A Passion for. . . What?

Last weekend, my son Corby and I travelled to Pennsylvania to visit my dad. He’s ninety-two now, and recently decided to stop an expensive medication for his chronic leukemia. He’s tired, just waiting for the end. The number of appointments he’s missed with the Grim Reaper is astounding, and we’re all sensing now that he’ll be keeping one in the not too distant future.

I enjoyed having time on the trip to talk deeply with Corby, who has a degree in fashion design. After four years of what I call “wandering,” he finally landed a job in a small design firm last year. But, like so many Millennials, he’s not satisfied with his long-term prospects. His sister Squeaky and I just assumed he’d go into design; I taught him how to hand-sew at age seven, and that’s when he made his first original outfit for a Barbie doll.

Corby described the fascination he had with fashion in his youth as being “pure,” unadulterated by the burdens of capitalist commerce. Yes, he designs garments now, but spends too much time micromanaging their production in China and negotiating back and forth with clients. It isn’t exactly what he signed up for, but most of us had to confront this issue at one point or another.

Corby’s “wandering” happened right around the time things went south for me. What I knew is that his youthful passion had dimmed. This past week, another youth contingent with a passion came to my attention: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who are raising their voices about gun control. They are passionate for action without realizing how deeply that word connects to the circumstances they endured.

Passion’s Latin root is the Latin noun passio, a suffering or an enduring. I wrote about this almost exactly four years ago, in an essay about suffering, resistance, and change (See Archive, Feb 21, 2014). I wrote about my surprise that passion and patience have the same Latin root. It’s also related to the Greek roost pathos, suffering, or calamity, and penthos, grief, or sorrow. I reiterate here that, in my younger years, I never understood the significance of the “Passion of the Christ,” precisely because I misunderstood the deeper meaning of the word. No one taught us in med school that patients meant sufferers.

I applaud and support all efforts to stop or restrict access to semi-automatic weapons, but am old enough to know not to hold my breath. Four years ago, I wrote about something a life coach gave me, an “equation” written as: Suffering = Change X Resistance. The suffering in Florida and elsewhere includes resistance to change. Look at that equation in a strictly mathematical sense. Make resistance to gun control a zero, and the result can be no suffering. In real life though, you can’t tweak the math. If change becomes zero, the suffering still persists.

Finger pointing and blame tropes still take precedence. The immediate aftermath—slapping an instant death penalty on a very damaged teenager whose behavioral aberrations were hiding in plain sight—still inhabits current headlines. When innocents die, we smell blood, we must have vengeance. It’s not our habit to contextualize things.

We forget that vengeance is related to vindicate in a roundabout way that has to do with a sense of authority. The Latin verb vindico, the root of both, means to punish a wrong, but also to demand, and to place in a free condition. How freeing it would be to get rid of these useless weapons, a goal the students in Florida are starting to demand! How wonderful it would be to place more emphasis on finding ways to free children like Nikolas Cruz from the conditions that damaged him so, regardless of how impossible that seems.

No, these solutions are too difficult, they involve change, and we resist. My daughter Squeaky is a teacher and has no interest whatsoever in having guns in her school. One of the most intense conversations I had with her was after the Newtown shooting here in 2012. She was a college senior then, barely out of her teens herself, and was doing her stint as a student teacher. She described the drills— so foreign to my experience!— and we cried as we imagined it could happen to her.

Squeaky will be leaving Guam soon, having enjoyed the relative freedom of teaching Chamorro students who lack the means to obtain lethal weapons. In addition, their culture is different; people know what their kids are up to. Island living, with physical closeness and its consequent limits on personal liberty, makes it highly improbable that such massacres will occur. She’s not yet sure where she’ll be, but a remote Pacific island is not in the mix. She’ll worry, as will I, as we watch this mess play out. I hope that, when she returns, she’ll bring her passion for teaching with her. And Corby’s passion may have dimmed, but it’s not yet extinguished. I hope the kids in Florida won’t lose theirs either.

How Precarious Is Your Situation These Days?

I just finished Johann Hari’s new book, “Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.” I won’t go into a detailed review here; you can read it and draw your own conclusions. His premise—that lost connections to certain things are the foundation of much 21st century psychic suffering—is close to things I’ve posited after learning about social pain several years ago. He voices the need to reconnect with each other, with nature, and with our values and beliefs, in order to feel healthy and secure.

What caught my eye was a page or two about a something called the precariat. He cites the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, who wrote that “we have moved from having a ‘proletariat,’—a solid block of manual workers with jobs—to a ‘precariat,’ a shifting mass of chronically insecure people who don’t know whether they will have any work next week and may never have a stable job.”

Precariat hasn’t even made it into the online etymology I use. Wiki defines it as “a social class formed by people suffering from ‘precarity,’ which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, (thus) affecting material or psychological welfare.” The word is said to be a hybrid of precarious and proletariat. Unlike the old proletariat, which labored in low-level but secure jobs, the precariat must “undertake extensive ‘unremunerated activities that are essential if they are to retain access to jobs and to decent earnings.’” The subsequent job insecurity, intermittent employment, or underemployment, has been ascribed to neoliberal capitalism, which espouses privatization, deregulation, and reductions in government spending.

Enough already! These people are our Millennial children, our Boomer friends and relatives, the guy next door who lost his job ten years ago when the economy tanked and his company downsized. Despite my high level of education and previous success, I am one of these people now. Maybe you are too. A good friend of mine is facing this. Unemployed for over a year, she hasn’t even been able to score an interview. She recently visited a local food bank.

The Latin verb precor gave rise to precarious, and means to ask, beg, entreat, pray, or supplicate. The PIE root is *prek-, meaning to ask or entreat. Precarious became a legal term in the 17th century that loosely meant “held through the favor of another;” in other words, someone asked for something. Over the years the definition expanded to mean risky or uncertain. Today, people in precarious situations are socially shamed when they ask for help.

Proletariat’s root, the Latin proletarius, is the name for the lowest class of citizens of ancient Rome, according to a classification created by its sixth king, Servius Tullius, who reigned from 575-535 BC. Proles means offspring or dependents. The proletarius were those who owned no physical property (a growing class in our own country these days). Their children were their property, and were valued centuries later as a prime source for military personnel. The proletarius had no voting rights.

The PIE root, *pro-al-, means to grow forth, and that’s what the proletarius did, back in the day. (It’s also the root of the word “prolific.”) Regardless of its capitalist underpinnings, the US can thank the proletariat-like workers of the last century for moving things forward and effecting growth. But times have changed. Today, up to thirty percent of working people do so on a contractual basis, and comprise the contingency or gig workforce. This deprives them of security, exemplifying one type of the “lost connections” proposed by Hari. No wonder they (and we!) are anxious and depressed!

Servius Tullius lived when the world was flat, before the Internet and cell phones, before antibiotics, cars, plastics, or weapons of mass destruction. But he instituted programs that were considered populist for the day. He was assassinated by his own daughter and her husband, Tarquinius, who criticized him for favoring the lower classes, for taking the land of the wealthy for distribution to the poor, and even for creating the census classifications, which drew attention to exactly what the richer class possessed. Sound familiar? We all know what happened to the Roman Empire.

Hari’s book contains chapters on how to reconnect, presented abstractly and lacking granular steps as to how to reach the goal. He envisions connecting to others, and to meaningful work, as well as to shared values and an emphasis on a hopeful future for all. His exhortations sounded much like a grandmother’s wisdom, and I just couldn’t see how his reconnecting dream could be easily achieved.

And so, I returned to my default mode, which is to try to effect change in little ways each day: To create good connections when the opportunities arise. To strengthen the bonds I have with the kind, good people in my life. And to be grateful for those who hear entreaties, and step up to help the precarious.

When Life Sends You Fog. . .

My daughter Squeaky texted me from Guam, asking if I’d ever explored the word “deserve.” She said it’s been haunting her these last few weeks. Since we haven’t been able to connect for a chat (the time difference of fifteen hours always gets in the way), I could only guess at what was bothering her: relationship issues; work issues (she’s treated like an outsider in her large, Chamorro school); financial issues (the burden of a future as a teacher with a near-six-figure debt).

I had a feeling that what I’d discover wouldn’t necessarily be that comforting, and I was right. Deserve’s root is the Latin deservio, which means to serve zealously, or be devoted to. It’s only human to want to be rewarded for our good works. We’ve all spent time in her shoes, looking at our challenges and disappointments and asking, Don’t I deserve better than this? Our emotional brain answers with a resounding Yes!, while our rational brain knows that just rewards don’t materialize out of thin air. To address the torment this question inflicts on me, I just retreat to the mantra, Life isn’t fair. A hollow conclusion that offers no comfort.

I discussed this with my friend Kimberly when we went out to lunch. It was unseasonably warm for January in Connecticut, and it was pouring outside. We had a table next to a huge street-view window, As we chatted, the window began to fog up. It seemed so deliberate, the condensation moving in from the edges, creeping gradually toward the center with no clearings or gaps. We kept tabs on its progress, and when we finally got our entrees it covered the entire surface, except for a small circular space in the very middle of the window. We remarked on its similarity to the lens of an eye, or the adjustable aperture device in a camera. Then, she fog had somehow ran out of steam. By the time we finished our meal it evaporated, and the window was totally clear again.

This seemed to point to the concept of focus, one of the first words I wrote about in my early blogging days on a local online “newspaper.” The eponymous Latin root means hearth, or fireplace, and can also signify the concept of home. Squeaky, her brother, and I have often rued the loss of our home, that dwelling that is not only a place to return to, but that also functions as a container of memories. We lost ours almost a decade ago. But then I remembered the lessons of the sea turtle, one of which is a reminder that we carry our homes on our backs. Home is wherever we are, and both our happiness and our troubles are constant companions, oblivious to what we think we deserve.

Perhaps aperture provides a better path for reflection. The Latin root, aperio, means to open or uncover, and also to reveal, disclose, or unveil. I want to tell Squeaky to simply hang in there. I know how much she’s accomplished in her short life. It’s not every young woman who can emancipate herself in her teens when she sees her home situation implode before her eyes. It’s not every young lady who goes on to get a Master’s degree—with honors!—while changing tiny discount tags on grocery shelves at two o’clock in the morning.

I want to remind Squeaky of the damaged sea turtle she encountered while diving, the one with a missing flipper who still managed to navigate the deep waters (see Archive, June 4, 2017). I want to assure her she is making progress too, even if it seems harder and slower right now.

Maybe, like a camera, she can play with her aperture. In photography, a wide aperture lets in more light. Maybe she can find new ways to lighten her burden, or just dampen the darkness a little bit. She might simply concentrate on just “lightening up.” Aperture size also controls something called depth of field. The size of the opening has a converse relationship with focus. A small aperture allows for a fully-focused shot, while a large one results in a background that’s blurred. This degree of blurring is known as bokeh, from a Japanese word meaning hazy or indistinct.

When foggy and murky things come our way, we get fearful and concerned about losing our way. It looks like a landscape with too much bokeh. We may need to search for that hidden light source, for the unseen support that we thought wasn’t there. It’s okay to be quiet, and to wait for the future to reveal itself. Apertures aren’t static; they change over time. It’s okay to unfocus on some things while we concentrate on what’s at the top of the list. It’s important to remember that, when the going gets rough, the least we deserve is some time to regroup.



Consider the Prosecution of Goodness

A few years ago, I came across an item said to be a daily schedule of Benjamin Franklin. Its elegant simplicity was alluring. He divided his day into hours-long chunks, and assigned duties to each. Arising at five a.m., he lists washing and addressing Powerful Goodness, as well as contriving the day’s business. If I recall correctly (I can’t find the original source), he was also in the habit of sitting naked for thirty minutes in the morning, which I believe he referred to as an “air bath.” Never mind. Then, during this time he asked himself, “What good shall I do this day?”

He allots himself four hours for work from eight a.m. to noon, then two hours of reading and dining at midday. Work follows again from two to six p.m., and the evening is dedicated to supper, music, conversation, and putting things “in their places.” He goes to sleep at ten p.m., after answering the question, “What good have I done today?”

What struck me was the repeated presence of the word “good.” His version of God as “Powerful Goodness,” reminded me of my friend Nancy’s definition of God as “the presence of goodness” (See archives Dec 18, 2017). Good derives from the Old English god (long “o,” little “g”), meaning excellent, valuable, beneficial, and complete. Other cognates, such as the Dutch goed and the Old Norse goör, mean fit, or belonging together. They all arose from the PIE root *ghedh-, meaning to unite, or be associated. What the world could be if we united behind goodness! What would it be like if asked ourselves those two questions every day? And actually took the time to answer?

There was something else written for his early morning obligations: to “prosecute the present study.” This confused me, as I associated prosecuting with legal proceedings that most of us want to avoid. Although prosecute is defined as “to institute legal proceedings against,” it also can mean “to continue a course of action with a view to its completion.” Like our mothers and teachers told us, it’s important to finish what we set out to do. I’m intrigued too by his use of “study.” It looks like Franklin hit the books first thing in the morning, most likely when his mind was fresh.

I picture Franklin, after his air bath, putting on his wire-rimmed glasses to brush up on his French before he set to work. (Aside: Although he didn’t technically invent them, he was instrumental in promoting the use of bifocals). I imagine too that he’d study an issue before making a pronouncement on it, something we seem to have lost track of the last century or so.

Prosecute’s root is the Latin prosequor, from pro, forward + sequor, to follow (from the PIE root *sekw-, to follow). Prosequor is another of those yin/yang Latin words with opposing meanings. You can follow in angry or hot pursuit, or you can follow to attend, accompany, or proceed. Franklin prosecuted his studies; he attended to expanding his knowledge like a duck proceeds to water. Nowadays, we make instant judgments and assessments without bothering to dig for background information or contemplate potential future consequences.

I started looking for graphics of Franklin’s bifocals. That search brought me to his list of thirteen virtues, written when he was a young adult, and which he used as a system for self-improvement. Each virtue is accompanied by a brief notation, a mantra that summarizes a course of action. You can find more about them on the link below, but I focused on a few that we desperately need in modern discourse:

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

For the last virtue on his list, humility, Franklin simply states, Imitate Jesus and Socrates. My search for a graphic brought the image above from the 2004 Disney adventure film “National Treasure” (in which my son Corby had a microscopic role as an extra back when he dreamed of pursuing acting). These glasses with colored attachments, a Franklin invention in the movie, were used to decipher a code on the back of the Declaration of Independence. To me though, they conjured the idea of changing lenses when we encounter difficulties in our dealings with others.

Are they speaking blue, while you’re feeling red? What if you used their blue lenses, and they yours? What if you both used a combo, and saw a whole new purple world unfold before your eyes? If we stood united with this powerful tool, I wonder just how much good we could prosecute.

Here’s a link that discusses the virtues in depth, and also shows the daily schedule I reference: https://alyjuma.com/13-virtues/

The Daunting Mountain of Mediocrity

A friend of mine sent me an essay on mediocrity. The author described her desire for us to celebrate the mediocre life. Aren’t we all vanilla in many ways? Deep down, don’t we just want to settle in and be average? How nice it would be to get away from the pressure of being the best, or even just better than average. We are not all excellent or outstanding at something. This drive to exceed has a price.

The root of mediocre lies in two ancient languages: the Latin, medius, middle; and the Greek okris, jagged mountain. Deeper PIE roots are *medhyo-, middle, and *ak-, sharp. You’re halfway to the top, and the way isn’t easy. It feels like most of life is like this, to me. I can’t recall many routes to the summit that were sunny and bright, with chirping birds and gentle sloping pathways. The one that comes to mind was a pregnancy at age thirty-eight that gave me beautiful twins, although even that was marked by a miscarriage scare at seven weeks.

I say let’s give mediocrity the full credit it deserves. I’m in the early throes of a Master’s degree in creative writing, and—regardless of opinions from friends and readers—still view my writing as massively mediocre. This is the curse of creatives. But this mid-jagged-mountain thing reminded me of a favorite quote I chose for my book under the word “sustain.”  Attributed to Robert M Persig, a 20th century writer and philosopher, it is: To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.

Our culture spurns the idea that very few make it to the tippy-top of anything, dismissing that  most of Americans finish high school, and 40% get college degrees. After I finish this semester, I’ll only be a quarter-way through. And the path is jagged and tough, especially when you’re older. In addition to my course writing, I’ve got to finish and submit a paper on results collected in the group I lead using my book and PullsTM in the psych ward.

Although my co-author, a certified therapist with a Master’s of her own, looks good on paper, I’m struggling with presenting credentials acceptable to the therapy world. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I frequently encounter pushback in the world of “mental illness.” I’m questioned about my abilities to take a leadership role, especially since I’ve been in The Bin myself. I noticed that nowadays, students pursuing degrees refer to themselves as “candidates.” It doesn’t matter if you just enrolled or will be getting your degree tomorrow. Making it to the top becomes a given. Since this is “trending now,” I’ve decided that, from now on, I’m an MFA candidate.

Surprisingly, the root of candidate has nothing to do with learning. It’s the Latin candeo, to be brilliant or to shine, and even to glow with heat (it also gave us the word “candle.”). An office-seeker in Rome was a candidatus because he wore a white robe. Now, people entering new study programs are often aglow with enthusiasm, but as the work proceeds this frequently ebbs. It’s a mid-term election year here in the US, and we’ll doubtless soon be deluged with sound bites by political candidates vying for office, many driven by their inner glowing fire to gain power and make a name (and not just a few bucks) for themselves.

We’ll see how that plays out, because political candidates these days have little to nothing in common with students. It’s hard to fathom the nature of their desires, but learning how to serve constituents doesn’t seem to be high on the list. Studying is vastly different from candidacy.  Studeo, the Latin root, means “to apply oneself to learning.” The PIE root, *(s)teu-, means to push, stick, or beat, and came to convey the concept of pushing on or striving for something. In the case of study, that something is knowledge. It’s related to “steep,” and gave rise to words in other languages that mean anything from harm and stab to precipitous.

All of which takes me back to that steep and jagged mountain, the one which most of us are still trying to climb. So what if mediocrity is the imprint of our days? The jagged mountain is simply life, and it wouldn’t exist without us. We constitute its certainty, the very concreteness of its existence. Of course there are precipitous cliffs and outcrops where we face unforeseen and treacherous hazards. But these perils remind us that we must not climb alone. The strong and the lithe will make rapid progress, but the persistent and careful will make their way too. When it’s dark and cold, we will look for the candles. We will push on through the steep slopes while studying the maps, and get as far as we can, allowing a comforting and mutual mediocrity to sustain us along the way.





The Pseudo-Clarity of a Normal Curve

My former sister-in-law Valerie invited me and my son to Minnesota for the holidays. I hadn’t been to her home in decades, and my son’s last visit was years ago. So much has happened to us over the years. Her brother and I divorced many years ago, and then she did too. We faced the challenges of being single moms with ex-husbands who didn’t exactly step up to the plate. The Christmas present she gave me was an original print by a Wisconsin artist mounted on a small wooden block. At the bottom was a quote from the artist that said something like, “I know I’m not normal but neither are you and so we’re both okay.” (I’m paraphrasing here).

Valerie chose the gift because of the quote. She’s a school psychologist specializing in children who have hearing issues, and deals with categorizing kids every day. Are there test results normal? Is their behavior? Do they need, or even qualify for, special education? Does labelling them different from their peers make everyone view them as not quite normal? She holds a broad, liberal view of normality that leaves plenty of room for quirks and oddities, but still has to administer tests and classify the kids in order to get them the needed help.

I learned a lot about normal in medical school. Most of what doctors call normal is based on a statistical distribution called the bell-shaped curve (see 3-dimensional graphic above). When you examine large numbers of a variable (e.g., height), you find that many measurements cluster around one value (known as the mean), and there are progressively fewer measurements the farther you move away from this.

We assume that most things follow this “normal distribution,” but I for one am having more and more doubts. I’m less sure what’s “normal” or “average” any more. Although norma, the Latin root of normal, can mean a rule or pattern, the common meaning is a square used by carpenters to make right angles. It’s a precision instrument, with little to no wiggle room, inherently antithetical to the diversity of the human organism. And decidedly square, as opposed to and free-flowing or wavy.

My friend Kimberly and I often joke about our contrasting personalities: she, the fluid, circular, intuitive artist, vs me, the logical, scientific one who’s more linear and square. But that seeming incompatibility is what makes us a good team. We each make up for what the other lacks. Although I like to think that I, too, have an expansive view of normal, I nonetheless get frustrated with people who are dissimilar from me in beliefs, attitudes, and backgrounds. By reminding myself that others searched for my redeeming essence back when I was sick and broken, I can choose to transcend these differences and see these people as human, like me. The challenge remains: when the differences are extreme, can I somehow make my normal umbrella broad enough to include them?

I’m taking an online writing course in which the instructor brought up another framework for opposing elements. The composer John Cage speaks of how music must include both grace and the clarity of rhythm in order to be complete. The grace is Kimberly, the circle, the formlessness. The clarity is me, the orderly, the rational and nearly predictable. The root of the word clarity—the Latin clarus—contains strong meanings that include bright, shining, loud, distinct, evident, and intelligible. The PIE root, *kele-, means “to shout.”

Valerie shared things about some of the kids that frankly made my hair curl. She must design education plans that address the challenges of severe hearing loss and issues like poverty and inadequate family resources at home, while dealing with a public school system that leaves much to be desired. Let’s not even mention the barriers that go up when we bring in the privacy laws. When I heard stories illustrative of the shortcomings of the system, I felt an urgent need to protest. It’s a wonder that Valerie doesn’t run screaming into classrooms and district offices. Instead, she uses years of accumulated knowledge to keep her nose to the grindstone and come up with a plan. I envisage her trying to give each child as close to a normal school experience as possible.

I heard a TV celebrity interview today in which the star (a black man) said there was a third element beyond the two of nature (genes) and nurture (environment) that help shape us into adulthood. That third component? Decisions. This made so much sense to me. My intelligence is genetic, and yet in my home town pursuing a college education was an exception. My parents decided to give me a costly private school education, and I decided to take it all the way to medical school. Back then, I was an outlier on that bell-shaped curve in Bath, Pennsylvania. But now, despite my encounter with depression and pain, I choose to think I’m not that far from normal. Where do you stand on the curve? No matter what, we all have a place on it somewhere.










A Final Message from Birch

Another year opens, and we again confront the familiar specter of change. At least, I think of it as a specter, which is defined as “something widely feared as a possible unpleasant or dangerous occurrence.” Specter’s origin is the Latin verb specto, to look at, examine, or consider. We intend to make good changes, and engage in a process of looking back at the year gone by to consider what didn’t serve us well. The resolutions then emerge. This scrutiny can be unpleasant, and potentially dangerous if we end up being too hard on ourselves.

When I left my apartment a few weeks ago after a cold front moved in, it wasn’t exactly encouraging to find my beloved birch tree broken in half. I wrote about her a while ago and posted a photo that showed her already damaged state (see Archives, July, 2015). I said she was “on the way out,” and listed the messages of renewal and regrowth that birch represents. I wrote about her stay of execution (at that time) from the landscapers’ chainsaw.

The photo above shows her now, her main trunk clearly broken and lying at a ninety-degree angle to the sky. I halted abruptly on the way to the car, a shiver of shock arising in my belly. It’s hard for me to cry these days, but I came very close to tears. After getting to the car, I spent some time talking to her, telling her how much I appreciated her help over the years. Every morning, I’d wish her a good day, and send up thanks for her ongoing presence in my life. She symbolized endurance. And persistence. Her plain old stick-to-it-iveness motivated me to keep on going despite all of my challenges and woes.

It’s the middle of winter and she won’t be taken down yet. But she’s basically gone, and now I must prepare for her absence. It’s not exactly what I was looking for in the year to come, the view of a rotten stump first thing in the morning to remind me of my own eventual departure from the earthly plane.

But is that the real message she is trying to impart? She, like me, has a very unstable back; she broke her spine. If I don’t take care of my own health issues, I’ll be walking around with a broken back too. This is something I have to take very, very seriously. The irony of her final posture is that it seems crafted just for me.

The origin of the word spine is the Latin spina, the meanings of which include thorn, prickle (as in a hedgehog), or even toothpick. But for some reason or other it also means spine, or backbone. In ancient Rome, the spina was a low brick wall built lengthwise in the middle of the Circus Maximus, the chariot racing stadium in Rome that could accommodate over 150,000 persons. The chariots raced around this spina, and seats of stone and wood surrounded the course to accommodate the spectators (there’s that specto root again!).

Spina can also mean difficulties (thorns, as it were) and perplexities in speaking, as well as errors and cares. I can relate this to the year past, remembering the thorny conversations, the bad decisions, the worries and disappointments I couldn’t seem to shake. A New Year’s reflection can end this way. We lose track of our accomplishments and happy times, the fun, or the many things that made us laugh.

Each of us is living a personal spectacle called life, which enters a new year now whether we like it or not. When I see my tragic birch each morning now, I’ll apply yet another of specto’s meanings: to look to a thing as a guide to action. She’ll serve—at least for a few more months— as a reminder of the necessity to act on promises made. Yet again I’ll forgive myself for going in circles around all my previous New Year’s resolutions and never quite hitting the mark. The chariot racers in the Circus Maximus eventually ended with a winner, didn’t they? Even if it took seven long and frightening turns around the spina.

Reflecting back on the year gone by entails looking at things while we inventory our highs, lows, and in-betweens. In older days, brooms made of birch reminded us to sweep out the old. In the year to come we can choose to spend more time looking for things. When old methods fail, we can flex our creativity and find new ways to get where we want to go. We can observe our progress in smaller increments, and celebrate progress, and stop beating ourselves up over minor setbacks. And we can look for ways to help others along their path, which will get us out of our own heads for a while. After all, no Roman charioteer ever raced alone.

Here is the summer, 2015 birch:

Happy New Year!


I am visiting my former sister-in-law and her family in Minnesota over the holidays. My son Corby will be joining us soon. My daughter Squeaky in Guam is spending Christmas on the beach in Thailand (poor thing). I wish you all a peaceful and healthy holiday season, and hope to be back next week! See you then! 

(And it is going to be subzero for most of my trip! Brrrrr. . . ) 

Will It Get There in Time?

I’ll bet you’re checking the websites now, making sure that Amazon or UPS or whomever will get your packages delivered in time for the holidays. Even if it’s for you. My Christmas nightmare arose trying to gift myself a new Sonicare toothbrush after my old one died.

First, I made the fatal mistake of buying one at a great price on Amazon. When I tried to register it on the Sonicare website, it turned out to be a fake, a product of the so-called “gray market.” I sent it back and requested a bona fide replacement. Stupid me. Of course they sent me the same fake!

Okay, I said, I really need this ultrasound deep clean, I’ll bite the bullet and buy a real one at Walmart at regular price. Round three: Arriving in the mail (of course it wasn’t stocked at my local store), lo and behold, another fake! Before I returned all three brushes, I saw a Black Friday sale on the Sonicare website. BINGO! Except, they don’t take debit cards! Desperate, I contacted my daughter Squeaky in Guam, requesting she buy it for me with her credit card. She jumps on it, and the sale never goes through. We were probably dealing with a fake website! As a final move, she buys one at the commissary on the navy base, thrilled to have her Christmas shopping for mom done.

And the denoument, you ask?  Fake number four! Squeaky returned hers, I returned two of mine, and decided to keep one cheap fake. I couldn’t deal with an offshore customer service that would likely steer me deeper into the rabbit hole (I actually did make one phone call, and that’s exactly what happened). I couldn’t summon outrage; I was deeply defeated. I gave up. You’ve all been there.

So what do Amazon, Sonicare, Walmart, and the commissary all have in common? Simply this: the failure to deliver on a promise. We’ve all been there, too, disappointing others—and all too often ourselves— with promises unkept. Promises are about tomorrow. The root is the Latin promissum, from pro, before or forward, + mitto, to send or announce. Promises allow us to put things off, deferring action until a later date. Without strict accountability, they’re all too easy to break.

Deliver’s Latin root is delibero, from de, away + libero, to free or release. Libero is also the root of the word liberal, an adjective defined as “open to new behavior,” and “favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.” Also, “concerned with broadening general knowledge and experience.” I lean liberal in politics, always will, and yet these meanings have been hijacked and warped to the point where I don’t know who to vote for any more.

Now, it feels like the whole world operates on the basis of broken and undelivered promises. Announcements and pronouncements about help for brain health issues and addiction fill the air, but the death rate from suicide and overdoses doesn’t budge. Sound bites assure us of imminent job growth and prosperity, but income distribution keep skewing up. Movements to slow the pace of climate change or eliminate nuclear weapons repeatedly fail to extract guarantees from world powers.

But the other meanings of liberalis—noble, gracious, and generous—remind us of the other side of the human coin. These virtues still exist in the world. We can choose to express them in our everyday lives. A fair and courteous response to my toothbrush situation wasn’t in the cards for me, but I know that it’ll happen in another setting soon.

And mitto has more meanings too, including to put an end to, or to quit. By standing on principle and holding powerful entities accountable (to the best of our capacity), we can move the needle in a more hopeful direction. Although the origin of liber is not clear, it may be the PIE root *leudh-ero-, which means “belonging to the people.” Each one of us, an individual in people-dom, can try to put an end to broken promises. The people who made them with no intention of following through can be held to account. Somehow, we must find the strength, and the way.

As I write this I got a text from my friend Kimberly. She was scheduled to meet someone tonight to sell a piece of her artwork. At the last minute, the customer sent a message that he changed his mind. She was hoping for an early visit from Santa to brighten up her holiday. As a person who sat in countless markets hoping for a stranger to buy a book, I can empathize with her disappointment.

Unsold art, a fake electric toothbrush, it may sound trivial to you. But even tiny pain hurts. It’s about time we try harder to stop taking the easy way out. One may choose to pray to a higher power. But I choose to invoke a god newly-defined by my friend Nancy: the presence of goodness. Let’s find more in ourselves, and in others.