Death of a Writing Teacher

His name was Tony, and he had been a mentor of mine since I had joined the Writing Program as a full-time faculty member. My promotion packets, both times I applied for promotion, were based on his, and both times they succeeded. He had written me gracious letters of recommendation. He was unfailingly courteous and kind, supportive, a model teacher. He was also a writer, and had written an award-winning collection of short stories.

Shortly before he died, about a year ago, he sent me an email about some departmental business, adding at the end a personal note about the novel he intended to write. That summer, he said, he would finally have time to start it, to really work on it intensively. That summer, he would get to the project he had wanted to work on for so long time. A few weeks later he was dead.

I still have the email, somewhere in my email queue. I’m sure that someday, the university’s email program will delete it automatically. I don’t want to delete it or look at it; it’s like a ghost, haunting my emails. If I delete it, I will erase a memory of the man. If I look at it, I will be reminded of how easily any of us can be here and then gone. It has become a memento mori. It’s enough for me to remember that it’s there, one of the final things he wrote.

I went to his funeral and then the memorial service afterward. It had been sudden, a heart attack — once he entered the hospital, he did not come out. Everyone was feeling both grief and shock. Someone, another faculty member, mentioned to me that he had been talking about his novel, of the things he was going to do that summer. He was at least a decade older than me, but not old in any sense. He had a beautiful wife. I remember her standing in front of the church, incredulous and devastated.

What hit me so hard, then — so hard that I’ve been meaning to write something like this for the past year, and have not been able to — was the unfinished work he intended to do, all his hopes for the future. I thought, suddenly, of all the books I want to write, all the things I plan to create. And I thought, then — I’d better get on it. There is no time, there is no time. There’s never enough time. We always die with our work unfinished.

We have a little while here, so little, less than a tortoise or elephant. And in that time, we can create things that are hopefully worthwhile. So ever since, I’ve been pushing myself, sometimes probably too hard. And sometimes I’ve been tired and sad, because all the things I want to do will never get done, and there are so many other obligations — like, you know, the work that pays my rent.

But it seems to me that there are only two truly important things to do in this world: love the people around you, and create your art. Now, with wildfires raging and seas rising, I would add: try to save the world just a little bit, if you can.

I’m haunted by the memory of a friend and mentor, by an email I don’t have the courage to look at again. And I’m trying to do the work that I feel was given to me, while there’s still time.

(The image is Poppies and Italian Mignonette by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.)

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Loving the Work

Recently, I wrote the following:

The one thing you can always count on in life is your work. If you’ve found true, good work to do, it will always be there for you. If you put it aside for a while, it will wait. You may not make money at it, but you will feel that you’ve done something worthwhile.

I posted it on Twitter, and it seemed to resonate with people, so I thought I would write more about it here.

I’m trying to remember, now, why I wrote it. It was on a day that I felt like an author, but not a writer . . . I felt as though I was doing the things authors do (planning for appearances, looking over contracts), rather than the things writers do (writing). I enjoy being an author more or less, sometimes more, sometimes less. But I love being a writer. I love being in that space where it’s just me and the pen and the paper, or me and the document on my laptop, and we’re making words together. That sense of flow, of losing myself, is a feeling I want and need, a feeling I miss when I’m not writing. And it’s a sense that comes from writing, not authoring.

There’s a page on Facebook that I’ve been following for a while. It’s called Vincent Van Gogh, and it’s just quotations from the artist, paired with his paintings. There are many bad things about social media, and some good ones: pages and groups that promote art are some of the good things. I’ve seen so much art online that I would not have seen otherwise, and I would probably never have read through the collected letters and diaries of Van Gogh, but there they are, streaming by me like small bright sparks in my Newsfeed. What you see more than anything else, in Van Gogh’s words, is his love for the work.

On July 31, 1888, he wrote to his sister Willemien, “Anyway the work, when it progresses, helps a lot. I find it mightily beautiful here in summer, the green is very deep and lush, the air thin and amazingly clear.” I’m not sure where he was, I think in the French countryside. What was his work helping with? Probably his mental health. There are quotations from his brother Theo as well, and they are always worried, solicitous. Vincent wasn’t doing well, was never doing very well, and the work helped. It stabilized him, gave his life meaning. Notice him noticing: the depth of the colors, the translucent quality of the air. He was never not an artist. It’s very hard, actually, never not being an artist. Hard on the head, the heart, the life. The work helps.

On August 3, 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo, “There’s no better or shorter way to improve my work than to do figures. Also, I always feel confidence when doing portraits, knowing that the work is much more serious — that’s perhaps not the word — but rather is the thing that enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.” He was deliberate about the work, wanted to be better, but in his own way — better at understanding, better at representing what he saw. The work itself was the thing, rather than the sale of the work (although he would very much have liked to sell his paintings). But the vision he had of what the work could be, that came first. As did his sense, I think, of the work he could do, the work that was his to do.

I don’t know if I can express clearly enough, as clearly as the air of the French countryside, what I mean about the work itself. Vincent has already expressed it so much more clearly, probably because he was speaking out of necessity, compulsion — out of his direct experience that day. Whereas I am thinking and remembering, which is never as strong. What I’m trying to say is:

The work itself is the important thing. When I’m writing, that sense of flow I have, that timelessness, that disappearing act in which my self goes away and I become an instrument of the story, a way through which the story is written — that is the point.

The work itself is more important than the things surrounding it, like sales figures or publicity campaigns. I try to do the work as best I can, I try to find its shape, the way it wants to go. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I mostly succeed, when I fail utterly the work goes back into the clay bin of my mind, to be reformed into something else. But I’m satisfied or not with a particular work not because people read and like it, although yes, I’m always happy when they do. But because I was able to achieve what the work wanted to be — I wrote the poem or story as it was meant to be written, which I usually only discover in the process of writing it.

The work is what I work at, meaning that I’m trying to be a good writer, a good artist. Not popular, not trendy, not on brand. I’m trying to write the things that are in me to write, and the things out in the world that resonate with it, as grasses and trees and postmasters resonated with Vincent. In a letter to Gauguin, he described a painting of his as “Nothing more than ears of wheat, green-blue stalks, long, ribbon-like leaves, under a sheen of green and pink; ears of wheat, yellowing slightly, with an edge made pale pink by the dusty manner of flowering.” He wanted to capture those ears of wheat, to study them, participate in them, become them in a sense by painting them so precisely. I think artists are in love with the art itself, with technique and color and line. Just as writers are in love with sound, with the juxtaposition and euphony or cacophony of words. Sometimes when I write a sentence, it’s really about writing that sentence, about putting those particular words together, and I feel as though I have succeeded or failed depending on whether that particular sentence works. As Vincent’s does, even in translation.

And the work leads me somewhere deeper, clearer. It makes me more serious, if that’s the word (I’m not sure it is). It makes me, perhaps, more aware — of the world around me, of the world within myself. The work itself is what teaches me, not just as a writer but as the person I am. I perceive the world though the work — it teaches me to see more clearly, like a pair of glasses that I put on to improve my eyesight.

It’s very hard for an artist to articulate her relationship to her own work. That’s what I’ve tried to do here, and not very well either.

On August 4, 1889, his brother Theo wrote to Vincent, “I found it so strange to have received no letter from you that I telegraphed to find out if you were well. Dr. Peyron answered me in a letter that you’ve been ill for a few days but that it’s already a little better. My poor fellow, how I wish I knew what to do to get these nightmares to stop.” The work didn’t do that, of course. But Vincent continued the work anyway. It’s not a cure, it can’t be. But it gives you a world to go into, it gives you a thing to do that justifies, at least to you, if you’re doing it well, your own existence. Why was I put on this earth? At least in part to do the work.

And the work, finally, connects you to the larger world around you, the world of beauty and meaning. Vincent was in London when he wrote, “I walk here as much as I can, but I’m very busy. It’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city). . . . The chestnut trees are magnificent. If one truly loves nature one finds beauty everywhere.” His own work as an artist allowed him to find and see that beauty, and to see it more deeply as he painted it.

For an artist, a good artist, I believe that art is not solipsism but a connection to the world, a way of connecting the inner world to the outer. At least, that is what I feel as a writer, when I’m doing good work, which is not always . . . but the effort, the task, that is for always. As long as I’m alive, the work continues.

(The image is The White Orchard by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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Reevaluating Your Values

There’s nothing quite like burnout to make you reevaluate your values. Depression can do it, but depression is a more passive state, I’ve found. Depression makes you sad. Burnout makes you angry. It makes you blazing mad, like a hot fire — furious at the world because it keeps asking and asking, and you’re running out of time and attention and energy to give. So of course, after realizing that I was burned out (see my post from last week), I started to reevaluate what was truly important to me, what I wanted out of life.

One of the wonderful things about becoming known as a writer is that you’re invited places — to read, to teach, to present. I was getting a lot of these invitations, and I was accepting a lot of them. At one point I realized that I was doing several events each month, which is a lot if you factor in that I was also teaching full-time, so the only free time I had was on weekends. And I was traveling to an event at least once a month, usually out of state, which meant at least a two-day commitment: one day to get there, one day to return. Although more usually it was three days, to go, appear, and return. And you’re invited to write things, essays and stories and poems, which can be wonderful, but it also means you have to practice saying no a lot, because you simply can’t do everything. At least, that’s what I eventually learned: you have to exercise your NO muscle. (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or following me on social media, you’ll know that I have a daughter. Traveling so much was also taking away time I could be spending with her.)

So how did I start to reevaluate my values? To be honest, it started with the totally practical realization that I was spending more money traveling to events than I would probably ever make from them. Most of the time, when you’ve invited, it’s your responsibility to pay for travel and accommodations. At most you’re offered free membership, which means you don’t have to pay to attend the event . . . although sometimes, as for the big science fiction and fantasy conventions, you do in fact have to pay even when you’re part of programming. This is so accepted in the science fiction and fantasy world that I mention it here because many readers — most readers, really — are not part of that world. It’s also part of the world of academic conferences, but that world operates on a different funding system — universities pay for professors to attend conferences as part of their professional development. If I go to an academic conference, I can request funding. Not so for conventions, literary festivals, etc. Many readers don’t realize that when writers attend these sorts of events, they are paying to go — often quite a lot. And yes, those expenses are deductible against writing income, but that just means your taxable income is lower. It doesn’t mean you’re recouping the money.

My realization was that although I loved meeting readers and other writers, and inevitably got something valuable out of these events, I also lost something — time, energy, and of course money I could have spent elsewhere. The big conventions, like the World Fantasy Convention and the World Science Fiction Convention, can cost more than a thousand dollars to attend, if you have to travel far. I don’t know about you, but a thousand dollars is a lot of money to me. Like, a LOT of money. And I can think of many different ways I could use that money, including leaving it in the bank, where I could look at it sitting in my savings account and enjoy the sense of peace and contentment that comes with having emergency savings. (I was a graduate student for many years, so I know very well what it’s like to have no savings at all . . .) What was truly worth doing? Where could I spend my money and energy most wisely? Those were the sorts of questions I started asking myself.

And then, there was the issue of time. I have a limited amount of time in this world (so do you, but we won’t go into that — let’s just accept it as a given and move on). What would I like to spend that time doing? What do I really enjoy doing? I had to start thinking about that . . .

Well, I know that I enjoy writing, because I’ve done it all my life, at least as long as I can remember. And I do it whether or not anyone reads it, whether or not anyone pays me for it. Actually, while I love being paid for my writing (see savings, above), the writing I love doing most is the kind no one pays me for, like writing in a journal or posting poetry for free online. I do it for the sheer joy of it. I like writing more than I like being an author. And I know that I enjoy teaching, because even now, in summer, in Budapest, I have the textbook I’ll be teaching from this fall, and I’ve been reading the essays I want to teach . . . they’re all on fairy tales, and I’m so looking forward to exploring those stories again with students. And I love traveling, but the kind of traveling I love has nothing to do with expensive hotels, or fancy restaurants, or seeing tourist sights. My best memories of visiting Cornwall, last summer, were buying a cheese and chutney sandwich at Tesco and eating it in a beautiful old park under the trees (until a dog ran up to me and stole the other half from my paper bag), or walking in the ocean over the causeway to St. Michael’s mount, with waves lapping at my bare feet, or even doing laundry in a laundromat in Penzance, using pound coins. (No, I didn’t see any pirates. Only witches — I had my fortune told at a witch festival, and that was also one of the unexpected highlights.)

What I really love doing are the ordinary things. Waking up and having breakfast. Reading a good book. Walking through parks and gardens. Going to the sea, or a lake, or a river. I don’t know why water always makes me feel better, but it does. I like how rocks and shells look, all different. I love wildflowers, especially in meadows. Trees make me happy in all sorts of ways: the sound of wind in treetops, the crunch of dry leaves in the fall. So do a beautiful pair of earrings or a comfortable, flattering dress. A worn pair of Keds. A long, deep sleep makes me very happy. Halloween. Cats. Mushrooms.

What makes me unhappy? Hotels, when they become not a special treat but a way of life. Most airports. Large cities where I can’t see the sky. Our political system right now, which is an almost endless parade of greed and cruelty, tempered only by stupidity. The relentlessness of social media, which I as a writer am supposed to be on. (Yes, there are lovely people as well as lovely things on social media — I try to maximize them.) Yesterday, I spent several hours walking through an IKEA on the outskirts of Budapest, and in a way it was useful — I was able to identify some furniture I needed. But it seemed to me, in that cavernous labyrinth of fold-out sofas and bathroom fixtures, that human beings aren’t meant to live like that. They’re not meant to live in echoing, windowless caverns of consumer goods where one begins to think, not in a good way, about the myth of the Minotaur and long for Ariadne. I will admit that I got a little lost around the cafeteria, and started to wonder if I would ever get out, or stop smelling meatballs.

What do I actually value? That was the question that kept me pondering and wondering and reevaluating. What do I value in my life as a writer and teacher? What do I value in my life as a human person? How do I want to spend my time, and also my money, which is essentially a paper symbol of my time, since I get it by spending my time working? I’m still in the process of answering this question, but if I spend less time being an author and more being a writer, if I focus on the things that really matter to me, if I avoid IKEA unless I absolutely need to descend into those cavernous depths marked Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, you’ll know why. I’ve got one life, and I want to live it fully.

Writing these blog posts is part of reevaluating my values, because this is the sort of writing I like best, just me to you, and you can read it or not as you wish. And you don’t have to give me anything for it, just your attention for a little while — I do it for the joy of talking to you, of telling you what is on my mind. And it’s a relief to me, to get out all these thoughts that occupy my head, about how we are living and how we should live. If I can figure out how to live well, and I can write about that . . . well, that might provide some sort of service. Because aren’t we all trying to do that, each in our own way?

(This is one of my favorite views in the world, from the window of the apartment in Budapest where my grandparents lived, and where I lived as a child until we left the country. Of all the homes I’ve had in my life, it’s the only one I can still return to. This view is one of the things I value.)

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Dealing with Burnout

It took a long time for me to realize that I was burned out.

It also took a long time for me to understand what burnout actually was. After all, I wasn’t depressed. I’ve been to depression, I know what that particular landscape looks like, and I wasn’t there. Instead, I was irritable. Tired all the time, but also anxious and distracted. I didn’t want to do anything — somewhere along the way, I had lost my motivation. I did my job, and did it as well as I usually do, I think — but sometimes I was angry about how much I was expected to do, how much people assumed I could take on. There was never time to rest . . .

Burnout is when you’re stressed for so long that eventually you just have no reserves left — of energy, of motivation, of optimism. I was used to having all those things, and it was unsettling to find that suddenly they were gone. If you had asked me what I wanted to do most in the world, I would have said something like disappear for a while, somewhere no one could find me. I wanted to be left alone. I daydreamed about things it seemed I could not have . . . time to walk along a beach or read a book.

If all of this sounds confusing, it was certainly confusing in my head — a mass of conflicting impulses and responses. It resembled depression only in that I was unhappy, but now I was angry as well, which I had never been when I went through a period of depression while finishing my PhD dissertation. I didn’t think therapy was going to help this time. I needed something else.

Why was I burned out? Some of the reasons are still present in my life, and I’m writing this as I’m starting to come out of it for the first time in . . . I don’t know, probably a year. First, I have a full-time job teaching undergraduates. Then, I have a part-time job teaching graduate students. I love both those jobs, and my students are wonderful — yes, even the ones who have problems of various sorts, even the ones who don’t do well. They are all fascinating human beings, and it’s a privilege working with them. But I teach writing, which means a lot of personal attention to how a student is expressing herself, growing as a writer, developing skills. I don’t give exams, I comment on essays and short stories and sections of novels. It’s intensive work. On top of that, I’m a writer, and at the time I was trying to finish a fantasy trilogy on a relatively tight deadline. A fantasy trilogy that required a lot of research, that was very hard to write . . . Plus I was turning in short stories, essays, articles, all sorts of things — partly for money, partly because I was asked to write various things to publicize the novels. And I was traveling to conventions, reading at bookstores, all those things you do as an author rather than a writer.

Underneath all of that was me, the person I am: an intense introvert who is drained by interactions and distractions, who needs to recharge like a battery on being alone and silent. I was also in the middle of the continual barrage we all face nowadays: the online world of social media, where the most horrifying events scroll by as though they meant nothing, and people express their horror with clicks, but little changes . . . There are good things about social media, and I try to maximize my connection with people who post about poetry, and gardening, and knitting, and saving the environment. But it can also be a monotonous river of despair.

And I have a few other traits that really don’t help: I’m driven by my love of the work, conscientious about getting it right, and a perfectionist. If you are already dealing with burnout, these will make dealing with it harder. Especially the perfectionism.

Finally, at some point, I realized I was burned out — months after I should have, because obviously the problem was me, right? It couldn’t be that I was simply trying to do too much. I just needed to work harder, be more organized. I don’t remember how I realized it . . . maybe reading an article somewhere in the endless scroll of pixels? There are worthwhile things online as well, as I said. That was when I started thinking about what I could do. Luckily, it was almost summer, and I’m a teacher, so summers are times when my schedule is more flexible — not free, because I still teach graduate students, I still have writing deadlines. But I was not teaching regular classes. And I came to the following conclusions:

1. I need to stop multitasking.
I had spent so much time trying to maximize, optimize, use time efficiently. I was writing papers on trains and airplanes, because that was free time, wasted time, right? I decided that when I was on trains and airplanes, I was going to sleep. Or maybe watch the in-flight movie. But I was going to use that time to rest.

2. I need to do things that have no immediate utility. I had stopped reading anything that was not work-related, simply for pleasure. I had stopped doing anything other than my work, and that was why I did not feel joyful, or even free. It felt as though there was no time to sew something, bake something, create a garden. I’m still not at the point where I can do all those things, but I’m trying . . .

3. I need to live in the real world. The online world had its uses, but I needed to get away from it, to live in the world that has sunlight, trees, the sound of rain. I needed to touch books, walk on streets. Go into small cafés and buy cakes, then sit and eat them without checking my status (what does that mean anyway? I want a life, not a status). I needed to put away the addictive glowing screen.

4. I need to take care of my physical health. I was starting to eat unhealthily, because if I was unhappy, I deserved snacks, right? And I was never getting enough sleep, because there was always something more important to do. “I’ll sleep on the plane” had become my mantra (but then I didn’t sleep on the plane either). I don’t know who came up with the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but I would say to that person — if you don’t sleep now, you’ll get that chance much earlier than you would otherwise! I’m still not good at getting enough sleep, but I’m working on it. I’m trying to think of it as the recharge my brain needs every day. My phone needs to recharge, right? Well, so do I. And just like my phone, I don’t run as well at 10%.

5. I need to find joy. Perhaps this is as much creating as finding? But think of joy as a vitamin you need every day. How many milligrams of joy have you taken today? Is it enough milligrams to get your daily dose of joy? Of course, while doing this, I had to figure out what joy meant to me, where my sense of joy comes from. Roses. Perfume. Warm, clean sheets. A cup of tea. Dark chocolate. A skirt that swooshes around my ankles. Writing poetry, not for a market but just for myself. I didn’t realize, for a while, that I was taking the Marie Kondo principle of what to keep and what to discard — does it spark joy? — and applying it to my life. What in my life sparked joy? I needed to find out, and then do some of that every day. Not everything in your life is going to be joyful — life is filled with small irritations, like the tram conductor telling you, with a frown and in a tone of admonishment, that you need to ring the bell to signal when you want to get off, when you’ve been riding that line for ten years, probably longer than he’s been at his job. But it’s also filled with small wonderful things, like your favorite scarf. And when it is, you can give that tram conductor your best “Thank you, that was unnecessary and I think you’re kind of an idiot” smile, because you know that scarf makes you look romantic and sophisticated.

Stop, rest, smell the roses, find joy. I’m not always good at doing those things. But I’m working on it.

(I’m also going to stop traveling so much for a while, except to Budapest, which is my ultimate place to rest, because when people ask you to do things, you can say, “Sorry, I’m in Budapest.” And then they say, “Oh, when will you be back?” And they don’t expect you to do things until you get back. Also, there are narrow streets to walk along, and a lot of small cafés to sit in. If you’re burned out and you can afford it, I recommend the Budapest rest cure.)

This is me in my office, in the middle of summer, going in to get some work done. I think you can see the stress and tiredness in my face. But now I’m going to get some rest . . .

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The Mystery of the Missing Doily

Where had the doily gone?

You may not think this is an interesting question. After all, what is a doily? A small crocheted mat usually placed on a table, either to protect it from something, like a flower vase that may drip water when it’s just been filled, or for decoration under an object: a figurine, a tray. My particular doily was under a small glass tray on which I put my glasses. I used to regularly lose my glasses, because I only need them to see long distance, so I took them off all the time and placed them . . . on tables, on shelves, who knows where. I would spend an hour every day just wondering where my glasses had gone. And then I put a doily on a shelf, and a glass tray on top of that, and I called it my glasses tray, and put my glasses on it — consistently. After that, I always knew where I had left my glasses. It saved a lot of time and worry.

That’s the backstory.

The story is this: my oven stopped working. In Boston, I rent an apartment. It’s a very nice apartment, the first floor of a house, with windows on all sides and a back porch. It’s too expensive, but then everything is in Boston. I chose it because it’s close to the university, and also because there were so few apartments for rent in this area that I did not have much choice. Most of the apartments around here are for students: they have three or more bedrooms, so the rent can be split between a number of roommates, and they are not very well taken care of. This apartment, thank goodness, is very well taken care of — maintenance requests are answered promptly. So as soon as my oven stopped working, I was told the old stove would be replaced.

Yesterday, two workmen came to replace the stove. One was the regular maintenance man who has taken care of this house for thirty years. The other was his friend. Before they came, I looked at everything I had placed around the stove: the recipe box, the basket of napkins and placemats, the picture frame with a photograph of my daughter. I moved everything that I thought could be broken or damaged by the work of removing and installing a stove. My glasses tray was on a shelf near the kitchen, probably far enough away that it would be fine, but still . . . it was glass. So I moved it. I remember wondering if I should move the doily under it as well, but after all, it was a small crocheted mat (see definition of doily). How could it be hurt?

The stove was installed, with the usual problems (there are always problems — this time, the new stove was dented and had to be replaced even before it was installed). I was out running errands during the last part of this process. When I came back, the doily was gone.

Now, you have to understand that this is only partly about the doily. I mean, the doily is important, because it’s a small pretty thing, and I value small pretty things. It fits perfectly on that shelf, and I wanted it back. But since I read my first mystery, which was probably a Nancy Drew, I have prided myself on my ability to figure things out. After Nancy Drew, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Whimsy and Harriet Vane, Father Brown, Rumpole of the Bailey, and on to more modern detectives . . . Mystery lovers will be familiar with this sequence.

The doily was my gill of pickled shrimp.

If you’ve read Miss Marple mysteries, you’ll understand this reference, because Miss Marple refers to it repeatedly. I believe it’s mentioned for the first time in a short story called “The Tuesday Night Club”: Miss Marple says that a woman in her village, a Mrs. Carruthers, purchased a gill of pickled shrimp and put it in her string bag. But when she got home, the gill of pickled shrimp was gone. Mrs. Marple never tells us what happened to it, although she does mention that she later solved the mystery, which threw “a considerable light on human nature.”

The gill of pickled shrimp is the trivial mystery that nevertheless gives you an opportunity for what Sherlock Holmes calls ratiocination: the process of reasoning something out, of following a logical train of thought. My doily was missing, so I decided to ratiocinate.

Where could my doily have gone?

First, and most logically, I could have moved it myself without thinking about it. After all, I had thought about moving it before I decided not to, and there have been times when I’ve done things without thinking about them. Sometimes in my morning shower, I’ll be thinking about what I have to do that day, and wash my face twice because I forgot that I washed it the first time, and remember only when I’m washing it the second time that I’ve already gone through those motions. So, on the assumption that I had probably removed the doily to a safer place after all, I searched in all the logical places. The doily was not in any of them, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not recall having moved it. I was almost certain I had not moved it.

Second, less logically, the workmen could have taken it. Were the men who had replaced my stove doily thieves? This was highly unlikely, first because they were the sort of burly men who can lift stoves, much more likely to decorate with logos of sports teams than doilies. Now, a good detective does not judge entirely by appearances — still, I’ve found that you can get a general sense for who a person is by how they present themselves. If I went into these men’s houses, I doubt that I would find doilies! But also, they were very nice men, as careful and conscientious as stove installation allowed. I dismissed this possibility as just plain silly.

Third, could the doily have been knocked down during work? Possible, but I looked in all the places it could logically have been knocked, and it was not there. And then I remembered that the stove had been wrapped in cardboard. I had a vague memory that some of that cardboard had briefly been placed across the kitchen counter, with one corner on the shelf where my doily had been. Could the doily have gotten stuck to the cardboard? If so, where was the cardboard now? The workmen would not have taken it with them–it was trash. Logically, it must be in the trash bins along the side of the house.

I looked in the trash bins. There was no cardboard in the first one or second one, but in the third one . . . there was the cardboard, and when I moved it aside, there are the bottom of the trash bin was my doily, looking pretty and forlorn.

Reader, did I pull out the cardboard, tip the trash bin onto its side, and half crawl in to get my doily? Of course I did.

Then I immersed it in water with a great deal of dish washing liquid and let it sit. It was, shall we say, stinky. I let it dry overnight, and it’s now back on the shelf under the glass tray with my glasses on it. I solved the case of the missing doily.

You may think this is a silly little story, but it’s important to me because I want to write a mystery series myself — I have the first one all worked out. Mysteries are very hard to write. Honestly, I think they’re the hardest things to write, at a technical level. The Mystery of the Missing Doily reminded me of how much I want to write those books, and also gave me a little more confidence that I just might be able to do it.

(These are from my bookshelf. Just a small selection, of course . . .)

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Maybe Your Scale is Broken

I couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight. I mean, I had recently been on a trip to New York for a reading. There, I had not eaten particularly well — cereal bars and yogurt with fruit on the bottom for breakfast, whatever I could buy at a cafe or museum for lunch. More desserts than I usually eat. Once, I’d had pizza. Once, a cheese plate. So yes, I might have gained a few pounds on the trip, but it should have been easy to lose them . . . after all, I was home now, eating healthy food, exercising regularly. And yet the number on the scale kept going up.

I should explain that once upon a time, before my life got so busy, I used to take ballet classes several times a week. I had taken them as a child, and then started again as an adult. A ballet class is the hardest, most intense workout I know. In order to survive them, I had to make sure that I was very healthy — sleeping enough, eating well, and at the right weight for my body, the weight at which I felt strong and fit. I had to stretch every day, do Pilates and yoga regularly, so I wouldn’t be injured by the bar exercises, the floor routines — especially the jumping. So I got into the habit of monitoring not just numbers like weight, but whether I was eating enough vegetables, going for a walk every day . . . Even now, when I’m so busy, I try to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, staying as fit as possible. I don’t have to make it through ballet classes anymore, but my ordinary life is just as stressful.

So anyway, there I was with a dilemma. The scale was telling me that I was gaining weight. And yet I was eating normally, exercising normally. Why wasn’t the number on the scale matching how I felt? I figured I must be eating more than I thought, or perhaps it was stress — I didn’t have much time to think about it, because it was the end of the semester and I had papers to grade. So I just tried to eat especially well — no cookies! And still the number on the scale kept creeping up.

I felt like such an idiot when I walked into the hardware store to buy a new scale. I mean, it wasn’t the scale’s fault, right? Clearly I was doing something wrong . . . After all, I’d had that scale for probably ten years, during which it had functioned reliably. I bought the exact same model, took the new scale home and stepped on it, expecting to see the exact same number . . . and found that I was the same weight as I had been before the trip to New York, even a few pounds lighter because I’d been so diligently not-eating cookies.

In other words, the old scale was broken. Which leads me to the life lesson here: Sometimes it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the scale.

Sometimes the problem isn’t what you’re measuring, but the way you’re measuring it.

Are you happy enough? Are you rich enough? Are you successful enough? We have scales for all of those things, and sometimes our scales need to be recalibrated, or we need new scales altogether. I’m the sort of person who finds large meanings in small things (which is probably why I was a literature major). So this realization led me to all sorts of philosophical questions: What did I really want out of my life? How would I know when I had achieved it? How was I going to measure my own happiness and success? What did I need, financially, to get where I needed to go? It was a small experience that led to some larger resolutions.

I could connect it to even larger issues: I recently heard a very smart presentation by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in which she talked about using measurements other than GDF to evaluate the effectiveness of economic policies. GDP didn’t, she said, accurately represent the well-being of the population. If wealth was concentrated at the top, GDP could look fine, but there could be poverty and deprivation below. The method of measurement could actually mask information.

I hesitated to start by talking about my scale, because I knew someone would inevitably tell me not to use a scale at all, that I should focus instead on being healthy. But I am healthy . . . And I think we have to be honest about the fact that here in the United States, we live in a society that makes it almost impossible not to take in more calories than our bodies actually need. I know this because I spend part of the year in continental Europe. There, I have a scale, but I don’t really need one — and I eat whatever I want. As soon as I get back to the United States, or (with apologies to British friends) set foot in England, I have to watch what I eat again. Why? Because the food is literally different. It’s grown and packaged differently. European foods have fewer additives, and no high fructose corn syrup. Also, the servings are smaller. Americans visiting Europe can be surprised by how small the pastries and cups of coffee are. How there are no muffins (those 400-calorie American extravaganzas pretending to be health foods) in the cafes. There are circumstances in which we need to measure and monitor things — we just need to make sure our instruments are accurate.

This is a topic I think about a lot because I’m a teacher: I both give grades and deal with the effects of imperfect measurements — by which I mean the SATs and AP exams. My students have been taught to write to their standards, so part of my job is teaching them to write as though they’re not taking an AP exam — thoughtfully, with care and conviction. Many of them assume, based on past writing classes and exams, that they are bad writers. But none of them are bad writers — they are just writers who could improve, as we all can. Hopefully my scale is a little more accurate, and conveys better information, than the ones they’re used to. I don’t think not grading them at all would be helpful, just as I’m not going to throw away my scale altogether. I just need to make sure that my grades are fair, and that students understand how and on what basis they’re being given.

I’ll end this long, rambling post with the takeaway. Here’s what I want you to remember:

Maybe it’s not you. Maybe your scale is broken.

(The image is Justice by Pierre Subleyras.)

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How to Be Elegant

I hesitated to write this blog post, because its title implies both that I believe myself to be elegant, and that I think I can tell other people how to be so. And that’s not quite true . . .

What’s true is that one day, I decided that I wanted to be elegant — that it was one of the qualities I admired, and I wanted to figure out what it was, and how to achieve elegance myself. I was tired of seeing women dressed elegantly, not just in magazines but walking around the streets, and knowing that I could never dress like them, could never be them. Knowing that whatever they had, that air of quiet confidence, was unattainable for me. When I was growing up, there was no money for fancy clothes, and anyway I was taught that emphasizing clothes, or really anything to do with appearance, was frivolous — I should be working on what was in my mind.

Of course, I also grew up in an inelegant era: the deliberate ugliness of the seventies, meant to break the quiet propriety of the fifties and much of the sixties, was followed by the excesses of of the eighties, when shoulder pads sprouted like mushrooms and nothing was the right shape. That was followed by the deliberate dressing down of the nineties, which was better — at least clothes looked as though they might fit on human beings again. And since then . . . well, we’ve been in a twenty-year period when there have been no new ideas in fashion, just constant recycling.

But through all those eras, there were elegant women. I could see them — and I envied them! I had no idea how to be one of them. When I was a teenager, I tried by dressing in what was fashionable, buying the cheaper versions of course — the imitation Izod polo shirts and L.L.Bean duck boots when everyone was preppy for a while. Ripped jeans and off-the-shoulder sweaters when everyone was wearing them, inspired by the success of Flashdance. I succeeded mainly in looking silly. It would have been better if I had stuck to being the nerdy student I was. And then, when I had money for the first time, after graduating from law school and starting my first real job as a corporate lawyer, I did what seemed logical — I bought expensive clothes. But you know, I didn’t look any better in them than I had with my polo shirt collar fashionably turned up. I looked just as much like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, pretending to be someone I was not.

One day, I remember, I was in the dressing room of a Laura Ashley store, looking at myself in a $200 navy blue suit that was supposed to make me look like a lawyer who was also the heroine of an English novel, but only made me appear rather lumpy. I took off the suit and walked out, knowing in my heart that not only would I never find clothes that looked right on me, but I would never become the person I wanted to be . . . no, never. Don’t laugh. Clothes have that kind of power, and dressing rooms are places of deep psychological torture, antechambers of hell. No wonder we walk out of them in despair.

Throughout those years, I had been researching and reading about historical costumes, because I was interested in how women had dressed over time, and what their clothes had said about their lives, their circumstances. Finally (why did it take me so long?), I decided that I was going to research elegance. What was it? Why didn’t I have it? Was is some sort of genetic trait that had simply passed me by? That only people like Audrey Hepburn had? With the help of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy . . . At the same time, I went back to graduate school. The era of buying expensive clothes had ended for me some time ago (they didn’t help, so why spend the money?), but now I quite literally could not afford them anyway.

In between reading books for my graduate degree in English literature, I read books about women’s clothes, about the history of fashion and style, about ballet (since I was taking classes at the Boston Ballet School) . . . all sorts of things both central and peripheral to this particular question. It was only half-deliberate — I knew in my heart of hearts that I, personally, would never be elegant. But I was interested on a theoretical level. At the same time, for my graduate degree I was reading theories of the beautiful (Hogarth, Burke, Kant). And I was shopping where I have to tell you I still prefer to shop: my local Goodwill, and all the thrift stores around Boston. There, I could buy a skirt for $5, and if for some reason it did not work — if it did not go with anything else I owned, if I ended up hating how it looked on me, if for some reason it just felt wrong after a while — I could return it to Goodwill. It would turn into a $5 donation for which I was getting nothing — except perhaps a lesson in what was not me. And if I loved it but it did not fit exactly right, I could take it to a local seamstress who would tighten a waist or shorten a hem for $25. It would still end up costing considerably less than anything I could buy in a boutique or catalog.

I can’t tell you how it happened exactly — it was a long process of trial and error. But over those years of graduate school, of skimping and saving but also learning and growing, I think I did achieve what I believe to be elegance, for me. My personal idea of elegance, which may or may not be yours (but elegance, I’ve learned, is deeply personal). So what I’m going to give you are my personal rules. If you want to be elegant, if that is even something you care about (and you don’t have to), you can develop your own. Here they are (there are only five):

1. Your clothes should be appropriate to the occasion. If you’re going to a ball, dress for a ball. If you’re going to a punk concert, dress for a punk concert. If it’s winter, for goodness’ sake, dress for winter. Walking around in freezing temperatures without socks because it’s currently fashionable just looks silly.

2. Your clothes should be an expression of yourself. That’s you at the ball, you at the punk concert. What do you feel good in there, what do you think expresses who you are in those places? This takes experimentation, because we often don’t know who we are, we often don’t know our own taste. This is where a store like Goodwill helps, because you can walk down the aisles going “ugh, ugh, no, seriously? wait, yes, that looks nice.” You can develop your taste. And if you buy something then later realize it’s not you? Well then, you made a mistake, and a $5 or $10 donation to Goodwill. Try to figure out who you are, what you actually like, and over time you will learn a lot . . . which is applicable to more than clothes.

3. Your clothes should fit and be in good condition. Your clothes should always fit right, and if they don’t, here’s your opportunity to support a small local business by finding a seamstress. If the problem is a small rip, a stitch coming out of a sweater, a button that needs to be replaced, then learn to mend your clothes. It’s one of those valuable life skills, like cooking. Make sure the heels on your shoes are not too worn — if they are, take them to your local cobbler. Polish your shoes. Make sure everything is fresh and clean and ready to wear. This is also an argument for buying good quality, because clothes that are made well, of material that lasts, can be repaired. (Obviously don’t buy anything you personally can’t wear — wool is wonderful but I’m allergic to it. It’s not elegant if your clothes give you a rash . . .)

4. Your clothes should emphasize what is important. Unless you are a model, what is important is never the clothes themselves, but whatever you are wearing them for. You need to be able to move in them comfortably — if you’re uncomfortable, you’re going to miss the most important part of being elegant, which is the effortless confidence truly elegant women have. (Remember, I studied this stuff. How I envied them!) Even if you’re dressed for a party, you want to be able to walk, move, eat. You want to talk to people, be yourself without worrying about your outfit. The whole point is to put on the clothes and then forget about them, to just be in them. To live.

5. You should never spend too much on clothes. One of the reasons I wrote this column is that I see a lot of advertising for clothes online. Recently, I saw a skirt I liked quite a lot. I clicked on it, and . . . it was $300! I don’t spend that much on my monthly heating and electricity bills, in Boston, in the middle of February! I mean . . . that’s kind of disgraceful, really. If it had been the price for something genuinely beautiful, and the money were going to support skilled workers earning high wages, that would have been one thing. But it was an ordinary although rather nice skirt, probably sewn by women earning very little money, with a fancy brand name. Well, I find all the fancy brand names I need at thrift stores, thank you. I’ve found Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg, even Mary Quant, for under $30. If you’re wearing something for which you know you paid too much, for which perhaps you actually went into credit card debt, that outfit will never be elegant because you’ll be wearing it with a worried expression on your face, with trepidation in your heart. And that’s not elegant. There are two things I do spend money on, because they need to be sturdy and last: everyday shoes and purses. Those are the workhorses of your wardrobe, so make sure they’re of good quality, which does not necessarily correlate with price.

In the end, elegance is an attitude. It’s about wearing clothes you love and that make you feel comfortable, and then moving in them gracefully through the world. That’s really all there is to it. It took me a long, long time to have that much confidence in myself. I hope you’re a quicker learner than I am . . .

This was me on a day I felt particularly elegant, in a not very elegant part of the city, reflected in the post office window. Boots and coat by Land’s End; purse (my trusty go-everywhere bag) by Baggallini; dress from Goodwill; hat, scarf, and tights from CVS. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just office hours . . . but I felt great.

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