Wednesday, August 27, 2014

10 influential books for this young writer

"List 10 books that have influenced your life."

I usually ignore list meme challenges on Facebook, but I couldn't resist jumping in on this one today. 

I like that it wasn't phrased, "List your favorite 10 books," because that would be an impossible task. I'm always discovering new books, and I don't really want to be held to a list of all-time favorites.

Without further ado, here's what I wrote -- and an extra step that I didn't add on Facebook: What I learned from each book.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, the quiet but outspoken fighter against injustice in all its forms, has been my hero since I read this book at a (probably too) tender age. His example instilled in me that the pursuit of justice is worth the personal sacrifice it often entails.

2. The Sea Wolf, by Jack London. I'm not sure I've met anyone as sadistic or amoral as this novel's titular antagonist, Captain Wolf Larsen. But he seems as real as any villain I've encountered. London's mesmerizing story follows literary critic Humphrey van Weyden as he is shipwrecked, then "rescued" by Larsen, a hedonistic, materialistic seal hunter-philosopher-captain, who brutalizes young "Hump" while also drawing him into nightly discussions of ideology and morality. Hands down one of the best books I've read exploring the capacity of humanity to exercise great evil while also showing great kindness. I learned from this book that ideology drives behavior.

3. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. This classic illustrates perfectly via the relationship of two very different sisters the tension between feeling and principle. Do I act with my heart, or should I follow my head? Austen's gift to readers is that we are left to conclude which sister ultimately gets it right.

4. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I owe the shape of my writing life to protagonist Jo March -- the playwright, novelist, bookworm, fiery sister and fiercely loyal friend. She showed me how to love what is good, pursue what enriches and value what lasts. (Also: Thank you, Winona Ryder, for portraying Jo so faithfully and giving me such a good visual picture of what she should look like.)

5. The eight-novel Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. I can't narrow it down to just the first book because the series is basically one long book, and I love it all. Anne Shirley inspires me for many of the same reasons Jo March does. She's independent, creative and charts her own path in life. But she stays moored in herself and her roots. (The image below is actually the same set I own.)

6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. This complex, 928-page tome was Dickens' last finished novel, and in my opinion, is his masterpiece. It weaves together the stories of about 20 major and dozens more minor characters as it explores the deceptiveness of wealth and the spectrum of human values and motives. The lead protagonists, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, embody one of the most difficult and rewarding romances I've read in literature.

7. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. This book was my introduction to Bryson, a travel writer, language scholar and humorist who combines all three areas of expertise in all of his works I've read so far. This book explores the history of the English language, with all its influences, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. This book taught me that scholarly work can be fun as well as educational.

8. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This 19th-century novel is about an orphaned waif who grows into womanhood as a governess while falling in love with her employer. Whatever your feelings about Rochester, I love that he loves plain Jane because of her mind, her intellect, her solid character. Jane Eyre challenges me to develop those traits instead of focusing on physical beauty.

9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy + prequel + appendixes, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This one doesn't really need much of an explanation. It's the ultimate adventure/fantasy trilogy, by the master himself. I love being pulled into his world-building. Tolkien inspires me to use writing to create places people want to visit.

10. Americanah, by a new favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since I don't at this point have the means to travel much, I like to hear of the world through the eyes of authors who come from other places. I heard Adichie, a Nigerian, speak a handful of years ago at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, and was blown away by her eloquence and power. I immediately bought three of her novels. I've been keeping up with everything she's written since, and I think this one is her best so far. She tells a tale of a young woman who, much like herself, has a stake in three very different worlds: Black Nigeria, Black America and White America. Places that don't understand each other. Places that need to try.

Share your list 

What 10 books have influenced you? Feel free to share here in the comments or over at my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Up next

I'm planning to steal Kevin Buist's idea and write about the Ten Books I Pretend To Have Read.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Brandi and beer: Drinking it in at the Microbrew & Music Festival

Craft beer and quality songs go together like the yin and the yang.

Brandi Carlile is shown flanked by her friends and bandmates,
Tim and Phil Hanseroth (R-L). (Photo: Meredith Aleccia)
That's part of why I was so thrilled when those two things on my list of "top favorites ever" were paired so perfectly at the Microbrew & Music Festival in Traverse City over the weekend.

On the lush green campus of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, surrounded by food trucks and beer tents, Brandi Carlile and her close-knit, talented band pulled friendly, tipsy fans into a night of joy-filled singalongs.

Her music has inspired me and guided me out of the mud of life on occasions too numerous to count, and the show on Friday -- my fourth time seeing her perform -- was just another example that she's got a song for every emotion I feel.

In that spirit, tonight I want to share a song-and-drink pairing list Brandi's music and the festival setting inspired me to "craft." It combines beer or cider served at the tents with songs played during the concert. I picked the pairings based on how the quality of the songs matches up with the flavor or description of the drinks.

1. "Keep Your Heart Young" + the Sun Cup Lemon Wheat beer from Brewery Terra Firma. I picked this beer to go with this song because they are both light-hearted and whimsical.

2. "Have You Ever" + the 45th Parallale from Brewery Ferment. Brandi opened the concert with this song, and it immediately struck me how apropos to Northern Michigan it was. Woods, starry skies and snow to boot. A day in the 45th Parallel sticks with you.

3. "Pride and Joy" + Cranberry Ginger Cider from Northern Natural Cider House. The baseline of this song is regret, but just like the flavor of a cranberry, it leaves the mind, body and heart feeling cathartically healed.


4. "Dreams" + Screamin' Pumpkin Ale from Griffin Claw Brewing Co. This song is a guilty pleasure. The beer is basically dessert. What more do I need to say?

5. "The Story" + Little Honey Ale from Brewery Terra Firma. This beer "tells you the story" of what I like in a brew. Heavy on the honey and coriander, light on the hops, bright and clean.

Got a pairing suggestion?

If you're a Brandi Carlile fan and a beer fan and you want to give it a shot, I'd love to hear your pairing suggestions. Leave me a comment below or share it on my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why writing can't make you dumber

I began my 32nd journal the other day. Every time I finish one and begin another, it prompts reflection over what I learned in the past year or so of writing. I've never arrived at the end of a journal and concluded, "I learned nothing this year."

This is Journal No. 32, courtesy of Ultimate Gifter
Nancy Forrest. Love the dog sweaters.
(Photo: Perception)
I don't believe it's possible, when a writer writes regularly, to walk away without learning something.

Here's an excerpt from a paper by Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Southern California. I think it contains nuggets of very-true truth:
We write for at least two reasons. First, and most obvious, we write to communicate with others. But perhaps more important, we write for ourselves, to clarify and stimulate our thinking. Most of our writing, even if we are published authors, is for ourselves. ... When we write our ideas down, the vague and abstract becomes clear and concrete. When thoughts are on paper, we see the relationships between them, and come up with better thoughts. Writing, in other words, can make us smarter. Readers who keep a diary or journal know all about this — you have a problem, you write it down, and at least 10% of the problem disappears. Sometimes, the entire problem goes away. 
This has been so true for me in my years of journal-keeping.

What I've learned

I'd like to share a brief list of the things I've learned via writing at various points in my life. Also, I should note: I am so grateful for all the people who have helped me discover these things. You know who you are.

  1. I remember what first inspired me to start keeping a journal to record my thoughts. I was 12 years old, and I saw Lake Michigan for the first time that I can clearly remember. I remember feeling at one with myself on that beach. I did not possess the eloquence of an adult to express it in writing, but I wanted to try. I'd been given the gift of a journal with a lock and key, and it was something that was truly mine. It enabled me to begin those first few halting, awkward entries with a sense of safety and privacy. It was a place to explore what I could say without having to share it yet.
  2. I've gained so much more confidence over the years. I was greatly helped when my mom enrolled me and my siblings in a curriculum experiment comprised mostly of reading and writing. My imagination gained traction, and my creativity took root.
  3. My friends and family began to respond well to my "story club" concoctions and adventure tales of "CCW and friends" (a series of short stories I wrote based on the lives of my little brother and his kid pals). I began to realize I could entertain people and make them laugh or cry.
  4. I high school, I used my writing to cope with growing pains.
  5. In community college, I began to see that what I can do comes somewhat naturally. I soaked up each new structure, editing and formatting tip from professors, and I began to learn from them the art of critical thinking, discussion and persuasion via the written word.
  6. In university, I studied journalism, harnessing my curiosity to find out "the hook" and to get the real story out of each assignment. It was an overwhelming challenge at times, and one I often overthought. In reflecting now, I realize the lessons drilled into me by a perfectionistic college newspaper adviser and department head have stuck with me.
  7. As I've built my professional life, the pendulum has swung toward editing. But even that has only served to sharpen my sense of what is important in each story and what truly matters to me: the written word.
  8. Now that I am solidly post-undergrad and starting to form deep roots in my work life, I am building this new home-life habit: blogging several times a week. I've decided my writing can't stay "under a bushel," as the children's song goes. I must find what I can say that will resonate with readers and connect people, and I must do it honestly. 

Share your own insights

What about you? If you're a writer or creative type of any kind, I'd love to hear some of the lessons you've learned from the pursuit of your craft. Leave me a comment here or navigate over to the timeline at Perception blogger on Facebook. Let's share our insights and boost our collective wisdom.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What I observed from a traffic violation

Ten days ago, while I was driving to yoga class before work, I was pulled over by a city cop in a construction zone. This is the story about that incident and what I observed/learned afterward while takin' care of business.

It was 6 a.m. There was no traffic besides me and the cop. I knew I hadn't been speeding. I couldn't figure out why I was being stopped. I started to get scared about what could be happening; I began shaking, then crying.

Thankfully, the police officer stopped me for a valid reason. I had failed to see a temporary no-turn-left sign that directed drivers in that lane at Michigan and Monroe to keep going straight or take a sharp right.

Image credit:
Unfortunately, when the officer asked the usual question, "May I see your license and registration," I realized that I had failed to renew my vehicle registration back in June on my birthday. I'm guessing it came in the same mailing as the notice that this was the year to renew my driver's license. But I somehow missed the registration renewal slip while congratulating myself on renewing my driver's license way early.

The officer definitely noticed I was shaking, crying, then staring at the expiration date for a solid minute before handing the papers over to him.

Thankfully, he believed my story -- that I was unaware of both violations -- and he waived the fines and gave me a citation to appear at the courthouse to get everything cleared. I do not take this for granted. As I said, I was in a construction zone, which means the fees would have been doubled if he hadn't been lenient.

Visiting the courthouse

Kent County's 61st District Courthouse in downtown Grand Rapids,
Michigan. (See it on Google Street View)
The week following the incident was a busy one, as usual. On Friday, the last day possible to get the ticket cleared, I shortened my morning workout and headed to the courthouse as soon as it opened at 8:30 so I could get in and out before work.

After going through the security checkpoint and through the foyer to the right in the Court Payments Suite, I discovered from a clerk that, before I could get the citation cleared, I would need to go get my new registration from the Secretary of State's office. I suspected that might be the case, and she confirmed.

Visiting the Secretary of State

It was a beautiful morning, with dappled sunshine and a cool, gentle breeze. I walked down Ottawa, across Pearl and south on Division to the downtown Secretary of State branch. It's in the exact center of Grand Rapids, where Fulton and Division meet -- a long, sand-colored concrete building attached to the Police Department and nestled lovingly among beds of ... more concrete.

The downtown Grand Rapids Secretary of State.
(See it on Google Street View)
I met an Asian-American man in his late 20s or early 30s at the door, which he held open for me. We discovered a line of at least seven people already waiting in the lobby for the SOS branch to open at 9. It was 8:50.

I emailed my husband, wrote some notes in my phone, then began chatting with the security guard.

"So, you see this every day, right? The line?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"What's the situation? Is there a bit of a mad rush toward the door when you open it? How do you know who gets to go in first?" I asked.
"I tell people to line up in the order they arrived. It's usually a very organized process," he said.
"How do people know what order they arrived in if there were several people there when they walked in?" I asked.
"Just pay attention to who came after you and stand in front of them," he said.

Cool, I can do that, I thought. So I started looking around at my fellow line-waiters.

People-watching while in line

I like lines because they reveal more than you'd think about the people who are waiting.

One woman who came in after me, when she saw there was a line, humphed, put her hands on her hips, exclaimed in annoyance and stormed back outside.

A woman sitting on the floor by the door seemed determined to be as close to the SOS entryway as she could so that she'd be sure to get in there first when the clock struck 9 a.m.

A man in the back corner was quietly reading a newspaper while sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Several men were leaning with their backs against the windows that face Fulton Street. They stared at the floor, up at the ceiling, or occasionally checked their watches or phones for the time.

Some people kept shifting from one foot to the other and sighing. Some stood still, lost in thought. Others, like me, were checking out the folks in line and trying to figure them out.

I noticed that everyone, no matter their line-waiting behavior, jumped to alert mode whenever the security guard walked over to the SOS doors to let another employee in.

"About three more minutes," he'd say, noticing everyone's expectant gazes.

Making a new friend at the SOS

Finally, the guard let us in. The Asian-American guy insisted I go in first, even though he had arrived at the same time I did and would have gotten inside first if he hadn't held the door for me.

"What are you here for?" he asked.
"Getting my vehicle registration renewed," I said, "What about you?"
"I just moved to Michigan from Oregon, and I have to get a new driver's license," he said.

We chatted for several more minutes before our numbers were called. Turns out, he lived in Portland, where my sister- and brother-in-law now live. I couldn't fathom his answer when I asked why he moved to Michigan. He said he and his wife have family in New Mexico, Oregon and Arizona, but they didn't want to live in any of those places, so they picked Michigan because it would be "still fairly close" to family in Arizona.

It's all in your perspective, I guess. I would never have thought to describe the Southwest and the Northern Midwest regions as being "fairly close" together. But I hope he likes Grand Rapids.

Besides having family in Oregon, we had other similarities. He and his wife met five years ago on an app called Message in a Bottle. My husband and I met five years ago online because I'm a blogger/blog reader, and he's a blog commenter and also a writer.

My new friend and I compared notes about being of the millennial generation and having these situations where you can form relationships with people in ways you never would have been able to in the past. It calls for a lot of discretion/wisdom, and a lot of tolerance from loved ones who don't feel comfortable with the idea. It's a weird world we live in.

A sobering moment back at the courthouse

After my business was concluded at the Secretary of State, I walked back to the courthouse and cleared my ticket, this time with no hitch.

I found myself marveling at the efficiency with which things happened for me once I knew what to do.

On my way out of the courthouse, though, I overheard an exchange that gave me pause.

"It's just not fair. It's not right," a young man said to his friend as they walked out of the courtroom in street clothes.
"I know man, but he'll get his. He'll get what he deserves in the end."

I've been thinking about that exchange ever since. I think a lot about how survival can be so relatively easy for some people and so difficult for others.

'Be kind'

It reminds me of a quote I heard recently that was attributed to Plato, but which scholars say was written by Scottish author and theologian Ian Maclaren: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

If I learned anything from my traffic violation and subsequent courthouse and Secretary of State visits, it's the truth of that quotation.

I don't really know anything about the police officer, clerk, security guard, Asian-American man or two friends outside the courtroom. But I don't need to know anything about them in order to be kind. I don't ever want to lose sight of that.

Share your story

Have you ever had a crazy, fun, odd or infuriating experience while visiting a government office? I'd love to hear about it. You may leave a comment below or share it at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How you can know what you're good at

Do you ever end a conversation feeling confused and misunderstood?

The other day, I expressed an opposing viewpoint to challenge someone's assumption. When it was clear further discussion wouldn't bring about understanding, I exited the conversation, first taking a moment to validate the other person's strong feelings.

Imagine my surprise when the person in question said I was being "politically correct" by validating their feelings.

For days, I've been trying to figure out a) Why they would say that, and b) Why it bothered me.

The StrengthsFinder

I don't yet know the answer to the first question. But then, I remembered taking the StrengthsFinder talent assessment during undergrad, and now the second makes total sense. I was bothered because the friend's comment was just flat-out wrong. I wasn't being PC; I was being me.

Below are my top five strengths. I also like to think of them as values. I might not necessarily be on my A-game in every one of the categories, but they are words that describe my underpinnings.

These are quoted directly from the quiz summary page that I got when I took the quiz that came with the book. The words are not ranked in any particular order.
Harmony: People especially talented in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don't enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement.
Empathy: People especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others' lives or others' situations.
Adaptability: People especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to "go with the flow." They tend to be "now" people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.
Input: People especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often, they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.
Intellection: People especially talented in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions. 
What I love about StrengthsQuest is that it's a curriculum that urges students to target their strengths and develop them, rather than constantly trying to compensate for areas of weakness.

For some things in life -- exercise, for one -- focusing exclusively on your areas of strength probably is not a good idea. Weak muscles need training.

But for the brain and the personality, it makes sense to develop areas of natural giftedness and to work in professional settings that allow you to use your talents, rather than those that constantly require you to do things you're not good at.

When it comes to interpersonal relationships such as the one mentioned above, knowing who you are is invaluable. You can't change someone else, but you can know yourself.

Do you want to know more?

If you'd like to take the quiz, you can either buy the book that comes with the quiz on a CD, or you can take a less comprehensive free version of the quiz.

Share your story

If you've ever had that "aha" moment when an interpersonal interaction or further education helps you better understand yourself, I'd love to hear about it. You can leave a comment below, or send me a private message at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger. I won't share your story unless you want me to.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Musings on the Topknot

Me last weekend, sporting a topknot.
(Photo: Perception)
Few things can make a girl feel more confident than a high, sleek, sassy topknot. It pairs well with just about everything wardrobe-wise – work clothes, heels, flats, jeans, shorts, sportswear and swimwear – and is professional at the office, practical at the beach.

I've been choosing the topknot a lot this summer, looking for ways on Pinterest and Google images to add more pizzazz as needed.

Over the weekend, I started to wonder where the idea came from to wear topknots. My hunch was somewhere in Asia because of the way it's depicted in art and pop culture. I haven't seen that many mentions of it in Western pop culture.

This morning, I woke up with "I'll Make a Man Out of You," stuck in my head from the Disney movie "Mulan." OK, I thought, time to find out what's what with the topknot so I can get that song out of my head.

From what I saw online, the topknot is of Japanese origin. It's called a chonmage, and the style was designed to help warriors keep their samurai helmets securely on their heads during battle. It eventually morphed into a status symbol for both sexes.

Image from: Hiragana Mama
Just for fun, here's a weird video of some Japanese guys pronouncing the word "chonmage" over and over again. I have no idea why they were doing it, or why the camera is pointing at someone's shirt rather than face, but it's funny.

Back on topic: I wonder how the topknot spread to Western culture in its various current (and past) iterations? At what point did people decide long hair was cool, but not if you wore it hanging loose?

Like, for instance ... this, a kind of extremely messy topknot:

Image of Gibson Girl hairstyle from:
I've always been puzzled by the Gibson Girl hair trend that was in vogue for about 20 years before and after the turn of the 20th century. I get that it was popularized by a male illustrator, and it had something to do with ideals of feminine beauty, but I don't get why it caught on.

To me, it's pretty aesthetically overwhelming.

In 20 years from now, will people be saying that about the hairstyle I'm wearing in the photo above?

Is it possible to achieve a timeless look?

These questions are part of why fashion can tire me out. Things change so quickly, and trends are so culture-dependent and can be restrictive, if you let them.

I can't keep up. So I do my own thing, and I'm learning to be OK with that.

Question for you readers: If you could resurrect any hairstyle from the past and bring it back to trendiness now, what hairstyle would you pick? Feel free to be as silly or as serious as you want, and you can select a style from any culture.