Speaking Up

I have so much I want to write for this blog, but I have been holding back. Sometimes, it is because there is a topic about which I feel so much anger and outrage (so many reasons for this lately, especially today), yet I don’t want anger to cause my words to miss my goal, to somehow do more harm than good. As both history and current events make clear, words (especially strategic lies) can lead to violence. If I write about what makes me angry or outraged, I want to write in a way that leads to positive actions. And I want to aim for accuracy and insight, not distortions or exaggerations. A daunting goal, especially when I am mad.

I also worry about how to address everything that is at risk and everyone who is endangered right now. Some of the outrages are direct and personal to me. Some are outrages against others who I would hope to support. I admit, I worry if I speak out loudly on one topic, I am somehow failing because I haven’t spoken out on every single type of outrage nor have I identified the specific ways that one group of people is harmed more than another group by one of these issues. I want to speak up, but I don’t want to say too little or divert from the work of those who keenly feel and know harms that I do not.

There is a related (yet opposite) reason I hesitate to post on my blog. Some of the topics that interest me seem so frivolous in the face of more serious concerns. Some are silly, some are random, most are frankly diversions from more serious concerns. I worry about writing about something that is light in the face of so much that is heavy.

And yet, I want to write on these topics, both heavy and light. For the light ones, I want to give myself permission to write on them because it seems wrong to let the bullies stop me from enjoying a few diversions. For the heavy ones, well, it seems wrong not to speak up, even if I can’t be sure I’m doing it right, or if I’m missing something else that is important. I also can’t choose one cause as most important. I understand that there are people who take on the needed role of activist, shining a light on a specific concern that they understand deeply. So if I try to support every cause that is pro-humanity, pro-democracy, pro-justice, pro-peace, pro-community, pro-environment, pro-empowerment, anti-bullying, anti-bigotry, anti-violence, anti-apathy, anti-despair… I know that I may not articulate my support as well as such activists would. But rather than hesitate to write on difficult topics, I should embrace the possibility that I will sometimes have to try again as I gain fresh insights or learn from wise activists or scholars, expanding or changing what I’ve written.

I will listen, I will learn, and I will speak up because we all have to speak up these days, whether it’s light or heavy. Not yelling, no. But engaging in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and peaceful, in order to live up to our responsibilities to take care of one another and to take care of this planet.

Book covers

Reading Notes: Pop by Robert Gipe

I finally finished Pop, the third book of the series by Robert Gipe, and am still sorting my thoughts on this book and the series as a whole. This story stands on its own, but is more powerful, I think, if you have read the first two books (Trampoline and Weedeater).

I should probably not talk about specific moments in this book because it might detract from your ability to appreciate the unpredictable twists and turns ahead. My favorite scene is when Uncle Hubert is talking in a cave…and really, to say any more is to spoil quite a bit, so I’ll stop there. I also liked how the the final scenes create a rising crescendo, placing this family’s stories into a deeper history of the region.

I was amused that it took me until I was 2/3 into the book when I figured out the title Pop was referring to the soda that Dawn’s daughter Nicolette produced, rather than directly speaking of a father figure (though given Uncle Hubert’s rise to something of a hero in this book, an indirect reference could well have been intended). It made me wonder why I never use the word pop to refer to soda, even though I grew up in the mountains of NC not too far as a crow flies from the setting of these books. I found a map that explained this to me—there seems to be a true border between my part of the mountains and theirs, one side says soda and the other says pop. https://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/the-soda-vs-pop-map/. I It seems somehow typical that this drills down to tiny spots on the map, not even the entire region, and that distinctiveness seems fitting, resonant of what this series of books tries to convey about people and cultures not well understood by those outside.

Although soda was my main word for soda, I also grew up referring to soda as soft drinks, which even at the time I got some flack for, like I was using some Latin term for it or something. And I was now years old when I realized that the phrase soft drinks is probably in contrast to “hard drinks,” which is why I think it was a term I grew up with because I come from intellectuals who liked to party.

Anyway, my head is still spinning a bit from this book. Just like the first two, a lot happens. In terms of genre, I would consider this book literary fiction or possibly Appalachian literature if that’s a category, and it always strikes me that I tend to think of such fiction as different from genre fiction, which I consider plot-driven, which makes you think of “action.” Yet these categories elude such descriptions because there is so much action in this book. Even with so much going on, it is the characters that stand out, and the writing itself sings. You know, when I read genre fiction, I often keep reading to “find out what happens,” though it is true that I need to care about the characters. I’ve sampled a few books lately where I just couldn’t care about the characters, so even though I liked the plot concept, I had to put the book down. In Pop, I care so much about these characters that I agonize as I see some of the action ensue, worrying about what will happen to them.

After much heartbreak, this book ends on a high note, finally giving me a moment I had hoped for as I read the first book (a hope I had actually abandoned by the end of the second book).

One line I’d like to ponder: “Wildness ain’t the disease; wildness is the cure.” This narrative is wild, unruly, and unpredictable, dotted with glimpses of the natural beauty and challenges of life in Appalachia. The cure this book offers is what could happen when people come to know who they are and have the chance to be who they want to be.

This baffles me

This baffles me.

I know I’m stating the obvious, but it’s been an odd couple of years. More than a couple, to be honest.

I am trying to lean on empathy and compassion, always better choices than anger (and its central source: grief). So I am not going to blame anyone who has chosen to purchase the snake oil medicine (I reserve sharp condemnation for its salespeople).

But I have to give myself a moment to vent about what is so baffling.

If ten years ago, I told you that we would face a pandemic that would kill one in every 500 American and cause severe illness and in some cases long term disability in countless others, this is what you would say: Gosh, I hope they come up with a vaccine for it.

They did. They did come up with a vaccine. Multiple options, actually. It was a modern miracle how quickly they were able to do so while still taking care to go through all the testing procedures to reduce risk of harmful side effects.

Wow, you might say. That’s wonderful. I mean, of course, no vaccine is perfect, but it could stop the spread and prevent…

I’m going to stop you there. These vaccines were unusually effective. Not perfect, but effective, and the risk of the disease is far far far worse than any side effects of the vaccine. We also know that vaccine side effects are limited to the initial months after the vaccine is administered.

Oh, you say, that’s great. Of course, I understand that there might be a few people hesitant at first to try the vaccine. They might need to wait a few months to see how it goes. They might need to see what happens to people who get the vaccine.

Yes, that’s fair. Some people know they are unusually sensitive to drugs and just need to see what happens with widespread use. I mean, I went and got a vaccine the earliest I could because I did not like my odds with Covid19, but I guess I can understand wanting to wait a month or two as long as you go to great length to avoid contact with others until you get vaccinated.

And? How did it go with widespread use?

Really well, I say. Billions of people have safely been vaccinated. And it’s been more than 8 months since the first person received a vaccine.

Billions!! That must have been reassuring.

Well, a more infectious variant arose that does cause some of them to get a little sick. In statistically rare cases, worse.

Those are pretty impressive results in the face of a new variant. Did that cause people to question the vaccine?

Well… the trouble is, there are people now who simply won’t trust any vaccine. Not because of anything that’s actually happened but, well, I’m not sure I can explain why not.

That could be a problem. I mean, any vaccine? Weren’t vaccines what we would count on to solve this challenge? I mean, look at polio.

Yes, it is baffling.

Is it the cost?

Well, in the U.S., everyone can get a Covid19 vaccine for free, actually.

Wow!

But if you get sick of Covid19, that can bankrupt you if you don’t have the right insurance.

Yikes. That should make it easy for them…

I’m going to stop you there. No, instead anti-vaxxers are taking horse dewormer.

What? And ewww.

Yes, instead of a free vaccine with a success rate in the billions (which are numbers, to be honest, beyond what I can comprehend), they are taking something that makes them sick and has no credible evidence of helping with the disease. At most, there are people who say maybe it helped them.

Um, you say, I’m all for personal stories and the insights they provide to inspire more extensive research, but couldn’t I get better for lots of different reasons? I mean, I could decide that sitting in the sun is what healed me?

Yes, yes, you could.

That wouldn’t mean it’s true, even if you like me better than the people who are telling you about the vaccine.

Nope.

But… but… but…

I told you this baffles me.

Well, is there anything else they can do other than take the vaccine?

They can wear a mask.

Is it a heavy mask? Is it expensive? Is it harmful in any way?

Nope.

Just a mask? Like a surgical mask? Like the kind that has been around and been helpful for centuries? You don’t have to swallow anything? You don’t have to deal with any side effects, just wear an additional garment of clothing?

Yep.

Does it actually help?

Yep. (See below)

Do they do it? I bet they especially want their children to wear one. And to make sure everyone who comes near their children wears one.

Sigh….

To be good at something

Over the years, my children have at times sought to identify what they were “good at,” or some “special talent,” or perhaps complained that others seemed to be at ease with tasks that were for them more challenging.

Some of my children have shown interest in art and music, for example, and this has led some well-meaning relatives to ask if I thought my kids had talent in it.

I bristle at the question (but try to mind my manners). In some analytical, statistically-driven way, it is possibly true that there are qualities that we could call talent or that there are individuals born with an affinity or proclivity for certain tasks. Even in those situations, I sense a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma because individuals who are surrounded with the opportunity and encouragement to engage in a task have a good chance at improving at that task. If one has some kind of “natural tendency” to build on, so much the better, though at some point whatever was natural gets replaced by skills that are acquired through years of practice.

The point of my bristle is that I don’t think we are fated to be artists or writers or musicians or athletes or teachers or doctors or marketers or whatever. A natural affinity combined with opportunity to practice may increase the odds of one of these outcomes, sure. But too often people take the inverse to be true, concluding that they must not be “good at that,” and they will never get better at it because they did not have an immediately detectable affinity and/or plenty of opportunity. To be an artist, to be a writer, to be a musician, to be a (fill-in-the-blank) is reserved for those lucky other people, not them.

I disagree. I believe if you want to pursue any art or skill, if you work at it, you can get better. You should not close the door on something you might enjoy just because you aren’t yet “good at it.” It may take time. It may not turn out the way you imagine. But don’t give up without giving it a fair try (whatever “it” is—the arts, sports, academic subjects, specialized skills).

I should clarify that I am not giving career or financial advice here. Many wonderful artists, writers, musicians, athletes, etcetera make money in ways that have little to do with that pursued art/skill. So it may be that you will need a day job, as it is called. Or maybe not. You don’t know what the future holds. So don’t close doors on yourself just because something is hard at first.

I also don’t know that it is necessary to be the best at something to find the work rewarding or of benefit. If I am honest, I am weary of the clamor and pressure within the culture to be best, perhaps because I find that this sends the signal that if you can’t be best, don’t bother. As if only the best are the ones who matter.

I reject a scarcity mindset in determining who matters. Everyone does. Period.

Instead of the pursuit to be the best, I embrace the goal of getting better. Am I getting better at what is important to me? If so, good.

So perhaps don’t worry about finding what you are good at. Focus on finding what you want to get better at.

Hope helps.

I am saving time on Thursdays to work on blog posts, and I find myself sorting through topics both light and heavy. A lot is going on, and there never seems to be a right time to post anything, no matter what it is. Yet what I’ve landed on today is the concept of hope.

I’ve written before that I know people, am possibly married to one, who consider pessimism realistic and anything other than pessimism either misguided or literally detrimental.

I sometimes counter that in my experience, throughout history there have been reasons for joy and reasons for sorrow, though of course, sometimes more of one than the other. There are always reasons to look to the future with dread and optimism. I don’t think we can know what lies ahead, though of course we can worry about it. And we can certainly worry about what is happening in the present. There is a lot to worry about, frankly, and every time I scan newspaper headlines or the words of activists, there is definitely a sense that the dystopia is upon us.

I had the amazing luck to be raised by parents who taught me we have a responsibility to one another and our community, so I certainly don’t think we can ignore what is going wrong.

But I don’t know how to live up to my responsibilities without cultivating hope. What I hope for may not happen. Sometimes, when I think of things I hoped for in the past—or at least, when I dreamed of exciting adventures, I’m a bit relieved some of them never happened. What you hope for in your fifties is different, I guess, than what looks inviting to a young person. And let me add this— thank heavens for young people and their energy and willingness to reach for goals which would tire me out now.

I try to make sense of how other people think, and I know some people hate to hope for something and then be disappointed. So maybe that’s where we differ. Just the experience of hope is a positive in my life, even if some of my hopes don’t work out. Hope is like taking a deep breath before I start anything. When someone asks me for help, which happens in my line of work, there can sometimes be reasons to worry that I won’t be able to help. But a spark of hope, the thought of how wonderful if I could help even a little, gives me oxygen, and we muddle our way forward.

The news lately is a whirlwind of doom with the occasional flash of farce. I am worried. I know that hoping for a better future for our world—both the people and the natural environment we depend upon—is not especially logical.

But hope helps.

Start where you are

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that teens sure know how to complain. Or is that just mine? But one of the complaints that has struck me is this feeling that oh, if X or Y had happened, I’d be fine now, but because it didn’t, I’m not and how can I ever do (fill in the blank)? Such as, if I had gone to school in-person last year, I’d be fine this year in school, but I didn’t, so how can I possibly do well? Or if I had reviewed more for that standardized test that no one but admissions teams and college publicists care about, I wouldn’t be nervous about taking it next year? Or, if I had joined that sports team at age 4, I would be a professional now at age 16 (note: I am pretty sure I’ve read a study that says the opposite is true, but I try not to mention this because facts should not interfere with one’s need to complain). Some of these complaints include the subtext, or sometimes the direct statement, that if I the parent had forced my child to do something my child didn’t want to do (or, as in the case of in-person schooling before vaccines were available, something that seemed super risky for our family), my child would be on easy street right now. But that didn’t happen and, thus, there’s no hope. It will never happen, whatever “it” is.

To which I say, maybe so, but start where you are. No matter what you want to do, you can never control what happened before, whatever opportunities did or did not flow your way, whether you or your parents made wise choices or not, all of that is in the past, and none of it has to be an obstacle, or at least, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle if you choose not to treat it as such. Just start. So everyone around you seems to be perfect or already crossing the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Let them run their own races. You run yours. Start where you are. So you have no idea when you will get where you mean to go (wherever that is)? Okay, but you won’t get anywhere unless you start. Why do you have to know exactly where it is all going? Does anyone know, even the ones who act like they do? (Narrator whispers: No.) Just start. Nothing happens until you start. Nothing gets better until you start. You can’t even make choices — maybe there are some goals you don’t need to pursue, some actions that should not continue, but you can’t make any meaningful decision —until you start.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for goal-setting, for figuring out what you care about and why. But a lot of that doesn’t mean much if you never start. If I am going for a swim, I may have to decide where and how far to swim, but I won’t get anywhere until I jump in the water.

Start where you are. Build from there. Learn from the past, sure. Dream about the future. Make the best decisions you can based on what you know in the moment. But most of all, focus on the small steps that lie before you now. Take one step. Take another. You may be surprised by what comes next.

Ask again another time.

You asked me to tell you what I believe, and I thought I knew exactly what I would say. I believe in kindness, or some might call it empathy/compassion. Not necessarily the so-called random acts of kindness, which feel like a fad diet or a New Year’s resolution, too brief to hold meaning, too spurious to value, but rather the deepest type of kindness based on the expectation that everyone on this planet has intrinsic value and deserves to be treated with kindness. Don’t get me wrong—some individuals may deserve to be limited/constrained, or at the very least, experience a few consequences for their actions, but it should still be grounded in kindness.

But then I got tired or cranky or short-tempered, and I didn’t feel like a person who should be writing about kindness. Besides, is that what I believe or what I want to believe? Is belief something solid or something aspirational? Can belief be defended, given weight and texture, or must it always be ephemeral, something that shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely?

I’ve noticed when someone else believes something fiercely, in particular those who with strong religious beliefs and, on the other hand, absolute atheists, I move in the opposite direction. Yet, if you asked, I would have said that I’m the type to try to make sense of what someone is telling me rather than immediately opposing it. I am, perhaps, an unreliable narrator of my own life.

I realize that I don’t believe in absolute truths, but I appear to believe in heuristics, ideas that are mostly true except when they are not. Be kind to others is a heuristic because most of us can think of a time when our attempts at kindness backfired or led us to feel taken advantage of. Yet kindness is still generally a good idea. So here are a few others: Be honest with others and yourself. Celebrate the ways in which the world, life, and the people you meet are sources of wonder and joy. Reading/writing is a way of life. Democracy is a kind of life blood, as essential as air or water. Find ways to make meaning out of your life. No matter your age, keep learning, keep working, keep playing.

Now that I can call these heuristics rather than beliefs, I know I could compose an endless list. But what I believe? I feel like a magic 8 ball because you will get a different answer every time you ask, some the opposite of the last.

This post is part of a group blogging activity hosted by Bill, the blogger of A Silly Place. Here’s the link to the full collection of posts on the topic of What do you believe? https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/things-we-believe-in/#more-12108

Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

What’s so funny about peace, love, and academic theories?

While I should know better than to be surprised by anything anymore, I admit to being befuddled by the attacks on critical race theory. Wait, before you explain to me about white supremacy or people who stand for nothing making things up to fight over, yes, I get that.

It’s just that from a social science perspective, critical race theory is a complex theoretical viewpoint, a lens with which to analyze a problem. The metaphor of a lens is often used for this kind of research, and it’s an apt one. If I take a photo with a wide view lens and another with a close-up lens, I will get different results even though I am aiming my camera in the same direction at what appears to be the same subject. So if I study a topic using critical race theory, I’m applying this lens because it will bring to light specific issues worthy of investigation. And, um, it doesn’t exactly seem radical to suggest that discrimination and injustice based on race are worthy of investigation.

I am not well-read in the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, though I suspect I would benefit greatly from it (my dissertation research question fit best with activity theory, in case you’re wondering, and I feel confident you weren’t). I could say the same about postmodern theory, and there are threads of that theory which I also find inviting, from zombies (neither dead nor alive) to unraveling tapestries (of meaning). What I most recall about these theoretical lenses is that they are complex. Which is why, though I am definitely mad about the white supremacy and power grabs that fuel these attacks, I find myself trying not to laugh when I hear legislatures want to outlaw critical race theory. It makes me think, will they outlaw postmodern theory next? I remember being a middle school teacher and what we would have thought if someone told us we were forbidden to teach postmodern theory. It would just be like, “Um, will I know if I was teaching that?” And there would be eye rolls.

In my experience, theoretical perspectives are full of subtlety and nuance. You rarely claim anything to be absolutely true, so even if you had some enterprising public school teacher determined to inculcate our youth in postmodern theory, well, actually, postmodern theory suggests that sentence could never occur, so let me try again. Theory is subtle, flexible, evolving, with ample room for dissent. To outlaw a theory is to outlaw, well, something as insubstantial as a summer breeze. There’s something there, but what is it? And it will be gone before we can even try to take hold.

I know, I know. It never makes sense. These tinpot dictators in our state legislatures don’t want to make sense, just trouble. And waste time, energy, and resources just when we need them the most.

Here’s a thought—maybe I will call my Senators to urge they pass the For the People Act (S.1) every time I see any misguided references to critical race theory.

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.