Self-Improvement Sickness

After the rather serious nature of last week’s blog post, Erica and I determined our next would be about, to use her words, “kitten butts and puddles”. This isn’t about kitten butts and puddles, sadly, but it is a very tongue-in-cheek rant about the business of self-improvement. We’d love to hear about the practices you’ve abandoned, the self-help books you never read, the diet you said “screw it” to, in the Comments!

~ Nicole


“Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”.  – Jane Austen, Letters


Is anyone else sick to death of self-improvement?

Lately I’ve begun eating Little Debbie snack cakes again. Nutty Bars and Swiss Cake Rolls were minor obsessions when I was in college, born of a certain deep drawer in one of my childhood kitchens. You know the drawer I’m talking about it…it’s dark, it’s delicious, and it’s strictly verboten. That drawer held crisps and Drake’s Cakes, primarily. I individuated by switching brands, but have no doubt the carnivorous manner in which I eat my little twin-packs of synthetic deliciousness is due entirely to the fact that the contents of that drawer were held before me, and withheld from me, throughout my youth (To see Will Ferrell as the new face of Little Debbie, click here).

Once I left undergrad, however, I embarked upon this course of Mental Health and Wellness which continued for one long, grueling decade.  You know what I mean:  the kind of course touted by celebrities and celebrity-gurus; by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Rodney Yee. I became a green-tea drinker. I flirted with yoga and meditation. I did “exercises” which involved imagery and writing dialogues with my “Train Wreck Self”.  And I stopped eating snack cakes.

The goal was to become one of those shiny happy people on a magazine cover, standing on a mountain of Fair Trade, organic dark chocolate, a bunch of kale in one hand and a pair of hiking boots in the other.

“Let it be known by all these present here that I am a fully-actualized human being”.

And then I got sick. In a way which no program of Mental Health and Wellness can cure. For a long time this flummoxed me. I downloaded apps and filled them with a ten-item daily to-do list, which included reading both a fiction and non-fiction book as well as the requisite yoga, meditation, and morning pages. And none of it helped. I was reduced to a coil on a chair, reading interior design magazines and dreaming that my life was as clean, and bright, and shiny-happy as those pages. About a year and a half into this, I found myself sobbing in my therapist’s office (of course I see a therapist). These weren’t the uncontrollable sobs of hysteria; they were the long, moderate sobs of sheer exhaustion. My therapist told me I needed to take time off work. And then he said something else. Something he’d said before, but which I hadn’t listened to. “We’re going to nix the meditation”.

“Say what?”

Isn’t meditation a requirement in this scenario? Finding the “blue sky behind the storm clouds” and all that shit?

My therapist reminded me that I experienced debilitating flashbacks every time I meditated; not so much finding blue sky as gathering together all the storm clouds of the past. But doesn’t this mean I need to push on through these, hiking till my feet are bloody, surviving on raw kale until I collapse on the peak of that great big dark chocolate mountain of Mental Health and Wellness?

You know the therapist “look”? If you’ve ever been for long enough to receive one, you’ve got the image in your head right now. If not, it’s the fraternal twin of the teacher “look”: the one which says, without words, “If you’d read the syllabus you’d know the answer to that question”.  Well that’s what I got. I also got this transformative maxim: “If it’s not working for you, stop doing it”.

Let’s ponder that for a second. This is a licensed therapist, with a PhD and everything. There’s a zen garden in his office. His calendar has a quotation from the Tao Te Ching for every month. He told me to buy a Buddha Board. And now he’s telling me to stop meditating?

Because it’s not working for me. In fact, it’s actively harming my Mental Health and Wellness. Just like the app, which “killed” my avatar whenever I failed to check enough items off my To-Do list. And the FitBit, which made me obsessed with counting calories and glowed an angry orange whenever I ended the day just shy of my goal. And those shiny happy people in those shiny happy magazine pages who were eternally questing for the next superfood, debating the levels of antioxidants in raspberries versus blueberries. Who puts berries in competition with each other? Aren’t they all delicious? Why should I stop eating sunflower seeds just because pumpkin seeds have more of some magical chemical that will make me live forever, wrinkle-free? Kale may move my bowels, but I know a guy who drank a leafy-green, homemade organic smoothie every morning and then shit. For hours. Painfully.

That’s not my idea of Mental Health and Wellness.

For those of you worried about the bowels of that guy, rest assured my husband told him the human body is not meant to digest that much kale in one go, and to just stop. Just stop with the smoothies. Have a bowl of cereal. That’s my vegan husband, folks.

I stopped too. The meditation, that is. I’d like to do yoga more than once in a blue moon, but it just isn’t gelling for me right now.  I’m too busy writing: morning pages, this blog, a book. The app sits on my phone and the Fitbit on my nightstand, both unused. I still see my therapist, because he helps keep me sane, and I still drink green tea, with local honey, because it’s delicious, healthy, and helps ease my hayfever.  Erica and I are going on a hike soon because it’s autumn in New England, and few views are more satisfying than from the top of our mountains when the foliage is turning. I also eat the occasional snack cake: only two a week, because I’m still not keen on stuffing my face with synthetic food; but you know, I just love those little cream-filled rolls, and the crunch of a Nutty Bar is a satisfying stress-reliever after a long class.

Some people might call this “balance”. Others might call it giving up, or giving in to the seduction of shelf-stable sponge cake. I call it living.

I’ve no advice for you, dear reader, because I’m sick of giving and receiving advice. But if you want a take-away from this article to make the time spent here seem more “worthwhile”, it’s this:

Eating the fucking snack cake.

Forgiveness Deferred

Maybe it’s the turn into autumn, but we’ve found ourselves shifting into a more serious mode lately. This week’s post builds on the previous’ philobservations about home, guesting, and being a guest (and the social gaffes which inevitably result), by musing on the import not of saying “I’m sorry,” but of saying some version of “you’re forgiven.”


Two words could be reintroduced into our daily exchanges.


“Apology accepted.”


We seem to say sorry to people night and day. Yet, when you are in the wrong, and you know it and you apologize directly, there is very rarely a verbal acknowledgement that the apology has been accepted. Thus, the moment of accepting forgiveness is deferred. Without this opportunity to receive forgiveness from the victims of whatever misdeed we committed –from forgetting to close a window to rear-ending a Porsche; from neglecting to notice you’re in someone’s way to accidentally kissing another person at a party; from misjudging your deep-throat capabilities to stepping in wet cement. — whether social gaffe or felony, the wrong-doer remains stuck in that position of wrong action.

Rather like stepping in wet cement, we need a generous hand to lift us free.

Whatever the misdeed, the moment the wrong-doer decides to apologize (and the longer the apology takes, the more the relationship weakens), a significant and necessary exchange occurs. Contrition for Absolution. Even when Martin Luther broke out of the Confessional, the assumption was not that misdeeds need no forgiveness; rather, that sins committed against god need forgiveness only from god, not some dude in a robe behind a screen. Luther’s conception of sin and forgiveness was that only the being who you’ve sinned against has the ability to offer forgiveness. If you haven’t sinned against that dude in the robe, his absolution is meaningless. You’re still stuck in that wet cement. Another of Luther’s revelatory ideas about sin and forgiveness was that no amount of bead-counting and recitation, let alone a few choice bits of gold dropped in the church coffers, can wiggle you out of your sticky situation. Luther recognized that the material of the exchange is not material; it’s not tangible.

The exchange of apology and forgiveness is much more precious than the concrete things we can hold: it is composed of respect and self-esteem.

Yet we frequently forget that this is an exchange. We focus on the wrong-doer’s obligation to offer us contrition. And depending on the nature of the individual, we state that seeking absolution is either “more than just saying the words” or “you need to say the words”. The language of apology is insufficient without action, and acts of contrition are insufficient without language: the verbal acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

But this holds true for the wronged as well. If we’re standing beside that person in the wet cement, neither of us can move forward until the helping hand is offered, and the words of forgiveness spoken. We must show and tell forgiveness. It is in the Lord’s Prayer. It is in the Truth and Reconciliation approach implemented after apartheid and genocides. It is in the marvellously haunting play by Ariel Dorfman, (made into an equally haunting film), Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play centres on a forced confession. None of the three characters: Paulina, her husband Gerardo, and the man she is convinced was her rapist while she was held captive, are freed until Roberto acknowledges his sin. Tellingly, the play ends with the audience unsure of whether or not Roberto was actually Paulina’s rapist, despite the extracted confession. One might argue that this uncertainty is, in part, the result of Paulina’s refusal to fully accept Roberto’s contrition. She needs to hear the words “I’m sorry.” But she also needs to speak the words “Apology accepted.”

When you apologize and do not hear the words “apology accepted”, there is the feeling that a debt is still owed.


“I owe him an apology.”

“He owes me an apology.”

“I don’t owe you any apology.”


We monetize wrongdoing.


“You’ve made me pay for it.”

“I’ll make you pay.”


Surely equating currency and exchange with errors, apologies, and forgiveness lexically leads our brains into associating misdeeds and mistakes with theft. And some do amount to theft, either literally or figuratively.

Yet all too often a party is repeatedly made to apologize for a wrong-doing that is, in fact, not a wrongdoing; merely a manipulated idea of misbehaviour that has been established in the accuser’s mind as a result of too-high-expectations of others and/or intolerance. Possibly, the accused could also hold a warped vision of self in which all is and always will be their fault. This type of personality has suffered greatly and assumes that they are always in the wrong. “In the wrong”– as if it’s a place you can be…Again, we try to physicalize and monetize the intangible. The result being neither party can move forward. They are both stuck: one in the cement, the other unable to look away.

It is only when forgiveness is granted that both parties are able to shift focus and move forward, whether together or apart.  Contrition and Absolution…Luther recognized that these are not things we can hold in our hands. We can only pass them on to others through our words and actions.

There’s a reason why portraits of Martin Luther depict a man experiencing a combination of jaded exhaustion and barely-restrained defeat. It’s hard to get people to apologize to you; and it’s even harder to get people to accept your apologies. If anyone ever “owed” someone a massive debt of apology, it’s the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was only one of a countless number of people still waiting to hear their “I’m sorry”. Yet I suspect Luther wasn’t sitting around, waiting for that debt to be repaid. I think he realized he had better things to do with his time than hang around a massive institution mired in wet cement.

And I also think that, if the Catholic church were to reach out a hand and say, “I’m sorry,” Luther would  have replied by extending his own and saying: “Apology accepted.”

Homes, Apologies, Comedies, Fears, Taboozled

Dear Reader,

What follows is the first in a regular series Erica has dubbed “Philobservations:” a wonderful coinage which encompasses the philosophical observations we all make about the weirdness of life. This is piece is by her, as are the images. Enjoy, like, comment, share!


You can learn a lot about someone by seeing the objects they keep and the spaces where they sleep. Like this plant, cared for lovingly and repaired with rubber bands and hair clips, which tells me a lot about my friend L, the occupier of this Brooklyn apartment.

I like to hang out in other people’s homes, other people’s spaces. You can feel who they are by the objects kept, placed, arranged. What kind of space is it? What activities happen in this space? You learn a lot about a person or a family by seeing habitat.

Entering other people’s homes, I think: What will the space tell me about this person I thought I knew? Will it confirm my doubts, suspicions, irrational thoughts? Will it reinforce my anxieties that this person or this relationship really is too good to be true? What will the apartment we’re staying in through Air B-n-B show me about the owner? They said they were an artist. It will be interesting to see how an artist lives. (As if there’s one way.)

I particularly like to hang out in other people’s homes when they’re not there. Not like I’m a robber or a stalker or a home invader. I mean you can only really look around when someone’s not there. The staring would be weird in company. Alone, you can look behind doors and open cabinets. (I was looking for a water glass. I needed some ibuprofen!!) Alone, you might even muster the pizazz to sneak a glance at the bedroom, and then, if the coast is still clear, to furtively step across the carpet to see what’s on the night stands. Of course you wouldn’t go any further than that, unless you saw something alarming or incriminating at first glance. But curiosity killed the cat, and it can also kill friendships.

Taboozle is the verb I use for “committing a taboo”. This can also relate to the word “bamboozle”, which means to trick or perplex, a definition that relates to what happens when you commit a taboo in the company of others. Taboozling in someone’s home seems to me the basis of many fraught interactions and uncomfortable silences, of unspoken offenses, and broken connections.

A host inviting you to lay your weary head within the boundaries of their living space is an extension of trust. After all, we could turn out to be some sort of Tom-Ripley-identity-thief creeps. When building relationships with strangers that’s what we’re always trying to decipher, right? Is this person potentially harmful to me and/or my family and friends? That’s why I like being in other people’s homes with or without them around. I am confirming a trust connection by visiting, or having someone visit me in my, home.

That’s why even just the act of being invited into someone’s home is exciting: for dinner, a movie, a jam session, an after-school play session (that was always the best day at school…a different bus, no way!), a work project, a games night, an orgy, a book club, a poker game, a Super Bowl Sunday, a Ouija séance, or for a cup of tea. When you are invited into someone’s home, you are able to feel more trust towards them because you now see how they live. Vice versa: they’ve extended trust to you.

Vice versa, too: if someone always insists you come to their home and never visits you in yours, you feel as though trust is not being extended in your direction. Don’t they trust me to throw a nice dinner party? Don’t they trust that I’ll clean before they come and have food in the fridge? Don’t they trust I’ll put my drugs away so their kids won’t eat them? Don’t they recognize and respect my or our identity as an independent adult, as housemates, a couple, or family? Why can’t they come to my house, to show respect to me? I go to their house and I show respect to them when I’m there. Lack of exchange between living spaces can lead to unspoken taboozlings. Of what trick am I unknowingly a part?

The next time you invite–or are invited by–friends or family, you’d do well to remember that there is direct reactional symmetry between the small gestures of respect you show when in someone’s house and the level of hospitality and welcome your host shows towards you. This begins the moment the door is opened and you step inside. (Remember: a vampire can’t cross the threshold uninvited, so it’s good to remember that there aren’t that many vampires out there, just people whose houses you haven’t been to. Or people who have been living alone and unloved for far too long.)

The next time you leave someone’s house and think: Gosh, they don’t seem to like us. Is it something we did or said? Is it them or us? It’s you. You did or said something that, from their perspective, was disrespectful, no matter how outlandish that possible perspective might seem to you. So apologize. If you want a comedic dramatization of this phenomenon watch any episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Larry David gaffs again and again inside the domestic realms of his friends and co-workers. Outside of the home, too, Larry’s social faux pas and indifferences towards societal guidelines taboozle him hilariously across LA.)


As do many, I relate to David’s character. Just this weekend, while staying at the Brooklyn apartment of my best friend from high school, I taboozled. L went out at noon to work a shift at her bar, a divey saloon at the Atlantic stop on the NRQ. She said, I don’t know if you have any weed with you, just don’t smoke weed in my house. I stopped smoking weed and I don’t want it in my house. Okay, I said.

I know you’re thinking that I smoked weed in her house, but I didn’t.

Yet, still, I managed to break a few of her other rules.

Now I’m not saying that everyone who comes into your home should receive an oral or written list of your rules (though some people do do that to their guests). I am saying that I respect other people’s spaces and things. My main goal when I’m in someone’s home and I am alone is to not use or touch anything unnecessarily and to always, always, always move things back to exactly how they were before that person left you alone with their things. Of course, I never, ever manage to do this.

So it’s a hot day and I get some frozen mango, bananas, blueberries, cucumbers, and a can of coconut water at the local market around the corner. I come back to L’s and I see her dishes need doing. I also see her coffee press machine is a little dirty. So, as a gracious host, I start to do her dishes. I get really into it. Then I fold her towels all neatly and hang them on the oven door rod. Then I notice her floor is pretty dirty and I find the broom and dustpan and start sweeping. Now, when you sweep you move stuff. So, I tell myself: Okay, remember where everything is right now and then you can put it back. No problem. And L will be so happy her floor and dishes are clean when she returns from work. No problem.

I don’t want to disappoint you so I’ll warn you now: nothing extraordinary or surprising really happens in this story. Yet it does relate to this mini philosophical essay I’m composing, so here goes.

I move a few plants, I move a stool, I’m sure I moved a cutting board and some pans. I’ve put away the dishes that were in the rack drying and I’m pretty certain I put stuff where L would never put it. I’m worried about this because I’m a house guest and I shouldn’t mess things up or ruin my host’s routine. This is important. Dr. Moore recommends you remember this: One must respect others’ routines. And when you’re in your own home, you can ask others to respect yours. It’s all about recognizing and, importantly, not judging others’ boundaries. So I move a few plants and then I decide to take a break and eat some frozen mango. It’s a hot day, approaching 95 Fahrenheit. Only the middle room with the sofa and TV has AC. The kitchen is hot and sticky and sunny as I open the cupboard to find a suitable bowl for my summer-vacation-mango-chomping and see this:



You can spot my choice right away, and I figure because they are not on a high shelf, but the middle shelf, that they must get frequent usage. The glass is delicate and pink and I feel dainty and summery already.


I find a miniature spoon and sit in the air-conditioned room with the orange curtains, Danish mid-century furniture and the abstract painting on the wall.


Now it has to be said that I’ve stayed with L many times. I’ve been staying with her–or with her family–since I was 12 years old: sleepovers and Christmas Eves and long weekends on visits from college, or on visits from my mother’s new (far a away house) to our old Long Island hometown in the summers, where her Brooklyn-born parents live to this day, and which holds “the-town-I-grew-up-in” status. We’re tight.

That’s how come I know she is unhappy when people mess with her shit. She doesn’t like people moving her shit or using her shit. She has a big brother and a big sister, which could be why. They are all strong-willed individualists. They fight like hell. So, L doesn’t like her shit to be messed with.

I mean L doesn’t even like to be touched. She’s a hard core independent person. Knowing this about her, I am careful not to disturb her routine. I respect the routines of any and every one. Respecting routine is the definition of respect. Challenge of a routine is the definition of controlling. (Unless of course the routine is causing negative consequences or ripples for that person or others, then you can challenge, but only through “learning conversations”.[1]

I especially respect someone’s routine when I am in their space, when I become a function—helpful or hindering or neutral—to that routine. The moment you enter someone’s home, you become a temporary function of their routine. How well two people work together on their routines is the definition of long-term relationship stability, whether it be as roommates, housemates, partners, children, relatives, or blissful marriage. (I will go into the challenges of challenging others’ perceptions and paths in another essay.)


As I sit admiring the interior design of L’s awesome city apartment, these thoughts cross my mind (as well as thoughts about what it means to stay in someone’s home).

I taste and enjoy mango.

I return to the clean kitchen post-feast, carefully wash the pink glass and tell myself to return it to the cupboard before I leave. I drink my can of coconut water and place it, empty, beside the front door, telling myself to take the can with me when I leave, to recycle it in a trash can on the sidewalk outside. I look at the plant on the floor, see some empty space for plants in the kitchen window, pick the plant up and put it on the window ledge. I look around. All looks good. I take a shower, I drink water, I eat some beetroot chips (purchased by me at the market and I’ve left some for L, too). All of a sudden it’s 4:30pm and I have to leave to catch two subways and a boat to get to the festival in time to hear Alabama Shakes. I pull the blanket over the sofa where I slept, replace one of the back cushions, fold all of my clothes and items into my bags and into little neat piles on the coffee table. I look at the kitchen and bathroom and nod satisfactorily. I leave.

On the boat I remember that I didn’t throw away the can by the door and I ponder texting L to warn her. I decide against it because it seems rather trivial.

At the concert, I get a text: Is there a reason you needed to use my most vintage cocktail glasses? And put a plant that wants indirect sun in the window?

Now, some of you might be thinking at this point that L is a rude person. Maybe she is. But she doesn’t do me any harm because I always stand up for myself. And I like her. I think: Oh, shit, what is she talking about? Then I vaguely remember that sweet little pink mango glass and putting it back like I’d planned. I can’t recall doing anything wrong with the plant, though, but I guess I have. I text back: Just that I was cleaning. Sorry to annoy you. L doesn’t agree that using an antique alcohol glass counts as “cleaning” and sarcastically thanks me for cleaning it. I write again: I needed the fancy glass for my frozen mango. Honesty and comedy reign supreme, which are really synonymous because comedy shows us our funniest fears. L responds: Fancy fuck. And then apologizes, saying she was tired and grumpy after work.

I am happy we are open in our communication. I appreciate direct communication and feedback about behavior and choices because it means you look into yourself and ask: What happened? Did I make a mistake? Did I convey a meaning or a feeling contrary to my intent? To me, this is constructive confrontation, which offers introspective thinking on the extrinsic level. Confrontation also forces you to ask the other person: Why do you feel that way about my actions or behavior?

Of course, not everyone views confrontation like this. But I think if we viewed all confrontation as a chink in the communication chain, or as an other’s ear that hears you in a way that you cannot or might not even be able to fathom to begin to understand, then you are emphasizing the importance of communication and perspective to tackle the world’s biggest problems.


But grandiose philosophizing aside, this situation with L: this type of story is usual for me. I do a “Larry David” almost every day and almost every time I stay at someone’s house. Every time. From clogging toilets with tampons, to breaking vases, to using someone’s hairbrush, floss, or sports bra because I forgot mine, I am a wealth of house-guest taboos. Yet, unlike Larry David’s finely crafted, comedically unaware, and unrelenting character, I am aware, I take criticism, and I communicate. Most importantly, I say I’m sorry.

Yet we can look to Curb again to further establish the wider point here: Communicating boundaries is crucial for good communication. It’s also crucial for comedy. Comedy is the act of breaking boundaries. This is my claim and I’m sure it relates to previous claims, too, which I will expound on in a later essay. For now I will say this: Comedy is funny because we all agree on the social expectation that is being broken by the comedian (in actions or words). Comedy is talking about the taboo. Funny situations arise when we Taboozle. (This is also why humor does not always translate across cultures.)

The power of the media is its ability to shape and also to change our minds, pervasively and ubiquitously and trendily. To change what we laugh at. To change what we fear. To change how we see the world.


Back home, changing our minds means seeing what’s inside the alleged bogey man’s home. It’s all about perspective. In life there are always those friends and lovers who never invite you to their homes for dinner, or for board games, or for sex, and eventually those relationships dwindle. Trust is neither extended nor accepted.

If we could see the insides of people’s homes, we would trust our neighbors more. If more people invited each other into their homes, we would open communication and trust across our neighborhoods and our nations. The willingness with which people of other nations opened up their homes to me, as an American—while I was living for ten years abroad in several different countries—was a lighthouse on the unknown shoals of foreign shores, and a favor that I return to visitors from any country in the world who I meet, cordially and pleasantly, including those from my own land. Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman’s documentary American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers (2013) is all about this phenomenon in the USA. (Dr. Moore recommends.)


I’m writing this from Brooklyn, still in L’s apartment. I get back from the concert after 1am and L has already gone to sleep. I have a shower and collapse on the sofa bed with a crowd-anxiety-induced migraine. We both wake up around 2pm the next day. The sun is shining and the thermometer says 98 F. We sit around talking and I make us some granola with fresh banana and blueberries. She apologizes again for her texts and we have a laugh about it. How I don’t even drink and she thought it very strange that I used a cocktail glass. How I thought it was an ice cream glass. How I had written all this stuff about being respectful in someone’s home and then gone and been disrespectful in hers. I read her some of my writing. She laughs a bit. How she’s a tight wad about everything. How she claims she’s a tightwad because she’s lived alone for the majority of her adult life. We think about it and realize it’s true. She had a recent long-term relationship of 3 or so years. I had a relationship of 9: 6 years of traveling and grad school, which ended with a marriage of 3.


If I think about it at the most simple level possible, my marriage ended because I did not feel safe, supported, or loved in my own home. My home had become a place where I could not relax. I was about to kill myself over it.


And then I think of war-torn nations. How a whole country you call home becomes your safe-space no longer. How sad is that.


So just remember: Homes are trust ships; Apologize if you Taboozle in someone else’s space; Comedies are based on agreeing on and then overturning our shared notions of “rightness”; Fear is based on our imagination of the unseen and what to fear or not fear is propagated in everything we read or hear; and Taboos happen all the time. Forgive and move on.



Go home.

[1] Stone, D. et al. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin.


Welcome, Dear Reader

“I’m a doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit […] When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)


The Recovering Academic

Do you find yourself in a post-academic slump? Have you just finished your degree? Are you having trouble transitioning back to the “real” world?

If Yes:                                                                          If No:

This website is for you!



Well, okay, but perhaps you want to stick around to learn from, listen to, or just laugh at a couple of literature PhDs from New England.


We are in an after-education-terminal-degree-state: confused and curious about how theories relate to daily life.


We’re also creatives, working to find a place where fiction and theory can happily coexist.


Whether you answered “yes”, “no”, or are hovering somewhere in “maybe-so” land: read our blog!

It has lots of different entries on a variety of topics like books, food, pornography, political issues, films, armchair philosophies, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. It also has interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds, educations, and careers. Nothing is off limits and everything is fodder for the grist mill of our insatiable thirst for learning, questioning, and holding forth.

This is what we’re all about

We’ve all been educated to think in a certain way.

Education—no matter at what level—shows us a specific way of thinking, approaching problems, writing, reading, and sharing ideas.

Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990) claims: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (Forbes Magazine).

Yet certain types of education close your mind before opening it. In fact, education must do this, to a certain extent, to uphold the rules and standards it has set for all of us. You must learn this because x. You must write your essay like this because x. All of these rules are enforced to ensure exchange of information is as clear and as informed as possible. And while clarity and consistency are essential to the ultimate goal of education (the transmission of information and opportunity) that type of uniform thinking inevitably narrows the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable intellectual inquiry. I once had a fellow PhD student tell me, during what passes for casual conversation between academics, “No one can write anything without writing about Derrida, because Derrida has written about everything.” (Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004, Algerian French postmodern theorist). This is the kind of theoretical fixation/idealization that runs rampant in academia, and by its very nature prohibits creative, independent thought.

So if we look at Forbes’ statement, we can see that there is a step between an “empty mind” and an “open” one. That step is an “academic” mind. Nowhere is this more apparent than with recent graduates of college. If they’ve learned their lessons, their minds are now “opened” to new possibilities. Yet the educational system has taught them a certain way of thinking, depending on the political leanings of that institution. In Western countries, this is usually a liberal, left wing mindset characterized by social constructivism and emphasis on “nurture” over “nature”. Politically correct professors espouse their theories and ideas to students throughout their 3-5 years of study at the undergraduate level.

After this, if a student pursues “graduate”, or “post graduate” study, the sculpting of the mind takes many more steps towards becoming so open that it is closed. What do we mean by this? Take Shakespeare studies, for example. Poor Will Shakes’ bones have been picked over for so many centuries by the academic community (which shows no signs of slowing its voracious feeding on his corpus), that potential future Shakespearean scholars have to squeeze their dissertations into the most narrow of topics. At a certain point, when does this kind of criticism become so delimited by theoretical and academic strictures that it is intellectually limiting?

It is difficult to think outside of the parameters of an academic mindset. This is why leaving an institution of higher learning—after a BA, a BS, an MA, an MPhil, a JD, a PhD, or even an MD—leaves long-lasting footprints on the murky landscape of the mind.

This is also why leaving that liberal, left wing, politically correct environment, can be a painful and painstaking process of re-acculturation into the mode of job routines and every day thoughts. I remember my Early Modern Literature professor at Cardiff, Professor Martin Coyle, telling us: “The woman at the checkout in the grocery store doesn’t want to talk to you about Ophelia’s scene in Hamlet. This is the only place where you can talk about that sort of thing. No one else cares.” At first I was flabbergasted: What? Why not? But in all seriousness, Professor Coyle’s point helped me to remember to take advantage of the institution while I was a part of it, and to foster my relationships with fellow academics in as many ways as possible.

It also reveals that, however stridently the lady doth protest, the ivory tower is a very real place. As academics, we both wrote about popular fiction (science fiction and fantasy, to be specific). These genres have only recently been considered “worthy” of intellectual study. Yet while we may have been analyzing paperbacks that, when first published, could be bought on a rotating wire rack for a few bucks, our own dissertations would never be read beyond the circular walls of the tower. That circular structure matters. Academics write books for other academics. They argue passionately about topics of central importance…to academics. They hold conferences where they share their work with…wait for it…academics. The irony of the institution is that it takes material written for the public and creates commentary and criticism accessible, in many ways, to only those within the rarefied walls of the tower.

Students who share academic subjects have common characteristics of thought and mutual backgrounds. Sharing these languages and ways of thinking are important and essential for your identity as an accepted member of a social group. And that’s okay. Hell, it’s necessary. But we hope that by posting our thoughts and making the voices of our network of friends and colleagues heard in postings, discussions and interviews, we will create a welcome space for open and informed creative, intellectual and academic exchange. The Recovering Academic was inspired in part by the storied literary salons held by Gertrude Stein, who, with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, created a space where creatives and intellectuals of all stripes could share ideas without censure or censors. In this vein, The Recovering Academic is an act of breaking free without breaking down. We don’t want to destroy the tower, we want to open our own doorway, throw down a bridge, and see what happens when academia meets reality.

So let us introduce ourselves:

Dr. Nicole A. Thomas and Dr. Erica Moore are creative writers and academics who met as ex-pats entering the  Master’s in English Literature programme at Cardiff University, a Russell Group institution located in the capital city of Wales (see below for a map of this fantastical place). That was in ’07. They spent the next four years sharing an office while grinding through their PhD’s at the same Institution. Nicole’s first attempt at the literary salon was a regular “CakeSpeare” night, during which a group of slightly-intoxicated PhDs drank wine, ate cake, and read Shakespeare. Erica kept Nicole’s inner actress under control by introducing a random-selection process of assigning roles. Despite their mutual intention to remain in the U.K., these inveterate New Englanders both found themselves returning to the United States post-PhD and rekindled their friendship, this time as real people. One night over dinner in a faux Irish pub, Nicole spilled the beans on her Recovering Academic idea and her inability to get it off the ground. It was kismet. Erica leaned over the table and into the project, and what started as a shaky little idea became a full-fledged four-legged baby. (Try getting that image out of your head.  Alliteration, baby. It works.) We’re thrilled to be partners on this journey, and thrilled to have you along for the ride.

This is what we’ve got coming

Next Week: The Glass Ceiling as Magnifying Lens and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign

Soon: Erica’s take on what “Home” means from both the host and guest perspectives

Moving Forward: Weekly Posts and Regular Series

In Medias Res: a regular check-in with Erica and Nicole, post-doc

Whatchya Reading?: our comfort zone, literary analysis

Guests Posts from our wide circle of fellow creatives and academics

In Future: The Recovering Academic podcast!

From you: Comments, Criticisms, Creative Approaches! We want this to be an active forum for intellectual exchange, so you, dear reader, are a vital part of The Recovering Academic community. We can’t wait to hear from you!