Respect for the Introvert, Please!

America is known as a nation of extroverts.  Surrounded by older countries with cultures based on reserve and tradition, we celebrate our exuberant, gregarious, national character and do our best to perpetuate the image.  But, amidst the ballyhoo and high-fiving, we have to ask ourselves: are we really all extroverts?  If we’re not, why are we pretending to be?
The answers, according to Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, may surprise you.  The fact is, approximately half of this country’s population have introvert personalities.  These are the people who prefer the company of a few friends to a crowd of people, who aren’t anxious to dominate every conversation, who thrive on solitude and silence.  Unfortunately, those needs are often ignored by a culture who values the socially adept, team-player and distrusts the standoffish loner. Ms. Cain makes the argument that not only does this half of society deserve more respect, but that these quiet people may be the stronger, more creative individuals in our population and, on balance, the best leaders.
What makes one person the life of the party with the next is a little withdrawn?  Science isn’t sure but the pattern seems to set in early.  Studies done on infants measured how each child responded when introduced to new things in its environment.  Some barely reacted at all to the unfamiliar objects while others waved their arms and yelled.  The low-reactors tended to develop into relaxed, forthright personalities while the high-reactors became more sensitive, thoughtful children who were more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. The high-reactors became introverts and often shamed because they aren’t part of the group.
Now the thing about introverts is, they like to go off in a corner and consider things.  They’re keen puzzle and problem-solvers. Introverts become our great artists and thinkers, engineers, researchers, visionaries and statesmen.  Because they don’t like the limelight, few introverts take leadership positions but those that do encounter a greater rate of success because they are willing to listen to their subordinates and focus on making their team (instead of them) a success.  So why don’t we listen to the quiet ones.
One exercise Ms. Cain mention showed the more aggressive speaker can actually change a listener’s perception.  A group of people undergoing MRIs were answering questions correctly until an actor in the group deliberately started shouting the wrong answers.  Those that agreed with the incorrect answers had brain activity that showed their perception of the problem changed.  The few that held on to correct answers had different patterns and a change in the amygdala that showed resisting the crowd created a level of fear.  A study like this explains how a company – or country – can fall into a course of action that, in hindsight, is obviously wrong.  The louder, more aggressive speaker convinces many their initial conclusions are wrong and the remainder are afraid to speak up.  
This is the danger of “the Culture of Personality”, when we gravitate to leaders and role models based on their appeal to our emotions.  These are charismatic, gregarious, extroverted people with oratorical skills to sway the masses but that doesn’t mean they have the necessary character or skills to improve our world. Instead, we should respect our introverts, give them the freedom to be who they are and listen when one of them has something to say.  The wrapping on their gifts may be less flashy but the treasures they bring are worth more.

If you are interested in more information about this topic, you can hear the author’s TED talk at

Does Anyone Else Re-Read Their Books?

One of my dear friends and fellow book-nuts holds a round-robin post each week.  Every Wednesday on her group page, the question appears: What are You Reading Right Now?   Everyone responds and it’s a good spot to exchange book news and compare thoughts but I don’t know how to tell them the truth: for each new book I’ve read, I’ve re-read at least 4 or 5 more.  My question is: does that make me a nut?
A lot of people seem to espouse the “seen this, done that” philosophy.  Each new day is a different challenge to accept; every vacation explores a different horizon. One very nice man I know dislikes seeing a movie more than once.  For him, one viewing is sufficient and a lot more people seem to read books that way than watch movies.  Does my re-reading mean that I’m slow?

On one level, I suppose the answer is “yes” but (ironically) it’s because I’m a fast reader.  Put a well-paced, interesting book my hands and I’ll rip through the story like a tornado. I’ll pick up the plot and pursue it, scanning the pages faster and faster on a breakneck trip to the end.  I’ve been reading that way for so long, I don’t think that pattern will break but on the first read I miss things. The fact is, writers spend a great deal of time, working out the balance of each paragraph and sentence and speed reading doesn’t give you the opportunity to savor the art that goes into each story.  That kind of knowledge and appreciation only comes, in my case, through repetition.  Some books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, yield fresh insights if you read it at different ages.  At one age, it’s an indictment of institutionalized racism.  On another, it’s a child’s eye view of an eccentric Southern world.  Read it in a third age and you’ll see a love song to small-town life, with a clear-eyed view of its virtues and sins.  All of those stories are there, but I didn’t see them at the same time.  It took repeated re-readings.

The truth is I enjoy re-reading some books; it’s like visiting a long beloved friend after a long absence.  One I have known the longest is The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale.  As a child, I adored the adventures of Toad, that silly ADHD animal, and skipped non-Toad chapters to keep up with his story. (If any character in English Literature would benefit from Ritalin, it would be Toad)  Now, Water Rat’s Integrity and Mole’s sweetness that capture my heart.  At any rate, when I reopen those pages, it’s not to return to my childhood. It’s to experience a story again that clarified my perspective or enriched my soul.
So, I’ll continue to re-read, even as I search for new stories. Luckily, good books are like good friends; there’s always room in my heart to add new ones. It’s like the Girl Scouts song says:

Make new friends but keep the Old;

One is Silver and the Other’s Gold

May your bookshelves are laden with treasure.

Seeing Life Through Pinhole Glasses

Christopher doesn’t mind touching dead things.  Christopher doesn’t like being touched.  Christopher thinks metaphors are stupid but he understands and adores prime numbers.  Often the world is too loud and bright for this fifteen year old boy’s comfort and people he meets are in it extremely confusing.  As far as Christopher is concerned, all of life would be better if it were predictable, like a mystery story.

As such, Christopher John Francis Boone takes center stage as narrator and autistic hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  Recognition of this development disorder has been growing for the last two decades and the Centers for Disease Control believes that roughly one percent of the world’s population is a member of this group (U. S. statistics suggest that number is low).  That means at least 74 million people are participating in life right now without the verbal and non-verbal communication skills the rest of us use without effort.  Minus the ability to recognize or understand the nuanced feelings of others, these people go through life often aware they don’t quite fit in with  “regular people” but unable to bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of the world. The condition becomes a filter they gaze through, seeing somethings clearly but missing part of the world, like someone looking at life through Pinhole Glasses. 
Christopher’s perceptions are limited by his disorder and by a lack of information.  His mother disappeared awhile ago but his father doesn’t want to talk about it.  Mr. Shears’s name can’t be mentioned but Christopher isn’t told why beyond the statement, “That man is evil.”  Then someone kills the neighbor’s dog and Christopher has a mystery he cannot ignore.  He decides to use the methods of his hero, Sherlock Holmes, to find out what happened to the dog.  What results is a lesson in unearthing the odd corners of the human heart.
While Christopher is mystified by the actions and reactions of the people that surround him, his creator, Mark Haddon, is not.  Mr. Haddon allows Christopher to tell the story so that the love, frustration and sadness of the non-autistic characters shine through, even though Christopher doesn’t see the clues.  Haddon’s skill simultaneously shows us the world Christopher sees with its  attendant terrors, triumphs and confusion without condescension or judgment of his hero.  Although he may seem impaired by our standards, Christopher views himself as a complete, competent soul who responds reasonably to strange situations.  By the end, you may think he is right.
For those of us who know or love anyone on the autism spectrum, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a godsend but it’s so much more than that.  Anyone who has ever been mystified by the actions of others or been faced with a situation difficult to handle can empathize with Christopher.  It’s also good for anyone who has had to forgive actions they do not understand.  In other words, we’ve all lived in Christopher’s world and his story is for all of us.

Where Memory Resides With History

Thanks for the Memories

A friend from college visited me earlier this summer. She’s a great gal and it’s always terrific to see her but before she arrived, I wondered where I should take her during our visit. We have the usual amenities within easy driving distance but why bring her to some spot like another near her home?  In the end, we went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and memorial to the Civil Rights Struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. It was the right thing to do. Birmingham’s history with the Movement may not be what the city wants to be known for but it’s our calling card in the pages of history. Hiding from the past never helps.

Because of Birmingham’s infamous role in that struggle, explaining positive aspects of this place to the casual outsider can be difficult.  (Well, some of my Caucasian friends have admitted this is hard; I haven’t got the nerve or bad manners to find out if my African-American friends here face the same issues.)  In the face of bombed churches and fire-hoses, how can anyone describe warm-hearted people and neighborhoods without sounding like a fool or a racist?  How can the domestic joys of tree-lined streets, southern cuisine and music be reconciled with murdered children and systematic oppression?  How do you balance the good in a place that has held so much evil?

Diane McWhorter set out to do something like this in her prize-winning book, Carry Me Home.  As a white child of the South she admittedly grew up “on the wrong side of the revolution” and her recollection of Birmingham’s melt-down was similar to my memory of living in Texas when President Kennedy was shot. Distanced by youth and luck from the epicenter, only the  faintest reverberations of nation-shaking events initially touched either one of us. Repercussions from the 16th Street Church bombing threatened to affect her high school musical. The President’s murder  upset my mother and preempted my Saturday Morning Cartoons.
Ms. McWhorter eventually realized her family might have closer ties to “Bombingham” than she originally supposed and part of Carry Me Home traces the twin strata of racism and social caste that ran through the power structure of 1960’s Birmingham and how those two methods of exclusion supported each other.  The wealthiest power brokers of Birmingham limited their public resistance to integration by complaining about “outside agitators” while ignoring the circumstances that drove the agitation and privately supporting/manipulating the civil authorities that turned peaceful demonstrations into full-scale riots.  These business leaders turned a blind eye to the violent actions of their local government and law enforcement much as those in governmental authority chose not to see the clandestine relationship between some of their members and the Klan. The end of legalized segregation in Birmingham wasn’t just a political victory for a coalition of under-funded, often competitive leaders.  It was a David-and-Goliath struggle where David couldn’t stop fighting until Goliath realized he was wrong.
That realization came more slowly to some than others and there are still days when I despair of the future but something my husband said once comforts me.  In the middle of the Rodney King riots he reminded me that Birmingham faced some ugly truths about itself in the middle of the 20th century. It wasn’t an easy or a pleasant task but, as as a result, the town lost its blinders and began the long, slow, turn towards tolerance.  He went on to say that more peaceful cities often assumed they didn’t have Birmingham’s issues and ignored the pockets of hate still  festering within their own borders. Only a tragedy on their own doorstep would expose the latent evil and rip away their personal blinders.  In the aftermath of a tidal wave of hate-based murders, the only good thing I can hope for is that other communities are starting to recognize the problems and divisions they contain.
No atonement will bring back the dead or repair the families blasted by loss but I believe humanity tends to correct its mistakes, once it sees what they are. We saw that in the respectful, kind way all the staff and visitors treated each other at the Civil Rights Institute that day. That’s why places like the BCRI and books like Ms. McWhorter’s are important. Not only do they honor the lost, they teach us how to create a better future instead of repeating the sins of the past.

The Scents of Summer

We’ve officially moved into the Summer Season, the one we dream of during the dreary, wet days of February and the long brutal nights of Winter.  The thermometer has begun it’s annual low boil of mercury, keeping the glass over the 90 degree mark opaque but I am not complaining.  This is a glorious time of year, when the earth seems to spill over with an abundance of living things and I am its eager audience.  More than any other, Summer is a season of scents for me and a single whiff sends me into a cascade of memories eternally tied to this season.

Lilac I grew up in a two bedroom house, unprepossessing in appearance.   Between the patchy lawn and the faded exterior, it would never draw the eye except for 10 days every year when the wall of lilac surrounding the house blossomed.  For the rest of the year the bushes were just as a privacy fence between us and the neighbors, but each year, between May 1 and my birthday, they burst into glorious bloom, drowning the block in scent and turning our wren-brown house into a thing of beauty, framed by that delicate color. In the morning, I could bury my face in the blossoms or pick armfuls of them for pleasure.  In the evening we sat on the porch and I watched my mom tilt her head backto immerse herself further into the waves of this marvelous perfume.  The flowers would eventually fall, leaving behind long, leafy saplings that my sister and I cut and pealed to create “hiking staffs” for our rambles to imaginary summits.  New owners took possession of the house and, I understand, eradicated the wall of lilac.  I can’t understand this.  Without that waterfall of flowers, how can they know when summer begun?

Swimming Pool Smells  A sub-group of people in this country think of summer whenever they start to do laundry.  They should be known, collectively, as the Pool Kids. Not every generation equated summer with swimming and not everyone had access to a pool but for a certain number of years, those of us who did spent every spare minute and penny we could in that concrete hole full of chemicals and water.  From late spring until the next school year started, we prayed for sun each day and then begged our mothers for the price of admission.  Kids spent a lot of those summer days dressed in swim suits, either for the morning swimming lessons or for the afternoon free-for all and more than one blonde head turned green over the summer due to long-term exposure to the chlorinated water.  Of course, chlorine is only the base note of the Swimming Pool perfume.  The complete fragrance also carries the scent of Baby-Oil and the grace notes of Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic.   Older girls drenched themselves in this marinade of emollients and then laid by the side of the pool, hoping to roast to a golden-brown and attract the attention of boys.  That pungent combination of unguents and chemicals is a time machine on me.  One whiff and I’m back at the five foot ladder listening to the whistle of the life-guard and the ker-splash! of a cannonball dive.
Peaches At one time, I couldn’t stand Peaches.  When  I was very small, Mom would stop by orchards that would sell all the fruit we could pick for a pre-specified price.  The only thing was, we didn’t pick the fruit.  Mom stood under the tree and directed me up the trunks to pull the fruit from the branches. climb down and hand them to her.  Between the heat, the small, knobbly branches and the fuzzy fruit, the trees were a misery to climb and with every peach, I was terrified that I’d also pick up a worm.  I didn’t care about any of the wonderful desserts or preserves Mom promised she’d make from my labors and no amount of explanation could help her understand why I loved climbing the mimosa tree at home but hated everything to do with peaches.  It took me years to reconsider.

The American South is justifiably known for it’s incredible bounty of peaches and one of the “Peach Capitals” of the region is where I changed my mind.  Years ago, a boss took me on a late summer field trip that ended in one of these Peach Palaces. It was just after harvest and the late summer sun made the afternoon dusty-hot but my boss knew her way to the air-conditioner and a plate of home-made Peach Ice Cream.  I could have wept for the sweetness and the foolish years I had wasted avoiding the miracle of peaches.  Since then, I’ve haunted fruit stands and farmers markets for peaches and when they are fresh in the store, I sniff them like a bouquet of flowers.  Peaches are the last, rich, best part of summer for me, vibrant, juicy and sweet, already spicy in their own nectar.

There’s something to love about every part of the year, some stillness or quickening to appreciate.  There’s glory in the color of the autumn, joy in the blossoming of spring and a reverence in the still, white, silence of winter.  Enjoy them each in turn but don’t neglect the scents of summer.  They’re a feast for the senses.