Monday, August 21, 2006

Quotations that resonate with me

"My life has been steeped in loneliness, Mr. Smithson. As if it has been been ordained that I shall never form a friendship with an equal, never inhabit my own home, never see the world except as the generality to which I must be the exception."

"He was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down; just as Sarah was to him both an innocent victim and a wild, abandoned woman."

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dream symbols?

I have had some dreams in the past few weeks that I haven't recorded, maybe because I'm lazy or busy, perhaps a little depressed—I've been sleeping too much on weekends—but mostly because I have felt reticent. What can I write about that won't reveal that I am foolish and naked? Wisdom is silent.

Symbolism. I was in a bed, waiting for a lover but more likely a husband. As I lay there, I became aware of an eye looking through what seemed to be an aperture in the wall next to the bed. It was too large to be a human eye. I did not want it to see and noticed that there was a cover for the opening, so I pulled the cover down. It was clear, and the eye was still visible. Involuntarily I made some sounds that could have been of pain or pleasure or both, and was terrified that the eye would detect the sounds; the disconnect in that thought did not occur to me. When I woke up, I realized that the eye was fixed; it looked neither up nor down, nor from side to side, nor did it blink. It was the unflinching, unfocused eye of omniscience, of omnipotence.

There was a roommate, a person I know whom I do not like. In the dream, she showed me a soft, clear, wizard-shaped squeeze bottle of some kind of cleaner because she had noticed a rust spot in the toilet. The room is dark, cluttered, full of mystery and mysterious things, like the world outside, yet the thought of the mind and the speech of the mouth is on the trivial.

A person I never knew well and with whom I never had anything in common; a person who seems to have achieved some ambitions and goals; a person who, from the little I know or care to know, leads an outwardly conventional life, haunts my dreams but not my waking thoughts or feelings. I yearn for his attention and his approval with a devastating excess of feeling—and never gain even the slightest notice. This time, in an agony, I disappeared into a hidden place, like a cave with a river, and took off my clothes, exposing my nakedness yet exposing nothing, for to all I am invisible. While hiding and trying to control the uncontrollable, I saw two men fall as though ill or dead, and I argued with my conscience about revealing myself and my nakedness to help them. I did the right thing and brought them back to life. One spontaneously hugged me in gratitude, but when he felt my nakedness and saw the insignificance of who I am, he laughed contemptuously. I fled and tried to find another place to hide, a place safe from derision. The only place left was in the open, among the crowd. There were no safe places without people, and I did not want to be with them any more.

This morning I dreamed that I saw a spectacular silver maple tree with a full green crown of glory. Then I saw a tree, an ash, near which I had lived, but this did not seem right. It was the ash tree that my brother had planted in 6th grade for Arbor Day, but I think my dad had told me that it had died or been cut down because of disease, maybe the disease of the landowner's convenience. In my heart, part of me had been struck down with the ash, because it was the first thing I saw every morning of my childhood. When I woke up, the thought of the silver maple made me happy for a moment because it was the one I had planted in 6th grade. In the 34 years since, it would have grown into majesty. I was still thinking this for a few moments after I woke up when I remembered that vandals had uprooted my silver maple sapling shortly after we'd planted it. I still mourn the tree with so much potential that was murdered so young.

In my waking life this week, someone told me that a particular horror movie was "pretty good." She expressed no emotion about it; it was entertainment that was "pretty good." From a fatal sense of curiosity, I looked the movie up to learn that it seems to be the worst kind of slasher porn, the kind of movie that seems utterly incompatible with any sense of human empathy. People took their small children (under 10) to see it. And to date it has grossed (she says ironically) more than $41 million.

Perhaps I dream to escape the nightmare.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Review: Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. Highly recommended.

You know the feeling—your spouse says something that strikes you the wrong way, and involuntarily you tense up. You can almost feel your blood pressure rise. Without thinking, you respond emotionally, and soon what may have been intended as an innocuous comment has sparked a full-fledged marital battle that may leave as its aftermath lingering feelings of anger and resentment.

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the physiological processes that drive and are driven by emotion and their purpose, the ability of emotions to hijack rational thought and the short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects, and the personal and social benefits of teaching and learning how to manage the emotions.

In the opening chapters, Goleman discusses in simplified terms the complex interactions of the brain when emotion-causing stimuli are perceived, with the emotional mind reacting more quickly than the rational. For example, the sight of a snake may start the fight-or-flight response; the structures of the emotional brain prime the body to strike out at the snake or to flee from it. Then, after the body is tensed, the rational mind notices that it is a harmless garter snake. The efficiency of the brain circuitry, along with its emotional memory and associative abilities, helps to explain the power of the emotions. Citing research, Goleman suggests that the ability to recognize and manage emotions and emotional response, primarily learned from parents, family, friends, school, and the community, is a greater indicator of success in relationships, work, and society than intelligence tests. It is not necessarily how well you learn or what you know, but indeed how well you play with others.

Goleman covers a variety of topics: depression, mania, anxiety, PTSD, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, relationship issues, abuse, and others. For example, a feeling of sadness can be transformed in the brain into a lingering mood and ultimately into a full-blown clinical depression. He shows how emotional intelligence can be used to control the brain's circuitry so that pathological conditions like depression, mania, and PTSD can be managed or at least controlled.

Citing an increase worldwide in indicators of emotional and social problems, Goleman focuses on children and the importance of pilot programs that teach such skills as empathy, assertiveness without aggression, self-awareness and self-control, conflict resolution, and so forth. He discusses several studies that show measurable, long-term benefits of such programs, and the negative results when children do not have the opportunity to learn these skills at home, at school, on the playground, or in the community.

Goleman does not always seem trustworthy. His description of the 1963 "Career Girl" murders, intended to illustrate an emotional hijacking, does not match other accounts in key areas. He also leaves out facts, such as that several knives were used, instead saying that the killer "slashed and stabbed them over and over with a kitchen knife." He does not mention the sexual assaults in "those few minutes of rage unleashed." The crime he depicts fits his picture of an emotional hijacking, but other accounts show it to have been a more deliberate crime of longer duration. In a section on empathy, he says that one-year-olds "still seem confused over what to do about [another child's tears]," citing an instance where a "one-year-old brought his own mother over to comfort the crying friend, ignoring the friend's mother, who was also in the room." There is no confusion here, but a logical, pre-verbal assumption: "My mother is comforting to me when I am upset; therefore, she will be comforting to you, too." This kind of thinking is not limited to one-year-olds; for example, how many times has a friend recommended an action movie or horror novel to you, saying that you will "love it," even though your known preference is historical romance or another completely different genre? Even adults assume that "what works for me will work for you."

Goleman also discusses school bullies and outcasts in detail. He places so much emphasis on the probability that their peers are reacting to their lack of emotional intelligence that he misses some important exceptions and nuances, such as children who are social outcasts for socioeconomic and racist reasons or because they are nonconformist individualists, in which cases it is the other children who display a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. On the flip side, there are children (and adults) who are not empathetic or emotionally intelligent but who are well liked, even popular, for other reasons, tangible and intangible (e.g., socioeconomic status, influence, some mysterious force of personality or charisma). Many successful, popular people exhibit little emotional intelligence, which Goleman could have addressed. In addition, while Goleman cites a wealth of research supporting his arguments, he does not present any dissenting opinions, or whether any exist. This weakens his presentation.

Emotional Intelligence is an insightful, enlightening look at how awareness of the emotions and their physiology can help us to manage them when they affect our lives negatively or when they become pathological (e.g., depression). I found the book to be a practical guide to recognizing when I am reacting rather than listening to others or hearing them correctly. It has helped me to cope with colleagues who are lacking in emotional intelligence and to give them subtle guidance. While most of Emotional Intelligence is intuitive to a perceptive mind, the book serves as a guide and reminder that even a little emotional intelligence can make relationships, situations, and life more positive, more productive, and less stressful.

Sunday, 13 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Review: The Island at the Center of the World

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto. Recommended.

Before New York, there was New Netherland, claimed for the Dutch by English explorer Henry Hudson. At the heart of New Netherland was New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan—a frontier village and the gateway to the vast American interior, ripe for exploitation.

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto makes the case for the influence of the Dutch and their colony on the future United States and for Adriaen Van der Donck, who tried to convince the Dutch government to wrest control of the colony from the inept hands of the Dutch West India Company. He failed, leaving the colony vulnerable to the British, who took it with little effort and made it a mere footnote in American history textbooks.

The modern perception of the Dutch colony seems to support the adage that history is written by the victor. Adriaen Van der Donck lost; Peter Stuyvesant won, so that it is the latter who has a place in the history books. It is not much of a place, according to Shorto; as the loser to the British, Stuyvesant is portrayed "as almost a cartoon character: peg-legged, cantankerous, a figure of comic relief who would do his routine, draw a few laughs, and then exit the stage so that the real substance of American history could begin."

Shorto covers the colony's history from the time Hudson "found" it to Stuyvesant's reluctant surrender to the British in 1664, as well as Van der Donck's career from his university days and the writing of his book to his efforts at The Hague, followed by speculation about his death.

In between, Shorto shows what was different about New Netherland from its encroaching Pilgrim and Puritan neighbors to the north. For one thing, the "Dutch" were not all Dutch in origin. They were Dutch, English, German, French, African, Jewish, Quaker, even Turkish. One of the founding couples of New Netherland was a "French-speaking teenager " and a "Flemish textile worker," ". . . two young nobodies" whose descendants are estimated to number more than one million. The Dutch, having been victims of religious intolerance, promoted an unusually tolerant society that naturally encouraged diversity, which continues today. Shorto notes that, where Peter Stuyvesant's farmhouse once stood, "The same view takes in an Arab newsstand, a Yemenite Israeli restaurant, a pizza shop, a Japanese restaurant, and a Jewish deli."

Perhaps the more important difference in the English and Dutch legacies lies in each colony's original reason for existence. The Pilgrims and Puritans sought to escape persecution and to establish a society based on their own strictly interpreted religious beliefs, which did not preclude the persecution of others such as Quakers. New Haven and other cities were to be their equivalent of a promised land. The Dutch and others who settled New Netherland had a different motive—they saw opportunity. Here, anyone could obtain land, work hard, and succeed in a way not possible in the Dutch republic, with its limited space and resources. When writing of the initial report on New Netherland, Shorto says of the Dutch merchants reading it, "What jumped out at them, however, were other words, sharp, money-laden nouns—'Vellen . . . Pelterijen . . . Maertens . . . Vossen . . .' —the report making a frank promise of 'many skins and peltries, martins, foxes, and many other commodities.'" He reminds us that the colony was not managed by the government, but by a profit-making concern—the Dutch West India Company.

It was the opportunity that drew the French-speaking teenager and the Flemish textile worker and that allowed their descendants to proliferate, together with the Dutch attitude of religious, cultural, and social tolerance. It is easy to see the seeds of a democratic society in New Amsterdam, where the rules are different, where colonists of all skill sets are needed, and where opportunity is not restricted by class or status. Even the militaristic Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant can't change the character of the colony that developed before his arrival.

The book would have benefited from quotations from primary personal sources, for example, letters and journals of Stuyvesant and Van der Donck. It appears that such historical riches have been lost or not yet translated. Shorto tries to fill in these deficiencies with colorful, evocative language and speculation about how these and other characters might have felt or acted at critical moments; for example, Van der Donck writes "like a man possessed," while Stuyvesant might "stump off" in a fit of pique.

Shorto does bring the colony to life, including interesting and sordid details about court cases, facts such as that one-quarter of all businesses on Manhattan were taverns or breweries at one point, and details such as that one prostitute preferred to be paid in otter and beaver pelts rather than with money.

His evident passion for the subject and his frustration with Anglocentric (and mythologized) history leads Shorto to overstate the case for the influence of the Dutch colony. The United States today is not as uniformly tolerant, even in the Dutch sense, as Short believes, or as multicultural except in urban areas. Each urban area has not necessarily modeled itself after early Manhattan, but has evolved in its own way, not always offering equal opportunity to every group of immigrants or every individual.

Despite the Pilgrim/Puritan myths left to us and to which we cling, however, the United States, like Manhattan, is a unique creation born of a unique set of circumstances. Like the Pilgrims and Puritans, the Dutch were founding colonists and be given their due as such. If you are interested in a more complete picture of early American history, The Island at the Center of the World should be on your "must read" list.

Sunday, 6 August 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Uncommon sense

I'm not telling you anything you don't know when I say that an amazing number of people are lacking in not-so-common sense and courtesy.

This is not a new observation or a sign of the times. My understanding is that the ancient Romans and Greeks were known to lament the lack of these qualities in their youth. Consternation at rudeness, particularly that of the young, is a time-honored tradition.

Still, displays of rudeness and lack of sense astound me, no matter the age of the offender.

Case in point #1: A woman in the bathroom at work, in a stall, sitting on a toilet, is holding a cell phone conversation. In a stall. Sitting on a toilet. Performing bodily functions, like you do in a stall on a toilet. While talking on her cell phone.

And then, mid-conversation, she flushes.

Several years ago on an AOL message board, I mentioned how rude this behavior seems to me, and how weird it seems to me that any sophisticated, educated person could consider this acceptable. To my surprise, then horror, several people disagreed. It was normal to them.

This may be why I communicate primarily by e-mail, instant messages, and snail mail. If you read my letter while you're sitting on the toilet, at least I don't need to know about it. Or experience the sound effects.

Case in point #2 (also cell phone related): My dentist has a sign posted in her waiting room about considerate/inconsiderate cell phone use. I thought this might refer to people talking loudly. I asked the hygienist, who seemed grateful that at least one person had read the sign. Volume is an issue, she said; for some reason, some people think they need to shout when using a cell phone. That isn't the primary problem, however. They have had a number of patients who make and accept cell phone calls while getting their teeth examined, cleaned, or filled. The hygienist or dentist is supposed to stop what she is doing every time Suzy Patient wants to have a mundane conversation about where she is or what she is doing. To add proverbial insult to proverbial injury, the patients who do this are the most likely to have been late to the appointment.

If it were my dental practice, I'd confiscate the cell phones of known offenders at the door. If you behave like a child with no impulse control, I will treat you like one.

Case in point #3: As I've mentioned before, I've noticed that most people feel compelled to answer their cell phones, as though there were no other choice. When the phone rings (sings, chirps, meows, barks, whatever), I must answer no matter what—even if I am in a restaurant having lunch with a friend, who apparently does not deserve as much of my attention as my cell phone does; even if I am a cashier in the middle of checking out a customer; even if I am an office worker with whom others are trying to have a work-related discussion. Any cell phone call is worth interrupting whatever I was doing and putting off the person who is physically in front of me. These "can't miss" conversations usually involve no more than, "Yeah, I'm at lunch. I got home around 9 last night. Where are you?" etc. Not exactly headline news at eleven.

Case in point #4: A driver is at an intersection with a green light, waiting for the pedestrians to cross before making a left turn onto a one-way street. The driver of the third care in the lane honks his horn. Again. Again and again. Soon, he's lying on it. The pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk don't look enthused about having their eardrums blasted. Even other drivers start looking askance at the impatient one. It is not clear what he wants, except perhaps for the driver in front to mow down, maim, and kill pedestrians who have the right of way in the interest of shaving five seconds off travel time. Finally, the light changes, the pedestrians stop, and when #3's turn comes, he turns the corner with a squeal, almost on two wheels.

Maybe he was in a hurry to get home to relax. I would be, too, if everyone drove like that.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Student life, then and now

Café Verde in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Where there are college students, there are the four necessities of life: the notebook computer, the iPod or equivalent, the cell phone, and, of course, the Internet connection. I don’t know if the poorest students have all of these, but I suppose they have access to computers, printers, and the Internet in a center or at the libraries on campus.

Could today’s student imagine my college life 23–27 years ago—a lifetime for them? The only computer was a mainframe; 100 hours of use per quarter (or year?) was included in tuition, and students like me, ignorant about computers, used it mainly to play a DOS-based text game called “Adventure” (in my case, badly). More sophisticated students used it to store and retrieve data, including papers, and undoubtedly for research and other purposes, but I would have not known how to do this and was too reticent to ask anyone who might have known.

In my dormitory, there was one communal telephone in each hallway, from which you could call campus numbers. Off the lounge was a pair of pay telephone booths from which you could call your parents collect (no prepaid calling cards then). A few of us, including me, went to an event where you could get a telephone and connection from what was probably known at the time as Illinois Bell. The big new convenience was that the new jacks were modular, meaning that no wiring was involved—it was plug and play, so to speak. And my phone didn’t chirp, meow, bark, sing, or play music—it rang. The bell added to its heft and feeling of substance. Also at the time, phones were still rented from the local phone company. When you canceled your account or moved, you were expected to return the phone. At some point, I did buy mine (it was sky blue), but I no longer have it. I wish I did, because I’m enough of a fogy to prefer a loud, mechanical bell ring to an electronic chirp.

For me, portable music was a huge, now vintage, GE Superadio (which I still have) and an aesthetically unpleasing, monaural white earplug. I did not take it anywhere that I can remember other than perhaps the courtyard. The more affluent students had stereo systems. I don’t think the once-ubiquitous Sony Walkman was in common use yet.

As far as I know, the Internet was still a university/military construct and was not in wide use. When I needed to do research, I waded through the library card catalogue, drawers and drawers of typed, much-fingered, manila cards listing books, journals, and other works in the library’s collection. The next step was to locate the items in the stacks or wherever they resided in the collection. Now, I suppose students search the Internet and the electronic card catalogue, then the physical collection. It’s also probably easier to query other university libraries.

Finally, I used to write my papers in pencil, always at the last minute, then, in the wee hours of the morning on which they were due, type them laboriously slowly on a Royal Sabre manual typewriter. Some professors permitted the use of erasable paper; others forbade it. When I was tired enough, I could make mistake after mistake, and depending on what it was and where it was on the page, I might have to retype a page—sometimes more than one, sometimes more than once. Typing even a short paper might have taken one to three hours. A computer with spell check and a printer (not to mention e-mail) would have been quite handy—and would have saved some exhaustion-induced delirium.

I wonder what students today in situations similar to mine can afford or manage, for example, if they have notebook computers (which are relatively inexpensive at “big box” stores) or cell phones. I imagine that they do, because, as is typical of a product life cycle, such things have come down in price and become “necessities,” not luxuries. I wonder if having a computer would have helped me be more disciplined, given my dread of typing papers, or if I would have frittered away even more time on e-mail, instant messaging, or random reading unrelated to coursework. I wonder if students realize how freeing it must be to sit in a café comfortably; to correct mistakes instantly; to focus on rewriting, not retyping; and to focus on ideas, not logistics.

And I wonder if they can imagine how different this aspect of student life was, only 23–27 years ago. Can I even remember it myself?

Pass the Celestial Seasonings Morning Thunder. It’s going to be a long night.