Ice Bucket Challenge: There’s a Book For That

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In 2010, it was hard to even approach technology with any kind of problem or question without being met by the Apple trademark slogan: “There’s an app for that!” I found myself parroting it back to friends for the humor factor – “Can’t remember if you called your mom today? – (Everyone join in!) – There’s an app for that!”

But anyone who knows me will tell you – I’m not a subscriber to technology’s apparent universal wisdom in solving all of life’s problems. In fact, four years later, I find myself parroting that familiar cadence with a new replacement:

There’s a book for that.

Having a hard time adjusting to life in a new country, or finding where you belong? There’s a book for that. (I would recommend: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit).

Unsure about the future, or your life’s work, or really everything in general for that matter? There’s a book for that. (Definitely pick up Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields).

Even – bear with me – searching for meaning in this seemingly ridiculous viral trend of throwing a bucket of ice water over your head in order to raise awareness for ALS?

There most certainly is a book for that.

Time Magazine, The Huffington Post, and NBC are only three of the major networks engaging in a current debate to answer the question: how does dumping ice water help to cure a debilitating disease? (By the way, my favorite subtitle: “Ice Bucket Challenge Brings Flood of Donations.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for puns).

Does taking a video of your flinching face, posting it to Facebook, and challenging friends benefit ALS awareness in the long run? Probably so, judging by all the current statistics of money raised, visits to the ALS Association website, and also likely to Google or Wikipedia. There is a conversation happening, and that fact cannot be denied.

The heartier debate is whether or not the simple act of social media circulation really bolsters causes towards a solution. Or, conversely, whether we are all just made to feel better, more “involved” in the current trending discussion or debate, assuaging our sense of participation, duty, or accountability without actually taking action.

But I digress. That’s just one discussion. For the other part of this video – the momentary meeting with a bucket of ice water – there’s a book for that.

In 2011, Julien Smith wrote a book called “The Flinch”. It’s short, sweet, and free on Kindle. But just because it’s short, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And just because it’s free, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

What is “the flinch?”

“The X is the flinch. The flinch is the moment when every doubt you’ve ever had comes back and hits you, hard. It’s when your whole body feels tense. It’s an instinct that tells you to run. It’s a moment of tension that happens in the body and the brain, and it stops everything cold.”

Julien circulates this book for free online purely because of the weight behind its content. The flinch is a problem that too many of us face, without facing up to it at all. And this kind of problem – this shrinking back, this maintaining the status quo, this fear of change – is exactly the problem that perpetuates apathy. Fake involvement. The desire to reach out and affect something, but the inability to take the step. In essence, exactly what this ALS donation versus social media is about.

“If the flinch works, you can’t do the work that matters because the fear it creates is too strong.”

In “The Flinch,” Julien has created a practical workbook, short enough that you may actually finish it, but dense enough to be packed with real challenges. When I read it, I had to fight the urge to flip forward past a “homework assignment” I didn’t like – I wanted to keep reading, yes. But my mind was also glossing over the work of having to do A Real Thing – an action that I could really perform, a step I could take right now to start affecting a change.

Where does change first happen? Within the self. The person who finds a cure for ALS will have to believe that it’s possible for them to do it. And a small – although not insignificant step towards this – is the urge to walk forward and face your own flinch. To know that action is important, even if your instinct is to pull back. To push on through the reflex, towards a better result with more resolve.
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Yes, this #icebucketchallenge is a summer-month flinch, a wearing-your-bikini-while-filming-flinch. But after watching ten of my friends drench themselves, it was easy to recognize the moment when the body pulls back, wants to abort. And then decides to push on through anyway.

In fact, the first homework assignment in “The Flinch”: take a two-minute cold shower, everyday for a week. Meet your flinch. Get to know what that feels like in your body.

“This is a book about being a champion, and what it takes to get there. It’s about decisions, and how to know when you’re making the right ones. It’s also about you: the current, present you; the potential, future you; and the one, single difference between them.

It’s about an instinct – the flinch – and why mastering it is vital.”

There’s a book for that.


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Hopelessly, whitely beautiful as was the night and sweet and bitter the wind and attractive the conversation of the mallards, we got blue with cold and our ears felt like wounds. We rushed back to the warm house and played the whole album of the Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall. The only difference was that we played it much louder than the original could possibly have been. I drank a beer and the kids made a horrid mixture of chocolate that poured like fudge. Then we went to bed, half praying for a snowstorm. The Point is wonderful when the good snow blows over it riding the wind like a horse.
(Note 1 — Must winter-spray my fruit trees tomorrow if possible.)
(Note 2 — Take lawn mower to town to be repaired
against the time when we will have a lawn.)
(Note 3 — Stay off their backs.)
We slept sweetly and long.

– John Steinbeck, Conversation at Sag Harbor

Cassidy, map-reading on Mull (2014)

Goodreads Review: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I bought this book when I was living on the Isle of Iona for 2 months. Iona is a six-mile island, off the West coast of Mull (which is a larger island, off the West coast of Scotland). It takes 8 hours to travel from Iona to Edinburgh. It took many more than 8 hours for this book to travel from the mainland to Iona.



My friend T. recommended the book to me for its marginalia, for its blatant role as J. J. Abram’s love-letter to books. Doug Dorst, I am unfamiliar with, but I was willing to give him a try. I ordered the book on Amazon, and waited. I ordered a few other books as well, from other sellers. And waited.

The other books came. I waited. S. was ellusive.

I contacted the sellers.

Where is my book?

“Coming,” they said. “Just wait,” they said.

Eventually, they admitted it was lost.


They sent a new copy, which arrived 2 days later. It only takes 2 days for a book to come from the mainland to Iona, when that book is in a hurry, when those sellers are in trouble.


It was wrapped so carefully, and the package was heavy. This book has heft. It came in a brown envelope, which opened onto bubble-wrap, which held the clear-wrapped book inside — at least, the box which holds the book. I had to break a seal. It was all very official. More than official. It was adventurous.


When I was younger, I fell in love with marginalia. It was a magical conversation between unknown elements: a book that cannot be changed, an author that cannot speak back, a reader that cannot be silent. I read Mortimer Adler’s essay How to Mark a Book, and made it my manifesto. When I got S. this spring, I carried the book around with me, all over the island. I was crawling out of my skin with excitement. I showed it to everyone.


My roommate Cassidy was from Canada. She and I became friends by virtue of the fact that we were accidentally reading the same book. She showed up on Iona, moved into the room, and started reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. She had brought a copy with her. I had left most of my books at home, but had found Steinbeck downstairs in the volunteer house’s communal bookshelves. When she told me what she was reading, I didn’t believe her. I made her hold up the book to make sure she hadn’t stolen mine.

I had told her all about S. from the beginning, when T. first introduced me to it, when I ordered it, when the order got lost. She was the first person I showed the book to, when it actually arrived. We were in the Abbey refectory after dinner. I turned away for a second, and when I looked back, the book was gone. I panicked, glared around, and eventually caught on to the joke. Cassidy had ‘borrowed’ it — just moving it out of my reach into her bag. She stood there grinning like the prank was the best of the century. She hadn’t even held it for 5 minutes when I demanded it back.


Later in our room in Cul Shuna, Cassidy broached the topic.

“Emma, I know this is kind of like asking to play with someone else’s Christmas present before them…”

Go on, Cous Cous.

“… but can I read S. while you’re not reading it?”

My immediate response: absolutely not.

I had chosen not to start delving into S. until after returning to Edinburgh from Iona. I had read the introduction, part of the first chapter, and discovered that I was getting too far in over my head. I was getting lost in the book. It felt really overwhelming and suffocatingly wonderful, like if left to my own devices I could drown before putting the book down. It scared me slightly. I thought, now might not be the time for this. It didn’t mean I wanted anyone else to have the book first.

At the time, I was sleeping with it in my bed. No joke.

But it only took me ten minutes to change my mind. I laid ground rules:
– Don’t take the book outside of the house.
– Don’t let any of the added things fall out of the pages.
– Don’t spill anything or eat anything near it.
– Above all, DO NOT speak to me about the book while you are reading it.

S., from The Guardian

S., from The Guardian

My philosophy for the rules: I wanted my knowledge of the book to be exactly the same as if Cassidy wasn’t reading it. That is: I wanted to know NOTHING.

My philosophy for letting her read it before me: This is clearly a book that deserves to be read.

And I guess that’s the bottom line.


Part 2 to come: When I finally started S...


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How much does one imagine, how much observe? One can no more separate those functions than divide light from air, or wetness from water.

– Elspeth Huxley

Isle of Iona, 2014

A poem can travel far…

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       ‘Presence is something you sense and know, but cannot grasp. It engages us but we can never capture its core; it remains somehow elusive. All the great art forms strive to create living icons of presence. Poets try to cut the line of a poem so that it lives and dances as itself. Poems are some of the most amazing presences in the world. I am always astounded that poems are willing to lie down and sleep inside the flat, closed pages of books. If poems behaved according to their essence, they would be out dancing on the seashore or flying to the heavens or trying to rinse out the secrets of the mountains.

      Reading brings the presence of other times, characters and cultures into your mind. Reading is an intimate event. When you read a great poem, it reaches deep into regions of your life and memory and reverberates back to you forgotten or invisible regions of your experience. In a great poem you find again lost or silent territories of feeling or thought which were out of your reach. A poem can travel far into your depths to retrieve your neglected longing.’

– from Eternal Echoes: Exploring our hunger to belong by John O’Donohue


This blog is a novel…

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I’ve discovered (been directed towards) It’s pretty much great. One of the founders of the site is a fantastic writer (the other contributors are as well), and I stumbled upon her personal blog this morning. A quote from a recent post:

     ‘This blog is a novel about a heroine in her twenties lost in a giant dirty/beautiful city. She’s swallowing hearts and breaking fingers. She’s giving herself daily emotional autopsies and they’re always inconclusive. — She’s excessively maudlin at odd hours and doesn’t know what to do when her shoe breaks on 14th street. 

     Now I’m in California. It’s another chapter, or it’s an Afterword that might never end. The Neverending Afterword.’

– by Riese, posted on This Girl Called Automatic Win


This is the island I love.

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Isle of Iona, 2014

Isle of Iona, 2014

This is Thisby, I think. This is the island I love. I suddenly feel I know everything about the island and everything about me all at the same time, only I know that it will go away as soon as we stop…

… Something wild and old spins inside me, but I don’t have any words.’ (368)

– from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater