Toecovers

The latest memoir we've been reading is Betty MacDonald's "The Plague and I," the 1948 follow-up to her wildly successful 1945 humorous memoir about being a chicken-farmer, "The Egg and I." (The latter book also introducing Ma and Pa Kettle into popular culture, so please appreciate the research that goes into these posts.)

"The Plague and I" is a most unusual follow-up, in that it documents the nine months MacDonald spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Seattle in 1938, when she was 30 years old. This was, remember, a time before antibiotics so the treatments and the martial discipline imposed on the patients to cure them seem draconian and almost inhumane today. Yet, despite the harshness and coldness of the regimen -- and, often, the nurses -- she tells the story with warmth, humor, and jaw-dropping details, and credits the sanatorium with saving her life. In the last chapter, she finds that adjusting to "normal" life proves just as difficult as her entry into the sanatorium.

One of the episodes she writes about is the institution's inane "occupational therapy" -- here, "occupational" meaning "to busy one's hands to take your mind off your troubles" rather than, as Betty hoped, "to prepare for a job when we finally make it out of here." Instead, the OT leader has her charges make what Betty calls "toecovers." Her description of toecovers had Liz in stitches so I thought it would be worth preserving here. It's a nice homely word for something this world still needs a name for.

Toecover is a family name for a useless gift. A crocheted napkin ring is a toecover. So are embroidered book marks, large figurines of a near-together-eyed shepherdess, pin-cushion covers done in French knots, a satin case for snapfasteners (with a card of snapfasteners tactfully enclosed so you won't make a mistake and think it a satin case for hooks-and-eyes or old pieces of embroidery thread), embroidered coat hangars, hand-painted shoe trees (always painted with a special paint that never dries), home-made three-legged footstools with the legs spaced unevenly so the footstool always lies on one side, cross-stitched pictures of lumpy brown houses with "The houfe by the fide of the road" worked in Olde Englishe underneath, hand-decorated celluloid soap cases for traveling with tops that once off will never fit back on the bottom, crocheted paper knife handle covers complete with tassel, bud vases made out of catsup bottles, taffeta bed pillows heavily shirred and apparently stuffed with iron filings, poorly executed dolls whose voluminous skirt are supposed to cover telephones.

A toecover is not a thing that follows economic cycles. During the depression when everyone was making her own Christmas presents, toecovers abounded. In good times toecovers are not made at home but are bought in the back of Gifte Shoppes whose main income is from the lending library in the front.

 

Kindle for Mac

In late August, I had bought Timothy Pychyl's e-book The Procrastinator's Digest via Xlibris for use with Adobe Digital Editions. (I subscribe to Pychyl's iProcrastinate podcast.) However, trying to get Adobe Digital Editions set up and registered on my MacBook was a pain, and then my credit card number was stolen suspiciously close to the Xlibris purchase. Then, over the weekend (as I was procrastinating on my research project and, thus, decided that reading his e-book would be nourishing for me) I could not for the life of me find the file that I had downloaded.

I saw that Pychyl's e-book was available on Kindle and also happened to see in the margin of the book's Amazon page that Amazon is releasing Kindle software (free!) for other platforms -- including the Mac. The install went great and I was able to quickly download Pychyl's book into the Kindle software. Whilst there, I also downloaded a few of the free e-books, just to play. Everything went very smoothly.
And no, I did not start reading the procrastination book. I had spent so much time looking for my original download and playing with the Kindle software, that time demanded I move on to other chores. Maybe later.

 

Panic

Alex Lickerman is a physician and practices Nichiren Buddhism, and he writes a weekly blog titled Happiness in this World. Each post is calm, sane, sensible, well-reasoned, and usually includes those boldface steps on things to do or remember that us blog-readers love to bookmark yet never follow up on.

His post on How to Thwart Panic struck very close to home for me as I experienced that feeling quite a bit this past spring. As he says, the mind cannot always be trusted. It has picked up habits of thought that do not serve us anymore and that we would do well to challenge.

Alex provides good basic info, but a few details to some of his points may help.

  • When you feel yourself starting to panic or feel anxious, examine the thought and try to classify it based on this list of cognitive distortions. These distortions, and the idea of mentally challenging these thoughts, was popularized by David Burns' book Feeling Good. I would say that book, and a later book by Burns, When Panic Attacks, offer terrific advice and dozens of techniques to employ that will help you get over panic, procrastination, and other mental maladies.
  • When in the throes of panic, stopping to rate the discomfort on a 1-10 or 1-100 scale is a good way to take a step back and look at yourself objectively. Moving from an all-or-nothing mindset to more of a continuum mindset has been very helpful for me.
  • Burns has a very good and easy technique where you draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, write the anxiety-producing thought on the left side, and then on the right, identify the type of cognitive distortion you're using, and then write a logical refutation of the bad thought. The trick to this is that your refutation has to be something your brain will believe. It can't be a cliché; it needs to make sense. So if the bad thought is, "I'll never get this project done," I would identify that as a magnification error (or awfullizing as Albert Ellis would call it), and then write this refutation, "I have gotten many other projects done in the past, and I will certainly get *this* project done. I may not get it done in the next 5 minutes, but I can certainly work on a piece of it right now. I've found that in the past, when I start working on a project, and taking action, the anxiety tends to dissipate very quickly."


The Suck Fairy

From Jo Walton at Tor.com comes the idea of The Suck Fairy, that scourge of re-reading that somehow curdles fondly remembered books upon second reading. Working alongside the Suck Fairy are her siblings the Racism Fairy, the Sexism Fairy, and the Homophobia Fairy, according to Walton.

One might add the Bad Writing Fairy; sometimes re-reading fondly remembered pulp adventures from my junior high school years (I'm looking at you, Doc Savage) highlights the sheer awfulness of the prose.


My nephew's philosophy

My brother's oldest son, Stuart, was asked by his teacher what he liked about school. He answered, "It's not about what I like, it's what I have to get used to."


If you were born on this day...

Here's what the local newspaper's horoscope had to say for those lucky enough to be born today, whether this year or earlier:

During the next four weeks you need to keep a low profile and not take any gambles with your career or money. The stars are not dire, but your timing could be off. By the end of October, you will be rolling in the clover.

And Freewill Astrology had this nice thing to say for the upcoming week:

Albert Einstein was extremely famous during his lifetime. Although he had no publicity machine promoting him, his face became an iconic symbol for genius. "Einstein" was, in effect, a brand name that made people think of creativity, wisdom, and imagination. There were times that bothered him. "I am no Einstein," he said, preferring to be his raw self rather than the idol on a pedestal. I offer his example up to you, Libra. You can benefit from slipping away from, ignoring, and even rebelling against your image right now. Return to the source of your ever-evolving life energy.


Stevereads

Stevereads tackles the history of the first Star Trek books, which were collections of stories from the original series. I well remember being mesmerized by the covers and the thrill of reliving this series, whenever I liked, in book form. (Man, I'd have loved Wild Wild West novelizations too!) (interesting that those two shows were contemporaneous). Just seeing those images of worn and creased covers parts a veil in my heart and I am 11 years old and standing in front of a shelf of books at Crabtree Valley Mall's Walden Books (it was two words back then) and calculating how I could get every one of those books for my very own. The nascent collector and hoarder of books was born.

Steve Donoghue has apparently been around since the days of the first Trek fanzines and writes with authority not just about that era of human achievement. He seemingly does nothing but read and writes -- with charm, vigor, intelligence, shrewdness, and a wicked sense of humor -- about what he reads. What I love about his blog (and what has moved his posts high in my Google reader feeds) is his catholic taste in subject matter: popular magazines, comics (he's a Legion of Super-Heroes fanboy), foreign literature, Elizabethan/Victorian/Edwardian literature, and -- probably his most cherished category -- historical fiction and literature, especially Tudor-era novels. Click on any month under his Archives link and wallow in the variety and types of reading matter this fellow ingests. It makes me wonder how much he reads that he doesn't write about.

In addition to his blog, he contributes reviews to Open Letters monthly site, for which he is an editor. Recently, he wrote a long and satisfying post on Pindar, encapsulating not just the era in which Pindar wrote, but what makes Pindar worth knowing about and reading about.

But though every post promises something new I've probably never heard of before (I've added many a book to my Amazon wish list based on Steve's recommendations), it's the barbed wit that keeps me coming back. Here's one of my favorites from his Star Trek books post:

Fans ate it up, and by this point they had guaranteed the continuation of their own feeding in the only way that ever guarantees such things: they put their money where their mouth-breathing was.

Read any of his Vanity Fair or GQ posts for drive-by snipings of this week's celebrities.

And while I enjoy his whimsical reading projects - such as his reviews of romance novels on which cover model Paul Marron appears -- I like that he doesn't shy away from tackling more worthy subjects. He recently gave the National Geographic a right thrashing for its King Tut cover story and laments Christopher Hitchens, in several senses of that word. And he's not forever carping or sniping, though lord knows, there always seems to be more bad than good out there (especially in the penny press).

I enjoy his clear-eyed appreciations and opinions of well-known authors or classic works, such as Dracula and his hellspawn, Gore Vidal's essays, Howard's End and on and on. But I particularly enjoy his touching appraisals of quixotic little books that were sent out as letters in bottles, and whose delicate and touching messages found in Steve the perfect reader.


Assorted links

  • Steve reviews Robert Graves' The Anger of Achilles, and finds more ways to say that Graves is one can short of a six-pack than I could imagine.
  • Bookshelf Porn: "A collection of all the best bookshelf photos for people who *heart* bookshelves."
  • The illustrated guide to a PhD. Check out the other articles on his site if you're into programming and time management. Good stuff.
  • "Past the Cemetery," a poem by Charles Simic. I wonder what I'd have thought of the poem if it had been titled differently.
  • A cultural historian on Batman: "Here’s a character with massive financial resources and considerable technical and intellectual knowledge whose main response to crime is to dress up in a costume and beat up street-level thugs." Please. Batman is only as mixed-up as his super-villains.
  • Yiddish Theater talk-rendering of "Old Man River" (from the Mary Tyler Moore blooper reel)


Lewis Shiner and the Fiction Liberation Front

Friend and colleague Lewis Shiner is a writer and novelist who has been releasing his fiction on the web for the last few years. Here's an appreciation of Lew and his site that I wrote for the SILS Galley, way back in Fall 2007:

Raleigh resident Lewis Shiner made his name in the '80s as a cyberpunk science-fiction writer, though he has worked many genres as a fictioneer: westerns, hard-boiled mystery, anarchic skateboarders, rock music, fantasy. He won the World Fantasy Award for his 1993 novel Glimpses and his most recent, Say Goodbye (1999), was a bittersweet story of a young woman's indie singing career. He’s written dozens of short stories in his 30 years as a writer, but times are changing for short-story writers. Short stories continue to be written and read, but interested readers have to search them out, and, for genre writers particularly, the short story outlets are pale shadows of what they once were. In a manifesto on his website, Fiction Liberation Front, Shiner says “that whatever future the short story has, the Internet will be involved in it. ”

Although compensation for writers is still an open question, Shiner has decided to embrace “this uncertain future” with his website, which aims to stock all of his short stories, screenplays, fugitive journalism, and other writings -- for free -- under a Creative Commons license. It’s an experiment, of course, and who knows how it will turn out.

In the meantime, read the fiction! Although Shiner is best known for his science fiction, his technical range and emotional subtlety use genre as simply another tool to tell the story. His most personal and white-hot stories center on music: “Sticks,” about a rock-band drummer, and “Perfidia,” about the mystery surrounding Glenn Miller’s death, embrace pain, loss, and personal responsibility. One of his most powerful stories is “Steam Engine Time,” a take on what would have happened if Elvis had arrived on the scene 50 years early. By contrast, “Lizard Men of Los Angeles” is a throat-grabbing thrill- ride on the old sci-fi pulp wagon.

Lew just sent an email today saying two more novels from his backlist -- Frontera and Glimpses (the latter won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1993) -- are being published by Subterranean Press. They're available through Amazon.com, your local independent bookseller, and -- of course -- the Fiction Liberation Front.


Summarizing the past year

Sorry to disappoint my skeptically inquiring readers, but I love reading my weekly Freewill Astrology post.

Rob Brezsny's Libra posts for the last three weeks have swirled around the idea of a cycle ending, taking stock, and looking ahead. Here's how his Aug 12, 2010, reading put it:

If you and I were sitting face to face and I asked you, "What are the most important lessons you've learned these last 11 months?", what would you tell me? I think you need this type of experience: an intense and leisurely conversation with a good listener you trust -- someone who will encourage you to articulate the major developments in your life since your last birthday. Here are some other queries I'd pose: 1. How have you changed? 2. What long-term process needs to come to a climax? 3. What "school" are you ready to graduate from? (And by "school" I mean any situation that has been a hotbed of learning for you.)

Well, of course, the use of the word "school" got my attention. And I think he's right about looking at the sweep of the last year for the big lessons, rather than picking away at the details of this or that assignment., or becoming obsessed with today's details while not acknowledging what has happened to me. I think I had a bit of that conversation on my last call with Cairene, and my just recently ended coaching relationship with Christine also raised some good thoughts about the experience.

So, what are the most important lessons I've learned since August 2009? No doubt I'll come back to this post as more stuff floats to mind. No doubt I'm missing more than a few.

  • Good friends are invaluable. Safe places are always needed. Even though I really couldn't afford the time to do it, I spent one day a week at my old job, where they had kept me on part-time. The extra money was valuable, of course, but simply walking into a place where I felt competent, where people were happy to see me and asked me about what was going on, where I could help out on a project in a pinch -- it did so much for my sense of wholeness. It was a cooling balm. My self-image didn't have to rely only on what was feeding back to me from school, which I often interpreted, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as negative.
  • But you need to leave the safe places, too. There's Grace Hopper's famous quote about ships being safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are for. As welcome as my Friday visits to the office were, one of the reasons I went for the degree was that I had reached the limits of my safe job.
  • The universal answer: "It Depends." This is the punchline to most any question posed in classroom discussions. There are too many variables to most situations and so there can be no definitive answers; but there can be better answers for some situations.
  • Be clear about why you're doing anything. There's a famous theatrical anecdote (about George S. Kaufman?) where he was brought in by the producers of a show that was in trouble. "We think there's problems with the second act," they told him. After watching the show, he said, "The problem with the second act is the first act." In my case, I was never really clear about why I wanted the PhD -- what was it going to do for me? How would it serve as a bridge from where I was to where I wanted to be? The PhD is the means, not the end. By starting out not being clear about my goal, I set myself up for the problems I faced later.
  • If your Why is strong enough, you can put up with any What. I think I first saw that phrase in one of Christine's blog posts. One of the main problems of PhD school is simply persisting in the face of many obstacles. If you know why you're doing this thing, you'll put up with whatever you must put up with to get it. It's simply the price you've agreed to pay.
  • Indecision causes suffering. My first coach was PJ Eby, and this is one of his oft-related pieces of advice that I've found useful at work, school, and even when diagnosing character motivations in short stories. I never wholeheartedly said yes to the PhD, which divided my energies and made me susceptible to the pressures. I read one economics gradschool writer who said it's actually a good idea to burn all your bridges and not have a safety net if gradschool doesn't work out -- that way, the only direction to go is forward. You are forced to commit all of your resources to the schoolwork and your research. In this case, it may be that my lifeline back to my old job did me no favors. And even through the spring, I was talking to professors and PhDs about their experiences, trying to find some inspiration or reason to keep going.
  • Know thyself. One of the things I noticed with the other students ahead of me, and other PhDs I talked to, was they all said "You'll enjoy it more when you're done with classes and can get to your own research." But but but...I like classes! That's what I like best about school! I also discovered that I was mostly curious about the PhD experience and I wanted that curiosity satisfied. Consider that desire satisfied.
  • Deadlines and accountability work wonders for your productivity. The Accomplished Dr. Cassidy taught me that lesson: you have to put pressure on yourself. Send in the poster proposal before your data is in so it forces you to do the work. Otherwise, you'll wait and spend time to make it perfect instead of getting it done. As I look back over the time I've been in school (since the summer of 2006), I'm kind of amazed at how much work I've produced, its variety, and the various experiences I've undergone because of it. Left on my own, I'd probably have spent the last years watching Green Hornet videos on YouTube and puttering in my office. And making myself more miserable about my lack of productivity in the process. One of my personal challenges now is finding the right blend of activity and rest and accountability that will keep me producing things, but without the crippling stress.
  • Time will always be wasted. No matter how busy I was, no matter how much I tried to use my commute time to good effect, I still wasted what felt like to me vast amounts of time. I never got the feeling I was working smartly or efficiently; instead, I was working effortfully. Perhaps because I was working on the wrong things? Or that I felt so busy and deadlines felt so short, I had no brainspace left to work out how to do it better?
  • I'm not as smart as I thought I was. Or maybe I'm smart at other things. I took statistics in the Sociology department (reputed to be the toughest stats course on campus) and was astonished at how smart I was not. I quickly reached the limits of my capacity and felt increasingly humiliated when I confronted homework problems that I could barely understand, let alone calculate. This was a different experience for me, as I'd been sailing through most of my other classes up to this point. This, I think, is what most adults who go back to school fear that their experience will be like. Looking back, I could have probably done better if I'd had one fewer course and an extra 20 hours in the week to read the book more closely, do the work, and find supplemental explanations for the concepts. The goal of both stats courses was simply to nudge people a little further along, no matter their starting point, and I certainly do know more now than I did then.
  • Have a support team. During my darker days of the spring, I worked weekly with an in-person counselor and carried on email conversations with an academic coach. And of course, there are the always supportive friends and family and fellow students, who are more than happy to commiserate.
  • Self-care. I learned better how to take care of myself during stressful times. One of the keys being to somehow change panic mode to problem-solving mode. I took one of Havi's ideas for the Book of Me and compiled lists of methods, quotes, ideas, questions, etc. that I could use when I needed a pick-me-up. It also helped me to see a catalog of stuff I "knew" but couldn't always bring to mind when I needed it. Some days, I looked through it often. Lately, now that I'm out of the day-to-day hard stuff, I've not picked it up. But I keep it close by. Another bountiful source of methods to use when in a personal crisis can be found in David Burns' books, Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks, both of which offer mounds of techniques and tools for reducing the anxiety caused by over-thinking and over-imagining.
  • "The end is not fixed." The quote that Ben Casnocha produces in this post summed up some of the best and simplest advice. Liz loved that idea, that the end is not yet written.
  • The experience will fulfill you. Another mantra I held on to, that came from one of my counselors and that I duly wrote in my Book of Me. One of the thoughts here being that the fulfillment may not come soon, may not come for years, but that it will come and then I'll understand the lesson the experience was teaching me. Looking back over the last decades of my adulthood, particularly the bad stuff that caused me pain at the time, I can see the truth of that statement. If nothing else, this experience forced me to deal with a lot of dirt that came up. These were issues that would not have come up otherwise, and that I would not have had to deal with. The PhD hastened my self-education, which I believe is a good thing.