Current reading

The Relationship Handbook -- George Pransky.  The focus is primarily spousal relationships, though there are a few chapters dealing with parents and children. The core message is that our insecure thinking lowers our moods, which causes us to act defensively against our partner and they against us. The chief remedies include simply calming down until our thoughts look less real and choosing to talk about sensitive issues only when both partners are in their best state, when each partner's statements are understood and not simply reacted to. More important than "solving problems" is enjoying your partner's company and basking in a warm relationship. Simple language, readable, and applicable to fostering a better relationship with oneself as well. Pransky is of the first generation of Three Principles practitioners who worked with Sydney Banks. As with other popularizations of the Principles, it focuses more on revved-up thinking than with the other principles.

In These Times the Home is a Tired Place  -- Jessica Hollander. Before I started my grad school adventure in 2006, I was in a writing group that counted as its members two people who would go on to publish their fiction. One was David Halperin, who published Journal of a UFO Investigator in 2011. The other is Jessica, who went on to an MFA at the University of Alabama and last year published this book of short stories, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (publisher description). They're odd, off-kilter, ethereal stories (or maybe prose poems) that take place in the characters' mundane world of cheap duplexes, loud neighbors, families under pressure, and someone who keeps moving the Welcome mat to other apartments in the building. You know the saying that every line of a poem creates a universe? Every sentence in a Jessica Hollander story does the same thing. The stories all have a voice that is uniquely Jessica's -- a quality her stories had even back in the day. I would kill to write dialogue that oblique and funny, with such a light touch.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer -- Sarah Bakewell. Bakewell attacks the life of Montaigne and the life of his Essays by taking the writer's chief question -- How should one live? -- and then drawing from the essays 20 different, sometimes contradictory, answers. Along the way, she paints pictures of the historical, intellectual, and cultural currents of his time (I did not know the horrific conditions in France caused by the Catholic-Protestant conflicts) and how Montaigne's message of Stoicism, skepticism, and delighted self-discovery has been viewed by other thinkers, writers, and readers through the centuries.

Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.

First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.”

Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.”

This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.”

Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose.

A word fraught with meaning

The Night is Fraught With Peril I like embroidering my plainspoken, earthy, everyday, quotidian speech with particularly Victorianesque embellishments and verbally diabolic adornments that I dredge up from profligate readings of literature, ephemera, and old Monty Python sketches. Or maybe I just like words with lots of syllables.

To that end, I sometimes clot my electro-mails and casual conversation with antique or rarely heard (among my peers, anyway) vocabulary.

One that I use when I want to exaggerate my concern is fraught. It’s a word that I will see or hear often in the news yet hardly anywhere else. In the news, as with this story, it’s one of those received words, like “firestorm,” that is trotted out as verbal shorthand by newscasters for “a terrible situation” yet that I hardly ever hear in regular conversation. Fraught is a great word to use in headlines, like this one from the New York Times, because it’s only six letters. It packs maximum anxiety into minimal space.

My MacBook’s handy New Oxford American Dictionary defines fraught in its predicate adjective form (fraught with) as “filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable)”: marketing any new product is fraught with danger. The second definition is “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” as in she sounded a bit fraught.

Here’s the fun part:

ORIGIN late Middle English, ‘laden, provided, equipped,’ past participle of obsolete fraught [load with cargo,] from Middle Dutch vrachtenfrom vracht ‘ship’s cargo.’ Compare with freight.

So fraught is a cousin to the word freight! And freight is descended from a variant of vrachten. Fascinating. Freight itself is a neutral word — cargo, transport — though freighted with can be a figure of speech for “be laden or burdened with.”

Interesting how word meanings diverge. The world of commerce needed a word for cargo and baggage, the inner world needed another.

I wonder if the vowel sound in fraught, with its similarity to awful, may somehow help to twin those words in our minds.  Awful is more immediate and personal, whereas fraught sounds a bit distant, higher up the hill from the fray. Awful grabs the guts, fraught keeps the mess at arm’s length while acknowledging the high emotions.

I hope this disquisition on fraught has not been for naught nor has made you overwrought. (What rot.)

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Clifton StrengthsFinder

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al... In December, following up on an offer by coach Dave Kaiser, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test. Dave recommended the $9.99 version that gives you your top 5 strengths out of a menu of 34.

The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.

The test items are not questions, really; they’re  choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be “I have a commitment to growth” and “I have a commitment to values.” You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.

(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I’m not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)

Knowing one’s strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You’re better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.

There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn’t there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn’t a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)”. I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.

My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:

  1. Restorative: I like to fix things, solve problems, and create order out of chaos. This is pretty true, as far as it goes. I could not fix the big communications problems that hit a board I served on, but I could set up a network of volunteers who could efficiently deliver flyers to most houses in the neighborhood. This is probably the most action-oriented, outward-pointing strength I have.
  2. Intellection: Intellectually active and introspective. Very true.
  3. Empathy: Sense other people’s feelings. Also true, to the point, however, of stifling my own opinion so I don’t upset others.
  4. Input: “Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
  5. Learner: Desire to learn and continuously improve (yes). Here’s the interesting quote: “The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.” This actually helped explain to me why I continue taking banjo lessons even though I have no real desire to perform. I do find the learning process itself fascinating.

So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life’s little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)

Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I’ve had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn’t like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?

Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I’ve learned.

Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can’t stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it’s misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.

The strengths would not help me if I’m in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I’m a student, not a scholar.

I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths…)

I’d say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don’t do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.

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