1 John 3:17-18

Back in September, I went home to Chicago for a weekend to celebrate (and officiate, imagine that!) one of my best friend’s wedding. While I was there, I started talking with my other best friend (yes: I have two. They’re literally the best people. And I do wake up thankful every day for the fact that I can call them both “friend”) about a conversation I had with my husband. 

I’m not sure how exactly this topic arose, some discussion about our compatibilities and why we have been together so long, but my husband mentioned that he is a “nice” person, whereas I am a “kind” person. So, on the surface, or until people really get to know us, my husband is the one who seems approachable, friendly, sympathetic, and all things “nice;” On the other hand, I’ve often been told that people are at first intimidated by me, that I seem intense, quiet, and distant, which they (mis)take for judgmental or cold. We learned something interesting about this when, years ago, we were both working at a book store. Once people got to know both of us individually, and then as a couple, we noticed they would go to him to ask for something, because they knew he would be nice about it, but what they were asking for was often something that I would need to do (because they knew I would probably do it, they just didn’t want to ask me… I don’t suppose my sarcasm helped those situations.) 

Anyway, I was talking to my friend about this and she seemed not only to agree, but to think that it made a lot of sense. That it created some kind of balance. The conversation has had me thinking about these concepts of kindness and niceness; whether most people tend to be one or the other, and how often is it both? (We all know some people who are definitely neither.) I can think of another friend who is both nice and kind, seemingly as a default; she is one of the most decent people I have ever met. But that seems to me to be truly rare. And I wonder why this is. Does it leave us too vulnerable? Is it too exhausting? Are we too often rebuffed or abused if we are always nice and kind? Do people think this is “fake”? 

I do try to be nice, meaning I often find that it takes some effort; but I don’t feel the same about kindness. I don’t often find myself trying to be kind. For me, the “public” nature of niceness, things like friendliness and openness, and even looking people in the eye, takes work. I’ve begun to wonder if that is a part of my introverted personality and something that I can switch “off” in certain scenarios. With my students, for example, I turn “on” in a significant way, and become much more extroverted. On the other hand, kindness, I think, seems to be a deeper and less mutable part of me. I’m probably sometimes too empathetic, and getting even more so as I age, if I’m being honest. There are any number of times that I can recall trying to make someone else’s day or time or experience a little bit better, even at the expense to my own welfare. If I have something and you need it, I’m going to give it to you. If you need a ride or help moving or whatever, and it’s my only day off in 10 days, I’m still going to be there. If someone I don’t know passes away and I’m asked to the wake by a colleague or mutual friend, I usually end up going (even though this has always felt extremely awkward to me). Where does kindness come from? Niceness? Are they both learned traits? Do we start with certain degrees of each and then expand or contract depending on our own experiences? 

Recently, I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book, What Happened, and she shares some similar insights into this question. She seems, like me, to struggle sometimes to project the image of “niceness” and empathy, while internally she is a deeply compassionate and concerned person. This might be one of the reasons I have always admired her beyond the work she has done, and beyond her incredible work ethic and rich knowledge about so many complex issues. Instead, I respect her simply due to this connection with another person of a similar type. Unlike me, Clinton is a religious person. And I pondered that, too. Where do niceness and kindness and morality all come together? There seems to be some kind of “golden rule” at the center of most major religions, though I would never agree that one must be religious in order to be a moral or ethical person. Still, I’ve read the Christian bible a number of times and a verse comes to mind:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Somehow this passage speaks to me about the truth and value of kindness. This is not to say that the passage is instructing us away from niceness–not at all. But, what I see is that contrast between speaking and doing. Between thinking and acting. Between sympathizing and empathizing. To me, the formers often apply to the nice person. A shoulder, a conversation, and even an acknowledgement of your suffering; all of these are to be found in the nice person. But the kind person is the one who keeps his heart open in order to act. The kind person loves by example, by commitment, and by following through on what is needed most, when it is needed most, and especially, without design or expectation for reward or reciprocity.

Nice is the person who feels bad when a friend’s car breaks down or when they see a stranger caught in the rain. Kind is the person who doesn’t mind when his day is disrupted by that friend in need or who offers his umbrella to the stranger. 

When mother used to say, “be nice,” to the kid everyone picked on, she meant stop picking on him. When Ellen DeGeneres ends her talk show every day with, “be kind,” she means be the sort of person who never would have thought about hurting that kid in the first place. 

For some of us, it is easier, or more natural, to be one or the other. I guess I’m trying to learn how to be both. 

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October Book Swap

For about two years (wow!), I’ve been participating in a private book swap with about 15 friends/participants. The host schedules about 3 swaps per year, so every few months we get a new partner, time to shop, and time to ship. I have participated in every round so far because it is just so much fun to shop for books and personal gifts for someone who loves these sorts of things just as much as I do. Something I’ve neglected to do, though, is share my own gifts from others (except in our private group page where we all talk.) I would like to change that from now on!

This swap, taking place in October, was a fall/Halloween theme. Now, Halloween is my favorite holiday – my husband and I even got married on that holiday! I’ve been lucky to get swap partners in the past who have been thoughtful enough to think about not just me, but my anniversary. This year, as you can see, I got an awesome framed decorative “skeleton couple,” which I have set out for the season (but to be honest I’ll probably keep it out all year). In addition, I receive three awesome books from my wish list: Thank You for Arguing; Tropic of Capricorn; and Poe: A Life Cut Short. I’ve already read the Poe book, and it was good! It put me in the mood to see The Raven, John Cusack’s film from about a decade ago. I usually watch it once per year, around Halloween of course.

I also received two cool bookmarks, one from Iceland (along with Icelandic chocolate!) and one of a young Kurt Vonnegut, along with a Kurt Vonnegut doll. As plenty of people know, Vonnegut is one of my all-time favorites (he and Poe are probably my two favorite male writers). I’m so grateful for all these gifts, plus a pumpkin candle that smells absolutely incredible (we have been watching Halloween-themed movies since October 1st and light it for the viewings — atmosphere!), and a personalized drawing from my swap partner’s  daughter (which is now hanging up in my office, using the little Poe magnet I also received in this swap! See it sitting there on the Ackroyd book?) And of course, the card is perfect. 

When people ask why book blogging is so great, why I continue to bother with it, this is a great example. It’s not about the gifts (although giving and receiving are both great); it’s about the community. I’ve known some of these folks for almost a decade, now, and whether or not we’re all still keeping up with our blogs isn’t even the point. Wherever we are in the world, and we are everywhere, the connections we first made through our love of books and writing about books has gone so much farther and deeper than that. It’s not anything I ever expected to happen, but I’m sure grateful for it.

RBR About Town, Vol. 1

Nearly two months ago, my husband and I moved from Chicago to Las Vegas. We lived in Chicago for almost a decade, after meeting in Los Angeles back in 2006 (I was attending graduate school for my Master’s degree). Something I’ve regretted is that I never took the time to write about and reflect on, or share, new experiences in these different locations. To be sure, there were a lot of really wonderful things about both Los Angeles and Chicago that I could have written about and would have liked to have recorded for myself, to look back on when memory starts to fade. I do have some notes in journals and the like, and plenty of Facebook posts, but all of that was rather haphazard. Ideally, I also see myself breaking free from the chains of social media someday, so perhaps that is not the best place to store my memories after all.

Now that we are in Nevada, probably permanently, I would like to avoid past mistakes and begin to record my thoughts, memories, and experiences in a more permanent place and in a more thoughtful way. So, I’ve decided to share a little feature every once in a while, maybe monthly, called “RBR About Town.” Here’s Volume One!

Last weekend was beautiful. Now that we are into October, the 100-degree days have faded into the rear-view mirror. Most days have still been above 80, and last weekend saw temperatures in the upper-80s/lower-90s. So, we decided to do as much as we could outdoors while spending as little money as possible. A few weeks ago that meant driving out to Spring Mountain for some hiking, but it’s about a 30-minute trip each way and costs something like $9 for parking… yeah, not outrageous, but we’re on a budget!

Anyway, we began our day by running some errands. Afterwards, we stopped in a little cafe called Pour. The place was cute enough and the menu was filled with all sorts of healthy options for fruit and vegetable smoothies. I’m a coffee fiend, though, and have been on a mission to try something at all the cafés in our area (there are so many! Apparently, this area is known for its coffee… they call it the Second Seattle.) When I spotted the “Sin City” caramel mocha on the menu, I knew it had to be mine. And wow, talk about making the right decision!

This iced drink came in a handled mason jar and was topped with whipped cream (I’m not sure what kind – I don’t think it was house made, but it didn’t seem like the typical variety either). On top were drizzles of caramel and mocha sauce. The drink itself consisted of espresso, milk, and vanilla syrup. It was absolutely delicious. After we got our drinks, we went out to the small patio (the location is unfortunate: a small business lot with mostly vacant stores, sitting right on an extremely busy street) to enjoy the warm weather and cool latte. While relaxing, we were treated to a view of two hearts written in the sky above the Las Vegas strip. After what happened last Sunday, this was truly beautiful to see.

By the time we finished our drinks, it was well-past 2:00pm and we were both getting pretty hungry. I’m not sure what it is, but we always have our meals later than most people. Luckily, it has been fitting our schedule quite well (or maybe we just adapted our meal times to our schedules?) We’re both night owls, so while I do have to get up earlier for work a couple of days, we tend to stay up past midnight every night. Anyway, Jesse has been craving Teriyaki Chicken since we moved, and I’m a big fan of sushi, so we decided to do a quick online search for Japanese restaurants with decent reviews. There were quite a few in our area, which is surprising only because we live in the desert; but honestly, Las Vegas has everything, so I’m not sure why we doubted that we’d find something. The place we ultimately chose is called Blue Fin Sushi & Roll.

Despite rather poor service (our waiter was incredibly awkward and the service person was rude), the food itself was good and very well-priced! I got a 6-piece roll for about $7 and Jesse got a giant bowl of Teriyaki Chicken for $9.50. This was a really pleasant surprise because, in my experience, inexpensive Japanese food can turn out to be pretty awful. There were some incredible-sounding rolls on the menu, but they definitely got more expensive depending on the kind of ingredient and type of preparation. I decided to go with a pretty simple baked California roll with crab, avocado, cream cheese and eel sauce. In retrospect, I might have asked for the Yum-Yum sauce instead, but overall I was pretty thrilled with this meal. Great size for lunch, tasted good, and reasonably priced

After lunch, I convinced Jesse that we needed to go to a bookstore (or two). There was a place nearby called Books Or Books (what a great name!) that had populated in my search engine when I looked for Barnes & Noble locations a few weeks ago. It was one of only a few independent/used bookstores that I could find, so I figured we’d better take a look and see if it was any good. In Illinois, I used to go to a place called Half Price Books all the time, and I loved it. In fact, they now own thousands of books that used to be mine, as I took only a few boxes with me when we moved here (still pretty devastated about that).

The store itself was a little hard to find because it is in a small retail space between a number of larger stores, and the sign above it reads, simply, “Books.” I mean, that’s more than enough to get me in the door, believe me, but it had me imagining myself striking it rich so that I could buy them a big old sign to place out on the main road. Everyone should be able to find the bookstore! The proprietor was a nice older woman with a cute little dog — does it get more indie bookstore than that? I forgot to get her name, but I’m sure I’ll be back at some point. And I’ll be sure I ask.

Anyhow, the store itself is small, but it is well-organized (some of the classifications seemed odd, and I did spot a number of books in places where I wouldn’t have expected them, based on genre, but what do I know?) One disappointment was that there weren’t any new books for sale. Many indie resale shops I’ve been to have at least a small section for popular/anticipated new releases. I was looking for Dan Brown’s new release, Origin, which is the latest in the Robert Langdon series that I love (Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, etc.) (Shhhhh.) Still, I did find a 50th Anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve been wanting to read again before the movie comes out next year. It was in great condition and I only had to pay half-price, which is apparently the standard for everything in the store except for special editions. YES!

After our trip to the indie book shop, we decided to head down the road a few miles to Barnes & Noble so I could get my Dan Brown book after all. We ended our day out with a long walk around the mall, which has become a new favorite spot. It’s especially helpful in the summer months, when we want to take walks without melting or burning up in the 115-degree temperatures. Whenever we go to this mall, people walking around with clipboards ask us if we want to earn $5 for watching and reviewing a short film/advertisement. I honestly have no idea what they show people (maybe a commercial?) because we always say no; but now I’m starting to think, why not? Every trip to the mall could pay for the next Sin City caramel mocha!

The Blessings of Liberty

What do these all have in common?

  • Religious fanatic who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Political ideologue who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Racist who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Mentally ill person who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Homophobe who slaughters people with a gun.
  • Seemingly “normal” person who snaps and slaughters people with a gun.
  • Child who accidentally kills himself or someone else with a gun.
  • Individual who commits suicide with a gun.

I’m done with the pitiful attempts at injecting false nuance into this debate. I’m done with the lazy, cowardly responses that “anyone who wants to get a gun will.” I’m done with legislators who want to legislate everything else about our lives but refuse to legislate the one thing robbing us of life itself.

Yes, there are any number of factors that could contribute to any of these incidents. But there is ONE result made more possible by ONE factor. Easy ACCESS to an overabundance of unnecessarily lethal weapons.

They say the second amendment is sacred, nevermind how outdated. But what about our “Unalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What about the Constitution’s first purpose: to “insure domestic Tranquility . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”?  Are we tranquil? Are we well and safe? Did the children of Newtown receive their Blessings of Liberty?

It is past time to demand that the Second Amendment no longer speak for the entire Constitution.

It is past time to demand that our lawmakers respect OUR will and speak OUR voice, rather than perform at the pleasure of the NRA and other powerful moneyed interests.

It is past time to demand that the 97% of the population who want to see progress on this are freed from their bondage to the other 3%.

It is past time that we start to value our right to survive more than we value someone else’s right to murder us.

It can be done. It has been done in other places. We in “the home of the brave” need to grow a spine and do it here.

It is time for courage.

I Still Believe in Words: Sounds from Las Vegas

There’s a sick and twisted irony in this. 

Just one day ago, I had the audacity to call myself a writer. That very night, my town was ripped apart. The city of lights, dimmed. But what happened in Las Vegas will not stay in Las Vegas this time. The stem of evil and arrogance responsible for the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history has deep roots, and violence has never been outrun for long. What psalms or phrases, what songs or poems, can possibly reach us here tonight? But still, by some amazing grace, I believe in the music of words.

Guns are tools of violence designed to injure, harm, kill. Words, too, have the capacity to assault. A stinging rebuke might, like that burning bullet, report riotously through the air and propel brutally through blood and bone. But words were not designed to harm. Our language arose from a need to communicate, to warn, to protect, to thrive. Together. A gun has one purpose, and its ability to terrorize can be ended. Words are everlasting. I believe in the permanence of words.  

Last night, a thousand shots rang through the air, briefly muffling the chimes of liberty. They screeched and cawed through our neon night; this murder of crows blindly attacking its prey. Listen closely as the band stops playing and the revelers stop dancing. You’ll hear firecracker pops silencing the crowd. But not for long. Soon, meeting the attack are words and arms, hands and hearts, feet pounding pavement and words, these words: Run. Go. Hide. Get down. Words of concern, of love, of caution and care. I believe in the power of words.  

“Look for the helpers,” said a kindly neighbor, once, who held our hands through a black and terrible night. “You will always find people who are helping.” One madman with far too many weapons lay siege to a joyful crowd and quieted it for a moment. But when the din of gunfire ceased and the smell of iron was swept away, then on the winds and in the whispers of the Las Vegas valley, the silence was overwhelmed. The city’s brief stillness was stirred by the words of helpers: Where are you? I’m coming. What do you need? I’m here. Where can I donate? Don’t give up. The shots slowed. The terror ended. The words propel us forward. And I believe in the promise of words.

59 dead. 500 injured. Their voices stalled, stifled, stopped: But their memories will speak louder and ring truer and sing higher than the machine that so unthinkingly, so desperately and deliberately endeavored to mute their remarkable tones. The words they leave behind will reverberate through their friends and family, and through all of us who listen and remember. The chronicle of violence yawns dreadfully deep through the veins of our humanity, but the language of kin-folk and brotherhood is even deeper and more profound; it is steeped in the saga of friendship and fellowship, and its spine is a pillar of words that will not bend and will not break. I believe in the strength of words.

I looked into my students’ eyes today, each and every one. Staring back at me were expressions of the same ancient, eerie echoes of shock and sadness, confusion and despair. Words are my passion and my livelihood, I told them, but there are none for days like these. And yet that admission opened the floodgates. Their words, spoken, became light in an unfathomable darkness, and we anchored ourselves to them together. Answers were unimportant in the moment, but they will come someday. I believe in a new generation of words.

I am just happy to see your faces today. Was it enough to say that, for now, I wonder? To let them know that I am here, needing to be seen and heard, and that I can see and hear them there, too? When the sound of concern for those we love drowns out the noise of fear and hopelessness, then there is reason to hope, to believe, to carry on. We reach out and embrace each other, whatever the distance, with words of compassion and care and community. So, even at my most reticent, I believe in the symphony of words.

To Hold a Candle in the Darkness

I was up late last night, hanging on to minuscule and unlikely shreds of hope. I was up early this morning, stirring with a strange mixture of fear and disbelief, as if from a terrible dream that followed me, clawing, into waking life.

I thought about my Mom, who is in the hospital right now, and couldn’t help but wonder: what will we do if something happens to my Dad? How will my sister and I take care of her if this party’s promise to dismantle healthcare goes forward?

I thought about my husband, who cried with me last night and who cried with me this morning. And I wondered: what happens if Donald Trump’s promise to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who’ll overturn marriage equality goes forward?

I thought about my Muslim and Latino friends, my disabled friends, who have been publicly and repeatedly bullied, disparaged, embarrassed, and threatened by our new President-elect and his supporters over the course of the last year, and I wondered: what will I be able to do for them if Donald Trump’s example about how we treat people in this country continues to go forward?

I thought about my female friends who have been sexually harassed, who have been abused, who have been assaulted, who have been raped, and I wondered: how did we get to a point in this country where we would put a man who openly brags about taking these actions against women, and who has promised to overturn their rights to their own bodies, into the highest, most respected and awe-inspiring office in the world?

I thought about being mad, but I’m not mad. I thought about being confused, but I’m not confused. I thought about being shocked, but I’m not shocked. If I’m anything, I am terribly sad.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just voted for two men who want to invalidate my marriage.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just voted for a Vice President who thinks I can be “converted” to normalcy, who thinks I don’t need to be served equally in the marketplace, and who thinks I’m not “fit” to hold a job because of my sexuality.

I’m sad because people who say they love my husband just voted for a man who kicked-off his campaign by calling people like my husband and his family rapists and murderers.

I’m sad because people who say they didn’t vote “for” Trump but “against” politics as usual just voted to keep the same party in control of Congress that has been in control of it for the last six years, making their claim either totally ignorant or totally false.

I’m sad because people who say they love me refuse to see me. Refuse to hear me. Refuse to acknowledge my pain. I’m sad because when they say, “it will be okay,” they only mean okay for themselves and for people like them; “it will be okay” is an empty promise that people who have nothing real to offer make to those who they cannot or will not help.

I’m sad because people who say they love me just made it clear that not only do they not understand how many of us are truly not okay, but they care so little about us that they actively voted for people who want to make us less okay. To put us at greater risk. To choose leaders who want to make us less equal.

Maybe the next four years will be wonderful. Maybe the next four years will be awful. No one can say for sure what will happen. But what I do know for sure, now, is how little we really value people in this country. How little we respect the experiences, the difficulties, the struggles, and the inequalities faced by those who are not like us. I know we are broken.

So, I’m not angry, though perhaps I should be. I’m not shocked or confused, because I think most of us have seen this coming. But I am sad. And I am in pain. Not because my candidate lost, but because people who want to erase me and so many others, have won.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” There are so many candle-holders in my life. And I’ll continue trying to be one, too. Even when the dark is so very heavy.

The Death of Genius?

contentItem-6493112-52396551-zgw8xb4h1ypag-orI recently finished reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries (collected as A Writer’s Diary). It did more than just solidify Woolf’s permanent position on my “forever favorites” shelf, but perhaps there will be time to elaborate on that further another day.

The death of genius haunts me. I think of the wonderfully, terrifyingly talented souls who have left us recently (from Prince to Alan Rickman to Muhammad Ali) and fall down the rabbit hole, following that train of thought backwards in time to think about all of the greatness and wonder that has left this world, from Shakespeare to Woolf to Tennessee Williams. We’ve been graced with their lasting gifts, creations of art, cinema, music, thought. Still, I can’t help but feel that the best of the world and all it has to offer is not ahead of us, but behind.

Yes, this is a cynical thought from someone who typically tends toward the optimistic. But this feeling comes stronger and stronger as the days go by. We still have brilliance among us, of course. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bob Dylan, Stephen Hawking, and I suppose countless others, including my personal favorite genius who goes unnamed (because I’m selfish and possessive). I still don’t know what my generation will leave for the future, though, and why it is so difficult for genius to survive, thrive, shine, be acknowledged. Maybe that’s the way it has always been and maybe other people in other generations have sat and wondered the same thing, lamented the same concern.

I can’t shake it, though. To me, lately, the world seems to be growing colder, angrier, drearier as the days go by. We’re a disturbingly promising species, and yet we’re destroying ourselves and our planet. Why? As I said to Jane Goodall: Ego, I think. Our own “I am” and “I want” and “I need” comes before anything else. This could be a byproduct of being American in the Trump era; I do hope it is very different in other countries, but is it? What is human nature? Throw the dice and you’ll probably get an equal number saying “to strive for individual greatness” and “to make the world better for all.”

And which camp do I fall into? Is it possible to have it both ways?

Talk about anxiety. Self-consciousness. Fear of, what, being inconsequential? I sit here and think about genius, about my generation and my place in it, and I wonder: just what the hell am I supposed to be doing? Is it enough to, perhaps, make a small difference in one or two small lives every now and then? What do I – what can I – leave behind when I’m gone?