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So I was feeling pretty good about being on top of my intellectual and reading-driven life again, until this past week when a few early mornings and nights went by and I found myself either falling asleep too early, tending to tasks that needed to be done (online shopping for Christmas gifts), or merely indulging in distracted perusals of Pinterest. Ah, well, it has to be a balance. We’re entering the busy season, and I will be lucky to finish my target goal of five books next month.

Also, I have really been chasing after some athletic goals, and that has taken extra time. In addition to the long run exceeding 13.1 and my first 50+ mile week, which I wrote about last week, I went after another couple of targets this week. With Bill home for Thanksgiving Break, I had enough time on Monday morning (it required 1.5 hours and the pool opens at 5:30 AM) to swim a consecutive two miles (140 lengths of the pool). I’d been wanting to conquer that for awhile, but even on my longest swim morning, I cannot make it back in time for Bill to go to work if I were to do that.

I also went after my sub-6:00 minute mile goal this week. Backing off on total mileage (I had a slightly over 40 mile week), I had more pop in my legs for intervals this week. The 50+ miles had taken their toll, and even on Sunday’s long run they felt pretty heavy and plodding. It wasn’t great, but I enjoyed 9.3 (15K) miles of autumn that morning. By Wednesday morning, though, I could feel them back online. I laid my base of 6+ miles Wednesday morning; in the afternoon, I ran the 1.5 miles to the track, and then attacked my track mile. 5:52.00 for a mile. Finally. I’ll never forget how the sunset looked that night, or how I wanted to cry with joy. (The downhill sub-6:00 in Eugene had never counted to me). Hard work and consistency pay off. I was able to increase my swimming mileage to 4.5 miles this week (I usually do 3.5 miles).

So partly my reading has been affected by extra physical exhaustion this week, and I have been drifting off to sleep too early after the kiddos are down.

On Thanksgiving, however, Bill and I were chatting philosophy in the car. I happened to mention the idea of a “generation ship”—and Bill asked me if I had ever read Heinlein’s novella “Universe” (the setting of which is a generation ship). Turns out, “Universe” and its sequel “Common Sense” were compiled together in a book, and I woke up early this morning and devoured all 209 pages of it. Good sci fi always saves the day. I am in the middle of a nonfiction book, too, about a woman who discovers her toddler son is deaf—lots of personal anecdote, science, and social history in that one. I love it and started off with a bang, but found myself newly engaged with it this morning before turning to the Heinlein. Surely that will be a book I finish for next month (about 50% through), so there’s one at least!

I had intended to focus on the guiding question “what is the nature of happiness?” this month. Some books hit the mark, and some deviated. Anyway, here are my November Eight:

1. The Giver (Lois Lowry, 1993, science fiction, dystopian)

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” 

Most people know the summary of this book, especially now with the movie out (which I haven’t seen, and which I have heard changes major parts too drastically to be borne). But here are some quick thoughts:

To what extent do we need chaos for happiness? Does order promote contentment or diminish it? Would a society completely free of emotions function more or less progressively than ours? If you do not know that you are unhappy, does unhappiness matter? Why would most of us rebel against the dystopian society in this book? What is the nature of choice and happiness? Does happiness require hardship?

I read this book to Katie, and we talked and talked about it. I love that she is at a place in her development where she can bite off big chunks of philosophy.

2. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Walter Isaacson, 2014, history)

“Innovation is most vibrant in the realms where open-source systems compete with proprietary ones.”

Just published, Isaacson’s book is a highly readable history (and gloriously long at 560+ pages) of all of computing. While I knew much of this history, nonetheless I appreciated the conversational refresher and the anecdotes I had not yet heard (why is it called debugging?). I read Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs a few years ago, and as biographers/historians go, Isaacson is meticulous, well-researched, and artful at his craft. He does insert value judgments here and there, so read with a critical mind.

While I appreciated his attempts to drive the book toward a thesis merely than a recounting, I did stop many times to assess his argument: essentially, all brilliant work arises from teamwork, and that is the sole reason why computers have evolved so quickly and been so successful a piece of technology. I guess he does go about proving this claim, to an extent; he draws on counterexamples of people like Konrad Zuse, whose work would have been lost altogether if not for other people.

3. Generosity: An Enhancement (Richard Powers, 2009, fiction).

“Does the woman feel real elation, or does she just imagine it? He runs the meaningless question into the ground.”

“Information may travel at light speed. But meaning spreads at the speed of dark.”

“They want to know whether she inherited her bliss, whether it comes from the environment, or whether she’s simply willed herself to be happy. She tells them honestly: she hasn’t a clue.”

“I can make total strangers miserable, just by being well. I never thought this could happen, and I don’t know what to do with it.”

“What exactly is my crime, do you think? I simply enjoy this world. Why do they treat me as some kind of threat to civilization?”

“History is just fluctuations in appetite. Technology changes nothing. Someone, somewhere, sometime will auction off every inclination. When we tire of happiness, someone will make a market in useful despair.”

Okay. This novel is extremely personal to me. Richard Powers—one of my favorite novelists of all time and my favorite currently living novelist—is extremely personal to me. His writing is….everything. To understand what it’s like inside of one of his books, swimming in his words, one has to understand that Powers is a polymath. He has expertise in computer science, math, languages, literature, genetics, music, and more. He takes his knowledge and language from every discipline and weaves it altogether until the words, and puns, and metaphors, and syntax (it is all purposeful and interconnected) absolutely become the most thrilling reading experience. He used to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and he is now at…ready for it…Stanford. I die. I would give almost anything to be a student there again, enrolled in his class. I’ve read several of his works (The Echo Maker, The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark). I have many more to go, but each one actually requires access to a dictionary as well as time spent researching this and that, if I truly want to understand every dimension of his text. He is equally comfortable making puns about Bach’s oeuvre as he is talking about library science, and how both relate to DNA structure. I know when I read one of his novels: I am going to learn.

I am going to bask in his nimble wordsmithing.

I am going to have philosophical fodder for years.

In this case, Generosity hit a completely personal nerve. It’s about many topics, and Powers always deals with the meta. I could give a summary, but it would for sure be lacking. To say it is about a woman who is happy, and genetic modification, and social history…well, that would be true, but that wouldn’t even be the half of it. For this book is also about the writing process, the act of memory as history, and so much more. Sigh.

Because I have had people, even those who have at one time been close to me, criticize me for my natural happy disposition, this book gets to me. I have my moments of all emotions (we all do, the main character in this, too), but overall being happy is more of a process than a constant variable. It’s how a person looks at life, you know? If you are a person who mistakes happy people for people who have easy lives, or who never experience different emotions, then yes, a happy person may seem unreal to you. But happiness is far more layered than that. Happiness comes from challenges, and from liking challenges. It’s a way of sorting and categorizing things, for me. Whether I look at the short term or long term…  I could go on and on. Anyway, it’s not important. For people who aren’t usually happy, or who take more notice of their distress than of their fortune, what I say now does not matter. What does matter, to me, is that I have experienced moments of betrayal for my happiness. People who have accused me of “not being real.” People who have set me up as a nemesis, simply because the way I experience struggle is very different. People who have said that I am a problem because I am both happy and godless at the same time. People who have said it just doesn’t seem fair. Yes, these are nouns that have really been used; I don’t forget. It’s been more than one. It’s been more than three. It’s probably more than I even know.

I used to be at a place in my life where I thought something was wrong with me, as though I had to apologize or hide the way I look at life. I used to sit with people’s comments and think, what can I do to show I am not a problem? Well, it’s been a journey now, and I fully accept myself. To the people who would try to make me feel like less so that they can feel like more: I am interested only in people who view me as a full equal, not someone to be saved, condemned, not a liar who misrepresents herself, not someone on the end of failure’s wish, not someone who must grovel or be jaded in order to earn respect. I am no longer interested in being critiqued or prodded or accused on social media of not being real, human, or reporting the facts. I am a problem. Thank goodness, because everyone deserves to get to such a place of strength. Happiness comes partly from a hard days’ work, and darn if I don’t put in my best and hardest work every day. There are genetic factors, too, a lucky lottery that means nothing if we don’t potentiate it.

Powers writes it all. To say this book is life-changing, though, would not be accurate. I had already gone about changing my life. But this read? It was the reward of someone actually getting it. This was obviously my favorite book this month.

4. The Opposite of Loneliness (Marina Keegan, 2014, essays and short stories)

“Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything…
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

Keegan had just graduated from Yale to pursue a career in writing (having spent her last year racking up awards and interning for none other than Harold Bloom) when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel while driving them home. He survived; Keegan was killed instantly.

Professor Anne Fadiman, Keegan’s mentor, helped her family collect these works in this posthumous publication. Many might remember Keegan for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” which she published in the Yale newspaper shortly before her death and which went viral on the Internet.

I am not the target audience of these writings. I am almost 35, happily married, a mother. Long since out of my early 20s. While I did not relate to many of the fiction pieces, the ones I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. Her short story “Ingenue” reads almost with the nuance of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Her nonfiction pieces spoke much more to me; or rather, they spoke to the young woman I remember being. And that was a beautiful experience: becoming for a moment the version of myself at 19, 20, 21 years old. Her essay about her car (which was her late grandmother’s) reminded me of driving my own late grandmother’s car. Keegan is clever, adroit with language, and earnest. She would have been a tremendous novelist and had dedicated her passion to writing.

If I were a young woman in a different phase of life, I would read this collection of essays and short stories in a heartbeat. I am not sorry I read them now. Several made me think and touched some lingering chord in me. Worth the read, if you are in the mood.

5. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic and Biography (Doma translation, epistle, philosophy)

“What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself….You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.”

“You must either imitate or loathe the world.”

“The mind must be exercised both day and night.”

“The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears.”

Following my interest in the Stoics, I picked up this (long, very long) collection of epistles from Seneca. This required some discipline to finish, as he writes to his friend Lucilius.

Most of these read as second-hand lectures; he is forever quoting Epicurus….which several times made me wonder if I ought to be reading Epicurus instead.

I don’t know. I should try to be more erudite here, but these didn’t quite do it for me and I was slogging through the end. Not a favorite this month.

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(Reading in the early morning after 7 miles and 80 laps, with my favorite KIND bar and a warm drink—I look forward to mornings like this, restoring for body and mind)

6. What Are You Optimistic About?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Why Things are Good and Getting Better (ed. John Brockman, 2007, science essays, philosophy)

This compilation is another in the series put out by Edge.org founder Brockman. All of your major scientists and modern thinkers are in here, or most are. Every year, Brockman poses a question and has these thinkers ring in with an answer. I loved this book, so this short summary here is not doing it justice. But dang it, folks, it is almost noon and I am HUNGRY having stayed abed this morning reading, writing, and forgetting to have breakfast. So let’s wrap this up. Blog honesty here.

The basic punchline in this book was, “Well, if you are only thinking short term, we could be happy about______, but humans will never implement the solution necessary to this problem because most of them just don’t care.” About twenty essays in, I was actually laughing.

It’s worth a read, though; I plan to make my way through the whole series. If anything, it might not be the actual essays themselves that grab you, but some little nugget found within each… Some topic you need to explore further. Some way of perceiving the world and meaning… Each essay is a little mind experiment. And so much to discuss with my husband, as we try to keep what we talk about focused on ideas mainly.

7. Bedknob and Broomstick (Mary Norton, 1943-1945, fiction)

I’ve never been able to get into the 1971 Disney film adaptation of these two works, which were compiled into a single book (gee whiz, “compilation” should have been my theme this month, see the final entry, too!!). In fact, I’ve never been able to get through it all the way. So when the kiddos picked it out at the library I thought, this could be depressing.

Shows you what I know! What a wonderful book! This was our first chapter book with Eric, too, and golly we all loved it. We played around on his bed, pretending to unscrew his square knobs. We spent many mornings reading it, too, in Fort Thanksgiving in our living room. This had to be one of our coziest, loveliest reads all month.

This book has become the centerpiece of our November cuddles and for that reason I love it.

8. Orphans of the Sky (Robert Heinlein, science fiction, 1963, short stories published separately as “Universe” and “Common Sense” in 1941)

“Was there nothing more to life than eating and sleeping and finally, the long Trip?”

“He knew, subconsciously, that, having seen the stars, he would never be happy again.”

Since Stranger in a Strange Land is one of my favorite novels (I should give myself the gift of a re-read for December—it’s been since college), it is no surprise that I hung on every word of this book-length allegory about the liberation from religion and from the artificial constructs of society.

The tale takes place on a generation ship, on some kind of (now stalled) trip across space and destined for a distant star. As the generations have gone on, no one remembers why they are there; mythology arises; mutants and crew segregate; there is cannibalism and processes for dealing with death that remind me of The Giver.

I will never, never, never, ever, ever get my fill of dystopian science fiction. It may well be my favorite genre. Bring it.

The startling part? How very much Wall-E owes to parts of this book. And how much this book owes to Plato’s cave.

I would put this pair of novellas, collected now as one, on a must-read list. Make yourself question life; it’s what we are here, in part, to do. See what that process yields, yes?

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Even now, traces of the blood-red pomegranate stain the hyponychium of all ten fingers. I’ve spent the week picking, grooming, and covering up the lingering ashiness of anthocyanin pigment turned old, first with Essie Wicked and then with Essie Eternal Optimist. Somewhere underneath the two polish colors—the almost black crimson of a corrupted heart and the dusky rose of forever hoping—the keratin of my fingernails clings to the juice of forbidden fruit.

I’ve studied enough scripture to know the assignment of the apple to the Tree of Knowledge is most likely one modern error of interpretation, or assumption. There may well have been a pomme in the Christian stories, but most likely this fruit would have been the pomegranate (pomum for apple and granatum for seeded). The Qur’an refers to pomegranates frequently, as does the Hebrew Bible. Rimonim (pomegranates in Hebrew) is also the word for the intricate finials covering the handles of the Torah. Native to Iran and Turkey, pomegranates have an extensive ancient history across a variety of mythologies originating in that geographic region.

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They also happen to be Eric’s favorite fruit.

There might be ways to extract the seeds more quickly—submerge the fruit in water, pound it with a wooden spoon—but I deliberately choose the more painstaking way. I want the slowness with my son; I like the work. The greater the work, the more the delight. The seeds become precious, hard-won as they are. I put Eric on the counter with me, and we talk as I pry and flick the tiny garnet arils into my Christmas red bowl. It is an honest way to come by nutrition, I think to myself. You have to work for each seed, each pop of the juicy sarcotesta, the dribbling sweet burst of scarlet.

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As I work and he smiles and chats in his little boy voice, he often takes the bowl and begins to pile the seeds with wild abandon into his mouth. A single pomegranate, or even two, barely lasts the process. We’re up together often before Sister—Eric tends to wake up right after I come home from training—and we have spent many early mornings this week at this task. As that morning light fills our kitchen, I hear Juliet’s words from a time long ago when I taught 9th graders. She entreats Romeo in Act III, sc. 5:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

At the break of day following the night of their marriage consummation, Juliet yearns for the nightingale—the continued night—and not the coming of the lark at dawn. If only he could stay with her. If only I could have these mornings deseeding pomegranates forever with my son. Current nutrition science suggests that one of the polynutrients, ellagitannin, found in pomegranates can help reduce inflammation, although ancient cultures have long been aware of the pomegranate’s myriad health benefits. I’ve needed my half-cups of pomegranates this week, as I pursued some significant  and new running and athletic goals for myself. I want to find out what dwells beneath my layers: how much tenacity, how much fight.

What follows for the next few minutes has very little to do with pomegranates at all, but I will come back around to them in the end. Sometimes getting all the bits of my thoughts out is a messy process!

My self-imposed project since the PR at the Long Beach Half Marathon has been systematically to break down, or peel back, as many mental barriers as possible to pushing my body as far as it can go. Although no one can reasonably argue that distance running is not physical—it most certainly is!—I find for myself that so much potential hides untapped almost purely in the mind. There is a mental component to my sport that I find much more engaging and enthralling than merely the physical pleasure of worked lungs and legs. I normally run between 30 and 40 mile weeks (a week for me is Sunday to Saturday). Leading up to Long Beach, I went for 30 consistently.

I run in the mornings on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Monday, I do not run, but I do swim 100 laps. After my runs on Tuesdays and Fridays, I swim 70 laps. On Wednesday, I add track intervals in the afternoon. Sundays are long runs; Saturday is my one day completely off. I also do weights here and there, motivated mostly by the prospect of getting to watch a TED talk if I make myself do them.

This training schedule has been good. Like Romeo and Juliet, I am always aware of the transition from nightingales to larks. I wake up at 4:00 AM on the days I both run and swim in order to get everything done. It’s dark and, lately, quite cold for this Californian: 38 degrees, 42 degrees. I felt my heart falter just a bit on the first really cold morning, but I got into that pool anyway. It’s what we make ourselves do when we want to wuss out that defines who we are. I always see the dawn. On mornings where I just run, I sleep in until 5 AM. Even on Sundays, I get up and try to get my run done as much as I can before my children wake up. As my runs increase in mileage, they do often beat me but not by much!

I’ve been looking for new goals since the 1:29.59 in Long Beach. Improving at my current race distances (my favorite is the 10K) is certainly always a given. Never settle. I want to run another full season on the courses I ran last year (5K, 10K, 15K, half) and see if I can achieve course improvements. I have a specific time goal I want to break at the 5K. I also have the goal of adding in more half marathons to my race schedule this year. I am training right now for a half marathon (downhill, though, so any PR won’t be comparable with what I did in Long Beach) on my birthday to ring in the big 3-5. I also want to break a 6:00 minute mile on a flat surface (I broke it in Eugene racing down a butte, but going sub-6:00 downhill doesn’t count to me; I have also run a sub-6:00 as a broken mile during intervals, but that doesn’t count to me, either). Beyond this, I have a sprint triathlon with my friend Steve in my crosshairs; the issue is training safely with the bike. Coach-husband, understandably, has great reservations about me riding on the roads around here. There has to be something I can do, though, and I plan to address options after the holidays. The big “M” word has come up, too, but I am not ready to commit to training for one of those yet. It takes an awful lot of hours to train up for one of those, and I might want to chip away at some other PRs this year first, at any rate. We will see. I have learned never to say never…

But in training for the half marathon at the end of December, I needed some other goals this month to help me push myself. I wanted to see what mental fears I could slaughter this week, knowing that each time I conquer a self-imposed roadblock, I will have more confidence to draw on during a race. It becomes a game with myself: “If you did ___________, then you can do ______ now.” Bill assigned 13.1—a half marathon—for Long Run Sunday this past week (I had done 11.8 the week before). I decided, also, to experiment with fuel part way through. I normally train on nothing, and although I will have 390 cals of Superfood Slam and a bit of water, Gatorade, and caffeine before a race, I normally take on no nutrition during a race…even the half. Yet I was curious if fueling would help with the gnarly 10-11 mile transition I seem to go through.

I decided to think about Sunday’s run as a 7.5 mile warm up, followed by a run. I demarcated the two by fueling and taking off my warm up jacket; thinking about the run in two pieces helped it not feel as overwhelming. But then what happened was somewhat surprising. I had been secretly thinking to myself that if I felt good, I would overshoot and go 14 miles—which would have been a distance PR, as I have never gone over 13.1. However, I felt so good with the fuel on board (I used shot blocks—love them, but way too chewy for a race, unless I cut them to make them more manageable) that I decided to keep pushing. I ended Long Run Sunday with 15.71 miles in two hours. That could stand to be improved before I think about much longer distances, but for the first time out at that mileage… I felt pretty good about it. I found that once I hit 14 miles, I had a moment of feeling like I could run forever. I had to reign it in, though, because one knows one can’t run forever and I didn’t want to overdo the distance here. Plus, I was sure the kiddos were up by then!

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With the distance goal of going over my 13.1 limit achieved, I decided to go for the big goal that I have been flirting with in my mind for awhile: the 50 mile week. It would require doubles all week, especially since I still wanted to fit in my swimming. Running five days a week, it requires an average of ten miles a day. On Tuesday, I started my afternoon run and my legs had a moment of rebellion before they shook out and got with the program. I decided then that I would accomplish the 50 mile week come hell or high water. It got to be a bit of a planning issue; I thought many times of the many runners who routinely accomplish 100 mile weeks. They must be running all the time, I thought.

No one knew how Wednesday night’s intervals would turn out. My legs already had as many miles as they are used to running in a week by Wednesday morning. Bill asked for two laps of warm up, a mile, a one-lap walk, a second mile, a one-lap walk, a third mile, and then two laps of cool down. He asked that I just break 7:00 on each of the three unbroken miles. Well, I wanted to go for it. I want my best three miles on that track this week, too. I actually wanted my sub-6:00 on the track this week, but my mind and legs just couldn’t quite get there. However, I did set my track mile PR this week: the third mile was 6:07, and it was the 10th mile of the day and the 36th mile of the week. It was actually a PR for that interval set: 6:19, 6:14, and 6:07. I really wanted to surprise Bill given the mileage already on my legs, and he was indeed surprised. Mission accomplished!

Who knows what hides beneath the layers, if we just peel them back? I had the pomegranate metaphor in my mind as I ran the track.

On Thursday night I came home from visiting Nana. I needed just two more miles for that day, but I decided to knock out 4.3 miles so that on Friday morning I wouldn’t need as many and could wrap up all of my mileage before swimming. I did not sleep well, anticipating this run: I was too excited, actually. All night I just wanted to get up and go get my goal. As I headed out the door in the pitch blackness with not even the waxing crescent moon visible, it began to rain. Oh well. Might as well finish a difficult goal in circumstances that make it just a little bit more difficult, right? I did my remaining five miles in the rain, and I got my 50 miles. It ended up actually being 50.72 miles.

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We do not know what hides within us unless we’re willing to do the messy work. The bigger the challenge, the greater the joy and deeper the meaning. I think often of the myth of Persephone and the pomegranate when I am training in 40 degree weather: the Greeks told her story to explain the seasons, the coldness and darkness. There are mornings when I am tempted to hibernate like Demeter, and if happiness were pleasure only, then I just might. Happiness, however, has very little to do with immediate pleasure it turns out…and everything to do with seeking out what is difficult and even unpleasant, and then overcoming. We must be loyal to ourselves, loyal to the point where we deny ourselves what is bad for us and govern ourselves over the long term as we would try to guide children.

The pomegranate tree is one of the main symbols in a favorite novel of mine, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In many ways it represents the changing and deteriorating friendship between Amir and Hassan. At one point, Amir hurls pomegranates at Hassan, attempting to provoke him into a physical fight to assuage Amir’s guilt about a choice he has made. Hassan decides, instead, to remain loyal and silent; he takes a pomegranate and smashes it on his own head. Years later, Amir returns to find the pomegranate tree withered and dead. Hassan’s act is noble: he will bear much of the burden of Amir’s choice—not intervening in Hassan’s rape by the brutal teenage bully Assef—and will suffer that choice in silence. Yet, it is also instructive: the one dimension of Amir’s choice that Hassan will not adopt as his own is Amir’s guilt and shame. He will not alleviate Amir of that burden; no one can; it is up to us to accept the consequences of our actions, and to find our own way through guilt and to learn. No one can assuage his or her own guilt by anger at someone else, or by turning friends into enemies.

We can convert only our own energy, bad into good, or otherwise. Our potential…into our kinetic. Is the pomegranate seed potential energy? Yes. I will use mechanical energy to unlock its seeds, which are potential chemical energy for me, which I will transform into 50 miles. But aren’t pomegranate seeds, especially as they grow on the tree, also kinetic energy? Their atoms are moving, always growing imperceptibly.

For that matter, aren’t all things in a state of kinetic energy, atomically speaking? We’re taught that potential and kinetic energy are different states—indeed, I was teaching that to the kiddos this week: IMG_6804

(sorting Montessori energy classification cards and making a potential vs. kinetic energy collage) Then I got to thinking about it. Isn’t all energy both potential AND kinetic at the same time? Isn’t all of living, loving, being, thinking, and existing the process of this constant duality (both quite, quite literally and also metaphorically)?

When we stain our fingernails with pomegranate juice, what is it that we’re doing? When Eric and I laugh to Olaf’s song in Frozen as we peel and seed and revel, when I kiss and snuggle his red sticky cheeks, when we take that chemical energy and convert it into joy through hard work, what is the choice we’re making? We’re living on the side of energy that says, “Go forward. Live bravely. Work toward the treasure, and the sweetness.”

I don’t know why it should seem so important that I scrawl this one out a bit by hand first. A part of the writing process I have forgotten in my bloggish informality, one supposes. Yet always the task of rewriting awaits. A missed “the” here; the infernal plural with “everyone” I seem forever to miss on late night first passes. I clean up what I find the morning after, like a guilty lover slinking away from the scene but holding on to the precious scent of a stolen kiss.

How far into and through the drafting process this entry will travel remains a distance hidden in the swirling word fog of my mind; only the fingers and hands pull out the words in the order they are meant to come. Usually writing, for me, requires a suspension of myself from intrusion; from the start of the start I have felt the words come through my body but not of my body. It is a process separate from speaking, that is certain. I can beg and beg the words to come, but they come only in their time; and when the words are ready, the greatest impulse in me is to offer my fingers to the paper for their use. The only instinctual urge ever greater than the release of my built up words has been the desire to push my own children out during labor.

Are these words even my own?

Or do they come from memories of memories, of times gone by, of fictions that I remember as nonfictions? Who is to say? What makes a string of words have any meaning at all? We place the memories into a syntax, a function that becomes a hope. WIll you, the reader, interpret my meaning in some approximate form to which it might have, maybe, subjunctively, been meant? The passive voice exists for a reason.

There are already figures of speech in this writing I dislike, and if I were to remove them now, then so, too, would I need to jettison this sentence. What will this sentence tell you? And this?

I will tell you that few things seem funnier than half a dozen plus one adults squatting in three foot deep pool water at 6:00 in the morning, keeping warm while swimming laps. We’re in the elementary school pool for our morning workouts the next several weeks, while the more adult community pool undergoes renovation. We’re out of place, displaced, barely placated in some cases. At least it is regulation size. That’s all that matters, in the end, to those of us who count on hardworking objectivity for self-improvement. There’s no showers, though; one woman, a dentist, washes her hair out before work in the sink.

The detritus in the pool is different. At least in my lane, nearest the pine trees. There are pine needles, just a couple. It’s better than the band-aid that made my stomach flip last week at the big pool. Pine needles remind me of time gone by, of a time perhaps that I never really had: conifers and cabins and fires and mountain air and mist. And polysyndeton. And a bunch of other conjunctions, emergent properties from the chaos of a half dozen memories, put together into a narrative of the Life I Have Led in the Mountains. Or imagined I have led.

The pine needles are everything to me as I swim my laps today. I began the morning with a short 4.5 mile run on rainy streets, followed by two miles of hill sprint repeats. Now I swim. I’ve been up since four. It’s not a bit lonely in the utter darkness, the stark cold startling my lungs into waking, begging to be sucked in, that purifying air of dark morning. Somewhere the last quarter moon gives but the faintest light, but I shall watch the sunrise from the new pool today.

But the pine needles. Those, yes. Back on track now. I am in the lane closest to the field, and to the pines, and there are more crows that fly overhead here in this part of town. Clouds of mist and receding rain hover over the hills in the distance; sunrise is not as vivid an indigo-violet as it has been. Today there is more grey. It takes me a moment not to feel homesick for my routine and unsquished and regretful that the longer drive to this pool means an earlier wake up time and no stop at Starbucks afterward; but when I lose myself in the crows and hills and pines, I realize there is no point to hang on to my sense of inconvenience. I let it go. Adaptability is all life ever asks of us. When we know this, we can let go of fear. There is no sense that anything must be my way: I should be more surprised when the stars line up than when they don’t. We have to be on the amused side of luck, or we’ll never survive all in store for us.

The woman leaving with her husband forty minutes later might not agree. She’s not the dentist, she’s cold in her cover-up, and her husband is carrying most of their gear which means she makes it to the car first. Her exasperated look at what she tells me outright is his failing to click the door open before she gets there might just tell me everything I’ll ever need to know about her. Somewhere along the line I might need to rewrite that opinion, but since I mostly keep to myself, I may well never know. My opinion is that she is missing the point entirely: of the day, of the chance to adapt, of the privilege to feel the sharpness of the cold, of the amusement of a bunch of adults swimming in the kiddie pool and trying to be serious. Of life, too, but that’s too much maybe to put on one look, and I try to let that go.

It occurs to me that I have lived in this city for nearly twenty-four years and have never been in that pool, and that makes me laugh, too, as I realize I am glad for the chance to get up close to something I’ve only ever driven by. Ah, but no, I think, as I count out my lap: that is not entirely accurate. You can’t tell them that. You were there, once, as a spectator, on the side. Which side? There is almost no basis to make this determination except the vaguest wisp of memory. Suddenly as I swim it becomes crucial that I remember which side of the pool I sat on. There is the sense memory traveling my spine that when I last sat at that pool, open space behind me tickled my primitive brain stem at the base of my neck. I make a 2014 decision: I sat on the side near the field. I conclude. The memory is forever written now, but it may be wrong. It cannot be only a coincidence that I sat on the side nearest today’s lane.

It cannot be only coincidence that our one and only ever argument in the school hallway foreshadowed all the themes in our life yet to come. I realize that now, when I pan the years scene by almost-forgotten-scene. I should have listened harder to how the words played out, back then. I know only the themes, but not the details. Years later, the details are different but the themes are the same. You were on my mind as the crows cast off against the sky.

I decide I was on the side of the crows, then, last time I was here. The summer of—what would it have been?—1992 or 1993?—something like that. Just write that it was the summer before 7th grade, and that will cover any and all time in the early 1990s. It’s more of general time period you are after, not the precise year because that won’t matter to the piece. Be descriptive, instead. It makes for better writing. As if anyone can say.

So it was the summer of Robin Cook medical mystery novels for me, all from the library with the loamy smell of use and the cracked spines, the wonderful fustiness of books in the circulation of oily fingertips and smudges of real life intruding on their pages. We ate Costco cheesy breadsticks by the sack, I grew out of my awkward 6th grade hair, and we misted ourselves with spray bottles at night by opened windows to escape the desert July by the tiniest of droplets. I discovered blouses with no sleeves, that crushes from the year before don’t last forever and nor does pining, and that Temecula could feel like home.

My brother had swim lessons at the elementary school pool. I normally did not go with him and my mom, but for some reason that escapes me now, I was there. It’s the unimportant details I remember, and they cannot mean as much as where we went before or after the lesson, or what book I had with me, or what my mom and I talked about. I remember only that Jason taught my brother how to swim that summer, and that he had blue eyes. Useless information, more real and vivid than where I sat. Why mention it all unless to prove I was really there, as an anchor to a time gone by?

If I know with conviction at least one detail, or two, then it must have really happened. There must have been a moment, and a place where I existed, that past self. She was there, and I was there again today, no longer twelve but now thirty-four. There is some connection between the two of us, but it rests on the color of eyes and a name with “J” and some pine needles that grew on a tree that must have been there, too.

I grasp for a time that has gone by. To bring this history forward is to submit it to rewriting. And what remains is what never truly was.

When I first went about revitalizing my intellectual life—the life of my mind—I set a modest target of reading five books a month. With two young children, the responsibilities of homeschooling and planning all of their lessons (a full day’s work, plus some), taking care of my health and training to do a half marathon well (in addition to other races), a fairly busy social and extra-curricular calendar for my kiddos, and running the household, I figured I would be working my tail off to read five books at the most. It would be a far cry from the luxury of five books a week plus course reader material that I savored in college, but it would be a start.

I looked for extra time anywhere I could, mainly reducing Internet time since I don’t usually watch any TV to cut…and getting up a little extra earlier in the mornings. In the interest of full disclosure, though, the kiddos and I have started streaming Once Upon a Time episodes now and then. I normally don’t invest my time in serials, but this began one weekend when all four of us had a cold—and now we’re hooked. Although the “hooking” factor is something I don’t like about television, we’re making this series work for us with respect to some of our genre studies in English, and Katie has already had to write an essay on the main theme of the program: “Magic always comes with a price.” We chuckle over how much the characters say this, and she had to extract examples. It has been a fun watching experience in the early evening while making Katie’s Halloween costume, and it has reminded me that television can sometimes be a convenient way to share a sort of visual literary experience.

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Katie’s swan costume for Halloween this year: many hours went into the skirt, which, along with sequins, has a few real swan feathers on it collected in the Newport Beach bay from two real swans, who were the inspiration for this costume last August. I am always going to remember those cozy October evenings working on it while watching Once Upon a Time with Katie and Eric, our orange twinkle lights glowing around the couch. It’s not that I am fully against television as an aesthetic form; I just think the key is to subject television to the same rigorous time management strategies that I use elsewhere in my life and to use what we watch as a way to have conversations of value. I know from experience that television can be a trap in which I fritter away time, and time is extremely precious to me right now. I did not watch television for four years in college (except if I happened to be in a setting in which there was one), and I didn’t miss it; I find myself in a similar period right at the moment. I have to choose how to allocate my time; if I had infinite time to spend, there are many programs that sound intriguing right now!

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Peter Pan and Swan

The funny part is, even though this month has been far busier than the last two combined, I am finding myself now in the mental swing of reading again. Some of my speed is returning in full force, as is the voracious desire to consume. I probably stayed up a bit too late and got up a bit too early this month, but I try to do as much reading and exercising when the kiddos are asleep as possible. There are occasions when I cut into their time but hopefully not many. I live quite a bit of life in the darkness, either exercising or with my books; nighttime always was my favorite and most passionate time of day. There are other times to sneak in reading here or there, but most of it is done on my own time.

I was able to read ten (!!!) texts this month, though a couple are novella length and one is a short story. I chose from a range of genres and disciplines, and again, found surprises in the connections all ten texts seem to make with one another.

1. Anti-Intellectualism and the Education of High Ability Learners (Thomas S. Hays, 2010, nonfiction, education, history)

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” (Isaac Asimov) 

“By the time the average American turns 65, he or she will have spent 9 years watching television.” (Thomas Hays)

In this nonfiction text, Hays compiles more than generates: he looks to several other studies and synthesizes their results in a sort of historical treatment of the rise of American anti-intellectualism. His basic thesis is that we are in a period of celebrating folkish wisdom over literacy and that we are part of a culture that tends to view formal learning as worthless unless it leads directly to material gain. He argues that our culture promotes academic underachievement in this generation of learners and proposes several reforms to education. The best reform he proposes, in my opinion, is a return to the art of hard work: “…part of being smart is working hard.” He suggests ways in which to change school culture so that we value hard work in students and peers, without viewing it as a threat. He condemns the rise of punditry, the promotion of celebrity culture, and the “enthusiasm for entertainment of distraction,” and he calls for the glorification of the nerd. A “nerd,” he explains, is one who is “passionate about some technically sophisticated activity that does not revolve around emotion, confrontation, sex, food, or beauty.”

In short: he doesn’t say anything with which we nerds don’t already have firsthand experience. 🙂

The most compelling part of his treatment was a too-short analysis of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Irving, and always apropos at this time of year), in which he argues that this old American text prefigured the current nerd vs. jock stereotype and showed the early American disdain for the pedagogue. I found myself eager to start my own analysis of Irving’s short story with some of these assertions in mind.

I am not sure this book is totally worth a read, though, if one has limited time. Much of it seems to be preaching to the choir, and we all know how laborious a process it is to change a whole culture. Intellectualism and the celebration of learning/knowledge has to begin at home, anyway. However, he is correct that we need to take steps as a voting society to allow knowledge to inform political decisions, such as decisions involving science. Something to whittle away at, no doubt…

2. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014, nonfiction, science, environmentalism)

“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it is not clear he ever really did.” (Kolbert)

Except that man IS part of nature, and there starts my critique of the rhetoric in this book. If humans are indeed the worst instance of life on this planet, as she argues—and surely, we are capable of making decisions that annihilate biodiversity—then we have to go a step further than Kolbert does. What makes us assume that we are the last and greatest in the chain of evolution? Or, what makes us assume that there will not be many more instances of life evolving again on this planet, if mass extinctions seem bound to occur in cycles? How do we harness the cycle of evolution and extinction to be better caretakers of Earth? Wherever we start in addressing the problem of a besieged Earth—and we do NEED to address it with the greatest scientific minds of our time—we have to start by looking at humans as part of nature, not an entity apart. Perhaps because we have consciousness, we now have a greater responsibility to caretake this planet than any other life form here. Bumps in the construction of her argument aside (and I don’t think it is productive or helpful to launch a counterargument against her facts anyway), Kolbert does succeed in quickly educating the reader about the trouble we are in as part of the Anthropocene era. In fact, I felt so depressed and distraught after reading this book (and the one before it) that I had to soothe myself with some familiar fiction. Although her rhetoric is a tad obsequious and her approach heavy-handed, it is hard to argue with the oncoming extinction of the golden frog in Panama, the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, the biotic attrition in the Peruvian jungle, and the evidence of ocean acidification. Her intention is to raise the alarm, and she sure does. In fact, her rhetoric may be a bit too alarmist; I would prefer a more scientific and detached rhetor here, but that’s just me. I think her intention is to rile emotion. For a person like me who acknowledges many of these issues but then tends to put them out of my mind in favor of a day-to-day mantra that “everything is going to be fine,” this book is probably a crucial read. Certain topics need to stay in the forefront of our minds. The question is, though, “What can I do??” The alarm she raises is almost bigger than my comprehension. At any rate, I learned a TON from this book, and I think its real value is in the mini biology lesson I got in each chapter. I would recommend this book, though be prepared to be defensive if you don’t acknowledge things like global warming.

3. The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway, 1952, fiction, novella)

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“But man is not made for defeat.”

Inspired by recent fishing trips with my parents and children in the wide Pacific Ocean and in need of some release after two somewhat Debbie-Downer books, I sought refuge in Hemingway. Okay, so Hemingway himself is not known for being real chipper, either, but somehow his expression of human nature often revives me. He is one of my favorite authors, if not the favorite.

I let the beautiful imagery of the lavender striped Marlin wash over me, as I read anew the quest of Santiago to defeat the sharks and bring purpose to his life’s work. There is honor in struggle, but too much hubris will be everyone’s undoing. Ah, familiar territory with Hemingway!

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The magic with this rereading came when Eric woke up before Katie and joined me as I was finishing a section. He wanted to know what this book was about, and so I summarized part of it for him and then read some passages. His brain and ears got to bask in the rich and vivid and beautiful prose of Hemingway, and he kept asking for more. We connected the story to his fishing experiences, and he begged me to look up marlins and mako sharks on my iPhone to show him what they looked like. A four-year-old who appreciates Hemingway? Okay! It is a testament to the timeless beauty of his writing, his utter skill and craft, his economy of language… ah, I sing too many praises.

This reread happened for sheer pleasure, and it was. Hemingway is a master.

4. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Susannah Cahalan, 2012, nonfiction, autobiography)

“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all virtues we hold dear go with it.”

This is a must-read, in my opinion. In a month where I sought to grapple with the questions “What makes us human? What will the next step in our evolution be? How do we martial technology and science to make forward leaps? What is the role of narrative-making in the human experience?” this book fit perfectly. Cahalan is a journalist who starts experiencing symptoms of psychosis while living and working in New York. After she is admitted to a hospital, doctors spend a month trying to figure out what is wrong with her. Several begin to give up, and she seems destined for a spot in a psychiatric ward. Then a new doctor, tenacious in spirt and logical in mind, looks at her case in a new way and realizes she has a treatable auto-immune disease that has caused inflammation in her brain, and that this inflammation is causing her psychotic symptoms.

After she recovered, Cahalan watches video of herself while in the hospital, conducts interviews, and reads medical documentation to try to reconstruct a month of her life of which she has largely no memory.

This book invites the reader to think about how our brains make our stories. What is the nature of forgetting? What happens when we make false memories? How do we come by our sense of virtue/morality/ethics? What is the relationship between the self and the rest of the body, or between the self and the other living organisms (i.e. viruses, bacteria) that enter the body? Where do “we” stop and other living entities begin?

5. The Meaning of Human Existence (Edward O. Wilson, 2014, nonfiction, science)

“Earth relates to the universe as the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, NJ, for a few hours this afternoon.”

E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist, offers this most recent publication as an exploration of what it means to be human. His text tries to accomplish several different tasks along the way, including making an appeal for the humanities and the sciences to rejoin. As he says, “The most successful scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.”

Although he shares Kolbert’s concerns about the Anthropocene era, Wilson is a bit more celebratory of Homo Sapiens: “…we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.” Most of his book discusses those adaptations (volitional vs. natural selection), and he teaches the reader about eusociality, superorganisms, and, to my utter horror, describes the activities of driver ants. (That species is the stuff of nightmares)!

The most intriguing argument he made, I thought, was the idea that the conflict we have between individual and group needs is itself the impetus for our intelligence, organizational structures, and creativity. One of my intellectual interests is, in fact, creativity: From whence does it generate? How do we train it? What defines it? Etc.

I can’t think of a reason not to read Wilson, the father of sociobiology—a very favorite class of mine at Stanford, taught by the amazing Professor Sapolsky. This particular effort from Wilson, though, seemed to be a bit in need of an editor; parts were redundant, even down to phrasing. It reads a bit as a swan song, or nearly so. Many of his earlier works may be more worth the investment.

6. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943, fiction, parable)

“If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…'”

I first read The Little Prince in 7th grade and have spent my whole life wondering if the reason I didn’t love it more was perhaps because I had not fully understood it. I’ve certainly seen that happen many times as a teacher. On a lark and realizing we did not have this canonical work in our home library, I picked up a copy from Powell’s this summer while in Portland. So many books deepen with age and maturity—perhaps this one, for me?

As an adult, while there is certainly more I appreciate about this text, there is not more that I had missed originally. It is just that the text makes several points with which I disagree; or rather, it makes several points that I feel need to be qualified.

There is no doubt that Saint-Exupery is a master of his craft. I have read enough to know this parable took its root in the realities of his life. There is also a fantastic essay in The New Yorker called “The Strange Triumph of the Little Prince” by Adam Gropnik. No one can argue that this book doesn’t have a place in the canon; it is lovely, and its treatment of the introspective self is to be savored.  The prince’s constant questioning celebrates the need to search ever for one’s own answers to deep and important questions. The triumph of the childlike heart, finding wonder in all the world, is beautiful. Yes, yes, and yes. None of this is to be dismissed summarily.

One always feels strange and a bit out of depth when one questions any part of the canon. Especially when one questions themes that are meant to inspire and warm the weary soul. But what my 13-year-old self saw, and what my 34-year-old self continues to see, is that The Little Prince is a book that glorifies the asking of questions, yes, but that also glorifies that contentment of never knowing—or caring to know—the answers to those questions.

That’s just not me.

While we may accept that there are answers we do not have yet, nonetheless we should not be content either with agnosticism or belief. It is the search that is important, the joining of mind to heart to body.

Fox says, “Anything essential is invisible to the eye,” and we are then advised, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly…” and “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart…”

The invisible might be a good place to start, but by no means should we stop there. Being content not to know? At what point does introspection become a form of inertia? While Saint-Exupery might claim that full knowledge would lead to loss of life’s meaning, I disagree: it is the hunt for meaning and the quest of knowledge that gives our lives a purpose, a function. The heart and mind can inform each other, but we do not have to give up one in order to apprehend beauty or the sublime. I think often of mathematics, out of which we emerge. Numbers and “math” exist on a Platonic level, but we find if we look closely that we can touch and feel them—indeed, we ARE the numbers as an emergent property. I will never be content to stop searching for the axioms of the natural universe. It seems like Saint-Exupery would ask me to give up my quest. I would entreat him to understand that wonder only deepens with knowing more. The intricate universe is meant to be known.

This was a counterbalance read, for sure, to some of the nonfiction science texts I read this month. I think as readers we are at our best when we search out texts that contradict each other, or challenge each other. We cannot base our whole intellectual life on reading just the material that confirms us to ourselves. We must look for the tension in the words, the way ideas form a dialectic. If we base our whole outlook and philosophy on just a few texts, we are limiting ourselves.

7. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (Ted Chiang, Fall 2013, short story published in Subterranean Press Magazine)

“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated.”

This short story involves two complementary plot lines, one featuring the narrator and one featuring the 13-year-old boy Jijngi, who is the first among his tribe to learn to read and write. Set in the near future, the new technology is Remem, a search tool that allows video lifelogs to be called up in a moment.

A more perfect companion piece to Brain on Fire, I cannot imagine.

This rich short story made me ponder:

* What is it like to have a perfect memory?
* Do we need to be able to forget in order to forgive? Are softened lines of narrative essential to this process?
*  What if imagery was perfect in our memory? Do faulty memories allow us the authorship of our lives that we crave?
* How does writing help us to think?
* How do these topics relate to our sense of self?

I highly recommend spending half an hour with this one.

8. Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials the Shape Our Man-Made World (Mark Miodownik, 2014, nonfiction, science)

“There is a continual reflection, absorption, and expression going on in the material world around that constantly remaps the meanings of materials around us.”

Miodownik is a materials science professor at the University College of London, and this book is a paean to the materials around us that we use every day but seldom appreciate. His basic thesis is that our materials both arise from, but also create, meaning in our lives, and his purpose in writing is to create a sense of wonder in the reader. He was completely successful, and this was one of my favorite books this month.

He talks about steel, concrete, paper, foam, chocolate, diamonds/graphite, and glass. Using a combination of chemistry, history, and psychology, Miodownik writes for those who find joy in the details…and for those who are not content not to know. The most beautiful things to Miodownik are those that are visible and in constant use.

Read this.

One of my favorite passages involved the innovation of the Samurai swords and why they worked so well. He then explains about the myth of Excalibur: “At a time when swords regularly snapped in battle…a high quality sword…came to represent the rule of civilization over chaos. The fact that the process of making steel was, necessarily, highly ritualized, also helps explain why this material came to be associated with magic.”

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The myth of Excalibur and Queen Guinevere (my Halloween character this year)

He does not shy away from some of the chemistry, either, making this book fabulous. I intentionally played with my sense of perspective this month. The Kolbert and Wilson books coaxed my perspective out several billions of years; Miodownik brought me back down to the microscopic level. One thing for sure? What’s going on right now, here, in the present, in my limited visible field (per the electromagnetic spectrum)??? So very much NOT the whole story. We’ve got to challenge ourselves to see beyond the time period, size, and fallible interpretive brain structures to which we are bound.

9. The Art of Living (Epictetus, philosophical text, AD 55-135)

Epictetus was one of the Greek stoics, and this work was compiled by his pupil Arrian. I am taken with the stoics again lately. I don’t have too much to say about this one other than to share a few of my favorite quotes to think about:

* “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions they form concerning things.” (Interesting to think about along with Stuff Matters).

* “If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

* “If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.'”

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself.” (I think of this one every time I go to the pool in the mornings)!

The stoics are all about rigorous self-discipline, and the idea that “the conviction of our ignorance should be our first study.” Very much relating to this philosophy right now…

10.  This Will Make You Smarter (ed. John Brockman, 2011)

“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

So goes The Edge Question from 2011. The Edge is an online organization of scientists, primarily, and thinkers from a variety of fields led by John Brockman. The Edge is designed to be a continuing conversation among the world’s thinkers, most notably some of my favorites like Steven Pinker, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Robert Sapolsky, etc. Every year, The Edge asks a question of its community and compiles the essay answers into a large book. In 2011, the question was proposed and seconded by Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman. There are many, many, many essays in here about the “shorthand abstractions” we should keep in our mental toolkit, but here are some of my favorites:

* The Mediocrity Principle: “…you aren’t special. The universe does not revolve around you; this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way; your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny… The universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but…everything does follow rules—and grasping those rules should be the goal of science.” (P.Z. Myers, biologist at the University of Minnesota)

* The Double-Blind Control Experiment (Dawkins)

* Data-Driven Self-Discovery (Rowan)

* Pessimistic Meta-Induction: “If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight.” (Kathryn Schulz, journalist)

* Self-Serving Bias: the idea of accepting more responsibility for success than for failure, for good deeds than for bad… “Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.” (David Myers, social psychologist, Hope College)

* Probabilistic Knowledge: “Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. A better understanding of the meaning of “probability”—and especially realizing that we don’t need (and never possess) “scientifically proved” facts but only a sufficiently high degree of probability in order to make decisions…” (Carlo Rovelli, physicist at Centre de Physique Theorique)

* Nominal Fallacy: the error of believing that a label alone carries explanatory information (Stuart Firestein, Neuroscientist at Columbia University)

* Force Things to Fail: “Wrapped up in the idea of embracing failure is the related notion of breaking things to make them better—particularly complex things. Often the only way to improve a complex system is to probe its limits by forcing it to fail in various ways…” (Kevin Kelly, Ed. at Large, WIRED)

* Homo Dilatus: We seem to have evolved to the mindset of “Why act now, when the future is far off?” (Alun Anderson, author)—To be thought about in conjunction with The Sixth Extinction.

* Nothing Unexplained: “Nothing unexplained these days should go without a hunt.” (Eric Topol, Professor of translational genomics and cardiologist, Scripps)—Compare this to the argument in The Little Prince.

* Olber’s Paradox (Anthony Aguirre, physics professor, UCSC)

* Symmetric Information Flow (David Dalrymple, MIT)

* Selves as Permeable and Interwoven: “…selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life).” (Scott Samson, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist)—Think about with Brain on Fire.

And there are dozens more… Every essay gave me something to ponder for awhile. There are also several more collections in this series that I yearn to read. I have started What are You Optimistic About? which answers the 2007 question. That is currently my purse book. I have also started Isaacson’s new book about the history of computing and the innovators essential to that history. Those are both books I hope to have finished in November.

Katie and I also finished Hatchet (Gary Paulson) together this month, and we loved it together. We had talks about survival and what it means to be independent; plus we laughed together at several of the lighter moments in the novel. We’ve been reading up a storm with Eric, too, of course; and Katie finished seven chapter books of her own in addition to all other kinds of her personal reading. The kiddos and I together are doing a Chris Van Allsburg author study unit and are LOVING it. We are making a huge book out of all of our work, and of course we’re doing interdisciplinary work with each text and pulling in as much nonfiction as we can. The genre of magical realism captivates them both, and we’ve pulled in David Wiesner, too. We have talked about whether or not Once Upon a Time might fit into the magical realist genre, as well, and we have an argument made that it does. Bill has always more than one book going, and we’ve been cross-pollinating our libraries and having engaging discussions about all the ideas swirling around in our texts.

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For Halloween yesterday, the kiddos got to watch the 1929 silent film Nosferatu (we don’t mess around here, ha ha!). But it had a larger purpose than just to scare and to be a sample of a classic. We talked about how many of the typical “scary” Halloween characters—vampires, witches, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, mummies—have either or both an historical AND literary basis. I have summarized Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the kids. The thing is, these characters are not just about being scary on the outside: each one represents something about the human experience that we fear. A vampire represents, much like Odysseus’ Sirens, a fear of not being able to resist temptation; witches are the fear of an educated, noncomformist woman; zombies takes their root in Haitian slavery and the fear of watching people be oppressed and controlled by others; mummies and ghosts evoke the fear of death and uncertainty; and Frankenstein’s monster, who did not start out evil at all but became so after society failed to accept him, represents our fear of responsibility for the way we are connected to the behavior and circumstances of others.

It’s always about the ideas under the surface, no?

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It can be tricky to fit in my reading, and there are mornings when I get up at 4 AM, run mid-distance, swim a swimmer’s mile or more, and then take 20 minutes with a hot beverage at Starbucks to read and recenter before the day starts. I cannot wait for the time change tomorrow, so some of my day can begin with the sunrise again!

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I had a couple of reading hours at Katie’s soccer practices last month (Eric was sick once, and another time he hung out with my dad), but for the most part I cannot bear to leave him home. It’s our play time. As much as I love to read, I would rather play airplane with this little happy boy! So this picture above? No matter where my mind may frolic sometimes, my heart loves to be with these little people. I just have learned how much more I have to give when I attend to my own mind-body health. I have more to talk about with them at dinner, too!