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Archive for the ‘November’ Category

John Constable: cloud study.

On June 12, 1824, John Constable sketched, in oils, squall clouds over Brighton beach. On June 13, 1871, Gerard Manley Hopkins saw a red rack of clouds floating away. On June 12, 1869, John Muir noted Cumuli rising to the eastward over the Merced River. “How well they harmonize with the upswelling rocks beneath them!”

The writer Annie Dillard locates something sacred in the human history of clouds, and it was with that in mind that I went back into the DTU archives to see what clouds I observed a year ago today.

As it turns out, far from contemplating clouds, on November 15, 2010 Anna and I were talking about food. Apple strudel, pumpkin pie, and while I’m on the topic let me say that caramelized butternut squash is now officially my new favorite snack.

As Anna mentioned in her post earlier today, after a little more than a year of tracking our emotional calendars, it’s time for this phase of the project to end. Anna, the more practical member of the team, wrote about ways DTU has changed her lifestyle. I have to confess that just this morning, after hearing predictions of heavy thunderstorms and flooding across Austin, I hopped on my bike and rode to campus – just like I would have last year. Lesson emphatically not learned.

Or maybe my morning bike ride perfectly reflects my DTU experience. It’s true that this project has documented the whole range of my emotional experience, from a wild post-book-writing trip to Ipswich to the anxious (and endless) anticipation of spring. But mostly, when I think about DTU, I am struck with a feeling of delight. I think about maple syrup-making and early crocuses, ridiculous chanukah songs and really, really good food.

As we come round to winter again, it seems like DTU has permanently embedded itself into my seasonal experience, giving emphasis to all its most delightful aspects. Now the arrival of hot summer weather will remind of the time that Anna and I gave up chocolate. Thanksgiving, on top of being about family and food, will be about Anna’s ridiculous proposal that we live-blog the whole thing. January snowstorms will come hand-in-hand with the requisite Dorchester.

It might not be as sacred as the contemplation of clouds. But when those clouds turn to rain, I’ll ditch my umbrella and take out my bike. As they say, it’s been a good ride.

Thanks for reading.

Weather: 63 degrees and lovely in Austin tonight.

Mood: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Bittersweet.

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In November, Louisa wrote a guest post for Ditch The Umbrella about her Thanksgiving experiences, promising a post-holiday update. Luckily for us, she’s blogged about another fascinating emotional calendar subject: seasonal dissonance. Here goes!

I wrote a post about a month ago about Thanksgiving—an emotional hotspot for me. I’m way overdue for an update, since Christmas is only two weeks away! Happily, Thanksgiving went off without a hitch this year, as it often does. My emotional mind was less charged up, which made for a much more enjoyable dinner for me, and especially my family. We went to my uncle’s house in western Massachusetts and feasted on turkey, squash, stuffing, and cranberry sauce: the whole nine yards. (Squash is my personal favorite.) I felt happy to be with my family and celebrate with them, and although the memory of that Thanksgiving fourteen years ago was still present, I also see how its effect on my emotions diminishes a little bit every year.

But of course, most people’s focus has moved to Christmas. It’s coming soon. I’m excited, and also quite proud of myself for already having most of my shopping done. With Christmas comes the cold weather, though, and this year it seems to be particularly frigid. In the past week, the high temperature has only been about 40° F, and that was last Saturday. The wind has made it especially bad, letting everyone know that winter is here to stay. Of course, if this were February, temperatures in the 40s would seem almost warm (at least in New England). But we have been cursed (or blessed, as most people would say) with some extremely warm days in November. According to weather.com, the high temperature in Concord on Nov. 13 was 65°. It felt more like mid-spring than late fall. That day was followed by 64° on the 17th, 56° on the 22nd, and 62° on the 23rd.

Regardless of how you feel about this type of weather in November, December seems particularly Arctic in comparison. I don’t like warm November days—such weather gives me a strong sense of seasonal dissonance, which happens when your mind is in one season and your body is in another. The calendar says Thanksgiving, but the weather says Memorial Day! This contradiction throws off my sense of stability, it makes me feel out of place, and it makes it far harder for me to get used to the December cold. For my sanity, I’m hoping that it won’t happen again, but the next time we have a really warm winter day—or even a really cold one in June—stop and see how your body and your mind react to the unfamiliar weather.

Weather: Frigid and gray.

Moods:

Anna – 7.5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. She’s energized.

Hannah – 7 out of 10. On the one hand, it’s cold and gray. On the other hand, she is excited to be at the Athenaeum!

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This is an exercise in mindfulness.

Bring your awareness to your mouth. Take pleasure in the sensation of rubbing your tongue against your teeth and the roof of your mouth. Swallow. This should feel good.

Now, take a clean glass. Spit into it. Now, drink your own spit.

Repulsive, isn’t it?

This exercise comes from Ellen Langer’s seminal book Mindfulness, one of the first to bring the concept of mindfulness into Western medical lexicon. I love it because no matter how many times I try, I can’t help but be totally grossed out. I know that rationally, there is no reason to dislike saliva. But I cannot break my constructed hatred of spit. It’s disgusting.

Langer’s point is that every day, we take thousands of actions that are not rational. Some of them, like not drinking our own spit, are fairly innocent. Others are more troubling: the ones that impact the way we act around disabled people, for example, or the elderly. (One of Langer’s  most laudable impacts has been in teaching nurses and families to recognize the difference between physical disability and mental disability.)

Mindfulness can also be helpful in improving the way we treat ourselves, especially at times when we are feeling particularly out of control. Anna is lucky in that she has totally overcome all of her Thanksgiving anxieties. But for the rest of us, this time of year is overloaded with emotional, cultural, and environmental stressors. There are childhood memories. Family expectations. Cultural pressures. The smell of snow on the wind.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed on Thanksgiving. It’s also easy to act on all of those anxieties without knowing why. To get angry at the turkey. To break down over the cranberry sauce. To lash out at an innocent great aunt or overly energetic toddler. All of which means, less time to enjoy a delicious dinner in the company of the people we love most.

Which is what Thanksgiving, at its best, can be about.

This holiday season, I’m going to try to be a little more mindful about where my emotions are coming from. And I’m going to hope that increased awareness will improve my ability to act, instead of just reacting.

But I’m still not drinking spit from a glass.

Wishing everyone a happy thanksgiving, with love from DTU.

Weather: 36 degrees, a bit overcast, and beautiful

Moods:

Hannah: 7 out of 10. Excited to go running this afternoon.

Anna: 7.5, and thrilled to have a few days to relax.

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Well, Thanksgiving is almost here, and with it, the stress of one of the most highly charged family meals of the year.

I used to hate Thanksgiving. In fact, my freshman year of college I chose to stay in upstate New York and celebrate with a friend instead of making the 8-hour bus ride home. The dining halls all closed down, which we anticipated. What we hadn’t considered was that the buses would also stop running, nearly all the restaurants would close, and we would be stranded on an empty campus without proper sustenance. So, instead of turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing, she and I raided the vending machine, watched Zoolander, and gave thanks for the man who delivered our emergency General Tso’s chicken. It actually turned out to be a pretty fun day.

Less fun, though, are the family negotiations that seem inevitable around the holidays. Who’s going where. Who’s hosting whom. Which relatives are escaping to remote islands (or secretly wishing they were) instead of joining the rest of the extended family for football and conversation.

These days, Thanksgiving is less stressful for me. Part of it is that I’m older and I can make my own plans. Part of it is that I’ve reframed the holiday and now think of it as a big family meal as opposed to a super-charged family fest. Gathering in small groups helps, as does eating out, which is a tradition that my father started several years ago. Last year, we went to a Greek restaurant anticipating ouzo, saganaki, and moussaka, only to find they were serving turkey! This year, we’ve embraced traditional American fare and have a reservation for four at a quaint New England inn.

Whether you hate, love, or are generally indifferent to Thanksgiving, take a deep breath and enjoy the food. Remember—if things get too stressful, you can always escape for a nap and blame it on the turkey.

Weather: Cloudy skies all day, but warmer than usual for late November.

Mood:

Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. She ate great cheese this weekend.

Hannah – 6 out of 10. She hates November.

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We’re nearing the holiday season (who can believe Thanksgiving is only a week away?!), so we invited our colleague, Louisa, to give us another perspective on this time of year. Here’s what she has to say:

I love fall. I love the combination of the weather, my birthday, and the brilliant colors of the leaves. As much as I love it, though, it brings up feelings of sadness, of being out of control, and of anxiety, especially as we move into late fall and early winter. Unlike many people, these feelings don’t come from the dreaded approach of a cold winter. (I competitively cross country skied in high school…) This time of year is a strong personal and emotional hotspot for me, stemming back fourteen years.

That was the fall of 1996. My family was moving from our home in Maryland to Massachusetts. My dad started work in September, so for two months, he lived with my grandparents up here, while my mom stayed home with my sisters and me. As a nine year old, I felt like everything was changing at the same time and I was powerless to stop it. Further adding to this feeling, my grandfather died suddenly at the end of September. We all came to Massachusetts for the funeral, only to immediately go back to Maryland, where our house was half in boxes. Right before Thanksgiving, we moved up here for good. It was a sad time for my family and for me, even though my tenth birthday was thrown into the mix in late October. Rather than feeling like a happy event, my birthday was confusing and disorienting. Was I supposed to feel sad or happy? What would my new life be like?

Thanksgiving was equally as confusing. Amidst all the celebration, there was an acute feeling of pain at the loss of my grandfather. And even though I had been traveling to Massachusetts since I was a baby to visit family, I was unprepared to spend the whole winter in New England. I was unfamiliar with the kind of biting cold that comes even as early as Thanksgiving some years. I learned to wear more clothes, to always take a hat and gloves, and to look at snow as a usual occurrence, not some weather anomaly.

I have grown to accept the winter weather now, and the pain of moving and my grandfather’s death has long since abated. But even writing about this time brings back those same feelings of sadness and anxiety.

So during this hotspot, I’ll be paying close attention to my emotional calendar. I promise to post an update about it after the holidays!

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Happy End-Of-Daylight-Saving-Time!

Here are some reasons why DST (as we like to call it) matters:

Historically DST was designed to, as Wikipedia puts it, “exploit sunlight hours.” In researching for The Emotional Calendar I learned that the Wikipedia article on DST is actually heavily based in myth – but you’ll have to read the book to find out the truth 🙂

Physiologically DST has been linked to everything from increased rates of heart attacks to increased traffic fatalities. I just read an article in Scientific American about a new research method which allows scientists to track our circadian rhythms by looking at our hair follicles. Since DST disturbs our circadian rhythm (the approximately 24 hour cycle that our bodies run on), this should help scientists understand how – and why – DST messes up our health.

Personally the end of DST (that’s yesterday) marks the end of time, at least temporarily. When I was in high school, I was in school or commuting from 715am to 5pm. In a comic twist, my school was located in the windowless basement of a converted office building. In the winter months, I didn’t see sunlight at all! But now, DST means that for a few more weeks (until the ice sets in) I’ll be able to go running before I go to work. Hooray.

Culturally we all have feelings about the way sunlight shifts. The New York Times collected DST poems from some great contemporary poets, all of whom happen to be Pulitzer Prize winners (what does that mean about the state of poetry today?). One of them, Louise Gluck, is even featured in The Emotional Calendar! Cool.

“I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?”

– James Tate

 

Weather: Cloudy and 40 degrees. Fortunately I haven’t been outside yet.

Mood:

Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. I had a wonderfully relaxing weekend.

Anna: 6. Strange, vivid dreams last night mean I feel a little off this morning.

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Altogether Novemberish

“Here I sit, altogether Novemberish, a damn’d mélange of Fretfulness & melancholy; not enough of the one to rouse me to passion; nor of the other to repose me in torpor; my soul flouncing and fluttering around her tenement, like a wild Finch caught amid the horrors of winter newly thrust into a cage.”

– Robert Burns, 1793

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