Hermit Crab Essay


If you’re looking for a unique way to write an essay, to bend the genre, how about writing a Hermit Crab Essay? “This kind of essay appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly,” Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola write in their co-authored non-fiction craft book, Tell It Slant. The metaphor of the hermit crab is fitting. They are born without shells, and need to find an empty shell in order to protect themselves. As Brenda and Suzanne write in their book, the same goes for “an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will contain it.”

This past summer, I attended a hermit crab essay class taught by Brenda Miller at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She began by having us list the numerous existing “outer coverings.” Here’s a sampling of what we came up with: recipe, field guide, Craig’s List ad, bibliography, syllabus, math problem, text message, prescription side effects, blog post, phone call, email, love note, resume, restaurant menu. She then asked us to choose one and see what creative content the form suggests. As Brenda noted in her piece about the hermit crab essay published in Brevity, “This is the essential move: allowing form to dictate content. By doing so, we get out of our own way; we bypass what our intellectual minds have already determined as “our story” and instead become open and available to unexpected images, themes and memories.” Also, this form gives “creative nonfiction writers a chance to practice using our imaginations, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create.”

Since I was in the mood “to play with the content” on the day I attended Brenda’s class, I chose side effects of a prescription narcotic:

This narcotic, if taken as directed, will result in a lasting high, and a sense of total freedom. Within thirty minutes of taking this narcotic, your attitude will change from worry to “I don’t give a damn about anything.” You will be able to eat as much as you want of whatever you like – Devil Dogs, Twinkies, potato chips – and not care if you gain weight. If anything, you will likely lose weight. There is no maximum dose. It is perfectly fine to operate a vehicle, vessel, Saturn V Rocket or The Millennium Falcon, or any kind of machinery, and even drink alcohol while taking this narcotic. If you experience any of the following we recommend you take an extra dose immediately: a sudden ability to speak in parseltongue, the strength and flexibility to maintain warrior three pose for more than fifteen minutes, the brain energy to move objects with your mind, the ability to convince your spouse that you are no good in the kitchen, the acting skills to persuade your boss to allow you to work ten hours a week and get paid for forty, and the chutzpah to convince your mother-in-law that she is wrong about most things.

Warning: Literal interpretation of the above essay is dangerous and harmful to your health.

Do you have an existing “outer covering” to add to the above list? Do you have an essay in need of a shell? Since the new year is only two days from now, why not write an essay in the form of a resolution list? If you’ve already found your protective shell,  please don’t be shy about sharing it.

Happy New Year!






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Salary Gap Between Male and Female Registered Nurses



Though salary differences have narrowed between males and females in many occupations since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the results of a study conducted by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) showed a marked salary gap between male and female registered nurses, with males earning greater than $5000 more per year than females. The largest pay gap was noted in cardiology, and the smallest difference in the chronic care setting. Orthopedics was the only specialty area in which researchers found no significant difference. With nursing being a female dominated profession, this pay discrepancy affects more than 3 million women in the United States. Researchers gathered data from two well-known sources, for a total sample size of 290,000 registered nurses. During each year of the study, researchers found that males earned greater salaries than females. What is even more alarming is that they also found no significant changes over the course of the study.

The study did not look at the reasons for the differences in salaries, but health care professionals say a number of possibilities exist such as workplaces being interested in diversification, men being better at asking for more money, and women leaving the workplace to have children.

So what’s next? Researchers plan to analyze the reasons for the gaps in pay. In the meantime, if you are a female registered nurse, the results of the UCSF study offer an opportunity for you to advocate for yourself and ask your employer why salary differences exist between males and females in your workplace. What better time than now to eradicate gender bias once and for all?



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Post-Traumatic Vision Syndrome


Did you know that at least sixty areas of the brain are involved with the processing of visual information, and that seventy percent of all sensory information is visual? I didn’t know this. I learned that fiber of trivia from Amy Pruszenski, a doctor of optometry, during her talk about post-traumatic vision syndrome (PTVS) at the Brain Injury Association of Vermont annual conference this past October. Simply put, PTVS is a disruption in flow within the complex network of nerves, tracts, and subsystems of the brain. Such disruption prevents the processing of visual data. This is not an uncommon occurrence in people who have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). So, if you’ve sustained a TBI, including a concussion, and you’ve been wondering whether or not you have PTVS, keep reading.

Some common problems associated with PTVS include blurred vision, sensitivity to light, reading difficulties (words may appear to move on the page), poor comprehension, difficulty concentrating, poor memory, double vision, headaches when straining eyes, eye pain, squinting, closing one eye, poor depth and spatial judgment, and strabismus, or misalignment of the eyes. The list is endless.

But there’s no reason to walk around fearful that you’re about to fall over because you’re visual processing system is out of wack – you swear that every time you go out for a walk, the sidewalk curb shifts just as you are about to step off it to cross the street. Fortunately, there are treatments and behavioral changes that can help improve the flow and processing of information between the eyes and brain. Corrective lenses can help with blurry vision and magnification of objects, and can improve both close-up and distance vision. Prism glasses have a ground prism in or on the lens, which changes how the light enters the eye. These might help alleviate double vision and improve peripheral vision. Some optometrists recommend patching one eye to help with double vision. Doing so prevents information that causes double vision from entering the brain. After testing a patch during Amy’s talk, and having had to wear one as a kid to strengthen my “lazy eye,” I can tell you that this is not the most appealing option, especially if you are prone to claustrophobia.

Some behavioral changes Amy suggested, which apply to people without a TBI too, sounded tempting. Of course, they require discipline and training. Every twenty minutes, step twenty feet away from your computer, and focus on something else for at least twenty seconds. (I must do as Amy urged and set a timer to remind myself to turn away from the screen – I’ve been staring at it for more than an hour now.) Also, try what Amy calls a “Palm Break.” Block your eyes with your palms to block out all visual stimulation. But it’s not only the length of time engaged in an activity that affects visual processing; the type of activity affects it too. For instance, computer work is more strenuous on the eyes and brain than, say, washing the dishes.

Here are a few more tips to help avoid visual overload: remove clutter in your home and at work. (You don’t want to be around me when my home is a mess.) Prioritize activities, and don’t set yourself up to do too much in a day. (I still think I’m the super-woman I was before my TBI and list five or six brain-heavy tasks in my date book each day.) And shut down your computer, ipad, iphone, iwhatever, even the television, two to three hours before bedtime. (I know, this is a tough one, especially if you’re like me and must watch just one more episode of Call the Midwife before you click the off button on the remote.) The short wavelengths emitted from these kinds of devices suppress melatonin, a hormone that controls wake and sleep cycles. The suppression of melatonin not only interferes with sleep, it has also been linked to all kinds of bodily dysfunctions: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity.

Rather than leaving you bloated with worry about how to fit in yet another self-care activity into your busy day, I’ll end with a shout of encouragement from Amy: “Celebrate accomplishments!”



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Cranial Sacral Therapy


Our bodies deserve to be treated with kindness. Right? If you are looking to do just that, whether you are living with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, chronic neck and back pain, migraines, or any other emotional or physical ailment, why not give cranial sacral therapy (CST) a try? Discovered in 1970 by osteopathic physician John E Upledger, CST is not as new-age as you might think.

I know, “cranial sacral” sounds nothing like new-age. You might cringe at the notion of someone messing with your neck and spinal column. But, with CST, there is no mess involved: back cracking, neck manipulation, muscle tugging. To help understand CST, I’ll interrupt here with a very brief lesson in Anatomy 101. More than most other parts of the body, the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system (CNS), influence the ability of the body to function properly. In turn, for the CNS to  function up to par, it relies heavily on a healthy craniosacral system: the membranes and fluid that surround, protect and nourish the brain, spinal cord, and the attached bones.

Since we endure stress every day – sitting at a desk for long hours, dragging a whining toddler through the grocery store, driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic – the body’s tissues tighten and create havoc in the craniosacral system. This can cause increased tension around the brain and spinal cord, interfering with the healthy functioning of the CNS, and even other systems it  interacts with.

With CST, the therapist uses her hands to evaluate the craniosacral system by gently feeling various parts of the body to assess for ease of motion, and for the flow of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Using soft-touch, she releases restrictions in the tissues, and mobilizes fluids around the spinal cord.

I’ve been curious about CST for a long time now, and, when I attended a workshop on CST at Vermont’s annual brain injury conference this past October, Kate Kennedy, the speaker, and veteran practitioner of the method, convinced me to consider it as an adjunct to alleviating my PTSD symptoms (hyper-vigilance, hyper-startle, nightmares) and a TBI (foggy-headedness, fatigue, poor concentration).

During the workshop, I learned, for CST to help heal our physical ailments, we need to let go of our emotions. Kate called them the “stuck places,” when she referred to the “emotions that take up space in our bodies” – in our muscles, tissues, bones. Vital to treating her clients, she asks them to talk about their individual traumas, as she feels for tight places, the places she senses being “over-charged.”  With the letting go of emotions, those tight areas also literarily let go.

Kate also reminded us that compensatory mechanisms influence the experience of the trauma. In other words, we possess layers upon layers of compensation before the trauma, and, for instance, how a migraine associated with a TBI heals depends a lot on what our past compensatory mechanisms were like. It’s not uncommon for people to hold onto the force of the injury – for example, neck tension.

The memory of trauma, pain, or any acute or chronic condition might very well be wrapped-up in your body. It’s true, our bodies hold our personal narratives. If we want to rid them of the upsetting narratives, or as Kate says, “The waste products of our central nervous system,” CST, with its gentle, listening approach can find those mucked-up places. I think of CST as empowering, as allowing you to gain access to your own body – the entire container of the self.

Are you ready to be empowered?

To find a CST therapist click here.


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Stress and Aging


With the holidays fast approaching, what comes to mind? The scent of pine, fruitcakes, latkes, fasting, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. What about stress? Crowds, too many family gatherings, pressure to buy gifts with money you don’t have – all kinds of stress. Sorry to be a downer, but during this time of year I can’t help but think about the consequences of stress.

Though it’s an act of survival, meaning we either flee from or fight against harm, stress also speeds up the aging process. It wreaks havoc on the brain, heart, skin, and more. Of course, if we think about aging long enough, and what might happen as we age, we become stressed. Many of the older people I met during my stint as a wellness nurse for the aging population used to caution me, “Don’t get old, it’s no fun.” So aging itself causes stress. Michael Verano, a therapist who writes and speaks a lot about stress, and calls himself a “stress therapist,” calls this the “chicken and the egg scenario.” In other words, what comes first, stress as a result of aging, or aging as a result of stress?

Verano also asks why seemingly intelligent people “have stress reactions when they know the reaction will have no impact on the situation?” For me, I know, intellectually, that there is no reason to worry about the negative outcomes that might occur in advance of, say, a lecture about writing I’m giving a week from now. My imagination has a way of coming up with the all kinds of dire scenarios: What if I forget my notes? What if I bore the audience and everyone falls asleep? What if someone says I don’t know what I’m talking about?  What if, what if? So, mentally, and emotionally, I worry.

Maybe my worrying is how I cope? Is it how you cope? Verano suggests that most of us believe stress is a coping mechanism, and he has gathered a list of statements to support that exact sentiment. For example, expecting that something bad will happen helps reduce the emotional pain if that negative outcome does occur. With this in mind, Verano came up with ideas to counter-act what he calls a “sea of stress.” My favorite one is putting a time limit on stress reactions. Verano encourages us to set a timer for, say, fifteen minutes, and freak out. But he cautions us not to do so around expensive items, or in public places. If we did, then we might really have something to stress out about.

Now that I’ve pressed you to think about your own stress level and, therefore, have most likely made you stressed, I hope this post helps.

Happy holidays!


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