I've read a couple books by Thich Nhat Hanh now, and I consider him to be brilliant and inspiring teacher. This CD (which I thought was an audiobook) is actually excerpts from a series of lectures he gave during a retreat. On the first disc, he offers a few meditation techniques that are easy to incorporate to a regular practice. And on the second, he talks in more detail about the benefits of meditation and how to be mindful during daily life, especially with loved ones. The version I listened to did not include any music from the monks at Plum Village or videos, as I see some of the other versions do.
The longer I maintain a meditation practice and the more I focus on trying to be mindful, the more I hear about it. At the TEDxColumbusWomen conference last week, one of the speakers talked about using mindfulness to control the body monitoring that women do an average of every 30 seconds. Mindfulness is an important part of cognitive behavioral therapy, to help you understand your feelings and reactions by first observing them without judgement. During a recent keynote speech at a marketing conference, Arianna Huffington talked about being so overworked and under-rested that she collapsed in her office, as a result of which she made some lifestyle changes that included mindfulness. She went on to promote a session she was doing as part of Oprah and Deepak Chopra's online meditation series, which included Kobe Bryant talking about the importance of meditation. Even my health insurance company is pushing mindfulness and meditation as stress-reduction techniques.
I think it's wonderful that living mindfully is becoming not only accepted, but encouraged in the US. If we all take some time to breathe, clear our minds, and reflect upon ourselves and our interactions with others, we can all be a bit happier and get along better. It's worked for me. I'm not exactly a Zen master, but I feel calmer and happier than I used to. I'm more patient, both with myself and with other people. I try to focus on being generous. And when I'm not being my best self, I find myself more able to step back, recognize what I'm doing, forgive myself for it, and start over.
Meditation's not hard. If you're looking for a place to get started, listening to Thich Nhat Hanh speak on The Art of Mindful Living is a great option.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see Michael Pollan speak in New Albany, Ohio. As you may recall, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma back in September and was completely enamored with it. As a direct result, I changed the way I eat and the way I shop for food. I’ve done a lot of other learning since then. I joined a fall CSA (and am eager for spring!), I’m taking a MOOC on the US food system, my mom even got me a subscription to Organic Gardening for Christmas.
So I was really excited for the event. And, with that much anticipation, Pollan probably could have farted on stage and I would have squeed with delight. He didn’t fart (as far as I noticed, and sitting directly in front of the podium in the second row, mere feet from the stage, I probably would have noticed). His speech was divided into two parts: 1) the problems with our current industrialized food system and 2) the things we can do to break free of it. Near the beginning, he brought out two bags of groceries from Meijer and laughed at all the processed food products. He gave a little history of how we ended up here in a way that made it seem simultaneously head-slappingly stupid and irrecoverably complicated. And he focused a lot on how the science of nutrition, which is actually quite difficult, has degraded our cultural food instincts and our meals.
Really, it was all good stuff. But it wasn’t new. I’ve only read one of his seven books, and even I didn’t get a lot of new information. (After I had most of this post drafted, a friend pointed me to this event summary in the Columbus Dispatch, which I think demonstrates just how little new information there was.) Then I thought about the rest of the audience and wondered what they were getting out of it.
Here are some things to consider. This event was not well advertised–none of the people who came with me heard of it through any other source–so you already had to be “in the know” to make it there.* (Even so, the auditorium was packed.) The event was in a suburb of Columbus called New Albany, the town that Les Wexner bought and rebuilt in the 1980s and ’90s. According to the 2010 census, New Albany is 87.7% white, 80.6% married, and 58.9% families with children. Although it used to be a very rural, relatively poor area, the population increased nearly 300% between 1980 and 1990 (another almost 130% by 2000 and 110% by 2010), and is one of the richest towns in the area. (Wikipedia has some good information, but for a less “consensus” view with some comments on implications, try How Americans Make Race.) Everyone there had to not only find out about it and make their way to New Albany on a frozen-rainy Thursday evening, but we also had to buy tickets for as much as $50, including TicketMaster fees.
Given that, the audience had to have been the converted. Those of us already convinced that we should know where our food and all its ingredients come from. Those of us privileged enough to go out of our way to find this food if it’s not readily available. So why did Pollan just rehash the main points of his books (and flatter the community organization that had hosted him during the earlier part of the day)? Why not take the opportunity to talk about what else we could be doing? For example, how do we address urban food deserts? How can we influence farm policy, local or otherwise, to encourage small, multi-output, sustainable, and resilient farms instead of large industrial monoculture farms? How do we get our local restaurants to serve grass-fed beef instead of beef from CAFOs? How do we figure out where best to address our efforts?
* In November, I happened to be at a crowded restaurant seated awkwardly close to a couple of acquaintances at the next table. I overheard one of them mention that Michael Pollan would be in town. So, instead of acting like a polite adult, I literally grabbed her arm, interrupted her conversation, and made her repeat herself. Once I got home, I looked it up and put the date that tickets went on sale on my personal calendar. I bought them within hours of opening to the public.
Because I live under a middle-aged rock, I didn’t know about the Hyperbole and a Half blog until I heard Allie Brosh speaking on "Fresh Air" (NPR? I know, right?). The interview focused mostly on her struggles with depression, which is why I originally added this to my reading list. And then I read it, and holy cow, I cracked up.
It’s not often my husband turns to me while I’m reading in bed and tells me to quiet down. But with *every single chapter* of Hyperbole and a Half, that’s what he did because I was laughing so much. I just loved every story Brosh told and the way she told it. I could relate to more stories than I care to admit to, especially the Simple Dog and Helper Dog stories… I have a similar dog myself.
The real sad part about all of this is that Brosh doesn’t seem to be updating her website since the around the time the book was released; October 2013 is the last post. Maybe she’s working on another book? Let’s hope so!
In this book of essays, Ann Patchett discusses her writing career, her relationships, and her life’s lessons. It’s probably very difficult to put together this many advice and memoir essays without coming off as self-righteous at least part of the time. That said, the lessons she imparts are worth learning.
The book opens with essays about Patchett’s writing career: how she got where she is today and what that place actually looks like. This was my favorite part of the book, because the essays focused on working hard, trying hard, and having a lot of luck. You only get better at writing by doing it, something I need to be reminded of when I get distracted by other “obligations” in my life. I was inspired by how she built stories in her head while waiting tables and how she came up with a million ideas for magazine articles, just hoping that something would stick. In her essay about book tours, she brought up a lot of points I hadn’t considered, since I haven’t had the privilege to do that (yet).
The personal memoir essays were also interesting and could be very touching. That said, Patchett’s life comes off as some sort of Writer Fantasy World that’s hard not to envy. By coincidence, I was reading Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half (book) at the same time, and that served as a much-needed contrast. It was like switching between Lesley Knope and Liz Lemon; you sort of need one to balance out the other. So maybe my dog, as much as I love him, will never be the perfect specimen of dog that Patchett’s Rose was. He’s a lot closer to Brosh’s Simple Dog, actually, which made me laugh. And maybe I’m an aspiring writer who hasn’t worked and tried hard enough to get a paid fellowship to write my first novel. At least I got off the couch and showered today, and that’s pretty alright.
I should also add that this is the only writing of Patchett’s I’ve (knowingly) read. I’m not sure why that would matter, especially considering that the writing-advice essays were my favorites, but from skimming through other reviews, it seems to matter a lot. I picked up this book because of the “Fresh Air” interview, and then I thought it was going to be a full memoir, not essays. As it turns out, I probably liked this format better.
I recommend This is the Story of a Happy Marriage for writers and for die-hard Patchett fans. But keep in mind that for every Lesley Knope, there’s a Liz Lemon out there setting the bar at a reasonable standard for the rest of us.
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation skims across the surface of history by taking the reader on third-party tours of historic sites. The book focuses on the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but almost all of it is about Lincoln. (In my paperback, Lincoln gets 98 pages, Garfield gets 62, and McKinley gets 46.) Which may be fair--there are probably a lot more sites to visit related to Lincoln’s life and death than anyone else’s. But if you’re looking for a history lesson on any of these men, this is not the book for you.
Lincoln gets not only the most real estate in the book, but he also get the most sentiment. The author begins by catching a play at Ford’s Threatre and walking down to the Lincoln Memorial afterward. She admires the monument and reflects on the meaning of Lincoln’s words engraved on the walls. She draws comparisons to modern history and thinks about how Lincoln’s actions and death have influenced our world. From here, she gives a brief account of Lincoln’s assassination and the actions leading up to it, interspersed with conversations with tour guides. The tour guides seem to be authorities on the little patches of land that they represent, but Vowell doesn’t cite any other sources and doesn’t mention fact checking anything these first-name-only guides say.
Vowell does find some pretty obscure Lincoln sites to visit. She goes to his home, the place of his assassination, the house where John Wilkes Booth stopped after fleeing, even the prison where that house’s owner was condemned, and many other places. But the information she gleans is all pretty shallow. Even in the “I didn’t know that!” moments, I felt hesitation, like I needed to Google it before telling anyone else about it.
When she moves onto Garfield, the biggest point she makes is, “Who cares about Garfield?!” I actually just read a wonderful and in-depth biography of Garfield, so my response was a full-throated, “I do!” This was the most frustrating section for me because I have a higher-than-average knowledge and appreciation of Garfield after reading Destiny of the Republic, and Assassination Vacation brings no new information to the table. In fact, it’s so scant on details, that if you can already name Garfield’s assassin off the top of your head, then you probably don’t have much to learn here.
The Garfield section blends directly into the McKinley section so quickly I didn’t realize we were done with Garfield yet. I don’t know nearly as much about McKinley as I do about Garfield (or Lincoln), but I still thought this section was too light. Maybe the nation was so exhausted by the time McKinley was assassinated that they didn’t feel it necessary to dedicate a bunch of tourist sites to him? Maybe. That would explain why this section is so short and light.
Sarah Vowell can be very funny (and, yes, a bit humble-braggy), and some of the characters she encounters on the way are quite interesting. But this is neither a history book nor a biography, despite being shelved that way. This is a travelogue or a humorous travel memoir. It reveals a lot more about the author than about any of the presidents, and I think her larger point has more to do with the quirks of American culture anyway. I think if you know that going in, you’ll probably like this book--especially if you have a plane trip or beach vacation coming up. It’s light, at times silly, and very softly macabre, but it’s not historic.
It’s not often that a book can immediately change the way you live your day-to-day life. But The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed mine, immediately.
For me, it was just a matter of learning things I didn’t know before. I didn’t have to be convinced to change my behavior. I just had to gain full knowledge of what my behavior was supporting--its effects on my body, on society, on the environment, and on the world around me. And that was enough.
So much of the food we buy and eat today goes to such great lengths to conceal its origins and its larger effect on the world. Take some time to learn what you’re putting into your body and what you’re spending your money on. Then think about why. Then decide what you want to do about it.
Instead of going on about how important this book was to me (and completely avoiding any analysis of it as a work of literature), I think the best way to demonstrate some of the changes I’ve made is to share a few of the websites I’ve recently bookmarked. Once I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I started researching on my own. How can I make practical changes in my own life? With more information and knowledge of local resources.
Ohio-focused info (I live in central Ohio, and naturally, I looked first for information about my local area. I’m sure a quick search would turn up similar resources for your area.)
I hope that small peek conveys an idea of the wealth of information out there. You don’t have to buy into a corporate or industrial food system. You have many options whether you live in the country or the city. All you need is knowledge!
Before reading Destiny of the Republic, I knew roughly three things about James A. Garfield: 1. He’d been president once, a long time ago; 2. He shared his name with a cartoon cat; 3. Wasn’t he one of the ones who was shot? I didn’t have any particular interest in learning any more about him, but a friend recommended this book when I said that I enjoyed Devil in the White City.
Since I started reading this, I’ve found ways to work interesting facts about Garfield--as well as Alexander Graham Bell, metal detectors, the New York Customs House, Abraham Lincoln, mental health and medical history, and so much other stuff–into many other conversations. My friends know more about Garfield now than before I started reading this! If my American History classes in high school had been this engaging, I would have remembered a lot more of the details.
I got this from the library as an audio book that I listened to in the car. The writing is so personal and close that I found myself crying some mornings on the way to work. Sometimes just in utter frustration at how many tiny things could have gone differently, which would have allowed Garfield to live. Candice Millard does such an amazing job of convincing you that Garfield would have been a fantastic president, and he was certainly well loved at the time he died. I used to live in DC, and I always wondered why there was a big monument of him right in front of the Capitol. Now I know why he was so incredibly popular, but he died before he was able to affect much direct and lasting change.
I could go on and on about how much I learned from this engaging book (and, if you know me personally, you’ve heard me do so), but it would be better if you just read it yourself. Seriously, just give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at how much you find yourself caring about this almost-forgotten president and his life before you finish the first chapter.
This book provides a first-hand account of living in a house haunted by the spirits of three children. After reading the whole thing, I still don’t have an opinion about whether Don’t Call Them Ghosts should be considered fiction or non-fiction, and it probably shouldn’t matter. The author/narrator seems convinced, and presents her story the way she remembers it.
The author has a very different lifestyle than I do--she was raised in a different time, in a different part of the country, with very different values. I found myself rolling my eyes when the narrative paused so she could gush about how perfect her husband is or how beautiful her baby is, but maybe that says more about me than her.
However, the narrator does take some actions that I didn’t think were explained very well and that hurt the story. For example, it takes her weeks to come up with the idea to go to the library, which is directly next door, to figure out who the spirit children in her house are. Once she finally does–and the narrative goes into great detail about the trip–she spends her time reading about an old amusement park instead of the family that built her house. She never mentions going back to that library again, but she does go to the main branch to get some more information several months later. What she finds isn’t really satisfactory–nothing about children dying or even anything from the era the children would have lived–but she doesn’t make any other effort to find out who they are, despite telling them that she will. She doesn’t call the previous owners to ask about the box of stuff she found in the attic. And in the epilogue, she mentions that she made another half-hearted research attempt at her publisher’s urging, but didn’t come up with anything.
This comes across as a lack of curiosity at best and willful ignorance at worst. When she decides after only 5 years to sell “the house of her dreams,” the reader really starts to wonder. And since she is able to help the spirits move on, no one who lives in the house after her will have an opportunity to confirm or deny the story.
But really, this is all probably beside the point. If you can take the author at her word, you’ll enjoy a touching story about family life in a house where living people care for their spirit housemates and vice versa. They protect each other, tease each other, argue sometimes, pout, and generally live together the way a family does. They accept each other as they are, and what more can you ask family to do?
Don’t Call Them Ghosts isn’t going to convince a skeptic that ghosts really exist. But if you’re not looking to be convinced--if you’re looking for a story about what it’s like to live and interact with friendly spirits in your house–then you’ll likely enjoy this family story.
If ever there was a religion or belief system that I really wanted to believe was real, it’s Spiritualism. When your loved ones die, they stick around and help you out. If not your loved ones, then spiritual beings from another dimension or something can help you. They leave you presents and help you get parking spaces.
In this book, the author travels to Lily Dale, New York, several times and gets to know the mediums and other residents who live and work there. She participates in the touristy activities--getting readings, going to group meetings–but she also goes behind the scenes and gets to know the characters in the town. She starts the book as a skeptic, and she basically ends as a skeptic too. But in between, she questions both her pre-conceived ideas and what she learns from the mediums.
The author presents the characters as real people that you could imagine knowing, or maybe you do know. And you really want them to be right. They even admit to faking experiences some times to play to their paying crowd, and you still want them to be right. Because what happy and magical lives they lead! What confidence they have in themselves and their own lives! How wonderful life would be if this was all true!
As I mentioned, the author stays a skeptic, but she comes away with more questions than answers. I found this refreshing. The mediums seem to live in a grey zone between the cold hard facts of reality and the magical world of “well, maybe.” And it’s not hurting anyone--in fact, a case could be made for this kind of thinking improving a lot of lives, I think--so why not go for it? If you get a good parking spot, you acknowledge and appreciate it and thank some spiritual being for picking it out for you. And if you don’t get the good parking spot, you shrug and determine that your spiritual guide wanted you to walk farther that day for some reason that’s not yet clear to you. What’s the downside of this, especially in terms of mental and emotional health?
Probably, there are some, and the author certainly struggles with the idea that people should just do what they want to do all the time, knowing that the universe will keep everything on track. But by the end of the book, even if you don’t believe, you’re left wanting to.
Spook explores not only the afterlife, but the history of the soul, ghost hunting, haunting phenomena, and mediumship. Although the scope of the book is broad, and Mary Roach touches lightly on each topic (or dives extremely deep into one aspect of the topic), I think most anyone could learn something new, no matter his or her spiritual beliefs.
The author provides a good review of obscure (and not so obscure) research into a variety of “paranormal” topics. It wasn’t so long ago that paranormal studies was a perfectly legitimate branch of science that many scientists from a variety of disciplines studied. I’ve done some reading on the Society of Psychical Research, and their early studies especially strove to remain as scientific as possible. At times, the author’s description of this older science–and even some of the modern experiments–struck me as a little too sarcastic, verging on outright laughing at people’s beliefs. If you are going to learn something new, you have to be open to bizarre-sounding ideas before you judge them. However, that eye-rolling may have been over-emphasized by the narrator on the audio edition I listened to. The narrator also came up with some amazingly annoying accents for various people, several bordering on the offensive, and mispronounced some basic, non-science words throughout the text, so I wouldn’t recommend the audio version.
The most fascinating new piece of information I learned was the intense reaction that some people have to psychoacoustics, which can make eyeballs vibrate and cause hallucinations. For all the ghost hunter shows I’ve watched, I’d never heard that explanation before. I was also fascinated by the ectoplasm chapter.
However, I would have liked a little more depth about the variety of things people believe happen to them after death. The opening chapter on a scientist studying reincarnation was brilliant (except for the Abu accent my narrator assumed). The author sort of addresses the Christian version of Heaven and Hell throughout the rest of the text, especially through the near-death experience stories. But what about other beliefs, like the post-mortem (and pre-mortem) baptisms that Mormons conduct for non-Mormons without their consent so they can come to the same spiritual paradise? What about the Buddhist idea of breaking free of reincarnation and achieving nirvana? Is no one studying these other beliefs?
Overall, Spook is a fascinating walk through the science of the soul (more so than the science of the afterlife, I’d say). I’d recommend it to anyone curious about ghosts and attempts to prove that spirits are distinct from physical bodies.
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