Book Review: Half Empty by David Rakoff

Half EmptyHalf Empty by David Rakoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Rakoff’s style. He’s articulate, witty, and self-effacing. He’s got a larger vocabulary than I have, although not so large that I had to use a dictionary. I knew the meaning of all of the words, I just don’t use them on a daily basis. This left me feeling alternately pleased that I know the words and slightly concerned that the fact that I don’t use them might be proof that I’m not as smart as I think I am. He gives voice to many of the fears I have about myself and how people perceive me. I wonder if I met him if we’d be friends or if we’d just annoy each other.

I enjoyed all of the essays in this book, but my favorites were the first (which dealt with Julie Norem’s book about “defensive pessimism,” The Positive Power of Negative Thinking) and the one about Utah. It was pleasant to hear that someone else shares my experience of Utah as a place of an oppressive number of possibilities. I’m the kind of person who likes CSAs not so much because I like to buy local produce, but because I like my options to be limited so it’s easier for me to decide what to cook for dinner. Utah is wide open geographically (except for the mountains, which are vast in and of themselves and so not much help in limiting me) and was founded by people who rode out here buoyed by optimism, bent on discovering/creating the Promised Land. I find this to be a lot of pressure.

The only problem I had with the book was the cover art. Every time my sixteen-month-old found the book lying around, he saw the cartoon animals and thought it was a book for him. He would ask me to read it and then get very, very angry at me when I didn’t comply. While it’s kind of cute and funny when a toddler throws himself on the floor and cries, it does get a little old after a while.

View all my reviews

TBR List Declutter, Issue 37


There are no obvious invertebrates in today’s Visual Interest, so it’s safe to tell you about “Chicken Casserole.” I put “Chicken Casserole” in quotes because I always think of canned soup and noodles or rice when I think of casserole, and in that sense, this isn’t a casserole. Rather than trying to figure out what it is if it’s not a casserole, I just call it a “casserole.”

This is another 100% Trader Joe’s recipe, although it doesn’t have to be. None of the ingredients is necessarily TJ’s specific except the salsa, and really, you can use whatever salsa you want. Ro-tel tomatoes would also work here.


  • 3-5 frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs (however many fit in the bottom of the pan in a single layer). You can also use thawed if you plan ahead a little.
  • 1 bag frozen corn
  • 1 can (14.5 ozs) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 jar TJ’s Garlic Chipotle Salsa, or 16 ounces of your salsa of choice

Place chicken thighs in a single layer in the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Pour corn, beans, and salsa over the top, mixing around a bit if you so desire. It seems to mix itself pretty well while cooking, but sometimes I mix it around just to make it feel like I’m doing more work than I actually am. Just make sure the chicken stays in a single layer.

Cook at 425°F for about 1 hour or until chicken registers at least 165°F on a meat thermometer. I’m paranoid about undercooking chicken, so I usually aim for something closer to 200°F, and it seems to come out fine.

And that’s it. You could probably serve it with rice or something, but we usually don’t bother with anything but a vegetable on the side.

Visual Interest:



Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.


Titles 451-470:

Read More

2015: My Year in Books

In 2015, I read 105 books, consisting of a total of 30,038 pages (I stopped reading two of these books before finishing them; the page total does not account for this).

The average (mean) books read per month was 8.75, and the average (mean) per week was 2.02.

Of these, 75 were fiction (including children’s books), 8 were memoirs, and the remaining 22 were other nonfiction.

I read 3 books from my Cavalcade of Classics list during 2015. To date, I’ve read ~20% of the 89 classics on my list. If I’m going to read all of them by 2017, I’ll need to average nearly 7 classics per month from here on out. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this just isn’t going to happen.

So many of the books I read this year were awesome, but my favorites were probably Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

I am currently reading The Histories by Herodotus (not ready to give this one up yet even though I’ve been reading it since March 2015) and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, which is one of five books my spouse got for me from the library for Christmas. The other four books are Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, No Time to Lose by Pema Chodron, Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li. I’ve also got one whole shelf of books I’ve acquired over the years that I hope to finally read and clear out. I vow not to enter any ARC giveaways until this shelf is empty. (And of course, there are those seven classics a month I need to read, and I’m stupidly busy with volunteer work until May, and did I mention that I homeschool my kids? 2016 does not look good for reading. *sigh*)

Below is the book list for 2015, by the month I finished each book. Read More

Bookends: August 2015


As August vacates the premises, and September leaps in to fill the void, I find myself feeling tired. Nothing in particular is tiring me, so I have to assume it’s just the rush of time. Perhaps the whooshing noise as it rushes by is keeping me from sleeping well.

My youngest turned six this month and has a very wiggly tooth. My eldest is nearly as tall as I am and entering that “I don’t know why I’m crying” phase I remember so well from my growing-up despite all of my attempts to forget it. It’s been a month of anniversaries and milestones, cake and martinis, berry-picking and humidity. I’m looking forward to the cool of autumn and trying not to dread the chill of winter. At least the cold weather will give me ample excuse to curl up with a book.

August’s books…

Read More

The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem

In The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, author Julie Norem compares defensive pessimism—a strategy for managing existing anxiety by identifying and addressing possible negative outcomes before undertaking an endeavor—with its counterpart, strategic optimism—a strategy used by people with low baseline levels of anxiety to relax before a big event and avoid triggering anxious feelings. Both strategies, Norem contends, can optimize performance for different personalities in different situations. Each strategy has its own risks and benefits, and the secret is knowing which is the right fit for each of us in any particular circumstance.

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for more than four years, since I read David Rakoff’s Half Empty, which references Norem’s research. Reading about defensive pessimism, I could easily identify situations in which I instinctively and successfully use this strategy, like when preparing for a road trip or putting together homeschool curricula for my kids. I could also identify situations in which I instead engage in avoidance and self-handicapping rather than risk feeling the full force of my anxiety, like in the case of the unfinished novel I’ve been thinking about daily but not writing on since 2010.

Thinking of defensive pessimism, avoidance, and self-handicapping as different responses to anxiety has caused a welcome shift in my thinking. I spent an evening this week listing in my journal all of the negatives about working on my novel, and then wrote out potential ways that I could manage the anxiety around these so that I can actually write down the scenes that play out in my mind. So far, I’ve not actually sat down to write on the novel, but I consider this a positive move in that direction. At the very least, when I schedule a morning writing session and then ignore my alarm and then don’t have enough time to write before the kids and I need to begin our lessons, I can identify this as avoidance. (Putting a name on it has to have some value, right?)

Despite its potential helpfulness in making progress on my personal goals, there are two things that keep me from loving this book. First, it’s too long for the amount of information it includes. This isn’t as extreme as in other self-helpy books I’ve read, but I think I could have gotten the basic idea in about half the number of words. Second, it brought up so many tangential issues that I sometimes couldn’t figure out how they fit in with the defensive pessimism/strategic optimism duality Norem presents. As helpful as it was to read about avoidance and self-handicapping as ways to avoid feeling their existing anxiety, it wasn’t clear how they fit. Are there corresponding negative ways of avoiding anxiety that temperamentally non-anxious people use if they’re not using strategic optimism? Or do the negatives for them come in when their strategic optimism tips into the non-strategic version?

I think the book would have been stronger had Norem maintained a tighter focus and left some of the other stuff out, but I did enjoy it, and I’m glad that I picked it up finally.

This was another of the titles from my 2015 TBR Challenge list. Check out the link for the complete list, and feel free to cheer me on in the comments. Some of the books have been great, but others—well, let’s just say that I understand now why some of these have been on my to-read list for so long. I’ll have to write a separate post exploring why I have so many self-help type books on my TBR list.

Crocheted Cuteness and Friendship Symbiosis

I enjoy crocheting (and to a lesser extent knitting and sewing), but I have a difficult time maintaining enthusiasm for projects that drag on and on. So I make baby clothes. And hats. And dishcloths. And blender scarves. Those all give me something productive to do while I’m watching movies (because heaven forbid I just sit down and watch a movie) but don’t take so long to complete that I’ve got to watch all three Lord of the Rings films plus the entire Harry Potter series before I’m done.

Here’s my latest completed project. Like the sweater I finished in August, this one is from Easy to Crochet Cute Clothes for Kids by Sue Whiting:


This particular sweater took me through A Single Man (twice), Inglourious BasterdsThe Lightning Thief2,000 Miles to Maine (about Appalachian Trail thru-hikers), and the David Rakoff memorial shows on “Fresh Air” and “This American Life.“* I actually don’t crochet that slowly, but I screwed up one sleeve three times and had to keep unraveling it and crocheting it again. The subtitles on Inglourious Basterds also slowed me down a little. (I find it challenging to read and crochet at the same time.)


Detail of the stitch pattern.

This little sweater is for the in utero daughter of a friend in California. I am pleased to announce that she was thrilled to receive it. Unbeknownst to me (until yesterday), she loves getting hand-made sweaters for her kids. Turns out our friendship is symbiotic.

When it came time to wrap and mail this gift, I even went all-out and hemmed the edges of a piece of flannel to make a furoshiki fabric gift wrap that would double as a receiving blanket.

Yeah, it looks kind of like a diaper, but I folded it that way so I’d have a little pouch to put the card into. I got the idea from the book Wrapagami by Jennifer Playford, and it seemed fitting to use Japanese gift wrapping techniques because this is the friend who taught me how to make onigiri and to roll sushi.

Frankly, it all came together so swimmingly, I’m not entirely convinced it was me who did it all. I hope I haven’t spent all of my homemaker capital, though; I still have a kangaroo costume and a lion costume to sew for my kids for Halloween.

*I highly, highly recommend these memorial shows. I love David Rakoff’s writing and his work on “This American Life.” I’m a little surprised at how emotional I am at his passing. I blogged a review of his book Half Empty a while back, if you’re interested in checking that out. It appears that I’ve actually mentioned him in five blog posts, not including my 2010 “Year in Books.” You can find them here, I think, if the link works like I think it should.

Smiling: Does it Count if You Fake It?

Baseball uniform(s) in the 1870's

How long did these ball players live? Judging by their smiles, not long. (Image via Wikipedia)

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (and inspiration for my happiness project and this blog) tweeted this post by Ron Gutman from the Forbes blog: The Untapped Power Of Smiling.

In this post, Gutman reports on research that shows that smiling makes us feel better and look more competent and attractive. In addition, the size of one’s smile can also predict the length of that person’s life (large smiles = long life, apparently, at least among Major League baseball players in 1952).

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that one of the things about introverts is that we’re not terribly emotive. Often, our faces don’t reflect what we’re feeling inside. In fact, we are frequently accused of “scowling” or otherwise looking angry when we’re thinking. Does this lack of huge smiles mean we’re not going to live as long as the smiling guy next to us?

Gutman concludes:

So now, whenever you want to look great and competent, improve your marriage, or reduce your stress…or whenever you want to feel as good as when you’ve enjoyed a stack of high quality chocolate without incurring the caloric cost, or as if you randomly found 25 grand in the pocket of a jacket you hadn’t worn for ages…or when you want to tap into a superpower and help yourself and others live longer, healthier happier lives…SMILE :-) [the emoticon is emphatically his]

But I remember reading somewhere (I think it was David Rakoff’s Half Empty. Here’s the trouble with only checking books out from the library and not buying them; I want to reference them in my blog and they’re not right here at my fingertips. Probably a reason to get a Kindle) that in Thailand (I think), people can tell when a smile is fake. I suppose we can all tell when a smile is fake or forced, but apparently in Thailand they know this consciously and comment on it when they see fake smiles in advertising and such.

So here’s my question: If you’re not a natural smiler but you make a point of forcing yourself to smile, will you still reap the purported benefits of smiling (a long, happy life filled with successful business endeavors and blissful interpersonal interactions)? Because if, as Gutman suggests, the smiles need to be “big, and genuine,” my fellow introverts and I might just be screwed.

2010: My Year in Books

I think I may have mentioned that I like to read.

A snapshot of a perfect day.

As part of that reading process, I enjoy going back and looking at the list of books I’ve read over a certain span of time and remembering the feelings each book evoked as I read it. Kind of like reading the synopses of TV shows in old TV Guides.

I also like analyzing the list and breaking it down into numbers. If you like this kind of thing, too, read on. If not, I hope whatever I post tomorrow is more interesting to you.

For 2010, I read (finished) a total of 46 books.

That’s a mean of 3.83 books per month, and 0.88 books per week.

Of these 46, 25 were fiction, 6 were memoirs (or what I consider memoirs), and the remaining 15 were other nonfiction.

I am currently reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and next up is The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

In the list of books below, I’ve linked to my blogged book reviews when available. For all of the books, you can access my reviews on my Goodreads profile. I’ve listed the most recently finished books first

Title, Author, Date Finished

  1. Horror Story And Other Horror Stories, Robert Boyczuk, Dec 27
  2. By Nightfall: A Novel, Michael Cunningham, Dec 17
  3. Bambi: A Life in the Woods, Felix Salten, Dec 12
  4. The Five Love Languages of Children, Gary Chapman, Dec 10
  5. Half Empty, David Rakoff, Dec 08
  6. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart, Nov 26
  7. Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study, Marion Woodman, Nov 15
  8. Coraline, Neil Gaiman, Nov 13
  9. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami, Nov 09
  10. Lucy, Laurence Gonzales, Oct 31
  11. Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Break Free from the Perfection Deception, Alice D. Domar, Oct 26
  12. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Emil Frankl, Oct 09
  13. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner, Sep 23
  14. The Search for Fulfillment, Susan Whitbourne, Sep 11
  15. Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Ariel Gore, Sep 08
  16. The Magicians, Lev Grossman, Sep 03
  17. American Rust, Philipp Meyer, Aug 29
  18. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu, Aug 14
  19. What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt, Aug 10
  20. Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, Ethan Watters, Aug 08
  21. All the Living: A Novel, C.E. Morgan, Jul 29
  22. Discover Your Child’s Learning Style, Mariaemma Willis, Jul 26
  23. The Keep, Jennifer Egan, Jul 25
  24. The End, Salvatore Scibona, Jul 23
  25. The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, Jul 16
  26. The Postmistress, Sarah Blake, Jul 09
  27. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith, Jul 05
  28. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss, Jul 2010
  29. The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian, Jun 25
  30. Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich, Jun 20
  31. Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill, May 25
  32. Crimes Against Logic, Jamie Whyte, Apr 27
  33. The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White, Apr 11
  34. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger, Mar 14
  35. The Chosen One, Carol Lynch Williams, Mar 10
  36. Adventures in Gentle Discipline, Hilary Flower, Mar 09
  37. The Reading List: Contemporary Fiction, David Rubel, Mar 09
  38. All Things Made New: A Comprehensive Outline of the Baha’i Faith, John Ferraby, Mar 06
  39. Baha’i, Margit Warburg, Mar 2010
  40. The Hearts of Horses, Molly Gloss, Feb 20
  41. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, Ralph Keyes, Feb 15
  42. Creating Sacred Space With Feng Shui, Karen Kingston, Feb 12
  43. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott, Feb 05
  44. Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, David Roberts, Jan 27
  45. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan, Jan 16
  46. Brothers: A Novel, Yu Hua, Jan 12

More Thoughts on Fun

Smile 2

Image via Wikipedia. Photo by Jessica Tam.

I solicited some feedback on my Imperfect Happiness Facebook page, and got some great responses from Victoria and Tucker about what constitutes fun. After listing their responses, I’m going to share my experience and highlight some things about me that I think stand in my way of fun. I will do my best to make this neither a list of ways I’m shooting down their ideas nor a whiney, woe-is-me-I’m-such-a-stick-in-the-mud-and-can’t-help-it list. The former isn’t my intention, as I honestly think their suggestions are good ones, I’m just not sure how to apply them to myself. The latter is just boring.

Victoria offered two definitions of fun:

1) “Doing whatever it takes to make your cheeks hurt from smiling the next day.” I like this definition. It’s simple, and I certainly would describe as “fun” experiences that leave my face sore from smiling. Well, except for those social obligations where the smiling is forced. That leaves my face sore but isn’t fun.

2) Getting caught up in a task so thoroughly you lose track of time, also known as “Flow.” This is my favorite type of fun. It’s low-key and solitary. If anyone has suggestions for how to experience flow more often and with children in the mix, I would love to hear them. I wonder, is it possible to experience flow and still get adequate sleep? So far, I’ve not figured out how to do that. The times that I experience flow are after the kids are in bed.

Tucker chimed in with three things that lead to fun. For him, fun involves being able to:

1) “identify a fun opportunity, or the fun in an opportunity.”

2) “release yourself from whatever responsibility or obligation may limit or inhibit the execution of fun.”

3) “open your heart and mind to the moment.” This one I think I can do.

The one of these that gives me the most trouble is Tucker’s #1 about opportunities for fun.

I’m generally pessimistic about “opportunities.” Back before we had kids, when my husband and I used to go to parties, he and I exhibited much different approaches to the potential for fun. I would get to the party, converse for a time with the people there (mostly the people I already knew because I lack the social skills to comfortably insinuate myself into an ongoing conversation), and then decide I’d exhausted all opportunities for fun and that we should cut our losses and leave. My husband, on the other hand, was always certain that even the most boring social gathering could, at a moment’s notice, turn into the most fun he’s ever had. So he would stay for hours (with surly me in tow), never losing hope that the dynamic would shift and we would suddenly be in the middle of a Very Good Time. His optimism was never diminished by the fact the parties never yielded Fun of that magnitude.

In retrospect, I can see that he and I were making the same cost-benefit analysis about each party, but arriving at different conclusions. My husband prefers to risk spending his time doing something that’s not fun if it has the slightest chance of turning into Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. I prefer the sure-thing, even if that’s a much lower level of fun.

The key problem I have with #1 on Tucker’s list is that I don’t know how to identify opportunities for fun. I generally refrain from trying, but even when I do, I’m not convinced enough that it will be fun to work up any enthusiasm about the opportunity.

I don’t find fun the things that other people seem to find fun. I don’t like eating in public. I don’t like being in large groups of people. I like visiting new places, but I don’t like not knowing where I’m going or flying or not having the foods that I trust available to me or drinking water that tastes funny. I’d rather watch a movie at home than in the theater, I don’t like amusement parks or shopping (except online shopping). Even when I go out with friends and enjoy myself, I end up feeling like they’re having way more fun than I’m feeling and that there must be something wrong with me that I’m not enjoying myself more. Most times, the best I can hope for is that I’m not being a killjoy. In Half Empty, David Rakoff writes about how whenever he goes into an old theater the first thing he does is scan for the fire exits. That’s me. I want an escape route at all times. I choose to sit on the aisle whenever possible.

Maybe I just lack creativity when brainstorming possible fun opportunities. I get stuck thinking about things I don’t find fun and trying to avoid those rather than thinking about things I do find fun.

The one exception is beer fests. I’ve always had fun at beer fests. The people are fun, the beer is yummy and provides an automatic topic of conversation, even with strangers, and I’m less inhibited so I actually talk to strangers (and enjoy it). I have incredibly fond memories of wearing my one-year-old daughter on my back while sampling Pliny the Elder for the first time at the Firkin Festival in Berkeley. Our close relationship with the couple who would become our children’s godparents was cemented during many beer fests in North Carolina. It was stumbling upon a beer fest when we stopped in Salt Lake City on our way to California to live that made SLC seem like a possible place to move when the opportunity arose. Now that I can tolerate neither gluten nor alcohol (and it seems that SLC has lost its sense for what a beer fest is supposed to be anyway), beer fests are no longer an option for fun. *sigh*

Another problem is that the real smile-intensive activities I have are spontaneous. For example, yesterday I discovered that when I say, “Wise guy, eh? Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!” my son laughs hysterically and hits himself in the face with his little fists. (Just for the record, he has never seen the Three Stooges). Trouble is, I can’t orchestrate things like this. I think the best I can do is to keep a record of these fun things when they come up so that I develop a better ability to recognize them in the moment, as Tucker suggests in his #3.

As I contemplate Tucker’s #2 about responsibility and obligation, I realize that I have some moral thing attached to obligation and fun. I have the feeling that if I’m not addressing a responsibility at the moment, the least I can do is not enjoy myself until it’s done. I find that I automatically reject the idea of releasing myself from responsibility and obligation, especially for the purpose of fun. It would probably do me good to think about this some more and analyze this reaction, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

All this is just an extended explanation for why I’d prefer to sidetrack myself from a focus on fun and focus on softness instead. I think that the main thing that stands in my way of enjoying myself is anxiety. If I can decrease my anxiety by not analyzing things so much, then maybe I’ll be better able to have fun.

What’s fun for you? Can you plan fun, or does it just happen to you? If you can plan it, how do you know it will be fun before you do it?

Week 18 Review: What I Have in my Pants is an Issue of National Security?

Security checkpoint at Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac)...

Image via Wikipedia

Gotta say, Fun Month so far hasn’t been incredibly fun. Not only is the air quality still poor enough to keep me feeling icky, but I’ve been rather over-involved in thoughts about airport security.

I’m not the most enthusiastic flyer in the best of times. I don’t like being enclosed in a metal tube miles above the earth. I don’t like doing things that could result in me or my children or really anyone in my vicinity vomiting. I don’t like feeling the disorientation that results from being so quickly in a different time zone or an area of the country with totally different geography. I don’t like being out of control.

This is a rather ironic reaction for a woman whose father was a RIO in F-14 fighter jets for her entire childhood.

Up to now, the thing that has kept me going as I fly about the country is knowing what to expect. I don’t mind the quart-bag thing or the putting my shoes through the x-ray machine or even needing to buy overpriced water that tastes like plastic once I get through security. I look up the airports I’m going to and find out where their restrooms are. I learn about the type of jet we’ll be riding in and where our seats are within that jet. I pack enough food to last us in case we’re somehow laid over in a remote location for a week or more. I like it this way.

I’ve recently learned that the term for this is “defensive pessimism.” In David Rakoff’s Half Empty, he writes about his interview with Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem’s book explains the distinction between defensive pessimism and dispositional pessimism. As Rakoff writes,

“Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: ‘This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.’ But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-step process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the ‘this will suck because…’ stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way…Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear.”

You know what’s not conducive to this process? TSA security measures that are meant to keep the terrorists guessing.

We’re supposed to travel to Florida to visit my in-laws and my grandparents this February. We’ve not yet bought our tickets because I cannot adequately prepare for the trip because I don’t have a clue what to expect in the airport security line.

I’m not comfortable sending my children through the backscatter x-ray machine (also known as the AIT). Even though it has been approved by the FDA, I’ve read a few things that give me pause, most notably this letter from scientists at the University of California at San Francisco to Dr John Holdren, the President’s Science and Technology assistant. I’ve looked around the internet and have so far not been able to find a response from Dr Holdren or from the White House about this letter, even though it was sent last April. In my mind, the AIT is not an acceptable risk for my children.

OK, so I’ll opt out. It’s a free country. I can still do that. Ah, but opting out may or may not be the same as opting in to the “enhanced pat-down.” Some of the people my husband and I have spoken with have looked at us like we were nuts when we’ve asked about the enhanced pat-downs. In their recent airline travels, nothing’s been different. Others have told about their ten-month-old baby being patted down. Still others have dutifully gone through the AIT and still been patted down. As one friend who experienced the New And Improved Pat-Down put it, “I feel like they should just be a little more thorough and call it a screening for breast and testicular cancer.” Then there’s the guy I spoke to whose friend works for the TSA. His friend, this man says, has been instructed to tell anyone filming or photographing pat-downs for their own safety to turn off their recording devices. As if a terrorist who’s looking to find out about airport security couldn’t just get a ticket and go through security themselves. Really, who is this supposed to protect?

The non-specific responses given to reporters’ questions at Robert Gibbs’ press briefing on November 22, 2010, don’t give me much comfort. For example:

Q    You’re a parent.  The President is a father.  There are a lot of parents out there whose children have been subjected to pat-downs, and they’ve been very upset by it.  There have been individuals with medical conditions who have been forced into humiliating situations.  This is evolution?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think it’s important to understand that anybody under 12 goes through something much more modified.  I would say, first and foremost — and I think if the TSA Administrator was here, he would say this to you as well — has all of this been done perfectly?  No.  If somebody feels as if they have been unduly subjected to something that they find to be far more invasive than the line of convenience and security, they should speak to a TSA representative at the airport.

I don’t find Gibbs’ vague assertion that “anybody under 12 goes through something much more modified” to be helpful in allaying my fears. What exactly does that mean, anyway? And “speak to a TSA representative at the airport”? Um, I thought that if you made a fuss you could be, at best, not allowed through security and therefore not allowed to fly, or, at worst, imprisoned. I suppose sometime during that process you’d get to speak to a TSA representative at the airport, but is that before or after they separate you from your children?

I refuse to allow my five-year-old daughter to be touched by a stranger anywhere, but most especially in her “bathing suit areas.” I’ve spent the past five years telling my daughter that no one—no one—is allowed to touch her without her permission. We’ve spent an hour or more at a doctor’s visit waiting until she felt comfortable enough with the practitioner to allow him or her to examine her. If she refuses, I make a policy of not pushing it. If I make an exception for the TSA, what is this telling her? That her bodily integrity is important unless someone’s really emphatic about it? And I’m pretty certain the TSA isn’t going to give her five minutes much less an hour to give her consent to be touched.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that the prospect of air travel in the coming months has put me into a tailspin of anxiety (no pun intended). I’ve looked into taking the train, but four days in a cramped railroad car with my two children doesn’t sound all that appealing. Plus, I’ve never traveled by train, so I’d have a lot of research to do to prepare for all of the contingencies of traveling by rail.

I’ve even looked into taking a road trip, stopping along the way to visit with friends across the country who we’ve not seen in years because we usually fly over their houses on our way to somewhere else. But then, the risks of car travel are firmly rooted in my brain, as well. The thought of three twelve-hour days in a car with my kids in the middle of nowhere doesn’t do much to decrease my anxiety level. And any travel besides air travel would be sans husband since he can’t take off three weeks to visit family for a week and would be flying to meet us in Florida.

I know I’ll figure out a course of action, and I hope it’s one that won’t make me too unpopular with my in-laws and my grandparents.

For another parent’s take on this situation, visit this post on bearing blog. I’m not sure I have the cajones to follow the course of action she describes, but I appreciate the idea behind it. And I appreciate that someone else is as freaked out about this situation as I am.