Please Understand Me II: Why your family is crazy (CBR4)

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator - MBTI, y'all. It's Jungian.

When the CERN rappers take on personality preferences, I'll totally let them use that to close out. Word to your SJ mother.

Myers-Briggs is the world's most used personality indicator and the basis for any understanding I have of my in-laws. Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey covers practical aspects of the 16 Myers-Briggs types - communication style, decision making, interests, leadership style and tons more. It assumes, presumably because it is a sequel, that you have a basic understanding of MBTI and that you know your own type. I also found it helpful to think of people I know in the various types as I was reading about them. This encouraged revelations such as, "so, that is why my boss is an insane masochist."

The main message of Myers-Briggs, which is reinforced in this book, is that everyone is ok. Your in-laws or that annoying asshole at Starbucks aren't trying to make you crazy. They have logical reasons for driving you nuts that are completely consistent with how they see the world. With a little knowledge and self-awareness you can figure out why that is and see them for the valuable, well-intentioned people that they are.


That is total shenanigans.

Here's what I got out of the book...as an iNtuitive (N) I view/perceive/take-in the world for its deeper meanings - the big picture - as opposed to Sensors (S) who focus on the concrete details which they take at face value. 85 fucking percent of the world are Sensors, which explains why I can't stand talking to people. 85 percent of the time they're boring. And petty. And obvious. And did I mention boring? And they think I'm weird. Which, apparently, according to the numbers, I am.

Keirsey's take on Myers-Briggs is an interesting, and seemingly valid one, though he says it does contradict Myers' (of Myers-Briggs) analysis slightly. He breaks the 16 types into four main groups based on two factors: word usage and tool usage. You can use words in an abstract way (Ns as described above) or concretely (Ss). You can also use tools - and tools refers to nearly everything: roads, houses, clothes, politics - in a cooperative or utilitarian way. Cooperative usage means you consider the morals of the tool you are using based on societal or idealized norms. Utilitarian means you use tools in the most effective way to get the job done, whether or not it is moral.

The four types that result are Idealists (NF), Guardians (SJ), Rationals (NT) and Artisans (SP). The book has convenient stand-alone chapters for each type so you can skip around to read about yourself or your spouse right from the start. Each chapter contains an introduction story of a famous person of that type, a historical retrospective (Rationals were once referred to as "phlegmatics" because they are bland and detached like mucous), and a breakdown of self-image and orientation in the world.

At the end of the chapters, each of the 4 variants within the overarching types is described in detail - priorities, strengths, relationships. The format helps the reader understand what different variants have in common but also emphasizes the subtle unique qualities in the similar groupings. It helps make sense of why an introvert, scheduling (aka anal) idealist (INFJ) would gravitate towards working as a one-on-one counselor, while an extrovert, scheduling idealist (ENFJ) would prefer the group environment as a teacher.

I think the greatest value in understanding Myers-Briggs types is actually to use it as a self-discovery tool. I've always known I was a weirdo, but I was still shocked at realizing things that I thought were universal are actually particular to my type. Apparently, not everyone is burdened with the nagging feeling that they aren't living up to their full potential. The chapter on SPs (my polar opposites) nearly made me cry. Did you know there are people that get total and complete enjoyment out of the actual moment they are living in?!? They feel free to just do whatever makes them happy without any concern about whether they have to go to work tomorrow or if it will piss of their mother. That sounds amazing. And totally undoable for me.

I love Myers-Briggs and this was a great guide to the types. Totally recommended for anyone trying to figure out their families or coworkers or looking for a little more self-understanding.


Free Fall in Crimson: Travis McGee, Comfort Read (CBR3)

I am a self-loathing fiction snob. Cliched characters, bad dialog, unbelievable plots...these things make me crazy and chip away at the limited resolve I have to venture away from non-fiction. I want to love novels. I really, really do. But it doesn't often work. As a result, most of my reading is heavy - non-fiction or classic, proven novels, such as cheery Ethan Frome or Jane Eyre.

But sometimes a girl needs a break! A book for the beach! For this, I am so glad to have found John D. MacDonald and the Travis McGee series. Light, but not too light. Sex, guns and murder written for people with brains. I. Love. It.

Travis McGee describes himself as a "salvage consultant." He works to get back stuff that was taken from people. Typically his clients were fleeced legally and Trav works outside the law to earn retribution. He gets to keep half of whatever he reclaims.

But the plot of these 22 books is the least of the reasons to love them. Though they were written from the 60s to the 80s, the books feel very contemporary (with only the occasional reference to state-of-the-art tape decks). Trav and his best bud Meyer are intelligent, thoughtful, stand-up guys who also happen to live on house boats and be beach bums. Their observations of the world and people are timeless and refreshing. This, from Dress her in Indigo, sums it up nicely:
Old friend, there are people - young and old - that I like, and people that I do not like. The former are always in short supply. I am turned off by humorless fanaticism, whether it's revolutionary mumbo-jumbo by a young one, or loud lessons from the scripture by an old one. We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can't see it all that way bore hell out of me.
There is a plot, however, to Free Fall in Crimson, and I imagine you'd like me to stop humping MacDonald's corpse and get on with it...

There is this dude, Ron, you see, and his very wealthy dad was killed, presumably by a mugger, at a rest stop. The police investigate and determine it was random. Ron isn't so sure and asks Travis to investigate. There were technicalities with the dad's sizable estate that cast suspicion on a few swarthy folks. The trail entangles Travis with biker gangs, the movie industry and a bunch of hot air ballonists. There is a porn ring and a small town mob. The story keeps the book moving quickly and many interesting characters get to play, including Lysa Dean, the sexy, shallow movie star Travis worked for in A Quick Red Fox.

Free Fall in Crimson is a late McGee - written in '81 - and there are only two stories left in the series. It is obvious Trav (and MacDonald) are getting older. The last few books have hinted at Trav's retirement or demise and he is obtaining an unattractive arrogance and detachment to the mayhem he consistently invites.

Throughout the series, however, Travis and Meyer have been consistently lovable and the books have been reliably good. A great, semi-mindless read. I'm nervous that I am coming to their end with 49 books remaining in Cannonball...If you haven't read these books, I'd recommend giving them a go. Lovers of Carl Hiaasen and USA's Burn Notice will find many similarities.

There are always a handful of observations worth dog-earing the pages for in every McGee. I leave you now with my favorite bit from the book - Meyer relating an encounter on the beach:
There was a gaggle of lanky young pubescent lassies on the beach, one of the early invasions of summer, all of them from Dayton, Ohio, all of them earnest, sunburnt and inquisitive. They were huddled around a beached sea slug, decrying its exceptional ugliness, and I took a hand in the discussion, told them its life pattern, defensive equipment, normal habitat, natural enemies, and so on. And I discovered to my great pleasure that this batch was literate! They had read books. Actual books. They had all read Lives of a Cell and are willing to read for the rest of their lives. They had all been exposed to the same teacher in the public school system there, and he must be a fellow of great conviction. In a nation floundering in functional illiteracy, sinking into the pre-chewed pulp of television, it heartens me to know that here and there are little groups of young-uns who know what an original idea tastes like, who know that the written word is the only possible vehicle for transmitting a complex concept from mind to mind, who constantly flex the muscles in their heads and make them stronger.


Death do us Part (CBR book 2)

Crazy how the removal of "until" changes the entire meaning of that little vow. It turns a sweet sentiment into a vengeful, angry act.

Death do us Part is a collection of 19 short stories on "love, lust and murder" - some sweet, some vengeful. The best stories in the book deal with honest, believable emotion and the worst are lazy, unimaginative cliches. Two stories, including Wifey, a version of The Tell-Tale Heart with a dog (by R.L. Stine of Scholastic Goosebumps fame), involved unpredictably insane dudes that I don't want to talk about lest they show up in my dreams with their freakish serial killer creepiness.

Most of the stories, however, revolve around typical fiction folk. All the great wars are covered as you would expect them to be:
  • The young slave girl during the Civil War who has a showdown with her Master, an abusive, idiotic hick.
  • The devoted World War I home-front wife who is lost without her husband (spoiler...he dies, but she gets a kitten, so it's all better. Seriously. It's a bad story and now you don't have to read it).
  • The old vet of the Greatest Generation avenging his wife's death by a drunk driver.
Continuing on with the chiches, is an Italian immigrant in NY/NJ - it doesn't matter - who has his wife's lover killed by the mob. Inventive, no? Another story, told in IM transcripts, covers cyber love. And Heat Lightening is the story of a poor young farmer on droughted land with a slowly-dying wife. He takes a class a community college and has an affair with his teacher, falling in love over Vonnegut. Uh...vomit.

There are a few good, unique stories, starting with the first one Queeny by Ridley Pearson. In eight pages the story zips through 875 days in the life of a man whose wife is missing and presumed murdered. The husband narrates the story of the search, trial and eventual conclusion with honest emotion and carefully chosen words. No space is wasted and the story is a treat.

The Masseuse is an engaging story by Tim Wohlforth about an unusual arrangement between a man and his masseuse. Safe Enough by Lee Child is an inoffensive tale of a blue collar city guy and his Whole Foods-loving suburban chick. Their relationship starts with intrigue and contentment but quickly sours when they can't overcome their differences. She finds him to be boring: "He didn't know anything. And his family was a pack of wild animals." He can no longer tolerate her snobbish nature: "So smug, so superior. She didn't like baseball. And she said that even if she did she wouldn't root for the Yankees. They just bought everything. Like she didn't?" Murder and mayhem commence.

A Few Small Repairs by Jeff Abbott is my favorite story in the book. Frank is a former drug addict whose father has lung cancer. As they work to repair their relationship in a hospital with "the reek of the old man dying," Daddy asks Frank for a radical favor. The compelling 16 page story revolves around Frank's decision related to Daddy's request. Frank is a well-considered character which quite a bit of self-awareness, which makes this man vs. himself tale a good read.

Outside of these three stories, however, there is a lot of fluff. It is interesting to see how 19 different writers take the same assignment and end up with entirely different products, but, as with most things, the result is lots of crap with just a few gems.


Um: Why you sound like an idiot (CBR: #1)

You speak between 7,500 and 22,500 words per day and 1800 of them involve a verbal blunder. You have a slip of the tongue every 7 minutes. You "um" a lot. You make some sort of error on average once every 10 words. It's going to get worse as you get older.

This is likely why you spend all your time trolling around the internet, rather than engaged in those old fashioned talking conversations with people in the same room.

Take heart, fair introvert! Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean exists to let you know that no one is immune speech errors. Not even American Presidents...but more on that later.

Speech errors fall into two main categories: a slip of the tongue - saying the wrong word or wrong sound (like "black bloxes") - or a speech disfluency such as the pause filler (uh, um, er). These errors likely happen when your brain shifts from planning what you're going to say, to executing the actual talking or shifting back again. It has been happening forever and it will continue to happen forever.

The author, Michael Erard, wants readers to know that errors should not always be considered disruptions to communication. Often, they are essential to communication. An "uh" lets your engrossed listeners know you've got more to say, but you need a second to pull it together. It may take you a moment to grab a word that is on the Tip of your Tongue (TOT - that is an Official Acronym), but that is because you know 30,000 of them, which is pretty damn awesome. And where would Freud be without the slips?

There are fun little facts throughout the book, such as the idea that hand gesturing reduces speech errors, that "uh" is one of the easiest sounds to make in English (and likely why we use it as a pause filler), that you make more speech errors when you are nervous or lying, and that when a cop pulls you over and asks you about the weather, he is probably measuring the number of errors you make when speaking about easy things so when he hauls you downtown to start the tough interrogation, he can tell when you're hiding something. So, it may be to your advantage to stutter a lot right off the bat.

Erard states early in the book he became interested in the subject of blunders because of the media coverage of President Bush II and the image of the President's...mental capacity as a result. While some info is interesting (Bush wasn't noted as a verbal blunderer until after Dan Quayle left the race in September, 1999), Erard's defense of Bush gets downright preachy at times and I'm left wondering if I just read a 300 page scolding. Did he write the whole book in an effort to make over-educated elitist Liberals feel bad for calling Bush a dummy?

Take this passage, which is related to the idea that people judge speech errors in two categories: the speaker "knows better" and just flubbed, or "doesn't know better" and their mistake was a result of being an idiot. The author believes Bush's blunders were/are considered "doesn't know better" in order to further the idea that he isn't very bright.
On one hand, criticizing how smart or competent or moral a person is because he or she doesn't speak like you do (or as you expect them to) smears a larger set of people than you'd think, including nonnative speakers of English, stutterers, people with diseases that impact their motor control, and the elderly. Liberals shouldn't talk about speaking this way - it contradicts how they work to include everybody and make sure that everyone has equal opportunity.
That's a nice shout out at the end, but really? We should be easy on Bush because there are people in this country who have Parkinson's or don't speak English as a first language? That makes absolutely no sense. At all.

For all the fun little facts and...deep philosophical questions about Bush's mental capacity, there is also a lot of boring, wasted space throughout the book. In some sections it seems the author includes excess information (like, every "Spoonerism" ever uttered) just to prove he did his homework. It takes a lot more work than it should to find the interesting stuff and I'm not convinced the book follows any logical order.

I suppose if you are looking for an excuse not to attend a social event and talk like an idiot, there are worse things to read. But, in defiance of the author's ranting, I'll recommend Slate's The Complete Bushisms instead.


Wednesday CBRII status report

  • Half-way through Um.
  • Just started a training-wheels version of Othello, but am far enough along to see that Iago is a dick.


Ethan Frome: The Shitty Version of It's a Wonderful Life (CBR: Preface)

Setting: Small New England town in winter. Check.
Protagonist: Ambitious, intelligent young man whose dreams of leaving said Small New England Town are consistently crushed by factors outside of his control. Check.
Nemesis: Cranky invalid who derives joy in causing the misery of others. Check.
Conclusion: Happy, life-affirming climax with Christmas trees, angels getting wings and exuberant outbursts of "Merry Christmas Movie House!" Erm...not so much.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the story of George Bailey without the good-intentioned (though probably drunk) guardian angel. Instead of hooking up with a hot Donna Reed, finding Zuzu's petals and reveling in a cheerful Hollywood ending, Ethan limps through life with a restrained stoicism that echoes the bleak winter in his hometown of Starkfield (yeah, seriously), Massachusetts.

As a young man, Ethan's escape from his Starkfield farm is made impossible by his father's sudden death and the resulting illness of his mother. His cousin Zeena comes to live with him and deftly attends to her aunt so Ethan can attend to the failing farm. When his mother dies, Ethan proposes to his cousin (it's an old book) to hold back the oppressive loneliness of the Starkfield winter. They attempt to sell the farm to finance a move to a larger town, but there are no buyers and within a year Zeena becomes "sickly."

Ethan has resigned to dying miserable in Starkfield when Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin, comes to care for his ailing wife. Mattie is clearly an outsider. She smiles easily, has rosy cheeks and talks with exclamation points. She is a dramatic contrast to Zeena's grayish skin tone, flat whine and asthmatic breathing (Zeena also has false teeth and no boobs.)

Ethan, obviously, falls in love with Mattie, and much of the novella relates his sweetly awkward interactions with her. The lack of plot - or landscape - makes small moments incredibly powerful. When Ethan feels mocked by his family's gravestones or exalted at a brief touch from Mattie, you'll mourn or rejoice with him. When his modest house shivers in a winter storm, you'll swear someone just turned down the heat. So, in the end, when Mattie is to be sent away and Ethan realizes he doesn't have any means to keep her, you'll understand their fateful decision.

Unlike George Bailey, when Ethan attempts suicide there is no guardian angel to pull him out of the water, even though Ethan is arguably more worthy of heavenly intervention as he realized before he tried to kill himself that what he really wanted wasn't to escape Bedford Falls Starkfield, but to live a quiet, uneventful life with Mattie.

The result of Ethan's attempt (which I won't completely give away in case the book wasn't required reading in your crappy High School), is so hauntingly devastating it would give Shakespeare - or Joss Whedon - pause. The ending would easily piss me off in a contemporary best-seller (looking at you, Jodi Picoult), but it works here because Wharton isn't trying to make a book club of Botoxed suburbanites cry. She's saying that sometimes, if life keeps kicking you in the balls, maybe the prudent action is to stay down.

Also, that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Or...not so much.

Cannonball Read starts November 1.