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 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.