What I’m Reading/Watching/Listening To These Days

There is a special place in my heart for well-written page turners, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which I just finished, has neatly found a spot in that corner.  But unlike The Goldfinch, Cider House Rules or Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, which continue to turn themselves over in my mind long after I’ve closed their back covers, LFE will sit still in the well-written-page-turners corner, collecting dust.  The characters were believable: equally likable and flawed; the setting was well-painted and one of my favorite types (I love critical examinations of suburbia); and the plot moved forward at an agreeable pace, with just enough surprises to keep me eager to return to reading after a day of work or night of sleep.  All of these qualities made the book well worth the read (inexpensive and engaging entertainment, after all, is one of my primary reasons for ever reading), but the book isn’t memorable.

I’m 76% percent of the way through Middlemarch, which, according to the Kindle app on my phone, means that I have 5 hours and 36 minutes left to go.  A few years ago, back when we were still dating, Caleb bought me a gorgeous copy of George Eliot’s classic, which I love to look at on my shelf.  Go figure that I’ve read the book entirely on my phone, in the first few minutes after waking, when the room is still dark, and I depend on a backlit screen to do my most favorite activity of reading in bed. 

I’m listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on audiobook.  With it’s one part educational, one part motivational, and one part entertaining, it’s my ideal cocktail for a non-fiction book.  Barbara Kingsolver knows how to tell a story! (And she reads it well, too, which is a plus; an audio book can be ruined with the wrong narrator.)  I’ve been shocked to learn that our “refrigerators” consume as much gasoline as our vehicles (i.e. It is estimated that the average meal in the United States travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate) and that if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.  Now that’s onvicting!

My two podcasts of choice continue to be Happier, hosted by sisters Elizabeth Kraft and Gretchen Rubin, and Jesuitical, America Media’s podcast hosted by three young, lay editors.  They both get put on the back-burner when I’m immersed in a top-notch audio book, but I’ll listen to an episode here or there when I’m cleaning or taking a solo-walk to run an errand.  Liz and Gretchen’s approach to New Year’s Resolutions this year inspired part of mine (18 things to do in 2018).  I have a backlog of Jesuitical episodes.

Last night, we watched the Coen brothers’ most recent film, Hail, Caesar!, which was both bizarre and entertaining, as it followed a single day of a movie producer in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  It heightened my appreciation of the role of producers — they are the receptacle for complaints, the fire extinguishers, and the magical thread that holds the various elements of film production, from the acting talent to the directors to the set-designers to the gopher staff, together — as it also warmed my affection for the film industry at large.  The vibrant portrayal of a thriving production studio made me want to become much more of an avid movie-goer than I currently am. 

Entitlement to be yourself

Occasionally I will read a piece and think “these words were written for ME.”  I felt that way about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 

Backed by research, personal stories, and interviews, Cain argues that modern western culture undervalues and misunderstands introverts. But her book isn’t a rail against western culture so much as it is a rally for introverts.  She holds a magnifying glass up to the personality and lifestyle of introverts, offers a compelling description of the gifts introverts have to offer in the home, workplace, and community, and suggests strategies for introverts to employ in order to thrive in a talkative world.

In Cain’s introduction, she writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”  I certainly finished the book with a greater understanding and acceptance of myself, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. Cain normalizes the fear of public speaking.  Not only did the feelings of dread that I always experience before giving presentations, making announcements from the pulpit or even introducing other speakers used to make me miserable in and of themselves, they also sparked further feelings of guilt and embarrassment.  I would think, “Speaking in front of others is a normal, adult thing to do; feeling this anxious is immature and unreasonable.”  By sharing her experiences of not being able to sleep before a big presentation, and of having to practice for hours and hours before feeling comfortable with the content for a talk, Cain helped me to see that failing to relish public performance is not a reflection of my maturity, ability, or mental health (or lack thereof, in each of those categories).  It’s just an aspect of my personality type. 
  2. While encouraging me to accept the fact that I prefer being out of the spotlight, Cain also helped me see that I’m capable of being in the spotlight.  She writes about Free Trait Theory, the proposition that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”  In other words, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”  The reminder that I can do things (and can do them well!) that I don’t necessarily want to do is empowering.  I may just need extra practice, training and support throughout the process. 
  3. Cain gives introverts permission to fortify themselves to operate in an extroverted world with restorative practices and behaviors in their homes and personal lives.  As she suggests to introverts that stepping out of our comfort zone in order to advance “core personal projects” will bring us satisfaction in the long term, she also warns us that it will be challenging and tiring at times.  She reminds introverts to be intentional with where and when we choose to stretch ourselves, and advises that we allow ourselves to lean into our introversion in all other circumstances.  My favorite example that she offers: “Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances.”  This is something that I have done many times, and have always felt a little bit funny about.  Cain validated a behavior that helps me, and I really appreciated that. 
  4. Cain highlights the qualities of introverts that make them valuable members of the workforce, political scene and humanitarian realm.  While noting that modern culture is enamored with extroverted qualities such as charismatic leadership and outgoing sense of humor, Can reminders her readers that there are other ways to lead and have an impact.  She writes of the less glamorous qualities of persistence and reflectiveness that I identify with (much more than charisma and sense of humor!) and emphasizes that introverts can use these qualities to share ideas powerfully, if quietly.  She writes, “The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.” 


Photo by Ryan Riggins on Unsplash

Broadcasting/Narrowcasting: Summer Reading

I once caught the end of an NPR interview in which the speaker commented that the news is no longer broadcasted, but is instead narrowcasted.  He explained that news’ sites, shows and programs do not offer a breadth of stories and perspectives that is representative of the world in which we live, that their content is narrowed to reflect the ideas, leanings and priorities of a particular set of hosts and listeners. 

While this interviewee certainly wasn’t the first person to claim that the media is biased, I hadn’t heard the broadcast/narrowcast turn-of-phrase before, and his word-choice struck a chord with me.  I can’t remember the name of the interviewee or the interviewer, let alone the broader topic of their conversation, but this idea grabbed my attention because I see it at play within my life.    

It concerns me that, like a particular channel or anchor, I narrowcast the input of stories — and therefore, the output of opinions, ideas and beliefs — within my life.  For work and leisure, I read and listen to not only a certain type of news and theology (read: liberal), but literature and even fluff (i.e. lifestyle blogs) as well.  I typically don’t expose myself to content with which I fundamentally disagree.

Noticing this inclination, I decided to make a concerted effort to read one book (starting small and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good!) this summer that is off my usual beaten path.  I chose Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, because it’s one of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s favorite books, and Ryan isn’t the first person I’d ordinarily go to for reading recommendations.  Additionally, Ayn Rand is one of those names that comes up again and again, and I like the idea of being well-rounded and able to understand references made to her work. 

A few observations about Rand and Atlas Shrugged:

It’s a good thing I borrowed Atlas Shrugged on my kindle, because I probably wouldn’t have persisted in cracking it open if I had known that it is 1,168 pages. 

It was really hard to get through the first half of the novel, but starting at about 60% on my kindle progress report, I found myself actually enjoying the book.  There is something to be said for a riveting plot line and likable-ish characters.   

Rand does not convince me that laissez faire capitalism is the golden ideal, mostly because I can’t get behind the premise that “good people” will rise to the top if they work hard enough.  In a culture plagued by systemic racism, sexism and xenophobia, I don’t subscribe to the myth of meritocracy.  But by offering me a glimpse of the world through the lens of a laissez faire capitalist, Rand does help me to understand why so many politically conservative individuals feel the way they feel (and disdain public assistance programs and government imposed business regulations). 

I think it comes down to whom a person is willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. 

Rand (and her type) gives the benefit of the doubt to the capitalists, assuming that work ethic and integrity enable them to make profit; therefore, they should be able to enjoy the full fruits of their labor.  I give the benefit of the doubt to all the men and women whom I believe are at their core as capable and intelligent as the capitalist, but through the harsh cycles of poverty and oppression, have not been granted the opportunities and privileges to rise and thrive.  Ultimately, we’re going to “side with” the people to whom we give the benefit of the doubt, and support policies and laws that support them.  For Rand, this is the capitalist; for me, this is the vulnerable.

In short, Atlas Shrugged wasn’t the total chore to read that I thought it might be, and it did broaden my perspective (which is what I hoped it would do; I didn’t expect conversion).  I also found some common ground with Rand, which came as a surprise to me.  We both distrust the “men is Washington” (her chosen delineation for politicians) who make the decisions and laws that impact both the individuals benefitting from capitalism, and those benefitting from public assistance.  I’m not rushing to borrow Fountainhead but I’m glad I challenged myself to step outside my ordinary reading zone and try something new. 

Other Books That I Read This Summer

Sisterland: A Novel, Curtis Sittenfeld

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

The Book that Matters Most, Ann Hood

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy

Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt

Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

Portions of Every Day

light.jpegI don’t think that I have had a single book recommended to me more often, and by a wider variety of people, than Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  A work ten years in the making, Doerr’s novel spans the years of World War II and weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, a blind French girl residing with her eccentric, agoraphobic great-uncle and a German orphan forced into military school and then enlistment. 

As Marie-Laure and Werner witness and experience the tragic destruction — physical, mental, relational, and emotional — wreaked by the war, readers — if not the characters themselves — catch glimmers of light in the interactions and inner lives of the intertwining stories.  No doubt the novel is in many ways a dark one, and Doer certainly doesn’t romanticize or gloss over the suffering endured by his characters, but as his title suggests, he demonstrates that, whether or not a person can see the light in their present circumstances, there is light. 
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Looking at Churchill and Looking at Myself

I’ve been a longtime fan of Gretchen Rubin, an author with whom I became aquatinted through her more recent books about happiness and habit formation (The Happiness Project, Happier at Home and Better Than Before).  Because I liked these books so much, I decided to check out one of her biographies, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. 

I welcomed the opportunity to study Churchill (he’s one of those figures about whom I feel like I should know something, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Queen Victoria), but what I liked most about this book had less to do with the facts that I learned about Churchill and more about the thoughts that it sparked in me about reflecting on a life.  Read more

Putting Myself Out There

Busy StreetI’ve been on a Brene Brown kick recently, and I’m finding that her key themes of vulnerability, shame, wholehearted living, and surviving failure are really resonating with me.  Brown is my kind of author, and I am always going to love a book that integrates self-help, research, spirituality, storytelling and list-making, but during this year of moving, making friends, and new jobs, her work feels especially helpful.

“People who live wholeheartedly are people who are facing their lives and living their lives, putting themselves out there and in consequence knowing that they will get hurt.  They are living with gusto and intention and not taking a backseat in their life.”

This has been a year of putting myself out there, and, if I am being completely honest, I didn’t love it.  With each new class that I’ve taught, service trip that I have led and event that I have planned, I have had to wonder: how will this go?  Will the students respond well?  What if I get lost on my way to the site/event location?  I’ve had to meet a lot of new people, which is tiring for an introvert, and I’ve felt overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, and frustration at numerous points.  Read more

A Fly on the Wall

At some point, we’ve all probably been asked to “say something interesting” about ourselves during an icebreaker or getting to know you activity.  Or, we’ve been asked if we know any good jokes.  These are the types of questions that drive me crazy, because I know that I have good answers to them, but the answers always seem to escape me in the moment of need, and I resort to posing “What’s the difference between snow-men and snow-women?…” Read more

“Death is the engine that keeps us running”

51mpnt7lw4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_I just finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty — author, mortician, and public advocate of the good death.  The woman who recommended the book to me described it as “a good read, if you don’t mind morbid,” and so I braced myself slightly as I began Doughty’s reflections on death, corpses and working in the funeral industry. 

The fact that I didn’t find the book morbid (sure, there was plenty of talk about the smells and sounds and sights of death, but nothing that I wouldn’t read while eating) tells me that I must not mind morbid.  This might have something to do with the fact that one of my numerous part-time jobs is in hospital chaplaincy.  Though nothing in comparison to Doughty, I do spend a decent amount of time with dead people.  This has normalized death — the sounds, smells and sights of it, but also the inevitability of it — for me, making it seem less morbid and more like an ordinary fact of life.  Read more

Channeling Atticus Finch

Somewhat recently, I entered a social situation that I knew leading up to it would be challenging for me.  I was about to spend the weekend with an individual whose personality —more than anyone else with whom I have had an ongoing relationship — consistently clashes with mine.  This individual’s worldview, words and actions make it really hard for me to like him, and I’m ashamed to admit that my dislike has manifested itself in subtle but slithering ways: a skeptical facial expression here, a stony silence there, and at worse, a curt verbal response or a refusal to engage in conversation. 

In the past, I have spent a lot of time trying to trick, cajole and force myself into liking this person.
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Monday Manners: Dealing with Dominators


Several years ago, when perusing through the Harvard Coop, I found and fell in love with Emily Post’s Etiquette.  I asked for and received the 18th edition for Christmas that year and have since enjoyed skimming through it here and there and consulting it with particular etiquette questions when they arise.  A recent goal of mine has been to read Etiquette from cover to cover, and to hold myself accountable to this goal, I am going to incorporate Monday Manners posts onto this blog.  Each post will address a thought or topic that was inspired by what I read in Emily Post’s cream and turquoise beauty. 

It took the entire two-page introduction for me to know exactly what I wanted to write my first Monday Manners post about.  In her introduction, Emily (I know that my edition of Etiquette is written by Post’s descendants, but I like to pay homage to the Queen of Manners, and also to pretend that we are dear friends, on a first-name-basis) names the fundamental principles of good etiquette: respect, consideration, and honesty.  Manners are fluid, but they all rest on these three foundational qualities that enable us to interact thoughtfully with all of the people whom we encounter.  In my experience, acting with respect, consideration and honesty is much easier in some situations — and with some people — than in others.  Read more