A Scientific Quest

Questing is great fun. Whether you quest for love, dinner, adventure, sales or memorabilia – even the word is awesome. Take, for example, a conversation that recently happened in the house of AlwaysLiz:

Husband: “How was your day?”

Me: “Really great. I quested for science courses today.”

Husband: “Very good.”

While I’m aware the conversation sounds mundane, it is greater than the sum of its parts. My husband is perpetually considerate enough to ask about my day, and I usually have some snippet to share. His response is “Very good” if he can tell that the information I’ve shared is positive. In this particular case, it was “Very good,” followed by “Are you taking a class this summer?”

The quick answer is no, I am not. The longer answer is yes, yes I am. I am undertaking the most lovely of scientific quests: a review and continuation of the science I learned over 30 years ago when I was in high school and knew everything. Now that I’m on the other side of 50 and cruising along, perfectly secure in the conviction that I don’t know everything, I realize that anything worth knowing is worth relearning if I’ve forgotten a thing or a plenty along the way.

This brings me to my strange, sometimes antagonistic, relationship with science. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I have brains in my head and feet in my shoes, but I didn’t go to Science-land when I went to college. I went to hang out in Humanities town, with some business classes and French tossed in because why not? I took a math class for fun, and a physics class to get the science credit – and it was in that physics class that I realized I hadn’t paid much attention in high school. Not that I disregarded the whole notion that the universe is an amazing place made up of incrementally smaller parts, little Matryoshka dolls of atomic and subatomic particle-ness stacking within each other with ever-expanding and no-edge type limitlessness.

No, I found the universe to be compelling and quite harmonious but freaky as crap. I do not apologize for this. I am at heart a dreamer, and there’s nothing quite like the notion of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth at a skamillion miles per hour (that really needs to be a word) to give me the heeby-jeebies. Further, in a less universal (ahem) notion, there’s diseases on Earth to obsess about. Ebola, dengue fever, malaria, and so forth are absolutely fascinating, and under a microscope quite lovely, but again there’s that whole nightmare-inducing component. It’s kind of like when a student gets lice, we all get itchy. Just saying.

Enter my daughter, who has impressed me time and again how awesome science and math are when one approaches it with a sense of humor and a certain method. Those of you who are science-y call this scientific inquiry, but I am still not invited to the science-people party even though I window shop occasionally, listening to my daughter tell me stories of experiments gone awry and other experiments gone well and ruminations on nature and global warming and things that People Should Really Care About. Because I do care, I am now embarking on my science quest. I started today, with Biology Crash Course. I have been a fan of John and Hank Green via Vlogbrothers and the Crash Courses of History and Literature but I have stayed away from the science courses because, again, I have felt uninvited to the party, an intelligent layperson who is content to listen rather than participate.

As Hank Green was talking about covalent bonds and the octet rule, I started laughing. Leave it to the brothers Green to write and present information in a way that would resonate with me: gossip, happiness, and the fundamentals of life. The whole episode started off with a presentation of how carbon is a tramp. Brilliance. I am no closer to being able to participate in a science-y conversation of science than I was 15 minutes ago, but I am on a quest and my adventure is a productive one.

When my husband comes home from work tonight, he will ask me about my day and I will be able to tell him that I started my science quest. He will respond, “Very good,” — and it will have been.

Replenishing My Bucket

Tom Rath presented a wonderful analogy of interactions and their effect on people in his book How Full Is Your Bucket? The premise is simple: either you have a positive interaction which adds to your bucket, or a less rewarding interaction that empties it a bit. You also do this to yourself through positive and negative self-talk. Big interactions reap big effects, sometimes filling that bucket up to overfull and sometimes emptying it till all that’s left are pieces of lint and rust — kind of like burning the candle at both ends and getting singed in the process. In the spirit of overextending metaphors as I do and using the bucket analogy of life, some people are bucket heads, some people put out fires with their buckets and some people share the water in their buckets until there’s nothing left for them.

This brings me to May. April is the cruelest month for T.S. Eliot and tax preparers; May is the cruelest month for teachers. We walk around like extras on The Walking Dead, shuffling with arms outstretched in an effort to catch that last little morsel of learning (braiinnnnnnnss) and prove to the students that they really can master the concept we’re teaching. Teachers are committed, desperately so, to the notion that our students are important. Their futures matter, their psyches matter, and their goals matter. I don’t have time for the argument about the bored teacher who gave up on the students; I only have time to be inspired, so I look for those teachers. They are abundant and cross all grade and subject areas.

As a buffer to the news, to the end-of-course exams, and to the students’ burn-out, I have devised a few strategies to keep my bucket full:

  • Thank you notes. I write positive notes to parents, to the students, to my teacher friends, to anyone who could use a smile. They include emoji stickers or scratch and sniffs because stickers are a universal smile inducer. If you don’t like stickers, I will stay away from you, I promise.
  • Candy. Yes, it is not healthy, and no, I don’t care. I share my candy. My friends at work know where I keep the goody stash, and unbeknownst to them, they are the ones I buy it for. Very rarely do the students get the chocolate; that’s an adult reward.
  • No surprise here, I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down three things I am grateful for and three things I hope for. I don’t write a to-do list; those things get freakishly long and I do best focusing on one thing at a time.
  • Inappropriate lyrics to songs. I rework lyrics to songs when I need to regroup. Fortunately for the world, I keep it in my head. The cadence of Frozen is a good one to use: “F—it all, F – it all, stop passing notes in class,” will usually yield a smile wide enough to make the students wonder what I’m up to. That’s all anyone hopes for: curiosity on the part of their students.
  • Award certificates – I derive fiendish glee in making award certificates for ridiculous categories and giving them to people. It’s like a sticker, only more official looking.
  • Exercise. I hate it that I typed that, but it’s true. Exercise helps keep me from burning out.

The reason I write about the book and my strategies is that I needed every single one this past week. It was a whopper in teacher-land: students who didn’t want to take finals (like, who does?), colleagues who are overwhelmed, way too many social events and way to little sleep. Added to that, I will miss the students. There are plenty of memes and video clips out there about people counting down the last days of school, but I don’t. It makes me feel a little bittersweet. When we do our job well, our students leave us. With all the tribulations of testing and grading, the graduations and the celebrations (I don’t know why I needed three –tions, but there it is), my bucket’s wobbling a bit. I have to remind myself that the best part of this time of year is the hope. The graduates, the transitioning students, the parents: we’re all looking forward to a notion, an idea that the next great adventure is on the horizon and that the people who are important to us are ready for it. For me, that next great adventure involves sleep and a trip to the bucket store.

 

The Art of Waiting

Part of being a human person is waiting. We wait for our turn in line, for our appointments, for the flight to get called, for the announcements to be made. For people who are not good at waiting, this becomes something of a problem. “Hurry up,” we mutter at the child who is still saying goodbye to the 10 best friends they just met, “We have errands to run!” Then we become surprised at their general lack of joy in running errands with us. Enter the tension, the bickering, and the flat out arguments that result from our mismatched perceptions of time. I am sure there’s some longitudinal study about this, but it certainly feels like waiting comprises much of our conscious time. If we spend so much of our time waiting, it stands to reason that we should get better about doing it.

Judging by the number of horns beeping in traffic and humphs while standing in line, this is not a skill people care to master. We could – and often do – spend this time fussing and whining. I would like to think that when my life is over, I will have laughed more often than I fussed, but there are days where this is probably an optimistic goal.

If you hate waiting, imagine how the people around you feel. We’ve got all this festering energy percolating around and we’re not popcorn, so any degree of explosion we’ll have is going to be named something else: road rage, being the angry customer, or more aptly, being a jerk. It’s no one’s particular fault that we have to wait, we just have to. Hopefully, we remember our kindergarten manners and behave as such on the outside, but inside we remember the laundry, our other appointments, and our more preferred activities. It begins to show. Tempers get short, kids start to fuss, we start to fuss, and then everyone joins in on the fuss-tival (I had to).

Instead, I have been practicing how to wait. I am a fan of daydreaming, reading, and chatting, as long as the people I’m chatting with haven’t passed their optimal level of waiting patience. I’ve swapped recipes, brainstormed how to fix sewing mishaps, even played games with kids while in line. When there’s someone to talk to, I have fun waiting, probably because I’m not waiting but socializing.

If I don’t have anyone to chat with, I have reading and daydreaming at the ready. The only unfortunate thing about this is that all too often, my name gets called right when I’m in the middle of mentally rehearsing my acceptance speech for whatever award I think I’m getting, or when the plot of a story takes a great twist. I did, once and only once, ask the doctor to wait a moment while I finished a sentence on a student’s paper. My health care professional did not appreciate being told to hang on a second when he was already running late. The imp in me grinned, but externally I thanked him for his patience.

I have learned that waiting is an art form. If we reframe the waiting and make it something else, then we’re not really waiting. We’re having free time imposed on us, and we can use that wisely (plan your dinner party, write your thank you speech, sketch the rough draft of your opening arguments) or not (fussing). I am currently on hold, waiting for my turn in the phone line. This afternoon, I have another appointment. Clearly, I will have ample and continued opportunity to practice this craft.

Dedicated to Finding Joy

liz-new-year

This is not a New Year/New You blogging post, though it certainly looks like it: more colors, a different vision statement, and as I get better about linking objects and media, pictures. Yes, Philosophically Purple is going to get all visual in your faces. Well, not really, but more so than in the past.

I began writing this blog because I was just on the other side of middle age (50 when I first posted) and thought it would be fun to ruminate and giggle while typing. I achieved that goal, but then I began to see that what appeared to me to be an interconnected path of blogging looked to the outside world like I lacked focus. After all, I have written about anything from cupcake dispensers to Carrie Fisher (rest in peace, you superawesome woman of greatness). Where was the continuity? The branding? The concise thought?

The quick answer: not here. And after careful reflection, I submit that I don’t want it to be. Any human person with a grain of life in their noggins doesn’t think about just one thing, or even just 50 things. We are all of us capable of profound depth in our thinking and our ability to connect with each other contrasted with the desire to eat brownies with an ice cream chaser as a meal, to hell with what we’re “supposed” to have for dinner. That is me. That is my vision. Well, not to eat the brownies and ice cream as dinner, at least not all the time, but to be able to wonder about wisdom, kindness, life, love, and finding joy.

I will continue that mission haphazardly and unapologetically optimistically. I believe that the energy we bring with us into situations can either help or hurt others, and I am committed to being a force of positive energy. I am also still a pretty big fan of quotespirations, so I included mine in my subhead: Here’s to reminding ourselves that kindness matters and that joy is contagious.

Happy New Year.

Seeing yourself through a different filter

A popular quotespirational phrase that people pass on to their daughters and loved ones goes something like this: “If you could see yourself through my eyes, you would know how special you are to me.” My first question is and always has been, why not our sons? Don’t they deserve to know how we see them? My second thought is that, while the sentiment is lovely, it’s still a little selfish. As in, you’re special to me … but you might not be special to that guy over there and definitely not to that other person over there. Wrong. Nope. Nuh-huh. Plain and simple, I will correct the other phrase for you and remind you of this simple fact: you are special.

You are present, powerful, awe-inspiring because you are you. Maybe you got distracted and forgot to pay attention to yourself. The other day you were quick to point out that you couldn’t bench press 200 pounds like some other person, totally ignoring the fact that your current bench press is up 20 pounds from when you first started. Another you was saddened by the fact that someone else got to be the keynote speaker at the event, while you got passed over; you didn’t know that this person has been trying for six years, while you’ve only tried this once. Give it time. Another you is jealous of how easy another person has it – they’re brilliant, stylish, popular, and you feel invisible. Do you see yourself? Or are you too busy looking at someone else?

Here’s the thing: I see you. I see you try, and I see you try again, and I see you smile, and I see you when you’re angry and frustrated. I’m not Santa Claus or the Ghost of Christmas stalker-land, I’m just reminding you that you’re pretty cool. No, I haven’t been watching too many Barney shows (is he even on TV anymore?) and singing “You are special” until my brain has become anesthetized; I just see how conflicted we are this time of year. Do we give a gift to the friend who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, do we share goodies, bake them/buy them, and oh my gosh can you believe that Suzee is going to France over the winter break? She’s so lucky.

That’s where we get off track. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to these other, more wondrously awesome-seeming people because we don’t know their whole context. We can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (as a way to understand them) when we can barely make it a mile in our own shoes without taking a break to regroup. Like anyone, I tend to get distracted by what everyone else is doing, or at least what it seems like they’re doing, I lose focus on my own goals, my own sense of purpose, my commitment to myself and the people I love, and for what? So that I can compare myself to an idealized version of someone else? That’s not the recipe for contentment and well-being; that leads to envy over someone else’s presumed situation.

So, especially this time of year, please take a moment to look at yourself the way you would look at someone else you love. Do it often enough and you might even become a little more focused on all that is you, and less focused on whatever all those other people of awesomeness are doing. You have your own awesomeness to nurture.

Joy

Do you remember when you were young and you would spin in a circle with your arms spread out, whirling and whirling until you dropped to the ground from the dizzies? You’d watch the clouds spin from your ground-level vantage point, if it didn’t make you too woozy. Essentially, you were self-inducing the same feeling you would later come to recognize as drunk. The point is, though, that you would spin in the circles for the simple joy of it. No need for someone to correct your technique or tell you that you were spinning wrong, there was only this moment when you played with gravity and gravity may have pulled you to the ground, but you still won. It was wondrous.

Then you “grew up,” stopped spinning because you realized that it gave you an upset stomach, or too closely reminded you of being drunk and nauseous. Other activities induced similar feelings of ‘glad to be in the moment’ for you: maybe it was spending time with friends, or spending alone time with a special someone, or reading a book, jumping from planes – whatever it was, you did this thing for the simple fact that it brought you joy.

Being joyful is a tricky proposition during adulthood because there’s so much that threatens it. How can a person be joyful when there’s so much pain? Joy isn’t a constant, or at least not for me, but it is there among the other emotions and deserves its nurturing too. We do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to allow ourselves that small respite from everything else we’re supposed to be doing to engage in the activities we love. I submit that our capacity for joy is one of the few things that makes life bearable. It isn’t money, or 500 skamillion friends, or an overabundance of things to do: it’s an appreciation of the moment, a connection to the very things that make us glad to be hanging around on this planet in the first place.

I am serious about protecting my own joy. This is an awkward time of year for many people, and definitely for me. I don’t handle conflicting demands on my time very well and instead usually opt to behave in a zombielike fashion because it’s easier that way. That is until this year when I promised myself I’d simplify. So far, and I admit it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, I’m doing well at cutting the excess out from the to-do list so that I can enjoy myself (go figure).

One of the most enjoyable activities for me this time of year is sending holiday greetings. Even though I’m killing trees and spending money on postage, I like to send a happy hello to another person that they can hold in their hands – like a 49 cent hug, I suppose. I know email is quicker and the graphics on my social media are all cute and what-not, but I haven’t put my hand to pen to cardstock so it doesn’t give me the same happy feeling that getting paper cuts on my tongue from licking envelopes does. That’s my unapologetic nod to doing a thing that makes me happy.

The other nod is that I love movies. On the big screen, popcorn beside the point. I love hanging out in an alternate reality for a length of time so that I can feel the feels without any sense of responsibility for them or any need to make them better. It’s the same reason I like to read, but my more immediate circle of friends understands the reading more than the movies. Why would I love to go spend too much money for a couple hours of escapism? Well, because it’s fun. The movie I saw yesterday, for its entire 130 minutes, momentarily filled a place in that part of me that still believes there is no problem that can’t be solved as long as we have hope. I left the theater with the same feeling I had when I used to whirl around in circles until I fell: a little woozy, but joyous.

As a warm-up with hopeful carryover beyond the New Year, I encourage us all to engage in the activities that bring us joy. They aren’t less important than our other commitments; that’s like saying our commitments to other things are more important than our commitment to our own health. That said, with all movie-going, card-sending joy in my heart, I encourage you to do the things that bring you joy. If it’s spending time with people, go do it. If it’s sitting around the house eating Cheetos, bring extra napkins to wipe that orange-y goodness off your fingers. If it’s writing your story, or telling your truth, or walking the dogs, go. You deserve the joy.

Look for the Helpers

Fred Rogers of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show from yesteryear, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s an understatement to say that the news has been a wee bit scary this year, and particularly recently. I am certain that on other elections people have been where I was on November 9, staring stunned and horrified into my coffee. I don’t like that feeling.

I’m left with the question: What did America just do? This election has been like when a party breaks up too late and friends are left passed out on the sofa when the parents come home. We were only playing, we didn’t mean to do anything wrong, we’d apologize. Sorry we messed up the house.

But we’re the parents now, and our house has been messed up for a while. When we don’t take steps to understand each other, isolation and fear ensue. This is not a leap of logic, this is basic kindergarten manners. Go make friends with the new kid, my grandmother would tell me, they look like they could use someone to talk to.

I love my country and I know we can behave better than this. One of the aspects of my nation that I took for granted until recently was its can-do spirit, its celebration of the underdog who rises to the top. Ask anyone who saw the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. In this election, though, there was no underdog, just candidates slinging mud that got splattered all on America’s face and there’s no one to wipe up the mess for us. That can-do spirit has taken a beating.

“This isn’t my mess, I didn’t do this,” I hear people saying. No, this isn’t any one person’s doing, but this is definitely a mess. We all live here, so we’ve got some work to do. If we are going to move forward we’re going to have to remember that it might not feel like it right now, but that America is a beautiful nation full of potential. We’re going to need to bridge the gap between what we have been doing and what we could be doing. However anyone voted in this election, and remember we have the right to disagree, we don’t have the right to hurt each other. To remix Mr. Rogers’ quote, there have indeed been scary things in the news, so we need to look for the helpers.

In fact, rather than looking for helpers, we need to be the helpers.

Previous Older Entries