Browsed by
Author: Pia

How to Stop Time and the perils of not getting older

How to Stop Time and the perils of not getting older

Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time” has a premise I can’t stop thinking about, but is marred by a whiny, self-absorbed main character.

Haig has a great idea: what if there were a condition that caused people to age so slowly that they live for hundreds of years? There is a real medical condition called progeria that makes children age much faster than they should. Haig imagines the reverse, a condition called anageria where people age one year for every fifteen calendar years that pass by. Anagerics have heightened immune systems so they don’t get sick. They’re not immortal, but will not die of natural causes for over a millenium.

My mind immediately jumps to all the things that you could accomplish with hundreds of years of healthy life. You could master hundreds of different skills, languages, instruments, physical feats. You could become a captain of industry, build massive structures, create intricate art, achieve enlightenment. (Which leads to the question of why I’m not doing all these things with my actual life… but let’s leave that aside.)

Haig chooses instead to focus on the downside of living so long. Mainly, people are afraid of the unknown, so being visibly different leads to danger. This is an interesting angle too. Tom’s closest relationships are ruined when his condition imperils his loved ones, and he concludes that he can’t become emotionally attached to anyone.

The problem is, Tom is such a sad sack. When we meet him, he’s wandering the streets pining after his lost love. Eventually we realize that his love has been lost for three hundred years. It’s time to get over it, Tom! He theorizes that people recover from emotional trauma by forming attachments with others, but he can’t because of his anageria. Boo hoo. Why not either risk it, or find somebody else with the same condition and very slowly grow old with them?

He does know a few other people with his condition. They are part of the mysterious Albatross Society, which is run by a shady guy named Heinrich who orders hits on people who come too close to publicizing their near-eternal life. This is a little X-Men-like — the anagerics need to hide so that society doesn’t turn against them. But unlike the X-Men, there’s no school or hideout where they can all get together. Heinrich is no Professor X; he prefers to keep the anagerics isolated and use them to do his bidding. This part, too, is disappointing. With unlimited time, it shouldn’t be that hard to find others who stick around forever without aging. But Tom doesn’t try very hard to find others like him. He’s resigned to following Heinrich’s orders, because life is pain, and this is his life, and he has no choice.

Tom’s real problem is that there is nobody to smack him around and tell him to grow up. If you had a friend who moped around and said that life was pain, and they had to do things that made them unhappy because they had no choice, you might talk to that friend. You might say, Friend, stop being so defeatist. Appreciate what you have. You DO have agency in your own life. Figure out what makes you happy and do that instead of complaining. Your friend would resent you, and you’d probably stop being friends. But maybe your friend would, at some level, hear and believe you. Tom doesn’t have a friend, and so he stays in this state for nearly the entire book. That’s my main problem with this book. In hundreds of years, hasn’t he gained any wisdom or emotional maturity? I’ve talked to eighty-year olds. They know a lot about life. Tom is immature for his physical age of 41, let alone his chronological age.

I finished the book, and I am ruthless about stopping mid-chapter when I’m not enjoying a book. I wanted to know what would happen. In the end, though, I was annoyed. It was like going on the field trip bus where you’re anticipating sitting with your best friend, but you end up next to the kid who can’t stop farting. The premise of this book was so rich, but instead of delving into the possibilities of near-eternal life, I was stuck with whiny old Tom.

NaNoWriMo and improving my prose

NaNoWriMo and improving my prose

I did it! I won my first NaNoWriMo. (Which you win by writing 50,000 words between November 1st and 30th.) And I now have a first draft of my very first novel. It’s 105 single-spaced pages in Word, which is longer than anything I have ever written.  It needs a LOT of work, but it exists.

I started out with no plan. Before November, I had been outlining a novel using the snowflake method. It was very slow going and I kept getting stuck. For NaNoWriMo, I decided to put my outline on the shelf  and start from nothing on a new project. The first day was a stream-of-consciousness mess. By day 3, an actual story emerged.

I didn’t think I would be able to come up with an idea good enough to sustain my interest for an entire novel. That was the problem with my WIP outline — I kept getting bored. I am not a dramatic person. Adding tension and conflict does not come naturally to me. I think NaNoWriMo worked so well for me because I didn’t keep stalling, trying to come up with a better story. I just forged ahead.

I also doubted I would have time to write 3-4 pages a day. Like most people, I am overcommited. But as I’ve found in the past, I have time to do just about anything that I really want to do. Every little chunk of time I could find, I wrote.

Weeks away from giving birth to my first child, I broke open a cookie and got this fortune: “When you are squeezed, what is inside will come out.” He did. And over a decade later, so did my novel.

I have a lot of revision work to do, and I plan to do that in January and February during the “Now What?” phase of NaNoWriMo. But before that, in December, I want to work on improving my prose. My writing is flat. I’m good at getting my point across, after years of lawyering, but my powers of description are weak and metaphors never leap to mind.

Here are some resources I found online that go beyond “write more, use prompts, show don’t tell”:

  1. Writer’s Digest: Poetry Exercises to Help You Write Better Prose. The author suggests taking a page from poets, who use vivid imagery to convey ideas in a few words.
  2. Copyblogger: 6 Simple Exercises to Help You Write Better Short Sentences. These are useful! Like eliminating the verb “make” from your writing.
  3. Ghost: 10-Minute Writing Workouts. These are more about boosting your creativity, like combining random words and using the combination as a prompt.
Black-ish Season 5 Premiere Recap (Spoilers)

Black-ish Season 5 Premiere Recap (Spoilers)

I just watched the season 5 premiere of Black-ish and I’m mad.

First things first: I still love the show. It’s entertaining, sharp, and funny.

But this episode was disappointing. Bow and Dre are a team like the old days, without a single callback to their marital troubles that dominated the second half of season 4. Zoey was there for five minutes without explanation, then disappeared without explanation. Why isn’t she at school, and why don’t they say goodbye to her if that’s where she’s going?

Jack and Diane get a slightly creepy subplot — their grandmother watches them walk into their shared room and shut the door, and decides that she doesn’t like them being opposite-gender roommates now that they’re getting older. Diane resists, but after Jack’s friend points out Diane’s bra in the hamper, Jack decides it’s time for them both to have some privacy. I wish the twins had made this decision on their own without Ruby’s vaguely incestuous insinuations.

And finally, Junior. He’s panicked when his family leaves him at Howard. Two days later when they arrive home after a long flight, he’s calmly eating cereal in the kitchen. He says he’s not ready for school and he’s going to take a gap year. He used the emergency credit card to buy his ticket home. Bow ineffectively wheedles and urges him to develop a plan; Dre gives him a lecture on manliness and then threatens to kick him out. When Junior calls his bluff and packs up to leave, Dre and Bow literally beg him to stay home.

SO many issues with this.

One, taking a gap year involves advance planning — you don’t show up at school, decide you can’t handle it, and leave. You’re supposed to DO something during your gap year that helps you grow as a person, not wait around and hope that you feel braver in a year.

Two, the parents aren’t parenting. Starting college is scary. Everyone feels like they are the only one  flailing. Bow and Dre should be reassuring Junior that he’s having a totally normal experience and that it’s important to try before quitting. Then they should put him on a plane back to DC.

Three, the parents aren’t parenting again. Why are they begging Junior to live at home? If he’s not ready for school, fine. Let him figure out what life is like as an adult. He was about to walk out the door. Let him go.

Four, why is Junior’s decision hailed as him being a man and standing up for himself? He has no rationale. He has no plan. It’s great that he can stand up to his parents respectfully. That takes maturity. But his ability to assert himself doesn’t mean his gap year idea has any merit.

The end of the episode has Junior moving in with Jack, while Diane gets her own room. This seems like an odd choice to me too, since it’s further infantilizing Junior. He’s fallen from being a freshman at Howard to sleeping in his little sister’s old bed.

The character of Junior is tricky. At his worst, he’s weak, pathetic, and insensitive to other people’s feelings. At his best, he’s self-assured, intelligent, and confident in who he is. This episode tries to show Junior confidently making his own choices, but what I see is a scared child running back to the nest, and parents who are coddling him instead of pushing him to grow up.

Middle finger

Middle finger

On the platform at the Harvard T station, a man was singing and strumming a jaunty version of “Hotel California.” He had a harmonica strapped to his face, and was pumping his feet to beat a drum and make a small dog puppet move back and forth as he played.

A woman with straggly gray hair went over to him. At first I thought she was complimenting him or asking him a question, but then he started saying, “Go away, go away.” He interrupted his guitar playing a few times to gesture for her to leave, but she started yelling louder and getting in his face.

I went over. She was yelling that he was breaking her eardrums and he needed to shut up and be quiet. He told her to move away. She gave him both middle fingers, stuck them right in front of his face. I asked if she was getting on the train, which had just arrived. Then she started cursing at me and giving me the middle finger. I asked again if she wanted to get on the train with me and she told me to F off and shut the hell up. She started yelling again about her eardrums. The singer kept telling her to move away if she didn’t want to hear. I also asked if she would walk down to the end of the platform, but she kept yelling and cursing at both of us and sticking her middle fingers in our faces. I realized the train was about to leave and ran into the nearest car just as the doors were closing.

As the train pulled away, I thought about what I could have done instead. I remembered that as a bystander, you’re supposed to go up to the person who’s not making a scene, and casually talk to them. You’re not supposed to confront the angry person. I knew that, but hadn’t done it — these things always feel different when they’re real. Anyway, I didn’t think the man was in any danger or that he couldn’t handle the situation on his own. I didn’t help, but I don’t think I caused any harm either.

Later that day, I saw the same woman walking across Boston Common by herself. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was still yelling and cursing as she walked through the park alone.

Micellar water

Micellar water

Beauty enthusiasts love micellar water. It’s supposed to be good for cleansing and makeup removal. What is micellar water? Why is it any different than regular water? Is micellar even a word or did some cosmetics company make it up?

Micelles and polymers

Merriam-Webster defines “micelle” as “a unit of structure built up from polymeric molecules or ions.” It gives two examples: “an ordered region in a fiber,” which I guess is like the repeating pattern you see in manmade fibers, or a colloidal particle.

And for those of us have not thought about this stuff since high school chemistry class, M-W says that “polymerization” means that “two or more molecules combine to form larger molecules that contain repeating structural units.”

OK, so regular water is not polymerized. Which means micellar water would be water that is clumped up into giant molecules in a repeating pattern? Why and how would you do that?

Micellar water

If you Google “micellar,” you get a bunch of beauty articles. So I started looking at those to understand what micellar water is.

According to this HuffPost article, micellar water isn’t water that has been somehow polymerized. It’s water with micelles of oil suspended in it. Aha! Oil is an ingredient in makeup removers. Now this makes a lot more sense.  If it’s just water and oil then micellar water doesn’t have alcohol or alkalines, which makes it gentler on your face than soap and other face washes, right?

This Allure article says that micellar water consists of “purified water; hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin; and low concentrations of extremely mild surfactants.” Back to M-W: a surfactant is a “a surface-active substance (such as a detergent).”

Dermatology Times (written by an actual doctor, but I’m not sure where funding comes from) clarifies: “Micellar water cleansers are made mostly of water, offering a very high profit margin for manufacturers. In addition, micellar water contains a very mild dilute surfactant in solution. A micelle is a molecular cluster with a hydrophilic and a hydrophobic end, in this case dissolved in a water solution. The hydrophobic end attaches to the skin soils, dissolving the soil in water through the hydrophilic end, and allowing water rinsing to cleanse the face.”

And then there’s this article from Dermatology Research and Practice, written by scientists who work for Johnson & Johnson and Neutrogena. It says that surfactants usually penetrate the skin, which is bad, but when they are gathered into large polymers they stay on the skin’s surface, resulting in gentler cleansing.

So “micellar water” isn’t a made-up thing. It actually makes sense, if you believe the articles written above. It’s basically a very diluted cleanser, with the cleansing ingredients clumped into large polymers so they don’t penetrate your skin.

I think the name is misleading. It sounds like something pure – water – but actually it’s water mixed with stuff, just like any face wash. And you don’t necessarily know what that stuff is. Some micellar waters could have harsher ingredients than others, and there’s no guarantee of what ingredients are in there. It sounds like micellar water actually is great for cleansing, but I wonder if it’s better than just heavily diluting your normal cleanser.

Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar

Today I went down a little Internet rabbit hole and learned about Louis Sachar.

It started when a friend said, which made sense in context, “Fine, then he can look at a monkey.”

I said, “Wasn’t there somebody in the Wayside School books who yelled something like, ‘TOUCH A MONKEY’?”

She didn’t know. A little Googling revealed the answer: Jane Smith, the only student that Mrs. Drazil didn’t like. Mrs. Drazil was the nicest teacher in the world. Jane Smith would never do her homework and finally moved away. Her goodbye note said that now she would NEVER finish the twelve homework assignments she hadn’t done and concluded with her favorite insult: “Rub a monkey’s tummy with your head!”

Fast forward a few decades. One of Mrs. Drazil’s current students goes to his dentist, Dr. Payne. She is sadistic, greedy, and unethical. And after hearing her yell her signature insult at a patient on the phone, he notices that her diploma has her maiden name: Jane Smith. (Her husband’s name is Sham Payne.)

Armed with this information, Mrs. Drazil tracks down Jane Payne to finally make her do all of her homework. Jane, who is prepared for this moment, jumps in her motorboat and speeds away.

This is how the story ends (from “Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger,” Chapter 22):

“Darling, come back!” Sham shouted from the deck as he watched the boat sputter across the water.

Mrs. Drazil climbed into an old rowboat. “I’ll find you, Jane Smith!” she shouted into the darkness. “You can run, but you can’t hide!”

Jane’s voice echoed back across the black water. “Rub a monkeeee’s … tumm-mmy… with… yourrr… heaaaaaaaaaa…”

And neither of them was ever seen again.

Amazing, right? Then I read a New Yorker profile of Louis Sachar by Jia Tolentino, who I love. Which led me to these very sweet and well-written essays by his daughter (then a middle schooler) and wife, about how proud they are of him and about his writing habits. I’ve been thinking about Louis Sachar’s writing habits all day because here they are: He gets up in the morning, reads the paper, does the puzzle, and then spends several hours writing. Then he spends the afternoon reading. Then he plays with his kids or plays bridge or does whatever else he likes. Plus, he’s an ex-lawyer. All of this makes me think that I’m not living my best life. Louis Sachar is living my best life. Except he lives in Texas and plays bridge all the time.

Also, I found out that he has a book that I haven’t read yet called Fuzzy Mud which I am going to check out as soon as possible.

Snow White

Snow White

I tried to tell Young Kid the story of Snow White. But I was missing some key plot points:

1.Why does Snow White fall asleep instead of dying?

2. How long does she stay asleep?

3. Doesn’t a prince kiss her awake? But then where do the dwarves come in?

4. How does it end?

This is the story that I came up with:

Once upon a time, there was a princess named Snow White. Her mother, the Queen, died and her father remarried. His new wife was vain and cruel. She was obsessed with being more beautiful than Snow White. She had a magic mirror and would ask it, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The mirror kept answering that Snow White was the fairest, driving her into a rage. Finally she decided to murder Snow White by feeding her a poisoned apple. The magic mirror felt sorry for Snow White. It wanted her to get away from her evil stepmother, but it didn’t want her to die. The magic mirror put a spell on the poisoned apple so that instead of killing Snow White, she would fall into a deep sleep but stay perfectly healthy and alive. The magic mirror thought that Snow White needed a little romance in her life, so it decided that only a prince’s kiss would wake her up.

Snow White brought the poisoned apple on a walk into the woods. When she took a bite, she fell asleep right there on the ground. Back at home, her evil stepmother asked the mirror once again, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Again, the mirror answered that Snow White was the fairest. After weeks of this, the evil stepmother smashed the mirror into tiny pieces. Its enchantment was broken and Snow White woke up.

She woke to find herself in a beautiful garden. She sat for a while, looking around and wondering how she got there. Soon, seven dwarfs appeared. They invited her into their home. Snow White soon became a member of the family and spent her days singing, sweeping, farming, and hunting with the dwarfs. A prince once came by and offered to take her away, but she said no thank you. She was happy to live in the woods with her dwarf family.

The End.

Now I’m going to Google the actual story.

Disney version: Snow White sings song with prince at castle. Jealous Queen orders Huntsman to kill Snow White. He tells her to run away instead. She does a Goldilocks thing, finding the dwarfs’ cottage and taking a nap in their beds. They decide to keep her. The Queen finds out Snow White is still alive. She disguises herself as an old peddler woman and gives Snow White the poisoned apple, which makes her fall into a deep sleep. The dwarfs kill the Queen. (Technically they chase her to the top of a cliff, and she falls off, but basically they kill her.) The prince shows up and kisses Snow White to wake her and they live happily ever after.

Grimm’s version: It’s almost the same, surprisingly. Prince doesn’t show up until the end. The dwarfs think Snow White is dead, but she still looks so lifelike that they put her in a glass coffin instead of burying her. Prince comes along, she’s so beautiful that he asks the dwarfs if he can have the coffin and they agree. As his men hoist up the coffin, the piece of apple is dislodged from her throat and she comes back to life. She marries him and becomes Queen of his land. The stepmother is banished.

Wanting to know

Wanting to know

Today someone told me about a story in which the main character had a mind-reading superpower.

I have always thought that reading other people’s minds is a bad idea. What you’re thinking at any given moment is not necessarily reflective of how you actually feel, or what you care about, or what you will end up thinking after some time. I would rather pay attention to what people say and do, and not worry about what they think.

This reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend. I think about this often.

We started out talking about affairs. I said if it was a one-time thing, I would not want to know. She said she absolutely would want to know. Then we started asking each other about all sorts of scenarios. Would you want to know the sex of your baby? What if you could know what people really think of you? What if you could see into the future? Know whether you would have children and how many? Know who you would marry and how it would end up? Know how and when you would die? For each one, I answered that I would not want to know, and she answered that she would.

All of which made me think that maybe wanting-to-know is a character trait, and you either have it or you don’t.

Evening pages

Evening pages

Julia Cameron says to write morning pages. I take morning walks. So I will write evening pages. I think she also says never to read your morning pages, and she definitely says not to type them, but I am publishing this, so there. I have no plan for what to write. I will just spend 10 minutes or so splurping out my insides. I heard someone say this recently; it was either my Old Kid or John McWhorter, I can’t remember. Quite possibly both.

There are two comments that I read on the Internet recently that sparked my interest, and could potentially turn into some sort of story:

  1. Somebody on Ask a Manager complained about how her coworker was slacking off and the other teammates had to pick up her work. This story unfolded in the comments. First the coworker was on the Internet too much. Then she was reading and listening to music in her office. Eventually she was actually painting, with an easel and paint brushes, in her office. And! SHE CRIED when her coworkers said they would not do her work for her, because she needed to finish her painting.
  2. A divorce lawyer mentioned that she had seen a surprising number of cases where a just-for-fun FFM threesome ended up with the two women getting married to each other and kicking out the original husband. Another divorce lawyer agreed.

It turns out 10 minutes is not very long. Bye.

Things to write

Things to write

Things I actually need to write:

  • An email to my kid who is away for the week
  • A letter from a fictional person who lives in a tree to a real person
  • A summary of recent privacy laws

Other things I have thought about writing:

  • A profile of an artist I met recently who told me he got 300 rejection letters for his book which took him 10 years to write. He said that he spent two years just trying to get the book published, and he needed to get back to making things so he started a new book.
  • An analysis of the SCOTUS Muslim ban decision.
  • A taxonomy of advice columns and the advice therein. Could also have stuff about advice columns in general — history, why they’re written, etc.
  • A book about the experiences of women at Harvard Law. I am fascinated by the range of experiences and reactions that women had in different decades — especially the ’80s and ’90s women who are uniformly bitter about their law school experience.
  • A book about teaching kids how to negotiate, or a book generally about raising kids by consciously identifying your values and treating your kids with respect. (I think the former would be a more comfortable book to write; I have strong views and a pretty coherent philosophy about the latter, but I would feel weird writing about parenting as if I’m an expert.)
  • A ranking of all the Mr. Men books with plot summaries. My goal was to get paid for something I wrote this year and I thought this was my most commercially viable idea. If I had a whole weekend free, I think I could manage this.

Somewhere I have a notebook where I wrote down a bunch of ideas. I know that it takes work to translate ideas into actual articles or books, but a year ago I had no ideas. I’m OK with baby steps.