Reading, Watching, Listening, Doing

This week’s happenings:

Reading

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I’m 75% through with 3 days left on the library loan. This is a Great Depression era Huck Finn that starts out at an Indian Training School in Minnesota. A little slow to start, but it’s got good writing and a good story thus far.

Watching

Athlete A on Netflix – Engaging documentary about the US Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal from a few years ago. I’d love to hear more from gymnast Maggie Nichols as she matures – How do you move on from being so unfairly wronged by not only a predator like Larry Nassar but an organization that stole her Olympic aspirations just for reporting the abuse?

Listening

How the Light Gets in by Louise Penny – This is part of the much-loved Chief Inspector Gamache series, #9. It’s my first dip into this series, and it’s been a slow start for me: I’m currently at 8% on audiobook and struggling. BUT, with the reading podcast adoration and 4.44 rating on Goodreads, I’m determined to stick this one out.

Doing

Cleaning. Dodging mosquitoes to garden. Making early morning park runs. Making soft wraps.

The reading rut to end all reading ruts

Desperate times over here. I’ve hit a reading rut and cannot seem to claw my way out of it. Honest to God, hand to heart, this is a real source of negativity for me at the moment.

I haven’t always been a reader. I skated through high school and much of college taking in just enough of my assigned reading to fake-it-til-you-make-it on the tests. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

In undergrad, I took an African Politics class. One of the assigned readings was a book with the mouthful of a title of “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” by Philip Gourevitch. It was a non-fiction account of the Rwandan civil war written in conversational style by a journalist. While it’s hard to draw a connection between the monstrously important content of the book and my reading habit, nonetheless here we are: Reading that style of work felt important and interesting to me, and from there I had my niche.

I would later move on to titles like Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden and Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I wasn’t moving quickly in my reading, but I had found a style that worked for me: Magazine-like writing telling an important story about humanity.

From there I transitioned to historical fiction with an occasional, cautious foray into the straight fiction section (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving particularly carried me through some tough times).

And then a few years ago, I stumbled onto the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog and her infectious enthusiasm lit a fire in my reading life. I quickly realized that, like with most things, I enjoy onslaughts of something rather than a dribble. This as true with learning Spanish, starting an exercise habit, and learning how to cook. I grow the most when I’m drinking from the proverbial fire hydrant.

So it was that last year I read a record 65 books. No record as far as the Internet is concerned, I realize, but nonetheless an awesome year of thoughts, stories, and escapism. It was an epically good reading year by my historical standards, and a habit I desperately want to keep up.

But now … I’m not sure what the problem is. I’ve started and foregone a dozen or so books. Every time I do this, I’m reminded of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which I nearly gave up at 40% complete and thank goodness I didn’t: It’s one of my all-time favorite books.

There’s no conclusion to this post, really. Just thoughts on a problem I don’t yet know how to solve. Wish me luck.

Chronic complainers and creativity naysayers

Haters gonna hate.

Wanted to shove some thoughts out into the universe:

  • Friend wrote a sci-fi book and you don’t like sci-fi? There is one and only one proper response: “What an accomplishment, wow.” Your dislike of sci-fi is not the star of this conversation and if you choose to make it the star, then you’ve just become the ass of the conversation as well.
  • The world and the people in it are deeply flawed; we can either sit here and talk about that ad nauseam, or selectively discuss those flaws but move on to more productive ground asap. The first approach? That just makes you (1) depressed or (2) a jerk or (3) both.
  • The world is not against you. The level of narcissism it takes to hold this belief is staggering. Are you white? Are you white and privileged? Are you white and don’t even see your privilege? This especially applies to you.

My dad once told me that, in his family, it was the effort that was celebrated. The trying to do something was what mattered. AMEN. Trying takes courage. Vulnerability is the price for creating and putting your creation out there.

The people who sit back, consume, create nothing, and criticize everything? Move along, nothing to see here.

Mr. Move It and Negativity Bias

Social distancing continues, but school ended this week, so the teachers put on a little car parade through our rural area. It was a sweet gesture and my kids were tickled to see the procession.

As we buckled up to leave, an older man in a silver sedan slowed next to our car. “You’re in a safety zone!” he yelled. In response to my assuredly puzzled expression, he persisted, face turning tomato red: “A SAFETY zone.” Still puzzled, with his blood pressure clearly skyrocketing, he screamed “Move it!” and floored his car through the nearby stop sign.

You’re going to have to trust me on something here: Whatever a safety zone is, I was not parked in one. How do I know? Common sense. People park here frequently, because it’s well off the roads. I was the last one to leave, but about 10 other families parked there as well. No prohibitive signs. And the fact that I had interacted with a county maintenance worker moments before who was not concerned about my somehow impeding the “safety” of that “zone.”

That out of the way, I can admit that I was horrified. Yelled at my a complete stranger? Whew. Not fun. And for a hot minute, my thought process went something like, “well that ruins that memory.” My vision of the event would, I was sure, forever include this screaming man rather than my kindergartener’s tentative-but-hopeful waves to her teacher, or the way my 2nd grader jumped up and down when the procession appeared over the hill.

And truly, I have personal precedent to back up that initial belief. The negativity bias is alive and real, regardless of how glass-half-full a person you might be. (For another take on the negativity bias in action, check out this post over on Sarah’s blog). I can think of several events that, while pleasant and happy in totality, were nonetheless marred in their memory by one disastrous moment.

So that was the ugh I felt driving away. A good memory, ruined.

But … I tried a little trick. And it was thanks to the offender himself, Mr. Move It. That term – “safety zone” – the more I ran that through my head, the funnier I thought it was. And whenever I think of funny, I think The Office and Parks and Recreation. And suddenly, in my mind, Mr. Move It became a character. He’d probably fit better into the cast of Parks and Rec, so that’s where I landed. Thinking through all the storylines of how Leslie Knope or Ann Perkins might respond to Mr. Move It, well that made the whole thing a whole lot more enjoyable an exercise.

Via Buzzfeed

And as the day wore on, I could laugh about it. Once I could laugh about it, it was easier to make the next leap to compassion. Because if my parking in what he perceived as a safety zone made him that mad, then what’s it like to be this guy when someone cuts in line in front of him? Or traffic is bad? Or the candidate he loathes gets elected president? It sucks to be that guy is what.

Turns out I couldn’t erase this guy from my memory of the parade. But I was able to make him a somewhat amusing supporting cast member. And that feels pretty consistent with what Leslie Knope would do, too.

On lapsed frugality

A few months ago, I happened upon this Dave Ramsey post:

Meh, didn’t register much at first. But the thought kept popping back in my head. Ordering on Amazon? There it was. Adding convenience foods to my grocery cart? Back again.

I haven’t (yet) written about our goals for early retirement (aka the FIRE movement), but my husband and I have been slowly, steadily working that direction for about eight years now. We’re not all that frugal, really, but we do have some basic tenets we’ve tried to follow:

  • Keep eating out to a minimum
  • Less frequent but intentional vacations, mostly local
  • Auto-deduct savings before the money hits our checking account

That said, if I’m being honest (and there are no readers here, so why not!), I fell off the frugal spending wagon some time ago. It was easy to turn a blind eye while we were a double-income family, but I quit my misery-inducing job back in December and our bank account numbers are a little more pronounced now. Still privileged, solid, satisfying numbers, but slightly diminished nonetheless.

Back to Dave Ramsey: Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Once I realized that we had drifted, one purchase at a time, from our family’s core mission of freedom via financial independence, I felt … liberated. I see it, again. I see the immediate purpose, again. And I’m not sad about it.

So, how’re we going to get back on track over here? The end of that story remains to be seen, but for now, here’s what I’m doing:

  • Reviewing my zero sum budget spreadsheet.
  • Acknowledging that we’re spending a whole lot of money on individual subscriptions. I don’t yet know which of those, if any, will go. But I’ll be watching.
  • Seeing that our Amazon purchases are, truly, over the top. There are several purchases I’ve made within the past two months that I am already to put out for Goodwill. FOR REALS. Embarrassing.

Note that those are all observational goals. I’m growing here, people; I’ve turned 40 and realized that you gotta watch before you can plan to do. Let’s see how this goes.

Pruno in the kids’ bathroom + parenting book win

I’m not big on parenting books. They’re usually pretty dull and short on application to the tantrum/whining/no-chores-doing happening right now stage left.

The neon lights exception: Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. My holy book of parenting, the premise is straightforward: Fewer things and scheduled activities, more literal space for growth and creativity.

To that list of one, I’ve found another all-star reference: How to be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell’Antonio. If the author’s name looks familiar, you’re a read of the Motherlode blog on NY Times, which she used to helm.

I love How to be a Happier Parent because it’s exactly what I want out of a parenting reference book: Long on practical, evidence-based advice and short on sweeping philosophical statements. When it comes to parenting advice, I’m not interested in theory; I want to know what has actually worked for other people, even if it ultimately doesn’t work for me.

It was clear this book would become a favorite when, in the midst of reading it, I was able to apply one of the central themes of the book: As parents, we are teaching our kids the skill they need to have to be successful adults. Sounds obvious, right? It totally is, in all moments except the one where we’re trying to figure out our next parenting move.

My opportunity to practice this idea came about a few mornings ago, when I was emptying the trash cans for garbage day. I decided to empty a little-used trash can in our hall bathroom when an unexpected glut of liquid tumbled out the top and onto the floor with a pile of miscellaneous detritus. Closer (disgusted) inspection revealed that the girls had (presumably) inadvertently generated their own batch of pruno with some clementine segments they had deposited in that can after an “at home spa” experience one sister created for the other.

Admittedly, my default reaction would have been: WTF. Whose terrible idea was this. You know better. Etc. Then I would have begrudgingly assisted in the clean up process, likely admonishing them along the way for not doing more proactive cleaning work.

New reaction: Girls, please come here. This is what happened and why. Here’s how you clean it up. Be sure to do X, Y, Z. When you’re done, put your cleaning supplies here and the garbage bags there. Done. I walk away. For the next hour, I hear negotiating, laughter, gagging, and spray bottle squirts. At the end of the hour (the full hour!), they emerge victorious. They seem … what’s that? … proud of their accomplishment. They have done it, almost entirely on their own, with my abbreviated instructions to guide them but otherwise no parental involvement.

Maybe more importantly, they have suffered the natural consequences of their actions rather than a tangentially related consequence I would have otherwise manufactured (what exactly is the connection between “no screen time for the rest of the day” and “unintentional alcohol brewing gone awry”? Not a whole lot, it turns out).

What I’m taking away from How to be a Happier Parent, among other lessons: We are the teachers. They need to learn how to be adults. They will mess up. This is not a reflection of you or them; it’s a reflection of lessons that need further reinforcement. Teach, stand back, let them succeed or fail. Whether these lessons will hold up to teenagers, who the heck knows, but for now, I’ll take this win.

Dear 20-year old Me

We’ve got a birthday to celebrate. In honor, some hopeful words of encouragement:

  1. You’ll get a chance to go to Scotland. You’ll have to spend every cent you won to do it. Go to Scotland.
  2. That German dude? He’s an idiot. When he compliments your maroon Brass Plum purse, expressing surprise that an American would own something so stylish, tell him his LaCoste shirt expired 20 years ago. Then, go get yourself a 2 Euro glass of red wine. By yourself.
  3. So yes, you did need to tone down the excessive display of opinions. Great, you’ve done it. Now stop there, before you go too far. You’ve got words to say; say them.
  4. Make peace with *a* path. It’s not about choosing one job. Decide if the hard road is truly your dream; consider what sacrifices that route will entail. Can you live with those sacrifices? We both know the answer is no. Pick a different dream, and let the other one go.
  5. If a doctor or three tells you that a pill is the only solution? Take the pill. It’s the only solution.
  6. There’s very little correlation between the amount you try and the actual results achieved. Try less. The trying is the problem, not the thing you’ve labeled as the problem. That might not be true for everyone, but hot damn it’s true for you.
  7. You know how “A Prayer for Owen Meany” got you through those first weeks in France? Lean into that. Books will hold your hand when there’s no one else readily available to do that.
  8. Buy the fancy jeans.

A great read: Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Lawyer that I am, I gotta start with the caveat: I don’t agree with all of Glennon Doyle’s conclusions, which is an easy statement to make because Glennon’s doing her life up BIG and MESSY and HER WAY.

And to that, I’m guessing Glennon would say: That’s the point. You don’t have to agree. I’m just over here living my life, the best way I can, with what I currently know, which will almost assuredly evolve soon, and that’s all ok.

Whew. What a breath of fresh air.

Glennon has this quote that’s stuck with me: “I don’t know about you (yes I do), but in a world drowning in information, I am straight up parched for wisdom. … Wisdom is directions for your heart.”

So gosh darn true. I think that’s why Oprah has this enduring place in so many women’s hearts: She embodies the wisdom we so want.

Anyways, Untamed was in that vein: Page after page of wisdom. Not wisdom in the definitive, holy text, sort of definition; rather, evolving wisdom. Rooted in a clear sense that what’s true now may not be true in the future. Borne of experience still being experienced. Speculation as to what may continue to be authentic and real in the future.

I was talking to a friend yesterday (on the phone! A habit that’s returned to me in these quarantine days and I love it), trying to solve a personal dilemma she’s facing. We talked about how, as we get older, the definitive black and white divisions have blurred into more gray. This is better, but harder … a more well-rounded view of life and the world sometimes makes actions and decisions less clear cut. More nuanced. Better. More difficult.

I note this because that’s how the wisdom flowed in Untamed for me: Beautiful, true, flawed, illogical, honest, real.

Some of my favorite passages from Untamed:

On the perils of avoiding the inevitable pain and suffering of life:

  • “I thought I was supposed to feel happy. I thought that happy was for feeling and that pain was for fixing and numbing and deflecting and hiding and ignoring.”
  • “I thought that when life got hard, it was because I had gone wrong somewhere. I thought that pain was weakness and that I was supposed to suck it up. But the thing was that the more I sucked it up, the more food and booze I had to suck down.”
  • “This is why every great spiritual teacher tells us the same story about humanity and pain: Don’t avoid it. You need it to evolve, to become. And you are here to become.”

On relying on your own damn self:

  • “I have stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”
  • “There is no map. We are all pioneers.”

On creating that true and beautiful life for yourself:

  • “Let’s conjure up, from the depths of our souls: The truest, most beautiful lives we can imagine. The truest, most beautiful families we can fathom. The truest, most beautiful world we can hope for.”
  • “Let’s put it all on paper. Let’s look at what we’ve written and decide that these are not pipe dreams; these are our marching orders. These are the blueprints for our lives, our families, and the world.”

And this one, the new one that I hope will imprint on my every move: “What if you stopped trying so hard to be fine and just…lived?”

Look, there are flaws here. There is a questionable narrative she tells herself about her own life. BUT. It’s her life. And she’s out there trying. Not just trying … putting it out there and trying. And good God that counts for a lot in my book.

A miserable tale of the would-be drive-thru donuts

We’re in week 9 million of quarantine. An early morning errand meant I needed to drag my pajama-clad children out of the house shortly after 7am. To (literally) sweeten the deal, I promised a trip through the Starbucks drive-thru for a donut.

Except … the only semi-close Starbucks drive-thru had a line a million cars long. Worse, that parking lot didn’t accommodate such a line, so how people were going to decide which of the many merging lines of cars would go next was beyond me. So I abandoned ship.

I broke the news to the girls, who were (understandably) sorely disappointed. I offered to make apple cider muffins as a consolation prize.

This resulted in suffering for my girls. This was a painful change of plans that was met with whines, desperate alternatives, and all the things children are supposed to do when confronted with an unwelcome call for flexibility.

And yet … even though I knew this to be a normal reaction, even though I felt the exact same reaction myself, what I felt toward my doe-eyed little girls in the backseat was something closer to … rage.

I was excited to offer them a fun diversion. The diversion didn’t pan out. They were disappointed. I offered a less-than but still fun diversion. They were unsatisfied. And I was downright angry.

Why? This seems painfully ridiculous. And yet the pattern emerges wherever I now look: My husband needs something, asks me to look for it, I can’t find it. I have disappointed him. I am now angry at him. Or, it’s important to a friend that I respond with prompt attention to an email. Because I’m terrible at responding to email, I don’t do it. I have disappointed her. I am now mad at her.

WTproverbialF? Now that I see the pattern, I’m horrified at the absurdity of it. Of my reaction. It goes like: Expectation (self- or other-created) + inability to fulfill expectation = their disappointment = my anger.

Once upon a time, I would have tried to *fix* it. I am a fixer. I take action. I improve things.

I know better now. I’m interested to learn more about the *why* of this reaction, but even if I don’t get my why, I know that simply SEEING the reaction is the action itself.

So I see you, strangely placed disappointment anger. I’m going to be watching you. We’ll see where that takes us.

P.S. The apple cider muffins were delicious, as is everything from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

Five 5-star reads

The top five of 2019, so far:

  1. City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert – Coming-of-age story set in a 1940s New York theater. Oooh, I resisted this one … it’s long and what I understood of the the plot sounded blah. I’m not sure why I persisted, but I’m so glad I did. A story with depth, well-rounded characters whose quirks felt like real humanity. This one hit my sweet spot: Great characters with an equally great plot line. And how beautiful is that cover?
  2. It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover – Here’s what I wish I had known up front: This story is loosely based on the author’s own experience. This book really doesn’t get started until about the 50% mark, but it’s worth the wait. This is an impressive rendition of the subtleties of domestic violence and the different forms and progressions it can take.
  3. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, by Lori Gottlieb – I LOVED this tearjerker, and a few months later, I’m still thinking about it on the regular. This is the story of the therapist author’s mid-life crisis, her own experience in therapy, and interwoven stories of her own clients.
  4. The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller – An unknown virus has wiped out the majority of the population, and this is the story of a survivor 10 years after the fact. While I didn’t appreciate that some of the female characters were throwaways intended to advance the central male character’s development, overall this story is beautiful, haunting in a good way, and hopeful.
  5. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Our elderly starlet narrator tells of her husbands and past loves. This is the author who wrote Daisy Jones and the Six that got so much (deserved) acclaim last year. Among others, she wrote One True Loves which I also loved.