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.

Life

2015 Year in Review

I enjoyed putting a review together last year so I figured I’d do it again for 2015. There’s quite a few things that don’t make it onto the blog as they happen.

January: Rang in the new year with my husband and in-laws. Attended a bowling fundraiser for Buffalo’s Women & Children’s Hospital. Went to a Sabres hockey game. Attended the Larkinville Ice Festival. Completed my third Whole30. Purchased a table for our dining room.

(Paul and I with friends at the Ice Festival)

Larkinville Ice Festival - Buffalo, NY

(Handsome husband at the bowling alley)

Husband bowling

February: Record low temps in Buffalo kept me inside most of the time, but I did get out to see a friend at RiverWorks (she was visiting from out of town) and I met Leah (a local book blogger) for coffee. I also visited seven locations on the Niagara Wine Trail in one day, and confessed to a childhood habit of removing books from the library without checking them out.

(There was a literal mountain of snow in our yard in February)

Snow in our yard

(Hanging out with lady friends at a winery)

Niagara Wine Trail

March: Drove out to see frozen Niagara Falls. Had plans to spend a long weekend in DC but my flight was canceled (due to a snowstorm in DC, not Buffalo). Had a new furnace installed in our house because the old one kept breaking down. Attended the Buffalo Home Show. Met my friend Jaclyn’s new son.

(Husband and in-laws at frozen Niagara Falls. It’s so frozen, you can’t see anything in the background!)

Frozen Niagara Falls

(Me and “Nugget”)

Zan and baby

April: Visited a friend’s lake house in Sunset Bay for Easter. Spent a Saturday morning checking out Horsefeathers Winter Market, Five Points Bakery, and West Side Bazaar. Toured the Buffalo Naval and Military Park. Received a bunch of feedback after admitting I didn’t know if I wanted to have a baby.

(Interior of Five Points Bakery)

Five Points Bakery

(One of the ships at the Naval and Military Park)

Buffalo Naval and Military Park

May: Had the roof replaced on our house. Enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the Buffalo History Museum. Hiked at Reinstein Woods. Traveled to DC for a long weekend, met up with a bunch of friends, and stayed overnight in Baltimore. Returned to the lake house in Sunset Bay for the second time. Drove to Virginia Beach for my sister Elissa’s wedding.

(Having a bit of fun at Reinstein Woods)

Me at Reinstein Woods

(Visiting the Baltimore Farmers’ Market with my friend Shannon)

Baltimore Farmers' Market

(It was a beautiful day for my sister’s wedding)

Wedding

June: Had central air installed in our house (we’d paid for it earlier in the year when we bought the furnace). Took a week off work over my 35th birthday and traveled to Newport Beach and Las Vegas. Sold one of our cars and became a one-car household. Saw Imagine Dragons in concert. My nephew Hudson was born. Wrote about conquering my eating disorder.

(The Mission at San Juan Capistrano)

Mission San Juan Capistrano

(Paul at The Venetian in Las Vegas)

Paul at Venetian

July: Saw Romeo & Juliet performed at Shakespeare in Delaware Park. Back to the lake house in Sunset Bay for Independence Day. Attended Taste of Buffalo for the second time. Atended my third City of Night in the Old First Ward (I didn’t like it nearly as much as the first two). Celebrated Paul’s birthday at 716 Food and Sport. Attended a Bisons baseball game. Flexed my minimalism skills and donated a bunch of stuff to charity.

(Straddling an alligator at Sunset Bay — no, I didn’t make this)

Sunset Bay, NY

(This is some of the stuff I donated)

IMG_20150724_175343959

August: Hiked at Devil’s Hole State Park. Checked out the Eden Corn Festival. Had trenches dug in our front yard so our basement would stop flooding during heavy rain. Hiked at Chestnut Ridge Park and viewed the Eternal Flame. Enjoyed food trucks at Larkin Square Food Truck Tuesday. Received our first Porter Farms CSA delivery (we signed up halfway through the season, but next year will participate for the entire thing). Enjoyed the art (and people-watching) at the Elmwood Arts Festival.

(View from the Devil’s Hole hike)

Devil's Hole

(Eternal Flame)

Eternal Flame, Chestnut Ridge Park

(Our front yard was all dug up when they installed the pipes to divert water from our basement)

Trenches

September: Traveled to Lockport, NY for the first time. Took my second trip of the year to DC, spending most of the weekend with two girlfriends. Embraced the Blue Zones and stopped eating meat (except seafood). Hosted my sister, brother-in-law, and then 3-month-old nephew Hudson at my house in Buffalo. Took them to a bunch of places that I love but don’t get to see nearly often enough.

(The Upside-Down Railroad Bridge in Lockport, NY)

Upside-Down Railroad Bridge, Lockport NY

(Me and Elissa)

Me and Liss

October: Watched a friend perform in the Buffalo Porchfest. Walked around picturesque Hoyt Lake. Attended the first half of TEDxBuffalo 2015 (I left during intermission…I didn’t find the speakers entertaining). Visited the Buffalo Zoo when my employer offered a free admission weekend.

(See? I told you Hoyt Lake is beautiful.)

Hoyt Lake

November: Drove to Virginia Beach for the second time. Took a long walk around Niawanda Park. Celebrated Thanksgiving with my husband’s family.

(We rode in my brother-in-law’s boat to each lunch at Dockside in Virginia Beach.)

Dockside restaurant

(Is there anything cuter than my nephew Hudson chilling with his Labradoodle?)

Hudson and Walter

December: Celebrated my two-year wedding anniversary with a five-mile walk and dinner at Merge. Hosted Paul’s parents for our annual Love Actually viewing. Watched football at Jaclyn‘s house. Celebrated Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve at my in-laws’ house.

(I was out for a walk one glorious Sunday afternoon in December when I encountered this breathtaking sunset.)

Sunset

What was your favorite event of 2015?

Books

Books Read in December 2015

I read 15 books in December, which brings my 2015 total to 137.

December was a difficult reading month for me. I started at least eight (!) books I didn’t finish (and those are the ones I remember; I think there may have been one or two more). To be fair, some of them were checked out from the library simply because they happened to be available — this happens more often with e-books and audiobooks because the selection isn’t as wide, so I end up checking them out just to have something to read, and then I don’t finish them. I do have a number of e-books on hold that I’m looking forward to.

For 2016, will I set a goal to read more books than I did this year? No. I feel no desire to surpass this number unless it ends up working out that way on its own. If I find something else to take up my time, that’s perfectly okay with me. I’ll always be reading; it just may not be as much as this colossal year.

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

Recommended

steinem

1) My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem

Description: Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car and drive cross-country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. And so began a lifetime of travel, of activism and leadership, of listening to people whose voices and ideas would inspire change and revolution.

I knew who Steinem was but I’d never read a book about her, or written by her, before this one. Other than the chapter on politics, I liked it a lot. What an impressive, hard working woman.

2) Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, Shonda Rhimes

Description: She’s the creator and producer of some of the most groundbreaking shows on TV: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder. This memoir chronicles Shonda’s life before and after her Year of Yes, where she forced herself out of the house and onto the stage, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live; giving a Dartmouth commencement speech; when she learned to say yes to her health; yes to play; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self.

I recommend this book because it’s a fun read, but certain parts of it bugged me. In three separate chapters, Shonda recaps the ENTIRE text of speeches she gave — which just seems lazy. It’s comparable to a blogger getting a book deal and lifting too much text directly from their blog, rather than coming up with new material.

I also expected Shonda’s Year of Yes to be more specific, rather than doing things like “saying yes to losing weight” and “saying yes to accepting compliments rather than constantly deflecting them.” She’s an entertaining writer though, and I got through the book quickly.

Here’s what she said about her life before starting the Year of Yes: “The years and years of saying no were, for me, a quiet way to let go. A silent means of giving up. An easy withdrawal from the world, from light, from life. Saying no was a way to disappear. Saying no was my own slow form of suicide.”

3) French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting, Catherine Crawford

Description: Short of shipping her daughters off to Paris for invaluable early-life lessons, Crawford did the next best thing: she brought French-style parenting to Brooklyn. In the process, she discovered her kids could actually hold a thought silently for two minutes without interrupting adult conversation, and that she didn’t need to buy out half the toy store to make their birthdays special. While combining the best attributes of the approach français with what she saw as American qualities worth preserving, Crawford found a way to save her household and her sanity.

I’m not a parent, but I like to read about the French and their child-rearing methods (I also enjoyed Bringing Up Bébé). The author makes the point that the French are, of course, not perfect in their methods — she doesn’t believe in spanking her kids, for instance — but there are many things we can learn, and she sees a big difference in her two girls’ behavior when she does.

4) Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn

Description: Twenty-something, suit-clad, and upwardly mobile, Joshua thought he had everything anyone could ever want. Until he didn’t anymore. In the pursuit of looking for something more substantial than compulsory consumption, he jettisoned most of his material possessions, paid off loads of crippling debt, and walked away from his six-figure career. This is a story of what happened when one man decided to let go of everything and begin living more deliberately.

I’ve been reading The Minimalists for years — I really admire them (check out their recent post on Minimalist Gift-Giving for the holidays). They both gave up six-figure jobs to live more meaningfully and encourage others to simplify their lives. The book repeats a lot of what I already knew about them (having read their blog for so long), but I definitely encourage others to pick it up.

5) Bastards: A Memoir, Mary Anna King

Description: In the early 1980s, Mary Hall is growing up in poverty in Camden, New Jersey, with her older brother and parents who, in her words, were “great at making babies, but not so great at holding on to them.” After her father leaves the family, she is raised among a commune of mothers in a low-income housing complex. Then, no longer able to care for the only daughter she has left at home, Mary’s mother sends her to Oklahoma to live with her maternal grandparents, who have also been raising her younger sister. When Mary is legally adopted by her grandparents, the result is a family story like no other.

A woman has seven children and ends up giving six of them up for adoption. What. The. Hell. The kids find each other again later in life, and it’s both heartwarming and sad, but it was hard for me to get past the mother’s actions. She wasn’t on drugs, she wasn’t mentally handicapped. She was just lazy with her birth control. God, I wanted to slap her.

6) Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, Amy Richards

Description: Richards addresses the anxiety over parenting that women face today, in a mix of memoir, interviews, historical analysis, and feminist insight. She covers everything from the truth about our biological clocks and the trends toward extending fertility, to parenting with nature and nurturing in mind, to our relationship with our own mothers, to what feminism’s relationship to motherhood is and always has been.

This book gave me some things to think about that I hadn’t considered before. I liked how the author shares her thoughts and worldview without judging other women’s choices.

Okay

7) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, Ted Koppel

Description: Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

I put this book on hold at the library after watching an interview with Koppel on CBS Sunday Morning. Although my pantry likely holds more items than someone who doesn’t cook at home regularly, I don’t buy food with the intention of stockpiling for a future doomsday. We don’t own a generator, or a grill, or any other way to heat food (unless you count a book of matches and some brush in our backyard we could set on fire), which means many of our perishables — quinoa, rice, bags of dried beans — wouldn’t do us any good without some way to prepare them.

If millions of people are without power for weeks or even months, that would be a big deal. Some people would have the resources to go somewhere the power still works, but many others wouldn’t. There would be rioting and looting. It would get ugly. Like Koppel, I do believe this scenario is a possibility and I’m also quite certain the government is not prepared to handle a disaster of this scale.

This book was helpful because I started thinking about ways I could be just a bit more prepared in case of an emergency. Other than that though, I didn’t find Koppel’s writing all that interesting. He does a lot of interviews (power company owners and operators, cybersecurity specialists) and most of them agree something could happen to our power grid, but nobody is taking ownership. I felt like a lot of the book was a repeat of that message, over and over.

8) One Second After, William Forstchen

Description: This is a story which can be all too terrifyingly real…a story in which one man struggles to save his family and his small North Carolina town after America loses a war. A war that will send America back to the Dark Ages. A war based upon a weapon, an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). A weapon that may already be in the hands of our enemies. This has been cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read, a realistic look at a weapon and its awesome power to destroy the entire United States, literally within one second.

I recommend this book if you want to know what life could be like if everyone loses electricity (basically, it would be really scary, and a bunch of people would die), but I can’t recommend it if you want a well-written story. I didn’t like the author’s writing style, I found the narration to be stilted, and most of the conversations (huge chunks of the book) took place around conference tables.

Also, I got the impression that the author wrote with a male audience in mind — he was fond of mentioning how “cute” he found this female or that (seriously, it was a lot). And if he referred to his dogs as “those fools” one more time, I was ready to throw the book across the room. Which would have been unfortunate since it was an e-book I was reading on my phone.

9) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Description: This is the story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal.

I almost gave up on this several times, but I kept going back to it because the book got such great reviews (I hate when I do that). The tale of a hermaphrodite who doesn’t realize he’s a boy until age fourteen? I wanted it to be fascinating — and some parts of it were, but not enough. I found myself getting impatient with many aspects of the story.

10) Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon

Description: Alisa and J.B. began to research the origins of the items which stocked the shelves of their local supermarket. They were shocked to discover that a typical ingredient in a North American meal travels roughly the distance between Boulder, Colorado, and New York City before it reaches the plate. They were trying to live more lightly on the planet; meanwhile, their diet was producing greenhouse gases and smog at an unparalleled rate. So they decided on an experiment: For one year they would eat only food produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver home.

I’m a sucker for books about year-long challenges. I’ve thought about doing one myself but I haven’t identified anything that I think would be worth doing for so long. I liked the idea of this book, and it was certainly challenging for the authors, but it annoys me when people give themselves so many exemptions from their rules.

In this instance, the authors said they would only eat foods acquired from a 100-mile radius from their home. However, they didn’t have to follow that rule if they were invited to a friend’s house, or if they went to a restaurant for a work meeting. They also didn’t have to follow the rule if they were traveling — which they did quite a lot.

(You may recall my annoyance with Year of No Sugar for the same reason. Too many exemptions. If you’re going to do something for a year, then do it. Don’t half-ass it.)

11) The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Rinker Buck

Description: An epic account of traveling the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules, an audacious journey that hasn’t been attempted in a century. Traveling from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, over the course of four months, Buck is accompanied by three cantankerous mules and his boisterous brother Nick. Along the way, they dodge thunderstorms in Nebraska, chase runaway mules across the Wyoming plains, scout more than 500 miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, cross the Rockies, and make desperate 50-mile forced marches for water.

I have a lot of admiration for what these two men did, but I wasn’t as entertained by it as I wanted to be (I started the book in early November and had to renew it several times before I finished it…I kept finding other things I wanted to read more). Oregon Trail history buffs would likely love it, as they intersperse their adventures with a bunch of trail history.

I did like the author’s reason for going on his journey: “The trail was my inebriate against depression, my hedge against boredom with life.” I fully approve of that.

12) The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Description: The circus arrives without warning and is only open at night. Within the canvas tents is a unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. Behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose. Despite themselves, they tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved hang in the balance.

I almost abandoned this book several times because there was too much fantasy, which I’m not a fan of. (Magic is considered fantasy, right?) I stuck with it though, and gradually the characters started to make sense and I found myself more interested in the outcome.

My biggest complaint: it was sometimes difficult to keep the dates straight — the story jumps back and forth in time a lot. I listened to the audiobook so I couldn’t just flip pages around to orient myself like I could have with a physical book.

13) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson

Description: This is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again.

This is the memoir of someone who had a difficult upbringing but grew up to become a successful author. I found certain sections engaging, but other parts rambled and it was difficult to stay interested.

14) Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing, Reba Riley

Description: Reba’s 29th year was a terrible time to undertake a spiritual quest. But when untreatable chronic illness forced her to her knees on her birthday, Reba realized that even if she couldn’t fix her body, she might be able to heal her injured spirit. And so began a yearlong journey to recover from her whopping case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome by visiting thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.

I’ve read quite a few books about religion (especially people who had it and later lost it), but I ended up liking the idea of this book more than the execution. Reba chose to visit 30 religions before her 30th birthday, but it was just too many. Randomly dropping into a church service doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced it.

She also has an overly-cutesy writing style, which annoyed me (there were multiple references to her made-up word, “Godiverse”). During one particular church service, she made the mistake of saying she “threw up a little in my mouth.” (It was not due to sickness; it was because she wanted to express her disgust over something that happened.) That phrase is one of my biggest pet peeves and happened early in the book, so I was biased against her pretty much from the start.

15) Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, Ali Wentworth

Description: Moved by a particularly inspirational tweet one day, Ali resolves to live by the pithy maxims she discovers in her feeds. What begins as a sort of self-help project quickly turns into something far grander as the tweets she once viewed with irony become filled with increasing metaphysical importance. It’s not long before Ali expands her self-improvement quest to include parenting, relationship, fitness, and dieting advice. The results are painfully clear: when it comes to self-help, sometimes you should leave it to the professionals.

Not that it really matters, but I felt like this book wasn’t as advertised. Some of the early chapters start out with inspirational quotes, but there is nothing but a passing mention of Twitter, and after the first section the quotes disappear completely. Ali is humorous, so that’s fine, but I did like her first memoir better than this one.

Minimalism

Why I Drive An Ugly Car

My car – a 2002 Honda Civic EX coupe – is ugly. While I would prefer the ugliness to be less pronounced, it’s over thirteen years old. It’s reliable, rarely needs repairs, the insurance is cheap, and since I bought it with cash over eight years ago I’ve never had a monthly payment.

IMG_20151129_113651002_HDR

(The hood damage was caused by tree branches falling on my car when it was parked on a street in DC.)

In addition to the hood damage, both bumpers are scratched due to years of parallel parking and the rear passenger side is dented (that damage was there when I purchased the car, it just became more pronounced over time and rust developed where it wasn’t before).

IMG_20151129_113703026

You don’t have to like my car. If I were to buy another used car right now, obviously I wouldn’t choose this one. But I don’t find it horrendous, and I’m not embarrassed to be seen with it. The advantages of keeping this car far outweigh the negatives.

For a lot of people, transportation expenses are a noticeable deduction from their paycheck. For my husband and me, vehicle expenditures are a very small part of our monthly spending. We recently pre-paid our car insurance for the next twelve months, which cost us a grand total of $444. Averaging that out to $37 per month, we pay way less than $100/month for insurance and gas. When we took the car in for a state inspection in October, the only thing it needed was an oil change.

We don’t plan to upgrade our vehicle until we have to: if repairs start to cost more than the car is worth, or if we need to make room for a car seat. Many years ago my sister drove a two-door vehicle with a child seat in the back; I know from experience that it isn’t easy or fun. As of right now though, we don’t have a pressing need for four doors.

When we do upgrade our car, it will be pre-owned and we’ll pay for it with cash. As my financial guru Mr. Money Mustache advises, never ever borrow money to buy a car.

Not only do my husband and I drive our car without embarrassment, it’s the only one we own. Earlier this year we got rid of our second vehicle and became a one-car household. (The car we sold was even older than the Civic and didn’t run nearly as well. When we were told repairs would exceed the car’s worth, it was the impetus we needed to get rid of it. We had barely driven it for the year leading up to its being sold, and I was more than ready to turn in the license plates and remove the car from our insurance policy.)

Becoming a one-car household took longer than it should have – I had been lobbying for it ever since Paul and I moved in together four years ago. We lived in DC back then and used Metro most of the time, and ever since moving to Buffalo in 2013 I’ve either walked or taken public transportation to work while he drives the car. Owning two cars just isn’t a necessity for us.

(Full disclosure: While my husband drives our Civic to work most of the time, his employer requires him to periodically visit other offices in New York state – he goes as far as Albany, which is four hours from Buffalo. When he travels long distances, most of the time he borrows one of his parents’ three cars, all of which are newer than ours. The Civic hasn’t given us any indication it wouldn’t make the trip, but when he’s on the road for a long period of time he feels more comfortable driving a newer vehicle. If it wasn’t for his parents’ generosity, it’s quite likely we would’ve had to replace the Civic by now.)

My husband and I appreciate our old, ugly car because it symbolizes a commitment to our financial goals. If we wanted a newer, prettier car, we’d go out and get one. We hang on to the one we have because we’d rather have our money in an investment account instead of sitting in our driveway.

It’s the same reason we eat most of our meals at home instead of frequenting restaurants. We don’t constantly upgrade our electronic devices. We don’t shop for pleasure; if we need something specific we go out and search for that particular item. When I go to Target, I have a list and don’t deviate from it (this doesn’t involve willpower; once you’re accustomed to following a list you no longer feel the need to browse aimlessly through aisles of clothing and home décor). We’re committed to reducing our expenses so we can use that money later, on things which actually make us happy.

I live this way because at some point in the future I’ll be road-tripping around the United States with only a loose itinerary. I’ll be living overseas. My time will be my own.

When that day arrives, I will be so, so glad my ugly car helped make those dreams possible.

[This post can also be read at BlogHer.]

 

Rockstar Finance

Books

Books Read in November 2015

I read 11 books in November, which brings my 2015 total to 122.

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

Recommended

magic

1) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity, along with insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.

I’ve read several reviews from people who weren’t impressed with this book, but I liked it a lot. However, similar to what I said last month about The Art of Memoir, if you don’t have a creative goal in mind, you may not get as much out of this. Gilbert says that everyone is creative in their own way, but if you’re a hyper-focused businessperson you may not appreciate her insights on how to open yourself to the creative muse. (Hint: She thinks if you’re not open to receiving an idea, that idea will continue to go from person to person until someone grabs it and makes it their own.) Not the type of reading I normally go for, but in this particular instance, it worked for me.

2) The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Spanning much of the 18th and 19th centuries, this novel follows the fortunes of the Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker — a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.

I assumed I couldn’t possibly enjoy Gilbert’s fiction as much as her nonfiction, but when she briefly described this book in Big Magic, the premise sounded intriguing. Vivid writing; impeccably researched. I very much enjoyed this one.

3) Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert tells how she made the difficult choice to leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find what she truly wanted from life. Setting out for a year to study three different aspects of her nature amid three different cultures, Gilbert explored the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India, and a balance between the two on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Apparently I couldn’t read two Elizabeth Gilbert books without revisiting the book that made her famous. (I read it for the first time shortly after it came out, which was almost 10 years ago.) This time around I listened to the audiobook, which was great because Gilbert does the narration herself.

4) A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Brian Grazer

Description: For decades, film and TV producer Brian Grazer has scheduled a weekly “curiosity conversation” with an accomplished stranger. From scientists to spies, adventurers to business leaders, Grazer has met with anyone willing to answer his questions for a few hours. This is a homage to the power of inquisitiveness and the ways in which it deepens and improves us.

Wow. Grazer is such an interesting guy. You have to assume that at least some of his success over the years is a result of his massive amount of curiosity. Kind of makes you want to ask yourself, “Am I interesting enough that Brian Grazer (or any other total stranger) would want to have a Curiosity Conversation with me? If not, why not?”

5) Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, Jon Krakauer

Description: A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist/mountaineer Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more — including Krakauer’s — in guilt-ridden disarray, provided the impetus for this book, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.

This event may have occurred almost 20 years ago, but I was glued to this story. My only complaint was that it was sometimes hard to keep all the characters straight. There’s an index of names in the beginning, but since I was reading an e-book I couldn’t easily flip back and forth.

6) Wildflower, Drew Barrymore

Description: This a portrait of Drew’s life in stories as she looks back on the adventures, challenges, and incredible experiences of her earlier years. It includes tales of living on her own at 14, getting stuck in a gas station overhang on a cross country road trip, saying goodbye to her father in a way only he could have understood, and many more adventures and lessons that have led her to the successful, happy, and healthy place she is today.

Drew is not a great writer (She uses a lot of exclamation points! Often multiple times in the same paragraph!), but the stories are fun and I enjoyed reading them. She jumps back and forth in time to choose random stories from her life she wants to tell.

7) This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, Melissa Coleman

Description: Coleman delivers a luminous childhood memoir exploring the hope and struggle behind her family’s search for a sustainable lifestyle. She tells the true story of her upbringing on communes and sustainable farms along the rugged Maine coastline in the 1970’s, embedded within a moving, personal quest for truth that her experiences produced.

In the 70’s, a young couple moves to rural Maine and builds their own cabin in a quest for a simple life. Their life expands and gets much crazier, disaster strikes, things fall apart. Very interesting story.

8) Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, Jennifer Pharr Davis

Description: After graduating from college, Jennifer is drawn to the Appalachian Trail, a 2175-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Though her friends and family think she’s crazy, she sets out alone to hike the trail, hoping it will give her time to think about what she wants to do next. The next four months are the most physically and emotionally challenging of her life. With every step, Jennifer transitions from an over-confident college graduate to a student of the trail, braving situations she never imagined before her thru-hike.

I’ve thought for years that I’d like to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. How cool would that be? It’s one of the things I wish I’d done when I was younger, but I wouldn’t discount doing it when I’m older either. It would be difficult, yes, but isn’t that the point?

9) You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too, Tammy Strobel

Description: Tammy and her husband used to live a normal middle-class lifestyle: driving two cars, commuting long distances, and living well beyond their means. Now they are living the voluntary downsizing — or smart-sizing — dream. Strobel combines research on well-being with numerous real-world examples to offer practical inspiration. Her fresh take on our things, our work, and our relationships spells out micro-actions that anyone can take to step into a life that’s more conscious and connected, sustainable and sustaining, heartfelt, and happy.

I’ve read so much about minimalism and simple living over the past few years that I didn’t really discover any new information in this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d recommend it to others who are interested in learning more. Even though I’ve sold and donated so much of my stuff already, books like this always make me re-think the possessions I still own and I start to mentally plan what I can get rid of next.

Okay

10) 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker

Description: This is the true story of how Jen took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence. Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. She would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.”

I love books about personal challenges and I really enjoy reading about people who choose to live with less. Jen’s was an interesting concept and I enjoyed her story. The only downside is that, as a preacher’s wife and public speaker in the Christian women’s ministry, she talks about Jesus a LOT. Nothing against her religion, but there are a ton of Bible verses and “striving to live like Jesus” references in this book, which is way more than I prefer in my reading material (and my everyday life in general).

I did like how she inspired others to follow along with her (and even join in her efforts), and most especially how she declared a “mutiny against excess.”

11) All Over the Map, Laura Fraser

Description: On a trip to Oaxaca to celebrate her fortieth birthday, Laura confronts the unique trajectory of her life. Divorced and childless in her thirties, she has always found solace in the wanderlust that directed her heart, but now she wonders if her passion for travel (and short-lived romantic rendezvous) has deprived her of what she secretly wants most from life: a husband, a family, and a home.

I liked Laura Fraser, but her travel tales — which took place over a number of a years — felt a bit disjointed. I was never fully invested in her story. I prefer to read memoirs by people who choose a location and spend time immersing themselves in that place.