Friday, October 29, 2010

Modern Awkwardnesses

Needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of having a filling replaced, which led to a disorienting walk down a long hallway with most of my face covered by a red rubber dental dam. Of course, the moment I started my trip to the bathroom, the path filled up with people, including my hygienist and several startled patients.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"There was this girl..."

I recently watched a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked The Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War and helped move the nation towards the end of that dark episode. As I watched I was reminded of a basic principle of left-wing politics of the 1960s and 70s. Many men first became involved in radical politics because of a woman. Ellsberg was a veteran of the Vietnam war who had married the daughter of a career soldier. But his second wife was a left-winger, and, soon after they began dating, he was accompanying her to antiwar demonstrations. He released the Pentagon Papers a year after they were married.

I have always been a liberal, and during my senior year of high school, I rode a bus to the March on the Pentagon, a large anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington, DC. But my only foray into old-fashion Marxism came during my college years, at the suggestion of my then girlfriend. She convinced me—at least temporarily—that I should get involved with the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that is now largely credited with screwing up the antiwar movement and inadvertently delaying the end of the war. At my girlfriend’s suggestion, I drove with two other guys from Carbondale, Illinois to a YSA convention in Houston, Texas to watch scratchy silent films of Leon Trotsky—who was by then long dead—standing on a wall delivering dramatic oratory. Also, for the first time in my life, I heard the International sung by a large hall full of people. Soon my brief involvement with Russian-style socialism ended, and not long after that, my girlfriend and I parted ways.

Several friends report similar stories. When asked how they first got involved in left-wing politics, they smile and say, “Well, there was this girl....”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

From Our Town

Emily:....Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: (Quietly) No— Saints and poets maybe—they do some.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making a Difference In Someone's Life

I think this is the greatest joy of all. Knowing that you have made an important contribution to someone else's life. The post below is from a blog written by Liza Talusan, a former student of mine. Liza is a very special person who spends much of her time working for social justice. Unfortunately, Liza's family has a high rate of cancer, and she carries a gene that greatly increases her chances of getting breast cancer. After long contemplation she has decided to have a double mastectomy next month to increase her chances of survival. Liza's blog, Marathon B4 Mastectomy, is an account of her personal journey. The following entry in her blog is one of the nicest gifts anyone has ever given me:


 After all, how bad is a stain on my shirt or a being late for a meeting or someone being mad at you or a headache/stomach ache/hangover or traffic or missing a 24-hour sale when your kid has had cancer? Or, how about when your sister has had cancer? Or, how about when your own body is a ticking time bomb for cancer? Or, how about when your friend’s husband suddenly loses his vision or when your neighbor’s mother dies unexpectedly or when a young person cannot see any relief from bullying and teasing other than to take his own life? The “downs” redefine your norm.

For me, the downs are just part of the process. And, that end goal is experiencing a redefined UP; a new joy both in life and for life; and a new appreciation for when times are good.

And, these past few days have been particularly awesome.
Today, I received a beautiful letter. Twenty-seven words. Typed. Centered.
The Liza Mutiplier Effect:
a well-known economic concept
You help Liza, and just by being who she is,
she helps a hundred other people.

Between mile 9 and mile 10 on Sunday, my friend Carra Gamberdella joined me as a fresh pair of legs during my 1/2 marathon journey. Carra and I have been friends since our Connecticut College days, and she has always been that gal who puts a smile on my face just by Being Carra. She’s funny, kind, genuine, and full of life. Carra is also notorious for saying the darndest things. For example, one time Carra told me that she loves to drive in the left hand lane on the highway. “Why, Carra? Why do you love to drive in the left hand lane on the highway?” Carra answers, “Because, Liza, silly, it’s the friendliest lane!” I cringe yet dig deeper, “Carra, (dear God), why do you think the left hand lane is the friendliest lane?” She smiles her big white smile and her dark black Italian eyes light up, “Because, Liza! People drive right up behind you, flash their lights and wave! It’s so friendly!”

Sigh. Yes, Carra is serious. And, this exchange is pretty typical of a Carra Conversation. This is exactly why I love her.

I can also count on Carra for another reliable conversation — our shared admiration for one of our favorite professors: Stuart Vyse. For over a decade, Stuart Vyse has insisted that I no longer address him as “Professor.” Yet, to me, he is and always will be someone who I hold up on a pedestal. He was the very first professor I met on campus. He completely shaped my college career, ignited my love for psychology, and showed me the importance of being both a parent and a professional.

When I think about my role in education and in the lives of students, I think of Professor Vyse. For, I took nearly every single class that man taught, and I took his academic advising to heart. It was because of him that I applied to graduate school in psychology (decided, instead, to go into Higher Ed Admin) and was even accepted. I was a terrible student, even when he gave quizzes on a fixed interval schedule, but I remember nearly everything that he taught me. He was even an accomplice (meaning, he drove the van on a class field trip to Harvard) to my first nose piercing.

But, it wasn’t necessarily the lessons in class that impacted me; it was the interactions outside of class. They weren’t anything big nor lengthy. But, his words meant something to me. For example, at a Faculty event in the President’s House (we’re talking sometime in 1996), I was singing a solo with the acappella group and Prof. Vyse simply said to me, “That sounded great, Liza,” and walked on. I remember that feeling of A) He knows my name!, and B) Wow, he took the time to say something to me. That interaction was probably was just a blip on the screen of his day, but it meant the world to me. Positive reinforcement.

Years later, I was teaching psychology at a private school on Long Island to 12th graders. And, try as I might, I just couldn’t understand a concept well enough to teach it. Though I had been out of college for more than 5 years, I took a chance and emailed Professor Vyse to ask him how to best teach that lesson. He quickly responded, laid out a great lesson plan, and at the end, included, “So, are you still singing?”

So. Are. You. Still. SINGING?

He remembered that about me.

Years later, I would remember Professor Vyse again. Once I had children, I wanted them to be a part of my work community and interact with students. I remember Prof. Vyse’s kids running across the college green — his younger child with glasses bigger than his own face — and realized that I, too, could show my students that I was human. That I was a mom. That my family life is integrated into my work life. By having my children present on campus, students felt a different connection with me. They no longer saw me as just an administrator, but they could see me in different roles. I remember that moment I realized Prof. Vyse not just as a research and teaching psychologist, but he was also a dad. A human.

Over the next decade, thanks to Carra, I would hear about Prof. Vyse’s new books or research on magic or gambling or superstition. I would hear about the “Album of the Summer” or the different radio or talk shows he had been on. To me, he was always the definition of Professor — brilliant, funny, caring, dedicated, interesting, and, of course, as a requirement of the academy, a little bit quirky. I read his Op Ed pieces, usually not about psychology, and understood that professors could be interested in something other than (gasp!) their field of study.

When I gave the College’s Convocation address in 2008, I saw Prof. Vyse sitting in the audience. “I’d better not screw this up,” I thought. In my brief time there, I didn’t even say “hello” to him — I was too intimidated and didn’t want that awkward exchange of realizing he might not even know who the heck I was anymore.

Yet, a day later, I received an email from Prof. Vyse thanking me for my Convocation address.

Months later, I received encouragement from Prof. Vyse in the Marathon B4 Mastectomy journey.

And, today, in the mail, I received the kindest twenty-seven words I have ever had the privilege of reading, from Prof. Vyse.
The Liza Mutiplier Effect:
a well-known economic concept
You help Liza, and just by being who she is,
she helps a hundred other people.

How far can we go when we redefine the very thought of who we are, what we can do, and who we can impact? How high can we fly when we take the time to say or write words that transform — redefine — how we think of ourselves?

And, how beautiful can our world be when we multiply goodness, and redefine the idea that helping others is helping oneself?

Peace, love and embracing the sweetness of a life redefined,

Q-tip Morality

Some products are purportedly made for one purpose but most often used for another. One example that crosses the line of legality in the United States, is rolling papers. Probably some of the Zig-Zags sold at the local convenience store are used to hand roll tobacco cigarettes, but I suspect the overwhelming majority end up as joints.

A far more common domestic example of a product sold with a wink is the Q-tip. This great little tool was reportedly invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang when he witnessed his wife attaching cotton to a toothpick to clean their infant child. The product is now manufactured by Unilever, and a complete history of the Q-tip can be found on their website. Imitators abound. The box in my bathroom is a Stop & Shop brand knock-off. 

The Q-tip moral question is: Does the product warning really cover it? Does Unilever really believe that their product is only being used outside the ear canal? I found this photo of the Unilever warning on the web, and while it seems very direct, I suspect the manufacturer knows full well that the great majority of Q-tips are used to clean wax out of people’s ear canals. Indeed, the product is perfectly constructed for this purpose. The cotton is very securely attached and the thickness of the swab is ideal for spinning in an ear canal to get that pesky yellow gunk out of your head. It works beautifully. 

Of course the manufacturer wants to be protected from lawsuits, but does this really absolve them of responsibility? It is unlikely anyone would bring a suit about a product that, by now, has such a long and honored history, but I suspect a jury would be quick to see that a large portion of the profits gained from Q-tips come from the “misuse” of the product. Furthermore, few people would be convinced that Unilever is unaware of this fact.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Daniel Gilbert Quote

"My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it."

                            —from Stumbling on Happiness

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Odd Classroom Moments

Earlier this week while lecturing to my senior seminar, I uttered the following sentence: “Being sober is always worse.”

When the students laughed at this, I was jolted out of my concentration and quickly realized how ridiculous I sounded. There is a reasonable explanation. I was describing one of the features of relative addiction theory, as proposed by psychologists Howard Rachlin, Gene Heyman, and others. But to my students it sounded like I was expressing a personal preference for drunkenness.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Simple Pleasures: Ode to Pero

Two and a half years ago, in a post called “Ode to Postum,” I waxed romantic about the beloved coffee substitute. I reported that I and my partner of the time had come to enjoy a hot cup of Postum after dinner and that, no more than six months after we had established this pleasant routine, Kraft Foods had discontinued Postum. A product first introduced over a hundred years ago had been snatched from our hands just as we had fallen in love with it.

Much has happened since Ode to Postum. I am now drinking my hot beverages alone. But, especially as the weather turns cooler, I find myself yearning for a Postum-like beverage in the evening. When tea is not enough and something heartier and a bit sweet is required, I miss my Postum.

It has taken a while, but I’ve made the transition to Pero, a Swiss-made instant coffee substitute. Soon after the demise of Postum, I sampled a few of the other Postum imitators on the market. Most were undrinkable. Pero was acceptable but suffered by comparison with the memory of Postum. Pero was smooth and rich tasting. Its primary shortcoming was that, unlike Postum—which contained molasses—it was not naturally sweet. But sweetness is easy to accomplish. I typically drink both coffee and tea black, without sugar, so adding sweeteners does not come naturally for me. But a hot cup of Pero with a teaspoon of brown or white sugar is a very pleasing beverage. It may also help that, two and a half years after my last cup of Postum, the memory of its deliciousness has faded somewhat. Now, if the Pero and sugar are mixed just right, I can imagine I am drinking a cup of C.W. Post’s wonderful elixir.

On one level, the forgoing represents an unsolicited product endorsement (“I’m not a doctor, but I impersonate a PhD in real life”), but I hope you will see that is it much, much more: another installment in a long series of sonnets in appreciation of simple—in this case, domestic—pleasures.