Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Chat with Poet Shaindel Beers

A Brief History of Time, poetry by Shaindel Beers

· Paperback: 76 pages
· Publisher: Salt Publishing, 2008
· Price: $14.95
· ISBN-10: 1844715051
· ISBN-13: 978-1844715053

Z: Before we begin our archaeological dig into the history of time, Shaindel, let me ask something else itching on my mind. Tell me about your name. You might guess that I love unusual names.

Shaindel: That’s funny because I’ve always been curious about your name, too. Shaindel is a Yiddish name that means “pretty.” It was my father’s mother’s name, and he promised his parents that he would name his first son and daughter after them. They both died when he was young, so this was really important to him. There seem to actually be quite a few Shaindels. I’ve known two Shaindels who use it as their Hebrew name, but not their everyday name, and I’ve met a lot of them on Facebook. Of course, it can be spelled any way because of the “vowel situation” in Yiddish, so there are Sheindels, Shayndels, etc.

Z: Tell me, how does your book differ from Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time? Did you both come to similar conclusions about life and the universe?

Shaindel: I greatly admire Steven Hawking’s work and the work of a lot of theoretical physicists who are out there today—Brian Greene, David Z. Albert, Brian Cox—to name a few. What’s really interesting to me is learning what we don’t know or even what might be possible that we’d never thought of before. And I feel like this book is a brief history of my time on earth so far and sorting out what I know, what I know I don’t know, and what I didn’t know I don’t know, to play on Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns” speech. I wanted people to look at my book and think of quantum physics and parallel universes and identify with it that way, if that makes any sense.

Z: Your title poem. You’re no good at this love thing, either, eh? Like all the rest of us. You speak for many, Shaindel, right down to the definition of insanity (“…love is just another type of insanity…”) Which, actually, I believe good science has stated also—about the first stage we call romance, or the freely unzipping sort as lust. The brain is flush with madness. No other way we’d willingly get into such a thing. “Nonetheless, I keep on trying, like the benchwarmer/who begs to be sent in and is carried out crushed every time.”

Shaindel: That’s another thing about time and science that fascinates me. We look at people who we would consider fairly primitive in terms of scientific understanding, like the Elizabethans, who thought that love was a type of insanity, and now we have brain scan technology that shows that it is. Brain scans of someone newly in love show action in the same areas and of the same level as people with obsessive compulsive disorder. They also thought that love entered the body through the eyes, and we can look at studies of babies paying attention longer to attractive faces or statistics of emergency room personnel working harder to save attractive people. There are all sorts of ideas from other times that, on one hand, might sound silly to us, and then as we do more discovering, we realize that they were absolutely right all along, just without the same proofs that we have.

Z: And then there is “Would You Know Me,” a poem about the farmer’s daughter, the rather plain girl selling produce at the roadside stand that men don’t see … until she becomes a glamour girl, all made up and dressed up. You refer to that as her “disguise.” Indeed, many of your poems make powerful statements about women, how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the men in our lives, or the men we wish were in our lives, then again, wish they weren’t. There’s “A Man Walks Into a Bar” that makes you lose all sympathy for women. Or the gold-diggers in “Why Gold-digging Fails.” Or, “The Thermophobic’s Wife,” – “She is a nurse, a wife, of ice.” The misunderstood woman of “Sleep” that everyone calls bad names. The single mother of a handicapped child in “Sunday Worship.” Many others. Talk about your views about women. A reader senses you have a lot to say, not all of it nice…

Shaindel: Wow. I could (and hope to) write books on this. I think I’m pretty sympathetic toward all women because I really believe society still dumps a lot on us—if we look at the fact that we’re supposed to look perfect, be perfect, be the breadwinner, the bread maker, and all for less pay, it’s not even close to being a fair world yet. I think a lot of women take part in giving a hard time to other women because they’ve fallen for society’s “divide and conquer” strategy—if that woman isn’t pretty or is a little pudgy, I can’t be friends with her because what will people think? Or if she’s too pretty, I’m too insecure to be friends with her, so I’ll bad-mouth her. Or I’ll look down on so and so because she’s a stay at home mom, so she can’t understand my life. Or this woman’s worked her way to the top of the corporate ladder, so she must be a bitch if she’s made it in the “boys’ club.” It’s almost like the goal of the way women are socialized is to make sure that no women like each other, and it’s all a competition, and what for?

So, I really try to get past it, and I hope that other women do to. I try to make it a practice never to say anything bad about another woman. I know I shouldn’t ever say anything bad about anyone, but I try especially hard in the cases of other women.

There’s a lot more I could talk about—the beauty industry, how much disposable income women spend on clothes and make-up and whatnot—much of which isn’t optional. There are workplaces where women are expected to have their nails done, make-up on, etc. Kelle Groom has a great poem about applying for a job, I believe as a hospital administrator, and the dress code and other policies which is a great example of what I’m talking about.

Even in academia, where we’re supposed to be beyond this, I’ve had colleagues, both male and female say, “Oh, he’s never met a skirt he doesn’t like,” or “he likes you because you’re young and good-looking,” or whatever. It obviously can’t be because of any achievements I’ve made or hard work on my part.

Z: You take on the act of protest in “For Stephen Funk, in Prison for Protesting the Iraq War.” The poem ends with a line that disarms: “Our weakness is not made of different stuff than courage…” Can you tell us the story behind this poem?

Shaindel: It’s pretty autobiographical, like many of the poems in this collection. Before the Iraq War started, many groups just wanted more time for there to be searches done to see if there really were any “weapons of mass destruction,” and, like many young people, I went to hand out leaflets at the mall. Within about five minutes of starting, the police came and asked us to stop, and I did, no questions asked. I’m sure I said something about “just handing out leaflets with statistics on them” or “freedom of speech,” but I didn’t put up any kind of fight. I sort of shrugged, put my flyers back in the car, and came back into the mall to go to Red Robin. Not too long afterward, I learned about a letter-writing campaign to write to Stephen Funk, who was in prison for refusing to be deployed because he was afraid of what his fellow soldiers might do to him as a gay Marine. I wrote him this letter while he was court-marshaled and just felt really shitty because he really stood up for what he believed in, and he was imprisoned for six months. I, on the other hand, was minorly inconvenienced into walking an extra trip across the mall parking lot to put my protest materials away. I wanted to apologize to him somehow and to thank him.

I’ve gotten acquainted with Stephen Funk online since writing about him, and he’s a phenomenal person. He’s recently graduated with his International Relations degree from Stanford, he’s really involved politically in Iraq Veterans Against the War and other causes. He’s still a hero of mine.

Z: That wistful “Summer 2000 Sestina” with the sweetness of new love. Lost to mistrust. And difference. Is it possible to love what is different than ourselves? Or is it difference that always pulls us apart? Or is it difference that makes it love at all?

Shaindel: I think this is part of my issue with “I’m no good at this love thing.” I haven’t figured this out. I think we’re attracted to differences; it’s not necessarily a case of “opposites attract,” but that the unknown is always more intriguing that the known. There have to be commonalities there or you have nothing to talk about, though; you’re on different planets. You just have to figure out what the commonalities are that are important to you. I have a friend who is a super-liberal yoga instructor, and her husband is a Rush Limbaugh fanatic, but she says she knows if she had a stroke, he would be there, spoon-feeding her and changing her diapers, and that’s what matters. Those are the sorts of things we have to learn about ourselves in relationships.

Z: “Starved girls who try to imagine it’s just a job.” In your poem, “Why It Almost Never Ends with Stripping,” you portray the woman selling her body for money, for survival, and how she gets seduced into ever uglier acts. A little more, a few more bucks. Until she is lost. With all those blind men looking at her who refuse to truly see her, what is it you want us to see?

Shaindel: I want people to see truth, to see humanity. I think this goes along with the “divide and conquer” strategy of society against women, and I think this also goes along with social class and, sadly, with what is valued in our society. A lot of people in our society look down on sex workers, but someone is paying them. And those someones are paying them a lot. A lot more than school teachers, a lot more than social workers, and hundreds of other important, worthwhile occupations I could name. I don’t think we should blame those working in the industry; I think most sex-workers are victims, too. I wanted readers to see that it’s an easy trap to fall into and an easy one to spiral out of control in.

I think the same is true for a lot of things people do because they are desperate for money—drug dealing, drug manufacturing. I think if we had an economy that valued people’s hard work (or people in general), and people were paid a living wage, we wouldn’t have people who are so desperate for money, that they would literally do anything for it.

Z: “A Study in Weights and Measures” and “Surgery” takes on life, one’s body as something that is us, yet not, a distance there, perhaps to survive such trauma as cancer, even a befuddlement at why one wants to fight so hard for life when life is such a fight.

Shaindel: I’ve always felt like someone who lives in my mind more than someone who lives in my body. To explain that further (maybe?), I’ve always loved being sore after a workout because I think, “Oh, good, my body’s still there.” The scary part is when you’re “weary in body and mind.” I know that there’s either an Old English or Old Norse term for that, but I can’t find it right now. Those are the times that you want to give up. Sometimes, I think of celebrities who have had those breakdowns and are sent to a spa for a few weeks to relax (think Mariah Carey, 2001), and I wonder, “Where’s my break? How do I get one of those?” I remember scheduling a preventative cancer surgery after grades were due so that I wouldn’t be missing any work. That’s the world most of us are living in. But at least I had health insurance and a job; a lot of people would have had it worse.

Z: You express a power in those who seem to submit. Only seem. “Body Shop” is about a woman giving away pieces and parts of herself for others, served up on a platter, and “What Will We Do With You? This Bone Has Almost No Flesh Protecting It” is about power. The brothers beating up on their sisters think they have power, but power, you write, is actually more inside of her, when she smiles up at the anvil. What is this power?

Shaindel: I think it sort of goes along with the lyrics of “Me and Bobby McGree,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” If you don’t care what happens to you, there’s almost a freakish sort of bravery there. It’s why people rush into burning buildings to save someone, or why someone takes a bullet for someone else. It’s verging on super-human. But, it takes a lot to get there (outside of the cases where it’s instinctive—for one’s child or something). Someone I know who used to be a bully in high school told me that the scariest kids were those who just let him beat them up, because they were used to it. If someone didn’t hit back when he hit them, and just took it and didn’t cry, then he just knew they got hit all the time at home. Some people, this is what life has done to them. I think it’s the hardest kind of power to earn because you earned it, but you didn’t ask for it.

Z: “My Love, A Partial Explanation” is, I think, more a sad but nurturing love song to yourself than to the lover we see there. “I’m always/on the outside, never quite able to figure out the rules/that everyone seems to take for granted.” Except, of course, that everyone else is no doubt thinking the same thing. “You’re never sure it it’s love, or if you’re just grateful/that you’re the one thing it won’t kill” as you compare loving you to loving a guard dog. Much of your poetic power, Shaindel, seems to be your ability to capture the voice of the misfit in all of us, the outsider we all are. Later in this collection, in “Tonight in this hotel room’s mirrored wall…” you share a scene of two damaged persons making love. Scars, healed wounds, incisions on bodies, that these two do not love in spite of these “imperfections” but are bonded by them, the fallen Adam and Eve. “We name imperfection the best beauty of all” and “Unmarked beauty is not beauty to all.” I would say, “at all.” What is beautiful to you?

Shaindel: Despite this being a dark collection, I think life is beautiful. Just being here and watching it unfold. My husband (who might have been that high school bully in a previous question) is possibly the biggest, toughest guy I know. But sometimes when we’re driving in the country, a little calf will be running in a field, and Lee will say, “Look at that little guy, just figuring out what running’s all about.” That’s beautiful. Just the world around us and seeing other beings figure it out. That’s what it’s all about.

Z: Young, yet you already understand “How Time Betrays Us.” “Every day around the world, 120 million people make love./Today is not my day./In the time it will take you to read this,/somewhere, in America, a woman was raped.” But with this collection, you have, Shaindel, given us your words. As you write in “I Give You Words,” when all other beauty passes, you can give us these words. Thank you for your words. They are beautiful, strong, sad, surviving, maddening, enduring. With something of all of us captured within them.

Shaindel: Thank you so much for a beautiful interview, Zinta! And thanks to your readers for following along on my virtual book tour. Please go to and search for “Shaindel Beers” to enter a drawing for a free copy of my book (there will be six lucky winners, one for each month my book’s been out), and please find me on Facebook. You can never have too many friends in the writing world!

Also, if you want to help save a fabulous small press, Salt Publishing has a Just One Book Campaign. Like many small presses, the economic crisis has been hard on my publisher, so if literature lovers can buy just one book from Salt, it would make a huge difference:

Other links for Shaindel Beers:

Saving Salt Publishing:

Contrary (where Shaindel is the poetry editor):

Shaindel will have a page devoted to her and her poetry in the upcoming summer 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet, online in June.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 288 pages
· Publisher: McGraw-Hill, 2007
· Price: $26.95
· ISBN-10: 007148499X
· ISBN-13: 978-0071484992

I watched David Maxfield, one of the authors of Influencer, present at a health care conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan not long ago—he was animated and enthused and quite fascinating. His presentation was based on this book, a New York Times bestseller, from the same authors that brought readers the concepts of “crucial conversations,” “crucial behaviors” and VitalSmarts. The latter is today a company that offers consultations on how to motivate positive change, not only on an individual basis, but companywide.

I was fascinated enough by the presentation that I purchased the book to learn more. Indeed, the organization for which I work has held it up to its employees as a source of wisdom. As an organization, we, too, have now developed our own vital behaviors. From what I am witnessing, there are some positive changes going on—and that’s no small trick for a large corporation.

So why not take this down to the individual? I read with great interest, initially amused by the admonishment to “stop seeking serenity” unless we are willing to stop growing. The new age advice is forever urging us to settle, and while serenity is nice, it can also become a trap, holding us in place rather than moving toward positive growth and change.

As Maxfield pointed out in his presentation, human nature resists change. We tend to take the route most worn in, the easiest, the tried if not quite true. Even when we know a certain behavior isn’t getting us anyplace good, may even be hurting us, we still resist change. Consider the addict who is destroying his or her life with bad behavior, yet will continue that behavior even when all that matters is lost—family, friends, health, wealth, home, self-respect. Even on pain of death, we won’t change. Why? What’s missing?

Influencer is a study of what breaks through our natural resistance to change. It is based on examination of success. What are the differences between those who succeed in life and those who fail? Those who change in order to move in a better direction, and those who stagnate in their bad behaviors for a life of failure? To improve a situation, what must people do? Find your vital behaviors, the authors advise. Study the behavior, not the outcome.

The starting point is to see oneself as an influencer. If you don’t believe in your ability to change, you won’t. If you don’t want to change, you won’t. The authors debunk the idea of therapy as being helpful in changing especially addictive behaviors if the focus is on examining childhood experiences or any kind of dallying in the past. Rather, we should expand the self-image to include the ability to influence—ourselves and others—and learn the vital behaviors that cause positive change. (It is also important to consider the company we keep. Hang out with losers, and you’ll be one. Hang out with the best, and you’ll be challenged to improve yourself.)

With various examples, the authors illustrate how their suggestions play out in real life. Rather than being someone who only worries about keeping his own corner of the world clean, an influencer must abide by two rules—be accountable and hold everyone else accountable. The person who looks the other way whenever he or she sees a colleague at work shirk responsibility is as guilty of bringing the company down as is the colleague. To be an effective team is as much about doing good work as ensuring that others do good work, too. What’s the saying? The chain is as only as good as its weakest link? You get the idea. If a “crucial conversation” is then needed, so be it (see previous works by these authors).

Success is not about avoiding mistakes or risks. Quite the opposite. But it doesn’t mean being reckless, either. The authors encourage an intense study of success in one’s area of interest. What works? Not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the behaviors leading to success. To learn how to overcome an addiction, study recovery behaviors and emulate them. Everyone makes mistakes; those who succeed make plenty, but they also continually remain aware and make constant corrections each and every time they slip off the path. Each mistake produces a correction of one’s compass.

What doesn’t work? With rare exception, punishment doesn’t work. It may force a behavior change in the short run, but almost guarantee rebellion at first opportunity. The battering husband may have achieved a wife who never moves from his side in seeming devotion, but she will leave when the time is right, and by then, he will lose any respect or love she may have had for him. Similarly, the battering boss may force discipline in his office, but turn his back once, and everyone is off to the water cooler. Or the employment office.

Praise always works better than punishment. Allowing people to make their own mistakes is also crucial. Rather than micro-management, a good leader allows the team to misstep now and then, finding their own way, praising when they get back on track. More importantly, a good leader is a good role model. Adults are not so very different from children when it comes to how we learn. We watch and emulate our leaders more than we follow rules and regulations.

That is not to say we don’t listen. If outright persuasion is rarely an effective form of influence, think of it as the hard sell versus the soft sell. Tell a great story, and the same lesson comes through dipped in honey. The reason media and entertainment are such effective influencers, the authors argue, is because they are venues for storytelling. Great storytelling can cause great change where all else fails because it produces a vicarious experience.

“Entertainment education helps people change how they view the world through the telling of vibrant and credible stories. Told well, these vicariously created events approximate the gold standard of change—real experiences… We can use words to persuade others to come around to our way of thinking by telling a story rather than firing off a lecture. Stories can create touching moments that help people view the world in new ways.” (pg. 57)

The dark side of this tool for change, however, is that the wrong story can also cause negative change. The authors illustrate the concept of garbage in, garbage out, and so children who grow up watching violent television and video games are increasingly exhibiting behavior to match the stories on which they have been nurtured. Where your eyes are focused, so follow your thoughts, and where your thoughts go, so go your actions.

Once that valuable moment of inspiration happens, however, it will not stand alone to cause change. The next question that comes to mind is, “will it be worth it?” and then, “can I do it?”

Without hope for something better, no one strives to change. There’s no point. To understand fully the goal of what one is trying to achieve, making the determination that it is indeed worth the struggle, paves the road to change. Hope and value—these are the mental maps one follows to reach for success.

Most people do have values, and yet so many bypass them when behaving badly. What happens to our moral codes when we chose the wrong path in life? There is a frequent disconnect between our behavior and our personal standards. People do wrong almost always knowing they are doing wrong. Yet they do it anyway. Worse, they despise anyone else who behaves in similar manner.

“Often humans react to their immediate environments as if they were on autopilot. They don’t pause to consider how their immediate choices reflect their ideals, values, or moral codes… when we make horrific and costly mistakes, more often than not we’re not choosing at all. It’s the lack of thought, not the presence of thought, that enables our bad behavior.” (pg. 95)

The solution here is to reconnect. Turn off the autopilot. Stop, think, be aware. Instead of acting on emotion or even instinct, stop long enough to consider if what you are about to do aligns with your moral code. If a moral action doesn’t always seem to be a “natural” one, the authors remind us, consider that brushing our teeth everyday is not natural either. We do it because it aligns with our standards of health and hygiene. It is the right thing to do.

Common tactics of enabling our bad behavior, making it possible, are:
moral justification
dehumanization or objectifying
displacing responsibility

Doing the wrong thing is virtually impossible without indulging in one or all of these tactics to disconnect ourselves from our own values. We must morally disengage before we can do wrong. Stop the disengagement and you will have stopped the wrong behavior.

“The only way out of the nasty practice of disconnecting ourselves from our moral grounding is to reconnect. This means that we must take our eyes off the demands of the moment and cast our view on the larger moral issues by reframing reality in moral terms… If we don’t reconnect possible behavior to the larger moral issues, we’ll continue to allow the emotional demands of the moment to drive our actions, and, in so doing, we’ll make short-term, myopic choices…. Individuals who learn how to reconnect their distant but real values to their current behavior can overcome the most addictive of habits—cocaine, heroine, pornography, gambling, you name it.” (pg. 98-99)

With abuse of all kinds escalating in modern society, it seems absolutely crucial to understand this simple truth—that, unless we are sociopaths without any conscience whatsoever, our minds and hearts force us to dehumanize before we can abuse. We must objectify before we can disrespect. We must erase a person in our minds before we can betray them. Reconnect the disconnect and the rest will follow.

So what are the common traits of those who succeed? The authors cite studies which observe the commonalities in those who do well in life. If one personality trait stands out above all others, it is this: the ability to delay gratification. The best in life is almost never the most easy to attain. Success is hard won. To not get lost along the way, or distracted by temptation, “succeeders” are those who know how to distract themselves from that which gives pleasure or ease in the short term. Delaying gratification, those who succeed at the highest level display all sorts of interesting tricks and quirks to keep their awareness on the goal at end rather than the easy win at hand. Children offered candy but told that if they waited a while longer might have the cake were observed to work at moving their gaze away from the candy, playing little games to get their minds off the candy, counting, singing, anything to distract their own attention. Inevitably, if the initial moment of temptation is won, it will quickly lose its luster. Those who gave in quickly, however, even when having to lie about their taking the candy, did not make any attempt at distraction. They kept their eyes on the sweet until they gave in and so lost the real prize. The ability to withstand temptation is a learned skill. Like any skill, practice makes perfect. The more you practice a discipline, the more natural it becomes to you.

Finally, the authors point out that it is not reward that motivates us to greatness. Doing the right thing—that is the reward. Human nature is more inclined toward goodness than one might think. Doing right makes our self esteem rise. Doing right causes our social standing to climb. Doing right earns us respect, our own and that of others. Doing good feels good.

All this wisdom offered, however, won’t do a thing … unless there is a real desire to change. All our actions come back to us. We decide. We are accountable. Change is always possible.