Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Care & Feeding of Book Groups

A staggering statistic has been battered about lately.  Something like 28% of American adults did not read a single book last year.  Not in print, not on Kindle, not even plugged into an audio book on a long commute.

Who are these people?  I do not know them.  Books accompany me at all times, just in case I have extra minutes in the pick up line at school, in a doctor’s office, or at a kid’s sports practice.  Whispered confession:  occasionally, if it’s a real page turner, even at long red lights.  They tuck me in at night and share my breakfast when I wake up.  Going a whole year without turning a page would be like giving up chocolate:  no bueno.

My bookshelf houses mostly fiction.  Turns out, that’s mostly what women read, while most men who read (a much rarer species) head for the non-fiction. Supposedly this is because fiction has characters, and women specialize in empathy, making it easier for us to get caught up in the story.  Also, we are (again a generalization) a more patient gender, and from an earlier age have learned to sit still to actually make it to the end of a novel.

Women congregate.  We huddle up.  We have play dates, lunch dates, ladies’ night out, and entire girls’ weekends.  Women who read, it stands to reason, gather over books.  Book clubs are a lot like friendships.  Some weather all phases of life and meet steady as clockwork for decades.  Some wax and wane with the members’ seasons of life, knitting new ties and loosening old ones.

I’ve been in several book clubs since my 20’s, each with its own flavor.  With book clubs, as in life, diversity of membership is best for interesting discussion.  Over the years, members have included different nationalities, races, ages, religions, and marital status.  Best book we discussed:  Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy.

Book clubs are dynamic entities that require care and feeding to survive.  While book clubs are as varied as the books they celebrate, some basic principles apply to each.

First, (duh) book clubs work best if the members read the book.  If you hate it, choke it down so at least you can say why you hated it.  If you read it weeks ago and can’t remember any of it, jot down some notes or highlight your copy so you can point out thought-provoking or well-written passages.  Reading books does take time and some self-discipline.  Knowing I have to share some halfway intelligent opinions by a certain date spurs me to turn off the TV and quit scrolling through Twitter so I can finish and contribute.

Whether you rotate who chooses the book or your group is led by a scepter-wielding dictator, people’s preferences differ so don’t shoot the messenger.  The person who picked the book probably didn’t write it, so if it was the worst drivel you’ve ever slogged through, blame the author, not the chooser.  Intimidation and insults don’t stimulate meaningful conversation, generally.  If this happens a lot for you, maybe you’re in the wrong group.

Also, kind of the whole reason book clubs exist is so you can branch out, grow, learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, yadda yadda yadda.  So probably you shouldn’t dig in your heels and refuse to be flexible.  Unless it’s one of the group’s stated tenants that it “doesn’t read horror,” for example, it’s kind of like eating at someone else’s house.  You don’t make faces, declare it “Yucky!” and refuse to try a bite.  Surely something in the book will interest you.  Come on, just try it!  You can read your personal preference outside the group.

Some book groups are highly disciplined, following the reader’s guides in the back of the book and staying on task.  Some have good intentions but manage to keep falling down tangential rabbit holes.  If your goal is actually to discuss the book and not just to finish the bottle of wine, it helps for the person who chose the book to have some questions to rein in the gossip and chatter. Depending on the personalities in the group, this can be a herculean task and frustrating for those who came for a book club.  This is when Dory’s voice plays in my head:  “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, that’s what we do, we swim….”

Mix it up.  Many popular titles are released as movies or TV series. (Think Outlander or Girl on a Train.)  Double dip and have a girls’ night out field trip to compare the book with the movie.  (Spoiler alert:  the book is always better.)

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

Out of Reach: The Risk of Parenting

My oldest went sky diving a few weeks ago.  She took off with a group of friends and jumped out of a perfectly good plane while, 2 hours away, her dad and I checked our phones nervously for news of a safe landing.

This is par for the parenting game. About three seconds after I became a parent, every cell in my being zeroed in on the safety of that little bundle.  And about three seconds after that, my kids seemed to delight in finding new ways to hurt themselves.

I did all the right stuff–electrical outlet covers, car seats, a lock on the chemicals under the sink, talks about strangers, the internet, drugs and alcohol, driving skills, and safe sex. Still, they found ways to get broken arms, ding the car, and make asinine choices.  From their first steps (right into the edge of the coffee table) to the scraped elbows from the epic wreck on the bicycle, 90% of parenting felt like I was chasing them around with bubble wrap, which they’d fling off and set fire to.

I put my 3-month-old down for a nap once, grabbed the baby monitor and went to our unfinished upstairs to paint some window frames.  My husband came home for lunch that day, poked his head up to say hello, then left a short time later.  When I heard the baby stirring on the monitor, I headed down to get her and discovered he’d locked the door, which was always our habit.  I was trapped, the baby out of reach with no one around, no phone.

Panic!  I calculated how many bones would break if I jumped out the second story window. Tried throwing myself into the door to break it down.  (It doesn’t work like it does in the movies.)  Everyone else in the cul de sac was at work, except…  A solitary teen aged boy was playing basketball several doors down.  I screamed at him, hanging out the window and waving my arms like an insane person until he came over, let himself into my house, and freed me from my prison.  (Clearly, his parents had not taught him about Stranger Danger.)

This same child locked herself in her room as a toddler, and I sat on the other side of the door, our fingers touching underneath, frantically fumbling with the skeleton key.  There is nothing so agonizing to a parent as being helpless to reach a child who needs you.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill child, watching as they’re wheeled to yet another procedure.  Or the parents denied access to their adopted child month after month while foreign governments sift through red tape.  Divorced parents who share custody with an irresponsible or abusive ex.  Parents of deployed soldiers.  It’s all part of the package, except, eager to reproduce, none of us ever reads the fine print.

A friend who recently dropped off her kid at college lamented to me that she couldn’t stop worrying about something happening and not being able to get to her daughter.  I get it. My own is scheduled to study abroad next semester and I’ll admit to feeling similar twinges, especially after Paris, Brussels, and Nice hit the news cycle.  But that’s fear talking.  And fear is not the Boss of me.  “Love is what we’re born with,” says Marianne Williamson.  “Fear is what we learn here.”

Parenting is nothing if not risk.  From the time they’re born, we perform a kind of catch and release with our hearts.  It’s a tight-wire balancing act:  keep them close, send them out; swoop in to rescue, let them learn to fall.   The end goal is, after all, to work ourselves out of a job.

Full disclosure:  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when we rode our bikes miles from home (sans helmets) and drank straight from the garden hose  The surgeon general was barely even a thing.  I’m in favor of running barefoot, grabbing mane on a galloping horse, climbing trees, and “Swing higher, Daddy!”

Yes, there are moments of panic and anguish as a parent, times when you can’t protect your child or prevent every misstep.  Did we really believe it would all be giggles and lollipops?  We can’t fetishize safety because of a world that feeds off fear like it’s sugar.   When did failure became the new F-word?  Failure is the only way forward.

The flip-side of risk is where the good stuff hides out.  The flip side of risk is connection, creativity, a life with flourish.  Sometime, we have to let go of the back of the bike and quit running along behind.  I’m too old for that noise, for one thing.  And parenting was never supposed to be about my fear–it’s about their launch.



It’s the kiss of death:  the eye roll accompanied by a muttered “she’s so annoying.”   If you’re around teenagers at all, you probably hear it often.  Everything, it seems, is annoying.  Their hair, teachers, friends, homework, schedule, chores, siblings.  It’s an endless list, and if you happen to parent one of these pleasant creatures, I don’t have to tell you that you often make the list’s Top 10 as well.   Your rules, your music, the way you ask questions, whatever you choose to wear out in public.

Maybe it’s most obvious with that age group because they haven’t yet mastered self-restraint.  While the millenials (a.k.a. Generation Me) may seem to captain the helm of narcissism and snark, this constant state of annoyance doesn’t rest solely with them.  A brief scroll through social media reveals a smorgasbord of political, societal, and personal pet peeves. Everyone is annoyed by something!   Which may explain last fall’s hype generated by the possibility of an eye-roll emoji.  Because we needed more ways to convey sarcasm and superiority.

This trendy dismissive attitude even shows up in the way people (especially females) speak.  One of my favorite examples is this clip from Faith Salie on the vocal fry used by young women.  As she points out, each generation will always develop a way of speaking that is unique to them. It’s a way to set themselves apart from the other, presumably more annoying, generations.  This current trend of vocal fry communicates a kind of apathy or cynicism that is apparently a means to appear chic.  Ironically, it also sounds totally–well–annoying.  Much like the toss-off “What. Everrrrr.”

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about the “that’s so annoying” refrain that bothers me so much.  Sure, some things by definition ARE annoying:  mosquitoes, pop-up ads, and that 2011 “Friday” song by Rebecca Black.  But what is it that makes everything so annoying?  At its heart, annoyance is a symptom of preoccupation with self.  If it doesn’t suit me, my tastes, my needs, my desires, then it is beneath me and not worthy of my concern.  When it comes to a persistent house fly, yes.  When applied to another person, no.

Ask any middle schooler.  There’s no faster way to be ostracized than for someone to declare you “annoying.”  It seems more benign than “fat,” “ugly,” or “stupid,” but the label, usually delivered with a hair toss and eye roll, sets you in the category of the unseen, not even worth my notice.  As a tween girl, it doesn’t get  much worse than that.

Annoying is selfish.  Rooted in pride, it conveys superiority, and unchecked, it slides easily into contempt.  Contempt is a nasty beast.  In a court of law it can land you a hefty fine or jail time because judges, at least, recognize it for what it is:  disrespect.  Contempt is the last stop on the train to dehumanizing someone and making it okay to wound them.

Pride and contempt, says CS Lewis, have been “the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”  Recent research has found that the eye roll may be the number one predictor of divorce.  Not that shocking given all it conveys to the person you’ve vowed to honor and cherish.

Annoying is a cowardly habit.  It requires less of us.  Annoying requires less compassion, less bravery, less personal change.  It’s much easier to be dismissively cynical than to engage another person, to know them and give them grace.  It requires nothing of me to dismiss with irritation any given political candidate and all his/her fans.  It’s nothing to me to drive by the homeless guy and grouse about his laziness.

How many consistently annoyed people do you know who are happy?  Are they fun to be around?  Do you enjoy their complaining?  The vicious cycle of everything and everyone being annoying is that eventually your annoyance becomes the very thing you despise–it makes you tiresome.   And then it’s just like your Mama used to warn you:  you keep making that face and it’ll freeze that way.


surprise emoji

College Move-In Day

We are two years in to having a kid at college.  This weekend marks our 4th move into or out of a dorm.  Sometimes we get lucky and have an elevator.  Occasionally we’ve had to lug carpet, mini fridge, and endless bags of clothes up and down stairs.  In August.  In the  sweltering humidity of the south.

I’ve watched the social media postings of friends over the past week as many of them experienced this transition for the first time.  It’s emotional.  It’s a big step for you, for them.  It  changes things for the siblings left behind, even if they score the vacated bedroom.

If you’re one of these first-time parents of a college kid, you’ve probably simultaneously relished the last weeks of summer with your darling at home still under your roof and occasionally gritted your teeth and checked the calendar as if to hurry along the exodus.  A pre-adult stretching his or her wings and chaffing at the bit to be free can be both wondrous and maddening.

When you moved in, you met the roommate and other parents.  You negotiated room arrangements and shifted furniture this way, that way until it was livable.  Then, you realized you had to lift everything AGAIN to put the carpet down.  Advil was your drug of choice at this point.  If you were really industrious, maybe you assembled a shelf unit or helped hang curtains, stocked the mini fridge with healthy snacks, delaying the inevitable goodbyes and hurried advice to “make good choices!”

Fast forward 9 months to the end of freshman year.  It’s hard to fathom now, here in the heat of August, but it will come sooner than you think.   Weren’t we just moving him in here?   The sheets, no longer fresh and creased, might never have been washed at all.  They, along with the comforter, pillows, and other bedding, will be stuffed unceremoniously into a garbage bag along with a sock or two that you’ll discover jammed between the bed and wall.   Don’t even open the mini fridge.  You don’t want to know.

The things that were so carefully packed in Rubbermaid containers back in August will be wadded up and crammed so the drawers hardly close.  And the carpet?  God help you if the dorm housed girls.  I don’t remember this being a shag carpet.  It’s not.  That’s the new three-inch layer of hair coating each fiber.  Try not to touch it as you roll it up and slide it into the elevator.  All of this is coming back home with you for the summer to be stored somehow in their room (over their sibling’s dead body!) or garage, or if you’re lucky enough to be out of state, maybe in a rented storage unit where you don’t have to see it.

Now, two years in, the towels and sheets have been replaced.   Sheets don’t stand up well to a bed that’s used as a place to sleep, study, hang-out, eat, and cry over finals.  We will not speak of the original first-year carpet.  The one we’ll be moving in this weekend is a hand-me-down.

As a pseudo-veteran of this process, I offer a few suggestions for key items you might put into your student’s boxes–if you can fit anything else into the back of the van.

  1.  Medication.  Odds are, with the new environment (which we’ve already established is not always as “sterile” as it could be), the stress (good stress) of being in a new place, and close quarters with lots of other germy people, at some point your student will come down with something.  If you are not there with chicken soup, it’s helpful to have a small pharmacy of cold medicine, etc. to choose from.  Give them their own insurance card in case they need to visit the campus clinic or other doctor.
  2. Chlorox wipes.  (see #1)
  3. Quarters, for laundry, not drinking games.  In theory, this prevents them schlepping it all home en mass, where 47 loads must be done in the space of one weekend.  In theory.  They still will schlep.
  4. Pizza cutter.  Plus a few other basic kitchen tools like a couple of bowls and silverware for quick cereal before that first class when there’s no time for the cafeteria.
  5. Tool kit.  A small starter tool kit with some extras inside like Command hooks, various tape, glue, tape measure, small hammer and screwdrivers.  They’ll be the most popular kid on the hall.
  6. Essential replacements.  Light bulbs, batteries.  Extra printer ink and paper.  These are lifesavers during late-night studying or paper writing when they’re up against a deadline.
  7. Starbucks card.  (see #6)  Just because you’re nice, and you will miss them, a little.
  8. Electric blanket.  My father gave my daughter a spare one of these and she has said repeatedly it’s her favorite item she took to college.  Dorm room temperatures aren’t always controllable, and it’s nice for a cozy afternoon nap.
  9. Useful decor.  If you have a daughter, consider assembling a place to hang/keep jewelry where it won’t get tangled.  We made one (see pic below) out of an old frame and painted pegboard with bookshelf rests.  Super cute!
  10. Car Stuff.  If they have a car, make sure they have all the insurance and registration info, and consider signing up for AAA.  Peace of mind for minor breakdowns or if they get locked out.

necklace board

About a third of the stuff they can’t live without the first time they move in will trickle its way back home over the next three or four or seven moves back and forth.  My cousin’s parents actually moved her thirteen times.  Thirteen.  Just let that sink in.

Take heart, rookies:  they do come back.  They won’t be the same shiny new freshman you packed off that first semester.  They will meet people and have experiences you will know nothing about.  They will grow into themselves and become even more interesting, funny, and big-hearted than you can imagine.  I know this to be true, and we’re only halfway through.

I found a chrysalis in the backyard this summer and watched it carefully for signs of the butterfly emerging.  Of course I got busy with life and the cocoonnext time I checked, it was empty, its inhabitant finding its wings just fine without me.  I’m not gonna lie:  I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to witness it all first-hand.  But I’m guessing maybe it needed that independent struggle to emerge the way it was meant to, in a flutter of brilliant color, winging skyward.