The Object of My Desire

•July 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

2014-07-17 12.31.55Before there was a curfew to break, before there was my parent’s liquor cabinet to rob, before there were boys I wasn’t supposed to date, was the Cookie Jar. The item in my family’s 1960s kitchen that contained, for this 8 year old, what I wasn’t supposed to get into.

That very item is pictured to the left. Actually, that’s this week’s EBay purchase of one like the one we had. Scrolling through a Pinterest board I uncovered a picture of American Bisque Cookie Jars and voila, there was our bear. I’m not one for holding onto nostalgia or searching for collectibles, but when I saw the Cookie Bear, I was flooded with memories of my childhood. A sucker for making and giving cookies, this was one item I wanted to have.

And now that it’s in my home, I honestly feel flashbacks to my years in elementary school when I enter the room.

But my 62 year old brother made a comment that reminded me of something else about our childhood Cookie Bear. Opening it created a certain sound of ceramic top on ceramic bottom announcing to anyone in hearing distance that ‘someone was getting into the cookie jar.’ And boy, do I remember that.

I especially remember it as a fat kid. No, make that, fat girl. Being a fat girl who wanted another cookie meant needing to carefully lift the lid to sneak one out without anyone hearing. Rearranging the cookies to make it look like one wasn’t taken. Sure, other kids are warned not to have too many sweets, but in my case it felt like I was committing some kind of sin against society. Because it was simply wrong to be a fat girl.

And this started about the age of 6. Feeling guilty about what I ate and how much I ate because it implied that I’d get fatter. And fatter meant… wrong, bad, unlovable? I’m not sure what the implication was, I just know that I felt guilty. My parents, my brothers, my grandparents, the other kids – everyone seemed to remind me that being fat was wrong.

And that sense has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Through an eating disorder (anorexia) that lasted for another 30 years. Offering me a warped sense of body image and food regulation that led to a college major and eventual profession where I further immersed myself with thinking about food – until in my late 30s I consciously chose to change careers to get away from it to be healthy. In mind and body.

Through decades of trying to understand and learn how to care for my Self regardless of my body. And how to view my body as an object of health, wellness and longevity not something to have a love-hate relationship with.

I won’t say that I’ve totally beaten it. I can’t say that now, taking a cookie from the Cookie Bear won’t bring with it a certain sense of caution that overrides enjoyment. But I do know that I’m healthy. And I do know that the Cookie Bear in my kitchen represents the happy memories of my childhood family, family home and experiences that its time represents.

Yet I’m also happy to have it around as a mark of my personal development and triumphs as a woman, that includes a healthy body and mind.






Random (Mystery) Selection

•July 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

4988915427_aa79809da9_mWhat to read when there are literally millions of books to pick from?

Strategies include the intentional approach with a list of titles one is working her way through (tried. Lost the list). Or choosing from the list of current New York Times best sellers (boring, expensive, frustrating to wait for the library). Or letting an algorithm do the choosing based on how you’ve rated other titles (thank you, Goodreads, but I think I’ll go with something a little more personal. Netflix hasn’t been too successful for me with that approach).

I decided to go semi-random and read what a good friend is reading. She’s a school year employee and spends much of her summer reading when her kid is away at camp/class/friends. In conversation and mentioning my desire for a book, she shared the title of a mystery she just finished. I pounced!

I love a good mystery. Or two. Or ten. A decent page turner that holds my attention while I try to figure out whodunit is a fabulous escape from my usual life spent writing and interpreting Words With Meaning in academia. So, I gladly took the book that Kathy just finished. Knocked it out in a day, and then asked for another. And then another.

I’m just about done with book #3 and the week isn’t over.

Here’s what I’ve consumed.

1. The One I Left Behind. 30-something woman whose mother was the victim of a serial killer in her youth, returns to the homestead when said killer is back in play after 25 years. ***1/2. Kept my attention. Ending was flawed.

2. Gone Girl. Film version coming out in early October with big name stars (e.g., Ben Affleck) and director (David Fincher). That’s good. The execution of the story and perspectives of the characters about a 30-something wife who goes missing and all signs points to the husband needs careful handling. I devoured it. ****

3. Shadow of the Wind. Good things come in 3s and the best was saved for the last. This is the kind of complex, literary, historical, political, cultural, dark and mysterious novel that transports you to another place (Barcelona, Paris) and time (various points of the first half of the last century). Don’t tell me how this one ends; I’ve still got 1/5 of the book left. ****1/2.

Best news? And the next two books by the same author (Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven) waiting for me.

I love to let random happen!

Olivia v. Alicia

•July 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

KERRY WASHINGTONTHE GOOD WIFELet me start by thanking Netflix for helping me focus. The last 6 weeks found me chained to my laptop while knocking out a couple major writing projects. The days were long but helped greatly by maintaining a routine. A routine that included breaks for exercise and cooking dinner accompanied by something wonderful on Netflix. S2 of Orange is the New Black was one of those wonderful distractions. And when that was over, Netflix encouraged me to watch ABC’s Scandal.

And so I did. I’ve marathoned my way through all 3 seasons and all but one episode. (Shhh… no spoilers about that bomb).

I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t love it, but I’ve watched it and will probably watch the new season in the fall. It is highly admirable prime time soap opera. But (clears throat) it is not as good as the Good Wife (see my previous post). 

Here’s how they are similar:

  • Both shows feature major characters who are strong, intelligent, powerful, sexy, morally flawed women who look great in everything. These women both have affairs with forbidden men (Alicia because she’s married; Olivia because her lover is the President of the United States and married) who I don’t totally buy they would be attracted to.
  • And because Alicia’s husband is also a major political figure, they dabble in big P politics (running for office) and the politics of the office. Both shows feature a handler for the man in office who alternates between being a friend and a thorn in the side of our leading lady.
  • Both women have people who are devoted to them (Alicia her children, and hot and cold colleagues; Olivia her Pope-ettes).
  • Both women have mothers who can be a pain in the patootie, though Olivia’s is the way bigger pain.
  • And both women drink wine after their impossibly busy and stressful days, as one character on Scandal said, like it was a food group.

And show wise – both have done some very interesting and surprising things with major or major minor characters. jp-05scandal-articleLarge

And now we diverge.

Here’s how Scandal is great. The diversity. The show features a Black woman as the major character, features several minor characters who are also Black, one Hispanic, and has a major character who is gay. And not only gay, but married, see the couple together in about half the shows, and often kiss and sleep together gay. It has characters who are male, female, Southern, and mostly rich. I understand this type of diversity is a formula of the show runner Shonda Rhimes (I didn’t watch more an an episode of Gray’s Anatomy), but while the diversity is obvious but it’s so matter of fact and mentioned only when it fits the plot (which isn’t often). Not one character feels token-ized. The show is not about the characters’ ethnicity but about their characters, their values, their actions and their beliefs. I love that it feels so seamlessly blended. It honestly gives me hope for television.  Continue reading ‘Olivia v. Alicia’

A Little Less Orange

•June 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Credit: Abbey Hambright

I marathoned season 2 of Orange is the New Black on Netflix – sort of.

13 episodes over 4 days. It was really enjoyable and I looked forward to every episode and when it was over… realized that it wasn’t as good as season 1.

The series is adapted from a book written by a woman who served time in in prison. Someone with a high level of education and privilege whose reckless 20s found her helping a lover with a drug deal and would up eventually with an 18 month prison stay. Good concept. Better that the show runner (Jenji Kohan of “Weeds” fame) decided to make it a story somewhat about her (Piper) and as much about the other women she is confined with. Through their stories and their experiences, prison life is complex and the reasons women find themselves incarcerated, interesting.

Most are from the demographic groups we’ve heard about and associate with incarceration: ethnic minorities from lives in poverty who turn to some level of crime as a method of survival. Others are in prison over a single major circumstance: an accidental killing, a government act of rebellion. They are real people inside prison and their experience of survival and community inside is worth learning about. Continued divides along racial and ethnic lines; finding ways to express themselves through the rules and mundane life of prison; occasional and weak connections with their outside families; forming new friendships and talents while the time goes by.

Season 1 was great. Not only do we experience prison through Piper’s own travels from an innocent to someone somewhat hardened by her environment, we get to know 6 or 8 women along the way. For me it was learning about the women and watching their stories that made season 1 pretty amazing.

Cue Season 2.

A couple new characters are introduced (Vee, a middle aged African American drug dealer with an amazing sense of power and a history in prison and with some of the characters; Soso, an Asian American protester – a newbie version of Piper in case we’re new to the series), most of the season 1 characters are in place and we pick up where we left off.

But some of our beloved S1 characters are given minimal screen time (Sophia played by Laverne Cox, a transgender woman, Janae and Yoga Jones, and Pornstache & Alex, tho their absences were logical to the storyline), others about the same (Lorna, Red, Boo, Nicky, Healy, most of the Latina women) and some even more (Sister Ingalls, Rosa, Fig, Joe Caputo). That’s to be expected with a series with a large number of characters and continuing to tell a story, I guess.

Continue reading ‘A Little Less Orange’

A few good words

•June 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 3.46.43 PMI’ve never been a fan of awards given to kids for pretty much showing up. Yet as an adult, I’m acutely aware of the lack of awards or recognition for showing up for life. Specifically, work. Even doing good work doesn’t get recognized usually. So, when I have the means, motive and opportunity to do so, I do.

In other words, I recognize. And I give awards. And in my world of university life, that means to my students and the instructors and staff who work under my direction.

Last Friday I gave an end of the academic year party at my house (my back deck, specifically). About a week before, I asked my ‘team’ to offer up a few good words about the other students and instructors they’d worked with. I oversee an academic program, courses and a research project. Students and instructors work on some or all of these, but no one works in isolation. Together we are a team.

Then I gathered all the good words and fed them into a word cloud generator ( You can see the result, above. How lucky am I that the 9 people who work with me are this, together?

I also created certificates for each person, using the words offered to describe them. (see example, right). Plus I offered my own take on the role I knew they played over the year. The certificate was ”created” by Audrey, my Pug (hence the flying pugs in the background).

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 8.06.31 PMFinally, I gave each person an award of GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), but really M&Ms, chocolate chips, raisins, cashews, and peanuts in a bag tied with our team color. It just ended up that one day – our last day of meeting – we all just showed up in green shirts. So, voila! Green is our color.

At the party I found a good time to present the awards. One at a time, and with partners present (to hear how wonderful their loved ones were at the work they talked about at home).

I think people were touched. I know I would be. The party was fun; a great way to end the year. But a great opportunity for me to recognize, reward and give awards.

To paraphrase the words of our recently lost Maya Angelou, I may not remember how someone made me think. I may not remember what someone made me do. But I will always remember how someone made me feel.

It was important to me that my team felt recognized for their unique contributions and for the amazing combination of flavors they offer as a team.

More than words, part 2

•May 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Credit: TED conference

Credit: TED conference

A big part of being an adviser, an instructor, of being human, is showing compassion.  It’s what human beings do, isn’t it? It isn’t always easy if the person on the taking end is difficult (use your own definition). And it isn’t always shown when one isn’t used to it, good at it, or rewarded for it. Although they want us to be kind and compassionate in academia, frankly there is nothing in the promotion and tenure system that recognizes being human. Publishing papers, getting grant money and high scores on teaching evaluations. That’s what counts. I guess they figure being compassionate humans is a given.

Apparently not. Although most of my colleagues care a lot about students, all of us don’t. Or at least don’t show it.

I figure some of my colleagues weren’t lucky enough to have mentors to show them the way. Or to learn how to be lenient or give a little without feeling there are being unfair to other students. Or perhaps they simply find the way to be most effective in the job is to be distant and place boundaries and hide behind the hierarchy of higher education. Or maybe they are twisted and simply like the power of being an asshole.

Believe me, I’m no saint. But maturity and experience and understanding priorities has helped me find the compassionate center of things. And it won’t get me promoted, but I do sleep better at night. And occasionally, there is recognition.

Case in point: Hilary*

Hilary is a student in one of my classes this semester. She’s a really good student and is a joy to be with. An assignment was due last week on Wednesday and she contacted me on Monday, stating that she’d never asked for an extension before but needed to now. Her husband’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and the family was rallying to be with him. Was it OK, she asked, if she took a few more days on the paper since she’d be out of town.

I immediately emailed her back telling her to not worry about the paper and how sorry I was about her father-in-law. That now, the least important thing in her life was turning in an 8 page paper. (Seriously?) Knowing her though, I added that I understood that having an outstanding assignment could be an additional stressor, so she should do the paper when she felt ready. (I wouldn’t have said that to everyone. I’ve been at this long enough to know that Hilary’s the type who would worry about it.)

Credit: Heath Brandon

Credit: Heath Brandon

Permission. Support. Perspective. Compassion.

And here’s where the recognition comes in. Students turn in bi-weekly reflection papers in my class. Short papers that allow them to reflect on what has challenged and encouraged them as learners. In the next week’s reflection, this (paraphrased) is what Hilary wrote:

“I think that I am growing as a learner in ways that are not directly related to this course’s material. I recently found out that a family member’s cancer was back and he had less than a year left in his life. After emailing Susan, in a panic, about the assignment for the course, I received a heartwarming and compassionate response. I am learning that is it not always what we teach students, it is more important how we treat them and instill love and the importance of family. That faculty exude compassion toward family issues is something that I need to take with me when I leave this University. I feel very luck to be learning in this environment and hope I can create this environment for the families that I will work with one day.”

It’s MUCH more than words.

* not her real name.


More than words, part 1

•May 15, 2014 • 1 Comment
Credit: Chris Hunkeler

Credit: Chris Hunkeler

May – my favorite time of the year! The buds aren’t afraid getting hit with a Minnesota frost, Audrey and I can walk the golf course, classes and meetings come to an end, and graduation, retirement and wedding celebrations abound. Corny, but it feels like a time of reflection and a time of renewal.

Refection-wise, last weekend I attended an event for my graduate school adviser, Dave Riley, and the opportunity encouraged me to consider what he meant to me. Dave is retiring after 29 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was my PhD program adviser between 1991 and 1996. And of course I had to say something about him. These were five of the BEST years of my life. I would say it to him but since there was an audience available (and I LOVE the opportunity to talk to large groups (#ham)), so I asked to share my words of reflection with the crowd. Perhaps because my own work is in the same setting that this person guided and mentored me, his actions became that much more meaningful.

Actions not words. OK he did say some meaningful things. But what I’ve realized through the years is that our mentors and advisers teach us many things, but mostly they teach us how to be… mentors and advisers. How to BE with and for others. How to guide and support. How to nurture growth in another human being. Here’s how Dave did it for me (context: as a 36 year old woman returning to college after a tumultuous 10 years of uncertainty) and what I said on his behalf.

1. Life is stressful. So above all, support your student.

Example: For my dissertation research I mailed a survey to 1100 parents (remember, this was 1994). When I got the first ones back, I realized there were significant typos. In a word, I was F-ed. I went to Dave’s home and he calmly walked me to his patio, poured me a glass of ice tea (maybe beer) and together we figured out what to do. Obviously it was fine because I graduated.

2. Live your words, don’t just teach a subject.

Example: When I was pregnant with Alice, Dave’s reaction wasn’t one to question how this little life bump would affect my work productivity. He thought it was fabulous that a baby would be in the Child & Family Studies department. He brought in a playpen and dedicated an area in the office for the babies.

3. Don’t take your work too seriously.

Credit: Karen's Adventures in Mommyland

Credit: Karen’s Adventures in Mommyland


Example: We’re ‘family’ people. We research how people parent. And how they appropriately use toys to encourage child development. Nevertheless when I visited Dave’s home as a student, I found a naked Barbie hanging from a hangman’s noose on the cat tree.

4. Use professional development opportunities to nurture social connections.

Example: Dave rarely presented at professional conferences, usually an accepted outlet for our scholarly effort. But when he did he used the time to reconnect with good friends. Go fly fishing and such. This advice has helped my mental health for 20+ years.

5. Be your authentic self.

Example. Dave lived many lives before getting his PhD and he frequently shared those lives and perspectives in his stories, and as ways to make a point. About fire fighting. About forestry. They seemed to come from no where. And they seemed to say just the right thing. I have always been who I am and by his example have never shied away from being the person and the professional.

These and many other behaviors and actions have been like beacons to me through the years as I’ve worked with students.

Yes, I learned a great deal of knowledge and gained a great many skills to be an academic. But by having a great example, I have been for 20plus years a good example to others.