Thursday, July 30, 2015

From the Archives: Theory of Mind (or, Why Readers are Better at Relationships)

I'm on family-reunion break this week, so I thought it might be fun to delve into the archives and pick some old posts to share again. This one was originally published on August 5th 2014, and is a little heavy on the science, but super interesting. At least to me.

I stumbled across this article last week, called "Why Readers, Scientifically, are the Best People to Fall In Love With."

Now, in my little corner of the world, this is common sense type knowledge. Of course readers are the best people to fall in love with, because, generally speaking, readers are the best type of people all around. I remember my husband, back when we were "just friends" before we were "officially dating," suggested over a Christmas break that I recommend my favorite book for him to read during the two weeks we would spend apart, and he'd recommend his favorite book for me to read. Guys, if I hadn't been smitten already, that suggestion right there was a deal sealer. I recommended Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which at the time really was my favorite, and he recommended a book I had never heard of before, The Solitaire Mystery. He confessed he was a little bit ashamed when he realized my favorite book was a renowned literary classic and his was a little-known YA novel, but that was a fact I didn't care about all (because I always love me a good YA book, and The Solitaire Mystery was absolutely delightful, and philosophical and deep in it's own way). The most impressive thing to me was that he actually read  Tess, and liked it. We even had a little mini book-club-type discussion about the books when we got back after the break, and the whole time I was sort of like, "This guy was not only willing to read a classic, but he can talk to me about it intelligently!" After that, I think marriage was kind of inevitable.

But anyway, what intrigued me about the article above was the "scientific" part of it. The two studies linked to in the article aren't actually about whether readers make better romantic partners, but they did analyze the social skills (or more specifically, the empathy levels) of people who read fiction. And the results are very interesting. Apparently these studies prove that people who read fiction, and are able to immerse themselves in the comprehension of other characters and worlds, are better able than non-fiction readers to transfer those comprehension skills to real-life relationships. In other words, readers who are good at relating to the emotions of fictional characters are also good at relating to the emotions of real people.

The theoretical concept behind all of this is called "Theory of Mind," and here's where I'm going to get a bit technical, but I find this stuff interesting, so please excuse my enthusiasm. I first learned about "Theory of Mind" when reading On the Origin of Stories  for my History of Narrative class this past semester. Now, I'm not actually a psychologist or whatever, but basically "Theory of Mind" is the special ability most humans develop around the age of four or five to understand that other people have a different frame of knowledge and belief than their own self. The experiment they do to see if a child has developed "Theory of Mind" goes like this: a young child watches through a window as Subject 1 hides a ball inside a box, then leaves the room. Then Subject 2 comes into the room, moves the ball from the box to another hiding spot, and leaves the room. Then Subject 1 comes back in, and they ask the child where Subject 1 believes the ball to be. Younger children, who watched Subject 2 hide the ball in a new place, will generally answer with the current location of the ball. However, sometime around the age of five, many kids will begin to understand that Subject 1 doesn't know the ball has been moved, and therefore still believes the ball to be in the box. This, in it's most simple terms, is "Theory of Mind." Basically, it's the ability to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, or experiencing.

This is quite an advanced evolutionary skill that is very advantageous for animals who live in cooperative societies, and considering humans are the only known species to have acquired "Theory of Mind," it's a big part of explaining our domination over the rest of the animal kingdom. But, what's really interesting, is that apparently fictional stories help humans develop "Theory of Mind." As in, we are biologically programmed to tell (or, in the modern world, read) and enjoy fictional stories because they help us develop a crucial skill that gives our species an evolutionary advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom.

And that skill is relationships. Understanding other people. Empathy.

Pretty cool, huh?

So the next time someone derides your introverted tendency to stay home getting lost in a good book, you can rest assured that you are actually staying home to hone your social skills.

(Unfortunately, this is not true if you are staying home to read that technical non-fiction textbook. These same studies prove that non-fiction readers actually do have worse social skills. Now, I thoroughly support non-fiction reading, but I love how these studies prove that fictional stories have a legitimate, worthwhile purpose, and my decision to be an English major is actually making me a better friend and spouse and person.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From the Archives: Getting My Pleasure Reading Groove Back

I'm on family-reunion break this week, so I thought it might be fun to delve into the archives and pick some old posts to share again. This one was originally published on July 24th, 2014, when I was hugely pregnant and probably a little hormonally depressed. Still, has some good advice for myself.

Pleasure reading has always been my thing. And I mean, since like first grade I've ALWAYS had a book I was deep in the middle of, one I carried around with me and sneakily read under my desk when classes got boring (although after being a teacher myself, I realize I was probably fooling no one. I've even been annoyed by a few students who I knew were distracted by books under their desks, but then I would remind myself that, as an English teacher, that's exactly the life skill I was trying to encourage, and if my lesson that day wasn't interesting to them, well, that was my fault.) (Also, never tell this to my boss, but I used to keep a book hidden in my desk drawer when I worked in university administration., and would read when things were slow, only to slam my desk drawer closed whenever anyone walked by my work space).

Anyway, I've just always been the kind of person to have a book going, to be plowing through my to-read list, and to actually pace myself so I didn't spend ALL my time reading.

But recently? I don't know if this pregnancy is messing with my brain, or if I'm just losing it, or what, because pleasure reading has been way, way down on my to-do list. In fact, on our recent family vacation, I didn't take a single book with me. I'm not sure I even thought about it when I was packing. I had a few audio books on my phone, but considering that my phone was the go-to toddler-distraction-device on all our plane flights and car rides, I didn't actually get a chance to listen to anything. I can't tell you how many times I thought, "I wish I had a book with me." It was such a strange, out-of-character move on my part, that honestly I'm completely flabbergasted by it. How did I not pack even one book? What was I thinking?

But the truth is, I've just been struggling to fit pleasure reading into my life for a few months now. And this is not acceptable. This is not who I am. So I've been consciously working on a few strategies to get me going again, and I thought I'd share them here, just to remind myself in the future in case I ever go through this weird phase again.

1. Have lots of books on hand.  When I got home from that family vacation, I immediately went online and put about ten books from my to-read list on hold at my library. I've got about five now sitting on my bedside table, reminding me they need to be read.

2. Give yourself a deadline. I've found that I tend to read library books with more alacrity than the books I actually own, because I know I have to return them. That forced deadline works wonders on my motivation to start a book (whether I finish depends on the book).

3. Have different media options going at once. By this, I mean I need to have audio books, e-books, and good old paper books available to me at all times. In the first two years of motherhood, I totally converted to audio books, and tried to get my hands on the audio version of every book I wanted to read. It was just so much more convenient for multi-tasking with a baby. But recently, I've found that paper books are a little more convenient for this stage of my life (or really, my toddler's stage of life). And e-books are always handy for out and about (it's easier to slip my e-reader into my purse for the doctor's office waiting room than some massive hardback). Anyway, it's just good to have options, for whatever situation is at hand.

4. Read what you like. So, I've got a couple of books going right now that are "should read" books about pregnancy and parenting. Now, I'm a total advocate for reading books to stretch your mind, learn new things, and enrich your life experience. And these pregnancy books are very good and interesting and things I want to read. But in my current situation, where I'm struggling to find motivation to read on a daily basis, the dryer tone of these books isn't helping much. I found myself thinking the other day, "I just wish I had a really good YA fantasy to lose myself in right now." Ask and ye shall receive. I got an email the next day saying my hold for Dreams of Gods and Monsters was available, and I kind of dropped everything to indulge in it for a few days. When you're struggling with pleasure reading, read what is absolutely most pleasurable to you.

5. Make reading an established part of your routine. This is the one that's been the biggest culprit for me, because I feel like my routine has been all disrupted lately (i.e. sleeping so much more than I used to, it really takes a bite out of my reading time). I finally decided to let myself read a chapter or two before bed each night. This used to be a huge no-no for me, because of the ever-present danger of getting sucked into a book and then not putting it down until the wee hours of the morning. But it's a risk I'm taking now because most days, I don't find any time to read until I'm climbing into bed.

6. Make it a priority. This last piece of advice isn't as concrete as the others, but it's still important. I think pleasure reading has been falling off the grid for me because other things are feeling more important. Or generally because I just feel exhausted all the time (yay for being pregnant!). But when I stop and think objectively, I really want pleasure reading to be a part of my life. That's not just the kind of person I am, it's also the kind of person I want to be, even if I have to work a little harder at it. I just have to view reading time as important and worth the effort. Because it is.

Do you ever have reading slumps? What helps you get over them?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Books: The Ultimate Gift (And Why Gifts Are Not My Love Language)

Look, I know gift-giving is a really big deal in our culture. I understand that this is a love language, and that some people view giving and getting gifts as the ultimate expression of love.

I am not one of those people.

I took that 5 Love Language Quiz thing, and "Gifts" came in dead last.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate getting gifts. I mean, who doesn't like getting gifts? Especially on my birthday and Christmas, I totally expect gifts and enjoy them, like any normal human being.

But gifts carry a certain amount of anxiety for me too.

When it comes to getting gifts, I'm always a bit embarrassed by gifts that are super generous (especially if my gift in return obviously isn't as nice), or disappointed in gifts that aren't quite my taste but I still feel obligated to keep them. I'm even stressed by nice gifts that I like, but I don't quite know what to do with it, how to use, or where to put it in my home (Marie Kondo has actually helped me resolve a lot of this anxiety, and given me permission to let this stuff go).

When it comes to giving, I feel a lot of the same anxiety. What if the other person hates this? Views it as useless junk? Expected more? And as a consummate underbuyer, I really hate paying for gifts. Even when we budget for gifts, even when it's for people I love, I still begrudge the money spent.

Related tangent: I do not think gifts should be expected at children's birthday parties. Don't hate me for saying this, but my three year-old gets invited to a lot of parties, and I dread coming up with gifts for these kids (confession: sometimes I don't bring gifts at all, which I understand is some sort of terrible breach of social etiquette). Time is my love language, and I honestly feel like if I take the time to wrangle my kids and get them to the birthday party (inevitably in the middle of the baby's naptime) and spend a decent amount of time there and deal with the sugar crash afterward, I have suitably expressed my love and appreciation for you and your child on their special day (I am clearly an introvert).

Does this make me a terrible scroogy person?


I was absolutely baffled when we invited kids to my three-year-old's simple little birthday party last December, specifically saying on the invite NOT to bring gifts (I don't want the crappy toys just as much as you don't want to pay for them), and people STILL brought presents.

Obviously, this is a very ingrained love-language in our culture, and I'm learning to appreciate that for what it is. I just hate having to cough up gifts myself.

The exception is books.

I LOVE getting people books, especially kids. For me, giving books is absolutely an expression of my love. There's still a little bit of anxiety. After all, buying someone a book is the ultimate in aggressive book recommending (You Will LOVE This Book! And if you don't... too bad, you own it now). But I have slightly more confidence in my ability to pick out books that people will like than any other random item that could pass as a gift.

Years ago I decided that I would be the "Book Aunt," and every year on my nieces' and nephews' birthdays I would get them a book. As the number of nieces and nephews has expanded over the years, this goal has become increasingly more demanding to fulfill (I'm sure there are a few nieces or nephews that I've missed or neglected as their birthdays come at busy times of the year), but I still must say that when a birthday comes up, I take a great deal of pleasure in perusing various options, from board books to picture books to middle-grade novels, deciding if I want to gift an old favorite or spring for a new untried title. Since I don't live near any of my nieces or nephews, and sometimes feel like I don't know them well enough to know their tastes, I often feel like this gift is more for me than for them, an excuse to peruse book lists and look at exciting titles and new releases. But it's still a way of saying, "I love you," right?

Obviously, I always give books to my children when any gift-giving occasion comes up. I usually have book gifts planned out months before Christmases and birthdays, while I hem and haw about other gift choices up until the last minute. I have an extended list of books I'm excited to get my children for many years to come.

And I LOVE getting books myself as gifts. Growing up, my mom used to just go down those "Recommended Reading Lists" for high school or college and buy me ten or fifteen for my birthday or Christmas. While my book-ownership preferences have changed since then (I want quality over quantity these days, with my precious limited shelf-space), I still very much appreciated those books. My husband has learned this well, and I make sure to keep him updated on all my current book-lusts (right now, I'm all about expanding my collection of quality and pretty classics).

Where do you fall on the gifts love language spectrum?* Do enjoy getting books as gifts? Giving books as gifts? Am I totally lame and the last person you ever want to invite to your kid's birthday party?

*If you love gifts, that's great! Please don't feel like I'm criticizing you. This is the love language of some of my favorite people, including my mom, so no judgment here. I'm just really terrible at speaking this love language.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Scheduling "Awesome Mom" Time

I was talking with my husband the other day about some of my parenting woes when I said, "You know, I just really wish that I could schedule a specific time for parenting, a devoted hour each day where I would be this awesome involved mom, really play on the floor and do fun activities or whatever. And then, when the scheduled time is up, I could be 'done' and spend the rest of my day focused and uninterrupted on my other projects. I know that's ridiculous, but with my personality I'd be a much better mom that way."

Then my husband said, "You know, that's kind of exactly how parenting is for me."

And then I wanted to throw a book at him, because it's true. He has a couple of scheduled hours each week (Saturday mornings) where he's the super fun and focused Dad, making pancakes before taking the boys to the zoo or the Children's Museum or building elaborate cities out of blocks on the floor or whatever, and then when the time is up he goes back to work or whatever other project and is kind of "done" for the week. This is not to say that he's un-involved, or even gone the rest of the time (although he does have a busy work and church schedule), it's just that when he's doing his Dad thing, he's all in, and when he's doing something else, he feels no guilt about being totally focused on that.

Now, our parenting situations are different in that I am the primary caregiver 90% of the time (yes, I have a nanny, but only for school hours), and my children need me to be available pretty much at all times to meet their needs (potty training, nursing, teething pain in the middle of the night, etc.). But I did realize, after thinking about this conversation and some of the data from my time diary experiment, that I could probably benefit from following the example of my husband and "schedule" more intentional parenting time.

Here's what I mean. One of my personality quirks that was really highlighted by my time diary experiment is that I like focused chunks of time to do one thing, get really lost in the flow of the activity, and then check it off the to-do list before moving on to the next project or activity. I am not a great multi-tasker. When I try to do two things at once, I usually feel unfocused and frustrated. Unfortunately, at least for me, a lot of parenting is multi-tasking. When I do stuff with my kids, it's either interrupting a different activity I'm trying to do (reading, cleaning, cooking, etc.), or it's a transition activity I try to get over as quickly as possible so I can move on to the "real" activity I have scheduled. I usually always plan to do something on my own agenda, and then get frustrated when parenting responsibilities interrupt my plans.

While the interruptions are frustrating, what I realized this means on the flip side is that I never give my kids focused attention. I never actually plan to just be with my kids.

So what I've decided I need is scheduled time to devote to intentional parenting. Scheduled time when I will be an "awesome mom." I'm not sure exactly what this "awesome mom" time will entail. I go back and forth on whether I want this to be an mom-directed activity time, where I choose some educational or productive activity, or whether I want this to be a kid-directed activity time where my son gets to pick what we do (essentially agreeing to get beat up in the physical wrestling and aggressive boy-play my son so desperately needs), but I do know that I want "awesome mom time" to be a time where I really focus on the following things:

  • Patience, endless patience
  • No yelling or harsh reactive disciplining
  • Fun and energy
  • Laughs and giggles
  • Physically present with my children

Then, even if the rest of the day feels like endless interruptions, or I lose my patience, or I yell and react poorly, I will know that for at least an hour that day, I was an "awesome mom." I think this could go a long way for not just helping me be a better mother, but also for helping me reframe how I view efficiency and my schedule as a mother. I know that I work best in chunks of time, so I need to give myself a chunk of time to be my best mom-self, and then not feel so guilty when I devote other chunks of time to other activities.

This plan starts today. If it goes well and makes a difference, I'll report back in later. Do any of you do something like this scheduled "Awesome Mom" time? What do you do that makes you feel like a good, focused parent?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Time Diary Experiments

For the past two weeks, I've been keeping a time diary.

What is a time diary? Why would I keep one?

Great questions! Glad you asked, because it's been an interesting little experiment. Basically, a time diary is just keeping track of and writing down what you do all day long. There are tons of different time tracking methods out there. I flirted with using an app (Toggl) before settling on the more boring-but-better-for-me Excel spreadsheet (I really liked the idea of an app that could crunch numbers and spit out graphs for me, but alas, I needed something that could let me be more descriptive).

So, what's the point of this activity? Why would I do it?

I've been reading and thinking about time diaries for a while now (since before my Day in the Life post), but then I finished reading Gretchen Rubin's book Better Than Before recently, and that gave me the push I needed to actually do this. Her book is not about time diaries, it's about habits, but one of the things she recommends as being a good strategy for controlling habits (good and bad) is to monitor them. We tend to be so busy that we forget to pay attention to things unless we monitor them. Rubin monitors her food intake and keeps a food diary (something I'm considering, perhaps for another phase of life). But I was interested in a wider understanding of how I use and waste my time.

Do you ever get to the end of a day and feel like you've done nothing?

Especially as the mother of young children, I feel like this every day. I have all of these hours I spend at home, but nothing actually gets done. Why is that? Where is my time going (certainly not to sleep)? What am I doing with all those hours? Some days are just completely lost in a hazy fog of forgettable trivialities.

So, I really wanted to take a scientific look at how I spend my time, with the hope of being able to figure out how I can use it better. After two weeks of monitoring, here are some of my observations:

1. When you monitor your time, you are automatically more judicious in how you spend it. My use of social media has plummeted in the past two weeks, simply because I don't want to have to record that time wasted on my time diary. I see this as a positive thing (the only downside being that I'm almost completely cut off from current events. I only hear about news from my twitter feed.)

2. I spend far less time on housework than I thought I did. It's interesting how much we overestimate the time we spend on unpleasant tasks, and underestimate the time we spend on pleasant ones. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I spent more time cleaning or reading, I would've thought it was cleaning. but actually, I spend a great deal more time reading than cleaning (I'm actually happy about this revelation, it makes me feel like I'm spending my time where I want to be spending it.)

3. I do, however, spend just as much time as it feels like on food prep. Between meal planning, grocery shopping, food prep, eating, and clean-up, I average around 4 hours a day on "food". Maybe that isn't a lot, but it kind of feels like a lot.

4. My day is defined by interruptions, and even in a time diary as detailed as the one I kept, these are hard to record and quantify. I'm sure this is where the "fog" of my lost time is coming from. I am constantly being interrupted for little child-care related things: potty breaks, or discipline, or melt-downs, or crying baby, or diaper changes, or whatever little immediate emergency that needs to be handled now. Most of these distractions take only a few minutes of my time, and don't feel worthy of recording, but added up over the entire day, they have a huge impact. They are the reason I spend such an inefficient amount of time on almost every task. In theory, it should only take me ten minutes to do the dishes and start a load of laundry, but when someone has a mini-meltdown in the middle of that, it takes fifteen. This is the story of my life as a mother right now.

5. I am a creature of routine. I knew this before, but I thought I kind of had only a loose structure for how I like my days to go with lots of flexibility for whatever comes up, but it was so funny to look at my time diary and see the same activity listed in the same time slot every single day. What can I say? I like order, structure, and routine.

6. I'm averaging seven hours of sleep, and it is HARD for me to get more, mostly because my baby's wake-up time is still very unpredictable, but also because I'm not consistent with my bed-time. Monitoring actually helped me improve marginally in this area. I now know that I need a firm cut-off time of 10 PM for all evening activities if I want to make a 10:30 bed-time, but even then, I get distracted talking to my husband about our days (it's often the only time we get to be together through the day).

7. Except for a couple hours in the evenings after the kids' bedtime, I have no uninterrupted "me" time during the day. I used to have a very set afternoon quiet time in place which I loved and lived for every day, but I had to stop doing quiet time with my oldest for potty training (for some reason, he thought quiet time was "free to pee your pants" time). Considering how I want to move away from computer work in the evenings (to help me fall asleep earlier, and spend more time with my husband), I'm kind of desperate to reinstate a new "me" time hour at some point. I would love that hour to be in the morning before anyone else wakes up, but in this stage of life with the baby, I'm not sure that's a feasible idea. I'm looking at trying to reestablish quiet time now that potty training is more established, but my three year-old is fighting that hard (understandably so). This is a work in progress.

All in all, it was rather informative and motivating to monitor my time like this. It's made me more conscious of making sure that I'm using the time I have well, instead of wasting it. Also, I liked seeing my routine mapped out in a way I hadn't realized before. Now, once school starts again next month, my whole routine is going to be disrupted and I'm going to have to try this all over again, but I'm actually looking forward to it. I like having this kind of motivation to use my time well, and make sure I'm spending my time on the things I want.

Have you ever kept a time diary (or similar account of how you spend your time)? Are you interested in the idea? What would you like to learn about how you spend your time?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

No Go Set a Watchman Spoilers From Me

Because I'm officially #107 on the wait list at my library.

I keep going back and forth on whether I should just go buy the book, because, you know, all the potential for being the best (at least bestselling) novel of the year. But I just can't bring myself to pay hard cash for something I haven't read yet.

After all, #107's not too bad. If everyone maxes out their three week checkout limit I should get it by...

August 2021.


If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must not read the news. And I'm not even talking about the dorky book nerd news from book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers who stalk authors and publishing websites. This has been all over the real news too, because it's kind of that big of a deal that after decades of silence, the author that people thought had written only a one-hit-wonder has released a second novel, and it officially comes out today (although the entire first chapter was released last week).

A companion book for To Kill a Mockingbird? How could you not be excited?

Well, actually, finding out that the hero lawyer of American fiction, the upstanding Atticus Finch, might actually be a bigoted racist (technically not a spoiler, since it's already in the news) might be devastating. I mean, Atticus really was a national literary hero. I know a family that named their son Atticus (and I think they may have named a daughter Scout, but I might be making that part up). How are they going to feel about this change in the character's narrative arc?

But then again, characters are always better when they're complex. I am definitely intrigued.

Dang it, I want to read this thing.

Is it poor form to just hang out in a bookstore for hours on end while reading a book cover to cover? (Confession, I have done that before, but it was a short YA novel and only took me thirty minutes or so.) There's a chance I'd buy it, if I like it enough, but heavens, what would I do with the children while I read? Just let them run loose through the store?

To all my other bookish friends out there who get their hands on this book before me, I'm totally excited to hear your thoughts on this. Does it live up to the immortal To Kill A Mockingbird? Does it disappoint? Do you love it? Do you hate it?

And most importantly, can I borrow it?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Pressure of Being the Memory Keeper

When I was young, 12 or 13 or so, I went through a period of anxiety in my life about the passage of time. I just got so worked up that all these days were passing, months, years, and my memory was so imperfect that these days were being lost to oblivion. Keeping a daily journal helped ease this anxiety.

Maybe it's because I've lived longer, but that anxiety I used to feel has worn off. I still keep a journal (weekly now), but I no longer feel anxious about remembering every single detail of every day I spend on this earth. It's not so important to me.

But as a mother, I absolutely feel this anxiety for my children, like I need to capture every precious detail of every aspect of every stage of babyhood and childhood. It's a different type of anxiety. I'm not so worried that I won't remember these precious things (the opposite actually feels true, like the memories of my babies are burned into my mind, although I'm sure with time I'll forget many of these things), but more that I feel like I need to preserve these moments in a tangible way so I can still have my babies when they are grown and gone.

But this pressure to be the memory keeper, to preserve their childhoods in minute detail, is almost as anxiety-inducing as NOT preserving these memories.

It all started with that first baby, when I had loads of time home alone with this new little baby, and nothing else to do (besides nursing, changing diapers, sleep training, etc.) but take loads of pictures, stage monthly photo shoots, take hours of video footage, and turn those pictures and videos into elaborate blog posts documenting monthly progress, and photo book scrapbooks. I also kept a monthly journal of letters to my baby detailing every developmental milestone, every stat from the doctor, every sound and movement and detail that only a parent (or over-involved grandparent) could possibly care about.

Someone warned me that whatever I did for the first baby by way of memory keeping would be the standard I'd feel obligated to keep with all my children, except it would be impossibly too high once more kids came along. I scoffed at this because I thought these memory preservation activities would always, always be such a high priority for me that I'd never fail to do them for all my children.

Fast forward three years, add a second kid, and grad school, and preschool, and all that other stuff that comes up with a growing family, and I get it. I'm still trying to do all the stuff for Baby #2, but the journal entries are getting shorter, the monthly photo shoots are now five minute affairs when I remember to actually pull out the camera while everyone is awake and dressed and in a decent mood, and the poor family blog where all of these memories get posted is sorely neglected. I'm behind on photo books (my form of scrapbooking). And I'm feeling guilt.

In my ongoing decluttering process, I'm gearing up to tackle sentimental objects, but just thinking about tackling the objects has got me thinking about the process behind creating those objects. Perhaps now is the time to declutter my sentimental thought processes and practices as well.

And so I'm thinking through this.

-What about my children's babyhoods and childhoods do I want to be preserved?

-In what way should those memories be preserved? Are electronic files good enough, or do we need prints, books, paper sources?

-Are social media posts enough? Instagram? Facebook? A blog post? If I didn't instagram it, did our trip to the park even happen? Will the internet even be around when my children are old enough to appreciate this stuff?

-How many photos are enough? How many videos?

-Do I want to focus on the everyday moments, or the special occasions? A little of both?

-Who is this even for? The kids? Me? The grandparents?

-What are my core values when it comes to preserving memories?

-Is this an area to simplify, or is this an area worth the effort and mental energy of doing more?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but they are things I'm thinking about right now as I attempt to simplify and declutter my life. I do know that these things, the journaling, the photo taking, all of it, takes an enormous amount of mental energy from me, not to mention time, but at the same time it feels very worthwhile and important.

I'd love to know, what are your thoughts on memory keeping, especially when it comes to kids? What are your favorite genres (social media, photo books, journals, good old fashioned scrapbooking)? Do you feel guilt in this area of parenthood?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Deep Musings on the Fragility of the Internet, and Also a Recipe for Bran Muffins

One of the more terrifying parts of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks (which I just finished last month) is his predictions of how civilization will collapse in a few decades.

For some background, the book has an interesting narrative structure with time. It begins in 1984 and each section jumps a decade or so into the future. There are tons of cultural references, which are all completely accurate until the book veers ahead into the year 2017 and then beyond. Mitchell still uses cultural references, but at that point they become pure speculation (my favorite was the reference to Justin Bieber's fifth divorce). While it was extremely fun to read this book now, less than a year after it was released, I'm afraid it will become dated quickly as anyone who reads this book decades from now will not understand how Mitchell was playing with time.

Sorry, that was a tangent. Back to the point. In the book, Mitchell outlines an apocalyptic-type collapse of civilization (at least, Western civilization) that includes the complete annihilation of the internet. Just poof. The internet disappears. No servers, no infrastructure, no internet.

Um, I cannot express how deeply this scenario terrifies me.

Yes, I was born before the internet existed. We didn't have the internet in our home until I was in middle school (which I'd like to point out, was less than half my life ago), and at first I hated it and never wanted to use it (dial up, *shudder*).

But now? Now my entire life is on the internet. I don't even know how to function without the internet. If the threat ever becomes real, I will support all the tax dollars and military force necessary to protect Google servers and whatever infrastructure is necessary to keep me online. That might be a slight exaggeration (you know, people's lives first, of course), but really. This should be a matter of national security. I hope somebody in power is thinking about this now.

I realized how fragile my online reality was a few months ago when I went to check the recipe for my favorite bran muffins, only to find that the website I'd pinned that recipe from was now defunct. No longer on the web. Not accessible to me.

This unsettled me a little, because over the past few years I've been transitioning from using real cookbooks to just pinning all my recipes online. I even threw most of my cookbooks out in my latest book purge. I never once thought that these websites might not last forever and some day my recipes might disappear into a void.

How will I make dinner?

Okay, so maybe this issue isn't quite life-or-death, but it certainly got me rethinking all my recent attempts to go paperless and move our lives online (including all our bank statements, family videos and pictures). What will I do if these websites disappear? Gah!

Luckily for me, I happen to have the bran muffin recipe memorized. However, my memory is as fragile as the internet from whence it came, so I want it written down somewhere. But have I learned my lesson? Am I going to write it on paper and stick it in a file folder to have and hold as long as the paper shall last?

Of course not. I'm enjoying a life without paper clutter too much.

Also, I love having all my recipes on Pinterest. It totally makes my meal planning/grocery-list-making system work. So, I want this recipe back online, pinned to my Pinterest Breakfast Board. Which means I'm posting it here, solely so I can re-pin it there.

Here you go, dear readers. My favorite bran muffins (sorry I can't link to the original source, as it no longer exists).

I don't consider myself a food stylist or photographer whatsoever, but you've got to have a picture if you want to pin something.

Bran Muffins

4 Cups Bran Flakes (slightly crushed)
2 Cups Flour
1/2 Cup Sugar
2 T. Baking Powder
1 t. Salt
2 Eggs (slightly beaten)
1/2 Cup Oil
1 Cup Milk

-Combine dry ingredients (bran flakes, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt) in a bowl.
-Combine wet ingredients (eggs, oil, milk) in a bowl.
-Combine wet and dry ingredients.
-Grease a 12 well muffin pan.
-Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
-Divide batter evenly among the 12 cups.
-Bake for 13-15 minutes, until golden brown.


*Obviously, these are best fresh out of the oven, but I think they last very well for a day or two in the fridge. I will also eat them a week old, but they are pretty dry by that point.
*I do not claim this is the best bran muffin recipe out there, but it is easy, and I could eat these muffins every day for breakfast. In fact, I do eat these muffins every day for breakfast. Two of them, usually.
*My 3 year-old loves these muffins as well, so I would claim they are child-friendly, but I tried serving them as a snack at our preschool coop and none of the other kids would eat them. In fact, one kid even told me it was nasty. So they may not be everyone's thing.
*These muffins are not gluten free, and despite being bran muffins, are full of carbs and sugars and oils and dairy and all that good stuff people seem to be down on these days. So, not a health food. Whatever.
*I promise this will not become a food blog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What I Read in June

Thanks to all that beach time in June, I had my best reading month in a long time. Well, it was only five books (the four pictured, plus one more), and I may have read most of them all in one week, but still, solid reading month for me.

I read some good ones this month, so let's get started.

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson - I've been super interested in the idea of social evolution ever since reading The Origin of Stories last year, so when I found this one as staff recommendation at my local library branch, I was eager to pick it up. And I will say there was lots of fascinating stuff in it. He had a whole chapter specifically about the possibility of extraterrestrial life (very likely), what it would look like (probably bacteria), and whether interstellar travel will ever be possible (unlikely, if for the mere fact we'd immediately be killed off by any foreign planet's germs). I especially liked his discussion on group vs. individual selection, it's very interesting stuff. However, Wilson is absolutely an atheist (I think a better title for this book would be Human Existence Has No Meaning), and he has an extremely derogatory tone toward the idea of religion and belief. I found that very off-putting, because, well, first off, I happen to believe in God, and second, I agree with all of his scientific facts, but I wildly disagree that those facts lead to proof that there is no God (I find the opposite theory more plausible, obviously). So, only pick this up if you're willing to endure the barrage of criticism against faith of any kind.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber - I LOVED this book. Now, it wasn't perfect. As a literary sci-fi novel, I will say it was a bit weak on the sci-fi part of things. Especially reading this immediately after Wilson's discussion of what extraterrestrial life would look like, I found his alien planet and life to be very unbelievable. But whatever, it's fiction. The real power of this story comes not in the world-building, but in it's exploration of marriage relationships (especially long distance relationships), and the exploration of faith and belief. I loved seeing a literary book that treated Christian faith seriously and respectfully. It was refreshing, and thought provoking, and just really, really good. This is one I will be thinking about for a long time. (I wrote more about this book here.)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan - This one is just a lot of fun. I described this book to my husband as a more literary, more intellectual, more google-tech-nerd type of Dan Brown thriller. I super enjoyed it, even though I found part of the code-cracking plot a bit implausible. But if you can look past that, this is just a super fun read.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - I will readily admit that David Mitchell is not for everyone. I can totally see how people don't like him, or don't appreciate his books. However, Mitchell hits a sweet spot for me, and I just find his books so much fun, in a super intellectual kind of way. I love that Mitchell is really a fantasy author masquerading as a literary writer. I love how he can inhabit any voice and genre with such utter perfection. I love the way everything connects, and you never know what detail is going to be important, or come up later (or in some other book). I will say that I didn't love The Bone Clocks as much as Cloud Atlas, but I appreciated how it fits in with his other works (everything connects between all his novels), and I will probably read every novel this man ever writes.

Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk by Liesl Shurtliff - I love Liesl so much. Her books are such an awesome mix action adventure and simple profound lessons. She is so great at retelling fairy tales in such a creative way. And I especially like how her fairy tales are as much for the boys as they are for the girls. I blew through this one in a couple of hours, and I will say that at first I wasn't sure I was going to like this as much as Rump (that one was so much fun), but by the end I was totally sold. I can't wait to read these books with my boys when they are a little older.