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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Counting By 7s and Belonging But Not Just Belonging

This morning I woke up rotten. I'd just read Counting By 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, but that's not why I felt bad because Counting By 7s made me feel really good. Since reading it I've been  thinking about it for the blog and had to face uncomfortable things about your boy, your servant, your humble blog writer Howie. The easiest theme to tease out of the book is about the importance of belonging. We'll try to get something more out of it later, but I think I need to talk about belonging a little bit. I don't really feel like I belong. Ever. Anywhere. This probably isn't a rare feeling since there are entire books about that feeling and as you have discovered I read one, but just because it happens to other people too doesn't mean it sucks any less.

At work I'm one of the only people who isn't an avid hunter or angler or both. I'm one of a small minority in a town and state who doesn't think that Hillary Clinton is literally evil. Not misguided, or not just someone they don't agree with, but actively trying to accomplish Satan's plan. I'm not even sure about this Satan business, while we're on the subject. At my old job I was one of the only people I worked with who didn't drink, do yoga, obsess about green tea, and tolerate bluegrass music. At church I often disagree with what's being talked about, but realize that if I spoke up, it might mean that my kids don't have anyone to play with. And when I'm among my non-religious friends I'm a little bristly when I'm told that everything wrong with the world is religion's fault.

I'm an outdoorsman who loves collecting old video games, a feminist who loves football, and a Mormon who loves rap music. I love mountain biking and musical theater. And let's be honest here, you guys, because you read this blog and you might know me personally so you already know this but it might be valuable to know that I am aware of it, too. In the words of Hamilton (the rapper), "I know I talk too much, I'm abrasive."

And that's why I woke up feeling bad. See, in my desperate attempt to receive validation that I exist, I tend to get into Facebook fights. I post controversial opinions. I share articles that I know some of you don't like. Part of it is that I genuinely believe whatever the thing is and hope that maybe this will be the thing that helps other people understand why I've arrived at that conclusion. But really, part of it is that if I start a fight I'll see notifications and get the little drip of endorphins that rushes into my system and reminds me that I'm in fact not a ghost and actually occupy a location in the universe, no matter how small.

Oof. This is too heavy. I'm never going to get a meme out of this.

When you worry about who you are and who you belong with, you start to think that you'll never get along with everyone, so you intentionally narrow your audience down until you finally find that little nugget of people who see the world like you do. You define yourself by one thing. It's not enough just to be a rock climber. You have to be a boulderer, or sport climber, or trad climber, or aid climber. You don't just collect video games, you collect SEGA CD games. That's your thing. People say, "Oh Howie? He's got that liberal book blog nobody reads."

It's easier that way. Give everyone a label so that they know where to stand in a crowded room. Jocks with jocks, nerds with nerds, skaters with skaters, and young Japanese men with their anime dolls.
She said that I was highly gifted.
Are people lowly gifted?
Or medium gifted?
Or just gifted? It's possible that all labels are curses. Unless they're on cleaning products.
In my opinion, it's not really a great idea to see people as just one thing.

So why, if I have a hard time fitting in as it is, do I use every platform I have to make sure that everyone knows that we disagree about stuff? The most flattering voice in my head (the one that is actually very very quiet most of the time) says that I'm standing up for what I believe in, and educating, and attempting to banish ignorance from this world once and for all (remember already that there is a bold assertion here that it is my audience's ignorance and not mine at play). Obviously the way I see things make sense to me, and if you only read this article you would agree and we'd all be nicer to each other and be good friends and you'd invite me to parties instead of just post pictures of them on Facebook.

There's a meaner voice, though, that I hate to admit I listen to pretty actively, that says I'm pandering to a handful of people who I already know agree with me and secretly hoping that those who disagree speak up so I can have something to do other than deal with daily life. I want to belong so dang bad that I'll alienate 95% of people just to get on the good side of that 5%. The 5% differs, by the way, depending on what aspect of myself I want to exaggerate at that particular moment.

Now the highest grade I ever got in a college math class was C+, but even I can do that math here. Pretty quickly I'm going to end up with zero. You "liked" the rad hawk picture I took at work, then frowned at my devastating take down of third party candidates. Or you're on board with my opinion about what a scumbag Brock Turner is, but a hawk carried away your dog. And one time I made fun of people who spend more money on their dogs than I do on my children and you're looking at the receipt for your dog's massive empty casket funeral (complete with marble statues). Listen, I'm sorry about your dog. Let's move past your dog. I know you loved him or her.

Too soon? Dangit, it's too soon, isn't it?
You guys, how am I supposed to know if your dog is a him or her? Why must you correct me so assiduously? Do you know how hard it is for me to pretend to like your dog, let alone know what sex it is? Why did you have a dog so small it could be carried away by a bird that's the same size as my cat?

I said let's drop the dog and let's drop it.

I'm sorry that the hawk dropped your dog from that height and that I just reminded you of it.

Also, while we're talking about birds, did you know that the "noble" bald eagle often doesn't hunt, but instead eats carrion and steals food from other birds? Oh right. You found that out the hard way. Sorry about that.

When's the funeral? Dang. That's my fantasy football draft. Save me some potatoes.

Anyway now that dog guy's gone, let's talk about this book.

You could ascribe a lot of adjectives to Willow Chance. She's brilliant, but socially awkward. She's never been a teacher's pet, and she isn't shy about expressing frustration or disinterest with school. She's adopted, she's black, she's a gardener, she is obsessed with germs, she loves animals. She has a pretty good sense of humor. “It would look pretty messed up," she says, "to be a social worker and have dried kid blood as a permanent stain in your vehicle.”

Her parents love her, but also worry for her. On her first day at her new middle school she wants to make an impression, so she decides to wear her gardening outfit, complete with floppy hat. She takes a test on the first day and scores the highest in the state and is promptly accused of cheating.

I'm not spoiling anything, because it's in the first three pages or so, but Willow's parents are killed in a car accident. This is pretty common for young adult fiction. What's uncommon is that we don't quickly fast-forward to when she's moved on with her life and ready to begin an adventure. We spend a lot of time with Willow. We grieve with her. We cry (or at least I cry) right along with her. Oh my gosh you guys do we grieve with Willow.

I have seen trees that survive fire.
Their bark is burned and their limbs are dead branches.
But hidden under that skeleton is a force that sends a single shoot of green out into the world.
Maybe if I'm lucky, that will one day happen to me.
But right now, I can't see it.

But grieving isn't really a luxury because she also needs a place to live, and it's hard to find a place to live for an eccentric black girl who is at maybe the most awkward age of human existence. “People usually find a good place for stray dogs, or for the elderly when they can no longer go up stairs or use a can opener. Finding a good place for a kid seems like a much bigger challenge.”

Willow, who at her core is built of human kindness and a growing sense of perception of what it is to be a human, becomes a nucleus for a seemingly random group of people: a Vietnamese family, an unambitious hoarder of a school counselor, a taxi driver, and a pretty unlucky cat. The way Willow touches their lives without realizing it is probably familiar to regular readers of young adult fiction, but I have no problem with boilerplate storytelling if I'm enjoying myself. She's such a unique and well-drawn character, it's no wonder people like being around Willow. I miss her already.

Her counselor, being lazy, creates a system for dealing with all of his students. This consists of color coded folders labeled things like "oddball," "lone wolf," and "weirdo." Each student he lumps into one of those categories, and then generates pre-filled reports to send on to the district. He seems to get along just fine that way.

A lot of us think we're getting along just fine that way, too. We think we've got the gun collector all figured out, for example. 'MURICA, am I right? But we don't realize that he also spends a couple of hours every week teaching English to Mexican immigrants. You can be a chill dude and still like sticks that go bang and put holes in stuff. Or check this out. I went to school with a Jeff Spicoli pothead looking guy who never wore shoes and rode a skateboard everywhere, but he regularly shot the biggest buck of anyone I knew. Also he was a survivalist and the first person I'd put on a zombie team.

We're so dang similar, all of us. If we weren't, funny memes wouldn't spread like they do. And from sitting in the park and watching Pokemon Go zombies fans hang out, we genuinely want to like each other. But maybe we're scared, too. Maybe in order to avoid being rejected, we reject first and mock instead. That way at least it's our choice. And then we find someone else, and that someone else's only thing in common with us is that we both think their losers. We look at those guys having a great time finding fake monsters and we make eye contact and roll our eyes and say "these guys, right" and then we go back to trying to get strangers to like us on Instagram. And then we feel like we belong.

The real Pokemon pros know where to look

Who's having more fun?