The other side?

Since I wrote and published Half-Assed, a mild case of concern has set in. Was I fair? Did I see it from the other side? What have I missed? One known cognitive bias is that we tend to rate experiences not on their overall happiness, but on their peak intensities (good or bad) and on how they end. And that relationship surely had a painful and unpleasant end, which certainly has colored my view of all of it.[1]

Another aspect of my thinking is from watching the video at the Representation Project, about judging men and their maleness. Men are supposed to be the fixers in the relationship, and they are supposed to do a good job of it. When one fails to do so, whether through sloppiness or lack of knowledge, we are (meaning I am) quick to judge.

What if he opened up the electric plug, and understood generally how it worked, but couldn’t quickly come up with a way to shorten the wires and strip the plastic coating? He could have asked — I would have had a suggestion — but men aren’t supposed to ask. There are numerous “How to Repair It” books around the house, all of which I purchased.

What if his access to the resources was reduced, not really knowing the books were there, since those were mine and not his. Unable to ask, because guys don’t ask. Not conscientious enough to really care about doing it right. “I put it back together, and it works, even though it is ugly and doesn’t look right. Good enough. And I don’t really like this vacuum anyhow, partially because I didn’t pick it out and partially because I just don’t like vacuuming (who does?), so maybe we should get a new one.”

I have an advantage of sorts in that I’m a female. I’m not supposed to know how to fix things. I know I can generally learn from a set of instructions, and so I provided myself with sets of instructions. I’m conscientious, which you might call anal-retentive if you are mad at me. If I am going to do a job, and I can do it right, I get stubborn and I will do it right. I’m experienced. I’ve been living alone and I’ve owned a house for over a decade. If something breaks, I’m the first line of defense for fixing it. I might not have started out as confident or competent, but it grows.

And as for the rest, it is one thing to have an attitude or opinion of really valuing communication in a relationship, but it is another thing to know how to do it. How would you learn when your parents never do such a thing? When your previous girlfriend made it impossible to do such a thing? How would you know how to deal with someone who tells you up-front what she needs and wants? Would that be a good thing or a threat? Maybe someone more confident would have been able to make more of it. But maybe this just wasn’t him. Not even when I was the one who was putting forth the effort and trying.

It’s that thing about responsibility. You can’t ever really give someone responsibility. The other person has to take it. You can give all you want, but if the other person doesn’t take, it doesn’t matter.

“What else could I have done,” is the question I am always asking myself. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think I ever will. A relationship, a good relationship, requires two capable, responsible, willing, and invested partners. I am not sure I had that. I am pretty sure of my own investment, even though there were times I had a hard time holding it together. I know what I was willing to do. The one thing I saw clearly at the end was that if it was going to get better, he had to make the move, to make the commitment toward that happening. It wasn’t there. I think it had been missing in all the earlier conversations we’d had. Maybe it wasn’t neglect. Maybe it wasn’t not caring. Maybe it was just not knowing how or not being confident enough to try.

But once again, here we are. There it is. It is my job to make peace with this. I hope that I am; I hope you can see I am trying; one slow step at a time.

1. For more information on this, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. For a discussion on experienced vs. remembered well-being see page 4 of this NYTimes article for a discussion on duration-neglect and the peak-end rule.


I fixed the plug on the vacuum today. It’s been broken for a while, and I know who last fixed it. I think I remember an “oh, this is so hard, we may need to get a new one,” at the time.

Let’s just say that repair was half-assed. Which means, I took a look at it when I went to fix it and I thought, “Seriously, this is the best you could do? It would have taken 5 more minutes to do a quality job here, and you couldn’t bother?”

The cord was pulling out of the plug. You could see the insulation exposed. This wasn’t actually harmful, but to my mind, annoying.

How do you fix such a thing? Since the plug had already been replaced once by a professional — before the repair mentioned above — I had to remove two screws on the plug, taking it apart. Inside I found the electrical cable, stripped, with a white and a black plastic coated copper wire exposed with some fiberglass or similar insulation. What needs to be done? Loosen two more screws, removing the wire from the plug. Shorten the white and black wire sufficiently so that the cord is snug in the plug. Remove the outer plastic coating, exposing the copper inner wire. Screw this back in to the plug, making sure we get white on the correct side and black on the correct side. Screw the plug back together. Voila, done. It took about 10-15 minutes.

The repair represents that relationship for me. Half-assed. I know my patience and pleasant personality were getting burned off at the end, but sometimes it just strikes me as I look back at all the big and little things that got neglected. I don’t think I am easily in a half-in/half-out state in a relationship. If I am in it, I am in it. I give my heart, and I do my best to fix things. I get stumped sometimes, if talking isn’t helping. I brought up the problems, but even I had to disconnect after a while of non-response.

“What the hell were you doing?” I want to shout. Nothing? Expecting me to figure out how to make you happy and to do all the work to make it so?

And should I be surprised at the ending? After all, it’s easier to go buy a new vacuum than to spend 15 quality minutes fixing the electric plug. Except that, actually, it is easier and faster to spend 15 quality minutes fixing the electric plug.

I remember the beginning too, the connection, and connection is rare. To think it perished to a half-assed general lack of effort. That just makes me angry. But there it is.


I screwed up today. Dad had an appointment for a blood draw at 1 pm, and I didn’t show to visit him until 12:30. My sister was there to take him to his appointment, and I barely got to say hello before I had to say goodbye.

Relations are tense with my sister; we don’t communicate. She had it marked on the calendar in his room, but Dad and I haven’t visited in his room yet this trip. I didn’t see it. I have a cold. I slept in today and headed here later than I might have.

It’s not her fault. It’s not my fault. It certainly isn’t Dad’s fault, but there it is.

Now I have the option to cool my heels for another hour and a half or so and return to see him, hoping he is alert and awake then, or to declare I did what I could today. Neither one feels great. As I so often tell my students struggling with life decisions, “There is no right answer. There is no wrong answer. You have to do your best and decide.”

Today is my last day here. I can’t come back tomorrow; my flight leaves at 8 am. We did have a good visit yesterday. I was there for 2 hours. Part of the time we were watching a holiday performance at the nursing home. Yesterday he told me that he would drive down to Texas to visit me next Christmas. He likes the warmer weather. I suggested we should take a side trip to the Grand Canyon. Of course, I’d have to do more of the driving for that. He wanted to know where we were going to dinner, and I named one of his favorite restaurants in the area. He gave me a hard time about my abused fingernails. It was bittersweet.

So much of visiting a nursing home is bittersweet. It is the right thing to do, so hard to do, and the only thing you can do. I make it out here twice a year. Maybe I could make it three. Given how far away I live, I could probably justify one. Do what you can do. Try not to let the rest get to you.

It is getting to me a little today.

Picking Green Beans

Green beans

Green beans

Picking Green Beans.
Wow, a lot! From this plot I threw together back in August.
In Texas there are two growing seasons,
Spring and Fall, with everything dying off in the heat of summer.
It is trite but true that hope plants a garden.
Hope looks to some reward in the future,
some uncertainty and tries anyhow.

Recent years have been a long, hot, dry summer,
and parts of my heart and hope feel withered, barren and dead.
Pain and despair are familiar companions.
Do I cling to them, keeping them near, fearing to be alone?
Or is everything that has happened happenstance?
Probably a mixture of both; we work to make our own fate,
but fortune intervenes, sometimes for us, sometimes against.
And there are long runs of good luck and bad luck.

May the good luck not go to your head,
not make you think that you are the deserving, the special,
the one who cared the most and worked the hardest.
For surely you did care much and work hard,
but fortune helps.
Those who didn’t succeed may have cared just as much or more,
tried just as hard or more, only to see their hopes crumble.
If you succeed, nurture compassion.

May the bad luck not go to your heart,
not throw you into despair or the feeling of worthlessness.
Take stock, by all means, of how you got here.
But do not blame yourself for mistakes,
not even if they are truly yours. Accept.
Forgive. Correct. And keep going.
Try to find the strength to hope for a change in fortune.
Bad luck must eventually turn, right?
If only you can stay in the game. But sometimes it doesn’t
turn fast enough, and we have to accept the aftermath.

Our gift is compassion, and our challenge is to apply it to ourselves.

This green day, this blue sky, the sun warm on my shoulders,
and a breeze caresses my skin. Green beans for dinner soon,
because hope planted a garden and won this time.
Breathe in this temperate moment.
Try to bring it to the hot to the cold
to the hurting place inside.

Look for Love

When I write in my journal about what I want, a constant recurring sentence is that I want to be loved.

Those who know me know that I’ve never found that relationship, I was married once in my early 20s, a mistake, and I haven’t repeated it again since. There have been men in my life, but they come and go, while the coming can be delightful, the going is always painful. Then you pick yourself up and keep moving forward.

I’m 44 years old now, and the dream of having a happy family is fading … faded … away, and it crosses my mind at times, even if I met that partner now, what good would it do? I would like to be loved. But the rest of what I wanted is out of reach. Could I accept the gift this partner would bring with grace, given the difficult feelings I have about what I lost? Except that I never lost it, I just never found it.

Thinking about it is difficult. Where were you when I needed you so badly? That’s completely unfair, and I know it, but yes, that crosses my mind.

But some days, I remember to look around and if I open my eyes and my heart simultaneously, I can see all the ways that love is present in my life.

First of all, you do not control who gives love to you. The only thing you control is what love you give to others. Are you giving to others the things you would want to find?

I think of a weekend spent going over an NSF proposal for a graduate fellowship with my research student, sticking close to the computer, reading drafts and commenting. Telling him, always, and forever, win or lose, how glad I am to have had him in my life for this wild ride we’ve been on. And that is love.

I think of my colleagues and friends, and all the amazing things they do. I try to recognize and honor those things, and let them know when I see them doing something wonderful. Because you can’t observe those things from the inside, you need someone to show you from the outside. And that is love.

I think of a difficult colleague (one whom I’d honestly rather avoid), and a talk I had with him at the beginning of the fall semester. My thought process, “I’m just going to treat you like you are a normal human being who can understand what I’m about to tell you and correct your own behavior.” (I doubt it, to be honest, but you have to give people a chance.) Even though I don’t think that is going to have the result I might desire, that, too was love.

I always think of my students, because on a day-to-day basis I spend more time thinking about how to present lessons to them and all the little extras I bring to class. It is so hard to know what sticks, but you hope that some of it matters, and you hope that some of it gives them strength when they need it. Just keep trying. Do the work in front of you. Try to get started for just 15 minutes. You are my awesome hard-working honors class. And that is love.


That last is one where I have received some feedback. I asked my students to write an optional one page (300-500 word) letter to me reflecting on the semester and telling me what they learned. It is worth 10 points to be averaged in with the rest of the final exam score. Here is an excerpt of one favorite response:

I kept preaching to myself what you have been saying all along, “I am an Honors student. I can do anything.”, and eventually series became less of an apprehensive topic and transitioned into a new puzzle for me to fit into place.

This class proved to be a real difficulty. I am taking 17 credit hours this semester, and I did not anticipate my Honors math class to be the most challenging. The course really pushed me in my intellect – discouraging at times, yet satisfying at others. My favorite memory of this semester was your positive words of advice. It may seem cliché, but I needed a role model this semester to constantly tell me “I can do anything.”, and without you being aware of this, you helped me in many more ways than just in math.

And that, too, is love.

More on this later.

More on shame

A friend posted on Facebook,

Dear advisors of graduate students,

Please read, comment on, and edit your student’s paper before it is submitted to a journal.

A cranky reviewer

She’s right and criticizing the correct person, but I can’t help but feel for the student.

You see, I was that student.

I hope my friend writes something like, “To the senior authors/advisor of the student on this paper: seriously, you couldn’t put the time in to comment on, edit, and help put this paper together? You do know that is your job, right?” and, “To the junior author on this paper: Your senior authors/advisors let you down. This isn’t your fault. You are probably doing all the right things. You can’t control them. So don’t take my comments as a reflection on your ability or worth; they aren’t. And keep trying. You are doing work that has merit, and everyone benefits from professional critique before a paper is submitted. Even senior faculty.”

I know that even if my friend correctly calls out the advisor, it might be the student first reading those reviews. She’s right to call out the advisor. But oh, do I ever feel for the student.

I hope the student is stronger than I was.

Even 13 years later, I still have tears in my eyes thinking of that night and how I felt. I was so ashamed of myself, for not doing a better job. For not being more. For not knowing how to write that paper correctly. For being an ignorant student, instead of the expert professional I thought I was supposed to be.

Shame thrives in darkness and isolation. Talking doesn’t make it go away, but it makes it a little bit better. A little less frightening. A little more like adversity that I have overcome, rather than a sign that I am a failure as a person.

The one thing I have been able to do with all the pain is to use it to offer my students something better. I don’t ever want them to feel like that.