‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books

Those of you who have paid some attention to my biographical information (if not, take a look at “about”) will know that I run a book review website, Rated Reads. There are quite literally thousands of blogs out there that review books. What there are not nearly so many of are websites that try to provide information about the content of those books reviewed. I have been a book reviewer for probably 15 years now, and I’d say I have done it as “professionally” as is possible; I’ve written for newspaper book pages for all that time, I was the book page editor for one newspaper for a couple of years, and I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle for probably 10 years. So I’d like to feel that I know a little something about book reviewing.

Since it has been well known among my acquaintances what I do in the reading sphere, many people have asked my advice on books, from all kinds of angles. What I concluded some years back was that there was a hole in available information out there about book content. I am a Christian and have been raised in particular being taught that it is wise to avoid using vulgar language or watching movies or TV shows with vulgar content, so it follows that I would want to avoid books with vulgar content as well. And those friends of mine who came from a similar background would often ask me what kinds of books I’d enjoyed that were also mostly “clean” when it came to content.

But there are no ratings systems available for books. There are many reasons for this, but the hole in available information remains nonetheless. I just thought I could do my part to fill in that gap, just a little bit. So I started Rated Reads four years ago. I’ve noticed now more blogs devoted to a similar objective: to just provide some information about book content to readers who care about sexual scenes, violence and offensive language. Some out there in the world today may criticize the movie or TV ratings systems or think they’re silly, but I think most people understand and agree that they have value in providing information that allows viewers and parents of under-18 viewers to make better decisions regarding what they watch. So I would think that logically most people would agree that having information available in a similar fashion for books would be desirable and welcome.

The naysayers have generally left Rated Reads alone. There have been a few occasions, however, when an individual who doesn’t share my values or the values of those who use the site or simply doesn’t appreciate that anyone in the world might have different values than he or she has makes disparaging comments about what I and my reviewers are trying to do. In those few cases, I have gently reminded those commenters that the site exists to provide information for those who would like to limit offensive content in what they read. They can disagree, but some people value what Rated Reads is trying to do.

As a reader, I find it laughable that some writers and readers continue to insist that, in order for their work to be “authentic,” it must contain graphic material. I think that there are a few occasions that this is actually true, but it isn’t true for nearly the number of occasions it becomes a sticking point. Writing about and for teenagers tends to get the most attention here, for some reason.

Let me just say this: I was a teen once. Yes, it was 25 years ago, and yes, it was perhaps a slightly nicer time in which not quite every scary or bad or dangerous or vulgar behavior was out in the open, and media reflected that. (An example: I distinctly remember the big fuss over George Michael’s song “I Want Your Sex.” Some radio stations simply would not play that, so there was a version called “I Want Your Love.”) Today, I am of the opinion that pretty much everything is now out in the open, rather than hidden behind doors, spoken of only in whispers. But I heard bad language when I was growing up; I heard sexual references. So I remember what it was like to be a teen and to hear and see things.

I can also say this: I have two teens. My oldest is almost 16, and she talks to me about everything. She is bombarded by vulgar language and talk about all kinds of dangerous and sad behavior. And even though, technically, students aren’t supposed to be allowed to use vulgar language at school or in the classroom, teachers have mostly given up on trying to reprimand or give any consequences. So my very tender, gentle and sweet child constantly hears peers using “f-” this and “f-” that and sexual language and all kinds of things that she simply doesn’t want to hear. (She doesn’t have a lot of choice in what she hears in class or in passing, but I will make clear that she does have a choice what she hears from friends. She has chosen friends who are like-minded in that they don’t use bad language, and if she does have friends or classmates with whom she interacts regularly who are inclined to use bad language, she has politely asked them to refrain from using it, and they have always graciously tried to honor her wishes because they like and respect her.)

So when it comes to media, including movies and books, yes, I can wholeheartedly agree that “reality” is not pretty in many respects. But just because some teens, or even many teens, are involved in dangerous behaviors or use vulgar language doesn’t mean that ALL do. My daughter has plenty of friends who don’t have sex and who don’t use rough language. This isn’t she or I being unrealistic or seeing through rose-colored glasses; it is a fact. There are plenty of great teens out there who aren’t having sex or using rough language.

Just as we can choose friends who are like-minded, we can choose media that reflects our values as well. My daughter doesn’t want to hear offensive things at school, so she certainly doesn’t want to come home and deliberately choose to read a book that has offensive material, if there are other options. I want her to have a place that she can feel comfortable, where she ISN’T surrounded by vulgarity. That is our home. And our home’s media options reflect that place of comfort and security. I don’t bring offensive media into our home. It is a sanctuary, as much as is possible, from the world of so-called “reality.” And our home life is just as “real” as what’s going on outside it — actually, more so.

So I appreciate the authors who can craft great works of literature without bringing in some of that “reality.” I’ve read many wonderful books with fully-formed characters who interact in a true-t0-life fashion with each other, with stories that are clever, that are witty, that are wise, that transport me, that make me think, that help me experience places and things I wouldn’t get to otherwise. And those books have felt absolutely real. They’ve been authentic; they have struck a chord in my heart and soul. I love those books and I give thanks to the authors who don’t feel the need to insert offensive material to make them more “authentic.” Generally speaking, I have found that the books that have used lots of strong language and detailed sexual scenes could have gotten their messages across equally well without that stuff. And all too often, those “markers of reality” have been poor substitutes for good writing. I don’t want to read a mediocre work, period, let alone by an author who thinks that inserting lots of nasty “reality” will instantly make it real. Why waste my time with that stuff when there’s just SO much good literature out there, so much I can’t possibly ever read it all?

I know well enough what’s out there, what kind of depravity and vulgarity and sadness exists. I am not so isolated or insulated that I’m completely ignorant. But I don’t have to wallow in filth just because I know it exists. Life is difficult enough for everyone that there’s no reason to choose to bring things into our lives that are filthy or degrading. We all have struggles, we all have challenges to work through. And good literature does reflect that fact. But it also can reflect that we as human beings can triumph over the bad, that we have the strength and the light in us to choose good and to be good despite the difficulties we encounter. And I’m going to choose to read books that don’t bring unnecessary vulgarity into my mind. I’m also choosing to run a website that provides necessary information so others who want to make informed choices can do so.

Readers who don’t agree with me can go ahead making their own choices. That’s fine. But respect that not everyone wants to consciously bring filth into their lives. And authors, if you write books with lots of bad language and sexually explicit material, you must appreciate that not everyone will want to read it (and parents have the right to monitor what their younger children or teens read). Most likely, you’ll have a broader audience if you could limit the offensive material you write into your book. The concept holds true just as it does for R-rated movies versus G- or PG-rated movies. More people do go to see those movies with more “family-friendly” content. They don’t have to be “cheesy” or trite or “unrealistic” just because their ratings aren’t “strong.” There have been some excellent “clean” movies, just as there are some excellent, authentic “clean” books. Consider making your writing the best it can be without using offensive material as a crutch to make it “true to life.” I, and many other readers, will thank you for it. Profusely.

A voice for vocabulary, aka, a rant on proper usage

The English language is tough and resilient and has evolved miraculously over centuries, but it takes a huge amount of abuse. Once every .003 nanoseconds, it is misused somehow, somewhere. It is time for someone to speak up on behalf of the voiceless, our lovely language, which, sadly, is unable to speak for itself, despite a slew of wise, wordy weapons in its arsenal.

Here I am going to take a stand on behalf of the proper use of vocabulary. It won’t be pretty, but I’m going to expose the improper uses of words and then show which words should have been used in their places. Brace yourselves. (These are in no particular order, mind you.)

  • “Unphased.” As in, “she was unphased by his poor use of the word.” The word that should be used here is “unfazed.”
  • “Reigned in.” I’ve seen this time and again. “She had to reign in her bad language.” “Reign” has to do with royalty. I do believe that those who have blue blood would be appalled at this improper use of “reign.” The word that should rightly stand here tall and stately is “rein.” When we talk about “reining in” a horse, we use a rein. Even queens do not “reign in” the animals that draw their carriages.
  • I heard something pretty funny in “The Hunger Games.” A character said something was “very lethal.” “Lethal” means something kills you. So if it’s “very” lethal… hm. You would be “very” dead. Brings to mind that the only way you can be somewhat dead as opposed to very dead is if you were Westley in “The Princess Bride…”: “mostly dead.”
  • “Bazaar.” Really, how often do people write about street fairs? Probably not as often as they desire to refer to something being “bizarre,” or really strange.
  • “Peddle.” More people find themselves needing to use the word “pedal” than its frequently used homonym “peddle.” “Pedal” as a verb means to move a bike along by pushing pedals with your feet. “Peddle” means to sell something. One could peddle pedals in a bizarre bazaar, if shoppers are in need of replacement parts for their bicycles.
  • Predominate. I rarely have need to use this word, and I rarely see anyone else need to use it or use it correctly. What I DO see, however, very often, is the use of this word instead of “predominant,” an adjective meaning “having influence or power” or being the “primary” focus of something. Just say the word out loud, folks. It has an “n” in it.

This is just a start, mind you. I expect to be adding lots more over time. Anyone care to weigh in?

OK, time to add some more.

  • Ravish. Most of the time people use this word in writing, they mean “ravage.” Ravish is generally associated with rape, or just a lusty man taking a woman strongly in a bodice-ripper book. But ravage is about wreaking havoc or destroying. Ravage a town, and the buildings are destroyed, the people scattered. Ravish the people of a town, and outsiders will feel particularly outraged.
  • Tenants. Whenever I see this word used, the writer invariably is talking about the belief system of a religion or just some kind of way of life. Today, fittingly enough, I read an article on HLN.com about “11 words adults just can’t spell.” I agreed with a few as being common errors (the others just didn’t seem to be the most-screwed-up ones, in my opinion), and then I clicked over to another article on HLN about Alanis Morissette giving her opinion about attachment parenting. Naturally, the article spoke of the “tenants” of that way of raising kids, when what it needed to say was the “tenets” of that philosophy. So I clicked right over from an article on spelling errors and found a biggie on MY list right there on another one. I couldn’t refrain from posting a comment on that one.

Spirituality and mental illness

As a faithful follower of Christ my entire life, my spirituality and connection to the divine have always meant everything to me. My life would not be what it is without my knowledge of and faith in God, my Heavenly Father, and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I have always depended on the great gift of the Comforter that Christ left with his disciples, the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. I’ve been taught since I was young how to understand what the Spirit is trying to communicate to me through his still, small voice. It is explained to people in various ways because it can affect and teach each of us a little differently, so each of us must learn exactly how he sounds to us. A scripture in my faith’s canon says that the Holy Ghost will speak to me in my mind and in my heart, and that really rings true in my experience. I can often just feel ideas popping into my head, and I can feel in my heart a good feeling that confirms they are from a trusted source.

But my challenges with my mental health over the years have thrown wrenches into that beautiful process off and on, in various ways. The depression, irritability and anger I’ve felt have blocked that positive flow of messages from a loving God, leaving me to feel adrift and alone and cut off. I’ve sometimes felt that there are just no answers coming to prayers, and I’ve given up asking. I’ve even gotten angry at the heavens then for leaving me in that isolated state, with no communication coming my way. All of it leads to me feeling that I’m alone and undeserving of God’s love, that for some reason he just isn’t paying attention.

Even medication I’ve taken has caused difficulties of its own. As I wrote in my previous post about my long list of medications over the years, when I tried Abilify for a few months about a year and a half ago, I felt absolutely numb. It was unnerving because I’m usually a bubbly person who often sees the bright side of things and, in terms of faith, relies on (even might take for granted) the wonderful peaceful feeling that comes from turning to prayer and scriptures and other messages of a spiritual nature. I know that when I listen to good music that reminds me of God and Christ or when I read a scripture or an inspirational magazine article, I’ll feel uplifted and recharged. I’ll feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, a marvelous gift. So for the few months I took that medication, I didn’t feel anything, including those spiritual feelings. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel peaceful or Spirit-filled whenever I did all the things that would normally make me feel that influence. It bothered me a great deal. It was a strange feeling to go to church, where I would normally feel happy and inspired, and just feel … nothing. A black hole where there would normally be gardens in bloom with all colors of gorgeous flowers of faith.

What got me through that time was just the knowledge I had still in my mind about all the experiences I could remember. My brain had stored away the memories of knowing that God had answered my prayers at specific times and that I knew that the Holy Spirit had usually been in my heart. I couldn’t feel it then, but I trusted in my head that it had happened before and would come back to me, no matter what wacky tricks this medication was playing with me. And sure enough, when I got off that medicine and got to mostly myself again, I did feel that peace again. The black hole was gone, filled again with light.

So the wrong medication can play tricks on faith. Depression and other mental illnesses can do their own brand of damage. I’ve been through that emptiness before and am kind of feeling it again, and I’m sure I’ll keep experiencing it throughout this mortal existence. It’s not pleasant, and I’d rather not have to go through this. But my feeling is that this is my cross to bear, so I’m doing the best I can to handle it gracefully. Saying I’m doing my best is the truth, but even then it feels silly to say because “my best” can sometimes not be a whole lot. I feel alone inside of myself and that God isn’t sending me answers or the positive feelings I need. But I know in the part of my brain that’s not “messed up” somehow that he’s still there.

I think what I want most to do here is connect with other people who experience these feelings. I think that faith communities are slowly doing better at directly and publicly addressing matters of mental health in the context of religious belief, and that’s wonderful. But depression and other mental illnesses work hard to isolate their sufferers. Those of us who know in our minds and in our hearts that God is aware of us and loves us but sometimes don’t really “feel” it the way we should because of neurochemical vagaries can talk to each other to buoy each other up not just in our specific trials but in our faith. We’ve been given a great gift to have a Savior and the good news of the gospel he has taught. I believe there are still miracles today. Honestly, though, some days, amid the clouds that create a darkness of despair in my heart and head, I don’t feel a conviction that God will work a miracle in my life. And since I know that isn’t true, deep down, I have to work hard to combat the feeling that is false. A dear, dear friend of mine told me a couple of times that she and her mother were able to talk to a well-known Christian writer of our faith after he gave a talk they attended. She wrote me to remind me what he had told them: “He suffers from depression and told my mom and me that being faithful means that you remember the Lord is with you and mindful of you even when the depression doesn’t let you ‘feel’ it. He is still there!” I just cling to that like a little round life saver thrown to me in an ocean of big waves. Eventually the waves die down, and I’m still clinging on for dear life: alive and well yet again. Still.

Medications and me

Having a mental-health concern (that seems most likely now to be a bipolar disorder) for the past 25 years or so has naturally led to my being on various medications to try to improve my quality of life. I’ve already discussed a bit how it’s been a challenge to figure out exactly what I’ve been up against over the years (just some depression? anxiety? postpartum depression or PMS? bipolar disorder? nothing at all?), so I’ll try to go back and address what kinds of medications my doctors and I have tried to use to help me feel a bit more “normal,” or, more accurately, just better able to cope with the usual stresses and strains of life.

The first I ever took some kind of an antidepressant was toward the end of my LDS mission when I was feeling serious stress. The resident older missionary/retired doctor prescribed me a medication that would supposedly help with that. At this point, I honestly don’t remember what it was he gave me. What I do remember is that I was in pretty bad emotional shape and just going about my regular busy schedule just with a new medication didn’t help me feel any better. Besides, it usually takes a few weeks for those kinds of medications to even start making a difference, and in the meantime, I just kept feeling stressed — and guilty or bad about being stressed while I was supposed to be happy and spiritual and serving God and my fellow beings. It just wasn’t a good recipe for success as a missionary or a happy human being. So I ended up having to leave the mission behind and go home to seek help in a different environment (already talked about how that went).

I was next put on lithium when hospital doctors decided I was bipolar. I took that for a bit less than a year, I think. I felt better as time went on, mostly, but I also went back to college, where I felt more at ease and myself and had my friends around me. I am sure that the medicine must have helped though, looking back, because otherwise I probably still would have been seriously depressed/angry/stressed. But the change of environment did contribute, and after a time, I just felt that 1) the diagnosis of bipolar disorder couldn’t really fit me because I didn’t fit the “classic” signs of the “full-fledged” disorder and 2) lithium is a serious drug to be on: it can potentially damage the liver. I was having my blood tested every few months to make sure my liver was fine, but it was still a real concern. So I went off the lithium. During all this I was seeing a counselor at school, so I didn’t do all this just on my own without any professional support, but I don’t know if I had a psychiatrist on my “team” at that time.

After I married and moved to California with my husband, I know I ended up seeing a psychiatrist regularly, but I cannot remember if she had me on any medication. I know I didn’t go back on lithium. She might have put me on some kind of antidepressant, if anything, but I don’t remember for sure, and I have no idea what it was if I did take something. I do know that the first year of my marriage was very rough for me emotionally, and I prefer not to think about the way I acted. It’s too embarrassing. Luckily, my husband stuck it out with me. I also know that I was on hormonal birth control pills for the first two years of our marriage, and I am convinced that fiddling with the sensitive balance of my hormones was not a good thing for me emotionally.

I know that there were months and years I didn’t take any kind of psychiatric medicine, and there were other months and years that I did. It was always some kind of antidepressant. I took Zoloft and Wellbutrin at a few different times off and on after and between pregnancies. I took them together for a year or so, mainly because Zoloft did take away my sexual response. That’s something that’s a warning when you take that and various other medications, such as Prozac, and it’s definitely true for me. It can seem like a small price to pay, but it’s actually a pretty big sacrifice when it comes to a full intimate life with your spouse, so it bothered me greatly. Taking the Wellbutrin with the Zoloft took that side effect away.

After probably my third pregnancy, my gynecologist prescribed me a new medication, Lexapro. He said it worked well and had no significant (definitely not sexual) known side effects. I was eager to sign up. The morning after I first started taking it, I got out of bed in the morning to use the bathroom and then ended up passing out on my way back to bed. I was so scared about the weird feeling I had during that few moments that I told my husband to call 911. The paramedics came out and pronounced me fine. They said I’d most likely rubbed the back of my neck or something and had some kind of vagal episode. OK. Fine. Unfortunately, over the next 5 or 6 days that I took the Lexapro, I still felt weirdly faint and out-of-body-ish, and I figured the only thing that had changed in my life was that new medication. I visited with my general doctor, who told me that was ridiculous. But I decided it was the cause, and I stopped that Lexapro. I instantly felt better, well, fainting-wise. (The lesson here: even if your doctor says you’re being ridiculous, you still should trust your instincts.) So I went back to Zoloft or something similar, I think.

I started going to a psychiatrist again, which I hadn’t done for quite some time, just getting antidepressants from my gynecologists or general physicians, although I had still gone to see counselors for talk therapy more regularly. The psychiatrist I saw at that point, probably in 2007 or so, put me on Effexor eventually, which worked well for me for a while. He did suggest I might be experiencing bipolar disorder and might benefit not from lithium, but Lamictal (lamotrigine). He even gave me a sample pack. Even though I did consider that option, I told him that since I was feeling pretty good taking the Effexor, it seemed silly to stop taking something that was working just to try something else. He thought that was reasonable and kept me on the Effexor.

Then in 2008, my family and I moved to California from a long stint in Alabama, and life became unbelievably stressful. I’d also been taking the Effexor for probably a year or maybe a little less. At any rate, I’d probably only done well on an antidepressant for a year or so at any time I’d taken one, either because after a while, my life had settled down and I’d gone off a medication and been fine, or the medication had seemed to stop working. In this case, I just kept taking the Effexor, but my new general physician upped my dose. Shortly before another momentous, life-changing event for me, the death of my beloved dad, I started trolling the Internet and found the site I’ve mentioned already by Dr. Jim Phelps, which made me start to seriously consider the possibility that I really did have a bipolar disorder. But this psychiatrist was making the point that there was a wide spectrum of bipolar disorders, not just the “biggie” in which people stay up without sleep for a few days at a time, go on wild shopping sprees and spend tons of money, and do otherwise really foolish things they wouldn’t otherwise do. So I found a psychiatrist in my new town who was on my insurance list and made an appointment. He put me on Lamictal, which my previous physician had suggested a couple of years before. It did seem to slowly make a difference, and I was happy to be off the Effexor, although it did take a solid two or more months to very slowly wean off of that very addictive medication. (If I didn’t get a dose, I’d start feeling kind of headachy and light-headed, in a distinctively Effexor-less way.)

So I think the Lamictal gave me some relief and some hope that I was on the right track, but a couple of months into that, my dad died and sent me spinning. My psychiatrist asked me at the first appointment after Dad’s death (merely two or three weeks afterward, mind you), “So, how are you feeling?” Uh. BAD. My dad died. I’m miserable. Hard to say how the medication is working. I’d feel rotten no matter what. And that’s how it went.

A few months after that, I mentioned to some people in my church congregation that I was struggling with mental illness, and a few recommended I try a different option, a natural formulation called EMPower that was sold by a company called Truehope. The company says that the formulation contains micronutrients that are found to correct the imbalances found in those with bipolar disorder and other mental issues. I have always felt that ideally, it would be nicest to treat the actual cause of a problem rather than just the symptoms, if at all possible. This sounded like a very reasonable option, and Truehope has actually been doing scientific studies showing the benefits of EMPower.

I felt that I needed to at least give this option a shot. If I didn’t, I would never know if it could have helped me or not. So I went in to my psychiatrist, who naturally told me he didn’t agree with my decision and that he couldn’t continue to see me if I went off my prescription and took EMPower instead. I knew he’d say that, and I was ready to say, “OK. I won’t be back.” He said he knew I’d be back in a few months in even worse condition.

I tried the supplement, which is actually pretty expensive (probably about $100 a month, and not covered by insurance, of course), for about six months. I felt at first it really did help, but after a few months, I was just not feeling good enough. I tried a few adjustments and options after some phone calls with the company’s support techs, but I finally had to make the decision to end my own personal “drug trial.” I am sure that the supplement truly does help lots of people, but as with anything, nothing helps everyone. I did struggle, however, with what to do next. I firmly did not want to go back to my previous psychiatrist. He was too abrasive, and I felt I couldn’t work comfortably with him to find the best options to treat me. I finally decided to go see a nurse practitioner working in psychiatry 45 minutes away from my town because my therapist had heard good things about her from several other clients. I felt that it was going to be best for my mental health process to work with a psychiatrist who I felt comfortable with, that we were really a team, that she would be supportive. So I made the appointment. This new person, who I still see almost 2 years later, turned out to be a really good fit personality-wise, which I think makes a big difference in getting the best care possible. The only drawback is that my insurance doesn’t cover her, so I have had to pay entirely out of pocket. Luckily, I have had the spare funds to be able to pay for the visits, and it has been a good choice for me.

I’ll just call my nurse practitioner by her first name for ease of writing. Susan really went into a lot of detail with me, talking to me about the options and what she thought might work to help me, even explaining why she felt that way. I personally have really liked her approach. I like to feel that we’re on the same page, and knowing her reasoning helps me to feel more confident that is happening. We tried probably four or five different medications over the course of probably four to six months, during which time I’d go back every month to see her and check in. We tried Abilify, Prozac, and maybe Celexa. I can’t remember exactly. I did notice Prozac didn’t make me feel any better, and it just made me feel completely dead sexually, which was super-frustrating for me. So that was a no-go. I also know the Abilify didn’t do it on its own, and it actually made me feel, rather than “more normal” or “more like myself,” just kind of numb emotionally. I wasn’t stressed, kind of, but I was just dead. I didn’t feel anything. I felt like a zombie. I absolutely did not like that. She ended up adding in Cymbalta, which felt pretty helpful. Eventually, we took out the Abilify to see if that would help me feel less numb. And it did work. The Cymbalta, at the time, on its own, was a good fit for me. I’ve now been on that for perhaps 18 months.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that now we’re getting to a point we need to tweak again. I’ve been on just antidepressants before, and I’ve either just gone off them or they’ve stopped working, and I fear this is happening now. I’m just feeling unhinged. The stresses and huge demands on my time are taking a huge toll on me, and I’m not proving up to the challenge of dealing with them in an appropriate manner. I’m coming up in a few weeks on another check-in with Susan, and I think this time we’ll have to address now how to change my dose or try something else. It’s been nice, though, for the past year, feeling pretty good and “myself.” Descending back into my “crash” mode is a scary and upsetting thing, for me and my family, and it’s nerve-wracking for me to ponder how much trial-and-error it’s going to take to get me back to happy. Will it take a couple different medications again and weird feelings of numbness or just not-effectiveness (so I’ll just feel unable to cope for a few more months? Yikes!)? My main fear is looking ahead at a few months of not being myself, far from it, especially with summer months coming on and my kids being out of school and all the stresses that places on me every summer. It scares me.

So that’s where I am, medication-wise. I’ve been a bit of a guinea pig for the past 20 years. It’s difficult because treating any kind of illness can be tricky and require some finesse. The basic stuff is kind of straightforward (infection? take an antibiotic; cold? take some antihistamines and Sudafed and wait it out), but other health issues take some trial and error. Then when it’s mental health, which is still a kind of slippery creature in the early 21st century, and every person’s needs and body chemistry is unique, it’s a science that’s more art than anything else. Being the doctor is probably a challenge, but being the patient is truly difficult. Being that guinea pig, the one on different kinds of medicines, is tricky and frustrating as all get-out. I’ve said for ages I wish there were a control group for me. But there isn’t. Good science requires a control group and an experimental group, and in this case, giving just me a medication and seeing what happens isn’t truly good science. And the onus is still on me as the patient to make the judgment calls, to figure out what’s changed, what to tell my health-care provider, about what might be significant. Do I feel better taking Lamictal even though my dad just died? Can I possibly separate out the effects of that from my normal stress reactions? Can I say I feel better on something even though a bunch of stuff has been happening in my life? If I could put myself in a quiet room without any interference from outside sources, I could judge better. But that’s never possible. (And if I could be by myself in a quiet place — resort, maybe? that would be amazing — I may very well be able to get to feeling better without the medication. Maybe. At least I wouldn’t be bothering anyone else.)

This post is incredibly long; perhaps I should have separated it into a few parts. But it’s the best answer to those who would like to know what my experience is with medications. I hope it might be of some use to those of you who struggle with similar problems and need to figure out how to look at your own situations with more clarity. Perhaps it will just make some of you more sympathetic with those in your lives who have challenges similar to mine. Or maybe those who know me but don’t know all these details about me will feel more empathetic with me. Either way, I hope this is of use to someone out there. This is an ongoing story, so I will need to update as the next few months come along and I visit my nurse again.

The Most Interesting Woman in the World

I’m not a beer drinker, nor do I hope in any way to promote drinking. But when I watch commercials, I have to admit I do get a kick out of beer ads.

I’ve been thinking about Dos Equis’ popular character, The Most Interesting Man in the World. The ad agency’s idea was that this man would be “rich in stories and experiences:” so says Wikipedia. But I’d like to elaborate and list a set of characteristics of this fascinating male specimen.

  • “Man’s man”: the epitome of masculinity
  • Ruggedly handsome
  • Experienced, well-educated, well-traveled
  • Sophisticated
  • Suave
  • Ladies’ man (implied he could have or has had as many women in his bed as he’d like)
  • Sexually desirable
  • Discerning, tasteful
  • Well-dressed, sense of style
  • Strong, well-built
  • Everything he says is compelling, so people hang on his every word
  • Accomplished — at everything
  • Sought-after — by everyone
  • Mature, even “old” (the actor is 73): gray-haired, wrinkled, bags under his eyes

Now. Let’s look at these set of qualities as applied to a “most interesting woman.”

  • Beautiful
  • Experienced, well-educated, well-traveled
  • Sophisticated
  • Feminine, ladylike
  • Sexually desirable
  • Great taste in everything, whether it be home furnishings, cars or houses, jewelry, clothing, etc.
  • Impeccable sense of style
  • Lean, takes care of her body by going to the gym every day or, better yet, working out in her home gym with her exclusive personal trainer (yoga, Pilates, Zumba, etc.)
  • Compelling person to listen to
  • Accomplished
  • Sought-after
  • Mature, even “old”: a 70-year-old woman with gray hair, wrinkles, and bags under her eyes
  • Sexually experienced, bedding hundreds of men over the years

And here is where I have a hard time finding a photograph that would work, that any advertising agency would grasp onto as a winner, as a surefire way to get positive attention and loyal followers. The sticking point is age. Yes, there are a few women still busy as actors, but most of them are being cast as someone’s grandma or as a hilarious old lady who shoots off one-liners but is still endearing and mostly happy to hand out hugs. My husband told me, “Betty White, of course.” Yep, that amazing woman is still getting lots of work and making millions laugh. But she is not held out as a universal sex symbol, even though she does like to make naughty jokes. Can you really see Ms. White being used in an equivalent Dos Equis commercial (NOT for laughs; think the Snickers commercials)?

Here is where it really hits me just how much of a double standard there is in our culture regarding age. For men, age is desirable because it makes them wiser, more experienced, more fascinating, even mysterious. Some gray hair and wrinkles make men appear “distinguished,” not “old.” Men who look distinguished and have experience are sexually desirable, and even young women will hang all over them. (Are there any 50-year-old or 70-year-old women surrounding the Dos Equis man? Noooo. Those females are all in their 20s.)

Women, however, are not allowed, let alone encouraged, to grow old naturally. There are plenty of women in Hollywood who are being praised for “aging well,” which generally means they are touted for looking 30 when they are biologically 50. They modestly proclaim that their regimes of a vegan diet, drinking lots of water, avoiding the sun, never missing Pilates, and faithfully moisturizing have kept their faces and figures looking youthful. The women who look 50 when they’re 50 end up either being pushed out of the profession or playing someone’s grandma because looking your age is NOT “aging well;” it’s embarrassing and shameful. And 70? That’s a small club of actresses indeed. They never get to be surrounded by young, hot men hanging on their every word, hoping they’ll bed them (maybe for comedic purposes, but not in any seriousness.)

I’d like to propose that we women fight back. Let’s make ourselves the Most Interesting Women. I’ll use myself for an example, but I’d encourage each of you female readers to put a photo of yourselves somewhere with a list of your best qualities (or post that list on your mirror).

  • 40-something, middle-aged, wiser than I was at 20
  • More stylish than I was at 20, I have a better sense of what I like, what reflects “me” and what looks good on me.
  • Great, authentic, winning smile. That hasn’t changed, no matter how old I am. I love to smile and I love to make other people a little happier by shining it on them.
  • Attractive, especially to my husband, who thought I looked beautiful even when I was about to give birth and looked like I’d swallowed a torpedo.
  • Well-traveled, at least throughout the United States
  • Well-educated and well-read
  • Accomplished and well-rounded
  • A very talented cook and baker, I feed everyone well, and I do it on a budget. (“We eat well aboard the Tweedledee.” Guess the movie.)
  • Musical
  • Humorous (well, in a geeky way)
  • Not as lean as I once was, but softer and more classically beautiful, I still love to exercise. It just feels good.
  • Versatile
  • Sought-after (for getting things done)
  • Desirable (and you are not getting any details here)

What do you say, ladies? Tell me how you are fascinating.

Ann Romney and moms who ‘don’t work’

Well, the latest crazy statement by a political commentator has made its way through the blogosphere today. Since it is such an integral part of my life, I feel compelled to comment.

Here’s the basic info: Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, said Ann Romney wasn’t qualified to talk about women struggling in the economic downturn because she “hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Naturally, this opinion has ignited the ire of many women, stay-at-home moms or not. Rosen made this comment while trying to make the point that because Ann Romney hasn’t held a job in the paying workplace, she can’t be qualified to have an opinion about economic issues that affect women, and can’t be a useful advisor to her husband. First, I must point out that it isn’t necessary to be the one in the family holding down a paying job to be concerned about how the economy is going and how it affects your family, no matter how much money your primary wage-earner makes. Second, and the real ignition for the fire, the comment then belies Rosen’s derisive attitude toward women who choose to stay home to raise their children.

I always find it a little absurd that women who are generally of a liberal slant, who shout about the need for women to be able to “choose,” such as about their own reproductive lives, then turn up their noses at women who make a different choice than they would in family matters. “Choice” implies that there are varied options available, and that it is an individual’s right and privilege to decide among those very different options. It also implies that any of those options are ones that should be respected by others. But in our society today, if a woman chooses an option that others frown on, that woman is often derided and called “old-fashioned.”

I am a mother of four, and my daughters’ ages are in a wide range, almost 16 down to nearly 5. I have two teenagers, an elementary schooler and a preschooler. They have very different needs and schedules and temperaments. I chose from the beginning of my reproductive life to be a mother who would stay at home with her children, and I have held to that. Over the course of 16 years, I have worked part-time out of the home (15 or 20 hours at the very most) for perhaps 3 years total, when financial realities have indicated that my income would be necessary. Right now, I work from my home office on the computer for pay for maybe 5 hours a week. The opportunity to copy edit online has been quite welcome, has added a little extra income, and has kept my skills fresh. I feel blessed not to have to leave the house to do it. I also have various projects I do in the hopes of earning pay from them in the future and/or because they are intellectually and creatively stimulating and satisfying. I also feel blessed that I have the freedom to be able to pursue these projects.

There is no doubt that our economy right now has forced many families, two-parent or otherwise, to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise have made. Both parents might have to work outside the home; single parents have to work. Wives may work and laid-off husbands stay home with the kids while they continue to search for employment again. It’s not a happy time. Even in brighter economic times, families made decisions that were either “modern” or more “old-fashioned,” according to their needs and wants and interests. Sure, I’d like to see more women able to stay home with their children, at least not working out of the home 40 hours a week, because I personally believe it benefits the kids when that situation is possible. But I know how it feels to just be home with the kids ALL THE TIME. Getting out of the house to a job where you’re appreciated, patted on the back, given breaks and more immediate gratification than a 20-year-long project is definitely an enticing prospect. And a paycheck? It can mean college tuition for your kids, a car that isn’t 15 years old and in the shop every other week, or just a reflection of a job well done that other people in society relate to and recognize. But mothering at home full time? No paycheck, no regular gratification, no guaranteed breaks, no good reason to put on a nice blouse and makeup.

But we still live in a society in which women are just not that great at respecting each other’s choices. Hilary Rosen is just a case in point. Why can’t we just admit to ourselves that we’re all very different and have very different backgrounds, life experiences, needs and wants, abilities, interests, weaknesses, and capacities? Whether we as women are married or not, have children or not, we are going to see the world in very different ways. We also aren’t just polarized to one “side” or the other: we might be working full time but wanting to stay at home; we might be staying at home with kids but really wanting to get out into the workforce. Or we might be working outside the home part-time or working from our home offices. There are a variety of flexible options available so we don’t have to be “one side” or the other: full-time workers or full-time stay-at-homes. (At the same time, our society definitely needs to figure out ways to make more truly flexible options available to both women and men to support families and children.) So we can’t expect everyone to make the exact same choices we do.

I know it took me ages to get used to being the mother of an infant, then a toddler and an infant and then more. It just made me crazy to be at home 24/7 with a very demanding little human being. I wanted to get out and work, do something for me. Even now, the demands of a home and husband and four daughters of varying ages can at times be super-stressful and overwhelming. And my own expectations of what I’d like for my daughters, what I’d like to be able to do for them, are usually more than I’m possibly capable of fulfilling because of time and energy limitations. I can’t possibly be in the high school band boosters and the elementary school PTA and the middle-school PTA and work from home and do my projects and volunteer in church and be in charge of other things and write a book and make muffins every day for breakfast and four-course meals for dinner and shop for food and clothes and do laundry and clean. I can’t be two places at once, which sometimes comes up with four kids. Choices must be made, and they’re rarely easy ones. It’s all about balance and constantly reprioritizing and rebalancing.

At the same time, despite how different we all are, I know that any mother, working outside the home for any number of hours or not, faces similar concerns and struggles to keep balanced, to keep all her balls in the air. So why in the world should we criticize and demean and make nasty comments, rather than using those energies to support each other in our choices and figure out ways to make our society better for everyone? Let’s let “choice” mean something.

Violence in popular books and movies

I am not sure why I am even attempting to broach such a huge and important topic, but since I am often ambitious and stubbornly determined, despite my limitations, I am going to try to at least put in a few words and opinions about this subject.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate/Murray Close

The recent uber-popularity of the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games has brought this topic to mind yet again. I think it is vital that as a society we seriously consider the issues of the kinds of content we view, hear and read in the media, whether it’s TV, movies, books, music or video games. There is a lot of research available about these issues, and there are definitely people who are concerned about these topics, but I think it still bears discussion. Since I have this blog as a forum, I’ll bring it up here.

First, I think it’s safe to say that the media we view/read has gotten steadily more detailed and explicit over the years as a whole. Sure, there have been incidences of movies or books years ago that were heavily sexualized or violent, but I think that overall, more and more of the things we see have become filled with content that could be offensive or outright dangerous. I know I have read about studies that link violent behavior with the levels of violent content viewed in movies or video games, but I won’t attempt to find them or list them here. I’ll leave that for others. This is just a blog post. I’ll talk about my feelings and experiences.

I was raised not watching any movies that were rated R. I also was raised by a father who was a television director. He worked in the TV industry and then moved on to teach about it as a university professor. He and my mother both were sensitive to the ways the media influence us and were somewhat cautious about what we watched, and when we did watch TV and movies, we often talked about them. We even talked about commercials and what messages they were giving. On the other hand, for example, my husband grew up watching R-rated movies, plenty of stuff that was filled with violence and bad language, and didn’t really give it much thought until we were married. So I find it interesting to compare how we react to things we watch.

When I see a film that contains violence, each violent act strikes home to me, and I feel it. I particularly feel affected by the portrayal of just plain evil characters. I appreciate good acting, but I never cease to be bothered by really effective portrayals of characters who are purely wicked, whose sole intent is to cause pain and suffering in others, whether it’s for gain or purely because they enjoy seeing someone else suffer. That feels all too real to me, and I would prefer not to experience that. I often don’t see the point of having to portray those kinds of people or the point of my needing to see/feel it. I flinch and cringe away from the screen. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be as affected as I am. I feel it personally, and he views it as just part of the plot of a fictional story.

I know that how much violence we see affects how we continue to experience it. The more violence viewers are exposed to, the less it bothers them. We can actually have our feelings numbed, where difficult images don’t disturb us anymore, if we see a lot of violence. I worry a great deal about people, young men in particular, who are constantly exposed to strongly violent images and acts via movies and video games. It changes their very natures, so they are no longer bothered by acts that should be bothersome. That inevitably translates into real life in some way or another.

Now, I’m talking mostly about what might be termed “gratuitous” violence. Violence, as well as sex and strong language, have become a normal part of many movies and other media. But often they are simply there to “entertain.” I simply do not find those kinds of content entertaining; I find them offensive and soul-scarring. But there are times I think that violence has an appropriate place in media. Good literature and film and other media help to show us how life works and what happens sometimes, to remind us of history and how not to repeat it, for instance, or to remind us about how bad human nature can be and how to overcome our basest natural inclinations. So the question is, how much detail do those “good” media instances need to contain to be effective in their aim? How much evil needs to be shown to remind us to do better, be better, in some way, as individuals and as a society?

The Hunger Games has struck a chord with friends of mine, for instance. I’ve been interested to see what various friends have had to say about the books and the movie. Some have wholeheartedly embraced the positive messages of the series and what it seems to aim to do and say, even just sitting down and reading the series in one big marathon. Some have appreciated what the books are trying to do but have still felt the violence was too intense, too detailed, unnecessary. I already mentioned in my post about the movie and book that I liked them overall but felt that I could only read the books in small doses, not three right in a row, because they are so intense. I just couldn’t swallow them whole, all three in one sitting, without a break of lighter fare. I respect and find interesting and valuable the views of all my friends who have weighed in on the topic. I think that in the case of this series, it’s a valuable book series and movie, but it’s important to know yourself and what you’re comfortable with.

Some people may truly have been numbed by watching lots of other violent fare over the years, so they aren’t as sensitive; some people may just be more sensitive naturally, whether they’ve been exposed to much violence in media or not. In the case of Hunger Games, parents should be careful about knowing their children who might read the series or watch the movie to judge if it would be a good fit for them. But they shouldn’t just abdicate making any judgment on the matter because the movie and books are just so popular and “everyone” is reading/seeing them.

I think another movie and book series that bears discussing here is the very popular Stieg Larsson series, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As a book reviewer, I had an opportunity to read this book when it first came out, and I read the flap and decided it just wasn’t something that would sit well with me. I wondered about it later when it began getting a lot of buzz. After some more investigation, I still concluded that it wouldn’t be something I would enjoy. Then, with my website, I still needed to have a way to provide guidance to readers also trying to decide if the book would be a good fit for them. Finally, someone who reviews for me read the book and was able to give it a rating. She confirmed what I’d heard, that the book was filled with many explicit, disturbing scenes of sexual violence against women. She also linked to an article online I found very useful in giving more insight.

In some ways, I want to leave judging to individuals, to let them make their own decisions about how certain content might affect them. But at the same time, I find it profoundly disturbing that so many readers are embracing these novels. I asked one blogger last week who said she is a Christian what she felt about this content, as she proclaimed how much she enjoyed the Stieg Larsson books. She said, in short, that since Larsson doesn’t “endorse” the assaults, and “warns against” this kind of violence, that she was OK with the content, even though it was very difficult to read.

I found that to be really interesting. I think that is where we all have to make some kind of a judgment on any violent content; is it important to include it if it sends a message? I think so. I think an even more important question is, however, how detailed and explicit should that content be to be able to get across the message? Is it necessary to have multiple scenes of extreme violence, even misogyny? Does the negative impact of a reader (or movie viewer) experiencing that kind of secondhand assault get outweighed by the positive impact of sending a message that these things happen and are wrong, and that we can do something to prevent these acts?

Again, I’d like to say that in most cases, individuals should be able and encouraged to decide for themselves what will be best for them. I created Rated Reads for that very purpose, to give readers extra information so they could judge more accurately for themselves what they would find acceptable, given their own sensitivities and sensibilities.

But on the other hand, I think there truly are cases where too much is simply too much. That doesn’t mean censorship; I would never say that a book shouldn’t be published, period, because of its content. But it does mean that there should be warnings; there should be more information easily available to readers about what they might be facing in picking up a book. There should definitely be some lines drawn about what can be made available to readers who are younger than 18, much like R-rated movies are restricted to younger viewers. I would like to see less gory, explicit and gratuitous violence in movies and video games, as well. I just don’t think enough is being done to limit that violent content that can truly numb sensitivities and even affect violent behavior.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much we can do to limit things in our free-speech society. But I think it’s important for us to talk about these ideas and be more aware of the damage that can be done by a steady diet of violence, or even an occasional sampling of “unnecessary” violent content. Obviously, we all are going to have different ideas of what constitutes the “right amount” of disturbing content or which messages are truly beneficial to remind us of truths about humanity and what’s happening in real life. I already have made clear I am pretty sensitive to violence and have a low tolerance, so I might have a much shorter list of books or movies I think are important for people to see (BUT at the appropriate ages and maturity levels) than others. But let’s make this a national conversation and be more aware of the effects of what we and others in our society are seeing.

Easter and Christ’s role in my life

I am independent, strong, determined — even stubbornly so. I have always been persistent and goal-oriented, ever since I can remember. I have tried to stand on my own two feet, not depending on someone else to do anything for me, if I can at all help it. I know there are quite a few other people out there like me; others look in at them and either can see the facade of “everything’s great” or, if they notice the person struggling, they think, “Why don’t they just ask for help?”

That’s a darn good question. In answering for myself, I’d say, perhaps, Well, I don’t need it. If things get really bad, then I’ll ask for help. Or, it’s just habit. I’ve tried so hard for so long to do things myself that I just don’t think about asking for help until it’s just kind of … too late, in one way or another. Perhaps many who suffer from this sort of stubbornness just were forced to fend for themselves for years, physically or emotionally (I can’t begin to imagine the kind of lives some people have had to experience), so now it’s absolutely ingrained. Maybe we don’t trust that if we ask someone for help, that we’ll get what we need, or we feel that no one is able or willing to help. Or maybe I’m afraid I will be laughed at, judged and found wanting in some way, or snubbed. Perhaps it comes down to pride. I feel I’m weak if I can’t do something myself. I feel that I should be good enough on my own.

Whatever the reason, or mixture of reasons at any given time, I am in the habit of doing things myself. As life has gotten more difficult and I have experienced various trials over the years, I have recognized I need to be better about saying the very useful words “no” and “please help me.” So I am working on it, even if it just means starting small.

This personality trait has been a real impediment in my life when it comes to faith and my relationship to a loving God and Savior. Faith itself is about believing in something we can’t see. It’s about giving up ourselves and our pride and vanity and stubbornness to a power greater than ourselves. It’s about trust. So as much as I absolutely and completely believe that there is a God and that I have a personal Savior, I still keep them off to the side somehow, saying, “OK, thanks for being available, but I’ve got this one.” I pray with great faith and a full heart for other people I know and care about who need help that I can’t possibly give myself, trusting that God will answer those prayers and help them. But when I’m struggling and feeling weak, I still don’t just give over my heart and worries to God very easily. I hang on to them. It’s absolutely crazy.

I really enjoyed reading a wonderful article in our church’s magazine, the Ensign, this month, about the arms of Christ. The author was speaking about Peter’s experience walking on the water to Jesus in the midst of a storm. He went a little ways actually walking on water. Then he doubted and sank. He cried out to Jesus, just ahead of him, “Lord, save me!” Brent Top writes,

All of us have had, are having, or will yet have a Peter-like “sinking” experience in some way and will at some time (probably many times) cry out, “Lord, save me.” Even Peter’s strong fisherman arms were not strong enough to save him. He needed the rescuing arms of Christ, and so do we. Can you imagine Peter—choking, his head bobbing beneath the surface of the water—saying as the Savior extends His arms: “No, thank you. I will swim to shore. I sank myself, so I must save myself”? Of course not. How ridiculous! Yet we sometimes do just that.

We may know in our heads that our mortal arms and hands are deficient—in fact, utterly incapable of rescuing or redeeming us—but we sometimes resist, even recoil from, the outstretched arms of the Savior. Sometimes we spiritually drown ourselves because we won’t allow His arms to cradle us. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve eloquently stated:

“May I be bold enough to suggest that it is impossible for anyone who really knows God to doubt his willingness to receive us with open arms in a divine embrace if we will but ‘come unto Him.’ …

“I am convinced that none of us can appreciate how deeply it wounds the loving heart of the Savior of the world when he finds that his people do not feel confident in his care or secure in his hands.”

This message is not new information, but it touched me deeply, first, because I spiritually almost always refuse to ask for my Savior’s help. I’m sinking and just frantically treading water, waiting for the storm to cease on its own, for me to somehow get enough strength to swim to shore. Second, I was touched by Elder Holland’s words about how it must hurt our dear Jesus when we don’t go to him for help. I know how I feel when someone I care about could use my help, and I am eager to lend support or specific help and they won’t even ask. The Savior is perfectly loving and compassionate and has the most sensitive soul and heart. He must feel hurt when I refuse his help.

On this Easter Sunday, I could write about how grateful I am for the Lord’s sacrifice, in that he gave his life so we could all live eternally and be resurrected. I could write about how much hope that gives me, that I can one day have a perfect, immortal body, and that my deceased family members will have the same, and that we can all be reunited. All that is absolutely true and deeply important to me. But on the most personal level, I am grateful today that Jesus suffered, that he already experienced, in a way I can’t possibly understand with my mortal brain, all of the pains and struggles that I’m experiencing now, have experienced, and still have yet to experience. He’s already been through it all. He’s on the other side of those sufferings, and he’s waiting to help me to get through to the other side as well. I just have to turn my heart over to him and give up my pride and my need to do it alone.

I’m not going to overcome this struggle in this life, I’m sure. I am just trying to do better, to give up my self and my bad habits, a little at a time. Today, on Easter, I say, thanks be to my Savior for always, always, always being there; for already suffering for me; for patiently waiting for me to give him my whole heart.

My take on “Hunger Games” …

… because I have to weigh in.

I tend to hear about many books that end up being “hot” early in the game thanks to all the ways I stay connected in the publishing world. In the case of The Hunger Games, I heard about it on Stephenie Meyer’s website. I have found that Ms. Meyer has quite good taste in books. She talked about Suzanne Collins’ eventual blockbuster on her website when the first book came out, and I ran out and bought a copy. (She also recommended a fantastic “duo” of books starting with Dreamhunter, which I really liked as well but which isn’t the phenomenon that The Hunger Games has become; in fact, I’ve run across no one else who has read it.) I was thoroughly impressed by the fascinating premise and by the skilled execution of the great idea. I think a lot of what got my attention was the idea that in some messed-up future, the most horrific of survivor reality shows would be enacted. I’ve never been a fan of pretty much any reality shows on TV, preferring well-written, original scripted programs whether they be comedy or drama, so I thought it was brilliant to take our current society’s obsession with the cheaply-produced stuff that passes for entertainment to its gory and worst-case conclusion.

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence star in "The Hunger Games." credit: Lionsgate Films/Murray Close

Of course, since I read the first book when it was newly published, I had to wait a year for Catching Fire. As it happened, I ended up putting my newly purchased copy on a shelf and holding on to it for a year until Mockingjay was published. At that point, I then had two fresh, unread copies of the rest of the series, but it had been two years since I’d read the first book. That meant that I had to reread The Hunger Games so I could refresh my memory. Since the books are so intense, I still had to take a little break between reading the second book and then the third, reading one or two other books in between. From what I hear, this is unusual; everyone else I know, including my husband, who isn’t a BIG-time reader, just sat down and gulped the books down in practically one sitting, reading all three straight through. For me, I just needed to take a step back from the violence and, well, sadness. Either way, though, I was gripped by the story and how it unfolded. I liked how it showed people’s resilience and the need to rebel against an oppressive government. Collins had a wonderful idea for the books and then just showed great talent as a writer in taking the story through to its conclusion. I knew that she wouldn’t tie everything up neatly in a bow and that there wouldn’t be perfect happy endings for every character; I could tell, as most readers probably did, that this would be a gritty, more “realistic” set of books, with messier but mostly true-feeling plot lines. Some were shocked by how she finished the series, but I didn’t find myself completely taken aback or annoyed by it. It worked for me.

Now that I’ve had an opportunity to see the movie adaptation, I can say I’m very satisfied. Books turned into movies can be generally very un-satisfying propositions, so to be able to attend this film and say, “Wow. That was really well done” was a happy ending for me. I wasn’t terribly pleased with the first several Harry Potter film adaptations, feeling that although they did bring to big-budget life main plot points of the first books, they somehow lost a lot of the “feel” of the books. Part of what I loved about J.K. Rowling’s writing was not just the complex world and plot arc over seven books, but the whimsy. They are so clever in the names and in all the little non-crucial, witty touches. They made me laugh. The movies just didn’t do that at first. They felt lifeless. And Twilight… that’s a whole other story altogether.

So I was pleased with the movie because it completely captured the feel and tone of the books, the harshness of the regular citizens’ lives and the hopelessness, and the barbaric nature of the Capitol’s Games, carried out with such pomp and calculated publicity every year, even as 24 teens were brutally encouraged to leave behind their humanity and kill each other to survive, just to go back to their bleak lives.

The acting was superb and the script was deftly adapted. A movie really is a different animal than a book, and much as book lovers hate it, movies must make changes as the story goes from one distinct medium to another. I love good films (my dad taught me how to appreciate the classics), and I enjoy seeing how a director and all the other skilled people who contribute to a film really bring out the best in a story using all the tricks up their sleeves. For instance, the fact that there wasn’t much music in the film was a method that contributed to its tone. When music was used, it was spare and simple, echoing the story lines.

I think what I most appreciated, though, was that the visual nature of film really struck home to viewers the messages of the story even more than the book. The book tells us about totalitarian regimes and what governments do when they have too much power; it tells us about how people still can’t keep their eyes off of watching others fight and suffer, even in larger-than-life color (the rubbernecking, train-wreck mentality). It showed us the obliviousness of the people living in the Capitol to the real lives of the rest of Panem’s citizens. The movie, though, because of its very nature, really made me think about how silly and superficial those in the Capitol were, how they pranced about in their lives of ease and wealth, wearing their ridiculous clothes and crazy makeup and hair, not caring at all that people in their own country were mostly poor and always hungry and struggling. The Hunger Games were really just a game to them, a spectacle. It was disturbing and made me realize yet again how absolutely wealthy I truly am compared to so many people around the world, and so many of us here in the United States are, but even so, most of us complain that there are still others richer than we are, rather than thinking about the many who are poorer. We go around getting plastic surgery and Botox and spend ridiculous amounts of money on electronics and fattening fast food while others are struggling just to have something to eat. We sit in our comfortable living rooms watching big-screen TVs with scenes playing out of “reality” that’s not at all real: people pretending to love each other and women fighting each other for the “love” of one superficial guy, other people supposedly using survival skills to “win” on a remote island that’s been rigged for the show.

I was nervous about the violence of the movie, since the books truly are about violence. I will just briefly say I was pleased not to be too overwhelmed by violent images. The issue of violence in books and movies in general is something I find really interesting and important, but that will be a topic for another day. Suffice it to say for now that I enjoyed both this book and its movie version, and I was pleased that it made the leap between mediums in a satisfying manner.

“Love by assignment”

My church has a women’s organization called the Relief Society that was established in 1842 with just a small group of women. Now there are millions who belong to the organization, all around the world, from all kinds of backgrounds and life situations.

I think one facet of the organization I have always appreciated is a program called visiting teaching. The woman who has been assigned to be the president of the Relief Society in each congregation, or “ward,” takes the list of all the women in her group and divvies it up so that two women generally are given maybe four or five other women to watch over and, ideally, to visit every month. I once read about it being “love by assignment,” and I think that’s a great description.

I have enjoyed the program because it has allowed me to get to know many really great women I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know so well. I have become acquainted with women by being assigned to visit them and by being visited by others. What’s been most rewarding is knowing that I have a simple way of being able to help someone else in whatever ways they might need. If someone I visit has a baby, I can take in some food. Or I can send a card and goodies when she celebrates a birthday. Or I can just pray for her especially if she’s facing a problem I can’t do anything else about. And I always hope that each woman I’m assigned to feels comfortable to call me if something comes up in her life she might need help with somehow, without me having to ask all the time if there is something.

This program has also allowed me to make some fast friends. I have a very dear friend now who has been a constant in my life, a source of strength and just fun, whom I met because she was assigned to be my visiting teacher some 16-plus years ago. It’s very possible we would have connected if we hadn’t been put together that way, but maybe we wouldn’t have. I shudder to think what my life would be like without her.

And I’m making new friends all the time. Often, we don’t get the chance to cross paths in our congregations because we might be assigned to teach children’s classes or something and we might end up at opposite ends of our church building during our meetings. And we might not think to sit near each other at a potluck or other activity. So when I get to visit someone new I haven’t gotten to really talk to before, I am often very pleased to find I’m making a new dear friend. Our assigned visits then turn into two- or three-hour “hangouts” where we just chat and bond. What’s not to love?

People outside my church may just consider this a nice program. I, however, see it as one that’s inspired from a God who loves me and his other daughters and wants us to be able to serve and be there for one another. I am always grateful for the great friends I’ve made because of this inspired opportunity.