Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Non-fiction NovemberSeeing your parents grow old is a universal — and difficult — experience. In 2001, cartoonist Roz Chast could see the writing on the wall. Her parents were in their 90s, and not doing well. Her mother was in the hospital after a fall from a step stool, and her father’s senile dementia kept him homebound.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a chronicle of two lives at their end and a daughter’s attempt to make that end dignified — while not losing her mind along the way.

Quite the read

I picked up Chast’s memoir at an interesting time. My husband’s grandmother and my own are both well into dementia, and we’ve had many conversations with our families about their challenges.

The thing that struck me hardest, and yet wasn’t surprising, was how much the experience exhausted Chast. Dying is messy, expensive, and often takes years. It’s awful for the person dying, of course, but can be soul-sucking for their caretakers as well.

I see a lot of myself in Chast, particularly how she handles her father’s dementia. She tries to be a good daughter, but frustration gets the better of her often.

The book left me shaken. It gave me glimpses into my future that I don’t want to dwell on. Not only may I someday end up caring for an aging relative…I will someday be that aging, dying person. Will I be a good caretaker when the time comes, and will I end up in a home myself someday?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? isn’t what I would call a fun read, but I do think it’s valuable. Not only is it excellent storytelling, it also focuses on a taboo topic that should be talked about more. Even if it makes us uncomfortable.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to all year but haven’t yet.)

Consider Me Professionally Developed

Non-fiction NovemberI despise stagnation. If I’m not learning or growing, it feels like I’m dying. This is partially because it’s the way I am (learning is so much fun!), and partially because I’ve got a lot of baggage when it comes to job progression and success.

In my anxiety-infested brain, not having enough to do at work means I’m about to be let go. I have nothing to do, which means there’s nothing to be done, which means why would they keep me around? Is there nothing to do because there’s truly nothing to do, or is there really stuff to do but my boss isn’t putting it on my plate because she’s about to fire me?

This isn’t a logical chain of reasoning — not given recent events, at least — but it’s one I fight with regularly.

“What’s the plan?”

I ask, and am asked, this question daily. Being able to answer is fun for me. “First I’m going to do this, then I need to ask about this, then I can…” etc. I love planning, I love putting together a process and working through it.

It used to irk me that I wasn’t able to answer this question when it came to my career. Was I being myopic or ruining my life because I didn’t know where I “saw myself” in five years?

Turns out, not really. Fuck the Grand Life Plan. It’s impossible. Life changes too fast, and is too short to spend time trying to force it take a shape it no longer can.

Build your path as you walk it

“Winging it” is not my thing. I have goals and things I want to learn and improve on — but I don’t go overboard with life planning anymore.

  • I want to improve my public speaking skills, so I joined Toastmasters in June. Two speeches in the bag!
  • I’m working with my manager to take on projects that fit my strengths and give me growth and visibility opportunities.
  • I’m a member of my company’s career committee, which spearheads career development programs for everyone I work with.
  • I attended this year’s Texas Conference for Women. Incredible speakers and sessions that have inspired me to do better (and re-think what “networking” really means).

I’m also reading like a fiend. Here’s what’s kept my brain spinning the last few months:

  • The Game Plan (Steve Bull) – Straightforward, practical, actionable advice for developing mental toughness.
  • Option B (Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant) – When Option A isn’t going to happen, it’s time to kick the shit out of Option B. Wonderful advice on building resilience.
  • Everything that Remains (Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus) – “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things — which actually aren’t things at all.”
  • Project Management Absolute Beginner’s Guide (Gregory M. Horine) – I’ve managed small projects throughout my career, but I want to improve my foundational knowledge.

I also can’t wait to get my hands on Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Kelly Hoey’s Build Your Dream Network.

Life is exciting and fun and a little bit intimidating right now. Definitely a sign I’m on an interesting path.

Review: Working

Working, Studs TerkelWhat is work? Is it just something that gets us a paycheck, or does it give our lives meaning? Is some work better or more valuable than others?

In 1974 the historian and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel published Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book contains dozens of transcribed interviews with miners, sex workers, waitresses, caregivers, executives, paperboys, and housewives.

Each interview is a peek into a different life, a snapshot of each person’s experiences and hardships and joys and fears and worries.

At the heart of each interview is the idea that life is difficult, and that finding meaning in your work is what makes that life worthwhile.

The dawn of a new era

Working was published at an interesting time in America’s history. Mechanization and computerization had just begun its takeover, unions were experiencing a resurgence, and the entire country was finally coming to terms with the Civil Rights Movement.

The interviewees’ stories reflect these unique feelings and experiences. But they also feature themes that have always existed: the importance of finding meaning in your work, the challenges of being a small wheel in a big machine, and the inevitable “young people these days aren’t interested in hard work” complaint.

In their own words

The book is divided into nine big chunks, each focused on something like “Working the Land,” “Communications,” and “Reflections on Idleness and Retirement.”

For me, the most interesting interviews happen near the middle of the book. Terkel interviewed several activists, and their words ring as true today as they did in 1974.

The white-collar guy is scared he may be replaced by the computer. The schoolteacher is asked not to teach but to babysit. God help you if you teach. The minister is trapped by the congregation that’s out of touch with him. He spends his life violating the credo that led him into the ministry. The policeman has no relationship to the people he’s supposed to protect. So he oppresses. The fireman who wants to fight fires ends up fighting a war. People become afraid of each other. They’re convinced there’s not a damn thing they can do.

And this:

The problem with history is that it’s written by college professors about great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for themselves and their kids.

Most of the interviewees do not have jobs that we consider glamorous or engaging or even particularly valuable. But many of them are so passionate about what they do, and get the greatest joy from what others might consider the smallest things. Like Babe, a grocery store checker:

I use my three fingers [on the register keys] — my thumb, my index finger, and my middle finger. The right hand. And my left hand is on the groceries. They put down their groceries. I got my hips pushin’ on the button and it rolls around on the counter. When I feel I have enough groceries in front of me, I let go of my hip. I’m just movin’ — the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register…You just keep goin’, one, two, one, two. If you’ve got that rhythm, you’re a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you’re turning your head back and forth.

And Dolores, a waitress:

Some don’t care. When the plate is down you hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art. I feel like a ballerina, too. I have to go between those tables, between those chairs…It is a certain way I can go through a chair like no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there’s a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage.

Neither of these women feels demeaned by their works — in fact, they have some choice words for those who see them as “just” a checker or “just” a waitress.

Looking back…and forward

Many of the interviewees compare the past to the present; some make predictions about the future of work and their industries. I see some of those predictions coming true.

Some people are hopeful about the future, others aren’t. But they all wanted readers to know that what they do matters. I don’t think that desire will disappear anytime soon.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read non-fiction book.)

Review: Lincoln’s Battle with God

Lincoln's Battle with God, Stephen MansfieldThe debate over whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a “real” Christian began before he was elected to political office, and continues over 150 years after his assassination. He was an avowed atheist in his youth; yet Mary Lincoln said that her husband’s last words were a whispered longing to travel to Jerusalem and walk in Christ’s steps.

Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America is author Stephen Mansfield’s attempt to trace the development of Lincoln’s faith throughout his lifetime. What caused him to distance himself from religion as a young adult, what brought him back to a belief in God, and what could that journey mean for us?

A new angle

Lincoln is one of my heroes, and I’m always excited to read anything I can about him. But I was surprised to see Lincoln’s Battle with God on the shelf at the library. Most of the Lincoln books I’ve read don’t focus on this aspect of his life, and it never really mattered to me whether or not Lincoln was religious.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Lincoln wrestled with religion. His mother’s death when he was still a child left him at the mercy of a dictatorial Calvinist/Baptist father, and he lost two young children to horrible illnesses. He was elected to lead a country that was coming apart at the seams, and presided over the deadliest years in American history.

The early years

Lincoln was raised in a faith that decreed everything pre-ordained. God was distant and detached, allowing bad things to happen simply because they were “supposed to.” Lincoln believed from a young age that he was both gifted and cursed — that he had been granted knowledge and ambition so that he would be forced to experience humiliation and degradation.

Lincoln spent his young adulthood in New Salem, Illinois, where he gained a reputation as an “infidel.” The poetry of Robert Burns and the writings of Thomas Paine reinforced Lincoln’s opinion of Christians as arrogant and hypocritical, and pushed him further away from religion; friends heard him call Jesus “a bastard,” and he called the Bible a book of contradictions.

A fascinating journey

How did Lincoln go from “infidel” to expressing a desire to visit Jerusalem? Mansfield believes it was a gradual process, informed by Lincoln’s reading, thinking, and life experiences. Lincoln came to believe himself to be God’s instrument, placed on earth to fulfill God’s purposes rather than man’s.

I’m not sure Lincoln ever became a Christian — but his faith is something I would love to emulate.

(I read this book as part of Non-fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

The Long Drive: Mostly True Stuff

The Long DriveNon-fiction November 2015 is drawing to a close, and I should finish my last audiobook during my Thanksgiving travels. These are the books that kept me busy during my work commute this month.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

(By Jenny Lawson, read by Jenny Lawson)

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson

I read Lawson’s memoir in “dead tree” form when it came out a few years ago, but after hearing Lawson speak at several events I knew I needed to find the audiobook. Her stories about growing up rural Texas, her crazy-ass/awesome family, and her over-the-top “arguments” with husband Victor had me laughing all the way to and from work. I can’t wait to get my hands on her next book, Furiously Happy, which came out earlier this year. 5/5 stars

A Renegade History of the United States

(By Thaddeus Russell, read by Paul Boehmer)

A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell

In the 1960s and 1970s it became popular to tell American history “from the bottom up,” or from the perspectives of people who weren’t middle-aged white, aristocratic politicians. But even those at the “bottom” weren’t ordinary. Renegade History tells the story of America from what author Thaddeus Russell calls “the gutter up.” Prostitutes, alcoholics, and criminals influenced America just as much as those in the higher ranks — and may have done more than anyone else to sanctify what we now consider our most basic freedoms. Interesting premise, but fell flat. First DNF in quite some time. 1/5 stars

(I listened to these books as part of Non-fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)