Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: A Million Tiny Things

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the hair care aisle of our local grocery store, looking for gel. The next day, M was to take part in a speech contest at school and his language arts teacher had told him that he needed to use some kind of product to keep his long, wavy, and in-his-face hair under control.

I usually buy my hair care products (shampoo and conditioner) through the coop I belong to, or at the natural foods store, so I was unfamiliar with the grocery store's hair care aisle, which is arranged by brand, rather by function. The earthy, tea-tree scented brand I use is not sold there, so this method of arrangement, suited to fans of Paul Mitchell or Finesse did not help me out, when all I wanted to do was compare different brands of gel. I started out in the bottom left-hand corner of the shelving unit, where the products were packaged in shapes and colors that led me to believe they contained more "natural" ingredients than the others. But as soon as I saw the price tags--more than twenty bucks for a tube of gel!--I quickly moved on to the more conventional-looking section of the shelves. I am all for paying more for quality, organic, and chemical-free products. And I also would prefer not exposing my kid to any more phthaltates and parabens and god-knows-what-all than necessary. But twenty bucks for something my kid would use once? No thanks. I then looked in the travel section for a mini-tube, but no luck. Finally, ten minutes after I started looking, I settled on a huge tube of gel labeled "98% naturally derived," whatever the hell that means, and whatever the hell the other 2% contains, and which only cost three dollars. By then I was thoroughly disgusted with Hannaford's, the entire hair product industry, and M's language arts teacher.

This is the kind of mind-fuck decision tree Kenna Lee experiences daily and describes so well in her book, A Million Tiny Things. From choosing between a safe and reliable vehicle versus one with a lower carbon footprint to trying to decide on a snack to take to book club (local cheese or organic cheese or affordable cheese? Crackers in a plastic bag or local bread in a paper bag with a plastic window or not-so-local bread in an all-paper bag?), Kenna is daily tormented by a syndrome I know all too well--well-informed futility, or, knowing way too damned much about the impact of our daily choices on the world, but unable (due to time, budget, job, and/or family) to do a whole hell of a lot about it.

Kenna and I took an online writing class together, many years ago, and she sent me an advance copy of her book at about the same time I started graduate school. I reluctantly set it aside after reading the first few chapters, to focus on my required reading, but earlier this spring, I noticed it sitting neglected on my shelf and picked it up again, plowing through it in a weekend. Despite her constant anxiety about the future of both the planet and her children, Kenna is able to tell her stories with good humor (I love her code names for people and corporations). She has a great sense of self-awareness, and knows when she goes over the top, but is still sometimes unable to stop herself. I appreciate Kenna's honesty, and I felt a kinship with someone who thinks like I do (although I think I'm more adept at stuffing the ugly truths in the deep recesses of my mind--and no, I'm not proud of this). I also appreciate the notes--very fragile notes, for sure, and not at all overblown or false--of hopefulness: those million tiny pink baby socks hanging on the line.

M did not end up using the hair gel for his speech and I took it back to the grocery store the next day, where I stood in line at the customer service desk for ten minutes, behind a woman buying a bunch of balloons. As the clerk inflated each one, all I could think about was the helium shortage. Sometimes I think I'm no fun at all. But I think Kenna would understand. I wish I had read A Million Tiny Things a lot sooner, but I'm glad I finally did.


  1. Yeah. We should all try to make responsible choices but I ultimately think we can't beat ourselves up too much about not being able to be perfect in a system that sets us up to fail. It takes political action now.

  2. Good point, Lone Star Ma. The system is a mess. And you're a great inspiration for political action!!


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