Aleen Mean

Mourning by a Thousand Paper Cuts

I’m laying in bed, trying to work up the force of will to get up and prepare for the day. Yesterday, Justin’s mom was transported from the hospital bed she’d been occupying for a week to her bed in a hospice facility. She’s not drinking much or eating at all, so I doubt she’ll be there long. This is the end of three years of chemotherapy and immunotherapy and radiation and paracenteses and nutrient infusions and blood transfusions.

I’m not ready to talk about her as she was or to unpack my complicated feelings about the last few years. We’ll be in a world where she was soon enough, and I’m happy to live in a world where she still is for a while longer.

Over the last week, as it’s become more and more apparent that modern medicine has no more help to offer my mother-in-law, I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and grieving.

I always block out, in the days and weeks and months after a friend or family member dies, that mourning is not one big event. Rather, it’s a million million series of little grievances; it’s mourning by a thousand paper cuts.

Some of these cuts we knew we’d acquire. Last night, we said goodbye to her dogs when we gave them to their new owner. We’re searching for good homes for her cats. We’re thinking about what to do with the things in her house—all the mementoes of her 70 years on the planet.

Some of these cuts are acquired only in retrospect, a series of small finalities we didn’t know would hurt so much. We’ve already banded together to pick on Justin for the last time. Commented on the choices people made on home improvement shows. Compared Wordle results. Laughed at her pets. Shared a meal. Had a conversation.

Eventually, I’ll stop noticing the tiny things that mark the world without her in it. And then I’ll notice that I’m noticing less, which is a cut of its own. Life will move on, but it will never be the same.

On Color

How is it 2023 and our color choices for Apple devices are still either “garish baby shower” or “Victorian woman in the late stages of mourning”?

Soon is Now

Because I’m a pioneer, I have kept some kind of blog since the mid-1990s.

I’ve never written with any kind of purpose in mind; I just needed some way to get the words out of my brain and in front of a couple of other people. It’s never been about building a large audience or establishing expertise or creating a portfolio. I write because I need to write. I write because, for whatever reason, I feel like I am the most Aleen when I am trying to wrangle words into sentences that feel right.

Due to a variety of factors, both personal and global, I haven’t really written much in…years. More years than I want to consider. It’s strange to say that I can feel the absence of writing in my life, but I can. I can point to a spot on the left side of my skull, toward the back, and tell you, “Here. This is where it’s wonky.”

I always say that I’m going to fix it soon. I’ll write again soon, when the timing is better, when there are fewer barriers, when things are a little more optimal. I always know that’s a lie when I say it, though. Sometimes, you just go with the amalgamation of circumstances you have and turn soon into now.

At some point, writing here became overwhelming because I started thinking of it as a place where I needed content that was Serious & Well Considered. I think this is because I had Twitter for the random observations and ridiculous jokes that would spring into my brain. Twitter serves me less and less well as time goes on, though, and I find myself craving the security of my own space. I don’t know what that means for this blog, really, but I guess we’ll find out together!

You'll Never Guess What Happened When She Broke a Vital Piece of Technology!

Earlier this week, I did the unthinkable: I dropped a tech product I use every day and shattered the screen. Fortunately, the product in question was my Apple Watch and not my iPhone or computer.

A 38mm Apple Watch with a shattered screen.

I have often wondered if having an Apple Watch is really worth the investment for me. For one thing, they’re unattractive; they are definitely tech devices rather than fashion accessories and dressing one up is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. This is why I find myself looking longingly at mechanical watches every few months—sometimes, I just want something pretty to wear on my wrist.

I’ve been known to skip wearing my Apple Watch from time to time, and there was a month at the beginning of the year when I had an eczema flair on my wrist and the only thing I could do to clear it was to go watch-free.1 I’m still rocking my Series 3 from nearly two years ago and I haven’t felt the impulse to upgrade to the latest and greatest, which is not my typical tech M.O.

The only apps I launch on my watch are the timer and Pedometer++. I almost always start a timer using Siri instead of manually finding the app, and I only enter Pedometer++ if I want a mid-walk step count update.2 Because I don’t fiddle with my watch throughout the day to launch apps, I didn’t think I would miss having it on my wrist. I’ve been surprised to learn, however, that I apparently glance at and interact with my Apple Watch far more frequently than I realized.

As you might expect, I use it as a readily-accessible way to check the time, day of the week, and date. Yes, I have to check the date multiple times a day. No, I don’t anticipate that I will ever be better at remembering. In the days before smart watches, I always favored timepieces with date dials on them and now, I always have a date-related complication on my screen.

More than that, though, I most often use my watch as a media playback controller. I listen to around 20 hours of podcasts and audiobooks every week as I play games, do chores, take walks, and ride the bus around the city. When I’m doing things around the apartment, I’ll often just carry my phone with me and listen over the speakers rather than putting in AirPods.3 It’s so easy to pause playback and fast forward or rewind from the watch, and adjusting the volume to match the task at hand using the crown of the watch is so convenient.

I’ve always been strict about notifications on my phone and allow very few apps to send them to me. Even the usual notification suspects like Mail, Slack, and various social media platforms aren’t allowed to disturb me under any circumstances. Since I keep the notification noise so low, I love receiving them on my Apple Watch. This way, I know right away when my husband texts me to let me know he’s on his way home or if my mom is trying to get in touch.

I also miss being able to use the Siri watch face to glance and see what time each evening’s sunset will occur and whether or not my mom’s favorite sports team, the Colorado Rockies, are playing (and get quick score updates when they are).

None of my uses for the Apple Watch are revolutionary, but they do make my life easier in small ways. I’m glad I bought AppleCare+ and will have a replacement watch on my wrist in the next few days.4

  1. Because I know people will bring it up: I clean my watch every night. This isn’t a hygiene issue, it’s an autoimmune issue. 

  2. There are technical reasons why step counts aren’t updated in real time. I tried to find a blog post where David Smith, the developer of Pedometer++, talks about the limitations but I think he may have done so on his podcast instead. 

  3. I don’t listen to things using my watch’s speakers because I can keep my phone at a consistant distance from my head and the watch’s speakers aren’t designed for good audio quality. 

  4. You’ll notice that I don’t mention fitness tracking here, but that’s a blog post for another day. 

Best Books in 2018

For me, the bright spot of 2018 was how highly I prioritized reading.

I was one of those kids growing up: the ones who go to the library and walk out with a stack of books, sometimes heavier and taller than I could cope with. I read instead of talking to my classmates, whom I had little in common with. I read ahead in our textbooks. I read in the car. I read while watching TV. I read instead of doing my chores.1

I’ve had a harder time reading in adulthood. There were several years in my mid-to-late 20s when I didn’t read a single book because I had such difficulty concentrating.

This year, though. This was my year to be blanketed in new worlds and characters. This year, I marked 83 books as read in Goodreads (there are a few I read but didn’t track because they were re-reads and I didn’t think about it). I was secretly hoping to break 100, but I’m pretty happy with my accomplishment regardless.

I’ve had a few people ask me how I managed to read so much. I’ll share my secrets, then I’ll tell you about my favorite books of the year.

How I Read So Much

Here’s my #1 tip for reading more: make time to read more.

In April, Justin and I packed up our cats and belongings, sold our house, and moved to Seattle. We sold our car. One side effect was that we stopped listening to podcasts together, because running errands in Phoenix meant being in the car together, and being in the car together meant podcasts.2 Now, we walk or take public transportation almost everywhere we go. I use that time to read.

Additionally, we run fewer errands now. Trips to Costco are a thing of the past because we don’t have anywhere to store 300 rolls of toilet paper and two dozen boxes of Kleenex. We order bulky dry goods using services like Target Restock, Amazon, and Thrive Market (that’s a referral link for 25% off your first order with them). Less time spent on errands means more time I can have my nose in a novel.

One of the best things about our move is that Seattle’s public library system is well-funded. In Phoenix, it was pretty hard for me to get to a library branch to check out physical books and the digital system was pretty sparse. When I heard about a book I was interested in reading, I’d have to buy it and, unfortunately, my budget for buying books is not infinite. Now, I can get most of the books I want to read from the library without ever stepping foot in a branch, and I often check out audiobooks from the library by browsing the “available now” section in Libby. This has the bonus of exposing me to authors and topics I might not seek out on my own.

“But Aleen,” you’re thinking, “I can’t just up and move to Seattle. What else have you got for me?”

I haven’t watched as much TV or as many movies this year as I typically do. The last movie I saw in a cinema was Avengers: Infinity War this spring. I’m behind on a lot of the televison series I love (but you better believe I’m caught up on The Good Place and Steven Universe). More time for reading!

Audiobooks have been hugely important to my reading practice this year. Seriously, you will pry my Audible subscription from my cold, dead hands.3 I listen to audiobooks while I do chores, when I walk around the city, and while I play certain video games (mostly Splatoon 2). When I’m trying to get through something quickly for a book club episode of The Incomparable, I’ll get both the Kindle and Audible version of the book so I can easily switch between reading and listening.

I’m pretty lucky because I have the ability to stop reading or listening to a book wherever I am and then pick it up again where I left off. Since I don’t need to read until I hit a new chapter or section break, I can read for a couple of minutes here and there. I can also be in the middle of several books at once. Usually, this means that I’m reading both a digital and audio novel.

And finally, the tip I hope you never, ever fall back on: I use reading as an avoidance mechanism. I’ve been in severe physical pain since we started prepping for our move. I’ve been extremely depressed for most of 2018. I experienced my first true panic attack this summer and have had several more since. I have been mired in self-doubt and fallen deep into the hole of self-criticism. Getting lost in other people’s worlds was my solace.

So, uh, there you have it! Easy.

Okay, I can’t end it there. Here’s a tip literally anyone can use: if you hate the book you’re reading, stop. Move on. My book count for 2018 doesn’t include those I stopped reading when I was half through. If you look at my page on Goodreads, you’ll notice that I haven’t rated many books below three stars. That’s because I have no qualms about abandoning a book. This hasn’t always been the case, but a few years I go I really internalized that life is too full of tedium for me to force myself to read something I dread.

Seriously, give yourself permission to walk away from things you dislike in 2019.

My Favorite Books of 2018

So let’s talk about what I loved to read in 2018. This list isn’t in any particular order except for my first picks:4

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. I read The Calculating Stars the week it was released and immediately wanted more more more; fortunately, its sequel was on shelves several weeks later. A blend of science fiction and alternate history, Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Novels are beautifully written and chock full of relatable (if not always likable) characters. I read both of these books in their physical, dead tree form and also listend to the audiobook version. Both are excellent, but a bonus to the audiobooks is that Kowal narrates them and she’s just wonderful. She breathes even more life into characters I both loved and abhorred.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. This is a book I know I will revisit in 2019. Oluo’s writing is straightforward and accessable. Part memoir, part essay, part how-to manual, So You Want to Talk About Race helps address and give strategies for dismantling structural racism in the US.

The White Trash Zombie series by Diana Rowland. Zombies are just like us, except they need to eat human brains in order to stay whole and sane. There are seven books in this series to date, and I read them all as quickly as I could get them from the library. It’s not highbrow literature, but this series was a great escape for me this year. I also thought it did a decent job of addressing some aspects of abusive familial relationships and poverty, especially in the earlier books.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I’m struggling to encapsulate what was so compelling about Shrill, but reading this book was as easy as breathing. West’s writing is conversational and she covers a borad swath of topics important to modern feminism, ranging from fatness to racism to online harassment to being a women in comedy.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me is an intimate letter from father to son that hammers home what it’s like to be a Black man in America. I listened to this book and wished that I was instead holding it in my hands. There were sentences that took my breath away and I wanted to go back and savor them, which isn’t easy with audiobooks.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 16-year old Starr Carter loves sneakers and basketball. She lives in a poor neighborhood rife with gang violence, goes to a preparatory academy, and has to navigate between the two. When she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer, she has to contend with her trauma and the desperate responses of her different communities.

The Fuse by Antony Johnston5 (author) and Justin Greenwod (illustrator). I like murder mysteries. I like graphic novels. I like things set in space. Here, I got all three! I read all four volumes of this series and enjoyed them all. (Thanks to James Thomson, who recommended them to me!)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss. We know about Drs. Moreau, Frankenstine, Rappaccini, and Jekyll. What about their monsters, though? In this Victorian-era detective series, we learn more about these inventors and the child-creations they leave behind.

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. When I was young, I loved horror stories. One of my favorites was the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker. In Sparrow Hill Road, McGuire shares the hitchhiker’s story: both her death and her afterlife. I haven’t read further in the series, but I’m planning on it.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. Radium was supposed to be a substance of health and wonder. It was put into health tonics and body lotions. Soon after its discovery, it was even used to paint dials on watches and airplane instrumentation so they could be used in the dark. Who did that painting? Women in factories, who often licked their radium-covered paintbrushes to ensure accuracy. The Radium Girls is a dive into the both hope and turmoil these women experienced. Let’s not forget them.

  1. Some things never change. 

  2. If Apple ever lets us pair two sets of AirPods to one device, this will probably change. 

  3. Many people have told me that listening to the audio version of a book doesn’t count as reading. You’re free to have that gatekeeping opinion and keep it to yourself. 

  4. These are Amazon affiliate links 🙃 

  5. Antony’s a friend, but if I didn’t like what he wrote, I just wouldn’t talk about it.