Treading

I’m as cranky as ever about our life on a sport schedule. Yes, I do think my kids swimming competitively is wonderful and yes, I know it makes me a jerk to complain about it. My crankiness has changed a little over the last few years. Does this matter? I am 100% less resentful of having to sit at the pool for an hour or two while the kids swim laps; I am 100% more excited about watching them compete. But practice? Pfft. I find the pool calming and I generally find it to be a good place to work (in my car at the pool, that is). Eric and I share driving duties. But I’m still cranky about the usual things: having to talk to other parents, having to eat dinner at weird times, having to not see my husband most nights, having to cajole the kids into putting on suits when they feel tired/angry/hesitant.

This is parenting. This is parenting. This is parenting.

Eric just left to pick up Addie from the pool, after driving cross-town twice to get them both there and then bring Henry home after he was done so he could avoid the wind. I just stayed home to stare at the wall. Tonight, everything is difficult. I thought that not having Henry play baseball this year was going to mean more ease. Ha.

AWP and LATFOB blinded me–as all writing/book gatherings do–with a flash of too-bright inspiration, followed by a heady sadness. Sadness for what? Nothing real. I’ve visited nerd land enough times to know it is a magical fairy illusion–one where I wear my best clothes and my best hair and most eager smile–and one that in no way corresponds to the life where I go to Costco to buy TP, or tell my freshmen every day to sit down and do school. I have zero desire to try to live in that imaginary space, and in fact I leave these nerd conventions feeling exhausted. But I also usually feel sad, a reasonless sad that seems to always manifest in a frustration with my schedule, lack of time, lack of energy for doing everything I want to do, etc. So today I’m pissed at swimming. I’m pissed at my job. I’m pissed at the hours it takes every day to transport two kids up from schools just miles from our house. I’m pissed that tonight when I went to cook rice, we were out of rice. So dumb. It’s the chafe of wants against have-tos, the old feeling like I have to be too many things to too many people, when I want to be alone, in my red sweat pants, writing for me (or, let’s be real, for someone who wants to pay me in US currency). I want to ditch the Mrs. Partington persona and shut down the HSP show. I want write and be impolite and and have energy for it and walk out of my office occasionally for hugs from my three people. Swimming gets the brunt of my frustration only because it’s the new thing in our schedule and if you’re going to parent someone who does a thing, you really can’t suck at making them go.

I am treading water in my critical career. I am pushing and pushing. I want to quit every night. I’m afraid to rest. This is writing.

We’re fighting about money. Getting married on tax day seemed funny 16 years ago.

What is this post? I’m trying to keep moving. I am staying up because I don’t know how to do the ten minutes where I lay in bed before I fall asleep. I am dreading that tonight. If I stop, I have to feel it pull me down. I have to wake up and do it again tomorrow. Nothing in my life is bad. But today I’m over my head.

 

 

 

 

It’s time.

house2Remember that one time when I complained about being bored all summer, and then in the span of a week everything happened?

I’ve been sleeping and binge-watching my way through my break from school, trying to wait it out for August 4, the date on which I am cleared to act like a normal human who does normal human activities again. I’m so close! (And I only get 6 days of glorious full-fledged personhood before I have to go back to work, but so what. I’ve made my peace.) While I was waiting and lamenting how much this summer vacation really blows, we decided to change everything.

We went to an open house because we were bored. And then we went to another one and then we made an appointment to see another house and then we were like well, we’re this far into it and we made an appointment to see one more, and it’s the exact thing we want. And I told Eric we should just go ahead and fill out the loan paperwork so we can see where we stand. And where we stand is actually okay. So as of Wednesday night, we are selling our house.

We bought our current home when Addie was one and a half. The market was good enough that we could sell our starter duplex and move into something bigger–but even then, the something bigger was only going to be for about five years. We knew we wanted more kids, we knew those kids would someday be kind of tall, and we knew our three bedroom wasn’t going to be comfortable for too long. At the time, Eric was finishing college. As he graduated and moved on to law school, we thought for sure we’d be out of this house in no time. Heh.

Then, the market took a dump. Like so many people, we were upside down in our house. Though we tried to refinance under the many versions of HARP, we never quite qualified. And we couldn’t bring ourselves to do anything risky. So even though we’d periodically daydream about something larger (or an office for me!), we always found ourselves gritting our teeth and paying our mortgage, hoping that this wouldn’t be the house we’d have to retire in.

Luckily, in addition to being a smartypants lawyer, Eric is amazingly handy. He built a patio cover that gave us extra space. He upgraded pretty much every surface in our home and wired the entire thing for sound and internet. When we bought this place, it was all original and it was a mess. Now it’s a pretty sweet place to live. The one thing we couldn’t do was make the actual house bigger.

So this week we’re moving forward–doing what we hoped we could do about 6 years ago. It’s scary but it’s wonderful and I am basically a nervous wreck. The idea of trying to sell/buy/move while teaching and reviewing and parenting and trying to keep my shit together seems kind of insane. But it feels like it’s time.

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Binge

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Do other people read because they’re lonely? They must. I wonder if there’s a point where this is not okay. If it can be too much, an excess, unhealthy. If books are a way to avoid the mess of human interaction. I’ve read 12 books in the 4 weeks since my surgery. 12 books is more than I read the entire year before I started my MFA. I attach myself to characters. Not mistaking them for real, but often allowing myself to like them more than people. In fact, I like them better because they’re not. They require only observation.

Reading as meditation: It’s tough to sit still. It’s tough to ignore the phone, the hope that someone is thinking of you. It’s tough not to check Facebook. (Facebook is good for making yourself feel busy, loved, important.) But it gets easier to read for long periods of time if you do it every day. My mornings alone on the couch in the dark with a book and a cup of coffee and a flannel quilt bring me peace. They make me feel comfort within my own frame. A churchly calm. An ease of breath that is too often a struggle to find.

Reading as chore: Tell me I have to read it and I will hate the text. Try to trick me into learning something—something prescribed, clever, something that’s about your box of crayons rather than me being able to feel the book in my own colors, the way I know sunshine, or sadness, or the taste of homemade jam—and I will hate you.

Reading as rebellion: I can read anything I want. I say what it means. My authority comes only from my having read, my perspective is only as relevant as my own voice. (Ridiculous, meaningless, intoxicating and terrifying power, our voices.)

Reading as Invisibility Cloak: Don’t bother me, I’m reading.

Reading as shared suffering: File under: College Prep English Anthology, 11th grade (Colonial American Stories That Teenagers Will Not Enjoy). See also: Textbooks, Teacher Preparation Programs.

Is there a way to abuse books? To use books as a crutch? I’ve gotten so good at inserting them into the pauses between activities in my life that I find it difficult right now to be alone with this much time. Difficult to not read. To stop the frenetic tumble of words. I find it challenging to sit still, to heal after my surgery. I am lonely, but I don’t want to reach out. So I read and read and read, and in this way, am I’m more than alone, choosing characters over even my own company? I’m gulping down other people’s words, filling myself with things I can’t possibly digest.

Reading as a way to document experience: The books I remember best are the ones I can place in space and time. I listened to A Tale for the Time Being on the train in France. I read The Grapes of Wrath by the pool in Rancho Mirage. I read Middlesex at my parents’ while the kids were swimming. I read Gone with the Wind in the window of a hotel café next door to a teachers’ conference I was enrolled in, but ditching. I read John Adams in the car, at the public pool. Dichotomy of content and place make the reading even better.

Reading as physical act of love: The comfortable space between you and your spouse as you sit near each other, lost in stories.

Reading as impossible dream: The more you read, the more there is that you haven’t read.

The mannerisms of my reading are ridiculous, even when I read for fun. I’ve stopped pretending I want to read like normal people; I indulge my weirdness. I fold down the corner of every 50th page before I start. One hour of reading, each, a way to know how much is left. I read with my pen in my right hand, and I chew on the cap or scrape it gently against my lips. I read with discipline that’s almost militaristic, each hour allotted by to the teal blocks of time on my calendar, but this structure allows to indulge myself. My process of understanding what a book means is very woo-woo, very feely. As I’m reading I’m often more aware of the thing of the book than the detail. Embarrassingly so. I will forget dates. I will forget names—I often have to underline these for myself several times until they stick, check them three times before I submit a review—but the thing of the story comes to me like the steady time signature underneath the music. (Alternately, this is sometimes the cacophony of a discordant narrative.) The thing is like a waking dream, an exchange between me the person who wrote it. And maybe that’s just crap I tell myself, and maybe the thing has nothing to do with the thing they wrote. But I don’t question it. I just let it be, let it be something I feel. And then I type the quotes and then I really know. And I write it, or I try to get as close as possible. That thing.

Reading as a way to spy: How many times have I tried to see into the people I admire by trying to absorb their words? Both those they put down and those they pick up: equally enlightening.

Reading as marathon: A little a day actually makes significant progress. I am always shocked and pleased to find myself at the end.

Reading as sleep aid: When I read at night, I get sleepy in the background. I can’t help it. I’m too much in the story and my body quits. Every time. I should read more at night since I’m a terrible sleeper. I should let it happen. But I resist it, almost because I know it works so well.

Reading as currency, status, course of study: Resume.

The more I read, the less I feel purpose in my teaching job. Or more accurately, the less I believe in how it’s been defined in practice. The more I read, the less I think you can make someone read or deceive them into caring about a book or writing down what it means in a way that fits into a box. What I like, I like. What I don’t like, nobody can change. In fact, searching out more of what I like and defining what I don’t has made every book I read more pleasurable. Even the ones I hate. But we (English teachers, high school, mostly) don’t generally allow kids to hate the thing they read, or we haven’t given them the tools to hate a book and still read it. To hate it and to know why. So many people in my profession are afraid of what will happen if we let kids admit that a book for the class is boring. It goes against everything we need to tell ourselves.

I’m not sure how long I will keep up my reading sprint this summer. Maybe this is some kind of training I need so I can come out on the other side with a skill, a realization. Maybe it’s just filler, the carrot onstage in Waiting for Godot. But it’s eating at me.

I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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10 ways to read more. Even if it’s boring.

UntitledIt’s not as difficult as you’d think to read more books. I’m not a particularly fast reader, and I certainly don’t have very much free time. But in 2014 I read 66 books, for a grand total of 18,863 pages. Best reading year ever.

I get asked pretty often about how I manage to read so much. Of course, I do like to read and chose two jobs for myself that necessitate reading. But I watch a shitload of bad TV, you guys. And liking to read doesn’t mean I’m predisposed to getting a lot of it done. Until a few years ago, I was pretty much only reading the novels I was teaching. I didn’t read for fun unless I was on vacation. When I started an MFA program, I realized that I needed to find a way to make reading work in my daily life. When I started working as a book critic, I needed even more strategies. And I’m not talking about the standard “stop reading if you find you hate a book” advice. Sometimes it’s worth knowing how to read even if you’re not feelin’ it.

How to Read More

1. Know how long it’s going to take.

This seems like it would make the task more daunting, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. This helps me so much. If I know how long a book will take, I’m more likely to know how (and if!) it will fit into my life. I am less likely to be surprised when I’m not finished. I realized in grad school that I needed to plan specific chunks of time for reading and writing if I was going to actually do them.  I’d spent my previous academic career in a state of constant worry: When I was I going to get my reading done? Why did I sometimes have extra time and sometimes run out of time? I spent a lot of time in college trying to stay up late to finish books and papers, which means I spent a lot of time crying while I half-assed things. I have two kids and an incredibly demanding day job that comes with its own homework. I couldn’t do that willy-nilly shit anymore.

So I sat down one day to read for an hour just to see how far I’d get. I tried to pay attention for a while to see if I was close to an average number of pages per hour. What I discovered is that I read about 50 pages an hour, average. This can vary, of course, depending on the typesetting of the book, or how old the material is (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), but I am always close to that average. If a book is 200 pages, that’s a four-hour book. If a book is 300 pages, it’s a six-hour book. This helps me to choose things based on how they’ll fit into my life. (This is why I chose to read Middlemarch over the summer, not when I was in school.) I mean, I look at the length of a movie before I go. Why not figure out the run time of a book?

Once I know a book is going to take me six hours to read, it’s generally very easy to figure out when I can do that. It might be three hours a day on two weekend days. Or if I want to get it done during the week, four days of reading for an hour and a half. There’s something great about the word “only”–if I tell myself I only have to read for an hour and a half on a particular day to stay on schedule, I am free to quit and walk away when that time is up. And if I want to keep reading? Bonus.

Of course, most people don’t have to get through a book by a deadline. I still think it helps to have an idea of how long a book will take you, even if you only read for ten minutes a day. Are you willing to live with that particular story for the next three months?

2. Give yourself permission to be lame.

I have this post it note on my computer monitor at work: You don’t have to be great today. Just do your job. It works for reading, too. Many, many times the fear of not being perfect (or not getting a whole job done, or not doing something the “right” way) is enough to keep me from doing it at all. That’s stupid. I’m trying to be more forgiving with myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading for more than a half hour. Sometimes I can only read 5 pages before my kids interrupt. Sometimes I can’t really concentrate. Sometimes I read and I don’t understand what I read. Sometimes I have to read a chapter over and over just to get it. I used to only read when I could stay in bed for an entire day and binge. I can’t really do that now, but that’s no reason to avoid reading altogether. Nor are any of my other fears about not reading “right.” Reading a little, even inefficiently, is always going to be better than not reading at all.

3. Take your book with you.

Reading in boring situations is the best. My favorite thing to do is to avoid the task at hand. I’m awesome at not doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Carry your book. Avoid work. (This post on Zen Habits confirms that I’m not the only person who finds more time to read this way.) If I can make reading feel like avoidance behavior, like a cheat, it’s indulgent. If I’m at a meeting that’s running long, or if I’m stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, or if I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for my kids to get out of school, reading always seems like more fun than just sitting. I have to be there, anyway. Once I got used to carrying a book, I started to feel like something was missing if I forgot it. I know I could be playing solitaire or crushing candy or scrolling through the latest gossip headlines, but at the end of the day none of those leave me with anything to show for my efforts. If I read while I’m bored and waiting, I can at least get ahead. Little bits add up.

4. Think of reading like a treat.

This is a mental game I play with myself all the time. Do I love to read? Hells yeah. Does that mean I always want to read? NOPE. The minute I catch myself wanting to complain about having to read, I stop and change my mindset. Reading is definitely a “get to,” not a “have to.” As a literate, thoughtful person, it’s a privilege for me to read. It’s never a chore. (And when that doesn’t work because the reading still feels like work, I remind myself that I could be digging a ditch or having to smile at other humans for my job. That usually does the trick and I snuggle right back into my quilt and my book.).

Reading is relaxing. It’s good for your mental health. It’s wonderful to sit or lay still during a busy day, whether it’s at the beginning, middle, or end of it. Read outside. Read under a blanket. Read with a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy it, because it is a luxury.

5. Pay yourself first.

Procrastination is a losing battle. I read recently that procrastination is the hope that you’ll suddenly want to do something later that you don’t want to do now. That has never happened to me in my life. I hate the same things at the end of the week that I hate on Monday. Pushing a task off until later only makes me enjoy my free time less. If I have to read and I’m not particularly enthused about the book, I make myself get it over with. I jump right in. That way it doesn’t hold any power over me and as soon as I’m done with it, I’m free to goof off. You show yourself generosity by completing boring tasks quickly; you give yourself some truly free time after you’re done.

But that doesn’t address the idea of reading things you want to read, which is sometimes equally difficult to fit into your schedule. I think that comes down to priorities. Either you want to do something, or you don’t. If you want to read more, quit making excuses and just read more. I try to think of the hours in my day like money. I only get so much and then it’s all gone. This really makes me feel better when I “pay myself first” by doing the things that matter the most to me before I do anything else. I deserve to do the things that make me feel fulfilled, not just the things I have to do. Sometimes the only way to do that is to make sure I read before I do anything else. I’ve developed a habit of reading in the mornings before my family gets up.

6. Don’t give your time to stupid stuff–unless you choose it.

AKA, don’t watch anyone read the internet to you on TV. Gretchen Rubin calls this “potato chip news.”  You know what she means. Just watch local news one day and pay attention to how much anchors talk just to fill time. I catch myself gobbling up potato chip news when I’m waiting for the forecast, or waiting for a story that’s teased before a commercial. That’s ridiculous. It’s 2015. I have a device in my pocket that tells me the weather. It also will tell me who was nominated for an Academy Award, or what the latest study says about eating beets, or what I’m supposed to be terrified of this week. I don’t have to ever watch a commercial again. There is no reason to sit and watch any show that regurgitates the internet. (Watch a morning show, and note how desperately they read things from Twitter in attempt to be relevant.) Get your own Twitter account. Scroll fast and skip the potato chips.

The point is, if I catch myself falling down the rabbit hole of stupid news (or re-runs of reality TV, just “watching whatever is on,” etc), I try to at least think about whether or not I could be spending my time more efficiently. This is not to say that I don’t waste hours of my life doing things that most people would find ridiculous. But I’m happy to spend my time on inane things when I choose them.

7. Get into audio books.

Ignore the voice (real or imagined) that tells you audio books aren’t real books. Is it a different act to listen than to read words on a page? Sure. Do you hear the words? Do they go into your head? Yep. You read that. If it isn’t “real,” so WHAT? I listened to Anna Karenina while I trained for a marathon, and I have amazing memories of running with Vronsky and Anna. Last year I listened to The Goldfinch on long walks through my neighborhood, and I was just as moved by antique furniture restoration as I would have been holding the book. I’ve loved some of the stories I’ve heard more than the ones I’ve read with my eyes. Enjoy the words however they get into your brain.

8. Get a buddy.

I’ve never been in a book club, but I’m desperate to talk to people about stories. I find writing reviews scratches this itch. Maybe all it takes for you is having a friend read the same book at the same time. Everything is better when it’s shared. I love when my husband or a close friend read a book with me. Try to find a reason for reading, and you’re more likely to stick to it.

9. Have a goal.

I like to see my little ticker go up on Goodreads. Set a goal for yourself, even if it’s small. It feels good to make progress.

10. Give yourself permission to hate what you read. Read anyway.

I firmly believe this: If you can make yourself read things that are challenging (even if these things are boring), you are going to have more opportunities in your life. Let me say this another way: If you only ever read things that feel easy, good, or exciting, you’re limiting yourself.

I read things all the time that are hard to get through. Sometimes this is for work, sure. But sometimes it’s because I need to learn. Sometimes I want to read an opinion that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I read bad writing so I know how I don’t want to write. Many times I read about people who are not like me. Sometimes I read things that are beyond my reading or comprehension level and I work so hard just to understand. Not always. God no. I read a lot of fluff. But if you tell yourself you only have to read things  you like, after a while you will run out of books. Reading will get tedious. I guarantee it. If you give up on every book that doesn’t feel just right, you might not ever discover something really great that’s different. Maybe the book is about to get SO good, and you missed it by putting it down. Maybe you are about to get so good as a result of reading it.

I know that’s not popular advice. And this is not sexy, but here’s how you read more. Even when it’s boring: You keep going, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I ran a marathon that way: slow as hell. If you keep reading, and if you don’t stop, you will make progress. And the more you read, the more you’ll want to.