Friday, September 28, 2012

Don't Get Caught Blogging Without A License

Free speech is found on many walls in France

Apparently, bloggers are not allowed to give free advice without a license.  At least not in North Carolina.  If I dare tell you what exercise has cured my lower back pain, or which juicing recipe gives me the most energy, or – I guess – what a parent should do about a mouthy teenager in the house, then I just might receive a “cease and desist” warning from some bureacrat in that state.  (So quick – if you’re a reader in N.C., dim your screen in case Big Brother is reading over your shoulder.)

Blogger Steve Cooksey has been writing about the wonders of the Paleo diet ever since he began following it to lose weight and reduce his diabetes risk.  In other words, he tried to eat like a caveman with a clean diet of mean and leafy green vegetables, i.e., a fairly gluten-free diet.  However, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition, alerted by someone about this lone voice crying in the wilderness (uhm, Cooksey and about a million other blogs, newsletters, magazines, and books on the subject), concluded he was counseling without a license.  You can read columnist George Will’s detailed explanation of the issue here.

While they expect him to have a Ph.D or other certification in order to continue his blog, Cooksey has sued on behalf of his free speech rights.

In light of this frightening Internet development, I’ve had to think long and hard about what topics I should avoid so that I don’t come under attack by any government board in my own home state.

Advice about growing older

I’ve enjoyed talking about what I’ve learned as I travel through my midlife.  However, since I’m not a licensed gerontologist I’ll refrain from telling you how to improve your memory, exercise your body, or anything that might make you live longer or feel better.  Anything I’ve learned from all the midlife blogs or health reports I read while searching for that magic pill to combat old age I’ll keep to myself.  I’ll let them be the ones to pay the lawyer fees when someone comes to shut them down for counseling without proper credentials. 


I was about to write a post about fall gardening.  Whew, glad I saw the consequences of suggesting fall plants like the white anemone “Windflower” if you want something to fill a large space where nothing else will continue blooming until frost.  Because I don’t have a “Master Gardener” certificate or a degree in horticulture you might have filled your garden with plants just on my say-so and then, if I didn’t say “water regularly” in my post, suffered a tremendous loss – perhaps even been traumatized – when nothing popped out of the ground in the spring.


DISCLAIMER: I am not now nor ever have been a licensed family counselor or psychologist.  Therefore, if I say a single word about how I survived any parenting crisis, DO NOT take it as any suggestion that you should follow suit.  After all, every child is different so there is NEVER EVER any resemblance between what I experience as a parent and what you might experience so DO NOT LISTEN TO ME.  In fact, if you see that I’m writing about being a parent, shut down the internet immediately unless you are impelled to set rules for your own children that were influence by anything I might have said and then when your kid winds up living in your basement until he’s 33 playing retro-style PlayStation games all night long you try to sue me for giving faulty parenting advice – don’t say I didn’t warn you that I’m not a licensed child psychologist.

Book Reviews

Oh, wait.  This is something I could probably talk about because I spent many years as an undergraduate and graduate student in English departments writing about literature until I perfected the grand art of givingtheteacherwhatshewanted.  Even though I might eat raw squid before reading a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I can talk ad nauseum (because that’s what he does to me) about why he’s a great American author and why everybody else should read him.  I even have a few degrees thrown on a bookshelf somewhere to prove how many hours of my life had been devoted to learning this skill.

Just because you read tons and tons of books in your life doesn’t mean that you are in any way qualified to report on them.  I suspect next North Carolina will be going after Goodreads, demanding its member list to check for those reviewing without the requisite university training that I have.  So I guess it’s decided – this blog will change immediately to one strictly devoted to book reviews and pictures of France.  I think I’m safe with that.

I could try to create some blog posts about the constitutional right to free speech – especially about sharing recipes online (it’s not like he’s writing about how to cook meth, which I’m sure the Nutrition board could find somewhere online if it tried).  However, I might be required to prove I have a J.D. degree in constitutional law, so I’ll just shut up and leave it up to you.  Do you think this is really a matter of safety that bloggers show proof of expertise.  Or, do you think the Dietetics/Nutrition Board is trying to protect its turf?  What kind of restrictions (if any) should bloggers have?  Share your thoughts in the comments box.

On a related note:
I confine myself to myself

The cause is hidden

This summer I visited a chateau that’s the embodiment of the idea of free speech.  When Comte De Bussy-Rabutin displeased King Louis XIV for writing about many of the nefarious doings happening at court he was banished to his family property in the Burgundy region.  He was forbidden to publish any more books, so his home became his story.  He filled the wall with murals and sayings expounding on his life philosophies.  He also amassed a portrait collection of his many mistresses and other celebrities of his day.  On the frames he painted extensive editorial comments, none too complimentary, about them.  The king could not silence him as long as he lived.

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What I Read - End of Summer Review #1

Did you lose a button?

If you have a longing to feel completely inadequate, Le Bon Marché department store in the 7th arrondissement of Paris is definitely the place to go.  On the up side, I didn’t have to worry about my inadequate French because no clerk was going to ask this footsore, windblown gal “May I help you?”  Clearly I wasn’t there to buy 12,000€ steamer trunks or luxury linens.  But I had to go and see it for myself after reading Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames).  This was one of the books that I had announced in June that I would read while in France.

    In his novel Zola dramatized the rise of the consumer culture that Paris’ oldest department store represents.  The small family businesses that lined the sidewalks of 19th century Paris’ narrow, dark, and dirty streets were one by one sacrificed to the wide boulevards and elegant edifices of Haussmann architecture that gave a new face to mid-19th century Paris.  Shopping became a social event and the workers became cogs in this modern machine.

While the 21st century store didn’t have the army of delivery wagons spreading out across the city, responding to the indulgences of the refined ladies of the neighborhood, it had the glass and steel mezzanines overlooking the dozens of departments Zola brought to life with his writing.  We’re so used to department store culture that we may not be aware of how revolutionary it was to sell rugs and perfume and ladies’ ready-made dresses all under the same roof.  The story continues as we see big box behemoths squeeze out neighborhood hardware stores and chains replace local restaurants – all in the name of commerce and progress.

Got a spare 12,450€ for this trunk?

Zola got behind the sparkling displays of his fictive retail mecca to tell the stories of the clerks and their dreams, the politics of this new capitalism, as well as the psychology of the customers caught up in the decadence of giant seasonal sales and the overwhelming selection of fine goods.  As I strolled through the departments populated by manicured, black-jacketed salespeople I could see Zola’s own workers in their uniforms of suits with pocket handkerchiefs and black satin skirts that swished as they hustled about their business.  Although they no longer live in tiny rooms in the attic of the sprawling building working under sweatshop conditions, the clerks still operate in the quiet efficiency of the novel’s characters.

It took me ten minutes to stroll from one end of the perfume department to the other.  Then I paused for 15 minutes in the button department.  Yes, an entire department of buttons within a fabric department that made me want to buy a sewing machine and revisit my life as a young seamstress under my grandmother’s tutelage.  I lounged in an upholstered slipper chair on the edge of the bookstore department, imagining the genteel ladies who came from the stately mansions of rue Varenne to enjoy tea and gossip amid the bustle of modern retail heaven.
Under the roof of the furniture department

 I wished I could have hid my scruffy boots as I walked past the individual boutiques for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and every other trés cher/trés chic name you could conjure.  At least in the La Grande Épicerie de Paris (the food hall with thousands of products from around the world), I could relate to the oh so “exotic” American marshmallow fluff and peanut M&M’s.

Then I bought two small notebooks in the expansive stationary shop so I could acquire a Bon Marché shopping bag before heading back out on to the neighborhood streets of bright limestone façades and pocket parks.  A line of people stretching out the door and down the sidewalk of the nearby Nespresso shop, waiting to stock up on their supply of single-cup coffee capsules, completely erased the image of the old Paris that Zola had painted in his books.  Or maybe it was just the essence of the rising consumer culture he had illustrated so well.

What books have you read that that described a place you had the opportunity to visit in person?  How did it match its expectations?  What book has made you say, “I must go there someday”?  What did you read this summer or what are you reading now that you recommend?  Share all in the comments box.



Friday, September 21, 2012

Oh My Gosh! How Does This Thing Work?

A reminder of a time when a phone was just a phone

Wait.  Where did the screen go?  How do I get it back?

Quick, it’s beeping.  It’s notifying me of something, but how do I find out what?

Arrrrgh!  It’s ringing .  What do I push to unlock it to answer?

Pardon me for freaking out in your presence, but I just became the newest member of TechnoWorld.  I just bought a fancy new smartphone.  I’m learning to swipe, flick, pinch, and everything beyond just making a call.  Did you know nobody buys ring tones anymore?  They customize their own with music they’ve put on their phone.  Crazy.

And so, because I spent an entire afternoon just trying to figure out how to locate and turn off all the factory preset notification beeps before I stab a fork deep into my ear, I didn’t have time to write up the blog topic I had originally planned.  Here’s a post from 2009 that takes you on a bike ride along the canals of the Burgundy region in France.  Take your time.  Turn off your cell phone.  Enjoy the scenery. 

Read and share in the comments box your favorite backroad pleasure trip.  Or . . . tell us what annoys you the most about the world of cell phones.

Along the Burgundy Canal

The best way to experience the Burgundy region is to get out of the city and into the country. Cities like Dijon and Beaune offer so much in terms of food, shopping, and culture, but the smaller villages entice the traveler as well. In the United States if you got off the main highways and took the backroads, there would be a lot of uncertainty as to when you hit a town of any size and if you’d find anything to make you hit the brakes and explore. America has so many small town treasures, but finding them takes real effort and research or a touch of luck.

In the Burgundy region of France, however, enchanting historical villages are strung out along the roads like pearls on a necklace. You rarely go more than 5 kilometers before seeing a sign with an arrow pointing to another one just around the bend. Each one makes you want to stop and spend a few hours relishing the gardens or the history or lunch while watching the local traffic, which is frequently measured in bicycles or pedestrians.

Read More Here…

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Creativity Could Become Habit Forming

Is your creativity as overflowing as this Natchez porch, or do you need a little work?

Don’t you just hate it when the cosmos gives you too many shoves toward what you should be doing?  Last week I made some big statement about developing the habit of “getting started.”  Like it meant something.  Like I planned on working seriously on this habit.  Yeah, right.  Then just when I almost managed to forget that I was supposed to develop the habit of habits by focusing on a priority for five minutes each day, when I was about to get back to eating some Ben & Jerry ice cream while reading a garden magazine, well, the importance of habit slapped me upside the head again.

Since I’m so much behind in my serious reading I turned on my e-reader to give five minutes to a book that had sat there ignored since mid-summer.  Jeff Goins, in You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One), gave me that proverbial shove. Weightlifters, he said, don’t get sore muscles like we do because they get up, push hard, and then do it again the next day.  “If you practice every day you don’t get fatigued.  All muscles are built this way, even creative ones,” he reminded us [my emphasis].

Oh, I see.  Make it a habit.

Then when taking five minutes to catch up with blog reading, here it came again.  On the Copyblogger blog, Dean Rieck hit me hard with his proclamation about a primary trait of creative people:

And to a large degree, creativity is a learned behavior. It’s a matter of how you approach things, how you act or react to new circumstances, your proclivity to look at things in different ways, your willingness to question, experiment, and take chances. In other words, creativity is not “what you are” as much as “what you do.”  Think of creativity as a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

This perspective on creativity seems to be habit-forming.

When I was deep in the academic world, every day wonderfully intelligent and creative people surrounded me as icons and mentors and inspirations.  It was easy to use that part of my mind to produce ideas and paragraphs that made other people talk and think.  It’s now so much harder to produce the routine of creativity when the people I should be modeling are not live presences in my day but rather only words on a page or a long-distance relationship through e-mail and social media.

I know that many great artists got up every morning and produced and pushed even if no one recognized their genius.  They kept working those muscles.  Their habits became a passion.

Can I be allowed thirty seconds to whine about how hard it is to build that habit of creativity if you haven’t been able to find or construct a like-minded community?

Ok.  Rant over.

In the meantime, I think I’ll form my own fantasy creativity team, people who know something about putting in the time and pushing through even when the path seems blocked.  I’d love to have them all to dinner just to listen to their thoughts on what makes a person creative and how they trained their own muscles:

Samuel Johnson – prolific 18th century writer in multiple genres and compiler of The Dictionary of the English Language

J.K. Rowling – the mind that imagined the incredibly complex world of Harry Potter and peopled it with absolutely distinct and unique characters

Keith Urban – guitar god and songwriter; human jukebox (really, there’s not a song he can’t sing) [true story: I actually did have breakfast with him, or rather, three feet away from him but I became catatonic due to his gorgeousness, fetching Aussie accent, and infectious laugh; then he was gone before I could gather my wits and make my feet move in his direction]

Leonardo da Vinci – well, wouldn’t you want to know how he did what he did?

William Shakespeare – well, duh, yeah

Benjamin Franklin – where wasn’t he creative?

Jon Stewart – the honorable art of parody and satire has not died, thanks to Jon

Dr. Suess – a master of creative language; maybe he’ll instigate a rhyme-off after dinner

I realize that I’m not exactly gender-balanced with this list.  And it’s not very long.  But it’s late.  So I leave it up to you.  Who would you invite to this banquet honoring the creative mind and its habits?  Add to the comments box who you think would be suitable dinner partners (and perhaps some suggestions for the menu).  OR tell us what you do to keep the creative muscles well-lubricated.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Zen and the Art of Just Getting the Darn Thing Done

Portland, Oregon's Chinese Garden 

Help me to have the courage to finish what I have begun
and to begin what I want to finish.
Phyllis Theroux

This is the time of year when I realize that the time is short to accomplish all the goals I energetically set at the beginning of the year (for example, this little one).  The blogging drought is the biggest sign of the physical and mental inertia that squeezed me like a Hollywood movie anaconda after I returned from France.  A dozen half-finished, never-posted blog entries became lost in the forest of my computer files while I spent my time instead developing a serious opinion about the new hairstyle of tabloid favorite, Miley Cyrus.

One thing I managed to finish was essayist Phyllis Theroux’s graceful memoir, The Journal Keeper.  This summer in France I made a spastic attempt to maintain a relevant and detailed travel journal.  Another unfinished product.  Theroux’s own journal can make her readers sob because they will never be so poetic or so detailed in their own daily scribblings.  But that is no reason to hate her.  The memoir made from her edited journals covers a period in her life when many women just disappear into the woodwork.  She fights that tendency along with writer’s block, her mother’s deteriorating health, and financial stress.

Rather than give you a review that in no way matches Theroux’s lyrical observations I’ll just offer her own words as evidence why you should read it:

  • On a mundane level, I think I am capable of swimming half a mile with relative ease.  But in the water I don’t do it because I feel myself to be weak in resolve.  And what I feel is stronger than what I think.  In my writing, I am fearful of risk or change, not because I wouldn’t if I could, but because I don’t think I can.  Here, what I think prevails.  Do I have anything to say?
  • It is true that you become what you love.  I love ideas, words, people, and food.  So I am an intellectual with lots of friends who is twenty pounds overweight.  If I were to love exercise, thrift, and truth I would be better off.
  • [My mother] spent a good deal of time wondering, as she phrased it, how to put in my day.  I think that knowing how to put in your day is one of the great unspoken problems of being alive.

I’m continually drawn back to Theroux’s small prayer at the top of this page.  Hand raised.  Guilty as charge.  I’m the world’s worst starter of anything.  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

My plate is so full right now that it looks like I went through the line for Sunday brunch twice before I even began to eat.  Pre-action decisions about which problem or task has top priority, what’s the best way to approach the situation, what I need to do first before I even begin to make a move paralyze me so that nothing gets done until crisis mode hits.

The solution seems so simple – so obvious.  Do something.  Anything to break the logjam.  Len Babauta of the blog Zen Habits understands how hard it is to develop new habits and abandon the unproductive actions that control our days.  If we fixate on our goal, e.g., to do 30 minutes of cardio every day or write 1000 words each day, it may seem too daunting a task even to begin.

The key to forming a new habit, Babauta says, is not how much you do of the habit each day, but just whether you do it at all.  In other words, it’s not whether you do 50 sit-ups a day but whether you do just one.  “Focus on the smallest thing — just getting started. You don’t have to do even 5 minutes — just start. That’s so easy it’s hard to say no,” he instructs us.

Well . . . duh.

Yet it really is hard to do that one freakin’ minute of filing loose paperwork that would set me on the road to having an organized office and desk.  Or to commit to writing one minute – let alone 5 minutes – each day.  But I’m game if you are.

This is like in yoga class when we’re instructed at the beginning to set a one-word intention for our practice or our day.  I choose such intentions as peace or energy, depending on how many aches and pains my body has that day.  Maybe I should add a new intention -- commence.

In the time I have left to have a productive year, perhaps I’ll say Phyllis Theroux’s little prayer each morning and then commit to working for one minute on anything on my exhaustive to-do list.  Then the rest of the day is mine to waste.  Who knows?  Maybe if I develop this new habit of starting I’ll improve my record on finishing.

Are you someone who has more trouble starting or finishing?  How do you get over that hurdle?  What one thing would you apply Babauta’s simple technique to right now?  Share all you know about starting or ending good habits in the comments box.  It will only take a minute.

Do you feel you have as many tasks to do as stones in this walk?
How do you get them done?

Monday, September 10, 2012

In Defense of Rhetoric (no, really)

The French are not shy about stating their opinion wherever it's convenient

Hey ho!  This blog has had a long drought.  It’s suffered along with the grass in my back yard and all of my trees from a combination of unbearable heat (global warming? what global warming?) and end-of-summer doldrums.  After getting home from France I lost my mojo amidst the almost two months of mail piled up, family obligations, and assorted physical maladies (my sister says it’s age, but I know it’s worse than that).  After spending two weeks obsessed with political convention-watching, though, I’m revved up and ready to move forward again.

Yes, I’m a political discourse junkie and every four years I gorge myself on the good, the bad, and the ugly of campaign rhetoric. I’m like a dog ecstatically rolling and wriggling in the back yard on the decaying remnants of a dead bird or rabbit poop or any other disgusting thing that the rest of you have enough sense to avoid.  I’m in hog heaven.  You see, in a previous life I was a rhetorical theorist.  I’m being literal here.  Analyzing public discourse, teaching its fine art, delving into its history was as natural as blinking or breathing.  I have an actual Ph.d in Rhetoric (or, as my husband once said “a doctorate in arguing).

Now, I’m talking rhetoric with a capital “R.”  Aristotle.  Plato.  Martin Luther King.  Not rhetoric as “that speech was mere rhetoric – all hot air and Madison Avenue fluff.”  I researched such topics as “ethical rhetoric” and “ethical audiences” (yes, the audience has as many obligations as the speaker).  I delved deeply into how communities reason together about conflicting values, using words rather than violence to move forward together and make changes for the better.


The college freshmen I taught came of age in a growing atmosphere of cynicism, though.  Frequently, the “arguments” my students wrote were just opinion papers.  “Try again,” I’d say.  “You’re preaching to the converted and not considering the concerns of those who actually don’t agree with you.”  This brought the same response every time:  “Why?  Everybody has their own opinion and you can’t change it.”   This meant that not only did they not think their readers would ever change, they were also certain that they themselves would never be of another mind.

Their perception that you can’t change anyone’s opinion – as if we’re born thinking a certain way that can’t be altered just like we’re born with a certain eye color – made me want to cry.  “How would we have had a Declaration of Independence?” I would ask.  “How would women and blacks have gotten the vote?  How do people live in harmony if it’s not possible to find common ground?  How do we ever avoid war?”

During their short lifetime, all they saw from leaders was a growing incivility in public discourse and increasing partisanship.  It’s what language scholar Deborah Tannen christened “The Argument Culture.”  In her book of the same name, she shows how we’ve come to view all issues from a non-constructive, polarized perspective where we’re not trying to understand the other person but simply win the argument.  Instead of making an argument, we’re having an argument or fight.

So ends this intro lesson on the history of rhetoric.  I just wanted to remind you that it is possible to have political discourse that is healing and effective.  Not all rhetoric is evil or the product of professional spinmeisters.  You’ll find no cynicism or point-scoring in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”  Blogging whiz and high school English teacher extraordinaire Laura Sauer makes my point a little more succinctly in her recent blog post about Facebook and politics.  She reminds us that listening is as important as speaking in that popular digital marketplace of ideas.  Really, you should go here and see what set her to riffin’ in her very modern style on theories of classical rhetoric (whether she meant to or not).  She’s very good at making an argument.

And I’m sure she’d agree with me that now is the time to check your voting registration status.  Remember – if you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.

I’m sure we could all give a million examples of recent political discourse that sent us running for the hills, that made us want to hide from the present political scene altogether.  What examples can you share in the comments box of language used to bring sides closer together rather than treat some particular group as the enemy?  Do you think public discourse has gone downhill?  Why?   Or, you can simply tell me what you did on your summer vacation.  We have some catching up to do.

This photo has nothing to do with my post, but we've had some rain here in the Midwest lately, so I dream that my Droughtland is soon going to be as green as the Scottish Highlands
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