I Can Do This

I already feel the panic creeping in. Christmas is coming, and I just know I won’t be ready for it. I have so many things to do before the holiday. I’d hardly have enough time if I were on the ball, and I’m not even close to being on the ball. I’m constantly struggling against my own inertia, and not very effectively.

But, as I have to always tell myself, “Just do something!” Even if you can’t do everything, even if you feel like you’re being squashed beneath the weight of your unfinished tasks, you can do one small thing. So all you have to do is pick one small thing and get it done. When you’re done with that one, pick another, and then another. Create a cascade of positive, forward motion. If you’re lucky, it will carry you through some of the bigger, more difficult tasks.

So today I’m going to work on small tasks. I will put in Livia’s book order, fold the laundry, send a few necessary e-mails, wash the hand-washables, make a grocery list, etc. Nothing difficult. Nothing terribly time-consuming. One thing at a time.

My mantra: I can do this.

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About This Day

  • I found out that I had Google Chrome on my computer, so I removed it. I’m pretty sure I’ve done done this before. How many times is this unwanted program going to sneak its way onto my computer?
  • I went to the doctor for my annual check-up. She told me that I’m now like a vintage Audi (i.e., a classic car that’s worth keeping but that needs more maintenance to stay on the road). That’s not exactly how I’d choose to be described.
  • I also got my flu shot. It really hurt! Still does. And I wish that every time I typed the word “flu” it wouldn’t come out as “flue.” I know the difference between the two words. The part of my brain that handles typing doesn’t. I have to correct the spelling every time.
  • In the evening we had our first snow of the season. I was at home, snug and warm. I tried not to chuckle at the people who were struggling to drive up the road. Laugh not lest ye be laughed at. At some point it will be me out there in the snow, and I’m not looking forward to having to display my own rusty snow-driving skills.
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Metaphorically Speaking

I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary

Grade: A-

I got off to a rocky start with this book. I think of metaphor as a literary device, which is hardly surprising given my background in literature. But, because I think of it in this relatively narrow way, I was turned off by the broad use to which Geary put the word in this book. He applied it not just to literary metaphors (and similes, which he elegantly defined as “metaphors with the scaffolding still up”), but to pretty much all cases of language and thought in which two things could be compared. I thought that was taking things too far.

I also questioned the validity of some of the psychological studies that he cited. Not only have many studies been called into question or debunked lately, which makes me wary, but I found the results to be difficult to believe. For example, one study supposedly showed that study participants who read a description of a fictitious person judged that person more positively when holding a hot coffee, and more negatively when holding an iced coffee (i.e., a metaphor in which physical warmth = emotional warmth). But how can you prove it’s the hot/cold metaphor driving the results? Couldn’t it just as easily have been low-level physical discomfort making the people grumpy, or dissatisfaction with the coffee itself, or any number of things? In another study, people were said to have more negative opinions of sports teams with dark-colored uniforms vs. those with light-colored uniforms (i.e., a metaphor in which dark = bad). As with the other study, I think it’s a stretch to say that the results were affected by metaphor. And, as my husband pointed out, is there any chance that the author cherry-picked from all available studies and only mentioned those that supported his theory? That’s a good question.

While I felt that some of the studies were questionable, and I wasn’t sure that they were directly related to metaphor, some were potentially useful. For example, it’s good to know how you might use particular images or words to prime people for a particular reaction, if only to be on your guard against others who would manipulate you that way. But I hope the results were overstated, because if people are really as manipulable as this book suggests, then there’s no hope for the human race.

At some point, the book won me over. I can’t say exactly when it happened, but I can tell you what ultimately interested me most. One of the coolest things about metaphor is that it’s both a foundation for our language and part of the way we think. For example, we often say “see” when we mean “understand.” That’s a metaphor. It’s such an old metaphor that we don’t even think of it as one, but you can still “see” the thread (or “ligamen”) that connects the physical act of seeing with the mental act of understanding. I hadn’t realized how pervasive metaphor is in our speech, but according to Geary,

We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minutes.

That’s a lot of metaphors!

But metaphor doesn’t just hide out in our oldest words. It also shows up in everything that’s new to us, including scientific discoveries, because we can only understand within the framework of what we already know. That is, understanding a new thing means comparing it with an old thing. When we’re trying to explain new things to people, we almost always resort to metaphor. For example, I bought some quince this year. I have never eaten quince before. If someone were to try to describe quince to me, they’d inevitably fall back on comparison (“It looks sort of like . . . and it tastes similar to . . . and the texture is reminiscent of . . . “).

Geary also talked about how people tend to categorize items. He used a study as an example.

Tversky presented adults with the names of four different countries and asked them to sort the countries into pairs that were most similar. Given the set Austria, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary, for example, subjects tended to group Austria with Sweden (two Western European countries) and Poland with Hungary (two Eastern European countries).

But when Tversky substituted “Norway” for “Poland,” he got a different answer. Given the set Austria, Sweden, Norway and Hungary, subjects tended to group Sweden with Norway (two Nordic countries) and Austria with Hungary (two Central European countries). In psychology, this shift in context is known as framing . . .

So the way a question is framed—which alternatives are offered, which words are chosen to describe those alternatives, and which associated commonplaces those alternates evoke—-has a powerful effect on which answer people give.

What use this knowledge can be put to on a personal level, I’m not sure. I haven’t had a chance yet to apply my brain to it. One of the difficulties that I encounter in reading nonfiction is that my chosen reading time is late at night, right before bed. That’s not a good time for deep thought. But I feel certain that this idea of framing is important, and I will probably be chewing on it, metaphorically speaking, for some time to come.

Initially I gave I is an Other a B+ grade, but I’ve since raised it to an A-. Though I had my issues with certain aspects of the book, it contained enough food for thought that I deliberately kept it past its due date. A book that’s worth paying a fine for ought to get an A-level grade.

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Reading in November

Currently reading:

  1. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl: a Gothic fantasy set in the American South. I decided to read this book after watching (and enjoying) the movie that was based on it.
  2. The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: a memoir about the author’s attempt to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z. I have a fondness for books whose subjects are arranged in alphabetical order.

Looking ahead, I doubt that I’ll reach my goal of reading 52 books for the year. I’ve finished 39 so far, though, and that’s more than I read in any one of the last three years. So, I’m just going to call this year’s number (whatever it turns out to be) an improvement and leave it at that.

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We’re All Adults

When it comes to my kids’ teachers, I always want to call them Ms. So-And-So, just as my kids do. However, I make a point of using their first names. I’m an adult, and that’s how adults address one another. That’s what I keep telling myself. But somehow it still makes me feel as if I were 40 years younger and very naughty.

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I Will Survive

Thoughts from this morning:

  • The election turned out almost exactly as I thought it would. We won the majority in the House, and we elected a diverse crew of new people to office in many places. But it was not quite the Blue Wave we had wished for. We lost ground in the Senate, and the outcome of some races makes us weep for the state of our country. All things considered, though, we did well. The Republicans have been playing a harder, meaner, slyer game than the Democrats have over the years, leaving us at a big disadvantage. But it’s a long game, and we are better positioned to win it now than we had been. Watching how Donald Trump behaved afterward, it’s obvious that he’s rattled. That’s a victory right there.
  • I’ve had the song “I Will Survive” stuck in my head for days. Ordinarily that would be driving me crazy. I like the sentiment, though, so it hasn’t been getting on my nerves too badly.
  • Later today I will finally meet Marshall’s teacher. I’ve developed a dislike for her from our e-mail communications. I sincerely hope that this face-to-face meeting will dispel the negativity. I need to believe that my son is in good hands at school, because he’s at an educational crossroads. He doesn’t like school, and he’s at risk of falling behind, but he’s smart enough to do well if he can just be made to care more. So he needs a strong, steady push this year, and we can’t do that alone.
  • I know a lot about falling behind. I’ve fallen behind in just about everything except work lately. So today I remind myself to take better care of myself and my family. There isn’t enough time for everything, but there is enough time for what we need. It’s just a matter of using the time better. I can do that.
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So Relieved

This morning, on the Facebook page that’s just for parents in my town, someone posted an opinion piece from the local newspaper. The piece was written by a local mother whose opinion is that the children of “H1-B1” workers from India are ruining her son’s education. It was wrong in just about every way. I was steaming about it all morning, and so was my husband.

I started to draft a rebuttal, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I don’t want to antagonize any of my neighbors, but at the same time, I couldn’t just let that kind of naked bigotry pass. Luckily for me, by the time I checked back on the post, many of my neighbors had already stated on no uncertain terms that they don’t agree with bigotry or hate speech. One of them said that she’d already sent a rebuttal to the paper.

Whew! I was so relieved. I still had my own obligation to speak out, which I discharged by voting up their comments and thanking them for their wonderful messages of inclusion and tolerance. But what really made me feel relieved was knowing that there are still plenty of decent people around, and today I’m feeling just a little bit more optimistic about the future of the human race.

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Learning Isn’t Always Pleasant

I haven’t had much time for perusing The New York Times lately. That’s too bad, because there are so many things to learn from it. Not only are the articles interesting, but it often offers up words that I’ve never heard before. For example, the 4/1/18 issue contained “hermeneutic” (a noun that means “a method of interpretation”).

On the other hand, not all of these learning experiences are pleasant. For example, the 3/25/18 edition contained an article called “How to Clean Money,” in which writer Malia Wollan used the word “palimpsest” (a noun meaning “a piece of writing material that gets used again after the old writing has been erased”). I’d heard the word before, but I couldn’t remember what it meant. I felt compelled to look it up, and that’s good, because I learned something.

But I learned more than I wanted to know. The author used the word in an icky context, which I’m going to share, because misery loves company.

At the microscopic level, because cash is so highly trafficked, it becomes a sort of palimpsest that records all the hands and back pockets and piggy banks it has passed through, accreting a kind of monetary microbiome. A study of $1 bills in New York identified a total of 397 bacterial species. Swiss researchers discovered that when they smeared bills with mucus from children with the flu, the virus lived for up to 12 days.

Ew. I already knew that money was covered with germs. The mucus part was extra gross, though, and I’m not sure knowing the lifespan of flu virus is a helpful thing. It just makes me want to avoid touching anything that might have come into contact with children, which is especially difficult if you have children!

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Poor Hummingbirds

During the summer my husband filled our hummingbird feeder and set it up outside our dining room window so that we could conveniently watch the hummingbirds feed. One day he brought the feeder inside for cleaning and refilling but did not immediately put it back outside. I was home all day, so I saw how this affected the birds. Every so often a hummingbird would fly to where the feeder ought to be, and then dart around for a few moments in what looked like a state of angry disbelief. I even saw a few of them (or the same one repeatedly) fly right up to the window and hover in front of it, as if looking directly at me. I’m pretty sure that that was the hummingbird way of saying, “WTF!”

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Those Lights Will Cost You

Our kids have a bad habit of leaving the lights on when they leave a room. Reprimanding them was having no effect, so earlier this year we started charging them 25 cents every time we discovered that they’d left a light on. The kids didn’t really understand money well enough for this to be an effective tactic either and, as I was soon reminded, you have to be careful pointing out someone else’s bad behavior if your own behavior isn’t quite perfect. I accidentally left the light on in my bathroom one day, and Marshall gleefully said, “Mommy, you owe me 25 cents!”

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