Friday, December 31, 2010

Change

It’s that time of year, when…lots of people make lots of resolutions that they will quickly abandon, fail at, or simply forget. It’s an interesting phenomenon in our culture, one that I’ve never really adopted. I suspect it might be because I have spent my entire life from the age of 5 in an academic environment. For me, January is the beginning of the middle of the year. The ‘new year’ always begins in August for me – the Academic year is the way in which I tend to measure time movement. So this time of New Year’s resolutions and starting fresh has always felt a little bit ‘behind’ to me. It’s a time for mid-course corrections, yes, but the ‘new beginning’ came 4 ½ months ago.

Yet everyone else seems to be focused on all the new things they will begin to do starting tomorrow. The magazines in the grocery aisle, the morning news programs on TV, the talking heads on the radio have all been full of it recently. Losing weight seems to top the list, followed closely by starting an exercise program, getting organized and de-cluttering, getting your finances in order, starting or ending a relationship.

I get the tendency. Anyone with even a modicum of self awareness is probably doing regular ‘progress checks’ on their life. How is this working for me? Am I getting where I want to be? Why not? What can I change? What can I do differently? But this pressure that our culture puts on us to make a massive change starting January 1 is an odd one to me and, truth be told, one that doesn’t seem particularly effective. If I come to the awareness that I need to change something, why wait until a page turns on the calendar? Why wouldn’t I start now?

I suspect that the ‘New Year’s part of the resolution making process is a way of saying (without really admitting to it) that I really don’t want to change or I’m really not ready to make the change. I recognize that I should or want a different outcome in my life, but I’m not yet ready to change the way I do things to make it happen. Or, maybe I’m just not convinced that if I’m not just a little more patient, things will eventually turn out the way that I want them to. Or, perhaps the real problem is in the unrealistic nature of the resolutions that we make.

Last year I made a resolution. I didn’t set out to make one – it evolved from a moment of clarity I experienced while eating lunch one day at my desk. We were in the beginning of the semester so it must have been the second or third week of January. I was eating a bowl of soup – Progresso minestrone – chock full of all things that are ‘good for you.’ There were kidney beans, great northern beans and lima beans – all of which I hate. But I was eating it – why? Because it was “good for me.” At that moment I had an epiphany. I’m an adult. I don’t have to eat food I don’t like just because it is good for me. I can make a choice about what I put in my mouth. I don’t like lima beans. I don’t have to eat lima beans EVER again.

So I got up, walked down to the break room, scraped the remains of my bowl of soup into the garbage and washed my bowl. When my secretary asked what I was doing, I announced – “I’ve just made a New Year’s resolution. I’m not eating any food that I don’t like just because it’s good for me.”

I have been completely successful at keeping my resolution. I have adapted recipes that have called for ingredients I don’t like by substituting ingredients I do like. The results might seem a little unorthodox to some, but they taste perfectly fine to me and they don’t contain mushy beans. An unforeseen benefit is that I have been even more conscious of making healthy food choices than I was before. Because I know that I have eliminated something ‘good for me’ from my food repertoire, I have been consciously aware of replacing it with something else that is good for me. My intake of bright green veggies has increased significantly now that I have eliminated those nasty, mushy things from my diet. This year’s resolution? – to continue keeping last year’s.

So the lesson for me is a simple one. Take charge of your life and your decisions and own them. Do it now. Don’t wait until the calendar turns a page or until you use up the last of something. Decide what needs doing and do it. Be resolved.

the calendar comes from:
avoca37.org

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Music

I have always loved music. I know I'm not alone in saying that. I do a "bag" speech in my Public Speaking classes as a way of giving students an 'easy' first speech. All they have to do is put 6 items in a bag that represent significant parts of their personality or life, use them as visual aids, and tell us why they are so important to them. I believe out of 50 speeches this Fall semester, 49 of them included an iPod and the phrase "music is my life." I won't go that far (or be quite that cheesy) but I do enjoy music.

Since I was a child, I have wanted to play piano. I love piano. As I've mentioned before, we were poor and there simply was not extra money for piano lessons, particularly as there was no piano on which to practice. In grammar school, of
course, you could take instrument lessons, but since you generally ended up playing the instrument they needed you to play to fill out the 'orchestra' I was assigned to the cello. A beautiful instrument, I am certain, but not for a third grader who couldn't get her arms around it to play it, much less lug it back and forth to school. I don't think I lasted more than a few months, especially once the snow fell.

When I was in college I did take piano lessons for a couple of years. I was at a small liberals arts Christian college that had a fine music program. There were practice rooms available and, believe me, not much else to do that wouldn't get you into massive amounts of trouble. So, the means of practicing was there and I did take advantage of it. Unfortunately, being surrounded by music majors who had been playing since childhood was a bit intimidating and I did let that influence my confidence level. Then, when I transferred to a state university and declared a Communication/Theatre major -- well, let's say that rehearsals and traveling immediately took the place of practicing. My piano playing, such as it was, fell by the wayside.

And, yet, it was always there in the background - the desire to play. I listen to classical piano music - it is often on in the background while I work. I appreciate the simplicity of the notes, the melodies, the life of it. I often thought that I might like to take lessons again when I retire. It would be a way to keep my hands moving despite my arthritis. It would be a way to keep my brain moving - they say that playing piano is an excellent way to develop new neural pathways that help fight off the effects of aging.

And, then a little miracle happens. I have been gifted a piano. It arrived yesterday. Two big strong guys brought it in and put it into place. The tuner is coming tomorrow, although it is surprisingly in tune after having been moved in such cold weather. It is beautiful, and accompanied by a (blessedly) padded bench. I have been obsessed since it arrived. I have taken breaks to stretch, to eat, to sleep, and now to write, but not much else. I am fascinated by every sound that it makes, by every tone, every note. It may be a very long time before I am actually able to play something recognizable, and I don't care. I am playing. Piano.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Responsibility

I’ve met a lot of victims this semester. The stories are as diverse as the people. Some are sad, some are entertaining, some are a little frightening, some are completely ridiculous - Really. All contain one element – excuses. “It wasn’t my fault...” “If only…” “But you should have…” “If only they hadn’t…” “I deserve…” “If it weren’t for…”

I have not blogged much in the past few months since returning full time to campus. I have several reasons that I could give you that reflect how much less time I have to write this year than I did last year. I spend at least an hour a day “getting ready” for work – hair, make-up, clothes, packing a lunch, organizing my stuff. I spend at least an hour a day commuting to and from work. While I worked hard last year from home, working at the office is a different kind of work. There are meetings, and committee work, and people dropping in all day long. I can be ‘at work’ for a full day and not get one paper graded. So, the papers come home with me to be graded in the evening which means that time I might spend blogging is spent on other things.

There you have it. Enough excuses for you? The fact is that while all of these demands on my time are true and real and are part of the reason I have not written much – not one of them is an excuse. The truth is that I have made choices about how to use my time. I have chosen grading over writing. I have chosen socializing over writing. I have chosen sleeping over writing. But, make no mistake, I have chosen.

I am, I admit, disturbed by all the excuses I hear. Well, maybe that’s not exactly accurate. Making excuses is probably human nature. Which of us wouldn’t ideally want to have a constant scapegoat – someone upon whom we could push blame for every mistake, error in judgment, or plain bone-headed move that we make? It would be wonderful. I understand the inclination. I guess what really disturbs me is not so much the excuses but the refusal of so many to take responsibility for the choices that they make when the excuse is revealed for what it really is – a choice.

I think what makes it difficult for many is their own judgment of their choices. Maybe at heart, people recognize that one choice is less productive than another they could have made. Rather than acknowledging the choice – maybe a poor one – it’s easier to make the excuse. Certainly it’s a better choice to get up and take some exercise in the morning – but exercise is hard work. So much easier to claim that we’re too busy or there’s too much to do. We are busy. There is a lot to do. We choose whether to let those things take priority over our exercise or we choose to drag ourselves out of bed a little earlier and go exercise. Perhaps acknowledging that we make choices would force us to see ourselves as we really are. Fallible. Self-centered. Lazy. Irresponsible. And maybe that’s something that our fragile egos just cannot handle.

A new semester begins in January. I expect that I will meet many more victims in the coming months. I expect that the excuses will continue and continue. And I suspect that many of us will continue on, refusing to own up and take responsibility for the choices we are making – myself included at times, unfortunately. So maybe it’s the AA model here – one day at a time, one choice at a time. I suspect we’re all going to need a higher power.

www.clarityaccounting.com
is responsible for today's image.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Gratitude

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love what it represents - gratitude. You get to spend an entire day focused on everything in life for which to be grateful. There are no presents to buy, no decorations that must be put up, no special outfit that must be worn. The only thing that must be done during the day is to sit around a table with loved ones and be grateful. What could be better?

I must also be honest and say how glad I am that Thanksgiving has come and now gone. Why? Black Friday. For weeks now you cannot turn on a television or a radio or open a newspaper without being confronted with Black Friday and the message that comes with it. Want. Buy. Shop. Spend.

I don’t remember exactly when this transformation came about. I know that when I was growing up that this day did not have this significance. The term first shows up in modern times in reference to the day after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia in 1966. It seems it was coined by the Philadelphia Police Department in reference to the massive amount of vehicle and pedestrian traffic and the resulting problems from it they saw on that day, the first official day of the Christmas shopping season. It was in the early 1980s when the term morphed into its current meaning of moving a retailer from the red to the black in terms of profits. And it is even more recently that this day has taken on the frenzy that now comes with it.

My aversion to Black Friday comes on many levels. The first is purely physical. I hate crowds. The thought of being around that many people who are pushing and shoving and grabbing and invading my personal space makes my skin crawl. The second is that I’m simply not that much into ‘things.’ I’m pretty sure this traces back to my childhood and growing up poor. We didn’t have a lot of things growing up, and buying new things happened because of absolute necessity, not because of want or opportunity. The Christmases I remember most vividly are those of my teen years. We didn’t have much money and as a result didn’t have many presents. Our parents bought us one present – that’s right – one. Love wasn’t associated with stuff.

I think the major problem for me with Black Friday, though, is the focus - that message they are sending. Retailers and advertisers seem to be telling us all that unless we buy stuff – lots of stuff – our lives aren’t complete. We won’t be happy. Our friends and loved ones won’t be happy. And certainly, our children won’t be happy. Perhaps on some level that’s true – because the message is so pervasive maybe it is difficult to be happy with little when all around you what you see is plenty. And, conversely, what they don’t tell us is that if we DO buy all that stuff – we still won’t be happy.

Happy comes from gratitude – it doesn’t come from wanting more and more and more. “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” This quote is attributed variously to Rosie O’Donnell, Oprah Winfrey, and Mother Theresa. You can choose your author. But whoever said it, the truth of the sentiment is what is significant. Happiness and gratitude walk hand in hand. And I’m pretty sure you won’t see them shoving someone else out of the way to grab the last of the pile. Happy Thanksgiving all!


Today’s image from:
http://30goingon40.blogspot.com

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Love

Weddings are odd affairs. They are wonderful, joyous celebrations that everyone wants to be invited to and to be a part of. They are also (let's be honest here) oddly uncomfortable. Unless the wedding is for a family member, most of the time you know only the bride or the groom, perhaps both, and maybe one or two other guests. Otherwise, you're in a roomful of strangers charged with having a good time
and celebrating the choice of others to join their lives together. It's a mixed bag, to say the least.

I attended a wedding last weekend. My dear friend has made the choice to join her life and future with that of the man she loves. The wedding was in DC, so I flew out for the weekend and stayed with my best friend who lives in the area. She agreed to be my "date" for the wedding so that I would have someone to talk to (besides myself) during the festivities.

And festive it was. My friend is Indian. These women know how to do color. There were greens and pinks and oranges. There was turquoise and yellow. And there was gold. Gold thread, gold bangles, gold necklaces, gold earrings, gold Maang Tikka (hope I'm using the right term here) - the piece of jewelry that sits in the part of the hair and drops down onto the bride's forehead. This wedding was a feast for the eyes.

The ceremony was a mixture of Indian Orthodox Christian and American Lutheran. There were traditions from each religion included and a priest and a minister performed the ceremony together. The reception was also a mixture of cultures in both the food and the festivities. The guests who shared our table were delightful dinner companions from a variety of backgrounds. There was free-flowing and fascinating conversation and a great deal of laughter. When the time came to leave, I found myself wanting to stay.

In so many ways, this wedding was a celebration of inclusion. There were a bride and groom of different cultural backgrounds and different faiths. There were guests of different faiths and different backgrounds. Indian, American, Christian, Lutheran, Gay, Straight, Democrat, Republican, Old, Young - every conceivable 'opposite' that you can think of was represented in this gathering. And all were gathered for one purpose - to celebrate love.

Omnia vincit amor - the Roman poet Virgil is attributed with being the first to say it in his Eclogues written in 42 BC - Love conquers all. Since that time, the sentiment has been expressed over and over, in every language, by poets, screenwriters, novelists, and priests. It is easy to dismiss it as a Pollyanna-ish sentiment, something expressed by a pre-teen girl who dots her "i's" with hearts or butterflies. But last weekend, I saw it in action. And a beautiful sight it was.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vision

"Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting." Ralph Waldo Emerson

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon washing my windows. It's a chore that I remember my mother doing while I was growing up. Back then - it was a much bigger deal. We had storm windows and screen windows. In the Spring, you took the storm windows down and put the screen windows up for the summer. In the Fall, you reversed the process.

Putting up the storm windows in the Fall was a little bit tricky. You had to time things properly which isn't as easy as it sounds. Rapid City, the town in which I grew up in western South Dakota is a bit of an anomaly in the northern midwest. If you look at the map you would assume it simply gets cold around mid-October and stays that way until April. But Rapid City is in the foothills of the Black Hills. The weather patterns there are not what they are in Minneapolis, where I now live. It was not uncommon to have 70 and 80 degree temps on occasion in October and November and I remember many a Thanksgiving day (and even the occasional Christmas) with the windows wide open.

In addition to the timing, it was simply a lot of work. The windows were big and heavy. It took two people to put them up safely. Before putting them up, you cleaned the outside of the inside windows and the inside of the outside windows. Then the window went up and you cleaned the outside of the outside window. The project took all day. Thankfully, my mother was smart enough to label the windows on the inside of the storms - back bedroom, east window, top and bottom. Without that help we might never have finished.

Today the job is much easier. My windows unlatch and fold down so I can clean them from the inside of the house. The exception is the front bow window and the window on the north side of the house which cranks out. They require the step ladder outside. Otherwise, I don't even need a step stool. A little Windex, a few paper towels, and I'm good to go.

There's something very satisfying about having clean windows. The house seems bathed in light. Everything outside looks brighter and more vibrant. The colors on the trees are vivid and it is easy to forget that there's a piece of glass between you and them. You can clearly see that honeysuckle that's still managing to bloom on the trellis on the back deck. It looks crisp and clean. The beauty becomes clearer.

Of course, all that light brings other things into clearer focus. You can see the cobwebs you missed the last time you ran the vacuum. You can see the fine layer of dust sitting on the surface of that lampshade. You can see the couple of spots you missed when you painted the ceiling last summer. You can see the bumps and imperfections in the walls, the smudge on the corner of the coffee table. The flaws become clearer.

Our vision is a gift, certainly, and it can also be our enemy. In all things, we get to choose what we will focus our attention on. I can spend my time looking through the filter of my newly washed windows and see the flaws in my home. Or, I can choose to ignore those flaws, and focus on the beauty that is before me. When I go to work, I can choose to focus on the difficulties - the negatives. Or, I can choose to spend my time seeing the good in others and the positive events that are happening around me. When I experience relationship with others, I can focus on their flaws and shortcomings. Or, I can choose to see the good in them - the special and unique being they have been created to be.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho once said "You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It's just a matter of paying attention to this miracle." In this, he challenges us to use our vision - to choose what we see, and to choose wisely.

Today's view is of (and borrowed from) Hendersyde Farm - www.hendersyde.co.uk

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gossip

Respecting others' privacy is a difficult thing to get right sometimes. You desire to be open with your friends and family. You want to be known and the way to do that, of course, is to let others know you. So, you share things with the people in your life. Joys, sorrows, successes, failures, your strengths, your weaknesses, the good, the bad, and occasionally the ugly. The people you choose to tell are those you trust. You share yourself with caution, and you believe that your trust in others will be respected and returned. And others', in turn, share with you.

And then, out of the blue, someone is gossiping.

It's probably not a 'secret'. You've shared yourself openly with someone or even with many. And yet someone has taken that information and been careless with it. Perhaps they passed it on unthinkingly. Perhaps they didn't consider the information significant or sensitive so thought it open for casual conversation. Or maybe it's just that it's 'old news' - something that isn't even really all the important to you anymore and they're so familiar with it that they spoke without thinking.

Any of those possibilities has the ring of understandability. You've probably been guilty of it yourself a time of two. You spoke without thinking, in earshot of the wrong person, about the wrong topic at the wrong moment. You could kick yourself afterward, but you recognize that what's done it done and you walk on, hoping that those who heard it will either keep it to themselves or perhaps not even register any significance to what you said. You hope.

Most of the time, your hope is well founded. Plenty of the people we interact with are not the mean or vindictive type. They practice the Golden Rule or they remember what their mother said about "if you don't have anything nice to say..." Most likely, they're too busy living their own life and trying to do that the best they can that they don't have either the time or the inclination to be messing around with someone else's.

Occasionally, though, there is the gossip. Some gossips love to pass on whatever they hear to whomever will listen. They want to be the person 'in the know.' Other gossips pretend not to be, letting things drop and then coyly giving out the 'Oh, but please keep that to yourself" line. Then there are those who use the gossip as a weapon. They are the manipulators - the passive aggressives who don't have the courage to come after you outright. They sit on their tidbit of information and wait and when they think the time is right they pull it out and they use it in a deliberate attempt to try to harm and create hardship.

The gossiper should be relatively easy to dismiss. After all, they are petty, small-minded, mean and, certainly, have an essentially pathetic life if they have nothing better to do than to gossip about you anyway - right? For all practical purposes they are a nonentity, a nobody, and are deserving of your contempt, similar to the reaction you would save for something you would scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

And, while you tell yourself that and know the truth of it in the deepest part of you, their influence can still have an impact. The real difficulty is perhaps the knowledge that the gossip got their information from someone that you trusted. It makes you a little more cautious. A little more careful about what you share and with whom you choose to share it. A little more private.

Today's image: http://one4theotherthum

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Success

I have to come clean and tell you all that I’m kind of a dork. And, I’ve been that way all my life. I was the dorky kid who liked to read books instead of Tiger Beat magazine. I’m the dorky adult who would still rather read books than watch ‘reality TV’ (although I must be honest and say that I suspect there is nothing actually ‘real’ about the Real World.) I wasn’t a total dork. I did actually prefer a lot of the social aspects of school to the study aspects (math), and that was true of me in college as well as prior to it. But, I was dorky enough to always hand in my assignments.

I was fortunate in that academics came relatively easily to me (again, math excluded.) Reading was fast and I have one of those memories where I can actually remember where I read something – I mean specifically, where on the page it was located – and can often pull it back up and re-read it in my mind’s eye. I could write relatively well and relatively painlessly. I know you’re supposed to write a draft and go back and revise later, but that always seemed a big waste of time to me (and also required far more pre-planning than I was ever willing to do,) so I was the one who ‘revised’ as I went along. I acknowledge many a time when I started a paper at 11:00 pm that was due at 9:00 am the next morning. Would I have written better papers had I allowed myself more time – certainly I would have. However, I made decisions about where and how I wanted to spend my limited time allotment and rehearsals now always won out over the assignment that wasn’t due until then. But not handing something in? Never.

Maybe it was an over-developed sense of responsibility. Maybe it was growing up with parents who came out of the Depression and had that work ethic that didn’t allow you to not do what was expected. Maybe it was the Protestant version of Catholic guilt. Maybe it was my inherent dorkiness. Maybe it was a little speck of academic savvy that told me that ANY points were better than NO points and that no matter how good (lame) my excuse for not doing work, no one really wanted to hear it. Do something and turn it in.

I never tried to kid myself academically. I knew full well when I turned in sub-par work. I counted myself lucky every time I turned in something that was thrown together at the last minute to get the grade that I got. I didn’t complain. I didn’t whine. (There was one time during my freshman year at a small Christian college when I did succumb to the popular excuse of my classmates, “I’m having Spiritual problems,” but even as I was saying it I could hardly stand myself because it was such a lie – unless lack of discipline and too many beers constituted a spiritual problem - so I never pulled it a second time.) I took my grades and moved on.

This has all been coming back to me as I return to campus and am confronted with example after example of people not doing their work. Some show up with the lame excuse – “I had to take my boyfriend to the airport.” Some try to spin their ‘excuse’ to make themselves look like academic all-stars – “I just know that it’s not perfect and I’m willing to take a late grade in order to do my best work rather than turn in something that is sub-par.” Some simply don’t show up at all on the due date, and then return to class a couple of days later as though nothing at all has happened.

Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying that “80% of success in life is just showing up.” I have news for my students. The other 20% is handing in your work. Grades are about math (my old nemesis.) You will not pass if you simply show up and do nothing. You will not pass because you are pleasant. You will not pass because you are cute. You will not pass because I am nice. You will not pass because you have had a hard life and deserve a break. You will pass because you hand in work. And, the work you hand in, must show a minimum amount of competency and understanding. You do not need to be a genius. You do not need to be perfect. You do not even need to be interesting or insightful. You need to be competent. And, you need to hand it in.


Today’s image is successfully snagged from:
http://www.lifesip.com/success.html

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Belief

I am a practicing Christian. Even as I write that I wonder what it means to others as they read it. Does it imply that I go to service three times a week, read my Bible regularly, pray daily? Does it mean that I give to charity, practice forgiveness? Or, does it mean that I judge others harshly and declare stridently that anyone who believes other than I do is wrong, evil, and damned to an eternity in hell?

I have thought about these issues regularly throughout my life. While I am a practicing Christian, I am also a person who has sought out education. As a student, I majored in Speech and Theatre and took minors in English and History. I'm also a course away from a Psychology minor and a course away from a Sociology minor. As a graduate student, I took a Master's degree in Communication with a History minor. This course of study exposed me to various people groups and various religions and their value/belief systems.

As a professional, I became a teacher of Intercultural Communication which has caused me to become better acquainted with this variety of religious belief systems over time. I was raised in an evangelical Protestant tradition and I also have a rudimentary understanding of a number of the major religions - Catholicism, Islam, Judiasm, Hindu, Buddhism - as well as acquaintances and dear friends who practice those faiths.

I have also thought about these issues consistently in the last several months as the anniversary of September 11 has loomed closer and the conflict in the US has escalated over the proposed Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero in New York. I have struggled with the concepts of war and military conflict having become politically aware during the height of the Vietnam war, while at the same time coming from a family where military service was, and still is, common. I currently have a nephew serving in Afghanistan. I say all this to give a background to my thoughts. I like to believe that my positions are relatively well thought-out and not the result of knee-jerk reactions or unthinking acceptance of a dogma that was instilled in me as a child.

As a teacher in the field of Communication I spend quite a bit of time thinking about and focusing on the effects of language on our understanding of each other and our relationships with each other. This is part of the reason that I am so disturbed by a recent post by a Facebook friend which included this statement in reference to the recent events in Florida - "a stupid-book of pure-evil and satanically hateful arrogance called the qur'an!"

My friend is a conservative evangelical Christian. When I questioned his comment and suggested that his words might be ill-considered and that burning the holy book of any faith was probably not the path Christ would take (the whole sitting down with sinners and turning the other cheek idea) his response to me was, in part "First of all, the qur'an isn't holy. I just want to make that crystal clear. Even if the deceived muslim and radical religious Islamic-jihads believe that it is - it isn't! There's nothing holy about that book and, I could give a rats-rear-end about someone who wants to make a statement by burning such an unholy book!...There's only "ONE" true Holy Book! We call it the Bible. Let's not get this confused, OK?"

OK - Clearly, I am confused. The word "holy" is defined as "dedicated or set apart for religious purposes," "something sanctified or venerated." Is a book not 'holy' because certain people do not deem it so? Many people in the world reject the Bible - does that make the Bible 'not holy'?

From the Qur'an: "All praise is due to Allah, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, the maker of the angels...He increases in creation what He pleases; surely Allah has power over all things. Whatever Allah grants to men of His mercy, there is none to withhold it...He is the Mighty, the Wise."

From the Bible: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth"..."To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his"..."the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."

From the Baha'i prayers: "All praise be unto God Who was Ever-Existent 'ere created things were called into being, when there was no one else besides Him. He is the One Who hath been Ever-Abiding while no element of His creation did yet exist. Indeed the souls of them that are endued with understanding fail to comprehend the least manifestation of His attributes, and the minds of those who have acknowledged His unity are unable to perceive the most insignificant token of His omnipotence."

The words and their order are somewhat different, but it seems that the sentiments of these three passages deliver the same message. Is one of these passages 'holy' while the others are not? Perhaps my friend is right and I am confused. While I love my friend, I cannot agree with his words or the sentiment behind them.

However, on one issue I am not confused. The God I serve is a God of love and forgiveness. He calls people unto him with love and desire. My holy book, the Bible, abounds with passages which portray God as a shepherd, searching high and low for one lost sheep. Other verses describe God as a Protector - our strong tower, our savior and redeemer, our rock, the bread of life and the light of the world. This God, my God, is not a God of hate. And it grieves me deeply that people who share my 'holy book' read it so differently and use it to support their messages of division and intolerance.

Today's image comes from:
www.4a4b.wikispaces.com

Monday, September 6, 2010

Choices

Psychologists say that control is one of those fundamental human needs, right up there with affection and connection to others. We start grasping for it as soon as we can move. We crawl away, then we walk away. We grab for what we want and hold on tight. We want what we want when we want it.

Much of what we do is to try to take control. We do our best to control our surroundings, putting locks on doors and windows and organizing our spaces so we feel in control. We put up boundaries to keep certain people out or to try to keep others in. We have rules and regulations to give us a sense that somehow, in some small way we are in control of our situations and our lives. Maybe control gives us a sense of power. Perhaps we do it because we are afraid of the unknown and taking control of a situation, even in some tiny measure, eases our fears and gives us the illusion of security.

Sometimes, we carry this desire for influence and control so far we make the mistake of thinking that we can control others. That way lies disaster. We have no control over others. The only thing we can ever control is ourselves. And often, I think, we forget the fact that we have choices to make.

I was relaying a story recently to someone who then "jokingly" accused me of being a control freak. I admit that it brought me up short. Was I being a control freak? Was I trying to impose my values or ways of doing something on someone else? It's easy to become confused. Where does my right end and someone else's begin? That's when I came back to the reality of choice.

If I set a boundary that someone else doesn't like, rather than make a choice on their own and take responsibility for that choice, it's much easier for them to simply blame me by calling me a control freak. Does that make me one? No. It makes me a person who has made a choice about my own life, and how I will choose to let others influence it (or in some cases, jerk it around.) Others may not like my choices. That is their prerogative. But their like or dislike does not have to mean that I am wrong or that I need to change.

As I reflected on this encounter, I reviewed my past interactions with this person and my knowledge of their past behaviors. I have made choices this person has not liked. I have made decisions that this person did not agree with. I have done things that this person has not wanted me to do. I begin to suspect that perhaps I am not the person with the control issue here. Perhaps it is this other person telling me, in a very roundabout way, that they want me to behave differently than I do. Perhaps.

Returning to campus has certainly put this issue in my face in inescapable ways these past few weeks. It's easy to get cranky when other people don't behave in the ways that we want them to. It's easy to start down the path of "they really shouldn't do that" or "they really ought to do this." And, I admit to having to give myself a serious talking-to on one occasion since returning as I found myself falling into the trap of this blame game. But that 'talking to' resulted in me reminding myself of the truth of this one fact. I am in charge of me and I am the only person that I can control. Therefore, I am the person that I am responsible for. My behaviors, my words, my choices.

I've chosen to lift today's image from:
www.sadredearth.com

Friday, August 20, 2010

Attitude

I’ve spent the past three days in meetings. This is typical of the way we start a new academic year at the college where I teach. Our administration, in their infinite wisdom, believes fully in the concept that “seat time” = something productive. To that end, they have us in seats – a lot.

I have gone to meetings where we have been told the results of programs from last year, why it is essential that we get our grades in on time, why it is essential that we order our textbooks 3 years in advance, and what to do when a student doesn’t ‘behave.’ Never mind the fact that the ‘results’ from programs could easily be summarized and disseminated in an email, that the majority of us do turn our grades in on time (and have for our entire teaching careers), ditto textbooks, and of necessity we have figured out ways to deal with student discipline issues. Past evidence aside, during these three days we must spend our time sitting collectively in a room listening to others tell us how to address these issues.

To say that these 3 days of meetings are exhausting and frustrating would be a monumental understatement. Here we are – it’s Friday afternoon, students will arrive Monday morning and classes will begin, and instead of being in our offices preparing and working, we are sitting in the science lab watching a rat dissection or wandering in the woods doing an ‘invasive buckthorn data analysis.’ Really? This is a good use of our time at this point in our work schedule? Really?

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to say that rat dissection has no value or that invasive buckthorn is not a problem. I’m sure they do and they are. And I can even get behind the importance of looking at things that aren’t your area of expertise or even, dare I say, interest. We are, after all, an academy. Exposing yourself to a variety of ideas is part of the goal. If I expect my students to step out of their comfort/interest zone, then I should expect nothing less of myself.

I will go out on a limb, though, and assert that a better use of my time, at this particular time of a semester, would be to be in my office, sitting with my textbooks and syllabi and course plans in front of me, concentrating on how I’m going to do the best job I can, teaching and communicating this information to the students who have signed up for my courses – my courses in Communication which have, I assure you, nothing to do with rat dissection.

So, that’s where attitude comes in. And, it’s also where choice comes in.

I know that I am not alone here. I’m sure that all people, everywhere, have required elements of their jobs that are frustrating. I’m sure that we all struggle with doing tasks assigned by our superiors that we feel are a waste of our time. We sit through required meetings and conferences and seminars thinking about all the things we could be doing with our time if we weren’t sitting here in this room at this moment. And yet, this is our job. And, we are being paid to do it. So what remains is to choose our attitude.

The trick seems to be to figure out a way to make it through the meetings with your attitude remaining positive and your sense of humor intact. It may involve bringing work with you (or in some cases, a blog to write) that will keep you quiet, at least, instead of chatting with your neighbor and distracting others. It may involve putting in your seat time, and recognizing that life is full of these little challenges, and we can let them highjack our peace of mind or we can choose an attitude of zen-like acceptance – that this, too, shall pass and that we might just be the better for it. It may involve going to your happy place and staying there a while as the details of water temperatures and low pressure systems swirl about you and make their own tiny little hurricane as you listen to a session on Meteorology.

And, in today’s case it will definitely involve, at the end of the day, a martini.

Today’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshbeeman/2342546008/

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Books

When I was a child, the Bookmobile would come every three weeks to my schoolyard. It was, to my 8 year old eyes, a giant thing - an old converted Greyhound bus lined on both sides, top to bottom, with shelves. And on those shelves were books. Books and books and more books. It was my idea of what heaven would be like.

I would rush out as soon as school was over and be as close to the front of the line as possible. Once inside, I was often the last to leave. I looked at every shelf, searching for books that I hadn't yet read. I would pile them in my arms, one on top of the other, taking as many as I could possibly carry on the eight block walk back home. Once home, I would take the first one off the pile and dig in. Hours I would spend laying on my bed or on the living room sofa buried in a story of someone, somewhere.

One day, in particular, stands out in my memory. I had my pile of books in hand and went to the checkout lady. As she began going through the books, she started to frown. I had books that were 8th grade books, not 3rd grade books. I couldn't have those. "Why not?" I asked. "Because if you read these books now, you won't have anything to read when you reach 8th grade," was the reply. I argued that I had already read all the 3rd grade books, and 4th, and 5th, and so on. She would not budge. I could not have books above my grade level. I left empty-handed.

When I arrived home, my mother, knowing full well what day it was, asked me where my books were. Out came the story. And out came her coat. She marched me back the 8 blocks to school. When we arrived, the Bookmobile lady was getting ready to close the doors and leave. My mother insisted she let us in. She turned to me and said, "Get your books - whichever ones you want." Then she turned to the Bookmobile lady and had a conversation. My mother was polite, courteous, and insistent. The librarian argued. My mother stood her ground. When it was all over, I went out the door with my 8th grade books, plus one more just to be ornery. My mother helped me carry them home.

My mother, with her 8th grade education, understood something far better than the librarian with the college degree. She understood interest. What my reading level was supposed to be given my age was not important. What was important was allowing me to read the things that I was interested in. What was important was encouragement and freedom to explore. What was important was the reading - no matter the subject matter or the designated reading level.

Several years later when I was in ninth grade I had a paperback copy of Peyton Place sitting on my desk in English class. Upon seeing it my teacher's eyebrows raised and she asked with some alarm "Does your mother know you're reading this?" I didn't understand her concern or even really her question. Of course my mother knew what I was reading. And of course it was okay with her. It was a book. As such, it was fair game. And it wasn't until the teacher asked the question that I even considered the possibility that there might be "inappropriate" reading material. Books were books. They were there to read. If you could understand them, you were free to read them. If you couldn't understand them, you were free to try. You were expected to get out the dictionary to help you if there were words you didn't understand.

My mother and father had little money. They could not afford to give their children excessive gifts of toys or games or clothes or records. (For those of you too young to remember, records were made from vinyl and played music - the old-fashioned version of a CD, which is what we had before we downloaded music off the internet onto iPods.) They could not afford to take me on vacations to amusement parks or other 'playgrounds'. They could not afford to send me to expensive summer camps where we learned to ride horses or play basketball or soccer. Gifts were few and far between.

But gifts they gave me - in teaching me the joy of reading and giving me the freedom to read what I wanted to. It cost them nothing but the determination to stand up and defend my interest and the gas money to drive me to the downtown library every three weeks to choose my books, once I outgrew the Bookmobile. This gift has outlasted any childhood trinket I may have wanted and taken me farther than they ever imagined.

So, this weekend as the temperature and humidity rise, I'm headed to the sofa with a book. Today I'm reading about the city of Florence during the Renaissance and the reign of the Medicis. My mother, Florence, I think would be pleased.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Monarchs


I've been reading a lot of historical fiction lately. I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl last summer and finally got around to reading it this summer. Once I started it, I really couldn't put it down. It's the story of King Henry VIII and his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn (one of his many mistresses,) and his ultimate decision to have her beheaded. It's well written and compelling. Even though I knew what the ending would be, I still wanted to find out what happened next.

I've gone on to read two more of the author's novels depicting the life and wives of Henry and have another sitting on my bedside table. They are an interesting read on the role of women in the culture and make one grateful to be a woman now as opposed to then - jewels and castles notwithstanding. Ultimately, women were chattel, which I knew intellectually but I had never really thought about 'being property' in daily terms - what they would be required to do to serve the men who owned them, whether that be their fathers, brothers, uncles or husbands. It's sobering, to say the least.

Henry, as Monarch, had ultimate authority. There was no one above him - particularly after he made the decision to split from the Catholic church and papal authority. He declared himself head of the Church of England, as he was head of the government of England. He answered to no one which made him, of course, an extremely dangerous man. Dangerous to oppose, dangerous to disappoint.

While I would like to believe that Henry was exceptional and historians certainly allude to his prowess in many arenas (and certainly he was exceptionally self-involved and ultimately insane) I suspect that, truth be told, he was rather common. He was a man who believed that he could put himself above the rules - that the rules simply didn't apply to him. That attitude is not unlike the attitude we still see today. Men and women, boys and girls, all making the determination that they want what they want and they have every right to go after it, no matter who they trample on the way. Whether the "rules" are social codes, laws, moral precepts, or even simply promises or oaths one has taken, many seem to believe that those things are for others - not them.

We cannot turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or access the internet without seeing evidence of this behavior everywhere. Celebrities, politicians, church leaders, common people - no group seems safe from this incredible sense of our own 'exceptionality.' But the lesson we can learn from Henry and his decisions is that no matter how powerful we are, ultimately our choices always have consequences. And though we may escape them for awhile, sooner or later they do catch up with us.

On the brighter side, I also have Monarchs in my garden. They come in the morning to visit my zinnias while I sit on the deck drinking my coffee. They've been keeping me company while I read about, and contemplate, the lessons of Henry.


Image of Henry - www.economicvoice.com/.../5008212

Monday, July 12, 2010

Endings

My summer classes have ended. The grades are done and posted, and I can take a moment and look back on my return to teaching. Summer classes are a mixed bag. For one thing, they are fast - very fast. In essence you condense a 15 week semester into a third of the time span. This can be good and it can be not so good. The good part is that if the class isn't going so well or if you and the students simply don't hit it off it's done relatively quickly. The bad part is that no matter what, it's done relatively quickly - meaning that you can't take an extra day to grade an assignment or make a decision. You'd better have it done and figured out before you start. It's intense, to say the least.

One of the things that drew me to teaching is the starting and the stopping. I like endings. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing something. Whether it's an afghan I've crocheted, a book that I've read, a recipe that I've cooked, I like to be able to see a project through from start to finish and be able to judge what I've accomplished. When I came to Minnesota to live, I briefly considered a career in corporate America and spent a year working as a temp to test the waters. I learned quickly that the "sameness" of corporate life was not for me. The projects never seemed to come to a close and I quickly began to feel trapped in that environment. It was drudgery to me - never-ending drudgery.

The academic life is much better suited to my temperament. There are any number of built-in endings. They're called semesters. I like the beginning of a new semester - the chance to meet 150 new students, the chance to try a new way to teach an old concept, the chance to explore new research, a new method, a new activity. It's new and exciting and a wonderful challenge. More than the beginnings, though, I like the endings. I like being able to look back and evaluate what worked and what didn't, where I need change or improvement, where I can take a technique to a new level or make the decision that it didn't work and doesn't deserve a second chance.

I even have the advantage of mini-endings. Each class period is a separate entity. It has a start and a stop. If it doesn't go well, it's over in 50 or 75 or 150 minutes. It's done. I can start fresh the next time and salvage whatever went wrong. That stop gives one the time to make mid-course corrections that other endeavors don't necessarily allow for.

At times I think that, if we aren't careful, life can begin to feel like a hamster's wheel. We run faster and faster and our momentum on the wheel means that we don't have time to think or consider or even feel - our jobs, our relationships, our values become a blur in our race. We must keep moving - there is no end in sight. Some people acknowledge that they have awakened one morning to the thought 'Where did the past 20 years go?' They've been caught in the wheel.

The endings in life allow for self-reflection. They give us the opportunity to take a breath and evaluate. They allow us to consider. They are a gift.


Image origins in order:
upload.wikimedia.org
www.fringebloggers.com
giantbomb.com
blogs.buffalonews.com

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Evaluation

One of the most common tasks I do every week of the semester is to evaluate student work. I evaluate student speeches and presentations, I evaluate quizzes, I evaluate student exercises and outlines and papers. I evaluate student excuses. :-) During a regular semester, it's a regular task. During a five-week condensed summer session, it is continuous.

Evaluation is something that is often hard to hear and accept. In some ways, I think, this has been one of the moving forces behind 'grade inflation.' Over the years I have been teaching, the perception of grades has changed. When I began, an 'A' was certainly something to strive for but was by no means the only acceptable grade. A 'B' or even a 'C' was acceptable and, in some courses, even desirable. "Thank God I got a C!" Over time this perspective has shifted so that the majority of my students today see a 'C' (average) as a failing grade. Everyone must have an 'A', even though an 'A' is supposed to represent exceptional work and certainly if all of us are exceptional then none of us are. And for some students, if the 'A' is not forthcoming, there is no hesitancy in demanding a re-evaluation of their work!

I understand that our natural human tendency is to see ourselves in the best possible light. We want to be considered competent, capable, intelligent. It's one of the things we discuss in our Interpersonal classes, when we talk about the process of perception and why we all see the world and the events in it differently. We have many tendencies that distort how we view ourselves and others - we cling to our first impressions, we often favor negative impressions of people over positive ones. We are quick to see faults in others, while we excuse the same behaviors in ourselves. And even if we acknowledge an error or a weakness, we always have an excuse at the ready.

Evaluation forces us to look at ourselves or our work through an objective lens. And, as none of us has yet to achieve perfection, sometimes the result of evaluation is not so easy to look at and accept. We often must admit that we are not exceptional and that, perhaps in this particular arena, we are average or even below. While many allow that to take a poke at their self-esteem, it needn't. Finding out that we are average or that we need improvement in an area can give us the motivation to change and improve, with a rise in self-esteem as the result.

Honest evaluation provides us with useful information. It gives us a perspective on ourselves that we often cannot get without input from someone else, someone who isn't as invested in our self-esteem as we are. If we are wise, we take that evaluation and put it to use in helping us improve our work or ourselves, no matter how hard it is to hear.

So, to my students who are tiring of the constant evaluation, I understand your pain. Truly, I do. And, take heart. The semester is almost over and soon it will be time for you to evaluate me in the end-of-the-semester course evaluations. Make sure your pencil is sharp!

Today's image is snatched from - http://www.quotations.com/w_review.htm

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teaching

While I am still officially on sabbatical, I am also back to the classroom. I decided that it would be a good idea to ease myself back into teaching after a year away, so I signed up to teach 2 summer session courses. Luckily, I chose to teach the Interpersonal course. I say 'luckily' because it is the course I ended up changing and modifying the most while on my sabbatical. I'm certain that a test run or two is a good idea before going back full bore in the Fall semester.

Going back to teaching in the summer is a mixed blessing. It's short. That's good. It's jam-packed. That's not so good. The students tend to be very good - dedicated and up for the challenge of 15 weeks in 5. That's good. The pace is exhausting - whether they are up for it or not. That's not so good.

Going back to teaching after a year away is a little like riding a bicycle after a long time away. After the initial wobbliness, you get your rhythm back and things start running smoothly. You remember why you started doing one thing, and why you stopped doing another. You remember what works and what doesn't. You remember what standing and being 'on' for four hours without a break really does to you and your back.

Some of the things you were hoping would change or simply go away have not and, of course, will not. There are still excuses and rationalizations, laziness and carelessness. There is also the thing that brought you to teaching in the first place. The excitement, the energy, the 'light bulb' moments when you see someone getting a concept - really getting it - and realize that they are getting it a good 10 years before you did. And part of why they are getting it is because you are there, introducing this idea that they haven't been exposed to before, sharing ideas with them about how this might affect their life, and taking the time to answer their questions and encourage their doubt and skepticism. It's the joy that is teaching.

I realize that technology has given us educational options that were not conceived of when I was in college. I see the benefit of the internet in making higher education available to people in remote locations. I see the lure of "not needing to commute" to get your degree and understand why it's so tempting to so many, especially after my year of a 10-step commute from my kitchen to my office - cup of coffee in hand. I see the advantage of being able to pull together disparate people from disparate places into an online 'community' in which we can learn from one another. I reject the notion that I am a Luddite.

And, I see so clearly the superior benefits of face-to-face interaction. Something happens when people are in the same room with others, discussing ideas, that doesn't happen in the same way via computers. There is the spark of an idea - someone gives an opinion -someone else disagrees - another looks like they have a counterpoint but they don't volunteer - UNLESS you call on them, call them out, ask them what they think. Some people need the push, the pull, of an outward expression of someone's interest in their thoughts. That's what happens when you can see peoples' faces - you can invite, cajole, push, challenge - in the moment that the idea is taking place. There's no time to dress it up or monitor or edit -- it's the idea, right now, in all its roughness and confusion and searching. It's learning. And it is exciting and energetic and full of life in a way that no computer can emulate.

I know the arguments - believe me, I've heard them all - and I'm not going to try to refute them. I also know what happens in the classroom. There's a magic that happens that makes the inconvenience of it all oh so worthwhile. I recognize that the day may come when administrators and legislators decide for the rest of us that education is a dish best served over fiber-optic cable. But for now, I'm relishing in the messiness, the inconvenience, the life that is the classroom.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Defensiveness

Since I started blogging a year ago, I've been reading a lot of blogs on a variety of different topics. I'm pretty amazed at the number of bloggers out there and their writing runs the gamut from absolutely excellent all the way down to complete dreck. The variety is eye-opening. At times, equally as interesting as the blog entries are the comments that they generate.

Recently I read a blog about "British Dining Etiquette" written by a Brit who is currently living here in the States. It was primarily a list of appropriate dining behaviors from the British perspective and reflected the rules the writer was taught while growing up. She didn't offer a lot of commentary on the list, other than to note that she's aware of the British reputation as being a bit serious and formal and, in some people's minds, even a little stuffy. But these were simply the rules they were taught as being “good manners” and she hoped that we would enjoy learning a little bit about another culture. It was a fun little list - and something I'm always interested in given the nature of what I teach.

The comments that this little blog generated were fascinating. Many people remarked that these were many of the rules they grew up with also and just considered them basic good manners as well. Others asked questions. The knife in the right hand and fork in the left hand habit seemed to create difficulties for many brought up in the US with the cut-with- the-knife-then-put-it-down-and-switch-the-fork upbringing. Most people were open-minded and expressed an appreciation for the new knowledge.

Then there were others. A couple of people used the comment section to get into a flaming match regarding whether the one appreciated her Grandfather as much as she should because she couldn't stand that he chewed food with his mouth open. They were a pair! Hard to imagine why either one felt it necessary to make the comments they did and to get into it with each other in a public forum.

Some people clearly took offense at the list. One person immediately defended his way of eating and took a shot at the author and Brits in general by saying "I take issue with eating chicken and pizza with a fork. It is perfectly good etiquette in the Southern United States to eat fried chicken with your hands. And pizza with a fork? please...Some of these are common sense some are really a little stuffy and silly. I DO believe that good manners are an indication of class but not a separation of classes which the British are famous for..."

Another used the opportunity to defend against an implication that the author did NOT make - that people should be judged only on their manners by commenting "...as long as people don't judge others by their different forms of etiquette, or lack there of...etiquette and class do NOT make the person."

Yet another person piped in to take a pot shot at British cuisine and assert her 'right' to act however she wants wherever she is with a complete disregard for those around her and their cultural practices. "... I'm thankful though that I live in SoCal where things are a bit (or alot) more casual. Too much fussiness for me! Besides, last time in England the food was barely edible! But I would go again. I will just eat the way I do at home (not a slob-some manners always apply!) but I am an American and I will eat that way like it or not!"

Defensiveness is an interesting thing. The author of this blog was simply writing a piece in tune with the other entries in her blog - comments about the connection between British food and its customs/culture. Had the author stated or implied that other cultures were backward or inferior, I could understand a little defensiveness, though I would still be inclined to simply read that as one person's opinion which wouldn't make it automatically true. Yet she did none of that. She simply provided a recitation of what she had been raised with and an explanation of how it impacts her perceptions and her raising of her own children.

Rather than simply read the entry in that spirit, these people chose to read into her comments a criticism of other cultures and manners, specifically their own. I wonder at that reaction. Perhaps it stems from a basic insecurity in one's own behaviors or beliefs. Perhaps these people respond defensively to all things, as a matter of habit, always imagining a slight or insult where none exists. I wonder at what life must be like for someone with those tendencies and it's not a pleasant thought. It seems to be a way of, as my mother would have put it, borrowing trouble - making life far more difficult and unpleasant than it has to be.

Watching this free-for-all causes me to check my own responses. Am I guilty of being too sensitive – attributing an ill motive to someone when none exists? Occasionally, I might be, which is something, then, to be aware of. And this blog exchange was a reminder of the importance of checking my own sense of righteousness or superiority at the door – listening to another perspective with an open mind and a heart that assumes good intention in the other.

If you're interested in reading the etiquette blog, here's the address: http://allrecipes.com/Cook/13494664/BlogEntry.aspx?postid=178893

Today's cartoon from: http://public-domain.zorger.com

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Baking

I wrote early in May about my newfound joy of cooking. While I do enjoy cooking, and am enjoying it more the more I do it, I love baking. My mother baked, usually once every two weeks, while I was a child. I remember coming home from school to find the house redolent with the smells of yeast and butter and vanilla and cinnamon. There were breads and dinner rolls and breakfast rolls and cookies. Is it any wonder I've never been thin? I didn't stand a chance growing up in that house.

I've heard many people say that while cooking is an art, baking is a science. Exact measurements are essential and the tiniest variation from the recipe and you run the risk of ruin. Hooey, I say. Yes, there are more things to consider when baking - dealing with chemical reactions that create rise and gluten, for example, and ratios of liquids to solids. But baking is not nearly as unforgiving as many would have you believe.

The real problem with baking, if there is one, is the eating. Bread may be considered the staff of life and a necessity (and for the most part, relatively healthy), but cakes and pies and cookies and pastries clearly are not. And, over-indulgence? Well - that way lies ruin as we all know. So the secret is in the sharing.

Many people try get around this by trying to make baking more "healthy" by switching ingredients. Some of those substitutions are fine - for example, my favorite trick is substituting natural (no sugar added) applesauce for half of the oil in a recipe. This retains the moisture that the oil is intended for and lowers the fat content without compromising flavor or texture. Other substitutions are not so good. Many people will substitute Splenda for sugar or margarine for butter in an attempt to lower fat and calorie counts. Doing this creates more harm than good. For one thing, the chemicals in those products are all bad for you. Additionally, they affect taste and texture. Products baked with those items do not taste as good and are less satisfying. The result? You eat more - partly because you know they're lower in calories and partly because they simply don't satisfy the way they would had they been baked with real ingredients. The truth is that butter is NOT your enemy. Neither is sugar. And a little bit of each is not going to hurt you. Thus, the sharing.

My most recent baking forays have been focused around rhubarb. It is the season here in Minnesota and there is a bounty of it around this year. Rhubarb is a wonderful baking ingredient. It's a fruit so you can feel somewhat self-righteous in using it and it's tartness is a welcome contrast to the sweetness that is most baking. A recipe for rhubarb coffee cake yielded two 9-inch cakes. One was given whole to a friend who shared it with her family, and the other was split between three households and served eight people. The other was a recipe for rhubarb bars. The pan yielded 3 plates of bars that went to friends with plenty left over to share at a work meeting. Everyone had a small piece, or two at the most, and everyone left having enjoyed something seasonal and delicious with their sweet tooth satisfied and with no real harm to their diet. With baking you get to experience the truth of the axiom "everything in moderation."

One of the other lessons that baking teaches is the importance of the wait. The mixing of ingredients is generally a relatively quick enterprise depending on the complexity of your recipe choice. But once things are in the oven, the waiting begins. And there's no hurrying baking. If you are impatient and take something out too soon, you can't go back later and stick it back in to cook a little more. Neither can you just jack up the oven temp and get things done sooner. You must wait - time and temperature working in tandem to create the end result. And, if you're baking bread, you learn even more about the wait. Knead, rise, punch down, knead, rise. Time has no substitute.

Moderation and waiting. I think I'm beginning to get it.


Today's photo snagged from: snagwiremedia.com/top-5-best-baking-tips-tricks

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Conversation

Late last August I wrote about my most recent attempt to study and learn French. The academic year is now finished and I've completed the course, our planned trip to France did not materialize (apparently the economy has hit our students in their travel budgets) and I am nowhere near as advanced as I was 9 years ago.

Maybe I should put it down to age and the slowing of the brain cells. I think more likely it is due to lack of conversation practice. In their infinite wisdom, college administrators have decided that language learning can be accomplished via reduced time face to face and more time in front of a computer. Perhaps this is true for the younger generation. I, however, am old, with old learning styles. I need to hear and speak as much as possible to learn the language. My reading skills are actually pretty good - not fluent by any means - but I can understand much of at least the basics of what I read, if not the nuances. But conversation is tougher.

Luckily for me, the computer has actually turned out to be my friend in this area. I am listening to French radio via the web. I am visiting websites that have podcasts to listen to. It is helpful, but none of this replaces conversation. I need practice speaking and listening. Luckily, other people need the same thing so there are websites dedicated to helping us find each other. I've been able to hook up with several people online who are wanting to improve their English skills in exchange for helping me improve my French.

It's interesting, to say the least. One of my conversation partners is a woman from Versailles. She's hoping to improve her fluency in English for use in the job search venue. Another is a woman from Montreal who, like me, simply wants to improve her skill set. Our exchange is simple. We speak English for the first half hour and we speak French for the second half hour. The service I provide for these women is to ask questions to give them topics about which to speak. Once speaking I correct and give advice in the areas they have indicated they wish to improve. One woman is focused primarily on proper pronunciation and making sure she is using the correct verb tenses. The other woman is more advanced and her focus is fluency and adding to her vocabulary by picking up terminology in her professional field as well as idiom and using them correctly. In return, they correct my grammar and pronunciation and help me understand French idiom.

Both of them speak English far better than I speak French. Luckily for me, both of them are gracious and understanding and infinitely patient with the way I am (certainly) massacring their beautiful language. I am grateful for their willingness to give of their time and expertise.

In addition to my web conversations, I have been fortunate to find someone local who will also converse with me. This is a woman whom I met in a different setting and felt drawn to from the beginning. As often happens, circumstances of location and occupation did not allow a great deal of accidental contact. But I thought of her when I began speaking via Skype with my language learning partners, and decided that it never hurts to ask for what you want. I emailed. She was gracious. We met to speak yesterday for the first time.

We spent an hour at a coffee shop. While there was the occasional need to slip into English, we did spend most of our time actually conversing in French. It was wonderful! I could see her face. I could understand through context what I was not able to catch in vocabulary. I spoke far more fluently with her than I am able to speak with my Skype partners. By the time we were finished I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. She gets to speak her native language which is not something she gets to do often living in the US. I get to hear the language and improve my French speaking and understanding. It's an opportunity that is not to be passed by.

As I think about these experiences, I am struck by what happens when you actually seek what you are hoping to gain. How often do we say we want something, yet do nothing to actually attempt to achieve it? We say we want change, yet we stay in the same place. We claim we want to improve, yet we continue in our current habits. We say we want to see something new, yet we continue down the same path we have walked before. Growth and change actually require something from us - a conscious decision to do things differently.

Obviously, I will never achieve the fluency of a native French speaker. To even begin to accomplish that I would need to speak regularly, to immerse myself in the language. More importantly, I would need to be French. But I am excited at my progress over this past month. And I am reminded that it is the growth you experience that gives you the motivation and encouragement to work even harder to gain it.

Today's image was lifted from: http://www.falclearning.com/languages.php

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Garden - Part 2

As I wrote in April, I am not a fan of crouching in the sun and digging in the dirt. I've tried to be, but the reality is that I'd rather be sitting on the deck with a book and a drink. But what we want and what we get are often two different things, as my dear mama was wont to point out when I was growing up. Once again (Rats!) it turns out she was right.

In my quest to have the carefree yard and garden, I am faced with the reality of the work it requires. Specifically, part of the work is keeping the yard out of the garden. It's a mystery to me how the lawn grows where you don't want it to yet it resists growing where you do want it. Two summers ago I had the misfortune of losing two 60 foot elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Big bummer as they shaded my house and yard. Even bigger bummer was the $5000 it cost to have them craned out of the back yard and over the house. (In the luck department, my neighbors got it that year. Their disease-ridden tree was in the front yard, technically on city land so the city paid for removal and replacement of their tree.)

The point of this little sob story is that I have two large spots in my lawn (5-6 feet in diameter) where the trees used to be and the grass is resisting growing. Grass seed, covered by mulch filled with grass seed, water, babying, more water...Finally the grass is beginning to come up. On the other side of the yard the grass has freely crept into the garden - a good foot and a half. So, it must be dug out.

So far I've spent 3 full days re-establishing the border of the garden by digging out the sod and putting in edgers. It's slow going. Dig a four foot section, pound and cut and shake the dirt out of the sod, place the edgers, and back fill with the dirt. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Three days of work and I'm one-third of the way done.

And that's just the edging. There's also the weeding. Some of these weeds have roots the size and shape of full grown carrots. It's incredible! After the weeding is spreading the Preen, laying down the newspaper, mulching on top. And the certain knowledge that no matter what you do, next summer (or even later this summer) you'll be back out here in the sun pulling weeds and cursing the gardening gods.

So here I sit, sore muscles, sore back, sunburned shoulders. and swollen hands. The section that is finished looks great. The section that isn't, doesn't. Of course, the "useful lesson" is easy to see. "Sometimes getting the good thing requires pain and hard work." Blah. Blah. Blah. While I know it's true and I know I'll feel a sense of accomplishment when it's finished, in the moment I simply want to whine. But once again I hear my mama's voice in my head with the reminder that whining will get me nowhere. So, time to slather on the sunscreen, grab the shovel and an edger, and get back to work.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mentors

I spoke a few days ago with one of my professional mentors. He was my coach and teacher back in my undergraduate years and went on to become my colleague after college during the years when I was coaching professionally. It was a delightful conversation on so many levels. We caught up a bit on our personal lives, I gave him grief for not having a Facebook page yet, and we talked about our current careers and their respective pluses and minuses.

My main motive in calling, other than to connect, was to get information. We've hired someone new on our campus with whom he has worked in the past. I've actually known this new hire in the past also, but haven't seen or interacted with him in probably 15 years. I think my actual question came out as "Is he as nice and decent and I remember him to be, or has he turned into a troll?" Perhaps not the most careful wording of a question, but it accurately reflects the information I was seeking. The answer was reassuring.

While I was pleased with the answer to the question, in retrospect that turned out to be the least important part of the conversation. What was most important was all the things I was reminded of. Certainly a conversation like this brings up memories of times past and, quite frankly, the large majority of those memories are good ones. There was laughter, lots of laughter, adventure, achievement, and camaraderie. There was winning and losing. There was supporting and being supported. Those were good times.

One of the things our conversation made clear to me is how much I learned from that time and that relationship. As my mentor talked, I was struck by several things. One in particular was his ability to see and articulate clearly a person's strengths. He didn't rely on platitudes - "Oh he's a great guy - you'll love him." He very specifically spoke to the abilities of this person and how his strengths make him suited to the position he will be holding on our campus. He didn't gush - but he clearly saw and appreciated elements of this individual's personality and skills and was quick to point them out.

I remember clearly that this was the way my mentor spoke about most people he encountered. He spoke to people's strengths, being quick to point out what they did well and how they were effective. What is significant about that for me, is that I came to realize it was more than just his tendency to do this - it was his decision. Faced with the choice of tearing down or building up, he chose the latter. That example has stayed with me. I haven't done it nearly as well as he has or as consistently, but the longer I am in my career the more that example comes back to me as the one to emulate.

I'm not trying to make him out to be a saint. He wasn't and isn't as he would be the first to admit. But mentors aren't saints and that's what makes them so valuable to us. They are human, with shortcomings and failings. But they have a unique ability to move beyond those and to show us how to move beyond ours. And those lessons stay with us - when I am faced with a work situation and am unsure of how to handle it, I do stop and ask myself what my mentor would do in this situation.

I can honestly say that without my mentor's influence I would not be where I am today. I wouldn't have the career I do, I wouldn't hold the position I do - and I wouldn't be the person I am. It illustrates clearly the fact that we are all an influence on others, for better or worse and whether we intend to be or not. It also speaks to the power of relationship. By giving of ourselves, we impact others and make our world a better place. We may not see the impact but it is there.

So to my mentor, my unfailing gratitude, appreciation and love. And the promise that I am doing my best to be the person that you saw in me and also to be a mentor for someone else - to pass on the lessons that you so graciously and lovingly shared with me. Lessons learned. Now, get a Facebook page!

Today's photo was snatched from: http://elbertcodems.com/gpage1.html
The Elbert County Democrats don't credit the image on their website, so I'm thinking they snatched it from somewhere else!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pain

I just came home from a massage. Some of you are looking at the title and not seeing the connection between it and my first sentence. Others of you understand. I see a massage therapist every three weeks. That sounds indulgent and decadent to the uninitiated. "I'm going for a massage," we draw out the word, especially those last three letters - "Massaaaaggge." We imagine a dimly lit, luxurious spa with thick terry-cloth robes and cucumber slices on our closed eyes, scented candles burning, fuzzy watercolors of flowers and ponds decorating the walls, soothing music playing, a fountain gurgling in the background. The massage is so nice and soothing that we almost drift off into sleep, a smile on our face. Some of you may be thinking of a few other things, but this is a PG rated blog and we're not going there.

That may be the picture of some types of massage but not therapeutic massage. No. Therapeutic massage is not relaxing. You do not drift off. You do not smile. There is soothing music. The environment is designed to be relaxing and yes, there is art work and dim lighting. But in addition to that fuzzy watercolor, on the opposite wall is the chart of the trigger points in the human musculature system.
And, instead of scented candles there is the menthol/camphor aroma of the oil that's being used to help dig more deeply into your flesh.

Technically, my therapist practices 'neuro-muscular massage therapy.' The point of the massage is pain management and the way that is done is to attempt to keep the muscles loose and flexible. The more loose they are, the less they bind up and cause pain. Doing this requires pressure and digging. That digging causes pain. Once you're on the table and in the midst of the massage, you see the point of the trigger point charts. All of those muscles are connected one way or another. Pain in your knees? That might be, but what needs work is all the muscles that are connected to the knee and even some that aren't.

When we experience an injury of some sort, our bodies attempt to compensate. We adjust our stride or we limp so as not to put too much weight or pressure somewhere. We sit differently in our chairs or sleep differently at night. Our attempts to hold our bodies in certain ways to ease pain causes other parts or our bodies to bind up into unnatural positions. The longer we hold those positions, the worse the binding and the worse the pain. In our attempt to ease our pain, we create more of it.

Unfortunately, to heal those injuries we need to work through the pain. Thus, the digging. And the digging pays off, because little by little the pain starts to ease. The upshot is you need to go through the pain to get rid of the pain. And so it is with the other areas of our life. Pain is part of the deal. For some of us it is pain from relationships, for others pain from our childhood or family issues, for others pain from disappointment or unmet dreams. We try to compensate for those pains and in turn they simply show up in other areas of our lives. And in those areas, too, working through the issues is painful. And, as unpleasant as the digging might be, going through the one pain is the only way to release and ease the other pain. So, start digging. At least there's a soak in a hot tub and a martini at the end of it!

Once again I have 'acquired' photos off the web. Photo 1 is from: www.riversidecampground.com/Massage.html
Photo 2 is from: www.timberlakeseminars.com/catalog/index.php?...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cooking

I have come to love cooking. I didn't start out loving it. My mother spent a good chunk of her working life before I was born working as a diner cook. By the time I came along, she was good and tired of being in the kitchen. She cooked meals - that's what women of that era did, after all. But she really didn't enjoy it and wasn't particularly creative about it. My father was one of those clich├ęd "meat and potatoes" men, and if vegetables weren't cooked to the point of mush his opinion was they should be fed to the pigs - and we didn't even live on the farm! When you add in the factor that there wasn't a whole lot of money, cooking for my mother became even more of a chore - trying to figure out how to make the grocery budget stretch to feed the family until the next payday.

Food at our house was serviceable, not bad by any means, but certainly not gourmet. There are dishes from my childhood that I remember as being wonderful and thoughts of them bring back fond memories. Yet, my mother's lack of enthusiasm for cooking passed itself on to me for many years. I didn't really know how to cook and, therefore, didn't really have any interest in it.

I can't pinpoint, exactly, when my interest in cooking began to develop. But I suspect it had something to do with entertaining. I'm pretty social, and I love spending time with people. Having people over for dinner seems a common way of expressing that. Yet, to do that, you have to feed them. At first, I had a couple of meals that I relied pretty heavily on. They worked well, guests complimented me on them and considering the fact that people cleaned their plates and asked for seconds, I don't think they were just blowing sunshine up my skirt.

But one or two meals, even good ones, get old pretty quickly, so I began to branch out. At first, it was cookbooks, but then - the miracle of all miracles for an aspiring cook -- the internet. The internet is heaven for anyone looking to learn anything (as high school students and would be terrorists will attest) but is a source of never-ending delight for a would-be cook. There are thousands of sites. Recipes, cooking instructions, how-to-videos, photos, blogs -- everything you could possibly want or need to know as you navigate through the chemistry and the art of playing with food.

There are countless bloggers whose sole content is cooking. They post their recipes and their photos (I've heard people use the term 'food porn' to describe some of the photos and it's somewhat apt!) and their tips on how-to and how-not-to. What I like about these is that they are most often just ordinary people. They aren't a food network star, they haven't written a cookbook, they don't own a restaurant. They're just regular people experimenting with cooking and sharing the results.

Other sites are community sites. There's one in particular that I use quite often. Their recipe base is mostly made up of user-submitted recipes, although they also publish sponsor recipes. But this is where you find the type of recipe that's been passed down for generations in a family and been printed up in church-basement-lady cookbooks. You can search these sites by recipe title. You can also search by ingredient. Say you have a neighbor gift you a bushel of zucchini at the end of the season - you can type in that ingredient and a list of recipes using it will pop up right before your eyes. They have categories - desserts, salads, main dishes, holidays - and ideas for complete dinners including everything from the appetizer and beverage all the way down to the dessert.

They also have a community tab where you can ask questions and advice or request a recipe. You can also give your advice and suggestions to others. As with all communities, there are some who are there for something other than cooking. There are always people who look for drama and who are willing to create it if there isn't any to be found and cyber communities are no different. But after a little while on the site it's pretty easy to figure out who is there for what and you can just skip on by and avoid that type of thing. And, proportionately, it's a small part of the whole. Mostly, people are there to talk food and to share their knowledge and expertise and passion.

People are also able to rate and review recipes. You can read how others have adapted a particular recipe to their tastes, and help judge whether you need to adapt as well and how best to do it. You can submit your own recipes for review, if you are the competitive type. Mostly, though, you can indulge your interest in figuring out how to make dinner a delight instead of a chore.

So yesterday an old friend came for lunch and I made a new recipe for an asparagus quiche, a new recipe for a cucumber salad, a new recipe for some cheddar and scallion biscuits, and a new recipe for a lemon-mango cake. Tonight, another friend is coming for dinner and I'm trying a new recipe for beef stroganoff. Food is nourishment, yes. But it doesn't need to stop there. It can also be an adventure. So next time you're at the grocery store, buy that jar of something new and different, and figure out what to do with it.


I wish I had thought to take a photo of yesterday's lunch, but did not. Credit for this photo goes to: http://www.thecnj.com/review/2008/071708/foodanddrink071708_116.html