2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Resolution: I only added two new articles to my blog in 2011. Promise to self: in 2012, I plan to post at least 10 new articles.

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Man is born to trouble… but then what?

Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, and that has ALWAYS been the case. But man can also be very ingenious about how to manage.

Let me illustrate with examples from my circle of friends. One 25-year-old man with cerebral palsy has no functional hands or legs, is fed through a stomach tube, and can’t talk – but laughs a lot. Another 21-year-old man died from Friedrich’s Ataxia after losing his ability to walk and the strength in his hands by inches from the time he was about 10. He was an accomplished graphic artist. I wrote earlier about the ripples from his short life. Another 23-year-old man has Muscular Dystrophy. He made his first unsupervised friends in his late teens when he became able to play games over the Internet. Up until then, his disability meant he was under constant adult supervision – not conducive to close relationships with peers.

So some ideas from these friends:

Companion dog

Companion dogs – The young man with cerebral palsy has a companion dog who is his bridge to contact with people outside the family, as well as giving him big sloppy kisses that make him laugh. People come up to pet the dog and then stop to talk. These same people would probably walk by with averted eyes otherwise. Companion dogs are thoroughly trained and require a real commitment from the person and often family, but they can be a source of great comfort and company.

Make virtual contacts with others. Human relationships matter and can be hard for some people, for example disabled veterans, to manage in person. My friend with Muscular Dystrophy uses virtual forms of human contact — in his case gaming. He very much appreciates the evolving technologies since things keep getting easier as the strength in his hands declines. For those who aren’t into games, there are Blogs, Facebook, and online discussions. Computer companies have invested a lot in “accessibility” enhancements for software. For example, if a person can’t type well, there are trainable voice readers that can ‘take dictation.’

Find a hero — in a story or reality — who has struggled with a similar disability and somehow won through to a strong life. My friend with Friedrich’s Ataxia used Steven Hawkings for his hero and received considerable comfort from remembering that someone so disabled could still contribute so splendidly. That appealed to him because he had a similar kind of brain, so could picture himself making contributions in the same vein. Physical exercise of whatever form if still possible can also be important. So how about a hero such as the man who joined a fund-raising bike ride from Seattle to Portland in his un-motorized wheel chair, pushing all the way — and kept up.

So I guess I’m suggesting that we search among people – many of them quietly getting through difficult lives – who can provide examples of ways to find meaning in very circumscribed lives. I thought about nominating my friend with Muscular Dystrophy for one of Robert Biswas-Diener’s Courage prizes. But he declined, not perhaps seeing the courage that is very apparent to me.

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A Beautiful Life Ends Beautifully

Marian

Marian

My godmother, Marian, died last Saturday. It was both sudden and not sudden. She had been fine on Memorial Day when I called, but then a fall on Tuesday led eventually to her being moved to the ICU in the early hours of Saturday morning. They started a morphine drip to make her more comfortable, and we knew she was slipping away.

Two of her children were with her at the end, the other two spoke to her via cell phones that we held to her ear. One drove for more than 4 hours, never expecting to reach her in time, but she kept on breathing quietly, as if she were asleep, for hours after the ICU doctors expected, so he arrived in plenty of time.

Starkey and Marian

Marian with Starkey

During the day, her friends including my children and many of her neighbors came to say goodbye. They sat with her, held her hands, touched her head, spoke to her about what she had meant to them, talked about her fantastic taste, even told her how her beloved little dog was missing her. We had 6 chairs around the bed, and at various times all 6 were full.

Finally at 4:38 in the afternoon with her two sons, me, and another extremely close family friend sitting around her, she took one long breath. Her son said, “Come on Mom, you can make it just a little longer.” He was thinking about his daughter who was on her way by train, due to arrive in about an hour. Then she took one more breath and was gone. Her face instantly looked different, I speculate because all the little muscles relaxed.

Marian knew how to laugh

Marian knew how to laugh, here with my mother

This week there have been many celebrations of her life with all her children and their families around, including 5 grandchildren — a Memorial Service, an open house at her house, countless small conversations, many of them laced with laughter. She was loving, wise, adventurous, and beautiful in many ways. Her hairdresser came to the Memorial Service and talked about how she had helped him learn to love the town that he’d grown up in. He also pointed out the beauty of her twinkling blue eyes, amazed that nobody else had mentioned that particular beauty. She also never stopped learning — she’d completed a PhD in Art History in her 50’s and was reading a book in the hospital about an English lord traveling around Yellowstone in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In the program for the Memorial Service, the family included a letter that Marian had written my daughter Laura five years earlier, after Laura asked her for stories about her long life. That letter, especially the last long paragraph, has an important message for those of us still marching on, especially young people.

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

Marian with her daughter on her 40th birthday

The letter brings to mind her daughter’s comment that Marian always moved to the next stage of life without looking back and regretting the stage that had just passed and without trying to hurry through to the next stage. When she was a mother of small children, she was a mother of small children without wanting to speed up her children’s growing up. When she was a very old woman, she figured out how to enjoy the benefits of old age without (much) mourning of the abilities that had passed or the traveling she could no longer do.

Here’s the letter:


Dear Laura,

Marian with Laura

Marian with Laura at my MAPP graduation - when Laura made the request

You can’t imagine how flattering it is as an old woman to be invited by someone of your generation to reminisce about times past.

It was wartime when I emerged from college — as it had been throughout my college career. Pearl Harbor was attacked my freshman year at the University of Idaho, Hiroshima was bombed during my honeymoon in 1945, just after I had graduated from the University of Chicago. Besides the fact that women’s liberation was just beginning to take form, the chaos of wartime cultivated a lemming-like move to the altar: we all wanted to get married, have children, have homes. I had had the dream of becoming a journalist, but I quickly traded that ambition for the security of marrying Bill when he returned from the European front. He had a 45 day furlough before he would be sent on to Japan. What I want to convey to you is the chaos of world events and the unpredictability of my own world when I was at the point of my life that you are now.

So it was make-shift time for me. Instead of looking for a newspaper job, I became a receptionist at the University of Chicago Press, commuting on weekends to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where Bill was waiting for release from the army. By March, when he was again a civilian, we headed for New Haven where he resumed the first quarter of his junior year at Yale. I learned to cook, our apartment was a way-station for returning former students, we spent weekends exploring New York City and going to Dodger games, we often saw your grandparents who were living in New London, Conn. where Lou was stationed at the submarine base there. It was a carefree time and we made the most of it.

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

Marian hosted Kathryn's wedding reception

I did well in graduate school and was given a scholarship to continue beyond the Master’s degree, but didn’t seriously consider becoming a professional. I wasn’t eager to begin having babies, but I felt my role was as a supporting, not competing wife. When Bill had finished his graduate work and received a Fullbright Scholarship for a year in Paris to research his dissertation, I was blissfully happy with the choices I had made. We had a wonderful year, traveling the Continent, visiting your grandparents several times in Oxford. I came home pregnant — Peter was born the day after your mother, July 6, 1951. Your grandfather sent us a cable reading, “Kathryn Leigh arrived,” to which Bill sent the reply, “Kathryn meet Peter.” And so they did, a few years later.

The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine. Women have been liberated, not just the exceptional ones but across the board. The choices and opportunities may be overwhelming, but at least you can’t feel limited. A few years of free fall are probably not a bad idea — just savoring life (as I would describe my early years of marriage in New Haven and Paris). Jumping from college into career or into marriage-with-children might prove too confining, even a mistake as you look backwards — as I am doing here — from your eighth decade. These are your luxury years, if you have enough money to give yourself freedom, when you can keep sensitive and searching for what your inner self really is trying to tell you. Pause and smell the roses. But don’t become passive and let the years roll on and over you. A few false starts aren’t necessarily a disaster.

It has been great fun to write all this down.

Love,
Marian


Marian had a beautiful end, but that doesn’t mean we were ready to let her go. Ah, grief, sadness, the feeling of a hole in one’s life. But also humor, love, and sweet memory. When I lost another friend recently, I found comfort in George Bonanno’s research on bereavement, summarized in Grief is Part of Life. He found that resilient people get comfort from remembering. Perhaps that’s why we all get together after someone dies, to enrich each other’s collections of memories with our own particular stories. I’m richer for knowing that Marian sent her children out to play in the rain because she thought it was sensuous, even as all the other mothers were calling their children in. I’m richer for her granddaughter’s story of taking a raft trip together down the Grand Canyon when Marian was 82, with the guide calling out, “Better wake up your grandmother, we’re coming to another rapids.”

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Self-Gratitude: Thank You to My Former Selves

I’ve been reading about gratitude again because that’s the topic of the second book in the Positive Psychology News Daily series. We’ve selected more than twenty articles. We’ve started editing. Kevin Gillespie has started drawing pictures. We’ll have it ready by Thanksgiving at the latest (cross fingers).

Earlier I posted my notes for the talk on gratitude that I gave to a Sunday School class at a local church. In particular, borrowing from some of the experts in the field, I wrote:

Cultivating Gratitude involves…

1) Acknowledging good things that happen – major and minor. Be mindful of present benefits; enhance the ability to remember positive events.

2) Recognizing the sources of goodness that are outside us. Much goodness happens to us independent of our own actions. What if we said, “Why me?” when good things happen to us?

But what if we also kept in mind gratitude that we owe our former selves?

Just to show what I mean, here are some of the things for which I can thank Kathie Sugg (baby name), Kathy Heninger (after adoption by step-father), Kathryn Heninger (chosen name at college), and even Kathryn Heninger Britton, looking back over the years.

Kathie holding Lou's ThumbI thank you, Kathie, for the picture of you holding your father’s thumb when you were tiny. That picture has created a strong sense of connection to my father who died when I was about 2 years old. It’s actually the only picture I have with both of us in it.

I thank you, Kathy, for your love of reading. You filled my head with stories of people I admire. These stories often return to me when I feel challenged. These stories remind me of duty cheerfully performed, of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of fear, of taking the long view, of the impact of love on life.

I thank you Kathie, Kathy, Kathryn for building friendships all along the way. I have close friends from early childhood, from high school, from college from graduate school, work, child rearing and graduate school again. Thank you for being so curious about people and for exchanging the words and deeds that made lasting bonds.

Learning how to snorkel

Learning how to snorkel

Thank you for the adventures you’ve had with friends — such as the trip to Bora Bora with friend Pam to stay on friend Sue’s catamaran, making new friends of Sue’s family.

 

I thank you, Kathryn, for always finding something to do with your life while you tried to figured out what you wanted to DO with your life. Yes, it took about 30 years for you to find a vocation that is also an avocation. But in the meantime, you gained experience with a lot of different people, different technologies, and different business considerations.

Thank you for taking care of my body, so that I enjoy good health now in spite of 30 years with Type 1 diabetes. I know it wasn’t easy.

More than 30 years together

I also thank you for finding Edward Britton to marry and then for building up more than 30 years of shared experience with him. I don’t think you understood that marriage at my age would be even more rewarding than it was at yours. Thank both our earlier selves for all the little acts of warmth and appreciation that must have added up to more than 5-to-1 one positivity ratio between us — but who’s counting?

Thank you, also, for deciding to have children, one of life’s greatest adventures.

And so on. Who would I be if it hadn’t been for you?

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Calming Someone Else Down

My daughter recently became very upset about her job. I found her stamping around the house in a terrible mood, making justifiable complaints.  She plopped herself down on the couch saying, “I’m just going to call them up and quit. I’ve had enough.”

My initial impulse was to argue with her. The job gives her the flexibility she needs to take prerequisite courses for applying to nursing school. The things that were bothering her didn’t seem that overwhelming to me, and I knew she didn’t have the time to look for another job.

Maternal Instinct

Maternal Instinct

But instead of arguing, I just sat down beside her and put my arms around her. If I said anything at all, it was something low and vague and sympathetic.

Pretty soon, she was up and moving around again, only this time she was working out the details about how to deal with the day’s challenges.

What did I learn?
I already knew that arguing with myself when I’m upset doesn’t help. The first step toward a resilient response is for me to calm myself down.

The experience with my daughter helped me extend that learning to the way I operate with other people. The first step to help someone else be resilient is to help them calm down. When I saw my daughter unhappy, I felt an urge to do something, but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Only afterwards did it occur to me that the maternal instinct that led to gentle touch was just the right way to help her calm down.

We recently published a little book of edited articles from Positive Psychology News Daily called Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Most of the chapters are about ways to become more resilient yourself. My chapter explains why it is important to calm down first before trying to argue with yourself.

Perhaps we’ll publish a second edition some day with new articles about how to help others be resilient. I’d love to hear about your experiences.


Image: Maternal instinct courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

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Another Thanksgiving & Where the Acorn Sprouts

The year has flown by since last Thanksgiving. This year, we had a very quiet Thanksgiving Day with a placeholder meal for the Thanksgiving Feast. At my son’s suggestion, we decided to delay the turkey dinner until my daughter moved back to North Carolina in early December. Having her move back to North Carolina is truly a cause for thanksgiving. Perhaps when she has completed all her studies to be a nurse, she will settle not too far away. At least the probability goes way up.

Farmers' Market

Farmers' Market

There’s a big movement to “buy local” when it comes to food and other products. I think there could be a similar movement to “settle down local” to family.

When I ventured out from my home in my twenties, I moved across the continent, from left coast to right coast. I love living here in North Carolina — for me, the trees are right, the climate is right, friends are close by. I never could get used to the drizzle in Seattle or the eucalyptus and palm trees in California — or the lack of trees period in Idaho. I like to visit friends and family in all those places. I especially enjoy the summer mildness, Puget Sound, and Mount Rainier in Seattle and the incredibly wide-open sky in Idaho. But here’s where I’ve wanted to put down roots.

 

Speaking of roots, I have found hundreds of acorns sprouting in our walks through the woods this fall — more than I ever remember seeing. I’ve heard that it’s a bumper crop of acorns this year. I wonder if they have also been sprouting earlier than usual as well?

Array of Sprouting Acorns

Array of Sprouting Acorns

The saying is that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. I did, and now I find it makes it difficult to be there for my mother when she needs me. I hope that my children can both settle down close by — so that I can be there for them when they need me, and later, perhaps, they can be there for me.

Images:
Farmer’s Market Image courtesy of BaylorBear78
Sprouting acorns courtesy of Edward Britton

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Reading Out Loud, Round 4

I’ve been using my blog to keep a log of the books I’ve read out loud to my husband over the past few years. This is the fourth posting. Click on this link to see the entire set.

We’ve branched out, reading books about social history and biography as well as science. Right now, we are in the middle of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quite a change from physics and geology.

Reading out loud together is a way we exercise our brains together – something recommended by Nancy Andreasen in the book listed below.

Lightman, A. Ed. (2005). The Best American Science Writing 2005. New York: Harper Perennial.Greene, B. (2006). The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006 (The Best American Series) . Houghton Mifflin.

Kolata, G. (2007). The Best American Science Writing 2007. Harper Perennial.

Winchester, S. (2003). The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Vintage Books.
Quennell, M. & C. H. B. (1918). A HISTORY OF EVERYDAY THINGS IN ENGLAND VOL. I 1066-1499. Originally published by B. T. Batsford, Ltd. London.History of everyday things like clothes, how houses were constructed, how windmills worked.
Quennell, M. & C. H. B. (1919). A history of everyday things in England, done in two parts of which this is the second, 1500-1799. London, B. T. Batsford.
Andreasen, N. (2005). The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Plume Book.
Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.
Ruse, M. & Travis, J. (2009). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Belknap Press.
Hazen, R. M. (2005). Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins. Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press.
Chown, M. (2001). The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms. Oxford University Press.This book was a complete delight. Not only did we learn about how atoms were formed and dispersed, from hydrogen to iron to uranium in the two furnaces of the big bang and very hot star interiors and supernovae, but we also had a tour of the science in process, personalities, life histories, deadend ideas, breakthroughs, politics, and all. It also read out loud well, which is not always true of books about science.
Stewart, Ian (2007). Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry. New York: Basic Books.This was a challenge for me to read. It explored the mathematics of symmetry from its roots in the Babylonian solutions for quadratic equations through Galois and Group Theory through Lie Groups through dimensions and string theory. I don’t know how much stuck, but I have a new respect for creativity in mathematics.
Atkins, P. W. (1987). Atkins’ Molecules. W. H. Freeman & Co.
Carroll, Sean (2010). From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton.
Holmes, G. (Ed.) (1997). The Oxford Illustrated History of Italy (Oxford Illustrated Histories). Oxford University Press.Political, economic, and cultural history of Italy from Augustus to the present.
Fairbanks, J. K. (2006). China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. Harvard University Press.
Pesic, P. (2005). Sky in a Bottle. MIT Press.
Sobel, D. (2004). The Best American Science Writing 2004. HarperCollins Publishers.Several interesting articles, especially William Langewiesche’s discussion of Columbia’s last flight. It read like a mystery novel.
Lane, N. (2009). Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rose, Steven (1992). The Making of Memory. New York: Anchor Doubleday
Feynman, R. P. (1995). Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics By Its Most Brilliant Teacher. Perseus Books.
Carroll, Sean B. (2009). Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species. Mariner Books.
Dreyfus, H. & Kelly, S. D. (2011). All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press.
Weaver, K. (2005). The Violent Universe: Joyrides through the X-ray Cosmos. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
X-Ray observations of the universe. Many picture,
Villard, R. & Cook, L. (2005). Infinite Worlds: An Illustrated Voyage to Planets beyond Our Sun. University of California Press.
de Botton, Alain (1997). How Proust Can Change Your Life. New York: Vintage International.
Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Knopf.
Petroski, H. (2004). Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering. New York: Vintage Books.
Cairns-Smith, A. G. (1996). Evolving the mind: On the nature of matter and the origin of consciousness. Cambridge University Press.This book traveled all over the place, from quantum mechanics to brain physiology.
DeHaene, Stanislas (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. Penguin.
Blackmore, S. (2006). Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human. Oxford University Press.Contains 20 somewhat structured interviews with researchers interested in the phenomenon of consciousness, from philosophers to neuroscientists, from Patricia Churchland to V. S. Ramachandran.
Ramachandran, V. S. (2011). The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. New York: W. W. Norton.
Bellos, A. (2010). Here’s looking at Euclid: From counting ants to games of chance– An Awe-inspiring journey through the world of numbers. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Smith, John Maynard & Szathmary, Eors (1999). The origins of life: From the birth of life to the origins of language. Oxford University Press.
Sacks, Oliver (2001). Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Vintage Books.
Levi, Primo (1975). The Periodic Table. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books
Wolf, Maryanne (2008). Proust and the Squid. Harper Perennial.

This one didn’t have as much detail as Stanley DeHaene’s book, but one of her facts really stuck with me: that disadvantaged children may hear up to 23 million fewer words before entering kindergarten then children from other backgrounds. Wow!

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