Sunday, July 20, 2014

Poptarts of Doom and Contemplating the D-Word

About two months ago I took class on Appreciative Inquiry for work. One of the main tenants of the philosophy is “what you pay attention to, grows.” Last week I blogged about wanting to cultivate a less mechanized and stress-based approach to living. I’ve known for a long time that my online viewing habits are not conductive to a peaceful mental state, and I finally committed to deleting all of my opinion news sites. I posted the following message on Facebook about it:

Today I deleted my "New Sites" Favorites folder because clicking through the articles in them just got too stressful. I do not need to start my morning gulping News of Doom and Horribleness. I can figure out some other ways to stay informed, but I don't want the angry energy of these sites in my mental space anymore. I made a Favorites folder for spiritual practices...Druidism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc. and will click through those with my morning coffee instead. I want a more wholesome, nourishing internet breakfast--steel cut oatmeal instead of Poptarts of Rage and Doom.

This got a fair number of likes and lead to a spirited discussion, not about the oppressiveness of the 24-hour news cycle but about…Poptarts! Hey, Poptarts are nature’s perfect food, and they’re a lot more fun to talk about than the broken state of journalism in this country. Anyway, the point is that I want to start consciously paying attention to things that will help me feel like less of a victim to the circumstances I live and work under.

I recently listened to a podcast from the UK with two Druids discussing fracking, something I haven’t paid much attention to. I was completely appalled, but I was also deeply enriched by the discussion. They talked in depth about how painfully and dangerously disconnected we have become from our essential nature and about how the industrialized world is toxic to our spirits. They discussed the problems inherent in moving from a non-dualistic approach into a state where we see ourselves as completely separate from each other, the natural world, and the ecosystems we exist in, to the point that it’s considered morally upright to poison our land for short term profit.

Off and on over the years, I’ve looked into Druidism as a spiritual practice, but it always felt slightly archaic and anachronistic to me. Nonetheless, once I even took a serious stab at it. It didn’t pan out at the time, and I realize now that’s because the material I was working with was written by a much older man in Scotland who lived in a very different world than I did. The vegetation and trees required for the rituals in the book out didn’t grow here, and one thing that does, Scotch Broom, I am deathly allergic to. It was also very focused on the expression of male energy, and felt out of alignment to my vibe. So, as is typical of me, I got huffy about it and decided it just wasn’t for me. But as I’ve continued to read about Druidism, I've realized that there are numerous ways to practice it that don’t involve moving to Scotland and making your own ritual dagger out of bones from a deer you shot with a bow and arrow at the full moon.

I spend 50+ hours a week commuting through downtown and working in one of the most dangerous parts of the city in one of the most complex industries in existence--health care. I don’t open my door to a view of a natural stone grove, cavorting stags, and towering redwoods. But still, I think there must be some way to integrate the practice of honoring all life and respecting my environment; a patch-made practice of urban nature spirituality.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Heat is On, Busyness is the New Godliness, and a Heartfelt if Slightly Tortured Thor Metaphor

Last night the July heat reached its odious peak and Mr. Typist and I gave up on life,  sacked out on the couch, and watched two Thor movies back to back with every fan in the apartment going, shades drawn, and the lights off. Our cat lay stock-still on his back with his tongue hanging out, his corpulent belly strategically splayed under the fan to ensure maximum air-over-tummy action.  I’m never comfortable sitting still and doing nothing, so surrendering to the heat and my body’s resulting fatigue was frustrating. I felt unproductive, lazy and guilty for just sitting on the couch in a heat-stunned daze, too tired to even bother getting up for ice cubes.  But the cat knows the score. The cat understands that when it’s hot and humid, the correct course of action is to lie in the coolest spot you can find and limit your movements to the occasional yawn or slow-motion half-wave of your paw. It’s called preserving energy, something that I’ve never been very adept at. I tend to expend my mental and physical energy recklessly, and yet always expect there to be an endless supply in the tank. So as guilty as it made me feel, it was nice to simply surrender to the season and do what a body should do in extreme heat—just be still.

 I was able to give in because it was the weekend and there were few demands on my time, but the heatwave is going to continue into the workweek, and I can’t just take a siesta at will and flop out under a fan; I have to be functional. I have to move, I have to Answer all the E-mails and Solve All the Problems and make my way down to the blistering, overcrowded city streets to jam myself onto a crammed bus and breathe in the odor of all the other hapless worker’s stress sweat and demoralization.  It doesn’t matter that this runs counter to the wisdom of my body or that it’s out of accord with my biological nature. Work must get done.

I’ve heard tell of a time when people lived more in synch with their environments; in a less mechanized, ruthless and production-driven society. I’ve never experienced that, but that doesn't stop me from missing it. When it’s hot, I want to sit still in the shade with a cool drink. In the dead of winter, I want to eat rich hearty food, dream deep, and sleep late. When I’m sick, I want to rest, not “push through it”. When I’m sad, I want time to cry, even if I happened to have walked through the doors of my workplace when  sadness hits. This is hardly an original observation, but modern society doesn’t lend itself to what our bodies or spirits want. It doesn’t give a damn about what’s most organic to our nature; and because we constantly have to operate counter our biology, it’s making us sick physically and spiritually. Busyness is the new godliness. We can’t even maintain friendships or build a sense of community in our neighborhoods because we can’t slow down long enough to have an authentic conversation with anyone. Even our physical exercise has been completely severed from the type of movement that’s most natural and healthy for a human body, and is now all about “peak efficiency” and ignoring our body’s pain signals so we can mold them into an arbitrary, inorganic shape that the culture crams down our faces as “desirable.”  

I’m not in a position to move to a farm and start living off the land, and, honestly, I  don’t know if I would rather be up against the ruthlessness of nature, or up against the ruthlessness of the giant, soul-sucking capitalist machine. But I do know I want more moments of surrendering to my body and spirit. In the movies, Thor’s hammer isn’t just a weapon, it’s an inseparable part of his being that always knows where he is and how to find its way back to him. No matter what the machine demands, my authentic self is always there, awaiting my attention, if I only let go and yield to its needs.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Case Against Outlines, and A Blast from My Poetry Past

For about two weeks, I was beating my head against the wall trying to think, outline, structure and plan my way through the last 20,000 words of my novel, to avail. It was only when I set myself the lofty (for me) goal of writing 4,000 words in one day and just seeing what happened, that I was able to write my way through the problem. The act of writing itself, of being present to the characters and story, created the solution spontaneously and unconsciously. I could have spent six months trying to think my way through it, when all I had to do was let the words flow and trust that a solution would come if  I just let go and wrote.

In writing parlance I'm called a “pantster”—someone who does minimal pre-planning and tends writes by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them. I've never been able to wrap my head around the traditional outline,  so I'm in a permanent state of rebellion against pre-planning my writing. As a child in school, I hated doing outlines. My brain doesn't process information in a way that makes it possible for me to get my ideas into that format. I would get so frustrated and bound up in trying to get the outline correct that I ended up feeling negative about whatever I was supposed to use the outline to produce. I didn’t want to “organize my thoughts” ahead of time in a fussy little set of Main Ideas and “sub ideas”, and I had hard time figuring out what to number and what to letter, and which idea was more important than the others. I just wanted to write my essay or story and let the ideas flow as they came. But oftentimes the teachers wouldn’t let us commit a single word to paper until we had our entire, joy-sucking outline perfect.

 This is a terrible way to teach writing! I don’t know if this is still prevalent in schools, but it sends an awful message about writing: Don’t trust yourself. Don’t trust your own unconscious process. Writing is not a spontaneous, jubilant act of creative expression, but a chore, and what’s more, one that you’re going to do “wrong” if you don’t label, judge, and place every thought and idea into this arbitrary, pre-set structure first. There’s no room for new ideas to occur during the writing process—if it’s not in the outline, it doesn’t belong. It’s an utterly stifling, fear-based, backwards way to introduce kids to writing. It’s no wonder so many of them don’t want to do it. Writing should be taught using techniques similar to Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”. We should be teaching kids early on to write fearlessly, to learn their own flow and rhythm, to take delight in the surprises that occur during their writing, and to worry about structure when it’s appropriate—during the editing process. An outline can be helpful in getting an outpouring of raw ideas into an organized form, but asking a child to start with the outline creates fear, creative blockages and judgment before they’ve even started. I for one, stand firmly behind banning the outline altogether.

That having been said, I’m sure there are probably some hyper-organized little 7th-grade upstarts out there who love nothing more than doing outlines and wouldn’t dream of allowing any spontaneity to occur during their writing. If that makes them happy, good on them. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for most kids.

I have some interesting news about the first chapbook I ever had accepted for publication—The Goatfish Alphabet! The publisher, Naissance Chapbooks, is going put each of his titles in the Naissance spotlight for one week. The featured book will be offered as a free bonus with the full price purchase of any other title. All reprints will be made with creme cover stock, creme inside pages, and red flyleaf. So it will be re-printed in a much nicer format than the original, rather bare-bones version, and featured for a full week on Naissance’s website in September. This is a wonderful way to encourage readership of Naissance’s excellent titles. And if your copy of “Goatfish” is a little worn, this will be a great opportunity to get an upgraded version, plus a whole other book for free! But you don’t have to wait for “Goatfish” to be featured to order it. If you want your fancier new version, you can get it here.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Idiopathic Crankiness, Drippy Blouse Rage, and Some Things to Amuse You While I Sulk

I was cranky and upset today for no particular reason; just a lot of life and work stressors finally getting to me, I suppose. After crying into a cup of peppermint tea Mr. Typist made for me, I decided I just needed to get out for a while. I’ve been meaning to pick up a few light work tops to get me through the six weeks or so of actual hot weather we get in Seattle. Nothing pricey or designer—just a few presentable items I can wear on hot days, since 90% of my wardrobe is sweaters and knits.  I must suffer from shopping-related amnesia, because I decide to do this “quick shop to get me through” every effin’ summer. And it never works out. Ever. Which is why I have exactly two, summery, work-appropriate tops, which are probably five years old by now. I’ve ranted about this before, so I’ll be quick, but--what the hell are retailers thinking??? I went to four different stores, and the entire excursion was a nightmare of garish maxi-dresses, cheap, itchy-fabric tops, hideous florals, tacky jeweled necklines, and the bane of middle-of-the-road retail stores everywhere—the Drippy Blouse.

You know what I’m talking about: That ubiquitous, foufy, unstructured blouse with a million swathes of criss-crossing pleated fabric, extraneous sleeve components, and frivolous stringy things that just hang down off of it for no reason whatsoever. As if it’s not busy enough, the Drippy Blouse usually comes in some terrible clashing print or eye-scalding shade of acid melon, lime green, or yellow. Sometimes the Drippy Blouse also has a tacky jeweled neckline. This trend has got to stop. It’s driving me slowly mad, but it shows no signs of going away anytime soon. I came home empty-handed with a sore knee.

Aside from my Drippy Blouse Rage, I’m still a bit moody, and I’m not up for much blogging today. Besides, I have to biff off shortly to eat a homemade omelet dinner on our Kitchen Table of Science, meaning our kitchen table, which has been colonized by a thick jungle of electronics, batteries, wires, and robotics parts for Mr. Typist’s latest experiments. I don’t know what goes on on that table; I just hear intermittent zapping sounds and the occasional evil cackle.

In exchange for shirking my blogging duties, here’s a peek into my internet viewing adventures this week. It’s all the deliciously strange and mind-expanding stuff I like to look at to remind me that the world is indeed a mysterious place, and there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, yada yada. (Yes, I yada-yada’ed Shakespeare.)

A Shamanic View of Mental Illness:

The Global Consciousness Project:


Weird Theories to Ponder:

Not Strange, Just Some Good Advice:

And a bonus video, just because it made me laugh and feel proud of my city today, despite my mopey attitude:

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Electronic Feng Shui, When Thinking Hurts, and Beauty Secrets of the Cheap and Frazzled

I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I tend to go on these marathon cleaning sprees during which I Toss Out All the Things, usually to find out later that I actually need some of the things I tossed out. This weekend I got a little overly-enthusiastic with the electronic clean-up. I went at my Gmail like a mad woman, deleting sent items from as far back as 2010. Then I started to go through my personal documents, purging  and organizing those, too. Soon I had to e-mail a friend who had sent me some information for my novel and ask him to re-send it because I had perma-deleted it in my manic quest for good electronic Feng Shui. Before you snort, think about it—why shouldn’t e-Feng Shui be a thing?  You don’t want years of useless, disorganized clutter gumming up your home and blocking the energy flow, so why would you want that with your computer, where, let’s face it, most of us spend far more time than we should? I’m not quite done with Feng Shui-ing my PC, but I’ll get back to it sometime this weekend. I got a little distracted by quite an important mission I was needed for in Elder Scrolls Online. I can’t shirk my responsibilities in Tamriel!

Recently, comedian Marc Maron came out with a special called “Thinky Pain”. (It’s pretty good—you should check it out.) I think the title probably refers to the angst caused by being up in his head too much, but this week I have a different kind of thinky pain. I don’t want to work on my novel because I’ve gotten to a very technical part that I have to really plot out and plan carefully, and it’s been sunny out and I just want to hang out with my friend and help her pick raspberries and sit outside and let the sun warm my head. I don’t want to manage the nine zillion Rubik's-cube-like summer schedule change requests at work, because that requires thought and attention to detail. I don’t want to tackle the home filing because I just don’t bloody feel like putting any mental effort into anything. It’s like my brain drove off on vacation without me.

For months now, my eyelids have been breaking out with bouts of eczema—dry little flecks of skin that fall off onto my eyelashes and into my eyeballs. My guess is that it’s caused by a vicious cycle of allergies causing my eyes to itch, which causes me to scrub my eyes too hard when I wash my face (because it feels sooooo good in the moment!) which in turn causes irritation to the skin, which reacts by flaking, and then the flakes themselves cause itching and the whole cycle starts all over again. Today as I was slathering on an off-brand drugstore “mud masque” to remedy the situation, I started thinking about all of the money I have spent over my lifetime just to look presentable.  But since I'm super-cheap when it comes to makeup and beauty products, I’m probably on the low end of total expenditure compared to other women my age. Since you all have been secretly pining for my penny-pinching beauty secrets, here they are, at no cost to you!

  1. Splurge on high-quality mineral powder and foundation, and get your lipstick, mascara and eyeliner from your neighborhood drugstore. A cheap foundation is going to look like hell on your face, but there is no significant difference between the $32.00 eyeliner from MAC and the $6.00 eyeliner from the Maybelline rack
  2. Don’t pump your mascara wand up and down in the tube in an attempt to get more mascara on the brush. It will dry out your mascara and you’ll have to buy a new tube sooner
  3. Don’t spend $20.00 on a fancy lip gloss just because it has a really cool button-touch light-up mirror built into it. You don’t need that. You’re just temporarily enamored by a silly gadget. (I make these mistakes so you don’t have to, folks!)
  4. Take the samples at the Sephora counter! I got a tiny mascara that lasted almost six months, and little tubes of creams and exfoliaters that have lasted up to a year.
  5. Don’t let them jack you on that pricey mineral foundation in the glass bottle. There is at least another three month’s worth of product in that bottle after it stops coming out of the pump. It takes a little doing, but you can pry off the top, even if it looks impossible. It just takes a little determination. 
  6. A decent bang trim can make your haircut last longer. Most places will do them for free, but if you do it yourself, go slow and use good scissors on dry bangs. Don’t get impatient and cut one side too short and then desperately try to even it out on the other side until you look like that guy from “Dumb and Dumber.” For God’s sake, stop while you’re ahead.
  7. Never, ever try to do your own brows. Just pay a professional. I still have flashbacks to the time I decided make a quick “tweak” and ended up with half a left brow.
  8. The best face mask I have ever used was Freeman’s Peel-off Cucumber Mask--under $5.00 bucks at the drugstore. The best moisturizer I’ve found is Pond’s. I’ve spent tons of money on pricey skincare products that do nothing or actively damage my sensitive skin. Expensive is not necessarily better. Bonus tip: The less ingredients in the skincare product the better.

That’s how I’ve managed to be both cheap and relatively presentable lo these many years. Now go forth, and buyeth yourself some face paint from Walgreens!

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Secret Longings of a Girl-Wimp: Tough Chicks, Warrior Queens, and Sturdy Outdoor Types

I have been thinking lately about tough chicks. Last night, I watched a bout of fighting between two female MMA fighters. In MMA, I’m pretty good at predicting the winner, because I can tell which one is more patient and better at preserving their energy. It’s usually the more strategic, intellectual fighter who wins, rather than the one who rabidly attacks full-bore right out of the gate. In this fight, I accurately predicted Purple Pants would beat White Tank Top, and I was right! Purple Pants had gotten socked in the eye early on by White Tank Top, and even though her eye was swelling nearly shut, she just kept going, jabbing and punching and waiting for her more fiery opponent to exhaust herself, which she finally did, rendering Purple Pants battered but victorious.

I’m fascinated by the female fighters. Physical fighting seems like a perfectly natural and even healthy activity for males to indulge in, but I’m old-fashioned enough to harbor uneasy feelings about women being physically violent: It’s not lady-like. It’s not elegant. We should, as the supposedly more civilized sex, be above such things. But these are just projections of my own discomfort with my inner savage, with my fear about my own deeply repressed capability for physical violence and what might happen if I uncork even a wisp of that energy. I once took a kickboxing class (we only hit bags, not each other), and the instructor was a formidable, Amazonian type—over six feet tall, with astonishing legs, wild blonde hair, and the mettle of a true athlete. She yelled a lot and said things like, “You ladies need to wear gloves because I’m not wiping your blood off the bags!” She was like a superhero. But I knew I could never make the stretch to actually kickbox a human opponent, as much as I admired her. The idea of hitting someone else, even in the context of a disciplined sport, is just too upsetting to me. But a part of me still thinks about it a lot. Maybe it would be good for me to do something completely antithetical to my non-violent philosophy. Maybe I should take up boxing and explore that savage I have locked away deep inside, to see what it has to teach me.

Last weekend, I managed to get in a few hours of play with The Elder Scrolls Online. In one quest, I had go into an underground realm and help a warrior queen who had been imprisoned and stripped of her armor. Each piece of her armor had been scattered throughout the realm and was being guarded by physical projections of her deepest pain, fears, and despair. The physical projections showed as monsters or wild beasts or demons. In order for the Queen to retrieve the pieces of her armor, she had to face down each monster and defeat it. With every piece of her armor she fought for and won, she got stronger. At the end, she was fully equipped again, standing tall in her gear, a true warrior. It was a very touching experience and I have to admit it left me a bit teary. I wish I could go back and re-play the quest. It was cathartic and, yes, I’ll say it—it was empowering.

The other category of tough chick I admire is the Sturdy Outdoors Type. I detest camping, but I do spent a great deal of time watching outdoor survival shows and marveling at the skill of those who can make a snare trap out of twigs and leaves and navigate by the stars. I recently got a binder of my family history on mom’s side, and I was fascinated by the number of Swedish farmers that populate my family tree. Tough, stalwart types who work the land and Do What They Have to Do. I seem to have been born with an instinctive distaste for working the land and doing things I have to do, so apparently those genes completely bypassed me. I’m going to do that 23 and Me test and find out exactly how much Swedish Farmer gene I have, which I will bet you is zero. Somewhere in my heritage there must be a Wimpy Neurotic Indoors-Only Writer. We’ll see!

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Writing News, Sites that Help Me Write that I Read to Avoid Writing, and I’m Practically a Gardener!

I have some exciting writing announcements before we commence today’s official post: One, I have reached the 200-page mark on my novel, (59,000 words!), and two, the anthology “Recession Depression and Economic Reflection: Poetry of The Economic Crisis” is now available on Amazon! It contains two of my poems from my chapbook, “The Acme Employee Handbook”, and some great work by poets all over this economically (and emotionally) depressed nation of ours.

I have nothing in particular to blab about around my own rather ho-hum, workaday life at the moment, so in celebration of hitting a milestone with my novel, I thought I’d share some links to writing sites that I’ve found really helpful in encouraging me to be courageous, wild,  and most importantly, tenacious in my writing.

If it weren’t for Absolute Write, I might have given up on the novel a few months ago when I hit a really gnarly mid-point slump. But the AW community was really supportive and assured me that the mid-point is notoriously the worst part of writing any novel, and that I should keep going and just fight my way through it. It really helped! I haven’t posted there a lot, but I want to increase my participation in the community, hopefully  more as a supporter than the perpetual supportee that I am now. And there are rumors that actual, real, famous-type writers (ahem, Stephen King) post there under pseudonyms on a pretty regular basis.

Chuck Wendig’s novel-writing manifesto on Terrible Minds is like Red Bull for your muse. It’s my go- to when I need a little shot in the arm, or when it’s time to re-energize my work with some power, grit and swagger.

I haven’t had much time to explore the stellar She Writes, but I plan to soon. It’s a gold mine of support and advice from women, for women. I haven’t experienced feeling marginalized or condescended to for being female on other writing sites, so  I don’t feel a special need to be on a woman-orientated site, but there’s something about being in an all-female space that just makes me feel more at home and at ease. Women are fun. Same as in real life, getting together in a virtual place with other women to talk shop is revitalizing.

One of the main culprits responsible for my plodding novel progress is not my own lack of discipline and easily distracted mind, it’s TV Tropes. It sucks me in, man, and once I’m there, I’m powerless against it’s hilarious labyrinth of stock characters (Forgot He Was A Robot), over-used plot devices, (Which Wire Dilemma) and hackneyed narratives (Big Ego, Hidden Depth.) I don’t write my novel a lot because of this site.

On the fuddy-duddy grammar scold front, we have 20 Common Grammar Mistakes that Almost Everyone Makes. It’s not fun, and it’s cringe-inducing when you realize how badly you slaughter the English language on a daily basis, but it is a useful and practical article.

And finally—this isn’t a writing advice site, but it’s helped me enormously with my work in progress. 80’s heavy metal bands are my main character’s lifeblood. She figures that almost any activity worth doing is worth doing to a shatteringly loud soundtrack of face-melting metal. But I started cycling through all the known 80’s bands too many times, and I needed to mix it up with some imaginary band names. Behold, the Heavy Metal Band Name Generator! It’s been a lifesaver. I don’t know what applications it would have other than literally helping you name your heavy metal band should you happen to form one, but I’m just putting it out there as resource. Enjoy!

Here’s one semi-exciting thing from my personal life—I planted a garden! Okay, it was more of a container with six little pots that my friend gave me that I planted some seeds in and set out on the deck in gardening “park and pray” mode.  This morning, one of the pots had a few adorable little sprouts in it. I’m practically Ciscoe! Once many years ago, a self-proclaimed psychic told me I could have had a shining career as a botanist. I think my little pot of sprouts is irrefutable evidence that she was, like totally spot on!

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

I lag behind in pop culture consumption by about eight years on average, and therefore have only just now come around to finishing Dave Eggers novel, “The Circle”.   Many of the reviews of this book have been negative, I think because it was written as an allegory, and makes no bones about it. It’s didactic and even a bit obvious in some places, but personally, I didn’t have any problem with this since the story is set up that way from the beginning and remains consistent throughout.

At the beginning of the book, Mae Holland, the beleaguered owner of an elite liberal arts degree and student debt in excess of 200,000 dollars, finds herself at the doorstep of the absurdly sleek and glamorous campus of The Circle after slaving away for 18 months in the grim cubicle of a small-town utility company. Her wealthy, well-connected friend Annie has pulled some strings to get her an entry-level job at The Circle, and Mae feels like she’s won the lottery. The campus is luxurious, the staff smart, warm, and energetic. Mae shows immediate aptitude for her job in Customer Experience, and quickly garners the notice and admiration of the higher-ups. But she finds that being good at her job isn’t enough--she’s also expected to be on social media (which The Circle has monopolized)  24/7, to ceaselessly attend and comment on Circle events, to respond instantly to all social media requests, and to make her opinions and thoughts available online at all times.

Mae adapts quickly to the demands of The Circle and enjoys feeling competent and successful. But she still finds herself in need of refuge, which takes the form of kayaking—the one area in which she still finds an authentic connection to nature and the capacity for wonder and surprise. These finely-wrought scenes of her experiences are made all the more heartbreaking when her supervisors at The Circle get wind of them and force Mae to share her experiences on social media, guilting her for being selfish and wanting to keep her expeditions only to herself.

As her indoctrination increases, Mae begins to feel that the world outside of The Circle is chaotic, dirty and disorganized. Her relationships with her family and friends deteriorate under the pressure of Mae’s constant social media activity and ceaseless online presence. She has epic arguments with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is the sole voice of reason questioning the voracious appetite of The Circle and its ever-growing array of perhaps well-meaning but privacy-threatening innovations. Mae finds that the only way for her to fight off her encroaching despair and depression is more of what The Circle has to offer—answering opinion surveys and engaging in more and more frantic online activity to affirm her sense of self and her value in the world.

A casual reader may find this book to be shallow, but its easy-to-read, page-turner style masks its startling depth and the seriousness of the issues it raises, which go beyond questions of personal privacy and enter deep, philosophical territory: Is the sacrifice of our privacy an acceptable price to pay for eliminating crime? Is it sharing our experiences with the world a moral imperative? How much are we willing to enslave ourselves to technology for the purposes of convenience, or to serve our narcissism? What happens to our humanity when technology deprives us of all mystery and  opportunity for discovery?“The Circle” is part horror-story, part satire, and part philosophical journey. I fully recommend this fun and spooky read.

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Zen of Kites, My New French-Style Work Ethic, Novel Time Warps, and Annoying Double Standards

Last weekend, Mr. Typist and I biffed off to Ocean Shores, using our anniversary as an excuse to fly kites on the beach. I chose a tie-dyed hippie kite, and Mr. Typist chose a black Jolly Roger kite. I wasn’t much into to flying kites as a kid, but as an adult I now appreciate the Zen-like joy inherent in this utterly frivolous pursuit: The moment the kite catches the air and lifts off, the sense of both complete freedom and complete safety, and the beauty of a thing specifically designed to do nothing but leap into the wind and flap there in all of its colorful glory. You can’t really appreciate flying a kite until life has kicked your ass to a bloody pulp. Only then do you get it. Only then do you really understand what’s going on when you look up and the loud, audacious piece of nylon cloth you own is fluttering a mile above you in the brilliant sky, totally itself, totally useless, and totally at one with the elements.

Also, we went bowling and watched cable. It was awesome. Except that when we got back, we had to deal with our traumatized cats, who were cruelly left alone with roughly eight pounds of gourmet food and about as much water, plus their entire arsenal of catnip-laced toys, for all of 48 hours. You would have thought we'd dumped them in a scorpion-infested ditch covered in barbed wire, the way they acted.

May has been a month of Many Days Away From Work. I was at a conference in early May (still technically work, but not “work-work”), then a four-day weekend for my anniversary, and now the Memorial Day weekend. I’m enjoying this French-like approach to industry; taking lots of days off and not actively courting a heart attack on a daily basis as per the usual American standard. With all of this time off, I made pretty good progress on my novel, but I recently realized that my poor sense of linear time has bled over into novel-world, where a short conversation started in the sunny afternoon somehow ends in a rainy evening, the season changes from summer to winter at a whim, and there can magically be three weekends in a single week! I put up a post on my writing site asking for help with my constant time-warp issues, and I got some great advice. I’m vacillating about downloading Scrivener, but they have a free trial, and I think I might give it a try. I’ve only got one hundred pages to the finish line before the first draft is done, and I could use any help I can get at this point. This “writing a whole entire book” stuff is hard.

I’ve discussed my struggles here previously with weaning myself off of my news-feed sites, and I’ve come to a jittery half-measure in only reading Vox, which does a great job of boiling news stories down into understandable bite-size pieces. The most recent article I read there was about the firing of Jill Abramson, which made me mad. Look, it may be true that she’s an obnoxious, divisive blowhard—I really don’t know—but the whole thing irks me a bit because I get really mad about differences in standards for men and women in the workplace. Men can be aggressive and decisive and “tough”, even ruthless, without penalty, but when a woman expresses the same qualities, she’s a bitch and she has to go. I’m not personally worried for Jill—she made half a million dollars a year; she’ll be fine—but the whole thing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m a traditionally “soft, feminine” type who has chosen a typically “soft”, touchy-feely field to work in. But that doesn’t mean I’m not required to make some very tough decisions during my work day. Working in human services is not for the faint of heart. 

I balance on a knife-edge of constantly expressing compassion and being a good listening ear, and having to be an all-out warrior for my people—all while smiling in a pleasing manner and proving that I value relationships. So I get a little bit sensitive about the penalties exacted on women for expressing the same qualities as the men who are lauded for them. Bah, whatever. I’m hereby enacting “Bring Your Kite to Work Day”, and when these things start to upset me, you will see a tie-dyed piece of triangular nylon dancing above my workplace, thumbing its flappy plasticine nose at oppressive double standards.

--Kristen McHenry

Friday, May 16, 2014

My Simplicity Fantasies, Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet, and I Heart the Grid

My latent simplicity fantasies have been kicked into high gear recently due to my binge-viewing of “Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet” on the National Geographic Channel. I love everything about this show: Dr. Oakley’s earthy practicality and fearlessness, (traits that I will never possess but remain perpetually envious of in others), the tough, quirky, living-off-the-grid folks that make up her clientele, the beauty of the Yukon landscape, and the gorgeous animals she has the privilege of treating. And the show is just so…pure. She has three smart, adorable daughters, a doting husband, and a career helping wholesome farm owners care for their animals. Everything about her life seems essentially right and good. It makes sense. She knows at the end of the day that she’s actually accomplished something. She doesn’t have to get up in the morning and slather her face with makeup and try to put together a semi-coordinated outfit and navigate the Metro and answer 73 e-mails before noon while people keep coming into her office needing things. When she is exhausted at the end of the day, it’s the good sort of exhaustion that comes from having accomplished something real and measurable, not from putting out one fire after another and simply trying to keep up on ever-growing list of urgent but somehow intangible to-do’s.

I often have fantasies of ditching city life and moving to a small town with one traffic light, where everyone knows everyone and people bring each other casseroles. (I don’t like casseroles, but they loom large in my simplicity fantasies.) I could get a job doing something easy, like being a clerk at a tire store, or a church receptionist, or a house painter. I would get to know everyone and I would never be lonely and I would show up to all of the barn-raisings and I wouldn’t have to get accosted by meth junkies while waiting for the bus and Mr. Typist and I would live out our lives as small town folk, and when we die, everyone will come to our funerals. Or better yet, we could move to the Yukon, buy a yurt, and live off the grid. (Except that I really, really love the grid and don’t think I could live without it for longer than say, 48 hours.)

The idea that if I make my life less complicated on the outside, it somehow it will fix what is going on inside, is as compelling as it is misguided. The theme to my college graduation ceremony was “Where ever you go, there you are”, and while it annoyed me at the time, I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom of this statement. The vast majority of my “problems” actually stem from my over-active, anxious, fearful, chattery mind. To a large degree, I’m the one who makes everything complicated—not the Metro or the junkies or the make-up or the job. Not the sweet and lovely volunteers who come into my office wanting a bus ticket or a little well-deserved attention. It’s my inability to be present; my constant worrying, mental chewing, comparing, and tossing myself into the jaws of a future that doesn’t exist, or a past that doesn’t matter anymore. This year is teaching me some hard lessons in being in the present, and while I don’t like it one little bit, I have no choice but to submit to it. And you know what? It’s really not so bad; learning to live and trust in the moment, learning to be present to what is, without judgment, without expectation, and without attempting to run away to live in a yurt.

--Kristen McHenry