You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2015.

From microbes to interplanetary war, from the thoughts of a Japanese distance runner and award-winning novelist to the impassioned call to action from a Pashtun girl, from a mouse stranded on an island to a woman working her way up in the daily grind, from this history of Revolutionary War spy rings to the personal journey of a mother figuring out how best to help her deaf toddler son, from the mind-bendedness of non-Aristotelian logic to the time travel of the most famous pre-Grinch Grinch of Christmastime, and from a compendium of “niceness” to a tome of how parents rise to the occasion when dealing with outlying children…these two months have been full of reading.

Mid-way through December, it didn’t feel that way, though. My goal since the summer has been to average five books a month, after a few years of realizing that my reading had been sadly on the wane and my intellectual thought-life in danger of inertia or stagnation. Toward Christmas, though, I had completed three books and half of each of two others. Not exactly five…

As human beings we can take ourselves to task for so much. How do we choose what to prioritize, and how to achieve balance?

Our December was busy, and that was a choice. I’m the kind of person who has a physical reaction when I hear or read self-important statements like, “Well, I am TOO BUSY to do x, y, and z” (as if somehow we’re all NOT as busy or as productive as the person making that claim). Then again, I also have the dry heaves as statements like, “I have the best husband/kids/job in the world” (uh, best husband/kids/job FOR YOU—that qualifier is important and shows maturity, in my opinion). Anyway, this is to say: we all make choices about whom to marry and how to spend our time, whether to go back to work after having kids or stay at home, whether to eat that 1000 calorie meal at one go or to take a more moderate approach, whether to have one child or six, whether to go full-throttle Pinterest Mom (a pejorative term I like to commandeer at times for more positive uses) or allocate our interests elsewhere…the point is always that we have a choice, we make that choice, and then we ought to stand by it honorably and without scrambling for excuses or looking to victimize others who have made different choices in order to feel better about our own.

So I chose other activities over voracious reading in December, and I had to figure out how to make up for it in January, if I wanted to keep on pace with my goal. Lest I come across as merely goal-oriented versus pleasure-driven however, I will also say that I am leagues more content on a daily basis when I am engaged in multiple books at once and churning over new ideas and connecting them. I felt the loss in December, and with a bit more reading time in January, my mind has been relishing the attention paid to it. I have had to regret to acknowledge this month, though, that I really short-shrifted my sleep; a good book is worth exhaustion only to a point.

We’re not even at the end of the month, but I am writing this early. I have just started a nearly-1000 page fiction book, 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, and there should be no conceivable way for me to finish it (if I start being more responsible with my sleep this week, that is) by next weekend. The McGaugh Academy begins its new term on Monday, and I am therefore in the middle of launching several new units (Revolutionary War for history; Earth science/geology for science; a William Steig author study as part of our English language and literature) in addition to our daily math and art and French and so on. It has also become a driving ambition to study piano as much as possible this month—-all these passions and tasks cut into reading time, and so there has to be a balance.



1. The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt (science fiction, 1948)

“In short, no-memory equates with no-self.” 

December began with the hard stuff. Vogt threw down, and I have been attempting to accept the challenge of rapidly educating myself/brushing up on the history of logic for two months now. In a nutshell, this science fiction classic—which remains controversial, sold well in France, gets a bit trounced here, and if nothing else, is a thought-experiment—puts Aristotelian logic on blast, sets it on fire, and creates a world in which non-Aristotelian logic reigns supreme. Main character Gilbert Gosseyn (um, “go-sane?”) is not at all who he thinks he is…and this might be true of any of us.

Aristotle wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics: “To be acceptable as scientific knowledge, a truth must be a deduction from other truths.” His logic is black and white, whereas the null-A view of the world is more of a gradational scale. I think formal logic, almost by its definition, must be black and white; these categories come down through Kant and other philosophers and writers of literary criticism. I am still not convinced that non-Aristotelian logic can by definition by logical; it is merely a way of describing—perhaps more accurately—the real world. In Aristotelian logic, a statement like “This statement is false” presents a undoable paradox; in the world of null-A, a third option (as opposed to the binaries) would be possible. As far as I can tell, Vogt’s version of null-A may in fact correspond to Bayesian probability and what happens to matter at the quantum level; how we balance this against the legacy of Aristotle, I have no idea. I do see a analogous relationships between Aristotelian/Non-A logic and Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. One is going to be pure; one is going to better describe what happens in what we perceive to be reality. Believe me when I say: I have spent a few hours on this since reading this book.

As far as being the best novel of my life? No. I agree with the critics who say that the writing itself suffers. It’s flat; the main character flits from plot point to plot point. Promising storylines and characters (race of interplanetary beings plotting to take over the world? a machine that can examine minds to discover their potential? Clones that can accept the memories of a person and therefore become the person?) never really pan out. This novel could have been anything if Vogt had taken the opportunity to augment and round it out.

I don’t think that was his purpose, though, and there you go.

For someone who has taken an introductory logic class at Stanford, read up on her Bertrand Russell in her spare time, attempts to keep abreast in her non-college years of mathematicians and logicians like Frege and Godel and von Neumann just for fun, I have to say, this book tested and is still testing all I know and revealing how paltry my grasp of the history of logic really is. I can think of several people I know who could grapple much better with a review of this book than I can. Yet we do not grow if we do not read what challenges us.

2. I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language by Lyndia Denworth (nonfiction, 2014)

“However much a person could hear, there was another, more personal distinction: how that person chose to be identified. You could be deaf or Deaf….The distinction reached far beyond spelling; it was the difference between thinking about deafness through a medical model or a social model, the difference, as Andrew Solomon later described it…between illness and identity.” 

Denworth is the mother of then-15-month-old Alex, and she realizes that he has not been able to hear. This book is her account of first, dealing with and understanding that diagnosis and then wading through the philosophical morass of what to do about it. One of the themes in several readings this month has been: in a world of technology, how much do we intervene with matters related to health? to disability? There are parallels, too, to the vaccination debate, as well as to other readings I enjoyed on the microbial world: do we let nature take its course? What does that mean, if man is part of nature? Will humanity survive, and should it? (An ongoing conversation among two of my brothers-in-law, my husband, and me). What of our microbial diversity? What of our mental diversity? Our medical diversity?

I ended up reading Solomon’s book, too, and these questions echoed throughout. Denworth leads the reader through her personal story, then dedicates a couple of chapters to a quite technical and thorough explanations of the science of sound and hearing, and she follows this with information (interspersed with her story) about language acquisition theories, linguistics, and educational options for those who don’t hear. Along the way, she invites us to wonder about the origin of consciousness and thought, about self-expression, about the necessity of language to the self, and much more. I had no idea—none—that the cochlear implant was so controversial a topic. I have spent many moments now debating with myself about what I would have done were one of my children born deaf. How much intervention is too much? What defines a culture? What does it mean to “fix” someone? What does it mean to head toward “normal?”

If you like to ponder these kinds of questions, this is a good book to pick up—interesting, too, because it includes real science.

3. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (nonfiction, 2012)

“To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish abandon.” 

I seemed destined for this book this month. Although I had read Denworth’s book in early December, I had not registered Solomon’s name in the quote above and I did not discover this book until early January. One morning while doing my weights, during which I treat myself to Ted talks, I happened to see Solomon speaking about depression and referencing his book on that topic. After reading about who he is as a scholar, I decided to look into some of his work. It was then that I came across this book—nearly 1000 pages and an absolute tome—that he spent ten years researching. In it, he studies and interviews numerous parents and how they rise to the challenge, or not, of having children who are in some way extremely different than they are. He has chapters dedicated to children who are: deaf, transgendered, disabled, autistic, prodigies (musical, in this case), dwarfs, schizophrenic, Down syndrome, criminals, and products of rape.

This read is intense, eye-opening, at turns philosophical and science-oriented. Solomon, who is gay, writes that he created this book as a way of healing from his parents’ lack of acceptance for so many years.

My children certainly have their own tendencies, personalities, and traits. They are wholly lovable and wholly challenging for different reasons. Both of them have outlying characteristics and penchants in different ways. The crux of this book is a meditation on how we love children without trying to change them. How do we guide our children? How do we become advocates for our children? At the same time, he portrays very hard interviews with some parents who on a daily basis have the toughest job of all of us.

Certainly one criticism I did have of this work, though, was this: while most of the parents he interviewed for the rape and criminal section of the book were either impoverished or lower class, most of the parents he accessed for the chapters on autism, disability, and Downs (for example) seemed to be more upper middle class to actually quite wealthy—which seemed to me to reflect his own social and academically-oriented network. It is one thing to have an autistic-spectrum child and to be able to throw all the money in the world into intervention (although Solomon does raise the question about whether intervention minimizes mental diversity), and it is quite another thing to have an autistic-spectrum child without the resources to do much. In my reading, I felt like he never fully addressed how much of a disparity this can truly be, with some chapters coming off as a bit too hunky-dory as parents established and endowed schools specifically for their children and children in their area to attend, for example.

That aside, this 900++ pager is for any parent who has stared into those eyes of a child and wondered how a creature of their own body could be so vastly different.

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (fiction, 1843)

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons they teach.” 

This was a re-read, as I love to enjoy at this time of year. A classic. We also went as a family to see the musical production:

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5. The Book of Nice: A Nice Book About Nice Things for Nice People by Josh Chetwynd (nonfiction, compilation, history, trivia, 2013)

“A key component of nice behavior is sincerity…..There are many who like to tweak what would normally be nice behavior in negative ways….Those disingenuous moments leave some ill-equipped to assume the best in others.”

What a quirky little compendium this book was! And I really enjoyed it. Every chapter (“Nice Words to Say,” for example) offers a brief history of various words, customs, traditions, gestures, manners, etc that have come to be considered the hallmark of “nice.” He discusses how tricky the word “nice” is in itself, and all in all, this is a pleasant read. I am a trivia geek, and so books like this go down smoothly and provoke days of me asking, “Did you know…? Did you know…?” What is the history behind blowing a kiss? What does Cary Grant have to do with hotel pillow mints? What was a honeymoon, back in the day?


(Reading at Newport Beach)

6. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (nonfiction, historical, 2014)

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.” 

Katie and I devoured this book together, and the conversation has been rich ever since. We watched Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, and together we follow her on Facebook. Katie signed the petition to join Malala in her quest to ensure education for all girls all over the world. I want to give Katie access to real girls and women who stand up for themselves and accomplish amazing feats. I want Katie to know that she, too, can and should use her voice to be a humanistic influence in this world.

Through Malala’s story, we learned quite about about the history of the Swat Valley in Pakistan and how the Taliban gained a foothold there. We asked the hard questions. We talked about fear and how fear can be manipulated, and how fear can be paralyzing. We talked, too, about how sometimes bad things can happen little by little, encroaching on people as they try to live their daily lives, almost so slowly that it is easy to ignore or deny the signs (as history also played out a bit in Nazi Germany). We talked about how natural geologic disasters can be misinterpreted as religious events, how necessary education is for all.

It scares me, because from time to time even in this modern world, even in the United States of America, I sometimes hear that perhaps women don’t all “need” an education. No matter the route a woman chooses to take in life, it is my belief that it should start with her full education. If a group cannot survive when it educates its women and teaches them about options more vast than staying at home and bearing children and serving men, then it does not deserve to survive. Which is funny, coming from a woman who stays at home and has borne children…but I had my education first and therefore had viable, equally good, and wide choices I could make, and that should be the right of every girl on this planet.


(Katie wanted to dress like Malala and make Pakistani food—but we had to go with Indian cuisine instead)!

7. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandburg (nonfiction, 2013)

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

“I hope you find true meaning, contentment, and passion in your life. I hope you navigate the difficult times and come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope you find whatever balance you seek with eyes wide open. And I hope that you…have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it.”

Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook, wrote what has to be the clarion call of my generation of women. This was a fraught little read for me, I must say. I am still not sure entirely what I think about it. I have enough of an ability to hold myself objectively away from any argument or text to assess clearly its merits, regardless of whether I ultimately find confirmation or disagreement. As a highly educated former career woman who now stays at home and who is the target age of Sandburg’s audience, as well as a woman who could have very well used her education to ascend to various leadership positions or to gain further education, I feel that this book aimed itself right at me.

Last year when my friend Marguerite came to visit in January, we talked about this book and she mentioned how important a read it was to her. At that point, I was prepared to love it. I was still in the middle of dilly-dallying around with my reading, though, and didn’t get to it. I wanted to read it, actually, primarily to gain further insight into my friend; we know who people are better when we know what words they love.

Later that spring, as I happened to read a few reviews about the book from a variety of sources, I became prepared to hate the book. Sandburg is classist, unrealistic, playing still in a man’s world without calling for real overhaul, too ambitious, too pressurizing, etc.

How to judge this one? Maybe I should read it first, you think?

Still I found other books I wanted to read more. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I saw yet another reference to “leaning in” on social media and realized that I was missing out on big piece of cultural literacy for my generation here. My decision to work or not work outside the home is my own, and I don’t typically venture toward the self-helpish types of books that these things can sometimes be; in fact, I steer clear of that genre entirely. I don’t seek or require external validation for my decisions. But at some level, this book may be more of a political statement than anything else. It was time to educate myself.

I was surprised. Sandburg took me through a range of emotions as I pondered my own history. From a secular humanist standpoint, too, the lingering questions of how to have the biggest positive influence on the survival of humanity have intense ethical ramifications. What do I owe, if anything, to society? To humanity as a whole? I don’t know whether Sandburg is a secular humanist in her philosophy (I know she is Jewish) or not; her book, however, pointed a laser at some moral questions I’ve had lately. To work inside or outside of the home is not the point, I don’t think, for me. How do I contribute the most and have the greatest reach?

It’s clear that, for Sandburg, we women ought all to be vying for spots at the table. She gives a shout-out to SAHMs, but it does come across as perfunctory and meant to be non-alienating. My one big criticism of the book is not that she advocates for our spot in the workplace (although, I disagree that such a place is the only way to find personal fulfillment); my biggest criticism is that she, I feel, attempts to make a whole generation shoulder the burden of feminist progress for the generation that comes after us. She said of the 60s and 70s feminists that, when they advocated for our choices, they had no way of predicting that so many of us would opt out of the workplace—as if that is a bad thing in itself. I would like Sandburg to step back and at least question her premises before moving on: Why is it vital that the boardrooms become 50/50%? Why as much as 50%? Or why as little? Why does she feel our greatest influence as women must entail working outside of the home? I think she rests much of her book on the idea that the largest section of her audience already is working and agrees with her. I need to see her address the counterarguments more thoroughly. I am someone who likes to be challenged in that way.

So in the end, I challenged myself. I think it is important to look at this book in that sort of productive way, and not as one more tool designed to flame the Mommy Wars—because it isn’t. If it were as simple an issue as “working mom, good/stay-at-home mom, bad” she could be dismissed summarily, and I don’t think any truly thinking woman sees that dichotomy in quite that way, anyway. She does address the fallacy of “having it all” and thank goodness she is more realistic about that than some. I think she got a bit too defeatist there, though. My Sarah version of “having it all” has never been “having it all at once.” Why we would assume that everything comes to us at one time is beyond me. Life—-biology—happens in cycles and phases; so, too, why not “having it all?” An academic phase, a career phase, a child phase, an athletic phase, a travel phase, etc? Life is lived linearly in our limited perspective; but really we are the amalgamation of all of our phases, all of our ages. “Having it all” can be, and is, spread out over time… Isn’t that cause for optimism? Love the phase you’re in, or change it. That’s been a life motto of mine for quite some time now.

8. George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War by Thomas B. Allen (nonfiction, history, 2004)

“His skills were recognized by none other than Major George Beckwith, the head of British intelligence operations in America at the end of the war. Beckwith later noted: Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!” 

Another chapter book with Katie. We are getting ready for a massive Revolutionary War unit (having exhausted her 2nd grade history book) that will culminate in a field trip in March and for which I have numerous activities planned. We decided to get a jump start on it, although the unit begins officially this Monday. I am taking some unorthodox approaches to the war, looking at it from unique angles (such as this spying, coding angle, as well as looking at the British point of view with an open mind as perhaps equally valid). She must know that history is never as tidy and clear cut as it seems; seldom are there “right” and “wrong” sides (with some notable exceptions). There are simply events and reactions and quests for power and humanity that is both frail and noble. It has already come into her mind—a question I fully support her having—that, “How could Washington have owned slaves and yet wanted freedom for the colonies?” If she is entertaining this question, then we are doing something right over here.

Be that as it may, this detailed little book has been a treasure find! I learned so much, too, as I never quite had the head before when it came to keeping all the battles and intrigues straight. Something about having to teach the war, though, has made me so much more of detail-fiend. Where did Revere’s and Dawes’ ride go, exactly? What were the nuances of Benedict Arnold’s treachery?

This book also includes an appendix of the actually Culper Code, which incited Katie’s imagination to the point where she started writing in the spy code. We’ll play with that much more, I am sure. Likewise, we learned again about the secret inks (we will model that with lemon juice) and various other tricks of the trade. I would definitely recommend this National Geographic publication for any library. Sets her up for various moments in computer science history later, too…

9. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (science fiction, 1898)

“We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians . . . were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space if fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

I had never read this classic piece, and what I found so coincidental was how very much the ending had a direct connection to the ongoing e-mail conversation my brothers-in-law, my husband, and I are having. Humanity, technology, survival, extinction, space travel, microbes, care for the planet… Nor had I seen the films, so although I knew generally what this story was about, I did not know the punchline at the end.


(Reading War of the Worlds at The Grand Californian Hotel during our Christmastime at Disneyland trip in early December)

As a piece of invasion literature, there are so many ways to connect War of the Worlds to colonialism, future science fiction, and on and on. In anticipating the necessity of underground guerrilla warfare, an artilleryman lays out a plan to which modern works like The Matrix trilogy owe a huge debt. In fact, so much of science fiction—and specifically Martian sci fi—owes much to Wells’ tropes here. So very glad to have this classic under my belt.

The kiddos and I began this together, and for the first many chapters (all the way until about halfway, in fact) they were riveted. Then, it got a little meandering and possibly a bit terrifying. I don’t shy away from things like that with them, but I also think that the repetitive nature of the narrator wandering around and seeing various instances of the aliens was actually more off-putting to them than the descriptions themselves. For the narrator does wander. I ended up polishing it off myself and then reporting the rest of the narrative to them.

Coincidentally enough, I had also just bought…

10. March of the Microbes: Sighting the Unseen by John Ingraham (science, nonfiction,  2010)

“The double membrane structure confers another distinctive capability to gram-negative bacteria. Its presence creates a unique inter membrane region called the periplasm, which acts as a digestive chamber…” 

This was heavy science, for those wanting to get into the nitty gritty of microbial life, which I did. Most of the hard science is broken up by tales of the flashier and well known microbes; this book reads like a rock star list of the microbe world, to me.

Ingraham talks about the carbon cycle, the fixing of nitrogen, how microbes create symbiosis, how they shape the planet, and more. Did you know we are made up of far many more microbes than we are of human cells? What does it mean to be human? What is the self?

The bottom line here, too, is this: microbes will probably have the last word, as Louis Pasteur predicted. They have already survived for billions of years, and many can survive any sort of radiation or cataclysmic event. Additionally, lest we think humans are the superior beings: we will die in a heartbeat without microbes cycling nitrogen or shaping this planet, biodegrading our refuse, helping us to digest. We should throw ourselves on the mercy of the smallest and remember how fragile a balance life truly is.

11. Genie by Richard Powers (fiction, short story, 2012)

“The guile of living things knew no limit, and four billion years had produced endless forms most cunning and ingenious.” 

Favorite author Richard Powers makes another appearance on my list this month, in the form of a short story. Technically not a book, but one of the most worthy reads on this list, I feel. Short, but it packs some powerful thought-experiments and philosophical questions in a tight narrative. It is a short story, so I don’t feel it counts toward my personal 5-a-month goal, but I still must mention it because it was part of my thematic thought-life this go-round.

Without meaning to, since Bill had it in our Kindle library and I didn’t look at it too much before diving in, I chose yet another reading having to do directly with microbes.

In a nutshell: a young female scientist steals some microbial sludge from Yellowstone and, together  with her statistician beau, make a universe-changing discovery about the patterns of the microbes.

Powers continues to astound me, especially as he draws such well-rounded characters in such an economy of space. This man wastes nothing, not a word. If you are short on time, want a dose of science, enjoy word play, and want to play with a thought-experiment or two, put this story on your short list. Powers always wins!

12. Abel’s Island by William Steig (fiction, 1976)

“Living in the heart of nature, he began to realize how much was going on in the seeming stillness. Plants grew and bore fruit, branches proliferated, buds became flowers, clouds formed in ever-new ways and patterns, colors changed. He felt a strong need to participate in the designing and arranging of things. The red clay from which he had fashioned pots and dishes inspired him to try his hand at making something just for its own sake, something beautiful.”

Steig is ostensibly for children, but not really. As a cartoonist for The New Yorker, Steig uses his art as well as his words to cut right into some massive existentialist questions. This is, in fact, why we have picked him for our author study. He is one of the top five children’s authors I believe every home library should have. Although some may know him best for Shrek (nothing like the movie), the real gems are Amos and Boris (apparently just about a mouse and whale, but really a meditation on the beautiful and the sublime), The Amazing Bone, and Brave Irene. Oh, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. We own many of his books, but we’ve also checked out several more. He gives children meat, real meat, to ponder. It is my view that children are just as capable of asking the hard questions as adults; it is obviously Steig’s view, as well. He routinely uses heavy vocab, in context, and he does not treat children as less than they are. His books are rich for the taking. Abel’s Island, one of his chapter books, is no exception.

Abel is an Edwardian dandy in 1907 who, while on a picnic one day with his wife, attempts to rescue her scarf in a sudden torrential storm and who gets swept away by a flood to an island. He lives there for almost a year, and the book becomes a meditation on civilization, the role of art, our animal natures, what constitutes actual living (“living is more than just remembering…”), and survival. Steig is known for taking his characters and stranding them in some form, thereby forcing their metacognition and their pondering of life itself. He’s brilliant. One of my favorite authors.

13. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami (nonfiction, 2008)

“If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.” 

My friend Steve who came to stay last weekend to compete in the Spartan series (and who is here again for the same reason this weekend), gave me this book as a present for having him. I loved it so much that I sucked it in—thwerrrrrrp!!—in a few sessions over two days, and already bought and sent it as a gift to someone else I know who is a kick-butt runner. Murakami is a distance runner, as well as a prize-winning Japanese writer who sometimes teaches at universities in the states.

He gets me. I couldn’t put this down. His sense of humor, his work ethic, his thoughts on running itself, his approach to racing… He gets me. And I get him. It was like reading my own brain, only better. Plus, he is his own character, too, of course. Equally standoffish and accessible. One of the best “books for runners” I’ve ever encountered.

Because I loved this book so much (a top contender for one of the favorites this year), I started looking into his fiction. Whoa. He is so Kafka-esque, not at all what I would expect. But because I “know” him now, how I am reading 1Q84 is totally nuanced and different than it would have been. No one can touch Powers’ wordsmithery or depth of knowledge across disciplines, but this guy? He’s close. At the very least, I can tell he is going to give the sci fi dystopian novel genre a run for its money here. His strong point as a writer, in my observation so far, seems to be his rhythm. There is a rhythmic quality to his sentences over the whole work that never lets up or falters; and, in this, he may be more skilled than Powers. It is worth nothing that a runner, too, requires rhythm, an inner ear. Steve not only gave me this great book, but also he opened up a whole new author for me. What a gift that is, too!


(Early morning runs and swims and reading continued)

So in the end, December and January evened out here. Whew! I expect my intake to be less voluminous in quantity of works for February, because, as I mentioned, I am tackling a big novel right now and also ushering in a new semester and planning units I’ve not done before. Additionally, with two big races approaching in March, I have resolved to be better about my sleeping habits as a requirement for proper training. Still, with the goal to read 60 books by the end of the year in mind, I am already at 45 books….plus short stories and numerous articles, criticisms, etc. I should be able to meet that goal by next June, it would seem!

I should also start adding films back into the mix…targeted films that work thematically with what I am reading. I did view Lucy this month, a film about what happens if we could access 100% of our brain. Reminded me in parts of some topics in The World of Null-A. What would our relationship to matter be if we used all of our resources?

Happy Reading, friends! May the words take you ever to new thoughts…

Or rather, the words do come:

In the middle of the night when my legs start twitching for their 4:30 AM run. At the stroke of my arm as the sky blooms purple over the pool water and the crows take wing. Between the happy boisterous noise of two young children. Through the holiday season, put on hold as my hands perform the necessary tasks of “making Christmas.” Over the air in the spaces between my neurons and never near paper or keyboard.

Or perhaps there has simply been too much to choose: write or read or sleep (sort of) in order to run/swim early or wrap presents or cuddle with a child or a husband or plan lessons or…?

I’ve tried to wait to write in this blog until having a clear topic, or even until the words (as they usually wish to do) fly out of their own accord. Strange, to have to nudge words sometimes. They can be finicky little creatures. Part of me…and yet possessing a mind of their own. I’ve always felt myself to be their conduit more than their owner or creator. I am a little bit lost without them so near.

Even this morning after catching up on a favorite blog written by a former student of mine and reading of her challenge to us to pick a word as the theme of our year, I spent four miles of road and 100 lengths of the pool trying to come up with my word so I could follow along with her writing assignments and suggestions. I could have swam after that one ideal word all morning and never caught it… Oh, I came close to grabbing it, when suddenly it would dart away and leave ghosts in its wake: “eager,” “generously,” “wonder.” I couldn’t even decide whether to shoot for a verb, an adverb, or a noun. And then on top of that, I started to detest every word that seemed to emphasize me and how I would feel and what I would do all year and tried in vain to think of a word to capture some way to give or to interact with the world around me. A single word: exhaustingly elusive.

So until my muse returns, here are a few images of these days:



Far and away our biggest news is that we bought a piano, a 48 inch upright new Schimmel. It came down in my mind to the piano, or having another experience for which I have been longing and loosely planning for a couple of years. We know who we are when we have to make choices, and I celebrate having to make one this month. In the end, choosing the piano felt clear and easy. Both Katie and Eric love their lessons, accomplished their first recital in early December, and more to the point, show promise—especially Katie at this point. She has found part of herself at that instrument, practicing without being asked, teaching herself new music, and already starting to pick up sight reading in just a few months. This is my chance to give my children music—for the rest of their lives, a lifelong gift, a gift I believe benefits every child. Katie and Eric know that they are to take piano lessons for a minimum of three years before even discussing a switch of instruments or a cessation of lessons. Fortunately, both of them seem to be taking to it.

I bought this piano for myself, as well. I have never had music, and I am determined now—armed with the determination with which I have approached my running, so that’s significant—to teach myself music. I practice everyday. I work through both of the children’s lessons, I practice sight reading, I play my scales, I read bits of theory, I have taken all of our Music Together songbooks (which have simple sheet music inside for every song for three years) and have taught myself several songs already. I strongly view the acquisition of music to be a fundamental part of a well-rounded Renaissance education. At Stanford, almost everyone I encountered played some form of music, and I was embarrassed about not being able to do the same and tried to keep that fact concealed. Even now, it is scary to admit I have hardly a clue at all about a discipline so accessible to so many. But oh well. I am very late to the game, but I am finding that sheer will and consistency (along with a penchant for codes and languages, in this case) can crack even the most improbable nut. With that sheer will and work ethic I became a significantly competitive division and gender runner, after years of being overweight and not athletic—-so why not a pianist? Why not go be everything I have ever wanted to be? Why not learn everything I have ever wanted to learn? It’s never too late to create ourselves and to address our weaknesses.


This proper pair of Oxfords definitely captures my style and mood lately.


With the arrival of the piano, I completely restyled the living room, which I am now calling the parlour (with a “u” even) simply because I can. Mostly I made use of what we have had, kept, or lost in bookshelf corners for years, although I did end up buying an ottoman, starburst mirrors, and a few pillows to freshen the look, achieve the mid century modern style of which I am so enamored, and to tie the room together. We have been spending almost every night in our—ahem—parlour playing classic games like dominoes, Chinese checkers, chess (the kiddos are learning), and various other games. We play songs on the piano before bedtime. And I love, love, love to read in the new space after everyone goes to bed or after early morning training. This room—once a room I would practically run past—is now my favorite room in the house. Special mementos I had hidden on shelves—a vase from Rhodes, Murano glass from Venice, a favorite music box, my great-grandmother’s tchotchkies, and more—are finally in an open place where I can enjoy them. This room definitely has the most personality of any room in our house now, and I feel most myself in there. I am surprised, to an extent but also not really, to discover how much of myself I find at the piano. My fingers cannot wait to play each day and my voice to sing.


Schooling at the McGaugh Academy continues robustly. Here, we did a sound energy lab.


And Katie’s current passion is “The Magic Flute,” which she listens to in the original German. We have a book that narrates part of the opera and then indicates which selection to play on a CD.


We treated ourselves to a restaurant that has been on my wish list for quite some time: E.A.T. (Extraordinary Artisan Table). They source locally as much as possible, make their own almond mylk and kombucha…and frankly, it may be some of the most delicious food in Temecula. Katie and Eric devoured their lunches, including parsnips. In fact, lunch the first day was so incredible, we turned right around and went back for breakfast the next morning. This is a must-do restaurant in town. It lived up to everything I’d heard, and moreso.



Embracing my quirky flag: this snowball (which I found once again during my semi-annual deep clean of the freezer) is not, folks, from this last snowfall. No, no, no. This is from the TIME BEFORE last in the early 2000s. My brother had just gone off to college at Berkeley, and I didn’t want him to feel left out or like he missed Temecula’s rare snow event. I made him a snowball that morning and froze it for him. The kiddos now call it “Uncle David’s snowball.” It has survived several deep cleanings of the freezer for over ten years, and a move.


Coding in Sonic Pi on the Kano: we figured out how to program simple songs using code. Eric also writes his own.


Ten miles last Sunday in the rain….

But I would rather run that, than run in snow or in 39 degrees…I’ve discovered.

Training is going well. I have been running doubles (morning and evening runs) to drive up my mileage, and although it can be tough, I know that hard work earns speed. I am also swimming three times a week still, and I have slightly increased that distance, as well. Instead of 1 X100 lengths and 2 X 60-70 lengths, I am now doing 280 a week, for four mile swim weeks. It is a slight increase, but the extra 10 lengths every seven days will equate to an extra mile I didn’t have on average. I am going to conquer the 100 mile swim year…somehow!

The craziest day of training this week was Wednesday: a 6 mile base in the morning, followed by three miles of intervals at the track, another three miles of running to and from the track, and a 13th walked mile of rest in between each set of intervals. Followed by a 9 mi Thursday… But if I want to get really good, then I have to work harder than I have been, right?

And my friend Steve is here, tonight in fact, in advance of his Spartan Beast tomorrow. He is setting about to complete his second trifecta. We had a make-your-own-custom-pizza Pizza Bar for dinner tonight. So fun to have him!

Finally, I have not grown remiss about my monthly reading plan. Because December was so very full of choices and the need to balance everything at once (it felt), I read only three full books and halves of two others. So, not quite five. I figured I would catch up this month (so far, so good) and then post December/January together. As long as I keep an average of five books per month, I will be doing all right on the goal I set last summer. Steve brought a new book about running that I am dying to start, and I am in the middle right now of a book that is essentially the first sci fi written by a Chinese author. I am eager to see how the eastern point of view becomes science fiction. Katie and I have been reading Malala’s book (and have finished—more later on that), and now we’re reading a nonfiction book about Washington’s spy networks during the Revolutionary War, and both kiddos and I are reading Abel’s Island.

My words are at such a paucity that I fear trouble mustering even a conclusion. So dash, dash, dash one on! Trying to get those words aflowin’.



On New Year’s Eve Temecula woke up to snow, two to four inches and continuing to fall. Although I have been to the snow several times, never have I seen those gentle snowflakes drifting out of the sky. Falling snow makes the most quiet sound I have ever heard, like a softness you hear with more than just your ears. A snowy world is a world apart: all the ugliness of cracked pavement or weeds or a unbleached umbrella in the backyard recedes for just a moment under the purest pure of frozen white, glittery in the sunlight.

I’d been thinking, of course, about goals and resolutions for the new year. I went through a period of my life in which I thought setting New Year’s resolutions was a bit hokey—how many do we really keep? Do we set them just because that’s what we always do this time of year? When we identify a part of us that requires work, we must start to work on it at once any time throughout the year and set our minds to it. Three of my biggest goals the past two-and-half years were set in the month of June. My mid-30s are a mellow time, though, and any tradition that asks us to take account of ourselves and our role in the world is not a bad one; it’s fun to play along…

…and a bit stressful, too, for this recovering perfectionist. What if I don’t state my resolutions clearly and specifically enough? What if I publish a set and then think of a few more? Why can’t I think of anything terribly unique? What about the goals I will probably set in June and which won’t be part of this formal list? What if my resolutions are too selfish? Do they work at various levels of good for the community and world as a whole?

Neuroses die hard, my friends.


Resolutions for 2015

1. Xeriscape the front yard to help save water. I love my grass. But we’re in a drought. Farmers are struggling in the Central Valley. Most of the Christmas trees at big chains were dead on arrival this year due to low water table problems. Since I grew up always with lush yards and grass beneath my toes, I associate our verdant front yard with beauty and childhood and suburbia. I have resisted, a bit, any discussions about letting it go. Usually my first line of defense has been the kids: the kids need large areas of grass on which to play and practice soccer, etc. The truth is, though, we avail ourselves of parks more often for those activities than we use our front yard. We have already let the grass revert to dirt near the chicken area; we can keep a smaller section in the backyard by the play structure for now. I dislike the idea of giving up my grass and pepper trees; but what I dislike even more was seeing my narrow attitude reflected a few weeks ago by a woman in another neighborhood whose homeowner’s association, like ours, is starting to redo common areas with drought-tolerant and native plants. She started ranting about how climate change wasn’t real, and how she wanted to write her association to convince them not to take out grass and trees, and how taking out trees near her house just didn’t make sense because now it wasn’t as pretty… And I pressed my lips together and realized I had no logical ground for my own hesitation.

2. Acquire PRs at the Hot Chocolate 15K, the Carlsbad 5000, and Butte to Butte (1oK). I plan to run a few other races, though my resolutions involve specifically these three events.

3. Continue to read an average of at least five books a month. (See what I did there? This is technically not a new 2015 goal but one set last summer. The helpful use of the word “continue” makes it seem current—cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater)!

4. Find the perfect red lipstick. “They” stopped making my go-to color, it appears, and this one was simply too orange, let’s admit it now:

FullSizeRender copy

I also want to find the perfect nude lipstick. I’m already ahead on this resolution because I picked up two candidates right around my birthday. Not sure about the red…because it is more of a plum than a true red, although it looks vastly better than the orangey nightmare above.

And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is the silliest of all my resolutions.

5. Try at least one new experience—activity, thought-experiment, food item, place—a month.

I tried this, this month:



With all the swimming and demands on my hair, though, this can’t be a long term look. I used a temporary product, and almost all of it has washed out/been pooled out at this point. I could do something more permanent, I suppose, but I decided for now that I really like my hair color the way that it is and would prefer not to have the intense upkeep. I don’t have grey, my natural hair  matches my babies, and the reddish gold of it catches the spring and summer sun. Loved the blue for the moment and even imagined for a few training runs that I was a superhero, but for now I prefer my natural state.

6. Swim at least 100 miles this year. On January 2nd, I signed up for the 100 mile swim challenge at our rec center. Every time I swim, I keep a record of it on a big chart near the entrance to the pool. Jack H., whomever he is, has already been swimming like a bat out of hell and appears to be halfway to 25 miles in less than a week! My boxes are going to take much longer to fill, but I figure I have all year to whittle away at it, right? I will have to account for vacations and travel and taper weeks, but I think I can do it. The overachiever in me wants to swim, swim, swim until I get it all done as soon as possible—like a project for school—but I know I cannot approach this task that way. So, this resolution will also teach me patience with my goals and how to embrace being slow and methodical.

7. Send one handwritten note or letter to someone I care about, once a month.

The rest of my goals are all fairly generic and center on looking for ways to help people I know and humanity throughout the year. A few friends and I have also talked generally about setting up our next group challenge (perhaps a race together, perhaps another locked room game, or whatever we come up with). I always want to be a much better mom, a better wife, a better daughter/family member, and a better friend. That never changes. My weight loss goals have shifted from loss to maintenance, but that is not a new health goal; most of my health goals have transformed into athletic goals at this point. Mostly I hope to make life happy and magical for those I love, to live with a sense of adventure and purpose and vitality, to pursue passions new and old with curiosity and open-mindedness, and to continue learning about this process called life.


To explore and experiment…




To bask in the beauty and sweetness…


To generate happy, innocent moments for those I love…


To feel everything, to run, to be fearless…

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2015 be full of adventure and progress for all humankind.


Sarah McGaugh

Sarah McGaugh


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