book review: the mystery of Daniel Handler and the echoing Basic Eight

The Basic Eight by Daniel HandlerThe thing I don’t understand about Daniel Handler (known, in children’s literature, by his pen name, Lemony Snicket) is why, with such intelligence, wit, and charming turn of phrase at his disposal he would choose to write about nothing.  There is so much something in the world it would seem hard to me to avoid it, but many modern authors do so quite well.  Another that comes to mind is Julian Barnes in “The Sense of an Ending” — his writing is chillingly beautiful, and frighteningly hollow.

I remember listening to the audiobooks of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” many summers ago on a road trip.  I’ll admit, I love dark comedy, and dark comedy for kids seems, if nothing less, apropos.  Kids take things way too seriously (at least I was a kid who did).  But there was some niggling feeling those books always left me with that I just couldn’t place.  “The Basic Eight,” much older, much darker, and much more funny (I don’t mean slyly humorous, I mean laugh-out-loud-in-awkward-public-places funny), sharpened that feeling and crystallized it into diamond: hard, cold, and made, essentially… of nothing.

The Basic Eight toast

The reason I couldn’t place the feeling before is that it wasn’t a feeling, it was the lack of a feeling.  It was that hollowness again.  “The Basic Eight” is a cavernously empty work of fiction.

And I remember thinking that about so many of the christian-girl and Georgette Heyer romance novels my mom used to let me read when I was growing up:  Empty.  Dissatisfying.  Fluffy.  Drivel.  But what’s different about Daniel Handler and Julian Barnes is the weight of the subject matter.  It’s not fluff.  It’s heavy; it’s deep and it’s broad and that’s why I called this book cavernous, because the larger a hole is, the more obvious it is.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian BarnesBut why does it matter?  Does a book have to be about something?  If you’re going to make fun (at least in Handler’s case), why not make fun of nothing?

Some might argue here that what he’s making fun of is teen sexuality, statutory rape, school massacres, and kids killing kids, but I actually think he takes those things more seriously than fiction (often the kind targeted at teens) which capitalizes on those elements for their tear-jerk value.  During the time I was reading this book I was listening (like the rest of America) to Serial, and the juxtaposition was unsettling not in it’s divergence, but in the similitude of the teenage “characters” reactions to being involved with a murder, despite that “The Basic Eight” is a comedy and, in typical Lemony Snicket fashion, completely ridiculous at points.  But all that’s an aside…

Daniel Handler

The problem is exactly what I said earlier:  that there is so much something in the world.  The purpose of stories is to parse out what that something is.  The situations, the lives, the events, the people (especially the people) around us are full of so much raw, unadulterated meaning that we can’t process it in that form, it has to be given to us in the form of a story.  So to tell a story that means nothing is, essentially, to tell a lie.  Because there are no true stories that mean nothing.  And the “truth” of a story is not in its relationship to actual events but in the meaning it lends to the lives it touches.


in defense of goodbye

This is not goodbye, this is just “see you later.” How many times have I heard that?

“Say goodnight,” the singer croons, “not goodbye.” But I’m beginning to realize there’s something very important in goodbye.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t like leaving, and I really, really don’t like being left. Goodbyes are not something that improves on acquaintance, and I’ve said enough of them to know. But I also know they aren’t easier done in halves.Tolkien on leaving

I don’t mean that the departure of every friend has to be some drawn-out, teary thing, where you deliver a miniature speech on the meaning they have lent to your life and the depths they have plumbed in your soul. But hey, if that’s what it comes to, why not? If not then, WHEN ELSE IN OUR LIVES WILL WE EVER SAY THOSE THINGS? Each friend lends meaning and plumbs depths in their own way, and once they’ve gone, that part of us may be gone forever.

I could say so much more about this, but a great, big (and painful when it’s not possible) part of friendship is PRESENCE. That’s why phrases like “There for me,” “Came through,” and “In your corner,” all have a prepositional quality to them. Intimacy is knowledge and proximity.

If you don’t know the next time you will see your friend in person, chances are this is the closest you’ll ever be as friends . . . no pun intended. (See how hard it is to talk about meaning something to someone without using locational words?) But nobody wants to say that. Leaving is loss. Being left is loss. And loss comes with a certain level of denial. But if you knew this was the culmination of everything you’d been through as friends, how differently would you act?

Thirty-some years ago, when my parents left their home in Southern California to move to Africa, they had to communicate back home by letters hand-carried out of the country. They sent telegrams when my brothers and I were born. And that was pretty good compared to the whole history of mankind before them. Last week, when my friend moved from Delhi, headed to Southern California herself, I got a text message “London is sunny today!” a little over 24 hours later.

That constant availability has led to a certain naïvety about distance. But availability is not presence. Once-upon-a-time our goodbyes had to be complete because they could be THE goodbye. And now we’re given this digital illusion of possibility and chance, which makes us think we’ll always have another one. Now, I’m a fan of just about every form of communication possible, from postcards to . . . what’s the name of that app I just downloaded? But I’m also a champion of having your primary friends be flesh-and-bones, in-person, humany ones, able to be hugged, and poked, and looked-in-the-eyes, and cried on. So we don’t become people marked by our absence. Where your treasure is, there your heart is.Pooh on goodbyes

There’s nothing like those friendships where you can spend time away from each other without it creating distance between you. I have friends I can be away from for six months and when we get together, we hug each other so tight it hurts, and then launch right into whatever we were talking about six months ago, without missing a beat. But those friends have been earned in departure terminals, and won at the arrivals gate, and subject to hugs that were long and wet, and letters long and messy. We said what we needed to say, and that was never “I’ll see you around,” it was “If I don’t see you around, I want to you know . . . ”

Those friendships are built on the hard goodbyes.

You see, it isn’t by making things small that we make them bearable. We are eternal creatures, with infinite capacity. The things we shrink down from their rightful size, make light of when they should carry weight, just create a void within us where something was meant to belong. Emptiness isn’t heavy — but it weighs you down.

The goodbye is just the period at the end of the sentence, not the end of the story. But the flow of your lives won’t make sense without it.

And if you’ve read this far you’ll realize this isn’t really about the goodbye. If we’re doing it right, when that moment comes a simple “goodbye” is all that should be left to say. It’s what comes before that moment that matters. This is not a defense of closing the book, but a defense against closing ourselves off. A call to open our hearts and open our mouths. In friendship: love as if you’ll have them forever, speak as if you’ll lose them today.

Continue reading

the case for wakefulness

At about 6:30 this morning I got an email from my brother asking what I thought about an article on sleep aids by Dr. Mercola. Getting an article like that, at a time like that (which is, for the record, nearly an hour before the sun is even up in our city, much less the people), and it’s not hard to tell things aren’t all well on the home front. A status update from from my sister-in-law put it more winsomely:

“Does anybody want to take three adorable girls off our hands? They sing, they giggle, they laugh and generally want to eat between midnight and 7am. #jetlagging mama wants some sleep.”

The article included all the common admonitions, some of which I took and implemented from another blog I read earlier this year. Around the time I was wondering if my complacent insomnia was doing damage to my long-term health, after a friend staged a mini-intervention that lasted as long as the sentence, “You don’t sleep enough, and you don’t eat enough!” I brought the question up during a coaching session, where my side of the conversation went, basically,

“I think I would sleep more if I valued sleep more . . It’s not that I don’t value sleep . . . I just value so many other things more . . . Actually, almost everything . . . Maybe not TV.”

Less Is More

So I set about increasing my value for sleep, to hopefully increase the time that I made for it. But in all my late nights reading of some very sleep-inducing books, one thing kept puzzling me. While all the friendly advice suggested 8 to 9, and sometimes the downright-slothful 10 (!!?) hours of sleep a night was optimum, all of the actual research suggested otherwise.

Take this interview in TIME, for example,

“Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, as they report, live the longest . . .  There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hr. Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr.”

A little startling, isn’t it? I found this same, seemingly crucial, information buried in books between chapters on circadian rhythm and Vitamin D storage. It seems most, if not all, of the recent studies have shown the same.

Now, Before You Freak Out

Yeah, freak out. That’s kind of the reaction I get when I bring this up in casual conversation. How often have you heard asserted, “But I NEED a solid 9 hours of sleep every night, or I’m just EXHAUSTED”? And yet, on the occasions I dared to press people on this, they usually admitted that they felt exhausted a lot of the time anyway, and would sleep more than those 8-9 hours if given the chance. More is better, right? Maybe not.

I started to make a mental checklist: the most theoretically “well-rested” people I know are also the most droopy, sluggish, sleep-till-2-on-a-Saturday people I know. And the most energetic, productive, will-never-drift-off-during-a-conversation ones, are the ones who regularly get around, well . . . 6 to 7 hours of sleep. I thought they were some form of sleepless elite, but maybe they’re just the ones who cast aside traditional wisdom and chanced upon what science is tells us is the actual optimum.

Rumi on Sleep


Alright, I’m trying to save my skin here. People like their beauty sleep, and as I may have slightly, unkindly, suggested, it’s the ones who are getting it who can be grumpy about these things. So let me just add that there are other factors involved. One that Mercola mentioned, which I haven’t seen nearly enough articles on, is that sleep during regular hours is better than sleep during odd hours.

In other words, if you sleep from 10pm to 6am on weekdays but 1am to 10am on weekends, it’s only the 5 hours between 1 and 6, when you are regularly asleep, that your sleep is quality. During the other hours, when your body is used to being awake, it doesn’t fully power-down, so to speak. Many other things can affect the quality of even regular sleep, such as light and noise in your sleep environment, and chemicals in your body (including caffeine, obviously).

Other factors like age, gender and life stage also affect how much sleep you need. People in a growth spurt or learning a new language need more. Which is why that 10 hour suggestion may not be outlandish if you’re 2 years old (though, based on the fact that you’re reading this blog, you may be advanced for your age, little one). The standard 8 is still good for teens in puberty or people in a new culture/setting where they’re acquiring new skills at a rapid pace. And 7 – 7.5 might be good for women, who do better with a half hour more sleep than their male counterparts, on average (hey, I’m just citing the research).

Taking these things into consideration, maybe you’ll give the less-is-more theory of sleep a shot? Because, as far as I’ve read (and except for the afore-mentioned mitigating factors), the idea that sleep requirements differ from person-to-person is also just hearsay.

the conundrum: stress is good for you

That’s good news, right? Actually, the TED talk by Kelly McGonigal is one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time.

I listened to it last November just before I was set to run a conference across town, while suffering a terrible head-cold, housing guests, and working two jobs. Whenever the pressure made me feel like I was about to collapse in on myself, I just repeated “This is good for me.”

When It’s Not Bad, It’s Good


Ah, there’s the key though: stress is good for you, unless you believe that it’s bad for you.


That’s right, as Ms. McGonicgal explains so much better than I ever could, all that talk out there about stress killing us has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stress has all the power you give it. If you believe that it will kill you, eventually it will. And it will do as much damage as it can in the meantime.

And When It’s Good, It’s Real Good

And, despite the hype, why should you even believe that stress bad for you at all? Think of what happens when you’re stressed: your heart speeds up, you breath a little faster, your senses start to hone in on specific things, sometimes adrenalin kicks in. These are all the same things that happen when exercise, or when we’re in love. Two pastimes classically touted for their health benefits.

But those things don’t feel bad, do they? Actually, if you thought about the fist-clenching, palm-sweating, heart-pounding, stomach-turning phenomena we call love as anything other than good for you, you’d probably label it akin to a heart seizure in terms of health benefits (I’ve had one, and it does feel remarkably similar). And when I was forced to run track back in grade school? It was only my desire to seem “cool” that kept me from hollering, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” halfway through the first lap (though I’m sure I looked it).

Well, as my phys-ed prof put it so bluntly, “You’re not dying, keep running.” And it begins to feel better. Exercise and stress, both. Once you believe stress is good for you, it becomes good for you. When it becomes good for you, it starts to feel good. And the conundrum? When it feels good, it stops being stressful. That conference last fall was a breeze, not because I wasn’t stressed, but because once I stopped feeling like the stress was bad for me, the stress stopped feeling like stress.

So just remember: The pressure is good for you. The stress is helping you. You’re not dying, keep running.

90 songs to write your novel to

It’s that time of year again. Countless hordes are sitting down in front of their computers, hands sweaty, minds ablaze, ready to unleash their masterpieces on the world . . . or die of caffeine consumption. So in honor of NaNoWriMo, or for anyone doing creative work, here’s a soundtrack for November. (Because good instrumental music is hard to come by, and procrastination oh-so-easy.)

About the list: The genres are only suggestions. I tried to avoid well-known songs and soundtracks.

Period Piece
  1. Dustin O’Halloran – Opus 36
  2. Max Richter – Luminous
  3. Alex Heffes – Opening Title from Dear Frankie
  4. Gabriel Yared – Ada Plays
  5. Paul Cantelon – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  6. Dustin O’Halloran – Opus 17Plato, on music
  7. Bruno Coulais – Pepinot
  8. Thomas Newman – So Was Red
  9. Aaron Zigman – Steve’s Theme
  10. Kevin Kern – Scene in a Dream
Love Story
  1. Ludovico Einaudi – I Giorni
  2. Yiruma – River Flows in You
  3. Sylvain Chomet – Illusionist Finale
  4. Stephan Moccio – Seven
  5. Jennie Muskett – Hampshire
  6. Steve Gibbs – Contention
  7. Adrian Johnston – Always Summer
  8. Yann Tiersen – 8mm
  9. Classical New Age Piano Music – Butterfly Waltz
  10. Classical New Age Piano Music – Morning’s Glory


  1. Josh Kramer – All That Remains
  2. Issac Shephard – Gentile
  3. Max Richter – Dinner and the Ship of Dreams
  4. Brambles – In The Androgynous Dark
  5. Marc Teichert – One Day in August <<
  6. Yann Tiersen – La Plage
  7. Karen Olson – Capturing Rainbows
  8. Max Richter – On The Nature of Daylight
  9. Chad Lawson – Nocturne In A Minor
  10. David Nevue – The Night Season
  1. Lee Byung Woo – Epilogue
  2. William Zeitler – The Dragonfly’s First Dawn
  3. Ryo Yoshimata – The Whole Nine Yards
  4. Norihiro Tsuru – Last Carnival
  5. Eleni Karaindrou – By The Sea
  6. Adrian Johnston – The Runaways
  7. Classical New Age Piano Music – Fly Away
  8. Abel Korzeniowski – Swimming
  9. Ludivico Einaudi – Love is a Mystery
  10. Ennio Morricone – Nostalgia/Looking for You
  1. Harry Gregson-Williams – Shrine Of The Times
  2. Paul Schwartz – Nocturne
  3. Bruno Sanfilippo – Aquerelle sur bois
  4. InuYashi – Longing
  5. Takashi Kako – Blue Horizon
  6. Zbigniew Preisner – The Beautiful Country
  7. Alexandre Desplat – Dreamcatcher
  8. Matthew Fisher – Ballroom for Ghosts
  9. Brian Crain – Wind
  10. Javier Navarrete – Town of Austere
Epic Fantasy
  1. Darol Anger – Aran Boat Song
  2. Gary Chapman, Hymns from the Ryman – Amazing Grace
  3. James Horner – The Legend Spreads
  4. Immediate Music – Sonata
  5. Joe Hisaishi – The Legend of Ashitaka
  6. Mychael Danna – The Blood of Cu Chulain
  7. Julie Murphy & Annie Ebrel – Farfarwell Fo I Langyfelach
  8. The Taliesen Orchestra – Lothlorien
  9. Noella – Lacroix Island in Fog
  10. e.s. Posthumus – Ulaid
  1. Luigi Rubino – Glace of Dust
  2. Kathleen Ryan – Bells, the Veil, and Victory
  3. Michael Nyman – The Sacrifice
  4. Christopher Young – Humility and Love
  5. Niall Byrne – Juliette is Happy
  6. Brian Crain – At the Ivy Gate
  7. Bruno Coulais – In Memoriam
  8. Ludovico Einaudi – Fly
  9. Jorane – Film III
  10. James Newton Howard – The Gravel Road
  1. Mike Foyle – Pandora
  2. Mike Foyle – Firefly
  3. Brian Tyler – Hymn
  4. Mychael Danna – In My Line of Business
  5. Jamin Winans – John’s Walk
  6. Music Junkies – Fatal Fantasy
  7. e.s. Posthumus – Nara
  8. Clint Mansell – Death is the Road to Awe
  9. Zoe Keating – Flying and Fighting
  10. Dune – In the End
Off-Beat Dramedy
  1. Alex Wurman – Arrival At The Sea
  2. Dirk Reichardt – A Rainy Day In Vancouver
  3. Sigur Ros – Hoppipolla (Piano Version)
  4. Nick Urata – She’s Real
  5. Lowercase Noises – A Highway Shall Be There
  6. Brian Crain – Imagining
  7. Yann Tiersen – IV
  8. Yann Tiersen – Derniere
  9. Emancipator – With Rainy Eyes
  10. Nancy Wilson – River Road

Did I miss anything? The best song? Your genre? Drop me a line below, or tweet @steviesmiff. And maybe I’ll make another list!

making the habit

According to researchers, it takes 66 days to form a new habit, so if you’re looking to ace your 2014 New Year’s resolution you needed to start, uh, yesterday.

But don’t worry if you’re not quite there yet. I’m not, either. My head’s chock full of all the things I still want to do with 2013. Like finish my summer novel, quit sugar for goodbecome a proper minimalist, and um, blog daily. With only 65 days to go I’m realizing a few early resolutions might not hurt.

John Dryden on Habits

A lot of people I know have simply resolved not to make resolutions. They’re just a set-up for failure, right? That doesn’t keep these people from wanting change in their own lives, of course, but it often keep them from seeing it. So whether you do it after Christmas or right now, the best way to change is to decide to. Here are a few tips on where to go from there:

  1. Be specific: “Eat healthy” is vague and can easily be manipulated to fit the whim of the moment. “No more cereal for breakfast” is quantifiable and hard to fudge.
  2. Make habits, not goals: “Eat an apple and yogurt for breakfast” is easy to do, and once you’ve done it again and again and again, you won’t even have think about it as you put your other goals habits in place for better living.
  3. Set up cues and responses: Bad habits are retained by mental cues that tell us to behave a certain way, e.g. “When I finish supper, turn on the television” or “If there’s chocolate, eat it.” Luckily, we can use cues to form good habits as well. In this case it’s “If it’s breakfast, eat an apple and yogurt” but it could easily be, “When I finish supper, go for an evening walk.”
  4. Make the habit of making habits: Eating something different for breakfast doesn’t sound like a very worthy resolution for the start of a new year, but as you begin to see change as a process, you can implement new habits progressively to achieve your goal. In February you can begin your evening walks, and in March, “If there’s chocolate, drink a glass of water.”
  5. Believe it will get easier: Willpower begets willpower. 12 months later, when you’re running 20 minutes every morning before your first coffee, you won’t believe how hard it was to go that first week without Frosted Flakes.Gretchen Rubin on Habits

At the end of 2011, I wrote a list of 6 areas of my life I wanted to grow in. Three were external, and 3 internal. For each of these I decided on monthly, weekly, and daily habits to acquire. In the second week of 2012, I moved house and lost the notebook where I had written all this down. What I remembered was the habits I had already begun, and I continued to build on them. When I found the notebook again in October, I’d already overshot almost all of my goals for the year.

The power of habit.

the sweet life

A week ago my friend asked me which of what he calls my “diet restrictions” (and I call eating healthy) I’d choose to do for life, no cheats, no exceptions.

I hesitate to share what I said since it turned out a be a very controversial and widely unpopular choice. I answered “no sugar.” (Which I hypothetically defined as “any natural sugar that has been separated from its source and concentrated,” so maple syrup, evaporated milk and most fruit juice would count, but honey wouldn’t.) The reactions I got to this varied from, “That’s impossible.” to “Why would you want to do that?” to “Not even you could manage that.”

It’s just not ever a good idea to tell me I can’t do something.

Leonardo da Vinci on mastery

Two days later I was still thinking about it. I was out at dinner with this same friend and I (yes, I) suggested I put my money where my mouth is, or put my mouth where sugar isn’t, or something like that. We settled on a bet of “no sugar till Thanksgiving.” If I last, he treats me to all-you-can-eat sushi and drinks at my favorite restaurant. If I don’t, I treat him to the same.

I’ll admit, that may seem a low pay-off for two and a half months without dessert. But that’s not really the point.

“I’m testing the boundaries of my needs,” as Leo Babuata said about his Year of Living Without project, “It’s good to test your personal boundaries now and then (or, if you’re me, all the time).” There are few places in this first-world, upper-middle-class, fairly-entitled life I was (and maybe you were) born into where those boundaries get tested. I mean, outside of parenthood, or enlisting in the army.

Paul on what's good for you

There is some part of me that believes you’ll never find out what’s absolutely necessary in life without first finding out what’s not. (I guess that’s what makes me an aspiring minimalist.) So while cutting out sugar may help me live to see a few more Thanksgivings, I’m oddly curious what else it will help me see.