Thursday, May 25, 2017

The President's Men

Donald Trump appears to be severely limited in intelligence, moral fiber, emotional maturity, and good sense, and he has surrounded himself, by and large with a cabinet of mediocrity or incompetence (which at least is more than you can say about the White House staff).

Take the words today of Ben Carson, HUD Secretary, who said that poverty is mostly "a state of mind."  If you are poor, apparently, in a country driven by greed and self-interest, it's a matter of outlook.

And he went further: Helping people may not better their lives, he said in a radio interview.  The unfortunate poor should pull themselves up by the bootstraps as he did and become brain surgeons.

Luckily, there does seem to be at least one cabinet officer with brains, courage, and honesty: Jim Mattis, the new Secretary of Defense profiled this week in a revealing piece by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker.

Key quote that struck me:  Asked what worried him most about America today, he didn't say ISIS or the defense budget but alienation.  He singled out the lack of political unity and "friendliness"; "it seems an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from community school districts or from their government."

Wow, this tough Marine Corps officer speaks in full, grammatical sentences about spirituality.  People, he rightly notes, are too often so self-absorbed in their individual pursuits (such as making money) that they have lost the sense of being connected to something larger than themselves.  No wonder, he said, they no longer care about their fellow man.

I wish it were possible for Mattis to educate his cabinet colleagues, especially Ben Carson.  But, of course, it's too late.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

When the well runs dry

What does a writer do when he or she can't write? Some desire to create is there but nothing comes; distractions replace inspiration.

It happens to us all, perhaps serving as a break from too much mental activity, a needed dry spell. It is not a cause for alarm.

It has happened to me in my fiction writing in recent months: fatigue and other commitments have gotten in the way of developing several ideas I have for stories.

This week I decided to take action, and the remedy I found most useful: reading something of quality, with style.  The novel I chose was the recent work of Andre Aciman, Enigma Variations.

It's too early to tell what I think of the novel, except that it is carefully crafted, full of detailed description, in this case of Italy at some time in the past; and for me, being absorbed in the author's language and dialogue is very helpful in moving out of my lethargy, not that it gives me ideas to borrow but something broader and harder to define: a sense of being connected to the world of words, a sense of borrowed confidence coming from an accomplished author.

I find myself intrigued by Aciman's exotic upbringing in Egypt, the son of Italian and Turkish Jewish parents who spoke mainly French at home, along with Arabic, Italian and Greek. What a cultivated milieu in which the young author was nourished, outlined in his memoir Out of Egypt.  I envy such a cosmopolitan background, which is more important to me than his doctorate from Harvard or his teaching in New York, where he now lives, since it has produced a writer of high skill.

Reading anything of quality (I find that many things in the New Yorker give me a jump start when my energy flags) is an often overlooked necessity in the life of any writer.  Two hours of reading might produce an hour or more of writing and the sense of relief that the well has not run dry.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Nature and our health

A friend just sent me an undated article from MIND reporting on research about the impact of being in nature on our sense of well being. As a writer who has long been cooped up inside, I savor my time by the lake or ocean or just looking at trees in my neighborhood; now I understand more about why the natural world is essential for my health.

In one study, 95% of those studied said that spending time outdoor improved their mood. Presumably, this did not include dreary, rainy days. Those who were stressed, anxious or depressed felt more calm and balanced. No surprise, really, yet it is so easy for us to be tied to our technology that we forget to look beyond our narrow horizon.

Another study said that time spent in nature, or viewing nature scenes, increases our ability to pay attention.  To observe the sky or water or a forest of trees is a respite from our over-active minds and refreshes us for new tasks.

I recall a quote from the writer Colette, a bit of advice to a young man:  Look closely at what pleases you. Observation and the complete focus on the beauty of the natural world takes us out of ourselves and at the same time feeds the soul, which needs beauty. This type of attention is the basis of art and of a basic kind of spirituality: being fully present to the now.

Even if we live in drab cities, it is not hard to find natural beauty somewhere, perhaps in a tree, whose very stillness can, upon lengthy observation, be calming.

All of this seems especially important for writers, who often begin with observation but too often stay in their heads: nature beckons!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is courtesy dead?

Every time I visit a medical facility and find I am treated more like a number than a person, when I notice I am not addressed by name and that the chart or electronic record seems more important than I am, I wonder if basic courtesy is dying.

How rare it is to be called "Mr. Schiffhorst" anywhere or "sir," even by servers in restaurants. Of course, you might say I have a difficult name,  but when an eye technician or dermatology aide calls me nothing and says very little in what is essentially an intimate situation, I am amazed.

The topic of politeness came to my attention recently with a piece in the NYTimes by Molly Worthen, who writes mainly about careless emails and academic rudeness.  As a college professor, she is shocked that so many students call her by her first name and/or fail to send carefully edited email messages, both signs of disrespect.  All too often, she says, the informal practices of text messaging carry over into emails, which can be insulting in their lack of care: they often are unsigned and lack any sign of proofreading.

She notes that women and minorities are more and more demanding these days that students know how to address them (this used to be taken for granted). As a man, I was always Professor (or Dr.) Schiffhorst to the students at the university but didn't mind being called "Mr."  Has our culture become so casual it is now disrespectful? Or is it the many students simply fail to see that their informality is insulting to professionals?

Worthen reports that students at elite schools are often worse offenders in these matters of academic protocol than those at state schools. Is that what we call entitlement? Or is it that the young, female, possible Asian or African American instructor is an object of prejudice?

Note to students and others: it is not elite to be polite, to try to use the person's last name or academic title; it is not cool to dash off a message to an instructor via email that's full of errors. It shows basic lack of the human respect that we all deserve.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Why are we shy?

I have always considered myself a shy person, not as shy as many, perhaps, who cringe from social interaction or run. A friend of mine is worried about his 10-year-old son because he is too shy to speak up in class, even when he is the only one who knows the answer to the teacher's question.

In this case, the parents are both reserved, introspective so perhaps the boy's shyness is something he absorbed at home. Often it seems (to a lay outsider) that we are shamed as young children and this manifests itself as shyness around people.

In a recent article in Canada's National Post, Robert Fulford addressed the issue of shyness in discussing a book, "Shrinking Violets," by Joe Moran, whose historical and cultural research has turned up no scientific reason, given Darwin's theory of evolution, why so many millions of people are shy.  He considers it a mystery.  What use does it serve?

And I value mysteries--especially the often baffling and intriguing aspects of our behavior that defy expert analysis; besides, not everything in nature has a utilitarian purpose.

Fulford says some people have feelings of inadequacy that they don't acknowledge, so they experience shyness since they fear sounding stupid or looking uncool.  When people claim to hate parties, what they hate is small talk with people they hardly know. They haven't mastered the art, practiced by the British Royals and other celebrities, of asking questions of the stranger in an effort to shift attention away from themselves--and to help the awed stranger relax.

Before Moran makes a phone call, he writes out what he wants to say. Or he makes notes before going to a dinner or party so he is not at a loss for words. He finds this worrisome.   It seems to me that this is not some medical condition to worry about but to work on: with practice, the fear will gradually subside.

I think of my initial fear of standing before a class and lecturing, even though I had always wanted to be a teacher. I soon found ways to cope with this anxiety and have, in recent decades, come to enjoy speaking in public.

Although psychologists using the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) classify some people as having "social anxiety disorder," I wonder how useful such labels are for most people.  Recognizing the role of fear in our lives can be healthy--at least healthier than worrying about being shy.