Budgeting Life

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This weekend, I picked up Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s extraordinary memoir When Breath Becomes Air.  I had bought it on a fire sale as an e-book before Christmas (thanks to this Stirrup Queens post) and when my lunch break rolled around, I thought I’d start on it.

Reading it at two in the morning, just down the hall from the ORs, wearing periwinkle blue surgical scrubs, a vital sign monitor on my desk that I needed to put away after my break made the story more real, and I was pulled in almost immediately.  It was not at all hard to imagine Dr. Paul Kalanithi as a physician, as a neurosurgeon, walking in and issuing his postop orders, doing the usual things surgeons do.

But of course, that is not the whole of the story, nor its most brilliant, poignant part: Paul Kalanithi was an undeniable genius, yes, clearly a gifted physician, yes, but he was also a patient.  The two personas, brought together in one who could clearly articulate the connections, tensions, and even find humor between them are what make this one of the most exceptional books I’ve read in a long time.

Kalanithi’s book was published posthumously and while it is absolutely about dying, it’s about more than that.  It’s about living within limits – unusually cruel tight ones in Kalanithi’s case – but limits are a fairly universal human experience.  I think what I found particularly instructive and lovely about When Breath Becomes Air is its acceptance of human limitation.  Kalanithi accepts that his cancer is terminal and seeks to live within that diagnosis – there’s no talk of “fighting” or being the exception or beating cancer.  Instead, he thoughtfully decides to live fully whatever time he has left.

It’s rare in this day and age where a relentlessly ‘positive’ mindset is stressed and the acknowledgement of the chance that an outcome might be anything less than miraculous restoration of health or a return to previous life is often met with “oh, don’t say that!” to see a treatise like this one.  Even outside of life and death situations, there’s a cultural notion about being able to accomplish anything with enough effort/investment – one with which I know much of the infertility community is intimately familiar.  I think the way this book challenges that is a central part of the appeal, or at least, it certainly was for me.  Kalanithi’s resolution to move forward by grieving his losses, knowing his death will come untimely early, and doing his best to both find and continue in what he valued until that death reads as far more positive than an empty promise to seek a ‘cure’ at any cost.

Personally, when confronted with limitations that truly grieved me, I’ve tended towards anger.  Maybe it’s because sadness and grief seem passive and anger gives the illusion that there’s something I can do, something that with enough force might change the distressing situation (even when I know better).  Kalanithi suggests a very different path.  He interrogates himself to find the values he wishes to cling to within the whirlwind.  And then he does it.  It’s not a denial of emotions or grief or putting a good spin on a tough situation, it’s a measured choosing of response.  “It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget” he writes.

There’s so much more to consider in the book – and hopefully write about – but that felt particularly resonant.  The next time I must budget my life, I know I’ll return to Kalanithi’s thoughts on doing so.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

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2018 Year in Review: Books

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Every time I put on the Rent soundtrack, one of the ways I consistently answer the question “how do you measure a year?” is “In books I read!”  Naturally, there are plenty of others, but books are a marvelously quantifiable answer.

Fiction:

Two Dark Reigns – Kendare Blake

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Kingdom of the Blind – Louise Penny

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Rapid Falls – Amber Cowie

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey – Alison Weir

Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror – (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg

Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne – Kendare Blake

The Young Queens – Kendare Blake

Origin – Dan Brown

The Family Next Door – Sally Hepworth

The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Small Great Things – Jodie Picoult

Nonfiction:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up – John Carreyrou

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa – Adam Hochschild

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson

Year of No Clutter: A Memoir – Eve Schaub

Between the World and Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter – Margareta Magnusson

Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men – Harold Schechter

Siblings Without Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too – Adele Faber

In Bloom: Trading Restless Insecurity for Abiding Confidence – Kayla Aimee

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark – Addie Zierman

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy – Sheryl Sandburg

Life in a Medieval City – Frances Gies

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock – Lucy Worsley

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith – Barbara Brown Taylor

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – Mindy Kaling

The Blood of Emmett Till – Timothy B. Tyson

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again – Rachel Held Evans

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings – Alison Weir

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America – Alissa Quart

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster – Sarah Krasnostein

You’ve Been So Lucky Already – Alethea Black

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century – Peter Graham

Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident – Donnie Eicher

Infreakinfertility: How to Survive When Getting Pregnant Gets Hard – Melanie Dale

The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James H. Cone

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith – Addie Zierman

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess – Rachel Hoffman

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game – Mary Pilon

More Than Halfway Through, and Still Reading:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down: Colin Woodard

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made: Irving Howe

Reread:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande

Ready For Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood – Kate Hopper

Juniper: The Girl Who was Born Too Soon – Kelley Benham French, Thomas French

I’m looking forward to reviewing a few of the highlights on the list and looking forward to more books in 2019!

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want more, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Reading: The Merry Spinster

Fairy tales have long fascinated me.  I grew up with Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales From Around the World and The Maid of the North (both compiled by Ethel Johnson Phelps) as well as a Hans Christian Andersen collection.  Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, we had no TV and the internet wasn’t around yet, so I loved those stories.  I read them often and was completely shocked when I saw the Disney version of The Little Mermaid – I can very vividly remember telling my mother that the ending was wrong (the ending of the movie and the original story diverge pretty wildly).  More recently, I’ve been fascinated by how much fairy tales incorporate experiences of infertility and loss.

So when I read a review of (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg’s* The Merry Spinster: Tales of Every Day Horror, I knew this was a book I had to get my hands on.  I was a little apprehensive about the “horror” part as I’m not at all into scary stories, but having enjoyed Ortberg’s writing in the past, I was curious about the twists he might put on the fairy tales he incorporated into his short stories.

Besides, let’s face it, fairy tales are horrifying in the originals.  The Grimm Cinderella has parts of feet being cut off to fit in shoes and eyes being pecked out.  I figured I could probably handle Ortberg’s renditions, which turned out to be as gruesome as any Grimm story in places.  Blood runs freely throughout the book.

Like most short story collections, there are a few misses in The Merry Spinster.  I really did not get The Wedding Party despite having read it several times.  Some of the stories just didn’t pick up Ortberg’s usual wit or really pull me in.

The hits of the collection, however, made the book absolutely worth it.

Fear Not: An Incident Log is one of my favorite stories from this year.  Ortberg replays the incidents from the biblical book of Genesis from the viewpoint of an angel and the result is biting and also very funny.  Written like a dry technical support log, the angel starts off explaining why such appearances always begin with “fear not”: because “…appearing before [humans] without some form of reassurance is liable to result in total system overload, followed shortly by shutdown.”  Despite the humor, it’s also beautiful and profound in places and I don’t think I’ll ever read or hear the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel quite the same way again.  Ortberg’s background as a PK (pastors’ kid – both his mother and father) is on full display in this story, and I wasn’t expecting the humor or tenderness that Ortberg gives the original text in his retelling.

The horror promised in the title is on full display in The Rabbit, Ortberg’s retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit.  The quest to become “real” takes on a whole new meaning in this imagining.  An early conversation between the rabbit and the well-loved Skin Horse immediately tips into a creeping awfulness: “’Whose skin do you have?’ the Rabbit had asked him, and the Skin Horse had shivered to hear the excitement in his voice.”  Ortberg’s description of the rabbit’s voice as “… a crawling black thing across the floor…” is hideously evocative.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters explores a different – but no less terrifying – horror.  Examining the ways in which the character uses certain passages and beliefs to justify and even encourage the unspeakable acts at the culmination of the story feels timely and relevant as a reminder and a caution.

Finally, The Six Boy-Coffins holds not only a well-done recasting of the original Grimm tale The Six Swans but also an incisive discussion of power and consent.  The line “She was beginning to learn the danger of silence, and that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no” feels particularly resonant in the #metoo era.  The ending packs the rarest quality in this volume: the sense of justice done.

Ortberg is very fluid with genders throughout the stories, and in fact, was in the process of exploring the beginning of his transition from female to male at the time of writing.  Daughters may be referred to with male pronouns or have traditionally male names and husbands and wives may choose which role they want, regardless of sex.  Initially a bit confusing, it took me a story or two to get used to this particular quality, but overall, it enhanced the stories and makes playing with the tropes of fairy tales sharper.

As a rating, I’d give it 4/5 stars.  It’s definitely a book that appeals to a particularly dark sense of humor and a tolerance for fairy tale type violence/gore is a must.

*Author is listed on the book as Mallory Ortberg, but he has transitioned and taken the name of Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Reading: “Crazy Rich Asians”

I finally got to the top of the hold list at the library for Crazy Rich Asians.  With all the hype from the movie coming out this summer and the gorgeous trailers and movie posters, I knew I definitely wanted to read the book.

It’s a comedy of romance, manners, and people from somewhat mismatched backgrounds coming together.  There are the obligatory parties, snubbings, and displays of wealth and power with the tension set up by the expectations of society and family.  I found a good bit of it fun and the gorgeous clothes and settings a lovely change from my own currently dreary, grey, wintery surroundings.

That being said, I have to confess that I…didn’t really like the romantic interest/hero, Nicholas Young.  I’m not really spoiling anything to say that the plot pivots on the fact that Nick is handsome, incredibly rich, but has made a life for himself in New York where he has distanced himself from his family wealth and glamour to present himself as a regular college professor.  I mean, he’s handsome (cool) and down to earth (also good), but he’s been in a relationship with his girlfriend for two years and still has not revealed his full identity.

In the Jane Austen novels I’ve read (or heck, even in similarly wealthy/escapist shows like Downton Abbey), one of the qualities I appreciate is that generally, everyone knows The Rules.  Society is fairly rigid and people know when they’re social climbing, the rules surrounding manners and expectations, and how social interactions work.  I mean, Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) knows that Edward Ferrars is out of her social range.  Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) makes a very calculating decision surrounding the realities for women to marry the awful Mr. Collins.  There are definitely many surprises and tensions deriving from social mores, but while the players may not be evenly matched, everyone is governed by rules that are widely understood.

That’s where Crazy Rich Asians departs from Austen and company, because one of the major plot movers is the fact that Nicholas Young asks Rachel (and let me stress this again, after two years of romance) to go on a ten-week vacation to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s good friend without telling her much of anything about his family or wealth.  In other words, a major time commitment for Rachel that implies the possibility of an even greater romantic attachment, with a huge piece of information withheld.

Basically, Nick sets the woman he purports to love up for some really severe cruelty at the hands of his some of his family and friends when Rachel inadvertently trips over all the social mores, norms, and gives various impressions that Nick’s family (predictably) interpret uncharitably.  While some of this may have been unavoidable, not giving Rachel at least some basic pointers on his social group feels unconscionable to me.  Oh, sure, Nick’s presented as ambivalent and somewhat troubled by his own wealth and social standing, but it didn’t code to me as “down to earth” when it came to bringing home the girlfriend.  It felt immature and selfish to throw his girlfriend into a pit of some not-very-nice people and social situations that would be challenging for even the most well-versed.

Rating this book, I’d give it a 2.5 stars out of 5.  The escapism and wealth-gawking part is really beautifully done.  The romance, though, didn’t gel for me.  It says something, though, that I’m curious enough to see some of the big conflicts resolved to be on the wait list for the sequel.

Reading Thoughts

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I’m still considering a couple of Mel’s posts from last week about reading and diversity.  If you haven’t read them, they’re really interesting and thought-provoking and I highly recommend them.

They got me thinking back to my capstone senior English class in college, where my professor asked all of us to bring a list of around ten books we’d like to add to canonical literature.  We went around the table and at the end, she looked at all of us and said something to the effect of “Wow, a lot of white men.”  Then we talked about the influence of culture and dominant voices.

So I went back and looked through my reading list for the past couple months.

Fiction

  • Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld)
  • Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
  • Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)
  • Little Disasters (Randall Klein)
  • The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)

Nonfiction

  • Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Peter Graham)
  • When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith (Addie Zierman)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann)
  • Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (Alyssa Quart)
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Adam Hochschild)
  • The Blood of Emmet Till (Timothy B. Tyson)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy (Jenny Lawson)
  • Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Rachel Held Evans)
  • The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay, and Disaster (Sarah Krasnostein)

Reading Currently

  • World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (Irving Howe)
  • Sisterland (Curtis Sittenfeld)

Eagerly Awaiting

  • Kingdom of the Blind (Louise Penny)

There’s no doubt that if I look over my general trends, I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction and when I do read fiction, I tend to read fiction by white women (Atwood, Sittenfeld, Kent, Penny).  With non-fiction, I definitely read a variety of topics, but again, mostly white authors even when reading about minority or POC topics.

Definitely time to work on diversifying my reading list a bit more.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you’d like to read more, please visit Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Home Improvement

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Well, I certainly didn’t plan to abruptly disappear into cyberspace, but holy heck, that’s what happened.  The short version: we closed on the house and commenced on a huge round of cleaning, painting, flooring, packing, and moving starting in early January.  Having never owned property before, I did not realize that all of this is really a much bigger undertaking that I had thought.

In two months, we have:

  • Replaced almost all of the upstairs flooring (it was ancient carpet, the previous owners had two large dogs and two cats, and we have allergies) and had professionals put in nice, water-resistant laminate
  • Painted three of the bedrooms ourselves to a nice, neutral warm cream color
  • Repainted a bunch of trim/doors in the upstairs ourselves
  • Had the kitchen and living room professionally painted as there were a lot of nooks and crannies that were going to be tough to do well ourselves (both were gray to begin with, which I know is really trendy right now, but it felt depressing to me – so now the kitchen is a very pale creamy yellow and the living room is a light sky blue)
  • Bought area rugs for bedrooms and the living room
  • New sofa and benches for the living room.
  • Installed various curtain rods
  • Packed up our old place
  • Hired and supervised movers for all the heavy furniture (we considered having friends/family help us, but we have a sleeper sofa that is horribly heavy plus a washer and dryer, and decided the risk of one of us throwing out a back was too high)
  • Replaced the dining area chandelier
  • Unpacked most of the bedrooms
  • Bought a guest bed

I love all of it, though!  It’s the first place we’ve lived that actually has felt like mine/ours.  There are a few less “fun” things to get done, such as hiring a handyman to get a little bit of the wooden siding on the front repaired now that the weather allows for it, but we’re making headway on that as well.

These days, we’re in the tough sort of “in-between” phase where we’re living in the new house but still cleaning out bits and pieces from our old apartment (our lease is up at the end of March).  We’re also unpacking and having a lot of those “wait, where is (fill in the blank)?!” moments.

Other than the moving/house, I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandburg’s Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.  I have mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, she has some really good advice about coping with life’s truly horrible moments and shares a lot of her personal story that I found moving and relatable.  On the other hand, it’s also very rah-rah, you can move through this, and kid/parenting heavy.  I found a lot of the advice about coping with an unexpected death like my brother’s good, but I know if I’d read this during my fertility struggles or when I was in the hospital expecting to lose my older daughter any day, I would have found a lot of it really frustrating.  I guess like most advice books, I’m taking what applies to me and leaving the rest.

I’m also finishing up Eve Schaub’s book Year of No Clutter and thoroughly enjoying it so far (though, be warned, near the end there is a chapter on sorting out her daughters’ baby things).  Schaub writes about her “Hell Room” – the largest room in her house that is so cluttered and full of stuff that she can barely get into it and so just closes the door.  As someone who firmly falls on the ‘packrat’ side of the clutter/decluttering continuum, even though I have not reached the point Schaub has, I still can relate to quite a few of the feelings Schaub discusses about dealing with “stuff”.  Schaub’s story about keeping a mummified dead mouse (!) because she wrote about it and now feels attached to it, however, was definitely not one of those moments (I hate, loathe, despise, and otherwise cannot stand dead critters in my living space).  When she talked about craft projects that she saves and never gets to but can’t bear to throw out however…well, my mind went guiltily to my fabric drawer, stuffed with un-finished sewing projects.  Given that we’re in the stage of trying to figure out what to keep and what to toss, though, reading the book has been a bit of a companion in the stress of trying to deal with the “but I might NEED IT SOMEDAY!” moments.

This post is part of Microblog Mondays – if you want to read more posts from other bloggers, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Pondering

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I’ve found myself reading mystery novelist Louise Penny a lot lately.  When the news and the world is horrible and dark, her novels are calming, a refuge of sorts, just like her fictional village Three Pines that can only be found by those who are lost.  Penny’s novels don’t deny the darkness, nor do they minimize or turn away from the ugliness found in human nature.  Penny does, however, present an alternative vision of genuine kindness and deep determination to do right in the face of unspeakable injustice and crimes.

Last week, Loribeth at The Road Less Travelled wrote a lovely piece on how we teach people to suffer (she gives a wonderful answer).  It’s been in my head for the last week because it is such a difficult, pertinent question.

As I was finishing up one of Penny’s novels and reading the acknowledgements section, I was struck by what Penny wrote of her own life during the time she worked on the book: “Michael [her husband] has dementia.  It has progressed, marching through our lives, stomping out his ability to speak, to walk, to remember events and names.  Dementia is a marauder, a thief.  But every hole it drilled has been filled by our friends.  By practical help and emotional support.”

It is the final part of her thanks that took my breath away: “I wrote A Great Reckoning with the peace of mind that comes with knowing I too am safe and loved.  And not alone.”

If I had to give an answer to the question of how to teach suffering, Penny’s words in the face of slowly losing her beloved husband are the best I could manage.  Create community.  Help find a way to let people know that they are safe.  Loved.  Not alone.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you’d like to read more, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for hosting and originating.