Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Thons

I've discovered a couple of read-a-thons going on next week (May 27th-June 2nd) and I've decided to somewhat haphazardly participate in them.

In fact, I've decided to merge them (in my own mind, at least).

And yes, I know that, given who I am and how I am, it's highly unlikely that a week would go by without my reading something. So, in some respects, a readathon is redundant for me.

But I need to hack away at my accumulation of books--both in print and on the Kindle--and readathons give me little goals to strive for.

I like little goals. 

So first, there's a "#currentathon" (don't get judgmental about the fake-word-hashtag, just go with it). It offers the following challenges:

Then, there's an #ebookathon (again, no hashtag-judgment, it's just how it is), that suggests the following:

The goal of this one is to make headway on your "To Be Read" (TBR) list with a specifc focus on ebooks.

I don't have any free e-books or daily deals (apparently, I'm an Idiot who pays through the nose for all of her Kindle purchases), so that means I should try to read the oldest book in my Kindle and/or the book I forgot about.

Methinks that might just turn out to be pretty much one and the same book, actually.

But I have no idea what that book actually is, because, well, I have a lot of old books in my Kindle.  I'll have to do some scrolling over the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, the phrase, "Free Choice!" is music to the ears of this commitment-phobic woman who has refused to live with any living creature other than a cat for the last 25 years (i.e., over half her life). So that's why I think this is a read-a-thon I can definitely take a crack at.

Returning to the first photo I posted--for the readathon that zeros in on the works that you're currently reading--if I were going to be completely honest, I'd say that I could return to Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, since that's a book that I put down because it was outside my Comfort Zone.

But gosh, I just don't want to return to that book. It had dog-fighting. I put it down late one night because the protagonist had told her brother they were going to set out for a DOG FIGHT.

Dogs. Would be fighting. And one of them was going to be a mama-dog that had just given birth.

There had already been an impromptu territorial battle between two dogs, and a puppy-killing. (Oh,  yeah, hey, sorry, SPOILER ALERT, but I just did you a favor, trust me.)

Because I did NOT see that coming and I didn't sleep well for the rest of the night afterward. I ate my breakfast in a very troubled frame of mind the next morning. (And not a "good" troubled frame of mind, either, which is totally possible for me.)

And no, I'm not some namby-pamby reader who only reads happy stories. I regularly read about things like Soviet gulags and concentration camps and murder, thank you very much, but this was just... too much for me.

Quite frankly, I feel I have a little bone to pick with the people who wrote the summary of the novel for the National Book Award. Yes, it is, on some level, "about" Hurricane Katerina, but I made it halfway through the novel, and the storm hadn't even hit yet. 

But in the meantime, there is a LOT of dog-violence. (There's people-violence too, by the way, which didn't help, given that I was already reeling from the dog-violence.)

There are only so many times that I can (frantically) tell myself, "It's making a comment about the social situation these characters are in." "It's about the world they live in." "It's being honest." "It does no good to sugar-coat and pretend this kind of thing doesn't happen." "It happens. This is life."

At some point, I just can't take any more violence by or against animals. I just can't.

So that was how that novel was "outside of my comfort zone," and honestly, I don't know that I'll be putting it back on my Kindle and giving it another go.

Because in my world, there are two tell-tale signs that I'm about to give up on a novel:

One is if I find myself sprawled at an acute angle to my couch, eyes closed and uttering the phrase, "OMG, give me a break!!!!!!!!!!" out loud.

The other is if I find myself quietly wondering (while munching a bowl of morning cereal after a nearly sleepless night), "Why exactly are you putting yourself through this? What are we gaining from this reading experience, exactly?"

I have a lot of other "current reads" and quite a few books I put down because I wanted to start something else, so my sense is, that is probably the direction that I will be heading with the #currentathon.

Actually, if we're being totally honest here, there are about 15 books that fall into that "put-down-to-start another" category.

I have a little problem when it comes to buying books. Basically, it's a bit of a cycle: I buy them and then I buy some more and then I buy more after that. And Kindle is great because I don't have to pause at any point to go buy bookcases, I can just keep buying the books.

The latest round of book-buying included a lot of YA Lit., so I think I can probably finish a book in 24 hours (one of the challenges of the #currentathon), if I opt for one of those.

I also have a couple of graphic novels that I've been eyeing from a distance--a couple are on my Kindle, but a couple are print copies.

So this is where things currently stand. Yes, I know, I've not mentioned a single actual title as of yet, but this is my thought-process (I'm the Thinker, after all), and I'm going to try to offer more specifics by the time the two readathons actually start.

When I do, I'll blog about it, and then give an update at or near the end of the readathons, to see how it all went.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

It's Complicated

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash
Grief, that is.

Grief can be complicated. Very complicated, in fact.

It can make you (think and feel that you are) crazy in ways that other people assume can't possibly be a sign of grief.

Especially if months have passed. Because that's the current pop psychology, that it "takes time" or, more specifically, that it "takes a year."

Get through the first year of a loss, and after that, things will be okay again. That's what many people will say.

If you've ever experienced a serious loss, that's what you're told, repeatedly (more often than not, in my experience, by people who've never experienced a serious loss).

Except that this neat little timeline isn't really how it goes and doesn't really work for many (most?) people.

I've blogged about this in terms of my own experience in the posts "Weightlifting" and "Headhunting Grief."

Grief isn't linear, and even Kubler-Ross's idea of stages of grieving--while it can be helpful for understanding the overall process--isn't quite accurate.

A 2012 study suggested that in fact, grief functions more like a pinball machine, without any of the fun: "[g]rieving patients often speak of feeling as though they are 'bouncing' from one stage to another, which elicited the image of a pinball."

That's the focus of Jeannie Vanasco's, The Glass Eye: A Memoir (2017).

Vanasco begins her memoir with a statement of its painful underlying premise:
The night before he died, I promised my dad I would write a book for him. I was harboring profound confidence charged with profound grief. (5)
This premise in turn shapes the style of The Glass Eye, which merges the act of writing with the act of grieving, often through imagery and descriptions that revolve around fragmentation, cutting, pasting, and the creating of collages designed to expose the inherent contradictions and chaos that accompany profound grief (now recognized in the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 as "Complicated Grief Disorder").

As Vanasco acknowledges, "After my dad died, time rearranged itself. I understood it only in relation to his death" (105).

For many years, the assumption was that the "complexity" of complicated grief indicated a troubled or traumatic relationship with the deceased, that the profundity of one's grief was directly related to whether or not one's relationship with the person had been problematic.

If we step back from this assumption, though, we can see why, although it makes a kind of sense, in many ways, it makes no sense at all.

It implicitly assumes that it is "normal" to eventually "get over" the losses of the people we loved and depended on the most, but if a person caused us drama or trauma or pain, we can't just let it go when they pass.

Obviously, some people can. Some people actually feel a profound sense of relief--not loss--when a difficult person passes. They feel as if they're finally free. (I blogged about this--albeit indirectly--in my post, "Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother." Trigger warning: this particular post is not for the faint-hearted. When I was coping with my mom's final illness, I found this book, by Roberta Satow, particularly thoughtful and helpful.)

By contrast, some people cannot move on from the loss of a loved one, and instead of getting better as time passes, their grief worsens. As Deborah Khoshaba explains in this September 28, 2013 post, "About Complicated Bereavement Disorder,"
Complicated grievers interminably bounce back and forth through the stages of grief without resolution. Research findings show that their brains process grief differently from those who are able to resolve the loss of a loved one.
In particular, research seems to suggest that people who suffer from complicated grief adopt habits and behaviors that activate the kind of pleasure/ reward circuits in the brain that are typically associated with addiction. As a result, individuals who are at risk for addiction or who struggle with other mental health issues may find themselves at greater risk of experiencing complicated grief.

As this 2011 article in Scientific American suggests, the issues surrounding complicated grief are many and various-- and they have been a source of debate for some time now.

In fact, just yesterday, CNN ran this story: "A name for grief that goes on and on."

Ironically, this kind of coincidence--CNN running a story on the precise topic that I was reading and preparing to blog about-- is exactly the kind of connection that Vanasco focuses on in her effort to write about her father's death and its relationship to her own life story.

Vanasco's account focuses on the ways in which even the most (seemingly) unrelated thoughts or activities continually bring her back to the topic of her grief and her father's death, and the way in which she struggles to make meaning of those (apparent) coincidences.

Complicated grief creates a ripple-effect of profound depth in Vanasco's life. The waves of bereavement are not limited to the surface or to the immediate aftershock of her father's passing. Instead, she experiences a tsunami of pain and obsession that continues to register on a daily basis, years after her father's passing.

The Glass Eye documents this experience in an intriguing way, and it's a book I highly recommend for anyone who has experienced significant grief of any kind, whether "simple" or "profound."

If you or someone you know is or may be suffering from symptoms of Complicated Grief Disorder, further information and additional resources are available at this webpage for The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University's School of Social Work.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dishing the Dirt

It's that time of year again, when I (try to) get going on the gardening.

This year, I decided to scale back on planting tomatoes, since my schedule will be a bit different in the fall and I'm pretty sure I won't have all kinds of time to harvest veggies.

So this year, I just bought 5 tomato plants (GASP!) from the nursery (GASP!) and put them in the grow-bags (some things haven't changed), where they seem to be quite happy.

The strawberries that I planted last year (and diligently refused to allow to put out runners) seem to have formed a nice root structure, just like all the experts said they would.

Based on the size of the plants and the number of blossoms, I'd say they're also pretty happy.

Speaking of roots, I bought a "cocktail kiwi" plant last year. Supposedly, it produces small kiwi fruit that don't have that furry brown skin you have to peel. Since I like the concept of not having to peel fruit, I thought it would be a great addition to the yard.

So I planted it and then spent most of last summer watching it not grow at all.

Which wouldn't have been all that surprising or disconcerting, really (this is home gardening after all), except that all of the tags on this li'l kiwi said, things like DANGER!! and FAST GROWING!  

(Okay, fine, they didn't actually use the word "danger" but they did use the word "trellis" and that's pretty much the same thing, when the sentence also includes the phrase "fast growing.")

Given that I'd been led to anticipate another Jack-and-the-Beanstalk scenario, only to be greeted with the plant-growing equivalent of crickets chirping, I assumed I had done something wrong.

To such an extent that, when winter came, I reconciled myself to the fact that, come spring, it would prove to be, you know, dead.

But hey, looky-here!

To borrow a few phrases from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I'm not dead! I'm getting better. I feel fine! I feel happy!"

Fingers crossed it continues.

Because last winter, I discovered that the dogwood tree in my front yard had a borer invasion, so it was very much dead and I had to have it removed. (I was sad to see it go.)

In its place, I'm planting a sourwood tree. I got the tree (on the cheap) from the (presumably) good folks at Arbor Day .org and I must say, it is not what I expected.

I'm not going to post a picture of it, because you'll be quite certain I've planted a dead twig.

Apparently, the Arbor Day folks always send you a very small, dormant tree. They then attach a note to it to assure you that it is very much alive (it's like Monty Python keeps happening right and left around here).

This approach kind of puts you in an odd frame of mind--basically, you begin wondering whether the promoters of Arbor Day are the kind of people who think it might be funny to get a bunch of us out there planting dead twigs.

The note assures me that in "several weeks," this twig will come out of its state of dormancy and begin to grow and become the tree that I had imagined when I ordered it.

Let's just say, it has its work cut out for it, because at the end of the day, it's still just a twig right now.

But hot on the heels of this apparent cocktail-kiwi-turnaround, I've decided to (try to) be optimistic.

I really do hope it grows, because otherwise, I'm going to need to go invest in a more expensive option--in short, to get a tree that's more tree-like than twig-like.

Meanwhile, the title of the post is taken from the fact of the following:

I got a 4 cubic yard load of a 50/50 mix of compost and loam.

Which I was happy to have because it helps me remain optimistic about things growing (see above re: the sourwood twig), but honestly, I think I had mentally imagined a dirtload of "4 cubic FEET."

And as I'm sure you all know, 4 cubic feet is very different from 4 cubic YARDS.

But as you can see from the following, it all got distributed. Yes, there's a big pile in the back corner of my yard, but that's okay because 1) I'll use it up before fall, and 2) it's not in the driveway.

This hauling of dirt over the course of a week was a nice way to jump-start my spring/summer fitness regimen.

I subsequently attempted a run, but that did not go as planned.

I think I breathed in a few grains of pollen.

Although I really think it was only a few spores, it felt like the equivalent of this.

It's hard to run when you're coughing and can't stop. (The coughing, I mean, not the running.)

Especially when you left the water bottle in the car, a mile away.

Actually, it's even a little bit difficult to walk when the coughing thing is happening like that, but ironically, you find that you kind of want to run, because you want to get to the water bottle ASAP.

So that was how that stint of (attempted) exercise went on that particular day. A swim the next morning went much better--no coughing or near-drowning or anything.

I also signed up for a "Circuit Training Boot Camp" that meets for an hour on Mondays. We had our first class yesterday morning. It was good, but it left me quite tired.

I thought maybe I'd take a walk to "pep myself up." (Obviously, I didn't really think that through: another bout of low-grade exercise is not the way to "pep up" if you're tired from a bout of high intensity exercise.)

As a result, I had to have a second batch of coffee, because I needed to grade-- I simply couldn't risk falling asleep face-first on my keyboard and inadvertently giving some poor student a "6tyg" for a grade.

On that note... another day (or two) of grading awaits!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Weeping Willows

"After a while I stopped showing up at my temp job, stopped going out altogether, and locked myself in my home. It was over three weeks before I felt well enough to leave. During that time, I cut myself off from everything and everyone. Days would go by before I bathed. I did not have enough energy to clean up myself or my home.  ... Dishes with decaying food covered every counter and tabletop in the place. Even watching TV or talking on the phone required too much concentration. All I could do was take to my pallet of blankets and coats positioned on the livingroom floor and wait for whatever I was going through to pass."

A while ago, I purchased Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's memoir, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression (1998). I had a feeling I would find it interesting, so I decided it would be my end-of-semester book this year--the one I read in between bouts of grading.

I was not disappointed. Danquah's memoir is engagingly written, thoughtfully argued, and thought-provoking.

And--perhaps more troubling--it addresses issues that I suspect are still relevant nearly twenty years later.

Danquah was born in Ghana, but raised in the United States from the age of 6. As she notes, "Like many other immigrant children, I grew up trying to find my own personal balance between two distinct cultures" (30). When she meets the man who will eventually father her daughter, Danquah describes how he speaks to her parents in Twi, "a language [she] can't speak and [has] trouble understanding," and how the comments made in English seemed to revolve around the fact that she "was too Americanized" (33).

Danquah's focus, however, is on the relationship between depression and race, and the implications of that relationship for black women in particular:
The illusion of strength has been and continues to be of major significance to me as a black woman. The one myth that I have had to endure my entire life is that of my supposed birthright to strength. Black women are supposed to be strong--caretakers, nurturers, healers of other people--any of the twelve dozen variations of Mammy. Emotional hardship is supposed to be built into the structure of our lives. (19)
The assumption, Danquah argues, is that "suffering, for a black woman, was part of the package" (19).

Except that it's not, actually. The supposition that black women are hard-wired for suffering and therefore cannot experience depression is a racist stereotype and, as Danquah notes, "[s]tereotypes and cliches about mental illness are as pervasive as those about race" (20).

Mental illness in a white man is often perceived as a mark of genius or artistic eccentricity (think "Pollock" or "A Beautiful Mind" or any number of feature films); when it is not, it is nevertheless couched in terms that cast the man who suffers as heroic.

By contrast, "white women who suffer from mental illness are depicted as idle, spoiled, or just plain hysterical" (20)--in a word, as "crazy."

Mental illness in black men--or men of color in general--is perceived as a threat; they are "demonized and pathologized" (20).

Black women who suffer from mental illness--and in particular, depression-- are perceived as "weak": "And weakness in black women is intolerable" (20).

Significantly, Danquah documents the frequency with which other black people would tell her,  in response to her depression, "Girl, you've been hanging out with too many white folk"; "What do you have to be depressed about? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything"; "Take your troubles to Jesus, not no damn psychiatrist" (21).  

Perhaps most damaging, however, is the silence that surrounds the stigma of depression for black women--a stigma that Danquah's memoir is committed to articulating and dispelling. When she begins to talk openly about her depression, she finds that many other black women--and men--also suffer from depression, and that they too feel compelled to suffer in silence.

Danquah also explores the difficulties she faced finding affordable mental health care as a single mother struggling to support both herself and her daughter. She explains her decision to resort to alcohol to self medicate:
It's like you're there, but not really. Like your life is colliding with someone else's version of reality, but the impact isn't forceful enough to throw you out of your insulated cubicle; like everything going on around you is merely a three-dimensional backdrop to your pain. The surest way I knew to deaden the pain was by self-medicating with alcohol, so I drank up until I couldn't feel a thing. (148)
Danquah suggests that the social perceptions we construct around mental illness shape our private pain and our individual attempts to cope: "White people take prescription drugs with gentle, melodic names; they go to therapy once or twice a week in nice, paneled offices" (184). By contrast, Danquah argues,
Black people take illicit drugs with names as harsh as the streets on which they are bought. We build churches and sing songs that tell us to "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Either that or we march. Left, right, left, from city to city, for justice and for peace. We are the walking wounded. And we suffer alone because we don't know that there are others like us. (184)
As these passages I've cited no doubt suggest, Danquah sees both mental illness and the way in which we comprehend and treat mental illness and its symptoms as racially inflected. While the bulk of her memoir (and its conclusion in particular) focus on her own individual efforts at coming to terms with the way in which depression manifested itself in her own life, some of the most interesting and compelling points that she raises have to do, not with the purely personal, but with the potentially political implications of something we tend to think of as largely, if not wholly, private.

Reading Danquah's memoir has made me interested in finding out if other writers have addressed the relationship between race and depression (or mental illness in general). If you know of any books you think I should check out, please leave a note for me in the comments.

I'll be reading and thinking more about this issue, that's for sure.

And if you have struggled with depression or know someone who has--particularly if the person is a person of color--I recommend Danquah's book.  It's worthwhile reading.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Not So Golden

As Mother's Day approaches, I find myself thinking a lot about families and family dynamics.

In 1987, Bruno Bettelheim argued for what he called "the good enough parent." Psychologists have subsequently adopted and refined the concept a bit, but basically "the good enough parent"
  • doesn't strive for or expect perfection (because when it--inevitably--proves to be unattainable, blaming ensues);
  • respects their children for who they are;
  • focuses on the child as a child, not on his/her future as an adult;
  • provides help if the child wants or needs it, but offers no more help than what the child needs or wants;
  • reflects, empathizes, and demonstrates maturity;
  • realizes that good enough parenting really is... good enough
(My summary is taken from Peter Grey's December 22, 2015 post on "good enough parenting," which you can read in its entirety if you click the link provided.)

As I look over this description of attributes, I think about the ways in which my own family modeled some of these traits, but fell short on others.

One way in which our dynamic definitely fell short was the extent to which my mom used to rely on what's known as "the silent treatment."

Psychologists are pretty clear on the fact that, if you do nothing else right as a mom, you shouldn't give your children the silent treatment as a way of punishing them for not being who you want them to be and/or as a way to get them to do what you want them to do.

Deploying the silent treatment in a relationship is considered a kind of emotional abuse (at worst) and generally identified as a sign of very poor communication skills and a strong tendency toward passive aggression (at best).

Depending on how often it's used and the ways and contexts in which it is harnessed, the silent treatment may be the sign of someone with a personality disorder.

Obviously, some people shut down and clam up during or immediately after a relationship conflict because they find it stressful and aren't sure how to express the sense of anger, stress, or uncertainty that comes with conflict.

That isn't "giving someone the silent treatment."

The silent treatment is fueled by a need for control:
"The silent treatment is a common way of displaying contempt for another individual while avoiding confrontation about that contempt or without giving the target of the contempt an opportunity to resolve the issue or dispute. The goal is typically to invoke FOG - fear, obligation or guilt - in the mind of the target individual."
As a child, I remember being in a FOG of "fear, obligation, and guilt," experiencing a lot of sadness, accompanied by a strong desire to "fix" what I had done wrong, somehow (if I could just figure out what exactly that was...) and an accompanying sense that I had done something to disappoint someone so badly that they no longer wanted to speak to me.

It sucked.  As I got older though, I think the rational, reading-and-thinking side of me began to think, "Waitaminnit, this isn't fair, actually, and it certainly isn't very mature, either."

It began to make me angry when I encountered the silent treatment. At the same time, though, because I also knew that "fixing" the situation was a hit-or-miss effort that depended entirely on the will and whim of the person deploying the silent treatment, I began to feel the emotional equivalent of shrugging my shoulders.

"Oh well. Not talking to me, I guess. Seems silly. Catch you later." That became my way of thinking about and responding to the silent treatment.  

Because here's the thing: at the end of the day, a person who resorts to the silent treatment in relationships lacks emotional maturity.

In my experience, this becomes particularly apparent when someone uses what I call the "modified silent treatment" (my mom was a pro at this one).

The person speaks to you, but only very briefly, and when you respond, they turn right back around and ignore you by refusing to answer or continue the conversation any further.

It's not about talking to you to find a solution to the problem or move forward in the relationship.  It's about making sure you know full well that they're not happy with you and that this is your problem.

To my mind, they might as well just shout, "Yeah, I'm ALL ABOUT CONTROL, BABY, so you better get with the program!!"

The insidious part about this kind of passive aggressive tactic in relationships is that it always creates plausible deniability. If you flat-out ask the person, "Are you not speaking to me?" they can always say, "I have NO idea what you're talking about!"

And then you feel like an idiot. Or like you don't know what you thought you knew. Or like maybe everything is all just in your head.

If you say any of these things out loud, and you find yourself being assured that yes, you really are wrong or foolish or incapable of processing reality accurately, then know this: you've been given the silent treatment and it will happen again.

If, by contrast, the person responds by saying, "Well, actually, yeah, I've been kind of upset by what happened and it's been bothering me..." then you're dealing with someone who shut down in the wake of a conflict because s/he didn't know what to say, but who really would like to work things out in a spirit of reciprocity and shared communication.

In my experience, though, those people can be few and far between. The silent treatment is, more often than not, used as a relationship weapon.

If you think you're getting the silent treatment--particularly if you've had a conflict or tense conversation with a person and then, bam! they're suddenly barely talking to you and their manner is brisk (or brusque) and brief and reminiscent of someone who seems very aware that s/he is "taking the high road" when it comes to you... you're getting "The Treatment."

And if that's the case, know this (and I speak from long experience here): someone who feels that kind of a need for control in relationships isn't going to be "fixed" by anything you say or do.

The only thing they want is to know that they can control how you behave in the relationship.

At the same time, however, you're not powerless, because the silent treatment
"only works if the person being given the silent treatment relinquishes control to the one being silent.  The more you try to get your partner to break their silence, the more you are allowing yourself to be controlled by him or her ...  After all, you are giving them exactly what they want, and you are exposing all of your vulnerability while they expose none of theirs." (Source:
Personally, I never felt compelled to respond to the silent treatment with my own silent treatment, although that's often what happens.

I'm a communicator, so I say how I feel, and if people don't like it, well, I get that. That's what comes with the turf in any kind of relationship-- whether romantic, familial, or friendly. People don't always agree with each other.

And oddly enough, although I agree that children should never be given the silent treatment--it just is not a healthy parenting technique, end of story-- I've also found that growing up in a home where that was the norm has, ironically, inoculated (or anesthetized) me a bit.

I don't respond or react to it with a desire to "fix" things, and in most cases, I actually see it as a bit of a red flag. It reminds me of a dynamic that I never liked and that I won't willingly participate in.

Experiencing this not-so-golden form of silence from such an early age taught me that, when someone is using it, 1) it's not about "fixing" anything, it's about being what the other person has decided you "need" to be, and 2) it's a relationship strategy that speaks to some fundamental flaws in the relationship--and those aren't things you can single-handedly be held responsible for fixing.

It takes two to tango.

My strategy --and this is what I also learned as a result of my family dynamic--is that it's really best to just be yourself.

If you're a kind, caring person and people know that about you, and they know you care about them, then you've done all you can do and more than enough, really. 

You don't need to hang around and wait and wonder whether they'll finally break down and let you know that they care about you in return.

They can figure out what works best for themselves. And if or when they do, you know that you'll be available to talk about it openly and with a measure of reciprocity and maturity--where both people in the relationship take responsibility for any conflicts that arise.

The way out of the FOG of fear, obligation, and guilt is surprisingly clear.

If you've clearly stated your feelings and articulated your boundaries, focus on what's best and brightest in your life--because those are the things that are truly golden.

Monday, May 7, 2018


I've been participating off and on in the PBS and New York Times Book Club, "Now Read This" for 2018, so this weekend I read the selection for May, Tara Westover's memoir, Educated (2018).

Obviously, the title alone appealed to a thinker like me, especially when you add in the fact that Westover came from very humble, working-class roots but went on to attend Harvard and earn at Ph.D. from Cambridge.

That said, Westover's family, which included her parents and six siblings (five brothers and a sister), are very much unlike mine: they are Mormon survivalists.

As a result, Westover did not attend school. In fact, for years, four of the Westover children, including Tara herself, did not have birth certificates.

They were not born in a hospital; they were born at home. Describing her memory of watching the school bus pass without stopping, Westover writes, "When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist" (xiii).

Instead of attending school, Westover describes how she "had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood":
I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected. (xiii-xiv)
Her father taught his children about Ruby Ridge and made them pack army bags (their "head for the hills" bags) with military Ready-to-Eat meals, guns, knives, herbal medicines, and water purifiers,  that always stood nearby, ready in case the family needed to flee at a moment's notice.

Westover's father "bought a machine to manufacture bullets from spent cartridges" (9). He stockpiled military-surplus rifles, "mostly SKSs, their thin silver bayonets folded neatly under their barrels" (9). He insisted that Westover's mother, who was a skilled herbalist, learn to be a midwife.

For most of their lives, Westover and her family refused any form of medical care or hospitalization. This, despite the fact that the family was involved in--not one, but TWO car crashes--numerous on-the-job injuries (Westover, her father, and her siblings hauled scrap metal and worked in the family junkyard and on dangerous construction jobs with only makeshift equipment), and a violent family dynamic.

Westover's memoir is in many ways in keeping with other chronicles of Fundamentalist Mormon life that I've read, including Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven (which I blogged about here) and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (which I blogged about here, while discussing Mikal Gilmore's memoir, Shot Through the Heart).

If you read my December 2013 post, "Heavens," about Krakauer's book, you'll know that I really have serious issues with Fundamentalist Mormons (N.B. Fundamentalist Mormons are distinct from members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The former, unlike the latter, think of everyone--including fellow-Mormons--as sinners doomed to perdition if they do not adhere to strict Fundamentalist beliefs and behaviors.)

So I picked up Educated hoping that Westover's memoir would be about leaving that world behind. And, in many ways, it is.

And yet, in many ways, it is not--and this was the portion of the text that began to get a little tedious for me.

Westover's memoir is interesting and makes for a very good read, and I definitely recommend it.

But it's also challenging to read the story of a young woman who is abused both emotionally and physically, and constantly brainwashed to believe that any act of self-assertion or self-definition or curiosity about the world outside of her family's home marks her as a "whore" and an "instrument of Satan."

The psychological manipulation that Westover endured--both in the form of her father's aggressive indoctrination, her brother's abusive behavior and her mother's passive aggressive denial--made me angry. 

Westover leaves, obviously, but she is also tied to her family in ways that are hard for those of us who did not grow up in such a situation to fathom. I kept wanting her to "just GO."

For much of her memoir, she describes how she continues to return to an environment that she knows is unsafe and to believe in people who prove themselves (time and time again) to be untrustworthy and abusive, simply because they're "family."

The irony, of course, is that she does this precisely because she's "schooled" from birth to believe that only family can really be trusted, and that asking outsiders for help is always wrong and potentially "dangerous."

In short, Westover is young and she struggles to make sense of the world around her--both in her parents home and outside of it-- and there's much to be gained from reading about that.

That said, I also found myself wishing that the process that she openly identifies as becoming "educated" had enabled her to gain more emotional distance from her situation.

As she openly acknowledges, attending a psychology class in college made her aware that her father's behavior seemed indicative of either bipolar disorder or possibly schizophrenia (a diagnosis that she never seems to consider might also apply to her older brother's equally erratic, delusional, and manipulative behavior). Whatever it is about Fundamentalist Mormon faith--the paranoia, the male-domination, the overwrought imagery and belief system, the fundamental premise of spiritual superiority and racial inequality--it seems to attract individuals with mental health issues.

But again, this is easy for someone like me--who stands outside of all of it--to say. As Westover makes clear, it's a very different experience for someone who is raised in this environment and knows no other: who thinks of it as a "normal" or an "expected" aspect of day-to-day life.

I think the ending of Westover's memoir hints at a measure of self-acceptance and this ultimately led me to wonder if perhaps Westover might have waited a bit before writing it. She will be thirty-two this year, and I can't help but wonder whether time will bring her a greater sense of peace and acceptance of the fact that her family's way of life is simply not hers.

And that, unfortunately, that difference is not the kind that allows someone to come and go as she pleases within that world.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fresh Hell

I was working--doing a bit of research, actually-- at the public library yesterday when I encountered a strange phenomenon.

A librarian with a very loud speaking voice was working the circulation desk. 

Don't they screen for that?? Don't get me wrong, I have no quarrel with a person with a loud speaking voice becoming a librarian. 

But I'll admit I've always operated on the assumption that there is a code of conduct out there somewhere that at least encourages--if not actively requires--librarians to modulate their voice when in the confines of the library. But after I mentioned this experience, a friend of mine told me she self-identifies as a "loud librarian," so obviously my assumption has been completely and totally wrong.

Because I didn't know this when it happened, however, I was a bit surprised by this guy. 

Because I confess, I've noticed that he's also a bit of a Chatty Cathy. If you approach him with a library-type question, you're in for an answer or two (or ten), no question. 

And yes, I avoid approaching him for that very reason. I'm an introvert, which means that we like to initiate conversations on our own terms (if we even initiate them at all, which often, we do not). 

We do not like to find ourselves suddenly drawn into conversations that we did not want or anticipate. And no, it's NOT because we're "anti-social" or "shy."

We just don't care for it. That's how we're hard-wired: we tend to find pointless chit-chat kind of silly (at best) and tiresome (at worst). 

A friend once asked me, "But don't you like, you know, maybe meeting a new person or finding out something new about someone?"


Or, to be more precise, if I did, I would not pursue such a goal in such a way.

And as far as the library is concerned, one thing I've always liked about librarians is that, when you're in their space, they leave you be (provided you're not treating anyone or anything badly, that is).

Imagine, then, my shock at dismay when the following occurred yesterday. The Chatty Librarian wandered over and began pushing the chairs in at the table where I was working. 

These chairs were not strewn about in a way that posed any kind of inconvenience or unsightly appearance--they were all less than a foot away from the table. In my experience, this is precisely the kind of thing that a librarian would opt to leave as-is.  

Instead, the following ensued:

Thinker: (typing silently)

Librarian: (pushes chair into table with a BANG, table shakes)

Thinker: (typing silently)

Librarian: (pushes chair into table with a BANG, table shakes)

Thinker: (typing silently, glances over laptop at Librarian who has now stopped directly in front of her)

Librarian: (pushes chair into table with a BANG, table shakes): "HEY there! Happy Sunday!! How are you today?!!"

My god, what fresh hell is this?

I can't speak for the other Introverts out there, but from my perspective, if the Extroverts insist on taking over the libraries as well and establishing extroverted "norms" on what has hitherto been consecrated ground for Introverts--spaces that we cherish so dearly-- well, then, I'm sorry, but that is simply a bridge too far.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do about it, of course.