Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

We read The Sellout by Paul Beatty for our book club this month. I didn't get to go to book club, so I can't tell you much about how other people reacted to it, but I definitely had mixed feelings.

This is biting satire. I'm not sure I found it "funny," although I did frequently find it thought-provoking. It begins with a black man before the Supreme Court on charges of slavery and it's a flashback so that you can see how this relatively normal, educated man ends up attempting segregation and slavery in order to actualize change and fulfillment for the citizens of his town.  It's absurd and totally on the nose.

On the bright side, there was so much culture and history I learned by reading this book. Post-it notes are busting out of the side of the copy I borrowed from the library. Beatty is often hilarious - I frequently imagined a stand-up comic using the material on stage. I did chuckle an awful lot.

"He...belonged to that scary subset of black lycanthropic thinkers I like to refer to as "wereniggers." BY day, wereniggers are erudite and urbane, but with ever lunar cycle, fiscal quarter, and tenure review their hackles rise, and they slip into their floor-length fur coats and mike stoles, grow fangs, and schlep down from their ivory towers and corporate boardrooms to prowl the inner cities, so that they can howl at the full moon over drinks and mediocre blues music...Normally I try to avoid wereniggers at all costs. It's no the fear of being intellectually ripped to shreds that frightens me most, it's the cloying insistence on addressing everyone, especially people they can't stand, as Brother So-and-so and Sister This-and-that." (page 96)

I laughed out loud for a full minute.

On the other hand, though, this was just too much of a bitter pill for me to swallow. I think fiction on race can be pointed and hard to read, but worthwhile, but after a couple hundred pages of this, I just wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out again. Maybe that's the point?  I don't know. I just didn't find it enjoyable to read.

It is definitely excellent writing.  So if satire is your jam, go for it. 

Slang terms I didn't know: kine bud, cholo school, skrill, and Soreno.  I should be embarrassed, but I'm not.

Pop culture references I had to look up: golliwog, Stepin Fetchit, Guy Laroche, jubo, Kunta Kinte, Mr. Green Jeans, Slicker Smith, Chattanooga Brown, Beulah "Mammy" McQueenie, Kara Walker, Killer of Sheep, Lee Morgan, Kathleen Battle, Basquiat, Fran Ross, and Johnny Otis.

Other things I that went on post-it notes: PW Botha, Luftwaffe, Panglossian, mercurochrome, varnas, Wannsee Conference, and Arschloch.

I'm probably a better person for having read this novel.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

In Which I Learn That I'm Not Like Everyone Else

Let's start with the premise that life's a journey. We can quibble over underlying assumptions later. I've always imagined it as a road trip on America's roads. You start at a small town going slowly but the roads are in pretty good shape with occasional potholes and obstacles, but safe and routine for the most part. At some point you get on an interstate. Things moves quickly and easily for the most part. You can coast through it. There's maybe an accident or flat tire here or there, but this part is glorious. The windows are open, the music is blaring and life is good. But occasionally you hit a major metropolitan area during rush hour.  No matter what you do, you're stuck.  You might even get up to speed for a minute or two just to be slowed down by the newest construction zone or poorly designed entrance ramp.You'll get around this area and get to coasting soon enough, but for now you're stuck.

That's where I am right now. I KNOW that there are good times ahead. I can hear Bruce Springsteen off in the distance. But right now I'm stuck and it's frustrating and it's making me a little road rage-y.
So this is a meme that a friend recently posted on Facebook. I just stared at it for an extended period of time before I commented that, essentially, this is my actual goal in life. I pack my daily life with activity so that I fall into bed in utter exhaustion. I sleep the sleep of the dead, am woken up by occasional nightmares, but I'm so physically exhausted, I go right back to sleep until I'm awoken by the alarm clock. There are many insomniacs who ask me what my secret it to sleep and I honestly tell them I'm just exhausted. (The average American adult sleeps 6.8 hours a night, 7 is recommended, and I bet I get on average close to 9.)

I woke up this morning, took a shower, spent a stressful hour and a half filling out paperwork to get homeowner's insurance quotes (which...is another post), worked out, and now I'm holding office hours. I'll go for a walk between office hours and when I'll proctor an exam. Then I'll go to the pet store to get cat food, go home, go for another walk, make dinner, go to a community lecture this evening, come home and watch either an episode of Star Trek or House Hunters depending on time, and possibly go for another walk depending on whether it's raining or not. Then I will do the cat chores of feeding her, scooping her litter and taking it out to the trash, playing with her, brushing her teeth, and attempting to brush her fur. And then I will get ready for bed and collapse. Maybe I'll read a chapter or two of a trashy romance novel, but maybe not. I will be utterly mentally and physically exhausted.

And I do this so that I don't lie in my bed at night and ruminate about the current state of the world. I don't have the brain capacity to do it. It's all I can do to keep the balls in the air when I'm working and mentally present. I'm physically spent. My muscles ache most nights.  If I stop to think about anything important in my life, I don't think I'd be able to get to sleep at night or get out of bed in the morning. So I just jam pack my days with physical and mental activity, and I go and go and go.

But that going is definitely the equivalent of me changing lanes repeatedly so that I can get exactly one car length ahead of another car that is patiently staying in its lane. It's keeping me busy, but not exactly getting me anywhere.

But isn't this what adulting is about really?  Can you tell me there's another way?

Monday, May 08, 2017

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

I don't even remember why this book was moved up to the front of my queue. But I asked Dr. BB if he had it and he had it on his Kindle, so this weekend while my job was sitting quietly and occasionally giving my mother-in-law sips of water, I read Till We Have Faces.
I have traditionally disliked Lewis books. Most of this is because I am a heathen, so many of the religious allegories fly over my head and I'm left scratching my head trying to figure WTH just happened, but some of it is because I think Lewis thinks he's cleverer than I think Lewis is.  Anyway. For reasons that are mysterious to me at this exact moment, although I'm sure there are reasons, I read this book.

Plot: This is a retelling of the Psyche/Cupid myth in a per-Christian world told through the eyes of Psyche's older sister, Orual. 

Philosophy: There are a lot of BIG questions in this book. The first scene that really caused me to sit up and pay attention was an interesting look at utilitarianism. If you accept human sacrifice as a thing (and why not?), the questions it raises are quite interesting. Self-sacrifice is interesting, right, because you are martyring yourself for others. But if you are extraordinary, shouldn't you sacrifice someone with inferior inabilities?  Or does it matter?  Does it matter if you sacrifice one extraordinary person or five average? And that was the first philosophical debate.

Mythology: Let me tell you about the Lewis twist. In the original myth, Psyche's sisters were jealous of Psyche's relationship with Cupid and she tricked the god on the advice of those jealous sisters and   then Cupid cast her aside. In this telling, Orual is actually uncertain for a time if her sister is a goddess, is mentally ill, is being taken advantage of by a vagrant, or if she's dead.  And Orual makes decisions with incomplete knowledge. And those decisions have consequences and those consequences have consequences. Orual is writing the story of her life, angry with the gods, angry that her life has been full of mysterious unknowables and without love since her sister had been taken away from her.  And it will force you consider your own relationship with deities, even as you sit next to your mother-in-law's deathbed, occasionally giving her sips of water.

I don't like this book. I think it pontificates. I still think Lewis thinks he's much cleverer than he is. But it struck a nerve with me at this moment in my life when I am making decisions based on incomplete knowledge, when I'm a punching bag for people who are angry about circumstances beyond anyone's control, but who refuse to acknowledge that maybe their god is not a benevolent god, and when I look around at a world with so many ancient beliefs that have led to a political morass so deep I don't see a way out. 

So I don't know if I recommend this book. But it felt cathartic to read it right now at this moment in time when I needed ethical dilemmas to relieve me from the very real dilemmas sitting in front of me. So take that for what it's worth.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The House (!)

It's an American Foursquare, built around the turn of the 20th century located in the town next to Nowhere.  The floor plan is pretty standard for a foursquare. The first floor has a giant front room that runs the length of the house and half the width. The remaining part is the kitchen and dining room and there's an addition on the back that includes a bath/laundry room and a fabulous mudroom.  My excitement over this mudroom is pretty high, although I have a distinct lack of excitement over the fact that we're going to have to replace those windows before the next snow falls.
The second story is four bedrooms (foursquare!) and a small bathroom. Our medium term plan is to combine two of those rooms into a larger master and renovate that bathroom (there's no shower in it at the moment) into an en suite. We'll have a guest room, an office space, and a bonus room for right now. Let's call it the sewing room. Ha ha.
There's a huge unfinished attic and a "finished" basement that I will only ever be going into to get the Christmas ornaments and to wait out tornado warnings because it's creepy.  The unfinished attic will hopefully get turned into a workout room someday in the far, far, far future.  In the meantime, maybe we can store the Christmas ornaments up there to save me a trip to the basement.
As it stands, the curb appeal is mostly bleh. Imagine it with a front door that's red and some hanging baskets. Maybe a cheerful Detroit Lions* flag hanging there on the flag pole on the right? 

This is a larger house than we had anticipated on purchasing, but YOU GUYS. There's a detached two car garage, a shed, and a mudroom. There are wood floors throughout. There's a kitchen without an island (have we talked about my hatred of islands? - maybe next time). It's located within walking distance of a library, post office, farmers' market, and community center. WHAT MORE CAN A GIRL ASK FOR?

There are a couple of things that came up in the house inspection that we're going to have to deal with in the short term (the windows are mostly new except those pesky windows in the mudroom, the electrical system has some quirks because it's a turn of the century house), but the sellers are paying for a one-year home warranty and we're going to use the hell out of that.  The financing is a done deal and we're basically just waiting this out until closing.

But the yard is a jungle. There's a backyard with about a dozen beds of one sort or another and the right side of the yard runs the entire length of the house and it's a disaster. I foresee my entire summer spent weeding, pulling out paver stones, and scraping and painting. 

And I can't wait.

Any tips on moving an excitable almost six-year-old fuzzy cat with attitude? 

*Ha ha. Not going to happen. We're a divided household, my friends. Dr. BB roots for the enemy, the Chicago Bears. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why I Stay Home

The chair of my department came in to my office yesterday, closed the door, and basically started listing off all the stressors in my life before she offered to help in any way she could. While I know that there's a lot going on, it hadn't quite sunk in until that moment. There's a lot going on in my world. And, in lieu of talking about any of those stressors, I'm going to talk about how I'm coping.

I eat a lot and then I work out compulsively.

An acquaintance of mine is currently teaching her first yoga class and she offered an 8-week session at a gym in the next town over for $25.  Now, I happen to know that some people pay $25 a class for some yoga sessions, so I signed up and I've been throwing my mat in the car and going every Wednesday night (except last week when I was banned from being around people).
And last night it occurred to me why I work out at home.

I can't deal with other people.

I pull it together during work hours. I can ignore noises from my colleagues by putting on headphones and blasting white noise. During my classes, I control the level of noise.  I deal, but just barely.

During this yoga class, however, there are so many distractions. I can hear the men (always men) playing basketball in the adjoining room. Squeaking shoes, rumbling voices, groaning, occasional cheering, and the erratic bounce of the ball. I hear the woman at the front desk cheerfully (she's so happy) checking people in and out. The sound of the other people in the room breathing deeply in and out. The sound of their bones creaking and that rubbing sound that comes from the movement of people's hands sliding on their mats.  Last night I spent about 45 minutes of the 60 minute class wishing other people just weren't there.

At home, I close the blinds, I focus solely on my breathing and occasionally making sure I don't step on the cat's tail. I can focus on each stretch and notice exactly when I'm at my limit and push it just a small step further. I don't hear anything else, I don't worry about what other people might be doing, I just go inward for twenty or thirty minutes. For just a few minutes, my brain settles and I'm relaxed.

And those moments of peace are just about the only ones I have all week.  Three months from now, maybe four months from now, life will be more settled and I won't need the "drug" of oxygen and breathing exercise to bring this stillness, but for now I'm grateful that I know how to get this feeling during such a stressful time in my life.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mail Call

First off, no one is paying me for anything here. This is truth, my friends.

I get A LOT of catalogs in the mail. I think this is because I once ordered something from Guideboat and they sold my name and address, but whatever. I love all the catalogs. Yes, all of these things are available online, but I like leafing through a paper version over my yogurt in the morning.  Prana, Title 9, Orvis, LL Bean, Harry & David, See's Candy, and The Container Store are some of my favorites, but the best of all is obviously the Uncommon Goods catalog.

It came in the mail tonight and I was leafing through it (one of the best people in my life has a birthday in five days and while I have a couple of things for her, I thought I might stumble across something else for her) and I basically created a wishlist of things for me.  Here goes.

1. Sewing station - For the price of $58, you can have this ceramic sewing station handmade in Florida. 4.8/5 stars
I have neither a dedicated sewing location nor a need for a sewing station, but isn't it perfectly suited for a problem you never knew you had?!

2. Vintage wedding art - For the low, low price of $300 - $500, you can have some customized wedding art made. I am not even joking, but I think I want one for our new house. It's kind of pricey, but it comes with the matte and frame and it can be customized to hair color and skin tone and it's amazing.  Maybe someday.

3. Vintage cinema lightbox - For $65, you can put this in your living room and put up the name of the movie or television show you're watching. I mean, ours would just read The Walking Dead all the time, but that's because we still haven't watched the final two episodes of this past season, but I think it would be quirky and fun. Or something I would use exactly three times an then forget about.  Forget it. I don't need one of these.  (Yes, I do.)

4. Book Lover's Scarf - You can have the words to one of five novels (Pride and Prejudice, Outlander, Anne of Green Gables, The Great Gatsby, or The Princess Bride) around your neck. I personally would make a request for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but that's just me. As soon as Francie gets some love, I will definitely purchase this ($39 seems reasonable to me).

5. Solar System Necklace - This is not the right necklace for me because it's a bit too large, but I can see it being quite the hit. It even includes Pluto. I think $55 is reasonable, too, since it would be such a statement piece.

And, just for fun, here are some things I would totally buy for other people, just not the person whose birthday is next week.

6) Personalized Anniversary Journal - I wish I had one of these journals when we first got married. You fill it out every year on your anniversary. If someone you love is getting married, consider this as a present. It's $115 - 130, so you'd probably really have to love someone to make it their gift, but I know that I, for one, would have cherished it forever.
 7) Lake Topography Art - I totally lied. I'd like a series of these. One with Lake of the Isles on it to commemorate our time in Minnesota, one with the Great Lakes because my Michigan pride knows no limits, one with the Mississippi River through the Quad Cities where Dr. BB is from, and one with a nearby lake here in Wisconsin. They're all available. So maybe someday. I'm a smidgen confused by the pricing ($59 - $525) and I think it depends on the size and the 3-D nature of the whole thing, but maybe someday I'll invest. It would be fun to have them in our dining room in our new house, I think.
And that's it. I've just spent a couple grand on junk I don't really need from the Uncommon Goods catalog.  We're going to do the inspection on the house tomorrow, so I'll be sure to keep you all updated about that.  And maybe I'll tell you the story about how I feel perfectly fine, but the doctor told me that I couldn't work for the rest of the week and I have to stay home. Except then I went to the grocery story and tomorrow I'm going to the inspection. You can just call me a non-compliant patient. I am staying home from work, though. Well, wait, I just told you the whole story. No updates needed.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I made a hard sell for our book club to read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but no one was interested. So I was forced to read this book on my own and now I honestly want to talk to people about it, but I don't know anyone else who's read it, so I'm going to just babble on here.

The book tells the story of Starr, a black teenage girl who witnesses a friend get shot by a white police officer and the aftermath of that event. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this novel should be required reading for everybody who lives in the United States.  It subtly manages to get all the perspectives addressed here - white and black children, white and black adults, white and black officers - while also having a completely clear editorial position. In my race and politics classes, I spend way more time than I'd like to admit attempting to get my students to engage in perspective taking, but I felt like I was definitely even more deeply exposed to perspectives on BLM through this novel because I was in people's heads and shoes during their every day lives. 

But besides being timely and honest and raw, the writing here is clear and precise, as if Thomas spent hours agonizing over every sentence, every comma placement, and every dropped consonant in her dialogue. The writing wasn't overdone and didn't get in the way of the immersive experience of Starr's life that you found yourself in after the first five pages. I wanted to turn the pages because the plot was engaging and I wanted things to work out for Starr, but I also wanted to stay in engage in the crispness of the writing on each page.

The relationships in the novel as also startlingly powerful. Thomas shows you how Starr relates to all these different people including her parents, siblings, friends, boyfriend, and people in the neighborhood where she lives without ever lecturing you.  You see the nuances in relationships without having to be told anything. I want to know Starr's father, I want to go to their barbecues, and I want to tell Starr it will be okay. But I don't know if it will be.

So, go to the bookstore and get this book. It's well worth it.
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