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.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

7ToT: Bouchercon trip report

1. Bouchercon 2019 was fun. In fact, if you're a book lover, there's probably not much that's more fun than going to a book convention. Everyone around you is as big a nerd as you are. Bouchercon is devoted to the world of mysteries, which they define broadly as anything that involves a crime. So there were authors and readers of everything from thrillers to cozies, and a broad array of panels to match.

Convention Pro Tip #1: Know how to pronounce the convention name. The "boucher" in Bouchercon rhymes with "voucher." It is named after a devoted mystery writer, editor, and critic named Anthony Boucher. Fortunately, I heard someone else say it before I embarrassed myself too badly.

2. It was in Dallas this year, so I spent the first half of the week in East Texas with my mom and sister, and then drove to Dallas on Thursday (because, like a dummy, I didn't read the schedule ahead of time, so I didn't realize there was a full day of activities on Wednesday). 

Convention Pro Tip #2: Look over the schedule before you go. Duh.

3. It was really remarkably well-run, especially since it is done entirely by volunteers. My only complaint is that there was no way you could get to all the panels you wanted to hear. There were seven or eight going on at any given time, and you can only go to one at a time. I think my favorite was the one with a retired trauma surgeon, a forensic scientist, a molecular biologist, and a cop, who talked about things that writers get wrong in books and movies/TV. They were great--very funny, very talkative. That one could have gone on for a couple of hours, easy.

4. Book conventions are great if you want to meet authors. Sandra Brown was there, and Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth George, Rhys Bowen, Laurie R. King, Sherry Thomas, Kellye Garrett, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and dozens more. Of course, you already know I'm way too shy to approach an author on my own, so I only met two.* My friend Karen introduced me to Laurie R. King, author of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, who is just as lovely in person as I expected from reading her books (I'm on #8). And I bolstered my courage and stood in line to meet Christine Carbo, who lives one town over here in Montana. I don't know why I'm so scared to walk up and introduce myself, because both of them were very nice.

* three, if you count Julia Spencer-Fleming, who struck up a conversation with several of us in the elevator while I tried not to hyperventilate. I managed not to squee until I got back to my room. But we didn't exchange names, I only knew who she was because I could see her nametag.

part of my #bookhaul
5. At Bouchercon, you get four coupons when you check in, and then you get to go to the Book Bazaar and pick out FOUR FREE BOOKS. Pro Tip #3: get there early on the first day. I didn't get there until late afternoon the second day, so it was a little picked over. But even then there were two books that I really did want, and somehow I managed to pick out two more. Then I bought three more at the paid book area, and bought three more at Half-Price Books (the flagship Half-Price Books is in Dallas, and it is huge). I could barely get my suitcase shut, even with the extension unzipped.

6. Which means that all that good work that I did at the beginning of the year with not buying new books is now shot to hell. Especially because I bought two before I even made it to Dallas, and three a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix that I haven't found shelf space for yet. Oh, well. I'm not feeling particularly upset about it, as you can tell.
Most Memorable Line of the Weekend: Sherry Thomas, in a panel on Women in Sherlock: "Let's face it, the original Sherlock stories are competence porn." 
7. There were plenty of breaks in the schedule, including an hour-long lunch break, so it wasn't nearly as exhausting as it could have been. But at lunch time, everyone wants lunch, and the restaurants in the convention center were packed. This particular hotel only had one nearby restaurant, and everybody knew about it, so it wasn't much better. Next time I do this, because I definitely want to do this again, I need a better supply of snacks. I ran out by my second day. In fact, since there was a fridge in my room, I should have just brought some food. Pro Tip #4: Bring snacks, more than you think you need.

That's everything I can think of about Bouchercon. Hope you get to go some day!

Friday, October 25, 2019

7ToF: BETWEEN TRIPS, which means I am both happy to be traveling, and also completely nuts

Very cool succulents at Desert Botanical Garden
1. We went to Phoenix last weekend for a trip that was business for Dean, and nothing but fun for me. I wish we could do that more often-- Dean's air fare, the rental car, and the hotel room were paid for, we just have to pay for my airfare, food, and all the books I bought. Then on Monday, I'm headed to Texas to spend a few days with my mom and then go to Dallas for the big mystery readers/writers convention, Bouchercon. I've never done anything like this and I'm really excited about it. I will report back.

2. Highly recommend Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It's the story of Wash, a young boy who starts life as a slave on a sugar plantation. The brother of the plantation owner takes him on, and then the two of them are forced to flee when Wash is implicated in the death of a white man. It obviously has some parts that are difficult to read, but for those of us who are Highly Sensitive Readers (a title I claim with some embarrassment), it's readable. You can do it. Edugyan's writing is wonderful, the voice of Wash is mesmerizing.

3. But I was struck by something that I guess is a sign of the times. (Minor spoilers ahead) Wash starts a relationship with a young woman several years after his escape. Even though they are clearly living together, at no point do they worry about getting pregnant. I've noticed this in various historical romances, too. Even though there weren't really any effective methods of birth control in the nineteenth century, somehow the author projects her own lack of worry about pregnancy back onto her characters. It is so weird. In my generation, as soon as you became sexually active, you worried about getting pregnant. Even when I was married, I worried somewhat obsessively about getting pregnant when I didn't want to. But apparently, today's young women are so confident in their birth control options that they don't know what that obsessive dread of getting pregnant is like.

4. On the one hand, I'm really happy about this. Women will never achieve economic stability if they can't control when they get pregnant, and this tells me that we're getting there. These young women don't seem to know the psychic burden of worrying about getting pregnant. That is great. But on the other hand, it's so not accurate. The consequences of an accidental unwanted pregnancy back then would have been enormous.

I guess it's the same argument as using a Bible that has the pronouns updated to be more inclusive, or Hamilton, where we are reimagining the past the way it should have been. And I am entirely in favor of both of those, so I think I am deciding that this is a good thing.

5. You know what I am tired of? (this is starting to be a regular topic: things that make me grumpy) I am tired of obsessing about skincare. MY GOD. I have a skincare routine--it even has several more steps to it than it did when I was in my 30s and all I had to worry about was preventing breakouts. So it's not that I'm completely uninterested in the topic. But suddenly it seems to have become The Thing to obsessively listen to skin care podcasts and read blog posts and spend hundreds of dollars on trying out new products. It's ridiculous. There are no men who are doing this. It is just women. What is it with us?

6. But now that I've said that *blush* I have to confess that I did a three-week test of a new skin care product someone raved about on buzzfeed. The skin of my chest, which I think we are supposed to call our d├ęcolletage, is covered in moles, age spots, dark patches, and red dots (yes, the dermatologist did tell me the technical name and no, I cannot remember it). The dermatologist told me that it's just the joys of aging, and we have to claim our wisdom and our years and whatever other bullshit they tell you, and there was nothing to be done. The downside of a northern European gene pool, I guess. I don't very often envy younger women, except when I see someone with a perfectly smooth d├ęcolletage. Then I want to scratch her eyes out.

7. So anyway. I tried Stila's One Step Correct ($36 at Ulta) for three weeks. I even took before and after pictures so I could tell what really happened, and as you might be able to predict, there is not a chance in hell I am posting them. But you know what? While it made zero difference in the number of moles/spots/skin tags, it made a huge difference in how my skin looks. I was, honestly, kinda shocked, because I am a pretty big skeptic about skin stuff. I'm going to keep using it. That particular product may not work for you, but I guess I can't turn my nose up at people who are trying different things, because sometimes you find something that helps.

That's it for me. Have a great weekend.

Friday, October 11, 2019

7ToF: the days go by

1. Suddenly, right at the moment when I'm surprised to look up and see that it's already October, it is October tenth (eleventh by the time you read this). I have no idea how these things happen. Part of the reason I've been busier than usual is that I signed up for a creative writing class-- not necessarily fiction, it's for whatever kind of writing you want to do. Since it's hard to write a blog post after I've spent hours working on something for the class, I might post a couple of the things I've written. So if something strange pops up in your feed, no worries, it's just me, practicing.

2. I've been wearing the same power of cheaters (+1.75) for at least five years. Just in the last couple of weeks, it appears that it might be time to change to +2.00. Ouch. The downward spiral.

3. Paper towel update: I figured out that the reason I like using paper towels for cleaning is that you throw them out, as opposed to using dish/wash cloths, which hang around wet, dirty, and germ-y, waiting to be used again. Yuck. The solution seems to be having enough dish cloths that they can be single use. I use one to wipe down the counter and then throw it in the laundry. For some strange reason, in the past this has felt uncomfortably wasteful to me, which is weird because really it is way less wasteful than paper towels. For now, it is working. They take up hardly any room in the washing machine, so there's no increase in laundry-- which would be a deal breaker. Also, I've been having fun finding cheap cotton cloths.

4. In an effort to get out more, we've been going to more movies. We don't usually go-- in the past, we've been to the theater maybe three or four times per year. It seemed like the worthwhile ones were always depressing, and the fun ones always seemed to involve hours of car chases. Is there anything more boring than a car chase? Apparently that is one of my many unpopular opinions, because all blockbuster movies have car chases, even sci-fi or fantasy ones where they're not actually driving cars, they're driving some hopped-up moon rover or dune buggy or whatever. You just sit there and watch special effects chase around the screen until they're done.  /*rant over*/

4a. Sadly, though, even though we've seen more movies lately, I don't have any to recommend. We've seen some that kept us entertained for a couple of hours, but none that were knock-your-socks-off. Although I will say that The Goldfinch was way better than I expected, given its terrible reviews.

5. Am I the last person to find out about the phone app Serial Reader? You download it to your phone, pick a classic novel, and then every day a snippet of that novel appears in the app. So by reading 15-ish minutes a day you can get through Jane Eyre in 72 days, Frankenstein in 28 days, or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 5 days. It's mostly books that are in the public domain, of course, and the selection is a little limited, but he's adding new stuff all the time. I'm working my way through various Sherlock Holmes stories right now. The basic functions are free, or you can pay more to read more than one book at at time, plus other features. Love it.

6. That said, I've realized over the last few months how much self-imposed pressure I've felt to keep up with my TBR pile. One of the things I've lost is the joy of re-reading. I have always loved re-reading my favorite books. When I was a kid, I used to read the Narnian Chronicles every year. I've read Pride and Prejudice at least five times. But now I'm so aware of all the books out there that I want to read, I've allowed myself to succumb to reader FOMO. I don't have time to re-read! I've got to keep up! So now I've resolved to have at least one re-read going all the time. Right now it's The Thirteenth Tale, which I've actually only read once before, but I wanted to see if it's as good as I remember before going on to her new book, which came out this summer.

7. You know what I don't mind? I don't mind being referred to as a guy. When I'm sitting with a group of friends and one of them says, "What are you guys reading?", it just doesn't bother me. It's partly regional-- "you guys" is the midwest equivalent of "y'all." But it's also just not that big a deal. I've been treated with kindness and respect by people who use all the wrong, politically incorrect words, and I've been treated badly by people who said all the right things. I know which I prefer, and it's not the people who can check off all the correct buzzword boxes.

wow, two rants in one post.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, September 27, 2019

7ToF: If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away

1. I told you awhile ago about my happiness with using microfiber washcloths instead of single-use disposable face wipes, and I am still happy with them (in fact, I just ordered some more). I am not as happy about my attempt to get rid of paper towels. I ordered bamboo towels that come on a roll just like regular paper towels, but you can run them through the laundry and reuse them for months instead of throwing them away. Unfortunately, before they were washed, they were stiff and hydrophobic, and once they were washed, they were very "linty," if you know what I mean. They left hairy bits on everything. So I am still working on a replacement for paper towels. I don't actually use that many, so I'm not sure how important this is to me. If you have any ideas, let me know.

2. Drumming update: I have progressed to Weezer's Sweater Song. The basic version of the drum part has to be the simplest of any top 40 hit ever, bless them.

3.  If you enjoy smart, thought-provoking conversations about books, try the So Many Damn Books podcast episode about the literary canon and how it has changed/should change (episode 120, Back to School)(episode 117, about Lonesome Dove, is also relevant). The Front Porch's episode #242 from this week is an unexpectedly interesting conversation about banned books. I am forever grateful that my parents, conservative as they were, never restricted my reading in any way. It was partly because back in the sixties, parenting was a much more hands-off activity than it is now. But it is also partly because they were really in favor of reading. Left to my own devices, I tended to pick books that were pretty tame anyway (see item 5).

Aside: a further shoutout to So Many Damn Books for recommending the book Dreyer's English in episode 119, which is so fun if you are a word nerd. Funny, literate, frequently deliberately provocative. Five stars. The interview the SMDB guys do with Dreyer is also interesting, and spurred me to re-read To the Lighthouse this summer.

4. I am, for lack of a better term, an immersive reader. When I'm reading, I'm in there, in the story, like it's happening to me. When I was reading Sing Unburied Sing, I had to put the book down at one point because I was so angry and upset that the mom wasn't feeding her children. It was several minutes before I pulled myself out of it enough to remind myself that it was fiction and it wasn't really happening right that minute.

5. And I can't read horror or suspense books because they (not kidding) give me nightmares. I remember not being able to sleep for several nights when I was in junior high and read 83 Hours Till Dawn, about an heiress who was kidnapped and buried alive in an oversized coffin for more than three days. I can't give you a more recent example than that because I never read a book like that again. Gone Girl, which I tried because I kept hearing about it, gave me nightmares. I can recognize her innovations, and the on-the-nose description of a marriage that's a mess, but I'm not reading anything else she wrote. Nope.

6. I'm starting to realize that reading like this really inhibits my enjoyment of what could be some great stories, but I have no idea how to change. If you have any ideas, let me know. I'm working on it right now. I was listening to a tense part of an audiobook yesterday and I paused it, made myself breathe and reminded myself this isn't happening to me. It's not even really happening to her, since it's a fantasy novel. HA. How ridiculous am I??

7. At our house, all of us have... well... ummm.... lucky underwear. Is this just us? When you have something especially scary or stressful happening on a particular day, you wear your lucky underwear. For me, it also extends to socks. I have several pairs of socks (like the ones with pink and purple stripes that my friend Susan gave me, or the ones with goldfish on them) that help me feel brave when I'm feeling intimidated. You can't see them, but I'm wearing my lucky socks! For some reason this week it occurred to me to wonder if we are just as weird as we could possibly be, or if everyone does this.

So, that's it for me. Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Musings after a writers' conference

We have a very active, very successful local writers group that I've never joined. Not because I don't like them-- I know several people who are in it and they are great. But their monthly meeting is on a night that I have a conflict, and there's the whole social panic aspect of it, and also-- well, I've never really considered myself to be a writer, even though I write blog posts and emails and Goodreads reviews all the time.

Anyway.  This past weekend was their annual writers conference, and it was great. I think I've attended two or three times over the nearly three decades we've lived here, and it is always good. I don't know how they manage to attract such great speakers and keep the cost so low (under $100 for the weekend, including food).

I don't have any writing projects I'm working on right now, or even any plans to start one in the immediate future, but I signed up as soon as I saw the list of speakers because I saw that Bob Mayer was going to be there. He and Jennifer Crusie wrote the romantic suspense novels Don't Look Down (2006) and Agnes and the Hitman (2007), which were the books that convinced me that rom-coms weren't dead and could still be funny and smart and entertaining.

It seemed like a good idea when I signed up, but then I had to actually walk into a room full of strangers and I almost didn't go. I function relatively normally in a social situation where I know people, but throw me into a room with 125 strangers and I turn into my seventh-grade self, immediately heading for the back corner of the lunchroom in a minor panic because I don't know what else to do. But I ran into half a dozen people that I know over the weekend, and it got better. If it had gone on for another day, I might have actually felt brave enough to participate.

The only problem was that this conference is a very practical, how-to-be-successful conference, no woo-woo creativity exercises allowed. There was information about how to find an agent, how to work with an editor, how to use social media to your advantage. So pretty much everybody there was seriously working on a novel or a memoir or some major project.

All weekend every time the person next to me politely asked, "What's your current project?" I had to admit sheepishly, well, nothing, I just came to hang out with the writer people and hear Bob Mayer. I can always sit and listen to smart, interesting people talk, and there were a lot of them there this weekend. I had a good time, even though I didn't need to create a one-sentence pitch, which is what almost everyone in the room was working on.

I gave up on writing fiction years ago, since I have been so spectacularly unsuccessful at it every time I've tried, but over the course of the weekend, a couple of ideas came up that I thought I might try. I'm quite sure it won't result in a novel, maybe it won't even be fiction, but it might be fun to try something new. I'll let you know if it turns out.

Have a great day. I'm off to re-read Agnes and the Hitman, which I haven't read in at least eight or ten years.

Friday, September 6, 2019

I'm Still Standing- midlife mental health again

I'm doing better. I don't know if you can tell. Mental health is such an individual thing, I'm not sure if writing about my own issues is going to help anybody else. But it helps me, so here you go. This got a bit long. Save it for when you're in the mood.

As I told you last time we talked about this, my mental health issues are depression and paranoia. I think I will always be prone to them. It's like being headache-prone (which I also am). You can figure out the triggers, avoid behaviors that make things worse, and do your best to be healthy. But I'm always going to have headaches, and I'm probably always going to go through periods of depression and paranoia.

So understanding my "issues," and having the tools to deal with them and know when I'm headed into a spiral (of either headaches or depression), is only going to help.  

I think part of what I've been going through is the longer-term adjustment to the empty nest. That kind of surprised me. MadMax left last week to start his senior year of college, so this isn't new. We've been empty nesters for three years now.

But there's the initial oh-my-god-my-children-have-moved-out part, which is hard enough but didn't last very long, and then apparently there is another longer adjustment that I am still navigating.

The first part, that wrenching feeling that you tore your right arm off and left it in that freshman dorm, is the more obvious one, the one everyone knows about, and it's not easy. But it's pretty fast. With each of our kids, by the time they'd been gone a couple of months, we were getting used to it.

And then there's Phase Two, which I was not expecting. Why should there be a longer term adjustment? I'm plenty busy. I'm involved in a lot of things in our community. It's not like my life revolved around my children.

But you know-- it did revolve around my children. I was never a helicopter mom, but having kids in the house was the organizing principle of my schedule from 1990 to 2016. That's a lot of years.

Apparently there is a longer term adjustment that I'm still figuring out. When you're a parent, you have obvious significance, even if it's just localized to your kids. You are that child's parent. You are needed. Even when they're 17 or 18, you keep at least some track of where they are, their dentist appointments, their parent-teacher night, their band concerts.

It's going too far to say it gives your life meaning, but it does mean that you've got a certain number of default things that can only be done by you, even if it's just paying attention and being there when they need you. There's a certain amount of purpose involved in that.

And figuring out what is going to take the place of that has been a longer process than getting over missing my kids. Whom I still miss, of course. It's not like you stop missing them, but you get used to it.

So, that's part of what's been going on. Another part of it is still related to something we've talked about before, which is that feeling that this is not the life I thought I was going to have. I guess it's regret, to put it plainly.

That has been a really tough one for me. I didn't think I was going to end up at age 58, living in a rural area with only a string of part-time jobs on my resume and no professional accomplishments.

This is embarrassing to admit, because it makes me sound like such a whiner. I have a hard time even typing it out without surrounding it with snarkiness because I know I sound like a spoiled brat. I am so blessed, so privileged. But the struggle is real, as they say, and pretending like it's not there doesn't help.

My adult life has been so contrary to the way we think these days-- if your life isn't going the way you want it to, change it. Get a new job. Move. Get a divorce. Have an affair. Join a commune. Take art classes, do yoga, change it up, make your life into what you want.

We believe we have agency, the power to make our lives into whatever we want. We believe what the individual wants should be, at least to some extent, more important than family or community ties.

But I couldn't do the life that I had mapped out in my head and have my husband, my children, and my integrity. I can run back through the decisions we made every time we decided to stay here and not move somewhere with more job opportunities for me (which we considered multiple times over the years), and even in hindsight, I would make the same decisions over again. At every stage, I made the decision that was the "right" one for me/us at the time.

It just was never the decision I would have made if I'd been single and childless and unattached. I kept deferring what I wanted to do, thinking someday my turn would come. But then I hit fifty, and I ran slam up against the realization that some of the things I had really wanted to do were not going to happen. Not helped any by the people I could see around me who at least appear to have it all-- family, career, living in the location of their dreams.

Then I had a conversation this summer that has really helped (beyond what we've talked about before, which is realizing how damn lucky I am). I had dinner with one of my college roommates a couple of months ago, the first time I'd seen her in thirty-five years.

I was talking through a brief version of this issue with her over dinner, the decisions I had made that weren't always the ones that I wanted to make. And she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, you made those decisions according to your values. You made exactly the decisions you wanted to, because those are the things you value.

It's one of those ideas that was interesting at the time, but later, it bloomed in my head. It's re-framed the way I think about the past and let me begin to be able to forgive myself for (supposedly) not being "strong enough" to "create the life I wanted."

I've been so angry at myself for not following through on all the things I felt like I should have done, all the accomplishments I should have under my belt. (I should have just put my foot down and demanded that we move!) But I was strong enough to make the decisions that deep-down were the ones that I felt were right for our family. And that's something I can live with.

Refusing to forgive leads to bitterness and hardened anger, even if the person I can't forgive is myself. I'm working on extending grace to myself for not being the person that I thought I would be. I don't think I'm quite there yet, but the more I work on it, the easier it gets. Work in progress.

There's another piece to this, but this has already gone on long enough. More later.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

My So-Called Reading Life, Part I Stopped Counting: Bookstagram and Reading Challenges

I've been on Instagram for awhile now. I like it better than Facebook, because for people my age--or at least, among my friends-- it isn't about presenting your best fake self, it's about pictures of grandkids and craft projects and vacations. And we don't usually write long captions, so there's not much in the way of opinions and rants. In other words, it's the way FB used to be.

Matilda, for a book and ice cream prompt
Then last year I discovered #bookstagram, which isn't a separate app, it's just a hastag within instagram. People post pictures of their books or their bookshelves or their bookish stuff. For booknerds, it is totally fun.

I've enjoyed it enough that I've created a separate account for it (@bookspate). Finding people my age with my interests is not exactly easy, but I've found a few who are my age-ish and who love to read. Some of them take amazing photos, and some just snap a pic of what they're reading next to a cup of coffee. It's fun.

And I've discovered to my surprise that it's really fun to mess around with my way-too-many books and my way-too-many tchotchkes and take pictures of them. (The photos in this post are from my bookstagram account.) Weird, yes, but I suppose there are stranger hobbies. I just don't know what they are.

Reading challenges: In a reading challenge, someone comes up with a list of somewhat arbitrary categories--a book with a blue cover, a book set in Asia, a book that was published in the year you were born-- and challenges you to read something in each category within a certain amount of time, usually a year.

The first one I ever saw, maybe four or five years ago, was PopSugar's (their most recent challenge is here), and I thought it was a great idea. I printed out the list at the end of December, set it on my desk, and promptly forgot all about it.

The whole point of a reading challenge is to get you to read more, and since I already read plenty--some might say, and do, too much-- I then decided that I wouldn't do reading challenges.

But somewhere on Instagram I found Book Challenge by Erin. Twice a year, you're supposed to read ten books in four months. At the time, I was looking for a way to motivate myself to read some books that had been on my shelves for far too long, so I decided to try it.

I'm in the middle of my second time, and it is working well for me. It's run through Facebook and I know that's an immediate no for several of you. But if the idea of a book challenge appeals, there are dozens of them out there (google "reading challenges"), so keep looking until you find the one that works for you.

Favorite books-into-movies prompt
I think a year was too long a time frame for me. Ten books in four months is do-able, but it's a short enough time period that I have to get to work on it. Having an accountability system to get specific books read has worked great.

The only problem is that there are sometimes categories that are (for me) a little obscure, so I end up picking a book that I don't really care about just to finish the challenge. For example, in the current challenge, one of the categories is "a book with 'rain,' 'lightning' or 'thunder' in the title," and I don't have a single unread book on my shelves that meets the criteria.

I picked up a used copy of James Lee Burke's Rain Gods, but it is now my tenth book of the current challenge, and I cannot get excited about reading it (unlike several other non-challenge books I have on my TBR pile).

Should I read it and finish the challenge? or bag the challenge and read something I really want to read? There's no penalty if I don't finish, of course, just my own personal need for completion.

Black and white #bookstack prompt
I'm going to start it next weekend and see how it goes. Maybe I will discover an untapped love for James Lee Burke, who lives part of the year near Missoula and is considered one of our own around here. I just don't usually read thrillers. (Is it a thriller? police procedural? I actually don't know. I guess I'll find out.)

Every time I write the last 'reading life' post, I think up six more things to say, so I think I will stop numbering them as part 4, part 5, etc. and post them occasionally.

Have a great day.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

My So-Called Reading Life, part 3: choosing what to read, podcasts, and the tyranny of my library hold list

Figuring out what to read next has always been a random process for me (in other words, if you're trying to figure out how to choose books, I'm not going to be much help).

Back before the internet, there were libraries and bookstores. There were certain authors I would always buy if they had published something new, but for the most part, I figured out what to read based on reading jacket flaps in a bookshop, or because of something I overheard or a friend's rec. Choosing a book because of a cool cover illustration was not unheard of.

Now there are more online ways to indulge my love of find books than I could possibly exhaust. There are email newsletters, blogs (yep), vlogs on YouTube, browsing online bookstores (besides Amazon, Powells, Page1, The Bookshelf, and Alibris are ones I've used recently), the bookstagram hashtag on Instagram, and my favorite-- podcasts.

Podcasts are great. I just enjoy listening to people talk about books. I have three that I listen to devotedly-- So Many Damn Books, The Front Porch, and I've told you before about What Should I Read Next-- and half a dozen more that I listen to occasionally (Reading Glasses, Currently Reading, etc.).

So Many Damn Books is two guys, Christopher and Drew, in NYC, I think in Brooklyn (although I'm always a little fuzzy on the boroughs having only been there twice). They love to read, and even though they're the age of my daughter, I love listening to them talk. If I were their age, I think Christopher would be practically my reading twin. On a recent episode, their guest asked what was the first book they stayed up all night reading. I think she was expecting them to say some amazing, life-changing work of art, or at least a thriller, but Christopher sheepishly said it was probably Redwall, and Drew--equally sheepishly--agreed. I heart those guys so hard.

And for the record, I've never stayed up all night reading, even when I was young. Which is weird, because on average, I stay up way later than anyone else I know. It's just never all night. I'm usually asleep by 12:30 (a.m.). And even when I'm reading something I can't put down, somehwere around 2:30 or so, my need for sleep is greater than my need to find out what happens. (or *blush* I flip over and read the end so I can sleep.)

The Front Porch is Annie, owner of The Bookshelf in Georgia, and her friend (and possibly bookshop employee??) Chris, who is a recently minted PhD in (something humanities). I rarely agree with them, but they are interesting and engaging and like I said, I love listening to people talk about books. In a recent episode (which had guest host Hunter instead of Chris), they actually convinced me to give The Goldfinch a try. I've heard so many negative reviews that I had decided it wasn't for me (even though I loved Secret History). But now I think I'm going to try it. Just not any time soon because my library hold queue is already full.

I've already told you about What Should I Read Next so many times that I'll just say I still listen and I still love it. Anne, the host, is not an exact match in taste with me-- she tends a little more toward the soulful, all-the-feels type of book. But there's enough overlap that I can usually figure out from the way she describes something whether or not I will like it. She recommended Good Morning Midnight, To Night Owl from Dogfish, and Less, among recent favorites.

Honestly, the real way I currently figure out what to read next is by my library hold list. Our library allows you to have up to ten ebooks on hold, and I usually have eight to ten books on there. Then I read whatever book becomes available next. It's pretty simple.

About a year ago, I decided I should try to be more intentional about what I'm reading, but now I've decided it's actually a pretty good system. As with everyone who uses their library queue, that means I have the occasional unfortunate problem of three books I've had queued for weeks becoming available within two days of each other, but I suppose there are worse crises.

Oddly, I've had several experiences lately of unintended similarities in the books I'm reading. I've read three books this summer that had to do (loosely speaking) with time travel or the ability to pursue alternate timelines (Dark Matter, Life After Life, and Doomsday Book). And I just finished a book about life in a great English house between WWI and WWII (Remains of the Day) only to find that my next book, a mystery novel called Justice Hall, is also set in a great English house between WWI and WWII. How odd is that?

I've rambled on long enough that I'm even boring myself. As far as I know, everybody who reads this blog is also an avid reader, so you probably don't need any advice about how to pick books. So, one might ask, what exactly was the point of this post? And I can't say I know. But now that I've typed it out, I'm posting it.

Because it's 12:15 a.m. and it's time for bed.

Other posts in this series:
My So-Called Reading Life, part 1: writing book reviews
My So-Called Reading Life, part 2: rating books