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“Breathe deeply, until sweet air extinguishes the burn of fear in your lungs and every breath is a beautiful refusal to become anything less than infinite.” ~D. Antoinette Foy

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There’s a split in the sandy pathway down to Garrapata Beach along the ragged coast of Pacific Coast Highway, shortly before Big Sur travels up the rolling hills into the Carmel Highlands. If you don’t know the meaning of your life, one path is just as good as the other. The steps, however, must be deliberate and brave if they are to be truly ours. Step with intention and trust that the meaning will emerge as you go.

As it happens, I took the left path. Where it bends, you know, toward that Frostian undergrowth.

Perhaps this race was a daydream, lived somewhere and somehow in between the sunny palm trees of UCSB and the foggy chill of Monterey, swept in by the San Simeon gusts and carried along by Point Lobos. Perhaps this was the one race every life needs to run. Perhaps these miles reconnected me to the deep reason I run: to know thyself. Surge, break, struggle, breathe: and in the process, see the wonder—the WONDER—everywhere. The miracle of every green leaf. The thermodynamic probability of my existence, of YOUR existence, of all the billions of years of evolution that has brought the human body so close to the flight of a bird, the power of an animal along the plains. I am reminded of those feelings during training a year or more ago, those feelings of awe that here we are in the dark, running toward the morning light. Those feelings of awe to find ourselves alive at all. Those moments when I knew: the struggle of a runner microcosmically captures the struggle of all life. Make ourselves strong, fight against our cellular deterioration, resist the decay and strive for the freedom that makes life worth living. The wildest of dreams…

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“Nothing gold…”, you know. So there are walks down to the beach at 8:45 in the morning, a climb on a rock, and a gaze outward toward the expanse. I can make meaning with but one stare and a memory. I did take a selfie of this moment with my tear-streaked eyes in it, but those eyes are just for myself. What happened between me and those waves crashing onto the sand is a private moment. All waves became a oneness: all energy became almost palpable. I realized that the energy driving those waves and the energy driving my legs were essentially the same: waves of energy coursing through the universe since the hot dense state exploded into more. Whatever pain would shortly come over my legs in the hour to follow would come only in waves. I could use my mind to watch those waves of pain recede. Clear aquamarine water, delicate sand, the sun just up. Whatever comes in on the tide also goes.

Underneath I imagined the yellow fin tuna I saw the day before at the Monterey Aquarium. Majestic, those. There is an open ocean viewing room at the aquarium: you look right against the ocean. Whatever swims there is real and present of its own persuasion. You see underneath it all. And on Sunday morning, I saw it all again vibrantly in my mind as I imagined a similar scene right under the water. I can just run, just run, just run…and I always come back to this: to live in a state of perpetual curiosity and wonder is to be alive, so alive I can feel the life glowing in the dark.

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Perhaps this was the most personal race I shall ever run. I hopped on my bus at 5:45 AM, and then we waited roadside near a plein air colony at the Garrapata relay station. Oh, I should say now this race spanned a marathon distance broken into four relay legs. My mom and dad each ran the first two legs for a total of about 5 + 5 miles, starting at Big Sur Station. My brother ran the third 7-mile leg, up through Hurricane Point and across Bixby Bridge (which, incidentally, featured a GRAND PIANIST on a GRAND PIANO. Yes). I ran the last anchor leg for 9.2 miles total.

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Here’s a course map. Full marathoners ran also.

So the race started at 6:45 AM. My mom had had to be aboard her bus at 3:45 AM to get to the start on time. Once my bus pulled up, I broke out my cell phone with its Kindle App, hooked it up to one of Bill’s battery packs, and spent the first couple of hours or so watching the sunrise and reading all of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

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My view from the bus—a big yellow school bus—while reading Cannery Row. This was a highly intentional act of meaning-making, and now probably one of the best memories of my life actually. How many literature lovers get to read the entirety of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row parked on PCH in a school bus in the middle of a road race after walking around Cannery Row the day before? I am not sure what it means that this is a highlight of my life, but there you go. Definitely one of the more unique reading situations…followed by beach meditation and racing the heck out of 9.2 miles after seeing my brother and thinking about my family running all those miles before me. Unreal. One of my favorite lifetime memories…

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As I ran, I made sure to look around me. I wanted to be present, fully. The best part of this race was that there is absolutely NO CELL PHONE RECEPTION at all along the coast there. While this proved a challenge in some practical ways (no way to know for sure when the fam was coming, and hence no way to know for sure when to take a last potty or to complete strides for optimal power), I welcomed it and now wish most races could be this way. In truth, I had experienced the no-cell-before-the-race idea at Butte to Butte in Oregon last summer. For some reason, I had Bill keep my device that morning. I found a huge pine tree and meditated against its roots, felt my power rooted to the ground. It was another powerful and metaphorical moment, a deep connection with Nature. I found that I got my mind into imagining my family, and that the connection was deeper with them than having our cell phones connecting us. It was more magical waiting for the surprise of my brother showing up at our hand off point. (And I was surprised, more on that in a moment). We don’t often get a break from knowing all information with just a button. I like to dwell purely in the imaginary at times. I liked being present in my book and in the waves without distraction.

At 8:45 AM, I started the potty trips. I planned to do one every 15 minutes or so. We predicted David coming in around 9:45 AM or so, and we were just about on top of that…but there was also a possibility of wide variability that morning times three runners before me, and I had to be careful not to get cold. I started striding periodically at 9:15 AM. I kept my sweatshirt on, but otherwise was ready. My dad had made big orange signs so we could find each other easily. I saw the 4-hour marathon pacer go by and got a little nervous, making a mental note that come hell or highwater, I was going to chase that pacer down. So then I got too clever for my own good. I decided I would run down the end of David’s route a bit, see him from afar, sprint back to my place, dash my sweatshirt off, and grab the sign. Well, readers, I DID see him. But right as I was about to dash back to my place, a convoy came through on the right side of the road and I was cut off from the middle line where I needed to be. I grabbed our stuff and hollered David’s name, and we made the exchange.

However, I did not settle into the exchange properly. I had the wrist timer for our team and started to go, remembering at the last second to start my devices. I wear three, and I had already crossed the timing pad when I looked down and discovered that NONE of them appeared to be timing my run. You would think it is no big deal since I would have a chip time, but it was my understanding from the official relay meeting the day before that all of our individual times were going to be dumped at the end of the event. I don’t NEED to have a time, but I also wanted one for my own information since I had trained and tapered specifically for this event. So I pulled off for a moment—yes, to a stop, OUCH!—and got two of the three devices in gear. Ugh, it was SO awkward and I hate that I did it…by I am also glad I was able to get my data after all. I did the best I could do having messed up and crossed the timing pad before I was truly ready to go. Anyway, I told myself to shake off the blip and just fly the rest of the way, get over it, claw back that lost time. As it happened, the third device finally came online, too.

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I am in the blue. It was a strong run. I felt good. The rolling hills of the Carmel Highlands are considered by many to be the craziest stretch of this course (per the course description in the program), with incessant elevation and cambered roads for 9.2 miles. Crazy, indeed. Several days have passed, and my legs are still wrecked. I’ve been training still, but holy moly. I was able to do this stretch in a 6:44 pace. I felt bad at first about being a minute off my 9.2 mi PR, but then again, this was not the easiest course. Hot Chocolate with 5 miles uphill to start is also intense, but this one perhaps more so. The first three miles of my portion were headwinds galore. The wind was SO LOUD that it was all I could hear in my ears. When you figure speed, winds, hills, and slanted road…well, it is okay not to have a PR. In fact, in retrospect I feel this was one of the runs of my life. I have never felt stronger nor more ready to do and accept battle without growing weary. There was no mental fatigue to fight this time, which means I was able to stay present with my body and the race without wishing to be done.

After catching and passing that 4 hour pacer, as well as a few relayers who had left almost 40 minutes before I did, I tried to have fun with it. All along the way were variety acts: choirs, guitarists, DJs, a team of Polynesian dancers, scouts, you name it. When those kids hold out their hands for a high five? Come on, people. They are looking at us, possible inspirations for being healthy someday, struggling against ourselves, being brave, laying it on the line. I pull alongside and give the high five to the kids who ask for it, especially the girls. It means something. I also tried to keep my stride while doing a little Polynesian dancing action with my arms. Why not? Running may be competitive, but at heart, running is freedom to enjoy life. In fact, this whole race for me was about laying down meaning in intentional ways whenever and wherever I could.

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Team Matics-McGaugh. We ended up finishing 11th out of 92 open relay teams. Our time was 3:45:36 for 26.2 miles. At the finish line was hot minestrone soup and Smokey the Bear.

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After the relay on Sunday our little family of four went to Carmel-by-the-Sea for a little macaroon and latte action and to look around.

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This picture, which I found later, makes me chuckle. Here I am in Carmel of all places, in my sweats looking like a bum sleeping on a park bench. Nice, Sarah, nice. I was tired. My allergies had also picked up from inhaling all the pollen while running.
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Nonetheless, I pressed on and took the kiddos to the beach. I had my chance to run around; so should they.

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A happy sight for a tired mama.

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We climbed a tree, also.

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Fearless Katie

Images from Cannery Row on our wander-about-town on Saturday:
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I could spend forever at the Monterey Aquarium. I bought a sand dollar from the store that was the basis for Chong’s Market in Steinbeck’s novel, and I plan to make it into an ornament for our Christmas tree this year.

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My dad and grandchildren at the wharf in Monterey.

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With you, I can fly.

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Coach Husband Bill debriefs me on my data while we sit in a park in Carmel.

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My sis-in-love Ashley not only dropped all of us at our buses that morning, starting with Mom’s drop at 3:45 AM, but she also ran her own 5K at 7:45 that morning, AND COORDINATED THE WHOLE TRIP starting months ago. To say I am grateful would be an understatement. This is a forever memory.

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My loves along the coast: the kiddos especially liked the elephant seals in San Simeon. It’s corny maybe but we have a “Goodnight California” book that we bought at Berkeley in May 2008 the weekend my brother graduated. We keep track of how much we have done that is mentioned in that book—almost all of it at this point. The elephant seals were a necessary addition to our list. Yes, we brought the book in the car with us—are you kidding? We had to read it right after and raise our hands for that page: yes, we’ve done it!! (Confession: we also have a “Goodnight Oregon,” obtained a few months ago on the Kindle).

These children were EXCELLENT travelers as usual. We read off the Kindle primarily, including all of McCloskey’s classic Homer Price.

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Friday: lunch in Isla Vista and a brief look at UCSB as we head up to Monterey along PCH.

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One last shake-off run on Monday morning before heading back to Temecula. I fell head-over-heels with Monterey. Yes, I could move there.

On the way home, Bill suggested we stop in Solvang. Yes, please!
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Getting serious with pastry selection

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Solvang is always so fun. I’d love to take the kiddos up to SLO and just do that area for a weekend. Hearst Castle called to us, but we just couldn’t fit it in this time.

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And one of my favorite pictures of the trip: this was 2:30 AM the morning of the race. It had been a sleep-and-wake-up kind of night, culminating in Eric calling out, “I need my mama!” We three snuggled together, warm and toasty. There is such joy in being a mommy, no matter the time of day. I am used to racing on little sleep during these “away” types of races. I try to stash sleep two nights out, and then the night before just take whatever comes. These are my people: joy.

This had to be one of my favorite race events ever. Next up: Bay to Breakers with best friends of 20+ years. San Francisco, here we come!

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Monday morning, 5:31 AM: I am one minute after the opening of the pool, and every lane already has two people in it. The crowd at the pool varies; we regulars tend not to miss, and every once in awhile new people show up for a day, or two, or a couple of weeks.

THE SWIMMER 
The contingent that just raced the half-Ironman in Oceanside took a few days off; the husband of the husband-wife pair in Lane 1 had an absence last week. There’s always a high school science teacher in Lane 2: it took Bill and I a couple of conferrals but we finally identified him. Helga comes around 6:00 AM and swims in Lane 1 or 6; this older German woman is one of my favorite partners in a lane. The Masters and triathletes usually do intense lifeguard-led workouts in the middle. When I am in Lane 5, I watch Ruth as much as I can, a 60-something Ironwoman whose stroke is powerful and gorgeous. Her hands hit the water with just the right sound. I am not much of a swimmer—or wasn’t, until recently having worked my way up to 3500 yard swims—but I know that sound is right because there is a certain authentic ring to it. We know beauty when we hear it, or see it; when there is a rightness in the universe, it sends off waves that vibrate with truth. There’s never any way to fake those kinds of waves, be they sight or sound, not really.

It’s like the voice, in writing. What’s authentic and real…is always clearly so. We hear it, and we just know. It is a light all its own.

In a blog entry that will largely be about voice, I return now to the pool at 5:31 AM on Monday morning, to a scene that shall be nearly wordless.

The destiny on this Monday morning, a morning in which every lane has at least two already, is a circle swim. I’ve learned to like those. Intense little buggers, the circle swims. Everyone seems faster than I am, except the once-in-awhile occasion when they’re not. My first few circle swims struck me as the most awkward social situations I’ve ever been in. Not really, but you know what I mean. It’s rare that three or more people in a lane are all going to have the same pace. There’s passing, pulling over, feeling chased, trying not to chase, and communication to deal with. A person learns quickly to get over herself. Often circle swims end up being a better workout for me because I have to push myself (to try) to keep up with better swimmers.

I choose the lane with the teacher; he gets out shortly after 6:00 AM, and so I figure that I will be circle swimming for only half an hour and then the remaining guy and I can just do a lane split. Even though the two men are going at a clip that will push me, it’s the surest bet.

Popping in, I go a few rounds. The teacher and the young man are ripping through the water. Eventually the young man (late high school/early college?) pulls over to the wall. I figure that he is being polite, perhaps letting me go so I can have a couple of more moderately paced laps. His goggles are off and his eyes shine a bit. In fact, besides noticing how incredibly fast his arms were pulling, his eyes were the first part I really saw. Pool water has tousled his dark hair. “Oh, please go ahead,” I say, “you are faster than I am!” He smiles brightly. “Nah, I need to rest a bit,” he says without any irony, just a remarkable sense of presence. You know those people, right? The shiny-eyed ones that handle life’s adventures with a sort of mirth and strength combined? As I swam away, I thought to myself about how I had just found another one of those, which is always cool. I like to find those people. They glow in the dark.

It’s on the way back to the starting wall, where this guy is still hanging out, that I see underwater for the first time: all of his left leg from the knee down….is gone.

Flashing water, foggy goggles, sleepy brain. We’d gone multiple laps together, and I hadn’t noticed. His strength as a swimmer and his eyes stood out, like the waves that ring true. What I will not do now is turn this into a morality tale: person with hardship reminds us all how good we really have it. I find those tales repugnant. Using someone’s hardship to build yourself up and make your life seem a little better by fallacious comparison/contrast? Nope. Human exceptionalism does no one any favors: we are exceptional neither in our hardships nor in our graces.

We just simply are. And this young man? Totally strong and badass. (I would ask to excuse the language, but there’s truly no other word for it). I get to be merely the recorder.

I spend quite a bit of time these days—charging up hills, having a good run, starting daily with my health and life in control, schlepping the kiddos hither and yon without batting an eyelash—feeling fairly badass myself. Endorphins do that, and I’ve had more than my overshare of Facebook posts hopped up on post-athletic hormones celebrating newfound (for me) strength and the freedom I find. I took my life and pulled it together right when unhealthiness and anxiety could have spiraled into chaos. That’s pretty wicked, and I’m pretty enduringly proud of such a huge change. I remember what that willpower and work signifies on days now when I don’t feel I have it quite together!

HOWEVER.

I am sure that voice of rollicking freedom isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Or coffee. Or milkshake. Or whatever. There’s no malice in that voice; in fact, the soundtrack in the back of my mind is less punk and more often more along the lines of Matthew Wilder’s hit: “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride/Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no/I got to keep on moving/Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride…” I am a child of the 80s, so I can’t comment on taste here.

Voice on social media is a tricky deal. I’ve always viewed my Facebook and Instagram (which I use more lately) as a scrapbook/journal of sorts. In other words, social media is mainly to chronicle moments with the audience (most of the time) intended to be myself. In college, I was sitting in my history of rhetoric class one day when we all began to discuss how a journal and our voice would evolve should that journal be for public, versus private, consumption. That question is more relevant now, than ever. I try not to use social media for PSAs, contributing negativity to the world, spreading wanton memes, or politics. But I am sure my voice, to some, can be just as annoying. That’s okay. How we choose to curate our lives artfully won’t reach a chord with everyone. And we cannot get away from the fact that, at best, the use of social media is a constant dance around the barbed wire fence of narcissism. Then again, so is any art form or version of self-expression ever in the world. Just when I think, though: “Who am I to make this expression?,” I remember that the flip side is this: “Who am I NOT to express my truth?” If we each are part of the mechanism by which the universe understands itself, then we might make the case that we have at least part of an ethical imperative to record our sense impressions, perceptions, and experiences as a form of data gathering and processing. Expression and information gathering/recording can be some heavy lifting—it’s good when we all participate. 

I am a born expresser. Expression allows, for me, a sense of appreciation for what is good. My voice is always ready. My hands want always to write.

Which is precisely why I think it is important to cultivate a purposeful silence every once in awhile. To have the voice, but to keep it quiet deliberately. Balance. I first experimented with this in February, going silent on Facebook and Instagram for a full week. This week, I’ve captured the silence since Sunday. In the absence of using my public voice, or rather, my voice in public (two different things, and only one authentic), what could I observe, hear, and understand differently? What does it do to hold the tides of expression back, to observe without immediate comment?

For me, to hush my voice a bit means that I go looking for other stories to tell. I feel the thrill of hunting for other main characters, heroes that are, essentially, outrageously awesome and that I think the world needs to know about. My heroes are strong, courageous, and making life better for those around them. 

The swimmer was one.

THE PROM DATE

At the track for interval work on Tuesday, I watched the lacrosse team practice and wondered why part of the track team appeared to be sitting in the bleachers. On my 5th 200, the track team began arranging hurdles. Uh-oh, I thought, they are getting ready to jump, so I’d better get done. When I looked back, however, the hurdles were all in a clump, some odd configuration that, clearly, was not for jumping. It dawned on me: the track team was using the hurdles to spell something! After studying a bit, I realized they had spelled out “P-R-O-M.” A couple of boys held signs. There were murmurs of a girl who would be arriving for practice.

An upperclassman appeared carrying a bouquet of roses. Ah. He is going to ask this girl to prom, and he has planned this whole memory for her. Were they friends about to become more? Had they already been dating? (Judging by her reaction later, I think it may have been the former, actually).

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I snapped this picture on my phone, feeling immeasurably lucky that I happened to be in the right place at the right time to watch this magic unfold. We forget, maybe, how much courage it takes to declare yourself to someone else. Seventeen-year-olds are some of my favorite people on Earth, for the very reason that they are capable of taking plunges like this. I felt I got to witness the best of someone right here, as well as the excitement of friends buzzing around and pulling off something that they’d spent time planning.

THE LITTLE FREE LIBRARIAN

Yesterday we went to visit for the first time a new Little Free Library, charter #22195, in town. Erin Brady curates this library, which she and her husband Rocky built by hand. If ever there were a heroine, Erin would be one. Her library’s name is Lumos Fiat Lux, and it is near Great Oak High School. Let there be light. Indeed.

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Erin’s library is a work of art, in every way. Her attention to detail can come only from a passionate love not only for books, but for the people who read them, for an educated humanity itself. She loves lighthouses and travels to see them; the theme of light winds its way throughout her library. Her guest book? Composed of a cover that looks like a library card and filled with all kinds of school papers: graph paper, handwriting paper, card stock, etc. She lives on Puffin Street; accordingly, there is a little puffin figurine demurely by the lighthouse, a little visual play on words: we cannot forget that Puffin is a major book publisher (an imprint of Penguin), as well. She has free bookmarks and pencils. Her books are stamped with a Little Free Library custom stamp. Papers inside give an amiable explanation of how LFLs work. It is not necessary to leave a book in order to take out a book, although we have a book we are now planning to bring over as soon as get a chance. As any good librarian might, Erin observes moments like Pet Week and sometimes arranges the books by theme.

This library is, in total, an amazing labor of love and time. And beauty. The hooks, hinges, and craftsmanship… I am new to Little Free Libraries, but there is a whole network of them. I am in a mind to visit many more. Lumos Fiat Lux enchanted all three of us. If you live in Temecula, seriously, this is a treasure not to be missed. If we lived on that side of town, we would be walking past it ALL the time. As it is, we cannot wait to drive back over.

Erin has painted a quote from A Wrinkle in Time on one side of the cabinet: “A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to brighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” If the lives of my three main characters this week comprise stories of their own, then one could say that the Swimmer, the Prom Date, and the Little Free Librarian are exactly stars: lights that cast something better into our expanse of space and time.

When we are silent, we can see the stars. We can see and appreciate them using our voice, too, but perhaps those stars shine all the brighter when we quiet ourselves long enough to reflect and refract their stories. The balance of expression is observation. Whatever we observe, we change; whatever we express changes even further as we struggle to put light into words.

Silence is the great moment in which we take in the light, let it become part of us, and decide to become its mirror.

1874, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn, part 3, section 4:
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

I had a bit of trepidation with respect to how my reading goals would turn out this month when I seemed to be almost one week in without a single finished book and had the core of my racing season to consider. We also had two field trips, a trip to the movies, family visiting time, and basically one of our busier months. Still, the process of goal-setting is not for nothing: to make a commitment to a goal is to know you will follow through no matter what. I am not one for the phrase, “I don’t have time,” which seems to slight other people’s choices and preferences for hobbies/pursuits as being too insignificant to consider in one’s (implied) more robust life. We’re all busy, yet we all have time; for those goals that are important, we must make time. The making of time is a lesson I learn on repeat.

Even so, five of my ten books were children’s chapter books and one was a comprehensive hiking guide. I’ve never been sure where to draw the criteria line for my personal reading challenge. I read scores of poems, picture books, school-related texts, periodical articles, short stories and so on each month, some of which are quite literary indeed or that offer far more insight than some chapter books I’ve read. So: who can define the nature of quality? It shouldn’t merely be length. In setting my goal last June, however, one key feature had to be that the text would be immersive over several sessions/hours; it had to have chapters and some kind of page heft. It’s all very subjective that way, I suppose.

Anyway, here comes the list. These lists are an absolute BEAR to type up, and I generally spend way too long composing them at the end of each month. I might try to be a bit more concise this time; with the way I get into things, however, one never knows.

I began the month with “neuroscience of music” as my theme and intended to devote the month to reading this, as well as more music history, musician bios, and the like. I did depart from this theme eventually, but my first two finished books filled a few holes in my education:

1. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (science, nonfiction, 2006)

“Music, then, can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music….What is it about the particular order we find in music that moves us so? The structure of scales and chords has something to do with it, as does the structure of our brains….The brain’s computational system combines these into a coherent whole, based in part on what it thinks it ought to be hearing, and in part based on expectations….”

Rarely do I begin by going straight to the credibility of the author, but Levitin bears a bit of explanation. He has studied and taught at Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth, the U of O, and more. He is a musician, a record producer on major albums, a PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, a friend to several current musicians, and a Fellow with several prominent organizations devoted to thought and science. This is someone who has an unparalleled level of expertise in this field (and evidently several fields). His writing is both technical and clear. He does not shy away from the “hard science” in this book, yet he grounds his topics in a bit of narrative and certainly flowing prose.

A favorite book this month, for sure.

Levitin even takes on Steven Pinker (professor, neuroscientist), who has argued in other texts I’ve read that our love for music is a useless evolutionary spandrel. As a reader of almost all of Pinker’s work, I found Levitin’s argument to be exceptionally well made and cogent, adding fodder to the ongoing discussion my husband, brothers-in-law, and I have been having about music and the construction of reality in general.

I also learned quite a bit of rock history/trivia that I didn’t happen to already know, even though I spent years in college and beyond pursuing music history as a passionate hobby. Levitin draws upon everyone from Mozart to Schoenberg to Metallica to Joni Mitchell to Ella Fitzgerald.

If you are a musician, feel passionate about listening to music, or ever wondered about how the brain creates the psychological phenomenon of both sound (and color), then this book is a MUST read. Good science, too. I am generally not a fan of books that purport to give a scientific treatment of a topic and then treat the science very basically. This text hits the notes perfectly. READ IT for a deepened understanding of how we construct reality…

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2. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks (psychology, nonfiction, 2007).

“For one of my post-encephalitic patients, Francis D., music was as powerful as any drug. One minute I would see her compressed, clenched, and blocked, or else jerking, ticking, and jabbering….The next minute, if we played music for her, all of these explosive-obstructive phenomena would disappear, replaced by a blissful ease and flow of movement…” 

Okay. I am not about to knock Oliver Sacks. OLIVER SACKS. No, one just doesn’t go there. He is legendary.

But honestly? After the Levitin work, this one just paled. I am so sorry to say that. Sacks doesn’t go all the way to the core science in this book, most of the time. Once in awhile he mentions anatomy. On the whole, this book read as case study after case study. That can be enlightening in its own way, but I wanted him to go further for me. What patterns and statistically significant data emerge from these case studies, and what might these patterns tell us objectively about the brain? I am sure he has theories and research. I want it. Anecdote will only go so far, though yes: reading each case study and exploring the range of the human experience (some of which is wild and bizarre and uncommon) does contribute to discussions of reality and how, really, unstable the brain truly can be. Superstitious, obsessive, ritualistic, hallucinatory, etc. Levitin and Sacks are good colleagues and each appears as referenced in the other’s book. Sacks’ forte is weaving compelling tales and narratives out of biochemistry. It is a wonderful talent. Contrary to reviews, though, I felt he stinted on the science.

If you must pick one? Download the Levitin.

3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (science fiction, 1962)

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: you’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

I missed this one in my time, but I enjoyed reading it with Katie this month. The nature of dimensionality, evil vs. good, turning one’s vulnerabilities into strengths, sibling love, dystopian living… all good.

Parts, I thought, toward to the end skewed a bit more into the fantasy genre than I would have liked (I am a die hard sci fi fan, not so much a fantasy fan), but I don’t think it detracted from the narrative for us. Katie right away noticed that Meg is much like she is, and Eric is almost a dead-on Charles Wallace. We have the other three books in the series, though we have stalled on the second one a bit mainly because we’ve had our hands in several events, books, and hobbies ever since we finished this one.

I am happy that this canonical book is now a part of my thought-life, especially the thought-life I share with my daughter. We’re making connections right and left among its themes and other works we’ve shared over the years.

4. Stuart Little by E.B. White (fiction, 1945)

“Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north…As he peeked ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”

Ah, this was technically a re-read for me. We’ve been introducing Eric to chapter books more methodically at this point, and Stuart Little is an accessible story with luxurious illustrations by the incomparable Garth Williams. White’s rich language gave us plenty to pause and linger over, and we were able to look at parallels between Stuart’s debonair character and Steig’s Abelard from Abel’s Island (which we all read two months ago). Such cuddly time with my two littles!

5. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman (science fiction, 2013)

“If the same object from two different times touches itself, one of two things will happen. Either the Universe will cease to exist. Or three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads.”

Gaiman is funny, playful, dark, and at times demanding of his younger readers. In short, a perfect read. We own and have read several of his books. This is short at just over 100 pages, but it is beautifully illustrated by Skottie Young. Eric was HOOKED.

The premise? Dad goes out to the corner store to get some milk, is a bit late returning home, and spins an exceptional yarn about why he was late. This is a study in the making of narrative. Both his children and the reader are asked with a winking eye to interpret various clues, to think about the logical integrity of what has come before in the plot, and above all, to be playful with language, imagery, and imagination. There is a section involving time travel that gets REALLY FUNKY, but the three of us had so much fun teasing it out and using it as a thought-experiment. Katie, especially, found herself primed for travel through space after reading Wrinkle.

We also showed both children Interstellar this month. Black holes and worm holes are all the rage in our house right now!

6. Odd the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (fiction, mythology, 2008)

“The wise man knows when to keep silent. Only the fool tells all he knows.”

After Fortunately, Katie and and I had to share this re-read with Eric, arguably a new Gaiman fan.

Gaiman reimagines Norse mythology, sending the boy character Odd to take on a never-ending winter with three gods disguised as animals. We love the ripe conflicts in a Gaiman work, and we like to teach the push-pull of lightness and darkness here in our reading. Gaiman is fabulous. Katie and I have even done Coraline. He’s excellent for reader-response and discussion.

7. Best Easy Day Hikes: Eugene, Oregon, pub. by Falcon Guides (nonfiction, instructional, 2011)

“This route, along a 2.0 mile segment of the McKenzie River National Recreation trail, may be the best hike in this entire book…During the first mile, hikers might feel like they could easily run into leprechauns or an Ewok village…”

OMG, I am stoked!!!! This experience quickly moved to the top of my Oregon wish list. We’re headed back to Oregon for another two weeks this summer, and I am so eager. I’ll be racing Butte to Butte, and we’re seeing two plays in Ashland. We are also heading through Portland to Astoria (GOONIES!!!) and spending all kinds of time in Eugene.

Bill has all-event passes to the four days of track and field Nationals in Eugene (at Hayward Field) for part of our trip. We could have gotten them, too, but I just don’t think the kiddos would find that to be much fun. So, while Bill watches the events, I get to explore widely with my children and really make Eugene and its surroundings a part of us. I am going giddily bananas with planning hikes and adventures. I am starting my reading now, since I don’t know all of the good hiking and day-trip spots. Yay!!!! I love showing our children beautiful places and having adventures with them. Bill is always welcome and of course I adore him, but there is something so very empowering about being able to take them hither and yon on my own. And Bill is in for a treat. He loves following track and field and hasn’t seen a proper decathlon in years. This will be part of his birthday present, actually. Very excited for all four of us.

8. This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress, ed. John Brockman (nonfiction, science, essay collection, 2015)

“Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck noted, ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?…What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?” 

So goes the question of the year (most recent) from Edge.org founder and editor John Brockman.

This is not an anti-science book, and since I would never want to be mistaken for that camp, I feel the need to point that out clearly. I feel strongly that only science, in all its glorious honesty and grit and logic, can essentially and properly ask this question of itself in a meaningful way.

The very fact that science is WILLING to ask this question of itself gives it an integrity that I find completely compelling as a thinker and curious explorer of our world and greater universe. Can we think of some lines of thought that would NEVER ask what tenets ought to be retired, evolved, changed, or completely discarded? Yes, we can. Whatever relies on NOT changing in the face of new information ought to be regarded as highly suspect as a foundation of thought, being, or behavior…in my opinion.

These essays are one thought-experiment after the other, treats for tired minds that need a boost or spark for the day. Need fodder for a long run or a long swim? Read one of two of these essays at a time, and then have a meditative go at it. Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Rebecca Goldstein, Max Tegmark, David Deutsche, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett, Robert Sapolsky, Sherry Turkle…the authors are a who’s who of modern thinkers/scientists/professors. They take on topics like Plato’s essentialism, mind vs. brain, the continuity of time, human evolutionary exceptionalism, unification, infinity, free will, the self, altruism, and more.

Challenging, in the best way. I recommend all of these essay collections and have been working my way through some back collections this year, as well.

9. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (science fiction, short stories, 1951)

“‘I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.'”

One of the most significant moments of my teaching career, and of my life, occurred within a few days of getting pregnant with Katie, and that was getting to see Ray Bradbury in person at the Temecula library. I hung on EVERY word he spoke. My copy of Fahrenheit 451, which I taught for many years, contains in the back several of his quotes from that night. I cherish that book.

Still, I had never quite made it to this collection of 18 short stories in my life, not until now. Published two years before F451, these stories foreshadow some of the themes, imagery, and ideas he would take up in that work.

Bradbury, as we know from F451, is completely a VISIONARY when it comes to the technology he describes in his texts. I always wonder at the connection between the sci fi literary giants who conceived of some of the wildest ideas of their time and the later scientists and developers who must have read those works and then worked to create those amazing advances. I am not sure we could have had the technological advancements we have had without some of the imaginative power of the writers before them.

My favorite stories in this collection were “The Veldt,” “Kaleidoscope,” “The Long Rain,” “The Rocket Man,” and “Zero Hour.” All were worth reading, though.

I shared “The Veldt” with Katie and Eric straightaway the morning after I first read it. It’s about a smart house that has a nursery/play room for the kids with walls that are essentially a virtual reality type of set up. You really, really, really need to read this one. Really. The kiddos were engrossed, floored, disturbed in a good way, inquisitive, and ready to discuss at length. Katie even wrote a reader-response on it for our English writing that day, and it kicked some booty. She got it. Perhaps because it is so exceptionally relevant to modern times? Oh my goodness, “The Veldt” is insanely rich for our current generation of tech-loving kiddos. It demanded we address autonomy, purpose, the source of happiness/pleasure, the parent-child relationship, and more.

Bradbury presents technology in a nuanced way: neither all bad, nor all good. He sets up complicated relationships between technology and human beings and certainly does the same in F451. One wonders what he would think of the ubiquity of digital readers.

Some definite highlights this month! I’ve already finished my first book for April, and the kiddos and I are currently reading Ender’s Game. We’re on a sci fi kick mainly, and I have spent time today figuring out what I want to read next.

Happy Reading to All,
Sarah