50 thoughts on turning 50: #33 Question everything (or maybe not)

Screenshot of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

Screenshot of some of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

As much as I hate to admit it, I like Facebook quizzes. I know they’re created so Facebook and other companies can collect information from users, but I’m still always amazed when they give me results as if they actually have tabulated my answers and analyzed them.

So when my friend Linda shared a link to a quiz about the “Four Tendencies”, I had to try it. The quiz was created by author Gretchen Rubin as part of the research for her book, “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life” in which she tackles the question of how we can make good habits and break bad ones.

I know it’s just part of the book marketing, but I was curious anyway. Especially because I know Rubin is the author of “The Happiness Project (Revised Edition): Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”, in which she takes a year to explore the idea of what makes us happy. I haven’t read the book, partly because around the time it came out, I’d been exploring a somewhat similar topic and thinking about writing a book. I’d amassed a box full of notes and research. When I saw her book, I sighed and moved on to another idea.

Theoretically, anyway. What I really did was start researching the next book idea. Research isn’t writing. As my publisher well knows.

But back to the quiz. It’s a simple quiz, just a few questions about how you respond to some general situations, like making a New Year’s resolution or dealing with expectations. When I got my results, I wasn’t surprised: I’m a Questioner.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I ask a lot of questions. (Ask my friend Laura.) I over research and over analyze. I’ll ask questions about your questions and then go research the answers. So what did surprise me was that, according to the quiz, Questioners “resist outer expectations” and “meet inner expectations”.

I often do reject other people’s expectations of me. I wouldn’t say that’s been a lifelong thing; only in the past maybe 10 or 15 years have I really been able to stand up to people who boss me around, and to stop living other people’s expectations of me and living my own.

Except that in that rejection of other people’s expectations, I haven’t really been able to hold onto my own expectations of myself. I don’t feel like I ever live up to my own expections.

I let myself down. A lot.

But then I mused a bit on the quiz’s explanation:

“Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect. Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, right now I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework, yep, you’re probably a Questioner!”

This is really quite accurate. I don’t just reject what other people want or expect; I do what I think is right and worthwhile and justified and respectful. As for my inner expectations? I do meet them – when I feel they’re justified.

I’m not always a slacker.

In the follow up email – because of course I signed up to get more information – I learned that Questioners are motivated by logic, fairness, and reason. They do exhaustive research and often suffer from paralysis by analysis.

And then a light bulb went off over my head: this is me, and maybe this is why I can’t finish a writing project.

It’s not that I don’t want to or that I’m not willing to do the work. It’s because, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel like anything I write has value, it doesn’t meet my own inner expectations. Outside expectations don’t matter – reader feedback or a deadline or a paycheck or even a signed book contract. What matters is what I’m thinking inside, what I’m expecting from myself: do I feel it’s quality work? Is it an idea that will bring value to other people’s lives? Is it necessary, in a world being bombarded with information, to add my creative voice to the clamor? Am I doing the best job I can do?

Probably not.

Which I know isn’t sound reasoning. I know some of my writing is good – no, great. So it’s not like I never like my own work. I just balance what I offer with what the world needs and often find myself wanting.

Of course, if I think about it, if I really believe that my creative work has no value, then am I questioning the integrity of the publications that pay me? These aren’t stupid people. They’re not giving me money to be charitable. I clearly write something they need. My publishers put out some quality stuff. They’re also dear, dear friends. But they’re not having me write a book to do me some kind of favor. I respect these people…don’t I? Maybe in not believing in their belief of me, I’m actually not respecting them?

I think it’s what Rubin means when she writes in the more detailed tendency report:

“Questioners are motivated by sound reasons—or at least what they believe to be sound reasons. In fact, to others, Questioners can sometimes seem like crackpots, because they may reject expert opinion in favor of their own conclusions.”

All of this shouldn’t surprise you. The fact that I’ve done an entire blog post based on a few lines of feedback from a Facebook quiz should give you all the proof you need that I’m a crackpot.

So what do I need to do? Stop questioning myself. Or should I?  Isn’t research good? Isn’t learning more better than not know learning more?

What I really need to do is get the book and see what Rubin suggests for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. You know, do more research.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. It won’t surprise you that it’s been two years since I started this project and I’m just a little more than halfway. I told you when I first posted it might take me until I’m 60 to finish. Now I know why. You can  read more posts here.







50 thoughts on turning 50: #32 Nothing but the truth (but whose truth?)

I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.

In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.

Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.

Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.

What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.

What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).

The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.

It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.

This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.

Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.



Notes from the Fringe 2016: Dashboard Dramas

The cast of Dashboard Dramas III, in the rain

The cast of Dashboard Dramas III, opening weekend, in the rain

The first weekend of Fringe Festival is behind us, and unlike last year, when I got to roam around and see show after show and write about everything, this year I was in “Dashboard Dramas III”, the wildly popular and hilariously unconventional show that takes place in cars parked inside the Spiegelgarden.

Less writing time, but way more fun.

It works like this: there are four cars, and each car is the “stage” for a ten minute play. All four plays are happening simultaneously. Two audience members are inside each car, and they rotate from car to car until they’ve seen all four plays in about 50 minutes.

These cars are the stage for four ten-minute plays.

These cars will be the stage for four ten-minute plays.

That means that for every show, the cast performs their plays four times. Two shows a day = eight performances. Three shows a day = twelve performances. The show kicked off last Thursday with two shows. Two more on Friday, three each on Saturday and Sunday. When opening weekend was over, we’d all performed our ten minute plays 30 times. Continue reading

Notes from the Fringe 2016: A sneak peek at Cirque du Fringe


A sneak peek at one of the acts in this year’s “Cirque du Fringe”.

The Fringe Festival opens tomorrow, and today I got a sneak peek at the main event in the Spiegeltent, the “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cure”.

I was spellbound last year by “Cabinet of Wonders”, and Matt Morgan and company are back again with acrobats, a high wire walker, crossbow archers, jugglers, and more. It’s music and comedy and another dose of the magic that made last year’s show a sell out.


No circus is complete without a tightrope walker.

The preview wasn’t a dress rehearsal, so my photos don’t begin to speak how amazing the show will be when costumes, lights, and all of the props are in place. (In fact, I don’t even have all of the performer’s names yet; I’ll add them as I get them).


This is Timo with his father, Jan Damm, one of the performers. Timo makes a brief appearance in the show.


From the outside of the Spiegeltent, you’d never know there was room for an aerial dancer inside.

But today, media was invited to watch a run through of the show. Even without costumes, and with the stops and starts as the cast finalized show details, it was a wonderful way to spend two hours.


A comedic musical interlude with a ukelele and belly bongo .


This lovely pup belongs to one of the performers. She was content to nap amidst the circus preparation.

I liked being able to eavesdrop on discussions about moving apparatus and segueing between acts and synchronizing everything to music cues. They make it look so easy in the show. But in reality there’s a lot of coordination necessary to ensure each moving piece is where it should be, when it should be there.

Which is important when one of your acts is shooting arrows from crossbows. Across the audiences’ heads.


You’ll be holding your breath during this act.

Music this year is from John and Caroline Shannon; he’s from TheSHIFT (you can learn more on his artist Facebook page). Just like last year, the music really pulls the show together, and you’ll want to check out their CD, which will be available in the Fringe merch tent.

If you haven’t gotten tickets to “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cure” yet, don’t wait. Opening night is already sold out, and once audiences see the full show, tickets will go fast. Even though I’ve already seen most of the show, I have a ticket to see it this week. I can’t wait.

For the complete Fringe Festival schedule, visit the festival website.







Notes from the Fringe 2016: The Spiegeltent

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The centerpiece of the ten-day long Rochester Fringe Festival is the beautiful Spiegeltent, located in the Spiegelgarden at the corner of Main and Gibbs Streets in downtown.

Don’t let the word “tent” mislead you; this isn’t any regular canvas event tent. This is an actual structure with walls and a wooden floor that, as I write, is being constructed from the ground up by a crew that travels with the tent from city to city, assembling and then dismantling the tent of wonders. Today, they’re toiling away in Rochester’s hot and humid weather.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015, is currently being assembled for this year's festival.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015.

Last year, I was awed by the Spiegeltent. It’s magical and beautiful, and it houses the festival’s headlining acts. This year it’s “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cures and Other Wonders From the Vagabond Caravan”, hosted by Matt Morgan and Mark Gindick, and complete with a cast of characters that include acrobats, musicians, comedians, and more.

It’s all quite spectacular to behold. Continue reading

Notes from the Fringe 2016: the countdown begins


Cirque du Fringe: MIRACLE CURE & Other Wonders from the Vagabond Caravan

Rochester’s arts and entertainment community is in the final stages of preparation for the 2016 First Niagara Fringe Festival, which takes place Thursday, September 15 to Saturday, September 24, all across Rochester. There will be more than 500 performances at more than 25 venues in and around the city. And 170 of those performances are totally free!

Last year, I had the chance to cover Fringe for Rochester Subway, and I also blogged about it on my own blog (read the posts here). Not only did I enjoy the festival, I got to explore Rochester in a way I never had before. It also helped dispel some myths I’ve held onto about safety and parking and meandering around the city at night.

This year, I’ll be reporting on Fringe from inside the festival: I’ve got a role in the wildly popular Dashboard Dramas! Set inside cars parked in the Spiegelgarden, there are four ten-minute plays happening simultaneously, with two spectators in each car. When each play is over, the audience rotates, until they’ve seen all four plays in about 50 minutes.

A scene from Dashboard Drama II, in 2015

A scene from Dashboard Drama II, in 2015

This is a whole new experience for me. (Fringe seems to really take me out of my comfort zone). I’ve done a few small acting things, but I would hardly say I’m experienced in theater. Not by a long shot. But I do improv, and I love it, and a lot of the people I’m working with in this are people I know from the improv community, and I’m grateful for the chance to try something new.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, unlike last year, when I spent countless hours wandering around downtown, talking to people and taking photos and finding odd stories – including riding in the bucket up the outside of the Powers Building with artist Scott Grove to inspect the facade – I won’t be able to do that this year. But I’ll file some reports from backstage and on the streets whenever possible. I’m hoping to do daily updates and photos here, and then wrap ups at Rochester Subway.

In fact, make sure you follow me on Facebook for pics and updates!

And I’m still hoping to catch some shows. On my long and growing list?  Jeffery Sweet’s “You Only Shoot The Ones You Love”; Alison Arngrim’s “Confessions of a Prairie B;+@h”; “Eulogy”; “Planchette”; “Sneeze”; and “OneYmoon”. And I’ll try and see as many of the improv and comedy shows as possible.

Argh!! Too many amazing shows!! Too little time!! What a great problem to have!

Anyway, time is ticking towards opening night, and tickets are selling out for some of the more popular shows (Dashboard Dramas was sold out before the Fringe guide was even printed). Here are a few things you won’t want to miss: Continue reading

Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at Patheos.com)

I spent a half hour today sharpening pencils. I enjoy the act of standing at an old-fashioned sharpener and turning the crank, hearing the blade grind the wood and graphite to a fine point and watching the shavings build into a pile at my feet. It helps me clear my head when I’m stressed, on a column deadline, or stumped by the Sunday crossword.

I picked up the yellow No. 2 pencils while I was out running errands. I limited myself to just one box because the truth is that if I didn’t, I would have skipped the milk and bread and spent the grocery money on school supplies.

Never mind that I don’t have kids in school anymore or that I’m not in school myself. It’s “Back to School” time, which means supplies are on sale, and that’s a dangerous time of the year for me.

Because I’m an office supply addict.

I have an abnormal addiction to pens, paper, pencils, notepads, journals—you name it. I rarely walk out of a store without purchasing some sort of stationery item—paper clips, file folders or a snazzy new pen.

I have a notebook in every room in my house, one in my car and one in my purse, so when I have an idea I can write it down quickly, before I forget it. I keep a supply of pocket folders in a range of colors to suit my every mood. I have a panic attack if I can’t find my stapler.

I think my addiction is rooted in my childhood. As a kid, I loved getting ready for the new school year, the smell of autumn and new possibilities in the air, my book bag filled with folders, freshly sharpened pencils and clean, white notebook paper just begging to be filled with stories, notes and essays.

Every fall, I would vow that this would be the year I would stay organized. This year, I would put the science notes in the science folder and the English notes in the English folder. This year, I would save all of the quizzes so I could study for the cumulative final. This year, I would record every homework assignment in my pocket calendar and never again be scrambling at the last minute to complete a project.

But it always ended the same. In less than a month, I had geometry theorems mixed in with grammar notes. I would show up to science class with my Spanish textbook (“Wait,” I’d ask. “Que hora es?”) and had taken to writing homework assignments on my hands (I had the first Palm Pilot). My locker always looked like a tornado had blown through a paper factory.

It’s more than 30 years later and I’m still not organized. I’m continually digging through a towering pile of folders on my kitchen table to hunt for research notes, paper clips and pens. I have three calendars within arm’s reach, but I never know what day it is.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s an app for that. Calendars on your phone, e-books, virtual folders and documents. But I’m not interested.

It’s not just the fact that I can’t keep up with the latest technology on a writer’s budget. The truth is that I like doing things the old-fashioned way. I like putting a real pencil to actual paper and scribbling away, crossing out words, rewriting sentences, and doodling in the margins when I’m mentally blocked. I think better that way.

And science backs me up on this. Study after study has found that students who take notes longhand actually comprehend and retain information better and longer than students who take notes on a laptop. Researchers think it has to do with the cognitive process necessary to listen to someone speaking, digest the meaning in their words, and then succinctly condense the information into notes. Our brains process that differently then when we’re typing the words verbatim on a laptop.

In other words, a valid rationalization for me to buy more office supplies. Thank you, science! Pencils and notebooks are still on sale! Who needs groceries, anyway?

(A slightly different version of this appears in my book “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns penned over the years. It also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)