The Barter

The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

 

I could not put down this creepy ghost story. The narrative is split between two mothers, one in the present, and one about 100 years ago (who becomes the ghost). I related so hard to Bridget, the contemporary stay-at-home mom: the subtle competition with her mom friends, the mindlessness and boredom, her fierce protectiveness toward her baby daughter. ‘Mommy wars’ tension seethes underneath every interaction she has with another woman, including her own mother. Rebecca, the turn of the century farm wife, was somewhat stranger. Through the stories of her older relative, Frau, mythical/fairy tale elements enter the story and lead directly to its horror. The title comes from Rebecca’s birth: while in labor, her mother was asked if she would trade an hour of her life, and an hour of her daughter’s, for both their survival. Of course, there’s a catch. Both Rebecca and Bridget have significant marriage problems. Bridget’s are fairly typical: her husband works too much and is never home, they don’t appreciate each other or connect as they used to. I found it harder to relate to the Rebecca’s marriage issues because they’re caused by extreme sexual repression and the husband’s complete refusal to engage in honest discussion. This is the kind of book I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of my head. The feeling of being stalked and watched in your own house, of your child not being safe–that is real terror.

Roxane Gay

I got to see Roxane Gay last night and she was delightful and hilarious. The entire crowd really enjoyed her sense of humor. Some topics she covered: HGTV’s Tiny Houses, online trolls, Beyonce, Outlander recaps, and writing about trauma. She said she thinks of herself primarily as a fiction writer, though she is more well known for her opinion writing and personal essays. She discussed the writer’s conflict between wanting to be seen and understood, and wanting to be invisible, and the way that writing is always misunderstood. Once an audience question got her started trashing the president, she had a hard time stopping, understandably. As a mom of two toddler boys, I deeply sympathize with her wish for “a year of male silence.” Her favorite book is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton–a book with an ending that blew me away. Two lines I found motivating and inspiring as a writer: “things that intimidate me are the things that I find most intellectually satisfying,” and  “do something no one else is doing.”

She’s finishing her book tour to promote her memoir, Hunger. I read the first 100 pages or so while waiting, and it’s incredible. I knew some of the bare bones of her harrowing personal story from reading Bad Feminist, but here it’s really raw, the focus of an entire book rather than a shorter piece. Her voice is one that’s so necessary in the sphere of fat acceptance, which too often is limited to the idea of accepting size 12 bodies. I’m looking forward to finishing the book, and hoping to get into her fiction soon as well!

Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

This book is about habit formation and what it takes to adopt and maintain good habits, and break bad habits and keep from relapsing. I found it incredibly useful. Rubin talks at length about how people’s different tendencies and personalities should change their approaches to habits. She breaks people into four groups in regards to how they approach habits and expectations from self and others: 1) Upholders, who like to follow rules, 2) Obligers, who follow through on commitments to others but not to themselves, 3) Questioners, who only do things that they can see a good reason for, and 4) Rebels, who resist all habits and expectations on principle. In habit formation, the name of the game seems to be self-knowledge: know yourself so that you can choose the strategies most likely to work for you. Rubin lays out all the tools you’d need to do that. I’m mostly an Upholder, which means that Rubin did not have to sell the notion of habits to me; I was already on board. When you have a good habit, that means you don’t have to think about doing the right thing, you just do it automatically, saving your willpower for tackling other problems.

Rubin tries to talk generically, so that her info is applicable to almost any habit that you might want to take up or drop. She ends up talking a lot about food, especially low-carb eating. Her particular personal habits and preoccupations are a little idiosyncratic, to say the least, but her voice is charming, and she’s usually just using her experiences to make points that are well-researched and reasonable.

Here are some of my habit advice takeaways from the book:

  • Avoid feeling deprived.
  • It’s often easier to abstain entirely than to consume moderately.
  • Anticipate and minimize temptation.
  • Habits, good and bad, have momentum and are self-reinforcing.
  • It’s ok to make exceptions to your habits, but only if you plan it ahead of time. If you decide at the last minute to break a habit, you’re in danger of dropping that habit altogether.
  • Schedule time for the things you value.
  • Make it convenient and easy to follow your good habits. And if you want to break a bad habit, put obstacles in your way to make it harder to do that thing.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

This book fits into a subgenre of memoir that I call, “Why I Am the Way I Am.” In these books the authors explain their various quirks in charming and endearing and self-deprecating ways. They spend a lot of time listing their various likes and dislikes and tracing these preferences back to childhood experiences. In this example, Felicia Day connects her homeschooled upbringing to her adoption of unusual hobbies and her ability to throw herself single-mindedly into them. As a fellow recovering valedictorian, I related hard to Day’s perfectionism, her craving for external validation, and her people-pleasing teacher’s pet behaviors. When she described her honest-to-God addiction to World of Warcraft, I had to pause a moment and cross myself because I have played some MMORPGs in my day, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I was surprised that Day didn’t talk more about her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long. (It would have been natural, Joss Whedon did the foreword!) Instead, the narrative concentrated on her childhood, her introduction to video gaming, and her creation of the web series The Guild. All of the stories she told were interesting and funny, but I wondered about those other stories that didn’t make it into this book. All that is to say, “Psst, Felicia, I think you have another book in you!”

Day’s story is an example for me of how sometimes success comes from the luck of being an early adopter. She got in on the ground floor of video game fandom and web videos. I don’t think it’s so much that she was prescient, predicting that these passions of hers would gain a huge following, as that she was just doing what made her happy, and the zeitgeist happened to align with her. She was lucky enough to have a weekly group meeting with a woman who had made one of the first viral youtube videos, and got her help to create The Guild. Day did crowdfunding before Kickstartr existed. The story also shows in excruciating detail how hard she worked, but luck plays a role in any success as big as Day’s.

I’ll Give You the Sun

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This YA story is about a pair of artistic teenage twins dealing with loss and their first loves. The point of view alternates between the two, one in the present, and the other 2 years earlier. It was pretty engrossing, as the structure leaves so many unanswered questions. I found the language impressive and whimsical. Noah is always imagining paintings, while Jude follows strange superstitions. One character, a Colombian sculptor, made me think of Marquez. The family’s alliances twist, as the son and daughter shift loyalties between the mother and father, and the teens trade identities from artist to athlete and back again. Some of the things the parents say to the kids about their gender identities are clearly messed up, but very common. The love stories were both intense and passionate, fun to read about. I’m glad to see inclusive novels like this one, in which two boys fall in love with each other, becoming more and more common.

33

So today I turned 33. Because good food is really all you need to have a happy day, I had sushi for lunch, and fajitas and margaritas for dinner, with ice cream cake for desert. And of course, sharing that food with family. I had tuna rolls with the guy who first introduced me to sushi, and my four-year-old had his first tortilla, and my one-year-old made a funny face when he tasted the lime from my margarita and then got super excited about taking tiny bites of ice cream.

I’m a little sad I didn’t get to see my mom today. Since having my kids I’ve realized that birthdays are celebrations for mothers too. Every time one of my boys has a birthday, I want to get a picture of just me with him, the two of us together as a unit like we were the day he was born. My boy’s birthday is a chance to congratulate myself on keeping him alive for another year, to celebrate his growth and the care I’ve put into it. I don’t think I’ll feel differently in 30 years. My mom is the person I miss the most since moving away from the family, and I especially wish my sons could see her more often because they love each other so much. And I also remember how she baked Barbie cakes and threw pool parties for me and my sister and took us to Johnny’s Toy Store to use our keys to the castle. She made our birthdays special, and since mine is in June, it was always in the middle of a summer that we spent at the pool and the library. So I miss my mom on my birthday.

I’m getting to be old enough where birthdays make me have existential thoughts and wonder about the direction of my life. 33 is in my head as a key year for some reason–I’ve heard it called the “Jesus year” because that’s how old He was when He died. It seems like a pivotal number, even though it’s not really any official milestone. So I’m asking myself, Am I on track? Is my life going the way I want it to? Will I have regrets someday because of the things I didn’t do this year?

Looking at my life like this, I think one thing I can say for sure is that I’m proud of my children and my family life. I’ve made some choices to prioritize that aspect of my life, and though I wish I could have everything and not have to choose, I would make the same decisions again. I do regret not writing more, or more ambitiously, and I’ve resolved to change that. It’s a matter of habits and scheduling and confidence.

As a teacher with a summer birthday, I get a day to myself that’s a vacation day, just as I did when I was a kid. The years of my life overlap with the school year, and the academic calendar, not the Gregorian, dominates my life, so that birthdays seem like a more natural time for me to make resolutions than January 1. The free time I get in the summer is time I like to use to kick off good new habits, try new things, and rejuvenate myself in lots of ways. I’ve been doing a good bit of that work this year, but I’ve been keeping quiet about it so far. I’m hoping these efforts will come to fruition in the next month, so that I can have good habits established when the school year starts again. I hope I can make 33 live up to the hype I’ve been giving it.