Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Out of Her Shell

"Behold the turtle: He can only make progress when he sticks his neck out."
-James B. Conant

In a duplex on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights lived three sisters in an immigrant family struggling to survive. The adjustment to a new land was difficult but preferable to being close to memories of the Nazi regime. As the youngest of three, “Baby Margie” – as she hated to be called -- was easily dwarfed by her tall, beautiful, smart and popular sisters. She resembled a poor imitation of Shirley Temple with her wayward hair whereas her glamorous sisters resembled a stately Jacqueline Kennedy or, perhaps, Barbie. Margie may have been the only family member born on American soil, but she was not very bold. Or was she …

While her sisters were doing all the things people seven and eight years older than her did – trysts with friends and excursions on foot to fun places – Margie explored the world closest to her -- flowers, birds, her dog, her turtle, books and crayons.

Psychologist Alfred Adler contemplated how sibling order influences personality, coining terms like inferiority complex and sibling rivalry. He established this insight having two older siblings of his own. Perhaps had he felt he was the favored child, he might not have acquired insights that still reverberate today.

Adler proposed that “personality difficulties are rooted in a feeling of inferiority deriving from restrictions on the individual's need for self-assertion” (Fisher 2001). But he also felt that people do transcend the limits of their environment with individual powers of adaptation and drive.

Margie did what came naturally for kids: to imagine. Each week, she would not answer to her own name, preferring to respond to Cinderella, Rose Red or Snow White – whatever story had been read to her by her mom.

Years later, in school, when her teachers would ponder Margie’s shyness as compared to more verbal friends, she would bristle, especially when she heard this expression: “We wish she would come out of her shell.” A shell suited her just fine.


Perhaps an early sign that she could think “out of the box” – the crayon box – came with her drawings on the celery green dining room wall. She can remember the sensation of drawing on that wall more than 50 years later. How could that be wrong when it felt right? She was about three, no more than four.

Her mom was upset and scrubbed the wall down with a powerful cleanser and a sponge.

The next morning, out came the crayons and another picture.

Mrs. Shine, exasperated, asked the tenant upstairs for her opinion on this behavior.

“Buy her a blackboard” was the wise reply.

First it was a blackboard about the size of a notebook. It came with a small duck sponge. Soon, it was one on an easel, which made the shy girl a neighborhood celebrity. Margie began holding school in her basement -- even though she had never attended school. Even the neighborhood bully showed up.


Margie’s mom was a skilled pianist. When she would play, the slow-moving Margie would sometimes dance around the house. “You are not allowed to run in here,” her dad would say, stopping that experiment. It took decades for her to muster the courage to take dance, well past the age when most girls did: ballet, folk, modern. Even choreography. When she heard Merce Cunningham, renowned dancer and choreographer, speak at a seminar, an idea made a lasting impression. “A choreographer can work anywhere, within the parameters of the space,” he said. “Even in an elevator.”

“Dancing in an elevator” became her mantra. When life hems one in -- and one must function with restrictions – how to thrive?

Turtles know. They swim, crawl, stretch, withdraw. Even in an elevator.


No one ever said to her: “Poetry is a good way to express yourself.” She somehow found her way there one day when she was eight. She sat down one Saturday at the dining room table and five poems spilled out, effortlessly. She remembers the magical feeling, inspiration. As you’d figure, being something of a turtle, she kept the poems to herself.

But a few months later, her mother was seriously ill in the hospital and Margie was terrified. Somehow, she brought herself to tell her third grade teacher about her worries. This itself was very rare. Her teacher listened.

And somehow Margaret revealed that she had written some poems, and her teacher’s face lit up. “If you ever want to show them to me, you can.”


Fast forward: decades. The little girl, now grown and known as Maria, was again worried about a health crisis, visiting a favorite cousin who had an amputation shortly before Christmas 2011. It was a day she barely could get herself to the hospital, feeling helpless to relieve her cousin’s suffering. She pushed herself to navigate the maze of hospital buildings and wait in a darkened room as her cousin was detained in physical therapy. To compensate for the loss of a limb, every other part of the body is strengthened and pushed to its limits and beyond. When her cousin was wheeled back in, Maria saw sheer exhaustion in her face and shadows under her eyes.

As they sat together with the sun setting outside, a dark-haired intern, Nicholas, lingered in the hall outside the room, He knocked, then entered, holding a case that contained a musical instrument.

Maria wondered if he might be a caroler, and he spoke so gently.

“Oh yeah, he’s the music therapist,” Silvia said. All cylinders fired in Maria’s brain. Real music therapy. Here. Now. She had taught herself to play the piano while working her way through teenage depression. Her mother had brought out the accordion or guitar whenever one of the family was sick. She sang in a choir after her dad had died. Music reaches right into the heart -- where traditional language cannot.

Nicholas had the gifts of a great therapist: rapport, talent and the most ineffable quality of all: empathy. His voice could make ice melt.

Maria learned that Deforia Lane, Nicholas’s supervisor, might stop by. Hearing that, she told her cousin: “Silvia, you must be a VIP if she’s coming in here!” Silvia looked skeptical. Life had been too hard – job loss, foreclosure, health crisis after health crisis – to believe that for one minute.

But the legend herself – for whom a wing at Rainbow Hospital is named – soon entered the room with a desire to help. Obviously, music is her gift but only – only -- if shared with someone else.

“I just asked if she could visit me because she sings so well,” my cousin said.

So Nicholas, with a voice of silver, and Deforia, of gold, sang. But not without Silvia singing too. Nicholas had adapted melodies of her favorite songs and inserted other words relating to her and her family. He gave her a keyboard, partially preprogrammed. Anything she’d tap out would chime in -- but still allow freedom.

Maria asked for a triangle but got a marocca instead. Nicholas led them in breathing exercises to relax, and Silvia said she felt relaxed enough to fall asleep.

Carrying a dinner tray, the nurse’s aide danced in on cue. An afternoon of anguish turned into a celebration.


If born into another household, Maria might have had music or dance or art lessons. But as it turned out, her most accessible and affordable medium over the long term was the written word. Maybe what her grade school teachers said was not so terrible after all. And today she does collect turtles in every medium, from coal to brick to metal to crystal to plastic. Going on 300 turtles, but who’s counting. She likes the metaphor.

# # #

Friday, January 27, 2012

Styles of online commenting

Here are some styles of online commenting. What style do you prefer?

1. e-bullient

This is an enthusiastic response by a colleague or someone you would not mind as one.

2. e-ccentric

Defined as: a posted comment that has little-to-nothing to do with the original topic…it seems to have floated down from another planet, not upward from e-arth. Possibly see also: e-lliptical.

3. e-ffusive

Short and snappy reigns on the net. Ornate may suit the Bronte sisters, but in the novel world of cyberspace, the only taboo is a steady stream of compound-complex sentences. Example: Although some might venture to criticize me for my shameless and/or even peculiar verbosity, I nonetheless feel compelled to enter this spirited discussion here with my erudite colleagues, and I must incorporate the best of my experiences and perspective on higher education…

4. e-ven and odd

Although pleasant on the surface, do watch out as you read such a comment. This commenter may begin by laying it on quite thick; however, this may be just be to induce a gentle trance in the writer—or, less cynically, to build common ground. A sudden zap may be next, so beward. If you wrote what’s being discussed, don’t forget to keep your -elmet on.

5. e-gocentric

What’s wrong with a little self-promotion? Yes, that’s right: a little self-promotion. Repetition works in marketing, or so they say. They say. So plug your book, article, side business, college, or blog … whatever.

6. e-loquent

Something to strive for, and there are such posts in almost every discussion unless some the others listed here dominate the dynamic.

7. e-pidemic

When you start seeing the same type of comment over and over, perhaps it’s the beginning of one. Or perhaps it’s already too late, and there’s no stopping it. It’s endemic to the medium and social behavior, after all.

8. e-quanimity

This is rare cyberspace and possesses resonance. It sometimes makes people really mad, as in "what are you so calm about." Stay the course.

9. e-rased

If a comment is typed, edited, reflected upon, proofread, and even left for an hour to marinate -- but ends up deleted by the writer due to some second or third thought – will a ripple of communication still reverberate somewhere in the universe? Maybe not. At least the writer vented and got needed finger exercise.

10. e-rudite

This type of comment adds grace and eloquence to the discussion.

11. e-rythropsia

Think: Bull--the animal, not the other kind. Although, if the shoe fits…No matter what the topic, this poster sees red. And redder. And is not happy, paradoxically, until the whole queue of readers has eyes and veins bulging and hearts pounding and is digging into the ground with angry paws. ready to charge. If you prefer a less rustic image, think: blasting imaginary horns one after in a traffic jam, when there really is nowhere else to go. It’s the electronic equivalent of road rage.

12. e-scapist

This commenter adds a brushstroke of humor or whimsy to a discussion. Real names are rarely used, so there is no way to compliment the person.

13. e-stoppage

Legal readers may counter that this is really stretching it; however, very, very roughly I suggest that amounts to: Say it ain’t so, first, before the other poster does. It really works best if you read any posted comments from the bottom up.

14. e-viscerating

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the keyboard can be meaner (and faster).

Mus musculus (or a close relative). House mouse.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ethics for lunch: SPJ program at City Club January 11, 2012

After an exhilarating trip to the beautiful city of Seattle for the Modern Language Association's annual conference, I returned to Cleveland eager to beat winter doldrums and squeeze in new insights before my schedule is ruled by my writing classes.

So it was off to the City Club for a light lunch and filling serving of food-for-thought as County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Harlan Spector of the Plain Dealer and Lynda Mayer of the League of Women Voters compared the county's ethical climate one year ago to now. "County Government Ethics: A Followup One Year Later" was sponsored by the Cleveland chapter of Society of Professional Journalists." Carrie Buchanan, assistant professor of communication at John Carroll University and chapter president, did the introductions.

FitzGerald followed a compare/contrast structure for his comments, which made it easy to take swirling notes in a dimly lit room. And the rapt attention of attendees gave me some hope that this is a topic that will sustain civic focus for some time, with not just an expectation of ethical behavior, but also enforcement and engagement.

“Thank you for embarrassing me with the cover of the [Inside Cleveland Business] magazine,” Fitzgerald quipped to Buchanan as he began. (She held it up as she introduced him.) FitzGerald appeared in the Power 100 issue and acknowledged that the public’s trust was at “an all time low” when he took office. “We’re starting to restore some trust,” he said. FitzGerald offered the terms “opaque,” “insular,” “inefficient” and (hesitating) “anti-intellectual” to describe the former administration -- though he was quick to say that he was not calling himself an intellectual. He offered that nuanced policy debates in the past were lacking and collaborations with local universities

There were what he called "big personalities” in county government "[but] I would defy anyone to tell me what their philosophy was.” He added that “there was very little public discussion of why policies were enacted in the first place.” FitzGerald stressed that now there are stricter codes of enforcement of county employee behavior, with two times as many employees disciplined as before in the past year, even though the work force is leaner. A department-by-department review led to streamlining some positions, with about a 7 percent cut, down to 320 employees.

Looking into the future, he said that even if a future county executive is “lax” there needs to be teeth enough in ethics’ code that there is somewhere for a future whistle blower to go. In the past, “the system was overloaded with patronage,” he said. Even summer jobs of minor responsibility were often doled out without sufficient oversight, and these have been replaced with competitive fellowships.

He offered a nod to the media spotlight pointed at the county during the sometime “murky” November to January changeover period between 2010 and 2011. There was less of the “usual mad shuffle to change job titles” and other processes that complicate the changing of administration, FitzGerald said. “That is a sea change difference. We are as transparent as we can possibly be,” he said. “We try to post everything on the net.”

Job performance has been scrutinized, he suggested, and “we’re trying to switch to a merit system . . .[and] every employee has been evaluated.” In the past, he said, personal relationships -- even “a club atmosphere” -- was the norm. He was somewhat surprised that postings for new jobs were not met with as many applicants as he anticipated. In addition, clear benchmarks for job performance were lacking.

Spector said that he “was there for the sausage-making that went into the ethics ordinance” and that “it came together without a lot of terrible bickering.” He felt that putting a conservative Republican, David Greenspan, as chair of the ethics committee “was a pretty good move” and added that “it’s probably the toughest ethics ordinance in the state.”

Mayer served on the transition team that prepared the ethics ordinance and said that Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Milwaukee had particularly relevant ordinances but she had pored over perhaps 20 more. “We agree that we really like the ethics ordinance [we drafted],” she said. “Right now we are really among the best.” She is now in "a wait and see mode,” explaining “we don’t have an ethics board." In the future, if fewer officials are focused on ethics or a vigilant inspector general has his/her position, budget and/or staff cut, conditions could deteriorate.

“Should the inspector general’s office be more independent, and how is that going to happen?” Buchanan asked during the Q/A segment.

Worth pondering.

Tom Troy, "Cuyahoga boasts strongest ethics policy of Ohio's 87 other counties"
Toledo Blade 1/12/2012

Maria Shine Stewart, "Leaders ponder effect of election"
Tri-County Business Journal October 2010, page 1 jumps to 16