Sliding Otter News 1/28/2012

The Bessimer Process in Our Lives

Campfire Pit

Campfire Pit

It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it

~Hans Selye ~

In case you were napping during fifth grade, The Bessimer process is a way of removing impurities from pig iron and turning it into steel. I remember needing headlights on our car to navigate through Lackawanna in the 1950’s. I also remember sulfur clouds rolling down the river towards Pittsburgh every Monday morning in the early 1960’s leaving their odor and thick layers of grit everywhere in their wake.

We don’t often think of stress as a good thing. Hans Selye studied stress at Johns Hopkins and McGill Universities. He also published a series of articles and books, notably The Stress of Life, a classic on the subject which brought stress to international attention. Selye noted the destructive effects of stress on our bodies and others elaborated on his findings.

Whole categories of drugs came into being to relieve us of stress. Yoga, meditation, exercise, dietary approaches, and psychological approaches all became part of our arsenal against experiencing stress. None of these approaches provide us with total immunity from stress. Natural disasters as well as the tragedies resulting from evil intentions compound our daily stress, affecting some of us more than others.

Stress does not upset just individuals. The Costa Concordia shipwreck sent ripples far from the coast of Tuscany. Speculation about the LeRoy girls’ neurological symptoms unsettled a community. Selye taught us that stress attacks the most vulnerable parts of our bodies. It also plays a role in heart disease, alcoholism, asthma and hypertension among other conditions. Our minds and our emotions also suffer from the effects of stress. Disappointment, dashed hopes and relationships on the rocks all unnerve us. .

But is stress all bad? Could stress do the same for our lives as the Bessimer process does for steel? Is there a way we can use it to strengthen ourselves? I think there is. I have met several people who have reached middle age with no major stressful events. They sailed along easily until life’s adversity finally caught up with them. They had no idea what to do about it and wallowed helplessly in its grasp.

Many of us have experienced varying degrees of stress throughout our lives. We learned how to deal with it and how to manage our lives better. When new stressful situations arise, learning from our past experiences quickly rebalances our lives.

Not all of us find easy ways to manage or overcome stress. Fortunately we all have people around us who have learned to cope with our particular challenges. Professionals in our communities also specialize in managing stress. If our own resources don’t resolve it for us, we can call on them for their help and wisdom.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Learn to trust your body, mind and emotions to tell you when you are under stress.
  • Find out what is causing your stress.
  • If you don’t have the necessary coping skills, ask others what they have tried or seek professional help.
  • Be patient with yourself.
  • Help others who might benefit from what you have learned.

Sliding Otter News 1/14/2012

Sliding Otter News

January 14, 2012

Serendipity, Inspiration, and the Phoenix



We write about what we don’t know about what we know
~Grace Paley~

 You may have heard part of this story before. Some time ago I started working on a novel set in Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite vacation spot. I wrote about marriage, a topic close to my heart personally and throughout my work life. I asked for honest feedback and learned that my characters were lifeless. Each attempt failed to animate them and they refused to be revived, if they ever lived.

I finally decided to put it aside and start a new project about the current predicament of our country, more than a modest proposal. I discussed my plan with my friend Bob who suggested I read Bill Kauffman’s book, Bye, Bye Miss American Empire. His book fascinated me. Then Bob, Bill and I ended up at lunch together.

At one point in the conversation Bill asked me why my novel was  stuck. I told him the characters were flat and refused to come to life despite my best efforts. Later he asked my how autobiographical it was. I told him it held a little of me but not much. Then we talked about his writing and the literary and wider world. I give his questions little thought at the time.

That night I awoke at my usual inspiration time, three AM. I suddenly realize what mu novel was missing, Me. My soul. My spirit. The setting was real, The thoughts made sense. The story progressed. But there was nothing of me. The only sense writers have of being alive is that which beats in their chests and flows through their veins. All they have is their experience of life. And I ignored my experience. My characters only live though me and I failed to share my life with them.

A sad revelation but an exciting one! The answer seemed so simple once it arrived in my consciousness. So elementary it made me feel stupid. Yet now I can proceed with a book I thought was doomed.

I learned a few things from this experience. One is that I never know where I will find answers to questions which plague me. Keeping them locked up in my head did not help. Conversing about them gave another writer a chance to salvage years of my effort with two simple questions. Who would have thought that possible?

I learned that sharing my shortcomings and dead ends let a friend lead me out from my cave to see the light of day again. Shades of Plato. This sounds dramatic as I write it, but wasting several years of writing at my age is no small matter. I hope I can help someone else in the same manner.

I learned that feeling stuck is state of mind. There are always alternatives to staring ahead into a dark corner. All it takes is to turn in another direction. What is obvious to others is not always apparent to me.

Life Lab Lessons

ñ Do you feel stuck with any part of your life?

ñ Does it feel hopeless?

ñ Can you figure it out by yourself?

ñ Share your dilemma with someone you can trust.

ñ Try their path if yours is blocked.


Enlightenment and Inspiration

JOE: Good morning Calliope.
CALLIOPE: Good morning Joe.  Have you been hibernating?
JOE: Not exactly. I have been wrestling with a wicked cold, but feel I am now getting the upper hand.
CALLIOPE: Glad to hear it. Anything creative going on?
JOE:  Yes. Two major turns. I decided to put aside Marital Property since the characters refused to wake up. I thought I might work on a book about what has happened to America. My friend Bob suggested reading Bill Kauffman’s Bye, Bye Miss American Empire. I loved the book and Bob, Bill and I met for lunch.
CALLIOPE:  Is there more to the story?
JOE: There is. Bill asked me about what happened to marital property and what was missing. In the middle of the night I woke up with the answer. I was missing. The story and setting seem fine but the characters have no life because I did n0t insert any of my own life.
CALLIOPE:  Very interesting. What’s next?
JOE: Back to work. I will revisit the characters to see which of my emotions they might share and could borrow from me.
CALLIOPE: Sounds novel.
JOE: It is a novel, and yes it sounds novel.
CALLIOPE: Good luck.
JOE: I’ll let you know how it goes.