Do It My Damn Selfie

A sweaty man in a polo shirt stood near me this afternoon, making a comment he thought I couldn’t hear. “Oooooh,” he said to the women in his group (they all looked Boomer-ish, or at least Boomer-adjacent). “Maybe I need to take a selfie with the wall, too.” They all laughed like they’d invented farts. Ha ha. Burn. We are funny Boomers. This selfie-taking girl is bad because she is young. We are so awesome because we only point our cameras outward.

What a turd.

I was taking a selfie in front of the sign outside the National Air and Space Museum, and I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I wasn’t flipping the bird. I wasn’t wearing a pink hat. I wasn’t even thinking bad thoughts about Paul Ryan. I love America, and I think museums are rad. The National Air and Space museum is a hotbed of dadsplaining and crying toddlers, anyway; it’s not a silent or serious place. It’s a noisy, crowded petri dish of humanity and space ice cream, as it should be. It’s fucking cool that we fly. We put a man on the moon. Let’s let our nation’s toddlers climb on some jet parts–maybe someday they’ll want to do science. That seems to be a thing America needs.

If a 38 year old mom wants a picture in front of a museum, why is it a big deal?

This guy’s comment got under my skin more than it should have because it’s a sentiment I’ve heard several times this week. Almost as many times as I’ve heard someone mention the humidity or the number of steps they’ve taken, I’ve heard a Boomer complain about young people taking selfies. I have bitten my tongue.

I get it that I’m doing the same thing I hate. #notallBoomers. But I don’t know how to write about this without pointing out that all of the people who have said things around me about selfies this week have generational commonality. People’s age is not what bothers me, it’s their judgement.

Listen. I take selfies because I’m smart enough to realize that a picture of a building or an open expanse is boring and meaningless in history, personal or otherwise. None of my descendants want a picture of the books in the reading room at the Library of Congress. They can find that on Wikipedia, anyway. But they might want pictures of me in that space, having an experience. I do. I want to remember what I felt when I breathed that cold air in the card catalog room. To laugh at my hairstyle, years later. To remember the scent of old pages. To remember a moment. Photos help you do that.

I take selfies because I regret all the pictures I don’t have of myself when my kids were young. This is a common thing with moms. I was really good at documenting their lives when digital cameras were new. But it felt stupid to put the camera on myself. Now I want pictures of myself being alive. Nobody goes to the Library of Congress to do research and says thank goodness nobody kept any records in the past, because they really maintained their self respect. Nobody ever researches genealogy and says I wish I had fewer pictures of my great great grandma.

I was excited to be at the Air and Space Museum for two reasons: first, the same reason I was excited to be there as a kid. My third grade teacher structured our entire school year around space history. She had just been to space camp, and we spent the year studying missions in suits we made out of cardboard and foil; we read transcripts from mission control aloud, and did complicated reenactments where we sat in overturned desks that simulated Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. I thought that being an astronaut was completely attainable as a girl in the 1980s. Space was my first cross-curricular study. But the second reason I wanted to go today was that I interviewed David McCullough in 2015 about his Wright Brothers book. I wanted to see the 1903 flyer with actual knowledge of what their risk meant to our country. Nothing self-centered or lame (I think?). Pure American patriotism and curiosity.

I was alone, in that sea of polo shirts and clean sneakers. I also wanted to share my experience with my kids, who are across the country, and they only way I was going to be able to do that was by putting myself in the frame of my own pictures.

We don’t need to talk about how technology has changed, how it’s just easier to take a picture of your face now because you can see the screen and hold a tiny computer in your hand. Or how one of the laziest ways to criticize young people about today is how they look down at their phones all the time. As if there’s inherent evil in a glowing screen compared to newsprint or a book. But for crap’s sake, people have always been using print and other media to distract themselves from boredom. We read on our phones now. It’s not always bad; a person’s responsibility for their behavior and conversation is a better indicator of their dickishness than whether or not they look at a screen sometimes. I would venture to say that making fun of people within earshot is ruder than glancing down or texting a picture to someone you love.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of my favorite things about the Wright brothers’ story is that their connection to bicycles was judged harshly by older generations at the time. The olds saw bicycles as a way for young people to get themselves into trouble. They were sin machines. No matter the decade, there’s been some piece of tech that felt scary and like it might possibly lead the younger generation right into the pit of hell.

But here’s what it comes down to: don’t take selfies if you don’t like them. And don’t be such a loud jerk. If you want to complain about something, be a lady and get a damn blog.

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Off-Script and Off-Road: An Interview with Bernadette Murphy, Author of Harley and Me

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Bernadette Murphy, author of Harley and Me.

Bernadette Murphy wants to challenge your preconceptions about the kind of woman who owns a motorcycle.

Once upon a time, Murphy, now an LA writer and professor in Antioch’s MFA program, was a room mom for her children’s Elementary School classes: a woman who wore Winne the Pooh jumpers and bought into a vision of placidity. But when her father died, she bought a Harley, reassessed her life, began to dabble in risk, and started living for herself.

Harley and Me is Murphy’s memoir about learning to ride a motorcycle, but it’s so much more. In the vein of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Harley and Me is a journey narrative. But Murphy contextualizes her journey with scientific, historical, and cultural references. Harley and Me makes us evaluate not only how we see motorcycle riders, but how we see ourselves as women, mothers, and risk-takers.

Murphy and I spoke about neuroplasticity, becoming The Fonz, and the bio-chemistry of bonding with a machine.

Harley and Me is out in paperback May 30, 2017.

harley-and-me-csHarley and Me
By Bernadette Murphy
320 pp. Counterpoint. $16.95
IndieBound | Amazon

Heather Scott Partington: You write, “Awareness of death, it turns out, is a critical force motivating human behavior.” What did it mean to you to take on such a monumental risk? How did it shape your awareness of the current moment, and of who you want to be?

Bernadette Murphy: I bought my motorcycle the day after my father, my last remaining parent, died.  He had always seemed such a huge figure in my imagination, a strong, nearly invincible and wholly tangible human.  I could not imagine that one day he’d get older and die. But of course he did.  Experiencing his death changed how I saw things.  If death came for him, the most solid human I knew, it was coming for me, too.

We live in a culture that tends to play down and hide the reality of death.  Recognizing just how limited my time on this planet actually is has motivated me try my hand at a slew of wild adventures. I used to always think that there’d be more time later if I didn’t take an exciting opportunity when it was offered.  But guess what? The chance may not roll around again. I need to make sure I do the things I really want to do in this life, and inhabit my life as fully as I can while I can, because there will be no do-overs.  And while I know I take my life in my hands every time I mount my motorcycle, it reminds me that I take my life in my hands every moment I draw breath.  Driving across town, doing my daily routine.  There’s no knowing.  So why not go do the things I want to do – I’m going to die one day, either way.  Of course, I take all precautions I can – full-face helmet, riding armor, classes on how to be as safe as possible.

HSP: How did you deal with sexism or sexist language on your rides, and at the rallies? How did you reconcile for that with your pre-riding worldview?

BM: There’s no question that the sexism is rampant in the motorcycling culture, especially among riders of a certain age.  It’s been gratifying to meet an emerging new crop of young female riders who are breaking all the boundaries and just basically leaving that sexism in the dust.  Check out The Dream Roll, The Women’s Moto Exhibit, and Babes Ride Out.  These are groups of women (usually younger than me, but they include me, too, in their gatherings) who get together to ride and forge their own culture.  They’re not focused on changing the sexism of the old-boy network. Rather, they’re focused on their own riding, their own community, their own strength.  This is what I love about them: they just can’t be bothered focusing on what they don’t like about the male-centric aspects of the moto world.  They’re going off script, off road, to forge their own path.  And though this is not their goal, I suspect that by doing so, they will help transform the misogynist culture.

Personally, I don’t tend to go to motorcycle rallies and events like the ones you describe – they simply don’t appeal to me, unless they’re women focused like The Dream Roll.  Last summer, I rode from LA to Washington State to camp out in a field with 280 other female motorcyclists. That was a blast.

HSP: The chapter about Fonzie is great, and oddly enough I love that Henry Winkler was a little afraid of the bike–he was such an icon, but it was more of an accessory to him than a way of life. What did it mean to you to speak to him? And to reconcile the reality of the Fonz with how you had seen him when you were younger?

BM: Speaking with Henry Winkler was one of the highlights of writing this book.  I’ve had a crush on him since I was 11 years old, and still have a crush on him to this day. In fact, my infatuation only got deeper after the conversation because he’s such a thoughtful, authentic, and willing-to-be-vulnerable human.  He’s just really present and I connected immediately with that quality. From talking with Henry Winkler, I saw that that he, like me, has struggled with the issues of being clear about who he is, claiming himself fully, being true to who he is.  What a wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path!  I also came to see that I had stopped emulating the parts of the Fonzie character I had so admired.  Instead of wanting to be Fonzie, to some degree – to the degree that I wanted  — I have in fact become him — or at least, my female version of him.

HSP: You write that women have an innermost thermostat that tells us how much joy, love, and success we think we deserve. What did this journey teach you about what you deserve? What lessons do you think other women can take away from your time on the bike?

BM: I learned that I have been shortchanging myself my entire life!  Especially as a young mother, when finances were tight and kids needed so much, I had learned to deny my own needs and wants, to reduce my desires to as small and easy-to-contain a package as possible.  And with good reason.  But now what I’m finally breaking out of that scarcity and lack mindset and working to reset my joy thermostat,  and finding that my dreams and desires are huge!  And that when I embrace them and think it might actually be possible to pursue them, I am so very happy and content.  Notice I didn’t say that when I get them I’m happy.  Getting them is almost beside the point.  Knowing it’s possible and that it’s okay for me to embrace these desires is the thing. For a long time, the voice in my head repeated the same toxic six words: “Who do you think you are?”  Who did I think I was to believe I could have a rich and wonderful life, to do things that were wild and exotic and just plain fun?  That voice kept me stuck for most of my adult life.  Now when it pops up, I remind it that I’m a beloved child of the universe who deserves these things as much as the next person and that I believe good things are in store for me.

HSP: Why do humans get risk-averse as we get older? What chemical changes start to happen when women decide to accept risk into middle age? You write that risk is necessary, that “one thing seems certain: avoiding risk altogether is actually an unhealthy state for all of us, male and female alike.”

Risk taking (in whatever form – taking a drawing class, traveling abroad, learning a foreign language, ice climbing, mountaineering, etc.) rewires our brain.  We use new muscles – literally and metaphorically – that increase our neuroplasticity.  This is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on which way you go, because the brain chemicals support the change.  If we take more risks, our brain chemicals give us a reward and then we want more of that reward so we continue to take more risks.  And if we stop taking risks, the reward cycle is broken and we find comfort in taking fewer and fewer risks.  The reason this is so dramatic for women in middle age is that the childbearing chemical brew we talked about earlier has convinced us to take as few risks as possible.  And unless we actively try to break that cycle, we’ll continue taking fewer risks until we become stuck and unable to take any kinds of risks at all.  If we’re not growing and evolving, we’re dying.  It’s a truth for all living things.

HSP: Did your experiences change anything about how you talk to your [adult] children? You write about how difficult it was to explain your risk-taking to your loved ones. I’m wondering if it changed how you want to parent them, or the message you want to communicate to them, even though they’re adults.

BM: My kids taught me more about risk taking than anyone.  They haven’t (yet) gotten stuck in that “let’s take a safe path no matter what” thinking.  They still believe so much is possible.  And they got me to do the same.  This has changed how I parent them.  I have to believe that if I’m safe in the hands of this universe, that they’re safe, too.  That I personally no longer have to be the guardian of their safety. I’ve done a good job raising them and I believe they make good and healthy choices for themselves.  So if they make choices I don’t believe in or support, I have to let it go and let them do what they’re going to do. It’s possible they are on the exact path they need to be on and that any interference from me is only going to mess that up.  And if the choice they make ends up hurting them, they will have learned something I couldn’t have taught them in a million years.

Plus, I have to embrace the fact that bad shit happens in life and there’s little I can do to change that.  They could get hurt doing a risky thing, but they could also get hurt not doing a risky thing. Parents are quick to warn their children about all the lurking perils if they take risky options. But they seldom tell them about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if they don’t put their true selves on the line.  That’s what I tell them.

HSP: What new risks are you taking now? Has your family’s reaction to your risk-taking changed since they read your writing about it?

BM: The biggest risk I’m taking right now is holding my partner, Edmond, in my thoughts and in my heart as he climbs Mt. Everest.  He’s one of the 200-plus climbers currently on Mount Everest*, on the brink of the first attempts in three years to make the final ascent to the world’s tallest peak, after fatal avalanches cut short the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Here’s a piece I wrote about it.

My family is divided on my risk taking.  My kids, my partner, and two of my brothers are supportive.  My sister, my stepmother, my ex, and some others still think I’m crazy and that if I’d just quit this stuff my life would be better.  What they don’t realize is that my life is now the best it’s ever been.

HSP: Can you share a little about your research related to Oxytocin? The results of your tests were astounding. 

BM: Oxytocin it the cuddle compound that we create in our bodies when we have sex, nurse a baby, feel deep love, even pet a dog.  It causes us to trust and to feel connected and warm with others.  I had this theory that my embrace of my motorcycle was tied to this neurotransmitter.  I believed that as my 25-year marriage deteriorated, and as my kids began to fly the coop and didn’t hug me and need me in the same way, I was going through a kind of oxytocin withdrawal.  Embracing the motorcycle seemed to reverse that.  But from a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Oxytocin, the neuroscientists tell us, can only be produced with contact with other living, active beings.  You can’t increase your oxytocin level with a machine.  Or so we thought.  We took my blood before and after riding my motorcycle and found my oxytocin level jumped a good amount – as much as a groom’s oxytocin level jumped in one experiment, just after he’d taken his vows. I believe that riding the motorcycle helped me have a deeper relationship with myself and that that is responsible for the oxytocin leap. Of course, this little experiment was just done on me and just done once, so it’s not scientifically valid, but it does lend credibility to my theory.

HSP: What are you working on now?

BM: I’m working on a novel about a woman who teaches at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and who engages risk – but risk of the more emotional kind.  She learns that her version of her past is not the true story, and then has to change her life to incorporate this new information.

I’m also toying with a possible book project on the nature of women’s leadership and the role marriage plays in it.  I’m particularly interested in 1) how marriage as an institution is dying away in Iceland and what that means to the culture, and 2) how the women of Rwanda took over many leadership roles there after the genocide there (when a large percentage of the men were killed and women had to step up into government and leadership positions) and how that change in gender balance of those in power has made for a healthier, happier country.  How those two topics fit together and what I might do with it, I don’t know yet.  But that’s what I’m tinkering with.

*This interview was conducted in the spring of 2016.

Purchase Harley and Me at IndieBound or Amazon.
More information about Bernadette Murphy can be found here.

I had a year.

This morning we watched The Battle of the Bastards again and I tried not to look away from all the stabbing. It’s been a big week in TV as we’ve tried to wait out whatever viral thing has lobbied its way into our family’s respiratory systems. Resistance is futile: five seasons of GOT, some Voyager and now The Fall, plus cold meds. TV feels like as good as any other way to mark the passing of mucous and the old year.

But this isn’t a good riddance to 2016 post. My 2015 was much harder, physically, and though 2016 surprised me, in some ways its helped me to grow up and figure out what matters. So, good on that. It feels icky to me to claim one year as the worst year ever in the same way it makes me squirm when people thank Jesus for winning a football game. Maybe my anxiety is about trying to pin that kind of power on one arbitrary thing. I do have one thing to say about the political mess of 2016: I just hope–hope–that 2017 brings more civility. America matters to me a whole lot, and so does our fundamental right to disagree with each other and still hold on to our humanity.

Anyway. Here’s what happened to me and my most important humans in 2016. It was a good year for our family.

Being a parent of non-toddlers is the strangest combination of longing for the wonderful little teeny people who used to live here and complete delight in the friendship of the newer, big people. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they’ve grown, and it’s the most wonderful thing to have these two whip-smart dudes to talk to. But I won’t lie: when Henry had a ridiculously high fever a few weeks ago and draped himself across me like a rag doll, I ate it up. (Along with his germs, which is why every one else got sick shortly thereafter). Henry is 11 now, and Addie is 14.

But they’ve done more this year than just get taller. Henry is in sixth grade, but taking math at the local junior high every afternoon. His coding and gaming hobbies have now expanded into building computers. I’d like to claim we saw it coming with Legos or something when he was three, but everyone says that thing about Legos proving your kid is a genius, right? We couldn’t have imagined what kind of mind he’d have for all that now. He’s just following his curiosity, and we’re trying our best to let him, whatever that means. He’s also a nut for anything related to mythology, ancient history, and puns. He played volleyball for his elementary school last year and joined the swim team with Addie. His favorite stroke is butterfly. He is a good and kind boy, and he makes me laugh every single day.

Addie is at the high school with me, which is nice. She bit a big bullet and did summer school there to get two classes out of the way so she could take both Spanish 2 and digital arts electives during the year. In both her summer school classes and her first semester, she worked her tail off and earned straight As. I’m incredibly proud of what a good student she is. She is a maniac of a reader and such a good writer. She had to read Ender’s Game for school and Eric and I had never read it before, so we both read it too. We ended up in a heated family argument about whether or not Ender was a hero. She was so mad about the book (I loved that!). But more important to me than arguing about books is the fact that she’s still the same kind, artistic, and sympathetic soul. I really enjoy getting to spend time with her every day as we drive to school and set up my classroom in the morning. It’s been a good chance to see her for who she really is, now. In addition to swimming on the swim team again, Addie has been volunteering regularly for the Sacramento Zoo as a part of the Zoo Teens program this year. I’m so proud of everything she is, and everything she has ahead of her.

Eric had a good year too. He got a promotion in place at a job he loves, so he can keep doing the work he likes with the people he likes. He taught several training classes for his office at McGeorge and for various other state agencies this year. He continued to do all kinds of improvements on our house and completely remodeled our garage from a nasty, dusty heap to an organized storage space and working shop for Maude (the other woman, his 1954 Ford Customline). Last spring he and his dad put up solar panels on the side of the house so the kids and I could enjoy a heated pool; I spent my entire summer enjoying the fruits of their labor and getting a ridiculous tan. Eric’s made friends with our neighbors, and continues to be happy to run over to our friends’ homes to do handyman work and fix-it jobs. I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who is a book smart lawyer (and a great editor for my reviews), and knows how to fix things.

My sister, Melissa’s, family lives about five minutes from us, and our kids are constantly connected. We had to tell the five of them this year that they can’t just arrange sleepovers on their group text without checking with adults–this week we’ve had to institute a code word to confirm that they checked with the other parent for approval. The best thing in the world is seeing (and hearing) our five noisy kids knock around together. They’re loud, but they love each other. When Melissa and I were pregnant with Luke and Henry we used to daydream about how close our kids would be. The older they get, the more they all want to hang out, and it’s even better than we hoped.

I didn’t work on reviews as much as I have in previous years. Part of that was by choice–twice this year I took breaks from social media and review pitching because the cycle of keeping up with publishing news and books that were coming out during such a contentious news cycle was making me weary. I think the larger consideration was that this was (and will continue to be until they graduate in 2017) such a different year with my AVID class. I’ve had the same class of amazing kids since they were freshmen. This fall, I shepherded 30 of them through the college application process and FAFSA process, and it almost defies description, it was so taxing. I take the responsibility of their futures so seriously, and I was so nervous for most of November that I’d miss something or mess up somehow in helping them. They didn’t get done early (as I’d hoped), but they got done by the deadline. I’ve been trying to forgive myself a little for not reading as much and not reviewing as much because I know teaching full time and college app assistance took all of my energy even when I wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t turn my brain off and stop worrying about them when I’d go to bed. The amazing part of this is that for the last few months, I’ve gotten the most amazing texts as these kids get into college. I am so proud of them. They are great. But holy crap, helping 30 kids apply to college at the same time is no joke. No. Joke.

Critical work was slower this year, as I said, but probably more rewarding. The more I do it, the more I see that it is both what I want to do and what I am meant to do–but the more I continue to see what I have to learn. But 2016 brought me some big opportunities: I was fortunate enough to be asked back to do a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books again, and early in 2016, I interviewed Yann Martel for Goodreads. His publisher ended up adding the interview to the paperback version of the book, which was published in November. Just before the election, I interviewed the brilliant Michael Chabon.

The best thing this year, hands-down, was my trip to DC with Kitty to tour the West Wing with a friend from high school. It was incredible, not only because being in such a historical place is beyond anything I can put into words, but because on our way to DC, we were rerouted to North Carolina and had to drive all night to make it.  It was, in terms of travel mishaps, a pretty big mess. But navigating our way out of the mess felt like a huge accomplishment, and getting to see the Oval Office, the Press Room, the White House, and then so much of DC with Kitty, was a real gift. I’m incredibly grateful to our host, Katrina, who welcomed us into her family and home while we were there.

I spent a lot of 2016 overscheduled. I don’t say this as a brag or a badge of honor. It means I’m doing something wrong. Working full time as a high school teacher and part time as a book critic and whatever time you count it as when you’re a mom of two kids who cooks and cleans and shops and does all the things? That’s too much. I’m not happy with all of it and I spent a lot of 2016 trying to figure out how to do less and there’s not really an answer. Some of it I want to do while I’m lucky enough to have the kids here before college. I don’t want to sacrifice my time with them. So maybe 2016 was just about a shifting of priorities, or a pondering about whether or not I can be patient or still keep myself in the publishing world if I’m not still out there trying to prove the same things I was proving two years ago. I don’t have answers. But I worried a lot in 2016.

Things I don’t care about: staying up until midnight (tonight or any night), making a resolution for 2017, having any answers tonight.

What I do know: every year with this family gets better. I am lucky to be loved and to have people who let me love them and spend lots of time with them.

Happy New Year. May it be good to you.

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Books of 2016: A Gift Guide

Need books for your friends and family? I haven’t read all of the books in 2016, but I’ve read my fair share. Some gift ideas from my shelf:

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For the music lover: Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers

Myers traces America’s Rock & Roll roots in an oral history account of groundbreaking songs. This is a funny and compelling collection of short pieces. You could read it in any order, and you can give this to someone who isn’t a fan of longer reads. Myers does a nice job of weaving together details from each song with trends in American history. In an era when you can find a lot of information about music online, Anatomy of a Song still feels like something special.

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For the history geek: Alison Amend’s Enchanted Islands

Amend’s novel is based on the real-life story of married spies living in the Galapagos islands before WWII. Come for the spies and oblique historical references. Stay for the lush descriptions of Galapagos and the complex takes on marriage and friendship.

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For the word nerd: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a little fun with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she sets in a prison literacy program. Only because this is Atwood, there’s a play within the play on Shakespeare’s play. It’s full of literary “Easter eggs,” and charmingly readable. No worries if you haven’t read The Tempest. You’d be okay either way–but it’s only a two-hour listen on audible if you’re into that. You know I am.

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For the pal who likes creepy tomes: Ali Shaw’s The Trees

Overnight, a dense and nearly impenetrable forest blankets modern-day England. Panic, alliance-forging, and heroic journeys ensue. Bonus points for freaky tree creatures, and a little bit of mythology. Plus, this is some amazing cover art, right?

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For the cousin who is into smart/sad short stories: Desert Boys by Chris McCormick

People “don’t know how un-California most of California is,” Chris McCormick writes, in one of my favorite sentences of 2016. Desert Boys is a nostalgic, bleak, and beautifully rendered collection about identity and growing up in the harsher parts of the Golden State.

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Something unexpected: Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing

Silver’s dark fairy-tale manages to feel both old and new. This is a book that draws on our associations with fables, but also asks us to examine what still happens to women now. Silver’s protagonist, Pavla, a dwarf, undergoes several transformations in the book, and you’ll have to take some magical leaps. Silver will force you to really think about time. Weird and different. Loved, though, and got lost in it.

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For the binge-watcher: Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello

Every Kind of Wanting is about six lives entangled in a messy plan to conceive a baby through surrogacy. Just as in life and in the best bingewothy dramas, everyone is lying, and everyone has something to lose. This book goes there; Frangello is a fearless writer, but her greatest strength is writing with empathy. You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish reading.

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For the reader who likes a challenge: David Means’ Hystopia

This book is weird: an alternate history where Kennedy’s assassination is unsuccessful, and the Vietnam war rages on while subsequent attempts on the president’s life are made. The conceit of the book is that it’s told as a series of notes about a found manuscript. There are so many layers to the thing that it is really difficult. It’s an incredibly dark and a tangled narrative. And great.

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If you want to support a new writer: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This debut novel (and winner of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35 for 2016) traces the lineage of two half-sisters’ lines, and spans 300 years of history. Each chapter tells the story of one generation, so it’s not a linear novel, but more like a novel-in-stories. The form mirrors Gyasi’s message about broken links between the families sold into slavery. Homegoing is a stunning debut.

Speed round…

Quirky and touching mother-daughter genre-bending story: The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

Super brainy, religious, and weird if you can handle that: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait to… This year’s “it” book, and a NY Times Holiday Gift Guide pickGrace by Natashia Déon

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My recommendation for just about anyone on your list: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow

This novel is getting all kinds of attention for being written as a memoir. That conversation obscures (a little bit) the fact that this is just a damn good story. Chabon’s narrator is retelling his grandparents’ history as told to him on his grandfather’s deathbed. There are several intertwining storylines, and Chabon is just a master of weaving the historical into the personal. Moonglow touches on everything from rocket science and Nazis to python hunting at a retirement homes in Florida. I enjoyed it so much, and it’s a good bet for just about anyone on your list.

Happy reading!

One.

or: My failure to attain complete enlightenment after reading one book on Buddhism and embarking on a half-hearted three day social media fast.

I’m lonely.

Gosh, I’m lonely. That’s a hard thing to own.  It’s so hard to admit because it seems like you’re begging people to give you something. That’s not it, though. “Mrs. P, do you want a hug?” a kid asked me today. I really didn’t. Not from her. But did I? Yes, from the right person. This is the way it’s all wrong.

I’ll back up.

I’m lonely because I took myself off of social media. I’m on time out because I can’t handle it lately and you can think what you want about liberal crybabies, but I can’t handle reading what conservatives are writing right now, and I can’t handle reading what liberals are writing right now, and I certainly can’t handle what any fake clickbaity news sites are writing right now. I can’t handle what people are writing right now about what went wrong, or what they’re writing right now about what might happen in the future (what is all that, anyway, except noise?), and this, coupled with my unhealthy pattern of website checking and the infinite scroll means my habits are in need of a break. Time. Out. I was filling hours of my life with a twitchy greed for headlines and statistics. Statistics!–Math for liars. No good can come of hoping for the one statistic that will make everything right, because statistics are manipulation. Like writing, but without the secrets that make us feel human.

So I’m off social media, except Instagram, because I figured it’d be safe to look at pictures of brunch and calligraphy and ballet dancers and Yosemite. It has been, mostly.

And I read a book. You’re not shocked. Before I logged off Twitter, I saw Aimee Bender recommend When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. It helped. It really did. In my 20s, when my nervous system went haywire, and Christianity’s steadfast answer to my anxiety disorder was basically, hey, God said don’t worry, so just tell your mind to knock it off because not trusting Him is a sin, I gave myself permission to seek other help. To get alternate cell phone coverage for the same calls, as it were. Mindfulness and meditation work well for me when I practice them, and Chödrön’s book, a primer on Buddhist philosophy about pain and suffering was particularly right for me this week.

I’m saying I’m anxious. I’m saying I feel bad for a million reasons.

Chödrön writes a lot about leaning into the sharp points: about how our nature is to try to turn away from pain, or to run from it, or hide. I’ve always found this to be true of my anxiety. The more I try to hide it, the worse it gets. The more I try to pretend it away–this happens when I play the nice girl or don’t let myself get mad–the more my body will tense and rebel with an inconvenient flush of adrenaline. Chödrön’s philosophy is the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is unavoidable, but that it is resistance to it that brings us trouble. (Duh, right? But also, yes.) Chödrön says it better than I am, and this is not a book review, so I’m not going to quote it. If you want to read it and read about how to get pointy with your pain, it’s easy to find. There are some nice bits about hope and how expectation sets you up for more suffering, and those parts gave me a big oof.

Anyway, back to social media. It is driving me mad to stay off, but I’m trying to pay attention to that feeling. To ask what I feel when I want to get online, rather than filling that bad craving immediately with a constant scroll of words that feel important. Or validate me or my views. More than anything, I know I go online because I want to have company. I go to my phone so often because I’m lonely. When I sit in my office by myself in the morning, just after I finish writing, I’ll check my feed. When I take a break and walk to the bathroom between classes at work, I’ll check my feed. When I sit in the car and wait for Henry after school, I’ll check my feed. And this one hurts: when I lay in my bed and I’m lonely because the other people in my house aren’t hanging out with me, I check my feed. I am married, I have two children and a bunch of friends, and I’m lonely. A lot. There are not a glut of people walking around who want to talk books, writers, and publishing. So I go online obsessively. It’s easy. Is it too easy? I genuinely don’t know. Is it replacing something better that I could have, or is it filling the emptiness of something I do not have? This is what I am wondering.

My life got so much better when I found a literary community. But since I live in northern California, these people exist, primarily, in my pocket-sized computer. So while it’s keeping my election-anxiety at bay to avoid the news and stay off social media, it’s aggravating a different anxiety to separate myself from these real friends. What I wonder right now is if I only feel like I have people.

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