Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I am four books into my read-through of the entire Jane Austen canon, and all I can say is that I enjoy each book more than the last.

So does that mean that Emma, the topic of this review, is a better book than Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park? Only in the sense that I seem to enjoy whichever of her books I am reading at the time the most.

Everybody knows Emma, right? Emma Woodhouse, the matchmaker who cares so much about the romantic goings-on of others, and so little for her own, that a few early successes blind her to the romantic blunders she is making others step into.

This matchmaking aspect is a large part of Emma. But it’s not the only part. I am finding it difficult to say anything about the Austen oeuvre that hasn’t been said before and have instead tried to extract from them why I think they are worth reading aside from the entertaining stories. And two themes that I took from Emma are those of self-awareness and that people can change.

Let’s have some plot for context: Emma is the youngest daughter of the hypochondriac widower Henry Woodhouse. She is charming, rich, witty, attractive, and too clever for her own good. After successfully matching her sister Isabella to family friend John Knightly, she fancies herself somewhat of an expert on matchmaking. And that is where her trouble begins.

Emma is also flighty, inconstant, and never spends enough time devoting herself to the improvement of anything, as John Knightly’s brother George, who serves as her conscience, is so fond of pointing out. She is, in other words, a middleweight despite her obvious energy and intellect:

“She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

What’s worse, many of her schemes to bring people together go wrong, with sometimes humorous, sometimes harmful results.Her friend Harriet Smith; the priest Mr. Elton; the farmer Robert Martin; Frank Churchill, the stepson of Emma’s governess; family friend Jane Fairfax . . . they are all on the receiving end of Emma’s machinations. The fun and poignancy of the story is seeing all of these little stories play out, and the effect that they have on Emma and her conception of self.

I won’t go into spoilers except to say that, as with all of Austen’s works, her characterizations are sharp and deep, her insights into human nature are masterful, and there is always that dialogue . . . some of the best written by anyone, ever, in the English language.

But Emma might be my favorite Austen character thus far, and here’s why: While clearly intended to be unlikable at the outset, she does what she does not out of malice, but out of what she thinks is for the best. So there’s a clear intention/outcome dichotomy, but it works because of Emma’s  willingness to change. Continue reading “Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen”

When Reality Just Won’t Listen

Let me paint you a scene:

A man wakes up somewhere in America. It’s Monday morning, six a.m. Slightly groggy and irate at the alarm, he reaches over and shuts his phone. Like most of us, the man’s mobile device doubles as his alarm clock (and his camera, and his music player, and his calendar, and his notebook, and his television remote, and…)

He sits upright, rubs his eyes, yawns mightily. At some point he stands up, maybe puts on a short, and walks quietly out of his bedroom. 

What’s the first thing this man does? Make the coffee? Brush his teeth? Relieve himself?

None of these. This man is a creature of the 21st century. He looks at his phone, fires up one of the myriad news or social media sites, and starts scrolling. 

He reads mostly just the headlines, letting the ideas of others whizz by him and cast their hooks in his consciousness. A few bits stick, but not the specifics. 

What he’s retaining is something different. It’s an idea, a zeitgeist, a narrative

A template

As the man scrolls, perhaps while brushing his teeth, he gets idea about what the day’s topic of conversation is supposed to be. What he’s supposed to care about today. 

But the template is sinking in. 

Maybe now he starts the coffee. 

It’s a morning just like any other. Now the man truly wakes up, hazy gray slumber giving way to full-color alertness. Stomach rumbling, e wonders what to make for breakfast, thinks about what traffic might be like, goes over the workday’s tasks in his mind. 

And then he sees it. It could be a tweet, or it could be a story, or it could be a blogpost. 

Somebody somewhere, some politician or pundit or even a private citizen, said something. Something so wrong, so egregious, that the man can think of nothing else. 

His mood is ruined. His focus is shattered and reconstructed, centered only on this one thing. 

Someone was wrong. 

Suddenly, his morning doesn’t seem so good. 

This is not right. 

This person must be answered. 
He hits “Reply” and begins to write. 

And if his mother, or his girlfriend, or his co-workers could read what he writes, they’d wonder how it could come from the sane, rational, decent man they thought they knew. 

Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like anyone you know? 

Or you? Continue reading “When Reality Just Won’t Listen”

Working Stiff Blues

It began like any other work day. 

Dressed in my suit and tie, I grabbed my stuff and said goodbye to my family before I head out to greet the workday.

“Stay here daddy. I don’t want you to go to work. And I don’t want to go to school. Let’s play!”

“Believe me, kiddo, believe me: I don’t want to go to work either.”

The words pass almost unconsciously from my lips. After all, nobody wants to go to work. Work is bad, right?

Well, no. Work is necessary. Work equals survival. Without work, nothing ever would get done. We’d still all be hunter-gatherers and there would be no civilization to speak of, modern or otherwise.

Maybe one doesn’t like their job, maybe one doesn’t like being away from their family for so long, maybe one would rather be doing something else for work, but work itself is not the problem.

“All jobs suck.”

“That’s why they call it WORK.”

“No pain, no gain!”

These things are true. But is that what kids hear? Are they able to parse these truths from generic statements like “I don’t want to go to work”?

Kids are sponges. We all know that. It’s what made me stop saying this to my son. 

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t want him to equate “work” in his little mind with “bad.” Because if I do, what’s going to happen whenever he has to work at something, especially something difficult? Continue reading “Working Stiff Blues”

The Law of Managing Expectations


In the law, much of client relations involves babysitting and hand-holding. 

This is also known as managing expectations

Let me explain: I’m not making fun of people who need legal services, or their various crises. But thanks to television dramas, high-profile lawsuits,  and the generally litigious nature of American society, the legal profession has been glammed up to an undeserving degree. 

People, with some justification, view lawyers as magicians, able to use their magic words to get them whatever they want, usually easy money. But this is not the case. 

And so, at the outset, a lawyer needs to be ready to burst bubbles and set the tone so that ambitions aren’t unrealistically inflated. Don’t under-promise and over-deliver. Just be an adult and do your job. 

You see the parallels with life, don’t you? Whether it’s with your children, your spouse, or yourself, managing expectations is important. 

It’s difficult to get from point A to point B if you don’t even know what point A is Continue reading “The Law of Managing Expectations”

Feeding the Perfection Beast

Today is February first. In addition to things like Black History Month, President’s Day, and whatever else is celebrated in February,* it also marks the beginning of the annual RPM Challenge

Think of the RPM Challenge as the musical equivalent of November’s National Novel Writing Month. The Challenge, which started in my home state of New Hampshire back in 2006 by local music magazine The Wire, is a call to record either 35 minutes or 10 tracks worth of new music in the month of February. 

It’s a lot of fun. Or would be, if I ever finished the challenge. 

Unlike National Novel Writing Month, which I accomplished this year, the several times I’ve began an RPM Challenge project, I never finished it. 

The one time I sort of did was in 2009 when I played bass on my brother’s album. He’s finished the challenge four or five times, now, maybe more. And he has more kids than I do. 

Me, I always petered out somewhere along the line, sometimes due to time restrictions, sometimes due to technical or equipment difficulties, but usually due to being my own worst enemy. 

You see, back when I had the music equipment and the space to record, I fell into the thrall of that dreaded monster perfection.

Perfection is one mean bastard. He gets into your head and makes you think you’re some kind of rock star when you’re really just a dude with a 9-to-5 and a hankering to pretend, just for a few hours here and there, that you’re something bigger than you really are. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

This is the difference between me and my brother: I let perfection play on my immaturity and narcissism. My brother, while only a year and some change older than me, got married, started a family, and finished school far younger than I did. 

In short, he grew up faster. 

He knew the value of time and realism. He didn’t dicker around with trying to get everything just right. No, he said to himself, and I’m making this up based on observations but bear with me, “There is something I want to do. If I do X, Y, and Z for this amount of time every day, I will accomplish what I set out to do.”

He had a goal, and a system to achieve that goal. 

Process and not perfection. 

In short, he went for it. 

Me, not so much.  Continue reading “Feeding the Perfection Beast”

The Treadmill of Life

Real-and-Inspiring-Getting-Off-the-Treadmill-of-Life.png

“Are you stuck in a rut? Does life make you feel like you’re on a treadmill, constantly running and getting nowhere? Well, stick around because boy, do have the answer for YOU!”

The above sentence is, of course, complete nonsense. And yet, there’s a lot of this going around.

Look, I love the Internet. There is more knowledge, more communication, more connection than you could ever handle in a lifetime. There is also another thing that gets forgotten: More inpsiration.

That’s right! Like lots of other people, I have discovered what is sometimes called the “manosphere,” but which I just like to refer to as “men.”

Like most males of the species, I do not have many friends that I see on a regular basis. My “social support group” or whatever you want to call it can be counted on one hand. Through nobody’s fault but my own, I have let my friendships dwindle down to mere acquanitences, and it feels futile, and even daunting, to try to rekindle them.

Enter the Internet. There are lots and lots of men talking about these things, and how to navigate a life that seems not quite deisgned for you to live in. A lot of it is in good fun and the spirit of true self-improvement. Some of it has even been helpful!

I’m not here to knock any of it, even though I don’t agree with all of it.

But sometimes I do look at these people–older than men, younger than me, the same age and me–who seem to have it all figured out, and I have to tell myself, before I get too depressed, that everyone is different.

And also that this is the Internet. Lots of people are trying to sell themselves. While 99% of what they do is given away for free, and it’s eminently fair to offer that remaining 1% for a price (usually low), there is an element of puffery.

Still, it’s inevitable that we compare ourselves to others, even when we know that can sometimes be a fool’s game. But without something to aspire to, where do we go?

Sadly, I know the answer to that. You go to a pretty dark place and it’s tough to get out.

But at least a dark place feels like SOMEWHERE, even if it’s not a somewhere you want to set up permanent shop.

Being on life’s treadmill, though . . . treading water . . . is almost more miserable in its mediocrity.

You’re just going . . . nowhere.

Or as one of my favorite bands puts it:

Runnin’ twice as fast to stay in the same place
Don’t catch my breath until the end of the day . . .

–Faith No More, “Ricochet

“It’s temporary,” you might say. “We’re all in this situation at some point.”

True . . . but fifteen or so years can sure seem like an eternity.

So while I have no answers for how to get off, I can continue to use my life as a cautionary tale to make sure that you don’t get on the treadmill of life. Continue reading “The Treadmill of Life”

Smaller Spaces

My long personal nightmare is over. After  over a year-and-a-half of living a dual existence, bouncing between New England and the Capital Region, driving 800+ miles per week and being away from my wife and son three out of the seven days, 2017 sees us all together 24/7. 

To say I am happy about this does my feelings no justice. 

Mentally and emotionally, I am at greater peace. 

Physically, I finally feel like my old self again, the high-energy guy who hardly slept and never took a minute off. 

I had thought I was getting old. It turns out that not sleeping, spending 16-20 hours in a car per week, and being separated from my family had deleterious effects. Who would have guessed?

So we are all back together, and there is much rejoicing. 

But an interesting thing has happened as we’ve gone from owning a house to renting a small apartment. And while the current living situation is temporary, I have discovered something very interesting:

I don’t miss having all of that space. 

I know, I know, I’ll get back to you after a year of this, if we’re still. And maybe the “honeymoon” of being reunited has worn off. 

But still, I find myself not missing all of the extra room a house brings. 

Of course, much of our stuff is still stored with family back north. And we are actively looking for a bigger, more permanent place. 

I can’t help but wonder about the so-called “American dream” of home-ownership. 

Owning a home is nice, and it’s great to have your own little piece of America, but consider this:

  • Unless you have the money to purchase it outright, you don’t really “own” your home. The bank does. 
  • Home ownership is another kind of debt. A huge one. 
  • Banks and other mortgage lending institutions do not care about you. 
  • We are pushed to view homes as “investments” rather than places to live, yet we’ve seen this “sure thing” burst quite severely before. Why won’t it again in the future?

And where I am now looking for a home, real estate prices are preposterous. 

Culturally, the “more and bigger” phenomenon is interesting. We want space; it becomes a status symbol

I view houses the way I view cars: Utilitarian things designed for heavy use that need to work for the individual, what other people think be damned. 

Maybe I’m just wired oddly. I don’t know. 

But the thrill of more is persists. Is it worth it to be housepoor, just so you can brag about your house? Continue reading “Smaller Spaces”