Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union

My first January in Los Angeles, I asked one of my cousins where people were getting together to watch the State of the Union address. She said something like, "People watch the State of the Union address?"

Last night, for my first State of the Union in the DC area in 14 years, I went to pub trivia with Claire and Zach and their friend Tristan, and I read the speech online this morning.

The problem is, we agreed over bacon cheese fries and Irish beer, that the President is never honest about the true State of the Union. If he were honest, the speech would have gone something like this:
My fellow Americans,

The state of our union is baffled, angry and sad. We don't understand why we can't have everything we want even though most of us spend at least four hours a day watching TV, and another two playing Candy Crush. We look around and see obnoxious young bro-types earning six figures while our friends who are teachers haven't gotten a raise in five years, and we live in fear of our own job skills becoming obsolete and unnecessary.

You elected me because you hoped the country could be different and better, but you forgot the part where that meant its citizens could be different and better, too. It's just easier to blame everybody else, and the government is being torn apart between people who think it shouldn't exist at all and people who think it's capable of doing far more than it can. And nobody wants to pay for it.

It's easier to be outraged than to be empathetic. It's easier to point to other people's shortcomings than it is to look at what each of us could be doing differently as individuals. The ugly truth of life in a human community is that stuff tends to go to the people who want it most and are willing to fight dirtiest for it. We know that's true about ourselves; our founders knew it, too. That was why they set up a government that was supposed to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Well, we're doing pretty well at providing for the common defense. I guess. Nobody can agree on what "promoting the general welfare" means, and as for the blessings of liberty — well, explain to me the logic of a political party that wants government out of people's business, on the one hand, but insists on setting rules about who individuals can marry and what women do with their bodies, on the other. Explain to me the rhetoric of "saving" children yet unborn while cutting off support for their food, shelter and education once they're here. I don't get it. I really don't. Everybody counts, or no one does.

Our Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to worship, but some people seem to think that only applies to one religion. I'm here to tell you that the Constitution protects your right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you believe in that, and it is not the business of any government organization to make anyone uncomfortable about what they do or don't believe.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people is what our country is supposed to be about. Government is not supposed to be something separate from us. It's a citizen's republic that requires everyone who cares about it to participate. It's not a perfect system, but our government is not the enemy, and we have the power to change it if we want to.
Some people are never going to like me. They might have good reasons, they might have bad reasons, but that's just the way it is. It's probably true that I wasn't ready to be President, but let's be honest: who is ready to be President? Can you name one single person who's really equipped to handle this job — with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, who's only equipped because he spent eight years learning how? It doesn't matter whether I was ready five years ago. The country was ready for me and what I represented, and that's a hopeful thing. It's still a hopeful thing. And here I am, and I'm what you've got, so deal with it. Let me do the job I was elected to do.
Democracy is messy — or, to be more precise, participatory government in a federal constitutional republic is messy. Change takes time. It's actually for the best that change takes time, because change is always traumatic, and meaningful change always means that somebody has to lose something. It's going to hurt, but isn't it better to take the pain now than leave it to our children to suffer even more? 
So my fellow Americans, what I ask of you today is to stop yelling. Stop assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or greedy or unpatriotic. Our neighbors are not our enemies. We're all Americans. Let's remember what that's supposed to mean.

God bless us all, and God bless the United States of America.
Of course, since I myself spent last night drinking beer and arguing about the correct spelling of "Mohandas," I recognize that I have become part of the problem.

As it was, we came in second, and got $20 off our bar tab.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Secrets, Lies and Things That Just Aren't Anyone Else's Business

I'm good at secrets. I kept a lot of secrets for a lot of years, not only my own but other people's as
well. I still keep a lot of other people's secrets. I am trying, within the context of not boring people into paralysis, to keep a few less of my own.

In this new world of 24-hour social media, not everybody needs to know everything about everyone else, and we're certainly under no obligation to share the intimate details of our lives. But deciding not to share something is not the same thing as keeping a secret. I've been thinking a lot lately about where the line between privacy and secrecy falls.

As best I can tell, the line is a lie.

Let us say, for example, that you are having dinner with an ex, and would prefer not to tell your best friend about it, because your best friend will tell you (kindly and truthfully) that this is a bad idea. So your best friend calls, and you have a long conversation, and you just don't mention that you're going to be seeing That Person, because why would you even get into it?

The way I figure it, this is secret-adjacent. It didn't come up, you didn't mention it, and if the dinner really is innocent, there won't be anything to tell except that you saw That Person and it was fine.

It becomes a secret when your best friend says, "What are you doing tonight?" and you tell a lie. Because lies are like potato chips: no one can ever stop at one. The first lie creates the need for a second, and a third, and a whole fabric of conceit that winds up changing your friendship, if only in the subtlest of ways. A lie is the compounding of a secret, because lies have to be secret, too. Do it long enough, and eventually you don't remember what the truth was in the first place.

The easy reaction, then, is to say, "No secrets, no lies." But the mechanics of human relationships don't allow that. Sometimes, to avoid hurting someone you love, or to save something important, you really do have to keep a secret. Sometimes you really do have to lie — as long as you don't allow yourself to forget the truth. (For further discussion, I refer everyone to Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.)

As I navigate my new less-secret life, though, I reserve the right to say, "I'd rather not talk about that," and I will do my best to take it as a complete answer from the people around me.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Heroes and Martyrs


noun \ˈhir-(ˌ)ō\
: a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities
: a person who is greatly admired
: the chief male character in a story, play, movie, etc.


noun \ˈmär-tər\
: a person who is killed or who suffers greatly for a religion, cause, etc.

I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire over the weekend. Great movie, in some ways even better than the book, and the popularity of both the books and the movies has fueled an entire mini-industry of dystopian fiction in which teenaged heroes and heroines fight for survival.

That's not a new thing, though. The heroes of ancient mythology were almost all teenagers (and mostly male, but not always). Teenagers want the opportunity to dare greatly and achieve great things, and all of us who used to be teenagers remember that longing, if we haven't beaten it out of ourselves. 

We all want the opportunity to be great, to do something massively meaningful – don't we? We all want to find some version of the hero's journey, to be the central characters in our own monomyth. 

It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a good day to think about the realities of the hero's journey. The danger of turning Dr. King into a historical icon is that it lets us forget what everyday heroism looks like. We focus on the great events — the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, that last rally at Mason Temple in Memphis. Those were extraordinary and spectacular events that allowed an extraordinary man to rise to the occasion, but if we take our impression of King's heroism from those public events alone, we are missing the point in a major way.

The real heroism happens offstage. Dr. King married Coretta Scott in 1953, and they had their first child in 1955, only weeks before the bus boycott began. Three more children followed, in 1957, 1961, and 1963, a stretch of time in which Dr. King was arrested, harassed, subjected to government surveillance, openly jeered and constantly under threat of physical attack. He didn't go from rally to rally or speech to speech. He was working every day on the process of change, which terrified and infuriated so many people, and in the midst of all that he was also trying to have something that resembled a normal family life.

And that's where the heroism is, that's what separates someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. — or indeed, like Coretta Scott King — from me. I hope and believe that given the opportunity to make a one-time sacrifice for something or someone I cared about, I'd do that. (I actually hope and believe that I already have.) But living with that kind of persecution and fear on a daily basis is a sacrifice I doubt I could make. Frankly, I hope I'm never asked for it — but as I type that I suspect that I am, that we all are, and we choose to ignore those demands every day.

Good people live among us. Heroes live among us. It's good to have this day to remind us of what that means, and of what we might yet aspire to. 


Thursday, January 16, 2014

All Time and No Time

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.
— The Stage Manager, Our Town by Thorton Wilder

I have a lot to do today. A lot to do in a confined stretch of time: people are waiting for things, I have deadlines, both real and inferred. Other people's impatience makes me anxious to the point of paralysis, which is obviously counterproductive. Time is the currency of my life: I measure it out not in coffee spoons but in billable hours.

We don't get a lot of time, here on earth. Eighty years, maybe — more if we're lucky, less if we're not. We hoard it and we count it down and we obsess over it by marking anniversaries of one kind or another. Do we mark anniversaries because we are afraid that we might otherwise forget?

Mom died eight years ago today. I went to Mass this morning and lit a candle, even though it's not as if I don't think of her every single day. She's gone, but she's not gone. She remains a constant presence in my life, and I still talk to her all the time, even if I never hear anything back. I am not sure what marking the anniversary does for me or for her. I just knew that I needed to do it.

Because my time continues, even if her time does not — and as I thought about that this morning, I finally understood that eternity is not a stretch of time longer than we can imagine. It is no time at all. No beginning, no end, therefore no need to count down or keep track the way humans do. It is whole and all-encompassing. And we, with our endless scorekeeping and time sheets, pay hardly any attention to that at all.

Maybe we can't. It's too distracting. What would happen to the earth if we were all Zen monks, renouncing physical needs and focused on eternity? Food would not be grown, houses would not get built, books would not get written or edited. We do those things because we need to and we like to. I like scrambled eggs and hand-tied rugs and novels. I am not ready for eternity, not yet. None of my clients are, either.

But I suspect (and hope) that Mom really loves it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Change your life, change your hairstyle. Or is it the other way around?

Mr. H has horrible hair. Mr. H was one of the Letter People, an alphabet-teaching tool my younger sisters and brothers brought home from kindergarten. All the letters had people attached to them, but Mr. H is the only one I remember. (Click that link to see the rest of them. Mr M and his munching mouth ring a bell, but I feel certain I never knew about Miss I and her itch. In fact, I'm sorry I know about Miss I and her itch now.)

Anyway, Mr. H stayed with me because we have similar hair issues. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent 48 years in search of a low-maintenance hairstyle that gives people the possibly incorrect impression that I am a congenial, responsible, attractive member of the society I have chosen.

I could embarrass myself by posting photographs of various hairstyles I have experimented with over the years, but I will not. In early childhood, my hair was so dark it was almost black, and absolutely straight. Over the years it lightened up naturally, and started to wave, which I proceeded to help with various over-the-counter chemicals. The Bernice-style bob in 10th grade was a bad mistake; the curly perm in the mid-'80s was another. The Los Angeles-era highlights were great, but I couldn't afford them. The long, back-to-the-woods hair of Maine made a DC-area friend say, when I took her to breakfast at The Porthole, "Well, at least now I know why you look the way you do."

My sister Peggy took me to her hairdresser in September, during a weekend in which I made several life-changing decisions. Having most of my hair cut off felt like part of that process. It was liberating. It made me want to have even more cut off, so I'm doing that this afternoon. In all seriousness, I'm bringing the hairdresser a photo of Emma Thompson at the Golden Globes, and saying, "Make my hair look like that."

I can tell you right now how this conversation is going to go.

Hairdresser: Uh — I don't think your hair will do that.
Me: Maybe not, but can you try?
Hairdresser: I'll see what I can do. It's going to take a lot of product.

About an hour later, I will emerge from the salon with a bag full of hairstyling products I'll have no idea how to use, and a haircut that will look great until my next shower. But I will feel good about having made the effort, and I might even take some pictures so people can see what it was supposed to look like.

Because it's not about the result, it's about the journey. As Mr. H and I both know:

Mr. H has horrible hair.
Haircuts are too much
for him to bear.
His hair is horrid
and always a mess;
But he is quite happy
that way, I guess.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Five Good Things about Tuesdays

Now that the blog is up and running again, I feel obligated to post daily even if I have nothing particularly insightful to say. But it's much like nightly news broadcasts: there's always something to say, even if it's just a human interest story.

Tuesday is, according to the people who study these things, the busiest day of the week. In fact, they've sliced it even finer: apparently 11:45 on a Tuesday morning is the most stressful time of the week. But Tuesday is also my favorite day of the week, and this is why:

1. Tuesday is trivia night. At least it is at The Liberal Cup, central Maine's finest brewpub, and at Nanny O'Brien's in Cleveland Park, and at Samuel Beckett's in Shirlington, and probably someplace close to you as well. Why is that? Because otherwise it would be a slow night for your neighborhood watering hole. (And actually, The Liberal Cup's trivia night is on winter break until next month. But if you're in the area, you should go there anyway.)

2. Airfares are cheaper on Tuesday mornings. I got that tip from my friend Karen E. Olson, who used to be a travel editor, and I have found it to be true. Last Tuesday morning I booked a round-trip flight to New York for $146.

3. Tuesday has good theme songs for both the morning AND the afternoon.

First, "Tuesday Morning" by The Pogues:

And then, "Tuesday Afternoon" by The Moody Blues:

The field's still open if you want to write a song about Tuesday night.

4. New books AND new records come out on Tuesday. Today, Rosanne Cash and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have new albums out, both of which I covet. If the weather holds, I will drive over to One More Page Bookstore tonight for the launch of THE DESCENT by Alma Katsu, even though Martha Grimes is at Politics & Prose tonight, and if I could be in both places, I would. Chances are good that someplace near you has a book event tonight, and/or a record launch. Artists survive by people buying their work, so do your part.

5. Tuesday is ABC to XTC night on RTE 2XM. My friend and client John Connolly, author, raconteur and man-about-town, hosts a weekly Internet radio show that celebrates the punk, post-punk and New Wave music of his (and my) youth. It airs for an hour on Tuesday nights (and again on Saturdays) at 10:00 p.m. Dublin time, which is 5:00 p.m. Eastern time. Through the magic of the Internet you can listen to it anywhere, and pretend that you are 18 again. At least, you can pretend that I am 18 again. I don't know how old you were in 1984.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Five Things I Did Not Know at Saturday Night's Trivia Contest

I took Saturday off. I rarely take a day off, and even this past Saturday I had a few routine tasks for clients, but I realized last week that I'd been here for a month, more or less, and had yet to take advantage of being back in a major metropolitan area.

So I did stuff. Big-city stuff. I got on the Metro and ran some errands. I went up to the Bethesda Library to see Joelle Charbonneau talk about her new YA novel, INDEPENDENT STUDY, and I was impressed by the turnout, which seemed tied to Bethesda's extremely cool Teen Reads program.

From there I went to Mazza Gallerie, where I saw Saving Mr. Banks, a terrific movie that bothered me for reasons I'll probably discuss in a future blog post. (Separately, this week I plan to visit a hairdresser and ask for the same haircut Emma Thompson wore to last night's Golden Globes.)

But after that, I went to Politics & Prose, one of the world's most wonderful bookstores, for its monthly trivia event. The friend I was hoping to meet there didn't show, but some friendly strangers let me join their team.

We did not win, partly because I did not know these five things:
  1. The Dickin Medal has been awarded since 1943 to an animal that displays conspicuous gallantry and devotion of duty while serving a branch of the British armed forces. (It was last awarded in 2012 to Theo, a springer spaniel who held the record for most operational finds of explosive devices in Afghanistan. Theo died of a seizure after a firefight that killed his handler, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker.)
  2. The world's strongest beer is called Sink the Bismarck, a name it shares with the 1960 film starring Kenneth More.
  3. The next year to begin on a Wednesday will be 2025. (To my shame, someone on my team knew this, but I thought I knew better. This is my single biggest failing as both a trivia team member and a human being. I'm working on it.) 
  4. The country between Honduras and Costa Rica is Nicaragua. (I really, really need to take a geography class.) 
  5. The constellation that used to house the sun during the winter solstice is Capricorn, which was also the symbol of the Babylonian god Ea. (I'll do astronomy after I finish with geography. One planet at a time.)
I like to know things. I like the feeling that I know things. These are very different aspirations, and the challenge is not to let the second get in the way of the first.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Access, and MEIN KAMPF

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment I, United States Constitution

Surprise, surprise: Mein Kampf was one of the best-selling political e-books of 2013. It is not protected by copyright, even in translation, and it's widely available for free, though you can also pay a lot of different publishers 99 cents for it. (I wish that everyone would agree that Yad Vashem is the only organization with the right to take any money for it, though they probably wouldn't want to sell it.)

If you were looking to ban some books, Mein Kampf would be a logical place to start. Instead, Mein Kampf is Exhibit A for the value of the First Amendment, and why it's never a good idea to ban any book, no matter how offensive its content.

I have not read Mein Kampf, but had I continued to study German history, I definitely would have read at least parts of it. I probably would have read parts of it if I'd stayed in political communications, and I might eventually take a look at it just on general principles. Like The Quotations of Chairman Mao (which I have read big excerpts from, in translation), it's a document that made a disproportionate impact on a vast number of people. It's important to know what's in it, and understand how the rantings of a racist megalomaniac could have captured the imaginations of entire nations. The Nazi propaganda machine was one of the most effective in history. Anyone who wants to block similar movements in the future needs to understand how the first one worked.

It's also important to keep hateful literature available because of the confirmation bias phenomenon I wrote about earlier this week. If hate speech is suppressed, the rational non-haters cannot speak against it in public forums. Suppressed speech doesn't go away; instead, it oozes into corners, it collects underground, it seeps to the edges of society and is cherished by people who love secrets and conspiracies and already believe they are persecuted. It builds up under pressure and explodes when good people least expect it, because it was all happening somewhere we couldn't see it.

Did the "Duck Dynasty" guy have a right to say hateful, stupid things about African-Americans and gay people? Yes, he did. Did A&E have a right to fire him for being an embarrassing ignoramus? Yes, they did. That was never a First Amendment issue. But is our society damaged by giving him back his television show? No, I don't think so, because it's no bad thing to remember that he speaks for a lot of other ignorant, delusional people. His continued presence in the public eye keeps the conversation going. Since he's on the wrong side of history, that conversation can't do anything but embarrass him and A&E more. I wasn't watching "Duck Dynasty" anyway.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

How Do You Know When You're Being a Bully?

"It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise." 
— Fezzik the Giant

I grew up with four younger brothers and sisters. I was a bully. I know that I was, despite my mother's best efforts. I felt angry and powerless in a house where everyone competed for time and attention, and my younger siblings were easy targets for all my rage. I was not powerless over them. I'm sorry about that; I think I've apologized over the years, and the dynamics between us have changed. But the memory of punching my two-year-old brother in the stomach (I was six) still haunts my early-morning hours.

Watching Governor Chris Christie on TV this morning reminded me that this power imbalance is the key to bullying. Not every act of meanness is bullying. To be a bully is to threaten someone who lacks the ability to defend himself or herself, for whatever reason. They might be smaller, older, younger, physically frailer, less wealthy, less knowledgeable, less influential — or, in a group situation, outnumbered.

A lifetime of policing my own tendencies (not always successfully) and watching other bullies in action has taught me that many, if not most, bullies have no idea that they're bullies. They don't realize how scary they are. They don't see how people react to them, because they have no idea how much more powerful they are than the people they're bullying. Under stress, Chris Christie probably doesn't remember that he is 5'11" and however many pounds and governor of the 11th largest state in the country. He probably doesn't remember that he's got a pretty wife and four kids and two honorary doctorates, or that Bruce Springsteen hugged him. I don't know anything about Chris Christie's childhood, but I'm willing to guess it didn't feel very powerful.

A woman I used to work with terrified our junior colleagues. She had no idea she did this; in her mind, she was still the sweet young thing no one took seriously. Her aggressiveness was merely pushing back against the forces that had conspired to keep her down 20 years earlier, even though those forces had long since been vanquished.

I have caught myself doing the same thing. I am a freelancer who provides a service, and a single woman of a certain age (we don't say "spinster" anymore). My assumption is that in any group dynamic, I'm the beta animal or even the omega. But that's not always true. That ignores the bone-deep privilege I carry as a European-American, as an officer's daughter, as the product of private education and as someone with an IQ that tests above average. Not to mention being taller and larger than most of my peers (though I'm working on the "larger" part). In certain situations, I am intimidating. I can't help it. I can't let myself forget it, either.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Five Steps Toward Joining a Community

Christopher Bea is on his way to a new home in Colorado, and it occurred to me that one thing I know a lot about is how to make a new place home. A few months ago I tallied up all the moves I've made in my life, including summer-housing moves in college, and the total upset me too much to log it here.

It takes a while for any new city to feel like home, but these five steps speed the process. They apply not just to geographic places, but to professional and virtual communities as well. All the usual caveats apply: don't put yourself in danger, and don't put anyone else in danger either. But see if these work for you.

1. Subscribe to and read the local paper. "Local" is the key word. The New York Times doesn't count, although you should read the Times if you live in New York, with particular attention to your own Metro section. Subscribing to the paper gets you on a lot of other mailing lists, which may or may not be useful, and the physical copy of the paper often includes shopping and coupon sections that will help you stock your new home. But most important is that your new local paper is the best way to find out what your neighbors care about and what they do in their spare time. Pay special attention to the letters to the editor, the police blotter and the Calendar features.

2. Get a library card. First, it's free entertainment. Second, it's a hub for civic and community activities of all kinds. Third, it's a crossroads where all demographic groups meet: young, old, rich, poor. At the library, nobody looks out of place. If you're looking for a job, the library's often the best place to start; if nothing else, they have free internet.

3. Find a place to hang out. Everybody needs a safe "third place" that isn't home and isn't work. Find yours. It might be a bar, or a coffee shop, or a diner, or a gym. Sit at the bar or the lunch counter or the communal table. Don't be a creep, but be open to conversations with strangers and go often enough that people get used to seeing you there, and you get used to seeing the other regulars. If it's a bar, coffee shop or other place with service, tip well enough that the servers remember you by name and are glad to see you.

4. Greet your neighbors when you see them, and introduce yourself. Say "Hi, I've just moved in." Don't push; they don't need to hear your whole life story, and they're probably on their way somewhere. But you never know. Once they know you're not an axe murderer (unless you are an axe murderer), you can ask them things — where people go for brunch, maybe, or the best place for a haircut, or how early in the day the mail comes. People like to be recognized as authorities on things they know about.

5. Do something completely new, and possibly out-of-character (within reason). In your new town, nobody knows that you're someone who doesn't eat seafood or never dances in public. So do something you'd never do in the place you came from. Sign up for a yoga class, or ballroom dancing. Go to karaoke night and actually sing. Run a 5K. You can't embarrass yourself, because nobody knows who you are or who you're supposed to be. It's extraordinarily liberating. Take advantage of that, and find out who you are in this new place you're calling home.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

And Then What Happened?

Years ago when I was a baby lobbyist (for a nonprofit regulatory association, not the kind that had money to spend), my boss and mentor gave me what might be the most valuable advice I've ever gotten.

"Before you say something," he said, "Think about the response you want."

It's not possible to have both sides of a conversation, and for the most part we shouldn't try. In fact, presuming you know the outcome before you begin is a recipe for disaster. But in anything that resembles a sales pitch — and quite a lot of our daily interactions come down to sales pitches — you have to start by imagining the response you want.

Over the weekend I got a couple of emails from complete strangers who asked me to nominate their books (which I had not heard of, much less read) for prizes at upcoming conventions. I replied politely to the first message, but discarded the other as spam.

What I would like to ask those authors, however, is, "What response did you hope for? What response did you expect? What response would you make to a similar request?" My guess is that the authors in question didn't think this through at all. Which tells me that whatever their other attributes might be, they're probably not great plotters.

Because "And then what happened?" is the question that should carry anyone, writer or reader or watcher, through any kind of story. The hero — the person who wants something, the person on the quest — wants something, and does something to get it or make it happen. And then what happens? Well, someone else wants something different, or does something to block the hero's journey. And then what happens? The hero has to regroup and try something different. And then what happens? Keep asking the question, and eventually you've got a novel (or a screenplay, or a law; choose your own adventure).

It's useful in almost every situation, although if you're not careful, all the different possibilities can paralyze you. As long as you're asking "And then what happened?" you keep moving, until with luck you get to the end: "And they all lived happily ever after."

(But even as a child, I wanted to know: And then what happened?)

Monday, January 06, 2014

"People see what they expect to see."

That's a line from American Hustle, which I saw over the holidays and recommend to anyone who loves great acting and 1970s hairstyles (and if you don't, how are we friends?). This simple but profound human truth is the basis for all swindles and scams, not to mention the continuing success of both Fox News and MSNBC. 

Scientists call this confirmation bias: "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors."

We all do it. I do it more than most people, because I have a mild form of an eye disorder that creates gaps in my field of vision. My brain doesn't register those gaps. It fills in the information that "should" be there, which works most of the time but sometimes makes me recognize complete strangers, or see plastic bags by the side of the road as corpses of velociraptors (that only happened once). Over the past year I have discovered that this confabulation is more dangerous than my night-blindness. At least I know when I can't see at all.

It's brutally cold in the Midwest right now, and that weather is headed east. I got out of Maine just in time; my friends up there have been dealing with ice, snow, and below-zero temperatures since before Christmas. All of this has produced the usual idiocy (within my own family, even) about, "Ha, ha, how's that global warming working out for you?" Because, you know, it's really cold today, right here in our backyards.

But the world is bigger than our backyard. Australia is currently experiencing its hottest summer on record, with temperatures higher than its previous hottest summer on record, which was last year. Argentina has just come out of its worst heat wave in more than 100 years. The phenomenon isn't "global warming," it's "climate change," and it's accelerating, and isn't it worth figuring out whether humans can do anything to slow it down or stop it?

Computer search engines and mobile phones give us "predictive text" because it saves us time and effort. Confirmation bias does the same thing on a grander scale. Everything's so much easier if we know what to expect and what is expected from us. But I have learned the hard way that I can't rely on my own eyes to tell me where the lower step is, or whether that person at the airport is someone I went to high school with or Eric Cantor. I have to take the extra time to investigate, and I have to keep reminding myself to do that.

Oh, and I haven't watched MSNBC in a month — the cable package in the new apartment doesn't include it. I miss it, but I suspect I'm better off without it.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Until It's Time to Not Be Nice

I was talking to a friend yesterday about someone I know and she doesn't, and she said, "[That person] doesn't sound very nice."

It was a fair comment — the point of the story I was telling was about someone letting me down — but it flummoxed me. It had never occurred to me even to wonder whether that person, who is also someone I consider a friend, was or is nice.
adjective \ˈnīs\
: giving pleasure or joy : good and enjoyable
: attractive or of good quality
: kind, polite, and friendly
Patrick Swayze aside, "nice" is more of an issue for women than for men. We are told to be nice even before we can walk. We can't ever get away from it, and it warps our place in the world in ways men don't always believe, even when we explain it clearly and compellingly. Within the past 24 hours I have read terrific essays on whether female literary protagonists (or their creators) need to be likable, and on the corrosive effects of sexual harassment in the world of comics. So much of all of that comes down to the ridiculous, irrelevant, murderous question: "Can't you just be nice?"

Nice is not anything I've ever looked for in a friend. I tend to prefer the company of the self-absorbed; most artists are, and frankly I find it restful. Many people (not all people, but most of my casual acquaintances), might say that I am "nice," and I'll tell you what that's gotten me: a lot of mentions in the acknowledgment pages of other people's books. At 48, if I had the chance to give my 16-year-old self some advice, what I would tell her is: Forget nice. Save yourself first.

That's not to say that we are not all obligated to be kind, or that we are not all obligated to pay attention to the wants and needs of others, and make compromises with the people we love. That's not niceness. Niceness has more to do with how we want others to perceive us, and the desire to avoid conflict or criticism. It's why the flight attendants tell us to put our own air masks on first, because that's not the "nice" thing to do.

One good thing from my hashing all this out here, at least, is that I'm no longer annoyed with the friend I was complaining about yesterday at all.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Things That Went Bump in the Night

A BOOM woke me up around 2:00 this morning, followed almost immediately by the sound of a second explosion -- and about ten minutes later, by the sound of a third. I got out of bed, looked out my window, saw nothing (I am nightblind anyway, and it was snowing), went back to sleep and slept about an hour past my usual wake-up time.

I'd been waiting for the sirens. If I'd heard sirens after the explosions, I'd have assumed something terrible happened. I didn't hear sirens, so everything must have been fine -- no?  This despite the fact that I live within two miles of the Pentagon, in one direction, and about the same distance from Reagan National Airport, in the other.

As it turned out, everything was fine. Ashton saw the explosions from his bedroom window, on the opposite side of the apartment; a couple of transformers blew, on the far side of the construction site next to our building. He too went back to bed. Neither of us called anybody. Neither of us knew whom to call.

The biggest change I've seen in Washington, other than the sheer volume of people and money that have poured into the area over the past dozen years, is the omnipresent security theater. Signs all over the Metro say, "IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING." Armed police stand on street corners and walk through public places, often with dogs, and no one even seems to notice. Last week I finally broke down and bought a SmartTrip card that tells the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority every train I take to every destination, and how long I stay there, not only by name but by credit union account number.

And yet we had three explosions last night, a block away, and neither my housemate nor I felt the need to do anything about that.

Last night's explosions don't even seem to have taken anybody's power out; I found nothing about it in this morning's news. I was safe yesterday, I'll be safe today, or I wasn't and I'm not. I don't want to be cynical about this, but I have work to do.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Life in a State of Grace

I made it to Mass yesterday, which makes two days in a row, and this might become a new habit for 2014. It's about a 3/4-mile walk each way, through a park if I want to take that route, and it's nice just to sit quietly for half an hour or 45 minutes in the company of my neighbors and the Holy Spirit. Because yes, I believe in the Holy Spirit, and I believe in a lot of other stuff too, and I'm not going to apologize for any of that.

The church in my neighborhood, from what I can tell after two visits, is a conservative parish in a conservative diocese. I didn't go to Communion yesterday or the day before, and felt people noticing that. People in Catholic churches don't go to Communion if they are 1) not Catholic or 2) not in what the Church calls "a state of grace," meaning that they are conscious of mortal sin on their conscience.

What's great about the Catholic Church, and hard to explain to outsiders, is that we have a sacrament to take care of that. We go to Confession, we repent and we are reconciled and restored — in theory — to the state of grace we experienced as infants, after our baptism washed away our original sin. I didn't go to Confession on Tuesday because there was a line (a line!). I haven't been in 20 years, and will probably need to schedule an appointment to do the thing as it should be done.

The theology of original sin or even mortal sin is a deeper subject than I want to get into today, though I'm fascinated by it as all nice girls (and crime fiction readers) are. No, what I'm after today is this idea of a state of grace, and how we might get there, and whether it's possible to live in it as a steady state instead of those rare moments of enlightenment.

Catholicism has very specific and detailed definitions of different types of grace, but I don't find those especially useful for daily life. What I long for when I imagine a state of grace is a life lived in rhythm and concord with the people and things around me. Does anybody have that? Is it possible, or even worth striving for?

Growth and achievement require conflict — don't they? No one who cares for an infant believes that babies live 24/7 in a state of grace. They need things, they want things, they fear things. All that changes as we get older is that we learn how to manage those needs and wants and fears for ourselves (or we don't). Is grace, then, that Zen state of learning not to care about what we need and want and fear? Of being above and beyond those things? But once we're above and beyond those things, how does any work get done?

I am not a graceful person, in any sense of the word. When I wanted to take ballet classes in first grade, my mother laughed at me — not meanly, but she laughed — because even if we could have afforded it, I was still wearing the shoes that had bars in them to correct my pigeon-toed gait. Lately I have been clumsier than usual, because I can't always see where I'm going and I did something bad to my right knee and I'm carrying at least 50 extra pounds.

But I long for grace. I want to get to a place where I can both stretch and be still, where I can listen without talking, feel without doing. If the world can't be a gentler place, maybe I can be. It's worth trying.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Bringing in the New Year

The inability to make plans or think clearly about the future is a hallmark of depression. It was one I struggled hard with in 2013. I spent so much of 2013 sad and/or angry, bouncing from one task to the next and from one calendar date to another without allowing myself (or even, maybe, being able) to think about the shape or trajectory of my life.

My life had gotten very small in 2012, irised down to Books to Die For and the end of Dizzy's life. I ended that year with no dog, a few too many friendships that had been turned into business relationships, and no external structure to my life other than the need to pay my bills and show up for the things I'd promised to do. So in 2013 I said yes to almost anything that offered me a paycheck or a deadline, just to keep myself in motion, and I wound up distracted and distraught.

But people are kind, in general — at least, in my personal experience, individual people are kind when one deals with them individually. (People in groups often become terrible, but that's a discussion for another day.) And people were kind to me last year, and put up with a lot, and offered me solutions I could not have come up with on my own.

So the year ended much better than it began, in a deluxe apartment in the sky. I have plans to see much more of friends and family, and enough work to take me at least into February. I even went to Mass yesterday (and will go again today), becoming part of the reported trend of American Catholics returning to the Church because of Pope Francis.

The incomparable Laura Lippman starts her year with a one-word resolution. It's an exercise I've found useful. My 2013 word was "reappear," which I did in some unexpected ways — one's never quite so visible in a place as when one's leaving — but didn't quite achieve the way I meant to.

This year's word, then, is "reclaim."

The work I do, if I do it well, happens in the shadows. My job is 1) to help other people say what they want to say, know what they need to know, and be seen where and how they want people to see them, and 2) to be as unobtrusive as possible while I'm doing it. It is not about me . . . except that, at some level, it has to be. Exactly how, I'm not quite sure. Figuring that out is part of what I mean when I say "reclaim."

In more mundane terms, "reclaim" is about getting back to my fighting weight; reconnecting with old friends here and elsewhere; and setting some professional and artistic goals of my own. There's nothing like a move for making you focus on what you own and what you need, and that's what I'm hoping to get out of this one.

Happy new year, everybody, and thanks. Everything gets better from here. I promise.