Travel Daydreams


This might seem a bit ridiculous, since I'm about to leave for a week for Canada, but I'm already starting to think ahead to future summers and wonder where we'll head next (as long as this goes well). During that window of time when I had a full-time job and was childless I was able to go to some great places (Italy, Hawaii, the Caribbean, NYC, etc...) and it finally seems like it's time to get back out there. Here are some places I have my eyes on for possibilities for the next few years:

New York City- I have mixed feelings about returning places when traveling, but I really want to take Sawyer to do the sleepover program at the Natural History Museum. I might combine this with maybe a few more stops in New England (probably Boston and then maybe somewhere on the coast in Maine), as opposed to spending more than two or three days in the city. As long as nothing catastrophic happens, I plan on this one for 2020. 

Somewhere tropical- I love the idea of an all-inclusive family-friendly resort on maybe Turks and Caicos or Jamaica. My husband's work demands doesn't necessarily open him up to travel plans, so I think I'd maybe take my mom with us so that I could have some time to lay on a beach alone with a book for a few hours. I'm really tempted to do this next summer, but we'll see what the budget looks like (I think my plan is  a big trip every other year). 

Seattle/PNW- Another return, but my first trip was for a work trip so I don't fully count it. 

London/Germany/Switzerland- A trip like this is probably the furthest one out, since European travel with a kid is just... a lot. A friend and I have been tossing around the idea of going together (without Sawyer), so that's a possibility too. 

Yellowstone- This one I could see being a real possibility for early next summer, although I'm still sort of stuck on the tropical thing... Also a possibility, and in the same neck-of-the-woods is Glacier National Park.


What about you? What's high on your travel wish list? 

So You Want to Talk About Race

I was first introduced to the term "white privilege" several years from a friend/colleague via text, in a conversation that started out with him criticizing the dress I had on, saying it was "WASPy." I liked my dress and didn't really see it as "WASPy" and told him so- this led to a conversation where he decided to talk extensively about my privilege. I was a bit befuddled and was admittedly defensive, since I felt that all of my struggles growing up without much money, a father who killed himself, moments of emotional struggle, and the burden of college costs on my own shoulders were being completely invalidated. He kept repeating that my whiteness was my great fortune and that everything I had was because of it. It was awkward, unexpected, and, frankly I felt hurt since all I had done was wear a dress I liked (for reasons of privacy I will say that he is not African American, nor is he white). 

Here's the thing: he was right on lots of levels. I didn't understand that at the time, since the term "white privilege" and the slogan "Black Lives Matter" hadn't come to forefront yet and I wasn't exactly familiar with looking at race in this way. Sure, I knew racism definitely still existed and I was morally and socially opposed to (and horrified by) it's presence in the twenty-first century. But I hadn't done much to learn more, so I was definitely not ready to listen to him in the way that I am now. I think about this interaction often, and my feelings about it have evolved since. I've moved from hurt to basic agreement (although I still think the conversation didn't need to originate from how I dressed and would have better been done in person). I'm not really sure what motivated the person to start this sort of interaction, but at the end of the day he was correct: while there have been many obstacles in my life I am still white and have benefitted from our country's inherent racism. It's like people who are born tall: they can reach the things on the top shelf while others cannot. It's not my fault, necessarily, but there are things I can do to make a difference, just like tall person needs to help the shorter people get things out of the cabinet. 

Here's where So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo comes in, a text I had heard about a few months ago and just finished today. Oluo has basically written a primer for white people who want to learn to be better. For people who want to learn how to converse about race, make a difference in a society that is set up to benefit white people, and reduce their chances of committing microagressions, instances of cultural appropriation, and even more harm. She is honest, firm, and isn't afraid of making her white readers uncomfortable. I read the entire book with pen in hand and underlined passage after passage- here are a few that really hit home:

"Disadvantaged white people are not erased by discussions of disadvantages facing people of color, just as brain cancer is not erased by talking about breast cancer. They are two different issues with two different treatments, and they require two different conversations" (18). (This is what me from a few years ago who was just learning about white privilege needed to hear). 

"Often, being a person of color in a white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world" (19). 

"It's the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent" (28). (This is something I need to work on).

"And if you are white, and you don't want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone" (51). 

"When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole" (65). 

"Being privileged doesn't mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right- it means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of that puzzle" (66). 

"Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans" (91).

"Affirmative action is a crucial tool if we want to mitigate some of the effect of systematic racism and misogyny in our society" (114).

"When our kids spend eight hours a day in a system that is looking for reasons to punish them, remove them, criminalize them- our kids do not get to be kids" (133).

"The problem with appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriation and the culture being appropriated. The power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultures are still persecuted for living in that culture" (147).

"Microagressions are small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people... that cumulative effect of these constant reminders that you are "less than" does real psychological damage..." (169).

"You are not doing any favors, you are doing what is right... Your efforts to dismantle White Supremacy are expected of decent people who believe in justice. You are not owed gratitude or friendship from people of color for your efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses" (210)


Oluo offers suggestions at the end of her book, that encourage acting, not just thinking and talking, since action is what will really make a difference. Some things that I plan on doing:

- continue to donate money to groups like the ACLU, SPLC, and Planned Parenthood
- vote diversely and purposefully (not just being satisfied with party lines, but seeing who is running within the party) 
- get involved in schools (clearly I am already involved, but I need to do better there- I am in a position to let students talk and grow)
- speak up when safe (for me this means when my students are "just joking," when I reads comments of those I know on social media that are offensive, or even if I see something at, say, the store)
- not be afraid to ask friends questions and accept their answers (I am fortunate enough to have many amazing friends from a variety of backgrounds)

This book was a good reminder, refresher, and eye-opener in many ways. Oluo provided plenty of personal anecdotes that illustrated her points well and reminded me that I will never truly get it. I can be open to conversation, I can do what I can as a white woman to bring about change and fairness, I can try to imagine what it's like using my personal experiences as a woman, but I will never understand what it means to be black in America. And while she didn't explicitly address this topic, this also reinforced the idea that I need to be mindful of how I raise my son when it comes to race and social differences. 

I will conclude this by saying that I am actually really thankful for my friend who took issue with my dress. It was sort of a turning point that started an important self-reflection process. I am not perfect, and I am sure I've done things or said things or thought things that I haven't even realized are wrong, but I want to be better. Books like this help me to be more mindful of who I want to be and what I want this country to be like. Oluo also reminded me that it's okay to screw up when trying to discuss race- it's when you quit talking and listening that the problem really begins. 

This book is important. Read it.  





Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts- Tardy Edition

[I died when I saw this at a stoplight]


A few days late, but that's what holiday week's are for, right? Link up in the comments if you want to play!

1. We leave for Canada soon, so I'm trying to get everything done and ready so that the day we head out I'm not in a tizzy. I have become much more relaxed about traveling now that I'm older- if we remember our medication/contacts and there are stores where we are going then it's all going to be okay. My biggest concerns are navigating the airport with all of our shit and then my credit cards cooperating (I swear, this always happens; I notify them I'm leaving the area and then the first.... or tenth... time I go to use one it's declined and I have to call).

2. I am obsessed with the new Death Cab for Cutie song, "Goldrush." I think 1/2 of the 1,000,000+ listens on Spotify are from me.

3. I am also loving the new Instagram "caught up" feature aka "stop screwing around and get productive."

4. We've had friends over a few times and a small family gathering and this has been excellent motivation to keep my house clean. Is that the secret? Just have guests over a few times a month to ensure that your house is in tiptop shape? I really enjoy hosting, so maybe that really is the way to go...

5. CAN WE NOT FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET THOSE POOR KIDS OUT OF THE CAVE ALREADY? Ugh. The whole thing is just so terrible. First of all, it's terrible because it's just that- simply terrible. I also find it particularly terrible because I am very claustrophobic, so the very thought of being stuck in a space like that is absolutely terrifying. JUST GET THEM OUT. 



6. Yesterday after I took Sawyer to preschool I drove to Crystal Cove in Newport and spent the day on the beach reading Chemistry by Weike Wang. A whole book in one sitting! What kind of summertime magic is that? I also squeezed in a thirty minute walk on the beach, which was basically icing on the cake. I think I'll try to make this happen once more before I go back to work (for those of you who think I'm horrible for not taking my kid, I did get friend on the back of my legs, which is making dressing and sitting very painful, so the universe did give me a slap on the wrist, I suppose).

7. Speaking of reading, I'm reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which I am declaring now to be a primer for white people, despite the fact I'm only half way through. I'm also reading The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, since I loved The Sympathizer

8. I'm off for a lunch date with my husband. This is the third time in less than a month that we've gone out without Sawyer- crazy!  In a few weeks we are going to Vegas as a family and  staying together with my in-laws one night, and then Scott and I are going to stay on the strip alone for another. This is clearly the summer of us finally hanging out by ourselves again.

June Reviews



I started the summer off right with eight books read. Truth be told, part of it was some much needed escapism after May being so rough, part of it was taking Sawyer to school and having time to myself, and part of it was simply not having to grade papers anymore. Here's a super quick rundown:

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett 
322 pages
This was a reread, since it was last month's book club selection, but basically, Patchett chronicles the lives of two families that are enmeshed together, looking at various aspects of familial relationships. The novel teases about a great tragedy throughout and we finally see it unfold towards the end. 

Verdict: This is not my favorite Patchett book, but I still enjoyed it. I identified with the idea of a family tragedy that was sort of tiptoed around for years, but also with how the Franny character struggles to find her voice at times and ends up not taking enough of a stand. I think it's easy to attack her character, since she is weak and directionless, but I definitely could relate with her at certain points.

Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor 
281 pages
I wrote about this memoir here.

Calypso by David Sedaris
259 pages
In this collection of essays Sedaris mainly focuses on life at his beach house (The Sea Section- ha!) and how it connects the members of his family, who come to stay often. He also writes from the vantage point of middle-age, offering observations from this stage in life. One of my favorite accounts was when he let a woman he met at a book signing who had been a doctor in Mexico cut out a fatty tumor from his abdomen, since he had wanted to keep it to feed to a turtle (his surgeon said he couldn't let him keep it). I also appreciated a few that had to do with his Fitbit, since we crazy step-counters must stick together.

Verdict: I read this book while going through a tough day or two, so it ended up being the perfect source of comic relief. At one point I thought I might need to order every text he's ever written, but I refrained (for now). I've read his essays before, and have even taught a few, but I've never actually read one of his actual books. It was such a treat. 

Pops by Michael Chabon
127 pages
This was another collection of essays, although it focused on snapshots of fatherhood instead. Chabon built the book around an article he had published for GQ about accompanying his teenage son to Paris Fashion Week, which is definitely one of the strongest pieces in the text. He writes about what it means to parent in a way that fosters independence but also provides guidance. He makes mistakes along the way, but you can tell that he truly loves his family and takes parenting seriously. 

Verdict: I really enjoyed this slender volume, the essays witty and the stories about his family poignant. I saw him a few days after I read this and after hearing him speak I wanted to rush home and read everything else he's written that I haven't gotten around to yet (we have all of his books between my husband and I, but... time).

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
325 pages
This was also a reread, since I was able to attend an event that I won through Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine Book Club. I feel like I've written about that and this book in excess, so we'll move on!

Florida by Lauren Groff
275 pages   
I'm a big fan of Groff, so when I heard she had a collection of short stories coming out I preordered it immediately. The stories in this volume are all set or connected to Florida, but not the bright, beachy, Walt Disney World Florida most of us envision. These stories are filled with darker shadows about human relationships, emotions, and trials.

Verdict: I think I prefer her novels, but this was still a really solid group of stories that haunted me after I finished them. These were more about the writing than anything for me, as she's able to combine a subtle wit with tougher emotions, like melancholy and defeat. Her descriptions of the setting are just as powerful as the way she quickly and expertly develops her characters as well. 

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl
324 pages
It seems necessary to preface this with the fact that I am not a YA reader and maybe read one a year, at most. Therefore, I am not the target demographic or reader, although I did try to keep an open mind since I adore Pessl. 

This novel is about a group of friends, including Beatrice, who are reunited after the they graduate. The elephant in the room is the unresolved death of Bea's boyfriend, Jim, which she thinks her friends know more about than they've said. After a night of partying they find themselves in an accident and then thrown into this sort of weird purgatory that they need to get themselves out of. They relive the same day over and over again and are supposed to vote for one of the group to make it out alive. Trials and tribulations ensue.

Verdict: This was definitely my least favorite book the month. I tend to find the dialogue in YA books fairly unrealistic, which I have at least some authority on, since I work with teenagers and hear them ALL DAY for 10 months a year. That aside, I just don't like fantasy stories and found the ultimate end predictable.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
454 pages
This lengthy novel focuses around Greer, a bright young woman who ends up dipping her toes into feminism after some unwanting groping at a frat party (the guys ended up being the Harvey Weinstein of their campus). Soon after, Greer attends a talk by the famous feminist and journalist Faith Frank, where she's inspired and soon becomes a bit obsessed with the lady. Meanwhile, Greer must maintain a long-distance relationship, develop friendships, and come to terms with the failures of her parents. As the book unfolds, Greer ends up working with Frank and ends up questioning her role in the world as as a woman and how she will leave her mark while still handling her personal life.

Verdict: There were many things I appreciated about this book, and a few I did not. First of all, I liked that Wolitzer incorporated many types of feminists in the novel and subsequently offered perspective from each. Greer was the young idealist who wanted to be both feminine and powerful, her friend Zee navigated what it meant in terms of sexuality, Frank Faith was the old-school women's-lib leader who also had to balance that with business, and Greer's boyfriend Cory represented the male attempt at feminism. The message was strong, and the side plots helped move the story along, for the most part. I did think the book was too long, though, and the length at times detracted away from the power of feminism. I also didn't necessarily care for the way the novel was set up- it felt disjointed at times (and I have no problem with nonlinear stories). It's definitely not a quick read, but I'm still glad I went for it. 


 2,367 pages

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts



Happy Wednesday! Leave your link in the comments (and please link back!)

1. I have been a union member (CTA!) for twelve years and have a grandpa who was a teamster for decades- today's SCOTUS ruling is personally offensive and it's TIME TO RALLY.

2. I started David Sedaris' Calypso and I absolutely adore it. I've read other essays of his here and there, but this is the first actual collection I've owned and now I want them all.

3. I am also reading Meg Wolitzer's The Female Persuasion and while I am enjoying it, I do think that she could have trim about 75 pages of fat to make a bit of a tighter novel.

4. I am excited for IOS 12 later this year to be released- it will have a suite that includes an app that tracks how you spend your phone time! I have been asking for this for years (and clearly they are specifically answering my actual needs because I am THAT important). There are third party ones, but they ask for way to much access to my phone to utilize them. 

5. I have been considering a new Instagram account for book-related matters only, but I'm afraid it will be too much work. Anyone do this? Thoughts? Do I have to log out and back on each time I change accounts?

6. I love that my mom reads so much more now that all of her kids are grown. She went from only reading Redbook when we were kids to reading 2-4 books a month! She tries to alternate between an author she knows and a new one, so I always use holidays and birthdays (like hers yesterday) to buy her new ones. And she reads them! It's so great. I would have never imagined this twenty years ago.

7. Lately I have been able to hang out with people who mean so much to me and I am so very, very thankful. Some of these occurrences have been simple, fun things, others much more serious and profound. I know good people that make my life that much better. 


5-4-3-2-1 Quick Picks


I haven't done a list like this in a long while, so here are some quick picks in case you need help with your next read:

5... "easy" books in paperback and perfect for the airport/pool/lunch breaks

About a Boy by Nick Hornby (or anything, really)

The Revised Fundamental of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

4... books to make you laugh

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Fathermucker by Greg Olear

The Sellout by Paul Beatty 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 


3... books that are slightly more obscure (but ones you should still read) 

Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson

Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita 


2... books that will offer perspective on the border crisis (if you need it)

Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle

Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar 

1... book that I am currently reading (and enjoying) 

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer 

This was fun. Maybe I'll do it again soon! 

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

[source]

Kristen Bell posted a picture today on Instagram (above) about how you can "be excited about Beyonce" and "be horrified about current events", so that's the approach I'm taking today. I'm going to write about my equivalent of Beyonce, which is books and other fluff, but I'm also going to get political (and human).

1. It is not illegal to seek asylum. 

2. If you are "pro life" and say that "all lives matter" how can you not be outraged that these poor kids are being torn away from their parents? Their lives matter. 

3. You can bet you ass that if I felt that my child was endangered where I lived I would hightail it the eff out of there to somewhere that I felt my family had hope, safety, and a chance. Let's say the US all of the sudden went to total crap, we had no free public education, I made only a few bucks a week, health care was hard to find, our water was sometimes contaminated, and I worried that my family might get shot in our neighborhood. And then, LOW AND BEHOLD, I hear about this amazing country to the north, in our case Canada, where we could have a chance? Bags would be packed and northern movements would begin. I wouldn't care about politics and laws- I would want my son to HAVE A CHANCE, since chances were only given to the super wealthy in my country of origin. 

4. There is immigration reform, and there is cruelty. This is cruelty. What sort of denial are people living in when they think these families are going to be easily reunited some day? These kids MAY NEVER SEE THEIR PARENTS AGAIN! That blood is on America's hands. Disgusting. 

5. Upward mobility isn't necessarily a thing in certain Latin American countries in  the way we see it here. People can't just hop on LinkedIn and find well-paying jobs to apply to or simply "go back to school" to earn a better degree. We have it so, so, so good here. We need to use our outrage and take action- vote, call, donate, just DO. 

5a. I'm just adding this in, since I saw Trump signed an executive order to stop families being separated, but seriously, one family is too many. One child, too many. One day was too many. He is not a hero, he is not a good person, he is a monster, as are the rest of those involved (here's looking at you Kristjen). 

****
Now, Beyonce.
****

6. I have basically completely stopped accepting ARCs in the past few years, but I went ahead and accepted Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers- I probably would have bought it anyway!

6. I am currently reading Marisha Pessl's YA novel, Neverworld Wake, because I love her, and... I just don't like it. I'm so, so, so sorry Marisha! I feel like I'm a horrible person for saying this, but I will probably really struggle to finish. In her defense, though, I am not a YA reader or fan, so maybe it really is good, for YA? 

7. We watched Love, Simon last night and I thought it was great. There were some issues that I did see, like extreme white privilege in terms of the main character, a slightly annoying soundtrack at times, and unrealistic teenage dialogue, but overall I appreciated the message and thought it was pretty funny at some points (if you have seen it, the Freudian Slip costume cracked me up).

8. My mom is here! We're leaving for lunch soon before I grab Sawyer from preschool, and then tomorrow we're heading to the beach with my brother. Friday Scott and I are going to a late dinner at a new Cuban restaurant in Irvine while she babysits, and then Saturday we are all going to the Skirball Center in LA to see the Muppets Exhibit. Fun stuff.

9. Monday, when Sawyer was at preschool again (2-3 times a week, I promise I'm not taking him everyday), I did a five-mile hike on my own and it was such a treat. 

Why Everyone Should Read About Running

I have a definite soft spot in my reading habits for good running memoirs, since it's a sport I have an abundance of appreciation for. I also have a vested interest, since I try to get in three or four runs a week, although I'm not currently training for anything. I don't have ambitions of every being fast, but it's good for me mentally and physically, so I try to stay consistent. When that drive wanes I generally find myself reading a good running memoir to help on the motivation side of things. 

While recently reading Deena Kastor's book, Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, it occurred to me how applicable the lessons from these types of books are to life in general. There was so much sandwiched into her running philosophy that I could apply to teaching, parenting, and other obstacles that pop up from time to time. Why it's taken me over a decade of running and probably a dozen or two books like to realize this is beyond me. 

For those who are runners, have been runners, have tried running, or completely shun it, no one can dismiss the fact that it's tough. It doesn't matter if you're a recreational jogger who just laces up on weekends or a professional track star with endorsement deals. Running taxes your cardiovascular system, puts pressure on your joints, strains your muscles, and challenges your mind (especially for those of us who use treadmills or run the same routes continuously). A lot of the principals and practices runners use, or at least try to, are not only applicable when exercising, though, they come in handy when trying to tackle other challenges as well. 

Positive Thinking- A huge section of Kastor's book deals with training your brain, not just your legs. She spent a lot of time focusing on gratitude, seeing the positive, and focusing on what she had control over. She embraced her competitors and knew setbacks along the way would just serve to make her stronger. This isn't unique to Kastor, countless other memoirs I've read have also emphasized this approach and discuss how hard it really is to stop negative self-talk.  

Utilize Discomfort- While running shouldn't make you feel like you are injured, pain definitely pops up, whether it's from aching muscles, the need for new shoes, chafing, etc... Pain often makes us stronger though, especially when we are trying to become faster or increase endurance. The pain is actually a good thing, since it signals the fact that the tears that have been created in muscles are healing and becoming stronger. If we always stop when we feel pain there can be no growth or improvement (although you have to be careful- if it's a sharp pain or super consistent see you doctor, as I am most definitely not one). 

Goal Setting- Runners constantly have goals, whether it's related to speed, mileage, number of runs, types of runs, or race performance. Most of the runners I've read books by or know in real life tend to be pretty realistic about how much they're able to push themselves and what they need to do to get there. Things may not always work out, but there is usually forward motion, both literally and mentally.

Perseverance- I have run many, many races over the years and by the time I have finished 13.1 miles I can typically count on less than two hands how many people I see camped out in aid stations (out of tens of thousands of people). Sure, everyone has to modify their plans during a run sometimes, but the only way to improve or finish is to persevere. 

Efficient Routines- All of the memoirs I have read, by greats like Kastor, Kara Goucher, Dean Karnazes, Matt Fitzgerald, and Hal Higdon, all maintain running schedules that maximize efficiency. There are days for speed work, for fartleks, mile repeats, and long runs, all depending on the goal of the runner. For some of us, our running routines are much more simple and are more along the lines of "I will run for thirty minutes four times a week with some intervals thrown in at least once." Fitness fades fast, so running is an activity that you have to be consistent about. 

Positive thinking, utilizing discomfort, goal setting, perseverance, and creating efficient routines aren't concepts that are unique to running, they're just ones that show up frequently. These are all attributes that I can encourage my students to adapt when it comes to things as focused as an essay or as broad as how they pursue their educational careers. They're concepts I am already trying to instill in my four-year-old when it comes to simple things like practicing tracing or putting his socks on. Personally, they're all things I strive for daily- strive being the key word. When it comes to my actual non-running life I know I could definitely use a crash course when it comes to positive thinking, and when it comes to running I need to work on pushing through the pain a bit better. 

Basically, I use running books for my own version of self-help. They motivate me to add miles to my exercise routine, but they also give me a fresh perspective and remind me that you just have to work harder to get to where you want to be. 

And just in case I've convinced you to either take up running or at least utilize the philosophy encouraged in most running memoirs, here are some of my favorites to get started:

Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor

The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike

The Long Run by Matt Long

Marathon by Hal Higdon

An Accidental Athlete by John Bingham

Running for Women by Kara Goucher

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Baking Tips

[marbled frosting ftw]


I have been baking since I was probably six or seven, helping my mom at first and then tackling simple recipes alone soon after. We had an actual recipe box full of tried and true recipes, as well as some well-loved cookbooks, with splotches of batter and dustings of flour on many pages. To this day, I probably bake something from scratch three times a month, sometimes to take to work, sometimes for friends, sometimes just to have here at home. I'm always surprised at how many people will tell me that they "can't bake" or "am more of a cooker, not a baker." 

YES. YOU. CAN. 

Stop denying yourself freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, deliciously frosted cakes, and the buttery, flaky crust of a pie. Follow these tips that I've really come to appreciate and practice over the years and you too will baking like a champ:

1. Read every word of the directions, and then read them again- Often there are hints in the intro or the cook's notes, as well as rationales as to why things are being done a certain way. You'll also know what to prepare ahead of time and the order in which you will need ingredients. 

2. Measure precisely- Baking is chemistry, really. Sure, you can mess around with things like subbing chocolate chips for raisins, but when it comes to the core ingredients like flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, butter/oil and baking powder you have to be precise.

3. Buy parchment paper- Parchment paper is key for lining pans that you need to carefully remove things from (like cake rounds). Don't stop here, though. Use a thin layer of shortening and then a dusting of flour (that you tap out), and then place the carefully cut parchment paper on (I trace the pan and cut the circles out). It's seriously a lifesaver and worth the step, especially with cakes.

4. Pay attention to temperature- Remember the chemistry comment? Temperature is important when it comes to the ingredients, so if the recipe calls for room-temperature then make sure to set out the butter or eggs ahead of time. Pay attention to cooling directions, too, since many desserts tend to need to set or cool before another action can be taken. Consider investing in an oven-thermometer as well, since a lot of ovens are off or heat unevenly.

5. Don't be afraid of yeast- I have heard this SO many times! Yeast is awesome and opens up a whole new category of baking. Most recipes will have you activate the yeast ahead of time, with warm water and maybe a little sugar or honey. A trick I've learned with the temperature of the water is to the temperature right before you get steam. If the yeast mixture doesn't start foaming, just start again (yeast tends to come in three-packs, so you'll have extra). 

6. Don't overmix- This is a common mistake, I think, because we just want to make sure everything is incorporated. This can cause major texture issues, though, since you let too much air into the batter, and you also mess with gluten development. When I stop seeing individual ingredients (like flour) I mix for another five or ten seconds and then quit. 

7. Try not to omit or substitute- I know a lot of times we'd prefer not to jump in the car and run to the store when we run out of something, but a lot of times it's worth the thirty minutes. There are a few that work, like making buttermilk from regular milk and vinegar, but try to avoid it if you can.

8. Crumb coat your cake- When frosting your cakes always use the crumb coat strategy. I'll assemble my coat and do a quick, think coat in frosting and pop it in the freezer for ten minutes while I'm getting the rest of my supplies ready. When I take it out the cake has been sealed up and all those pesky crumbs are suspended in that original layer so that you can decorate without worrying about them getting in the way. 

9. Clean as you go- This one sounds silly, but I think another deterrent from baking is the mess. I try to put ingredients away as I go, wipe down counters between steps, and completely clean up the kitchen while my dessert is baking.

No go forth and make something delicious! 

Author Events: Gail Honeyman and Michael Chabon

[Gaily Honeyman and I at Pages]
I was fortunate enough to attend back-to-back author events this week and am now so inspired to read (more) and write (more). The first one was an afternoon with the author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, that I won through an Instastory contest through Reese's Book Club x Hello Sunshine, and the other was a Michael Chabon's talk at the Skirball Center in LA. 

I wasn't really sure what to expect with the lunch, since the reps from Hello Sunshine basically just told us where to meet and what time to be there. It turns out a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, Pages, was hosting a luncheon for Gail Honeyman, in which the local "ladies who lunch" crowd paid to attend. The other winner and I were placed on either side of the author at a table full of Penguin reps, so that was definitely interesting! I was able to chat with Honeyman quite a bit, and she was incredibly sweet and down-to-earth. We spoke about her crazy travel schedule, the purchase of the film rights of her book, her progress on her next novel, and then she also asked about my job and family. I honestly forgot that her book had sold for over six figures in a huge auction- she was totally nice and normal. Her editor, Pamela Dorman, was there and I was able to talk to her for a minute, as well (she also works with JoJo Moyes).  Honeyman spoke to the crowd and then we drove to the bookstore to do some photos and videos for Hello Sunshine's social accounts. I have no problem with any sort of media that doesn't require me to talk- I am dreading the videos. We had to talk about why we liked the book and also did a sort of rapid-fire Q&A with the author. Despite my inability to be articulate on camera, it was a really, really fun day. The other winner was great and it was just a pleasure to be around fellow bookish people. 


Last night was the Michael Chabon event promoting his new short book of essays, Pops, which I highly recommend. My friend and I drove down to West LA and heard him discuss his experiences parenting and how this influences his writing. He touched a bit on his process, discussing how he has created a daily writing habit and about his revision process (he is an incredibly meticulous wordsmith). This was the second time I've seen him and I think he is now tied with Isabel Allende as my favorite author to listen to. He's so witty and intelligent that you just can't help but to like him and want to immediately devour everything he's ever written. 

One of my biggest take-aways after reflecting on the two days is that both authors have had to do whatever necessary to make writing work for them. Honeyman had a full-time job and was staring down the barrel of the big 4-0, so she started using snippets of time before work and at lunch to write her first novel. Chabon has a set time he uses every day and strives to hit at least 1,000 words, whether they'e great or shitty. They're passionate about their endeavors and refuse to let excuses bog them down. It was definitely motivating, to say the least. 

I can't stop but to acknowledge the fact that the only reason why I was able to go to these two events was because one of my good friends was able to pick Sawyer up from preschool on Tuesday and yesterday my husband was able to keep him at work for the last hour of the day. Once-upon-a-time I could go to things like this a few times a month if I wanted, but the logistics now are a bit more complicated. Luckily it worked out for me this time around! 

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

[American Graffiti Parade shot]


Happy Wednesday! If you care to play, leave your link in the comments!

1. I swear, the more I sleep the more tired I am! Is there some sort of scientific explanation for this? I'm going to have to look it up. 

2. The other night, on a complete whim, I bought Elton John tickets for next February. I've always wanted to see him and since he's retiring, supposedly, after this round I went for it. 

3. I'll post more later, but yesterday I had the privilege of attending a lunch with Gail Honeyman and it was super fun. Tonight I'm headed back to LA to the Skirball Center to hear Michael Chabon with a friend, so I'm definitely getting my literary fix.

4. It's almost Father's Day! Sawyer and I have A Plan. 



5. The other day I finally put up the prints I've been buying for a gallery wall over our stairs, and DANG was it a pain. I knew that it was going to be tough and I planned it out on the ground and then traced the shapes as guides for the stairs, but I am still not satisfied completely with the spacing. I think we're going to paint in a few years, so this will be revised eventually anyway. I do really love the prints, though, since I tried hard to find ones that reflected all of our interests. 

6. Last weekend Sawyer and I flew up north to visit my mom for a day and it was a relative success. He as completely fine, but, honestly, handling all of our stuff, him, and his car seat was tough. I checked his seat as baggage, so it really is just from the car to the counter, but still.... We are flying out of LAX when we go to Canada, which is a horrible airport, so I'm not looking forward to that part of it. 

7. While we were in Modesto we saw the American Graffiti Parade, which the city puts on each year in order to pay homage to George Lucas' movie with the same title. People from all over, including my mom's husband, enter their classic cars and drive the parade route. We snuck a ride for awhile, which was fun for Sawyer. 

8. I just started Florida by Lauren Groff- so far so good! 

What I'll Be (Maybe) Reading this Summer



I've told you fine folks what to read. I've told my students what to read. Now it's time to assign myself some books, I suppose. 

I generally just read whatever I want, taking a quick break from this laissez-faire sort of approach when it's time for book club or when I have to teach something. I might read something the day after it comes in the mail, or I might go for something that's been on my shelf for five years. Ya just never know. So while I can't guarantee anything, here are some books that I am feeling pretty confident that I'll get to in the next seven weeks:

Florida by Lauren Groff- She's basically reached the "can do no wrong" status in my world.

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl- I read maybe one YA book a year, and this will probably be the one. I love Pessl and was honestly disappointed to hear she was going down this route, but maybe I'll change my mind. 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo- I have heard great things about this and I'm always open to learning more outside my white middle-class bubble.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison- I just finished listening to her memoir Addiction, so I'm interested to see what these essays are about.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nove Jacobs- This one totally sucked me in by the blurb that it was a "novel in clues." 

The Overstory by Richard Powers- It's a long book about trees, so I'm thinking summer is the time. 

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben- Since I'll be reading about trees with Powers, might as well keep a good thing going

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolizer- This is another lengthy one that I've been saving since it came out for summer.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward- Finally, right?

Swing Time by Zaide Smith- From what I've heard this is the perfect summertime by the pool Smith novel.

Love in the Time of Techno by Anthony Mara- I keep putting off, which is ridiculous, since I haven't heard anyone say anything bad about it. 

Something by TC Boyle- I have an embarrassing amount of unread Boyle on my shelves. 




Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts


Hey folks! Link up in the comments if you participate.

1. Tonight is graduation! I sit down on the field every year with the kids and it's always such a special, fun night. Some of the kids are first-generation graduates which is just awesome. Graduation is an accomplishment no matter what classes you took, what path your taking in the future, or what your friends did. High school is hard for everyone at some point, academically, socially, or both. 

2. This video on reading from The Onion is great.

3. I bought Sawyer is his first Where's Waldo book and I might possibly be more excited than he is. 

4. I went into this week thinking that it would be smooth-sailing, but I forgot about all the last minute things that pop up at the end of the year- paperwork, sign-off sheets, cleaning, storing, etc... Granted I'd be in a far worse position if I wasn't caught up with grading!

5. Tomorrow is book club and we're discussing Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, which I read last year. I go back and forth on whether I think it's a "good book club book," but no matter what it's always fun. This is always the meeting where we decide on what to read next year, so my books up for voting will be Circe by Madeline Miller, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and No Country for Old Man by Cormac McCarthy. The first I feel like I should read, but won't unless I have a reason, the second is because I think it would be cool to discuss a graphic novel (I've read this one), and the third is because I keep meaning to read more McCarthy. We'll see if any get chosen!

6. Friday Sawyer and I are flying up to see my family for a day (I was planning on staying longer but have to cut it short). This is his first time on an airplane and therefore my first time trying to fly with a kid, our stuff, and his gigantic car seat. I bought a ridiculous backpack to put his car seat in, which I'll just check. I feel stupid doing that since it's an hour flight, but the idea of schlepping it around (the bathroom! Augh!) sounds terrible. Fingers crossed this dress rehearsal goes well and we're ready for Canada next month!


Summer Plans

I hate the phrase "bucket list" and think that's thrown around way too liberally these days. Originally it was intended for when you were going to, you know, KICK THE BUCKET. As in die. As in cease to exist. I know I am completely outnumbered on this one, but I don't care. So, this isn't my "summer bucket list," it's just a huge list of things I want do do with the eight weeks I have off. 

[Rant over]

It's no secret that I need to stay busy to stay sane and that I like experiencing new things and places both alone and with others. I also know that it's important to just be home, though, to relax and so that Sawyer has plenty of time to play with toys and experience that childhood necessity, boredom. I'm keeping all of that in mind. He's going to preschool two-ish days a week to keep up with their routine, see his friends, and give me a break to do what I need to do, so that will be good for both of us. The place were he's at focuses more on fun enrichment activities during summer, which makes me feel a tiny bit less guilty about it. 

The idea of a summer wasted makes me incredibly anxious, so I have to plan ahead of time; it's who I am. So, this massive list is really just for me to have for my own benefit and if it sparks ideas for others than awesome! (If you are from Southern California or are planning on visiting, I have written more extensively about fun things to do with families here).

Here we go! Summer 2018!

Go to... 
1. Modesto
2. Canada
3. The San Diego Zoo (we have passes)
4. The Wild Animal Park (included in the above pass)
5. Knott Berry Farm a few times (we have passes)
6. Big Bear (hopefully overnight with a friend, but if not just a day)
7. The Broad (Sawyer has never been and I think he'd love it)
8. A friend's wedding (it's a coworker and all the fun colleagues are going)
9. See the crazy umbrella alley in Redlands 
10. The Hollywood Bowl with friends for the Grease Sing-A-Long 
11. Griffith Park (Sawyer has never been and I haven't been in a decade)
12. Vegas (we are going for two nights and leaving Sawyer with my in-laws so we can go spend one night on the strip)
13. The beach (Sawyer has been asking almost daily)
14. A baseball game 
15. See some movies (The Incredibles with Sawyer, Jurassic Park with Scott, and then maybe one or two on my own)
16. The Gail Honeyman event though Hello Sunshine 
17. The Muppet's Exhibit at the Skirball Center 
18. The Michael Chabon reading 

Around the House:
1. Put up a gallery wall behind the staircase
2. Clean the ever-living-shit out of my house
3. Completely reorganize and clean out Sawyer's toys
4. Completely reorganize the treadmill/toy room
5. Paint an accent wall in the guest bedroom (yellow?)
6. Clean out the garage and break down ALL boxes
7. Redo the shelving paper in the kitchen (hold me- I am scared)
8. Have people over at least once (I love entertaining, but it just doesn't happen a lot)
9. Shampoo all the carpets (so glamorous, but it needs to get done) at the beginning of the summer and at the end
10. Look into having our travertine floor in the kitchen resealed and patched in a few areas 

Self Goals:
1. Read 18 books
2. Tackle some tough/new recipes (Baked Alaska, Gnocchi, fondant)
3. Learn to BBQ! (and master the art of the BBQed pizza)
4. Update some things here on the ol' blog
5. Have at least 4 ALONE days (this is where those preschool days will really help)
6. Yoga an average of twice a week 
7. Make more of an effort to hang out with my husband (weeknights are so hard during the school year between my schedule and his) 
8. See friends on average of once a week (luckily most of my friends are teachers)
9. Watch TV (seriously)
10. Finish a cross-stitching project or two 
11. Work on writing project (I'm not going to set a specific goal, I just want to feel good about the progress)
12. Catch up on my yearly family photo book 
13. Go to a new bookstore 
14. Get rid of clothes 
15. Finally apply to be an IB scorer 
16. Finally try out Orangetheory 

#Momlife:
1. Help Sawyer make progress with letter recognition
2. Appointments: dentist and physical
3. Work on bike-riding skills (the kid has weak legs- he needs to do squats)
4. Try to eliminate the swimming fear
5. Practice penmanship 
6. Do some more science experiments

Who knows if all of this will happen, but I can sure try! 


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