This Is Not My Person Anymore

5 Mar

When you become a parent, there’s that moment when you first see your child, after you’ve counted all the fingers and the toes and scrutinized every millimeter of skin for imperfections or mistakes, when you accept responsibility, completely and absolutely – and forever.

As it turns out, forever is both open to interpretation and impermanent.

This weekend, we visited our 20-year-old son at college. On Sunday morning, after grilling him continuously for 36 hours on whether he needed money, groceries, roach poisoning, and other essentials of college life, I knocked on the door of the hotel room that he and his younger brother were sharing while we were in town.

He was shirtless when he answered the door. “What’s this on your back?” I asked, when he turned slightly to the side at one point in the conversation. I reached up and pressed my finger on a large mole at the top of his back. I’d never noticed it before.

The dermatologist, he said, told him not to worry about it. It was a cosmetic flaw that could be removed if he wished.

For a few seconds after he shut the door, I stood in the hall, pondering the ribbed, yellowing wallpaper of the chain hotel. Then it hit me. He was not my person anymore. He paid his own rent, bought his own groceries, earned his own part-time pay. He visited the doctor without me.

I doubt I embarrassed him with this familiar act of touch. But it suddenly occurred to me that it was a fast fading right. I don’t own him anymore.

The revelation was at once shocking and exhilarating.

Did I have a hand in creating his ownership of self? I believe I did, but at what point did I/do I cease ownership?

Cover of "We Need to Talk About Kevin: A ...

Cover of We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel

Eva Khatchadourian wrestles with this question in “We need to talk about Kevin,” Lionel Shriver’s 2003 best-selling novel. Kevin has massacred several of his classmates, and Eva is left to wonder whether her son is a sociopath or if she is somehow to blame for his actions.

It’s a nature vs nuture debate. There’s a primal feel as both mother and son circle each other tensely throughout the novel, but by the end, we realize that it’s all an elaborate, intellectual game of chess. The pawns don’t make out well in this game.

Shriver’s a much better writer by the time she pens this novel. I came to “Kevin” by way of her latest novel, The New Republic.” The latter was a book club pick, chosen because some members had read and enjoyed “Kevin.”

The problem with “The New Republic,” a barely readable book, is that Shriver wrote it before “Kevin” but published it after. She still had her training wheels on, and it shows.

It’s not often that you get to witness the evolution of a writer. I read both books side-by-side (both library books: one in hardcopy, the other an ebook). Given the accolades of my fellow readers, whose opinions I trust, I was puzzled by “The New Republic.”

Shriver had that annoying predilection that immature writers have to show off newly acquired vocabulary, taking every opportunity to insert a dollar word where a nickel word would’ve done nicely. (To be fair, I read this immediately after Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild, a simpler text yet with equally as vivid imagery.)

In “Kevin,” Shriver has found the right balance between $1 and 5 cents. Her sentences are fluid and natural. They draw you in.

Characters drive narrative, and when they’re flatly drawn, the novel is much like a balloon without the air. That’s the case with “The New Republic,” but not with “Kevin.” Eva is full of contradictions and doubt, easily a complex character. There’s the danger that Kevin would be written as a mere sociopathic stereotype, but he’s not. The way Shriver creates him, “is he or is he not?” is the ping pong game that the reader plays throughout the novel.

“Kevin” is a keeper. “The New Republic” is not.

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When the Holy Retire: Book Review

19 Feb

Timing is everything, as both Pope Benedict and I discovered last week. The pontiff’s resignation came as a huge surprise, because, like God, Popes are supposed to serve a lifetime. Retirement just isn’t an option.

Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written before about the troubles with the Roman Catholic Church and the steps they might take to get back on a moral path. And, I’m afraid we’ll find that there’s certainly much more to Benedict’s decision than failing health and age. In fact, the Pope will remain in the Vatican after he steps down, which provides him legal protection, immunity and security in the face of potential legal action against him.

There is a small sliver of hope that the bishops will make a change and do the right thing – really address the crisis and bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice. More likely though, justice will come in the afterlife.

That is, of course, if God himself doesn’t retire too.

The 52 Books Project: Book #2

What in God's NameThis is the premise of Simon Rich’s novel, What in God’s Name. This short, light novel imagines that God is the CEO of Heaven, Inc. (Again, timing is everything! Here’s Bill Keller giving advice for Catholicism Inc. I swear, this is all coincidence.)

God is tired and fed up, so he decides to retire, leaving mankind to, well, death and destruction. The angels who create miracles on Earth will soon be out of a job.

I’d read the reviews of this book before it was released, and absolutely loved the concept. Rich’s org chart for Heaven Inc. includes both the usual and unusual departments one might find in a corporation dedicated to running humankind – Prophet Outreach (where I’d be, of course, as a PR pro), Angel Resources, and – my personal favorite – Snowflake Design.

The story centers around two Angels in the Department of Miracles, desperate to stop the world from ending. In the meantime, God is busy planning his new restaurant. They cut a deal: if the Angels make two earthlings fall in love, God won’t end the world.

The book is best when it’s up in Heaven, roaming the halls of the giant corporation and peeking in on the modern tools God has to keep up on Humans (interactive TV!). Say what you will about God, but at least He has moved into the 21st century. In a move that might seem familiar to some, he even writes a resignation letter.

After much consideration I’ve decided to resign as CEO of Heaven Inc. It’s been a fun ride, but part of being successful is knowing when to quit.

Sound reasoning – and good advice too, I suppose, if he decides to share it with anyone. Right? Oh, and he attached FAQs. It’s a bit more buttoned up in Heaven Inc.

Down on earth, though, the story creeps along. I can’t get too vested in these humans, hapless as they are. And I’d hoped there’d be more “LOL” moments, especially since Rich once wrote for Saturday Night Live.

It’s a fun, ethereal read, though, and you’ll be done with it in 24 hours. I know at least one person who will soon to have extra time on his hands and may want to pick it up.

Next week’s review looks at the evolution of a writer. Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic and We Need to Talk About Kevin, read side-by-side provide some fascinating insight into how a good writer learns to be great.

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

11 Feb
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Photo credit: bubbletea1)

“There is no ‘great’ literature being written today.”

I was having dinner with a few of my husband’s colleagues, and I must admit that I was ready to pounce on this statement. My dining companion and I had discovered common ground: We both majored in English and were passionate readers.

He was a little disillusioned with the current literary landscape. In an era where a book like “Fifty Shades” gets an entire publishing house an extra year-end bonus, I could understand why. But no great literature? No, that couldn’t be true.

Or was it? In the heat of the moment, I found I couldn’t come up with a single example that I’d be ready to defend.

Is this so surprising? We live in a country that hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 20 years. It has been said that we’re too insular, too narcissistic, and incapable of producing writers who can write about larger, more worldly themes.

In a way, it’s a strong argument. The literary trend for more than 30 years has been “realism” – as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an essay for Salon.com a couple of years ago, the MFA way of “writing what you know.” If you really think about it, it’s rather limiting advice.

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly frustrating with American literature, particularly the much-hyped “greats” such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, neither of whom I suspect have ventured – in person – into the real world at all. At an earlier age, I did enjoy John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but Roth’s American Pastoral nearly killed me in the reading.

A couple of years ago, I saw with utter clarity the problem in contemporary American literature. I read a book weeping with self-indulgence on the heels of a book about greater societal issues: Franzen’s Freedom was opened just as I’d closed the bookjacket on Sapphire’s Push. I’m sorry, but the whinging of an upper-class (not, as Franzen inaccurately described them, middle class) couple doesn’t compare to the desperation of a wounded, underprivileged and abused teenager – and the societal forces that fostered her situation.

It’s ironic, actually, that Franzen has complained about America’s solipsistic culture and lamented that today’s fiction is one-dimensional, since he and his novels are of a feather. I suppose it’s possible that I’m not “reading the text intellectually,” but I doubt it. Freedom is an insipid novel and emblematic of American literature’s current state.

Anyway, this isn’t about Franzen, necessarily, or Roth or even Updike. It’s also not only about these “great white male narcissists” as David Foster Wallace once called them. There are women narcissists as well (Elizabeth Gilbert comes to mind, as does Lena Dunham).

We are, in fact, an entire culture of narcissists. But is this a bad thing? We’re Americans after all, and this country, in its own way, has been created and propelled forward by a unrestrained sense of self. Our literature – at least some of it – should represent both the spiritual and physical journeys we make.

Which brings me to this week’s review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The 52 Books Project: Book #1

Wild is a memoir; so by definition, it’s egocentric. Strayed is a broken woman at the age of 26. She mourns her mother, who recently died; she has cheated on her husband and destroyed their marriage; she has dabbled in heroin. Her life is a mess. Then she has an idea: she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail for 1,100 miles – from Southern California to Oregon – alone. It’s a journey of self-reliance, self-discovery and physical rejuvenation.

Many of the reader reviews were critical of Strayed, saying that she was stupidly underprepared for her journey, foolish and very full of herself. These criticisms are valid, and yet, I’m inclined to be more forgiving.

Strayed doesn’t shrink from assigning herself blame. She’s a mess, it’s her own fault, and she knows it. She doesn’t ask for sympathy.

Raw is the word that comes to mind when I think of the book. Strayed’s pain is stripped to the bone. Her fears and doubts keep rising to the surface, and over the long hard miles of the trail, she slowly sheds them just as she sheds most of her toenails. But it isn’t an easy task.

“How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.”

You may read Wild and question Strayed’s life, her decisions and her journey, but she is a talented storyteller. The story had momentum. I read well past my bedtime, and at the end, well – I just wanted to flip the book back over and start again immediately.

It’s a rewarding story, as worthy of the word “inspirational” as Eat, Pray, Love is not. Is it “great literature?” No. It’s too introspective, and Strayed is a fluid writer but not a great one.

Still, I’d recommend it. It’s a keeper.

Next week’s review: What in God’s Name, by Simon Rich

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The Mysteries Tucked Inside Your Library Book

9 Feb

I love when I find little surprises in the books I check out at the public library.

Sometimes I find receipts or business cards or grocery lists (I really love the grocery lists). Some readers will underline or star passages, or they’ll jot notes in the margin. These little scribbles always give me something to think about, sometimes spurring a virtual argument with some invisible library patron. “Are you kidding me? No reasonable person would consider these characters middle class! I’m sorry, fellow reader, you and this author need a dose of the real world!”

A few years ago, a New York Times reporter hid $100 bills around the state and challenged New Jerseyans to a scavenger hunt. One of those bills was found in our local public library.

That’s a treasure. And a good story.

Now and again, I discover a real treasure myself. Sadly, I’ve yet to find cash; though that would be nice. No, sometimes I find something better: scribbled notes.

Wild extra notes 1

Literary treasure hunt.

Which is what happened when I opened my borrowed copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Three small pieces of note paper tumbled out from behind the book jacket. Grocery lists? Notes on the book? Philosophical musings?

Of course, these could also be intensely private, so perhaps it’s morally wrong to peer into the innermost thoughts of a previous reader.

Nah.

These turned out to be wickedly good. Not a grocery list, and not a rumination on the book. Rather, I like to believe they’re by a budding author, free-associating ideas for a new story.

Either that or one of our local comedians has been testing out joke ideas for an appearance in Atlantic City.

So, are you a comedian?

So, are you a comedian?

The 52 Books Project

3 Feb

Each time I pick up a book, I make a journey into someone else’s imagination, memory, analysis or perspective. It’s why I love to read, why I buy so many books (Frankly, it puzzles me that Barnes & Nobles isn’t doing well. How could that be? It’s my primary bookstore!), and why I don’t hear people when they try to talk to me.

I’ve no idea how many books I read in a given year, but in January, I decided to keep track. That’s when I came up with the idea of the 52 Book Project: read and review – here in this blog – 52 books in 2013.

With all due respect to B&N and every other book retailer, I’ve added a wrinkle. The books must be borrowed. It doesn’t matter from where or from whom, but I’ll certainly make many trips to my public library.

If this project accomplishes anything beyond my reading, I hope it raises awareness of the amazing value that public libraries offer. While taxes vary from town to town, my public library costs my family $187.64 in taxes each year – or about $3.61 per book for this project. That’s if I don’t incur late fees. A pretty good deal, really.

This project actually kicked off on Jan. 2, when I stopped at my local public library to select my first choices. The book club is reading The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. Snapped that up. On a whim, I grabbed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail for my second book.

Not content to leave this project to my own whims, I also asked Facebook friends for book recommendations. One of my personal goals for this project is to read outside my comfort zone: absorbing opposing views and exploring topics not normally within my interests.

I’ve always enjoyed biography, history, science and other nonfiction, but my friends suggested quite a few titles I may never have looked at. You can find what’s upcoming by looking at the Nightstand. When I finish a book and its review, you can find it on my Bookshelf.

I should also take a moment to explain my quirky reading style. I read up to 4 or 5 books at a time. Longer bios, nonfiction and novels over 600 or so pages will take longer than a week, so they’ll be spread out over a period of weeks or months (so mid-read reviews won’t be out of the question).

Also, I have this funny (endearing? irritating?) habit of reading the first 100 pages of a book, and then skipping to the last 20 or 30 pages before heading back to the middle. To borrow a line from Harry, I do this so that if I die before I finish, I’ll know how the story ends.

Finally, I reserve the right to scan or abandon a book midway through. Life’s too short to read stuff that sucks.

Anyway, I finished three books in January, and I’ve just picked up four more from the library. Technically, I’m a bit behind, but January was an unusual month for personal reasons. I expect to be back to normal reading – and writing – levels now.

First up for review: Strayed’s Wild. Check back in a couple of days to read what I have to say.

Was Netflix Tuned In?

29 Sep

Last week, Netflix, the innovative movie rental company with the famous red envelopes, made an announcement. Well, actually, it was an announcement wrapped in an apology. Which was a little weird, especially since the apology was – oh – about two months late.

So much about this announcement left people scratching their heads. Netflix would not only keep its raised prices (which is what set off the loud volume of complaints earlier this summer), but it also would split its streaming and DVD business into two distinct companies. The new DVD company also had a new, retro name: Qwikster (and a not-so-retro Twitter account). The communication resulted in more customers canceling their accounts, and a devaluation of Netflix stock.

Kudos to Reed Hastings for apologizing. I’m sure it was done with good intentions, but the execution left a lot to be desired. A number of people commented that it felt hasty and thrown together. I suspected a disconnect between the company’s executives and the communications team. Perhaps it was a bit of both, because some positive announcements soon followed the apology: Netflix integration into Facebook’s Open Graph and the newly inked deal to stream Dreamworks movies. Unfortunately, neither of these announcements got the attention they deserved.

I find it hard to believe that Netflix made a hasty decision to split into two companies based on public outcry over a price increase, but the way the announcements played out, that’s sure what it seems like. It also felt like Hastings wanted to play down the apology by announcing what he felt was really good news. Wrapping the two together simply confused customers further.

I’m sure Netflix had good reason to break into two companies, and there have been several people who have said this is a good strategic – even visionary – move. Unfortunately, that message was lost to customers.

Follow these tips to better manage a series of high-risk communications:

  1. You must tell a bigger story. Announcements can’t be treated as isolated incidents. They will always be received as another chapter in your corporate story. Have a strategic communications plan and remember that its goal is to help audiences understand the bigger picture.
  2. You must have good timing. If criticism reaches a crescendo, apologize immediately. If you must wait, focus only on the apology and explain why it has taken you so long to do so.
  3. You must have a plan. A messaging timeline ensures that your communications remain crisp, clear, and consistent. A strategic release of messages means that each announcement gets the appropriate amount of attention.
  4. Your messages must be clear and consistent. It’s important to listen to what you’ve crafted as if you are the recipient. Here’s where the rubber meets the road – and where insular thinking gets organizations in trouble. The best approach is to test the message on someone outside the company. And remember that some messages are too complicated to be communicated along with another. The news about Netflix splitting its business in two? Too complicated to be delivered with any other message.
  5. You must do your due diligence. I liken this to the advice given to trial lawyers: never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer. It’s true with announcements too. You must consider all questions and criticisms and have your answers ready. And for brands? Make sure you do that Google search (and check that Twitter handle).

Needed: Real-Time Local Info

12 Sep

The last week of summer is supposed to be spent slowly, in relaxing bliss, under a warm sun, by a pool, drink in hand. I did not want second-by-second heart-pounding action.

But that’s what I got, thanks to an earthquake, a massive hurricane, and a few tornadoes. Oh, and did I mention we were moving my son into college on the same weekend?

It got me thinking about the need for real-time information in local communications channels. The earthquake provided a great example of real-time crowdsourced news. Within milliseconds (not minutes), I learned from Twitter that the earthquake had started somewhere in Virginia and had been felt as far north as Toronto. As my husband surfed the TV channels and waited for news announcers to give him the details, I was shouting out locations based on my friends’ Twitter feeds. “People felt it in Washington! New Hampshire! Here’s someone from Toronto!”

Yet, the earthquake turned out to be a mere talking point. The hurricane presented a more urgent need for real-time, accurate information about what was happening in my town. Among my questions:

  • Is there a tornado heading toward me?
  • How do we get alerted to an approaching tornado?
  • Has my son lost power in his new apartment?
  • Has the hurricane blown out his floor-to-ceiling windows?
  • How do I get more information about problems with our water treatment plant?
  • Do I stop flushing the toilets all together?
  • Can I take a shower?
  • What roads are closed?

David Meerman Scott has written an excellent book on this topic. But, real-time social media isn’t just for the big guys. Local government and businesses need to use it too. These events provided some great examples of those who do it well. Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, hears of and solves problems via Twitter. I don’t live in Newark, but I had great insight into how the city was dealing with the hurricane.

The hurricane proved a boon for our neighboring town of West Windsor, whose police department used its Facebook page to post regular updates on power outages and road closures. The number of “likes” went from 200 before the storm to more than 1500 after.

I’m sure many of those were from Plainsboro, the town in which I live. Plainsboro does have a Facebook page. But, beyond the warning message, posted before the storm hit, there was nothing. United Water, the owner of the water treatment plant, didn’t even use its website to post updates.

I understand that during crisis, everyone is focused on fixing the problem. But communication is not a nice-to-have. It’s essential to preventing your existing problem from becoming an even bigger problem. In fact, I always counsel people: communicate and you’ve solved 90% of your problem. Social media offers a simple and effective way to keep stakeholders informed, without much effort.

If you’re a local business or government, here are three things you can do to improve communication with your citizens and customers:

1) Develop a social media strategy. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to be on every social network. Start with just one: Facebook, which has the largest number of users.
2) Assign one person to manage your network, and require that they update it regularly. During a time of crisis, updating the network and fielding questions will be this person’s primary responsibility.
3) Get started now – before the next crisis hits.

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