Under the Gum Tree: Interview with Author Melissa Cronin

under_the _gum_tree_interview

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my personal essay, “Right Foot, Left Foot,” in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, below is an excerpt of my interview with the publisher, discussing the essay, and all its nuances.

Q. Throughout your piece, you allude to the accident that rendered you handicapped. A man named George Russel Weller drove his car into a crowd of people in Santa Monica, allegedly mistaking the gas pedal for the brake. Could you describe the accident in terms of how it affected you? How did it change the way you saw the world and other people?

A. The accident affected me in many ways—physically, psychologically, mentally. Before the accident, I had worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse, but my physical injuries prevented me from returning to that kind of setting: fast paced and physically and mentally demanding.

I was not a writer before the accident; the accident made me a writer. Though the accident was tragic—people died and many more were injured—it offered me an opportunity to see and interact with the world in a much different way. With my nursing career a chimera of my past, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had kept a journal after the accident, and, in 2009, when my husband returned to school (we married in 2004), I took a writing/research class with him. It inspired me to write. The teacher inspired me. I asked her to work with me as a writing mentor, and, from there, my writing took off. I write every day (or almost every day). Writing has spurred me to be more aware of my surroundings: a falling leaf, a flitting bird, lovers kissing in the park. And I am more open to listening to others share their struggles, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional in nature. Writing human-interest stories for my local newspaper allows me to interact with my neighbors and the broader community. It impels me to listen closely, to learn, to experience much more than my microscopic world.

Q. You used the mantra “right foot, left foot” as both a means of learning how to walk again as well as the title of your piece. Looking at what the phrase meant to you then and today, has its significance changed for you? Do you think the meaning of things can truly change for people, or are these associations stagnant?

A. I do not believe the meaning of “right foot, left foot” has changed for me. I am always, figuratively and literally, putting my right foot forward then my left (or vice versa). Whether I am out for a walk, climbing the stairwell, crafting an essay, revising my memoir … I am placing one foot forward then the other. That’s how I move ahead—one step at a time. Sometimes the steps are daunting ones, like when I returned to school at age forty-three. Eek! That was scary!

Yes, I do think the meaning of things can change for people. We grow up (or not), we meet new people, we face expected, and unexpected, challenges; the world changes and forces us to adapt. In that way, the meaning of things change for people.

The entire interview, along with other creatives, is now live on the magazine’s website.

 

Thank you, Janna Marlies Maron, Robin Martin, and the rest of the staff at UTGT for giving me the opportunity to share my story “without shame.”

Read More

Multi-tasking and Cognitive Costs

multitasking

As you read this blog post, is your smartphone on speaker, playing bad “hold music” while you wait for a “live” voice to answer? Or maybe you’re glancing back and forth from the computer screen to your phone, responding to text messages in between reading a few sentences of this post. Multi-tasking is in vogue; it’s hip, cool. And how many times do you see “ability to multi-task a must” in help-wanted advertisements? But while we believe we’re multi-tasking, the truth is we’re not at all. A neuroscientist at MIT says that what we’re actually doing is “switching from one task to another very rapidly.” And, though we believe multi-tasking means greater productivity, each time we do this, he adds, there are “cognitive costs.”

Multi-tasking increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the flight-or-fight hormone adrenaline, both over-stimulating the brain and creating what I call “brain fog,” causing loss of focus. To make matters more complicated, multi-tasking creates an addictive-like feedback loop in the pre-fontal cortex, ironically, the area of the brain responsible for helping us stay on task. In other words, our brains are rewarded for losing focus. Multi-tasking is like using cocaine; the more one uses it, the more one wants it, needs it. So when you talk on the phone, check your email, send a text message, boil water for tea, your brain is stimulated by a rush of endogenous opioids. (“More, please!”) Think of potato chips, ice cream, candy – they taste good going down, but the empty-calorie effect brings your brain, and you, to a crashing halt. And making the brain shift from one task to another causes it to burn extra oxygen and glucose, the very ingredients needed to stay on task. When this happens, you might feel wrung-out, ready for a long nap. What happens when you lose steam? You get frustrated, and anxiety ensues, triggering another blast of cortisol to your brain. You can’t think straight. You become more frustrated, and angry. Maybe you get so angry you take it out on others.

And the more you multi-task, the more decisions you need to make: should I answer that phone call, text, or email? Should I go to the grocery store now or later? Which apple should I buy: a Fuji or a Delicious? When making these decisions, you consume so much energy that you end up making poor decisions when it comes to more important issues, like loaning money you don’t have to an unreliable family member, or going out for drinks and getting so drunk that you can’t get out of bed the next morning to make it to that job interview your father-in-law hooked up for you. (Now you’re in trouble.)

Also, researchers have found that multi-tasking can reduce one’s IQ by as much as fifteen points. This decrease is similar to what researchers would expect from smoking pot or staying up all night. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter studying, or smoked pot, you know what it feels like: your brain might as well be stuffed with gauze.

Enough of the harsh truth. Instead, here are some tips to help you resist the temptation to multi-task. Shut off your cell phone when working, and place it far out of reach. If you can’t bring yourself to shut off your phone, envision a stop sign each time it rings or buzzes, and say to yourself, “No, I’m not responding.” Make a list of priorities each day and check them off when complete. Dedicate time each day to complete mindless tasks, like folding the laundry or emptying the dishwasher.  Keep your office door closed so others know you don’t want to be disturbed. Put a do not disturb sign on your door. Plaster your office door with yellow caution tape, set up a trap, eat a lot of garlic. Tie yourself to a ship’s mast – it worked for Odysseus, even though he did put up quite the fight.

Of course, I’m thinking big here with these tips, and you might be laughing at this post, saying, “She’s got to be out of her mind to think I can give up multi-tasking. Tell my boss this, and I’ll be fired in a New York minute.” The key is to guard against multi-tasking whenever possible; start small. Maybe it’s shutting off your cell phone for an hour each day for a week, then two hours the next week. Believe me, I too am victim to multi-tasking. In fact, while writing this post my cell phone rang. (I forgot to shut it off.) Guess whose name lit up on the screen? “Mom.” Yep, I answered it.

Read More

Music and Memory

music_and_memory

While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?

 

 

 

Read More

Feerless

feerless

Do you watch Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, or any show of the kind that involves blood, war, sexual assaults, car crashes, pedestrians being flung across the road by a runaway vehicle ? If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and react at all like I do when watching those kinds of scenes – head buried into a pillow, hands shooting up to your face to cover your eyes from the gore and violence, fingers stuffed in your ears to block out the screams and sounds of breaking glass – you’ve probably asked yourself, “Why am I putting myself through this? Why don’t I just stop watching this show?” You keep watching because  you are attached to a character, or you must know what happens to Arya Stark or Jimmy Darmody. But you wish there was some kind of warning signal – a flashing caution light, a wave of a hand, anything – to prepare you for, say, an upcoming decapitation or animal dissection. Well, your wish has come true. The signal you have been hoping for is called Feerless, a Google Chrome extension that relies on crowd-sourced data to identify emotionally difficult-to-watch scenes in television shows and movies on Netflix.

Feerless was developed by Danielle Leong, a sexual assault survivor who suffers from PTSD. While watching Sons of Anarchy, a graphic rape scene, which she was wholly unprepared for, triggered panic attacks and flashbacks for Danielle. As she says in her Feerless demonstration video, “I was completely in misery for three days.” If she had been warned of that upcoming scene, she could have looked away from the screen, shut off the television or computer, or fast-forwarded past the scene. She knew she had to do something, create some kind of trigger warning for others suffering from PTSD. A software engineer, Danielle had the answer, and the technical know-how to develop Feerless.

Users download the app, then, while watching shows or movies, they flag disturbing scenes. Once those scenes are flagged, a blue bubble appears at the bottom right hand side of the screen as a warning. The nice thing about the bubble is that it’s not intrusive; yet it’s present enough to catch one’s attention. And it pops up pre-emptively, several seconds before the troublesome scene appears, allowing viewers time to look away, or not. Because Feerless relies on crowd-sourcing, numbers matter. For the blue bubble to appear, we all need to participate: the more we use the app, and report the scenes that trigger anxiety, and/or sensory-related reminders of our past traumas, the more we all benefit.

 

 

Read More

Autobiography of my hungers: Rigoberto González

“Like many Mexican children, I cleaned the piedritas out of the uncooked beans before they went into the pot – my meal-prep duty to help my overwhelmed mother as she spun around in the kitchen. The process was simple, but time-consuming: a pile of beans was placed at the edge of the table. I’d hold a bowl just below the edge to drop in the clean pieces, and I’d pick off the debris – dried-up seeds, miniature twigs, tiny stones – all the undesirable, inedible stowaways. These would be set aside in a pile of their own, to be tossed at the conclusion of the cleaning.

“I refused to dispense with my pile of detritus too soon since these were the fruits of my labor, the nuggets minded out of the sack. They were much more interesting than the beans which huddled in the bowl, boring as clones.”


Award winning author, poet, fiction writer, memoirist, editor, professor of English, and more, Rigoberto González, who identifies himself as a gay Chicano, delivers that compelling narrative in the opening chapter of his book, autobiography of my hungers. The chapter, “allegory,” could not be better titled, for it’s the peidritas, or stones, that are emblematic of Rigoberto: He sees himself as the “debris,” the “undesirable,” “the dried-up seed.” But he refuses to “dispense” with himself, to give in, to give up. Through breath-halting poetry and affecting prose, each vignette in this slim yet lasting memoir portrays Rigoberto’s tumultuous journey through his childhood and beyond. His literal hunger growing up poor morphs into other kinds of hungers – hunger for love, and a lover, for acceptance and recognition, for an attractive body, and a healthy body, for quiet comfort, and for sustained empathy and understanding. Along the way, though, Rigoberto fills the “uninhabited rooms” of his existence with refreshing self-awareness and enduring vision.

Autobiography of my hungers will leave you sated, yet craving more – more of Rigoberto’s “gallery of tiny gems, colorful and edible as gumdrops.”

 

 

Read More