Invisible Friendships

A stone wall with a plant growing out of the stones.
When I was a kid, I had lots of friends, and I took them all for granted.

Today, each friendship feels miraculous. Maybe because I’m older, and have lost friends along the way. Maybe because growing up means taking less and less for granted.

It’s hard to describe a friendship. It doesn’t have the narrative arc of a love affair. There’s often no rhyme or reason.

It’s a mosaic of moments that don’t make a picture until I stand way back.

A stone wall with colorful lichen.

Lara became my friend when she showed up on my family’s doorstep one day 37 years ago. We were both 5 and lived in the same neighborhood. As my mom tells it, Lara knocked on the door out of the blue and asked if I could play.

She was shy and quiet, huge eyes in a heart-shaped face. Mom went and got me, and Lara and I went out.

There was never an objective to our time together. We would climb a tree and talk. We would hide under her bed and read.

We played Monster, a tag variation, with her little brother Brian. We had picnics featuring Ants on a Log, AKA Feet in the Mud: celery sticks spread with peanut butter, punctuated with raisins.

A stone wall running up a hill, with a forest on one side.

When we were in third grade, Lara’s family got MTV. One evening she called. “You have to come over now. They’re gonna play Beat It, by Michael Jackson, and Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic, back to back.”

I ran all the way to her house, counting the seconds it took me to get there (about 100). In those days, if you missed a video when it screened, you might never get to see it again. We got to see both videos, each the height of cool in its own way.

A stone wall with thinner and thicker pieces.

Lara’s the only person who ever slapped me in the face. We were arguing, and I said something mean or rude. The slap was not hard or painful, but it was shocking. I knew I’d provoked it. As soon as it happened, it was over, and we let it go.

Lara was always reading. She got that from her parents. There were huge Stephen King novels all over their house. For warm, kind people, they had an affinity for horror stories.

Their house was safe enough to watch scary movies in. One night in junior high, I stayed over and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I couldn’t sleep, and turned my head in the middle of the night to see a claw, like one of Freddy Krueger’s, reaching for me.

I stared, frozen. It didn’t move. It turned out to be a piece of yarn from the blanket hanging over the top of the couch, magnified to a weapon in my bleary gaze.

As teenagers, we watched Twin Peaks. Every Thursday we would convene at Lara’s house. Her mom would make treats related to the series–cherry pie or doughnuts. I don’t think I ever brought food to share. As far as I know, my selfishness troubled no one.*

Once, in high school, my tampon leaked and left a bloodstain on her family’s couch. Lara cleaned it up, flipped the pillow over, and got me additional period supplies. With other friends, I might have felt mortified. With her, I knew she wouldn’t judge me.

This calmness in the face of bodily functions turned out to be a professional asset, since she is now a doctor.

A stone wall covered with green grass.

In our adult lives, Lara and I see each other about once a year. We don’t talk on the phone, and when we do see each other, the conversation follows familiar paths: her sons, our careers, our parents’ health.

It’s rarely been a confessional friendship. Other girlfriends hear more details about my love life, my fears and insecurities, my political leanings.

With Lara though, there’s a unique bond. She’s known me for so long that I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not.

Lara was my original friend. She will always be in my life, the same way I will always be from New Hampshire.

Our friendship didn’t grow like a tree from a seed. It feels more geological, like a New England stone wall, built from many smooth pieces. Nothing holding them together but gravity.


*After I wrote this, Lara told me that I did in fact bring doughnuts to our Twin Peaks nights. Phew!

Photo credits, all via Creative Commons on Flickr, from top to bottom:
stone wall, by Kris Chapman
Stone Wall, by Randen Pederson

06-28-08_2, by Steve
stone wall, by Siaron James
stone wall, by liz west

Fresh and Tasty News Across the Spectrum

A pile of newspapers in purple light.Because American politics are so volatile now—or at least, because the volatility now feels personal to me—I’m finally reading the news. Lots of news.

It’s been painful, during the campaign, election, and first 100 days of the new administration, to realize how little I’ve understood my own political identity.

I was raised by liberal progressives in a libertarian state. That’s shaped me. That’s not going anywhere.

But my own beliefs, I’m realizing, are more centrist. And I feel more and more frustrated with liberal discourse and media. There’s a lot of arm-waving and chest-beating and hair-tearing-out, less of an attempt to truly understand oppositional viewpoints.

So I’ve settled on a news diet that feels pretty nutritious. Your mileage may vary, and I’m not saying that the following are The Only Sources. But they’re helping me feel better informed, and less stuck in my liberal/progressive echo chamber.

From left to right on the political spectrum, here’s where I’m getting my news.

I listen to National Public Radio in the morning. I like the warmth and breadth of their coverage, and it’s also been great to see them bringing in intelligent Republican and conservative commentators. Listening every day feels calming and empowering. My station is WBUR and I kick over a monthly donation to help them do their good work.

I also just subscribed to The Washington Post and read their online edition. I grew up in a household of New York Times devotees, and wanted another well-respected publication with a slightly different point of view. So far their overview of politics seems pretty good, though their journalists vary in the rigor of their reporting and in their writing style. Still, I like this publication for helping me get a big-picture view of what’s happening in DC.

On paper, I read The Economist, which has done more than any other news source to keep me sane over the last few months. They have a dry British humor, and are fiscally conservative, socially more liberal. It’s enthralling to watch their reaction to our new administration, and to compare them with US news sources.

On the right, I read Jonah Goldberg’s weekly email newsletter for the National Review. I first heard Jonah talk on NPR, and was struck right away by his quick wit and broad knowledge. We differ on a lot of points, but he always gives me something to think about and a new lens to view politics through.

Also on the right, I just started reading The Federalist. Again, a lot of their writers are coming from a different viewpoint from mine—which is uncomfortable, but useful, for me as a reader.

I especially admire their senior editor, Mollie Hemingway. Her recent takedown of sloppy journalism in widely read liberal sources is crisp and well researched, and reveals some fundamental issues facing all sides of the press today.

There are many other great pubs out there, both online and in print. Which ones are you turning to in these tumultuous times?

Photo by Jon S via Creative Commons on Flickr.

2017: Year of the Tumbling Elephant

A tarot card depicting an elephant in midair, falling off a cliff.I often do a tarot reading for myself on New Year’s Eve, to get perspective on the coming year. The card above is one of the nine I drew in this year’s reading. It shows an elephant tumbling off a cliff into turbulent ocean waters.

Traditionally, this card (the 5 of Pentacles) signifies discontent with the material aspects of life. It can mean going begging for something, especially something tangible like financial security.

The artists who created this deck put a different spin on the card. This is more about upheaval, and about launching yourself into something new and potentially dangerous.

The elephant’s eyes are open. She’s either jumped, or she’s been pushed, but at this point it doesn’t matter. The foamy waves are just below and there’s no telling how deep the water is, or how hard she’ll hit it.

This card came up when I asked about career, so it may indicate getting laid off, or instability at my workplace. It could also mean a dramatic job change.

But it also resonates with our country’s political situation, and my attempts to understand it and to get involved in a way I haven’t been before.

I didn’t even think about the Republican = elephant significance, but this isn’t a partisan card. Many of us are feeling like we’re in midair right now, and are wondering what kind of an impact is racing toward us.

At least my eyes are open. This elephant can swim. Maybe those coins falling off the cliff with me will act like life preservers.

How would you interpret the image on this card?


Photo by me, of the 5 of Pentacles from the Roots of Asia Tarot.

Best Reads of 2016

A bookshelf piled with colorful books.I read a lot. Probably about one book per week. But I have a terrible memory. Most of them fade from my brain within a few days.

Not these books though. These books made an impression. They’re the ones I can’t stop thinking about, the ones that keep springing to mind in conversations about unrelated topics.

Off the top of my often-rock-hard head, here’s what’s sticking with me from 2016.

Mysteries/Crime Novels

The Juniper Song series, by Steph Cha. I love modern takes on classic noir, and this series by a young LA writer is delightful. The protagonist, Song, is a Korean-American fan of Raymond Chandler who falls into becoming a private detective. She’s gruff and loving, with a core of steel, and makes terrible decisions regularly (always a plus for a protagonist). As with all great noir, LA becomes its own character, from starlit Hollywood sign to seedy underbelly. Start with Follow Her Home, the first in the series.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen. This is probably the best-written novel I read this year. It’s about the first eight black police officers in Atlanta, Georgia, right after World War II. Feels alive and raw, especially with the violence and anger igniting around race today, but leaves you with a feeling of hope, not despair. Also pulls off the hat trick of feeling completely authentic without becoming stiff with research.

The Trespasser, by Tana French. French is a reliably excellent crime novelist from Ireland. Her first novel, In the Woods, is not only one of my favorite mysteries, but also one of my favorite novels, period. This new one, as always, features characters who feel so real I can’t believe they’re not walking around Dublin right this moment.

Nonfiction

Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein. A frank, thoughtful, and lively examination of the messages around sexuality that girls are absorbing, and how they are responding. Good for anyone who is close to a pre-teen or teenage girl.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and has an intelligent perspective on white poverty in that region today. I like how he has compassion for the people he’s writing about, and never condescends, while also being crystal-clear on how this population does itself injury.

Naked at Our Age, by Joan Price. Price is an authority on sexuality later in life. In this book, she shares stories and tips on maintaining a healthy sex life at any age. I appreciate her clear and candid voice, and also her broad view of human sexuality—there are many ways to find intimacy and fulfillment, and most of them we don’t usually see portrayed in the media. Her website is also a terrific resource.

Fiction (Plunge into the Darkness)

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis. Already reviewed this one here, but it’s worth re-mentioning. Thrilling and original, with another awesome tough female protagonist.

Fiction (Take Your Mind Off The Darkness)

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. Fun and engaging story about two families living in hipsterized Brooklyn.

I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy. Delicious cotton candy about a commitment-phobe undermining herself on the eve of her wedding to Mr. Right (or is he?!).

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these, and which books made an impression on you in 2016.


Photo by The Real Cloud2013 via Creative Commons license.

Shadow of a mean girl

A human shadow on fallen leaves.When I was in third grade, my friend K and I used to make fun of another kid in our class. Let’s call him Joey.

I don’t remember why we chose to do this. Neither K nor I was a cruel or thoughtless kid. Maybe a bit smug, because we were two of the best readers in class and a bit high on our own perceived braininess.

Anyway, I remember lining up to go to the cafeteria, and if K or I were near each other in line, and Joey was close by, we would pretend to have a magic spray can and would spray each other “to get rid of the Joey germs.”

At some point, Joey told on us, and our teacher asked us what was going on. I denied knowing anything about it. In true Walter Mitty fashion, I got away with it, since I was generally a good kid and my teacher had never known me to bully anyone.

*

Now we have a bully in the White House, plus many instances of kids and adults saying really unkind stuff to each other, some of it in his name, some not. This is making me think about why we have such a strong tendency to put each other down.

We tend to malign and torment others when we feel weak ourselves. The Joey germs thing might have been K and me buying a little insurance against being considered nerds or geeks ourselves (though I totally was branded a nerd a few years later, karma being a bitch and all).

There’s a lot of discussion right now around feelings of disenfranchisement and powerlessness, and how those are impacting our society. One basic fact that isn’t getting much play is that it feels good to be mean to other people.

It really does. If it didn’t feel good, we wouldn’t do it so much.

*

There’s a multi-part thrill to being a dick to someone:

  1. It makes me feel like I’m stronger and more powerful than them.
  2. I know I’m transgressing a boundary and violating a taboo.
  3. Thus, bullying someone else makes me feel like a bad-ass, instead of downtrodden. And if others join me in that behavior, we must be right. K wouldn’t have been spraying away those Joey germs if I hadn’t been laughing along.

At my work at a disability institute, part of my job is to use accurate and respectful language. For example, the term “mental retardation” is falling out of favor, because “retarded” is widely seen as a slur. “Intellectual disabilities” is the term of choice now.

But the words “retard” and “retarded,” especially applied in instances that have nothing to do with disability, feel great to say. Growing up in New Hampshire, stuff we didn’t like was “wicked retahded.” A stupid movie was retarded. My friend’s mean older brother was acting like a retard.

And those words felt good in my mouth. They felt dangerous and tasty. They made me feel like I had the upper hand, somehow—just like with the Joey germs.

So I can imagine that for someone who feels weak and angry, calling someone with disabilities a retard, or using any other taboo or pejorative term, and hearing others laugh, might hit that same deep note of satisfaction.

*

Here’s the thing, though. The satisfaction curdles fast.

Unkindness spirals back upon us like a whip. If we put down others, we get the momentary buzz of being, socially, the stronger party. But once that fades, our weakness and fear return, amplified.

Then, the next time, it’s not enough to spray away the Joey germs. Next time, maybe I shove Joey. Or leave dog poop in his locker. It takes more and more mean behavior to make me feel secure.

In fact, the more my behavior escalates, the more I carry around what Patton Oswalt calls “a poison vein of self-loathing.”

*

I’m cutting myself some slack about Joey, since I was eight and was still learning how to be a social human being.

I’m less willing to cut adults slack when they act like this.

Part of being an adult is going for longer-term satisfaction. Life is the ultimate long game (ideally). We have to go for long-term pleasures, like treating people decently so they’ll do the same for us.

Right now, we’re being trained to think short-term about almost everything. Our phones bring us data without effort. We can download and stream millions of hours of video in any given moment.

This all discourages contemplation. It makes being alone with our thoughts—including our fear and guilt—less and less common. More and more avoidable.

*

So one way to get over this epidemic of meanness is to slow down long enough to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s head.

What’s it like in your head, reader?

Probably a lot like the way it is in my own head. Full of ideas, emotions, fear, joy, and confusion.

I’m sorry I was mean to you, Joey. And I’m sorry that I lied about it.

I hope I didn’t inspire you to go out there and be douchey to others.

I hope you’re not out there spray-painting swastikas on mosques.

If you are, I take a tiny part of the blame. And I also forgive myself.

I was a kid.

Now we’re both adults.

Let’s play the long game.

* Patton’s blog post is about being the guy who hangs out with the bully and eggs him on.

Photo by me.

Crossing the Specific Ocean

Blue ocean water with ripples and gold light
Walking with my 8-year-old Little Sister Najia yesterday, I pointed out something that was huge.

“I know two other words for huge,” she announced. “Gigantic and enormous.

I praised her vocabulary skills, and asked, “What about big?”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But my words are more specific.” And then, to clarify: “Specific, not Pacific.”

I agreed: it’s the Pacific Ocean, not the Specific Ocean.

This got me thinking about what the Specific Ocean might be.

*

It could be the ocean of things I don’t understand well enough—that my mind lacks detail about.

It could be the ocean of minutiae we can easily drown in, before we reach a goal.

As writers, we are navigators of the Specific Ocean.

As citizens of a democracy, even more so.

*

I’m not always good at swimming in this ocean. I find myself reading headlines instead of articles, sharing links to stories that I haven’t read to the end. It’s a short step from there to quoting people out of context, and to making false claims.

The Specific Ocean can be treacherous. Just as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch gathers detritus, my mind gathers nonsense and facts, intertwines them, and whirls them together.

On the other hand, our knowledge can never be complete. We can never know every life form in the Specific Ocean, or the exact chemical composition of its waters.

And at some point, we just need to jump in and start swimming.

Photo credit: by Victor via Creative Commons license

Unrepentant outlaws

Bookstore window with sign reading "Any amount of books"I’m upset and terrified by Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. It gives me a feeling of intense powerlessness.

I’m scared that the national and global economies will crash.

I’m scared that there will be widespread rioting and my family and friends will get hurt or killed.

I’m scared that he’ll launch World War III.

I’m just scared.

As I figure out the best ways for me to fight back—or at least to remain constructive in a bad time—volunteering has been making me feel better.

*

It usually annoys me when someone writes about their volunteer work, because it comes across as kinda self-righteous. So, as a disclaimer, I don’t volunteer because I’m some saint or perfect person.

Often, when I’ve signed up for a volunteer project, and the hour arrives, I don’t really want to go. I’d rather stay home and read, or watch Vikings on Amazon Prime. Those activities are delightful and don’t inconvenience me in the slightest.

But then I do go, and 100% of the time, I feel better afterwards. (Hey, sort of like working out.)

It’s not that, because I’m a good person, I volunteer. It’s the opposite, really. I volunteer because doing so makes me a better person. And I get way more out of it than I give.

*

I volunteer through Boston Cares. They’re a good organization for commitment-phobes. They publish a calendar, and you can sign up for as many or as few activities as you want.

Lately, I’ve been giving some time to the Prison Book Program. My friend Nance, who volunteers a LOT more than I do, got me into it.

We read letters sent by prisoners from across the country, in which they ask for books. Many prisons don’t have a library, or only a small one. Family members and friends aren’t allowed to send books to prisoners. Book donations have to come from a bookstore.

So we are the Lucy Parsons Bookstore—an all-donations “bookstore,” run by volunteers, named for an anarchist labor activist, in the basement of a Unitarian church in Quincy, MA, where John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and JQA’s wife Louisa lie buried in the next room.

*

Reading helps prisoners feel human. It helps them feel less trapped, and keeps them calm in a stressful environment. It helps them educate themselves.

It also reduces recidivism. When prisoners get some education during their time incarcerated, they’re less likely to reoffend and wind up back in prison after their release.

Stats on prisoner education are a bit elusive, maybe because this is such a forgotten population. The ones I can find that look legit are from 2003, and say that 68% of prisoners don’t have a high school diploma.

I’ve heard anecdotally that the average education level for prisoners is around Grade 8. The most frequently requested book is a dictionary.

Their letters put my life in perspective. One man wrote that he’s been living in a one-man cell for 6+ years, and reading books is the only thing that keeps him going. Another requested books about “unrepentant outlaws.” One sent me a list of his 25 favorite authors. Another said he’s due to be paroled in 2045. He’s 52 years old.

*

I don’t know these men and women’s crimes. Some of them have done awful, destructive, violent things. Others shouldn’t be locked up at all. Many are in there for making bad choices, having bad luck, and/or having poor impulse control. Or, they got swept up in the round-up of men of color for drug offenses, real or imagined.

Why they’re in there doesn’t matter. Books are a civil right. And they’re comforting. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I’ve felt the power of a book to soothe me when I’m upset, or to sharpen how I think about a topic.

After boxing my last set of books for the night, I walk out of the church and look up at the moon. I realize how lucky I am to walk down the street freely, to go where I want. To go to the library the next day and read whatever I desire.

When a prisoner asks for a particular type of book, and I’m able to find it and send it to them, it feels like a small concrete victory.

We need more of those these days.

Photo by Glen Scott via Creative Commons license.

Why I Love Autumn

A home surrounded by autumn leavesIt thrills me when we set back the clocks.

I’m an autumn junkie. I like being cozy and at home with my lights on while it’s dark outside.

Those long summer days are lovely and expansive. But it makes me happy when the days contract and the nights extend.

Fewer hours in each day means that each moment feels a tiny bit sad, and immensely beautiful.

*

I’m a New Englander. Valuing the seasons is in my blood via my dad and my blizzard-lovin’ grandma.

Last weekend near my home in Massachusetts I saw this:

A marshy landscape in autumn

And this:

A rock formation with flowers

PLUS goats cuddling:

Two goats in a pen

I’ll take the chilly fall days over slack, sweaty summer afternoons any time.

Top image by Jennifer via Creative Commons. Others by me.

On not being asked if I’m seeing someone

Graffiti of a green fish with sharp teeth

This conversation can swallow you whole.

Lately, friends and family that I see occasionally—say, once or twice a year—are getting less likely to ask me if I’m dating anyone.

This conversation point used to come up reliably. Now, it seems to be sliding farther down people’s mental lists of things to enquire about.

This is good and bad. On the one hand, I sometimes get tired of the conversations with my female friends in which we endlessly deconstruct our love lives.

Those discussions can be wonderful: fulfilling, revealing, fascinating. But they can also make me feel like my girlfriends and I don’t pass the Bechdel Test—like every conversation has to come back to some dude.

On the flip side, though, when I hang out with someone and they don’t ask me if I’m seeing someone, I’m not sure how to take that.

*

I had dinner with good friends recently, whom I hadn’t seen in several months. After we’d talked politics, movies, family, and work, one of them asked if I had updates about my love life. He said he didn’t want to bring up a sore subject, but was curious to hear the latest.

I told him I was happy that he’d asked. If he hadn’t, I would have felt like he’d given up on my ever finding anyone.

But as with anything involving human intimacy, it’s more complex than that.

I know people who have never, or rarely, mentioned a romantic interest in anyone, and have always deflected my occasional questions away from that zone. I don’t know if they identify as asexual/aromantic, or if there are other forces at play.

In any case, I’ve stopped asking. I do pose open-ended questions, like “So what else has been going on with you lately?” I figure that will invite any stories, romantic or otherwise, that the person wants to offer.

I know someone whose parents ask her, every time they talk, when she’s planning on getting married and having babies. That gets old too.

I also know people who have been single for years or decades, and who simply don’t get asked any more. Is that a relief? Or is it demoralizing?

*

It’s a tricky balance, between asking too often and not enough, showing interest and poking a bruise.

How do you all navigate this?

Photo by Merlijn Hoek via Creative Commons.

Trumped-Up Toronto

Sign outside a brick building saying "This is the place."I watched the first Presidential debate in a Canadian bar.

It was the best possible venue.

Democrats Abroad Toronto hosted the event. They were expecting about 50 people. About 300 showed up.

By the time the debate started, the bartender had run out of glasses and it was standing room only. A visit from the fire department would have gotten us all (very slowly) booted out.

***

I got there two hours early and scored a prime seat. On my right was Sean Marshall, a geographer, and on my left Stephen Chu, a photographer (both Canadians).

Sean’s a political aficionado who shamed me by knowing more about Massachusetts politics than I do. He watched the debate with rapt concentration.

Stephen and I kept laughing at particularly surreal moments, of which there were many (both on- and off-screen).

One newcomer standing behind us tried to order food, but the bartender said he had to be seated first. I offered up my seat. A few seconds later, he found out there was a two-hour backup in the kitchen, and gave up on eating. I got my seat back.

When Donald Trump claimed to have been endorsed by ICE, a woman sitting nearby misheard and said, bewildered, “Endorsed by ISIS?”

Several people mentioned that it was like watching a boxing match. It seemed more operatic to me, with Hillary shimmying in a moment of triumph, and Donald shaking his head, booming “Wrong,” his voice coming out almost in slow motion.

Time slowed way down and sped way up. The hour and a half was coming, was here, was gone before the bartender picked my Canadian tip off the counter.

It would have been so lonely watching this in some hotel room. In the bar, surrounded by strangers, I was surfing on top of a fragmenting glacier, melting from the past into the future.

Photo by me. View my Toronto album on Flickr.

Read my first Toronto post here and my second Toronto post here.