Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

My Book Project: Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Reading on February 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm
  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)

I’ve read the above books from my New Year Book List, but I’ve also read thirteen others besides:

  1. Islam: the Religion and the People, Bernard Lewis
  2. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, editors of Huffington Post
  3. Mallory’s Oracle, Carol O’Connell
  4. As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, Richard John Neuhaus
  5. The Memorist, M.J. Rose
  6. Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, Kerry Kennedy
  7. A Test of Wills, Charles Todd
  8. Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
  9. After Hours: Conversations With Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block
  10. All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, David Giffels
  11. Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, Robert Lanham
  12. A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life, Nancy Peacock
  13. Judas Child, Carol O’Connell

Breaking Through

In Aging, Health, Mood disorders, Self Improvement, Uncategorized, Writing on February 26, 2009 at 12:17 pm

My dreams are vivid,  in color and in content, and extremely narrative. If I could write stories the way I dream them, I’d be able to break through my resistance to fiction-writing. But in my conscious world my inability to write fiction of any kind is a source of constant frustration for me.

Maybe I’m just not meant to write fiction. I mostly write essays and nonfiction. But even there, I should be able to use elements of fiction-writing to make my work more dynamic. I took a creative nonfiction class a few years back where the teacher emphasized “making scenes.” The message was, if I couldn’t dig deeper, if I couldn’t make my nonfiction come alive by using fiction techniques, I would never excel at creative, or literary, nonfiction.

I don’t know if I developed a block from that class, from being made to feel inferior for the way I naturally write, but I’ve been struggling with my self-image as a writer ever since.

But it does seem to me that my brain works differently than it used to. All I have to do is contrast my waking thoughts with my dreams. I am fascinated by my dreams. Sometimes I sleep longer than necessary because I don’t want to leave a dream I’m having. It’s as if, once I wake up, my brain powers down to a lower level of functioning. Ideas are harder to come by. Words come out of my mind more slowly and with a lot more effort than they used to. I can’t seem to write what I think and even when I can, what I think tends to be dry and uninspiring.

I don’t exactly feel like I’m in a fog. I have emotions, but they’re not as extreme as they used to be. I think this is partly because I’m older. I have a perspective that I didn’t use to have. But I wonder if I’m not also affected by the medications I take. I’ve worked hard with my psychiatrist to come up with a combination that keeps me from the horrible depths of depression and debilitating anxiety that I used to experience. I’ve contemplated discontinuing my medications but I just can’t face going back to the mindset that contemplated suicide regularly, that was paralyzed by fear and anxiety, that loathed myself and couldn’t abide the world.

Those feelings are still there, but I’m able to beat them back to the point that I can function–even if slowly and carefully. As long as I don’t have too much stress–and I have to make sure that I don’t–I can approximate a “normal” person’s state of mind. But at what cost? All I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer and now it seems as if a barrier has been set up preventing me from being one. Oh, I can still spin out a sentence, but it feels as if my soul is no longer in it.

I pray daily that I can break through this barrier without suffering the consequences from discontinuing my medications, but I’m afraid that it’s either one of the other.  But what kind of choice is that? Suffering all the pain and paralysis that emits from my natural state of mind, or being able to mine my consciousness more deeply and creatively?

There’s a third possibility here: it may be that I can still write but can no longer assess my work, because I’m incapable of grasping its nuances. I have to write on autopilot, trusting that I’m making sense, that I’m using my faculties creatively–but not being able to make judgments on it because my brain doesn’t have the flexibility it used to. That could partly be because of my meds, but it could also be the result of an aging brain.

Then again, maybe I’m not capable of being the writer I once thought I could be. And maybe I never was the writer I thought I was. It might be that I’m more realistic now and can see myself more clearly. Naturally I fight this conclusion–it challenges all my assumptions about who I am and what I’m capable of. I have no choice but to fight it. I have to find some way to break through what’s keeping me from fully opening up, as a person and as a writer.

It may turn out that I’m a mediocre writer. It’s what I fear more than anything. But I may have to settle for that. Because I know I have to keep writing.

Poor Losers

In Politics on February 23, 2009 at 8:46 am

To hear Alexandra Pelosi (yes, Nancy’s daughter) tell it, the 58 million who didn’t vote for Obama is a deeply disaffected segment of our society, one that the rest of us ignore at our own peril. She went on the campaign trail this past year specifically to take the temperature of the conservatives (i.e., McCain supporters). Her premise was that the media, which she says is liberal, doesn’t give the Right its due. And as a result, these people are feeling disenfranchised and they’re not happy about it.

How does she view, then, 2000 and 2004, when the Right triumphed with the elections of George Bush? Presumably the media was just as liberal then as it has ever been. Was there anyone then who was reporting on how the “liberals” felt? How disaffected or angry they were? I don’t remember any of that. To me it felt like everyone was on Bush’s bandwagon, especially after 9/11, and you didn’t dare say so if you weren’t. It was considered unpatriotic, even traitorous. Now there is this concern about how the poor conservatives are taking their reversal in fortune. I say, they should suck it up and deal with it, like the Left had to do for eight years (which was eight too many as far as I’m concerned).

Judging by the Republicans’ lack of support during the stimulus votes, it appears that they are sore losers. If the game isn’t played by their rules, they just want to take the ball and go home. If they weren’t so worried about pandering to that 58 million, they might be able to do what the Left was expected to do when Bush won: be bipartisan. Everyone gets so incensed when Democrats hold onto their political ideals. But when the Republicans do it, they’re taking care of their poor constituents, as if they deserve some kind of consolation prize.

We’re past the point of partisanship. What is needed now are measures that benefit this society as a whole. Not just the ones who voted for Obama or for McCain. After all, the economy is no respector of political orientation, not this time. Trickle-down economics isn’t working because those at the top are being hit as hard as those at the bottom. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. McMansions are going into foreclosure at as high a rate as the lowliest middle-class homes. Everyone is afraid to spend their dwindling reserves of cash, let alone take out more credit.

According to Gallup, Obama had a 68% approval rating when he went into office. That’s 17 points higher than Reagan and 11 higher than Bush their first times around. That sounds like a majority to me. That’s what a democracy is like. The “losers” might not like it, but if they keep acting like spoiled brats, we’re all going to be losers. Of course, they’ll try to blame it on the Democrats. But they need to take responsibility for their own actions and attitudes. They need to be models for the rest of us. We hold them to a higher standard because we want them to be our leaders. Let’s hope they start acting like it.

My Book Store

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Writers on February 22, 2009 at 1:40 pm

One of my interests is feminism, or more holistically, the experience of women. I have a blog called Femagination to which I’ve just added a book store. I’ve been spending the past two days searching for books and DVDs about a whole range of topics of interest to women (not just to feminists). These include:

  • Finances
  • First Wave Literature
  • Memoirs
  • Motherhood
  • Multicultural Feminism
  • Politics
  • Reproductive Rights
  • Second Wave Literature
  • Sexuality
  • Spirituality
  • Third Wave Literature
  • Women Writers
  • Women’s History
  • The Workplace

I intend to expand my inventory periodically and would appreciate any suggestions from readers for additional books and topics. Please vist my store and tell me what you think of it!

Follow-up On “The Future of Newspapers”

In Reading on February 18, 2009 at 12:08 am

I have two predictions:

  1. Newspapers will become extinct. I don’t know when, but I think the writing is on the wall (so to speak). As computer usage goes up–and it has been, at a phenomenal rate–more and more people will take the easy way out and get their news and opinion from the Internet. Millions of people are already doing so. I still get a newspaper, and several magazines as well, but I also find myself on the Internet for at least an hour a day following my interests around the various web-sites and blogs till I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten all I want for the day. (Unfortunately, I’m never really satisfied–there’s just so much to know!)
  2. Online content will stop being completely free. In the same way that we pay for iTunes, we will pay for news, articles and editorials. People will protest at first, but when the choice is online content or nothing, they will start to pay.  Many academic sites already require paid subscriptions in order to access scholarly articles (like Jstor). And many newspapers charge–too much–in order to view articles from their archives. I would rather pay pennies a page for all the news than $6.95 an article for older news.

Paying for online content would most likely be done through micropayments, which is where you charge Web users tiny amounts of money for single pieces of online content. The biggest deterrent to that happening now is finding out a way to facilitate the payments. In this article from the August 27, 2007 issue of the New York Times, Dan Mitchell discusses micropayments and their future. Might as well start getting used to them. Their day is coming.

Correlation Between Religiosity and Standards of Living

In Religion on February 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm

5 Most Religious Countries in the World

Posted February 10, 2009
  1. Egypt — 100 percent of residents said religion is an important part of their daily life
  2. Bangladesh — 99 percent
  3. Sri Lanka — 99 percent
  4. Indonesia — 98 percent
  5. Congo ( Kinshasa ) — 98 percent

5 Least Religious Countries in the World

Posted February 11, 2009
  1. Estonia 14 percent of residents said religion is an important part of their daily life
  2. Sweden 17 percent
  3. Denmark 18 percent
  4. Norway 20 percent
  5. Czech Republic 21 percent

“Five Things” is a feature of U.S. & News Report.

Source: Gallup (Click for more details about this report.)

Perhaps when people have faith in God, they rely too much on their religion and not enough on their own efforts. They somehow believe that God will magically take care of all their problems. Then when that doesn’t happen, they say that it is God’s will and it is their job to submit to His will.

But the U.S. is an anachronism: we have a relatively high percentage of people who say that their religion is important to them and yet historically have had higher standards of living than most other countries. That could partly be explained by the Puritan work ethic and the emphasis on individual effort in this country. We believe that it is God’s will that we be prosperous and that God helps those who help themselves.

It could also be that we have shaped our religions to serve us and not the other way around. Sometimes we get things backwards and put our own efforts first and God’s action in our lives second. But the bottom line is, we are less likely than many other cultures to submit to anyone, even God.

We also associate other elements that are not really religious into our “brand” of religion. Many Americans think that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand with America’s religion (which is of course Christianity). You could call that our “holy trinity.” God forbid that Christianity could ever be compatible with other types of government or economic systems. You just can’t be a socialist or communist and a Christian, can you? And if you are a Christian, you’re automatically going to swear by capitalism and democracy.

This brings us to the question:  how can a society not be religious and still have a high standard of living? It could be that types of markets and governments are humanistic concepts, not religious ones. If you live in a society that values taking care of others–no matter how you do so (socialism, communism, democracy, etc.), there will be a higher standard of living. The impulse to create a highly functioning society can and often does come from humanistic, not religious, values. The religious person doesn’t want to believe that, but all he has to do is look around the world, at polls and studies like Gallup’s, and he will see that there are many ways of being human, and they don’t all involve having faith in God.

I write this as a religious person. I do have faith in God. But I also believe that religions often fail to bring about the kind of caring and sense of justice that humanistic philosophies do. That’s a reflection on the person, not on God. God has made it clear, in almost all of the world religions, that we are to care for others as we care for ourselves, that a society is not pleasing in God’s eyes that does not take care of its own.

If we do that which God requires, we automatically have a higher functioning society. Whenever you try to bring up the standard of living for the unfortunate in your society, you bring up the standard of living for all. If you only concentrate on your own success, your society–and culture–will fail. It doesn’t take a faith in God to make us caring people. But if we do have faith, we should care for everyone. It’s in the contract.


In Writing on February 16, 2009 at 11:41 am

People follow blogs for several reasons–to get the news, to read other people’s takes on things, to compare their reactions to others’ (which makes reading the comments almost as satisfying as reading the posts themselves), to feel connected. Different types of blogs serve different purposes. But I suspect that the ones that are the most popular are those in which the bloggers reveal personal things about themselves. We all want to know other people’s dirty little secrets.

That’s one reason for the popularity of tabloids: they’re all about revealing secrets. Affairs, health crises, pregnancies, engagements, arrests–the list goes on and on. We focus on people in the public eye because they’re fed to us by the media. But we’re just as likely to be delighted at some delicious gossip about our neighbors, our classmates, our co-workers, our family members. Then there are the advice columns. We don’t read them to see what advice the columnist dispenses as much as to find out what kind of messes people have gotten themselves into.

Why do we want to know these things? So we can compare them to our own secrets. One of the most popular books in recent years has been PostSecret which is a collection of real postcards with secret thoughts and deeds written on them. The compiler, Frank Warren, went around handing out postcards to people with these instructions:

“You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything — as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.”

As the postcards came rolling in, he posted them on his website as a community art project. But it soon grew into far more than that. The outpouring has been remarkable–and global.  (He’s now coming out with a second book, My Secret, by and for teens and college students.)

Secrets, both your own and others’, are a burden to keep. People long to reveal their own secrets, but they’re afraid to do so. Even (maybe especially) if we reveal them anonymously, a weight is lifted. This may very well be one reason for the popularity of blogs. Some bloggers may hope for fame and recognition, but the vast majority may be content with the behind-the-scenes manipulation of their own truths, like the little man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.” It makes us feel more powerful than we really are. And at little risk of discovery.

I named this blog  “Up Close and Personal” because the phrase appealed to me. I didn’t think at first of the expectations that it would create in my readers. They expect me to reveal personal things about myself. I have done that to some extent, but I’m usually reticent to do so. It’s not immediately clear even to me why such a private person would want to open up my life to the world’s scrutiny.

But I also keep journals and have since the ’70s. I don’t know if anyone will ever read them, but I secretly hope so (see, I revealed a secret). It may be my way of leaving a mark on the world. I was here. I existed. Maybe I write this blog (and my other blogs) for the same reason: I want other people to know that I’m here, that I exist. I want my readers to get to know me. I’d love to get to know them.  I want to know that someone noticed that I am a person and I’m more than willing to return the favor. (This impulse may also lie behind the popularity of sites like Facebook and MySpace.)

Then there is the fact that I’m a writer even outside of writing for my blogs. Some people have remarked that writers are awfully narcissistic and self-involved. Why else would they want to spend hours every day trying to find ways to expose their thoughts and ideas to the outside world? Mea culpa, I suppose. But there is another impulse at work here: I feel compelled to write because I need to reveal my secrets.

Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on February 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fascinating look at Saudi Arabia and its brand of Islam. The author was born a Muslim but never lived in a Muslim country until she took a job as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. To say that she experiences culture shock is an understatement. But she also finds herself as a Muslim. I thought this was this was a very evenhanded, realistic account of what it was like to be a woman in a legalistic Islamic society.

View all my reviews.

What’s In A Trillion?

In Money, Time on February 12, 2009 at 10:12 am

I can never seem to wrap my head around the concept of a trillion. (I can’t a billion either, but let’s go for broke.) I still can’t but these analogies help:

  1. One trillion stacked dollars would reach one quarter of the way to the moon (60,000 miles–which I can’t imagine either).
  2. If you spent one million dollars a day from the time Jesus was born, it would take until October 2737 to spend one trillion.
  3. A million seconds was 12 days ago. A billion seconds ago was 1959. A trillion seconds was 31,688 years ago.
  4. One trillion dollars could pave the entire U.S. highway system with 23.5 karat gold leaf.
  5. If your income since 2006 was $58,000, it would take 17,232,763 years to make a trillion.
  6. A trillion dollars would give every high school student in this country a free college education.

(See more examples here.)

I used to think that a million was unfathomable. Now I know that even though a million dollars could support me for 10-20 years depending upon my expenses (more, really, because of compound interest), in many parts of the country that would only buy one or two houses. Even in relatively inexpensive areas, it would only buy a little more than four. When I watch HGTV, I’m amazed–and appalled–at what other people are able to pay for their homes. Where do these people get their money?

I get scared when I see projections that say I need $2 million after I retire if I live another 20 years, because no way will I have even close to that. A trillion dollars would support 500 million people at that rate. I won’t have one fifteenth of that.  So how could someone like me even begin to understand the scope of a trillion?

The Future of Newspapers

In Reading, Writing on February 7, 2009 at 7:07 am

This is the way I read a newspaper: I skim all the headlines; sometimes, if something grabs me, I read what’s on the first page. I rarely read the continued story on another page.  Then I turn to Life and Arts and read the celebrity gossip and the advice columns. I used to read the comics, but decided that they’re rarely funny, so I skip those now. Then I skim the editorial page and the letters to the editor. On Fridays I read the Faith and Values section and on Sunday the House and Garden section. That’s it. I leave the paper on the couch or the floor with the intention of reading it more fully, but I never do. The next day I put in the pile of other papers to be recycled.

The paper I read is The Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch used to be the evening paper and the morning paper was The Citizen Journal. (I’m old enough to remember two papers a day. ) I was talked into buying a year’s subscription by a student primarily because of the $50 worth of Barnes and Noble gift cards that came with it. The gift cards we spent right away. The papers pile up like crazy, mostly unread. Sometimes I think of canceling the subscription and getting a refund–I could use the money–but I’d feel guilty, for two reasons. One is that I feel that I should read the paper every day to keep up with what’s going on in the world. The second is that I feel that I should support the newspaper industry for fear that it will disappear altogether.

But would I really miss it? Most of the time I get my news from the Internet. I even get breaking news reports from What would it matter if I got all my news and opinion from the Internet? After all, I can read almost any paper I want online, for free. And I’m not wasting paper, or the trees it comes from.  I don’t have to fish my paper out of the front yard  or feel guilty about recycling. But for now, I can still see the value of the newspaper. You can carry a newspaper anywhere whereas lugging even a laptop around can be annoying. You can also get a feel for the whole atmosphere of your community: local news, real estate reports, obituaries (which I admit I also skim sometimes:  I want to see how old people usually are when they die–I’m trying to reassure myself that I have a few more years on this earth!), community happenings, letters to the editor. Most of these items are accessible online, but it’s still not as easy to skim a web site as it is to flip through a newspaper.  And perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to have a computer. I forget sometimes that not everyone has one or feels comfortable using one.

Maybe someday we’ll all have computers and hand-held reading devices. We may even have newspapers you can listen to  (oh, wait, that’s called radio.)  It’s funny that sci fi rarely addresses the issue of how people will read in the future. (Think “Blade Runner.”) There are plenty of references to audio/visual media: screens on the walls in your house that you get your news from, screens as large as billboards on sky scrapers and by highways, screens in your car. But where are the people who are reading? The average person might be okay with electronic devices but I wonder if there will still be those who prefer to hold paper in their hands. And will there be enough of them to keep the newspaper industry afloat?

NOTE: When I got the mail today there was the February 16, 2009 issue of Time magazine with a picture of a newspaper on the front and the headline: “How to Save Your Newspaper.” Coincidence?

Check out the blog Journalism Rehab for more insights about the future of newspapers.