Stuff to worry about #3

Today we are (more correctly, I am) worrying about whether it is more important to have self-control, something I sort of pride myself on having, or to pursue my lifelong, but sort of ridiculous, quest for the One Best Copy of Every Book I Love.

These exist and I do not need them because I own several of them already, do not like a couple of them, have not read several others, and would not exchange my current copy of In This House of Brede for anything. But these concerns are subsidiary to the very strong part of my brain that’s whining, “But they ma-atch.” If they came in a slipcase I’d have already ordered a set. Because I’m weak.

Not to point fingers, but it is ALWAYS ENGLAND who pulls this shit on me. England is also the reason I’ve spent weeks trying to kid myself that I’m not going to eventually buy the new copies of the Casson family series. They match and I love the cover art. My current copies do not match and I do not love the cover art. I am always on the lookout for the One Best Copy of every book I love. You know those new Casson books are going to be mine someday. If I decide I truly want to own more than, let’s say, three of those Rumer Godden books  (Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale don’t count because I don’t like the covers on those ones), those will probably be mine too. I have no self-control in my perpetual search for the One Best Copy.

ALSO. Hawkeye #8 is out today. David Aja is back drawing. Go to your local comics store, if you have one, and buy it!

Stuff to Worry About, #2

In this installment of Stuff to Worry About, we are going to worry about jellyfish. I recently read (and aggressively loved) the Best American Science and Nature Writing book that Mary Roach edited, and one of the essays was about jellyfish. Did you know you needed to be worried about jellyfish? You need to be worried about jellyfish. They can survive anything. They proliferate in water with insanely high acidity levels. They are the cockroaches of the sea, basically, except unlike cockroaches, they also sting you. Places that never used to have jellyfish now have jellyfish. There are trillions of kinds of jellyfish and you cannot escape them anywhere. Also, a jellyfish mouth is the same as its anus.

Here’s what this means to me. When all the other fish have died out, and the plagues and natural disasters have come, and the pitifully reduced human race is struggling to survive, we will be surviving by eating jellyfish. FOREVER. If that doesn’t convince you to take ecological issues seriously, I don’t know what will.

(I feel like this theory is going to make me into a crazy person. I’ll see someone throwing a water bottle into a trash can and I’ll grab them and be like DO YOU WANT TO BE EATING JELLYFISH FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE? THEIR MOUTHS ARE THEIR ASSES! RECYCLE YOUR WATER BOTTLE!)

Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011, edited by Mary Roach

To be clear — because I got confused about this — this is not Best American Science Writing 2011, which is a whole other thing. It also does not feature the best of American science and nature writing published in 2011. The book is from 2011, the writing is all from 2010. I think that could be made clearer, but whatever, I am not the boss of this series. I got this because, please don’t judge me, I did a search on OverDrive for “science” and this is one of the things that came up. I just felt like some science! Sometimes a girl feels like some science!

I thought Mary Roach did a smashing job of curating these essays, and I’m not just saying that because I have always thought I would like her but I’ve never read one of her books and I feel a bit guilty about that. Repeatedly over the course of reading these essays, I found myself thinking, Damn! This really is very good science and nature writing indeed! Allowing for my individual areas of interest/disinterest, I have to say I don’t think there was a loser in the bunch. Except that Malcolm Gladwell had an essay in here. I cannot even deal with Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is on my shit list forever.

If you don’t feel like going through and reading my remarks about all the essays in this book, I will just recommend a few of my favorites, and you can scroll down and click the links to read them. This pretty clearly reflects my own personal interests, but that was always going to happen. I reiterate that all the essays were quite good. I’m just highlighting the ones that made me go OH DAMN when I was reading them. “The Brain that Changed Everything” and “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science” were very good. “Letting Go” if you can handle the sadness. “Could Time End?” made me think many thoughts and feel anxious that I wasn’t understanding what was happening. And “Face-Blind” was, of course, very very good. I need to get off my ass and read some Oliver Sacks!

Here’s a list of the best thing I learned from each of the essays:

The Organ Dealer,” Yudhijit Bhattacharjee – Hm, nothing big, I guess. That’s not a reflection on this essay about the illegal organ trade in India. I just already knew illegal organ trade was a thing. I was thinking, while I was reading this, about how your real-life morality can go by the wayside in a hot second when somebody you love hangs in the balance. I wouldn’t get an illegal kidney for anybody in my family! Of course! It’s just interesting how you can contemplate much more horrific moral acts for someone else, than you would ever contemplate to benefit your own self.

Nature’s Spoils,” Burkhard Bilger – I find “opportunivores” extremely irritating. That’s not an uplifting thing to learn from an essay but there it is. I know we as a society throw away much more food than we should, and I try really hard not to do this myself.

The Chemist’s War,” Deborah Blum – Oh yeah, because the American government poisoned people during Prohibition. That is a thing that happened. I already knew this, and I think in fact I already read this essay. I read Slate.

Fertility Rites,” Jon Cohen – Chimps hardly ever lose an embryo/fetus, and humans very frequently do. This is an essay about trying to figure out why that should be. They do this by getting a lot of sperm samples from chimps. That would be a strange job to talk about at a dinner party.

The Brain that Changed Everything,” Luke Dittrich – Like everyone (right?) I am fascinated by brains. Luke Dittrich’s grandfather was a neurosurgeon who performed some irresponsible brain surgeries in the days before we really knew how to do responsible brain surgeries. One of these was on a guy called Henry, who became unable to form new memories, and was hence the subject of a living shit-ton of brain research, all the days of his life. Except, twist, “became unable to form new memories” doesn’t tell the whole story. When he tried the same task repeatedly, a complicated task, he got better and better at it each successive day, even though he did not remember ever having attempted it before. So that brain function, skill acquisition, must reside somewhere at least somewhat different from memory forming. BRAINS ARE FASCINATING.

Emptying the Skies,” Jonathan Franzen – I cannot be bothered with Jonathan Franzen. And his bird essays. This is a baseless prejudice. I have never read anything by Jonathan Franzen. I also, as I think I’ve said before, conflate him in my head with a bunch of other authors whose names begin with “J”. If one of them does a wicked deed, all of them get blamed for it in my head.

Fish out of Water,” Ian Frazier – There is an invasive species of carp that leaps up out of the water when it gets scared. This sounds charming but is actually super gross for fisherman, because the carp smack into them, and they get all covered in fish slime, fish blood, and fish poop. These carp are also ruining everything for all the other fish, and drastic action is required.

(Sidebar: Do y’all know about nutria? I have discovered that a lot of people don’t, and I want to spread the word. Nutria are an invasive species introduced by fur trappers. They are like gross, obnoxious, verminous capybaras. They have nasty fur. They do not taste good. They will eat your house and your car tires. If you kill one in Louisiana and bring its tail to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, they will give you five dollars.)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman – Reeeeeally good essay about how scientific studies have very flawed methodology. The current system of research funding incentivizes shocking findings and de-incentivizes replication of earlier studies, with the result that a lot of studies come out crap. (And don’t even get David Freedman started on economists’ studies, because those guys are m.f. ridiculous). Even the shiniest of all the types of studies, the randomized enormous studies, are garbage 10% of the time. This was maybe my favorite of the essays? I am very interested in research methodology.

Letting Go,” Atul Gawande – Spending thirty minutes having a serious discussion with a doctor about your end-of-life wishes cuts your end-of-life medical costs, like, a lot. It is also, and this part I already knew, just a good idea all around. Talk to your family about what kind of projected quality of life would make it worth it to keep you around. Have this talk early and often. This essay was incredibly sad. God damn it was sad. Do not read it if you have recently lost someone to illness, because it was crazy sad.

“The Treatment,” Malcolm Gladwell – Please. I don’t trust anything Malcolm Gladwell says. I skipped this essay and snarled at it.

The (Elusive) Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow – Stephen Hawking is not just coasting on his reputation. The dude is interesting and smart. Highly highly recommended. I can’t talk about this one without repeating everything in it, but basically, there is no “theory of everything” that works in all circumstances. You have to accept that you’re going to need different theories of everything for different circumstances. Sometimes you’ll need Einstein and sometimes you’ll need string theory. DEAL WITH IT (says Stephen Hawking).

Spectral Light,” Amy Irvine – Animal attacks are on the rise. Apparently human interference in animal habitats are forcing them to evolve three hundred times faster than they ordinarily would. So, like, watch out for bears. Those dudes are stone killers.

The Spill Seekers,” Rowan Jacobsen – I skipped this. I get sad and anxious when I read about environmental disaster in my home state. I’m not an ostrich. I know it’s happening. I know our coast is eroding. I don’t need to read about it all the time to know that is going on.

New Dog in Town,” Christopher Ketcham – Nothing much learned, but this was still very interesting. Urban coyotes are a thing you should know about. They are in the cities eatin ur cats. One time when I was driving from my university to my parents’ house, I saw a coyote. Right in the street.

(Sidebar: One time we had this orange cat called Lara, but we already had a cat and Daddy didn’t want another cat, so we sent her to live on a farm where she’d be happier. That’s not a euphemism. We actually sent her to an actual farm. But once she was there she got eaten by a coyote.)

Taking a Fall,” Dan Koeppel – A rather charming guide on what to do if you fall out of an airplane and you don’t have a parachute.

The First Church of Robotics,” Jaron Lanier – If I were going to write a jokey romance novel pitch, I would call the hero “Jaron”. It just seems like that kind of name. But I am not ultimately that interested in AI.

The Love that Dare not Squawk Its Name,” Jon Mooallem – I have lingering annoyance with Jonathan Franzen’s bird essay that makes me not want to read this essay about birds either. I was reading it during dinner the other night and I went “GOD! Why are there so many essays about birds in this book?” and my roommate wanted to know what I had against birds. Nothing! I like birds. I don’t know, y’all.

Could Time End?“, George Musser – I’m still fascinated by the end of the world. I love reading and thinking about the end of the world. Except you can’t really say that in polite company without sounding like a douchebag. I know because I said it out loud to my roommates, and I immediately noticed that it sounded douchey. However, it is interesting! All of everything could turn into basically a massive black hole, and then it would be curtains for you, as my father used to say. And in this case “curtains” means “existential apocalypse”.

Sign Here if You Exist,” Jill Sisson Quinn – Hm, I don’t know. This was a very well-written, well-structured essay, but the content didn’t wow me. It’s about the afterlife. And God and evolution and whatnot.

Face-Blind,” Oliver Sacks – I already knew most of this, because my mother and sister are interested in face-blindness. Mumsy posits that she, Daddy, and indeed all the sisters, might be mildly face-blind. I do have a hard time recognizing people on second through, say, tenth meetings. And encountering someone out of context throws me for a total loop, especially if they have added or subtracted anything from their face (earrings, hairdos, facial hair, etc.). Before reading this essay, I was wondering if it would be fair for me to claim mild prosopagnosia when meeting people; while reading it, I was perpetually shrieking “YES THAT IS ME!”; and after reading it, I feel that claiming mild prosopagnosia is completely fair.

Apparently, people who are face-blind are also really terrible at identifying places, even places they’ve been before, even places they’ve been to a lot. I get very lost when coming out of a store in the mall, because everything is all turned around. I go to the same coffee shop every weekend morning, and every time I feel a little anxious and unsure as I’m getting close to it, like I might miss it. Face-blind people are also bad at cars. I was so excited when I read that. I love having things named and settled. I am awful at cars. In 2010 I got picked up in the same car every weekday for a month and a half, and numerous times since for visits, and I still couldn’t pick that car out of a lineup.

Waste MGMT,” Evan I. Schwartz – There is too much stuff in the space near the earth. Unless we do something to take care of it, like throw enormous nets around it and drag it into the earth’s atmosphere to let it change into ash, all the satellites and things will start (they have already started!) bashing into each other and breaking apart. And that will just create more space junk. And eventually there will be just a layer of orbiting space junk. Did you know about this? A little debris halo! Gross! Come on, humanity!

The Whole Fracking Enchilada,” Sandra Steingraber – Hydrofracking is awful for the environment. Natural gas only seems like an awesome energy source because we aren’t taking into account the total biological cost of acquiring it. Noted.

The New King of the Sea,” Abigail Tucker – This essay was so alarming to me that I started an entire new blog feature to process my feelings about it. I led off with the thing about quinoa, but the real reason I established Stuff to Worry About was this jellyfish thing. Stand by for horrifying details.

The Killer in the Pool,” Tim Zimmermann – The whale that killed that woman a couple of years ago? Remember when that happened? That whale had previously killed two other people. I don’t know why I’m so shocked about this. I know that orcas should not be pool pets. I know they only kill people in captivity. I know Sea World isn’t that great at observing best safety practices. But still, I was shocked. Zimmermann points out, which I thought was interesting, that although it’s clearly bad to have orcas in captivity, we have been able learn and observe a lot of things about them that we hadn’t been able to learn by observing them in the wild.

Also, I like this song by Neko Case (not sure what’s going on with the video). I listened to an interview with Neko Case where she said people are constantly asking her what this song is about, and she’s like, “It’s about killer animals,” and they’re like, “No but what’s it about?” and she’s like, “No seriously. It’s about killer animals. And how you shouldn’t fuck with them because they’ll kill you.” Heeheehee.

PHEW. That was a lot of essays to get through. I highly, highly recommend this collection. I wish my digital library had more essay collections like this! They were the perfect thing to have on my Nook for short subway rides or like, while I was brushing my teeth or waiting in line at the post office. And, just, they were so interesting and good! MOAR PLEASE.

New Feature: Stuff to worry about

Rule 34 of Jenny is that if it exists, I will worry about it. So I’m starting this new feature on the blog to spotlight things I suddenly learn I need to worry about. Because if I have to worry about it, I’m damn well not going to be the only one.

In this post we are going to worry about how eating quinoa is harming people in South America. Because apparently when we eat quinoa and other things including, goddammit, asparagus which I love, the prices of these things goes way way up in their countries of origin. People in South America used to be able to get quinoa really cheap, and that was awesome for them because it has lots of protein, calcium, and fiber, and it can go in a whole bunch of different dishes.

Then America decided that was awesome for us too, and we were like, Yummy! Send us the quinoa! And now quinoa commands much higher prices, and the very poor Bolivian and Peruvian populations that have historically depended on quinoa as a cheap food staple can’t afford it any more. It costs as much as chicken now. Same problem arises with, I’m sorry but the Guardian says it’s true, asparagus and soy.

(Not sure why the Guardian is singling out vegans. Lots of people eat quinoa. I have been intending to start eating quinoa but now I won’t.)

So, okay. I do not eat that many soy products, and I have never eaten quinoa, but I do love asparagus. But now I will just have to stop buying those things. Unless I can get them at the farmers’ market, where everything is locally grown. Being a good person is hard but it is easier when you live somewhere like New York where you have easy access to a lot of choices. Also when you do not have dietary restrictions.

ETA: Y’all and also make it sound like I do not need to worry about quinoa as much as that Guardian article said I did. Phew. But also, hmph, now I need to return to thinking about finding quinoa recipes and becoming familiar with quinoa in my cooking.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Origins

I know I know. I should have posted a post last Friday too. I didn’t do it because it was my first week back and there were a lot of things going on including buying a TV table and setting up my TV and DVD player and the Roku Box Captain Hammer gave me for Christmas. And buying a new purse (this one here). And organizing a work book club meeting for Five Quarters of an Orange (about which more later). And anyway I am lawless and I cannot be contained by rules. So.

(I am writing this in a coffee shop — I know, I’m such a cliche — and as I type, there is a fire truck stopped outside asking for directions to where he’s going. And it made me think of how when I was a kid, if there was an emergency vehicle of any kind in the neighborhood, we didn’t even have to ask. We just directed it to the house next door. Mumsy probably feels less nostalgic for these days but I thought it was kind of cool and funny.)

Anyway! To the point! Harry Potter and the let’s just agree to call it Philosopher’s Stone because contrary to popular belief, Americans are not morons.

Here are some things I have been thinking about:

1. Not to be a jerk, but you know when Dumbledore is all like, “They’ve had precious little to celebrate for the last eleven years?” Is this accurate? The last eleven years have been like the seventh Harry Potter book? Seriously, what was Dumbledore doing that whole time? Eleven years have gone by and Dumbledore still isn’t up off the mat? Shouldn’t he have gone to Voldemort’s house and challenged him to a magical duel? Like, he doesn’t even have the excuse with Voldemort that he SPOILERS had with Grindelwald of being secretly in love with him. Go fight that evil wizard, Dumbledore of ten years ago! Don’t let him just kill people willy-nilly!

1a. SPOILERS. Not to be a jerk again, because sorry, Dumbledore!, but doesn’t he know that Sirius Black was the Potters’ Secret-Keeper? When Hagrid talks about bringing Sirius his bike back, shouldn’t Dumbledore be like, “No, don’t bring the bike to Sirius, he’s terrible”? Whatever.

2. The wizard monetary system is bullshit. These kids don’t even go to regular school until they’re eleven, and the wizarding world expects them to able to count in multiples of seventeen sickles to a galleon? Is this some sick joke dreamed up by the goblins to screw with the wizards for oppressing them all these years? That…is sort of brilliant, actually. Way to go goblins. Guerrilla douchery.

3. Oh Neville. Show of hands everyone who clasped their hands to their heart and went “Neville!” I feel like that is as pervasive in our generation as singing along to “Part of Your World” if someone plays or sings two bars of it. (NB Start singing “Part of Your World” around a group of twenty-something girls. The results are shockingly consistent.)

4. SHUT UP SNAPE. Snape is the living worst. I cannot wait for…certain events that will occur later. JUST SHUT UP SNAPE. If you ever feel the desire to speak again JUST SHUT UP.

Y’all, I have to say, as origin stories go, this one is top-notch. There’s so much set-up of the awesome aspects of wizarding world, and then there is also this subsidiary mystery thing. I think it’s a good balance to strike. What’s good is that JK Rowling is also quietly setting up what’s going to happen in the later, horrifically dark books. But the main thing of the book is creating a world, and this world could not have been created better. With the sports? And the owls? And the floating candles? And the characters and how you now know they are going to grow into amazing heroes? It’s so great because you discovered it as the books went along, but JK Rowling knew all along. Well played, JK Rowling. Very, very well played. Ten trillion sparkly stars for you.

Eeeeeeek, this is what happens

when you are occupied with this new game called Kerfluffle where you go “Kerfluffle!” and your puppy-niece waves her teensy little paws at you in response and that’s it, that’s the whole game. And when you are occupied with this highly adorable game, you do not always have time to read the blogs promptly so sometimes you miss posts that notify you that you are supposed to post an introductory post to the Harry Potter Readalong. And then it is nine in the evening and you are scrambling to get a post written fast fast fast even though what you really wanted to be doing was reading Tigana in bed.

The Harry Potter Readalong commenceth!

(It’s not too late for you to join us, comrades.)

So, here is my introductory post: I am Jenny, and I jumped on the Harry Potter train in 1999 or so, and thereafter I waited with baited breath for each subsequent book. I read the last three at midnight. I never believed that A Certain Person was evil, no matter how many signs pointed in that direction. Many were the theories proposed by my family about what was going to happen in books four through seven. Around book three my mother called a major plot point that doesn’t get proven correct until book seven; and using her theory as a jumping-off point, I figured out something quite clever about Harry’s mother’s childhood. Not to brag. I was just really, really right. I was so right.

(I wasn’t right about this one other theory I had, that McGonagall was secretly evil? She is not. But my friend Teacher proposed this theory, and the more I thought about it, the righter it seemed. I still feel like the books could have gone that way without its being too jarring. I am willing to argue about this in the comments with you, as long as McGonagall isn’t, like, your favorite character. Cause I don’t want you to think I don’t like her. I just think it would have been reasonable for her to turn out evil.)

Since I will be carrying on at some length about these books over the upcoming weeks, I shall take this opportunity to say that everything I say about these books comes from a place of very intense love. I love these books so much. Whenever I criticize them, even if they really deserve it because why are the Blast-Ended Skrewts and why didn’t he just hand Harry a Portkey sometime instead of going through that whole ridiculous-ass plan with the goblet and the maze and whatnot, I feel kind of churlish and ungrateful. Like there is this voice in my head going, “Really. Really. You’re going to complain about the injudiciousness of JK Rowling’s adverb use? That’s what you’re going to do right now? You don’t think maybe instead you should THANK HER FOR YOUR ENTIRE CHILDHOOD?”

Which like, yeah. That’s clearly what I should do. I will commence doing a lot of that, plus a very tiny bit of complaining. Hooray! Let the Harry Pottering begin!

Happy holidays to all! (plus, some links to stuff I enjoyed!)

Well, my scrumptious darlings, I am going to take a little break from posting while all the holiday celebrations and debauchery are taking place. (NB: “Debauchery” is a joke. I am the least debauchery-prone person ever because I get tired quickly and need to head home to bed. But this year I swear to God I’m going to do something for New Year’s.) I will still be around commenting on your posts and asking you to spoil the endings of the books you’ve been reading, but I probably won’t be posting again until January.

(Though who knows? I can’t see the future!)

Some things I’ve read this past week and enjoyed follow.

Teresa and Jeanne wrote excellent posts about disagreeing with fellow bloggers. They inspired me to make a disagreeing comment on Amy’s review of the second season of Six Feet Under, a show I have never been able to get on with at all. So um, success, I guess?

Speaking of disagreeing, it’s always a pleasure to read a post by Ana about Philip Pullman. I am not such a wild Pullman fan as she is, and I’ve disliked him more as I’ve gotten older, so it’s interesting to read the eloquent, articulate thoughts of someone who is a fan.

Not book-related, but I want to let y’all know: I made these cookies, which I elect to call “jam thumbprints” because that is a more adorable name, and they came out pretty good. And I don’t even like coconut! I literally can’t think of one other thing I’ve ever enjoyed that has had coconut in it.

Emily Jane posted a review of Zadie Smith’s NW that captured my thoughts on it so well I don’t think I’ll write a review of it after all. Or, well, to be honest, I read NW two months back, and if I was going to write a review of it, I’d have done it by now. I retain, of course, my intense girl crush on Zadie Smith, even when I think sometimes she is being a little too experimental for her boots.

This post about historically authentic sexism in fantasy on is good and you should read it. Spoiler alert: Less sexism would be interesting FOR ALL OF US.

In case you don’t know about it yet, Alice of Reading Rambo is hosting a reread of the Harry Potter series starting in January. The sign-up post is here if you haven’t signed up yet. Important issues will be discussed, including Neville’s emotional development, how to do an origin story really really well, and whether Sirius Black sucks (he does not). Let’s make it happen people!

For reasons I’ll go into later maybe, I have been feeling extra awesome lately. I hope that you do too. If you celebrate December holidays, may they be minimally stressful and maximally fun for you. Remember to make sensible, achievable New Year’s Resolutions! (I achieved three of my five, which doesn’t sound that awesome except for how successful one of them was at achieving the long-term goal it was designed to achieve.) And I will be back again in early 2013 with reviews of all sorts of things, including, I hope, books I have received for Christmas.


So for Amy’s Meaningful Gift Exchange series (Amy, in case I haven’t said it recently, you are a delight in every way, and when I have thought about quitting blogging in the past, you are one of the bloggers I always think how much I would miss), we are writing posts about meaningful gifts. And I thought I’d say a few words about being a good gift-giver.

I am a really good gift-giver. I give thoughtful, meaningful, excellent gifts. I know you aren’t supposed to brag about yourself, and usually I don’t and I try to recognize my own limitations &c., &c., but in this one case I think it is fair to say that I am legitimately a really good gift-giver. When I tell this to people, they say, “Great! So you can help me think of what to get for my sister/grandfather/aunt who’s really hard to buy for!” Alas, I cannot. One of the reasons I feel comfortable saying that I’m a really good gift-giver is that my gift-giving prowess is not based in endless creativity in thinking of presents, but just thinking about presents and present recipients a lot. The good news is that this makes it a totally acquirable skill! Here are the main ways I get people good gifts.

1. Never let presents be far from your mind. This is the main thing. Everything else can be collapsed into this one idea. I’m concerned that one day my family will realize I’m not exceptionally good at presents, just very, very attuned to them; and then my reputation as a genius gift-giver will go bust. It helps that I love spending money but don’t always feel justified in spending money on myself. Often when I see something I love in a store, I first think, I want that, and next think, Who would like to have that as a present? It’s more fun to buy presents you’re excited about too.

2. Keep a running list. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Keep a document (mine’s in DropBox) or a draft email or whatever you want, where you write down every present idea you ever have for anyone at any time in the year. This includes generic present ideas with no recipient in mind. Good presents are good presents. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.* You probably won’t use most of your ideas — sometimes when you give yourself time to calm down about an initially exciting idea, you realize it wouldn’t, after all, be quite the thing. But it helps to have some stuff noted down. When late November rolls around and you have to get down to brass tacks and figure out presents, it is handy to have some ideas about, at the very least, the different possible genres of gifts.

3. Listen to what the people on your gift list are saying about their lives. This is the reason I can’t be of immediate help with your hard-to-buy-for sister/grandfather/aunt. You have to have been paying attention to them all along. People talk about stuff they want. They just do. Keep a weather eye open and you will garner thousands of gift ideas. They wish they had more fun scarves. They’d like to read more about modern urban planning. People complain about things they don’t have. Their walls are too bare. Their television reception is crappy. They can’t find a good pair of gloves. This is all fodder for the List, people. If you’ve been paying attention to this, then when your coworker starts raving about the best pair of gloves in existence, BAM! Gift idea. And everybody loves to receive a gift that says I gave weight to the things you said lightly. (I know because it has happened to me.)

4. Find a balance between delightfulness and usefulness. Sometimes a gift is stupendously exciting and beautiful right when the person first unwraps it, but it doesn’t end up being useful to them. It can be okay to get a thrilling unuseful thing, because sometimes what a person needs in their life is something beautiful. Just be aware of the balance. Both Legal Sister and Social Sister would be charmed by the sonic screwdriver pen I got for Legal Sister last year, but only Legal Sister would actually use it. You could find the most beautiful dangly earrings in the entire world, but if the person you’re buying a gift for doesn’t like dangly earrings this will be of no use. Keep it in mind.

5. Experience presents can be amazing. Science tells us that people are more happy when they spend money on experiences rather than things. Last year my sisters and I took our awesome uncle out for laser tag. We got to hang out with him (he is really cool and fun to hang out with), and we all got to do a fun activity we don’t usually get to do. Win win! I am especially partial to giving gifts of letting someone treat herself. Everyone has little things they do to give themselves a treat. Pay attention when they say what these are, and figure out if you can give them that treat as a gift.

6. Remember that you aren’t buying presents for yourself. I took a Myers-Briggs personality test online one time, and one part of the results was like, “You tend to buy presents you think people should want, rather than presents they really do want.” Touche, online Myers-Briggs test. I do have that tendency. That tendency is the reason behavioral economists write Scroogey articles every Christmas about what a waste of money it is because the person you’re buying gifts for won’t like their gifts and you should just let them pick out their own gifts because they’ll be happier that way.


The reason presents are fun and exciting and happy is that the giver has spent time thinking about the givee. What makes presents good is not, primarily, the things. It is the attempt to create a small pocket of happiness for someone you love in a way that shows you have thought hard about how to make them happy. I live far away from my family, and there’s not much I can do on a daily basis to create happiness for them. This is by far the worst thing about living in New York, a city I am coming to really love. My family has had a shitty and stressful year, and I hate it that I can’t do anything to create a small pocket of respite. I can’t sing and play guitars with Daddy. I can’t bring salsa and Archer over to Social Sister. I can’t gossip with my aunt. I can’t take Mumsy out for lunch. I can’t drive anyone to doctor appointments or take the dog on a walk or pick up prescriptions.

(Oh dear I’m getting tearful.)

The point is that when Christmas and birthdays come around, it’s a chance to say, You are someone I love for all the particular things that make you the person you are, and I want to put happiness into your life. The presents I feel happiest about are the ones that target really specific aspects of the person I’m getting it for. Last year, my favorite present was the one I got my wonderful Daddy. He is into cognitive behavioral therapy, which I have used to great effect in lessening my anxiety, and he is into goofy comedy, and he is especially into family togetherness times. So for Christmas I cooked dinner (cooking causes me massive anxiety, and I have worked really hard over the years to be less anxious about it), and the whole family ate dinner together, and afterward we watched an episode of a slapsticky comedy show all together. BAM. HAPPINESS.

So there you go. That is how I do presents. I became good at them because being good at them makes me feel happy. PRESENTS.

*When I fantasize about being rich, one of the things I imagine is that I will be able to just buy some of these things when I see them, and keep a Closet o’ Presents. Wouldn’t that be great? If someone I knew was in need of a present to give, I could be like, “Oh, come look at my Closet o’ Presents, and see if there’s anything that person would like.” It would be my own personally curated gift shop.

I was not told about this.

So apparently if you read the blurb of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase you will be informed that the book takes place in “a time in history that never happened”, and that said alternate time involves England being overrun with wolves. WHAT. This is explained? Because it’s not explained in the book itself! Lacking this blurb you are left to make your own conclusions about whether there are or are not areas of England that are overrun with savage, daring, vicious packs of wolves that come out as soon as it’s dark and jump through train windows.

I’ve written several drafts of (but never actually posted, because I was a bit embarrassed) a post about untrue life lessons you learned from childhood books and have never quite managed to evict from your brain in adulthood. You know the sort of thing? Where you read it in a book when you are small, and because this book is the only context you have for such a lesson, you accept it as true; but it’s not something that comes up again in your regular life, so you don’t ever return to question it. And then one day, years later, something reminds you of this lesson you learned from a book, and you think, Well wait. Upon reflection that is probably not a real thing, but it’s much too late for this sort of critical thinking, because whatever it is has put down deep roots in your consciousness.

For instance (I’m procrastinating telling you the real things I still sort of believe), if C.S. Lewis had lied to me about any of the life lessons in the Narnia books, such as that you should kick off your shoes if you happen to fall into deep water, I would still believe them as an adult. I have recommended Lucy Pevensie for the post of dictator of the world; no way was I ever going to cast a critical eye upon her ideas about adventure survival. Fortunately C.S. Lewis generally only told me true stuff.

For a proper example from my real life, cwidders. Are they a real instrument? My brain and the internet tell me no, but my heart tells me yes. I always rationalize away the fact that the internet doesn’t know about them by speculating that cwidder is a variant of the more common name the instrument goes by, and I have just not been able to find it out yet; and by reminding myself that until pretty recently the internet did not know about Madame Grand-Doigts. Even today the internet only slightly knows about her, and Wikipedia not at all, so possibly the same is true of cwidders.

Or as another example, mandrakes. I read this book Lost Magic when I was a little girl — if you haven’t read it you DAMN SHOULD because it is so intense and scary and, well, I’ll reread it soon if I can find a copy and review it here so you will know — but anyway, a major plot point of the book is that mandrakes are seriously, seriously powerful. When the heroine employs a mandrake in the course of her magical duties, there’s some pretty horrific fallout, of the sort that was so lastingly creepy and chilling that I to this day am really, really frightened of mandrakes (I ran away from an entire room of Sleep No More because it contained a mandrake). I just do not like them and they are evil and scary.

And, coming to the point, I have never, despite extensive efforts in this direction, been able to stop myself from believing that wolves attack trains. As they do in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Half the plot of the first half of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is that when it gets dark, the wolves come out and you had better be prepared to defend yourself or they will eat you up. Because — presumably — the characters of this book live in wolf country. Where wolves run wild. This in particular sounds true to me:

“The train stopped with such a jerk.”

“Yes, the drivers always do that. You see, if the wolves notice a train slowing down, they are on the alert at once, and all start to run toward the station, so as to be there when the passengers get out. Consequently, if a train has to stop here, the driver goes as fast as he can to the very last moment, in order to deceive them into thinking he is going straight through.”

Previously in this chapter, a wolf jumps into the train where Sylvia is sitting, through the window, and if her traveling companion hadn’t had a gun with which to shoot the wolf, that would have been the end of Sylvia. As much as I know that this isn’t a real thing and has never been a real thing (right? probably not real?), I can’t make myself believe it. It feels true to me. Wolves attack trains. You have to slam on the brakes real hard at the end or else you will get eaten by a ravenous wolf pack. That’s just a fact of life if you happen to live in an area of the country where wolves are prevalent. I have known that longer than I have known long division.

There! Now you know! I believe in cwidders and mandrakes and train-assaulting wolf packs, and the latter is apparently due to my childhood copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase not having an explanatory summary on the dust jacket cover. And although I am officially ashamed of these beliefs, at the deepest level I think that I am probably right about all of them. Now tell me your ones please! What objectively-nonsense things do you retain from books you read too often as a kid?


There’s a movie of Midnight’s Children and that’s happening right now and I never knew?

DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS AND DIDN’T TELL ME! I swear to God, bloggy friends. Did you know about this and didn’t tell me? What did I do to you to make you neglect me this way? Was it that time I vanished for the whole summer? Cause…well, no, that’s very fair if so.

Salman Rushdie is not my favorite author (very few of his lady characters are interesting), although I like him a lot, and Midnight’s Children is not my favorite of his books, although I liked it a lot, but I am pretty excited about this movie. Salman Rushdie helped work on the script, and it’s an all-Indian cast, and it screened at the Toronto Film Festival and I have heard good things. Hooray! I’m excited!

Also, Iran tried to stop the film from getting made. Because of course.

Also, I’m posting this during the span of A More Diverse Universe and that is apt because Salman Rushdie writes fantasy novels (magic realism just has to accept itself for what it is), and he is an author of color. I did this on purpose and not at all because I just noticed this movie existed today.

Also, I went to the dentist recently and I don’t have any cavities. That’s unrelated to Salman Rushdie. I just wanted you to know.