Sunday, August 3, 2014

The L Word

As most of you surely know, today is Esther Day, the day that we take the excellent advice given by Esther Earl in 2010 and tell the people we love that we love them.

(I don't want to bore regular readers by rehashing the things I've said multiple times before so if you don't know about Esther, or even if you do but you want to read my previous Esther Day posts anyway, you can find those here and here.)

If you know me very well at all (or, you know... if you read the posts I just linked...), you know that saying "I love you" is pretty hard for me most of the time. I can say it easily to a few people but most people rarely, if ever, hear it from me. And that's doubly sad because I do love a lot of people very much.

I think I'm getting better at it though and, like so many things in my life, I have Esther to thank for that. In 2011 I was determined to pass the gift of love that Esther gave me on to some people in my life. So I did it. It was hard and there was a part of me that hated it, but at the same time it was good to reaffirm that connection with the people I love, to be sure they knew. I did it again in 2012 and it was a little easier because now I'd done it before, and it was better still in 2013. Not easy, mind you. I don't know that it'll ever be easy for me. But Esther Day created a way for me to say it without just randomly blurting it out, and that helps a lot.

The trouble now is that, with most of the people in my life, I only say it that one time each year. I know that sounds shocking to many of you, but it's the plain truth. Esther Day is great, but I find that I've begun using it as a crutch, and I'm certain that wasn't Esther's intent. (In fact, I'm also certain that she would scold me soundly for misusing it so horribly. I'm easily old enough to be her mother, but Esther always had a way of putting me in my place when I was being stupid. Which happens more often than I like to admit.) So this year I'm doing it differently. I am telling people that I love them today, but it's my goal to tell them more often throughout the coming year, too.

In Esther's book, This Star Won't Go Out, her father, Wayne, says, "She was a champion of the lonely, a welcomer of strangers, an inviter." I can't imagine a truer description of Esther. She welcomed me and pulled me gently out from behind my wall when I was a lonely stranger, and it changed my life. I'd like nothing more than to be that point of connection for someone else. I honestly don't know whether I'm capable of it -- my personality is very different from Esther's -- but I want to try and I think one step in that direction is simply getting more comfortable with what I usually call "the L word": Love.

The best way to get better at a new thing is to practice it, so I pledge to you, dear reader, that I'll say it more than just once this year. My goal is to be able to write a post a year from today telling you that I've used the word often enough to be at least moderately comfortable with it. Who knows; maybe by Esther Day 2015 "I love you" will be as easy for me to say as "Grande espresso Frappuccino, please." A girl can dream, right?

Have you said "I love you" to anyone today? If not, it's never too late! Esther Day is fantastic, and I hope you'll celebrate Esther's life and legacy by saying "I love you" on this day. But more importantly, I hope you'll join me in saying it over and over throughout the year. It can only make life better for all of us.

If you want to improve even more people's lives, consider donating to TSWGO, the organization started by Esther's parents to help families of children with life-threatening cancer. You can also support them in any number of other ways, such as by purchasing their products at DFTBA Records or by following them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Tumblr. I know it would be appreciated.

And, as always, thank you so much for reading. I'd love to see your thoughts and comments here, and you can also find me on Twitter if you'd like.

I love you guys. Best wishes! <3

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Flaws in Our Stars

I saw a video today called "I Dislike 'The Fault in Our Stars'" by Rebecca Brown, known as Beckie0 on YouTube. I found several of her points to be very interesting and I started to comment on the video but I soon found that I had more to say about it than I thought so I transferred it to my blog, and here we are. You should probably watch the video before you proceed. My thoughts will make a lot more sense that way.

I agree with some of the content of the video and disagree with other parts, but I absolutely respect and support Beckie0's right to express her opinions regardless. She shouldn't have to be nervous about negative comments because we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard of discourse than that. Of course, I'm not naive; I've read YouTube comments before in my life. But I won't tolerate that kind of thing here. Feel free, as always, to disagree and to state your own opinions, but comments that I feel are abusive or inappropriate won't be approved. My readers are mostly my friends and family, and everyone's always been civil around here so I doubt I even needed to say that, but I felt I should just in case someone who doesn't normally read the blog wants to have a rant. Please have it somewhere else.


Also, I haven't yet seen the film (I know, I know) so my comments are based only on the book.

From this point on, I'll direct my comments to Beckie0 because I'm talking about her video, but rest assure that I'm really addressing all of you.

Ms. Brown:

Most important: I'm sad to hear that you've been criticized for having a differing opinion. This would be a boring world if we all agreed on everything, and we should feel comfortable expressing our opinions under any circumstances. And honestly, I think John Green would welcome the discussion. Those who put you down for expressing your opinions aren't imagining you complexly and therefore I think their ill-conceived "defense" of the book would only make him sad.

Having said that, I agree with many of your criticisms of TFiOS. That is, in fact, the reason your video interested me in the first place. I've written about TFiOS here before and one of my criticisms was, in fact, the same as one of yours. However, for various reasons, I'm a bit more forgiving of most of its flaws than you are and I do, in the end, like the book. With that in mind, I'd like to address a few of your points at more length.

I've followed John Green since 2007 and, while I think he's super cool and a very good author, I'd be lying if I said that his books aren't predictable. They absolutely are, and I complained about it myself when TFiOS came out. But upon reflection, it seems to me that almost all authors are pretty predictable when it comes down to it. Give me books that I've never read by 10 authors that I'm familiar with (and a list of the authors), and -- as long as they're not actively trying to disguise their writing styles -- I can almost guarantee that I'll be able to tell you which one is written by whom. It's just the way our brains work.

And I personally like John's style very much so the predictability doesn't bother me as much as it might from someone else. I love the literary, artistic, and cultural references, I love the way he puts words together, and I even enjoy his tendency to make his teen characters very articulate. I taught high school for 20 years and I promise you, while it's far from typical, some of them do talk like that some of the time -- and switch between that and modern vernacular at high speed. So even though I more or less knew what to expect from TFiOS, I enjoyed it just the same. 

(Last warning, guys. I'm not kidding about spoilers!)

Spoiler buffer. Also: Was I or was I not ADORABLE?! :D
Like you, I knew very early in the book that Augustus was doomed. (For me the first major clue was on something like page 17, when he says that a leg is a small price to pay to keep his life.) The fact that it's telegraphed so broadly annoyed me a little, I have to admit, as did the bit in the Anne Frank house. The constant screeching "foreshadowing" regarding Gus bothered me more though, as the kiss feels like a simple lapse in judgment on John's part (and he's human, after all) while the other is just plain bad writing in my opinion and should have been toned down in editing.

Similarly, while I agree that Hazel's mother should have gone to van Houten's house with them, it didn't bother me from a writing standpoint because I don't think John is saying that she (or anyone else in the book, for that matter) always makes the right choices or does the right things. It's possible for an author to report things without condoning them, and John has spoken and written about some of those issues in this book as well as his other books. His characters often say and do things with which he -- as a real, nonfictional human being -- doesn't agree, either because they're patently incorrect or because John personally disagrees with the notion.

I don't feel that the book "romanticizes" cancer, exactly, but I do agree that it somewhat softens the impact of the harder truths regarding terminal illnesses. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, though. I don't mean just truths about death and grief, but day to day truths about watching someone you love waste away physically, and about things we don't like to think about, like vomit and pus and thick, infected mucus and bedpans and times when the bedpan maybe doesn't get there soon enough and sponge baths and terrifying seizures and sometimes decreasing mental function or loss of the ability to communicate effectively, and the fear and confusion and frustration that goes along with all of that. I've been through this process in an intimate way with two close family members (once with cancer, once with a different condition) and I'm honestly glad the book didn't go too far into that stuff. There's a place for it, certainly, but in my opinion this book isn't it. I think John did a reasonably good job of showing the reality of the condition in a way that is appropriate to his audience without dragging readers into the most horrifying corners of that reality.

I don't think your analogies to the cigarette metaphor are exactly accurate; I think better (but still imperfect) analogies would be matches that aren't lit at all and guns that don't have bullets. Also, you talk in this section as though the book and film are targeted toward pre-teen children when in fact they're meant not only for teens, but for older teens. That's a very different audience, obviously.

However, even if we agree that it's not the best metaphor for Augustus to use, it doesn't feel to me like irresponsible writing on John's part because, as I said earlier about Hazel's mother, John doesn't necessarily condone everything his characters do. I don't think he wants teens to get the idea that walking around with an unlit cigarette in your mouth is a smart or cool thing to do. I think he's purely making a point about Gus' attitude toward life and his illness and he chose this particular (possibly flawed, but undeniably powerful) visual to do it. I can accept that in a book for older teens.

I wouldn't call TFiOS a "condition story", but I absolutely agree that the character development, including the romance, is rushed and sometimes weak, and that this is sorely disappointing. I certainly couldn't do better, so I have no specific suggestions, but I would hope that a professional author working with a professional editorial team could do better. Maybe the book needed to be a little longer. Maybe some passages needed to be dropped to make room for more character development. Maybe the story should have unfolded differently in places. I don't know the answer, but I too felt that things were hurtling headlong toward the inevitable ending without enough solid connection for the reader.

To be honest, I find this to be the case for a lot of young adult literature. I love YA as well as the next person but, with some notable exceptions, the story lines and the character development generally do not have the depth and complexity that literary fiction usually has. Most YA novels leave me feeling that I've experienced a good, engaging story and glad to have done so, but they also leave my brain feeling a bit left out. I am, admittedly, weird and I enjoy reading deeply and in an attentive, detailed way that challenges my brain. I fully understand that most people don't read like I do. But for me, most YA feels emotionally engaging and creatively stimulating but intellectually weak. I definitely don't think this makes YA authors bad writers, though! A balanced "diet" of books includes all sorts of things, from picture books to classic literature to nonfiction to poetry. I love it all!

I think that covers my thoughts on your video. I hope none of it felt inappropriately critical. I only want to share my perspective with you and thereby maybe alleviate some of your disappointment with the book. In my experience, excessive hype almost always leads to disappointment and I know how frustrating it can be to want to like something but not find much in it to like.

Thanks so much to all of you for reading this far! Feel free to leave comments here, or to find me on Twitter. Either way, I'd love to hear what you think.

Best wishes! <3

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My 2014 Goals and Plans

I know this may seem a little late for yearly goals but I've been doing this odd thing for a long time. However, I haven't explained the reasons for several years so I guess I'll do it now for the benefit of the new people.

For most of my life I didn't make new year's resolutions of any kind. My parents never did it so it wasn't something I grew up hearing about and I never got in the habit. Then several years ago -- about 2005, I think -- I met someone who would later become one of the best friends I've ever had. As I got to know him, I learned that he'd had kind of a complicated life but that at a certain point he'd made a decision to turn it around and start over. It so happened that he started his "new life" on a February 1, so in some ways that was like a second birthday for him.

My friend's story inspired me and I decided the time had come to reboot my life too, so I stole his day as well as his story and now every February 1 I reassess my life and make changes as needed. I still don't do new year's resolutions, but I do set goals for myself every year, and I do it on this day.

Those who have been around for a while will know that I normally start with a review of the previous year's goals, checking how well I did at meeting them. I'm skipping that step this year because it's easier just to tell you that I failed miserably. I don't see any point in going into details because the story is the same on every goal: Fail. Fail. Fail.

So let's start fresh, shall we? Here are my goals for 2014:

1. Eat right and get some exercise. I always set this as a goal because it's an easy thing for me to overlook, and for many years I did pretty well at it. The past couple of years, though, I've been terrible. There are reasons for it, but they don't matter. I just need to get back on track. I've already started in some ways, but I want to ramp it up asap. By the end of the year, I'd like to feel as strong and healthy as I did a couple years ago. There's no reason I can't, if I just keep my head in the game. Dance! :-)

2. Be good to the people I care about. I'm terrible at maintaining relationships. I'm ashamed to admit (but I will because it's an excellent illustration of how bad I am) that I've basically lost contact with the person who inspired this yearly re-assessment, and it's entirely my fault. I regret it with all my heart but I've failed repeatedly at that friendship and he's therefore probably better off without me.

I've wondered all my life why it's so hard for me to keep up with people and I've come to realize that I'm only good at maintaining 3-5 close relationships at a time. I've tried to do more and I just can't. Someone always gets left out. And 3-5 would be perfectly fine, but I keep meeting more wonderful people! Unfortunately, every time I meet someone that I like, I seem to make an unconscious choice: Do I relegate this cool person to the sidelines or do I get to know him/her better and risk letting one of the others slip away?

But I know I can do better. There has to be a way, and I intend to find it. So this year is going to be about finding ways to connect and re-connect. I don't think it'll ever be my strong point, but I'll figure out how to show people how much I care about them or I'll die trying. I'm determined.

3. Get my house really, really clean and organized. This probably doesn't sound like a year-long task, particularly because (other than dust, always) my house appears to be pretty clean on the surface. But over the past few years I've completely let the deeper issues go, and that must be remedied. Believe me, there's plenty of work to do and hopefully it will include several trips to the dump and to various charitable organizations, as well as maybe one or more garage sales. By the end of the year I'd like to have a clean, organized, comfortable, and attractive home. It's ambitious, especially considering my work situation, but it can be done.

I'll stop there because I find that three goals is just right. Any less and I get lazy; any more and I don't do all of them. I've set myself some tough but achievable and important goals, and I've shared them with you to keep myself accountable. Feel free to call me on them or ask about them at any time. That's what friends are for!

Did YOU make any goals or resolutions this year? I'd love to hear about them. And if not, was there any particular reason? Do you feel like resolutions are pointless and made to be broken? Have you just never gotten in the habit? Some other reason? Tell me all about it in comments!

As always, thanks for reading and best wishes! <3