The former director of the MFA program I graduated from signs all of his emails “Keep writing.”
I used to think, oh! That’s nice. A little boost to my day, a reminder to keep pen to paper even when I’m feeling blue or confused or unmotivated or scattered. (All things that happen.)
But now we are looking at a pandemic. A whole country has shut down. My partner is WFH for the foreseeable future. The hospitality industry is tanking; the stock markets are plummeting; the world as we know it is changing and looking like an even bigger dumpster fire than it was last month. So how can we view something like art in an appropriate fashion?
Art, after all, is elective. It’s a leisure activity. It’s what you do when you have a long afternoon to kill and a rainy forecast. Movies, books, museums.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since I teach in two MFA programs. My students are non-traditional students, many of whom have been working for some time and who have jobs and families that often have nothing to do with their advanced studies. I’m writing this in part for them, because I want them to know:
Without art, there is no record of what we were. Where we have been. Who we were.
But it goes deeper than that, from my point of view. When we write, or paint, or make a film, we are letting the end user share in our sense of discovery, in our sense of wonder and confusion and fear. And in the process of crafting these paragraphs and sentences, in the process of laying down blobs of color or taking that photo, we understand ourselves a little bit more.
And without this deep, internal understanding of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling, we don’t have a real hope of learning from history. Of understanding why we do what we do.
Ultimately, it’s not the end result that matters so much as the process of getting to the end result.
So yeah. Keep writing. Keep producing. Keep trying to make sense of whatever’s going on in your world. It’s worth the effort, especially now.
My series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be will resume with my next post, but today I want to talk to you about something cool that happened yesterday.
Tuesday evening was rough. Last week I tried out for a writing gig in a space I’m really interested in—organizational psychology, loosely—and haven’t worked in yet. I don’t think I realized at the time how much it would matter to me to not get it.
I went to bed feeling crappy after I got the news and woke up with a pissiness hangover. It was even worse because I’d just come off an epic weekend where I shared a portion of my newest work-in-progress for the first time and got to meet up with some old friends. It always makes a work feel real when you read it into a room—now that other people know of its existence, it’s like you have to make it happen. Before that, it’s all just theoretical, to my mind.
Anyway. Being disappointed is one thing. Knowing I should feel okay about this disappointment because I’d had such a great weekend was quite another, somehow, so I sent this tweet out the Wednesday morning.
When you send a call for help like this out into the Twitterverse, I think there’s a part of you that wonders what kind of response you’ll get back.
The answers I received were heartening. There were ones that have to do with perspective, like this:
And I love this one from a former student of mine, with her reminder that if it matters enough, you’ll find a way to get at it anyway.
In it, she references the first response I got, from a professor I met on Twitter via the writing I’ve been doing about Dolly Chugh’s book. He teaches in the organizational behavior field, too. His answer was striking because his “smile file” is a step we undertook at Tahoma Literary Review to remind us of what keeps us moving forward, but I never took that extra half-step to apply it to my own work.
Later, he sent a photo of his smile file. It’s on his wall; he doesn’t even have to open it! He just turns to it, a pile of cards and notes tacked to a board, and bang! Instant boost.
And then there was some other immediately actionable advice:
And finally, some great advice around personal philosophy.
I think probably the thing I love about all of these is that they come from a place of shared experience: We have all these disappointments. Some of them may feel larger than others, and I suspect the severity of this one has to do with some embarrassment on my part for not performing up to snuff. But seeing that shared experience is what keeps me coming back to social, time and again.
The advice was great, but what really made me pull out of the funk was seeing how many of your coping mechanisms resonated with others.
And as you replied to each other’s comments and added advice of your own, I realized that maybe this was a form of smile file, too; this sensation of a shared space and a community, however ephemeral, built around one person’s temporary disappointment.
This is part 7 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…When we only perceive what we expect, we create an echo chamber. We do not look for or notice disconfirming information….What makes these psychological echo chambers even more problematic is that we also live in social and media echo chambers. These are more willfully created. These are the ones we choose…. A PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) American Values Survey asked participants to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters….They found that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Hispanics had homogenous networks composed exclusively of people sharing their own race.”
Dolly Chugh, The Person YOU Mean to Be, pp 100-102
You know how the universe sometimes conspires with you? You’ll look at your calendar and see three meetings with varying parties and friends related to one client, say. Or you’ll realize that, on a day you have an appointment for your dog at the vet, you also notice a new bird you haven’t seen before, or make a new friend who’s studying to be a vet.
Some people say that that’s all just your brain being aware of opportunities that “go together.” Another friend likes to say it’s whatever “energy” you’re putting out there when you book the appointment, or the meeting. It might just be sheer, magical coincidence.
I don’t actually care what it is that makes these things group; I just like that they do. And I like all the explanations, actually.
In the past seven days, I have spent quality time with six friends I’ve known since at least high school. I had drinks with one of them last night; drinks with another two Wednesday night, and spent last weekend with three others. All of this time with old friends, people who know you so well that they’ve accepted all of your bumps and warts and expect more, has me re-assessing why it is we go back to some people again and again.
Because the truth is, I’ve been sitting on top of the task that Dolly Chugh sets to us in the quote I posit I above for more than a month. Her work implicitly challenges us to examine our own networks, and the extent of our own echo chambers. It’s much easier for me to feel good about the fact that I have old friends who work in widely varying fields, and who I’m proud of knowing and want to keep forever, than it is to acknowledge that my own networks are really, really homogenous.
But this is where it gets really tricky. Because, see, I’m part of a “model minority.” And in recent years, I’ve read or seen a good number of studies that show that Asians are often lumped in with whites: we have similar income trends for instance. And we have similar educational profiles, as well. I think we tend to disappear. (Read this essay, from Matt Salesses, for another valuable viewpoint.)
More anecdotally, the stereotype of Asians not wanting to rock the boat, of just quietly slotting in, fits neatly into this narrative, as well. And actually, maybe it’s not a stereotype. My parents told me regularly to just be quiet, hunker down and get my work done. While, of course, earning the best grades in school and being popular, or something. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.)
All of this is to explain that most of my friends were–and are–white. Of the friends I met over the course of the last week, my high school friends, only one of them isn’t white; she’s Iranian. So while Chugh comments that whites, blacks, and Hispanics have networks that comprise mostly their own races, well…I don’t have that issue. But it doesn’t make me feel any more diverse, because for a long time I acted like I was white myself.
I don’t really know what to do about this, except to exercise more inclusion in my life. I’m married to a white guy; my parents are Asian, so is my brother. It’s like, although it’s enough for other people to have more than one ethnicity in their social circles, it’s not enough for me to have Asians and whites in the pool of people I share important things with; I have to have more diversity; be more.
And suddenly, I’m back in high school again, with my parents comparing me to the next kid, over and over: Why can’t you be more popular, like her? Why can’t you be smarter, like her? Why can’t you be more obedient, like her? Why can’t you be quieter prettier care more about your family not quite you?
Listen: I’m not complaining. I like, need, value more viewpoints. Hearing what it’s like from someone else’s point of view is like having a light turned on in a dark room. Yesterday I spent some time with some young Hispanic and Black students as part of a conference I participated in. And one of the panels I was on comprised a white woman, an Indian woman, a black woman, and myself. I loved hearing about their creative processes. I got to spend some additional time with one of the volunteers at the conference. Driving her home, I listened to her talk about the pressures she’s under as a young black woman, what her family expectations are, how she thinks her career in the fine arts is going to shape up.
I hope one day I’ll be able to list her, or someone like her, among the group of people I discuss important issues with.
But for now I have to tell you that the seven people I most discuss important issues with are white or Asian.
They are: My husband My brother My friend Amy My friend Peter My friends and neighbors Suzanne and/or Aurelia or both together My friends Dawn and/or Leigh Anne or both together
Actually, discounting the high school friends (Amy is one), these are just the last sevenish people I discussed difficult or serious things with.
Of them, only my brother is a minority. And he wouldn’t count as being diverse, since he shares my race.
I don’t actually know what to do with this. I didn’t think I’d arrive at this conclusion. I think I thought that I’d just add this to my long list of “to do” items-—consult with more diverse people; make a concerted effort to reach out more often for differing viewpoints. I thought this was going to end on a high note, somehow, that I’d feel energized, after yesterday’s amazing conference, to make more friends. But really, I’m just tired now, and a little depressed. The collision between wanting to be good and my cultural heritage has caught up to me today.
And yet. Two, three weeks ago I was walking Huckleberry in the soccer field by my house when I saw another dog in the field. It was bouncing and happy, and its owner was sitting nearby. I went over and introduced myself and let my dog go, and since then, Huckleberry, Nala, Bruce and I have spent three or four mornings together in the field, talking about everything from work to President Number 45 to our siblings and work and code-switching.
Bruce is 60. He’s black. I am putting him on my list. Because I appreciate him, yes. But also because I need more of his type of wisdom. I didn’t actively reach out to him that first time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But maybe being open to those encounters is good, too, even if it’s not “good enough.”
The American entrepreneur Jim Rohn is often quoted as saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If I’m thinking of this as an aspirational exercise, rather than a foregone conclusion, I feel a sense of great responsibility.
I want to be more worldly. I want to know what it was like for you, if you grew up Black. Or poor. Or gay or queer or trans. I am none of these things, and I can never be. So maybe it’s not that I am the average of the five people I spend the most time with, but that I am richer, a better person, if I can learn a little more of your story.
This might feel like a false comparison. Chugh is talking about expanding our circles; making our echo chambers less echoey. Jim Rohn is talking about bettering yourself. He’s talking about finding people you admire and looking for ways to spend more time with them so you can be more like them.
But I don’t think these two are all that far removed from each other. Internalizing someone else’s struggle—knowing about it, shining a light on it for yourself, knowing more about it—this can’t be anything but a good thing, can it?
This is part 3 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…”[Brittany’s] experiences as a black women had given her first-hand reasons to be a believer, but they did not equip her with the skills to be a builder…[Her] beliefs about her ability to grow were necessary, thought not sufficient. The beliefs she had about the people around her also mattered, specifically, her belief about what business school professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety.” Edmondson…has shown that when a group believes they can speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes, propose ideas, take blame, confess uncertainty, and disclose inability, they learn more and perform better.”
_The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 30
As I’ve grown, I’ve sought out psychological safety, even without really knowing it. Part of this is just figuring out what makes me feel good. It sounds simple, but it’s more than that: It’s about defining what you value.
For instance: I run, sporadically. I’ll happily train for half-marathons and longer events, but I don’t love to run. What I consistently seek is a thing loosely reflected in the runner’s high. I always relish being outdoors, and I like the extra-observational quality I seem to acquire when I run (I notice a lot when I’m out), but really, I’m chasing the sensation of having finished a run, or the idea of being strong enough to go out every day, if I want to. I want to know I can.
It took me years to figure this out. Now, when I try to talk myself out of a jog, it’s easier for me to talk myself back into it: I just need to embrace the Bacchanalian side of me. Whereas before, I used to wear T-shirts that said things like “Yes it hurts” and believe that I enjoyed the sensation of being tired, now I say things like “One beer for two more miles” and “I get to rest tomorrow if I can just manage this many miles.”
(Also, my new puppy is getting very good at running, and he seems to enjoy the time we spend together. I could be projecting.)
This is not a perfect science. Clearly I don’t mind the suffering, and on some level I enjoy the burning muscles and sweaty face. It’s just that my personal value system places a higher value on joy than it does ick.
So how does this translate to the things I value in psychological safety? In the example that comes right before the passage quoted above, Chugh describes an organization that is “stumbling upwards.” It is trying really hard to do diversity and inclusion, but every once in awhile it fails hard, even as it’s putting in measures like including minority members on its board.
She lists the risks people feel they can take in safe psychological spaces, like admitting mistakes and taking blame, and that got me thinking about the safe psychological spaces that populate my life, and whether or not I can pinpoint the qualities of those spaces that allow me to perform better. I’ve chosen a few of them below, and I hope you’ll share some of yours with me.
An all-woman disaster-relief team. I volunteer for ShelterBox, an international disaster-relief agency. Most of our team members are male, so it’s rare that an all-woman team gets matched up together on deployment. On my thirteenth deployment, I finally landed on one. ShelterBox puts all response team members through the same rigorous training, so we all know what’s in each other’s kit; what the safety protocol is; what our remit is, and so on. These provide us with a basic level of psychological safety when we’re in questionable places. But having an all-woman team made things like complaining about your period totally okay. Being able to tell someone, “I got my period,” and having them exhibit empathy instead of “I don’t know what to do with that” is extraordinary. Also, my teammates put “Yi Shun, CALL YOUR HUSBAND” on the team calendar because I was deployed over my anniversary. That was pretty great, too. I’m not sure a team of men would have thought of that. Not having to consider whether or not it was appropriate was aces.
(from left to right: Kate, Ursula, myself, and Amy. This team was deployed just before International Women’s Day, which felt appropriate.) This example speaks to my preference for a low-stakes default state. I prefer to just tell people things, for instance, without having to anticipate a bad or embarrassed or embarrassing response. Both these things—my period, which can cause fatigue, and worse, extra extra hangriness; and my anniversary, which was causing guilt—needed to be dealt with. Being in a safe environment allowed me to allow the team to help with those.
The team at Tahoma Literary Review. Four of us run this literary magazine, which is trying to add to the status quo of the literary-magazine industry. We are not affiliated with a college or university, and we pay our writers and our staff. (This is an unusual thing in the world of literary magazines.) We are nowhere close to even federal minimum wage, but we are working towards a new model that we hope will inspire change. We have published a lot of first-timers and undergraduates and strive for diversity and inclusion, and most of our meetings are fun. We share similar communication styles, or we know enough about each other to be able to parse what we are each trying to say even when we stumble. Because we are all remote, we all have to be really, really good about communicating our needs and worries to each other, and for the most part we are able to do so. When we have stress points, I think we are pretty good at saying so. I think much of this has to do with our commonality of cause. Because we all ultimately want the same thing for our magazine, we can surmount more and take more risks with each other.
Southern New Hampshire University. I teach in the online MFA program here. I like it a lot, even though its mascot is…meh.
(Frankly, I find him terrifying.) The entire MFA is online, so we need to have a pretty good support system for both students and faculty members. In this program, I’ve never lacked for answers or felt lost. When I need help, I can choose from a student’s academic advisor, my own team lead, or one of two associate deans to communicate with. Of course I need to do some due diligence to ensure that I am communicating with the right person, but I don’t ever feel alone or unsupported. This system, maybe because of its structure as an online education tool, puts communication first. We are asked to respond to all students within 24 hours maximum. And we post welcome messages at the beginning of every term and introduce each week in the term with an announcement of some sort. SNHU places a high value on constant communication. This creates a feeling of safety for me, and has allowed me to weigh in on everything from diversity initiatives to internships in my short time with the program.
My high school friends.
These are the women I have known since high school or before. They are people who already know what I was, and so are not expecting anything more than my teenaged self, which was probably the worst version of me. They allow for flexibility and allow me to ask a lot of stupid questions. This relationship speaks to the part of me that values the (sometimes harmful) ideology behind family. You can make mistakes around each other and you can inadvertently hurt each other, but you can’t imagine not seeing each other, so you make steps to move past it. This relationship also allows me to talk through ideas even when they are not fully formed, something that’s echoed in my relationship with my husband and my brother.
These are the values that underscore my sense of psychological safety and contribute to my growth mindset. In her book, Dr. Chugh invites the reader to think about where you feel safe, and I’ll echo her here: What are your psychological safe spots or relationships, and what values do you think they underscore? Tell me in the comments below.
No? This is a cat thing. Here is a video compilation for you, just in case:
This is cute, even if I don’t quite understand the internet/meme-speak people insist their cats engage in. (“I can haz cheezburger?”)
(To be fair, even though I’m a declared dog person, I also do not understand most of the Internet “doggo” speak. My friend Chels refers to her dog as a “puppalups,” and this I understand, but this might be because I can hear Chels saying it in my head.)
Anyhow. None of that is either here nor there. I’m writing because I think my dog is actually a cat. Witness:
He loves fringes of any sort: on my head, on my blanket, on my tablecloth; on people’s trousers.
He uses his paws for a lot more than normal dogs do: to get your attention; to open doors; to juggle toys.
And last week he ate a fern.
I mean, just look at it. He ripped it right out by its roots. The pot was still standing. And then he sat on the remains of it, so I couldn’t see the evidence. There were some dirt clumps on the side table where the fern used to live. It was a near-perfect crime.*
Also, he climbs on things. He’s only allowed on two pieces of furniture, but Christ, how do we explain this?
And then there is this:
This is the dog version of if it fits, I sits.
Here, have another look.
Obviously, there are some marked differences.
This is just sloppy. No self-respecting cat, I think, would leave a limb hanging out like this. I mean, an appendage, sure–a paw, or a tail. But not a whole limb. It just seems uncouth.
Then there is this:
What even is this? This is uncomfortable. No one would ever choose this, unless one is a dog with no nerve endings in his head and does not give a flying whatsit. Dog’s head is against a table leg. Dog is half-in, half-out of bed.
Then there is this:
What are these evidence of, you might say? This is evidence that dog does seem to care what we think. Which is not to say that cats don’t care what we think**, but this is obviously some kind of needy stare-down.
In fact, I think it’s downright pugnacious.
Look, I know other dogs do this “if it fits, I sits”** thing. In fact, I think Huckleberry does it because his friend Scooby, a gigantic black lab who belongs to our friends Non and Jess, did it first.
But I do think that I’m prescribing cat-like behavior to The Berry because I’m struggling to understand him.
Our dead dog, Sprocket, was a hyper-communicator. He had funny little eyedots that were a visual cue to whereever he was looking, and sometimes, whatever he was thinking. When he wanted to pick anything up on our walks, he would stop and put his paw on it and wait for us to tell him, “You can have that,” or “No.”
If he wanted to pee, he would stop walking and wait for us to acknowledge that he was, indeed, stopping to pee.
If you told him to “leave it,” he would fling his head to one side, away from the object you were telling him to ignore, an extra signal to us that he was LEAVING IT.
If he came across something on a walk or if he saw something from the window that he’d never seen before, his ears would pin back on his head, and then he would look up at you. “What is that? Is that…okay?”
And we would say, “That’s okay, buddy. It’s just a bunny/raven/lizard. You leave it alone.” We would pat him and the ears would move forward and he would watch, but he rarely bolted or got nervous.
Sprocket had one blue eye, one brown.
Huckleberry’s eyes are very dark brown, and set more closely together and forward in his head. He looks beady-eyed, calculating, sometimes, especially when we are wanting him to do something with us or for us: “Huckleberry, come!” *Beady-eyed stare* “Huckleberry, come!” *Further staring.*
This is frustrating at best, and it makes us really sad, at worst. I worry that Huckleberry doesn’t enjoy the same level of trust or calm that Sprocket did. When he goes outside and we see a bunny, we tell him to leave it. He does, but his whole body trembles. He is alert. Every muscle is waiting for release.
(Not for nothing, but this is a little cat-like, too.)
This morning, I read something that put into more concrete terms an exercise I give to most of my students and my writing-coaching clients. In the case of my university students, always runs the length of our time together.
I borrow the term “deep noticing” from poet Derek Sheffield, and I use Lynda Barry’s daily diary exercise. Part of the exercise requires you to list seven things you did, and seven things you saw. You’re not to spend more than two and a half minutes on each section. The idea is that you just get better at paying attention to what’s actually around you.
We do this because I want students to pay attention to how much wealth of inspiration there is out there, but I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by MAKING SOMETHING of it. Sometimes, a thing just is, and you can get to know yourself really, really well by paying attention to what you’re actually noticing.
When I’m noticing things, for instance, I notice: Patterns Creatures Leaves
(What things are you likely to notice?)
The thing I read is this piece from the New York Times Smarter Living section, which I seem to be reading an awful lot of lately. In it, the columnist, Tim Herrera, talks about “pay[ing] attention to what you care about, and … car[ing] about what you’re paying attention to.”
I love this idea, and putting it into practice with Huckleberry may help me to make more sense of his behavior:
When does he look apprehensive? When does he look happy? What is his body doing when he is happy/apprehensive? When is he paying attention to me? What expression is he wearing when he is paying attention to me?
Probably my favorite thing about life overall is how much the things we love to do dovetail into each other, and how confirming that can be.
Back when I thought my first novel would be a middle-grade/YA book, and the animals in my work in progress were talking, someone suggested I really consider what they’d say if they were actually talking to me. So I built a facebook page for Sprocket, and made up a voice for him. This is the most I’ve ever considered my writing life coinciding with my dog life.
But you know, maybe the thing I should take from this is that I noticed Sprocket a lot more than I notice Huckleberry. That’s a valuable lesson, too.
*So stealthy. **Who’m I kidding? Part of the great charm of cats is that they really don’t care what we think, do they?
We’re still sitting in the Bergen airport, awaiting for our flight home from a packed trip with my parents. Jim and I took a day to decompress in this laid-back city by ourselves, which was a much-needed reprieve from the cruise we took–a vacation from our vacation, like they say.
I’m not sure the 24 hours here was enough–the city has four art museums all in a row, and a pile of beautiful public spaces to hang out in, as well as a lot of interesting architecture to discover and some great people-watching–but something happened last night that I’m still turning over, and I wanted to share it with you and see what you thought.
We ate out last night at L——–, a restaurant I won’t name here. It has a solid multi-course tasting menu helmed by a guy who’s put in time at some other restaurants we’ve eaten at and loved, so we were excited to see what he would do with food from his native Bergen.
The décor is reasonably stark, naked bulbs and good design. It’s in one of Bergen’s KODE art museums, in an older building, so that loans it an air of coziness. Fresh peonies were on some of the tables, for a mildly Rococo sensitivity.
I won’t bore you with the details of the whole meal, because this is not what this post is about.
This post is about our young waiter, which is why I won’t name the restaurant. He’s in some of their social-media posts, and this isn’t a witch hunt. When we sat down, he immediately asked what we wanted to drink. “I need a few minutes to look at the wine list,” I said.
“I’ll make it easy for you. Sparkling or still?” he returned. It took me a minute to realize he was talking about the water.
He was deadpan; he gave off the impression that we were lucky to be stepping through the restaurant’s rarified doors. He dropped food off quickly, spit-firing a bunch of terminology and explaining it quickly, not waiting for us to digest the information, as if it needed to be explained; making me feel like I wanted to resent being explained to. And, in fact, I did resent it.
Later, even as the space between our 7 courses slowed down (timed exactly so, he assured us), he rushed through things.
During one super-awkward exchange, he started to step back from the table, but I had a question about the ingredients, so he had to stop from stepping away. Instead of stepping forward again, though, he just stood there, causing me to be half-turned in my seat, cranked around to talk to him.
I think, as a result of my perception of him–or the attitude he was giving off–every joke he cracked landed flat:
“Anything else? No? Fine, I’ll just tell the chef you thought everything was terrible.”
“Beer? No. We absolutely don’t serve that.”
And every comment he made seemed like a sneer. Jim asked for the menu back, so he could send a photo of it to his father. The waiter laid it on the table like it was a page out of the Gutenburg Bible and said, “Do you want two? No? Are you sure?”
When the time came to close out, he took a few minutes to chat with us, telling us about how he travels. How he goes to all the better restaurants, and his dad wants menus from all of them. How, even in Tokyo, where his father couldn’t read the menu, he wanted to get a translation from Google.
It was a nice attempt to connect with us. But the ship had sailed for me.
Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Norway, but we’d heard that it’s always appreciated, and that it’s becoming more expected at higher-end restaurants, so we’d planned on giving our waiter the last of our Norwegian cash. But I balked, hard. When I unfolded the bill and laid it on the plate, I gave it an extra-sharp crease.
And last night, I found myself turning over the interactions in my head, wondering what about the whole sequence was so off for me: Was it that I found myself reacting in such a bad manner to his supercilious ways? Was it that I found myself judging him immediately for everything that came out of his mouth?
Or was it that his colleague, the greeter, delivered this witty parting shot as we left and wished him a good night?
Jim wants to go back to the place. He loved it.
I found the food ethereal in places: well thought-out, with flavors of my mother’s own kitchen (the place uses Asian influences frequently, our waiter said) mixed in. I found it earnest in others. The Minke whale triggered my gag reflexes for its fishiness and gaminess, but I ate it.
I enjoyed meeting one chef’s interpretation of his native cuisine.
But I hate the restaurant, and this rankles, because I’m reasonably sure it’s because of my very personal reaction to this one server. I’m annoyed at myself, and wondering if it is possible for me to separate: if I can manage to enjoy part of one experience while hating another part of it.
Restaurants are funny places. They are equal parts service and product. Some might even say that the service is part of the product.
What about all of you? Do you have experiences like this, where you can’t compartmentalize?
I know this is something I’ll be watching about myself in the future. Tell me about your experiences below.
I want to take a second to talk to you about joy. So we can be on the same page, here is an official definition of it, from my favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:
This a fine, workable definition for now.
Now let me tell you about Seb.
Seb is Huckleberry’s trainer at our local pet store.
The remarkable thing about Seb isn’t how well he’s trained our dog or how much our dog loves him or how much we look forward to showing Seb whatever new thing Huckleberry has learned after a few classes with him; it’s how we got to this point.
In dog training, they talk all the time about positive reinforcement. Most people take that to mean that you pat the dog on the head; give him a treat. Sprocket’s trainer advocated full-body rubs and smiles and enthusiastic “good boy!” exclamations; another we knew said, “Yes!” as if she were executing a mental fist-pump whenever Dog did something right.
I liked this last one; it feels dignified and true.
But Seb does not do this. Seb’s brand of training has no time for dignity. Seb is all authenticity and enthusiasm.
Whenever Dog does something right, Seb gets down on the floor and hugs Dog.* “Oh, Huck,” he says, “I am so proud of you,” or “You are so smart. What a good job.”
Seb’s brand of training extends right to the person attached to the dog.
When Human does something right, say, planning a new trick for Dog to learn so that Dog can be shaped towards good behavior, Seb marches in place, a little mini-jig, all lug soles and cargo pants, and sometimes hops a little. “Oooh, yes. That is perfect for Huck. Great idea. I am so excited to see that.” Or when Human executes their part of the training well enough for Dog can follow along, Seb adopts some of the dignified approach: “Yes, Yi Shun! Good work! That’s a great ‘heel’!”
Seb puts his whole body into his emotions. I have never seen him sad, or mad, because he is a pro. But I have seen him questioning things. He puts one hand to his chin and goes, “Hunh. How abooout…”
Or he cocks his head. “Oh, I see. What about…”
Or he just asks questions. “Wait, do you mean…” or “Is it like…”
Most of us have body signs that go with our speech. Both Mr. Gooddirt and his mother claim to have issues talking if they are sitting on their hands.** But this seems to be different to me. I think this is because I think Seb is basically in his element when he is expressing joy.
And actually, I think he reacts this way because he experiences joy on behalf of others. He experiences it on behalf of Huckleberry when Huckleberry does something right, because it means Huckleberry will have a better life for it. And when he sees us learning, or stretching the bounds of our knowledge even just a little bit, that gives him joy, too. It gives him so much joy that he has to expend the extra jolt it gives him by doing a little jig, or clapping his hands.
This vicarious joy is a beautiful thing. It is the exact opposite of schadenfreude, and I think it is a thing I would like to practice more, and a thing I would like to see more of. It does not have to manifest itself in the same ways Seb’s joy manifests itself, but I would like to see and experience more of it.
Our English language does not, as far as I know, have a handy one-word equivalent of the opposite of schadenfreude. We say clunky things, like “I’m so happy for him.” But that does not fully express the internal sense of satisfaction one can have on the behalf of others. The more encompassing “empathy” doesn’t have the specificity I want, either.
Recently, a friend told me she was moving from California back to Connecticut to be with her family. She is a single parent and has a young boy who will soon turn two; having her parents around fulfills a family unit that she doesn’t quite have here. When I heard this news, I felt pretty bereft. Some tears welled up. Running concurrent with that sadness, though, was joy for her. Moving back was what she wanted, had wanted, ever since her boy was born, and I know our friendship won’t slip away. We have the means and will make the time to visit.
Maybe now that I am older, I can more easily experience joy on someone else’s behalf.
I just think it’s something worth paying attention to. If only because this joy on behalf of others seems to have the power to mitigate feelings of confusion, or sadness.
I mean, look at Huckleberry. After some bouncing some failed “sit” attempts because he was so, so excited, he did this.
A calm, floppy dog is a pretty good indication that something has gone right. Vicarious joy is a thing I will always equate with calm, floppy dog, and I think I am likely to spend a good chunk of my time, now, chasing that sentiment. If it means I’ll get to experience more joy on the part of others, well, I’ll take it.
What was the last thing you heard or experienced that gave you vicarious joy? Tell me in the comments below.
*Some of you will be tempted to put somewhere in the comments that dogs do not like being hugged. Mine does. And Seb would never hug a dog who does not want to be hugged, so please do not leave that comment. We are not concerned with that here, because Seb is a pro, like I said.
**I cannot actually envision a thing where someone would be asked to sit on their hands and talk,, but this is the way they tell it. Later on tonight I will ask Mr. Gooddirt to sit on his hands and talk to me and we will see what happens, okay?
Museums are my happy places. I visit them when I find a new city; I re-visit them when I go to cities I’ve been to before, too: I like to know what new things they are exhibiting, and maybe what they’d added to their permanent collections.
I also like talking to the museum guards. There are three that stand out in my head at the moment; at some point I would like to write them all down and maybe do a little chapbook of them.
I was in an exhibit of an artist I’d never heard of before, one Agnes Pelton. When I walked in there, I didn’t really know what to think: Her work is equal parts graphic design and fine art, and I couldn’t be sure if she had gained inspiration from the art of the era that was already around her, or if the wider art world took its cues from her. So I asked a museum guard.
“What do you think of this work?”
She was probably my age; standing straight, hands clasped behind her, and she looked alert. “Oh, I really like it,” she said.
“Oh? What about it do you like so much?”
Here she launched into an explanation that I won’t try and repeat to you verbatim, but the gist of it was that she thought the work was so clearly spiritual, and that it was ahead of its time.
I asked her which of the works displayed she liked the best, and she pointed out one that was a kind of landscape, but with a rectangular opening in the paint that looked out onto what was possibly a another lighter blue sky. “Look at that open door,” she said, or something like that. “Anyone can walk through it.”
I pointed at another one, this one.
“I like that one, too,” she said. “Everyone is their own little star.”
After another couple of exchanges, I thanked her for her time and did a slow lap around the paintings. When I got to “Orbits,” I saw that the curatorial note expressed the same sentiment of individuality. It was nice to think that the museum guard either had come to her own similar conclusion on seeing the painting, or that she had read the curatorial notes and they resonated with her.
When I was almost at the end of the exhibit, she came back to me. “You know,” she said, or something like it, “I think the best way to look at this art is to think that it has something for everyone. Whatever way you choose to look at it, that’s what it means to you.”
Obviously, I wasn’t recording her, or taking notes while I was talking to her. But I very much liked the sentiment of what she was saying, and while it’s obvious to those of us who have spent a lot of time looking at art, it was nice to hear it expressed from someone whose life is literally art, day in and day out.
Last year, I went to the National Portrait Gallery. I went to see the then-new Obama portraits, but I had a spin around the other galleries as well, and then I found this:
(“Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” Roger Shimomura, 2010.)
(This copy is on my bulletin board; it’s not framed that way in the gallery, dur.)
When I went to look at it, there was some kind of class in the gallery, staring at it. I asked the museum guard nearby what was happening. They all had pencils and paper out and were looking very serious while someone lectured and asked them questions, but they weren’t sketching it anything.
“Oh,” he said. “they’re discussing what it means.”
“Mmhmm,” I said, “what do they think it means?”
“Oh, they’ve got all kinds of answers. I keep raising my hand, but she doesn’t call on me.” He tilted his head towards them. “Notice anything about them?”
“Yeah. They’re all older white women.”
“The thing is,” he said, looking equal parts amused and disgusted, “they’ll never get it right. You can’t know unless you’re like us, stuck between two cultures.”
A great gleeful laugh nearly bubbled out of me at that point, but I can’t quite pin down why. Some kind of solidarity? Some kind of schadenfreude? I don’t know. It wasn’t my proudest moment. But I really appreciated the exchange.
Last week, I took my students to the Norton Simon museum, a little place in Pasadena. It’s one of my favorites, in part because it’s manageable, but also, I like the art in there. We were doing some exercises from Amy E. Herman’s seminar the Art of Perception, and her companion book, Visual Intelligence. We were looking for “The Repentant Magdalene” (Guido Cagnacci, 1660-1663).
I couldn’t remember where this painting was in the museum, so I asked a museum guard. He didn’t know, which was annoying, but then he came back to as we were on our way to the information desk. “Is it the one where she’s taking off all her jewelry?” he said, making brushing motions down each of his arms, as if he were shucking off bracelets, rings. “That’s it,” I said, but I didn’t remember the motion quite being depicted that way, and as you can see below, it isn’t that at all. It’s very much after the fact.
One of the things we were looking for as we were studying this painting is our sense of implicit bias, or unconscious bias. All of my students grew up in Catholic households, but none of them clocked that this was Mary of Magdalene. (I didn’t let them look at the curatorial notes or the names of the paintings.) Some suggested that the women in the background were coming to rescue the woman on the floor. I’d just finished editing a book by a stripper, so my immediate re (re re re-action, since I’ve seen this painting many times) was to double-check and make sure the angel wasn’t flogging the woman on the floor for being a terrible person. And, of course, I clocked her gorgeous footwear, because I’m a sucker for good shoes. (They’re in the bottom left-hand corner, and if you google the painting you’ll see I’m not the only one who’s noticed them.)
I loved my interaction with this particular museum guard because it showed what his memory of the painting is; what he felt was most important about it. The immediacy of the subjects’ actions; the “what happened” imparting such a sense of urgency to him…
Well, maybe I’m wrong. But still it was interesting to note.
They all have been. I think this is why I’ll always talk to museum guards, even if just to find out what they think of the art they have to work near, all the times. I’m still wondering if I’ll ever meet anyone who hates their job.
Hello, everyone. This will be a short post, but I have been thinking about this thing that happened since it happened, and so I want to share it with you.
Some of you may know that I teach creative writing for non-traditional students at an area university. This has been one of the best things I have ever done. You see, this course is required, part of the students’ “Self-Expression” requirement, and so the students come in reluctantly, just to fulfill a requirement. I usually get some variation of “I just need this class to graduate.”
But our class, only ten short weeks, is buckets of fun. My students learn something, and they are exposed to new things, and so I am not only happy to do this, but it feeds me, on some primal reptilian level.
Last week, I read my students some essays from Brian Doyle, one of my favorite essayists. And then I had them do an assignment in which they mimicked a writer of my choosing for each of them. I only have three students this time around, so it was super easy, even this early in the term, to decide who was going to get the most out of what.
One of my students was really taken with the Doyle I read, so I assigned another essay of his for her to mimic.
Here’s what she said this week, in the middle of class, in outburst fashion.
“I never knew people like this existed. After I read ‘Joyas Voladoras,’ I read everything I could find of his work. And I read about how he died and about his books. And I feel so stupid, that I didn’t know this kind of writing existed.”
Well, look. I about died, and not in a good way, either. My damn heart cracked, and I wanted to cry, because people, you shouldn’t ever feel stupid about something you didn’t know existed. I can’t remember exactly what I said back to her, but it was this torrent of something that was equal parts hopeful and sad: joyful, right, because she’s got this huge canon of stuff that she can’t even categorize yet right in front of her, and sad, because hello, I don’t want my students feeling terrible about something they’ve never encountered before.
Maybe the upshot here is two: I am so happy that my students are discovering new things. But also, imagine what else we don’t know, haven’t read, even those of us whose professional and personal lives only exist because of words.
Imagine all the people we haven’t met yet, whose stories we get to hear.
…Actually, I think everyone should read Moby-Dick. That doesn’t mean I admire the thing, it just means I’m finding it intriguing. This is my second attempt at reading it; I last tried in 2015 and made it all the way to chapter 18 before I realized the whale wasn’t going to show up anytime soon. This time, I’m halfway through it. Moby-Dick himself still hasn’t shown up yet, but enough interesting stuff has happened that I thought I would share it with you. I don’t know that I’ll make it all the way through this time. It’s a testament to the book, I guess, that I remembered enough of it to continue on nearly four years later. Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that nothing of real interest plot-wise has happened yet. As my Twitter friend @angryreporter put it:
At any rate, here we are, 62% of the way through Moby-Dick. And here’s the link to my spreadsheet of my reading of Moby-Dick. Or, rather, so far of the things that made my ears go up. Let me know if it doesn’t work. Let me know what you think. Commenting is on. I’d especially be interested in hearing from those of you who have already read it.