It’s a Scary World, Jane Doe

Jane Doe is on my mind a lot lately. It’s her fault I can’t sleep tonight. So, I sip at a mug of chamomile tea and write a bit about Jane Doe.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve come to recognize Jane as a fictional character I write about in flash fiction. Her stories can be found under the “Flash Fiction” tab above, or click here.

Jane started her life as the protagonist in my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel. I won NaNo by completing a full draft of a novel consisting of at least 50,000 words (I finished with 73,270) in 30 days. She was born there, but she hasn’t taken shape or come into her own yet. That’s rewriting and editing to be done, a lot of it. I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve participated every year since 2008. It’s crazy creative fun and a wonderful way to choke a story out, to by-god get that first draft written so you have something to bitch about having to rewrite and edit, and it’s expected to be shit, because as Papa Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. So, I love NaNoWriMo. But the drawback to NaNoWriMo is that with a crunch of a deadline like that, you’re not going to get a lot done in the way of character development, or logical story arcs, or well-crafted settings, or subplots, or any of that novel-y stuff.

Enter flash fiction. I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges held over at Carrot Ranch Communications, and not only am I enjoying participating with other writers and having a ball with flash fiction in general, but I’ve been using it for little Jane Doe vignettes, and Jane is fleshing out far more than she did on the pages of that draft novel. I might be on to something here.

The defining thing about Jane is her homelessness, and that’s why I named her Jane Doe. That’s who she is to the majority of the people who pass her on the street: a hapless unknown, a lazy good-for-nothing, a nameless, voiceless nobody. I want to give her a voice and make her a somebody, help the world see that she is a real person, with fledgling dreams and broken dreams, loves and losses, starts and stops and failures, and she’s still out there trying, and surviving. Barely surviving.

Another defining thing about Jane Doe is that she is Anywoman, she is Everywoman. Any one of us could be Jane. I was hit by the bad economy in 2012-2013, when I lost my job in Nevada, moved to Washington because that was the only place that extended an offer of employment, and immediately lost two more jobs once I got here. I’d intended to keep my Nevada home as a rental and sell it when the market recovered, but I couldn’t hang on, and I lost it. If I hadn’t had a 401(k) to cash out, I don’t know what we would have lived on. Poof, home and retirement, gone.

(That could be my own fault, because I was unable to figure out how all these lazy unemployed people are riding high on unemployment benefits. My benefits were good for less than a year and didn’t even cover groceries for a month, let alone rent and all those luxuries like electricity and prescriptions and gas for the car and tampons and a phone and an Internet connection so I could look for another job, and if you think this paragraph is two barrels of snark aimed at unemployment haters, you’re absolutely right.)

I’m not bitching, not really. I’ve lost what I had invested and put by, but I did find another job and I’m still here. The Tominator and Dream Girl and I have a roof over our heads and food on the table. But it’s scary. I’ve heard it said a lot lately that most of us are one paycheck away from being unable to pay for that roof, and I’ve been close enough to believe it. I didn’t end up homeless, but the thought of it haunts me. I lost more than my house and my retirement. I lost security in my own capabilities and worth, my sense of my place in this world, my faith that I’ll always be able to take care of myself. Because for every one like me who had resources to fall back on and was able to find another job, there are thousands who didn’t, and couldn’t. How easily that could have been me. How easily it could still be me, at any time.

One of the things I did in response to my economic crisis was go back to school. Part of it was bucket list, part of it was a genuine desire to prepare myself for a new career, to make myself more marketable generally. But all the rah-rah you hear about a college degree guaranteeing you a good living is just that: rah-rah. I have a good friend who is highly educated, highly intelligent, highly capable, a powerhouse of get-things-done-genius, with a killer resume – who has been in various stages of unemployment for more than eight years. He would be homeless and without all his possessions, right now, if not for the kindness of his friends. And it’s not laziness. He estimates he’s applied for half a million jobs in all this time, and he has worked, happily, whenever someone invited him to, even temporarily. Overqualified? He doesn’t care. He’ll take it, and be grateful, and he’ll stay with you just to prove his gratitude. Unemployed too long? That’s bullshit. Those are the people who should be getting preferential treatment, if you ask me.

I did a bit of research about college degrees among the homeless but I didn’t find much. I found this story on Huffington Post about homeless college students, and this story about a well-educated and highly qualified man who is homeless, and this blog about being a homeless college grad. Nothing’s been written on the blog for a while, and I hope it’s because she found a job and was able to move in with her boyfriend and is now insanely busy and happy with her new career and their life together. I really hope that. But I would be interested to know how many of our homeless population are college-educated professionals who hit the wrong luck on the wrong day and don’t have anyone in their lives who will help them.


One of the things I’ve learned from my own experience is that once you start to slide down this slippery slope, you’ve been marked. One woman wrote to me that after a brief stint of homelessness followed by the blessing of a home, she is still afraid. My good friend lives in fear now, and may always be even if he wins the lottery and buys his own island. I didn’t end up homeless, but my experience with jobs disappearing from under my feet and being just that close to not being able to pay the rent have left me frightened as well. I have a job now, I’ve had it for more than two years, but it still keeps me awake at night, how easily a secure life can turn upside down. This is not imagination; it is a real phenomenon. It hurts us, and it leaves scars. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath again if I wasn’t sure it would only leave me teary and depressed.

Getting back to Jane Doe, I’m starting to think that her story can best be told through a series of interconnected short stories, rather than a longer novel. Her desperation calls to me, creeping in and making its presence known in different ways and at different times and in different places. Jane’s resilience and determination define her as much as her homelessness does. The twin antagonists of her stories are fear and shame.

Your world is scary, Jane Doe, and I do want you to tell me all about it, so I can tell it to others.

But for now, please, let me sleep.

Photo credit: Hanibaael via Flickr/Creative Commons

#1000Speak: Forgiveness Sucks, So Let’s Try Something Different – Updated

Here I am again, awake. I have what may be the world’s worst insomnia. Tonight I’m not worrying about money or children or husbands, and it’s not noisy people. I was actually asleep, but a bad dream woke me up.

I moved to Seattle to take a job after no luck finding one in my home state of Nevada for a year. It should have been my dream job, stepping up to the big leagues of paralegal-dom after many years working for country, but good, lawyers. It should have been a whole new vista for me, an exciting new professional experience in an exciting new city in beautiful new country.

It was the job from hell. Seriously. In my 40 years in the work force, I could not imagine a more horrific experience. I suspect my boss was a true narcissist, and I’m dead certain she was emotionally and mentally abusive. In current nomenclature, I was bullied mercilessly. The three months I worked at that firm was the longest, most horrific time I can remember aside from one marriage I’ve worked hard to block from recall. It should be noted that the dynamics of an abusive intimate relationship and an abusive employment relationship are extremely similar. That job and that woman damaged me. I needed counseling to get past the worst of it.

I’m still damaged. What woke me up a little while ago was a dream that I was right back there, working for that harridan again. I woke gasping, with the electricity of a panic attack running through my veins.


Don’t get me wrong; I’ve moved on with living my life, and I’ve accomplished a lot since then. I stayed in counseling for a year and unpacked a lot of things. I made the decision to return to school, excelling at that and enjoying it, and I have another job I more or less enjoy too. It doesn’t challenge me and the pay is middlin’, but I don’t bring any work stress home at night either, and that’s worth a lot. I am the only person in my office; I run the whole damn state for my company and for the most part, I like that solitude and independence just fine. If some jerk brings donuts into the office when I’m cutting out sugar, well, I have no one to blame but myself. To further my healing, I considered writing her a letter but opted instead for scathingly honest review on Glassdoor, and if it saves even one person from what I went through, I’m glad.

And yet, here I am dreaming about that horrid woman, and still losing sleep to her, three years down the road. What gives?

I was lying there, having burned one of my precious few anxiety pills and trying to read a bit of War and Peace in the hopes I could return to sleep, when I realized it.


And then: Why should I? That bitch hurt me. She’s hurt lots of people, that I know of; I was far from her first. Why does she deserve anything from me?

And the truth is, she doesn’t.

And I know the platitude, that forgiveness isn’t for the other person, it’s for you, and I kinda believe that, but then again, I don’t believe it at all. To forgive is to absolve the person of what they did, and I’m just not going to do that. She’s accountable, past and future, because I know she’s still doing it to others who were looking forward to a terrific position just as I was. When I was there I saw payroll records for three other legal assistants in the eight months before I arrived. Add me, that’s four in a year. She’s accountable. I might not be willing to confront her any more directly than an anonymous online employment review, probably because I loathe conflict with a flaming purple passion, but it’s what I can do.

No, what popped into my head from the depths of I-don’t-know-how-long-ago was another definition of forgiveness I heard once attributed to Oprah, I think it was, and I’m not a fan of Oprah, but I’m a fan of this definition, because it works:

Forgiveness is giving up the wish that things had been different.

And as I lie there still unable to go back to sleep but also unable to unscramble the letters on the pages of War and Peace, I realized that’s what I need to work with.

I am not making the buckets of money I did, briefly, at that firm. I do not have the nice house, and the nice new car and maybe a truck for the Tominator, and long weekend trips up to Vancouver and Whistler and a canoe for all the lakes around here. I do not have a 401(k) and killer health insurance. I do not have the prestige of high-end law firm experience in a posh downtown office tower. And that’s what I should have had. It’s what I’d worked for, for so long. It’s what I was offered when I left my family behind, left my home with my Mother’s Day rosebushes tended lovingly in the yard, and dragged the Tominator and Dream Girl and my stuff up here, and I should have it. I was robbed.

Yeah, I know. Shit happens and who said life was fair, suck it up buttercup. But underneath it, as superficial as it sounds, I am angry about that. Still. I moved up here for professional and financial advancement but here I am, scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, as I have for most of my life.

But on the other hand, as I struggle through many of my days, one of the first things I count when I’m reminding myself of all I have to be thankful for is that I no longer work for that Medusa. I may not have what I should have had, but I have enough, and I’m away from her, and I’m nowhere near anyone remotely like her, and that should be nothing but good.

I don’t have to absolve that woman of anything, but I can give up my wish that it had worked out. I can do something radical, even, and wish for something good tomorrow instead of in the past.

New entry on tomorrow’s to-do list. Make that today’s to-do list; cruising up on one a.m.

I’m going to try to get some sleep now. And even if I don’t, even if tomorrow – no, today – is another day I have to wade through in a sleep-deprived fugue state, I know one thing I can work on toward my own brand of forgiveness: I can wish forward instead of wishing behind.

It’s a start.

Update: Yesterday I was scrolling through job listings, thinking it might be time to go for an upgrade, and I see this Hagatha is advertising for a new victim paralegal. The ad doesn’t list the firm but I know her writing style, and the location is the same. Oh, God, all I can do is pray for the poor sacrificial virgin new hire. Another one. A therapist can make a career out of this woman’s employees.

Paris, Ryder Trucks, and Why You Really Are the Boss of Me #1000Speak

These past several months at work I was plagued by someone with no authority constantly telling me how to do my job. Once or twice a week, I’d get an email from this woman telling me that I hadn’t done such-and-such a thing. She is a private contractor, not an a fellow employee and certainly not my superior, with zero training in what my job duties are. Irritating as hell, oh yes. “Bite me” (or worse) I’d mutter every time I received one of those emails. Delete. Ignore.

This went on for months, and it grew. Her emails to me became more terse and condescending. Tired of it, I was figuring out ways to replace her with another contractor. Until I had a flash of inspiration, and checked something out. Turns out, she wasn’t being paid by my company in a timely manner. Payment for her services is not part of my job duties at all. But she thought the failure was connected to a function I routinely perform, assumed I must not be performing it correctly, and started trying to tell me what to do.

I did a little investigation, confirmed my diagnosis of the problem, and put her in touch with the office that handles private contractor reimbursement. Problems solved. She’s being paid as she should, and I don’t have someone trying to order me around.

Yes, she made incorrect assumptions, that her payment issues were my fault. But she’s not the only one. I incorrectly assumed that she was being an insufferable know-it-all. Both problems were compounded when neither of us communicated what our issues really were: “Gimme my money!” “You’re not the boss of me!” What it came down to was that each of was being threatened, and neither of us was responding appropriately, not solving and even escalating the situation. She could have lost a source of income, and I could have lost the services of a contractor who performs well.

Incorrect assumptions abound. Our only defenses are to think about what the problem really is, communicate what it is, discover the facts as we can, and do our best to find equitable solutions. When we don’t, we lose.

I am reminded of this in the wake of the ISIS attacks on Paris and the flood of pro- and anti-refugee and pro- and anti-Muslim sentiments everywhere.

No, I’m not going to talk (much) about the issues of refugees or Islam, per se. But oh my, the fur is flying, along with insults and xenophobic propaganda on a level with that perpetrated against the Jews by Nazi Germany. Social media have become cesspools. You’re a racist hate-mongerer. Yeah? Well, you’re a bleeding-heart terrorist-lover. It sucker-punched me, though, when I saw ugliness being posted by people I thought I knew, people I hold in high regard, people I love. People that I believed thought like I did. I was surprised at how much it upset me, as if what’s going on in the world wasn’t upsetting enough. I’ve unfollowed a few people, and a few have probably unfollowed me. They’re probably as disappointed in me as I am in them.

And what’s being solved? Nothing.

I took my upset to a group of bloggers I am privileged to know, souls more contemplative and level-headed than I. I listened to their words, and read their words. I stepped back from the shitstorm and allowed things to just percolate in my mind and my heart, and I was able to gain some perspective.

And I remembered the non-boss trying to boss me around. What had I learned?

When we operate in the face of threat, we don’t think clearly. Yes, people reacting from a position of xenophobia and hatred are operating from fear, but so am I. I am also afraid of more violence being perpetuated against my own country, whether from terrorists disguised as refugees, or from terrorists already hiding here, or from someone out there somewhere else who decides to fly another plane into another skyscraper, decides to detonate another explosive-laden Ryder truck by an office building. But I am also afraid of what will happen to us as a race if we don’t do the right thing and help our fellow humans when they need it. I am afraid of how horribly divided this country is becoming on issues that are central to our collective identity. That, I think, is the biggest victory the terror machine can have, when they drive a spike into the collective soul of America, turning us against each other and getting us to do their work for them.

I am reminded not to assume I know what others are thinking, just as they should not make such assumptions about me. I am reminded to avoid labels, especially when tags like “conservative” and “liberal” carry more invective than they ever have.  I am reminded that each of is coming from a different, secret place with dreams and nightmares no one else can truly know. I am reminded that actions do not always reflect motives. I am reminded that we all have feet of clay at times, myself included, perhaps even now. I am reminded that when I despise others for their thoughts as they despise me for mine, I am being as big a bigot as they are.

I am reminded most of all that the world is hurting, and all of this conflict, words and bombs, is symptomatic of massive change and healing that are essential if we are to survive and evolve, as individuals and as a species.

That won’t start until we start having real dialogue, using facts and reason instead of generalization and speculation and outright lies. When I allow you to be the boss, and you allow me to be the boss, we work together. When we work together, we stop yelling at each other and start listening. Listen to the fear, the worry, the pain, and treat them the only way they can be treated – with compassion, love, healing.

Stieg Larsson, the PLR, and Money-Grab Books in General (Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web)

The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium, #4)The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is another book I hesitated over reading. With this and with Go Set a Watchman, the biggest issue at the outset was my own curiosity. More books from writers of the caliber of Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson! But I’d read of the controversies, and I didn’t want to put any money into the pockets of the unscrupulous. I figured I’d just borrow them from the library. Problem solved.

Go Set a Watchman was absolutely no To Kill a Mockingbird, but I could at least tell that it had been written by Harper Lee. I could also tell it was not a finished product. Whether she really did want it published or was taken advantage of my money-hungry people newly in charge of her affairs, we’ll probably never know.

Moving on to The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Taking the novel on its own merits, it’s not bad. It’s decently written and decently plotted, and it kept me entertained and turning pages. It was no The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but even Stieg Larsson couldn’t pull that off twice. The problem is that Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are Stieg Larsson’s characters, not David Lagercrantz’s. Lagercrantz does not have the intricate knowledge, the feel, the love for Blomkvist and Salander that their creator did. That’s not his fault. I’m not bashing Lagercrantz as a writer, and I have not read any of his original work, but in this book, it feels like Larsson’s style is being imitated. It is not exact, which is of course impossible, because this isn’t Larsson’s writing. It’s just his characters and his world.

So although I didn’t completely adore either book, I was still feeling a bit smug about satisfying my curiosity without ringing up any sales for the unethical. Then I remembered my disc jockeying days. Way back when, artists and record companies sent their singles to radio stations for free, to promote their music and generate public interest and sales, and DJ’s could play whatever they wanted. I even used to take in my records from home, to complete a particular set I thought would sound good. Many years later, back at work for the same station, I learned that now royalties are paid based on an estimated number of times a song would be played given a computer-generated rotation, and for that reason we couldn’t take requests, couldn’t come up with our own playlists, certainly couldn’t bring records from home. So much for the artistry of the radio disc jockey. Yes, I understand the principle of intellectual property. But still. If you want to know why broadcast music radio sucks these days, that’s one of the reasons right there.

That made me wonder if authors collect royalties on their books in library collections, so I Googled it. I learned about the PLR, or Public Lending Right, that provides for royalty payments to authors in several countries, including Scandinavia and the United States, for books owned by libraries for public borrowing. Sometimes it’s a flat fee per book, sometimes it’s a pittance every time the book is checked out, but either way it’s capped at not very damn much, certainly not compared to actual book sales and possible movie rights. It’s still something though.

Yes, it is perfectly possible to continue a series after the creator’s death. With the Wheel of Time books, Robert Jordan knew he was dying and might not live to finish writing the series. He had enough drafted and outlined that another writer could finish them, and that was his express wish. Brandon Sanderson is not Robert Jordan, and he didn’t try to be. I appreciated that. He had a tall order to fill and he did an admirable job, bringing a satisfying close to a series I loved and that its creator wanted his readers to have.

I’ve seen nothing about what V.C. Andrews’ wishes might have been about her heirs hiring a ghostwriter to write under her name after her death, but it’s very unsavory that the ghostwriting was kept more or less secret until that whole nasty tax evasion thing put it into the public eye. The nature of the Internet makes it pretty much impossible to trick the reading public into buying another Stieg Larsson book because they don’t know he died, and it’s widely known that Larsson’s estranged father and brother commissioned Lagercrantz to write this book. It was written from scratch, with no access to Larsson’s notes, and — this is where I finally get angry — very likely against what Larsson’s wishes would have been.

And that’s the only way I can look at these now, with both Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson, that these new books are about nothing more than cashing in. Making money. Not art. Money.

I now apologize to both Harper Lee and Stieg Larsson. No more money-grab books for me. They leave a bad taste that has nothing to do with the writing.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Book Review)

While I still feel like I was peeking into someone’s windows, three days in to NaNoWriMo was the perfect time for me to read this book, a less-than-stellar bit from a talented writer. It reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect, because while talent is one thing, the creative process is a process, that takes time and reworking and patience and coming back to gently nudge and prod into shape without giving up. So for that, Harper Lee, I thank you.

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now I wish I hadn’t read this book.

I respond to controversy by diving right into it. This is not a banned book, but my reaction was the same: I want to read it myself, to see for myself.

I’ve read of the kerfuffle over its publication. Despite the official finding that no elder abuse of Ms. Lee took place, I am still deeply bothered by tales of her isolation from visitors and her adamant statements that she would not publish another novel. It seems rather convenient that she changed her mind only a few months after the death of her very protective sister and transfer of control of her affairs to other hands. No, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, but thought of her being taken advantage of angers me.

After reading it for myself I am of the mind that no, this is not a separate novel from To Kill a Mockingbird. The seeds are here, including the the glossed-over story of Tom Robinson, with different players and a different outcome. Jean Louise Finch as a grown woman has many flashbacks to her childhood in Maycomb, and it’s easy to see why the child Scout was given the voice to tell the story, because those were the richest parts, the ones that read like the Harper Lee I love from TKAM.

There is gold here certainly:

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

Yes, authors produce books that are not of the quality of their magnum opus, but that’s not what Go Set a Watchman feels like to me. It does not feel like a sequel, and it does not feel like a companion. The writing is not as luminous, the plot is loose, the intricacies and subtleties of love and prejudice and family and home and hate are not painted with the fine strokes we know from TKAM. This is not a criticism of Harper Lee; with GSAW we are merely reading an earlier part of her creative process. It doesn’t take anything away from the literary masterpiece it was worked into, that I will always love. But GSAW feels like a beginning, like something that was not published before because it was not meant to be.

Now I almost feel like I read someone else’s diary. I am very sorry, Harper Lee.

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Angela Carter, Courtney Love, and Sleep Sweet Sleep (Book Review: The Bloody Chamber)

The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the strangest endorsement for a book I’ve ever come out with. This book of fairy tales retold with a very feminist spin is indeed magic, but not for me as for most people. You see, I suffer from what may be the world’s worst, chronic insomnia. I often go days at a stretch with a handful of hours of sleep spread over the whole thing, sleep deprivation fueling my also chronic anxiety and panic disorder, so I’m left fumbling my way through the world half afraid I’m about to fall right off of it and half hoping I will, so I can just get it all over with already. Welcome to my life.

The magic this book gave me was sleep.

I was awake one night as usual, scrolling down Courtney Love’s Facebook page for some reason. I don’t know how I ended up there. I don’t love her, I don’t hate her, she just is, although I was sad when Kurt Cobain joined the 27 Club. Click, click, click, one place to another and there I was. Hi, Courtney. So, Courtney Love had a post about this book, and it intrigued me, so for something else to do while not sleeping I reserved it on my library website.

I started reading it in bed one night, and although I was enraptured by Carter’s prose and intrigued by the retelling of Bluebeard…I fell asleep. Right on the pages of the book, with the light still on, and I slept the whole night through, until my alarm gently woke me. What a rare treat it is for me, to sleep until my alarm wakes me! And then…it happened again the next night. And the next. Over the week I spent reading this book every evening in bed, that’s what happened every night. I slept. Full nights. For six nights in a row.

I hadn’t felt that good in years.

I finished the book, and the sleeping stopped.

I have to return it to the library, although I will be getting my own copy. Not just for the sleep; Carter’s stories are beautiful, and her writing is lyrical.

But the sleep is a gift without compare. I’m happy to read the same book, every night, for the rest of my life. I hope my own copy will cast the same spell. If it turns out that this one particular volume is the talisman, then I’ll borrow it from the library again and tell them I lost it, and pay whatever they charge me and gladly, so I can keep this magic book. I may try harder to like Courtney Love, too.

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The Power of CRAP: You Need This #1000Speak

Honesty in compassion.

Ah, yes.

‘Tis the season. Not the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice/Happy-25th-of-December season, but election season. Opinions abound. Unfortunately, so do opinions disguised as fact, usually in spam emails and memes all over Facebook. All the more reason to stay off Facebook.

Even more than usual, with things picking up speed in the political arena, disinformation abounds in the cybersphere. Facts and statistics are twisted, if not made up from whole cloth, and spread around as solid information, all in the hopes of influencing our opinions on everything from abortion to immigration to education to health care to foreign policy to wealth disparity to gun control…you name it. Flaming articles and skewed perceptions and outright lies are floating around about Democrats and Republicans, about conservatives and liberals.

Ah, crap.

We cannot decide where our compassion must fall and where our compassion is best applied if we cannot take the time for honesty, not only in telling the truth but in discerning the truth. With so many hot-button issues that many of us feel strongly about, it is more important than ever that we think before we feel.

CRAP. I’m talking about CRAP, the acronym, used to evaluate information as part of the critical thinking process. You know, critical thinking, where we listen to what’s said and then we listen to the other side, and then we do a little bit of research and make a rational, well-informed decision based on facts and evidence and our own personal ethics and beliefs, rather than on other people’s rabidity and hysteria and fear. Where we use our brains instead of letting others play on our emotions. Critical thinking.

C.R.A.P, for currency, reliability, authority, and purpose.

Szczepan1990, Public Domain

C is for Currency. How fresh is it? A couple of weeks ago I saw a meme circulating about the death of Ernest Borgnine. It’s true, he did die. Three years ago. Sad, yes. Current, no. Make sure the information you’re being given is up-to-date before you react to it.

R is for Reliability. Is it opinion, or fact? What is the source of the purported facts? Is it a religious belief, or is there solid physical evidence? Are references cited? Are there sources for quotes? Fact-check things. Google is your friend. Find out who really said it, and in what context. 

That “Life should not be a journey to the grave…* quote, the one we see attributed to everybody from Ian McKellen to Keith Richards? No. It was Hunter S.Thompson who wrote that, in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, published 1997. Keith in particular certainly embodies the sentiment, and Ian and Keith both rock, but neither of them originally said it. It took me less than 5 minutes to find that out.

A is for Authority. Who is giving you the information? What are his or her credentials? Are there any affiliated institutions, and how credible are they? Who is publishing the information? A news source already known for a particular slant is not going to give you information that doesn’t already agree with it. An educational journal or a non-profit independent research institution is a good source, but look further. Does the publication or channel have religious or political affiliations, or does it assume a neutral position? Who paid for a study can have a lot to do with the results. An example is Big Tobacco funding studies to “prove” cigarettes aren’t that bad for you. It took me less than 5 minutes to find that, too.

It’s easy to check on political and legislative records. On a national level, the Open Congress website lists all bills and what they propose, as well as how everybody voted on them. Again, less than 5 minutes. Go to your state legislature’s website for similar info for your state. Completely unbiased, unlike somebody’s dumb meme. A hash tag is not an authority.

P is for Purpose. Are you getting straight-up, just-the-facts reporting? Or is someone trying to convince you of something, to sway your opinion, to win your vote? Are they trying to sell you something? These aren’t automatically bad. It’s the nature of political campaigning to try to win votes; it’s the nature of capitalism to try to make sales. But there is always a high potential for conflict when money is in the background. Does the website hosting the article you’re reading have ads? Who are the sponsors? If they persuade you, what’s in it for them? What’s in it for you? Do they get money or power and you get nothing, or do you have compatible goals?

This is particularly important when it comes to political candidates – where is their money coming from? If a politician’s promise to you conflicts with the source of the bankroll, don’t for one minute be naive enough to think they’ll choose you. Cynic that I am, I firmly believe a politician’s influence will go right back to where the money comes from. It’s why candidates are legally required to disclose where their campaign donations come from.  Make use of that information.

The power of CRAP. It all comes down to deciding whether you want to hear the truth that may make you uncomfortable, or if you just want to hear what you want to hear, that fits neatly into the worldview you already have. Honesty requires shaking things up from time to time, including our own viewpoints. That’s how change happens. Nobody ever made the world a better place by being complacent or blindly swallowing what somebody else was holding out on the spoon.

Of course we are all entitled to our opinions (although I will never understand how anyone can support a Presidential candidate like…never mind, this is not the place), but we owe it to ourselves and to the world around us to make informed decisions. Please, for the love of all that is holy and intelligent, don’t decide who you’re voting for based on some stupid meme or spam email or TV talking head or politically- or religiously- inclined news source or God-knows-what idiot, using information from God-knows-where. Listen to what the candidate has to say. Check official voting records. Read press releases. Attend rallies. Fact-check, fact-check, fact-check. Don’t assume anyone else is doing that for you.

And remember,  I am also God-knows-what idiot out there. You got your information  from some blog? Not a scholar? Not a Pew study? Not the New England Journal of Medicine? Some malcontent at 99 Monkeys said it? Puh-leeze.

In other words, you may safely assume everything I’ve written here is bullshit.

You can trust Ned Stark, though. He is absolutely telling the truth right there.
* The entire thing:  “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'” ~ Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo journalist extraordinaire

2015 Reading Challenge – The Other Side

Way back on March 15, I posted my 2015 Reading Challenge. Accepted and met! Here are the reviews:

A book I’ve been meaning to read:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a huge windstorm in the Puget Sound area, that left us without power for a day and a half and turned out to be a blessing in disguise by giving me the opportunity to read this entire book from start to finish. What a treat! What wonderful storytelling! I loved the movie, and I love the book more. The book has many more characters – Big George’s wife and children, the Threadgoode siblings and their spouses. I especially loved Sipsey’s graveyard of heads, the saga of Railroad Bill, and the deeper story of Smokey Lonesome. As in the movie, there is much slipping around in time to quilt the entire story, and Flagg is a master at it.

Of course one of the main questions I see in almost every commentary about this story, and it is more strongly implied in the book than it was even in the movie – were Ruth and Idgie lovers? What I came away with was: does it matter? The Whistle Stop Cafe and the lives of those who passed in and out of its doors, whether the front door for whites or the back one for “colored,” were  about love, community, looking out for each other and taking care of each other, even at the risk of life itself. Love is love, no matter with whom it manifests or how it is expressed. That assurance of linked and shared humanity from the past was Ninny’s gift to Evelyn in the present. The movie also left the question of whether Idgie and Ninny were the same person. The book makes it clear, they were definitely two different people. Idgie just might still be out there, a bee-charming will-o’-the-wisp.

It made me absurdly happy to see that one of my favorite movie lines of all time was taken directly from the book: “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.” Towanda!

Technology and our bigger-better-faster-more society have robbed us of many things. This book actually made me a little sad that I missed the Great Depression.

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A book published this year:

I did not win a signed first edition, and I’m not too disappointed.

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This may be the most intellectual book I’ve ever read in which pretty much nothing happens. I blame the mist that has robbed Axl and Beatrice of their memories. The characters are flat and events are repetitive, and I am reminded of how deeply our memories form our personalities and our relationships. The dialogue is stilted and formal. The little action is related through looking back on it, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back style, so even that is rather passive. I can see where an amnesiac existence would be that way, but it does not make for a book that can draw me in. It’s entirely possible that I’m simply not highbrow enough to enjoy this work, and I’m okay with that. It took me three weeks to push through to 75%, and then the library loan expired and it disappeared from my Kindle. While I’d be interested to know if I’m right about the the son and the boatman, I don’t care enough to borrow it again to finish it. This is an Ishiguro book that just couldn’t do it for me.

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A book in a genre I don’t typically read:

I, Robot (Robot, #0.1)I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m generally not a huge science fiction fan, and I’m not sure why that is since I’ve read some stellar science fiction books. I should have read this one before now. After reading it and thinking back over the science fiction I’ve seen in TV and movies, I see why Asimov is considered the progenitor of all things robotic. The writing style is a bit dry for me, as much of the writing of that era was, but the stories were enjoyable enough that it didn’t get in the way. These short stories form a nice arc of the “history” of artificial intelligence with an interesting mix of psychology, philosophy, and logical deduction.

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A book from my childhood:

The Borrowers (The Borrowers, #1)The Borrowers by Mary Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book I originally chose for this category in my 2015 Reading Challenge, a book from my childhood, was El Jardin Secreto, or the Spanish translation of The Secret Garden. It turns out that my Spanish is not quite at that level, so I revisited The Borrowers instead.

I had forgotten how magical this book was. The concept is simple but brilliant, the way human “bean”-sized objects are used by little people is creative, the idea of brownie-like inhabitants of our houses is tantalizing, the thought of the damage a housecat could do is bone-chilling. It may have been a children’s book, but the language is not childlike and I enjoyed it as much at my “advanced” age as I did as a kid. And the illustrations – love them! I don’t recall reading the other Borrowers books that followed, but I’ll be reading them now.

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A book my mom loves:

Naked in Death (In Death, #1)Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually don’t enjoy romance, but this novel had the mystery/police procedural in the forefront, so it’s okay. The fact that the phrase “throbbing member” was not used is a big plus. I’m forced to admit I’m not as in love with Roarke as so many other readers are. I’ve always gone a bit more for the hot guy who’s still at least slightly on the wrong side of the tracks, who gets things done through ingenuity and true resourcefulness, not because he’s rich and powerful and connected and has every known and unknown resource in the world already at his fingertips. Where’s the challenge? Still, I liked the characters, the writing was good, the mystery plot was tight. It was good timepasser and I will read more of them. I am intrigued by the futuristic world – I so want an Auto Chef! – and would like to feel more of a sense of this future place as I continue reading.

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A book that was originally written in a different language:

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, this book has one of the best opening sentences for a novel I have ever read. No spoilers.

I understand why this book is considered a great piece of literature, and why so many people admire it. It is peppered with such gems as:

“She had the rare virtue of never existing completely except at the opportune moment.”


“He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.”

These quotes give you an idea of the dreamlike quality of this work. It is beautiful, but also problematic for me. I believe I understand the similarly-named characters, and the circularity of events and characters who seem to live for 150 years or so. History repeats itself, the life-death-rebirth cycle is circular, the fantastical existence of Macondo and the founding Buendía family is reminiscent of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. The whole thing is not unlike the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines. But all of the characters with the same names and jumbled familial relationships are confusing, and, as a work of magical realism, it’s like reading a 417-page account of a fantastical, intricate dream. Without a waking consciousness of reality and character development for context, I’m having difficulty pushing through. For me this would have worked better as a collection of interconnected short stories. I’ll keep trying until it’s due back at the library, but if you’re reading this sentence, that means I didn’t finish it. I’m still giving it three stars just for the beauty of the writing. I will most likely try others of Márquez’ work.

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A book “everyone” has read but me:

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The takeaway: If you hold on to the dream too tightly, it will bite you in the ass. Let it stay a happy dream…

I love the Roaring Twenties, with all the decadence and excess and excitement and changing morality and innovation. I’ve heard this book described as “rich white people behaving badly” and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but on the other hand, the rich have dreams and heartbreak too (although I imagine it’s easier to drown your sorrow in champagne than in tap water). No, money cannot buy happiness, and while it could conceivably buy you a moral compass, it also buys you an excuse not to have one. Can money buy the dream come true…?

I wonder what it must have been like to read Fitzgerald when he first started publishing, to be one of those hearing this voice for the first time. He had a gift for creating ambiance and capturing the essence of a fleeting, pivotal moment without overwriting it. Yes, it’s a short book, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, unlike other long-winded classics I’ve tried to read (I’m looking at you, Vanity Fair).

“‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns at the end of your dock.’ Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to him, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted things had diminished by one.”

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A book I chose because of the cover:

The Supernatural EnhancementsThe Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book!

Fans of Neil Gaiman, take note- although Edgar Cantero is a voice all his own, there is a Gaiman-esque-ness to this book.  As part of my 2015 Reading Challenge, this is the book I picked by the cover. I’ve discovered a great new author, and this may be my most enjoyable read of the year.

A secret society, a treasure hunt, keys but no locks, a garden maze, crystal spheres that record dreams and visions, some cryptanalysis…then toss in a ghost and a missing butler, and you’ve got the wonderful old gothic house and its supernatural enhancements. I love the watchdog named Help, and “conspiranoia” is my new favorite word. The epistolary format gives the feeling of being inside the story instead of just being narrated to.

“And the sad truth is, I want to be all those people. I’d sooner die forked a thousand times in that house than wake up to a world without monsters or goddesses. I’d rather play the monster myself.”

My only complaint is Niamh’s name. My stuck-in-English mind kept wanting to mispronounce it and then correct itself, so I was constantly tripping over it.  Once I allowed her to just be Nye-am, it got better.

I’m very much hoping Edgar Cantero publishes more books in English while I improve my skills enough to read his Spanish works.

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A book by a favorite author:

The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe I’d enjoy reading Anne Tyler’s shopping lists, she’s that brilliant a writer. This book is shorter and with less depth than her other work (although as far as I’m concerned, she’ll never be able to top Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which remains one of my all-time favorite books ever) but it still delivers. I’m always a little sad when I turn the last page of one of her books. Her characters remind me that bittersweet is the condition of unconditional love, and that I’m not (always) crazy.

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A book recommended by someone with great taste:

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I closed the back cover after the last page, I was torn. I was irritated by the Biblical metaphor. I am offended by the whole one-woman-did-something-wrong-so-all-women-are-condemned-forever thing. But in spite of that, I loved this book. The philosophies surrounding good, evil, and predestination were explored by many paths before Christianity, and timshel rocks. Such beautiful, beautiful writing. It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything by Steinbeck. I won’t let that many years go by again.

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A book I should have read in high school:

The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An adventurous read I should have had a few decades ago, but I’m glad to be here now.

I am confused, though. The Duke of Buckingham was the enemy of France, and Anne of Austria was having a love affair with him, so how are our heroes not also guilty of treason by supporting the Queen and protecting Buckingham?  And all the escapades like taking what you wanted from innkeepers without paying, and having affairs with rich married women to get money, and getting women into bed under false pretenses (even a Delilah like Milady), and generally bullying and leeching off of others…was this book written tongue in cheek? If that was typical noble behavior at the time, no wonder there was a revolution.

Cardinal Richelieu is not nearly as evil as I’d thought him to be, but Milady is a hundred times more diabolical. What does it say about me, that she is my favorite character? On the other hand, she’s the only character whose head we get into; the rest are rather undeveloped. The book started off slow-ish to me but halfway in it really picked up and by the last third I couldn’t stop turning those pages.  Once I stopped considering the scruples and the politics and just enjoyed the romp, it was a fun read. There is much swashing of buckles, and intrigue and romance abound. I will be sure to read The Count of Monte Cristo, which I understand to be rather darker (and therefore more to my taste).

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A book that’s currently on the bestseller list:

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the romance of gazing through a moving window to the imagined lives of those we pass by! Each of the three women in this story is a hot mess, and that’s what makes them real. I figured out whodunit early on, but that didn’t take away from the twists and surprises waiting in this tight, page-turning, intricately plotted psychological thriller.

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The First Annual (or Whatever) 99 Monkeys Stupidest Random Awards

The Stupidest Song You Can’t Not Sing Along With: Daydream Believer. That song is as impossible to break away from as the Borg. And I’m not bagging on the Monkees. I love the Monkees. I had as big a crush on Davy Jones as any other girl.

The Stupidest Best Philosophy I Just Might Adopt Immediately: WWKRD? What Would Keith Richards Do? Say what you want about the man, he’s a survivor. “Keep calm, get blazed, and play the riff ” has a simple purity to it.

Of course I am not the first to have thought of this. It’s a real book, and I want it.

I am aware that Keith Richards and Davy Jones are sort of the antithesis of each other, and I’m okay with that.

Elegantly wasted, indeed.

The Stupidest Dictionary: The one in my phone. It absolutely will not learn the word “damn,” but regularly tries to autofill “fisting” for any number of normal, everyday words. Are you fucking kidding me, Samsung? Learn “fuck,” too.
The Stupidest Super Power: My inability to sleep adequately for years on end. I can sleep only 10 minutes a night for a week at a time, and somehow my body thinks a 10-hour collapse once a week is sufficient for me to catch up and somehow avoid a psychotic break from sleep deprivation.

Unless, of course, this is due to a psychic awakening because I am, in fact, one of the Star People from the Pleiades. If that’s true, then I’d just like to go home now, please. A pair of ruby slippers would make short work of the 445 light-year trip.

The Stupidest Ostrich Argument: All these inane social media posts about wonderful white cops and wonderful black detainees and just all-around warm and fuzzy racial wonderfulness. It’s like posting about all the people who don’t have cancer to “remind us the world isn’t completely bad,” which really means “allow us to pretend the bad thing isn’t there.” No matter how many people don’t have cancer, cancer is still an ugly plague. So is racism. Stop trying to pretty it up or shrug away from it.

Of course. Racism solved.

The Stupidest “News”: That two little kids held hands. I don’t know what’s stupider, that someone actually got paid for writing this crap, or that people continue to eat up anything about the Kardashians. But that’s our society these days: the most money and the biggest boobs.

The Stupidest Place to Get Your News: Facebook. Remember, what you read is only as accurate as the most ignorant user.

This prank meme, Steven Spielberg posing with
a fake dinosaur from the Jurassic Park set,
was taken seriously by a disturbingly large number of people.

The Stupidest Alert System: Whoever invented obnoxious car alarms should be shot. OK, maybe not shot, but perhaps forced to be awakened by this rude noise every 15 minutes for the rest of his life. Nobody goes running out to catch the car burglar when these things go off, and go off, and go off, and go off, ad insaniam. What they do is start looking for the baseball bat they will use to shut the damned thing up, when it turns out the car’s owner is away on a three-week tour of Russia and the Balkan lands.

The runner-up is whoever thought up using a car horn as an alert to tell you that you’ve locked or unlocked your vehicle. Do it the old-fashioned way, by, um, remembering where you parked it. And if you can’t remember, then you’re missing out on the fun of trying to find your beat-up ride in the sea of a coliseum parking lot, with your ears still ringing from the concert and your head swimming from the ganja. Where’s your sense of adventure?

Overall, I think car horns are far too subject to rude usage, and should therefore be un-invented.
That’s it for this installment. Here’s the earworm. You’re welcome.

Out, damned Facebook!

It’s time to slow things down, Facebook. We’ve been seeing far too much of each other.
There have been a few good articles on how Facebook is bad for you, like this one and this one, but I’d like to think I figured it out on my own. Wait. Maybe that’s not such a good thing. It’s pretty bad when I have to figure it out for myself instead of reading about it on Facebook, right?

I’ve noticed it personally for a few months now. I see pictures of someone’s vacation and I feel envious. Not just that passing kind of envy, wow, how beautiful, that’s a place to keep in mind to go to someday, but something more ferocious, an anger turned inward. Why am I not good enough to be able to afford a vacation twice a year, or even once a year? People post pictures of their gardens, or the feasts they’ve prepared, and I immediately feel that I’m failing to live an acceptable life because I do not serve equally sumptuous dinners with tables graced by flawlessly arranged flowers grown in my equally exquisite garden. Never mind the fact that I live in a tiny apartment that doesn’t even have room for a proper table. Also never mind the fact that I am more of a necessity cook than a gourmet cook, and also have a pretty tight budget. Who, these days, has $39 for an ostrich egg? Hell, it’s all The Tominator and I can do to keep the place stocked with bread and tea.

I realize this is not the fault of the people who are doing fun and beautiful things in their lives. They should be doing fun and beautiful things in their lives. I am a depressive person. I’ve suffered from crippling panic attacks for 35 years, as well as the depression that goes with that. It is easy for me to find fault with myself, to weigh and find myself wanting. Why am I not that skinny? Why don’t I have 35 friends waiting to take me out on the town for my birthday? Why don’t I knit things that look that good? Why am I not a worldly and cultured traveler?  I certainly should be. I mean, just look. Everybody else is. Except, of course, that they’re not.

Yes, I know when to use which one. But I don’t own most of them.

But it’s not just that.

I don’t need the distraction. I recently participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and while the fault is ultimately my own, I still blame Facebook for the fact that I did not reach my word count goal. Hell, I’ve had to mentally slap my hand three times already, just writing this post, to keep from opening Facebook in a new window to see what new thing I’m not doing right that has come up in the last fifteen minutes. (It is interesting that I don’t have this problem when school is in session and I really do have to study, and I don’t have it at work either. Apparently my mind does have some self-discipline.) I’m still not as bad as some people though. I do not now have, and never have had and never will have, the Facebook app for my phone. But I still think that’s like justifying skin-popping smack by pointing out that it’s not as bad as mainlining. It’s still bad, Advertising irritates the living daylights out of me, clickbait destroys IQ points, and any article written about the Kardashians is a tool of Satan.
I don’t need the overstimulation. Yes, the world is full of injustices that need to be righted. But people who share a meme and apparently believe that means they’re actually doing something to fix things irritate the shit out of me. I personally don’t need to have horrifying pictures of abused animals shoved in my face. It agitates me, and the fact that you slammed me in the face with a gross-out makes for zero likelihood that I’m going to jump on your bandwagon. If this is a cause I will use my time to fight for, I will seek it out. Do you think the criminal justice system needs an overhaul, or GMO foods should be labeled? First, fact-check the meme you just read. Then, get off Facebook and write a letter to your legislator. Have a real conversation with a real person about it. Vote. I don’t know if it’s causing the insomnia that plagues me, but when I wake in the wee hours, that kind of crap is what is floating in my mind. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. But I don’t need it invading my sleeping hours as well as my waking ones.
I don’t need the negativity. I realize they are just stupid memes, and people frequently share stuff without really thinking about the implications behind them. Still, it upsets me to see that someone I like apparently harbors viewpoints I find hateful. Why, exactly, is it so horrible to have driver’s license tests available in languages other than English? Anybody who has ever learned, or tried to learn, a foreign language knows it’s damned hard, and having things available in people’s mother tongues makes rules and regulations clearly understood as well as making us just, well, classy for being so accepting of other cultures, kinda the same way other countries make things available in English. (Oops, I ranted.) And then there’s just all the generally irritating things that people do on Facebook anyway, like “vaguebooking” and proselytizing and posting quotes that aren’t even correctly attributed and the rest of these Facebook sins.

Except this one. If Abe said it, it must be true.

I’m not saying Facebook is completely evil. A year or so ago I reconnected with some cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, and it’s been delightful. I enjoy knowing that people I care about are doing things that make them happy. There is some intelligent stuff out there, and I come across some interesting articles and points of view. It’s a good place to promote my blog.

But I think there’s a lot more bad than good, and it’s time for me to draw a line.

In the hour I’ve spent writing this blog post, I haven’t looked at Facebook once. Now I think I’ll go email my legislator about the asshattery and unconstitutionality of the English-only movement. Maybe I’ll finish that beautiful scarf I started knitting for Dream Girl. And who knows, I might even read War and Peace and get some sleep.
Now, Twitter. Now, that’s interesting…

Get a Life: Nate Bolt, Creative Commons
Formal table: Andreas Praefcke, Public Domain
Abe: He’s everywhere.