Script: Contending with Fardles

I really appreciate all the kind comments to my glum post this morning. After I wrote it I got the idea that maybe I should tackle a doable project that’s been weighing on me emotionally and physically (to some extent) so I headed out to the garage.

I imagine we all have sadness and disappointment in our families. I have a niece I love very much but who has disappeared from my life completely. I worry about her, but I can’t find her. I know where her mother is, but her mother is mentally extremely fragile and her mother’s husband is a combination of carer and and and? I don’t know, but I can’t reach her through him. I guess they don’t really want to hear from me which is OK. BUT. My mom put together two beautiful photo albums — one for each side of my family; her family and my dad’s. They were for my niece.

This past week, a blogging pal wrote about finding a lot of random old photos in a Goodwill store. She wanted to know the stories. That made me think of a photo album my neighbor found long ago in a dump in a nearby city, an album from WW I with scenes of an army guy (the owner?) in Italy and various other places. The photos in that old album were wonderful, but I felt a little weird, a little like a voyeur. Anyway, I have had those photo albums on my mind for a while. Those and all the letters between my parents when they were young and in love, just starting their lives. With them I thought of my Aunt Jo who burned all the love letters between her and my uncle to protect their privacy. So, today I went through (and emptied!) 2 bins of family memorabilia and got rid of half of my Christmas decorations. I don’t put up a tree so????

I contacted my cousin’s daughter and asked her if she’d like the album from our mutual family. She was so happy to have it. I seriously feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my spirit. I’ve wrapped it up in brown paper and it’s on its way tomorrow. My cousin’s daughter also wanted a little nativity I bought in Mexico for my mom.

As I worked, my spirit felt progressively lighter. I have no problem tossing the contents of the other album after I take some photos to put on my Ancestry tree.

When I finished these labors I thought, “OK. Everything left is just my life,” and that’s, I think, how it should be and I’m a LOT less glum.

Another thing I found is a small silk mass-produced tapestry of a scene, I think in Hangzhou. In itself it might not be anything special, but its story is. When I was teaching international students in San Diego in the late 1980s I made friends with a Japanese student who had been a cook in a Chinese restaurant in a resort in Hokkaido. He rented a room from the Good X and me for a while which was great because he cooked. 😀 Anyway, his father and his father’s friend came to visit.

I was nervous. These men were both WW II Veterans from the OTHER side. Aki had warned me that his father was very old fashioned, very conservative and hated Aki being in the US with the “enemy.” I knew a lot more about the Chinese Anti-Japanese war than did most Americans and I wasn’t sure about having a Japanese soldier in my house. It was a little weird.

We picked them up at the airport. Aki’s dad was rigid but Japanese friendly/polite. His friend? Wow. Friendly, open, curious, outspoken. The first thing Aki’s dad did was walk through my (large) garden which was designed in a semi-Asian style (homesick). He came in the house and said, “I had no idea Americans garden!!!” The friend saw some of the Chinese hangings I had at the time (lines of calligraphy from friends in China). He said, in pretty good English. “You know China?”

I said I’d been there a year. Then he told me he’d been a guard at a POW camp. He was 18. He didn’t understand why the Chinese were enemies of Japan. Some of the guards were Chinese. The friend said a lot of things, including that Japan’s culture came from China (not totally true, but…) I can’t remember everything, but they made me think about the war — history in general — differently. I began to understand something about the intense worship many Japanese had of the Emperor and that while sides are enemies in general in particular? Maybe not. We all know that, I guess, but hearing it from this man was very special. “I had a Chinese friend at the camp. I like Chinese.” He had even been back to visit.

Their visit ended with the usual journey to “Glando Canyono” and “Ras Vegas.” Months later I got a package and thank you from Aki’s father’s friend. I opened it to find the small tapestry the Chinese man had given him. It’s a real treasure and I thought it was long gone.

Oh and yet another draft of the Pearl Buck Project… THAT’S hopeless.

Here’s a photo of the edge of the tapestry telling where it was made.

Later, I’ll Get to it Later


“Hey, Fred. Why is it you never finish anything you start?”

“I thought about that.”

(He THOUGHT about that???)

“Yeah, and?” I’m looking at ungrouted tile in a corner of our kitchen. It’s been that way for two years.

“Well, I like to know I always have something to do.”

The Good X was NOT like the other kids. Or not like me anyway. I hate unfinished projects hanging over my head which is either why I’m great or crap as a team player, I guess depending on who’s looking. 🙂

I used to ask my students, “How many of you put off your essays until the night before they’re due?”

Masses of hands reach for the sky.

“Why?”

Invariably they would say, “I do my best work under pressure.”

I answered, “If you always do your essays the night before they’re due, that doesn’t mean you do your BEST work under pressure. It means you ONLY work under pressure!”

Sometimes there was a lilt of laughter; usually not. “Tell you what. If you get your work done early, and show me, or take it to the writing tutorial center, you’ll get a better grade.”

Because no one ever understands anything anyone says, especially what the teacher says, most of them thought they’d get extra points for doing that, not that they would have feedback and the chance for revision before they turned in their paper for a grade.

Cracked me up. Students tend to think their teachers are out to get them, but students are out to get themselves. They are masterful self-saboteurs. Someone would always ask, “Can I revise it after you grade it? Isn’t that the same thing?” They just thought I was teaching them writing. Ha.

“No, dude, sorry.”

“Well, why not? It’s the same thing.”

“Uh, no. It’s not the same thing.”

“Well, yeah, it is. I write it, I turn it in, you help me with it and I revise it for a better grade. What difference does it make whether it’s before or on the day it’s due?”

“Here’s the difference. You bring it to me early, it’s the ONLY paper I have to look at and YOU get my undivided, unpressured attention and you inspire me to respect you for doing your work early. How’s that for benefits, dude?”

“Whatever. You’re the professor.” The charming resigned hostility of the 20 year old male who, out in the hall, would very likely mutter, “bitch.”

They were lucky I liked them all so much — I did! They were who they had to be for the moment in their lives…

But…

I often wonder what the purpose of language is, anyway. Bear communicates to me in complete dog sentences with absolute clarity. There are three different ways to say, ‘I want a cookie.’ There is coming to where I am, looking at me and then moving her head toward the kitchen. If I ask, “Do you want a cookie?” by way of confirming that I understand she nods toward the kitchen again. Another is to ask to go out knowing that when she comes in, she’ll get a cookie — but only at night (she used to be reluctant to come back inside since livestock guardian dogs are nocturnal by nature and think they should guard during the night). Then there’s the moment when I KNOW she wants a cookie, but I offer her something else and she shakes her head. Sometimes I wonder when a completely NON-verbal animal can communicate relatively complicated things like this just with her head and eyes, and I do what she tells me, why didn’t my students see that procrastination bit them in the ass?

In the featured photo Teddy is saying, clearly,”Can I have your coffee cup?”

Twenty years…


“Oh wow! It’s been 20 years since 2001! Where were you at 9/11?”

That’s where we are today. 10 years, 20 years, 1 year. These markers mean a lot to humans. Why do these anniversaries matter? Though, I have to admit it was amazing to learn that my cousin was in NYC in a cab when it happened.

Last year was my 50th high school reunion — not celebrated, of course, it’s going on now.I wanted to talk to my high school classmates about their lives over the past 50 years, but not enough to actually drive 150 miles with a less-than-perfect shoulder. I went to high school with some amazing people (probably we all did) and I wanted to find out about them. Couldn’t we do that any time? But we don’t.


Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself. (this section originally posted in 2015)


9/11 opened the door to much of what we’ve seen in the past year (four years? five years?) A 20 year war? The acceptance of untruths and dishonesty in the name of patriotism (not new: the normal way of accepting the unacceptable). A lot of stuff started on that day that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. GWB saying, “You’re either for us or against us,” resounds through the country today.

I dunno. I don’t understand us at all. Humanity is a confusing kaleidoscope and I’m as confusing as any of it.


Featured photo — the first Scarlet Emperor Bean seeds of 2021.

Relevance


The seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms.

“What does that MEAN???”

“It means that destiny is, well, OK, it’s like this. The seeds of destiny are sown in strange places.”

“Yeah but what are ‘seeds of destiny’?”

“Sperm.”

“Huh??”

“Yeah.”

“So the whole vagina uterus thing is a ‘mysterious realm’?”

“Well, yeah.”

Tom and Trevor, have you got an interpretation of that line of poetry to share with the class or are you giggling over something else?”

“Sorry Mr. Schmidt.”

“So, have you interpreted that line?”

“Trevor did, but I think he’s wrong.”

“Tom, there are no ‘wrong’ interpretations of poetry. The poet just wants you to think about what he’s said. Trevor can’t be ‘wrong’. There is no ‘wrong’. We don’t use that word in my class. Go ahead and tell us what you think. Stand up so we can hear you.”

Trevor stood, sure in his interpretation.

“Well, like ‘destiny’ is our future, right? And the seed comes from our dad and goes into our mom. And all that stuff inside women is pretty weird and mysterious. Realms are places. That’s what it means, ‘the seeds of destiny are sown in mysterious realms’.”

Mr. Schmidt’s face went pale and he held his lips tightly together.

“Dude,” Tom whispered, shaking his head, “I told you.”

Sharon, Shannon and Sherry turned bright red. Janine, Jerome, Janelle, Jessica, and Jim laughed so hard tears streamed down their cheeks. Ramona, Robbie, and Rex sat stunned, afraid to laugh because maybe Trevor was right and they hated this poetry shit. Others sat wide-eyed, staring at Mr. Schmidt, waiting for a cue.

“OK,” said Mr. Schmidt. “Who has the next line?”

Nothing Lasts Forever

Last night as I was learning about Confucius I saw a historian who reminded me of my thesis advisor and friend, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I thought, “I haven’t heard from Bob since???” It was fall 20219. We’d lost contact with each other at some point in the 2000s and after I found a book he’d written — Nearer the Heart’s Desire — about Edward FitzGerald who had translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into English. I wrote about it here.

I went online to find him, found contact information for an email, and wrote him, basically asking him if he were still alive as I’d found an obituary with his name but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him. He wrote back — happily! — that he was still there. He asked for my address and sent me a copy of the book. I read it over a couple of evenings and loved it.

So…last night I again looked for Dr. Richardson online and, sadly, this time I found obituaries. The first was written by one of my former professors. I realized if I ever opened the alumni magazine that arrives from time to time in my mailbox, I would have known last year.

When I wrote the China book, he was in my thoughts the whole time. Although I was so burdened by wanderlust at that time in my life that I studied densely printed National Geographic maps for fun, Dr. Richardson was the one who put the China bug in my ear. He wasn’t serious, as it happens. He’d recently visited Shanghai and Beijing (1980) and had returned with the assessment that it was a grim, stultifying, ugly, evil place where no one should go. He referred to it as “Dickens’ China.”

“Why don’t you go to China?” he said to me one afternoon when I’d come into his office with a draft of my thesis and my wanderlust.

“How can I do that?”

“Just send a letter to a university with your CV.” (I didn’t know what a CV was)

When I actually DID that (after he’d recommended some universities) he became very worried. What if I actually WENT? He and his wife invited me for supper and the killed the fatted leg of lamb and asparagus for the event. After dinner, his wife and daughters left the dining room so Bob and I could talk. He was afraid I was having an existential crisis and recommended Erikson’s book, Identity, Youth, and Crisis. A week or so later, I saw him in the English Department office and he said, “Why do you want to go away so badly? You know what Milton said.”

Of course I didn’t. I had always found Milton unreadable. I shook my head.

“In Paradise Lost. He wrote, ‘The mind is its own place and can make hell a heaven and of heaven a hell’.” Milton’s actual words are a little different, but I think Dr. Richardson was a better writer.

When I was clearly determined to go, he introduced me to one of his students from China so I could learn Chinese. When I finally got a job and went, I wrote Dr. Richardson often. My letters were so enthusiastic that he searched for — and quickly found — a position at a university in Sichuan. He happened to be in Beijing when I was there but the government refused to allow us to meet.

I dedicated my China book to him, and while I want to sell it and for people to read it, the reader in my mind as I wrote was him. When I finished, and it was published, I sent him a copy. His response was one of the loveliest letters I’ve had in my life. Now I know that we completed our own circle in those exchanges.

Since then, I’ve remembered many of our contacts over the years. It’s normal that people pass in and out of our lives and even that we lose the thread of people we care about. I don’t really buy that “people come into our lives for a reason” thing, but it is impossible that all the people we care about can stay in the same place any more than we can stay in the same place. We don’t, not physically or psychically or philosophically or anything. It seems like human life is this constantly fluctuating mess of change. Once I thought it was like mountain climbing but now, if I were to give it a sports analogy it would be surfing. We are all trying to stand safely on our board and make it to shore. And shore? It might be a nice beach where we relax until we’re ready for the next set, sometimes it’s THE shore.

But I’m sad, a little washed out today, even with company coming. Dr. Richardson was a remarkable man, a very fine writer, an inspiring teacher and — in my little life — one of my staunchest allies. Here are a couple of lovely obituary/articles about him. He was a fine writer, a find scholar and an inspiring teacher.

Robert Richardson Jr., Biographer of Literary Giants, Dies at 86 (NYT)

Opinion: How America can shift to the right direction (WaPO)

The featured photo is from this article in USA Today about his biography of Thoreau


The email I wrote in 2018? looking for him when he was still there.

Dear Bob — I was looking for you online this evening and happened on a page that said you were dead. Someone left a note that was a tribute to your work on Emerson. I was stunned, wondering, “Is this true?” I kept looking and found nothing else that indicated you were no longer “here.” In doing that, I found out a lot about your recent projects and something about your current life. I hope you remember me. I think about you pretty often and how lucky I was that you were my thesis adviser, how right you were about who I am (though back at the University of Denver I didn’t have much of a clue).

I tihnk the last time we corresponded I had just finished writing a novel (with which I was in love) and I wrote asking what I should do next. You said, “Find an agent.” I followed your advice and went out in search of one — and that was the SASE days when one might be blessed with a rejection slip on actual paper. One of these said, “You need an editor,” and he was right. 

My writing life has been fruitful, minutely rewarding financially, entirely without an agent and very enlightening. It’s brought me many of the happiest moments of my life. Most of all, I’ve loved what I’ve written and the work that’s gone into the books. Turns out I’m a Swiss Medievalist Historian — i know this is true because I was labeled by two Swiss Medievalist historians. You can see what I’ve done if you want to here at marthakennedy.co

Of your work I really enjoyed the little book, “First We Read, Then We Write” — I wanted to assign it as a text in one of my writing classes, but at that point I was teaching mostly Basic Business Communication at San Diego State and Freshman Comp at a couple of community colleges who had sold their souls to the beast of Prentice/Hall, so that didn’t happen. I love the William James book. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was my father’s favorite book. He carried a little copy with him when he was in the Army and that book was his last Christmas present to me before he died in spring 1972. Having learned (tonight) of yours I will have to get one. 

Mostly I want to know that you are still here. I retired from teaching (what?) after 30+ years (double what) in 2014 and moved from the San Diego area to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I love it. I’m surrounded by mountains; the Rio Grande traverses it, I’m 1 1/2 hour from Taos, I have real snow, the light is amazing, the people are warm and friendly. I’m in Monte Vista, a town of 4000 and the home of the first pro-rodeo in Colorado. 

I hope you get this and I hope to hear from you. 

Warm regards,

Martha

121 1st Ave

Monte Vista, CO 81144

“Normal?”

Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”

The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.

I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.

At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”

My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.

I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.

Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.

Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.

“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”

https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/09/health/social-anxiety-post-pandemic-life/index.html


In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.

And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…

I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.

“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.

“Sure.”

“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”

“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.

“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”

“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”

She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”

ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.

But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.

Pawsitivity

I got my second email this morning from The Washington Post about how to cope with the mental challenges brought by our time in history. There is a lot of stuff there, but one thing I know from my own life is right on:

“…lots of small practices can help you move forward and recover a sense of time … Alvord (clinical psychologist) said, you accept what’s out of your control and look for what’s in your control, even if it’s as small as taking a walk.”

I think I learned as a little kid that if I just take a walk (bike ride, run) things will improve, whatever things are. There was another good thing in this morning’s email regarding mental habits that deepen peoples’ depression and feelings of hopelessness:

  • The “I can’t” habit. You automatically decide you can’t meet a new challenge. You give up before even trying.
  • The catastrophizing habit. You see disaster everywhere, and fall into what ifs. You spend a lot of energy panicking.
  • The all-or-nothing habit. If something doesn’t go just one way, it’s wrong. You’re irritated with yourself and others.

    These are countered with challenge questions:
  • The “I can’t” habit: “What is the evidence that I can’t do it?”
  • The catastrophizing habit: “What are five other things more likely to happen?”
  • The all-or-nothing habit: “What are some possibilities that fall between the extremes?”

Today’s newsletter thing was great — I guess I’m a fan of behavioral psychology which this whole thing illustrates. When I was having counseling myself, that was my therapist’s approach. She was perfect for me because I’m one of those, “That’s all very interesting, but what do I DO???” kind of people. Deep down I believe that we are what we do, the culmination of our choices and actions. I just wanted to make choices that worked. I wasn’t trying to expunge any deeply buried demons or get to the bottom of anything. I knew that dark icky stuff wasn’t going away. I wanted to learn how to live with it.

Still…I dunno. I think “sinking spells” are a normal part of life in any moment, “normal” or whatever this is. Maybe it’s all how we feel about our sinking spells, how well we’re able to ride them out and move forward. Some time ago — when I was still teaching Business Communication — I had an epiphany about the word “positive.” The text book talked about “good news” and “bad news” messages. Simply good news is what the audience wants to read/hear and bad news what the audience doesn’t want to read/hear.

It was challenging for my students to get that simple point, that good or bad depended on the audience’ desires, not theirs. A good news message started out with good news, ‘Yay! You get a refund!” a bad news message started with goodwill, an acknowledgement of the humanity of the audience, “We appreciate your business” or “Thank you for your inquiry” — something like that. Students had this idea of “justice” (“They want something they can’t have! They read the signs! Off with their heads!”) so it was challenging to teach this. Shouldn’t have been, but it was there I learned that we can’t take empathy for granted. Some people need to be taught.

The closing of both types of messages was supposed to be positive, and positive meant something that pointed to a future relationship. Positive didn’t mean up-beat or cheery, but something that pointed to a future that was better than the present, essentially the “light at the end of the tunnel.” In a business message like those my students were learning it might be, “Here’s a coupon for 10% off a future purchase” or “We hope to do business with you in the future.” Basically saying, “This, too, shall pass.”

Featured photo: For various reasons, I had a bad day yesterday. At one point, I started to cry. Teddy and Bear were very worried and Bear stayed worried (as is her nature) until I went to bed. The photo is Bear taking care of me in the evening. She can’t make me soup when I’m sick, drive me to the doc if I’m hurt, or offer any other concrete help, but when it comes to moral support, faith and affection, it’s pretty hard to beat a livestock guardian dog.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/10/20/rdp-tuesday-swamp/

News Flash from the San Luis Valley: More of the Same and that’s OK

Yesterday I sought refuge with Bear and there was a whiff of fall in the air, the fragrance of damp fallen leaves by the pond. Fall was more apparent in the colors of the landscape which here, in the high valley, are universally golden except for the wild currant bush that turns bright red.

None of these out at the refuge.

I saw “my” cows, but Beautiful Bessie was no where in sight. Not that these are ugly cows.

The girls outstanding in their field

The big fire in northwestern Colorado is keeping the mountains out of sight.

The cranes have arrived in their autumn numbers, different from spring when tens of thousands converge on the refuge more or less at once. In fall they kind of straggle in and head off at some point for New Mexico where they’ll stay until March. That’s the story, anyway, but my life here has shown me that they are around all year in limited numbers.

Today is a “school” day, and Hallowe’en is on the horizon. We’ll be making these little guys:

This is Megan, a prototype that we will take apart so the kids know how to put her together again. I will put her together again so at the end of the film I can add in the credits, “No paper and pipe-cleaner spiders were permanently damaged in the making of this film.”

And once more, I tip my hat to elementary school teachers. I don’t know how you do it. I just have two who like me and want to learn and it’s WAY more than I can deal with (in truth). And how do you do it now that recess doesn’t exist any more? I remember elementary school, and by the time recess came around I was so wound up it wasn’t funny and I was one of the calm ones…

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/10/09/rdp-friday-whiff/

Waves…

I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.

The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.

I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.

The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”

As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”

I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?

They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.

When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”

It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/02/rdp-sunday-honcho/