My 2011 Cosmic Footprint

Rare Cosmic Footprint from the Hubble Space Telescope, July 2011

The past couple of years, I have avoided most New Year’s resolutions. What resolutions I did make last January have only a tangential relationship to what I accomplished this year, or, for that matter, to how I spent my time. For example, 2011 was the first year in a long time that I didn’t make a resolution to lose weight, but for once I actually did. Nevertheless, I don’t think the world really cares whether my jeans fit.

This New Year’s, I am feeling just a tiny bit skeptical about our national obsession with self-improvement resolutions. It’s not that I don’t need improvement – you could come up with a substantial list of my faults faster than I can say “2012” – but, frankly, we can all think of oodles of things that need improvement far more than I do. Lately, instead of re-evaluating the goals I set last January, I’ve been asking myself what I feel is a more important question: “What would have been different about the universe this year if I hadn’t been in it?”

I imagine all the people I care about, all the lives I touch as a teacher, and my impact on strangers I will never meet, and I wonder: What have I done for them? What have I made more difficult? When I say I believe in something, what have I done about it? When have I been constructive, and when complacent? If teaching at a community college has taught me anything, it’s that caring words at the right moment have the power to change lives. This year, there were times I paid attention at the right moments, and times when I was something less than mindful.

I think of my 2011 Cosmic Footprint as something like the carbon footprint calculators that have proliferated around the web, which give you an idea of how much carbon you consume and save from energy conservation each year. The first time I used a carbon footprint calculator, my self-righteousness toppled like so many clearcut trees in the Amazon rainforests. (Lesson #1: Caring about the environment does not reduce carbon emissions.) In the past two years, I’ve reduced my personal emissions by roughly 30%, mostly by telecommuting one day a week and teaching online during the summers. My footprint is still much too large to help save the world, but I have made steady progress.

Similarly, when I contemplate my cosmic footprint, I’m not trying to decide whether on balance I’m better or worse than I wish I were. Instead, I am trying to reflect, as neutrally as possible, on how my existence impacts the universe outside myself. Both knowingly and unknowingly, I am sure I did both good and bad over the past year, but thinking about my cosmic footprint is more like trying to trace the circles that radiate from a pebble dropped in water. There were pebbles I threw into the water and pebbles that accidentally fell out of my hands, but all of them made ripples.

The new year is a time when we indulge our desire to be perfect versions of ourselves, and because we’re human, we fail more often than not. It is a matter of what about ourselves we are trying to perfect. Plenty of people have left cosmic footprints that stride far ahead of mine, and plenty of people make New Year’s resolutions that focus on helping others and trying to change the world. The media’s “New Year, New You” mania for self-improvement, however, discourages us from trying to improve all the things that exist beyond our own skins.

I am not surprised that each year, after a few weeks turned inward for the holidays, our ritual discussion of New Year’s resolutions focuses on our outer selves: how to make more money, how to be more attractive, how to turn resolutions into reality. What surprises me a bit is that it took me so long to realize that the footprint I leave on the universe is far more important than the ones I put on the scale.

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I Should Be Scared of You

I am not a particularly fearless person. Every day, I am scared of about 1,307 things, most of them too embarrassing and irrelevant to list. Most of the time, my fears seem invisible to others. Maybe everyone else is the same way, and we’re all running around thinking we’re the only ones freaking out. I only know that when I look around me, I feel like Jell-O in a world of hard candy.

But, mysteriously, there are a number of things that – objectively speaking – should get to me more than they do. I am a small woman, five feet tall in heels, not particularly agile or athletic, and yet my friends frequently seem more concerned for my safety than I am. Often they quiz me about why I am inappropriately blasé about crime (or, for that matter, about occasionally having students in class who are most likely armed). I try to explain that if someone attacks me, it will be terrible, but if I worry needlessly about being attacked, every minute will be terrible.

The crazy thing is that I am much more afraid of things that, on the face of it, are not especially hazardous. For example, I am more scared that my writing will bore a reader than I am that someone will assault me. Fear is capricious – but so is danger.

A case in point: After I finished my undergraduate degree, I moved to Seattle, dutifully choosing a neighborhood by quizzing people on which part of town was safest. I landed in a building constructed the same year as the Space Needle, complete with Jetson’s-type angles and a bright green shag carpet that turned out to be swarming with fleas. I could walk to the grocery store, a bookstore, and an espresso shop whose proprietor was the first human being I met in Seattle willing to explain the difference between coffee and espresso.

The apartments in my building surrounded a courtyard with an assortment of mistreated rhododendrons. Down the breezeway, an elderly couple’s apartment leached a thick, boiled-cabbagey smell every night, evidently cooked up by a nervous grandmotherly retiree in a house dress. I made friends with a dissipated twenty-something disk jockey across the courtyard and an artist who spent every few evenings spray painting ugly colors onto huge canvases.

I spent part of my first grown-up paycheck on a futon and frame. When the delivery man arrived, the cabbage husband lurched up to us, howling so loudly that I was a drug dealer that his voice echoed through the courtyard and roused my neighbors. His wife darted out of their apartment, pulling his arm and begging him to come back inside. Just feet from my open doorway, in full view of everyone home on a Saturday and under a clear blue sky, he started to hit and shove her.

If you’d asked me before that moment whether I was a runner or a fighter, I would have said “Runner,” without question. But the first words out of my mouth were to his wife: “Do you want to come in?”

“No,” she quavered. “Just call the police!”

The police, when I called, showed little interest in the incident. That was, until the elderly gentleman returned with a rifle, intending to shoot me. I cowered inside my apartment with the futon delivery man, who told me with authority that in battle one must not give in to cowardice. He looked like he knew.

After the police dragged Mr. Cabbage to the local hospital to sober up and then released him without charge, after my landlord told me that my next-door neighbor had overdosed the night after I moved in and implied that I was responsible, after I complained about the gun and he said, “Well, we never had any trouble till you came”: after all that, terror set in.

The unfair accusations of being a troublemaker and a drug dealer had even more impact on me than the threat of violence. Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt ashamed and afraid of what might happen when Mr. Cabbage went on another bender. I found an apartment on Capitol Hill, the fun part of town people had told me to avoid, reasoning that since safety had been such a bust, I might as well try risk. (For the record, I felt perfectly safe on Capitol Hill when I lived there.) Until I moved, though, I had to walk past the cabbage apartment to get to the laundry room, and each time I felt like a horror-movie heroine about to buy the farm.

Nevertheless, I discovered that whether I felt courage or fear didn’t matter much in the actual moment of danger. A few months later, another menace appeared in the guise of three men harassing a woman at a bus stop, and my instinct, again, was to come to her aid. Who was I, this person who couldn’t stand in a crowded bus without feeling claustrophobic, but would speak sharply to a group of malingerers twice her size? What else might she be capable of battling?

Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. I was surprised by my own relative courage, and in the future I am just as likely to be surprised by my own cowardice. The tides of bravery and fear wash over me in precarious balance, and I have only moments to surface or sink. If I sometimes act a little cavalier about some of the risks of living in a big city, it’s only because both possibilities seem unthinkable and unpredictable, with barely a sliver of difference between worry and disregard.

The Stranger at the Table

Before she flew to her native Poland for the holidays, my doctor told me that, on Christmas Eve, Polish families set an empty place for “the stranger,” a person who, symbolically or actually, has nowhere else to go. In the United States, she lamented, Christmas has become so commercialized and gift-focused that Americans have lost focus on the celebration of family and friends that make the holiday meaningful.

Supposedly I can trace some of my ancestry to Poland, but my family is Jewish, not Christian, and so for most of my life, the holidays have had a neither-nor quality. Hanukkah, indifferently promoted in gift catalogs and spread out over eight days that only sometimes intersect with Christmas, doesn’t have a prayer – forgive the pun – of competing with Christmas.

To be honest, I like it better that way. I am one of those people who describe themselves as more spiritual than religious, but I can see how Judaism has shaped my outlook. Some years I light Hanukkah candles, some years not. In most Jewish celebrations, as in Poland, particular objects have symbolic meaning. The menorah, which symbolizes one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight after the rededication of a temple in Jerusalem, celebrates (at least for me) the miracle of enduring spiritual light. The symbolism of a gift-buying blowout does not have meaning I care to celebrate. In that sense, my Polish doctor and I can find common ground despite having very different beliefs.

I am also fortunate to have been welcomed as the stranger at the table many, many times. When I lived in Seattle, I spent most Christmases with close friends. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that their spectacular cooking was as good a way as any to celebrate our varied beliefs. My friends made crown roasts; I always brought homemade challah. One year, when their family piled into a car for midnight mass at St. Mark’s Cathedral, whose choir is locally renowned, I even joined them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when, seeing me hover alone near the entryway while my friends took Communion, a priest approached to ask if there was anything he could do for me. I shook my head, smiled, and thanked him, not feeling the need to explain. Even after years of continuing to wander between holidays, his small kindness – his offer of the stranger’s seat at the table – still warms me with gratitude.

Compassion, no matter what its spiritual foundation, is the true miracle.

The Religious Beliefs of Cats

As far as I can tell, early Christians determined the Seven Deadly Sins by observing the house cat. You may look at your cat and see a sleepy, self-indulgent unbeliever, the embodiment of That Which Must Be Resisted, but you are cheating yourself of a rich spiritual tradition. Because humans have bred into the domesticated cat some unpalatable traits like the desire to kill for fun, you might have difficulty perceiving its worshipful side, but the devotion of cats is there in plain sight.

First of all, cats worship the sun. They spend their time looking through windows because they are seeking the hot, sunny places where the domesticated cat originated. Find a patch of sun on a rug, and a cat will be lying in it. When cats pray, they roll onto their backs and let the sun make their bellies hot. When they feel especially spiritual, they begin grooming. They are not actually licking their fur, but licking sunshine off their coats. Cats are more active at night because they are seeking their vanished sun.

Just like practitioners of the great religions, cats must obey complex rules for behavior. Strange cats must be greeted with hissing. If something flies, skitters, or rustles, it must be chased. Before undergoing a pilgrimage to the veterinarian, a cat must humble itself under a bed and pray loudly when forced into a cat carrier. If a cat’s owner drops something on the floor, a cat feels obligated to sit on top of it in order to maintain the neatness of the room. Claws must be nurtured and cultivated like the jewels they are.

A cat who appears to be staring at nothing or puffing up its tail and rocketing around the room for no reason is actually experiencing religious visions. Cats lucky enough to have owners who read books must position themselves within the gaze of the printed page; those whose owners have mice or insects must conduct animal sacrifices. Anyone who thinks felines feel no shame has never seen the distress of a cat whose business has occurred outside the litter box.

Finally, these children of the Egyptian goddess Bast must share the blessings of the sun with others, which they do through shedding. You might call shedding dander, but cats shed to cast the sun’s warmth throughout every nook of the universe. By vacuuming their fur off floors and furniture you are committing blasphemy, which is why so many cats are so outspoken in their hatred of vacuum cleaners.

On special occasions, a cat will sometimes deliver to its owner, often with much effort, a concentrated cylinder of sunshine in the form of a hairball. Your cat believes this cylinder is a treasure and is dismayed when you call it disgusting and throw it away. Like all people around the world, your cat wants only to have its beliefs respected and honored, even though these beliefs are different from yours. At a time of year when we celebrate so many holidays, compassionate owners will take the time to embrace their cats’ traditions…or at least embrace their cats.

The Top Five Things That Aren’t on a Top Ten List

Photo by Paul Octavious at pauloctavious.com

’Tis the season to prove your mastery of the decimal system by listing items that are already popular and showing off your knowledge of them. My list, however, consists of the humble little underdogs that I think are least likely to make it onto a top ten list.

5. My blog. If you are reading this post, you may not realize how much I appreciate you. You are a rare and wonderful creature, and if you post a comment, you are practically an endangered species. I have noticed that all the blogs on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” are mostly breezy little tea sandwiches: tiny, concentrated, and divided with numbers and headings. You, dearest readers, have actually read multiple long paragraphs at a time, but if I tell you how much I appreciate your generosity, Item Five will get too long.

4. Postal service. Maybe neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay our couriers, but – like everything else this year – the economy has threatened the lovely anticipation of getting an actual card or letter from an actual person. I won’t miss the junk mail or even the catalogs, but the post office funeral march already has me nostalgic.

3. Coffee. I do not need to list the many wonderful qualities of The Holy Bean. I admit that coffee might even be on someone else’s Top 10 list, but it’s too good to leave out. Yes, I already know I’m addicted – no need to say so. I appreciate your coffee at least as much as my own, because it means I can talk to you without needing an adult beverage afterwards.

2. Pharmaceuticals. Maybe drug companies are evil zombies that are killing our health care system, but I am still grateful for the miracle of antibiotics, not to mention the other assorted pills, sprays, and liquids that keep all of us walking, eating, sleeping, and breathing.

1. Books. You know: bendy paperbacks, printed on paper. A book should be a multimedia experience that you can touch, smell, and hear as well as see. Every time I hold one, I think, “Thank you, Book, for not being a Kindle or a Nook.”

Please let me know if you find any of these items on a Top 10 list. In fact, I invite you to post a comment telling me I’m full of it. At least I kept it short for once.

Getting to No

As a two year-old, I had freedoms that mostly withered away by the time I hit puberty. For instance, I could blow bubbles in my milk. I could kick piles of leaves up into the air. I could walk around in my underwear in public. I could throw tantrums. And I could say “No.”

I knew that, inevitably, I would end up writing a blog entry about a topic I know next to nothing about. I am not alone in my yay-saying, especially among women, and especially among women who work in academia. In my department, and probably in every department, thirty percent of the people are doing one hundred fifty percent of the work.

The colleagues in my department who say “No” inspire a mix of suspicion, admiration, resentment, and envy. The rest of us talk about work-life balance (and sleep) the way 16th-century alchemists talked about the Philosopher’s Stone: something not quite of this world. We take a crazed pride in circumventing the guilty knowledge that if we don’t say yes, someone just as busy is going to have to do the work instead. When I explained that one reason I have trouble saying no is that I work in a department of half-insane workaholics, my department chair replied, “Hey, some of us are completely insane, thank you very much.”

I am sure there are Marxist and feminist lessons here, but I will leave them to others since I am unable to master even the basic principles that I can’t be in more than one place at once or do more than one half-hour task in the same half hour. If I could be in two places at once, I would just want to be in three places at once. In the week since my last blog entry, I have said yes to two committees, three workshops, and a big department project. When I was asked to take on something else that normally I enjoy doing – and for which I would be paid – I looked at the proposed schedule and felt Magic Rocks of anxiety spiking bold colors in the pit of my stomach. I tried to say no, but what I said must have been heard as “Kind of sort of maybe not,” because I found myself on the schedule (albeit with reduced hours) anyway.

Why? Personally, I have about 57 varieties of reasons not to say no, some of which I’ll leave out of this blog. First of all, I couldn’t quite bear the idea of closing off a possibility or knowing that demurral would create extra work for someone else. Also, as one of my other colleagues put it, “I feel like if I say no, someone is going to DIE.” If someone needs help, I seem to be wired to volunteer. Another huge factor in my saying yes is that far, far more things sound like fun to me than I am ever going to be able to do. Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is my sense of cosmic obligation, a cellular-level conviction that other needs are greater than my own. Deep down inside, I feel like the problem isn’t that I can’t say no; it’s that I need to sleep.

I could make this issue political, but, honestly, it’s personal. Deborah Stearns, one of our psychology faculty and (probably more relevant to this discussion) someone with good sense, pointed out:

Lots of people have trouble saying no and there are strategies to help…Sometimes it helps to remember that every “yes” to one commitment is a “no” to something else, even if that is just getting enough sleep. Our time and energy is limited and it does behoove us to make choices about how we allocate them. You are not obligated to agree to every opportunity offered to you.

Oh, the injustice of having finite time and energy! Sometimes people have warned me that I am working too hard, but most of them are also working until midnight or getting up at two a.m. to grade, so credibility is a little bit of an issue there. There’s an esprit de corps factor, too: When I see my colleagues working too hard, it makes me want to live up to the standard they set.  On the other hand, the true department slackers who criticize the workaholics for working too hard just sound like they’re making excuses for their own lack of engagement. And those who seem to balance “yes” with “no”? Their reasons for setting limits seem to possess an immanence I have no hope of ever attaining. If I keep saying yes, I won’t need to figure out when enough is enough. Sometimes it seems as though at any given moment I am struggling with the sense that I really should be doing something else, and since – for instance right now – I really should be, maybe I don’t really want to be the person who says no.

I lamented to one colleague, “You know that sales book, Getting to Yes? I need Getting to No.” He replied, “Just read Getting to Yes backwards.”

Deborah, the aforementioned psychology professor and expert on good sense, offers this excellent advice on the art of refusal, but even she struggles with “No”:

If you are looking for graceful ways to say no, try something like, “Unfortunately, I’m just not able to take that on at this time.” You can preface it with how interesting or exciting the opportunity sounds or thank them for thinking of you, if you want to soften the blow. The key is to say no without giving specific reasons for why you can’t or won’t, because that gives the other person the opportunity to try to remove those obstacles (“Oh, but it hardly takes any time at all!”). Then stick to your no, politely but firmly, and remember that you are not obligated to do everything.

But then she adds, “I really should try to remember this myself. Sigh.” No matter how much good sense you have, it seems, it’s still difficult to close off a possibility.

Therein lies the problem: To say yes to something that sounds enjoyable, helps your colleagues, puts your strengths to good use, advances your career, or adds to your paycheck is sometimes more expedient than surviving the vertigo of “No.” In the time it takes me to work through the anxiety that I am missing an opportunity, shortchanging my students or colleagues, inviting catastrophe, or getting on someone’s lump-of-coal list, I really could get a lot done.

My department chair said it best: “Keep practicing the no, except for the next few days – I’ve got something to tell you about…”

Cold Shoulders

When the water heater in our building fell unconscious on a Monday morning, I had no idea that Google would produce over 12 million hits for “how to take a cold shower.” Already sick, I’d turned to Google in an effort to lessen what I knew would be water torture.

If I hadn’t been in such a rush to get the shower over with, I might have taken the time to appreciate the marketing might devoted to cold showers, which, I have since learned, are purported to boost masculinity. According to the Meditations on Manliness website, cold showers and baths have been endorsed by James Bond, and before him the Spartans, the Finns, ancient Russians, Shinto practitioners, and hydrotherapists – including, evidently, Charles Darwin. Everyone in this august history is now dead, so it is impossible to say whether their icy ablutions extended their lives or shortened them. Knowing that my shower would make me more manly, however, did not increase its appeal.

I was also unswayed by the supposed health benefits, which didn’t seem relevant to a shivering woman with a sinus infection and laryngitis. I am fairly sure I have no use for higher testosterone or more robust “little swimmers” (that’s Meditations on Manliness again). According to the Sikh Dharma International website, a cold shower approximates a dip in a sacred pool. Um. Right. But wait – this expert was female! Writes Bhai Sahiba Dr. Bibiji Inderjit Kaur: “When you take a cold shower in the morning, it is like the first battle of the day.”  To combat the cold, you should rub yourself with oil and shout “Wahe Guru!” if you shiver, so that you “come out victorious.”

I was more in the mood for a warm bed than a frigid sacred pool, but I kept the good doctor’s words in mind when I turned on the shower and stuck my hand in it. Instantly my hand froze. I poked a toe into the freezing spray – okay, I know the water wasn’t actually freezing, or it would be sleet – and my foot froze, too. I thought about the many countries in the world that have no running water, never mind hot running water. These countries include the U.S., I discovered – 1.7 million people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In fact, the World Water Organization reports that only 20% of the world population has access to running water, including one billion people who have to walk 3 or more miles to a water source.

Guilt did not warm me up, but it did strengthen my resolve. I thought about how I had succumbed to the American compulsion to wash one’s hair every day, and then I stuck my head in from behind, arching my back more than was probably prudent. I shivered, I writhed, I hyperventilated to the point that it was hard to breathe, and I thought about the billions of people for whom “the first battle of the day” was not a choice but a daily occurrence. (Yes, I really did, and I didn’t feel virtuous, either.)

I emerged a short time later – you didn’t actually think I was going to describe my own shower, did you? – unenlightened, telling myself I’d won the first battle of the day but not feeling particularly victorious. I felt even less victorious after a couple of hours of work, when I had to go home sick; and even less victorious two days later when I lost the ability to speak and then finally dragged myself in defeat to the doctor’s office. If my immune system was strengthened, it was so imperceptible that it felt just like weakness. And those “little swimmers” – maybe those were the bacteria in my sinuses? Or maybe the health benefits were only for men.

Whatever the reason, if there were ever any doubt, it seems that I’m no James Bond. And when our hot water returned, I celebrated. I guess that means I’m no Mother Teresa, either.