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Posted: January 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

Dear My Lovelies,

This is my last semester of graduate school and I need to do fewer things. As much as I love you and I love talking with you about the books I read, I’m taking a break from maintaining this blog. I don’t know if I’ll come back here, or if in the future I’ll find a new venue for expressing myself. But the Confessional Reviews are taking a break. If you want to know what I’m reading, you can check me at Good Reads. Or, since most of you who read this regularly are also my friends on other platforms, just ask me there. I’m still alive and well — I just need to give myself permission not to keep up with WordPress for a while.

Love Always,

The Occasional Man

Sorry, it’s not a book title. Yesterday was my fourth anniversary on WordPress. This is my fourth blog here (the other three have been deleted and now reside only on my hard drive and back up CDs). In honor of this historic occasion, I’ve decided to repost my first ever post. It’s good to look back and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

A bit of context: I was still in the closet, still working at the college with Scribble Feather and her partner, still married and living with my children. All the names here are fake, btw.

First Post, Nov 8

So, what am I writing for? [Virginia Woolf would say that the question should be, who am I writing for, but I’ll talk about her another day.] Let me tell you a story…

My acupuncturist Gianni told me a little while ago that depression is often the result of an attempt to repress emotion. A few days later, I was looking for a good place in my house to hang myself. I looked for exposed rafters, decorative architectural features, supports on the posts that hold up the porch roof, but there are none. My only hanging options that evening were doomed to fail in embarrassing ways (pulling down either the gutters or the ceiling fan). So then I started wondering about options to burn the house down. I could light the candles on the kitchen table and then light the table on fire. I could spread the hundreds of student essays I needed to grade around the house then drop a match somewhere. I then realized that I had spent a good half an hour planning a suicide I didn’t actually want to perform. This qualifies as depression, I think.

So I looked inward and saw an enormous ocean of pain, with no limit to depth or breadth. Normally, this ocean has a lid, made of heavy concrete that I had scooted back to peek in and see what the depression was about. I couldn’t spend much time looking at it, because this glimpse of my subconscious actually manifested itself as physical pain. So I pulled the lid back on and buckled down to my grading. In talking with Gianni about this later, he said I needed some help. He also made me promise to call him if I start looking for another way to kill myself.

I met with Father Jim this weekend. He does this “healing prayer” therapy that I’ve used in the past with some success. This time, things were different. He starts by chatting with you about your issues (I’ll get to those another time) and then tells you to let the Holy Spirit take you to a place that is safe and comfortable. I knew I was in trouble when I had a strong negative response to letting some spirit, no matter how holy, take me anywhere. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I tried to visualize someplace safe. I couldn’t do it. Most people seem to have some memories of a home that is safe, but I never did. Most of the places where I have felt safe in the past no longer work. Eventually he said just to use the room we were in, the library at his Episcopal Church of BFE.

Then he wanted me to meet Jesus there. I looked around the room: tall bookshelves, a few chairs, and two doors. In my head, the door to the hall was covered with extra furniture: a dresser and several chairs stacked in front of it. I kept trying to pull down the furniture so I could open the door, but every time I took down a chair there was another in its place. After a few minutes of this, God came in the other door (the one to Fr Jim’s office) and told me that the old ways of interacting with him wouldn’t work any more. I’ve blocked the old methods of communication, despite the fact that I keep trying to force them to work.

Then the images combined: still in the room, I saw that the ocean of hurt I’m carrying around is really just a well, but I’m still keeping that between him and me. He told me to stop blaming everything on him, because most of the events that shaped the well were not his fault. People have their own free will, and God is not going to stop them from hurting me, no matter how far-reaching the psychological consequences. He also said that it doesn’t do me much good to moan about not feeling like God loves me (I’ve been feeling like he’s at least indifferent, possibly antagonistic toward me) because I don’t actually know what it’s like to be loved. In this conversation, the lid came off the well and I looked in it, and he told me to keep the lid off the well. When I asked him how to deal with everything in there, he told me to write.

The most encouraging thing that happened, though, was when God told me that he loves homosexuals, even those who are married with three children. It’s good to know that drifting sexual identity doesn’t affect that relationship, at least. At least it doesn’t have to.

I talked over most of this with my wife Ruth, minus the bit about sexual identity, and realized that I can’t call the God I met in that room Jesus.  God seems like an inadequate name also, it being more of a title than a name. I don’t know what to call God anymore. Maybe I’ll start calling him Steve.

Steve has not proven to be an effective codename for God. He is what He is. I still have a hard time worshiping Jesus, but I can go to a Christian church and sing the songs about a Father who loves me, and even though I may not know what that would look like in the real world, it brings me some peace. It’s helpful that this church is the only place I feel really accepted. But, while I’ve been focusing on healing my emotional issues, it’s surprising to me that as far as my attitude toward God goes, I’m right back where I was four years ago. I had a longstanding flirtation with atheism, but I can’t commit to him any more than I can to Jesus.

But when I talk about my time as one of the faithful as being full of hallucinations and delusions of grandeur, this is a pretty representative example.

I’m having a hot cocoa in my favorite coffeeshop as a small celebration. Raise a glass with me; let’s honor the man I was, and look forward to meeting the man I will become.

It always irritates me when I read reviews online for new products. How can you tell how durable something is if you’ve only had it for a week? [I also don’t like it when people review books they haven’t read. “I can’t wait to read this book! I love everything Jasper Fforde writes, so this will be amazing!” and amazon has five stars for it. As if professional fiction writers never have off days.] So, I’ve owned my Kobo Mini for over a year, and I finally feel somewhat qualified to write a review.

I really like it. I wanted an e-reader that wouldn’t strain my eyes; I’ve read a few books on Kindle for PC and Project Gutenberg, and they make my face hurt. So, all the colored readers were out because they use the same LCD screen as my computer. I also wanted something that is as close to reading a book as possible, so I skipped any of those that light up or have any other extras. The Kobo Mini is not the only one to use e-ink and not have any frills, but my local shop was having a sale, so of course I got it. Forty bucks? Awesome.

Here’s how it works. There’s the reader itself, which is small enough to fit in a standard men’s dress shirt pocket. If I’m wearing a shirt without pockets, it also fits in the back pocket of my jeans. When I bought it, I plugged it into my computer and downloaded the accompanying software, so when I plug it in to charge, I can use my computer to manage the books on the device. I can also read books on the computer with this program, but as I mentioned, I’m not into that. I can go to the Kobo site, or my local bookseller’s, and buy whatever books I like, and then upload them to the device. I can also buy books on the reader directly, so long as I have a wifi connection. Every time I buy a book, the local shop gets a cut, so no matter where I am in the world, I can support the local economy of the place I love.

The Kobo people send me emails every few days, letting me know about upcoming sales, offering me coupons, and recommending books to me based on my shopping patterns. Sometimes their recommendations make sense, sometimes not. They keep trying to sell me magazines. I don’t read magazines. The sales items seem to mirror those of physical bookstores, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Stores have sales because they need to move a specific product; online, I don’t see the same need. Does it matter to Kobo which books I buy, so long as I’m spending money with them? It’s not like they have three thousand copies of the latest Grisham staring at them from the display shelf. I’m pretty sure that when I buy an e-book, they just copy the file to my device, so they only have one copy of each book sitting on a hard drive somewhere. Nevertheless, they have sales on former bestsellers that aren’t selling well any more, and other novels that aren’t quite as popular as they’d like to be. When I get a coupon, it can only be used on a specific list of books, which means that even when they send me the “You haven’t bought anything in a couple of months, so take 30% off your next order” coupon, I can only use it on books that I don’t really want anyway. Also, when a coupon says “unlimited,” this only means that you can buy as many books off the approved list as you want, not that you can use it on any book you like. Some sales are only available in certain countries. I’ve kept my credit card billing address in the United States, so I can buy books that aren’t typically available in this happy-to-censor country, but sometimes I can’t access the sales because Big Brother not only watches, but blocks. [That billing address trick also works for, which also has region-specific items.]

The reading experience is mostly good. I tap the screen on the right side and it flips forward, I tap it on the left and it flips back. In the middle takes me to the menu. If an insect lands on your screen, it can turn the pages whether you’re ready for them to or not. I once had a fly flip me back five pages very quickly. I tend to hold the device in my left hand so I can turn pages with the fingers that curl around on the right side. I guess I’m too lazy to read a book with two hands if I can do it with one. However, if you always hold the book in the same position and always tap in exactly the same spot, after a year and a half that spot will lose its sensitivity, just like the mouse touchpad on a laptop, so it’s a good idea to tap in different places on the right side of the screen. When I read a book, I seldom begin at the beginning and read straight through. I often flip around, like when Anton Mallick told me about one of the tragic events of his life, I had been reading several months of his life and I wanted to check how close the event was to the beginning of his journal, so I went to the Table of Contents in the menu screen, and jumped straight back to the first page. To get back to the page I was reading was a little more cumbersome. I went to the appropriate chapter, but some books are only split into two or three really long chapters instead of following the author’s divisions, so there’s a slider at the bottom that allows you to move to specific pages. If there are over seven hundred screens in a chapter, and you have fat fingers, it can be hard to locate the exact page you want. This became a big issue when I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, because only about 40% of the book is regular text and the rest is notes and references. He didn’t footnote the notes so as not to clutter the text – in some e-books (Foucault’s Care of the Self) you can touch a footnote number and the note will appear in a pop-up. With Solomon’s book, I found the notes after I had read the text, but if I had had the physical book I would have read it flipping back and forth the whole time, and enjoyed it more. But most of what I read is fiction without footnotes, so it’s not a common problem for me.

Because I’m using a black-and-white reader, the pictures are not always what I’d like. Again, not a common problem, but the art is an important part of reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu, and I also have the digital gallery of Fuseli paintings (only three bucks, and it updates continuously). The good news for pictures is that you can zoom in pretty far without getting a pixellated mass of weird – the image files are more detailed than you might think at a first glance. If I read the magazines the Kobo people keep trying to convince me to subscribe to, this would be a bigger deal.

I find that my reading habits on the Kobo are drastically different than my reading habits in the real world. I’m not a member of any libraries at the moment (you have to renew your card from time to time, and you have to live in the place to check books out of a public library), so I usually read books that I buy. I go to used classics mostly – I got a couple of degrees in literature because I like the old stuff – but occasionally I’ll look at a more recent writer, if I have an emotional response to the book. I really love that moment of discovery, when I pick a book from the shelf and read the back, and an energy communicates itself from my hand to my heart, and I know that this book is mine. I miss that when I shop online; there’s no serendipity in it. However, reading on the Kobo, my reading tends to fall into three categories:

Books that are too big. With physical books, it’s a bit of a production, when you get in line at the grocery store, to pull out your one-volume edition of The Complete Novels of Thomas Hardy. With the e-reader, it’s a cinch. Enormous anthologies like this are supercheap, and would be far too cumbersome in the real world. Besides, there’s something very satisfying about the word Complete. The only drawback is that, when dealing with a book this big, the electronic table of contents becomes increasingly unreliable as you progress. It really is better to begin at the beginning and read straight through.

Books that I don’t want on my shelf in the living room. When I get lonely, erotic stories can be comforting. I don’t mean the specific lack-of-romantic-partner lonely, but any sort of lonely. I know that they’re all fantasies, seldom realistic, but it does tell me that there are people out there who want what I want, even if they’re as clueless as I am about how to get it. The less realistic the situation, the more like me I feel the author is. The e-reader has really contributed to this type of reading for me, because I don’t want guests in my home staring at them. I’m not ashamed of my attraction to other men or my interest in this kind of book, but I get a little shy about the details. However, the stories are sometimes as poorly edited as the ones you see online, and nothing kills an English teacher’s erection like bad spelling and grammar in a published text. One book I had to erase because the author had no idea that discreet and discrete have different meanings.

Books that have been written less than forty years ago. One of the reasons I seldom read what people are writing now is that I don’t take the time to sift through what’s good and what’s bad. The Kobo doesn’t do this for me, but by sticking contemporary stuff in my face all the time, they wear down my defenses. They are a bookseller, after all, which means they rely on people buying books frequently, and the best way to accomplish that is to foster a taste in new books. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but there have been some really fine books that I would not have attempted otherwise, like Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy (Nicolás Casariego), When God was a Rabbit (Sarah Winman), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak), and Lexicon (Max Barry).

I had an experience this week that really solidified the bond between me and my Kobo. After more than a year of smooth operation, it crashed. The entire screen was completely nonresponsive, and the power switch also failed to yield results. I tried plugging it into my computer, to see if the attempt at communication would jog it into proper function, but no such luck. It doesn’t take power to maintain an image on the screen, so I knew that leaving it on until it ran out of battery would be useless, so I did some surgery. I popped the back off – the grey backing snaps off if you run a fingernail around the edge, and there are six tiny screws underneath, of the size that you only see on computer equipment or eyeglasses. There’s a reset button too, and I tried pushing that with no result. So I pulled out the screws and looked at the motherboard. I saw the memory card, the same kind of micro SD that I use in my phone. I pulled it out and put it back in, but with no effect. The battery is the big silver thing close to the top – it’s wrapped in plastic and soldered in place. You can’t pull it off. So I found the place where the wire from the battery hooks into the board, and very gently separated the connection. Nothing happened. When I reconnected the battery, also very gently, the device rebooted. It was great. I’m not sure if that invalidates my warranty, but I’m also not sure how they go about replacing a dead battery. It’s stuck on there pretty good. When I think of my experience with other electronics, one crash in a year is actually not bad at all. And now that I’ve dug into the inner workings, the intimacy between me and the reader feels more complete.

I’ve tried to give an even-handed description of the Kobo Mini, with both strengths and limitations. In case it hasn’t been clear, the limitations are such as can be ignored or overcome, and the strengths are precisely what I want in an e-reader. If anything bad ever happens to it, I’ll buy another one just like it.