My Favorite Books of 2019

Choosing my favorites is hard because I read a lot of good stuff. I’ll cheat by using categories.

Best Historical Fiction
The Island of Sea Women

 

Best Set in a Boarding School Book (my favorite sub-genre)
The Swallows

 

Best Book about an Old Lady Serial Killer (also a nominee for Best Use of Cross-stitch)An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good

 

Best Psychological Thriller
The Turn of the Key

 

Best Romantic Comedy
The Unhoneymooners

 

Best Nonfiction That Scared Me Half to Death
I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

 

Best Sequel
Olive, Again

 

Best Weird Book
The Need

 

Best Nonfiction That Confirms the World Is Terrible
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

 

Best “Change Your Life” Book
The Myths of Happiness

Best Overall (Tie)
Home Fire  Girls Burn Brighter

 

The Main Reason You Aren’t Writing? Probably Distraction

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It’s impossible to write well if you are distracted (says I, who is currently writing this while watching the subpar episode of The Office where Jim buys Pam a house).

Resisting distractions is hard and it saps our willpower. (That obviously explains why I ate three salted nut bars while writing this: no willpower left.)

So how do you get rid of the distractions, sit down to write (or read or whatever), and do it well?

(That last part about doing it well is key,  by the way. I’ve produced all kinds of garbage while watching TV. I’m not bragging; I’m confessing.)

I suggest we try creating environments where multitasking isn’t the default. We have to build space and time where distraction simply doesn’t enter the equation.

Easier said than done, of course, but I do have some strategies for doing that. You can read about what I’m trying to do in my article “Distraction Is Keeping You From Writing: Three Ways to Foster Deep Thinking and Improve Your Writing.”

Should you trust me? Probably not. I just paused to watch this video of babies talking to each other.

How do you build distraction-proof areas in your life?

 

After Dinner Conversation: A Fascinating Publication

Survival Kit: After Dinner Conversation Short Story Series by [Seifert, Christine]

After Dinner Conversation publishes short stories about ethical or philosophical questions. It’s been fun to dive into fictional worlds that explore questions about what it means to be human. If you like short fiction, you should definitely check them out. They include discussion questions along with each story.

My story, “Survival Kit,” just hit #1 on Amazon downloads. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it or any of the other stories. Better yet, write your own and share it!

 

Is Doing Nothing the Same as Doing Something?

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Sometimes I write short stories. Did I tell you that?

Well, here’s my latest:

A wife in an unhappy marriage gets caught in a freak snowstorm with her husband and sees the opportunity to end her “suffering.”

You can read it at After Dinner Conversations, a great new collection of short fiction and podcast episodes. Each story deals with an ethical or philosophical idea.

My story is about whether or not doing nothing to save someone from calamity is the same as contributing directly to that calamity. Let me know what you think.

Click here to read “Survival Kit.”

Things We Can Blame on Leonardo DiCaprio

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Earlier this month, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, blamed Leonardo DiCaprio for setting forest fires in the Amazon rain forest. “Leonardo DiCaprio is a great guy, isn’t he?” President Bolsonaro said facetiously. Bolsonaro went on to say that DiCaprio “donat[ed] money to set the Amazon on fire” for his own personal gain.

DiCaprio responded on Instagram by reiterating his support for the people of Brazil and for the continued protection of the rain forest.

But the whole incident got me thinking: What if we could just blame everything on Leonardo DiCaprio? What if all the bad things in the world—real or imagined— could just be attributed to him? Wouldn’t that be cathartic?

So in no particular order, here are the things—real or imagined—I intend to blame on Leonardo from here on out:

  • He handwrites letters to children telling them there is no Santa Claus.
  • He shot J.R. Ewing.
  • He greenlit Season 2 of The Masked Singer.
  • He’s on a friends and family phone plan with O.J. Simpson and Matt Lauer.
  • He replies-all in all of his email, just as a matter of course.
  • He thinks Friends would have been a better show if Paula Deen had played the Rachel character.
  • He dated Taylor Swift, but he was so boring, she never wrote a song about him.
  • He used Lizzo’s tiny purse as a handkerchief.
  • He invented Tik Tok, autoplay on Netflix, and those plastic anti-theft cases cassettes used to come in.
  • At karaoke, he only sings the full version of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
  • He suggested Beyonce and Jay-Z name Blue Ivy “Mildred Ethelred.”
  • He thinks Tom Hanks is “just not that nice.”
  • He signs you up to receive robocalls, junk mail, chain letters, Candy Crush invitations, and evites to that co-worker’s fourth baby shower.
  • He wants to recast all of Hallmark’s Christmas movies with the Kardashians.
  • He’s always on a juice cleanse and wants to tell you all about it.
  • He’s already seen the script for Season 4 of Stranger Things, and he tweeted that the lovable weird kid dies at the end and Barb is NEVER COMING BACK.
  • He came to Thanksgiving and said the turkey was “quite moist.”
  • He thinks puppies are overrated.
  • When he comments on your blog, he uses all caps and hashtags his own comments. #LeoWasHere #Blessed
  • He knew how to get everyone off of Gilligan’s Island, but he said nothing.
  • He eats egg salad on your holiday flight.
  • When asked who his favorite poet is, he said Justin Bieber.
  • He has a selfie-stick. And he likes it.
  • He messaged Kate Middleton and told her Meghan hates all of her hats.
  • He uses that old dial-up modem sound for his ringtone.
  • He picked you in Secret Santa, and he bought you a Peloton.
  • He’s the reason TSA makes us take our shoes off at the airport. It’s a weird foot fetish thing.
  • He ate all the Popeye’s chicken.
  • He went to see himself in The Revenant, but he whisper-talked the whole time.
  • He was steering the Titanic.
  • He insists his essential oils MLM is not a pyramid scheme.

See? Don’t you feel better already? What do you want to blame on Leo? Go for it!

Do You *Do* Productivity?

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I have a secret vice: It’s productivity self-help literature. I read everything about it because I secretly believe that there’s some elusive–but ultimately accessible–method for producing more and more and more and more.

I’m here to say there is definitely a method for producing more. In fact, there are many methods. It turns out they aren’t so elusive, nor are they particularly hard to implement. Many of them work very well.

But I recently realized I’m asking the wrong question. Yes, I can be more productive, but the bigger question is should I be more productive? And if so, at what? All work isn’t good work.

I wrote an article about my new anti-productivity mindset for The Ascent. Here’s a snippet:

When we talk about productivity, we lack the language to even interrogate the concept because we’ve built virtuousness right into the definition. We can’t examine, critique, or even question productivity without accidentally endorsing laziness, a cardinal sin in our culture. Questioning productivity is like trying to make an argument against generosity or kindness.

Anti-productivity is all about questioning what we are doing so that we can ensure we’re doing the right things.

What anti-productivity look like? Well, let’s talk about it. It’s about time.

Kids These Days: Some Advice from the Little People

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In my zeal to be old, I often forget how instructive it can be to listen to kids. Sure, they are generally little sociopaths with broken moral compasses–and they smell like hamsters– but they often have excellent ideas about how to live.

Here are some things children have recently taught me:

Don’t Waste Your Time with Dumb Stuff

My niece patiently explained to me that showering is optional. If she can sleep for an extra half hour, she isn’t stepping into a waterflow of any kind. “It just seems pointless,” she told me. She’s not wrong. Personal hygiene is totally the thief of joy. Greasy hair isn’t a crime. “It just likes like gel,” she insisted. She’ll bathe when she “gets to it.” Here’s a kid with priorities.

She also doesn’t muddy her memory with useless details. When I asked her what time she goes to school, she had no idea. It could be eight a.m., it could be seven a.m.,  it could be hamburger. She simply doesn’t know! “I just go in when the bell rings,” she explained (with a fair amount disdain, as if she just had to inform me that rain comes from the sky).

Her ingenious approach to life ensures she doesn’t have a head full of useless knowledge. She uses all that free brain space, she explained, to think about more important things, like whether or not she wants pizza.

Do Take a Reasonable Approach to Problem-Solving

My nephew is only twelve, but he has the common sense of an eighty-year-old. He goes to bed early, does his homework as soon as he gets home from school, disapproves of Tik Tok, and gets to class early to “center” himself.  He’s also a keen pragmatist.

“Would you be willing to eat people?” he recently asked me.

“Why are you asking me that?” I asked. I was suspicious because he was handing me a taco at the same time.

“Just curious. I myself wouldn’t do it.”

“No,” I answered, “I’ll definitely pass on eating people.”

“What if they wanted to be eaten?”

“How would we know that?”

He thought for a moment. “They could tell people. Like sign something that says it’s okay to eat them.” He went to craft a complicated system that was sort of a cross between organ donation and The Hunger Games. Then he left to watch YouTube, satisfied that he’d  essentially solved global hunger and cemetery overcrowding in about twenty minutes.

The whole conversation left me wondering I can’t easily come up with reasonable solutions to even the smallest recurring problems. Yet he has enough reason to create a plan for responsible cannibalism.

Don’t Lie, Even If the Truth Hurts

My ten-year-old niece is pathologically honest. If you give her a gift she doesn’t like, she’ll give you a sour expression, utter a perfunctory thank you, and then give the gift back. I once handed her a picnic basket to hold. She mistakenly thought it was a gift. “No thank you,” she told me. “I prefer not to picnic.” She’s basically a tween Bartleby.

Once you become an adult, you start to rely on little lies to lubricate social situations. It doesn’t take long before you’ve told your coworker that you love his singing, reassured your neighbors that you don’t mind in the least if their cat eats everything in your garden, and donated to your brother-in-law’s multi-level marketing business that sells leggings for goldfish.

Not my niece. She puts it out there. And as a result, you are never in doubt where you stand with her, and she never feels compelled to be someone other than herself. Not long ago, she met her old brother’s new girlfriend. She took one look at the girlfriend, turned to her brother and said, “This will never last. She’s going to dump you.” That’s radical honesty.

Be Better, But Still Be You

I was once asked to give a speech about how to change the world. I agreed to do it, but the truth was that I don’t have a clue how to change the world. I only recently learned how to change the furnace filter. (That’s a lie. I have no idea how to do that either.)

So I asked my friends with kids to advise me. How do you change the world? The kids’ answers were delightful. They advised more love, more smiles, more puppies, more kindness, less bullying, less greed, and less jealously.

They also gave me some bonkers answers that I still think about:

  • “I go under the tables.”
  • “After lunch I take a nap.
  • “If I play in the front room.”
  • “I like lollipops.”
  • “More lions.”
  • “Farting”

What I took from their answers is that we can all agree that kindness and generosity are never bad ways to approach life. At the same time, it’s okay to be you. Get under the table and fart! Take a nap after lunch! Have a lollipop!

Life is hard.  Find joy.

Above all, listen to the kids. They know what’s up.