Letter 6 – writeloveACLfunlove


It’s Friday. I’m back to thumbed letters, dictation, and typing again–which I regret, but the time deficit has to give somewhere. In the life I do not live but sometimes imagine I do <the one where I am graceful, organized, and confidently singing karaoke while sober>, my next installment to you was going to be the poem I’ve been working on. But it’s turning out to require a lengthier gestation than others. So, “one day.”

I recall a collegiate Stephen taking a poetry class. He smoked djarums at night on the back porch of his Desoto Place apartment and scrawled some nicotine-inspired lines about things otherwise mundane–trees and leaves, perhaps memories from childhood. Do you have any of those still?

I’m preoccupied with this poem, with writing more generally in a way that feels whole. And also scary. I want it – to do the MFA, to have writing as a livelihood – with an intensity that is not unlike how you might feel romantically about another person. I want, but hesitate to say “love” for the trite and/or narcissistic implications–it’s an expression that has come to signal passing affinity when used outside of the relationship of person-to-person <and maybe even then, too>. And anyway what I really mean is that engaging in the process is like realizing a part of myself (i.e. and so narcissistically falling in love with my own reflection). Or, more kindly, actualizing something inherent.

But those are rabbit trails. Let’s say love is an applicable framework–increasingly, I’m convinced that falling in, out, and meandering around the margins has given me an emotional template for understanding the process of relating to anything. Where a literary vocation is concerned, I fear that means that how I feel is not enough.

Today, I drive back from ACL. It’s Monday: I have an afternoon committee meeting, a 10 mile training run, and a usual amount of dissertating on the docket. There were highlights musical and otherwise to the weekend, but symbolic Monday commitments aside, I don’t care to do it again in the future. The novelty is lost.

I had not intended to return after last year, but at the suggestion of a friend, I let myself forget that prohibition so I could share the collective memory again (or in the future). But I don’t care any more.

All of the reasons that I can muster to explain why sound, at first, curmudgeonly. On further reflection, though, it has less to do with gripes about obnoxiously intoxicated adolescents with oversized backpacks insisting on front-row positioning for a band whose one radio hit they happen to know–annoyances which manage to be endearing during euphoria. It has less to do with any of that, and more to do with not feeling anymore the desire to skip across the field separating one stage from another.

In describing some aspect of this to a friend earlier, she asked if I feel a loss in this. Sometimes. But more often I feel fear. <Are you sensing a pattern?>

Over time and experience, it is increasingly difficult to feel the kind of excitement that I used to feel in relation to the events, pastimes, and people I care about. This is not an unhappiness – the depression checklist item that says something about not enjoying the kinds of things that used to give one pleasure. Rather, it is a change that seems to stem from aging that I am uneasy about–a change in fun.

I don’t think I’m alone here. I have noticed this shift in the way that people use the word “fun” as they age. It forms a spectrum from meaning something like “exciting” to “satisfying” that parallels the accumulation of life years.

Ok. I appreciate feeling more satisfied in what I do (reference above statements on writing). But I still wanna feel things! I want guttural laughter and uncontained spontaneous enthusiasm. I want the heat in my stomach to be the version of “anxious” that is eager anticipation. And I am afraid that what used to yield those feelings has been dulled and desensitized.

‘Won’t new things inspire those same feelings?’ You ask. I don’t know; will they? What if you only get a finite amount for life, each emotional experience depleting the reserve a little more? <I’m moderately serious.> Or, what if, like a drug requiring higher and higher doses for effect, you develop a tolerance so that extremes of the old standards are necessary to feel anything at all?

Or what if, like love, you can’t muster it anymore to feel the lusty things that you used to in the idealized salad days, but new emotions related to satisfaction and commitment now stand in their stead? And you say of this change, that it’s merely qualitatively different not worse. Just different. “Satisfying.” Not worse.

Tell me I have nostalgia for a kind of affective vitality that has never really characterized my emotional life anyway. I might believe you.

<Later Monday.>

Yesterday, the third and final day of ACL, I walked over to the park from my apartment at a little after 4pm to see one and half bands (Civil Wars and The Avett Bros.) and left before the headliners (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) took the main stage.

Our apartment building borders the park, so you can hear it all–even if massively reverbed–from the front balcony. Kendal and I sat listening there for the first few minutes until she turned to me and said, “How long are we going to make ourselves listen to this?” and we laughed.

We both wanted to hear “Soul to Squeeze,” and I had worked up a romanticized version of us listening from a bridge nearby Barton Springs that is closer to the music but still outside the fenced off venue. So we grabbed Brent and headed to the bridge, eventually settling on rock seemingly built for three a little farther on.

I was surprised when, at 9:43 pm, the din of the crowd rose, signalling the interlude between the main set and the encore. We’d been sitting there almost an hour, sharing a rock alongside the darkened trail, watching the exodus of festival-goers trickle by, and singing along to the songs that drifted to us from the other side of the trees we were staring off into. I found myself thinking, ‘Ya know, “Under the Bridge” really is a good song.’

With the crowd screaming, few minutes passed before the band returned to the stage–they had a 10pm noise ordinance to race against in playing their final songs, of which there were two. The first I don’t recall; I recognized, but did not know it. The last was “Give It Away Now.”

I don’t know who stood up first–though, oddly, I suspect it was Brent. Within seconds, the three of us were on our feet, dancing spastically on the trail, jumping around and singing what disjointed soundbites we knew–what I got you gotta give it to your mamma–jumping and singing–what I got you gotta get it put it in you–and bouncing and laughing–reeling with the feeling don’t stop continue–and laughing and laughing. We danced the whole song–Brent the funniest because most out of character–banging along, immune to our tiredness and laughing. Give it away, give it away, give it away now.

It was the best 4:30 minutes of the weekend and in recent memory. Pure fun–hearty and satisfying, even if brief. And spontaneous and energizing and memorable. Thank god.

Hope or depletion? Hope or depletion.

– ap


PS – I had office mini-snickers for dinner again. Dammit!

Letter 5 – Fam Damily

My Dear Mr. Kappus:

Much time has passed since I have written you a proper letter–certainly not since we started this experiment could a typed note from me rightly assume that title. I’ll blame the medium in part: typing is too immediate at times. Knowing that I can edit and endlessly revise a thought to another person –and, in this case, even after it’s been published–makes everything a little lighter, maybe facilitates triviality (and not inevitably or necessarily. I’m simply speculating on this as a case).

The pen is heavier, does not erase, revises in ways that make visible hasty inaccuracies and so requires a slower pace to effect linguistic precision–at least if maintaining the aesthetic of a letter is also a desired end aside from what it might actually say.

But, medium aside, I am equally at fault.

In the large group lecture last Tuesday, the Dean of the Honors College delivered the lecture to all the first year students. He spoke on the purposes of the university and what it means to be an educated person and read, at one point, from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” This:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same with the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

A few days later, I stood in front of the same group of students paying lip-service to a message about intentionality in action and education. Lecturing like that nauseates me; I’ve already put a chunk of it out of my mind. But in general, I was urging them to reflect on what it means to be an educated person and how <and whether> going to college achieves that end.

In these tea leaves of my life, I read my own need to slow down in order to be more intentional and precise. So I write to you now with pen in hand rather than keys under finger.

That was a necessary detour, but my primary concern in writing you is to address the topic of friendship.

Before we got married, Dave said to us that couples have the same handful of fights–maybe even the same one fight–over and over. I sometimes think of this as the same set of characters wearing different costumes.

For us now, I wonder if our one fight is over friendship–our friendship, or the lack thereof. Are we friends?

The answer, for me, has been uncomplicated and automatic–yes, of course–such that when people ask me how we operate like we do, I pull from the script that says “We’ve been friends since we were ‘kids.’”

But the past does not exist for you like for me; it dissolved when our marriage did. You’ve told me that, anyway. As if we started from scratch a few years ago, neither of us drawing on a persoal history that the other was a part of. This is your part of the script from the recurrent friendship fight.

I wouldn’t’ve brought it up. I don’t ever. That’s at least partially because the conversation inevitably implies or directly states that you do not like me (in the way that Olive might say this to another child on the playground). And, in return, I marshal evidence to call your bluff or convince you otherwise. It’s a rather awful and personally humiliating role to play. So I choose, instead, to believe you maintain a higher regard for me.

But it never goes away, this debate. It occupied most of ex-night last week.

You asked me, “Why are we friends?” or “What do friends do?” or some other question that was really the overlap of those two. I took you as asking me for a definition. I took you to mean that there must be something in common, some shared quality among all those you’d call “friend.”

Even though I balked at the question(s), suspecting you were trying to lead me into a debate-style sneak attack, I have since been searching for a common thread beyond “mutual affinity,” which was the commondenominator that occurred to me at the time.

I thought, today, of friendship as comfort, as ease. A lack of pretension. I was thinking of you and mom, actually–of how I automatically do not think of ‘how to be’ in the presence of either of you; I just am. And later, of crying–how I cry only in front of her or you and not as a matter of design or preference. (I’d rather cry less in front of you, frankly. I used to manage that just fine.)

But I realized that those were family sentiments–unguarded comfort, assumed acceptance, plain-faced pain.

It wasn’t very long ago that I thought of what we do more squarely in those terms: we behave as a family working out a fractured fairy tale.There’s a level of closeness that we no longer breach, but a basic framework of support and interdependence remains. I still listed you as my emergency contact when Olive and I went on the cruise in June. You’re still among the first to know of major events in my life–vocationally and avocationally.

It’s a necessity in light of our parenting arrangement, sure. But the urge to share has roots in the unquestioned assumption that you occupy and will occupy a permanent place in my life–a member of my immediate family.

Can you do “family”? I would take “family” instead of, and perhaps over, “friend.” I suppose from what I’ve just said, that I already do. With family, you don’t have to constantly decide on the nature of the thing–hell, you can hate me more straightforwardly this way, if you like–you can just be.

“Family” would likewise alleviate concerns over meeting either set of our criteria for friendship–which, by the way, I’ve determined (for my part) are these: (1) shared meaning and (2) the desire to foster it. At this juncture, I understand you to eschew both.  I cannot, it seems, count on your reading of my letters or the desire to do so and may write into a vacuum indefinitely. Perhaps that’s another matter.

Over the last 14 years or so, we’ve made a series of choices accumulating to our present circumstances. But god knows, at the outset, neither of us would’ve chosen to be stuck to the other’s life in the way we are now. But we are here still–related without will, a family tie that just is that way.

Love, ash

Letter 4 – Days in the Life

Dear Stephen:

This is an ego-centric letter. My personal pronouns are all over the place. I’m sorry. I haven’t seen you much in the last few weeks, so in part it just seemed necessary to talk about the mundane chaos. Whenever it occurred to me to write, that’s what came out: chronicling.

So, I feel like I should say that you don’t have to read this one, even though I want you to want to.

A proper letter is forthcoming.

[Installment 1 – I35 S Dictation]
I think I’ve finally gotten used to Texas. I don’t know that I quite consider it my home yet or if I ever will, but I know what it’s like to be here; it’s familiar now. I’ve been thinking about this because of the ever present question on the table, “Where will we go next?” And I suppose I’ve reached a turning point with this state–like if we’ve now decided that we are going to stay here and however that would play out, this would stop feeling like serving a prison sentence and would feel more like the continuation of thing.

I’m tired today even though I’ve started to sleep better. Are you sleeping better yet? This, too, feels like a kind of turning point–like I might finally have orchestrated so much constant chaos and that rest is so necessary that really I can sleep anywhere. Narcoleptically.

Driving’s not so bad.

[Installment 2 – Austin]
Olive returns today. In two hours, I’ll collect her and mom from the airport and drive them back to Waco.

Re-set. The hitting of the reset button. Ready, set, go.

[Installment 3 – Waco]
I had to borrow your deodorant this morning. Must’ve left mine in Austin. smelling like Old Spice was one of a handful of things that made me feel out of place sitting among the faculty at convocation. Usually, attending events like these provides just enough ritual intoxication to remind me of the thing I think I’ll feel when they finally hood me. But today less so.

Today, I just felt like a child among people with their hair done. I realized, while sitting among the regalia’d faculty and staff, listening to inspirational welcoming speeches from the administration, that the robe I had on was not even my own–remember that I borrowed <evidently indefinitely> Amy’s robe and hood <is the master’s sash deal called that> when I walked for my last degree?

Today, also, was Olive’s first day of kindergarten. My how we’ve grown.
Mom* and I are going to clean out my graduate student office now. I got an email yesterday telling me, more or less, “it’s time.”



[Installment 4 – Austin]
It’s Saturday. I drove mom to the airport at o-ten hundred after our night out to see The Gourds. I feel vicarious happiness watching her at these kinds of events. She’s in a second youth in her retirement, smiles so much more than I remember growing up to.

A guy approached us after the show. Said he’d tried to make his way up to the front to dance with us. Said it had looked like we were having such a good time. Regretted that he hadn’t made it to us before the music stopped. It eventually became clear that he thought we were a couple. That would be a novel take on the idea that couples come to resemble one another more over time.

When I returned to the apartment this morning, I learned that my roommate of roughly a month is moving out and into the home of a friend in another month’s time. My plan to dissertate the day away took the bench so that I could indulge in anxiety over how not to be the sole responsible party for the bagillion dollar rent for my ideally-located shoebox apartment in a town where I’m not-so-well connected.

Miraculously, within 6 hrs, there was a bandaid for the problem–Kendal and Brent will move in for a few months while they transition back to Austin and figure out where they actually want to relocate, and then a new friend I’ve made will likely takeover when they vacate. Can you believe–? I’ve never felt so resourceful. “Fortunate” is probably a better word.

[Installment 5 – Somewhere on Campus]
Remember that goal list I had from high school, senior year–was it Coach Orehowski that taught Life Management Skills? As an assignment for LMS, “Coach” instructed us to write down a list of 100 things we wanted to do in life. I probably made it to 24. But I added over time, kept the same list, kept marking things off–some of the marks from things we did together back when (e.g. # picnic on a red and white checkered blanket; # watch the sunrise on one coast and drive to the other to catch the sunset in the same day).

In the class of first year students I’ve got now, I had them do a similar activity. I dug my old list out if whatever journal I’d last had it in for inspiration. Item #1? Write a book.

I hadn’t even remembered putting that there.

Lately, I tell people who ask what I’ll do when I finish school the thing I actually want to do instead of the thing they expect to hear. Maybe because if this, I’ve also started to theorize that there’s some kind of magical number of people you can tell your dreams to before they somehow stop being your dreams.

Their general lack of enthusiasm enervates mine, in particular because it feels placating–manufactured enthusiasm is a common reaction. Rediscovering my list, the boldness of that #1 placement–that was a salve. Writing is not a fleeting interest.

[Installment 6 – Student Life Center]
I’m playing in a kickball league. I’m doing it. Signed up today. It’s the “super social league”– translation: the kind of casual where you can play, “beer in hand,” a teammate told me. It meets once a week for 7 weeks. It shouldn’t have required the level of internal debate over commitment that I gave it.


  • Everything is going so well-ish. When is it all going to fall apart?
  • Handed in my keys today. I hope I never have to see the inside of that dark, cubicled, windowless grad office again. Ever.
  • Parenting is hard. Olive is tall, obstinate, smart, beautiful, and very much a mixture of the best and worst of each of us.

[Installment 7 – I 35 N dictation]
I’m afraid of how happy I feel. I have no precedent for this kind of sustained contentment. Maybe it’s like this: playing the original Mario Bros and having gotten through so many levels and only having one life left and knowing that even though you’re so close to beating the whole thing, that if you eff up, you still have to go back to the very beginning and start all over again… Maybe that’s an exaggeration. Manic.

Nothing is easy, but everything is good. Is this what you feel Like all the time?

Happiness is so precarious. It never concerned me that I might lose a grip on melancholy.


*Thank god for my mother, who also this morning pruned my burnt orchids.

Letter 3 – Brief Morning Note

Querido Estebandito,

a. Nice Rocket.

b. Of course we used to title our letters! Because they were called emails. And when we first became friends we wrote them on aol. Remember, saymoreaboutthat@[maybe your address was not aol…, but still]?

c. I was responding to a facebook message this morning when this man was suggested as a friend on the sidebar:

Do you know who this is? This is my biological grandfather that I have never met. In fact, I know basically nothing about him aside from his <searching for euphemism> unforgettable name. I have learned, though, that he prefers Budweiser products <a clear indicator of family relation> and:

Imagine that.

Anita Margarita




PS: Can I borrow this copy of The Gilmore Girls I just found in your stuff?

Letter 2 – Austin


What I’m typing now is the letter siri helped me write to you this afternoon as I drove the hundred miles south to begin my stint of dual residency. I suppose it reads more like a list of statements than a letter:

1. I’m moving into my matchbox place in Austin today.
2. I took your french press with me.
3. I’ve had a nervous stomach about it all day.
4. I don’t especially know what I’m doing.
5. This is an example of why it’s hard to make long term decisions.
5.1 Things are so easy now–it’s surprisingly easy being roommates without Olive home. I hadn’t guessed that when I determined to do this two months ago. Last night, we even talked about the effortlessness of living together right now–a new experience, since we never really have lived without Olive (I don’t think either of us counts those three months before she was conceived).
5.2 And so why would I need the space and freedom of another apartment in another city?
5.3 But she will return from her grandparents in short term.
5.4 And Goose will move in, too.
5.5 And the apartment will get smaller.
6. It’s ironic that we had a falling out last night where you said that I run away, I said you chase me away, and today I’m actually driving my mattress to another town. It’s as if this were all cinematically timed.

And then I stopped dictating because we arrived.

The apartment is relatively empty. Evidently most of the furniture and decor that were here before belonged to the girl whose room I’ve taken over. There’s a sectional couch and a flat screen TV and not much else.

Just after the movie (To Rome with Love; good comedy, laughed a lot, see it), Chad and I were standing around talking about the oddity (in terms of bare feeling) of the naked walls. He was minutes from going back home and suddenly I felt like a college freshman being dropped off at the dorms for the first time, like I was saying goodbye to my parents.

He left, and I felt just like that. So I made my bed and took a shower and wrote you a letter. I wonder if my first nights in the college dorms were really that much different. I know I had a hard time sleeping then, whereas now I’m looking so very forward to my bed.

This reminds me of an exchange between Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin at the end of the movie:

JE: With age comes wisdom.
AB: With age comes exhaustion.

I don’t know if that stands alone, but I’ll let it.

Thank you for my housewarming plant. It’s the most vibrant thing in my room. I won’t forget to water it. And feel better for god’s sake. We’ve got some homebrewing to get after.


Letter 1 – Vows


It’s 702p on a Saturday night–this, the Saturday of our second consecutive weekend of moving. Last weekend, we managed to transfer my things from the home I’ve been sitting; this weekend, transferring yours from your apartment. I’m cooking dinner and you’ve gone to get Olive. It’s like old times, except not at all. When we were married, there was never anywhere to go and get Olive from. And also, we shared a bedroom, rather than me and Olive in this makeshift bunk bed situation. But I did used to cook dinner. And we did used to write letters. Though that was before the marriage. But anyway, so some things are similar.

Foremost is this: here we are, living together again. It’s been roughly 2 and a half years. How much has changed? I’ve been out of town this week, so we hardly know what that’s like yet. Already, I’ve glared at you over soiled dishes, and you’ve chided me for being high maintenance–neither of which is really a novelty.

Sipping at red wine while shifting around sauteed onions and farmer’s market vegetables in a cast iron skillet, I feel like I’m well on my way to becoming my mother. It makes me think that we’ve done a funny thing here, since you are likewise surely becoming your father. What an odd pair of roommates they make. Make that relevant however you want.

While we were moving your things today and I was going through Olive’s toys, sorting out the ones for donation/disposal/whathaveyou, you came into her old room with a folded piece of paper with my writing on it and a ‘Why was this in my files’ kind of question and handed it to me.

Probably, both of us were a little nervous about that–in the past, I’ve had a tendency to write internal wo(a)nderings on loose pieces paper. In the least, I could see that it had emotive words on it and read your tone accusatorily…like, How would some dripping thing like that have found its way into my stuff anyway? Who knows. Turns out–and really, you can’t make this shit up–it was my wedding vows (written, as I remember now, with a brown-inked UPS pen from my mother ℅ her corporate work on the back of some sheet music 101 for college piano class). Three stanzas. Eloquence, debatable.

I’m thinking on whether to reproduce them here–in our public-private exchanges–but even though I’m guessing you don’t remember them, it’d probably just embarrass us both. Discomfort is a more accurate word.

You asked me half-jokingly, when I told you what they were, whether you’d come through on them. I thought it was a kind of funny thing to ask since, really, it ought to have been me doing the following through. I’m willing to argue either side of that debate. But anyway, I told you that, as I read them now, the vows were really more about relationships than marriage.

(I’m redacting the love part since, in Nietzschean fashion, Romance is dead. And since, also, it wasn’t really about that. It turns out, things aren’t really about that. Or, what has any of it for us in the post- era? In the unmarried together era?)

What they really were about was trust and remembering together, about laughing and prioritizing in shared fashion, about sympathy. I think those ideals maintain their currency.

Good buzzwords for the year ahead at least, right? What else can we do with old vows, people like us in Reality TV America–what else?

How many years has it been, and How did we ever used to end these letters anyway? With questions is what I remember. I asked you just now, as roommate in residence, if you spell it “use to” or “used to” and you told me it was the latter. As in, “I used to be awake, but I’m not anymore,” and you got up and went to your bedroom.

So I guess I used to be writing you an open letter, but I’m not anymore.

night. ap

40 DD: A Silvian Interlude

Paul Silvia, Assoc. Professor of Psychology at UNC-Greensboro, has been our guest <using my professional work pronoun here> on campus this week. This afternoon, Paul gave a talk on developing better writing habits–the title of which says it all: “The Writing Habit: Thoughts on Writing More (Often).” His message was a simple one. And if you’ve sought advice on writing more regularly or less painstakingly, you’ll be familiar with the general outline:1 To write, you have to write. And to write you have to schedule the time to do it and guard the time you schedule from intruders. Doing this develops a habit free from the hills and valleys of impulsivity (i.e. the notion that you can only write when you “feel it”).

Habit, unlike other behavioral motivators, doesn’t necessarily have a valence. Whereas impulse directs you to do what’s appealing in the moment and willpower is what you harness to follow through with a behavior based on the value it represents, habit just is.2 It’s the drive to do what you always do.  Or, to quote Silvia, Impulsivity is a hipster, but Habit “wears an ’80s members only jacket, and it does it without irony.”3 It does it because it’s comfortable.

Now there’s plenty to be said for getting uncomfortable every once and a while and for the tyranny of routine <I mean seriously>, but there are other lovely adages like “practice makes perfect” that suggest that making a habit out of writing has its own value.

Perfectionism, on the other hand, has less to recommend.

"Perfectionism dimensions and research productivity in psychology professors: Implications for understanding the (mal) adaptiveness of perfectionism."

This article, published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science in 2010, chronicled the research habits of academic psychologists and found that, as the psychologists in the study became more perfectionistic, they published less and their work wasn’t as strong.

Perfectionism–just as much as procrastination–keeps you from doing. “Once you’ve been around long enough, you realize there’s nothing you can write that people won’t hate.” And, here, by “people,” Paul  meant that we all have our critics, but worrying about them will only keep you from moving forward with your work.

I write this Silvian interlude, in part, by way of explaining <and on a personal level bolstering> this 40 DD effort. The questions I’ve fielded about the rationale for blogging my dissertation have often centered on intellectual property concerns like, “Aren’t you afraid somebody is going to steal your ideas?” I suppose it’s healthy to expect scholastic baseness at this level of the game, but somehow I’m unconcerned. It seems far more important to build a writing habit in a way that conveys the difficulty and messiness of doing so–one that showcases the refinement of ideas, the challenges of refinement in the trenches of more mundane responsibilities (parenting, job, meager social life, maintenance of mental health), and the process through which this all occurs. Tear down the curtain; let’s see the wizard, right?

In any case, so says Paul the Lenten Apostle, “It’s a turtle message rather than a hare message.” Let it be known.

  1. e.g. Bob Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members, Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, and Silvia’s own How to Write a Lot
  2. Avoid thinking of “bad habits” like smoking, which actually is an addiction, right? Relatedly, do you, like me, wonder what the exact difference is between habit and addiction? Is the latter simply the former mixed with impulse? I digress…
  3. I think the extent to which I enjoyed this example betrays a greater degree of hipsterism than I’d otherwise admit.

Thumbs and Colors

Do you ever think about this re: your teaching: what will my students remember about this class session a week from now? Let’s assume it’s lecture-discussion. Maybe they’re not even taking notes. What will they remember about an hour of their time this time next week?  I sometimes evaluate my experience at conferences in this way.

I spent the early part of last week at the Educause Learning Initiative conference in Austin <insert love letter to Austin> and listened to several enlightening conversations and systemically-minded thinkers. So now, a week later, what do I remember? The memory I’ve returned to each day since is actually a pseudo- memory–it’s one I crafted by merging pieces from two sessions1, which both had something to say about the difficulty of being a “novice learner.”

And as I think of it now, perhaps I remember pieces from both as one because each asked me to do something, and I’ll now ask of you the same.


Activity 1:

Clap your hands in front of you.

Now rub them together.

Now fold them and place them in your lap.

Which thumb is on top?2

Now interlace your fingers so that the other thumb is on top. How awkward does that feel?



Activity 2:

Using the image below, say aloud the color of the word, ignoring the color that the word spells.

This should be challenging or similarly uncomfortable (you’re experiencing cognitive overload).

I’ve done a mental merge on the memory of these two exercises because they are related categorically. Both mimic the difficulty of learning something for the first time–whether it’s something entirely foreign or learning to approach a subject in a new way. The act is awkward, uncomfortable, cognitively consuming, and only tacklable in short periods (for cognitive overload, apparently 10 minutes at a time).

While the immediate reference is something like, ‘This is what it feels like to be a student coming to the material you teach for the first time, even though you know it like floorplan of your home,’ there’s an additional way to think about this. That is, What is it like for an instructor (or anyone else for that matter) to change? Once you’ve got a general structure in place for the courses you teach, what is it be like to learn something new about “pedagogical effectiveness” <blah, blah, blah jargon> and attempt to delve into that, to implement it? <And if you want to get specific, the speaker from the first session talked about the discomfort of switching your default thumb position as the way that some people feel about technology + education.>

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten Season. Religiosity aside, I’m willing to argue that the exercise of self-discipline in its varied, individualized forms offers a valuable growing experience: 40 days in which to cross your thumbs the other way and read the color, not the word. It’s an opportunity for attentiveness as much as change <or say that the other way around if it makes more sense to you>.

So for the next 40 days3  <this probably isn’t where you thought I was going>, I’m dissertating for Lent. <If I were a motivational speaker, this might have taken a different turn, but alas.> The uncomfortable part is that I’m chronicling the process here–which means being open about ideas as well as obstacles and forcing ugly, stilted sentences onto a page for the sake of the process. In theory, this will chart the forming of the articulatory loop–a thing that happens for PhDs as much as undergrads as much as toddlers.

To be gendered about the affair, sometimes it’s hard to go out in public without wearing makeup4, but it’s probably unhealthy to be cosmetically obsessive.5 Wish me luck or chastity. Whatever works.


  1. One on…? <see what I mean about the week thing?> and the other on learning and neuroscience <link not found>
  2. Here are some fun facts about your thumb placement c/o the speaker. If your right thumb is on top, you’re a “sexy person”; left thumb, “sneaky person.” Yes, these are evidently Science’s terms. If you place your thumbs next to each other–about 1 person in every 100 does–you’re a bit sexy, a bit sneaky. Cursory googling of the thumb test returned nothing novel, and any attempts at also including including “sexy” and “sneaky” only returned content that we’ll just call unrelated. So, best of luck determining the broader meaning of those descriptors, though please do share if you know.
  3. Save weekends and such since, 1, I have a kid, and 2, I make the rules.
  4. I know. But c’mon
  5. Erica Speegle, student and friend, this cite’s for you.