Category Archives: books

50 thoughts on turning 50: #33 Question everything (or maybe not)

Screenshot of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

Screenshot of some of my results from the Four Tendencies quiz.

As much as I hate to admit it, I like Facebook quizzes. I know they’re created so Facebook and other companies can collect information from users, but I’m still always amazed when they give me results as if they actually have tabulated my answers and analyzed them.

So when my friend Linda shared a link to a quiz about the “Four Tendencies”, I had to try it. The quiz was created by author Gretchen Rubin as part of the research for her book, “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life” in which she tackles the question of how we can make good habits and break bad ones.

I know it’s just part of the book marketing, but I was curious anyway. Especially because I know Rubin is the author of “The Happiness Project (Revised Edition): Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”, in which she takes a year to explore the idea of what makes us happy. I haven’t read the book, partly because around the time it came out, I’d been exploring a somewhat similar topic and thinking about writing a book. I’d amassed a box full of notes and research. When I saw her book, I sighed and moved on to another idea.

Theoretically, anyway. What I really did was start researching the next book idea. Research isn’t writing. As my publisher well knows.

But back to the quiz. It’s a simple quiz, just a few questions about how you respond to some general situations, like making a New Year’s resolution or dealing with expectations. When I got my results, I wasn’t surprised: I’m a Questioner.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I ask a lot of questions. (Ask my friend Laura.) I over research and over analyze. I’ll ask questions about your questions and then go research the answers. So what did surprise me was that, according to the quiz, Questioners “resist outer expectations” and “meet inner expectations”.

I often do reject other people’s expectations of me. I wouldn’t say that’s been a lifelong thing; only in the past maybe 10 or 15 years have I really been able to stand up to people who boss me around, and to stop living other people’s expectations of me and living my own.

Except that in that rejection of other people’s expectations, I haven’t really been able to hold onto my own expectations of myself. I don’t feel like I ever live up to my own expections.

I let myself down. A lot.

But then I mused a bit on the quiz’s explanation:

“Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect. Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, right now I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework, yep, you’re probably a Questioner!”

This is really quite accurate. I don’t just reject what other people want or expect; I do what I think is right and worthwhile and justified and respectful. As for my inner expectations? I do meet them – when I feel they’re justified.

I’m not always a slacker.

In the follow up email – because of course I signed up to get more information – I learned that Questioners are motivated by logic, fairness, and reason. They do exhaustive research and often suffer from paralysis by analysis.

And then a light bulb went off over my head: this is me, and maybe this is why I can’t finish a writing project.

It’s not that I don’t want to or that I’m not willing to do the work. It’s because, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel like anything I write has value, it doesn’t meet my own inner expectations. Outside expectations don’t matter – reader feedback or a deadline or a paycheck or even a signed book contract. What matters is what I’m thinking inside, what I’m expecting from myself: do I feel it’s quality work? Is it an idea that will bring value to other people’s lives? Is it necessary, in a world being bombarded with information, to add my creative voice to the clamor? Am I doing the best job I can do?

Probably not.

Which I know isn’t sound reasoning. I know some of my writing is good – no, great. So it’s not like I never like my own work. I just balance what I offer with what the world needs and often find myself wanting.

Of course, if I think about it, if I really believe that my creative work has no value, then am I questioning the integrity of the publications that pay me? These aren’t stupid people. They’re not giving me money to be charitable. I clearly write something they need. My publishers put out some quality stuff. They’re also dear, dear friends. But they’re not having me write a book to do me some kind of favor. I respect these people…don’t I? Maybe in not believing in their belief of me, I’m actually not respecting them?

I think it’s what Rubin means when she writes in the more detailed tendency report:

“Questioners are motivated by sound reasons—or at least what they believe to be sound reasons. In fact, to others, Questioners can sometimes seem like crackpots, because they may reject expert opinion in favor of their own conclusions.”

All of this shouldn’t surprise you. The fact that I’ve done an entire blog post based on a few lines of feedback from a Facebook quiz should give you all the proof you need that I’m a crackpot.

So what do I need to do? Stop questioning myself. Or should I?  Isn’t research good? Isn’t learning more better than not know learning more?

What I really need to do is get the book and see what Rubin suggests for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. You know, do more research.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. It won’t surprise you that it’s been two years since I started this project and I’m just a little more than halfway. I told you when I first posted it might take me until I’m 60 to finish. Now I know why. You can  read more posts here.

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50 thoughts on turning 50: #32 Nothing but the truth (but whose truth?)

I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.

In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.

Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.

Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.

What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.

What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).

The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.

It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.

This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.

Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

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A belief in a God bigger than any book or religion

god in my head grisetti

Josh Grisetti has a lot to say about God in his new book, “God In My Head.” Or, to be more clear, what God said to him.

The two met while Grisetti was at the dentist and doped up on nitrous oxide and a dangerous combination of drugs he had lying around the house and took before the appointment in an attempt to ward off pain. The trip, or hallucination as he sometimes refers to it, spanned two hundred years and during it God answered Grisetti’s spiritual questions and showed him the mysteries of the Universe.

In reality, Grisetti was out for about forty five minutes, and didn’t actually leave the room. But did he meet God?

Sure. He met God. As much as any of us can meet God and live to tell about it.

I’ll confess that I skimmed parts of Grisetti’s book more than I actually read them, at least the parts about what God said to him. That’s partly because I was reading before bed and tired, but also because those sections interested me far less than his accounts of going to the dentist. Grisetti’s best writing was telling his memoirs; God was a less compelling storyteller. I found what God said to him sometimes really interesting, sometimes boring, sometimes as I’d expected God to speak, and occasionally so far out in left field that I didn’t have the brain power to sort it out.

Like the notion that God created humans and then came to earth so he could understand humans. I don’t get why an omnipotent God wouldn’t intimately know that which he created. At the same time, the death of human God exploding into God particles that exist in us all? Yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense.

Maybe the main reason that this book didn’t change my life is that I didn’t need it to. Grisetti and I have had the same sort of spiritual awakening, only mine didn’t include laughing gas and marijuana.

Some years ago, a writer, who identified himself as a former evangelical, was interviewing me for a book he was writing about his former faith. He asked me this question: “Do you believe that everything in the Bible is true?” I initially answered that yes, of course I did. Then I hesitated, and said I’d need to think about it some more.

To be honest, no one had ever asked me that question before, or I’d at least never pondered it for myself. I’ve been taught most of my life that the Bible is true. To question it was to flip a figurative bird to the Almighty, a sin from which you don’t return.

But now I needed to answer the question. Do I believe the Bible is true? And if I don’t, does it change my faith?

So I pondered that question for years and came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. If my faith is in God, then the book can be holy or it can be just a bunch of nice stories. God would still be God. But if my faith rested on whether or not I thought the Bible was all true, then my faith was in the book, not God.

And if my faith was rooted only in the God portrayed in the Bible, then I put God in a box that didn’t allow for him to be anything except what’s written on those pages, even if he existed in other faiths or spiritual paths. And if that was the case, God was not as big as eternity. He was only as big as the book that told his story.

That is not thinking that jibes with church. Or religion. But I think it lines up pretty well with God, the Creator.

And it lines up with science, too, because let’s face it. With all of our scholars and scientists and space travel, we only know a fraction of a fraction of what’s out there in the Universe. The human brain is a mystery; how can we be so arrogant as to assume we know what’s beyond the reach of our telescopes? Or through a black hole? Or what exists in other dimensions in space and time?

Contrary to what you might think, my pondering led me away from organized religion but towards a deeper faith in God, a more solid belief in the supernatural nature of the Creator of the Universe, a greater peace, and a more loving attitude towards man and beast. It awakened awe and wonder and the realization that I am but a small piece of a grand, grand puzzle stretching out in every direction for eternity, a puzzle filled with pieces of different shape and sizes and whose very existence I can’t even begin to comprehend.

At one point Grisetti recounts a story of going on a work study trip to Rome and bringing home a gift for his grandparents: a decorative rosary carved from stone. As a non-Catholic, he didn’t know what the rosary actually was for, other than being something you held when you prayed. And he still doesn’t know, despite the fact that a simple Google search would tell him. Instead, he says, “[T]here’s something about the mystique of it that I like. Not knowing somehow makes it more sacred, more magical.”

I think that’s how I like my faith, too. If I knew everything there was to know about God, if he could be packaged between the pages of a book or in a song or a workbook study, then he wouldn’t be God. But not knowing, having questions, pondering mysteries? To me, God is bigger and more complex and more wondrous than any book can describe. And I think that’s the same thing Grisetti came away from his encounter with, too. Whether he actually met God or not, he walked away from the experience with a bigger faith in a bigger God than even he, who saw him face to face, can imagine.

Click here to read what other Patheos bloggers are saying about “God In My Head,” by Joshua Steven Grisetti, as well as read a Q&A with the author and an excerpt from the book.

“What The Dog Said (And Other Adventures in Everyday Life)” on sale in April

book cover higher res
In honor of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop that I just attended, and which I still have to write about, my publisher, WordCrafts Press, has graciously dropped the price for “What The Dog Said” for the month of April!

Yay!! You can get the ebook for just 99¢ at any ebook retailer – what a bargain! And you can take 40% off the paperback price by visiting http://wordcrafts.net/what-the-dog-said/ and entering promo code ERMA16 at checkout. (The links are at the bottom of the page – just click “trade paperback” and it’ll take you to the purchase page where you can enter the promo code. Same with the ebook; click “ebook-$5.99” and . it’ll automatically change the price to 99¢.)

It’s not Erma, but there’s still a little slice of life, love, and humor on every page.

What I Read in 2015

books for blog post 002smaller

With just a couple of weeks left in 2015, I thought I’d compile my annual list of “books I read”.

I keep the list every year, but I don’t always share it. Lately, though, I’ve found myself recommending a lot of books or just discussing what I’ve read, even if it I didn’t love it. So I thought it worthwhile to share my list with you.

The books are listed in the order that I finished them (vs any kind of ranking order), along with some general thoughts. Don’t be misled by the “finished reading” dates. I’m often reading several books at one time, so it’s not unusual to finish a couple of books within days of each other – although I have definitely been known to stay up for a few days straight reading (“Dead Wake”) or read a book in one day (“Nothing But The Truth”). Also understand that inclusion on the list isn’t necessarily an endorsement; a book is on the list simply because I read it in 2015.

Continue reading

A musing on the To Kill A Mockingbird read-a-thon

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon roster

Pittsford, NY Barnes & Noble roster for the “To Kill A Mockingbird” read-a-thon.

This will be a quick post, informal and to the point. I hope. Often I have great ideas and because I want to be profound I put off writing and then lose the idea and never write it down.

And I don’t want to do this with what’s running through my mind.

So if it feels like maybe I’m rambling or am not making my point, or if you see typos or mistakes or places where maybe you think I haven’t thought through an idea, keep in mind that I’ve got just a few minutes between places I need to be this afternoon, and I’m writing this in between where I just was and where I’m going.

I got to take part today in Barnes & Nobles “To Kill A Mockingbird” Read-a-thon, to celebrate the release tomorrow of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman”. The readings started at 9 am this morning and end at 9 pm tonight, with guest readers taking half hour time slots to read the entire book from cover to cover. It’s a nationwide event, and I was at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is one of my favorite movies, not only because it’s so brilliantly done, but because it so brilliantly follows Lee’s book. (It’s pure joy when a movie does justice to a book, isn’t it? And it so rarely happens.) We could talk all day about characters and setting and story, but for now it’s enough to say that when I got to B&N,  I got sit and listen to chapters 17, 18 and 19, read by Judy Shomper, chair of the theater department at Brighton High School and Beth Adams, morning show host on WXXI.

BN To Kill A Mockingbird Readathon Judy Shomper

Judy Shomper, chair of the theater department at Brighton High School, reading from “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

As I came into the store, I could hear the sound of the reader echoing throughout the entire store, although I wasn’t actually listening to the words. But after I’d checked in, said hello to Beth and chatted for a minute, I settled in to listen to Judy Shomper and then Beth Adams read from the famous courtroom scene. You know what I’m talking about: Atticus is questioning Mayella Ewell about her beating and the accusation that it was at the hands of Tom Robinson, a Negro.

The word “nigger” is used throughout the text. Continue reading

“The Hand On The Mirror”: Can our loved ones speak to us from beyond the grave?

hand on the mirrorI was having a chat with my mom recently about making a will and telling us any plans for what she wants us to do with her … after she … you know … moves on to the next adventure.

“Do you want to be buried in Massachusetts?” I asked, because that’s where she’s from and I wondered if she’d like to be back with her family.

“I don’t care,” was her reply.

“Do you even want to be buried?” I asked. “Would you rather be cremated?”

“I don’t care what you do with me.”

“OK,” I said with a laugh,”I’m going to have you cremated and then we’ll sprinkle your ashes on top of Mt. Greylock.” That’s near her childhood home in the Berkshires.

She laughed. “That sounds fine. I don’t care.”

I gave her an evil little giggle. “OK, then, since you don’t care, I’ll carry your ashes around with me all the time. Mwahahah! You’ll be with me twenty four hours a day! You’ll never escape me! How’s that sound?” I assume not so great, since my mom can be finicky about spending time with me. The last time I asked if she felt like doing something she said, “Nah, I’m going away with you next week. That’s enough time together.”

By now we were both laughing. “Do whatever you want,” she said. “I won’t be around so I won’t know anyway.”

That conversation was on my mind as I read Janis Heaphy Durham’s “The Hand On The Mirror: A True.s Story of Life Beyond Death.” Continue reading