Stigma’s wrath

When I first heard of the unexpected death of popular Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, the pieces just didn’t fit. She was 48, healthy, and she died at home. There was that remote chance that she had had a sudden brain aneurysm or heart attack, but my intuition told me she’d taken her own life. When her husband told reporters that she’d been struggling through a severe bout of depression recently, the truth came into focus. My heart has been heavy for days.

My spouse and several of my close friends attended Vermont Law School where Hanna taught—one of the many jobs she juggled: commentator and contributor on both WCAX and VPR, lawyer, writer, mentor, and mom.  I’d met Hanna, sat in on her class a few times, and even appeared in a short video that some friends produced for an assignment for her class. Hanna liked to keep things fun and interesting and was not above showing scenes from “My Cousin Vinnie” in order to demonstrate how to qualify an expert witness. As so many who knew her mourn her death, even more—including those who never met her—wonder why it had to come to this.

Her close friend, Ellen Sklar, told a reporter, “She was more full of life than anyone I’ve ever know.” And yet Hanna’s husband, Paul Henninge, explained that Hanna “went to a dark place so quickly. For Cheryl, she began to loop. And when you loop in a dark place, you lose your ability to see outside of this dark place.” I am in my own loop—perseverating over what might have helped her let in some light.

She was a very talented woman, a popular teacher and someone with the means to get help. She also had so very much to live for; she left behind her 11-year old daughter and 8-year old son. The thought that terrifies me is: If depression can swallow her whole—someone with so many gifts and resources—how is anyone safe from its ravages?  She hid it so well from her students, her colleagues and her public. Henninge described Hanna’s facility with concealment:  “When she had her public face, she put on the face she wanted the public to see.”

How many people in your life—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues—do this same thing? Perhaps you yourself are among the one-in-four Vermonters doing this exhausting dance with mental illness and trying to “pass” because the public can seem so very unforgiving.

We have got to start talking more honestly about mental illness. Now.

For those who have not suffered it, that kind of anguish is almost unfathomable. In quiet moments this week I have cried for Hanna, for her husband and her children. I can’t help but wonder if the stigma of mental illness was a barrier to true healing for Hanna. Her husband said she did seek treatment in the past few months, but it seems clear she felt limited as a well-known public figure in Vermont’s legal world and media.  We live in such a small state where everyone knows each other and the gossip mill is fast and furious. Where could she turn and feel safe in anonymity?

The other night, while mulling over the horrible news about Cheryl Hanna, I unexpectedly picked up an interview with award-winning actress Glenn Close done by Jian Ghomeshi on The Best of Q, a radio program on cbcradio. Close held me in rapt attention as she discussed how and why she speaks out against the societal stigma of mental illness. She shared with Ghomeshi her own family’s experience with mental illness and addiction, and explained that she saw an important role for herself in changing the conversation. She says of her anti-stigma campaign, Bring Change 2 Mind, “I thought as a public figure I can help focus on the issue.” Close continued, “Because everybody has been so reluctant, ashamed, fearful about talking about it openly, there has been no conversation…If we talk about it enough, it will become natural.” It is part of the human experience—and all too frequent to be called anomaly.

Close donated her time and talent to narrate a free downloadable documentary of mental illness called “A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness”, created by KVIE—Sacramento’s public television station. What struck me as I listened to her talk about her work was this: If open, groovy California can’t even talk about this stuff, then surely we are doomed here in the taciturn, reserved Northeast. But the Brattleboro Retreat’s “Stand up to Stigma” campaign is a strong start. We can all do much better in talking about mental illness.

What might have happened if Hanna had felt able to talk openly and honestly about her struggles? What if she hadn’t felt some obligation to be “perfect” for her colleagues, students, friends, and family? I’m certain her circle of support did everything they could to help—as much as she would give them admission to her hell. We all need to accept that highly-accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent people can still be cripplingly depressed.  We should also accept that with proper treatment, they can continue to be highly accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent. But without sufficient treatment, this disease kills as surely as diabetes or heart disease.

Enough. Please start these important conversations. Secrets and euphemisms don’t provide lasting hope for the future, just temporary ephemeral refuge. And they can be complicit in taking gifted people from us.



Strike a pose

I made a new friend while on vacation last week. Our kids went to the same day camp in central Vermont, and while they made maple butter, canoed and built fairy houses, we bantered about balancing life and kids while we waded in a glorious, frigid stream. After a career in television production, she now raises her three children and struggles to figure out what “Career B” is going to be. She doesn’t think her former career—with intense production pacing and deadlines—will fit in well with the more balanced life she wants with her children. She wants to write more, and she has a screenplay with a story that she believes needs to be told.  But she feels utterly paralyzed by her insecurities. “What if it is not really good at all?” The underlying subtext: What if I’ve been an imposter all along?

In my career as an educator and in my work with my coaching clients, it’s clear that an awful lot of folks—regardless of their experience or their line of work—feel as if they will be discovered as imposters, as folks not really qualified for the jobs they have. This insecurity spreads like kudzu, limiting even our aspirations. Our fears and insecurities keep us small, and we erroneously assume that others are successful because they have no fear.

A client once told me she felt awful about her own life after watching a successful author give a presentation. She explained: “She showed pictures of her writer’s garret—a cabin high up in the hills—and talked about her simply idyllic life. She was amazing. I wish I could have a life like that.” I smiled, reminding her, “She showed you what she wants you to see.” As is human nature, the author presented her world in the best possible light. She didn’t tell the stories about how she sometimes wakes up and feels consumed by self-doubt. And she didn’t mention that she wonders why she’s a writer and not something more sensible so she could better provide for her family. We all struggle to keep inner saboteurs at bay. Some folks just learn how to dance with them better than others.

In my quest to teach my clients self-forgiveness and confidence, I’ve recently added the remarkable work of Amy Cuddy, assistant professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School to my tool belt. I first learned of her research last spring and have since watched one of her TED Talks—Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are—numerous times. If you don’t have time to read Cuddy’s articles, watch this talk.

Cuddy calls her clip a “free, low-tech life hack”—a simple thing we can all employ to improve our lives. Cuddy takes the ubiquitous philosophy, “Fake it ‘til you make it!”, applies a researcher’s curiosity and eye for detail, and reinvents it as “Fake it ‘til you become it.”

In her lab, Cuddy discovered that even just two minutes in certain “power poses” were enough to increase testosterone levels and decrease cortisol (the so-called “stress” hormone). People felt more powerful and successful, but those around them also viewed them as more commanding and more accomplished. “Power posers” also did significantly better in job interviews than participants who were asked to strike “weak” poses—sitting small, closed in, with hands protecting one’s neck.


We spend a lot of time worrying about what our body language conveys to others, but Cuddy says we should be even more interested in what our body language conveys to ourselves. Non-verbal expressions of power and dominance and those that convey insecurity and powerlessness send unconscious messages to the world about how we see ourselves. But they also send cues to our own brains as to how we feel about our sense of control.

Whether you’re heading into a stressful job interview, are about to give a speech, or are entering a family situation in which you always feel powerless, Cuddy asserts that taking just two minutes to strike a “power pose” will help you feel more in control. Just put your hands on your hips, tilt your chin slightly upward, and make yourself as tall as you can get. You can also strike a “victory” pose—that universal posture runners make after crossing the finish line: Head cocked back, arms out wide in a “V”.

At the end of her TED talk, Cuddy reveals that she herself recovered from a bad head injury car—one that doctors thought would surely end her academic career. She believes that she was able to “fake it until she became it.” She suggests, “Change your posture for two minutes…It could significantly change the way your life unfolds.” Moreover, she exhorts her audience, “to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power…and it can significantly change the outcomes of [their lives].”

I am doing my part. In the past week, I’ve had a friend striking power poses in the stream, another in the blueberry patch and a third before a speech she had to give. Next time you spy me standing like Wonder Woman, you’ll know why.

The girls of Sleepy Hollow

I wasn’t afraid of spiders as a little girl, but my older sister loathed them. They terrified her. So “spider patrol” was my charge when we went away to camp in the summer. I was responsible for checking every musty nook and cobwebby cranny in the cabin for errant hairy beasts or cowering fragile daddy longlegs. My sister would scan the scary zones with her flashlight—like a floodlight on Rikers Island—and I would go investigate and neutralize the enemy. It was only after this nighttime rite that she felt secure enough to end her search and sleep.

We sold Thin Mints and Samoas to rack up points to reduce the cost of our week at camp.  (Okay, really, my dad would bring the order form to his office, and his fellow Ma Bell employees would happily sign up for a stash of these delightful calorie bombs.)  In the 1970s you couldn’t go online like you can today and “Meet the Cookies” at the official Girl Scout Website. Now there’s a “Girl Scout Cookie Finder App”, and enterprising scouts in San Francisco sell hundreds of boxes in just a few hours in front of medical marijuana dispensaries. But when we sold our cookies, there was genuine pent up demand bred from the deadly combination of scarcity and craving. The cycle of shortage and supply meant that we could help fund our sleep-away camp experience.

Back when we had a middle class—and working class wages that could actually support a family—my sister and I attended camp with a really diverse set of kids. Of course, I didn’t think of it as “diverse” at the time. But I did have an awareness that many of the girls at my upstate NY scout camp were from parts of Albany, Schenectady and Troy that I’d never visited.  Our modest neighborhood of shoebox houses and postage stamp lawns was entirely populated by Caucasians. Not so my camp neighbors and bunkmates. The patter and banter that accompanied the unpacking of duffle bags and the arranging of bedrolls revealed so much about where we’d all come from.  Moments of disconnection or miscommunication, although certainly sometimes awkward, almost always receded as we dove into some camp challenge together.

One summer evening a skunk wandered into our platform tent in search of the fudge someone had hidden in her trunk. She’d ignored the counselor’s repeated warnings about animals smelling sweets in our belongings. We couldn’t really be angry; we’d all made the same risky calculation. And now the bill was coming due. As we held our breath and tracked its path around our cots, we exhorted the most daring among us to sneak out and go wake a counselor. We all waited eagerly for the sage advice from our fearless (and as it turns out, feckless) leaders. “What did she say?” we cried. “Um. She said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ and ‘Don’t startle it or it will spray.’” We groaned and then resigned ourselves to settling in while the jubilant skunk hit the jackpot and grazed on sweets until fully satiated.  It was a long night. That skunk was in no hurry.

Skunks and spiders aside, numerous studies have shown that quality camp programs offer children an emotional and psychological boost. According to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, children who attended even one week of day camp or sleep away camp experienced an increase in self-esteem, independence, sense of adventure, and leadership. They also improved their friendship skills and peer relationships. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and one of the study’s authors, explains that the benefits of camp are still felt by children and parents months after camp ends and increase as kids integrate new camp skills into their school environments.

Another study led by Stanford University psychologist Paul O’Keefe published in 2012 in the journal Motivation and Emotion concurs: Improvements in attitude and motivation remain long after the summer program ends. O’Keefe and his team tracked a group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders during and after a summer enrichment program. They discovered that youth who participated in summer enrichment programs demonstrated a greater “mastery orientation” which has been linked to increased levels of motivation and engagement. These teens exhibited less “performance orientation”, which has been tied to increased anxiety and diminished resilience when experiencing failure. They were less likely to agree with statements such as “One of my goals is to show others that I am good at…” And they were more likely to concur that “It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new ideas.”

Of course, not all children get to attend camp or summer programs. The cost prevents so many parents from sending their children to camp, which is why we are so lucky to have such a variety of affordable summer camp programs available in our area. We have farm camps, nature camps, science camps, music camps and drama camps. Nearly all have scholarships. The Brattleboro Rec Center also puts together an impressive selection of quality, reasonably priced programs for area families. These are not just safe, fun places for children to be in the summer while working families scramble for childcare. These programs provide healthy environments for risk taking, exploration and self-discovery.

My camp experiences as a child shaped my sense of self to such an extent that for years I worked at camps in between academic years. As a camp director in Plymouth, VT I was often called upon to deal with spiders, bats and mice. By then “spider patrol” was just who I was. Thanks, sis.


The $500,000 seat

While millions have been gripped by World Cup soccer mania—and rightly so—another team sport is losing one of its very best. New York Philharmonic concert master Glenn Dicterow retired several weeks ago after 6,033 performances and 34 years as concert master—the longest tenure in the New York Philharmonic’s 172 years. Although not nearly as well-known as the conductors he sat near, Dicterow certainly contributed to the success of such legends as Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. Concertgoers, both experienced and novice, see and hear the ritual of the concert master tuning up the orchestra, but most don’t comprehend the careful leadership involved in getting a huge unwieldy team—from piccolos to bassoons—to work as one. By all accounts, Dicterow was a supremely skillful and effective leader.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the philharmonic’s principal cellist Carter Bray explains that Dicterow excelled in an aspect of the job that is critical for the orchestra: He could translate between the conductor and the section players.  Says Bray, “Glenn is so good at that because he’s such a superb instrumentalist that he can command the respect of the highly gifted and opinionated players in the section.” Dicterow himself likens his role to that of a team captain: “[It’s] not just making decisions, but getting everybody on the same page and getting along, so we can be constructive and productive.”

Alan Gilbert, the philharmonic’s current music director told the New York Times that Dicterow had played a significant role in shaping the orchestra’s sound; replacing him would be very difficult.  Gilbert described his predicament: “The concertmaster is the single most important person in terms of being able to guide the flow of the music, and affecting the sound of the entire orchestra.” He then stressed that Mr. Dicterow is “unusually brilliant” at understanding and translating the wishes of conductors.

Dicterow understands that an orchestra’s inner tensions or any frustration at a conductor gets in the way of creating luscious sound. He explains, “[L]et’s say we have a guest conductor who, basically, rubs people the wrong way — it’s my job to make peace. Everybody needs to get along to make gorgeous music. That’s the bottom line.” He views himself as an on-the-spot problem solver and a principal who leads by example. His upbeat energy and tone help inspire the dynamism of the whole orchestra.

Lisa Kim, a former student who now plays for the NY Philharmonic, agrees. “The positive energy that he has really affects the whole orchestra onstage,” she says. Kim—who is now associate principal second violin—told Jeff Lunden of NPR recently that Dicterow taught her much more than musical lessons over the years.  She reflected, “[I] didn’t really realize it at that time; I mean, you play well and that’s fine… But it’s more than that.”  Music director Gilbert concurs: “Glenn Dicterow is the quintessential concertmaster. The concertmaster more than any other individual musician in an orchestra can really affect not just the sound, but the whole attitude, the whole approach to music. And I don’t think you’ll ever hear anyone say a bad word about Glenn; he’s loved by all his colleagues.”

Many in the field consider Glenn Dicterow so talented that he has achieved the status of a legend. But Gilbert reminds us that although anyone coming into the concertmaster position at the NY Philharmonic will have big shoes to fill, talented concertmasters evolve with experience. “When he started, he wasn’t [a legend],” said Mr. Gilbert. “So we’re not looking for another Glenn Dicterow, because there’s not another Glenn Dicterow.”

Whether it’s a top tier orchestra, a nonprofit organization or an elite soccer team, all groups who wish to thrive need an effective concertmaster—someone in the trenches each day setting the tone, leading by example and doing the hard work of perfecting their mastery.

Clearly soccer fans and commentators will continue their cacophony as they scrutinize Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany for years to come. But although the details are important, there’s no denying that Brazil lacked a concertmaster on the field that night. With star players Neymar and Thiago Silva both out of the game, Ken Early of Slate argues that “[r]ather than make a real plan, [Brazil] abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion, desire, and native cunning.” Early concludes: “A fevered dream isn’t enough. You need a vision.”

Some Brazilian soccer fanatics prefer to blame aging rocker Mick Jagger for their crushing loss. According to Jason Burt of The Telegraph, they have dubbed him “pe frio” (“cold foot”); they think Jagger carries a dastardly jinx with him. Supposedly, any team Jagger roots for in the World Cup loses.  Jagger was in the stands with his 15-year-old son, Lucas, at the Brazil/Germany debacle cheering for his ex-girlfriend’s home team.

There’s something so tantalizing about the “Pe Frio” theory—has Jagger made a pact with the devil that allows him to strut and shimmy at the age of 70?—but I am more inclined to think that the Brazilian national soccer team should find and cultivate soccer’s version of a Glenn Dicterow. And although this critical player would fetch upwards of 8 million Euros (which makes Dicterow’s salary of half a million dollars look like a bargain), Brazilian soccer fans will see it as money well spent if it will head off another mortifying defeat and get their beloved footballers to play more beautiful music together.



Neither accusation nor confession

Whether teaching middle school, high school or college, whatever the setting, it is difficult to explain the real reasons for the massive bloodshed in “The Great War”. Textbooks and essays about World War I reference the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria—heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary—by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. But when Princip shot both Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the reaction back in Austria was actually a far cry from outrage. The esteemed Czech-born historian Zbyněk Zeman asserts that nobody in Vienna seemed to care, and the next day crowds were seen listening to music and sipping wine as if nothing of any importance had happened.

In Sarajevo, by stark contrast, Austrian authorities encouraged mob violence against the Serbs and many Serbian residents were attacked and imprisoned. Estimates of how many Serbs died in custody range from 700-2200. Austria-Hungary authorities, certainly viewing this crisis as an opportunity to end Serbian influence in Bosnia, delivered the “July Ultimatum” that most historians agree was intentionally made unacceptable in order to provoke war. So, in essence, the assassination was used as an excuse for imperialism and, in the words of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, “for settling accounts with Serbia.” No humanitarian narrative here—just a turf battle inflamed by the desire to settle old scores among the players on the European continent: a Sharks and Jets knife fight so large that it killed 9 million combatants.

How to teach about World War I, its bottomless misery, and its monstrous impact on Europe in a way most of us can understand?  I wish I’d had Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” series at my disposal when I taught about the war.  The books are classified as a “mystery series”, but although I do enjoy a good mystery, Winspear’s books are more like the best historical fiction. I reread them constantly.  Maisie Dobbs, a female “psychologist and investigator” is complex and compelling.  Her experiences during the war as a nurse, and afterwards as a physically and emotionally scarred civilian, enhance and expand my understanding of World War I and the psychological and political landscape of Europe between the world wars.

The first book, “Maisie Dobbs”, was published a little over a decade ago.  Maisie Dobbs, daughter of a London costermonger, is put out to a life in service after her mother dies and her father painfully concludes he cannot raise her properly alone. Maisie becomes a maid in a grand house and sneaks into the library late at night to read her employers’ books. Equal parts scrappy and precocious, Maisie has become one of my favorite fictional characters.

Dobbs has a gift for sensing things that elude others, but her abilities do not place her in the realm of science fiction or the supernatural. She is extraordinarily aware of subtleties, but her sensibility is the perfect antidote for a time when thousands of British soldiers and returning nurses were asked by their country to carry on and forget the suffering. They were to be numb to all the horror and inexplicable memories of the multitudes lost over meaningless patches of earth.

Winspear’s series addresses the many lasting scars of the war: the grief from countless, truly needless deaths and the anguish of soldiers returning home with such mutilated features that they literally have lost their faces, their very identity. They carry on, despite their hideous scars, believing that the Great War will surely be the end of such impulsive, cavalier ghastliness, only to discover that in their own lifetimes the poppy-covered battlefields of Europe would once again cradle the dead and dying.

And five generations later, are we any better? As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I Jacqueline Winspear  is publishing a new novel set during the war, “The Care and Management of Lies.” We shake our heads at our Veterans Affairs Hospital scandal. Tens of thousands of veterans languish on waiting lists, and VA administrators create fictitious records to hide the long wait times for our injured soldiers.  According to Washington Post reporter Katie Zezima, “A tide of disability claims from soldiers who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan has inundated the VA.” Because of medical advances, soldiers now survive injures that would have killed them in previous wars: 52,000 U.S soldiers injured in “The War on Terror” have returned home. They are entitled to more than patriotic flag displays on the 4th of July. They should be given the greatest, most advanced care a grateful nation can provide.

German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque starts his acclaimed, brooding novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”—a book banned by the Nazis as unpatriotic—with a curious explanation: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” continues this critical work for the Great Generation, the Gen Xers and the Millennials.  She translates that time for us, highlighting the perils of our own.

I will be reading Winspear’s latest this summer and re-reading her essay “Skylarks above No Man’s Land” about walking the war’s battlefields, cemeteries and memorials. Her own grandfather was severely wounded during the Battle of Somme in 1916—an extended campaign that resulted in 1,200,000 casualties.  Her books honor his true sacrifice. But they also serve as an invaluable guide helping us decipher a difficult historical period while forcing us to reflect on how we still let our veterans down.



Poor judgment

In the popular sassy sitcom of the late 1990s, Sex and the City, one character asks another, “Do I judge?” The other responds, referring to their group of friends, “We all judge. That’s our hobby. Some people do arts and crafts; we judge.” It’s a perfect TV quip—funny, affected, and short. We are in on the joke; we all know people like this. We have a moment of moral superiority and then move on to the next one-liner. But really, we all sit in judgment. Constantly. We are hardwired to judge, discern, and sort. But we often make quick decisions that are wholly erroneous or half-baked.

When Brokeback Mountain—the highly-acclaimed but controversial Ang Lee film adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story—was released in 2005, I was in Wyoming and saw the movie in a theater just a few hours from where the story was set. Amid much fanfare and trepidation—Would there be protests?—I bought my ticket and settled in to the packed theater. Shortly before the house lights dimmed, an elderly man—a dead ringer for Vermont’s beloved Fred Tuttle—took the seat immediately to my left. I glanced at him, and he nodded his head while touching his John Deere cap in a sign of greeting.

My brain raced: Is he in the wrong movie? Did he wander in by mistake? Is he here to mount a protest? Is he going to disrupt the film? I sat, nervous, pondering his motivations. Before long I was completely engrossed in the spectacular landscape and the heartrending story of two male sheep herders who unexpectedly fall in love in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains in the 1960s.

As the credits rolled, I sat—like so many in the audience—deep in thought and dabbing tears with my already damp sleeve. Heath Ledger’s stunning turn as the troubled Ennis Del Mar was so spot-on, so haunting, that my heart was utterly saturated with compassion. Later, Australian poet and writer Luke Davies would refer to Ledger’s brilliance in portraying a character “so fundamentally shut down that he is like a bible of unrequited desires, stifled yearnings, lost potential”. Davies asserts that Ledger’s character is trapped in “a world so masculine it might destroy you for any aberration.” I had never been so moved by a character in a movie; I sat for long minutes aching for all the men and women haunted by discontent.

The house lights came up. I had completely forgotten about the Fred Tuttle doppelganger to my left. He, too, sat in silence. He turned to me and said, almost in a whisper, “That was real sad. Real sad.” Like the laconic character we’d watched suffering on the screen, this old and weathered man could say no more. He rose slowly, nodded his head to me again and shuffled away.

I was dumbstruck. I could feel every synapse in my frontal lobe short circuit as I struggled to integrate new information about this stranger. I had assumed that he could not possibly relate to this film or the struggles of the main characters. My simple, rigid story about him was deeply flawed, and I was now forced to rethink my accounting. We all make these unfounded judgments in milliseconds throughout each day.

Princeton professor of psychology Alex Todorov and student researcher Janine Willis tested conventional wisdom about snap judgments and found that we size up a person’s likeability and competence in a mere glance. Todorov explains, “We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many traits we feel are important…even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.”

Todorov and Willis used timed experiments and determined that we judge people within milliseconds of seeing them. When given more time, but with no further information about a person, we merely solidify our own snap judgments and become more confident in our first impressions about a person’s likeability and competence.

Amy Cuddy, professor of social psychology at Harvard University, explains, “Within less than a second, using facial features, people make what are called ‘spontaneous trait inferences.’” Our brains do not allow enough time for any weighing of evidence or searching for shades of meaning. But nevertheless our quick judgments are immediately followed by a drive to categorize. Our two main categories for people we first meet? Warmth and competence. These two categories account for 80% of our overall evaluations of people.

Upon meeting someone, we size up their warmth first: Will this person do me harm? We want other people to be warm, but interestingly, Cuddy points out, we want others to perceive us as more competent than warm. “We’d rather have people respect us than like us.” But Cuddy believes this is misguided: “Social connections will take you farther than respect.”

In thinking about that interaction with the elderly stranger in a cinema all those years ago, I realized that I was wholly prepared for a negative exchange because of how he looked. But my millisecond judgments were all wrong.  We must give people room to pleasantly surprise us.


Stories as scaffolding

We tell a story in my family about when my siblings and I started to finish the sentences of  docents at historic sites throughout the Northeast. By the time we were all in elementary school, we could recite many a spiel given by eager interpreters of colonial objects and lifestyles of Early America’s rich and famous. At one site—perhaps famed Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler’s home in Albany, NY—our chipper guide made the stale joke about the metal bed warmer perhaps being a colonial popcorn maker. My sister first displayed her jaundiced eye and then launched her deadpan unequivocal response: “Nope. It’s a bed warmer.” Looking back, I imagine that poor museum worker—dressed in period costume no doubt and feeling decidedly vulnerable in her silly dust cap—sizing up my family and thinking, “Who are these people?”

While other families took vacations to the beach or Disneyland, my family only ventured to holiday “destinations” at which we could “learn something”.  After visiting colonial English and Dutch homes of prominent individuals all along the Eastern Seaboard, we branched out to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and monuments, then to important whaling and fishing communities, all the while stopping at each and every historic marker and statue along the way. Although my parents claim I suffered from terrible motion sickness in the car, I think that most of the problem was the constant stopping and starting as we sought to edify ourselves at each roadside notice of important local events: “James Fenimore Cooper may have stayed at an inn that possibly once stood on this spot. It is believed that he might have penned a few pages of his Leatherstocking Tales here.”

Although we vigorously advocated for more “normal” getaways involving sand, sun and amusement parks, there’s no denying that these educational jaunts provided us with a lot of great comic material and undoubtedly shaped our interests and our sense of aesthetics.

Bestselling author and NY Times columnist Bruce Feiler asserts that these experiences and family stories also provided me and my siblings with tools that made us more resilient. Feiler’s curiosity about what makes some children more equipped to overcome adversity than others led him to research by psychologist Marshall Duke at Emory University. Duke’s work indicated that one key to strengthening families is to help your children develop a strong family narrative.

Duke’s wife, Sara—a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities—noticed an interesting phenomenon in her practice. She explains, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”  Intrigued by Sara’s hypothesis, Duke teamed up with fellow Emory psychology professor Robyn Fivush to test it out. Eventually, Fivush and Duke developed a simple measure to determine a child’s sense of family. They called the 20 question scale the “Do You Know?” quiz. Children were asked an assortment of questions about their families and their own personal histories: Do you know your birth story? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know of an illness or something really bad that happened to your family?

In the summer of 2001, when they interviewed families about these questions and then compared the children’s answers to their results from a battery of psychological tests, the correlation was astonishing: Children who knew more about their own personal history and their family’s narrative had a much stronger sense of control over their lives and had higher self-esteem.

Their theory was unexpectedly further tested following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Fivush and Duke went back to the same families and re-interviewed the children in the midst of this national trauma. “Once again,” Duke explains, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.” These children have an understanding of their family’s “unifying narrative” and this provides them with what Duke and Fivush refer to as “an intergenerational self”—a strong sense that they are part of something larger than themselves.

Although constructing a strong family narrative with your children is crucial, the type of storyline you create is also important. Some families have an ascending family story: We used to be so poor but now we have made it. Others’ have a descending one: Your great grandfather made a lot of money selling real estate. But then he lost it all. We’ve struggled ever since. But the narrative that best creates a sense of family resilience and spirit is one that fluidly fluctuates between the two: We’ve had our ups and downs, good times and bad times, but through it all we support each other.

Like my own family’s outings to view an endless string of early American bed warmers, hokey family trips and traditions seem to be some of the inexplicable glue that binds kin together. The amusing anecdotes about my siblings correcting the museum guides become much more than droll recollections: They themselves became part of our family and further enhanced our family’s identity as a unit that is able to overcome adversity.

I’m still unpacking from last week’s trip to Mystic Seaport where we dragged the kids to see interpreters hauling up the yard on an 1880s three-masted square rigged ship as salty sea chanteys rang out across the water. No doubt my own kids will soon develop practiced eye-rolling as eager docents interrogate them about rigging, bowsprits and capstans. I imagine I will smile when that happens, knowing that together we’ve created memories that fastened us tight together like the hundreds of strands that make up the sturdy bowline.



Lessons from a pre-Columbian phone

It looks like one of those string and paper cup phones—the kind you might have made after watching a “ZOOM” episode on public television circa 1975—except that it’s over 1200 years old. The receivers are made of gourds coated with resin and stretched animal hide, and the 75 foot long cord is fashioned from twined cotton.  Writer and historian Neil Baldwin calls it “a marvel of acoustic engineering” that arose out of the Chimú Empire at its height.  He explains that the “dazzlingly innovative” Chimú culture, centered in the Rio Moche Valley in Northern Peru, was conquered and subjugated by the Incas around 1470, several decades before the Columbian Exchange radically hastened the flow of ideas between East and West. It is the only example of this kind of phone ever discovered in this part of the world from this time period.

Anthropologists guess that it was made only for elites in the rigidly hierarchal Chimú society. Ramiro Matos, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian who specializes in cultures of the central Andes, speculates that the phone may have been made for executive level communication between a lower level assistant and someone of superior status. But, honestly, we’ll probably never know why it was invented. The importance for me, as someone who earned one of my master’s degrees in Native American history, is that it demonstrates ingenuity and inventiveness—qualities we often deny to indigenous peoples.

Culturally, politically and emotionally we imagine native peoples in a sort of suspended animation—unchanged by the exchange of ideas between societies and individual people. We often think of them as stuck in time—not allowed to adapt new technology to their purposes or adopt and refashion others’ ideas and traditions. Like any human beings the world over, native cultures are—and have always been—resourceful, imaginative and practical. It is unfortunate and so very limiting to our idea of human ingenuity when we insist that native groups stay “museum quality”, as if they themselves were artifacts.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. While in graduate school, a professor told me of a fascinating documentary another grad student made about German attendees at Native American pow wows. In the film, the tourists approached native people to critique their style of dress and complain that it wasn’t “authentic” enough. In one exchange, a German man insists that a Native American man’s ceremonial clothing is not genuine because it is a mixture of old and new styles. He felt entitled to define true “Indian-ness” and tell this man he fell short.

Once I traveled up to the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming—an ancient sacred site to native peoples throughout the Big Horn basin. On that day, a group of local Native American women gathered for a religious ceremony. Although it is classified as a National Historic Landmark and managed by the park service, when Native Americans wish to use the sacred space, the site is temporarily closed to tourists.  We waited about an hour before we were allowed to hike up to the holy site on the edge of a magnificent vista. Later, describing to a Caucasian acquaintance our experience at the Medicine Wheel, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it cool that we still have real Indians out here? Not like back East where there are none.”

It was a remarkable comment for so many reasons. First, glaringly, there was the “we” she used that implied ownership of an entire people. There was also that unmistakable tone of pride that “their” Indians were somehow more legitimate because many still lived on reservations and had not intermarried with non-Indians to the extent of the Eastern tribes. I pointed out that Eastern tribes still very much exist—despite four hundred years spent in survival mode. Following the Pequot War that ended in 1638—a war in which hundreds of Pequots were burned alive by the English and many of the survivors were sold into slavery by their English and Native American enemies—their tribal name itself was made illegal. For many Eastern groups, survival meant going underground.

But even when survival is not immediately at stake, all people must be afforded the right to adapt and transform aspects of modernity. Prize-winning writer and historian Philip Deloria—son of renowned Dakota writer, scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr.—has written several influential texts about the persistent attempts of non-Native people to dictate what is true and valid “Indian-ness”. His 2004 monograph, “Indians in Unexpected Places”, challenges stereotypes of Native American people which restrict them to an unchanging past in which they are not allowed to adapt and repurpose modernity to their needs.

In one section of the book, “Expectation and Anomaly”, Deloria deconstructs one of his favorite photographs from the 1940s. In it a native woman in traditional buckskin beaded dress sits under a large salon hairdryer while she receives a manicure. Deloria asserts that the reason why so many people still chuckle at this image is because we believe subconsciously that “Indians live in the hinterlands, strangers to the urbanity of the manicure. They practice barter or gift economies and are, thus, unprepared for the cash exchange of the beauty parlor.” When we laugh at such images and label them as “anomalies”, it is because it is easier to imagine them as exceptions rather than as an absolutely normal aspect of Native American culture—indeed, all culture. We all dabble, adapt, transmute, and borrow. And in the process, we neither automatically lose our identities nor our histories.

Someday we may discover more clues as to the inventor of the ancient cup phone. But for now I am grateful for both the reminder about the elemental drive to innovate and for the opportunity to imagine the cultural exchange and personal ingenuity that led to the clever invention.



Growth rings

Ailanthus trees, although native to China and Taiwan, are successful transplants to New York City and many parts of New England. Known as the “tree of heaven” in Asia—where it is used medicinally—the ailanthus is extremely adaptable and persistent. Do a Google search for images of these trees in the Big Apple, and you will see them growing in otherwise barren vacant lots, in the cracks in asphalt and cement, on the ledges of buildings, and even in subway grates in Manhattan and the other  boroughs.  They require very little tending to survive and tolerate significant pollution. They make their place wherever it suits them.

We should not expect children to be so astonishingly resilient, but we do. We believe any child from any background, in the midst of trauma and emotional setbacks or absent parents—or worse an abusive situation—will thrive once they put down roots in elementary school.  Instead, children who start kindergarten behind, usually stay behind. This is why early childhood education is vital, not just for children, but for our society as a whole. Preschool starts children on a path towards celebrating graduation instead of languishing in a prison cell.

The National Adult Literacy Survey indicates that children who have not yet developed rudimentary literacy skills before entering kindergarten are 3-4 times more likely to drop out of school  later. There are disastrous consequences when students do not become fully literate.  According to the Washington Literacy Council, 75% of those on welfare and the vast majority of unwed mothers have low literacy skills. Being functionally illiterate greatly reduces one’s choices in life. So it is heroic when some educators dedicate their lives to setting our youngest students on the right path—even though they choose a career that is persistently underpaid.

Last week, as our talented Chief Wrinn announced his retirement from the Brattleboro Police Department after 28 years on the force, another longtime community member—also fighting the good fight—retired after 22 years. Kim Jillson, at Brattleboro Nursery School, has nurtured and taught hundreds of area children and prepared them for life’s travails and triumphs.

Jillson’s vocation has a clear impact on the work of police officers like Chief Wrinn. When students receive quality preschool education, it sets them up to be more successful in school. Successful students are less likely to be arrested and incarcerated later in life. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate, and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. A defense lawyer I know once confided in me that almost every juvenile offender he ever represented had had reading problems.

After 22 years teaching, Jillson tells many stories about her work at Brattleboro Nursery School, but what has consistently brought her the most delight is witnessing a child learn a new skill. She told me, “When a child learns something new, such as writing their name, making a new friend or finishing a hard puzzle, I can see the joy in their eyes and their whole body.”  It is even more rewarding to know that the child is excited to tell her family that she can do something by herself. The work of the early educator is about setting a course for future success by cementing and celebrating the important little victories each day. These teachers foster and honor a child’s sense of self and a sense of place in the vast world. We are so lucky to have women (and, yes, a few men) who are willing to take on this difficult, critical work.

Over her two decades at Brattleboro Nursery School, Jillson told me, she felt supported by parents and board members at the school; they seem to understand and appreciate her work. But she has also been told more than once by those not connected with the school, “All you do is play all day with little kids. That isn’t a job. Anyone can do that.”

Oh, my, what a statement! Clearly they’ve never spent an entire morning with my two opinionated Huns. I honestly can’t imagine teaching an entire class of preschoolers each day for hours. I used to come into my son’s preschool to teach music just once a week for half an hour. This 30 minute slot just about killed me each week. I am a veteran teacher, undaunted by surly, quirky middle-schoolers. And I really enjoyed it. But having a room full of tiny Napoleons all talking unintelligibly at once and singing off key and looking at me like “glazed donuts” as my brother-in-law calls them (because of the constant glaze of mucus under, around and on their noses), well, let’s just admit I was always squarely in my discomfort zone.

I saw Chief Wrinn the other night at Gallery Walk and we exchanged pleasantries as I thanked him for his service. We’d given him a rightly deserved standing ovation at Town Meeting the other night and I felt glad that our citizens are willing to offer effusively thanks in this way. I only wish our childhood educators received the same hero’s send off.

For these preschool teachers are the ailanthus trees for our children. Each year they make a home with a new batch of children. Whatever the children offer them, they make a home for it: Trauma, hardship, joyful victories and willfulness. They see what they are given to work with and they put down roots. Always.

Al and Rita

Watching a clip of Maya Angelou reading her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I was struck by how well I remembered it— not just its beautiful, startling turns of phrase, but also her intonation, posture and delivery. She rules the dais. Behind her, throngs of white dignitaries—including a baby-faced Clinton and the eternally earnest Gore—listen, enthralled.

Without compunction her robust yet clipped voice begins: “A Rock, A River, A Tree/Hosts to species long since departed…” While I contemplate her injection of the mighty mastodon into an inaugural address, she has already cut the prehistoric emperors down to size: “The dinoasaur, who left dry tokens of their sojourn here on our planet floor…” She stands before the most powerful people of the most influential nation on earth (It was the roaring ‘90s after all!), and reminds them that we will all one day be but dust and dung.

What a remarkable woman.

Although accused of solipsism—and much worse—by bloggers and writers at the conservative National Review, she had a genuine fan in Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState. In his remembrance of her and her work— “The Caged Bird Sang to Me”—Erickson unabashedly proclaims, “I loved her mind and I loved her voice.” He writes of his frustration with some of his colleagues on the right “who think nice things cannot be said of people on the other side of the aisle.” Erickson, like so many readers worldwide, enjoyed the rhythmic quality of Angelou’s work and its ability to connect him “to others, other times, and issues”.  Despite a life lived within Jim Crow brutality and merciless misogyny, Angelou thrived because of her stark honesty. But, Erickson points out, she did not write with bitterness or discontent.

Angelou died a celebrated writer and poet, but her interests were many and her moments of languor few. She worked as a fry cook, cable car conductor, actor, producer, activist, educator and nightclub performer. In the 1950s she teamed up with dance great Alvin Ailey (another deeply expressive soul), to   perform a modern dance nightclub act called “Al and Rita.” (Born “Marguerite Johnson” she later took her childhood nickname name Maya.)

Like Maya Angelou, Alvin Ailey—the brilliant modern dancer and choreographer—well understood the liberation that art offers. His renowned dance company was dubbed “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because it seemed to perform everywhere across the globe. Ailey harnessed his prodigious talent and ambition to express complex, painful –but ultimately redemptive—stories of the African American experience.  His company’s signature piece “Revelations” is considered both a dance masterpiece and a tour de force of African American storytelling.

The physicality of the dancers—their strength and beauty—are absolutely stirring. Ailey brilliantly folds together classical and modern styles to vigorously, singularly, convey the astonishing ability of all of us to endure.  The dancers’ leaping—all at once, upward, outward and inward—brought to mind a tender fragment of a celebrated Angelou poem: “You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust/I’ll rise.” And in that rising, she implies, we do not just survive; we persist and thrive.

Thomas DeFrantz—professor of African and African American studies at Duke University—and Jennifer Dunning—writer and critic for the New York Times—have both written on Ailey’s eclectic and electric dance style. Ailey combined vividly expressive upper body movements, a “modern top”, with striking “unbroken” leg lines, a “ballet bottom”, in all his dance pieces.

Ailey’s exceptional ability to play with form and style in the dance world, and Angelou’s willingness to re-invent biography make them creative kin. Ailey was unusual in the dance world because he did not insist that his dancers be trained in a particular technique before performing his choreography. He wanted them to fully infuse themselves into his pieces. In this way, some have likened him more to a conductor of a jazz ensemble than to a stern task master. He valued his dancers’ interpretations of his ideas and felt this was a critical part of his artistry.

Angelou did not originally set out to change the parameters of autobiography, but did so essentially on a dare from Robert Loomis, who would become her editor at Random House.  Loomis asked her to write her autobiography. When she balked, he told her that was just as well because it was “almost impossible” to write autobiography as literature. Her response? “I’ll start tomorrow.” Margalit Fox, writing for the New York Times, asserts that Angelou ably responded to the challenge. Her “prose style included a directness of voice that recalls African-American oral tradition and gives her work the quality of testimony.”

Her agony, rooted in America’s South, is neither bound nor defined by it. She sees herself connected to a human experience that includes “You, the Turk, the Swede… Ashanti, the Yoruba…Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” But she furiously urges us: “Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness…Here on the pulse of this new day…say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.” It is a classic Angelou revelation: our discontent, our disappointment could propagate like so much kudzu in fertile, inviting soil. Or we can choose to acknowledge the grime—almost honor it—and then dance with it. By finding its rhythm we subdue its power, and find the audacity to carry on.

I am certain that these two 20th century icons are dancing together in some earthy cabaret in the hereafter.