Friday, June 15, 2018

June 2018 Quick Lit: What I've been reading

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post, where we share brief reviews of what we've been reading. I haven't done a Quick Lit post since March, so I have a decent-sized list of books to share here: one fiction and six nonfiction.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
This novel is about a young couple, Celestial and Roy, who have been married for a year and whose lives are turned upside down when Roy is wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. (It is really unnerving to realize that this can happen so easily to a black man who has done absolutely nothing wrong.) They try to maintain closeness through the letters they exchange, but as months and then years pass, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to her marriage and relying more and more on her childhood friend Andre. Roy's unexpectedly early release brings the situation to a crisis point. Jones' technique of using alternating first-person chapters and the texts of the characters' letters allows us to understand all of the characters' perspectives and makes us hopeful for a resolution that will somehow satisfy all of them and us as readers. I think she succeeds. I really enjoyed this novel.

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler.
Bowler, a professor who (ironically) studies the prosperity gospel, finds her own beliefs about success and entitlement challenged when she is diagnosed with colon cancer at age 35. This book tells the story of her coming to grips with her diagnosis and the prospect of suffering and death, her Christian faith, what (and who) helps and doesn't help her, and her struggle to refocus her life without reliance on platitudes. Bowler is a real character: funny, endearing, show-offy, and very honest. If you've read and enjoyed books like When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi) or Being Mortal (Atul Gawande), you'll probably like this one. I'd highly recommend it.

People Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson.
Amy Dickinson's "Ask Amy" column is the first thing I read in the newspaper every morning, so I was eager to get my hands on her latest volume of memoir (she has a previous one, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, which I haven't read). I thoroughly enjoyed this book about Dickinson's mid-life move back to her home in rural New York State and her unexpected romance with a local building contractor. Her descriptions of love in mid-life, blended families, and grief over the death of parents are very engaging and moving.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael Wear.
In his twenties, Wear worked on former US President Barack Obama's faith-based initiatives in his first term and on his reelection campaign in 2012. Wear provides a behind-the-scenes look at Obama's reception by American Christianity (it's brutally ironic to read of Franklin Graham challenging Obama's Christian "cred," in light of Graham's current obsequious support of Trump); the faith-based office's work in disaster relief, food distribution, combating human trafficking; and the controversies over abortion and Obama's changed stance on gay marriage. Wear is honest in both his admiration for, and disappointment in, Obama, but he never lapses into cynicism; the last section of the book entreats readers to put politics in its proper perspective -- not to put our hope in politics but to bring our faith to bear on all aspects of public life. 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. 
This book is a great primer for anyone who honestly wants to engage in conversations about race but doesn't know where to start, is afraid of offending or being offended, or just doesn't quite understand the issues. Oluo addresses topics like white privilege, intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and more. Informative, challenging, and a little uncomfortable.

Ask a Manager by Alison Green.
I enjoy advice columns and occasionally read "Ask a Manager" questions and answers on Twitter -- so when I saw this book at the library I picked it up. It has tons of helpful advice for bosses dealing with staff, suggestions for employees dealing with bosses and co-workers, and tips for interviewing. I enjoyed the down-to-earth advice (applicable to many areas of life, not just the workplace) as well as the oddball stories about the boss who ate his employee's lunch every day, the woman who referred to her partner as "Master" and wanted her co-workers to call him that too, the woman who threatened to put a curse on her colleagues, and more.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson.
Psychologist/professor Peterson has become one of the most sought-after speakers and celebrated intellectuals of our day. All I really knew about him was his highly public refusal to be "compelled" to call students at U of Toronto by their preferred-gender pronouns and his complaint to Camille Paglia in an interview that a man can't have a reasonable conversation with a woman because he's not allowed to hit her. So I got this book out of the library to see what all the fuss was about. 

12 Rules for Life is almost unreadable, frankly. It is nearly 400 pages long, broken up into chapters with bossy titles like "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world" and "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." These bits of folksy, sort-of-common-sense advice are buried in long (and long-winded) chapters discussing such topics as
* the hierarchy of lobsters (stand up straight like a lobster! be a winner! although why lobsters are chosen as models for humankind is unclear)
* Peterson and his wife force-feeding a child they were babysitting (whose caregiver had been hit by a car) and relishing their victory -- a victory over the child's mother, really -- in a very creepy way
* a lengthy description of a woman he counseled in clinical practice, complete with sarcastic comments about her uncertainty about whether she'd been raped

Peterson comes across as a grandiose, pompous dilettante. I honestly don't know if his discussions of Jung, or Marxism, or even lobsters, are accurate -- and I confess I skimmed many of the chapters just to try to get the gist of what he was saying rather than being bogged down in the prose. The writing is wordy and overblown, as in this passage: "I was speaking recently with a client whose husband had been engaging in a successful battle with cancer for an agonizing period of five years. They had both held up remarkably and courageously over this period. However, he fell prey to the tendency of that dread condition to metastasize and, in consequence, had been given very little time to live." This could be written as "The husband of a client of mine had battled cancer courageously for five years, but the cancer had metastasized and he was given little time to live." Or the laughable "As the infamous father of the Simpson clan puts it"; why not just "As Homer Simpson says"? These may seem like minor criticisms -- but if a 60-word passage could be reduced to 30 words, and a 9-word passage to 4, then why is this book so long? Because Peterson's editor thinks he's a genius or because they're afraid to stand up to him? This book needed a strong editorial hand, someone with the confidence to say "This makes no sense. Rewrite it."

As to the book's subtitle, Peterson states clearly in his introduction ("overture") that order is male and chaos is female. He half-heartedly says that we need both -- yin and yang and all that -- but if female is chaos and we need his rules to provide an antidote to it, then female is clearly bad and inferior. His book may be received as bracing encouragement by disaffected men who are uncomfortable with changes in and challenges to the accepted social structure and who want to believe that a straighter back and a good dose of rugged individualism will transform them from losers to winners -- but for the rest of us, it doesn't seem to have much to offer.


I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments: have you read any of these? What good books have you read in the last while?

Friday, June 01, 2018

Five Minute Friday: RETURN - my last trip to the farm

Almost a year ago today, I returned to our family farm for the last time.

We would be putting it up for sale a few weeks afterward, and I was only in PEI for a week -- so this was my final time to go back and walk through the empty house. My aunt (Mom's sister) came with me; she had not grown up in the house but had been in it thousands of times, and it was in a way another home to her, too. She wanted to dig up a few perennials to have something lasting from the old place.

The spare house key was still hanging inside the back door of what we called the "tractor building" -- the same place it had hung for at least 40 years. I unlocked the door to the house and we wandered through. It was cool and felt both damp and dusty. Some rooms were now unrecognizable, the previous residents having made some renovations -- but others looked almost exactly as they had been when our family lived there. 

I confess that I felt less sadness than I had expected to. Perhaps it was because when the people who made that house home were no longer there, I sensed that the walls and floors and roof were just containers for our lives. I realize not everyone feels that way: for some, the piece of earth and the buildings themselves retain significance of their own beyond that of the people who abided on and in them. But for me, it was not home anymore, and I was almost relieved to go outside again and lock the door behind me.

The yard looked much more like I remembered it than the house did -- except that Dad would never have let it get so overgrown with grass and dandelions.

There used to be a little blue picnic table under that tree; when we would visit in the summertime, Jonathan would sit there and do a jigsaw puzzle or have a snack. There had also been a hammock, where Allison might be found reading. Both were now gone.
I wonder now, how many Sunday afternoons did we spend sitting under that chestnut tree, commenting on  the (few) cars passing on the road, perhaps waiting for company to arrive.

Many people said that our house, with its white shingles and (formerly) green trim, reminded them of the house in Anne of Green Gables

This last picture contains so much: the bare earth near the house where cars would turn around; the old hay wagon in the long grass, its side racks removed; the little stretch of wooden fencing; the blue strip of Northumberland Strait to the south. It was the most beautiful view. At nighttime we could see lights twinkling across the strait in Nova Scotia. 

I'm glad I have these few pictures of the last time I returned home. When I drove away that day, I carried a million memories with me, too -- both sweet and sad. 


This is a Five Minute Friday post - the prompt was RETURN.


photos by Jeannie Prinsen - June 3, 2017

Friday, May 18, 2018

Five Minute Friday: SECRET

Today I'm joining the Five Minute Friday linkup, where we write for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is SECRET.

Last week I watched the movie The Glass Castle, based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, which I'd read a few years earlier. 

Walls' father was a charismatic, alcoholic dreamer with a cruel streak, and her mother was a self-absorbed amateur artist; the family moved ("skedaddled," as the father put it) constantly, often living in deprivation and squalor, until the children were, one by one, able to escape and move to New York City.

The movie was very good. Although it romanticized the father a bit and gave the abusive aspects of both parents less weight than they probably deserved, it showed the lifelong impact of family secrets.

In one scene late in the movie, adult Jeannette, who has established a career as a successful journalist, is at a restaurant with her wealthy husband and a kind older couple with whom the husband hopes to land a work contract. Jeannette has worked to keep her parents and their problems in a secret compartment of her life, and her husband (who calls her parents "insane") supports her in this -- but she is finding it harder and harder to do so. When the older couple ask about her father, Jeannette's husband cuts in, telling the lie the two of them usually tell: that Jeannette's father is "developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently." 

Jeannette excuses herself to go the bathroom, and when she returns she tells the older couple the truth: 

"My parents are squatting in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. They were homeless for three years before that, which is pretty much how they raised us. My dad is not developing a technology for bituminous coal, but he could tell you anything that you want to know about it. He is the smartest man that I know. He is also a drunk, never finishes what he starts, and can be extremely cruel. But he dreams bigger than anyone I've ever met. And he never tries to be somebody that he's not. And he never wanted me to, either."

This admission changes the direction of Jeannette's life. She leaves her husband and the wealthy lifestyle she's been accustomed to and embraces a simpler life more in tune with the kind of person she has always been. She takes her secrets out of the compartment she's placed them in, and is then better able to integrate the good and terrible aspects of her past. She is also able to make some kind of peace with her parents, knowing she can't change them.

There's a saying that "we are only as sick as our secrets." I take this to mean that healing and growth can only happen when we are honest and stop hiding the parts of our selves or our past that cause us shame. As another of my favourite quotes (this one from Dr. Henry Cloud) says, "The truth is always your friend." 


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Five Minute Friday: INCLUDE

Today I'm joining Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is INCLUDE.

I teach an online university course in academic essay-writing. In our course, students learn how to develop a thesis statement, an outline, and strong introductory, body, and concluding paragraphs.

One problem faced by many student writers (writers of all kinds, really) is not knowing how much information to include. So we put a lot of emphasis on having a plan -- a thesis statement that sets a road map for the rest of the essay. It's a useful metaphor. If you're trying to get from Kingston to Montreal, then your road map will include stops along that journey; you don't have to worry about including Toronto in your road map because that's not part of a Kingston-Montreal trip. Likewise, in an essay, if you narrow your topic or thesis sufficiently -- let's say, you decide to write an essay about diabetes in children -- then you don't need to worry about including information about adult diabetes, because that's not part of your topic, so it's not on your road map.

Another metaphor I often use is the recipe. I tell students, "Have a general idea of what you want to make first, before you go grocery shopping. Are you going to make lasagna? or cabbage rolls? or trifle? Then look for ingredients that will contribute to that dish; don't just go the store and wander around selecting ingredients that look interesting but might not end up working together." Likewise, with an essay, they should have at least a basic idea of where they think their essay might go so that they can decide what information, sources, or data to include -- and what to exclude.

These are great principles, yet there are also times when a student will contact me and ask, "Is it OK if I change my topic? I started gathering information and realized I really want to write about X, not Y." I've even had students start out taking one side of an argument and, as they worked on their essay, ending up with exactly the opposite argument. So as much as I urge planning, outlines, and clear thesis statements, I also want to encourage students to be changed by the process of writing rather than to be so narrowly focused that they can't see anything beyond their specific parameters.

I't s a paradox, isn't it? Sometimes -- whether in writing or in life -- we need to hold our plans, road maps, and recipes loosely. Sometimes we need to make room to include something that wasn't on the original agenda.

Sometimes we plan the journey; sometimes the journey plans us. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

Five Minute Friday: ADAPT

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, where we write for five minutes on a given prompt. Today's word is ADAPT.

For the last couple of months we have been adapting our daily schedule. Jonathan has been taking the bus to and from school ever since he began high school, and it has been so convenient.

But lately (perhaps because he's going through a teenage phase), Jonathan has gotten very sedentary. He doesn't want to go to the schoolyard to play ball, or to a park for a walk along the shore. He has also gained quite a bit of weight (again, maybe a teenage phase; maybe he's preparing for an upward growth spurt). But we want him to have more exercise, so we've decided that he will take the bus to school in the morning but will walk home from school in the afternoon. It's about a 20-minute walk, so it guarantees that he'll get more exercise in his day.

However, he's not able to walk home alone, which means that Richard or I have to walk there to pick him up and walk home with him. 

This has meant adapting our day to the new routine. If Richard's working or unavailable, I can't just sit at my computer waiting to spy the bus coming at 2:35; instead, I have to be ready to leave home at 2:05 to walk to the school.

Sometimes, to be honest, it's a bit of a drag. I walk regularly for exercise, but I like to do that early in the day -- so if I've already had my "exercise" walk earlier, I don't necessarily feel like another 40-minute walk in the afternoon.  

But there are benefits. Jonathan gets a lot of enjoyment from observing things like seagulls and geese in the sky, shovels and brooms on porches, and yellow school buses all over the place.

Hopefully soon his "inert" phase will pass, and he'll want to get out and do more physical activity. But for now, we adapt.


(Here is Jonathan walking -- though not home from school. 
I wish this was our walk home!) 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Five Minute Friday: STUCK

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word: STUCK.

Have you ever felt like you're stuck in someone else's story? I have. 

Several years ago I experienced the breakup of a longstanding friendship. Now, when I look back, I feel in a way as if I was playing a role in the other person's narrative all along. She was the star; I was supporting actress. I was her "champion." To use a Lord of the Rings analogy, I was faithful helper Sam to her Frodo. Or as Anne Tyler describes in one of her novels, my friend was the volleyball, and I was a pair of hands helping keep her in the air. 

She even described our breakup as "a time of unexpected transition" for her -- a stage in her journey -- rather than as the loss of something valuable and important. Later, when she had achieved some success in her field and I congratulated her, she replied by mentioning the part I had had in her achievements. The role I'd played was the focus -- not sadness that we were not able to truly share the experience as we might have in the past.

I know there are times we need to accept our role and responsibility in someone else's life, whether short- or long-term. But that can still be done in a spirit of dignity and equality. It's one thing to feel called to support and encourage a friend with a serious illness or trauma, or to know deep down that it's our task to care for an ailing family member or advocate to ensure their care is provided. But it's another thing to be relegated to following a script in someone else's drama -- or worse, to be rejected for not even realizing there was a script. 

We must always guard against making other people characters in the drama of our lives. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in An Altar in the World,

"The point [of encountering another human being] is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead."


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guest post by my daughter Allison Prinsen: Ten Myths About Autism

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and last April on this blog I featured a guest post by my daughter Allison about how to be an autism ally.

Today I'm pleased to have another post from Allison; this time she's exploring ten common myths about autism.


Ten Myths About Autism

Hello everyone. This Autism Acceptance Month, I am going to discuss some of the myths surrounding autism and autistic people. My aim is to increase people’s understanding of the diversity of the autism spectrum and the various ways in which autism can present.

1. Autistic people lack empathy
This myth seems to stem out of confusion about what constitutes “empathy”. Because of difficulty reading body language, autistic people may have trouble knowing how someone is feeling unless we are told outright. Our social impairments may also result in trouble knowing how to comfort someone who is upset. But we are capable of caring about others and showing compassion. Some autistic people may not be emotionally affected by others’ feelings, but they can still show kindness and support to them. Also, some autistic people are hyper-empathetic, meaning that they feel others’ pain so intensely that it overwhelms them. It is inaccurate and hurtful to assume that autistic people do not care about others. 

2. All autistic people are savants or geniuses
When an autistic person is portrayed in fiction, it is often a savant—a person who has a genius talent in a certain area, such as math, music, art, or memory. Some autistic people are savants, but they represent only a minority of autistics. Our skills and intellectual abilities vary widely: some are brilliant at a particular subject, some are good at certain things but not to genius level, and some may feel like they don’t have any real talents at all. Additionally, there are autistics who struggle with subjects that we are stereotyped as being good at, like math and spelling. Though many autistic people may be strong in specific areas, we are not all geniuses. 

3. Autistic people prefer facts to imagination
Similarly to the above, autistic people in the media tend to be obsessed with facts, often revolving around specific scientific subjects. There’s also a stereotype that autistic people aren’t imaginative or don’t like fiction. But we can actually be very creative, sometimes more so than most people. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being “in my own world” and coming up with imaginary characters and scenarios in my head. I just preferred to engage in this on my own, and was shy about sharing my daydreams with others. Many autistic people’s special interests—the topics they are extremely passionate about—involve something creative, like a specific TV show or book series. We don’t all fit the archetype of the hyper-logical science expert.

4. Autistic people aren’t interested in relationships with others. 
Again, this depends on the person, but many autistics do crave close friendships with others. We just have trouble connecting with others, and may be overwhelmed by too much socialization. Often, we find it easier to make friends online, where we don’t feel as much pressure to respond immediately and don’t have to worry about eye contact or facial expressions. Some autistics are even extroverted and love socializing, but have trouble following social rules and may be awkward or overbearing. The same goes for romantic relationships: autistics can date, get married, and have kids, though it may be more difficult for us. And if an autistic person doesn’t want to date, that’s not necessarily because of autism; some people, whether autistic or not, just aren’t interested in romantic relationships. But in general, autistic people have the same need for love and companionship, whether platonic or romantic, as anyone else.

5. Autistic people are unaware of social norms. 
As autistic people grow older, we generally gain a better understanding of social rules, and improve at skills like making conversation, interpreting body language or non-literal statements, and knowing what is and isn’t appropriate to say. Of course, we still make mistakes, but those mistakes help us learn. Also, even though we may understand what the social norms are, we may have trouble following them in certain situations. If overwhelmed, we may behave in ways that seem odd, such as covering our ears or rocking back and forth. Even if we realize our behaviours are unusual, we may be unable to control them when stressed. Or we may behave in unusual ways just because we enjoy it and don’t care what others think of us. This can apply to stimming, a term for the repetitive motions that autistics often exhibit. Stimming is generally pleasurable for us and hurts no one, so we may not care if it seems strange to others. But it’s not true that autistics are always unaware of what is socially normal and what isn’t.

6. You can always tell if someone is autistic. 
Some autistic people have a good enough understanding of social norms to pass as neurotypical, at least in some situations. (A neurotypical is someone without any mental disorders.) Sometimes we suppress our autistic behaviours to fit in or avoid bullying, or we learn to mimic others to appear “normal”. In fact, some autistic people aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, or not at all. This is often said to be especially true of women. Autism can present in a variety of ways, and not all of them are obvious.

7. Autistic people take everything literally and don’t understand sarcasm or humour. 
It’s true that autistic people do sometimes take things literally, because of difficulty with understanding tones of voice and the intent behind words. But we can learn the meanings of idioms and slang terms, and many of us do understand and use sarcasm. Many of us are extremely funny in a quirky way. And autistic people aren’t the only ones who take things literally. Sometimes, an autistic person will make a joke and have it taken literally by others because we don’t deliver it in the “right” tone or they don’t see us as the kind of person who would make jokes. Though our senses of humour may be different from the usual, we do have them. 

8. Autistic people are unemotional. 
It’s more accurate to say that autistic people generally express emotion differently from others. Some autistic people may have a flat affect and not express a lot of emotion outwardly, though that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything on the inside. Others are very emotional: they have meltdowns when upset and dance with joy when excited. Autistic people may also be emotionally affected by different things than most people: we may get very upset at something that doesn’t bother others, or not react to something that does upset others. A lot of autistics also have alexithymia, which means they have trouble labeling and expressing their feelings. But in general, autistic people can feel all the same emotions as others, though we may show them differently.

9. You should always say “person with autism” instead of “autistic person”. 
The “person-first” movement states that people should avoid using the term “autistic”, and instead use “person with autism”, to imply that the person is more than their diagnosis. However, much of the autistic community rejects this insistence on person-first language. Many of us do see autism as part of our identity, and do not want to be separated from it. Saying “autistic person” doesn’t imply that autism is all the person is; we would describe people as “female” rather than as a “person with femaleness”, even though being female is not their whole identity. Though different autistic people will have different preferences, there is no need to avoid the word “autistic”. 

10. Autism is a linear spectrum from high-functioning to low-functioning. 
Some people view the autism spectrum as a sliding scale. On one end, there are the people who are fully verbal, highly intelligent, and capable of living independently, and on the other end there are people who are non-verbal, intellectually disabled, and need constant care. But it isn’t as simple as that. Some people may be non-verbal but have high intelligence, or intellectually disabled but very verbal and social. These functioning labels can be used to discredit the capabilities of autistic people who need more day-to-day support, and to undermine the struggles of those who can blend well into society. It’s preferable to think of the spectrum as having many different components, such as verbal ability, intellectual ability, social skills, emotional management, sensory sensitivity, and so on. A person can be at a different level in all of them, and their ability can vary depending on their mood and the situation. We don’t all fit into the neat categories of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”.

You may have noticed that most of these myths have something in common: they assume that all autistic people are a certain way. Generalizing about all autistics will usually be inaccurate, because we are all different. We can be loud or quiet, artistic or scientific, nice or mean. Basically, we are people like anyone else, who can feel pain, anger, passion, and love. We deserve to be respected as unique and complete humans, not just as a collection of stereotypical traits.