How our houses speak of us

You know that cherished 21st-century feeling when you find a blog so wonderful you stop everything you’re doing (researching the price points of respectable American-made shoes) and read every single post since the blog began?

I felt this when I found McMansion Hell. Kate Wagner loves architecture and roasting bad American homes. She’s funny and a great teacher and a fellow North Carolinian, so I feel a particular kinship with her.

As Kate charmingly eviscerates McMansions, you realize that so much of the horror of these incredibly American homes is self-evident—even if you know nothing about proportion and architecture, like me. So if a total amateur like myself can see the grossness after a few minutes of Kate’s tutelage, why are so many of these monsters built? Why do so many people elect to live in these architectural trash heaps? Is everyone blind to the ugliness?

Here’s my short (probably incorrect) theory: Our desire to appear wealthy vastly overpowers our appreciation of aesthetics.

Having eleven roof lines and a four-car garage satisfies our human craving for approval and respect far more than an architecturally balanced home. This is Trump’s country, after all: The appearance of wealth is practically an American virtue.

Lately, because of Kate Wagner and a stack of architecture books I got for a few bucks at the library book sale, I’ve been thinking about proportion and design in mass-produced little homes like ours.

We live in a basic 1950s “Cape Cod,” the original floorplan of which is a straightforward box. The rooms are small and the ceilings are nothing to write home about. The main bathroom and the closets are very small. The exterior is shingled with pale green asbestos siding, which has not been touched for decades.

Here’s what it looked like the day we bought it, in October 2013:

Day we bought the house
Oh God help we just spent all our money.
Listing photos of our house
The listing photo for our plain Jane.

How bare, how sunny!

We’ve made small exterior improvements, namely to the yard (to which I am foolishly devoted), and added a pair of shutters, a new front door, and tiny amendments to the stoop.

Here’s what it looks like now:

Spring 2018
(Avert your gaze from my grievously dead rosemary shrubs and the unkempt lawn.)
Spring 2018
Cherry tree and dogwoods in bloom.

It’s still a little off-kilter and shingled with asbestos, but I am happy about the progress we’ve made. That grass is high on my kill list. Can’t wait to get rid of it and fill it with native plants. One day I want new windows. And I am so eager to jack up our ugly concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. But all in due time. Our quirky little house is fine as it is; we are content.

My opening salvo on McMansions has little to do with our home, except to say that I am learning the virtues of contentment and patience. I am thinking more about the beauty in all humble homes, even in mass-produced little ones like ours, and how we can appreciate what we’ve been given.

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The young garden

Easter 2016
Just look at this blowsy camellia of mine.

April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.

Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.

There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.

Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:

  • I am acclimatizing myself to being referred to as a “nice lady”; it is horrible beyond words to be called this.
  • I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
  • I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
  • I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
  • I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.

Recently, in reading life:

I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.

I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.

Not purely animals

Paris
Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

Reclaiming our lives from screens

Camden and Regent's Park area
Near our London neighborhood (May 2016).

Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.

I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.

We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.

In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.

“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.

You can tell from my recent posts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.

Focus on print.

I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.

I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)

Treat my phone like a landline.

Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.

This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.

Check Twitter only once or twice a week.

Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.

Wait without looking at my phone.

I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.

Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.

The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.

This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.

Consider the body.

It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.

This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.

Hold things in the mind.

I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.

I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cherish everything that has no digital life.

Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.

Here’s the concluding hope:

People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.

Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.

Get off Facebook now

Lake District day two
A photo Facebook never saw (Catbells, Lake District, UK; June 2016).

I signed up for Facebook when I was a freshman in college, shortly after the platform had been opened to non-Ivy League schools. In the old days, as you’ll recall, Facebook was just for college students. It was mildly fun back then. I remember being excited to join a group for UNC freshmen and then, as I made friends in real life, add them as friends on Facebook. I signed up for events and posted photos of my friends and I lounging in the quad. But the sheen quickly wore off. Soon, high schoolers could join, which was something that annoyed a lot of us, as if we were the pure and rightful users, and then, finally, anyone with a pulse could sign up. By the time I graduated, just four years later, Facebook had already started morphing into the creepy, greedy, sadness monster that it is today.

Facebook’s monstrosity has always been there, lurking in its DNA. But the past few years have shown us the platform’s sinister nature in new and palpably horrifying ways.

If you’ve been paying attention, nothing below will surprise you. You already know Facebook is bad. But in case you needed a few more reasons to delete your account…

1. Facebook is using you; you’re not using Facebook.

Pro tip: If something is free, you are the product.

This is not something I stopped to consider when I first signed up for Facebook. What a great, friendly service, to connect me and all of my new friends at college! Um, no. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make Facebook out of the goodness of his heart, simply because he wanted to see everyone reach across the aisle and poke one another. (Remember “poking”? God. We should have known back then that Facebook was super-sketchy.)

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook as a horny college student, creating an app to rate girls on their hotness levels. Facebook might have been for bros then, but now, Facebook is for advertisers. They are his customers. We are what they are using. Facebook tracks everything you do online, buys additional information about you from data brokers, and then sells that information to advertisers so they can get you to buy things. This is what Facebook is for—and yet we all pretend that it’s happy and useful and connecting us with friends near and far. It’s not. As we shall see in the following points.

Additional reading

2. Facebook is creepy.

So, not only is Facebook using you, but Facebook is also very secretive about how it’s using you.

Just to scratch the surface: Facebook knows how much you make, where you live, how many credit cards you have, how much your house cost, where you shop and what you buy, who’s in your address book, and what your face looks like. Facebook also knows where you go online even after you sign out of Facebook. (They’re tracking you with cookies; this is how the ads seem so frighteningly specific. It’s because they’re watching you, everywhere, online.) And we gave them permission, for all of this.

A summary of the scope of Facebook’s operations (emphasis added):

… even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does — ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ — and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

(Source: “You Are the Product,” John Lanchester, London Review of Books)

Facebook’s intrusion into our lives is only going to grow. It’s in a grasping and depserate state, even with its outrageous market share. 1.2 billion people use Facebook every day, but Zuckerberg won’t stop until he has everyone. This is the central business proposition: Get the entire world onto Facebook so we can watch every human and sell them everything. It all sounds so grandiose and hyperbolic, but it’s what the benighted CEO is after.

What’s needed, [Zuckerberg] argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity. This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times Magazine)

This is the goal. Facebook wants your whole life.

Additional reading

3. Facebook is bad for democracy.

You know how America is more polarized than ever before?

How “echo chamber” politics seems to be the only way we do things now, with everyone just liking and re-posting things they already agree with, and no one is capable of listening to an opposing point of view without throwing a tantrum online? Remember how liberals were so gobsmacked that Trump supporters existed in such large numbers, because (and I heard dozens of people say this) they “didn’t know anyone who would vote for Trump”? Remember the 2016 election, the one that Russia hacked?

Facebook has a hand in all of this. Even if we can’t directly blame Facebook for the 2016 presidential election, Donald, the Dear Leader, and his conspiracy theory goons, played directly into the platform’s weaknesses.

We can blame Facebook for a lot of the ills that plague our piss-poor public discourse.

With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it.

(Source: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?“)

And this:

On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.

(Source: “On Russian Meddling, Facebook Follows a Familiar Playbook,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)

Just this month, Facebook has finally owned a bit of its culpability in propagating misinformation, with the announcement that it will be demoting posts from news outlets in favor of those from your friends.

On this whole, this seems like a positive move, but it’s also too little too late. The damage has been done; the rift in decent public discourse has been made, and I’m not optimistic it can ever be repaired. (Unless everyone gets off Facebook. Which is what I’m trying to make happen. Clearly.)

Additional reading

4. Facebook pollutes and manipulates your brain.

The internet can be rich in splendor and mired in filth all at once.

Facebook is squarely on the filth side of this equation. It’s the least edifying way to use the internet.

Here’s a simplistic metaphor: We, the Facebook users, are the lab rats. Facebook, the erstwhile scientist, is force-feeding us junk food to examine how we behave.

This metaphor can only go so far (because then the scientist sells his rat findings to Mad Men??), but it gets at the gist of this point. Facebook fills our brains up with junk (ads, memes, hysterical news stories, “studies,” etc.) and then uses algorithms to control what we see, in an ultimate effort to manipulate our behavior.

… if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world — always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.

(Source: “Facebook’s War on Free Will,” Franklin Foer, The Guardian)

Foer goes on to cite just one instance of Facebook’s experimentation on us:

We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”

For me, this attempt to control users is not surprising. Facebook has SO much data about people at its fingertips; of course it’s going to use this information to steer and control us. It’s the junk and nonsense part that also irks me, which brings me to my next point.

Additional reading

5. Facebook is valueless (to you, not to Zuckerberg).

Facebook does not deliver on any of its promises to users.

You’re not more connected to people. You have an illusion of knowing more about others’ lives, but do you, really? Do you really know what’s going on? Everything you see is a curated presentation. We all do it. I refuse to believe there’s even a “genuine” way to exist on social media. Even when you post photos of your toddler crying while vomiting or one of yourself with no makeup, you’re not being “authentic.” You’re also making a statement. Everything on social media is performance art.

Years ago, Zuckerberg bombastically stated, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” and then declared that Facebook would cure this ill. Everyone would share everything on Facebook, and no one could hide anymore! The dual arrogance and hypocrisy in his statement is mind-blowing. Facebook is the very method by which we all create two identities for ourselves: the public profile me can exist entirely separately from the private, real-life me.

You’re not “staying informed.” If anything, as we’ve seen, you’re staying misinformed. You’re not reading “the news:” You’re reading headlines of stories you already agree with, and usually hyperbolic reports at that. You’re also not really reading the news deeply because of Facebook: 60% of people who share links on social media don’t even click on the links themselves. This is depressing, and also nuts.

You’re not hearing about all the hot parties and social gatherings. This is the main excuse I hear from millennials like myself, when I start ranting and raving about Facebook: “Yeah, I would get off, but then I won’t know about all the things that are happening!” Guess what? I’ve been off Facebook for five years, and I still get invited to parties. I still find out about events. Real talk: If Facebook is your primary vehicle for learning about events, maybe you need to start going to different events.

Facebook, for all its lofty and pseudo-humanistic promises, is the lowest common denominator of human interaction.

If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want — if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations — then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.

(Source: “You Are the Product”)

Let’s be honest. What ultimate good has Facebook brought to our lives?

What are we using Facebook for, really? If you are like me, you were probably using Facebook for just two reasons: to (1) stalk weird homeschoolers that you grew up with, and (2) get hot and bothered by your relatives’ misspelled political opinions. That was it. Neither use made me feel particularly happy or encouraged in my development as a human being, which leads me to my sixth and final point.

6. Facebook makes you unhappy.

Facebook is a garbage platform that makes us all feel like garbage in turn.

This truth is borne out by all kinds of research.

In one experiment, people who were randomly assigned to give up Facebook for a week ended that time happier, less lonely and less depressed than those who continued to use Facebook. In another study, young adults required to give up Facebook for their jobs were happier than those who kept their accounts. In addition, several longitudinal studies show that screen time leads to unhappiness but unhappiness doesn’t lead to more screen time.

(Source: “Most People Are Unhappy for the Exact Same Reason,” Jean Twenge, Quartz)

The professor goes on to summarize these findings (and they apply to all people, not just teens):

Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.

But you don’t need “studies” to convince you of this fact. You know this, in your heart of hearts, just as I do: Facebook makes us all sadder.

We all know that too much screen time is bad for our brains and hearts and overall lives, but we’re not reducing usage that much. If you’re like me, and your entire job is dependent on a computer, cutting back on screen time isn’t an option during the work week. But the screen does not rule us. Not entirely. Not yet.

Significantly, we don’t have to let something as toxic as Facebook dominate our life online.

For me, personally, 2018 is going to be a year of cutting back, of declaring screen-free weekends and nights, as much as possible. I’m already happier for it. I’ve been happier about my online life for the past five years, primarily because I took one crucial action: I deleted my Facebook account.

Those who know me will cry foul, because they know I still use Facebook-owned products like Instagram and WhatsApp. I know that I’m being spied on there, too. But it’s a lower level of insidiousness, and the difference, for me, lies in the platform limitations. Instagram can’t distribute links or news stories or people’s hot takes. For me, Instagram is 80% babies, 10% people’s food, and 10% travel photos. I’m OK with that. It’s a nice visual distraction for about 5-10 minutes every day. I can watch friends’ kids grow up from afar and not read a single political opinion. WhatsApp is a wonderful way for my family to stay in touch, especially with a sister who lives abroad. I don’t have to interact with anyone but a small circle of family and friends there. Facebook controls the internet, this we know, but at least I can let it control me in slightly smaller ways.

I know people talk about this (getting off Facebook) in the hopes of garnering some sick sense of self-congratulation. I know that’s what this sounds like. But I just want to tell you about something that made my life better. I am a happier and more mentally balanced person because I don’t use Facebook anymore.

Most important link in this entire diatribe:

How to delete your Facebook account.

Facebook, unsurprisingly, makes it very difficult for you to delete your account. You can “deactivate” it, which just hides it from your friends’ feeds, but all the data is still there. If you really want off, you need to delete your account. Follow the instructions in the link above. After your deletion request, they’ll grudgingly delete your account within a 14-day period. (Even then, I’m not convinced they actually do it. But it’s worth the shot.)

Go with God, my friends, and go without a Facebook account.

How to read in 2018

So many great books.
The screen is an easier choice than the book. (Old photo of a friend’s apartment, circa 2012.)

The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.

We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.

And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.

Here are some things that have been working for me lately.

Read these online tips to read offline

(The irony! It is not lost on me.)

  • Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
  • Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
  • Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
  • Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
  • Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).

I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.

Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.

Best fiction I read in 2017

As far as fiction is concerned, 2017 was a year of returning to authors I now consider to be old favorites (or, at the very least, I was refreshing my opinions of those previously encountered). I read slowly and sometimes fitfully this year, but I was especially grateful for these top 10 highlights from my year in fiction.

The Rings of Saturn

1: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sleeper hit of 2017! I’m surprised by myself, picking this as my favorite, but there it stands. I read Austerlitz some years back and found it inscrutable and frustrating, but this brilliant, dreamy novel hit me in all the right ways late in the year. It is an exquisite pleasure to wander around history and the English countryside with W.G. Sebald. I feel grateful, to have encountered a mind like his. The Rings of Saturn is so fragmented and yet it all holds together in this ineffable way. The perfect novel for an unusual year. (Amazon)

The Complete Stories

2: The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

My obsession with the weird, beautiful, mind-bending prose of Clarice Lispector knows no rational bounds. Her marvelous strangeness is a never-ending delight. I read these stories with deliberate slowness, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. I loved the common threads (a simple object or a stray glance hurtling a character into existential distress; chickens, dogs, and horses, but never cats; a woman ready to do something dramatic with her life and then she just goes home). I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory logic. In all the excruciating darkness of the world, at least we still have these stories; at least we still have Lispector. (Amazon)

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

3: The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t love it just because it has a German shepherd on the cover. Marvelously strange, gorgeously written. I am smitten with Joy Williams. This is a dense and delightful collection of her stories, old and new, and it contains manifold and unexpected pleasures. Her characters are at once familiar and foreign, transforming between sentences, subverting human behavioral conventions. And, of course, I loved the prevalence of dogs throughout. Color me a mega-fan. (Amazon)

Lincoln in the Bardo

4: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. Saunders seems to be able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character. (Amazon)

My Struggle: Book 5

5: My Struggle, Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard

Perpetually riveting, in all the same mysterious ways that the prior installments have been. This might be my second-favorite volume of My Struggle, after Book 1. They’re always in my top 10, in whatever year I encounter a volume. His plain prose has a mystically addictive property. I cannot describe it. (Amazon)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

6: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it. (Amazon)

The Sportswriter

7: The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

Fine, I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs. (Amazon)

Giovanni's Room

8: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a fated couple in Paris. Baldwin has such range and impressive economy of language. I am grateful to be reminded of his gifts with each encounter. (Amazon)

The Question of Bruno

9: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon

Marvelous, inventive prose; dark stories with a comedic edge. It’s almost impossible to believe that he moved to Chicago with a marginal grasp of English and then, a few years later, published a work with this much style and sophistication in his newly learned language. (Amazon)

The Afterlives

10: The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce

Thomas Pierce brings all the components of a good story to the table: humor, empathy, and ingenuity. I lapped up this creative and touching novel, flying through it as I was flying home over the Pacific Ocean. Jim and Annie build a life together and wander through a future that does not feel too far away from us now. The future of American fiction, honestly, feels brighter to me, knowing that it is buoyed by writers like Pierce. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
  2. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
  3. Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey
  4. Bear, Marian Engel
  5. 10:04, Ben Lerner
  6. The Progress of Love, Alice Munro
  7. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  8. The Street, Ann Petry
  9. Collected Stories of John O’Hara
  10. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  11. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017 and best nonfiction I read in 2017. All Best Books lists are here.

Best nonfiction I read in 2017

I feel like I covered a lot of ideological ground with my nonfiction diet in 2017, but maybe that’s not true; maybe I read the same kind of thing year after year after year. In any event, here are my favorite nonfiction books from 2017.

Simone Weil: An Anthology

1: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles

Perhaps embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with Simone Weil, French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, a stylish genius who died at the age of 34. This anthology was the perfect introduction to her radical, refreshing mind. Weil’s observations of her own time (as a French Jew in the heat of World War II) strike me as startlingly relevant to our civic life today. It’s energizing and challenging in all the right ways, and I am looking forward to reading her more deeply. My in-laws gave me Gravity and Grace, her first published work, for Christmas, and it’s at the top of my list to tackle in 2018. (Amazon)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

2: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond

The deserving winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Evicted is a serious, moving accomplishment of ethnography and inquiry into evictions, one of the leading causes of poverty and homelessness. Matthew Desmond’s work spans years and provides an intimate portrait of the men, women, and children struggling to keep their homes in Milwaukee. It is heartbreaking and goading all at once; I read it quickly, like a novel, over the course of a few days. Highly recommended. (Amazon)

Coming Into the Country

3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee

I’ll read John McPhee on any subject. This book, an adventure through Alaska in the 1970s, is a fantastic perspective of the land, its history and politics, and the deeply curious and strong people who inhabit it. (Amazon)

Glass, Irony and God

4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson

If I read Anne Carson in any given year, she’ll be on my top 10 list. This is just how it is. A brilliant mix of poetry, essays, and casual philosophy, this book held my breathless attention from start to finish. I think “The Glass Essay” is a masterpiece, even though the certified poets in my life (husband, Celeste) were less than impressed. I will not yield: I’m a Carson fangirl till my dying day. (Amazon)

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

5: In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caren Zucker

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name—and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails—has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present. That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

While there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been—thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved. (Amazon)

Chekhov

6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat

I have loved Anton Chekhov for years, and this biography made me love him even more. His unwavering devotion to showing life as it is, not as we want it to seem, and his sincerely good nature, continue to endear me to him and to his body of work. I am not typically one for biographies, but this one was completely delightful: Henri Troyat writes beautifully and clearly and presents a riveting portrait of the literary genius. I read it quickly, eagerly. (Amazon)

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

My husband, who is a total gem, gave me this book for Christmas 2016, because Lydia Davis told him to. Davis, Queen of My Heart, was a visiting scholar at the university in our town, and gave a series of lectures, all of which I was unable to attend, because of work duties, and I was devastated. My husband went to all but one of them and took notes for me. When he gave me this book, which I had not previously heard of, he said that in Davis’s talk on writing, she referenced Artful Sentences as a favorite resource. She said she liked to turn to it for examples of the marvelous variety of sentences that could be created and find inspiration therein.

And inspiration abounds! Virginia Tufte is like an industrious scientist of English syntax. She shares more than 1,000 sentences as examples of all the types of good and beautiful ways that one can fashion language, and she divides the book logically by grammatical types. It is a delight and a refreshing study of the gorgeous variety of English. It now sits on my desk at work, and I hope to return to it and read it every year. (Amazon)

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

8: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

A complete delight, in only the way that DFW can be. Sharp, memorable, brilliant, funny essays. It is a pleasure to return to him after taking a few years off; I think he’s the kind of writer whose impact is preserved and amplified if I don’t binge read him. (Amazon)

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

9: Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

They don’t make nonfiction like they used to. Marvelously researched and riveting from start to finish. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. (Amazon)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

Powerful and extremely relevant. It was a galvanizing pleasure to read her work back to back; I had only ever read snippets before. And of course I am not the first or the last to say that this book, and Audre Lorde’s work in general, is an essential component of the American feminist canon. I was also reading this while reading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, so I found the interview between them, which is included here, particularly fascinating. We white feminists have a lot to learn from our foremothers of color. It’s a good time to shut up and listen. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, Eleanor Perényi
  2. The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson
  3. Hiroshima, John Hersey
  4. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald
  5. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
  6. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller
  7. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  8. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen
  9. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  10. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles
  11. Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Scott McClanahan
  12. The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood
  13. The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka
  14. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017. Up next: Best fiction I read in 2017.

For more from this yearly series, see Best Books.

Best poetry I read in 2017

The best books of poems I read this past year, presented without commentary, because I still don’t know how to talk about poetry without sounding like an idiot.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

1: Opened Ground, Selected Poems 1966-1996, Seamus Heaney

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

2: Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012

3: Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012, Adrienne Rich

Late Wife

4: Late Wife, Claudia Emerson

Digest

5: Digest, Gregory Pardlo

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction I read in 2017. For more in this series over the years, see my Best Books pages.

A new person

Solutions

  • More women in leadership, everywhere
  • Less time on Twitter for everyone
  • At least two clementines a day for the entire season
  • Moisturize your face; it’s winter, you savage
  • Walk your dog(s)
  • Start studying again that foreign language once knew and have since mostly forgotten
  • Tell people how you feel, even if you’re not sure how to articulate it

Our dearest friends welcomed their son, their firstborn, into the world on Saturday. We met him and held him, talking quietly in a peaceful hospital room that overlooked the university and the mountains beyond while this little 6-pound bundle warmed my ribcage. His parents’ faces were alight with an exhausted kind of wonder. They were so relaxed, watching us carefully exchange their baby, and competent. They’ll parent him beautifully, and we are privileged to act as witnesses.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” — The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald