Hi.

I took the summer off from blogging. Instead I worked a lot, read a lot, spent time with family, bought a house, watched baseball, hung out with friends, celebrated new babies (not mine), and started a newsletter.

I’m in a weird limbo right now, creatively. I got the advanced reader copies of my book and I simultaneously feel very overwhelmed by that and very unmoored by not having a book to work on.

I could, of course, start working on a new book. But… I can’t figure out what to write about. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s too many. There are a couple that stick out, but whenever I daydream about them for too long the mean editor part of my brain pokes me and says, “yeah but that doesn’t matter.”

I’ve been toying with a couple of fiction ideas, but is that what I should be spending my time on when there are important nonfiction things to write about?

I have a handful of nonfiction ideas, but they aren’t relevant to any of the Major Crises facing our world right now – so I shouldn’t bother, right? That would be a waste.

Sounding a little self-important, huh? A little neurotic. Well, that’s my brain!

Anyway. I’ll figure it out. At some point I’ll realize what I actually want to spend a huge chunk of time and energy on, and I’ll do it.

In the meantime, I’m working really hard at my day job, taking on some new volunteer responsibilities, and working on a podcast project. Oh, and I deleted Instagram from my phone again…!

 

 

 

existentialist friday epilogue

I wrote my last post in a fog – a mixture of anxiety, sadness, nihilism and hope. Super dramatic for a Friday night, I know! And reading it today, I’m a little surprised by how intense those feelings were, and how clearly that intensity comes through.

Maybe I should be embarrassed – it was a very vulnerable piece of writing that might be better suited to a private journal. But even after reading it today, and considering that, I decided to hit publish because I do not believe I’m alone in those feelings or thought processes, and I think there are few things more important in this world right now than community with others in our feelings and thought processes.

Not necessarily validation, or reassurance, but community.

That’s what those people in those Christchurch mosques were engaging in last week when they were murdered. It’s what I did at my own church yesterday, feeling sad and uncertain and comforted by the knowledge that I was sitting among a lot of other people feeling the same things. We sang and meditated together, called out the elephants in the room (racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, ambiguity) and continued our ongoing conversation about how to live with and wrangle them. Lately I’ve come to view this as the most beautiful and important thing about being human – existing in community with one another. It sounds pretty and easy but it is one of the most complicated and difficult things I’ve ever done. I am grateful that I woke up today and get to keep doing it.

It’s also amazing to me how clear these ideas are after a couple of days of letting them simmer inside me. I avoided social media as much as possible this weekend. I exercised while listening to an audiobook, watched people of all ages fly kites in perfect weather, watched my husband make sourdough bread for the first time and beam with pride, ate delicious crab cakes and pizza, toasted to friends’ birthdays, read, sat in community with my friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, drank a lot of water, took a bath, and let my brain breathe a little.

On the other side of all of that, I feel like things might be OK. I wonder what I can do to bring this feeling with me into every day, not just Mondays after a social media detox, while also respecting and cultivating the community that exists right there on social media too. They are different kinds of communities, but they overlap in so many ways. This is more true for me now that I live outside the New York City bubble than ever before, so maybe that’s why it might seem like I’m grasping for something others have known all along. But again, something tells me these things I’m wrestling with are more common than we like to admit.

Do you have your tech accountability buddy yet? Maybe you can admit it to each other?

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.

What a year.

Happy New Year, folks!

It will not surprise you to read that I’ve been struggling a bit with how to approach this blog over the past year or so. I love writing about empathy, but while writing a whole 60,000-word book on the subject the thought of also writing blog posts on the topic was exhausting. I also felt like I didn’t have much new to say here that I wasn’t saving for my book. I love summarizing research that I come across, but a) I don’t often have the time to do the proper reporting and make sure my analysis is accurate and b) that’s frankly kind of boring to a lot of people!

I think I felt like because I was writing a book about empathy I needed to specifically brand my blog that way, but it ended up just constraining me. There are so many things I want to write about in more than a few tweets, but that probably won’t get picked up as freelance articles. That middle ground is what blogging is best at, and I think as I continue to grow as a writer it makes sense to flex that muscle here more often.

I’m not going back to long descriptions of my weekend activities (lol, 2012 me…) and I’ll continue to avoid long political rants, but I need to do more here than just post links to empathy-related science articles every once in a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency – as it relates to tech, but also as it relates to journalism – so in that vein, why don’t I tell y’all a bit about what this book writing process has been like?

It has been long. That’s something a lot of people told me to prepare for at the beginning but I still don’t think I was ready. I am an impatient person. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced about my personality but it doesn’t always serve me. It can be great for project management and even for reporting; it’s not so great for long projects whose steps I can’t always control. I started working on the book that became THE FUTURE OF FEELING in 2016. I think it was summer, and I was at a bar in Brooklyn with my husband talking about the next thing. That year’s thing for us had been getting married. I always seem to have a thing, and my brain was itching for the next one. I had always known I wanted to write a book, but I assumed I’d have to work diligently as a reporter at a newspaper or magazine for at least 10 years before I would know enough about anything to write a whole book on it.

I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the beer or my obsessive need to start on something new, but that day I just decided – I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna start. I’d been thinking a lot about how natural empathy can seem but how hard it can actually be to practice, and how the extremely online life I’d led since age 14 or so had seriously complicated how I related to and understood other humans. This idea itself wasn’t new and had been written about a ton already. But what about what was coming next? I’m always thinking (read: worrying) about the future, and looking back at how quickly tech – social media, especially – had taken over my own life and those of my peers, I wondered what was in store for us next. I’d tried to find books about this, but mostly came up empty. So, that day at the bar – Abilene, in Carroll Gardens – I just decided I would write one.

I did not suddenly feel qualified, or smart enough, or talented enough to write a book. But I had decided to go to grad school and made it, decided to move to New York and survived…maybe I could do this the same way. Make the decision first, figure out the details later. And that’s what I did. Frankly I’m still figuring out the details, but I started by googling “how to write a nonfiction book.” I also asked for help from a huge Facebook network of writers I was part of at the time. I ended up finding several websites that helped me figure out the basic process – initial reporting, proposal, find an agent, revise proposal, go out on submission, (hopefully) secure a publisher, write book, make a few bucks if you’re lucky, start again.

The first part – initial reporting and writing the proposal – took the longest. I’d say I started seriously reporting in mid-2016, and then I started the proposal on December 29, 2016. I remember because I took a photo of my laptop and coffee at the coffee shop I was at and posted it on Instagram, of course. (Funnily enough, that coffee shop was in North Carolina not too far from where I now live.) I followed a couple of guides that I found online to create a format for the proposal (overview, chapter outlines, competing titles, sample chapters, author bio, etc.) but I was kind of lost as to how to really fill it in. I was lucky to have an amazing writing group in New York that met every week – unheard of, really. Without their encouragement, accountability and criticism I might still be working on the damn thing. Thankfully they helped me get it into shape throughout 2017 and by the end of the year I was ready to send it to agents.

2018 was the year of the book. It all happened. I queried 12 agents during the first and second week of January. I got a couple of very encouraging rejections, a bunch of no-replies, and two requests for the proposal. Of those, one agent never responded again, and one said yes. I could have kept going, but I really liked the one who said yes (she had experience with books like mine, understood what I was trying to accomplish with this project, and we got along on a personal level), so by the end of January I was agented. My understanding is that this was relatively quick, but not out of the ordinary for a nonfiction book. (Fiction is a whole other story.) I remember I got the call from my agent – Jill Marsal – at work in Brooklyn while I was waiting for another call, from my now-boss in North Carolina. When my phone rang I didn’t really look at the number and just picked up, expecting an answer about the job in NC. When I heard Jill’s voice I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that yes, she wanted to represent me. (Later I got the other call, and in a couple of weeks I was down here in NC – 2018 really started off wild.)

Jill and I worked for a few weeks on my proposal, and when it was ready to go on submission she kept me updated with the responses – lots and lots of rejections! But one thing I’ve learned is that if people are rejecting you it means they’re reading your work and considering it. They know your name, they know your work exists, they read and thought about it – in the creative world, that’s no small thing. But eventually someone said yes – Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was early May when I signed the contract to officially write THE FUTURE OF FEELING.

Then…I had to finish it. I had written a couple of sample chapters and done some research, but I hadn’t wanted to pour too much time into reporting a book that may or may not be published. Now that I knew it was real, I had to get serious. I created a more detailed outline that changed approximately 7,239 times throughout the process only to end up basically the way it was at the beginning. I set deadlines for myself for each chapter and section. I read other books, gobbled up google alerts for “empathy + tech” and “empathy + study” and reached out to dozens of people for interviews. I was happy to find that most of the experts and practitioners I emailed were happy to get on the phone or Skype and talk to me about empathy – or the lack of it – in tech, and about what they were doing to try to fix this. I interviewed people in the US, Canada and Ireland. I went to a VR conference in New York and tested some of the tech I was writing about. I had piles and piles of printed out articles and notes and thousands and thousands of words of transcribed interviews. It was a lot, but honestly, it was not as hard as writing the initial proposal. I had the foundation, I just had to build the house. Sometimes I felt like I was following very well-designed blueprints; sometimes I felt like I was throwing sticks at concrete and hoping they’d somehow form walls. Toward the end, I started just throwing my notes to the side and vomit-writing, just getting ideas out in a stream of consciousness so they’d at least be on the page. If I’m honest, that’s how I wrote most of the first draft. I just threw it into Word, questions to myself and musings about my interview subjects and all-caps reminders included.

Then I did the unthinkable – I let people read it like that. With the caveat that it clearly wasn’t done (and the persistent thought that I really didn’t know what else to do and it might actually just stay in this state forever) I emailed chapters to friends and fellow writers and asked them what they thought. I got some niceties and a lot of “oops I forgot to read it!” messages, but I also got some really helpful feedback. I started revising, using a red pen to make structural changes and tiny line edits. Then, about halfway through, I put it aside and ignored it for a month.

I felt kind of paralyzed. I was working full time throughout this whole thing, plus reading the news every day (which is exhausting in itself these days) and by November I was burnt out. I asked myself nearly every day for a couple of weeks whether I had made anything remotely readable and if I should just give back the advance and pretend this never happened. This is a very common – and some would argue necessary – part of book-writing, I’m told! And I did snap out of it. At the beginning of December I took a solo trip up north. I made the rookie mistake of telling my editor I’d be in town. She wasn’t, but suggested I send her what I had anyway. I was so close to the end…I decided I would send her the whole thing, even though it technically wasn’t due until January 4.

I went to New York for one night and one day to see a concert and connect with a couple of writer friends. We commiserated and confessed our insecurities to one another. It was exactly what I needed. I headed to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut and on the train ride there and over two days in her sun room I finished revising, reorganizing and rewriting the whole damn thing. I subsisted on Christmas candy, bagels, and ginger ale. I barely moved from the wooden table except to watch a movie with her one evening in the living room. My trip was cut short by an impending snowstorm and just as I was freaking out about this my editor emailed to say she wouldn’t have time to read anything for a few more days. With a huge sigh of relief, I booked it back to North Carolina and just as the storm descended, I finished. And I sent it. And I breathed.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. (That should probably be on my tombstone.) Then all I had to do was wait for my editor’s verdict. Would she see huge problems and ask me to make major revisions in the few weeks before my official delivery date? Would she love it and tell me I didn’t need to make any edits at all? (Ha! Obviously I spent significantly more time on the first what-if.) I had a lot of work to do at my day job in the meantime, and Christmas festivities were beginning, so I was blissfully distracted a lot of the time. Then on the 21st, the day before my long holiday break from work, my editor emailed to say she wasn’t done, but she liked what she saw so far, and I could consider myself submitted. I cried a little, I’m not gonna lie. And then I went to a Christmas party and got very drunk with some of my best friends.

There is still a lot of work ahead. Revisions start next week and will take a couple of months. Then there are all the parts I know have to be there but I don’t know how they work – the cover, marketing, actually getting the book in stores, etc. The pub date is still a year away. (I told you – it’s a long process!) I’m already thinking about my next book (or 2…) and a podcast project I want to do this year. And my husband and I are house hunting. And yet I still feel like I don’t have “enough” going on for 2019…!

I hope this was interesting for some of you. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a nonfiction book and you didn’t know where to start. Or maybe you just enjoy reading about my meltdowns throughout the process. I still feel new at this, but if you have any questions I’d be happy to try to help. And look out for more in this space in 2019!

The Future of Feeling

Hi all! It’s been kind of quiet here recently because I’ve been working on a pretty big project that I can now finally announce: I’m writing a book!

It’s about empathy, of course. The future of empathy and technology, to be more precise. I get to interview lots of people who are creating technology aimed at building and/or preserving empathy in our tech-obsessed world, and it’s honestly a dream come true.

I’ll still be blogging here a bit. Even 60,000 words isn’t enough to cover everything empathy ;) And I want to thank all of you for reading –  you helped me get here!

Stay tuned for updates, and more nerdy posts in the coming months.

Empathy for the holidays

This post is probably coming too late for many of you who just finished celebrating American Thanksgiving, but luckily there are several more holidays to come this year. Depending on how you celebrate, that may also mean several more opportunities to exercise empathy with family, friends, and even coworkers!

A tangled ball of Christmas lights

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving this year I came across several pieces of advice that really helped me put my own anxieties about the holiday into perspective. In general I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the past year about how to truly empathize with others, both as a result of the research I’ve been doing for my book, and because of the particularly heated moment we’re currently living through in American culture. But I still learn things that surprise me.

While watching Instagram Stories the day before Thanksgiving, for example, I came across a list of tips for talking with families, from the organization Showing Up For Racial Justice. I thought I knew what to expect, but I was actually a little surprised by the first item on the list:

Listen mindfully before formulating a thoughtful response.

We talk a lot about listening to others’ opinions, especially when they differ widely from our own, but what does it mean to listen mindfully? I actually came to this post because it was shared by a celebrity, who added this question: Are you listening to answer, or to understand? Are you taking in everything the other person says just to help you formulate a response, or are you actually considering this person’s thoughts for their own sake?

It sounds so simple, but it’s actually not easy to do in the moment. I had to sit with myself and think about what I’m really doing when I listen to people with whom I disagree. I thought about one family member who likes to debate politics on Facebook and via email. I realized that when I’m reading her messages, I am often just sitting there planning how I’m going to respond. I wondered, if I read them more mindfully, could our conversations go more smoothly? Maybe, maybe not. But it seemed worth a try.

The rest of this list included things you might find obvious – asking questions, respectfully affirming differences, breathing. But there was another one that struck me:

Notice what is possible for you at this time – stretching into discomfort while also caring for yourself.

This notion that sometimes, if you don’t feel up to it, you can opt out of hard conversations, has been a tough lesson for me to learn. But ultimately it’s better for everyone. It’s hard to really show empathy to others in conversation, to listen mindfully, when you feel like you don’t have it all together yourself. Yes, it is important to “stretch into discomfort” in order to learn new things and understand others better, but there’s no rule that you have to do it at the expense of everything else.

Hopefully you find some benefit in these tips. I did, even though I didn’t end up needing to use them at Thanksgiving. But they feel like good pieces of advice even for everyday conversations, whether they are about race, politics, work, relationships, or even sports. It can sometimes be hard to understand how to work empathy into our everyday communications, but thinking about it as “mindful listening” might help!

Empathy, virtual reality, and anniversary anxiety

I’ve been working on a lot of things lately, and I’m sorry to say that this blog has not been one of them… but it will be again soon, worry not! In the meantime, here’s a look at two stories I recently published:

Can Virtual Reality Change Minds on Social Issues? at Narratively, about how nonprofits and other organizations are using virtual reality to trigger empathy and, ideally, action. There’s still some debate about whether this actually works at scale, but it can’t be denied that people are making some amazing, moving things with VR. Give the story a read, and check out the awesome gif at the top of the page!

A couple of days before the anniversary of the presidential election, I got the opportunity to write about why anniversaries like this are hard for people, psychologically. It turned into a really interesting piece that I think is relevant to the kind of behavioral science stuff I’m thinking about all the time: Why The Election Anniversary Is Hitting You So Hard at Lifehacker

More to come soon!

Interested in empathy? Check this out.

Today, the Huffington Post has a big list of ways to incorporate more empathy into your life this year . I’ve been ramping up my writing about empathy, but not here. I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more of my writing about empathy, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move, so I hope you’ll join me!

 

Reading Women

My main resolution for 2016 was to read more books. Specifically, I wanted to read more books by women. I was inspired in part by #readwomen2014, and the various campaigns that came after it, to look at my own reading habits. (Update: here’s the real story behind #readwomen2014, which started with writer Lilit Marcus.) I had been tracking my reading on Goodreads for a couple of years, and I have to admit I was kind of surprised to realize that almost every book I’d read recently had been written by a man. There is, of course, nothing wrong about books written by men, except that we generally tend to pay more attention to them than books by women. (Don’t believe me? Here’s the most recent VIDA Count, which shows that things are getting more equitable, but women still aren’t proportionally represented in the literary community.) One of my personal concerns about this is the way it limits readers’ exposure to different perspectives. When I realized that my own perspective – one that I thought was so feminist, so progressive! – had been pretty heavily influenced by white male writers for a long time, I thought it was time for a change. And I like a challenge, so I decided that in 2016 I would not read a single book by a man.

And I did it! And it wasn’t that hard. Technically I listened to some of the books – Audible is a subway- and sidewalk-commuter’s friend – but I believe that counts. I read/listened to 18 books this year – 19 if you count re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix after the election, which I do, even though the Audible book was read by a man. That’s a big number for me, because I’m a bit of a slow reader and I often get bogged down in magazines and long web articles. I also tried to read more novels this year, but the non-fiction nut in me is pretty persistent. We’ll see what I can do about that in 2017, when I’m taking on an even bigger challenge: Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. It includes 24 prompts, including comics, romance, and poetry, three types of reading that are pretty far outside my comfort zone. But it’s not called Read Easy, so. I’m looking forward to trying some new things. And yes, I made an effort to include as many women authors as possible on my reading list for 2017, though Book Riot made that easy. They also made it easy to enforce my original 2017 reading goal: more authors of color. Here’s to more new perspectives!

In the meantime, here’s a list of what I read in 2016:

January

Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear – I love reading non-fiction about food. This was a fun read, but felt like it could have been longer/fleshed out more. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads.

February

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – She’s truly one of the best writers I’ve ever read. Just beautiful. 4 stars on Goodreads.

March

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx – I read and reviewed this for Uncovered Classics, a project to bring more attention to women writers of the 20th century. I struggled a bit with this book, but I was proud of how the review turned out! 3 stars on Goodreads.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I read this at the suggestion of the instructor of a memoir-writing class I took this winter. I appreciated how Lamott tied advice and gallows humor together, and she is a master of the one-liner. 3 stars on Goodreads.

April

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison – So, when I first heard about/picked up this book, I didn’t see the “Essays” part, and really thought it was going to be a non-fiction book about empathy. Once I adjusted to what it was (and to the fact that I was reading some seriously heavy stuff on my honeymoon) I loved it. And then I decided to write the book I thought it was going to be. 4 stars on Goodreads.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – Read. This. Right. Now. (But maybe not if you’re on your honeymoon, like I was when I read it. I really could have picked more vacation-appropriate books! Oh well. It was worth it.) 5 stars on Goodreads.

May

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan – This is an awesome history lesson told through the stories of a group of The Girls. I had some issues with the way the story was structured, and I had a little trouble following it at times, though that may have been because I listened to it rather than reading it. But this is such important history that I never learned in school and that is still very, very relevant to U.S. and global politics and engineering, so I do recommend it. 3 Stars on Goodreads.

June

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1) by Elena Ferrante – I loved this for a lot of the same reasons everyone else in the world loved it, plus the fact that it made me imagine my own distant relatives hanging out in Naples in the early 20th century. 4 stars on Goodreads. (If it turns out Elena Ferrante is actually some man in a mansion in the California hills or something, cut me some slack, OK?)

August

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North by Blair Braverman – The best memoir I’ve read in years, and probably my favorite book from 2016. Just gorgeous. I listened to this on Audible in Blair’s own voice, so that probably contributed to how emotional it made me, but wow. Read this. 5 stars on Goodreads.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – I liked this, but I didn’t love it. This is probably not considered a legitimate literary critique, but it was too… melancholy? for me. And I never felt as invested in her relationship with the hawk as I felt I was supposed to. 3 stars on Goodreads, primarily for some seriously striking lines that stuck with me.

September

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – I guess you could call this a “guilty pleasure” read, and it certainly is not that original in a world full of Katniss Everdeens, but I really enjoyed it at a time when I needed something chill to read. And I was actually surprised by a couple of the twists, so I liked it for what it was, even it if was a bit heavy on cliches. 3 stars on Goodreads.

October

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower – Can you tell I was getting into election mode? This had some really interesting nuggets, but it was a bit repetitive. I am glad I read it, but I feel like I learned more about the First Families than the people who worked in the White House, though I guess the fact that she got access to the latter at all is quite a feat. 3 stars on Goodreads.

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer – I picked this up while on a short vacation in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and while the writing style didn’t appeal to me at first, by the end I absolutely loved it. It’s about food, and grief, and love, and fear, and immigration, and did I mention food? I bought another copy for my mom for Christmas. (Also, props to Harbor Books and the essential oil they spray in there, which stuck to the pages until I was finished reading and made the experience that much nicer!) 4 stars on Goodreads.

November

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach – This book is gross. But I learned SO MUCH about how my body works! I think I didn’t give it more stars because I didn’t love the writing style, and after a while the footnotes got to be a little much. This is not for the weak of stomach, but it is super interesting! 3 stars on Goodreads.

December

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower – This took me a while to finish because I started it before the election and, well, you know. I did like this one more than The Residence, because I found the lives of the First Ladies really fascinating, especially Betty Ford and Hillary Clinton, but it had some of the same problems with repetition. 3 stars on Goodreads.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West – Another one of the best memoirs I’ve read, but very different from Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Lindy’s writing is quick, funny, and she also uses a lot of footnotes which sometimes seem completely unnecessary, but also endearing. I identify so much with Lindy, but I was surprised by the pieces of this book that just stopped me in my tracks and had me tearing up. I also learned a lot from it. Highly recommend. 4 stars on Goodreads.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber – I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber tell a story on The Moth podcast not long ago and, though I’m agnostic, I thought it would be interesting to hear more stories from this “unconventional” Lutheran reverend. I listened to this one on Audible, read by the author, and the recording had some really beautiful church music in it. It was heavier on the religion than I expected, considering what I’ve heard and read from her before, but I couldn’t exactly hold that against a reverend! I think I didn’t give it more stars because it seemed a bit without ending or closure to me. 3 stars on Goodreads.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown – I guess this is my first time reading a self-help book, so I’m not sure what exactly I expected. I wanted more details about what all of Brene’s “research” actually is – she refers to it a lot, but I guess this wasn’t the place to actually explain it. Also, I was again a little surprised by the emphasis on “spirituality.” My point being: I’m not sure I was the right audience for this book, but I did find some gems I could take with me, as someone who is indeed a perfectionist and always working toward a better balance. 3 stars on Goodreads.

(Have you noticed that I never give below 3 stars? I really didn’t feel like anything I read this year was “bad” enough for just 2! I did give something 2 stars once – A Tale of Two Cities! I don’t remember exactly why, but it kind of cracks me up now. Also, I didn’t like Tabloid City by Pete Hamill, which I read for a book club. Just saying. I don’t upvote everything just to be nice!)

OK, see you next year. Happy reading :)

It’s not just about politics

Would you say you’ve lost friends because of this election?

That’s an issue that keeps coming up on social media, and plenty of think pieces have already been written, lamenting the death of politics-free relationships and telling us that if we are losing friends we are “doing it wrong.” One recent piece in the New York Times idealized the writer’s 1950s-style neighborhood, where everyone is apparently aware that people hold differing views, but no one talks about it, so no one argues.

I think it’s worth asking ourselves who benefits from these attitudes, and who loses. Who was life great for during the 1950s, for example? And what does it actually say about me if I agree that, quoting one of the articles linked above, I wish I didn’t “know that [my] nephew is a hard-core Trump fanboy?” I understand that we value differing opinions in this country, and that we are fiercely individualistic. Personal choices are paramount. But what about when those decisions affect other people? And not just their feelings or their preferences, but their livelihood? What if the political things you’re avoiding discussing are vital to the personal things you know and love about your neighbors?

I have lost a couple of friends (and a relationship with at least one family member) during the course of this election. But just as in the past when a friend and I cut ties after a political or social issues disagreement, I can’t point to the election as the actual cause. Disagreements and elections are flash points. They are storms that highlight and uncover weak spots. I can’t pretend to speak for everyone, of course, but in my experience, and in the experience of most of my peers who have cut ties with people “over the election,” the reasons are much more nuanced than “we disagree.” I’ll just share a bit of my own experience:

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they align themselves with a different political ideology than I do. I have, however, unfriended someone who aligned themselves with a different political ideology and regularly sought me out to serve as a “token,” to answer for all who share my views and defend them. After a while, I realized this person never seemed willing to interrogate her own beliefs, and she never seemed to want to talk to me about anything else. She was also very flippant about things that I find extremely important, and ignored my efforts to discuss these things more deeply. Why should I maintain this “friendship” just to avoid being called “closed-minded?”

I have never “unfriended” someone simply because they disagreed with me about a social issue. I have, however, unfriended someone who argued with me for hours in private messages about basic facts related to various issues and made many comments that could not be described any other way than “blatantly racist.” She lectured me about various things without allowing any disagreement, no matter how civil. Any suggestion that she consider a different view was met with defensiveness and accusations that I was insulting her intelligence. Ultimately, while trying to have a discussion about the respect we wished to have from one another, she declared that her respect for me came in the form of “not writing you off as a lost soul even though I think you are dead wrong.” Should I have kept subjecting myself – and her – to that for the sake of appearing to be “open-minded?”

Here’s the thing. We need limits on how far we open our minds. We can’t accept everything, right? We put limits on how much we will “take” from people in our personal lives all the time (or we should!) We put limits on what we will believe (at least most of us, I think!) We don’t all draw those lines in the same places, but as a society, we have generally agreed to draw some of them, at least in pencil. We have agreed that slavery is bad, Jim Crow was bad and shouldn’t be replicated, stealing is bad, murdering is bad, all individuals have rights, etc. There will be individuals who don’t agree with these things, but generally, as a rule, we accept them in order to move forward.

The thing about this election – this particular flash point, this particular storm – is that it is highlighting those individuals. It is giving a larger platform to people who believe that slavery is bad, but; Jim Crow was bad, except; all individuals have rights, unless. Some of this is about fear and misinformation. I’ve read all of the pieces humanizing Trump supporters; I understand that there are legitimate economic horror stories that have led some people his way. But this is not an ordinary election. Politics aside, the derogatory things Trump says about women, immigrants, Muslims and people of color are not part of our generally accepted agreements that help move society forward. When I bring this up, I am regularly reminded that it’s “just words.” All I can say in response is that it is not “just words” if you are a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim or a person of color. It is not “just words” when those words incite fear and violence, and when they inform actual policies that do actual harm to people.

I don’t think life is better when we avoid talking about politics, because, as the old adage goes, politics is personal. Especially in a year like this, when the personal livelihoods of so many are at stake. I want to talk about these things with people who are different from me. I want to consider the skepticism of people who don’t believe these things are true. I want to listen to their fears, their concerns, even their conspiracies. I want to take these things in and use them to keep building the ever-evolving context of this election, of this cultural moment, in my mind. I don’t want to be a sounding board for slurs, logical fallacies, blatant untruths or manipulation. I don’t want to entertain homophobia, transphobia, racism, or misogyny. I want the same respect and open-mindedness that is demanded of me. And that’s where the break – when it comes to that – happens.

I understand that often, people I know will hold views that I believe are dangerous, and that they will disagree on that point. They will believe that what they believe is right and fair and OK. I accept that I have a responsibility to have conversations about these things with these people. For me at least, the unfriending happens when those conversations are not honest, when the other person insists that I self-reflect and learn but refuses to do it themselves, when they are combative, and when they belittle, condescend to, chastise and insult me. Those are not the qualities of a friend or relative with whom I can have a real relationship. That’s not a closed mind – it’s a healthy boundary. And it’s a risk of talking openly about politics that seems worth taking.

* * *

While I was in the middle of writing this post, I came across this similar piece on HuffPo that expresses my own feelings, with some exceptions. I hope I’ve been able to articulate those exceptions above.