Monday, January 31, 2011

Shoots and Ladders in a Candyland World

In 1943, Abraham Maslow came up with his hierarchy of needs, and I was introduced to it in an educational psychology class. At eighteen, I had no idea how I was to use the data in order to be a better teacher. At 35, I see it less a teaching tool and more a tool of introspection. It can be an enlightening and scary proposition to sit down and take inventory of which of your needs are and are not being met.

Maslow divided our needs into five categories: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Basic needs are the tangible ones. In a story, they'd be the showing and not the telling details. They'd be the props on the theater or movie set. Sort of. The most basic requirements are those that allow us to survive. They allow the body to function properly. We need air, water, and food. We need clothes for our bodies and a roof over our heads. And, interestingly enough, Maslow placed sex in this category. Of course, he meant the basic sex act--the sort needed in order to perpetuate the species. Nonetheless, he drew criticism for placing sex as just as important as the air we breathe.

If we think of Maslow's needs theory as a ladder, then the next rung is safety. Safety is equated to predictability. We want things to be consistent and fair. We are drawn to the familiar and are scared by the unfamiliar. This safety applies to all areas of life: personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and protection against accidents and illness. When we are young, we cling to blankets that are special to us. We cling to our mother's leg and peer out at strangers. When our mothers serve cake, we get mad if the slices are not even. We get angry if someone doesn't play by the game rules. As adults, we are supposed to be better at this. I might be stuck here, to some extent. I still cling to the familiar. I build a world and know how it works and am off kilter if something or someone doesn't act as they generally do. I get angry with the world and cry "No Fair!" to no one's ears in particular about all the atrocities in the world. But it is what it is, and you either adapt, or you are stunted--left behind.

After those two levels are reached, we want to be loved and feel like we belong. We work to establish friendships. We value family. We crave intimacy. We begin our search, if we are monogamous, for The One, the one we want to spend our days with. We start to join groups and clubs. Or maybe take our place as one sheep in a flock at a particular religious gathering. Maybe we play on an athletic team or at the very least fervently follow a professional team. Maybe you join a gang. When we go to work, we don't just go to do our jobs but find ourselves seeking out relationships with co-workers. At the very least, we want someone to pass the time with, to joke with, to gossip to, to commiserate with. At the most, maybe we get real friendship or even a mentorship.

Maslow broke esteem down into 2 types: the type that others can give you and the type only you can have (i.e. self-esteem). So does your identity rest on the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention? Maslow labeled that "low" esteem, as opposed to the "high" esteem--the ability to gain strength, to be competent, to master, to be independent, and be self-confident. Of course, Maslow saw the two types of esteem as interrelated. Neither, it seems are healthy in and of themselves.

Finally, there is self-actualization or realizing your full potential--becoming what you are meant to become, whatever that means. Maslow said that full potential varied from person to person. Maybe it's your gift to be a damn good stay-at-home mom. Maybe you're meant to be a painter. Or a waiter. Or a teacher. Or a construction worker.

The trouble is, we can spend our whole lives trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. And then we are grown ups and still wondering why life doesn't feel right. Well, Maslow would probably say that, in the board game of life, you've got to lose a turn and go back to START, or at the very least, he'd say that you have to be honest about whether your other, "lower" needs are truly being met.

That said, Maslow acknowledged that there are people who actively operate in phenomenal ways at the higher needs levels, despite the fact that their most basic needs aren't being met. I'm fascinated by his concept of metamotivation. This term describes the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of basic needs and strive for constant betterment. You've encountered those people, right? Throughout my life, I've met people who, as my grandmother would have said, "don't have a pot to piss in," meaning they were poor. They had no money, no things, or at least none of the things those around them had. Yet, they seem happy, content even. Or maybe they are the fighters of the world--the scrappy ones--the ones who ignore the hunger gnawing at their own bellies in order to fight for the basic freedoms of others.

I look at the colorful depictions of Maslow's pyramid and am reminded that it bears a striking likeness to the food pyramid. I realize that's not an accurate comparison. In the food pyramid, the highest point are those things we should avoid--the things that are abundant and tempting yet which will kill us. In Maslow's pyramid, the highest point is something we should strive for, though seemingly very, very hard to reach. The bottom rung for both is building blocks--the origins of energy. And of course in both, there is the murky middle ground between bottom and top. In that murky middle ground, most of us struggle. We cheat. We take more than we need. We starve ourselves, both physically and metaphorically. Or perhaps we act mechanically, treating our bodies and minds like a machine. We abide by the serving size but the goal--the perfect dress size or the enlightened mind--remains out of reach, either by a hair or by a mile.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Linguistically Limited

Recently, as a getting-to-know-you activity, and because the students are getting ready to write an identity essay, I asked my English 101 class to write a Six-Word Memoir. This isn't my brainchild. Ernest Hemingway's version is probably the most quoted. Though his wasn't memoir, I think the idea was that you could embody all the necesary elements of fiction or story in six words: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."

The online magazine, Smith, continues to provide a cyber nest for those who feel compelled to try to encapsulate their experiences. While the entries aren't pouring in as they initially did upon the launch of the project, they still trickle in HERE. And the newest entries seem to have morphed from trying to capture a lifetime to trying to capture artistically the moment or the day.

There have even been books published which compile the 6-word offerings of the everyday Joe as well as well-known writers. And you certainly can find the cinematic versions online via YouTube.

These are the versions I came up with:

"Vintage girl in
the modern world"

"Wore her heart
on her sleeve"

"She always noticed
the little things"

"She taught; they
taught her more"

"Yoga mind even
off the mat"

"For art she
purposely made messes"

"Collaged mind
collaged heart
collaged soul"

"Hummingbird heart
Eagle eye
Ostrich body"

"She whispered often
to the animals"

"Poet at heart
not on page"

Some have described the six-word memoir as like Postsecret, but with less angst. I see them as freeform Haiku. Or perhaps they fit the bill as A River of Stones material or perhaps the abbreviated version of Three Beautiful Things projects. Ultimately, they are impractical, yet I'm tempted to continue this as a daily project, perhaps an art journal project. I think it would be beautiful to look back on 365 of these little bits in which I tried to sum up what resists summing up.

...So, which six words would YOU choose?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Waking to Robert Burns

I woke this morning thinking about Robert Burns. I don't typically have these literary awakenings, but I went to bed knowing that my friend, Nancy's birthday was the next day. And I kept thumbing through the filing cabinet that is my brain, remembering a snippet of a poem I'd once read in which the poet addresses a Nancy.

By morning, I'd found the missing file: Robert Burns. Don't get me wrong. That particular folder is a thin one. I may be an English teacher and a lifelong lover of poetry, but Burns never did it for me. In fact, the folder held the two poems that everyone--poetry lovers and non-poetry lovers, alike--knows: "O My Luv's Like a Red, Red Rose" and "Auld Lang Syne." And of course commercialism is responsible for us knowing those two poems when appropriate to the season. The dust is shaken off the first poem around January in preparation for its use for Valentine's Day. And we know the second and sing a version of it on New Year's.

At other times of the year, poor ol' Robert Burns sits waiting in the tissue-paper thin pages of literature anthologies, only read by Scots, students who are made to read it, and by scholars.
So why doesn't Burns enjoy the rock star status that Billy Collins enjoys? Hmm. Well, of course modern man and woman are anti-rhyme, unless said rhyme comes in the form of a Hallmark card or a song trapped in one's Ipod. But I don't think that's the only reason. If I had to guess, I'd say cynicism disallows us from relating to most of what Burns has to say. We are a culture that disbelieves in true love, and we are at a Patriotic low.

No matter what our romantic status, we resist something that says love is like a rose or a tune. Ick, we say. And we are a culture that quits when the going is good. We are a culture of throwaway marriages and divorces done via website, so why would we believe, as Burns wrote, that someone's love could last "Till a' the seas gang dry...And the rocks melt wi' the sun!"? The cynic comes out when reading the last few lines of the poem:
      And fare thee weel a while!
      And I will come again, my luve,
      Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
We say, "Ah ha! Of course you can love her that much because you aren't even with her. You are 10,000 miles away!"

If you read Burns, you know he loved the ladies. Let's just say there are many bonnie lassies who didn't escape Burns's attention. The modern day thug would be labeled a playa if he was caught thinking about multiple ladies and their fairer qualities. There's Jean, who has made Burns' speaker love the West because that is where she lives. Incidentally, this makes me think of my man, who though he is from the East, is often caught saying the West is the best, though his reasoning has nothing to do with me and everything to do with The Doors' "The End." This Jean of Burns's takes up all his mind: "But day and night may fancy's flight/Is ever wi' my Jean." Flowers and bird song remind him of her.

Maybe we resist Burns because we have never had that experience. We have never been so infatuated that every damned thing leads our thoughts back to a particular person? I'm not THAT cynical, especially being 7 months into a relationship. I can't say that I think of My Man when I see flowers or when I hear birds singing, but I suppose there are modern-day versions of that because, let's face it: I'm not exposed on a daily basis to flowers and birds. My triggers are decidedly more urban: NFL football commercials, can openers, seeing a truck that looks like his, tie-dye, bacon. It is those things, not birds and flowers, that trigger a smile and a warm feeling in my belly.

Modern man and woman could not get away with some of Burns's poetic actions. For instance, his actions in "Mary Morison" are the modern-day equivalent to stalking. I'm not sure any of us really remember the idea of admiring someone from afar. What, with all our modern-day love warfare, we simply go forth and conquer. We add someone as a Facebook friend. We text someone. We subscribe to online dating services and write ads that read as recipes for what we want in a partner. Or, if we are me, we walk up to the fellow we are interested in and admit that we've been eavesdropping on a conversation he was having with someone else. We say, "Why would someone choose to live in Moscow, Idaho when one has previously spent the rest of his life in Connecticut?" Come to think of it, maybe I am not that different from Burns. Burns's speaker admired Mary Morison from afar. He spies her from her window and thinks just being able to see her makes him rich. She is gold! I feel that way sometimes--like I've won the lottery.

Even if you are a scrooge, miserly about the idea of love, at the very least I guess we can hoist a glass Burns's way regarding his celebrations. He celebrates the friendships of men. He celebrates women. He celebrates past and future. He celebrates country. He celebrates love won and love lost. He celebrates arrivals, and he celebrates departures. He hoists his share of glasses. "We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet," is his motto, and that cup filleth over with the four important things: "Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!"

Wait! Aren't enjoyment and pleasure saying the same thing? God damn, yes! Cheers to hedonism. Raise a glass to the idea that this writer didn't listen to his inner editor and erase one of those words. There is room in life for enjoyment and pleasure both!

It doesn't take long for me to like Burns. Don't tell any of my colleagues, but I like to conjure him much like Mel Gibson. I'm not talking crazy Mel Gibson of late, the one who spews racial slurs and the one who allegedly knocks out his woman's teeth. I'm talking Braveheart Mel Gibson. I like to imagine Robert Burns astride a horse and screaming, "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"

I suppose what really gets me is the idea of this macho man who marches off to battle. His speaker is not afraid to die for what he believes: "By Oppression's woes and pains!/By your sons in servile chains!/We will drain our dearest veins,/But they shall be free!//Lay the proud usurpers low!/Tyrants fall in every foe/Liberty's in every blow!/Let us do or die!"

Yet for all that warrior swagger, he is also the poet touched by the little things--mice and daisies turned over while plowing. Burns helps me recognize the type I like: the gentle giant. His poetry is testosterone-filled yet every bit as much filled with the awe part of Bush's "shock and awe" war sensibility. He is pleasantly surprised--moved--by the things most wouldn't notice.

I raise my cup of Joe this morning to those barbarians who let themselves succomb to love and all the other "wee beasties" in the world.

by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)


      EE, modest, crimson-tippèd flow'r,
      Thou's met me in an evil hour;
      For I maun crush amang the stoure
      Thy slender stem:
      To spare thee now is past my pow'r,
      Thou bonie gem.


      Alas! it's no thy neebor sweet,
      The bonie lark, companion meet,
      Bending thee 'mang the dewy weet!
      Wi' spreckl'd breast!
      When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
      The purpling east.


      Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
      Upon thy early, humble birth;
      Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
      Amid the storm,
      Scarce rear'd above the parent-earth
      Thy tender form.


      The flaunting flow'rs our gardens yield,
      High shelt'ring woods and wa's maun shield;
      But thou, beneath the random bield
      O' clod or stane,
      Adorns the histie stibble-field,
      Unseen, alane.


      There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
      Thy snawie bosom sun-ward spread,
      Thou lifts thy unassuming head
      In humble guise;
      But now the share uptears thy bed,
      And low thou lies!


      Such is the fate of artless maid,
      Sweet flow'ret of the rural shade!
      By love's simplicity betray'd,
      And guileless trust;
      Till she, like thee, all soil'd, is laid
      Low i' the dust.


      Such is the fate of simple Bard,
      On life's rough ocean luckless starr'd!
      Unskilful he to note the card
      Of prudent lore,
      Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
      And whelm him o'er!


      Such fate to suffering Worth is giv'n,
      Who long with wants and woes has striv'n,
      By human pride or cunning driv'n
      To mis'ry's brink;
      Till, wrench'd of ev'ry stay but Heav'n,
      He, ruin'd, sink!


      Ev'n thou who mourn'st the Daisy's fate,
      That fate is thine -- no distant date;
      Stern Ruin's ploughshare drives, elate,
      Full on thy bloom,
      Till crush'd beneath the furrow's weight,
      Shall by thy doom!


by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)


      EE, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
      Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!
      Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
      Wi' bickering brattle!
      I was be laith to rin an' chase thee,
      Wi' murd'ring pattle!


      I'm truly sorry man's dominion
      Has broken Nature's social union,
      An' justifies that ill opinion
      Which makes thee startle
      At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
      An' fellow-mortal!


      I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
      What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
      A daimen-icker in a thrave
      'S a sma' request;
      I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
      And never miss't!


      Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
      Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
      An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
      O' foggage green!
      An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
      Baith snell an' keen!


      Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
      An' weary winter comin fast,
      An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
      Thou thought to dwell,
      Till crash! the cruel coulter past
      Out thro' thy cell.


      That wee bit heap o' leaves an stibble,
      Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
      Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
      But house or hald,
      To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
      An' cranreuch cauld!


      But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
      In proving foresight may be vain:
      The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
      Gang aft a-gley,
      An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
      For promis'd joy!


      Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
      The present only toucheth thee:
      But och! I backward cast my e'e,
      On prospects drear!
      An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
      I guess an' fear!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mama's Got a Brand New Bag

I recently gave my students a writing exercise in which they are to take inventory of the contents of a small space (a wallet, a purse, a gym locker, a desk drawer, a kitchen drawer, or perhaps their car or glove compartment) in order to see what the contents say about them. Likewise, the idea is to consider what people might miss or NOT KNOW about you if they relied only on the objects.

I'm going to try my best to complete the assignments along with my students. For this exercise, I'll use my purse contents. The purse itself is a beautiful black leather purse my boyfriend gave me for Christmas. He knows I like girly things, and I think it's quite special that he entered into testosterone-deficient atmospheres where such items are sold. I can only imagine the discomfort his big macho self felt when ensconced in purses and perfumes and jewelry.

This purse has two outer side compartments. Additionally, there's more storage on the inside of the purse in one zippered compartment. There are also three "pouch" areas sewn into one side where you can place glasses, a phone etc.

Outside compartment #1, I found the following:
*a Christmas card I was supposed to send to a swap partner (in a Ziploc bag and with postage sticking to the Ziploc bag)
*another Ziploc bag filled with ATCs I made
* two ATC's made by Shawna (for which I still owe her two ATC's in trade)
* Seven self-adhesive foam thingies that I saved from the garbage during a crafting session with my friend, Shanda's little girls. They were making foam gingerbread men. They used the little circles for buttons on the gingerbread mens' bellies. I saw them as something to repurpose. I thought i could stick them to a base, paint each rectangle with a different color paint or ink and use the resulting print as interesting background for art projects.

Outside compartment #2, I found the following:
* Three pens (a Sharpie Ultra-Fine Point, a blue Uni-Ball, and a Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine in black)
* a package of Eclipse spearmint gum with 6 pieces left
* checks , starting with #2001. It should be noted that I rarely use checks (who does?) but chose to order them. I ordered them via phone. They sent the checks to my previous address, so they never came to me. Thus, this caused panic when the checks never arrived. It caused worry as to where they where sent, who had them, if anyone used them, etc. So, long story short, the whole series was cancelled and reported stolen and a whole new batch had to be made and sent. I haven't used one since the whole drama unfolded.
*silk mittens I bought at the Moscow co-op which were to expensive but I'd coveted them every winter and had recently lost my gloves, so I bought them on impulse. Alas, I suppose my punishment was that I didn't try them on (who tries on mittens?), and they are really sloppy, can't feel my hands kind of big. I've only worn them once as a result. I wonder if I could shrink them. I wonder if I could sew them in....but I'm afraid to try.
*a Moleskine notepad in which I tracked my sales for farmer's market this past summer, in which I write recipes, in which I make lists of books I'd like to read, movies I'd like to see and CD's I'd like to have. Additionally, the notebook contains notes for my first visit to Natalie and concert information on Michael Franti concerts this summer.

Inside Zippered Compartment contains:
* a jar of pistachio golden shea butter by that I bought at the Women's Work craft fair.
*Lancome Juicy Tube lip gloss
*Revlon Color-Stay Ultimate Lipcolor in Platinum Petal
*eye glasses
* Mucinex pills
*two bottles of Warfarin (2 mg and 10 mg, since I am supposed to alternate taking 12 mg one day and 14 mg the next)
* a barette

In the compartment with three compartments, I have one black bandana belonging to my boyfriend, which I used to tie around my hair prior to Christmas, which I keep intending to give back (sorry honey!)

Finally, in the far reaches of the purse, in the dark, cavernous maw, I found the following:
*one wallet (the contents of which would merit another separate inventory and posting, perhaps...or perhaps not)
*4 Tampons
*1 apple
*1 bag Halls Triple Action soothing cough drops in cherry
*1 bottle Tussin DM Cough and Chest formula (this is contraband, as I'm not supposed to use anything other than Mucinex and a Nettipot to fight my cold, which is currently in its third week)
*a strip of gradebook paper, on which I've written the prompts for an online PAD Poem-a-Day challenge (for which I never wrote a single poem)
*a notepad (with magnetic closure) given to me for Christmas which reads: "The problem with doing nothing is you don't know when you're done." I got it on Monday, and I've yet to write in it.
*an orange notebook with turquoise elastic cord closure which apparently was a free gift with the purchase of REAL SIMPLE magazine. I bought it at Goodwill for 49 cents. I also got this one on Monday, and I've yet to write in it.
*a set of monogram sticky notes that I found in the dollar bin at Michael's. I've lived for 35 years without seeing a use for sticky notes, and suddenly I decided, apparently, that I would need to leave notes everywhere.
* a black and white photo of a family of 4 that I rescued out of the Staple's recycle bin. I have no idea what I'll do with it, but I didn't feel like it should be destroyed.

If I look at the contents in a positive light, I'd say that I'm a woman of many passions. My mind teems with ideas the likes of which require multiple pens and notebooks. I never stop thinking about art: creating it, trading it, selling it.

If you had only to look at the contents, you might suppose that I am the luckiest girl in the world with a boyfriend who treats me like a princess because I am a beautiful smelling goddess, with nary a rough patch on my body and pouty lips that cause car wrecks.

But obviously, things in my world aren't as smooth as my skin. I'm less a goddess and more a pale-faced, pale-lipped sickie and a pill popper whose boyfriend deserves a medal of honor for his sweetness and patience. I was hospitalized at the end of August, where they found a blood clot which they blamed on my oral contraceptives. As such, I was taken off birth control and placed on bloodthinners in two forms: shots administered to stomach fat and pills. My life has changed drastically. In addition to incurring 2 ER visits sans health insurance, I am now ruled by regular office visits to make sure my blood is just right (kind of the Goldilocks and the 3 Bears things: so hard, too soft, just right). It gets thinned. It gets too thin. They thicken it. They experiment. And the Warfarin is poison. It's dangerous and touchy. I have to avoid foods with high levels of Vitamin K. Everything has vitamin K. I'm not supposed to drink, though I occasionally do. It's changed my heating and cooling system. My circulation is bad, so my feet and hands get cold easily, much to the chagrin of my boyfriend who knows too well the feel of ice against his skin at moments when he's seeking heat.

And most recently, Warfarin has compromised my immune system. More accurately, I got sick Christmas Eve, and I've been fighting the good battle since then to get rid of a cold that I would normally be rid of instantly. Normally, I'd either go to the doctor and get a prescription or get an over-the-counter cold medicine. I no longer have that luxury, as everything reacts poorly with Warfarin. Thus, when I felt I was going to die from this sickness and called my doctor for help, she "prescribed" Mucinex and a Netti Pot.

So I eat apples to keep the doctor away. I two-fist the cough drops. I nurse the cough drops and drink the cough syrup in secret like the bum on the street corner with his forty in a brown bag.
The bum description isn't just for dramatic effect either. I feel down on my luck in terms of health, and I use the illness and lack of energy as my excuse for not finishing things. I am a dreamer. I have high aspirations and best of intentions, but the contents of my purse say that I don't often follow through on the things that matter most to me. Empy notebooks are useless. Pen collections are useless. If I want to write, I have to write. Period. The same is true of my commitment to art. If I want to have a business, I need to be more regimented. I need a daily art practice. Though farmer's market is not until May, I need to work NOW on building up inventory. I need to produce things leisurely rather than stressing myself right before deadlines.

All this would discourage me, except the purse reminds me daily that these things are possible. It says I am loved. It says I've got the tools and supplies to do what I want to do. I've got the skills. Now I need to make the time and stop making excuses and START.