Tuesday, February 4, 2020

7ToT: a few further thoughts on Amazon, and way too much about movies

1. Of course within days after I wrote that post about my Amazon dilemma, Dean told me his office was having a baby shower for one of his favorite co-workers. And guess what? We had four days to get a gift, and only one retailer could ship his choice in time for the shower: Amazon. So much for the purity of my protest.

2. When I mentioned the Amazon dilemma on Instagram last week, reader Julie responded, "It's just so fucking complicated," which is certainly true. But it was also the thing I needed to hear. My response doesn't have to be 100% fangirl OR 100% #notAmazon. I can use Amazon when it makes sense, and hopefully far less than in the past. I'm especially discovering if I want there to be independent bookstores, and I want there to be Barnes & Nobles stores where I can browse, I need to spread out my book buying. So I am.

(but p.s. Barnes and Noble seriously needs to update their site. I can't even get on it most of the time. Maybe it's just our awful internet, but I've seen some other complaints on social media.)

3. An independent bookstore posted a few months ago that one of the easiest things you can do to support non-Amazon retailers is to follow them on social media and like their posts. It costs you nothing, and it boosts their visibility.  So I follow all kinds of independent bookstores all over the country. It's fun, and often informative about upcoming releases, etc.

4. I guess I'm old enough now that I just don't understand why people get so heated up about things. The new Star Wars movie was fine--not my favorite, but certainly not the worst of the series. It had some really good moments in it, in addition to some moments that were head-scratchers (where the hell did they dig up that old fossil -ha). I didn't want Rey to end up with anybody, not Finn, not Ben Solo, and certainly not Poe, so I was not as upset by that part of the story as apparently a lot of other people were. Geeze. Can't she just enjoy being a badass on her own for awhile? I thought the one thing they got exactly right was the Rey-Ben plot.

5. It is light years better than either Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, and since we re-watched all eight of the Star Wars movies the week before Rise of Skywalker came out, those were fresh in our minds (we watched Rogue One last summer so skipped that one). I don't understand why it's getting so much criticism. My main objection wasn't Episode IX itself, but the lack of any clear vision for the 7-8-9 trilogy. Did they even have a plan? I am in total agreement with the guy at Forbes who can't understand why it's getting so much heat. Best quote from that column: "I’d give each of [the new trilogy] a solid B. However, I’d give the trilogy itself a C simply because Disney and Abrams and Johnson and everyone involved in producing these films failed spectacularly at creating an overarching, coherent plot that could tie them all together. Why even bother making a trilogy without a plan?"  That, exactly.

6. Loved Knives Out, partly because it was so unexpected. But we couldn't figure out why they put Daniel Craig (with an unforgivably bad Southern accent) in the role of the detective. I like Daniel Craig but casting him in that role made no sense. But that wasn't enough to keep us from being thoroughly entertained. (The inaccurate medical stuff bugged Dean but I don't know any of that stuff so it didn't bother me.)

7. And Little Women. Oh my word, is it good. It joins the ranks of the very few movies I think are better than the books. I liked the book when I read it around age 10 but didn't love it, and I don't think I ever re-read it until I was an adult, as opposed to other books that I read over and over. Long sections of Little Women (the book) are yawningly tedious, especially all the prose-y preaching from Meg and Marmee about how important it was for Jo to hold back her true self to measure up to some weird nineteenth century standard of what women should be. It just felt stifling. But the movie managed to be true to the moral tone without being so heavy-handed. Due in no small part to Florence Pugh, whose version of Amy is fabulous--the strong and capable counterpoint to Jo's fiery genius-- but only vaguely related to the vain, shallow Amy depicted in the book.

I could go on and on about LW, but I'll spare you. Just one more thing. The thing that takes a good, solid movie and sends it over the top is how Greta Gerwig took the autobiographical fiction of the book Little Women and merged it with the real biography of Louisa May Alcott at the end. It was brilliantly done. Just brilliant. Loved it.

That's all for me. Hope you're having a good week.

Friday, January 31, 2020

mental health at midlife, "one" more thing

At the end of my last post on midlife mental health (there's another one here), I said there was one more piece I wanted to tell you about but I had run out of room. And then life intervened, as it so persistently does, and I never got around to it.

But that "one more piece" continues to come up, and the first thing to say is that it is laughable that I said there was "one" more piece. There are a million more pieces. But that piece I was thinking about has been important, so here you go.

My family was pretty garden variety dysfunctional. I'm pretty sure my dad was a narcissist, and my mom an experienced enabler, but I've heard a lot of stories over the years from other people, and our particular mess was not out of the ordinary. And I say that with some sadness, because in the sixties, there were a whole lot of family dynamics that were weird and stifling and maiming, but it was just the way things were. My parents had their problems, but they also did a pretty dang good job considering the times and their own histories.

In the eighties, when I was in my twenties and psychotherapy was relatively new (at least to me), I was all about blaming my parents. I was so angry at them. I could tell you inside out how awful they had been, especially my dad. Some of it was necessary stuff that I need to process, but a lot of it was just me being young and self-obsessed. I'm not knocking therapy-- it helped, it helped lots. I'm just rolling my eyes at my youth, and my ability to think that my own pain was the most important thing. Maybe that's what a lot of us do in our twenties.

Anyway. Then I had kids, and once you have kids, it doesn't take long to realize that no parent is able to be the parent they wish they were. I was simultaneously developing the ability to protect myself better from my parents' ability to wound me,  and also becoming willing to cut them a whole lot more slack. They were doing the best they could. So I gradually dumped the whole digging-into-my-family-of-origin schtick because I just couldn't do it anymore.

I spent the next twenty-ish years aware that there had been some difficult issues in my family of origin, but not thinking about them, because I didn't know any way to do that without coming down on my parents with an attitude of self-righteous fury, and I knew that wasn't where I wanted to go. So I stopped (not overnight, but still a pretty thorough stop). And honestly, I had been pretty obsessed with it for awhile, so it was probably a good move at the time.

But recently, some things have resurfaced, and as I've become a student of my own brain and ego through meditation and whatever other tools I can find, I've realized that I still have a lot to learn from looking back and trying to understand some things from my childhood.

Not to sound like I'm overly wise or anything, but just to acknowledge the truth: if you let yourself, you do learn some things as you get older. I am wiser than I used to be, at least on this front. Because now I can look back and do it without blame. I can feel compassion for all of us, my parents, the community we lived in, the world we lived in, and see how we were all trying so hard to do things right, to do the things we thought we were supposed to do. And yet we were wounded, and we did some wounding. We muddled through, just like everybody does.

This is also turning into a muddled mess, and I'm not even sure why I'm writing it, because I don't know if anyone else is going through it, and if you're not, that makes this an exceptionally boring bit of navel-gazing.

But if you are, just this: it can help to let yourself go back and re-experience some old hurts. Sometimes when I'm meditating (my current meditating theme is to let myself feel what I'm feeling), it hurts so bad it's almost overwhelming. But it's not happening right now, it happened a long time ago. And if I can sit for five minutes, one minute, and let the feelings wash through me, it feels awful at that moment, but then later it feels better. It really does. I don't know if this will make any sense, but I feel more clear-eyed than I have in a long time. Maybe ever.

p.s. the book that was helpful in thinking this through is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. I had some problems with that book, but I still learned lots. Gottlieb, a therapist, says: "The purpose of inquiring about people's parents isn't to join them in blaming, judging, or criticizing their parents. In fact, it's not about their parents at all. It's about understanding how their early experiences inform who they are as adults so that they can separate the past from the present (and not wear psychological clothing that no longer fits)."

Yup. Have a great weekend.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Amazon dilemma

I'll admit it, I started out as a huge Amazon fan. When they first opened in 1994, they sold books, every book you could imagine, and that was all they sold for a few years. We did have a local bookstore back then (in fact, we had two, a B. Dalton at our tiny mall and an indie) and I bought books at those places, too. But as a nerd and a night owl, with small children to boot, I was so happy to have a place that was available 24-hours a day where I could browse books, order them at a discount, and read other people's opinions and reviews.

Back then it was a brand new thing that people could post honest reviews about what they were reading, and they did. A quite fervent bookish community built up--it was as if all of us introvert nerds had been waiting for Amazon. And then they came out with the kindle, and even though it took years, eventually I became a kindle convert (I've written about that before).

Our B.Dalton closed in the 90s at some point, and the indie soon after (I'm terrible at remembering dates, so that may not be exactly right). A lot of indies closed around that time, and although that gets blamed on Amazon, in my personal experience, a lot of them were on the verge of closing anyway, and they just used Amazon as the big bad guy excuse. I never got the sense that Amazon was purposely undermining local retailers. They offered a service, and made it convenient, and I used it.

But gradually that started to change. First there started to be fake reviews. Amazon changed the rules so that you had to admit it in the review if the review had been solicited, but still. There was no real effort on Amazon's part to stop people from gaming the review system, and as far as I can tell, there still isn't.

Then there occasionally started to be small "mistakes," like recently when the rating for a book in a popular author's catalog was incorrectly linked to a highly rated unrelated product. Oops! It was obviously a "mistake," but if you saw the 4.8 star rating and didn't click on the link and scroll down to read the reviews, you'd have never known. You'd just assume the book had a 4.8 (out of five) rating. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe it wasn't.

And then last fall, Amazon "accidentally" shipped Margaret Atwood's new book a week early. Oops!! they said. Blush!! We screwed up! Technical error! But come on. They shipped thousands of copies of a highly anticipated book--possibly the most highly anticipated book of last year-- and nobody noticed that they were shipping it a week early? I don't believe it.

And they didn't stop shipping it, either, once it became clear what had happened. People who were anxious to get their hands on it canceled their local indie order and got it early. I know that happened at least once because I heard a woman sheepishly admit on a podcast that she had done it. (It was a podcast that I was trying out for the first time, and it was one of the hosts, and between that and the constant fake laughing, I've never listened to it again.)

Finally, I'm done giving them the benefit of the doubt. That was clearly an attempt by Amazon to undermine local independent booksellers. It made me a little sick to my stomach.

So what to do. I still live in a town without a bookstore. We have a wonderful local library, and I use it, but it's a small town library and their selection isn't always the greatest. I make my semi-annual trek to the bookstore in the next town over, and even though they rarely have what I want, I buy stuff to help keep them in business. I also buy books from indie bookstores when we're traveling.

But I read a lot. My current solution has been to order from other retailers. Powell's is good, and they ship promptly. Like Amazon, they stock both new and used books. I also paid the annual membership at Barnes&Noble so I could get free shipping from them. (How crazy is it that buying books from Barnes & Noble now seems like a subversive act? I seriously do not want Barnes & Noble to go out of business.)

When I use up my current Audible credits, I'm probably going to switch to Libro.fm, an audiobook site that allows you to buy through your favorite independent bookstore. (Audible is owned by Amazon.) Since I don't store audiobooks on my phone the way I store ebooks on my kindle, that won't be a difficult switch to make. And over a year ago, I stopped buying anything else (besides books, I mean) from Amazon unless it was something I couldn't get locally.

But I still buy kindle books from Amazon, mostly when they're on sale. I've got too much invested in my kindle to stop doing that, and I've never seen another e-reader that I like as well.  And honestly, I still sometimes buy other non-book things from them, too. It's convenient when you live in northwest Montana.

I guess I've reluctantly, imperfectly joined the #notAmazon crowd. I'm so disappointed in them. They used to be the shining beacon of what an internet retailer could be, but they've turned out to be just as coldly money-hungry and profit-maximizing as everybody else. Maybe they were always that way and I was just naive, but I'm telling myself that it's only been the last half-dozen years or so and I've just been slow to realize it. Good-bye, Amazon. I loved you while it lasted.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Instead of seven things, just one.

Years ago-- I'm getting to the age where all my stories start with years ago-- I took a year of Chinese language classes at our community college. The professor was here for a year on a Fulbright scholarship from a university in northern China.

The class was interesting, but sadly I was in the midst of peri-menopause and I have almost zero memory of the Chinese I spent a year learning. At least that's my excuse. Xie xie is about the extent of my Chinese. (I can say thank you in five languages. woot!)

But that's not the story I wanted to tell you. The class met five days a week for two hours, so we had a lot of time to get to know our professor. His English name was Eric. Part of the way we learned about Chinese culture was by observing his culture shock during his first extended stay in the US. He had been to California on vacation, but rural Montana is not exactly the same.

Interesting(?) aside: the locals here don't consider our area to be rural. For Montana, this is a crowded city. And we now have Costco, Walmart, TJMaxx, and three Starbucks, so maybe they're right.

So one day after months of mini-discussions about cultural differences, we (somewhat naively) asked Eric how/why the Chinese people put up with living under an oppressive government. And he responded (I'm paraphrasing): the Chinese people are ancient. We will outlast any government. We just wait them out.

I've thought about that a lot, especially recently. There's quite a bit to unpack there, including the idea that in his mind, "we" includes future generations, since the change in government might not occur during his lifetime-- it certainly didn't look like it was going to at the time when we were talking to him.

But even more interesting to me: Americans (including me) are all about being upset about what's going on at the top of our government power structure. ALL ABOUT IT. But in some ways, that makes us more a victim of an authoritarian power structure than the people who are genuinely living in an oppressive power structure, but view it as merely a passing phase.

We Americans grant those people at the top all the importance by focusing so intensely on what they're doing, and pretending that what's going on in our country is all about them. Which mindset is truly oppressed?  Watching my own mind these days, I'm thinking it might be us.

Thought for the day.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Out with the old year (decade!), in with the new. Hello, 2020.

I have a life-long cycle of getting overloaded with commitments (especially around the holidays, of course) and then getting so stressed that I get through everything by shutting down, gritting my teeth, and surviving. Then when it's over, it takes a couple of weeks to recover.

In the past, I've tried to manage this by cutting back on commitments, but then I get bored and depressed. This year was definitely not a bored and depressed year. I think we had two evenings at home during the two weeks before Christmas. I was completely brain dead by Christmas day. I'm starting to think that I just need to accept that this is my normal cycle, and I should figure out how to manage it instead of trying to change it. It's not like this is a surprise--the holidays are busy and stressful for everyone.

For me, managing holiday stress for sure means scheduling time off after Christmas, and this year we were able to do that. I was totally on auto-pilot by the time Christmas rolled around, but during our week of vacation I could feel myself coming back to life. We had a great time with our kids and their partners, played a lot of cards, watched a lot of football/golf/movies, and walked on the beach. Can't ask for much more from a vacation.

I also got some reading done-- wouldn't be a good vacation without a stack of books-- including one more five-star read for 2019, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts. The title makes complete sense once you've read the book, but I think it's also misleading.

There is a ghost, sort of, but it's not really a ghost story, and it's certainly not a horror book. The blurb also mentions a treasure hunt, and although there is a treasure hunt, it's not the focus of the story and really it only has two steps. A lot of the negative reviews are about people's disappointment on those two fronts. But if you want a story of a bunch of misfits who are dealing with grief and not fitting in with a major dose of snarkiness, it delivers in spades. I loved it.

So now it's 2020. I've told you before I don't do New Year's resolutions (because I always fail at them), but I do usually have a theme, and this year it is pay attention. I've done this before, and it's always just something that pops into my head during the first week of the new year. I don't bother defining it any more than the phrase, because part of the whole thing is figuring out what it means as the year goes by.

The other intention I set for myself this year is to start investigating how we can cut down on single-use plastic. I gave up on paper towels in one moment when I walked into the restroom at our local movie theater and noticed that there were more paper towels stuffed in the trash for that one night than we would use at our house in a couple of months. Maybe the whole year.

Cutting down on plastic is probably more important anyway. I quit buying bottled water three (four?) years ago (partly because PellMel lectured me about it--I love learning from my kids). I quit buying apples at Costo, where they come in a large, molded plastic clamshell. But I've never done much more than that.  Up until last year, we could recycle plastic, so it didn't seem too horrible. But last year our county stopped taking plastic for recycling, and there are no other options for recycling in our community. So, will be working on this. Please share if you have any ideas.

Hope you survived the holidays with your sanity intact. My third intention for the year (start writing shorter blog posts) is apparently already shot to hell. Have a great day.

Friday, December 20, 2019

7ToF: my favorite books of 2019, and some odds and ends

1. Have you looked at any of the dozens of "best books of 2019" lists that have been published in the last couple of weeks? Maybe I'm just reading a strange bunch of lists, but what has struck me is that there is very little consensus. The Nickel Boys and Normal People (neither of which I've read) are on many lists, but not all. Other than that, it's kind of a grab bag. Seems odd to me, like part of the point this year is to prove that you read a bunch of obscure books.

2. When I was thinking about my personal favorite of 2019, three immediately came to mind: The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai), The Friend (Sigrid Nunez), and Washington Black (Esi Edugyan). So that's that, I thought. But then I started scrolling through Goodreads, and was surprised at how many books I had given five stars and then forgotten. (Is there a lesson there?)

3. So for the record, here are ten favorites that I read this year. I was going to list all the ones I gave five-star ratings, but there were twenty, which seems like a lot. So these are just ten that stood out when I scrolled through the list:  

The Intuitionist Colson Whitehead
Mary Poppins on audio with Sophie Thompson narrating
The Great Believers Rebecca Makkai
Less Andrew Sean Greer
The Friend Sigrid Nunez
What Truth Sounds Like Michael Eric Dyson
Born a Crime Trevor Noah, on audio
Matilda by Roald Dahl, on audio narrated by Kate Winslet
Washington Black Esi Edugyan
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Runners-up: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Pretty good, huh? I still have a few more I might get through before the end of the year, so maybe there will be more. I can hope.

4. I wasn't thinking about the End of The Decade until I recently saw a list of the best books of the decade. Whoa. The top one was Visit from the Goon Squad, which I haven't read but which was fortuitously available immediately from our library website, so maybe I will get it done before The End of The Decade.  Ha.

5. The Reading Glasses Dilemma, otherwise known as, How To Find a Pair of Reading Glasses When You Need Them. My solution for the past ten years that I've been wearing cheaters is to have a dozen pairs and spread them out--a pair in the bedroom, a pair in the kitchen, etc-- so I could always find one. But of course it didn't work. I could never find them. My new solution, which has only been for three weeks but is working much better: I have a ceramic jar on my kitchen counter and I keep all of them there. So any time I see a pair, I bring them to the kitchen and drop them in the jar. The only ones that aren't there are the ones in my purse, which I try to never take out so I always have a pair with me when I'm out of the house. So far, there has always been a pair in the jar. If you've got a better plan, please let me know.

6. Dean's solution, in case you were wondering, is to wear Clic Magnetic glasses, which are split in half at the nose piece and join up with a really strong magnet. Hard to describe, you'll have to go look at the picture. They hang around his neck almost all the time so he never loses them. But the band that goes around your neck is stiff, and it doesn't fit right under my hair, so I haven't been able to use them.

7. If you're in despair about today's young people, I strongly encourage you to show up for some activities at your local high school. Check the school website and show up for a play, or a band or choir concert, or a volleyball game. We've been to a couple of events recently, especially the winter choir concert, and the kids are bright, talented, and enthusiastic. They have worked so hard. They're going to be just fine, except they've got to deal with the mess we made.

And that's it for me. Hope you have a lovely rest of the holiday season. I'm not sure when I will post again but it might be after the New Year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Last-minute gifts and other minor things

Drummer snowperson!
I meant to post my favorite gift ideas a couple of weeks ago, but you know what they say about good intentions. For the record, although I have no problem with affiliate links and use them all the time on other sites, these are not affiliate links. I am unassociated with these products in any way, they're just things I like. 

1. Jelt Belts, for men and women, the no-show belt I've been looking for. If you, like me, have wondered why no one has continued to make those striped elastic belts with the d-ring metal clasp that we all wore in junior high, here you go, because the woman who came up with these thought the same thing. They are even one better, because the clasp is not metal, so you can keep it on when you go through airport screening. Also, Montana made.

2. Another Montana made product: compression socks from Vim & Vigr. These are adorable, not those horrible beige things that our grandparents used to wear. If you've never worn compression socks before, you will be surprised. I wear them on the plane, and those crazy "young people today" wear them for post-workout recovery, so any millenial athletes on your list will be appreciative, in addition to those of us with lagging circulation.

3. Highly recommend a trip to the hardware store or NAPA auto parts store for stocking stuffers. I just went by Ace Hardware this morning and wandered around until I had half a dozen things. The woman who checked me out commiserated with me that presents for the men in our lives are the worst, and she even suggested a couple of other things that I immediately went back and picked up (flares for auto emergencies-$2.99 each- and a lock de-icer for sleety weather, which I think was $3.99). You can always throw in a 2-pack of sharpies and a couple of bungee cords, too.

4. Spotify gift cards for the under-30s in your life (see previous discussion about spotify, #5 and 6 in this post). Unless you are already paying for their Spotify account anyway.

5. Buying a stack of books (meaning 3 or 4) for each of my family members has been a long-time tradition, and one of my favorite parts of Christmas shopping. In fact (who am I kidding) it is hands-down my favorite part of christmas shopping, and one that I happily devote hours to, sometimes to the point where I'm neglecting a whole lot of other shopping I need to do. But we now have our kids' significant others in the family Christmas scene, and they are not readers. I love them dearly, but *despair*, they are not readers. And I don't want them to feel bad about that. So this year, I'm ditching the traditional stack of books, and of course I'm doing it cheerfully, it's only here that I'm confessing to my sadness. But if you do have readers, a bookstore gift card is always an option. Or a book subscription from Page1 or The Bookshelf or Bas Bleu or any number of other similar sites.

6. Moment of sadness: I made my annual Small Business Saturday trip to the independent bookstore about fifteen miles north of here, the only retail bookstore in our area. I had a list of a dozen books I wanted, and because I'm increasingly concerned about amazon's dominance (more about that in another post), I was prepared to pay full price and buy all the ones I could find. They had exactly one of them. And this was not an obscure list. They just don't carry the kind of books I like to read. Of course, they would order them for me, but they are such snobs about it (admittedly, my biased perspective), I can never bring myself to do it. So I got online and ordered them from Powells and The Bookshelf. Also, what a world we live in when giving a Barnes & Noble gift card feels like a subversive act.

7. And lastly, this is not a gift idea but a recommendation for surviving the holiday rush, which is Harry Connick Jr's song "I Pray on Christmas"-- all of his Christmas albums are great, but that song is on When My Heart Finds Christmas, which I think was his first one. Here is Harry singing it (still the best), and here is a cover by an a cappela group, here is and here is a cover with a Norwegian gospel choir (under the heading: It Takes All Sorts). It's the perfect song for when you're dragging and feel like you just cannot do another holiday-themed thing. I pray on Christmas, you'll get me through another day, with full whoop-whoop gospel choir background. Sing it loud.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Puzzle solved: the appeal of City of Girls

I've been thinking lately about not fitting in. I do my best to think about this with a minimum of angst, because probably every person on this planet has had moments of feeling like they don't fit in. It's part of being human, and there's nothing particularly interesting about it.

But some of us Don't Fit In more than others of us don't fit in. I suspect that if I were a six-year-old now, I would be diagnosed as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. I've never quite managed social interactions naturally. I miss obvious social cues. I'm pretty good at reading tension and mood of a room, but I'm definitely not good at interpreting body language and facial expressions.

I think that's one reason why slow, beautifully acted movies and TV shows don't work for me. I heard a podcaster say this week that the reason they love Claire Foy so much in the TV show The Crown is because the camera can linger on her face and you can see an entire story happen in her facial expressions. I immediately understood why I've never been able to get into that show, even though everything about it sounds like something I would love. When the camera lingers on an actor's face, I just get impatient. It feels like a vanity shot-- look how gorgeous I am in all this makeup! Unless they're actually crying or laughing, I cannot see a single thing going on in the actor's face/eyes/expression.

I've especially never managed social interactions with women very well (I'm talking mainly about groups here, not individual, one-on-one interactions). Women In Groups are so complicated. I've heard it said that you can never trust a woman who is more comfortable with men than with women, so all I can say is, don't trust me! Because in a social situation like a party or a group gathering, I would a hundred times rather talk sports or tech or photography or anything with men than try and understand the nightmare-ish complications of social talk among women.

There are a whole bunch of expectations that I completely miss. Or sometimes I get them, but I can't take them seriously. I mean, I get that if you dress in ways that fit with current fashions, you feel like a competent human being who can manage adulting, but there's always an aspect of it to me that is like playing a game. I can't take seriously that someone really cares about what I'm wearing.

I wear jeans to church-- clean ones, in good condition. To me, showing respect for my surroundings means I pulled out a clean pair of jeans and I'm not wearing sneakers and a sweatshirt. But to some of the women in our congregation, it is a sign of disrespect that I don't dress up more for church. That's so far from the way that I think that it was years before I even picked up on this. I had no clue that anybody cared or even noticed what I wear. I'm just clueless about this stuff.

Aside: Remember back in the sixties and seventies when your mom would tell you that it doesn't matter what's on the outside, it's what's on the inside that counts? Can you even imagine someone saying that now? In these days of selfies and continuous online presence and endless make-up vlogs and fashion influencers?

So this entire setup was just to tell you that I finally figured out my problem with City of Girls, the bestselling novel by Elizabeth Gilbert that came out earlier this year. I am a sort-of fan of Gilbert's. I've like several of her books, fiction and non, and even the ones I haven't liked I've found to be interesting.  She really is an amazing writer. So I was looking forward to her new one, especially because so many women were posting reviews that said it was their favorite novel of the year, an instant classic, the most fun they'd had reading a book in forever.

But I could not get into it. Gilbert's writing was great, as it always is, but City of Girls just seemed dull to me. I 've read plenty of books where people got drunk and partied, but I've never read a book where there were pages and pages of descriptions of drunken partying to the point where it just got tedious. I mean, seriously, where was her editor? There is no new information, no character development (until it all comes to a crashing halt), just pages and pages of going out and drinking until you can't stand up and are puking into the gutter.

Then I read a brief description of it this morning on Vox's list of the 15 best books of 2019, and the light dawned. City of Girls is a girly-girl book. It's about getting dressed up and wearing great clothes and being dazzling, and feeling powerful because you are so gorgeous. I can understand that as a mental exercise, but it has almost zero meaning to me in practice. The Vox reviewer said that the thing that had stuck with her months after she read it was the clothes. Whaaaaat? No wonder I didn't get it. It is not a book for me. 

So problem solved, because it was really puzzling me why so many people (not just women) love, love, love this book.

Sorry I've been so absent, but for some reason, around here the stretch from Thanksgiving through the first week in December is the busiest time of the year. But I'm almost done-- this past week has been insane, but then next Wednesday I have my community band Christmas concert, and then I have almost nothing on the calendar through the rest of the month. I will drive you crazy with all the things I've been wanting to write about but haven't had time.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Thinking about thinking

When I was in grad school, I had to take a theory class. Theory, if you haven't been in college in the past thirty years, is now required for undergraduate humanities majors, but it was barely even a thing when I was in college, so I had no idea. I had studied literary criticism, but for that we just read the great critics from Aristotle to the present. And yes, they were mostly white men. (But sometimes they were brilliant.)

So "theory" was new to me, in the sense the word is used now. I'm not nearly pretentious enough or confident enough in my academic skills to explain to you exactly what it means, but I can tell you what I learned from it, and that is to critique my assumptions, and the assumptions of the culture I live in. You methodically learn to question everything you know about economics, war, history, gender, race, politics, and so on.

It's difficult and mind-bending at first, but as you get the hang of it, it becomes fascinating, and even exhilarating. You realize that our reality has no universal inherent meaning, rightness, it's just the way we've been raised to think about things. The sentient multi-gendered sea slugs of the Alpha Centauri system would not understand human homophobia. Our version of culture, the way things are, is a human construction, something we've created by living it.

Theory is also the reason that conservatives have become so disgusted with higher education. For the past couple of decades, conservative parents have proudly sent their kids off to college, only to have them come home full of bizarre ideas that don't make any sense to someone who has never questioned their culture, the world they live and breathe and move in. Their kids are like fish who have suddenly become aware of the water, while the parents are still steadily, and sometimes with great difficulty and perseverance, swimming onward, unaware that water exists.

But for better or for worse, those of us who have made the Theory Leap can't go back. But sometimes we fail to realize two things (maybe more, but I've only got two of them). One is the solid gift of living in a functioning society, where generally speaking things work. Elections happen (yes, sometimes voting rights are compromised), water runs out of taps (yes, sometimes tainted water in economically disadvantaged communities), if you call 911, ambulances or police cars arrive (yes, faster if you live in a wealthier community). Kids get educated, houses are bought and sold, groceries are shipped to grocery stores. Those things aren't true everywhere. Those mystified parents are sometimes right when they react with their own outrage: you don't know how good you've got it.

But also the theory converts have failed to take the next step and realize that the new way we have learned to think is its own human construction. Just as the old, increasingly obsolete, ways of thinking about things are nothing more than the way we've always taught/trained/brainwashed to think, so the new ways are nothing more than the way we've come to think, that will eventually become obsolete again. Rather than realizing that you can always take a meta-stance, you can always widen your scope and broaden your point of view, we've fallen into the trap of thinking that the new ways are the ways to think, the right ways to think. And like the conservatives who are viscerally offended by challenges to their cherished "way of life," we become deeply emotionally attached to our new ways of thinking.

It's so damn hard to avoid this. I've had my own personal realization about this over the past couple of days. I saw a post on Instagram that deeply, strongly disagreed with one of my own deeply, strongly held opinions. (for the record, it was someone considerably farther left than me talking about one of my more moderate--yet still strongly held-- opinions). She was passionate, and heartfelt, and also --in my opinion-- exaggerating.

Exaggerating is one of the principal tools of both of the extreme sides. You spin the story, choose the details you want to see, maybe ignore or skim over the details that might not quite jibe with what you want to see here, and then BLARE YOUR OUTRAGE. It's a standard tactic of a persuasive argument. It's the way legal cases are built, it's the way vacuum cleaners are sold, it's the way people get elected to public office or shunned for life. I'm sure I've done it myself, probably right here in this blog. It's so much a part of the way humans interact that we're probably not even aware of when we've done it.

But even though I know that, I found myself with a ridiculously physical reaction. I was a little shaky, a little sweaty, a little nauseated. Because part of me sees her point-- she is, after all, a liberal, as I am-- I felt a little ashamed that I hadn't fallen into line with her MORAL OUTRAGE, that I hadn't felt that OUTRAGE myself at the situation, before she stated her opinion.

But you know what? I didn't. She can spin the story the way she did, and she can pick apart the situation we were both thinking about, and she can make it work. Because the situation is complicated, and complicated situations lend themselves to that. But she also has to ignore a few details, skim over some broader concerns, and unload an entire mountain of historical and cultural guilt on a situation where one person was acting in the way that he thought he was supposed to act. And she gets to walk away from that BLARE OF OUTRAGE feeling self-righteously pleased with herself, but a few of us are thinking...... wait a minute. And when those few of us include me, I sadly don't usually say anything, because the online climate right now is not about reasonable discussion, it's about EXPRESSING OUR OUTRAGE.

So, I wrote this last week, and I'm still thinking about it. Posting it anyway. Moderates unite.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

creative writing week 1

    4:57 a.m. Sondra swims up toward wakefulness as if she were rising from the bottom of a lake of mud. For a few seconds, all is well. Then slowly her head starts to throb. Damn, she thinks. Dammit all to hell. Maybe if she goes back to sleep, everything will be fine. (She knows it won’t be.)
    5:32 a.m. She wakes up again, but this time the pain is instant. Fuck, she thinks. She is not one to swear, except when it feels like someone is hammering an ice pick into her brain. She rolls to her other side. Maybe that will help. (She knows it won’t.)
    5:43 a.m. John is still sleeping next to her. His alarm will go off at six. Sondra tries to raise the energy to get up and take the hated meds. She really, really doesn’t want to take them. The side effects—the jitters, the upset stomach, the drugged feeling— will throw off her whole day. And anyway it feels like giving in, like she is too weak to conquer a stupid headache. Maybe if she goes back to sleep. Maybe if she punches up her pillow to support her neck. Maybe if she is tough enough, the pain will subside so she won’t have to take the meds. (She knows it won’t work, but she goes back to sleep anyway.)
    6:10 a.m. When she wakes again, John is in the shower. She must have slept through his alarm. Immediately she knows her head is worse. If she gets up right now, she can take the meds and be back in bed before John gets out of the shower. She doesn’t want him to know. He will worry, and there’s nothing he can do. She hates it when people feel sorry for her. When her head hurts this bad, sympathy just makes her mad. She thinks to herself that she should get up. (She doesn’t.)
    6:23 a.m. She must have dozed off again. Her head is worse. Now it feels like a giant is squeezing her head, like there is a fire burning at the base of her skull, like the backs of her eyeballs have been sandpapered raw. She hates her head. She hates the drugs. She does not want to take them. But if she doesn’t take them soon, she won’t have enough time for them to work before she has to get up at 7:30. Fuck, she thinks again.
    6:25 a.m. There is no help for it. She must get up. She pulls herself up, swings her legs over the side of the bed. Her stomach rolls, but it is not rolling hard enough to make her throw up, and that is a relief. Standing, her head feels slightly better. Maybe if she just takes a couple of Advil and some Excedrin migraine. Maybe that will do it. (She knows it won’t.)
    6:29 a.m. She has taken the Advil and the Excedrin, downed some water. She’s heard that headaches are caused by dehydration, so she makes herself drink as much as she can stand. She gets back in bed. Thinks about her meeting. She could call them and say she has a migraine. But she doesn’t want anyone to know. She is ashamed of her migraines the way someone else might hide their lame foot or cauliflower ear.
    6:48 a.m. She hears the garage door open and then close as John leaves for work. The Advil and the Excedrin are not working. She’s either going to have to take the drugs or stay in bed all day, miserable. This is ridiculous, she thinks. I am an adult. I have a legal prescription for migraine meds and painkillers. I have a migraine. Why do I do this to myself? But the compulsion to hide, to pull the covers over her head and crawl down in, is nearly impossible to resist.
    7:02 a.m. It is dark under the covers, and darkness feels better. But the headache is not going away. In fact, it might be getting worse. She has to do it.
    7:11 a.m. She has to do it.
    7:15 a.m. She really, really has to do it. As it is, she will have to reset her alarm for 7:40 so she can shut her eyes long enough for the damn things to work.
    7:16 a.m. GODDAMMIT, she yells, inside her head. She throws the covers off, rolls out of bed, and stomps over to the cabinet. Or she would stomp, if it didn’t make her head throb. She digs through the basket where her meds are, finds the pill bottles. She shakes out a pain pill, puts it in the pill cutter and cuts it in half. She peels back the paper liner of the Maxalt. She takes the half pain pill and the pink Maxalt and swallows them with more water. Goes back to bed. Resets her alarm for 7:40. Waits.
    7:27 a.m. And waits.
    7:32 a.m. And waits.
    7:38 a.m. Finally, finally, the blessed reprieve begins. She will pay for this later, but for now, the pain recedes, like cool rain washing over hot pavement, like sinking into a feather bed after a night on a bed of nails.
    7:40 a.m. Her alarm goes off. She gets up, gets in the shower, tries not to weep with gratitude for the relief of pain. Next time she will take the meds right away. (She knows she won’t.)