Category Archives: Books


Slavonic Room, New York Public Library (1919)

I’m a little bemused by my behavior over the last several weeks.

Reality is starting to set in.

As are the migraines – again. But that is another story for another time.

Since I’ve succumbed to the lure of the Library I have made a dent in my non-fiction reading list. Lately it’s been the science of happiness and decision making. I’ve finished “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert and “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer  and have just started on “Nudge” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

I also read “Getting Things Done” which has caused a revolution in how I organize myself. Although I’m still adapting the methodology to my specific project issues. As usual such improvements are ongoing adaptive processes, kind of like Agile Project Management.

But I digress.

I’m reading about decisions and happiness.

What I’ve learned is that we need to recognize the power of our brain to lead us through complicated decisions by absorbing the information – distracting ourselves with something else – then coming back and letting our emotions lead us.

Yes… our emotions not the rational, logical, “thinking” portion of the brain.

The interesting thing is that this works best if we have trained our brain to deal with these types of decisions by deciding things. Like an expert authenticating a work of art who in the first few moments knows that it’s a fake. We thin slice the world and make a gut decision. A decision based on the sum of our life’s work, our experience, and made instantaneous by all the decisions, right and wrong, we’ve made in the past.

But now we are into “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

It isn’t that we are making an “emotional” decision. It is that our brain is processing the information and making an informed decision that it simply can’t put into concrete actionable concepts. So it pushes us by making us feel pleasure – if it’s decided it wants something, or fear – it its decided that we really shouldn’t go into the lion’s den even though mom isn’t around and those cubs look so cute.

The thing that I find most amazing is not what the research is telling us about happiness or decisions. What amazes me, having spent some time in research science, is the elegance of the experiments. People are difficult to experiment on. Plus there are all these nasty rules that keep us from raising children in dark basements to see what impact it has on their development, or deactivating sections of the brain just to find out what would happen.

Kidding aside, behavioral neural science has to work with people, experiment on people, and create experiments that lead to measureable, repeatable, and statistically relevant data.

I now have pages and pages of bibliography from the books I’ve read to sift through and see which ones I can gain access to, to get a better understanding of the methods involved. But if you want a better understanding of what makes us happy and unhappy, or how best to choose strawberry jam vs. an impressionist painting – read up and enjoy.

~ Tess


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I never want to have sex again!

America UnzippedThat is how I felt after reading Brian Alexander’s America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction. Alexander is MSNBC’s “Sexploration” columnist and his graphic and in depth look at sexual trends across the country was well… did I mention I never want to have sex again?

Not because I feel dirty or offended – in fact where Alexander went is exactly where I was looking for answers. Trying to figure out what was going on with sex. Strange conversations with friends, lovers and strangers had clued me into the fact that the Moral Majority had lost. Sex had won – everywhere – and I wanted to understand why.

That was Alexander’s mission to discover if sex was fringe or mainstream. Readers were sending him questions about topics that would have once been taboo or fringe – but they were sending them from all over the country and from all walks of life. Not just the coasts but the middle of the country too was interested in porn, how to videos, toys, fetish and bondage.

In one chapter he talks to an ex-preacher, Joe Beam, who now teaches couples seminars – his topics Love, Sex and Marriage, sex being the largest chunk of the seminar – to conservative religious groups. Joe’s biggest selling points – sex is okay within the confines of marriage and if it isn’t expressly forbidden in the Bible go ahead and try it. I have to admit I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that so many religions teach that sex is bad – but then want you to procreate once you’re married. Here is an ex-bible thumping preacher saying that it is okay – giving permission even.

Giving permission was a constant theme – from the manufactures of sex toys to the creators of porn – they were giving permission for people to try different things. Eroding the taboo and brining sex into the mainstream.    

So the reason I never want to have sex again… well that is because after reading his book none of my feeble attempts at edginess are, in fact, edgy. My own exploration over the last few years is about as exciting as a trip to Walmart (although if you’ve seen The People of Walmart that can be more exciting than you would think).

But really – was I following my own path to fulfillment and satisfaction or was I simply a statistic in a national trend?

In his final chapter Alexander attempts to tie up all the loose ends – but the forces at play are so big and the impact seen in so many ways there is no tidy ending to his story. Why is sex exploration such a big thing? Like Alexander I don’t think it is just the prevalence of the internet – although I do feel that you have to see before you want. Know that something exists before you try it. Like anything else there are some pioneers out there – but most of us are imitators – we dress how others think we should, eat what people tell us to, and have sex like we believe others are.

And apparently everyone in America is having more and better sex than we are.

There are no easy answers to this trend – and there are as many ways to have sex or find satisfaction as there are people. If you want to see a big picture view of this phenomenon check out his book. If you are interested in the ongoing conversation check out his sexsploration column at MSNBC.

Maybe you’ll find out what you’re missing – or have some questions answered that you’ve never had the nerve to ask – or like me, you will start to reorder your feelings about sex and discover you are perfectly okay being vanilla…

 ~ Tess

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Subversion in Children’s Literature, Part I

Yes, it’s a good thing!

I promised a friend that I would send her my list of subversive children’s literature. I have a thing about kid’s books – I adore them. I’ve read lots of them, both when I was a kid and later on in life. And I found a trend. Everything that had lasting impact on me shared one element in common. They were subversive.   

Dictionary.Com defines Subvert (v) as:

  1. To overthrow (something established or existing).
  2. To cause the downfall, ruin, or destruction of.
  3. To undermine the principles of; corrupt.

That is what great art does – it changes us by overthrowing our sensibilities, destroying our preconceptions, and undermining our own sense of reality.

Great children’s literature is no different. We aren’t talking Aesop’s fables or stories with morals or ones designed to make you a good citizen – we are talking about bad days, poor parents, naughty children who have fun, and worlds of nonsense.

If you want to make me really cranky – give any child I know Rainbow Fish – I will then tell you, and the child why this is one of the worse books ever written. I usually make children cry when I explain the basis for it… the little fable about sharing and fitting in is really about a group making someone different have to give up parts of himself to fit it. When Kurt Vonnegut Jr. deals with the same theme it is art – this is something else. It glorifies the norm and upholds the principle of political correctness. If everyone is the same, everyone will be equal. Cruelty to infants! I can write pages on the images in Rainbow Fish… but this is about subversive children’s literature. 

You can tell a really great subversive picture book by how it holds an audience – and how many times they want it read over and over and over again. Many picture books are really created and marketed to parents not children – it is the parents who are buying them after all. That is how “Guess How Much I Love You” got its sales. It is a sweet story… but it isn’t a great book.

So… now you are asking yourself – what does she think a great children’s story is? I’ve given two examples of what they aren’t but what are they?

Think for a minute – you know them. They start out with phrases like

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.” Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak 

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play.” The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss

And one of my personal favorites:

“Mr. Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same.” The Big Orange Splot, Daniel Manus Pinkwater

But then Daniel Pinkwater has the fun of having his book “Devil in the Drain” banned – but I think “The Big Orange Splot” is one of his most subversive since it takes on the idea that we all have to present the same face to the world yet we only begin to really live when we start being different.  

I was just viewing a list of the most commonly challenged books in the US from 1990 – 1999.

What fun – everything from The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby to The Bridge to Terabithia to A Wrinkle in Time. If it’s been challenged or banned it is often subversive…

Just think how you felt when you read Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh for the first time. Or how you know every word to “Green Eggs and Ham”. And let’s not forget the book that made studying hard cool – Harry Potter! All of those book worms out there warmed to Hermione since she made being smart, really really smart okay. 

Over the next week I’ll be adding a new page where I list and review my favorite books of subversion…. Things like The Phantom Toll Booth, The Golden Compass, anything by A A Milne or Beatrix Potter… If there are any you think should be included send them my way. I’ll take a look and if they meet the criteria I’ll add them to the list.  

~ Tess

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