Friday, February 26, 2010


"Last night I had the strangest dream,
I sailed away to China, in a little row boat to find ya,
and you said you had to get your laundry clean.
Didn't want no one to hold ya, what does that mean?"

Most of us are probably familiar with these opening lyrics from 'Break My Stride' made popular by Matthew Wilder in 1983 and subsequently covered by many others. Catchy lyrics and a catchy little beat - you can listen to several different interpretations on YouTube if you now have the ear worm. It kind of makes you want to dance or skip or at least bounce in your chair a little.

I've found myself saying that opening phrase quite often lately. I've been participating in a class on creativity and it's had some interesting and unexpected side effects. One of them is dreams. About 5 weeks into the course they said they wanted to alert us that some people might begin to experience a more vivid dream life. The warning came about 4 weeks too late for me - I was already well into it. Going to sleep these past few months is like going to the movies.

I know that we always dream (they say we average about 2 hours of dreaming per night), but most of our dreams are relatively short or mundane. Often we don't remember our dreams or we lose them moments after waking. Since participating in this class I've had lots of dreams. Very odd dreams. Dreams that I am remembering. In great detail.

The meaning of dreams is something people have struggled with through the ages. Their meanings have been debated and discussed in psychology and philosophy and theology. The ancients believed they were messages from the Gods and even those who weren't raised in the church know all about Joseph's dreams and their prophetic nature thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. Freud believed they were subconscious wishes or desires we are too afraid or inhibited to express in waking. Subsequent theories have proposed that our dreams are our long-term memories, or they are a way of dealing with our real life issues or problems, or even simply that they are the brain's way of dumping daily 'waste' from our thoughts and emotions.

Many people believe in dream analysis and there are a number of online sites that are available to tell you all about what your dreams really mean which, whether you believe in dream interpretation or not, is likely to give you a good laugh or two or at least a good snort. I suppose that dreams probably do mean something - but the idea that there is a generic and universal meaning for dreams seems a little arrogant and unimaginative to me.

As I've thought about these dreams that I've had recently, some of them do seem to have meanings that are painfully obvious - a little like being hit over the head with a brick. One particular dream reflected a specific past period in my life experience and my role in how that time played itself out. Certainly no need for a psychologist to interpret that one for me. I'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to get it.

Others though, and I would say most actually, have no real apparent meanings to me - nor am I particularly looking for them. Instead I'm simply enjoying the cast of characters that is running through my dreams every night. It really is like going to the movies and I'm now at the point where I'm actually eager to go to sleep to see what dreams will come. Who will show up in my head tonight? I've had a stream of family members, old college friends, high school friends, people from past places I've lived, past jobs, past relationships.

These people of my dreams mix in an interesting way - people who have never met each other in real life are having a wonderful time together in my dreams. The events of the dreams are also strange and strangely mixed. The dream starts in one place at an event and morphs into a different place where the people don't belong and are doing things they don't really do. In some dreams I'm being taught how to do things I already know how to do in life but in my dream I appear to be a novice. In others, the opposite is happening - I am doing something quite efficiently that I have no idea how to do in my waking life. Most of the time during the dream I actually have the sense of knowing that I'm dreaming and thinking that these people and things don't really make sense together but I'm having fun so why not just sit back and enjoy the ride.

These night dreams have caused me to think of day dreams, our bigger dreams or our conscious dreams. Those things we hold onto that we see for ourselves and our lives and our futures. It makes me think that perhaps those are things we should hold a little loosely. If my current life and past lives are doing so well in such a mish-mash in my night dreams, why do I think that my day imaginings must be only a certain way. Maybe my life can be less structured and rigid and controlled, less compartmentalized.

Maybe the roller coaster dream world of night does have a larger lesson to teach us for the day - a lesson that goes beyond thinking that the reason I'm being chased in my dream is because I'm running away from my problems in real life or that taking a test in my dream world means I must be feeling scrutinized in the real world. Maybe it can teach us that our life has endless possibilities - combinations of people and places and events that can come together into a beautiful story. Maybe the story isn't totally coherent and logical. Maybe it doesn't have to be.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Recently a friend and I were having a discussion about deceit. It's a topic that's hard to miss - sports figures, politicians, television preachers, celebrities of all ilk - you can't turn on the news or look at a website without some new story of someone's juicy, and failed, deception. Unfortunately, our conversation didn't have its genesis in the news. It came from her discovery that her husband had started out their relationship with a lie.

Most of us like to believe that we're pretty honest. We tell the truth - we don't make a practice of lying. Of course, if we do lie it's rare and there's ALWAYS a good reason for it, a way to justify it in our minds. "I don't want to hurt their feelings." "It's just a little white lie." "It's nobody else's business." "This is not a big deal - no one is getting hurt." They're not big lies, and they almost always have an "honorable" purpose - at least that's what we tell ourselves.

I'm relatively certain that lying is a natural human instinct. Which of us doesn't secretly want to appear to be better than we are. We do it to make ourselves look more honorable, more considerate, more kind. We do it to be "diplomatic." We tell the doctor that we work out regularly. We say that we never lie. We assert that we'd be happy to help out. We tell you we love your new haircut.

The harsh reality is that most of the time it's simply a way of avoiding trouble or, at the least, responsibility. We start as children. "How did the glass get broken?" "I don't know." "Who left their bike in the middle of the driveway?" "Not me." We continue as adolescents. "Where were you?" "We were at the library - studying." As adults, we take a 'sick day' when we really aren't sick.

Am I advocating total honesty, all the time? Heck no. Any idiot knows that a lie is in order when you're asked that (stupid, by the way) question - "Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" The truth - "No, the fact that your butt is fat is what makes your butt look fat" - is simply unacceptable. We lie.

So we justify our deceits because we always have a good reason. But deceit lives on a slippery slope and eventually, if we aren't careful, it becomes a little easier to cross the line. Somehow, we lose perspective and our 'good reason' becomes simple self-service. We don't want to own up to our mistake. We're embarrassed about our error. We're not getting what we want so we omit a significant detail or two or, perhaps worse, create a detail that doesn't exist. We're afraid if the truth comes out we'll lose face or we'll lose something or someone that we want. Before we know it, we've moved from dissembling or a convenient 'misrepresentation' into the realm of a flat out lie.

But everyone does it, so what's the harm? Embarrassment if we're found out - the lightest of our consequences. A verbal reprimand from a boss or a maybe a letter in a personnel file. If the lie is big enough, maybe a lost job. A damaged relationship - again, if the lie is big enough, maybe one that is permanently broken. But it seems the bigger harm is what it does to us internally. What it does to our sense of ourselves, our sense of integrity, and maybe, eventually, our ability to tell the truth from fiction.

If we're not careful, we begin to justify our lie and the telling of it because it achieved for us the desired outcome. And if we continue down the path, we begin to actually believe that the lie we told is truth - or close enough to truth that it doesn't matter. And, the additional trouble with the lie is that it becomes the foundation for everything that comes after it - making for a web of lies that appear to have substance but that fall apart when the initial lie is revealed for what it is.

My friend, for example, is now in the position of questioning everything her husband has said to her during their marriage. If one of the first things he said to was a lie (and a whopper of one as it turns out), then she naturally questions if everything that has come after is also a lie. I suspect, of course, that it isn't. After all, unless one is a sociopath, keeping up a constant web of lies simply takes too much energy and is too difficult to sustain. But I understand her concern - and her sense of betrayal. She admits quite freely that had she known the truth, she would never have dated him at all and, it follows then, that she never would have married him. How does one, in such circumstances, reconcile the revealed truth to the initial lie and to the validity of the life choices that have come from it as a result?

I have no answers for my friend. But hearing her story makes me remember the times I have been deceived and the terrible sense of hurt and betrayal that came as the inevitable result. More importantly, it makes me think about the times I am tempted to deceive. Certainly most of the time, as hard or even painful as it might be to tell it, the truth truly is better than a lie. And even when it seems like a lie would be the most expedient choice, the harder path of the truth is really the better choice. In the end, we may end up not getting exactly what we had thought we wanted, but we end up with something better - an intact sense of our own integrity.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I wrote awhile back about all the smart people I work with. Everything I said about them was true. And it isn’t just people I work with. I have really smart friends also, and many of my family members are no slouches either. But the smartest person I have ever known, by far, is my mother.

My mom was not a highly educated woman. She graduated from the 8th grade. This was the middle of the Great Depression so the costs of education made both high school and college out of the question for her, the youngest of six children. But even though her formal education ended young, my mom was a great reader and continued to educate herself throughout her life. When I was growing up there were always books in the house and reading often took precedence over dusting and vacuuming (a standard I am happy to say that I uphold to this day!)

Much of mom's education came from life. She moved from the farm to the nearest large town and started to work. She married in 1939, about five weeks shy of her 19th birthday, and had children. She worked as a domestic, a cook, and a waitress. She suffered the pain of divorce and lost babies. She remarried and had more children, both produced and acquired. She buried her parents, siblings, and her husband. She left friends and family behind and started over, more than once, simply playing the cards that life chose to deal to her.

Through it all, she was kind and loving and compassionate to others. She did the best she could with what she had for as long as she was able. She worked hard, both in terms of hours and physicality. At age 70, she tore up the old carpet in her house - by hand - and laid down new carpet - also by hand - and repainted all the rooms in her house - by herself. Whatever you could call her, it wasn't lazy!

My mom was not perfect - no person or parent is - and I'm not trying to make her out to be a saint because she wasn't. Did she make mistakes? Yes. Did she regret some of her choices in life? Probably. Given the chance, would she have done a couple of things differently? Maybe. In addition to all the wonderful gifts she gave me, she also contributed to a trait or two in my make-up that has proven to be less than constructive in adult relationships and that I have had to deliberately work to change. However, those 'damages' were not done maliciously or with intent. They came from her own 'damages'- things that were done to her by others or circumstance over which she had no control. I certainly don't blame my mother (or dad for that matter) for any of my shortcomings or weaknesses. They are mine alone to own and change.

I was a late-in-life baby, the last of five in my family, born one week before my mom's 40th birthday. If you ask my older siblings, they would probably tell you I was spoiled. I, of course :-), don't agree. My mom was fair. She treated us not the same but equitably, nonetheless. She adapted to her children's personalities and strengths. She was able to see the different things we needed and gave them to the best of her ability.

I remember when my mother's mother died. I think I was 14 or 15 at the time. My grandmother lived far away from us all my life so I didn't grow up in close relationship with her. I saw her once a year until I was about 11 or 12. I'll be honest and say that she wasn't my favorite person. She was old and crabby and her house smelled funny. She lived in a little town where there was nothing to do and going to visit was a painful week out of my summer. She was also mean. I'm sure she wasn't but I perceived her that way because I didn't know her. I was afraid of her.

Because of my childish perspective on my grandmother, I admit that after her death, I couldn't really understand why my mom missed her so much. They hadn't lived in the same town for 30 years. As time passed, and my mom would occasionally mention how much she missed her mom, I understood it even less. How, 25 years after her death, could her lack of presence be so painful? I really didn't get it. And, of course, now I do. Clearly. Daily. I'd give my right arm to have my mom back, to simply be able to talk to her about my day or hear her tell a story about hers.

Abraham Lincoln once said "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my mother." I believe I can say the same. She taught me to listen and learn and be compassionate to others, to work hard, to have courage in the face of adversity, to not think the world owed me a living, to be kind and patient even when you don't want to be, that laughing at myself was good and that there was rarely ever a reason to take myself or my circumstances too seriously. Do I always live up to those lessons? Not nearly as much as I would wish yet I'm grateful for having been taught them so lovingly.

So on this day, the tenth anniversary of her death, and every day, I pay tribute to my Mother - my teacher, my mentor, my cheerleader, my pal, my Mom.

Monday, February 8, 2010


The life of those in academia is bound by time. It's the nature of an academic environment. Everything revolves around the clock. I realize this is probably true for many professions, but it seems particularly true in academia. Classes start at specific times. Classes run for specific times. They end on time. In longer classes, you have breaks that last a certain length of time, at specific times. Even meetings are controlled by the clock in ways they might not be in the corporate arena. They must be scheduled around class schedules - schedules that simply cannot be adjusted. In the corporation, a manager might be able to say "let me have my secretary re-schedule my meeting with so-and-so and we can keep working until this is done." The academic can't say - "Well, let me move my class back half an hour so we can extend this meeting." It just doesn't work that way. The clock is an inescapable presence.

While working on campus, many of us complain of the difficulty in getting some uninterrupted time to do work. There are too many distractions. Colleagues stop in your doorway to say hello and spend 20 minutes chatting. And while you'd like to be sanctimonious, you can't be because you must admit that you have often been guilty of the same behavior. Students drop in with a question (far less often than we would like) or a problem (far more often than is comfortable.) Even if you close your door, the ultimate 'do not disturb' message, it doesn't take long before someone is knocking. You just get going on a project and the phone rings or the alarm on the computer sounds reminding you of the meeting or class you must be at. Distractions - everywhere.

Working from home is quite a change from working on campus. There is no schedule. There are no classrooms full of students waiting for you to arrive, no meetings at which your attendance is a requirement or even an expectation. You have time - massive amounts of uninterrupted time - in which to accomplish all those things you cannot when you are on campus with all those distractions. There it is before you - an uninterrupted vista of time.

And then there are all those distractions. The distractions are different then they are at the office, but they are no less compelling psychologically. Yes, I could be revising that Interpersonal assignment OR I could be writing this blog entry. Yes, I could be writing out a new set of notes for that Intercultural chapter OR I could be working on that afghan I'm making as a birthday gift for a friend. But this all makes me sound pretty good, right? At least my distractions are somewhat productive. It's not as though my distractions are stupid things - Facebook, mindless television, trashy novels.

But they are. In addition to my writing and my gift making, I check my Facebook page, I've read a less than literary novel or two, and I admit to an addiction to America's Test Kitchen on TV. But it doesn't even take that much to distract me. I'm walking from one room to the next and by the time I'm there I've had 12 different things catch my attention. The dust bunny along the hallway baseboard, the drooping plant that needs water, the stray sock that I dropped on my way to the laundry chute, the neighbor walking his dog down the street, the sound of the mailman dropping the mail in the box, and on and on. I make jokes about having adult-onset ADD, but there's a part of me that isn't joking.

I've written before about my attention span - or lack thereof - and my use of lists. And the lists do help, but it seems that I might be one of those people who works most productively when I have some sort of a schedule. Don't get me wrong. The projects are getting done and, if I'm not mistaken, I'm actually going to finish ahead of schedule. Yet I am plagued by more than one guilt feeling about 'wasting' time. Maybe it's the Puritan work ethic instilled in me by my depression-era parents. Or, maybe it's simply the incredible gratitude I feel knowing that I have a gift that few people are lucky enough to have access to and even fewer will take advantage of.

So the current challenge is to work, but not overwork, and to take advantage of the opportunity to rest, relax and rejuvenate my mind. I'm working at being 'in the moment' and enjoying it for what it gives and trying to remember that the attention to other things is making me more creative and productive when I am working. And, a small part of me looks forward to being back on a schedule that isn't quite so self-directed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Recently I spent time with a friend comparing notes on a mutual hobby and sharing our finished work and works in progress. As we examined her work and my work I recognized - and I'm here to declare to you all - she is better than I am. Her work is more careful and precise and her finished product is more professional than mine. She is superior.

Anyone who is conscious of their surroundings and other people has, at one time or another felt inferior. After all, a sense of inferiority, by definition, must come from comparison. To be 'inferior' there must be something 'superior' to which you are comparing.

We grow up doing this comparison in our culture and it stays with us throughout our lives. Competition, in any endeavor, exposes us to this. One tennis player has a superior serve to another. One singer, a superior voice. One dancer, a superior kick or jump. When I was in college I competed in Forensics and then went on to coach as a professional. The activity is filled with those judgments - this performance is superior to that, this speech, this delivery style, this supporting evidence. I continue it as a teacher. This paper is superior in writing style; this speech is superior in expression.

Most of us learn to live with those evaluations quite well and to accept them as a commentary on our strength or interest in a certain area. We value those judgments as a means of improving our skills in areas we care about. If we know what 'superior' is, we are better able to strive for it. We accept that we can't be the best in everything and we don't want to be. Some things we care about and other things we don't. Some things matter to our advancement in career or relationship, others don't. We pick and choose and are the better for it.

There is, also, another feeling of inferiority. This is the irrational sense of inferiority that is based on a faulty judgment of our own worth, the worth of another, the importance of an event, skill, or situation. One of my more vivid memories of this sense of inferiority comes from High School. Now, I realize some of you are laughing and thinking that there's absolutely nothing unique about this. And, of course, you are right. High school is filled with all the elements that make for those types of comparisons and, given adolescent sensibilities and hormones, make them memorable.

The significance of this event, though, is that nobody did anything intentionally. No one set out to hurt me or 'make me feel' inferior. I did it to myself. It happened in typing class. (Those of you who grew up using computers, go ask an old person what a typewriter is and why we had to take a class learning to use one!) It was winter and it was cold, both outside and in. My high school was built in the early 1900s and had high ceilings and incredibly large double hung windows and was, consequently, extremely drafty when the winter winds blew. Two girls were sitting in the row in front of me - Patty and Yvonne. Patty was shivering and complained of being cold. Yvonne glanced over at her and remarked "Well, you're wearing a summer shirt, what did you expect?" They both laughed and the incident was over.

And there I sat. I looked at them both. Yvonne was wearing a heavy ski sweater in a style very popular in the mid-70s. Patty was wearing a cotton shirt. It had short sleeves, a v-neck, buttoned up the front, had a tie that went to the back and the fabric was printed with some sort of Holly Hobbie doll design also very popular during that era. (Again, for the young - a Google search will teach you about Holly Hobbie.) I looked at Yvonne. I looked at Patty. And I realized that my family was poor.

I was wearing a cotton shirt with a cardigan sweater over it. This was the first time I had ever heard the expression "summer shirt." In my house, you had a shirt. You wore the shirt. If you were cold, you put a sweater on over the shirt. It didn't matter if it were summer or winter - the shirt was to be worn. You didn't have very many of them so your options were rather limited. But at that moment, I realized that other people had seasonal wardrobes. They had shirts they wore only in the summer. And they had enough shirts that they could put them away and wear different shirts in the winter.

At that moment, I judged myself 'inferior.' Did my classmates judge me that way? Maybe they did. Probably they didn't even spare a thought for my 'wardrobe.' What's important is that I judged myself. I found myself lacking. I came to the conclusion that my family's financial situation was inferior and that those who had more money were somehow superior. Time, of course, certainly helped me understand that there were many more important things in life than money. The fact is, we were poor. Our family income was inferior to other families that we knew. But that didn't have to define who I was.

I'd like to say that I carried the lesson on with me and never felt inferior again. Sadly, I can't. On occasion, I'm still susceptible to it. Most of us are familiar with one of Eleanor Roosevelt's more famous quotes - "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." And most of us, on our more healthy and well-adjusted days, can agree with her whole-heartedly. But when we're tired, or maybe when we're feeling blue about some event in the world or in our life, or maybe just when the gray sky of winter is gray one too many days in a row, we let it get to us. The insensitive comment made by a friend or a family member or a colleague can still, on one of our less well-adjusted days, take us to that place.

Back in High School it didn't take me too long to figure out that money was not the only value and certainly wasn't the most important one. I was able to recognize that other things - character, compassion, generosity - were more important than one's bank balance. Many of those criteria that we judge ourselves and others by are probably, especially from an eternal perspective, pretty warped. Wealth, physical attractiveness, fame, job prestige - as we see in the papers every day - are fleeting and they don't guarantee happiness. And those things certainly don't guarantee a superior character in those who hold them.

American Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979) said it this way - "God has given different gifts to different people. There is no basis for feeling inferior to another who has a different gift. Once it is realized that we shall be judged by the gift we have received, rather than the gift we have not, one is completely delivered from a false sense of inferiority." Ultimately, our purpose in life is not to live up to anyone else's (or our own, for that matter) random standards. It is to be who we are - in fullness, giving our best.