Who are We?

Time to take the high ground

Remember in 2004 when Obama gave his red + blue = purple speech? When he talked about all the ways we Americans are more alike than we are different? I’m struggling with that notion this week. I know no one is pro-mass shootings, but I don’t understand why the 2nd Amendment is so inviolable to so many. 

And not for nothing—where’s all that pro-life ‘every life is sacred’ horseshit when people are being mowed down with AK-47s at the Walmart? God forbid someone take away your right to own a gun, but let’s limit a woman’s rights about her own body and future? Why am I asking for logical consistency? Nevermind.

Who are these men and why do they have such powerful guns? Don’t waste my time with this “Oh it’s not the guns, it’s mental illness.” Of course they’re insane. The world is full of mentally ill people, but the USA corners the market on mass shootings. What’s the difference here? Guns.

These men are mentally ill terrorists, just like the Islamic fundamentalists beheading journalists and driving trucks through Christmas markets. With his bigoted tweets and angry rallies, our president is fomenting their sense of persecution, he’s validating their darkest fears and giving license to their most nihilistic fantasies.

Politicians like to say “We are better than this” or “This is not who we are.” But I’m beginning to wonder who “we” are. Maybe lots of Americans are actually ok with this violent extremism. Maybe they figure it’s the cost of freedom, or maybe they’ve cynically decided there’s nothing we can do so why try. 

We have to hold the mirror up so we can see both sides of our American selves. Both sides. Trump and his fear-mongering demagoguery is who we are, and who we’ve been historically ever since our very beginnings. We are a great nation with enormous promise to be even better, but we are also a country made by invasion, genocide, and enslavement.

Fear of the other

I was on vacation last week in Wellfleet, a sleepy town on the outer Cape near Provincetown. A friend and I woke up early to get a permit to have a beach bonfire, and when the chatty clerk discovered we were from Maplewood, she told us she was too—a retired teacher from Columbia High School. 

“It was a sweet town, and such a great school, until ‘they’ all started coming over the border and sneaking in,” she said. For those of you not familiar, there is a persistent but goofy theory that African American families from economically depressed Irvington and Newark are sneaking their kids into CHS. That’s the “they” she’s talking about. This is the coded language of Maplewood; it’s a way to be politely racist. This “black kids are sneaking into CHS” paranoia is not uncommon in wide swaths of my town, where the stately houses look like the settings for John Hughes movies, the lawns are big and landscaped, and family vacations regularly require passports.

Even in my progressive town, with its rainbow pride crosswalk and its dopey “stigma-free zone” street signs, bigotry thrives. 

[A smart friend of mine, an educator in Newark, says and not without exasperation:  “The kids sneaking in—if there are any—they are not the problem. If some kid has moved in with his great-aunt to go to our high school because it’s better, you know what? We want that kid at CHS. That’s a kid who wants to learn and his parents are willing to break rules to get him a good education. That’s a good family.” I love how she upends and reveals their fundamental racism.]

Maplewood is unusually economically diverse for a suburb, and what these privileged people never bothered to learn is that even wider swaths of their very progressive, Instagram-worthy, “Brooklyn West” brigadoon is also home to block after block of smaller houses, less picturesque yards, chicken wire fencing instead of giant hydrangea bushes, and—gasp—African Americans. African Americans who have jobs, mortgages, advanced degrees, and children who are legitimately enrolled in our high school.

The woman in Wellfleet pissed me off in the casual way she disclosed her bigotry. “They aren’t sneaking in,” I told her, my jaw tight. “Those kids are Maplewood residents. They live in town with all of us.” My friend tried harder to win her over. I walked out. 

Take the high ground

Every relationship takes work, and in order to get along with these fearful gun-crazy bigots we have to follow Michelle Obama’s advice: When they go low, we go high. But perhaps she meant it as a battle strategy not an etiquette lesson. In war, you take the high ground to win, and I believe this is a fight we can’t afford to lose.

What if Trump wins a second term? The retired teacher in Wellfleet makes me very afraid that he can win again. She might be a Trump voter. She’s not alone: There’s the rich Republicans who have convinced themselves that lowering their taxes is how to help the country, there’s the working class Republicans who think Trump and the GOP care about their futures, and there’s the bigots who feel good about the way he’s scapegoating people of color.

Are there more of them or more of us? Will we all vote? We can only stop this insanity if we take back power. I know it’s early for the election, but I worry it’s too late for our nation. We have to engage every single possible vote against the GOP, against Trump, against the NRA. I don’t have a book to recommend this week. Instead, I suggest we all become more engaged citizens. Before Obama left office, he gave a farewell speech in Chicago. 

He told us it was on us as citizens to preserve America. “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”

Who are we? 

The power of myth

Here’s one recommendation; a good way to snap out of the divisiveness. Joseph Campbell is routinely championed as the hero of the hero’s journey and that’s what made me listen. But the content of this goes far beyond story structure. This folksy ambling audio is such a lovely departure from the usual, and his stories of archetype myths around the world are a peaceful way to remember how silly we are when we demonize eachother. It’s not easy, but I will include myself and the way I’ve grown so angry about the GOP. 

The truth is we are all more alike than we are different. At times like this, it can be hard to remember that. Hearing how all around the world we share such similar origin stories is a nice way to remember that maybe it’s not too late for us to try to make some purple.

Reconsidering my rescue fantasy

... and maybe applying for the job

Considering how very little attention I paid this last week, it’s wild to think that at this time last year Robert Mueller was my hero. I was confident that with his band of merry men and women and the beautiful incontrovertible power of American law, Mueller would right this ship before our country fully veered into a real-life version of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Mueller would get it back on track as soon as his report dropped. Mueller would save us.

Right. Maybe not. Remember that first unsettling moment as an adult when you realized your dad was old? Maybe you all went out to dinner and he couldn’t hear the waiter, or he fell asleep in the middle of a conversation. That’s sort of how I felt watching Mueller.

And I felt a little sheepish, because here he was, another guy I was counting on to fix things.  Here I was, once again pinning my hope that another grown-up person would take care of all the hard stuff. When am I going to learn that, unfortunately, that grown-up is me? 

Obviously, with Trump it’s not me alone. It’s all of us. If we want Trump out, we have to vote him out. We have to engage and read and get out the vote and be fired-up participants in this democracy blah blah blah. (If you read this blog and you like Trump and all that is happening in this administration, you have it easy. All you have to do is maybe invest in a brownshirt to complement your MAGA hat.)

But accepting how ungalvanizing the Mueller testimony felt reminded me of how hard I have to fight my inclination to resort to this notion that someone else—hate to say, usually male—will handle it.

I’ve been forced to learn this lesson over and over again in my life. It’s always for the better and it’s always painful. 

Face-melting honesty

Until quite recently I think my life had one organizing philosophy: “Someone else will do it.” I’ve spent a lifetime hoping for someone—picture my father, my husband, my brothers—to swoop in like Indiana Jones and solve it all. As I know now (and most everyone else knew all along), there is no Indiana Jones, and even if there is I wish my M.O. was more Karen Allen as Marion than Kate Capshaw in that wretched sequel with the kids and the monkeys. 

I say that now, but a quick glance at my personal history is humbling: I didn’t fight back when i was bullied in middle school, I clamored for approval rather than charting a course of my own satisfaction, I relinquished financial responsibility whenever possible, I diminished my own dreams, didn’t take myself seriously. I passively waited for someone or something else to come along and save me. 

Why the hell did I give up so much agency? Why didn’t I grab control whenever I could, regardless of how much scarier or hard it would be? Hell, I should’ve grabbed control precisely because it was scary and hard. (How do I instill this in my kids? I’m hoping it’s by neglectfully not doing anything for them, because I’m good at that.)

Aaah, the joys of being 50. All this personal reflection. So now I’m trying to rework this narrative, in big ways and small. One big way is my hunt for a full-time job. It can really feel like failure, and not the good kind of TED talk, fetishized failure of Silicon Valley. Failure like, “You made a  shit-ton of crap decisions in your life and now your scrawny diseased chickens have come home to roost.”

Be a phoenix, not a chicken

I’ve been a successful freelance writer/editor for 20 years but so much of my work was based merely on what came my way since I had no spare time to hustle up dream gigs. I took what made sense with three little kids at home. Try saying that in a job interview ... with a man.

[As a sidebar, I’d like to also point out the obvious: Working even part-time and raising three kids—managing the logistics of their overly scheduled lives, keeping the house stocked and relatively organized, the neverending feeding, the possibly futile effort to inspire a love of reading, learning their everchanging personal wants and desires and knowing them intimately in a way that is attentive yet gives them space to be, and still earning a respectable annual take as a freelance writer—is not nothing. But can I tout that in a phone interview? Hellllllll no.]

True, my life is not as exotic and exciting as Indiana Jones, but the perils of a job search demand the same level of courage and tenacity. A fictional account of my phone interview for a content strategy position at a major non-profit, however, is not going to be a page-turner. I choose to find metaphor in exciting adventure stories since professional development self-help books are boring. So instead of What Color is Your Parachute, I read about a computer whiz kid who discovers a genie has his back. Just like Alif in the book I’m about to recommend, I need to think quick, stay one step ahead of my interlocutor, and never forget that believing in yourself is a certain kind of magic.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

First of all, judge this book by the cover, a brilliant meld of Islamic design and the circuitry of  a motherboard. 

Alif the Unseen takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that could be Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t matter—G. Willow Wilson writes in a way that makes it easy to perfectly picture the rooftop where computer whiz Alif spars with his neighbor’s more conservative daughter. Keep an eye on the cat that keeps appearing there, by the way. Sometimes a cat is more than a cat.

This novel is about the dangers of state repression, it’s about courage, it’s about understanding what true friendship and love means. And there’s genies. The computer programming stuff is impressively complex but never dull and always understandable. The action is nonstop and so fun. The heroes of this story perpetually surprise themselves with their own bravery and resourcefulness. Wilson’s giant imagination is as permeable and fluid as the spot in the sand dunes that divides our world from the world of the Jinn, and every character she creates in this book is marvelous.

If you read Ready Player One you need to just stop reading now and go get the book. If you haven’t read or listened to Ready Player One, you have to get both books. 

Wilson’s more recent book is called The Bird King and I grabbed it as soon as I finished Alif the Unseen. Alif, however, is my favorite. It’s modern and relevant with all the clever and exciting fun of Raiders of the Lost Ark and all the dreamy imagination of 1,001 Nights.  

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan

Alif the Unseen is a fabulous fantasy, but real-life heroes are usually just people who are courageous enough to be totally honest. Kelly Corrigan is one of the most honest women I’ve ever read, and also one of the funniest. I listened to her read this to me, and frequently had to pause the Audible because I was overcome with emotion. 

When her book The Middle Place was a best-seller, a brilliant friend of mine recommended it. At the time, my own personal life was nearly as harrowing and painful as Corrigan’s, so I demurred, but now that i’ve read Tell Me More, I intend to read every word she’s ever written, including her Twitter feed, which is actually quite entertaining.

I loved listening to hear her dry witty delivery, but it’d be nice to read the words just to revisit some paragraphs. Toward the end, Corrigan recounts a devastating and beautiful eulogy a husband delivers for his wife and that alone is worth the price of the book.

Ok, I spent the top of this blog beating myself up for not being more of a badass career dynamo but here I am finishing with a woman whose work celebrates love, family, and parenthood without sentimental cheesiness. She acknowledges that love and family are the hardest and the best parts of being human. Reading her book felt like having one of those cathartic laugh-’til-you-cry afternoons with an old friend. In revealing her own emotions and flaws she somehow makes the reader feel seen. 

Feeling seen and understood is sort of the whole enchilada most days, right? I’d like to have a side of full-time job with it, but for now I will do my best to be that enchilada for the people I love. And thank you for being a little bit of that for me just by reading.  xoxo 

Nobody's perfect

but everybody's perfecting

Winston Churchill said to improve is to change and to be perfect is to change often. In his book Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens reflects on a caption of an old photo of himself that mistakenly calls him “the late Christopher Hitchens,” as in dead. He acknowledges that the photo “is of someone else, someone who doesn’t really exist in the same corporeal form. The cells and molecules of my body have replaced themselves and diminished (respectively).”

So if the people we were 20 years ago are absolutely not who we are today, why do we cling to our bad habits? Why do we fear change so much? Maybe it’s all too much to confront. Or maybe because the world keeps giving us reasons to think nothing is changing. From the antebellum sensibilities of the mobs at Trump rallies to the latest iteration of The Lion King, it does feel like we tedious humans are just perpetually repeating ourselves.

Sometimes it’s touching, like when I see my husband in Dexter’s loping walk, or when Julius makes a wisecrack that’s a 21st Century version of the funny stuff my brother used to say. 

Sometimes it’s not touching. Like when I ask my kids every morning to not leave the bath towel on the bedroom carpet, or when I am pushing all my bought and bagged groceries out of the Stop-n-Shop and realize I forgot to buy the one fucking thing I went there to get. (Yes, I do this all the time. Yes, I bring a list. Don’t @ me.)

It’s easy to think nothing is changing ever, on a macro or micro level. When my sons lay about all day, naked save their boxers and a furry blanket, binge-watching Stranger Things and eating chips, I catapult back to the summer of 1984, when my brother and I were just as lazy and annoying. We are just replaying the same scene but I’m in a new role; or are we?

My family now is different than my family then. In intangible ways, and tangible: I was never shipped off like Julius, to help build houses for the poor in Appalachia; I never took my summer job as seriously as Dexter does being a camp counselor to 6- and 7-year-olds. I was a half-hearted Gap employee, clipboard-folding sweatshirts until my eyeballs bled from the tedium.

Turn and face the strange

An awareness of how much stays the same is sometimes the best way to pinpoint what’s different and what needs changing. I’m 90% ok with who I am, and realizing that mostly I don’t need to change makes it easier to work on the horrendous 10%. I’m working on embracing all kinds of change these days since at the tender age of 50 I’ve finally learned that there’s no resisting it. What I’m resisting instead is to get discouraged by how much things seem the same; the wet towels on the carpet, the ignorance of the mob, my own capacity for distraction.

Novels love change. Every protagonist needs an arc, after all. But novels also depend on familiar patterns; “they” say there are only seven basic plots. Lots of change, lots of sameness. We are simultaneously changing and not changing all the time. Just like all those molecules in our corporeal form. I read a magnificent book this week that’s about both—how we never change and how our life depends on our changing.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

I’m one of the 12 people who did not read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, so Haddon’s facility with language came as a delightful surprise to me. I would teach this book, just for the original and powerful way he uses words. The clarity of his writing is nothing purple, it’s just simple words used in new or absolutely perfect ways: “Ten storeys below, a barge is being hauled upstream, water pleating around the tub’s snub bow.” I love pleating there. Nearly every page has some perfect word choice, some startling image. 

But you don’t have to be a word nerd to love this story. It’s actually a few stories layered over each other, and that’s where the echoes come in. Like 100 Years of Solitude, Haddon plays with the idea that humans are just dancing the same steps over and over. Rather than butterflies and one South American town, however, Haddon uses the ancient legend of Pericles and the myth of the goddess Diana. It’s a retelling of Pericles in both modern and ancient times, but with amusing twists—including a cameo by William Shakespeare—and a refreshing revision to all the women’s roles in these ancient tales. 

I listened to the book and the narrator was perfect, his crisp British voice slipping into a variety of convincing accents throughout the story, his pacing spot on. I’ve never done this before but I loved The Porpoise so much I went out and bought the book to look at some of the writing. (This is a drawback to the Audible experience, and why I avoid listening to literary fiction.)

The heart of this story depends on several characters being willing to change, and in so doing they disrupt the typical tropes of legend. The hero must face his greatest vulnerability (fatherhood, love duh), the princesses must save themselves. In its story and its execution, The Porpoise is a terrific mix of ancient and modern, somehow cohabitating peacefully and productively. Worth a try.

A few words from my nemesis

I don’t have a nemesis, but if I did, Elisabeth Egan might fit the criteria.

A long time ago I read and loved A Window Opens. A woman needs to go back to work when her husband leaves his job; chaos ensues. The story is set in the author’s hometown of Montclair but I felt like I was reading about a family on Maplewood Avenue. I loved it and hated it. Loved it because it’s a fun well-written novel. Hated it because it is basically the kind of book I feel like I could write but for unacceptable-to-me reasons have not. 

Egan occasionally writes for The New York Times (including one of the greatest “how to survive your kid’s senior year of high school” essays ever) and this week her piece about summer reads is another love/hate recommendation. Her writing is so warm and witty, I tremble with fear at my own obsolescence as I suggest it. 

She recommends a bunch of books I have not read, but they all sound like a perfect way to stave off heat exhaustion, which we’ll all need now that the one change NOBODY wanted is here for realz. Climate change. It’s going to be a stinky hot weekend. May your AC be cranked.

Man oh man, these men

We've reached the glass cliff. Bring in Lagarde

I am not a man-hater, but some of these guys are making it hard. The parade of astonishments never ends, does it?

Let’s start at the top. Trump just keeps finding new ways to sow discord. I’m trying to understand how some Americans saw his martial hijacking of DC’s July 4th celebrations as patriotic, but it just seemed dumb and wrong to me. 

Republican VIPs and big GOP donors filled the stands closest to Mr. and Mrs. Trump and their tanks. Far behind several rows of chicken wire fencing stood his base Americans, who all cheered as he reminisced about that time George Washington shut down National Airport. (This was during the Revolution, before the DC airport was named after Ronald Reagan.)

It’s hard to even protest this level of absurd. An article in The Washington Post described the whole scene in a way that would make Hunter S. Thompson proud.

Tanks for the memories

The millions of dollars subverted to finance Trump’s need to constantly show off did distract attention from the latest rape allegation against him. Have you forgotten about that already? I kinda did. I can’t wait to see what everyone does when he really does shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue.

As for E. Jean Caroll’s tawdry story of a Bergdorf fitting room, I’ll concede that it’s complicated. I will engage with someone who wants to argue that when you invite in a wolf, don’t be mad when it bites you. But I will not engage with anyone who wants to say the wolf didn’t bite. I believe her. 

And how about Trump’s pal Jeffrey Epstein? He’s revolting and worthless and his head is too big for his body, but why did he get off on such a light sentence years ago? And what’s up with him being excused from prison six days a week to work? I know there are countless families who don’t own a Caribbean island who’d really appreciate if their incarcerated family members could get out a few days a week to work. How do you get THAT arrangement, Alexander Acosta? And how does such shitty prosecutorial work get you a cabinet post?

I said I’m not a man-hater, so let’s not forget to give credit where it’s due. Behind every lousy jerk is a foul woman. Here are some of my current faves:

  • There’s Ghislaine Maxwell, who is Epstein’s Fagin, his Renfield, his pimp. Like a roadie at a Led Zeppelin concert, she would troll for vulnerable young women to bring to Epstein. He and his pals would then sexually abuse them. Way to support your fellow females, Ghislaine.

  • And finally my favorite world leader, Ivanka Trump. The picture of her front and center amidst the G20 leaders is so wrong it made my smartphone smell bad. I don’t know how many times I watched the video of Ivanka in her $4,500 dress, oblivious to the epic Christine Lagarde side-eye. Lagarde’s look was a balm to my soul. 

I love Lagarde. In a recent NYTimes article they mentioned a Trevor Noah appearance where he asked her opinion about the glass cliff, the concept wherein when stuff is about to go haywire, they put a woman in charge to take the blame. She agreed. 

“Whenever the situation is really, really bad,” she said, “you call in the woman.”

I think it’s time to make that call. But first, we read.

Crime, Punishment, and Hope

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoesvsky

I don’t know who I’m trying to impress with this foolishness, but I like to make sure everyone knows I’m reading classics. I buy a real book—no free version on the Kindle for me—and never hesitate to find a way to pull it out on the subway or wedge my high-brow reading selection into chat at a dinner party or in the supermarket parking lot. Nobody cares, I realize, but is this habit really any worse than posting tedious humblebrags on Instagram about my deep thoughts on nature walks or my daughter’s new hairdo? 

This book is great, duh. The writing is so lavish, thorough, precise, and emotional. I can still vividly picture nearly every scene in the book. Dostoesvsky’s writing demands concentration, but it’s magnificently rewarding. When I was reading the book I was in St. Petersburg, suffering alongside my fellow Russians. 

But. Raskolnikov is like one of these assholes I’m having to dodge on the front page of the newspaper: selfish, entitled, amoral. When I complained about this to one of my friends she sarcastically pointed out that I’m not really supposed to like him. True, and the book is a masterpiece of the human condition. But this male-dominated perspective is wearing me out. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama

The antidote is Mrs. Obama. Her book was a powerful surprise for me. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. I listened to it, and her sweet crackly voice and southside accent warmed up and enhanced the sometimes workmanlike writing. It’s ok that she’s not a great writer, though, because she goes beyond the typical DC memoir to tell a very personal and compelling story.

For one thing, I know millions of not-African Americans will read this book and get a glimpse of an American family history they might not know much about. I know it because I’m fortunate enough to be married into the Clyburn family. With love and compassion, she explains to readers why her grandfather was such a perpetually cranky man. With humility, she discloses how hard she and her team worked to ensure she made no missteps in her appearance or her statements as First Lady. Like Jackie Robinson, she knew the pressure she was under as the first African American to be in the role, and handled it with titanic grace. 

Michelle Obama’s trajectory from a working class neighborhood of Chicago to the White House and world fame is obviously inspiring, but it’s her authenticity and intelligence that really wowed me. She reminded me why we have no choice but to hope for the best, because cynicism is pointless. Her relentless optimism even when she can’t find a decent reason to have hope looks like strength to me. 

So sure, sometimes it seems like we are living in a time when truly rotten and stupid men have all the power. I won’t lose hope. I hope we do better as a country. I hope we continue to put Christine Lagarde in charge of things. And I hope we can ship Trump, Epstein, Ghislaine, and Ivanka to a faraway penal colony where no one can tweet and rats can nibble on the bell sleeves of Ivanka’s Valentino dresses. 

More to come, and I promise it won’t be a male-bashing screed next time. Thanks for reading! Share! Subscribe! Wear sunscreen!  

The Holy Word of Julius

In a world of bums, one man rises above...

The packing list for my son’s church-sponsored trip to build houses in Appalachia includes obvious stuff like toiletries and work boots, but also “devotional materials” and a Bible.  

I was raised by atheists, and we are not religious. At this point, I’d guess his devotional materials are his phone and a charger for access to Pokemon Go. The trip is organized by a fabulous reverend at a Methodist church here who teaches peace and social justice, and she’s completely OK with non-Christian kids taking part in her programs. But I don’t know what to expect in Tennessee.

So on our way to basketball camp this morning I asked him if he believed in God. He said “I don’t know, I don’t think so.” I pressed him a little, asked if he considered himself a spiritual person. That was a clunker: “A what?” he asked. I was not sufficiently caffeinated to explain what the hell that meant. I don’t think I could right now, in fact, without sounding like a shitty Facebook post from your friend who keeps blaming things on Mercury being in retrograde. Then I tried asking if he thought everyone had a soul—whether he believed in something bigger than all of us. Again, he was vaguely unsure, and hesitant to commit one way or the other. Truth is, at his age, this in and of itself felt a little like success for me. 

So I pivoted again. Largely in an effort to prevent any truly socially awkward moments in Tennessee, I asked if he believed in Jesus. I’d like him to get ready with a good non-offensive answer to this question before he is possibly the only Jewishy Black kid in Appalachia. 

“Oh. Jesus is different,” he said. “Sure, I mean, that’s true.” I nearly drove off the road. “Wait. So you believe in the Resurrection?” 

We’re back to confuzzlement. “Huh?”  

“Easter, Julius, where they celebrate Jesus rising from the grave?”  He equivocated. “Well, I mean, I’m not sure about that, but they have historical evidence of all the other stuff. (Now it’s my turn to “Huh?”)

“Basically,” he said, “I think everyone back then were bums, and Jesus came along and he wasn’t a bum.”

This is hard to argue with.

He also volunteered that he doesn’t believe Mary was a virgin. “I think maybe she just hadn’t slept with Joseph.” (Yes, he’s turned the Immaculate Conception into a soap opera plot.)

So if you sort of believe all this, I asked, maybe you do believe in God? “Well if there’s a God, he’s a jerk, I mean look at the world.”

I tried to explain that God gave humans the faculties to solve all the problems that plague us so the awfulness is really on us, not God. But he was unpersuaded and we had arrived at the gym.  And so endeth the lesson.

Good Grief

My faith in Faith really solidified in adulthood. Prior to that it was all magical thinking. I first started to understand it when I became a married person. I don’t know how to do this without having an almost irrational belief that we’re building something bigger than both of us individually.

Then the people I love started dying, and faith changed form. Love doesn’t die, as anyone who has read a greeting card knows, but how do you continue to feel joy after sinking in grief? To even believe that you will one day even want to feel joy again takes faith in the future, I think.

My friend lost her husband suddenly, a year ago this week. She has been a consummate example of grace and strength throughout this devastation. To mark this awful anniversary on social media she wrote, “At first you live in grief, then the grief lives in you,” and that simple line is so true. Grief changes you forever.

And (here comes the segue), the best books are usually about it.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

This slim book is explicitly about the death of a friend. So I avoided it. I have to be in the mood to read about grief. 

Even though it won a National Book Award, I didn’t have high hopes. Books about dogs have never enticed me; I figured it would be sentimental and dopey. Boy was I wrong. 

Her friend dies and bequeaths her his giant Great Dane. So she’s dealing with her grief, and with this big giant dog in her small apartment that does not allow dogs. That’s the big conflict of the book, yet I was not at all bored. The writing is so sharp and lovely. 

It’s very internal, for sure. It’s about a woman who leads a solitary writer’s life in NYC. And it’s very inside baseball about the literary world. But the truth is, that’s all just setting. Although I maybe didn’t realize that at first. This book is really about grief and friendship.

The dog thing is so moving, and sometimes funny. And she makes a few twists and turns with the plot toward the end that really took it all to another level for me. It’s not long, but it’s very deep. 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb

This book is the latest evidence that the author, Lori Gottlieb, is an exhausting overachiever. If you can get past the sense that this woman is the Tracy Flick of therapists/writers, it’s a fun book. It’s a peek inside the confidential world of therapizing. For anyone who has been in therapy, it’s like porn. The inner thoughts of therapists about their patients? Bring it on!

It’s also a memoir and in it she recounts her circuitous path to becoming a successful therapist/writer—you might’ve have read her viral article in The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”. She was a successful TV executive, and—inspired by her show, ER, she then went through Stanford med school and successfully became a doctor. Just when I was starting to dislike her simply because I’m small and mean-spirited, she reveals some of her own flaws (besides the ones I’d ascribed to her simply by being small and mean-spirited). 

The book itself was really a fun read/listen. She fictionalizes a few patients as a way to discuss some of the major issues we flawed humans present to therapists, and best of all—some of the methods therapists use to dig deeper, to cue the end of a session, and to deal with patients they can’t stand.

Her Hollywood bona fides are evident in how she unspools the stories within the book, giving you little hooks that keep you going. It all ties up a little too neatly at the end, but I still think this was a fun alternative to my usual escapist fiction. It’s like a mix between a light novel and an Oprah Super Soul Conversation with Brené Brown.

My one caveat is that I did not love the narrator of this book. Her voice was fine, but there was a sameness to the delivery that started to feel canned. It’s sort of ideal fare for a dog walk, but you might want to read it with your eyeballs. 

And here endeth the blog!  Happy 4th of July everyone. May you and yours never again need to immigrate to the USA.

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