Year In Review: 2016

2016-collage

I’ve started writing this blog post four different times, and it keeps trying to become a novel. Twenty-sixteen was an enormous year. It’s hard to summarize my own experience without explaining the hundreds of things that happened all over the world.

Externally, it was widely regarded as a bad year. There was more gun violence than ever in the news. Turmoil in the Middle East, to put it diminutively. A worsening of the racial conflict in America. A tide of political squabbling powerful enough to pummel a person into the sand day after day after day, and a completely unthinkable outcome. And so many voices passed away: Bowie. Prince. My princess, Carrie Fisher. I even had to put my beloved dog to sleep, because he was getting so fearful and aggressive so quickly, I felt I had no choice but to keep my family safe.

But 2016 was one of the happiest years of my life.

Winter

Before 2015 ended, I read a book that changed my life, and saw one of my fondest childhood dreams come true in a huge way when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. A FEMALE was front and center of the highest grossing movie in America, wielding that tremendous power created by life itself—the Force. That movie actually made me weep with gratitude, and I denied how much it meant to me until recently when Rogue One came out and I could no longer contain my enthusiasm. Star Wars is just a movie franchise, but it has always been something far greater than that to me. I admit it, I’m a hopeless Star Wars geek, even at 31.

So I went into 2016 with a huge grin on my face, and a heart full of hope and exuberance.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in the creative realm, though. I’d read Big Magic and it was somehow inspiring and discouraging at the same time. I nearly gave up on writing fiction because I didn’t enjoy the act of writing it, but I decided not to quit because frankly I’m tired of giving up on everything. I rediscovered that quote in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?” And I decided to spend the year asking myself that question, and paying attention to the answers.

Spring

In the spring we traveled to New Zealand to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, worth the many pennies we paid for it. We hiked and kayaked and relaxed in a hot spring and rode in a helicopter and ate some wonderful seafood and slices and savory pies. Hobbiton was even more magical than I expected, with the milky way and shooting stars showing so clearly overhead that it was like I’d never truly seen the night sky before. I’d go back to New Zealand in a heartbeat (but there are other places I need to see first).

One of my best friends got married and moved to Minnesota in May, and I was her shivering Maid of Honor. I honestly never thought I would be somebody’s MoH, and it meant the world to me. It was bittersweet to send her into the next chapter of her life. I gave a toast, which I had carefully written and revised and memorized and worried about, and it went over really well. After that, feeling high on adrenaline and a little bit intoxicated on old fashioneds, I couldn’t stop dancing to the phenomenal playlist she had put together for the reception. It took me two or three days to gain my strength back after that party.

I caucused for Hillary Clinton for the second time, and I was unabashedly happy to see her make history as the first female nominee of a major party for President of the United States. I wasn’t the least bit worried when Trump won the Republican nomination, because a person like that couldn’t conceivably win the election. A female Jedi-to-be and a female President-to-be. I was over the moon.

We went to California to surprise my grandmother for her 91st birthday, and I got to see some old family documents and hear my great-aunt’s stories. Apparently my great-grandmother was under five foot tall!

Summer

In the summer we roasted a pig and visited Wisconsin and rode bikes and learned to make sushi rolls and painted our living room a nice teal color. I got new glasses. We went to St. Louis for Nathan’s birthday and saw LCD Soundsystem perform at a very muddy Lou Fest. I went to half a dozen concerts in 2016—seven if you count the two days of Lou Fest. So there was much dancing and singing and driving and being happy.

I gave a pint of blood. I rescued many pounds of food from the garbage and presumably fed some people by donating my company’s leftover catering to the local homeless shelter three times. I donated more money to charity in 2016 than I ever have before. I read a book called Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler that was about a racist, hostile, desolate future America, and I couldn’t fathom a story like that ever coming true.

Fall

In the fall I was still feeling great. Ambitious, even, which is an unusual feeling for me. I finished my first article for Wikipedia. I wrote a dozen blog posts. I wrote and revised a short story, and I started to believe that even though my fiction isn’t good, I can make it better through the process of revision. I started to feel hopeful about writing fiction, and even started to enjoy it a little bit. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the third time, and I managed to keep going even as the unthinkable happened. I was writing away as state after state fell to Trump on Election Day and my husband reported that there was no longer any way Hillary could win the presidency. I wrote every single day in November and I hit the 50k word goal, but unfortunately I failed to keep the momentum going afterward. Maybe I was too stunned by all the bad news rolling in each day like clockwork. Bad news for the environment. Bad news for immigrants and minorities. Bad news for everyone relying on Obamacare. Bad news for women. My first draft has yet to be finished, but I haven’t stopped working on it yet, and I don’t plan to. I must keep writing this story. I found my answer. I must.

We dressed as Morticia and Gomez Addams for Halloween. We saw Arrival, and it made me cry, too. I put my dog to sleep, and that made me cry a fucking river. We hosted Thanksgiving. We got norovirus before Christmas and had to somewhat quarantine ourselves over the holiday. My brother and his girlfriend visited us for New Year’s Eve, and we were there when they became engaged at the close of the year.

At the end of 2016, I still had a smile on my face, in spite of everything. There was a lot of ugliness this year, and I believe there’s a lot more ugliness to come, but there was also a powerful undercurrent of beauty and joy in my heart, and it persists. I’m posting this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because over the course of the past year I’ve come to believe his words, the same ones President Obama used in his farewell speech last week: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I’ve become an optimist. I believe that there’s good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (which is a J.R.R. Tolkien quote, and also belongs in this blog post). I believe it will eventually win, and I’ve realized that I have the power to help.

I don’t think 2017 is going to be easy, but I’m ready to stand up and be an agent for good in small but important ways. I have big goals I’m working toward personally, and I’m happy to have both the work and the goals. I’m enjoying my own journey. I’m ready for whatever is coming next.

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Book Giveaway Winner Announced!

giveawayI just filled out the form to nominate someone to receive a copy of Doing Good Better, and I was able to choose THREE people to receive a free copy! How perfect, since I had three people enter the giveaway: lahgray, Calee, and Emily C.!

(Note to the winners: You will receive an email from the Centre for Effective Altruism sometime in the next couple of days offering you your free book. If you change your mind, you don’t have to accept it. You’re always welcome to borrow my copy instead! :))

Thank you so much for entering my first (and probably only) giveaway, ladies. I appreciate it! I sincerely hope you find this book uplifting.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

BOOK GIVEAWAY! The Book That Changed My Life: Doing Good Better

giveawayI received an exciting email this morning from the Centre for Effective Altruism. They invited me to nominate someone to receive a free copy of the amazing book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill.

I read this book a year ago, and it changed my life. I had a total Ebenezer Scrooge moment. I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it anyway, so what better time than now?

Before I read this book I was feeling pretty cynical about the world in general. Humans suck at doing good. We’re cruel to each other. We’re careless with our planet. We aren’t very kind to animals on the whole. What’s the point in even trying to make a difference when each of us wields so little power against the enormous darkness in our world: hunger, poverty, cruelty, oppression? Why bother caring when so many people who could help refuse to do so? Why save people when the planet is already struggling to support our population? Why bother sending $10 to a charity if they send you $20 worth of marketing materials in return?

I talked to a friend about it. He told me that it’s harder to be kind and altruistic than it is to be cynical. But when you get right down to it, every person has a story, and everyone who’s struggling deserves to be helped. He told me about this movement called Effective Altruism that aims to identify the most important and fixable causes in the world and get people to focus their efforts there.

So that gave me a little glimmer of hope, and then I picked up this book, and it gave me so much more. It made me feel rich and powerful. It made my somewhat meaningless day job feel suddenly full of meaning. There hasn’t been a day since I read this book that I’ve felt sorry for myself for having the job I have, so that alone is testament to how it has changed my life.

Here’s one of the most important things I learned from this book: small amounts of money can do tremendous good. Somehow I always thought that the highest moral action was to volunteer. Spending time physically dishing out soup to the hungry or knocking on doors to drum up political support or traveling to Africa to build homes seemed like the only real way to make a difference, and I’ve always shied away from those things because I highly value my free time and because—well—I’m shy. But in reading this book I learned that a little money can actually go a long way, and giving money to an organization is often far more valuable than giving time. I won’t bother trying to rehash the information in the book, but this guy is a brilliant economist and he did the math for us, and you can read all about it. It partially depends a lot on the type of charitable work you would do and how good you would be at it (I’m starting to think that getting involved in political action might actually be a very powerful use of one’s time), but the point is that giving money is a deeply charitable act as well. You don’t have to be super rich or influential to make a difference, and you don’t have to feel like a lazy a-hole if all you do is give money. And choosing a charity with your brain instead of your heart is a particularly kind thing to do, because it’ll greatly increase the impact you can have. Money has great power, and compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot of it. Giving money is a wonderful thing to do.

That might not sound like a very exciting premise for a book, but if you have some interest in altruism, I strongly encourage you to read it. It’s well written and not a slog to read. And in the wake of recent events, I think we could all use as much hope as we can get our hands on.

So if you’d like a copy of the book, just leave me a comment and convince me that you want to read it. 😉 I’d also love to know about books that changed your life. I’ll pick a winner next Wednesday (11/23/2016)!

(Apologies to Sandy Underwood and Cincinatti Magazine for shamelessly stealing their amazing photograph.)

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is 722 pages of exposition. The story hasn’t really even begun yet. For that reason, and because the protagonist is unbearably arrogant, I feel extremely frustrated with this book.

I feel bad for bashing the book when it was recommended to me by a good friend who was kind enough to even put it in my hands. But it’s not his fault at all that I had qualms with the story. I was also warned by my husband that I wasn’t going to like it—I probably should’ve listened to my spouse. Still, this is one of the most popular fantasy books of our time, so I had been curious about it for quite a while.

This book is basically a washed-up hero, Kvothe, just beginning to tell the story of his glory days. He starts with his charmed and then suddenly tragic (read: cliché) beginnings, and then moves on to his college days. Stories of magic school are usually highly entertaining (Harry Potter, The Magicians), but this one just felt entirely unnecessary to me. I do not give a shit what this impossibly extraordinary human did in college to get in trouble and impress people and make enemies and friends. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; it’s clear that the real story is what he does after leaving the University. At the end of this book, I’m still 90% ignorant about the people/creatures who upset Kvothe’s life when he was young. He hasn’t gotten close to them, hasn’t even learned anything about them yet. I find that completely frustrating. Why has the author wasted my time with all this pointless backstory and awkward-as-hell love story and not moved the real story forward one whit? At least in Harry Potter we get a glimpse of Voldemort in each book, I think, and the overarching plot of his takeover is advancing book by book. The Name of the Wind is literally just backstory. I don’t even understand what the word Chandrian refers to, exactly. Is it the spider things? Is it the demon people? Is it both, somehow? I’m lost.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that the story has so much potential. This book is extremely well-written. I love the system of magic and how it actually integrates with physics and takes knowledge and energy and skill to perform. I love how nuanced and rich this fantasy world is: its histories, myths, and legends; its culture and creatures and places. One of my favorite parts of the story was at the very end, the Underthing. What a fantastic place. I wish there had been so much more of that stuff and so much more relevant story.

I think I’m supposed to feel eager to read the next book at this point. But instead I just feel pissed. I feel a lot like I did at the end of the first Magicians book; like the author has wasted my time for no good reason, and written one of the most annoying protagonists ever. The Magicians series was worth continuing with because it had a whole cast of interesting characters who grew and changed over the course of the series, and because it totally avoided cliché, or dealt with clichés with exactly the same awareness that the reader of the book would have. The Name of the Wind tried to do that in a couple of spots, but I felt it failed on the whole. Kvothe is the most cliché hero ever: white, male, orphaned, super-intelligent and gifted at absolutely everything and therefore highly arrogant, etc. And I know (because my husband has told me) that he’s never going to become a character that I care about, and he’s the only character who matters in this story. If he died, this story would cease to exist; it’s squarely about him, which I find disappointing. Knowing that, I don’t think I’ll continue on with this series.

But, now I can say I’ve read The Name of the Wind! And I really am glad for that.

See all my reviews on Goodreads.

Fantastic Games: Thoughts on Creativity

The following is a piece of writing I found on my computer from early this year. I wrote it after reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and listening to some other talks on creativity. It’s surprisingly coherent compared to most of the thoughts I type out, so I thought I would share.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert cover artI’ve been reading about and experimenting a lot with creativity lately, and I’ve made a few discoveries that I’ve found helpful.

First of all, that most creative adults seem to doubt themselves. Hugely. Even people who have already achieved success in their field seem to always feel pressure and doubt when it comes time to work on the next project. This is a revelation to me, because I experience it acutely, and at least now I know that I’m not alone. Artists tend to try to look confident at all times. Everyone does, really. It’s why we only put our best selfies and our highlight moments on social media. We want to remember the good. And people who are promoting themselves want to project an air of confidence. But creative people don’t always feel that. They often feel doubt.

I had thought there was something wrong with me, to be honest. When I was younger, creating came so naturally. I didn’t think about it. My teachers at school gave me assignments and I completed them. And then when I came home, I went to the basement and spent my evenings drawing or hammering out fanfic or poetry. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my friends. I remember my mom complaining that I spent too much time in my room when I was a teen; she wanted me to come to the living room and keep her company. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t want to neglect anyone. And I’m out of the house for longer hours every weekday. And I have responsibilities to take care of when I’m at home. It’s hard to make time for creative endeavors. I feel like I have to force myself to do it. I have to bribe, reward, schedule, sacrifice. I have to say ‘no’ to my friends sometimes. I have to spend less time with my husband.

I feel like I create for a different reason now. I used to do it because I enjoyed the act of doing it, and because I felt instant gratification. When I finished a simple drawing or poem or snapped a decent picture, I felt an instant sense of accomplishment. Doing the creative thing was intrinsically rewarding. Now, it isn’t. I feel a small sense of accomplishment right after I’ve just spent time on a project, but the project itself doesn’t feel like an accomplishment to me. When I look back on what I’ve created, I feel disappointed. Writing fiction is something that takes such an enormous amount of skill and practice to get good at. It’s like learning to play an instrument. The other arts I’ve dabbled in weren’t like that, except when I tried to learn to play the guitar. I was no good at it, because I didn’t put in the practice time. I think fiction requires that same kind of practice time, maybe. You have to just get into the habit of doing the motions. You have to push yourself to get better. You have to study the art with dedication. Otherwise every time you sit down at your keyboard, garbage comes out. Just like garbage came out every time I occasionally sat down with my guitar.

I’ve gotten off track, but I think that Dawna [I don’t know who this refers to!] was on to something when she said that the main goal is to get back to that state of mind where you can do your work with joy. It’s not just about being an adult and being disciplined and getting the work done. It’s about doing it with gratitude. And someone else—or maybe it was her, too—said that passion doesn’t mean having always having a fun time. It means suffering. Those are actually conflicting ideas, aren’t they? Elizabeth Gilbert says not to become a martyr for your art. It shouldn’t make you suffer and hurt yourself. It shouldn’t torment you. But she said if you truly want to dedicate yourself to your art, then sit your butt in the chair each day and stubbornly write away.

So, I think what i’m getting at is: grow the fuck up and just do it, and also embrace your inner child and quit tormenting yourself over it.

I think you have to just make your mind up to do something and then stop asking the question. You don’t ask yourself every day ‘do i feel like writing? do i feel like going to the gym?’ you just do it because you already decided yesterday how you were going to spend today. It’s not a question anymore. It’s not a debate. It’s closed for discussion. Just do it. You have to do the things you have decided to do, every day. It’s like getting married. When you’re just dating, you have to keep asking ‘is this the right person for me?’ And then when you get married, you must stop asking that question. It’s not a question anymore; the decision has been made. Move forward. Stay true to your commitments. Take choice out of the equation, and you can begin to feel powerful and in control and grateful for all that you have and are capable of.

You know, I think self-image is not really at all based on feedback from the outside world. I think it’s 90% the image that you want to project. There isn’t a single person out there who’s sitting on the edge of their seat with these expectations, waiting to see what you’re going to do next. And if there was, you’d call that person a psycho and move on with your life. It’s all about your own judgment of yourself. And that is ridiculous! You can move completely past the opinions of all the other assholes in the world, and you will still have your own expectations to live up to. What if we didn’t have these rigid images in our heads of what we want to look like? Nobody keeps up their instagram feed for other people. A lot of people probably think they do, but the truth is they keep it up for themselves.

I’m getting rambly. But I think I’ve hit on something. Kids judge each other. Adults sit around and judge themselves. I don’t know which one is dumber. God—life should be a constant celebration!!! Look at these amazing things we’re able to express!! Look at how rich and nuanced and wonderful our language is!! Look at how beautiful everything is. We do these arts because we find them beautiful. Because they are fantastic games, and we want to play. And sometimes playing takes a huge amount of effort and dedication, but it’s still play. It’s still a privilege and an honor.

My Top 5 Favorite Audiobooks (And a Bonus!)

I usually opt to read books with my eyeballs, but sometimes I like to listen to audiobooks in the car or while I’m doing mindless tasks at work. I’ve listened to a couple dozen of them now (and DNF a handful of others). It can be hard to find a good audiobook, because sometimes narrators are not so great or the content just doesn’t lend itself to being read out loud. Here are the best ones I’ve found so far.

Fiction

Okay, so all of these are children’s fantasy books. It’s my favorite genre, but it also just makes for a fun road trip. They’re simpler than adult books, and therefore easier to follow. Besides, considering how enduring Harry Potter is, I don’t think I’m the only adult who loves children’s fantasy books.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett audiobook coverThe Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Even if you don’t think you’re a Terry Pratchett fan, you might like this one. It’s probably the best book he ever wrote. It’s funny and beautiful at the same time. I’ve listened to two of the five books in the Tiffany Aching series now, and they’re easily my favorite audiobooks ever.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – This is a relatively short one. Neil Gaiman narrates it himself, and he’s a wonderful narrator. I keep meaning to find more self-narrated Gaiman books.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman- I’ve only listened to part of this one; I was using the audio to bridge the gaps while I was reading the book series, if I recall correctly. It’s very well produced. Philip Pullman narrates it himself, and his voice is quite pleasant to listen to. The other characters are voiced by a cast of actors, and they all do a good job. The story is bizarre, but there’s something about it that really stuck with me. It’s definitely worth reading.

Nonfiction

These happen to be humorous, so I guess what I’m learning is that I prefer my audiobooks to either be fantastic or funny. I find that funny books are actually better in audio format than on the page, so even if you generally prefer to read books (or don’t like books), I recommend checking out a funny audiobook to brighten up your commute every once in a while.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris audiobook coverMe Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris – I didn’t think I was that big of a David Sedaris fan. I read two of his books and then borrowed this audiobook from a friend with a pretty sizable amount of skepticism. His stories tend to be kind of… weird. But this book is just plain funny, especially if you’ve ever tried to learn to speak French.

Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan – I didn’t think I was a huge Gaffigan fan, either, but this book made me laugh a lot. As a bonus, it also made me really grateful for my childfree, moderately-sized-city life.

Bonus!: Bossypants by Tina Fey – I’m adding this just to say that I read the book first and thought it was just okay, and then I listened to the audiobook and liked it much better. So if you’re going to read it, listen to it instead.

After writing this I noticed that all of these audiobooks but one (The Wee Free Men) are narrated by the author. So perhaps that’s something to look for in an audiobook.

What are your favorite audiobooks? When do you like to listen to them?

The Wuss Who Took Half a Donut: How I Avoid Eating Office Donuts

donut(Trigger Warning: this post could be triggering to those who have had experience with eating disorders.)

Every Wednesday morning, come hell or high water, there are treats beckoning to me at the office, looking all soft and sweet and eatable. In my department, we take turns bringing treats every Wednesday. Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s donuts. Each person has their favorite international chain, grocery store, local shop, or convenience store that they bring donuts from. And most people generously bring enough for each person in the department to have not just one, but two donuts.

I usually eat zero donuts. Sometimes I’ll take half a donut. I did that on my first week working here (almost six years ago!) and one coworker took a look at the box and said “who’s the wuss who took half a donut?”

I love donuts—don’t get me wrong. But I believe they’re unhealthy because of the sugar and refined flour content, and that they shouldn’t be a regular part of my diet. I still eat them, but mainly on special occasions. Besides—there are so many other delicious sweet treats in the world! Scones, cookies, pies, pastries! I’d rather save my sugar allotment for something more interesting than have the same treat week after week.

Still, I mean, they’re donuts. They are tempting. So I have a weapon that I use to fight the temptation.

The Anti-Donut

Keep an anti-donut at your desk at work, or take one with you on treat days (if yours are scheduled like mine are). An anti-donut is something that’s a treat for you, but is still healthy—or at least better than a donut. It works best if you only eat it on days when you would otherwise reach for the donuts, or whatever treat it is that you want to avoid. If you eat your anti-donut whenever you feel like it, then it won’t have as much power to counteract donuts.

My anti-donut has been apple pie Larabars for a while now because they’re tasty but have no added sugar or heavily-processed ingredients.

Eat a Bigger Breakfast

It has occurred to me only recently that another good way to avoid the Wednesday morning donuts is to eat a nice big breakfast so I won’t be hungry when I’m confronted with treats. I need to be better about this all the time (I just don’t feel that hungry first thing in the morning), but especially on Wednesdays.

All Donuts are Not Created Equal

Another strategy for cutting back on your sugar intake is to research the different types of donut and go to the treat box with a game plan. A single butternut donut from Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, is 410 calories and 33 grams of sugar, while their French Kruller is 260 calories and 10 grams of sugar. A simple rule of thumb is: raised is less bad than cake, when it comes to donuts.

Fifty Percent Less Sugar!

If you just can’t resist the donut, maybe you have the willpower to have just half a donut. I do this sometimes, but I’m what Gretchen Rubin calls a “moderator”: I have the ability to allow myself a little bit of something without getting into trouble. On the other hand, some people are “abstainers” who find it easier to write their vices off once and for all instead of making daily decisions about whether or not to indulge. If that sounds like you, better to avoid the donuts altogether.

Anti-Beer

I’ve been using the anti-donut concept to drink less beer lately, too. For a long time, I was in the habit of popping open a beer every day when I got home from work. So when I decided to cut that down to two days per week, it helped to have an anti-beer to reach for on the abstaining days. I found that sparkling water is bubbly and refreshing and feels like a little bit of a treat, and it has virtually nothing in the way of unhealthy ingredients.

Do you use an anti-donut? Do you use this strategy to avoid some other temptation?