Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Freedom to Read: A year in review

It seems like most of the posts I've written over the past year have been about recovering from the MFA program in some way or another, like going through grad school was some concussive whack to my head and ever since, I'm just trying to figure out how to live a normal life again. It probably sounds that way because, to a great extent, it felt that way. Everything went back to normal, but I was not the same. It wasn't getting the degree so much as just the overwhelming experience of it, the constant "on" of reading and writing that both energized and depleted me. Grad school was like meth: while on it I felt this incredible sense of ability to do huge amounts of things. After it, I crashed.

After turning in my last bibliography, I felt a sense of freedom I hadn't in a long time. I could read anything. Anything I wanted. Good stuff, bad stuff, YA, non-fiction. I found myself not reading books solely because I knew I should read them. I should read this because the author is a friend of a friend? Not reading that! I should read this because all good writers read this? Nope. Not reading that either.

I also had the freedom to not finish whatever I didn't like. Isn't it funny how you never care about a freedom until you don't have it? Before this year, I rarely started a book and didn't finish it. If I started something, I always felt obligated to finish, and always hopeful it would turn out to be better than the first 100 pages. At the very least, I'd be able to say I'd finished it. This year I probably stopped reading more books than I have in the rest of my life combined. I'd read three pages and think, "This is not that good. I'll try something else." I'd read 100 pages and think, "This is not getting any better. I have 25 other books I'm interested in." I have left a slew of discarded stories in my wake this year, and I don't even feel badly about it. 

But the ones I did read and finish... Wow. They are not the kind I'll read and forget. They are the kind that keep popping up in my head, stories and ideas and visuals and feelings they left me with that have become part of me. They are the ones I talk about, even a year later.

Here are some of my faves from this year:

Devil in the White City (Erik Larson). I think about this book all the time. I think about the history of the World Fair, the science of electricity, the horror of a serial killer. The details of it, the imagery it evoked, creep up on me in the weirdest of times. It's the kind of non-fiction that rearranges your brain, changes the way you see the world and think of history.

Flawless (Scott Andrew Selby). I listened to this one on tape as I walked last spring, so I don't know if reading would have the same power, but this one, like Devil in the White City, changed my brain, the way I see the world and history. It is a crime caper, a heist worthy of a movie crammed with stars, but it is real. It happened. And I think about it all the time, even nearly a year later.

Tenth of December (George Saunders). It's hard to believe I'd written off short stories as boring before last year. This is the most unique collection of stories I've ever read, and several of them still haunt me.

The Divergent Series (Veronica Roth). I didn't like it. I couldn't put it down. I thought it was derivative. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided if you can't stop thinking about something and can visualize it so completely when you close your eyes, it must be pretty good after all.

Spook (Mary Roach). I read several of her books, but this was my favorite. I can't imagine how I could have laughed more in a book about death. Every high schooler should be required to read her writing. She makes science fascinating and interesting and funny and relevant. I don't love biology, but I couldn't wait to read her book about the digestive system. You can't ask more of an author than that!

The best book I read, though, is one that isn't due to come out until later this year. I've read that one three or four times. It is the kind of fiction I wish I could write.

I don't know what this year will bring. I have about 100 books on my Nook and to-read shelf. I'm trying to be better now about finishing ones I start, mostly because I'm reading my son's AP English reading list with him, and I know he doesn't have the option of putting them down if he doesn't like them. In the last month we've read 1984 and Brave New World together. I love reading the same thing as him so we can talk about them. I've missed the talking-about-books aspect of grad school. :)

So tell me about what you've read this year that sticks out, or what you plan to read in 2014. Anything I should add to my list?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Little Grain of Sand Things

There was a time when New Year's meant a flood of glamorous invitations for my husband and I. You know the kind - the swanky hotels with the pricey dinner and dancing and midnight toasts; the black tie parties, the high-above-the-city or floating-on-the-ocean kind that made my heart yearn for just one night without changing diapers or wearing sweats.

We never went, the cost seeming a bit extravagant or the idea of a babysitter too scary. There was always time for that when the kids were older, I told myself. I shelved the idea with all its glitter and promise onto the same bucket-list-shelf as going to Time's Square to see the ball drop. One day....

What no one says is that the bucket-list is not written in stone. It is as changeable as we are, and while I might feel a twinge of regret for never having seen Times Square on a New Year's Eve, I don't wish to do that now. After an exhausting fall of keeping up with my hectic teens, starting a new job, and escorting my husband to a dozen embassy and business events, I desperately wanted some down time. The idea of standing in the freezing cold for hours on hours crammed like sardines, no bathroom in sight, sounds horrible. By New Year's Eve, I just wanted to stay home next to a fire and spend time with my kids. Honestly, I had no energy for getting all dolled up and dancing and being perky.

But I did want time with my family. Time that wasn't running around, in the car, in a stadium, in an auditorium, in a waiting room. Just time to reconnect and have fun without the pressure of homework and time constraints.

Instead, I got a night of total tech obsessions.

My mother-in-law had gotten a tablet for Christmas, so she enlisted my son to help her set it up and install apps and figure out how to use it. From about seven in the evening to nearly eleven at night, I don't think they looked up once. My father-in-law enlisted my husband to help him with something on his iPad, and they never looked up. My eldest daughter, who'd gone out babysitting earlier, came home around 9:30 and upon seeing the lack of interaction, took out her phone and began to text and search Pinterest. I had a puzzle out and tried to enlist the help of my youngest, but in her excitement and determination to stay up until midnight, she wanted to watch the countdowns. It didn't take much TV hunting to realize New Year's celebrations are not G-rated TV anymore. She settled on a movie.

And I... I worked my puzzle, gave up trying to have conversations, and realized that this would never be one of those nights everyone looked back on and said, "That was a New Year's Eve to remember!"

The thing is, it doesn't take a black-tie affair or a pricey dinner with confetti or - as it seemed on TV, a ton of alcohol - to make a memorable night, but it does take interaction. We could have played some crazy board games, made a huge tent in the living room, built a fire in the pit in our backyard and told ghost stories under the stars. We could have made the sugar cookies we'd planned all month to make, turned our fingers blue and red and green with the icing and sung loudly and off-key to the radio. We could have written down our favorite memory of the year and talked about it. We could have written our biggest failures and fears and tossed them ceremoniously into the fire. Instead, everyone buried their heads in a screen.

I've become more sensitive these days about technology. When I take time off of work and writing to have coffee with a friend and she checks her phone every time it dings and tweets, I feel slighted. When I am in the middle of a conversation with my husband and he picks up his Blackberry to answer an email, I feel devalued. When my kids come home and immediately attach themselves to their technology rather than talk to me, I feel like the housekeeper and cook rather than a mom.

My husband reminds me this goes both ways. That I have, for many years, buried myself in my computer. This is the trap of being a writer and working from home. I have ill-defined work hours and a difficulty in breaking away from a chapter when the writing is going well.

But I'm trying. I've curtailed my facebook use significantly. I rarely blog. I close my computer from the time the kids get home until homework is well underway and we can work together in quiet. I'm not perfect. I still can't just sit and watch a movie with the family without doing something else, but I've begun to substitute crocheting for surfing the web. I'm working on it, anyway.

Our family does a lot of things together. We love being together. We eat dinner most nights all together, and those dinners are full of talking and laughing. We take day trips often, vacation occasionally. We build memories all the time. But in the day-to-day, it is harder to make those memories and easier to get sucked into technology. So this year, I'm making a plan to get myself out from under that, with hopes that my family will want to follow.

I want to sit and listen to my daughter practice guitar. Not just half-listen as I do dishes or work on writing, the way I usually do, but really sit and give her my undivided attention. Sing with her as she plays.  Create a project with my youngest; paint with her or teach her something new. Cook dinner with my kids rather than just for them. I want to build a sand castle with my kids like I did when they were too little to do it themselves. To get out of the beach chair and out from behind my book and get sandy and wet and create a masterpiece. Instead of wasting the day at home, I want to use the kids' teacher workdays to go to a museum in DC we haven't been to before. Replace a few of our Saturday movie nights at home with a game. Turn off my phone when I'm out with the kids, and when they come home. Ask them to turn off theirs in the car. Treat my family's updates on their day with the same interest as I do near-strangers on facebook. Ask more questions. Look at them when they answer. Pray for them. Pray with them.

I don't really have a bucket list. We will probably do enough grand things this year to fill a scrapbook. But what I need to mind is those little grain-of-sand things that fill our hours that either say, "You don't matter much to me," or "You are the most interesting thing in life right now." I love my computer. I love my phone. But in the scheme of things, the people standing in front of me are the ones I value the most. Maybe it's time I showed that.