Books

Books Read in April 2016

I read 10 books in April (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 37.

These are the books I started reading in April but decided not to finish:

  • Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, John Elder Robison
    I got almost halfway through this book before I put it down. I kept hoping the author’s endless tales of boyhood shenanigans would stop and he’d address how he deals with Asperger’s in his adult life. I’m sure he must have moved on at some point, but I got impatient and abandoned it.
  • Why Catholics Are Right, Michael Coren
    My husband is Catholic so I thought I’d see what this author had to say about it. The first chapter was interesting, but then Cohen started in on the history of the Crusades and in-depth theology which I wasn’t at all interested in (to be fair, I’d feel the same about any dry religious tome; not just one on Catholicism).

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

metropolis

Recommended

1) Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen

Description: Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares. Yet residents of compact urban centers individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Owen contends the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us will eventually have to come to terms with.

Just like when reading about hoarding made me want to immediately throw out most of my possessions, this book made me want to move into an apartment building in a densely-populated city. The author makes a strong case about how city living is much more environmentally friendly than living in the wilderness (or even a suburb). A big reason? Living far away from work, grocery stores, schools, and other common resources requires you to drive long distances on a regular basis, and apart from the cost of fuel – which is kept artificially low – our oil reserves won’t last forever.

I do have to point out the author’s hypocrisy, and I’m not the first to do so. He preaches city living while residing in a 3-story, 200-year-old house in rural Connecticut. His explanation (that he and his wife are writers so they don’t have a daily commute; if he moved away someone else would just move in, which that doesn’t solve the existing environmental problems) doesn’t seem very strong. I feel he’d be a much better role model if he lived what he’s recommending to others. Still…it’s a good book!

2) Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth L. Cline

Description: Cheap fashion has fundamentally changed the way most Americans dress. We have little reason to keep wearing and repairing the clothes we already own when styles change so fast and it’s cheaper to just buy more. Cline sets out to uncover the true nature of the cheap fashion juggernaut. What are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more important, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?

Written from the perspective of someone who used to buy a lot of cheap clothing without thinking about it, the author decided to educate herself on where her clothes come from, why they’re so cheap, and how the entire fashion industry has changed in a relatively short period of time. Very interesting and informative. It will definitely make you rethink your purchasing decisions.

3) Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Lesley Hazleton

Description: Hazleton gives voice to the case for agnosticism, breaks it free of its stereotypes as watered-down atheism or amorphous “seeking,” and celebrates it as a reasoned, revealing, and sustaining stance toward life. Stepping over the lines imposed by rigid conviction, she draws on philosophy, theology, psychology, and science to explore the vital role of mystery in a deceptively information-rich world; to ask what we mean by the search for meaning; to invoke the humbling yet elating perspective of infinity; to challenge received ideas about death; and to reconsider what “the soul” might be.

I found myself wishing this book had more personal anecdotes (it’s a bit more dense and scholarly than I expected). However, I did enjoy it, and would recommend it to others. Even people who have a firm belief in a god can benefit from reading other people’s viewpoints.

Back when I was growing up in a religious household, the concept of living forever in heaven was difficult for me to grasp, and it didn’t seem all that appealing. I liked what Hazleton had to say: “For myself, I have no intention of only half-living this life in anticipation of a hypothetical next one. I want to live my life as well and as fully as I can. […] The last thing I would ever want is to have no end, to find myself adrift in the horizonless expanse of eternity. I want, that is, to live the mortal life I have.”

4) Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, Leah Remini

Description: Indoctrinated into Scientology as a child, Remini eventually moved to Los Angeles, where her dreams of becoming an actress and advancing Scientology’s causes grew increasingly intertwined. As an adult, she found the success she’d worked so hard for, and with it a prominent place in the hierarchy of celebrity Scientologists alongside people such as Tom Cruise. But when she began to raise questions about some of the church’s actions, she found herself a target. Remini loudly and publicly broke away from the church in 2013.

I didn’t know anything about Leah Remini before reading this book (I never watched “The King of Queens”), and I had already read two very interesting books about Scientology (Going Clear and Beyond Belief) previous to this one, so I wasn’t planning to add this to my list. I changed my mind when I found this review on The Book Wheel and was immediately intrigued.

I had no idea Remini was involved with Scientology for 30 years before she left the organization in 2013; she gave them a big part of her life and many millions of dollars. Fascinating read.

5) My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt

Description: When Andrew Offutt died, his son Chris inherited 1800 pounds of pornographic fiction, including 400 novels of pornography written by his father in the 1970s and 1980s. As Chris began to examine his father’s manuscripts, memorabilia, journals, and letters, he realized he finally had an opportunity to gain insight into the difficult, mercurial, sometimes cruel man he’d loved and feared in equal measure.

This is a story about Offutt’s father, but it also involves his mother, and the author’s own memoir. It was interesting to read about his childhood even though it obviously wasn’t a pleasant situation in which to be raised. It seems the pornographer father – who wrote hundreds of short stories and novels over his 50-year career – successfully hid most of his deepest dark predilections until his death, but he did that by closing his office door and retreating from his family.

While the author said his motivation for going through his father’s 1800 pounds of writing and research material was to get to know him better, the long process seemed to do more harm than good. He spent months combing through his father’s hardcore pornography, depressing himself (and his libido) simultaneously, but in the end he put all the material into storage.

What else should he have done with it? I don’t know, but it did make me question the immense amount of time he spent categorizing the material.

6) Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Description: Acclaimed journalist Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

There were a lot of people in this book, which sometimes made it difficult to keep all the names straight. But just like every other work of Krakauer’s I’ve read, it was extensively researched and attention grabbing.

7) Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit

Description: In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works. This book adds six essays, including an examination doubt and ambiguity, an inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

I put this on my list after Jaclyn recommended it; she said it was “incredible and distressing and should be required reading for everyone.” In addition to the title essay (which has been credited with inspiring the term mansplaining), Solnit touches on the pandemic of violence against women, same-sex marriage, the historical subjugation of women, and reproductive rights. There were a few essays I wasn’t interested in (like the one on Virginia Woolf), but as a whole, it’s worth checking out.

Okay

8) The Lake House, Kate Morton

Description: In 1933, after a party drawing hundreds of guests to their estate, the Edevanes discover their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, has vanished. The tragedy tears the family apart. Decades later, Theo’s sister Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a successful career as an author, while Sadie Sparrow, a detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking, she stumbles upon the old Edevane estate—now crumbling and covered with vines, clearly abandoned long ago. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone.

I had every intention of rating this book as Recommended (I flew through it in just a few days, and there are over 500 pages) up until I reached the final few chapters.

What I liked: the story was told from the perspectives of many different people, and the conflicting hypotheses of “what really happened that night” were slowly debunked as the book ran its course. I didn’t guess the ending at all until the author decided it was time to put it out there.

What I didn’t like: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a work of fiction that wrapped up every single loose end with a pretty pink bow. One or two positive resolutions would have been acceptable, but by the time I reached the end, the author had taken me from eagerly working my way through the chapters, to rolling my eyes. It was laughable (not in a good way) and completely unrealistic.

This is the first Kate Morton book I’ve read, and I expected more from someone who has written multiple bestsellers and sold millions of copies.

9) The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann

Description: In 1925, legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a fabled civilization. He never returned. Over the years, countless people have perished trying to find evidence of what happened. Journalist Grann interweaves the spellbinding stories of Fawcett’s quest for the lost city of Z, along with his own journey into the deadly jungle, as he unravels the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.

This book has been on my potential to-do list for years. I finally checked it out of the library on audiobook and listened to it over a few weeks. There were some parts I liked, but the problem was I was more interested in the present-day author’s journey to the Amazon than Percy Fawcett’s extensive history.

10) Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, Lauren Kessler

Description: When Lauren was twelve, her ballet instructor crushed not just her dreams of being a ballerina but also her youthful self-assurance. Now, many decades and three children later, Kessler embarks on a journey to join a professional company to perform in The Nutcracker.

I admire the author’s dedication to her goal, and I enjoyed reading about the lives and backgrounds of the professional dancers she came in contact with. However, there was too much space dedicated to the self-help books she read, the results of various online personality tests she took, her experience in various exercise classes, and waaaaaay too much about how she acquired her stage makeup (complete with brand names). All this extra fluff made it seem like she was desperately trying to fill up space in her book.

Home

Why I’m Having Second Thoughts About Homeownership

My husband and I have been homeowners for almost a year and a half. I do not dislike our home, nor do I entirely lament its purchase. I simply recognize there have been pros and cons since we took on our mortgage, and there are certain aspects of the decision I wish we’d thought through a bit more in advance.

Before sitting down to create a list of homeownership pros and cons, I had a conversation with my husband. As we talked, a thought came to me that I’d never considered before: Since we both aspire to travel long-term, for me, homeownership symbolizes complacency.

I don’t mean we’re being complacent in an immediate sense. It’s advantageous for us to be where we are right now. We like living in Buffalo. We like being so close to, and having a relationship with, Paul’s family. We’re saving money which will ultimately end up funding our future grand adventures, whatever they may be.

When I compare homeownership with complacency, what I mean is, for me personally (this isn’t a judgment about your house or how long you choose to live in a certain place), if I’m still living in our house past the time I think we should have moved on, I will feel I have become complacent. My goal is to see more of the United States, and a lot more of this planet, than I have up to this point.

I’ll expand on these thoughts after I talk about our initial rationale for the home purchase, as well as some of the positives and negatives we’ve experienced.

New House 1

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Not long ago, my husband and I drove by a building where we almost rented an apartment, back when we still lived in DC and were searching for a place to live in Buffalo. We ended up choosing a townhouse to rent instead, which was aesthetically desirable but plagued with issues that caused us to want to leave as soon as we arrived. (When we opened the door on move-in day, haven given several months advance notice, the supposedly professionally-managed abode was filthy. Absolutely, disgustingly filthy. And our experience just went downhill from there.)

We’ve lamented more than once that we didn’t go with the first apartment, which was newly renovated but architecturally bland. I’ve often thought that if we hadn’t been itching to get out of the townhouse as soon as our lease expired, we might not have been so eager to buy a house. We’ll never know for sure.

What we did instead – as a married couple in our mid-thirties, with good jobs, enough savings for a down payment, residing in a city with affordable real estate – was start looking for a house to buy rather than sign a lease on yet another rental.

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Positives

Suitability: We made a good decision where appearance and size is concerned. I like the style of the home, and I’ve always been partial to brick. We have just under 1500 sq ft, with three bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms, which is more than enough (and sometimes can even feel like too much) space for us. Also, the previous owner upgraded the kitchen and bathrooms, so we don’t have any large, costly interior renovations to undertake anytime soon.

New House 3

Driveway: After many years of parallel parking on city streets, having our own driveway is something we don’t take for granted. I can park right beside my door to bring in groceries! No more circling crowded streets, praying for someone to exit!

Privacy: We no longer share walls with strangers living directly above, below, or beside us. Not having to listen to other people go about their daily lives – or worry we’re creating our own disturbance – is a wonderful thing.

Proximity to in-laws: Although I don’t like being farther from work, our home is much closer to Paul’s parents, which is super convenient. We visit each other regularly; they run over to grab our CSA deliveries when we’re out of town; Paul checks in on their cats when they’re on vacation.

Ability to change things: As a renter, I’d sometimes say how nice it would be to paint a wall without having to worry about changing it back before I left. I’ve put this in the positive category because technically we could paint if we want to…but guess how many walls we’ve changed since we moved in? Zero. The walls are neutral shades and I’m fine with them. Painting is a chore and I’d rather read a book or go for a walk.

Negatives

Ongoing repairs and maintenance: This category has been the biggest pain, both financially and mentally. In the past 17 months since we closed on our home, we’ve taken an additional $20k or so from our savings account to spend on repairs and upgrades. We knew about two of those things before purchasing the house: we needed a new furnace (which was verified when the super-old model kept breaking down during a freezing winter), and the aging roof needed to be replaced.

When we bought the furnace, we also added central air conditioning because it’s cheaper to buy the units at the same time. That’s the only thing we’ve added which technically wasn’t required.

We thought we were done for a while. But then our basement started to flood during heavy rainfall. To stop that from happening, we paid a company to dig trenches in our front yard and lay pipes in the ground to divert excess groundwater out to the street. (Our basement hasn’t flooded since, so that expense was totally worth it.)

We were just congratulating ourselves on how much lower our house expenditures should be in 2016 when several rows of aluminum siding started to peel off (most of our house is brick, but there is some siding on the upper left and right sides of the house). The same day the siding repair was made, our hot water heater stopped working and required a replacement part.

We’re fortunate to have the resources to pay for these repairs and upgrades. It’s just…annoying. We’d much prefer to keep our money instead of pouring it into our house.

Trenches

Smaller repairs: In addition to those things we had to do, there are things that should be done at some point but we haven’t gotten around to them yet (fixing a bathroom faucet; adding a dimmer switch to the dining room; repairing the ceiling in the master bedroom, which had some moisture damage before the roof was replaced).

If you haven’t already guessed, we are not particularly handy when it comes to doing our own home repairs. Some people enjoy tackling these things and saving a ton of money while they’re at it. While I would like to be that way, I’ve accepted I am not. We’ve done a few things on our own, but undertaking large home improvement projects isn’t something either of us enjoys.

Yard work: Paul takes care of mowing the grass, and I pitch in with snow shoveling and leaf raking. I had been a renter since I moved out on my own at age 17, so before we bought our house it had been a very long time since I’d participated in any type of yard maintenance. Especially when it comes to snow shoveling, being responsible for our sidewalks and driveway is a necessary evil; something to get through, not something we would do if given the choice.

Location: When we rented our downtown apartment, I was close enough to work that I was able to walk (often returning home for lunch breaks as well), which I sorely miss. Now both of our workplaces are farther from home; Paul takes the car, and I utilize public transportation (which I vastly prefer to having to drive myself, especially in the snowy winter months – plus, I can read a book during the commute). Our stay in downtown Buffalo was the only time I’ve ever been able to walk to work, and since I haven’t found a job yet that allows me to work from home full time, being in such close proximity to the workplace was definitely the next-best thing. I very much miss my 10-minute-by-foot commute.

Financial: Given the amount of money we’ve already spent on repairs (which doesn’t include other stuff that’s bound to come up over the next few years), I strongly doubt we’ll recoup the amount of money we’ve put into this house when we move. We don’t have plans to move anytime soon, but home values in our neighborhood have been pretty stable over the years; they aren’t expected to spike so much that we’d make a large enough profit to offset the cost of repairs.

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While I have an equal number of items in each category, I feel many of the negatives outweigh the positives. There are things I really like about our house (a private driveway, not sharing walls), but we could have obtained those same advantages by renting a single-family home instead of another apartment.

Was there excitement involved in becoming a first-time homeowner? Yes. However, the novelty wears off quickly (I can track my deflating happiness with homeownership to the first time our basement flooded). It turns out I really like having a landlord come over and fix whatever’s gone wrong.

Paul and I have spent hours calling, meeting with, and receiving quotes from various home contractors – and that doesn’t include all the instances I’ve left work early to let them in the house. When I lived in an apartment, maintenance workers would let themselves in during the day and my issue would be fixed by the time I got home.

In hindsight, it’s not the act of owning a house that I needed. I just needed to find a space more suited to what I was looking for.

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If I look past all the obvious advantages and disadvantages of owning a home, what I see is a structure that requires me to stay in one place. As a renter, I always had the option to leave, and I exercised that right often. In the past 19 years since I left my rural Virginia hometown, I’ve called 18 different places home.

Many people value having a stable place to live, somewhere they can put down roots. But for me, I’ve always found the prospect of a new home exciting. To live in the same house – or even the same town – for the rest of my life has never been a goal I’ve striven for.

If you told me to pack a single suitcase that I’d need to live out of for a year so I could travel to various places around the world, I would welcome it. In fact, it would pretty much be the most exciting thing I could imagine.

I realize I’m in the minority. I know many people who still live in the same towns or cities where they were born, who have only left for short vacations or to attend college, and who plan to stay for the rest of their lives. I don’t think less of people who prioritize a single geographic location. In a way, I envy their contentedness. Feeling content with my life is something I’ve only ever experienced in fleeting moments.

Should you be a homeowner? That depends on your goals. If you can afford the down payment and plan to stay put for a long time, the decision could make sense. If you have a wandering spirit like myself, you may want to stick to renting.

Books

Books Read in March 2016

I read seven books in March (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 27.

These are the books I started reading in March but decided not to finish:

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

stuff

Recommended

1) Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy Frost & Gail Steketee

Description: Frost and Steketee were the first to study hoarding; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies. They also illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us. Whether we’re savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us is free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live.

Hoarding intrigues me because it’s so clearly the opposite of my personality. I also realize I wouldn’t be a good therapist for hoarders trying to change their ways — their process is way too slow (I’d want them to get started immediately, throw that out, you don’t need it, why are you keeping that, you’ll never look at that again…you get the idea) and many of them backslide.

With all the studies that have been done on hoarding, it makes me wonder if there have been any studies on minimalism (probably not, since hoarding possessions is considered a disorder, while getting rid of possessions is not). Unsurprisingly, reading about people collecting vast piles of junk made me want to go through my belongings and get rid of even more than I already have.

Okay

2) The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio

Description: Father Gary Thomas was working as a parish priest in California when church leaders asked him to train in the rite of exorcism. In Rome, as an apprentice to a veteran Italian exorcist, his eyes were opened to a darker side of the Catholic faith, and he came to see the battle between good and evil as never before. Journalist Matt Baglio had full access to Father Gary over the course of his training, and the story he found reveals that the phenomena of possession, demons, the Devil, and exorcism are not merely a remnant of the archaic past, but remain a fearsome power in many people’s lives even today.

This wasn’t a subject I had advance interest in, but when I came across the book, the concept seemed interesting. Exorcist training and exorcisms are still happening around the world, although they tend to be concentrated in certain areas (they’re especially prevalent in Italy, for example). I wasn’t enthralled by this book, but I liked that it was written by a journalist, and it contained a fair amount of information I didn’t know before.

3) When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Description: At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. This book chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student, into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

I didn’t rate this book so low because of the subject matter (a very smart man is diagnosed with cancer and dies less than two years later). While he’s an admirable guy, I just wasn’t interested in reading about his life (childhood, medical training, living through his diagnosis). To me, the most moving part was the epilogue – written by his wife – where she recapped her husband’s final days and hours.

4) Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Description: Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I wanted to be able to recommend this book because everyone else loves it. However, while I liked some of it, and found other parts poignant, I was bored by a lot of it and spent too much time re-reading sentences, attempting to figure out what he was trying to say. Unsurprisingly, my favorite part was when he obtained his first passport at age 37 and went to Paris.

5) Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World, Nicholas Guyatt

Description: Guyatt searches for the truth behind a startling statistic: 50 million Americans have come to believe that the apocalypse will take place in their lifetime. They’re convinced that any day now, Jesus will snatch up his followers and spirit them to heaven. The rest of us will be left behind to endure massive earthquakes, devastating wars, and the terrifying rise of the Antichrist. Bizarre, funny, and unsettling in equal measure, Guyatt uncovers the apocalyptic obsessions at the heart of the world’s only superpower.

Having grown up in a religious family (a way of life I later rejected), I’m all too aware of doomsday predictions and other scare tactics. Some parts of this book were hard to read because I recognize the language of Rapture prophecy and have bad memories. After all, having a preacher yell about how you’re destined to go to hell is a great way to ensure you adequately prepare yourself for the unknown. (Sarcasm.)

I wanted to like this more than I did, but it gets a little dense sometimes with biblical history; I preferred the parts where the author focused on his modern explorations and interviews. I also would’ve liked to hear more about everyday people who believe the Rapture is going to happen, instead of just well-known Doomsday dudes like John Hagee and Tim LaHaye. The author’s consensus: “It’s undeniable that Bible prophecy writers both feed upon and encourage anxieties about where we’re heading.”

I also liked this quote from the book: “Most of the prophecy enthusiasts I’ve spoken with have one big limitation: they haven’t successfully managed to predict anything, in spite of their claims that the Bible foretells the future.”

6) Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, Susan Blumberg-Kason

Description: When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai―and his culture―where not what she thought. In her memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband.

This woman annoyed me because of what she put up with for way too long. She was cowed by her husband; afraid to speak up. She contracted an STD; he denied cheating on her and she accepted that answer. He was volatile, extremely unreasonable, and did pretty much whatever he wanted without her saying anything. She finally left him but not before the book started to seem unnecessarily long.

7) An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Richard Dawkins

Description: A disarming account of world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s early life, from his childhood in colonial East Africa to the writing of one of the twentieth century’s seminal works, The Selfish Gene.

The good: Dawkins has no problem making fun of himself; he shares embarrassing stories from his early life growing up in Africa, and later, British private schools. The bad: Once he enters grad school, there’s a lot of in-depth explanation of his studies and experiments, and how he arrived at the theories that led him to write The Selfish Gene. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but I found the latter half a bit too technical for my liking.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 118

I was in DC earlier this month for a long weekend. As always, I packed my schedule full of friends I wanted to see and had a grand time. Whenever I go back for a visit, I find myself asking, “Why did I ever leave?” But then I have to sternly remind myself that when I’m there as a visitor, of course it’s fun – I’m not headed off to a cubicle job, fighting a rush-hour Metro commute, circling endlessly to find free street parking, or paying rent on an old, unrenovated apartment that costs twice what our mortgage does.

Yes, DC is where my best friends are and I miss them dearly. But the reason I like it better now than I did when I lived there is because it’s an escape. I no longer have to deal with the negative aspects and instead I get to reap the benefits: friends who rearrange their schedules to hang out with me, using public transportation during hours when it’s not busy, strolling past the White House on my way somewhere else, popping into a free museum just because I happen to be walking by and have a bit of time to kill.

I will always love DC, but the reason I’m able to look at the city with such fondness is because I left.

(Renwick Gallery, March 2016)

Renwick Gallery

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Currently Reading: Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World, by Nicholas Guyatt.

Currently Watching: I rented Suffragette from the library, which is about British women campaigning for the right to vote. I knew the right to vote was a struggle, but I never knew there was such underhanded efforts by men to keep it from happening (like doing undercover surveillance to discover what those dangerous women were up to). It was pretty intense: multiple arrests, hunger strikes, violence, bombs, suicide. Very interesting, and superbly acted by Carey Mulligan.

Currently Cooking: We’re celebrating Easter a day early tomorrow and having a meal with my in-laws and some friends. I’m contributing Southwestern Salsa and Black Rice Salad with Edamame, Walnuts & Lemon Vinaigrette.

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Favorite Links:

Doing a TED Talk – The Full Story. A TED presenter decides to do his talk on procrastination after he, well…procrastinates about preparing for his presentation. This article is a bit long, but also funny (the graphics are not to be missed). It’s also an interesting look at how people who need to give a very public 18-minute talk go about preparing.

Why I’m Returning to My Maiden Name. Emily decided to legally return to her maiden name after using her husband’s last name for several years after getting married. I thought it was interesting, especially since the decision to change my own last name wasn’t one I took lightly (and was certainly not a definite, like it is for a lot of women).

2020 Vision. Janet puts herself on an allowance and resolves to pay off her six-figure student loan debt by 2020.

Make Money & Travel. I enjoyed reading my way through these stories of people who make a living while traveling around the United States.

Open Letter to the Guy Who Refuses to be the Sole Breadwinner. I’ve read Penelope Trunk for many years, and she’s usually interesting, if a bit divisive (she also tends to stereotype a bit, as you can see in this post). I’m pretty sure we all know women who would continue to work even if they didn’t need the second income.

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From the Archives:

One year ago: My 20 Favorite Books About Religion (or the Lack Thereof)

Eight years ago: Q is for Quarterlife.”My quarterlife crisis was all about searching. I spent many hours on the internet, looking at career options, reading about people who had made big, life-changing decisions. I wanted to know how and why they ended up where they did.”

Thirteen years ago: Who Am I? It’s nice to know that even back then, I identified as a minimalist. “I guess I consider myself a minimalist. I don’t like a lot of clutter and I try not to keep too many unnecessary things. I don’t hold on to knick-knacks unless they’re from my childhood, and I’ve never collected anything.”

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 117

Downsizing: In the spirit of minimalism, Paul and I spent a few hours last weekend taking pictures and creating listings on eBay and Craigslist. I like that we’re able to downsize our possessions gradually as the mood strikes (usually the mood strikes me, but Paul approves of my efforts, especially when he sees the cash roll in).

We made $1,125 from Craigslist in 2015. A big chunk of that ($550) came from selling a washer/dryer that the previous owners of our house left in the basement — we already owned a newer set so we didn’t need theirs.

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Bullet Journals: While I understand that some people prefer paper calendars and planners over electronic versions, I don’t get the appeal of bullet journals. They seem very labor intensive. Why would I want to constantly hand-copy items from one page to another? Also, when the journal is full, it gets put in a stack, or lined up on a shelf – it’s just something else that takes up space.

Some people use a bullet journal as a type of scrapbook, capturing movie stubs, airline tickets, and other memorabilia. I don’t save those things, so I have no use for a receptacle to store them. I put those bits of paper in the trash. I record the outings on my electronic calendar instead, where I’m able to recall memories of the event just as easily as if I were to look at something physical.

My preference is Google Calendar, which I’ve used religiously for the past seven years. I access it on computers as well as my phone. In addition to recording future appointments and setting up recurring reminders, I also use it for:

  • Meal planning: Since 2012, I’ve kept track of every single recipe I’ve made. Although there are many recipes I don’t utilize anymore – either I didn’t like them enough, or they no longer fit into our vegetarian lifestyle – I could provide you with complete recipes at any time, along with notes about any modifications I made. (I put the name of the recipe as the title of the calendar entry, and all the recipe detail and modification information goes in the body of the entry.) When I want to make a recipe again, I copy the information from a previous entry into a new one. When I make dinner at night, I simply pull up Google Calendar on my laptop and click the recipe for that day to access what I need.
  • Random information retrieval: I can’t access my personal Gmail account from work, but I can access Google Calendar. I’ll often copy things I come across and want to remember (articles to read, titles of books to research) into a new calendar entry so I can retrieve the information later. I also do this all the time on my phone. If I come across something I want to look up later, I make a note on my calendar. If Paul asks me to remind him about something, I’ll jot it down. So basically I often use my calendar as a notepad / task list, but when the items have been crossed off, I delete the entry from my calendar. No paper is involved.
  • Searching for past events: One of the biggest advantages of an electronic calendar is being able to quickly find what you’re looking for. Rather than flipping through endless pages in a paper planner, I can find out in seconds when I last made a specific meal, or had dinner with a particular friend, or visited a certain museum.

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Paul’s eye surgery went great. He diligently followed the prescription-eyedrops regimen, he’s had two follow-up appointments, and everything appears to be healing nicely. This is the very last photo of him wearing his glasses before they were donated:

Last time with glasses

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Currently Reading: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy Frost & Gail Steketee. It’s fascinating to read about people who are so completely opposite from me.

Currently Watching: I knew pretty much nothing about the Beach Boys, but Love and Mercy was super interesting (Brian Wilson was controlled by a crazy psychologist!).

Currently Cooking: A meal that I return to over and over again is Cauliflower Pasta Puttanesca. Recently I’ve started making it even easier on myself and using frozen cauliflower instead of chopping fresh florets. I just make the sauce and once it boils, I add a l-pound bag of cauliflower. Once it’s thawed and heated through, the sauce is ready to go. Simple and delicious.

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Favorite Links:

None of them were “bad” guys. They usually aren’t. Rebecca Woolf wrote a powerful piece about various forms of sexual assault she’s experienced. She makes the point that boys aren’t always to blame, and gives reasons why. I was particularly interested when she mentioned being assaulted by a male friend; she pretended to be asleep and continued to be his friend afterward, never confronting him about it. I had something similar happen to me, which I haven’t thought about in a long time: when I was in my late teens, I attended a party, got really drunk (and physically sick), and fell asleep in a male friend’s bed. Later, I woke up when I felt his hands on me. I started moving around to let him know I was awake and must have said something along the lines of “Stop” or “No,” because he left me alone (which was lucky for me, because I wasn’t in good shape to fight back). I never said anything about it, we went on being friends like nothing had happened, and he never tried anything again. I’m sure many women have examples like this.

15 Lessons I Learned from Traveling Around the World: Since I dream of living overseas, I enjoyed this list (particularly #1 – Continuous travel is so much cheaper than living “real” life).

A Couple Bought An Abandoned French Chateau From The 1700s: Have you guys heard about this renovation? I’ve been following along with the progress and would love to see it in person one day.

How Netflix Reverse-Engineered Hollywood: A long but entertaining read, primarily focused on how Netflix created their micro-genres.

What is Sustainable Fashion? First, Fabrics. This blogger is the one who introduced me to the documentary I mentioned in the last Random Friday post, The True Cost (available on Netflix). Her post has some great tips for people looking to make more ethical clothing choices, and it’s not just about buying brand new. Remember: “We can stop buying new altogether, sticking with second-hand/vintage, or simply not adding anything else to our wardrobes, wearing and taking care of what’s already in our closets. We can re-use what we have, tailoring things to fit, coming up with innovative ways to wear things we already own. And we can simply get by with less; we can have less, buy less.”

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From the Archives:

Three years ago: 10 Reasons to Move to a Rust Belt City. “When it comes to Buffalo’s architecture, my favorite examples are the homes. There are a ton of houses in the city which are over 100 years old — they’re gorgeous. They have a history and character that’s impossible to find in newer structures.”

Six years ago: I’m Turning 30 and I’m Okay With It. This was written three months in advance of my thirtieth birthday. “Of course there are a number of things I wish I would have done by now that I haven’t, but those are my own expectations. I don’t feel burdened by anyone else’s thoughts about where I should be or what I should have accomplished by now.”

Seven years ago: I’m Discontent and Trying to Get Over It. “Dissatisfied, moody, depressed, overly quiet, morose. There are many words and phrases one can use to describe a general state of discontentment. In my case, I am discontent when every day starts to feel exactly like the day which preceded it — walking the same routes, seeing the same things, being responsible for turning out the same results over and over again.”

Eight years ago: Change Your Life: Study Abroad. “After spending five months in a foreign country, I can say firsthand that it’s an entirely different experience to stay in an unfamiliar place for a long period of time, as opposed to spending just a few days. As nice as it is to spend a few days in a foreign city, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel rushed as you go from one thing to another, or you’ll leave something out because you just don’t have the time.”

Thirteen years ago: I Stole Reflectors. “When I was about 16 and hanging out with my girlfriends, for lack of anything more interesting to do, one of the girls came up with the notion to steal reflectors off the side of the road. (You know, those reflectors that come in colors of red or blue, round disks mounted on a metal stick and stuck in the ground.) These are used by a lot of people in the country to mark the top of their driveways. Since country roads don’t have street lights, reflectors are helpful so that you (or your visitors) won’t drive past one of those hidden driveways in the dark.”

Books

Books Read in February 2016

I read 10 books in February (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 20.

These are the books I started reading in February but decided not to finish:

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Ronson

Highly Recommended

1) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

Description: The shamed are people like us, people who made a joke on social media that came out badly or made a mistake at work. Once the transgression is revealed, collective outrage ensues and the next thing they know, they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

Confession: I heard about this book months and months ago but didn’t think I would like it. I’ve never been publicly shamed, so why would I want to read about what happens if that fate were to befall me? What is the author going to do, tell me how to avoid it?

When my husband expressed interest in reading the book, I checked out a physical copy for him and borrowed an electronic copy for myself. Once I started it, I flew through it.

The book’s title is catchy but also a little misleading. It turns out my assumptions were wrong. I should have known better, because I’ve read three other books by this author and always enjoyed them (The Psychopath Test, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats).

Ronson is the kind of person who chooses a subject but beats all around the bush looking at that subject from multiple angles that a regular person (like myself) would never think about. He also makes observations like this: “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop.”

And if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself googling people he talked about in the book to see where they are now.

Recommended

2) Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, Wednesday Martin, PhD

Description: When Martin first arrives on New York City’s Upper East Side, she’s clueless about the right addresses, the right wardrobe, and the right schools, and she’s taken aback by the glamorous women around her. She feels unwelcome until she begins to look at her new niche through the lens of her academic background in anthropology. As she analyzes the tribe’s mating and migration patterns, childrearing practices, bonding rites, etc, she finds it easier to fit in and even enjoy her new life. Then one day, her world is turned upside down, and she finds out there’s much more to the women she’s secretly been calling Manhattan Geishas.

I’ve always had an interest in social research (I was a Sociology major in college), so I liked how the author looked at her Upper East Side neighborhood from an anthropological perspective. Rather than just being an observer, she fully participated in community norms — like buying a very pricey apartment, going through the extensive preschool application and interview process, and procuring a Birkin bag (which generally cost around $10k).

In the author’s words: “I learned that motherhood was another island upon the island of Manhattan, and that Upper East Side mothers were, in fact, a tribe apart. Theirs was a secret society of sorts, governed by rules, rituals, uniforms, and migration patterns that were entirely new to me, and subtended by beliefs, ambitions, and cultural practices I had never dreamed existed.”

3) How to Grow Up: A Memoir, Michelle Tea

Description: As an aspiring writer in San Francisco, Michelle lived in a communal house; she drank, smoked, snorted anything she got her hands on; she toiled for the minimum wage; and she dated men and women, sometimes both at once. But between hangovers and dead-end jobs, she scrawled in notebooks and organized dive bar poetry readings, working to make her literary dreams real. She proves the road less traveled may be a difficult one, but if you embrace life’s uncertainty and dust yourself off after every screw up, slowly but surely you just might make it to adulthood.

It took Michelle a long time to get her shit together, but she’s made extraordinary leaps in her life since she gave up drugs and alcohol in her early thirties. Aside from one scene that almost made me vomit (it involved the presence of maggots in a fridge), I very much enjoyed reading about her adventures in dating before she found her current partner, getting her first solo apartment after living with roommates for many years, learning how to have a healthy relationship with money, and her decision not to go to college, among many other things.

4) Tales from the Back Row: An Outsider’s View from Inside the Fashion Industry, Amy Odell

Description: Cosmopolitan.com editor Amy Odell takes readers behind the scenes of New York’s hottest fashion shows to meet influential models, designers, celebrities, editors, and photographers. This is a keenly observed collection of personal essays about what it’s like to be a young woman working in the fashion industry.

I don’t know very much about the fashion industry and only have accidental knowledge of clothing trends (if I see a random article online), but I did like this book. The author is down-to-earth and smart, and while she writes about fashion she doesn’t try too hard. She writes about things like interviewing for a position at Vogue with Anna Wintour (she didn’t get it, and is thankful later because the pressure to dress up every day in that environment would have been overwhelming) and being backstage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Entertaining read.

Okay

5) I Don’t Have a Happy Place: Cheerful Stories of Despondency and Gloom, Kim Korson

Description: Kim has an exquisite talent for negativity. It is only after half a lifetime of finding kernels of unhappiness where others find joy that she begins to wonder if she is even capable of experiencing happiness. This fresh-yet-dark voice is sure to make you laugh, nod your head in recognition, and ultimately understand what it truly means to be unhappy. Always.

As someone with a melancholy personality, I looked forward to this memoir. I was quite disappointed the book did not deliver as advertised until the last two chapters. Every once in a while she’d stick in a sentence about all the depression in her family, or seeing a glass as “less than half empty.”

I wanted tales of despondency and gloom, as the title promised! Instead she focused on the growing-up years of a kid who wasn’t popular, felt like she didn’t fit in, and in early adulthood couldn’t find a job she liked (doesn’t that hold true for most people)?

Those last two chapters? Worth reading. Everything else? I would skip it. Here are two quotes I liked (from pages 253 and 254, respectively):

“People say happiness is a choice, but I think that’s just what happy people say when they go out together to be happy. I don’t really care for going out.”

“I’ve spent most of my years thinking I was just in a bad mood. I was actually in a bad mood for twenty-nine years before it occurred to me that was an awfully long time to be cranky.”

6) The Invisible Girls: A Memoir, Sarah Thebarge

Description: After nearly dying of breast cancer in her twenties, Sarah fled her successful career, her Ivy League education, and a failed relationship, and moved nearly 3,000 miles from the east coast to Portland, Oregon, hoping to quietly pick up the pieces of her broken life. Instead, a chance encounter on a train with a family of Somali refugees swept her into an adventure that changed all of their lives.

This woman overcame incredible odds — breast cancer at a young age, recurrences, multiple surgeries, chemo and radiation, and her boyfriend breaking up with her when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Her history, and how she came to befriend a Somali family, made an interesting read. There were more religious aspects than I expected, but it wasn’t overwhelming (and she was questioning her faith a lot of the time). I looked up her blog and enjoyed this recent post about her work with Compassion International and how successful she’s been with getting people to sponsor needy kids.

7) Shanghai Girls, Lisa See

Description: In 1937 Shanghai, 21-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a life-changing secret, but through it all they hold fast to who they are.

I fully intended to rate this book as Recommended until I got to end. Can I PLEASE read some fiction that doesn’t leave a major plot point up in the air? I don’t need every fiction book to wrap up everything in a perfect little bow, but the twist at the end of this one just made me mad. The author could have left the twist out completely and the book would have fine.

8) Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run, Alexandra Heminsley

Description: When Alexandra decided to take up running, she had hopes for a blissful runner’s high and immediate physical transformation. She hit the streets and failed spectacularly. She tells the story of getting beyond the brutal part, how she made running a part of her life, and reaps the rewards: not just obvious things like weight loss, health, and glowing skin; but self-confidence and immeasurable daily pleasure.

I feel like the author glossed over the whole “starting out as a beginner” part. Her first run was horrible and humbling (which is to be expected), but a page later she was running six miles at a stretch. I don’t know about you guys, but that never happened for me. I’ve tried to take up running various times over the years (I’m currently in non-running mode), and my problem is feeling like I’m never making any progress. I would have liked to hear more details about how she got from that horrible first run to running multiple miles at a time.

9) I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist, Betty Halbreich

Description: In her late eighties, Betty is a true original. She has spent nearly 40 years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, where she works with socialites, stars, and ordinary women off the street. She has helped many find their true selves through fashion, frank advice, and her own brand of wisdom. But Halbreich’s personal transformation from cosseted young girl to fearless truth teller is the greatest makeover of her career.

I read an article about this woman and found it interesting, so I decided to check out the audiobook. I enjoyed learning about her experience working in the store more so than the history of her childhood and marriage. Not a wonderful book, but I liked her as a person.

Not Recommended

10) My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict, Lisa Kotin

Description: This is a story of where sugar took a teenage mime when she left home in pursuit of artistic greatness. From the strict macrobiotic house where she is kicked out for smuggling Snickers, to her early days of Overeaters Anonymous meetings, Kotin careens from romantic disasters to caloric catastrophes. Kotin comes out of the (sugar) closet, finding allies who understand, and learns how to live healthfully in spite of her compulsion.

My biggest dislike for this book was that it wasn’t what I expected. I expected it to be in the same vein as Year of No Sugar. I knew this woman was a binge eater; I figured she’d get a grip on her disorder once she realized how evil sugar is and tell us about her process. Instead, the book is about her extreme binging, a dysfunctional family, and her insufferable personality — she was a spoiled brat who took money freely from her parents, totaled her sister’s truck, and tells us way too much about all the sexual encounters she participated in while attempting to feel better about herself.

She refused to eat from fast food restaurants and street vendors because they were “too unhealthy.” Yet there was no limit to how many candy bars and other processed sweets she’d consume.

The achievement of finally giving up sugar is mentioned in the first few pages (preface) and the last few pages of the book. It turns out all I needed to read were these lines in the preface, and I could have skipped the rest: “Maybe one day I’ll be able to eat a cookie. For today, one is too many, a thousand are not enough.”

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 116

I published quite a few Random Friday posts back in the day. According to my archives, the first one appeared on November 10, 2006 and the last one appeared on May 27, 2011.

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Life Happenings:

1) Almost eight years ago, I had laser eye vision correction. Today Paul will undergo the same procedure. (Well, close enough — he’s getting Lasik and I had PRK.) Since I’ve already experienced the euphoria of being able to see everything all the time (I can see as soon as I wake up in the morning! I can see in the shower! No more taking contact lenses in and out of my eyes!), I feel like I’m looking forward to this procedure as much as he is.

(This is the last photo of me in my glasses, April 2007. Good riddance!)

Glasses

2) A few weeks ago, I passed the two-year anniversary at my job. I find it hard to believe I left DC and moved to Buffalo over two-and-a-half years ago. Interestingly, I’ve now been with this employer longer than I have any other, except for my very first grown up job (which I started at age 18 and stayed for seven years – I still have a long time before I pass that milestone).

3) Earlier this week, I completed the process of importing posts from my other two blogs into this one. It was too much effort to keep three websites going, especially since I don’t post on any of them often enough. I didn’t bring over all the posts – only the ones I deemed worth saving.

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Currently Reading: The Invisible Girls: A Memoir, by Sarah Thebarge. It has a nice message, but I’m not loving it. At least it’s a quick read.

Currently Watching: I really enjoyed the documentary The True Cost. It’s about where most of our clothes come from, and makes me want to pay more attention to such things.

Currently Cooking: Tonight I’m serving Thai Quinoa Chili, which has been a recurring favorite since I discovered the recipe last summer. (I make a few changes to the recipe: I use a full can of coconut milk, 1 cup quinoa, and only 2 cans of kidney beans.) This time I’m making a double batch, and I’ll deliver the extra servings to a friend who is going through treatment for breast cancer. A number of us signed up to deliver meals over the next few months, and I’m happy I get to participate.

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Favorite Links:

Curious about what people say to childless women? I haven’t had all of these phrases directed at me, but apparently they exist (if anyone ever told me “You’ll never understand love until you have kids,” I would FLIP OUT). Great post.

On a related note: The Unexpected, Exhilarating Freedom of Being Single at 41

Can you imagine a school providing swimsuits to kids, each size (small, medium, large) a different color? How would you feel if you stood out from your skinny classmates like that? It might be a cause for 30 years of body hatred.

Lizz found that it takes walking a 50-lb pit bull to stop the frequent catcalling in her eclectic neighborhood.

I like pretty much everything The Frugalwoods write (their ugly car is even older than my ugly car!). Most recently: A Woman’s Declaration of Financial Independence.

My friend Brenna doesn’t post very often, but I always enjoy it when she does. I only watch football because of my husband, but I found her description of life as a female football fan quite interesting.

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From the Archives:

One year ago: I Borrowed Library Books [as a kid] Without Checking Them Out. “Our library had a small selection of Sweet Valley Twins books. One day, knowing Mom didn’t approve of them, I slipped one in my purse. This was before books set off alarms if removed from a library without being checked out. Back in the day, books had paper cards in the back which were manually stamped with the due date. I read the book at home, and on our next trip to the library, I replaced it on the shelf. And I took out another one.”

Five years ago: I Learned to Make Excellent Crepes. “We made savory crepes (with ingredients such as prosciutto, smoked salmon, and Gruyère) and sweet crepes for dessert (Nutella with powdered sugar sprinkled on top).”

Six years ago: Snowed In. I was stuck at home for an entire week when the DC area got three feet of snow.

Seven years ago: Writing Your Online Dating Profile: Things to Keep in Mind. “I’ve looked at a fair amount of online dating profiles that were written by males, and I’ve talked to men who have looked at a wide variety of female profiles. Because of this, I’ve been able to draw a very important conclusion: most of us are not very original.”

Ten years ago: This Is How I Played Monopoly As a Kid. “Here is the king of all the made-up rules. The deal with Monopoly is, anyone is supposed to be able to buy any property that hasn’t already been claimed by someone else (as long as they have the money for it). But that isn’t the way Elissa and I played — we would make a decision before the game started about which properties we wanted to be ours.”

Thirteen years ago: Memories From the 1999 Woodstock Reunion. “The result of all this sun exposure was, yes, sunburn. I got burnt so bad on one side of my face that I got sun poisoning, the area from my forehead, to the eye itself, and underneath was swollen. At its worst point my eye was completely swollen shut, but luckily this didn’t happen until the very last day, when we were on our way back to Virginia. It was so bad that I had to go to my doctor the next day; he gave me steroids to take down the swelling.”

About Me

8 Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now

On February 1, Modern Mrs. Darcy wrote about the things that are saving her life right now. For many people (especially those of us who live in a cold climate), February can be tough. We’ve already been through a few months of winter but we have a while to go before spring arrives. To beat back the gloom, she shared her list and invited others to participate.

I’m a few days late on this, but after seeing Jaclyn and Katie post about the things that are saving their lives right now, I figured I could come up with a few things as well.

1) Mild Winter: I had to put this at the top of my list. This is my third winter in Buffalo, but the first I’d consider mild. My first two winters here were brutal (not just for me, as a new Buffalonian – they were brutal for everyone). Last winter was the worst. In November 2014 it snowed the weekend after we moved into our new house and the snow didn’t completely melt until March 2015. It didn’t snow every day, but since it was so cold the snow we had never melted, and whatever came down just added to what was already there. I wore my snow boots every time I went outside for at least four months. On top of all the snow, last February we experienced record-low temperatures (the temps didn’t rise above 32 degrees the entire month, and wind chills below zero were more common than not).

This winter, there was no measurable snowfall at my house until January (why yes, I did want to slap people who complained about not having snow for Christmas). Two weeks later it was gone. This week we had temps in the 50s. I really, really needed this.

(This is what my front yard looked like a year ago. Today there is only grass.)

Snow in our yard

2) Walking: Thanks to the aforementioned mild winter, it’s been easier to meet my goal of 10,000 steps per day (I typically average 11,000-13,000 steps). Since I started keeping track last June, there have been less than 10 days where I didn’t meet my goal.

Walking is also what got me back into audiobooks after not listening to them for years – I found I couldn’t stay interested in music on my walks; I needed something to keep my brain occupied. I’ve considered adding podcasts to the mix, but that’s a medium I haven’t embraced yet and the books do a good job of keeping me entertained.

3) The Way I Eat: I drastically changed my eating habits last September after reading The Blue Zones Solution and Eating Animals. Before then, it wasn’t uncommon for me to eat meat for two meals a day, if not all three. While I can’t say I’ve noticed a striking difference in the way I feel, I also haven’t experienced any negative effects – no decrease in my physical or mental energy levels. Paul embraced the dietary change along with me, and neither of us has consumed any meat (poultry, beef, pork) since last September when my sister was in town and we made baked chicken (I have had seafood several times since then).

I ate entirely vegan in January for Veganuary. It’s now the first week of February and I’m still eating vegan, but I’m undecided how long I’ll continue. Maybe for a long time. Maybe not. It’s very easy to eat this way at home since I cook from scratch, but I might decide to make a concession for dairy at a friend/family member’s house or when I’m at a restaurant.

The biggest thing to note: I don’t miss meat or dairy. Since I don’t miss it, that indicates to me I should continue eating the way I’ve been eating. Why go out and have a steak if it’s not something I crave? While eating vegan, the only thing I’ve had cravings for is chocolate (and there are a ton of options out there for vegan desserts, including chocolate, it’s just been a while since I’ve taken advantage of them). Long-time readers may remember I went vegan in December 2006, but started eating meat again – after 5+ years as a vegetarian – in June 2007.

4) Upcoming Travel: I’ve read that anticipating and planning travel can be better for your psyche than the actual time you spend away from home. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know having excursions to look forward to really helps my state of mind. Since I moved to Buffalo in 2013, I’ve traveled to Virginia twice a year to see my family, and I also fly to Washington DC twice a year to visit friends I made in the seven years I lived there.

In addition to those four set-in-stone trips, we choose at least one more destination (in 2014 we went to Toronto, as well as Cleveland and Columbus, OH; in 2015 we spent a week in Newport Beach and Las Vegas). This year I’m pretty sure we’re going to Charleston, SC (my two best friends from childhood have both ended up there, and one of them I haven’t seen since 2008 when I visited her in Tampa), but we’re in the early planning stages. We’re considering making it a long road trip by visiting family in Virginia first, then heading to Charleston, then spending a day or two in another location (Pittsburgh is high on the list) on our way home.

5) Chubby Nephew Cheeks: I have a seven-month old nephew named Hudson and a three-week-old nephew named Hunter. Although it kills me not to see them more regularly, my two sisters, mom, and I have a group text going and use the medium almost daily to keep in touch. Pictures of cute baby nephews (plus my younger sister’s slightly older three- and four-year-old sons) arrive on a regular basis. Other than the times we’re able to see each other in person, this is the best way for the four of us to have a conversation at one time and I love it.

(Four of my five nephews: Laine, Hudson, Hunter, and Ryder.)

Four nephews

6) Inspirational People: The reason I lean towards memoir in the books I read (137 books last year!) is because I love learning about people who are doing things I haven’t done, or would potentially like to do myself, or even things I would never do (like run an ultramarathon). Last year I read about a woman who became a carpenter, and another who worked in a crematory, and then there was the one who cooked a meal from every country in the world. I like to be inspired, even while I realize I could do a better job of inspiring people myself.

7) Documentaries: I used to watch a ton of documentaries (I watched 50 of them in just over two years). I took a long break, but I’ve recently rediscovered my enthusiasm. I’ve watched five in the past month and have at least twenty on my to-watch list.

8) Husband: It seems cliché to add Paul to this list. But seriously, you guys, he’s the absolute best partner for me. I don’t get to act silly in my workplace-life because 1) I work for a large corporation and 2) I’m a huge introvert, so he gets the brunt of it in the few hours we spend together in the evening – and throws it right back at me. For a man who wears a suit to work and manages around thirty people, he can be quite the silly person himself. In other words, we act ridiculous around each other and that is an outlet I need. If I were still single, or married to someone with a somber personality, my life would be a lot different.

(I mean, c’mon…it’s impossible not to like this guy.)

Paul at Five Points Baker

What things are saving your life right now?

Books

Books Read in January 2016

I tried to cut back on my reading…and I still managed to consume 10 books in January (two were audiobooks).

As a new addition to this round-up, I’ve decided to list the books I started reading this month but decided not to finish. In January, those books were:

  • Girl Waits With Gun (This came off as too YA for me. I wasn’t interested.)
  • The Martian (I watched the movie instead. I could handle two hours and twenty minutes.)

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Print

Highly Recommended

1) A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout

Description: As a child, Amanda escaped a violent household by paging through issues of National Geographic and imagining herself visiting exotic locales. She later backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India; emboldened by each adventure, she went on to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. In war-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq she carved out a fledgling career as a television reporter. Then, in August 2008, she traveled to Somalia. On her fourth day, she was abducted by a group of masked men along a dusty road. Held hostage for 460 days, Amanda survives on memory—every lush detail of the world she experienced in her life before captivity—and on strategy, fortitude, and hope.

I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. How engaging can a story be when someone is held captive (often in a tiny, dark room) for over a year? As it turns out, she had a lot to say. There was also a daring escape (and recapture), rape, and torture. I was never bored with the story, and the description of the author’s life prior to being kidnapped was a good buildup to what happened later.

Recommended

2) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, Carla Power

Description: This is Power’s eye-opening story of how she and longtime friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi found a way to confront ugly stereotypes and persistent misperceptions that were cleaving their communities. Their friendship — between a secular American and a madrasa-trained sheik — had always seemed unlikely, but now they were frustrated and bewildered by the battles being fought in their names. Both knew a close look at the Quran would reveal a faith that preached peace and not mass murder; respect for women and not oppression. And so they embarked on a yearlong journey through the controversial text.

I had limited knowledge of Islam, Muslims, and the Quran before reading this book (and no desire to learn more), but the premise sounded interesting. I’m very glad I picked it up. What I appreciated most was how the (secular) author exposed and demolished religious stereotypes. (Muslims aren’t bad people, or prone to terrorism, any more so than Christians are.) She was very good at making what could have been a dry subject interesting.

3) Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach

Description: Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of―or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.

What I like about Roach is she presents science-related topics in a way that a non-sciencey person like myself can understand. Each chapter was on a different subject, some of which I liked better than others (I was more interested in the chapters on humans than the ones which focused on rodents and insects). Overall a good read, though.

4) Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall

Description: Randall explores the research that is investigating those dark hours which make up nearly a third of our lives. Taking readers from military battlefields to children’s bedrooms, we learn that sleep isn’t as simple as it seems. Do women sleep differently than men? If you happen to kill someone while you are sleepwalking, does that count as murder? This is a tour of the often odd, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating things that go on in the peculiar world of sleep.

I don’t have trouble sleeping but there’s a lot of interesting information to learn about the science of sleep. It’s all high-level, too, no in-depth science stuff if you’re not into that type of thing. Randall addresses topics such as: is it better to sleep in the same bed with your partner or not (answer: not); how to get your young child to go to sleep; what happens when people sleepwalk; alternatives to using sleeping pills; and if the firmness of your mattress really matters.

5) Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, Rich Roll

Description: One evening in October 2006, the night before he was to turn 40, Rich experienced a chilling glimpse of his future. Nearly fifty pounds overweight and unable to climb stairs without stopping, he could see where his current sedentary lifestyle was taking him. Plunging into a new way of eating that made processed foods off-limits and prioritized plant nutrition, vowing to train daily, Rich morphed—in a matter of months—from out-of-shape midlifer to endurance machine. When Rich left the house one morning to embark on a light jog and found himself running a near marathon, he knew he had to scale up his goals.

Sometimes you need to read a book about something you’ll absolutely never do (compete in ultramarathons) because it provides inspiration for you to do more in your much-less-exciting daily life. Rich’s success is all the more impressive due to his history with alcoholism and commitment to a vegan diet.

Okay

6) Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson

Description: Born in upper-crust black Chicago, Margo has spent most of her life among the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions.

There was a lot to like about this book, and I would have rated it as Recommended until I got to the second half. I found her childhood more interesting than the grown-up years. Plus, the entire format of the book was strange (the addition of poetry and literature quotes, random interludes that didn’t seem to fit — there’s one in particular about the book Little Women that comes to mind). There were also many descriptions of her role and performance in various plays.

I did like where she talked about growing up in an upper-middle class black family and attending mostly-white schools. It was interesting to get that perspective.

She refers to upper-class blacks as the “third race” (to differentiate between whites and other black people). Here’s a quote: “We were the third race. We cared for our people — we loved our people — but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for most of them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them. Our daily practice was suspicion, caution at the very least. Preemptive disdain.”

7) Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, Michael Gibney

Description: This is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

A day in the life of a sous chef, where he breaks down his role and aspirations, and lists other staff positions in the restaurant and what those people do, and gives long, involved descriptions of the food they make and how the various cuts of fish are prepared (because seafood is his specialty). Verdict: Meh. This book would be helpful if you’re considering going into this line of work and want in-depth knowledge of how a fancy New York kitchen works. For someone who has already read plenty of books about the inner workings of restaurant kitchens (as I have), there’s nothing new to learn.

8) Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen

Description: Christensen’s story takes us from her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley (as the daughter of a legal activist who ruled the house with his fists) to her success as a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author. Hungry not just for food, but for love and a sense of belonging, Christensen writes honestly about her struggle to find the contentment she always yearned for.

While reading this book, I found myself asking, “Why should I care about this woman?” She wasn’t entirely uninteresting, but there was never a point where I thought, “Ah, yes, THIS is why she felt the need to tell her story.” The most interesting aspect was near the end when she divorced her husband and met a man 19 years(!) her junior. From what I could find online, they’re still together seven years later.

9) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford

Description: Henry Lee is a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuffles between 1986 and the 1940s in a story that chronicles the loss of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Forty years later, in the hotel’s dusty basement, Henry begins looking for signs of Keiko’s family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure.

This was mildly entertaining but the story felt predictable. I was also disappointed with the ending. I felt like the author was building up to a big Henry & Keiko reunion, but the book ended prematurely and left big questions unanswered. What had Keiko done in the decades since she and Henry parted? Did she know why she stopped receiving letters from him? Was that her in the crowd the day Henry proposed to Ethel?

Not Recommended

10) Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay: And Other Things I Had to Learn as a New Mom, Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

Description: In short essays, Stefanie delivers the straight dirt on parenting, tackling everything from Mommy & Me classes to attachment parenting. She combines practical tips with humor and honesty, assuring women they can be good mothers and responsibly make their own choices.

My opinion can be summed up in two words: Not amused. I appreciate that she encourages moms not to make themselves crazy with all the options out there (Mommy & Me classes, stroller choices, pediatricians), and how she makes fun of overly-doting moms who don’t have a life apart from their child(ren). However, she can barely write two paragraphs without trying to inject her version of humor, which quickly became grating and annoying. I looked her up and discovered she’s written more books since this one came out, so it appears other people find her funnier than I do.

35 Things in 2015

Recap: 35 Things in 2015

On January 1, 2015, I posted a list of 35 things I wanted to accomplish (I chose that number because I would turn 35 years old in June).

I ended up crossing off 28 items from my list. Not as impressive as I would have liked, but not bad.

Home

1. Make the guest room in our house a comfortable and inviting spot
I’m not a designer and it’s not magazine-ready, but I’ve had visitors stay overnight in our guest room without complaint (well, there may have been a slight complaint about the sloping ceilings on either side of the bed — if you don’t watch out, you can bang your head).

2. Replace our roof (ugh!)
The not-so-fun part of being a homeowner. At least we knew about it before we bought the house; it wasn’t a surprise.

(Our front yard was a big mess that day.)

Roof replacement

3. Host overnight guests
My sister Elissa, brother-in-law Travis, and then-3-month-old nephew Hudson visited us for four days / five nights in late September.

Me, Elissa and Hudson

4. Plant something in our yard when spring arrives
I planted a few veggies but none of them grew big enough to eat. Pretty certain it was my error; I should try again.

Financial

5. Max-out my workplace 401k and Heath Savings Account (HSA) contributions
I maxed-out my 401k ($18,000) and HSA contributions ($5,650 because I have a family plan and my employer contributes $1,000 to the account), for a total of $23,650.

6. Become a one-car household
We got rid of my husband’s car over the summer. Now we just own an ugly Civic.

7. Spend less money in 2015 than we did in 2014
Goal accomplished! And I plan to spend even less money in 2016.

Places and Events in/near Buffalo

8. New location of Five Points Bakery
We went to Five Points in April. Super cute place.

Five Points Bakery

9. Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride
I cannot officially cross this off, but in September we did drive to Lockport and attempt to take the tour. However, the boat was out of order! We didn’t want to do part of the tour without getting the full experience, so we walked around on our own instead.

10. Lake Effect Ice Cream
We followed up our Lockport visit with a stop at Lake Effect. It was divine.

Lake Effect Ice Cream - Lockport, NY

11. Buffalo Bisons baseball game
We attended a game on Paul’s birthday in July.

12. Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve
We went to Reinstein in May with Jaclyn and her family, and she wrote a post about it.

13. Niagara Wine Trail
I went to seven wineries on the trail with my mother-in-law and several friends in February.

14. Take a photo with Shark Girl at Canalside
I crossed this off in September when my sister was visiting.

Shark Girl - Canalside

15. Wilkeson Point
This location should have been an easy one to check off, but alas…no.

16. Horsefeathers Winter Market
We visited the market in April and purchased several items while we were there.

17. Buffalo Naval and Military Park
Cool place! We spent more time exploring the three ships than I expected. The close quarters in the interior of the ships can get kind of claustrophobic, though.

18. Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge Park
We made it to the flame in August. Once again with Jaclyn and her family. And once again, she wrote about it while I did not!

19. Taste of Buffalo
This was my second time attending this event. Crowds are a problem for me so if I go again, I want to seek out a less-busy time than the middle of the day.

20. Bird Island Pier
I’ve visited twice before — Sept 2012 and Nov 2013 — but due to construction most of the year on the bridge which leads to the park entrance, we didn’t make it back.

21. Attend a concert
Paul and I saw Imagine Dragons at First Niagara Center in June.

22. Buffalo Sabres hockey game
This was crossed off in January.

23. Shakespeare in Delaware Park
Paul enjoyed this event more than I did. It just wasn’t an ideal setup — it was very busy the night we went; I couldn’t hear the performers because we were too far from the speakers; and it turned chilly later in the evening so I was shivering for the last hour or two.

24. Buffalo’s annual Garden Walk
We didn’t go on the Walk! Paul was out of town that weekend and I decided to skip it rather than go solo. We did go in 2014 and enjoyed it very much.

25. Experience something new at Niagara Falls
We viewed the Falls from Goat Island in September. I have no idea what took us so long; it was really fun.

Places to visit elsewhere

26. Return to DC to visit friends
I visited DC twice (May and September).

(Me and Paul relaxing on a bench near Union Station.)

Me and Paul in DC

27. Return to Toronto
Paul and I meant to do this but never made the time. Sigh. 2016, for sure. I really enjoyed my first visit in February 2014.

28. Visit a city I’ve never been to before
We went to Newport Beach, CA in June. Lovely place.

Food

29. Complete a third Whole30
I completed my third and final Whole30 in January.

30. Revisit my favorite Ethiopian food vendor at West Size Bazaar
The vegetable combination platter at the Bazaar rocks.

(Looking at this photo makes me want to go back again.)

Ethiopian food at West Side Bazaar

31. Locate a fabulous Thai restaurant that I can confidently recommend to Thai-loving visitors
Jasmine Thai will do the trick.

Other

32. Surpass my 2014 reading total of 53 books
I didn’t just surpass my 2014 reading total, I crushed it. Maybe I should have used some of that extra time to cross off items from this list instead…

33. Read at least one fiction book per month
I used to read very little fiction, but in 2015 I really stepped it up. 53 of the 137 books I read were fiction.

34. Get my bike tuned so I can ride it again
I did get my bike out and rode it several times, but I didn’t get it professionally tuned. I still need to do this because the chain is all rusted and I’m pretty sure it’s going to snap at any moment.

35. Private goal
Last January, I thought I wanted to have a baby. By April, I was seriously questioning that decision. I still don’t know exactly where I stand, but at this point I am not pregnant.