Archive for April, 2013

The Guardian published an article earlier this week that struck me as timely and pertinent: “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.” Author Rolf Dobelli points out that a steady diet of news is unhealthy because       “. . . most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind.”

He posits that most news is misleading (because the importance of most stories is distorted), irrelevant to our daily lives (because the headline grabbing stuff is usually not going to impact ordinary people), shallow (because it’s delivered quickly without much analysis), even toxic (because it triggers stress responses). And that it inhibits creativity, concentration, and clear thinking and encourages “learned helplessness.”

Yes, it’s ironic that a major newspaper ran this story (although one that does publish the in-depth analysis, investigative journalism, and other well researched, carefully prepared stories Dobelli explains are better for us). His contention that news is like a drug is hard to take, especially since I have an app on my iPhone called NPR Addict and I feel a little itchy if I haven’t checked the New York Times by breakfast. But after spending much of last week following the bombing and manhunt in Boston I have to agree with Dobelli — I felt like I knew very little but had taken in too much.

Dobelli recommends reading long journal articles and books, and consuming little to no “news” as it is currently delivered. Which complicates things, since most of the media the bookconscious household reads and listens to produce both short and long form journalism. I haven’t worked out a way to limit myself to the one without also taking in a fair bit of the other. Like eating well, it’s probably a matter of forming good habits.

In the instances where I’ve tried a “news fast” (several creativity books recommend this) I have noticed that I don’t miss  headlines or evolving news stories, but I do miss interesting articles about things that are new to me or local pieces like this Concord Monitor story about a woman who is opening a “sober living facility” for people who’ve finished residential addiction treatment and need a supportive community. If I stop reading the news altogether I’ll miss good things happening in the world, and that is an important part of a healthy news diet.


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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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April’s column appeared in yesterday’s Concord Monitor and also on the paper’s website. I reviewed David Blistein‘s David’s Inferno:My Journey through the Dark Wood of DepressionLinda Greenlaw‘s Lifesaving LessonsHenriette Lazaridis Power‘s The Clover Houseand Eric Masterson’s Birdwatching in New Hampshire.  A sidebar ran with the print version (and I’ve pasted it below) with details about Blistein’s and Power’s author events here in Concord.

Whenever I see the column in print, even though I’ve read it dozens of times and gone through at least a dozen drafts, it feels like I’ve never seen it before (plus the never-satisfied part of my writer brain finds fault with it). I’m wondering if that has anything to do with seeing it on a page for the first time instead of a screen? New Hampshire Library Association posted this very interesting Scientific American article on their Facebook page, which discusses research into the differences in our brains’ activities when we e-read rather than reading the old-fashioned way. It’s a good piece in that it doesn’t demonize e-reading, but points out why it’s different and how we process what we read digitally in a different way. The article also explains why paper reading may be better in many if not most cases, and also notes certain kinds of publications, like comics, that might benefit from digital publishing.

For anyone who can’t access the Monitor link (if you can, there are photos), here is the full  text of the column:

Many Monitor readers were moved by the newspaper’s recent series on mental health, including Annmarie Timmins’ concluding story. She shared her struggles to give a personal, familiar voice to the mostly anonymous 26% living with mental illness, and so does Vermont author David Blistein. In the forward to Blistein’s memoir his friend Ken Burns writes that the book “takes us deep into the mysteries of depression.”

In the notes to  David’s Inferno: My Journey through the Dark Wood of Depression, Blistein explains that while “The Divine Comedy is the journey of one man, it is also the journey of everyman.” He draws parallels between his own journey through depression and Dante’s great work with open-heartedness, intelligence, humor, and gentleness. For Blistein, the medieval Italian poet is “a guy who so deeply understands the struggle to simply be human on earth, a guy who knows both depths of despair and manic visions of rapture. . . .”

Blistein writes plainly about everything from facing his own depths and visions to parsing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, understanding the science behind common pharmaceutical treatments, and exploring the way depression impacts relationships and day to day life. Like Timmins, he writes about the difficulty of finding and remaining with mental health practitioners, and about the love and support of his spouse.  In a passage about creating a labyrinth in the woods near his house Blistein writes, “When people talk about being heartbroken, it’s usually because they’ve lost something outside themselves. . . . My heart was broken. But the only thing I’d lost was inside.” He notes that the best books on mental illness “make the experience so human it’s no longer necessary for you to hold it at . . . arm’s length.” Blistein has accomplished that here, in a moving, beautiful, and important book.

Powerful family stories

Linda Greenlaw’s seafaring exploits are well documented. Her new memoir, Lifesaving Lessons, is about even harder, braver work: becoming the guardian of a sexually abused fifteen year old. Greenlaw’s humor remains intact and she spins a few yarns. But you’ve probably never broken down in tears while reading her past work, and you may this time. She’s as forthright as ever, admitting, “Guardianship and all things maternal fit neatly into the category of things about which I am clueless.” And she is unsparing in her descriptions of both the horrors her daughter went through and the tightknit community that helped them find their way to being a family. Greenlaw is frank about the impact abuse has on Isle Au Haut: “Many of us were in shock that abuse had gone on undetected and unsuspected right under our noses . . . . we started looking for signs of trouble everywhere.” But she also shares the small moments of grace that led to healing. A moving testament to resilience and to familial bonds that need no biological ties to prevail in the human heart.

 The Clover House is Boston writer Henriette Lazaridis Power’s debut novel.  It’s the story of Calliope Notaris Brown, a busy young Boston professional estranged from her Greek mother and keeping her emotional distance from everyone including her fiancée, whose cousin calls from Greece to say their Uncle Nestor has died and left Calli his houseful of memorabilia. When she arrives in Patras during Carnival, she finds much more than vials of sand from various beaches, boxes of film and childhood keepsakes at Nestor’s house. In an attempt to resolve family mysteries and understand her mother’s aloofness, Calli begins to shed her own detachment. The Clover House probes secrets and loyalties, betrayals and revelations, and the role of culture, memory, and storytelling in family and personal identity. Power has a light touch with the ending, leaving plenty for readers to ponder. Assonance and consonance and a chorus-like repetition of words in some passages create sound and rhythm in Power’s prose that’s often striking, perhaps because she is founding editor of an audio literary magazine, The Drum.

Birding in the Granite State

New Hampshire birder and author Eric Masterson’s Birdwatching in New Hampshire  is a  thoroughly informative book for birders of all skill levels and experience. Masterson writes in the  introduction, “this is not a guide to everywhere, but to the best birding events” around the state. By event he means “location, time and weather” that “must align in the right order to produce the most memorable birding moments.” Masterson discusses birding gear, tips, and ethics,  provides a monthly guide to spotting various species, and divides the state into six regions to explore, with maps and plentiful information about birding in each. One chapter covers all birds “of roughly annual occurrence in New Hampshire or its offshore waters,” but in the rest of the book Masterson “focuses on the less well-known, the spectacular, the secretive, the rare, the good bird,” and goes on to say, “this will mean different things to different people.”

SIDEBAR (this appeared in print but is not online)

Henriette Lazaridis Power will be in Concord on May 2, reading from The Clover House at Gibson’s Bookstore, 27 S. Main St, at 7pm.

David Blistein will be in Concord on June 6th, reading from David’s Inferno at Gibson’s Bookstore at 7 p.m.

Call 224-0562 or go to www.gibsonsbookstore.com for more information.

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I have blogged about books for nearly eight years. I’m a voracious reader, a librarian and a book reviewer with a monthly newspaper column. I was an English major, I write poetry, and I like thinking about, discussing, and writing about books. But I hit a philosophical wall a couple of weeks ago: does what I think about what I’m reading really matter? Or more specifically, what is the point of blogging about it?

In the midst of this existential mid-life angst I was pining a bit for my old “citizen blogger” gig at New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. From December 2008-September 2011 I wrote 61 posts on new ideas in science, culture, the arts, and society. (If you’re curious, I think the pieces are archived on the NHPR website). It was a terrific gig. I wrote about whatever caught my eye as long as it fit the show’s editorial focus. That tended to be things that gave me hope.

Two stories I can’t get out of my head are the opposite of hopeful. First, teacher and author Peter Brown Hoffmeister spoke out about Huffington Post ignoring and dismissing him. What he’d done was submit a piece suggesting it would be a good idea to study the effect of violent video games on isolated teens who exhibit other risk factors for violence, and to offer socially disaffected kids an alternative to fantasy violence, such as getting outside.

Hoffmeister was himself a teen with violent tendencies and says, “the outdoors helped saved my life.” He writes with uncommon humbleness and uncertainty, unafraid to admit what he personally and we as a society don’t know about what makes shooters act. He doesn’t demonize guns, video games, or teens.

Second, yesterday I read Emily Bazelon’s piece on Slate about Rehtaeh Parsons and Steubenville, and today learned the hacker group Anonymous solved the Parsons case in 2 hours despite the police saying there was “no evidence” of rape. Every part of this story makes me churn.

Last week I read about Desmond Tutu receiving the Templeton Prize. I cherish his wisdom, and I turn to him when I am heartsick over the news. He’s a model for experiencing joy in the midst of our hurting world, for reconciling the broken pieces to find wholeness whether it’s in a form we recognize and understand or not.

“A person is a person through other persons,” Tutu says. I can’t stop thinking that therefore I am me through Rehtaeh Parsons, and her mother, and the Anonymous hackers who said she deserved justice, and Peter Brown Hoffmeister, caring for the boys in the school where he teaches who compare notes on their virtual killing. But if this is so I am somehow also me through the boys who would dehumanize and wreck a girl so heartlessly and the investigators who were complicit in that heartlessness, the editor who refused to let a story of vulnerability and healing appear on a popular website likely supported by corporations that profit from violent media, and the shooters who kill innocent victims.

And I am me though the authors I read and write about. I’ll probably still write about books. But I’m going to try to write some posts on the conscious side of bookconscious. I am a strong believer in the power of literature to connect and transform us as individuals and sometimes as a culture. But in the mire of media that saturates our lives, there are also stories, hopeful or not, that remind me we are persons through other persons. And I hope to write about those as well.

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April’s column will include reviews of David Blistein‘s David’s Inferno:My Journey through the Dark Wood of Depression, Linda Greenlaw‘s Lifesaving LessonsHenriette Lazaridis Power‘s The Clover Houseand Eric Masterson’s Birdwatching in New Hampshire.

It will run in the Sunday, April 14 edition of the Concord Monitor.


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