Probably one of the most eye-opening moments in my life came one day when I was complaining about something at the junior high school where I taught. (It probably had something to do with my schedule. I hated when I had morning planning periods.) “I don’t know why the principal is picking on me,” I whined. “She wants to ruin my life.”
My friend answered. “She’s not picking on you. She doesn’t want to ruin your life. In fact, you probably didn’t even enter her mind when she putting the schedule together.”
I was not happy to hear that, and I added my friend to the list of people who were trying to ruin my life. But her words kept coming back to me. And finally, I had to agree. Did I really think I was so important that the principal changed an entire schedule around so that I would be miserable? Was I Superman and had mortal enemies who plotted my downfall at every turn?
As the saying goes, I realized most people were not against me. They were simply for themselves. At first, it was humbling, but then I began to feel liberated. After all, spending time looking for evil-doers every time I was unhappy really took up way too much time and energy. It was nice to let some of that go.
Also, once I stopped automatically blaming others for my unhappiness, I was able to spot the few who really did wish me harm. And get far far away from them.
Dean of Student Services
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
A fictional family saga. I enjoyed this book because it is elegantly written and showcases both the joyful and difficult aspects of life. Also, the author describes how culture affects the characters, and that is always interesting to me.
I spent most of the past weekend on YouTube. I can almost see you shaking your heads, unhappy that the Jolly Librarian has given up practicing piano for binge watching kitten videos.
But never fear! I have not given up on the keyboard. The videos were all to help me learn how to keep time. After our last class, I realized that I seemed to be the only one who really didn’t understand how fast or slow the notes were supposed to be. Most of the other folks in the class play other instruments or sing, and the one other person who doesn’t seems to have a good sense of rhythm (at least, according to what I hear our teacher say during their one-on-one time behind me.)
I’ve taught long enough to know that not every professor’s teaching style will match up every time with each student’s learning style. When that happens, it’s time to look for a different way to learn the material. So I checked out two books on music theory and read over the chapters on keeping time. Then I looked up every YouTube demonstration I could find. I am still having troubles, but it’s no longer as if the instructor is speaking in tongues.
Sometimes when we run into trouble in a class, we jump too quickly to blame: either the instructor or ourselves. But it just may be that we need to look at the subject in a slightly different way.
In her book A Field Guide to Happiness, about her life in Bhutan, Linda Leaming tells of having breakfast with a friend who ordered a three-minute egg. When the egg arrived, it was raw. He called the waiter over:
I’m so sorry. I’ve ordered the wrong thing. Please tell the cook to please put some water in a pan. If it’s not too much trouble, ask him to please let it come to a full boil, and then drop the egg in the water for three minutes. That’s how I want the egg. Please say how sorry I am to have inconvenienced him.
According to Leaming, in Bhutan, “the bottom line is that everybody makes an effort to be civil and help everybody else save face.”
Although there are many wonderful stories in this book, it was this one that stopped me cold and made me think. I contrasted it to what I witness on a daily basis. We spend way too much time protecting our own reputation, not wanting it thought that we could have done something wrong. I don’t think a day goes by without someone blaming someone else for their unhappiness, mistakes, or problems.
I think what we need here is a little Bhutanese philosophy. Think how much calmer life could be if we weren’t always on the prowl trying to save our own self-esteem and snapping at anyone who threatens our fragile sense of self. What if we instead worried about others?
In the case of Leaming’s friend, he got his egg. The waiter was not humiliated over something he couldn’t control. And the cook was allowed to maintain his reputation as a cook. Seems like a win/win/win to me.
And breakfast was peaceful for everyone.
We all need more such moments.
by Katherine Dunn
This novel portrays the exceptionally disturbing tale of the Binewskis, a carnival family, who breed their own Midway exhibit of human oddities, with the help of drugs and radioisotopes. It is dark, and sick and strangely beautiful. It makes the reader reexamine how he defines “freakish” and “normal.”
Last night, my piano teacher was giving us our homework, which involved practice. But she also pointed out that practice wasn’t enough: “Despite what you may have heard, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. So if you practice wrong . . .”
I could only nod my head in sad agreement. In the year that I have been teaching myself, I have picked up all sorts of bad habits. My fingers, instead of staying on the keys, fly up in the air as if they’re trying to escape. I can read notes, but I have no sense of counting the beats. So the songs I know are more like some sort of mad improvisations. (I kind of like them, but my teacher stresses that I will never be able to play with anyone if I can’t count the notes. It will not be improv, but cacophony
So I am now spending as much time unlearning old bad habits as I do trying to pick up new skills. One night, I did nothing but put my fingers on the right keys and play notes without moving my hands. It was not fun but necessary. Now I’m working on my counting. This is much harder. Basically, I can count or I can read the notes; I can’t do both at the same time. But I keep working on it. Because it’s the only way I’m going to learn the play the piano.
This is true for any subject. You have to check for the bad habits you’ve learned earlier and get rid of them. It could be a word that you always spell wrong. It could be the order of operations in math that you always forget. It could those pesky MLA citations that get you into trouble. If you’re doing them wrong, then take the time to unlearn. It will be a pain, but less of a pain than always doing it wrong. And once you get those barriers out of the way, you will find the path a little easier.
So this week, unlearn with me!
In her book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, Kelly Williams Brown mentions a strategy her mother used whenever her children got into one of those pointless arguments in which siblings are known to engage. The first child who opted out of the argument by saying, “Drop the Banana” was rewarded.
As adults, no one is going to give us a treat if we decide not to engage in circular discussions that do nothing but raise our blood pressure and eat up our time. Still, the reward is the peace that comes from knowing that we really don’t have to engage and can simply move on.
So I declare that from now on I will drop the banana by
- not responding on Facebook to a comment that is factually ignorant, illogical, or just plain mean. I have enough experience now to know that I won’t change anyone’s mind. I will simply hide that post and, if necessary, unfriend the person. (This does not apply to serious discussions where people actually think about what other people post.)
- refusing to engage when someone complains about a friend, relative, boss or colleague if the complaint is the same one the person has made for the past several months or years. Once again, it’s pretty clear that no one is looking for an actual solution here.
- realizing that just because someone wants to bring up the same issue over and over again, I am under no obligation to respond each and every time.
- stating that my silence does not mean agreement. It simply means that I am no longer participating in the same old gripe sessions.
- refusing to believe that my self-respect has any connection with other people’s bad moods and, therefore, does not require a response.
How will you drop the banana?
Math and Natural Sciences
I am currently reading Candide by Voltaire. I last read part of it five decades ago and thought to revisit it. Even though it is 200 years old, it is relevant today, in my humble opinion.
There is an Asian tale about a farmer who took a break from a long day in the fields. As he sat down, he saw a rabbit run into a stump and break its neck. Taking the rabbit home, he cooked and ate it.
“Ah,” he said. “This is how life should be.”
From that day on, he sat by the edge of the woods waiting for another rabbit to run into a stump. Obviously, things did not turn out so well for him.
There are several lessons that can be learned from this story:
- There really is no substitute for hard and steady work.
- Do not mistake a random incident for fate.
- And if you’re a rabbit, look where you’re running.
But in any case, keep working on your goals.
Math and Natural Sciences
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert
This book makes a strong case for us being in the middle of an event that happens, on average, once every billion years. Unfortunately it is the extinction of most organisms on the planet and this time it is due to human activities. We can’t prevent this unless we know why it’s happening. So I recommend you read this book to save the world.