Saturday, March 24, 2018

Answers to Ponder

On this March for Our Lives day, I thought it fitting to write about our realities, choices and opportunities to grow. One reality is, people argue. A lot. (Yeah, I used “a lot”. We could argue about that, too.)

Even teachers don’t all get along in one big happy.

Disagreements are expected and can be a healthy source of learning, but how do we find common ground? I write about the need to do so...a lot. I also write about how much we actually do share in common (good and bad) and how we can grow...a lot. My book, Dear Teachers, is an example of that.

Alas, there are HUGE HUGE HUGE differences in our experiences, even within the same country. People have much in common. We all are born, love, fear, get angry, laugh, and die. 

How we, that’s another story altogether.

We're doing a poor job today in working together and respecting our differences. With my writing, I seek to connect and explore what "together" really means. Some may scoff at my goals. Others may sneer at me and call me newly “woke” to the problems. Maybe. Better late, than never? Perhaps. Still have a long way to go? Probably. Always looking to learn something new and change? Always.

I think we all have an obligation to do that.

I wrote the following questions out a few months ago when a teacher pointedly remarked that his needs and experiences didn’t match what he saw in Twitter’s education world. He expressed frustration that he would love to have what other teachers moaned as “problems”. 

He felt alone.

These questions are based on my desire to help bring us together in understanding of each others’ experiences. From blindness, we can start seeing. From seeing, we can move to doing. By doing, we can shift gears to change. I’m trying to do the same in other projects on healthcare and mental health because I have immensely personal experiences with those two subjects, too. We have much in common. We have different experiences. We can reduce that gaps and our societies can benefit.

If we don’t reduce our gaps, we’ll all soon be living in tiny mental and physical forts, protecting our resources and unable to tap into others. That teacher feeling alone? To me, that’s an outsider looking at a fort he can't enter. Right now.

I imagined asking a variety of teachers and members of different communities to answer these questions and then allowing them to look at the overall responses.  I was hoping to build some empathy. I’m dancing a dangerous border, apparently, as can be seen in the recent problems at Oconomowoc High School when students were given the opportunity to take a privilege aptitude test.

My intention is to simply remind people (including myself) of what kids are facing in their personal lives. As the H. Jackson Brown, Jr.  quote I selected summarizes, children reflect the care they get. This problem and its consequences were also pointed out in a recent Education Week article, entitled This Map Shows How Much Is Stacked Against Students in Your State.

Our children are our future, so if they have it unnecessarily rough or inherit a world where their peers are viewed as enemies...That’s one ugly garden to consider.

I posed this questions to give a tiny glimpse of the range of experiences kids have in the United States. I was inspired by what I learned in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. I welcome edits or additional ones to further clarify if you have any suggestions based on your experiences. Imagine the different futures available to different kids based on the answers. Imagine the immensely different present realities these kids are living.

All in the same country. Today.

We can and should do better. It’s not teachers’ responsibility to fix everything. It is teachers’ responsibilities to be voices and cultivate voices. It’s administrations’ responsibility to advance those stories outward, connecting to communities. It’s communities’ responsibility to amend the systems to reduce these differences in experience.

See. Do. Change. Grow. Together.

Answers to ponder. Most of my students have at home:

1)     at least enough nutritious food for a week
2)     1-2 days worth of nutritious food
3)     a few snacks/soda
4)     no food
5)     what home?

Answers to ponder. Most of my students personally:

1)     don’t have a family member or friend who’s been jailed, shot &/or violently killed
2)     know of someone personally who has told them they have experience with family or friends getting jailed, shot or with violently killed
3)     has a close family member or friend who was jailed, shot &/or violently killed
4)     has multiple family members &/or friends who have been jailed, shot &/or violently killed

Answers to ponder. Most of my students have at home:

1)     high-speed internet & multiple electronic devices 24/7
2)     high-speed internet & 1-2 electronic devices to share w other family members
3)     no internet but have devices & access to a public library wifi
4)     no internet, no electronic devices or public library services
5)     what home?

Answers to ponder. Most of my students personally:

1)     were read to regularly at home from birth to at least age 5
2)     were occasionally read to at home in early years
3)     were never read to at home
4)     do not have a steady home, let alone books or time to read

Answers to ponder. Most of my students have at home:

1)     enough to pay for housing, utilities & necessary expenses, with leftovers for fun
2)     just enough to pay for housing, utilities & necessary expenses
3)     need support to reach enough to pay for housing, utilities & necessary expenses
4)     overwhelming debt, & have been evicted & services cut at least once in last 12 months
5)     what home?

Answers to ponder. Most of my students personally:

1)     Are happy and have hope for themselves and the world
2)     Are usually satisfied but worry about their own and the world’s future
3)     Are regularly anxious about their future
4)     Are regularly anxious and dealing with real hazards in their daily lives
5)     Are constantly battling direct dangers and severe feelings of anxiety and hopelessness

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

It Pays to Bend: The Benefits of Emotional Flexibility

Isn’t this a great image?

Ayden A., 10, drew this. He has type 1 diabetes (T1D), like me. His mom sent this to me in response to one of my requests on InsulinNation for art by those with this condition.

I want to connect with others with T1D. I also want to practice my preaching that we're stronger together. I'm looking to answer: What will happen to me and my writing if I work with other artists?

For my art requests, I’m intentional vague on what I want to see. My parameters are flexible. I’m simply looking for images that people feel tell something about themselves and their stories.

Flexibility is a powerful and scary skill to practice.

We like control. Flexibility requires a release of control. It takes courage. I was reminded of this in a great TED talk by Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, called The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage. She's also written a book on this flexibility, called Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.

As I was absorbing this talk, my mind went back to Ayden's picture. I’d had a strong reaction to it initially. With Dr. David’s words running through my head, possible reasons appeared.

In Ayden’s art, I see a pumpkin with two faces in it. One, a regular smiling face. The other, what appears to be a devil in red, also smiling. Both faces are framed together within a single segment of the pumpkin’s rind. Perhaps Ayden feels like he has different things inside one whole. I know I feel that way. There are days when I’m feeling great. And there are days when absolutely everything feels awful and I wish for a “get off this crazy ride” button.

Both his faces are smiling broadly, but very differently. That reminded me of Dr. David’s admonitions on false positivity. In the loss of her father, she described herself as the master of being OK. She wasn’t and hiding it only made it worse. We do that quite a bit, whether we have diabetes or not.

That devil’s grin has teeth.

If we try to smile all the time and simply reply, “I’m OK!” without thinking, we’re lying.  We’re hurting ourselves. We have a huge pile of emotions, none of which are bad. We need to accept them all and be open to what they can teach us about ourselves. To me, Ayden’s picture shows that. Having only just entered double-digit age, he’s depicted a whole person (pumpkin) contains many feelings.

We are complex. Our lives are complex. We can’t hold everything in a certain place.

Dr. David indicates in her talk that many people want feelings to go away. Alas, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” We are not our anger, fear, jealousy or disappointment. Nor are we happy. We feel these emotions and they tell us something about ourselves and situations.

Life’s not all neat and perfect. That’s another thing I like about Ayden’s drawing. He colored within lines but there’s a mix of the real and the imaginary. There’s a corner that maybe should have been green, but is red. The pumpkin is partially blue. He’s added hearts and stars with pencil. Not everything is just simply blocks of color. And why not? Life’s like that. Unpredictable. Pleasure within pain. Growth within change.

Dr. David used the term “tyranny of positivity” to describe our culture today. Let’s loosen its control by embracing flexibility. When we’re feeling sad, it’s good to explore it and its causes. When we’re feeling glad, it helps to look at why. When we’re at our wits’ end, it’s best to admit it and look for steps we can take. We need to face the emotions we’ve come to understand as “bad”, both to ourselves and those around us. As Dr. David concluded,

"Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion and especially the courage to take values-connected steps."

We can all benefit if we do this. In fact, if I had one complaint in Dr. David’s theory, it would be a greater emphasis on the need for us to understand how linked we all are and how we all need to participate. I know so many people who have been reduced to living with this one mantra: “Keep your head down and just get through it.” The “it” can be anything. Sometimes diabetes feels like that. There isn’t even the false positivity to hide behind.

We can (and must) all help each other out. We can all get through more if we do it together.

I’ve been able to understand more things by looking at Ayden’s art and listening to Dr. David’s research, just as I was able to flesh out my messages of support for teachers in Dear Teachers using the images of my friend, Marlene Oswald.

I thank Ayden for his work, both artistic and as a Diabetic Warrior, and his mom for the opportunity to show this in one example and I hope to do more in the days ahead! Stay tuned and keep sending that T1D art (from all ages!) to!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We're in a Multiplayer Game

“Societies can easily talk themselves into conflict and misery.
But they can also talk, and act, their way out.” 

- Geoff Mulgan, author of Big Mind

It’s the day after the big school walk-outs. Time to reflect.

This week, I read Fred Guttenberg’s raw story, I Am Dedicating the Rest of My Life to Fighting Gun Violence—For Jaime,  about his daughter’s life and her death as a victim of the Parkland shootings, as told to Rachel Epstein of Marie Claire. I also read several articles, including one by Dakin Andone and Tina Burnside of CNN, relating to the shooting death on March 7 of 17-year old high school senior, and would-be nursing school student, Courtlin Arrington, in Alabama.

In total, there have been 20 high school student shooting deaths in the United States this year. In addition to these deaths, we must remember there are many other children and adults with physical and/or mental injuries as a result of these incidents, too.

We’re all asking why. There are piles of responses. The walkouts, the student-led advocacies, and the many March For Our Lives marches planned on the 24th are a few. Why all the shootings and what can we do?

I’m going to toss out a single word that might explain much of it: misery.

One Merriam-Webster definition of misery is “a state of great unhappiness and emotional distress”. Another is “a state of suffering and want that is the result of poverty or affliction”. I’m talking about GREAT unhappiness. GREAT distress. GREAT affliction.

Can you imagine this many deaths in a world where most people are happy and hopeful? Where most people feel like they have a place and aren’t lost? Where most people feel valued? I can’t. Just as I wrote about suicide in Regret: A Look Back, people don’t kill when they are happy.

Misery is a single word, but reducing it, let along removing it, will take many approaches.

Misery is a tool for the people within organizations like the NRA. Their messages rely on the cultivation of fear and hostility between people. They paint pictures that guns are sexy and necessary. They argue that the world is a place of “us” versus “them” and it’s critical to “defend yourself”. That all breeds misery.

We can address it.

We can read today what Fred Guttenberg, as the dad of a shooting victim, plans to do in order to stop gun violence. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are building extensive social media presences and have been interviewed and featured on many news reports. We only have bits and pieces of Courtlin Arrington’s story, and this is from the efforts of a few reporters. There’s a big difference in how our society responds to different shooting deaths. MSD students are noticing this in their own tweets. Courtlin’s death is no less horrific or tragic than those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That fact and our responses, which must be clearly declared as racist, are another cause for misery.

We can address them.

There are a number of other things our citizens experience on a daily basis that breed misery. How about the stress of getting treatment for and paying for chronic diseases? Or the stigma about and difficulties in obtaining treatment for mental illnesses? These conditions and our responses to them as a nation are also causes of misery.

We can address them.

There are more sources of misery. How about the growing understanding that our rules don’t apply equally across genders, ethnicities and economic levels and that those differences are getting bigger as time goes by, and not smaller? The ways our laws are being manipulated and interpreted are causing huge amounts of misery.

We can address them.

My WoW Rogue. Great DPS but needed others.
That’s quite a list, and there are probably more. It seems overwhelming. For an individual, it is. However, we have a fact in our favor: life’s a multiplayer game. A massively multiplayer game. If you’ve ever played a game like World of Warcraft, you understand the power (and difficulties) of group work. As Chief Executive of the UK’s National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) Geoff Mulgan points out in the above quote, we can get ourselves out of tight spots by working together in new and creative ways.

Throughout history, people have come together in times of need. Today, the multiple causes themselves need to come together. No one person can fix any of it, but by linking and networking efforts, we can move the proverbial mountains.

If you’re interested in a cause to help a specific group, whether it’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, criminal law, corporate law, healthcare, gun violence, etc, go for it. Look at it in terms of misery- don’t just scream in outrage. How could things be changed to lighten that misery currently experienced by those within that group? Focus and campaign for that. My guess is, those changes, if they truly relieve misery, would benefit others as well.

While you follow that passion, reach out to other interests, too. If we stay in isolated bubbles, we lose opportunities and strength. Show in concrete terms that you see others. Build alliances. Look for common ground. Respect each other. Collaborate. Build trust.

If we play this multiplayer game together, we can battle misery. Big or small, let’s do something.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

New Paths and Flavors

"We’re stronger together." What do I mean?

I’ve been struggling to write a piece to explain exactly what I mean when I say this phrase. It took a line written by Bill Penzey, founder of Penzey’s Spices, to help direct me. In a recent post on Facebook, he called on all cooks and families to share their international recipes and family stories, adding:

“And not just traditional families please. Sometimes the family of our birth is not a healthy one.”

Ouch. And, bingo.

Sometimes, we feel the lure and desire to stay close to what we know. It can feel safer. It can feel nice when things are predictable.

But what if we are born into a family that’s less than healthy? Where the mother is grossly negligent, or the grandfather is a molester, or the uncle spouts off racial slurs at every family gathering, and no one says a word in protest. With nothing to compare it to, we are more likely to continue these unjust and destructive patterns. We see no other way, if that’s all we have to work with.

We’re stronger together. We can get help.

What if we’re from a family with awesome traits? Where everyone works hard, play hard, and different generations learn from each other as they go about daily living. If that family keeps it to themselves, their gifts and lessons are lost to multitudes of others. Multitudes who could, in turn, help advance that family even further.

We’re stronger together. We can help others.

According to, I’m 100% European. However, I feel connected to people, foods and ideas from around the world. I, like many others, have looked outward. Books (including cookbooks) and television shows on public TV were my first gateways to the larger world. Teachers and school were next, and now the world is now available to me both online or with actual travel.

As a child, I was told that I wouldn’t like lamb, because it “tastes gamey”. Today, my family enjoys a leg rubbed liberally with a mixture of olive oil, salt, cracked pepper, cracked rosemary, and fresh or granulated garlic, roasted to a delicious, crusty brown. Well, one of the boys does, anyway.

I didn’t know much about curry until my college days, when I began watching British comedies. Today, I make naan and serve it with rice and a variety of curry recipes, seasoned liberally with things like fenugreek, mustard seeds, coriander and ginger. I knew of none of these spices growing up. I never even knew there were different kinds of rice besides “white” and "brown". Sushi? Basmati? Jasmine? Who knew.

We’re stronger together. We can grow.

We can learn something new every day. Today, I listen to Korean pop music, my kids watch British and Australian youtubers on their computers, and my husband works for a company based in Japan. I hope my sons can take the best of many worlds. Enjoy many flavors. Help humanity move forward to a better and brighter world. As Walt Disney said,

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” 


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Our Presence is Requested: VR and RL

I just started reading Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson’s new book, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. As someone with kids and a deep personal interest in how technology can help or hinder us, I was drawn to read it from a discussion between the author and Lulu Garcia-Navarro on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday last month.

What stood out to me in the interview was Dr. Bailenson’s personal reluctance to play virtual reality (VR) first-person shooter games. His reasoning is based on his professional work. He understands how the unreal can be absorbed by the body as real.

The key to accomplishing that? Psychological presence.

I’ve only begun the book, however, his early descriptions remind me of an essay I wrote in September 2017 about a shirt I own with a cute spin on a great idiom: Cake It Till You Make It. In that essay, I described how we can try putting on roles in life (cake it/fake it), and by practicing them, we can truly become them (make it). Shy people can become more outspoken. Aggressive people can become more reflective and responsive. It simply takes belief in the role and lots of repetition.

Perhaps it’s only temporary, but these changes can become our reality with application and belief.

In Dr. Bailenson’s VR world, the hardware and software work to offer the brain and body such life-like information, our systems actually take them in as truth. Whereas I wrote of people choosing to don a mask & script to alter themselves and how they respond to their environment, Dr. Bailenson is saying the outside world, VR, can clothe you in a way that you take on whatever role the program has determined for you. And you will truly believe, on all levels of your brain, its legitimacy.

To the human brain, VR is real. It cakes it for you.

Dr. Bailenson goes on to describe current and future uses for VR. During the NPR interview, I was both excited at one suggestion that VR could allow people to “become” another sex or race and experience what that is like, and concerned that this isn’t talked about in everyday conversations. That sort of application is not common knowledge, but we all have at least some exposure to first-person shooting games, VR or not.

If I decide I want to cake something helpful, that can be very positive. However, I can just as easily cake something negative that hurts me or others. The same goes for VR.

VR has a leg up on everyday people’s abilities to “cake till you make it”. VR can reach way more minds than the average person, through marketing and corporate influence, if we allow it. This power should make us consider its usage. What if we ask ourselves:

What reality do I want to live in?
What reality do I want my children to live in?
What reality will allow for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all?

Sure, games of beating enemies and achieving an objective using weapons, craft, trickery and force have an entertainment value. You’ll definitely learn some things. But what is it doing to our natures? To our other facets like empathy, equality or love? Aren’t there other ways to use our abilities and different directions to grow? Aren’t there other ways to spend the limited days we have before us?

If we could design reality, what kind of world would we really like to exist in? Couldn’t we at least try to get there? VR could help. Going back to my shirt- simply dreaming and then doing would, too. As Dr. Bailenson said to Ms. Garcia-Navarro, “Save it (VR) for things that are impossible to do in the real world.”. We should use ALL the tools available to us.

In reality, making the fantastic- but currently impossible- possible, seems right where we would want to be.