On Resilience

Things are just starting to settle down, I thought to myself last night. Everything finally feels natural and even a little bit…peaceful. Our first son Harley is two and a half years old now. He’s very verbal and expressive, capable, generally happy (for a toddler), and able to self-amuse, for the most part. He’s not in danger of choking or falling into sharp corners. We spend evenings taking care of his dinner and evening routine, playing with him a bit, and then letting him play by himself or watch some cartoons while we read or clean up the house. (Or watch with him, if it’s the Octonauts. Did you know there is a kind of crab that can grow over six feet tall? Look up the Japanese Spider Crab.) Even with the odd tantrum or impossible demand, it’s quite enjoyable, compared to the first two years. I have been thinking about what changed and why it took so long.

I don’t have a lot of non-blurry pictures of Harley in action…he moves fast.

Part of it, I am sure, is that he has simply grown into a safer stage of development. Gone now are the high-stakes risks of choking and falling, and gone are the difficulties of trying to figure out what he needs using nothing more than the pitch and tenor of his cries and an elaborate parental game of Charades where the penalty for failure is an even shriller, more urgent scream.

I also think that part of it is a change in my own mindset. I’ve tried to encourage him to be resilient and to try hard by not interceding when he is trying something difficult, as long as it’s not dangerous. I sit back and watch him with an encouraging smile, and when he gets frustrated, I acknowledge his frustration and that he is trying hard. When he accomplishes something – sometimes even surprising me – I celebrate with him, telling him that he did it, even though it was hard, he kept trying, and that’s called perseverance. He jumps up and down with a wild grin and yells, “Yay! Per-seer-ins!”

He may or may not have become more resilient because of this technique, although I hope it will help him develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. What I know for sure is that by practicing the encouraging smile and holding back my hands – also my go-to when he falls and bumps his head or whatever, at least until he reacts on his own – I have learned to have faith in him and his inner resilience. Where before I was masking my deep anxiety with a very studied calm, now I find that I truly do believe that he can do it. I feel ease. If he doesn’t, that’s OK – he can try again another time. I have learned to give him space. I have learned that he is his own person and responsible for his own sphere of influence – whether and how much he eats, sleeps, or tries to solve a problem. I am responsible for setting clear boundaries – you must sit at the table to eat; chicken, broccoli, and potatoes are on the menu for dinner, not lollipops; now is the time for being in bed; we can’t play with this because it’s dangerous, and then otherwise for getting out of his way. I’m not perfect at it, but the practice itself has shown me to be comfortable with these healthy boundaries, and it has lessened my anxiety to a pleasantly surprising degree.

In about two and a half months, my newly peaceful world is going to blow up spectacularly when we bring a newborn home from the hospital. Knowing this makes me appreciate the quiet evenings all the more. But I hope very much that I will be able to learn more quickly with Cyrus this faith and ease I have learned from Harley. That I will remember to set up healthy and safe containers for him to sleep, eat, and play, and then back the hell off. That even as I am playing Charades with a nonverbal baby, I will smile encouragingly and release my anxiety – he will be fine if we guess wrong the first time. I do not have to be a knot of anxiety, snapping at my husband for failing to guess that he is too warm instead of hungry. I hope I will be able to just have faith that he will be OK.

I hope that as I try to teach my boys to be resilient, that I will learn to be a little more resilient as well.


Book Review: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

“Until a few years ago a simple, quiet, primitive place on the shores of the Colorado, Lee’s Ferry has now fallen under the protection of the Park Service. And who can protect it against the Park Service? Powerlines now bisect the scene; a 100-foot pink water tower looms against the red cliffs; tract-style houses are built to house the “protectors”; natural campsites along the river are closed off while all campers are now herded into an artificial steel-and-asphalt “campground” in the hottest, windiest spot in the area; historic buildings are razed by bulldozers to save the expense of maintaining them while at the same time hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on an unneeded paved entrance road. And the administrators complain of vandalism.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


I found Desert Solitaire to be a thoroughly maddening book. I suppose it is the author who makes me crazy. His depictions of the desert, arresting and fantastic and spiritual, alongside musings on civilization, or culture, or whatever he wants to call it, boggle the mind. But although his casual contempt of modern man, vague misanthropy and less vague misogyny do rankle, I cannot pretend that they are foreign to me. I have railed uselessly against cities and then returned to them, eagerly and willingly, just as he describes doing at the end of his season as a Park Ranger in the book. I have been vaguely dissatisfied with people in general and men in particular, even as I hold human life and humanity in the highest regard. But in my sympathetic irritation, I am disinclined to excuse all that I know is flawed and contradictory in those sentiments, even as I recognize them in myself.

But perhaps I do excuse them, regardless. I doubt that I would hate the man if I could have met him before he passed. I hear in his sarcastic tone a rueful, self-deprecating humor. His exchanges with others – admittedly self-reported – are witty and endearingly self-conscious. I underlined many of his musings just moments after my eyes rolled so far at his arrogance that they nearly fell right out of my head, leaving me quite unable to continue reading this story made up by this self-satisfied, casually misanthropic, anarchistic atheist. And yet continue I did.

Indeed, his paradoxes resonated most, his penitence for how he treated his fellow man and their works. Unapologetically flawed and yet…apologetic, too. The smallness and insignificance deeply felt within a city, after all, is sharper and more painful than the smallness and insignificance that one feels at the base of the towering, uncaring mountain, the empty desert, or the roiling, mindless furor of the ocean. The city presents an intensity and eminence of caring – none of which is directed at oneself. No staggering mass of stars is quite so alienating. It is instantly recognizable, the frustration and misanthropy inspired by a seething mass of humanity and tourism, even as he appreciates individual humans and tourists.

In short, I hated this book for making me love it. I am both annoyed and entertained by the hypocritical savant who wrote it, above all, perhaps, for being a pain in the ass in the same ways that I am a pain in the ass, and worst of all, for making me aware of it.

“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”  -E.A.

What I read in January: More than I thought I could.

January 2016 books

I read eight books in January, totaling a little over 4,000 pages. No one is more surprised than I am, believe me. That’s very likely more than I read for the entirety of last year, not that I was keeping track. I used to read a lot as a kid, probably right up until I left home for college. But ever since then, I’ve avoided it a little. Not that I haven’t read at all – I did read for school, and I would pick up a book here or there that caught my fancy. But not like this. Not like I used to.

I think part of it was that I felt like I had so much to learn that I couldn’t get from a book. Properly directing my attention, which has always been prodigious, is an ongoing struggle for me. I paid endless attention to books, as a child. I could read for unbroken hours, a whole day even. I used to finish my schoolwork as flawlessly and quickly as I could with the express purpose of getting back to the book I’d hidden in my desk without hearing reproach from my teachers. It was hard for them to complain, since I did so well in school, probably in no small part due to my endless and avid reading. But I did miss out on the things you learn outside of books: how to be a friend. How to make new friends. Social rules. Small talk. How to make a joke. How to take a joke. When to break the rules. Who I am outside of a book. What I could make and do. I had decided, at some point during my then-brief and intensely focused life, that those things didn’t matter. How that came to be is another story, perhaps. But of course they do matter, as I know now, and I was forced to spend most of my late teens and early twenties learning them, making up for lost time. So I turned my attention to them and away from reading.

Finally, this fall, after struggling for the past two years with the stunted attention span that comes from the sleep deprivation and constant multitasking required by new parenthood, I decided it was time to come back. I decided I would stop scanning Facebook at night before bed and instead pick up a book. I would read books on airplanes instead of magazines. I would get my attention span back on track, dammit. And I would start with a fantasy book recommended by my cousin: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I knew I could get into that.

My decision kicked off a month of mindless, voracious consumption. Doesn’t sound very romantic or intellectual, does it? It wasn’t. I immensely enjoyed the time I spent this month reading. But it was all done very much in the spirit of binge-watching every existing episode of Battlestar Galactica. I finished The Name of the Wind and its follow up, The Wise Man’s Fear, about a musician-warrior named Kvothe, in quick succession, and was dismayed to find that the third book of the trilogy hasn’t been published yet. I found the second book of the series orders of magnitude better than the first, and I felt it provided depth that enriched what I’d read in the first book, although I did enjoy both. (As a result, I might have unrealistic expectations of the third.) I turned to historical fiction with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which managed to be a book about both the development of the theory of evolution as well as spiritual growth. It was a very good read. I picked up Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, a book I’ve been meaning to read about the infamous eco-anarchist’s first season in Arches National Park as a park ranger. I was simultaneously captivated and appalled by this book, which about a quarter of the way through I naturally began to read in the voice of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. I am quite sure I have another post coming about that one. (Update: Here is that review.) I wanted more nature stories after that, so I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. I love Bill Bryson – he’s funny and smart and always puts in the legwork whenever there is relevant history or science to be mined for interestingness – but this book was not my favorite of his. So I returned to fantasy with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City. These were YA books, come to find out, and very quick reads. I enjoyed them very much for what they were. I think there is one more out there, but I had some dragon-themed 19th century alternate history to catch up on, so I switched to Victory of Eagles, the fifth in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik featuring a very fun twist on the Battle of Waterloo, and finished it up yesterday.

I stacked up the books and surveyed them. This, I suppose, is what I read when I’m grabbing any interesting-looking paperback within reach – mostly fantasy, with a touch of history and a sprinkling of wilderness-related narrative nonfiction. Coward that I am, I avoided setting a Goodreads annual reading goal until I’d finished this month and set my goal to put me well ahead of the curve for my goal (50 books this year). With my son due at the end of April, however, I will never keep up this pace. I’ll end up falling asleep in books again come May, with newsprint letters impressed on my cheek and forehead where I fall, losing track of my place and which book I’m reading, anyway, and where I’ve left the damn thing. I’ll be lucky to get through one or two per month, then. But for now, heavy and round as I am and cold and windy as it is outside, there’s not much better for me to do, to be quite honest.

I didn’t consciously plan out my reading list or set any expectations. So far, the pool of authorship is rather lacking in diversity – all American, all white, mostly men. I managed only two books of eight by women. I don’t regret any of the reading I did, to be clear – it was all time well spent, and I think if you have an interest in the genres in question, you may enjoy these. But I do want to be more intentional about my choices in the future, both in topic and in authorship, because I strongly value getting as many perspectives as possible, from people who are as different from me as possible. I think we all need more of that.

I learned that I’m not interested in giving books stars or ratings. I have tried, in the past, but it just frustrates me. I don’t think the value you get from a book can be quantified so neatly. Desert Solitaire probably drove that point home more than any other book this month, for me. I both loved it and hated it. I argued out loud, rolled my eyes, laughed in amusement and horror, underlined both profoundly insightful and unbelievably delusional paragraphs, and sympathized with the author even as I was irritated with him. There is no way to assign a number from one to five to that feeling. I could give it each of those ratings, and more besides. In every case, it feels presumptuous, reductive, and disrespectful to authors, whose work we readers summarily rank and dismiss as though their books were particularly troublesome brands of pens on Amazon. I didn’t like that he killed that poor rabbit: one star. I, too, hate civilization: five stars. It generally has very little thought or engagement with the content of the book and more often than not misses the point entirely. Imagine contemporaries ranking classical paintings! Why is the nose on the side of his face? This Picasso guy is a hack. One star. That nude lady is hot, thanks, Rubens! Five stars.

Overall, this month was encouraging. I was gratified to see how my attention span had recovered – with a newborn, infant, or toddler, it can feel very much as though it might never come back – and very heartened to realize how much time I was able to find to read (although it admittedly does not say much good about how I was managing it previously). I’m on a bit of a roll with Temeraire, so I’ll probably start there. I’ve decided to make these “What I Read” updates monthly and regular. I’ll let you know in March how February goes.