The Literary Lollipop

Guilt-free adventures in reading, writing, and original fiction

Christmas Bliss — December 7, 2016

Christmas Bliss

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This is the second time I’ve ventured into the world of Weezie and Bebe, of Savannah, GA. Christmas Bliss is a complimentary story to Blue Christmas, which I also read and loved for the outrageously hilarious dialogue and emotionally satisfying story. Christmas Bliss was just as fun and just as hilarious. It didn’t take itself too seriously, which was a welcome breath of fresh air, especially after reading a rather heavy-handed and overtly pretentious literary novel. (Mercifully, two books that couldn’t be more different.)

In this installment, Weezie, short for Eloise Foley, owner of an antique shop, is preparing for her winter wedding to chef, Danny. For the time leading up to the holidays, Danny is in New York as a guest chef at a swanky restaurant.

Meanwhile, Bebe, eight months pregnant and owner of a retro-inspired inn, learns that her second husband didn’t legally complete their divorce. She spends most of her time tracking down leads that might help her finalize a relationship that nearly left her bankrupt, so she’s stressed, to say the very least.

When Weezie learns that her husband-to-be is working with an exceptionally attractive woman, she spontaneously ventures to New York. Is this a stupid idea? Yes, okay. Sort of. In this regard, Weezie’s overreaction is frustrating, and she’s not very city savvy, which she proves the minute she arrives in the Big Apple and allows herself to be suckered by a fake taxi driver. As a result, she ends up stranded without a coat in a questionable neighbourhood, and Danny has to come and pick her up, even though he’s sick with the flu.

Regardless, all ends well.  Weezie and Danny have a cute visit and experience Christmas in New York. We also learn that the gorgeous woman Danny’s working with is stupendously kind and generous, and has no intention of stealing him away. Imagine that. I’m shocked. As if every female with enviable cleavage is secretly plotting to seduce all engaged men within a ten mile radius. An exaggeration, of course, and completely ridiculous, but I understand that plot requires friction to move forward. Hence, the enviable cleavage and Weezie’s modest jealousy.

Both storylines are conveniently wrapped up in a bow, but not without a few dangling threads – a thoughtful reflection of life as it happens, and how even storybook endings will have a few uncertainties. The mental health of Weezie’s father, for instance, is never fully resolved. Even though Christmas Bliss is meant to be a light read, Andrews injects a few random but effective elements of realism. (The stickler in me very much appreciates the effort.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of the two main characters and their families, their quirky dialogue and regional sayings. I felt like I was hangin’ out in Savannah, celebrating the holidays in Southern style.

The Infatuations — November 29, 2016

The Infatuations

the-infatuationsI can’t believe I finished this book. I almost gave up. But I pushed through the endless sentences and the plotless plot, the philosophical meanderings and the tangents, and the commas; comma, after comma, after comma. I can’t explain why I felt the need to finish. I was determined to see the story through to the end. The mystery lover in me wanted to see the mystery solved. Or, at least, come to a conclusion of some sort. Well, at least there was a conclusion; whether or not it was satisfying is another discussion entirely.

[Spoiler alert]

Maria Dolz works in publishing, and every morning before work she observes “the perfect couple” in a Madrid café. Seeing them interact gives her a sense of balance, as if the earth is on its proper axis. One day, the couple stops coming to the café. At first, Maria doesn’t notice; she just assumes they have gone away on vacation and will be back soon. But then she learns the husband, Desverne, has been murdered, stabbed several times by a mentally ill homeless man. Maria is shocked, and ruminates on the tragedy of the situation.

She later meets the wife, Luisa, and eventually falls in love with Javier, a friend of the deceased husband. But then, in the midst of their affair, Maria overhears an unusual conversation that reveals Javier may have orchestrated the death of Luisa’s husband, so that he could take his place in the marriage bed. Maria ruminates some more on the information, is sort-of disgusted, but still moderately in love with Javier. She spends many paragraphs staring at his apparently beautiful lips.

Javier is suspicious of what Maria knows, and to calm her fears he reveals that Desverne was terminally ill with an extremely rare disease and had asked Javier to kill him because he didn’t have the guts to commit suicide. But the clues don’t add up, and Maria reflects for chapters at a time on the contradictory evidence, and a number of theories develop. Is Javier guilty? Should she turn him in? Should she report him to the police? What would that do? And so on. Why destroy the life of a man with such beautiful lips if he isn’t guilty of murder?

I think it’s safe to say that I am not the target demographic for The Infatuations, which is less of a murder mystery thriller – the genre the novel was marketed as – and more of a subdued existential conversation, where all the characters sound the same and speak the same philosophical language and ask questions like:

  • What is murder? Is murder really murder if people die anyway?
  • Is murder still murder if the victim is terminally ill?
  • Is murder still murder if the person asks you to kill them?
  • Is love real? Does it matter?
  • Why do we love who we love? Does it matter?
  • What is truth? Why should we care? It is too subjective.

To be perfectly honest, had I known The Infatuations would take me down the same road as a Simone de Beauvoir novel, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Existentialism is not my cup of tea. This time, I accidentally stepped into it without realizing until I was waist deep. Now that I’ve reached the end of the story, I’ve realized it would be best to trade this novel at my local used bookstore, where it can find a more appreciative reader.

When bad endings happen to good books — November 16, 2016

When bad endings happen to good books

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Deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. The Sudden Departure of the Frasers had so much potential, nearly five hundred pages of potential. I whipped through the first three hundred because I was riveted. Completely and utterly glued to the story. I love it when that happens, when I’m absorbed into the fictitious world and I feel like I know and (sort-of) understand the cast of crazy, compelling characters. Even the most ridiculous gaps in logic couldn’t tear me away. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t begin to describe the obsessive page-turning. Until the ending turns into a predictable mess, of course.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown weary of Gone Girl repeats, the unreliable, psycho femme fatale narrator is no longer a surprising plot twist. Perhaps it’s because I was never a fan of the Gone Girl trend in the first place. I don’t know. I had the same reaction to The Deadly Sister. However, The Sudden Departure of the Frasers is an incredibly well written book. I can’t emphasize that enough. Louise Candlish is a gifted storyteller. Her words flow in a way that feels natural and true. She makes her characters realistically flawed and deeply human, with relevant daily concerns that many women identify with.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers begins with Christy Davenport, accepting the keys to her new townhouse in Lime Park, an upscale suburb near London. She brings with her a raging case of impostor syndrome, because even though she has worked her way up the social/financial ladder, Christy continues to feel as though she doesn’t belong. She and her husband Joe have mortgaged their futures and sanity in order to own this piece of property – impossibly priced, a bargain. Christy is looking forward to meeting her new neighbours and building a life in Lime Park, though she hesitates to have children because of the immense cost of the house looming over her head. They have borrowed extensively to pay the down payment. As time goes on and the neighbours, with whom she’d hoped to develop friendships, continue to ignore her, Christy begins to wonder if something more sinister is going on.

The narrative alternates between Christy and Amber Fraser, the beautiful, sensual wife of Jeremy. They are the original owners of number 40 Lime Park Road, and the story of their “departure” is slowly unfolding alongside Christy’s perspective. From the outset, Amber is unlikable and certainly not worth any reader’s trust, mainly because it’s so damn obvious that she’s up to no good. Amber tries in her usual charismatic way to sway the reader to her side of the morality fence, but reservations remain. She unpacks her convoluted backstory and reveals the many layers of her manipulative self.

Eventually, the two narratives collide in a predictable, frustrating fashion that made me feel duped and dirty. Unfortunately, as much as I adored Candlish’s writing, language, and voice, I simply didn’t care when Amber spilled the obvious beans at the end. In fact, there were no beans to spill, because I’d already had my suspicions. The reveal at the end was nothing more than an affirmation that, as Maya Angelou wrote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

The California Wife (and a bottle of Ghost Pines) — November 8, 2016

The California Wife (and a bottle of Ghost Pines)

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Last weekend, rather than horror, which would be an expected reading selection just before Halloween, I happily cracked the spine on Kristen Harnisch’s The California Wife, book two in an impeccably researched trilogy that began with The Vintner’s Daughter.

As I eagerly devoured the first few fabulous chapters, I realized that something was missing. What was the problem? I tapped my chin and glanced over at my empty hand, then realized: wine, of course! The California Wife is a historical novel about the Lemieux family, Napa winemakers at the turn of the century. I couldn’t read without a glass of red at the ready! Although I’m still a complete noob, last winter I attended a short course on Spanish wines, fell in love with sherry, and slowly cobbled together an amateur opinion on taste.

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To enhance the literary ambiance, I bought a bottle of California wine – perfectly named for a situation like this, and a convenient combination of Napa and Sonoma grapes – called Ghost Pines. (My mind immediately thought of Wayward Pines.) What better way to combine historical fiction and wine on what is usually the scariest holiday of the year? So impressed was I by this coincidental find that I snapped a few photos of the spooky label and cork.

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But I digress. Back to the book. The California Wife packs a hefty, satisfying plot, mainly because it encompasses a fairly large stretch of time, and touches on several moments in suffragette, prohibition, medical, American, and European history. Whereas the first installment of the trilogy was fueled by familial friction, the second is more significantly driven by external factors, such as mounting pressures from the women’s temperance movement, the fluctuating price and reputation of wine in the United States, women’s rights, and natural disasters.

As the novel begins, we rejoin Sara and Philippe just before their marriage in France, where our feisty heroine begins to realize that, while she is head over heels in love with her new husband, it will take a particular strength of will to maintain a sliver of independence in her new role as wife in San Francisco. While Philippe is certainly more progressive than most men, and he respects Sara very much, he does not want to invite ridicule to their vineyard, Eagle’s Run. His top priority, alongside his family’s safety, is the financial success of his business. Unfortunately, sometimes that means subduing a few of Sara’s opinions, and encouraging her to remain silent while in tricky social situations. It is never his intention to dismiss her, but their relationship develops a distinct push and pull that strikes me as realistic for the time.

In the meanwhile, we travel along as they attend the World’s Fair in Paris, attempt to mend the broken pieces of their extended family, and suffer massive hardships that have the potential to thoroughly break their spirits and their business. And still, they move forward. Not always in a healthy direction, but they move forward and somehow manage to come out the other side of their trauma with a new perspective.

My only quibble would be regarding the sudden introduction of Marie as narrator in part three, which could potentially be confusing for anyone who has not read The Vintner’s Daughter. As much as I love Marie as a character, on the front line of women in surgery, I wasn’t expecting her to appear at the close of chapter twenty-three, so it took a second to regroup and refresh my memory of her story line. But this is a small blot on a truly emotional, educational, evocative journey I look forward to continuing when the third book is published.

What I most enjoyed about The California Wife is Harnisch’s ability to pull her characters and the reader in and out of happily-ever-after. She always takes us beyond those sparkling, smiling moments, beyond the “I do” and into everyday life, where decisions are complicated and Mother Nature reigns. As a result, characters have depth, strength, and a sense of peace that is wonderfully human.

Revival of the lunchtime colour — November 3, 2016

Revival of the lunchtime colour

In an effort to integrate more artistic habits into my every day, I have managed, with great care, to revive the lunchtime colour. Why? Because I’m drowning in bleak weather and practicality, budgets and laundry.  Must make room for fantasy and imagination, in any way possible!

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Although I don’t always have time for a solid hour of crafty puttering during an average work lunch, twenty minutes is usually enough to kick start the calming effects of a midday nap. Once you fade into the flow of an engrossing task, time stretches into a cradle of rest.

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The rising popularity of adult colouring books means you’re almost guaranteed an extensive supply from which to choose at every bookstore or lifestyle store within a ten mile radius. Meaning, a colouring book is available in any and every theme you could possibly imagine or desire, from Doctor Who to Outlander to Zen mandalas. My copy of Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest is one of hundreds available.

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I’ve been working on this particular spread since September, one leaf and branch at a time. The graphics are detailed and relatively intricate, so on average I’ll get through approximately two square inches per session, maybe once or twice a week. Progress is slow and meandering, but surprisingly satisfying.

Cornbread à la Martha Stewart — October 31, 2016

Cornbread à la Martha Stewart

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For me, stress is best managed through creating. Baking, knitting, crafting, drawing, writing, or colouring. It doesn’t matter which avenue I choose; generally one of the aforementioned will help ease my thoughts and calm my frustrations.

Last week, I went on a cornbread kick, using two different recipes from Martha’s American Food, procured from the library. One was a smashing success. The other, however, was a dismal, disgusting failure.

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First, I tackled the recipe for corn muffins. While watching American Horror Story: Roanoke. A better combination could not exist. The minute each batch came out of the oven, I enjoyed a warm, delicious muffin, and congratulated myself on a job well done, a pep talk which later followed by a freaky moment of terror on TV. (I haven’t watched American Horror Story since Asylum. I’m a massive fan of the current season’s faux reality show format.) I was also very happy with the cute polka dot liners I’d purchased previously. Who knew corn muffins could look so pretty!?

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Now for the dismal failure: Skillet Cornbread. Sure, I had the skillet, and all the appropriate ingredients. Unfortunately, the finished product, despite the rather appetizing, golden picture below, simply did not pass the taste test.

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Regardless of my best whisking efforts, the batter wasn’t robust enough and separated unpleasantly, creating a thin layer of uncooked egg at the top of the loaf. The batter itself was very milky/watery, and all the cornmeal sunk to the bottom of the skillet like a brick. My skillet was deeper than the suggested size, so perhaps that didn’t help, but the center never set properly.

In hopes of salvaging what I could, I cooked the cornbread for another 10 minutes. Alas, the results were the same. Sort-of soggy and sort-of dense, with an icky layer of eggy substance. (Yummy.) Oh, well. I will most certainly return to the corn muffin recipe again and again. Most likely paired with a large pot of chili. Onward and upward!

A bowl of chai latte and a copy of Rooms — October 26, 2016

A bowl of chai latte and a copy of Rooms

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Every time I watch an episode of Gilmore Girls, I marvel at the size of mugs at Luke’s Diner. Not being a coffee drinker, I never totally understood the need for caffeine, especially in the amounts consumed by Rory and Lorelai. That is, I didn’t understand until I became a chai latte addict. Now, I happily accept my oversized mug full of frothy milk, cinnamon, and syrupy sweet black tea. It’s practically a confection, but I’m totally okay with that. Calories be damned. (Speaking of Gilmore Girls, super excited for the Netflix revamp.)

As of late, I’ve been attempting to reconfigure the structure of my mornings. I don’t enjoy that sluggish feeling when I try to pull my sleepy self out of bed and get dressed, just in time to grab the bus, and spend the first hour at my desk chaotically sifting through email. For a period of time, back in the spring, I consistently wrote before work, and that was an enjoyable routine for the few months it lasted. The manuscript was successfully completed, after which I took a break from the demands of my internal productivity gremlins.

So, I’ve most recently instituted early morning reading sessions, usually at a café of some kind, where I can enjoy a hot beverage while flipping through the pages of the latest TBR selection. Hence, the bowl of chai.

This week, I finished Rooms by Lauren Oliver, a clever take on the haunted house novel. Narrated by two opinionated ghosts, along with the flaky, somewhat narcissistic members of the Walker family, Rooms is, at a very basic level, about disappointment. Everyone is disappointed with the state of their lives. Minna, the daughter, is a nymphomaniac and scattered. Trenton, the son, is a depressed and suicidal teenager. Caroline, the wife and mother, is an alcoholic. Amy, the peripheral granddaughter, offspring of neurotic Minna, is the only one in this crowded book who can offer a moment of silence among the incessant chatter. Everyone has returned to deal with the death and associated fallout of Richard, the absent and disliked patriarch of the family, and his apparently deplorable life choices.

Then, of course, there are the ghosts: Sandra, potty-mouthed and amusingly blunt, a bountiful supply of one-liners in her holster; and, Alice – tragic, sentimental, mostly in denial. These ladies conveniently hide in the shadows and observe the goings-on, meanwhile reliving their own past lives.

As much as I enjoyed the multi-narrative style and the dialogue, I was underwhelmed by the mystery itself. Who is Adrienne Cadiou? Who is Katie? What happened to Alice? How did Sandra really die? All these questions are answered, but with a somewhat lackluster ta-da reveal that left me muttering, “meh.” Not to mention, Katie got on my last nerve.

Eventually, I grew frustrated with Trenton and Minna, whose vague recollections of sexual abuse are never dealt with in a satisfying way; brother and sister never completely develop into characters I could care about. And the ending, as far as I could tell, wrapped up every dangling plot thread – almost too succinctly.

The shining light in the cacophony of competing voices is Sandra. The entire Walker family is like a giant wet blanket. (For them, life is very serious. Life is to be escaped. Must fill the void.) Sandra, on the other hand, the much-needed comic relief of Rooms, delivers a joke like a pro. Although an alcoholic while alive, for her, laughter and fun are still on the menu, even in death.

Human beings are complicated creatures. — October 21, 2016

Human beings are complicated creatures.

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Not gonna lie. It’s been a sucky, stressful month. Let’s just get that out in the open. Maybe it’s the moon, or fatigue, or the constant soreness and tension in my trapezius. All of the above? Very possible. Anyhow, I was compelled to read Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte. It suited my mood, and soothed my mounting stress levels. Reading about the struggles of others living in a technology and busy-obsessed culture, and the ways people cope, softened the edges of my frustration.

On the surface, Overwhelmed is an elaborate study of work culture, time use research, parenting culture, social pressures, gender roles and politics, the state of child care, the history and future of leisure, the mental block for vacation and fun that adults develop over time. Fascinating stuff.  Schulte travels far and wide to find pockets of society living, thinking, and approaching modern life differently from the North American norm. I was truly riveted, most significantly by the analysis of Christmas letters (aka brag sheets), and the continuing trend towards busy-as-badge-of-honor and leisure-as-lazy.

However, what surprised me most were the final chapters, when Schulte begins to talk more about the ephemeral nature of life, death, and time. Throughout the book, she explains that it’s difficult to ever feel like her to-do list is complete, and that it’s impossible to relax into leisure when that list is looming over her every day, all day. When Schulte is challenged by a yoga and meditation instructor to recognize that one’s to-do list will never, ever be complete, it made me wonder if human beings are simply wired to be dissatisfied with everything. Will we ever be happy with what we’ve accomplished on any given day, month, or year? Likely not. Even high achievers feel they fall short of their own expectations.

For some sad reason, after all the time we put into our work, the countless hours spent worrying about results and money, we still can’t be happy with what we’ve done. We nitpick and criticize ourselves because, even though we’ve accomplished a lot, we haven’t accomplished enough, and probably not up to the massive, insurmountable standards we set in our minds. There is a fine line, I’m now beginning to understand, between self-improvement and self-flagellation.

The human brain is a complicated mess of wires and neurons. We’re contradictions. There is no more proof of that than this book. We want to do less, and yet we feel compelled to do more. We want to have fun, and yet we can’t bring ourselves to let go and relinquish control long enough to do so. We want to feel free, and yet we cling to our to-do list as if it were our center of gravity.

Reading Overwhelmed was a surprisingly spiritual experience. It helped me realize that the overwhelm Schulte so eloquently investigates is both self-imposed and socially driven. In other words, we are hard on ourselves and so is the world around us. A double whammy. And, from what I can tell, there isn’t a long lasting antidote. One must focus on the moment, in the moment, and remember that we can only do our best. Because our best is good enough.

Aloha & Mahalo! — October 8, 2016

Aloha & Mahalo!

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Despite the lush scenery, one of the first photos I took in Honolulu was a poster of an Elvis Presley album. Blue Hawaii, to be specific. Nostalgia made me do it. That, and I was simply too overwhelmed by the beauty of my surroundings to even bother taking pictures before that point. My mind was whirling with sensory overload. The air smelled wonderfully floral and oceanic every minute of the day. Nearly every meal was a home-run. And I couldn’t stop staring at the water, whenever it was within my line of sight, which was pretty damn often. However, as my jet lag subsided and I settled into Hawaii Time – a six hour difference from Ottawa, Canada – the camera app on my phone made itself plenty useful for the seven days I spent on Oahu.

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For the first 48 hours, I was in a dream state, not quite believing my eyes. I was amazed that I’d actually managed to haul my pale, Canadian self to the North Pacific. It required some extensive research on Expedia, but I purchased a ticket, saved for the hotel, and blinked into the bright sun when I arrived, like a child who’d just spent all day indoors playing video games and was finally venturing out into the real world.

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Being a non-driver, I opted for Honolulu, probably the most walkable, touristy part of the Hawaiian Islands. Restaurants and sightseeing within walking distance. Don’t even get me started on the shopping. Chanel, Marc Jacobs, and Valentino, oh my! And I’m not really an all-caps SHOPPER, nor do I have the budget for such labels, but I was endlessly entertained by the selection.

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I spent most of my time outdoors, thank you very much. The beach became my new home. Yes, the grainy sand and the water, scattered with fish and other marine life. I brought my book, set up camp, and settled in for a couple hours of mindless joy. With each passing second, my thoughts faded away, evaporated into the breeze, and were carried off to sea, where I presume they still are mercilessly nagging the dolphin population about laundry and apartment insurance.

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Once accustomed to and in love with the slow, meandering, chill pace of life, I leisurely explored the rest of Oahu. With the help of a lovely tour company, off we went to visit Pali Lookout, Waimea Valley, Hanauma Bay, the Byodo-In Temple, the Dole pineapple plantation, and countless other pockets of extreme beauty. Just when I thought my mind would literally blow up from the absolute thrill of each experience, yet another element of loveliness would reveal itself and I my brain had no choice but to expand.

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We hiked to the top of Diamond Head, visited the Aquarium, watched dogs play joyfully in the surf and locals salsa in the park; and, of course, we walked wide-eyed through Ala Moana Mall.

I couldn’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a vacation. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to leave and eventually reacquaint myself with a daily routine that involved public transportation, cold weather, and email. Thankfully, I was able to bring home a small piece of Hawaii, mostly in the form of delicious food: macadamia nut caramel corn, honey, cookies, salt, chocolate, tea, and for those who are inclined, some Kona Coffee.

The Buddha Walks into the Office — October 7, 2016

The Buddha Walks into the Office

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Let’s begin here: corporate life takes patience and diplomacy to navigate. I think we can all agree on that statement. It’s not overly negative or positive, just a neutral fact. Very separate from our home and social lives, the corporate world is a unique environment with its own set of rules and expectations.

The Buddha Walks into the Office by Lodro Rinzler is a how-to written specifically for Millennials who are looking for meaningful work and healthy work cultures, particularly in a post-2008 economy. He addresses leadership styles, compassion, ego, perspective, career expectations, and the art of finding peace in the present.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by Rinzler’s rose-coloured arguments, and I couldn’t help but notice that he wrote from a firm position on the socioeconomic ladder, there were specific chapters and anecdotes that I found very valuable, especially any discussion relating to ambition.

Over the last few years, my relationship to ambition has changed drastically. I’m totally exhausted by the constant reaching, the pushing through, the forever fluctuating target, forcing my life to look and feel a certain way. A monumental task if there ever was one, as if I were trying to lasso a river. At some point, you have to allow life to flow through you.

There are moments when I have the ability to let go of my wanting and, even though those moments are fleeting, they’re peaceful and restful. Eventually, the peace will pass, and my mind will latch on to yet another accomplishment on the horizon, but I’m getting better at maintaining my equilibrium for longer periods each time.

Rinzler’s approach to ambition within the context of mindful career building has a few holes, but the mere mention of such a contentious topic is enough to keep me turning the pages. I’m fascinated by why the human mind obsesses about accomplishing more, why those accomplishments are never (seemingly) enough and why this constant reaching somehow translates to what we think are meaningful lives and importance. Sometimes, I wonder if we subconsciously believe we have to earn our space on the planet, like a stripper paying for her time onstage. We have to prove that we have a right to be here at all, alive. Or so we believe.

I am reminded of the human being vs. human doing debate. Just ‘being’ implies stillness, which oddly has negative connotations. To be still is to be ‘lazy’ and ‘useless.’ What good are we bringing to the world if we are not doing, producing, making, moving, working, multitasking, and maintaining our relevance? At every moment of the day! The language we are using implies we are not enough as we are. It’s interesting to note that, while we can easily tell our friends that they are worthy human beings as is, no ‘improvements’ required, it is exceptionally more difficult to say so to ourselves, and actually feel convinced of its truth.

Work, and our perception of our place in the work world, is a complicated conversation, but Rinzler has definitely raised a few timely questions that I’ll continue to discuss long after reading his book.